When the Student is Ready, part 1

Raoul got back up, scrubbing a fist across his mouth. He didn’t try to run, and he still didn’t cry—just glared. So Emilio hit him again.

The smaller boy rocked back, staggered, but caught his feet. Raising his head, he sneered at Emilio. “Feel better?”

“Shut your little mouth!”

This time, Raoul dodged—the first two blows, anyway, before Emilio landed an uppercut on his chest, driving the air out of him in an audible whoosh. Raoul was lifted slightly off the pavement and fell back down in a slump, landing on his hands and knees. Emilio grinned down at him and pulled back his leg for a kick.

He wasn’t even completely sure…why. It wasn’t because Raoul was smaller—they were the same “probably about seven” the monks had vaguely decided, but definitely not growing at the same pace—or because he disliked the boy in particular. Emilio was big for his age, and also fast, which meant he’d gotten accustomed to venting his anger, whatever its cause, on whoever was nearby, just as the older boys did to him and anyone else they could. For a temple of Omnu, the orphan wing was host to a whole lot of petty violence whenever the monks happened not to be looking. Which was often; they seemed mostly concerned with their spiritual practices, doing their “duty” of providing a home for orphans and regular soup lines for the poor almost begrudgingly. In fact, they seemed to prefer having the orphans do that, as well as the lion’s share of the vegetable gardening, so they could meditate and practice martial arts. The kids got a very basic coaching in Omnist doctrine, enough to parrot the right answers, and then mostly left alone unless they were causing trouble or needed for chores.

Sariana had opined to Emilio that the Lower Ward Temple was home to some not-very-good Omnists. He hadn’t any basis for comparison, really, but he doubted any others were notably better. It was tough all over and adults were just generally disappointing.

This was just how it was. Life was kick-or-be-kicked, and Emilio knew which he preferred, and this little bastard Raoul always denied him the satisfaction by refusing to cry or flee or be cowed, no matter how one-sided their fights were. So he pulled back his foot in preparations for a hard blow to the boy’s ribs, anticipating the satisfaction of finally pounding some fear into the little brat, and so in the first instant after he was yanked physically off his feet and into the air he felt outrage at being thwarted before confusion or fear.

“What—hey! Let me go! Put me down!”

“Why don’t you make me, little man?”

He kicked, thrashed, and swiped, none of his limbs connecting as he was slowly spun in a full circle. It took him a few seconds to realize he wasn’t being picked up by a normal grip on his shirt as usual, but levitated off the ground. Even that didn’t click until he saw her standing there, a full three yards distant, holding up one hand in a lifting gesture and smirking at him.

Emilio paused in his struggling to stare. He’d never seen an elf this close before.

The way people talked about elves, he’d expected basically a person with Stalweiss coloration and pointed ears. Her ears were not only pointed, but long, sticking straight up through her blonde hair till their tips were even with the top of her head. Overall, her facial proportions were…off. Just a bit too fine-boned, features a hair too sharp, her green eyes seeming a little too large. You could meet a normal human with a face like that, but you’d look twice. There was nothing unusual about her clothes, just boots, pants and a vest over a collared shirt, but she wore striking gold-rimmed spectacles.

“Get outta here, elf witch!” Emilio shouted fruitlessly, swiping at her from yards away and only setting himself into a slow rotation in midair.

“Mage, actually.”

“Elves can’t be mages!”

She practically howled with laughter at that; fortunately his languid spin had put his back to her at that point so he didn’t have to watch. Unfortunately he was now facing Raoul, who was now grinning despite being partially doubled over in pain. Emilio kicked at him, too, but he was out of range.

“Yeah, doesn’t feel good, does it?” the elf commented. As Emilio drifted back around so that he could see her again, she made a contemptuous twirling motion with her finger, setting him to a faster spin. “Somebody with more power picking on you. Helpless. It’s not nearly as funny when you’re on the other end, huh? But then again…”

He suddenly stopped, then was bodily whipped around to face the street, whereupon he yelped, finding the elf had silently crossed the gap and was now almost nose-to-nose with him.

“Maybe you already know something about that.”

Emilio tried to punch her. Probably not the best move in that situation, but it was all he could think of. She caught his fist and held it effortlessly.

“Tell me, boy. Have you ever given any thought to why you do the things you do?”

“Let me go!”

“Make me,” she repeated.

He kicked at her midsection; she batted his foot aside with one lightning-quick swat of her free hand, then gave his fist a shove, sending him drifting away. Emilio found himself regretting—among other things—having cornered Raoul in this unoccupied cul-de-sac far enough from the street festival that there were no monks, patrolling soldiers, or adults in general. He could scream. There was always somebody not too far; it was Tiraas. But people who heard screams didn’t always care enough to do anything about it. It was, after all, Tiraas.

Anyway, screaming would be admitting weakness.

“Let me guess: your dad likes to smack you.” The elf cocked her head to one side, peering at him. “Big brother? Other boys at school?”

“He doesn’t have any of that,” Raoul piped up, finally straightening. “We live at the Omnist temple.”

“Ahh, an orphanage.” She nodded sagely. “That explains a lot. Why, your whole life is helplessness and people pushing you around, isn’t it? Hence…this. You can’t push back against the bigger powers around you, so you push down at whoever can’t stop you. And sure, while you’re pummeling the younger kid, for those few moments you feel like the big man.”

“I’m not younger!” Raoul said defensively. “Just…not as big!”

She shrugged. “Well, that’s what it all comes down to. But it’s never enough, is it? Never lasts long. Soon enough, you’re back to being the buttmonkey, storing up that anger till you can take it out again on somebody else who’s not big enough to fight back. Around and around and around, and what does it get you? A bully is a weakling, sonny boy. Strength is standing up to those who are stronger than you, not weaker. Long as you only pound on the small fry, you doom yourself to forever be small fry.”

“You don’t know anything!” Emilio shrieked. He hated how high his voice rose in pitch, hated the trembling behind it as tears of sheer frustration threatened.

“Yeah, that’s right, kid, I haven’t seen this a million times in my thousands of years on this world,” she chuckled. “Please, you think you’re special? You know how many hundreds of little buggers exactly like you are doing exactly this thing right now in this city alone? Well, I’ll give you this much: I’m in town to drop in on Theasia, but I honestly think this here is more interesting.”

“Th-the Empress?” Raoul stammered. “You’re on first name terms—”

“Oh, she is not a fan of me,” the elf cackled. “Truthfully I approve of the girl, broadly speaking, but she had the unmitigated gall to suggest, in public, that I wouldn’t dare show my face here, and obviously I can’t have that. Once people discover they can push you around, they never quit. You two know that as well as anyone, right?”

“Then why don’t you go pick on the Empress if you’re so special!” Emilio snarled.

“Because that would cause me a shit ton of problems,” the elf explained, now smiling with something akin to satisfaction. “Maybe enough to put me in real danger. An Empire is a hell of a thing to have mad at you, boys. See, that’s the thing about power: there’s never enough. Somebody always has more. If you live to chase power, it’ll eat you alive and you’ll never be satisfied. Instead… Well, let’s try a theoretical exercise. You are even more in my power than your little buddy here was before I came along. Tell me, boy, how would you prepare yourself to not be in this situation next time?”

Emilio growled at her, kicking at nothing in midair. Now she was holding him in position so he had to face her.

“Well,” Raoul mused, “I’d—”

“Ahp!” The elf held up a hand at him. “You don’t need this lesson. Well? Go on, boy, pitch me an idea.”

“Fine,” Emilio spat. “You want an idea? Then I’ll become a wizard. Or a warlock! I’ll learn enough magic to tie you up in the air and see how you like it!”

“Okay, sure,” she said, shrugging, and still wearing that infuriating little smile. “Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you have a chance in hell of ever being good enough at any school of magic to take me on. I’ll have a good cackle about that over tea later, but this is a theoretical exercise, after all. What about the next person? The next dragon, or paladin, or archmage, or whatever? Because it’s like I said: there’s always someone better. What’ll you do about them?”

“I’ll… I’ll just get more—”

“Until there’s no one more powerful than you?” She raised an eyebrow. “You know how many people have wasted their lives trying that exact thing? Most just destroyed themselves. A rare couple bumped up against the actual gods. There is always someone bigger, lad. No exceptions. Power is a dead end.”

“Easy for you to say!”

“Yes, it is,” she agreed, “because I have the power. But there are people more powerful than me, things in this world I wouldn’t dare screw with. Wanna know how I still get to be alive and as powerful as I am?”

“Because you’re too chicken to fight them?”

“Close!” She held up one finger. “So very close. Because I have no need to fight them. Because I’m not trying to shut up that little voice in the back of your head right now which is always angry and frightened over how weak you are.”

“Shut up!” he screamed.

“No,” the elf said implacably. “I’m about to tell you how to silence that voice; this is the important part. Instead of power, you need strength.”

“Uh…” Raoul blinked quizzically. “I don’t get it.”

“Power is the outward quality,” the elf lectured them. “The capacity to get stuff accomplished, to exert your will on others. Useful, to be sure; everybody needs some of it. But it doesn’t satisfy. If you have nothing in your heart but power, you’re imprisoned by your need to exert it on others, and your horror of having it exerted on you. Strength is the inner quality. Strength is expressed in calm, in courage. Strength is your capacity to be sufficient in yourself, unbroken by those who defeat you and free from the compulsion to defeat others.” She made a beckoning motion with one finger and Emilio found himself floating back toward her, though now he was, to his own surprise, listening closely. “It is strength that lets you know how much power you need, enables you to gain that much power, and then—and this is the really hard part, boys—stop. You wanna be free from the fear and anger others cause you, and free from the need to pound on the little ones? Then you need to be strong.”

“I’m…already stronger than them,” Emilio muttered.

She shook her head. “Nope, you’re just more powerful. You wanna learn about strength? Then you should ask him.”

The elf pointed at Raoul, who blinked. Emilio turned his head to stare at him in disbelief, and at that moment he was dropped. It wasn’t far to fall; he caught himself after a stagger, then turned back to stare up at the elf, a frown of confusion creasing his face.

“Small fry here is stronger than you are, right now,” she said.

Emilio scowled. “Huh?”

“That’s why you felt the need to pound on him, boy,” she said relentlessly. “Because no amount of pounding would break him. Because he took it, stood back up, and took more. Whatever you could dish out. Your need for power demands satisfaction, and someone with strength can deny you that. Strength beats power, every time; a powerful person can destroy a strong one, maybe, but they’ll be left with that feeling of weakness that you hate so much. Strength is the cure for that.”

“Wh…I…” He looked at her, then at Raoul, who seemed almost as confused as he did, then back. “How?”

“Well, hell, son, there are whole religions based on trying to figure that out,” the elf chuckled. “It’s not my specialty; I’m out to cure stupidity, not weakness. But I’ll tell you what: start where you are. You boys live in an Omnist temple, right? If you want to develop inner strength, one of the best things you can do is take up the martial arts.”

“They…the monks don’t teach us that,” Raoul said.

Her eyebrows drew together. “What?”

“Yeah, they’re not… Well, some of the kids, I guess,” Emilio muttered, sharing a sour look with Raoul. “The suck-ups who wanna learn their…monk stuff. They don’t have time for the rest of us, it’s just the religious ones they care about.”

“Huh. I hate to break it to you, boys, but it sounds like you live in a pretty shitty temple.”

“We know,” Raoul muttered.

“But there, again, is an opportunity,” she mused. “Omnism leans pretty heavily on meditation and inner peace; that’s its own kind of strength. My advice would to be do learn what you can from them, and do what you must to get them to teach you. Those are qualities you can then parlay into getting yourself out of there and into better opportunities. Meanwhile, mister, I’ll leave you with this thought.” She leveled an accusing finger right at Emilio’s nose. “Stop picking on the littler kids. A bully is, without exception, a pathetic weakling. Everybody understand that, on some level. Every time you do this, you leave behind a trail of everyone watching who knows how weak you are inside. You wanna stop feeling that way? Step one is to cut that shit out.”

Emilio scrubbed at his nose with his sleeve, saying nothing. He couldn’t find anything to say.

“Well, do what you want, I suppose,” the elf sighed. “I’ll admit I’m just venting my own frustrations, because I can’t damn well shake some manners into that Empress. Maybe this visit won’t be a complete waste of my time if somebody came out of it a little better for the benefit of my perspective. You remember what I said, now. Goes for you, too,” she added, pointing at Raoul. “Just cos you’ve stumbled onto a useful character trait doesn’t mean you’ve got no room to improve. It’s up to you now, boys. I have my own passel of dumb kids to handle.”

She winked, snapped her fingers, and was just…gone. There was the faintest puff of air, that was all; where there had been an elf, suddenly there stood nothing.

Emilio and Raoul jerked back in surprise, then both turned to peer around the little open-sided courtyard. They were alone; this was a quiet area, but the sounds of the city still drifted in over the rooftops and there was of course the omnipresent noise of the Wildfeast celebrations going on just one street over.

Their eyes met. Raoul made a wry face, and Emilio frowned, unconsciously clenching his fists.

“Hey, Emilio?”


“I…I think that was Tellwyrn.”

He snorted. “Omnu’s balls, you’re stupid. Tellwyrn’s not a real person, that’s just a story.”

“She is too real! She’s a historical figure!”

“Yeah, whatever.”

“I’m gonna tell Brother Timon you’re cursing in Omnu’s name!”

Emilio took one step toward him, glaring and raising a fist.

Raoul puffed his chest up, which was rendered almost comical by the difference in their sizes. But he didn’t back away, or so much as flinch.

Emilio stopped, narrowing his eyes, and just stared down at the smaller boy for a few seconds. Then, slowly, lowered his fist and forced himself to relax it.

“Why are you…like that?”

“Like what? You mean my inner strength?” Raoul grinned, showing off the gaps in his teeth. “I’m just awesome, that’s all.”

“I’m gonna thump you.”

“Ooh, you’re gonna thump me. I wonder what that’ll be like. Maybe this time I’ll actually…nah, you’re still gonna walk away pissed off and not feeling any better.”

“Don’t tell me you believe that elfish crap!”

Raoul shrugged. “Made sense to me. You’re so big and like to punch so much, why don’t you ever hit back when Divradh takes your porridge?”

“He’s twelve! He’s twice my size! What do you know?!”

“You think I don’t know what it’s like? Seriously?” Raoul spread his arms wide in an incredulous gesture.

“That’s just what…everything’s like,” Emilio muttered, looking away. “Everybody gets hit. Everybody gets pushed around. You’re not special.”

“Yeah. Everybody gets pushed around. It’s gonna happen no matter who you are. So at least you can make sure they don’t get to enjoy it.” Again, Raoul grinned. “Try it sometime, Emilio. You know how much it pisses you off.”

“I did!” Emilio shouted. “He just kicked me till I couldn’t breathe, and laughed!”

“Yeah, and so next time, you didn’t fight back. So he got what he wanted. And did that stop him punching you?”

They stared at each other in silence again. Emilio scowled, but this time at his own thoughts more than at Raoul.

“How about this,” the smaller boy suggested. “Next time he steals your breakfast, toss it all right in his stupid face.”

Emilio had to laugh incredulously at that. “Are you nuts?”

He shrugged, grinning. “Well, you’re not gonna get to eat it anyway. What sounds better to you, letting Divradh get what he wants or ruining his whole morning?”

“He’ll beat my face in!”

“Yeah, and who gave you that bruise? Giving in sure doesn’t stop him! Tellwyrn was right—”

“That wasn’t Tellwyrn, you little weirdo! What would Tellwyrn be doing in some alley in Tiraas talking to the likes of us?”

“Whatever, she was still right.” He folded his arms self-importantly. “I’m the expert in this. I get my butt kicked three times a day, and you don’t see me crying about it. An’ you know what? Madi and Nomar and Brad don’t bother anymore. You wanna piss Divradh off as much as I piss you off? Just do the same.”

Emilio hesitated, considering. There was the urge, of course, to just put an end to the frustrating conversation by punching Raoul in the face. After being manhandled and talked down to by that witch he was definitely in a punching mood. But the idea…

“Yeah, okay,” he said at last. “And then what?”

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Bonus #65: The Girl from Everywhere, part 2

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Joe wasn’t really surprised that he had to wait for those explanations. Jenny had cited the need to make preparations and the fact that there would be plenty of time for long discussion while they traversed the Golden Sea, and while Joe knew a deflection when he heard it, that one had the benefit of making good, solid sense. He resolved to pin her down harder if she tried it again once they were out of town, but this didn’t seem the moment to push. You had to read the other player, know when to fold and when to hold.

Thus, he arrived at the head of Sarasio’s main street the following morning none the wiser about the adventure on which he’d agreed to embark, not to mention slightly bleary despite the strong black tea he’d downed before setting out. He had ended up cutting short his usual night at the poker table, for the sake of notifying the Sheriff of his plans—not that there was much she could do, but he’d promised—and then getting an early night’s sleep. He hated being poorly-rested for the same reason he didn’t drink: any condition which messed up the normal functioning of his brain made it amazingly uncomfortable to exist with his specific package of talents and perceptions. Joe required his body to immediately and precisely turn information into action, otherwise he felt naked, vulnerable, and stressed occasionally to the verge of panic.

Given what little he knew was going on, it was altogether not that surprising that the surprises began immediately.

“Jenny,” he greeted her with a nod, then tipped his hat fully to the other individual present. “Elder Sheyann. I confess I’m surprised t’see you here.”

“Always a pleasure, Joseph,” the elf replied with a warm smile that made the sentiment sound sincere. He enjoyed every opportunity to converse with elves; their facial expressions were so minutely detailed and varied. Joe wondered whether that was something they did deliberately or just the natural result of living for centuries, but had never thought of a polite way to ask. Elven and prairie folk manners alike emphasized minding one’s own business. “I could hardly pass up the opportunity to see the Shifter off. It is rare enough that we have been blessed to be her neighbors for a few years.”

“The Shifter, huh,” he drawled, turning back to Jenny.

She grimaced. “Morning, Joe. C’mon, Sheyann, you know I hate formalities.”

“We all have our little burdens to bear,” the Elder said with a serene smile. “It has long been a pet peeve of mine when immortals drag well-meaning souls into dangerous business without properly warning them. Perhaps recent events here and in the grove have left me more than usually sensitive to the issue.”

Jenny gave her a mulish look, and received a bland smile in reply.

Joe dutifully absorbed and filed away the layered implications in this exchange but decided the better part of wisdom was not to insert himself into whatever was going on between those two. Instead, he stepped around Jenny and carefully patted the third member of the party on the neck.

“Mornin’, Beans.”

The mule turned his head to give Joe a long look, then snorted, shook his mane and went back to staring glumly at the horizon. That was a positive interaction as far as Joe was concerned; the infamously cantankerous Beans was known to greet even people he knew by biting or kicking.

Jenny had hitched him up to a small cart, two-wheeled and comfortably sized for two people to ride in along with the pile of provisions and equipment for an extended camping trip she’d stowed in the back, but not big enough to use as a place to sleep on the trail. Joe looked this whole setup over with a critical eye, then cleared his throat.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Jenny, but does Widow Milwood know her mule—”

“Yes, Joe, I bought him,” she answered, more amused than irked to judge by her tone. “Mrs. Milwood seemed altogether happier to have the doubloons than the mule. Can’t imagine why.” She patted Beans’s haunch; he smacked her with his tail.

“Thank you, Beans,” Elder Sheyann said, bowing to the mule. He snorted at her.

“Right.” Jenny stepped away from him, brushing stray tail hairs off her mouth and giving the elf a wry look. “Look, Sheyann, if you have some kind of problem…”

“This is not how I approach those against whom I bear a grudge,” the Elder interrupted her, still smiling. “I know you well, Jenny, and I know you have no malice. In truth, I trust you more than many of my own tribe who have no excuse for such inconsideration to move carefully among the people of this world. Sometimes, however, a reminder is needful.”

Both of them turned to look at Joe, who straightened his lapels.

“It’s a funny thing I’ve noticed,” he drawled. “Talkin’ with elves, a body can sometimes end up bein’ both the subject of a conversation an’ completely incidental to it.”

“See, you do it too,” Jenny said, nudging Sheyann with an elbow. “Don’t worry, Joe, I promise I’m gonna bring you up to speed on everything.”

“In any case,” Sheyann added, giving him a nod, “I’ve seen to it that you shall have aid on at least part of your journey. It is not impossible that Jenny’s intentions will suffice to draw others to you; such movements are just the sort of thing to ignite the interest of fae spirits, which is how I was forewarned of your intentions. You are leaving more than this town, are you not?”

“Yeah.” Jenny absently patted Beans again, though this time he just shuffled his hooves and ignored her; she had already half-turned to stare off into the distance, where beyond the last outbuildings of Sarasio the endless horizon of the Golden Sea lay. “It’s not something I do often, or lightly, but it’s time to leave this world entirely.”

“Here, now,” Joe said in alarm, “there are some things I will not sign on for! Do I needta sit on you or somethin’?”

“No, no!” she said hastily, turning back to him and raising both hands. “Omnu’s breath, Joe, I’m not killing myself! It’s…well, like I said, I will explain.”

“I’m glad to lend a little aid, and see you off,” Sheyann said, her expression more serious, “but I have my own motivation for being here, Jenny. If something has happened to provoke you to such an extreme measure, particularly this close to my grove, I would hear of it.”

“I doubt you’ll feel any ripples from this once I’ve gone,” Jenny assured her. “No, this is… This one’s my fault, I’m afraid. I’ve been careless. It’s just that the Tiraan Empire is so… It’s not usual.”

She gestured helplessly at the town, as if it were a stand-in for the Empire; Joe raised an eyebrow and peered around, not seeing anything amiss. People were just beginning to be out and about, and many gave curious looks to the trio standing with the mulecart up at the end of the street right where it departed Sarasio itself. None were approaching them yet—save Sheriff Langlin, who emerged from her office and set forth at an unhurried stroll even as he watched.

“Gods know there’ve been bigger empires,” Jenny said, pensive now, “and more powerful ones. But they don’t tend to last so long. It’s been, what, eleven centuries now? And they did it through the strength of their bureaucracies and logistics, not any of the usual things. That, and managing to turn every inevitable collapse so far into a rejuvenation. You just don’t see that very often, historically speaking. I guess Rome was just an outlier, not a complete fluke after all; the method can be repeated. But I’ve just been popping in here and there, going about my business and generally not being a big picture person, and now suddenly I find myself in the middle of a huge country with a thousand years of records collected in a central location with highly motivated people to sift through ‘em, and from there it’s a short jump to somebody taking an unhealthy interest in me. I let myself believe that was done with after the Arachne torpedoed that Ministry of Mysteries bullhockey, but…here we are again.”

“Occasionally useful as Arachne’s outbursts can be,” Sheyann murmured, “it seldom pays to rely on her to properly clean up after herself.”

“Hey, I’m sure she does her best,” Joe protested. Both women turned to give him long looks, and to his great annoyance, he flushed. Turning his back on them, he busied himself with tipping his hat in the direction of the footsteps approaching from behind. “Mornin’, Sheriff.”

“Jenkins. Jenny. Elder.” Langlin gave Sheyann the courtesy of a grave nod, receiving one in return. “’fraid you two might’ve left it too long. I just had my morning tea interrupted by a warning: the guests in town are on the move.”

“Which—aw, no,” Joe grumbled, resting one hand on his wand.

“Yes, I observed this, also,” said Sheyann. “You are wise not to take this lightly, Joseph, but do not worry yourself excessively. I have had my people observing the interlopers, and it seems they have miscalculated the situation.”

“You’ve set elves to spying on Imperial soldiers?” Langlin demanded with an edge to her tone.

“The spirits warned of false intent, bearing arms,” Sheyann replied, unruffled as ever. “Whereof they warn, I heed. Rest assured, Sheriff, it is not my intent to draw the ire of Tiraas, especially after recent events here, but the Empire is a huge and complex beast, rather infamous for not knowing how many hands it has, much less what each of them is doing. I do not believe these men are here reflecting the will of their Emperor.”

“That’s what the Marshal said, too,” Joe murmured to Langlin.

Sheyann nodded. “And I see, Sheriff, that your mind follows a similar current.”

Joe, of course, had already taken note of the additional movement as more of Sarasio’s residents than might ordinarily be out and about with the sun barely gleaming on the horizon were wandering into the streets. He had definitely noted that many of them were armed; Deputy Wilcox, who now strolled up to join them with a courteous tip of his hat, was actually carrying an Army-issue battlestaff.

“Uh, Sheriff? Did you…” Joe waved vaguely around the town. The White Riders were one thing; legitimate or not, he could foresee no good coming from any armed confrontation between townsfolk and Imperial soldiers.

