“Hey, guys!” Gabriel said, waving. “What brings you into town?”
“Hi, Gabe!” Fross chimed, zipping over to buzz around his head once. Ruda and Trissiny approached more sedately. The square of Last Rock wasn’t crowded—there just weren’t enough people in the town to make that a likelihood—but citizens were going about their business in the falling afternoon light, and the Ale & Wenches was already glowing and resonating with high-spirited energy, apparent even from across the square.
No one greeted them. No one glared, either, but since the hellgate incident, the already complex relationship between students and townsfolk had been slightly but noticeably more stiff.
“Had to get out of the tower,” Ruda grunted, lifting her hat to run a hand over her hair. “I feel a little bad about it, to be honest, but…”
“We were comforting Juniper,” Trissiny added. “She’s…extremely upset. Nearly to the point of incoherence.”
“What?” Gabe came to a stop, his eyes widening. “What happened to Juniper?”
“Like Boots said, she was a little too emotional to give a concise explanation,” Ruda said with a grimace, “but in and around the weeping and rambling we put together that something bad happened to Aspen, and Juno thinks it was her fault.”
He paled slightly. “Something…bad? How bad?”
“Well, Naiya hasn’t leveled the campus,” said Trissiny, “and there’s not a crazed dryad-monster rampaging around, so clearly not as bad as it could have been. Tellwyrn was dealing with Aspen, so it’s presumably under control and being dealt with. More than that we won’t know until Juniper pulls herself together or Tellwyrn sees fit to share information with us, just for a refreshing change of pace.”
“Teal and Shaeine are still with her,” Fross reported. “We were all there trying to cheer her up, but she was kind of fixedly hanging onto her pet for comfort, and Jack apparently doesn’t like crowded rooms.” She bobbed in place once, chiming a few off-key notes. “Or bright lights.”
“He headbutted Trissiny,” Ruda said, grinning.
Gabriel pressed his lips into a thin line, though didn’t manage to fully conceal their twitching. “He…the… With the antlers, and everything?”
“Yes, with the antlers,” Trissiny growled. Ruda burst out laughing. “Yes, yes, it actually was kind of funny, I guess, but only because I am wearing armor! Which most of our classmates don’t. I’m sorry Juniper is having such a hard time, but if she doesn’t get that rabbit trained and under control there are going to be real problems.”
“What, you’ll take it upon yourself to get rid of it?” Ruda asked, still chortling.
“I am hardly going to kill my friend’s pet!” Trissiny said acidly. “I meant the rabbit is going to hurt somebody. With those antlers and as powerful as his back legs are, that headbutt could disembowel someone!”
“She’s not kidding, they actually do that to predators,” said Fross. “Though as I mentioned previously, jackalopes are not rabbits. They’re rabbit-derived fey, a textbook transbiological animal. No active magic to use, but seriously, a creature with a rabbit’s body couldn’t support antlers.”
“Anybody ever told you you’re getting a little pedantic, Fross?” Ruda asked.
The pixie did a figure eight in the air above them. “I just like things to be accurate!”
“You were visiting the temple?” Trissiny asked.
“Yeah,” said Gabe. He sighed, unconsciously placing a hand on the hilt of his sword. “I… Tarvadegh says I don’t have to come every day, and it’s best not to bury myself in too much religion. I don’t even disagree, but… I just have so much catching up to do, y’know?”
Trissiny nodded, smiling slightly. “Well, it’s good to see you being so diligent, anyway.”
“For once,” Ruda said, then snickered. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, you were all thinking it.”
“Ignore her,” Trissiny advised. “And really, Gabe, don’t hesitate to talk to Toby or me about anything. We can’t really tell you much about Vidianism, probably, but the paladin’s call is something that takes getting used to. And…you sort of never do. We’ve been there.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ruda said dismissively. “How’s about you two do that while the rest of us are off on whatever fucking punishment duty Tellwyrn cooks up for us, since we didn’t loaf around here all summer to do it. We’re gettin’ a drink, Arquin.” She pointed a thumb over her shoulder at the A&W. “Wanna come with?”
