16 – 16

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“I’m sorry I missed ‘er, though,” Maureen said wistfully. “It’s been a real treat gettin’ to catch up with the junior class as well as you girls while everybody’s here. Seein’ Natchua woulda been a grand addition to the week!”

“I am not sure why,” Scorn grunted, idly playing with her expensive disguise ring now that she had taken it off. “Natchua behaves better now than she ever did at school, but it does not make her pleasant to be around.”

“Well, that just makes me actually want to catch up with her,” Iris said, grinning. “Which I never did before. Natchua was always a jerk; I’m suddenly real curious to see what she’s like, mellowed.”

“Her hair is less spiky,” said Scorn. “Still green, though.”

“Sometimes,” Ravana said with a beatific smile, “all it takes for a person to begin to flourish is the right environment. Apparently, Last Rock was not that for Natchua. It never occurred to me ahead of time, but I can entirely see Veilgrad agreeing with her.”

“I am just as grateful to have missed her,” Szith murmured, “and not out of any personal antipathy. Given Natchua’s situation with regard to Tar’naris, duty would have compelled me to bring a detailed report of any encounter to her House. I consider that prospect awkward in the extreme.”

“In point of fact, that occurred to me,” said Ravana, nodding to her. “Otherwise I would have invited her to stay a bit and chat with everyone. Perhaps it worked out for the best, in any case. She seemed in a hurry to return to Veilgrad. Also,” she added with a mischievous little smirk, “I don’t believe she cares for me, personally.”

“Hard to care what she cares about,” Scorn opined.

“Well, what’s done is done,” Ravana said briskly, glancing at the door of the lounge as it opened to admit Yancey. “I’m glad to have that bit of business over with, at least. Fortunately it ended early enough in the day that we’ve plenty of time to make the afternoon show I mentioned over breakfast. That is, if you are all still interested?”

“Aye, sounded a right pleasure!” Maureen chirped. “Ain’t often I get ta see a new art form bein’ born!”

“Moving lightcaps, though?” Iris asked skeptically. “As much as you like to chatter about lightcaps, Ravana, it seems like we’d have heard about it before today if that was a thing.”

“As I understand it, they are not true moving pictures like a magic mirror or scrying surface, but a sequential progression of images set to music and projected upon a large stage. For just that reason, Iris, I am extremely curious. If this works at all well, I may be inclined to invest in the company producing them. Is the carriage ready, Yancey?”

“Your pardon, my lady,” the Butler said, bowing deeply. “There is a situation in the grand hall which requires your attention.”

Ravana’s smile instantly disintegrated. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, what now?”

“I am deeply sorry to have interrupted your afternoon plans, my lady.”

“No.” She shook her head, closing her eyes momentarily. “No, Yancey, I’m sorry. It is the absolute height of stupidity to castigate a good servant for performing his duties well. I ought never vent my frustration at you.”

Yancey bowed again, his face adopting an astonishingly expressive little smile; only a Butler could have conveyed without words both forgiveness and the assurance that no forgiveness was necessary. “I shall redouble my efforts to protect your free time during this brief vacation, my lady. A delegation has arrived from the Elven Confederacy, accompanied by seven citizens of Tiraan Province liberated from captivity by House Dalmiss. You instructed that this be brought directly to your attention should it transpire, and in any case, the leader of this embassy demands your presence.”

“I see,” she said, chewing her bottom lip for a moment. “Well. That, in fact, is an extremely important matter. Girls, I am so sorry to do this yet again,” the Duchess continued, turning to her friends with a rueful expression.

“I shall never resent you for placing duty first,” Szith assured her with a deep nod.

“Yeah, you told us up front this was likely to happen,” Iris agreed, stepping forward to give Ravana a quick hug. “It’s okay, don’t you worry about us. We’re being ridiculously pampered by your staff, it’s not like it’s an imposition.”

“How about this, then?” Maureen suggested. “Tonight, we’ll all ‘ave a sleepover, an’ swap gossip like we used to back at the dorm. It’ll be just like old times!”

“I say, I like that idea!” Ravana said, smiling broadly. “We can stay in my chambers; goodness knows I have the room. After the Wells, my own bedroom feels rather like a museum.”

“It’s a date!” Iris promised.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Ravana, nodding to each of them. “I apologize again for running off on you like this, but I’m afraid it doesn’t do to leave foreign dignitaries twiddling their thumbs. Especially not after I’ve gone to all the trouble of blackmailing them.”