“There’s nothing going on here that warrants invoking my authority to form a civilian posse,” Langlin drawled, tucking her thumbs into her belt. “I also feel no need to keep any secrets about the state of the town. Folks around here do a fine job of looking after themselves and each other.”

By that point he could her more footsteps—these in unison, and accompanied by the crunch of displaced tallgrass, signifying a sizable group marching around the town rather than through it. He couldn’t see them past the buildings yet, but to judge by the progress of the bootsteps they’d be in view within seconds.

“Joe,” Jenny said, quietly but urgently, and he paused in drawing his own wands. “The Avenists say a battle avoided is a battle won by the only ethical means.”

“I thought we established last night you’re not an Avenist,” he muttered back.

“But when it comes to war, you listen to them. I know you’re the best shot on the frontier, but trust me: sit this one out. It’s already won.”

“Hm.” He packed a wealth of doubt into one grunt, but after holding her eyes for a moment, slowly pushed his wands back into their holsters and released them. Sheyann gave him an encouraging nod.

Then they rounded the outlying building, and there was no more time for asides.

There wasn’t much to see, truthfully. If you’d seen one squad of soldiers, you’d seen them all; that was rather the point of uniforms and drills. Joe had seen quite a few Imperial troopers in the last few weeks and had it not been for multiple sources warning him that this batch were up to no good he’d never have taken them for anything different. He took a head count as they marched past the wall of the stables into the space where the main street of Sarasio turned into a trail of dust straggling away into the tallgrass. Twenty-two, one of the standard sizes for an Imperial Army squadron; the way other officers had explained it to Joe, the deployments varied by mission and type of unit, but these looked to be standard infantry, uniformed and each carrying a staff.

They efficiently changed formation on the move, arranging themselves in a double line that effectively blocked off the exit from the town. At this, rather than showing any sign of intimidation, the people of Sarasio began moving more purposefully toward the scene. And not just those out on the street; doors opened and individuals who had to have been watching from behind curtains slipped out and came forward. A lot of them were carrying weapons, too.

Joe held his peace with an effort. If the plan here was to set the locals against the troops… He chose to trust, for now, that Langlin and Sheyann knew their business better than he; they’d both provided enough evidence of it. And clearly there was more going on with Jenny than he’d ever suspected. Still, this looked a lot like everyone involved was angling for a shootout.

One man detached himself from the end of the line and strode forward, a fit-looking fellow with a colonel’s insignia in his middle years with a prominent mustache beginning to go gray in streaks, just bushy enough to conceal his mouth. Joe watched his eyes; the fine muscles surrounding them were often more revealing. This fellow was not happy about what he saw, particularly as he swept his glance across the gathering locals. Then he fixed it on one person.

“Jenny Everywhere.” The colonel projected well, in an accent that hinted at education and more than hinted at the Tiraan heartland down south. “You will come with us.”

“On whose—”

“Hush,” Langlin interrupted, patting Jenny heavily on the shoulder as she brushed past. The Sheriff planted herself between the rest of the onlookers and the soldiers, her deputy drifting silently along behind to stand at her shoulder as usual. Riker Wilcox was tall and good at looming ominously, and had no problem letting a woman take the lead; Joe suspected Langlin had deputized him as scenery as much as anything else. “I’m the law in Sarasio…” She made a show of squinting at his shoulder patch. “Colonel. If you’re planning to haul away one of my citizens, show me an arrest warrant.”

The soldier’s eyes narrowed and Joe detected a ruffling in his mustache as he let out a short, sharp breath. Annoyance, based on that and other situational cues.

“With all due respect, Sheriff, my authority supersedes your—”

“No, it doesn’t,” she interrupted, proving she could project as well as he. “An Imperial Marshal can make an arrest on his own authority. In the absence of martial law, which was rescinded in Sarasio four weeks ago, Imperial Army personnel have no such prerogative. Show me a warrant, or come back when you’ve got one.”

The man’s mustache fluttered again, and his grip on the staff he carried tightened. Behind him, a woman wearing captain’s stripes was glowering at the Sheriff; the rest of the soldiers were looking distinctly unhappy. He slowly moved his own hands to rest near, but not on, his wands. Joe didn’t chance a look behind him at the gathering townsfolk but he knew exactly how they would feel about this: the way he did, more or less. Any second, he expected those battlestaves to come up and…

And nothing. The colonel scowled as the silence stretched past tension and into awkwardness, and suddenly Joe understood.

That was why Sheyann had said the soldiers were unprepared, why Jenny said this was already won. This man and his troops had come here expecting to rely on their official presentation and show of force to capture their prey with no interference and, at most, mild physical resistance from Jenny herself, nothing they couldn’t overcome. They had no backup plan, and at the first encounter of a significant hurdle, their commander was left floundering.

The realization was…actually, it was reminiscent. Joe was reminded abruptly of the events of a month ago, when a handful of paladins, demigods, demons, and who knew what else had chosen to refrain from annihilating the White Riders as they easily could, and chosen to act more carefully. To work on the motivations of the people involved, instead of deploying force. The lesson was not entirely welcome, keenly aware as he was that this lay specifically outside his own strengths and, in fact, square in the realm of things with which he struggled.

But while Joe was chewing on that burst of insight, the colonel found his footing.

“The interests of national security trump such niceties, I’m afraid,” he said, gruff with his own irritation. “You may of course file a grievance with Imperial Command after we have left.”

“You’d better believe I’ll be doing exactly that,” Langlin replied. “And you will be leaving without what you came for. In this town, we follow the law. The people of Sarasio have had all they can stomach of bullies with battlestaves.”

The colonel bared his teeth so widely it was actually visible under his mustache. “My mandate does not require me to consult the people of Sarasio, Sheriff. The Tiraan Empire is not a democracy.”

“You know why that is, right?” Jenny piped up suddenly. Ignoring Langlin’s annoyed glance, she clambered onto the seat of the mulecart and stood, immediately making herself the focus of every eye. “Why Tiraas is so dead set against any whiff of democracy, I mean. You know the big secret behind it, the one thing all the nobles understand? It’s something you learn the first time you try to govern any group of people who aren’t having it.”

“I don’t have to listen—”

“Every country is a democracy,” Jenny barreled right over his interruption, grinning down at him. “End of the day? Power is consensus. The people always decide who gets to have it, and they can change their minds. It’s just that most people, most of the time, cannot be assed to vote, whatever political system they live in. The key to staying in power is to encourage that natural apathy. The last thing you want is to have your subjects take a notion to change things up. It’s only when you’ve failed to manage that much that you need to provide ballot boxes. Because once people decide they’re gonna go vote, you’d better let them do it at the polls. Otherwise they’ll do it with their weapons.”

She let the silence hang. All around, hard-eyed citizens of Sarasio had stepped closer and now stood in silence, close to the same numbers as the soldiers and more than two thirds armed.

Then Elder Sheyann pursed her lips and emitted a soft birdcall.

Instantly, blond heads appeared on the roofs all around as fifteen elves who had been lying flat suddenly stood and stared down at the soldiers, blank-faced and aloof as only elves could be. They were not carrying weapons…but they were elves, and no less than seven wore the clear accouterments of tribal shamans. That was enough.

The soldiers held their discipline, but they were suddenly a lot less stern-faced, many of them visibly nervous.

“Don’t call an election, Colonel,” Jenny said into the quiet she had created once she judged it had hung there long enough. “Those favor the incumbent.”

He met her eyes, glowering. “Don’t think you’ll evade the Empire forever, Shifter.” Holding her stare for another pointed moment, he finally turned and made a hand signal.

“Fall in,” the captain barked, and the soldiers stepped back and began to file away with the same impressive discipline as before.

“Colonel,” Sheriff Langlin called as he started to move. The man paused and half-turned to stare at her. “I know a little something about working around the bureaucracy. There’s always a way. If you’d been legitimate, you’d have tried to negotiate. I’ll be making a full complaint and demanding an investigation from Mathenon and ImCom. However long it takes me to write that up and walk to the scrolltower, that’s how long you’ve got to be outta my town and over the horizon. Unless you’re harboring some fool notion about stopping me.”

He stared at her in silence for a heartbeat, then snorted, turned, and strode off after his soldiers. Jenny, Joe, and the rest of the onlookers held still, watching as they filed back out of sight around the corner.

A small hand lightly touched Joe’s upper back, and he turned in surprise. He had, of course, known Sheyann’s position, but elves were usually persnickety about physical contact. The Elder leaned close, pitching her voice low.

“Jenny is a kind soul and a good friend; I have never known her intentions to be less than pure. But you should always be careful around beings who have a different perspective of life than yours. Those who move through time, or space, or worlds, in a way that you cannot will not share your frame of reference when it comes to attachments. For most young men on the cusp of an adventure, I would advise a careful distance from dreams of storybook heroics. In your case, Joseph, remember the stories you have heard, and be mindful of what sort may be unfolding around you. Even such as she may be impelled by greater powers.”

With a final smile, she stepped back and melted away into the crowd before he could respond. Joe glanced up and was unsurprised to see no sign of the elves on the rooftops anymore.

“I hope I don’t have to tell you two that man meant every one of his final words,” the Sheriff stated brusquely, alternating her stare between Joe and Jenny. “You have not seen the last of that—at least, not if you’re planning to head out into the prairie. If you stay in town a while longer—”

“Then the next attempt will be subtler,” Jenny interrupted. “That guy’s not the brains behind this, Sheriff. Whatever this is about, it started down in Tiraas, and I don’t want my business hurting the town. Sarasio’s been through enough.”

“Besides, it’s a pretty short ride to the frontier,” Joe added. “It ain’t like he can track us into the Sea itself. Nothing can.”

Langlin shook her head. “I hope you know what you’re getting into, Jenkins.”

“I am all but positive I haven’t the faintest inkling, Sheriff,” he said ruefully. “But…you know what it is. Some things you gotta do because they’re winnin’ propositions, and some because they just gotta be done. Ain’t always that we’re lucky enough one of ‘em’s both.”

Slowly, she nodded. “Well. I feel a little better, knowing you’ve actually given this some thought. As I just finished explaining, nobody who’s broken no laws is going to be held against their will in my town, so I can’t very well stop you. Just be careful, you two.”

“As much as we possibly can, Sheriff,” Jenny promised. “You can count on that, at least.”

Langlin tugged the brim of her hat, then turned without another word of farewell and headed back up the street toward her office, no doubt to get started on that report she’d declared her intent to make. Abigail Langlin did not issue idle threats.

With a sigh of his own, Joe hopped up onto the cart’s seat while Jenny finally sat down next to him. “All right, if we’re gonna do this harebrained thing, best not dally. Hep hep, Beans!”

He flicked the rains.

Beans swished his tail, laid his ears back, and very slowly turned his neck to give Joe a baleful look with one eye.

“C’mon, Beans, let’s go,” Jenny said in a gentler voice.

The mule snorted, then stepped forward, and in seconds the cart was bumping along the last few yards of road before they turned into prairie.

“Yep,” Joe muttered as they left the town behind, “this is off to a great start.”

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Bonus #64: The Girl from Everywhere, part 1

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Joe ambled down the main street of Sarasio, aware that he was playing right into a chapbook cliché but having made his peace with it. He liked to amble, liked to take his time and take in the movements of the town, greeting people, stopping to chat, noting all the repairs and new construction going on, seeing who was new in the village. To accomplish all this, it was either walk slowly with an unmotivated gait that encouraged people to interrupt his constitutional, or sit in a rocking chair on a porch like somebody’s grampa. Sitting around was just not in his nature, so ambling it was.

“Jenkins,” Sarasio’s new face of law and order acknowledged as she fell into step beside him.

“Sheriff,” Joe said politely, tipping his hat. He approved mightily of Sheriff Abigail Langlin, recently appointed by the governor down in Mathenon in an act which proved the man actually did understand what the frontier town needed. Langlin was a Westerner by blood, somewhat unusual in this area, but her name and accent showed her to be frontier stock. A hard woman with perpetually steely eyes and the severe demeanor of a schoolmarm, she was nonetheless a listener, attentive to everyone who required a bit of her time and slow to take action until she was certain of having all the facts—at which point she would knock a troublemaker on his ass in the street before he knew what was happening. It’d have been nice if the governor had bothered to send Sarasio one of his best people before he had the Emperor breathing down his neck over it, but Joe and the rest of the townsfolk had decided to take what they were offered without kicking up more fuss.

“Been down to the Rail station?” she asked as they ambled in tandem.

“Not since gettin’ the paper this mornin’,” he replied, equally terse, and equally without tension. Another thing he appreciated about Sheriff Langlin was how she treated him: the woman was visibly unimpressed by the legend of the Sarasio Kid, but also didn’t talk down to the town’s fifteen-year-old self-appointed protector, once she was satisfied he preferred to let her do her job without any interference. They shared the laconic rapport of people who had been through some shit and didn’t care to chitchat about it. He was rather curious about her backstory, but of course asking would defeat the purpose. “I’m just out for a walk before the night’s work. Spent more’n enough time indoors, last few months. Anything good arrive today? Or at least interesting?”

She grunted. “Interesting, maybe. The usual load of louts, disaster tourists and…” Langlin curled her lip in disdain. “…adventurers passing through. I reckon a fair few of those’ll be waiting at the Shady Lady to lose their entire purses to the famous Sarasio Kid at the poker table.”

“Same as it ever was,” he quipped. “Though I make it a point not to take somebody’s entire purse unless I’m pretty sure they can afford it.”

“Yeah, well, about the same proportion as always won’t handle losing with any grace. I expect you to keep it civil, Joe.”

“Really, ma’am?” He cast her a sidelong look of reproach. “I know you ain’t been in town long, but surely you’ve cottoned that I don’t start fights.”

“That is not something I’m worried about, no. I don’t need you finishing fights, either, Joe. Not as hard as I know you’re capable of doing it, and not to the kind of trash who are not worth the paperwork it’ll cause me.”

“Not my style, Sheriff. Some o’ the new folks get a mite ornery, it’s true, but those me an’ the girls can’t talk down we can at least manage to delay until somebody can fetch you or the deputy. Which… I’d’a thought you knew that, too. Or is there somebody in today’s batch you’re especially concerned about?”

“Not them,” she murmured, eyes ceaselessly scanning the street as they passed. There was nothing amiss, just townsfolk, a handful of laborers and functionaries sent by Tiraas and Mathenon to help get the village back on its feet, and a few visiting elves. More elves had decided to be sociable with the people of Sarasio since the event with the White Riders and the Last Rock folk. Joe suspected Elder Sheyann’s hand behind that. “There’ve been some other arrivals today who concern me more. We got another detachment of troops. Looks like a single squad.”

“Huh. I thought all the soldiers went back to the capital with the prisoners.”

“Me, too,” she replied, her tone grimmer than usual. “They’re camping out by the new scrolltower site rather than quartering in the town, and their commanding officer hasn’t troubled to notify me what they’re here for.”

Joe narrowed his eyes. “I ain’t exactly a hundred percent on the legalities there, Sheriff. Shouldn’t they at least check in with you?”

“The law doesn’t require it,” she said noncommittally, “but yeah, it’s…an expected courtesy. To the point that the lack of it is noteworthy. Feels borderline…pointed.”

“Hm. Not sure how I feel about soldiers hangin’ around bein’ specifically discourteous, Sheriff. The last batch were the very model of professionalism.”

“I definitely don’t need you poking your wand into them, Joe.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, ma’am.”

“Good.” She nodded once, though it might have been in reply to the passing man who tipped his hat politely to them. “I did get a visit from another interesting person. An Imperial Marshal who declined to discuss his business with me in detail, but asked after you.” Langlin glanced at him sidelong. “And after Miss Jenny.”

He slowly raised his eyebrows. “Me…and Jenny? Huh.”

“You can’t think of anybody in the Imperial government who’d take an interest in the two of you?”

“Can’t say as I can, Sheriff,” Joe said with an apologetic grimace. “I don’t know anybody connected to the Imperial government except Heywood. No idea at all why anybody from the capital’d be interested in Jenny.”

“Paxton, right,” she nodded. “Cheerful, middle-aged, shaped like a pumpkin. This guy is not him. Not forthcoming about his business, either, but that’s what I know as it presently stands.”

“I appreciate the heads up, ma’am.”

“Wasn’t purely for your benefit,” she replied in a warning tone. “So no, Joe, I don’t expect any misbehavior from you, or necessarily from the new layabouts passing through. But, I smell politics. I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s got strings tied to the capital, and at least one of ‘em’s interested in you. I’ll ask you to step very carefully until this situation either reveals itself or goes away.”

“My word on it, Sheriff,” he promised, stopping and turning to her, then tipping his hat. “I can do discreet, no trouble. Anything else interesting that pops up, I’ll let you know.”

“Good man,” she said approvingly, nodding back. “You do that. I’ll let you get to…work, then. Be safe, Joe.”

“You too, Sheriff,” he replied with a grin, not rising to the little jab about his work. They had paused in front of the Shady Lady, where he was about to spend his evening the way he did most evenings: playing poker and winning, mostly at the expense of out-of-towners who failed to realize that throwing down with the Sarasio Kid at the card table was as much a losing proposition as doing it in the street.

They parted ways, he heading into the bordello, she continuing on her rounds, and he wondered for a moment if it was significant that she’d seen fit to warn him but not come in and say the same to Jenny, but then he was inside and taking stock.

The Shady Lady was a much different place from the makeshift fortification full of refugees it had been during the months when the White Riders had held Sarasio in the grip of terror, when the bordello had been protected only by his residence there, and the fact that the lawlessness the Riders themselves had introduced meant he could have massacred the lot of them with no fear of interference from any government or other entity. So they hadn’t gone near the Lady while he was present, and after it had suffered one ugly attack when he ventured out to go looking for them, he hadn’t dared to leave it again. That bitter stalemate had held until Tellwyrn herself had appeared out of nowhere with a bunch of heroes right out of a bard’s tale.

Looking back, Joe’s perception of the Last Rock posse in hindsight was somewhat surprising. They were a way overpowered group to use against what amount to a few bandits, they broadly seemed to have bumbled about with a distressing lack of any clue what they were doing—a disappointing thing to have observed after he’d dared to hope a group of proper adventurers would mean an end to Sarasio’s troubles. And, in the end, they hadn’t solved the problem like adventurers, exactly. Rather than rounding up and stomping out the White Riders, they had rallied the town and the elves, done as much to heal what was wrong with Sarasio as defend it.

That had impressed him more than anything else. He still pondered it often.

Now, the Shady Lady was back in business, which was to say raucous, bawdy, and fun. Not that the kind of fun that went on here was Joe’s cup of tea, exactly, but he was attached to the place. Half-dressed women were draped over various pieces of furniture and those of the patrons who looked like they had money to spend. Some of the crowd was clearly rough around the edges, but there were two burly men in suits with wands and cudgels lurking by the door—and now that Joe was here, there was even less danger of anybody mistreating one of the employees. The piano was blasting a spritely melody, which was slightly uncomfortable for Joe because ever since yesterday it was in need of tuning. Not enough that anyone else would notice, yet, which just made it worse.

Joe had to pause just inside, not to add drama to his entrance, but just to orient himself and parse the glut of data that washed over him. Fortunately he had enough practice at this that the room arranged itself in his mind fairly quickly, fast enough most of those present would likely not have noticed more than a momentary hesitation.

The temperature of the room and how it varied by the concentrations of bodies in different spots. Volume, intonation, and speed of delivery of thirty-three different voices. The differing proximities of different bodies to one another, and what it signified about their interactions. The minutiae of fine movements in facial muscles that expressed emotion; the less neatly organized details of body language which he had also studied carefully but did not yet have down to so precise a science. Details, details, details. Data.

In his father’s research and correspondence with professionals up in the dwarven kingdoms, Joe’s pa had found that his condition, the way he processed information differently and seemed to lack the innate grasp of social interaction that humans were supposed to have from birth, was a known phenomenon. The other thing, his gift, the way he perceived everything about the physical world in hard numbers, was something different—possibly related, not completely unheard of but altogether far less common. He’d learned to use the one to compensate for the other, with the result that while learning to read a room had taken him years and the effort had been exhausting, now that the effort was done he could read people—individually and in groups—with a degree of precision that far more sensitive and intuitive types couldn’t seem to manage.

There were still wide gaps in his perceptions where he had to conjecture. When it came to people, there was always more studying to do. Wands were easy; people were not nonsensical as he had first believed as a young child, just hellaciously complex. There were just so many variables, and even now that he had grasped—mostly—the overall patterns he was always finding new ones he didn’t yet understand.

Upon taking in the Shady Lady’s common room and getting it properly sorted in his mind, Joe’s first observation was that there was only one detail at present which required a response from him, and that was the man at his table.

Joe’s table was sacrosanct. The Shady Lady’s employees shooed customers away even when the place was as busy as tonight; you did not sit down to play cards with the Kid unless you were invited, and that only happened if you impressed the Kid as being either an interesting opponent, or loaded enough to be worth taking to the cleaners. Now, there was a man sitting there—not in his seat, at least—dressed in a perfectly nondescript hat and coat. He might have been anybody passing through a frontier town like this, except that he was sitting there. Others might have helped themselves to a seat where they were unwelcome; what made this stick out in Joe’s mind was that the staff weren’t saying anything to him about it.

Thus, before approaching the interloper, he stopped to conduct a quick visual survey of the employees. Horace was at the bar and Sandy on the piano, where they belonged. The bouncers were in the correct positions, one watching the door, the other atop the stairs where he could see the floor and swiftly reach either it or any of the private rooms if he perceived a need. That neither had reacted to the man at Joe’s table meant they discerned no threat. Most of the girls were occupied entertaining customers; those who could spare the attention shot smiles and waves his way, and three glanced fleetingly at the table. So it wasn’t magic deflecting their attention, they had been aware of this situation and decided a reaction was not necessary.

He focused on the final employee, who to judge by the way she was immediately making a beeline toward him, was probably about to explain the situation.

“Jenny,” he said, tipping his hat.

“You with the manners,” the bordello’s waitress chided, swatting him on the arm. Jenny specifically was only a waitress, the only female member of the staff who offered no services beyond food and drinks. She was definitely not dressed like any of the other girls, wearing a shirt and trousers, boots and a long jacket. Even so, occasionally one of the out-of-town patrons would try to pat her on the butt, and immediately learned that Jenny did not slap people: she punched. She punched with the force of a kicking donkey and the surgical precision of an Omnist monk, and anybody Jenny felt the need to lay out on the floorboards would not be going upstairs with any of the girls, assuming Bruce and Tanner didn’t decide to summarily toss his ass bodily into the street. There were rarely any problems.

“Manners are miniature morals,” Joe recited. “So, what’ve we got goin’ on over there?”

“Yeah, step carefully, Joe,” she said, the levity fading from her expression as she glanced over at the intruder, who was positioned so that he could certainly see them talking but was just sipping a whiskey and playing solitaire, showing no outward reaction to anything else in the room. “That’s a silver gryphon. He’s asking about you, specifically.”

“Ah hah,” Joe said, studying the man more closely. He maybe looked more Tiraan than Stalweiss; otherwise, no identifying features whatsoever. In Joe’s experience, people were never so bland except on purpose. That was the trouble with Imperial Marshals; they might be police officers, tax assessors, or Intelligence agents, or anything else answerable only to the central government in Tiraas and licensed to exercise deadly force in his Majesty’s name. Something told Joe it wasn’t an accountant or cop he was dealing with here. “Speak of the Dark Lady. I was just this minute havin’ a talk with the Sheriff about a new Marshal in town. She says he was askin’ about me, and also you.”

“Shit,” Jenny mumbled, and he winced but knew better by now than to chide her out loud.

“Take it easy,” he murmured. “If the man’s askin’ politely and waitin’ at ease for a sit-down, it’s probably nothin’…too serious.”

“Sometimes you are just too precious for this world.”

He gave her a look, and she made a face back at him.

“Well, standin’ out here ain’t gettin’ us any answers,” he said reasonably. “I believe I won’t keep our guest waitin’ any longer’n necessary. You wanna come with or let me size ‘im up first?”

“Screw that, if he’s after me I’m gonna find out what the hell he wants,” she said, reaching up to adjust the goggles she wore atop her head. Joe had never actually seen her put them over her eyes; she skillfully deflected any questions about them.

He nodded to her, and led the way over to his table.

“Good evening,” the man sitting there said cordially, sweeping up his deck of cards mid-game as Joe pulled out a seat for Jenny. “And you must be Mr. Jenkins!”

