16 – 38

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“What the hell is this?”

For just a moment, he’d made her freeze up. Confronted with this public gambit, Natchua’s mind ran away with all the dire possibilities, aided by the pressure of the incredulous glares upon her, and the part of her that was meant to respond intelligently came up completely blank.

For just a moment.

Then she found herself talking, and in a suitably scornful tone, not entirely sure what she was doing but riding the feeling she had that this was the right move. According to Elilial, Natchua’s “cunning” was an instinctive quality, a gift of hers that propelled her onward past what the likes of Mogul himself had achieved through practice. If the goddess was right, perhaps this unthinking confidence was precisely what she needed to prevail.

And of course, if the goddess was wrong—or lying—Mogul had just decisively outflanked her and anything she said from here was only going to make it worse.

“Why, it’s a kraagthshnorik,” Mogul said with theatrical innocence. “You did send us to deal with it, if you’ll recall, my lady. Your notes were most concise; it was entombed precisely where you indicated.”

The kraagthshnorik snarled a muffled protest, squirming against its bonds and achieving nothing but a puff of smoke from its nostrils and a patch of disturbed gravel. That, and a few abortive shrieks from the nearest aristocracy.

“Oh, he’s a comedian now, too,” Natchua snorted, ignoring the speculative murmurs that sprang up from all around the party grounds. “You just blew the last tattered shreds of my patience, Mogul, don’t pretend you don’t know I was referring to its presence here. Do I walk into your home and defecate on the carpet?”

“Are we speaking literally or metaphorically?” he inquired.

Natchua flicked out her right hand, spewing forth a column of shadow tentacles to the accompaniment of another few screams—really, at some point these people were going to have to run out of things by which to be shocked—and brought the whole fifteen-foot-long mass down at the imprisoned demon. Mid-descent, the ends of the tendrils formed together into a massive scythe blade of black light limned in sullen purple, which stabbed straight through the kraagthshnorik’s central body.

The demon emitted a booming yet plaintive groan and collapsed, its huge bulk disintegrating into charcoal and sulfur-smelling smoke right before their eyes. Mogul’s magical chains around it also slumped loose, and then dissipated themselves.

“Explain yourself,” Natchua ordered, pleased with her mask of icy contempt.

“Me?” Mogul spread his hands, still making himself a picture of well-meaning confusion. “My lady, whatever do you mean? You ordered—”

He at least had the good sense to break off when her shadow apparatus, which she had not dismissed so readily as his chains, whipped back into the air to bring the tip of its blade to rest right in front of his face. The scythe itself was nearly as long as he was tall.

“Natchua, I did not realize you and Embras had a relationship,” Malivette stated, gliding over to stand by her.

“Best of friends!” Mogul said cheerily.

She could kill him, of course. She was at least thrice the warlock he could ever hope to be. The tentacle scythe inched fractionally closer to his face.

Then she dismissed it, withdrawing the tendrils which had formed its base and in general continuing to make decisions faster than the rational mind could process what she was doing.

She should kill him, which he knew, and there was the rub. He had walked right up to her and made a pest of himself. Natchua could not see, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of any other Wreath or demons in the vicinity, but she knew they had means of hiding, even from her senses. Their gift of stealth she could penetrate, but the trick of warding themselves against even an elf’s natural perceptions was a thing of shadow magic, not infernomancy, and all they had to do was actively abstain from infernal craft and she would be unable to detect them that way. Mogul would not have done this without insurance, and whatever countermeasures he had planned risked collateral damage among these assembled nobility that would be politically catastrophic for her, well beyond the embarrassment he was trying to inflict. Unless he expected her to think of all that and… No, that was a dead end line of thought and not something upon which he would have banked his very life; Mogul’s whole problem was that he was an overly cautious planner, a schemer spinning webs rather than the aggressively fox-like master of cunning Elilial had claimed she wanted.

Plus, he’d walked into the home of Malivette, who might or might not be smarter than Natchua but had proven she had less patience for his bullshit, on an evening when she was hosting all three living paladins—who not only were likely to attack him on sight regardless of anything else going on, but had learned the necessity of so doing right here in Veilgrad.

