“Goooood morning!” Melaxyna sang, bracing the huge mixing bowl on her hip and continuing to stir batter even as she waved. “Pull up a seat! First batch of pancakes will be up in two shakes.”
Natchua crept closer, warily examining the area. Last night this had been a second-floor landing where the servant’s stairs from Sherwin’s kitchen apartment had terminated in an open area featuring a now-boarded window. A hallway extended off from it, lined with doors behind which lay the small bedrooms the group had taken over.
Melaxyna had been a very busy demon.
She had dragged in two relatively un-rotted desks from the surrounding rooms and arranged them back-to-back against one wall to form a makeshift table, and acquired three mismatched chairs and a stool to finish the setting. Whether the nails driven into the walls were new or had been there the night before Natchua could not say, but now they had a selection of pots and pans hanging from them. Another desk had been pushed into the corner to serve as a countertop, its surface positively glowing from the thorough cleaning and polishing it had recently received. Next to this stood a barrel of water and the centerpiece of the whole makeshift kitchen: a dented old arcane range upon which batter was sizzling away in a pan.
“I can’t thank you enough for this thing, boss,” Melaxyna nattered on cheerfully, turning back to her cooking with the bowl still braced against her hip. The succubus was, somehow, wearing a frilled apron, which Natchua strongly suspected was more to sell the look she was going for than because she feared splatters. “I had my doubts, but this is better than even a proper wood stove! Do they make something like this that works as an oven?”
“I assume so,” Natchua replied, slowly taking a seat at the table. “I mean, that thing’s not exactly state of the art, Mel. I got it on the cheap from a pawn shop in Vrin Shai. It’s old, doesn’t even have proper heating charms. Just a couple of burners hooked up to power crystals, basically. I’d keep anything flammable clear of it.”
Melaxyna glanced over her shoulder, just far enough that Natchua could see her raised eyebrow. “This was yesterday, after we got back from the vampire’s? What the hell were you doing in Vrin Shai?”
“You asked for something on which to cook. Calderaas is the place for enchanted appliances, but Vrin Shai is the closest major city to Tar’naris. I figured a drow wouldn’t stand out as much there.”
“That stripe in your hair kind of makes that redundant, honey bun. Why don’t you just get a disguise charm?”
“I kept my hood up, and I’m not made of money,” Natchua said irritably. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be buying appliances in junk shops. Is that tea?”
“Self-serve, doll, I’ve got my hands full.”
There was already most of a platter of pancakes on the counter next to the range, with a chipped teapot beside it emitting fragrant steam. Natchua had to retrieve a cup—also chipped—from the nearby crate in which sat a mismatched assortment of crockery. It looked clean enough, and she decided not to quibble about its origins.
“I almost hesitate to point this out,” she said, returning to her seat at the “table” with a cup of what smelled like strong black tea, “but a working kitchen is the one thing this place already had.”
“There is a kitchen, but Sherwin lives there,” Melaxyna replied cheerfully. “Just cos the cold box and fireplace are there doesn’t mean it’s any less his personal apartment. We’re already putting quite a lot of stimulation on a boy who’s been effectively a shut-in for years. You’d better believe I’m making it worth his while,” she said, turning to smirk and wink, “but let’s leave his personal space alone as much as possible. All this is just making do until your own little side project has more of this place shipshape again, but what I could really use, next time you go shopping, is a sink. I’ve heard of an apparatus that conjures water and then banishes the run-off down a portable hole?”
“Those exist and cost more than a modest house, and that’s just to buy. The power that kind of magic consumes requires mag cannon-grade crystals.”
“Honestly, Natch,” the succubus said in exasperation, “I don’t know where this penny-pinching comes from. I know this wreck of a house isn’t the reason you made an ally of Sherwin Leduc, of all people. If you can’t get him to shell out some money for equipment, you just let me know. I guarantee the man whose bed I warm will bankrupt himself to buy me the moon if that’s what I want.”
“See if you can sound more smug when you say that,” Natchua grumbled. “How did you set all this up without anybody hearing?”
“The stealth was the only hard part! I have to amuse myself somehow, y’know—what’s the point of doing something constructive if you’re not putting one over on everybody in the process? First batch is up!”
