It had already been a long day, and the afternoon had barely begun. Eleanora had managed to arrange a short break for herself, Sharidan being trapped in a working lunch with ambassadors from the Five Kingdoms pursuant to the ongoing negotiations; she was very much looking forward to a light meal of fruit in the privacy of her room. And to having Isolde rub her shoulders. The woman’s fingers were positively magical, and nothing else was going to suffice to nix the gathering tension headache she felt coming on.
Stepping into her chamber, she paused for a moment.
Arachne Tellwyrn was sitting on her bed. The frontier adventure novel Eleanora had hidden under her mattress was open in the elf’s hands; the box of Svennish chocolates she kept in her nightstand sat on the sheets, open and now half-empty, surrounded by crumpled wrappers. A bottle of Glassian red wine she had been saving now sat on the nightstand, also half-empty.
“There you are,” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “I thought you’d never come back.”
The pause had been as much of a rise as she was going to get—Eleanora was far too self-contained to reveal any more of her feelings to this interloper. She cycled rapidly through all the obvious questions and dismissed them as things Tellwyrn would either refuse to answer or probably intended to anyway, and continued briskly into her room. Calling for the guards would be antagonistic and likely pointless; it was doubtful even a Hand of the Emperor could deal with the archmage. And after yesterday…
“What have you done with my chambermaid?” she demanded.
“Assuming you’re referring to that bosomy blonde number with the legs up to her neck, she is secured in the bathroom, completely unharmed, albeit rather miffed.” Tellwyrn smirked. “Does your consort know you call her a chambermaid? I have a hard time imagining she’d appreciate that. She seems…scrappy. By the way, your chocolates are poisoned.”
To Eleanora’s supreme annoyance, that made her pause again.
“Forgive me, that might have been a little overdramatic,” Tellwyrn mused, holding up a half-eaten chocolate and peering at it critically. “A better word might be ‘tainted.’ What’s in these won’t harm anybody who doesn’t have an extremely unlikely allergy, and honestly, you’d probably have to be an elf to detect the flavor. It’s distinctive, though. Especially in the presence of sugar, sylphreed makes this bitter, citrusy aftertaste…”
“Sylphreed,” Eleanora said with long-suffering patience, “does not exist.” Mentally, she was already counting down the elf’s allotment of seconds before she gave up on humoring her and summoned the Imperial Guard.
“Yes, yes,” Tellwyrn said, waving airily with the piece of candy. “The plant was a foolproof contraceptive and a reliable treatment for several common venereal diseases, so naturally humanity harvested it into extinction. Equally naturally, the elven groves which still cultivate it don’t let it be known that they do. I’m not kidding about the flavor; wood elves use it as a seasoning.”
“You use contraceptives for flavor?”
“They,” Tellwyrn said with a hint of annoyance for which Eleanora felt zero sympathy, “not we. I don’t move in those circles. And yes, elves are not prone to accidental pregnancy and even less in a hurry to have one. The stuff is easy enough to avoid when somebody wants a child. All of which is neither here nor there; his Majesty has yet to produce an heir, hmm? Now there’s this, and I don’t believe in coincidence. Someone, it seems, is resourceful enough to penetrate your security, connected enough to have access to elven secrets, and clueless enough to feed you contraceptives. That’s a truly horrifying combination.”
“And causes one name to spring immediately to mind,” the Empress said acidly.
Tellwyrn snorted and popped the rest of the piece into her mouth, speaking around it. “I wouldn’t know where to begin finding sylphreed; any place I might try would probably just lead to a fight with the local Elders. I certainly don’t mean your government any harm, and honestly, would I tell you about this if I were behind it?”
“That’s a common enough ploy…”
“To establish trust,” the elf said with a mirthless grin. “When performed by people who give a rat’s ass whether you trust them, yes.”
“That’s a fair enough point, I suppose. If you’ve only just discovered this, it’s not the thing which prompted this intrusion, I gather.”
“Indeed.” Tellwyrn set the book down on the bed and straightened to a more upright posture, shifting to face Eleanora directly with a serious expression. “There is a Hand of the Emperor at Last Rock who appears to be coming unglued.”