And yep, there was Trissiny, already stalking over toward them, her furious glare switching from Mogul to Natchua even as the drow made note of her presence. The other two were… She quickly sorted through the haze of muffled sounds to isolate their voices, both inside the manor. They’d have to be properly distracted to have failed to sense the arrival of that large demon on the grounds—which made Natchua suspect afresh that Mogul wanted a violent confrontation. Yes, Gabriel was in a room talking quietly with Jonathan and Hesthri, and Toby was…good and diverted. He might still get what he wanted, to judge by Trissiny’s expression. Allegedly she was better about thinking before acting since training with the Thieves’ Guild, but she was still Trissiny, and this was still exactly what it looked like.

All these thoughts flashed across Natchua’s mind in the space of a half second, and were still in the process of sorting themselves when she answered Malivette in a tone of aloof irritation.

“I did brief you, Vette; he’s been loitering around, pestering me for days. I finally decided if the Wreath were planning to make a local nuisance of themselves, they might as well be useful in the process. So I directed Embras here to a list of local dangers around Veilgrad which I intend to vanquish anyway before any more loggers and trappers fail to come home from the woods. The Wreath do love to talk a big game about how they serve and protect the world from demons. I assure you, I did not give him license to make a mess upon your front lawn,” she added, returning her glare to Embras with a disgusted curl of her lip, as if he were a dog which had just tracked mud into the house.

“You do not let the Black Wreath help,” Trissiny interjected through gritted teeth. “Take it from someone who learned it firsthand, Natchua, in this very city. The chaos crisis was worse than it needed to be because we failed to destroy them when they came with an oh so reasonable offer of aid. Their demon-summoning unbalanced the whole region, and that was before they turned on us!”

Natchua made her expression deliberately more polite, as much as she could be non-confrontational with the paladin and not lose any more of the face she was desperately scrambling to save in front of the gathered nobility. All while wishing she could afford to make pointed expressions to the effect that this was not the time for any Hand of Avei antics.

“That’s because you let them help, Trissiny. I gave them specific tasks and outlined consequences for failure, noncompliance, or collateral damage. Which it seems I shall now have to enforce.”

“I sense that I have disappointed you, my Lady,” Mogul intoned with a farcical display of solemn contrition. “Do inform me how I might make amends, I beg you. I remain ever humbly at your service.”

And now Xyraadi had emerged from the crowd, approaching them with a similar expression, and Natchua nearly despaired. She’d been pleased to invite the khelminash, who was not only a friend but someone to whom she owed a lot, and in fact it had seemed her presence here would set a useful precedent, but Xyraadi’s feelings about the Wreath were roughly the same as Trissiny’s and her approach to expressing them only minimally more subtle.

Well, at least if this whole thing ended up as bad as it looked like it was about to, she could be reasonably sure Embras Mogul would be dead before he could enjoy the results of his scheming.

“I say, that was a rather prescient strategy,” Ravana said smoothly, herself gliding forward into the fray armed with a wineglass and an aloof smile. “The world has awaited with trepidation the full outcome of Elilial’s peace with the Pantheon; I suppose it stands to reason that the Wreath need not strictly be a banned organization any longer, provided they can render a useful service like the other cults. And abide by a…” She looked pointedly at the large patch of charcoal dust and disturbed gravel and sniffed. “…standard of behavior.”

“You’re not serious!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“I see the sense in it,” said Malivette, regarding Mogul with a more pensive expression. Like a specimen on a dissection table rather than a misbehaving animal. “Obviously they must make some accommodation with the new order of things. Equally obviously, they need to get over their grudge about Ninkabi; we cannot have warlocks jumping about, harassing our nobility. It’s an elegant solution, Natchua, and how very like you to step out in front of a problem and shape it toward a useful end. I knew you would do well in this role.”

“You are too kind, Malivette,” Natchua replied graciously, inclining her head and hardly having to fake her amicable expression. Inwardly, she felt a rush of pure gratitude toward the pair of them for closing ranks with her in the face of this. Not that they had a choice; any public humiliation Natchua suffered at this moment would impact Malivette and Ravana nearly as much, and she was undoubtedly going to hear more about this at length later.