She moved the steaming platter of pancakes to the table, then bustled about supplying Natchua with a plate and silverware, followed by cracked dishes of butter and jam.
“Sweets for breakfast,” Natchua murmured, generously slathering a pancake with both. “I love the surface.”
“So!” Melaxyna poured herself into the chair across from her and planted an elbow on the desk so she could lean forward, chin in hand. “You didn’t sleep well.”
“I slept fine,” Natchua said curtly. “Mind your business.”
“Oh, pumpkin, please. You’re talking to the succubus who spent the night surreptitiously building a kitchen. I promise you I was very aware what everybody in this house was doing. Monitoring your perimeter is essential for any kind of skulduggery.”
“You are supposed to be entertaining Sherwin.”
“You may rest assured my given tasks are attended to. I entertained his brains out. Twice! And held off more because after that point I was worried I might accidentally kill him. Poor guy, he hasn’t had much in the way of physical activity in a while, has he? We’ll work on building up that stamina.”
“Melaxyna, I don’t want to hear details of Sherwin’s sex life unless they’re specifically relevant to my own business. And I’m only giving you that proviso for the sake of thoroughness, since I can’t honestly think how they ever would be.”
“Relevant to your interests, got it,” the demon said solemnly. “Then I assume you’re already aware that Jonathan and Hesthri slept in the same room.”
Natchua barely managed not to choke on a sip of tea. She did not succeed in suppressing the venom from the stare she directed at Melaxyna. “Everyone is welcome to sleep wherever they like. I’m not anybody’s mother.”
The succubus had the gall to innocently bat her eyelashes. “So you don’t care that all they did was sleep, then? Well, after a long boring talk about their relationship and that peabrained kid of theirs.”
She set down the teacup so hard it sloshed over. “That’s correct, I don’t. And I think I’ve already made clear where I stand on hearing the sordid details of other people’s personal lives.”
Melaxyna gazed at her with a benign smile.
“He was a means to an end, that’s all,” Natchua snapped. “And now, a nuisance. I don’t care.” She stuffed a heaping bite of pancake into her mouth and began chomping on it vindictively.
“Aw, honey,” Melaxyna said kindly, very nearly earning a shadowbolt to the face. “If I weren’t such a nice, cuddly demon, I’d string you along until you were desperate enough to beg for my help. But I’m me, so I’m offering. You gotta talk to somebody about this.”
“I don’t gotta do anything. There’s nothing to talk about. I don’t even know what you’re on about. Just shut up!”
“Natchua, you are seriously the worst possible personality type to take on the kind of surreptitious mission you’ve assigned yourself,” Melaxyna retorted, an undercurrent of frustration threading her tone. “I thought you Narisians were supposed to be composed above all. How do you always manage to make your feelings so glaringly obvious?”
“I never exactly fit in with my own people,” she muttered, viciously sawing off more pancake. “Tar’naris is a festering pit and drow culture in general would best serve the world by exterminating itself. Um. By obvious, you…just mean to someone as perceptive as a succubus. Right?”
Melaxyna sighed, leaned back in her chair, and folded her arms under her bosom. “Oh, honey.”
“Stop that!” Natchua snarled, hurling her fork down. It bounced off the table and then to the floor, leaving behind a thin trail of jam.
The succubus quietly stood, fetched another fork from the crate, and laid it gently beside her plate. Natchua rested both elbows on either side of her half-eaten pancaked and pressed her face into her hands.
“…I don’t have time for this.”
“Nobody ever does, sweetie,” Melaxyna said softly, sitting back down. “That’s just how it works. You’ve gotta find a way to deal, somehow, until you can resolve it one way or another.”
“I’d have to be an idiot to open up to a child of Vanislaas about personal issues.”
“We have a contract, remember? I can’t harm your interests while in your service or after you release me from it. Not to sound ungrateful, Natch, but you have nothing more to offer me. You already got me out of the Crawl; so long as you keep your promise to send me off before you charge into Elilial’s line of sight, I can’t gain anything else from manipulating you.” She paused, then huffed softly. “Besides, you know how the Vanislaad curse works, probably better than anybody who’s not one of us. I’m a person, not some kind of unreasoning mischief machine. Compulsions aside, I have the full range of feelings and capacities. I like you; I’m allowed to do that. I can and have fallen in love, even in my present state. My heart is as subject to breaking as anyone’s. That I can tell you from experience.”
