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--- The Imperial Dining Hall ---


A place that truly never sleeps, this Imperial Residence. The brightly lit dining hall attests to the fact, as does Gabriella Seamel, legs crossed as she dines on yet warm stew and bread. She is seated at the great table that fills the room, daintily licking her fingers clean of her late night meal. Milk sits before her, the glass half full.


Oren Nillu walks into the dining hall, promptly heading towards the table. "Just some warm wine, Flora," he tells a servant before she even has time to ask, dismissing her with a quick wave of his hand. "Ah, Duchess Gabriella, good evening."


With a quick swallow, Gabriella raises her head at the sound of that voice. Her fingertip lingers against her tongue for just a moment before she gives a brief nod. "Please. Gabby suits me fine, Your Grace," she offers, her voice polite. "Gabriella usually means I'm in trouble, in some fashion."


"Then Oren will suit me as well," the old man says, taking one of the available seats. "How are these cold days of winter treating you?"


"They treat the animals poorly," Gabriella answers with another smile, seeming to warm a bit as she takes a drink of milk. "I'll have to move the chickens indoors, I'm afraid, if they do not let up soon. Their coop could use renovations." The woman nods her head in the Chancellor's direction. "And yourself?"


Oren Nillu nods to Flora as the wine is placed in front of him and then turns to Gabriella. "I find that such cold seasons never bring the best of days with them. Much work. At least there is comfort in the knowledge icy as it may be, it shall pass eventually."


"All bad passes eventually," Gabriella answers with a shrug of her shoulders, tearing a bit at her bread. "And the good passes with it. I shouldn't wish the winter to go any faster, for it all goes too fast anyways." A bit of a smile is given to the Chancellor. "Should you not agree?"


"At my age, after you have seen it all, things tend to pass rather slowly," Oren confesses with a smile, taking a sip from his wine. "The passing of time is irrelevant in the larger measurement of things, however. Take this beverage for example. I shall finish it eventually and it will be gone, but the sweet taste will linger in my mouth and I will be content with the memory of the pleasure it brought me."


"I prefer the liquid on my tongue to the memory," Gabriella answers with a slight shrug, smiling towards the man. "But I am greedy when it comes to the few things I treasure, and do not easily give up the pleasure they bring, nor the time in which I am allowed them."


"Ah, greed. A powerful and dangerous motivator." The old man takes another sip from his wine, stirring the cup in his hand to watch the liquid movement. "If one allows it to control his life, it might be even lead to rather rash and unnecessary actions."


"When it is balanced with charity, I see no harm in being eager to protect the things you cherish. It is when greed consumes one's entire life, it becomes dangerous," Gabriella answers quickly, shaking her head. "And if one knows the pain of having the cup snatched away from one's mouth when one had only become acquainted with the flavor of one's drink, one is quick to clutch his hands about his glass should the threat arise again, no?"


"The thing about greed," the elderly Nillu replies, "is that it makes it easy to mistake harmless actions for threats, forcing one's hand without need. Also a risk worth considering, would you not agree?"


"I would rather assume a harmless action as a threat, then assume a threat as a harmless action," Gabriella answers with a shrug of her shoulders, raising her eyebrow towards the Nillu. "Is not the whole of Fastheld based on that idea? How many harmless actions do the Blades investigate? How many innocent people does the Church inquire, and perhaps, injure in some way.. only so that the truly harmful actions are not mistaken for innocent."


Oren Nillu chuckles faintly. "Investigation is one thing. If a Blade ever harms an innocent person because of an investigation gone wrong, then that soldiers faces the consequences. It is when you mistake harmless actions for threats and react violently to them without just cause that greed shows just how nasty its claws are."


"I should not think I would injure a person without just cause, even for my greed," Gabriella answers with a shrug before reaching to her stew and plucking out a tender carrot, popping it in her mouth as she raises her eyebrow towards the Chancellor once more.


"We should all hope we nevet do things we later regret, of course, which is why I always try to keep a calm tempter. It saves me a lot of trouble," Oren comments.


"Am I being lectured?" Gabriella finally asks as she swallows her carrot, both eyebrows raising as she looks towards Oren. "I have not committed any great sin of late that I am aware of.. I have not struck a soldier in months," she adds honestly. "And I served my house arrest for that crime."


"Lectured?" Oren raises an eyebrow, taking another sip of wine. "I thought we were simply discussing the virtues and ills of greed. I apologize if for some reason that sounded like preaching."


"I attempt to keep an even temper," Gabriella replies with a shrug, tearing another piece of her bread off. "Although it is not always easy for me. Courtly restraint was never one of my better qualities, which is just as well, for I do not care for much that is courtly."


"I know others who share those views. I suppose it is a good thing, trying to stand out and not to submit under the norm. At least you keep an even temper, as you say. As the wife of a Council member, it would bode ill for his reputation if you did not. Can you imagine?" Oren chuckles. "Duke Duhnen is lucky not to face such troubles."


