Author’s Note: This is a continuation of a side story which began quite a while ago. Here is its first installment, if you need a refresher.
“It is not so bad,” Elin said, in her thickly accented and slightly halting elvish. “For the part mostly, the peoples are no in argument. Very much was changed by the Enchanter Wars. Before, it was always nations to their own, even inside the Empire. Then the wars, when it was fighting about principle. About freedom, and survival. Both to break away from Tiraas, and then after, to be together again with a same enemy. But yes, that is also a reason why it is harder for the Stalweiss. They remember, everyone is known, the Stalweiss were the barbarians from the stories, scary and savage. And then they are people who brought Horsebutt the Enemy, moving down from the Stalrange into the Plains. No one is forget.”
“I see,” Tazun murmured.
“So, one Empire, people all together, but still we have a bad…um…remembrance? Knowing thing…”
“Reputation, yes!” She nodded. “Not fair, but that is life. Anyway, it is not very bad. I am a soldier, which is respect, and I really am Tiraan. My accent and all. Very few people have care that I am pale and yellow-hair. Once in a while, though, you meet stupid ones. Always annoying! I am raised in Madouris, I go to an Imperial school, I join the Emperor’s army and wear the uniform, and still drunk fool calls me barbarian in the marketplace. Worthless people are in every country, I think.”
“That’s good to hear.”
There was a brief pause.
“I suppose being our own fault,” she went on seriously. “Because we Stalweiss are secretly vegetables. Our parents plant us in the ground like turnips, and up we pop in the spring!”
“That makes sense.”
Suddenly Tazun realized what she had said and tore his gaze from the blank wall on the other side of the compound’s courtyard to look at her. Elin was staring at him with lips pursed and one eyebrow upraised. He had grown relatively comfortable with these public displays of emotion, but the sight of one he’d so often seen from his sisters in the family quarters was jarring. Especially since he knew what came afterward. Fortunately, he also knew how to address it.
Tazun stood smoothly, setting his jewelry case aside, turned to face Elin directly, and bowed. “I deeply apologize for my rudeness, Elin. Your accounts truly are interesting. I’m very sorry; I am simply not terribly good company today. I assure you, it has nothing to do with you. You have my regret for spoiling our conversation with my own troubles.”
“Wow,” she said in Tanglish, with clear amusement. “That was downright effusive. Did you learn that from an Awarrion friend?”
“No,” he replied. “I have sisters.”
Elin smiled, and he took that to mean he was forgiven. Her expression quickly sobered again, but instead of annoyed, she now looked concerned. “Tazun, are you all right?”
“I will be fine,” he said with a polite little smile. “Please don’t be troubled on my behalf—I’ve already made too much of my own affairs, when after all we agreed to discuss your home and work on your elvish today.”
“We can do that anytime,” she replied. “It’s very unlike you to be so distracted. I can’t help being worried.”
They even talked about their feelings so openly, as if showing them wasn’t enough. Despite how annoying he felt it ought to be—how annoying it was, when he was surrounded by it for too long at a stretch—from her, it was strangely endearing. Perhaps simply because he had grown accustomed to speaking with her one on one, unlike most of his interactions with groups of humans.
Tazun slowly sat back down on the ledge beside her, considering.
“I know it isn’t your way to talk about personal business outside the family,” she said seriously, “so please, don’t think I’m picking. But you’re a friend, Tazun, and whatever that means to drow, to me it means your happiness matters. If there’s anything I can do, just name it.”
He couldn’t fully repress a smile at that; they really were starting to rub off on him.
“Let me ask you a theoretical question, if I may.”
He blinked, turning his head to stare at her.
“Ah.” She smiled ruefully. “That’s just a turn of phrase. It means go ahead.”
“Oh. Of course, yes, that’s clear in hindsight. Well, I… I suppose this relates to what you were just saying, about the Stalweiss and the Empire. Have you ever felt you were at odds with your society? With its expectations?”
“Oh, all the time,” she said immediately. “You just described the experience of growing up human. Adolescence is all about figuring out who you are, and finding your place in the world.”
“I see,” he murmured.
“Which,” she said thoughtfully, “probably doesn’t do you a bit of good, does it? I may not know Narisian culture in very much detail, but it’s not at all like that, is it?”