“No, this is foolish anyway. It’s not like anything can happen.” She straightened, resolutely picking up the new fork. “I just need to ignore the whole thing. It’ll get easier with practice.”
“Yes, it will. But easy enough? You’re losing sleep, your temper is fraying, and your every interaction with at least two of the people with whom you’ve locked yourself in a very cramped situation is going to make it worse. How long before this pushes you into a severe mistake?”
Natchua stared down at her pancakes, fork poised over them but not moving. “I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“Cope.” Melaxyna reached across the table to gently grasp her free wrist. “I know you have issues with your upbringing, but you have the mental training to compartmentalize feelings and still yourself against them. You’ve learned that stuff from the cradle. I’m sorry to say it, I know how big a deal it is for you to have separated yourself from Tar’naris, but step one is going to be calling on the skills you already have to get this thing back under control before it causes you to make a fatal blunder.”
Natchua heaved a heavy sigh. “And step two?”
“Step two is to think about this. You are avoiding it, pretending it doesn’t exist, and that won’t work. You need to really sit down and examine yourself, and Jonathan, and Hesthri. Decide what it is you want from each of them. And then, only then, you’ll be able to decide what to do about it. Which is where the hard part begins that you’re not even in a position to begin planning for, yet.”
“Seems easier than that,” Natchua said dully. “I already told you, nothing can happen.”
“That isn’t even slightly true,” Melaxyna said in a particularly wry tone, “and I’m very much afraid you know it. Haven’t I already told you that denial is only going to make this worse?”
“We’ll all be going up in smoke soon enough, so what does it matter! Besides…he’s too old for me.”
“Aw, hon.” Melaxyna squeezed her wrist, then let it go. “You really don’t grasp why the age thing is an issue, do you?”
“Honestly, no, I don’t,” she snapped. “I figured it’s a human thing. We—they don’t have that concern in Tar’naris.”
“Well, you know how Arachne has an inviolable rule against teachers at her school consorting romantically with students?”
“Never understood that, either.”
“And that is because your frame of reference is Narisian. Because to the Narisian way of thinking, everything comes down to power. That may be workable, even necessary, for a society struggling to survive under the pressures they face, but everywhere else it is a horribly bad idea and the inevitable cause of abuse.”
“Abuse describes most Narisian relationships,” Natchua admitted.
The succubus nodded, folding her arms again. “The age thing is about power dynamics. An older person is wiser, usually more materially secure, and often in a position of relatively greater authority. When they get into a romantic relationship with someone who has none of those advantages… Well, there’s no getting around the fact that the dynamic is imbalanced. Age differences by themselves mean very little; it’s the stuff that comes with them.”
Natchua frowned. “But…none of that…”
“Exactly!” Melaxyna said, smiling. “Jonathan Arquin has no authority over you. He doesn’t have your education or resources, he’s paced himself demonstrably under your power just by being here, and there is the ever-looming fact that with a wave of your hand you can transpose his face with his butt and then melt both. The fact that he’s twice your age is not relevant to the power dynamic in your relationship. Honestly, honey, I hope you didn’t take Hesthri’s little jab too much to heart. Him being a paternal figure to you is one of the more wholesome things about your relationship. You are clearly in need of one of those.”
“And how is that not a power issue?”
Melaxyna beamed. “By itself, it totally is. In context? The scales still tip in your favor. It works out not being abusive in the other direction because you look up to him on some level.”
Natchua leaned her head against one hand, scratching her hairline. “Okay, fine. So what is it you’re trying to get me to do about this, then?”
“Not do, just understand. You clearly have it in your mind that this whole thing is hopeless and pointless, and it’s just not. You do have the potential for some happiness with the man. I guarantee he feels exactly as besotted with you, and exactly as conflicted about it, albeit for different reasons.”
