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After everything, it was strangely pleasing just to be out in nature.
He walked at a moderate pace, being in no hurry. Golden tallgrass stretched away in all directions, a sight familiar from the border of the Golden Sea, though this was subtly different country. The ground here rolled and undulated slightly, the grass helping to conceal little valleys and subtle hillocks; it was the kind of terrain that could easily have tripped him up had he tried to rush through it, city boy that he was. This grass, too, seemed a shorter variant than what lived around the Great Plains. Its upper fronds rose barely to the level of his chin, not obscuring his view the way the tallgrass of the Golden Sea did. It was darker in color, too, closer to amber.
The sun was arcing toward its zenith and beating down from a cloudless sky, the kind of weather that threatened to burn exposed skin, were his skin vulnerable to that. He found the heat a little tiring, but also not unpleasant. Cicadas, invisible in the grass all around, provided a constant music underscored by a faint, refreshing breeze and the rustling it caused among the stalks. Once in a while there came the cry of a distant hawk.
On he walked, toward the line of trees in the distance. Though he hardly needed the support, he had his scythe out, held in one hand near the blade, and used it as a walking stick. Occasionally a strand of tallgrass would be nicked in passing and immediately wither, but luckily the weapon was long enough that few reached it. It was a good few miles from the nearest town—not a small hike. He had time, though. He’d never been an outdoorsy person, really, but something about the peace and quiet made him begin to appreciate some of Juniper’s speeches.
He tilted his head slightly, glancing to the side and listening to a voice not physically audible. After a few moments, he came to a stop, planting the butt of the scythe’s haft on the ground and slowly peering about. As far as the eye could see, he was totally alone out here on the rolling plain, still a long walk from the forest and already beyond sight of the town.
“Well, I appreciate not being shot,” he said aloud. “How close were you planning to let me get before saying anything?”
There was no sign of any response for another few moments. After pausing, he shrugged and took another step.
The elf seemed to materialize right out of the tallgrass, holding a staff and garbed in a robe dyed in patterns of white and bronze that blended perfectly with the plants. He inclined his head, expression remaining impassive. Three more popped up, one carrying a bow, two with tomahawks in hand. Though armed, they kept their weapons at their sides and their stances free of aggression, staring flatly at the person they had surrounded.
“Well met,” the man with the staff said. “I am Adimel. What brings you?”
“I’m Gabriel Arquin,” he replied, carefully nodding his head back to precisely the same degree.
“The Hand of Vidius.”
“Oh!” Gabriel blinked. “You know about that, then.”
“We live in a grove,” Adimel replied dryly, “not the underside of a rock.”
“Uh, sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it,” Gabriel said, wincing. “I’m not used to being…known. It’s barely been a year and I was kind of a nobody before. It’s eerie that word’s traveled all the way out… Y’know, that’s neither here nor there. First of all, I’m not looking to bring trouble, don’t worry.”
“Most of the trouble brought to the groves of woodkin has come packaged in good intentions,” Adimel said evenly. “I intend no disrespect. To answer your question, we have been studying you, and considering. An uninvited human would have been intercepted already, but you present…a puzzle.”
“I get that a lot,” he said solemnly.
“You smell of demon blood and divine magic. You have a soul reaper following you, which could be a great character reference or the opposite. You carry a weapon of the gods, but also…” Drawing his lips into a thin line, Adimel pointed at Ariel. “That.”
“I didn’t make Ariel, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” Gabriel said, placing his free hand on her hilt. “I don’t know who did. She’s helpful, if not exactly personable…”
“That wasn’t the worry at all; no one your age would know such craft. And…Ariel?” The elf raised an eyebrow. “You couldn’t find one called Jane?”
“What does everyone think that’s so very clever?” Ariel asked aloud.
“Shh.” Gabriel patted her scabbard. “Look, I know elves like your privacy, and I’m sorry to just show up like this. It isn’t my intention to be disruptive; I just need to ask your Elders for help with something.”
“What do you need, paladin?” Adimel asked in a neutral tone. “Your status as Hand trumps most other considerations, in the end. The grove would ordinarily be glad to host you, but this is an awkward time. If your request is important, the Elders will still hear it, at the least.”
