“Home, sweet home,” Gabriel groaned, carelessly heaving his suitcase through the open door of the first room he came to.
Tellwyrn had rented the entire top floor of an inn, giving the students a pretty comfortably-sized living space. In fact, there were four rooms surrounding a lounge area which contained a table and wooden chairs, as well as the stairwell to the three floors below. It was well-lit, the fairy lamps old and flickering, but the space dominated by a large bank of windows.
In fact, everything was old. The woodwork was pitted and scarred, the furniture ramshackle, the rug little more than a pancake of cobwebs with fond memories of having been dyed. One of the widows was, in fact, a board, and one of the others a pane of wavy, frosted glass that admitted light but didn’t provide much of a view.
“You’ll have to shuffle the room arrangements a bit,” Tellwyrn said brightly, standing with her back to the windows. It was still early enough—and cloudy enough—that the daylight framing her wasn’t adequate to cast her face in shadow. In fact, it was barely adequate for dramatic effect. “At least two of the privates will need to room with Juniper—”
“I bet all the privates would like to—”
“You can be vulgar on your own time, Miss Punaji. I am speaking.” Glaring at them over her glasses, she continued. “A certain amount of hanky-panky is to be expected. I don’t particularly care about that. Just be cognizant that there are people on the floors below you and try not to act like caricatures of college students. I don’t recommend advertizing your identities, but these things have a way of getting out. Some of you are rather distinctive.”
“If you don’t care about hanky-panky,” Teal asked, stifling a yawn, “why is Clarke Tower bespelled to keep boys out?”
“Kids,” said Tellwyrn solemnly, “in the course of my three-thousand-year career, I have traversed every continent, explored the Underworld as far as Scyllithar itself, spent years in the Deep Wild and ascended to the very edge of the atmosphere. I’ve fought in wars, started wars and ended them; I have met, befriended and battled gods, dragons, demons and monsters for which you know no description. I have mastered magics and fighting styles that each demand lifetimes of study, founded cities which are now only dust and memory, and in general participated in such adventures that my memoirs, should I ever get around to writing them, would effectively re-shape history itself. My very name is synonymous with chaos and belligerence. For all that, I know my limitations, and one task I am not foolhardy enough to undertake is to prevent a bunch of teenagers from going at each other like bunnies the moment my back is turned.”
“How,” Gabriel asked in awe, “can you be so talkative this early in the morning?”
“Clarke Tower is bespelled—as is the boys’ barracks, by the way—to minimize the chances of somebody ending up accidentally pregnant. Considering the political status of many of my students, that’s a scandal that could resonate across the Empire and beyond. The hope is that if you have to make plans and arrangements to play hide-the-wand, one or the other participant will remember to take some basic precautions. I do not care in the slightest if matching pairs of genitals are rubbed together in any configuration, and I’ve seen enough of you lot interacting with each other at this point that I know nobody here is going to get the wrong kind of lucky. So! Room where you like.”
“Wow,” Trissiny managed.
“Anyhow!” Tellwyrn produced a gold pocket watch and consulted it. “I have a breakfast appointment, which was the whole purpose of this excursion, so I’ll leave you to it and check back in this afternoon.”
“Wait!” Toby said as she started for the stairs. “What are we supposed to be doing? What’s our assignment for this trip?”
“You had to remind her,” Gabe muttered.
“Ah, yes. That.” The Professor smiled disarmingly. “The first part of your assignment is to figure out what your assignment is. Best of luck! As a personal favor, though, do try not to burn the place down; I like this inn. Cheerio!”
She bounded down the steps four at a time, her footfalls making barely a sound.
“I’m just a little bit in love with her,” Rook admitted after a moment.
“You, sir, are a weirdo,” Gabriel informed him.
“Gods, you have no idea,” Moriarty muttered.
“What I need,” said Ruda, “is to figure out how to tell when she’s fucking with us as part of one of her bullshit secret tests, and when she’s fucking with us just to fuck with us.”