“That, of course, presupposes that the cult in question possesses the basic sense to comply with the needs of civilized society and not make nuisances of themselves,” Ravana added, looking down her nose at Embras, which took real skill on her part as he was a head and a half taller than she. “This little episode shows, at best, exceedingly poor judgment.”

“It does seem quite clearly to be an attempt to embarrass you in public, Natchua,” Malivette agreed, still examining Mogul with disdainful interest. “A rather sophomoric one, though. Is this really the best the notorious Black Wreath could conjure up to avenge their defeat? I recall them being… Well, I won’t say impressive, but less desultory in their machinations than this.”

Even Trissiny seemed to have calmed, studying Mogul through slitted eyes but making no move to intervene. Xyraadi was still bouncing a ball of golden fire from hand to hand, but did not appear about to throw it.

“Well, I think you’ll find that is the Black Wreath in a nutshell,” said Natchua, deliberately pitching her voice to resonate across the grounds. “People forget that Elilial is the goddess of cunning, not demons; her own cult certainly did. The last handful of years leading up to the Battle of Ninkabi have been an uninterrupted string of defeats and debacles at the hands of virtually everyone they ran across. The Empire, the Universal Church, the Thieves’ Guild, Trissiny here and her fellow paladins. I understand even my magic professor from Last Rock found time to slap a few of them around on a lark. They were reduced to a handful of warm bodies by the time I got down to them. And all because of…this.” She gestured with ostentatious contempt at the dirty spot that had moments before been a fearsome demon. “The Black Wreath are many things. Devious, duplicitous, arguably not unintelligent, even rather crafty at times. But cunning? No.” Natchua tilted her own head back, staring down her nose at Embras in an imitation of Ravana’s posture. And beginning to hear alarm bells in the back of her head at the lack of any discomfiture on his part under this verbal abuse, but she pressed on. He had to be put in his place in front of these onlookers or her own burgeoning reputation would take damage she’d require years to repair. “Cunning is an entirely different quality, the ability to scheme while on the move and under pressure. The Wreath under this one’s leadership has been utterly dependent on their ability to lay plans in advance, unable to adapt or respond swiftly to changes on the board. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what becomes of a cult which forgets its deity’s central value: it becomes a sad remnant whose sole means of retribution is making a stain on the floor.”

To her immense satisfaction, they laughed. The same privileged observers who a minute ago had been squealing in terror of a bound demon now produced a chorus of judgmental titters at the expense of the warlock standing in their midst.

And Mogul himself… He kept his head angled so that Natchua could not see his eyes, but his mouth beneath the broad brim of his hat remained set in an easygoing smile. He stood easily, his posture loose and nonchalant with both hands in his pockets, quite lacking the telltale signs of tension and displeasure she’d managed to wring from him on every previous encounter around Veilgrad. As she stared down at him, his lips stretched infinitesimally, that knowing smile broadening just enough to betray a flash of white teeth.

In that moment, now that it was too late, realization slammed down on Natchua and she understood how he’d just outmaneuvered her.

Mogul finally unfolded himself, sweeping off his hat and executing a low bow before the three disapproving Duchesses.

“My dear Lady Leduc! And Lady Dufresne, upon whose home I have so brashly intruded. Even the Lady Madouri, clearly a more honored guest here than I. It occurs to me, belatedly, that my little jape was in rather poor taste. If this unworthy servant might beg your indulgence for another moment, do tell me how I might make amends for this affront! My only desire is to prove my goodwill. After all, we must all enter this brave new world together, is it not so?”

Natchua breathed in and out carefully. She could still kill him… But no, she’d been right in the first place; he undoubtedly had backup ready to cause carnage among her guests and the havoc that would create might set Imperial Intelligence after her, or worse. At the absolute least, she would look petty, violent, and unstable if she attacked him after that speech, which would rule out any of the cooperation they were hoping to gain from the nobility gathered here.

