Teal’s room was in a tower. Not one of the castle towers; it occupied a timber-framed space with a shorter but more interesting history, which had once housed the machinery of a windmill connected to a primitive mana turbine over two centuries prior, in a time when the sorcerer who had then owned the property had been one of very few people who would even think to own such a thing. Subsequently, the machinery had been dismantled as much as possible by a later owner of noble birth who had been affronted at the very idea of something so functional visibly attached to her home, leaving only a vertical shaft suspended from the ceiling like a ship’s mast that didn’t quite reach the deck. It was a square space, rising three stories to shadowy beams hidden high above and a second-floor balcony surrounding the entire room accessible only by a ladder.
Teal loved it. The resemblance was partly why she spent so much time in the uppermost clock chamber of Clarke Tower—that, and the grand pianoforte. In her own room she had only an upright one which had been in need of tuning since before Vadrieny had entered her life.
As much as Teal had been anticipating showing Shaeine her personal space since leaving the University, immediately upon their arrival she had other concerns. The second the door closed behind them, signifying privacy for purposes of Narisian social mores, Shaeine clutched at her head, hard enough to make strands of her white hair bunch out between her fingers.
“Oh no, no no no…”
“What is it?” Teal demanded in alarm, rushing to her from the door. “Are you all right?”
Shaeine inadvertently evaded her intended hug without noticing it, whirling to begin pacing around the floor with a haunted expression directed at nowhere.
“A Duke who is also a provincial governor would be equivalent to a Matriarch in rank. And considerably greater in prestige, each one controlling a territory far larger than the whole of Tar’naris! It would be one thing if I were on intimate terms with him, but the Madouri family are strangers. Or even if it were a class trip! A visit at Tellwyrn’s behest would place the onus upon her… But I’m to represent my House and my people and I didn’t bring any suitable gift for such a person! I have to… Veth’na alaue, what am I going to come up with? If my mother learns I disgraced the name of Awarrion in front of a Duke…”
“Hey, it’s okay,” Teal said soothingly. “Madouri doesn’t care about anything beyond his own ego, there’s no way he even knows about Narisian noble customs.”
“That’s not the point!” Shaeine snapped.
Teal froze in the act of reaching out toward her again, blinking.
In the next instant the drow also went rigid, turning a stricken expression on Teal. She rushed forward and gently clasped Teal’s hands in her own, bowing her head before the surprised human in a posture of formal submission to press Teal’s fingers to her lips.
“I am so sorry, my love. To lash out at you is unforgivable. I can offer no excuse.”
“Hey, hey.” Teal gently extricated her hands to cup Shaeine’s cheeks and raised her face till their eyes could meet. “That’s not like you at all, so I know this must be something a lot more serious than I realized. I didn’t mean to minimize it. We’re a team, sweetheart. Explain to me what the problem is, and we’ll find a solution. Okay?”
Shaeine closed her eyes, leaning forward until she could rest her forehead against Teal’s. “What a time to show you one of my flaws. I am… I do adequately, I think, at balancing my own personal life with the needs of my position. But I’m the third daughter, a last-minute replacement for the Last Rock program. I am still not accustomed to being in a position where the prestige of my house and entire culture might rest on my actions. Clearly the pressure illuminates flaws in my character.”
“Maybe so, but unfortunately I can’t really help you work on that. I’m still kinda giddy about you being willing to show that much emotion to me, even if it’s…the less cuddly kind. But let’s talk about now. You’re stressed about providing a guest gift, right? Can you walk me through why it’s such a big deal?”
Shaeine inhaled deeply and let the breath out slowly in a meditative practice. “It is an apparently simple tradition, steeped in deeply complicated Narisian issues that are…tricky to summarize. The guest gift is basically about prestige.”
“Right,” Teal nodded, gently bumping their noses together. “That thing Narisian Houses compete in so they don’t compete in ways that cause blades to come out.”
Shaeine nodded back, finally lifting her head. “The Duke’s ignorance of our culture is thus irrelevant. If the representative of House Awarrion failed to offer a suitable token to House Madouri upon being formally hosted, the social and political damage to our standing in Tar’naris could be…significant.”
“If they even learned of it.”
“There is nothing preventing them from doing so, save the relative improbability of Duke Madouri commenting upon it at any potential date in the future, which…”
“Right, I see your point,” Teal winced. “Well… Love, it’s like my parents said, you don’t actually need to do this. You can still invoke diplomatic privilege, and we’re definitely in a position to absorb whatever new bullshit Madouri wants to throw at us. Mom and Dad will understand.”