“I believe there are elements of both in most if not all of her actions,” said Shaeine.
“Probably. Anyhow, speaking of you, I’m a bit sleep-deprived so I might’ve been hallucinating, but did anybody else notice that like half the people outside on the street were drow?”
“We’re in Lor’naris,” Gabriel explained.
“Uh huh. And what’s that mean when translated into words?”
“Actually, it’s called a lot of things,” he added, pausing to yawn. “It’s got one of those boring district designations I don’t even remember, but the main avenue is Firousi Street. Lor’naris is a newer nickname, from the last few years when all the drow who apparently don’t like living in Tar’naris moved in here. Most of the city calls it Freak Avenue.”
“Do they indeed?” Shaeine said quietly.
“Hey, I’m relaying information here,” Gabriel said, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “As a long-time resident of the city. This district has always been a gathering place for people who don’t fit in elsewhere. Most of the non-humans and halfbloods and such, except the dwarves, who have their own district. I used to come here a lot when I was a kid, before my dad made me promise to stop. From what I understand, it’s actually a much nicer place since the Narisians basically took over the district.”
“Narisians are great at keeping things orderly,” Teal said, glancing at Shaeine. They exchanged a little smile and shifted their hands together, not clasping fingers, but lightly touching.
“Ugh,” Ruda groaned, “I insist that you two not be so adorable before breakfast. You’re gonna put me off my whiskey.”
“Sorry,” Teal said, grinning unrepentantly.
“Oh, don’t be so grumpy just because you’re pent-up, Ruda,” Juniper admonished.
“Allow me to hastily change the subject,” said Gabriel. “As usual, we don’t know what the hell Tellwyrn’s expecting us to do…”
“Oh!” Fross chimed, buzzing around the ceiling in a circle. “But if she put us here, there’s a good chance it’s drow-related!”
“That’s a logical conclusion,” Trissiny agreed, nodding. “So…any ideas where to start?”
“Yeah, I’ve got one.” Ruda yawned hugely. “With a fuckin’ nap.”
“I’m with her,” Gabe said firmly. “Wait, I mean… I agree with that. I’m not with her, in a bed sense. Not that you’re not pretty, Ruda! It’s just I’d rather not be stabbed again. I mean, not that—”
“Gabe.” Toby laid a hand firmly on his shoulder. “Stop talking.”
“…maybe that’d be best, yeah.”
“You can’t seriously want to sleep,” Trissiny complained. “We’ve just arrived in the capital of the Empire! And it sounds to me like we’re in one of the most interesting districts.”
“Yeah, and it’s probably not gonna burn down while we get the rest of the fucking night’s sleep Tellwyrn was in too much of a hurry to let us have,” Ruda said, turning toward another of the room doors. “Nighty-fuckin’ night, guys.”
“Perhaps some additional rest would not be amiss,” Shaeine agreed. “Especially if we are to be at our best when exploring the district.”
“Okay, here’s what we’ll do,” Juniper said decisively. “Boys in that room. You three guys can split between my room and Gabe and Toby’s, however you want. Fross, Ruda and Triss can room together, and that leaves the smallest one for Shaeine and Teal.”
“Wait, how come they get their own, oh, uh, nevermind.” Finchley trailed off, blushing. Teal blushed even harder, but Shaeine smiled slightly. There was something vaguely smug about it, unlike her usual little meaningless smiles. She’d been doing that a lot since coming back from break.
“I’ll help you unpack!” Fross declared, zooming into the room after Ruda.
“I can’t believe this,” Trissiny said aloud, standing still while the others shuffled off into their various rooms. “Nobody wants to explore? How much sleep do you all need?”
Toby cleared his throat softly. He was the last person aside from her left in the lounge. “I’m pretty well rested. If you want to go have a look around the area, I’m game.”
She gave him a long look, clenching her jaw.
