“I’m not certain how worried we ought to be,” said Sekandar. “Three cases don’t constitute a pattern, even among a population as small as the University’s.”
Aerin set down her teacup. “That’s why I raised the topic, Sekandar. November was attacked last night.”
“She was?” Teal asked, straightening in alarm. “Miss Sunrunner’s going to run out of beds…”
“That’s the thing,” Aerin continued seriously. She was almost always serious; a junior, she was a half-elf and the younger daughter of an Imperial House from Ninkabi, where her pale complexion and blonde hair made her stand out starkly from the rest of her family. “November’s fine. She actually survived the thing, held it off long enough for Professor Tellwyrn to intervene. She said something chased her, that she could feel it trying to put her to sleep, but her divine magic counteracted it to an extent.”
“Well, that’s excellent news!” Sekandar exclaimed. “And here I was thinking it was some kind of disease going around; if it’s a person or monster attacking people, it can be defended against! And besides, if November’s magic countered it, that narrows down the things it could be.”
“Not necessarily,” Iris said quietly. She was holding her own teacup and had been for the last ten minutes, but still did not take a sip. “Arcane or infernal magic would disrupt her shields, yes. But so could fae, if it was substantially more powerful than November. And let’s face it, she doesn’t even have a god backing her up. I doubt November actually has the same kind of firepower as a real cleric.”
“Yeah, this is a lot of interesting theory,” Ruda drawled, tipping more rum into her tea, “but trust me, we’re in no position to begin unraveling this puzzle. We don’t know what happened, or how.”
“Perhaps we would, if we allowed Aerin to speak,” Ravana suggested mildly.
Aerin’s lips twitched in momentary amusement before her face resumed its customary blank mask. “I certainly did not interrogate her; she was at once keyed up and exhausted. Hildred and I had to practically wrestle her into bed, but once there she fell asleep so fast I wondered if the thing had got her anyway until she woke up this morning. All she really described was the attacker.”
“That seems significant,” Ravana said.
“Perhaps,” Aerin replied with a shrug. “She described it as a shadow. In her own words, it didn’t look like anything so much as the effect of something trying to deflect her attention from a particular spot. Which,” she added, shifting to nod at Iris, “does sound like fae magic.”
“Or Vidian,” said Shaeine, “or Wreath.”
A glum silence fell over the table.
Their table was set up in one of the campus’s secluded spots, a little courtyard surrounded on three sides by walls which provided heavy shade. It was lined by leafy shrubs, and home to three small trees, one of which had been oddly twisted early last semester and now looked vaguely humanoid in shape. Iris kept sneaking glances at it. The table itself was a simple folding card table, but had been disguised by a brocaded silk cloth in red and gray with thread-of-silver trim. Even the crockery was fine porcelain.
None of this, of course, was University issued. Ravana enjoyed hosting little tea parties, to which she invited various friends. The roster varied from one week to the next, but this time leaned heavily toward girls from the freshman and sophomore classes. Sekandar was the only male present, and Aerin the only upperclassman.
“Well, then!” Ravana said more briskly. “That is a start. It gives us something to go on. We shall, of course, have to ask November to describe in more detail what she saw—but needless to say, that should be done as gently and respectfully as possible. It cannot have been a pleasant experience for her. Meanwhile—”
“Meanwhile,” Ruda interrupted, “let me give you the benefit of my experience on the subject of taking campus safety concerns into your own hands when Tellwyrn is clearly already handling it: fucking don’t. She’s got even less of a sense of humor than usual about that.”
Ravana gave her a little smile which was more than half smirk. “Well, I am hardly proposing to defy an evacuation order, or leave the campus without permission to tattle to someone’s parents. Much as I enjoy the tales of your class’s exploits, Ruda, I rather think you would be more successful overall with a touch of moderation. No, clearly, students ought not interfere with the running of the University—but just as clearly, we cannot sit around waiting idly for this thing to strike again.”
“Ruda isn’t wrong,” Aerin stated. “This is not our job or our place, Ravana.”
“Not sure I agree,” said Sekandar. “At any rate, I don’t see how we can make it worse.”
“Oh, ye of little imagination,” Ruda muttered.