She turned to go, but not before seeing a cluster of alarmed expressions

There were fourteen individuals awaiting her in the great hall, seven elves and seven humans. Ravana’s first observation, even before she took note of her own liberated people, was that not one of the elven delegates was a drow.

In fact, it seemed clear that all seven were high elves. Four were evidently military escorts rather than diplomats, standing stiffly at attention in a formation enclosing the cluster of humans and all clad in armor that seemed made of blue glass and gold plating. Just as Malivette and Natchua had described, though at the time Ravana had privately thought it sounded wildly implausible. It looked wildly implausible, but…there it was.

To judge by the other three, Qestrali fashions ran to long robes, inordinate amounts of jewelry, and lavish hairstyles. There were two men and a woman, all with long hair; one of the men wore his down his back in an elaborate cascade of braids, while the other two had theirs wound about their heads in extravagant styles. The woman’s was actually draped over a sapphire-encrusted halo of gold which hovered along behind her head under some enchantment, bobbing like a buoy as she paced slowly up and down the columned hall to examine the hanging banners. All three had robes woven with glowing patterns; the man in the lead, whose ostentatious coif was held in place by three bejeweled hairsticks, actually had large and heavy-looking shoulderpads of solid gold which hovered above rather than resting upon his thin shoulders.

Any Imperial House worthy of the title could afford to bedeck its members in such wealth, up to and including the decorative enchantments. Ravana was less sure about the feasibility of enchanting accessories to float along with clothes, simply because it would never have occurred to her to do such a thing. By Imperial standards, such ostentation was gauche in the extreme. In her opinion, excessive flaunting of luxury revealed a critical weakness of character. The question was whether this was the standard in Qestraceel, or they were trying to impress her specifically.

If the latter, they were broadly ignorant of Imperial customs, which had significant implications.

The seven humans were clumped together in clear unease bordering on outright fear, staying as far as they physically could from the Highguard escorting them. All wore dark robes of Narisian style, looking downright plain next to the surrounding elves. No coats were in evidence, but they showed no sign of having been recently chilled, so at least their escort had provided some magical protection from the cold. She also noted that they were all under thirty, five men and two women, and all notably attractive specimens of humanity.

A reminder of exactly what the Narisian elite usually wanted human slaves for, those execrable darkling bastards. Ravana had definitely arranged all this for broader political goals, but when now faced with the reality of it, the surge of revulsion and outrage she experienced was genuine. Not that she allowed any of it to show upon her face. There was a time and place for such openness, but this was not it.

Most of the elves and all of the humans were watching her and her own escort long before they met them midway through the great hall, though the man with the levitating shoulderpads was the last to look up; he was staring up at the hall’s chandeliers with a fixed frown until Ravana herself was barely five yards away. Surely he’d seen magical lights before. His clothes alone carried far more impressive enchantments than her fairy lamps.

“Ah,” he said in a peremptory tone, meeting her eyes and lifting his chin. “You are Duchess Madouri, then?”

She arched one eyebrow at his rudeness, saying nothing.

Ravana had arrived flanked by Veilwin and Lord-Captain Arivani, the commander of her House guard, with Yancey following discreetly and four of her own soldiers marching in formation behind—a detail Yancey had no doubt ordered to mirror the elves’ display.

Arivani was sufficiently disciplined not to scowl openly at guests in a formal greeting, but his expression was icy as he lifted his battlestaff to strike its butt against the marble floor with a sound that rang through the cavernous hall.

“You are in the presence of her Grace, the Duchess Ravana Firouzeh Laila Madouri, High Seat of the House of Madouri, Imperial Governor of Tiraan Province and Lady Protector of Madouris.”

That was not technically the correct greeting, nor his place to issue it, but she employed Arivani for his military competence and his personal loyalty to her, not his diplomatic skills. Besides, in this specific case, asserting who was in charge in this house did happen to be the correct action.

“Welcome to Madouris,” she said simply, a far cooler greeting than she’d so recently given the delegation from Veilgrad.

The other two high elves executed shallow bows in her direction, but the man who was apparently in the lead just pursed his lips in visible annoyance, his green eyes flicking over each of them in turn. It ultimately settled, but not on Ravana.

“What bloodline are you from?” he demanded, staring at Veilwin.

