“Well, this isn’t so bad,” Danny said cheerfully, rubbing a plate dry with a towel. “Almost fun, in a way!”
“Fun,” Sanjay repeated, shooting him a sidelong look.
Their houseguest grinned. “Satisfying, at least. You do the thing, and the thing is done—there’s an inherent substance to it. Or maybe I’m just glad it’s not turned out to be as onerous as Lakshmi suggested. She made it sound like I was being sent to a salt mine.”
“Yeah, well, that’s Shmi for you,” Sanjay said with a shrug, rinsing off a cup. “Always gotta mess with everybody’s head. And she wonders why she’s still single.”
“I can hear you,” Lakshmi shouted from the next room.
“Seems like an Eserite thing, doesn’t it?” Danny remarked, stacking the plate and reaching for the next one waiting in the strainer.
Sanjay snorted. “So, really? You’ve never washed dishes before?”
“Technically, I still haven’t. It’s my fond hope that, in my time with you, I’ll earn enough trust to work my way up from drying.”
“Not once,” Danny mused, eyes on his current plate. “I can’t recall ever actually cleaning anything in my life. Never cooked, either, or had to fix anything…”
Sanjay let out a low whistle and shook his head. “Must be pretty damn nice.”
“Watch your language!” his sister barked from the living room. Danny and Sanjay exchanged a conspiratorial grin.
“It’s been a charmed life, I must admit,” Danny continued, now working on the last plate, while Sanjay loaded the last cup into the strainer and began scrubbing the silverware. “It’s not that I’ve been bored… Actually, they keep me pretty busy. There are always decisions to be made, things to organize, people I have to coddle or bully or placate. Honestly, they keep me busy from dawn till dusk, most days.”
“You poor baby,” Sanjay said, completely without sympathy.
Danny grinned as he continued talking and working. “In terms of just…day to day tasks, like this? The things everybody has to do to take care of themselves? I’ve never had to learn. I didn’t test it, but I have a feeling I wouldn’t have been allowed to learn, even if I’d tried. When it comes down to it, I don’t know how to do… Anything. If I ever lose my position permanently, I’m going to be pretty well screwed.”
Sanjay snuck a glance up at the man; he was frowning pensively at the cups as he rubbed water from them with the dampening towel. Initially, he’d found little to respect in the well-groomed, sweet-smelling, uncalloused and unfairly handsome man who had been inexplicably in his home when he got back from school. Danny was personable and hard not to like, though. And now, incredibly, he began to seem actually sympathetic.
“Didja ever think about just…running away?”
“I did, actually!” Danny’s expression brightened, and he winked, lowering his voice. “When I was younger, my best friend and I used to sneak out all the time, to go drinking and chase girls. My mother came down on that pretty hard when she found out, so that was that. It’s a shame I was so young and dumb, then; I could’ve been teaching myself all sorts of useful things instead.”
“Oh, I dunno,” Sanjay said airily. “Sounds like you had your priorities in the right order!” Danny laughed obligingly.
Lakshmi’s face appeared around the doorframe, wearing a suspicious expression. “What are you two snickering about in here?”
“Nothing,” they chorused, turning innocent looks on her.
“Omnu’s balls, that’s disturbing,” she muttered, scowling at them before retreating.
“You hear that?” Sanjay complained. “And then she tells me to watch my language.”
“Well, half the fun of being older is being able to be hypocritical about stuff like that,” Danny said cheerfully. “Wait till you have kids of your own, and you can spend your time making them crazy. I’m told that’s the whole attraction.”
“About running away, though,” Sanjay said more thoughtfully as he deposited the last fork in the strainer and let the water out of the sink. “I meant, like…more permanently.”
Danny’s smile turned wistful. “You know what, I actually do think about it with some regularity. It’s a pretty stressful job, being responsible for people.”
“I bet having your a—” He broke off, darting a glance at the door to the living room. “…getting catered to hand and foot all the time helps.”
“It sure does,” Danny said frankly. “Not gonna lie, the perks are pretty da—pretty nice.” He, too, glanced at the door, then winked. “But they’re not what stops me. The truth is, I enjoy the work, even as tiring as it is. It’s satisfying. I get to make a difference and actually help a lot of people. And…when I mess up, a lot of people can suffer.” His expression faded to a frown and he paused in drying the silverware to stare sightlessly at the wall in front of them. “I sort of feel I blew my chance to walk away the first time I let a bunch of people down in a way that has real consequences for them. You can’t make something like that go away, you know? There’s nothing to do but keep going forward. With every success, I feel more motivated… With every failure, I feel more responsible.”
