Though the scheduling of this entire affair had been necessarily impromptu, it was Lord Vex’s responsibility to stay on top of events, and thus he was there to greet the Empress when she and her escort returned. They materialized in the secure room of the Palace’s harem wing set aside for teleport arrivals, Eleanora accompanied by two of the Imperial Guard and the two Azure Corps battlemages who had provided her transport—an almost cursory escort for a sitting Empress, but then, the entire business had been meant to be discreet.
Obviously, Vex did not react to her appearance. Eleanora wore her usual severe gown and had her hair pulled back into its customary tight bun. The gown, though, was unbuttoned to below her collarbone, and she had a woven crown of lilies perched lopsidedly atop her head. At her hip, hanging from a broad leather shoulderstrap decorated with Tidestrider beadwork, was a heavy satchel, itself dangling streamers of colorful beads and shells that clattered with her movements.
“Good morning and welcome home, your Majesty,” Vex said in his normal, distant voice once the battlemages had saluted their Empress and departed in flashes of blue glitter. “I hope your mission was fruitful.”
Eleanora gave him a momentary look, her own expression as closed and guarded as always, to the point that it clashed with her touches of holiday frippery.
“Tellwyrn was amenable to sharing, with some persuasion,” she said briskly, stepping forward off the teleport pad and striding toward the chamber’s door. Vex fell in alongside her and the two Imperial Guards silently brought up their rear. “She is not, as it turns out, a high elf.”
“I see. Well, it was still a worthwhile prospect to investigate. I am sorry you did not meet with more success.”
She flicked a sidelong glance at him, that extremely subtle look he knew so well which few would even have caught. That look meant she’d done something clever, and Vex had to consciously refuse to sigh.
“Tellwyrn has been in Qestraceel,” the Empress said, opening her satchel and carefully extracting a large, heavy volume bound in scuffed leather, its yellow pages unevenly trimmed. The thing looked positively ancient. She handed it very carefully to him. “She was so deeply offended by her treatment there that her first act upon departing was to assemble the most thorough record of her observations she could while the memory was fresh, and set it aside against a future occasion when unveiling the secrets of the Qestrali to an interested third party might, in her words, ‘inflict some damn humility’ upon them.”
Vex tucked the volume protectively against his side. “The most peculiar thing about knowing Professor Tellwyrn is how often one is forced to appreciate what a mulish, irritating bully she is.”
“Tell me about it,” Eleanora replied with an open sigh. “I have given that book a cursory examination; it’s quite legible, though the language is somewhat archaic, having been written some three hundred years ago.”
“Ah. Well, even if it is not up to date intelligence, historical data is still extremely valuable, given our complete lack of it.”
“It is definitely dated, but may be more pertinent than you imagine,” the Empress replied. “In addition to the written record, Tellwyrn was willing to speak at some length about the high elves. It’s not all that hard to get her to start complaining, actually. By her description, the most pronounced characteristic of Qestrali culture is their presumed exceptionalism. They believe themselves to have constructed a perfect society and appear as prideful and resistant to change as any elves, if not more so. It seems their society has not diverged significantly since its founding not long after the Elder War.”
“Did she have any insight into why they would suddenly join the world now?”
“I asked, of course. Obviously we cannot know without direct data, but in Tellwyrn’s opinion, such an abrupt action indicates an equally abrupt political shift within Qestraceel itself—which, she emphasized, would only occur if several very important people died within a short period. We may wish to investigate whether some disaster has occurred in the region, perhaps a volcanic action that damaged their city. The book contains its exact latitude and longitude.”
“Ah. How do they hide their island, did she mention?”
“It’s not on an island,” Eleanora said with a wry smile. “We were correct as to its general location, but were looking at the wrong altitude. Qestraceel is located at the bottom of a huge marine trench deep below the Stormsea. Tellwyrn also mentioned that the entire purpose of their vaunted navy is to spread misinformation concerning their location, numbers, and capabilities. I’m afraid all your observations of high elven caravels may have to be thrown out.”
“Even a misdirection can be revealing, once you know it is one,” he disagreed. “Omnu’s breath, what else is in this thing?”
“Population estimates, including troop and caster numbers—probably the least accurate information, after three centuries. Descriptions of their social structure, economy, government, and religion, the basic composition and preferred strategies of their military, which in Tellwyrn’s opinion are unlikely to have been significantly updated. A cursory but still useful overview of their interactions with the outside world and how they maintain secrecy. Diet and food sources, numerous descriptions of various uses of both active spells and passive enchantments, some of which we might ourselves be sophisticated enough now to reverse-enchant from the descriptions alone. There’s a whole section on etiquette which should be a tremendous help to our diplomats. Also,” she added with another little grin, “a very detailed account of the Qestrali criminal justice system in action, and an extremely vivid depiction of one of their prisons.”
