“It’s not as urgent a crisis as that,” Ingvar assured her. “My people are pretty accustomed to rough sleeping arrangements and close quarters; we hardly know what to do with ourselves in a place as lavish as this. That goes for the Harpies, too. And it seems the lizardfolk like to cluster together even tighter. I keep getting the impression they would pile themselves in twelve to a room even if the lack of space didn’t mandate it.”
“I’m relieved to hear that,” said Ravana, gazing down at the dense throng of scaly bodies milling about the great hall of her ancestral hunting lodge.
“That just means this is stable in the very immediate term,” he cautioned. “This many people, in this little space, representing two distinct groups with little reason for mutual trust… It’s going to become an issue sooner than later. And more immediately, we are out of food. Our guests aren’t going to starve, they seem to have carried their own winter provisions, but we opened our stores to help facilitate trust and settle them in, and well…”
“I will see that you are resupplied immediately,” Ravana promised. “Foodstuffs, and anything else you need. And obviously, this is not a permanent solution. Before doing anything with them, however, I must decide what to do with them, and that is a decision I judge myself not yet sufficiently informed to make. What have you learned about their intentions and reason for being out here in such numbers in the winter?”
The lodge had been designed for aristocrats and thus possessed a number of highly specific architectural features such as the one she and Ingvar were currently using: a small balcony shaded by heavy curtains—really more like an opera box—overlooking the great hall. From this vantage, the nobles of House Madouri could stand at the edge of the rail, as they were now, and be seen gazing down upon their domain from on high, with the added benefit that the carefully designed acoustics of the spot would keep their conversation private from those below.
“All I’ve gotten definitively is that this is some kind of religious pilgrimage,” Ingvar reported, staring down at the two hundred or so lizardfolk below—less than half those currently housed in the lodge. His Shadow Hunters were moving carefully through the crowd, both to see if any help was needed and to generally keep order. The spirit wolves, unsurprisingly, had refused to have anything to do with such a dense crowd indoors and were all outside in the snow. “And that… Well, that kind of inherently puts a stop to learning more. The lizardfolk’s religious practices are private. No doubt there are Nemitite records that could help me gain some insight, but this situation is too tense to be left simmering while I engage in a lengthy research project. I’m sorry I don’t have a better report for you, my Lady. In my opinion, more suitable housing needs to be found for these people before we seek a permanent solution. That is, unless you wish to just let them go about their business. They made it this far without disturbing anyone…”
“Any insight as to how they’ve managed to come this far, undetected?”
“’The safe way is the slow way,’” he quoted with a wry grimace. “Or so they’ve repeated when asked. What they are doing and why are apparently spiritual concerns, and therefore not for discussion with outsiders, but in talking with various individuals I’ve been able to pick up some details about what they’ve already done. Bits of stories about shamans contacting all the tribes across the western part of the Empire, and some interesting notes about who didn’t come. Apparently every tribe sent about half its members, leaving enough back home that the human authorities wouldn’t notice their sudden absence.” He hesitated, his frown deepening. “My lady, this is just a hunch, but I’m increasingly getting the impression that the lizardfolk were the first of the insular races to organize this way. But while the dragons and elves made a big production of it as soon as they were in a position to do so, these seem to have been careful not to reveal what they were doing. I think they’ve been working up to this for a few years, at least.”
“They are just standoffish enough for that to work,” Ravana mused. “It bodes ill for their intentions, that they devoted such effort to secrecy. On the other hand, the fact that they allowed you and your followers to herd them in here suggests the opposite. You could not have compelled them, had they chosen to resist. I mean no disrespect…”
“You gave none,” he said quickly. “You’re quite right, my lady, we had no chance of forcibly rounding them up like this. In fact, they’ve been most cooperative…at least, until I start asking what they are doing.”
“They’re looking to join the Empire.”