Having had the whole conversation thus far to steel herself, Eleanora did not betray even a hint of the sudden unease she felt, merely affecting a disdainful lift of her eyebrow. “Quite an accusation. Or it would be, were it less vague. Can you offer useful details, or have you come specifically to waste my time?”
Tellwyrn made no response to her open asperity. “How much do you know about the situation right now?”
“The situation at Last Rock? The broad strokes. Sleeping curses, your general inability to control your students, a likely connection to last year’s hellgate crisis—and by the way, thank you for that—and the aid of Imperial Intelligence in hunting down your perpetrator, which you should have sought immediately after the resolution of the last disaster when you failed to apprehend the guilty party.”
“All those years of charm school were a wise investment, I see,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “The Hand originally came to feel me out of his own volition, and I decided if the Throne was going to fart around on my lawn anyway it could make itself useful. That is why I’m only now accepting government help, not because I came begging for it, but I am about ready to change my mind.”
“Yes, yes,” Eleanora said impatiently. “What specifically is he doing that has you in such a tizzy?”
The Professor raised an eyebrow of her own, but answered. “Today his behavior suddenly altered. Dramatically. He was rude, pushy, aggressive, and deliberately provocative.”
“Is that really all?” the Empress said disdainfully.
“I have dealt with Hands of the Emperor since they were of the Empress, Eleanora. The moment I came back to society and found Theasia had begun screwing around with dryads, I made damn well sure to understand what to expect from them. Their conduct has never been anything but uniform. They are icily calm, collected, even laudably diplomatic. Now? Even that diabolical thing from Intelligence agrees his behavior was unprecedented and alarming. No, I don’t panic every time a government official acts out of character. Hands of the Emperor are another matter. Something is wrong. And aside from the host of issues this raises for you, it’s going wrong on my campus. If this guy loses it like he seemed close to doing today and I have to deal with that, legally I’ll have assaulted the Emperor. So here’s me, making an overture before that point arrives. I want it understood that I have dealt with the Throne’s representative in good faith and anything which follows will only be whatever is necessary to protect my students.”
Eleanora was still mulling points from earlier in that speech when it came to an end. Dryads? She now embraced a conclusion she’d begun considering yesterday: despite Sharidan’s explanations about her plausible deniability and his mother’s secrets, he was going to explain some things about those Hands of his.
“Diabolical thing from Intelligence?” she said aloud. “They sent Fedora out there? Well, I suppose that makes sense. He’d better have at least one of his handlers on site, too.”
“You seem to have latched onto the least relevant part of that,” Tellwyrn said irritably.
“You and I have very different standards of relevance, Arachne, and no, I didn’t miss anything you said. Mood swings—”
That brought her up short. “…you saw this?”
“He appeared out of nowhere and vanished the same way, and it wasn’t arcane teleportation. If it was mere illusion or stealth, it was enough to fool both my own senses and these,” she tapped the rim of her golden spectacles, “which is not a small thing. More to the point, it’s something the Hands have never had before. Have you been altering them?”
“Surely it goes without saying that I am not going to discuss business of that nature with you.”
“Well, if you have, the side effects include emotional instability, which, if you’ll excuse me for telling you your own business, is a bad trait in extremely powerful people who are always hovering around the Emperor.”
“Your concern is appreciated,” Eleanora said tonelessly.
“All right, fine.” Tellwyrn set the box of chocolates aside and rose, dusting off her hands. “I’ve brought you into the loop, that’s my moral responsibility taken care of. I haven’t made any secret of my self-interest, here, but this also is a matter of concern to the Throne. But if your personal antipathy is more important—”
“Don’t you dare,” Eleanora hissed, assuming a mask of icy rage. The emotion was quite genuine, but she was fully in control, now; her emotions were possessions which served her needs, not wild things which controlled her. She stalked toward the bed, backing the elf up against it. “You have intruded here by force, assaulted someone important to me and made a show of disrespecting my possessions—my personal ones, not the expensive trappings of my rank. You will not stand in my home and act like the aggrieved party trying to be reasonable. This was all the same ploy you always use with everyone: making a show of how unpredictable and dangerous you are, to cow the audience into giving you your way. I know your power, Arachne, but I do not bend my neck to bullies. I didn’t before I sat on a throne. If you plan to push me one inch farther, you’d better just kill me. Otherwise, you are going to learn just how different this Silver Throne is from the one you brought down in the Enchanter Wars.”