“Sounds grim,” Sanjay murmured.
“Well, standing here, right now, my recommendation is that if you ever have the option to step into a noble’s place, don’t. This seems much more…free.” He shrugged. “Truthfully, though, I probably know as little about your life as you do about mine. So my opinion there probably isn’t worth much.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna have to agree on that one,” Sanjay said with a grin. “The last part. If I ever get the chance to step into a noble’s place, I’m gonna be all over that.”
“Where do these fellows live?” Danny asked, patting the short stack of plates.
“Top cabinet, to your left, there.” He watched Danny put dishes away in silence for a moment. “How do you learn that? Do they have special schools for nobles?”
“Oh, yes,” Danny said. “Expensive ones.”
“In the drawer, right in front of you.”
“Thanks. And yeah, there are classes in things like economics… Mostly, though, the craft of ruling is taught a lot the way the Thieves’ Guild trains its apprentices. You learn it by being coached by someone who’s done it a lot longer.”
“Most of the Eserites I know think nobles are worse thieves than they are,” Sanjay said skeptically, folding his arms and leaning against the sink.
“Most of the nobles I’ve met think Eserites are basically boogeymen,” Danny said frankly. “My feeling is both are right. I’ve known aristocrats who I have to say are completely useless human beings, and a few—more than a few—who I’d call outright monsters. The thing is… You see that everywhere, I think. But nobles are supposed to be responsible for a lot. When a leader is useless or evil, it does a great deal more damage than when an average person is.”
“I guess that makes sense. I haven’t met any nobles—before you, I mean—but I’ve met some pretty useless idiots and ass— Jerks.” He shot a look at the doorway and rolled his eyes. “People I’d hate to see in charge of anything.”
“Yeah. The reverse is true, though.” Danny shut the silverware drawer and gave him a contemplative look. “You may not learn about it directly, considering where and how you’re growing up, but it seems like a disproportionate number of the Eserites I end up hearing about are some really vile individuals. Maybe—”
“OI.” A paperback book came sailing through the door and bounced off the wall a few feet from them. “So help me, if I catch you trying to turn my brother against our religion, I will glue your dick to your leg while you sleep, and Sweet can whine about it all he likes!”
“Yep,” Sanjay said quietly, grinning. “Still single.”
“Aw, now, a lot of gentlemen go for women with spirit!”
“Ew.” The boy wrinkled his nose. “That’s my sister. I don’t need to be thinking about that!”
“You’re probably right,” Danny said gravely. “It’s for the best.”
“Anyway, that’s not the same, though,” Sanjay said thoughtfully. “Nobles and thieves. Or nobles and anything else, really. You can apprentice to be a thief no matter who you are. Legacy families are actually pretty rare in the Guild; most Eserites come from other places, other cults, even. And, like, most crafts are that way. There are some family businesses, but I think most people come to their trade because they have talent for it, or just want to do it.”
“I guess you’re right about that,” Danny acknowledged, turning to lean against the wall next to the sink and face him directly.
“Nobles, though, you have to be born noble.”
“Mm…not necessarily. That’s the most common way, sure. You can also marry into nobility, or be adopted.”
“Come on, how often does that happen?”
“Less often than it should,” Danny said ruminatively. “I think it would help keep the Houses fresh. You know, House Madouri has always made a point of marrying commoners, seeking out fresh blood. And they’ve been actual rulers of Tiraan Province for a thousand years, longer than almost any other House has even existed. I think there’s a lesson in that.”
“Does your House do that?”
“No, actually, my House is too young for that to have been a factor. And that’s the other thing. You always have to keep in mind that nobles got noble in the first place by accomplishing something, and then capitalizing on it. The gods didn’t select the Houses.” He smiled. “I’d have thought the Guild would make a point of mentioning that.”
“Well, I’m not old enough for proper Guild training yet, but yeah…I’ve heard that idea mentioned a time or two,” Sanjay admitted, grinning ruefully. “From Eserites and Punaji both. Shmi always says, the only reason she’s comfortable raising me outside Punaji culture is that Eserite culture is pretty much the same thing, with less fish.”
