16 – 12

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The carriage eased smoothly up to the curb, a sleek and expensive model that would have looked entirely suitable for this wealthy neighborhood except for the Falconer Industries logo on its doors marking it a company vehicle. One of those doors swung open and Trissiny slid out, pausing the second her boots had met the pavement to point accusingly back into the rear seat.

“No! Sit.”

Behind her, F’thaan retreated, sitting down on the seat as instructed—with a whine of protest, but he did it.

“Good boy,” the paladin said with a smile, reaching in to scratch the demonic hound between his horns. He wasn’t quite full-grown, still possessing the lankiness and boundless energy of the puppy he’d been not long ago, but he had most of the height he would grow into, making it a very good thing that one of his owners was a strict disciplinarian.

“We’ll be back to pick you up at four,” Teal said from the driver’s seat as Trissiny finally stepped back, pushing the carriage door shut.

“Thanks again,” she replied cheerfully. “You two enjoy your day!”

“You, as well,” Shaeine said, favoring Trissiny with a rare smile of real warmth. Since their ritual at the Desolate Gardens, the drow had been generally more open with members of their group, but even still she was normally restrained in public.

Enchantments hummed back to full power as Teal guided the carriage forward and on up the street, and Trissiny turned to cross the short garden path with long strides, still smiling in anticipation.

The townhouse’s door opened exactly two seconds after her knock, revealing the familiar countenance of Glory’s Butler, who greeted her with a shallow bow and a small smile of genuine welcome. “Good morning, Ms. Avelea. It is a pleasure to see you again.”

“Hello again, Smythe,” she replied. “How’s everyone?”

“Quite well, as they will tell you at more length.” He stepped back, bowing and gesturing her gracefully forward. “Please, come in. And brace yourself.”

Trissiny had just stepped through the door and barely registered his warning before a whoop echoed off the marble and hardwood of the foyer and she was tackled from above.

But pure reflex she spun, gripping the person who’d just landed on her and tossing her in a flawless shoulder throw, which the acrobat negated by jackknifing her entire body around Trissiny’s and landing squarely on her back.

“Oof! Tallie, come on!”

“What is this?” Tallie demanded, clinging to Trissiny by wrapping her legs around her waist and grabbing two handfuls of her hair. “No, no, this won’t do it all! It looks wrong. Change it back immediately!”

“That’s its natural color, you goon. And don’t pull on it, what’s wrong with you?”

“It just isn’t right on you! You’re just so brunette, right to your core.”

“What does that even mean?”

“C’mon, let’s get you to a salon, my treat.”

“Oh, honestly, Tallie,” Layla sniffed, sauntering into the foyer from the nearby sitting room, “is there nothing you won’t nitpick? I quite like it, blondes are just so exotic. Hello, Trissiny!”

She stepped forward to wrap her arms around Trissiny in a hug, deftly slipping them in between Tallie’s grip.

“Hi, Layla,” Trissiny said resignedly, patting her back. “Good to see you, too. Is there some trick to getting her off?”

“Glory has had some luck with dog biscuits. Honestly, unless she starts gnawing your ears it’s simplest to just wait for her to get bored.”

“Wow, you just put on a show wherever you go, don’cha,” Darius drawled, leaning against the door frame with his arms crossed. That lasted for one second until Rasha, who had plenty of room to slip through the door, nonetheless bumped him out of position in passing.

“Which part of this do you think was my idea?” Trissiny demanded, spreading her arms wide I a helpless gesture accentuated by the two young women clinging to her. “What, nobody else wants to pile on, too?”

“Excuse me,” Darius said haughtily, “but some of us remember how to be ladylike.”

“It’s true, he’s an inspiration to us all,” Rasha added, grinning broadly. “Gods, it’s good to see you again! Or it will be, I guess, when I can see all of you. Don’t listen to the wench, I love your hair. The blonde goes a lot better with your complexion.”

“I’m surrounded by traitors,” Tallie exclaimed, currently trying to braid Trissiny’s hair while still clinging to her like a monkey. “Tasteless traitors!”

“You know, until this moment, I’ve honestly never in my life spared a thought for how my hair looks,” Trissiny huffed.

“That’ll be the Avenist upbringing,” Layla replied solemnly, having finally released her and stepped back. “Don’t you worry, we’ll fix that. Just wait till I teach you how to contour!”

“Hey, wait a second,” Tallie protested. “Why am I the wench?”

“We all ask ourselves that, Tallie,” said Darius.

Smythe cleared his throat discreetly. “Glory and the other guest await in the green parlor. If you would follow me?”

“Well, I’d sure like to,” Trissiny said pointedly. “Wait, other guest?”

“Sorry to steal your thunder, Triss,” said Rasha. “This one was unexpected. Well, to us, anyway. I’m never sure how much Glory knows in advance.”

“And Glory likes it that way,” Layla added.

“Miss Tallie,” Smythe said diffidently, “I’m sure you don’t want another lecture about using the floor like everyone else.”

“This comes up a lot, does it,” said Trissiny.

“It’s usually about her clambering around on the ceiling,” Darius explained.

“I am unappreciated in my time,” groused Tallie, finally hopping down. “One day you’ll all be sorry!”

“Every day, hon,” Rasha assured her.

Trissiny found herself chuckling as they filed through the door into the parlor, herself in the middle of the line with Smythe bringing up the rear. “I’ve really missed you guys.”

In the green parlor, Glory was ensconced gracefully in the thronelike armchair with the high back, positioned before the windows and between two small potted fig trees, a bit of carefully arranged theater which was all part of her skill at controlling the room. True to form, she did not rise—no one who occupied an actual throne did so to greet a visitor—but leaned forward slightly with a smile of such warmth that her welcome was unmistakable.

“Thorn! It’s a delight to see you again; we’ve all been so looking forward to your visit. And your hair! That color is so fetching on you. Or I gather it was, before that unfortunate attempt at a braid. Tallie’s work?”

“Am I gonna have to take offense here?” Tallie demanded.

“Take two,” said Rasha, “and check back with us if the swelling doesn’t subside.”

“Thank you for inviting me, Glory,” Trissiny said, reaching up and grimacing as she tried to pull the braid loose with her fingers. “It’s good to see you, too! And also…” She turned toward the other person in the room, raising her eyebrows.

“There she is!” Sweet said brightly, waving in welcome with the hand not occupied with a small plate of butter cookies. “It has been a hound’s age, Thorn! Always a relief to see you haven’t been murdered yet.”

“Give it a week, it’s the holidays. All my enemies are on vacation. I didn’t realize you missed me this much, Sweet.”

“Alas,” he declaimed, “my normal roguish charm and Glory’s excellent cookies may give the wrong impression! But no, I’m afraid this is not a social call. For I am Sweet, crasher of parties and rainer upon parades!”

“Tooter of his own horn, yes, we’re all familiar with your resume. What can I do for you?”

“Why don’t we all make ourselves comfortable if we’re going to talk business?” Glory suggested in that skillful manner of hers which had the force of a command despite being light and gentle in tone. “I’ll not have a guest in my home pestered when she’s not even had something warm to take the chill off.”

Smythe was smooth to the point of being ephemeral, breezing through their formation like a hospitable ghost with such efficiency that by the time all five of them found their way into seats, each was carrying a plate of cookies and a cup of spiced tea.

“For serious, though, I am sorry to butt in on this,” Sweet said in a less playful tone, nodding to Trissiny and then Glory. “I know this is the big reunion and all, and I hate to make you talk business the second you’re in the door. Unfortunately, my job is about six times as difficult without the structure of the Church bureaucracy to help me along, and I’ve gotta grab what I can get.”

“What’s going on with that, by the way?” Trissiny asked. “I know why there’s still not an Avenist Bishop; Justinian’s dragging his heels on confirming any candidates. How long is the Guild planning to boycott the Church?”

“Oh, man, that’s a big question,” he said, grimacing. “Unfortunately, it’s basically a siege at this point. Tricks was hoping the embarrassment of having a member cult deliberately cut ties—which is unprecedented since the Enchanter Wars—would push Justinian into making some concessions, but he stood his ground, and now that the shock’s good and worn off, he is in exactly the same position he was before, but we can’t change course without so completely losing face that he’d have the permanent upper hand in every subsequent negotiation.”

“The other outcome we hoped for has also not materialized, despite Sweet’s efforts,” Glory added, nodding to the Bishop. “None of the other cults have seen fit to join us and the Avenists in solidarity.”

“Not that we don’t have sympathy,” said Sweet, “or even allies, but… Well, of the other cults that are skeptical of Justinian and inclined to agree with us, it’s not enough for them to want to disadvantage themselves, especially after they’ve seen how the Guild has been frozen out. In the last few months, Gwenfaer has taken to deliberately interfering with Justinian’s plans to the point he has personally called Bishop Raskin down on the carpet, but even so, Raskin remains at his post. I can relate; there’s a lot of advantage in maintaining access. That’s exactly why I stuck by his side for as long as I did. This was a risky maneuver, which…didn’t exactly work out for us.”

“There is also the case of the Izarites,” said Glory, pursing her lips in disapproval. “The Brethren have grown downright cold toward the Church, but Bishop Snowe herself is deep in Justinian’s pocket. At this point, it’s more likely that High Priestess Delaine will dismiss her from her position entirely than direct her to withdraw from the Cathedral. And she is reluctant to do even that, both to avoid the disadvantages the Guild and Sisterhood currently suffer, and because Izarites are traditionally very hands-off with their Bishop.”

“So what I’m hearing is the Pantheon cults are mostly a bunch of spineless chickenshits, that about right?” Tallie inquired.

“Some of ‘em,” Sweet said with clear amusement. “Some just have no care for politics, and many of those that do espouse the practice of keeping one’s enemies close.”

Trissiny heaved a sigh. “What a mess. I can’t help feeling some of this is my fault.”

“The Sisterhood’s situation, maybe,” Sweet said frankly. “But you did the right thing. After what we learned, there was just no ethical way to leave Basra where she was. In hindsight I am not proud of the years I spent making use of her, even given all the hints of what a warped piece of work she could be.”

“Well,” Trissiny said with a small grin, “use is one thing. In Ninkabi I did convince her to give me a hand.”

Darius choked on his tea.

“Yes, that must’ve been embarrassing for her,” Sweet said solemnly. “To have victory within her grasp, and then…”

“I guess her grip on the situation wasn’t as firm as she thought.”

“Y’might say you beat her to the punch!”

“Really, you two,” Glory said disapprovingly.

“Uh, what am I missing, here?” Tallie asked, glancing back and forth between them in confusion. Rasha leaned over and whispered in her ear; in the next moment she burst out laughing so hard Layla preemptively confiscated her teacup before it could spill.

“Well, anyway,” Trissiny said, suppressing her smile, “I gather all this wasn’t what you wanted to talk about.”

“No indeed,” said Sweet, leaning forward to set his cup down on the low table before his chair. “So, Underboss Pizazz informs me that you’re staying with Duchess Madouri over the break.”

“Yes, that’s so,” she said warily. “Is that…a problem?”

“Oh, not at all,” Sweet reassured her. “You’re not in any trouble, don’t worry. But Tricks and Pizazz are both curious about some points, and you being here is a handy opportunity for me to get a few questions answered, if you don’t mind.”

“Well, I don’t see why I would,” Trissiny said, shrugging. “I’m under no obligation to keep Ravana’s secrets. Actually, I don’t think I know any of her secrets.”

“Wait, hang on,” Darius interjected, “I need to clear something up, here. Am I to understand that the Underboss of Madouris is called Pizazz?”

“A thief’s tag is a sacrament, apprentice,” Glory said coolly. “One attached to someone who knows multiple ways to kick your ass. Aside from proper decorum, you should consider whether someone who got to be a city Underboss with a moniker that makes people laugh is worth offending.”

“Noted,” he mumbled.

“The Guild’s leadership in general is quite curious about the Duchess,” Sweet continued, “being that she is a newer face in the political scene and already notably unpredictable, and especially due to her being far more willing to work with us than practically any sitting noble.”

“Really?” Layla asked, visibly intrigued. “The Duchess Madouri cooperates with the Guild? Who initiated that?”

“She did, in fact,” said Sweet. “After she took over the province, her first act was to start dismantling her father’s old network of corrupt cronies who were running it into the ground. A good thing to do, of course; equally of course, the network of corrupt cronies didn’t care to get dismantled. The Duchess found that deploying law enforcement was a lot slower, pricier, and less certain than informing the Guild in detail of what these bastards had been doing and how to reach them, and then making sure that neither the courts nor the papers took an interest in anything that followed.”

“Damn,” Darius muttered. “Sounds…actually like a pretty good ally.”

Trissiny made a face. “Ehhh…”

“And that is Tricks’s position exactly,” Darling stated, pointing at her and nodding. “That girl is…well, she’s a case, all right. We’re very interested in gaining some insight into her. She sensibly keeps everyone at arm’s length, but every hint that emerges points to a pretty spooky individual who is very good at maintaining a positive public reputation. You can see why we’re anxious to get a perspective from someone who knows her personally, good ally or no.”

“I think Ravana is…useful,” Trissiny said slowly. “Cooperating with her up to a point could be very beneficial indeed, but I wouldn’t recommend trusting her outright. You should be wary of what she might do. Which, I suppose, is exactly what the Boss and Pizazz have been doing. Guess that doesn’t add much, does it?”

“Well, you’re the one on a first name basis with her,” Sweet said, giving her an encouraging nod. “Any deeper insight to offer?”

Trissiny frowned at the window for a moment, gathering her thoughts. “This may not make much sense, but… Well, I actually had a fairly deep conversation with Ravana just last night, and the impression I was left with was that I’d probably consider her an absolute monster if I hadn’t seen glimpses of the little girl who grew up alone and unloved.”

“No contradiction there at all,” he said immediately. “That is exactly how monsters get made.” Glory nodded in silent agreement.

“She’s got this peculiar philosophy she’s developed,” Trissiny continued, “about how being a just and generous ruler is purely the act of a far-thinking pragmatist, with no room for sentiment. Honestly, I think Ravana truly wants to be a good person and do the right thing, but has to try to rationalize decent actions to herself to fit with her self-image as a ruthless tyrant, because she’s got it into her head that kindness is for fools and suckers.”

“Oh, come on,” Tallie scoffed, “nobody could be that twisted in the brain and function.”

“Well, don’t take my word for it,” Trissiny said dryly, “let’s check with the actual nobles in the room.”

Darius and Layla were both already nodding.

“Oh, I could absolutely see an aristocrat ending up that way,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I have never seen that specific mindset in person, but it really isn’t hard to imagine someone working themselves around to that perspective.”

“You have to understand what it is like, growing up with all that privilege, all those expectations and luxury and power,” Layla said more pensively. “You have to find a way to justify it, and as you get old enough to see what the world and other people are like, that grows progressively harder. Stupid individuals, of course, go through life never questioning anything, but those with an ounce of wit? Well, one of two things happens: they either double down on their self-obsession, or have to reach some kind of…accommodation. Some run away from it, like Darius and I; others build up a mental framework for their world that makes it seem fair and right that they enjoy their position, and then naturally get violent when that cage is shaken. People assume nobles are just arrogant and greedy—and make no mistake, they are—but the truth is that unless they reject their positions, they have to find a way to feel right, and justified. Otherwise their entire world doesn’t make sense anymore. And anyone will fight like a cornered animal if you try to take away their comfortable understanding of reality.”

“All that sounds like a lot of reasons why I should feel pity for the poor little rich kids,” Tallie said, her voice dripping skepticism.

“Layla makes a very good point, in fact,” Glory said softly. “I have observed that very pattern during my long association with the various rich and powerful of Tiraas. Empathy, Tallie, is a potent weapon you should never hastily discard. Only when you understand someone’s mind and can feel their heart can you truly destroy them.”

Rasha nodded thoughtfully.

“This is actually pretty helpful,” Sweet mused. “Maybe not in the most immediately strategic sense, but knowing the shape of the girl’s mindset helps me get a feel for where we stand. I did notice she backed off on pushing that narrative about you three paladins being the new heroes of the people not long into the new academic semester, Thorn. Your doing?”

“Oh, you’d better believe we all leaned on her about that,” Trissiny said, grimacing.

“Huh,” Darius grunted. “Reading those papers, I thought you were in cahoots with her about it.”

“Everyone did,” Rasha said softly. “That, obviously, is why she did it.”

“Overall, I’m getting the impression you’re not overly fond of her,” said Sweet, watching Trissiny closely.

“In a personal sense? Honestly, no.”

“Hm. If you don’t mind my asking, why agree to spend the holidays with her, then?”

“She’s been pushing for it pretty much all semester,” she said, frowning ruminatively. “Most of us have other things we usually do during breaks, but Ravana was really set on having the whole group together off-campus. Ultimately, everybody had their own reasons for agreeing. I was…well, curious. All the nobles I know are either Last Rock fringe cases, deliberate self-exiles like Layla and Darius, or absolute vicious deviants who live permanently up their own butts, like that arrogant naga Irina Araadia. It’s like Glory said: you can’t really fight someone unless you understand them. Looking at the world now, I’m getting the impression I am going to end up butting heads with as many entrenched politicians as warlocks and necromancers and whatnot. Ravana is a convenient opportunity to observe the species up close.”

“The species,” Layla sniffed. “Very nice.”

“Accurate, though,” Darius said, grinning.

“Ah, so this is a learning opportunity for you, as well,” Sweet chuckled.

“A very wise approach,” Glory said approvingly.

“Overall,” Trissiny went on, “nothing I’ve seen makes me think Ravana is going to be a threat to the Guild’s interests. She has nothing like an Eserite mindset, but I think that in general she’ll be inclined to do what’s best for the people of her province, even if her reasons are a bit squirrelly. But I’d caution the Boss and Pizazz never to take that for granted. I don’t think the woman actually has any moral scruples; she actively disdains the idea of them. If she decides something is in the best interests of her duty, well, no moral consideration is going to make her even hesitate. But she does take that duty seriously.”

“All very good to know,” Sweet said, nodding. “Thanks for dishing with me, Thorn, that kind of insight is well worth me coming down here. Pizazz will be glad to hear your thoughts, too. But anyway!” he said, slapping his knee and leaning back, “with that out of the way, I understand there’s another interfaith matter closer to home everybody wanted to bring up with you. Rasha?”

“Rasha?” Trissiny turned to her, raising her eyebrows.

Rasha sighed softly. “Yes, well. I assume you’re familiar with the Purists?”

“Purists?” The paladin’s eyebrows rose further. “Wait, with a capital P? Did you have a brush with one of those ninnies? I am so sorry, Rasha. Quite honestly, nobody has much patience for them. If you just passed their name and location to Grip and let nature take its course, I don’t think anyone in the Sisterhood would even complain.”

A tense silence fell over the room. Trissiny looked at each of them in turn, then sighed grimaced and leaned forward to set down her cup and saucer on the table.

“All right, sounds like I’d better hear the long version. Who do I need to clobber this time?”

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16 – 11

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Natchua was a warlock and an elf; she could both feel the shape of the spells around her, and instantly discern in precise detail their velocity and direction. Instinct alone told her none of the shadowbolts were aimed at her, and held her in place, as several passed close enough to possibly graze her if she were to move.