“Ah, ah, ah,” she chided, wagging a finger at him. “I’m honest grove stock, not from your fancy-pants city under the sea. If you’re thinking about trying to haul me back there, forget it.”

“Under the sea,” Ravana said aloud, allowing her eyebrows to lift in surprise. “Why…of course! I’d always heard it floated, but that makes so much more sense. There’s no need even to hide it if no one can dive that deep, after all.”

All three high elves fixed glares on Veilwin.

The Court Wizard grinned broadly and uttered the single most insincere “Oops” Ravana had ever heard, even after two years at Last Rock.

Finally tearing his gaze off the sorceress, the elves’ leader squared his shoulders and turned back to Ravana with a curt little nod. “I am Magister Danoris of Qestraceel, representing the diplomatic interests of the Confederacy. We’re here to oversee the previous agreed prisoner exchange. As soon as you produce Matriarch Ezrakhai’s daughter, you may have these…people, and we can all return to our own business with a minimum of further fuss.”

“She took the Matriarch’s daughter?” one of the Imperial women burst out in shock, then immediately clapped both hands over her mouth and tried to hide behind several of her fellows. In fact, the majority of the group huddled more closely together in a manner that made Ravana freshly furious at what must have been done to so cow them.

Not all, though. The shorter of the two men actually surged forward, ignoring the two Highguard who shifted to face him. They did not physically stop him, though, and he came up to stand abreast of the Magister, where he fell to one knee and bowed his head.

“My Lady,” he said in a voice coarse with emotion, “I swear by Omnu’s name, I am your man for life.”

“Rise,” Ravana ordered, keeping her voice calm. “And welcome home. You are a citizen of the Tiraan Empire, and now safe in your own land. This is a civilized country. Here, you will not be compelled to any obeisance that deprives you of basic dignity.”

He did stand, but hesitantly, and raised his head enough to peek shyly up at her. The expression on his face held a fervor she had usually only seen on people at religious services.

Interesting. Ravana made a mental note to keep track of these seven as they were re-integrated into society. Pawns they might be in this game, but a pawn which crossed the entire board as they had could be shaped into any piece.

“Right,” Danoris said, clearly unimpressed. “The prisoner, if you please?”

“Yes, that was the agreement,” she replied, turning a wintry little smile upon him. “I have given orders that she be prepared and can be handed over quite shortly. Of course, we must execute due diligence to ensure our own interests. As soon as the identity of these citizens has been verified, the exchange can be completed. Lord-Captain, please escort the civilians to the specialists I have arranged.”

“My lady,” Arivani acknowledged, saluting.

“Excuse me,” Magister Danoris interjected sharply, “but the essence of a prisoner exchange is that you get yours when we get ours. Not before.”

“This is a formality,” she stated, still wearing that tiny smile, “but a crucial one. I have fae magic users standing by who can verify true identities; imagine the embarrassment for all concerned if the Matriarch had sent me the wrong people. And since I am not the party here who has made a long-standing practice of enslaving citizens under false pretenses in a violation of treaty, it is not my word which is in question here.”

“You forcibly abducted—”

“Prove it,” Ravana demanded, widening her smile at his incredulous expression. “But! As a gesture of good faith, in acknowledgment of the Confederacy’s interests and to emphasize that my dispute is solely with House Dalmiss and not Qestraceel or the Elven Confederacy as a whole, I of course invite you to delegate one of your magic specialists and as many of your military escort as you deem necessary to observe the process. Perhaps you will find it intellectually interesting; I’m told fae magic differs vastly in methodology from your own.”

“My lady,” the man who had knelt to her said earnestly, dry-washing his hands, “my name is Samir Talvadegh, I’m from Tiraas and my family lives right here in Madouris, they’ll vouch for me—”

“I believe you, Mr. Talvadegh,” Ravana said gently. “I do not suspect foul play, but it is critically important that these things be done in the proper manner, and duly witnessed and recorded. This is not Tar’naris. As I am certain our noble guests from the graceful civilization of Qestraceel can attest, in an actual society the documentation of important events is an absolute necessity. Particularly when it concerns something as crucial as the relationships between sovereign nations.”

“It is to the advantage of all parties,” the female high elf said softly, “to have a verification on record to which observers from both sides have agreed, Magister Danoris. Not to mention,” she added with another shallow bow toward Ravana, “that we are all cognizant of the stakes involved, and none here would risk the ongoing negotiations between the Confederacy and the Empire by dealing falsely with one another.”