“A…drink?” he said, his eyebrows rising sharply. “One of you doesn’t drink, one can’t, and one has basically all the booze on her person at all times.”
“Getting a drink is a social ritual!” Fross proclaimed. “The purpose is to go out in public and have fun by conversing with one another and whatever people we meet. Actually drinking is secondary to the purpose and not strictly necessary.”
“Ah,” he said solemnly. “Well, when you put it like that, I’d love to come along. If only to watch Trissiny grab the owner and tear him a new one about naming his pub the Ale & Wenches.”
“Trissiny,” said the paladin in question, “is learning to pick her battles.”
Ruda snorted. “Better late than never!”
“I’m not sure this is wise,” Iris muttered, glancing around the bustling pub. “We’re leaving Bitch Ears alone in our dorm. Gods only know what she’ll do. We’ll come back to find our freakin’ beds on fire, I just know it.”
“Bitch…ears?” Maureen said, her own tufted ears twitching.
“May I request that we refrain from ear-centric racial epithets?” Szith asked mildly.
Iris turned to her, eyes widening in horror. “Oh! I—that—aw, gods, Szith, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean… I’m an idiot.”
“I was not going to put it quite so strongly,” Szith said with the ghost of a smile.
“In any case,” Ravana said firmly, “what will be, will be. Every vicious prank Addiwyn pulls brings her closer to getting slapped down by the authority of the University, and I rather think that Professor Tellwyrn’s discipline is less than gentle. Let us leave it at that, for one night at least, ladies. The purpose of this evening is to relax.”
“I’ll relax when I find out how much trouble our homework is gonna get us in tomorrow morning,” Maureen mumbled.
“Your Grace!” exclaimed a portly, balding man with a luxuriant handlebar mustache. “Welcome, welcome!” To the surprise of the others, he bowed deeply to Ravana, earning speculative stares from all corners of the room. “I received your message, and all is in readiness! Are you certain you only wish the table, your Grace? Merely say the word, and I can have this entire place cleared in five minutes!”
“Let us not disrupt your business any more than is absolutely necessary, Mr. Lowery,” Ravana said with a smile. “I am merely having an evening out with friends, not holding court. Tonight need have no bearing on our established arrangement.”
“Of course, your Grace, of course,” he said, bowing again. “Anything you require. Allow me to show you to your table!”
“Thank you, no,” she said politely. “I believe my arranged escort to be quite adequate. I won’t keep you from your duties any longer, Mr. Lowery.”
“Of course, of course,” he repeated, bowing yet a third time. “And please, if you should wish the slightest thing, don’t hesitate to ask!”
The owner of the Ale & Wenches was forced to retreat as a tall man in gray and red livery, carrying a staff and with both a holstered wand and sheathed saber hanging from his belt, stepped between him and Ravana. He saluted her briskly, then bowed and gestured toward the stairs.
“What…the…hell,” Iris said.
“This way, ladies,” Ravana said brightly, gliding off toward the indicated staircase. The A&W had a two-layered main area, with a boisterous main floor and a slightly quieter balcony above, though on really busy nights, the differences between them diminished considerably. The balcony was reached by staircases along both walls. The girls climbed one of these in bemused silence, the uniformed guard following them. Another man in the same uniform stood at the top of the stairs.
Half the balcony had been cleared. Actually, more than that; two more guards, a man and a woman, took up positions that made a clear line of demarcation barring access to the half reached by their chosen staircase. Only two patrons had decided to stay and endure their silent presence, a young couple tucked into a table in the opposite corner.