Danny laughed at that; Sanjay, emboldened, went on.
“So where’s your House from?”
“To the north of here,” Danny said vaguely.
Sanjay rolled his eyes dramatically. “Danny, Tiraas is on the southern coast. Everything is north of here.”
“Sanjay.” Lakshmi appeared in the door again. “That’s called an evasive answer, and you know it. Danny is in hiding, we’re being paid to help him, and we don’t ask questions about other people’s jobs.” She glanced back and forth between them and grimaced. “You know what, if you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean. And you,” she added, pointing balefully at her guest, “if you’re just gonna encourage him anyway, you can help him.”
“Sounds good!” Danny said gamely, even as Sanjay groaned. “More education! I shall be a wiser and stronger man when I go back home.” Lakshmi just snorted and disappeared back into the living room.
“Here,” Sanjay said with poor grace, tossing him a rag he’d just taken from the drawer. “The kitchen’s fine, just fix it up enough she doesn’t have an excuse to complain. Wipe down water off the sink and cabinet, see if you can find dust or something on the shelves. It’s not like we’re gonna be having tea with the Empress in here, anyway,” he added sullenly.
“You’d better hope not,” Danny agreed, already wiping off the edge of the sink. “I hear she’s pretty unforgiving.”
“Have you ever met her?”
“First rule of being powerful: try to stay away from people who are more powerful than you. They’ll cause you all kinds of headaches.”
“Hey, that sounds almost Eserite!” Sanjay glanced at him again, from his position standing on a chair, where he was halfheartedly flicking dust off the top of the cabinets. “So…who taught you? About ruling, I mean. You make it sound like your mother’s sort of strict.”
“Oh, that she was.”
“She’s been gone for a few years now.”
“Oh.” He lowered his eyes. “Sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“It’s fine,” Danny said, giving him a quick smile. “She wasn’t that bad, though. Yes, she’s the one I learned from, mostly. In a way… Have you ever noticed how you can love someone completely without ever liking them all that much?”
“Yes,” Sanjay said emphatically. “Yes, I have. I think that’s called family.”
“I know where you sleep, y’little brat!”
“And there she is now,” he added, smirking. “Yeah, that’s not just you. That’s everybody’s family.”
“Well, good, I feel a little better about it.” Danny’s smile quickly faded, and he slowed the motion of his hands until he was just leaning on the sink. “I miss her a lot, though. She was my mother and I loved her, but it isn’t just that. I believe I’ll always feel she was just better at this than I’ll ever be. It seems like at least once a day I’ll find myself baffled by something, and my first thought is always, ‘Mother would know what to do.’” The smile returned to his face, more wistful now. “And oddly enough, she still helps me, in that way. Thinking about what she would do always points me toward a solution. Of course, I don’t always do what she’d have done, but it’s a reliable starting point.”
“I didn’t get to know my mother,” Sanjay said quietly, staring at the remaining dust on the cabinet.
“I don’t think you’re right,” Danny said frankly. Sanjay turned to frown at him. “A mother’s a lot more than the person who gave birth to you, I think. You’ve got someone who loves you, provides for you, makes sure you’re getting an education and an upbringing. Someone who cares enough to be certain you go out into the world with the best preparation she knows how to give you. Sorry if I’m being presumptuous, Sanjay, but it seems to me you have as good a mother as anyone can.”
Sanjay coughed awkwardly, his cheeks coloring, and lowered his eyes. A moment later, they both turned, noticing Lakshmi standing silently in the doorway, arms folded, leaning against the frame.
“You,” she said to Danny, “are dangerous, aren’t you?”
“Oh, well.” He gave her a disarming smile. “Maybe a little.”
One could usually tell day from night, provided the sky was clear; beyond that, the passage of time in the Twilight Forest was inscrutable. In darkness, the ambient light was pale and blue, while by day it held a golden orange tone, and in either case, a haze hung in the air which inhibited the view even more than the underbrush and the shadows of the massive trees. It never grew brighter or dimmer, though. Dawn was a sudden thing, and dusk such a perpetual state that its arrival was impossible to notice. Aside from the light, it looked very much like any old growth forest, with the occasional path winding around the roots of ancient sentinel trees, and here and there the odd ruin appearing suddenly amid the shadows. The sounds, though, were eerie at best. The noises of insects, birds, and small animals were there, but less than in most such woods, and often one could hear what might have been the distant sound of laughter, the rapid patter of tiny feet, occasionally a note in the wind that could have been the agonized wail of someone far away.