“On second thought,” she said tightly, “maybe a little more rest wouldn’t hurt.” Trissiny turned and stalked into the room after Ruda and Fross, shutting the scratched old door with more force than it deserved.
As Toby stood there, staring at the door, a soft pattering sound began, and quickly swelled. In moments, sleet was peppering the windows. He stared out at the gloomy weather and heaved a sigh.
“It’s gonna be a long trip.”
Sleet flowed around her, deflected by the invisible shield of heated air she kept over her head. Tellwyrn had toyed with the notion of vaporizing it from the sidewalks in front of her, too, but had decided that would have been purely self-indulgent. Even the umbrella verged on too much; she had suffered much worse than cold and damp, and could have dried herself of within seconds of being back indoors, but she really didn’t feel like getting iced down this early in the morning. Walking on the slippery mess was no imposition to one blessed with elven agility, in any case.
She was the only person out and about, which might be typical for the hour, but in this case was undoubtedly due to the weather. It was a lovely neighborhood, a long double row of towering old brownstone townhouses, crammed closely together but each behind its narrow little garden. The gentle curve of the avenue, parallel to the city’s outer wall, meant the end of the street was always out of sight around a permanent bend, which was a nice trick by some city planner to ensure the fat cats who lived here wouldn’t have to see the hoi polloi in neighboring districts when looking up and down their own street. Every so often, at artfully irregular intervals, a building plot had been left, holding a small slice of park or a monument instead of a townhouse, serving to break up up the monotony.
It was actually rather peaceful. If one endured the cold and had some protection, the sound of the sleet was soothing, and trees, iron fences and eaves were taking on a surreal beauty as they were gradually encased in ice.
Thanks to discreet but clear street numbers, finding her destination was simplicity itself—luckily. There were places in this old city where one’s only hope for locating a specific home was getting very clear directions from someone in the know. Tellwyrn pushed through the unlocked gate, crossed the ice-soaked garden in three long strides and stepped into the shelter of the tiny porch.
She had barely tugged the bell rope when the door was pulled open, revealing a lean young woman in a Butler’s traditional suit.
“Good morning, Professor Tellwyrn,” she said crisply, stepping back and bowing. “Please, come in. You are expected.”
“I should hope so,” she replied, stepping inside. The Butler shut the door and cast a rapid glance over her; Tellwyrn could almost see her customary courtesies being frustrated. A guest who had just been out in an ice storm, yet wasn’t so much as damp and had no outer garment to take, must have been somewhat disconcerting. Her composure, of course, didn’t so much as flicker.
“His Grace awaits you in the dining room,” she said diffidently. “Breakfast will be served immediately. If you would follow me?”
Tellwyrn trailed after the girl, peering critically about. This place could have been lifted straight from a magazine illustration. The décor, the art, the furnishings… Its immaculate condition testified to the Butler’s touch, but nothing here evinced the slightest speck of personality. She knew a front when she saw one. Of course, given who occupied this house, that made perfect sense. The only unique thing about the Bishop’s residence was the low light. Even for this hour, it was dim; fairy lamps were present in abundance, but only one in the hallway was lit, and at a minimal level. This guy was comfortable working in the dark, then—which also made sense.
The dining room was more of the same: expensively but tastefully decorated, and as blandly impersonal as a museum display. Tellwyrn gave it scarcely a glance, fixing her attention on the man who rose from the table to greet her.
“Professor,” he said warmly, striding forward and taking her hand in both of his own. “I so appreciate you taking the time to visit me—really, it’s too generous. And in this hideous weather! I’d have taken no offense at all had you wanted to reschedule.”
“I never allow the weather to change my plans,” she said. “That just encourages it.”
He grinned with actual humor. Bishop Darling was a man to whom she’d not likely have given a second glance if she passed him on the street—which was probably the exact effect he was going for. A lean, fit man in his thirties, he was of average height, blue-eyed, his blonde hair just long enough to have been styled in a foppishly wavy coif. His suit was casual, but tailored and clearly expensive.