“Guess I must be,” Joe replied, settling into his own chair and ignoring Jenny’s wry look. “Everybody else seems t’be accounted for.”

The man grinned at him and casually adjusted the lapel of his coat with one hand, momentarily turning it just enough to reveal the shape of a silver gryphon badge pinned inside. “Marshal Task, pleasure to meet you.”

“Task,” Joe repeated. “Really?”

“Really, legally, and on paper. Everywhere that matters, anyway.” Task’s grin only widened. “First things first: let me assuage your worries a bit. This is not an official visit.”

“Pardon me, mister, but you need t’get out more if you think an unofficial visit from an Imperial Marshal is less worrisome than the other kind.”

Task actually chuckled at that, shaking his head. “Well, I suppose I see your point. I’m rather accustomed to it being the other way ‘round, but then you’ve had rather a run of bad luck out here lately, haven’t you? I can imagine the government’s not in a good odor in Sarasio these days. In any case, to be more specific, I sought you out at the request of a mutual friend, one Heywood Paxton of the Imperial Surveyor Corps.”

“Oh, yeah,” Jenny said before Joe could reply, staring closely at the Marshal. “How’s Heywood doing? When he left here he was all a-twitter about marrying that sweetheart of his back home. You know how young men are. No offense, Joe.”

Joe just nodded to her. He had absolutely no idea why she would say such a pile of nonsense, and therefore kept his mouth shut and his face blank until he caught up. Everyone whose opinion he’d ever respected had advised listening rather than speaking when in doubt.

Task just smiled at her, a more knowing expression. “Heywood is in his fifties, has grandchildren, and wears trousers sized for two of you, miss. Or at least he used to; first time I saw how much weight he’d lost I was afraid for his health for a moment, but in fact he’s more energetic than I ever remember him being. What happened in Sarasio seems to have lit a fire in his belly. That was a good thought, Miss Everywhere, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t have helped you much if I were trying to put one over on you. A professional—such as myself—wouldn’t invoke the name of a mutual acquaintance unless he knew at least that much detail.”

Jenny grimaced. “I prefer Ms. I’m an Avenist, you know.”

“Humble apologies,” Task said gravely.

Joe continued keeping his mouth shut. Jenny had never revealed her surname, but… Everywhere? He was confused, and therefore, silently observant.

“Heywood came across some information during his oversight of the post-Rider cleanup of Sarasio,” Task continued, “or rather the parts of it happening on paper in Tiraas. I think you two are in a better position to speak to the more physical parts of the process. But this particular matter is something which he felt you ought to know, and which he was constrained from notifying you of through official channels. Thus, he called in a favor.” The Marshal smiled and sipped his whiskey. “And here I am.”

“Here you are,” Joe repeated.

“Are you perhaps aware of the small detachment of Imperial soldiers that arrived today?”

Jenny’s eyes widened. Joe just nodded once.

“The Sheriff just mentioned that t’me, in fact.”

Task nodded back. “How much do you know about the composition of the Imperial army?”

“How about instead a’ playin’ twenty questions you just tell me the part that’s important?” Joe suggested.

That prompted a good-humored grin from the Marshal. “Fair enough! Okay, since the reorganization after the Enchanter Wars, the Army by law has to be composed of one third levies from the various House guards. These soldiers are under the direct command of the Throne, and trained and outfitted by the Imperial government, though the Houses are expected to be financially responsible for their share. It was conceived as a way for the aristocrats to limit the military capability of the central government. Starting in Theasia’s reign, Imperial Command has put in place a policy of very deliberately moving these troops around and never stationing House levies in the domains of their own backers. That neatly accomplished her goal of impeding the Houses from formenting insurrection within the Army itself, and these days most wouldn’t even think to try that; modern aristocrats would rather play economic games than risk coming to blows with each other, much less the Throne itself. But it has caused the additional problem that scattered through the entire Imperial Army are units of troops whose first loyalty isn’t to the Emperor.”

“Ohhh, I don’t like where this is going,” Jenny whispered.

“As well you shouldn’t,” Task agreed. “ImCom does its best to keep things orderly, and General Panissar runs a tighter ship than his predecessor, but any large bureaucratic institution has cracks which things can slip through, and people embedded who know exactly how to make such slippage happen. I believe the Eserites have a saying about this.”

“You’re tellin’ us these troops ain’t here on the Emperor’s orders,” Joe said.

Task nodded. “They’ll have all the requisite paperwork and orders, and the groundwork will have been laid back at Command to explain their presence here. But no, Mr. Jenkins, this squadron is not here on the Emperor’s business, nor General Panissar’s command. It’s not unusual for a provincial governor to pull strings and get a favored unit of theirs assigned a plum position, but Heywood was alarmed by this because of how byzantine the chain of orders and requisitions was that made this happen. These lads are from Upper Stalwar Province, originally, but he can’t figure out who sent them here, or why.”

“And ImCom can’t just recall them because…?” Jenny prompted.

“Couldn’t tell you,” Task admitted. “Nor could Heywood, or he’d have done that first. I’ve verified it wasn’t Imperial Intelligence that put them here, either, and I’m afraid that’s as far as I’m willing to stick my neck out. My agency has policies in place about free agents interfering with complex matters on our own time. I’ve notified my superiors, and been authorized to watch, but…that’s it.” He shrugged fatalistically. “Heywood Paxton, in addition to being a good friend, is a loyal Emperor’s man through and through. He doesn’t care for playing politics, but is able to do it, as any good government functionary must be. So when he asks for a favor, I can be confident that it is not against the interests of the Throne or the Empire as a whole, and he considered it important enough to circumvent the bureaucracy. Thus, the warning he requested I bring you two in particular: the only thing he or I have been able to suss out about this squad on such short notice is that immediately before they were abruptly diverted out here, someone else, working through the same unusually labyrinthine chain of steps designed to conceal their point of origin, pulled the government’s entire files on one Jenny Everywhere, last known to be in Sarasio, Mathena.” He met her eyes, his expression as grave as hers was suddenly sickly. “I got a chance to sneak a glance at those files. That’s quite a story there, ma’am. It’s my belief whoever’s looking for you is someone playing on a level that even you had better take seriously.”

“Thanks,” she whispered.

Task nodded, tucked his deck of cards in the pocket of his coat, and tossed back the last of his drink. “Heywood doesn’t consider you any threat to the Empire. Nor do I—nor, according to the documents ImCom and Intelligence have, does anyone who has an inkling what they’re talking about. By simple process of elimination, then, the source of this interest wants you for their own purposes, not to protect the Empire. By the same token, you are not, strictly speaking, an Imperial subject, and nobody legitimate will spend government resources coming to your aid. The best way Heywood could look out for you, Jenny, was by making sure you and Mr. Jenkins here know to watch your back, and try to untangle the paper trail to figure out whose idea all this was. He’s still working on the second part, but… I have to tell you, I’m not optimistic. I know a paper trail skillfully designed to lead nowhere when I see one. In my professional opinion, those answers are only going to come from the officer in charge of those troops.” He winked and finally stood up. “Not, of course, that I would ever suggest you employ any kind of aggressive persuasion against an officer of his Majesty’s armed forces.”

“Perish the thought,” Joe said quietly.

“I’m gonna hang around town for a few days, keep an eye on this. But unless somebody does something outright treasonous… Keeping an eye is all I can do for you. Best of luck.”

The Marshal tugged the brim of his hat, then sauntered away from the table toward the front doors in no particular hurry, leaving them simmering in a thick and heavy silence.

“I never knew you were an Avenist,” Joe finally said after forty-five seconds in which Jenny just frowned at the table.

She looked up, and smiled ruefully. “That was…a little joke. I guess you could best describe me as an agnostic. Though I’ve done the most work by far for Vesk.”

Joe noted the phrasing, and said nothing. Not because he didn’t have questions; on the contrary, he wasn’t sure which one to ask first.

While he dithered, Jenny drew in a breath and squared her shoulders. “Joe, I’m in the uncomfortable position of needing to ask you for a big favor, and not being able to explain all of why.”

“We’re friends,” he replied, grateful to be back in the realm of correct answers and not looming unknowns. “I’ve got your back. What’s up?”

Jenny smiled gratefully. “Well, I think it’s time for me to leave town.”

“That’s startin’ to sound like a pretty solid idea,” he agreed.

“And I think I’m gonna need some help getting to where I need to go. It’s…well, difficult country.”

“How difficult?”

“Golden Sea difficult.”

He nodded slowly. “Okay. How far in are we goin’?”

“All the way.” She held his gaze, intently watching his reaction. “To the center.”

Joe regarded her in silence for several more seconds while gathering his thoughts before he answered.

“Okay. How, uh… How much can you explain?”

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Bonus #63: Coming to Dinner, part 4

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“I see,” Shaeine whispered, not voicing the obvious rejoinder. It was, then, a question of who survived to tell the tale.

Her mother was going to be exceedingly irate about her playing a role in wiping out a major Imperial House, but at this point, it couldn’t be helped.

The priestess reached within herself again, connecting to the power of the goddess. Immediately the so-called lamp reacted again, but this time Shaeine was done exercising restraint. Her aura blazed, a silver shield flashed into place around her, and still she kept drawing energy, pulling until she could feel the warning twinges of burnout. Her shield was a well-practiced technique that required fairly little concentration; the rest of that power she pushed straight outward in a torrent against the Scyllithene artifact she could feel trying to strike back against her.

Whatever the thing’s origins and powers, it was just a static artifact—a nasty surprise for anyone channeling the wrong kind of magic near it, but not up for a direct challenge by a priestess of Themynra on the offensive.

White and silver light burst through the room, to the accompaniment of shouts from the House Madouri soldiers as human eyes were blinded by the eruption. Drow eyes being inherently sensitive to light, Shaeine like any cleric of her order knew a minor working to shield her vision and pushed through. The magical impact sent the artifact careening off the table.

Directly, to her immediate chagrin, at Vadrieny. The demon let out a shriek of pain and staggered away. There was no time to wallow in remorse, however; the room was split by a thunderclap as one blinded soldier discharged his staff, and Shaeine swept back into action, cursing herself for the moment of hesitation caused by making her lover collateral damage.

Before any of the soldiers could recover, she formed a solid wall of light and swept it against them, slamming the men along one side of the room into the wall, then repeated the maneuver against those on the other. She couldn’t hit hard enough to kill with that technique—not in quarters this tight—but it should at least daze and perhaps injure them. More boots were pounding toward the doors, however, so Shaeine wasted no more time, vaulting onto the table and kicking Ravana’s abandoned plate upward.

It wasn’t just elven agility and reflex; she had been taught, specifically, to fight in a formal dining hall. Her fingers closed around the handle of the steak knife, snagging it out of the air, and she launched herself directly at the Duke. He was just lowering his hand from the blinding flash, eyes widening as the next thing they beheld was a cold-eyed drow bearing down on him with steel bared.

Then thunder cracked again; Dazan had drawn a sidearm and fired at her point blank. He was in the process of visibly flailing, making it a distinctly lucky shot, but then again at that range and given that she was charging right past him it might have been harder not to hit her, especially as the bubble of light around her made a much bigger target than the slender shape within. That shield saved her life, but the wandshot impacted her even as she lunged through the air with both her feet off the table; with nothing to brace against, the force of it sent her careening into the wall practically on top of one of the soldiers she had just felled.

She had blocked wandshots with her personal shield at Sarasio, but even that didn’t prepare her for the power they held, given that the shield was designed to blunt incoming attacks as much as possible. To truly feel the impact one had to be hit while flying through the air. The force of a single wandshot sent her violently off course with no more volition than a billiard ball.

A hidden door she had not observed opened behind the head of the table, by one side of the great display surmounted by the Madouri quest on which her ill-received gifts now rested, and more soldiers dashed into the dining room, weapons at the ready as they fanned out behind their Duke.

“Well, well,” Ehriban drawled, straightening up in his seat and looking past Shaeine. “Bringing weapons and shields into the presence of your governor? You are making this easier for me, Geoffrey—”

A beam of white light impacted nothing right in front of his face; the Duke jerked backward, gaping. It was likely no one had ever dared directly attack him before.

“Yeah, didn’t really think so,” Geoffrey Falconer said, still holding his wand aimed right at Ehriban. “You cannot imagine how much I have wanted to do that, though.”

“You’re only digging your own grave,” Ehriban snarled. “A professional like yourself should know I can have that wand analyzed after I take it off your corpse. When Intelligence learns it was used to fire on my personal shield—”

Two more hits to said shield shut him up for a moment, at least until Dazan turned and fired two lightning bolts right back. The first sparked off an arcane shield around Geoffrey, who had planted himself in front of Marguerite; the second was intercepted by another wall of silver light Shaeine raised.

Near her, two soldiers were trying to stagger to their feet. She swatted them back down with a mobile shield.

“That’s right, just keep digging!” the Duke exclaimed. “I already have more than I need to hand over Falconer Industries to my son to manage once you’re all—”

Then, while they were all distracted with that, another burst of white light flashed through the room.

When everyone could see again, it was to behold Vadrieny standing upright, clutching the shattered and now-inert remnants of the Scyllithene artifact. Fragments of marble and silver crunched and trickled from between her claws as she clenched down, further pulverizing the remains.

“Didn’t. Think. That. Through,” the archdemon snarled. Already, the half-dampened fire of her hair and wings was beginning to reassert itself, burn marks along her skin receding now that Scyllith’s light had been extinguished.

“Hold it,” Ehriban barked, beginning to look genuinely alarmed. “Don’t be a fool, girl. You may be able to kill me, but this room is full of my men, with military weapons. Those shields your parents and your little girlfriend have won’t last long.”

“They had better,” Vadrieny hissed, baring her fangs to their full unsettling extent. “If you so much as singe a one of them, I will disassemble you piece. By. Piece.”

A moment of relative quiet passed, broken only by the House Madouri soldiers getting back to their feet.

“Well, well,” the Duke said at last, forcing a thin smile. “It seems we have a standoff, then. How droll.”

“He can’t let us leave,” said Shaeine. “He has attempted conspiracy, corruption, and murder. If we leave here, we will return with Imperial troops to end his reign.”

“Or we can end it now!” Vadrieny barked, shifting her legs as if about to spring. A visibly frightened Dazan turned to cover her with his wand.

“Boy, I have told you to aim always at the weakest point,” his father said softly.

“B-but… I mean, has she got a vulnerable—”

“Them!” Ehriban exclaimed, pointing at the two older Falconers. Blanching, Dazan swiveled again, taking aim at them. “This is quite the dilemma we have on our hands, is it not? It seems if we are all to leave this room, we must come to an agreement. Now…”

Another figure slipped out of the knot of soldiers behind the Duke’s chair, catching Shaeine’s eye. No one else took notice of her until she raised her hand, holding Tellwyrn’s ancient saber, and pressed the edge against Dazan’s throat. The young lord emitted an embarrassing squeak, and the Duke turned to scowl at him, then froze, expression utterly shocked.

His wasn’t the only one.

“Conspiracy, corruption, and murder,” Ravana Madouri repeated. She stood straight as a battlestaff, as poised with the blade in her hand as if on a ballroom floor. “Altogether a typical Thursday evening in the House of Madouri, with the exception that this time you have assaulted with premeditated murderous intent a diplomat of an allied power. That, Father, is treason.”

There was dead silence, everyone in the room staring at Ravana as if they had never seen her before. For the most part, they may as well not have.

“…Ravana?” Ehriban said at least, hesitantly.

Dazan hissed and tried to raise his head higher as his sister tensed her arm. A line of noble blood appeared across his throat and began to trickle down the surface of the elven steel.

“Your swaggering and bullying has squandered every political alliance this House once had,” Ravana lectured her father in an icy tone. “That, coupled with the repeated offenses you have given House Tirasian, means the Emperor will not hesitate to exact the fullest penalty for this the law allows. Thanks to you, not only will no other House press him to stay his hand, the vultures will circle to strip whatever they can from the corpse of House Madouri. This asinine scheme could doom us all. And for what? Because you are personally offended that the Falconers are wealthy enough to detract attention from you? For shame.”

“They…you…” Ehriban stammered, stopped, swallowed heavily. “Ravana, little starling, please put that down. I promise you, I won’t let anything happen to you.”

His daughter curled her lip sardonically. “What happens to me appears to be entirely out of your hands at this juncture, Father.”

“Vana?” Dazan squeaked. Everyone ignored him.

“That…is quite enough,” the Duke stated, clearly regathering his poise sufficiently to straighten in his chair. “Men, escort Lady Ravana to her chambers and keep her there until I can attend to her.”

Another pause ensued. The soldiers clustered behind around Ravana, behind Ehriban and Dazan, shifted subtly, gripping weapons and turning to regard the young Lady, but did not otherwise move. After a moment, one of the other soldiers closer to Shaeine made as if to take a step forward, freezing when she half-turned her head to fix him with a stare.

“Now!” Ehriban exclaimed. “I have made my orders clear!”

Then Ravana Madouri smiled, and Shaeine felt a frisson coil its way down her spine.

“Lieutenant Arivani,” Ravana said aloud, “how fares your wife? I regret I have not had the opportunity to follow up with the doctor in some weeks.”

“She’s well, my Lady, thanks to your kind assistance,” said the soldier nearest her, turning toward her with the deepest bow the cramped quarters and his battlestaff would allow. “The doctor said it was a close thing. Could have lost her if it had gone untreated any longer, but she’ll recover now.”

Duke Ehriban was staring at this byplay with his jaw flapping in an amusingly fishlike expression. “Wh—how did— What?”

“Oh,” Geoffrey Falconer whispered, comprehension dawning. Vadrieny was now looking back and forth between the three nobles in confusion, but Shaeine had by that point figured it out. This was beginning to be downright Narisian, in fact.

“It is a basic principle of statecraft,” Ravana lectured her father with outright condescension, the blade at her brother’s throat unwavering. “Or, indeed, in any venture in which security is important. One must screen one’s employees—especially those such as soldiers in whose hands one’s safety rests—and not employ those with outstanding vulnerabilities exploitable by an enemy. No drug addictions, sick relatives, gambling habits, or the like. Not only have you consistently failed that basic step, you have gone further and created such cracks in our House’s security by not paying your soldiers adequately, and removing the traditional benefits they enjoyed under previous generations.” She finally turned her head to nod at the men clustering around her. “That is the first thing that’s about to change around here.”

The assembled Madouri troops stood straighter in response, several smiling at the diminutive Lady.

Duke Ehriban slumped back into his chair, gaping at Ravana in disbelief for a few befuddled moments. Then, finally, he emitted a forced chuckle, shaking his head.

“Well. Well, well. I, ah… I suppose I must bear some of the blame for this.”

“Some of the blame,” Marguerite muttered, but he ignored her.

“So much like your mother,” Ehriban continued, giving Ravana a fond smile. “Well then! I see there is yet another side to this…impromptu negotiation. Please remove that weapon from your brother, Ravana, and let us come to an agreement.”

“Negotiations are only necessary when one is not in complete control of a situation,” Ravana stated, her expression reverting to frigid detachment. “The soldiers here answer to me, as I have demonstrated. That leaves you nothing with which to pressure the Falconers or Lady Shaeine—whereas I can assure due recompense to House Awarrion for the grievous insult you have inflicted, as well as an immediate lessening of the entirely needless and punitive burden of taxation and administrative interference you have inflicted upon Falconer Industries.”

“Young lady, take what you’ve been given and be grateful,” Ehriban said, straightening up again and frowning down at her. “That is quite enough. We can discuss these matters in more detail later.”

“You fail to understand,” she intoned softly. “This province has been driven to the brink by your incompetence and malfeasance. Our people are harassed and abused instead of protected by your crooked police forces, your unreasonable taxes stifle economic activity, and your personal outbursts and petty cruelties have isolated us and made a virtual enemy of the Silver Throne itself. After years of corruption and abuse, you’ve finally crossed the line, Father. This is not an intervention. This is a coup d’etat. In the Emperor’s name, I arrest you for high treason. Once Imperial Intelligence has perused the proof of your planned murder of a Narisian diplomat, I imagine the ultimate sentence will be pronounced swiftly. Men, secure the Duke.”

“Don’t you dare—” was all Ehriban Madouri managed to bellow before being forcibly hiked from his seat by his own soldiers. Ravana finally lowered the sword as two more House guards seized Dazan and wrestled him to a kneeling position, arms held behind him.

“Vana, no!” the young lord exclaimed. “It wasn’t like that, she just… It was only supposed to be the Falconers!”

“Shut up, boy!” Ehriban snarled.

“Too late,” Ravana said, shaking her head wearily. “That is a confession, witnessed by all here.”

“I am a Duke! An Imperial governor!” Ehriban raged. “It is my word against—”

“You employ forgers, Father,” Ravana said pitilessly. “And in what may be the crowning achievement of your incompetence, you don’t pay them adequately, either. For your edification, if one must truck with scurrilous underworld types, blackmail does not suffice to keep them loyal—it only ensures they will be watching for the first opportunity to enact a betrayal. Lieutenant Arivani, I will require the ducal signet ring.”

“You will have to take my hand off first!” Ehriban raged at the soldier who stepped toward him. Arivani paused at the ferocity in his expression, glancing back at Ravana.

“If his Grace is committed to those terms, they are acceptable to me,” she said indifferently.

“Vana, please,” Dazan blubbered. “You can’t—if it’s treason, it’ll be— That’s the headsman for us, don’t you understand that?!”

Finally, for just a moment, Ravana hesitated, appearing uncertain. Attuned as she was to the subtleties of expression, Shaeine saw a transitory flicker as the young lady appeared to falter, somewhere between the vapid persona she had been effecting and the ice-blooded queenly facade to which she had switched. In that merest instance was a glimpse of a young girl who did not want to do this. And just like that, it was gone, leaving Shaeine feeling a sad kinship.

So it was, to be a noble. She would have done the same.

“If it is to be the headsman,” Ravana said in an impressively even tone, “remember you are a Madouri and try to face it with dignity.”

“Lady Ravana.” During the confrontation, Vadrieny’s form had faded away, leaving Teal looking deeply shaken. “They’re…your family.”

“My family,” Ravana said coldly, “exist for the sake of the realm and people of Madouris, not the other way around. They have forgotten this, and become too lost to pride to accept any reminder. A clean slate is needed if a true crisis is to be averted. Thank you, Lieutenant.”

She closed her tiny fingers around the heavy ring Arivani placed reverently in her hand, making no move to slip it on. Ehriban, in the end, had given it up with no further fight. In fact, he now slumped in the grasp of his captors, suddenly looking shocked and utterly defeated.

“Little starling,” he whispered.

“I have never enjoyed that nickname,” Ravana said quietly, staring at the table and refusing to meet his pleading eyes. “Starlings are an invasive pest. That is just one of the things you would know if you’d listened to your ministers when they tried to dissuade you from canceling those agricultural subsidies. It will take me years to untangle the mess you’ve created. Secure them in the lower cells—discreetly.” Ravana lifted her eyes finally, not to look at her father and brother, but at the soldiers holding them prisoner. “Until I can bring Imperial agents here to oversee and formalize the transition, his various partners in crime pose a risk. Permit no one to approach them. One warning, and then assume you are under attack and respond with lethal force. Against anyone—soldiers, servants, strangers. Make no assumptions and take no risks.”

“Your own servants?” Teal exclaimed.

“Teal,” Shaeine said softly, catching her gaze. She shook her head once. There was just too much to explain, and even if she explained it perfectly there was likely to be an argument as a result. This was not the sort of thing a person not raised to noble expectations was likely to understand.

The soldiers saluted Ravana, who turned her back on both them and the room while the two elder Madouris were hauled away, Ehriban in stunned silence, Dazan still shouting for his sister’s attention until the heavy dining room door was slammed shut behind him.

Facing the wall, Lady Ravana appeared to hunch in on herself. Her thin shoulders quivered once.

“Oh, honey,” Marguerite whispered, fortunately in a low enough tone that even Shaeine barely caught it. She started to take a step toward the young Lady, reaching out, but Geoffrey gently took her by the shoulders, pulling her close. Very much for the best, Shaeine knew; Ravana would not appreciate any such gesture at a time like this.

“How…how long have you been plotting this?” Teal asked, herself in a bare whisper. The words were accusatory, but her voice was simply horrified.

Ravana finally straightened and turned, her face once more composed when it was visible. “Too long. You seem rather put off by all this, Miss Falconer.”

Teal gaped in disbelief.

“If you would feel better removing yourself from the situation, I have a favor to ask.”

“Me?” Teal squawked.