Tellwyrn met her furious stare with her eyebrows upraised in surprise. After a long moment, she nodded slowly and sidled away, extricating herself from between the Empress and the bed. “Well…all right. That’s pretty fair, the whole thing. Excuse me, then.”
She made it halfway to the door before pausing and half-turning.
“I’m sorry, by the way, for running out on you like that. No, this is not an attempt to curry favor, or regain any moral high ground. I actually just wanted to apologize; it’s overdue. I left so suddenly because of a call for help. In fact, I lost a good friend that night, which I’m afraid drove everything else right out of my mind. And then you were getting deeper and deeper into politics, and it seemed like a good idea to leave you alone, especially after you tied yourself to the Throne. But…there it is. If I hurt you, I didn’t mean to.”
Eleanora folded her arms, her face once again stonily impassive. “And is that finally all?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Tellwyrn said with a wry twist of her lips, turning back toward the door. “Look after yourself. I mean that very sincerely. Unless I’m badly overreacting to this Hand thing, you could be in real danger, Eleanora.”
She strolled out into the hall as casually as if she owned the place. Eleanora didn’t watch her leave; she suddenly had much more important matters to consider. First, though, she made a beeline for the bathroom. If Isolde had so much as a bruise or scraped knee, she was going to have a fortress built at Last Rock, and a battalion stationed there. With strike teams.
“I’m not arguing the moral point, Moriarty,” Finchley said wearily. “Just the practical one. What, exactly, do you think we could’ve done to protect the students from being attacked by an apparently invisible, un-trackable enemy who in all probability is one of them?”
“Hell, I’ll argue the moral point,” Rook said with a grin. “The Sleeper’s gotta be one of the little bastards, and they can all demonstrably take care of themselves better than we can. We don’t get sent into the Golden Sea and the Crawl every year just to see what happens, and thank the flippin’ gods for that, because what would happen would be us getting our asses killed. And that’d be a damn shame after we were within groping distance of Elilial and walked away, even if we can’t tell the story. Just anticlimactic, is all. Nah. There’s ‘not our fucking job,’ and then there’s this.”
“You are both missing the point,” Moriarty grated, “practically and morally, and you’ll note the total lack of surprise in my expression. It doesn’t matter what we do or don’t have the physical power to do. I hate that we’re sitting here, safe and comfortable, while civilians are being attacked. We’re soldiers! We are supposed to protect the people of this Empire!”
“Y’know, a good chunk of the student body aren’t even Imperial,” Rook said reasonably.
Moriarty clapped a hand over his eyes. “It’s like talking to a wall. A slovenly, lazy, undisciplined, insubordinate—”
“Ease up,” Finchley said with a grin. “It’s not likely we’ll find ourselves in a position to help, but come on. All three of us would step in if we had the opportunity and the means. Surely we’ve proved that much to each other by now.”
Moriarty let out an irritated huff, turning to glare at the windows, which showed the prairie far below, stained orange with the beginnings of sunset. “I might feel better if the Sleeper targeted us next.”
“That is because you’re a fuckin’ idiot,” Rook grunted.
“Or a masochist,” said Finchley.
“Which,” Rook replied, “is a sub-species of fuckin’ idiot.”
“Me,” Moriarty said woodenly, “to appease my conscience, and you two because you deserve it!”
“Indefinite enforced bed rest?” Rook said, grinning insanely. “I haven’t been nearly good enough to deserve that! But hell, I’ll take it.”
They managed, with some scrambling; Moriarty whipped around and snapped to attention immediately, Finchley a second later, Rook only after falling off the bed and leaping to his feet.