“Just so,” Ravana agreed, nodding courteously. “In particular, further diplomatic incidents must not be risked, after this morning’s events in Veilgrad.”

At that, Danoris’s scowl deepened, and two of the Highguard shifted to glare at her directly. Ravana took note that these elves were as well-informed as they were undisciplined. Really, she had never met either diplomats or professional soldiers who had such poor control of their emotions. Was this the result of too many millennia at the bottom of the sea, never having to test their wits against legitimate rivals? If this was what all high elves were like, the Imperial nobility would devour them like a school of piranha, and the Narisians had undoubtedly already made puppets of them.

Which, now that she considered it in those terms, would explain a lot.

“I’m given to understand that fae spells can be imprecise in execution,” Ravana said when no one else spoke for a handful of seconds, “but rest assured, I will take every measure to ensure the comfort of guests while the necessary is attended to, however long that may take. I pride myself on hospitality. In fact!” She put on a sudden broad smile as if just having an idea. “I believe I know just the thing to entertain such distinguished visitors while necessary formalities are carried out. This Manor is but a short distance from the Falconer Industries factory, the pride and principal economic pillar of Madouris. Veilwin can teleport us there for a quick tour and right back with no time lost.”

“We are not here to sightsee,” Danoris spat.

“I would welcome the opportunity to observe an Imperial enchanting facility firsthand,” the other male Qestrali said, his softer tone a deliberate counterpoint to their leader’s overt ire.

“Indeed, it sounds fascinating,” agreed the woman, fixing Danoris with a very pointed look.

“It goes without saying,” Ravana added smoothly, “the elves of Qestraceel have nothing to learn about arcane magic from the likes of us. Nonetheless, I believe you will find this…instructive, Magister.”

And even if he did not, she would.

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28 thoughts on “16 – 16

  1. The inside of Ravana’s head is an interesting place.

    Her observation of Qestraceel makes a lot of sense. Isolation from outside force, with what is likely some kind of Mageocracy being the centre of their government, it makes sense that they wouldn’t be politically minded, as a rule.

    So now the Elven confederacy has the ability to manipulate them with more or less impunity, all by giving them face, like naming Qestraceel their capital. The wood elves are likely at a similar if less significant disadvantage.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It would absolutely make sense for the questions of leadership among seafloor-elves to have been dominated by their internal political considerations more than the candidates’ abilities for handling external issues when they’ve been so very isolated for a very long time. “Big fish in a small pond,” comes to mind as a relevant phrase for describing the mindset of the seafloor-elves in general.

      “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence,” by Norman F. Dixon is my recommended supplemental reading on the question of how a hierarchical institution may develop incompetent leadership. Obviously the sea-elves and their institutions have different cultural values, prejudices, and blind spots from the British military as described by Dixon, but I still believe it’s worthwhile to read because of its accessible language and grounding in the history of clear and undeniable failures of leadership. It shows how institutions tend to recruit, promote and retain people in positions of responsibility for reasons other than their competence in the role.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am enjoying seeing the high elves knocked down a peg. They are always seen as they ancient incredible wise beings and seeing Ravana diplomatically destroy then is great

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Baaaa, Lambs to the slaughter. It is very interesting that so far it has been High Elves which have had very little contact with the Empire, compared to the Drow and Wood Elves, that seem to be doing all the interaction for the Confederacy. Can’t wait to see the thoughts that will come out of House Awarrion about High Elves being the diplomats and not themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You know, qestraceel seemed impressive before bit something about viewing them from ravanas perspective makes them seem pretty exploitable lol

    Liked by 2 people

  5. It’s seems that it’s always the less reasonable High Elf that is in command. It was like that with the trio send to catch Natchua, and the same here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Are the elves purposefully sending their below-average personnel to lower everyone’s expectations and create false narratives about their capabilities? It would be crazy like a kitsune to do that. Maybe Ravana is the one getting manipulated!

      I don’t really believe that’s what’s happening, but it’s a fun idea

      Liked by 4 people

    2. If they’re a Mageocracy, the higher ranked people will tend to be objectively more magically powerful, and likely more privileged in Qestraceel than their subordinates.
      Power tends to breed arrogance. Especially when it produces extra privilege, since privilege itself tends to breed arrogance.