In the secured half of the balcony, tables and chairs had been pushed out of the way, everything rearranged so that one round table stood in the middle of the open space, with a rectangular one laid along the back wall. The round table was draped with a white cloth, in stark contrast to the plain wood of the A&W’s regular furnishings, and set with china, crystal and silk napkins, with a towering centerpiece of wrought iron and lit candles strangled by living vines of ivy, apparently freshly-cut. The chairs around it were draped with red velvet cloths and flat gilt-edged pillows. At one place there was no chair, but a tall stool with a gnome-sized seat atop it, reached by a small flight of collapsible stairs. The table along the back, also decorated with a tablecloth, was laid out with bottles of wine and covered dishes which steamed faintly. A blank-faced woman in a uniform which had the same gray and red colors as the guards, but was much less militaristic in cut, stood beside it, a white towel draped over one arm; she bowed deeply upon Ravana’s arrival.
“Am I asleep?” Iris squeaked. “Did someone put shrooms in my tea?”
“Please, have a seat,” Ravana said smoothly, suiting the words by stepping up to her own chair. The servant held it for her.
“He…called you…your Grace?” Maureen said, with a rising inflection that made it a question. “Are…are you a Bishop?”
Ravana laughed lightly. “Oh, good heavens, no. Frankly, I have little use for religion. No, I am merely a Duchess. The address of your Grace is technically correct, but rather old-fashioned. Most commonly I am addressed as Lady.”
The other girls found their way slowly to seats, staring around at the opulence imposed upon this section of the rough tavern.
“If I am not mistaken,” Szith said, “the proprietor of this place offered to, in essence, shut it down at your whim.”
“Mr. Lowery and I have an arrangement,” Ravana said idly, watching as the uniformed servant poured her a glass of red wine. “I have rented this establishment every weekend for the duration of the semester. I made certain to be generous in my terms, considering what it would cost him in lost custom. I have found that it pays greater dividends in the long run to invest in public goodwill than to pinch every possible penny. Indeed, you saw how amenable he was to accommodating me further.” She carefully lifted the wineglass, took a tiny sip, and inhaled deeply through her nose while holding the wine on her tongue. Her eyes drifted closed and a small sound of pleasure resonated deep in her throat. “Mmn… How I have missed that. I dearly mourn the demise of the bottle I brought onto campus. This vintage is quite irreplaceable.”
“You used the phrase ‘holding court,’” Szith said, quietly but persistently. “Forgive me if I impose, but all this makes me extremely curious.”
“Yes, quite,” Ravana said with a soft sigh, setting down her glass and folding her hands in her lap. She regarded them with a calm little smile. “Well, gauche as it may be to draw attention to oneself, I suppose it would be purely rude to keep you all in the dark. This would all come out soon enough, anyway. To introduce myself with all the requisite formalities, I am Duchess Ravana Firouzeh Laila Madouri, high seat of House Madouri and Sovereign of Madouris and Tiraan Province.”
“Sovereign?” Iris squeaked. “Tiraan Province?! You…you rule the capital?”
“The Silver Throne rules the capital,” Ravana corrected her gently. “Tiraas itself is governed directly by the Empire, with no provincial or intermediary government. With regard to myself, the word rule is perhaps overstating the matter. My exceedingly pretentious title of sovereign has more to do with tradition than fact. I am, however, the governor of Tiraan Province, the lands around the capital which formed the pre-imperial nation of Tiraas, currently administered from the colonial capital in Madouris.”
“Governor,” Iris croaked, staring goggle-eyed at her. Maureen was sitting stiffly in her high seat as if afraid she might fall off, sneaking worried glances at the uniformed guards standing around them.
