16 – 38

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“What the hell is this?”

For just a moment, he’d made her freeze up. Confronted with this public gambit, Natchua’s mind ran away with all the dire possibilities, aided by the pressure of the incredulous glares upon her, and the part of her that was meant to respond intelligently came up completely blank.

For just a moment.

Then she found herself talking, and in a suitably scornful tone, not entirely sure what she was doing but riding the feeling she had that this was the right move. According to Elilial, Natchua’s “cunning” was an instinctive quality, a gift of hers that propelled her onward past what the likes of Mogul himself had achieved through practice. If the goddess was right, perhaps this unthinking confidence was precisely what she needed to prevail.

And of course, if the goddess was wrong—or lying—Mogul had just decisively outflanked her and anything she said from here was only going to make it worse.

“Why, it’s a kraagthshnorik,” Mogul said with theatrical innocence. “You did send us to deal with it, if you’ll recall, my lady. Your notes were most concise; it was entombed precisely where you indicated.”

The kraagthshnorik snarled a muffled protest, squirming against its bonds and achieving nothing but a puff of smoke from its nostrils and a patch of disturbed gravel. That, and a few abortive shrieks from the nearest aristocracy.

“Oh, he’s a comedian now, too,” Natchua snorted, ignoring the speculative murmurs that sprang up from all around the party grounds. “You just blew the last tattered shreds of my patience, Mogul, don’t pretend you don’t know I was referring to its presence here. Do I walk into your home and defecate on the carpet?”

“Are we speaking literally or metaphorically?” he inquired.

Natchua flicked out her right hand, spewing forth a column of shadow tentacles to the accompaniment of another few screams—really, at some point these people were going to have to run out of things by which to be shocked—and brought the whole fifteen-foot-long mass down at the imprisoned demon. Mid-descent, the ends of the tendrils formed together into a massive scythe blade of black light limned in sullen purple, which stabbed straight through the kraagthshnorik’s central body.

The demon emitted a booming yet plaintive groan and collapsed, its huge bulk disintegrating into charcoal and sulfur-smelling smoke right before their eyes. Mogul’s magical chains around it also slumped loose, and then dissipated themselves.

“Explain yourself,” Natchua ordered, pleased with her mask of icy contempt.

“Me?” Mogul spread his hands, still making himself a picture of well-meaning confusion. “My lady, whatever do you mean? You ordered—”

He at least had the good sense to break off when her shadow apparatus, which she had not dismissed so readily as his chains, whipped back into the air to bring the tip of its blade to rest right in front of his face. The scythe itself was nearly as long as he was tall.

“Natchua, I did not realize you and Embras had a relationship,” Malivette stated, gliding over to stand by her.

“Best of friends!” Mogul said cheerily.

She could kill him, of course. She was at least thrice the warlock he could ever hope to be. The tentacle scythe inched fractionally closer to his face.

Then she dismissed it, withdrawing the tendrils which had formed its base and in general continuing to make decisions faster than the rational mind could process what she was doing.

She should kill him, which he knew, and there was the rub. He had walked right up to her and made a pest of himself. Natchua could not see, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of any other Wreath or demons in the vicinity, but she knew they had means of hiding, even from her senses. Their gift of stealth she could penetrate, but the trick of warding themselves against even an elf’s natural perceptions was a thing of shadow magic, not infernomancy, and all they had to do was actively abstain from infernal craft and she would be unable to detect them that way. Mogul would not have done this without insurance, and whatever countermeasures he had planned risked collateral damage among these assembled nobility that would be politically catastrophic for her, well beyond the embarrassment he was trying to inflict. Unless he expected her to think of all that and… No, that was a dead end line of thought and not something upon which he would have banked his very life; Mogul’s whole problem was that he was an overly cautious planner, a schemer spinning webs rather than the aggressively fox-like master of cunning Elilial had claimed she wanted.

Plus, he’d walked into the home of Malivette, who might or might not be smarter than Natchua but had proven she had less patience for his bullshit, on an evening when she was hosting all three living paladins—who not only were likely to attack him on sight regardless of anything else going on, but had learned the necessity of so doing right here in Veilgrad.

And yep, there was Trissiny, already stalking over toward them, her furious glare switching from Mogul to Natchua even as the drow made note of her presence. The other two were… She quickly sorted through the haze of muffled sounds to isolate their voices, both inside the manor. They’d have to be properly distracted to have failed to sense the arrival of that large demon on the grounds—which made Natchua suspect afresh that Mogul wanted a violent confrontation. Yes, Gabriel was in a room talking quietly with Jonathan and Hesthri, and Toby was…good and diverted. He might still get what he wanted, to judge by Trissiny’s expression. Allegedly she was better about thinking before acting since training with the Thieves’ Guild, but she was still Trissiny, and this was still exactly what it looked like.

All these thoughts flashed across Natchua’s mind in the space of a half second, and were still in the process of sorting themselves when she answered Malivette in a tone of aloof irritation.

“I did brief you, Vette; he’s been loitering around, pestering me for days. I finally decided if the Wreath were planning to make a local nuisance of themselves, they might as well be useful in the process. So I directed Embras here to a list of local dangers around Veilgrad which I intend to vanquish anyway before any more loggers and trappers fail to come home from the woods. The Wreath do love to talk a big game about how they serve and protect the world from demons. I assure you, I did not give him license to make a mess upon your front lawn,” she added, returning her glare to Embras with a disgusted curl of her lip, as if he were a dog which had just tracked mud into the house.

“You do not let the Black Wreath help,” Trissiny interjected through gritted teeth. “Take it from someone who learned it firsthand, Natchua, in this very city. The chaos crisis was worse than it needed to be because we failed to destroy them when they came with an oh so reasonable offer of aid. Their demon-summoning unbalanced the whole region, and that was before they turned on us!”

Natchua made her expression deliberately more polite, as much as she could be non-confrontational with the paladin and not lose any more of the face she was desperately scrambling to save in front of the gathered nobility. All while wishing she could afford to make pointed expressions to the effect that this was not the time for any Hand of Avei antics.

“That’s because you let them help, Trissiny. I gave them specific tasks and outlined consequences for failure, noncompliance, or collateral damage. Which it seems I shall now have to enforce.”

“I sense that I have disappointed you, my Lady,” Mogul intoned with a farcical display of solemn contrition. “Do inform me how I might make amends, I beg you. I remain ever humbly at your service.”

And now Xyraadi had emerged from the crowd, approaching them with a similar expression, and Natchua nearly despaired. She’d been pleased to invite the khelminash, who was not only a friend but someone to whom she owed a lot, and in fact it had seemed her presence here would set a useful precedent, but Xyraadi’s feelings about the Wreath were roughly the same as Trissiny’s and her approach to expressing them only minimally more subtle.

Well, at least if this whole thing ended up as bad as it looked like it was about to, she could be reasonably sure Embras Mogul would be dead before he could enjoy the results of his scheming.

“I say, that was a rather prescient strategy,” Ravana said smoothly, herself gliding forward into the fray armed with a wineglass and an aloof smile. “The world has awaited with trepidation the full outcome of Elilial’s peace with the Pantheon; I suppose it stands to reason that the Wreath need not strictly be a banned organization any longer, provided they can render a useful service like the other cults. And abide by a…” She looked pointedly at the large patch of charcoal dust and disturbed gravel and sniffed. “…standard of behavior.”

“You’re not serious!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“I see the sense in it,” said Malivette, regarding Mogul with a more pensive expression. Like a specimen on a dissection table rather than a misbehaving animal. “Obviously they must make some accommodation with the new order of things. Equally obviously, they need to get over their grudge about Ninkabi; we cannot have warlocks jumping about, harassing our nobility. It’s an elegant solution, Natchua, and how very like you to step out in front of a problem and shape it toward a useful end. I knew you would do well in this role.”

“You are too kind, Malivette,” Natchua replied graciously, inclining her head and hardly having to fake her amicable expression. Inwardly, she felt a rush of pure gratitude toward the pair of them for closing ranks with her in the face of this. Not that they had a choice; any public humiliation Natchua suffered at this moment would impact Malivette and Ravana nearly as much, and she was undoubtedly going to hear more about this at length later.

“That, of course, presupposes that the cult in question possesses the basic sense to comply with the needs of civilized society and not make nuisances of themselves,” Ravana added, looking down her nose at Embras, which took real skill on her part as he was a head and a half taller than she. “This little episode shows, at best, exceedingly poor judgment.”

“It does seem quite clearly to be an attempt to embarrass you in public, Natchua,” Malivette agreed, still examining Mogul with disdainful interest. “A rather sophomoric one, though. Is this really the best the notorious Black Wreath could conjure up to avenge their defeat? I recall them being… Well, I won’t say impressive, but less desultory in their machinations than this.”

Even Trissiny seemed to have calmed, studying Mogul through slitted eyes but making no move to intervene. Xyraadi was still bouncing a ball of golden fire from hand to hand, but did not appear about to throw it.

“Well, I think you’ll find that is the Black Wreath in a nutshell,” said Natchua, deliberately pitching her voice to resonate across the grounds. “People forget that Elilial is the goddess of cunning, not demons; her own cult certainly did. The last handful of years leading up to the Battle of Ninkabi have been an uninterrupted string of defeats and debacles at the hands of virtually everyone they ran across. The Empire, the Universal Church, the Thieves’ Guild, Trissiny here and her fellow paladins. I understand even my magic professor from Last Rock found time to slap a few of them around on a lark. They were reduced to a handful of warm bodies by the time I got down to them. And all because of…this.” She gestured with ostentatious contempt at the dirty spot that had moments before been a fearsome demon. “The Black Wreath are many things. Devious, duplicitous, arguably not unintelligent, even rather crafty at times. But cunning? No.” Natchua tilted her own head back, staring down her nose at Embras in an imitation of Ravana’s posture. And beginning to hear alarm bells in the back of her head at the lack of any discomfiture on his part under this verbal abuse, but she pressed on. He had to be put in his place in front of these onlookers or her own burgeoning reputation would take damage she’d require years to repair. “Cunning is an entirely different quality, the ability to scheme while on the move and under pressure. The Wreath under this one’s leadership has been utterly dependent on their ability to lay plans in advance, unable to adapt or respond swiftly to changes on the board. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what becomes of a cult which forgets its deity’s central value: it becomes a sad remnant whose sole means of retribution is making a stain on the floor.”

To her immense satisfaction, they laughed. The same privileged observers who a minute ago had been squealing in terror of a bound demon now produced a chorus of judgmental titters at the expense of the warlock standing in their midst.

And Mogul himself… He kept his head angled so that Natchua could not see his eyes, but his mouth beneath the broad brim of his hat remained set in an easygoing smile. He stood easily, his posture loose and nonchalant with both hands in his pockets, quite lacking the telltale signs of tension and displeasure she’d managed to wring from him on every previous encounter around Veilgrad. As she stared down at him, his lips stretched infinitesimally, that knowing smile broadening just enough to betray a flash of white teeth.

In that moment, now that it was too late, realization slammed down on Natchua and she understood how he’d just outmaneuvered her.

Mogul finally unfolded himself, sweeping off his hat and executing a low bow before the three disapproving Duchesses.

“My dear Lady Leduc! And Lady Dufresne, upon whose home I have so brashly intruded. Even the Lady Madouri, clearly a more honored guest here than I. It occurs to me, belatedly, that my little jape was in rather poor taste. If this unworthy servant might beg your indulgence for another moment, do tell me how I might make amends for this affront! My only desire is to prove my goodwill. After all, we must all enter this brave new world together, is it not so?”

Natchua breathed in and out carefully. She could still kill him… But no, she’d been right in the first place; he undoubtedly had backup ready to cause carnage among her guests and the havoc that would create might set Imperial Intelligence after her, or worse. At the absolute least, she would look petty, violent, and unstable if she attacked him after that speech, which would rule out any of the cooperation they were hoping to gain from the nobility gathered here.

Ravana and Malivette, to her deep displeasure, shifted subtly to aim their faces toward Natchua, inclining their heads forward slightly in a clear signal that they would defer to her on this matter, exactly when that wasn’t what she needed. Even Trissiny was just watching, silent and intent, but showing no sign she meant to thrust her sword into this. Typical, the one time Natchua wanted her to lash out…

But no. There they stood, having successfully saved face and blunted Mogul’s social attack. And all it had cost was the public agreement of three Duchesses of Great Houses of the Empire, before a notoriously vengeful Hand of Avei who now publicly deferred to their judgment, that the Black Wreath had a valid role to play in the world.

Even the Silver Throne, though it wasn’t bound by anything they said, might hesitate to outright contradict the formal stance of all three Houses, given the relationship between the aristocracy and the Emperor after the post-Enchanter Wars reforms. This would undoubtedly set every minor House represented here to scheming for whatever scraps of advantage they might gain from this, but there was no question at all of any of them openly defying the dictates of Houses Leduc, Dufresne, and Madouri.

Mogul had just goaded her into formally legitimizing his cult.

How many people, now, had warned Natchua that sooner or later her hasty approach was going to backfire? Well, she bitterly reflected, it was probably a blessing that nothing in the process had exploded or gotten anyone killed. Yet.

“Ladies,” she said, putting on a light tone and stalling for time in which to frantically think of a way out of this, “I am, as you know, somewhat new to this position. How would you recommend dealing with an obstinate servant who presumed to disrupt a social event with a petty display of pique?”

“Any such servant would be summarily dismissed, at the very least,” Ravana said, idly swirling her wineglass. “But I suppose that rather puts us back where this started, does it not? Clearly this…individual…needs to be taken in hand. And have his knuckles rapped.”

“Where I am from,” said Xyraadi, “he would lose his left hand for such an affront, and be sent to employ the other one breaking rocks in a quarry.”

“Are you talking about Hell or medieval Glassiere?” Trissiny asked.

The demon paused, tilted her head contemplatively, and then nodded. “I stand corrected. Where I am from, he would be partially flayed and suspended above a bed of tissue-dissolving carnivorous plants until his frame disintegrated too much to be restrained, with a steady stream of healing magics applied to prolong the process and ensure he remained conscious throughout.”

From somewhere nearby came the sound of an unfortunate noblewoman being sick.

“That sounds like rather more time and effort than this is worth,” Malivette said dryly.

Mogul continued to look unperturbed by this line of discussion, even amused, but it had given Natchua the few seconds she needed to hit on an idea. If he wanted to play mind games, she could play mind games.

She took two strides forward, physically separating herself from her allies and coming within a few feet of Mogul, then lifted her chin regally and stared down at him.

“I gather it is considered inadvisable for warlocks to visit Sifan.”

“Oh, indeed, my Lady,” Mogul assured her, grinning. “Do not mistake the indulgence you and I have both received from Ekoi-sensei in these lands for the reaction of the kitsune if we dared set foot on their precious islands. They tend to express their displeasure with even more imagination than Xyraadi, here.” He had the utter gall to wink at the Khelminash, who conjured another fireball and visibly contemplated hurling it at him.

“Then I gather you may be rather ignorant of their culture.”

He shrugged. “I’ll admit that was something of a sticking point in my previous interactions with the esteemed Professor Ekoi. I believe I wrapped my head around the basics, though not with much…nuance.”

Natchua put on a vulpine smile that required little effort at dissembling. “Do you know how a Sifanese retainer delivers a formal apology?”

“If you are suggesting that I open my belly, dear lady, I’m afraid I lack the appropriate ceremonial sword.”

“Oh, no, no,” she assured him with a cold grin. “We both know you haven’t enough guts to spill. No, Mogul. You will kneel. Down on both knees, and then press your forehead to the ground, with your hands palm down in front of you.” She tossed her hair, taking note with malicious satisfaction of the way his smile finally slipped away. “Words are worth nothing; if you are penitent, show me. Prostrate yourself, servant, and when I judge you have made an adequate show of submission to my will, I shall forgive your transgression. This time.”

He stared at her, all amusement gone from his face, and beneath his outrage at the suggestion Natchua could practically sense the wheels turning. There was no such custom in any of the nations of the Empire and never had been. What might be a formal display in Sifan was a grotesque humiliation anywhere in the domain of Tiraas.

This was a battle of social positioning, not magical power; if the price of legitimacy granted by House Leduc and its allies was for the mortal leader of the Black Wreath to debase himself like a slave before its upstart Duchess… Well, that was simply a bad bargain. The Wreath was already down to a shadow of its former strength, and dependent on its dangerous reputation to gather the defiant personalities it needed to rebuild itself. If he did such a thing, in front of an audience which would ensure the story spread to every corner of the Empire by dawn, he would all but place himself and all his followers directly in Natchua’s power. They would have no other hope of being taken seriously, much less support, from any quarter.

There was no way the proud arch-warlock of Elilial would take such a bargain. Staring him down, she allowed her lips to curl further upward even as his scowl deepened. Natchua silently enjoyed watching him suffer on the horns of that dilemma. All his careful scheming, and still she got the better of him!

The timing of what happened next, descending on them just as she dared to think herself victorious, was undoubtedly not a coincidence.

It did not bear her down as the experience had in the past. It appeared not to affect, or even be noted by, any of the others present; Trissiny in particular would have reacted violently, but there was no sign that she, the Duchesses or Xyraadi felt anything, much less so much as a peep from the minor nobility watching this confrontation. Mogul, though… He felt it. She could see it in the sudden stiffening of his shoulders, the way his expression froze. This was only happening to the two of them.

The pressure. The unmistakable sensation of another intelligence looming over them, a mind so vast and powerful that just to be in its presence was to feel one’s own insignificance before the full scope of the universe. For an infinite moment, the silent intelligence of a deity weighed down on Natchua and Embras. Examining, judging.

And then, through its touch upon their minds, there came a clear surge of amusement.

Then the sensation lifted entirely from Natchua, leaving her once again alone in her own thoughts. But not Mogul. He stiffened further until he was nearly vibrating, his whole face clenching with rage as a command was laid upon him—a command he clearly abhorred with his entire being.

But he obeyed it. As Natchua stared in utter disbelief, the leader of the Black Wreath sank to his knees before her. Then bent forward, stretching out his arms toward her feet, and pressed his face to the gravel, causing his hat to slide gracelessly to the side.

Trissiny emitted a strangled sound. Natchua just barely managed not to echo her.

“With the utmost humility,” Mogul said, his voice somewhat muffled by the ground but impressively clear of emotion, “I apologize for my affront, mistress. I beg the opportunity to serve you, in the hope of making amends. Myself and mine are pledged to your cause.”

For the first time, Natchua silently prayed to the patron goddess whose favor she had sworn never to seek.

Oh, you evil cunt. So help me, I will get you for this.

Elilial sent her nothing further, not so much as a vague sensation to show that she’d been listening.