“Please, please, sit!” he said, ushering her to a chair and holding it gallantly for her. “Let’s get some hot tea into you. Price will have breakfast out in a jiffy.”
“Thank you,” she said evenly, watching him like a hawk as he strode around to seat himself opposite her. “Food can wait, however. I was offered a bribe for coming out here, I believe.”
“Ah, yes, of course. Price?”
The Butler stepped forward, holding out an antique-looking flat jewelry box, which she opened and extended to Tellwyrn. Within, on a cushion of black velvet, sat an incongruously cheap-looking necklace. Attached to a simple silver chain, it consisted of nothing but a few carved wooden beads, the largest of which was bound by a twist of silver wire to a lock of golden hair.
Tellwyrn very carefully lifted the charm from within the box, mindful of its great age. It wasn’t at all fragile, however; the enchantment on it was minor by modern standards, but sufficient to have protected it from the passage of time. She simply held it for long minutes, staring at it, lost in memory. The Butler stepped back, allowing her space; Darling held his peace.
Finally, she shook herself slightly, rousing from her reverie, and carefully tucked the necklace into her vest pocket, just over her heart.
“Well,” she said, turning a piercing look on the Bishop, “considering whose priest you are, I suppose there’s no need to ask how you acquired this. I would very much like to know from whom you took it, though. I’m quite curious where it’s been all these centuries.”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything about its journey,” he said, spreading his hands apologetically. He seemed completely unperturbed by her stare, which was the one she used to control classrooms full of the Empire’s most dangerous teenagers. This fellow, clearly, had mastered the art of restraint, for all his apparently warm demeanor. “Except that most recently, Mary the Crow had it.”
Tellwyrn raised her eyebrows sharply. “You stole from the Crow? You surprise me, Bishop Darling. I didn’t come here expecting to be impressed.”
“Oh, wouldn’t that be a hell of a thing,” he said wistfully, as Price began laying out plates and serving scones. “They’d remember my name in the same breath as Foxpaw’s… But no, nothing so dramatic, I’m afraid. I recently asked for Mary’s input on a little problem I’m having. She demurred, pleading ignorance, but then nominated you as the leading expert on the matter. Then gave me that, said it was certain to get your attention.”
“I see. Well, this was worth the trip, to me, and entitles you to a few minutes of my time. So now we come to it. What would this ‘little problem’ be?”
He folded his hands on the table, for the moment ignoring his scone. “Khadizroth the Green.”
Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “And what business, exactly, do you have with Khadizroth?”
“Oh, none, I assure you. In fact I’d like nothing better than for him to simply go away and forget about me.”
“That’s wise,” she said, nodding approvingly. “I gather he has business with you, then. This should be a good story.”
“A fairly short one, though some of it might be news to you. Are you familiar with the Cobalt Dawn tribe?”
“I’m aware of them…or perhaps I should say I was. They make a convenient cautionary tale for my history class.”
“Well, it turns out a handful of them survived their attack on the Empire.”
“Oh, don’t tell me,” she groaned. “Khadizroth took them under his wing.”
Darling nodded. “What’s alarming is what he intended to do with them. He specifically rescued the children, and was having them raised with himself as their primary caregiver and role model. Once they were old enough, he intended to use the females to…produce more dragons. A lot of them. Ultimately, his plan was to have a force with which to challenge the Empire.”
Tellwyrn stared. “That’s…actually rather brilliant. Elves aren’t the most fertile race, but there are ways around that. Gods, if he could manage to produce just a dozen adolescent dragons, with him leading them… It would take multiple deities to put a stop to that. I doubt the Empire can yet field anything that could have handled it. To read between the lines, I gather this plan is not currently still viable?”
“Thankfully, no,” Darling said, grimacing and toying with his scone. “The two eldest girls were a little too old when Khadizroth took them in to buy into it fully. They smuggled the other elves away from him, hid them with other tribes, and finally fled themselves. From there they ended up in Tiraas, and then as my apprentices in the Thieves’ Guild.”