“In theory,” Ravana continued lightly as the servant began deftly setting down plates of some kind of steamed fowl in a light orange sauce, garnished with subtly glowing sprigs of fresh manaleaf, “I answer to no one but the Emperor. In practice, of course, the world of politics is more complex; no one is without masters. House Madouri is the longest-reigning line in the Empire—our dynasty has ruled from Madouris uninterrupted for a thousand years, since the original city-states of the Tira Valley and Calderaas first formed the Tiraan Empire and designated Tiraas itself their capital. Despite this lineage and prestige, my House has recently done considerable damage to its good name, not to mention its coffers. The Empire itself is taking a firm hand in the administration of my province for now and the immediate future, though I am confident I am on the way to redeeming the name Madouri in the eyes of the Throne. Meanwhile, as with all successful societies which are governed by hereditary nobility, there are safety checks in place to prevent incompetent rulers from doing excessive harm. The province is in good hands under my steward and its own attendant bureaucracy, but there are some matters which require the prestige of the governor’s involvement. For those, for the duration of my formal education, I can be reached on weekends at this establishment.” She paused to take another sip of wine, again savoring it. “It was made firmly clear to me that I am not an exception to Professor Tellwyrn’s rules about students leaving the campus during the semester.”
“That seems rather…inconvenient,” Szith said carefully, glancing around the tavern. “And, I suspect, contrary to the expectations of those who would have business with you.”
“Please, ladies, relax and eat,” Ravana urged, picking up her own fork and knife. “Don’t be shy, we are all friends here. In any case, Szith, you are correct, but it’s important to consider these things in their context. One of my ancestors had a custom bridle and saddle made for his wife; he would conduct official business while riding her around the courtyard, forcing anyone seeking audience with him to walk alongside. One makes allowances for powerful nobility.” She smiled, a lopsided little expression that was closely akin to a smirk. “It is inconvenient, yes, but so long as I choose to hold court in a tacky faux-adventurer bar, those who feel themselves entitled to a share of my time and attention will have to cope. Those about whose opinions I need concern myself will already understand how much worse it could be.”
She paused, chewing a dainty bite of poultry. Maureen had finally sampled hers as well, her eyes widening in pleasure at the taste. Iris was still gaping at Ravana as if frozen.
Szith studied her silverware. “I was not expecting to be invited to a formal dinner,” she admitted. “I have not been trained… That is, we use simple knives in Tar’naris. I understand there is a ritual handling of these utensils?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” Ravana assured her. “That is, I’ll be glad to coach you in Tiraan etiquette if you wish to learn, but please don’t concern yourself with it here. This is hardly a formal occasion, merely a shameless and disgusting self-indulgence on my part. Please, make yourselves as comfortable as you like. Eat with your fingers if you wish, I’ll pass no judgments.”
“You’re…practically royal,” Iris whispered.
“Iris,” Ravana said gently, “dig in. It’s very good, I promise.” There came a soft clatter as Szith dropped her fork, having attempted to mimic Ravana’s delicate fingertip hold on hers. The servant was there instantly, laying down a replacement.
“But…you’re a queen!”
“Would it help if I ordered you to enjoy yourself?” Ravana asked wryly. At that, Iris began to look outright panicked. “Please,Iris, we are going to be sharing a room for four years. This is why I wanted to get all this out of the way in the first week. Have you noticed that the professors address all of us as Mr. or Miss in class?”
“Or Ms,” Maureen added. “An’ in all frankness I suspect Tellwyrn only uses Miss to rankle Lady Trissiny.”
“Avenists don’t use titles such as Lady,” Ravana said with a smile. “She would probably rather be called by given name, but her actual title is General if you insist on being formal. My point is, girls, I am hardly the only aristocrat in our circle. Prince Sekandar is only slightly lesser in social rank than myself. There are paladins, foreign royalty and demigods among the student body here, and as far as the University is concerned, they are all treated alike. I am not going to invite Tellwyrn’s censure by acting as if I am above any of you. Please don’t think of me as if I am.”
Finally, hesitantly, Iris picked up her fork, studying her artfully arranged plate as if uncertain of its intentions.
“Forgive me if I pry,” said Szith, carefully manipulating her silverware in a slow approximation of Ravana’s movements, “but would it not be more cost-effective to build your own structure in Last Rock, rather than pay what must be prohibitive rent on a public space? Over the course of four years, that seems it could become…excessive.”
