Dayne had never seen as many people in one place as were in the crowd surrounding the Saint Alexis Day parade. It was a massive celebratory event, as Great Maradaine Avenue was filled with marchers, riders, dancers, and musicians from all ten archduchies, and onlookers flooded the walkways, hung on lampposts, and found every other possible place they could to gawk from.
People filled the avenue from the head of the Great Maradaine Bridge-where the parade started-to the massive street fair in Victory Plaza, where Great Maradaine Avenue intersected with Unity Street, Victory Lane, and Freeman Road. The whole plaza was overrun with food vendors, entertainers, music, dance, and merriment.
Dayne found it delightful, a glorious way to launch Victory Days, the six-day celebration of the founding of Druthal in its modern form, starting today with Saint Alexis Day, continuing through the Revels of Liberation, and culminating on the actual Reunification Day at the end of the month.
“I absolutely adore this,” Lady Mirianne Henson said. “There’s nothing quite like the spirit of the people, celebrating the nation, our unity, our liberation from tyrannical incursion.”
Dayne noticed her sly smile. “You also like it because it suits your current enterprise.”
“Of course it does, I’m not a fool,” she said. “Why do you think I scheduled the Grand Opening for today?”
As much as Dayne delighted in the celebration, he felt a sense of unease. Lately, it seemed more and more people went about armed. There were quite a few folks with crossbows hanging on their hips, or swords at their belts, and that was just what he could see. No telling how many were carrying knives and knucklestuffers and handsticks. With this many people, it wouldn’t take much for a misunderstanding to turn heated, to escalate into violence. Watching from a balcony three stories above the plaza, there was nothing he could do to protect the people in the street should things turn ugly.
Dayne did appreciate his view of the revelry in Victory Plaza from this vantage point, though. Lady Mirianne’s private office was on the top floor of her latest venture, and many of the people in the street were incredibly excited for the opportunity to be the very first customers of Henson’s Majestic, a store that promised to be an experience like none other.
At least, that’s how Lady Mirianne had it promoted on the flyers she had printed and plastered all over the north side of the city.
“My lady, are we just about ready?” Mister Sefferin, her general manager, waited in the doorway of her office, wringing his hands.
She smiled and looked at Dayne, a warm twinkle in her eye. “Well, my dear, are we ready?” She certainly looked ready. She was dressed in a smart skirt suit-not dissimilar to the kind the professional women in shops and offices all over the city wore-but hers was satin and silk, impeccably tailored, with intricate embroidery and clasps of ivory and gold. She had fashioned herself as a perfect union of noblewoman and businesswoman.
“You and Mister Sefferin are far more qualified to answer that,” Dayne said. “Though I would like to be close to the polling station when you open doors.” He hoped she understood the responsibility, the sacred duty, she had taken on by making the store one of the polling stations in today’s election. She was focused on the store itself, and how hosting the polling station would help her, and he feared she wasn’t taking it seriously.
He was also anxious to cast his vote. That was his own sacred duty, as a Druth citizen, far above and beyond his duties as a Candidate of the Tarian Order.
“Yes,” she said. “Mister Sefferin, you do have the polling stations arranged, with manpower at the ready to guide folks back through the displays once they vote, yes?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “And all the salespeople are versed in asking gentlemen to show their thumb to earn their good citizen discount.”
“Excellent,” Lady Mirianne said. “I think we should open the doors in-“
She held her thought for a moment, her attention returning to the street below. An announcer boomed out, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Royal First Irregulars!”
“In just a few moments,” she said. “They’re about to do their routine, and all eyes will be on them. But I want those doors to fly open as soon as the performance ends.”
She said this all without her eyes leaving the street below.
“As you wish, my lady,” Sefferin said, scurrying away.
Dayne had never heard of this group, which by its name sounded like an army unit. “What are the-“
“The First Irregulars. They’re a parade and morale unit. But they are truly something.”
She pointed down to the street, where ten women in uniforms were marching into the plaza. Dayne wasn’t quite sure what to make of them-their uniforms were essentially Druth Army uniforms, but they had been modified to display more bare skin than any practicality demanded. Far closer to stage show apparel than military-and not the kind of stage shows Dayne would attend.