“And now, you have a green dragon who wants his property back.”
She drummed her fingers on the table. “…I gather that giving them to him isn’t an option.”
“No,” Darling said, and there was an undercurrent of steel in his voice. “It is not.”
“Good,” Tellwyrn said with some satisfaction. “Well then, you do have a problem. I’m not sure I concur with Mary that I’m an expert on Khadizroth…”
“She did say that you’d bested him. Repeatedly.”
“Not alone.” Tellwyrn shook her head. “And that, I think, is the beginning of your difficulty. Your instincts are working against you here.”
“My instincts?” He raised his eyebrows.
“You’re an Eserite,” she said. “Unless I miss my guess, you’re thinking in terms of a long con. Trying to control information, use the dragon’s cleverness against him. Playing the game, in other words. Correct?”
“In essence,” he said slowly, leaning back in his chair. “That’s what we do.”
“And that’s your problem. As things stand… You and your apprentices are mostly safe so long as you stay behind the walls of Tiraas. Without his planned army, Khadizroth won’t risk his own safety against the might of the Empire. He’ll come at you through intermediaries, and none of the individuals who do that kind of work are crazy enough to pick a fight with the Guild. Conversely, there’s really nothing you can do to him, either. Do you even know where he is?”
“No,” Darling admitted ruefully.
“Right. So here you two sit, on opposite sides of a board filled with pieces you can’t even move. I guarantee the dragon’s patience is a lot longer than yours, Bishop Darling. Eventually, someone will have to give up their advantage and take some action. That’s likely to be you, and it’s all but certain to be your downfall.”
He was frowning now, but in thought, not dismay. “I see. What, then, are you suggesting?”
“Ignore your instincts,” she said firmly. “Don’t take him on alone. Make noise, Darling. Tell people what’s going on. This dragon was trying to raise an army against the Empire? The Empire will have very strong opinions about that. He was planning to use women as captive breeding stock? Elves or no, that’s exactly the kind of thing that drives the Sisters of Avei into a rage. They have brought down dragons, too.”
“I’ve been operating on the assumption that his interest in my girls is to find out what they’ve revealed, find out who else he has to silence. Keeping him in the dark on this matter is probably all that’s staying his hand.”
“You’re probably right,” she acknowledged, “but what do you really lose by forcing his hand?”
“I go from being a possible nuisance to a definite target for revenge,” he said wryly.
“True. But Khadizroth isn’t one of the more vengeful dragons; most of the greens aren’t. Once his secret is out, you become completely irrelevant. If he’s having to run and hide from a continent full of enemies… Well, they might actually do him in, but even if not, he won’t have the time or attention to spare for you. Better to be a target for revenge than one of active tactical concern.”
“Sounds logical,” he said, now staring at the far wall in thought. “A simple solution.”
“The best ones usually are,” she said with some satisfaction and took a bite of her scone.
“Yeah,” Darling said, then chuckled and shook his head. “And like all the best solutions, it’s not really a realistic option for me. The problem, Professor, is my apprentices. They’re Cobalt Dawn by blood, and… Well, without getting into the messy details, there are other concerns. Guild stuff, elf stuff, various miscellany. The point is, I really cannot afford to bring them to the attention of the Empire. Either Imperial Intelligence or the Sisters will need credible information to act against Khadizroth, and if I provide it… I place my apprentices at considerable risk.”
“Elf stuff?” she said flatly.
He gave her a disarming smile. “I don’t pretend to understand all of it. Suffice it to say, I can’t afford for those girls to become a pin on the Empire’s maps.”
“Mm. You sure didn’t bring me an easy one.”
“Well, it’s well known that you dislike being bored.”
Tellwyrn chewed a bite of scone for a long moment before replying. “Then I guess you were right to ask me. I can offer you some insights into Khadizroth that you may be able to use.”
“You are a gentleman and a scholar!”