Ravana and Malivette, to her deep displeasure, shifted subtly to aim their faces toward Natchua, inclining their heads forward slightly in a clear signal that they would defer to her on this matter, exactly when that wasn’t what she needed. Even Trissiny was just watching, silent and intent, but showing no sign she meant to thrust her sword into this. Typical, the one time Natchua wanted her to lash out…

But no. There they stood, having successfully saved face and blunted Mogul’s social attack. And all it had cost was the public agreement of three Duchesses of Great Houses of the Empire, before a notoriously vengeful Hand of Avei who now publicly deferred to their judgment, that the Black Wreath had a valid role to play in the world.

Even the Silver Throne, though it wasn’t bound by anything they said, might hesitate to outright contradict the formal stance of all three Houses, given the relationship between the aristocracy and the Emperor after the post-Enchanter Wars reforms. This would undoubtedly set every minor House represented here to scheming for whatever scraps of advantage they might gain from this, but there was no question at all of any of them openly defying the dictates of Houses Leduc, Dufresne, and Madouri.

Mogul had just goaded her into formally legitimizing his cult.

How many people, now, had warned Natchua that sooner or later her hasty approach was going to backfire? Well, she bitterly reflected, it was probably a blessing that nothing in the process had exploded or gotten anyone killed. Yet.

“Ladies,” she said, putting on a light tone and stalling for time in which to frantically think of a way out of this, “I am, as you know, somewhat new to this position. How would you recommend dealing with an obstinate servant who presumed to disrupt a social event with a petty display of pique?”

“Any such servant would be summarily dismissed, at the very least,” Ravana said, idly swirling her wineglass. “But I suppose that rather puts us back where this started, does it not? Clearly this…individual…needs to be taken in hand. And have his knuckles rapped.”

“Where I am from,” said Xyraadi, “he would lose his left hand for such an affront, and be sent to employ the other one breaking rocks in a quarry.”

“Are you talking about Hell or medieval Glassiere?” Trissiny asked.

The demon paused, tilted her head contemplatively, and then nodded. “I stand corrected. Where I am from, he would be partially flayed and suspended above a bed of tissue-dissolving carnivorous plants until his frame disintegrated too much to be restrained, with a steady stream of healing magics applied to prolong the process and ensure he remained conscious throughout.”

From somewhere nearby came the sound of an unfortunate noblewoman being sick.

“That sounds like rather more time and effort than this is worth,” Malivette said dryly.

Mogul continued to look unperturbed by this line of discussion, even amused, but it had given Natchua the few seconds she needed to hit on an idea. If he wanted to play mind games, she could play mind games.

She took two strides forward, physically separating herself from her allies and coming within a few feet of Mogul, then lifted her chin regally and stared down at him.

“I gather it is considered inadvisable for warlocks to visit Sifan.”

“Oh, indeed, my Lady,” Mogul assured her, grinning. “Do not mistake the indulgence you and I have both received from Ekoi-sensei in these lands for the reaction of the kitsune if we dared set foot on their precious islands. They tend to express their displeasure with even more imagination than Xyraadi, here.” He had the utter gall to wink at the Khelminash, who conjured another fireball and visibly contemplated hurling it at him.

“Then I gather you may be rather ignorant of their culture.”

He shrugged. “I’ll admit that was something of a sticking point in my previous interactions with the esteemed Professor Ekoi. I believe I wrapped my head around the basics, though not with much…nuance.”

Natchua put on a vulpine smile that required little effort at dissembling. “Do you know how a Sifanese retainer delivers a formal apology?”

“If you are suggesting that I open my belly, dear lady, I’m afraid I lack the appropriate ceremonial sword.”

“Oh, no, no,” she assured him with a cold grin. “We both know you haven’t enough guts to spill. No, Mogul. You will kneel. Down on both knees, and then press your forehead to the ground, with your hands palm down in front of you.” She tossed her hair, taking note with malicious satisfaction of the way his smile finally slipped away. “Words are worth nothing; if you are penitent, show me. Prostrate yourself, servant, and when I judge you have made an adequate show of submission to my will, I shall forgive your transgression. This time.”