Both of them turned to face the speaker who approached from behind, in some surprise but no alarm; with Yancey standing guard at the entrance to the box, there was no chance of being ambushed from that direction. Juniper strolled up, accompanied by her pet bird-lizard, which Ravana studiously ignored. In truth she found Sniff more alarming than the huge spirit wolves, though it had to be said that he was better-behaved than Juniper’s previous pet.
“How do you mean?” Ingvar asked, stepping aside to make room for the dryad at the rail with them.
Juniper leaned against it, gazing downward in a posture that caused her Omnist medallion to slide out of the neck of her dress and dangle. As usual, she was wearing an elven-style beaded robe that was better suited for the summer, but the cold and snow outside didn’t seem to bother her.
“Just what I’ve put together from what the shamans have said,” she explained. “More than one has mentioned rallying under the black banner. One guy said their only hope for salvation was beneath the gryphon’s wings.”
Ravana and Ingvar hesitated at that, glancing at each other. True, the Imperial flag was a silver gryphon on a black field, but…
“Sounds awfully vague,” Ingvar ruminated, “but it’s more than I was able to get out of them. What’s your secret?”
“My secret is their religious practices are shamanistic,” Juniper said, shooting him a playful smile. “People who are into fae magic are usually delighted to chat with a dryad.”
“Oh? I wonder why Aspen hasn’t been able to get anything out of them, then.”
“Do you?” she asked dryly. “You’ve been hanging around with Aspen for a while now, Ingvar. I’m sure you’ve noticed she is not exactly a people person.”
“I can hear you!” Aspen’s voice floated up from the floor below.
Juniper leaned farther over the rail, shouting back, “Yeah? And when you can refute me, you know where I’ll be!” There was no audible response to that, and she straightened back up, smirking.
“And here I thought this spot afforded privacy,” Ravana sighed.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Juniper reassured her, “dryads aren’t elves. Our sensory acuity is variable, and consciously controlled. Aspen being able to hear us up here just means she was deliberately eavesdropping. Nobody else except your wizard should be able to overhear.”
“We had a lizardfolk classmate,” Ravana said pensively, still staring down at the crowd. “She graduated last year. Lriss was always so cosmopolitan, downright urbane; well-dressed, well-spoken, and as witty as any socialite I have ever met, particularly when she was deflecting questions about her people without giving offense. Last Rock does famously draw exceptional individuals, but I cannot find it in me to believe the lizardfolk are less intelligent than anyone else. Their withdrawal from the society of others is their choice, and they still visit and trade in cities. Two hundred years ago, they were a common sight in adventuring parties. As such, I am forced to consider this…facade of primitive tribalism no more than that. These people know what the Empire is, and how it works. To set out for its heart while camouflaging their intentions behind mystical doublespeak signals unequivocal hostility.”
“That is one interpretation,” Ingvar said, “but I don’t think the likelier one, my lady, with all due respect.”
Ravana turned her head toward him, raising an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“I may not understand the lizardfolk religion, but I’m very familiar with religion itself, as a broad concept. Among other things, it encourages people to express themselves in grandiose, poetic terms, even when it would serve them better to speak plainly. These people are far away from everything they know, with apparently nothing but their faith to cling to. I’d be very surprised if they didn’t couch everything in ritualism and pageantry.”
“Hm… You do have a point, Sheriff. Who is in charge among them?”
Ingvar and Juniper both pointed without hesitating.
“The fellow sitting by that fireplace, with the shawl and the kinda cracked-looking scales,” Juniper answered. “I think that’s what they get instead of going gray.”
“He gives all the orders among them,” Ingvar added. “What’s interesting is he doesn’t have a name.”
“You mean…he refused to give it to you?”
“No, he was very clear about this,” the hunter disagreed, shaking his head. “He has no name. That’s also something of significance in their religion which, of course, he refused to explain. He did hint that he gave up his name for the sake of this…whatever it is they’re doing. The others just call him Elder.”
“Well, then!” she said briskly, stepping back from the rail, “named or not, I know where to start. Come, let us go have a word with the gentleman.”