“I am inclined to concur with Ravana,” said Shaeine. “Presuming that we proceed with all due respect for everyone’s privacy, the rules of the campus and Professor Tellwyrn’s own prerogatives, I see no harm in acquainting ourselves with the situation in as much detail as possible. Besides, Tellwyrn not only doesn’t expect us to sit on our hands while there’s trouble afoot, I don’t believe she would approve of that.”
“Exactly,” Ravana said with a smile, lifting her cup in Shaeine’s direction in a little toast. “It’s all about the proper ways and means. Ultimately, whoever is to blame for this, are we not all responsible for looking after ourselves, each other, and our home?”
“Hey, I’m all for not taking shit like this lying down,” Ruda retorted. “And I didn’t say I intend to, either. Somebody thinks they can run around the campus hexing people, they deserve whatever they get, and I would honestly love for that to be my sword in their ribs. I’m just saying, Tellwyrn runs this campus, and not only does she not appreciate people getting into her business, if there’s anybody on the damn planet who can handle this, it’s her.”
“View it as…a class exercise, then,” Ravana said, still smiling. “Look around at who is present, Ruda. At the expense of appearing a dreadful snob, I exhibit a clear preference for nobility in those I invite to my little get-togethers.”
They all did look around, most frowning.
“I’m not so sure I can see it,” said Teal. “I mean, I’m not noble.”
“Most of the campus’s aristocrats have never been asked to attend,” Aerin added.
Iris cleared her throat loudly and pointed to her face, giving Ravana a sardonic look.
“Yes, yes, valid objections, all,” Ravana said lightly, “but I can refute each. Teal, I hardly think you can claim not to be an aristocrat simply because you lack a title. The Houses, despite their pretensions, were not designated by the gods. They are descendants of individuals who rose up in troubled times to seize power through their own ingenuity and labor. And then, as if to refute the entire point of what they had done, they fossilized the system such that their descendants would be assured the fruits of their success without having to produce any of their own. In the nobility who sneer at families like the Falconers for lifting themselves up by their own strength, I see nothing but insecurity.” She smiled broadly at Teal, but with something sly in the set of her eyes. “You have a better claim to nobility than most, Teal. You are not as far removed as the older Houses from that which makes such claims worthwhile.”
“I’ve often had the same thought,” Ruda noted.
“Indeed.” Ravana turned to her and nodded. “The Punaji have prospered, in part, by ensuring their rulers deserve to rule. Whoever holds the throne and the name had done something to prove they deserve it. A very wise system, in my opinion.”
“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” Ruda said with a grin.
“The converse is also true,” Ravana added. “I do not choose to socialize with much of the nobility present among the student body because I find many of them to be generally useless individuals. There are none so laudable as those who lift themselves up despite starting from a disadvantaged position, and none so contemptible as those who begin life with every asset the world can give them, yet never produce anything in return. Much is expected of those to whom much is given.”
“Is this why Szith hasn’t come at all this semester?” Iris said suddenly, frowning.
Ravana sighed. “I’m afraid so. Once she discerned that I am, in effect, building connections among persons of a certain social class, she concluded that it is not her place to be here, and I have yet to convince her otherwise.”
“Matters are different in Tar’naris,” Shaeine said quietly. “Social class is not easily transcended. Nor wisely, nor safely.”
“And that works very well in Tar’naris,” Ravana agreed, “where, it seems, you actually raise the nobility to be useful to society to an extent which justifies the resources that go into their upbringing. Far too many Imperial aristocrats feel entitled to all the privileges of their position and none of the responsibility. Honestly, I have a far higher opinion of my roommates than most of my peers.” She gave Iris a smile.
“Huh,” Ruda said, staring at her. “An’ this whole time, I had no idea you were bringing me along for a noble’s club.”
“Of course,” Ravana said sweetly. “If you had, you wouldn’t have come.”
“Why, you duplicitous little monstrosity,” Ruda said admiringly.
“Aren’t you sweet to notice,” Ravana replied with a sunny smile. “In any case, yes, I haven’t yet convinced Szith she has a place here, and Maureen wanted to work on her project. Building things calms her when she’s unsettled. How is it coming along, by the way?” she asked Teal.
