They were met at the gates of Madouri Manor by an actual Butler, who introduced himself as Yancey and provided their escort into the house itself, where they were to meet the Duchess.
Compared to its counterparts in Veilgrad, Madouri Manor seemed more like the capital of a nation than the residence of a noble family. Uniformed guards stood at attention flanking the entrance despite the cold, and inside, the trappings were almost decadently lavish, with white marble columns and wall facades interspersed with suits of armor and tapestries, while from the towering ceiling hung banners in the House colors of crimson and gray. The great entry hall itself resembled a throne room, and seemed large enough to contain the entirety of Dufresne Manor.
“This place is ridiculous,” Sherwin grumbled, slouching along with his hands jammed deep in his pockets, partly against the chill; no amount of wealth made it practical to heat a space that size in the dead of winter. “Is this supposed to be a mansion or a cathedral? The Madouris were always full of themselves, even for nobles.”
“Sherwin,” Malivette said evenly, “try, if you are able, to imagine a person with basic manners and social skills. And then, for today, pretend to be that person.”
“How about you kiss my ass, Vette?” he suggested. “You’re the one who was so damn determined to make me come here today. Now you can live with it.”
Though he was facing away from her, she flashed her fangs. “Are you sure you want my mouth near anything sensitive, Sherwin?”
“Lay off him, you smug lamprey,” Natchua ordered. “All Sherwin wanted was to stay in his house and not bother anybody. That’s probably in everybody’s best interests. If you’re gonna keep dragging him out places, you can at least not bully him about it.”
“Thank you!” Sherwin exclaimed.
Perhaps fortunately, there was no time for further byplay, as they had drawn close enough to their hostess to be addressed.
Ravana Madouri herself stood before the centerpiece of the long hall, which was not actually a throne but a bronze statue of some ancient Duke of Madouris, atop a marble base itself taller than the human average, on the front of which was carved the crest of House Madouri; Ravana had, doubtless not by accident, positioned herself so that the coat of arms perfectly framed her golden head.
“Duchess Malivette,” she said graciously, inclining her head. “Duke Sherwin. It is an honor to finally meet you both. And Natchua! How wonderful to see you again.”
“I thank you for your magnanimity, Duchess Ravana, in agreeing to host us,” Malivette replied, inclining her head to exactly the same degree. “I apologize profusely for thus imposing upon you; my deepest gratitude to you for agreeing to this meeting.”
“It is no imposition at all,” Ravana assured her. “It suits me perfectly, as I’m afraid I cannot afford to be long away from Madouris while I have time home from Last Rock, and in any case hospitality is one of the great joys of my life.”
“Yo,” Sherwin grunted. “Seriously, just call me Sherwin. My House is barely a thing anymore, and good damn riddance to it.”
“Of course, Sherwin,” she said smoothly. “I’m so glad to be on such good terms already! Please, you must call me Ravana.”
“Hi, Ravana,” Natchua said a bit tersely. “Long time, no see.”
“I do hope you can stay long enough for us to catch up, Natchua!” Ravana said with an apparently sincere smile. “I believe the last time we spoke was during all that excitement when the campus was invaded.”
“Excitement is one word,” she agreed, then turned her head toward Sherwin. “Not to change the subject, but I didn’t know you were a Duke! You should’ve told me, I feel like I’ve been rude all this time.”
“You have,” he said frankly. “That’s why I like you, rudeness is more my speed anyway. Seriously, it’s just Sherwin. Say Duke and then my last name, Natchua. Go on, say it out loud.”
She didn’t, but paused to consider for a moment, then grinned. “Ah. I see your point.”
“I have a suitable chamber prepared for us to converse in private,” Ravana said politely, “if you would be so good as to accompany me. Natchua, will you be joining us?”
“Oh, I’m just the transportation,” Natchua said quickly. “Last thing I want is to intrude on noble business. If you’ve got a servant’s lounge or something where I can hang out until it’s time for Vette and Sherwin to go home, that’d be just dandy.”
“Actually, since you’re here, why don’t you come with?” Malivette suggested brightly. “I hadn’t planned on you being along for this trip, Natch, but I bet you’d be very interested in the discussion! In fact, the outcome might be important to you, too.”