Instinct only went so far, of course; she did not in the least trust the Black Wreath to be firing off combat spells in her vicinity, and had reflexively summoned the matrix of a shadow well which would draw all of them off course and absorb their energy to be cast back at their creators. Summoned, but did not deploy. In the blindingly rapid thought of that moment, she chose to refrain, prompted by what impulse she could not have precisely articulated. Perhaps this was the quality Elilial had insisted was her innate cunning, the tendency Natchua had to make snap decisions that appeared ludicrous at first glance but ultimately worked out in her benefit, a knack for intuitively making enormously complex calculations based on data of which she wasn’t even consciously aware.

Or maybe she was just impulsive and improbably lucky thus far and sooner than later it was all going to bite her lethally on the ass. Elf or no, Natchua couldn’t think fast enough to ponder this in any detail during the split second in which spells were flying all around her, she just made her choice and was immediately proved right.

Every one of the dozen shadowbolts converged on one of three spots in a rough triangular formation around her, farther out than the ring of Wreath warlocks, and at every impact spot there burst a surge of disrupted arcane magic.

Natchua lashed out with her own craft the instant they were revealed, and none too fast; with their ambush foiled, she was immediately the target of two abortive arcane spells and one physical assault, all of which she neutralized with a combination of shadow tentacles and an on-the-fly reworking of her shadow well to draw off and convert arcane energy.

The entire thing had taken less than a second, and left her standing in the center of a ring of robed cultists, holding three elves in the secure grip of dark tendrils of energy. They were wood elves, to judge by their ears, but in addition to being arcanists were dressed in the most preposterous costumes she’d ever seen. It appeared to be armor of some kind, but was made of a combination of gold and panels of apparent glass which scintillated with blue light. All three were now glaring furiously at her, an emotion to which she could relate.

“And what the fuck is this now?” Natchua demanded, using her tentacles to gratuitously shake the elf closest to the center of her field of view.

“Why, if I’m not very much mistaken,” Embras Mogul drawled with a self-satisfied grin, “these would be a sampling of the famed and mysterious high elves! Higher than most, if they thought ambushing a warlock with arcane spells was a good idea. Hell, what with the year I’m havin’, I wouldn’t turn down a nibble of whatever shroom these three are on.”

She bared her own teeth in displeasure, meeting the glare of the nearest high elf and not enjoying her thoughts on the subject. While living among humans, Natchua had been coasting on her superior reflexes and agility, but in this case, that advantage tipped the other way. These were also elves, and not only that, but clearly trained military; they were undoubtedly faster and more precise than she, even encumbered by armor. She hadn’t had the slightest hint they were sneaking up on her. No warlock, no caster of any kind, could prevail if they were taken out before they could even form a spell.

Mogul and his Wreath had in all probability just saved her life, and she was not enjoying the realization.

“I’ll deal with you in a minute,” Natchua informed her captives, then turned her glare on Mogul, whose grin did not diminish. “What’s all this about, then? Decided to give up on your revenge?”

“Oh, not in the least,” he assured her, his smile again altering subtly to hint at the snarl of a cornered animal. “Given our history, I simply didn’t enjoy being in your debt. But as for that, we’re square again, and can no resume our discussion of your murderous cruelty and what’s going to happen to you as a result. But while we’re here and on the subject…” Mogul’s grin faded and he tilted his head slightly. “I cannot help being curious. I’m sure you were aware our own skills were heavily dampened by the proximity of a chaos effect. Quite frankly I don’t think we could have extricated ourselves from that situation once it welled up. Why did you shadow-jump us out of the catacombs? Would’ve been far easier to take advantage and finish what you started in Ninkabi.”

Natchua pursed her lips for a moment before answering. “Yeah, well… Since you brought up Ninkabi, the truth is I felt kinda bad about it.”

“You felt,” said the female warlock who’d chewed her out last time, “bad. You felt bad. About stuffing us all in chaos space to die?”

“Well, wouldn’t you?” Natchua asked sweetly.

“Bitch, it is inconceivable that no one’s murdered you yet.”

“People keep trying, but I guess I’m just that much better than all of you.”

“Listen, you—”

“You listen,” she snapped, leveling a finger at the hooded woman. “I stand by every word I said to you in that tomb. What happened to you was no worse than you deserved, and apparently less than you deserved since so many of you survived it. But with that said, the whole maneuver was a matter of what I could physically do in that moment to take you off the board. Upon consideration… That is not something I would choose to do to anybody if I had the luxury of better options or time to plan. So, yeah, you had it coming and I have no patience for your complaints, but it still didn’t sit right with me. Thus, moving you out of range of a chaos effect that, yes, I knew you couldn’t escape yourselves. Besides,” she added begrudgingly, “you did go to all the trouble of warning me there was chaos in those catacombs. It was only fair.”

Mogul’s head shifted slightly as he met Vanessa’s gaze, and then another of his comrade’s, all of their eyes hidden by either hoods or hat brim. “Excuse me,” he said at last, “we did what?”

“Oh, don’t play coy,” Natchua scoffed. “You’re the Wreath, nobody listens to you. So if you want to give someone an important message, you use your overly convoluted Elilinist thinking to lead them into a position to discover it themselves while thinking they’re actually fighting you. And since your whole performance down there didn’t make a damn lick of sense, it was obvious.”

“Huh,” Mogul grunted. “Well, I do follow your logic—and yes, we’ve done that exact thing more than a few times. But no, Natchua, we had no idea there was any lingering chaos energy under or near Veilgrad. I assure you, after our own experiences, none of us want to go within leagues of that shit.”

“Right,” she drawled. “You’re gonna pitch to me that that grandstanding spectacle you put on instead of ambushing me like a sensible person was your real, actual plan? You, servants of the goddess of cunning, went about your vengeance in the one way absolutely guaranteed not to work? Mogul, I don’t get too worked up about people trying to murder me, that’s just business as usual, but if you keep implying I’m stupid our relationship is only gonna go further downhill.”

“I am honestly curious to see how much farther down we could possibly go,” he replied, shoving his hands in the pockets of his suit and adopting a slouched posture. “So, hey! Seems we’re all on track for even more interesting days ahead. Anyway, you scratched my back, I scratched yours, and now we can resume plotting each other’s demise, as the gods intended. Catch ya later, buttercup.”

He snapped his fingers once, and the whole group vanished again, the swelling darkness of their shadow-jumps slightly out of sync compared to the simultaneous departure they’d had when Natchua had removed them from the catacombs.

“Can you believe that guy?” she demanded of the angry-looking high elf still thoroughly ensnared off the ground in the grip of her shadow tendrils. All three had been trying to do some arcane craft or other during the entire conversation, all of which she passively siphoned away before it could form into actual spells. “Like I’m gonna swallow that he really thinks in terms of favors. Bullshit squared, I tell you. If you’re gonna scheme at someone right to their face you should at least admit it! That’s just polite, am I wrong?”

The high elf narrowed his eyes to slits and curled his lip back in a sneer. One of his compatriots began trying to struggle violently until Natchua directed the tentacles to hike her up in the air and shake her roughly.

“Well, anyway,” she said, folding her arms. “What the fuck is your problem? I dunno what makes you think you can go around assaulting people in Imperial territory but you are gonna spend the next little while learning in detail how wrong you are.”

“Natchua yil Nassra y’nad Dalmiss,” he finally spoke in elvish, “you are wanted for multiple crimes against the Elven Confederacy, including but not limited to trafficking with demons, embezzlement of House Dalmiss funds, and assault of Confederate diplomats. By the authority of the Highguard you are placed under arrest. Do you submit to the law?”

She stared at him in silence. Somewhere in the near distance, a lone winter songbird began to add a desolate cheeping to the quiet of the snowy forest.

Natchua gestured with one hand and the tentacles lifted him higher, then deliberately turned him upside down and brought him closer, until she was staring into his green eyes from inches away.

“Buddy,” she said, “part of that was more ridiculous than the rest of it, but I can’t for the life of me decide which.”

“You’re only digging your own grave, warlock,” he grated around clenched teeth. “Resisting lawful arrest and assaulting Highguard will add exponentially to the charges against you. In the end—”

A shadow tentacle stuffed itself in his mouth. To judge by the bulging of his eyes, this pleased him even less than his treatment up till that point.

“I tell you what,” she said with a pleasant smile, “if this is gonna become a legal matter, why don’t we go consult an expert?”

The shadows swelled around them again, and then all four were gone, leaving behind only a wide disturbance in the snow.


“My, my, my,” Malivette crooned. The vampire turned to her right, swiveling her head to keep her eyes fixed on the three captive high elves, still fully ensnared by shadow tendrils now emanating from a dark patch on the floorboards around Natchua’s feet, and began pacing slowly in that direction. “My, my, my, my.”

Coming to a stop, she paused, then turned back the other way and meandered along in reverse, folding her arms behind her back and still watching the elves. “My, my. My, my, my, my.”

Malivette reached the opposite apex of her course, slowly turned again, and started back the other way once more. “My, my—”

“How long does this usually take?” Natchua asked of the Duchess’s escort. Jade lifted a finger to her lips, and Ruby winked at her.

Despite the stark lack of adornment in Dufresne Manor’s entry hall, the vampire’s household had managed to make an impressive display for Natchua’s prisoners, with the black-clad Malivette herself pacing the room like a caged lion. Behind her stood Ruby, Sapphire, Pearl, and Jade in their matching jewel-toned gowns, evenly spaced in a line and holding identical positions with their hands folded demurely at the waist.

“Always the spoilsport, Natchua,” Malivette chided her. “Well, then! I know the Tiraan Empire does not have a unilateral extradition treaty with the Elven Confederacy. I know this because the Tiraan Empire has no treaties with the Elven Confederacy. I know this because the Elven Confederacy has existed for about five minutes and the hot new gossip out of Tiraas these days is how both governments are still informally negotiating the terms under which they’ll start formally negotiating formal negotiations. Thus!”

She stopped her pacing in the exact center of her handmaidens’ formation, framed by Sapphire and Pearl, and batted her eyelashes coquettishly at the captive Highguard.

“By process of deduction, I conclude that your mission is strictly off the books. And therefore, your government is in no position to make any objections if the three of you just disappear. Or are found in well-gnawed pieces in a nearby bear’s den. Y’know, six of one.”

“Is this monster supposed to intimidate us, warlock?” the male high elf sneered at Natchua. “Try harder.”

“You are in the presence of her Grace the Duchess Malivette Esmerelda Dufresne,” Pearl’s voice rang through the hall, “High Seat of House Dufresne, Lady Protector of Veilgrad and Imperial Governor of Lower Stalwar Province, subordinate in this domain only to the Silver Throne itself. You will speak when instructed and not otherwise.”

He didn’t look much impressed by that, but at least he shut up. The two women with him gave him pointed looks, as best they could while trussed up in shadow and suspended in midair.

“Tell me,” Malivette inquired airily, “what would happen to three uninvited interlopers in Qestraceel who took it upon themselves to attack and attempt to abduct a resident? Hmm?” She sidled forward, tilting her head to one side and thrusting her face right into his, crimson eyes widened psychotically despite her smile. “Hmmmmmm?”

He curled his lip in apparent revulsion, but answered her in Tanglish, thickly accented by grammatically correct. “Natchua yil Nassra y’nad Dalmiss is not a citizen of Veilgrad or the Tiraan Empire. She is a citizen of the Elven Confederacy and bound by its laws, and culpable for crimes committed against it.”

“Natchua,” Malivette said sweetly, “with no surname or honorifics, is not a citizen of your made up Confederacy, having renounced her citizenship in Tar’naris before said Confederacy existed. She is a guest I have personally made welcome in my province.”

He narrowed his eyes. “The warrant is valid. You are interfering with the lawful business of the Highguard, which is unwise.”

“And there it is!” Vette suddenly hopped backward and resumed casually pacing up and down the room. “What’s at the root of it all. The presumption. The attitude, inherent both in your conduct and the sheer unmitigated brass of your superiors, that you are entitled to do what you wish, where you wish, because nobody can stop you. Look around yourselves, my little goslings. You are well and truly stopped.”

The Highguard clamped his mouth shut and stared at her in obstinate silence.

“It’s time to negotiate,” one of his companions suddenly said in elvish.

He tried to turn to glare at her, but couldn’t quite rotate himself around far enough. “We do not negotiate with savages or abominations.”

“I challenge by the authority of high law,” she replied. “Let us be judged by tribunal. Witness this.”

“So witnessed,” said the other woman in a resigned tone.

Rather than seeming angered by this defiance, the man in the center frowned pensively, and again tried to turn toward her. This time, Natchua obligingly rotated him just enough. “Are you certain, officer?”

“I would not disrupt command on mission save in absolute certainty, seeker-captain,” she replied solemnly.

He worked his jaw as if chewing that for a moment, then nodded once. “The benefit of your experience is valued, officer. Your recommendation will be followed.”

She nodded back. “I withdraw my challenge.”

“Witnessed,” said the third with clear relief.

“The warrant specifies the legal status of the accused,” he said, turning his attention back to Malivette and switching again to Tanglish. Natchua shifted him again to make it less awkward. “She is a citizen of Tar’naris, and thus, now a citizen of the Confederacy, as citizens of all member states are as of its formation. This renunciation is on record, but not relevant. Tar’naris has no established policy for the renunciation of citizenship; the concept apparently does not exist in Narisian law or tradition. The only Confederate member state with such doctrine is Qestraceel, which recognizes renunciation as a personal choice but maintains the prerogative of law enforcement over renunciate citizens as it becomes necessary. Thus, her legal status is that of a Confederate citizen and subject to the Highguard’s authority. This would only be in question had she applied for and received citizenship in another state, but we have verified that this is not the case.”

“Well, that’s all fine and good,” Malivette said dismissively, “not to mention highly debatable, but nobody here is arguing any of that.”

“Uh, excuse me,” Natchua exclaimed.

“Natch, hush,” the vampire said. “Let me work. At issue here is the Highguard’s prerogative to act without my or the Silver Throne’s permission in Veilgrad. To wit: there is none. You are not on Confederate territory, and thus you are not enforcing laws, but breaking them. You, active military personnel, are going around committing trespass and assault with intent to abduct.” She leaned forward again, simpering. “Under certain conditions, precious, that is an act of war.”

“The Empire is not going to go to war over this little reprobate,” he said with naked contempt. “If you feel your privileges have been stepped upon…Duchess…you may lodge a complaint with the Magistry—” He broke off, grimaced fleetingly, then composed his expression and continued. “I mean, with the High Council. Or, more likely, request that the Empire do so. But let’s be honest: this is an ill-behaved, unpleasant, demon-trafficking young troublemaker, and had her fellow warlock criminal friends not intervened, we would have successfully extracted her without any notice or inconvenience on your part. No one would have cared. Is your personal pride worth allowing a criminal to run loose?”

“Natchua, please refrain,” Malivette said pleasantly as Natchua swelled up and sparks of purple light began to flicker along the tentacles, to the visible alarm of the two female Highguard. “I think I see what the confusion here is. C’mon, I wanna show you something I think you’ll be very interested in. Do bring them along, Natch honey!”

The Duchess abruptly exploded into a swarm of shrieking bats, prompting all three high elves to try to cast something arcane, which of course was immediately drained away to nothing by Natchua’s secure hold over them. The bats whirled away around behind the staircase, disappearing into a hallway that led deeper into the Manor.

Sapphire curtsied diffidently. “This way, if you please?” Turning, she set off in the same direction, at a much more sedate pace.

Pausing only to give the Highguard captain a baleful look, Natchua followed, dragging her three prisoners along. The other three of Vette’s attendants brought up the rear, in single file.

Partway down the hall, a door opened just as Sapphire passed it, and a man’s tousled head emerged. “What’s all the… Natchua?”

“Sherwin?” she exclaimed, coming to a stop and blinking at him. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I’m allowed to visit people, you know,” he said irritably.

“Well, of course you’re allowed. Hell, I’m proud of you. I was just surprised, is all. You hate… Everything.”

The Lord of House Leduc snorted, stepping out into the hall to peer up at the three armored elves being dragged around by shadow tentacles like a trio of disgruntled balloons. “So, uh… What’s all this, then?”

“Long story,” she answered. “Short version: assholes. Sorry, I better move it along, I’m keeping Vette waiting.”

“Well, Vette’s keeping me waiting,” he groused, shoving the door closed with more force than it deserved. “I may as well come see what’s so damn important it’s holding everything up.”

“The more the merrier,” Natchua said cheerily, setting off again after Sapphire, and gave the Highguard captain a playful jostle. “Right, chuckles?”

He did not dignify her with a response.

Sapphire paused at another open door and gestured them politely though. Sherwin slipped in ahead of Natchua, who “accidentally” bumped all three floating elves against the door frame while following. With the five of them plus Malivette and a sprawling bundle of energy tentacles in the room beyond, it was rather cramped, being a fairly cozy office.

“Hi, Sherwin,” the Duchess said pleasantly, reaching out to ruffle his hair until he ducked away, growling. “Sorry to keep you waiting, this just came up. Shouldn’t take a—”

“What the hell are these doing here?” Natchua shouted, pointing accusingly at the wall. “I told Jonathan to throw these damn things out!”

The entire wall was covered by newspaper clippings, each one framed and under glass as if it were a rare portrait. All were headlines about her.

“Yes,” Malivette said, smirking, “and because that was silly and you are an irrational goober who likes to break things, Jonathan sent them to me so they’d be safe.”

“I’m gonna throttle that man!”

“You had better make a point to get down on your knees in front of that man before he realizes how much better he can do than you, y’little… What was the word you used?” She peered up at the Highguard captain. “Ah, yes, reprobate. I dunno, sounds a little…grandiose, don’t you think? Seems to me jackass is a better fit.”

“Malivette,” Natchua warned.

“And by get down on your knees,” the vampire continued seriously, “I am referring to—”

“Vette, I live with two succubi,” she snapped. “I do not need single entendres spelled out for me.”

“What the fuck is even going on here?” Sherwin asked, scratching his head.

“Quite so!” Malivette agreed, suddenly brisk. “As you can see, dear guests, these are newspaper headlines from the past four months, all about our dear alleged fugitive. You can read Tanglish, yes? Good, good. Now, you’ll note quite a few are just local interest pieces. Natchua judges pumpkin pie contest, Natchua comments on this or that thing somebody needed a quote for on a slow news day, Natchua transports ex-Shaathist refugees to Viridill, Natchua donates to the new Nemitite library, Natchua endorses local brewery… Oh, ew, a pale ale? Somebody seriously needs to explain beer to you, girl.”

“I will not have my taste in beverages critiqued by an overly self-satisfied deer tick!”

“Omnu’s breath, is this what you’ve been doing all autumn?” Sherwin asked. “This is, like, politician stuff. You do know there’s no elected council in Veilgrad, right? I don’t think there’s been an elected anything in the Empire since Theasia got a bug up her ass about that mess in Shengdu.”

“Hey, I get bored cooped up in the house all the time, Sherwin. Not everybody’s a self-imposed shut-in. And, y’know what, fine, I’ll admit it: I like attention. You don’t think I was born with green hair, do you?”