He stared at her, all amusement gone from his face, and beneath his outrage at the suggestion Natchua could practically sense the wheels turning. There was no such custom in any of the nations of the Empire and never had been. What might be a formal display in Sifan was a grotesque humiliation anywhere in the domain of Tiraas.

This was a battle of social positioning, not magical power; if the price of legitimacy granted by House Leduc and its allies was for the mortal leader of the Black Wreath to debase himself like a slave before its upstart Duchess… Well, that was simply a bad bargain. The Wreath was already down to a shadow of its former strength, and dependent on its dangerous reputation to gather the defiant personalities it needed to rebuild itself. If he did such a thing, in front of an audience which would ensure the story spread to every corner of the Empire by dawn, he would all but place himself and all his followers directly in Natchua’s power. They would have no other hope of being taken seriously, much less support, from any quarter.

There was no way the proud arch-warlock of Elilial would take such a bargain. Staring him down, she allowed her lips to curl further upward even as his scowl deepened. Natchua silently enjoyed watching him suffer on the horns of that dilemma. All his careful scheming, and still she got the better of him!

The timing of what happened next, descending on them just as she dared to think herself victorious, was undoubtedly not a coincidence.

It did not bear her down as the experience had in the past. It appeared not to affect, or even be noted by, any of the others present; Trissiny in particular would have reacted violently, but there was no sign that she, the Duchesses or Xyraadi felt anything, much less so much as a peep from the minor nobility watching this confrontation. Mogul, though… He felt it. She could see it in the sudden stiffening of his shoulders, the way his expression froze. This was only happening to the two of them.

The pressure. The unmistakable sensation of another intelligence looming over them, a mind so vast and powerful that just to be in its presence was to feel one’s own insignificance before the full scope of the universe. For an infinite moment, the silent intelligence of a deity weighed down on Natchua and Embras. Examining, judging.

And then, through its touch upon their minds, there came a clear surge of amusement.

Then the sensation lifted entirely from Natchua, leaving her once again alone in her own thoughts. But not Mogul. He stiffened further until he was nearly vibrating, his whole face clenching with rage as a command was laid upon him—a command he clearly abhorred with his entire being.

But he obeyed it. As Natchua stared in utter disbelief, the leader of the Black Wreath sank to his knees before her. Then bent forward, stretching out his arms toward her feet, and pressed his face to the gravel, causing his hat to slide gracelessly to the side.

Trissiny emitted a strangled sound. Natchua just barely managed not to echo her.

“With the utmost humility,” Mogul said, his voice somewhat muffled by the ground but impressively clear of emotion, “I apologize for my affront, mistress. I beg the opportunity to serve you, in the hope of making amends. Myself and mine are pledged to your cause.”

For the first time, Natchua silently prayed to the patron goddess whose favor she had sworn never to seek.

Oh, you evil cunt. So help me, I will get you for this.

Elilial sent her nothing further, not so much as a vague sensation to show that she’d been listening.

And she, as the Duchess of House Leduc, had to honor her word. Otherwise, her failure to do so would be part of the story spread across the Empire and no one would ever cooperate with her again.

“You are forgiven.” Natchua had to draw on her full store of Narisian reserve to keep her tone expressionless, but she managed. “This time. Be aware that you have fully expended your share of my tolerance, Mogul. If I am forced to correct you again, it will be the last time.” She hesitated, then added grudgingly, “You may rise.”

He did so with far more speed than he had descended, settling his hat back in place atop his bald head and immediately tilting it again to obscure as much of his expression as possible. The remainder showed that his own self-control hung by a thread.

“By your leave, then, my Lady,” Mogul intoned. “I look forward to working with you again.”

Before anyone could comment on the obvious sarcasm, shadows swelled up around him, and then he was gone.

Immediately, a surge of exclamations and the swell of excited chatter erupted from the noble audience all around them. Within the small group still standing around the spot where Mogul had been, Trissiny was the first to speak.

“I cannot believe you just did that.”

