When the knock came at her door Natchua thought very seriously about yelling at whoever it was to go the hell away. Seriously, but briefly, and not with any real intent. Everyone in this place had reason to be on edge and they were all here because of her, after all. Well, all except Sherwin, but he had as much cause as anyone to seek her out.
And so she paused, looked longingly at the bed she had just turned down, then double-checked that her loose sleeping robe was buttoned, and was pleased at the calm of the tone with which she called, “Yes?”
The door opened just enough for Hesthri to lean her head and one shoulder into view. The demon’s gaze immediately flicked past Natchua to where the expensive Glassian designer outfit she’d just imported was thrown carelessly over a rickety old wooden chair that had not been entirely cleared of dust first. Just for a moment, though, and she did not let the pause drag on before speaking.
“Good, I was afraid I’d wake you.”
“I only came upstairs a few minutes ago, Hes.”
“Yes, but you’re as exhausted and tense as I’ve ever seen a person,” Hesthri replied, slipping the rest of the way inside and gently closing the door. “And you have cause, after all. I didn’t want to interrupt a needed rest.”
“I’m fine,” Natchua said shortly. “Not really that tired. Elves have a great deal more stamina than most demons.”
“Physically, sure. That’s not really the type of stress we’ve all been under, though, is it?”
She drew in a breath for patience before answering. “What do you need, Hesthri?”
Hesthri drew closer in small, diffident steps, her hands clasped behind her back, keeping her eyes below the level of Natchua’s; khelminash etiquette was not part of the infernal knowledge Elilial had given her, but Natchua was from a caste society herself and recognized a formal posture of submission. Which meant the hethelax was likely to smirk and start ribbing her any moment, to judge by her established pattern.
“Things are going better than I honestly expected downstairs,” Hesthri reported. “No one is giving Kheshiri any wiggle room. Xyraadi treats her like a servant, Melaxyna is running interference when she tries to pry at anyone, and the hobs appear to be terrified of her. Jonathan and Sherwin are both refusing to engage her, too. I was a little worried about the humans, but it seems they’re properly wary.”
“Well, Jonathan has no shortage of sense,” Natchua pointed out, “and has had plenty of time and reason to educate himself about trickster demons.”
“Yes,” Hesthri agreed with a fond little smile which caused a heavy knot of some uncomfortable emotion in Natchua’s stomach. “I was worried about Sherwin, though. A man who wants a succubus around, well…”
“Yes, I can see the concern. Sherwin had some of his ideas about women and demonology pretty roughly corrected a while ago, however. And he’s got Melaxyna to keep him happy for now.”
Hesthri nodded. “Xyraadi has been polite to everyone else. She…appears unimpressed by this manor. It’s better accommodations than I’m used to, but khelminash are all nobility in their own societies. I’m a little concerned she may lose patience with roughing it like this.”
“Give Xyraadi a little credit, Hes. She’s used to Agasti’s lavish style now, but she has spent most of her life adventuring in the old style, in the Glassian highlands, in a much more primitive time. I highly doubt she’s that insistent on creature comforts. In any case, the hobgoblins will be fixing this place up as quick as possible. I think I’ll take her to see Malivette’s place first thing in the morning, though,” she added, rubbing at her forehead. “I wasn’t in a hurry, but you have a point. Having a proper noble to hobnob with will probably do her good. And I bet those two will hit it off swimmingly.”
“Do you… Forgive me, but is it necessarily wise to inform Lady Dufresne about this?”
“Maybe, maybe not, but it’s moot. Keeping her informed of details such as what demons I’ve brought here is part of the deal we struck that keeps her from handing us over to the Empire or tearing this place down her own damn self. Besides, I’m actually looking forward to briefing her on Kheshiri. My contract with that… With her prevents me from deliberately sending harm her direction, but Malivette could be severely dangerous to Kheshiri if she chose. If she decides to claim noble privilege and deal with her, that solves one of my biggest headaches.”