“No, not at all,” he agreed, shaking his head slowly. “Who we are as individuals is very much a function of who we are as a people. We each have a place in society; great sacrifices are made and resources invested in the rearing of any child, and the expectation that the investment will be repaid is central to our identity. Just by existing, I have placed a burden upon my family, my House, my whole society. If I do not contribute back, and not just to break even but to become a credit and an asset to family, House, and city, I am a thief.”
“Hm.” She tucked one leg under herself, kicking the other softly against the ledge. “Is there a particular reason you have to contribute in a certain way? Not to pry, Tazun, but it sounds like you’re questioning your place. If it doesn’t feel like the right place, wouldn’t it be better for you and for your family and all if you found one where you can do better?”
He smiled again. “I like my place. I like my work. I guess I’m questioning…other people’s places, which is shockingly presumptuous. I’m not certain if all the things I was taught as truth really…make sense.”
Elin grinned. “Well. That, again, sound like…y’know, life, to me. I think I feel what you mean a little, though. I’m a soldier, and a pretty low-ranking one. I can earn advancement, but for now, I still have a lot to prove. And there are expectations. Discipline, conformity, codes of conduct. A chain of command, orders…hm.” She tilted her head inquisitively to one side. “You know, when I think about it that way… Considering you Narisians like a whole nation of soldiers makes a lot of stuff suddenly make sense.”
“I suppose it does, at that,” he said thoughtfully.
“Remember I was talking about the Enchanter Wars?”
“Soldiers rebelled against their Emperor then. Soldiers, governors, cities, whole nations. There were some existing rebel groups, sure, but for the most part, those were all loyal Imperials who couldn’t be part of an Empire that would do what the Throne had done to Athan’Khar. They all had expectations and duties to Tiraas, but those expectations ran both ways. The Empire had betrayed their trust, become something it was never supposed to be. It wasn’t their Empire anymore. I dunno, Tazun… Maybe you’re still fit for your place, but it isn’t fit for you?”
He sighed softly. “What you say has great sense to it…but the idea is very unsettling.”
“Why?” she asked gently.
“I am my place.” He glanced down at his jewelry, glinting in the harsh fairy light of the enclave. “I am defined by my position, my skills, my relationships. By the space I occupy in this life. If that is wrong…I would have no idea who or what I am.”
She placed her hand over his on the ledge between them, gazing at him but saying nothing.
He didn’t pull away.
If anything, Tazun was even more confused as he made his way through the streets later. He had gone home, secured his wares in his chambers, but then gone back out, too restless to stay put. The same issues swirled around in his head—the slave, his mother, his role in the family, Saash’t’s oblique but infuriatingly incisive observations.
Now, though, there was also Elin, and her infuriatingly incisive observations. And the fact that his friendship with her was beginning to cloud more than just his judgment. He really had better start keeping his distance; he’d already spent an awful lot of time in personal conversation with her. With one unmarried woman. That was the kind of thing that could very easily spread the spores of rumor, and a rumor like that would wreak no end of mischief. His mother would be livid at the mere suggestion of him taking up with a human.
The fact that he felt physically pained at the idea of breaking off that friendship was probably not a good sign.
Tazun found himself in a familiar market street; subconsciously, his feet had brought him to the very doorstep of his favorite tea room. Well, across the street from it. He usually limited his visits to restaurants to one per tenday, which was a degree of indulgence he felt suitable to his station and personal resources. A calm, quiet booth with a cup of his favorite tea sounded too absolutely perfect to pass up, however. Sometimes, exceptionally trying times demanded exceptionally soothing measures.
He noted the presence of two House guards bracketing the door as he crossed the street toward the tea room. Some noble was visiting, then. Well, nobles were generally not trouble if one stayed out of their way, which he made a point to do. His hesitation was infinitesimal; he really wanted that cup of jasmine tea.
The two soldiers remained at attention as he passed through the doors, ignoring him utterly.
Once inside, though, he paused again; the place was much more crowded than usual, people seeming to fill nearly every table. He paused, glancing about.
“Well met,” said the server, whom he recognized, but whose name he had never learned. Their relationship had never made it necessary; personal conversation would have been inappropriate while one was serving. The man looked just faintly tense, which was understandable, given the crowd. “I apologize for the lack of space.”
