Author’s Note: The next two side stories are set in the summer after the Class of 1182’s freshman year, between Books 7 and 8. They were originally planned to be short story ebook releases, but that ended up never happening and I want them to actually see the light of day, so here they are, belatedly.
In the future I may adjust the chapter links to place them in their right position chronologically for those reading through TGAB in the future. For now, here’s a look back at the early days of the story.
They did not sit in awkward silence, because there was none of that to be had aboard a zeppelin. Wind rushed past the glass surrounding the cockpit, the powerful hum of the propeller thrusters was audible even from up here at the front of the craft, and as always there was an omnipresent multi-tonal hum of arcane magic everywhere from the instrument panels to the wiring in the bulkheads. It was not silent, just awkward.
After years of partnership in marriage, business, and their shared creative work, Geoffrey and Marguerite were simply never awkward with each other. They had that in their favor, at least; awkward spells were always a unified front of the pair against whatever had left them both stymied for something to say.
“Well,” Marguerite finally said after glancing over her shoulder to verify that the hatch between the cockpit and cabin was properly sealed, “she’s…certainly polite.”
“Of course she’s polite!” It was as if the cork had been pulled from a shaken bottle of beer; Geoffrey turned to his wife with a furious scowl, finally releasing his unnecessary death grip on the wheel. “They’re all polite, Rita! It’s all smiling and bowing while they’re kidnapping your son for some inbred darkling’s harem!”
“Are you worried Sheen is going to enslave Teal?” Marguerite replied with a slight smile. “In all honesty I think I would enjoy the aftermath of someone trying that. Surely she knows about Vadrieny by now.”
“You think it’s funny?” he snapped. “You want me to go tell Telimaan how funny it was? Daoud was down there for two years before we managed to lean on the right people and get him out. Did you hear what he went through?”
Marguerite’s smile vanished entirely and she turned to face her husband with a flat stare. “You know very well better, Geoffrey Falconer.”
At that, at least, he looked abashed, lowering his eyes. “Right. I’m sorry, Rita, I know. That wasn’t fair. It’s just…” He gestured helplessly with both arms, a risky move in the tight confines of the cockpit had his wife not known him well enough to have already leaned out of the way in anticipation.
“Geoff,” she said more gently, reaching up to squeeze his shoulder, “it’s the nobles who do that. Not to sound all Eserite, but you can’t blame an entire race of people for what the most powerful of them do. How’d you like it if people’s treatment of you was based on the Duke’s behavior? Look on the bright side: this is still an improvement in Teal’s judgment. Or have you forgotten Lady Hesthia?” She grimaced. “I have not forgotten Lady Hesthia.”
He made an identical expression. “That was more understandable. I would definitely have fallen for the ol’ big-boobs-covered-in-practically-nothing routine when I was a teenager. That you grow out of.”
“Do you?” Marguerite countered in a dangerously wry tone. “Because my experience with men older than you says otherwise.”
“Well, you can,” he acknowledged with a faint grin of his own. “My point is, that’s not something I worry about with Teal. She’s steady enough not to make libido-based life decisions. At least, I’d thought so before this…”
“Geoffrey, Hesthia was in her thirties and transparently angling to make political connections. That woman was a slimy creep and I’m just grateful Teal wised up before I had to go and do something against my principles. This is a completely different situation.”
“Is it?” Geoffrey demanded, again clutching the wheel, which didn’t need his help to hold steady. “You know what they’re like, Marguerite.”
“Geoffrey Falconer, I do not like the sound of straightforward racism out of your mouth.”
“Oh, please, you know very well it’s not about that! We both know enough elves to know that people are just people. I mean they’ll deny it but there’s no ‘strange’ elven behavior anyone else wouldn’t do exactly the same if they’d been raised in that culture. That’s what it’s about, culture!”
“Okay,” she said soothingly, “but Geoffrey, consider your sample bias. We’ve had one employee whose son was the victim of a serious crime in Tar’naris. Have you had any other interaction with the drow? At least have enough faith in our daughter to believe she wouldn’t bring home a criminal or predator.”
“Right, because Lady Hesthia was such a good pick,” he grumbled.