“If Kheshiri dies,” Hesthri said softly, “she’ll return to Hell right at Prince Vanislaas’s citadel. I don’t know how willing she’ll be to cooperate with him, but by the rumors I’ve heard, his children can’t keep secrets from him.”
“Yes, because nothing can ever be simple.” With a heavy sigh, Natchua sat down on the edge of her four-poster bed, making the old thing creak. She’d already had to prop up its short leg with two sad little blocks that had been books before years of exposure ravaged them. Now, she let her hands dangle listlessly between her knees, unable to prevent her shoulders from slumping. “I’ll tell Vette the full situation, see what she thinks. At the very least, we know she keeps an eye on this place. If I fail to turn up and report on this, she might… Well, we don’t want to learn what she might do, let’s put it that way.”
“Fair,” Hesthri agreed, nodding. She had stopped creeping forward about a yard away, just out of arm’s reach. “Please excuse me if I overstep, but I wanted to ask about the details of that contract. I was…occupied while you hammered it out.”
“It’s not overstepping, Hes, I think you’re entitled to know.” Natchua tried to make her tone gentle; as frustrating as it was when Hesthri treated her like a temperamental noble, she was well aware that getting snappy about it would only make it worse. “She basically doesn’t want to be harmed, killed, returned to Hell, or imprisoned, and the contract bars me from doing any of that, or encouraging anyone else to do it, or allowing it to happen if I have a reasonable chance of preventing it. In return, she is required to be personally loyal to me.”
Hesthri narrowed her eyes, her expression growing intent. It was a timely reminder that despite her intermittent posture of servitude, she had a sharp mind. “That’s it? Just loyal?”
“It is actually the best practice in dealing with Vanislaads. Trying to dictate their actions both provokes them to resist you and gives them rules in which to sniff out loopholes. It’s basically inviting them to play a game at which they are better, for the highest stakes. That’s the mistake that Eserite clown Shook made in trying to control her. No, the better avenue is to dictate their motivations. She’s bound to look out for my best interests above all, which keeps all her creativity working for me rather than against me. In theory, anyway. Of course, because it is the established best practice and she’s Kheshiri, I’ve no doubt she’s already got some way around it, or if not is working on finding one.” Natchua scrubbed at her face again. “Gods. I really, truly did not need this pain in the ass.”
“And this happened because of me,” Hesthri almost whispered.
“It is not your fault, Hes,” Natchua said sharply, then carefully moderated her tone. “Look, I won’t hesitate to call you down if you actually screw something up, all right? But getting grabbed from behind and shadow-jumped… Well, there just aren’t many defenses against that, and hethelaxi have none of them. If anything, you being imprisoned like that is my fault for letting my eyes off you when I knew there was a succubus around.”
“I don’t think I’d know where to begin establishing actual fault,” Hesthri said, looking up with a small smile. “All I know is that I don’t blame you, and I can’t help feeling guilty.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Natchua said with another sigh. “Feelings…very inconvenient in general.”
The silence hung there.
“Oh,” Hesthri said suddenly, straightening up and bringing her hands around from behind her back. “Look what Xyraadi gave me!”
“Your gloves!” Natchua said in surprise. They were apparently of supple leather, a few shades paler than Hesthri’s own complexion and without her patterns of scales that decorated her skin; the fingertips were a little bulkier where some inner structure fitted over her blunt claws and rounded them out to softer shapes. “I’m sorry, I haven’t had time…”
“Oh, that’s all right!” Hesthri said hastily, raising her gloved hands. “It hasn’t been long, and it’s not like you haven’t had more important things to do. I just wanted to show you and withdraw my request, as it’s now moot.”
“Wait,” Natchua said, frowning. “Where did she get those, exactly?”
“She said she summoned them.”
“Summoned…” She scowled. “Which means they came from somewhere. Which means someone in Hell will notice they’re missing. It’s not as if resources are common there, isn’t that the whole point of the place?”
