The Adventure Will Continue

The Gods are Bastards is on a temporary hiatus due to the author’s mental health and burnout on the series. It is being worked on at a slower pace and updates will resume when they are ready. In the interim, D. D. Webb will be publishing a new story which will update regularly.

For regular updates and to stay in touch with the community, join Webb’s discord server.

Thank you for reading TGAB! This adventure is not over yet.


Sorry about the radio silence, everyone. As always, the best way to keep abreast of developments is to join my discord server; announcements are posted there and you can easily ask questions of the community, as well as myself when I’m around, which is at least daily.

So I have good news and bad news!

The bad news is that The Gods are Bastards is going to remain on hiatus for some time. I am recovering well from burnout and have overcome most of the stress-induced aversion I’d developed to the story, but recovery itself brought up a whole new set of problems: looking at it with a clearer head, there are multiple major plot threads I have no idea how to resolve, a number of things I honestly can’t remember what my original plan was, and in general the realization that I am just not ready to produce the last two books and have them be up to the quality I want. I should’ve anticipated something like this; depression is known to cause memory loss, and this is an enormous story with a ton of stuff to keep track of. This story deserves and needs a proper conclusion, and I need to take more time to do (at least one) complete re-read, do some serious plotting, and work on it. At the moment I am actually planning to do the last two books as books rather than as serial chapters. You know, write them all out ahead, and then go back and edit the whole before publication. And I should be able to do this without completely leaving everyone in the lurch thanks to the good news.

The good news is that my next story will launch the first week of February. The hard deadline I’ve set myself is the 6th, my birthday, but I’m aiming for before that. I have been writing steadily for the last few weeks, both to build my rhythm back up after taking a break and to build up a buffer. I was really burned out; I didn’t even start to realize how badly until I’d taken some time to rest. Honestly I feel I could take the rest of the year off and be better for it, but I’ve reached a point where even pure regard for my own mental health won’t allow that. I need to be working and creating, and I’m bumping up against the threshold where the lack of doing is would cause me too much stress to be worth the rest. So! Stories will resume next week. We’ll be off on a new adventure, with me having a comfortable buffer at launch so I’ll be able to take breaks as I need them and work on the next part of TGAB without taking another complete hiatus.

The final announcement and link to the new story will of course be posted here, and as I said all relevant info will be available on discord.

I’m more grateful to all of you than I can express, and expressing things is literally my life’s work. That’s how much I appreciate you. Thanks deeply to the tremendous patience of those who’ve continued to support me on Patreon and even sent me donations during this period when there was no work coming. Y’all have kept me fed and housed and enabled me to recover enough to get back to work and I promise I will do my very best to make it worth your while with my future offerings. But even if you’ve never sent me a red cent, I want you to know that you are still very important to me and I’m grateful to you for being a reader. Nobody goes into fantasy writing to strike it rich! I just wanted to give people a bit of happiness and knowing I’ve done so is the thing that truly keeps me going when I’m at my lowest points. I hope my writing has made your life a little bit better in some small way; I know it’s a mess out there and we’re all holding on as best we can.


Condition update

It’s been a month and I want to discuss my status as promised.

I’m doing better.  Less stressed, more stable, and been able to do some writing.  I still find myself broadly blocked on TGAB and not able to write at what I consider an industrious pace, just bits and drabbles here and there.  My plan is still to resume publication as soon as I feel I can sustain a consistent output, which is not yet.  We’ll have to see how it looks for me at that point but as I said before, that may not be on TGAB, if this universe needs more time to rest before I can give its conclusion the attention it deserves.

I’m grateful to everybody for being patient about all this, and most importantly I want to express gratitude to my Patreon backers and the individuals who have sent me donations in the last month.  That is my only income and you’re what’s keeping me solvent.  I’m really sorry to make you pay for me to in essence take a vacation, and I am resolved to make it up by getting myself back in good enough mental shape to give you the best stories I can when I’m fully back at work.