Aside from the odd tauhanwe passing through one of the coastal cities, there were no elves in Sifan, and not because they were made unwelcome, either by the kitsune or the Sifanese. Elves liked their forests natural, and the full force of Naiya’s wild magic kept at a respectful distance. The presence of the Twilight Forest could be felt for miles out to sea in all directions from the archipelago, to those sensitive to it. In truth, there were no fairies of any kind, here, save those whose being sprang from the auspices of the kitsune. There were few clerics on the islands, the cults organized in ways that were often strange to their brethren elsewhere in the world. There were, assuredly, absolutely no demons. Sifan was a land unlike any other, and the Twilight Forest in many ways as alien as Hell.
But at least it was pretty.
Tellwyrn hadn’t been to Sifan often, and not to the Forest in decades. As frustrating as the experience of wandering aimlessly through the woods was when she was in urgent need of results, it did provide the opportunity to appreciate its oddly lovely scenery, an opportunity she rarely had. For now, that was the best she could do. One did not rush things, here.
“Why, hello there.”
She was not surprised at being suddenly addressed by someone standing very close, whose presence she had not detected through any of her enhanced senses, elvish or magical. It was unwise to let the Twilight Forest take you by surprise. Truthfully, it as unwise to be in it at all; best not to add foolishness on top of risk.
“Good day,” she said politely, bowing to the short old man who had appeared at the base of a tree next to the path. Little taller than her waist, portly, bald, and smiling beatifically with a face so wrinkled she could barely make out his eyes, he was dressed in the robes of a monk and carrying a staff more than twice his height.
“I don’t think I have seen you here before, my dear. Are you lost?”
“In fact, I am,” Tellwyrn replied. “Can you tell me how I might find the kitsune?”
The old man hummed softly to himself. “Dear me, what an unusual quest. Most who enter this forest would prefer to avoid the kitsune.”
“And yet, here I am,” she said with a patient smile.
He hmm-hmmed again. “The humans have shrines outside the woods, devoted to the fox-goddesses. That is the safest way to seek them out.”
“Alas, my business compels me to hurry. I have no time for the safest way.”
“Ah, so?” The old man rubbed his double chin with his free hand in a show of thought. “Well, perhaps I can help you, indeed. If you will do a favor for a fellow traveler, I shall do one in return.”
“What is it you need?”
“It’s a little embarrassing,” he said bashfully. “I seem to have lost my knapsack up a bush. It is wedged quite securely; I cannot prod it loose with my staff, nor reach it with my fingers. You, though, are so tall and graceful! I’m sure you could retrieve it for me with ease.”
“Why, however did you manage to lose it?” Tellwyrn asked with a smile.
The little old man sighed. “A mischievous monkey took it from me, and tangled it among the branches just out of my reach. They are such annoying creatures, monkeys. But if you will kindly help me retrieve my knapsack, I shall be only too glad to help you find what you seek.”
“Very well, it’s a bargain,” Tellwyrn said politely. “Where is this bush?”
“It’s just this way!” the old man replied, beaming happily. “I am fortunate you came along so quickly; who knows what might have happened to it, had I been forced to go down the path to seek help! Just through here.”
He turned and led the way off the little trail, Tellwyrn following without complaint at the slow pace he set. She didn’t bother glancing back at the path. Odds were good it wouldn’t be there the next time she looked.
The old man was as good as his word, at least. Despite the almost nonexistent speed mandated by his tiny stride and the rheumatic shuffling of his feet, they emerged after only a few minutes into a small clearing, floored with verdant moss and the occasional fern. Directly opposite this was a bush with dark, spiny leaves, and hanging in the upper branches, just beyond the reach of the little old man’s arms, hung a battered leather satchel by its strap.
“There, you see?” he said, pointing. “Look, we are in good time, it hasn’t been further disturbed!”
“How fortunate,” she said.
“I will wait here and keep watch,” he said seriously, nodding and thumping the butt of his staff against the ground in emphasis. “Thank you for helping an old man, traveler. Please bring me my knapsack, and then we shall see about your request.”