The resident Hand of the Emperor stood in the dorm they shared with Gabriel and Toby, studying them coldly. None of them had heard the door open. He paced slowly down the short rank they formed, then back, turning his head to keep his flat stare on them. Finally he stopped and grunted.
“At least one of you gets credit for good intentions—which, needless to say, are worth nothing. You men will pack your gear and be ready to move out upon my order. You have wasted quite enough time loafing about here; it’s time for you to act like soldiers, assuming you can remember how. But first.” He paused, then nodded. His expression was not a smile, but something in it hinted at satisfaction, and even a small degree of pleasure. “First, you are going, finally, to be useful to your Emperor.”
She opened and closed the door when passing through it, loud enough that from any other elf it might have been pointed. In Tellwyrn’s case, though, it probably meant nothing. She wasn’t prone to subtlety in any of her actions.
“Hey, Arachne,” Rafe said with a grin, turning from organizing his tools. “You missed dinner. Want a bit to nosh? I always keep some snacks on hand.”
“No, thanks, I filled up on candy and contraceptives,” she said, surveying the room with a raised eyebrow. “And I’m not just saying that because you offered me food while cleaning your alchemy lab.”
“Excuse you, my lab is a shining beacon of spotless perfection as always, and anyway I’m almost done.” He set the two beakers he’d been holding on their shelf, shut the cabinet and latched it, then turned and held his arms wide, grinning. “See? Done. It’s rather late in the day, Arachne, classes are long over with. What’ve you been out doing all afternoon?”
“State visits,” she said cryptically. “Admestus, I was just prompted today to take a closer look at something which is obvious in hindsight, but sailed right under my nose at the time.”
“Damn, and it’s not even Tuesday,” he said lightly. “Something I can help with, I gather? If you just wanted to think out loud, you usually roust Alaric for that.”
“Mm.” She was studying him closely over the rims of her spectacles, her eyebrows creased in a faint frown. “Kaisa overreacted.”
“Hsst!” He dropped to a crouch, looking rapidly back and forth in alarm. “Don’t speak ill of the creature! She can probably hear you!”
“From Sifan?” Tellwyrn said dryly.
“I am not going to rule that out! Other things I’m not going to rule out include her not actually being gone, because I do not understand why Ekoi Kaisa does anything and I don’t wanna get turned into a frog. She actually has done that, Arachne. Took great pleasure in telling me the story. It ended with soup.”
“She did overreact, though,” Tellwyrn mused, wandering idly into the lab and picking up a sealed jar of tiny eyeballs. She examined this abstractly, not seeming to really see it. “Played the perfect ‘volatile kitsune’ angle. She is prickly about being shown proper respect; most of her sisters are. Kaisa, though, likes to play that angle, and I can’t believe I let her make me forget it. I’ve seen her do it before, act offended and crazy in order to get the reaction she wants, or just to deflect attention. That business, though…that was more affront than your little prank warranted. Also, while I have known her to storm off in a huff, it was never over somebody playing a joke on her. That should have brought retaliation.”
He groaned. “Well, isn’t that just peachy.”
“And then there’s you.” Tellwyrn set down the eyeballs, turning to stare very flatly at him. “You do the same thing. I’m not the kids, Admestus, don’t even try to pull the wool over my eyes. I’ve no issue with your methods of deflecting, except when you take it too far—and I don’t even mind, all that much, cleaning up when you do. This, though.”
“This is all beginning to sound rather accusatory,” he said, folding his arms. “Also, it’s not like you to beat around the bush this way, Arachne. What’s on your mind?”
“Yes, all sorts of people are acting out of character lately,” she said. “Kaisa, flipping out and storming off over a little joke which, honestly, she would have thought was funny, and then got you back. Twice over. You, a person evincing a very healthy fear of irate kitsune—and by the way, take nothing I say here as discouragement of that, because you should fear them if you ever meet another one—who for some reason decided to play a highly aggressive prank on one. How many years has it been, Admestus? I do know you. I know the kind of jokes you like, the kind of targets you prefer and exactly what you get out of tweaking their noses.”