And she, as the Duchess of House Leduc, had to honor her word. Otherwise, her failure to do so would be part of the story spread across the Empire and no one would ever cooperate with her again.

“You are forgiven.” Natchua had to draw on her full store of Narisian reserve to keep her tone expressionless, but she managed. “This time. Be aware that you have fully expended your share of my tolerance, Mogul. If I am forced to correct you again, it will be the last time.” She hesitated, then added grudgingly, “You may rise.”

He did so with far more speed than he had descended, settling his hat back in place atop his bald head and immediately tilting it again to obscure as much of his expression as possible. The remainder showed that his own self-control hung by a thread.

“By your leave, then, my Lady,” Mogul intoned. “I look forward to working with you again.”

Before anyone could comment on the obvious sarcasm, shadows swelled up around him, and then he was gone.

Immediately, a surge of exclamations and the swell of excited chatter erupted from the noble audience all around them. Within the small group still standing around the spot where Mogul had been, Trissiny was the first to speak.

“I cannot believe you just did that.”

“You and me both, sister,” Natchua sighed, then caught herself. Actually, Trissiny of all people she might want to bring into the loop on this, if it was going to be an ongoing thing. Not here and now, though; that conversation called for the assurance of privacy. There were still other elves on the grounds, and also she had been warned that some of the nobility liked to employ expensive arcane charms to snoop on one another’s conversations at social events like this. “It occurs to me, in hindsight, that making him pay for it in humiliation might not make him any easier to deal with in the future.”

“You think so?” Trissiny snapped.

Natchua cleared her throat. “Yes, well. I’m embarrassed to ask you to help clean up my mess, Triss, but… If I understand how this paladin thing works, I think you sort of have to.”

Xyraadi let out a low whistle.

“You understand this is why nobody likes you, right?” Trissiny said, staring at the drow. “Tell me you do get that.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Natchua sighed. “Shall I go ahead and bring you a punchbowl?”

For just a moment, she thought the paladin was going to slug her.


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16 – 37

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They chose a room at random down the first hallway they explored, and once inside immediately stopped, momentarily so forgetting what they were here for that Raolo didn’t even bother to push the door all the way closed. Instead, both of them stared at the wall of the small study, which was covered with newspaper articles, framed and under glass, and all featuring headlines about a certain drow.

“So this is why they made her a Duchess,” Raolo said in disbelief. “I was really wondering about that.”

“It’s all noble politics. I was mostly concerned she was being taken advantage of somehow,” Toby admitted.

The elf shook his head, still staring at the framed papers. “Always worried about others, Toby.”

It was a quality Toby valued in himself, one he couldn’t see as inherently a bad thing even if he had to acknowledge he took it too far sometimes, yet the undercurrent in Raolo’s tone told him they were already returning to the problem. Whatever the problem actually was; he remained far from certain about that.

He reached out, almost gingerly, to take Raolo’s hand. Immediately Raolo squeezed his in turn, and the relief was like a physical force straightening his spine again. He needed that to cling to, as the elf finally turned away from the wall of articles to meet his eyes again.

“So.”

“So,” Toby repeated awkwardly. “I… Well, I don’t understand what I did wrong, but I’m sorry. I won’t do it again if you’ll just explain it to me. The last thing I want to do is hurt you.”

For whatever reason, that just made Raolo look exasperated. “Augh… Toby, you’ve done nothing wrong. You have been faultlessly respectful and considerate and did exactly as I asked.”

“Okay, then… What’s—”

“Did you ever consider that I didn’t want you to do what I asked?” Raolo asked plaintively.

He blinked. Then twice more. Opened his mouth to speak, closed it, squinted, and blinked yet again.

“…no?”

“Of course not,” Raolo sighed. “Look, Toby… I love my family, okay? They gave me everything I have, made me who I am. The same goes for my tribe as a whole. It’s just so much easier to love them from a thousand miles away in Last Rock where I don’t have to deal with them constantly disapproving of the thing that most defines me.” He held up his free hand, allowing tiny blue arcs of unformed arcane power to crackle between his fingers for a second. “Maybe in, like, ten years I’ll be glad to go home for, oh I dunno, a week. That sounds like about how long I’ll be able to stand the pressure by then. But right now? It’s miserable. I would rather do anything else, especially if it means I get to do it with you.”

“I see,” Toby said slowly. “But…you were pretty insistent.”

“Yeah.” Raolo nodded, grimacing. “I should go home and be the dutiful son. I really, really ought to. I owe it to them. So…that’s what I said.”

“Okay, I guess I’m beginning to get it,” said Toby. “Wow, it makes so much sense when you point it out. I’m really sorry I failed to read between the lines, there. In hindsight—”

“Would. You. Stop that?!” Raolo exclaimed, finally letting go of his hand. “Veth’na alaue, Toby, I am not in the right, here! I’m being irrational and childish and unnecessarily difficult!”

“I. Um.” There was really no serviceable answer to that, forcing him to fall back on the old standby. “Sorry?”

Raolo stared at him for three seconds, then said very calmly, “Would you excuse me for just a moment?”

“Oh. Well, sure…”

“Thanks.” The elf turned away, walked to the other side of the room until he stood six inches from the wall, facing it. Then he reared back and thumped his forehead against the oak paneling, causing several of the framed articles to bounce.

“Raolo!”

“Okay.” Turning back and showing no sign of pain despite the red mark on his forehead, Raolo returned to him with a serious expression. Tobias, you are… You’re the best person I know. I love how caring you are, how you’re always looking out for others. But the thing is, you do that for everyone. It’s how you… Well, I know we’re young and this has only been a thing for a few months and I haven’t wanted to push at you, and I definitely don’t want to seem ungrateful to the first person in my life who’s unequivocally put my needs first, but… But I am starting to feel like I’m just another person around you. Being looked after the way you do for all your friends.”

“Are you…under the impression that the, ah, the things I do with you are things I do with everybody?” Toby demanded.

That earned a reluctant smile. “No, and I don’t mean to undervalue that intimacy. It’s just… Aw, balls, this is why I didn’t want to talk about it.” Raolo covered his eyes with both hands, shaking his head in helpless denial. “I sound like such a lunatic right now.”

“No, you don’t,” Toby said automatically. It was the wrong response; Raolo lowered his fingers, revealing a scowl.

“You’re doing it again.”

“Sorry.”

“What do you think that is?!”

“Well, sorry!” Toby exclaimed, throwing his own arms up. “I don’t understand what’s happening here! Can’t you just tell me what it is you want me to do?”

“That!” Raolo surged forward, grabbing him by the shoulders, and then pulled him into a hug which Toby immediately reciprocated despite his exasperation. “I just want you to sometimes not take care of me. I want to feel special to you.”

“You want…” Toby tightened his arms around him, biting back the first response that came to mind. And then the second. And only belatedly realized he was still doing the exact opposite of what Raolo was asking. But this was hard, and he still didn’t understand it. “Have I made you think you aren’t special to me?”

“You did nothing wrong,” Raolo insisted, squeezing him in turn. “You did what you always do, what makes you so unequivocally good, and part of what I love you for. It’s just…”

“I do that for everybody?” Toby echoed.

Raolo’s nod rubbed his hair distractingly against Toby’s cheek. “Here it is, the first time we’re away from school and at liberty since we’ve been an item, and I can’t fault your choices or your respect for my choices, but the fact remains, you’re off having paladin adventures with your friends and I went home to be passive-aggressively sniped at by my parents. And less passively by my sister.”

“I said I was sorry for…wait.” Toby drew back, just enough to be able to study his face. “Are you jealous?”

Raolo grimaced. “I told you I was being irrational.”

“Raolo!”

“I know.”

“Raolo, aside from the guy who’s basically my brother, they’re all women! Two of them are married and one’s three inches tall and physically sexless!”

“I know! I promise I don’t feel threatened by Gabriel. It’s not about them, it’s…” Closing his eyes, he leaned forward to rest his forehead against Toby’s, right where he’d recently bonked it on the wall. “The bond you have with them is made of shared experiences, trauma, victory… I can’t help being bitter at you letting me go home instead of having the opportunity to share another adventure with you. I want to build something like that between us. You know, I have read my adventuring histories; paladins always have their own parties. I may not be a dryad or archdemon, but do you have any idea how powerful an elven wizard can become? I can totally pull my weight as a Hand’s companion.”

Toby chuckled in spite of himself. “I hear what you’re saying, but Rao… Most of these adventures have been due to class trips. I’d love to have you come with us on the next one. Do you want to be the one to pitch that to Tellwyrn?”

The elf snorted softly in amused agreement. “I know, that’s fair. I’m not blaming you. This is…talking about the future. You know, someday, Teal will be running Falconer Industries, or helping with whatever it is Shaeine will end up doing for the Confederacy. Ruda will be off ruling her country, gods only know what the fairies will be up to, and you’ll probably still work with Gabe and Triss from time to time but we both know the Trinity will likely send their Hands in different directions. But I can still be by your side. I know this is new, Toby, but… Elves don’t love lightly. We heal slowly from heartbreak, and try not to risk it. I do love you, and I wouldn’t be involved with you at all if I didn’t see a future. If I thought you were treating this casually.”

“I…like the sound of that,” Toby whispered, shifting his head just enough to rub Raolo’s nose with his own. “Even if I don’t like the idea of putting you in danger… Just the thought of you being there with me is perfect.”

“But that’s the future,” Raolo agreed. “In the present, I just wish you could stop with the Omnist thing, at least with me.”

“Rao, my faith is at the very core of who I am.”

“I know! I’d never ask you to change, just to…relax. Stop looking after me the way you do everyone else.” He opened his eyes, and they glittered with emotion. “I want you to feel…comfortable, and safe enough to let down that sense of duty and let yourself be mad at me when you feel it. I want you to desire me enough to ask me to come home with you for the holidays instead of seeing my family. I’d do it in a heartbeat, if you asked. I just want you to ask. I want to be special.”

Toby drew in a slow breath and let it out equally slowly.

“That’s a meditation exercise,” Raolo accused.

“Relax,” Toby murmured. “That’s…what you’re asking isn’t easy.”

“I know, love. Honestly, if it was just selfish, I wouldn’t even ask. But Toby, everybody needs to have a safe place to let go and just be. Let me be your safety.”

“My safety.” Slowly, he nodded, the gesture incidentally rubbing his nose against Raolo’s again. The elf nuzzled him in return. “Okay.”

Then Toby drew back, shifting his grip to seize Raolo by his thin shoulders, and gave him a hard shake.

“I am not a telepath! Damn it, you know I’d do anything I could to make you happy, but crap like this is just gonna keep happening if I don’t know what you want! Omnu’s breath, Rao, I adore you but this is some grade-A free-range nonsense! If we have a problem I need you to talk to me about it like the grown-ass elf you are—”

That was as far as he got before a display of elven agility brought Raolo squirming out of his grip, and then forward, throwing his arms around Toby’s neck and silencing him with a kiss that was as close to bruising as such a slender creature could manage. He found he didn’t mind the pressure in the least, and in fact, found it the best medicine. The tension and frustration of the last few minutes faded as if banished by a spell. Toby clutched him close, sliding one hand up to cradle his head and all but drinking him in.

Raolo also took the initiative in pulling back, but only after a few minutes and even then only because he needed air.

“That’s my boy,” he whispered with a grin of avid mischief.

Toby squeezed him closer, beginning to walk them both insistently toward the far wall—or more specifically, toward the writing desk standing against it. “And?”

Raolo bit his lower lip coyly. “And, yessir.”

“Good.”

The elf’s legs hit the desk and he nimbly slid up onto it, his fingers pulling at Toby’s robe as the paladin surged forward to seize him in another breathless kiss.

Behind them, unheard even by Raolo’s acute ears, the door to the study pulled the rest of the way shut. Out in the hall, Sapphire carefully stretched a stocking over the latch in the universal signal, and then turned to stroll back to the party, smiling.


Iris was standing off to the side, out of range of the dancers, holding a glass of sparkling wine. Ravana knew she didn’t like sparkling wine, or wine in general. Which wasn’t the point; Ravana also knew the glass was a prop, something for her to do with her hands. One hand, anyway, the other being occupied clenching in her skirt.

The Duchess came to stand silently beside her roommate and friend, following her gaze. They watched as the two paladins came to a stop and separated, then as Gabriel spoke briefly to a woman in uniform by the serving tables, and then as the two of them discreetly slipped away to go into the house.

Iris heaved a sigh. “I…am ridiculous.”

Ravana regarded her in silence.

“And worse,” the witch added after a pause, “I’m a coward. Well, you know what, this tears it. It’s been a year and a half. If I haven’t managed to screw up the guts to just talk to him, I am officially hopeless. It’s time to just forget the whole thing. Hey, Ravana, what are the odds I could find a nice young lord here to marry me?”

Ravana shook her head. “Nice lords of any description are rare, and aristocrats mostly marry for political advantage, not sentiment or even attraction. Now, I suspect you could quite easily find a wealthy lord or lady to make you a very lavishly kept mistress. You look ravishing in that gown, and your dark complexion is rather exotic in this part of the Empire.”

Iris made a grimace of mingled amusement and bitterness. “Thank you. So, hey, there’s my career planned out.”

“Don’t be absurd, you’re worth far more than that,” Ravana said almost brusquely. “I do agree with some of what you were saying, but rather than simply dropping the matter, what I’d suggest is just asking him. Even if it ends in nothing but rejection, at least that would be closure. And you wouldn’t be dithering anymore.”

“You saw that as clearly as I did,” Iris whispered.

The Duchess emitted a very ladylike little snort. “Those two are going to dither about with even more stamina than you have. I don’t expect it would be too difficult to snatch him, especially with that neckline. Not that Trissiny isn’t attractive, but you have the advantage in buxomness and everyone knows Gabriel’s pref—”

“You urgently need to stop,” Iris interrupted.

Ravana grinned. “I am only half jesting, Iris. If not now, then back at my manor. There is no shortage of available rooms.”

Iris covered her eyes with her free hand, still not drinking from her glass. “Ravana, please. What about you, then? Any of these fancy lads seem like a nice political prospect for you?”

“As I consider my point made, I shall indulge your transparent deflection,” Ravana said magnanimously. “In any case, no. I will not marry, I think. Any House in the Empire would benefit greatly from a union with House Madouri, but none have anything to offer me in return that is worth it. Especially now that I have achieved a firm alliance with Houses Dufresne and Leduc.”

“That seems kind of…grim. Doesn’t that fact free you up? You could marry for love, if you don’t need to do it for politics.”

Ravana’s expression had grown distant; she watched the party guests as they twirled into the next dance, not seeming to actually see them.

“I think I am what the Izarites call asexual.”

Iris looked at her sidelong. “You…divide in half to make two smaller Duchesses?”

Ravana made a silently eloquent face which both acknowledged and disapproved of the joke. “I refer to the orientation, not the reproductive strategy. I am twenty years old and have never felt the slightest stirrings of attraction toward anyone of any gender. Sexual desire is a thing I comprehend intellectually; on a visceral level I remain baffled at the damage people are willing to inflict upon themselves to indulge it. At my age, that seems rather definitive, don’t you think?”

“You make it sound like twenty is the verge of senility,” Iris said with a wry smile. “Maybe you’re just picky? Haven’t met the right person?”

“I don’t believe there are right or wrong people as a binary. As best I understand it, attraction is a spectrum, and my position on it is nowhere.” She paused to take a small, appreciative sip of her own wine. “This is not to complain, Iris. If anything I consider myself fortunate. Unburdened by the expectations of a spouse and living in an age in which children born out of wedlock face no legal and relatively little social stigma, I am free to rebuild my House’s imperiled bloodline by selecting the best available genetic donors.”

Iris shuddered. “That sounds so clinical.”

“It is, to me,” Ravana said, shrugging. “It is a tradition of my family. You may have noticed that I am blonde despite being—mostly—an ethnic Tiraan? The trait is recessive, but House Madouri has deliberately added infusions of elven blood at roughly hundred year intervals, for its longevity, stamina, and magical aptitude. We have endured for a thousand years without falling to the inbreeding that has destroyed so many noble Houses by managing our genome as if our children were thoroughbred racing steeds. It is especially relevant to me, as the last living member of my bloodline.”

“You make it sound like you can just…grab whoever you want to make them…perform.” Iris grimaced, finally took a sip of her drink, and then grimaced harder. “Ugh, bubbles.”

“I am hardly going to force anyone,” Ravana said, amused. “Nor do I expect much difficulty in the…acquisition. Though I am far daintier than the so-called Avenic ideal, I am hardly a warthog. And even if I were, many would not decline an invitation to the bed of a Duchess.”

“But…you don’t want to,” Iris protested. “I mean, if you’re not actually interested in…”

Ravana’s face went distant again. “You know, my grandfather was gay.”

Iris blinked at the abrupt change of subject, but didn’t answer. Ravana went on without apparently expecting her to, anyway.

“He managed to gird up his loins, in an unusually literal example of the expression, and sire one child in his lifetime. My father. Who so adored and remained loyal to my mother that even after her death he never so much as looked at another woman.”

“That’s so romantic,” Iris sighed with a slightly dreamy smile.

“My mind boggles at such abominable selfishness,” Ravana said icily, causing Iris’s smile to vanish in an instant. “Aristocrats are raised in depthless privilege. We wear and sleep in silk, dine on delicacies using silver and crystal, enjoy the benefits of the finest education that can be had and entertainments such as most people could never dream to experience. All this is a due and necessary offset for the tremendous pressures my social class must endure in the execution of our responsibilities. But far too many—including, to my shame, those within my own House—have embraced the privilege and eschewed the price. This luxury is paid for by the people who look to us for leadership. They are owed that leadership in return. Among other things, my people require stability and the assurance of continuity; a succession crisis can be absolutely devastating to a nation, or even a province. Yet, my own father and grandfather could not see past their own desires. At a time when our House had been driven to the edge of extinction by the Enchanter Wars, they left it there rather than submit to a minor personal indignity that pales before the suffering our populace will endure if the local government collapses.”

She paused, grimaced, and rubbed her finger around the rim of her wineglass, making it produce a clear, high-pitched tone.

“And just to rub salt in the wound, they were male. A man with the resources of an ancient and rich House can accumulate mistresses and sire a veritable village over the course of an average lifetime. Instead, that duty falls to me, whose ability to reproduce is…biologically constrained.”

“I think that may be the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”

Ravana shrugged, the ghost of a smile drifting across her features for a bare moment. “It is what it is. So, I will keep an eye out for interesting sources of genetic material and, when the time comes, dose myself with alchemical aphrodisiacs and do what is necessary. Five times, I should think. I calculate that is the greatest number of children I can balance with my other responsibilities while still giving them each the individual care and attention they require. That is not optional; people raised with great power but no tenderness often end up rather twisted. I consider myself a relative success story of that scenario, and I am well aware that many people find me…unsettling. I find I am sufficiently looking forward to motherhood that I am not excessively bothered by the…squishy realities involved in achieving it.”

