It was not without relief that he finally delegated the immediate clean-up and departed. Ildrin could handle the more urgent practicalities, while Delilah attended to the more trying duty of calming Rector, whose understandable upset at the sudden loss of so much of his hard work was considerably exacerbated by his inherent…difficulty. Getting him under control would be a necessary first step before the project could be cleaned up and resuscitated; he would be nothing but an obstruction to anyone trying to work in the ruins until then. Hopefully Ildrin could arrange the important matters alone, but if worse came to worst, he was prepared to involve Nassir. For obvious reasons, the number of people aware of, and involved in, this particular project had to be kept to an absolute minimum, consisting only of his most trusted lieutenants.
Justinian strode through the deep passages below the Cathedral at as rapid a pace as he could manage without resorting to unseemly haste. Not that there was anyone nearby, as his innate sense of others’ emotions revealed, but there were habits he maintained even when they seemed unnecessary, precisely because they were so necessary the rest of the time. He also kept his expression clear and serene, despite the turmoil of his thoughts.
Occupied with his inner whirl of plans, countermeasures, concerns and stratagems, he passed deeper and deeper below the Cathedral, penetrating layers of security with the minimum attention necessary to get through them. Several were magical devices which recognized him and required no conscious input, but he ardently eschewed the laziness of over-reliance on sophisticated gimmicks. The confusing layout of the deep passages was a help, which he had enhanced by placing barriers in such locations that he had to backtrack repeatedly through even more twisting, switchbacking corriors to retrieve various keys from their hiding places.
The descent took the better part of an hour. It was fairly rare that his demanding schedule allowed him the leeway to come here aside from his weekly visits, but that was for the best, considering how demanding these visits often were, themselves. And in the end, it was not optional. No one could know what he kept here.
The final door was hidden in plain sight, one simple wooden barrier in a hallway lined with identical ones, the rest of which were all trapped in some way. Justinian opened the correct door and slipped through, closing it behind him, and availed himself of the remaining few moments it took to traverse the opulent entry hall of this subterranean apartment to make extra certain that his face and bearing were composed.
He emerged into a grand chamber which, on its own merits could have belonged in any palace. Round, three stories in height, and with much of its second level encircled by a balcony from which doorways branched off, reached by a curved staircase beginning immediately to the right of the entry, it was carved entirely from marble and liberally gilded—with actual gold. The domed ceiling high above was a single piece of crystal, and also the primary source of light. A grand pianoforte and a large harp stood against one wall on a dais, though they were not the source of the music currently playing; a string quartet echoed from one of the adjacent rooms, with the characteristically scratchy undertones of a soundisc player. Rugs and pillows were scattered about more like the detritus of fallen trees than any deliberate attempt at décor, mismatched and drifting into piles against the walls.
The curtains covering the doorways, in contrast to the expensive quality of the room itself, were practically rags, dusty and torn. Only upon closer examination did one see that they were not, in fact, ragged or dirty, but that shape and color because they were nothing but dense masses of spider webs, arranged in roughly flat shapes. More of their kind were draped across the dome above, giving its clean light an eerie quality. Those immense cobwebs shifted slowly, as if in response to a breeze which was not there, causing peculiar patterns of light to sway gently across the floor.
“Where I am from, a man entering a woman’s home uninvited would experience…consequences.”
Justinian’s smile was only partially faked. Partially because on several levels, he truly did enjoy these exchanges. Faked because on other levels, they could be utterly nightmarish.
She had appeared in the doorway to his left, silently as always, and now posed with her arms braced against it, shoulders slanted one way, hips the other, smirking mysteriously. Everything a pose, a slice of pageantry. From some women, such behavior seemed like manipulation, and to be sure, she was manipulative in everything she did. He had come to understand, though, that there was no hostility in it, and not necessarily even an agenda. She manipulated like she breathed, and quite possibly could not stop.
He bowed, ignoring the obvious rejoinders about where she was from, or who provided her with this luxurious space in which to live.
“Ah, but if I were well-behaved, Szaiviss, you would find me so much less interesting.”
Her answering smile could almost have been genuine. Perhaps it truly was. It was a sly smile, but that might be the most genuine thing of all, from her.
Few Tiraan would ever see truly black skin on a drow; in Tar’naris, after millennia of interbreeding with (mostly enslaved) humans, drow came in an entire grayscale palette, ranging from a deep slate color to the nearly white of some of the modern half-drow who could be found in Lor’naris. Szaiviss came from an older and undiluted line, one which had had no contact with the surface since before the Elder Wars, and her skin was black, and subtly glossy, like living obsidian. Her eyes, too, were startling; unlike the more muted colors common to Narisians, they were a vivid scarlet which seemed almost to glow when the light hit them just right. That wasn’t due to her blood; the likes of vampires and some succubi had eyes like that, and for similar reasons. She wore a short gown that was necessarily filmy, being woven of cobwebs like her curtains, clinging to her and concealing almost nothing of what little it actually tried to cover. Against the dingy off-white garment and her black skin, her ankle-length white hair seemed almost to glow, falling all around her like a cloak.