“First of all, my original recommendation still applies. If you can’t bring official attention down on him, there are others who’ll help you. Since you somehow have Mary the Crow in your address book, by all means tell her about this, if you haven’t already. She tends to get very aggressive with people who abuse elves on a systematic scale such as you’re talking about.”
“Is Mary a match for a dragon?” he asked, clearly fascinated.
“I have no idea,” Tellwyrn said bluntly. “I don’t know if she’s a match for me, either. I don’t know if I’m a match for Khadizroth, because as I said, when I’ve had to tangle with him in the past, I always called in help. It’s all about maneuver, not force. Yes, I’m aware of my reputation and the irony, but when you’re talking about the affairs of gods and dragons and archfae—anything that deserves a Zero Twenty designation, really—different rules apply. We do not engage one another in destructive contests of power, nor enact grand plans to seize more terrestrial power than we need. Khadizroth clearly just did that last one, and in a way that’s likely to damage the reputation of all dragons—such as it is—should the story get out. Find and tell any dragon what he was up to, and he will immediately have problems of exactly the kind he was trying to inflict on the Empire.”
“Dragons, unfortunately, I do not have in my address book,” he said with a grin, then leaned forward, staring at her intently. “I wonder—”
“No, I will not take him on for you,” she said firmly. “I’ve made my own accommodation with the new order of the world, Darling. I perch atop my mountain and train my students, and the Empire tolerates me occasionally throwing my weight around because I’ve very carefully made it plain that I only do so when I perceive a real need. I’m not an adventurer any more, and acting as one would be a betrayal of the responsibility I owe my students.”
“I see,” he said regretfully. “Well, had to ask.”
“I’ll tell you what I will do for you, though,” she went on. “I know one dragon who’ll listen to me; the others will listen to him. Once I set that in motion, it’ll just be a matter of time before Khadizroth has far more important things than you and your apprentices to worry about.”
“That would be greatly appreciated,” he said fervently. “It surprises me to hear you have a dragon for a friend—though on second thought, I really don’t know why it should.”
“More a nemesis than a friend,” she said, grinning. “A three-thousand-year pain in the ass. Zanzayed was the first individual to cause me real problems when I… Well, that’s not important. We’ve been dueling off and on basically forever now. After that kind of time… Friends come and go, Darling, but the right kind of enemy can become more important to you than a lover. I don’t know what either of us would do if something were to befall the other at this point. When my husband died, it was Zanzayed who tracked me down and talked me out of doing something extremely rash.” She shook her head. “Anyway. Of course, I’ll have to find him first; I’ve not heard from him in a few years, and he does enjoy his intrigues. It’s likely to be months before I can get that in motion. You’ll have to cope in the meantime.”
“Zanzayed the Blue?” he said, tilting his head. “He’s in Onkawa.”
“Or was a few weeks ago,” Darling amended, “pursuing some woman. I only know that by happenstance, but I do have access to intelligence reports. I can find out where he went after that, if indeed he’s moved on.”
“No,” she said slowly, “a few weeks is a fresh enough trail. Apparently it’s best if you don’t have the Empire looking into this matter, remember?”
“Quite so. That being the case, thank you very much for the help.”
“Then here’s what you should know about Khadizroth,” she said, pushing aside her plate and leaning forward over the table. “He has the capacity for subtlety, but for the most part disdains it. Sneaking around offends his sense of honor, and of his own majesty. If he feels you’re manipulating him…well, don’t do that, you don’t want him to start making effective use of his resources. If you’re careful, though, if you engage him directly, you can keep his attention focused and his actions relatively aboveboard.”
“I see,” he said thoughtfully. “The fellow sounds a bit like you.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Sorry,” he said, smiling slightly. “But there it is.”
“Okay, I suppose I’ll have to grant you that,” she said ruefully. “The other significant fact about Khadizroth is that he’s a people person.”