“Squishy realities. Now there’s a turn of phrase,” Iris sighed. “Funny enough, my first thought was to remind you that love potions are illegal. As if that was even a consideration for you.”

“Actually, that is funny,” Ravana said with a smile. “Such potions are a felony to administer to another person, and potentially a capital crime to do so without the victim’s consent, but they fall within the Noble Loophole governing controlled recreational drugs. I can dose myself with anything I like under the law.”

“The what governing what?”

“Anything which one must have a government-issued exemption to sell,” Ravana explained. “Opium, sevenleaf, glittershrooms and the like, and also certain alchemicals. You see, it is illegal to manufacture, purchase, sell, receive, or bestow controlled drugs. But, if you happen to have one for whatever reason, it’s not a crime to own or use it on yourself. That’s part of why glittershrooms are so popular; they’ll grow anyplace dark and dank. It’s quite common for people to find them entirely by accident in their own cellars. The law only constrains any means of acquiring drugs rather than having them because of the nobility, you see. For most people, it is presumed that if you own a controlled substance you committed a crime to get it, shrooms aside, and can thus be prosecuted. But because the inventories of House vaults are private, the Treasury cannot prove we didn’t just have vials of cocaine and love potions sitting in there left over from a past generation.”

“Wait, if the Empire can’t tell what you’ve got in storage…”

“Oh, the Treasury has the right to inspect and tally coin, bank notes, real estate, basically any form of liquid assets, and concealing such from the Throne is an offense for which a House’s charter of nobility can be revoked. But the Treasury requires specific cause to inspect a House’s vaults, and the burden of proof necessary is steep. So! As long as a House doesn’t skimp on its taxes, as a reward its members have a legal excuse to do whatever drugs they might wish.”

She smiled placidly up at the taller girl, who just stared back in something like horror.

“You know, stuff like this is why nobody trusts the nobility,” Iris complained. “This is exactly what I worry about Natchua of all bloody people suddenly having access to.”


Natchua could physically hear everything happening on the manor grounds, but the nature of elven hearing meant most of it was a blur which her subconscious filtered out as superfluous. Under the circumstances, she couldn’t even zero in on mentions of her own name with any reliability, given how much speculation about her was going on at this party. So it was mostly coincidence that she caught Iris’s last comment, helped along by the fact that she made sure to check up on whatever Ravana and Malivette were doing at a given moment, on the grounds that she now heavily depended on both while still trusting neither. And Vette was currently right in front of her.

She glanced aside at the witch, but deemed it not worth pursuing. After all, Iris undeniably had a point.

More immediately, her focus was swiftly demanded when a sudden chorus of screams from the front gate of the property interrupted her own conversation with Malivette and Bishop Darling.

Immediately both Duchesses were moving forward toward the source of the disturbance; being each of them an extremely dangerous creature in her own right, if there was trouble it only made sense for them to lead from the front. Natchua was less certain why Darling followed along, but didn’t spare him the attention to question his apparent lack of survival instincts.

In fact, it was he who offered the perfect commentary at what was now approaching her through the manor grounds as terrified nobles fled in all directions.

“What in the secondhand celestial monkey fuck is he doing?”

Obviously, it was the demon most people were frightened of; the thing was a good twelve feet tall and covered with the obligatory scale armor and spikes, complete with glowing eyes and flickers of fire snorting from its nostrils. Natchua wasn’t particularly concerned with that, however, as she could tell at a glance that the magical chains trussing it up like a cocoon were solid and more than adequate to the task. Those same chains were holding the beast aloft as it was propelled through the air at a walking pace.

Behind, holding the other end of the chain, strode a grinning man in a white suit. He came to a stop in the middle of the driveway, shifted the imprisoned demon out of the way and then, with a flick of his wrist, slammed it to the ground. The resulting crunch brought a muffled growl of outrage from the muzzled beast, which in turn prompted a new chorus of screams.

Embras Mogul doffed his hat and swept an elaborately courtly bow.

“Duchess Natchua of House Leduc! Your humble servant has completed the task you assigned. By your kind patronage and at your command, the Black Wreath stands ready to continue our devoted service to our new mistress. What orders have you?”

In the terrified silence which followed, everyone on the grounds turned to stare at Natchua.

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16 – 36

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She did not stomp, and not because it wasn’t ladylike; Natchua had already resigned herself to the knowledge that she was going to disappoint anyone who expected her to behave like a proper Imperial duchess. No, Natchua restrained the impulse to slam her feet down with every step simply because she was somewhat overly conscious of social perception due to her embarrassing history of over-the-top melodrama at Last Rock and this Duchess business had only brought that closer to the surface. Even so, she really wanted to project anger with every fiber of her being as she bore down on the two elves who had intruded upon her domain.

Talvrin and Ashaele paused in the middle of the drive, watching her come; nobody else seemed inclined to approach them, perhaps unsurprisingly. Natchua made a sharp gesture with her right hand as soon as she drew close enough, wreathing the three in a subtle ring of shifting shadows and menacing whispers that hovered just at the edge of elven hearing. Even for non-elves, it obscured and mixed the sounds of their voices enough to ensure a measure of privacy.

“Shaeine has been a much better friend to me than I deserve,” she stated by way of greeting, “and I understand that you are here at the personal invitation of Ravana Madouri. That is why neither of you are being bodily hurled over the property’s walls right now. That fact is still subject to change if I am not extremely satisfied with your explanation of your bloody effrontery in showing your faces here.”

She folded her arms and waited imperiously to be answered. To her annoyance, neither woman appeared intimidated, but then Natchua hadn’t really expected it of them.

Magister Talvrin, at least, had the grace to bow to her. “Good evening and felicitations, Duchess Leduc. I am only too glad to offer an explanation, as it was my major concern in presuming to come here this evening.” She hesitated a split second before continuing. “Please understand that as a Magister of Qestraceel I am unable to express an apology, or anything else which might acknowledge fault on behalf of my government, in this difficult moment when tense negotiations with the Empire are ongoing.”

“You need to brush up on your Circles if you think coming here and dancing on my patience is a smart move, mage.”

The Magister continued, unperturbed but still solemn. “With that awkward reality acknowledged, speaking as a citizen of the Confederacy, I am deeply embarrassed that you were inconvenienced by our internal issues, and very relieved that you emerged unharmed. And I can assure you that there will be no repeat of that shameful event.”

“In fact, Natchua,” Ashaele added, “it may please you to learn that House Dalmiss has placed itself in disfavor with every level of our government from the Queen to the Confederacy itself, and Matriarch Ezrakhai has spared no effort in directing the resulting pressure onto Nassra’s head.”

Natchua stared at her, but after a moment allowed her mouth to quirk lopsidedly in a fragment of a smile. “Very well, you’re right. That’s pretty…gratifying. Was that all you came here to say?”

Ashaele glanced at Talvrin, who immediately bowed to each of them. “Please excuse me, Duchess, Matriarch.” She discreetly retreated outside the radius of Natchua’s sonic disruption, making her way toward Ravana.

Returning her gaze to Natchua, Ashaele stated in a much flatter tone, “Your mother is one of the most unbearable assholes I have ever had the misfortune to meet.”

Natchua went rigid. She happened to wholeheartedly agree, but between two Narisians there was virtually no more offensive statement that could be made. It was the kind of insult only a Matriarch could voice without expecting to be immediately punched in response; only a Matriarch had sufficient weight of social position that anyone would even defend her after such an offense.

And, Natchua realized after a shocked second, she was now equivalent in rank. Her right hand balled into a fist, and purple flames flickered across her fingers. Walled off in their cocoon of sound, with her attention fully on Ashaele, she didn’t hear the murmurs that rose, or even notice people rapidly backing away from the two drow.

“And I need you to understand that,” Ashaele said, her voice softer, eyes intent. “Your experience growing up was not normal. Narisian ways are ruthless and harsh, yes, but it is precisely because of this truth that our society can only function when we value each other. No one can lead her family the way a Narisian must, unless that family is held together by sincere bonds of love. In addition to her various defects of personality, Nassra has always failed to understand that simple and crucial fact. Goddess’s mercy, Natchua, a spider box is a weapon of last resort to punish those who knowingly and deliberately inflict shame upon their Houses. One should never be used to discipline children. That is nothing less than insanity! I will never condemn you for your behavior at Last Rock or elsewhere since you left us, and I have earned the ire of both Nassra and Ezrakhai by refusing to allow any pursuit of you through diplomatic channels. You were abused more than raised. Your anger and loathing is fully justified, and it is a tremendous credit to you that you’ve turned out as well as you have, after being raised by a selfish, thoughtless monster of a woman who saw you as nothing but a thing to be used. A daughter’s devotion is demanded in our culture, yes, but it must be earned through love and devotion in kind. I am…glad to see that you escaped, and are flourishing.”

She paused, still watching Natchua closely. Natchua, for her part, did not relax her fist just yet, but allowed the fire to flicker out, staring at Ashaele through narrowed eyes.

“Unlike my Qestrali colleague, I will apologize to you,” the Matriarch said after a moment. “The truth is that I am one of very few who had an inkling what was happening in your household and might have had the influence to do something about it. Even within another House, a Matriarch’s word is not nothing, and Ezrakhai does listen to me. But the truth is, I considered the costs and benefits and did nothing, for the sake of what I deemed the greater good. If you choose to despise me, Natchua, you’ve the right. I am sorry for failing you. It changes nothing, but I am. And if I can aid you now without compromising my responsibilities to Tar’naris and the Confederacy, I will be glad to do so. You’re owed it.”

“You never cared enough to say all this before now,” Natchua said, pleased to find her voice even. “Not a word to me, until the very moment I gained a noble rank. Do you imagine that you’re subtle, Ashaele? Even by my standards, you really aren’t. Spit out what you want before my patience finishes evaporating.”

It was heady, addressing a Matriarch by her first name, right to her face. Even a week ago, Natchua might have done so anyway, just to be aggressive. Somehow, the fact that Ashaele didn’t even have the right to complain about the presumption made it even sweeter.

To her credit, Ashaele offered no denial, nodding once in acknowledgment. “That is true, and all part of the pattern of my life. I must turn a blind eye to all manner of suffering in order to serve a higher purpose; such it is, to be Narisian. I don’t ask anything of you but patience and tolerance, Natchua. You’re now in a position to have some influence on the affairs of nations, however minor. All I ask is that you understand what was done to you was an inexcusable aberration. Please don’t punish an entire civilization for the actions of individuals.”

“Aberration,” Natchua whispered. “Really, now. You think my sad story is all that unusual?”

“I am well aware—”

“I’m sure you’d like to think that, Ashaele, but if you truly understand what life in Tar’naris is like for anyone who’s not born to power and privilege, you’re as despicable as my mother for presiding over that depravity and doing nothing about it. That festering shithole’s entire culture is based around the fact that whatever horrible thing it does must be okay, because after all, the Scyllithenes are always worse! It’s the most soulless possible approach to governing a society imaginable. Have you considered that, just maybe, your civilization deserves anything that might be coming to it, if not more?”

Ashaele tilted her head incrementally. “Do give me a minimum of credit. I am keenly aware of the flaws and failures of our society. What, exactly, is your plan to fix them?”

Natchua barked an incredulous laugh. “Is that my responsibility, somehow?”

“No, it is mine. And unlike you, I have not only given great thought to how our people must change, but worked steadily to achieve that end. It is obvious to anyone with eyes that Tar’naris cannot continue as it has. Irrespective of the weight of our moral failings, we have entered a world in which the unique Narisian blend of heavy-handedness and myopia will lead only to doom. But what do you imagine would happen if I tried to explain all this to the Matriarchs? Or even better, force them to comply? Has it been your experience that people politely listen and then change their ways when you calmly and rationally lecture them on the benefits of giving up their privileged positions?”

Natchua snorted. “All right, fair enough. But to rehash an earlier part of this conversation, I am done with Tar’naris and all its perfidy. This sounds like a you problem.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “hence my pleading with you not to make it worse. I will never insult you by downplaying your experiences, Duchess Leduc; I have offered my apologies for them, and my support with whatever cause of yours I can aid that does not contradict my loyalties. Only you can decide whether this is adequate. It is really all I can do.”

Natchua studied her in silence for a moment; Ashaele met her gaze firmly. There was nothing to be gained by trying to read a Narisian diplomat’s expression.

She snuffed out the sonic effect surrounding them, allowing the party music and soft conversation to rush back over their senses. Ashaele glanced to the side, noting the action, but making no further acknowledgment. Natchua did not miss the speculative and eager gazes fixed on them by a number of minor Tiraan nobility eager for any scrap of influence they could scavenge.

And so, she decided to throw them a bone.

“You needn’t worry that my experiences in Tar’naris will have any effect on elven-Imperial relations, Matriarch Ashaele.” Natchua did not raise her voice, but enough of the eavesdroppers had edged close enough that it wouldn’t matter. “House Leduc stands firmly behind House Tirasian, as I have made clear. Foreign policy is none of my business in any case, and I don’t aspire to influence it even indirectly. As for my own opinions, I am satisfied that Emperor Sharidan’s leadership is exactly what Tiraas needs. It should be obvious to you, to me, and to anyone who has paid attention to recent history that the Silver Throne has led us well these last years since the Narisian Treaty.”

Ashaele nodded and opened her mouth to reply, but Natchua pressed on over her.

“With that said, House Leduc takes its responsibility to this province seriously. That may not have been true for some time, but under my leadership, things will change. I have already made it clear to House Awarrion what will happen to pushy drow who come to Veilgrad looking to profit at the expense of my people. After my encounter with the Highguard, I will extend that warning to all the Confederacy: I protect these lands, and any pointy ears coming here had better be attached to excellent manners, if they know what’s good for them.”

If anything, the onlookers had drifted closer while she spoke, and at that, cheers and applause broke out from the surrounding Imperials. Natchua didn’t even glance aside at them, keeping her focus on Ashaele, who was studying her in turn, utterly impassive. Hardly any of these people were even local to Veilgrad, but apparently one couldn’t go wrong by appealing to patriotism. At least with this crowd.

After a pause in which they locked gazes, Natchua finally looked past Ashaele’s shoulder to an unfolding scene which she’d been aware of since dropping the sound screen, but had not brought to the forefront of her awareness. She lowered her voice before adding a final thought, since it was one none of the onlookers needed to concern themselves with.

“Except him, of course. Raolo’s cool.”


“Raolo?” Toby didn’t trouble to disguise the surprise and delight on his face when he spied the elf making a beeline toward him from the gates, and not just because he had little regard for the politics and appearances that were so important to so many at this party.

For his part, Raolo was already smiling as he approached, but his expression only brightened further in response to Toby’s. Which just made him happier in turn, and so on in a mutual feedback loop until both were outright beaming by the time they closed the distance enough to clasp hands. It was just as well Ruda had stayed in Madouris; this was exactly the kind of encounter that made her loudly complain that too much sugar disagreed with her whiskey.

Grinning like a fool and not caring, Toby squeezed Raolo’s slender fingers in his own, and then impetuously pulled him forward into a hug which set the elf laughing even as he reciprocated.

“So you are glad to see me!” Raolo chuckled. “Guess I don’t have to worry about that after all.”

“Oh come on, why would you ever need to worry about that?” Toby pulled back enough to grin at him again. “This is exactly the blessing I needed. No offense to our hostesses, but maybe now I can finally enjoy this party.”

“Oh, you and parties.” Raolo playfully rubbed at his hair, which fortunately was too thick and wiry for him to easily muss. “Are you finally getting tired of benignly observing from the sides?”

“Oh, that’s fine and dandy when it’s at Last Rock with friends, or at least acquaintances. A bunch of miscellaneous nobility, though…” He chanced a glance to the side, and sure enough, more than a handful of well-dressed strangers were studying him with expressions he could only think of as sharklike. For just a second Toby wavered, feeling the pressure of expectations rearing up, but he immediately and deliberately pushed that aside. If he could stand up to the expectations of his own cult, what did he care what any of these people thought? “Well, at least it probably won’t turn out the way my last aristocratic social event went down.”

“Mm, has anyone checked that Trissiny’s not hanging around near the punchbowls?”

“Oh, come on!” Trissiny’s voice exclaimed from the near distance. Both of them grinned but otherwise ignored her.

“Never mind them anyway,” Toby said, reaching up to lightly shift a lock of golden hair that was obstructing his view of Raolo’s eyes. Even remembering how much the elf felt like silk under his fingers never compared to experiencing it anew. “What are you doing here, Raolo?”

“Ah, I’m glad you made it, Raolo,” Ravana said, idly sauntering by them with an unusually smug expression even for her. “I trust your journey was comfortable?”

“I think you know it was,” the elf replied sardonically. “The carriage and driver were a little excessive, Ravana. Not that I object to being driven, but that thing had eight seats and a cold box full of sparkling wine. Is that how you cruise around all the time?”

“No, but it’s how I treat my friends,” she said, smiling placidly. “Luxury is so much better appreciated by those not born to it.”

Toby heaved a sigh. “Ravana, stuff like this is why people are always demanding what you did this time. Didn’t I specifically ask you not to interrupt Raolo’s vacation? Just this morning?”

“Oh, did you.” And just like that, Raolo’s entire aspect changed. He still smiled, but suddenly the expression was brittle and there was something sharp in the set of his eyes. Without quite releasing Toby’s hands, he nonetheless pulled back.

“You know I’m glad to be able to spend time with you away from campus,” Toby said quickly. “It’s just… Ravana. You know? I think if somebody didn’t stop her she’d try to put puppet strings on all of us.”

“I do say that’s a bit much,” Ravana protested.

“Well, he’s not entirely wrong, you know,” Raolo said to her. “This was a nice thing you did, Ravana, and I thank you. People do get tired of being treated like somebody else always knows what’s better for them, though. I get enough of that at home,” he added, his eyes cutting back to Toby. That withdrawn hardness was still in them.

Toby winced. “Was it…bad? I don’t want to pry, I just… Well, I hate to come between you and what time you’ve got with your family.”

“That’s very considerate.” If anything, the elf’s expression stiffened further, and Toby found himself frowning quizzically. Even Ravana suddenly glanced sharply back and forth between them, picking up on the tension.

“Are you okay?” Toby asked in concern. “I suddenly feel like you’re… Uh, did I do something to upset you?”

For some reason, that only appeared to make things worse, though instead of growing more tense, Raolo suddenly sagged. It was a slight motion, the merest lowering of his head and slumping of his shoulders, but it made him look unmistakably defeated.

That was much worse.

Now Ravana appeared nearly as concerned as he, and Malivette, who had just wandered into their proximity, cleared her throat pointedly. Neither Toby nor Raolo looked over at her, though.

“No, Toby,” Raolo sighed, and then gave him a resigned smile that felt worse than a slap. “Everything’s fine.”

“Everything’s clearly not fine,” Toby insisted, frowning. “I can tell you’re upset.”

“About what?” Raolo shrugged. “You’ve done nothing wrong, Toby. You graciously relinquished your claim on my time so I could go home to the grove…just like I asked. And sure, my family are insufferable, but thanks to Ravana being also insufferable now I can spend the evening with you instead of them. It’s a perfect outcome!” He smiled again, trying to inject some cheer into the expression, but so obviously trying that it was painful to behold.

“Ahem,” Malivette said, not that anyone paid her any mind.

“Hey.” Gently taking Raolo’s hands again, Toby ran his thumbs across the backs of the elf’s fingers, holding his gaze. “You don’t need to do that, not with me. Whatever’s—”

“Can we please just not?” Raolo pleaded. “It’s a party. Let’s relax and have some fun. Look, there’s dancing! And I could use a drink.”

“If…that’s what you want,” Toby said dubiously.

For some reason, that made annoyance flare in Raolo’s expression again, but the elf quickly mastered it, put on another public smile, and opened his mouth to answer.

At that moment, Malivette began coughing loudly, quickly escalating to a series of hacking wheezes like a cat passing a hairball, and actually doubled over. Ravana edged warily away from her, while the surrounding nobles stared incredulously.

“Blaaaah!” The vampire straightened back up, turning a beaming smile on them as she wiped the back of her hand across her lips. “Scuze me, must’ve inhaled a clot. Say, lads, I just wanted to mention, the party only started out here on the lawn, the whole manor is open. Lots of indoor space, y’know, private rooms. Places to have a conversation discreetly.”

“Thank you very much, Duchess Dufresne,” Raolo said with a slightly wintry smile, “but that won’t be—”

“It’s Raolo, right?” She grinned broadly at him in that expression of hers that showed off her fangs a lot more than it actually suggested a good mood. “Say, just for the record, elves aren’t edible for me. I only mention that because it’s gonna become an extremely relevant reassurance if you do something to create a debacle at this extremely politically important party.” Malivette let the silence hang for two heartbeats of dramatic effect, just grinning at their shocked expressions, before continuing in a lower tone. “Go inside, boys, and have a chat. Quietly.”

“Um…maybe that would actually be best,” Toby said, turning his attention back from her to Raolo.

The elf clenched his jaw for a moment, then nodded in a single jerky little motion. “Fine.”


“Uh…” Trissiny watched Toby and Raolo disappear into the manor, frowning in consternation. “I hope they’re… Do you think we should do something?”

“Like what, Triss?” Gabriel asked. “What possible thing could anyone butting into that do that wouldn’t just make it worse? And that’s not even touching on the fact that neither of us is Mister or General Social Skills to begin with.”

“Hey, I think we’re both a lot better than we used to be,” she protested. “But still… Yeah, fair point. It’s just that I hate to think of… You know?”

“I do,” he nodded. “If there’s anybody who deserves some straightforward uncomplicated happiness, there they went. But relationships aren’t like that. You just gotta deal with stuff, and unless it’s an Izarite cleric involving somebody else in it doesn’t usually help.”

“And I think we’ve all had as much Izarite influence as we need for one night,” she muttered, glancing at the gates. At least Bishop Snowe had been as good as her word and left the grounds once her message was delivered. All things considered, that might have been simple self-preservation on her part.

“Well, anyway, it’s a party,” he said after a momentary pause. “I can think of a much better use of our time than standing here fretting.”

“I am terrified to ask,” Trissiny deadpanned.

He grinned and had the audacity to wink at her. “You remember our first week? Specifically, the first night of punishment duty, washing dishes for Oak?”

“Yes,” she said dryly. “You invited me to a town dance, and that was when I knew you were completely insane.”

“Exactly!” Gabriel stepped back, turned toward her, and held out one hand with a shallow bow. “You never did give me an answer on that, and the town social came and went. So you owe me one, Triss.”

“Are you serious?” Teetering on the verge of incredulous laughter, she glanced around at the grounds. “This is a political event, you know. Think politics. Us dancing would kick off a flurry of wild rumors.”

“Let ‘em speculate, it’s not like any of these people would know what they’re talking about. And hey, we might as well provide them some free entertainment! These parties tend to end with us terrorizing them one way or another, so we might owe it to ‘em. Just so you’re aware, the drinks are served over there on the buffet table,” he added helpfully. “It’s mostly bottled wine and hot cider at this time of year, but I did notice a lovely crystal punch—”

“I have no compunctions about hitting you since I know it doesn’t actually hurt you.”

“What’s the point of doing it then?” he rejoined. Trissiny made a face at him; he grinned more broadly and lifted the hand he was still holding out. “C’mon, they’re playing a waltz. That’s basically the easiest one.”

She studied him skeptically for a long moment, then finally permitted herself a smile of dour amusement and reached out to take his hand. In the next second, they were swirling out across the drive amid the other couples moving to the music.

In the moment after that, both of them stared at each other in shock and said in unison, without faltering in the motion, “You can dance!”

They completed one more stationary revolution before the other shoe dropped, and both paladins scowled, this time talking over one another rather than speaking in chorus.

“Wait a second, were you just trying to embarrass—”

“This was a trick, you sneaky—”

Both broke off, and then burst out laughing. And kept dancing.

“Seriously, though,” Gabriel said merrily. “You? Can waltz?”

“Hey, I grew up in a barracks up in the mountains with dozens of other girls. The only entertainment was whatever we made for ourselves! What about you?”

“Oh, Teal taught me,” he admitted. “It was after that trip to Tiraas in our first year, remember? You all went to that party at General Panissar’s house?”

“Ah, yes. That was…a mess.”

“Could’ve been worse, the way I heard it,” he said lightly, twirling her around the decorative fountain in the center of the roundabout drive. “Upon reflection what I’m most surprised about is that you’re letting me lead.”

“Because I figured you’d try to, and we’re probably creating enough of a stir without turning it into a scuffle,” she snorted. “A wise feminist conserves energy for the necessary battles by not fighting pointless ones.”

“Ever the strategist. Well, if there’s gonna be a scuffle, we should probably save it for later in the evening.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, everybody’s out here watching right now. As the night progresses and the drink is drunk, people will start pairing off and disappearing into those private rooms Malivette helpfully reminded us she has.”

Trissiny wrinkled her nose. “How would you know? Do you attend a lot of aristocrat parties?”

“I know what people are like,” he chuckled, “and I listen to aristocrats. We’ve got a good handful on the campus, you know, and several of them love talking about their fancy social events.”

“I see. Well.” She finally looked away from his face, glancing sidelong across the crowd they were still dancing through. “If we’re going to head back to Tiraas tonight and deal with Justinian, I’m afraid you and Juniper aren’t going to have the opportunity to sneak off.”

“Wh—Juniper?” Gabriel blinked at her in astonishment. “You thought we— Triss, that hasn’t been going on since freshman year!”

She blinked right back, equally startled. “What? Really? I thought… I mean, you’re…”

“Okay, I am straining not to take offense,” he complained. “Really, is that what you think, I have nothing on my mind but chasing skirts?”

“Well, in fairness, you do also like playing with your wand…”

“It would serve you right if I tripped you.”

Trissiny grinned, then cleared her throat with a little discomfort, glancing away again. “So, uh, not to pry, but what made you two decide to…?”

“Oh, it… Well, actually, we never decided. That is, there was never a conversation about it. It just sort of…stopped happening, and that was fine. Both of us, I mean individually, we both kind of came to a place where that wasn’t what we needed or wanted anymore, so it worked out fine.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Actually, I guess it worked out ideally. Maybe closure would’ve been nice, but I don’t feel like I missed out on it. June doesn’t seem to, either. This way there was no awkwardness, and I got to keep a really good friend without making it, uh, messy.”

Slowly Trissiny nodded, staring at him with an oddly pensive expression. “Yeah… I guess there’s something to that.”

“What do you mean, to it?”

“Sometimes,” she said distantly, her eyes seeming to look at something far away, “having a conversation isn’t really…the best thing, necessary, or even useful. Not if everybody already understands up front that there’s no point.”

They had drifted to the edge of the dancing area, coming close to the end of one of the buffet tables, and that was the moment when the band brought the waltz to an end. Across the lawn, couples separated, many applauding politely. Trissiny and Gabriel slowly released each other in silence, studying one another’s eyes.

“Well,” Trissiny said abruptly, putting on a smile, “good timing. I’d better go supervise that.” She tilted her head to one side, where over by the manor’s steps, Malivette and Natchua had cornered Bishop Darling. “And I see you have fallen into my trap, as well.”

“Excuse me?” he exclaimed.

Rather than answering, Trissiny turned aside to address the woman in servant’s livery who was standing by the edge of the table with her hands neatly folded in front of her. “It’s Hesthri, right?”

The servant’s eyes widened and she focused on Trissiny, having been watching Gabriel. “I…beg your pardon, miss? You must have me mistaken for…”

“You were staring,” Trissiny said, not unkindly. “At him. And let’s face it, he’s not that good looking.”

“Those Eserites turned you into a spiteful little beast,” Gabriel complained.

“Yep,” she said with an unrepentant wink. “But seriously, Gabe, there are some conversations that actually do need to be had. I’ll catch up with you later.”

So saying, she turned and sauntered off in the direction of the Bishop and the Duchesses, leaving a tense island of quiet behind.

Gabriel shifted to study the serving woman, who was watching him closely in kind. They didn’t speak for a few long seconds, which under the circumstances was as good as a confession.

“She’s a sharp one,” Hesthri said at last, then grinned. “Not to mention pretty. So, you two…?”

“Oh, uh…no.” He shook his head, averting his eyes as his cheeks darkened slightly. “That is, there may be a tense…um, but not… Well, it’s, we’re friends, okay? We’re pretty close and I’d hate to mess up… Anyway, paladins don’t live the kind of life that…” Growling in frustration at his own inarticulate babbling, he trailed off and shook his head, scowling across the dance floor at nobody. “It’s just… It’s not a good idea.”

Hesthri studied him in silence for a few more beats, a gentle smile playing about her own lips, before finally reaching out to very lightly touch his arm.

“Tell me about her.”

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16 – 35

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The grounds of Dufresne Manor had been transformed, which was good, because they had urgently needed it. Its gravel drive had been freshly smoothed, of course, but far more strikingly was that its broad lawns, formerly choked by waist-high weeds as part of Malivette’s deliberate effort to make her property look uninviting, was now neatly trimmed at the regulation three inches above soil level. That, of course, was only the beginning; the entire property had been laid out with tables of food, an outdoor stage where entertainment would be provided, and hung with House crests and banners in the colors of Houses Dufresne, Leduc, and Madouri. Pumpkin-sized apparatuses of crystal floated above the grounds, providing both light and heating charms that kept the environs comfortable despite Veilgrad’s lethal midwinter chill. That alone had been a staggering expense, but for aristocrats, wildly grandiose displays of wealth and power were not an indulgence but a necessity for survival. No one who walked the halls of power lacked enemies, and enemies would pounce upon any perceived weakness.

Natchua wished they would go ahead and pounce so she could vaporize somebody. All this pomp and ceremony was wearing on her nerves.

Every culture had its rituals, and so there was a procedure for events such as this. Guests had begun to arrive, and had been trickling into the protected warmth of the grounds for over half an hour, with servants (Ravana’s on loan, as the hostess employed no staff save her four vampiric thralls) collecting winter coats at the gates. A string quartet played on the stage, more servants distributed food and drink, and the arriving lower nobility and other guests circulated with one another at apparent ease, but by the customs of Imperial aristocracy, the party had not officially begun.

The three Duchesses—Natchua’s adoption and Sherwin’s abdication had been an anticlimactically quiet affair which took place earlier in the day, in an office with lawyers—stood atop the steps to the Manor itself, each beneath a hanging banner bearing her House’s crest. They just stood there, the picture of poise, waiting until they judged the grounds had filled enough to start the party properly. At that point, they would descend and begin to circulate themselves; until then, the guests kept their distance—even the various Last Rock invitees, who had had to have the proprieties explained to them just like Natchua—and made an effort not even to stare at their hostesses, at least not openly. Natchua had asked whether they couldn’t do this part sitting down, and been informed that that was only appropriate for provincial rulers, and Malivette and Ravana had abstained from seats so as to make a show of their support for her by not putting her in a subordinate position.

Natchua couldn’t decide if this was better than Narisian rituals or much worse. She was still hung up on the fact that she was now an aristocrat, and in fact a rich and very powerful one. Nothing about it felt real.

“Well, well,” Malivette murmured as the three stood there like graceful statuary. “Irana Daraspian actually showed up. She must smell opportunity.”

“You invited a Daraspian?” Ravana replied equally softly but with scorn weighing her voice.

“All of them; they’re my neighbors. I didn’t imagine any would show. Irana heads a minor branch of the House down in Anteraas. Well, bluff called! Now we shall have to be warm and welcoming, and follow up with diplomatic and business opportunities for her, the scheming little bitch.”

“Even I know the Daraspians are trouble,” Natchua said at the same low volume. “What’s the worst case if we make this one unwelcome? I thought you said anybody who actually showed up would be lower nobility, not powerful enough to matter.”

“Our whole gambit here required us to move fast,” Malivette replied. “This necessitated incredibly short notice for the party. To invite nobility to a social event with less than a day’s notice is an insult; the dignity of the more powerful Houses demanded they snub us.”

Ravana picked up the explanation when she paused for breath. “To insult someone and then make it worth their while is a power move; to heap insult upon insult with no recompense is asking to be ganged up on by minor players who wouldn’t dare attack us on their own. Tonight we shall either gain significant influence among these lesser Houses or make a lot of enemies we don’t need, based on how we treat our guests.”

“What she’s saying, Natchua—”

“Yeah, yeah, be nice to the nest of vipers. I survived in Tar’naris as a farming peasant, I know how to avoid insulting the overbred wealthy.”

“How reassuring,” Ravana said with an audible smile.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Malivette added, “I saw the first one today. From a distance, of course.”

“First…?” Ravana shifted her head subtly to regard her sidelong.

“A young woman in the city. She had bleached her hair white and dyed a green stripe down the center.”

“What— Oy, that’s my thing!” Natchua snapped, barely remembering to remain still and not too loud while Ravana laughed quietly.

“You’re a celebrity, dear,” Malivette said with more than a touch of condescension. “If you’re going to cultivate a unique and striking appearance, people are going to imitate it.”

“Do try to enjoy it; this is the fun part,” Ravana chuckled. “If it becomes a trend, it will inevitably run its course and then you will find yourself the target of mockery for continuing to express a fashion which has fallen from vogue.”

“That is the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard of.”

“Then you need to get out more,” Malivette said merrily. “If it makes you feel better, those colors look repulsive on a human.”

“Why on this blighted earth would that make me feel better?”

“Mm, that one’s Irana Daraspian, yes?” Ravana interjected. “In the red gown and with that thing in her hair?”

“It’s called a tiara, Ravana,” Malivette explained. “Yes, that’s she.”

“It is an asinine affectation and in the days when they were a sign of rank a bottom-feeder like her would be asking for a flogging by wearing it. But now I see she has found friends. And if I am not mistaken, those simpletons are trying to bully Juniper.”

“Lady Sarideh and Lady Volsten,” Malivette said. “I didn’t know they knew each other. Those are both new Houses, elevated after the Enchanter Wars. Little more than merchant syndicates that own some land. Still, there’ll be no end of paperwork if Juniper does them like they’re asking for.”

“June is very serious about her religion,” Natchua said, “and she’s not the kind of Omnist who’s into martial arts. She’ll speak politely to them until she gets tired of it and then walk—yep, there she goes.”

Across the lawn, the disinterested dryad had turned and strolled away from the three noblewomen with no outward sign of discomfiture. Unlike her ever-present pet Sniff, who raised his crest and hissed loudly, causing Lady Volsten to shriek and accidentally hurl her champagne glass. A ripple of laughter spread through the surrounding party guests.

“I cannot fathom what those three were trying to achieve,” Ravana murmured wonderingly.

“Juniper is prettier than they are, and has more powerful friends,” Malivette explained. “Thus, they went on the attack to cut her down. You surprise me, Ravana. This is Rich Girl 101.”

“I’m afraid my upbringing was rather…isolated. My understanding of noble society more heavily emphasized coercion and the thwarting of assassins than forming social ties.”

“That explains everything just so very well,” the vampire muttered.

Natchua’s lips curled in a reminiscent smile and she softly recited, “Two is the optimal number of hench wenches for the appearance-minded alpha bitch.”

“See?” Malivette said. “Even the surly drow knows this stuff better than you. We have got to bring you to more parties, Ravana.”

“Why two?” the Duchess Madouri demanded, still quietly but indulging in a tone of overt annoyance. “It seems to me that in any form of warfare, even social, the greater one’s forces, the better.”

“One follower is just a friend hanging out with you,” Natchua explained. “More than that, and you start having problems managing the pack, plus the risk increases of one aspiring to unseat your position.”

“None of my friends behave that way,” Ravana said, frowning. “It sounds exhausting and self-defeating.”

“If you’re referring to your roommates, they’re all working-class people and thus more generally sensible than nobles,” Natchua agreed. “Anyway, did you see how those other two flanked Daraspian, one to each side? Social threat display. You can target one victim with that for good effect, while keeping the group small enough to maneuver through crowds, and best of all it emphasizes who’s in command.”

“I am more than a little disturbed to learn how much you’re absorbing from those succubi of yours,” Malivette commented.

Ravana glanced sidelong down their own formation, where Malivette, as the hostess, stood in the center.

“Oh, well played, Vette.”

“Ain’t my first rodeo, cowgirl,” the vampire said smugly.

“What the hell?” Natchua suddenly hissed, her eyes fixing on the gates and the figures which had just stepped through them. “What are they doing here?”

“Easy,” Malivette soothed. “Remember, poise. Don’t let them unsettle you.”

“Which one of you invited her?”

“Neither of us know the drow, I assumed it was you.”

“I sent announcement messages to my mother and Matriarch Ezrakhai stating that House Dalmiss was specifically unwelcome here—”

“Nice,” Malivette said with an approving grin. “Power move.”

“—but I definitely didn’t reach out to her!”

Ravana cleared her throat softly. “That is my friend Magister Talvrin, who is here at my invitation, and I gather, her surprising choice of plus one.”

The two women who had just stepped into the grounds caused a wide ripple of reaction from the assembled minor nobility. Of them, Talvrin was by far the most ostentatious, wearing a gown that appeared to be woven from shimmering streamers of azure light. A heavy golden mantle hovered six inches off her shoulders, trailing another light-woven cape down her back, and above her head floated a bejeweled circlet which slowly rotated in the air.

At her side, looking spartan by comparison in her dark formal robes, was Matriarch Ashaele of House Awarrion.

“Do you suppose she’s naked under that lightshow?” Malivette wondered.

“You know she can hear us, right?” Natchua muttered.

“Yup.”

Just below them, a man approached the steps a shade closer than was strictly proper given that the Duchesses had not officially started the festivities. Lars Dufresne, formerly Grusser as recently as that morning and now legally Malivette’s son despite being roughly her age, glanced pointedly around at the crowd and then gave his head of House a significant look with his eyebrows raised. Notably, he had spent the last several minutes discreetly gathering the attendees who the Duchesses knew from Last Rock; they had now arranged themselves in a staggered formation that at a glance looked like nothing but people standing around chatting but which nonetheless formed a bulwark between the steps and the crowd beyond.

“Your man has a deft hand at these maneuvers, Malivette,” Ravana said with clear approval. “I see why you chose him.”

“I am so glad Sherwin didn’t want to come,” Natchua muttered.

“And I believe he’s right,” Malivette decided. “Come, ladies. It’s time to face the music.”

As one, they stepped forward and down the stairs. The entire party responded, everyone shifting to face them and breaking into polite applause as the three heads of House finally set foot on the ground and began, officially, to mingle.

Thanks to Lars’s tactics, they were first met by friendly faces which protected them from the fortune-seekers beyond. Most of those closest by were the guests currently staying at Ravana’s mansion, though a few others from the school itself had turned up in response to the belated invitations.

Professor Rafe inhaled deeply, his thin chest swelling as he prepared to deliver his customary greeting.

Malivette pointed one finger at him. “So help me, little man, I will drain you like a shot of bourbon.”

At Rafe’s side, Professor Yornhaldt drove a blocky elbow into his waist, eliciting a grunt. “Thank you for thinking of us, ladies, this is just the diversion the winter break needed. Arachne said she might drop by later.”

“Meaning,” Rafe added, “she’ll only show up when she can make a grand entrance and be the center of attention.”

“Oh, good,” Ravana said cheerfully, “something to look forward to.”

Natchua, meanwhile, had gravitated toward the current junior class, those who had come, her eyes flicking to Trissiny’s extra guest.

“Teal and Shaeine have an important event in Madouris tonight,” Toby said to her, “and Ruda stayed to support them.”

“That’s perfectly fine,” Natchua assured them. “This was stupidly short notice and it’s very good of you all to have come. I really appreciate it.”

“Wow,” said Gabriel, “not even noble for a day and somebody’s already taught her manners.”

“Trissiny,” Natchua said pleasantly, “if Gabe’s gonna act like this all night I may loan you one of the punchbowls.”

The Hand of Avei heaved a sigh. “I’m never gonna live that down, am I?”

“Yeah, people are so dramatic,” Natchua agreed with a solemn nod. “You waterboard one person in public and everybody gets an attitude.”

“This is a great party, Natchua! Congratulations on everything!” Fross chimed, zipping around her head. “I never would’ve expected this but I really hope it works out well for you! Do you think Vette would mind if I examined these levitating constructs? They’ve got several really powerful static enchantments that you don’t often see combined but the overall structure is quite elegantly designed! I promise I won’t break one!”

“I…guess that’s…and she’s gone,” Natchua said, watching Fross’s glow disappear as the pixie zoomed right into the corona of light around one of the floating sources of heat and illumination. “So! If I had to guess, you must be Bishop Darling.”

“That I am,” he said with a gallant bow, taking her hand and raising it gracefully to his lips. “My heartfelt congratulations on your ascendance, Duchess Leduc. This is precisely the kick in the pants to Imperial nobility that Eserites like myself love to watch unfold.” Straightening back up, he winked as he released her hand. “Tell me, before I embarrass myself, what’s your policy on social flirting?”

“That’s…very flattering, your Grace,” she said with a smile of surprised amusement, “but I’m not on the market.”

“Oh, good heavens no, I’m way too old for you anyway. Sometimes the fun of a chase is not the catch, though. Have you ever seen a dog running after an enchanted carriage and then looking lost and confused when it stopped?”

“Wow,” she said. “You were not kidding, Trissiny. I think I owe you an apology.”

Darling turned a sidelong look on Trissiny. “Oh? Scale of one to ten, Thorn, how offended should I be?”

“How offended do you want to be?” she retorted. “I’m flexible.”

“Anyway,” said Darling, “I understand you wished to have a private chat later, your Grace, which would of course be both an honor and a pleasure. More the former than the latter, don’t worry! But I wouldn’t dream of monopolizing your time so early in the evening.”

“What’s this, now?” Malivette inquired, sliding into the conversation. “And a good evening to you, Bishop Darling, how absolutely lovely to see you again.”

“Duchess Dufresne! You’ve done an absolute wonder with this place, I swear I didn’t recognize it.”

Natchua glanced rapidly between them and then smirked. “Well, discretion aside, Malivette is my dear friend and political ally, and I wouldn’t dream of going behind her back. Vette, Trissiny was good enough to bring the Bishop at my request. I wanted to see about bringing the local Guild presence back up to a full complement for a city this size.”

Malivette was holding a wineglass. Her grip did not visibly shift, and her already-bloodless fingers didn’t whiten when flexed anyway, but abruptly a hairline crack appeared on it. “Did you, now?” she inquired in a saccharine tone that made most of the onlookers take a step back.

“Why, my dear Duchess,” Darling said smoothly, “I do hope this is not an unwelcome surprise! If you have some…specific objection to an Eserite presence in your city, I should be only too happy to convey it to Boss Tricks. I’m sure he would be most intrigued to hear exactly why.”

The vampire turned her pleasant smile upon him, saying nothing. He smiled right back, not yielding an inch.

“As much as I’m tempted to see how this plays out,” Natchua interjected, “you need to settle down, Vette. You’re the one who set up our whole alliance of Houses, here. You’re surely aware that Ravana has already thrust herself into the middle of the Shaathist schism on the reformist side, and how that places us with regard to the Universal Church. Whatever else Eserites do, right now strengthening ties with the Thieves’ Guild is just good sense.”

“After tomorrow,” Toby interjected in a tone of calm that seemed to almost forcibly leech some of the tension from the air, “that position will also bring you into alignment with the three Trinity cults. I don’t pretend to understand the undercurrents here, but Natchua is correct. It’s an advantageous position.”

“Perhaps we should indeed have a nice, discreet chat about this,” Malivette said. “I trust you won’t mind if I tag along, your Grace?”

“Why, your Grace, if Duchess Leduc doesn’t object, nothing ever makes me happier than the company of yet another charming young lady,” he said smoothly.

“Omnu’s breath,” Gabriel said, staring at him. “How do women not stab you? I would get stabbed, acting like that.”

“Yeah, you probably would, Gabe,” Darling agreed. “The secret is to pick your targets. It’s actually not difficult to avoid pestering people who won’t find it funny.”

Trissiny smiled mischievously. “And yet…”

“You hush it,” Gabriel ordered. “Anyway, Natch, I don’t see, um…”

“Jonathan’s inside, hanging out with the servants in the kitchen,” she said. “He was almost as put off as me at the thought of having to hobnob with nobles, and since I’m the only one who actually has to I didn’t have the heart to insist he join me out here. And Hesthri is here. Over there, by the buffet. She’s wearing a disguise ring and serving canapes.”

Gabriel straightened up, scowling. “You made her serve food?”

“Her idea,” Natchua clarified grinning at him, “and she thought it was hilarious. I mostly went along because I was curious whether you’d forget you were supposed to be all suspicious of her and get offended on her behalf. Thanks a lot, by the way, now I owe Jonathan a doubloon.”

He stared at her, blinking repeatedly, while Trissiny and Toby looked elsewhere and did a poor job of not laughing out loud.

“Anyway,” Natchua said, nodding as gracefully as she could manage to everyone, “please excuse me for scampering off, but I need to go have a…less pleasant conversation. I’ll chat with you soon, Bishop Darling. And all of you, I hope. I’ll probably be in desperate need of better company before this night is over.”

“I don’t know about better,” Toby said with a smile, “but we can probably do less stressful. Break a leg, Natch.”

She smiled at him and turned away. The expression slid off her face, replaced by a grim stare as she strode straight for Talvrin and Ashaele.

Watching her go, Darling let out a low whistle. “I wonder if it might be safest to remove ourselves from the fallout radius?”

“Natchua has her issues, but she’s not some kind of wild animal,” Gabriel said grudgingly. “It’s not like she’ll— What the hell?”

All of them turned as their group was approached by a fifth, Malivette having already slipped away to join Ravana in speaking with some of the others from Last Rock. The paladins and Bishop all raised their eyebrows in surprised response to their new arrival’s welcoming smile.

“Good evening, children. Antonio,” she said, nodding her head courteously.

“Branwen,” said Darling, staring at her. “Well, well. I was…specifically not expecting you.”

“How the hell’d you get in here?” Gabriel demanded. “There’s no way you were invited.”

“It’s a funny thing, celebrity,” Bishop Snowe replied with a benign smile. “When one is a Bishop of the Universal Church and a well-known columnist and public speaker, one seldom encounters servants willing to risk turning one away.”

“Mm,” Toby murmured blandly. “When you put it like that, it stands to reason. I guess you don’t even strictly need to be a busty redhead anymore.” Trissiny and Gabriel both turned to him in utter surprise; Darling clenched his lips to suppress a grin.

Bishop Snowe was not in the least put off, just smiling mischievously at Toby. “No, that’s purely for my own enjoyment, although it doesn’t hurt. That’s here, though. The guardians of Madouri Manor are made of more disciplined stuff; that tends to be the case in any household overseen by a Butler. Regardless, I don’t plan to remain long enough to wear out my welcome. Speaking of invitations, I am only here to deliver one, in a manner of speaking. Antonio, would you excuse us for a moment?”

Darling raised one eyebrow, and then turned to the paladins. “What do you think? Shall I excuse you for a moment?”

“We like him more than you,” Trissiny said curtly to Snowe. “What do you want?”

“As you wish,” she replied with a gracious bow of her head. Then she straightened and her intonation shifted to a formal, even ceremonious declamation as she held her head high. “Hands of Avei, Omnu, and Vidius, by the ancient compact of the Universal Church which binds together the faiths of the Pantheon in common cause, you are summoned by his Holiness Archpope Justinian to his presence.”

They all stared at her in astonished silence.

“Not right this minute, of course,” Branwen continued, abruptly reverting to her pleasantly casual demeanor. “Please, take your time and enjoy the party; I understand the new Duchess Leduc is rather counting on your support. But this evening, afterward, his Holiness awaits you at the Grand Cathedral. I fear it will be rather late by then, but perhaps it’s for the best. With most of the world asleep, you should have a greater expectation of privacy.”

“And for what possible reason would we wish to accommodate him?” Toby asked at last.

“He doesn’t actually have the authority to command us,” Trissiny added, “and quite frankly I’m disinclined to create the impression that he can.”

“It is an invitation,” Branwen said gently, “not a command. But I cannot imagine why you would want to decline, in all honesty.”

“Yes you can,” Darling replied in apparently perfect calm. “Don’t play games like that with this lot, Bran, it’s really not helping your case.”

“Very well, my apologies,” she said, nodding her head again. “I of course cannot speak for his Holiness’s inner thoughts; I know only what he has told me. And in all honesty, he does take actions which I neither understand nor approve of. But I remain loyal to his cause, because he has earned that trust from me. I suppose, however,” she went on in a musing tone, “that if I were in his position, I would consider your unfolding plot to politically attack him and preemptively set you up to discredit yourselves by refusing a perfectly reasonable invitation to talk in favor of partying with your warlock drow friend. In what amounts to a battle of public appearances, such things do matter a great deal.”

They all stared at her again, once more reduced to silence.

“On the other hand,” Branwen said pleasantly, “perhaps I am just employing reverse psychology to nudge you in the direction I want. I suppose it must be a dilemma.”

“Gabe,” said Trissiny, staring at the Izarite Bishop, “fetch me a punchbowl.”

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16 – 34

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“Thank you,” Rasha said quietly enough not to interrupt the ongoing discussion as she accepted the mug of hot cocoa.

“Ma’am,” McGraw answered at the same volume, smiling and tugging the brim of his hat to her before turning to pick up another cup from the tray he’d set on the end table and offer it to Shahai.

Watching him, Rasha did not miss the inherent cleverness of the old man positioning himself as the de facto housemaid; it was a discreet but undeniably effective strategy for keeping himself in the good graces of the large group of dangerous women occupying the living room, nearly all of them Avenist and several of uncertain motivations.

Joe hadn’t employed any such strategy, but then…he was Joe. It was less likely to occur to him than to the more experienced old wizard, and anyway, Joe was probably the most inoffensive person in the room. He stood against the wall out of everyone’s way, listening with his arms folded and—unlike far too many teenage boys—reflecting his lack of anything to contribute by keeping his mouth shut and bothering no one. The only person in the safe house who even might be misandrist enough to take issue with Joe’s existence was, herself, subdued and seemed so depressed that even Rasha felt a grudging pity for her. Grudging, and very slight.

The woman in question found herself the center of attention at that moment as both McGraw and Shahai turned on her, with a mug of cocoa and a question, respectively.

The seats in the safe house’s small living room were mostly taken and Sister Magden, being the least favored person present, hadn’t managed to snag one. She was sitting on the other end table in a slouched posture with her head down, arms wrapped around her scabbarded sword as if clinging to it for comfort.

It was a couple of seconds before she responded to either of them, finally looking up at McGraw patiently holding out the steaming cup to her. Mutely, she shook her head, and he withdrew with a smooth bowing motion that made Rasha wonder if he’d ever been a waiter.

“Magden?” Shahai prompted.

“Sorry, I was…” Magden turned to the elf. “What did you say?”

“You told Rasha you were looking to get in contact with General Avelea,” Shahai repeated, showing no sign of impatience. She was one of those people who gave the impression that impatience was an entirely foreign concept to her. “What did you need her for?”

“Oh.” If anything, Magden’s shoulders slumped further. “I was… I sought to ask her personal intercession with Avei on behalf of Sister Lanora. I understand the point of a public punishment of that magnitude for political purposes, but I believe it was unfair. Lanora was—we were misguided, the goddess made that clear. But she was always a good priestess, who did what she believed right. I thought…she deserves another chance. At least, I did,” she added bitterly, her voice dropping to a bare whisper. “Apparently I didn’t know any of my sisters as well as I thought. I cannot believe women I trained and prayed alongside would try to do something so contemptible as what I saw tonight.”

Shay let out a loud, expressive snort, and Casey lightly swatted the back of her head.

“It might comfort you to know, Magden, that by far the majority of your erstwhile comrades have done exactly as the goddess commanded,” Shahai said gently. “About two thirds have already left the city alone or in small groups, departing for unrelated destinations. The Sisterhood lacks a comprehensive intelligence network, but Tiraas has only two publicly accessible gates and two Rail stations; it is not hard to watch the comings and goings. Plus, most of them abandoned their Purist gear in the section of the Temple barracks they’d taken over. Tabards, chainmail, bracers, and swords; the High Commander has set our quartermasters to examining them for hints as to their origins. We can dare to hope that those you saw tonight were the only ones engaged in such depravity, but I’m sure I needn’t caution you all not to hang too much trust on optimism.”

She swept her gaze around the room, receiving nods of acknowledgment.

“I believe I have the full picture now,” Shahai continued. “I must inform you all that I received a message from General Avelea herself just before Sergeant Elwick’s reached me. She has to travel to Veilgrad tonight on political business, and in fact will be taking Bishop Darling, who I understand has been an ally in this matter. That means that until tomorrow, we are effectively on our own. Right now our priority has to be locating the remaining Purists, and most especially Sister Lanora. Their whole order was clearly propped up by the Universal Church as a ploy to divide and damage the Sisterhood, and now that that has failed, those women and the knowledge they hold present a danger to the Archpope’s operational security. They are prime targets either for recruitment into his inner circle, or elimination. We must find and secure them.”

“Why?” Shay demanded. “We’re talkin’ about a bunch of morons whose entire shtick was dragging Avei’s name through the mud so they could have an excuse to bully people. Screw ‘em, I don’t see how this is worth stickin’ our necks out.”

Magden’s expression darkened further, but she didn’t look up from her steady examination of the carpet at her feet.

“First of all,” Shahai replied, turning a flat stare on Shay, “because Justinian has a long pattern of recruiting hopeless individuals and honing them into effective servants; every warm body we keep out of his coterie now is a better trained and better armed problem we won’t have to deal with later. And second, Shay, the Purists were dealt with by Avei. As of that declaration, those who have not gone on to commit further crimes are not wanted for any offense, and those who have should be duly tried and punished under the law. Leaving them to be brutally silenced in some back alley the way they tried to do with Rasha is not acceptable in either case.”

Shay looked less than convinced, but offered no further objection, just sprawling back into her armchair.

“There is also the reason Justinian will be motivated to secure or silence them: Lanora and possibly others possess materially useful intelligence which we need. Knowing that the Archpope is behind so much recent trouble is not the same as being able to prove it. If we can definitively link something to him, we will gather a great deal more support and the Empire can bring its resources to bear on him.”

“Why did you let Lanora out of your sight in the first place, then?” Rasha asked pointedly. “I mean, not you specifically, Sister Nandi, but…”

“I take your point, and it’s valid,” Shahai said, nodding to her. “Were the Sisterhood a governmental or solely military organization, she probably would have been held and interrogated. But it is first and foremost a faith, and lacks the legal authority to involuntarily detain an excommunicated individual within the Empire. I personally would have had her followed, at the very least, but evidently that did not occur to anyone at the time.” She pursed her lips in disapproval.

“How’re we gonna find ‘er, then?” Joe asked quietly.

Shahai nodded. “As Sister Magden has lost contact with her, we are forced to fall back on the measures you used to locate the Purists this evening. With apologies, Casey, I need to divide and direct your team.”

“Nandi, it’s me,” Casey said, grinning. “I’m not Locke, you don’t have to explain what a chain of command is every single time. What’re your orders?”

Shahai gave her an amused smile in response as she answered. “Bandi, Elias, I need you to attempt to locate Sister Lanora via magic. Do you believe you can do it?”

“I will try,” Sister Bandi said, bowing. “My magic is paltry, I warn you. I cannot predict the outcome of the attempt.”

“Worth a shot,” McGraw agreed. “I can do a bit with sympathetic principles… It’d help if we’ve got anything connected to her. Somethin’ of hers, ideally somethin’ she valued.”

Magden raised her head as everyone turned to look at her. Straightening, she fished in the neck of her robe and pulled out a small talisman, an Avenist golden eagle carved in a disc of ebony, hanging on a chain. “Lanora gave me this. She made it herself, years ago, and wore it for over a decade.”

“That’ll do,” McGraw said, both he and Bandi nodding. “That’ll do quite nicely. I do warn you, ma’am, any divine charm on it’s likely to be degraded by me doin’ arcane craft at it…”

“It is not blessed,” Magden said softly, rubbing her thumb across the sigil. “Just…special.”

“Excellent,” Shahai said crisply. “Sister Magden, I would like you to assist them as best you are able. I remind you that Lanora may be in danger if we cannot find her.”

“I’ll help in any way I can.”

“Good. Casey, please remain here to coordinate and supervise; make sure they have everything they need. Meanwhile, Shay, Joseph and I will escort Rasha and Private Medvidaar. First to an Imperial police station to file a report on the Purists’ attack this evening; it will be politically important for a record of their actions to be in government hands, and this will provide the Empire with a pretext to bring pressure to bear upon both the Church and the Huntsmen. After that we can conduct Rasha back to Tamisin Sharvineh’s house, and the Private to the Temple. I believe the five of us represent a group which would deter anyone willing to attempt an ambush in the city.”

“Why don’t we just keep Rasha here?” Shay suggested. “Y’know, where we can keep an eye on ‘er ourselves.”

“Why don’t we ask what Rasha thinks of all this?” Rasha countered, raising one eyebrow.

“There is that,” Shahai agreed. “We are certainly not going to coerce Rasha into anything. I do hope you agree with me on the importance of making a police report?”

“It’s never my first instinct,” Rasha conceded, “but it’d be interesting to be in a police station on the right side of the bars for once.”

“I’m sure,” Shahai replied, smiling. “As for the rest, I am not attempting to get rid of you; I simply think you will be safer at home. This safehouse’s only defense is its anonymity, and when we are working specifically against Church and Sisterhood personnel it may not even have that. By contrast, the Sharvineh mansion is a target I understand even the Svennish intelligence service did not dare assault.”

“No, it’s fine, I agree,” Rasha assured her, taking Zafi’s hand. “I’d really like to get home, anyhow. You sure Zafi will be all right back at the Temple?”

“Wherever the Purists are, they’re not there,” Zafi replied. “That’s the one place we know they’re not. Nobody’s gonna try to snatch a Legionnaire out of her own cohort. And when I’m not drilling with the squad I can stick near Sister Azelea.”

“I will also make an effort to keep an eye on you, Private,” Shahai promised, “at least until we are sure the immediate situation has been resolved. Does anyone have further questions? Good, then let us get to work. Time is short and growing shorter.”


“So…I understand the problem.” She stood in the center of the chamber, clawed hands on her hips and her wings neatly folded against her back so that they flowed behind her like a rigid cape of feathers, with their small claws rising above her shoulders. “The machine must be, in essence, rebuilt from scratch after the damage it suffered. The work takes time because it is a secret of the highest order, so no one is trusted to help you work on it. And also, no one knows how. Plus, it is made mostly of pieces which are rare and expensive, including many irreplaceable Elder God artifacts for which there can be no substitution. Even with the search ongoing, it might be years before enough have been gathered, and…possibly never. I understand.”

The underground space had at least been cleaned up over the last four months, and was no longer a charred wreckage of mechanical and enchanting parts. Now, the equipment arrayed around it and climbing all the walls encircling the broad summoning circle in which she stood was clearly in a half-built state, with incomplete metal structures bristling from the floor, unfastened wires trailing, copper and glass rods extending from various machines into empty air, and miscellaneous parts strewn about either loose or in crates.

She heaved a deep sigh, then grudgingly nodded. “I owe you an apology, then, Rector. I am sorry for implying you were deliberately stalling. The work you do must be very difficult.”

Azradeh turned when there was no response save the continuing soft clatter of a wrench on the inscrutable cabinet on which he was working, something that resembled a twelve-foot-tall grandfather clock with glowing parts and a face which depicted a swirling portal into some mysterious darkness.

“Rector?” she prompted. “Did you hear me? Please respond.”

“I’m not deaf!” the man abruptly shouted in exasperation, not looking up from what he was doing. In fact, it sounded like he was tightening bolts harder all of a sudden. “Omnu’s breath, woman, will you go away?! I am trying to work!”

Azradeh tilted her head, studying him curiously. Rector was an odd one, and truthfully rather annoying to deal with, but she felt no animosity toward him. Of the very few people with whom she had contact, only two treated her…in a word, normally. Colonel Ravoud and Delilah were both polite, but their tense bearing never let her forget that she was a creature capable of tearing them apart bare-handed, that her name was a byword for terror and destruction in their language. Branwen set off alarms in her head just by being in the room. Justinian himself, of course, was always kind and composed, but he was his own kettle of fish. Only Rector didn’t seem to care at all what she was. It made her like him, despite his congenital lack of even the most basic social skills.

“A cogent analysis, Azradeh, but there is another important factor which limits us further.”

She turned again, regarding the Archpope himself as he descended from the half-rebuilt control platform to join her on the summoning circle below.

“When we rescued you,” Justinian explained, leaning his head back to look up at the central point on the ceiling where a secondary energy nexus would be housed when the great machine was activated, “another being…intervened. Something extra-dimensional and extremely powerful. We must do considerable research to determine what effect this had, and plan for it before trying again. That alone is prohibitive.”

“I see,” she murmured. “Then there’s no telling when I can see my sisters again. Or if.”

Justinian laid one hand gently on her upper arm; he alone was unafraid to touch her. Well, Rector wasn’t afraid either, but he loudly disliked being touched at all, as she had discovered.

“What can be done can be repeated; it is simply a question of the difficulty and the cost. Sometimes, they are too great to attempt in practical terms. In this case, I refuse to accept that possibility unless it is forced upon us. We will rescue your sisters, if it can at all be done. I simply cannot predict when. I’m sorry, Azradeh.”

She shook her head. “Everyone is doing what they can. I feel like I could be doing more. Maybe I could help Rector?”

Head buried in his clock-like apparatus, Rector emitted a feral growl that echoed oddly.

“I certainly don’t understand how this thing works, but I can follow simple directions. You can’t tell me someone who can lift giant metal beams and cling to the ceiling wouldn’t be useful—”

“KEEP THE DAMN DEMON OUT OF HERE!” the enchanter bellowed. “NOTHING BUT INTERRUPTIONS! LET ME FOCUS!”

Delilah was already descending from the platform, giving them one of her pointed looks, the one which presaged a lecture about how much more difficult it would be for her to calm and re-focus Rector after this.

“Perhaps we have interrupted his work enough for the time being,” Justinian said discreetly.

Azradeh sighed. “Fair enough. I’ll see you later, Rector. Don’t forget to eat something, okay?”

With surprising accuracy, he hurled a brass-framed power crystal at her. Azradeh made no response, not even blinking as it bounced off her temple.

“I’m wearing him down,” she assured the Archpope while the two of them climbed the steps toward the control platform. As the passed, Delilah pressed a hand over her eyes.

“I am not sure that approach will work,” Justinian said delicately once they had passed out into the hall beyond. “There is a method to befriending people like Rector. Pressuring them is not part of it.”

“People like Rector, huh,” she mused. “So is there a name to what’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing is wrong with him,” he said without hesitation. “He is different, that’s all. But yes, we have at least a partial understanding of it. The dwarves have made a scientific study of this in recent decades, and elven tribes have traditional methods of raising such individuals. They appear to occur naturally in every race in small numbers. Most people, Azradeh, have minds that are made up in large part of people-related instincts, innate skills which enable us to recognize and interact with one another. Rector, and those like him, are born missing some or all of those aptitudes; they are replaced with other capacities. As you have doubtless observed, his talents lie elsewhere. We simply must extend more than the usual tolerance and understanding to help him make those skills useful to us all.”

“Hmmm. So they’re always gifted enchanters?”

“No, and no,” he replied, smiling. “They do tend to produce savants, but in various fields; enchanting happens to be Rector’s particular specialty. But even so, not the majority. Most are simply people, with a condition, and their own talents and abilities like anyone else.”

“I wonder if it’s really worth the effort of extra care, then, if they’re not mostly as useful as Rector…”

“Always, if only to avoid the judgment of how useful someone is. The effort is worth it, regardless of any singular result yielded. Making that effort to care for others is what determines that we are a society which does so, as opposed to one in which people are merely exploited for whatever utility can be wrought from them. The former always creates a stronger and more resilient social order than the latter.”

“Collective over individual utility,” she mused, nodding slowly. “I can see the logic. I wonder if they have similar ideas in Hell.”

“Our knowledge of that is secondhand at best,” the Archpope said gravely, “but indications are very much the opposite. Back to the present, I’m sorry about the sparring golem you were using. I was only just informed.”

“Oh. I guess I’m the one who should apologize,” she said, grimacing.

“Not in the least.” With one of his caring smiles, Justinian patted her again on the shoulder. They had arrived at her room; Azradeh hadn’t been going anywhere in particular, just following him, and now allowed him to gently usher her in while he continued speaking. “I’ll make arrangements to bring you another one as soon as I am back above, but…I fear the thing will happen again, eventually. Unfortunately, those things simply aren’t made to withstand strength like yours. I truly am sorry, Azradeh. It’s hard to provide means for you to exercise down here.”

“I’d really like the chance to fly,” she said, wandering over to her music player—a rare and expensive enchanted device, so she understood, and which she treasured—and lightly rested her claws atop it without reaching for one of the sound disks. “I feel that would help me…remember. I don’t suppose there’s any chance of me visiting the surface soon?”

It had been a desultory question with no real expectation behind it, but he gave her a pleased smile in response. “In fact, I finally have good news about that! You know the reasons we must maintain discretion, but I have been monitoring an ongoing situation which I think will provide exactly the pretext we need to let you stretch your wings above a bit. I am carefully nudging it in the proper direction; with a little bit of luck, I expect to be able to bring you up within the next few days.”

“Really?” She looked up at him, smiling in genuine anticipation.

“It is not set in stone yet,” he cautioned, “but I have committed to the plan. If it does not pan out, I will re-prioritize to put aside some other concerns and arrange an outing for you in the near future. I owe you that much, at the very least.” The Archpope’s eyes fell on her well-stocked bookcase, next to her reading desk, and he reached out to draw his fingertip through the light coating of dust on the spines of the theological histories on the top shelf. “Are you…not interested in reading about your family?”

“I’m interested,” she said, letting her own expression grow more pensive, “but…concerned about prejudicing myself. Nothing has brought up memory, not as an explicit recollection of something I could describe, but I do get flashes of feeling. A sense of familiarity about some things. I’m concerned about corrupting my perception, so to speak. If it’s going to come back to me, I’d like it to come before I start filling my head with other people’s ideas about what my sisters and I were like.”

“I do see the sense in that,” he said, his eyes falling on one of the volumes laid on the desk. “Ah, that’s right, you did ask for a copy of Branwen’s book. Have you finished already?”

Azradeh snorted. “In the sense that I read four chapters and now I’m finished with it, yes. What a bunch of absolute piffle. It’s all self-aggrandizing nonsense—anybody who already believes that stuff doesn’t need the encouragement, and anyone who does need it isn’t going to have their life changed by a book. The whole thing is nothing but selling people validation.”

“I suspect no one involved in the creation of this book would dispute that,” he said, his smile a touch wry. “It was a mechanism to improve Branwen’s public perception, and did its job quite well. Of course, I will continue to supply you with more reading material. Have you any specific requests?”

“Oh!” She looked up from her shelf of music disks, smiling. “That reminds me, could I get a newspaper subscription?”

The Archpope did not betray any emotional reaction, not by so much as a blink. “Newspaper?”

“Or several of them, ideally,” she went on, frowning at the disks. “Why are these out of order… Oh, that’s right, I re-shelved in a hurry after…anyway.” Azradeh set about sorting her music collection, speaking in a distracted tone. “Newspapers are mentioned in more recent books; it sounds like a great way for me to get up to speed on the modern world. Oh! Even better, what about some magazines? The books are great, but I like the idea of something more, how to put it… Ephemeral? Connected to the current moment in time. It sounds from what I read like magazines aren’t very well respected in literary circles. That sounds ideal.”

“That should be quite easy,” Justinian replied, smiling again. “Yes, I will have a selection brought for you immediately. Magazines are usually quite focused in their subject matter; you can pick those which most interest you and I will have them delivered regularly.”

“That’s fantastic, thanks!” Azradeh said brightly, giving him a smile as she slipped the last disk back into its place.

The conversation continued as usual and she showed no further reaction to betray the victory she had just won; revealing that she was even aware of a victory would have likely undone her efforts.

Azradeh might not have memories, but she still had instincts, and every one of them had screamed at her from the beginning that Archpope Justinian could not be trusted—and that further, revealing that she sensed this would place her in danger. This, finally, was hard confirmation. That his response to the idea of her receiving newspapers was anything other than the prompt “yes, of course” with which he had answered all her requests for entertainment and education showed he was invested in controlling her understanding of the world outside. And that meant both that she had zero chance of getting newspaper subscriptions, and that she must swiftly dispel any suspicion on his part that she sought to wriggle out from under his control.

Hence the magazines. They would reveal less about the current world, particularly a selection curated by Justinian himself, but they would reveal something, in little bits and pieces. And even better, he all but had to accede to the request in order to keep her distracted from the more dangerous subject of newspapers.

For now, Azradeh would continue slowly gather information and play along with whatever he was doing, certain only that his final goals were not what he was telling everyone. It might be that his true agenda was in her best interests after all, and if not, better that she be trusted and in a position to do something about it. Even if she hadn’t the recollection of her history, millennia of habit still cautioned her to keep her friends close and enemies closer, at least until she could tell the difference.

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16 – 33

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What did you do, Ravana?”

Not even a minute after materializing in her own mansion; they must have been waiting in ambush by the teleportation chamber. The young Duchess indulged in a half-second to scowl dourly at the far wall before putting on a polite smile and turning to face her accuser, deliberately ignoring Veilwin’s smirk.

“And hello to you, too, Teal. I trust you are having a pleasant day?”

Teal and Shaeine had both approached, accompanied by F’thaan pacing between them. At a single hand gesture from Shaeine, he laid down on the floor, lowering his head to rest on his front paws, and Ravana experienced a moment of weary envy. If only all her human subjects were so well-trained… But the pair before her demanded her full attention; the drow was serene as ever, the human decidedly less so.

“That’s great, Ravana, be glib with me,” Teal said, uncharacteristically acerbic for her. “What is it about my face right now that makes you think that’s going to smooth this over? Just answer the question.”

“I’m afraid I’ll need you to be considerably more specific, Teal.”

Teal stared, incredulous. “Is this a joke to you?”

“I believe I informed you that this would be a working vacation for me. Do you have any idea how many thing I have done since breakfast? Even narrowing the field to those which would upset you is surprisingly unhelpful.”

“Is that so surprising, really?” Shaeine murmured. Ravana and Teal both gave her long looks of pure annoyance, under which she just smiled beatifically.

Teal drew in a breath, turning the force of her glare back on Ravana. “I’m told there was a protest outside the gates of Falconer Industries this morning.”

“Ah, yes, I heard about that,” Ravana said in her blandest tone. “Well, people are legally allowed to protest on public property, so long as they remain peaceful. I trust that was the case?”

“Are we really going to do this?” Teal exclaimed. “You know what, fine, I’ll play. Yes, it was peaceful, at first. People marched in a circle shouting and carrying signs, and while we could have called in police because they were blocking the main entrance, Dad decided to just route deliveries through side gates since there was nothing to be gained by agitating people more. But then some more folks joined in, hours after it had started, and wouldn’t you know it? Within minutes they started throwing rocks, and the police had to step in.”

“What contemptible behavior,” Ravana said seriously. “I do hope no one was harmed.”

Teal stared at her, then shifted her focus. “Yancey, I am an avowed pacifist. If I grab your boss and start shaking her, you can be assured that’s all I’m going to do.”

The Butler gave her a shallow bow. “It is not my place to intercede in horseplay between friends, madam. I do respectfully ask that you remain mindful of the Duchess’s dignity while in mixed company.”

“Yes, well,” Ravana said, permitting some annoyance to enter her tone, “if we are quite finished, I have innumerable things still to do today, many of which you would not enjoy seeing. If you will excuse me?”

“I have always admired your optimism, Ravana,” Shaeine said placidly.

“Oh, I wasn’t finished with my little story,” Teal snapped. “You see, Ravana, just because my dad is a little absent-minded does not mean Falconer Industries is managed by fools. Mom was having the whole situation watched very carefully, and you know some interesting stuff she spotted? People with lightcappers on the rooftops all around, House Madouri guards forming up in actual phalanxes in the alleys nearby long before any rock-throwing started. That was my favorite part, as I’m sure you can imagine. You know what your problem is, Ravana?”

“I am incredulous that you think you know what my problem is, Teal,” she said coolly. “But please, do go on. This promises to be most amusing.”

“You seem to think,” Teal said in just as frosty a tone, “that everybody who doesn’t share your reptilian approach to life—which is to say, everybody—is dumber than you. And in truth? You’re pretty transparent. I am not a politically acute specimen, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that. If I spotted your little game, you had better assume anyone with an interest in local politics did.”

That comment nettled, though Ravana did not betray it by so much as a twitch. “Well, then. Since you believe you have all the answers, I must wonder why you came here demanding to know what I did?”

“The lightcaps were to discredit the protesters, correct?” Shaeine asked, her tone a mild as ever. “I gather we can expect to see them in tomorrow’s papers, accompanying articles decrying this disruptive violence. A clever move, Ravana, if rather nearsighted.”

Ravana frowned, opening her mouth to answer, but Teal had already pushed ahead.

“Omnu’s breath, Ravana, those are your people! You’ve built your entire image on how well you take care of your citizens. Is that all a lie, or have you actually twisted it around in your head to the point where corrupting a peaceful demonstration so you can unleash shock troopers on them is somehow in their own best interests? Because frankly, I’d believe either.”

“I do say you are awfully exercised about this,” Ravana retorted. “Everyone at that asinine protest was given full medical care and then allowed to go home unrestrained. If they acquired some bruises as a prelude to that remarkably gentle handling, what of it? May I remind you, Teal, that these people were specifically protesting your existence? This was not about any policy or action of FI; they were agitated to demand your removal from the city.”

“They were agitated,” Shaeine repeated with emphasis. “For once, Ravana, think beyond the enemy right in front of you. Falconer Industries and its founding family are perhaps the only people in this province more well thought of than yourself; was that not the core of your father’s venom toward them? Surely it would demand more than the revelation of an awkward family secret to incite even that much meager outrage.”

“Archdemon’s a hell of a family secret,” Veilwin commented. Ravana turned a baleful look upon her Court Wizard, who was guzzling from her acrid-smelling silver flask and looking unconvincingly innocent.

“Indeed, and that is another point,” Shaeine continued. “Vadrieny made herself an extremely visible presence at the crises in Sarasio, Veilgrad, and Ninkabi. In point of fact, the recent event is not even the first time she forcibly apprehended a criminal in Tiraas itself. The last one, furthermore, was a soldier in the Imperial Army. She also damaged the pavement then, as I recall,” the drow added, shooting her wife a sidelong look. Teal grimaced. “And yet, somehow, it is this which incites people to worry about her? Or more specifically, incites the papers to begin reporting on the story of Vadrieny rather than repressing it.”

“That’s not so hard to understand,” said Ravana. “The story hasn’t been in papers yet because both the Empire and the Universal Church have used their influence to silence it. Clearly, one has lapsed.”

“Not lapsed,” Teal said grimly. “A lapse would still not have blown up like this, and a more belated suppression effort would have ensued as soon as those papers hit the newsstands, long before anyone could organize a protest. This is a reversal; one of the factions suppressing the story suddenly started pushing it, instead. I suspect you know which.”

“I am not completely thoughtless, Teal,” Ravana retorted. “Shut up, Veilwin. I did not make a public statement of support for Ingvar’s faction and against the orthodox Shaathists without expecting retaliation from their primary backer. Not to mention that I’m currently harboring all three paladins while they maneuver to undercut his influence within their cults—influence which we must assume means he has been forewarned of their efforts. Justinian sniping at me was inevitable; I am only surprised he chose you as the method. Though with you also in your classmates’ camp, perhaps that only makes sense.”

“But consider this,” said Shaeine. “The events you describe are developments specifically of the last week. I doubt you were anywhere on the Archpope’s agenda prior to that, as to the best of my knowledge you, like most aristocrats, have kept out of religious politics.” She waited for Ravana’s terse nod of agreement before going on. “Justinian is a careful operator who clearly makes plans over the span of years. Given your political power, throwing your hat into the ring means he has no choice but to begin dealing with you, but even under urgency, a man like that will examine you and act carefully. You are being studied, Ravana. He will continued to probe at you to watch how you respond.”

“Yes,” Ravana said impatiently, crossing her arms, “and today he learned that meddling in my affairs will be swiftly thwarted. I am satisfied with the day’s work.”

“That is one thing he has learned, yes,” Shaeine said relentlessly. “You have also shown that you can be very easily goaded into reacting with force, and that you are willing to attack your own people to snuff out a perceived threat. That is the first major weakness you have revealed, as your people are your entire power base, given House Madouri’s unpopularity among the other nobility. Were I in the Archpope’s position, the lesson I would have taken from this day’s work is that you can be prodded into undermining yourself.”

Ravana hesitated, narrowing her eyes, then turned her gaze on the source of the soft grunt of amusement that came from her right.

“What’re you glarin’ at me for?” Veilwin asked sardonically, taking another swig from her flask. “Everything they’ve said is right.”

“This is not the kind of issue you’re going to resolve with exercises of force,” Teal stated, recapturing her attention. “Even you don’t have the wherewithal to trade body blows with the Universal Church and come out on top. And more importantly, you’d lose that contest because Justinian is too smart to engage in a conflict of attrition, even one he can win. Look, Ravana, you’re not wrong to come out of the gate swinging; I think Triss, Gabe, and Toby would really appreciate having another source of pressure applied to him.”

“But?” she prompted sardonically.

“But, it’s not enough to just thwart his first feeler, for exactly that reason. You need to turn it around on him.”

“For your edification, that was my first thought, as well. The reason for that drama at the gates of FI was so I could have my witch scan every person at that rally for hostile intent and cast a tracing spell that would lead me from the planted agents back to the bigger fish. I don’t yet know how successful the plan was, because I have only just this moment returned from attending to yet another crisis on the far end of my province, and as someone intercepted me with loud complaints right in my very teleportation chamber…”

“All right, fair enough,” Teal said with a dour ghost of a smile. “And that’s a good start, but still. You can see how tenuous it is, right? Espionage and magical supremacy; that’s another game very few people are equipped to play against Justinian, not even you. There’s a better means of creating a real win from this.”

“I am terribly apprehensive,” Ravana said, “but…intrigued. Let us hear your idea, then, Teal.”

“Well, Ravana,” Teal said, her little smile widening without growing significantly warmer, “you might say I’ve taken a page from your book.”

“Hm,” Ravana murmured, staring at her. “I begin to see what you mean. That is viscerally horrifying and I haven’t even learned why yet.” Even Shaeine smiled at that; Veilwin snorted so hard she nearly choked on her…seriously, what was in that flask? Varnish remover?

“All I mean is that I’ve taken steps to do what I think is necessary without waiting to consult with you. Consider this from the standpoint of the people demonstrating, Ravana. They’re not sheep, which I know is what you were thinking; manipulation aside, it is not the least bit unreasonable to be concerned about the presence of an archdemon among them. So I’m going to allay the public’s concerns. I have rented out a theater near the factory for tonight, and had fliers printed. They’ll be put up within the hour. We are going to have us an old-fashioned town hall meeting. The people of Madouris can come and voice their concerns, and I will address them, in person. And, if things stay calm enough, so will Vadrieny.”

Ravana stared at her, aghast.

“The extremely short notice works to our advantage,” Shaeine added. “We’ve notified papers to have reporters on site, the better to further control the story that you’ve planted in tomorrow’s editions. Relatively few others, however, will learn of this in time to attend, which should inhibit the formation of a mob. There is a limit to what can be arranged in a few hours. Certain interested parties will plant agents, of course, giving us another chance to check for any who slipped your net—or cross-reference names of individuals who appear at both events.”

“Teal,” Ravana said weakly, “what’s a way to put this gently… No, it turns out there’s not one. This is a terrible idea. You cannot reason with a mob! You can possibly reason with an individual, if you are very lucky in whom you meet, but a group? The bigger they are, the more irrational—”

“And the more predictable,” Teal interrupted. “You’re right, crowds are purely emotional, and that means that no, you can’t reason with them. But you can manipulate them. Ravana, what is it you think a bard does?”

“At this moment the greater question is to what extent you qualify as a bard!”

Teal’s eyes cut past Ravana’s shoulder to her Butler. “Yancey, I’m gonna bonk her.”

“Do please exercise due restraint, Mrs. Falconer.”

“Don’t you da—” Ravana was interrupted again, this time by Teal lightly bringing down a fist atop her skull, nowhere near hard enough to hurt.

“Consider yourself bonked,” Teal said severely, “and refrain from further personal attacks, if you please.”

“I do believe that transgressed both the letter and the spirit of principled pacifism.”

“You’re fine.”

“You have mussed my hair, you lamentable hooligan!” she complained, reaching up to smooth down her coif.

“And somehow, the House of Madouri will soldier on. Ravana, this has been the focus of my entire last semester. Spiteful commentary aside, you’re not without a point; I haven’t done much of a job of being a bard worthy of the name, hence why I have been studying this using every resource Last Rock has. How familiar are you with the career of Laressa of Anteraas?”

“Laressa?” Ravana wrinkled her nose. “A unique historical figure, to be sure. Without doubt the most interesting Hand of Avei, though not one of the more effective.”

Teal and Shaeine shared a very meaningful, very married look, and Ravana had to suppress the sudden urge to slap it off both their faces.

“Principle is less relevant here than strategy,” Shaeine said, turning back to her. “I presume you can agree on that point?”

“I’m sure you’re aware that is a very familiar perspective for me.”

Teal nodded, making a wry expression for which Ravana chose not to call her out. “Strategic pacifism is another matter. Honestly, I think you’d quite like it if you gave it a chance.”

She arched one supercilious eyebrow. “I will entertain any philosophy which brings results. I cannot help thinking it is signification that this one has not come notably to my attention before now.”

“Of course it’s significant,” Teal snorted. “You like to hurt people, Ravana. You do it even to the point of sabotaging your own interests.”

“You are saying I’m some sort of sadist?” Ravana exclaimed, offended and openly letting it show through her aristocratic facade of poise.

“Sadistic, no,” said Shaeine. “Not necessarily. Vindictive? Very much so, often to excess.”

“Whenever you feel you’ve been thwarted or defied,” said Teal, “you strike back. As hard as you can, with whatever you can grab. It’s a known pattern, Ravana—and more to the point, it’s an exploitable weakness. You’d better believe the Archpope has taken note of it. If you mean to tangle with him, you need to break with old patterns, and not just because some of your patterns are particularly disturbing.”

“And this brings us, somehow, to pacifism,” Ravana said skeptically.

“Strategic pacifism,” Teal emphasized. “Which, in practice, is a matter of weaving traps around your enemies until any violent action on their part will cost them support, make them enemies, and hamper their ability to move. The proper application of strategic pacifism means building a cage of matchsticks around your foes so that they’ll break the bars without realizing that cage was the only thing keeping them out of the pit you’ve dug at their feet.”

“Evocative,” Ravana admitted. “But…”

“When I say the word ‘pacifist’ you probably imagine the Omnist or Izarite desire for everyone to just get along. That’s the mistake a lot of people make; it’s the mistake I made and committed to for an embarrassingly long time. Proper, effective pacifism is more in the Vesker and Vidian mold, arranging the very world around you so that people slide into the grooves you’ve laid out for them without realizing what you did. Laressa of Anteraas was probably the most effective Hand of Avei who ever lived, and the very fact that you don’t realize that is the lion’s share of why; neither did the long list of people she thwarted without ever having to draw their blood. Don’t take my word for it, Ravana, read up on her. What I’m talking about is an arsenal of weapons you would find very effective, if you weren’t so enamored of the idea of sticking it to those who’ve offended you.”

“More immediately,” Shaeine added before Ravana could give voice to the skepticism still on her face, “this is very much the strategy which has just been used against you. A very careful trap was arranged, and you reacted to it with force. Are you truly arrogant enough to assume that a planner capable of executing such a thing would have failed to research your established habits and anticipate what you would probably do? In the days to come, the backlash you have just created will threaten your own rule, Ravana. Unless you allow us to neutralize it, and turn this into a victory.”

“That’s all…very well,” she said slowly. “Your philosophy hangs together nicely, Teal, but philosophy is a tool with starkly limited utility. It is results I respect, and… Teal, I must be brutally honest with you. I doubt your ability to control a crowd.”

“Don’t,” Teal said immediately, wearing a calm and self-confident smile. Shaeine took her hand, her eyes warm and proud as she regarded her wife. “This is what I’ve been training for, Ravana. All this semester I’ve done research projects for Tellwyrn’s class on Vesker heroes, taken Rafe’s elective on public speaking, put off every core class to fill my schedule with bardic studies. I can understand your wariness; I know I spent a lot of time daydreaming out loud like a moony-eyed farmgirl. But that was then. I am ready for this.”

“She is,” Shaeine agreed, her voice soft but firm. “I acknowledge that I am in no way unbiased regarding Teal, but my people are ruthlessly practical, as you have cause to know, Ravana. We do not encourage our loved ones to take unwise risks, even at the expense of their egos. A Narisian would rather have a living and hale spouse with hurt feelings than the reverse, and I still marvel that so many humans seem to feel otherwise. She is capable of controlling that crowd.”

“It’s a performance,” Teal added, still smiling. “That’s all. Regardless of our differing opinions about people, I am not naive enough to put my trust in something so irrational as a mob. You don’t reason with crowds, and you don’t take them for granted, you’re right about that. You pull their strings, push their buttons, and make them do as you command. It’s a matter of technique. With all due respect, Ravana, I am probably better at it than you.”

Ravana held her gaze for a long moment, then shifted to regard Shaeine. The drow just nodded to her once. Sighing softly, she glanced to the side at Veilwin, who had retreated to slouch against one wall, and now shrugged at her. She did not look back at Yancey; he only occasionally rendered advice, but only when explicitly asked, and never in front of others.

“Well,” the Duchess said at last, “the reality is that you have rented this space and commissioned the fliers. It is within your legal right to host a public event, per the Writ of Duties and, somewhat more pragmatically speaking, your material resources and status in the province. I could not stop you without resorting to unfriendly measures which would create consequences I think you know I am not willing to embrace. The deal is, in a word, done.” She twisted her lips bitterly in an expression that only obliquely hinted at a smile. “A page from my book indeed.”

“And that is the point of this exactly,” Teal said, leveling a finger at her. “Yes, I could very easily have just up and done this, like you did with your stunt outside my family’s factory this very morning. Instead, I am here, informing you of my actions, so you can plan around them, and I that I can ask you to cooperate with me. Surely you can see it’s insanity for us to constantly trip each other up when we have exactly the same enemy. Quite part from being stupid, that’s handing him a perfect weapon to turn against us.”

“Again, yes, philosophically you make a compelling case, but I am not sure I see the relevance. What is it you are asking of me, exactly? Just to stay out of your way? You’ve already seen to it I have little choice; this seems to be rubbing salt in the wound.”

Teal clapped a hand over her eyes, leaning her head back with a dramatic groan. Shaeine just sighed and shook her head. On the floor between their feet, F’thaan raised his head, looking up at his people in concern.

“I am going to slap you both!” Ravana exclaimed.

“I would welcome that,” Shaeine told her with a shallow bow and a benign smile that managed to suggest mockery without being overt enough to be called out; she was almost as good at that as a Butler. “It would be perhaps the first show of genuine emotion you have ever granted either of us. Which is not to say I would permit you to do it, of course.”

“Ravana…” Teal dragged her hand down her face. “Could you please, for just one moment, try to see the world through the eyes of someone who had been hugged once or twice as a child?”

“That does it! Veilwin, hex her!”

“Fuck off,” her employee snorted. “You are not rich enough to hire me to cast shit at an archdemon.”

“That was needlessly spiteful, my love,” Shaeine agreed with gentle reproach.

“You’re right, I apologize, Ravana, that was over the line. But you are just so frustrating!” Teal mimed a grabbing motion with both hands, as if throttling an imaginary Duchess. “Not everyone who contradicts your wishes is an enemy! Quite often, the opposite; I am trying to help you.”

“What we ask,” Shaeine said more smoothly, “is restraint. We want you to trust that we know what we are doing, and stay your hand while we make the attempt. This maneuver has been planned carefully; if it fails, the situation will not have markedly changed, and you can proceed as you were. But if it succeeds, it will change the landscape, to your benefit. Please have faith in Teal, Ravana. Watch, wait, and let her work.”

“And if this does work,” Teal added, “I want you to remember it. And don’t ever again stick your fingers unilaterally into Falconer business. Work with us, not around us. I promise everything will go much better with us working together than trying to one-up each other in some asinine game of checkers with Madouris as the board. The truth is, Ravana, I haven’t been a very good friend to you, or a particularly good ally. You deserve the credit for being the one to reach out. I’m trying to meet you halfway, but for that to work, you can’t just reach from atop your throne. Work with me.”

The Duchess hesitated, again glancing back and forth between them. “Faith…is not something which comes…naturally to me.”

“I know,” Teal said simply. “And more to the point, you have excellent reason for your general feeling that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. But having excellent reasons doesn’t make it true, Ravana. Trust me, and let me handle this. Let it be the start of a better working relationship.”

“The consequences if you fail…”

“Are as I said,” Shaeine reminded her gently. “No worse than the situation as it stands now. She must prove herself at some point, and there may never be a better opportunity.”

Ravana’s thin shoulders shifted once in a soft sigh. “All right, Teal. Shaeine. All that being said, I suppose I cannot reasonably deny you. I’ll stay my hand, for now, and watch what you accomplish tonight. Tomorrow, when the results begin to take shape… We shall see. You deserve that much trust, at least.”

They both smiled at her.

“You will not regret this,” Teal promised.

“I very much fear I shan’t have time to. This has all been very profound and cathartic, but at this moment I have to receive reports on a dozen urgent matters, prepare myself to attend a politically crucial social event in Veilgrad this evening, and it seems there is also an unconfirmed but not inconsiderable possibility that the world is ending. I feel someone really ought to address that. Now then, if you will excuse me?”

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“Just who I was looking for, in fact.” Sister Magden stepped forward, grim-faced and blade first. “To begin with—”

“Back off!” Zafi barked, lunging in front of Rasha and bringing up her sword in a guard position. “You get one chance to back down, lady.”

Magden stopped, looking incredulous. Then she glanced at her own longsword and blinked as if surprised to find herself brandishing it. To Rasha’s surprise, the priestess lowered the weapon.

“Ah…excuse me, that wasn’t… Well, regardless, I need to speak with—”

“Back. Away.” Zafi pressed forward, raising her short sword again.

Despite having her own guard lowered, Magden spared the other woman’s blade a scant glance, looking only miffed and not the least bit worried. It was not lost on any of them present that she was an Eagle Style duelist facing a young graduate of Legion basic training who didn’t even have her shield.

“Regardless of anything you witnessed in the sanctuary yesterday, Private, you are speaking to a priestess of Avei. I suggest you lower your…”

Pounding feet from behind them made her eyes shift past Zafi’s shoulder. Rasha steeled herself, tucking her chilly fingers into her sleeves to touch the metal secured there, while Zafi looked rapidly back and forth in apparent panic, visibly coming to grips with the fact that she couldn’t cover Rasha from both directions.

The two white-robed Purists slowed to a stop rather than attacking, though; one was carrying one of those longswords, but the other appeared unarmed.

“Sister Magden!”

“Farzi, Janelle,” Magden replied, narrowing her eyes. “What’s all this, now?”

“I knew you’d come,” the woman with the sword said eagerly. “Don’t let them past! The others will catch up, and we can finish this.”

“Finish?” Magden’s voice rose in pitch and volume. “I hope that does not mean what it sounds like, sister.”

The two Purists both frowned. Rasha and Zafi shifted position subtly, catching the mood, directing more of their attention away from Magden, the apparent lesser threat.

“It’s just…it’s just a last detail,” the other Purist said, her voice firming up as she spoke. “One thing to be cleaned up.”

Magden’s eyes cut to Rasha and then back to her fellow priestesses. Incredible as it seemed, her expression was growing more furious by the second.

“Oh, yes? A little detail, to be cleaned up. With your sword, in some dark alley, while the detail is running away from you. Forgive me, sisters, I think there’s some confusion here. Whose priestess do you claim to be now? Because when we last spoke, you served the goddess of justice.”

“Well, blow me down,” Zafi mumbled, catching Rasha’s eye sidelong. “Is one of ‘em actually gonna be reasonable?”

Her voice had been low, and it was probably fortunate that none of the Avenists responded to the comment, or appeared to notice.

“I thought you were with us, Sister Magden,” the Purist with the sword said, having the effrontery to sound hurt. “If you’re not— What are you even doing here?”

“I was just asking myself that,” Magden snapped. “Now it seems the goddess directed me here. I am doing as a priestess of Avei should. What are you doing here?”

“Ambushing a civilian with intent to abduct or assault,” Rasha said with a pleasant smile. “They also deliberately deceived Imperial police with criminal intent. Would you like to know the established penalty for all of that? We are taught such details in my faith. Of course, it would likely be lesser for you. Magistrates are usually lenient with Avenists, especially clerics.”

All three priestesses turned baleful looks on her, and Zafi added an incredulous one. Rasha kept her hands hanging at her sides, clinging to her serene bearing as Glory had trained her. Folding her hands demurely at her waist would have better heightened the effect, but this way she could keep her concealed knives ready to deploy.

“Maybe,” Magden said in a dangerous tone, “you should shut up before you somehow make this even worse. In fact, that’s enough of all of this. You two, Private and…thief. We’re leaving.”

“They’re not leaving!” snarled the sword-carrying Purist, taking a compulsive step forward and raising her weapon.

“Are you forgetting who taught you to use that sword, Farzi?” Magden said contemptuously. “Lower it before you embarrass us both any further. If you can belatedly summon the sense to drop this nonsense, I will report it as a lapse in judgment rather than the premeditated abrogation of your vows it looks like.”

More shapes loomed up out of the darkness behind them, these approaching at a less breakneck pace, but the three additional ex-Purists who now stepped forward arrived in time to hear Magden’s last statement. All five were now glaring—at her, rather than Rasha for a change. Two of the new arrivals had swords; the third carried a wand.

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” the woman who by default had to be Sister Janelle hissed. “You’re— You of all people, Magden! You cannot possibly side with this…this creature over your own Sisters!”

“The creature in question hasn’t committed any crime, or harmed anyone,” Magden shot back, “and even if he—sh—even if that were true, nothing justifies Sisters of Avei murdering people in alleys! What are you all even thinking?! Just being here… Avei commanded our order to disperse! Avei! The Goddess herself!”

That seemed to bring them pause, but only for a moment.

“Gods are…difficult creatures,” said one of the new arrivals, pushing to the front of their group with her sword still held at her side. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand, sister, given your special fields of study, but you know I am a student of theology. It’s a known fact that the commands of deities can be influenced by the way they are invoked. We can’t consider it definitive when Trissiny Avelea called down judgment while we know her sympathies were already tainted by…this one.”

She sneered overtly at Rasha, who didn’t spare her a glance, being focused on the one with the wand.

“Is that a fact,” Magden said in deadly quiet.

Golden light blossomed in the alley.

Everyone present shied back and shaded their eyes for the seconds it took them to adjust, Zafi and a few of the Purists with hisses of displeasure. Sister Magden had lit up with a golden halo of pure divine light as she channeled energy actively without yet directing it. Pushing forward between Rasha and Zafi, utterly ignoring any threat they might have presented her, the priestess planted herself between them and her own former comrades.

The second she was clear, the light around her hardened into a golden sphere.

“I stand with Avei,” Magden’s voice rang through the cold alleyway. “I serve Avei, and an oath of service is not suspended when I am ordered to do something I happen not to like! I’m confident I remain in the goddess’s good graces, sisters. It’s far simpler to obey her commands than to rationalize why I shouldn’t have to. But if your faith is wavering, don’t take my word for it! You can call judgment down on yourselves, you know.”

The five of them shuffled backward. Magden gave them no quarter, taking a step to maintain the distance.

“Well?” she barked. “I note none of you have called on the goddess’s light. Why? Is there some reason you fear to draw her attention? Are you perhaps doing something right this minute you know to be wrong?”

The woman in the lead drew a deep breath and let it out in a puff of mist, her expression hardening, and raised her sword.

“I don’t want it to come to this, Magden,” she said coldly, “but anyone not with us is against us.”

Magden’s sword flashed in a horizontal arc that impacted hers with a furious clash, and the other woman was sent stumbling against one of the alley’s walls by the force. Magden, in addition to her mastery of the sword, had clearly trained in the knack of modulating a divine shield to let her attack through it while blocking outside forces.

“Avei is against you,” she stated. “I didn’t want it to come to this either, sisters, but if this is where you must plant your flag, I like my chances.”

The woman in the lead quickly recovered her feet, and the two others with swords hesitated, visibly recalculating their odds against their order’s finest swordswoman in a cramped alley, but Rasha was still not watching them. Most of what she knew of divine shields came from correspondence with Trissiny, according to whom a paladin’s barrier could stand up to a lot, but an average cleric’s shield would rapidly decay if subjected to point blank wandfire. So, when the Purist with the wand took aim at Magden, Rasha flung out her own arm.

It wasn’t one of her better throws; her fingers were half-numb from being bare in the cold. The throwing knife struck the woman in the upper chest where it wouldn’t do much damage, but at least the blow succeeded in making her stagger back with a shriek. Lightning flashed deafeningly in the confined space, punching a crater in one wall a few feet above their heads and showering them all with fragments of brick.

For doubtless the first and likely the last time, Rasha, Zafi, and Magden all had the same thought. All three turned and dashed away up the alley, the two of them not needing Magden’s shouted order to flee. Rasha saved her breath for running, but privately had to wonder whether Magden was uncertain of their chances against five of them or was just reluctant to take a blade to women she likely still thought of as friends.

Unfortunately, she also seemed to presume herself to be in charge, and pushing her way up the alley behind them surrounded by a bubble of hard light gave her more authority than she perhaps deserved.

“Take this right!” she ordered as a gap in the wall loomed up.

“No,” Zafi shouted back, “keeping left will lead us to—”

“Do as you are told, Private!” In a frustratingly impressive display of Lightworking skill, she dropped the shield to dart forward and to their left, swelling it again to push both of them into her chosen alley.

Rasha hissed in wordless displeasure, but didn’t try to fight, as that would only let their pursuers catch up. She was inclined to chalk this up to Magden’s naive arrogance and presumption that she was automatically in command. A crafty enemy might have used this whole incident to earn trust in order to get them alone for an assassination, but by Rasha’s reading the woman didn’t have that kind of subtlety in her. So far, the extent of Purist cleverness seemed to be setting up ambushes that anyone could have warned them were sure to backfire. Hell, their best case scenario if they succeeded in what they were trying to do here was Trissiny hunting them all down like stray dogs.

Magden immediately revealed the reason for her insistence by kicking over the stack of crates lurking in the mouth of this side alley, forming an impromptu obstruction that would definitely not inhibit their foes enough to have been worth this detour, and Rasha privately decided that next time she was going to follow her own damn path if it meant she had to stab the woman. Incompetent help was basically the same as another enemy.

“This is insanity,” Magden snarled at no one in particular as they pounded down this new back alley in the wrong direction. “What are they thinking? Avei spoke to us! The Goddess herself! I didn’t like it either, but nobody needs to like it. She’s the Goddess! The subject is closed!”

“It’s pretty normal, actually,” Rasha puffed, annoyed that Magden was less out of breath with this exertion than she was. The priestess’s legs were a lot longer; Rasha had to take more steps faster to keep up. “If you conclusively debunk something somebody really wants to believe, they’re not likely to change their minds. Most will get mad and dig their heels in, start massaging reality until it looks more like they want it to. Honestly, the fact you actually did what Avei said shows unusual character.”

“I do not need validation from you,” Magden spat, giving her a bitter scowl.

“Okay, maybe not too much character,” Rasha allowed.

“If you’re not with them, why are you looking for Rasha?” Zafi demanded.

“I need to speak with General Avelea,” Magden grated. “And it turns out a Sister of Avei like myself has less direct access to her than some Eserite…person.”

“Then how’d you know to look for me here?” Rasha exclaimed.

“A few minutes ago I met a scruffy man wearing half a tuxedo who said you’d be down these alleys. I assumed he was sending me into some manner of ambush, but I was in a mood to vivisect a few muggers anyway, so here we are. The Goddess works mysteriously at times.”

“I’m not sure that’s the deity you’re working with right now,” Zafi muttered.

Then the three of them had to skid to a stop, Rasha nearly losing her balance on a patch of ice until Zafi caught her. The alley had abruptly opened up into a kind of courtyard surrounded on all sides by four-story structures, each with a rear loading door facing the cul de sac. There was, or at least had once been, another alley leading out of it in the opposite direction, but someone had built a ten-foot-tall wooden slat fence across it at some point. That looked dubiously climbable, at best, and definitely too tall to jump.

“Oh, good,” Zafi exclaimed. “I’m just so glad we went this way instead of staying left! Just think, we could be back on a main street with police now instead of trapped like rats, and wouldn’t that be awful.”

“Young woman,” Magden shot back, “if you cannot find something more—”

“Shut up!” Rasha barked at both of them, already heading to her left. “Try these doors, we only need one unlocked!”

None were unlocked, of course. Most didn’t even have handles on this side.

Zafi began pounding on one with her fist, loudly demanding it to be opened, while Rasha swiftly crossed to the only door with a visible keyhole and knelt, already extracting her lockpicks from their hidden pocket. All the other doors were clearly meant to be openable only from the inside. She set to work, both annoyed about what the filthy floor of this alley was now doing to the hem of her dress and grateful the lock was an old-fashioned one any idiot could have picked. All she needed was a minute…

And naturally, that was also a forlorn hope. The angry Purists pounded into the alley—now there were six of them—and immediately fanned out in the open space, raising weapons. Magden and Zafi pivoted and brought up their own blades in readiness, and Rasha wasted precious seconds pausing to reach for her remaining throwing knives before deciding that getting this door open was a better use of her abilities.

The woman who’d argued with Magden was still in the lead and now opened her mouth to deliver another no doubt riveting spiel, but then gasped, raising her eyes to the top of the wooden fence.

Their only warning was a clatter of bodies rapidly clambering up something stacked against it—of course, there’d be a convenient path up the other side—and then yet another white-robed priestess of Avei vaulted over the top, this one a Westerner with a multitude of narrow braids flying about her head.

She hit the floor in a roll and charged forward. Zafi pivoted to slash at her, but the priestess flowed under the relatively clumsy swing as if she were made of water and kept going. Magden turned, sword upraised, but the new priestess did not join the others in attacking her.

On the contrary. Before they could react, the woman ducked under the Purist leader’s stab and simultaneously ripped the sword out of her hands while dropping the woman with a knife-handed jab to the throat. She moved like no one Rasha had ever seen in a fight, flinging the confiscated sword almost contemptuously and yet nailing another Purist on the skull with its heavy pommel while turning to barehandedly disable a third.

With a roar, another woman in a white robe under a more mundane winter coat hit the ground from the fence and charged forward. She moved with much less grace, slamming fist-first into the only Purist who didn’t have a weapon and sending her reeling backward.

A beam of clean white light flashed silently through the air, piercing the hand of the woman who had been taking aim with her lightning wand, which she dropped with another shriek of pain; despite being the most dangerously armed member of her group, she was not having good luck today. Turning to look in the direction the shot had come from, Rasha could only gape in surprise.

“Joe!”

“Hey, Rasha!” Joseph Jenkins said cheerfully, hopping down from atop the fence while another young woman with a Legion short sword bounded over it right after him. “Sorry to leave it so close. Seems we’re cursed with dramatic timing.”

“This behavior is utterly contemptible,” stated the dark-skinned woman who had just taken down four fellow priestesses with her bare hands in a few seconds. Two were clearly unconscious and the rest had been disarmed; all who could still walk were frantically backing away now. “I urge you to submit to citizen’s arrest, sisters. Penance begins a path to redemption.”

“Fuck that, let’s beat ‘em up for a while longer,” suggested the other new priestess, grinning and raising both her fists. “Asskicking is good for—”

“Heel, Shay,” ordered the teenage girl who incongruously seemed to be in charge of this lot. “That’s more than enough carnage. Bandi, is that one going to die?”

“Possibly,” the martial artist allowed, dispassionately studying the fallen Purist who was struggling to breathe around a damaged windpipe. “That would be unfortunate; permission to render healing?”

“Please do. Let’s not have any corpses here.”

“Finally, a voice of reason!”

“Oh, what the hell now,” Zafi demanded as the retreating Purists flocked away from the alley mouth, leaving one of their number sprawled insensate on the ground and another clutching her neck while Bandi knelt beside her, applying golden light to the injury from her hands.

Of all things, two Huntsmen of Shaath entered the courtyard from behind them.

“Unbelievable,” Magden hissed, raising her sword again.

“Now, now, Sister, let’s have peace,” the Huntsman in the lead said in the same smooth tone with which he had already interrupted them. “I think all of this has gotten more than sufficiently out of hand, don’t you? I propose everyone take a moment to breathe and find some calm. Brother Arlund, would you kindly make sure the fallen Sister here is all right?”

“Don’t you touch her!” one of the other Purists squawked while the second Huntsman strode forward to bend over their unconscious comrade.

“I assure you Arlund would never handle a woman, or anyone, with anything less than the utmost respect,” the more loquacious Huntsman said in a soothing tone.

He actually stood out, to the eyes of anyone familiar with Huntsmen of Shaath. The man was neatly groomed, his winter tunic boasted subtle embroidery in the elven style, his long hair was tied back in a tight tail and his beard gathered into a chest-length braid, and even his traditional bearskin cloak appeared to have been brushed. He also spoke with a smooth, cultured intonation at odds with the (mostly accurate) popular conception of Shaathists as scruffy outdoorsmen.

Unlike Arlund, who looked up from the fallen woman with a much more characteristic grunt. “She breathes. Took a knot to the temple. Head injuries need quick treatment, but mostly likely she’ll be fine.”

“Now that is a relief,” his companion said with evident sincerity. “Sisters, perhaps it would be best if you withdrew your friend from the line of fire, as it were? That is, if these good people will kindly stand down,” he added with a courteous bow toward Magden.

“Whaddaya think, Casey?” Joe asked. He had not put away his wand, but was currently aiming it at the ground.

“I think they’re beyond the point of any funny business,” Casey said, watching the Shaathists warily as Arlund stepped back and the Purists began to edge forward. “There’s absolutely no justification for denying someone healing. Speaking of, Bandi, how is she?”

“Serviceable,” Bandi reported, also retreating from the oncoming Purists and Shaathists while the woman she’d been treating now backed away. “She is in no danger, though I imagine that is still uncomfortable.”

To judge by the way the priestess continued to clutch her neck while glaring daggers at Bandi, she was correct.

“Good,” Casey said curtly. “Please be more careful in the future, the last thing I need is you killing someone by accident. Now, then, I don’t know what business Huntsmen have in this, but with all due respect, you need to back off. We’re taking these women to the Imperial authorities.”

“I wonder if that is the best use of everyone’s time?” the more talkative Huntsman asked with a calm smile, while Arlund lurked behind his shoulder, glaring at them. “Here we stand amid the ruins of multiple grievous errors in judgment. Does it not seem to you that it’s best we all step back and allow one another to depart in peace?”

“Yeah, that’s not on the table,” Casey stated. “Thanks for your help, but we’ve got it from here.” Magden nodded in agreement.

“Ah, forgive me, I have failed to express myself clearly,” he said, his smile not diminishing. “We in Shaath’s service are men of action, not of words.”

Everyone’s eyes shifted, and he half-turned to follow their gaze. Then his smile widened and he turned back to Casey while three more longbow-wielding Huntsmen paced silently out of the alley behind them.

“No one is taking anyone into custody.”

This unusual Huntsman might be polite, even suave, but he was definitely not obsequious. He held Casey’s gaze, clearly having pinned her as the person in charge despite Magden’s puffing up, and the two stared one another down in a mute contest of wills. Her expression was icily blank, while he managed to keep smiling even as his eyes silently offered the very violence from which he was courteously urging that they all abstain.

“Are you certain,” Casey asked at last, in the same tone of deadly quiet, “you want to embrace the consequences of your actions here, Huntsman?”

“That is tomorrow’s hunt, miss,” he replied politely, inclining his head. “Here and now? Surely it is best that we all refrain from exacerbating this…misunderstanding. It seems to me we have been lucky there has been no more serious injury, yet. Just a little more aggression from anyone present would imperil that clean record.”

“This one sure does talk fancy,” Shay observed. “They aren’t breeding Shaathists like they used to, I guess.”

“The wolves of Shaath hunt with Ingvar, now,” Joe drawled, twirling his wand. “All that’s left under Veisroi are the tame dogs.”

“Joe,” Casey growled as four of the Huntsmen present turned to him with bared teeth, one raising his bow.

“I should hope,” the leader said, more loudly but still calmly, “that I can count on the men of Shaath to show more character than to rise to childish insults. Someone here must be the adult, after all. Now then, I believe it’s past time we separated these groups of people who so clearly do not enjoy sharing space. Ladies, after you.”

He turned to the Purists, bowing respectfully and gesturing toward the alley mouth, which his followers had just shifted aside from.

“Are we lettin’ ‘em go?” Shay demanded, turning to Casey.

“Well, he’s not wrong,” Casey replied, still staring at the smooth-talking Huntsman. “If this becomes a real fight… No matter who wins, everyone loses.”

He smiled and favored her with a deep nod. She just narrowed her eyes, and kept staring until the Huntsmen and Purists had all filed off up the alley. He was the last to go, giving her a final smile over his shoulder.

At last, Casey heaved a sigh. “Fuck, that was closer than I like ‘em. Rasha, are you okay?”

“Well, my date was interrupted,” Rasha said, indulging in a bit of petulance now that the danger seemed past, “but otherwise, this has been no worse than some decent exercise.” Zafi chuckled, stepping over to take her hand. “Excuse me… Casey, was it? This is embarrassing; I’m certain I know you from somewhere, but I can’t recall exactly.”

“My squad threw you in jail once,” Casey said with a wry smile.

“Oh, that’s right!”

“Does that really narrow it down?” Magden asked acerbically.

“Maybe not, but then we made her muck out a stable. Tends to leave an impression. Who’s this, then?”

“This is Sister Magden,” Rasha introduced her. “A former big name among the Purists who now…I think…ison our side?”

“I am on Avei’s side,” Magden corrected with barely-repressed dislike. “Even if that puts me in…strange company.”

“Strange company ‘bout sums it up, no offense,” Joe commented.

“Okay, that’s a sufficient amount of banter,” Casey stated. “This looks like it’s gonna need to be a long-ish conversation. Let’s have it someplace less frigid, shall we?”

“Heh, that’s what she s—”

“Shut up and march, Shay!”

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