“Well, I’m mostly just contributing the enchanting work,” Teal said modestly. “The actual structure itself is all Maureen. She’s a lot better than I at mechanical engineering. Right now there’s not much for us to apply charms to, until she gets more of the actual thing built.”
“So let me see if I follow you,” Aerin said slowly. “You want to step into a campus problem because you feel that as aristocrats, specifically, it’s our responsibility?”
“I think my mother would actually approve of that,” Sekandar said thoughtfully.
“I’m not sure how useful the designation of ‘aristocrat’ is in this context,” Ravana replied. “Those of you here are here because you have been raised to be actual leaders, trained to do the work, and possess the will and the intellect—and the sense of personal responsibility—to get it done. Or, even more admirably, you are building those traits yourselves. People like us should be involved with one another, simply for practical purposes, if nothing else. As an added bonus I find that I quite like all of you,” she added, beaming.
“People like us,” Shaeine repeated. “I am not sure what is meant by that.”
“People,” Ravana explained, “who grasp that the rational exercise of their own self-interest mandates building a just and functional society which works for the benefit of all. It’s interesting how both the thoughtlessly altruistic and the mindlessly selfish reliably commit the same catalog of errors. All of you, either consciously or not, know what it means to succeed. It does not work unless we bring with us to success all those who look to us for leadership. All lesser forms of power are fleeting, and prone to turning on their masters.”
“I don’t know how they do things in Madouris,” Aerin said dryly, “but where I am from, bastard half-blood daughters are not put in charge of anything.”
“I foresee you being in charge of a great many things over the course of your life, Aerin,” Ravana said quietly, “and not one because anyone put you there.”
“Well spoken!” a new voice announced cheerily. They all turned to behold a short human man in need of a shave, wearing a battered trench coat and a rakishly tilted felt hat, arriving at the foot of their table. “Good afternoon, kids, glad to see everybody enjoying the fine weather. If I’m not mistaken, I think I heard something about this sleeping problem the campus is having? Perhaps I could pick your brains about that for a bit.”
“Excuse me,” Ravana said evenly, “but I do not believe you’ve been introduced.”
“Oh, of course, sure, where are my manners?” He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a silver gryphon badge. “Inspector Fedora, Imperial Intelligence. Relax, nobody’s in trouble! I’m just asking questions, is all.”
“Uh huh,” Ruda said skeptically. “And does Professor Tellwyrn know you’re asking questions?”
Fedora grinned broadly at her and winked. “What, you think I have a death wish?”
He strolled casually down the hall, pausing in front of her door, and rapped sharply.
“Enter,” Tellwyrn’s voice said instantly. Her tone was oddly neutral. He couldn’t help but wonder if his visit was expected… Not that he could see any way how, but then, nothing this woman pulled out of her hat would surprise him.
“Good afternoon!” Mogul said, stepping into her office and doffing his hat, not missing the exceptionally flat stare she was giving him. “I realize we’re not personally acquainted, Professor, but it seemed to me this was a good time to get that out of the way before things got even more awkward. As you may recall, my name is—”
The world vanished, and yep, he really wasn’t surprised.
A peninsular outcropping of rock had been carved into an ascending staircase to nowhere, terminating in midair above a vast drop. Tellwyrn stood on the top step, one hand outstretched toward him.
Mogul hovered above the abyss just beyond the range at which he could have grabbed the ledge if he were suddenly to fall. They appeared to be inside a hollowed-out mountain; at least, the colossal space was roughly conical. It was lit by a sullen, reddish glow, emanating from someplace far below them. The source was not clear, as the bottom of the enormous chamber was hidden by a roiling fog which was either sulfurous yellow or just looked that way due to whatever was burning underneath it.
“…so this is awkward,” Mogul said. “Even more so, now. I had a whole speech ready, you know: it started with ‘this is awkward,’ but now it seems as if I’d be referring to this death trap right here instead of the ongoing kerfuffle on your campus. Now I have to revise my speech on the fly, or risk sounding all self-absorbed.”
He suddenly dropped two feet before stabilizing again.
“You do know I can shadow-jump right out of this, don’t you?”
“Oh, you think so?” She raised one eyebrow. “I’ll give you credit for sheer balls, Mogul: I would not have expected you to come swaggering openly onto my campus like that.”