“You and me both, sister,” Natchua sighed, then caught herself. Actually, Trissiny of all people she might want to bring into the loop on this, if it was going to be an ongoing thing. Not here and now, though; that conversation called for the assurance of privacy. There were still other elves on the grounds, and also she had been warned that some of the nobility liked to employ expensive arcane charms to snoop on one another’s conversations at social events like this. “It occurs to me, in hindsight, that making him pay for it in humiliation might not make him any easier to deal with in the future.”

“You think so?” Trissiny snapped.

Natchua cleared her throat. “Yes, well. I’m embarrassed to ask you to help clean up my mess, Triss, but… If I understand how this paladin thing works, I think you sort of have to.”

Xyraadi let out a low whistle.

“You understand this is why nobody likes you, right?” Trissiny said, staring at the drow. “Tell me you do get that.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Natchua sighed. “Shall I go ahead and bring you a punchbowl?”

For just a moment, she thought the paladin was going to slug her.

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33 thoughts on “16 – 38

    1. Still think she should have just killed him. The man is such a caricature of smirking, stupid evil tropes pretending to be a functioning being that it wouldn’t even be like killing a real person.

      Hell, I bet even Ellilial would have been okay with that outcome. Leaving that smirking little stain alive to go back spinning webs just because the conversation moved on is more of a Vesk thing to do (and, for all that Mogul claims to worship Ellilial he sure spends more time spinning stories than most bards); cutting him off and shortening his head after he just tried to spin a bunch of plans at her would definitely be more cunning than just letting him get away with it.

      It just sort of gets back to one of my only complaints about this story: for all that civilians and “extras” seem to die in droves, all the time, nobody with a name ever seems to suffer real consequences. Syrix is still around after raping people and murdering others; Mogul and Justinian get away with slaughtering hundreds in Veligrad and Ninkabi; all of it just sort of flows down the river because everyone is too busy building these elaborate stories so they can have casus beli to kill someone who’s an imminent threat.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In all fairness that has a canon explanation in that Araneid (or someone) is manipulating events and probability specifically to tie certain groups together and keep certain individuals.

        I suspect once the whole Great Doom kicks in, that protection will be gone and we’ll start seeing people like Mogul and Syrix experiencing Consequences For Their Actions.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Killing off characters who matter is just plain terrible writing. Just don’t write yourself into a corner you can’t get out of and you won’t have to kill the whole cast just to keep the story moving.

        Like

  1. I could feel this conclusion inching forward with every line and OOOOOOOOOOOOOO boy did the pay off match up to the tension. I loved every second of this chapter. Beautiful

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Will the Plaladins Finaly sit down and Talk? And Embras what were you thinking?! 😀 Well to be fair he Is the punching bag of all character developments lol
    And Nobody will Ever let the Punchbolw go! 😀
    Thx Webb you made my day again

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Personally, I would have just denied any involvement. It’s not like the wreath’s credibility is good enough for most people to believe them anyway. She basically just set herself up to take the blame for any tricks they pull in the future. And while I’m not surprised Natchua would swallow the bait for shortsighted gain, I am that Ravana and Malivette would both back it. Considering they have almost zero actual control over the wreath, despite what they just pretended, that seems like a very poor investment for them. Besides the groveling thing at the end, Mogul is probably pretty pleased with the outcome, and that’s never what you want.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I had to guess, Embras Mogul was not pleased by this. His plan was to try to make Natchua regret her idea of the Black Wreath following her directions. She also laid some pretty damning smack-talk down about Embras Mogul’s competence as the leader of the Black Wreath. Since the whole point of the exercise was to at least make Natchua openly regret trying to command the Black Wreath, and maybe to also trick one of the paladins into violating the pantheon’s truce with Elilial, this is pretty much a straight up loss for him personally and the Black Wreath generally.