“There is nothing to apologize for,” Tazun said diplomatically, suppressing regret. “I congratulate you on your successful business. I can return another time.”
“There is a table free,” the man said swiftly, and Tazun had the oddest sense that he was even more unhappy about this. “Please, I would not send a favored guest away. I shall speak with the mistress about arranging a small discount for your discomfort.”
“That is entirely unnecessary,” Tazun demurred, as was proper. “I am not in the least imposed upon.”
The server replied with the meaningless little smile that was appropriate in that situation, gesturing diffidently with one arm. “If you would honor us by staying, this way, please.”
Tazun allowed himself to be ushered to what seemed the only remaining open table, maintaining just enough presence of mind to avoid rudeness to his host or to any of the other patrons. Most of his attention remained on his inner turmoil, and it was with relief that he sank into the thinly padded seat of the small booth. His order placed, he was left in blessed solitude, the low walls of the booth serving to delineate a personal space which any Narisian would respect.
What was he going to do? The painful thing he just kept coming back to was his overwhelming sense that keeping Selim a slave was wrong. It was so wrong it brought him a nauseating blend of sorrow and shame whenever he allowed himself to dwell upon it.
But…who was he to make such determinations? Tar’naris had kept slaves for thousands of years, especially humans. The weight of culture and tradition behind the practice was so enormous that the sheer temerity of his instinctive dislike of it felt sacrilegious. Worse, this was his mother’s decision. His mother! How could he even be thinking of questioning her judgment? Themynra had granted him no special gift of judgment himself, that much he certainly knew. He was a craftsman, a skilled up fairly inexperienced one. He was young. His mother had led their family to honor and a valued station in House Vyendir. And now he entertained doubts about her decisions?
His sisters would slap him senseless. He would not begrudge them doing it.
Why couldn’t he just make all this go away? It was only in his head. His head should obey, both his own wishes and the dictates of his culture.
Quite suddenly, a shabbily-dressed human man slid into the seat opposite him.
“Not want any, thanking you,” Tazun said immediately in the thick pidgin Tanglish he used to discourage pushy Tiraan merchants, a trick Elin had taught him. Unthinkable that one would do something this aggressive; the man wasn’t going to last long like this. In mere moments he would be removed by the tea room’s proprietress. In fact, he was likely to end up like Selim Darousi if he made a habit of this.
“That’s quite all right, my good man, I’m not selling,” the human replied smoothly in elvish. He had a peculiar accent, but his command of the language seemed fluent, bringing Tazun up short.
“You are intruding,” he said with a thin little smile of courtesy. “I wish to be alone.”
“Life is sometimes disappointing,” the uninvited guest said solemnly. “But disappointments can lead to good surprises, if you let them. I think, first of all, you should listen to what the lady has to say.”
“Lady?” Tazun glanced pointedly around.
In that moment, he realized something. There was no conversation in the shop; dead silence hung over the crowd. Couples sat at each table, not speaking, but simply watching each other, the tabletops, the walls… All had been served tea, but no one drank.
Also, one of the House guards outside the door had stepped in, and was blocking the entrance, staring directly at him with a face that was blank even by Narisian standards. Paying closer attention now, he realized her armor and insignia marked her of House Awarrion.
In fact…everyone in here was dressed in red and green.
He began to be very, very nervous.
“Good day, Tazun,” said a smooth, feminine voice from directly behind him, on the other side of the partition between his booth and the next. “Thank you for joining us.”
“I…apologize if I was late,” he said, eyes on the grinning human, choosing his words with extreme care. “I did not realize I was expected. Whom have I the great honor of attending?”
“I am Nahil nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion. And we have things to discuss.”
Oh, Scyllith’s lost hells.