This has been a very revelatory month for me–productive in at least one sense, even if I wasn’t getting any writing or publishing (to speak of) done.  For one thing, I discovered I have basically every common symptom of adult ADD, and learned that the condition is strongly correlated with bipolar disorder, which I’d never heard before.  So, good to know, I guess.  I’ve been doing a lot more introspection and come to some realizations about my mental condition and patterns, and conclusions about how I need to modify my approach going forward.  I don’t want to bog everybody down with tedious navel-gazing, just know that I am actively working on being able to proceed as a writer without having any further episodes like this one.

My current project, which will be my focus for this month, is to write steadily–not to produce lines, at least at first, but with caution and self-analysis, and develop a new understanding of my limits.  In essence, I mean to practice regularly and find out how much I can consistently produce without straining my mental faculties again, then see if that amount changes as I continue to benefit from resting my burned-out circuits. 

At this point, I’m still very much shooting in the dark despite my increased self-awareness, because the biggest problem with functioning as a mentally ill person is the human mind isn’t wired for self-analysis, and it’s prohibitively hard to suss out what’s going on under the hood.  I’ve gained a new insight into what’s happened in the past, but can’t predict very well how things will develop in the future.

My current plan is to be back at work by January.  Maybe by Christmas, I’d like being able to make that goal at least.  I don’t want to either procrastinate or push too hard, and it’ll be tricky to find that balance, but I will continue to be in touch about any changes, developments or insights as they happen.  For now, I still need more time to recuperate and also understand my limits better so as to be able to proceed consistently once I’m back in full swing. 

I appreciate all of you.  Thanks for reading; I really hope you’ve enjoyed the last few years of fantasy adventures and I fully intend to provide many more to come.

Observations from hiatus

First of all, I deeply appreciate all the kind words and well-wishes.  I think I have the best readers; I’m always blown away by how supportive and patient all of you are.  Having come off my decision to take a break feeling like doing so meant I’d fundamentally failed, the reassurances were materially vital in making this a recuperative break rather than another cause of spiraling stress.  Thank you all so very much.

Two weeks in, I am doing notably better, to the extent that I’m only belatedly becoming aware of how serious my condition was.  The violent mood swings have stopped, and I didn’t even notice I was having those until they went away.  I’m getting enough sleep for the first time in I think months, and my appetite has stabilized so I’m no longer ping-ponging between self-starvation and gorging on junk.  I was clearly having a fairly serious mental episode that went well beyond my inability to write, and am now improving on all fronts. 

My priority for the near future is doing a better job of keeping track of my mental condition and disciplining myself to take breaks, which is something I have consistently been very bad at.  TGAB updated three times a week almost without fail for its first two years, and as I look back at the pattern of updates and schedule slips it’s become apparent to me that I only started taking time off because I’d burned myself out and would miss updates due to being unable to continue.  I should’ve just been taking planned breaks on a gentler schedule to begin with; I think I did myself real long-term damage cranking out that much content starting long before I began to be aware of the effects.  My concern now is, as I’m getting a better handle on how this has actually affected me, it may take me more than a month of rest to recover my condition back to baseline.  I will definitely be in touch with all of you about any decisions I make.

My roommate mentioned this week that she’d been seeing signs of my deteriorating mental state but hesitated to bring it up, which I understand; that’s a hard conversation to have.  I’ve clarified that such observations will be welcome in the future as I have large blind spots in monitoring my own condition, so hopefully I’ll get some more outside warning if I begin to overextend myself again.

There’s something else I’ve discovered in the last week that may determine what and how I publish going forward.

I started to discover this when I began to do some writing again.  I know, I know; don’t worry, I am not pushing myself.  This is all part of the balance I’m trying to figure out: rest is important and I promise to do a better job of remembering that, but writing is a big enough part of my identity that I can’t completely stop it or I begin taking psychic damage.  I haven’t written very much, just some minor progress on a couple of side projects, but it was the nature of those which clued me in to a problem I failed to notice as it built.

I’ve been able to work on those additional stories, but not on TGAB, at all.  I didn’t realize the extent of this until I started doing a reread of TGAB to keep it fresh in my mind while I wasn’t working on it, and couldn’t even do that.  I could not focus on it or motivate myself to keep going.  The entire project is just pushing me away.

