“Those conniving knife-eared shits!”
The Empress of Tiraas threw her copy of the Constitution of the Elven Confederacy down on the table in a gesture as uncharacteristically violent as her crude language. Eleanora’s temper was famous, but so was her control of it. Now, she was pacing up and down the room like a caged wolf, while the assembled ministers watched her with varying degrees of alarm.
“This is…bleak,” said Minister Asvedhri, head of the Ministry of the Interior, lifting his pen from the map of the Empire he had just finished defacing. He had surrounded regions on it with black lines and marked off the Golden Sea with cross-hatching, and now leaned back to frown deeply at his handiwork. Several of the others around the table craned their necks to inspect it. “At least they’re not claiming the Golden Sea for themselves, but they most definitely assert the right to access and act freely within it. But just their territorial claims alone… Omnu’s breath. This so-called ‘constitution’ asserts their ownership of all extant elven groves, but doesn’t specify anything about the small spaces between them, and legal precedent could go either way. Both options are nightmares. Either that stretch of our territory has just turned into a jigsaw puzzle or Mathena, northern Calderaan Province and half of both Stalwar Provinces are cut off from the rest of the Empire.”
“That’s assuming the Empire chooses to recognize these territorial claims,” General Panissar said quietly. He was the only person besides the Empress not seated, though he stood calmly near the conference room’s door while she paced along the wall.
“It’ll be war if we don’t, General,” said Minister Rehvaad.
“And it’s my job to think of such things,” Panissar replied.
“Omnu’s breath,” Asvedhri repeated, rubbing his forehead and accidentally smearing it with ink. “We’re not even getting the worst of it. They claim Tar’naris! There’s no way to get to it from the rest of their territory without going through an Imperial military base! What were they thinking?”
“I believe that question was directed at you,” Eleanora said bitingly, slamming to a halt and turning the full force of her glare on Underminister Saradhi, who visibly quailed under it.
Though Rehvaad headed up the Foreign Ministry, the Empire’s chief diplomat had chosen to let his subordinate handle most of the discussion here, Saradhi being the lowest-ranked person present and only included as she was the senior diplomat in charge of elven relations. Given the pressures involved, Rehvaad’s reticence could be interpreted as throwing her under the carriage.
“I can’t— Your Majesty, there’s no way to know,” Saradhi protested, her voice shrill with stress. “This action blindsided us all completely!”
“And whose job was it to prevent that?”
The Underminister was saved from having to answer that by the opening of the door.
“Ah, Quentin,” the Emperor said in a mild tone. “Good of you to join us.”
“I sincerely apologize for my tardiness, your Majesties,” Lord Vex said, stepping forward with more energy than he usually showed in public and sliding into an open seat at the table. “I was tending to the matter of which I previously informed you in Tar’naris, with the assistance of the young Lady Nahil, and I’m sure I needn’t tell you that the timing was undoubtedly not a coincidence. Did the Narisians manage to distract and misdirect anyone from the Foreign Ministry, or should I feel personally flattered?”
“In point of fact, Underminister Trispin is still in Tar’naris,” Rehvaad answered. “It is, of course, not unusual for her to be there, but she is also engaged in active business with House Awarrion. Who, of course, would have been very aware of precisely when this announcement would go out. It seems clear enough to me that the drow have done their due diligence to ensure this would take us with the maximum surprise.”
“That’s an unequivocally hostile act,” Panissar noted.
“No, it is not,” Rehvaad retorted. “Not unequivocally. A nation is never more vulnerable than at the moment of its birth, and Tiraas is the preeminent military power in the world. As Minister Asvedhri pointed out, this new Confederacy is in an unavoidably tense position in relation to us, and we have rather famously involved ourselves in the affairs of our border states. I think it would be a mistake to assume hostile intent from this. It seems to me more defensive.”
“They almost needn’t have bothered,” Underminister Saradhi added, seeming to have recovered a little of her poise when her superior finally interceded. “Your Majesties, I am not trying to duck responsibility, but I will stake my career on the assertion that we could not have anticipated this!”
“Indeed,” Eleanora grated.
“She’s correct,” said Vex. “Intelligence has been watching these events as well. Discussions between Tar’naris and the surface tribes have been going on for barely a year. We were expecting to have at least a decade in which to figure out what they were up to and what should be done about it.”
“If anything, that assessment shows Intelligence’s characteristic paranoia,” Saradhi agreed, nodding fervently. “They’re elves. They don’t do anything this quickly. Anything! Tar’naris is the only elven society which has undergone any noteworthy social change during the entire scope of recorded history! And that was at the Empire’s instigation. Your Majesties…” She clutched at the sides of her head, planting her elbows on the table; at least she didn’t have ink on her fingers. “This can’t be happening!”
“Compose yourself, Underminister,” Rehvaad said quietly. Saradhi flushed, but quickly lowered her hands and straightened her posture.
