16 – 41

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The subterranean Temple of Vidius was a veritable warren, designed to confuse those who had no business there. It was such a typically Vidian approach, creating needless complication which they themselves could navigate with ease while everyone else fumbled to keep up. So ingrained was the habit that they did it even in cases like the design of their main temple, where it caused more nuisance than benefit. Of course, there were areas where outsiders were not welcome, and others still in which secrecy and privacy must be upheld, but there were far less convoluted ways of achieving that end. It wasn’t as if anyone could just bumble in off the street and right into the High Commander’s office, or the chamber of the Dawn Council. Vidians just preferred to watch people chase their tails rather than go to the in-person effort of keeping them out.

It was not lost on Justinian that of the three temples in which the paladins could have chosen to meet him, they had selected this one.

Justinian’s estimation of the paladins’ abilities had steadily risen during the short trip here from the Grand Cathedral, when he had found himself with a considerable audience for his own passage to the Temple and been informed by Ravoud that evidently the trio had created that by riding all the way here from the city gates in a procession. Even at midnight, the passage of paladins had brought a crowd, who were still milling about in Imperial Square, discussing what they’d seen. Now, they had something further to discuss, and the Archpope had been seen emerging from his own citadel of power to follow them. Truly, what clever children—and how well they had diversified their skills in just a few years! They had certainly not learned that from Tellwyrn.

He had been required to leave behind Ravoud and his escort of Holy Legionaries, to the former’s vivid displeasure, but Justinian had soothed him and proceeded deeper into the temple accompanied by Bishop Raskin. It had never been the job or within the authority of the Archpope to make demands of the Pantheon’s member cults, particularly within their own temples.

Besides, this was not that kind of game.

They arrived, eventually, at a door which was suitably large and ornate to fit the gravity of the occasion, once Justinian no longer had a clear idea where exactly the twists and turns of their descent had brought them. Raskin stepped to one side and bowed deferentially.

“They await within, your Holiness.”

“Thank you very much for escorting me,” Justinian said, inclining his head in courtesy. “I hope I have not inconvenienced you too greatly, given the hour.”

“Nonsense, your Holiness, we are all here to serve the gods. I shall stand ready to return you to your soldiers when your business is concluded. Please feel no need to rush; I have plenty of time.”

“The courtesy is appreciated, my friend,” said the Archpope with a benevolent smile which Raskin returned. Neither felt any need to allude to Raskin’s planned denouncement of him tomorrow. It was such a pleasure to work with someone who understood how the game was played.

The door had no handle, but opened when Justinian placed a hand against it, swinging slowly under the effect of an obvious charm. He stepped through and, untouched, it drifted shut behind him. Even its gentle motion produced a resonant boom when it fell flush with the wall again, simply due to its size and weight.

The chamber beyond was circular, with a sunken floor reached by three steps which wrapped around the room and formed a mosaic at the bottom. Rather than the mask-and-scythe sacred sigil of Vidius, it was the much older symbol of duality the cult liked to use, a circle divided by a sinuous line to form two teardrop shapes, black and white, wrapped around each other. This one also had smaller circles within the bigger shapes, showing the alternate colors to symbolize the essence of light and darkness found within one another.

Around the walls, in the upper tier atop the stairs, were three alcoves at right angles, forming a cross intersecting the room with the door at the fourth point. Chairs had been set in these, backlit by fairy lamps in floor stands, and in each chair was seated a paladin, staring down at him.

Justinian had to smile at how neatly they had reversed his planned trick of positioning. There was nothing for it but to step forward and stand in judgment before their collective eyes. He did have to wonder why the Vidians even had a room like this; they obviously went in for dualistic symbolism, and this was too perfectly arranged to have three parties convened around a single target. Most likely the chamber had some use in their secretive ritual magic. It would be just like Gwenfaer to repurpose such a thing on the fly just to help these three put him at a symbolic disadvantage.

He nodded his head again, just enough of an inclination to denote respect and courtesy without implying submission. In rank, an Archpope and a paladin related closely, hence this opening struggle over positioning.

“I am grateful to you for agreeing to meet with me,” he said aloud, “and apologize for the hour and notice. You are most courteous to be so accommodating.”

“We are all here to serve the gods, after all, your Holiness,” Toby said in an ironic echo of Raskin. “How can we help you?”

“It has come to my attention,” he said, “that you three are spearheading an effort to withdraw your cults from the Universal Church.”

“Full withdrawal isn’t on the agenda,” Gabriel clarified. “Nothing so permanent. But yeah, the Thieves’ Guild is still part of the Church, merely withholding its presence in protest. We feel they’re owed some solidarity.”

“In the case of the Sisterhood of Avei,” Trissiny added in a particularly sharp tone, “the same position is not voluntary on our part. After months of needless and petty obstreperousness, you now have the gall to begrudge us formalizing the position in which you have placed us?”

“I understand your position,” Justinian said smoothly. “The ebb and flow of politics inevitably causes some affront. I have asked you to attend me in order to request that you abstain from this measure, and of course, Trissiny, it is at the very least fair to offer concession in turn. I understand you have brought Nandi Shahai to the capital to step into the role of Bishop? Her performance in the role was most satisfactory; I would be glad to confirm her.”

“Too little, too late,” she retorted. “I see no need to offer you the chance to sign off on what you can’t stop from happening.”

“Not to mention that this says nothing about why our cults should accept your proposal,” Gabriel added.

“All of which is ultimately beside the point,” said Toby. “We have not done this lightly or without reason, your Holiness. Your long-standing pattern of behavior has demanded a check upon your ambitions. Even if you were willing to offer the true scope of concessions it would take to make your request acceptable, you’ve brought us to a place in which we would be foolish to believe your assurances.”

“You want to stop this from happening?” Trissiny said, raising her chin. “Resign your position as Archpope. I’m reasonably confident I can persuade High Commander Rouvad to accept that compromise.”

“I’m sure you don’t need me to specify that such a measure is not on the table,” Justinian said gently, still smiling.

The Hand of Avei shrugged, armor rasping softly. “Then it would seem we have nothing to discuss.”

“Why did you come here?” Gabriel asked, leaning forward intently. “You can’t have thought asking nicely was going to get this dropped. I know you’re way too intelligent to think everything you’ve done would be forgiven that easily.”

“Well,” Justinian replied, widening his smile in acknowledgment, “there is the fact that the very act of reaching out to you positions me favorably for the next round.”

“Snowe mentioned that,” Toby said noncommittally.

“Ah? She must think well of you, then. Branwen usually tries to conceal her intelligence from casual acquaintances.”

“We’ve seen a bit too much of her to buy it,” Gabriel observed, “even before Ninkabi.”

“That was only one reason, though,” the Archpope said with a more serious expression. “I expect you three of all people to understand the greater. There are some things that simply must be attempted, even if the attempt is inherently futile, merely because they are right. If a destructive conflict might be averted by talking… How can the impossibility of coming to an accord justify foregoing the conversation?”

“You’re a fine one to talk about justification,” Trissiny whispered. “We know what you did at Ninkabi. And at Veilgrad.”

“If you plan to accuse me of something, I do hope you are prepared to furnish compelling evidence,” Justinian said, serene.

“Oh, let’s not play that game,” Gabriel snorted with a wave of his hand. “We know, you know we know, we know you know we know, and your ability to cover your trail to a reasonable extent is only more antagonizing. How’d you get past the dreadcrawlers?”

He was far too adept at concealing his expression to react overtly, save with a convincing little lift of his eyebrows to convey confusion. “The what?”

“It was a nice gesture, chipping the limestone off the plaque,” Gabriel continued, eyes intent on Justinian’s. “Obviously not useful or necessary for anything, but…nice. I have a hard time squaring that with, y’know, everything else.”

“You will doubtless find this a humorous statement,” Justinian said, “but I am a nice person.” Indeed, Trissiny and Gabriel both made derisive noises. “A good person…I think not. One tries, but no. Too many hard choices cost me the right to make that claim long ago.” He paused, tilting his head fractionally. “I am not certain to what you refer, Gabriel, but I would like to think I’d take the time to show a small kindness if I could, no matter what else might be going on. Doubtless that was not the impression Eserion wished you to acquire when he took to sending you down into dank holes. Be wary, my young friends, of anyone who guides you on a journey. They are well positioned to determine what beliefs you acquire along the way.”

They were good, he noted. Not great, but they were inexperienced and learning. All three faces went impressively blank, revealing nothing. Had they been better, they would have looked confused rather than revealing they were hiding something. As it was, all he gathered was that he’d landed a point. They had not known he’d known about Eserion’s meddling. Perhaps it was for the best that this confrontation came before the trio gained more experience. Trissiny and Gabriel, at least, had the training to avoid such blunders, they only lacked the practice.

“Unfortunately,” he continued in their silence, “the other and most important reason I requested this meeting is no longer a possibility. You have—quite cleverly, I might add—succeeded in positioning us to your advantage, with the regrettable side effect that I cannot now risk revealing too much, as I am no longer in surroundings I can control. There are doubtless few if any places in this temple where words cannot be overheard, to say nothing of your valkyrie friends, Gabriel. The necessary security of my position limits my options here. Had you met me in the Cathedral as I asked, I intended to tell you everything.

They stared at him in impassive silence.

Then Gabriel grinned, mockingly. “Bullshit.”

“Well, not everything,” Justinian allowed. “Forgive me, it seems I succumbed to hyperbole. There are a great many things you should and deserve to know, but some secrets are simply too dangerous to reveal. There are truths protected by the existence of divine magic itself, things which result in a person being instantly struck to death by the gods if they learn too much. I enjoy protection, but it is granted to me, not achieved by my own works, and I cannot extend it to others.”

He spread his hands at waist height in a silent gesture of apology.

“Perhaps the gods would protect you, but I deemed the risk too great. I can work with your cooperation, or I would not come here to ask it. My plans were made around the assumption you would oppose me. The one thing I cannot accept is your destruction, my friends. I will not risk your lives, not over something as simple as a secret.”

Gabriel’s grin widened until it was an overt threat, exactly the kind of wolfish rictus which had been the last sight of many a person who pushed Arachne Tellwyrn too far. That was undoubtedly where he’d learned it.

“You, sir, are talking out your ass. ‘Oh, I would totally have told you everything if you’d just come to my own center of power.’ Please tell me you don’t actually think we’ll believe that. Because that would be insulting.”

“And why not?” Justinian asked with a mild smile. “Because I am obviously manipulating you? Lies are limited tools, Gabriel, and prone to twisting in the hand that wields them. If you would control what people think, you must learn to use the truth with skill, not suppress it. Any of your Vidian brethren could explain that much.”

“It’s irrelevant,” Toby said firmly. “The powers and influence you wield are well beyond those granted to an Archpope. We would be foolish to march into your own citadel.”

“And that’s the summation of all of this,” Trissiny said, her voice bitter. “The Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church is not safe for paladins of the Pantheon. Can you not see how you’ve corrupted, twisted everything, Justinian? But no, if you were willing to unleash the kind of death and destruction you have on innocents, you wouldn’t balk from that.”

“So you would think,” he whispered. “I admit to none of your accusations, but it should strain no one’s credulity to state that I have blood on my hands and wrongs to my name. One cannot exist in a position of power and not be so stained. I assure you of this much: I feel the weight of every one of my crimes.”

“And you will be brought to justice for them,” she swore, glaring down at him. “One way or another.”

Justinian nodded deeply. “That is my ultimate intent, yes. That certainty alone keeps me going. I could not maintain the strength to do what must be done if I were not sure that the balance would come for me in the end. All my plans aim at that conclusion.”

“Why do all this?” Toby asked. “Or, let me guess, is that the thing you can’t afford to tell us where the Vidians might hear?”

“I don’t fear the Vidians learning the truth about the gods,” Justinian said, shaking his head. “If I meant them ill, I would tell them. No…someday, everyone will know the truth. Know what they did. A great doom is coming, and with it…the rules will change. They will no longer be able to hide.”

“Is that really all it comes down to?” Gabriel asked, leaning back in his seat. “You’re mad about some secret? How much destruction are you willing to cause just because you hate the gods?”

“You won’t be so cavalier when you learn the truth,” Justinian sighed. “But no. I don’t hate them. I did, I think, when I first stumbled upon the secret myself. The horror of it is just too… And yet, the very fact of resolving myself to right that ancient wrong has changed my perspective. I’ve come to understand what it means, to choose between evils, to accept a terrible wrong in order to avert a greater one. I have…sympathy, now, for them. They could not do what was right, so they did what they thought best. I still think their choice was the wrong one, but having been there myself, I am no longer able to judge them for it. Now, there is only rectification of what was done. And ultimately, the only redemption possible. For them, and for me. Only then, finally, will everyone be free of this ancient sin.”

“None of that means anything,” Trissiny said harshly. “You can stand there muttering bout secret sins all you want, but you can’t even furnish an accusation! Even if you could, after what we know you’ve done, there’s no chance we’d take your word over the gods’.”

“How certain are you,” he asked with a sad little smile, “that you know what you know?”

Gabriel shook his head, then looked at each of his comrades in turn. “Well. I think we’re pretty much done here.”

“There doesn’t seem anything more to be gained,” Toby agreed softly.

“Past time,” Trissiny spat.

Golden light rose around all three of them, shining out from their respective alcoves and overwhelming the glow of the fairy lamps. This was more than just the summoning of divine magic, however. With the light came pressure, the personal invocation of awesomely powerful entities, and suddenly the spacious ritual chamber was very cramped indeed, as the personal attention of the three greatest deities of the Pantheon was summoned onto that spot.

“You can spin whatever lies you like, Justinian,” Trissiny declared, her voice echoing, “but we know what you did, and what you are. And now, so shall they.”

Justinian bowed his head. “Your servant stands ever at the ready, to carry out the will of the gods when it is revealed.”

For a moment, all was silent as the immense force of their regard fell upon him. Vision seemed to shift and falter, each paladin’s aspect being simultaneously just their own, and that of another being entirely, and also everything in between. For long moments, it seemed the lines between mortal and deity were blurred.

But when they spoke, it was as themselves, out of the air itself and not through the lips of their mortal anchors.

“Well done,” Omnu’s warm and deep voice pulsed in the very stones around them, “good and faithful servant.”

“Keep faith, Archpope of the Universal Church,” said Avei, a resonant alto that seemed to come from within the hearts of those listening as much as it vibrated through the air. “The times grow ever darker. It falls to you to bring the light to our people.”

Vidius said nothing, simply conveyed a must surge of approval that washed over all of them.