Natchua turned to stare at her, sucking her lips back in between her teeth and biting down. The vampire just smiled innocently back.
“Yep,” she said after a moment, shifting her gaze to Ravana. “Figures. You two’ll get along great. Didja know, last time we met Ravana and I were both curse victims, and she somehow convinced our whole party to go torture a dryad instead of running away from a battle like sensible people. It was every bit as asinine as it sounds, but in the heat of the moment she starts talking and the next thing you know, you’re doing whatever harebrained thing she suggested and damn if it doesn’t seem to make perfect sense at the time.”
“Oh,” Sherwin said dourly. “One of those.”
“I apologize for that, and in advance for everything else Duke Leduc is going to say,” Malivette said sweetly, ignoring his twitch. “He is not accustomed to being outside his bedroom, or speaking to anyone except demons.”
“Oh, but this all works out splendidly,” Ravana said, her pleasant good cheer undiminished. “I should be delighted to have Natchua join us. In fact, if you don’t mind, I would like to include my lady in waiting, unless your business is too sensitive. May I present Daina Antevaan. Daina, these are the Duchess Malivette Dufresne of Veilgrad, Duke Sherwin Leduc, and my old school friend Natchua.”
Another woman approached from the shadow of a colonnade lining the great hall, a statuesque blonde who had hair a shade darker than Ravana’s and stood head and shoulders taller than her Duchess.
“It is an honor,” she said tonelessly, the brief greeting hinting at an accent that was neither Imperial nor Stalweiss. Her blue eyes fixed on Sherwin, narrowed slightly.
“The pleasure is ours, of course,” Malivette replied. “The matter I wish to discuss is somewhat sensitive, Ravana, but anyone who has your trust has my own. We don’t object in the slightest. Right, Sherwin?”
“I seriously don’t care about any of this,” he complained, looking somewhat unnerved by Daina’s continued appraisal of him, which was both intense and icy. “I’m just here because Vette is pushy, and she hasn’t even bothered to tell me what the big deal is yet. All of you do what you want.”
“Splendid,” Ravana said brightly. “If you would accompany me, then? I have had refreshments laid out for us.”
She turned and led the way toward a towering archway opening onto another long columned hall, this one far more compact than the great entryway but just as lavish in décor. Before following, Natchua, who had been staring bemusedly at Daina, suddenly gasped.
The blonde woman finally tore her eyes off Sherwin to meet Natchua’s gaze, and they stared at each other in tense silence for a moment.
Malivette finally cleared her throat. Pausing only to glance at her, Daina inclined her head once in acknowledgment, then turned and glided off after Ravana, who had paused under the arch to wait for them.
The party proceeded after their hostess in silence, even Sherwin apparently cowed by the tension in the air. It was a terse few minutes, which served to further accentuate the sprawling size and confused layout of Madouri Manor, but they finally came to another tall oak door with an arched top, currently standing open to reveal an ornately appointed sitting room far larger than was necessary for their small group. Ravana came to a stop next to the door and gestured them inside, still smiling.
Natchua drifted to the back of the procession, save only Yancey, who trailed diffidently along with several yards of space between him and the guests. Upon coming abreast of the door and their smiling hostess, instead of turning to enter the room, Natchua grabbed Ravana by the upper arm and kept going, stepping forward till the two of them were just out of sight of those within.
Yancey was on top of her almost as if he’d teleported, but he only placed himself nearby and pointedly within her field of view, holding off from any more direct action at a subtle hand gesture from Ravana.
“What the hell do you think you’re playing at?” Natchua growled in a low tone, leaning forward. Malivette could probably still hear her, but at least Sherwin would be kept out of the loop.
Ravana, looking only mildly bemused at this treatment, raised one eyebrow. “I’m afraid you’ll need to be considerably more specific, Natchua.”
“I’m talking about putting Scorn in a room with Sherwin Leduc!” she hissed. “Have you lost your mind?”
“Oh, drat,” the young Duchess said with a little pout. “You can tell that easily? And after all the effort it took to design a disguise ring that would work on her; Rhaazke seem somewhat resistant to applied enchantments.”
“Wh—no, I’m sure it’s fine, I’m the best warlock you’ll ever meet. That is not the point, Ravana!”