“Now, being such worldly and intelligent individuals,” Malivette continued solemnly, “you can no doubt infer from this alone that Natchua is somebody important enough locally that not only does she get invited to do stuff like this, but the newspapers consider it…well, in a word, news. And if you’ll kindly direct your attention to the full pages occupying pride of place here in the center, you can tell why!”

The vampire gestured grandly at the largest of the framed papers, while Natchua sighed churlishly and rolled her eyes.

“These are the big exploits that made her name. The speech that rallied Veilgrad together and averted a mob, and most especially her heroics at the Battle of Ninkabi. Yes, that’s right: you were sent here to arrest the woman who personally decimated the Black Wreath and played a pivotal role in forcing Elilial’s surrender to the Pantheon.”

“Wait, that’s what these are here for?” Sherwin rounded on the elves, scowling thunderously. “You were trying to haul off my friend and guest? Where the fuck do you get off?”

“Ah, yes, I should mention,” Malivette added in a solicitous tone, “this is Lord Sherwin Leduc, the head of the other major House in Veilgrad.”

By that point, the captain was staring, wide-eyed, at the wall, seeming to see something far beyond it; something which alarmed him. Both his comrades were still reading papers, their eyes darting rapidly and expressions increasingly unnerved.

“So let me see if I have this right,” Malivette said, watching the three elves closely. “You are, of course, well aware that House Dalmiss is taking advantage of the Confederacy’s formation to have the Highguard bring in their dirty laundry. You are obviously not best pleased about this, but at the end of the day, you’re professionals with a sense of honor; you follow your orders and do your duty with skill and pride, regardless of what you may feel about any of the politics involved. What you did not realize is that House Dalmiss has severely misled you about the situation. Far from a no-name nobody who won’t be missed, Natchua is an Imperial war hero and beloved local celebrity. Her unilateral seizure by the Confederacy would severely antagonize the Silver Throne, provoke an enormous backlash of anti-elven sentiment—mostly in Veilgrad and Ninkabi, but likely spread throughout the Empire—and earn you the undying enmity of two Imperial Houses. I don’t know whether it’s Matriarch Ezrakhai herself or just Nassra who pulled strings to make this happen, but you deserve to be aware that she is using you to pursue her own obsessions in a manner that very nearly caused you to ignite a major diplomatic incident, exactly when your nascent government can least afford one.”

She folded her hands at her waist and smiled beatifically at them. Sherwin crossed his arms, still glaring, and Natchua raised a sardonic eyebrow.

The three elves were silent for a moment, looking at the newspaper clippings, then at Natchua. Finally, the captain turned his head to one side and spoke softly in elvish.

“I welcome perspective, officers.”

“None of this perforce invalidates the warrant,” the more talkative of his subordinates replied, “but it is materially crucial intelligence which High Command should have been given before deploying forces. I recommend we withdraw, report, and request new orders.”

“Concurred,” the laconic one added.

“Duchess Due Freen,” the captain said in Tanglish, his tone suddenly a great deal more respectful, even as his accent mangled her name, “we apologize for this intrusion into your domain. It seems we have been misinformed as to the situation. I respectfully request our release so that we may explain these facts to our superiors and avoid any further misunderstandings of this nature.”

“There, see? All friends again,” Malivette beamed. “And hey, it worked out for everybody! You avoided causing a crisis and learned some valuable facts, and we got three shiny sets of Highguard armor! A nice trophy each for Natchua and myself, plus a spare for Imperial Intelligence to analyze. Cheers all around!”

“Absolutely out of the question,” the captain barked, his newly-acquired politeness instantly vanishing. “The surrender of Highguard property under any circumstances is not on the table!”

“Here’s the thing,” she answered with a silky smile that made Sherwin give her a nervous sidelong look. “I’m glad you got this Natchua business sorted out, don’t think I’m not. But there remains the matter of you being here in the first place because you presume you can do as you like in our lands. That, my darlings, is what is not on the table. We are at a great moment in history, a dawning of a glorious new age, and all feeling our way in the brand new world unfolding before us. Since you charming Qestrali are not accustomed to dealing with us backwater Imperials, let me just get us all started by establishing a very important fact you will need to keep firmly in mind:”

Her smile abruptly vanished.

“This is our land. And if you trespass in my domain, there will be consequences.”

The vampire let that hang in the air for a beat while the captain worked his mouth soundlessly, then just as abruptly plastered a sunny smile back on her face, showing off her fangs.

“Now, then, that’s all settled! Natchua, dear, be a lamb and give our new pals a quick ride to Fort Vaspian so they can report in.”

“See you ‘round, chickadees,” Natchua said with a smirk, and snapped her fingers again. Darkness gathered momentarily in the room, and then both it and the shadow tendrils dissipated. The three elves were gone, and three sets of golden armor clattered noisily to the floor.

“Tut tut,” Malivette clicked her tongue. “Saph, honey, I’m sorry to drop this on you, but would you be ever so kind as to sort these out? I’m afraid this business has already made us late for an important appointment.”

“Of course, Vette,” the vampire’s handmaiden replied, smiling placidly. “It’s no trouble.”

“Ooh! Natch, it’s lucky you’re here.” Malivette turned to Natchua with an eager look that made the drow take a step backward. “Sherwin tells me you’ve got the very remarkable knack for shadow-jumping to places you’ve not previously been!”

“What of it?” she asked warily.

“It’s just that Sherwin and I have a state visit we can’t afford to miss. House business, you understand. And what with all this unexpected hoopla, we’ve gone and missed our caravan!”

“We could just not fuckin’ do it,” Sherwin suggested.

Malivette batted her eyes at him. “Sherwin. Dear. We discussed this, remember?”

“Blackmailer,” he muttered sullenly.

“Uh…yeah,” Natchua said, glancing back and forth between them. “That’s no trouble. I can’t just send someone that way, though, I’ll have to come with.”

“Why, that’s perfect!” Malivette chirped, clapping her hands. “Then you can hang about with us and provide a ride home, too. Oh, don’t worry, it’ll be good to get out of town for a day, and I just know our hostess will be delighted to show you the most lavish hospitality in Madouris. Actually, now that I think of it, you know Duchess Ravana personally, don’t you?”

Natchua sighed heavily. “Yep. Yeah, there it is. That’ll teach me to think this day can’t get any more annoying.”

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16 – 10

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Though the scheduling of this entire affair had been necessarily impromptu, it was Lord Vex’s responsibility to stay on top of events, and thus he was there to greet the Empress when she and her escort returned. They materialized in the secure room of the Palace’s harem wing set aside for teleport arrivals, Eleanora accompanied by two of the Imperial Guard and the two Azure Corps battlemages who had provided her transport—an almost cursory escort for a sitting Empress, but then, the entire business had been meant to be discreet.

Obviously, Vex did not react to her appearance. Eleanora wore her usual severe gown and had her hair pulled back into its customary tight bun. The gown, though, was unbuttoned to below her collarbone, and she had a woven crown of lilies perched lopsidedly atop her head. At her hip, hanging from a broad leather shoulderstrap decorated with Tidestrider beadwork, was a heavy satchel, itself dangling streamers of colorful beads and shells that clattered with her movements.

“Good morning and welcome home, your Majesty,” Vex said in his normal, distant voice once the battlemages had saluted their Empress and departed in flashes of blue glitter. “I hope your mission was fruitful.”

Eleanora gave him a momentary look, her own expression as closed and guarded as always, to the point that it clashed with her touches of holiday frippery.

“Tellwyrn was amenable to sharing, with some persuasion,” she said briskly, stepping forward off the teleport pad and striding toward the chamber’s door. Vex fell in alongside her and the two Imperial Guards silently brought up their rear. “She is not, as it turns out, a high elf.”

“I see. Well, it was still a worthwhile prospect to investigate. I am sorry you did not meet with more success.”

She flicked a sidelong glance at him, that extremely subtle look he knew so well which few would even have caught. That look meant she’d done something clever, and Vex had to consciously refuse to sigh.

“Tellwyrn has been in Qestraceel,” the Empress said, opening her satchel and carefully extracting a large, heavy volume bound in scuffed leather, its yellow pages unevenly trimmed. The thing looked positively ancient. She handed it very carefully to him. “She was so deeply offended by her treatment there that her first act upon departing was to assemble the most thorough record of her observations she could while the memory was fresh, and set it aside against a future occasion when unveiling the secrets of the Qestrali to an interested third party might, in her words, ‘inflict some damn humility’ upon them.”

Vex tucked the volume protectively against his side. “The most peculiar thing about knowing Professor Tellwyrn is how often one is forced to appreciate what a mulish, irritating bully she is.”

“Tell me about it,” Eleanora replied with an open sigh. “I have given that book a cursory examination; it’s quite legible, though the language is somewhat archaic, having been written some three hundred years ago.”

“Ah. Well, even if it is not up to date intelligence, historical data is still extremely valuable, given our complete lack of it.”

“It is definitely dated, but may be more pertinent than you imagine,” the Empress replied. “In addition to the written record, Tellwyrn was willing to speak at some length about the high elves. It’s not all that hard to get her to start complaining, actually. By her description, the most pronounced characteristic of Qestrali culture is their presumed exceptionalism. They believe themselves to have constructed a perfect society and appear as prideful and resistant to change as any elves, if not more so. It seems their society has not diverged significantly since its founding not long after the Elder War.”

“Did she have any insight into why they would suddenly join the world now?”

“I asked, of course. Obviously we cannot know without direct data, but in Tellwyrn’s opinion, such an abrupt action indicates an equally abrupt political shift within Qestraceel itself—which, she emphasized, would only occur if several very important people died within a short period. We may wish to investigate whether some disaster has occurred in the region, perhaps a volcanic action that damaged their city. The book contains its exact latitude and longitude.”

“Ah. How do they hide their island, did she mention?”

“It’s not on an island,” Eleanora said with a wry smile. “We were correct as to its general location, but were looking at the wrong altitude. Qestraceel is located at the bottom of a huge marine trench deep below the Stormsea. Tellwyrn also mentioned that the entire purpose of their vaunted navy is to spread misinformation concerning their location, numbers, and capabilities. I’m afraid all your observations of high elven caravels may have to be thrown out.”

“Even a misdirection can be revealing, once you know it is one,” he disagreed. “Omnu’s breath, what else is in this thing?”

“Population estimates, including troop and caster numbers—probably the least accurate information, after three centuries. Descriptions of their social structure, economy, government, and religion, the basic composition and preferred strategies of their military, which in Tellwyrn’s opinion are unlikely to have been significantly updated. A cursory but still useful overview of their interactions with the outside world and how they maintain secrecy. Diet and food sources, numerous descriptions of various uses of both active spells and passive enchantments, some of which we might ourselves be sophisticated enough now to reverse-enchant from the descriptions alone. There’s a whole section on etiquette which should be a tremendous help to our diplomats. Also,” she added with another little grin, “a very detailed account of the Qestrali criminal justice system in action, and an extremely vivid depiction of one of their prisons.”

“Bless that cantankerous old bitch,” Vex said fervently. “Did she say why she’s sat on this so long?”

“The high elves do make an active effort at secrecy. Revealing this information is necessarily going to provoke a severe reaction from them; Tellwyrn judged that the Empire at its present strength needn’t fear direct reprisal, and given recent events, has an actual need for this information. We should not forget that simply possessing data on the Qestrali is going to be seen by them as antagonistic.”

“Duly noted, though it remains to be seen exactly how much we shall have to care what they think.”

They came to a stop outside the door to Eleanora’s chambers.

“Does your Majesty wish to rest and freshen up,” the spymaster inquired, “or proceed with your day as usual?”

“I feel fresher than I have in years,” Eleanora said, almost wistfully, then shook her head. “Which, of course, is exactly what can’t be shown in public. Do have my steward cancel my usual morning appointments, if you would, Quentin. This must take priority, but I should have time to straighten up a bit while everyone is gathered. Please relay all this to Sharidan and have him get Panissar and the ministers here for a consultation. I want that book copied and put in the hands of analysts in Intelligence and the Foreign Ministry; in the meantime, I will brief everyone on what I’ve learned personally, which should be enough to get them a head start.”

“Consider it done, your Majesty,” he said, bowing over the heavy book. “Good to have you back.”

Eleanora nodded once, then turned and entered her bedroom, while the guards took up positions flanking the door and Vex strode off down the hall to see her will done.


Natchua was ambushed by demons the moment she stepped out of her room, which wasn’t all that unusual.

“There you are! Were you planning to sleep all day?”

“Some of us have been at work under your orders since before sunrise, you know.”

“Both of you stuff it,” she said irritably, pushing between the two succubi and forcing them to follow her on the way down to the first floor. “I was up past midnight being interrogated by Imperials, and just for your edification, I own a clock and know how to read it. It’s barely past breakfast time. Report in, and hold the whining.”

“Ooh, I love it when she’s commanding,” Kheshiri cooed, then shrieked playfully at Melaxyna’s slap to her rump.

Natchua sighed loudly and rubbed at her eyes with both fists.

“Yeah, well, I’ve got nothing,” Melaxyna said. “I’ve been up and down the city for two hours starting at dawn, lurking in all the markets. I didn’t encounter any unusual magic of any kind, or even a rumor of any. All the gossip is the elves this, the elves that. Even as big a deal as this Confederacy is, had there been even a whisper of a chaos event near Veilgrad, I guarantee that would be on everybody’s lips. But no, not a hint.”

“Afraid I have nothing better, mistress,” Kheshiri added as they rounded the corner and descended the wide stairs to the nearly-restored entrance hall. “Malivette is still taking your warning seriously, and according to Jade, so is Imperial Command. Everyone’s more concerned about the Wreath sniffing around for unknown reasons than they are about whatever spooked them into fleeing the catacombs, though.”

“Well, they’re not wrong,” Natchua grunted, coming to a stop at the base of the stairs and gazing absently around. The restoration was going well, especially now that she’d found some local laborers willing to work in a house full of demons under the direct supervision of three hobgoblins; oddly enough, Veilgrad locals seemed to find a strange comfort in knowing that nominally friendly evil lurked in the old manor again. For all that Natchua was herself becoming a fixture in the local community, Veilgrad’s regional culture was still mystifying at times.

The walls and roof were up; it was chilly and drafty in the hall, with boards still taking the place of the glass that had yet to be installed in its tall windows. There were no carpets, drapes, or other decorative touches yet, the floor and wood paneling hadn’t been properly varnished, and the place was strewn with tools, sawhorses, stacks of wood and other construction debris. The new wrought iron chandelier sat in one corner beside a pile of yet-unassembled enchanting equipment awaiting expert installation for its light-sensitive fairy lamps.

“It’s still too early in whatever the Wreath is doing to have a plan yet,” Natchua said after a contemplative pause. “I want your eyes and brains on whatever they come up with, though, Shiri.”

“You always know what I like to hear, mistress,” Kheshiri purred, grinning wickedly and slowly swaying in her hips in time with the waving of her tail. “Ahh, running rings around the Wreath, it’ll be just like old times.”

“And both of you be careful,” Natchua added more severely, setting off around the steps toward one of the newly reopened hallways. “You’re both made of magic. A proper chaos event could fuck you up beyond my ability to repair.”

“Are you sure that’s what it was?” Melaxyna asked. “Not trying to be difficult, Natchua, it just seems…”

“I know exactly how it seems,” she grumbled. “And as I told the Imps, I’m not a hundred percent certain of anything. I’m not personally very familiar with chaos interactions. But it scared off the Wreath, it came out of the same deep tunnels where that chaos cult was operating, and it just felt like that creepy place Kuriwa showed me. None of that’s more than suggestive. When it comes to chaos, though, it doesn’t pay to get sloppy. Worst case scenario, it’s nothing. Then you can say you told me so, and we’re not all hopelessly fucked, so… Everybody wins.”

Like the hall leading to it, the dining room had been almost fully restored. It still lacked furnishings, aside from a few surviving chairs and the enormous carved table which had endured its years of neglect with little ill effect that some polish hadn’t healed. The fairy lamps were awaiting installation, so old-fashioned oil lamps perched in their sconces, currently unlit. The fireplace was kindled, adding heat and warm light to the cool gray that beamed in through the open windows, their new glass in wrought iron housings revealing a gentle fall of snow to add to the covering already on the grounds outside.

“There she is,” Hesthri said fondly, sidling up to Natchua to kiss her cheek. “I made scrambled eggs with those spicy peppers you like, they’re under the cover on the table there. Should be fresh, but I can whip up some more.”

“Thanks, Hes. Don’t you worry about me,” Natchua replied, giving her a one-armed hug before turning to the table. “I grew up eating beetles and mushrooms, anything that’s not actually moldy still feels decadent.”

“Damn it, wench, let me pamper you a little,” the demon scolded, earning a mischievous grin in response.

Natchua’s path toward breakfast was interrupted when she came abreast of Jonathan, who was sitting sideways in one of the few chairs, his own empty plate pushed away and a cup of tea at his elbow while he read a newspaper.

“WHAT THE HELL?” she bellowed, ripping it out of his grasp.

Jonathan had quick enough reflexes to let go rather than let the paper be torn, and sat there with his empty hands still in position to hold it up, blinking through the space where it had been at Natchua, who was glaring at the front page.

“You know, girl, sometimes I wonder if you were raised in some kind of cave.”

“Why am I on the front page?!” she demanded of the room at large, slapping the offending document with the back of her hand. “What the fuck is wrong with these people?! The elves bust out the most astonishing political development in all of history, and somehow ‘Natchua fends off annoying reporter’ deserves a fucking headline? Who do I have to sacrifice to what to get some goddamn peace? Because I’ll do it, see if I don’t!”

“That’ll be Imperial Intelligence at work,” Jonathan said, picking up his teacup and taking a sip.

She rounded on him, brandishing the paper. “What? Why?”

“You,” he explained, smiling, “a beloved local oddball and hero, and also a foreigner who has no attachment to the Empire to speak of, reacted to the elves’ big surprise by urging people to stay the course and trust the government. The Throne couldn’t have asked for a better endorsement if they’d arranged it themselves. The Empire may not control any papers outright, thanks to the Veskers’ influence, but they definitely have means to lean on them. You’d better believe strings were pulled to get that to the front page.”

“Aaugh!” Natchua rolled up the paper and smacked herself repeatedly in the forehead with it. “I only said that because I thought it was the thing least likely to stir up trouble! And now look what—oof.”

Tiring of her carrying on, Jonathan had set down his tea, and now reached forward, grabbing her by the waist and pulling her into his lap.

“What’s done is done,” he stated, wrapping his arms around her and resting his chin atop her head. “It was a good idea, Natch, I think you made the right call. Sometimes you just get cornered and any step you take is gonna kick over some bucket of crabs. That’s life.”

Kheshiri deftly plucked the paper out of the drow’s grasp and unrolled it, Melaxyna leaning over her shoulder as they both perused the front page.

“Whoah boy,” Kheshiri said, her eyebrows climbing. “This is a bigger deal than your putative chaos flicker, mistress.”

“The hell you say,” Natchua snapped.

“It’s possible nothing’ll come of it,” Melaxyna added, “but it’s also possible she’s right. If Intelligence is content with this, great. But if they start approach you for more active cooperation…”

“They’ll be disappointed, is what!”