Yancey fell into step beside and just behind her as she emerged into the hallway. Veilwin, lounging against the wall and sipping from her horrific-smelling flask, gave Ravana a challenging look and refused to budge, all of which Ravana of course ignored. No possible good could have resulted from involving the surly elf in the conversation she planned, anyway. With Ingvar and Juniper following, she led the way briskly through the halls and staircases that brought them back to the main floor, and then the great hall itself.
Only the upper hall itself had been free of crowds; immediately after that, they began to encounter clusters of lizardfolk refugees. Ravana simply strode forward at the same measured pace, her head held high even though it came barely to the shoulder of most of the guests in her lodge. Without exception, they got out of her way, several bowing and murmuring apologies at which she nodded graciously.
The effect continued to work even in the dense crowd in the great hall, resulting in a constant ripple as she strode forward through a cleared space that opened itself around her with every step. As a result of that, by the time she reached her target, he was already upright and watching her approach. The last thin curtain of bodies parted to reveal the sight of him, standing slightly hunched with age and leaning upon at all staff from the top of which hung several bird skulls and one softly glowing crystal on leather cords.
“Greetings, Elder,” Ravana said politely, and though she did not raise her voice, it caused silence to ripple outward, snuffing out the muttering which had been caused by her own arrival. “Welcome to Tiraan Province and to this household. I am the Duchess Madouri, mistress of these lands. You have my apologies for the paltry accommodations, and my tardiness in greeting you. I came as soon as I was informed I had guests.”
“Duchess.” The shaman thumped his staff once upon the floor, and then bowed deeply to her. The gesture was ponderous, whether because that was just how they did it or because of his age, she didn’t know, though the way the two nearest lizardfolk watched him and edged forward protectively suggested the latter. “The People are grateful for your hospitality, and sorry to impose upon you. We are, in all our dealings, fair. We shall seek to repay your kindness in whatever way we are able, when the times allow it. For now, rest assured that we will relieve you of the burden of our presence very shortly.”
“It is no burden,” she replied in a tone which brooked no argument. “To extend kindness toward guests is among the most basic expectations placed upon all decent people, and I assure you, I can afford to host you. I am sorry for these cramped accommodations; I will find you something better as quickly as I can. As for your leaving, that remains to be seen.”
The softest of collective sounds fluttered through the onlookers, a concerted indrawing of breath.
The elder shaman made a clicking noise with his tongue, and a pair of filmy inner eyelids flickered over his yellow eyes for an instant. “We have tarried too long, Duchess, and it was never our intention to disturb you.”
“Or make yourselves known to me?” she replied with a thin smile. “That is the issue precisely, Elder. To surreptitiously cross my lands with such a large host is not neighborly behavior, with all due respect. I’m afraid your presence here, and your manner of conducting yourself, requires an explanation. What do you intend to do in the capital?”
At that, a swell of indistinct murmuring rose from the crowd, which was quelled in an instant by another thump of his staff.
“For the People, I apologize,” the Elder intoned, again bowing to her. “We have done and would have done no harm to you or yours, Duchess. If our crossing has done you insult, amends shall be made. For that, and for the slight we inflict by leaving now. But leave we must. A great doom is coming; the People have prepared as best we are able. Now is the time to act. There must be no more hesitation.”
“I fear you misunderstand,” Ravana said evenly. “I am a servant of the Silver Throne. As such, I am tentatively inclined to aid you further, if I may. Whatever benefits the Empire benefits me, and if you seek to pledge yourselves to my Emperor, I am duty bound to protect and assist you. Thus, at the very least, I shall inform his Majesty of your coming.”
Another, louder stir of voices resulted from that, again silenced by a thunk of the staff. Ravana kept speaking as though she had not been interrupted.
“However, you travel surrounded by a fog of uncertainty. I cannot send hundreds of people of unknown intention toward the seat of the Empire. As much as I would be pleased to aid your cause if it proves right that I do so, should it be true that you mean harm to my Emperor, your journey ends here and now.”