“Well, more accurately, your counterpart.” Lady Ravana stepped forward, holding out her father’s ring. “We will not be truly safe here until the…previous Duke is in Imperial custody and the transition of power ratified by the Emperor. Perhaps not even then, unless his Majesty sees fit to loan me Imperial troops until I have thoroughly cleaned house. Even your family may be at risk unless we act swiftly. To that end, I would ask Vadrieny to carry this to General Tulivaan at the Imperial garrison here in Madouris. He…will understand what it means, though I rather expect he’ll ask you to explain what you’ve seen tonight.”

“You would send Vadrieny into an Imperial fortification?” Shaeine demanded.

“Tulivaan knows her,” Geoffrey said quickly. “He’ll, uh, have some questions if she drops in out of the blue, I’m sure, but his soldiers won’t fire on her at sight. Actually, even if they did, I guess that wouldn’t do her much harm, would it?”

“Please, Teal,” Ravana said quietly, still holding out the signet ring.

“I don’t…understand how you can…do this.”

“Then count yourself blessed. You would make a poor aristocrat…and for that, a much better person.”

They stared at each other in silence for a moment. When Teal finally took the ring, it was in a sudden grab. She hesitated only to look at Shaeine, her eyes wide and haunted.

“It will be all right,” Shaeine assured her quickly. “I am here, and your parents had the forethought to come armed. We will look after each other.”

“I…” Teal swallowed heavily, nodding once in a jerky motion. Then Vadrieny burst forth again in an explosion of fire and claws.

“Be careful,” the archdemon said. “I’ll be quick as I can.”

Then she was gone, pushing open the great double doors into the dining room from the formal hall outside and causing a scream from some passing housemaid. Geoffrey stepped over to gently pull the door shut.

Ravana sighed softly. “I fear I have rather unsettled her.”

“Teal is a sensitive soul,” said Shaeine. “It is a trait that ill befits someone in your position or mine, but a source of surprising strength for her. And one I value greatly.”

Ravana looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, then down at the ancient saber hanging from her hand, her brother’s blood still forming small streaks along the blade. She roughly wiped it off on the tablecloth, then crossed to the display beneath the Themynrite idol and picked up the accompanying dagger.

Both Falconers tensed when Ravana approached Shaeine with both blades in hand, but with surprising deftness, the young noblewoman reversed her grip and offered them hilts first.

“For offense given by my House to yours, honor compels me to return your generous offering, with the promise that full recompense shall be made. When next you deign to grace my hearth, no gift shall be owed, for I will regard you as…a…cherished comrade in battle.”

Shaeine, even poised as she was, blinked in surprise. It didn’t quite work in Tanglish; Narisian elvish had multiple levels of formality which could be used interchangeably throughout a sentence to add complex nuances of meaning. The lack was evident in Ravana’s faltering at the end there, when she clearly struggled to express a thought using unfamiliar formalities. It impressed Shaeine deeply that Ravana knew the Narisian etiquette at all.

“I accept the sentiment in the spirit in which it is offered,” she said aloud, reaching out to grasp the handles and gently reclaim the blades. Apparently her mother would get her guest gift from Teal after all. “Though your House has offended, you have done me great honor in seeking to correct it at personal cost, Lady Ravana. I would impose no further burden upon you in what I know is a painful time.”

Ravana met her eyes, and they shared a small nod of mutual understanding.

“I, uh… Would it be…gauche if I sat down?” Marguerite asked faintly.

“Not in the least, Mrs. Falconer,” Ravana assured her. “Please be as comfortable as you can. I am deeply sorry for… Well, everything.” She grimaced. “But most immediately for keeping you cooped up in here. I’m afraid I spoke the simple truth to Teal, however. This manor is teeming with my father’s sycophants; until they are secured, my loyal soldiers returned and the Empire on its way, I fear it’s simply not safe for any of us to wander about.”

“I think it would only be bad manners at this point if we went back to eating,” Geoffrey said, attempting a jovial smile as he helped his wife back into her chair. “So! Heck of a night, eh? Here we are, then. What, ah, shall we talk about?”

Each of them looked at each of the rest in turn, and the silence stretched out.

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Bonus #62: Coming to Dinner, part 3

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The Madouri family being what they were, the Manor’s formal dining room was laid out with a giant display behind the seat at the head of the long table, positioned so that a huge House crest would loom above the person seated there, with below that a broad flat space like an altar which could be used for any situationally suitable decoration, the better to emphasize whatever point was being made. For this dinner, the Duke had apparently taken some amusement in designating this a suitable display spot for the gifts his family had just received, with the result that now a silver statue of the cowled goddess Themynra loomed directly behind him, just beneath the Madouri crest.

This, needless to say, was not appropriate placement for a sacred sigil. Any sigil; the symbolic implication that House Madouri stood above a god was too clear to have been anything but deliberate. Shaeine did not overtly react, of course, but considered the implications. Teal had described Duke Ehriban as motivated chiefly by ego, but that was when dealing with his own subjects. Surely a man in his position couldn’t be brash enough to kick up an international incident? Regardless, being Narisian, she filed the insult away to be redressed at a better time, and took some dark amusement of her own in the fact that Tellwyrn’s sword and dagger had been laid at the feet of Themynra’s idol, in an extra layer of symbolism.

Actually, Tellwyrn probably would have laughed at that, too. And blasted the Duke across the room for good measure, but with a sense of humor. Still, Shaeine rather suspected he wouldn’t have dared add that little touch had Tellwyrn herself been present to see.

And despite all of the diplomatic weight behind this pageantry, it wasn’t what commanded most of her attention.

“You like it, Lady Shaeine?” the Duke drawled at her in the manner of a man who knew he was being antagonistic and either didn’t care enough to fully hide behind a shroud of civility or simply lacked the requisite emotional control. “My House is rather famous, if you’ll forgive the boast, for the rarity of the treasures within its vaults, but even we haven’t a lot in the way of drow artifacts. Mostly arms and armor confiscated from various Narisians who’ve attempted to raid Madouri lands over the centuries. This was the only piece I could find on such short notice that seemed at all suitable for display on a dinner table. Alas, I had only scant warning to expect the pleasure of your company!”

“I do hope not to have inconvenienced you unduly, Lord Ehriban,” she replied, noting the resulting twitch of his left eye and not reacting—she, at least, could control her emotions while delivering a veiled insult. The correct title was Duke Madouri, the one she had used being suitable for a lesser member of his House, and to judge by the lack of an immediate rebuke, he wasn’t sure whether she’d done it deliberately. “Truly, it is a…remarkable piece. It is not, however, Narisian. I am very curious how it came to be in your House’s vaults.”

It was a candelabra of sorts, carved delicately of what appeared to be white marble in the shape of a tree, a strange motif for drow, but the marble trunk and obsidian base were both inscribed with runes in elvish—neither the surface nor Narisian dialects, but intelligible with a bit of effort to anyone who knew the language. Among the white tree’s bare branches were stretched delicate silver wires in the shape of intricate spider webs, and suspended within them were lodged thirteen tiny, exquisitely crafted silver skulls. Each contained a magic source, projecting beams of pure white radiance through the minute eye and nose holes, and the even more tiny gaps between teeth.

“Is that so?” Duke Ehriban replied with a deliberately knowing smirk. “Well, I’d love to know myself. Unfortunately, most of my more adventurous ancestors were rather more interested in collecting treasures than keeping records. I’m afraid there’s just no accounting for a good number of the artifacts collecting dust down there. What do you think, Dazan, could it be from that other city up north? What’s it called, Akhvaris?”

Lord Dazan paused in lifting a forkful of meat to his lips, giving his father a rather stupid look of surprise. “I, er…”

“The Akhvari refuse all contact,” Shaeine said quietly. “It is, in fact, Scyllithene, and most likely came to the surface through Tar’naris, which must have been an incredible story indeed. I appreciate the gesture, my lord Duke, but I must warn you that artifacts of Scyllith are as dangerous as those of the Elder Gods. Especially those, such as this one, which are magical in nature.”

“How fascinating!” the Duke said merrily. “I know what you mean—my ancestors have several Elder God trinkets squirreled away. Surely there’s no need to worry, though; those are all fully secured. The ancient Madouris did at least manage to catalog everything too hazardous to mess with and lock it up with all the requisite warnings. That this one wasn’t buttoned up similarly tells me it can’t be all that bad! Clearly it’s just a decorative centerpiece.”

“But father,” Dazan said, frowning, “I thought—”

“There’s only the one Elder God relic that’s even accessible down there,” Ehriban interrupted swiftly, shooting his son a cold look. “The sword of light, remember? I showed it to you once.”

“Oh! Yes!” Dazan’s face positively lit up. “Beautiful thing—it not only glows but makes music!”

“A musical sword?” Teal asked, her attention predictably grabbed.

“Not good music, of course,” Dazan said, turning to her and pantomiming swinging a blade with both hands. “It makes a rather pleasant humming sound that changes pitch as you move it. I suppose one could create a melody from that with a bit of effort, but that clearly wasn’t the intent. Father was loath to let me test it properly, but according to the notes old Lady Avelaan Madouri kept, the blade is weightless and will cut through anything! Since you mention it, Father, perhaps a demonstration for our guests would be the perfect excuse to show—”

“No fewer than five of your ancestors have dismembered themselves handling that fool thing, Dazan,” the Duke said in a quelling tone. “Two lethally. The Elder Gods did enjoy their little pranks. It’s for good reason the weapon is behind glass and displayed so as to be seen, not touched.

“But…you took it out,” Dazan protested. “That’s how you demonstrated the humming.”

“In any case,” Ehriban continued, “my ancestors, in their wisdom, saw fit to place no such protections around this piece of decoration and no ill has befallen as a result of it. I’m afraid your concerns are misplaced, Lady Shaeine.”

“As you say, your Grace,” she replied smoothly, deeming this a hill not worth planting a flag on…yet. It was not yet clear to her whether he truly had no idea what he was tampering with or intended something specific with the…lamp, if that was indeed its purpose. If the latter, they were all likely to regret it. Surface people tended to forget that Scyllithene artifacts by definition were Elder God artifacts, and exactly as dangerous for exactly the same reasons.

“I gather, from your wariness, that you’ve not seen the like in person?” Ehriban prompted, still watching her.

Shaeine shook her head. “In Tar’naris, such a thing would be summarily destroyed.”

“Ah, yes,” he said with a sage nod, taking up his knife and fork to begin cutting into the slab of meat before him. “Your people do have that historical tendency.”

Marguerite drew in a short breath and Teal’s jaw tightened; Dazan had the effrontery to smirk. Shaeine, of course, did not give him the satisfaction.

In fact, her attention was caught by Ravana, who was seated at her right, in the position directly to the left of her father and across from Dazan. The young noblewoman’s aspect had subtly but entirely changed during the conversation; where she had been virtually silent and adopted an almost aggressively unobtrusive posture all night, with her hands clasped in her lap and head slightly bowed, she was now sipping her wine. Slowly, her spine having straightened, holding a small mouthful on her tongue and inhaling gently through the nose with the glass held before her, eyes half-lidded in pleasure. It was the most unguarded posture Shaeine had seen her assume, and though a relatively minor thing, it was like looking at an entirely different person.

Ravana swallowed and her eyes shifted, noticing Shaeine watching her. She did not, as the drow half expected, hastily change her posture back or at all react as if caught in something, but delicately set her wineglass back down and once more folded her hands, returning smoothly to her previously demure pose.


“So,” Geoffrey said in a strained voice, clearly grasping for any change of subject, “how is the carriage serving you, your Grace?”

“Ah!” The Duke’s eyes lit with a little spark of malicious interest which had already become familiar to even his newest guest over the course of the evening. “Fine work as ever, Mr. Falconer! Smooth as satin on the roads; you’ve truly outdone yourself. I don’t know, though…” He picked up his glass and took a long sip which somehow did not interrupt his smirk. “Now that I’ve seen it on the streets a few times, I’m not so sure about the…detailing.”

Teal immediately set down her silverware and placed her hands in her lap, which Shaeine knew was to conceal the clenching of her fists. Her parents both tensed but retained careful facial control. Presumably a carriage commissioned by the Duke himself would have been one of the special projects overseen by the Falconer family personally, which meant its decorations would have been designed and in large part hand-crafted by Marguerite.

“What seems to be the issue, your Grace?” Marguerite asked in an impressively even tone.

“I’m afraid I can’t quite put my finger on it,” Ehriban said lazily, lounging back in his seat and holding up his wineglass as if it were a royal scepter while gazing down his nose at her. “I haven’t the benefit of your…artistic education, my dear. Something about it just seems off to me, once I observe the vehicle outside the carefully staged environment of your showroom.”

“I confess I’m surprised to hear that, your Grace,” she replied, still outwardly calm. “I recall you expressed effusive satisfaction when we displayed the carriage to you here on the Manor grounds.”

“Yes, well, you can’t really expect me to make a properly informed decision without observing it in action. An enchanted carriage is meant to travel, after all! To be seen in a variety of circumstances. There’s simply no way one can appreciate its final effect by looking at it parked on the driveway.”

“Art is indeed contextual,” Marguerite agreed, shooting a laden look across the table at her husband, who was beginning to glower openly. “Perhaps when it is convenient for you, your Grace, I could revisit the detailing to incorporate any notes you have.”

“Ever so accommodating, Marguerite! I always know I can rely on your kind nature and professionalism. I suspect you’re a luckier man than you know, Geoffrey,” the Duke added with an insufferable wink.

“Oh, I assure you I know,” Geoffrey replied in a tense tone which only made Ehriban grin more widely. Dazan made no attempt to hide his chuckle, sawing off another chunk of meat.

Shaeine held her peace, glancing at Teal, who appeared to be meditating, and Lady Ravana, who had touched nothing except her wine and currently looked half-asleep at the table. Altogether she was less impressed than she could possibly have imagined with these apparent apexes of Tiraan nobility. It wasn’t that her own people were any less cruel, particularly among noble circles, but the Madouris were just so boorish. Such barbaric behavior would be an invitation for attack from all sides in Tar’naris, not just by those they personally insulted but by every other House which would see nothing but weakness in this casual display of poor manners.

“While we are talking business, though,” Duke Ehriban continued after letting his guests simmer in the discomfort for a deliberate few seconds, “it’s good that I have you here before the formal announcement goes out. I’m afraid this concerns you directly.”

All three Falconers, just having relaxed somewhat, visibly tensed. Shaeine did not, of course, but she understood the impulse; Ehriban’s expression utterly failed to conceal his malicious satisfaction in whatever he was doing. Dazan, whom she did not assess as intelligent enough to pick up on such cues, was also smirking intolerably, which told her that this was indeed the planned main event of the evening. A quick sidelong glance found Ravana staring down at her plate with the hollow expression of someone determined not to think too hard about anything happening around her.

“More regulations, then?” Geoffrey asked after enough seconds had passed to make it clear the Duke did not intend to continue until prompted.

“Oh, no, nothing like that,” Ehriban replied with a magnanimous wave of his hand. “I don’t suppose you heard about the half-demon incident here in the city just this month?”

Teal failed to contain an expression of alarm; the older Falconers glanced uneasily at each other.

“I’m afraid not, your Grace,” Geoffrey said warily. “I gather it can’t have been all that bad, then. Usually such things make considerable waves.”

“Easy enough for you to say from the comfort of your mansion,” Ehriban snorted in such an astonishing display of hypocrisy that even Ravana blinked. “I assure you it was a big enough deal for those caught in the middle of it. Some half-shondrict creature that had been masquerading as a laborer went feral and mauled a few teenagers before they subdued it.”

“Schanthryct,” Teal corrected in a whisper which fortunately the Duke seemed not to hear; Dazan shot her an irritated look.

“So,” Marguerite replied in a firmer tone than she had used to defend her own work, “a half-demon citizen who was clearly stable enough to hold down a job attacked several youths. I can think of a number of common teenage pastimes which might provoke someone to violence even without demon blood. The sort of ruffians who get up to such antics do like to single out those who are different.”

“Well, the details hardly matter, do they?” the Duke scoffed. “We simply can’t have demons ravaging citizens in the streets. It’s an utter mockery of law and order.”

“How lawful or orderly is it for citizens to harass minorities in feral packs of their own?” Teal demanded. “It sounds like the details matter very much, your Grace, otherwise you risk acting to solve exactly the wrong problem.”

“I’ll thank you not to lecture me on the running of my province, girl,” Ehriban snapped, and right then and there Shaeine decided that rather than watching for an opportunity to knock him down a peg, she was going to begin making efforts to arrange one. Best to keep that firmly private from her mother and Heral, though Nahil would gleefully help… “The point is that even a Duke must respect a public outcry, lest it turn into actual unrest.”

“What outcry was this, precisely?” Geoffrey inquired. “I subscribe to every major newspaper in Madouris and two from Tiraas, and this is the first I’m hearing about any of this.”

The Duke was beginning to look annoyed at these interruptions. “Let us take it as given that I have access to sources of information you do not, Geoffrey. This situation has compelled me to draft new restrictions upon the activities and movements of demonbloods…and the demonically touched of any sort.” He looked sidelong at Teal, not even troubling to conceal an expression of vindictive satisfaction. “Obviously, as these affairs concern your family directly, and you have been such staunch friends to House Madouri, it is the least I can do to provide you with forewarning.”

“As I understand it,” Shaeine stated, “such restrictions would overtly contradict the Tirasian Dynasty’s long-standing policies toward racial minorities within the Empire, and possibly the Writ of Duties itself.”

“So you do know a bit about Imperial governance,” Ehriban said irritably. She inclined her head in a gracious gesture, already thinking several steps beyond this conversation. She was right, and he knew it; more to the point, while House Madouri would love nothing more than to challenge House Tirasian, for a century they had not, which could only mean such a challenge would not only fail but backfire. Thus, he was not actually planning to do this. Rather, the play was here and now—not the proposed legislation, but the revelation of it to the Falconers.

Not for the first time that evening, Shaeine longed for the ability to surreptitiously communicate with her allies. Elves could have entire conversations under the nose of humans who were none the wiser, and even Vadrieny was quite sensitive to sound, but not to the degree necessary for her to convey such complex information without betraying that she was doing so.

“And who knows?” the Duke continued, once again affecting a genial demeanor. “Perhaps you can help me in shaping the necessary rules. After all, it must be said that you have a unique insight into the matter, is that not so, Teal? But then again, mayhap I am asking the wrong half. Let’s see what Vadrieny has to say about this!” He waved a hand at her. “Bring her out.”

Teal’s shoulders tensed as she drew in a sharp breath. “With all respect, my lord Duke—”

“The only necessary respect I need be shown is obedience,” he interrupted, eyes glinting in the white beams of the Scyllithene candelabra. Shaeine focused on the thing itself again, beginning to get a sense of what he intended.

“She…” Teal frowned deeply and swallowed. “I apologize, your Grace, but something is wrong. Vadrieny senses…danger. She says it would be hazardous to embody herself physically here.”

“You question the security of my house?” Ehriban demanded. “I assure you, I do not take risks with my own safety. My security here is absolute. Come now, there is no call for shyness, Teal.”

“Vadrieny is the furthest thing from shy,” Shaeine interjected. The man had the abominable rudeness to make a silencing gesture at her, still focusing upon Teal.

“I understand your need for discretion, and the pressure this may place upon you, so allow me to make the question easier. It is technically unlawful for any Imperial subject to be in the presence of a provincial governor without revealing themselves; in the eyes of a magistrate, this is considered evidence of hostile intent. Now, clearly,” he drawled, gesturing broadly around the table at his guests, “common sense dictates that we make allowances for circumstance, does it not? I am a reasonable man and I do not seek to discomfit my subjects unduly. But I have, here, the legal prerogative to insist upon meeting your demonic counterpart face to face, and I do hereby invoke it, Teal Falconer. Now, then!” He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands before himself in a satisfied gesture. “Does that provide sufficient incentive to overcome your girlish reticence?”

“Your Grace,” Geoffrey practically growled, now gripping the arms of his chair as if about to lever himself forward out of it, “Vadrieny is an archdemon, not a misbehaving teenager. If she is warning of danger, it would be wise—”

“Enough,” the Duke interrupted, his convivial mask collapsing. “I have made my command clear.”

“I—we h-have been given a Talisman of Absolution,” Teal stammered, touching the artifact itself where it was pinned as usual to her lapel. “Vadrieny and I aren’t to be regarded as enemies by—”

“When last I looked,” the Duke said in a truly menacing tone, “it was Ehriban Madouri, not Justinian Darnay, who rules Tiraan Province.”

“I say, it’s just…Justinian, isn’t it?” Dazan piped up. “Without a surname, I mean. It’s a whole ritual formality, Father. The Archpope foregoes an identity beyond the office of…”

He trailed off as his father slowly turned his head to fix him with an exceedingly flat stare.

“Your Grace,” said Shaeine, “I must protest this.”

“Your protest has been heard,” he said impatiently. “Proceed, Teal. Or is it your intention to openly defy your liege before his entire household? I’m sure I needn’t remind you of the consequences to your business and family of forswearing my good graces.”

“This is a poor showing, your Grace,” Shaeine said coolly, seizing his attention again. “Where I am from, when one wishes to manufacture a pretext to create an incident, one does so in a plausibly deniable manner. Perhaps your Grace should consider trying this again when you have done sufficient preparatory work to withstand the inevitable inquisition of the Church and Empire into whatever results from—”

“You are not where you are from, Lady Shaeine,” he shot back, “as I’m sure you can see by the lack of spiders and general barbarism. If there is one consistent virtue of your people displayed since the Narisian Treaty, it has been the pragmatism and restraint not to bite the hands that feed you. This would be a most unwise moment to forsake that quality.”

“Don’t threaten her!” Teal snarled, slamming her hands down onto the table and half rising from her seat.

Except that it wasn’t in Teal Falconer’s nature to snarl, slam, or do any of that. The impulsive actions preceded her emergence, but Vadrieny was a split second behind, too fast even for Shaeine to warn her that she sensed a trap. Flames burst behind Teal’s eyes and in her hair; her clenched fingers upon the table lengthened into black claws which pierced the rich tablecloth.

And instantly, with a high-pitched keening sound that grated painfully upon the ears, the Scyllithene artifact beaming decorative light from the center of the table blazed with intense white radiance.

Vadrieny let out a shriek as multiple beams of white light concentrated directly upon her, staggering backward in a destructive flailing of arms that raked deep gouges in the table and smashed the heavy oaken chair she’d been sitting in.

At Shaeine’s side, the previously somnolent Lady Ravana burst out of her seat and fled from the room in the first sign of physical or mental coordination she’d displayed.

Shaeine herself reached within for the divine power, lashing out with a moving wall of silver light to sweep the hateful object off the table and smash it against the wall. That brought forth the second abrupt surprise, however, as contact with it caused an explosive backlash as if she had connected her power directly to a demonic source of similar concentration. Her own protective shield barely absorbed the burst of magic which impacted her directly, bowling her and her chair over backward.

Both she and Vadrieny ended up hurled forcibly away from the table, smoking slightly from the impacts, while the “lamp” continued to blaze fervently, untouched and apparently untouchable. Of course; there was only one source of power which would react violently to both Themynrite magic and infernal power, while still bypassing the Pantheon’s protection as embodied in the Talisman of Absolution.

Then the stomping of booted feet roared through the chamber as the doors opened and a dozen House Madouri soldiers streamed in, weapons at the ready.

“Attempting violence against your Duke?” Ehriban tsked reprovingly, sounding not the least put out for a man claiming to have just survived an attempt on his life. “I thought you had better judgment than that, Teal.”

“Oh, you cannot be serious!” Marguerite exclaimed, hovering protectively over the fallen archdemon, while Geoffrey had also risen from his seat, managing to place himself half in front of Shaeine before multiple battlestaves were leveled, causing everyone to freeze.

“I warned you,” Shaeine rasped, rising slowly and ignoring the weapons aimed at her. “This was…slightly clever, I’ll grant. Few would make plans against an exotic trinket such as they wouldn’t consider you might possess. But this is so obviously a plot of your own arranging it will disintegrate under the slightest challenge.”

“That only matters if anyone remains to challenge it,” the Duke said, grinning maliciously. He had pushed back from the table to cross his legs and now slouched in his thronelike dining chair, hands still folded before himself. “If I wished to charge you with something, to be sure, it would have to pass muster before a magistrate or the Empire. But when an attempt has been made to assassinate me? In the extremity of self-defense, you see, I have a great deal more…leeway.”