“Of course,” Tellwyrn replied, giving him a smile, then strode briskly across the clearing.
Behind her back, the old man’s beatific expression melted to one of shock.
She reached the bush, finding the strap draped over a thick branch, and not excessively entangled at all. It took hardly any effort to lift it clear; the spiky leaves caught on the leather, but not enough to impede her, and the sack itself was not heavy.
Holding the knapsack, she turned, evincing no surprise to find the little man gone.
Panting, he scampered back through the underbrush as fast as his paws could carry him, chancing a glance over his shoulder toward the clearing, which cost him dearly; he plowed directly into the shabby bulk of his own knapsack.
“Here you are!” Tellwyrn said brightly, again standing right in front of him. “I see you found time to change into something a little more comfortable.”
His robes were the same, but his body had become furred, wrinkled old face replaced by a sharp snout, clever little eyes, and a pattern of darker fur forming a black mask. He gaped up at her, then yelped and turned to flee again.
Tellwyrn seized the tanuki by the scruff of his neck before he made it another step, hiking him bodily off the ground like his knapsack.
“Now, then,” she said briskly, “that’s my part of the bargain fulfilled. Take me to the kitsune, please.”
He squealed in agitation, then twisted himself around with astonishing agility and sank his needle-sharp teeth into her wrist.
Blue arcane light blazed from the skin-hugging shield invisibly lining her arm; it was like biting into a firecracker. The tanuki hung, dazed by the blast, while Tellwyrn carried him back to the clearing.
“Now, this is where we were,” she said, “in case you were lost. Which direction shall we go?”
“I can’t!” he squealed, having recovered enough to squirm. “They don’t want to be bothered! They’ll kill me!”
“That,” she replied, “is a problem for the future. They aren’t here; I am. And believe me, my furry little friend, I have neither their playfulness nor their forgiving nature.”
“You don’t know what they’re like!” he wailed.
“Here’s what I know,” she stated flatly. “This conversation will end with you helping me to find what I seek. What I tell them at the end of that search will depend upon how the conversation goes. Am I going to have a story about how helpful and courteous you were?” Calmly, she tossed his knapsack to the ground in the center of the clearing, and the whole thing collapsed as if made of paper, the wafer-thin coating of moss disintegrating and dumping fern fronds and the unfortunate knapsack into the yawning pit concealed below. Tellwyrn stepped forward and dangled the squirming tanuki above the chasm. “Or, will they hear a very sad tale of a very stupid raccoon who smears their good name by breaking his oath to travelers in their forest?”
“Y-you don’t scare me, elf! N-not nearly as much as they do!”
She hefted him higher, enough that she could stare grimly into his eye from inches away.
“You don’t know me,” Tellwyrn said quietly. “You really, really don’t want to.”
A soft giggle sounded.
Slowly, Tellwyrn turned, lowering the tanuki but not relaxing her grip, and making no note at all of his redoubled but still useless attempts to wriggle free.
A young woman perched in the lower branches of the tree behind her, clad in a silk kimono white as snow, embroidered with patterns of blossoms in palest lavender. Her complexion was like bleached ivory, even her triangular ears and bushy tail a snowy white, though they were tipped in black.
“You’re such fun,” the kitsune tittered. “I do wish you would visit more often, Arakuni-chan!”
“If only I could find the time,” Tellwyrn said evenly. “How lovely to see you again, Emi. Can you tell me where I might find Kaisa?”
“Oh, no.” Emi hopped lightly from the branch, landing on a nearby fern which hadn’t enough structure to support a sparrow and balancing effortlessly on her toes. “No, I don’t think that would be any fun at all, do you? I can, however, show you where you might find Kaisa.”
“Oh, good,” the tanuki said shrilly, “I guess you don’t need m—”
“Noisy,” Emi commented, the levity abruptly vanishing from her face, and he broke off with a strangled croak. “I believe you owe this honored guest a favor, Maru. I know you value your word far too much to renege upon such an obligation. I’m sure, sooner or later, she will find some…use for you.”
Tears beaded up in his beady eyes; he whimpered, which the elf and kitsune both ignored. Emi turned a once again sunny smile upon Tellwyrn.
“This way, if you please!”