Scorn frowned, looking sidelong at the man who approached her with a greeting and a cheery wave. “I don’t know you. What are you doing here?”
“And it’s nice to meet you too, Scorn,” he said amiably, falling into step beside her. Considering her legs were three quarters the length of his entire body, he had to practically jog to match her pace, but for all that he kept his knowing smile in place and seemed not at all out of breath, or otherwise discomfited. “It is Scorn, I assume? I mean, I flatter myself that if there was somehow another Rhaazke demon attending this or any Imperial university, I’d know about it. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions.”
She came to an abrupt stop, turning to glare down at him.
“This is not an Imperial university,” Scorn stated, “and Professor Tellwyrn says I am allowed to throw reporters off the mountain. There is a sign posted by the gates this semester. You consent to these terms by coming in here.”
“Yes, I saw,” he said, his grin actually widening slightly. “Real classy. But no, I’m not a reporter. Inspector Fedora, Imperial Intelligence.” He turned back his lapel momentarily, flashing a silver gryphon badge at her.
“I do not need to talk to Imperials,” she said sharply. “Tellwyrn does not answer to the Empire. I am a student here.”
“Well, Scorn, there are needs, and then there are needs,” he said lightly. “You can blow me off, sure, but I think you’ll find—”
He made no effort to dodge as she bent forward and grabbed, nor did he resist, passively allowing her to hike him off the ground by the neck. The Inspector dangled in her grasp, regarding her sardonically, while she glared and bared her fangs.
“Listen closely, annoying tiny man,” Scorn growled. “You are bothering me, and I don’t have to hkraasf it. I get a little annoyed with you, maybe I just toss you off the mountain. I get very annoyed, I take you to Professor Tellwyrn and you learn all about not being a dumbass on her lawn.”
“I’m here at Tellwyrn’s invitation, if that matters to you,” he said, his voice only slightly strained by the grip around his neck.
Scorn narrowed her eyes. “That is the bull shit.”
Fedora huffed a soft laugh. “By all means, go ask her. And as for you and I and questions, this isn’t even about you, Scorn. I’m looking for answers about the sleeping curse.”
“I know nothing of that!” she barked.
“Good,” he replied, smiling disarmingly. “Then we needn’t have a problem. Mind setting me down?”
She stared at him a moment longer before complying, more abruptly than was necessary.
“Thanks,” he said without a trace of irony, straightening his coat. “Here’s the thing, Scorn: I’m not really considering you as a significant suspect. But the facts are, we’re looking at infernal magic as a very likely vector for this thing, and it’s of a craft and style which is hitherto unknown and has so far defeated the efforts of some of the best magic users alive to even examine it. And here you are, the world’s only resident Rhaazke. A hitherto almost unknown demon species, known to be extremely powerful, both physically and magically. You see why this is—”
“I know nothing about that!” she snarled, taking an aggressive step toward him.
Fedora just looked placidly up at her. “Okay, I believe you. But I answer to Imperial Intelligence, as I said, and think about how all this looks to them. If I can’t bring them something, some kind of alibi for you, you’re likely to end up as a major suspect no matter what I say. And I’ve gotta warn you, young lady, getting aggressive with the first person who comes asking you questions about this makes you look guilty as hell. So how about we help each other out, here?”
She bared her teeth and drew in a deep breath as if preparing to start shouting, but quite suddenly the tension drained from her powerful shoulders, and she squinted suspiciously.
“You believe me? Why?”
“Motive,” he said promptly. “Personality. Circumstance. There’s no benefit to you and substantial potential loss in stirring up trouble here, and if you were the type to do so just for shits and giggles, it’s hard for me to credit that it would’ve taken you this long to start. No, this is a formality. But I do need some details from you, Scorn. And who knows? Somewhere in your extra-dimensional knowledge of magic, there may even be a tidbit we can use to put a stop to whoever’s casting this curse.”
“What if they come at you next?” she demanded.
Fedora’s smile widened to a broad, distinctly malicious grin. “You really are an innocent, aren’t you, Schkhurrankh? Or at least, you’re no mastermind.”
“If you are just to insult me,” she began.
“Look at me,” he ordered. “Look closely. Use your senses. Get a good whiff.”