“What I am playing at, in your words,” Ravana murmured, matching Natchua’s low volume but with considerably more calm, “is testing her restraint. She is justifiably repulsed and enraged by the sight of him, and given Malivette’s presence, is unlikely to successfully harm him in the worst case scenario. Really, it’s an ideal opportunity!”
Natchua tightened her grip and tugged the girl forward, baring her teeth. “People are not toys for you to experiment on for your amusement, Duchess.”
At that, Ravana’s pleasant expression abruptly cooled, and she finally grabbed Natchua’s hand with her free one and pried it off her arm. “Toys, is it? Scorn is one of the more physically and magically powerful individuals in the world at present, but arrived on this plane with a notable lack of nuance, subtlety, and self-control. With my help, over the last year, she has been gaining these qualities, and doing an excellent job, I might add. I am turning her into someone neither I nor anyone else could hope to control, because she is my friend, and I want what’s best for her. Everyone deserves to live free and empowered, yet most people never will. If I failed to share what I know of the method with someone important to me, that would be treating them like a toy. And given that you are blatantly using Sherwin himself for free room and board, Natchua, you should perhaps pause and consider your prerogatives before you begin flinging accusations.”
Natchua narrowed her eyes to slits. “If not for me, Sherwin would still be hiding in his room. I’m the reason your little campaign to draw him into your politics has yielded anything at all.”
“Why, there, you see?” Ravana said primly, suddenly all smiles again. “It’s just as I said. We do what we can for those close to us, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable for them. And now, I believe we are keeping the others waiting.”
So saying, she nodded once, then stepped around Natchua and the door and glided in.
Yancey remained behind, watching Natchua impassively until she threw up her hands in frustration and followed the blonde Duchess into the parlor.
“There you are, I was beginning to worry,” Malivette said with deceptive mildness as Natchua perched beside her on the loveseat she’d chosen. A cozy arrangement of furnishings surrounded a low table on which was laid out a tea set complete with platters of sandwiches and scones. Sherwin was sprawled in an armchair with a disgruntled expression, while Scorn in the guise of Daina Antevaan perched on the edge of another seat in an almost excessively ladylike posture. She had finally broken off her grim stare at Sherwin, her eyes now tracking Natchua. Rhaazke hearing was no better than human, and Natchua had sensed no infernomancy at work in here, so the demon shouldn’t have caught any of her quick conversation with Ravana, but she was definitely sharp enough to know something was up. Malivette leaned toward Natchua, regaining her attention, and murmured, “Remember what I said to Sherwin about social skills? Same goes.”
“Remember what he said back to you?” Natchua muttered in reply. The vampire had the temerity to flutter her eyelashes at her.
“I must, woefully, apologize for the state of my hospitality, Malivette,” Ravana said once they were all seated, an ironic statement as Yancey was already deftly distributing tea. Without having to ask, he gave Natchua a cup with exactly as much honey as she liked. “In point of fact, more than one of my ancestors regularly played host to vampires, and there is a unique human blood cookbook among my steward’s hereditary effects. Unfortunately, it seems to presume means of acquiring the essential ingredient which were not ethical even then, and most definitely are not legal now.”
“On the contrary, I’d be a bit disturbed if you had provided me refreshments,” Malivette replied with a wink. “Don’t you worry, I get plenty to eat.”
“No, you don’t,” Sherwin grunted. “Look at you, Vette, you’re like a scarecrow. Those four thralls are enough to keep you alive without sucking any of them dry, and that’s about it.”
“That’s a very cheerful thing to bring up in mixed company, Sherwin, thank you,” she said with a tiny sigh. “Daina” shifted her stare back to him, thinning her mouth in overt dislike. “Under the circumstances, I hope you won’t be offended if I come right to business.”
Ravana glanced at Sherwin and then Natchua, her polite little smile widening to the point of real amusement. “Perhaps that would be best.”
“I’m for it,” Sherwin mumbled around a bite of cucumber sandwich.
“I’m going to narrate a bit,” Malivette continued, “for the benefit of those who haven’t been raised in the traditions of the aristocracy. Sherwin and Ravana doubtless know all this background detail, but it will help our newcomers to follow along.”