“No!” both succubi shouted, looking up at her in alarm.

“They’re right, love,” Jonathan said gently, squeezing her. “You gotta consider the way spooks and operatives think. If you’re not with them, you’re against them. ‘Neutrality’ is not an idea they respect.”

Natchua bared her teeth in a wild grimace and seized his arms, hissing and physically swelling up as she drew breath for another outburst.

Hesthri glided smoothly across the gap between them and pushed herself into their embrace, slipping an arm around Jonathan’s shoulders and the other behind Natchua’s head to insistently press the drow’s face into her cleavage.

Natchua made muffled noises of protest, squirming and flailing the one arm she could slip free, at least for a few moments. Very quickly, the struggle went out of her and she slumped forward, going limp and letting out a half-stifled groan.

Hesthri stroked the green stripe in Natchua’s white hair, smirking over her head at the two amused succubi. “It works on Jonathan, too.”

“’strue,” he agreed, slipping one arm free of Natchua to wrap around Hesthri’s waist and pat her hip.

“And on Sherwin,” Melaxyna said sardonically, “and on everyone. I hope you don’t think you invented that, Hes. Feeling better, Natch?”

“Uh bff, fankth.”

“Good.” Hesthri bent her neck to kiss the top of her head before withdrawing. “Then eat your eggs, pretty. The world will still be full of enemies after breakfast; I’ll not have you kicking ass on an empty stomach.”


An hour later, she left the Manor in a much better mood, at least partly due to a full stomach.

Though she could easily have used magic to protect herself from the cold, Natchua much preferred to wear the nice winter coat and boots Jonathan had bought for her. The coat she especially enjoyed, a deep blue knee-length garment lined with speckled fox fur; it was amazingly comfortable and she was so fond of the look she willingly forgave him for saying her old black leather duster made her look like a pretentious wannabe cowboy poet.

Externally, Leduc Manor was still a shambles, but at this point it was the shambles of construction rather than decay. The outer fence and gate had been fully repaired and fresh gravel coated the driveway, though of course no landscaping had yet been done and everything not stomped flat by the ongoing work was a maze of brambles and dead weeds. Carts and carriages were parked on its grounds, along with stacks of masonry waiting to be installed, all of it now buried under a layer of fresh snow. Construction had slowed considerably during the winter; as far as their hired workmen were concerned, it was stopped, but the three hobgoblins kept gamely on, unbothered by temperature and taking great satisfaction in their progress. There was no way they’d have the whole manor shipshape by spring, but Natchua rather expected the hired hands to be shocked at the state of the place when they returned.

The old Leducs must have leaned hard into their sinister reputation, to judge by their fondness for overwrought gothic architecture and decorative ironwork, to say nothing of the gargoyles, all of which were deliberately shaped to look like actual demon species. Still, the place must have been beautiful, in its way, when it was kept up. The layer of cleansing snow made it oddly appealing even now, and likely would have then.

A lot about the area was beautiful; one couldn’t help but enjoy the vista the Manor had over the city of Veilgrad below and the Great Plains beyond. The forested mountains soaring upward on all sides were an equally breathtaking sight. Even after a few months here, Natchua had not become inured to the spectacle, and so always left the house on foot when she was going into town.

She especially loved the snow, aware that at least part of it was the novelty. Even with an academic awareness of how deadly winters had been to humans until very recently in history, the sight of it was just…pure. Natchua couldn’t put words to the sense of serenity that came when heavy flakes were floating down from the clouds, but she took every opportunity to savor it. Even in Last Rock, winter had just been the months when it didn’t rain. Veilgrad’s unfriendly climate felt like a welcome part of the setting, something almost designed to appeal to creatures such as herself.

Obviously, shadow-jumping was a more efficient way to get anywhere, and she had been around and over Veilgrad enough by now that she could jump almost directly to any point she might need in the city. There was certainly no question of walking down the winding mountain road from Leduc Manor to the gates of Veilgrad, and then back up the other winding mountain road to Dufresne Manor. How long she walked before getting tired of it and jumping the rest of the way varied by trip, but she always made a point of setting out on her own two legs to begin with.

Evidently she’d done this enough for the habit to have been widely observed; they clearly knew to intercept her just below the first switchback past the gates.

Darkness coalesced in a ring out of the drifting snowflakes around her, and Natchua instantly gathered an arsenal of spells, having nearly limitless destruction ready at her fingertips by the time their gray robes were fully visible.

“Are you kidding me?” she demanded of the white-suited man who again led the dozen warlocks. “Again? What are you expecting to go differently this time?”

“Scuze me, miss, not to be rude,” Mogul said almost diffidently, holding up one finger. “If you’ll bear with me, please, I’ll be with you in just a second. All right, boys and girls, light ‘em up.”

They, too, had had spells ready, and at his word, a torrent of shadowbolts flashed at her from every direction.

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16 – 9

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After nightfall, the halls of Madouri Manner were dim but not dark, the fairy lamps still active but lowered in intensity to leave the corridors easily navigable, creating a twilight state that, if anything, emphasized the quality of their furnishings. Pacing through them alone in the quiet of the night, Trissiny mulled what she was seeing in the context of what she’d been taught by the Thieves’ Guild.

Though her apprenticeship had been short and thus necessarily less nuanced than the personal training young Eserites got from direct sponsors, she had often sought out Lore for insights, finding his cerebral style more to her liking. One of his lessons turned over in her head as she took her time inspecting the home of House Madouri, concerning the importance of good taste among the rich. People with money and a lavish sense of style, Lore had warned, were the worst kind of people, the most likely to need a Guild-administered comeuppance and most likely to take it badly when one came, but also not usually all that difficult to thwart. Watch for gold in places where gold doesn’t belong, he had warned; other senior thieves she’d questioned had expanded her understanding of tasteless extravagance. The tendency to flaunt wealth without restraint often went hand-in-hand with brutality and cruelty, but seldom with intelligence.

That was not the case here.

House Madouri’s wealth was very much on display, but in less tacky ways. The sheer size of the place, for one. The fact that they could afford to keep lights on all night—and the way they dimmed them for aesthetic effect was another warning. Carpets were plush and well-kept, but not excessively decorated, wallpaper elegant but understated, and even the wall paneling, though lovingly polished till it glowed even in the dimness, was clearly oak and not the fancier cherry or mahogany that would flaunt the House’s deep coffers. There was not a glimmer of gold to be seen, anywhere.

Beware the rich and restrained, Lore had warned. Sometimes they were the good ones; other times, they were by far the most dangerous. Trissiny suspected she knew into which category Duchess Ravana fell.

Whatever else it was, Madouri Manor was old and not terribly well insulated; in the hallways, away from the hearths and arcane heaters which warmed the mansion’s rooms, it was rather drafty at this time of year. In truth, it might have felt worse than it was to Trissiny, who was pacing the corridors in a simple shirt, trousers, and the slippers which had been provided with her guest room. It left her thinking fondly of that room, and its late-model arcane radiator and amazingly plush blankets.

If only…

She turned a corner that looked vaguely familiar, and found herself in a stretch of hall that looked exactly like the one behind her, save that this one had exterior windows along one side, and on the other, one of the oak doors stood open and there was light within.

Having no better idea, Trissiny crept forward and peeked around the corner.

It was a study, not small but still cozy in aspect, with a merry fire in its large hearth and two plush armchairs set before it. Most of the walls were covered by heavily laden bookshelves all the way up to the ceiling, save at the far end of the room, where there stood a heavy writing desk. Behind it sat Ravana herself, perusing one of the numerous sheets of paper laid out upon the desk and making occasional notes with a pen.

She looked up, and smile. “Oh, good evening, Trissiny.”

“Hi,” Trissiny answered, easing fully around the corner. “I’m sorry to interrupt, I didn’t expect to find you still busy at this hour.”

“Not to worry, this is just a…pet project. Something to draw down the mental tension before bed. Today was ultimately productive, though annoying in how it came to its end. I am sorry to have missed dinner. I hope everyone had a pleasant meal.”

“We did,” Trissiny said, “and don’t worry, you did warn us you’d be busy this week.”

“Quite. Still, it will be a glum irony if I cannot manage to spend some time with friends until our vacation is over. Were you looking for something?”

“Ah.” Trissiny glanced over her shoulder at the hallway outside. “Well, actually, I was having some trouble sleeping, so I went to stretch my legs a little. Then I thought maybe the kitchen might have some warm milk or something, and I tried to find it. And…”

Ravana’s smile widened incrementally. “Are you lost?”

“Be honest: does that happen to a lot of visitors?”

“Oh, my, yes. This house is frankly asinine in most of its details; there is simply no reason for anyone to have a residence this large, not to mention that its interior layout is quite deliberately obfuscatory. A number of my ancestors took unseemly delight in being difficult.”

“Well,” she said, grinning ruefully, “I don’t feel quite so bad, then.”

“Please don’t,” Ravanna said with a reassuring little chuckle. “Fortunately, your wanderings have brought you back near your starting point. If you go back out the way you came, turn left, then right, then right again, you’ll come right to the foyer of your suite. There’s a kitchen attached, but if you’re having a brush with insomnia, may I offer you some hot chocolate? It always does the trick for me.”

She shifted aside the thick ledger which had partially obscured a tall carafe set on a tray at one side of the desk. It was accompanied by two mugs; a third, Trissiny now noticed, stood near Ravana’s elbow.

“Oh, actually…that sounds perfect, if it’s not an imposition.”

“You are a guest,” Ravana said warmly, already pouring. “Offering a spot of sustenance is purely the minimum I can do. Please, join me.”

There was a chair in front of the desk as well, padded though nowhere near as plush as those by the fire. Trissiny slid into it, accepting the mug her hostess proffered with a nod.

“Thanks very much.”

“My pleasure. And if he attempts to rib you over this tomorrow, may I just mention that according to Yancey, Gabriel has been lost thrice already today. The second time, he actually ended up in a wine cellar. I know I shouldn’t poke fun; we regularly have to retrieve servants during the first few months of their employment here. I only know my way about because I spent my childhood exploring the place rather than receiving any attention from my parents.”

Though Ravana delivered that anecdote with an apparent lack of feeling, Trissiny found it a very opportune moment to hide behind a sip from her mug rather than have to come up with something to say. In the next moment, though, she found herself blinking in surprise down at the rich liquid within.

“Oh! This cocoa is…”

“Sipping chocolate, actually, with just the right amount of orange and cinnamon. An Arkanian recipe. If you ask me, the famous Glassian chocolate is vastly overvalued. Cacao doesn’t even grow in that climate; how much could they possibly know about its preparation?”

She savored her next sip, finding it even better now that it wasn’t a surprise. The chocolate was so thick it barely seemed liquid, perfectly spiced so that its sweetness wasn’t cloying, smoothed with cream so that neither the sugar nor cinnamon was rough on the throat. Trissiny had always disdained material comforts, but this she could get used to.

“I’m sorry your day was stressful,” she offered. “But at least it ended well?”

“Indeed,” Ravana said, smiling in clear self-satisfaction. “I have filled the traditional role of Warden, and in a manner which should alleviate the burden upon my coffers somewhat.”

“Warden… I don’t think I’ve heard of that office.”

“It’s quite old-fashioned; I don’t believe any House still uses one.”

“Ah, like your Court Wizard.”

“Indeed, and my Lord-Captain of the Guard, another anachronism I’ve brought back.”

Trissiny sipped her drink pensively. “Why resurrect these outdated titles, if I may ask?”

“Because,” Ravana said, her brows lowering very slightly to hint at a troubled line of thought, “I am a reformer. My father left this poor province in the most appalling state of disarray; nearly every detail of its administration has urgently needed to be changed, and when I took over, it seemed to me only logical to take this golden opportunity to modernize.”

“That sounds like good sense to me,” Trissiny agreed.

“One would think,” the Duchess said with a faint sigh of annoyance. “Imagine my surprise upon learning that the people most resistant to reform are those who stand to benefit most from it. People like the comfort of routine. Evidently, they would rather embrace overt suffering than the inconvenience of having to adapt to new ways of thinking. That was a most edifying lesson for me. Well, I obviously cannot back down from the reforms I already instigated, such as my attempt to retire the address of Grace for the duke or duchess of the province, an anachronism which is purely confusing in the modern age of Bishops. My position is precarious enough without losing face. But I have discovered that the very same people who fly into a furor at even a suggestion of reform will swallow absolutely any pill if it’s coated in tradition. Never mind that my ideas are mostly new, and frequently imported from the Five Kingdoms and even farther afield; resurrect a few traditional titles and old festivals that my father and grandfather stopped financing, and everyone’s happey.” She shook her head. “Honestly, people are such children.”

Trissiny had just taken another sip, and now took her time to swallow while considering a response to that.

“I can only imagine how frustrating that must be. It seems to me, though, that a condescending attitude toward your subjects can only lead you in a dangerous direction.”

“Hm.” Ravana regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, then her eyes slipped past Trissiny to stare into the fire. “Yes, even beyond the demands of your various doctrines, you’ve had some rather unpleasant brushes with various nobles, have you not?”

“It’s been my experience that nobles are people like any other. They can be good or bad, individually, according to their own natures.”

“I am not sure I agree with that. Growing up with power has a noticeable effect upon the brain.”

“I know several Eserites who grew up noble, and you wouldn’t know it from talking to them.”

“Good for them,” Ravana said with apparent sincerity, returning her gaze to Trissiny’s face. “But as for condescension, yes. I doubt any would be fool enough to say it right in front of you, but it is common enough for people in my social class to compare their subjects to domestic animals.”

“They don’t need to say it out loud for the attitude to be known,” Trissiny said wryly.

Ravana nodded, picked up her own mug of chocolate, and took a sip. “It is, of course, a lie.”

The paladin frowned, lowering her mug. “A lie? Simple arrogance, I’ll grant you. I mean, obviously people aren’t animals, but I don’t see what anyone would gain from claiming that, except as an expression of pure contempt.”

“It is precisely because people are people,” Ravana said, gazing intently into her eyes now. “Because people in a position of power have to believe certain things about themselves in order to justify having that power, and the basic empathy common to anyone who is not mentally defective in some way interferes with that justification. A duke or princess can look at a peasant laborer and see themselves, if they allow it. They don’t, because that is what terrifies them to their core. More than anything else, the realization that they are not different, truly, let alone better, is a deep-seated horror for the ruling class. That with the benefit of their resources and upbringing, any chambermaid might be as good or better at their job. And so, they construct a whole new view of the world to justify their privileges.”

“That is…remarkably enlightened of you,” Trissiny said slowly.

“You can see it in the way they behave, you know. This overt contempt for the lower classes gives the lie to its very self. After all, if one keeps domestic livestock, one takes care of them. Is that not obvious? They are valuable property, an investment. The point is to receive a return on that investment, which mandates the pursuit of best practices. People who abuse those underneath them reveal their fundamental weakness. They are willing to do anything to silence that niggling doubt in the backs of their minds, and take out their insecurities on those they would be most ardently protecting, were their protestations of superiority truly sincere.”

Trissiny remained silent now, just watching her. She wasn’t adept enough at reading people to untangle all the nuances here, but it was plain enough that Ravana was getting something off her chest that mattered deeply to her.

“I do not play such games,” Ravana continued, her tone softer, “because I feel no need to justify myself. I have the advantages I have, and that is a simple fact. I am the product of a thousand years of careful breeding, and the most expensive education a person can receive. I am, fundamentally, a superior creature. And so, as a competent businesswoman, I do my very best to ensure the health and happiness of my subjects, and do not suffer them to be mistreated. Because only a well cared-for citizen is a productive citizen. Because I do not care what they think. They are, in comparison, the livestock. If I abused them for the sake of my ego, I would become an even lesser creature than they.”

Slowly, Trissiny raised her mug again and took a deep sip of the chocolate, barely tasting the delicacy as she bought time to think. The instinctive surge of anger and revulsion she recognized for what it was, and carefully pushed it aside without allowing it to show on her face.

“Now,” she said at last, “what game are you playing, here, Ravana? You are far too intelligent to say a thing like that to the face of an Eserite Avenist paladin and expect agreement. Quite a few of my predecessors in Avei’s service, and most tagged members of the Guild, would already be beating you senseless by now.”

The faintest of smiles quirked the corner of Ravana’s mouth. “Well. Perhaps I simply wanted to say it to someone. It’s entirely normal for a person to want recognition; people are always saying things they shouldn’t in a simple plea to be understood. It’s why villains in stories always seem to reveal their evil plans to the hero at the last moment. People do that in real life, too, you know.”

“People as fully self-controlled as you?”

“You flatter me,” the Duchess said, inclining her head in an almost-bow. “But you are not wrong; I do little without a practical motive. The truth is, Trissiny, I am simply not someone I would expect you to like, or respect, at least on a personal level. Very much about my true character is likely to raise alarm bells in the mind of a person such as yourself. By dint of the very things that make me unpalatable to Avenist or Eserite sensibilities, though, I am not your enemy. It has always seemed to me that sufficiently examined self-interest is indistinguishable from altruism, up to a point. I arrive at my conclusions via a different logic than the idealist, but my very cynicism leads me to insist upon justice, mercy, and generosity as a standard for leadership.”

She paused to take another long sip of her chocolate, her eyes never leaving Trissiny’s over the rim of the mug even after she had daintily swallowed.

“Because it will never need to be my face held in the punchbowl, and I think I would rather you understand that before you are forced to make a quick decision under pressure.”

Trissiny deliberately breathed in and out, indulging in a moment to center herself against the surge of emotion that brought, all under Ravana’s piercing gaze. The young aristocrat was far too canny not to know exactly the effect that comment would have. Even knowing word games like this were not her own strong suit, Trissiny knew the importance of remaining calm and in control. All the greatest mistakes of her life had stemmed from temper and the injudicious expression of outrage.

“And you think,” she said after a pause, “this is giving me that impression?”

Ravana quirked one eyebrow. “Admittedly, I am less immersed in religious doctrine than you, but it was my impression that neither Avei nor Eserion ask their followers to be the arbiter of other people’s moral character. What difference does it make what goes on inside my head, so long as the result is in the best interests of those who depend on me?”

“What goes on in your head determines what you decide their best interest is, Ravana. It’s obvious to all that you’ve done great things with this province, even in a short time; your generosity has already become famous throughout the Empire. But you also have a noted tendency to be aggressive, duplicitous, and to choose the most gratuitously destructive means possible of dealing with anyone who opposes you. It’s a small campus, you know; everybody knows about Addiwyn and the entling. Everyone certainly knows why Oak is the way she is now.”

“There is a marked difference between my enemies and people dependent upon me.”

“For how long?”

“Ah, ah,” Ravana chided, smiling. “The slippery slope is one of the classic logical fallacies.”

“That’s not the nature of your problem at all,” Trissiny said pensively, finally setting her mug down atop the desk. “I don’t see a gradual slide into depravity in your future, Ravana. It will be more abrupt.”

Ravana placed her own mug on the desk, then folded her hands demurely on its surface and regarded Trissiny with a calmly open expression. “Oh? I confess, I am rather interested to hear your thoughts on this.”