“My thanks,” Justinian said softly, then raised his head. He met Gabriel’s eyes while he spoke, keeping his own expression utterly calm in contrast to the boy’s increasing shock. “Now go back to sleep, you tired old things.”

On command, their presence faded, leaving the four mortals alone once more in the chamber.

“Well. That’s unfortunate.”

The deadly calm of Trissiny’s voice was his only warning. For a woman in full armor, she could move with astonishing speed, and uncanny silence; Justinian barely raised a wall of divine light in time to deflect the sword that had nearly plunged into his throat. A pulse of energy sent her staggering backward, but she immediately lunged forward again, ramming her blade into the barrier.

Gabriel launched himself forward in the next moment, whipping out his gnarled black wand and extending it to full scythe form even as he brought it down in an overhead swing. The tip of the blade impacted the sphere of power surrounding the Archpope, which rippled under the pressure. Not, in fact, the pressure, but the nature of that all-destroying valkyrie weapon. It was hungry, its nature seeking the annihilation of whatever it touched.

Under that force, the shield rippled…and stilled. Justinian turned a cold shoulder to Trissiny’s repeated and ineffectual hammer blows upon his shield, once again meeting and holding Gabriel’s gaze as the scythe of death just rested there, seemingly impotent.

That was when he felt the pressure again from his left, the consciousness of Omnu pushing down on him. Justinian’s connection to the cosmic entities which now called themselves gods was of course not the same as that which the paladins had, a thing of ancient machines, attunement of vast energy fields, and meditative disciplines of his own devising. But he had done that work years ago, otherwise he would never have risked coming here. Shaking his head, he simply directed his will back into the staid, mechanistic intelligence of the god, as he had before.

This time, it did not bend. Someone else was pushing on Omnu’s very being, commanding the god to think in a certain way. Someone with a far more powerful connection to him than Justinian had.

He turned, staring to Tobias Caine, who simply stood in evident serenity before his chair, hands folded. He was not straining, or fumbling; this was no last desperate attempt, but the execution of a feat he already knew how to do. Something he had clearly done before.

Well, that answered some of Justinian’s lingering questions about Ninkabi. More immediately, it raised the first actual danger to himself he had faced in many years.

The Archpope acted decisively, before Omnu’s will could fully coalesce under Toby’s direction. The pulse of divine energy which surged outward from him threw all three paladins bodily backward, even as a second blast was drawn in the opposite direction—not crushing them between the two, but cushioning the force, to prevent them from being dashed physically against the stone walls behind their alcoves.

It was at the exact moment of that impact that he unleashed a subtler surge of the Light, snapping directly into their minds and severing their own workings. All three divine auras winked out, along with the golden wings fanning behind Trissiny—and, most importantly, Toby’s immediate connection to his god.

Many knew that mind magic was the province of the divine, but relatively few bothered to study it. Those crafts were difficult and incredibly dangerous, and suppressed when not outright prohibited by many of the Pantheon cults. Despite the intricacy of most mental workings, it was actually fairly easy to disrupt a spellcaster’s focus on any magical working they sought to perform, if you knew how. The real trick in using the mind snap was to time it exactly with a physical attack and give no outward sign that anything else had been done. Most people would naturally assume their concentration had been disrupted by the bodily impact and fail to realize you had done anything else, and thus, fail to develop a defense against the mental attack they never realized had been used.

Justinian shoved them back and forth with a series of outward and inward pulses of powerful kinetic force, rattling all three and causing their own divine shields to collapse, before finally depositing them none too gently into their seats in the alcove. Then, finally, quiet restored itself in the chamber as the three rattled paladins stared down at him.

After a moment, he deliberately let his aura drop, leaving the room in the dimmer light of the surviving fairy lamps. Two had been knocked over, one of which had shattered.

“Now that we have established beyond doubt that you pose me no physical threat,” he said, calm as ever, “there is something I need you three to understand: I have nothing for you but admiration. I urge you to remain committed to doing what you believe is right, with all the courage and ingenuity you can muster. If that must put us at cross-purposes, so be it. The one thing you must not do is give up. Despair is a sin, my young friends—perhaps the ultimate sin. So long as we aspire to do and to be more, so long as we look out on the world and see not only what is but what could be, we are doing justice to the only thing that makes us more than brute beasts.”

He bowed once, as they just stared at him in shock and confusion.

“Thank you for meeting with me. We shall doubtless speak again. Until then.”

They didn’t speak, or even get up, as he turned and glided back the way he had come to the door, which had handles on this side. The silence remained behind him even as the door boomed shut again, sealing them back in the trap he had just sprung and walked away from.

“Your Holiness,” Bishop Raskin said, bowing. Apparently the man had just stood there by the door, as patient as any Butler. “I trust your meeting went well.”

“A most fruitful discussion, your Grace,” Justinian replied, nodding to him. “You have my thanks for waiting. I fear I must call upon your aid to find my way back out.”

“No imposition at all, your Holiness, that’s why I am here. This way, if you please.”

While he followed the Bishop back toward his men and the surface, Justinian kept his face serenely calm, and furiously planned.

He had never really hoped for an accord with the paladins, and was not exactly certain whether the seeds he had attempted to plant with that conversation had properly taken root. It seemed their plan would proceed starting tomorrow, and the true endgame would begin. He was…as ready as could reasonably be expected. Obviously it would have been ideal for him to set the timing himself, but one could not ask too much.

The biggest concern by far was Toby. How had he learned to do that? It could ruin everything, and it was far too late in the game for such a disruptive new element. Worse, he could not even remove the threat; without Tobias’s prodding, nothing would shift the Omnists into action, and Justinian needed them on the move along with everyone else when the moment came. Toby had to be alive and active to the end. His cult wouldn’t even seek revenge if he murdered the boy in the middle of Imperial Square.

So he walked, and already began plotting new measures. He had come too close to be thwarted now.

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16 – 40

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“Altogether, a successful evening,” Ravana declared.

If the night wasn’t technically over, it was getting there. In truth, it wasn’t much past midnight, and an event like this wouldn’t truly stagger to a halt until after dawn, but by this point in the party it wasn’t so much a single party as several dozen smaller ones. Many of the guests were thoroughly drunk, on both the alcohol Malivette had provided and various other substances they’d brought themselves. Natchua wasn’t very well-versed in drugs, though she could of course recognize the several people sprawled out in blissful glittershroom highs, both in relatively private corners and…not so much. Several individuals had been courteously but firmly escorted from the grounds by guards due to manic behavior that Ravana explained resulted from cocaine. This, it seemed, was a substance popular among the nobility and virtually unavailable to anyone else. Natchua had already resolved to find out if there was any hidden away in House Leduc’s vaults and if so, dump it in a fire. She was still Narisian enough to hold nothing but contempt for those who hid from their problems in a fog of intoxication.

Aside from pickling themselves in whatever their brine of choice was, guests were taking advantage of Malivette’s private rooms—and shrubbery, and under the chestnut tree in her rear garden, and in a nearby toolshed—in groups of between two and five, many leaving trails of hastily abandoned clothing to their various hiding spots. Natchua, and presumably Malivette, had to politely ignore a lot of intimate noise they couldn’t escape hearing.

She was doubly glad that Leduc Manor was still in such an incomplete state that she could not reasonably have offered to host the party there.

“Is it always going to be like this?” she demanded once the three Duchesses had convened upon the widow’s walk atop Dufresne Manor for a private chat.

“Oh, don’t expect it to be nearly this easy most of the time,” Malivette replied.

“Easy?!”

“These are the lower nobility,” Ravana explained, one of her little almost-smirks hovering about her mouth as usual. “The more ambitious among them are rather clever; it is to them I referred when calling this event a success. We have established influence, which can be parlayed into practical benefit as they come to us for further opportunity. They, however, are the minority; most of these are the sons and daughters of actually clever ancestors who made something of themselves so that their descendants could spend money managed by servants who deserve it better. Things will indeed be very different when you begin to interact with the higher nobility—our actual peers. The movers and shakers of Imperial politics are as ruthless as any Narisian.”

“I suspect you don’t know what you’re saying,” Natchua murmured, staring down at the party grounds on which a handful of well-dressed bodies were sprawled, “but I take your point.”

“If anything, they’re worse,” said Malivette. “Narisians are ruthless because they’re from a low-resource environment which requires them to be. Imperial nobles are monsters by choice, for the sheer love of power. But don’t worry, we’re still the bigger monsters; there’s nothing to be gained and a lot of risk in coming after us. Complacency remains a killer, ladies, but as of now, the game is ours to lose.”

“By the way, I’ve been busy talking to my…new fan club,” Natchua grimaced. A number of fashionable young nobles had been quite taken with her handling of the Wreath’s leader early in the evening. They were witty and closer to her own age than most of the party guests, but she suspected, not very useful political contacts. Still, she hadn’t wanted to be rude, and so had indulged their interest. Not any of the several invitations to bed she’d received, but the conversation at least. “I’ve sort of lost track of who’s still here. Are we private up on the roof? There were at least a few individuals who have means…”

“The elves left early on,” said Ravana, “and the rest of the Last Rock contingent departed about an hour ago. I loaned my wizard to the three Hands for rapid transportation to Tiraas, and Bishop Darling gave Fross and Juniper a ride back to Madouris. A perk of rank is the ability to charter a Rail caravan even at this ungodly hour. Speaking of which, Vette, I give it about fifty fifty odds Veilwin will ‘misinterpret’ my instructions and not return to collect me. I can, of course, get my own caravan, eventually…”

“Pish tosh, nobody wants to deal with Imperial functionaries at the end of a long day, much less rattle about in that infernal contraption,” Malivette said airily. “I’ll be only too glad to host you overnight. Rest assured, the best rooms are thoroughly sealed off from the rabble.”

“I deeply appreciate your hospitality.”

“Least I can do. So yeah, we can consider this a private moment, finally, in which to talk.” The vampire turned her red eyes upon Natchua and grinned a little too broadly. “What’s a good topic… Oh, I know! How about all the surprises you are so full of suddenly, Natch?”

“I am sorry about that mess,” she said, grimacing. “That was a real cute trick Mogul pulled. In hindsight, I think I was pretty overconfident not to see something like this coming, the way he’s been hanging around…”

“Oh, pff.” Malivette waved a hand. “That wasn’t a bother, I thought you handled him well, and it’s not like you hadn’t kept me updated about his stalking. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but don’t let yourself believe that is in any way put to bed; I suspect you finally found a way to piss him off even more than you did by killing his friends. But no, Natchua, I was in fact referring to your brilliant idea to restock my city with Eserites.”

“Didn’t we already settle this?” Natchua said mildly. “I thought we all came to a satisfactory arrangement with his Grace.”

“Oh, yes, because obviously I’m going to tell an Eserite right to his face I don’t want him around after I went to all the trouble of cleaning up my city enough that they bloody well left. Listen here—”

“Malivette, really,” Ravana interjected in a soothing tone. “They’re not so very troublesome unless you intend to do the sort of thing which antagonizes them, and I thought we were in agreement that such practices are unhealthy for the economy anyway. Truly, so long as you don’t plan to abuse your subjects, having Eserites about is quite beneficial. I find they save me a bundle on law enforcement and they are fabulous for clearing out entrenched corruption. The Vernisites like seeing them around, too, which is a further economic boon.”

“I am less bothered by the Eserites than by the fact that I suddenly have to deal with them,” Malivette complained. “Surprise thieves are about as much fun as surprise rats. Nobody who deposits either on my front steps is getting a grateful smile from me!”

“Come now, I know you didn’t agree to include Natchua in this in the expectation we would be able to control her. A certain amount of indulgence should be extended, to say nothing of a measure of resignation toward the…unexpected. But you,” she added, turning a stern look on Natchua, “ought to keep in mind that springing surprises upon your allies will cost you in the long run if you make it a habit. It’s not as if you have any to burn.”

“I don’t take you lightly,” Natchua assured them both. “And it’s not as if we’re at cross-purposes. Any time I feel the need to trip you up, you can be assured it’s over a matter of principle. Nothing else would be worth it.”

“Your principles are…vague,” Malivette said skeptically.

“Well, then, you get the satisfaction of figuring me out,” Natchua replied with a saccharine smile. The vampire just wrinkled her nose. “Anyway, with that settled, isn’t there anything more important we should be doing right now? We haven’t said so explicitly, but at this point it’s unambiguous that the three of us and our Houses are set against whatever it is Justinian is cooking up.”

“After Ninkabi, any but the most cravenly opportunistic are set against him,” Ravana replied, her voice gone cold. “He has slithered as usual into the gap between what we can reasonably assume he has done and what can be proven in a court of law, and skillfully leveraged his own propaganda apparatus to keep broad public opinion on his side. But even in that, the cracks are forming. The Veskers are refusing to aid his public relations, and my own papers have significantly eroded Church support in Tiraan Province in the last few months.”

“I think our next business lunch should focus on that,” said Malivette. “I confess, it’s not a tactic I would have thought to employ. I’m quite interested in learning from your techniques, Ravana.”

“I shall be glad to instruct you,” Ravana replied, inclining her head. “For now, though. You are correct, Natchua, but we should take care to recognize a contest in which our interjection would gain nothing. The paladins will have to deal with whatever Justinian is about to spring on him. And petty as it may seem by comparison, we still have our own event to oversee.”

She gestured broadly at the grounds stretching out around their feet, filled now with long-suffering servants and entertainers, and party guests casually debauching themselves in every corner.

“Ugh,” Natchua grunted. “I’d almost rather deal with the Wreath.”


Even after midnight in the dead of winter, Tiraas never truly slept. The city gates remained open and under full guard, the streets were well-lit, and though traffic was light, it still flowed. Thus a procession such as theirs could not avoid being the center of attention. Especially as their transport to the capital had been via the auspices of a particularly grouchy mage who had refused to teleport any closer to the city center than the gate town on the western side of the chasm, forcing them to ride the rest of the way to Imperial Square. Across the long bridge and up one of the city’s most important avenues, accruing crowds all the way. Long before they arrived, people had lined the streets, all watching and some cheering as all three living paladins rode their divine mounts abreast through the capital.