“A khelminash city is a reasonably well-equipped haven,” Hesthri explained, stepping closer. “I did ask about that, and Xyraadi insisted she knew what she was doing. I saw no reason to doubt her, but if you want to ask her more detailed questions, that might be smart.”
“Yeah, I think it would,” Natchua grumbled. She got as far as tensing her legs to rise, then slumped again. “…tomorrow.”
“Yes, tomorrow is plenty of time,” Hesthri agreed, coming up to the edge of the bed now. “I wasn’t kidding when I said you looked tired and stressed. Actually…that was the other reason I came. There’s something I wanted to show you.”
“Something you—hey, what’s the big ideeeeeaaauughh…” Natchua started to shy away when Hesthri reached out to grasp her shoulder, but then her forefinger and thumb had pressed into the stiff tendons of her neck in just the right spot and she found her entire upper body practically melting. Warm ribbons of bliss radiated out from where the demon’s fingers pressed. “Where…the hell…did you learn…”
“In fact, I was trained in this specifically,” Hesthri replied with audible satisfaction. She climbed onto the bed and sidled around behind Natchua, and the drow once again started to protest, but then both hands were on her shoulders, pressing right where the tension accumulated, and all she produced was an awkward burbling sound. “You see why these gloves are so important, hmm? Hethelax fingers never cramp or tire. And those of us trained as personal servants are expected to massage khelminash, who are all built like Xyraadi. Even more gangly than elves. I know exactly where every spot is.”
“I…um…ooooh.” Natchua’s head lolled bonelessly forward as Hesthri knelt behind her kneading right at the spot where her neck and shoulders melt. As hard as she was pressing it seemed like it ought to hurt, but it was a tremendously satisfying almost-pain. “Not sure if…nngh! I don’t really…like being…”
“Of course, I’ll stop if you’re not enjoying it,” Hesthri said in a whisper, practically right in her ear. “You’re the mistress. It’s just that… I can’t do much for you, but I can do this. I can at least thank you, Natchua. For coming for me.”
She slid her hands into the collar of Natchua’s robe, pulling it looser to gain access to her shoulders, and for a moment the drow tensed again. Just as quickly she relaxed, the unique sensation of bone-hard fingertips under a layer of padded leather pressing insistently into every spot where the rigid pain was and soothing it away.
Something in the back of her mind told her this might be a bad idea, but she couldn’t quite say why. Much more prevalent in her thoughts was that nobody had ever touched her this way.
“I…ffmmmnn. What the hell. Lower.”
“And this is the jewel of the collection, almost literally,” the smiling woman said, gliding into position next to the large display case in which stood a heavily begemmed golden gauntlet, upright on a model hand behind glass marked with alarm runes. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is our Arcane Fist! And I mean the original, not the comic book hero. What you see here is one of only two still in existence, the other being Empress Theasia’s personal weapon which is now on display in the Imperial Palace in Tiraas.”
Shook found himself drifting closer as she spoke, her tour group clustering in front to gawk at the jewel-studded metal glove. He’d been drifting basically since leaving the Inquisition’s piddly excuse for a headquarters, wandering into the museum merely out of idle surprise at finding it still open at this hour, wandering into the historical weaponry exhibit as it was the only collection that really interested him, and now wandering to join the tour group mostly because it was there. This surely had to be the last one of the day, but the docent seemed as bright and alert as if fresh from her morning tea. Then again, that was probably a requirement of her job.
“You can see the large gemstones incorporated into the gauntlet, and the large amount of gold,” she nattered on. “Those aren’t just affectations, but are essential to its function. The enchantments are designed around those materials specifically. An Arcane Fist fires a charge of electricity about fifty times the power of a modern battlestaff shot, at close range, and includes charms to protect its wearer from the blast. This little beauty delivers a blow that can shatter any magical shield known to exist, right up to the personal defense of a paladin or archmage. The Arcane Fists were created as part of Theasia’s initial push to develop better enchantments for the military, and used briefly by Imperial Intelligence. In fact, they emerged in the same generation as a number of big innovations we still use—shielding charms, telescrolls, the Rails, and mag cannons all came out of Theasia’s push for newer, better enchantments.”