“Oh, now you’re just reaching,” his wife retorted, not without fondness. She slid a hand up his back to ruffle his hair gently. “I won’t say I wasn’t startled. Just give it a chance, Geoff. Give her a chance. She could be a perfectly lovely girl.”
“A perfectly lovely example of someone raised in a society of grasping, murderous raiders! Shane might well be the best of the lot, for all we know, but come on. How much is that worth?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s pronounced Sheen. Look, Geoff, you can look on the bright or the dark side of it all you want—and yes, there are definitely upsides, especially if the girl’s a Matriarch’s daughter—but at the end of the day this is Teal’s choice. Has it been so long since you were nineteen that you’ve forgotten what someone will do if her parents forbid her to see her new object of infatuation?”
“For all the time and effort it took to get somebody out of Tar’naris, it was money well spent. I wonder how hard it is to send somebody back—”
The cockpit shuddered from impact, and before either could react to that, the door was yanked open. Not the hatch behind them, which opened onto a corridor leading to the passenger compartment. The exterior door, opening onto cold wind and a thousand-foot drop.
“HEY!” Vadrieny shouted at them, sticking her face practically into Geoffrey’s while clinging to the frame with all four claws. It was a slightly less aggressive action than it otherwise might have been; she needed to raise her voice to be heard over the howling of the wind around them. Fortunately, Vadrieny had more than sufficient lungs to overcome this challenge. “For a couple of people who’ve had elf friends their whole lives, you two sure are in a hurry to forget to those ears are not just decorative!”
Marguerite and Geoffrey had both been staring in wind-blown shock just beginning to morph into displeasure, but at that, they simultaneously cringed in embarrassment.
“Teal had this carefully planned,” the archdemon continued to lecture them. “She spent weeks working out the best way to introduce you to Shaeine and minimize the shock, but no. You two just had to surprise us all by flying the damn airship to Last Rock like a couple of newspaper caricatures of out-of-touch rich people! Seriously, who flies a zeppelin to school? Is the company that hard up for advertising? Did you think Last Rock was a great expansion market? Or was this a prank to make sure we spend the next three years getting relentlessly mocked?”
Geoffrey gaped at her with a fishlike expression of bemusement; Marguerite had her lips not only sealed but tucked inward and clamped between her teeth.
“So I’m sorry if this has your feathers ruffled,” Vadrieny spat, “but if you’d just done as Teal asked it wouldn’t be this bad, so now we all get to suck it up. If you can manage to show the same manners you raised your daughter to have and not talk shit about Shaeine where she can hear for the rest of this trip, that would be fantastic, but right now I’d settle for making it the rest of the flight home. And now, if you’ll excuse me, apparently we have to go explain Hesthia. So…” She bared her fangs in an exceedingly displeased expression. “Thanks for that.”
Vadrieny let go with three of her claws and used the last to slam the hatch shut as she unfurled her wings and let the wind catch and yank her backward toward the other entry to the passenger compartment. It was suddenly a lot quieter in the cockpit, a relative silence that was a lot less awkward and a lot more stunned.
“Well,” Marguerite managed after a protracted pause, “she sure told us.”
Geoffrey blew out a long breath. “Yep. Kid wasn’t wrong, either.”
“Hey, that’s a positive, right? At least there’s one surprising girl in our daughter’s life who turned out a lot better than we had any right to expect. I’m…you know what, I think Vadrieny has been a really good influence. For a long time I was concerned about how Teal let other girls push her around.” She managed a soft chuckle, shaking her head. “I guess this is at least worth having a daughter who occasionally turns into a flaming fanged monster.”
“Mm.” Geoffrey stared straight ahead out the windscreen toward Madouris in the distance ahead, keeping his expression deliberately neutral. “Not that much different from just…having a daughter, is it?”
Marguerite had to laboriously tug the seat cushion out from under her struggling husband to clobber him with it, but it was worth it.