“I don’t think I approve,” he started.
“Hush,” she said, wrapping her arm around his massive frame. “Watch.”
The women fanned out, forming a circle, all the while displaying their weapons. Each one bore a different weapon, and showed appreciable skill with it. After a moment, he recognized that the weapon each wielded represented one of the ten archduchies, their “traditional” weapon. Some of those designations were based on actual history, like the pike warriors of Oblune, the chain-flail fighters of Linjar, or the axe-men of Acora. On the other hand, he was certain that there was no grand tradition of staff fighters from the Archduchy of Maradaine. If anything, it came from the Kenalian Order, one of twelve Elite Orders of Druthal, now disbanded. Of the twelve, only the Spatians and his own Tarians remained. The Kenalians disbanded some sixty years ago, and their last members were folded into the Tarians. Their techniques and skills were integrated into the Tarian discipline.
Which explained why the woman spinning her staff with deft skill and grace had a certain familiarity.
“Is that Fredelle?” he asked quietly.
“Who?” Lady Mirianne asked.
“The one with the staff,” he said. “I think she was in our Initiate cohort. But she washed out during third year, never made Candidate.”
“It’s certainly possible. A trained Tarian would be well received in the army, especially in an exhibition unit like the Royal First.”
The performance was ramping up in energy, as the women incorporated a fair degree of acrobatics into their maneuvers, spinning and flipping as they whipped their weapons around. They also showed this was not mere stagecraft or pantomime. They knew their weapons, they knew their forms. Fredelle had been trained in the staff in her time as a Tarian Initiate, and her exhibition brought her into a spar with the woman wielding the Oblunic pike. Both of them were exemplary in their skill. Even though he could see that the battle they enacted was planned performance, choreographed like a dance, it was thrilling to watch. It reminded him of the best training spars with Amaya during their Initiacy.
“I told you,” Lady Mirianne said, noting his engagement.
“They’re very good at what they do,” Dayne said.
Their performance ended with a flourish, and they moved away as the parade continued below.
“Come,” Mirianne said, turning inside. “Let’s open our doors and show this city what Henson’s Majestic truly is.”
Dayne followed Lady Mirianne as she strode out of her office and down the hallway. Sefferin could be heard in the distance, clapping his hands and calling out instructions. Once Dayne and Lady Mirianne had reached the winding stairway, the shop staff were all standing at attention at their stations throughout the store.
And, Dayne had to admit, the store was quite a spectacle. He rarely gave much regard to clothing beyond his uniform, and things like fashion, jewelry, and haberdashery did not concern him in the least. That said, the wide array of clothing, accessories, and other wares on display was like nothing he had ever seen. The shopboys and shopgirls all looked impeccable in outfits similar to Lady Mirianne’s though far less extravagant. Dark gray suits with waistcoats and cravats, and the girls in almost identical outfits.
“Perfect,” Mirianne said. “They’re all perfect.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Sefferin said.
She raised her voice as she floated down the stairwell to the main floor. “You all should be so proud of the work you’ve already done, and what you’re about to do,” she said. “Open the doors.”
Three men went to the main doors and opened them, sunlight and crowds bursting through. If Mirianne had intended some further speech to the patrons, there was no chance for it. Within moments people were filling the aisles around the different stations of the store, examining all the bits of finery that they had for sale.
Though many of the men ignored that, instead pressing to the far side of the store where the election polls had been set up. They were clearly eager to cast their votes, a feeling Dayne shared.
“My lady,” Dayne said with a gesture. “With your permission, I’m going to get in line before it gets too unwieldy.”
“Of course, dear,” she said. “I know you won’t enjoy yourself until you take care of that. You already know who you’re voting for, yes?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “I would never come to the polls uninformed.”
“I know you wouldn’t,” she said with a kiss to his cheek. “Now I should attend to the business of business.”
Dayne made his way down while Mirianne went to consult with Mister Sefferin. He discovered that he couldn’t quite make a straight path to the voting polls. Instead he had to navigate through several different displays, where quite a few shopboys tried to offer him new suits or hats.