She was already inspecting him with more attention than before, and at that, her eyes suddenly widened and she took a step back, hands balling into fists.
“Yeah,” Fedora drawled, “let’s just say I am not particularly worried about being struck by the Sleeper. Now. Why don’t we stroll over to someplace a bit quieter—”
“I have class,” she said curtly, stepping backward again.
“Oh?” The Inspector raised an eyebrow. “It’s rather late in the afternoon for—”
“I have extra classes,” Scorn snapped, “tutoring. Because I missed the last semester of classes, and also twenty years of knowing how this world is work—how it works. I have to catch up. I am going to my teacher now. After, I will find Professor Tellwyrn and as if you are allowed here and I am to answer your questions. If she say yes, then we will talk. If she say no…” Scorn leaned down till her slitted eyes bored into his from less than a foot away. “I will pull all your limbs off like an ant, and watch you try to squirm around. Yes? Good.”
“It’s a date,” Fedora said, tipping his hat to her.
She snorted nearly hard enough to loosen it, then turned and stalked off down the path.
“Be seeing you real soon, princess,” he murmured, watching her go.
“Smile, dear,” Eleanora murmured, squeezing his arms.
Sharidan gave her a sidelong look. “About what?”
Her own lips quirked in faint amusement, prompting a responding smile from him. In truth, it was not their wont to go about beaming with beneficence. Their public facades were very carefully crafted: he maintained an aspect of serene calm, while she carried herself with sternness hinting at the possibility of incipient executions. Good guard, bad guard. The “smile” thing had been a joke, but she was right. He’d been allowing weariness and worry to creep into his expression, and that would not do.
“Are you all right?” she asked even more softly.
He squeezed her hand in return. “Yes, just a little overtired. I didn’t sleep well.”
“Then do so tonight,” she said, still softly, but firmly. “You know you can’t let yourself—”
“Yes, I know.” He patted her hand, giving her another small smile.
Their entourage as they returned to the harem wing of the Palace was as small as usual, which was still not insignificant. Simple protection mandated escort by one Hand of the Emperor and four Imperial Guards, arranged in a defensive formation surrounding the Imperial couple; this deep inside the Palace, they were purely practical, not an honor guard. Not that he had ever been attacked this deep in the palace, but his grandfather had, and that at the instigation of an Archpope less powerful and hostile to the Throne than the current one. A steward also accompanied them a few steps ahead, and two servants in the rear, just in case they should happen to need something between the throne room and their private apartments. Not all the weight and authority of the Silver Throne was able to put a stop to some customs; Sharidan had ended several of his mother’s more excessive practices, but his seneschal had flatly put his foot down on the subject of even risking the Emperor’s momentary discomfort when hundreds of individuals were actively employed to see to the running of the Palace. At Eleanora’s wry observation that they were at least helping fuel the economy, he had given in.
The steward picked up his pace, moving ahead to open the doors to the harem wing for them. The two Imperial Guards standing at attention to either side saluted, but did not otherwise stir, as was proper. Sharidan nodded to each of them in passing; they kept their eyes ahead and made no response, also as was proper. Truthfully, there was nothing obliging him to acknowledge military personnel only doing their duty, and it wasn’t as if he paused to speak with every soldier in every formation he passed. In his opinion, though, failing to show basic regard for people serving him when he was that close was what made the difference between a healthy reserve and the kind of aloofness which made rulers dangerously out of touch.
The grand entrance hall of the wing was clearly a seraglio in the old style, with a sunken middle lined with rugs and cushions, and a profusion of potted plants and hanging curtains arranged to grant privacy. The harem’s original designers had doubtless envisioned this space with concubines lounging decoratively about, and to be sure, under some previous rulers this had been the case. Sharidan and Eleanora, however, didn’t keep enough women between them to fill the room, and none of their paramours were merely decorative. The wing also housed a library, gymnasium, and even a small observatory, not to mention rooms where visiting officials could be entertained. To share a bed with the Emperor or Empress, one was expected to be sharp of mind and useful to the Imperial administration.
At the moment, only Milanda was present; the current acknowledged favorite, she took it upon herself to act in a wifely manner toward him in the privacy of this wing, where Eleanora let that facade drop. She now stepped forward with a smile and a graceful curtsy, and Sharidan had to smile back, taking her hand and laying a gentle kiss upon her knuckles.
