The Madouri family being what they were, the Manor’s formal dining room was laid out with a giant display behind the seat at the head of the long table, positioned so that a huge House crest would loom above the person seated there, with below that a broad flat space like an altar which could be used for any situationally suitable decoration, the better to emphasize whatever point was being made. For this dinner, the Duke had apparently taken some amusement in designating this a suitable display spot for the gifts his family had just received, with the result that now a silver statue of the cowled goddess Themynra loomed directly behind him, just beneath the Madouri crest.
This, needless to say, was not appropriate placement for a sacred sigil. Any sigil; the symbolic implication that House Madouri stood above a god was too clear to have been anything but deliberate. Shaeine did not overtly react, of course, but considered the implications. Teal had described Duke Ehriban as motivated chiefly by ego, but that was when dealing with his own subjects. Surely a man in his position couldn’t be brash enough to kick up an international incident? Regardless, being Narisian, she filed the insult away to be redressed at a better time, and took some dark amusement of her own in the fact that Tellwyrn’s sword and dagger had been laid at the feet of Themynra’s idol, in an extra layer of symbolism.
Actually, Tellwyrn probably would have laughed at that, too. And blasted the Duke across the room for good measure, but with a sense of humor. Still, Shaeine rather suspected he wouldn’t have dared add that little touch had Tellwyrn herself been present to see.
And despite all of the diplomatic weight behind this pageantry, it wasn’t what commanded most of her attention.
“You like it, Lady Shaeine?” the Duke drawled at her in the manner of a man who knew he was being antagonistic and either didn’t care enough to fully hide behind a shroud of civility or simply lacked the requisite emotional control. “My House is rather famous, if you’ll forgive the boast, for the rarity of the treasures within its vaults, but even we haven’t a lot in the way of drow artifacts. Mostly arms and armor confiscated from various Narisians who’ve attempted to raid Madouri lands over the centuries. This was the only piece I could find on such short notice that seemed at all suitable for display on a dinner table. Alas, I had only scant warning to expect the pleasure of your company!”
“I do hope not to have inconvenienced you unduly, Lord Ehriban,” she replied, noting the resulting twitch of his left eye and not reacting—she, at least, could control her emotions while delivering a veiled insult. The correct title was Duke Madouri, the one she had used being suitable for a lesser member of his House, and to judge by the lack of an immediate rebuke, he wasn’t sure whether she’d done it deliberately. “Truly, it is a…remarkable piece. It is not, however, Narisian. I am very curious how it came to be in your House’s vaults.”
It was a candelabra of sorts, carved delicately of what appeared to be white marble in the shape of a tree, a strange motif for drow, but the marble trunk and obsidian base were both inscribed with runes in elvish—neither the surface nor Narisian dialects, but intelligible with a bit of effort to anyone who knew the language. Among the white tree’s bare branches were stretched delicate silver wires in the shape of intricate spider webs, and suspended within them were lodged thirteen tiny, exquisitely crafted silver skulls. Each contained a magic source, projecting beams of pure white radiance through the minute eye and nose holes, and the even more tiny gaps between teeth.
“Is that so?” Duke Ehriban replied with a deliberately knowing smirk. “Well, I’d love to know myself. Unfortunately, most of my more adventurous ancestors were rather more interested in collecting treasures than keeping records. I’m afraid there’s just no accounting for a good number of the artifacts collecting dust down there. What do you think, Dazan, could it be from that other city up north? What’s it called, Akhvaris?”
Lord Dazan paused in lifting a forkful of meat to his lips, giving his father a rather stupid look of surprise. “I, er…”
“The Akhvari refuse all contact,” Shaeine said quietly. “It is, in fact, Scyllithene, and most likely came to the surface through Tar’naris, which must have been an incredible story indeed. I appreciate the gesture, my lord Duke, but I must warn you that artifacts of Scyllith are as dangerous as those of the Elder Gods. Especially those, such as this one, which are magical in nature.”
“How fascinating!” the Duke said merrily. “I know what you mean—my ancestors have several Elder God trinkets squirreled away. Surely there’s no need to worry, though; those are all fully secured. The ancient Madouris did at least manage to catalog everything too hazardous to mess with and lock it up with all the requisite warnings. That this one wasn’t buttoned up similarly tells me it can’t be all that bad! Clearly it’s just a decorative centerpiece.”