At least everyone cleared out of the way enough for them to do so. Trissiny rode in the center, if only because Arjen towered over the other two horses. In proximity to other steeds, his enormous bulk was even more striking, huge enough that a slender half-elf perched astride him might have looked comical, had she not borne herself with straight-backed military dignity. Flanking Trissiny and Arjen were a study in contrasts, Whisper’s fiery eyes and shadowy aspect a stark counterpoint to Roiyary, whose sorrel coat glistened in the lamplight as if she were a living sculpture of sunbeams. As luck would have it, the three paladins were even dressed for the occasion, having come straight from a formal party. Trissiny had summoned her silver armor atop her Silver Legion dress uniform, Toby was in his seldom-worn Cultivator robes, and Gabriel had on a dark suit under his midnight green Punaji greatcoat.

The only odd touch was Raolo, sitting behind Toby in Roiyary’s saddle. He was the object of no small amount of speculation, but Toby just rode calmly on, a small smile hovering about his features. Blessedly, all four were insulated from the chill in the air by top-quality warming charms, a parting gift from their recent hostess. There were perks to palling about with Duchesses.

They passed in a kind of island of solemnity, the crowds around the intermittent and often fairly quiet, though isolated cheers and hails did greet them regularly. This performance would likely have caused bedlam at any other hour of the day, but in the deepest part of the night, even Tiraas was sleepy enough that there just weren’t all that many people willing to stand in the frigid air and gawk. It afforded them the opportunity to speak as they rode, at least.

“This may work even better than you thought, Triss,” Toby said, nudging Roiyary closer to Arjen. “I didn’t think there’d be even this much attention.”

“You’re too humble,” Raolo chided playfully. “You’re paladins. The only paladins! And these are some damn impressive horses.” Roiyary blew out a snort and Whisper tossed her head, whickering.

“Yeah, we’re lucky that Veilwin is such a sourpuss,” Trissiny agreed. “Where did Ravana dig that woman up? But I should’ve thought to ask her to put us down outside the gates myself. This is drawing much more attention. Even he won’t be able to hush this up.”

“Tauhanwe sometimes get like that, especially arcanists like us,” said Raolo. “I don’t like to judge somebody whose story I don’t know, particularly when I have cause to feel sympathetic. You’re not kidding, though, that elf is amazingly unpleasant. What I wanna know is how Ravana of all people puts up with that. I once saw her make a waitress at the A&W cry for bringing her the wrong wine.”

“Once in a while I have to pause and ask myself why we’re friends with Ravana,” Toby muttered.

“Because she campaigned hard for it,” said Trissiny. “Gotta respect the sheer determination.” She paused, glancing to the other side. “You’re quiet, Gabe. You okay?”

“Mm.” Gabriel stared absently ahead, guiding Whisper with his knees. “Yeah, just… Had a hell of a conversation. I’ll be fine.”

“Well, good.” Trissiny hesitated again, wincing. “Uh, I really don’t want to be insensitive, especially since I prodded you into that…”

“Don’t worry.” Gabriel shot her a smile. “I’ll have it together when we need to face down you know who. It’s not a traumatic revelation or anything, just some stuff that bears thinking about.”

“Wanna talk about it?” Toby offered. “No pressure, but it often helps.”

“I’ve been unfair to Hesthri,” Gabriel admitted, frowning ahead again. “And I feel guilty about that. I was… Well, it really wasn’t a situation like Locke at all.”

Trissiny gave him a look of wide-eyed surprise. “Wait, don’t tell me that was your main comparison!”

“Hey, it’s not like I have many points of reference for absentee mothers! You gotta understand, I never thought about this. I know that sounds weird, but at a very young age I worked out that my dad was a really good man, doing a really good job by me, even though it was incredibly hard on him. I definitely understood what a demon was. I just figured… He made a mistake, it was behind us, and I never wanted to drag that up again. I didn’t want anything to do with that half of my heritage. I avoided thinking about it. So, when she pops up again, yeah, my brain went right to Locke. She’s the closest analogue in my experience. But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t… What happened wasn’t Hesthri’s fault. Locke is just an asshole. Uh, no offense, Triss.”

“No offense taken, and the point is not contested,” she said, shaking her head. “Well, I’m willing to admit I’ve always wondered. It must’ve been an incredible story.”

“Not that it’s any of our business, if you don’t care to talk about it,” Toby said pointedly.

“It’s fine,” Gabriel hastened to assure them as Trissiny started to grimace apologetically. “She’s right, it is a hell of a story. I’d kinda like to share it with you, in fact. For instance, I never knew my dad was a spy.”

“He what?” Toby exclaimed, only belatedly composing his features for the benefit of the crowds they were passing. “I mean… Are you serious? Are we talking about the same man?”

“I know, right?” Gabriel grinned. “Well… Maybe spy is too strong a word. Dad was…uh, he called it the Shadow Corps.”

“That sounds like spy stuff to me,” said Raolo. “I mean, just the name.”

“Sort of,” said Trissiny. “That’s discreet ops—not quite the same stuff Imperial Intelligence does, but those are the soldiers the Army deploys in places where it can’t afford to be seen deploying soldiers. Lots of Shadow Corps veterans go on to become Imperial Marshals, mostly with Intelligence. Those who survive, that is. It does mean your father’s probably one of the few Tiraan soldiers to see actual combat while enlisted during peacetime.”

“Yeah, so,” Gabriel said, “it is a humdinger of a story, but it’s also classified to hell and back, so maybe this isn’t the place to bring it up.”

“I can see how that might be slightly indiscreet,” Toby said solemnly, even as he waved to a knot of young citizens on a passing street corner who raised a cheer as the three divine steeds drew abreast of them.

“Tell you one interesting tidbit, though,” Gabriel added thoughtfully. “Apparently I owe General Panissar my life. Strictly by the letter of the law, both Dad and Hesthri could’ve ended up executed when they were caught, and my ass tossed in some shithole orphanage. It seems the General put his foot down on that. Said dishonorable discharge was bad enough for a good soldier who made a mistake.”

“Panissar does have a reputation for backing up his troops, even when it’s not politically convenient,” Trissiny mused, herself frowning at the street in front of them now. “I hope to meet him again. In hindsight, I think I was unfair to him during our one previous conversation.”

“Lots of regretful unfairness going around tonight,” Gabriel agreed.

“You sure you don’t wanna tell the story now?” Raolo asked, grinning. “It sounds like it’d be good enough for a novel on its own. And hey, I’ve got a great new muffling spell I’ve been meaning to debut. It blocks lip reading as well as sound.”

“Hey, really?” Gabriel looked over at him in interest. “That sounds like fae craft, how’d you integrate that?”

“Actually that was what made me think of it! You can still do a lot of things with arcane spells that’s more the province of fae magic, it’s just that the fae automatically does a lot of the legwork that you have to do manually with the arcane.”

“Sure, sure, but it seems like a lot of that effort is prohibitive, hence the specialization.”

“Exactly! So you gotta look for shortcuts. See, I found a way to make a barrier that doesn’t alter sound so much as language processing. Have you heard of Hathanimax’s Curse of Dysphasia?”

“Holy shit, you worked that into a barrier spell? Or would it be more a field of influence? No, if you did that it’d also—”

“Sorry to interrupt, magic nerds, but we’re here,” Trissiny stated. The others fell quiet as they emerged from the mouth of the street into Imperial Square itself. The great temples, the Imperial Palace, and the Grand Cathedral loomed all around, stark against the cloudy night sky, their upper spires rising beyond the illumination of the streetlamps. “I hope you’re ready, gentlemen. It’s time to go to work.”


The private prayer chamber of the Archpope was also quiet at midnight, even with him there. The lamps had been dimmed, casting its high arched ceiling into shadow. Upon the dais at the top of the stairs had been set a single candle, its wavering light reflecting off the three masterwork stained glass windows surrounding it in mesmerizing patterns. Aside from that, the room was not dark, but dim, as if in concession to the late hour despite the lack of any external light. Even those windows did not border the outside of the Cathedral; rather, the central one hid the doorway down to the Chamber of Truth.

Archpope Justinian knelt before the altar in prayer, exactly where he had been for hours now. It was a feat of endurance; there he had remained while the candle before him slowly burned down. There was no one present to see, no need for him to put on a show. He simply took matters of spiritual discipline that seriously.

When, finally, a triple knock on the door resonated through the room, he at long last raised his head. Justinian rose to his feet, his movements smooth and precise despite the stiffness of his long immobility, and turned to face the door far below. There he stood, framed by the candlelight and the stained glass depicting the Trinity, patron gods of those he had summoned here. Perhaps to stare down from on high at his guests was a petty maneuver; he certainly gave them enough credit to assume they would perceive and be resistant to the symbolism. But it was still worth doing. Power was power, in all its forms, and Justinian did not deny even to himself that what was about to unfold was a contest of power.

“Enter,” he called, his voice even and mellifluous as always, untouched by hours of meditative silence.

The door opened, and three figures stepped inside, pausing for the last to push the chapel’s door shut behind them, and knelt.

They were not the three figures he had summoned.

“Branwen, Nassir,” Justinian said with a smile, inclining his head to his two trusted lieutenants. “And Bishop Raskin, welcome. I hope all is well?”

He did not descend the stairs or invite them to climb, so the three stood up, as there would clearly be no formal kiss of his signet ring offered.

“I humbly apologize for disturbing you at this late hour, your Holiness,” the Vidian Bishop said diffidently. He of course did not outwardly acknowledge the fact that he had been addressed formally by title, marking him apart from the other two. Raskin was as inscrutable as any member of his faith, constantly taking in more information than he gave out.

“I am not at all disturbed,” the Archpope assured him, still smiling kindly. “In fact, I was awake in any case, awaiting an appointed meeting.”

“Yes, your Holiness,” Raskin replied, inclining his head in an almost-bow. “So Colonel Ravoud informed me. Please do not reprove the Colonel; he admitted me to your presence despite this preexisting appointment because it is pursuant to this matter that I have come to you. As a service to my paladin and his colleagues, I come bearing a message.”

“I see,” Justinian murmured, shaking his head once. “The paladins decline to grace me with their presence, then? Most regrettable, but not a complete surprise.”

“I humbly beg your Holiness’s pardon,” Raskin demurred, “but that is not the case. Gabriel Arquin, Trissiny Avelea and Tobias Caine are as always ready to serve the Pantheon and available to coordinate efforts with the Universal Church. Given your Holiness’s late and hasty summons, the Hands of the gods assume the matter to be one of urgency and hastened back here from Veilgrad to place themselves at your disposal. They await in a prepared space within the Temple of Vidius. If it pleases your Holiness, I stand humbly at the ready to conduct you to them.”

The silence of midnight hung heavy in the chapel for a long moment. Raskin remained benignly impassive; Branwen was also blank-faced, which was far more unusual.

Finally, Nassir Ravoud’s shoulders swelled as he sucked in a hissing breath through his teeth. “Those three arrogant, disrespectful little—”

And then he was cut off by the Archpope’s laughter. Justinian’s warm voice boomed through the tall chapel with pure, joyful mirth, causing his visitors to stare up at him in bemusement.

“Ah, truly, what admirable young people,” the Archpope said at last, wiping a tear from one eye. “Please, Nassir, take no offense on my behalf. After all, how could I be so presumptuous as to demand that paladins attend my presence and then refuse to meet them halfway? I thank you, Bishop Raskin, for being so quick to accommodate them and myself. Come, my friends, we must not keep such important personages waiting.”

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16 – 39

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The rented theater was only less than half full, with just minutes to go before the announced time of the event. That was by design; it was a last-minute affair, deliberately advertised in such a way that only the extremely interested were likely to see notice of it and arrive on time. There would be reporters, of course, and while Teal hadn’t gone out of her way to make sure they would be those in Ravana’s pocket, there were few enough in Madouris who weren’t. Though the Duchess had, grudgingly, blessed this event, it had been too belated to lend her resources even had she been so inclined. The Falconers didn’t lack for money, but they didn’t have things like Ravana’s spies. Teal had made do by asking where the protest outside the factory had originally been planned, getting the names of a few pubs and tearooms, and having fliers put up there. It seemed to have worked all right; there weren’t as many people here as there had been marching at the gates, but some of those had no doubt been scared off by what had happened at the end of that event. Also, none of Ravana’s agitators were present. Or at least, there had better not be.

This crowd was anticipatory, but distinctly nervous; it was all over a lot of their faces. Already there had been three separate incidents in which someone had tried to sit down and knocked over half a row of chairs with a sudden surge of a personal force field. And those were only the ones who’d just bought their first shielding charms for this event and didn’t know how they worked; they could be set to “always active,” if you were paranoid and failed to understand that keeping them in the default reactive mode both conserved power and enabled you to sit down, not to mention stepping within a yard of other people and objects. Undoubtedly, a lot more of those in attendance were shielded—properly. Given how their protested had ended, they weren’t wrong to be concerned. Teal just hoped they stayed nervous rather than angry. Most of those present were surreptitiously eyeing her, and some not so surreptitiously. She kept a watch on expressions and attitudes as best she could without breaking character.

“It’s the extras I’m curious about,” Ruda commented, again glancing out over the seats. “Not hard to pick out the reporters, and the Imperial spooks’ll be blending seamlessly with the average folks. We got cops, we got the ushers you hired—”

“Actually they came with the theater,” Teal said, plucking a deft arpeggio on her guitar. “Back up, Imperial spooks?”

“Oh, there’s absolutely no way they’re not keeping an eye on this,” Ruda said, grinning. “I give it even odds whether they were surprised about the protest, but with forewarning? Yeah, you got at least one plainclothes Marshal in the crowd. Long as nobody’s inciting riot or rebellion, they won’t do more than watch, but watch they sure as fuck will. Nah, what I’m more curious about are the elves. Your people?”

The last was directed to Nahil, who shrugged.

“In the sense that they are citizens of my nation, yes. But Shaeine and I are the only endorsed representatives of House Awarrion in attendance, and I know nothing of the Confederacy itself taking an interest in this. To me, at least, it is a positive development that some of its member tribes have begun to watch the world more carefully. I am surprised to find that they already had representatives in Madouris.”

“Probably locals,” said Teal. “There’s been an elven community here for a long time; the city elves are practically a mini-grove in their own right. They’re respected; before the Enchanter Wars they actually used to marry into House Madouri now and then.”

“Huh,” Ruda grunted. “Wonder what I gotta do to get that goin’ in Puna Dara. Friendly elves seem like they’d be handy to have around.”

At that, several of the half dozen elves scattered around the theater turned to look at her directly, one woman with a knowing smile, but that was the only reaction. They were all wood elves, by their ears, and wore a mix of tribal costume and modern Imperial style attire. No elves had been present at the protest earlier, which Teal took as a positive sign.