“Me and my big mouth,” Shaeine moaned. “This is exactly how I ended up at Last Rock in the first place, you know. Tellwyrn was disrespectful to my mother and I ripped her a new one.”
“Yes, you’ve told me,” Teal said, grinning in spite of herself, “but I never get tired of that story. Well, at least that one worked out, right? If you hadn’t, we wouldn’t have met.”
The drow couldn’t help giving her a glowingly warm smile at that, again leaning forward to nuzzle her nose against Teal’s. “Yes. I acted rashly, out of temper, but even so… I was serious, Teal, and I stand by what I said. I won’t have you mistreated on my account.”
“We can still—”
“I would consider it a pure failure of character to retreat now,” the priestess interrupted, her garnet eyes fiercely intent. “And…it’s a failure I may yet have to accept. But if I can still do this, I would join you. To stand alongside your family against an enemy would be a deeply meaningful gesture in my culture.”
“In any culture,” Teal said, leaning in to give her a quick kiss. “Okay, then. Like you said: there has to be a way to turn this to an advantage. Let’s assume we can find a sufficient guest gift. From what I do know about Narisian culture, there’s no possible way you don’t have a tradition for giving something suitably prestigious in a way that’s also backhandedly insulting.”
“Well, ouch,” Shaeine said in clear amusement, “but also, very much so, yes. It’s the particulars that matter. Mmm…who would be the lady of House Madouri?”
“There’s not one at the moment. The Duchess passed away years ago and the Duke hasn’t remarried. He’s got a daughter. Um…Rava, I think? She’s named after the former Duke, Ravaan, but I forget what the feminine form is. She’s a child, and kind of a non-entity, to be honest. I pretty much only know the kid exists because Madouri likes to prance her out at public functions like a show pony.”
“That has potential,” Shaeine murmured. “Yes, it suggests a method… But to make that work I would need a much more modest token, and still a sufficiently grandiose guest gift to satisfy my House’s honor. The dilemma is still how to scrounge up a national treasure in the next hour.”
“Okay!” Teal clasped her hands for a moment to give them an affectionate squeeze, then pulled back. “All right, actually, I think I can solve that.”
She stepped away, turning to the neat stack of luggage the house servants had arranged alongside the door. The box teal wanted required a little bit of excavation, being of sturdy bronze-bound oak and thus currently underneath a suitcase, guitar case, and handbag, in that order, but with a little bit of shifting she extricated it and trotted over to the piano, where she laid the flat case down on the bench and carefully unlatched it. Shaeine drifted over to observe, peering past Teal’s shoulder as the lid was raised.
Within, upon a bed of black velvet, lay a gracefully curved saber and matching dagger, in apparently pristine condition and marked along their blades with subtle scripts in elvish.
Shaeine inhaled sharply. “Those are…”
“Yep.” Teal stepped back, slipping an arm around the drow’s shoulders and staring down at the weapons. “The grand prize from our Crawl expedition: Arachne Tellwyrn’s personal weapons, from before she switched to those two gold-handled swords she’s got now. The ones Rowe was using as the focal point for his jiggery-pokery. I actually did a little digging in the library and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t pulling our legs; there are several old paintings that depict her having these. So, I’m thinking, just on the surface they’re elven masterwork blades and over a thousand years old at least. That’d be enough for anybody’s collection, but these are also the weapons a major historical figure used to stab a bunch of other major historical figures, which makes them priceless. Betcha even Duke Madouri can’t get something like this easily.”
She hesitated, then gently squeezed Shaeine’s shoulder.
“I, uh, was gonna use them as my guest gift, to your mother. I figured that’d made a decent enough impression.” Shaeine jerked her head up, staring wide-eyed, but Teal was still gazing self-consciously down at the case containing the sword and dagger, now with a faint pink hue hovering on her cheeks. “But, we have the leeway of a few more days before we go to Tar’naris, and Madouris is a major city. I’m not exactly broke, so I’m sure we can find something that’ll make a respectable gift for a Matriarch. If worst comes to worst, it’s barely an hour’s drive to Tiraas, but I’m pretty sure we won’t even have to go that far. Madouris even has a Glassian district, lots of import stores, some very exclusive. Those people love their artwork. We can take a day and I’m sure come up with something suitable. Meanwhile, would this satisfy House Awarrion’s honor as a gift?”