“I feel I should stop you before you give me too much credit,” he demurred, raising one long finger. “I only swaggered openly to your door. Believe me, I skulked cravenly through the rest of it. Some of your students are a mite trigger-happy and I really don’t want to deal with the fallout of me having to defend myself against them.”
“Which brings us to the subject of your visit, doesn’t it.”
“Wouldja mind awfully setting me down in a relatively gentle manner on the step, there?” he asked. “It’s just that this is all so classic. The posing, the environment, even the light! I feel like I can’t properly take it all in from this position. How come we aren’t being cooked alive, by the way? I mean, if we’re in a volcano, the convection alone…”
“That’s not lava down there,” she said cryptically. After studying him in silence for a long moment, though, she stepped aside, and he drifted forward to land lightly on the top step near her.
“Much obliged, ma’am,” Mogul said respectfully, tipping his hat again.
“I think my point is made,” she stated, folding her arms. “Yours too, to be fair, though I really didn’t expect you’d be easy to bully. Well, here we are. Spit it out, and I’ll warn you, it had better be good.”
“Yes, ma’am. Well, then! As I was going to say to begin with: this is awkward. Basically any action I take at this juncture makes me look guilty. If I stay hiding in the shadows as is my wont, well, that’s pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? But if I come forward to offer my help with your little problem, that’s even worse. You’re far too intelligent a lady not to observe how I could benefit from being in a position to help you, and that raises ugly questions about what role I may have played in causing these issues in the first place.”
“And what role,” she asked in deadly calm, “would that be?”
“None,” Embras said instantly, meeting her eyes. “None whatsoever. I won’t lie, Professor, I do keep an eye on your campus, to the extent that I can without running afoul of your excellent security. I noticed the very esteemed Professor Ekoi had suddenly absented herself from the school, and quite frankly I’ve been operating under the assumption that it was a trick aimed at making me do something rash.”
“If it was, she did not deign to inform me,” Tellwyrn said. “Kaisa has, in fact, left my employ.”
“Mm. With the greatest possible respect, Professor, I believe I’m going to carry on assuming the thing that keeps me out of the most trouble. In any case, yes, I have noticed you’ve got students suddenly being struck down with a sleeping curse. I’ve noticed that you took the step of appealing to the Empire for help, which is what made me think this matter may be more serious than your usual run of campus hijinks. The details of exactly what’s going on I don’t have, and can’t really get without treading upon your privacy in a way I am far too intelligent to do. But no—what it comes down to is that I have nothing to do with this. I swear it upon Elilial’s name and my own soul. I am also completely confident that no one in my cult is to blame. The very few who even might have the capability answer to me directly and would not be out doing such a horse’s ass of an idiotic thing.”
“And you came all the way to see me, yourself in the flesh, just to say that?” she demanded, skepticism written plainly on her face.
Mogul spread his arms disarmingly. “Why, that, yes, but also, to offer you my help. I can’t promise that my people will be able to contribute anything useful, but I’ve caught whispers from my attempts to eavesdrop that some of your faculty think this curse may be infernal in nature. We know a thing or two about that.”
“And this is purely out of the goodness of your heart.” She curled her lip.
“This is out of bare-ass naked self-interest,” he said frankly. “Look, Professor, in a less volatile situation I’d love the opportunity to ingratiate myself a bit. This is something else, though. I know what happens to people who harm your students. It should go without saying that I wouldn’t do such a thing, that’s just the bare minimum of common sense. I also don’t particularly want to be anywhere in the vicinity when it happens. I am simply trying to make the point that we didn’t do this, and that landing on my cult over it will not only not help, it’ll be a distraction you probably can’t afford right now.”
“And so you come to suck up.”
“Exactly!” He grinned. “I am willing to pucker up and plant my lips on whatever doesn’t get me atomized. Or any of my people, preferably.”
Tellwyrn stared at him in silence, her eyes narrowed to slits. Mogul just gazed back, his expression patient and expectant. He had learned not to look too open and honest; it was an expression he could produce at will, but it tended to rouse suspicion.
Finally, she turned away, pacing a few feet to the very edge of the stairs, and gazed off into space.
“What do you know about Elilial’s gambit on my campus?”
“I wasn’t aware she had one,” he said slowly. “The Lady doesn’t bother to inform the likes of me of every project she has running, and I certainly don’t ask.”