“In the martial arts,” Trissiny said, leaning forward, “we train through repetition. Moves are drilled, individually and in sequence, until they become habit. Only then will you execute them when they are needed without having to think. A fight is not a chess match; pausing to consider every motion will cause you to swiftly lose. You must practice blows, dodges, and parries until you will simply perform them without hesitation when they are called for. It’s the same with the moral arts.”

“Moral arts,” Ravana mused. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that expression.”

“It works the same way, though. Doing the right thing requires a commitment to practice. Considering every little dilemma analytically just leaves you prone to indulging in temptation as much as you embrace ethical action. You seem to have this idea that you’re superior to conventional morality because you’ve thought out why morality exists, because you’ve followed it back far enough to figure that yes, our ancestors derived moral rules purely out of what made the best practices for maintaining a functional society.”

“Quite frankly, yes. To do a thing because one understands it is fundamentally better than doing it out of blind habit or obedience. I confess I am very surprised to hear a student of Professor Tellwyrn’s suggest otherwise. You have heard her pet theory about stupidity and evil, have you not?”

“Everyone at the school has heard it,” Trissiny said dryly. “Most wrong action is due to thoughtlessness, not malice. It’s her favorite rant.”

“You disagree?”

“I think…she has a point, though I’m less convinced it explains everything as neatly as she thinks. But that isn’t what I’m saying at all, Ravana. Yes, it’s absolutely better to understand what makes moral actions moral. Yes, you can approach them pragmatically and find good, even cynical reasons why ideas like compassion and justice are functional. But understanding and acting are not the same thing. You mentioned me having to make a quick decision under pressure?”

She leaned back in the chair, still holding Ravana’s gaze, and folded her own hands in her lap in a deliberately calm posture.

“What will happen when you have to do the same thing, Ravana?”

The Duchess regarded her in thoughtful silence for a moment.

“I’m not sure your core contention holds up,” she mused at last. “Ruling a country is far more like a game of chess than a duel.”

“Up to a point, sure. Much of the time, probably. But you know very well that times come when you have to test your will and your power against those who oppose you, when you have to act fast. At times like that, it’s the movements you’ve practiced that will reflexively emerge. You seem to have practiced ponderous speeches about why you’re better than everyone else. So what makes you so fundamentally different from those other nobles you despise? Under pressure, will you make better choices than they?”

“Interesting,” Ravana said. Her smile remained, but had begun to seem fixed in place and slightly brittle. “It’s not that I don’t follow your reasoning, Trissiny, and in fact you are not without a point. It’s an intriguing angle, one I had not considered. But ultimately, you are speaking in hypotheticals, and we don’t really need to, do we? I have been tested under pressure. Experience suggests that what I do when pressed is swiftly conceive a strategy, and lead others in executing it. With, I might add, an established record of success.”

“What you do under pressure,” Trissiny said evenly, “is fix your attention on a perceived enemy and throw everything you’ve got into destroying them, and lend your natural charisma to getting everyone around you to go along with it. Nothing you’ve done that I’m aware of makes me think I have ever needed to intervene in your business, Ravana, otherwise we probably wouldn’t be talking like this. But nothing you’ve done reassures me that I’ll never have to. I can’t predict any specific scenario where I’ll have to put your face in a punchbowl, but honestly? If one arises, I’m not going to be terribly surprised.”

The Duchess regarded her in silence, smiling with her eyes slightly narrowed.

“Saddened,” Trissiny said softly, “but not surprised. I firmly agree with you, y’know. I don’t like the idea of us being at cross purposes. It just seems so…wasteful. More than anything, you seem to me like someone who truly wants to do the right thing, and doesn’t exactly know how. That whole punchbowl business was a mistake; I wouldn’t do that again.”

“I’m not sure I agree,” Ravana said, her voice wry. “It goes back to the fundamental difference I was talking about, between those who have power and those who don’t. That is a terribly abusive way to treat the vulnerable, and likely to backfire, but the powerful? You really can’t get through to such as Irina Araadia except by appealing to greed or fear.”

“Be that as it may, it wasn’t strategic. Too prone to creating unpredictable outcomes.”

“It was the sort of thing I would have done,” Ravana said softly. “Which seems to speak to the heart of our disagreement, does it not?”

Trissiny nodded. “If you prefer to think in strategic rather than moral terms, consider it a cautionary tale. That outburst caused a political backlash I barely managed to get under control, and doing so required a lot of highly-placed help. If I can learn to restrain my violent impulses, you absolutely can.”

Ravana let her gaze wander, again studying the fire. Her expression contemplative, she leaned backward in her chair, letting her hands fall from the desk into her lap. For a long span of seconds, only the gentle crackling of the fire filled the room.

“Well,” Trissiny said, straightening up as if shaking off the mood, “thank you for the chocolate. That really hit the spot; I think I’ll have a much easier time getting to sleep now.”

“Yes, something warm and heavy in the stomach does wonders,” Ravana agreed, focusing on her again with a warm smile. “It was my pleasure entirely. Good night, Trissiny.”

She stood, inclining her head politely. “Good night, Ravana.”

The paladin turned and made for the door. She had actually put a foot across the threshold when the Duchess spoke again.

“Trissiny.”

She paused, turning back with her eyebrows raised.

“I hope we can have many more arguments like this,” Ravana said. She was still smiling, the expression now seeming calm and sincere—whether because it was, or because she had regained enough equilibrium to fake it, only she herself knew. “Power, whatever its source, twists the mind. People like you and I urgently need opposition to stay sane.”

“I’ve had the same thought myself,” Trissiny agreed, smiling. She nodded once more, then turned and slipped back out into the hall.

Behind her, the young Duchess Madouri slumped back in her chair once more, expression growing dour as she gazed into the distant nothingness beyond the walls of her manor.

Moments later, Trissiny’s head reappeared in the doorway. “Um…”

Ravana grinned. “Left, then right, then right.”

“Got it. Thanks.”

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16 – 8

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“Ninetails,” Glory said, her expression conveying both resignation and annoyance. “Yes, I’m sure. Trust me, the description is…unmistakable.”

“Is she…?” Rasha reached up to tap her own temple with a fingertip.

“Impossible to say, really,” her sponsor mused. “She is either unhinged in a very specific manner which does not inhibit and in fact often aids in her work as an enforcer, or faking it for effect. I rather suspect the latter, but at this point, I doubt that even she knows for sure. Ninetails has been the way she is since her apprentice days. It’s as the Vidians say: wear the mask, become the mask. Of more immediate concern, I apparently need to have words with her about the handling of other people’s apprentices.”

“I don’t want to be the cause of inter-Guild drama,” Rasha said hesitantly. “I feel like we all got our fill of that last year.”

“It isn’t your fault,” Glory said. “Whether or not, academically, Ninetails had reason to call you down for your actions, that was not an acceptable way to go about it. Unless you exaggerated in your description of her behavior?”

“I didn’t,” Rasha assured her swiftly. “But I also didn’t think it was all that bad. It’s not like she hurt me or anything.”

“Hell, Style’s done worse than that to all of us,” Tallie added, pausing in her reflective pacing before the fireplace to grin at Rasha. “It’s pretty much how she says hello.”

“Not since I took you in, you’ll note,” Glory replied. “It’s not an ethical matter, Rasha; we’re Eserites, we play roughly. This is expected. Call it a territorial concern. An enforcer manhandling my apprentice is not only an insult, if left unaddressed it stands to cost me face in a manner which may have an actual effect on my ability to work. More importantly, as an enforcer Ninetails is fully aware of this. I will have from her either an apology or an extremely persuasive explanation accounting for profoundly extenuating circumstances.”

“Uh, how lucid is this woman, exactly?” Darius asked. “Cos expecting forethought from a known crazy person…”

“Nobody knows, Darius,” Layla said primly. “Glory just went over that, do try to pay attention.”

“It’s a pretty good grift,” Tallie mused, beginning to pace again. “I bet you can get away with a lot if nobody knows how mentally culpable you are.”

“It’s good to study the methods of others, Tallie, but I don’t think that particular approach suits your personality,” Glory cautioned.

Tallie winked at her. “Way ahead of you, boss.”

“Anything else, Rasha?” Glory asked, returning her focus to her first apprentice. “Any comment on your performance requires an accurate description. If you feel you’ve left anything out, now is the time.”

“I don’t…think so,” Rasha said hesitantly. She at least did not shift or fidget, the practice of Glory’s relentless social drilling kicking in, and belatedly she banished the hesitation from her voice, meeting her trainer’s eyes evenly. “I went over it all the way home, and I still think that woman was over the line. But there were obviously other things going on that I’m not aware of, and… Well, I’ve recounted it to the best of my memory.”

“You have a tendency to second-guess yourself, Rasha,” Glory said, inclining her head slightly. “It can be an asset, so long as you are careful to do so intellectually and not emotionally; that is the difference between analyzing one’s performance for ways to improve, and self-destructive navel gazing. In this case, based upon your description, I believe your performance deserves some critique, but not castigation. This is why I asked: not because I doubt you, but because I agree that Ninetails was out of order, and I mean to tell her so. I’ll be rather miffed if I find out in the middle of that conversation that things are not as I was informed.”

“I haven’t deceived you, Glory,” Rasha stated, lifting her chin.

“Very good,” Glory said, granting her a smile. “Then what do you think you could have done better?”

Rasha took a steadying breath and let it out softly. “Perhaps I was a little too aggressive. Those ridiculous women urgently needed to be taken down a peg, and that was my instinctive response. Maybe, in hindsight, I wasn’t the best person to take on that task.”

“Rasha,” Darius chuckled, “too aggressive. Look how much our girl’s grown up!”

Layla and Tallie shot him matching looks, and for a moment there was silence in the room, penetrated only by the ticking of the grandfather clock behind Glory’s chair. As often when speaking to all of her apprentices, she had gathered them in the third-floor solarium adjacent to her bedroom, which was laid out in a comfortable fashion as a small private parlor, cozy without being crowded with the five present and even leaving Tallie room to pace, as she preferred to do while thinking. It was an especially peaceful scene today, with the fresh snow blanketing the rooftops visible through the glass wall. Tiraas did not stop or even appreciably slow when snowed upon, but it certainly looked cleaner, especially from above.

“Darius,” Glory finally said in a neutrally pleasant tone.

“Sorry,” he said, grimacing. “Don’t mind me, please continue.”

“Goading those women into an aggressive act would be the appropriate strategy for an enforcer,” Glory said, returning her attention to Rasha. “You have deliberately focused your learning on more cerebral styles, and should draw upon them first.”

“I couldn’t…bring myself to back down from those…people,” Rasha admitted with a slight strain in her voice.

Her sponsor’s answering smile was understanding. “Indeed, and that’s the spirit that drew you to me in the first place. An Eserite does not back down. But even the most brutal knuckleduster in the Guild is expected to act with strategy, and a head-on confrontation is generally not the best approach to even a seemingly simple fight. To step backward is not necessarily to retreat. To control the fight, one must first control one’s own footing.”

“Do you think they would actually have attacked Rasha?” Layla asked, wearing a puzzled frown. “The temple would have been crawling with Silver Legionnaires; they’d be set upon instantly. Surely they couldn’t have been so foolish.”

“These Purists are religious fanatics, Layla,” Glory said seriously. “There is no more dangerous creature in existence, and all the more so if they are foolish.”

“Huh?” Tallie halted her pacing again, tilting her head. “How’s that work? Generally you don’t want smarter enemies.”

“Boss lady’s right,” Darius said quietly. “We’ve got more reason than most to know it. Remember last year? We were chased around by highly professional Svennish intelligence agents, and they were damn hard to shake and required calling in major help. In the end we won, though. Then we were chased around by asshat Church conspirators who didn’t know what the fuck they were doing at any point, and they went down fast and hard, but not before we lost a friend.”

Another silence fell, this one more dour.

“Precisely so,” Glory said softly after giving them a moment to reflect. “A clever foe poses an ultimately greater challenge, but in the end, rational people are inherently predictable up to a point. Someone driven by passion and unencumbered by reason might do absolutely anything at all; it is impossible to plan for insanity. It is a mistake to force a physical confrontation to people like the Purists unless one has taken care to lay the groundwork beforehand, and drawn them into an ambush in which one controls the field. If it is they who take the initiative, better to back away for the time being and seek redress later, with care and forethought. For now, Rasha,” she continued with a reassuring smile, “I am satisfied with your performance today. You miscalculated, but you learned from it, and that is an apprentice’s first and foremost job.”

“Thank you,” Rasha said, bowing her head graciously. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“For now,” Glory went on, her expression growing serious again, “we must consider our next action with regard to these…people.”

“Is it necessary for us to take action?” Layla asked pointedly. “Or…wise? Apart from how dangerous this fringe sect are or aren’t, they seem like an internal Avenist matter, so long as Rasha avoids getting drawn into another trap. As you may recall, we have been spoken to about sticking our noses into the business of other cults.”

“I fear we may not have that luxury,” Glory replied. “To be sure, I will consult with Sweet about this rather than charge into the Sisterhood’s affairs unprepared. But the fact is, these women know who Rasha is, and more troublingly, were able to arrange to intercept her. It wasn’t wise of them to do so in the Temple of Avei; it is chillingly possible that they may have figured this out, and might take steps to catch her elsewhere. For the time being, I want none of you to go anywhere alone. In pairs at the very least, and preferably all four.”

“Oh, good,” Darius groaned. “Going everywhere with my little sister and two other girls. This’ll be great for my social life.”

“See, it’s funny,” Tallie said with a cheeky grin, “cos it’s not like he ever meets girls anyway.”

“It’s just a short-term precaution until we know more,” Glory assured him with an amused smile. “I will see what Sweet knows of these women, and we will of course also ask Thorn when she visits this week.”

“Great,” Darius grunted, looking even more sour than before. “Once again, it’s our pet paladin to save our asses.”

“Oh, I do hope so,” Layla said sweetly. “I just never tire of hearing your whingeing about it.”

“You are not without a point, Darius,” said Glory, “but take it in moderation. Knowing a paladin is a priceless asset, if leveraged correctly and not overly relied upon. We hardly turn to Trissiny to solve all our problems, but she is extremely relevant to this one in particular.”

“Extremely,” Rasha agreed. “The Purists made it clear they’re mostly irate about her, and my insidious Eserite influence on her. It seems not everybody buys this Great Uniter shtick that’s been in the papers.”

Darius rolled his eyes melodramatically.

“That is my concern precisely,” said Glory. “They have connected you to Trissiny despite you having had no in-person contact with her in a year; the last time we saw her face to face, the Purists were still scattered to the winds and a political concern to nobody. It is precisely this which makes me think we are seeing the resurgence of old problems, rather than entirely new ones. I’ve heard mention of these Purists off and on for years, but more as a punchline than a threat. Even their name is a derisive label thrown by other Avenists, not something they created themselves. They were a fringe belief, rarely more than one or two of them existing in a temple with little formal contact between them. Now, quite suddenly, they are organized and in Tiraas in their entire force. More strikingly, according to Rasha, they have uniforms. None of that simply happens, unassisted.”

“You think they have backers, with resources,” Tallie said, frowning.

Glory nodded. “The loyalist conspiracy was annihilated…allegedly. I am reasonably sure that what they knew, Archpope Justinian knows. He has made it abundantly clear since this summer that he is displeased with the Sisterhood, and it would be precisely his pattern to arrange for extra pressure upon them which cannot be easily linked to him.”

“Fuck,” Darius said with feeling. “That guy again.”

“Yeah, this is lookin’ more and more like a Trissiny thing,” Tallie observed.

“By the same token,” said Layla, “is it not possible that this is a ploy to draw her into some kind of trap?”

“Possible indeed,” Glory said, nodding. “Be careful not to get too far into the weeds with conspiracy theories, however. Really complex and excessively indirect plots rarely work out in practice, the world is just too unpredictable. We’ll speak with Thorn in a few days at most, and see what she knows and thinks about this. I will consult Sweet in the meantime. Only then, when we possess a better view of the situation, will we take action. If nothing else, I must have some time to listen to the grapevine and see what role the Guild plays in this.”

“What’s the Guild got to do with any of it?” Darius asked. “Didn’t we just decide this is an Avenist problem?”

“I doubt the Guild has anything directly to do with the Purists, or the reverse,” Glory agreed with a thoughtful frown. “However, there is the matter that relations between the Guild and the Sisterhood are both paramount and necessarily tense right now.”

“Ninetails mentioned that,” Rasha said, nodding.

“Precisely,” said Glory. “And her territorial attitude toward you indicates that you stepped into a job she considers her own. Do you not think it odd, then, that the Boss would send a notably unstable enforcer to conduct relations with the Sisterhood at a time like this?”

Silence fell again, this one especially pensive.

“There are several things going on here,” Glory said grimly. “We don’t yet know the half of it. But we will. And when we do…then we shall do what needs to be done.”


“Fancy shmancy,” Style drawled, perusing the bottle’s label while pouring herself a glass of sparkling wine. “Real Glassian gold, huh. Dulac, 526? What the hell are they counting from? This must’ve set you back a shiny new penny.”

“You don’t gotta be insulting, Style,” Flora reproved.

“Yeah, we know you’ve got your routine, but that’s not called for,” Fauna added.

“Over the line, is what it is.”

“Really. The very nerve.”

Style sighed heavily and turned her glare on Sweet, handing him back the bottle. “I dared, for one precious moment, to hope that that bullshit would end with their apprenticeship. But no, it’s gonna be vaudeville for their entire eternal fucking lives, isn’t it? Makes me grateful I’ll be peacefully decomposing before a fraction of that time has passed.”

“Well, they’re not wrong,” he replied smugly, holding out the bottle toward Lore in a mute offer which the priest declined with a gesture of his own half-full glass. “Really, Style. Buying an expensive gift, on the very day of their tagging? That’s just plain hurtful. I’ll have you know I stole this fair and square.”

“And how long are you planning to keep us in suspense?” Lore asked, grinning. “Come on, come on, you didn’t just come here to hand out princely booze. Let’s have some introductions!”

“Too right!” Sweet agreed, turning to set both bottle and glass upon a velvet-covered blackjack table, currently free of customers and its dealer not in evidence. This corner of the Casino’s main floor was near one of the entrances to the Guild’s underground complex, but was still nominally public. And yet, the well-heeled patrons did not have to be warned to stay away from a cluster of tough-looking people in relatively shabby clothes having a small celebration. Lack of privacy aside, the Guild’s headquarters proper just plain didn’t have much to offer in the way of facilities for special occasions. Why bother, when their faith had little use for ceremony and the Empire’s fanciest establishment was right upstairs?

“May I present to you,” Sweet proclaimed, gesturing at the two preening elves with a grandiose air he had originally copied from a circus ringmaster, “the unimpeachable pride of my own distinguished career, a pair of rising talents who I fully expect shall go on to pickpocket the gods themselves, and the two newest full-fledged members of the Theives’ Guild: Cloak!”

Grinning broadly, Flora sketched a mocking half-curtsy, flourishing with both hands the anachronistic black cloak which she had taken to wearing as a personal affectation during her first weeks of apprenticeship. By this point she had a whole closet full of them; this one was a sleek number with a rainproof enchantment lined with deep crimson velvet, a solstice gift from Sweet himself.

“And,” he continued just as proudly, “Dagger!”