“But father,” Dazan said, frowning, “I thought—”
“There’s only the one Elder God relic that’s even accessible down there,” Ehriban interrupted swiftly, shooting his son a cold look. “The sword of light, remember? I showed it to you once.”
“Oh! Yes!” Dazan’s face positively lit up. “Beautiful thing—it not only glows but makes music!”
“A musical sword?” Teal asked, her attention predictably grabbed.
“Not good music, of course,” Dazan said, turning to her and pantomiming swinging a blade with both hands. “It makes a rather pleasant humming sound that changes pitch as you move it. I suppose one could create a melody from that with a bit of effort, but that clearly wasn’t the intent. Father was loath to let me test it properly, but according to the notes old Lady Avelaan Madouri kept, the blade is weightless and will cut through anything! Since you mention it, Father, perhaps a demonstration for our guests would be the perfect excuse to show—”
“No fewer than five of your ancestors have dismembered themselves handling that fool thing, Dazan,” the Duke said in a quelling tone. “Two lethally. The Elder Gods did enjoy their little pranks. It’s for good reason the weapon is behind glass and displayed so as to be seen, not touched.”
“But…you took it out,” Dazan protested. “That’s how you demonstrated the humming.”
“In any case,” Ehriban continued, “my ancestors, in their wisdom, saw fit to place no such protections around this piece of decoration and no ill has befallen as a result of it. I’m afraid your concerns are misplaced, Lady Shaeine.”
“As you say, your Grace,” she replied smoothly, deeming this a hill not worth planting a flag on…yet. It was not yet clear to her whether he truly had no idea what he was tampering with or intended something specific with the…lamp, if that was indeed its purpose. If the latter, they were all likely to regret it. Surface people tended to forget that Scyllithene artifacts by definition were Elder God artifacts, and exactly as dangerous for exactly the same reasons.
“I gather, from your wariness, that you’ve not seen the like in person?” Ehriban prompted, still watching her.
Shaeine shook her head. “In Tar’naris, such a thing would be summarily destroyed.”
“Ah, yes,” he said with a sage nod, taking up his knife and fork to begin cutting into the slab of meat before him. “Your people do have that historical tendency.”
Marguerite drew in a short breath and Teal’s jaw tightened; Dazan had the effrontery to smirk. Shaeine, of course, did not give him the satisfaction.
In fact, her attention was caught by Ravana, who was seated at her right, in the position directly to the left of her father and across from Dazan. The young noblewoman’s aspect had subtly but entirely changed during the conversation; where she had been virtually silent and adopted an almost aggressively unobtrusive posture all night, with her hands clasped in her lap and head slightly bowed, she was now sipping her wine. Slowly, her spine having straightened, holding a small mouthful on her tongue and inhaling gently through the nose with the glass held before her, eyes half-lidded in pleasure. It was the most unguarded posture Shaeine had seen her assume, and though a relatively minor thing, it was like looking at an entirely different person.
Ravana swallowed and her eyes shifted, noticing Shaeine watching her. She did not, as the drow half expected, hastily change her posture back or at all react as if caught in something, but delicately set her wineglass back down and once more folded her hands, returning smoothly to her previously demure pose.
“So,” Geoffrey said in a strained voice, clearly grasping for any change of subject, “how is the carriage serving you, your Grace?”
“Ah!” The Duke’s eyes lit with a little spark of malicious interest which had already become familiar to even his newest guest over the course of the evening. “Fine work as ever, Mr. Falconer! Smooth as satin on the roads; you’ve truly outdone yourself. I don’t know, though…” He picked up his glass and took a long sip which somehow did not interrupt his smirk. “Now that I’ve seen it on the streets a few times, I’m not so sure about the…detailing.”
Teal immediately set down her silverware and placed her hands in her lap, which Shaeine knew was to conceal the clenching of her fists. Her parents both tensed but retained careful facial control. Presumably a carriage commissioned by the Duke himself would have been one of the special projects overseen by the Falconer family personally, which meant its decorations would have been designed and in large part hand-crafted by Marguerite.
“What seems to be the issue, your Grace?” Marguerite asked in an impressively even tone.