“Is that thing still usable?” one of the tour group asked.
“Well, it’s behind unbreakable alarmed glass for more reasons than that it’s valuable,” she replied cheerfully. “We’re in the business of preserving artifacts here, and truly disabling the Fist would damage it significantly. In theory, sure, it could be charged up and used again. Obviously we don’t keep weapons like this sitting around carrying an arcane charge. Right now, its chief use as a weapon is that it’s heavy. You would not want to be punched by someone wearing a glove of solid gold.”
Shook meandered closer till he was at the very edge of the group as a titter rippled through them, eyes on the gauntlet. He wondered how many in this gaggle of rubberneckers knew that those old-fashioned powered gems couldn’t be drained of their charge, unlike modern enchanting crystals. Then again, they’d naturally lose charge over time. After sitting in that case for fifty-odd years it probably didn’t hold enough power to light a fairy lamp.
“How come they stopped using these?” he asked.
He wasn’t part of the tour group, but the docent gave him a warm smile, seemingly pleased at the question. “As with a lot of things, it was a combination of factors. What those factors added up to is that it simply isn’t practical. The necessary materials are wildly expensive, as you can plainly see—and it is, as I just mentioned, heavy enough to be hard to use for such a small device. The expense is made worse because they tend not to be reusable; when one of these has been fired more than a couple of times it’s all but destroyed by its own energy, and while gold can be melted down and re-cast, there’s not a lot you can do with shattered gemstones except make earrings. There were also a couple of very embarrassing cases when a Fist’s grounding charms failed, frying its wielder instead of their target. At least some of these problems likely could have been overcome with time and refinement, but that still leaves the fundamental fact that if you’re going to shoot lightning at someone, it’s a much better idea to do so from a distance than close enough to slug them.
“Which, in turn, led to political problems that pressured Theasia’s government to abandon the Arcane Fist as a field weapon. You see, anything it can do in terms of inflicting damage on an enemy can be done with more control and at a safer range by a wand or battlestaff. The Fist’s primary utility is as a shield-breaker, and it’s just plain inconvenient to have to get right up close to someone in order to beat their magical shield down. Besides which, it’s massive overkill for use against any conventional shielding charm. Remember, this all took place in the period early in Theasia’s reign, before the paladins disappeared for ten years, after Magnan the Enchanter was long dead and while Arachne Tellwyrn was missing and thought also dead.” She grinned and winked. “Can you guess who would’ve been the most likely target of a weapon that’s mostly used to break the strongest magical shields?”
“Wait, you mean Imperial Intelligence used this on paladins?” one of the onlookers asked, aghast.
“Believe me, you’d have learned about it in school if they ever had,” the docent replied. “But you’re right on the money, regardless. The Universal Church and especially the cult of Avei started asking extremely loud questions about why Imperial Intelligence needed a paladin-killer in particular. And so, the Empire quietly discontinued the Arcane Fist and scrapped those still in existence—except for the two which, luckily for us, slipped through the cracks. There are actually some pretty famous pieces of jewelry made from the remains of this weapon’s siblings. In the end, it ended up being an object lesson for the great age of magical innovation: just because you suddenly have the ability to do some exciting new thing doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea!”
“Good advice for everybody,” Shook mused aloud.
The docent nodded at him. “And that’s exactly how history works: the lessons are repeated until they’re learned, and the winners are those who learn them fastest. And speaking of that! Next we’ll be going backward in time a few more decades, thanks to an exhibition on loan to us from Mathenon. Here in the West we were spared the depredations of Horsebutt the Enemy and his hordes, so this is a rare treat for Ninkabi. This collection of weapons and armaments is significant for a number of reasons: in addition to being the last military offensive of the traditional Stalweiss archers, it was the first to begin incorporating modern enchantment—the beginning of a new military tradition that will never get to grow to maturity. History, as they say, is written by the victors. Which doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the losers!”
