They chose a room at random down the first hallway they explored, and once inside immediately stopped, momentarily so forgetting what they were here for that Raolo didn’t even bother to push the door all the way closed. Instead, both of them stared at the wall of the small study, which was covered with newspaper articles, framed and under glass, and all featuring headlines about a certain drow.
“So this is why they made her a Duchess,” Raolo said in disbelief. “I was really wondering about that.”
“It’s all noble politics. I was mostly concerned she was being taken advantage of somehow,” Toby admitted.
The elf shook his head, still staring at the framed papers. “Always worried about others, Toby.”
It was a quality Toby valued in himself, one he couldn’t see as inherently a bad thing even if he had to acknowledge he took it too far sometimes, yet the undercurrent in Raolo’s tone told him they were already returning to the problem. Whatever the problem actually was; he remained far from certain about that.
He reached out, almost gingerly, to take Raolo’s hand. Immediately Raolo squeezed his in turn, and the relief was like a physical force straightening his spine again. He needed that to cling to, as the elf finally turned away from the wall of articles to meet his eyes again.
“So,” Toby repeated awkwardly. “I… Well, I don’t understand what I did wrong, but I’m sorry. I won’t do it again if you’ll just explain it to me. The last thing I want to do is hurt you.”
For whatever reason, that just made Raolo look exasperated. “Augh… Toby, you’ve done nothing wrong. You have been faultlessly respectful and considerate and did exactly as I asked.”
“Okay, then… What’s—”
“Did you ever consider that I didn’t want you to do what I asked?” Raolo asked plaintively.
He blinked. Then twice more. Opened his mouth to speak, closed it, squinted, and blinked yet again.
“Of course not,” Raolo sighed. “Look, Toby… I love my family, okay? They gave me everything I have, made me who I am. The same goes for my tribe as a whole. It’s just so much easier to love them from a thousand miles away in Last Rock where I don’t have to deal with them constantly disapproving of the thing that most defines me.” He held up his free hand, allowing tiny blue arcs of unformed arcane power to crackle between his fingers for a second. “Maybe in, like, ten years I’ll be glad to go home for, oh I dunno, a week. That sounds like about how long I’ll be able to stand the pressure by then. But right now? It’s miserable. I would rather do anything else, especially if it means I get to do it with you.”
“I see,” Toby said slowly. “But…you were pretty insistent.”
“Yeah.” Raolo nodded, grimacing. “I should go home and be the dutiful son. I really, really ought to. I owe it to them. So…that’s what I said.”
“Okay, I guess I’m beginning to get it,” said Toby. “Wow, it makes so much sense when you point it out. I’m really sorry I failed to read between the lines, there. In hindsight—”
“Would. You. Stop that?!” Raolo exclaimed, finally letting go of his hand. “Veth’na alaue, Toby, I am not in the right, here! I’m being irrational and childish and unnecessarily difficult!”
“I. Um.” There was really no serviceable answer to that, forcing him to fall back on the old standby. “Sorry?”
Raolo stared at him for three seconds, then said very calmly, “Would you excuse me for just a moment?”
“Oh. Well, sure…”
“Thanks.” The elf turned away, walked to the other side of the room until he stood six inches from the wall, facing it. Then he reared back and thumped his forehead against the oak paneling, causing several of the framed articles to bounce.
“Okay.” Turning back and showing no sign of pain despite the red mark on his forehead, Raolo returned to him with a serious expression. “Tobias, you are… You’re the best person I know. I love how caring you are, how you’re always looking out for others. But the thing is, you do that for everyone. It’s how you… Well, I know we’re young and this has only been a thing for a few months and I haven’t wanted to push at you, and I definitely don’t want to seem ungrateful to the first person in my life who’s unequivocally put my needs first, but… But I am starting to feel like I’m just another person around you. Being looked after the way you do for all your friends.”
“Are you…under the impression that the, ah, the things I do with you are things I do with everybody?” Toby demanded.
That earned a reluctant smile. “No, and I don’t mean to undervalue that intimacy. It’s just… Aw, balls, this is why I didn’t want to talk about it.” Raolo covered his eyes with both hands, shaking his head in helpless denial. “I sound like such a lunatic right now.”
“No, you don’t,” Toby said automatically. It was the wrong response; Raolo lowered his fingers, revealing a scowl.
“You’re doing it again.”