“Bless that cantankerous old bitch,” Vex said fervently. “Did she say why she’s sat on this so long?”
“The high elves do make an active effort at secrecy. Revealing this information is necessarily going to provoke a severe reaction from them; Tellwyrn judged that the Empire at its present strength needn’t fear direct reprisal, and given recent events, has an actual need for this information. We should not forget that simply possessing data on the Qestrali is going to be seen by them as antagonistic.”
“Duly noted, though it remains to be seen exactly how much we shall have to care what they think.”
They came to a stop outside the door to Eleanora’s chambers.
“Does your Majesty wish to rest and freshen up,” the spymaster inquired, “or proceed with your day as usual?”
“I feel fresher than I have in years,” Eleanora said, almost wistfully, then shook her head. “Which, of course, is exactly what can’t be shown in public. Do have my steward cancel my usual morning appointments, if you would, Quentin. This must take priority, but I should have time to straighten up a bit while everyone is gathered. Please relay all this to Sharidan and have him get Panissar and the ministers here for a consultation. I want that book copied and put in the hands of analysts in Intelligence and the Foreign Ministry; in the meantime, I will brief everyone on what I’ve learned personally, which should be enough to get them a head start.”
“Consider it done, your Majesty,” he said, bowing over the heavy book. “Good to have you back.”
Eleanora nodded once, then turned and entered her bedroom, while the guards took up positions flanking the door and Vex strode off down the hall to see her will done.
Natchua was ambushed by demons the moment she stepped out of her room, which wasn’t all that unusual.
“There you are! Were you planning to sleep all day?”
“Some of us have been at work under your orders since before sunrise, you know.”
“Both of you stuff it,” she said irritably, pushing between the two succubi and forcing them to follow her on the way down to the first floor. “I was up past midnight being interrogated by Imperials, and just for your edification, I own a clock and know how to read it. It’s barely past breakfast time. Report in, and hold the whining.”
“Ooh, I love it when she’s commanding,” Kheshiri cooed, then shrieked playfully at Melaxyna’s slap to her rump.
Natchua sighed loudly and rubbed at her eyes with both fists.
“Yeah, well, I’ve got nothing,” Melaxyna said. “I’ve been up and down the city for two hours starting at dawn, lurking in all the markets. I didn’t encounter any unusual magic of any kind, or even a rumor of any. All the gossip is the elves this, the elves that. Even as big a deal as this Confederacy is, had there been even a whisper of a chaos event near Veilgrad, I guarantee that would be on everybody’s lips. But no, not a hint.”
“Afraid I have nothing better, mistress,” Kheshiri added as they rounded the corner and descended the wide stairs to the nearly-restored entrance hall. “Malivette is still taking your warning seriously, and according to Jade, so is Imperial Command. Everyone’s more concerned about the Wreath sniffing around for unknown reasons than they are about whatever spooked them into fleeing the catacombs, though.”
“Well, they’re not wrong,” Natchua grunted, coming to a stop at the base of the stairs and gazing absently around. The restoration was going well, especially now that she’d found some local laborers willing to work in a house full of demons under the direct supervision of three hobgoblins; oddly enough, Veilgrad locals seemed to find a strange comfort in knowing that nominally friendly evil lurked in the old manor again. For all that Natchua was herself becoming a fixture in the local community, Veilgrad’s regional culture was still mystifying at times.
The walls and roof were up; it was chilly and drafty in the hall, with boards still taking the place of the glass that had yet to be installed in its tall windows. There were no carpets, drapes, or other decorative touches yet, the floor and wood paneling hadn’t been properly varnished, and the place was strewn with tools, sawhorses, stacks of wood and other construction debris. The new wrought iron chandelier sat in one corner beside a pile of yet-unassembled enchanting equipment awaiting expert installation for its light-sensitive fairy lamps.
“It’s still too early in whatever the Wreath is doing to have a plan yet,” Natchua said after a contemplative pause. “I want your eyes and brains on whatever they come up with, though, Shiri.”
“You always know what I like to hear, mistress,” Kheshiri purred, grinning wickedly and slowly swaying in her hips in time with the waving of her tail. “Ahh, running rings around the Wreath, it’ll be just like old times.”
“And both of you be careful,” Natchua added more severely, setting off around the steps toward one of the newly reopened hallways. “You’re both made of magic. A proper chaos event could fuck you up beyond my ability to repair.”