“Teal,” Shaeine said tremulously, “these are yours. You won the Crawl challenge.”
“I was the one who went to the center to get them,” Teal argued, “but that only worked cos the rest of the team kept Rowe off my back. So, they’re ours. Besides.” She turned fully to Shaeine, gently wrapping her arms around the shorter girl. “I told you: we’re a team. I thought we were in agreement that’s what this relationship is going to mean. Not that I don’t enjoy…ah, you know.” She cleared her throat, flushing, and Shaeine’s lips quirked slightly in a mischievous smile. “But I’m not in it just because you’re beautiful and charming. You are the partner I want. You don’t have problems, Shaeine; we have problems. So we find solutions.”
“Oh, my songbird.” Shaeine squeezed her, leaning in and burying her face against the side of Teal’s neck. “I can only hope to someday deserve you.”
The city of Madouris spread outward from the peak of its low mountain in a series of semicircles bisected by the great canyon at its back. Far below rushed the River Tira, with no crossings except at Tiraas a few miles to the south and many more miles to the north, where the first bridge was near the Calderaan border and before the riverbed descended into the chasm. Before the Imperial period, the canyon had been a useful natural barrier against the warring feudal desmenes of Leineth, which were more likely to send raiders than traders over the river; during the reign of Tiraas, it better suited the Silver Throne’s interests to route traffic and commerce through the capital.
Over the course of centuries the city had descended the slopes of its core mountain, building and then surpassing concentric semi-rings of walls till it sprawled even beyond the outermost battlements, confident in the security of Imperial rule. The lowest tier of Madouris had paid for that complacency during the Enchanter Wars, but though the city itself had been not only rebuilt but expanded further since then, another ring had not been established as the advent of mag artillery had rendered city walls nearly as superfluous as they were expensive. The half rings grew richer as they grew more secure, with the outskirts being mostly new manufacturing facilities and the neighborhoods where those who worked them lived. Inside the first wall was the largest part of Madouris, occupying a gentle slope up the foot of the small mountain until it was arrested by the second wall and home to most of its relatively prosperous middle class. Beyond that lay a smaller band around the mountain itself, home to nobles, government offices, foreign consulates, major cultural and financial institutions, and the various commercial ventures which served them, including the city’s famed Glassian district.
And beyond that, further up and farther in, was the oldest ring of walls, the original city of Madouris, now in its entirety the largest single residence in the known world: Madouri Manor. As if the looming structure of domes and spires were not impressive enough, the approach to it necessarily intimidated its guests, which was the only way the House of Madouri preferred to deal with all who dared approach them.
Like the Falconer mansion, Madouri Manor had a great entry hall, which was the totality of the resemblance. The entire Falconer house could have fit the colossal chamber which was a visitor’s first introduction to the palatial manor; some of its wings would have to be rearranged, of course, but by volume there was more than enough space. The room dwarfed even several of the world’s great temples and cathedrals.
Of the four guests invited this evening, only Teal looked even slightly nervous at the overwhelming grandeur into which they were ushered. Marguerite and Geoffrey had seen it all before, repeatedly, and the associations it carried forced them to concentrate on repressing expressions of annoyance, not awe. Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion was Narisian, a priestess, and a daughter of a noble House in her own right. It would take a great deal more than shocking displays of wealth to crack her serenity.
By contrast, the Duke Ehriban Zefraam Talos Madouri had a degree of facial control about on par with the two elder Falconers, which was definitely on the low end for his social class. He covered his emotions well, but not so well that it was not obvious he was covering. There were enough hints left clear to reveal his smugness toward the Falconers, and the unease Shaeine sparked in him. And, as the introductions progressed, his mounting annoyance with her.
“What a charming custom,” Duke Ehriban said with a bland smile, holding the silver idol of Themynra with which Shaeine had just presented him. The artifact, hastily acquired from the Narisian consulate in Madouris, was more valuable than anything a factory-working family might own just due to its material and craftsmanship, aside from its religious significance; the Duke handled it like a bouquet of flowers he’d just been given and didn’t have a place to put down yet. In this of all households the treasure was scarcely a knickknack, which did not offend Shaeine as it had been a calculated move on her part. “Perhaps I should introduce it among my own peers! Far too many of them lack manners, I find. Thank you, Lady Shaeine, for your most gracious gift. I shall see about finding a suitable place of honor for its display.”