Without needing to be told, Shaeine, Ruda, and Nahil had all arranged themselves around Teal in such a manner that the Falconer heiress could see and be seen by the crowd from her perch on the stairs leading up to the stage. She sat there in a carefully casual half-sprawled pose, idly playing with her guitar. These three, all born and raised in the nobility, had understood the value of pageantry long before Teal herself did, and while only Shaeine explicitly knew the exact role Teal was playing, it seemed likely Ruda and Nahil wouldn’t need it explained.

Teal was here in costume, in character, playing the role she needed to. This, to her, was an important performance not just because of what its outcome could mean for her and Vadrieny’s place in human society; it was her first serious test of the mindset and methodology she had spent the last semester working to establish.

Her “costume” was, nearly in its entirety, just what she wore anyway: a well-tailored men’s suit. Except with subtle differences: it wasn’t quite as well-tailored, the coat being cut to hang a bit more loosely on her, shirt and pants conforming better to the lines of her body. She kept the top two buttons of her shirt open, not quite to the point of showing off cleavage but hinting that she might (a trick Ruda had taught her), and over that wore a loose bolo tie, inspired by Joe Jenkins’s characteristic tigerseye piece but this one unique and handmade by her father. It featured a small crystal, glowing so faintly arcane blue that it was hardly visible under full light, set in an inch-wide gear from one of the factory’s dismantled machines. The shirt also had slightly longer sleeves, so she could roll the cuffs back over the ends of her coat sleeves to show off the way they, too, hung open. Ironically the effect was truly completed by her customary rubber sandals, the one touch she’d always disliked about her personal style.

When it came to a young woman in men’s clothing, the difference between an awkward girl struggling to find and express herself and a Dashing Rogue straight out of every adventure story ever was pure attitude.

And that was how she thought of it, capitals and all. It was a Vesker archetype, though Teal had crafted her chosen persona from multiple influences, most provided by her friends. In her opinion the main difference between the Vesker and Vidian approaches was that the Doctrine of Masks was unnecessarily creepy, but Gabriel’s explanations had actually helped her to piece together something she liked from various bits and pieces that worked for her better than trying to embody a pure archetype. The Rogue she wore like a mask had a bit of Ruda, some historical influence from Laressa of Anteraas, and quite a lot of Principia Locke, with just a hint of Juniper’s casual and nearly oblivious sexuality. Trissiny’s coaching in the customary bearing of Thieves’ Guild enforcers had helped a great deal—Teal had never considered that the Guild actually trained that predatory slouching manner of theirs, but in hindsight, it made way too much sense. Her schooling in the Narisian art of wearing a public face helped tie it all together, and left her with the comfortable feeling that she’d created something really hers, something unique from the way the Veskers, Vidians, and everyone else did it.

She strummed three quick chords while casting another quick look around the room. Nearly everyone present was in a seat now; the mood was growing more tense by the second. And if the clock hadn’t just reached the appointed hour, it was close. That, after all, was the detail that mattered least to a Rogue.

“All right, ladies,” Teal said softly, climbing to her feet. “Showtime.”

“Break a leg,” Ruda said, tipping her a wink and then turning to swagger off to claim a seat. Nahil just smiled and inclined her head before gliding three rows back, where she sat down next to Marguerite Falconer. Matriarch Ashaele had apparently gone to Ravana’s thing in Veilgrad for some reason, and Geoffrey had been asked by his daughter to stay home, as his presence tended to be more distracting around Madouris than his wife’s. That left Marguerite and Nahil as the designated family support, Shaeine having her own assigned role to play in the evening’s performance. And a performance it would be.

And like so many good stories, it started with a kiss.

Just a peck on the cheek, which was pushing Narisian etiquette far enough—and which made it a good thing, in retrospect, that Matriarch Ashaele was in a different province at that moment. Shaeine, however, respected diplomacy and its theatrical element, and so received her kiss on the cheek with a smile before stepping aside to stand demurely at the very edge of the stage, just above the uniformed officer positioned at that corner of the room to keep an eye on the crowd. And so Teal crossed the stage to the podium amid the murmurs of the audience in response to that display.

Mixed; undoubtedly some of those present found it charming, but there was disapproval as well. Tiraan Province had always had more of a Shaathist element than a well-settled region usually did, owing to House Madouri’s traditional employment of the Huntsmen to look after its forests. Enough, at least, to push back against the Avenist influence from neighboring Viridill. Teal had borne the brunt of the resulting prejudices growing up, even as privileged as she was. She had hope that with Ravana’s pivot to backing the Reformists under Ingvar, things would be better for the next generation. But still, there were undoubtedly some in attendance who weren’t comfortable with her reminder that she was married to a woman. That her wife was a drow probably did not help.

All part of the plan, though, as was everything right down to her gait.

She strolled—ambled, really, in a rolling saunter that showed her to be fully at ease, her face set in a knowing little smile. Both had been laboriously rehearsed. Teal actually walked past the podium to set her guitar down in a stand she had very deliberately put on the other side of the stage for exactly this purpose, giving the watchers the opportunity to soak in her insouciance as she returned to the podium. And then, rather than standing behind it, positioned herself by its side and casually leaned one elbow atop it. The projection charm set into its surface would work just fine from this angle; she had made certain in advance that it would.

“Thanks for coming, everybody,” Teal said, her voice ringing through the theater with the force of both magic and her own well-trained ability to project. Her nerves were kept fully masked by her performative lightheartedness, though in truth it was only the stakes of this meeting that had her feeling nervous at all. Teal was a born performer, and if this wasn’t exactly music, some of the same rules applied. At her voice, the last few people who were still chatting fell silent and turned their focus on her, a final couple of stragglers finding their way into seats. “My name’s Teal, and I refuse to take any blame for that. My mom’s Rynean.”

That earned her a laugh—a low and somewhat uncertain one (Ruda’s cackle notwithstanding), but it was enough to get her foot in the door. She deliberately did not look at Marguerite in the crowd.

“For the past five years, I’ve been possessed by a demon.” That, as expected, brought dead silence. “Clearly, you’re curious about the details, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t care to dig too deeply into ‘em. That…” Teal hesitated, making her laid back expression falter for a moment, displaying an inner pain she didn’t actually feel, then cleared her throat before continuing. “That event was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever… Well, suffice it to say I know what it feels like to be burned to death from the inside out, and survive it.”

The silence hung, absolute. For four seconds, she let it.

“Sorry, I guess I don’t think about that very much anymore,” she went on with a slightly bashful grin. “It was five years ago. Since then I’ve spent what feels like weeks at a stretch being poked and prodded by the Church and every Pantheon cult that felt like having a go to make sure I’m safe.” She tapped the Talisman of Absolution, pinned in its customary place at her lapel. “Then almost as much time at school, where I had the likes of Tellwyrn and the paladins looming over me. No joke, the first time I met Trissiny Avelea I thought she was gonna have a go at me with her sword, but actually she’s one of the most reasonable people I know. Well, sometimes.” Another nervous chuckle from the crowd. “I don’t feel bad talking about Triss that way because I know she’d agree. Anyway, I understand this is a big deal for the community and I don’t mean to downplay that. It’s just…weird, to me.” She grinned again. “Five years. And it’s just now y’all start complaining?”

“Well, we only just learned about this!” a woman said from the seats, earning widespread mutters of agreement. Teal looked right at her and nodded; she had ordered that the theater lights not be dimmed, both so she could see everyone without being blinded by the stage lights, and so they could all see each other. People behaved differently in the dark.

“Fair enough. And surprising in its own right, isn’t it? But, it is what it is, I guess. Nonetheless…” Teal spread her arms in a shrug, smiling disarmingly. “Here we are. This has been going on for years now, and that’s probably the most reassuring thing I can say. If you were going to be in danger from my demon, believe me, you’d have known about it long since.”

“But this isn’t just some demon!” exclaimed a man in the third row, on the other side of the central aisle from her family. “We’re talking about an archdemon! Vadrieny the Ravager herself!”

Teal nodded at him, opening her mouth to deliver the prepared response she’d planned for exactly that, then paused, frowning in recognition. “Oh, hey. Isn’t it Mr. Telvid?”

The man in question, a gray-haired fellow in his late middle years, looked uncomfortable, as well he might; people who were planning on heckling from the anonymity of a crowd usually didn’t care to take the spotlight themselves, which of course was why she’d done it. Teal had not taken Rafe’s oratory class, but he’d been glad to give her some pointers. That was the thing about Rafe: as much as his classes could be a circus, he was a good teacher who wanted his students to learn, and surprisingly focused when approached alone. Thus, Teal knew important facts about the difference between crowds and individuals, and the means of turning the one into the other.

“Ah, yes, that’s me,” he said awkwardly. “Haman Telvid. I’m surprised you recognize me, Miss— uh, Mrs. Falconer.”

No doubt, otherwise he wouldn’t have opened his mouth. Teal just smiled at him in apparent happiness. “Nonsense, Mr. Telvid, you’ve been a fixture around the factory since before I was born! And now your daughter works there, too. I’m sorry I haven’t seen either of you in forever; I’ve been off at school, mostly.”

Look, everyone, at how personable she was. And get a load of this guy, biting the hand that fed him. It was a cheap way to make the onlookers reconsider their position, but cheap tricks were often the best tricks. To work a crowd that didn’t want to be worked, single out a target.

“Oh, well, I’m retired, ma’am,” he admitted. “As of last year. I, uh, thank you, by the way, for helping my Damania get a job there. I understand she spoke to you before applying.”

The nervousness of being put on the spot often caused people to offer extraneous explanations of things nobody wanted to hear about. And in this case, the suggestion of nepotism might have been damaging to Teal’s position, but she saw an opportunity and pounced.

“What are you talking about?” she asked, tilting her head quizzically. “Damania made it through a degree program at a Svennish engineering school in three years, and she’s your daughter. We’d have been bonkers not to hire her, I didn’t have to… Wait, is that what she told you we were talking about?” Teal laughed lightly, shaking her head. “Oh, no, nothing like that, Mr. Telvid, we were just clearing the air. See, Damania used to bully me when we were kids.”

Once again silence fell, this time under the weight of sheer awkwardness. Telvid went pale, his lips working as he stammered soundlessly and his neighbors turned disapproving stares on him. Not long ago, Teal herself would have found the humiliation crushing. Now, it was a weapon she wielded.

“Man, that’s another thing I haven’t thought about in years,” she said with a reminiscent little grin. “Heh, I remember one time Damania and her friends shoved a wet, muddy dog into a bathroom with me and blocked the door. It takes some real moxie to pick on somebody who can have your entire family fired and run out of the province; in hindsight I almost have to respect that. She even kept at it after I had Vadrieny. I’m afraid the last time she got a bad scare out of it—this would’ve been just before she went off to school—but don’t worry, nothing happened. I don’t believe in violence, Mr. Telvid. It’s not in my nature to retaliate, and Vadrieny respects my convictions. Besides, who isn’t an asshole as a kid?” Teal grinned disarmingly, shrugging again. “I always say, there’s two kinds of people: those who regret stuff they did as teenagers, and liars.”

She got a much bigger laugh from that, which was perfect to let the underlying lesson sink in without making people dwell on it consciously. Telvid’s attempted heckling might have just saved her half her planned presentation; she’d had a whole scheme laid out for subtly delivering her point, but it wasn’t going to be necessary now.

Teal Falconer abhorred violence in all its forms, and she firmly considered threats a form of violence. That put her in a bind, here, because it was necessary to remind these people that she was one of the most powerful women in the province even without the strength of an archdemon backing her up, and if they had a problem with her, at the end of the day there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it. But she couldn’t come out and say that. It was necessary to gently prod them into contemplating the fact without dwelling on it.

In a way, she almost regretted this unexpected expediency; she and Shaeine had planned out a whole routine. They had props and everything. But in the end, what mattered was that the message was received, and she could see on the uncertain expressions behind the laughter that it was sinking in, along with the reminder that Teal Falconer didn’t exert force to punish people who wronged her, even when she so clearly could.

“Well, that’s great and all,” said another woman—this one younger, nobody Teal recognized. She looked like a secondary schooler, in fact, probably here on a lark to judge by the way she slouched back in her seat. “That’s you, though. How can we trust the freaking archdemon Vadrieny to have the same attitude?”

Teal nodded in a gesture of solicitous understanding. This provided a neat segue into the other main point she wanted to make, but it was less of a surprise than Telvid’s interruption. Somebody was bound to have raised this obvious objection, and thus it had been planned for.

“Lemme pose you a question,” she said over the murmurs of agreement that rose in the wake of the laughter, keeping her gaze fixed on the teenager. “What is it that makes you, you?”

She was answered mostly with quiet, though a few people murmured uncertainly. The unfortunate girl at whom Teal stared with a friendly smile shifted uncomfortably in her chair, glancing around her as if uncertain whether the question had been addressed to her personally. In the habit of adolescent loners everywhere, she had chosen a spot with no close neighbors.

Teal waited for the girl to mumble out an uncertain “Um,” before rescuing her, smiling kindly.

“Sorry, that must sound pretty out of the blue, I guess. Well, let me put it another way: if you lost you memories—and I mean, all of them, everything that formed your whole life and history and had to start over with a completely blank slate… Would you still be the same person?”

At that point she finally relented, raising her eyes to look about at the expressions of the crowd. Confused, pensive, annoyed… There didn’t seem to be a single consensus with regard to how they felt about this line of questioning.

“I ask,” said Teal the instant she calculated this confusion had gone on long enough, “because that is what happened to Vadrieny. The event that caused her to be bound to me was… Well, nobody’s been able to figure out exactly what happened, but it destroyed all the other archdemons. She only barely survived. And in the process, the trauma wiped out her mind. There was only barely enough of her left for the Church’s scholars to identify her. Everything… Everyone Vadrieny used to be, is gone. She’s had only the last five years, and my company, to rebuild an identity for herself. So, as to exactly who and what she is…” Teal shrugged lopsidedly. “That’s a huge question, one I don’t know how to even begin answering. But what I can tell you is that the person sharing my body isn’t anybody who deserves to be called the Ravager.”

There was, of course, more muttering at that—the sound of the people in the audience talking to themselves and each other, not to her. It seemed no one was inclined to speak up in response to that. Perhaps it was partly because she had by now demonstrated she’d single out anyone who tried to become the new center of attention, but even so, the lack of anyone shouting “Bullshit!” was a positive sign. This was going better than Teal had expected it to be by this point in the evening.