This time, there was no muttering. In fact, the silence was as chilling as it was sudden.
“Uh, Ravana?” Juniper muttered.
“So,” Ravana stated, folding her arms regally, “with apologies for pressing you, Elder, I am forced to demand that you explain yourselves.”
His thin chest swelled with a slowly drawn breath, and then his shoulders slumped as he let it out. “Already too much has been revealed, young Duchess. I swear to you, upon my forsaken name, upon the hopes of my People, on pain of severance from my every familiar spirit if I deceive, that we intend no harm to you or to Tiraas. More than that, I may not reveal to you. You have my apologies if I give insult, but this is absolute. Too much is at stake, and too much of our secrecy already compromised.”
“I thank you for that assurance,” she said solemnly, nodding her head once. “But I suspect you know well, Elder, that to a person in my situation, it cannot be enough.”
“Can it truly not?” he asked wearily.
She shook her head. “I know nothing of you or your spirits. You have your duty, and I respect that, but by the same token I have mine. The House of Madouri safeguards the lands around the Imperial capital, and has for a thousand years. To send a horde of strangers straight to the Emperor’s doorstep in ignorance of their intentions would be an utter betrayal of that responsibility. I cannot abrogate my duty in such a manner.”
He lowered his head for a moment. “Ah. To have come to such an impasse. The spirits did not forewarn that we would find allies or enemies here, only that we risked crossing the path of more able hunters than have watched these lands before. You do not know you can trust the People, Duchess; I understand. It is reasonable. If only the People knew we could trust you, this could be resolved.”
“Neither you nor I have time to dawdle here indefinitely,” she replied, “but I can spare the time for you to be certain, Elder. Surely you have the means.”
The old shaman regarded her pensively for a moment, blinking his inner eyelids once more. Then he thumped his staff yet again.
“So be it. By your leave, Duchess, I shall seek wisdom. For the patience you extend, I am grateful. Ilriss, Fninn. Prepare the way.”
A muted flurry of movement ensued as the lizardfolk rearranged themselves and Ravana stood immobile in her place. Ingvar and Juniper both drew closer to her; Sniff, on the contrary, separated himself from his mistress’s leg by a few feet, flattening his head crest and fanning his wings in a display from which the nearby lizardfolk wisely backed away. By that point, half a dozen of Ingvar’s people had joined them, including Aspen and three of the Harpies Ravana recognized, and they now arranged themselves in a protective cluster around her.
The Elder, meanwhile, had slowly stepped over to the fire and seated himself before it, his back to the flames and his tail curved around himself. Two of his nearest companions, probably the two he had named, positioned themselves on either side of him, each tossing a handful of some herbal powder into the hearth which made it splutter and produce a fragrant smoke. He appeared to be surrounded chiefly by other shaman, to judge by the way several of those nearest began to hum deep in their throats and thump their tails against the marble floor, quickly creating a rhythm that filled the air as did the scented smoke. In the midst of it, the Elder closed his eyes, breathing in deeply.
“What are you doing?” Juniper hissed at Ravana from inches away. “Who knows what’s going to happen if he does random magic at you? This could all blow up in our faces!”
“Nonsense,” Ravana said serenely, not troubling to lower her voice. “He is a shaman. When needing to ascertain whether he can trust me, he will naturally call upon his familiar spirits. And since fae divination is famously impossible to deceive or thwart, I know what they will tell him. One who lives a life of integrity need never fear the revelation of her true character.”
Ingvar’s own expression was guarded, but he shot her a long look at that.
The Elder was now rocking slowly back and forth, holding his staff horizontally in his lap. The herbal-scented smoke from the hearth had drifted forward and actually begun to form a halo around his head. That was the only clear sign of magic being done, at least until he suddenly opened his eyes. Only the outer eyelids; the translucent inner ones remained closed, revealing a muted green glow from beneath them.
Falling still and sitting bolt upright, the Elder spoke in a voice that suddenly echoed as if others were speaking in unison.