      Malivette and Ravana backed Natchua’s decisionmaking here because of the potential reputation damage for appearing to not know what’s going on or what they should do about it. Also, after Natchua displayed her Scyllith-mancy to wreck the chained demon and described the rest of the story she demonstrated local subject competence in the question what was going on, why it was happening, and what else the Black Wreath might do next that the other two couldn’t match. No doubt when they privately discuss the matter later they will complain bitterly about Natchua handing over homework to the Black Wreath without consulting them or anyone else with adequate theological or political competence to tell her it was a questionable idea: Any sane attempt at negotiating a legitimate new role in society for the Black Wreath has to involve more than just her on the not-Wreath side.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I’m not sure about “new role in society”: according to past chapters, the Black Wreath was *always* tolerated in society for pretty much exactly this reason, rather like how the Thieves Guild is allowed to operate near-openly because they cut down on non-Guild crime. This is just giving some actual accountability to the role the Wreath has always claimed as its purview for all of recorded history and has been reneging on for most of the last decade. That’s the problem with legitimacy: now that your job actually exists you actually have to do it.

        One potentially useful consequence of this is that the three paladins now have a totally legitimate excuse to send a proxy in their place to answer Justinian’s summons. If the Black Wreath is making a move to try to legitimize itself then it needs to be followed up on immediately; certainly there’s no time to answer a hasty, imperious demand by a pompous entitled bureaucrat when there’s actual legitimate paladin business to do.

        Liked by 5 people

      2. More fundamentally, Embras and Natchua were having an extended dominance struggle… until the goddess weighed in. We already know she’s the Hand and he’s not, and the Goddess is fine with having the Black Wreath legitimized, as long as there’s someone responsible (yes, Natchua!) to keep them in hand.

        Liked by 3 people

      3. @Eye less1
        There is a long distance between, “We can’t (afford to) exterminate them,” and actual tolerance. The Thieves’ Guild is tolerated in the Tiraan Empire, the Black Wreath are too well hidden, spread, and mobile to make killing them off easy, practical, or even possible in most places that aren’t Sifan. Managing only halfway would probably be worse than not trying in the long term, so they take them as a target of opportunity only, and prioritize non-lethal methods like seizure and indoctrination of their children. The hunting demons part strikes me as a PR spin on being Elilial’s agents trying to limit and respond to unauthorized contact with the human realm, to support her efforts at controlling Hell.

        You’re right that this gives the paladins something more than an excuse for ignoring Justinian’s demand. It remains to be seen what the actual right move is there, or if there even is a choice where Justinian doesn’t get something he wants out of them.

        @Mental Mouse
        All we know at this point is that Embras did the dogeza. We don’t know why, or what Elilial said to him. If I had to guess she told him he’d lost in a contest of cunning against her, that he isn’t allowed to unilaterally break the truce she has with the other gods in her name, and to get it over with and bend down. I am only guessing though, based on the idea that it would be unlikely for Elilial to want people knowing or guessing that Natchua is her paladin.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. > this is pretty much a straight up loss for him personally and the Black Wreath generally.

        A loss for Embras personally, yes, but I see it as a win for the Wreath. Elilial knows the organization needed an overhaul, and now she’s formally installed her paladin at the top of the hierarchy. Whatever Natchua does to make the Wreath useful to her also benefits Elilial now, which is what she’s probably most mad about. I guess Natch could dissolve the Wreath altogether, but in my imagination, Elilial confirmed Natch wasn’t going to do that when she got in Natch & Embras’ heads.

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      5. @Screwfloss
        In the long term you may be right, but in the long term everybody dies. In this situation Natchua made The Black Wreath into an object of mockery even before she went as far as making their nominal leader grovel in the gravel in front of her. Considering how much they rely on the strength of their big, bad, edgy reputation this pretty much finishes them for a long time to come as far as their recruitment, fundraising, and retention of peripheral membership and contacts. It also remains to be seen if Natchua is ready, willing and able to take control of the remnant of a remnant of the Black Wreath that survives this, to invest sufficiently in them, and to build something noteworthy out of the steaming trashpile they’ve been reduced to at this point.

        She probably could build them a nice, cosy barracks and lab in the Leduc property to hide out in, and she may even be able to keep other people from arresting or kidnapping them and their children from that, but what else can she really do for them? I remain to be convinced they’re worth the time, effort and hassle to her to do even that much.