“I can afford it,” Ravana said with a light shrug. “As for building my own…politics. Last Rock is, at least nominally, in Calderaan Province, currently answerable to House Aldarasi. Considering the situation, it is reasonable for me to rent space here to conduct what business I must. If I were to build a Madouri government facility on this soil, however…that would be abominable rudeness at best, and possibly viewable as a challenge to the Sultana’s authority. Even asking permission could be taken as an insult. Then there would be economic consequences for goods and services that flow between our provinces, not to mention pressure from the Throne; House Tirasian is already less-than-patient with House Madouri at present, as I mentioned, and would not be best pleased at me stirring up trouble. Plus,” she added with a catlike smile, “it would make for awkward on-campus interactions with Prince Sekandar.”
“Half the sophomore class just walked in,” Maureen observed, craning her neck to peer over the railing at the tavern floor below.
Iris actually jumped in her seat. “What? Which?!”
“Looks like… Princess Zaruda, General Avelea, Gabriel Arquin and the, uh, pixie.”
“Fross,” Szith supplied.
“Aye, Fross. Thank you.”
“Hm,” Ravana mused, toying with her wineglass. “I suppose it would be courteous to invite them to join us. What say you, ladies? Care for some additional company?”
“Oh, but…” Iris gulped heavily. “I’m not ready for—that is, I didn’t expect—I mean, what if—”
She dropped her own fork. The servant instantly had another placed at hand, but Iris looked stricken with embarrassment. She started to lean down to retrieve the dropped one, but the woman whisked it away, and she straightened back up, accidentally dragging the sleeve of her white dress through the orange sauce on her plate.
Iris stared disconsolately at the dripping stain, looking on the verge of tears.
“Upon consideration,” Ravana said gently, “I think I would rather have a girls’ night. Agreed?”
“That sounds quite pleasant to me.”
“Aye, let me just get used to all this fancery before I ‘ave ta try it in front off company.”
Iris gulped down a frustrated sob.
Casey glanced around the darkened ward almost nervously as she made her way over to Principia’s bed, currently the only island of light. “Wow. Got the place to yourself, I see.”
“It’s getting downright lonely,” the elf said gravely, setting aside her novel. “Could I getcha to maim a few people so I have somebody to talk to?”
Casey grinned, nodding at the candle on her nightstand. “Well, you’re the one playing around with a fire hazard from the last century. Seems like you could make your own arrangements, there.”
“It’s the same old story,” Prin said with a grin and a shrug. “Fairy lamps would be cheaper in the long term, but the up-front investment to issue smaller ones for something as trivial as bedside reading lights is unpalatable to the number jockeys. What brings you by, Elwick? Are the rest of the girls okay?”
“Lang is soaked, cranky and looking for reasons to blame you. What’d you do to her, by the way? I get the feeling this goes way back.”
“She got herself arrested while poking her nose into my business, once,” Principia said dryly. “Obviously, this was my fault.”
Casey shook her head, smiling. “Well, we’re all pretty much okay. The rest of the cohort isn’t eager to be chummy with us, even in the mess hall, but there’s been no further trouble. At least not yet.”
“Captain Dijanerad’s doing a good job of keeping a lid on things, I think.” Principia sighed, frowning. “As well as she can. Considering what’s going on, though, and who’s doing it…”
“I like the captain,” Casey said quietly. “I think she’s a good officer. There’s cloak-and-dagger stuff afoot, though, and she is not a match for Bishop Syrinx. I’m afraid she’s only going to get herself hurt trying to protect us.”
Prin tilted her head, studying the younger woman closely. “And now I’m getting the impression this is why you’re really spending your precious free time talking with me.”
Casey glanced at the door to the ward without turning her head, a movement Principia took note of. Most people would give themselves away when checking for listeners—almost anyone, in fact, who hadn’t had specific training in avoiding such tells.