“What do you think that is?!”
“Well, sorry!” Toby exclaimed, throwing his own arms up. “I don’t understand what’s happening here! Can’t you just tell me what it is you want me to do?”
“That!” Raolo surged forward, grabbing him by the shoulders, and then pulled him into a hug which Toby immediately reciprocated despite his exasperation. “I just want you to sometimes not take care of me. I want to feel special to you.”
“You want…” Toby tightened his arms around him, biting back the first response that came to mind. And then the second. And only belatedly realized he was still doing the exact opposite of what Raolo was asking. But this was hard, and he still didn’t understand it. “Have I made you think you aren’t special to me?”
“You did nothing wrong,” Raolo insisted, squeezing him in turn. “You did what you always do, what makes you so unequivocally good, and part of what I love you for. It’s just…”
“I do that for everybody?” Toby echoed.
Raolo’s nod rubbed his hair distractingly against Toby’s cheek. “Here it is, the first time we’re away from school and at liberty since we’ve been an item, and I can’t fault your choices or your respect for my choices, but the fact remains, you’re off having paladin adventures with your friends and I went home to be passive-aggressively sniped at by my parents. And less passively by my sister.”
“I said I was sorry for…wait.” Toby drew back, just enough to be able to study his face. “Are you jealous?”
Raolo grimaced. “I told you I was being irrational.”
“Raolo, aside from the guy who’s basically my brother, they’re all women! Two of them are married and one’s three inches tall and physically sexless!”
“I know! I promise I don’t feel threatened by Gabriel. It’s not about them, it’s…” Closing his eyes, he leaned forward to rest his forehead against Toby’s, right where he’d recently bonked it on the wall. “The bond you have with them is made of shared experiences, trauma, victory… I can’t help being bitter at you letting me go home instead of having the opportunity to share another adventure with you. I want to build something like that between us. You know, I have read my adventuring histories; paladins always have their own parties. I may not be a dryad or archdemon, but do you have any idea how powerful an elven wizard can become? I can totally pull my weight as a Hand’s companion.”
Toby chuckled in spite of himself. “I hear what you’re saying, but Rao… Most of these adventures have been due to class trips. I’d love to have you come with us on the next one. Do you want to be the one to pitch that to Tellwyrn?”
The elf snorted softly in amused agreement. “I know, that’s fair. I’m not blaming you. This is…talking about the future. You know, someday, Teal will be running Falconer Industries, or helping with whatever it is Shaeine will end up doing for the Confederacy. Ruda will be off ruling her country, gods only know what the fairies will be up to, and you’ll probably still work with Gabe and Triss from time to time but we both know the Trinity will likely send their Hands in different directions. But I can still be by your side. I know this is new, Toby, but… Elves don’t love lightly. We heal slowly from heartbreak, and try not to risk it. I do love you, and I wouldn’t be involved with you at all if I didn’t see a future. If I thought you were treating this casually.”
“I…like the sound of that,” Toby whispered, shifting his head just enough to rub Raolo’s nose with his own. “Even if I don’t like the idea of putting you in danger… Just the thought of you being there with me is perfect.”
“But that’s the future,” Raolo agreed. “In the present, I just wish you could stop with the Omnist thing, at least with me.”
“Rao, my faith is at the very core of who I am.”
“I know! I’d never ask you to change, just to…relax. Stop looking after me the way you do everyone else.” He opened his eyes, and they glittered with emotion. “I want you to feel…comfortable, and safe enough to let down that sense of duty and let yourself be mad at me when you feel it. I want you to desire me enough to ask me to come home with you for the holidays instead of seeing my family. I’d do it in a heartbeat, if you asked. I just want you to ask. I want to be special.”
Toby drew in a slow breath and let it out equally slowly.
“That’s a meditation exercise,” Raolo accused.
“Relax,” Toby murmured. “That’s…what you’re asking isn’t easy.”
“I know, love. Honestly, if it was just selfish, I wouldn’t even ask. But Toby, everybody needs to have a safe place to let go and just be. Let me be your safety.”
“My safety.” Slowly, he nodded, the gesture incidentally rubbing his nose against Raolo’s again. The elf nuzzled him in return. “Okay.”
Then Toby drew back, shifting his grip to seize Raolo by his thin shoulders, and gave him a hard shake.