Gabriel hesitated, glancing to the side; the elf followed his eyes, clearly somehow able to perceive Vestrel even if he couldn’t actually see her.
“I would like to speak with the Avatar.”
The cicadas sang over the wind in the silence which followed.
“I encountered one in an old Elder God complex under Puna Dara,” Gabriel explained when it became clear none of the elves intended to say anything. “That facility is, uh…no longer accessible. Vestrel said there are only two others still open on this continent, and the other one’s under Tiraas and being used by the Imperial government. I sort of figured the grove Elders would be more reasonable to talk to than the Emperor.”
“Why,” Adimel said slowly, “do you want to speak with another Avatar?”
“I have questions. About where the world comes from, how it ended up this way. About the gods, in particular.”
“Some of those answers may be dangerous to acquire,” the elf warned.
Gabriel nodded. “Vidius also has questions. He called me because of that. Because he thinks the gods have been wrong about some important things, and fears what might happen if they don’t adapt. The Pantheon is shifting all over; the new Hand of Avei is a half-elf who’s been trained by Eserites. My whole purpose is going to involve changing things. And… It’s dangerous to introduce change into a system you don’t understand. I’d think elves would know something about that.”
Adimel glanced at each of his comrades in turn; none of them spoke, but stared back with subtle changes of expression which seemed to communicate something to him.
“Well.” The shaman thumped the butt of his staff against the earth once. “At the very least, the Elders will wish to hear your request, Gabriel Arquin. If nothing else, it is news to us that there are accessible Elder God systems available to the Tiraan and Punaji. I will not make you a promise on the Elders’ behalf, but I believe that if you are willing to share information, they will respond in fairness.”
“Well, that sounds good to me,” Gabriel said with a broad grin. “Fairness is pretty much the best anybody can hope for, right?”
“Indeed,” Adimel said gravely, inclining his head again. “If they are very lucky.”
“I don’t know,” Aspen said worriedly. “This place… It’s not safe for humans. I mean, with us he’s fine, but if you want to leave him out here…”
“All of that,” Kaisa said severely, “would have been worth considering before you insisted on dragging him along, girl.”
“If you really thought I was gonna just leave him behind,” the dryad flared.
“Please.” Ingvar nodded to the kitsune, reaching over to touch Aspen’s cheek. “I am very honored to have been included this far. No Huntsman has ever journeyed so far into the Deep Wild. If I can go no farther, it’s not as if I’ve a right to complain. This is family business, after all. And if Ekoi-sensei says the protection she has left will be enough, I see no reason at all to doubt her. Has she misled us yet?”
“She was pretty much a butthole to me in Last Rock,” Aspen grumbled, folding her arms.
“No offense, sis, but you kinda brought that on yourself,” Juniper pointed out.
“I was worried about you!”
“Yeah, I know. And I love you for it. But that, and then what happened to you right after…” Juniper shook her head, turning to Kaisa. “That’s really what all this is about, isn’t it? Maybe it’s just the two of us so far, but dryads are starting to interact with the mortal world. And we can’t keep doing it the way we have. It just gets people hurt.”
“That is the heart of it, Juniper,” Kaisa replied. “The world is changing. The daughters of Naiya must change, as well, and change is an inherently difficult thing for us to face—but no less important for that. I have done everything I can to make my own sisters see this, and by and large they simply will not. Perhaps we can still salvage something of your generation, however. I allowed you to bring your young man on this journey which is manifestly none of his business, Aspen, because I deem him an extremely positive influence on you. I strongly advise you to listen when he speaks. And for that alone, you can be certain I won’t allow him to come to harm.”
“Go see to your sister,” Ingvar said gently, squeezing Aspen’s hand once. Then he stepped back, beneath the branches of the cherry tree Kaisa had just caused to sprout from nothing. It now fanned overhead to a great height, heavily laden with pink blossoms which continually drifted downward, already having laid down a plush carpet over its roots, delineating a circle of protection. “I will be here when you return.”
“Stay safe, Ingvar,” Fross chimed, zipping around him once in a quick pixie hug before returning to the others.