“Let’s see,” she purred, her Tanglish fluent but heavily accented, and oozed out of the doorway to come slink toward him. “Only two days since you last came just to spend time with me, my love. Not long enough for the desire to overwhelm you again… I know I don’t yet have you that addicted to my charms. Which means…” She had come to stand very close, gazing up into his face from mere inches away, near enough that her breasts grazed the front of his tabard. “You want something.”
“Aside from the obvious?” he murmured, slipping his arms around her. Szaiviss did not pull back, but her expression hardened.
“No, no, beloved. No games, not till later. I rather it not hang over us in the meantime.”
“You seek to put me in a box too small for my comfort, my dear,” he replied, pulling her closer, which she allowed. “I can have more than one goal at a time. Any pressing need makes a perfect excuse.”
Szaiviss chuckled low in her throat, and finally did extricate herself, pressing her hands against his chest and pulling back out of his grasp. “Then I shall have to prioritize, as usual. Before we take time to play, you had better tell me your problem. Otherwise, you’ll be too…distracted.”
She turned and sauntered away, rolling her hips fluidly as she went. Justinian followed her through the curtained doorway into a much dimmer space, also bedecked with webs across the ceiling and pillows all over the floor, this one narrower and lit only by a single fairy lamp. The soundisc player was in here, as well as a stand currently burning incense. She did so love her sensual distractions, particularly of the kinds not available where she had come from. Then again, precious little was available there.
“My project with Rector and the Avatar has been stalled,” he admitted, watching her stretch herself out in a pile of cushions. She did not invite him to sit yet, and he did not presume; her jokes were one thing, but he had learned to respect some of the drow cultural mores she held in sincerity. “In fact, completely destroyed. Rector and his minders barely escaped unscathed, not to mention myself.”
“You’ll be wanting the goddess’s touch to access it again, then?” she mused. “How…prosaic. How disappointing.”
“Eventually,” he agreed with a grim little smile. “I have more urgent problems, however. Rector’s machine exploded with the full force contained in its power crystals, which I have made very certain before providing them that it should not be able to do. Someone at the other end of the connection did that quite deliberately. After replacing his display with the Imperial sigil.”
Her grin was a white slash across her face in the dimness. “Oh, Justinian. Poor, clever boy. Even your setbacks are just so fascinating.”
“Open confrontation with the Silver Throne has always been part of the plan,” he said with a shrug. “But it is much too early. Everything could be ruined if I am forced to proceed to direct hostilities before the other necessary factors are ready.”
“Then perhaps your plans are less thorough than you thought,” she said, her face devoid of levity now. “That forces me to question things, Justinian. Many things. How will you provide what you have promised me if the Empire comes storming in here before you can arrange it?”
“They will not,” he replied, beginning to pace back and forth. It was not his habit, but he preferred to show a few nervous tics and mannerisms in her presence which he did not ordinarily betray. Keeping her under control was far easier so long as she assumed she held the upper hand. “Even at the height of the Enchanter Wars, the Imperials did not dare invade the Cathedral. Sharidan is quite capable of eclipsing my ability to move, however, which would be bad enough.”
“Yes. And so, here we are, in this pit you have dug.”
“Rector grew too focused on his task and failed to adequately cover his tracks,” Justinian said, as if to himself, which continuing to walk slowly back and forth across the piled carpets. The lowest-hanging spider webs brushed the top of his head; he raised a hand to push one aside, though it didn’t really bother him. “Quite typical of his particular type of aberrant personality, and a risk I was aware of when I employed him. My errors were in overestimating the control his handlers have over him, and under-preparing for such an extreme breach of security. Minor breaches I expected, not…this. Even so, however, this is a setback, not necessarily a disaster. I find it is a mistake to over-plan; much better to surround oneself with the resources necessary to adapt to the unexpected.” He came to a stop, turning to face her, and spread his arms, smiling down at her. “And in that, I am still well-positioned. Even the Empire does not possess a resource such as you.”
Szaiviss regarded him in aloof silence for a moment before answering. “You imagine, Archpope, that you possess me?”
“As much as anyone does anyone, my dear. You are no one’s creature but your own, but our aims are in harmony.”
She smiled at that, but only briefly, before her expression hardened again. “And in all your scheming up there, what progress have you made toward my needs? I’ve heard nothing of it since that absolute silliness with the newspapers backfired on you.”
“That was only an exploratory probe of her defenses,” he replied calmly. “I continue to make them. A creature like Tellwyrn is not to be attacked openly, or without detailed knowledge of her capabilities. In point of fact, my dear, circumstance has recently conspired in our favor. Tellwyrn has her own problems lately, and though I did not intend it, Rector’s interference with the Hands of the Emperor has quite accidentally exacerbated them.”