      Plus, since they’re Elves, they’re probably at least in part effectively a gerontocracy, so the higher ranking people are likely to be more established and set in their ways and less used to changes.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. This was my thought as well. Honestly, the whole High Elf society would be well served with a couple of semesters at Last Rock U. They have thousands of years of bad habits that need to be broken if they are going to join the wider world.

        Thinking that having the biggest stick means you are in charge is the first lesson in Telewyrn’s Disabusing Stupid Notions 101 class. Followed by a lecture on the connectivity of the wider world and what that means for those with/in power.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Are you inferring an entire society ruled by antisocial magic nerds worse than Arachne Tellwyrn?

        My logic chain for getting there starts with the observation that competence at magic would seem to depend particularly on talent, time, resources and attention spent on learning and practicing magic. The above would naively seem to have an opportunity cost in social skills and useful non-magic-relevant knowledge for understanding and reacting appropriately to unfamiliar circumstances. Even if these people have spent thousands of years alive and have managed to learn enough useful social skills and non-magical knowledge to become tolerably-competent leaders, their focus on the importance of magic would seem to be a lasting, prejudicial blind-spot regarding the importance of other things.

        That would explain why the nominal seafloor-elf “leaders” we’ve seen so far tended to be impatient, arrogant and dismissive assholes if so, but I have difficulty imagining how a society like that could last for thousands of years even with a lack of genuinely-threatening external challenge: Wouldn’t it take just one sufficiently dumb idea over all those millennia to lead them into suicidal stupidity? I’d imagine that some foolhardy apprentice or researcher would have done something a little too risky at some point if demonstrating mastery of magic is so important for social and political power.


  6. I’m interested to see what Ravana discovers from seeing High Elf reactions to the modern world. Obviously it can only tell us a little bit of how they think and react to the world, but it’ll still be much more than we knew before.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. How can floating accessories not look ridiculous?

    Also, Go Ravana! She did a good thing here, but let’s hope the former captives can be de-programmed from their brainwashing.

    I’m also hoping she didn’t have to cut any pieces of the drow lady – this could be grim…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “On August 12, 2016, Mayor of Cannes David Lisnard promulgated a formal ban on full-body swimsuits worn by some Muslim women on the city’s beaches — these swimsuits are oddly designated as ‘burkini’ when the apparel seems to be a beach equivalent of the chador, not of the burka.”

      Standards of what clothing, accessories and other details of appearance are or are not ridiculous are normative to the society or sub-group that maintains the standard. Those standards are often intensely political too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the seafloor elves think Imperial aristocracy (and everyone else without it) are a bunch of feeble-looking and poor-looking hicks for not having frivolously floating or glowing jewelry to show off their mighty and abundant magic power.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Thanks for yet another wonderful chapter in your story.

    Given their self imposed isolation it seems right that they suck at diplomacy. However given a long time of peace the older highelves may be 8000 years old and have both elven senses and a LOT of arcane experience and so cant justifiably suck so much at reading humans.

    Given that a sufficiently skilled practitioner of any of the four schools can do anything that usually is thought school specific, I have wondered why we haven’t see Arachne do some arcane mind-magics just to show of. I would assume the Questrcelians can do so, they make sentient weapons after all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Their age only matters if they’ve had dealings with humans in that time. Which they haven’t.
      They don’t know how to deal with humans because they’ve basically never had to before.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Dammit. Wasn’t done yet.

      As for Arachne and mind magic? It’s entirely likely that she can. If she thinks there’s a reason to do so. I don’t think we’ve really seen a situation where mind magic makes sense as an answer for her. Especially since she tends to view everything as a teachable moment and/or learning experience for everyone else, and mind magic would tend to shortstop that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We know is she can detect (and probably stop) emotional manipulation by an empath, like she did when Bishop Snow tried to influence Toby, Trissiny and Gabby. It would make sense she can read minds.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Can she? As far as I recall Arachne only uses a pair of fae magic spectacles, otherwise we haven’t seen her display fae magic at all. She have displayed arcane, divine and infernal magic but if she have displayed fae magic then please remind me.


    1. IIRC she needed all four kinds of magic to seal that asshole boy’s magic. It was a big revelation of her being able to handle divine? Maybe just three, but I think it was four.


  10. Are the High Elves going to investigate Veilwin in case’s she’s lying about her origins?

    I also feel bad for the High Elves if this is their diplomatic arm; its like the big and smart kid being taken control of by the socially savvy kid.

    Liked by 1 person

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