The Falconer household had been the residence of several noble families over the course of its long life, all various vassals of House Madouri and all either extinct or sufficiently diminished in stature that they could no longer afford such a sizable estate. Or, in the case of its previous owners, sufficiently advanced in stature that they had moved to a palatial mansion in the heart of Madouris itself, feeling that their expanded dignity was too great for such a rambling, eccentric manor. Indeed, the house, though as sizable as most nobles’ mansions, was built on an erratic, improvised plan that was generally difficult to navigate and reflected multiple architectural styles spanning nearly seven hundred years, with its oldest section being a literal castle. A very small one, little more than a fort, but still complete with battlements, arrow loops, and a couple of proper towers; Geoffrey had installed a telescope on one, his wife having talked him down from putting in a vintage siege engine that would have antagonized both the neighbors and the government. The most recent additions were to the grounds: the Falconer family had elven friends who had been invited to make themselves at home, and now the sprawling wings of the estate could be difficult to see from the road through the various groves of trees which filled the grounds.
Altogether it suited the Falconer family perfectly, for many of the very reasons it was no longer considered suitable for most of the noble families who could have afforded such a manor.
Like any edifice which had been the residence of Imperial nobility, the house had a great hall, a grandiose entry chamber which served to formally greet important guests and impress upon them the wealth and power of their hosts. Unlike most, this formal entry was accessible from the main driveway only by going over a small bridge, through a grove of imported cedars, around a long wing of Avenic marble colonnades, down the center of a courtyard lined with dogwood trees and rose bushes, and up a one-story flight of broad stone steps. It was, even for nobles, a little much, especially considering the great hall beyond really wasn’t. Barely twenty feet long, lined with simple wood pillars instead of the traditional stone columns and lit by floating fairy lamps which drifted about just out of reach overhead, the great hall was disproportionately small for such a sprawling manor. Also, its position marked what had originally been a drawbridge, which was why its opposite side from the door terminated in the former exterior wall and main gateway of the old castle, opening onto the former great hall and current indoor garden.
One would, of course, never know the Falconer estate could be considered unusual, much less insufficient, by the reaction to it of Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion.
“Your home is as beautiful as it is impressive, Mrs. Falconer,” the drow said with a deep bow toward Marguerite, after pausing to spend enough time admiring the woodwork that the observation seemed plausibly sincere. “I confess I already feel somewhat at home here. Most places in the Empire seem rather wedded to their stylistic themes; this is the first I have seen which has as much personality as the University. I could almost imagine it being a product of the same mind which designed Clarke Tower.”
“Why, aren’t you sweet!” Marguerite beamed. “I’m afraid we’ve not had the likes of Arachne Tellwyrn to lend a hand to our décor, but I am rather proud of how we’ve made this place our own.”
“I helped,” Geoffrey commented in an uncharacteristically stiff tone. “You may’ve noticed it’s not just the women who do things on the surface.”
Behind Shaeine, Teal bared her teeth at him and pantomimed a strangling motion with both hands.
“Geoffrey, stop pouting before your face freezes that way,” Marguerite chided. “It’s true, Sheen, ours isn’t a matriarchial culture, but as long as my husband insists on being difficult you can feel free to address yourself to me. I’ll smack him later.”
“Shaeine,” Teal enunciated. “It’s an elongated vowel, like the ‘aa’ in Tiraas, but smoothly transitioning in the middle. It sounds trickier than it is; you already speak elvish, Mom, you can pick up Narisian pronunciation before you know it.”
“Please do not discomfit yourself on my account,” Shaeine said smoothly, bowing again. Without straightening up, she extended both hands, offering Marguerite the folded length of dark cloth she had been carefully carrying since disembarking from the zeppelin. “I am grateful for the hospitality offered, and humbled by this household and your benevolence. I dare to hope that this meager token of my thanks may in a small way enhance the splendor of your home.”
“Oh, that’s all right, dear,” Marguerite said hastily, “you didn’t need to—”
Teal shot across the space between them, leaning close to her mother’s ear and gritting out very quietly through clenched teeth, “It’s an important cultural tradition which I will explain later, please take the gift.”
“I guess that’d be one of those things we’d have been properly prepped for if we hadn’t decided to take the zep,” Geoffrey observed, not without humor.
“Well, it was your idea—oh!” Marguerite was distracted from retorting when she focused on the length of folded silk she had just absently taken from Shaeine’s hands, then immediately brought it up to her face to squint through her glasses. “Oh, my, this is… Geoffrey, look at this! The texture…why, this is woven in patterns that—yes, these are pictures! Oh, and the dye, Geoff, just look!”