Fauna didn’t share her counterpart’s taste for on-the-nose pageantry, and as such did not brandish or even touch any of the multiple knives strapped to various parts of her person, but grinned to match Flora and leaned on the other elf’s shoulder, winking at the onlookers.

“Oh, for fuck’s fucking sake, Sweet!” Style exclaimed.

“You’re in a pissy mood even for you tonight,” he complained. “Imagine, mocking someone’s tag. Were you raised in a landfill, you obstreperous wench?”

“Did you have to tag them as a pair? Who the fuck does that?”

“It’s actually not unprecedented, Style,” Lore said with a calmer smile. “Common, no, but it’s not like he invented the practice. They aren’t the first pair to have been obviously inseparable from the day they joined up, and let’s face it, nobody doubted these two were going to stay together as a unit after apprenticeship. Cloak, Dagger,” he said, turning to them directly and raising his glass, “my congratulations, and welcome to the ranks. We’re all proud of you.”

“Yes, we are!” Sweet said, beaming. “Right, Style?”

“Yeah, yeah,” she snorted, waving him off. “What, you want me to gush and swoon? You two’ve always had talent, everybody with eyes has known you were gonna do well once you got trained up.”

“Why…why Style,” Flora sniffled, her eyes welling up.

“That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to us,” Fauna whimpered in the same tone.

“Maybe the sweetest thing she’s ever said to anyone!”

“Even in bed, I hear.”

“None of this means anybody likes you two treefuckers,” Style grunted, raising her glass to her mouth. Incongruously given her bluff aspect, she took a tiny sip and paused to savor it, inhaling through her nose.

“So what’s the plan, ladies?” Lore asked genially, swirling his glass. “Most have some kind of plan upon graduating. Usually either a big, spectacular job connected to nothing and incredibly likely to backfire, or the first careful steps of a long-term career strategy.”

“The immediate plan is to celebrate,” Flora said cheerfully.

“And then, well, we’ll see,” Fauna continued.

“Honestly, it’s almost like a case of vertigo.”

“So much possibility and freedom!”

“Probably the big spectacular job, just to gloat in not needing Sweet’s permission.”

“All I ask is that you don’t burn down the city,” said Sweet. “I’ve got all my stuff here. But if you two’re bored, I can find—”

“Eeeee!” Cutting him off, both elves suddenly emitted squeals and scurried away, leaving their sponsor blinking after them. While the senior Eserites turned to watch in bemusement, Flora and Fauna clustered around the new arrivals to their quiet corner of the Casino: a young teenage boy and an adult woman of Punaji stock, the latter with a bundle slung over her chest and cradled protectively in one arm. The newly-minted thieves leaned toward this, cooing in delight.

“Oh, she’s gorgeous! Congratulations!”

“What’s her name?”

“And hello to you, too,” Lakshmi Sanjakar replied pointedly, but not without a self-satisfied grin of her own. “Seems congratulations are in order all around. This is Padmara.”

“And let’s keep the squealing down, shall we?” Sanjay added imperiously. “Honestly, you got any idea how hard it is to get the brat to sleep? If you wake her up, Imma pummel somebody.”

“Did you seriously bring a fucking baby in here?” Style demanded. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Peepers? If she’s not awake already, better double check she’s not dead.”

“What’s wrong with me is we just got back into town and everybody I know is here,” Lakshmi shot back. “What, you think I’m gonna trust this punk to look after an infant while I check in?”

“You see how she talks to me?” her little brother said in an aggrieved tone. “Me, an innocent child! This kid is doomed, I tell ya.”

“Well, well,” Sweet chimed in, sauntering casually over to her. “Congratulations indeed! Aw, look at her little nose, she’s gonna have her mom’s good looks.”

“Poor thing,” Sanjay said mournfully. Lakshmi swatted the back of his head without looking, prompting him to grin.

“I wondered why you two suddenly took off back to Puna Dara, you sly fox,” Sweet chuckled, leaning forward between Flora and Fauna to admire the sleeping baby. “How old is she?”

“Uh huh,” Lakshmi said dryly, giving him a sardonic look. “Nice, Sweet, real subtle. Just like a man to see a baby and start counting months. ‘Oh no, am I responsible for this?’”

“He better not be, is all,” Sanjay said, curling his lip. “Fuckin’ ew, Shmi. This guy’s three times your age.”

“You get smacked a lot, don’t you, son,” Sweet asked him. The boy grinned and winked unrepentantly.

“You wanna hold her?” Lakshmi asked, shifting her smile to the elves.

“Do I?!”

“Me first!”

It took a few moments of disentangling before little Padmara was nestled safely in Fauna’s arms, and the two still-cooing elves edged over toward Lore with Sanjay hovering protectively around them and his baby niece.

“So, Peepers,” Sweet said pleasantly. “Just outta curiosity, you understand. Am I…responsible for this?”

“Right,” she said in a quiet and grimmer tone, canting her head toward him but keeping her eyes on her daughter, the elves, and Sanjay. “Can’t say I was expecting to run into you literally first thing back in town, but it works out, since this conversation needed to happen anyway. To whatever extent it’s any of your damn business, I know you can count, and I know how you love to meddle. So I’ll tell you up front, Sweet: Padma is my daughter, she’s got a mom and an uncle and Guild friends and that is all she needs. I give no shits what kind of blood she has. She’s Punaji and will be raised Eserite, and is no fucking business of any noble. Your asshole friend Danny is not welcome to be involved in this. If I learn that he’s even informed of this, I’m gonna have Style beat your ass till the hole part is on the outside, and I think you know if I put it to her right she will damn well do it. We understand one another?”

“Whoah, now, mama bear,” he said soothingly, raising both hands. A few yards distant, Sanjay was insistently taking Padmara from the audibly disappointed elves while criticizing their baby-handling skills. “You gotta know I’m not one to get between a Guild member and family. All you had to do is make it clear what you want, and that’s what I’ll make happen. Far as I’m concerned, Danny lost any rights when he lied to me and put you two in danger for it.”

“Good,” she said, giving him a firm nod. “Just so we’re clear.”

“Seriously, though, why did you leave Tiraas? I know you’ve got friends here…”

“Sure, but I got friends at home, too. You’re not Punaji; you wouldn’t understand. She needed to be born near the sea, with a windshaman presiding. But Tiraas is where Sanjay and I are making a home, and it’s where the opportunities are. I want her to have the best chances.”

“Okay, the windshaman I’ll grant you, but this is also a coastal city, for the record,” he said. “So, uh, just to be clear, Danny is the one—”

“Sweet,” she warned.

“All right, all right, fair enough,” he soothed, grinning. “I’m just surprised, is all. When I asked you to lend the guy a bed, I didn’t mean—”

“You’re such an asshole,” Lakshmi said with no particular rancor. “If you’ll excuse me, I gotta go check in with the Boss now I’m back in town, and do some catching up. If your girls are hard up for work, maybe they wouldn’t mind babysitting sometime soon. They sure seem eneamored.”

“Well, I can’t exactly lend ‘em out anymore, so I’m not the person to ask. But you’re not wrong, I’ve got a feeling they’ll like that idea.”

“Catch you later, Sweet,” she said, giving him a final, wry smile, then stepped forward to retrieve her daughter from Sanjay. Leaving behind the elves, Style, and Lore, the three of them disappeared through the door discreetly positioned behind a potted fig tree that led deeper into the bowels of the Guild.

Standing some yards away and staring blankly after them, Sweet drew in a long, deep breath, and then let it out slowly through his teeth with a noise like air escaping a balloon.

His two erstwhile apprentices drifted back over, grinning wickedly, and positioned themselves on either side of him, each reaching up to rest an elbow on one of his shoulders.

“Heh heh.”

“And you thought we were gonna burn down the city.”

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16 – 7

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“Well, of course,” Mogul drawled, thrusting his hands into his pockets and adopting a slouching pose so clearly exaggerated for effect it was reminiscent of a vaudeville performer. “That’s the only trick you know, isn’t it? Kill it with fire, ask questions never, then flounce away and let the authorities sift through the wreckage. No, Natchua, if I meant to mix it up with you, I promise you’d never have seen us coming. I want to have a word with you.”

“I don’t recommend having words with the Wreath,” Fedhaar said tersely.

“I notice you haven’t opened fire yet,” she replied, glancing back at him.

“Standard procedure not to force a confrontation with warlocks if it’s not necessary. If they don’t want to fight, grand, but that doesn’t make it smart to listen to notorious manipulators. We need to evac.”

“And that’ll be why he’s put himself between us and the exit,” Svanwen said.

Mogul tipped his hat.

“All right, sunshine, I’ll tell you what,” said Natchua, folding her arms imperiously. “Convince me you have something worthwhile to say and I’ll hear it out. Waste any more of my time and I shadow-jump all of us right out of this entirely pointless pain in the ass.”

“Any reason you can’t do that now?” Fedhaar asked.

“I’ll send you all back up top if you want,” she said. “He’s gone to the trouble of setting this up once, and cost Agatha’s people two days of work. I’d just as soon he get it out of his system before the next attempt is even more of a headache.”

“Hn,” the captain grunted, flexing his fingers along the haft of his battlestaff. “That said, I prefer we stay and keep an eye on this, then. Thanks for the offer.”

“Appreciate having you,” Natchua said, glancing back again to give him a nod. “Well? We’re waiting, Mogul. Spit it out, while we’re young.”

“Kind of an impossible position, isn’t it?” he mused. “I’m to impress someone whose core problem is being too up her own butt to possess basic empathy, or an awareness that actions have consequences.”

“Well, he came to the point more directly than I expected,” Natchua said, smirking faintly.

“Glib in the face of anything that might cause the discomfort of a real emotional response,” Mogul retorted. “I know you didn’t learn that in Tar’naris. You must’ve devoured those chapbooks and comics as soon as you hit Last Rock, kiddo. That would explain several things, actually.”

“I’m getting bored,” she warned.

“Now, as best as I’ve been able to piece together events after the fact, you actually spent a short time in chaos space yourself. You and the Crow; she’s just about the only person who can get into there and is insane enough to use it for transportation. So you know that’s not boring.” He was still showing teeth, the corners of his mouth still turned upward, but his upper lip had twisted the expression into a feral snarl beneath the shade of his hat. “Don’t you?”

“Did you honestly set all this up to complain at me?” Natchua exclaimed. “It was a warzone. I caught you idiots red-handed summoning more demons into it. And I’m the one who’s unaware of consequences? At least have enough courage of conviction not to whine when you get hurt in the process of being hilariously evil.”

“’Evil’ is a word people use to dismiss anything they can’t be bothered to understand,” Mogul shot back. “But don’t you worry, darlin’, we’re more than accustomed to being the bigger person. Case in point: I’m not even going to rant about how evil it is to consign a couple dozen bystanders to a dimension of unimaginable torment for no better reason than that you wanted to hurt the deity they answer to. Because I do understand it, Natchua. And mark me now: before I’m done, you will understand it, too.” His smile thinned, which ironically made it look more sincere, though it was still not a warm or cheerful expression. “Consider this the thrown gauntlet. Any fool can hurt someone; there is no greater vengeance than to make a person confront their own fundamental inadequacy. For most people, a personality is little more than a lifetime’s worth of built up defenses against the realization of what a piece of shit they truly are. I’m going to take that from you, Natchua. And when you finally have to acknowledge the true depth of your own stupid, selfish perfidy, that will hurt more than anything suffered by us, or by our comrades who never made it out of where you sent them. So you have that—”

“Oh, gods, are you done?” she demanded.

Mogul sighed, his smile finally inverting into an annoyed grimace. “Really, now, I’d think you could at least let me have my moment of drama. Surely even you will acknowledge you owe me that much.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Natchua snorted. “I’m gonna tell you what I told your bitch goddess: you’re no better. However justified Elilial is in her beef with the Pantheon, she’s a spiteful, destructive monster with oceans of blood on her hands. You think you’re so very put upon? Please. Yeah, I messed you up, but—and I can’t believe I have to keep repeating this—you were summoning an army of demons into Ninkabi. What, did you look around at the city being torn apart by demons and think, ‘hey, I know what this needs: more demons!’ Just fuck right off.”

“We were acting under orders from the Dark Lady,” another of the Wreath cultists interjected harshly. Her voice was feminine, though none of their faces save Mogul’s was visible, and the echoes in the tomb made it difficult for even Natchua to tell which one was talking. “We were trying to put a stop to the invasion! Her forces—”

“Even you don’t believe what you’re saying,” Natchua scoffed. “You were trying to stop a demon invasion with a demon invasion? You’re supposed to be the ultimate anti-demon experts. There is zero possibility you’re not fully aware that is the opposite of how it works.”

“When you’re given marching orders from an actual deity,” Mogul began.

Natchua barked a harsh laugh which reverberated through the tomb, prompting an agitated hiss from the chained rozzk’shnid behind the wall.If you’re the Black Wreath and living on a diet of your own prideful resistance to the gods, you question your orders. If you’re the Black Wreath and have been close enough to Elilial’s plans to have seen firsthand how she’s been unraveling for years now, you definitely question orders that you can plainly see are only going to make a catastrophe worse. Apparently, you idiots couldn’t be bothered. So what does that make you?”

“Are you trying to suggest we’re not the actual Black Wreath?” Mogul asked, his tone amused. “I have to say, that’s something I’m rarely accused of. In fact, this may be a first.”

“I’m saying you’re exactly like every other poor sap wrecking the world and coming up with no better excuse than ‘my god told me to.’ You think the Pantheon and their cults are assholes? Fine, maybe so, I wouldn’t really know. You think you’ve been mistreated? Sure, I handled you roughly, and so have a lot of others. But you think you’re in any better position to look down your noses? Please. You had your chance to prove you were better; I caught you right smack dab in the middle of it. That was your opportunity to show that all your resistance to the gods was something more than asshat us vs. them tribalism, your chance to stand up to an unjust goddess and do what was right instead of what you were told. And did you take it? Did you prove your character? Or did you duck your head and obey, and try to fuck up a disaster even worse? Well, Mogul?” She threw her arms wide, sweeping a glare around at the robed figures. “Any of you? What did you do?”

They remained hooded and inscrutable, though a growl sounded in the feminine voice which has previously spoken, softly enough that only Natchua could have heard it. Mogul’s mouth had pressed into a thin line, no longer showing any amusement either real or dramatically feigned.

The ensuing two heartbeats of silence were broken by a low whistle from one of the soldiers, followed by a muffled snort from another.

“Never mind, you don’t have to say anything,” Natchua stated in the most condescending tone she could muster. “We all know the answer. I just wanted to see your face wrap itself around that stupid expression. And you chuckleheads came here to make me confront my inadequacy? No wonder your goddess had to surrender.”

“You have no idea what that place was like!” the woman snarled.

“Vanessa,” Mogul warned, but ignoring him, she stepped forward, revealing herself to be the hooded figure closest to him on his left.

“People I cared about died in agony right in front of me because of you,” she snarled, pointing accusingly at Natchua. “Torn apart by monsters, because you had to pursue your own little grudge with Elilial! You don’t get to climb up on a high horse and lecture us!”

Natchua folded her arms again. “You know what? Fuck your dead friends.”

“Little beast!”

Vanessa hurled a shadowbolt of such intensity that its sullen purple glow lit the chamber for a split second. Natchua deftly brought up a hand to intercept it and plucked the thing out of the air; in her grasp, the streak of energy was suddenly a yard-long shaft of irregular violet crystal which streamed with sulfurous smoke. She contemptuously tossed it aside, and the solidified magic shattered upon the stone floor, brittle as old charcoal. By the time the soldiers managed to bring their weapons to bear, the fragments were already decaying into nothing.

“Fuck your nihilistic crusade,” Natchua continued relentlessly. “Fuck your whingeing goddess, fuck her hurt feelings, and fuck you all. You’ve been through some shit, fine, you can be upset about that, but you’re not going to act like the aggrieved party. You know what you did, and this entire stupid thing is nothing but you trying to make yourselves feel better by pretending there’s someone worse than you out there. And the proof of it is that you’re trying to pick on me instead of Mary the Crow, who was at least as responsible for that whole thing and would flick her fingers and annihilate the lot of you if you went near her, you self-involved cowards. You made your choices, and you chose to lick Elilial’s hooves and in the process throw away your own vaunted spirit of defiance and your divine mandate to protect the world from demons. So yeah, I sent your asses to Tentacle Super Hell, and you are now getting on my case about it so you don’t have to face up to the fact that that was what you deserved.”

Vanessa practically vibrated with rage, but silently; Mogul had gone still and stood stiffly upright, with none of his theatrically slouched demeanor. The other cultists, previously impassive, shuffled restlessly in their robes.

“Fuckin’ told,” Lieutenant Bindo observed, prompting another derisive snort from a fellow soldier.

“Quiet,” Captain Fedhaar ordered tersely.

All of them stilled, though not in response to him. The sound that echoed through the tunnels hovered right at the edge of hearing, even Natchua’s, resembling both a groan and a whisper. It came from the gate into the deeper, unmapped catacombs, accompanied by a soft stirring of air and the acrid smell of old decay. The rozzk’shnid whined and began scrabbling furiously at the stone, as if trying to burrow into the floor; mostly smothered by its noise was an ephemerally faint suggestion of murmuring voices, with words hinted at but nothing meaningful to be discerned.

It faded in little more than a second, though, and in the next instant the darkness momentarily deepened in the tomb, shadows drawing together around the cultists in unison. They receded immediately, and with them the Wreath vanished.

Ms. Svanwen let out a huff of pent-up breath. “Well. That’s…that, I suppose.”

“Not hardly,” Natchua murmured, frowning at the spot where Embras Mogul had stood. “There is no possible way that was all he wanted.”

“Agreed,” said Fedhaar, raising his battlestaff to plant its butt on the stone floor. “That kind of confrontation isn’t their pattern at all, though it can be the first step of a characteristic misdirection. Whatever they came here for, that was just the opening move.”

“Well, if they’re after me in particular, hopefully they won’t mess up your work any more,” Natchua offered, turning to face them.

Svanwen shook her head. “If nothing else, now they know they can draw you out by messing with Veilgrad’s interests. Blessed Light, and I played right into it. It was me who went and drew you into this, just like that prancing cockerel wanted.”

“Don’t beat yourself up about the Black Wreath thinking two steps ahead of you, ma’am,” Fedhaar advised. “That is pretty much what they do. For now, we need to get out of here and report this nuisance to ImCom and Duchess Dufresne. Jevani, finish what we came here for.”

“Sir!” One of his soldiers saluted, then swiftly stepped around the dividing wall with her staff at the ready.

“I could’ve done without that last bit of theater, though,” Fedhaar commented. The crack of lightning was deafening in the tomb, causing Natchua to wince and cover her ears; Jevani had to shoot the rozzk’shnid three times in succession to finish the armored creature off, but the captain continued as though there had been no interruption the second its squeals ceased. “That was just plain creepy. Didn’t seem like it fit with the rest of that guy’s performance, either.”

Natchua turned to face the direction of the doorway into the deeper tunnels, hidden out of view by the likenesses of the ancient kings, her face again drawn into a pensive frown. “I don’t…think…that was them. We may have additional problems.”