“Little hunting spider, spinner of grand and sprawling webs. Far too eager to strike, and with venom far too cruel.”
The muttering that rose from the surrounding lizardfolk was distinctly unhappy at that. The Shadow Hunters drew closer together around the Duchess, watching them warily. Ravana herself simply stood, impassively gazing at the old shaman.
“And yet,” he whispered, his soft voice cutting off the speech of the others like a blade. “And yet.”
He closed his eyes, bowing his head, and for almost a full minute, there was expectant silence.
“And yet,” the Elder said suddenly, lifting his snout again, “there is a cold honor in her. Yes. Faithful to her word, loyal to her master, generous to the weak. Destroyer and protector both, changing to suit those deserving of either spirit.”
He opened his eyes once more to reveal the green film, then blinked them rapidly, causing the glow to fade. The Elder shook his head, beginning to slump sideways until one of his attendants lunged to catch him. All around, the humming and drumming of tails trailed to a halt.
Finally, the old shaman opened his eyes fully, revealing their normal yellow, slightly clouded by age. Leaning on his companion, he gazed up at Ravana with an expression of sheer bemusement, and spoke with a voice that was just his own again, not shared by any familiar spirits.
“There is…there is no moderation in you, child. Omnu’s grace or Scyllith’s fury, with nothing in between.”
“Thank you for that assessment,” Ravana said with a noblewoman’s meaningless smile. “Back to the matter at hand, did you learn what you needed to?”
He sighed again, but nodded ponderously, and then actually smiled. “Yes… Yes, in truth. You are not the weaver against which we were cautioned.”
Another muted hubbub rose, this one excited and speculative, and thankfully not angry in tone.
Ingvar leaned closer to Ravana, speaking in a low near-growl. “And what if their intent had been hostile? My lady, we are in the middle of them.”
“If they meant harm,” she replied, “you would be dead, and I would never have learned of this. Sometimes one must take a risk, Ingvar. Every risk I take is calculated with care, I assure you.”
“Yes!” said the Elder, planting his staff against the ground and using it to heave himself upright, ignoring but not rejecting the assistance of his attendants. “Risk, yes. Your pardon, Duchess, for my skepticism. Everything has been with the utmost caution, the greatest care. Too much is at stake: the fates of the People, of the Empire, of all life upon this earth. But you have indulged me, and thus I am sure you are not our enemy. I must assure you of the same. In all our dealings, the People are fair.”
“I am relieved to hear it,” she said, smiling. “Shall we retire to a more comfortable setting to talk, Elder?”
“My old bones will bear me up a while longer,” he demurred, shaking his head. “Too much time is lost already. The omens have warned us of a great doom for some time now, little Duchess. We have consulted the spirits with great care, and learned of the shadow of a great spider, spinning webs across every possible future. Hence, my worry. But you are not that spider. In fact, you may be one who will aid us against it. The beast has laid strands of its web over every fate, and that is why the People have acted with such great care, in such meticulous silence and stealth, as we go to place ourselves before the Emperor. The spirits warned us that only thus will we avert disaster. The spider sees much…but not all. Even a spider may be plucked from its web by a wasp which does not disturb the strands. The People are no great force, in either magic or might, but we may yet save the future simply by arriving at the center of the web without touching it. What the spider does not see, it does not guard against.”
A year ago, Ravana might have disdained that idea; her whole philosophy of action was centered upon finding and deploying the greatest concentration of force possible at the enemy’s weakest point. And yet, what he described was the exact strategy Natchua had recently used to humble Elilial. The weakness of schemers—such as herself—was that even the best plan was vulnerable to any variable for which it had failed to account. Even a weak blow could be lethal, if it arrived unseen, and struck the right spot.
And so she nodded, slowly, considering his words. “A sound plan, Elder. Yes, I see why you were so concerned with the element of surprise.”
“Just so,” he agreed, nodding back. “We shall have only the one chance to avert catastrophe. Let us speak, then, of the great doom that is coming.”