“We all got the speech from the captain,” she said quietly. “Same one you and Lang did. Stay in line, don’t make waves, trust the chain of command. And I would love to be able to do that…but.”
“But,” Prin agreed, nodding.
“We need help,” Casey said, staring at her. “Syrinx is only getting started, Locke. Believe me when I say there is nothing that woman isn’t capable of doing. I think…we need the kind of help you can get us.”
“The Guild?” Principia raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t we just go through this? Involving the Guild in Legion business is a disaster waiting for an excuse, quite apart from the fact it’d immediately get my ass bounced out of here, and possibly all of yours along with it.”
“Not the Guild,” Casey agreed hastily. “And…not someone to meddle. But… What about advice? Information? From someone in the Guild?”
“That’s still too close,” Prin replied, shaking her head. “You have to go through channels…”
“Unless it’s a private individual you know personally.” Casey glanced at the door again, then at the nearby window. “Like Bishop Darling.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Darling?” Principia said at last. “The one who ferreted me out in the Temple of Izara? Now why would you latch onto the idea of him?”
“You obviously know him,” Casey said, then sighed, her shoulders slumping. “And…so do I. So does Farah.”
“Her old teacher was one of the first to be murdered by the priestkiller last year,” Casey explained. “Darling stepped in, funded a memorial and made sure things were taken care of. She wouldn’t confirm it but I get the impression he greased a few wheels to help her get into the Legion, too. She was a librarian—not the kind of person the Sisters are looking for.”
“Now, that is very interesting,” Principia mused. “I wonder why he would take an interest in something like that… And how do you know him?”
Casey drew in a deep breath and let it out. “Yes, well… I mentioned Syrinx was my sponsor in the Legions, right?”
“Well… Darling is the reason she doesn’t have a stranglehold on my life the way she does on Jenell Covrin. Him and Bishop Snowe.”
“Snowe?” Principia exclaimed. “Branwen Snowe, the Izarite celebrity columnist? You have led an interesting life, haven’t you?”
“I really do not want to talk about it,” Casey said curtly. “The point is, he’s someone you can come to for help. And wipe that look off your face, I’m not stupid. I know a man like that doesn’t do favors out of the goodness of his heart. He does it to build connections, to earn favors he can call in later. Let’s face it, I think we’re in a position that he’d be glad enough to give us some free pointers. I bet he has a harder time getting friends in the Sisters of Avei than in most places.”
Principia gazed at her thoughtfully. “Elwick, were you ever in the Thieves’ Guild?”
“Mm. Parents, then? Someone taught you to scheme. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed you being more clever than a girl your age ought to be.”
“Locke,” she warned, “when I said I don’t want to talk about my history, I wasn’t making idle conversation.”
“Well, that’s fair enough,” Principia said peaceably. “And it’d be pretty damn hypocritical of me to argue; I don’t plan to talk overmuch about mine either.” She idly fingered her earlobe, gazing into the distance. “Darling, huh. I’ve been thinking in terms of keeping the Guild out of this and me out from between them and the Sisters… It’s risky. If Syrinx gets wind of such a thing, she could easily use it against us.”
“…but?” Casey prompted.
“But,” Prin said, nodding slowly. “If it’s done carefully, and made clear that it’s a personal sort of conversation, not something involving cults… Yeah. Now that you mention it, I think you just might be onto something.”
“Can you teach me?!” Iris burst out.
Walking through the darkened campus on their way back to the Well, the four freshmen came to a halt, the others turning to look at her in surprise. Iris had been trailing along in the back of the group, head down and arms wrapped around herself. She still looked hunched and worried, but now gazed at Ravana with an almost frantic intensity.
“You said you could coach Szith in etiquette. Can you teach me, too?”
“Of course,” Ravana said.
Iris nodded. “And…more?”