She glanced aside to meet her spouse’s garnet eyes; Shaeine inclined her head in an infinitesimal nod, the nigh-imperceptible expression on her face encouraging. Likely only Teal and Nahil, out of all those present, could perceive that she had communicated anything at all. From within, Vadrieny sent her a wordless and complex push of emotion that was signaled readiness and trust that this was going according to plan. The archdemon had been silently watching thus far; she was out of her element in this theater, but knew the part she must play.

Teal made a show of looking from one side of the room to the other, not actually looking at anyone or for anything but suggesting a conspiratorial attitude that was heightened when she leaned forward toward the crowd as if whispering to them.

“Would you like to meet her?”

That brought up more muttering, louder and more alarmed this time, but that was still about the best Teal had dared expect at the idea. She gave them a second to chunner to themselves before fixing her gaze back on the teenager near the front, grinning and raising her eyebrows in a carefully crafted expression that was challenging without being overt enough to be called out for it.

Perhaps a more socially adept youth wouldn’t have bought the bait, but this girl frowned and straightened up in her seat.

“Hell yeah, let’s meet her,” she said, her voice ringing through the theater. “I wanna see what all the fuss is about.”

“You got it,” Teal promised. “Now, nobody worry. I think you might be surprised.”

Leave them on an open-ended statement to keep interest; she could have promised that Vadrieny was perfectly safe, if she wanted to open up the floor to doubts and challenges. As it was, she had everyone’s undivided attention when she took three steps to the side, away from the lectern, and began to transform.

This, too, they had practiced. Vadrieny’s physical emergence was, of course, a familiar process, and one they could complete instantaneously, but that wouldn’t do here. Thus, the two of them had worked out a way to make a whole performance of it.

Teal closed her eyes, lifting her chin and smoothing her expression as if she were slipping into a meditative state. She inhaled deeply, her chest swelling and shoulders drawing back, and made that ascending motion a part of the first stage of the transformation, continuing to rise smoothly in a shift that kept attention on her upper body until the snap of one of her rubber sandals breaking brought eyes to the great talons on which she now stood, prompting a few gasps and one muffled cry from the audience.

She lifted her hands then, holding them at chest height and flexing the fingers, expression shifting into a frown as if this required concentration. The onlookers murmured nervously as, with aching slowness, Teal’s graceful fingers elongated and blackened, transforming before their eyes into Vadrieny’s wicked claws. Once they were fully extended, she flexed them each and then lowered them to her sides, her expression clearing into a small, satisfied smile.

The next part had been the hard one to work out, testing their control over their shared form, but once they got the hang of it, repeating the process had proved pretty easy. The first sparks of fire danced across Teal’s hair, sliding backward over the crown of her head as if someone had set a match to her, which of course caused even more exclamations from the audience. Flames caught and spread quickly, growing to a sheet of orange light which encompassed her head, and then she tossed it back and forth as if shaking out her hair. On cue, Vadrieny’s longer wreath of fire soared out behind, waving avidly about her head entirely unlike Teal’s own short trim.

At that there were actually appreciative oohs from the audience, and Teal was certain she had them.

The wings were last, and in contrast to the meticulously slow emergence of every other demonic feature, they snapped outward in a single powerful motion which swept a gust of air through the theater, ruffling the stage’s curtains and drawing gasps from the onlookers.

Two people applauded. They trailed off almost immediately as no one joined them, but it was all Teal could do to repress her satisfaction. Fortunately, by that point Vadrieny was in control, so she didn’t have to try.

The archdemon finally opened her eyes, gazing out across the theater, and blinked once, languidly.

Then, as they had practiced, she shrank in on herself slightly, hunching her shoulders and raising one clawed hand to cover the lower part of her face, her wings lowering almost to the point of trailing on the floor of the stage. Her eyes, devoid as they were of pupils, didn’t easily convey the act of glancing nervously about, forcing her to shift her head slightly this way and that to do it, but this part had been practiced with great care using mirrors and feedback from Shaeine (Ruda had laughed too hard to be useful) until they had refined the performance into a suitably endearing display of bashfulness.

“Um.” The demon’s glorious, polyphonic voice resonated without need of the projection charm, even when expressed in an awkward syllable like that. “I, uh… Sorry. I’m not very…” Vadrieny paused and swallowed hard enough to make the shifting in her throat visible, not easy to do from up on stage, then emitted a shaky and obviously forced laugh. “Well, I’ve heard more people are afraid of public speaking than death, but until right now I thought that was idiotic. I owe somebody an apology.”

The crowd was staring and whispering avidly, and at that, some actually laughed. Nervously, but they did.

You’re doing fantastic, Teal’s consciousness whispered from within her. I’d never have guessed you’d be such a good actress!

I’m just barely faking! Vadrieny shot back silently, still peering nervously about the room. Why is this so scary? We’ve fought monsters and zombies and demons and—

Because you’re a person, and social pressure is powerful. It’s okay, love, you’ve got this. I’m right here with you. Remember your lines.

Vadrieny nodded; she hadn’t intended to do so physically and then cringed, but fortunately both gestures were in keeping with the impression they were trying to convey. As she’d pointed out, it was a mostly accurate impression, so perhaps some fumbling on her part wouldn’t sink the whole performance.

But as it turned out, she never got to deliver her next lines.

A single figure stood up from the audience, where he’d been seated six rows back from the stage right on the aisle. Dressed in a long brown robe with an all-concealing hood, he was taller by a head than anyone else here save Vadrieny herself, and should have been one of the more distinctly noticeable people in the room for those reasons alone. Yet this was the first time she had noticed him. To judge by the looks he was getting from the surrounding audience members, she wasn’t the only one.

Then he lowered his hood and produced gasps and outcries to rival Vadrieny’s emergence.

The hood revealed a lean, graceful face, with smooth blond hair drawn back in a tight tail and eyes that were glowing jewels of gold. His armor, too, was gold, revealed as he dropped the robe to let it puddle around his feet. In fact, that armor couldn’t have been concealed under that robe without distorting it awkwardly. Clearly the disguise had been more magic than cloth, and both his concealment and the panache with which he discarded it showed a solid appreciation for drama. And, more importantly, a skill at executing drama. Teal respected that.

Ampophrenon the Gold had to stare upward at the archdemon, but he still conveyed the impression of looming over her. Dragons were like that.

“Do you know me?” he asked, not loudly, but his resonant baritone ringing through the theater regardless.

Vadrieny proceeded on mincing steps, careful not to scratch the stage with her talons, to stand at its very edge and peer at him. “You are… You must be Ampophrenon, am I right? Please forgive me if I messed up the name, it’s even more of a mouthful than mine. But you’re somewhat well known, the only gold dragon attached to the Conclave embassy in the capital.”

He inclined his head once in acknowledgment, his expression still inscrutable. “Correct. But that is public information. Do you know me?”

She frowned. “I don’t understand. I just…” Catching on, Vadrieny leaned backward slightly. “Oh. Did we meet…before?”

“We…interacted.” The dragon succeeded in making his tone wry without detracting from its solemnity, to Teal’s great admiration. “Whether it could be said that we met is subject to debate. You and I were both there, at the final battle of the Third Hellwar. You gave me some respectable scratches, Vadrieny. In turn, I pummeled you to the point of insensibility and hurled you bodily back through the portal into Hell.”

Dead silence had fallen in the theater as everyone stared at this confrontation, barely daring to breathe.

Slowly, Vadrieny nodded. “I’m sorry, but I have nothing left from that time. Nothing before I was bonded to Teal. I guess I should thank you, then.”

Ampophrenon raised his eyebrows. “Thank me?”

“I doubt I would have done so at the time,” she said. “Still, I’ve been told something of…of what I was like. That was undoubtedly the best thing to do. For this world, and probably even for me. I…suspect I didn’t make it easy?”

“You were a most respectable challenge, yes,” he said with the ghost of a smile. “Teal Falconer’s question is quite pertinent. If someone’s memory is wholly scoured away, are they still the same person they were before? I have mulled this question at length, with regard to you. At other times, it is little but an exercise for philosophers. In your case? The stakes are significant. And so, truly, you remember nothing?”

“Not…nothing,” she said slowly. She didn’t need Teal’s urging to warn her that it would be best, here, to be fully forthright. “Just nothing of me. Once in a while, there will be a…a flicker of recognition. Some basic knowledge of Hell that I don’t know how I could have learned. Nothing that’s helped me piece together my life from before, or why Elilial sent me here. Did this to me, and destroyed my sisters. I can’t even remember them.” Vadrieny closed her burning eyes. “We’ve gone to the Desolate Gardens, seen the Great Tree and the site of that battle. I thought if anything would bring back a memory… But nothing. Everyone, all our friends from Last Rock, say it’s probably for the best. My history wasn’t a good one to have, as Trissiny pointed out. I agree. It’s just…”

She trailed off, not knowing what she truly meant. Opening her eyes, Vadrieny saw the dragon nod once in understanding, oddly enough. Then again, he did have all his thousands of years of memory. Perhaps it made sense he would have enough perspective to understand her.

“So it is said,” Ampophrenon acknowledged. “Yet I have still wondered. You were always a brute, Vadrieny, but your mother is the very embodiment of deception. It seems foolhardy in the extreme to assume you are exactly what you say.”

Vadrieny drew herself fully upright, raising her wings in a threatening display, and flexed her talons. “Now you hear this, dragon.” Teal clamored frantically for her to calm down, but she pressed on. “My mother’s name is Marguerite Falconer. She is who cared for me when I was terrified and lost in this world, despite the danger I presented, and even though she had reason to hate me for what happened to Teal. Whatever Elilial was to the Vadrieny you knew, to me, she’s only a historical figure who has committed more slaughter and destruction than it would be possible to tally up. To the extent I have a personal tie to her, Elilial’s just the reason my sisters are dead, and I am reduced to sharing someone’s body. That’s what all her scheming has brought me. I’m not even going to argue with you, because we all know you’re right. She could plan something that underhanded. If I knew what Elilial was plotting, I would tell you. I don’t trust this peace of hers, but I’ll abide by it until either she or the Pantheon breaks the terms. But I reject Elilial and all her plots. I am not hers, and she is nothing to me.”

Ampophrenon just nodded. “I have watched you as carefully as I could since you emerged, Vadrieny. The Church and the Empire both sought to keep your presence discreet, but to one with my means, there are ways of keeping informed. It has been easier, I must say, since you have been studying under Arachne’s tutelage. I took care to receive ample reports of your activities, and study them in detail. I have seen the records of your actions, at Sarasio, at Lor’naris, at Veilgrad, and most strikingly, at Ninkabi. You have protected whoever you could, and shown a strange reluctance to bloody your claws. I could scarcely credit it, but the reports were unanimous. And then, there was Ninkabi, where you attacked Elilial herself.”

“Not that anything came of that,” she said sourly.

“Even symbolic actions matter,” he disagreed, “and gods are not so easily brought low. Perhaps it is only paranoia on my part that has maintained my suspicions. Yet, for those of us who have held back Elilial’s works for these thousands of years, to see her deviousness lurking in every shadow becomes a habit necessary for life itself.”

Vadrieny drew in a breath and let it out in a sigh, allowing her wings to slump again. “Well… That’s not unreasonable, I suppose. You’ll believe what you need to believe. That being the case, there’s nothing I could say to convince you anyway, is there?”

He studied her in silence for two heartbeats, and then, very faintly, smiled again. “At some point, one must have faith, if only because to live without it is not living at all. Perhaps it is a small thing, but it seems to me that Trissiny Avelea trusts you. And I only had the opportunity to meet her quite recently. I have known many Hands of Avei over the centuries, you see. It must be said that more of them than otherwise are rather blunt instruments—not unlike I remember you to be, Vadrieny. But the truly exceptional among them have always been the wisest and most canny individuals I was blessed to know. This one, I judge, will go on to be remembered as one of the greatest. A small thing, yes, but in the end, sometimes it is one straw which breaks the donkey’s back.”

To her amazement, the dragon stepped back, and bowed to her. Shallowly, shifting his upper body just far enough that he had no trouble maintaining eye contact, but he did it.

“I am five years too late to welcome you to this world, it seems. Regardless, Vadrieny, I hope that you find a purpose and a good life here. Madouris will be blessed indeed to count you its protector.”

She blinked her fiery eyes once, suddenly feeling very awkward. “Well, I… Thank you, I guess.”

So intense was their contest of personalities that Vadrieny—and Teal—had actually forgotten there was a whole theater full of people as an audience to this. Thus, it took them both by surprise when everyone burst into applause.

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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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16 – 37

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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.”

“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.

“…no?”

“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.

“Raolo!”

“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.”

“Sorry.”

“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!”

“I know.”

“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.”

“Good.”

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.

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16 – 36

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She did not stomp, and not because it wasn’t ladylike; Natchua had already resigned herself to the knowledge that she was going to disappoint anyone who expected her to behave like a proper Imperial duchess. No, Natchua restrained the impulse to slam her feet down with every step simply because she was somewhat overly conscious of social perception due to her embarrassing history of over-the-top melodrama at Last Rock and this Duchess business had only brought that closer to the surface. Even so, she really wanted to project anger with every fiber of her being as she bore down on the two elves who had intruded upon her domain.

Talvrin and Ashaele paused in the middle of the drive, watching her come; nobody else seemed inclined to approach them, perhaps unsurprisingly. Natchua made a sharp gesture with her right hand as soon as she drew close enough, wreathing the three in a subtle ring of shifting shadows and menacing whispers that hovered just at the edge of elven hearing. Even for non-elves, it obscured and mixed the sounds of their voices enough to ensure a measure of privacy.

“Shaeine has been a much better friend to me than I deserve,” she stated by way of greeting, “and I understand that you are here at the personal invitation of Ravana Madouri. That is why neither of you are being bodily hurled over the property’s walls right now. That fact is still subject to change if I am not extremely satisfied with your explanation of your bloody effrontery in showing your faces here.”

She folded her arms and waited imperiously to be answered. To her annoyance, neither woman appeared intimidated, but then Natchua hadn’t really expected it of them.

Magister Talvrin, at least, had the grace to bow to her. “Good evening and felicitations, Duchess Leduc. I am only too glad to offer an explanation, as it was my major concern in presuming to come here this evening.” She hesitated a split second before continuing. “Please understand that as a Magister of Qestraceel I am unable to express an apology, or anything else which might acknowledge fault on behalf of my government, in this difficult moment when tense negotiations with the Empire are ongoing.”

“You need to brush up on your Circles if you think coming here and dancing on my patience is a smart move, mage.”