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Bonus #61: Coming to Dinner, part 2

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Teal’s room was in a tower. Not one of the castle towers; it occupied a timber-framed space with a shorter but more interesting history, which had once housed the machinery of a windmill connected to a primitive mana turbine over two centuries prior, in a time when the sorcerer who had then owned the property had been one of very few people who would even think to own such a thing. Subsequently, the machinery had been dismantled as much as possible by a later owner of noble birth who had been affronted at the very idea of something so functional visibly attached to her home, leaving only a vertical shaft suspended from the ceiling like a ship’s mast that didn’t quite reach the deck. It was a square space, rising three stories to shadowy beams hidden high above and a second-floor balcony surrounding the entire room accessible only by a ladder.

Teal loved it. The resemblance was partly why she spent so much time in the uppermost clock chamber of Clarke Tower—that, and the grand pianoforte. In her own room she had only an upright one which had been in need of tuning since before Vadrieny had entered her life.

As much as Teal had been anticipating showing Shaeine her personal space since leaving the University, immediately upon their arrival she had other concerns. The second the door closed behind them, signifying privacy for purposes of Narisian social mores, Shaeine clutched at her head, hard enough to make strands of her white hair bunch out between her fingers.

“Oh no, no no no…”

“What is it?” Teal demanded in alarm, rushing to her from the door. “Are you all right?”

Shaeine inadvertently evaded her intended hug without noticing it, whirling to begin pacing around the floor with a haunted expression directed at nowhere.

“A Duke who is also a provincial governor would be equivalent to a Matriarch in rank. And considerably greater in prestige, each one controlling a territory far larger than the whole of Tar’naris! It would be one thing if I were on intimate terms with him, but the Madouri family are strangers. Or even if it were a class trip! A visit at Tellwyrn’s behest would place the onus upon her… But I’m to represent my House and my people and I didn’t bring any suitable gift for such a person! I have to… Veth’na alaue, what am I going to come up with? If my mother learns I disgraced the name of Awarrion in front of a Duke…”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Teal said soothingly. “Madouri doesn’t care about anything beyond his own ego, there’s no way he even knows about Narisian noble customs.”

“That’s not the point!” Shaeine snapped.

Teal froze in the act of reaching out toward her again, blinking.

In the next instant the drow also went rigid, turning a stricken expression on Teal. She rushed forward and gently clasped Teal’s hands in her own, bowing her head before the surprised human in a posture of formal submission to press Teal’s fingers to her lips.

“I am so sorry, my love. To lash out at you is unforgivable. I can offer no excuse.”

“Hey, hey.” Teal gently extricated her hands to cup Shaeine’s cheeks and raised her face till their eyes could meet. “That’s not like you at all, so I know this must be something a lot more serious than I realized. I didn’t mean to minimize it. We’re a team, sweetheart. Explain to me what the problem is, and we’ll find a solution. Okay?”

Shaeine closed her eyes, leaning forward until she could rest her forehead against Teal’s. “What a time to show you one of my flaws. I am… I do adequately, I think, at balancing my own personal life with the needs of my position. But I’m the third daughter, a last-minute replacement for the Last Rock program. I am still not accustomed to being in a position where the prestige of my house and entire culture might rest on my actions. Clearly the pressure illuminates flaws in my character.”

“Maybe so, but unfortunately I can’t really help you work on that. I’m still kinda giddy about you being willing to show that much emotion to me, even if it’s…the less cuddly kind. But let’s talk about now. You’re stressed about providing a guest gift, right? Can you walk me through why it’s such a big deal?”

Shaeine inhaled deeply and let the breath out slowly in a meditative practice. “It is an apparently simple tradition, steeped in deeply complicated Narisian issues that are…tricky to summarize. The guest gift is basically about prestige.”

“Right,” Teal nodded, gently bumping their noses together. “That thing Narisian Houses compete in so they don’t compete in ways that cause blades to come out.”

Shaeine nodded back, finally lifting her head. “The Duke’s ignorance of our culture is thus irrelevant. If the representative of House Awarrion failed to offer a suitable token to House Madouri upon being formally hosted, the social and political damage to our standing in Tar’naris could be…significant.”

“If they even learned of it.”

“There is nothing preventing them from doing so, save the relative improbability of Duke Madouri commenting upon it at any potential date in the future, which…”

“Right, I see your point,” Teal winced. “Well… Love, it’s like my parents said, you don’t actually need to do this. You can still invoke diplomatic privilege, and we’re definitely in a position to absorb whatever new bullshit Madouri wants to throw at us. Mom and Dad will understand.”

“Me and my big mouth,” Shaeine moaned. “This is exactly how I ended up at Last Rock in the first place, you know. Tellwyrn was disrespectful to my mother and I ripped her a new one.”

“Yes, you’ve told me,” Teal said, grinning in spite of herself, “but I never get tired of that story. Well, at least that one worked out, right? If you hadn’t, we wouldn’t have met.”

The drow couldn’t help giving her a glowingly warm smile at that, again leaning forward to nuzzle her nose against Teal’s. “Yes. I acted rashly, out of temper, but even so… I was serious, Teal, and I stand by what I said. I won’t have you mistreated on my account.”

“We can still—”

“I would consider it a pure failure of character to retreat now,” the priestess interrupted, her garnet eyes fiercely intent. “And…it’s a failure I may yet have to accept. But if I can still do this, I would join you. To stand alongside your family against an enemy would be a deeply meaningful gesture in my culture.”

“In any culture,” Teal said, leaning in to give her a quick kiss. “Okay, then. Like you said: there has to be a way to turn this to an advantage. Let’s assume we can find a sufficient guest gift. From what I do know about Narisian culture, there’s no possible way you don’t have a tradition for giving something suitably prestigious in a way that’s also backhandedly insulting.”

“Well, ouch,” Shaeine said in clear amusement, “but also, very much so, yes. It’s the particulars that matter. Mmm…who would be the lady of House Madouri?”

“There’s not one at the moment. The Duchess passed away years ago and the Duke hasn’t remarried. He’s got a daughter. Um…Rava, I think? She’s named after the former Duke, Ravaan, but I forget what the feminine form is. She’s a child, and kind of a non-entity, to be honest. I pretty much only know the kid exists because Madouri likes to prance her out at public functions like a show pony.”

“That has potential,” Shaeine murmured. “Yes, it suggests a method… But to make that work I would need a much more modest token, and still a sufficiently grandiose guest gift to satisfy my House’s honor. The dilemma is still how to scrounge up a national treasure in the next hour.”

“Okay!” Teal clasped her hands for a moment to give them an affectionate squeeze, then pulled back. “All right, actually, I think I can solve that.”

She stepped away, turning to the neat stack of luggage the house servants had arranged alongside the door. The box teal wanted required a little bit of excavation, being of sturdy bronze-bound oak and thus currently underneath a suitcase, guitar case, and handbag, in that order, but with a little bit of shifting she extricated it and trotted over to the piano, where she laid the flat case down on the bench and carefully unlatched it. Shaeine drifted over to observe, peering past Teal’s shoulder as the lid was raised.

Within, upon a bed of black velvet, lay a gracefully curved saber and matching dagger, in apparently pristine condition and marked along their blades with subtle scripts in elvish.

Shaeine inhaled sharply. “Those are…”

“Yep.” Teal stepped back, slipping an arm around the drow’s shoulders and staring down at the weapons. “The grand prize from our Crawl expedition: Arachne Tellwyrn’s personal weapons, from before she switched to those two gold-handled swords she’s got now. The ones Rowe was using as the focal point for his jiggery-pokery. I actually did a little digging in the library and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t pulling our legs; there are several old paintings that depict her having these. So, I’m thinking, just on the surface they’re elven masterwork blades and over a thousand years old at least. That’d be enough for anybody’s collection, but these are also the weapons a major historical figure used to stab a bunch of other major historical figures, which makes them priceless. Betcha even Duke Madouri can’t get something like this easily.”

She hesitated, then gently squeezed Shaeine’s shoulder.

“I, uh, was gonna use them as my guest gift, to your mother. I figured that’d made a decent enough impression.” Shaeine jerked her head up, staring wide-eyed, but Teal was still gazing self-consciously down at the case containing the sword and dagger, now with a faint pink hue hovering on her cheeks. “But, we have the leeway of a few more days before we go to Tar’naris, and Madouris is a major city. I’m not exactly broke, so I’m sure we can find something that’ll make a respectable gift for a Matriarch. If worst comes to worst, it’s barely an hour’s drive to Tiraas, but I’m pretty sure we won’t even have to go that far. Madouris even has a Glassian district, lots of import stores, some very exclusive. Those people love their artwork. We can take a day and I’m sure come up with something suitable. Meanwhile, would this satisfy House Awarrion’s honor as a gift?”

“Teal,” Shaeine said tremulously, “these are yours. You won the Crawl challenge.”

“I was the one who went to the center to get them,” Teal argued, “but that only worked cos the rest of the team kept Rowe off my back. So, they’re ours. Besides.” She turned fully to Shaeine, gently wrapping her arms around the shorter girl. “I told you: we’re a team. I thought we were in agreement that’s what this relationship is going to mean. Not that I don’t enjoy…ah, you know.” She cleared her throat, flushing, and Shaeine’s lips quirked slightly in a mischievous smile. “But I’m not in it just because you’re beautiful and charming. You are the partner I want. You don’t have problems, Shaeine; we have problems. So we find solutions.”

“Oh, my songbird.” Shaeine squeezed her, leaning in and burying her face against the side of Teal’s neck. “I can only hope to someday deserve you.”

The city of Madouris spread outward from the peak of its low mountain in a series of semicircles bisected by the great canyon at its back. Far below rushed the River Tira, with no crossings except at Tiraas a few miles to the south and many more miles to the north, where the first bridge was near the Calderaan border and before the riverbed descended into the chasm. Before the Imperial period, the canyon had been a useful natural barrier against the warring feudal desmenes of Leineth, which were more likely to send raiders than traders over the river; during the reign of Tiraas, it better suited the Silver Throne’s interests to route traffic and commerce through the capital.

Over the course of centuries the city had descended the slopes of its core mountain, building and then surpassing concentric semi-rings of walls till it sprawled even beyond the outermost battlements, confident in the security of Imperial rule. The lowest tier of Madouris had paid for that complacency during the Enchanter Wars, but though the city itself had been not only rebuilt but expanded further since then, another ring had not been established as the advent of mag artillery had rendered city walls nearly as superfluous as they were expensive. The half rings grew richer as they grew more secure, with the outskirts being mostly new manufacturing facilities and the neighborhoods where those who worked them lived. Inside the first wall was the largest part of Madouris, occupying a gentle slope up the foot of the small mountain until it was arrested by the second wall and home to most of its relatively prosperous middle class. Beyond that lay a smaller band around the mountain itself, home to nobles, government offices, foreign consulates, major cultural and financial institutions, and the various commercial ventures which served them, including the city’s famed Glassian district.

And beyond that, further up and farther in, was the oldest ring of walls, the original city of Madouris, now in its entirety the largest single residence in the known world: Madouri Manor. As if the looming structure of domes and spires were not impressive enough, the approach to it necessarily intimidated its guests, which was the only way the House of Madouri preferred to deal with all who dared approach them.

Like the Falconer mansion, Madouri Manor had a great entry hall, which was the totality of the resemblance. The entire Falconer house could have fit the colossal chamber which was a visitor’s first introduction to the palatial manor; some of its wings would have to be rearranged, of course, but by volume there was more than enough space. The room dwarfed even several of the world’s great temples and cathedrals.

Of the four guests invited this evening, only Teal looked even slightly nervous at the overwhelming grandeur into which they were ushered. Marguerite and Geoffrey had seen it all before, repeatedly, and the associations it carried forced them to concentrate on repressing expressions of annoyance, not awe. Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion was Narisian, a priestess, and a daughter of a noble House in her own right. It would take a great deal more than shocking displays of wealth to crack her serenity.

By contrast, the Duke Ehriban Zefraam Talos Madouri had a degree of facial control about on par with the two elder Falconers, which was definitely on the low end for his social class. He covered his emotions well, but not so well that it was not obvious he was covering. There were enough hints left clear to reveal his smugness toward the Falconers, and the unease Shaeine sparked in him. And, as the introductions progressed, his mounting annoyance with her.

“What a charming custom,” Duke Ehriban said with a bland smile, holding the silver idol of Themynra with which Shaeine had just presented him. The artifact, hastily acquired from the Narisian consulate in Madouris, was more valuable than anything a factory-working family might own just due to its material and craftsmanship, aside from its religious significance; the Duke handled it like a bouquet of flowers he’d just been given and didn’t have a place to put down yet. In this of all households the treasure was scarcely a knickknack, which did not offend Shaeine as it had been a calculated move on her part. “Perhaps I should introduce it among my own peers! Far too many of them lack manners, I find. Thank you, Lady Shaeine, for your most gracious gift. I shall see about finding a suitable place of honor for its display.”

Having thus shown the offering the minimum necessary appreciation, he turned to hand it off to a steward who slid up to him on cue. The servant held the idol more respectfully, correctly upright and protectively in both hands, even as he withdrew with a bow toward the Duke who it was plain had already dismissed him from thought.

“The honor is mine, your Grace,” said Shaeine, inclining her head politely. Ehriban’s eyebrows drew together in a momentary expression of consternation, swiftly suppressed. In the Empire there was hardly anyone save a few members of the Imperial court of sufficient rank to address him with such shallow obeisance; he had failed to entirely disguise his satisfaction at keeping the Falconer family kneeling for several seconds longer than protocol required. Even among other Dukes and Imperial governors, there were few Houses which commanded as much history or respect as the name of Madouri, possibly none save the ruling family of Calderaas. Of course, civil relations with Tar’naris were still new, historically speaking, and matters of rank and deference between Narisian and Tiraan nobility were still somewhat up in the air.

Nobles of any culture, however, were sensitive to the subtleties of status, and the Duke was not about to forget that his holdings alone rivaled the power and wealth of all Tar’naris, considerably dwarfing that of House Awarrion. This fact was clearly not being reflected in the posture the Matriarch’s daughter had taken toward him.

For the moment, he alone reflected the tension. Shaeine remained purely unruffled as always, Teal was managing a decent approximation of Narisian reserve, and they had mutually decided not to brief the two elder Falconers, who were deeply disinterested in noble contests of ego even if they’d had the training to follow them. As it was, Geoffrey and Marguerite were waiting patiently for the entire night’s business to be over with, a fact which they were failing to disguise.

The two Madouri children likewise showed no response to the subtle challenge to their House’s authority. Neither of them appeared to be very bright.

Dazan Madouri, heir to the House, closely resembled his father, being still square of jaw and shoulder in a way that spoke of a fondness for active pastimes and not yet showing the softness around the jowls and midsection that the Duke had acquired in middle age. He was a few years older than Teal and as prideful as his father, but even less subtle about his satisfaction at the subordinate position of the Falconers and evidently not as perceptive of subtleties of rank.

Ravana, the younger scion, clearly took after her mother, being blonde, pale, and quite noticeably petite where her father and brother had large frames. She was also demure to the point of submissiveness, keeping her eyes downcast and her voice so soft that her murmured pleasantries at being introduced to her family’s guests were barely audible. Standing next to her brother, she had a tendency to shuffle both closer to him than etiquette suggested and to edge a step behind, as if to hide in his shadow. Altogether, as Teal had observed, she gave the impression of a deliberate non-entity, which made the next step in Shaeine’s campaign of mischief even more pointed.

“I ask your pardon if this seems odd,” the priestess continued, “but please be assured I mean only respect to your House, my lord Duke. My people are matrilinial, and the honor of my own family demands a token of respect to the lady of the manor.”

“Ahh.” Ehriban nodded, looking mollified now, and turned a fond smile in the direction of his children. “An unusual thing, here in the Empire, but what father could raise a complaint about that? Ravana, my little starling, the drow has a present for you!”

The comment was so breathtakingly condescending, both to Shaeine and his daughter, that Geoffrey blinked and Marguerite let a scowl slip through before marshaling her expression, but Shaeine of course remained fully serene. Ravana finally raised her eyes, wide with apparent nerves, and glanced up at her father, then at the priestess, saying nothing.

“My Ravana takes after her mother,” the Duke said proudly and somewhat unnecessarily. “I’m afraid she is rather frail; Dazan and I are perhaps a little too protective, but here on the surface we treasure our women, rather than sending them into danger. I’ve still not decided whether she should attend a proper university next year or continue studying under her tutors, you know. It’s hard to believe she’s just a year younger than you, Miss Falconer!”

“She is?” Teal blurted in surprise before clamping her lips shut. Marguerite shot her daughter an exasperated look, but Teal, despite her own faint blush at her gaffe, was studying the youngest Madouri in bemusement. Ravana, a full head shorter than she and diminutive to match, looked about fourteen at the absolute most. The young Lady herself showed no sign she had even heard the question, glancing rapidly between Shaeine and her father in trepidation.

“Of course, there’s no question of sending her to such a…quaint institution as Last Rock,” the Duke said with a bite in his tone belying his broad smile. “Imagine, a school for adventurers, in this day and age! I’m sure it has its value for some, but a lady of my Ravana’s breeding obviously requires a proper education.”

“Indeed,” Shaeine agreed placidly. “Professor Tellwyrn is fond of saying the University is meant for those who will determine the course of the future. Given the choice of students she has gathered, I have never quite managed to discern what she means by that.”

Dazan chuckled, and Ehriban blinked, visibly struggling to determine whether she had just embraced his jab or retaliated. Teal, by then, had fully composed her own features, and now held up the wooden case for Shaeine, which drew the eyes of all three of the Madouri family. They had of course noted her carrying it, but had not commented.

Now Shaeine opened the latch and raised the lid, reached in, and withdrew the sleek elven weapons from within. The watching House Madouri soldiers tensed as the drow produced sharp steel within range of the entire family, but Shaeine held them deftly by the blades, bowing before Lady Ravana and offering both hilt-first.

“My Lady Ravana of the honored House of Madouri, I offer a humble gift as a token of your prestige, in the spirit of friendship between our families. These were, for centuries, the personal weapons of Arachne Tellwyrn, crafted and enchanted over a millennium ago through the greatest of elven skill and wielded by the archmage herself in countless battles. May they serve you well, as tools of violence or simply trophies to honor your household.”

“I say,” Dazan exclaimed, patting his bewildered little sister on the back so hard she nearly stumbled forward into the swords. “Tellwyrn’s own blades? Ravana, that’s a priceless treasure, a bit of history right in your hands! However did you come to possess something like these, Lady Shaeine?”

“Yes, that must be a curious story indeed,” rumbled Duke Ehriban, staring down at the drow from under lowered brows. Dazan was just impressed, and Ravana appeared mostly confused on top of having been barely aware of what was happening to begin with; the Duke, however, had immediately noticed that his shy young daughter had been offered a prize which utterly dwarfed in value that which had been given to him.

“I fear it is less so than it ought to be, my lord Duke,” Shaeine said ruefully, still holding out the handles of the weapons to the befuddled young noblewoman.

“They were a prize from an academic exercise,” Teal added. “I know how that sounds, your Grace, but… If you were acquainted with Professor Tellwyrn, it would make more sense. The woman is as odd as she is impressive. At least.”

“I shouldn’t wonder!” Lord Dazan guffawed. “Elves are queer folk to begin with, and living that long, doing half the things Tellwyrn has done? Why, I’d be mad as a hare!”

“Well, go on, little starling,” the Duke said in a surprisingly gentle tone. “We mustn’t be rude. Take your gift and thank the Lady.”

Ravana started as if only just realizing what Shaeine’s gesture meant and hastily reached forward to grasp both handles. The moment Shaeine withdrew her hands, Ravana’s arms dropped precipitously before she caught herself, as if totally unprepared for the relatively meager weight of the slim elven blades. She managed to mumble something indistinct and dipped her whole body in a quick, awkward facsimile of a curtsy, then actually retreated backward a step and half-hid behind Dazan, the weapons hanging uncomfortably at her sides.

To what school the Lady Ravana would be going might be a moot question; to judge by her performance tonight, the girl wasn’t all there in the head.

“What a charming guest you’ve brought me this evening, Geoffrey,” Duke Ehriban said, his frosty stare sliding from Shaeine to the man he was addressing only after he began speaking. “You must be thrilled to be keeping such exotic company.”

“Yes, your Grace,” Geoffrey said in the flat tone of a man who knew there was no correct answer.

“We feel very honored to be hosting Shaeine, your Grace,” Marguerite added softly. Her voice remained polite, but she wasn’t quite as adept at keeping the aggression out of her eyes.

“Indeed, and I can see I shall owe you a favor in kind for sharing that honor with me,” replied the Duke, his lip curling up in a lopsided grin which had more than a hint of sneer in its lineage. “But I fear I am being rude, keeping you standing about in the hall! Come, let us repair to the dining room. I do believe you will find this an…interesting evening indeed.”

He paused, taking the time to make eye contact with each of the four of them, then turned with no further comment and strode toward a doorway at the far end of the hall. His son gave their guests an even more openly sly smile before following.

Ravana dithered, looking rapidly between her occupied hands and her retreating family as if perplexed by the task of walking while carrying something before belatedly hurrying after them, leaving their guests to bring up the rear.

They did so slowly, clustering together as they walked.

“Well, that wasn’t even subtle,” Teal muttered.

“Oh, good,” grunted Geoffrey. “I was about to ask whether I was being paranoid or that was a threat.”

Shaeine nodded at him.


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Bonus #60: Coming to Dinner, part 1

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Author’s Note: The next two side stories are set in the summer after the Class of 1182’s freshman year, between Books 7 and 8. They were originally planned to be short story ebook releases, but that ended up never happening and I want them to actually see the light of day, so here they are, belatedly.

In the future I may adjust the chapter links to place them in their right position chronologically for those reading through TGAB in the future. For now, here’s a look back at the early days of the story.

They did not sit in awkward silence, because there was none of that to be had aboard a zeppelin. Wind rushed past the glass surrounding the cockpit, the powerful hum of the propeller thrusters was audible even from up here at the front of the craft, and as always there was an omnipresent multi-tonal hum of arcane magic everywhere from the instrument panels to the wiring in the bulkheads. It was not silent, just awkward.

After years of partnership in marriage, business, and their shared creative work, Geoffrey and Marguerite were simply never awkward with each other. They had that in their favor, at least; awkward spells were always a unified front of the pair against whatever had left them both stymied for something to say.

“Well,” Marguerite finally said after glancing over her shoulder to verify that the hatch between the cockpit and cabin was properly sealed, “she’s…certainly polite.”

“Of course she’s polite!” It was as if the cork had been pulled from a shaken bottle of beer; Geoffrey turned to his wife with a furious scowl, finally releasing his unnecessary death grip on the wheel. “They’re all polite, Rita! It’s all smiling and bowing while they’re kidnapping your son for some inbred darkling’s harem!”

“Are you worried Sheen is going to enslave Teal?” Marguerite replied with a slight smile. “In all honesty I think I would enjoy the aftermath of someone trying that. Surely she knows about Vadrieny by now.”

“You think it’s funny?” he snapped. “You want me to go tell Telimaan how funny it was? Daoud was down there for two years before we managed to lean on the right people and get him out. Did you hear what he went through?”

Marguerite’s smile vanished entirely and she turned to face her husband with a flat stare. “You know very well better, Geoffrey Falconer.”

At that, at least, he looked abashed, lowering his eyes. “Right. I’m sorry, Rita, I know. That wasn’t fair. It’s just…” He gestured helplessly with both arms, a risky move in the tight confines of the cockpit had his wife not known him well enough to have already leaned out of the way in anticipation.

“Geoff,” she said more gently, reaching up to squeeze his shoulder, “it’s the nobles who do that. Not to sound all Eserite, but you can’t blame an entire race of people for what the most powerful of them do. How’d you like it if people’s treatment of you was based on the Duke’s behavior? Look on the bright side: this is still an improvement in Teal’s judgment. Or have you forgotten Lady Hesthia?” She grimaced. “I have not forgotten Lady Hesthia.”

He made an identical expression. That was more understandable. I would definitely have fallen for the ol’ big-boobs-covered-in-practically-nothing routine when I was a teenager. That you grow out of.”

“Do you?” Marguerite countered in a dangerously wry tone. “Because my experience with men older than you says otherwise.”

“Well, you can,” he acknowledged with a faint grin of his own. “My point is, that’s not something I worry about with Teal. She’s steady enough not to make libido-based life decisions. At least, I’d thought so before this…”

“Geoffrey, Hesthia was in her thirties and transparently angling to make political connections. That woman was a slimy creep and I’m just grateful Teal wised up before I had to go and do something against my principles. This is a completely different situation.”

“Is it?” Geoffrey demanded, again clutching the wheel, which didn’t need his help to hold steady. “You know what they’re like, Marguerite.”