“Am I so transparent?” he asked mournfully.
“To me? Yes. I’m betting to several of your colleagues, as well. Alaric pretends to find you so annoying because he knows you enjoy it. This, though. I was so distracted by Kaisa’s antics and then this Sleeper crap I never paused to consider how very out of character it would be for you to deliberately provoke her that way.”
“Hah!” He struck a pose, planting his fists on his hips. “For the sake of my art, I will endure any travail!”
Tellwyrn folded her arms and stared at him over the rims of her glasses.
It was only a moment longer before Rafe visibly deflated. “Oh, all right, fine. I didn’t slip Kaisa an anti-magic potion—honestly, how would that even work? I’m pretty sure she’s got entire senses for people playing pranks. Drugging a kitsune probably isn’t even possible. She asked me to play along, Arachne. Which I did, for the two very excellent reasons that she scares the hell out of me, and I didn’t see any harm in it. If she was going to mess with the kids or with you, I’d have come to you. I thought she was just bored with teaching and wanted an excuse to quit, and it cost me nothing to make myself useful. I mean, Alaric was back and all…”
“No.” Tellwyrn shook her head, turning to frown at a rack of bottled reagents. “Kaisa does not get bored with teaching. I asked her to come teach because it’s what she does. Her one great joy in life. If she decided to walk out in the middle of her contract, she’s got good and specific reasons.”
“Hey…” His expression sobered. “Do you think this has anything to do with the Sleeper? I’m not an idiot, it did occur to me… But I couldn’t see her doing something like that. I mean, I can’t say I know her well, but she always seemed to care about the kids, in her way. And if nothing else, she respects you.”
“I think you’re right about that,” Tellwyrn mused. “I don’t believe in coincidence. This started up right when she left—but the connection there is obvious enough without weaving conspiracies out of cobwebs. What we’re dealing with is almost certainly a very powerful diabolist, but no diabolist is anything more than prey for a kitsune. However… Now I have to wonder what angle Kaisa is playing. I don’t have it in me to believe she was blind to the results of her departure. I’ve never known her to act without full knowledge of every repercussion her actions would have.”
“Hey, uh, look,” he said awkwardly, scratching behind one of his ears, “you know I wouldn’t…”
“Relax, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said, giving him a fondly exasperated look. “You’re not in trouble. You were right about both your points: defying Kaisa if she asked for your help wouldn’t have been wise, and helping her wasn’t any kind of betrayal of me. I do trust her, and you, and I don’t suspect either of meaning harm to the campus.”
“D’aww.” He beamed. “I’m all warm and fuzzy!”
“Yeah, well, you enjoy that luxury.” Tellwyrn turned back toward the door. “I now have to go and do something about this.”
“Sorry for being late,” Toby said, sliding onto the bench in the little reading alcove. “You were right, I think I may have over-committed myself a bit this semester. I’m gonna give it another week to hit a rhythm before I start paring anything down, so don’t worry, I’m still up for studying.”
Raolo didn’t raise his eyes from the spellbook open in his lap. Toby gave him a long look, then sighed.
“Oh, the silent treatment again? That’s not as entertaining as you think it is, Rao. I’m not that late. And who was it who decided to set up in the back corner over here instead of our usual table? You’re lucky Crystal saw you heading this way or I’d still be looking.”
He grinned and nudged the elf in the shoulder with his fist.
Raolo immediately slumped bonelessly in the other direction, the book sliding from his lap. Toby’s reflexes snapped into action; he grabbed the freshman before he could fall far.
“Raolo?” Gold light flashed into being around them; somewhat awkwardly, given their side-by-side position on the wall bench, Toby wrestled the elf around to face him, tilting his head back. The younger boy didn’t respond in the slightest to the manipulation, even when Toby had to grip his hair to hold his head up, and thumbed his eyelid open. He was breathing; his pulse was steady. He wasn’t an accomplished diagnostician by any means, but between his classes and some of Omnu’s innate gifts, he could sense enough to know Raolo was, more or less, healthy.