The Magister continued, unperturbed but still solemn. “With that awkward reality acknowledged, speaking as a citizen of the Confederacy, I am deeply embarrassed that you were inconvenienced by our internal issues, and very relieved that you emerged unharmed. And I can assure you that there will be no repeat of that shameful event.”

“In fact, Natchua,” Ashaele added, “it may please you to learn that House Dalmiss has placed itself in disfavor with every level of our government from the Queen to the Confederacy itself, and Matriarch Ezrakhai has spared no effort in directing the resulting pressure onto Nassra’s head.”

Natchua stared at her, but after a moment allowed her mouth to quirk lopsidedly in a fragment of a smile. “Very well, you’re right. That’s pretty…gratifying. Was that all you came here to say?”

Ashaele glanced at Talvrin, who immediately bowed to each of them. “Please excuse me, Duchess, Matriarch.” She discreetly retreated outside the radius of Natchua’s sonic disruption, making her way toward Ravana.

Returning her gaze to Natchua, Ashaele stated in a much flatter tone, “Your mother is one of the most unbearable assholes I have ever had the misfortune to meet.”

Natchua went rigid. She happened to wholeheartedly agree, but between two Narisians there was virtually no more offensive statement that could be made. It was the kind of insult only a Matriarch could voice without expecting to be immediately punched in response; only a Matriarch had sufficient weight of social position that anyone would even defend her after such an offense.

And, Natchua realized after a shocked second, she was now equivalent in rank. Her right hand balled into a fist, and purple flames flickered across her fingers. Walled off in their cocoon of sound, with her attention fully on Ashaele, she didn’t hear the murmurs that rose, or even notice people rapidly backing away from the two drow.

“And I need you to understand that,” Ashaele said, her voice softer, eyes intent. “Your experience growing up was not normal. Narisian ways are ruthless and harsh, yes, but it is precisely because of this truth that our society can only function when we value each other. No one can lead her family the way a Narisian must, unless that family is held together by sincere bonds of love. In addition to her various defects of personality, Nassra has always failed to understand that simple and crucial fact. Goddess’s mercy, Natchua, a spider box is a weapon of last resort to punish those who knowingly and deliberately inflict shame upon their Houses. One should never be used to discipline children. That is nothing less than insanity! I will never condemn you for your behavior at Last Rock or elsewhere since you left us, and I have earned the ire of both Nassra and Ezrakhai by refusing to allow any pursuit of you through diplomatic channels. You were abused more than raised. Your anger and loathing is fully justified, and it is a tremendous credit to you that you’ve turned out as well as you have, after being raised by a selfish, thoughtless monster of a woman who saw you as nothing but a thing to be used. A daughter’s devotion is demanded in our culture, yes, but it must be earned through love and devotion in kind. I am…glad to see that you escaped, and are flourishing.”

She paused, still watching Natchua closely. Natchua, for her part, did not relax her fist just yet, but allowed the fire to flicker out, staring at Ashaele through narrowed eyes.

“Unlike my Qestrali colleague, I will apologize to you,” the Matriarch said after a moment. “The truth is that I am one of very few who had an inkling what was happening in your household and might have had the influence to do something about it. Even within another House, a Matriarch’s word is not nothing, and Ezrakhai does listen to me. But the truth is, I considered the costs and benefits and did nothing, for the sake of what I deemed the greater good. If you choose to despise me, Natchua, you’ve the right. I am sorry for failing you. It changes nothing, but I am. And if I can aid you now without compromising my responsibilities to Tar’naris and the Confederacy, I will be glad to do so. You’re owed it.”

“You never cared enough to say all this before now,” Natchua said, pleased to find her voice even. “Not a word to me, until the very moment I gained a noble rank. Do you imagine that you’re subtle, Ashaele? Even by my standards, you really aren’t. Spit out what you want before my patience finishes evaporating.”

It was heady, addressing a Matriarch by her first name, right to her face. Even a week ago, Natchua might have done so anyway, just to be aggressive. Somehow, the fact that Ashaele didn’t even have the right to complain about the presumption made it even sweeter.

To her credit, Ashaele offered no denial, nodding once in acknowledgment. “That is true, and all part of the pattern of my life. I must turn a blind eye to all manner of suffering in order to serve a higher purpose; such it is, to be Narisian. I don’t ask anything of you but patience and tolerance, Natchua. You’re now in a position to have some influence on the affairs of nations, however minor. All I ask is that you understand what was done to you was an inexcusable aberration. Please don’t punish an entire civilization for the actions of individuals.”

“Aberration,” Natchua whispered. “Really, now. You think my sad story is all that unusual?”

“I am well aware—”

“I’m sure you’d like to think that, Ashaele, but if you truly understand what life in Tar’naris is like for anyone who’s not born to power and privilege, you’re as despicable as my mother for presiding over that depravity and doing nothing about it. That festering shithole’s entire culture is based around the fact that whatever horrible thing it does must be okay, because after all, the Scyllithenes are always worse! It’s the most soulless possible approach to governing a society imaginable. Have you considered that, just maybe, your civilization deserves anything that might be coming to it, if not more?”

Ashaele tilted her head incrementally. “Do give me a minimum of credit. I am keenly aware of the flaws and failures of our society. What, exactly, is your plan to fix them?”

Natchua barked an incredulous laugh. “Is that my responsibility, somehow?”

“No, it is mine. And unlike you, I have not only given great thought to how our people must change, but worked steadily to achieve that end. It is obvious to anyone with eyes that Tar’naris cannot continue as it has. Irrespective of the weight of our moral failings, we have entered a world in which the unique Narisian blend of heavy-handedness and myopia will lead only to doom. But what do you imagine would happen if I tried to explain all this to the Matriarchs? Or even better, force them to comply? Has it been your experience that people politely listen and then change their ways when you calmly and rationally lecture them on the benefits of giving up their privileged positions?”

Natchua snorted. “All right, fair enough. But to rehash an earlier part of this conversation, I am done with Tar’naris and all its perfidy. This sounds like a you problem.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “hence my pleading with you not to make it worse. I will never insult you by downplaying your experiences, Duchess Leduc; I have offered my apologies for them, and my support with whatever cause of yours I can aid that does not contradict my loyalties. Only you can decide whether this is adequate. It is really all I can do.”

Natchua studied her in silence for a moment; Ashaele met her gaze firmly. There was nothing to be gained by trying to read a Narisian diplomat’s expression.

She snuffed out the sonic effect surrounding them, allowing the party music and soft conversation to rush back over their senses. Ashaele glanced to the side, noting the action, but making no further acknowledgment. Natchua did not miss the speculative and eager gazes fixed on them by a number of minor Tiraan nobility eager for any scrap of influence they could scavenge.

And so, she decided to throw them a bone.

“You needn’t worry that my experiences in Tar’naris will have any effect on elven-Imperial relations, Matriarch Ashaele.” Natchua did not raise her voice, but enough of the eavesdroppers had edged close enough that it wouldn’t matter. “House Leduc stands firmly behind House Tirasian, as I have made clear. Foreign policy is none of my business in any case, and I don’t aspire to influence it even indirectly. As for my own opinions, I am satisfied that Emperor Sharidan’s leadership is exactly what Tiraas needs. It should be obvious to you, to me, and to anyone who has paid attention to recent history that the Silver Throne has led us well these last years since the Narisian Treaty.”

Ashaele nodded and opened her mouth to reply, but Natchua pressed on over her.

“With that said, House Leduc takes its responsibility to this province seriously. That may not have been true for some time, but under my leadership, things will change. I have already made it clear to House Awarrion what will happen to pushy drow who come to Veilgrad looking to profit at the expense of my people. After my encounter with the Highguard, I will extend that warning to all the Confederacy: I protect these lands, and any pointy ears coming here had better be attached to excellent manners, if they know what’s good for them.”

If anything, the onlookers had drifted closer while she spoke, and at that, cheers and applause broke out from the surrounding Imperials. Natchua didn’t even glance aside at them, keeping her focus on Ashaele, who was studying her in turn, utterly impassive. Hardly any of these people were even local to Veilgrad, but apparently one couldn’t go wrong by appealing to patriotism. At least with this crowd.

After a pause in which they locked gazes, Natchua finally looked past Ashaele’s shoulder to an unfolding scene which she’d been aware of since dropping the sound screen, but had not brought to the forefront of her awareness. She lowered her voice before adding a final thought, since it was one none of the onlookers needed to concern themselves with.

“Except him, of course. Raolo’s cool.”


“Raolo?” Toby didn’t trouble to disguise the surprise and delight on his face when he spied the elf making a beeline toward him from the gates, and not just because he had little regard for the politics and appearances that were so important to so many at this party.

For his part, Raolo was already smiling as he approached, but his expression only brightened further in response to Toby’s. Which just made him happier in turn, and so on in a mutual feedback loop until both were outright beaming by the time they closed the distance enough to clasp hands. It was just as well Ruda had stayed in Madouris; this was exactly the kind of encounter that made her loudly complain that too much sugar disagreed with her whiskey.

Grinning like a fool and not caring, Toby squeezed Raolo’s slender fingers in his own, and then impetuously pulled him forward into a hug which set the elf laughing even as he reciprocated.

“So you are glad to see me!” Raolo chuckled. “Guess I don’t have to worry about that after all.”

“Oh come on, why would you ever need to worry about that?” Toby pulled back enough to grin at him again. “This is exactly the blessing I needed. No offense to our hostesses, but maybe now I can finally enjoy this party.”

“Oh, you and parties.” Raolo playfully rubbed at his hair, which fortunately was too thick and wiry for him to easily muss. “Are you finally getting tired of benignly observing from the sides?”

“Oh, that’s fine and dandy when it’s at Last Rock with friends, or at least acquaintances. A bunch of miscellaneous nobility, though…” He chanced a glance to the side, and sure enough, more than a handful of well-dressed strangers were studying him with expressions he could only think of as sharklike. For just a second Toby wavered, feeling the pressure of expectations rearing up, but he immediately and deliberately pushed that aside. If he could stand up to the expectations of his own cult, what did he care what any of these people thought? “Well, at least it probably won’t turn out the way my last aristocratic social event went down.”

“Mm, has anyone checked that Trissiny’s not hanging around near the punchbowls?”

“Oh, come on!” Trissiny’s voice exclaimed from the near distance. Both of them grinned but otherwise ignored her.

“Never mind them anyway,” Toby said, reaching up to lightly shift a lock of golden hair that was obstructing his view of Raolo’s eyes. Even remembering how much the elf felt like silk under his fingers never compared to experiencing it anew. “What are you doing here, Raolo?”

“Ah, I’m glad you made it, Raolo,” Ravana said, idly sauntering by them with an unusually smug expression even for her. “I trust your journey was comfortable?”

“I think you know it was,” the elf replied sardonically. “The carriage and driver were a little excessive, Ravana. Not that I object to being driven, but that thing had eight seats and a cold box full of sparkling wine. Is that how you cruise around all the time?”

“No, but it’s how I treat my friends,” she said, smiling placidly. “Luxury is so much better appreciated by those not born to it.”

Toby heaved a sigh. “Ravana, stuff like this is why people are always demanding what you did this time. Didn’t I specifically ask you not to interrupt Raolo’s vacation? Just this morning?”

“Oh, did you.” And just like that, Raolo’s entire aspect changed. He still smiled, but suddenly the expression was brittle and there was something sharp in the set of his eyes. Without quite releasing Toby’s hands, he nonetheless pulled back.

“You know I’m glad to be able to spend time with you away from campus,” Toby said quickly. “It’s just… Ravana. You know? I think if somebody didn’t stop her she’d try to put puppet strings on all of us.”

“I do say that’s a bit much,” Ravana protested.

“Well, he’s not entirely wrong, you know,” Raolo said to her. “This was a nice thing you did, Ravana, and I thank you. People do get tired of being treated like somebody else always knows what’s better for them, though. I get enough of that at home,” he added, his eyes cutting back to Toby. That withdrawn hardness was still in them.

Toby winced. “Was it…bad? I don’t want to pry, I just… Well, I hate to come between you and what time you’ve got with your family.”

“That’s very considerate.” If anything, the elf’s expression stiffened further, and Toby found himself frowning quizzically. Even Ravana suddenly glanced sharply back and forth between them, picking up on the tension.

“Are you okay?” Toby asked in concern. “I suddenly feel like you’re… Uh, did I do something to upset you?”

For some reason, that only appeared to make things worse, though instead of growing more tense, Raolo suddenly sagged. It was a slight motion, the merest lowering of his head and slumping of his shoulders, but it made him look unmistakably defeated.

That was much worse.

Now Ravana appeared nearly as concerned as he, and Malivette, who had just wandered into their proximity, cleared her throat pointedly. Neither Toby nor Raolo looked over at her, though.

“No, Toby,” Raolo sighed, and then gave him a resigned smile that felt worse than a slap. “Everything’s fine.”

“Everything’s clearly not fine,” Toby insisted, frowning. “I can tell you’re upset.”

“About what?” Raolo shrugged. “You’ve done nothing wrong, Toby. You graciously relinquished your claim on my time so I could go home to the grove…just like I asked. And sure, my family are insufferable, but thanks to Ravana being also insufferable now I can spend the evening with you instead of them. It’s a perfect outcome!” He smiled again, trying to inject some cheer into the expression, but so obviously trying that it was painful to behold.

“Ahem,” Malivette said, not that anyone paid her any mind.

“Hey.” Gently taking Raolo’s hands again, Toby ran his thumbs across the backs of the elf’s fingers, holding his gaze. “You don’t need to do that, not with me. Whatever’s—”

“Can we please just not?” Raolo pleaded. “It’s a party. Let’s relax and have some fun. Look, there’s dancing! And I could use a drink.”

“If…that’s what you want,” Toby said dubiously.

For some reason, that made annoyance flare in Raolo’s expression again, but the elf quickly mastered it, put on another public smile, and opened his mouth to answer.

At that moment, Malivette began coughing loudly, quickly escalating to a series of hacking wheezes like a cat passing a hairball, and actually doubled over. Ravana edged warily away from her, while the surrounding nobles stared incredulously.

“Blaaaah!” The vampire straightened back up, turning a beaming smile on them as she wiped the back of her hand across her lips. “Scuze me, must’ve inhaled a clot. Say, lads, I just wanted to mention, the party only started out here on the lawn, the whole manor is open. Lots of indoor space, y’know, private rooms. Places to have a conversation discreetly.”