“Hey, works for me.” Sherwin took a loud slurp of tea, then waved his cup vaguely at her. “If I ever knew any of that shit I’ve worked hard to forget it.”
“The three houses of Dufresne, Leduc, and Madouri are in the same predicament, certain specific details aside,” Malivette said, no longer paying him any overt attention. “Our bloodlines are reduced to a single individual each, with no heir available. In this situation, the meanest cobbler in the Empire can legally adopt someone to hand down whatever possessions he may have upon death, but as part of the reforms which followed the Enchanter Wars, the Houses are constrained in this ability. Most of those reforms actually expanded the powers of the aristocracy at the expense of the Throne, but this was an example of the Great Houses acting to enable themselves to…cull the weak, as it were. Once a noble House has been reduced to the point that it cannot perpetuate its own bloodline, it is forbidden from adding new members to the family through adoption. Thus, faltering Houses are encouraged to die off so that their rivals can more easily scavenge their remains.”
“Good fuckin’ riddance,” Sherwin grunted. A short silence fell, in which everyone turned to stare at him, and he had the grace to blush and straighten up a bit. “I mean, ah… I’m sure you both come from very nice families, I was just referring to my case. Nothing good has ever come out of House Leduc and nobody’ll miss us.”
“Daina” opened her mouth, Ravana shot her a piercing sidelong look, and she shut it silently.
“The adoption of new heirs can be done,” Malivette continued, disregarding the byplay, “but there are checks upon it. For any of the three of us to designate a new family member and heir to our legacies would require the approval of either the Silver Throne itself, or two other Great Houses. This, unfortunately, will not be forthcoming in our case. Though Ravana and myself have both worked diligently to prove our loyalty to the Throne, there is no advantage to House Tirasian in helping us to perpetuate our lineages when the Emperor benefits far more from keeping us subservient and dependent. And it goes without saying that none of the other Houses in the Empire want any of us to continue, least of all any of the Great Houses.”
“Uh, scuze me?” Natchua raised a hand, and Malivette nodded graciously to her. “What exactly is a Great House? I didn’t realize there was a hierarchy.”
“There is always a hierarchy,” Ravana said with dark amusement. “Those who are by nature obsessed with power tend to be…well…obsessed with power. Specifically, a Great House is one which holds an Imperial governorship. As the Imperial provinces are each on average the size of most nations of the world and mostly used to be independent kingdoms, they are effectively the families of kings and queens, subordinate only to the Emperor himself.”
“And there,” Malivette said with a grin, “is a loophole. Because, by the law, a Great House is one which holds or has held provincial rule.”
“Yes, like House Dalkhaan,” Ravana agreed, nodding. “You remember those thugs in ill-fitting livery who assaulted the University, as we were just reminiscing, Natchua? Guardsmen of House Dalkhaan, which by that point was nothing but a single bitter old woman presiding over a desiccated husk of a legacy. Yet because one of her ancestors was a Sultana of Calderaas, she was entitled to style herself a Duchess.”
“Oh!” Natchua turned to Sherwin. “And that’s why you’re a Duke! Because the Leducs and Dufresnes have been trading rule of Veilgrad back and forth for centuries.”
“Fat lot of good it did ‘em,” he grumbled.
“Ravana already knows the direction of my thoughts,” Malivette said with a coy smile. “You hinted at this from your earliest correspondence. But I believe, by now, you all understand what I now suggest.”
“Even though all three of your Houses lack allies,” Daina said softly, “you can form an alliance yourselves. Override the prohibition on adoption, designate heirs, and secure the continuation of your families, if not the actual bloodlines. Will that not invite retaliation?”
“None of us have much to fear from the other Houses,” Malivette stated. “Another point we have in common is that we have been left in peace by them because every sensible, self-interested noble family in the Empire fears to antagonize any of us, with some justification. I share a border with the holdings of House Daraspian, and even they haven’t dared try to stick their grubby fingers into Veilgrad. And I am but the newest monster of the trio; House Leduc has spent centuries demonstrating that to draw their ire is lethally dangerous. House Madouri’s reputation is a trifle less specifically fearsome, but it is still the single richest and longest-reigning House in the Empire, and not known to deal gently with rivals.”