“Well, it’s not as if it’s that simple…”
“Oh, indeed, there’s the ex whom you’ve placed right smack in the middle of this whole thing. And since the whole point of all this was to get access to her, it’s not as if you can just get rid of her.” Melaxyna shifted in her seat, her grin widening. “If you decide you want to make a play for your man, you just let me know. I can definitely teach you how to do that. But remember, first things first: you need to take some time and ponder this. Decide what you truly want and be sure before you upend the whole apple cart.”
Natchua blew out another slow breath, frowning at nothing past Melaxyna’s shoulder. In the next moment, though, she straightened up, turning to look behind her. Melaxyna tilted her head and opened her mouth, but Natchua held up a hand.
It was a few more seconds before the sound of hesitant feet on the moldy carpet were audible to non-elven ears, but moments after that, Hesthri appeared around the corner from the hallway, where she stopped to peer around at Melaxyna’s set-up with wide eyes.
“Morning, sunshine!” the succubus said brightly, hopping back to her feet. “Lemme get you a plate. It’s simple fare today, but if you’ve been on Hell rations for years it’ll be a feast. Me, I was just on mushrooms and pork for a while, and I’m still not over the delightful novelty of sugar.”
“I…was a servant in Ankhravtha-Shakhnavrid,” Hesthri said hesitantly, creeping closer. “The conditions weren’t terrible. Well, spartan by the standards of this plane, but I lived comfortably compared to most in Hell.”
“Ah, good,” Melaxyna replied, setting a plate of pancakes in front of the chair next to Natchua. “These are fairly sweet by themselves; try one to see how it affects your tongue before experimenting with the jam, that’s my recommendation.”
“Thank you, Melaxyna,” she murmured, creeping into the chair with a wary look at Natchua.
“Good morning, Hesthri,” she said, putting on a polite little Narisian smile. And hating herself for it, but Melaxyna had been right; the mindset from which she had been running ever since she came to the surface was immediately useful in her current circumstances. “How’s your finger?”
“Oh! You were right, the claw is already growing back.” Hesthri held up the digit in question.
“Good. I’m sorry to have sprung that on you; I had planned to approach the matter with more warning, but circumstances forced my hand. And, aheh, yours.”
“Um.” Hesthri placed her clawed hands on both sides of her plate, not yet reaching for the food. She stared down at it, though, while speaking. “Mistress, if it pleases you, I have a humble request.”
“Where did all this come from?” Natchua asked, frowning quizzically. “When I first summoned you, you had a mouth like a dispeptic dragon.”
Hesthri hunched her shoulders slightly. “That was before I was your servant. I don’t wish to overstep my bounds.”
“Well…please relax a little bit. I’m not comfortable having people bow and scrape at me.”
“You can just sass her the way I do,” Melaxyna suggested, smirking. “She snarls and complains but this one won’t whip or shadowbolt you for speaking out of turn.”
Natchua groaned, rubbing her forehead. “You needed something, Hesthri? And please, my name is Natchua. None of this mistress stuff.”
“Um…understood,” the hethelax said, still peering warily at her but appearing to unclench slightly. “I wonder if you could please obtain hvanthris gloves for me.”
Natchua frowned. “I don’t know that word. You must have found a gap in the knowledge Elilial jammed in my head.”
“Perhaps not, m—Natchua. It is fairly specialized and not really relevant to infernomancy. Some breeds of hethelaxi have permanent, un-retractable claws.” She held up one hand. “Like mine. Hvanthris gloves are made from a kvanvraranth’s hide to fit over them. They give us a tough and soft surface with gripping power very similar to human skin, so we can do delicate work without scratching everything we touch. Many hethelax servants in khelminash society are issued them for various tasks. I…would like to be as useful as possible, while I am here.”
“I see,” Natchua mused. “That sounds like a reasonable request; things on this plane are generally more fragile and less in need of clawing than in Hell. All right, I’ll work on that, though I’m not sure off the top of my head how to do it. If nothing else, I suppose I could summon a kvanvraranth and then a horogki from a bloodline with leatherworking skills…”
“Or,” Melaxyna interrupted, “since you live on a plane of existence with far more abundant and diverse resources, just get her some gloves! Sounds like you’d need some really particular ones that might have to be custom-made, but I’ll eat my tail if something like that isn’t a lot easier to get up here than down there.”