“Welcome back, my lord,” she murmured.
Eleanora cleared her throat. “His Majesty,” she said pointedly, “has seen fit to exhaust himself in the service of his people. He requires to fully rest this evening.”
“I shall see to it that he does, your Majesty,” Milanda replied demurely, earning a nod of acknowledgment. She was only demure with Eleanora, who generally approved of but did not personally like her. Not for the first time, Sharidan counted his blessings that he enjoyed as much peace as he did in his home.
Eleanora had stepped away, giving him a final pat on the shoulder, and now glided toward the hall leading to her own rooms. Milanda slipped her arm through his, looking coquettishly up at him through her lashes in a way which made his blood begin to warm. She had a very effective way of ensuring he slept well, and to judge by the way she pressed herself to his side, she clearly planned to get an early start.
He had absolutely no intention of disobliging her. But first, last, and always, he was still Emperor.
“The matter of—”
“Will keep,” Eleanora said with clear exasperation, stopping and turning to give him a look. “The elves, the dwarves, the Sifanese, the Wizard’s Guild, the bards, that absurd business in Last Rock, and all the thousand other things going on are being attended to. Sharidan, I love the responsibility you feel toward your people, but I grow tired of explaining that you serve them poorly by wearing yourself down. You employ the best people alive to administer your Empire. They will manage all the ongoing situations while you have a well-earned respite; if something arises which demands your attention, they will come to inform you. They are all of them competent enough to know such a situation if it appears.” She tilted her head forward as if to look at him over nonexistent spectacles, and once again he regretted confiding the effect on him that gesture had had when his mother had habitually done it. “Let it be.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Sharidan said wryly, turning to the servants waiting by the door toward his own chambers and slipping an arm around Milanda’s waist. “Some wine and fruit, please. Oh,” he added, shifting toward the Hand of the Emperor standing guard a few feet away, “and in the case of the ongoing operation in Rodvenheim, with all respect to my lady wife, I decline to wait for Lord Vex’s judgment to decide I should be informed. The moment word of progress appears, it is to be brought to me.”
The Hand’s face abruptly snapped toward him, scowling. “It is being tended to!” the man barked. “We know our duty. Have patience.”
Silence and total shock descended.
The Hand turned again to resume his constant, blank-faced survey of the room, as if a threat my spring out of any shadow—and as if nothing had just transpired. Everyone else, however, stared at him. Sharidan and Eleanora, as much politician as feeling human being by that point in their careers, kept impassive, though in the glance they exchanged he discerned her shock as clearly as his own. Milanda was a veteran courtier herself, and maintained her own outward equanimity, but her sudden stiffness against him told a different story. The Imperial Guards present had all shifted stance, wide-eyed and uncertain, and two had half-raised their staves. The servant about to leave to fetch the Emperor’s wine and fruit had frozen, gaping at the Hand of the Emperor in horror.
Hands did not speak to their Emperor that way.
They simply did not.
“Of course,” Sharidan said pleased by the mildness of his tone, then turned and added offhandedly to the servant. “Oh! Bring a carafe of coffee, as well.”
He squeezed Milanda, even as he met Eleanora’s resigned stare. He had no idea what this meant, but it meant something, and it was clearly not a thing he could afford to ignore.
Rest would have to wait.
Afternoon was fading into dusk as they neared the town.
“I’m telling you, it’s too late,” Aspen said petulantly. “Humans are fussy about their diurnal rhythms. You can’t just visit them during sleeping time, they get all grumpy.”
“Yes,” Ingvar said, giving her an amused smile and reaching out to pat her back. “Yes, I think you’re right. Well, I really thought we were making better time. Here we are, though.”
“How come you think faster time’s better time?” she asked. “We came here, we got here. There’s plenty of tomorrow to go say hello. The elves were right, humans are way too obsessed with being speedy. Time’s just time, is all.”
“Elves, like you, have forever in which to live,” he said. “We have to do things while we can.”
The look she shot him was filled with sudden dismay, and he found himself feeling uncomfortable under her regard. It wasn’t the first time, lately. It was simple fact that she could live more or less indefinitely, while he had only the usual span of decades, but Aspen seemed to be having trouble with the idea. Darling’s warning about the nature of her growing attachment to him sprang once more to the forefront of his mind.
