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Dramanar unnerved Denel.

He was great friends with Jerumal, always kind and mild with her, and wonderful with the boys, but Denel could never forget that he was one of the most powerful men in the Empire. Not only was he a member of the ruling council, and Jeurmal's mentor, he was also uncannily astute, and had a way of reading and manipulating people that bordered on supernatural. Denel could never help wondering what he thought of her, and how completely he had dissected her every human flaw and self-doubt. Did he question her marriage? How she raised her children? Her career choices? What justifications did he give for each of her mannerisms and automatic responses? Jerumal was good at reasoning such things through, but Dramanar was a master at it.

"You're looking lovely today," the science leader told her with a tip of the head, and Denel caught the polite lie. She knew she wasn't lovely, and wondered at his reason for saying so. Perhaps it was only a compliment for the rich gown she was wearing; it made her feel uncomfortable, but was more appropriate for the wife of a junior councilman than her usual simple smock.

"It's delightful to see you," she lied in return, and didn't doubt that he knew the truth. "Jerumal is in the study," she said softly, looking for escape.

Escape was not forthcoming; Dramanar ignored the hint and settled into one of the chairs by the window, steepling his hands under his chin and giving Denel a long, steady look. If he usually unnerved her, this positively unsettled her.

"What can I help you with?" she asked, uncertain.

"There is talk of abandoning the City of Lights," he said without preamble.

Denel sat down across from him, gingerly, not answering. He would lead this conversation whereever he pleased -- she could only wait for the railmap to proceed.

"You're not surprised by the news?" he prodded her.

"No," Denel said truthfully. The city had been plagued with construction problems even before the anomalies had really settled in, as well as unexpected expenses and bad publicity. What had been intended as a shining example of prosperity and advancement was fast becoming an example of Empire excess and wasted resources. The strange accidents were being held up as proof for a handful of archaic religions, and even hardened scientists were scratching their heads in confusion and making subtle gestures to ward off evil.

"How do you feel about it?" he asked her pointedly.

Denel gave him as serene a face as she could manage, not wanting to admit the depth of her turmoil. She had worked hard on the plans for the city; it was the first project she'd ever had such a personal hand on. It had been such a thrill to watch tentative penciled lines turn into arches and towers and city streets. "I'm disappointed," she said mildly. Crushed would have been more accurate, and even angry. The last several years of the project had been an ordeal, juggling two young boys, a husband pursuing his own personal agenda in politics, watching all of her classmates accelerate through the scientific ranks while she barely tread water and struggled to carve time to complete her own science master rank. The City of Lights had been like hope to her -- a project she had a tangible part in, a reward for her efforts and sacrifices. Her name was actually etched in the footings of one of the utility buildings, along with others on the project. To think of that building being gutted and abandoned was like a kick in the stomach. "I did a lot of work on the city, and it would have been... beautiful." She looked steadily back at Dramanar, wondering if her anger was what he was looking for.

His face was full of concern, the placid lines of his face pulled into sympathy as surely as a stage player's. Denel knew the tiny, subtle spark of triumph he sometimes got; Jerumal had learned it from him. He hadn't found his quarry yet; either he didn't guess the anger she was nurturing, or it wasn't what he was seeking.

"The gray rags say it's causing unrest among some of the Purist religions," Dramanar said thoughtfully, for all the world as if he were only musing aloud, or having a casual conversation with a friend.

"Undoubtedly," Denel said gravely in return. "Things that cannot be explained cause the greatest fear. Even things that can be explained, but not understood."

"Like the eclipse riots," Dramanar hazarded. Two tendays earlier, religious riots had broken out during the viewing of a lunar eclipse. Denel had been there with Jerumal and their boys, watching the celestial event with Dramanar. They escaped before the worst of it, but the tension of the crowd and the mob-swell of the people had been unnerving. "Were you afraid?"

There was something pointed in the question, something probing. "A little, at the time," Denel said, surprised into honesty. "But the monitors had it well in hand very soon, and I haven't thought of it since."

"The Empire protects," Dramanar agreed. "But we don't understand the anomalies. Invisible things or forces that strike without warning or logic, killing, destroying, driving mad. Does that make you afraid?"

Denel laughed, at that, because it was a question she had been asking herself. "No," she could say truthfully. "Though it does frustrate me greatly. I feel like we're very close to understanding it, we're just... missing some clues. If we had all the pieces, this is a puzzle I know we could solve." And if they could solve it, the City of Lights could be saved, and her work would not be in vain, but Denel did not add that part.

There was the tiniest flicker of disappointment in Dramanar, and a curious expression that lasted only a moment before vanishing into a mild smile. "You are a very logical and bright woman," he said, his voice filled with sincerity and warmth. "I have no doubt you and the other scientists working on this issue will have it all properly dissected and laid out in charts in no time at all."

He stood, as Jerumal came into the front room and greeted his mentor in surprise and eagerness.

Denel made polite noises of departure, and retreated to her own rooms, considering the unexpected conversation. As she settled into her desk chair, it suddenly occurred to her what the brief expression had been: fear. Dramanar, powerful, confident and controlling science leader that he was, was afraid, and that had been what he was fishing for from her -- some indication that she, too, was afraid of the strange and unsettling events at the City of Lights.

Denel fiddled with a pencil, turning a small glass paperweight to catch the autumn sunlight spilling in the window. People did desperate things when they were afraid: history was riddled with such examples. She thought about the eclipse riots with fresh eyes, questions in her head. Had the religious factions been more active, even before the excuse of a simple lunar event? Were the gray rags more filled with more terror and panic than usual? She was used to reading the articles with an eye for the kernel of truth, filtering out the rhetoric and media propaganda... but was there more of that now, and more vehement? She wasn't used to looking for trends in people, only in scientific data, but a simple moment of thought had her graphing things she didn't usually attempt to quantify -- and disliking the outcomes she saw.

Dramanar may not have found what he was looking for, but the catch in Denel's gut said he had planted what he hadn't found: fear was uncoiling in her belly.

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