“That’s a point,” Natchua agreed. “I’ll look into this, Hesthri.”
“Thank you very much, m—Natchua.” She swallowed nervously and then finally picked up one of the pancakes on her plate, not bothering with the fork.
Natchua drew in a steadying breath. “Was Jonathan with you last night? I want to check in with him.”
The hethelax visibly flinched. “He is already up and downstairs…Natchua. He said he wanted to get a start on work?”
“Work? What possible—oh, Omnu’s taint.” Natchua shoved abruptly back from the table and stalked into the stairwell.
There were only so many places anyone could go in Manor Leduc. When she found Jonathan, she also found everyone else.
“Yeah, but seriously, what in the name of crap happened to this place?” one of the hobgoblins was demanding as Natchua stepped into the pulverized ruins of the once-grand front hall. The open sky loomed above; barely enough of the outer walls remained to define the shape of the room. Sherwin and Jonathan stood against one of the walls nearest the hallway to Sherwin’s little kitchen apartment, on one of the very few sections of floor that was still both solid and not buried by rubble. The three hobgoblins were clambering around the mess of fallen stone and roof timbers, one of them perched on a broken beam that put her near the two humans and just above their eye level.
“Several years of neglect,” Sherwin said evasively, crossing his arms.
“Neglect?” The horogki straightened up and turned in a full circle, staring with wide eyes around the room. “Man, you neglected the fuck outta this place, boss. Just several years? It woulda took you full-time neglect with a sledgehammer and no potty breaks to do this in a couple years.”
“A sledgehammer and big-ass claws,” added one of the others, holding up a brick with deep, visible scratches.
“Yes, well, after the neglect, there was a sort of…brawl. Between an archdemon and a Rhaazke.”
Broken shingles sprayed as one of the other hobgoblins burst up from beneath the wreckage. She spat out a mouthful of bent nails before grinning at him. “Well, that sounds a bit more like it! Future reference, handsome, when we need to know what happened to something it saves time to lead with the pertinent information.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” Sherwin muttered.
“Waugh!” The second hobgoblin had rapidly clambered all the way to the top of the wall before unwisely stepping out onto the upper edge of an empty window frame. It shattered, sending her plunging down into a heap of rotted boards. Jonathan immediately straightened up, taking a step forward, but in two seconds a little red arm emerged from the rubble, waving. “I’m okay!”
Natchua cleared her throat loudly.
“Hey, Natchua!” Sherwin said, turning to her with a grin. “Sleep well?”
“Melaxyna has somehow set up a second kitchen in the upstairs hall,” she said, ignoring that. “And made breakfast.”
“The succubus can cook?” Jonathan asked skeptically.
“In the Crawl, she ran a marketplace and tavern of sorts for years. Level 2 wasn’t exactly high tea with the Empress, but considering what she had to work with it was actually pretty impressive. I do recommend the pancakes. Anyhow, I see you lot have already gotten to work. I admire your initiative, Jonathan, though it’s not clear to me how you intend to contribute.”
“I’ve worked on more than a few construction sites in my day,” he replied. “I’m not as strong or skilled as the girls, here, but being three times as tall has its advantages, too.”
“Four pairs of hands are better than three!” agreed the hobgoblin balanced on the beam in front of him with a cheery grin. Her teeth looked like those of a shark in urgent need of dental care.
“This really was an inspired idea, Natchua,” Sherwin added. “Sorry we didn’t wait for you, but…everybody was up, they were getting antsy, and, well, you know how it is. Oh! May I introduce Staccato, Pizzicato, and Glissando!”
“You named them?” she said incredulously.
“Why’s that such a startling prospect?” Jonathan asked with an edge in his voice. “They’re sapient beings. Don’t they deserve names?”
“Don’t take that tone with me,” she snapped. “That was exactly my point. Didn’t they already have names?”
“Actually, we didn’t,” said Pizzicato—according to where Sherwin had been pointing when giving that name—who was the one perched in front of them. “Where we come from, you earn a name by not dying long enough to be important to the bosses! Gotta say, none of us were really expecting to get there.”