What I’ve come to realize is that I’ve burned myself out on this story in particular.

It goes without saying that this is shit timing.  TGAB has only one or two more books left; I honestly don’t know which right now as I literally cannot make my mind buckle down and plot out the final arc in detail.  That’s a terrible time to leave it hanging and the prospect makes me cringe, but I’ve come to a point where I just plain can’t work on it.  And my whole project for this hiatus is making myself recognize and respect these boundaries when they come up so as not to mentally damage myself further trying to push through them.  I have no doubt whatsoever that this will alleviate with time and I’ll be able to finish the story; what I do not know is when.

I am posting this, basically, to raise the possibility that when I return to writing and publishing, I may at first have to leave The Gods are Bastards on hiatus and post something else for a while; I’d like to solicit opinions and comments on this prospect, if anyone has any thoughts.  A decision is not made right now, I’m still taking stock of my condition and considering my options, and of course my own status will change as I continue to recuperate.

There are other things I can work on.  Despite how it appears, I’ve not abandoned Netherstar, and might welcome reason to pivot to that for a while.  There are also the two side projects I’ve been pecking at for a while, the ones I’ve been able to do some work toward in the last week: a classic C.S. Lewis-style portal fantasy about anthropology and the spoon theory of mental health, and an isekai deconstruction which is basically a therapy project for me, a way to work through some issues I (and a lot of the world) have been grappling with over the last year or so.  There’s also the story I’ve been plotting out and which was planned to be my next major serial project after TGAB; I know I’ve mentioned the phrase “steampunk kung fu space opera” before.  That one I’ve only been laying out mentally and haven’t done any actual writing down, and also don’t have a final decision on what to call it.  I don’t love the working title I’ve been using.  Point is, I have other things ready to launch, if it comes down to a need to do something other than TGAB.

I will continue to prioritize resting up, for now, and will remain in touch about any developments.  As I said, I haven’t come to any final decisions about any of this, I’m just trying to be transparent with everyone about what’s going on.  Thanks again, very much, for your patience and support.  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Onward and upward.

admitting defeat

[trigger warning: mental health]

I am as close to a complete breakdown as I think I’ve ever been.

Part of it is just the usual.  I have a chemically imbalanced brain that’s caused me long and deep depressive episodes (and occasional manic spells) for years now.  Ho hum, situation normal.

Part is the long-standing situational shit everyone on Earth has been dealing with all year.  Months upon months of going nowhere, doing nothing and talking to almost no one has worn us all down.  I don’t think I’m alone in being flabbergasted at how much of an effect this has had.  For introverts like me, it sounds on paper like utopia, but…well, I don’t have to tell anybody what it’s like, you’re all alive in 2020.  Starting from a state of baseline mental imbalance, it’s been…a thing.

Part is more imminent situational shit, as this week I wait to find out whether my country is going to dive into full-on fascism or revert to the intolerable post-capitalist dystopia that’s made millions of people desperate enough to embrace full-on fascism, while I sit here watching both axes to see which falls and wondering what it’d be like if there was a good option, or even a bearable one.

And I’m pretty sure part is the self-fulfilling prophecy and vicious cycle of how all this has caused me to continue to fail at everything, which adds to the pressure and self-recrimination.  As deadlines pass and updates don’t happen and promises go unfulfilled because I just can’t seem to function on a basic level it becomes more and more evident to me that I should quit wasting everyone’s air pretending to be a writer and go get a warehouse job.

The really shitty thing about mental illness is how invisible it can be even to the person having it.  With no sensation of pain or nausea or any such biological warning sign, when I sit here for hours at a stretch unable to just type words on a keyboard and not being able to tell why the only sense I can make of it is simply that I suck.  There’s no feedback that tells me why this is so hard.  I’ve been staring at an in-progress chapter in my word processor all day and achieving nothing but anxiety attacks.  Well, almost nothing, I have managed to add a whole four (4) god damned words to the chapter.  Just typing this post is as physically difficult as running a marathon and that makes no fucking sense.  Yes, I understand what mental illness is, but just intellectually.  It doesn’t feel like there’s a legitimate problem here.  It feels like I am just lazy and stupid and generally inadequate by every possible metric.