Kaisa led the way into the deeper, darker grove, Fross hovering along right behind her and casting a silver glow upon the shadowy underbrush. Aspen brought up the rear, constantly turning to look back until Ingvar was out of sight through the trees. He stood calmly, with his longbow in hand, gazing out at the jungle of the Deep Wild.
Within the forested crater of Jacaranda’s grove it was both cooler and darker, with moisture in the air as well as resounding through the stillness in the form of numerous streams trickling down toward the deep pool in the center. Tiny flickers of light and color were visible in the near distance, but none of the pixies were brave enough to approach the group.
“You’re unusually quiet, Fross,” Juniper observed softly as the procession picked their way steadily downward.
“Yeah, sorry. It’s just…memories, you know? This place seemed a lot bigger in my mind than it looks now. And scarier. Now it’s just…trees.”
“It’s called growing up,” Kaisa said from the head of the group, not glancing back at them. Amusement faintly laced her voice. “By and large, Fross, you have done well at it. The price for wisdom is innocence, but that is life’s best bargain. The only value of innocence is that which it persuades you it has—which is a lie.”
“Um, Professor Ekoi?” Fross chimed, drifting forward to flutter along beside the kitsune.
“It’s very unlikely I will be returning to Arachne’s school, Fross,” she replied, glancing at the pixie with a smile. “At least, not as a teacher. Since there is only family business between us now, you should call me Kaisa.”
“I, uh…okay. It’s just… Do you really think we can help her?”
A faint frown settled on Kaisa’s features, and one of her triangular ears twitched sideways twice. “A basic rule of life is that you cannot help a person who refuses to be helped. This entire situation…is tricky. Jacaranda’s predicament is not entirely her own fault. Any more than Juniper or Aspen’s is. Or yours. Or mine.” She shook her head. “Our mother scarcely deserves to be called by the word; we are all abandoned in one way or another, and none of you were taught anything you need to know before being hurled from the nest. This kind of intervention carries risk and no promise of success. But we must act on the presumption that any sister of ours is worth the effort. Jacaranda will not thank us for what we’re about to do…at least, not any time soon. But in the fullness of time, she yet may.”
“…okay.” Fross chimed a soft descending arpeggio.
“And Fross, purge irritating non-communication like ‘uh’ and ‘um’ from your speech. A wise person who has nothing to say says nothing; fools fill the air with meaningless noise. You are the daughter of a goddess, even if once removed, and the heir of a cultural legacy older than life on this world. Act like it.”
“Welcome to the family,” Aspen muttered from the back of the line.
The pool was visible before they reached it, and the thick clustering of multicolored pixies around it apparent long before that; their chiming was audible form halfway up the sides of the crater, even with the intervening trees and underbrush to soak up noise. Activity over Jacaranda’s pool itself was a lot more fervent than normal. Clearly, the Pixie Queen had been warned of their arrival.
“How dare you come here?” she shrieked as they lined up at the edge of her pool. She had gone so far as to rise from her usual reclining position, and now hovered upright above her little island in the center of the water, gossamer wings buzzing furiously. “I will not have dryads in my realm! Vile creatures, begone with you!”
“Good to see you, too, Jackie,” Aspen said dryly, lounging against a tree trunk and folding her arms. “How’ve you been?”
“DON’T YOU CALL ME THAT!” Jacaranda screamed, turning vivid pink with rage. “Pixies! I want these invaders gone. Get rid of them, my little ones!”
“Fross?” Juniper said warily as the hundreds of glittering lights around began to swirl menacingly, raising a cacophony of shrill little voices and buzzing wings.
Fross hovered forward, putting herself in front of Kaisa; in this proximity to so many of her kind, it was immediately obvious that she had a much brighter glow and larger aura. The surrounding pixies surged forward at the four on the bank of the pool.
Fross emitted a single pulse of pure arcane magic. A blue corona rippled out from her, instantly disorienting and stunning their attackers. Little voices switched from threats to shocked outcries as pixies tumbled from the air all around them, or drifted off-kilter in confusion.