“That leaves the Throne, though,” Natchua commented. “Can’t imagine Sharidan will be pleased about you going behind his back. Uh, just let me know if I’m talking too much, I realize this is none of my business.”
“On the contrary, Natchua, I’m quite pleased to see you taking an interest,” Malivette reassured her. “And yes, you are right. This suggestion is, by nature, somewhat antagonistic toward the Throne. But, as I said, the Dufresnes and Madouris of this age are established allies of House Tirasian, and this is not a direct attack upon its power—merely an assertion of independence, one which the Emperor is in no position to begrudge. I believe we can soothe any ruffled feathers through continued demonstrations of loyalty. Especially if we can bring House Leduc into the fold.”
“Right, well, I’m out,” Sherwin said shortly. “I don’t mind doing you two a favor; you seem like decent sorts, the both of you, at least as far as nobles go. Just lemme know when you’ve got all the paperwork and I’ll sign whatever. But House Leduc needs to die.”
“You’re wrong about that,” Malivette said, turning a serious expression on him. “Like it or not, Sherwin, Veilgrad needs the Leducs.”
“Bullshit,” he snorted. “I am by far the most benign member of my family since the conquest of the Stalrange, and let’s face it, the best thing that can be said about me is I’ve only ever harmed demons. Nobody fucking needs the Leducs.”
“There has been a balance in Veilgrad,” she said, her soft voice a pointed contrast to his gruffness, “one whose importance has only truly become clear to me since it was broken. We had the upright and righteous Dufresnes to reassure the people and provide guidance, and the sinister and dangerous Leducs to exert pressure on those who would encroach on our domain, not to mention the horrors that have a tendency to arise in the region. Let’s face it, our corner of the Empire is unusually prone to… Things that bump in the night. The vampire who destroyed my family may have been from one of the deadliest lineages, but lesser breeds have plagued the area for centuries. The werewolf problem has been ongoing for at least as long, there is a long tradition of necromancers infesting the area, and the mountain forests nearby are prone to coughing up some of the more disturbing breeds of fairy found on this continent. Not to mention that we are caught right between Avenist and Shaathist territory, with all the tension that implies, and the Daraspians aren’t the only house down in Vrandis who like to do the kind of business that spills trouble over into other people’s backyards. Veilgrad has always benefited from having its dark protectors, even as it has from its nobler family of leaders. I, finding myself alone, have tried to do both, and… I have to acknowledge, my hold is slipping. The chaos crisis was only the worst example, not by far the only one.”
There was silence in the wake of her soft admission, Ravana looking solicitous and even Sherwin frowning at the vampire in thought.
“My steward, Lars Grusser,” Malivette continued after a moment, “already effectively runs the province. He is both competent and popular, a reassuring presence who fills exactly the role that House Dufresne traditionally has. By adopting him into the House itself and continuing its name and holdings, I would only be legally legitimizing the de facto state of affairs. Ravana, of course, is still young enough to have plenty of time to produce an heir the old-fashioned way, but in the interim, having a designated successor will help to stabilize her rule.”
Ravana nodded once.
“And Sherwin,” Malivette went on, turning back to him.
“No,” he growled. “The last goddamn thing I want is more Leducs around.”
“Upon adopting an heir,” Malivette pressed, “you can immediately abdicate the High Seat and go back to enjoying your privacy while they handle the actual business of being Veilgrad nobility.”
“Anybody who might want that position absolutely can’t be trusted with it,” he snorted.
“He’s got a point,” Natchua agreed. “Not to rain on your parade, Vette, but take it from the world’s foremost expert: warlocks are a lot more trouble than they’re worth.”
“Ah,” Malivette said with a knowing smile. “But imagine if there was an ideally suitable candidate! Someone able to continue House Leduc’s tradition of infernomancy. Someone already known, liked, and trusted by the people. Someone well-regarded throughout the Empire and held in esteem by the Throne itself. Someone who has already shown care and concern for Veilgrad’s people, and involved herself in the community. Someone who, umprompted, is has even taken it upon herself to restore Leduc Manor to its former glory.” Her smile broadened, showing off her fangs. “Someone who, just as an added bonus, is functionally immortal.”