The whole exchange so far had taken place in the lodge’s grandiose entrance hall, simply because that was the only indoor space large enough to contain the whole group. The Harpies numbered thirty-eight women in total, most somewhere in their middle years but including a handful of teenagers and three gray-haired grannies, one of whom required a cane to walk, not that it had apparently held her back from rebelling against the regime in Shaathvar. There was a single Tiraan among them, a woman in her thirties named Sadhi who had looked singularly depressed every time Ravana had seen her; all the rest were Stalweiss, with hair in shades of brown and gold when not gray, plus two with the rarer red, most of them with the solid build of hardy mountain folk.

Despite the opulence of the lodge, with its gilt-fluted marble columns, the atmosphere in the room was surprisingly convivial, largely due to the noise from the front area near the doors, where Dantu had taken over shepherding the Harpies’ dozen or so accompanying children. The old man appeared to be having the time of his life, guiding the youngsters through a game that seemed to involve alternately sitting in a wide circle and chasing one another around it; fortunately he’d selected as the site for this roughhousing a large swath of plush carpet which had been enchanted so as to both repel stains and not inflict burns when skidded across. Ravana had already decided never to inform any of them that her great-grandfather had commissioned the thing for sexual purposes and her father had laid it before the door as its magic conveniently prevented mud from being tracked into the lodge. For the most part, she kept her focus on Ingvar and the Harpies, but periodically stole inquisitive glances at the elder and the children. She’d never had the opportunity to play such games at that age…

With the sounds of play as a backdrop, the more serious scene unfolding around the great hearth at the opposite end of the hall was spared from excessive solemnity. The refugee women stood and sat in a roughly semicircular formation, their attention mostly on Ingvar, who spoke in a steady and soothing tone that Ravana admired for how deftly he had perceived the mood of this crowd and the best approach to them. At least a few of the Harpies were still studying Dimbi with awed expressions. The younger Shadow Hunter had taken the form of a great wolf as a demonstration, and not seen fit to change back; she now sat next to Ingvar before the fire, a tawny creature the size of a small donkey surrounded by a gentle aura of light as if occupying her own private sunbeam, the golden geometric patterns marking her fur glowing gently.

“There’s nothing more natural than to feel that way,” Ingvar was saying earnestly in response to Brenhild’s last statement. The closest thing the Harpies had to a leader, she was a broad-shouldered woman with dark brown hair done in a single long braid and then wrapped around her head like a crown; apparently she had personally fended off Huntsmen trying to drag her and her comrades back home, first with a broomstick, then a cudgel, and later with the Avenic leaf-bladed gladius now hanging at her hip. She watched Ingvar with a skeptical frown as he continued, but showed no signs of disagreeing. “Every person has the right to space of their own; in Shaath’s service, we learn to appreciate solitude, and the fact that women are so frequently denied it in traditional lodges is just one of the crimes heaped upon you.”

More of the women than otherwise nodded at that, a couple grunting approval.

“As free beings, you’re entitled to decide whose company you keep, and when,” Ingvar went on, still holding Brenhild’s gaze with that inexhaustible calm of his. “If you don’t want anyone around sometimes, that is fine. If you don’t want any men near you at certain times or places, that’s entirely your right. It would be even if you hadn’t been through ordeals that would make it particularly understandable. Being part of the wild means determining these things for yourself. As a group, though, and as a doctrine, we will not be segregated by sex.”

“The Avenists cultivate women-only spaces,” Brenhild stated, narrowing her eyes.

“So they do,” Ingvar agreed with a nod. “In fact, so do Izarites and some sects of Vidians. We do not. This thing with men against women is the whole root of all our miseries, and needs to end. There is a lot we can learn from Avenists, and others, but not to the point of losing our own identity as Shaathists. As I said, when you need times and spaces to be by yourself, they’ll be available—but this will be because you are human beings with the absolute right to determine with whom you will keep company, and when, and under what circumstances. It will never be about formal segregation within the Shadow Hunters. That is a point of principle, yes, but there is also a crucial matter of overcoming bad habits within our own ranks. We have many former Rangers who are already accustomed to this and provide good examples; we also have Huntsmen who need to get used to accepting women as equals, and women from both Shaathist and other backgrounds who I will not see brushed aside into separate spaces. Even with the best intentions, that can all too easily lead to exactly the kind of gendered divide Shaath’s people urgently need to overcome.”

At that, Brenhild nodded, her expression finally softening; clearly taking a cue from her, several of the others nodded as well. Some of the Harpies still seemed skeptical of Ingvar, but fewer than when he had started speaking, and quite a few were gazing at him with utterly rapt expressions. Watching all this unfold from the shadow of a marble column a few yards away, Ravana was impressed by how well and quickly he was winning the group over.

“We’ve our own scars to heal, you know,” said Gretchen. A widow, she had had the personal privacy to take up a very cursory study of the fae arts without any Huntsman preventing her; the woman was no witch, but even her slight connection to magic had made the wolf dreams especially vivid and informative for her, leading to her taking a role as the Harpies’ unofficial shaman. It had been Gretchen who had foreseen Ingvar’s coming even before Ravana had informed the group of her intention to bring him, and she had ardently championed him as a solution to many of their problems. Now, though, her expression was concerned, even cynical. “Not that I doubt the seriousness of what you’re suggesting, Brother Ingvar, but I don’t think any of us are anxious to take on the obligation of tending to more Huntsmen of Shaath, even if it’s to teach them how not to be pompous puffed-up arses. There’s plenty of pain here that needs to be healed before any of us look to take responsibility for anyone else.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Ingvar agreed, inclining his head toward her. “I mean no offense, but you all have a great deal of learning to do in the ways of the wild, due to being unfairly kept from them for all these years. If you’re ever to be responsible for guiding others, that will come later, and only if you choose to embrace that task. For now, it will be the Shadow Hunters who take on the duty of guiding and nurturing you, not expecting you to do likewise just yet. I confess we are not an ascetic or healing-oriented order. There are other cults with deep arts for soothing hurts to the spirit. In Shaath’s service, we have the wild.” He smiled, glancing about at the group. “And honestly? The wild is good medicine. Simply being out in nature is one of the most healing experiences a person can have. The harmony of wild places soothes the spirit and guides the mind back into balance. This is true for anyone, but as you grow in your knowledge of woodcraft, your connection to the earth will grow stronger. That eternal comfort will always be there.”

He paused, glancing aside at one of the hall’s towering windows, and shook his head ruefully.

“Well. Words are cheap; this is the point where ordinarily I would lead you outside to walk among the trees and show you what I mean, but unfortunately, we’re in the middle of winter.”

“Hah!” Ritta, the eldest among them, cackled and thumped her cane against the floor. “You call this winter, sonny boy? You’ve not spent much time up in the mountains.”

Amid the laughter which followed, Ingvar grinned right along.

“All right, fair enough! I certainly have time, and I came prepared for a Tiraan winter.” He picked up his bearskin cape and swung it over his shoulders. “No one need feel obligated, if you’d rather stay in here by the fire, but anybody who’d like to accompany me in a short exploration of the forest is more than welcome. There’s no time like the present to introduce you to your birthright. The wild belongs to all who are called to it.”

Smiling broadly, Brenhild clapped her hands. “You heard him! Cloaks and scarves, everybody, and let’s not keep Brother Ingvar waiting. Give us five minutes, young man.”

To Ingvar’s visible bemusement, every last one of them headed off to the hallway toward the inner rooms where their effects were kept, from stooped old Ritta to little thirteen-year-old Mittsin, herself barely mature enough to be welcomed by the group as a sister rather than consigned to Dantu’s care with the other children. Evidently not a one of the Harpies was willing to be held back from her formal introduction to Shaathist woodcraft by anything so paltry as a foot of snow.

As the last of them streamed out of the hall, Dimbi stretched out in front of the fire, resting her head on her forepaws, and Ingvar slowly crossed the room to join Ravana.

“You impress me, Brother Ingvar,” she said before he could speak. “You’ve handled all of this with great skill. I did hope you would be the one to guide them forward; my faith was clearly well-placed.”

“It’s I who should thank you, my Lady,” he replied. “All of this is thanks to your kindness.”

Ravana nodded once, then made a languid gesture at the great hall itself. “I realize the pretentiousness likely doesn’t suit your aesthetic, but what do you think of the lodge?”

“I do feel slightly out of place,” he admitted, “but it is a magnificent edifice.”

She smiled coyly up at him. “How’d you like to keep it?”

Even his well-mastered expression faltered into startlement. “Pardon?”

“There are drawbacks, of course,” Ravana mused, turning her head to gaze toward the hearth. Dimbi was watching them sidelong, her ears pricked upright despite her relaxed posture. “Being stationary poses risks, with Grandmaster Veisroi and his loyalists baying at your heels. But it will also better enable more followers to find you, and Tiraan Province is in a far more central location on the continent than N’Jendo. There is certainly ample room for your extant group and quite a few more additions, even counting the Harpies.”

“I…” He trailed off after one syllable, staring at her in apparent confusion.

“It’s not charity I offer,” Ravana assured him. “There is a traditional relationship between House Madouri and the Huntsmen of Shaath, allowing them free reign of the forests in the province in exchange for providing forestry services. You’ll be aware of this, of course, as I understand you lived in the lodge in Tiraas for several years. The Huntsmen have similar agreements with a number of Houses. With a single ducal decree I can award this traditional right to your group.” She allowed her smile to widen slightly. “To keep up appearances, of course, that means I will have to formally and publicly acknowledge your sect to be the legitimate cult of Shaath.”

Dimbi raised her head at that, turning it to stare directly. Ingvar had belatedly marshaled his features, and now peered down at Ravana through narrowed eyes.

“Why would you do such a thing?” he asked. “Supporting the Harpies is one thing, Lady Madouri. What you suggest would place you right in the center of what may yet become a violent religious schism. It seems like an impolitic move.”

“I’m a calculating creature, Brother Ingvar,” she murmured. “If I choose to take sides in any conflict, it is a sign of my confidence that the side I select will be the winning one. So the question is: do you want me on your side?”

He studied her in silence for a handful of seconds before answering.

“I am not sure.”

Ravana grinned. “Your reticence shows wisdom. I do think you are in the right in your conflict, but more importantly, I think that you are the future. Veisroi and his ilk are the past. Have you considered the meaning and the nature of the progress we have seen in the last century, Ingvar? Telescrolls, Rails, zeppelins, wands, shielding charms. What does it all mean?”

“Connection,” he answered. “The world grows smaller.”

“Oh, everybody knows that,” she said, waving a hand. “House Madouri has reigned over this land for a millennium by looking always to the future. The future I see is one in which secrets will grow harder and harder to keep, and even the most common people more and more able to defend themselves. With every advancing decade, people will grow harder to deceive, and harder to oppress. The Shaathist traditionalists have a regime built upon lies and persecution; it will grow ever more unsustainable, and would even without the wolf god himself plaguing their nightmares. It is people like you, who seek to liberate and enlighten, who will move to the fore in the coming century.

“Which is not to say that your victory is preordained,” she cautioned. “It’s early, yet, and Veisroi is well-positioned to make his enemies disappear. Someone will topple his kind, in the end; it may or may not be you. As I see it, by throwing my support into making sure that you are the one, I position House Madouri to enter the world of tomorrow with hard-won credibility and valuable allies.”

“Hm,” he murmured.

“And then, there is the more immediately practical,” Ravana continued, lowering her voice nearly to a whisper. She gazed at the fire past Dimbi, who was still staring at her. “I am…a patriot, Brother Ingvar. Acknowledging my bias, I judge the Tiraan Empire to be the preeminent example of the potential of human civilization in the world today. I consider the Tirasian Dynasty the most effective the Empire has yet known, and Sharidan a superior ruler to either of his predecessors. His Majesty is regrettably constrained by the politics of his position from openly acknowledging that Archpope Justinian has deliberately made himself an enemy of the Throne.”

She deliberately parted her lips, showing the tips of her teeth in what was not a smile.

“I am not.”

“And to think,” Ingvar said softly, “I feared you underestimated the scope of the conflict you offered to enter. It’s the opposite, isn’t it? You are looking to an even grander struggle.”

“You deserve to succeed,” she replied, “and the Empire must endure. It is the general practice of those in my station to sit upon the fence until they feel they see which way the wind is blowing. Then again, it is the general practice of nobles to think nothing matters more than their own power. I choose to make a stand upon what I deem a greater purpose than my own desires. And in so doing, I mean to help shape the course of the wind itself.

“So!” she said, suddenly brisk, turning to face him directly with a broad smile. “This is what I propose, specifically. House Madouri shall formally recognize your sect as the true Shaathists, and award you the traditional rights, duties, and privileges of husbanding the wilds of Tiraan Province. You will be granted indefinite use of this lodge as a headquarters, with its upkeep and defense still funded by my treasury. Given the precarious nature of your situation, in order to lend further legitimacy I will bestow upon you the traditional title of Warden; it is long retired, like Court Wizard, but still on the books and will throw the weight of custom behind your position. In fact… Yes, to make certain you have the full authority to act in your new capacity as Warden of this province, in my capacity as governor I will appoint you an Imperial Sheriff, which will enable you to enforce the law within this domain, as well as create severe repercussions for any who seek to attack you.”

Dimbi shifted her head to stare at Ingvar.

“That is…incredibly generous, my Lady,” he said slowly.

“No, it isn’t,” Ravana replied, her smile unfaltering. “I have considered the matter carefully. What I propose will lay obligations upon you, as well as expose you to certain risks. This arrangement comes with plentiful compensation, to be sure, but only that which I deem necessary and suitable considering what I gain from it.”

“I see,” he murmured. “This is a larger decision than I had planned to make today, Lady Madouri. Obviously, I would like to discuss it with my fellow hunters.”

“You should of course do what you think is right,” said Ravana. “I will not, however, promise that the offer will still be on the table when you have finished with that.” He frowned, but she continued before he could speak. “I’m certain that consulting your fellows sets a most admirable precedent for spiritual purposes, Brother Ingvar, but with all due respect, such matters are between you and your followers. For my purposes, I require a leader who can act decisively when it is called for. I judge you to be just such a man. If I am thus in error, it of course changes the situation.”

She gave him a single beat of silence in which to mull that, during which he stared narrowly at her eyes as if trying to glimpse what lay behind them.

“Decisively, but not in unseemly haste,” Ravana added in a gentler tone. “You were just informing our guests of the calming powers of a walk in the forest, and are just about to lead them upon one. By all means, embrace this opportunity to ponder; I’m sure it will be every bit as soothing for you as for them. And when you return, we can discuss our shared future.”

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16 – 6

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“My family’s hunting lodge,” Ravana said, gesturing at the scene before them.

They stood upon a snow-covered hill in the western reaches of Tiraan Province, near the Viridill border, with a dense stand of leafless oaks behind them and in front, the long descent to the lodge itself in the middle distance. It rose proudly from a lower hill of its own, positioned right on the border between the ancient forest (one of the few in the province not burned or leveled in the Enchanter Wars) and the broad plain stretching toward the low hills that would become Calderaan Province beyond the northeastern horizon. Half a mile from the gates of the lodge stood a sleepy little village, looking quite picturesque buried under a heavy snowfall and with the smoke of a dozen fires streaming upward from its chimneys.

Lodge?” Dimbi repeated incredulously. “Don’t you mean summer palace?”

It could be fairly called palatial in its proportions. The main building was designed in the shape of a traditional Stalweiss longhouse, though the resemblance did not extend beyond shape. Its roof was expensive Sheng-style gabled slate, the tall windows stained glass, and even its towering support pillars were hand-carved into the shapes of upright animals, every one a work of art which had taken an entire ancient oak trunk. From the central longhouse spread rambling wings of faux-rustic timbers supported by fluted marble columns, the more recent featuring huge banks of plate windows made feasible even in the depths of winter by modern arcane heating.

She wasn’t about to mention that the nearby village existed entirely to staff and support the lodge. Ingvar, at least, had probably already figured that out.

“The House of Madouri has reigned over this province continually for a thousand years by cultivating certain defining strengths of character,” Ravana said proudly. “I will acknowledge that restraint and modesty are not among them. Honestly, I’m just glad to have found a useful purpose for this property, as I confess I don’t hunt. Nor, I suspect, did most of my ancestors who stayed here. Please forgive the distance; those staying in the lodge currently have been subject to a great many upsets of late, and I have observed they seem somewhat uncomfortable with grand displays of magic. I try to approach them in the most humble and unobtrusive manner feasible. My Court Wizard has been very accommodating in—Veilwin, really.”

The rest of them turned from their study of the lodge to follow Ravana’s gaze, now fixed on the wizard herself. Veilwin was now gulping deeply from a silver flask, and did not stop while meeting Ravana’s stare with raised eyebrows.

“You know, you’re just going to have to down a sobriety potion to teleport us back,” the Duchess said, exasperated. “It’s unlikely to be more than an hour from now.”

“An hour?” Veilwin replied, finally lowering the flask and grimacing bitterly. “An hour of complete, uninterrupted sobriety? Girl, do you have any idea what that feels like?”

“Yes, in fact,” Ravana retorted. “Speaking as a wine lover of, if I may flatter myself, some local repute, sobriety is my default and preferred condition.”

“And you’re easily the worst person I’ve ever met. Coincidence?” Veilwin brought the flask back to her lips and resumed an uninterrupted sequence of long gulps, while holding an arch stare at Ravana and, with snaps of her fingers, conjuring an armchair and a small bonfire. The sorceress flopped down in her seat and stretched her feet out toward the arcane blue flames as the surrounding snow hissed away to steam.

Ravana shook her head and turned her back on the elf. “Anyway. I presumed that veteran outdoorspeople such as yourselves would not mind a short winter hike, but if you are in any way uncomfortable I will not hesitate to send Veilwin back for coats.”

“That’s not necessary at all,” Ingvar said smoothly. “Your judgment was correct, my Lady, we are quite comfortable. Shall we?”

“Let’s,” she agreed, setting off down the hill. Ravana noted he did not question her comfort, but the man was doubtless intelligent enough to infer the presence of a heating charm. The enchantment woven into her own dress was more sophisticated than anything on the market (a Falconer prototype; Geoffrey came up with the most marvelous things when he got bored of tinkering with carriages). Even her breath did not mist upon the frigid air.

“What is she drinking?” Dimbi muttered as they strode through the knee-deep snow toward the distant lodge. “I could smell that flask from two yards away, it was like a burning alchemy lab.”

“I don’t know,” Ravana admitted. “Though I have observed its contents to be quite combustible. Between an elvish constitution and the resistance built up over a lifetime of drinking, I suspect what it takes to get Veilwin tipsy would kill an orc.”

“She’s…interesting,” Dantu said, grinning.

“Veilwin is a powerful and exceedingly skilled mage; I am quite satisfied with the performance of her duties. She is also, in addition to the alcoholism, congenitally incapable of withholding her opinions. I don’t think she’s ever held a single job for more than a month before.”

“I just meant,” the old man chuckled, “I’ve managed to meet a handful of nobles in my long years, none half so important as a Duchess, and I can’t see a one of ‘em letting one of their employees talk to them like that.”