She came smoothly to her feet, as rapidly as a pouncing cat, and pressed herself into his space, this time with no hint of allure. He did not back down from her, simply meeting her glare in perfect serenity.
“I must be the one to kill her, Justinian, or this is all pointless. Do not overstep yourself.”
“She would destroy you as effortlessly as she has all your predecessors,” he said calmly, declining to acknowledge her furious hiss. “My plotting is what will make your aim possible, Szaiviss. And Tellwyrn’s newest strength also provides her a weakness she has never had before. This University gives her many new advantages, but she is too bound up in it to abandon it at need. And the University is vulnerable as all institutions are, in many ways that an archmage is not. We will destabilize it, and thus her, to create the opening you need. But first, we must watch, and prepare, and lay the groundwork. I assure you, none of what I have done thus far will come close to ending the Arachne’s life. But every little step helps me learn how it may be done.”
She narrowed her eyes, but after a pause, slowly nodded, and drew back. “Very well, then. Your problem with the Empire…what do you wish me to do about it?” Her lips curled back in a displeased grimace. “There will be a price, Justinian, if you seek to invoke her presence.”
“Quite apart from the price she demands, there would be a cost,” he said, grimacing in return. “No. My dictum stands; under no circumstances must you invoke Scyllith’s presence here. No shrouds I can throw up would prevent the Pantheon from noticing that, and then we will both be finished, and all our plans come to naught.”
“Good,” she said with a wry little smile. “I meant a price I would demand, though, quite apart from whatever she wants. I desire nothing more than to be out from under the lunatic old bitch’s thumb as long as possible. The only reason she has a cult at all is the cursed Themynrites prevent my people from fleeing the Underdark.”
“We are in accord, then,” he replied, indulging in a small grin of his own. “No, not Scyllith, my dear; only you do I trust. I need your ability to find the unknown.”
“What, your room full of oracles is not enough?”
“Those sources are obstreperous,” he said, “and take time to use—time I don’t believe can be spared, in this case. Besides, my little tests have verified that all four of my Bishops have figured out how to ascertain who has been studying what in the Chamber of Truth. I don’t yet trust them with matters this sensitive, and for now, I’d rather let them chase each other’s schemes than catch a whiff of mine. Besides,” he added with another slow smile, “all the accumulated oracles of the world have never performed as well as your skills.”
“Your flattery is blunt,” she said, folding her arms and raising an eyebrow. She did it with a smile, though.
“I flatter you only when the simple truth gives me the opportunity, my lovely. It happens more often than I would have expected.”
“Yes, good boy,” she said approvingly. “Later, you may spend time praising me in detail. But! Work before pleasure. What is it you seek?”
“An enemy,” he said immediately. “Last year, one fortuitously appeared in the form of a hellgate, accompanied by a new stage in Darling’s own plot, which enabled me to ally the Church with the Throne against a common foe. One is not conveniently available, now, which means one will have to be found. I must re-cast this…little indiscretion as just that, and not the dramatic breach it truly is. To that end, I need alliance with the Throne against a common danger. To begin with. The rest I can arrange myself.”
Szaiviss turned away without answering, strolling toward the opposite end of the narrow room from the entrance. It was more of a wide hallway, really, its sides lined with occasional articles of furniture and thick drifts of pillows. Across from its entrance, the back wall was entirely swathed in more cobweb-curtains.
She shrugged and then rolled her shoulders, and her paltry garment slipped from them, slithering down to lie puddled around her bare feet. Szaiviss languidly raised one hand; Justinian, having seen this before, now knew to watch the shadows on the wall, barely visible as they were in the dimness of the one nightlight. He could see, however, the shadow of her arm. The arm did not move further, but the shadow did, reaching out to entangle its unnaturally long fingers in the darkness swathing the multiple layers of ragged silken drapes concealing the back of the room. At the shadow’s touch, the whole arrangement was pulled to one side, gathered up into a bundle, and draped over a hook on the wall, revealing what lay beyond.
The semi-circular space was bathed in pure white light which had been invisible behind the thick curtains. Its walls were of obsidian, crisscrossed by lines of white paint designed to resemble spider webs. Its floor was a raised dais, upon which was engraved a sigil which had been unseen on the surface of the world for eight thousand years, deliberately expunged long ago by the Pantheon. Scyllith’s personal glyph did not depict anything Justinian recognized; it was simply an arrangement of lines, like the Infinite Order’s. Perhaps, though, both of those had meant something more concrete in those days.
Szaiviss turned to glance at him over her shoulder, just in time to catch his eyes wandering over her body—because she expected and enjoyed it, mostly, but she was beautiful enough that his appreciative smile was the result simply of relaxing his customary reserve, not faking an expression.
The shadow priestess stepped up onto the dais, turned to face the room, and knelt, closing her eyes. Her chest swelled with a deeply in-drawn breath, then relaxed. Then again, and once more.
And then she opened her eyes. They were pure white, blazing with light. In trance, the drow began to speak. He listened intently, even after the first words revealed that she said exactly what he expected.