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    2. We might have been seeing some of the first bleedthrough from ellilial to natch. Remember that Hands of Avei get sense evile eradicate it bleedthrough from Avei (Malivette talked about it when she was first introduced) so this could just be Natch responding to some subliminal godly desire to help the Wreath. Granted that’s a rather specific thing and the Avei thing is more general but… maybe?

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    1. Not necessarily. Elilial doesn’t have to explain herself to her High Priest. If she says to kneel, Embras kneels, end of discussion. I think telling Embras about Natchua’s Hand status would “spoil the game”, when Elilial needs them at odds at each other to keep them sharp.

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      1. Well… Elilial may want them “at odds”, but Natchua simply can’t afford to indulge such displays of Embras’ arrogance. I don’t think Elilial told him about the Hand thing, indeed I’d hope not. Considering how even the Pantheon cults have seen direct conflicts between their High Priests and Hands, Natchua is better keeping that ace in the hole.

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    2. Binog and why the comment I made after the last chapter that Embras had screwed up. This was a fight he could never win since Natchua was Elial’s hand picked Paladin and Natchua had already shown that she has way more cunning than Embras.

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  4. “I stand corrected. Where I am from, he would be partially flayed and suspended above a bed of tissue-dissolving carnivorous plants until his frame disintegrated too much to be restrained, with a steady stream of healing magics applied to prolong the process and ensure he remained conscious.”

    …. so is she talking about Hell or medieval fantasy France.

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    1. Well, fantasy-France might be short on carnivorous plants, but Hell might be short on healing magics. 😉

      I just love to death that whole sequence. Xyraadi totally has gone native with the humans! And Malivette’s dry “more trouble than it’s worth”… especiallly pointed as she certainly has other uses for his corpus, and everybody can think of at least one.

      By the way, anybody else notice how neatly they formed into an alpha-bitch triad, with Natchua leading… and Ravana, oddly, junior?

      > “I say, that was a rather prescient strategy,” Ravana said smoothly, herself gliding forward into the fray armed with a wineglass and an aloof smile.

      Ravana is in a peculiar position here — the most powerful politically, but physically and magically, she’s “crunchy and good with ketchup”. She also isn’t in tune with the divine politics here, which is why she sets Natchua up for legitimizing the Wreath.

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      1. I’m mostly sure Scyllith magic in sufficiently skilled and capable hands can be used to perform healing. For one thing it seems to be the power used to make incubi/succubi have physical bodies, and we’ve seen Kheshiri exploit her succubus shape change ability to heal injuries. Also, how would it be capable of causing cancer as a common side effect if it wasn’t able to be used for physical alteration of living beings? Of course it’s Scyllith magic so I would also expect it to be torturous, difficult, treacherous and otherwise horrible at it.

        Torture takes time and effort, and investment in the tools and facilities used too, which all carries opportunity costs of what else could have been done with that time, effort and budget. Really, most assault and torture does not pay back a good profit on the investment unless there’s a lot more to it than just assault and/or torture.

        Perhaps the reason Ravana sets up Natchua for that is because it has already happened. There’s a certain amount of, “fait accompli,” involved in it after the Black Wreath comes back with a hunting trophy as apparent evidence of doing one of Natchua’s tasks. The agreement was that Black Wreath was offered some degree of acceptance for monster hunting of specific problems Natchua detailed in the dossier she handed over. The agreement was lacking in specifics, but it would look bad if Duchess Leduc does not compensate them for services requested and performed.

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  5. I really question the existence of Natchua’s ‘cunning’ sometimes. Where’s the sense in taking potshots at your allies? Asks Triss for a favor with the thieves guild, considers asking her for more help in the near future, and still decides it’s a good idea to take 2-3 jabs at her for no apparent reason. I don’t see any ‘cunning’ there, just poor judgment.

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    1. Nah, the punchbowl jab is a good move. Sure, it’ll make Trissiny grit her teeth, but then she has to make an extra effort to act and seem reasonable to try to undo some of what Trissiny sees as damage from that previous debacle. And it’s not like she’d expect sweetness and light from Natchua.

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