“Thank you very much, Duchess Dufresne,” Raolo said with a slightly wintry smile, “but that won’t be—”

“It’s Raolo, right?” She grinned broadly at him in that expression of hers that showed off her fangs a lot more than it actually suggested a good mood. “Say, just for the record, elves aren’t edible for me. I only mention that because it’s gonna become an extremely relevant reassurance if you do something to create a debacle at this extremely politically important party.” Malivette let the silence hang for two heartbeats of dramatic effect, just grinning at their shocked expressions, before continuing in a lower tone. “Go inside, boys, and have a chat. Quietly.”

“Um…maybe that would actually be best,” Toby said, turning his attention back from her to Raolo.

The elf clenched his jaw for a moment, then nodded in a single jerky little motion. “Fine.”


“Uh…” Trissiny watched Toby and Raolo disappear into the manor, frowning in consternation. “I hope they’re… Do you think we should do something?”

“Like what, Triss?” Gabriel asked. “What possible thing could anyone butting into that do that wouldn’t just make it worse? And that’s not even touching on the fact that neither of us is Mister or General Social Skills to begin with.”

“Hey, I think we’re both a lot better than we used to be,” she protested. “But still… Yeah, fair point. It’s just that I hate to think of… You know?”

“I do,” he nodded. “If there’s anybody who deserves some straightforward uncomplicated happiness, there they went. But relationships aren’t like that. You just gotta deal with stuff, and unless it’s an Izarite cleric involving somebody else in it doesn’t usually help.”

“And I think we’ve all had as much Izarite influence as we need for one night,” she muttered, glancing at the gates. At least Bishop Snowe had been as good as her word and left the grounds once her message was delivered. All things considered, that might have been simple self-preservation on her part.

“Well, anyway, it’s a party,” he said after a momentary pause. “I can think of a much better use of our time than standing here fretting.”

“I am terrified to ask,” Trissiny deadpanned.

He grinned and had the audacity to wink at her. “You remember our first week? Specifically, the first night of punishment duty, washing dishes for Oak?”

“Yes,” she said dryly. “You invited me to a town dance, and that was when I knew you were completely insane.”

“Exactly!” Gabriel stepped back, turned toward her, and held out one hand with a shallow bow. “You never did give me an answer on that, and the town social came and went. So you owe me one, Triss.”

“Are you serious?” Teetering on the verge of incredulous laughter, she glanced around at the grounds. “This is a political event, you know. Think politics. Us dancing would kick off a flurry of wild rumors.”

“Let ‘em speculate, it’s not like any of these people would know what they’re talking about. And hey, we might as well provide them some free entertainment! These parties tend to end with us terrorizing them one way or another, so we might owe it to ‘em. Just so you’re aware, the drinks are served over there on the buffet table,” he added helpfully. “It’s mostly bottled wine and hot cider at this time of year, but I did notice a lovely crystal punch—”

“I have no compunctions about hitting you since I know it doesn’t actually hurt you.”

“What’s the point of doing it then?” he rejoined. Trissiny made a face at him; he grinned more broadly and lifted the hand he was still holding out. “C’mon, they’re playing a waltz. That’s basically the easiest one.”

She studied him skeptically for a long moment, then finally permitted herself a smile of dour amusement and reached out to take his hand. In the next second, they were swirling out across the drive amid the other couples moving to the music.

In the moment after that, both of them stared at each other in shock and said in unison, without faltering in the motion, “You can dance!”

They completed one more stationary revolution before the other shoe dropped, and both paladins scowled, this time talking over one another rather than speaking in chorus.

“Wait a second, were you just trying to embarrass—”

“This was a trick, you sneaky—”

Both broke off, and then burst out laughing. And kept dancing.

“Seriously, though,” Gabriel said merrily. “You? Can waltz?”

“Hey, I grew up in a barracks up in the mountains with dozens of other girls. The only entertainment was whatever we made for ourselves! What about you?”

“Oh, Teal taught me,” he admitted. “It was after that trip to Tiraas in our first year, remember? You all went to that party at General Panissar’s house?”

“Ah, yes. That was…a mess.”

“Could’ve been worse, the way I heard it,” he said lightly, twirling her around the decorative fountain in the center of the roundabout drive. “Upon reflection what I’m most surprised about is that you’re letting me lead.”

“Because I figured you’d try to, and we’re probably creating enough of a stir without turning it into a scuffle,” she snorted. “A wise feminist conserves energy for the necessary battles by not fighting pointless ones.”

“Ever the strategist. Well, if there’s gonna be a scuffle, we should probably save it for later in the evening.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, everybody’s out here watching right now. As the night progresses and the drink is drunk, people will start pairing off and disappearing into those private rooms Malivette helpfully reminded us she has.”

Trissiny wrinkled her nose. “How would you know? Do you attend a lot of aristocrat parties?”

“I know what people are like,” he chuckled, “and I listen to aristocrats. We’ve got a good handful on the campus, you know, and several of them love talking about their fancy social events.”

“I see. Well.” She finally looked away from his face, glancing sidelong across the crowd they were still dancing through. “If we’re going to head back to Tiraas tonight and deal with Justinian, I’m afraid you and Juniper aren’t going to have the opportunity to sneak off.”

“Wh—Juniper?” Gabriel blinked at her in astonishment. “You thought we— Triss, that hasn’t been going on since freshman year!”

She blinked right back, equally startled. “What? Really? I thought… I mean, you’re…”

“Okay, I am straining not to take offense,” he complained. “Really, is that what you think, I have nothing on my mind but chasing skirts?”

“Well, in fairness, you do also like playing with your wand…”

“It would serve you right if I tripped you.”

Trissiny grinned, then cleared her throat with a little discomfort, glancing away again. “So, uh, not to pry, but what made you two decide to…?”

“Oh, it… Well, actually, we never decided. That is, there was never a conversation about it. It just sort of…stopped happening, and that was fine. Both of us, I mean individually, we both kind of came to a place where that wasn’t what we needed or wanted anymore, so it worked out fine.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Actually, I guess it worked out ideally. Maybe closure would’ve been nice, but I don’t feel like I missed out on it. June doesn’t seem to, either. This way there was no awkwardness, and I got to keep a really good friend without making it, uh, messy.”

Slowly Trissiny nodded, staring at him with an oddly pensive expression. “Yeah… I guess there’s something to that.”

“What do you mean, to it?”

“Sometimes,” she said distantly, her eyes seeming to look at something far away, “having a conversation isn’t really…the best thing, necessary, or even useful. Not if everybody already understands up front that there’s no point.”

They had drifted to the edge of the dancing area, coming close to the end of one of the buffet tables, and that was the moment when the band brought the waltz to an end. Across the lawn, couples separated, many applauding politely. Trissiny and Gabriel slowly released each other in silence, studying one another’s eyes.

“Well,” Trissiny said abruptly, putting on a smile, “good timing. I’d better go supervise that.” She tilted her head to one side, where over by the manor’s steps, Malivette and Natchua had cornered Bishop Darling. “And I see you have fallen into my trap, as well.”

“Excuse me?” he exclaimed.

Rather than answering, Trissiny turned aside to address the woman in servant’s livery who was standing by the edge of the table with her hands neatly folded in front of her. “It’s Hesthri, right?”

The servant’s eyes widened and she focused on Trissiny, having been watching Gabriel. “I…beg your pardon, miss? You must have me mistaken for…”

“You were staring,” Trissiny said, not unkindly. “At him. And let’s face it, he’s not that good looking.”

“Those Eserites turned you into a spiteful little beast,” Gabriel complained.

“Yep,” she said with an unrepentant wink. “But seriously, Gabe, there are some conversations that actually do need to be had. I’ll catch up with you later.”

So saying, she turned and sauntered off in the direction of the Bishop and the Duchesses, leaving a tense island of quiet behind.

Gabriel shifted to study the serving woman, who was watching him closely in kind. They didn’t speak for a few long seconds, which under the circumstances was as good as a confession.

“She’s a sharp one,” Hesthri said at last, then grinned. “Not to mention pretty. So, you two…?”

“Oh, uh…no.” He shook his head, averting his eyes as his cheeks darkened slightly. “That is, there may be a tense…um, but not… Well, it’s, we’re friends, okay? We’re pretty close and I’d hate to mess up… Anyway, paladins don’t live the kind of life that…” Growling in frustration at his own inarticulate babbling, he trailed off and shook his head, scowling across the dance floor at nobody. “It’s just… It’s not a good idea.”

Hesthri studied him in silence for a few more beats, a gentle smile playing about her own lips, before finally reaching out to very lightly touch his arm.

“Tell me about her.”

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16 – 35

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The grounds of Dufresne Manor had been transformed, which was good, because they had urgently needed it. Its gravel drive had been freshly smoothed, of course, but far more strikingly was that its broad lawns, formerly choked by waist-high weeds as part of Malivette’s deliberate effort to make her property look uninviting, was now neatly trimmed at the regulation three inches above soil level. That, of course, was only the beginning; the entire property had been laid out with tables of food, an outdoor stage where entertainment would be provided, and hung with House crests and banners in the colors of Houses Dufresne, Leduc, and Madouri. Pumpkin-sized apparatuses of crystal floated above the grounds, providing both light and heating charms that kept the environs comfortable despite Veilgrad’s lethal midwinter chill. That alone had been a staggering expense, but for aristocrats, wildly grandiose displays of wealth and power were not an indulgence but a necessity for survival. No one who walked the halls of power lacked enemies, and enemies would pounce upon any perceived weakness.

Natchua wished they would go ahead and pounce so she could vaporize somebody. All this pomp and ceremony was wearing on her nerves.

Every culture had its rituals, and so there was a procedure for events such as this. Guests had begun to arrive, and had been trickling into the protected warmth of the grounds for over half an hour, with servants (Ravana’s on loan, as the hostess employed no staff save her four vampiric thralls) collecting winter coats at the gates. A string quartet played on the stage, more servants distributed food and drink, and the arriving lower nobility and other guests circulated with one another at apparent ease, but by the customs of Imperial aristocracy, the party had not officially begun.

The three Duchesses—Natchua’s adoption and Sherwin’s abdication had been an anticlimactically quiet affair which took place earlier in the day, in an office with lawyers—stood atop the steps to the Manor itself, each beneath a hanging banner bearing her House’s crest. They just stood there, the picture of poise, waiting until they judged the grounds had filled enough to start the party properly. At that point, they would descend and begin to circulate themselves; until then, the guests kept their distance—even the various Last Rock invitees, who had had to have the proprieties explained to them just like Natchua—and made an effort not even to stare at their hostesses, at least not openly. Natchua had asked whether they couldn’t do this part sitting down, and been informed that that was only appropriate for provincial rulers, and Malivette and Ravana had abstained from seats so as to make a show of their support for her by not putting her in a subordinate position.

Natchua couldn’t decide if this was better than Narisian rituals or much worse. She was still hung up on the fact that she was now an aristocrat, and in fact a rich and very powerful one. Nothing about it felt real.

“Well, well,” Malivette murmured as the three stood there like graceful statuary. “Irana Daraspian actually showed up. She must smell opportunity.”

“You invited a Daraspian?” Ravana replied equally softly but with scorn weighing her voice.

“All of them; they’re my neighbors. I didn’t imagine any would show. Irana heads a minor branch of the House down in Anteraas. Well, bluff called! Now we shall have to be warm and welcoming, and follow up with diplomatic and business opportunities for her, the scheming little bitch.”

“Even I know the Daraspians are trouble,” Natchua said at the same low volume. “What’s the worst case if we make this one unwelcome? I thought you said anybody who actually showed up would be lower nobility, not powerful enough to matter.”

“Our whole gambit here required us to move fast,” Malivette replied. “This necessitated incredibly short notice for the party. To invite nobility to a social event with less than a day’s notice is an insult; the dignity of the more powerful Houses demanded they snub us.”

Ravana picked up the explanation when she paused for breath. “To insult someone and then make it worth their while is a power move; to heap insult upon insult with no recompense is asking to be ganged up on by minor players who wouldn’t dare attack us on their own. Tonight we shall either gain significant influence among these lesser Houses or make a lot of enemies we don’t need, based on how we treat our guests.”

“What she’s saying, Natchua—”

“Yeah, yeah, be nice to the nest of vipers. I survived in Tar’naris as a farming peasant, I know how to avoid insulting the overbred wealthy.”

“How reassuring,” Ravana said with an audible smile.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Malivette added, “I saw the first one today. From a distance, of course.”

“First…?” Ravana shifted her head subtly to regard her sidelong.

“A young woman in the city. She had bleached her hair white and dyed a green stripe down the center.”

“What— Oy, that’s my thing!” Natchua snapped, barely remembering to remain still and not too loud while Ravana laughed quietly.

“You’re a celebrity, dear,” Malivette said with more than a touch of condescension. “If you’re going to cultivate a unique and striking appearance, people are going to imitate it.”

“Do try to enjoy it; this is the fun part,” Ravana chuckled. “If it becomes a trend, it will inevitably run its course and then you will find yourself the target of mockery for continuing to express a fashion which has fallen from vogue.”

“That is the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard of.”

“Then you need to get out more,” Malivette said merrily. “If it makes you feel better, those colors look repulsive on a human.”

“Why on this blighted earth would that make me feel better?”

“Mm, that one’s Irana Daraspian, yes?” Ravana interjected. “In the red gown and with that thing in her hair?”

“It’s called a tiara, Ravana,” Malivette explained. “Yes, that’s she.”

“It is an asinine affectation and in the days when they were a sign of rank a bottom-feeder like her would be asking for a flogging by wearing it. But now I see she has found friends. And if I am not mistaken, those simpletons are trying to bully Juniper.”

“Lady Sarideh and Lady Volsten,” Malivette said. “I didn’t know they knew each other. Those are both new Houses, elevated after the Enchanter Wars. Little more than merchant syndicates that own some land. Still, there’ll be no end of paperwork if Juniper does them like they’re asking for.”

“June is very serious about her religion,” Natchua said, “and she’s not the kind of Omnist who’s into martial arts. She’ll speak politely to them until she gets tired of it and then walk—yep, there she goes.”

Across the lawn, the disinterested dryad had turned and strolled away from the three noblewomen with no outward sign of discomfiture. Unlike her ever-present pet Sniff, who raised his crest and hissed loudly, causing Lady Volsten to shriek and accidentally hurl her champagne glass. A ripple of laughter spread through the surrounding party guests.

“I cannot fathom what those three were trying to achieve,” Ravana murmured wonderingly.

“Juniper is prettier than they are, and has more powerful friends,” Malivette explained. “Thus, they went on the attack to cut her down. You surprise me, Ravana. This is Rich Girl 101.”