“Well, obviously it is happening,” said Sharidan. “I think we can take it as given that this is an astonishingly hasty action for elves. That we failed to anticipate it is, perhaps, forgivable.”
“It’s hasty even by human standards,” Asvedhri murmured, still scowling down at his map. “Not just the time frame. A year, give or take, is on the quicker end of the necessary time for a reorganization of this magnitude to be prepared, but they’ve neglected what I would consider basic concerns. This Constitution seems to just assume their territorial claims will be respected.”
“The question is why,” said the Emperor. “Why this assumption? Why this haste?”
“I can only interpret the speed as a crisis response,” said Vex. “It’s unusual even so, for elves, who have numerous times nearly let themselves be overtaken by disasters simply because they could not react quickly. But my department has observed that all of this has been at the ultimate instigation of the Narisians, who have always been ruthlessly pragmatic even before the Empire lit a fire under them.”
“They are definitely following the example of the Conclave of the Winds,” added Rehvaad, “who also acted with uncharacteristic speed and chose to leverage the element of surprise in their initial announcement. Quite successfully, it should be noted, which doubtless is what inspired this imitation. I can only surmise that their motivations are similar: they perceive an existential threat in the prospect of continued isolation.”
“They’re not exactly wrong, if so,” Underminister Saradhi said with more composure. “Tar’naris was practically a client state of ours until this announcement, and Imperial expansion had pushed the tribes into virtual irrelevancy. The Cobalt Dawn and Sarasio incidents both illustrated the urgency of the rise of Imperial power, and provided a stark example of the benefits of cooperative versus combative methods of meeting it.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s hard to see this as anything but combative,” said Asvedhri, picking up his map just for the satisfaction of slapping it back down on the table. “They’ve declared a sprawling superstate whose claimed territory is a patchwork intercut with our own. There are only so many ways that can possibly play out, and most of them end with outright war!”
“General Panissar,” said the Emperor, still apparently calm, “based on your current understanding, how would you call the outcome of such a conflict?”
“Catastrophic,” Panissar answered immediately. “All other things being equal, I think we could win, nominally. Our military is bigger and better than anyone’s. We have more soldiers than there are people in Tar’naris, and the wood and plains tribes bring nothing but guerrillas and light cavalry, and not much of that. The problem is what they do have: fae casters. Remember what Mary the Crow did to Onkawa? It’s been twenty-five years and the sugar industry still hasn’t recovered. Imagine that, everywhere. What they can field is not what our troops are prepared to handle, and they’re positioned to inflict colossal damage to our infrastructure and especially agriculture. That ‘victory’ would leave us occupying reams of hostile territory while probably experiencing famines and plagues, with the Rail and telescroll networks uprooted at every point and the zeppelin fleet grounded—those are all vulnerable to fae and elvish methods. A win like that would destroy the Empire.”
He paused, working his jaw in distaste for a second, before continuing.
“And that’s just talking about the knowns. According to this…Constitution…this Confederacy places Qestraceel as its capital and counts the high elves among its signatories. I have zero data on their capabilities. Or location, or numbers, or anything. We only barely know that high elves exist. Plenty of people throughout the Empire don’t believe they do.”
“My department doesn’t know much more about the high elves than the Army,” said Vex, “and not for want of trying. They have all the usual elven love of privacy, plus vast skill in the arcane. Intelligence currently places Qestraceel somewhere in the Stormsea, with a population of around twenty thousand. But that is based entirely on the area where and frequency with which their navy is encountered, so the question is not whether those estimates are wrong, but by how much.”
“Any insight into how they hide an entire city?” Sharidan asked.
Vex shook his head, permitting himself a brief grimace of open irritation. “We know of grandiose spellcraft by which an entire island can be hidden, but not specifically how, or how it relates to the high elves. There is a vanished island north of Onkawa on which my predecessors compiled a file. It is absent from common knowledge or the memory of any living individuals, but was listed on charts and geographical writings that still exist.”
Eleanora planted her palms on the table, leaning across it toward him. “That sounds like a place to begin investigating.”
“Doubtful, your Majesty,” he demurred. “References to Qestraceel date back centuries at least; this happened less than forty years ago, and there are indications Tellwyrn was involved.”
“She vanished an entire island?” Panissar demanded, then shook his head. “What am I saying? Of course she bloody did.”
“So we know it can be done,” Vex finished. “More than that…remains to be discovered. Your Majesties, I would like permission to begin investigating the high elves. My department has never regarded the matter with any urgency, as they have shown zero inclination to intervene in the world’s affairs. That has just abruptly changed.”
“Can you do this without antagonizing them?” the Emperor asked pointedly.
“There are ways, yes. The most immediate is to investigate various arcane-using elves who are known to be at large in the Empire.”
“Those are just wood and plains elves cast out of their tribes for using the arcane,” Underminister Saradhi objected.