"If Duhnen cared for his reputation, he would not have taken Arturo Lomasa's betrothed as a mistress in the first place," Gabriella answers bluntly, a faint smile crossing her lips as she looks to the Chancellor. "Duhnen holds his position because he is loyal, skilled, and dedicated, not because I am an exemplary wife, Oren. Anyone who would release him because of my behavior would be foolish. They would be hard pressed to find a replacement."


"No one would release him because of your behavior and no one questions those values," Oren explains. "But regardless of how much you want to disagree with the social norms that have been the backbone of this society for more ages that you can fathom, they are still there and they still guide Fastheld. A reputation is very important. If it is stained, it leads to other sorts of problems, the kind that can lead to even worse problems, which in turn can indeed lead to dismissal. Not that you would care about such things, I suppose, considering you do not invest much interest in such... courtly matters."


"Do you know what I hope comes of my reputation?" Gabriella asks as she draws one leg beneath the other, reaching for her milk once more. "I hope the daughters of my class hear of my story and realize they are not bound to this system of selling and buying women. I hope they realize their hands are for more than embroidery. If my reputation, no matter how stained, teaches one woman that we are not broodmares, then I care not for any titles or priveledges. Neither, I think, should Duhnen. He does not serve to be a Duke. He serves because he is needed. I do not think you realize just how much it would please him, I, and the children were he to abandon his position now and return to the life we once had."


Oren Nillu smiles again. "You hope to change the standards which have been in place before the Aegis itself was lifted? Ambition," he notes, casually taking another sip of wine, "a more... driven and interesting form of greed."


"I am not without goals," Gabriella answers with a shrug of her shoulders. "Things are changing, Chancellor. A wind has stirred the stagnant pool, and ideas which have been trapped in the muck for far too long are rising to the surface. My daughters will never marry a man who demands 'proper' behavior only so he might advance. Their daughters shall not either.. and I plan on having many children, Oren."


"Time will tell, Gabby. One day, such ideals might make of your family social outcasts. I have seen it happen. Social outcats find that their resources can be depleted and then comes the choice: to be freed of social restraints while not enjoying the luxuries of a privileged life... or to embrace those luxuries at the rather undemanding cost of submission."


"Have you ever submitted, Oren?" Gabriella asks honestly, settling back in her chair. "You preach submission, and pronounce its cost, when I do not think you have ever truly suffered it." There is a shake of the woman's head. "I think perhaps you misunderstand something, Chancellor. The surrender of one's will does not come easy."


"I think perhaps it is you, Gabby, who misunderstands. Young as you are and blinded by these ideals of yours, you choose -- like many others in similar positions -- to concentrate only on your own problems, rather than really looking beyond them to see the greater painting. Perhaps my submission has not required of me to surrender my emotions under the enthrallments of a loveless marriage, perhaps it has not dictated of me what my employment will entail, but it has enslaved my liberties in many ways -- liberties I have surrendered because I understand that the safety and importance of greater things rely on my acceptance of guidelines that have commanded the steps of our society for a great deal of years. Yes, Gabby -- I have submitted. Perhaps one day, when you too are old and have seen life in its fullest capacity, you will understand that. To surrender one's will is not supposed to be easy, but it is made possible by such things as love -- love for things that are greater than one's own self."


"There are only two things I shall ever surrender to.." Gabriella answers in response, her features growing serious. "My husband, who should never ask it of me.. he would no more than I would of him, and my children. For them, I would do any task beneath the skies. If I obey the Emperor, it is because I do not wish his wrath on my family." There is a pause as the noblewoman collects her thoughts. "You will say that I should return to skirts and propriety for the sake of my children's reputations and opportunities at a luxurious life.. but I describe luxury as the time I spend in Duhnen's arms, the time I spend with my fingers in the soil. Silk is such a fragile fabric, anyways."


Duhnen Seamel arrives from Great Hall Duhnen Seamel has arrived.


Oren Nillu takes a last sip from his cup and puts it down on the table. It is promptly removed by one of the servants who has, wisely, kept his distance from the area and the conversation. "I will never say such a thing, m'lady. Far be it from me to tell you how to live your life. As long as you do not presume to harm others with such actions." He stands up. "I apologize. It seems I have been indeed seduced into lecturing when it was not my intention at all. Ah, this old hip of mine. Such a bother. I was blessed with an ointment that seems to be lessening the pain. A wonderful healer made it for me. Perhaps you've met her? A Mistress Balsam. Chaori Balsam. Well, I suppose it would be best for me to leave you to your meal in peace."


"We've met," is Gabriella's dismissive answer to the name, her eyes rolling behind her glass as she takes a slow drink of her milk. "She is, of course, an attentive and doting woman. Truly a pillar of Fastheldian propriety and subservience." With a shake of her head, Gabriella settles back into her chair once more. "I harm no one with my actions," she adds. "I wish you a good eve."


Duhnen steps into the dining hall, the man rubbing at a chin that shows signs of advancing scruff with a bare hand. The Surrector seems short on sleep today.


Oren Nillu's easy smile returns. "No, of course not. Good eve, Duchess. May the Light keep you safe and warm during these troublesome and cold days." He turns and begins to head towards the door. He offers Duhnen a polite nod and a quick "Good eve, Surrector" before finishing his journey outwards.

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