“What more did you have in mind?”
“I just…I don’t know.” She swallowed painfully. “But after three days I can see you’re calm, poised and in control of yourself at all times, and I’m a mess. I don’t… Can you make me not a mess?”
“I don’t think you’re a mess,” Maureen offered.
“I could,” Ravana said slowly. “Rather, I can. However, there is a price for what you’re asking.”
“If you want money, I only have a little, but—”
“Iris, why would I need your money? I only mean that such things have inevitable consequences. Think carefully before making any kind of commitment.”
“If you think I’m afraid to work, you’re extremely wrong,” Iris said tightly. “You have no idea what I’m willing to go through. Or how important it is to me.”
Ravana gazed at her in thoughtful silence for a long moment, then very carefully looked around them. They were standing on the main lawn on the middle terrace, not far from the currently empty gazebo. In fact, there was no one else in view, and no nearby obstructions that could hide an observer.
“I am the Duchess of Tiraan Province,” she said finally, returning her eyes to Iris’s, “because I framed my father and brother for high treason. They were executed last week. I did not attend the ceremony, having been busy packing for my trip here.”
Ravana let the silence stretch out, smiling slightly as the other three stared at her in sudden horror. Even Szith looked unnerved.
“In my defense,” she said finally, “they were committing high treason. They were just too clever to leave evidence; that I had to manufacture. I very strongly suspect that Imperial Intelligence knows these facts quite well. Father was also mismanaging the province to the brink of ruin; I shall be years undoing the damage left in his wake. I am the last of the Madouri line, the heir of a thousand years of tradition; had I not stepped in to redeem myself in the eyes of the Silver Throne, the Imperial government would have been forced to remove my family from power, effectively ending our lineage.
“I really did love my family,” she mused, now gazing thoughtfully at the night sky over Iris’s head. “I think so, anyway. My father never mistreated me. He was rather dismissive—he never had much use for girls—but never cruel. And I did enjoy time spent with my older brother. He used to play the violin for me. I rather regret that he will never do so again. But of remorse, I feel none.” She brought her gaze back down to study the others. “It had to be done. If anything, I am rather pleased with myself. It was quite deftly arranged.”
“House politics,” Szith said quietly. “It is much the same in Tar’naris. My mother taught me to be grateful that we are of lower blood, and not called upon to such things.”
Ravana nodded to her. “Indeed. Politics above that which makes us living, feeling people. That is the price of power, Iris: to truly be powerful, you must becoming a creature of icy calculation. I can teach you to be powerful. I cannot teach you to be happy. That is a skill I simply don’t possess. In fact, I rather suspect the two are mutually exclusive. When I tell you to think about what you are asking, I am offering you a choice, and a chance, that I was never given.”
Iris was silent. After a long moment, Ravana nodded once and turned to lead the way back to the Well.
“What,” Iris began, then swallowed. Ravana turned back to her, raising an eyebrow. “What…do you think I ought to do?”
“I don’t think I ought to answer that question,” Ravana said thoughtfully. “It would be too colored with my own self-interest, no matter how I approached it. I believe it would benefit me more to keep you as you are.”
“What?” Iris took a step backward, staring at her. “In the gods’ names, why?”
“It isn’t strictly wise to train potential rivals,” Ravana said with a shrug. “One is always better off being the best and the cleverest in one’s circle. Not to mention that having more easily manipulated acquaintances would be useful in a variety of ways. That, I think, is not an appropriate line of thinking.”
She paused, tilting her head in thought, and smiled faintly. “I was serious about not wanting to place myself above you while we’re here, girls. I have never been anyone’s friend before. I’m uncertain of the technique, but determined to make a concerted effort. In any case, Iris, do think carefully about your options. Whatever you decide to do, it seems to me we all have a great deal to learn from each other. Don’t you agree?”
With another, final smile, she turned and headed off down the path.
The others stared after her for a few moments before silently following.