“I am not a telepath! Damn it, you know I’d do anything I could to make you happy, but crap like this is just gonna keep happening if I don’t know what you want! Omnu’s breath, Rao, I adore you but this is some grade-A free-range nonsense! If we have a problem I need you to talk to me about it like the grown-ass elf you are—”
That was as far as he got before a display of elven agility brought Raolo squirming out of his grip, and then forward, throwing his arms around Toby’s neck and silencing him with a kiss that was as close to bruising as such a slender creature could manage. He found he didn’t mind the pressure in the least, and in fact, found it the best medicine. The tension and frustration of the last few minutes faded as if banished by a spell. Toby clutched him close, sliding one hand up to cradle his head and all but drinking him in.
Raolo also took the initiative in pulling back, but only after a few minutes and even then only because he needed air.
“That’s my boy,” he whispered with a grin of avid mischief.
Toby squeezed him closer, beginning to walk them both insistently toward the far wall—or more specifically, toward the writing desk standing against it. “And?”
Raolo bit his lower lip coyly. “And, yessir.”
The elf’s legs hit the desk and he nimbly slid up onto it, his fingers pulling at Toby’s robe as the paladin surged forward to seize him in another breathless kiss.
Behind them, unheard even by Raolo’s acute ears, the door to the study pulled the rest of the way shut. Out in the hall, Sapphire carefully stretched a stocking over the latch in the universal signal, and then turned to stroll back to the party, smiling.
Iris was standing off to the side, out of range of the dancers, holding a glass of sparkling wine. Ravana knew she didn’t like sparkling wine, or wine in general. Which wasn’t the point; Ravana also knew the glass was a prop, something for her to do with her hands. One hand, anyway, the other being occupied clenching in her skirt.
The Duchess came to stand silently beside her roommate and friend, following her gaze. They watched as the two paladins came to a stop and separated, then as Gabriel spoke briefly to a woman in uniform by the serving tables, and then as the two of them discreetly slipped away to go into the house.
Iris heaved a sigh. “I…am ridiculous.”
Ravana regarded her in silence.
“And worse,” the witch added after a pause, “I’m a coward. Well, you know what, this tears it. It’s been a year and a half. If I haven’t managed to screw up the guts to just talk to him, I am officially hopeless. It’s time to just forget the whole thing. Hey, Ravana, what are the odds I could find a nice young lord here to marry me?”
Ravana shook her head. “Nice lords of any description are rare, and aristocrats mostly marry for political advantage, not sentiment or even attraction. Now, I suspect you could quite easily find a wealthy lord or lady to make you a very lavishly kept mistress. You look ravishing in that gown, and your dark complexion is rather exotic in this part of the Empire.”
Iris made a grimace of mingled amusement and bitterness. “Thank you. So, hey, there’s my career planned out.”
“Don’t be absurd, you’re worth far more than that,” Ravana said almost brusquely. “I do agree with some of what you were saying, but rather than simply dropping the matter, what I’d suggest is just asking him. Even if it ends in nothing but rejection, at least that would be closure. And you wouldn’t be dithering anymore.”
“You saw that as clearly as I did,” Iris whispered.
The Duchess emitted a very ladylike little snort. “Those two are going to dither about with even more stamina than you have. I don’t expect it would be too difficult to snatch him, especially with that neckline. Not that Trissiny isn’t attractive, but you have the advantage in buxomness and everyone knows Gabriel’s pref—”
“You urgently need to stop,” Iris interrupted.
Ravana grinned. “I am only half jesting, Iris. If not now, then back at my manor. There is no shortage of available rooms.”
Iris covered her eyes with her free hand, still not drinking from her glass. “Ravana, please. What about you, then? Any of these fancy lads seem like a nice political prospect for you?”
“As I consider my point made, I shall indulge your transparent deflection,” Ravana said magnanimously. “In any case, no. I will not marry, I think. Any House in the Empire would benefit greatly from a union with House Madouri, but none have anything to offer me in return that is worth it. Especially now that I have achieved a firm alliance with Houses Dufresne and Leduc.”
“That seems kind of…grim. Doesn’t that fact free you up? You could marry for love, if you don’t need to do it for politics.”
Ravana’s expression had grown distant; she watched the party guests as they twirled into the next dance, not seeming to actually see them.
“I think I am what the Izarites call asexual.”
Iris looked at her sidelong. “You…divide in half to make two smaller Duchesses?”