After the first blast, Fross maintained a steadier, more subtle arcane current; not enough to do anything, but plenty to create an unpleasant reaction with the fae magic which absolutely saturated the heart of Jacaranda’s little kingdom. An abrasive whine of protest rose from the air itself, a sound that was thicker than sound, that crawled across the skin.
“Stop that!” Jacaranda wailed, planting her hands over her ears. “Stop it, stop it! No, wait—where are you going? Come back! Don’t leave me!”
All around, the pixies were fleeing, shooting desperately away from the noise and disruption despite their queen’s pleas. Aspen and Juniper were wincing and Kaisa had laid her ears flat against her skull, but none of them seemed nearly as badly affected.
Once they were all gone, Fross let the effect drop. After it, the silence was somehow even louder.
“Hello, my queen,” Fross chimed quietly. “I don’t suppose you even remember me.”
“Remember… You. Fross.” Jacaranda lowered her hands slowly from her ears, her face twisting into a snarl. “How dare you betray your queen? I gave you everything—your very existence! You’re mine, do you understand? I made you. I own you! You will bring the rest of my pixies back here right this second!”
“My queen,” Fross replied evenly. “…mother. It’s time we had a talk.”
“This is unexpected, of course,” Ravana said as she led him through the halls of her ancestral home. “When I submitted my application to the Service Society, it was with the presumption that I would not have an honored place on the waiting list. To be frank, I had not expected to interview a prospect for several years.”
“The Society takes great care to match a Butler with any prospective client with the utmost caution, your Grace,” Yancey said diffidently, following her at a perfectly discreet pace which called no attention to how much longer his legs were than hers. “It is a matter of compatibility rather than seniority. Clients are obliged to wait until a suitable match is made, irrespective of how long it takes.”
“Of course,” she agreed, “a wise system. I understand the relationship is considered quite intimate—though, naturally, my data is all secondhand. I applaud your regard for custom, Yancey; I am something of a traditionalist, myself. Still, Grace is a somewhat archaic form of address for my rank—technically correct, but more commonly associated with Bishops these days. I am phasing it out, along with the rest of my father’s ponderous pomposities.”
“Very good, my lady.”
“I understand,” she said thoughtfully, “you were previously Butler to Duchess Inara of House Tiradegh.”
“I had that honor, my lady.”
Nodding pensively, Ravana paused while Yancey slipped ahead of her to open the door at the end of the hall. He held it for her, bowing, and she glided through.
“I do not wish to seem indelicate.”
“I beg that you speak your mind, my lady. A Butler does not take offense, and the aim of our discussion is to assess honestly our suitability to form a contract.”
“Very well,” she said, eyes forward and voice contained. “Part of a Butler’s function is, of course, as a bodyguard. Rumors abound concerning the late Duchess’s passing, but the official and most credible account is that she was murdered. I wonder how it came to be that you were unable to prevent this.”
“A most reasonable concern, my lady. Please take no insult at the question, but may I presume that anything said between us will go no further?”
“You may rely on my discretion.” He walked at her side, a half-step behind, positioned just forward enough to discern her very faint smile though she didn’t turn to look at him. “I realize trust between us is not yet earned; for the moment, rest assured that I am not fool enough to antagonize the Service Society by betraying a confidence.”
“More than adequate assurance, my lady. Her Grace the Duchess left this world at a time and in a manner of her own choosing, in the pursuit of her own goals. I would have considered it a rank betrayal of our relationship to intervene, however her passing grieved me.”
“Ah. Then Lord Daraspian did not kill her?”
“He did, my lady. She arranged it with the utmost care.”
“Thus disgracing House Daraspian,” Ravana murmured, eyes narrowing infinitesimally in thought, “and further bringing down the scrutiny of the Empire, effectively cutting off its largely illicit sources of funds. And thereby assuring the future of its principal rival, House Tiradegh. What a fearless and fiendishly elegant maneuver. If there is one thing we aristocrats consistently fail to anticipate in one another, it is a willingness to embrace sacrifice.”
“Just so, my lady.”
They had arrived at another set of doors, and again he stepped ahead to open them and bow her through. Ravana emerged onto a balcony, Yancey following and closing the door behind them.