“Not long ago,” Ravana murmured, gazing ahead as they plowed through the snow, “as I was listening to Professor Tellwyrn rightly excoriate my entire character, I experienced an epiphany: no one had ever spoken to me that way before. And further, no one ever spoke to my father in such a manner, either, and I now believe that is directly why he ended up the way he did. My father was neither evil nor unintelligent, he simply failed to comprehend that his own desires were not synonymous with the highest good of the universe. It is a failing to which nobles are regrettably prone due to the circumstances of our upbringing, and in fact, those circumstances are an unavoidable necessity. A chain of command only functions of those at its top are respected and obeyed. This is…a dilemma.”

“So,” Ingvar said softly, “you seek to surround yourself with those who will speak truth to power.”

“I was considering leaving university,” Ravana admitted, “but this understanding changed my mind. At Last Rock, I am surrounded by royalty, paladins, demigods… All manner of people who are in no way impressed by me. And those are just my classmates; the faculty are on another level entirely. It is an extremely healthy environment for people such as myself. Additionally, it buys me two and a half more years to collect advisors who will not hesitate to challenge me at need. Hopefully I can find some with more nuance than Veilwin, but she is…a start.”

“I respect that a great deal,” said Ingvar. “To know one’s own faults and seek to overcome them is both the least and the most that can be asked of anyone.”

They reached the base of the hill, which was less than half the distance to the lodge, but changed their trajectory. No longer descending toward the grounds, they now in fact began to push upward through the snow toward the rise upon which it was built.

“In any case,” Ravana said briskly, “our correspondence was relatively brief before Veilwin took it upon herself to fetch you, Brother Ingvar. How much do you know about the conditions from which the Harpies fled?”

“Less than I should,” he admitted, frowning. “We have stayed largely on the move; most carriers of news have been less persistent than your agents in finding us, Lady Madouri. Hunters have continually sought us out to join since Shaath’s call first went out, both Huntsmen and Rangers, and some have brought news from the Stalrange. It is somewhat sketchy regarding events in and around Shaathvar, however.”

“You are probably getting more applicants from Lower Stalwar, where the Rangers have more enclaves,” Ravana said. “Yes, I shouldn’t wonder; the situation around Veilgrad is quite different. People there have ample recent experience at rolling with large metaphysical punches, and Duchess Dufresne is a pragmatist after my own heart. Loudly dissident Shaathists have been inexplicably vanishing all winter, and not long ago, someone shadow-jumped a group of their runaway wives and daughters to the Abbey in Viridill.”

“I would be grateful to know anything you have learned of their circumstances,” Ingvar said in a carefully neutral tone.

“They are somewhat dire,” Ravana warned, now frowning herself. “Shaathvar has been an ongoing disaster from the day of the Battle of Ninkabi until I intervened last month. With the dreams that won’t stop coming every night, the core Shaathist regime there has been tearing itself apart, and one of the biggest sources of conflict is the simultaneous unraveling of more families than otherwise as women have been trying to either flee with their children, or in some cases, attacking their husbands.”

Dimbi grimaced. “Yikes. I support anyone wanting to live free, but that sounds…”

“Can’t rightly expect a person to remain calm and logical after they get divine confirmation they’ve been lied to like that for their whole lives,” said Dantu. “I don’t blame the women one bit.”

“It’s been chaos,” Ravana continued. “Nearly coming down to guerrilla fighting in the streets of Shaathvar and the surrounding forests, as women and sympathetic Huntsmen have been trying to escape, most willing to shed blood in the process, and traditionalists have taken it upon themselves to forcibly retrieve them. The governor declared a curfew and martial law, which didn’t help; the Empire had to send troops to hold the city, and that barely helped. The jails are crammed beyond capacity and the courts overwhelmed trying to figure out who drew steel on whom, and whether any of them were justified. And as if all of that were not chaotic enough, the Sisterhood sent a detachment of priestesses with a Silver Legion escort to counsel and support any Stalweiss women who desired freedom from their circumstances. The loyalist Huntsmen still in nominal control took that about as well as you would expect. And that, too, began to spiral, as various Huntsmen have arranged for themselves to be reminded why it is not wise to assault servants of the goddess of war.”

“I would have thought High Commander Rouvad had better sense than to poke the bear in such a manner,” Ingvar muttered, his eyes narrowed.

“I suspect that after the Syrinx debacle this summer, Rouvad is anxious to be seen standing on Avenist principle regardless of the political repercussions. Then, too, the Archpope has been deliberately dragging his heels on confirming a new Avenist Bishop, and it is known that the Huntsmen are his greatest pillar of support within the Pantheon cults. The Sisterhood may be growing tired of waiting to be listened to, and looking to make a point that they can insist upon it.”

“You said your intervention calmed things?” Dantu inquired.

She nodded. “It started as mass chaos but quickly coalesced into factional conflict, as such things do. The Shaathist traditionalists remained in control of the bureaucracy of the province, but once the Avenists got involved, they secured a defensible structure and began teaching runaways both the art of self-defense and the relevant laws around it. By then the group of local women who rose to find and shelter other runaways had begun to organize, and took to calling themselves the Harpies. Which was also a provocation, as no one has seen a living harpy outside of Inner Anvedra in a thousand years; it is obviously a reference to the harpy eagle on Avei’s sigil. By last month, a bitter stalemate had ensued, as the Harpies more or less rescued everyone they were apparently able to, and then had to turtle down and defend themselves from outraged husbands and fathers trying to drag them back home. When I offered to remove them en masse from the province, even the local government was grateful. They were themselves glad of a safe route out of the situation, the Sisterhood and the Silver Throne supported me, and with the Harpies gone from Shaathvar, it has finally begun to settle. Of course, I am inundated with complaints from various lodges about my unwarranted interference, but my lawyers are handling all of it so far.” She shrugged, allowing herself a cold little smile. “And what they cannot, the House guards stationed at the lodge will. I have made it clear that any rogue Huntsman trying to sneak into these grounds is asking for whatever he gets.”

All three Shadow Hunters glanced sidelong at her, but none responded directly to that.

“Did you have them teleported here by your mage?” Ingvar asked after a momentary pause.

Ravana shook her head. “These are women from a very traditional Shaathist background and their young children, who have already lost the most central underpinnings of their understanding of the world. They’re not sanguine about arcane magic and I have found it best not to rattle them any more than I absolutely must. Plus, teleporting this many individuals would have required me to hire most of the Wizards’ Guild, who themselves came from the great Salyrite schism a century ago. I made inquiries of the Archmage, who was leery of getting into internal Shaathist affairs. In the end, the Harpies’ escape served as the inaugural mission of my new private zeppelin. It was a little cramped, but more of them than otherwise seemed to enjoy the flight.”

Ingvar nodded, glancing at her again, and she could practically hear the unexpressed thought in his eyes: why was she willing to stick herself into the center of a bitter religious feud in which both sides were willing to shed blood and neither offered her any apparent gain? He kept quiet, though, and Ravana indulged in another knowing smile. It wasn’t yet time for that conversation.

The other two likewise held their peace, looking to Ingvar for guidance, and Ravana took note of the political acumen on display. He had clearly picked this group with care, even though it didn’t include his dryad friend or any of the others closest to him, or those most intimidating in a confrontation; his Shadow Hunters had only survived this long because they were too physically dangerous for any Shaathist lodge to attack in force. Obviously Ingvar had opted for a gentler approach here. Dimbi was a young woman, a good choice to help put the Harpies at ease and demonstrate that women were equals in his new Shaathism; Dantu was an old man, and doubtless a source of wisdom, while also not being an even remotely intimidating figure. And tellingly, both were socially adroit enough to follow Ingvar’s lead without overt instruction. It was a small thing, but it showed greater sophistication than she was accustomed to expecting of Shaathists.

Which boded well for her own plans.

“I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that you have done this, Lady Madouri,” Ingvar said softly as they ascended the last steps of the hill upon which the lodge stood, its gables now towering over them. “The effort must have been considerable, and the results…are priceless.”

“No one else was doing it,” she said noncommittally. “A person in my position can do a great deal of good. I could also exhaust myself and my resources trying to put out every fire in the world, an error I am not about to commit. To an extent, one must pick and choose from many worthy causes. This one…resonated with me. I know what it’s like to live under the thumb of a man whose brittle ego and need to keep me there informed his entire view of the world. I brought you here, Brother Ingvar, because I believe you are the best possible person to help these women find their footing in this strange new world. And I daresay you will find a warm welcome here: the dreams of Shaath that continue to come have, according to some of them, mentioned you by name.”

“Now, that I did not know,” he murmured as they climbed the broad stone steps to the front door of the lodge.

“Regardless, we can only do what we can,” Ravana said, grasping the latch and turning it. She pulled the door wide, letting a rush of warm air out, and gestured within. “What will be, will be. After you.”


“It’s simple economics,” Svanwen explained as another fairy lamp clicked on in the tunnel ahead, and one behind the party winked out. “Lights with motion-sensing charms are a lot more expensive up front, yes, but they save me both the cost of a lot of recharging dust that needn’t be burned while nobody’s around and the man-hours it would take to have somebody come through switching them on and off. It’s one more thing my people can ignore and get on with their work. This project is likely to take decades, years at the very least. Over time, it’ll save a fortune. A good businesswoman takes the long view.”

“How’s all the flashing on and off on your eyes?” Captain Fedhaar asked Natchua. “I know drow see well in the dark, but I’ve heard you lot have some trouble in bright light.”

She had long since perfected the magic to maintain her vision without the need of dark glasses, but was not inclined to delve into that for his benefit.

“Don’t you worry,” Natchua said with a wink. “I can see better than any of you under any light level.”

Fedhaar grunted and turned his gaze back forward. “Elves are bullshit.”

Svanwen shot him a look as if fearing a racial conflict was about to erupt, then switched it to Natchua when the drow chuckled.

“Well,” Natchua said, shrugging, “he isn’t wrong.”

The dwarf shook her head. “Anyway. How’s the trail looking?”

“We’re still following,” reported Fedhaar’s tracker, a Western human called Lieutenant Bindo, who was walking at the head of the group with his attention on the ground. “The beast’s healthy, which is both good and bad; means it’s not leaking any infernal radiation. Harder to follow, that way, but much safer for everyone. Lucky there’s so much stone dust in these tunnels. Nothing that belongs on this plane has feet like this.”

“My people know what they’re about,” Fedhaar said coolly.

“I never meant to imply otherwise,” Ms. Svanwen assured him. “If I forget myself and prompt everybody to keep alert for any infernal craft nearby, it’s not meant as a personal slight. Just my veteran tendency to micro-manage.”

“It’s good advice, no matter whose ego is at stake,” said Natchua. “The second rule of infernomancy is to triple-check everything, and then triple-check it again.”

There was a momentary pause.

“All right, fuck it, I’ll bite,” Fedhaar finally said with a sigh. “What’s the first rule of infernomancy?”

She grinned at him. “Don’t.”

The captain couldn’t help grinning back. “Good rule.”

“So,” Svanwen said pensively, “the big question is how there’s a rozzk’shnid in the tunnels. They’re not the sort of creature that tends to wander through hellgates, even underground. We’re thinking there are two possibilities, the first of which is that some deep drow have burrowed into the catacombs somewhere down below the areas we’ve explored. That’s a worst case scenario, obviously. Scyllithenes with access to Veilgrad would officially be a crisis.”

“Unlikely,” Natchua opined. “If you had Scyllithenes, you’d be finding the mutilated corpses of your crew, now tracks from what amounts to a loose animal.”

“That’s exactly my assumption,” Svanwen agreed, nodding, “hence coming here with a small team of specialists and not Captain Fedhaar’s entire battalion. Imperial Command and Duchess Dufresne agree, though they did insist on having another unit from the Azure Corps on standby to bring in more soldiers if this goes sideways somehow. But all things considered, it’s most likely the second possibility: some rogue warlock hiding in the deeper tunnels. They made a great hideout for shifty types even when they were still full of bodies. That’s exactly what drew the chaos cult that caused the big disaster in the first place.”

“Mm,” Natchua grunted. “One warlock shouldn’t be too hard to take down, if it comes to it. Question is what they would summon a rozzk’shnid for. The creatures make decent guard dogs in tunnels, and…that’s about it.”

“This hypothetical warlock will explain themselves when we get them,” Fedhaar stated dispassionately. “One way or another.”

Natchua gave him a nod of approval.

“Tunnel opens out up ahead,” Bindo reported. “Tracks are still leading that way.”

“There’s a sequence of larger vaults just ahead,” Svanwen added. “They mark the deepest regions my people have explored and secured. Beyond that, there’ll be no more installed lights, and we don’t even have reliable maps of the tunnels.”

“We’ve got light sources and directional charms,” said Fedhaar. “I’m not worried about getting lost. It’ll just be a little less comfortable, that’s all.”

They emerged into a broader chamber than the arched tunnel along which they had been traveling. Well-lit now with large fairy lamps Svanwen’s crew had set up in each of the rectangular room’s corners, it was lined entirely by deep alcoves in the wall of the right size for a human body to be laid out, all currently empty. The center of the long chamber held three huge stone sarcophagi, their lids pushed aside and lying broken upon the floor.

“It still gets to me, sometimes,” Svanwen whispered as the group stepped carefully through the rubble. “All these honored dead, just… Treated that way. It’s sickening. Did you know Veilgrad was originally a necropolis? The first living residents were Vidian priests who looked after the old Stalweiss chieftains interred here. Burial records extend back before the Hellwars. And all just…swept aside, in service to pointless, destructive madness.”

“The Vidians have been quite clear that they were just bodies, at least,” said Fedhaar. “The souls of the dead were long since in Vidius’s hands and beyond tampering. C’mon, no use dithering here.”

Natchua opened her mouth, but stopped herself from commenting at the last second. While she suspected that was the sort of thing the Vidians would say regardless of its veracity just to keep people from worrying needlessly, it belatedly occurred to her that suggesting it would also cause nothing but needless worry.

Then she frowned, tilting her head. “Wait.”

The others paused, turning to look expectantly at her.

“I hear… Up ahead, there’s something. Sounds like scratching… Claws on stone, maybe.” She brought her eyes back into focus, first on Svanwen and then Fedhaar. “May be our beastie.”

The captain turned his head toward his soldiers and nodded once; in unison, all of them drew wands. “Good to have the elven bullshit on our side, I won’t deny it,” he said. “How far?”

“It echoes weirdly down here,” Natchua murmured. “Hang on…”

She closed her eyes, reaching out through magic. Yes—definitely a demon, at about the outer limits of her perception in this manner.

“There’s a sequence of chambers like this,” Svanwen said while Natchua concentrated. “All in a neat row, the last being the biggest. Beyond it the tunnels are more rough-cut, smaller, and twist about more. The final gate is as far as we’ve explored. It was supposed to be barred, but I’ve not had people down this deep in weeks.”

“Yes, looks like a rozzk’shnid,” Natchua reported, opening her eyes. “I can’t tell anything about the surrounding tunnels, but it’s maybe a hundred yards up ahead. Not moving around much. I don’t detect any active magic nearby.”

“Right,” Fedhaar stated, moving ahead. “We’ll take point, then. Careful and quiet, people. This thing may just be an animal but we don’t know what’s what down here.”

The soldiers saluted, and he waited to get nods of acknowledgment from Svanwen and Natchua before proceeding.

It was a tense passage through a series of cleared out burial chambers, each growing progressively larger, and the ancient carved decorations more elaborate the deeper they went. By the time the group reached the final sepulcher, the scrabbling of the demon was audible to all of them, along with a soft, intermittent metallic clatter. It was loudest as they stepped into what Svanwen whispered was the largest final tomb, a space the size of a church. There were motion-activated fairy lamps down here, too, though they were already on before the group came into view of them.

The last gate opened onto an open space lined with more burial alcoves, these carved into the stone walls to a height of four per wall. Above, the vaulted ceiling lay in shadow, soaring high enough not to be easily reached by the installed fairy lamps. This chamber had no free-standing sarcophagi, but maybe two thirds of the way along its length a stone wall stood in the center of the open space, leaving passages to either side and not reaching the ceiling. Its purpose was apparently decorative, being carved with the solemn likenesses of five ancient Stalweiss kings, each with inscrutable runes engraved above their heads.

The scratching was coming from the other side of this.

At hand signals from Fedhaar, the troops split up, creeping forward with weapons upraised to both sides of the barrier. Natchua joined the captain himself, as did Svanwen, and ignoring his grimace of disapproval, stepped forward to be the first around the corner.

The demon was there, all right. The rozzk’shnid was the size of a large dog, proportioned somewhat like a monkey and plated in natural armor, and eyeless. It was also wearing a heavy iron collar, from which a chain trailed to an iron spike driven into the ground. At their approach, the best stopped its futile worrying at the chain, turning blindly toward them and hissing.

For a second, they just stared.

“It’s like…” Svanwen whispered, “like it’s set out as…”

“As bait,” Natchua finished. “Oh, fuck.”

“Retreat,” Fedhaar ordered, and the soldiers immediately stepped back.

“Now, now, now, let’s nobody go and panic,” a new voice said jovially, and the group trailed to a stop just beyond the stone wall, staring at the entrance to the tomb, where a dark-skinned human in a pristine white suit complete with a wide-brimmed hat had just sauntered out of the tunnel beyond.

The soldiers brought their weapons up as eight figures in hooded gray robes materialized seemingly from nowhere along the walls of the tomb.

“Whoah,” the man in white said soothingly, raising both his hands. “Easy, now! Sorry about all this rigamarole, but I assure you I’ve no beef with most of you. Last thing we want is to kick up a scrap with the Army, after all. And most especially not with the inimitable Ms. Svanwen, here. I confess after having a good look through these chambers I’ve become quite a fan of your work, ma’am. Why, the place is starting to look downright homey!”

“Most of us?” Svanwen demanded, ignoring his flattery.

“Hey,” Natchua said, narrowing her eyes to slits. “I remember you.”

“Oh, do you,” he replied, his smile growing broader and notably brittle. “What an honor it is to be remembered by the great Natchua! My heart is all a-flutter.”

“I’m positive I killed you fucksticks in Ninkabi,” she snorted. “How the hell did you get out of that—”

“You seem to’ve adopted Veilgrad as your home,” Embras Mogul interrupted, grinning more widely still until the expression looked nearly psychotic, especially as he held his head tilted so the brim of his hat concealed his eyes. “There’s an old Shaathist hunting axiom you really should’ve picked up by now, Natchua honey: never wound what you can’t kill.”

“Those robes…” Fedhaar said. “Are these Wreath? What exactly are you assholes playing at? Elilial’s not even at war with the Pantheon anymore. It was kind of a big deal.”

“Oh, indeed, our business is not with anyone aligned with either the Pantheon or the Empire,” Mogul assured him. “My humble apologies for drawing you fine folks into this. It seemed the least disruptive way to get this malicious little darkling off by herself, but rest assured, I’ll make amends for the inconvenience. Now, as for—”

He broke off, staring incredulously, as Natchua burst out laughing.

“Oh, this is too rich,” she chortled, striding forward into the center of the room and rolling up her sleeves. “The Black Wreath has come to exact terrible vengeance! And here I was afraid for a second that something bad was happening. Agatha, Captain, this shouldn’t take long, but you may wanna step back a few paces to enjoy the show. The front row of seats may see some splattering.”

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