She glanced curiously at Shook while shepherding her flock off to the next exhibit, but he stayed where he was, staring at the old gauntlet. Something about the thing was strangely arresting. So much sheer wealth had gone into its creation, and for what? He had the uneasy feeling that there were lessons here that he wasn’t getting, truths only hinted at by the docent’s brief introduction. Shook had never been one for intellectual pursuits as a rule. The effort of pondering on things which held no immediate utility for him was frustrating and annoying. He felt exhausted, though, and oddly numb, and so stood there studying Theasia’s gauntlet while the sounds of the tour group faded as they rounded a corner into another gallery.
“Hope you’re not getting any ideas, old boy. A museum must be a veritable candy store for an Eserite, but that thing would be practically impossible to fence. Or so I’d assume!”
Shook was just too tired to react with overt surprise. He glanced to the left at the man who had stepped up beside him, also apparently studying the Arcane Fist behind its layer of protective glass. A lean fellow a few inches shorter than himself, his skin a few shades darker than the Jendi average, wearing a white suit and a wide-brimmed straw boater tipped at an angle that concealed his eyes.
“Embras Mogul,” Shook said, then let out an incredulous bark of laughter. “Well, I mean, sure. Why not? Yeah, this is the correct ending for this fucking day. Now I’m embarrassed I didn’t actually see it coming.”
“You have had quite the day, so I understand,” Mogul said lightly. “Mind you, I’ve only caught the high notes. No offense, my friend, but you don’t rate among the things I make sure to keep a close watch upon. Still! What a charming coincidence, us all running across one another in this exotic locale. Eh?”
“I see you still talk too much,” Shook grunted. “And I’m not enough of a hick to think a major Imperial metropolis is ‘exotic.’”
“It’s called polite conversation, Thumper old boy. Honestly, what do they teach you at that Guild?”
Shook glanced around. No one else was near them, at least not visibly. “So, what’s next? You here to even the score?”
“Now, now,” Embras demurred, raising both hands and shifting to he was angled more toward Shook. They studied each other’s reflections in the glass, rather than directly. “Let’s give one another a modicum of credit, shall we? I have no beef with you, old top. I did not set Kheshiri loose on the mortal plane without expecting to get bitten on the ass by it at some point, and I’m man enough to recognize when I’ve pushed a fellow hard enough to deserve a slug across the jaw. After that spanking you and your buddies handed to me and mine back in Tiraas, I would say the score is about as even as we could reasonably ask. Don’t you think?”
Shook snorted quietly. “Right. So this is, what? A social call? You just wanna catch up on old times?”
“Oh, you know how it is, one hates to be all business all the time. But still, it seems there’s plenty of current events you and I could chat about without dredging up ancient history, Thumper.”
“Yeah,” he said with a heavy sigh. “Whatever. Didn’t get everything you wanted from me already, then? If you’re gonna use your infernal bullshit to fuck with a man’s memory you might wanna make sure you finish picking his brain first. Or were you just so anxious to get Shiri back under control you couldn’t be arsed?”
Mogul tilted his head back enough that his eyes, or at least their reflection, were visible. He studied Shook’s image in silence for several seconds.
“Infernal bullshit,” he finally repeated slowly, “to fuck with a man’s memory.”
His face betrayed nothing. Shook narrowed his own eyes, staring back.
“If you were anyone else,” he said after another tense pause, “I might think you didn’t know what I was talking about. But you’re you. I figure looking like you know less than you do has to be half your religion, right?”
“Well, now, you’ve got me there,” Embras agreed. “I am assuredly not in the habit of handing out tidbits of useful information to people who’s as soon shank my ass as look at me. So I’ll just limit my commentary to common facts you could learn from the Topaz College, then, shall I? Using infernal magic to erase memories would be so incredibly useful to my cult in particular that if we could do that, believe me, everyone would know it by now. Which isn’t to say I’ve never heard of such craft. A few of the more exotic caster demons can allegedly do such a thing. Some of the red dragons, perhaps. May I infer from context, Jeremiah, that this incident is the reason you are no longer in possession of that bauble I gave you?”