After a thousand years of rule, the manor of House Madouri was a huge complex completely encompassing the rocky hill upon which the city of Madouris had originally been built. The manor itself was a relatively small structure at the apex of the miniature mountain, itself palatial in size but dwarfed by the sprawl of gardens, lawns, fortifications, and other structures which made the complex a self-contained little city within Madouris and the most heavily fortified House position in the Empire.
Madouris itself stretched out in three directions; the towering outcrop of the manor abutted the canyon through which the River Tira coursed far below. It was a sizable city, rivaling Tiraas in scope, though not nearly so tightly packed. Madouris didn’t have much heavy industry compared to its neighbors, and thus had preserved more of its traditional architecture than Calderaas or Tiraas; the scrolltowers were concentrated at a central location for efficiency’s sake rather than spread across multiple offices over the city, and there were relatively few factories. The huge bulk of Falconer Industries rose ominously past the city walls to the northwest, fairly bristling with lightning-wreathed antennae. It, like much of the newer construction, had grown up outside the old walls. The age of fortifications had ended with the Enchanter Wars, according to conventional military wisdom.
The manor had the best view in the province, and this, Ravana’s balcony, had the best view in the manor.
“I am…dithering,” she said pensively, gazing out across the city her ancestors had ruled for a millennium. “The prospect of retaining a Butler may weigh my decisions in one direction or another. Classes resume in a few weeks, and I must decide before then whether to return to Last Rock, or take my education in a different direction altogether. If I do return to the University, having a Butler along would present difficulties. I rather think Professor Tellwyrn would make them even more difficult than necessary. She vividly disapproves of what she considers presumption in her students.”
“I will keep this under consideration, my lady. We are, of course, only in the earliest stages of our acquaintance. It is yet too early to commit to a relationship.”
“Of course, of course. I simply want you to be aware of my situation.”
“I appreciate your candor, my lady.”
“So. You have come to meet me, because you perused my application and felt we might have some compatibility.”
“Just so, my lady.”
“Knowing what I do of Duchess Inara Tiradegh, I take that as high praise indeed. What is it, Yancey, that attracts you to the prospect of my service?”
The Butler’s posture remained exquisitely poised, his expression neutral and speech perfectly diffident. “You remind me of her, my lady, both by reputation and by the details you yourself provided in your application.”
“House Madouri is not presently in nearly so secure a position as House Tiradegh, it pains me to admit. We are older, wealthier, more powerful by any measure, that is a fact. But secure… In truth, my position is precarious indeed. Thanks to my father, many of our old alliances have been squandered to nothing. The Silver Throne is tentatively well-disposed toward me, but entirely out of patience with the Madouri name. I have just barely salvaged a relationship with the Falconers, and I fear I rather traumatized Teal in the process. And after my recent illness in Last Rock, any confidence my people had in me is shaken. You should know that any number of potential calamities might sweep me from power at any moment.”
“Yes, my lady.”
She turned to give him a cool look. “This appraisal does not surprise you, Yancey?”
“I made certain to be aware of it, my lady. It is part of what drew me to you.”
She raised one eyebrow mutely.
“I cannot say what the future holds for you or for House Madouri, my lady. But I can say with certainty that you will continue to face your trials as you have already: with cunning, ferocity, and to the great surprise of your enemies. I confess I am drawn to the prospect of seeing it firsthand.”
Ravana considered him for a moment, then gazed south, toward Tiraas; the capital was just barely too distant to be seen from Madouris, close enough that the two cities had viewed one another as severe threats before the Imperial era. Then she turned, directing her eyes north. Calderaas lay many miles in that direction, well beyond the horizon. And still further beyond that lay Last Rock, at the edge of the Golden Sea.
“Let me pose you a hypothetical question, Yancey,” she said at last, eyes still on the endless distance. “Say that you had it on good authority, from a source so trusted that you must take it as given despite the poetic melodrama of the very claim, that…a great doom is coming. How would you recommend proceeding?”
“I would advise, my lady, that you make yourself a greater doom, and lie in wait for it.”
Slowly, a smile curled her thin lips.
“Yancey… I have a very good feeling about this.”