“I’m afraid I can’t quite put my finger on it,” Ehriban said lazily, lounging back in his seat and holding up his wineglass as if it were a royal scepter while gazing down his nose at her. “I haven’t the benefit of your…artistic education, my dear. Something about it just seems off to me, once I observe the vehicle outside the carefully staged environment of your showroom.”
“I confess I’m surprised to hear that, your Grace,” she replied, still outwardly calm. “I recall you expressed effusive satisfaction when we displayed the carriage to you here on the Manor grounds.”
“Yes, well, you can’t really expect me to make a properly informed decision without observing it in action. An enchanted carriage is meant to travel, after all! To be seen in a variety of circumstances. There’s simply no way one can appreciate its final effect by looking at it parked on the driveway.”
“Art is indeed contextual,” Marguerite agreed, shooting a laden look across the table at her husband, who was beginning to glower openly. “Perhaps when it is convenient for you, your Grace, I could revisit the detailing to incorporate any notes you have.”
“Ever so accommodating, Marguerite! I always know I can rely on your kind nature and professionalism. I suspect you’re a luckier man than you know, Geoffrey,” the Duke added with an insufferable wink.
“Oh, I assure you I know,” Geoffrey replied in a tense tone which only made Ehriban grin more widely. Dazan made no attempt to hide his chuckle, sawing off another chunk of meat.
Shaeine held her peace, glancing at Teal, who appeared to be meditating, and Lady Ravana, who had touched nothing except her wine and currently looked half-asleep at the table. Altogether she was less impressed than she could possibly have imagined with these apparent apexes of Tiraan nobility. It wasn’t that her own people were any less cruel, particularly among noble circles, but the Madouris were just so boorish. Such barbaric behavior would be an invitation for attack from all sides in Tar’naris, not just by those they personally insulted but by every other House which would see nothing but weakness in this casual display of poor manners.
“While we are talking business, though,” Duke Ehriban continued after letting his guests simmer in the discomfort for a deliberate few seconds, “it’s good that I have you here before the formal announcement goes out. I’m afraid this concerns you directly.”
All three Falconers, just having relaxed somewhat, visibly tensed. Shaeine did not, of course, but she understood the impulse; Ehriban’s expression utterly failed to conceal his malicious satisfaction in whatever he was doing. Dazan, whom she did not assess as intelligent enough to pick up on such cues, was also smirking intolerably, which told her that this was indeed the planned main event of the evening. A quick sidelong glance found Ravana staring down at her plate with the hollow expression of someone determined not to think too hard about anything happening around her.
“More regulations, then?” Geoffrey asked after enough seconds had passed to make it clear the Duke did not intend to continue until prompted.
“Oh, no, nothing like that,” Ehriban replied with a magnanimous wave of his hand. “I don’t suppose you heard about the half-demon incident here in the city just this month?”
Teal failed to contain an expression of alarm; the older Falconers glanced uneasily at each other.
“I’m afraid not, your Grace,” Geoffrey said warily. “I gather it can’t have been all that bad, then. Usually such things make considerable waves.”
“Easy enough for you to say from the comfort of your mansion,” Ehriban snorted in such an astonishing display of hypocrisy that even Ravana blinked. “I assure you it was a big enough deal for those caught in the middle of it. Some half-shondrict creature that had been masquerading as a laborer went feral and mauled a few teenagers before they subdued it.”
“Schanthryct,” Teal corrected in a whisper which fortunately the Duke seemed not to hear; Dazan shot her an irritated look.
“So,” Marguerite replied in a firmer tone than she had used to defend her own work, “a half-demon citizen who was clearly stable enough to hold down a job attacked several youths. I can think of a number of common teenage pastimes which might provoke someone to violence even without demon blood. The sort of ruffians who get up to such antics do like to single out those who are different.”
“Well, the details hardly matter, do they?” the Duke scoffed. “We simply can’t have demons ravaging citizens in the streets. It’s an utter mockery of law and order.”
“How lawful or orderly is it for citizens to harass minorities in feral packs of their own?” Teal demanded. “It sounds like the details matter very much, your Grace, otherwise you risk acting to solve exactly the wrong problem.”
