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For a brief, sour moment, Bai considered the idea that Alikara was behind the whole puzzling set up - certainly she had been involved in other attempts to fix him up with young women of her acquaintance. He dismissed the idea almost immediately. Trapping him in an elevator - or on a harmonichron bench - with an eligible target was certainly in her character, but drugs and blackmail were decidedly not.
"I didn't realize you played," he said to Ressa, flipping through the music book too quickly, searching for a song he wouldn't embarrass them both with.
"I didn't realize you played," she replied tartly, and Bai was reminded of warnings he'd received from both Urti and Rai: how well did he know her? More gently, she added, "We had a tingboard at my family house in Mruuna and we had a Music Guild tutor who drummed all the basics into us as children. It wasn't difficult learning the harmonichron from there." The tingboard was a single-keyboard predecessor of the harmonichron, without the time crystal modulation.
"Rainy Day Feelings?" Bai suggested.
Ressa blinked at him, then seemed to realize he was suggesting a song. She blushed, looked over the music he handed her, and nodded.
He started too fast, and she stumbled to keep up, then he slowed down too much in response; his fingers had never felt so awkward and unsuited to the keys. But after a few measures, they found the right tempo, and by the time they flipped to the second page, they were passing the melody back and forth with ease, music sparkling from the duet instrument. They ended with a crescendo, and Ressa laughed and turned to look at him with dancing eyes.
Bai had to stare, he couldn't help himself. It wasn't because she was beautiful, though she was, but because she was so dear, he couldn't help but try to memorize the happiness in her face. Her cheeks colored and she dragged her gaze away - Bai realized he had embarrassed her and shook himself to look around.
The room had been abandoned; they were alone, and he was grateful for that much at least. He could barely make out voices in the hallway outside the music room, and there was a swirl of conversation from below. Ressa toyed with a heavy bracelet she was wearing on one wrist, and Bai wondered that he found her as appealing looking lost and shy as he did when she was all confidence and business.
"That was certainly a generous donation you pledged," Bai told her, falling back on the topic of the ball. "I'm sure it will serve to see a lot of worthy animals properly licensed." He sounded painfully officious to his own ears.
Ressa gave a soft laugh. "It certainly got the attention of your sister."
"Don't mind Alikara," Bai hastened to assure her. "She was just surprised by it, that's all. I was surprised by it..." A wry sidelong look made Bai stumble. "I mean... it's just..."
"A lot of money for a Head of Files," Ressa finished for him.
"It's not any of my business," Bai said firmly.
There was a brief moment of silence and Ressa said grimly, "That was every Imperial and tenth that I ever got from Yeff. I want no part of that blood money."
Bai blinked, uncertain how to reply to the fierce statement. He was figuring how many months of fees that would be, against the class of Ressa's guild license, as she added as an afterthought: "Less expenses and guild fees, of course." And even though it was wildly inappropriate, Bai had to smile, because that was so like Ressa.
She was toying with the heavy bracelet again, and Bai was chagrined to realize that must have been something of Yeff's; it was a masculine design, and it was carnal guild custom to wear something of a departed friend to honor their passage. She was still in mourning, he reminded himself. "Did you spot anyone who looked out of place tonight?" he asked in a low voice.
She glanced at him, at the empty room, and shook her head, putting her fingers back to the keyboard to idly pick out a bit of the tune from the next piece in the music book. "It has been a long time since I was in 'Society,'" she said in a matching undertone. "But everyone here looked like they belonged. More than I did."
'You belong here,' Bai wanted to tell her, but that was a social mine-field he didn't know how to navigate.
It took Bai a moment to drag his thoughts back to their simple conversation, and he shook his head. "There were only a few people I couldn't remember names for, and there were a few friends of friends. No one who looked like they needed to go to such lengths to get an invitation."
Ressa shook her head. "It doesn't make sense," she said in frustration. The melody she was playing took a sinister falling tone from an over-pressed foot pedal, and she abandoned the keys and moved her feet away, turning slightly on the bench to face Bai. "Drugs? Framing me for murder, but Urti can't explain why nothing has been done with the evidence? And why so much trouble to make us... fall in love with each other."
Even frustration was a fascinating expression on her, no less lovely than embarrassed or triumphant had been. Bai made himself stop gazing at her face. She was playing with the bracelet again - a gesture of nervousness - and Bai focused on her wording with a sudden, misplaced shot of hope. She didn't say 'why make you fall in love with me.' She'd said, 'fall in love with each other.' He looked into her eyes again; sitting next to her, they were the nearly same height for once, and she was the first one to look away.
It was the wine, he told himself. He'd had enough to make him reckless. It was the perfume in the room. Not Olarali's tainted scent, but something wild and sensual just the same. It was seeing Ressa out of her prim Licensing Office setting, dressed up for Society, with her hair down and her collarbones bare. Whatever it was, Bai gave up trying to deny it, gathered her into his arms without so much as a request for permission, and kissed her.
The party was fading fast, conversations tying up into long drawn-out farewells as transportation arrived. Alikara was a whirlwind of hostess energy, touching fingertips politely wherever required, remembering names and donations and offering thanks and good nights, with little personal interactions that hadn't been possible when the party was in full swing. She brushed aside the praise for the ball and blushed and chattered with the last lingering patrons. She didn't notice a figure slip away from the others and pad purposefully away, nor did any of the other last guests.
Only one person marked the figure's passage up the stairs towards the music room, and the two remaining inhabitants of the room paid it no mind at all, oblivious to the fist that clenched in jealous rage as Bai pulled Ressa in for a kiss. A calling card crumpled in a furious hand, and the figure moved swiftly past.