I forced myself through pressing people. At first, it was a struggle through rock-hard bodies that had no intention of moving from their places. But as some started to notice sandy fingers pushing against their slate arms, or felt a tickle of hair against their shoulders, my path widened. Raised eyeridges and round mouths followed me; as I neared the front of the crowd, I was surprised by a few wicked sneers, more bold than any I had yet seen on Paz.
"Reúnen is a proud house, as decent as any other," said a young male voice from within a circle surrounded by tiered seating that was packed full of standing paz. I continued to push my way towards a visible gap in the chairs.
"So why are we being subjected to an unclean association with an alien?"
I saw the voice’s owner. He was a skinny fellow, draped in worn blue robes that hung from his body as if they had been handed down through several older brothers. A lot of people in the same shade were gathered in the barn, but also some in yellow, purple, turquoise, and the same burnt orange worn by Brisa, who was somewhere behind me with the rest of my entourage.
But as I continued to listen to the young man’s speech, my eyes flickered to every pin on every shoulder. They were all identical. It appeared that every person within the room was of House Reúnen. I recalled Inquieto’s words once, when he had told me that most Reúnens were rural.
"We need to show the world that we Reúnens do not support the curio," I winced at the familiar slander, "and that we are wholly opposed to the appalling lies being spread by the Pro-Trader Party."
"We do not all object to Carmen O’Dwyer’s presence in Reúnen," said Brisa, boldly stepping around me and into the circle. At her words, every person who had not yet noticed me now gasped and gaped in my direction.
"The fact that this house meeting was spontaneous shows you did not want your opposition present," she said, clipped.
"On the contrary, Brisa Reúnen," said a new voice from the outer shadows of the circle. "We are thrilled you are all here."
I tensed. Dignidad Fortalacen stepped from the shadows, his mahogany robes sweeping the rough dirt floor as smoothly as if he had been walking on polished marble. I locked eyes with him for one heated moment in which I dissected the layers of animosity and aversion within them.
"You knew we were coming," I growled. "You beat us here on purpose to turn people against us."
"I assure you, trouble was already boiling when I arrived, Carmen," he said confidently, opening his arms wide to display the gathering to me. "Once again, you seem pitifully unaware of the trouble you cause."
"She does not cause trouble," Inquieto argued, tense and flushed grey from his attempt to reach me through the crowd.
"There he is!" accused the young man who had been making the speech. "The great Inquieto Reúnen. He thinks he is more important than any of us. He chose to consult no one of his own house before putting a Reúnen pin on that animal."
"She is not an animal," said Inquieto over the grumbles of assent.
"Is she not?" Fortalacen said coldly. "Those of us who maintain some reason amidst the emotional chaos this creature has created see her for exactly what she is."
I broke away from Inquieto’s preemptive grasp on my shoulder and strode into the circle.
"Take it," I said, stopping right in front of the young man in blue. He reeled back and stared.
"If you don’t think I belong in House Reúnen, take it," I hissed. His eyes landed on my pin, finally grasping my meaning. He didn’t move.
"You can’t, can you?" I sneered. "There are rules in place, aren’t there? Or are you just a coward?"
"Carmen," protested Inquieto, but I ignored him.
"Or are you the coward?" I asked, turning to face Fortalacen. "Making others do your work for you? Stirring up rabble while you watch from the sidelines?"
Dignidad’s eyes flashed. I gasped as he reached down and pulled at the Reúnen quartz on my chest, twisting the fabric of my robe in his fist. I thought he was going to rip it off, but he just held me there, my face inches from his.
"You do me more favors by staying in Reúnen," he whispered. "Look at the division you are causing." My eyes widened as I stared into his, and I gasped as he let me go with a vicious twist of his grasp that matched the twist of his evil grimace.
No paz had ever done something so physical since my release from the Curio Museum months ago. And though his fingers had never touched my skin and there had been no pain, the wound he inflicted was deep. The enmity in his eyes as he looked at me was not metaphorical for the dangerous new ideals I stood for. It was personal.
And no one in the room protested his actions.