“I’ll thank you not to lecture me on the running of my province, girl,” Ehriban snapped, and right then and there Shaeine decided that rather than watching for an opportunity to knock him down a peg, she was going to begin making efforts to arrange one. Best to keep that firmly private from her mother and Heral, though Nahil would gleefully help… “The point is that even a Duke must respect a public outcry, lest it turn into actual unrest.”
“What outcry was this, precisely?” Geoffrey inquired. “I subscribe to every major newspaper in Madouris and two from Tiraas, and this is the first I’m hearing about any of this.”
The Duke was beginning to look annoyed at these interruptions. “Let us take it as given that I have access to sources of information you do not, Geoffrey. This situation has compelled me to draft new restrictions upon the activities and movements of demonbloods…and the demonically touched of any sort.” He looked sidelong at Teal, not even troubling to conceal an expression of vindictive satisfaction. “Obviously, as these affairs concern your family directly, and you have been such staunch friends to House Madouri, it is the least I can do to provide you with forewarning.”
“As I understand it,” Shaeine stated, “such restrictions would overtly contradict the Tirasian Dynasty’s long-standing policies toward racial minorities within the Empire, and possibly the Writ of Duties itself.”
“So you do know a bit about Imperial governance,” Ehriban said irritably. She inclined her head in a gracious gesture, already thinking several steps beyond this conversation. She was right, and he knew it; more to the point, while House Madouri would love nothing more than to challenge House Tirasian, for a century they had not, which could only mean such a challenge would not only fail but backfire. Thus, he was not actually planning to do this. Rather, the play was here and now—not the proposed legislation, but the revelation of it to the Falconers.
Not for the first time that evening, Shaeine longed for the ability to surreptitiously communicate with her allies. Elves could have entire conversations under the nose of humans who were none the wiser, and even Vadrieny was quite sensitive to sound, but not to the degree necessary for her to convey such complex information without betraying that she was doing so.
“And who knows?” the Duke continued, once again affecting a genial demeanor. “Perhaps you can help me in shaping the necessary rules. After all, it must be said that you have a unique insight into the matter, is that not so, Teal? But then again, mayhap I am asking the wrong half. Let’s see what Vadrieny has to say about this!” He waved a hand at her. “Bring her out.”
Teal’s shoulders tensed as she drew in a sharp breath. “With all respect, my lord Duke—”
“The only necessary respect I need be shown is obedience,” he interrupted, eyes glinting in the white beams of the Scyllithene candelabra. Shaeine focused on the thing itself again, beginning to get a sense of what he intended.
“She…” Teal frowned deeply and swallowed. “I apologize, your Grace, but something is wrong. Vadrieny senses…danger. She says it would be hazardous to embody herself physically here.”
“You question the security of my house?” Ehriban demanded. “I assure you, I do not take risks with my own safety. My security here is absolute. Come now, there is no call for shyness, Teal.”
“Vadrieny is the furthest thing from shy,” Shaeine interjected. The man had the abominable rudeness to make a silencing gesture at her, still focusing upon Teal.
“I understand your need for discretion, and the pressure this may place upon you, so allow me to make the question easier. It is technically unlawful for any Imperial subject to be in the presence of a provincial governor without revealing themselves; in the eyes of a magistrate, this is considered evidence of hostile intent. Now, clearly,” he drawled, gesturing broadly around the table at his guests, “common sense dictates that we make allowances for circumstance, does it not? I am a reasonable man and I do not seek to discomfit my subjects unduly. But I have, here, the legal prerogative to insist upon meeting your demonic counterpart face to face, and I do hereby invoke it, Teal Falconer. Now, then!” He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands before himself in a satisfied gesture. “Does that provide sufficient incentive to overcome your girlish reticence?”
“Your Grace,” Geoffrey practically growled, now gripping the arms of his chair as if about to lever himself forward out of it, “Vadrieny is an archdemon, not a misbehaving teenager. If she is warning of danger, it would be wise—”
“Enough,” the Duke interrupted, his convivial mask collapsing. “I have made my command clear.”
“I—we h-have been given a Talisman of Absolution,” Teal stammered, touching the artifact itself where it was pinned as usual to her lapel. “Vadrieny and I aren’t to be regarded as enemies by—”
“When last I looked,” the Duke said in a truly menacing tone, “it was Ehriban Madouri, not Justinian Darnay, who rules Tiraan Province.”