This has been a month of basically no productivity, of anxiety and panic attacks, of some of the deepest depressive episodes I’ve ever had, and I’ve been trying so hard to push through and get the fucking chapters out because life is shit for everybody right now, I’m in a luckier position than so much of humanity and my one job is to produce something to help make people’s day a little bit more fun and this is the worst possible time to fail at it, but, well.  I have.  Failed.

I’ve gotta stop.  I feel like I’m coming apart at the seams.  I can’t fix what’s wrong in my brain or what’s wrong with the world.  The only thing I can change about this is the pressure on me to get something published for god’s sake, it’s not a difficult job and people are counting on me and paying me to do this and it’s unbelievable that…  sorry, that’s the kind of tangent I spiral off into every time I think about it.

I have the most supportive and understanding readers on this blessed earth and I appreciate that fact and every one of you so very much, though in a way that almost makes it worse.  Everyone’s always telling me to take breaks and take care of myself, don’t worry and stop pushing, and god, I really wish I could.  I just can’t suppress how awful I feel because I keep letting you all down when you provide me with a living to do this one simple thing that I can’t seem to keep up with anymore.

I’m sorry, further, for subjecting you to a rambling unhinged rantpost like this, I’m sure you all have plenty of stresses and don’t need any of mine.  Feels like I spend way too much of my time complaining about my lot in life anyway.  It’s just that I don’t want to be silent and leave people wondering.  If I can’t manage to meet my obligations, which feels like it’s basically always now, at the very least I owe everyone an explanation of what’s going on.

This feels even more ridiculous coming off my last break, what, a month ago?  Two?  Time is chaos anymore.  I would never plan a hiatus so soon and that’s why I’ve been resisting this so hard but I finally have to bow to the obvious fact that the content isn’t getting made anyway, so I guess if I’m gonna be useless I may as well make it official and try to turn it into a plan to fix my shit as best I can. 

In a concession to reality, I am taking an official break.  Last time I took two weeks off after spending two weeks in a spiraling stew very similar to this one in which I failed to publish anything and then called that a post hoc month hiatus.  That doesn’t seem to have worked.  I came back feeling better but it barely lasted a week. 

The idea of it is causing me to panic again but I’ve gotta face the fact that if I don’t take the time I need to recuperate this is just going to turn into an endless cycle and I’ll just never be able to finish this story.  So, and I can’t express how much I hate myself for doing this, I am taking a planned hiatus of one month, not counting the preceding month of effectively accomplishing nothing.  November will be off.  And at the end of that, I will reassess my condition, see if I’m feeling recovered enough to resume publishing, and if I honestly do not, I will extend it.  God, even typing that makes me feel as slimy as a slug orgy.  I’m just out of any better ideas.  I can’t keep doing this, the story will only suffer more for it.

This is wholly inadequate and I’m more sorry than I can express for letting you all down so much.  I just don’t know what else to do; this is my only idea for trying to restore some of my dilapidated functionality so I can get back to creating the content you all come here for.

I’m eternally grateful to you and sorry about everything.

If you haven’t read them, I strongly endorse A Practical Guide to Evil and The Wandering Inn for your fantasy webserial needs.  I love those stories; I think most of you who like TGAB will enjoy them, too.  They’re both super long, as well, so if you’re picking them up for the first time they should keep you busy for quite a while.  Hopefully longer than I’ll be on hiatus; it took me several months to catch up with each.  Please give ErraticErrata and pirateaba my professional respects if you head over there.

Mother of Learning is also a really good story.  I didn’t enjoy it quite as much but still quite a lot, and it has the advantage of being complete now–plus, as with the above, free to read online. 

I’m sorry that recommendations are the only entertainment I’m able to offer right now.

I promise I’m going to do my best to recuperate and be able to get back to giving you some real good story material when I return.  I’m so sorry for this, all of it.

Please take care of yourselves.  It’s rough out there; do whatever you have to to come through okay.

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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