She very carefully unfolded the silk and held it up to the light; to the human eye in the relative dimness of the hall it might have been taken for a plain black sheet at a casual glance, but it was in fact dyed in intricate patterns of very dark red, blue, and purple, not to mention embroidered in raised patterns of thread with subtly glinted under the fairy lamps.
“Sinit isthr’adh is a Narisian traditional art,” Shaeine explained while Marguerite cooed enthusiastically over the fabric and Geoffrey leaned over her shoulder, studying it with unfeigned interest. “Each color of dye depicts a different scene, overlaying and interconnecting with the others, while the embroidered image in raised thread is another which ties together the narrative and philosophical theme. The intended means of viewing is to study it at length and let the eye focus on the individual images, while the mind contemplates the interplay between them. Some isthr’adh pieces require a grounding in Narisian history or culture to understand the references, but I selected a design I thought would be more broadly accessible. Teal has described you as an artist; I hoped you would enjoy a cultural expression that might be new to you.”
“Oh, but you thought so very right,” Marguerite all but squealed. “This is the most beautiful thing! Omnu’s breath, the skill that went into—look at this dye work! Why, these threads were woven into it in that order to… Oh, my stars, Shayeen, what an absolutely gorgeous piece. I can’t thank you enough! Teal is right, I definitely enjoy meeting a new form of art. And that’s probably the kindest way she’s ever described me,” she added with a wry glance at her daughter.
“Mom, you named me after a color.”
“A pretty color. Be glad I was over my Glassian phase; you could’ve been called Chartreuse.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
Shaeine was smiling now, with as much genuine warmth as Narisian manners permitted in public. “She did say you had designed the stained glass in this very hall. I do note a preference for blue-green hues.”
“Hah!” Marguerite gave her a delighted grin. “Would you care to guess how old Teal was before she made that connection?”
“I have been asked not to embarrass her unduly while, as she put it, ‘they have that job covered,’” Shaeine said solemnly. “May I?”
“Oh, please!” Marguerite gestured enthusiastically toward the north wall of the great hall and the drow glided over to it to examine the glass up close. She started to follow, then hesitated and leaned over toward Teal, murmuring as softly as she could, “How’d I do?”
Teal wrapped an arm around her mother in half a hug, replying in the same tone. “She wouldn’t expect you to know the Narisian formalities, or perform them in your own home. The guest gift to the matron of a house is important in her culture. Anyway, you can’t go wrong by gushing over a present.”
“Well, I wasn’t faking, this is the most stunning piece I’ve seen in ages. I definitely see what she meant; I’m going to have to spend some time just looking once I’ve got it properly displayed. I’ll find a place in—no, what am I saying? This is a centerpiece, it deserves to have a suitable setting designed around it. Geoffrey, what do you think about… Geoff?”
The man of the house had been handed a letter by one of the servants not engaged in bringing Teal and Shaeine’s baggage in, and was now staring at it with a truly thunderous expression, the expensive-looking paper creasing in his grip.
“Oh,” Teal said in resignation, “isn’t that House Madouri stationary?”
“You better believe it,” Geoffrey grated. “We have been invited to dine with his Grace the Duke. Tonight.”
“An honor,” Shaeine said neutrally, drifting back over to them. She remained poised as ever, but could not mess the tension that had suddenly gripped all three Falconers.
“Is this…the sort of invitation we can beg off?” Marguerite asked warily. “Teal just got home, and with Shaeine…”
“Oh, he knows,” Geoffrey spat. “Teal and her ‘guest’ are mentioned. No, love, I don’t think this is one of those optional invitations.”
“How did he know?” Teal demanded.
“The University campus is quite secure,” Shaeine observed, “but Last Rock itself would not be difficult to keep under observation. I surmise that several political forces and newspapers within the Empire do so. Apparently there was an episode last year when several of them annoyed Professor Tellwyrn. Please forgive my ignorance, but I did not realize a Duke had the authority to command people to his presence?”
“Well, there’s authority and then there’s authority,” Geoffrey said bitterly, folding up the letter with little regard for its original creases. “There are things they can order because the law gives them that explicit prerogative, and things they can order because they can make your life unbearably difficult if they feel slighted.”