Ravana made a silently eloquent face which both acknowledged and disapproved of the joke. “I refer to the orientation, not the reproductive strategy. I am twenty years old and have never felt the slightest stirrings of attraction toward anyone of any gender. Sexual desire is a thing I comprehend intellectually; on a visceral level I remain baffled at the damage people are willing to inflict upon themselves to indulge it. At my age, that seems rather definitive, don’t you think?”
“You make it sound like twenty is the verge of senility,” Iris said with a wry smile. “Maybe you’re just picky? Haven’t met the right person?”
“I don’t believe there are right or wrong people as a binary. As best I understand it, attraction is a spectrum, and my position on it is nowhere.” She paused to take a small, appreciative sip of her own wine. “This is not to complain, Iris. If anything I consider myself fortunate. Unburdened by the expectations of a spouse and living in an age in which children born out of wedlock face no legal and relatively little social stigma, I am free to rebuild my House’s imperiled bloodline by selecting the best available genetic donors.”
Iris shuddered. “That sounds so clinical.”
“It is, to me,” Ravana said, shrugging. “It is a tradition of my family. You may have noticed that I am blonde despite being—mostly—an ethnic Tiraan? The trait is recessive, but House Madouri has deliberately added infusions of elven blood at roughly hundred year intervals, for its longevity, stamina, and magical aptitude. We have endured for a thousand years without falling to the inbreeding that has destroyed so many noble Houses by managing our genome as if our children were thoroughbred racing steeds. It is especially relevant to me, as the last living member of my bloodline.”
“You make it sound like you can just…grab whoever you want to make them…perform.” Iris grimaced, finally took a sip of her drink, and then grimaced harder. “Ugh, bubbles.”
“I am hardly going to force anyone,” Ravana said, amused. “Nor do I expect much difficulty in the…acquisition. Though I am far daintier than the so-called Avenic ideal, I am hardly a warthog. And even if I were, many would not decline an invitation to the bed of a Duchess.”
“But…you don’t want to,” Iris protested. “I mean, if you’re not actually interested in…”
Ravana’s face went distant again. “You know, my grandfather was gay.”
Iris blinked at the abrupt change of subject, but didn’t answer. Ravana went on without apparently expecting her to, anyway.
“He managed to gird up his loins, in an unusually literal example of the expression, and sire one child in his lifetime. My father. Who so adored and remained loyal to my mother that even after her death he never so much as looked at another woman.”
“That’s so romantic,” Iris sighed with a slightly dreamy smile.
“My mind boggles at such abominable selfishness,” Ravana said icily, causing Iris’s smile to vanish in an instant. “Aristocrats are raised in depthless privilege. We wear and sleep in silk, dine on delicacies using silver and crystal, enjoy the benefits of the finest education that can be had and entertainments such as most people could never dream to experience. All this is a due and necessary offset for the tremendous pressures my social class must endure in the execution of our responsibilities. But far too many—including, to my shame, those within my own House—have embraced the privilege and eschewed the price. This luxury is paid for by the people who look to us for leadership. They are owed that leadership in return. Among other things, my people require stability and the assurance of continuity; a succession crisis can be absolutely devastating to a nation, or even a province. Yet, my own father and grandfather could not see past their own desires. At a time when our House had been driven to the edge of extinction by the Enchanter Wars, they left it there rather than submit to a minor personal indignity that pales before the suffering our populace will endure if the local government collapses.”
She paused, grimaced, and rubbed her finger around the rim of her wineglass, making it produce a clear, high-pitched tone.
“And just to rub salt in the wound, they were male. A man with the resources of an ancient and rich House can accumulate mistresses and sire a veritable village over the course of an average lifetime. Instead, that duty falls to me, whose ability to reproduce is…biologically constrained.”
“I think that may be the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”
Ravana shrugged, the ghost of a smile drifting across her features for a bare moment. “It is what it is. So, I will keep an eye out for interesting sources of genetic material and, when the time comes, dose myself with alchemical aphrodisiacs and do what is necessary. Five times, I should think. I calculate that is the greatest number of children I can balance with my other responsibilities while still giving them each the individual care and attention they require. That is not optional; people raised with great power but no tenderness often end up rather twisted. I consider myself a relative success story of that scenario, and I am well aware that many people find me…unsettling. I find I am sufficiently looking forward to motherhood that I am not excessively bothered by the…squishy realities involved in achieving it.”