“Geoffrey Falconer, I do not like the sound of straightforward racism out of your mouth.”

“Oh, please, you know very well it’s not about that! We both know enough elves to know that people are just people. I mean they’ll deny it but there’s no ‘strange’ elven behavior anyone else wouldn’t do exactly the same if they’d been raised in that culture. That’s what it’s about, culture!

“Okay,” she said soothingly, “but Geoffrey, consider your sample bias. We’ve had one employee whose son was the victim of a serious crime in Tar’naris. Have you had any other interaction with the drow? At least have enough faith in our daughter to believe she wouldn’t bring home a criminal or predator.”

“Right, because Lady Hesthia was such a good pick,” he grumbled.

“Oh, now you’re just reaching,” his wife retorted, not without fondness. She slid a hand up his back to ruffle his hair gently. “I won’t say I wasn’t startled. Just give it a chance, Geoff. Give her a chance. She could be a perfectly lovely girl.”

“A perfectly lovely example of someone raised in a society of grasping, murderous raiders! Shane might well be the best of the lot, for all we know, but come on. How much is that worth?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s pronounced Sheen. Look, Geoff, you can look on the bright or the dark side of it all you want—and yes, there are definitely upsides, especially if the girl’s a Matriarch’s daughter—but at the end of the day this is Teal’s choice. Has it been so long since you were nineteen that you’ve forgotten what someone will do if her parents forbid her to see her new object of infatuation?”

“For all the time and effort it took to get somebody out of Tar’naris, it was money well spent. I wonder how hard it is to send somebody back—”

The cockpit shuddered from impact, and before either could react to that, the door was yanked open. Not the hatch behind them, which opened onto a corridor leading to the passenger compartment. The exterior door, opening onto cold wind and a thousand-foot drop.

HEY!” Vadrieny shouted at them, sticking her face practically into Geoffrey’s while clinging to the frame with all four claws. It was a slightly less aggressive action than it otherwise might have been; she needed to raise her voice to be heard over the howling of the wind around them. Fortunately, Vadrieny had more than sufficient lungs to overcome this challenge. “For a couple of people who’ve had elf friends their whole lives, you two sure are in a hurry to forget to those ears are not just decorative!”

Marguerite and Geoffrey had both been staring in wind-blown shock just beginning to morph into displeasure, but at that, they simultaneously cringed in embarrassment.

“Teal had this carefully planned,” the archdemon continued to lecture them. “She spent weeks working out the best way to introduce you to Shaeine and minimize the shock, but no. You two just had to surprise us all by flying the damn airship to Last Rock like a couple of newspaper caricatures of out-of-touch rich people! Seriously, who flies a zeppelin to school? Is the company that hard up for advertising? Did you think Last Rock was a great expansion market? Or was this a prank to make sure we spend the next three years getting relentlessly mocked?”

Geoffrey gaped at her with a fishlike expression of bemusement; Marguerite had her lips not only sealed but tucked inward and clamped between her teeth.

“So I’m sorry if this has your feathers ruffled,” Vadrieny spat, “but if you’d just done as Teal asked it wouldn’t be this bad, so now we all get to suck it up. If you can manage to show the same manners you raised your daughter to have and not talk shit about Shaeine where she can hear for the rest of this trip, that would be fantastic, but right now I’d settle for making it the rest of the flight home. And now, if you’ll excuse me, apparently we have to go explain Hesthia. So…” She bared her fangs in an exceedingly displeased expression. “Thanks for that.”

Vadrieny let go with three of her claws and used the last to slam the hatch shut as she unfurled her wings and let the wind catch and yank her backward toward the other entry to the passenger compartment. It was suddenly a lot quieter in the cockpit, a relative silence that was a lot less awkward and a lot more stunned.

“Well,” Marguerite managed after a protracted pause, “she sure told us.”

Geoffrey blew out a long breath. “Yep. Kid wasn’t wrong, either.”

“Hey, that’s a positive, right? At least there’s one surprising girl in our daughter’s life who turned out a lot better than we had any right to expect. I’m…you know what, I think Vadrieny has been a really good influence. For a long time I was concerned about how Teal let other girls push her around.” She managed a soft chuckle, shaking her head. “I guess this is at least worth having a daughter who occasionally turns into a flaming fanged monster.”

“Mm.” Geoffrey stared straight ahead out the windscreen toward Madouris in the distance ahead, keeping his expression deliberately neutral. “Not that much different from just…having a daughter, is it?”

Marguerite had to laboriously tug the seat cushion out from under her struggling husband to clobber him with it, but it was worth it.

The Falconer household had been the residence of several noble families over the course of its long life, all various vassals of House Madouri and all either extinct or sufficiently diminished in stature that they could no longer afford such a sizable estate. Or, in the case of its previous owners, sufficiently advanced in stature that they had moved to a palatial mansion in the heart of Madouris itself, feeling that their expanded dignity was too great for such a rambling, eccentric manor. Indeed, the house, though as sizable as most nobles’ mansions, was built on an erratic, improvised plan that was generally difficult to navigate and reflected multiple architectural styles spanning nearly seven hundred years, with its oldest section being a literal castle. A very small one, little more than a fort, but still complete with battlements, arrow loops, and a couple of proper towers; Geoffrey had installed a telescope on one, his wife having talked him down from putting in a vintage siege engine that would have antagonized both the neighbors and the government. The most recent additions were to the grounds: the Falconer family had elven friends who had been invited to make themselves at home, and now the sprawling wings of the estate could be difficult to see from the road through the various groves of trees which filled the grounds.

Altogether it suited the Falconer family perfectly, for many of the very reasons it was no longer considered suitable for most of the noble families who could have afforded such a manor.

Like any edifice which had been the residence of Imperial nobility, the house had a great hall, a grandiose entry chamber which served to formally greet important guests and impress upon them the wealth and power of their hosts. Unlike most, this formal entry was accessible from the main driveway only by going over a small bridge, through a grove of imported cedars, around a long wing of Avenic marble colonnades, down the center of a courtyard lined with dogwood trees and rose bushes, and up a one-story flight of broad stone steps. It was, even for nobles, a little much, especially considering the great hall beyond really wasn’t. Barely twenty feet long, lined with simple wood pillars instead of the traditional stone columns and lit by floating fairy lamps which drifted about just out of reach overhead, the great hall was disproportionately small for such a sprawling manor. Also, its position marked what had originally been a drawbridge, which was why its opposite side from the door terminated in the former exterior wall and main gateway of the old castle, opening onto the former great hall and current indoor garden.

One would, of course, never know the Falconer estate could be considered unusual, much less insufficient, by the reaction to it of Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion.

“Your home is as beautiful as it is impressive, Mrs. Falconer,” the drow said with a deep bow toward Marguerite, after pausing to spend enough time admiring the woodwork that the observation seemed plausibly sincere. “I confess I already feel somewhat at home here. Most places in the Empire seem rather wedded to their stylistic themes; this is the first I have seen which has as much personality as the University. I could almost imagine it being a product of the same mind which designed Clarke Tower.”

“Why, aren’t you sweet!” Marguerite beamed. “I’m afraid we’ve not had the likes of Arachne Tellwyrn to lend a hand to our décor, but I am rather proud of how we’ve made this place our own.”

I helped,” Geoffrey commented in an uncharacteristically stiff tone. “You may’ve noticed it’s not just the women who do things on the surface.”

Behind Shaeine, Teal bared her teeth at him and pantomimed a strangling motion with both hands.

“Geoffrey, stop pouting before your face freezes that way,” Marguerite chided. “It’s true, Sheen, ours isn’t a matriarchial culture, but as long as my husband insists on being difficult you can feel free to address yourself to me. I’ll smack him later.”

Shaeine,” Teal enunciated. “It’s an elongated vowel, like the ‘aa’ in Tiraas, but smoothly transitioning in the middle. It sounds trickier than it is; you already speak elvish, Mom, you can pick up Narisian pronunciation before you know it.”

“Please do not discomfit yourself on my account,” Shaeine said smoothly, bowing again. Without straightening up, she extended both hands, offering Marguerite the folded length of dark cloth she had been carefully carrying since disembarking from the zeppelin. “I am grateful for the hospitality offered, and humbled by this household and your benevolence. I dare to hope that this meager token of my thanks may in a small way enhance the splendor of your home.”

“Oh, that’s all right, dear,” Marguerite said hastily, “you didn’t need to—”

Teal shot across the space between them, leaning close to her mother’s ear and gritting out very quietly through clenched teeth, “It’s an important cultural tradition which I will explain later, please take the gift.”

“I guess that’d be one of those things we’d have been properly prepped for if we hadn’t decided to take the zep,” Geoffrey observed, not without humor.

“Well, it was your idea—oh!” Marguerite was distracted from retorting when she focused on the length of folded silk she had just absently taken from Shaeine’s hands, then immediately brought it up to her face to squint through her glasses. “Oh, my, this is… Geoffrey, look at this! The texture…why, this is woven in patterns that—yes, these are pictures! Oh, and the dye, Geoff, just look!”

She very carefully unfolded the silk and held it up to the light; to the human eye in the relative dimness of the hall it might have been taken for a plain black sheet at a casual glance, but it was in fact dyed in intricate patterns of very dark red, blue, and purple, not to mention embroidered in raised patterns of thread with subtly glinted under the fairy lamps.

Sinit isthr’adh is a Narisian traditional art,” Shaeine explained while Marguerite cooed enthusiastically over the fabric and Geoffrey leaned over her shoulder, studying it with unfeigned interest. “Each color of dye depicts a different scene, overlaying and interconnecting with the others, while the embroidered image in raised thread is another which ties together the narrative and philosophical theme. The intended means of viewing is to study it at length and let the eye focus on the individual images, while the mind contemplates the interplay between them. Some isthr’adh pieces require a grounding in Narisian history or culture to understand the references, but I selected a design I thought would be more broadly accessible. Teal has described you as an artist; I hoped you would enjoy a cultural expression that might be new to you.”

“Oh, but you thought so very right,” Marguerite all but squealed. “This is the most beautiful thing! Omnu’s breath, the skill that went into—look at this dye work! Why, these threads were woven into it in that order to… Oh, my stars, Shayeen, what an absolutely gorgeous piece. I can’t thank you enough! Teal is right, I definitely enjoy meeting a new form of art. And that’s probably the kindest way she’s ever described me,” she added with a wry glance at her daughter.

“Mom, you named me after a color.”

“A pretty color. Be glad I was over my Glassian phase; you could’ve been called Chartreuse.”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

Shaeine was smiling now, with as much genuine warmth as Narisian manners permitted in public. “She did say you had designed the stained glass in this very hall. I do note a preference for blue-green hues.”

“Hah!” Marguerite gave her a delighted grin. “Would you care to guess how old Teal was before she made that connection?”

“I have been asked not to embarrass her unduly while, as she put it, ‘they have that job covered,’” Shaeine said solemnly. “May I?”

“Oh, please!” Marguerite gestured enthusiastically toward the north wall of the great hall and the drow glided over to it to examine the glass up close. She started to follow, then hesitated and leaned over toward Teal, murmuring as softly as she could, “How’d I do?”

Teal wrapped an arm around her mother in half a hug, replying in the same tone. “She wouldn’t expect you to know the Narisian formalities, or perform them in your own home. The guest gift to the matron of a house is important in her culture. Anyway, you can’t go wrong by gushing over a present.”

“Well, I wasn’t faking, this is the most stunning piece I’ve seen in ages. I definitely see what she meant; I’m going to have to spend some time just looking once I’ve got it properly displayed. I’ll find a place in—no, what am I saying? This is a centerpiece, it deserves to have a suitable setting designed around it. Geoffrey, what do you think about… Geoff?”

The man of the house had been handed a letter by one of the servants not engaged in bringing Teal and Shaeine’s baggage in, and was now staring at it with a truly thunderous expression, the expensive-looking paper creasing in his grip.

“Oh,” Teal said in resignation, “isn’t that House Madouri stationary?”

“You better believe it,” Geoffrey grated. “We have been invited to dine with his Grace the Duke. Tonight.”

“An honor,” Shaeine said neutrally, drifting back over to them. She remained poised as ever, but could not mess the tension that had suddenly gripped all three Falconers.

“Is this…the sort of invitation we can beg off?” Marguerite asked warily. “Teal just got home, and with Shaeine…”

“Oh, he knows,” Geoffrey spat. “Teal and her ‘guest’ are mentioned. No, love, I don’t think this is one of those optional invitations.”

“How did he know?” Teal demanded.

“The University campus is quite secure,” Shaeine observed, “but Last Rock itself would not be difficult to keep under observation. I surmise that several political forces and newspapers within the Empire do so. Apparently there was an episode last year when several of them annoyed Professor Tellwyrn. Please forgive my ignorance, but I did not realize a Duke had the authority to command people to his presence?”

“Well, there’s authority and then there’s authority,” Geoffrey said bitterly, folding up the letter with little regard for its original creases. “There are things they can order because the law gives them that explicit prerogative, and things they can order because they can make your life unbearably difficult if they feel slighted.”

“Ah,” she said, nodding in total comprehension.

“It doesn’t matter,” Marguerite interjected in a firm tone, clutching the tapestry protectively to her chest. “You’re our guest, Shayeen. I’ll not have you forced to dance for that man’s amusement.”

“Yeah, I should warn you that this is a trap,” Geoffrey added. “The Duke is… Hon, what’s a polite way to put it?”

“He’s a big enough asshole that the stick up his doesn’t even slow him down,” Marguerite said primly. Teal made a choking noise.

“That about sums it up, yeah,” Geoffrey agreed, grinning at his wife. “His Grace likes swinging his…um, authority around. Usually at us; he seems to feel personally slighted by FI’s success. Any time he does something like this, it means he’s planning to pull something squirrely before it’s over. If we’re very lucky the whole plot is just to inflict embarrassment on us. Rita’s right, you’re a guest of our family and Teal’s girlfriend. I’ve put up with a lot from that man; I’m not going to have him start in on you as well.”

“I am grateful for the sentiment,” Shaeine answered with a gentle smile. “I urge you not to risk House Madouri’s censure on my account, however. It may be an unplanned diversion, but I confess I am rather intrigued by this invitation.”

Marguerite and Geoffrey exchanged a long look.

“It’s kind of you to think of us,” Marguerite said, “but…”

“Allow me to be more plain,” said Shaeine, nodding deeply toward her. “There are politics, of course, and on that point I am inclined to defer to your judgment and familiarity with the situation. If it comes down to it, I have the prerogative to invoke the strictures of international relations. I can easily make a case that to meet with an Imperial Duke without my mother’s oversight exceeds my diplomatic mandate. However, would I be correct in surmising that his Grace would vent his frustration at such a maneuver on you?”

“That’s not something you need to worry about,” Geoffrey said firmly. “He’s going to vent something on us, one way or another. I don’t mind at all getting to tweak his nose out of the bargain.”

“That being the case, I reaffirm that I would like to attend,” the drow said, smiling more broadly.

Teal cleared her throat. “Mom, Dad, you know I respect your intelligence…”

“Oh, nothing complimentary ever follows that setup,” Marguerite said, giving her daughter a long look.

But,” Teal continued doggedly, “we are none of us the most socially adroit or cunning people.”

“It’s true,” Geoffrey acknowledged. “Those are rather famously not gifts of the Falconer clan.”

“Shaeine, however,” said Teal, turning to the priestess with a proud smile, “is a professional diplomat.”

A contemplative pause descended.

“Sometimes,” Shaeine said pleasantly, “the greatest retribution one can have against a person who is determined to be hostile is to skillfully deprive him of any excuse for hostility. Powerful as he may be, an individual of the higher nobility in any culture lives and dies by social perception. If it could be arranged, for example, that his Grace the Duke is left with no cause to acceptably express anything but satisfaction with the Falconer family and have his blood pressure elevated to dangerous levels in the process, would you perhaps find that…amusing?”

Geoffrey and Marguerite exchanged another married look at that, both of them having to visibly repress smiles. Marguerite, at least, sobered quickly.

“Amusing, yes, but… Shayeen, honey, we may be rich enough that a Duke isn’t all that dangerous to us, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to poke at him unnecessarily.”

He is poking at us,” Teal protested. “As usual!”

“You have expressed a laudable determination not to allow a guest under your roof to suffer even a minor indignity,” Shaeine said. “I relate strongly to that sentiment. Not simply out of guesthold honor, or consideration for politics. Marguerite, Geoffrey… I realize that I am not only a stranger to you, but an unexpected one, and perhaps an alarming thing to have suddenly dropped into your lives. I hope to earn a measure of affection and trust, but that inevitably takes time. What matters in this moment is that you are Teal’s family, and…” She hesitated the merest fraction of a second before voicing something which would not have been acceptable in her own household. “And I love Teal dearly. Where I am from, we do not suffer those we love to be put upon.”

“Well,” Geoffrey mused, studying her with a new interest, “that’s…a starting point, then, isn’t it? Because that is definitely one thing we have in common.”

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16 – 58

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“Above all, in such times, we must have faith.”

The sanctuary of the Grand Cathedral was as packed as it had ever been, despite the Empire-wide state of emergency and warnings for all citizens to take shelter. In a way, they had, for all that a dense crowd might be even more vulnerable to attack; shelter was more than physical, and just as the Archpope now said to the assembled throng, it was in precisely such times that people sought the comfort of faith.

“The word is often invoked in this temple, and countless like it,” Justinian continued, his mellifluous voice filling the sanctuary to its farthest corners with its perfect, sonorous gravity. “Faith, most often spoken of as a religious sacrament. Faith in a god, in a dogma, in a church. I will remind you all in this most desperate hour, my friends, that faith goes far beyond religion. It is upon faith that everything hinges. We have faith that our friends and loved ones will not abandon us. Faith that those who sell our food, our clothing, our tools, have not shortchanged us. Faith that our governments will protect and provide as we need them to. Every interaction each of us has with another person is a thread of faith, and it is of the countless thousands of these threads that the web of our lives is made.”

He paused, gripping the sides of his lectern for a moment. No arcane magnification charm was applied to the ancient wood; Justinian needed nothing but the Cathedral’s acoustics and his own trained diaphragm to make himself heard in the back row, even now, when he lowered his voice for emphasis.

“And never is the importance of faith clearer than when it disappoints us. I understand, sisters and brothers, how your faith has been betrayed. We may speak of the gods and their mortal agents which we thought to protect us from crises such as this. We might speak of our government with its armies, which in city after city has been powerless to stand against threat after threat. But even in the midst of renewed crisis, I caution you: do not abandon faith. Faith, you see, is not certainty.”

He smiled, with both sorrow and warmth.

“In life there are no certainties; even the gods do not promise us that. The universe is chaotic, and it is not given to us to live in perfect bliss. For what would be the point of that? What is life without opportunities to strive, to grow wiser and stronger? And how could we do so if we were never challenged—and not only challenged, but specifically beyond what our faith can bear?

“No, friends, we must not despair because our faith has not protected us. The role of faith is that we may continue to believe, even in the face of evidence that what we believe in has failed. And this, friends, is the true power of faith: its capacity to triumph over reality itself. For by acting upon faith, by proceeding upon assumptions that have been broken, we remake the world around us until it falls back into line with what we have faith that is should be. Faith, friends, is the power to band together and triumph.

“I will not minimize the threat we face, nor excuse those who have failed when they should have protected us. Instead, I will caution you all not to abandon faith. Have faith in the gods, in paladins, in thrones, in all those things you count upon—for even if they have responded imperfectly, it is through the support of our faith that they may be empowered to rise to the threat.

“Above all, have faith in one another. It is the darkest times which show us the brightest light within our hearts. It is when we are tested that we raise ourselves up to persevere. It is when the bonds between us are attacked that they strengthen.”

He raised his hands in an uplifting gesture, both benediction and incitement.

“Have faith, brothers, sisters, friends, fellow members of this human family. Have faith that all will be well—and in so doing, go forth together and make it so.”

“That brilliant, evil son of a bitch,” Ruda said, hurling the transcript of the Archpope’s sermon down on Ravana’s dining table.

“Eh, it sounded a right nice speech t’me,” Maureen admitted. “So, I assume that means I missed somethin’, aye? I never claimed t’be the savvy type, politically speakin’.”

“He’s changed the terms of engagement.” Teal’s voice was barely above a whisper, her eyes fixed on a distant point beyond the fireplace. “It’s…a brilliant move. The cults are beginning to turn on him, and after Veilgrad Triss and the boys have what they need to prove he’s behind the chaos monsters.”

“Okay, I don’t get it either,” Iris said in some annoyance. “Why isn’t that good? I mean, now he’s gone and let loose dozens of the fuckers. Obviously that’s a big problem but if there’s proof Justinian is behind it, hasn’t he just nailed himself to the wall?”

“I can’t.” Ruda slumped down in her chair, tipping her hat forward to cover her eyes. “I just cannot with this horseshit. Not you, Iris, you’re fine, it’s just the sheer fuckery of it. I need a moment to wring some of the sleaze outta my soul. Shaeine, can you take over?”

“By unleashing both unstoppable monsters and immortal warriors which are among the only things which can combat them, the Archpope has effectively invalidated all the laborious preparatory work that has been done up till now to work him into a corner,” Shaeine said tonelessly. “It is now a matter of public opinion, and the facts are thus barely relevant. Now, any accusations against the Archpope will be seen as sowing division exactly when it can least be afforded—especially by Ravana and the paladins, who by taking a stand against him previously will have made it seem they are prioritizing old political vendettas above the public good.”

“But they ‘ave proof!” Maureen protested.

“That matters a lot less than it should,” Teal replied wearily.

“Politics and facts are, at best, tenebrous allies,” said Szith.

“It’s a crisis,” Ruda explained from under her hat, not shifting her position. “Can’t have division in a crisis. Didja note in the speech, how he emphasized that? And also how the gods an’ paladins and especially the Throne have let everybody down by allowin’ all this to happen.”

“Just the…the gall,” Iris hissed. “He did all this!”

“It’s politics,” Teal said, heaving a sigh. “Fuck. He played us all. He played everyone.”

“I seriously do admire the gambit,” Ruda admitted, finally lifting her hat enough to peer up at everyone. “It’s maybe the evilest bullshit I ever fuckin’ heard of but god damn was that clever. A master fuckin’ play.”

“That is public opinion, though,” said Scorn, who was not wearing her disguise ring, drumming her clawed fingertips upon the table. The group assembled was somewhat diminished in size; Juniper was still in Tiraas and the paladins, after checking in, had gone right back out to hunt necro-drakes with assistance from the Conclave. “There is still proof. The Empire can act upon this, yes?”

“That is what makes it a master stroke, as opposed to simply a clever one,” said Shaeine. “The great secret of power is its fragility. The cults, the Throne, the Church… Indeed, all religious, political, financial and other establishments, rely upon consensus for their very existence. They only come to seem immutable because we grow accustomed to them. Any can be toppled if enough of their followers decide they should no longer be obeyed—or if not destroyed outright, deprived of enough of their support to function. That was the overarching lesson of the Enchanter Wars, and that lesson is still very much on the minds of the cults and the Houses.”

“So, in order for the Empire or the Trinity cults or anyone to act on the proof,” Teal chimed in, “they would have to, in essence, invade the Cathedral in force to seize Justinian. It could still work, if it was possible to do it swiftly, but with all the power of the Pantheon backing him up and him apparently able to control it even against the Pantheon’s will… Well, the various forces assembled against him could maybe take him down eventually, maybe not. Either way, it would be a long, bloody, drawn-out struggle. And given all Justinian’s done to make himself and the Church popular over the years, a lot of the public will side with him. Especially now. It would mean a schism in basically every participating cult and very likely a rebellion against the Empire.”

“Most of the Houses’d side with ‘im,” Ruda grunted in a dispirited tone. “Specifically because they don’t give a fuck about religion. They care about their own power, which means they’re automatically against the Throne reaching beyond its traditional powers.”

“House Tirasian does have its allies,” Shaeine murmured. “Powerful ones, even. Houses Madouri, Leduc and Dufresne represent enough of a threat to give many of the lesser Houses pause, but there would also be opportunists… He also has the orthodox Shaathists, doubtless other loyalists within every cult. Justinian will not have done this until he is certain of enough allies to at the very least force a stalemate if the established powers dare attack him openly. He is, by all appearances, a meticulous planner.”

“That’s what everybody will be considering,” Teal added. “The political cost of turning on him now would be crippling… And even if he is transparently behind it, the fact is there are chaos dragons rampaging across the continent and nobody can afford a civil war in the middle of that.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Iris said tremulously, “but…I mean, surely the Trinity cults? The Guild? Didn’t the paladins just go through all that rigamarole to make sure they’d side against the Church?”