“I see,” Natchua said, frowning. “What language is that? It’s not demonic and doesn’t sound like Glassian.”
“Actually, nobody knows!” he said, grinning. Sherwin in general looked happier and more energetic than she had ever seen him; evidently a night in the arms of a succubus did wonders for the disposition. “It doesn’t conform to any known language and the terms have existed longer than Tanglish by far. It’s musical terminology! They’ve been preserved by the Vesker cult since time immemorial. Bards never explain their business, but some theologians think they’re sacred words devised by Vesk himself.”
“Kinda doubt it!” Glissando said cheerfully, clambering up onto a heap of crushed masonry. “We’re demons, buttercup. If you’d named us sacred god-terms I figure we woulda burst into flames.”
“Wait a sec,” Staccato added, scowling suddenly. “You mean you thought those were sacred god-terms an’ you went and did it anyway?”
“Um.” Sherwin’s smile slipped. “Well, I mean, obviously…it all worked out?”
Jonathan and Natchua sighed in unison, then looked at each other, and then swiftly away.
“Well, anyway,” she said brusquely. “It’s your house, Sherwin, so I assume you can supervise this. Jonathan, acknowledging that you’ve horned your way into this whole affair through blackmail, are you still interested in making yourself useful?”
“I think we’ve established that’s literally what I came in here to do,” he retorted. “But it sounds like you have something specific in mind.”
“Yes, I do: a field trip. I mentioned yesterday that I have a line on another prospect to recruit—my only other promising lead so far, so until I feel more ready to start sniffing after the Black Wreath’s trail, this is our first and presently only priority.”
“By lead,” Sherwin said hesitantly, “you mean…”
“A demon who I have reason to think will be amenable to our cause. According to my sources, a certain khelminash sorceress who has served the Pantheon in the past has resurfaced recently in Ninkabi.”
“Khelminash, hm,” Sherwin mused, frowning. “It’s a pretty big deal for one of those to be on the mortal plane at all. They’re unsummonable; she must’ve come through a hellgate.”
“You can’t summon this species of demon?” Jonathan asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Well, I mean, in theory,” Sherwin said with a shrug. “Just like you can theoretically shoot the Sarasio Kid. Khelminash are the best warlocks in Elilial’s service, and also among the very few demons who usually don’t want to leave Hell. Trying to reach across the planes and grab one is a bad idea. The attempt is basically suicide. Even the Topaz College has never managed to capture a khelminash warlock.”
“Here’s the thing,” Natchua continued. “This one is fairly legendary; she’s actually mentioned in one of the later cantos of the Aveniad. And yes, that makes the timing suspicious, to say the least. Xyraadi supposedly died six hundred years ago.”
“Mm.” Jonathan narrowed his eyes. “What are the chances of these mysterious sources of yours deliberately setting you up for a trap?”
“Not likely, but,” she conceded, “not impossible. That’s something you must always be wary of when getting information from any demonic agent. So this must be approached carefully. Before charging in I want to do some delicate reconnaissance, which means not the full group. Myself, obviously. Melaxyna is the best we have at sneaking around in general. And since we’re going to a major human city, a regular joe like yourself could potentially be useful.”
“I see,” he mused, then nodded. “All right, beats waiting around here. I’m in. Sorry, girls, I’ll have to help you out later.”
“Aww,” Staccato said with a leer. “And here I was lookin’ forward to seeing you with your shirt off.”
He frowned. “Well, that wasn’t about to happen, anyway.”
“Oh, then, never mind,” she said curtly, waving him off and hopping down to the floor. “Do what you want, I yieee!”
The broken floorboards gave out, sending her plunging into whatever space lay below to land on something that crunched loudly.
“I’m okay!” Staccato’s voice floated up to them, followed by a second crash. “…almost completely okay! Who’s got a rope?”
“Right, so,” Natchua said with a sigh, “go get some breakfast and grab your wand. We’re not rushing off in haste, but I want to get started as quickly as possible. The only thing I can be certain of at this juncture is that there’s something fishy going on in Ninkabi.”