“So,” he said, more to fill the silence than anything, “would you like to go into town and get a room for the night?”
“Is that a joke?” she asked, her momentary unhappiness gone in the scathing tone she so enjoyed employing with him. “Dryads aren’t allowed in human towns, as people keep reminding me, and you know very well both of us are more comfortable in the wilderness than in beds.”
“Once again, you’re right,” he said solemnly, rather enjoying the satisfaction on her face. She loved being right, and loved even more having him acknowledge it. “The tallgrass isn’t quite the wilderness either of us prefers, though. I miss trees.”
“Present company excepted?” she asked with a grin.
“Yeah, well… Still beats being under a roof.”
“I have to agree,” he replied, hitching up his pack, then turned his back on Last Rock and the looming mountain beyond it. “Well. Let’s backtrack a little bit, then. If you’re going to camp close to a town, I find it’s best not to camp too close. People range about, and it can be awkward if they trip over you in the dark.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” she muttered, following him.
They were content with silence and each other’s company, by this point in their travels together. It wasn’t any particular attunement to her that enabled him to sense her mood, though; Aspen wore her every passing feeling right on her face. As they walked and the tallgrass blazed red around them with the deepening sunset, she gazed glumly at the ground in front of her feet, a pensive little frown now and again flickering across her features.
“It’ll be all right,” Ingvar said quietly. “Trust me. She’s your sister. She’ll understand. Just from what you told me, I’m certain she loves you.”
“I’m…not worried about that,” Aspen said, then heaved a deep sigh. “It isn’t her. It’s me. I… She was right, Ingvar. Juniper was right about all the stuff I called her crazy over. I just don’t know how to face her.”
He moved closer and draped an arm over her shoulders. She leaned against him, not slowing their pace.
“Then don’t think of it as facing her,” he advised. “I bet the first thing she’ll do is hug you. Everything will seem simpler after that.”
“I guess.” He felt her nod against his shoulder. “Not just that, though. We’re going to see the Arachne. Nothing about that is gonna be comfortable. Never is.”
He chuckled. “Well, I’m sure you’re right on that point.”
He wasn’t in a position to see her smile, but he knew she did, and it lightened his own mood.
She saw him coming, of course. Approaching visitors were high on the list of things she instructed the system to inform her of. Naturally, she had to order the panel to go dark in preparation for his arrival. For the first time she regretted it; there had never before been anything ongoing which was worth paying attention to. Obviously, though, letting him observe her using the system was out of the question. If they ever found out she could, her only source of diversion would dry up. They didn’t have a lot of control over the sub-OS, but they could probably influence it enough to lock her out.
The hiss of the facility’s inner door was just audible from her cell, as were his gradually approaching footsteps. Moments after entering, Sharidan Tirasian passed into her view from the approach corridor. It had been beyond her just what the practical effects of the ongoing tweaks to the jury-rigged dryad/Hand system would be, but to judge by the Emperor’s expression, they had begun. It wasn’t often that he visited without one of his pets actually with him.
“Trouble?” she asked mildly.
He stopped, turning his head just enough to study her. She never usually spoke to him. This was risky, hinting that she had access to information in here, but it was worth it for the sudden, clear discomfiture she inflicted. She didn’t even care to play mind games with people as a rule. That was what they got for locking her up with nothing to keep herself entertained.
A politician born and raised, he was impressively impassive; she could not at all follow his train of thought based on his expression, and she’d observed enough people over the millennia to have a pretty good read on human emotions.
“Are you comfortable?” he asked suddenly, and she had to admit she was impressed. The clever boy had actually managed to surprise her.
“No,” she said with a shrug. “You could give me things to make me comfortable. You’d have to open the cell, though.”
He nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“Hmm.” Languidly, she blinked. “You actually are, aren’t you? Such a sweet boy. Not at all like your predecessor.”
His unreadable eyes remained on her for a bare moment longer, then he turned without a word, proceeding down the hall toward the dryads.
She began pacing as soon as he was gone. The panel, of course, she left dark, and would until he was safely out of the facility and in the elevator back to his palace. Still… This was only beginning. Something really interesting was bound to come of all this, sooner or later.
Her chance was coming, she could feel it.