Having thus shown the offering the minimum necessary appreciation, he turned to hand it off to a steward who slid up to him on cue. The servant held the idol more respectfully, correctly upright and protectively in both hands, even as he withdrew with a bow toward the Duke who it was plain had already dismissed him from thought.
“The honor is mine, your Grace,” said Shaeine, inclining her head politely. Ehriban’s eyebrows drew together in a momentary expression of consternation, swiftly suppressed. In the Empire there was hardly anyone save a few members of the Imperial court of sufficient rank to address him with such shallow obeisance; he had failed to entirely disguise his satisfaction at keeping the Falconer family kneeling for several seconds longer than protocol required. Even among other Dukes and Imperial governors, there were few Houses which commanded as much history or respect as the name of Madouri, possibly none save the ruling family of Calderaas. Of course, civil relations with Tar’naris were still new, historically speaking, and matters of rank and deference between Narisian and Tiraan nobility were still somewhat up in the air.
Nobles of any culture, however, were sensitive to the subtleties of status, and the Duke was not about to forget that his holdings alone rivaled the power and wealth of all Tar’naris, considerably dwarfing that of House Awarrion. This fact was clearly not being reflected in the posture the Matriarch’s daughter had taken toward him.
For the moment, he alone reflected the tension. Shaeine remained purely unruffled as always, Teal was managing a decent approximation of Narisian reserve, and they had mutually decided not to brief the two elder Falconers, who were deeply disinterested in noble contests of ego even if they’d had the training to follow them. As it was, Geoffrey and Marguerite were waiting patiently for the entire night’s business to be over with, a fact which they were failing to disguise.
The two Madouri children likewise showed no response to the subtle challenge to their House’s authority. Neither of them appeared to be very bright.
Dazan Madouri, heir to the House, closely resembled his father, being still square of jaw and shoulder in a way that spoke of a fondness for active pastimes and not yet showing the softness around the jowls and midsection that the Duke had acquired in middle age. He was a few years older than Teal and as prideful as his father, but even less subtle about his satisfaction at the subordinate position of the Falconers and evidently not as perceptive of subtleties of rank.
Ravana, the younger scion, clearly took after her mother, being blonde, pale, and quite noticeably petite where her father and brother had large frames. She was also demure to the point of submissiveness, keeping her eyes downcast and her voice so soft that her murmured pleasantries at being introduced to her family’s guests were barely audible. Standing next to her brother, she had a tendency to shuffle both closer to him than etiquette suggested and to edge a step behind, as if to hide in his shadow. Altogether, as Teal had observed, she gave the impression of a deliberate non-entity, which made the next step in Shaeine’s campaign of mischief even more pointed.
“I ask your pardon if this seems odd,” the priestess continued, “but please be assured I mean only respect to your House, my lord Duke. My people are matrilinial, and the honor of my own family demands a token of respect to the lady of the manor.”
“Ahh.” Ehriban nodded, looking mollified now, and turned a fond smile in the direction of his children. “An unusual thing, here in the Empire, but what father could raise a complaint about that? Ravana, my little starling, the drow has a present for you!”
The comment was so breathtakingly condescending, both to Shaeine and his daughter, that Geoffrey blinked and Marguerite let a scowl slip through before marshaling her expression, but Shaeine of course remained fully serene. Ravana finally raised her eyes, wide with apparent nerves, and glanced up at her father, then at the priestess, saying nothing.
“My Ravana takes after her mother,” the Duke said proudly and somewhat unnecessarily. “I’m afraid she is rather frail; Dazan and I are perhaps a little too protective, but here on the surface we treasure our women, rather than sending them into danger. I’ve still not decided whether she should attend a proper university next year or continue studying under her tutors, you know. It’s hard to believe she’s just a year younger than you, Miss Falconer!”
“She is?” Teal blurted in surprise before clamping her lips shut. Marguerite shot her daughter an exasperated look, but Teal, despite her own faint blush at her gaffe, was studying the youngest Madouri in bemusement. Ravana, a full head shorter than she and diminutive to match, looked about fourteen at the absolute most. The young Lady herself showed no sign she had even heard the question, glancing rapidly between Shaeine and her father in trepidation.
“Of course, there’s no question of sending her to such a…quaint institution as Last Rock,” the Duke said with a bite in his tone belying his broad smile. “Imagine, a school for adventurers, in this day and age! I’m sure it has its value for some, but a lady of my Ravana’s breeding obviously requires a proper education.”