“I say, it’s just…Justinian, isn’t it?” Dazan piped up. “Without a surname, I mean. It’s a whole ritual formality, Father. The Archpope foregoes an identity beyond the office of…”
He trailed off as his father slowly turned his head to fix him with an exceedingly flat stare.
“Your Grace,” said Shaeine, “I must protest this.”
“Your protest has been heard,” he said impatiently. “Proceed, Teal. Or is it your intention to openly defy your liege before his entire household? I’m sure I needn’t remind you of the consequences to your business and family of forswearing my good graces.”
“This is a poor showing, your Grace,” Shaeine said coolly, seizing his attention again. “Where I am from, when one wishes to manufacture a pretext to create an incident, one does so in a plausibly deniable manner. Perhaps your Grace should consider trying this again when you have done sufficient preparatory work to withstand the inevitable inquisition of the Church and Empire into whatever results from—”
“You are not where you are from, Lady Shaeine,” he shot back, “as I’m sure you can see by the lack of spiders and general barbarism. If there is one consistent virtue of your people displayed since the Narisian Treaty, it has been the pragmatism and restraint not to bite the hands that feed you. This would be a most unwise moment to forsake that quality.”
“Don’t threaten her!” Teal snarled, slamming her hands down onto the table and half rising from her seat.
Except that it wasn’t in Teal Falconer’s nature to snarl, slam, or do any of that. The impulsive actions preceded her emergence, but Vadrieny was a split second behind, too fast even for Shaeine to warn her that she sensed a trap. Flames burst behind Teal’s eyes and in her hair; her clenched fingers upon the table lengthened into black claws which pierced the rich tablecloth.
And instantly, with a high-pitched keening sound that grated painfully upon the ears, the Scyllithene artifact beaming decorative light from the center of the table blazed with intense white radiance.
Vadrieny let out a shriek as multiple beams of white light concentrated directly upon her, staggering backward in a destructive flailing of arms that raked deep gouges in the table and smashed the heavy oaken chair she’d been sitting in.
At Shaeine’s side, the previously somnolent Lady Ravana burst out of her seat and fled from the room in the first sign of physical or mental coordination she’d displayed.
Shaeine herself reached within for the divine power, lashing out with a moving wall of silver light to sweep the hateful object off the table and smash it against the wall. That brought forth the second abrupt surprise, however, as contact with it caused an explosive backlash as if she had connected her power directly to a demonic source of similar concentration. Her own protective shield barely absorbed the burst of magic which impacted her directly, bowling her and her chair over backward.
Both she and Vadrieny ended up hurled forcibly away from the table, smoking slightly from the impacts, while the “lamp” continued to blaze fervently, untouched and apparently untouchable. Of course; there was only one source of power which would react violently to both Themynrite magic and infernal power, while still bypassing the Pantheon’s protection as embodied in the Talisman of Absolution.
Then the stomping of booted feet roared through the chamber as the doors opened and a dozen House Madouri soldiers streamed in, weapons at the ready.
“Attempting violence against your Duke?” Ehriban tsked reprovingly, sounding not the least put out for a man claiming to have just survived an attempt on his life. “I thought you had better judgment than that, Teal.”
“Oh, you cannot be serious!” Marguerite exclaimed, hovering protectively over the fallen archdemon, while Geoffrey had also risen from his seat, managing to place himself half in front of Shaeine before multiple battlestaves were leveled, causing everyone to freeze.
“I warned you,” Shaeine rasped, rising slowly and ignoring the weapons aimed at her. “This was…slightly clever, I’ll grant. Few would make plans against an exotic trinket such as they wouldn’t consider you might possess. But this is so obviously a plot of your own arranging it will disintegrate under the slightest challenge.”
“That only matters if anyone remains to challenge it,” the Duke said, grinning maliciously. He had pushed back from the table to cross his legs and now slouched in his thronelike dining chair, hands still folded before himself. “If I wished to charge you with something, to be sure, it would have to pass muster before a magistrate or the Empire. But when an attempt has been made to assassinate me? In the extremity of self-defense, you see, I have a great deal more…leeway.”
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