“Most dragons tend to regard the mortal races as beneath them. Some are relatively benevolent, though, and by and large, Khadizroth is one of those. He likes to attract and keep followers, and in fact has a knack for earning very real loyalty from the people with whom he surrounds himself. It sounds like your girls scattered the bulk of his retinue, but it’s best to assume he has devoted servants ready to throw at you.”
“At least one that I know of,” Darling said, frowning.
“It’s not all bad news. He recruits based on loyalty, not skill.”
“Yeah, that fits the guy I met,” the Bishop grinned.
“Khadizroth is, in his way, loyal to his followers. It’s very much the loyalty of an autocrat toward his country; filtered through his ego, but sincere. An attack on them is an attack on him, and in fact he may take that more personally than he would a direct strike against himself. He expects enemies to attack him, you see. Going after his people is dirty pool.”
“I see,” he said, wincing. “And…hypothetically, what if I already roughed up one of his servants? Possibly the only one he has left?”
“Then,” Tellwyrn said dryly, “that revenge thing is likely to be a higher priority for him than I previously suggested.”
“Well, now you know,” she said lightly. “You might be able to make amends. I do encourage you to open a line of communication and keep it open until you can get somebody powerful on his scaly tail. Your best case scenario is to set enemies after Khadizroth without revealing you were behind it. He may be willing to negotiate an end to hostilities with you if he finds you honorable and has bigger fish to fry.”
“That may be a slice of pie in the sky,” Darling said, “the situation being what it is. If anybody gets wind of what he was doing with the Cobalt Dawn and comes after him for it, he’s going to have to assume I was behind that.”
“True,” she said nodding, “but as long as you keep it relatively polite, again, that’s just business as usual. If you’re a declared enemy, he’ll expect you to be hostile. He may still be willing to make peace and turn his attention to more serious threats.”
“Then it sounds like I have a working plan.” He smiled, leaning toward her. “I really can’t thank you enough, Professor Tellwyrn. I know this must have been out of your way—”
“Stop.” She held up a hand. “I’ll tell you what, your Grace. After this is over, if you and your apprentices are still alive and free, look around at your situation and decide whether you still want to thank me. You’ll know where to find me if so.”
After the Professor had left, Darling paced in his study, working off some of the tension. She had proven a lot more personable than rumor suggested, but the facts were what they were; Tellwyrn was by far the most dangerous individual he’d ever had under his roof, including the Crow. Mary, at least, was somewhat predictable. Her motives were understood.
Still, it had been well worth it. Tellwyrn’s information was extremely useful, and her offer to help had been more than he’d dared to hope for. Of course, he was still stuck in a contest of wills with a dragon. There was nothing for him to cheer over just yet.
Price cleared her throat softly from the doorway. “Would your Grace like a brandy?”
“Y—no,” he said. “No, Fauna lectures me enough as it is. It’s not even noon, Price. Honestly, I’m surprised at you. What kind of bacchanal are you running here?”
“As you say, your Grace,” she said, perfectly neutral and yet accusing. He grinned at her.
“Price, I have just had a thought.”
“Shall I alert the fire marshal, your Grace?”
“My, aren’t you hilarious. I’ve been thinking I needed to keep this dragon issue as strictly separate from the Archpope and his schemes as possible.”
“That sounds sensible, your Grace.”
“Mm hm. However.” He turned from her and began to pace again. “Based on Tellwyrn’s recommendation, I need to find something straightforward and aggressive to point at Khadizroth until she can get some other dragons to deal with him. On the other hand, the Archpope expects me to recruit and control some of the world’s most dangerous adventurers. My biggest problem there has been finding something for them to do; these aren’t people who’ll be willing to be put on retainer and sit around in pubs until they’re called for. And what, I ask you, is more of a classic task for adventurers than slaying a dragon?”
“I confess I had rather hoped your Grace would task them with the collection of proverbial bear rumps. I have an excellent recipe.”
Darling grinned fiendishly. “Sometimes, Price, when the gods smile on us, two problems are the solutions to each other.”