“Squishy realities. Now there’s a turn of phrase,” Iris sighed. “Funny enough, my first thought was to remind you that love potions are illegal. As if that was even a consideration for you.”
“Actually, that is funny,” Ravana said with a smile. “Such potions are a felony to administer to another person, and potentially a capital crime to do so without the victim’s consent, but they fall within the Noble Loophole governing controlled recreational drugs. I can dose myself with anything I like under the law.”
“The what governing what?”
“Anything which one must have a government-issued exemption to sell,” Ravana explained. “Opium, sevenleaf, glittershrooms and the like, and also certain alchemicals. You see, it is illegal to manufacture, purchase, sell, receive, or bestow controlled drugs. But, if you happen to have one for whatever reason, it’s not a crime to own or use it on yourself. That’s part of why glittershrooms are so popular; they’ll grow anyplace dark and dank. It’s quite common for people to find them entirely by accident in their own cellars. The law only constrains any means of acquiring drugs rather than having them because of the nobility, you see. For most people, it is presumed that if you own a controlled substance you committed a crime to get it, shrooms aside, and can thus be prosecuted. But because the inventories of House vaults are private, the Treasury cannot prove we didn’t just have vials of cocaine and love potions sitting in there left over from a past generation.”
“Wait, if the Empire can’t tell what you’ve got in storage…”
“Oh, the Treasury has the right to inspect and tally coin, bank notes, real estate, basically any form of liquid assets, and concealing such from the Throne is an offense for which a House’s charter of nobility can be revoked. But the Treasury requires specific cause to inspect a House’s vaults, and the burden of proof necessary is steep. So! As long as a House doesn’t skimp on its taxes, as a reward its members have a legal excuse to do whatever drugs they might wish.”
She smiled placidly up at the taller girl, who just stared back in something like horror.
“You know, stuff like this is why nobody trusts the nobility,” Iris complained. “This is exactly what I worry about Natchua of all bloody people suddenly having access to.”
Natchua could physically hear everything happening on the manor grounds, but the nature of elven hearing meant most of it was a blur which her subconscious filtered out as superfluous. Under the circumstances, she couldn’t even zero in on mentions of her own name with any reliability, given how much speculation about her was going on at this party. So it was mostly coincidence that she caught Iris’s last comment, helped along by the fact that she made sure to check up on whatever Ravana and Malivette were doing at a given moment, on the grounds that she now heavily depended on both while still trusting neither. And Vette was currently right in front of her.
She glanced aside at the witch, but deemed it not worth pursuing. After all, Iris undeniably had a point.
More immediately, her focus was swiftly demanded when a sudden chorus of screams from the front gate of the property interrupted her own conversation with Malivette and Bishop Darling.
Immediately both Duchesses were moving forward toward the source of the disturbance; being each of them an extremely dangerous creature in her own right, if there was trouble it only made sense for them to lead from the front. Natchua was less certain why Darling followed along, but didn’t spare him the attention to question his apparent lack of survival instincts.
In fact, it was he who offered the perfect commentary at what was now approaching her through the manor grounds as terrified nobles fled in all directions.
“What in the secondhand celestial monkey fuck is he doing?”
Obviously, it was the demon most people were frightened of; the thing was a good twelve feet tall and covered with the obligatory scale armor and spikes, complete with glowing eyes and flickers of fire snorting from its nostrils. Natchua wasn’t particularly concerned with that, however, as she could tell at a glance that the magical chains trussing it up like a cocoon were solid and more than adequate to the task. Those same chains were holding the beast aloft as it was propelled through the air at a walking pace.
Behind, holding the other end of the chain, strode a grinning man in a white suit. He came to a stop in the middle of the driveway, shifted the imprisoned demon out of the way and then, with a flick of his wrist, slammed it to the ground. The resulting crunch brought a muffled growl of outrage from the muzzled beast, which in turn prompted a new chorus of screams.
Embras Mogul doffed his hat and swept an elaborately courtly bow.
“Duchess Natchua of House Leduc! Your humble servant has completed the task you assigned. By your kind patronage and at your command, the Black Wreath stands ready to continue our devoted service to our new mistress. What orders have you?”
In the terrified silence which followed, everyone on the grounds turned to stare at Natchua.