“Ah,” she said, nodding in total comprehension.
“It doesn’t matter,” Marguerite interjected in a firm tone, clutching the tapestry protectively to her chest. “You’re our guest, Shayeen. I’ll not have you forced to dance for that man’s amusement.”
“Yeah, I should warn you that this is a trap,” Geoffrey added. “The Duke is… Hon, what’s a polite way to put it?”
“He’s a big enough asshole that the stick up his doesn’t even slow him down,” Marguerite said primly. Teal made a choking noise.
“That about sums it up, yeah,” Geoffrey agreed, grinning at his wife. “His Grace likes swinging his…um, authority around. Usually at us; he seems to feel personally slighted by FI’s success. Any time he does something like this, it means he’s planning to pull something squirrely before it’s over. If we’re very lucky the whole plot is just to inflict embarrassment on us. Rita’s right, you’re a guest of our family and Teal’s girlfriend. I’ve put up with a lot from that man; I’m not going to have him start in on you as well.”
“I am grateful for the sentiment,” Shaeine answered with a gentle smile. “I urge you not to risk House Madouri’s censure on my account, however. It may be an unplanned diversion, but I confess I am rather intrigued by this invitation.”
Marguerite and Geoffrey exchanged a long look.
“It’s kind of you to think of us,” Marguerite said, “but…”
“Allow me to be more plain,” said Shaeine, nodding deeply toward her. “There are politics, of course, and on that point I am inclined to defer to your judgment and familiarity with the situation. If it comes down to it, I have the prerogative to invoke the strictures of international relations. I can easily make a case that to meet with an Imperial Duke without my mother’s oversight exceeds my diplomatic mandate. However, would I be correct in surmising that his Grace would vent his frustration at such a maneuver on you?”
“That’s not something you need to worry about,” Geoffrey said firmly. “He’s going to vent something on us, one way or another. I don’t mind at all getting to tweak his nose out of the bargain.”
“That being the case, I reaffirm that I would like to attend,” the drow said, smiling more broadly.
Teal cleared her throat. “Mom, Dad, you know I respect your intelligence…”
“Oh, nothing complimentary ever follows that setup,” Marguerite said, giving her daughter a long look.
“But,” Teal continued doggedly, “we are none of us the most socially adroit or cunning people.”
“It’s true,” Geoffrey acknowledged. “Those are rather famously not gifts of the Falconer clan.”
“Shaeine, however,” said Teal, turning to the priestess with a proud smile, “is a professional diplomat.”
A contemplative pause descended.
“Sometimes,” Shaeine said pleasantly, “the greatest retribution one can have against a person who is determined to be hostile is to skillfully deprive him of any excuse for hostility. Powerful as he may be, an individual of the higher nobility in any culture lives and dies by social perception. If it could be arranged, for example, that his Grace the Duke is left with no cause to acceptably express anything but satisfaction with the Falconer family and have his blood pressure elevated to dangerous levels in the process, would you perhaps find that…amusing?”
Geoffrey and Marguerite exchanged another married look at that, both of them having to visibly repress smiles. Marguerite, at least, sobered quickly.
“Amusing, yes, but… Shayeen, honey, we may be rich enough that a Duke isn’t all that dangerous to us, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to poke at him unnecessarily.”
“He is poking at us,” Teal protested. “As usual!”
“You have expressed a laudable determination not to allow a guest under your roof to suffer even a minor indignity,” Shaeine said. “I relate strongly to that sentiment. Not simply out of guesthold honor, or consideration for politics. Marguerite, Geoffrey… I realize that I am not only a stranger to you, but an unexpected one, and perhaps an alarming thing to have suddenly dropped into your lives. I hope to earn a measure of affection and trust, but that inevitably takes time. What matters in this moment is that you are Teal’s family, and…” She hesitated the merest fraction of a second before voicing something which would not have been acceptable in her own household. “And I love Teal dearly. Where I am from, we do not suffer those we love to be put upon.”
“Well,” Geoffrey mused, studying her with a new interest, “that’s…a starting point, then, isn’t it? Because that is definitely one thing we have in common.”