“I’m afraid my upbringing was rather…isolated. My understanding of noble society more heavily emphasized coercion and the thwarting of assassins than forming social ties.”

“That explains everything just so very well,” the vampire muttered.

Natchua’s lips curled in a reminiscent smile and she softly recited, “Two is the optimal number of hench wenches for the appearance-minded alpha bitch.”

“See?” Malivette said. “Even the surly drow knows this stuff better than you. We have got to bring you to more parties, Ravana.”

“Why two?” the Duchess Madouri demanded, still quietly but indulging in a tone of overt annoyance. “It seems to me that in any form of warfare, even social, the greater one’s forces, the better.”

“One follower is just a friend hanging out with you,” Natchua explained. “More than that, and you start having problems managing the pack, plus the risk increases of one aspiring to unseat your position.”

“None of my friends behave that way,” Ravana said, frowning. “It sounds exhausting and self-defeating.”

“If you’re referring to your roommates, they’re all working-class people and thus more generally sensible than nobles,” Natchua agreed. “Anyway, did you see how those other two flanked Daraspian, one to each side? Social threat display. You can target one victim with that for good effect, while keeping the group small enough to maneuver through crowds, and best of all it emphasizes who’s in command.”

“I am more than a little disturbed to learn how much you’re absorbing from those succubi of yours,” Malivette commented.

Ravana glanced sidelong down their own formation, where Malivette, as the hostess, stood in the center.

“Oh, well played, Vette.”

“Ain’t my first rodeo, cowgirl,” the vampire said smugly.

“What the hell?” Natchua suddenly hissed, her eyes fixing on the gates and the figures which had just stepped through them. “What are they doing here?”

“Easy,” Malivette soothed. “Remember, poise. Don’t let them unsettle you.”

“Which one of you invited her?”

“Neither of us know the drow, I assumed it was you.”

“I sent announcement messages to my mother and Matriarch Ezrakhai stating that House Dalmiss was specifically unwelcome here—”

“Nice,” Malivette said with an approving grin. “Power move.”

“—but I definitely didn’t reach out to her!”

Ravana cleared her throat softly. “That is my friend Magister Talvrin, who is here at my invitation, and I gather, her surprising choice of plus one.”

The two women who had just stepped into the grounds caused a wide ripple of reaction from the assembled minor nobility. Of them, Talvrin was by far the most ostentatious, wearing a gown that appeared to be woven from shimmering streamers of azure light. A heavy golden mantle hovered six inches off her shoulders, trailing another light-woven cape down her back, and above her head floated a bejeweled circlet which slowly rotated in the air.

At her side, looking spartan by comparison in her dark formal robes, was Matriarch Ashaele of House Awarrion.

“Do you suppose she’s naked under that lightshow?” Malivette wondered.

“You know she can hear us, right?” Natchua muttered.

“Yup.”

Just below them, a man approached the steps a shade closer than was strictly proper given that the Duchesses had not officially started the festivities. Lars Dufresne, formerly Grusser as recently as that morning and now legally Malivette’s son despite being roughly her age, glanced pointedly around at the crowd and then gave his head of House a significant look with his eyebrows raised. Notably, he had spent the last several minutes discreetly gathering the attendees who the Duchesses knew from Last Rock; they had now arranged themselves in a staggered formation that at a glance looked like nothing but people standing around chatting but which nonetheless formed a bulwark between the steps and the crowd beyond.

“Your man has a deft hand at these maneuvers, Malivette,” Ravana said with clear approval. “I see why you chose him.”

“I am so glad Sherwin didn’t want to come,” Natchua muttered.

“And I believe he’s right,” Malivette decided. “Come, ladies. It’s time to face the music.”

As one, they stepped forward and down the stairs. The entire party responded, everyone shifting to face them and breaking into polite applause as the three heads of House finally set foot on the ground and began, officially, to mingle.

Thanks to Lars’s tactics, they were first met by friendly faces which protected them from the fortune-seekers beyond. Most of those closest by were the guests currently staying at Ravana’s mansion, though a few others from the school itself had turned up in response to the belated invitations.

Professor Rafe inhaled deeply, his thin chest swelling as he prepared to deliver his customary greeting.

Malivette pointed one finger at him. “So help me, little man, I will drain you like a shot of bourbon.”

At Rafe’s side, Professor Yornhaldt drove a blocky elbow into his waist, eliciting a grunt. “Thank you for thinking of us, ladies, this is just the diversion the winter break needed. Arachne said she might drop by later.”

“Meaning,” Rafe added, “she’ll only show up when she can make a grand entrance and be the center of attention.”

“Oh, good,” Ravana said cheerfully, “something to look forward to.”

Natchua, meanwhile, had gravitated toward the current junior class, those who had come, her eyes flicking to Trissiny’s extra guest.

“Teal and Shaeine have an important event in Madouris tonight,” Toby said to her, “and Ruda stayed to support them.”

“That’s perfectly fine,” Natchua assured them. “This was stupidly short notice and it’s very good of you all to have come. I really appreciate it.”

“Wow,” said Gabriel, “not even noble for a day and somebody’s already taught her manners.”

“Trissiny,” Natchua said pleasantly, “if Gabe’s gonna act like this all night I may loan you one of the punchbowls.”

The Hand of Avei heaved a sigh. “I’m never gonna live that down, am I?”

“Yeah, people are so dramatic,” Natchua agreed with a solemn nod. “You waterboard one person in public and everybody gets an attitude.”

“This is a great party, Natchua! Congratulations on everything!” Fross chimed, zipping around her head. “I never would’ve expected this but I really hope it works out well for you! Do you think Vette would mind if I examined these levitating constructs? They’ve got several really powerful static enchantments that you don’t often see combined but the overall structure is quite elegantly designed! I promise I won’t break one!”

“I…guess that’s…and she’s gone,” Natchua said, watching Fross’s glow disappear as the pixie zoomed right into the corona of light around one of the floating sources of heat and illumination. “So! If I had to guess, you must be Bishop Darling.”

“That I am,” he said with a gallant bow, taking her hand and raising it gracefully to his lips. “My heartfelt congratulations on your ascendance, Duchess Leduc. This is precisely the kick in the pants to Imperial nobility that Eserites like myself love to watch unfold.” Straightening back up, he winked as he released her hand. “Tell me, before I embarrass myself, what’s your policy on social flirting?”

“That’s…very flattering, your Grace,” she said with a smile of surprised amusement, “but I’m not on the market.”

“Oh, good heavens no, I’m way too old for you anyway. Sometimes the fun of a chase is not the catch, though. Have you ever seen a dog running after an enchanted carriage and then looking lost and confused when it stopped?”

“Wow,” she said. “You were not kidding, Trissiny. I think I owe you an apology.”

Darling turned a sidelong look on Trissiny. “Oh? Scale of one to ten, Thorn, how offended should I be?”

“How offended do you want to be?” she retorted. “I’m flexible.”

“Anyway,” said Darling, “I understand you wished to have a private chat later, your Grace, which would of course be both an honor and a pleasure. More the former than the latter, don’t worry! But I wouldn’t dream of monopolizing your time so early in the evening.”

“What’s this, now?” Malivette inquired, sliding into the conversation. “And a good evening to you, Bishop Darling, how absolutely lovely to see you again.”

“Duchess Dufresne! You’ve done an absolute wonder with this place, I swear I didn’t recognize it.”

Natchua glanced rapidly between them and then smirked. “Well, discretion aside, Malivette is my dear friend and political ally, and I wouldn’t dream of going behind her back. Vette, Trissiny was good enough to bring the Bishop at my request. I wanted to see about bringing the local Guild presence back up to a full complement for a city this size.”

Malivette was holding a wineglass. Her grip did not visibly shift, and her already-bloodless fingers didn’t whiten when flexed anyway, but abruptly a hairline crack appeared on it. “Did you, now?” she inquired in a saccharine tone that made most of the onlookers take a step back.

“Why, my dear Duchess,” Darling said smoothly, “I do hope this is not an unwelcome surprise! If you have some…specific objection to an Eserite presence in your city, I should be only too happy to convey it to Boss Tricks. I’m sure he would be most intrigued to hear exactly why.”

The vampire turned her pleasant smile upon him, saying nothing. He smiled right back, not yielding an inch.

“As much as I’m tempted to see how this plays out,” Natchua interjected, “you need to settle down, Vette. You’re the one who set up our whole alliance of Houses, here. You’re surely aware that Ravana has already thrust herself into the middle of the Shaathist schism on the reformist side, and how that places us with regard to the Universal Church. Whatever else Eserites do, right now strengthening ties with the Thieves’ Guild is just good sense.”

“After tomorrow,” Toby interjected in a tone of calm that seemed to almost forcibly leech some of the tension from the air, “that position will also bring you into alignment with the three Trinity cults. I don’t pretend to understand the undercurrents here, but Natchua is correct. It’s an advantageous position.”

“Perhaps we should indeed have a nice, discreet chat about this,” Malivette said. “I trust you won’t mind if I tag along, your Grace?”

“Why, your Grace, if Duchess Leduc doesn’t object, nothing ever makes me happier than the company of yet another charming young lady,” he said smoothly.

“Omnu’s breath,” Gabriel said, staring at him. “How do women not stab you? I would get stabbed, acting like that.”

“Yeah, you probably would, Gabe,” Darling agreed. “The secret is to pick your targets. It’s actually not difficult to avoid pestering people who won’t find it funny.”

Trissiny smiled mischievously. “And yet…”

“You hush it,” Gabriel ordered. “Anyway, Natch, I don’t see, um…”

“Jonathan’s inside, hanging out with the servants in the kitchen,” she said. “He was almost as put off as me at the thought of having to hobnob with nobles, and since I’m the only one who actually has to I didn’t have the heart to insist he join me out here. And Hesthri is here. Over there, by the buffet. She’s wearing a disguise ring and serving canapes.”

Gabriel straightened up, scowling. “You made her serve food?”

“Her idea,” Natchua clarified grinning at him, “and she thought it was hilarious. I mostly went along because I was curious whether you’d forget you were supposed to be all suspicious of her and get offended on her behalf. Thanks a lot, by the way, now I owe Jonathan a doubloon.”

He stared at her, blinking repeatedly, while Trissiny and Toby looked elsewhere and did a poor job of not laughing out loud.

“Anyway,” Natchua said, nodding as gracefully as she could manage to everyone, “please excuse me for scampering off, but I need to go have a…less pleasant conversation. I’ll chat with you soon, Bishop Darling. And all of you, I hope. I’ll probably be in desperate need of better company before this night is over.”

“I don’t know about better,” Toby said with a smile, “but we can probably do less stressful. Break a leg, Natch.”

She smiled at him and turned away. The expression slid off her face, replaced by a grim stare as she strode straight for Talvrin and Ashaele.

Watching her go, Darling let out a low whistle. “I wonder if it might be safest to remove ourselves from the fallout radius?”

“Natchua has her issues, but she’s not some kind of wild animal,” Gabriel said grudgingly. “It’s not like she’ll— What the hell?”

All of them turned as their group was approached by a fifth, Malivette having already slipped away to join Ravana in speaking with some of the others from Last Rock. The paladins and Bishop all raised their eyebrows in surprised response to their new arrival’s welcoming smile.

“Good evening, children. Antonio,” she said, nodding her head courteously.

“Branwen,” said Darling, staring at her. “Well, well. I was…specifically not expecting you.”

“How the hell’d you get in here?” Gabriel demanded. “There’s no way you were invited.”

“It’s a funny thing, celebrity,” Bishop Snowe replied with a benign smile. “When one is a Bishop of the Universal Church and a well-known columnist and public speaker, one seldom encounters servants willing to risk turning one away.”

“Mm,” Toby murmured blandly. “When you put it like that, it stands to reason. I guess you don’t even strictly need to be a busty redhead anymore.” Trissiny and Gabriel both turned to him in utter surprise; Darling clenched his lips to suppress a grin.

Bishop Snowe was not in the least put off, just smiling mischievously at Toby. “No, that’s purely for my own enjoyment, although it doesn’t hurt. That’s here, though. The guardians of Madouri Manor are made of more disciplined stuff; that tends to be the case in any household overseen by a Butler. Regardless, I don’t plan to remain long enough to wear out my welcome. Speaking of invitations, I am only here to deliver one, in a manner of speaking. Antonio, would you excuse us for a moment?”

Darling raised one eyebrow, and then turned to the paladins. “What do you think? Shall I excuse you for a moment?”

“We like him more than you,” Trissiny said curtly to Snowe. “What do you want?”

“As you wish,” she replied with a gracious bow of her head. Then she straightened and her intonation shifted to a formal, even ceremonious declamation as she held her head high. “Hands of Avei, Omnu, and Vidius, by the ancient compact of the Universal Church which binds together the faiths of the Pantheon in common cause, you are summoned by his Holiness Archpope Justinian to his presence.”

They all stared at her in astonished silence.

“Not right this minute, of course,” Branwen continued, abruptly reverting to her pleasantly casual demeanor. “Please, take your time and enjoy the party; I understand the new Duchess Leduc is rather counting on your support. But this evening, afterward, his Holiness awaits you at the Grand Cathedral. I fear it will be rather late by then, but perhaps it’s for the best. With most of the world asleep, you should have a greater expectation of privacy.”

“And for what possible reason would we wish to accommodate him?” Toby asked at last.

“He doesn’t actually have the authority to command us,” Trissiny added, “and quite frankly I’m disinclined to create the impression that he can.”

“It is an invitation,” Branwen said gently, “not a command. But I cannot imagine why you would want to decline, in all honesty.”

“Yes you can,” Darling replied in apparently perfect calm. “Don’t play games like that with this lot, Bran, it’s really not helping your case.”

“Very well, my apologies,” she said, nodding her head again. “I of course cannot speak for his Holiness’s inner thoughts; I know only what he has told me. And in all honesty, he does take actions which I neither understand nor approve of. But I remain loyal to his cause, because he has earned that trust from me. I suppose, however,” she went on in a musing tone, “that if I were in his position, I would consider your unfolding plot to politically attack him and preemptively set you up to discredit yourselves by refusing a perfectly reasonable invitation to talk in favor of partying with your warlock drow friend. In what amounts to a battle of public appearances, such things do matter a great deal.”

They all stared at her again, once more reduced to silence.

“On the other hand,” Branwen said pleasantly, “perhaps I am just employing reverse psychology to nudge you in the direction I want. I suppose it must be a dilemma.”

“Gabe,” said Trissiny, staring at the Izarite Bishop, “fetch me a punchbowl.”

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