“A man your size needs something custom,” one overly eager boy said. “And we’ve got our measuring men already right here. Just as much service as your finest gentleman’s tailor.”
“Not now,” Dayne said, pressing through.
“Then if you’d consider, I have something else here. Not too many men come through here with a shield or sword. Rare thing, the shield, especially.”
“Please,” Dayne said, trying to work his way around.
“I’m saying, if you follow me, I have a fine selection of oils and polishes that would be just what you need.” The shopboy placed himself right in Dayne’s path. It was impressively bold, especially since he didn’t even come up to Dayne’s chin.
“What I need is to go vote,” Dayne said. The boy didn’t move. Dayne checked the badge on his waistcoat. “Eichorn?”
“I will tell her ladyship you were incredibly dutiful in your attempt to sell. Now move.”
Eichorn seemed to take this in for a moment, and then stepped aside.
Dayne had almost approached the polling line when he was accosted by four women. They were not shopgirls, but rather primly dressed ladies, all wearing suffragette pins.
“I see you are eager to vote, young man,” the lead woman said.
“I am-” Dayne started.
“As am I,” she said pointedly. “And yet, I am prevented.”
“I support your cause,” Dayne said quickly. He did not want to deal with the whole speech right now. “I have signed petitions, and if you wish me to sign again, I gladly will.”
She presented him a stylus and clipboard. “I’m glad the young men of today are so sensible.”
One of the other women raised an eyebrow at him. “I wonder if he should forsake his vote in solidarity. That would be a statement.”
“I can’t see how, ma’am,” Dayne said as he signed the petition.
“Imagine it! Thousands of men in this city not voting, to show that without our voice included, theirs will not be heard.”
“Jandalyn,” the lead woman said derisively. “I’ve told you many times how absurd that is.”
“It is a statement-“
“It’s handing the election to people who disagree with us.”
Jandalyn huffed and walked off.
“Thank you very much for your support, Mister. . . . Heldrin,” she said as she looked at the petition. “Are you from the city originally?”
“No, ma’am,” he said. “I grew up in the Sharain region, near Jaconvale.”
“Emma, don’t you know who this is?” one of the other women asked. “He’s her ladyship’s beau. You know, the one who rescued the Parliament.”
Dayne held up a hand in protest. “That’s a bit of an exaggeration.”
“No, it isn’t,” the woman said. “I read that pamphlet. You saved all of them from that horrible man, Tharek Pell.”
“Not all of them,” Dayne said quietly. Four members of Parliament had been killed. Perhaps not Dayne’s fault, but Dayne felt the weight of it, regardless. The impact on the nation had been profound. Not only were there more constables patrolling the streets in this part of the city, even the sheriffs of the Archduchy of Maradaine were making their presence known. That was uncommon in the city.
It also was why this election was so important. Instead of just voting for the usual twenty members of Parliament whose terms were ending, there were the four special elections to fill the seats of the murdered members.
“Still, he’s a hero!” the woman said.
“Well, then,” Emma said. “Perhaps you would be willing to speak at one of our rallies? It would mean so much to have a true hero speak in favor of our cause. Especially one as young and charming as you.”
Dayne hesitated. “Strictly speaking, I’m not supposed to express political opinions while publicly representing the Order,” Dayne said.
“You could come out of uniform, perhaps,” Emma said.
“I’ll have to ask the Grandmaster,” Dayne said. “But if you have a card I will get back to you.”
She handed him her card, and finally let him pass. The line had already started to grow, in no small part due to an argument that had boiled up between the administrators and one of the men who had come to vote. Dayne cautiously moved in closer. He wouldn’t have imposed himself into the situation, but it looked like it was growing quite heated.
“Now don’t you tell me-” the man trying to vote shouted, shoving his finger just a few inches from the administrator’s face.
“I told you and will tell you, shove off!”
“I got a right, and you ain’t gonna-“
“You got a right to get a thumping!” The administrator pulled out a handstick, and was about to bring it down on the man’s arm when Dayne jumped in. He grabbed the handstick mid-swing and wrenched it out of the man’s grasp. That stung his hand, but it would have done far worse to the other man’s head.
PURCHASE SHIELD OF THE PEOPLE: