16 – 8

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“Ninetails,” Glory said, her expression conveying both resignation and annoyance. “Yes, I’m sure. Trust me, the description is…unmistakable.”

“Is she…?” Rasha reached up to tap her own temple with a fingertip.

“Impossible to say, really,” her sponsor mused. “She is either unhinged in a very specific manner which does not inhibit and in fact often aids in her work as an enforcer, or faking it for effect. I rather suspect the latter, but at this point, I doubt that even she knows for sure. Ninetails has been the way she is since her apprentice days. It’s as the Vidians say: wear the mask, become the mask. Of more immediate concern, I apparently need to have words with her about the handling of other people’s apprentices.”

“I don’t want to be the cause of inter-Guild drama,” Rasha said hesitantly. “I feel like we all got our fill of that last year.”

“It isn’t your fault,” Glory said. “Whether or not, academically, Ninetails had reason to call you down for your actions, that was not an acceptable way to go about it. Unless you exaggerated in your description of her behavior?”

“I didn’t,” Rasha assured her swiftly. “But I also didn’t think it was all that bad. It’s not like she hurt me or anything.”

“Hell, Style’s done worse than that to all of us,” Tallie added, pausing in her reflective pacing before the fireplace to grin at Rasha. “It’s pretty much how she says hello.”

“Not since I took you in, you’ll note,” Glory replied. “It’s not an ethical matter, Rasha; we’re Eserites, we play roughly. This is expected. Call it a territorial concern. An enforcer manhandling my apprentice is not only an insult, if left unaddressed it stands to cost me face in a manner which may have an actual effect on my ability to work. More importantly, as an enforcer Ninetails is fully aware of this. I will have from her either an apology or an extremely persuasive explanation accounting for profoundly extenuating circumstances.”

“Uh, how lucid is this woman, exactly?” Darius asked. “Cos expecting forethought from a known crazy person…”

“Nobody knows, Darius,” Layla said primly. “Glory just went over that, do try to pay attention.”

“It’s a pretty good grift,” Tallie mused, beginning to pace again. “I bet you can get away with a lot if nobody knows how mentally culpable you are.”

“It’s good to study the methods of others, Tallie, but I don’t think that particular approach suits your personality,” Glory cautioned.

Tallie winked at her. “Way ahead of you, boss.”

“Anything else, Rasha?” Glory asked, returning her focus to her first apprentice. “Any comment on your performance requires an accurate description. If you feel you’ve left anything out, now is the time.”

“I don’t…think so,” Rasha said hesitantly. She at least did not shift or fidget, the practice of Glory’s relentless social drilling kicking in, and belatedly she banished the hesitation from her voice, meeting her trainer’s eyes evenly. “I went over it all the way home, and I still think that woman was over the line. But there were obviously other things going on that I’m not aware of, and… Well, I’ve recounted it to the best of my memory.”

“You have a tendency to second-guess yourself, Rasha,” Glory said, inclining her head slightly. “It can be an asset, so long as you are careful to do so intellectually and not emotionally; that is the difference between analyzing one’s performance for ways to improve, and self-destructive navel gazing. In this case, based upon your description, I believe your performance deserves some critique, but not castigation. This is why I asked: not because I doubt you, but because I agree that Ninetails was out of order, and I mean to tell her so. I’ll be rather miffed if I find out in the middle of that conversation that things are not as I was informed.”

“I haven’t deceived you, Glory,” Rasha stated, lifting her chin.

“Very good,” Glory said, granting her a smile. “Then what do you think you could have done better?”

Rasha took a steadying breath and let it out softly. “Perhaps I was a little too aggressive. Those ridiculous women urgently needed to be taken down a peg, and that was my instinctive response. Maybe, in hindsight, I wasn’t the best person to take on that task.”

“Rasha,” Darius chuckled, “too aggressive. Look how much our girl’s grown up!”

Layla and Tallie shot him matching looks, and for a moment there was silence in the room, penetrated only by the ticking of the grandfather clock behind Glory’s chair. As often when speaking to all of her apprentices, she had gathered them in the third-floor solarium adjacent to her bedroom, which was laid out in a comfortable fashion as a small private parlor, cozy without being crowded with the five present and even leaving Tallie room to pace, as she preferred to do while thinking. It was an especially peaceful scene today, with the fresh snow blanketing the rooftops visible through the glass wall. Tiraas did not stop or even appreciably slow when snowed upon, but it certainly looked cleaner, especially from above.

“Darius,” Glory finally said in a neutrally pleasant tone.

“Sorry,” he said, grimacing. “Don’t mind me, please continue.”

“Goading those women into an aggressive act would be the appropriate strategy for an enforcer,” Glory said, returning her attention to Rasha. “You have deliberately focused your learning on more cerebral styles, and should draw upon them first.”

“I couldn’t…bring myself to back down from those…people,” Rasha admitted with a slight strain in her voice.

Her sponsor’s answering smile was understanding. “Indeed, and that’s the spirit that drew you to me in the first place. An Eserite does not back down. But even the most brutal knuckleduster in the Guild is expected to act with strategy, and a head-on confrontation is generally not the best approach to even a seemingly simple fight. To step backward is not necessarily to retreat. To control the fight, one must first control one’s own footing.”

“Do you think they would actually have attacked Rasha?” Layla asked, wearing a puzzled frown. “The temple would have been crawling with Silver Legionnaires; they’d be set upon instantly. Surely they couldn’t have been so foolish.”

“These Purists are religious fanatics, Layla,” Glory said seriously. “There is no more dangerous creature in existence, and all the more so if they are foolish.”

“Huh?” Tallie halted her pacing again, tilting her head. “How’s that work? Generally you don’t want smarter enemies.”

“Boss lady’s right,” Darius said quietly. “We’ve got more reason than most to know it. Remember last year? We were chased around by highly professional Svennish intelligence agents, and they were damn hard to shake and required calling in major help. In the end we won, though. Then we were chased around by asshat Church conspirators who didn’t know what the fuck they were doing at any point, and they went down fast and hard, but not before we lost a friend.”

Another silence fell, this one more dour.

“Precisely so,” Glory said softly after giving them a moment to reflect. “A clever foe poses an ultimately greater challenge, but in the end, rational people are inherently predictable up to a point. Someone driven by passion and unencumbered by reason might do absolutely anything at all; it is impossible to plan for insanity. It is a mistake to force a physical confrontation to people like the Purists unless one has taken care to lay the groundwork beforehand, and drawn them into an ambush in which one controls the field. If it is they who take the initiative, better to back away for the time being and seek redress later, with care and forethought. For now, Rasha,” she continued with a reassuring smile, “I am satisfied with your performance today. You miscalculated, but you learned from it, and that is an apprentice’s first and foremost job.”

“Thank you,” Rasha said, bowing her head graciously. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“For now,” Glory went on, her expression growing serious again, “we must consider our next action with regard to these…people.”

“Is it necessary for us to take action?” Layla asked pointedly. “Or…wise? Apart from how dangerous this fringe sect are or aren’t, they seem like an internal Avenist matter, so long as Rasha avoids getting drawn into another trap. As you may recall, we have been spoken to about sticking our noses into the business of other cults.”

“I fear we may not have that luxury,” Glory replied. “To be sure, I will consult with Sweet about this rather than charge into the Sisterhood’s affairs unprepared. But the fact is, these women know who Rasha is, and more troublingly, were able to arrange to intercept her. It wasn’t wise of them to do so in the Temple of Avei; it is chillingly possible that they may have figured this out, and might take steps to catch her elsewhere. For the time being, I want none of you to go anywhere alone. In pairs at the very least, and preferably all four.”

“Oh, good,” Darius groaned. “Going everywhere with my little sister and two other girls. This’ll be great for my social life.”

“See, it’s funny,” Tallie said with a cheeky grin, “cos it’s not like he ever meets girls anyway.”

“It’s just a short-term precaution until we know more,” Glory assured him with an amused smile. “I will see what Sweet knows of these women, and we will of course also ask Thorn when she visits this week.”

“Great,” Darius grunted, looking even more sour than before. “Once again, it’s our pet paladin to save our asses.”

“Oh, I do hope so,” Layla said sweetly. “I just never tire of hearing your whingeing about it.”

“You are not without a point, Darius,” said Glory, “but take it in moderation. Knowing a paladin is a priceless asset, if leveraged correctly and not overly relied upon. We hardly turn to Trissiny to solve all our problems, but she is extremely relevant to this one in particular.”

“Extremely,” Rasha agreed. “The Purists made it clear they’re mostly irate about her, and my insidious Eserite influence on her. It seems not everybody buys this Great Uniter shtick that’s been in the papers.”

Darius rolled his eyes melodramatically.

“That is my concern precisely,” said Glory. “They have connected you to Trissiny despite you having had no in-person contact with her in a year; the last time we saw her face to face, the Purists were still scattered to the winds and a political concern to nobody. It is precisely this which makes me think we are seeing the resurgence of old problems, rather than entirely new ones. I’ve heard mention of these Purists off and on for years, but more as a punchline than a threat. Even their name is a derisive label thrown by other Avenists, not something they created themselves. They were a fringe belief, rarely more than one or two of them existing in a temple with little formal contact between them. Now, quite suddenly, they are organized and in Tiraas in their entire force. More strikingly, according to Rasha, they have uniforms. None of that simply happens, unassisted.”

“You think they have backers, with resources,” Tallie said, frowning.

Glory nodded. “The loyalist conspiracy was annihilated…allegedly. I am reasonably sure that what they knew, Archpope Justinian knows. He has made it abundantly clear since this summer that he is displeased with the Sisterhood, and it would be precisely his pattern to arrange for extra pressure upon them which cannot be easily linked to him.”

“Fuck,” Darius said with feeling. “That guy again.”

“Yeah, this is lookin’ more and more like a Trissiny thing,” Tallie observed.

“By the same token,” said Layla, “is it not possible that this is a ploy to draw her into some kind of trap?”

“Possible indeed,” Glory said, nodding. “Be careful not to get too far into the weeds with conspiracy theories, however. Really complex and excessively indirect plots rarely work out in practice, the world is just too unpredictable. We’ll speak with Thorn in a few days at most, and see what she knows and thinks about this. I will consult Sweet in the meantime. Only then, when we possess a better view of the situation, will we take action. If nothing else, I must have some time to listen to the grapevine and see what role the Guild plays in this.”

“What’s the Guild got to do with any of it?” Darius asked. “Didn’t we just decide this is an Avenist problem?”

“I doubt the Guild has anything directly to do with the Purists, or the reverse,” Glory agreed with a thoughtful frown. “However, there is the matter that relations between the Guild and the Sisterhood are both paramount and necessarily tense right now.”

“Ninetails mentioned that,” Rasha said, nodding.

“Precisely,” said Glory. “And her territorial attitude toward you indicates that you stepped into a job she considers her own. Do you not think it odd, then, that the Boss would send a notably unstable enforcer to conduct relations with the Sisterhood at a time like this?”

Silence fell again, this one especially pensive.

“There are several things going on here,” Glory said grimly. “We don’t yet know the half of it. But we will. And when we do…then we shall do what needs to be done.”


“Fancy shmancy,” Style drawled, perusing the bottle’s label while pouring herself a glass of sparkling wine. “Real Glassian gold, huh. Dulac, 526? What the hell are they counting from? This must’ve set you back a shiny new penny.”

“You don’t gotta be insulting, Style,” Flora reproved.

“Yeah, we know you’ve got your routine, but that’s not called for,” Fauna added.

“Over the line, is what it is.”

“Really. The very nerve.”

Style sighed heavily and turned her glare on Sweet, handing him back the bottle. “I dared, for one precious moment, to hope that that bullshit would end with their apprenticeship. But no, it’s gonna be vaudeville for their entire eternal fucking lives, isn’t it? Makes me grateful I’ll be peacefully decomposing before a fraction of that time has passed.”

“Well, they’re not wrong,” he replied smugly, holding out the bottle toward Lore in a mute offer which the priest declined with a gesture of his own half-full glass. “Really, Style. Buying an expensive gift, on the very day of their tagging? That’s just plain hurtful. I’ll have you know I stole this fair and square.”

“And how long are you planning to keep us in suspense?” Lore asked, grinning. “Come on, come on, you didn’t just come here to hand out princely booze. Let’s have some introductions!”

“Too right!” Sweet agreed, turning to set both bottle and glass upon a velvet-covered blackjack table, currently free of customers and its dealer not in evidence. This corner of the Casino’s main floor was near one of the entrances to the Guild’s underground complex, but was still nominally public. And yet, the well-heeled patrons did not have to be warned to stay away from a cluster of tough-looking people in relatively shabby clothes having a small celebration. Lack of privacy aside, the Guild’s headquarters proper just plain didn’t have much to offer in the way of facilities for special occasions. Why bother, when their faith had little use for ceremony and the Empire’s fanciest establishment was right upstairs?

“May I present to you,” Sweet proclaimed, gesturing at the two preening elves with a grandiose air he had originally copied from a circus ringmaster, “the unimpeachable pride of my own distinguished career, a pair of rising talents who I fully expect shall go on to pickpocket the gods themselves, and the two newest full-fledged members of the Theives’ Guild: Cloak!”

Grinning broadly, Flora sketched a mocking half-curtsy, flourishing with both hands the anachronistic black cloak which she had taken to wearing as a personal affectation during her first weeks of apprenticeship. By this point she had a whole closet full of them; this one was a sleek number with a rainproof enchantment lined with deep crimson velvet, a solstice gift from Sweet himself.

“And,” he continued just as proudly, “Dagger!”

Fauna didn’t share her counterpart’s taste for on-the-nose pageantry, and as such did not brandish or even touch any of the multiple knives strapped to various parts of her person, but grinned to match Flora and leaned on the other elf’s shoulder, winking at the onlookers.

“Oh, for fuck’s fucking sake, Sweet!” Style exclaimed.

“You’re in a pissy mood even for you tonight,” he complained. “Imagine, mocking someone’s tag. Were you raised in a landfill, you obstreperous wench?”

“Did you have to tag them as a pair? Who the fuck does that?”

“It’s actually not unprecedented, Style,” Lore said with a calmer smile. “Common, no, but it’s not like he invented the practice. They aren’t the first pair to have been obviously inseparable from the day they joined up, and let’s face it, nobody doubted these two were going to stay together as a unit after apprenticeship. Cloak, Dagger,” he said, turning to them directly and raising his glass, “my congratulations, and welcome to the ranks. We’re all proud of you.”

“Yes, we are!” Sweet said, beaming. “Right, Style?”

“Yeah, yeah,” she snorted, waving him off. “What, you want me to gush and swoon? You two’ve always had talent, everybody with eyes has known you were gonna do well once you got trained up.”

“Why…why Style,” Flora sniffled, her eyes welling up.

“That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to us,” Fauna whimpered in the same tone.

“Maybe the sweetest thing she’s ever said to anyone!”

“Even in bed, I hear.”

“None of this means anybody likes you two treefuckers,” Style grunted, raising her glass to her mouth. Incongruously given her bluff aspect, she took a tiny sip and paused to savor it, inhaling through her nose.

“So what’s the plan, ladies?” Lore asked genially, swirling his glass. “Most have some kind of plan upon graduating. Usually either a big, spectacular job connected to nothing and incredibly likely to backfire, or the first careful steps of a long-term career strategy.”

“The immediate plan is to celebrate,” Flora said cheerfully.

“And then, well, we’ll see,” Fauna continued.

“Honestly, it’s almost like a case of vertigo.”

“So much possibility and freedom!”

“Probably the big spectacular job, just to gloat in not needing Sweet’s permission.”

“All I ask is that you don’t burn down the city,” said Sweet. “I’ve got all my stuff here. But if you two’re bored, I can find—”

“Eeeee!” Cutting him off, both elves suddenly emitted squeals and scurried away, leaving their sponsor blinking after them. While the senior Eserites turned to watch in bemusement, Flora and Fauna clustered around the new arrivals to their quiet corner of the Casino: a young teenage boy and an adult woman of Punaji stock, the latter with a bundle slung over her chest and cradled protectively in one arm. The newly-minted thieves leaned toward this, cooing in delight.

“Oh, she’s gorgeous! Congratulations!”

“What’s her name?”

“And hello to you, too,” Lakshmi Sanjakar replied pointedly, but not without a self-satisfied grin of her own. “Seems congratulations are in order all around. This is Padmara.”

“And let’s keep the squealing down, shall we?” Sanjay added imperiously. “Honestly, you got any idea how hard it is to get the brat to sleep? If you wake her up, Imma pummel somebody.”

“Did you seriously bring a fucking baby in here?” Style demanded. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Peepers? If she’s not awake already, better double check she’s not dead.”

“What’s wrong with me is we just got back into town and everybody I know is here,” Lakshmi shot back. “What, you think I’m gonna trust this punk to look after an infant while I check in?”

“You see how she talks to me?” her little brother said in an aggrieved tone. “Me, an innocent child! This kid is doomed, I tell ya.”

“Well, well,” Sweet chimed in, sauntering casually over to her. “Congratulations indeed! Aw, look at her little nose, she’s gonna have her mom’s good looks.”

“Poor thing,” Sanjay said mournfully. Lakshmi swatted the back of his head without looking, prompting him to grin.

“I wondered why you two suddenly took off back to Puna Dara, you sly fox,” Sweet chuckled, leaning forward between Flora and Fauna to admire the sleeping baby. “How old is she?”

“Uh huh,” Lakshmi said dryly, giving him a sardonic look. “Nice, Sweet, real subtle. Just like a man to see a baby and start counting months. ‘Oh no, am I responsible for this?’”

“He better not be, is all,” Sanjay said, curling his lip. “Fuckin’ ew, Shmi. This guy’s three times your age.”

“You get smacked a lot, don’t you, son,” Sweet asked him. The boy grinned and winked unrepentantly.

“You wanna hold her?” Lakshmi asked, shifting her smile to the elves.

“Do I?!”

“Me first!”

It took a few moments of disentangling before little Padmara was nestled safely in Fauna’s arms, and the two still-cooing elves edged over toward Lore with Sanjay hovering protectively around them and his baby niece.

“So, Peepers,” Sweet said pleasantly. “Just outta curiosity, you understand. Am I…responsible for this?”

“Right,” she said in a quiet and grimmer tone, canting her head toward him but keeping her eyes on her daughter, the elves, and Sanjay. “Can’t say I was expecting to run into you literally first thing back in town, but it works out, since this conversation needed to happen anyway. To whatever extent it’s any of your damn business, I know you can count, and I know how you love to meddle. So I’ll tell you up front, Sweet: Padma is my daughter, she’s got a mom and an uncle and Guild friends and that is all she needs. I give no shits what kind of blood she has. She’s Punaji and will be raised Eserite, and is no fucking business of any noble. Your asshole friend Danny is not welcome to be involved in this. If I learn that he’s even informed of this, I’m gonna have Style beat your ass till the hole part is on the outside, and I think you know if I put it to her right she will damn well do it. We understand one another?”

“Whoah, now, mama bear,” he said soothingly, raising both hands. A few yards distant, Sanjay was insistently taking Padmara from the audibly disappointed elves while criticizing their baby-handling skills. “You gotta know I’m not one to get between a Guild member and family. All you had to do is make it clear what you want, and that’s what I’ll make happen. Far as I’m concerned, Danny lost any rights when he lied to me and put you two in danger for it.”

“Good,” she said, giving him a firm nod. “Just so we’re clear.”

“Seriously, though, why did you leave Tiraas? I know you’ve got friends here…”

“Sure, but I got friends at home, too. You’re not Punaji; you wouldn’t understand. She needed to be born near the sea, with a windshaman presiding. But Tiraas is where Sanjay and I are making a home, and it’s where the opportunities are. I want her to have the best chances.”

“Okay, the windshaman I’ll grant you, but this is also a coastal city, for the record,” he said. “So, uh, just to be clear, Danny is the one—”

“Sweet,” she warned.

“All right, all right, fair enough,” he soothed, grinning. “I’m just surprised, is all. When I asked you to lend the guy a bed, I didn’t mean—”

“You’re such an asshole,” Lakshmi said with no particular rancor. “If you’ll excuse me, I gotta go check in with the Boss now I’m back in town, and do some catching up. If your girls are hard up for work, maybe they wouldn’t mind babysitting sometime soon. They sure seem eneamored.”

“Well, I can’t exactly lend ‘em out anymore, so I’m not the person to ask. But you’re not wrong, I’ve got a feeling they’ll like that idea.”

“Catch you later, Sweet,” she said, giving him a final, wry smile, then stepped forward to retrieve her daughter from Sanjay. Leaving behind the elves, Style, and Lore, the three of them disappeared through the door discreetly positioned behind a potted fig tree that led deeper into the bowels of the Guild.

Standing some yards away and staring blankly after them, Sweet drew in a long, deep breath, and then let it out slowly through his teeth with a noise like air escaping a balloon.

His two erstwhile apprentices drifted back over, grinning wickedly, and positioned themselves on either side of him, each reaching up to rest an elbow on one of his shoulders.

“Heh heh.”

“And you thought we were gonna burn down the city.”


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16 – 7

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“Well, of course,” Mogul drawled, thrusting his hands into his pockets and adopting a slouching pose so clearly exaggerated for effect it was reminiscent of a vaudeville performer. “That’s the only trick you know, isn’t it? Kill it with fire, ask questions never, then flounce away and let the authorities sift through the wreckage. No, Natchua, if I meant to mix it up with you, I promise you’d never have seen us coming. I want to have a word with you.”

“I don’t recommend having words with the Wreath,” Fedhaar said tersely.

“I notice you haven’t opened fire yet,” she replied, glancing back at him.

“Standard procedure not to force a confrontation with warlocks if it’s not necessary. If they don’t want to fight, grand, but that doesn’t make it smart to listen to notorious manipulators. We need to evac.”

“And that’ll be why he’s put himself between us and the exit,” Svanwen said.

Mogul tipped his hat.

“All right, sunshine, I’ll tell you what,” said Natchua, folding her arms imperiously. “Convince me you have something worthwhile to say and I’ll hear it out. Waste any more of my time and I shadow-jump all of us right out of this entirely pointless pain in the ass.”

“Any reason you can’t do that now?” Fedhaar asked.

“I’ll send you all back up top if you want,” she said. “He’s gone to the trouble of setting this up once, and cost Agatha’s people two days of work. I’d just as soon he get it out of his system before the next attempt is even more of a headache.”

“Hn,” the captain grunted, flexing his fingers along the haft of his battlestaff. “That said, I prefer we stay and keep an eye on this, then. Thanks for the offer.”

“Appreciate having you,” Natchua said, glancing back again to give him a nod. “Well? We’re waiting, Mogul. Spit it out, while we’re young.”

“Kind of an impossible position, isn’t it?” he mused. “I’m to impress someone whose core problem is being too up her own butt to possess basic empathy, or an awareness that actions have consequences.”

“Well, he came to the point more directly than I expected,” Natchua said, smirking faintly.

“Glib in the face of anything that might cause the discomfort of a real emotional response,” Mogul retorted. “I know you didn’t learn that in Tar’naris. You must’ve devoured those chapbooks and comics as soon as you hit Last Rock, kiddo. That would explain several things, actually.”

“I’m getting bored,” she warned.

“Now, as best as I’ve been able to piece together events after the fact, you actually spent a short time in chaos space yourself. You and the Crow; she’s just about the only person who can get into there and is insane enough to use it for transportation. So you know that’s not boring.” He was still showing teeth, the corners of his mouth still turned upward, but his upper lip had twisted the expression into a feral snarl beneath the shade of his hat. “Don’t you?”

“Did you honestly set all this up to complain at me?” Natchua exclaimed. “It was a warzone. I caught you idiots red-handed summoning more demons into it. And I’m the one who’s unaware of consequences? At least have enough courage of conviction not to whine when you get hurt in the process of being hilariously evil.”

“’Evil’ is a word people use to dismiss anything they can’t be bothered to understand,” Mogul shot back. “But don’t you worry, darlin’, we’re more than accustomed to being the bigger person. Case in point: I’m not even going to rant about how evil it is to consign a couple dozen bystanders to a dimension of unimaginable torment for no better reason than that you wanted to hurt the deity they answer to. Because I do understand it, Natchua. And mark me now: before I’m done, you will understand it, too.” His smile thinned, which ironically made it look more sincere, though it was still not a warm or cheerful expression. “Consider this the thrown gauntlet. Any fool can hurt someone; there is no greater vengeance than to make a person confront their own fundamental inadequacy. For most people, a personality is little more than a lifetime’s worth of built up defenses against the realization of what a piece of shit they truly are. I’m going to take that from you, Natchua. And when you finally have to acknowledge the true depth of your own stupid, selfish perfidy, that will hurt more than anything suffered by us, or by our comrades who never made it out of where you sent them. So you have that—”

“Oh, gods, are you done?” she demanded.

Mogul sighed, his smile finally inverting into an annoyed grimace. “Really, now, I’d think you could at least let me have my moment of drama. Surely even you will acknowledge you owe me that much.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Natchua snorted. “I’m gonna tell you what I told your bitch goddess: you’re no better. However justified Elilial is in her beef with the Pantheon, she’s a spiteful, destructive monster with oceans of blood on her hands. You think you’re so very put upon? Please. Yeah, I messed you up, but—and I can’t believe I have to keep repeating this—you were summoning an army of demons into Ninkabi. What, did you look around at the city being torn apart by demons and think, ‘hey, I know what this needs: more demons!’ Just fuck right off.”

“We were acting under orders from the Dark Lady,” another of the Wreath cultists interjected harshly. Her voice was feminine, though none of their faces save Mogul’s was visible, and the echoes in the tomb made it difficult for even Natchua to tell which one was talking. “We were trying to put a stop to the invasion! Her forces—”

“Even you don’t believe what you’re saying,” Natchua scoffed. “You were trying to stop a demon invasion with a demon invasion? You’re supposed to be the ultimate anti-demon experts. There is zero possibility you’re not fully aware that is the opposite of how it works.”

“When you’re given marching orders from an actual deity,” Mogul began.

Natchua barked a harsh laugh which reverberated through the tomb, prompting an agitated hiss from the chained rozzk’shnid behind the wall.If you’re the Black Wreath and living on a diet of your own prideful resistance to the gods, you question your orders. If you’re the Black Wreath and have been close enough to Elilial’s plans to have seen firsthand how she’s been unraveling for years now, you definitely question orders that you can plainly see are only going to make a catastrophe worse. Apparently, you idiots couldn’t be bothered. So what does that make you?”

“Are you trying to suggest we’re not the actual Black Wreath?” Mogul asked, his tone amused. “I have to say, that’s something I’m rarely accused of. In fact, this may be a first.”

“I’m saying you’re exactly like every other poor sap wrecking the world and coming up with no better excuse than ‘my god told me to.’ You think the Pantheon and their cults are assholes? Fine, maybe so, I wouldn’t really know. You think you’ve been mistreated? Sure, I handled you roughly, and so have a lot of others. But you think you’re in any better position to look down your noses? Please. You had your chance to prove you were better; I caught you right smack dab in the middle of it. That was your opportunity to show that all your resistance to the gods was something more than asshat us vs. them tribalism, your chance to stand up to an unjust goddess and do what was right instead of what you were told. And did you take it? Did you prove your character? Or did you duck your head and obey, and try to fuck up a disaster even worse? Well, Mogul?” She threw her arms wide, sweeping a glare around at the robed figures. “Any of you? What did you do?”

They remained hooded and inscrutable, though a growl sounded in the feminine voice which has previously spoken, softly enough that only Natchua could have heard it. Mogul’s mouth had pressed into a thin line, no longer showing any amusement either real or dramatically feigned.

The ensuing two heartbeats of silence were broken by a low whistle from one of the soldiers, followed by a muffled snort from another.

“Never mind, you don’t have to say anything,” Natchua stated in the most condescending tone she could muster. “We all know the answer. I just wanted to see your face wrap itself around that stupid expression. And you chuckleheads came here to make me confront my inadequacy? No wonder your goddess had to surrender.”

“You have no idea what that place was like!” the woman snarled.

“Vanessa,” Mogul warned, but ignoring him, she stepped forward, revealing herself to be the hooded figure closest to him on his left.

“People I cared about died in agony right in front of me because of you,” she snarled, pointing accusingly at Natchua. “Torn apart by monsters, because you had to pursue your own little grudge with Elilial! You don’t get to climb up on a high horse and lecture us!”

Natchua folded her arms again. “You know what? Fuck your dead friends.”

“Little beast!”

Vanessa hurled a shadowbolt of such intensity that its sullen purple glow lit the chamber for a split second. Natchua deftly brought up a hand to intercept it and plucked the thing out of the air; in her grasp, the streak of energy was suddenly a yard-long shaft of irregular violet crystal which streamed with sulfurous smoke. She contemptuously tossed it aside, and the solidified magic shattered upon the stone floor, brittle as old charcoal. By the time the soldiers managed to bring their weapons to bear, the fragments were already decaying into nothing.

“Fuck your nihilistic crusade,” Natchua continued relentlessly. “Fuck your whingeing goddess, fuck her hurt feelings, and fuck you all. You’ve been through some shit, fine, you can be upset about that, but you’re not going to act like the aggrieved party. You know what you did, and this entire stupid thing is nothing but you trying to make yourselves feel better by pretending there’s someone worse than you out there. And the proof of it is that you’re trying to pick on me instead of Mary the Crow, who was at least as responsible for that whole thing and would flick her fingers and annihilate the lot of you if you went near her, you self-involved cowards. You made your choices, and you chose to lick Elilial’s hooves and in the process throw away your own vaunted spirit of defiance and your divine mandate to protect the world from demons. So yeah, I sent your asses to Tentacle Super Hell, and you are now getting on my case about it so you don’t have to face up to the fact that that was what you deserved.”

Vanessa practically vibrated with rage, but silently; Mogul had gone still and stood stiffly upright, with none of his theatrically slouched demeanor. The other cultists, previously impassive, shuffled restlessly in their robes.

“Fuckin’ told,” Lieutenant Bindo observed, prompting another derisive snort from a fellow soldier.

“Quiet,” Captain Fedhaar ordered tersely.

All of them stilled, though not in response to him. The sound that echoed through the tunnels hovered right at the edge of hearing, even Natchua’s, resembling both a groan and a whisper. It came from the gate into the deeper, unmapped catacombs, accompanied by a soft stirring of air and the acrid smell of old decay. The rozzk’shnid whined and began scrabbling furiously at the stone, as if trying to burrow into the floor; mostly smothered by its noise was an ephemerally faint suggestion of murmuring voices, with words hinted at but nothing meaningful to be discerned.

It faded in little more than a second, though, and in the next instant the darkness momentarily deepened in the tomb, shadows drawing together around the cultists in unison. They receded immediately, and with them the Wreath vanished.

Ms. Svanwen let out a huff of pent-up breath. “Well. That’s…that, I suppose.”

“Not hardly,” Natchua murmured, frowning at the spot where Embras Mogul had stood. “There is no possible way that was all he wanted.”

“Agreed,” said Fedhaar, raising his battlestaff to plant its butt on the stone floor. “That kind of confrontation isn’t their pattern at all, though it can be the first step of a characteristic misdirection. Whatever they came here for, that was just the opening move.”

“Well, if they’re after me in particular, hopefully they won’t mess up your work any more,” Natchua offered, turning to face them.

Svanwen shook her head. “If nothing else, now they know they can draw you out by messing with Veilgrad’s interests. Blessed Light, and I played right into it. It was me who went and drew you into this, just like that prancing cockerel wanted.”

“Don’t beat yourself up about the Black Wreath thinking two steps ahead of you, ma’am,” Fedhaar advised. “That is pretty much what they do. For now, we need to get out of here and report this nuisance to ImCom and Duchess Dufresne. Jevani, finish what we came here for.”

“Sir!” One of his soldiers saluted, then swiftly stepped around the dividing wall with her staff at the ready.

“I could’ve done without that last bit of theater, though,” Fedhaar commented. The crack of lightning was deafening in the tomb, causing Natchua to wince and cover her ears; Jevani had to shoot the rozzk’shnid three times in succession to finish the armored creature off, but the captain continued as though there had been no interruption the second its squeals ceased. “That was just plain creepy. Didn’t seem like it fit with the rest of that guy’s performance, either.”

Natchua turned to face the direction of the doorway into the deeper tunnels, hidden out of view by the likenesses of the ancient kings, her face again drawn into a pensive frown. “I don’t…think…that was them. We may have additional problems.”


The whole exchange so far had taken place in the lodge’s grandiose entrance hall, simply because that was the only indoor space large enough to contain the whole group. The Harpies numbered thirty-eight women in total, most somewhere in their middle years but including a handful of teenagers and three gray-haired grannies, one of whom required a cane to walk, not that it had apparently held her back from rebelling against the regime in Shaathvar. There was a single Tiraan among them, a woman in her thirties named Sadhi who had looked singularly depressed every time Ravana had seen her; all the rest were Stalweiss, with hair in shades of brown and gold when not gray, plus two with the rarer red, most of them with the solid build of hardy mountain folk.

Despite the opulence of the lodge, with its gilt-fluted marble columns, the atmosphere in the room was surprisingly convivial, largely due to the noise from the front area near the doors, where Dantu had taken over shepherding the Harpies’ dozen or so accompanying children. The old man appeared to be having the time of his life, guiding the youngsters through a game that seemed to involve alternately sitting in a wide circle and chasing one another around it; fortunately he’d selected as the site for this roughhousing a large swath of plush carpet which had been enchanted so as to both repel stains and not inflict burns when skidded across. Ravana had already decided never to inform any of them that her great-grandfather had commissioned the thing for sexual purposes and her father had laid it before the door as its magic conveniently prevented mud from being tracked into the lodge. For the most part, she kept her focus on Ingvar and the Harpies, but periodically stole inquisitive glances at the elder and the children. She’d never had the opportunity to play such games at that age…

With the sounds of play as a backdrop, the more serious scene unfolding around the great hearth at the opposite end of the hall was spared from excessive solemnity. The refugee women stood and sat in a roughly semicircular formation, their attention mostly on Ingvar, who spoke in a steady and soothing tone that Ravana admired for how deftly he had perceived the mood of this crowd and the best approach to them. At least a few of the Harpies were still studying Dimbi with awed expressions. The younger Shadow Hunter had taken the form of a great wolf as a demonstration, and not seen fit to change back; she now sat next to Ingvar before the fire, a tawny creature the size of a small donkey surrounded by a gentle aura of light as if occupying her own private sunbeam, the golden geometric patterns marking her fur glowing gently.

“There’s nothing more natural than to feel that way,” Ingvar was saying earnestly in response to Brenhild’s last statement. The closest thing the Harpies had to a leader, she was a broad-shouldered woman with dark brown hair done in a single long braid and then wrapped around her head like a crown; apparently she had personally fended off Huntsmen trying to drag her and her comrades back home, first with a broomstick, then a cudgel, and later with the Avenic leaf-bladed gladius now hanging at her hip. She watched Ingvar with a skeptical frown as he continued, but showed no signs of disagreeing. “Every person has the right to space of their own; in Shaath’s service, we learn to appreciate solitude, and the fact that women are so frequently denied it in traditional lodges is just one of the crimes heaped upon you.”

More of the women than otherwise nodded at that, a couple grunting approval.

“As free beings, you’re entitled to decide whose company you keep, and when,” Ingvar went on, still holding Brenhild’s gaze with that inexhaustible calm of his. “If you don’t want anyone around sometimes, that is fine. If you don’t want any men near you at certain times or places, that’s entirely your right. It would be even if you hadn’t been through ordeals that would make it particularly understandable. Being part of the wild means determining these things for yourself. As a group, though, and as a doctrine, we will not be segregated by sex.”

“The Avenists cultivate women-only spaces,” Brenhild stated, narrowing her eyes.

“So they do,” Ingvar agreed with a nod. “In fact, so do Izarites and some sects of Vidians. We do not. This thing with men against women is the whole root of all our miseries, and needs to end. There is a lot we can learn from Avenists, and others, but not to the point of losing our own identity as Shaathists. As I said, when you need times and spaces to be by yourself, they’ll be available—but this will be because you are human beings with the absolute right to determine with whom you will keep company, and when, and under what circumstances. It will never be about formal segregation within the Shadow Hunters. That is a point of principle, yes, but there is also a crucial matter of overcoming bad habits within our own ranks. We have many former Rangers who are already accustomed to this and provide good examples; we also have Huntsmen who need to get used to accepting women as equals, and women from both Shaathist and other backgrounds who I will not see brushed aside into separate spaces. Even with the best intentions, that can all too easily lead to exactly the kind of gendered divide Shaath’s people urgently need to overcome.”

At that, Brenhild nodded, her expression finally softening; clearly taking a cue from her, several of the others nodded as well. Some of the Harpies still seemed skeptical of Ingvar, but fewer than when he had started speaking, and quite a few were gazing at him with utterly rapt expressions. Watching all this unfold from the shadow of a marble column a few yards away, Ravana was impressed by how well and quickly he was winning the group over.

“We’ve our own scars to heal, you know,” said Gretchen. A widow, she had had the personal privacy to take up a very cursory study of the fae arts without any Huntsman preventing her; the woman was no witch, but even her slight connection to magic had made the wolf dreams especially vivid and informative for her, leading to her taking a role as the Harpies’ unofficial shaman. It had been Gretchen who had foreseen Ingvar’s coming even before Ravana had informed the group of her intention to bring him, and she had ardently championed him as a solution to many of their problems. Now, though, her expression was concerned, even cynical. “Not that I doubt the seriousness of what you’re suggesting, Brother Ingvar, but I don’t think any of us are anxious to take on the obligation of tending to more Huntsmen of Shaath, even if it’s to teach them how not to be pompous puffed-up arses. There’s plenty of pain here that needs to be healed before any of us look to take responsibility for anyone else.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Ingvar agreed, inclining his head toward her. “I mean no offense, but you all have a great deal of learning to do in the ways of the wild, due to being unfairly kept from them for all these years. If you’re ever to be responsible for guiding others, that will come later, and only if you choose to embrace that task. For now, it will be the Shadow Hunters who take on the duty of guiding and nurturing you, not expecting you to do likewise just yet. I confess we are not an ascetic or healing-oriented order. There are other cults with deep arts for soothing hurts to the spirit. In Shaath’s service, we have the wild.” He smiled, glancing about at the group. “And honestly? The wild is good medicine. Simply being out in nature is one of the most healing experiences a person can have. The harmony of wild places soothes the spirit and guides the mind back into balance. This is true for anyone, but as you grow in your knowledge of woodcraft, your connection to the earth will grow stronger. That eternal comfort will always be there.”

He paused, glancing aside at one of the hall’s towering windows, and shook his head ruefully.

“Well. Words are cheap; this is the point where ordinarily I would lead you outside to walk among the trees and show you what I mean, but unfortunately, we’re in the middle of winter.”

“Hah!” Ritta, the eldest among them, cackled and thumped her cane against the floor. “You call this winter, sonny boy? You’ve not spent much time up in the mountains.”

Amid the laughter which followed, Ingvar grinned right along.

“All right, fair enough! I certainly have time, and I came prepared for a Tiraan winter.” He picked up his bearskin cape and swung it over his shoulders. “No one need feel obligated, if you’d rather stay in here by the fire, but anybody who’d like to accompany me in a short exploration of the forest is more than welcome. There’s no time like the present to introduce you to your birthright. The wild belongs to all who are called to it.”

Smiling broadly, Brenhild clapped her hands. “You heard him! Cloaks and scarves, everybody, and let’s not keep Brother Ingvar waiting. Give us five minutes, young man.”

To Ingvar’s visible bemusement, every last one of them headed off to the hallway toward the inner rooms where their effects were kept, from stooped old Ritta to little thirteen-year-old Mittsin, herself barely mature enough to be welcomed by the group as a sister rather than consigned to Dantu’s care with the other children. Evidently not a one of the Harpies was willing to be held back from her formal introduction to Shaathist woodcraft by anything so paltry as a foot of snow.

As the last of them streamed out of the hall, Dimbi stretched out in front of the fire, resting her head on her forepaws, and Ingvar slowly crossed the room to join Ravana.

“You impress me, Brother Ingvar,” she said before he could speak. “You’ve handled all of this with great skill. I did hope you would be the one to guide them forward; my faith was clearly well-placed.”

“It’s I who should thank you, my Lady,” he replied. “All of this is thanks to your kindness.”

Ravana nodded once, then made a languid gesture at the great hall itself. “I realize the pretentiousness likely doesn’t suit your aesthetic, but what do you think of the lodge?”

“I do feel slightly out of place,” he admitted, “but it is a magnificent edifice.”

She smiled coyly up at him. “How’d you like to keep it?”

Even his well-mastered expression faltered into startlement. “Pardon?”

“There are drawbacks, of course,” Ravana mused, turning her head to gaze toward the hearth. Dimbi was watching them sidelong, her ears pricked upright despite her relaxed posture. “Being stationary poses risks, with Grandmaster Veisroi and his loyalists baying at your heels. But it will also better enable more followers to find you, and Tiraan Province is in a far more central location on the continent than N’Jendo. There is certainly ample room for your extant group and quite a few more additions, even counting the Harpies.”

“I…” He trailed off after one syllable, staring at her in apparent confusion.

“It’s not charity I offer,” Ravana assured him. “There is a traditional relationship between House Madouri and the Huntsmen of Shaath, allowing them free reign of the forests in the province in exchange for providing forestry services. You’ll be aware of this, of course, as I understand you lived in the lodge in Tiraas for several years. The Huntsmen have similar agreements with a number of Houses. With a single ducal decree I can award this traditional right to your group.” She allowed her smile to widen slightly. “To keep up appearances, of course, that means I will have to formally and publicly acknowledge your sect to be the legitimate cult of Shaath.”

Dimbi raised her head at that, turning it to stare directly. Ingvar had belatedly marshaled his features, and now peered down at Ravana through narrowed eyes.

“Why would you do such a thing?” he asked. “Supporting the Harpies is one thing, Lady Madouri. What you suggest would place you right in the center of what may yet become a violent religious schism. It seems like an impolitic move.”

“I’m a calculating creature, Brother Ingvar,” she murmured. “If I choose to take sides in any conflict, it is a sign of my confidence that the side I select will be the winning one. So the question is: do you want me on your side?”

He studied her in silence for a handful of seconds before answering.

“I am not sure.”

Ravana grinned. “Your reticence shows wisdom. I do think you are in the right in your conflict, but more importantly, I think that you are the future. Veisroi and his ilk are the past. Have you considered the meaning and the nature of the progress we have seen in the last century, Ingvar? Telescrolls, Rails, zeppelins, wands, shielding charms. What does it all mean?”

“Connection,” he answered. “The world grows smaller.”

“Oh, everybody knows that,” she said, waving a hand. “House Madouri has reigned over this land for a millennium by looking always to the future. The future I see is one in which secrets will grow harder and harder to keep, and even the most common people more and more able to defend themselves. With every advancing decade, people will grow harder to deceive, and harder to oppress. The Shaathist traditionalists have a regime built upon lies and persecution; it will grow ever more unsustainable, and would even without the wolf god himself plaguing their nightmares. It is people like you, who seek to liberate and enlighten, who will move to the fore in the coming century.

“Which is not to say that your victory is preordained,” she cautioned. “It’s early, yet, and Veisroi is well-positioned to make his enemies disappear. Someone will topple his kind, in the end; it may or may not be you. As I see it, by throwing my support into making sure that you are the one, I position House Madouri to enter the world of tomorrow with hard-won credibility and valuable allies.”

“Hm,” he murmured.

“And then, there is the more immediately practical,” Ravana continued, lowering her voice nearly to a whisper. She gazed at the fire past Dimbi, who was still staring at her. “I am…a patriot, Brother Ingvar. Acknowledging my bias, I judge the Tiraan Empire to be the preeminent example of the potential of human civilization in the world today. I consider the Tirasian Dynasty the most effective the Empire has yet known, and Sharidan a superior ruler to either of his predecessors. His Majesty is regrettably constrained by the politics of his position from openly acknowledging that Archpope Justinian has deliberately made himself an enemy of the Throne.”

She deliberately parted her lips, showing the tips of her teeth in what was not a smile.

“I am not.”

“And to think,” Ingvar said softly, “I feared you underestimated the scope of the conflict you offered to enter. It’s the opposite, isn’t it? You are looking to an even grander struggle.”

“You deserve to succeed,” she replied, “and the Empire must endure. It is the general practice of those in my station to sit upon the fence until they feel they see which way the wind is blowing. Then again, it is the general practice of nobles to think nothing matters more than their own power. I choose to make a stand upon what I deem a greater purpose than my own desires. And in so doing, I mean to help shape the course of the wind itself.

“So!” she said, suddenly brisk, turning to face him directly with a broad smile. “This is what I propose, specifically. House Madouri shall formally recognize your sect as the true Shaathists, and award you the traditional rights, duties, and privileges of husbanding the wilds of Tiraan Province. You will be granted indefinite use of this lodge as a headquarters, with its upkeep and defense still funded by my treasury. Given the precarious nature of your situation, in order to lend further legitimacy I will bestow upon you the traditional title of Warden; it is long retired, like Court Wizard, but still on the books and will throw the weight of custom behind your position. In fact… Yes, to make certain you have the full authority to act in your new capacity as Warden of this province, in my capacity as governor I will appoint you an Imperial Sheriff, which will enable you to enforce the law within this domain, as well as create severe repercussions for any who seek to attack you.”

Dimbi shifted her head to stare at Ingvar.

“That is…incredibly generous, my Lady,” he said slowly.

“No, it isn’t,” Ravana replied, her smile unfaltering. “I have considered the matter carefully. What I propose will lay obligations upon you, as well as expose you to certain risks. This arrangement comes with plentiful compensation, to be sure, but only that which I deem necessary and suitable considering what I gain from it.”

“I see,” he murmured. “This is a larger decision than I had planned to make today, Lady Madouri. Obviously, I would like to discuss it with my fellow hunters.”

“You should of course do what you think is right,” said Ravana. “I will not, however, promise that the offer will still be on the table when you have finished with that.” He frowned, but she continued before he could speak. “I’m certain that consulting your fellows sets a most admirable precedent for spiritual purposes, Brother Ingvar, but with all due respect, such matters are between you and your followers. For my purposes, I require a leader who can act decisively when it is called for. I judge you to be just such a man. If I am thus in error, it of course changes the situation.”

She gave him a single beat of silence in which to mull that, during which he stared narrowly at her eyes as if trying to glimpse what lay behind them.

“Decisively, but not in unseemly haste,” Ravana added in a gentler tone. “You were just informing our guests of the calming powers of a walk in the forest, and are just about to lead them upon one. By all means, embrace this opportunity to ponder; I’m sure it will be every bit as soothing for you as for them. And when you return, we can discuss our shared future.”

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16 – 6

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“My family’s hunting lodge,” Ravana said, gesturing at the scene before them.

They stood upon a snow-covered hill in the western reaches of Tiraan Province, near the Viridill border, with a dense stand of leafless oaks behind them and in front, the long descent to the lodge itself in the middle distance. It rose proudly from a lower hill of its own, positioned right on the border between the ancient forest (one of the few in the province not burned or leveled in the Enchanter Wars) and the broad plain stretching toward the low hills that would become Calderaan Province beyond the northeastern horizon. Half a mile from the gates of the lodge stood a sleepy little village, looking quite picturesque buried under a heavy snowfall and with the smoke of a dozen fires streaming upward from its chimneys.

Lodge?” Dimbi repeated incredulously. “Don’t you mean summer palace?”

It could be fairly called palatial in its proportions. The main building was designed in the shape of a traditional Stalweiss longhouse, though the resemblance did not extend beyond shape. Its roof was expensive Sheng-style gabled slate, the tall windows stained glass, and even its towering support pillars were hand-carved into the shapes of upright animals, every one a work of art which had taken an entire ancient oak trunk. From the central longhouse spread rambling wings of faux-rustic timbers supported by fluted marble columns, the more recent featuring huge banks of plate windows made feasible even in the depths of winter by modern arcane heating.

She wasn’t about to mention that the nearby village existed entirely to staff and support the lodge. Ingvar, at least, had probably already figured that out.

“The House of Madouri has reigned over this province continually for a thousand years by cultivating certain defining strengths of character,” Ravana said proudly. “I will acknowledge that restraint and modesty are not among them. Honestly, I’m just glad to have found a useful purpose for this property, as I confess I don’t hunt. Nor, I suspect, did most of my ancestors who stayed here. Please forgive the distance; those staying in the lodge currently have been subject to a great many upsets of late, and I have observed they seem somewhat uncomfortable with grand displays of magic. I try to approach them in the most humble and unobtrusive manner feasible. My Court Wizard has been very accommodating in—Veilwin, really.”

The rest of them turned from their study of the lodge to follow Ravana’s gaze, now fixed on the wizard herself. Veilwin was now gulping deeply from a silver flask, and did not stop while meeting Ravana’s stare with raised eyebrows.

“You know, you’re just going to have to down a sobriety potion to teleport us back,” the Duchess said, exasperated. “It’s unlikely to be more than an hour from now.”

“An hour?” Veilwin replied, finally lowering the flask and grimacing bitterly. “An hour of complete, uninterrupted sobriety? Girl, do you have any idea what that feels like?”

“Yes, in fact,” Ravana retorted. “Speaking as a wine lover of, if I may flatter myself, some local repute, sobriety is my default and preferred condition.”

“And you’re easily the worst person I’ve ever met. Coincidence?” Veilwin brought the flask back to her lips and resumed an uninterrupted sequence of long gulps, while holding an arch stare at Ravana and, with snaps of her fingers, conjuring an armchair and a small bonfire. The sorceress flopped down in her seat and stretched her feet out toward the arcane blue flames as the surrounding snow hissed away to steam.

Ravana shook her head and turned her back on the elf. “Anyway. I presumed that veteran outdoorspeople such as yourselves would not mind a short winter hike, but if you are in any way uncomfortable I will not hesitate to send Veilwin back for coats.”

“That’s not necessary at all,” Ingvar said smoothly. “Your judgment was correct, my Lady, we are quite comfortable. Shall we?”

“Let’s,” she agreed, setting off down the hill. Ravana noted he did not question her comfort, but the man was doubtless intelligent enough to infer the presence of a heating charm. The enchantment woven into her own dress was more sophisticated than anything on the market (a Falconer prototype; Geoffrey came up with the most marvelous things when he got bored of tinkering with carriages). Even her breath did not mist upon the frigid air.

“What is she drinking?” Dimbi muttered as they strode through the knee-deep snow toward the distant lodge. “I could smell that flask from two yards away, it was like a burning alchemy lab.”

“I don’t know,” Ravana admitted. “Though I have observed its contents to be quite combustible. Between an elvish constitution and the resistance built up over a lifetime of drinking, I suspect what it takes to get Veilwin tipsy would kill an orc.”

“She’s…interesting,” Dantu said, grinning.

“Veilwin is a powerful and exceedingly skilled mage; I am quite satisfied with the performance of her duties. She is also, in addition to the alcoholism, congenitally incapable of withholding her opinions. I don’t think she’s ever held a single job for more than a month before.”

“I just meant,” the old man chuckled, “I’ve managed to meet a handful of nobles in my long years, none half so important as a Duchess, and I can’t see a one of ‘em letting one of their employees talk to them like that.”

“Not long ago,” Ravana murmured, gazing ahead as they plowed through the snow, “as I was listening to Professor Tellwyrn rightly excoriate my entire character, I experienced an epiphany: no one had ever spoken to me that way before. And further, no one ever spoke to my father in such a manner, either, and I now believe that is directly why he ended up the way he did. My father was neither evil nor unintelligent, he simply failed to comprehend that his own desires were not synonymous with the highest good of the universe. It is a failing to which nobles are regrettably prone due to the circumstances of our upbringing, and in fact, those circumstances are an unavoidable necessity. A chain of command only functions of those at its top are respected and obeyed. This is…a dilemma.”

“So,” Ingvar said softly, “you seek to surround yourself with those who will speak truth to power.”

“I was considering leaving university,” Ravana admitted, “but this understanding changed my mind. At Last Rock, I am surrounded by royalty, paladins, demigods… All manner of people who are in no way impressed by me. And those are just my classmates; the faculty are on another level entirely. It is an extremely healthy environment for people such as myself. Additionally, it buys me two and a half more years to collect advisors who will not hesitate to challenge me at need. Hopefully I can find some with more nuance than Veilwin, but she is…a start.”

“I respect that a great deal,” said Ingvar. “To know one’s own faults and seek to overcome them is both the least and the most that can be asked of anyone.”

They reached the base of the hill, which was less than half the distance to the lodge, but changed their trajectory. No longer descending toward the grounds, they now in fact began to push upward through the snow toward the rise upon which it was built.

“In any case,” Ravana said briskly, “our correspondence was relatively brief before Veilwin took it upon herself to fetch you, Brother Ingvar. How much do you know about the conditions from which the Harpies fled?”

“Less than I should,” he admitted, frowning. “We have stayed largely on the move; most carriers of news have been less persistent than your agents in finding us, Lady Madouri. Hunters have continually sought us out to join since Shaath’s call first went out, both Huntsmen and Rangers, and some have brought news from the Stalrange. It is somewhat sketchy regarding events in and around Shaathvar, however.”

“You are probably getting more applicants from Lower Stalwar, where the Rangers have more enclaves,” Ravana said. “Yes, I shouldn’t wonder; the situation around Veilgrad is quite different. People there have ample recent experience at rolling with large metaphysical punches, and Duchess Dufresne is a pragmatist after my own heart. Loudly dissident Shaathists have been inexplicably vanishing all winter, and not long ago, someone shadow-jumped a group of their runaway wives and daughters to the Abbey in Viridill.”

“I would be grateful to know anything you have learned of their circumstances,” Ingvar said in a carefully neutral tone.

“They are somewhat dire,” Ravana warned, now frowning herself. “Shaathvar has been an ongoing disaster from the day of the Battle of Ninkabi until I intervened last month. With the dreams that won’t stop coming every night, the core Shaathist regime there has been tearing itself apart, and one of the biggest sources of conflict is the simultaneous unraveling of more families than otherwise as women have been trying to either flee with their children, or in some cases, attacking their husbands.”

Dimbi grimaced. “Yikes. I support anyone wanting to live free, but that sounds…”

“Can’t rightly expect a person to remain calm and logical after they get divine confirmation they’ve been lied to like that for their whole lives,” said Dantu. “I don’t blame the women one bit.”

“It’s been chaos,” Ravana continued. “Nearly coming down to guerrilla fighting in the streets of Shaathvar and the surrounding forests, as women and sympathetic Huntsmen have been trying to escape, most willing to shed blood in the process, and traditionalists have taken it upon themselves to forcibly retrieve them. The governor declared a curfew and martial law, which didn’t help; the Empire had to send troops to hold the city, and that barely helped. The jails are crammed beyond capacity and the courts overwhelmed trying to figure out who drew steel on whom, and whether any of them were justified. And as if all of that were not chaotic enough, the Sisterhood sent a detachment of priestesses with a Silver Legion escort to counsel and support any Stalweiss women who desired freedom from their circumstances. The loyalist Huntsmen still in nominal control took that about as well as you would expect. And that, too, began to spiral, as various Huntsmen have arranged for themselves to be reminded why it is not wise to assault servants of the goddess of war.”

“I would have thought High Commander Rouvad had better sense than to poke the bear in such a manner,” Ingvar muttered, his eyes narrowed.

“I suspect that after the Syrinx debacle this summer, Rouvad is anxious to be seen standing on Avenist principle regardless of the political repercussions. Then, too, the Archpope has been deliberately dragging his heels on confirming a new Avenist Bishop, and it is known that the Huntsmen are his greatest pillar of support within the Pantheon cults. The Sisterhood may be growing tired of waiting to be listened to, and looking to make a point that they can insist upon it.”

“You said your intervention calmed things?” Dantu inquired.

She nodded. “It started as mass chaos but quickly coalesced into factional conflict, as such things do. The Shaathist traditionalists remained in control of the bureaucracy of the province, but once the Avenists got involved, they secured a defensible structure and began teaching runaways both the art of self-defense and the relevant laws around it. By then the group of local women who rose to find and shelter other runaways had begun to organize, and took to calling themselves the Harpies. Which was also a provocation, as no one has seen a living harpy outside of Inner Anvedra in a thousand years; it is obviously a reference to the harpy eagle on Avei’s sigil. By last month, a bitter stalemate had ensued, as the Harpies more or less rescued everyone they were apparently able to, and then had to turtle down and defend themselves from outraged husbands and fathers trying to drag them back home. When I offered to remove them en masse from the province, even the local government was grateful. They were themselves glad of a safe route out of the situation, the Sisterhood and the Silver Throne supported me, and with the Harpies gone from Shaathvar, it has finally begun to settle. Of course, I am inundated with complaints from various lodges about my unwarranted interference, but my lawyers are handling all of it so far.” She shrugged, allowing herself a cold little smile. “And what they cannot, the House guards stationed at the lodge will. I have made it clear that any rogue Huntsman trying to sneak into these grounds is asking for whatever he gets.”

All three Shadow Hunters glanced sidelong at her, but none responded directly to that.

“Did you have them teleported here by your mage?” Ingvar asked after a momentary pause.

Ravana shook her head. “These are women from a very traditional Shaathist background and their young children, who have already lost the most central underpinnings of their understanding of the world. They’re not sanguine about arcane magic and I have found it best not to rattle them any more than I absolutely must. Plus, teleporting this many individuals would have required me to hire most of the Wizards’ Guild, who themselves came from the great Salyrite schism a century ago. I made inquiries of the Archmage, who was leery of getting into internal Shaathist affairs. In the end, the Harpies’ escape served as the inaugural mission of my new private zeppelin. It was a little cramped, but more of them than otherwise seemed to enjoy the flight.”

Ingvar nodded, glancing at her again, and she could practically hear the unexpressed thought in his eyes: why was she willing to stick herself into the center of a bitter religious feud in which both sides were willing to shed blood and neither offered her any apparent gain? He kept quiet, though, and Ravana indulged in another knowing smile. It wasn’t yet time for that conversation.

The other two likewise held their peace, looking to Ingvar for guidance, and Ravana took note of the political acumen on display. He had clearly picked this group with care, even though it didn’t include his dryad friend or any of the others closest to him, or those most intimidating in a confrontation; his Shadow Hunters had only survived this long because they were too physically dangerous for any Shaathist lodge to attack in force. Obviously Ingvar had opted for a gentler approach here. Dimbi was a young woman, a good choice to help put the Harpies at ease and demonstrate that women were equals in his new Shaathism; Dantu was an old man, and doubtless a source of wisdom, while also not being an even remotely intimidating figure. And tellingly, both were socially adroit enough to follow Ingvar’s lead without overt instruction. It was a small thing, but it showed greater sophistication than she was accustomed to expecting of Shaathists.

Which boded well for her own plans.

“I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that you have done this, Lady Madouri,” Ingvar said softly as they ascended the last steps of the hill upon which the lodge stood, its gables now towering over them. “The effort must have been considerable, and the results…are priceless.”

“No one else was doing it,” she said noncommittally. “A person in my position can do a great deal of good. I could also exhaust myself and my resources trying to put out every fire in the world, an error I am not about to commit. To an extent, one must pick and choose from many worthy causes. This one…resonated with me. I know what it’s like to live under the thumb of a man whose brittle ego and need to keep me there informed his entire view of the world. I brought you here, Brother Ingvar, because I believe you are the best possible person to help these women find their footing in this strange new world. And I daresay you will find a warm welcome here: the dreams of Shaath that continue to come have, according to some of them, mentioned you by name.”

“Now, that I did not know,” he murmured as they climbed the broad stone steps to the front door of the lodge.

“Regardless, we can only do what we can,” Ravana said, grasping the latch and turning it. She pulled the door wide, letting a rush of warm air out, and gestured within. “What will be, will be. After you.”


“It’s simple economics,” Svanwen explained as another fairy lamp clicked on in the tunnel ahead, and one behind the party winked out. “Lights with motion-sensing charms are a lot more expensive up front, yes, but they save me both the cost of a lot of recharging dust that needn’t be burned while nobody’s around and the man-hours it would take to have somebody come through switching them on and off. It’s one more thing my people can ignore and get on with their work. This project is likely to take decades, years at the very least. Over time, it’ll save a fortune. A good businesswoman takes the long view.”

“How’s all the flashing on and off on your eyes?” Captain Fedhaar asked Natchua. “I know drow see well in the dark, but I’ve heard you lot have some trouble in bright light.”

She had long since perfected the magic to maintain her vision without the need of dark glasses, but was not inclined to delve into that for his benefit.

“Don’t you worry,” Natchua said with a wink. “I can see better than any of you under any light level.”

Fedhaar grunted and turned his gaze back forward. “Elves are bullshit.”

Svanwen shot him a look as if fearing a racial conflict was about to erupt, then switched it to Natchua when the drow chuckled.

“Well,” Natchua said, shrugging, “he isn’t wrong.”

The dwarf shook her head. “Anyway. How’s the trail looking?”

“We’re still following,” reported Fedhaar’s tracker, a Western human called Lieutenant Bindo, who was walking at the head of the group with his attention on the ground. “The beast’s healthy, which is both good and bad; means it’s not leaking any infernal radiation. Harder to follow, that way, but much safer for everyone. Lucky there’s so much stone dust in these tunnels. Nothing that belongs on this plane has feet like this.”

“My people know what they’re about,” Fedhaar said coolly.

“I never meant to imply otherwise,” Ms. Svanwen assured him. “If I forget myself and prompt everybody to keep alert for any infernal craft nearby, it’s not meant as a personal slight. Just my veteran tendency to micro-manage.”

“It’s good advice, no matter whose ego is at stake,” said Natchua. “The second rule of infernomancy is to triple-check everything, and then triple-check it again.”

There was a momentary pause.

“All right, fuck it, I’ll bite,” Fedhaar finally said with a sigh. “What’s the first rule of infernomancy?”

She grinned at him. “Don’t.”

The captain couldn’t help grinning back. “Good rule.”

“So,” Svanwen said pensively, “the big question is how there’s a rozzk’shnid in the tunnels. They’re not the sort of creature that tends to wander through hellgates, even underground. We’re thinking there are two possibilities, the first of which is that some deep drow have burrowed into the catacombs somewhere down below the areas we’ve explored. That’s a worst case scenario, obviously. Scyllithenes with access to Veilgrad would officially be a crisis.”

“Unlikely,” Natchua opined. “If you had Scyllithenes, you’d be finding the mutilated corpses of your crew, now tracks from what amounts to a loose animal.”

“That’s exactly my assumption,” Svanwen agreed, nodding, “hence coming here with a small team of specialists and not Captain Fedhaar’s entire battalion. Imperial Command and Duchess Dufresne agree, though they did insist on having another unit from the Azure Corps on standby to bring in more soldiers if this goes sideways somehow. But all things considered, it’s most likely the second possibility: some rogue warlock hiding in the deeper tunnels. They made a great hideout for shifty types even when they were still full of bodies. That’s exactly what drew the chaos cult that caused the big disaster in the first place.”

“Mm,” Natchua grunted. “One warlock shouldn’t be too hard to take down, if it comes to it. Question is what they would summon a rozzk’shnid for. The creatures make decent guard dogs in tunnels, and…that’s about it.”

“This hypothetical warlock will explain themselves when we get them,” Fedhaar stated dispassionately. “One way or another.”

Natchua gave him a nod of approval.

“Tunnel opens out up ahead,” Bindo reported. “Tracks are still leading that way.”

“There’s a sequence of larger vaults just ahead,” Svanwen added. “They mark the deepest regions my people have explored and secured. Beyond that, there’ll be no more installed lights, and we don’t even have reliable maps of the tunnels.”

“We’ve got light sources and directional charms,” said Fedhaar. “I’m not worried about getting lost. It’ll just be a little less comfortable, that’s all.”

They emerged into a broader chamber than the arched tunnel along which they had been traveling. Well-lit now with large fairy lamps Svanwen’s crew had set up in each of the rectangular room’s corners, it was lined entirely by deep alcoves in the wall of the right size for a human body to be laid out, all currently empty. The center of the long chamber held three huge stone sarcophagi, their lids pushed aside and lying broken upon the floor.

“It still gets to me, sometimes,” Svanwen whispered as the group stepped carefully through the rubble. “All these honored dead, just… Treated that way. It’s sickening. Did you know Veilgrad was originally a necropolis? The first living residents were Vidian priests who looked after the old Stalweiss chieftains interred here. Burial records extend back before the Hellwars. And all just…swept aside, in service to pointless, destructive madness.”

“The Vidians have been quite clear that they were just bodies, at least,” said Fedhaar. “The souls of the dead were long since in Vidius’s hands and beyond tampering. C’mon, no use dithering here.”

Natchua opened her mouth, but stopped herself from commenting at the last second. While she suspected that was the sort of thing the Vidians would say regardless of its veracity just to keep people from worrying needlessly, it belatedly occurred to her that suggesting it would also cause nothing but needless worry.

Then she frowned, tilting her head. “Wait.”

The others paused, turning to look expectantly at her.

“I hear… Up ahead, there’s something. Sounds like scratching… Claws on stone, maybe.” She brought her eyes back into focus, first on Svanwen and then Fedhaar. “May be our beastie.”

The captain turned his head toward his soldiers and nodded once; in unison, all of them drew wands. “Good to have the elven bullshit on our side, I won’t deny it,” he said. “How far?”

“It echoes weirdly down here,” Natchua murmured. “Hang on…”

She closed her eyes, reaching out through magic. Yes—definitely a demon, at about the outer limits of her perception in this manner.

“There’s a sequence of chambers like this,” Svanwen said while Natchua concentrated. “All in a neat row, the last being the biggest. Beyond it the tunnels are more rough-cut, smaller, and twist about more. The final gate is as far as we’ve explored. It was supposed to be barred, but I’ve not had people down this deep in weeks.”

“Yes, looks like a rozzk’shnid,” Natchua reported, opening her eyes. “I can’t tell anything about the surrounding tunnels, but it’s maybe a hundred yards up ahead. Not moving around much. I don’t detect any active magic nearby.”

“Right,” Fedhaar stated, moving ahead. “We’ll take point, then. Careful and quiet, people. This thing may just be an animal but we don’t know what’s what down here.”

The soldiers saluted, and he waited to get nods of acknowledgment from Svanwen and Natchua before proceeding.

It was a tense passage through a series of cleared out burial chambers, each growing progressively larger, and the ancient carved decorations more elaborate the deeper they went. By the time the group reached the final sepulcher, the scrabbling of the demon was audible to all of them, along with a soft, intermittent metallic clatter. It was loudest as they stepped into what Svanwen whispered was the largest final tomb, a space the size of a church. There were motion-activated fairy lamps down here, too, though they were already on before the group came into view of them.

The last gate opened onto an open space lined with more burial alcoves, these carved into the stone walls to a height of four per wall. Above, the vaulted ceiling lay in shadow, soaring high enough not to be easily reached by the installed fairy lamps. This chamber had no free-standing sarcophagi, but maybe two thirds of the way along its length a stone wall stood in the center of the open space, leaving passages to either side and not reaching the ceiling. Its purpose was apparently decorative, being carved with the solemn likenesses of five ancient Stalweiss kings, each with inscrutable runes engraved above their heads.

The scratching was coming from the other side of this.

At hand signals from Fedhaar, the troops split up, creeping forward with weapons upraised to both sides of the barrier. Natchua joined the captain himself, as did Svanwen, and ignoring his grimace of disapproval, stepped forward to be the first around the corner.

The demon was there, all right. The rozzk’shnid was the size of a large dog, proportioned somewhat like a monkey and plated in natural armor, and eyeless. It was also wearing a heavy iron collar, from which a chain trailed to an iron spike driven into the ground. At their approach, the best stopped its futile worrying at the chain, turning blindly toward them and hissing.

For a second, they just stared.

“It’s like…” Svanwen whispered, “like it’s set out as…”

“As bait,” Natchua finished. “Oh, fuck.”

“Retreat,” Fedhaar ordered, and the soldiers immediately stepped back.

“Now, now, now, let’s nobody go and panic,” a new voice said jovially, and the group trailed to a stop just beyond the stone wall, staring at the entrance to the tomb, where a dark-skinned human in a pristine white suit complete with a wide-brimmed hat had just sauntered out of the tunnel beyond.

The soldiers brought their weapons up as eight figures in hooded gray robes materialized seemingly from nowhere along the walls of the tomb.

“Whoah,” the man in white said soothingly, raising both his hands. “Easy, now! Sorry about all this rigamarole, but I assure you I’ve no beef with most of you. Last thing we want is to kick up a scrap with the Army, after all. And most especially not with the inimitable Ms. Svanwen, here. I confess after having a good look through these chambers I’ve become quite a fan of your work, ma’am. Why, the place is starting to look downright homey!”

“Most of us?” Svanwen demanded, ignoring his flattery.

“Hey,” Natchua said, narrowing her eyes to slits. “I remember you.”

“Oh, do you,” he replied, his smile growing broader and notably brittle. “What an honor it is to be remembered by the great Natchua! My heart is all a-flutter.”

“I’m positive I killed you fucksticks in Ninkabi,” she snorted. “How the hell did you get out of that—”

“You seem to’ve adopted Veilgrad as your home,” Embras Mogul interrupted, grinning more widely still until the expression looked nearly psychotic, especially as he held his head tilted so the brim of his hat concealed his eyes. “There’s an old Shaathist hunting axiom you really should’ve picked up by now, Natchua honey: never wound what you can’t kill.”

“Those robes…” Fedhaar said. “Are these Wreath? What exactly are you assholes playing at? Elilial’s not even at war with the Pantheon anymore. It was kind of a big deal.”

“Oh, indeed, our business is not with anyone aligned with either the Pantheon or the Empire,” Mogul assured him. “My humble apologies for drawing you fine folks into this. It seemed the least disruptive way to get this malicious little darkling off by herself, but rest assured, I’ll make amends for the inconvenience. Now, as for—”

He broke off, staring incredulously, as Natchua burst out laughing.

“Oh, this is too rich,” she chortled, striding forward into the center of the room and rolling up her sleeves. “The Black Wreath has come to exact terrible vengeance! And here I was afraid for a second that something bad was happening. Agatha, Captain, this shouldn’t take long, but you may wanna step back a few paces to enjoy the show. The front row of seats may see some splattering.”

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16 – 5

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“And this is the Sanhevid Suite, where you’ll be staying,” Ravana announced, coming to a stop in the center of the wide common area, planting herself beside a marble statue of a hooded woman wielding a bow and gazing sternly at some distant horizon. “Doors to either side of the hearth behind me lead to the residential area, where there are more than enough bedrooms for everyone. Beyond that, both halls open onto a small library with attached reading room and office. To the left, here, beyond the colonnade, is a solarium opening onto a private courtyard, with the dining hall adjacent. Kitchen, laundry, and servant’s quarters are in the basement; someone will be on staff at all hours, and the enchanted bell in each bedroom activates a signal in the kitchen, so do not hesitate to summon someone for anything you need, at any time. I do hope you’ll be adequately comfortable.”

“Wow,” Gabriel said simply, looking wide-eyed around the great hall of the Sanhevid Suite, which apparently counted for a small mansion in its own right. It was a two-story affair, with windows on the second floor admitting sunlight to complement the fairy lamps attached to each of the marble pillars. The place was laid out very much like a Shaathist lodge, a long area strewn with furniture extending from huge doors on one end to an enormous hearth on the other, though the décor ran toward marble, velvet, and gilt-framed paintings rather than hunting trophies.

“Adequately?” Toby added, grinning. “Ravana, this is… Well, it’s nicer than most of the places Tellwyrn’s made us stay on trips.”

“Most?” Gabriel gave him an incredulous look. “This is nicer than anyplace we’ve stayed. By orders of magnitude.”

“Um, ex-fuckin’-cuse me,” Ruda retorted, “but I distinctly recall putting you ingrates up at my house on one of those trips.”

Gabriel smiled sweetly at her. “I know what I said.”

“Arquin, how long’s it been since I fucking stabbed you?”

“Let us remember that we are guests here,” Shaeine interjected smoothly, “and refrain from getting hethelax blood on any of the furnishings. According to Professor Rafe, it is rather acidic.”

“It’s fine, there’s a courtyard,” Gabriel assured her. “Honestly, Ravana, I’m just a kid from the wrong side of Tiraas. I think I’m gonna be afraid to touch anything in here.”

“Ah, I take your point,” she mused, nodding. “Hm… How about this?”

Ravana stepped over to the nearest column, where a frosted glass vase full of out-of-season tulips rested atop a decorative plinth at its base. Picking up the delicate vessel in one hand, she regarded it critically for a moment, then turned and hurled it across the room.

It was a good throw; the crystal unerringly struck another marble column, where of course it shattered, strewing flowers, water, and glass fragments across a wide area. Everyone stared at it in disbelief, then turned those looks on Ravana herself, who had immediately folded her hands demurely at her waist, looking self-satisfied.

“I know that to some of you, servants are in and of themselves an unseemly indulgence,” she said lightly, “but do keep in mind that everyone working in this manor is paid from the House treasury, as I have reduced taxes to ease the burden on local business my father created. Any materials used in cleaning or repair are purchased nearby. I do ask that you please refrain from burning the place down, but short of that? The worst thing you can possibly do is contribute to the local economy. Keep that in mind, Gabriel, and please don’t hesitate to make yourself comfortable in whatever way you can.”

“You have a striking way of making a point,” Trissiny observed.

Ravana’s smile increased fractionally, and she inclined her head. “I have learned from the best.”

“Are we…still in the same house?” Juniper asked hesitantly, pulling her head out of the doorway to the solarium she’d circumspectly been investigating while everyone talked, Sniff silently at her heels as always. “It sounds like this ‘suite’ is bigger than most people’s houses.”

“Ah, yes, hence my uncertainty,” said Ravana. “This would ordinarily be used as guest quarters for visiting nobility and their own households. I believe its size is adequate to your group, but it is not in keeping with formal etiquette to house disparate individuals here. All things considered, and given that placing you each in separate rooms of a quality suitable to your stature would have made it logistically difficult for you all to find one another, I took the risk of presuming you would not be overly concerned with the formalities. If I have erred, I humbly apologize, and of course can make any alternate arrangement of your choosing. There are abundant private rooms, of course, or I can set you up as a group in one of the outlying guest houses. Or, if you prefer a familiar touch of whimsy, a suite of tavern rooms on the grounds.”

“Your first instinct was correct, Ravana,” Teal assured her with a faint smile. During the last year, she had either gotten over her antipathy toward the Duchess or learned to conceal it, and now appeared quite at ease in Madouri Manor. “This is more than comfortable enough, and we wouldn’t dream of putting you to any more trouble. Right, everyone?”

“Indubitably!” Fross chimed, swooping back into the room. “Guys, you have got to see that library! There’s a complete edition of the Encyclopedia Viridici!”

“Isn’t that one notoriously unreliable?” Trissiny asked.

“Yes, because it hasn’t been printed in six hundred years! It’s not even in intelligible modern Tanglish!”

“Hold on, back up,” Gabriel requested, still blinking at Ravana. “Did you say you have a tavern…in your house?”

“Three, on the grounds,” she said placidly. “Madouri Manor as it stands today was the original fortified city of Madouris. As the Lower City spread beyond its walls, the larger structures around the citadel became the residences of lower nobility. Then the Outer City rose around the second ring of walls, and gradually my ancestors encouraged the other families to gentrify the Lower City, eventually leaving these grounds for House Madouri and the city and provincial government alone.” She paused, grimacing prettily. “Unfortunately, my more recent ancestors pushed even those out, leaving the Manor as the largest private residence in the world, a testament to excess that even a Sheng Emperor would have thought a bit much. I have been migrating government offices back into the grounds; you would not believe how hobbled the local bureaucracy has been, simply due to being scattered across the city. Of course, you have the run of the Manor; you will be able to tell what structures serve official purpose. It should not be hard to avoid getting in anyone’s way. Feel free to patronize the taverns, if you like. I am quite serious about encouraging you to take advantage of any available amenities, everyone. It is the least I can do, as I fear I shall perforce be a somewhat negligent hostess.”

“This is your idea of negligent?” Ruda snorted, flopping down on a gilt-armed sofa. “Damn, girl. I’m scared to see what it looks like when you get generous. Be honest, you ever drowned somebody in champagne?”

“Oh, it’s not the accommodations,” Ravana said, smiling. “Those I can provide. It’s just that this is necessarily a working vacation for me. While attending school, my ability to manage the province is hampered by distance, even in this modern age of telescrolls and Rails. I must make full use of the time I have at home to attend to as many affairs as can be squeezed in. Rest assured, I shall make every effort to attend to you, but it won’t be as much as I’d like, so the least I can do is provide ample comfort and entertainment during your stay.”

“I see,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Well, we don’t want to get in your way, then…”

“You are anything but in my way,” Ravana said firmly. “I have been quite looking forward to showing you all around my city. Scorn and the other girls from the Wells will be arriving by tonight, and I mean to have a proper welcome banquet with everyone. Indeed, I find myself eager to consult the political minds among you on the newest issue with the elves.”

“Do understand that neither Teal nor I can render comment in any official capacity,” Shaeine began.

“Please.” Ravana held up one hand, still smiling. “You are my guest, Shaeine, I will not have you put on the spot or otherwise discomfited. If you’d like to chat about it, I would obviously love to hear your take. If not, that is the end of it. It’s very important to me to maintain personal connections beyond the political. Bad enough I can’t publicly associate with Sekandar anymore, I’ll not have any tension raised between Houses Madouri and Awarrion.”

“Wait, what happened with Sekandar?” Gabriel asked. “I thought you two got along well.”

“Oh, we do, but unfortunately his mother is…out of sorts with me. Being a well-bred Calderaan boy, Prince Sekandar obviously cannot gainsay her in public, so our conversations at school have been somewhat abridged in the last few months. It’s dreadfully tedious, but such are politics.”

“Ravana,” Teal asked in the chiding tone of a teacher interrogating a child over a broken vase—while, herself, standing practically in the shards of a broken vase— “what did you do to the Sultana?”

Ravana shrugged daintily. “I have simply been a good neighbor to the people of Last Rock while enjoying their hospitality. I furnished several small business loans to residents, after the fashion I have found so productive here in Madouris. Sadly, her Excellency has chosen to take this as a territorial infraction. I do say she is overreacting somewhat.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Trissiny said, folding her arms. “You, the sitting governor of another province and rival Great House, began an economic program obviously modeled on the means you used to secure your influence in Madouris, in a fringe territory over which the Sultana has nominal but little real control, probably causing her to lose face in front of the other Houses of Calderaas, who at their most congenial are a pit of underfed alligators. And you’re surprised she was miffed?”

“I said that her Excellency overreacted,” Ravana replied, lifting her nose, “not that she was entirely without a point.”

“Yeah, I’d get on top of fixing that if I were you,” Gabriel suggested. “Sekandar’s a swell guy and all, but if Princess Yasmeen is anything to go by you do not want the Aldarasi women on your case. I think even you may not be rich enough to shrug that off, Ravana.”

“Mildly sexist,” Trissiny stated, giving him a pointed look, “but regrettably apt.”

He bowed grandly to her.

Ravana herself drew in a breath, causing her thin shoulders to rise, then let it out slowly, sweeping a languid and incongruously warm smile around the group. “Now, this is exactly why I was so grateful you all agreed to visit me over the holidays. I am surrounded by legions of yes-men at home; nobody outside of school dares talk back to me. It’s no wonder my father entirely lost his sense of proportion.”

The front door of the Sanhevid Suite clicked discreetly shut, and the group shifted to look that way as Ravana’s Butler came gliding swiftly across the floor toward them.

“Your pardon, my Lady,” Yancey said, bowing to her. “The contacts in N’Jendo with whom you were corresponding concerning the Harpy affair have arrived.”

Poised as always, Ravana betrayed her incredulity only by a momentary pause, and the most infinitesimal lift of one eyebrow, before replying. “How?”

“It appears a telescroll signaling their acquiescence to your last suggestion arrived while you were welcoming our guests, my Lady. Veilwin intercepted and read it, and took it upon herself to teleport to Jennidira to retrieve them. I have made them comfortable in the Azure Parlor.”

Butler training was truly a rival for a noble upbringing in terms of facial control; Yancey managed to convey his withering disapproval of this Veilwin’s presumption without altering his expression a hair beyond the strictly polite.

“I see,” Ravana said, pausing to press her lips into a thin line. “Well. Speak of the Dark Lady. Or…can we even say that anymore?”

“I think I’d rather we did,” said Trissiny. “Elilial is neither dead nor neutered, and undoubtedly is already at work encouraging the world to forget what a monster she has always been. Let’s not oblige her.”

“Duly noted,” Ravana agreed, nodding to her. “Well! It seems it has begun. I am terribly sorry to abandon you all so abruptly, but this matter won’t wait. I shall do my utmost to join you and the others for dinner; this should not occupy me beyond the afternoon. In the meantime, Yancey will see to all your needs.”

“Hey, don’t you worry about us,” Ruda said lazily from the sofa, on which she was sprawled lopsidedly with one leg thrown over its arm. “Go on, be the boss lady. See ya at dinner.”

“And thank you again for having us,” Toby added.

“The pleasure is entirely mine,” Ravana assured them, inclining her head deeply. “Do excuse me, then.”

She turned and glided out, Yancey on her heels. The Butler held the suite’s door for her with a bow, then slipped out behind the Duchess and pulled it shut after them.

“So, uh…” Fross darted over to swoop across the mess of the shattered vase. “Should we…call somebody about this? Cos I could probably clean it up pretty easily but I’m not sure if that’s, like, rude to the servants or what.”

“Hmm.” On the other side of the chamber, Gabriel ambled toward a matching vase and reached for it.

“No, Gabriel!” Trissiny shouted, charging to intercept him.

Teal slipped an arm around Shaeine’s waist; F’thaan, already tired from the day’s journey, was draped asleep across the drow’s feet. “And to think I was afraid we’d have a dull holiday.”


In any other house, the Azure Parlor would have been considered a ballroom. A relatively small and intimate one, suitable for parties of no more than two dozen, but still. The majority of its floorspace was taken up by a sunken area reached by steps down from the carpeted main floor, where the dancing surface itself was a mosaic depicting a cloudy sky. Its matching domed ceiling was a far more intricate fresco of a blue dragon, painted nearly to scale and coiling in on himself as though twisting about in midair in a pose that just barely crammed his entire sinuous length into the available space.

Ravana’s new guests had remained on the upper portion, where seats and refreshment tables were distributed. They had been generously served; on one of the tables were laid out trays of tea, hot mulled cider, and warm pies of both meat and fruit in portions that would have provided a full meal for more than the three of them. The woman in the group was sipping a mug of cider, but other than that the refreshments appeared untouched. Still wearing their fur-lined winter cloaks, all three were standing, and staring upward at the ceiling fresco.

Veilwin was slouched in an armchair off to one side in a posture that clashed with her elegant brocaded dress, munching on a slice of cherry pie.

“Zyndirax the Blue was an off-again, on-again paramour of Duchess Tamira Madouri,” Ravana said, gliding into the room. “I suspect the scandal was the sole cause of her interest in him; she did love to ruffle people’s feathers. Welcome to Madouri Manor, Brother Ingvar and guests! I most humbly apologize for keeping you waiting. The truth is that I was not expecting you to visit me so soon.”

She shot a sidelong look at her Court Wizard, who snorted (spraying crumbs in the process) and pointed a forkful of pie at her.

“You said you were on a tight schedule for the next two weeks,” the elf said accusingly. “Made a whole production of it, big speech and everything. Remember? We’re all to chip in an’ try to smooth things along. Well, I cut off some corners and saved you some time. You’re welcome.”

Veilwin was the only elf Ravana had ever seen with dark circles around her eyes, and they had never diminished in the time she’d known her. As usual, her gown was of expensive silk brocade, and free of any tear, stain, or wrinkle due to the considerable enchantments laid upon it, which contrasted starkly with the mussed state of her blonde hair. Now, she also had crumbs all over half her face, which somehow suited her.

“I assure you, we are not put out,” Ingvar interjected, striding forward with a warm smile. “It’s a great pleasure to see you again, your Grace. Especially conscious.”

“Ah, ah,” Veilwin chided with her mouth full, wagging the now-empty fork. “It’s ‘my Lady.’ The Duchess is trying to retire the ol’ Grace thing, says it’s old-fashioned. She’s a modern girl, is Ravana.”

“Veilwin,” the Duchess said with a too-wide smile, “do you recall our discussion about you speaking in front of guests?”

Veilwin grunted and tucked silently back into her pie.

“Yes, I understand this is not the first time we have met,” Ravana said, accepting Ingvar’s outstretched hand and inclining her head in response to his bow. “As those events were relayed to me, I owe you my life.”

“I did little…my Lady,” he demurred. “Anyone would have carried an unconscious woman out of a battlefield.”

“I assure you, it was not a small thing to me. A Madouri pays her debts.”

“I would consider it a grave dishonor to claim a debt over something so morally obligatory, my Lady,” Ingvar said gravely, then smiled again. “But perhaps it can be a starting point for a positive relationship.”

“Well said,” she agreed, smiling back. “Now, I see you have met my Court Wizard. I also apologize for whatever Veilwin said and/or did before I was able to intervene.”

Behind her, Veilwin snorted again.

“I have no complaints, my Lady,” Ingvar said tactfully. “We hunters have straightforward manners ourselves. Allow me to introduce my friends, Dantu and Dimbi.”

They nodded in turn, clearly uncertain of the formalities involved in meeting a Duchess; Ravana inclined her head politely to each of them in response, allowing her amusement to tinge her smile. Dimbi was a young woman, Dantu a surprisingly old man, and both were Westerners, probably locals from the area around Ninkabi where Ingvar and his followers had been roaming in the months since the battle. Though Dimbi was visibly uncomfortable in these opulent surroundings, the white-haired Dantu seemed quite at ease, and even intrigued by everything he saw.

“A pleasure,” she said. “And on the subject of beginning a positive relationship, there is the matter concerning which I reached out to you.”

“Yes, indeed,” Ingvar said, his expression sobering. “I confess, Lady Madouri, I was surprised to learn you had involved yourself in this at all. I mean no offense by that, of course. You have been extremely generous, and I thank you for what you’ve done.”

“But you are uncertain about my motives?” she prompted, then smiled gently. “Please, Brother Ingvar, don’t worry, no offense is taken. We are what we are: myself a scheming noble, and you too intelligent not to know a scheming noble when you meet one. I would never be so churlish as to be affronted by a person possessing basic common sense. We have time to delve into my reasons for stepping in; for now, I suspect you must be very eager to meet the Harpies. I know they will be very glad indeed to finally meet you.”

“That is certainly true,” he agreed. “Are they here, then?”

“Not in the city, no; it didn’t seem the wisest place to house them. Rest assured, I have made sure to provide for their safety and comfort. I’ll take you to them now, if you’re amenable.”

“Very much so,” he said, allowing the eagerness to touch his voice.

Ravana smiled again, then half-turned. “Veilwin, take us to the lodge, if you please.”

The sorceress sighed through her nose and swallowed a bite of pastry. “I am almost finished with my pie.”

“You are finished with it,” Ravana corrected. “You may order anything you want from the kitchens later. It’s not as if I don’t feed you. It’s time to work.”

“Ugh.” With ill grace, Veilwin tossed her plate down onto the table and the fork after it, then stood, absently brushing crumbs off her face. “Fine, if you’re in such a damned hurry.”

She strode toward the group, raising one hand as she went, and blue light began to flicker within her eyes. Matching sparks snapped in the air around them, accompanied by a faint whine of gathering arcane energy.

“Uh, hang on now,” Dimbi said nervously, “is she really—”

Veilwin snapped her fingers, the arcane light flashed, and the five of them vanished.


The distant sounds of birds calling from the nearby rainforest were barely audible over the murmur of breeze and the waves. It was a gorgeous day, cloudless and just cool enough that the unimpeded sun did not feel too hot. Such weather was rare, as this was usually the rainy season; it likely wouldn’t last more than an hour or two. From her chosen lounge chair on the beach, she had a view of the wide central bay of the Tidestrider archipelago, with the forest-clad peaks of mountainous islands rising all around the horizon. During the summer months, the lodge she was renting would have housed several groups of the vacationing wealthy, but now the winter chill assured her solitude. The first peace and quiet she’d had in months.

The lounge chairs were arranged in pairs, with low wooden tables between them; she had piled hers with books. Mostly novels, though the volume currently open in her hands was a treatise on bardic archetypes printed in Glassian. Tellwyrn’s eyes had stopped tracking back and forth across the page for the last few minutes; she just held the book up almost like a shield, scowling at it and listening to the crunch of footsteps in the sand steadily encroaching upon her privacy.

“I just can’t get over how warm it is,” Eleanora Sultana Tirasian marveled aloud, setting a tray bearing a pitcher and two glasses on the table next to the book pile and folding herself gracefully into the second lounge chair. “Isn’t this place at more or less the same latitude as Ninkabi?”

“Ocean currents,” Tellwyrn said tersely. “Tropical water comes straight down the west coast from the equator. You’re from Onkawa, there’s no way you don’t know that. You also had to be aware I noted your battlemages porting in all around. This had better be pretty damn good, Eleanora. I am on vacation.”

She finally looked over at her, then raised her eyes in surprise. Tellwyrn was wearing a loosely-fitted kimono, but the Empress of Tiraas, she now observed, had clad herself in a skimpy traditional Tidestrider garment—traditional, at least, in the warmer latitudes to the north—which showed off far more of her dark skin than she ever did in public.

“Yes, Arachne, I know,” Eleanora said with a smug smile. “Terrible vengeance if I disturb it, and so on, and so forth.”

“Do you know how much time off I get a year?”

“Of course I do, the academic year is common knowledge. Do you know how much time off I get a year? None, Arachne. The answer is zero.”

“Oh, yes, your life is so very dreary,” Tellwyrn sneered. “In your extravagant palace, where you spend each night in the arms of a different beauty gathered from across the Empire. My heart bleeds.”

“I only have three regular mistresses at the moment,” the Empress said lightly, pouring tropical punch into both glasses. “Sharidan keeps only four. You know, it’s surprisingly difficult to collect them, even with the resources at our disposal. Women beautiful enough to catch my eye, but also with enough intellect and character to be worth talking to…well, they tend to get jealous and competitive with one another, which we obviously can’t have. There just aren’t that many candidates who meet all the right criteria. A life of power is such a lonely one…”

“You do realize that you being Empress is the only reason you don’t get punched more often, right?”

“Obviously. So, have you heard about the elves?”

“No, and fuck ‘em. Nobody likes elves. Stuck-up pricks.”

Eleanora chuckled. “They’ve announced a unified government. A permanent alliance of Tar’naris, every forest tribe on the continent, twenty-nine participating plains tribes, and Qestraceel.”

“Bullshit,” Tellwyrn snorted. “The drow have been sending out feelers for, what, a year? Two? It’ll take ‘em a century to get even a quarter of that roster off their asses.”

“Yes, that is more or less everyone’s analysis. And yet, they’ve gone and done it. You can imagine the shockwaves this has created.”

“Is this you trying to make small talk due to being unable to discuss anything except politics, or are you actually going to try to convince me to cut short my vacation? Answer carefully, Eleanora.”

“Yes.” The Empress held out one of the glasses to her, smiling slyly. “You know, Quentin suspects you are a high elf.”

Tellwyrn heaved a sigh, and finally slapped her book down on the table, but made no move to accept the drink. She just glared mulishly at the Empress.

“I don’t get to take vacations,” Eleanora repeated, the levity fading from her expression. “And I most especially can’t now, Arachne, not with this crisis unfolding. So consider my position. I do need your help, which means disturbing your cherished peace and quiet. I don’t have the power to compel you, and persuading you means not disturbing your cherished peace and quiet. You see my dilemma?”

“So,” Tellwyrn drawled, “you are going to crash my vacation, because buttering me up is your only viable option, and thus you get to finagle a beach vacation for yourself out of a political disaster. I am, grudgingly, quite impressed.”

“How often do you think doing my duty to the Empire will require me to loaf about in a resort with the single most interesting woman I’ve ever taken to bed?” Eleanora rejoined, the self-satisfied smirk returning to her face. “I can hardly afford to pass up this chance, you see.”

“And what if I just decide to tell you everything I know about the high elves right away? That’s what you’re fishing for, right? I know you don’t think I’m in good with any of the other kinds.”

“Well,” the Empress mused, “I suppose that would be the absolutely ideal outcome for me. And I confess, if you pick this of all moments to be agreeable and compliant for once in your life I will be rather pissed off.”

The elf finally accepted the outstretched glass. “I’m not a high elf, Eleanora. At least, not that I know of. I went to Qestraceel to find out. It didn’t go well.”

“I see. Then…?”

“Yes, I do know quite a bit about them. And in keeping with my general ‘fuck the elves’ policy, I find I’m quite amenable to dishing on them to the Empire. Provided, of course, that I am sufficiently buttered up.” She lay back in the reclining seat, smirking herself and lifting the glass to her lips. A second later, she grimaced. “Eugh. I hate coconut.”

Eleanora shook her head, lounging back in her own chair. “You have got to be the most disagreeable person I’ve ever met.”

“Oh, come on. That’s not even close to true, and you know it.”

The Professor reached out with her glass, the Empress clinked her own against it, and they both gazed placidly out across the waves.

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16 – 4

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“The one and only!” Rasha said with a broad smile. “Something I can help you ladies with? I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”

It was instinct, by that point: never let them see you’re afraid. Glory had not only schooled her apprentices in Eserite philosophy, but drilled them in roleplayed scenarios with herself and one another until she was satisfied that they would reflexively default to a Guild thief’s poise and confidence under any pressure. And so, in a situation wherein the old Rasha would have quailed and tried to run, or perhaps lashed out and suffered the consequences, she just smiled, giving them nothing.

Also, the well-practiced calm enabled her to keep in mind that she was a welcome guest in this temple and there were Silver Legionnaires within earshot. These three were working to project an intimidating presence, but if they actually did anything, it would be they and not Rasha who landed in hot water. Had Zafi already left? She didn’t dare concede her nervousness by turning to look.

“This isn’t a social call, boy,” the woman in the lead sneered, and Rasha was proud of herself for keeping her composure. They couldn’t tell, she knew it with an empirical certainty beyond even her own insecurities. Glory, a ruthless taskmaster as much as she was a nurturing mother hen, had deliberately put Rasha into social situations arranged entirely to prove to her that no one saw her as anything but a young woman after a year of transitioning, counseling, and coaching. Which meant…

“I don’t know exactly how you got your hooks into our paladin, but the last thing she needs is more of a corrupting influence,” the ringleader stated, tilting her head back to stare down the considerable length of her nose at Rasha. “It stops, now. Am I understood?”

Yep, there it was. Thorn was going to stomp these imbeciles into paste when she learned about this.

And as if by magic, that realization sucked all the menace out of their ambush.

Rasha kept her amiable smile in place, affecting an idly interested posture of her head while they prattled on.

“It’s bad enough the High Commander sees fit to indulge perverse men in…this,” the woman on the left said, putting on an identical sneer. “But don’t get too comfortable with it. Things are changing around here.”

“That’s a problem for another time, though,” added the third, folding her arms across her tabard. “Have your fun while you can. But you will keep away from General Avelea.”

“I don’t want to hear any more about you infecting her with Eserite nonsense, to say nothing of pushing the idea that your mental illness deserves to be recognized as Sisterhood doctrine,” the leader chimed in. “You thieves can be as sick as you want on your own time.”

“It’s Rasha, yes? Is that your made-up name? Well, whatever you’re really called, we know where you stay and—”

She broke off incredulously as Rasha yawned. Widely, but discreetly covering her mouth with her fingers. A lady, as Glory insisted, did not show off her molars.

“Excuse me, ladies,” Rasha said politely, managing not to betray her amusement at their expressions. “It’s been a long day already. Would you mind awfully getting to the point? It’s just that I don’t really have time for halfhearted schoolyard bullying today. Not that you’re not very good at it, I’m sure, but some of us are grown-ups, with jobs.”

They stared at her, the two on the sides with their mouths satisfyingly open. The leader managed to look even more belligerent, however.

“Oh, I see,” she snorted. “You think you’re clever. How very like an Eserite.”

“So, that’s a no, then?” Rasha said pleasantly. “Very well, you three have a lovely afternoon. I’m going to leave now.” She almost took a step backward to extricate herself from their formation, but then had a better idea. “And you,” she continued, polite as ever, “are going to get out of my way.”

The leader’s fingers shifted to grasp the handle of her longsword; the woman on the left actually gasped in outrage, while the other flushed nearly crimson, her Stalweiss coloring making it especially vivid.

“Oh,” the ringleader said quietly from behind clenched teeth. “Are we?”

“Yes, you are,” Rasha replied, batting her eyelashes. “I am an apprentice of the Theives’ Guild, and a welcome guest in this temple. Lay a finger on me or draw that sword, and you’ll be tossed out of here on your ear by Silver Legionnaires, just for starters. Then you will be dragged into an alley for an etiquette lesson by six enforcers before you can flee the city. And none of us wants that, girls. I don’t want it because stirring up drama like that would be a terrible repayment to all the people in the Sisterhood who have been very kind to me.” She smiled more broadly, again batting her eyes. Just because it was classically, stereotypically feminine, and they would hate it. “And you don’t want it because you’re cowards.”

“You little Punaji brat,” hissed the second woman, actually sliding her blade a few inches out of the sheath, but the leader reached across to grab her wrist. Rasha kept eye contact with the woman in the center, not looking around to check for intervention. The sanctuary was almost crowded; someone had to be overhearing this. Legionnaires might not have been able to see the almost-drawn sword, with the four of them clustered together, but it was only a matter of time before somebody stepped in.

“Cowards, are we,” the leader said very flatly.

“Well, you seem to think it takes three of you to corner a girl half your size,” Rasha simpered. “And there’s the fact that your entire spiritual philosophy is that the sex you were accidentally born into doesn’t feeeeeeel as special if just anybody’s allowed in. Yes, I think the word applies. Don’t you?”

“Now you listen to—”

“Nope.” Rasha took one step forward; the woman didn’t back up. “You’ve wasted enough of my time. Draw the sword, or get out of the way.”

She flexed her fingers once, adjusting her grip on the hilt, eyes narrowing to slits.

“Do it,” Rasha said softly, dropping the smile. “I dare you. Do. It. Coward.”

The woman tensed, and for an instant Rasha thought she actually might.

Before anything could come of it, though, a fifth person inserted herself into their cluster. Sliding in as deftly as an alley cat, she draped an arm around Rasha’s shoulders and pushed herself subtly to the fore mostly by surreptitiously forcing Rasha backward.

It was a woman with tousled black hair and angular Sifanese (or maybe Sheng, Rasha still couldn’t reliably spot the difference) features, wearing a ragged Punaji-style greatcoat over a clearly armored leather vest.

“Hiiii,” she said in a breathy voice, eyes vacantly wide, and let her head list deeply to one side as if drunk, staring up at the central woman. “You have really pretty eyes.”

The Purist’s leader frowned, and actually took a step back, her two compatriots squinting in confusion at the new arrival. “What? I don’t… Listen, young woman, this is a private conversation.”

“Pretty eyes. Pretty, pretty eyes,” the woman crooned. Her accent was local, despite the foreign features. Well, the Empire had birthright citizenship and Tiraas itself was a melting pot, so one couldn’t assume. Rasha’s inward attempt to size up the interloper who was still clutching her faltered at her next comment. “Can I have them?”

The Purists all three stepped back, incidentally opening up their tight formation and exposing the center of lines of sight from several directions. Rasha, glancing rapidly about, immediately noticed two Legionnaires and a priestess watching them intently.

“They sing to me,” the Sifanese(?) woman cooed, beginning to sway back and forth subtly, tugging Rasha along with her. “I hear them in my dreams. They want to be mine. Pretty please, pretty eyes? I’ll give them a good home.”

Grimacing in pure disgust, the Purist leader finally turned and strode away. Her lieutenants fell in alongside her, the Stalweiss one with a lingering glare. In seconds they had departed through the temple’s front doors, all of the nearby Legionnaires openly turning to watch them go.

The second they were gone, the woman released Rasha and turned to face her. The daffy expression had vanished from her face, replaced by a sharp glare.

“You, apprentice, will run straight home and inform your sponsor of the dumbass stunt you just pulled. If you explain exactly why that was a stupid thing to do and what could have gone horribly wrong, she probably won’t box your ears the way you’d be in for if you were my apprentice. Glory’s a soft touch.”

“Me?” Rasha protested, at once relieved and offended. It was good news that the woman was Guild, but this… “I was just—”

“Oh, I was so worried!” the woman squalled suddenly, hurling herself forward and throwing her arms around Rasha in a big hug. It probably looked like a friendly gesture from the outside; only Rasha could feel the rigid fingertips digging into the pressure points at the base of her skull.

“The Guild and the Sisterhood are both unrepresented in the Church right now,” the Eserite hissed right into Rasha’s ear while soothingly rocking them both back and forth for the benefit of the onlookers. “We don’t get along great at the best of times. Intercult relations are incredibly delicate, and strained enough with that fanatical splinter sect suddenly infesting the city. What I do not fucking need is untethered apprentices picking fights with them in the temple.”

“They started—”

Rasha cut herself off, a second too late. The enforcer slowly released her, pulling back and gaze down at her face with a condescending little smirk.

“No, please, go on,” she said sweetly. “Finish your thought.”

Punaji were raised not to complain about fairness; under other circumstances, Rasha might have gracefully accepted the rebuke. But she had been standing up to bullies, doing exactly what Eserites were supposed to do. Straightening her spine, she stepped backward, pulling herself out of the woman’s grasp.

“Well. I won’t keep you any longer, if you’re here on business.”

“Too right, you won’t,” she said brusquely, already striding past her toward the rear of the sanctuary. Her voice rang out as she went: “Straight to Glory, now! She won’t like it if she has to hear about this from me.”

Still practically quivering with repressed fury, Rasha herself set off for the front doors at a stately glide, spine rigid and nose upright. One of the Legionnaires actually opened the door for her, with a sympathetic look. She barely had the self-possession to nod politely in acknowledgment.

That had stirred her up even worse than the ambush. Purists and other assholes she expected to behave that way; where the hell did a Guild enforcer get off rebuking her for doing exactly what she was being trained by the Guild to do?

Fortunately, the frigid air of Imperial Square did a lot to clear her head. Rasha turned up the fur collar of her dress, surreptitiously thumbing the rune on the warming charm hidden underneath it.

The Square was as stirred up as the temple had been; apparently she wasn’t the only one having an eventful morning. Rasha slipped to one side, out of the path of traffic, and paused in the shadow of one of the great columns to study the comings and goings. A column of soldiers was just marching past, and there were knots of people clustered together in excitable conversation all across the temple steps. What had gotten under everybody’s skin this morning?

Picking out a piercing voice from the hubbub, Rasha set off sideways toward one end of the temple steps, just in time to intercept a young boy coming round the corner, pulling a wagon full of newspapers, waving one over his head, and shouting at the top of his lungs.

“EXTRA, SPECIAL EDITION! READ THE BREAKING NEWS ON THE ELVEN CRISIS! IF IT’S KNOWN, THE LANCER KNOWS IT!”

She mutely tossed him a silver coin, receiving a grin and a deftly thrown paper in response. Rasha ripped off the twine and unfolded it enough to read the front page while he carried on into the Square.

Though she wasn’t personally much interested in politics, one didn’t live under Glory’s tutelage without developing a careful respect for the web of interconnected forces that made the Empire work, and sometimes prevented it from working. Rasha’s frown rapidly deepened as her eyes darted across the lines of text.

“The elves did what?”


“Formed a united government, including the legendary high elves! As Veilgrad’s most celebrated elven resident, my readers would be very interested in your insight into these developing events.”

Macy poised her pencil over her open notepad, gazing expectantly at her target with a big smile of anticipation in place.

“I straight up don’t believe you,” Natchua said bluntly. “If you told me the Matriarchs and Elders all linked arms and went square dancing in Imperial Square, that would be more plausible.”

The reporter had the temerity to grin at her, not looking down at where she was scribbling on the pad. Omnu’s breath, was she really writing that down? “Well, assuming for the sake of argument that I’m right, can I get a quote on this from you, Natchua?”

“Here’s a headline for you: annoying reporter continues to abuse the fact that I don’t indiscriminately immolate people.”

She wrote that down, too, looking not the least bit discomfited. “You grew up in Tar’naris, I’m sure you have more insight than practically anyone into what the ramifications of this might be. Veilgrad really respects your perspective, Natchua, and it’s especially applicable here. A word from you would mean a lot to people.”

Flattery and manipulation, and both so ham-fisted they would have provoked only annoyance in Tar’naris. Natchua indulged in an irritated sigh. Macy Vaucherot, which was pronounced in zee authentic Glassian manner, the pretentious tit (even though Veilgrad was full of old families with Glassian names who had been fully Imperial for at least five generations), was actually one of the less irritating reporters who tended to buzz around. One of the more persistent and least intimidated by casual displays of infernomancy, true, but at least she only published what she actually heard in that paper of hers, without the embellishments or outright fabrications which had almost sent Natchua to kicking down some of her rivals’ doors before her entire household had frantically talked her down from that idea.

And for that matter, she certainly did have opinions about Tar’naris and what such a development would mean for the Empire, and came perilously close to starting in on them before the recollection of Melaxyna and Kheshiri’s hurried advice about the power of the press came back to mind.

Elilial’s remarks about Natchua’s so-called “cunning” had, over the last several months, frequently made her stop and second-guess her first impulses. There was actually a pattern, she’d found; while most of her actions were described with words like “reckless” and “harebrained” by those close to her, in hindsight she noticed that they tended to lead to success when she spotted a benefit others had missed and aimed right at it with no regard for common sense, whereas just acting out of temper or apathy rarely ended well. It didn’t take much reflection to see which of those it would be to rant at a reporter about what abhorrent monsters most Narisians were. It was true, but the knowledge wouldn’t do anything to help anybody who got their news from Macy’s rag. Riling up the local populace and pissing off the Imperial Foreign Service might be worthwhile in a hypothetical situation where there was a benefit to her in it, but this was not one of those.

“I wasn’t a noble or anything, in Tar’naris,” Natchua said carefully. “I came from the farming House, and most of what I was taught about the affairs of the powerful was to stay as far from them as possible. I don’t think I actually have much in the way of insight into this, Macy.”

“But you were selected to attend the legendary University at Last Rock!”

“Yeah,” Natchua said dryly, “I’m the one who got kicked out, if you’ll recall. Look, international relations are over my head. What I do know is that the Tiraan Empire has not endured for a thousand years by being stupid, and the Tirasian Dynasty deserves credit for stitching the whole thing back together within a few years of the Enchanter Wars and keeping it that way during a century of unprecedented changes of all kinds. I have no idea how international relations should be handled, but it seems to me the people whose job that is are pretty good at it. Unexpected surprises like this are a good time for all of us out here in Veilgrad to stay the course and let the diplomats work. I can’t think of any recent examples of them letting us down.”

“But what about—”

“Good chat, Macy, but you caught me on the way to an appointment. Bye,” Natchua said firmly, turning away.

“I just wonder if you have any thoughts on—”

At least this time she didn’t shout or try to chase after her when Natchua shadow-jumped fifty feet up the street; experience had taught her that would only drive her quarry away faster.

The short range jump had put her in front of a public house with an outdoor terrace, on which a cluster of students from the nearby college were gathered around a brazier holding pints. Upon her appearance, one of them pressed himself against the waist-high wall, brandishing his tankard at her.

“Veilgrad stands!” he yelled unsteadily.

“Veilgrad stands!” she shouted back, pointing at him. A roar of approval rose from the whole group, and Natchua carried on down the sidewalk, grinning as they clamored behind her, though she did mutter to herself. “It’s one o’clock in the afternoon, ya louts.”

Her destination was another pub, this one abandoned since the chaos crisis, after which its owner had packed up and moved his operations to Mathenon, where the climate was mild, the coin flowed like water and nothing even slightly interesting ever happened. The Mad Marquis had stood empty till the catacomb reconstruction efforts had brought Agatha Svanwen’s company to Veilgrad. Then, its empty condition, central location, and basement access to the catacomb system had made it an appealing headquarters for her stonemasons.

The Svanwen Company guards out front waved her in with a smile. Inside, the common room was filled with masons and miners sitting around at tables and notably not doing any work; they raised such a cheer at Natchua’s arrival that it took her a few minutes to get it quieted down enough to receive directions to the basement access.

At least it was quieter down there, though notably tense, as she observed immediately on arrival.

Svanwen herself was present, along with two of her employees, a dwarven man who’d come with her from Stavulheim and a Veilgrad local, both wearing suits and holding clipboards rather than stoneworking tools. Standing at the other side of the room and looking notably unhappy were five humans in Imperial Army uniforms, complete with the eye symbol on a blue background of the Azure Corps.

“Finally, here she is,” said the man apparently in the lead, who wore a captain’s stripes and a disgruntled expression. “Can we get this over with?”

“And hello to you too,” Natchua said, raising her eyebrows. “I’m quite well today, thank you for asking.”

“Thanks for coming, Natchua,” Svanwen said with that firmly calm voice she so often used to keep order among her laborers. “I appreciate you going out of your way. This is Captain Fedhaar, from the Azure Corps.”

“Commander of the Fourth Infernal Containment Unit,” Fedhaar said with a bit more grace, finally nodding to her.

“Enchanté ,” Natchua replied. “So what’s this I hear about demons in the tunnel?”

“Probably not more than one,” Svanwen said before the captain could reply. “A few of my people have been seeing odd tracks since last week, but one finally got a look at it yesterday. Needless to say, I ceased operations and pulled everybody out, and we’ve had a guard posted on every entrance we couldn’t seal up outright. By the description, it’s pretty clearly a rozzk’shnid.”

Natchua glanced at Fedhaar, then back to her, frowning. “Well, those do like tunnels, but they’re not sapient and can’t use magic. What do you need me for, exactly?”

“She wants you to clear the creature out. Isn’t it obvious?” Captain Fedhaar said sarcastically, folding his arms. “Nothing but the legendary Natchua will do.”

Another time she might have taken exception to the attitude, but in this case Natchua had to agree with him.

“Seriously?” she demanded, pointing to the disgruntled battlemages while holding Svanwen’s gaze. “You’ve got the most highly-trained professionals at demon containment on the continent, on loan from the Imperial Army, to deal with what amounts to an animal control problem? That’s already overkill, not to mention a situation that can only get messier the more people are involved. What the hell is my gray ass doing down here?”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” said Fedhaar, apparently meaning it. At any rate, he looked a bit less irritated.

“You’re right, as demons go, a rozzk’shnid in the tunnels isn’t much of a crisis,” Svanwen agreed. “Hell, I could take care of the damn thing myself with a battlestaff and a hunting party. At this point, it’s more a matter of morale and personnel management, Natchua. Sometimes, the best person for the job isn’t the best person for the job.”

Natchua blinked at her, then turned to Fedhaar. “Do you know what she’s talking about?”

He shrugged. “Lady, I’m in the Army. The brass rarely uses the best person for the job, but I don’t think it’s on purpose.”

“It’s like this,” said the dwarf, now with some amusement. “My crew are composed of my own people from Stavulheim, who have no particular faith in the Imperial government, and locals who are of…divided opinions. Some of ‘em will no doubt be reassured by knowing the Army is on the case, but not all, and maybe not most. Like I said, this is not a big deal. All of us together are well more than a match for the creature. But what I need to get my people back to work is assurance that there aren’t demons in the tunnels, so they don’t have to be looking over their shoulders every five seconds. I asked you to come, Natchua, to lend your credibility. We track the thing down and kill it, and then I can get the say-so of everyone’s favorite friendly local warlock and hero of the Battle of Ninkabi that it’s safe to get back to work.”

Natchua heaved a sigh, then grimaced apologetically at Captain Fedhaar. “Well… Crap. I guess I can’t turn up my nose at that, can I? As the least actually useful person here, it’d be an asshole move to not contribute what relatively little I can. All right, Agatha, fair enough. I’m in.”

“Glad to have you,” the dwarf said with a smile. “I’ll earmark you an honorarium from the discretionary—”

“Oh, don’t bother. I mean, thanks, but what the hell would I buy? Anything I need, Sherwin is happy to squander his ancestral wealth on. Save your funds for the folks doing the real work.”

“Huh,” Fedhaar grunted, staring at Natchua. “You weren’t kidding, Ms. Svanwen. Everything about her screams ‘cocky, irritating college kid,’ but damn if she doesn’t leave me with a positive impression.”

“Yeah, I’m a real fudge-dipped strawberry,” she drawled. “Everybody loves Natchua. All right, then! C’mon, nobody’s getting any younger. Let’s go fuck around in the dark demon-infested tunnels.”

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16 – 3

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“I spent some time thinking on it, like you asked. The thing is… Rasha isn’t exactly a name, at least not a traditional one. My sisters and all were all named like that, either after obscure literary references or just… Half-remembered bits of elvish or Sifanese our father heard once. It’s just not gendered, at all; it’s not rooted in enough tradition to be, either way.”

“It sounds like there’s an interesting story behind it,” Sister Iona said with her characteristic gentle smile, nodding. “Of course, what’s at issue is how you feel about it.”

“I feel attached,” Rasha said frankly. “It’s like you said a while ago: just because a lot of things need to change doesn’t mean everything does. You asked me to think about a name as an expression of my identity, and the only thing I can bring to mind is the one I already have. It’s mine. And… This sounds weird to say, but I find that now that I like myself, I like my name a lot more than I used to. Is that weird?”

“Nothing about it is weird,” she said with that gentle firmness she was so good at, helping to banish uncertainty without seeming pushy. “I’m glad you took the time to mull it over, Rasha. Remember, everyone’s journey is individual; if this is what’s right for you, then this is your truth. I hope I didn’t come across as pressuring you to take a new name.”

“Oh, no, not at all,” she replied hastily. “I mean, you didn’t. I may have nagged at myself about it a little; you know how I tend to get into my own head. When you described how common it is for people transitioning to rename themselves, I couldn’t help feeling like maybe I was doing it wrong.”

“And what do I always say about that?” Iona asked, smiling.

“There is no doing it wrong,” Rasha recited dutifully, unable to repress a smile in kind.

“Exactly! Everyone’s journey is individual, Rasha. I’ve helped guide a lot of women through these initial steps. It has given me a sense of how they tend to progress, usually, enough that I notice when someone is taking an uncommon path. At moments like that, I pay closer attention because there are often pitfalls on those paths. But in all these years, it has never become formulaic, or rote. All of these stories are unique. And in your case? I’ve watched you grow into yourself with amazing depth in the last year, Rasha. I am honestly not worried about your future, not with regard to this name thing, or in general. You are doing wonderfully. We’re simply at a stage where I find myself running through my checklist, making sure we’ve done everything as thoroughly as we can.”

Rasha’s smile faded slowly into seriousness. “Does that mean… Are we nearing the end?”

“There is no timetable,” Iona reassured her quickly. “The Sisterhood provides this support for as long as it’s needed. Many of the women I work with keep coming back for years, but then, some have ended their sessions as soon as their physical transitions are finished. How long we keep going is entirely for you to decide, Rasha. Consider me at your disposal.”

“I appreciate you, Sister,” Rasha said, her smile returning. “Has… Um, Sister Eivery said she wanted me to come for at least a couple more sessions, at weekly intervals, but she said as long as there are no surprising complications, I actually shouldn’t need any more alchemy.”

“Yes, she’s kept me appraised of your progress,” Iona said, nodding. “It’s quite a milestone. Are you feeling comfortable in your body?”

“So much so that it’s a constant euphoria,” Rasha said with quiet fervor. “I was so used to feeling wrong for years I just thought that was normal. Not feeling that way… It’s like being drunk. Is that weird?”

Iona tilted her head to give her a look over the rims of her glasses, a smile playing about her lips to soften the mock-severe expression.

“I know, I know,” Rasha said, grinning. “Nothing is weird.”

“Some things are a little weird,” the priestess demurred, still smiling. “It’s all right for them to be, and valid to feel that way. The question to which we’ve come, then, is how much longer you feel our sessions should continue.”

Rasha hesitated, her face falling still. The silence stretched out.

Sister Iona just watched her with patient, welcoming calm, and Rasha took a moment to turn her head to gaze out the window, knowing from experience that the priestess would give her as much time as she needed to marshal her thoughts.

The view wasn’t great; these rooms in the uppermost corridors of the Temple of Avei were designed to be comfortable and intimate, but they were in the medical wing, after all. Attached to the Silver Legion grounds as it was, that left it looking out over the descending arc of Tiraas rather than the famous Imperial Square, with a view that was half-blocked by an Imperial government building and a Rynean museum. Rasha had always found that it suited her, though. Having grown up on the docks, grandeur wasn’t really to her taste, though she had grown accustomed to Glory’s lavish standard of personal comfort.

She looked back at Iona’s eyes, prompting another gentle smile from the older woman, but the priestess just kept waiting for her to gather herself. Iona, she was pretty sure, was Thakari, to judge by her build and the shade of her skin. Identifying people by ethnic markers was one of the skills in which Glory was training her, and Westerners were by far the easiest: they ranged from the lean, almost-black Onkawi up in the tropics and grew thicker and paler the farther south one went to the sub-arctic N’Jendo/Athan’Khar border. Other divisions were subtler and still eluded her. Glory insisted that even among the Tiraan, an experienced eye could differentiate between the Calderaan, Tira, Vrandin and Mathena. Rasha still wasn’t entirely certain this was not one of Glory’s elaborate jokes.

“I am…sort of…torn,” she said finally.

Iona just nodded once, her silence encouraging.

“I don’t feel…ready,” Rasha admitted. “I still feel like I gain from every one of these sessions. I don’t want to quit them.”

“There is no hurry to,” the priestess assured her.

“And yet…I want to be done,” she said, lowering her gaze. “I just… I feel like I’m missing out, just sitting here and doing this. I keep remembering last year, how all my friends rushed off to Puna Dara to fight the Rust and save my own people, while I’ve done nothing but sit here in Tiraas learning…” She pursed her lips. “Learning how to be a girl. I feel like I should be doing so much more.”

“It is valid to feel that way,” Sister Iona said, nodding again. “But when you’re feeling something negative that drags you down and isn’t an accurate reflection of your situation, it’s very helpful to stop and remind yourself of what things are actually like. You can’t banish an emotion by denying it, but letting yourself feel a more positive one can be as simple as deliberately appreciating what you can about your life.”

“Isn’t it accurate, though? I’m nothing but an apprentice, after all. I study and practice with Glory and the others, I come here, and that’s pretty much…”

“Well, anything can sound tedious if you put it that way,” Iona countered, openly grinning now. “Not getting into the tensions between our cults, Rasha, I can absolutely assure you that no Eserite I’ve ever met has had a less than interesting life. Your dreary apprenticeship is with no less a luminary than Tamisin Sharvineh, who has the ear of dukes and generals and circulates with the Empire’s elite. And honestly, Rasha, you may have missed out on the escapade in Puna Dara, but… Do you still write to Trissiny?”

“Regularly, yes,” she said with a smile. “She’s actually going to visit soon. School is out for the winter and several of her friends are staying in Madouris over the break with Duchess Ravana.”

In fact, she was looking forward to that more than she admitted. Even after months of correspondence, she couldn’t help thinking of her friend as Jasmine, and couldn’t quite picture her blonde. Steady, reassuring Jasmine was sorely missed; she and Ross had been the calming presences in their group of friends.

“One thing I can tell you about Hands of Avei,” Iona said a little wryly, “is that if you’re going to stay in the orbit of one, you can expect to find yourself frequently outclassed to an extent that’s not great for the ego, while also being regularly dragged into adventures the likes of which you could never have anticipated. The truth is, Rasha, you are very young. Everyone your age is young, but you are also standing at the beginning of a lot of paths that lead in very interesting directions indeed. If there’s one thing you needn’t worry about, it’s that this is all you are. It’s only the beginning, I promise you. What we do here is by definition a transitional phase. None of use can know the future, Rasha, but yours isn’t going to be boring, that much I can confidently predict.”

Rasha found herself grinning at that. Before she could answer, the clock sitting on Iona’s desk chimed.

“Ah, I don’t have an appointment after yours today,” the priestess said quickly, “so this time there’s no need to rush off if you’d like to talk a while longer.”

“Actually…” Rasha stood, floating up from the settee in a smooth and poised motion in which Glory had drilled her; doing actual drills of that had felt ridiculous at the time, but she was very grateful in hindsight. Even Sister Iona had found cause to compliment the progress she’d made as a direct result of the courtesan’s tutelage. “Do you mind if we leave it at the usual time, today? I want to think some more on what you said.”

“Of course, Rasha,” Iona replied, also standing. “That’s half the benefit of having defined sessions, and you’re very good about progressing on your own. At the usual time next week, then?”

“Yes, please,” Rasha said with a grateful smile.

“And you know my office schedule, if you ever need to talk in a hurry.” Iona uncharacteristically hesitated, a small frown drifting over her features, which caused Rasha to frown worriedly in response. The priestess was one of the most consistently warm and composed people she’d ever met. “Actually, I do have to make a request of you today, Rasha, and I can only promise you that I don’t mean any offense.”

“What’s the matter?” Rasha asked, beginning to be actively worried now.

“I wonder,” Iona said, still with that concerned little frown, “if you wouldn’t mind leaving the temple through the side entrance today, the one just before the hallway transitioning to the barracks.”

Rasha drew her own eyebrows further together. “I don’t see why not… Is something going on, Sister?”

“I’m sure you recall my mention of the Purists,” Iona replied, momentarily clenching her lips in disapproval.

“You mean, that obscure Avenist faction that wants to murder me on principle?”

“They’ve never escalated to murder that I know of,” the priestess said reassuringly, “and between you and me, I hesitate to call their doctrine principle. But they’re somewhat less obscure right here and now, as over a hundred of them from across the continent have gathered in Tiraas to present grievances to the High Commander. And they first tried it in Viridill, at the Golden Legion headquarters and then the Abbey, and both Locke and Darnassy laughed them off. These women were already riled up beyond their norm by the time they got here. I’m just…concerned.”

Rasha put on a carefully sculpted expression straight from Glory’s training, a look that expressed disdain with just enough humor not to be offensive to the person she was talking to. “Really, Sister Iona, I can’t emphasize enough how little I’m afraid of a flock of bullying hens.”

“This is an Avenist matter, Rasha,” Iona said quietly. “You have your faith; I have mine, and it includes strict doctrines about conflict. No Avenist worth the iron in her blood would seek unnecessary confrontation, or allow noncombatants to be drawn into it. You are here as a guest and petitioner, entitled to the temple’s protection, and I don’t want you having to deal with this nonsense. Please, Rasha.”

It had been perilously close to a provocation, asking an Eserite to shy away from even the chance of confronting a confirmed asshole in need of a comeuppance, but at Iona’s soft explanation Rasha felt her rising pique melt away into chagrin. Of course, she wasn’t the only one here with a religious imperative, and while she naturally had issue with some of the Avenists’ ideas, it couldn’t be argued that the Sisterhood overall, and especially individuals like Trissiny, Iona, and Eivery, had been very kind to her.

“Of course, I understand,” she said, nodding in acquiescence. “No sense courting trouble, after all.”

“Indeed there is not.” Iona opened the door to usher her out into the hall, again smiling warmly. “You will always be welcome here, and I don’t want anyone trying to make you feel otherwise.”

“I’ll be sure not to listen to anyone who does,” Rasha promised. “See you next week as usual, Sister Iona.”

“Next week, then. Take care of yourself, Rasha.”

She was still smiling slightly as she glided down the hall after Iona closed her office door behind. By this point, the ladylike glide was practiced enough that she could do it without conscious concentration. A lot of things felt like they’d come together over the last year. Iona was right: building an identity was necessary work and took time. The more ready she felt, though, the more anxious Rasha was to get to actual work. Eserion’s faithful weren’t called to sit around in comfort while corrupt people had their way with society.

Fortunately, she didn’t have any more time to stew in her thoughts, as the path took her to a staffed checkpoint at the end of the upper hall, where the Sisterhood felt it prudent to keep track of who was passing in and out of these publicly available offices in their medical wing. This also afforded Rasha some extra practice at her poise and control, as the pretty Legionnaire was on duty.

“Hi there,” the woman said with an easy grin as she approached the doorway to the stairwell where two troops were always stationed. Half a head taller than Rasha (but so were most people), she was Tiraan, with her black hair twisted up in a regulation bun rather than cut short, and even in full armor and standing at attention she had a permanent twinkle in the eye, a way of looking roguish that would have better suited an Eserite. And she was friendly in a way that had several times left Rasha inwardly scrambling to figure out if she’d meant anything by it. “If it isn’t the cute Punaji lady! I thought this was the right day of the week.”

She slowed to a halt before the doorway, meeting the soldier’s eyes with some bemusement. That seemed a little more definitive… One of Glory’s lessons about not creating potential awkwardness in what should be safe places swam across her memory, but she let it float away, instead reaching for more pertinent recollections of her sponsor’s coaching. Posture, expression, just the slightest tilt of her head so making eye contact with the taller person made her look up through her lashes…

“And hello to you, too. My friends call me Rasha.”

The woman’s grin widened in response, and she made a little double-waggle with her eyebrows. “Does that mean we’re friends?”

This was new ground. Bless Glory’s tutelage, that question alone would have set a younger Rasha to blushing and stammering incoherently. Now, she knew how to harness emotion and control it, not allowing the very physical thrill prickling up and down her spine at being openly flirted with to determine what was expressed on her face. Conversations had rhythms, and her repartee had been not only coached by the courtesan with whom she was training, but deliberately practiced with Layla (and Tallie, earnestly pretending she was just helping Rasha while soaking up the same lessons).

“Better that than the alternative, isn’t it?” she rejoined, concentrating on her face. Left side of the lips turned upward in a half-smile, deliberately softening the muscles around her eyes so it didn’t look like a smirk…

The second Legionnaire on the other side of the door rolled her eyes, but Rasha’s new “friend” gave her a very similar not-quite-smirk in return.

“Glad to finally meet you, Rasha. I’m Zafi. Might I offer you an escort to the front doors? I’d hate to think of a guest in our temple getting lost.”

Yes! Not because she needed help finding her way, as Zafi had to know; she’d been on duty here off and on for half a year now, and they’d met at least once a month. Rasha kept the glee firmly contained, simply giving her a soft smile accompanied by a languid blink of her eyes. Glory had made her befriend a stray cat to get that one down.

“In fact, I would appreciate it. I hear there are dangerous extremists about today.”

“Can’t be too careful,” Zafi said solemnly. “Hey, Nimbi, do me a favor?”

“I will not do you any favors,” the other Legionnaire said irritably. “Not that you need one, as you well know escorting a guest is an acceptable reason to leave your post. Try to keep the dawdling to a minimum, would you?”

“You’re a peach, Nimbi,” Zafi said with an irrepressible grin, already stepping aside and gesturing to the door with a grand bow. “Right this way, if you please, m’lady.”

“Now, now, just Rasha is fine,” she replied, already sashaying past her. “I thought we were going to be friends, remember?”

Zafi laughed obligingly as she followed, and then they were descending the stairs in sudden silence. Still desperately keeping facial composure, Rasha groped about inside her head with increasing frenzy for something to keep the conversation going. Shit, what now? She’d practiced this stuff, why was it not…

“I’m sure you don’t need your personal business pried into, so by all means shut me down if I get too nosy,” Zafi said, and Rasha barely managed not to gasp with relief. “Is it true you’re Eserite?”

“Oh?” Rasha asked, channeling her sudden wariness into a coy sidelong glance. “Am I the subject of gossip in the ranks?”

“I hope you’re not offended,” Zafi said lightly. “You just can’t parade a mysterious and exotic lady in front of soldiers on a weekly basis and expect there not to be gossip. Simply isn’t done.”

“Now I find myself wondering where that rumor originated,” she murmured. It was a serious question; counseling was supposed to be absolutely confidential. And if there were Purists sniffing around the temple…

“Alas, I fear hunting that down is beyond my skill,” Zafi lamented. “You know how rumors work. It’s so hard to trace them back to their source it’s almost like they burst up out of the ground like cabbages. Why, is that one true?”

“I’m certain I have no idea where such a thing could possibly have come from,” Rasha said primly, while flicking a doubloon out of the wide sleeve of her winter dress into her palm. She made the coin roll smoothly across the backs of her fingers, flicked it in a flashing arc to her other hand where she rolled it the rest of the way and then made it vanish into the other sleeve. “Really, the very notion!”

Zafi whistled appreciatively at the performance. “Well, you can’t blame a girl for being intrigued! They do say Eserites are…dangerous.”

“Anyone with a mind to be is dangerous, darling,” Rasha said, shooting her a sly smile.

The soldier winked, and she felt a flutter in her chest in response. “You’re talking to someone with a sword, cutie, don’t have to tell me twice. It’s almost a let down, unraveling some of the mystery. Almost more fun to wonder what your deal is, the enigmatic lady of the upper hall! I’ve even heard a rumor you’re a personal friend of the Hand of Avei.”

And that, actually, might explain some things. Iona and Eivery had earned her trust, nor had she had cause to doubt the discretion of the specialists who administered the alchemy and magic involved in physically transitioning. It stood to reason, though, that within the Sisterhood there had to be countless parties watching Trissiny’s comings and goings, legitimately or not. All it would take would be one wrong pair of eyes having spotted her with the paladin during last year’s shenanigans…

She pushed that aside to be worried about later, shooting Zafi another coy look. “Would you like to meet her?”

The soldier almost tripped, but didn’t stop, giving Rasha a wide-eyed stare as they walked. “Shut up. Are you serious?”

“Now, I probably shouldn’t promise I can produce her,” Rasha said lightly. “Trissiny’s not a dancing pony, after all. But, she may be in town soon, and I’ve got a feeling if I pitch it to her as my in with the prettiest trooper in the Third Legion, she just might have a sense of humor about it. No harm in asking, at least.”

“Okay, I take it back,” Zafi said, and it was astonishingly gratifying how visibly impressed she was. “The odd little revelation only deepens the mystery. Now I want to unravel you like an onion.”

Oh, the subtext in that one was beyond clear, and Rasha’s first impulse was to seize it like a chunk of driftwood in a storm. But if there was one thing in which Glory meticulously coached her apprentices, it was the art of seduction. One must never be too hasty; one did not grasp or cling, but gently led along. She could tell by the eagerness in the woman’s eyes she’d successfully set a hook. Now was time to reel just a little bit at a time. The prey had to make an effort of their own, had to want to. That, Glory had emphasized, was the crucial difference between courting and harassment.

“Well, fortunately for you,”she said, coming to a stop and turning to smile directly at her, “you know just where and when to find me. Maybe by next week I’ll know a bit more definitively.”

“Oh, now that’s just unfair,” Zafi chided, but not without her irrepressible grin. “You can’t leave me hanging for a whole week!”

“Wow, you really must want to meet the paladin.”

“Yeah, sure. Paladin, whatever.” She waved one gauntleted hand absently, still holding Rasha’s gaze with a new warmth in her eyes. “But now I have to wait a week to see my lady of mystery? Have pity on a poor soldier, Rasha! Who knows if I’ll even be posted on that hall by then?”

“Now, I know for a fact soldiers are allowed to trade assignments,” Rasha said with a wink. “I bet if you really wanted to, it wouldn’t be too terribly hard to make sure you’re there. After all, you can’t expect a lady of mystery to make it too easy.”

“You’re a playful little minx, aren’t you?” Zafi complained, but in a cadence which suggested it was mostly a compliment. “All right, Rasha. You’re on.”

“Am I?” Rasha retorted, re-using that sly little almost-smirking smile. “I guess we’ll see in a week, won’t we?”

She turned slowly, another maneuver in which Glory had meticulously coached her. One step away, angling her body gradually, holding eye contact all the way through the pivot until just before it became physically awkward to do so, and then smoothly completing the shift to glide away with her head high. Perfectly executed, if she did say so herself.

Only after completely turning and starting to walk away did Rasha realize she’d gotten caught up in flirting with the soldier and, completely ignoring Sister Iona’s request, taken the usual route through the main temple; now she was in the great entrance hall that opened onto Imperial Square. Well, she reflected ruefully, at least now she knew some attention and a pretty face was all it took to smack the sense right out of her. Rasha honestly had zero memory of any of the scenery through which they’d passed, though she could have recited every word of her conversation with Zafi.

It could have been worse. It was a common enough weakness, and knowing it meant she could coach herself to pay more attention next time. Live and learn.

She kept heading toward the doors without slowing, subtly glancing to both sides just out of common sense and wariness. Indeed, the great hall looked a bit more stirred up this morning than she was accustomed to, with more priestesses than usual milling about near the statue of Avei and half the usual Legionnaire posts unattended, suggesting the soldiers kept being sent off on various errands. There were more petitioners about, though mostly hustling through the sanctuary rather than gathering in prayer or discussion. At a casual glance, it looked more like the response of a public to some outer development than any tension stirred up by a renegade faction imposing themselves on the temple.

Which was good, as far as it went, but also raised some questions. It might behoove her to check out a newspaper vendor on the way home.

Rasha’s mulling was abruptly de-Railed by a sudden and terrifying question: did Zafi know what went on in that upper hallway, what she was there for? If she didn’t… Would she care? Should Rasha tell her? But when, and for the gods’ sake, how?

She kept walking mostly by reflex while these fresh worries thrummed in her brain. Eyes forward, face still carefully composed, Rasha proceeded without really seeing where she was going, and thus walked right into the ambush.

An ambush it was, and a skillful one at that. A woman melted out of the shadow of a column and stepped straight in front of her, and two more slid in smoothly from behind to finish blocking the path forward. They arranged themselves in a tight arc in front of Rasha, deftly creating the impression of hemming her in even if they hadn’t managed so much as a complete semicircle around her. It was very neatly done, the kind of maneuver that could only have been executed if they’d planned it out carefully and been watching for her to appear.

That fact alone sharpened her focus with a surge of adrenaline, even before she took in the spectacle of what they were wearing.

All three were priestesses of Avei, but clearly not of the same mainstream sect as those Rasha was used to here in the temple. They wore the typical white robes, yes, but with chain mail tunics over them, and over that gray tabards on which Avei’s eagle sigil was embroidered in white. Steel-backed leather bracers peeked out from the wide sleeves of their robes—a lightweight and easily concealed substitute for a shield very useful in hand-to-hand combat. Eserites made use of such pieces. Altogether, it required no imagination to guess that this was the uniform of a particularly militant sect of the Sisterhood.

Most alarmingly, they all wore swords hanging from their heavy belts. Not traditional Avenic short swords for massed infantry combat, but one-handed longswords better suited to dueling. The woman in the center had her hand suggestively on the heavy pommel of hers.

“So,” she said in a grim tone, staring down her hooked nose at Rasha, “you’re the one.”

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16 – 2

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“Those conniving knife-eared shits!”

The Empress of Tiraas threw her copy of the Constitution of the Elven Confederacy down on the table in a gesture as uncharacteristically violent as her crude language. Eleanora’s temper was famous, but so was her control of it. Now, she was pacing up and down the room like a caged wolf, while the assembled ministers watched her with varying degrees of alarm.

“This is…bleak,” said Minister Asvedhri, head of the Ministry of the Interior, lifting his pen from the map of the Empire he had just finished defacing. He had surrounded regions on it with black lines and marked off the Golden Sea with cross-hatching, and now leaned back to frown deeply at his handiwork. Several of the others around the table craned their necks to inspect it. “At least they’re not claiming the Golden Sea for themselves, but they most definitely assert the right to access and act freely within it. But just their territorial claims alone… Omnu’s breath. This so-called ‘constitution’ asserts their ownership of all extant elven groves, but doesn’t specify anything about the small spaces between them, and legal precedent could go either way. Both options are nightmares. Either that stretch of our territory has just turned into a jigsaw puzzle or Mathena, northern Calderaan Province and half of both Stalwar Provinces are cut off from the rest of the Empire.”

“That’s assuming the Empire chooses to recognize these territorial claims,” General Panissar said quietly. He was the only person besides the Empress not seated, though he stood calmly near the conference room’s door while she paced along the wall.

“It’ll be war if we don’t, General,” said Minister Rehvaad.

“And it’s my job to think of such things,” Panissar replied.

“Omnu’s breath,” Asvedhri repeated, rubbing his forehead and accidentally smearing it with ink. “We’re not even getting the worst of it. They claim Tar’naris! There’s no way to get to it from the rest of their territory without going through an Imperial military base! What were they thinking?”

“I believe that question was directed at you,” Eleanora said bitingly, slamming to a halt and turning the full force of her glare on Underminister Saradhi, who visibly quailed under it.

Though Rehvaad headed up the Foreign Ministry, the Empire’s chief diplomat had chosen to let his subordinate handle most of the discussion here, Saradhi being the lowest-ranked person present and only included as she was the senior diplomat in charge of elven relations. Given the pressures involved, Rehvaad’s reticence could be interpreted as throwing her under the carriage.

“I can’t— Your Majesty, there’s no way to know,” Saradhi protested, her voice shrill with stress. “This action blindsided us all completely!”

“And whose job was it to prevent that?”

The Underminister was saved from having to answer that by the opening of the door.

“Ah, Quentin,” the Emperor said in a mild tone. “Good of you to join us.”

“I sincerely apologize for my tardiness, your Majesties,” Lord Vex said, stepping forward with more energy than he usually showed in public and sliding into an open seat at the table. “I was tending to the matter of which I previously informed you in Tar’naris, with the assistance of the young Lady Nahil, and I’m sure I needn’t tell you that the timing was undoubtedly not a coincidence. Did the Narisians manage to distract and misdirect anyone from the Foreign Ministry, or should I feel personally flattered?”

“In point of fact, Underminister Trispin is still in Tar’naris,” Rehvaad answered. “It is, of course, not unusual for her to be there, but she is also engaged in active business with House Awarrion. Who, of course, would have been very aware of precisely when this announcement would go out. It seems clear enough to me that the drow have done their due diligence to ensure this would take us with the maximum surprise.”

“That’s an unequivocally hostile act,” Panissar noted.

“No, it is not,” Rehvaad retorted. “Not unequivocally. A nation is never more vulnerable than at the moment of its birth, and Tiraas is the preeminent military power in the world. As Minister Asvedhri pointed out, this new Confederacy is in an unavoidably tense position in relation to us, and we have rather famously involved ourselves in the affairs of our border states. I think it would be a mistake to assume hostile intent from this. It seems to me more defensive.”

“They almost needn’t have bothered,” Underminister Saradhi added, seeming to have recovered a little of her poise when her superior finally interceded. “Your Majesties, I am not trying to duck responsibility, but I will stake my career on the assertion that we could not have anticipated this!”

“Indeed,” Eleanora grated.

“She’s correct,” said Vex. “Intelligence has been watching these events as well. Discussions between Tar’naris and the surface tribes have been going on for barely a year. We were expecting to have at least a decade in which to figure out what they were up to and what should be done about it.”

“If anything, that assessment shows Intelligence’s characteristic paranoia,” Saradhi agreed, nodding fervently. “They’re elves. They don’t do anything this quickly. Anything! Tar’naris is the only elven society which has undergone any noteworthy social change during the entire scope of recorded history! And that was at the Empire’s instigation. Your Majesties…” She clutched at the sides of her head, planting her elbows on the table; at least she didn’t have ink on her fingers. “This can’t be happening!”

“Compose yourself, Underminister,” Rehvaad said quietly. Saradhi flushed, but quickly lowered her hands and straightened her posture.

“Well, obviously it is happening,” said Sharidan. “I think we can take it as given that this is an astonishingly hasty action for elves. That we failed to anticipate it is, perhaps, forgivable.”

“It’s hasty even by human standards,” Asvedhri murmured, still scowling down at his map. “Not just the time frame. A year, give or take, is on the quicker end of the necessary time for a reorganization of this magnitude to be prepared, but they’ve neglected what I would consider basic concerns. This Constitution seems to just assume their territorial claims will be respected.”

“The question is why,” said the Emperor. “Why this assumption? Why this haste?”

“I can only interpret the speed as a crisis response,” said Vex. “It’s unusual even so, for elves, who have numerous times nearly let themselves be overtaken by disasters simply because they could not react quickly. But my department has observed that all of this has been at the ultimate instigation of the Narisians, who have always been ruthlessly pragmatic even before the Empire lit a fire under them.”

“They are definitely following the example of the Conclave of the Winds,” added Rehvaad, “who also acted with uncharacteristic speed and chose to leverage the element of surprise in their initial announcement. Quite successfully, it should be noted, which doubtless is what inspired this imitation. I can only surmise that their motivations are similar: they perceive an existential threat in the prospect of continued isolation.”

“They’re not exactly wrong, if so,” Underminister Saradhi said with more composure. “Tar’naris was practically a client state of ours until this announcement, and Imperial expansion had pushed the tribes into virtual irrelevancy. The Cobalt Dawn and Sarasio incidents both illustrated the urgency of the rise of Imperial power, and provided a stark example of the benefits of cooperative versus combative methods of meeting it.”

“I’m sorry, but it’s hard to see this as anything but combative,” said Asvedhri, picking up his map just for the satisfaction of slapping it back down on the table. “They’ve declared a sprawling superstate whose claimed territory is a patchwork intercut with our own. There are only so many ways that can possibly play out, and most of them end with outright war!”

“General Panissar,” said the Emperor, still apparently calm, “based on your current understanding, how would you call the outcome of such a conflict?”

“Catastrophic,” Panissar answered immediately. “All other things being equal, I think we could win, nominally. Our military is bigger and better than anyone’s. We have more soldiers than there are people in Tar’naris, and the wood and plains tribes bring nothing but guerrillas and light cavalry, and not much of that. The problem is what they do have: fae casters. Remember what Mary the Crow did to Onkawa? It’s been twenty-five years and the sugar industry still hasn’t recovered. Imagine that, everywhere. What they can field is not what our troops are prepared to handle, and they’re positioned to inflict colossal damage to our infrastructure and especially agriculture. That ‘victory’ would leave us occupying reams of hostile territory while probably experiencing famines and plagues, with the Rail and telescroll networks uprooted at every point and the zeppelin fleet grounded—those are all vulnerable to fae and elvish methods. A win like that would destroy the Empire.”

He paused, working his jaw in distaste for a second, before continuing.

“And that’s just talking about the knowns. According to this…Constitution…this Confederacy places Qestraceel as its capital and counts the high elves among its signatories. I have zero data on their capabilities. Or location, or numbers, or anything. We only barely know that high elves exist. Plenty of people throughout the Empire don’t believe they do.”

“My department doesn’t know much more about the high elves than the Army,” said Vex, “and not for want of trying. They have all the usual elven love of privacy, plus vast skill in the arcane. Intelligence currently places Qestraceel somewhere in the Stormsea, with a population of around twenty thousand. But that is based entirely on the area where and frequency with which their navy is encountered, so the question is not whether those estimates are wrong, but by how much.”

“Any insight into how they hide an entire city?” Sharidan asked.

Vex shook his head, permitting himself a brief grimace of open irritation. “We know of grandiose spellcraft by which an entire island can be hidden, but not specifically how, or how it relates to the high elves. There is a vanished island north of Onkawa on which my predecessors compiled a file. It is absent from common knowledge or the memory of any living individuals, but was listed on charts and geographical writings that still exist.”

Eleanora planted her palms on the table, leaning across it toward him. “That sounds like a place to begin investigating.”

“Doubtful, your Majesty,” he demurred. “References to Qestraceel date back centuries at least; this happened less than forty years ago, and there are indications Tellwyrn was involved.”

“She vanished an entire island?” Panissar demanded, then shook his head. “What am I saying? Of course she bloody did.”

“So we know it can be done,” Vex finished. “More than that…remains to be discovered. Your Majesties, I would like permission to begin investigating the high elves. My department has never regarded the matter with any urgency, as they have shown zero inclination to intervene in the world’s affairs. That has just abruptly changed.”

“Can you do this without antagonizing them?” the Emperor asked pointedly.

“There are ways, yes. The most immediate is to investigate various arcane-using elves who are known to be at large in the Empire.”

“Those are just wood and plains elves cast out of their tribes for using the arcane,” Underminister Saradhi objected.

“Some, yes,” Vex agreed, nodding at her. “Perhaps most. Those whose points of origin I can trace to a specific grove are automatically disqualified. But I have long believed that others might be high elves, exiled either voluntarily or as punishment. Exiles can often be persuaded to provide information, at the very least, on their former society.” He paused as if considering his next statement before giving it. “At least three of my predecessors firmly believed that Tellwyrn is a high elf.”

A momentary lull fell over the table. The Empress straightened back up, her face inscrutable.

“Well,” Sharidan said at last, “we have an established relationship with her, at least. That sounds like a starting point.”

Vex grimaced again. “Actually, your Majesty, Duchess Ravana Madouri recently employed one of these elves; I intended to start there. She is both accessible and also allied with the Throne. Winter break began yesterday; Last Rock’s faculty and students are on a two-week hiatus. My agents have placed Tellwyrn in Tidecall as of this morning, at a seaside villa. I am sure I needn’t describe the poise and grace with which the good Professor will likely react to having her vacation interrupted by prying personal questions.”

Grimaces and a single muted chuckle went around the table, followed by a loud snort from Panissar. “This business is simply too urgent to dilly-dally while we wait on that woman’s convenience.”

“It can only be made more dire by winding her up,” Eleanora said thoughtfully, frowning into the distance. She abruptly nodded, as if to herself. “Very well, Quentin, make arrangements for me. I’ll go to Tidecall myself and approach her.”

“Your Majesty,” Minister Rehvaad protested.

“Are you sure, Nora?” Sharidan asked with more calm.

“I achieved…a grudging rapport with her,” the Empress answered him. “And I think she will respond well to the respect shown by having someone of my rank approach her directly. The idea is to ask one of history’s most irascible figures to dish on subjects she’s stubbornly refused to discuss for thrice the age of our Empire; every last speck of respect that can be curried will be relevant. And I can shmooze her a bit, I think. Anyone else trying the same will only set her off.”

He held her gaze for a long moment, before nodding slowly. “Very well. You heard her, Quentin.”

“So I did,” Vex said with the scowl of a man who knew better than to argue with a bad idea. “I assume you mean your presence to be discreet, your Majesty?”

“Please,” Minister Rehvaad practically begged. “A state visit to the Tidestriders would require either weeks of formalities, or a mortal insult that could provoke several of the clans into open rebellion!”

“My presence will be as discreet as you can possibly make it, Quentin,” Eleanora promised with a smile. “Meanwhile, start your own investigations. What is Madouri doing with this possible high elf, anyway?”

“The Duchess has employed Veilwin in the role of Court Wizard to House Madouri,” Vex reported. “I met her today, in fact, where she was serving as her Grace’s transport by way of personal teleportation. The woman is a surly drunk; it’s not hard for me to imagine how she ended up unwelcome in wherever she came from.”

“I never heard of an alcoholic elf,” Underminister Saradhi said with a frown.

“Court Wizard?” Panissar demanded incredulously. “I didn’t think that office still existed, anywhere. Not after the Enchanter Wars.”

“It has fallen out of vogue,” Vex agreed, “between Magnan’s bad example and the availability of spellcasters for hire that came with the founding of the Wizards’ Guild. But the position itself is still enshrined in law for any House holding an Imperial governorship. I think it a grandiose affectation on the Duchess’s part. This woman, as I said, isn’t an impressive specimen of either her race or profession.”

“Then Intelligence has a place to begin addressing this mess,” Sharidan said briskly. “Learning more about the high elves will definitely help us regain our footing, but it doesn’t even begin to resolve this. How many nations has this Confederacy reached out to already?”

“We can’t speak for formal diplomatic relations, your Majesty,” Saradhi said when Rehvaad looked pointedly at her, “but copies of this Constitution and the proclamation of the Confederacy’s founding have been delivered to every embassy in Tiraas. All but those of the smallest and poorest countries have at least one magic mirror linked to a counterpart in their home capitals. The world will know of this within the hour.”

“I expect they will give everyone a short period to respond before opening formal diplomatic contact,” Rehvaad added. He pulled over the copy of the Constitution Eleanora had thrown down, quickly scanning it and then planting his index finger on a specific line. “Here, this caught my eye: the Confederacy itself claims sole prerogative to conduct foreign policy and bars member states from carrying out their own. That means the Narisian embassy isn’t one anymore, as the Narisians have just signed away their right to conduct their own diplomacy. I would expect it will house the Confederate embassy, once they have normalized relations with us.”

“Mmm.” Frowning pensively, the Emperor stared at the far wall for a moment, then half-turned to meet Eleanora’s eye. “As Minister Asvedhri has pointed out, this situation is rife with the possibility for conflict. Is there any chance that the elves want a war?”

“They have nothing to gain,” Panissar grunted. “High elves or no, the only conceivable outcomes would see both our civilizations in ruins. They can’t possibly be unaware of that.”

“Your Majesty,” Saradhi said hesitantly, “most nations only seek war when they are certain they can win, or at least profit from it. It’s not characteristic of elves to do so even then. At their worst, the Narisians only sent raiding parties to the surface, never an organized invasion. The Cobalt Dawn are the only recorded case of elves trying to seize human territory, and we are frustratingly in the dark regarding what happened within that tribe in the years leading up to their attack.”

“Then, if no one disagrees, I believe we should proceed upon the assumption that the elves will meet us halfway,” Sharidan stated, nodding once. “They are generally conservative and risk-averse, and are doubtless aware of the potential for all of this to go badly. It seems to me they would not have taken this risk at all unless they were confident that an accord could be reached with the Empire.”

“That analysis is reasonable to my mind, your Majesty,” Minister Rehvaad agreed.

“Very good.” The Emperor smiled once at the Empress before returning his attention to Rehvaad. “Minister, I require a precedent.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Rehvaad said with an answering smile. “What does the Empire need history to suggest?”

“We need a precedent for the application of an agreement between two legal parties to the relationship between one signatory and an organization which the second signatory unilaterally joins,” Sharidan said, his smile taking on just a hint of a smirk. Eleanora grimaced at him.

A moment of silence fell in which everyone digested that.

“It may be…challenging,” Rehvaad said delicately.

“It doesn’t need to stand up under arbitration,” the Emperor assured him, “just to have the veneer of established protocol, so it doesn’t appear we are throwing our weight around.”

“Ah.” Rehvaad nodded. “That is much more doable. I will have my assistants scour the law library; I believe I can have a draft before you in hours, your Majesty.”

“If I understand your Majesty’s intent,” Panissar said slowly, “you mean to approach the Confederacy under the assumption that our treaty with Tar’naris establishes the terms of our relationship?”

“As a starting point, yes,” Sharidan agreed.

“They will never go for that,” Eleanora stated.

Panissar shook his head. “Among other things, that treaty establishes open borders. Applied to the Confederacy, it would give every Imperial peasant the prerogative to track mud through Qestraceel itself. Whatever else we don’t know about high elves, I’m reasonably certain they would rather see every last human dead.”

“Not to mention that there are numerous other provisions of the treaty which are less applicable in this situation,” the Emperor acknowledged, nodding. “It is, as I said, a starting point. We should not forget that the elves launched this endeavor with an active effort to prevent us from responding until it was done; I interpret that more as a gambit to retain control of the situation than an aggressive act. The fact remains, they stand to lose as much as we from any hostilities that may ignite. No matter what happens, this is going to be delicate. My intention is to signal that we will make every effort to meet them halfway, and negotiate fairly and in good faith.” He leaned forward, his expression intent. “But, that the Empire will not be put upon. We are in a position of strength, and it will be important to leverage that. The difficulty is in doing so without signaling an intent to exercise that strength…or acknowledge our reluctance to do so.”

“Your Majesty has hit the nail on the head,” Lord Vex murmured. “Delicate.”

“If any of you can identify an aspect of this I have not considered,” said Sharidan, “now is the time to speak up.”

“Your Majesty,” Rehvaad said after a tiny pause, “in fact, I believe this discussion has overlooked an extremely important element which we must keep in mind as we make any plans for the future: the dwarves.”

Eleanora turned her frown on him directly.

“What in Avei’s name do they have to do with this?” Panissar demanded.

“Only that the Five Kingdoms have received the same notice of this as every other state,” Minister Rehvaad said seriously, “and there is only one course of action available to them: they must follow the example of the Conclave and now the Confederacy. The Alliance of the Five Kingdoms is, at present, basically nothing; it’s a treaty organization which serves no purpose but to express their solidarity in their nonsense war on Tar’naris. The nature of the Alliance will immediately have to change anyway, since as of this morning it is now at war with the combined wood and plains tribes, as well as Qestraceel, which unlike Tar’naris represents a serious threat to them.”

“So they’ll have to make peace,” Eleanora said, studying him narrowly. “That would seem to suggest the Alliance’s dissolution entirely.”

“That is one prospect, if the dwarves are stupid,” Rehvaad replied. “They are not. The situation on this continent since the Enchanter Wars has been our united Empire surrounded by smaller states which posed no major challenge to us. Now, with the Confederacy? There are suddenly two sizable power blocs on the continent, necessarily in competition. It must be said that the dwarves are as conservative as the elves, and nearly as incapable of reacting quickly; three of the Five Kingdoms are republics in all but name, and even the other two can do little unilaterally without navigating the intricacies of clan politics. Democratic organizations can’t do anything swiftly. But unlike elves, the dwarves believe in science and rationality, and part of the reason they move ponderously is because they look to the future and try to plan ahead. They are positioned to re-shape their Alliance into another, closer bond. And, I believe, they have to. Unless they take the opportunity to form a new counter to the Empire and the Confederacy, they will be pushed aside by one or the other, or both.”

“What, do you think, this would entail?” the Emperor asked quietly.

Rehvaad’s expression was downright grim now. “In the short term, it alleviates some of the pressure of conflict between us and the elves, your Majesty. A third party at the table makes everything more complicated, but does have the effect of lightening the tension. Anything which prevents us from being two opposites staring each other down in that regard will help. But in the longer term? The thing about trinary political structures is that there needn’t be parity of strength or position to keep them in flux. They are inherently unstable, but they serve to prevent any one party from gaining the upper hand. Whenever one begins to, the other two can apply concerted pressure to upset them, and start the cycle anew.”

He hesitated, grimaced, and finally continued, reaching forward once more to tap the copy of the elven Constitution resting on the conference table. “When the dust settles, your Majesty… I believe this presages the end of human dominance of this continent.”

Silence fell over the room again. This time, it lingered.

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