If he had to get cornered by a matriarch’s daughter, the Awarrions were probably the safest; nobles were nobles and they were all bloodless spiders as far as he was concerned, but House Awarrion existed for the purpose of diplomacy, and they never caused any harm that they could by any measure avoid, even to the most insignificant person. On the other hand, of that matriarch’s three daughters, this one was the worst. Heral, the eldest, was a born peacemaker and the very soul of diplomacy; the youngest, Shaeine, had not been active in the city enough to generate much talk, but she was known to be a priestess of Themynra. Nahil, though. Rumors disagreed on whether she was perpetually at odds with her mother, or was quite close to Ashaele and the trusted agent sent to do whatever unpleasant things needed doing in a manner that the matriarch could claim had been none of her work. It made little difference from his perspective. Nahil was trouble.
And just by virtue of being a matriarch’s daughter, she could have her guards beat him senseless at a whim, and anyone nearby would assume he had done something to richly deserve it. Oh, she would pay for that; his mother would raise the damned, House Vyendir would complain formally of the insult, and Ashaele would punish her. But that wouldn’t save him from the beating. Or whatever else she felt like doing to him.
“In what way might I be of service to you?” he asked with exceeding care. The human’s knowing little smile was not improving his equanimity in the least.
“Tell me, Tazun,” his invisible captor said calmly from behind the barrier, “what do you think of the traditional institution of human slavery in Tar’naris?”
“I think nothing of it,” he said as evenly as he could manage.
“Really? Nothing?” Nahil permitted open curiosity into her voice, a social breach only someone of her rank could get away with. Then again, she could get away with probably anything here, and he had best keep aware of that fact.
“It is not my place to consider such matters,” he said stiffly. Well, stiffness would suffice in place of the serenity which was currently beyond him. “Such luxuries are well beyond my means, and thus none of my business.”
“But your family has one, is that not so?”
“If you wish to discuss my family’s slave,” he said cautiously, “with respect, you must speak to my mother on the subject. I am not honored with the responsibility of overseeing or even consulting on any such matters in my household.”
He did not miss the way the human’s stare had hardened, and taken on a distinctly predatory aspect. Elin had spoiled him; humans and their emotional outbursts were not merely cute or trying. They could be absolutely terrifying.
“But I don’t want to speak to your mother,” Nahil replied. “I am speaking with you. This is a great problem for my House, you see, Tazun. The market for slaves only exists through abusive exploitation of Narisian law, and even more abusive entrapment of Tiraan citizens. The Imperial government currently tolerates this for the sake of the greater good, but the Tiraan people feel about it precisely as we would, were the reverse occurring. Notably, it is not, despite the fact of human societies finding us as exotic and intriguing as we do them. Why do you suppose that is, Tazun? Are they simply our moral superiors?”
She was doing this on purpose. This was not going to stop until she’d ensnared him into saying something at which she could justify taking violent offense. Well, there was no reason he had to make it easy for her.
“Such matters are well above my station. I am not a moral philosopher, and certainly not an expert on humans.”
“Are you not, though? You are, after all, quite friendly with the humans at the Imperial enclave. It seems you do most of your business there.”
Of course she had done her research on him before arranging this ambush. Belatedly, he realized that the effort involved in this had to have been immense. She couldn’t have known he would be here at this hour; even he hadn’t. This visit had been a pure whim. For how many days had she filled and lurked in his favorite tea room? What could she possibly want from him?
“I have human friends,” he said diffidently. “I don’t believe that qualifies me to render an opinion upon their ways. I find them very strange, still.”
“Ah, so smooth,” she said with open amusement. “You would not do badly at all in my House, Tazun.”
“You honor me greatly.” Indeed, from a noble, that was staggeringly high praise. Somehow, he only felt more nervous.
“Morality aside,” Nahil continued, “this practice of taking and enslaving humans is a constant source of animosity for the Imperials, and thus a constant drain on my House’s efforts. It taxes our attention and resources to extract what humans we can from bondage, and every one we cannot—which is most of them—is an open wound in our relationship with the Empire. These are families torn apart, Tazun. People horrifically abused, at least as they see it. Even as we try to strengthen social ties with the empire, slavers sharpen the suspicion with which many see our people into pure hate. House Awarrion is committed to ending this practice, permanently and absolutely.”
“I wish you good fortune in that task,” he said quietly, beginning to have an idea where this was going. Merciful goddess, let it be anything else…
“You could do more than wish, if you support the idea,” she said calmly.
Tazun drew in a deep, calming breath and let it out slowly. “I do not see any way I could. All of these matters are above my station.”