“Are you sure that’s what it was?” Melaxyna asked. “Not trying to be difficult, Natchua, it just seems…”
“I know exactly how it seems,” she grumbled. “And as I told the Imps, I’m not a hundred percent certain of anything. I’m not personally very familiar with chaos interactions. But it scared off the Wreath, it came out of the same deep tunnels where that chaos cult was operating, and it just felt like that creepy place Kuriwa showed me. None of that’s more than suggestive. When it comes to chaos, though, it doesn’t pay to get sloppy. Worst case scenario, it’s nothing. Then you can say you told me so, and we’re not all hopelessly fucked, so… Everybody wins.”
Like the hall leading to it, the dining room had been almost fully restored. It still lacked furnishings, aside from a few surviving chairs and the enormous carved table which had endured its years of neglect with little ill effect that some polish hadn’t healed. The fairy lamps were awaiting installation, so old-fashioned oil lamps perched in their sconces, currently unlit. The fireplace was kindled, adding heat and warm light to the cool gray that beamed in through the open windows, their new glass in wrought iron housings revealing a gentle fall of snow to add to the covering already on the grounds outside.
“There she is,” Hesthri said fondly, sidling up to Natchua to kiss her cheek. “I made scrambled eggs with those spicy peppers you like, they’re under the cover on the table there. Should be fresh, but I can whip up some more.”
“Thanks, Hes. Don’t you worry about me,” Natchua replied, giving her a one-armed hug before turning to the table. “I grew up eating beetles and mushrooms, anything that’s not actually moldy still feels decadent.”
“Damn it, wench, let me pamper you a little,” the demon scolded, earning a mischievous grin in response.
Natchua’s path toward breakfast was interrupted when she came abreast of Jonathan, who was sitting sideways in one of the few chairs, his own empty plate pushed away and a cup of tea at his elbow while he read a newspaper.
“WHAT THE HELL?” she bellowed, ripping it out of his grasp.
Jonathan had quick enough reflexes to let go rather than let the paper be torn, and sat there with his empty hands still in position to hold it up, blinking through the space where it had been at Natchua, who was glaring at the front page.
“You know, girl, sometimes I wonder if you were raised in some kind of cave.”
“Why am I on the front page?!” she demanded of the room at large, slapping the offending document with the back of her hand. “What the fuck is wrong with these people?! The elves bust out the most astonishing political development in all of history, and somehow ‘Natchua fends off annoying reporter’ deserves a fucking headline? Who do I have to sacrifice to what to get some goddamn peace? Because I’ll do it, see if I don’t!”
“That’ll be Imperial Intelligence at work,” Jonathan said, picking up his teacup and taking a sip.
She rounded on him, brandishing the paper. “What? Why?”
“You,” he explained, smiling, “a beloved local oddball and hero, and also a foreigner who has no attachment to the Empire to speak of, reacted to the elves’ big surprise by urging people to stay the course and trust the government. The Throne couldn’t have asked for a better endorsement if they’d arranged it themselves. The Empire may not control any papers outright, thanks to the Veskers’ influence, but they definitely have means to lean on them. You’d better believe strings were pulled to get that to the front page.”
“Aaugh!” Natchua rolled up the paper and smacked herself repeatedly in the forehead with it. “I only said that because I thought it was the thing least likely to stir up trouble! And now look what—oof.”
Tiring of her carrying on, Jonathan had set down his tea, and now reached forward, grabbing her by the waist and pulling her into his lap.
“What’s done is done,” he stated, wrapping his arms around her and resting his chin atop her head. “It was a good idea, Natch, I think you made the right call. Sometimes you just get cornered and any step you take is gonna kick over some bucket of crabs. That’s life.”
Kheshiri deftly plucked the paper out of the drow’s grasp and unrolled it, Melaxyna leaning over her shoulder as they both perused the front page.
“Whoah boy,” Kheshiri said, her eyebrows climbing. “This is a bigger deal than your putative chaos flicker, mistress.”
“The hell you say,” Natchua snapped.
“It’s possible nothing’ll come of it,” Melaxyna added, “but it’s also possible she’s right. If Intelligence is content with this, great. But if they start approach you for more active cooperation…”
“They’ll be disappointed, is what!”
“No!” both succubi shouted, looking up at her in alarm.
“They’re right, love,” Jonathan said gently, squeezing her. “You gotta consider the way spooks and operatives think. If you’re not with them, you’re against them. ‘Neutrality’ is not an idea they respect.”