“Now just a goddamned minute,” Natchua squawked.
“Hmm,” Ravana murmured, turning an expression of delighted fascination upon the drow.
“And let me put it to you this way, Sherwin,” Malivette crooned, ignoring Natchua’s spluttering. “Tell me which would more enrage the ghosts of your parents: to let House Leduc quietly fade from the world, or to hand over their entire legacy to an irascible, stateless, juvenile dark elf?”
He, in turn, shifted to study Natchua. A malicious smile slowly blossomed on his face, followed by an exact replication of Ravana’s tone. “Hmm.”
“Sherwin, you backstabbing little earwig!” Natchua shouted.
“You even sound like my mother,” her replied, grinning openly.
“This is the single worst idea I’ve ever heard!” the drow exclaimed, waving her arms frantically. “I mean that, and I’m the one who deliberately picked a fight with Elilial! I am the last person who needs to be in charge of a province!”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Natchua,” Malivette said in a cooler tone. “It is still House Dufresne, not House Leduc, which rules Lower Stalwar Province. But that is just my point: the things you have already been doing for the city all this autumn are exactly what good non-ruling nobility should do.”
“I was just bored!”
“You were bored, and so you spent your time and resources making people’s lives a little better, in whatever ways were available to you. That’s exactly what people want in an aristocrat, and what so few aristocrats actually do in practice.”
“Natchua,” Malivette said, softly and more seriously. “To be frank, not only do I think you would be good for the province, but I think this is exactly what you need.”
“You should see about sucking some of that blood directly to your brain!”
“There is your immediate problem with the Confederacy and House Dalmiss,” the vampire said relentlessly. “Right now you are stateless and thus vulnerable. You pretty much can’t apply for normal Imperial citizenship; all that demon-summoning is not going to be looked on positively, war hero or no. As an isolated exile, you’re one lapse in security from suffering whatever vengeance your erstwhile Matriarch sends at you next. But as the Duchess Leduc, you would be untouchable. Even if the Throne and the other nobles actively despised you—which, let’s be honest, isn’t unlikely—they would not tolerate such an assault upon Imperial aristocracy. The powerful will always protect their own position first and foremost.”
“Yeah, well… I mean, in theory, but I still don’t…”
“More to the point,” Malivette continued more gently, “I think this would be good for you. You had one purpose that was keeping you going, one you weren’t expecting to survive past its completion, and then… It was done, and here you still are. I know you’ve been floundering, Natch, trying to find your place. You’ve found it in Veilgrad. This is just making it official.”
“This is a little more official than I had in mind!”
“Welp, you’ve sold me,” Sherwin said cheerfully. “The more I hear about this, the more I like it.”
“Goddammit, Sherwin!” Natchua snapped.
“Hey, Natch, lemme pitch you the point that changed my mind,” he said, grinning. “Just take a moment and imagine your mother’s expression when she hears about this.”
That brought Natchua up short, staring at him with her mouth slightly open. After two heartbeats, she closed it, struggling against a small smile. “Well… Okay, that’s a pleasing thought, but…”
“I quite like this idea!” Ravana said brightly. “I do feel, though, that I may owe you an apology, Natchua.”
The drow narrowed her eyes, shifting them to the blonde Duchess. “Oh? What’d you do this time?”
“I am sorry to hear you have been having trouble from House Dalmiss,” Ravana said earnestly. “I confess, I may have been somewhat responsible for provoking them. You see, the Narisian slave trade has ensnared several of my citizens into involuntary servitude to various members of your former House. I felt that Matriarch Ezrakhai could do with a practical lesson in empathy on this matter. As such, I have her daughter in my dungeon.”
Everyone stared at her in dead silence.
“It is a very comfortable dungeon,” Ravana insisted. “I had it thoroughly renovated before installing anyone. I subscribe to the modern philosophy that there is more to be gained by showing consideration to political prisoners than by making them suffer needlessly. Of course, it may all be moot if Ezrakhai proves to be stubborn and I have to begin mailing her fingers and ears, but still. The principle of the thing, you understand.”
The silence continued for three more seconds, and then Natchua burst out laughing so hard she slid right off the loveseat.