“You do not think it possible, at least?”
“All these matters—”
“Damn your station,” she said, just sharply enough to chill his blood with terror. “I want your opinion, Tazun. There is no crime in having opinions, and no one can blame you for saying what I have demanded that you say. What do you think of this?”
He swallowed heavily, aware that his public face was cracking, and too frightened to care as much as he should. The flat stare of the human across from him was even worse than the noblewoman behind. “I…think…that trying to separate the richest and most powerful members of our society from one of their favorite luxuries will be impossibly difficult.”
“Mm hm. Look at this. What do you think?”
A slender arm suddenly appeared next to his shoulder, the noblewoman turning to extend her hand. It glittered with two tasteful rings.
“Exquisite work,” he said honestly, relieved to be back on somewhat safer ground, and aware it would not last. “But forgive me if I sound boastful. Unless I am wrong, the sapphire is my sister’s handiwork?”
“Not the rings, Tazun,” she said with naked amusement. “The sleeve. Beautiful, is it not? Sifanese silk. It’s made by worms, I understand, rather than spiders. Not as strong as our native silk, but far, far softer, and the way it catches the light…”
“It is most becoming on you.”
“Thank you. And twenty years ago, its worth would have been greater than the sum of the Queen’s treasury. Now? Still expensive, but I have a dozen at home, and I am far from the best-dressed daughter of a matriarch in Tar’naris. The Imperial treaty brings us security, wealth, luxury beyond imagining. And yet, a few souls still cling to the idea of owning the one treasure whose acquisition threatens to bring all this down upon our heads. That is weakness, Tazun. It is stupid, selfish frailty. To be Narisian is to root out such traits and crush them. They cannot be allowed to take root in our society. They would destroy us.”
“I do not understand how I can help you,” he said stiffly. The wretched woman had just indirectly insulted his mother, and there was no way she didn’t realize it; she was a trained diplomat, after all. Were she anyone else, he would have spoken right back to her in even sharper terms. In fact, were she still at matriarch’s daughter and he not completely surrounded by her retainers, he probably still would have.
“I have not arranged all this simply to make idle conversation,” Nahil said smoothly, withdrawing her arm. “Your mother’s recent acquisition is a male human named Selim Darousi. Tell me, Tazun, what do you know of the god Eserion?”
“The… Ah, little,” he said, blindsided by the apparently abrupt change of topic. “That is the thief god, isn’t it?” Humans and their gods. Why did they need so many? No wonder they came in such a wild array of colors and builds.
“One side effect of the opening of our two societies is that the Pantheon’s cults have begun creeping into Tar’naris,” Nahil said. “They are certainly not poised to threaten Themynra’s worship, have no fear of that, but there are drow among us who have begun to follow some of these gods, in very small numbers. Eserion is not among them. You see, Tazun, the Eserites do not steal simply to enrich themselves; they steal out of a religious duty to humble the powerful, and to disrupt all social systems which they consider unjust. Which, as I understand it, means all systems. We do not have Eserites here, and we do not want them. Our society is not built to endure the presence of such individuals, and if they are allowed to take root, removing them will be a nightmarish prospect. The cult would take such action as a direct attack and respond in kind. No…they must simply be prevented, at all costs, from establishing a presence here.”
“Hey, no offense taken,” the human across from Tazun said lightly.
“Ah, yes,” Nahil said. “Allow me to introduce my guest, Sidewinder.” She paused significantly. “An enforcer of the Thieves’ Guild.”
“I just can’t tell you how charmed I am to make your acquaintance,” the human said, grinning toothily at Tazun in an expression that he could not manage to interpret as friendly.
“I am somewhat puzzled,” Tazun admitted. “If you don’t want the Thieves’ Guild here…”
“Then,” Nahil replied, “it is necessary to accommodate them to an extent, and not create what they will see as a need to be here. And that, Tazun, has just become very much your business. You see, Selim Darousi, also known as Squirreltail, is also a member of the Thieves’ Guild.”
Tazun suddenly heard a great roaring in his ears. “…oh.”
“Oh, indeed,” Nahil said with audible grimness. “And that, Tazun, means that Tar’naris, House Vyendir, and your family in particular, all have a very big problem.”