Natchua bared her teeth in a wild grimace and seized his arms, hissing and physically swelling up as she drew breath for another outburst.
Hesthri glided smoothly across the gap between them and pushed herself into their embrace, slipping an arm around Jonathan’s shoulders and the other behind Natchua’s head to insistently press the drow’s face into her cleavage.
Natchua made muffled noises of protest, squirming and flailing the one arm she could slip free, at least for a few moments. Very quickly, the struggle went out of her and she slumped forward, going limp and letting out a half-stifled groan.
Hesthri stroked the green stripe in Natchua’s white hair, smirking over her head at the two amused succubi. “It works on Jonathan, too.”
“’strue,” he agreed, slipping one arm free of Natchua to wrap around Hesthri’s waist and pat her hip.
“And on Sherwin,” Melaxyna said sardonically, “and on everyone. I hope you don’t think you invented that, Hes. Feeling better, Natch?”
“Uh bff, fankth.”
“Good.” Hesthri bent her neck to kiss the top of her head before withdrawing. “Then eat your eggs, pretty. The world will still be full of enemies after breakfast; I’ll not have you kicking ass on an empty stomach.”
An hour later, she left the Manor in a much better mood, at least partly due to a full stomach.
Though she could easily have used magic to protect herself from the cold, Natchua much preferred to wear the nice winter coat and boots Jonathan had bought for her. The coat she especially enjoyed, a deep blue knee-length garment lined with speckled fox fur; it was amazingly comfortable and she was so fond of the look she willingly forgave him for saying her old black leather duster made her look like a pretentious wannabe cowboy poet.
Externally, Leduc Manor was still a shambles, but at this point it was the shambles of construction rather than decay. The outer fence and gate had been fully repaired and fresh gravel coated the driveway, though of course no landscaping had yet been done and everything not stomped flat by the ongoing work was a maze of brambles and dead weeds. Carts and carriages were parked on its grounds, along with stacks of masonry waiting to be installed, all of it now buried under a layer of fresh snow. Construction had slowed considerably during the winter; as far as their hired workmen were concerned, it was stopped, but the three hobgoblins kept gamely on, unbothered by temperature and taking great satisfaction in their progress. There was no way they’d have the whole manor shipshape by spring, but Natchua rather expected the hired hands to be shocked at the state of the place when they returned.
The old Leducs must have leaned hard into their sinister reputation, to judge by their fondness for overwrought gothic architecture and decorative ironwork, to say nothing of the gargoyles, all of which were deliberately shaped to look like actual demon species. Still, the place must have been beautiful, in its way, when it was kept up. The layer of cleansing snow made it oddly appealing even now, and likely would have then.
A lot about the area was beautiful; one couldn’t help but enjoy the vista the Manor had over the city of Veilgrad below and the Great Plains beyond. The forested mountains soaring upward on all sides were an equally breathtaking sight. Even after a few months here, Natchua had not become inured to the spectacle, and so always left the house on foot when she was going into town.
She especially loved the snow, aware that at least part of it was the novelty. Even with an academic awareness of how deadly winters had been to humans until very recently in history, the sight of it was just…pure. Natchua couldn’t put words to the sense of serenity that came when heavy flakes were floating down from the clouds, but she took every opportunity to savor it. Even in Last Rock, winter had just been the months when it didn’t rain. Veilgrad’s unfriendly climate felt like a welcome part of the setting, something almost designed to appeal to creatures such as herself.
Obviously, shadow-jumping was a more efficient way to get anywhere, and she had been around and over Veilgrad enough by now that she could jump almost directly to any point she might need in the city. There was certainly no question of walking down the winding mountain road from Leduc Manor to the gates of Veilgrad, and then back up the other winding mountain road to Dufresne Manor. How long she walked before getting tired of it and jumping the rest of the way varied by trip, but she always made a point of setting out on her own two legs to begin with.
Evidently she’d done this enough for the habit to have been widely observed; they clearly knew to intercept her just below the first switchback past the gates.
Darkness coalesced in a ring out of the drifting snowflakes around her, and Natchua instantly gathered an arsenal of spells, having nearly limitless destruction ready at her fingertips by the time their gray robes were fully visible.
“Are you kidding me?” she demanded of the white-suited man who again led the dozen warlocks. “Again? What are you expecting to go differently this time?”
“Scuze me, miss, not to be rude,” Mogul said almost diffidently, holding up one finger. “If you’ll bear with me, please, I’ll be with you in just a second. All right, boys and girls, light ‘em up.”
They, too, had had spells ready, and at his word, a torrent of shadowbolts flashed at her from every direction.