“And that’d be why Justinian just yanked out the rug,” said Ruda with a bitter laugh. “Way Boots an’ the boys tell it… Boss Tricks ain’t exactly the portrait of reliability right now, the Dawn Council isn’t interested in doin’ fuck all under any circumstances, an’ Lady Gwenfaer’s paper cuts bleed politics. High Commander Rouvad seems like the kind o’ broad who’d take a stand on principle, but then again, she’s also the one who decided Basra fuckin’ Syrinx being good a politics made ‘er worth putting up with all the rest of her general Syrinxitude. We got coin tosses in the best case scenario.”

“Some might still be willing to act, if there were a plan in place and a certainty of, at least, a chance,” Shaeine said quietly. “But whoever acts first will embrace tremendous risk, and the full brunt of the opposition. The pressure will be heavily against anyone sticking their neck out.”

“I’ll go one further,” Teal said quickly. “Soon as we can talk to ‘em again we need to make sure our paladins don’t try to charge at Justinian with blades out.”

“There’s really only one of ‘em likely to do that,” Ruda said with a grin.

“Sure,” Teal replied a touch impatiently, “but it matters that they have credibility and the pull to motivate a lot of people into action behind them. Frustrating as it is, appearances matter, even to paladins. They can’t squander it by seeming to pick a political fight in the middle of a crisis.”

“So,” Scorn rumbled, “what is needed is a person in a position of power, interested in doing the right thing, and willing to be seen as a villain.”

She immediately turned to look straight at Ravana. One by one, so did everyone else in the room, until every eye was fixed upon her except that of her Butler, who stood silent as a gargoyle behind her left shoulder.

Ravana said with perfectly ladylike posture at the head of the table, casually swirling her wineglass in one hand and gazing thoughtfully at nothing. As the room fell silent, she ceased toying with the glass and raised it to her lips for a sip. It was a pink elven wine; she usually did not prefer their sweetness, but the lower alcohol content made it a beverage of choice when she had thinking to do.

Lowering the glass, and seeming to ignore the silent regard of her friends and classmates, the Duchess allowed her lips to slowly curl upward into a viper’s smile.

“Yancey,” she said, “make the arrangements for another press conference tomorrow. In addition to my accusations at this morning’s event, I will publicly charge that Archpope Justinian is behind the chaos drakes, and that he has deliberately caused all this destruction and loss of life for personal, political gain.”

She paused to take another dainty sip; Yancey, attuned to his mistress, watched her without acknowledging the command, as he detected another part forthcoming.

“I will also,” Ravana continued after swallowing, “detail the method by which an Angelus Knight is created, describe the final fate of Sister Lanora, and announce that any cleric who has been personally excommunicated by their former deific patron will be made welcome in Madouris and placed under my personal protection. Along with a warning that their lives are in urgent danger otherwise.”

“Very good, my Lady,” said Yancey. “Shall we arrange protection for the source of this intelligence?”

The Duchess shook her head. “She indicated confidence that her involvement was absolutely unknown to the enemy, and in this case I fear we must take her at her word. The irritating truth is that none of my field agents are of a quality that can match what Justinian has at his disposal. Posting a watch over her would likely do nothing but to draw his attention to her, and in the end my people would be unable to provide sufficient protection.”

“I might’ve known you’d Ravana it,” said Ruda, sounding impressed despite herself. “I know we practically asked for it this time, but c’mon, that’s gonna put you right at the top of Justinian’s shit list.”

“Yeah, no offense,” Teal agreed, “but this business in Madouris up till now has been small potatoes, Ravana. You’re not high on his priorities. If you start spewing his secrets in public…”

“It is a strategic truism,” Ravana said, again idly swirling her wine, “that when one is losing a game of chess to a clearly superior opponent, the correct move is to punch them in the face and overturn the board. This advice, while a valid point, ignores the broader political ramifications which you were just discussing. To be seen as the one to forebear the pretense of civilized behavior that we like to think governs us is to cede a significant material advantage. The solution, thus, is to provoke one’s opponent to throw the punch, and accept the censure of the onlookers.” She smiled again, showing just the tips of her teeth. “And then, in the name of self-defense, stab them in the throat.”

“Why is it even your hypotheticals jump directly to six steps too fuckin’ far?” Ruda demanded.

“Ravana,” Szith said quietly, “the Archpope can punch harder than you can. Significantly.”

“One does not just punch, though,” Ravana replied primly. “As a martial artist, you know it very well. There are questions of position, leverage, angle, maneuver… Teal has the right of it: I must admit, to my chagrin, that I have been up till now little but an inconvenience to his Holiness. If I begin revealing in public fundamental secrets which he will have no idea how I learned, I become a problem. He will be forced to…solve…me. And for me to defend myself will look altogether different than if I, or anyone, were to assault the Universal Church during a universal crisis.”

“I fear you have missed my point,” Szith insisted. “You would have to survive his attack, Ravana. Giving you full credit for the ability to cause trouble upon which this plan seems to rest, even you must acknowledge that you are not at your best on the defensive!”

“Am I not?” Ravana narrowed her eyes; her smile, if anything, widened. “Justinian is a creature of meticulous plans. Unexpected and uncontrolled violence is antithetical to his mode of operation. Even when he has unleashed it—such as now—it has always been safely far from his own base of operations, and with himself in at least partial control of all sides of the performative conflict. True carnage, the rapid unfolding of unforeseeable events, heavily disadvantages web-weavers such as he. That is the domain of paladins, adventurers, and it must be said…” Smirking, she actually bowed slightly from her chair. “…villains. I do not delude myself that this is my fight to win, or that I even could. No; our predicament is that Justinian has changed the nature of the battle to advantage himself. I will simply change it again.”

She sipped her wine once more, eyes glinting with manic anticipation.

“If his Holiness truly wishes to play about with chaos, then we shall go on a journey together, and explore the truth of what chaos means.”

“Really. Two minutes?” Despite the disappointing news, Justinian sounded more impressed than anything.

“That’s a broad guess,” Rector grunted, hunched over an instrument panel as usual and not looking up at his guest and patron. “Approximating from initial attack range, but even at the most conservative value, it was fast. Way faster than the one lost at Veilgrad. Weird readings, too… The chaos shard itself blinked out. Usually there’d be a major divine event concentrated on it before nullification. I think it was moved back to the dimensional insulation layer.”

“I suppose it is no more than should be expected,” Justinian mused. “Very well. I see I shall have to arrange something to keep the good Professor occupied. Interference of that caliber could be disastrous at this stage.”

Rector finally hesitated in his manipulation of the ancient data screen. He did not look up from it, but froze with his fingers above the glowing panel, staring at nothing.

“Thought you decided to leave her alone. Tried that, right? Didn’t work.”

“I probed at her, yes,” Justinian said mildly. “The point was, in part, to gauge her reaction; among other things, the attempt verified that she does have an interventionist streak, which has just become immediately relevant. I will consider my options. Fear not, Rector; I have several contingencies in varying states of readiness. Some may require your aid, but as always, I shall provide you the greatest advance notice I am able.”

“It’s Tellwyrn,” said the enchanter, still not moving. “Not much gets her attention except for threatening her students. Right? Is that… There’s already a lot of collateral damage.”

Justinian studied the back of his head pensively for a second before answering. “These are the painful decisions of strategy and moral cost versus benefit of which I spoke to you before, Rector. I fear that the closer we come to the final steps, the more…difficult they will grow. And we are very close indeed. Have patience for just a while longer. Soon, all of this will be finished.”

Rector remained in his rigid position for a moment, then grunted and resumed scrolling the screen as if he’d never stopped moving. After watching him for a moment longer, the Archpope retreated, not bothering with a farewell. He was not one to forebear such courtesies, but had learned that Rector was more annoyed than reassured by extraneous social rituals.

Seconds after the door shut behind the Archpope, Azradeh appeared from invisibility in the corner.

She was still testing her limits. According to one of her books—theology was among the subjects Justinian had been quite willing to let her read—a sitting Archpope gained a great deal of divine power but lost the cult-specific gifts as they were elevated from the servant of one god to the servant of all. So, in theory, he shouldn’t have Izarite empathy. Thus, she’d been lurking about him invisibly to see if he ever reacted, which he had not.

Unless he was a natural empath; those did seem to be drawn to Izara’s service. That would mean he was only pretending not to know when she was invisible in his vicinity, a thought which verged on paranoia but also wasn’t entirely implausible when it came to Justinian. But even in that eventuality, he was still pretending he couldn’t sense her, which meant she had a little leeway of maneuver until he was willing to blow his advantage. Even that was useful.

Of course, it was more likely he just couldn’t tell, period, but she was unwilling to commit to assumptions about the man.

“Wow, busy day, huh?” she said cheerfully, sauntering over toward Rector.

He just grunted, as usual. The handy thing about Rector was how little interest he had in anyone else’s comings and goings. As long as she didn’t pop out of invisibility right in front of his eyes, he wouldn’t wonder where she’d come from. Actually, Azradeh wasn’t completely sure even that would get his attention.

“Now, you make sure you’re getting enough sleep,” she lectured, circling behind him. “I will not hesitate to tattle to Delilah on you, see if I don’t.”

“Go away, pest,” he growled.

“Yeah, yeah.” Azradeh sat down on one of his less-cluttered workbenches, just loudly enough to make it clear from behind that that was what she’d done. He twitched in the most amusing way, but didn’t turn to chastise her further. “So what was that about collateral damage and attacking students? That doesn’t sound like you.”

He froze again.

“Or his Holiness,” she continued in a light tone. “Or…well, I wouldn’t’ve thought so, but who knows with that guy? He’s been really good to me, y’know? And you too, I guess. Man, though, it’s hard to say what goes on in his head. I wouldn’t think he’d deliberately get anybody hurt, but—”

“Just get out!” the enchanter snapped, snatching up a handful of brass screws from the nearest table and hurling them backward in the vague direction of her voice. Azradeh watched them sail past a good yard to her right. “I don’t have time for you right now!”

“Hey, it’s okay,” she said soothingly. “You’re just the equipment guy, right? It’s Justinian who makes the decisions. If somebody gets hurt, well, is that really your fault?”


Rector finally spun, snatching up a wrench and flinging it with far more accuracy. As usual she didn’t blink when it bonked off the bridge of her nose, but when he hurled his data screen she plucked it deftly out of the air.

“Hey, be careful,” Azradeh urged, setting the panel gently down on the workbench. “I know those things are durable, but they’re thousands of years old and it’s not like you can make more.”


“Okay, I can see you’re busy,” she said, hopping off the table and ignoring the constant barrage of tools, crystals, and metal parts which pelted her. “Promise you won’t forget to eat, all right? See ya later.”

Azradeh turned and strolled toward the door, not reacting when a glass tube shattered on the back of her head. The deluge of metal and glass only halted before she actually exited because he ran out of conveniently throwable objects within easy reach.

Once the door shut behind the archdemon, Rector abruptly sat back down in his chair and sagged, leaning forward and resting his face in his hands.

For once…for perhaps the first time in a long time…the architect of so much of the future was not thinking about his next project. He just sat alone in his secret underground laboratory, thinking about some of the things he had created.

And what they might mean.

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16 – 57

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They came streaking out of the depths of the Golden Sea, leaving trails of black smoke across the sky. The skeletal figures made no formation, in fact fanning outward as they traveled; when they failed to do so, conflict erupted in brief midair scuffles, the necro-drakes snapping and clawing at each other before separating and banking away in a different direction. One particularly fractious pair actually locked together in a body brawl that cost them the use of their wings and began plummeting toward the prairie below. Only the intervention of a third spared them a crash, ironically, as another aggressive drake dive-bombed the clawing couple, the impact sending all three necro-drakes wheeling away in different directions, howling their outrage at one another.

And still more came, in twos and threes, snapping and shrieking and then separating, a steady stream of dozens emerging from the deep magical frontier and fanning out, their mutual hostility goading them to set off on multiple courses. Briefly they would turn and lash out at one another, but unlike the mad, almost demonic aggression of the first necro-drake which had perished at Veilgrad, something pushed them to restraint, at least with one another. The damage their brief clashes inflicted was healed immediately, but it served to nudge them away from further conflict, propelling them to fan out and fly far until they could no longer see one another.

As if something were guiding them from the outside, against their own nature.

Thus, what had begun as an airborne column from their point of summons was a broad fan by the time they began passing beyond the border of the Golden Sea itself, into the visually unremarkable Great Plains beyond, and spread further, widening into an array of courses that would send the monsters toward every part of the Empire east of the Wyrnrange and south of the Sea, from Veilgrad to Mathenon, and most definitely toward the central cluster of Tiraas, Madouris and Anteraas on the southern coast. And, of course, everything they would pass by on the way.

For all that it lay almost due south of the origin point in the Golden Sea’s center, by the time the flock had traveled that far they had spread to such an extent that only one of their number spied the lone mountain rearing up out of the prairie and veered toward it, driven by its fundamental compulsion to attack. Emitting its unearthly howl across the plains, it folded its wings and dived, streaking in a shallow descent toward the spires and terraces at the peak of the mountain, where it sensed life, and magic.

“Absolutely fucking not.”

Last Rock’s most notorious denizen was far too well-schooled in the ways of chaos to bother striking it directly with magic. Instead, the actual spell was deployed far in advance of the necro-drake’s course, and with a thunderclap that cracked windows and traveled even farther than the monster’s scream, a burst of solid air directed with the precision of a wandshot ripped out of the sky and slammed into the diving construct, physically shattering its pieces and sending them hurtling straight down to the prairie far below, well over half a mile short of the mountain itself.

They began reassembling almost immediately; within seconds the thing had drawn itself mostly back together, its broken body knitting into place and the cracks healing. It was just picking itself up out of the smashed tallgrass and shaking its head when she arrived.

Not reckless enough to teleport that close to a chaos effect, Tellwyrn nonetheless arrived with a suddenness that went well beyond an elf’s natural speed; despite her characteristically bombastic displays, she held countless tricks in reserve against the possibility of someone seeing and preparing for them, for situations exactly such as this.

“What part of I am on vacation do you lot keep failing to comprehend?” the diminutive blonde figure demanded shrilly, stomping through the tallgrass toward the chaos beast. “If it’s not tedious social events in Veilgrad or royalty gatecrashing my beach bungalow, it’s whatever the hell this is supposed to be!”

The necro-drake gathered itself enough to lunge at her, snapping its jaws, and immediately was yanked backward.

The wind picked up, howling all around them as the tallgrass in a broad circular area bent toward a point directly behind the drake’s tail; loose strands of vegetation, dirt, and insects went hurtling into the spot as if a hole in reality were trying to suck the entire contents of the prairie into a pinprick-sized point. The necro-drake barely managed to flatten itself to the ground, digging in its claws into the earth, as the force of wind dragged it inexorably backward. Its strength sufficed to keep it from coming loose, but the task demanded all four limbs. It couldn’t even raise its head to snap at Tellwyrn again.

“I’m a reasonable woman, despite what they say,” she commented, strolling closer at a more idle pace which belied the wind tugging at her hair and clothes, her slim figure otherwise undisturbed even though the force of attraction was now ripping up clumps of tallgrass and sucking them into the vacuum. “I get it; life is just full of inconveniences, interruptions, and miscellaneous pains in the ass. All I ask is that some effort be made to compensate me for my trouble, you know? Even if it’s just a token gesture.”

The necro-drake tried to lift its head to howl at her and immediately lost four feet of ground as the raised posture provided more surface area for the wind to push against. It flattened itself again, clinging desperately to the spots where its claw marks in the dirt terminated. The slim elf still stood upright against the torrent, unruffled aside from her ponytail.

“Vette is always a gracious hostess, if cloyingly quirky. Besides, it was gratifying to see Natchua thriving despite her various self-imposed setbacks. I worry about that kid. And Eleanora at least offers possibly the most fabulous set of knockers it’s ever been my privilege to rub my face all over. Top five, definitely. Not to mention her…statuesque personality and voluptuous intellect. Honestly it’s a shame she happened along at this point in both our lives; that girl is wife material if I ever saw it. You see my point, though?”

Tilting its head to one side, the necro-drake managed a desultory snap of its jaws and a noise that was more like a plaintive croak than its typical unearthly howl. Tellwyrn stared down at it over the rims of her golden spectacles.

“All you have to do is make it worth my while. In all the old stories, you’d never approach a great sorcerer or dragon, archfae or even demon lord without an offering in hand. There is a reason for that. Any interruption can be forgiven with the right bribe, or at minimum a token of respect. You, though? You neglected to bring me a present. And so you get the full grumpy.”

By sinking half its front foot into the ground, the necro-drake achieved enough leverage to haul itself two yards forward against the gale, stretching its neck and opening wide its jaws to threaten the elf even as dirt and loose tallgrass bounced off its obsidian skeleton.

Tellwyrn held up her right hand and snapped her fingers.

Another thunderclap roared across the prairie, the explosion of air for one instant pushing the tallgrass flat even against the ongoing torrent of pressure. With it came a second, massive blast of nearly solid air, striking the necro-drake full in the face from virtually no distance away. The hit dislodged and shattered it, and its pieces were sucked into the vacuum point before the monstrosity had the chance to be aware at had been attacked.

The moment the shards of obsidian and magic were drawn into that point, the pressure and howling wind ceased. With the spell in abeyance, an apple-sized black orb containing all the matter sucked into that point, compressed around the crushed chaos shard funneled into its center, fell to earth from a point about four feet up. Naturally, being as massive and impossibly dense as it was, the small object hit like an artillery strike, sinking several yards straight down and making the already-ravaged surface of the prairie around it ripple like water.

Event that failed to dislodge Tellwyrn, who was left standing on a disc of solid and undisturbed ground moments later when the dust settled. Scowling, she gestured with one hand, and the orb rose back up out of the ground to hover in place for a few seconds while an intricate weaving of divine, arcane and infernal magic slid into place around it, forming a lattice which funneled its inner chaos back in on itself to prevent so much as a flicker from escaping. Not for nothing was she one of the foremost experts on chaos magic still alive. The sorceress made a beckoning motion with her hand and the ball, now wrapped in streamers of multicolored light, drifted closer to her.

“Ugh,” she grunted. “Looks like valkyrie problems to me.”

Tellwyrn twisted her wrist, making a grasping motion in midair, and with a terrible screeching noise reminiscent of rending metal, the air itself tore apart, opening a doorway onto a dimmer version of the prairie with a seething mass of colossal tentacles blotting out the distant sky. Amid the twisting morass, enormous eyes blinked, several immediately turning to glare directly at the aperture.

The elf just flicked her hand and sent the ball of compressed chaos hurtling through, then released her grip on the portal itself before it could hit the ground. The gate slammed closed with another burst of thunder.

Snorting irritably, Tellwyrn adjusted her spectacles and turned slowly around, scanning the sky in various directions. Nothing out of the ordinary was visible to the naked eye, but for multiple reasons that applied no limitation to her.

“Huh. That is…a lot of those bastards. And you just know they’re gonna expect me to deal with this. Of course, I always have to do everything. What’s it going to take for everybody to comprehend that I am retired? For fuck’s sake, I teach history now. I gave the world twenty-nine centuries of adventuring services, you can all fix your own shit for once!”

She hesitated, glaring at the sky, then sighed heavily.

“Oh, bah.”

After all the thunderclaps, the minute pop of her departure was anticlimactic, leaving behind a thoroughly destroyed stretch of prairie outside Last Rock in the universal symbol that Tellwyrn had been here.

“Down! DOWN!”

Captain Afarousi’s bellow was barely audible through the discharge of battlestaves, the crash of broken masonry and the spine-twisting howl of the monster itself, but her soldiers weren’t idiots. The beast finished climbing out of the wrecked tower it had just dive-bombed and lunged across the battlements, where the wall’s defenders were already lunging out of the way, taking shelter behind chunks of fallen stone or within craters made in the wall itself; several chanced the ten-foot drop to the sloping tile roof of the guardhouse below.

Its tail scraped what was left of the battlements as it roared across the walltop, swiping at fleeing Royal Guards. Afarousi yanked open the heavy door to the next guard tower, frantically gesturing the three nearest soldiers through before being the last after them; the necro-drake bore down on her with such speed she very nearly didn’t make it.

There was no time to pull the door shut after, she just dived out of the way around the wall, and in the next instance the whole tower shook. Stone bulged inward from the outer wall where the monster impacted, and in the shuddering of the whole edifice Afarousi found herself fearing the structure was about to come down on top of them.

She landed on her back, losing her grip on her staff, and was forced into an undignified crab scuttle to gain further distance as one skeletal claw was thrust through the tower door, swiping blindly at them.

The crack of a battlestaff discharging in an enclosed space that close was utterly deafening, but Captain Afarousi wasn’t about to complain when the monster’s entire claw shattered, obsidian bones splintering to fragments and its necrotic-looking ligaments dissolving. Another keening roar of outrage made the already beleaguered tower shudder further, but at least the necro-drake pulled back what was left of its arm.

The shot had bought only seconds, she knew. Already the pieces were flowing back outward as the thing reassembled itself. Afarousi got her feet under her and lunged to the side, scooping up her staff and shouting for her soldiers to retreat to the tower’s opposite entrance, where the stretch of wall on the other side hadn’t yet been hit. She herself knelt beside the wholly inadequate shelter of an upturned table, bracing her battlestaff in a firing position to buy them moments when the monster attacked again.

It would attack again. Nothing stopped it. She’d already seen it tear through priests and mages as well as common soldiers, both Calderaan and Imperial. Directed magic misfired in wholly unpredictable ways around the chaos beast, but at least the lightning bolts of conventional wands and staves did some damage. Small damage that immediately reversed itself, but that was the best they’d managed.

Before the second blow finished off the tower, though, there came a fusillade of shots from the near distance and the necro-drake yowled again as it was hammered by lightning bolts from the north, outside the walls. The tower shuddered again as it shifted and launched itself off the broken battlements.

Wasting no time, Afarousi darted to the doorway and peered out.

A squad of Imperial troops had taken position on a stony rise just outside the city, where they had formed a firing line and hammered it with a full volley. The necro-drake immediately descended on them, and she could only watch in sickened anticipation, having seen this already.

But a cerulean glow had already risen around the small squad, and with a flash of blue light, the entire group vanished, seconds before the monster landed on their hill. Keening in frustration, it pivoted this way and that, actually lifting its claws to check under them like a confused cat which had just lost a mouse.

Captain Afarousi spared a prayer of blessing for the Emperor. She and the other Sultana’s Royal Guards had been holding the line purely because the Imperial troops helping man the walls of Calderaas had been among the first to perish in the attack; they had better weapons, and had even managed to hit the monster with a mag cannon burst. In those first moments, none of them understood what they were facing, and by the time Afarousi and the other survivors had learned that magic would backfire against this foe, it was too late for the first line of defenders. The superior tactics and weapons of the Imps had been their own undoing.

They’d already learned, though, repurposing their battlemages to strict teleportation. As she watched, another squad heckled the necro-drake with staff fire from further out, on another rise flanking the north road out of the city, then themselves disappeared in another flash when it tried to charge them.

“Report,” she ordered hoarsely.

“We’re proper fucked, Captain,” Saldaan stammered.

Afarousi jabbed him with the butt of her staff, but not hard. She didn’t spare him the full strength of her glare, though.

“No more of that, Guardsman,” she snapped. “These are the walls of Calderaas. They don’t fall while there is a living drop of the Royal Guard’s blood still up and fighting!”

That turn of phrase didn’t exactly hold up to semantic scrutiny, but it did its job; Saldaan and the others within her field of view straightened up, their expressions hardening, and she got a salute from him and several other grim nods.

She also got a stark visual reminder that there were only seven of them. Seven of her soldiers, still standing and with weapons in hand. Avei send that more of the cohort were sheltering elsewhere and seeking to regroup, but Afarousi did not kid herself that she hadn’t lost a great deal of her command today. What remained of the battlements were liberally splattered with blood and worse; she had seen far too many fall with her own eyes. Goddess’s grace, right within her field of view now was an arm protruding from beneath a boulder that had minutes ago been part of the next tower. No need to guess why it wasn’t moving; it was even odds whether it was still attached to the rest of someone under there.

“We hold,” she stated. “The Imperials are adapting their tactics: look, they’re leading it away. We don’t have attached mages like them, and our…” She had to pause and swallow heavily against a swelling in her throat. Aliana had died right in front of her, early on, standing fearlessly up to the beast like a Sister of Avei should. Afarousi had been counting down days till the Sisterhood rotated their detachment again, so Aliana was no longer under her command and it wouldn’t be inappropriate to ask her… In the next moment, she shoved all that ruthlessly aside to be dealt with if she was still alive at the end of the day. There was no time while the battle still raged. “What we have are our weapons and our training, and our oath to the Sultana. So long as any part of this wall stands, we will hold it.”