Tellwyrn turned to give him a skeptical look, and he shrugged.
“Whatever it is, I can only conclude none of my activities in the vicinity of Last Rock would have impacted it, or she’d have told me so.”
“She claims,” Tellwyrn said, “to have granted some of my students powers and knowledge to use the infernal at a level far beyond what even the most accomplished warlocks ordinarily can. Simply as something to distract me and keep me out of her business.”
Another silence passed, in which a slow frown fell across Embras’s face. “Hm. Hmmmm. I could see that. It’s rather bold, but… Well, the situation in the world is altogether tense at the moment, and this wouldn’t be the first time lately I’ve seen the Lady risk causing more collateral damage than she prefers to. I guess it would suffice to keep you good and tied up, wouldn’t it? Which reminds me,” he added hastily when she turned an irate glare on him, “we have never figured out who opened that damned hellgate last year, but it had to have been an initiate of your University, thanks to the geas you have over that mountain. I don’t suppose…?”
“The immediate aftermath of that was when she told me this,” Tellwyrn said, nodding. “With an apology. Apparently opening new hellgates was not what she had in mind.”
“That’s for damn sure,” he said fervently. “That’s a nightmare nobody needs, especially the Wreath. Well. Startling as this is to learn, I don’t believe it changes anything. It sounds like she didn’t have a specific plan for those beyond causing trouble, and in any case, we end up having to clean up the splash effects of her schemes fairly often, anyway. If the Lady instructs me otherwise I’ll have to bow out, but for now, the offer stands.” He bowed, once again tipping his hat. “If I can help you address this problem, I will. It sounds like my assistance might be more relevant than I had suspected.”
“I’ll tell you what, Mogul,” she said. “You may consider the original purpose of your visit a success. I am, for the time being, not considering you or your Wreath a suspect in this. What that means, among other things, is that I shall take it very much amiss if I later learn that faith was misplaced.”
“I assure you—”
“I am still talking, shut up,” she snapped. “With that said, matters are not yet so dire that I’m willing to turn to you for help.”
“You’ve never turned to the Empire before, either,” he observed.
“Are you just trying to piss me off, now?”
He blinked. “…I don’t think anyone’s ever so directly questioned my intelligence right to my face before. Good show.”
“Your offer has been noted,” she said curtly, “and declined. You stay the hell off my campus, and keep all your warlocks and demons off with you.”
“As you wish,” he replied, nodding. “If I may—”
She snorted, and vanished.
“Well,” he said to the empty air, “that’s fine, then. I’ll just find my own way back.” Mogul paused, turning in a slow circle to peer around the cavernous space. “Now, just where in the hell am I?”
She had been watching almost the whole day. The interloper didn’t work constantly, of course. It was probably human, and needed food, sleep, and other biological functions. Besides, it had become more cautious since discovering the dryads.
It was an open question, of course, whether the intruder knew what they were. They weren’t labeled as such, but the Tiraan had jury-rigged this whole system to let them use the Order’s facility by installing those dryads in such a way as to gain access to the sub-OS under Naiya’s credentials. That much the intruder had surely deduced by now, and someone intelligent (which he or she had to be) and in possession of the right historical knowledge could connect the dots.
Their progress was slow and careful. She watched the panel on her cell as it showed the systems being called up, but no more functions were triggered. Someone was just studying the code. She had to wonder whether they had any idea what they were seeing; the last she’d heard of these humans and their “enchantment” before being locked up, they had progressed to simple logic gates. It was doubtful any of them were coding software by now. Still, code was language, and language could be interpreted by its function. This system had enough of their junk in it already to give the intruder a mental handhold. The Tiraan didn’t even understand all the changes they’d wrought to the system; they would not have been pleased by her having access to the facility’s functions from her cell, however inhibited, and the Infinite Order had certainly not designed it this way. In their bumbling they had left all kinds of backdoors open to exactly this kind of invasion.
It was thus even more alarming than it might otherwise have been when the intruder began tweaking variables in the code linking the dryads to what they were doing with Naiya’s administrative access. Those functions were integral to what made Hands of the Emperor work.
“This,” she said aloud, watching the numbers change, “is going to be terribly interesting.”