Shook studied him out of the corner of his eye. “You trying to sell me that there’s some other master warlock sticking their nose into our business in Ninkabi?”
“You see why I am concerned. The only other warlock in Ninkabi I consider to be worthy of note is Mortimer Agasti, and I’ll eat my hat if he’d do such at thing—or even could.”
“So what’re you following me around for, if this is the first you’re actually seeking me out?”
“There’s some real shit going down in Ninkabi,” Mogul said in a much flatter tone. “There was before you and your little posse showed up, and with the greatest possible respect, Mr. Shook, you are not fucking helping. I have established already that ex-Bishop Syrinx is hunting the oh-so-mysterious cult which attacked the Emperor in Tiraas recently. That woman is maybe twenty percent as sly as she thinks she is at the top of her game—and she is very far from the top of her game these days. So that explains her, and you. But I do not know what game Bishop Snowe is playing, or what Justinian is up to in sending the lot of you to dig up a mystery we all know damn well he is behind. And after your knife-eared friend’s little performance today, I’m starting to think I cannot afford to let you lot wander around unsupervised any longer.”
Shook drew in a deep breath, slowly. “Knife-eared… Right. Vannae only wishes he was interesting enough to piss you off. What the fuck has that giggling freakjob done now?”
“Oh, is he not under your control, either?” Mogul’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Well, I can’t say what specifically he is trying to accomplish by murdering seven police officers in the course of one day, but as a Thieves’ Guild veteran, I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you what the result of that will be.”
Very slowly, Shook reached up to grind his thumbs into both his temples. Only the fact that the glass in front of him was visibly marked with alarm runes spared it from being punched.
“News to you as well, then?” Mogul said lightly. “It may interest you to know that Syrinx is not here on a mockingjay hunt. My people have been trying to pin down Justinian’s mystery cult for weeks. What they’re up to is… Ah, but excuse me, I seem to be getting ahead of myself. I was wondering exactly how your group would fit into this whole mess, but now I learn that not only do none of you seem to know what any of the rest of you are doing, but there’s yet another interested party who can do shit with infernomancy that I’ve barely heard of and now have custody of Kheshiri. I say this as someone for whom the last two years have been a nearly unbroken sequence of disasters, Thumper: I don’t know what’s happening in Ninkabi, but it’s looking like it might shape up to be the biggest mess I have ever seen.”
“Right,” Shook growled. “On a scale of one to the hellgate, how bad are we thinkin’, here?”
“Try twenty hellgates,” Mogul said quietly. “In an urban area. I am after these guys for a reason, Thumper. I do not need you and your out-of-control friends getting underfoot, and neither does this city.”
Shook finally turned to stare at him fully. Mogul kept his own gaze on the Arcane Fist behind the glass.
“Thanks to you,” he said at last, “I’ve had some pretty vivid object lessons lately in the dangers of trusting people who I know are too slippery to even talk with.”
“Smart,” Mogul replied. “And from where I’m sitting, everyone in your current address book is either in the same category or too crazy to be reasoned with. So rest assured, when I take the gamble of assuming you just might be desperate enough to talk with me anyway… Well, you’re not the only one.”
Shook shifted again, glancing back at the exit from the museum gallery. A bored-looking security guard stood there, glancing at the two of them intermittently. One other patron was in this wing, ambling through the Horsebutt exhibit. At this hour, the place was quiet; it had to be near closing time. It was public enough to be semi-safe. A good place to talk business.
If he was willing to risk talking. Events had proven he hadn’t been a match for Kheshiri; he was not nearly dumb enough to think himself a match for the high priest of the goddess of cunning.
Of course, not having options made a lot of things much simpler.