“Indeed,” Shaeine agreed placidly. “Professor Tellwyrn is fond of saying the University is meant for those who will determine the course of the future. Given the choice of students she has gathered, I have never quite managed to discern what she means by that.”
Dazan chuckled, and Ehriban blinked, visibly struggling to determine whether she had just embraced his jab or retaliated. Teal, by then, had fully composed her own features, and now held up the wooden case for Shaeine, which drew the eyes of all three of the Madouri family. They had of course noted her carrying it, but had not commented.
Now Shaeine opened the latch and raised the lid, reached in, and withdrew the sleek elven weapons from within. The watching House Madouri soldiers tensed as the drow produced sharp steel within range of the entire family, but Shaeine held them deftly by the blades, bowing before Lady Ravana and offering both hilt-first.
“My Lady Ravana of the honored House of Madouri, I offer a humble gift as a token of your prestige, in the spirit of friendship between our families. These were, for centuries, the personal weapons of Arachne Tellwyrn, crafted and enchanted over a millennium ago through the greatest of elven skill and wielded by the archmage herself in countless battles. May they serve you well, as tools of violence or simply trophies to honor your household.”
“I say,” Dazan exclaimed, patting his bewildered little sister on the back so hard she nearly stumbled forward into the swords. “Tellwyrn’s own blades? Ravana, that’s a priceless treasure, a bit of history right in your hands! However did you come to possess something like these, Lady Shaeine?”
“Yes, that must be a curious story indeed,” rumbled Duke Ehriban, staring down at the drow from under lowered brows. Dazan was just impressed, and Ravana appeared mostly confused on top of having been barely aware of what was happening to begin with; the Duke, however, had immediately noticed that his shy young daughter had been offered a prize which utterly dwarfed in value that which had been given to him.
“I fear it is less so than it ought to be, my lord Duke,” Shaeine said ruefully, still holding out the handles of the weapons to the befuddled young noblewoman.
“They were a prize from an academic exercise,” Teal added. “I know how that sounds, your Grace, but… If you were acquainted with Professor Tellwyrn, it would make more sense. The woman is as odd as she is impressive. At least.”
“I shouldn’t wonder!” Lord Dazan guffawed. “Elves are queer folk to begin with, and living that long, doing half the things Tellwyrn has done? Why, I’d be mad as a hare!”
“Well, go on, little starling,” the Duke said in a surprisingly gentle tone. “We mustn’t be rude. Take your gift and thank the Lady.”
Ravana started as if only just realizing what Shaeine’s gesture meant and hastily reached forward to grasp both handles. The moment Shaeine withdrew her hands, Ravana’s arms dropped precipitously before she caught herself, as if totally unprepared for the relatively meager weight of the slim elven blades. She managed to mumble something indistinct and dipped her whole body in a quick, awkward facsimile of a curtsy, then actually retreated backward a step and half-hid behind Dazan, the weapons hanging uncomfortably at her sides.
To what school the Lady Ravana would be going might be a moot question; to judge by her performance tonight, the girl wasn’t all there in the head.
“What a charming guest you’ve brought me this evening, Geoffrey,” Duke Ehriban said, his frosty stare sliding from Shaeine to the man he was addressing only after he began speaking. “You must be thrilled to be keeping such exotic company.”
“Yes, your Grace,” Geoffrey said in the flat tone of a man who knew there was no correct answer.
“We feel very honored to be hosting Shaeine, your Grace,” Marguerite added softly. Her voice remained polite, but she wasn’t quite as adept at keeping the aggression out of her eyes.
“Indeed, and I can see I shall owe you a favor in kind for sharing that honor with me,” replied the Duke, his lip curling up in a lopsided grin which had more than a hint of sneer in its lineage. “But I fear I am being rude, keeping you standing about in the hall! Come, let us repair to the dining room. I do believe you will find this an…interesting evening indeed.”
He paused, taking the time to make eye contact with each of the four of them, then turned with no further comment and strode toward a doorway at the far end of the hall. His son gave their guests an even more openly sly smile before following.
Ravana dithered, looking rapidly between her occupied hands and her retreating family as if perplexed by the task of walking while carrying something before belatedly hurrying after them, leaving their guests to bring up the rear.
They did so slowly, clustering together as they walked.
“Well, that wasn’t even subtle,” Teal muttered.
“Oh, good,” grunted Geoffrey. “I was about to ask whether I was being paranoid or that was a threat.”
Shaeine nodded at him.