“CALDERAAS ETERNAL!” they chorused, two brandishing staves overhead. Including, Afarousi was gratified to see, four more of her men and women who had clambered out of improvised cover elsewhere along this shattered stretch of the wall.

That relief was short-lived, though, as the third attempted guerrilla strike by the Imperials failed spectacularly. The mages were just a hint too slow, and the teleportation fizzled as the necro-drake dived onto them.

Several of her Guards averted their gaze; Afarousi forced herself to watch. It didn’t last long. At least the Imps got in a few shots before they fell. Sometimes, that was all a soldier could hope for.

Gods above, this was supposed to be peacetime. This was Calderaas, deep in the heart of the Empire. Mosters attacking cities was fairy tale nonsense out of the Age of Adventures. This wasn’t supposed to be happening.

Immediately she could see the crack in the Imps’ improvised strategy; it depended on improbably precise timing. The next leapfrogged squad was already too far away to continue the maneuver. They fired a volley at the necro-drake but they were already out of effective staff range, and the lightning bolts arced off course well before reaching their target.

The beast raised its skeletal head as if sniffing the air. It did, indeed, turn to glare at the Imperial squad, which they answered with more potshots, but then it twisted again to look at the city.

Staring at its disturbingly chromatic eyes, Afarousi felt she could feel the hatred simmering in it. That thing wasn’t trying to eat, or seek revenge, or anything an animal might do. It just wanted to cause destruction. To kill.

With one beat of its wings, it launched itself into the air and surged back toward the city.

“We need to consolidate,” Captain Afarousi heard herself say. “Saldaan, take everyone to the north gatehouse and place yourself under Colonel Fedmadhev’s command. I’ll make sure you’ve got time to get there.”


“I have given my orders!”

To their credit, her soldiers turned and ran without further debate, though they knew what this meant.

As a line of soldiers fled through the half-broken tower and across the wall on the other side, the necro-drake shifted its focus slightly, winging toward them just as she had expected. It had already demonstrated it was drawn to moving targets.

So Afarousi shot it. Not with her battlestaff—it was still well out of range—but her sidearm.

In many ways, service in the Royal Guard was a welcome reprieve from the Game of Houses that constantly plagued the city; in the Sultana’s direct service there was strict discipline and she was addressed only by military rank by both superiors and subordinates. She had been eager to enlist for that reason, and not just because service was an honored tradition of House Afarousi. But she was still the Lady Shahrizad Fatimah Afarousi, and that meant she had certain privileges—such as her custom wand, a gift from her father. While a true enchanter’s wand would deploy a versatile beam of magic and thus prove ineffective here, this was a layperson’s sidearm, expensive for far more than its mother-of-pearl grip and intricate platinum fittings. It fired a particle beam that would travel for miles if uninterrupted and strike with the precision of a logarithm.

And Captain Afarousi was a crack shot, because she had practiced until she could make that claim. Because she felt a soldier ought to be.

She nailed the bastard right between the eyes.

Very much to her surprise, it went down.

With a howl that sounded very much like pain, the necro-drake folded up in midair and twisted about as if it had just plowed into a wall, plummeting to the road while the Captain lowered her wand, staring in disbelief. Had she accidentally found a weak point?

Not weak enough, she discovered as it immediately surged upright again, its gaze now fixed unmistakably on her. The necro-drake screamed in rage. She shot it again; this time it twisted its skull just enough that the beam raked its cheek instead of hitting it again in the forehead.

“Come on then, you evil shit,” Afarousi hissed, then roared back at it. “CALDERAAS ETERNAL!”

Death met her challenge, springing forward and shooting right at her, this time undeterred by the beams and lightning bolts with which she pelted it, firing with both hands. There was a strangely pure clarity in that moment, knowing how it was about to end, so much so that she felt something like vertigo when it did not.

A streak of Light plummeted from the sky right in front of her, and for the second time in ten seconds, the necro-drake hit the ground, this time with a winged shape atop it, hacking with a glowing sword.

The monster screamed, twisted, and bucked violently, managing to dislodge its attacker. It surged aloft again, no longer coming at Afarousi, who was so startled by these developments that she forgot to shoot it again.

Almost immediately, though, the other flying figure got its bearings and resumed the attack, arcing through the air to strike the necro-drake directly on its side, where its neck met its body. They both crashed down right atop the wall just yards from Afarousi, so close she had to jump back to avoid an errant swipe from one skeletal wing as the beast thrashed.

Its struggles were short-lived as the glowing warrior brought its sword down in one mighty swing and hacked straight through the neck, beheading the monster.

Immediately, of course, it began trying to knit itself back together, but that momentary decapitation made the rest of the body go limp, buying the warrior time to leap astride the upper part of its remaining neck, bring its sword up, and ram it straight downward, point-first, through the exact spot in the center of its forehead where Afarousi had shot it.

In the next instant, it was nothing but black glass. The necro-drake disintegrated in pieces which fell to litter the broken walltop and cascade down both sides; as the multi-hued light vanished from its eye sockets, the smoke put off by its body and the glowing tendrils binding its “bones” together vanished, leaving behind nothing but shards of obsidian.

Captain Afarousi found herself alone atop the wall with something even more out of legend than the monster.

It was a tall and rather androgynous figure, clad in luminous golden armor over a pure white robe, its eyes blazing with holy light. Behind it spread glowing wings, like those the Hand of Avei was said to manifest in moments of the Goddess’s personal blessing, but these seemed permanent, and solid. As she stared, the divine warrior withdrew its sword from the cracked skull, raised one booted foot, and stomped hard.

The black skull shattered under it.

“What,” she said numbly. “Who are…”

“I am Angelus.” The warrior’s voice was like a choir, like a dozen voices in perfect harmony. “I serve the Universal Church.”

“And what…was that?”

“It was evil,” they replied, “and there are more of them. I must go. Rally your defenders, soldier; this fight is just begun. All must be ready.”

They fanned their wings once, and shot aloft, leaving her alone on the wall with the shards of the greatest enemy Calderaas had faced in living memory.

Captain Afarousi craned her neck, watching the glowing figure arc away through the sky until it was lost to distance, then turned to stare around her.

The walls were all but shattered along this stretch. Dozens if not over a hundred brave soldiers had fallen in their defense. But alarm bells were ringing through the city, the belltowers and minarets untouched, citizens still rushing to get to shelter. For all that they had been slaughtered, the defenders had stopped the beast at the wall. Or at least, kept its attention long enough for the Angelus to arrive. It had not gotten so far as to fly inward and rampage in the city itself.

The walls of Calderaas had held.

She wished it felt more like a victory.

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16 – 56

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“Nurdrakhaan,” the Archpope repeated, staring pensively at the ancient data screen affixed to Rector’s apparatus by a framework of commercially available brass fastenings. Currently it was displaying strings of text and numbers which conveyed raw data that the enchanter could evidently interpret, though Justinian understood only bits and snatches.

“That’s what I said,” Rector snapped, still testy from his morning’s excursion into the cold. He tended to wilt outdoors even when the weather was pleasant, hence his complete comfort with living underground for years on end. “Not a lot of data on those, rarely see ‘em on this plane, but size and configuration’s unmistakable. Nothing else makes an infernal signature like that. Apparently got banished back to Hell, too, that’s a first. Usually gotta just kill ‘em.”

“Demonology is not my field of specialty,” Justinian admitted, “but they are mostly magical, are they not? By description, they don’t seem very aerodynamic.”

“Aerodynamic,” Rector scoffed, still tapping rapidly at the screen. “Completely made of magic. Never mind flying, the square/cube law would kill those things just for existing if there was any mundane physics involved. So, no, they should not have been able to tangle with the chaos drake. Makes no sense. Obviously missing a lot of data here.” He irritably flicked the screen with the backs of his fingers. “But I don’t know why or how. This is a direct transcension interlink, it shouldn’t have blind spots like that.”

Justinian raised his head, inhaling slowly as he considered. “A chaos construct destroyed by infernomancy, with key details inexplicably obscured from magical oversight… An explanation presents itself, though it seems improbable.”

“Actually improbable in the mathematical sense, or just counter-intuitive?” Rector grumbled. “Go where the data leads. Data doesn’t respect your prejudices.”

“Point taken,” the Archpope replied with a small smile which Rector was not positioned to see. “I suppose, on further reflection, it does make a certain sense, in light of Antonio’s great research project. Hmm. Natchua…of House Leduc. An interesting choice, but then, the Dark Lady has always been fond of those who skillfully oppose her. We may be forced to adapt to this development, Rector. I would like you to adjust the final array plans to deal with the possibility of large-scale infernal interference.”

Rector let out a long hiss and finally took both his hands off the screen to clutch its edges in a knuckle-bleaching grip. “You told me to key it for divine and arcane effects. Adding another school of potential problems will increase its complexity exponentially!”

“I am sorry to lay it upon you, Rector, but this is now the situation. The final array cannot fail. Everything else can be worked around, but that…”

“Forget the difficulty, you do realize every extra layer of complication introduces more possible things that might go wrong?”

“I do. I must rely on your skill, as always.”

The enchanter heaved an exasperated sigh. “You want me to just go ahead and make adjustments for all four schools while I’m at it?”

“I fear that burden would be prohibitive. I cannot foresee the fae becoming a significant concern, but if the situation changes again I will give you as much advance warning as I am able. We must be prepared for infernal interference because it is now a significant prospect, but not a certainty. I do, after all, have leverage over Elilial, should she set herself against me. For now…” He paused, narrowing his eyes in thought. “…this development forces my hand. You are certain the construct summoning apparatus is stable?”

“I said it was, didn’t I? Completely solid, no significant errors. I even tweaked its efficiency to tighten up the core matrix, should work faster now.”

“Good. We will have to deploy it remotely. Please initiate the summons with all our remaining prepared shards simultaneously.”

Rector went completely still. For a protracted moment he was silent, still apparently staring at the device.

“All of them,” the enchanter repeated at last.


“We only have the one Angelus Knight.”

“The necessary components to make more are secured and on their way here already. The timing will be awkward, but should suffice.”

“Components,” Rector repeated in a flat tone. “If we let all of them loose with only one Angelus, plus the three paladins and whatever intervened at Veilgrad… There’s going to be a lot of damage. A lot.”

Justinian paused, studying the back of the man’s head; Rector remained still in his seat as if arrested by the ideas he was considering.

Rector could be difficult to read, even for a veteran Izarite. At this point Justinian suspected Delilah was the only person who was truly adept at communicating with him, though Azradeh had made surprising inroads in her brief time here, for all that Rector affected to dislike her. The man was not as oblivious as he often appeared, and certainly the farthest thing from stupid. He had, however, always seemed rather narrow of focus, incurious about politics or anything occurring above his subterranean lair with its sprawling complex of workshops in which he was provided everything an enchanter could dream. To Rector, the projects he worked on were absorbing as intellectual exercises. He had never expressed an interest in what the Archpope actually did with his technology, even when the Throne’s retaliation through the interlink had blown up one of his original labs.

But that was before he’d been taken out into the world, seen a nearly headless corpse firsthand and been present when twelve willing souls sacrificed themselves to form a construct of which he had been the principal designer. Considering him now, it occurred to Justinian that Rector’s tense, annoyed demeanor since that morning’s events might arise from more than the inconvenience and cold.

“I’m afraid so,” Justinian answered, glancing back at the closed door to the chamber. Rector hadn’t overtly mentioned the events at the ruins that morning, the risk of which was exactly why he had not invited Delilah to be present for this conversation. Even Nassir was beginning to have questions; she would definitely not have been sanguine. “Everything we do here is toward a greater purpose, Rector. The great difficulty of our work is that it is the greatest purpose, an unprecedented elevation of the whole of humanity. In any complex endeavor there are costs to every benefit, and when one operates on this level… Well, as the saying goes, you can make a desert verdant, but it might empty an ocean. Some of our actions will have unforeseen consequences, and some will carry costs of which we are forewarned, and must choose to accept anyway.”

“And this.” Rector paused abruptly; knowing him, more likely for thought than emphasis. “This will be worth it?”

Justinian exhaled deeply. “I have calculated as best I can to ensure it is so. Life is unpredictable, Rector. I have erred in the past and others have suffered for it; that is a burden I would not wish upon anyone. That is why I have to continue on this course: to spare others having to do so, and to ensure that we meet our goal, and that everything will have been worth it. There are no guarantees, but I swear to you that everything I do is designed toward the greatest possible good, using information and resources to which no one else has access. If I believed anyone could do this task better, I would gladly step aside and let them.”

The enchanter was still for a few more moments, then finally, slowly, released his grip on the machine and returned his hands to their position over the touch screen, beginning once more to scroll through the data.

“Simultaneous deployment should be possible. The array isn’t set up for that, but the difference isn’t qualitative and it’ll be a…relatively minor adjustment. The power source is more than adequate, so…” He tapped a sigil in one corner of the screen and began poking and flicking at the resulting diagrams. “Mm, yeah, it’s more a software than a hardware issue. I can make most of the changes from right here, then go augment some of the conduits, lock in the necessary foci…should just take a few hours.”

“Thank you, Rector.” Anyone else Justinian would have patted on the shoulder, but the enchanter did not like to be touched. “I appreciate all you do.”

He didn’t answer, already fully absorbed again in his device.

Behind them, and behind the illusion of a closed door, the actual door to the room was pulled carefully shut as Azradeh, invisible under the same magical camouflage, eased back out into the hall. She retreated back toward her room, claws silent on the floor. She had only recently worked out how to do this; it was tricky, experimenting with the latent magic within her in moments when she was certain she would not be observed, but some judicious testing on Rector, Delilah, and Nassir had confirmed the stealth worked. Branwen was another matter; Azradeh didn’t want to risk trying to get too sneaky around an empath. But Branwen wasn’t here right now.

For now, she kept her secrets close. Every little advantage could be crucial, and based on what she’d just heard, the moment when they might was fast approaching.

Amazingly, the day just continued to get more interesting. Rasha fancied that she handled the arrival of several huge, glowing wolves which shifted into people rather well, being by that point somewhat inured to outlandish magical bullshit. Glowing wolf-people didn’t hold a candle to what the Archpope had just done right in front of her. At any rate, the Shadow Hunters (as they introduced themselves and she carefully avoided laughing—really, what a name) did, just as Eserion and then Rogrind had suggested, work for the provincial government. Rasha had somewhat ignored the details of political news outside the capital, but confronted with this it did not escape her that by fostering the reformist Shaathists the Duchess Madouri had, contrary to customary practice for nobles, inserted herself in a bold and direct way into cult politics. This was most relevant to Rasha’s concerns because it showed Madouri had aligned herself firmly against the Archpope. Firmly, and rather more aggressively than she would expect from an Imperial governor.

All of this danced about in the forefront of her mind when, scarcely an hour later, she found herself sitting down for tea with the Duchess in person.

The Shadow Hunters had decided to escort her and Rogrind straight to Madouris, since they were apparently a distance from their own headquarters that would have required magic to reach before the two bedraggled refugees began to succumb to the cold. There had followed a flurry of introductions and polite escalations, as Rogrind and Rasha between them had sufficient connections that dropping Trissiny’s name just proved the straw that broke the donkey’s back. The dwarf had ultimately vanished without so much as a farewell, not that she particularly missed him, and no sooner was Rasha herself bandaged, clean, and freshly attired than she was informed by Yancey, the Duchess’s Butler, that she had been invited to join the Lady for tea.

It was Lady, he diffidently made certain she knew in advance. The Duchess did not care for the more traditional epithet of “her Grace.”

“I can’t thank you enough for your generosity, my Lady,” she said, drawing on every scrap of the demure poise Glory had drilled into her.

“Pish tosh, I would be absolutely disgraced to do a whit less,” Ravana Madouri replied in an airy tone which belied the sharp focus of her eyes. “You are a personal friend of my own dear comrade Trissiny, and here I find you have been heinously mishandled on my own lands. I can at the very least see to your comfort and convenience. Consider it a matter of honor, if you wish, but rest assured this is no imposition.”

Whatever she might say, it was generous. Rasha was attired in a new dress—an expensive one in keeping with the latest trends in fashion, and which fit her. Not as perfectly as a properly tailored garment, but quite well. And that raised the question of just why such a thing was so readily on hand, as it certainly did not belong to the Duchess. It would not have fit her.

Rasha was deeply wary of this woman simply due to Trissiny’s description of her personality, but that description had largely omitted the physical and left her imagining the Duchess as some statuesque, imperious figure of impossible beauty and a downright draconic aura of power. To her surprise, Ravana Madouri was tiny. Unusually for Tiraan nobility, she was blonde, and shorter even than Rasha by a few inches. Not to mention just daintier in every proportion. Rasha herself was happy with her body as it had turned out, for all that Sister Eivery had tried to prepare her for disappointment as there were limits to what transformative alchemy could safely do. Far from being disappointed, she found that a tomboyish aesthetic rather suited her tastes, hence her shorter hairstyle. Still, she was not accustomed to being the the taller or more voluptuous of any two women, and yet…here they were.

The infamous Duchess was like a little doll. A tiny, pretty doll who gazed at Rasha with blue eyes like icicles sharpened to killing points. Meeting that dissecting gaze above that bland smile, she found herself believing every detail of Trissiny’s warnings about this woman.

“With regard to that,” she said aloud, “I do hope you don’t put too much blame on Rogrind. Given our history it feels odd to say that, but he actually is, to my amazement, an ally in this.”

“Quite so, quite so! Don’t worry, the situation was explained to my satisfaction. An unusual scenario, to be sure, but I, he, and I suspect you are all accustomed to, shall we say, extenuating circumstances?” She smiled again, then took a sip of her tea, eyes drilling into Rasha over the lip of the cup. “My people escorted Mr. Rogrind to the Svennish consulate here in Madouris. By this time I expect he is back in the capital; it would be standard procedure for them to have a portal mage on call. The gentleman’s account of your morning’s adventures was fascinating! Though somewhat incomplete, I must say.”

“Well,” Rasha murmured, “you know spies.”

“Of course.” Ravana’s smile was a shark’s. “Then, too, he appears to have been oddly incapacitated during part of the events in question. I understand you observed something of great interest?”

And there it was. The Duchess might even have been serious about that “matter of honor” business when it came to tending to Rasha herself, but a woman like that wouldn’t have only one motivation for anything she did. This was the meat of it.

“This is…difficult to talk about,” Rasha said, speaking carefully and thinking as rapidly as she could. Madouri would, of course, be an excellent ally, and already was politically aligned with her by default, but nothing she’d heard about the Duchess suggested she should or could be trusted. “For several reasons. I am entrusted with certain confidences, and also I’m afraid I understood relatively little of what the Archpope did there. High-level magical shenanigans are rather outside my wheelhouse.”

“So the Archpope was there,” Ravana mused. “Observed by you, without noting your presence?”

“It’s difficult to talk about,” Rasha repeated, affecting an abashed little smile.

The Duchess acknowledged that with a slight inclination of her head. “A pity. So much future trouble might have been avoided had you or Rogrind thought to slide a poisoned knife into his back.”

“Eserites don’t carry poisoned knives, my Lady.”

That had been a test, and the result was interesting. Ravana’s eyes shifted almost imperceptibly, crinkling with what looked like real humor. Of course, a person so self-possessed was more than capable of believably faking an emotion, but that wouldn’t be a likely choice of feigned feeling, given the innate rhythm of a conversation such as this.

“Oh?” she said aloud. “How surprising. I should think that would be stock in trade for a Guild agent.”

“The Guild doesn’t do assassinations, and poison is a poor choice of implement for the occasions when we find it necessary to dispense pain. It is more effective, pursuant to our goals, to see it inflicted by a conscious hand than some invisible agent. Also, in the Tiraan Empire, having any combination of poison and bladed weapons on one’s person at a time is considered evidence of murderous intent. A magistrate can impose a prison sentence for that alone.”

“A pity,” Ravana said with a soft sigh. “I’ve not found occasion to poison anyone, but I must say it seems too elegant a tool to be left in the drawer, as it were. Still, it does not do to criticize the experts at their own craft. I have been immensely satisfied with the Guild’s presence in my lands. It is my inclination to let them go about their business without interference from me.”

“It is unusual, my Lady,” Rasha said in the most carefully polite tone she had ever employed, “to meet an aristocrat who feels positively toward the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Do not mistake me, I rather doubt I would make a good Eserite myself. I believe in the importance of strong leadership and centralized power, you see. But I do highly regard the Guild’s approach to corruption. It must be excised without hesitation or mercy. Those who abuse the public for their own profit should receive not an iota of tolerance.”

Their eyes locked, and after a momentary pause, Rasha nodded once, slowly, in simple agreement. Ravana inclined her head again in response, and for just that second, the two shared a real mutual understanding. Not forgetting their respective places and agendas, of course, but it was a beginning.

Rasha decided to take a risk.

“You have a reputation, my Lady,” she said, allowing her delicate caution to relax just enough to meet the other woman’s gaze with open wariness, “for an interest in…unconventional assets, magical or otherwise.”

“I suppose I should be grateful that is the part of my reputation you’ve heard,” Ravana replied in a wry tone. “To be sure, I lack the magical expertise to understand exotic spellcraft, much less create it, but I do enjoy making myself at least aware of such…interesting assets. Especially if I can then employ specialists who are able to exercise them on my behalf.”

“A pragmatist.”

“Just so.”

“Especially when there is…corruption to be excised.”

This time, the Duchess’s answering smile was slow, and somehow icy and warm at the same time. It was a complex expression, one Rasha took as another gesture of camaraderie.

“Just so,” Ravana repeated softly.

Carefully, carefully. Obviously, she intended to tell Trissiny, and Glory, every detail she could recall save those Eserion had asked her specifically to withhold. Those exceptions were enough of a personal burden without adding the guilt of offloading the entire responsibility for this onto the shoulders of her paladin friend. Rasha was not at all sure whether Trissiny would choose to involve the likes of Ravana in what was unfolding between their growing alliance and Archpope Justinian; the Duchess was a potent asset, but not a notably reliable one.

But in the end…Rasha was not her subordinate. This was not Trissiny’s secret, and thus not her decision. And after the day she’d had, it seemed to her that unleashing a monster against her enemies would be a fine payback.

“Hypothetically,” she said aloud, setting her teacup down on the table between them and leaning back in her chair, “as someone with at least a layperson’s interest in obscure magical powers… What would you do if your enemy could deploy what is effectively an archdemon, except powered by divine rather than infernal energy?”

The Duchess’s expression changed not by a whit, and her answer was smooth and immediate. “Well, one is tempted to immediately resort to esoteric magical measures to undermine and neutralize such a foe. What can be created by intricate spellcraft is often best undone by more of the same. And then, of course, it becomes a game of perpetual one-upmanship between those in control of these opposing magical forces. I do quite enjoy such contests of wit, skill, and organizational aptitude, myself.”

“Forgive me if I presume, my Lady, but I perceive an implication in your response that you might act otherwise than according to what you describe as best practices.”

Ravana’s answering smile was downright vulpine. “Indeed. My very inclination toward games such as those obligates me to be mindful of occasions when it is most appropriate not to play them. The best tricks, as they say, are often simple tricks. Facing such an enemy, I would recall my Circles of Interaction and blast it with the most intense concentration of arcane magic it is humanly possible to accumulate and deploy.”

She set her cup down on the table with a solid clink, still holding Rasha’s gaze.

“And then, when the great weapon of the enemy was weakened and near death, I would personally stand upon its neck until I could watch the divine light fade from its eyes.”

“It’s,” Rasha said slowly, “that last bit, there…”

“Come now, I should think an Eserite of all people would understand. Sometimes, it is not enough to defeat one’s enemies. Sometimes, they must be taught fear.”

A shiver traveled up Rasha’s spine, a warning that she was treading in very dangerous waters indeed. It was not, however, a shiver of apprehension, but excitement. With it came the anticipatory prickle of vengeance beginning to take shape. Rasha might not be able to match any of these great powers in strength or even wits, but that did not make her anyone’s football to be kicked around. And what better ploy was there for a weaker player than to set the stronger against each other?

“I hope I am not taking up too much of your time, my Lady,” she said with a gracious nod of her head. “If you would be so kind as to indulge me, I would dearly like to discuss these matters with you further.”

“My dear Rasha,” the Duchess Madouri replied with a smile of pure kindness and warmth, “you are an honored guest here. My time is yours.”

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