“Some, yes,” Vex agreed, nodding at her. “Perhaps most. Those whose points of origin I can trace to a specific grove are automatically disqualified. But I have long believed that others might be high elves, exiled either voluntarily or as punishment. Exiles can often be persuaded to provide information, at the very least, on their former society.” He paused as if considering his next statement before giving it. “At least three of my predecessors firmly believed that Tellwyrn is a high elf.”
A momentary lull fell over the table. The Empress straightened back up, her face inscrutable.
“Well,” Sharidan said at last, “we have an established relationship with her, at least. That sounds like a starting point.”
Vex grimaced again. “Actually, your Majesty, Duchess Ravana Madouri recently employed one of these elves; I intended to start there. She is both accessible and also allied with the Throne. Winter break began yesterday; Last Rock’s faculty and students are on a two-week hiatus. My agents have placed Tellwyrn in Tidecall as of this morning, at a seaside villa. I am sure I needn’t describe the poise and grace with which the good Professor will likely react to having her vacation interrupted by prying personal questions.”
Grimaces and a single muted chuckle went around the table, followed by a loud snort from Panissar. “This business is simply too urgent to dilly-dally while we wait on that woman’s convenience.”
“It can only be made more dire by winding her up,” Eleanora said thoughtfully, frowning into the distance. She abruptly nodded, as if to herself. “Very well, Quentin, make arrangements for me. I’ll go to Tidecall myself and approach her.”
“Your Majesty,” Minister Rehvaad protested.
“Are you sure, Nora?” Sharidan asked with more calm.
“I achieved…a grudging rapport with her,” the Empress answered him. “And I think she will respond well to the respect shown by having someone of my rank approach her directly. The idea is to ask one of history’s most irascible figures to dish on subjects she’s stubbornly refused to discuss for thrice the age of our Empire; every last speck of respect that can be curried will be relevant. And I can shmooze her a bit, I think. Anyone else trying the same will only set her off.”
He held her gaze for a long moment, before nodding slowly. “Very well. You heard her, Quentin.”
“So I did,” Vex said with the scowl of a man who knew better than to argue with a bad idea. “I assume you mean your presence to be discreet, your Majesty?”
“Please,” Minister Rehvaad practically begged. “A state visit to the Tidestriders would require either weeks of formalities, or a mortal insult that could provoke several of the clans into open rebellion!”
“My presence will be as discreet as you can possibly make it, Quentin,” Eleanora promised with a smile. “Meanwhile, start your own investigations. What is Madouri doing with this possible high elf, anyway?”
“The Duchess has employed Veilwin in the role of Court Wizard to House Madouri,” Vex reported. “I met her today, in fact, where she was serving as her Grace’s transport by way of personal teleportation. The woman is a surly drunk; it’s not hard for me to imagine how she ended up unwelcome in wherever she came from.”
“I never heard of an alcoholic elf,” Underminister Saradhi said with a frown.
“Court Wizard?” Panissar demanded incredulously. “I didn’t think that office still existed, anywhere. Not after the Enchanter Wars.”
“It has fallen out of vogue,” Vex agreed, “between Magnan’s bad example and the availability of spellcasters for hire that came with the founding of the Wizards’ Guild. But the position itself is still enshrined in law for any House holding an Imperial governorship. I think it a grandiose affectation on the Duchess’s part. This woman, as I said, isn’t an impressive specimen of either her race or profession.”
“Then Intelligence has a place to begin addressing this mess,” Sharidan said briskly. “Learning more about the high elves will definitely help us regain our footing, but it doesn’t even begin to resolve this. How many nations has this Confederacy reached out to already?”
“We can’t speak for formal diplomatic relations, your Majesty,” Saradhi said when Rehvaad looked pointedly at her, “but copies of this Constitution and the proclamation of the Confederacy’s founding have been delivered to every embassy in Tiraas. All but those of the smallest and poorest countries have at least one magic mirror linked to a counterpart in their home capitals. The world will know of this within the hour.”
“I expect they will give everyone a short period to respond before opening formal diplomatic contact,” Rehvaad added. He pulled over the copy of the Constitution Eleanora had thrown down, quickly scanning it and then planting his index finger on a specific line. “Here, this caught my eye: the Confederacy itself claims sole prerogative to conduct foreign policy and bars member states from carrying out their own. That means the Narisian embassy isn’t one anymore, as the Narisians have just signed away their right to conduct their own diplomacy. I would expect it will house the Confederate embassy, once they have normalized relations with us.”
“Mmm.” Frowning pensively, the Emperor stared at the far wall for a moment, then half-turned to meet Eleanora’s eye. “As Minister Asvedhri has pointed out, this situation is rife with the possibility for conflict. Is there any chance that the elves want a war?”
“They have nothing to gain,” Panissar grunted. “High elves or no, the only conceivable outcomes would see both our civilizations in ruins. They can’t possibly be unaware of that.”
“Your Majesty,” Saradhi said hesitantly, “most nations only seek war when they are certain they can win, or at least profit from it. It’s not characteristic of elves to do so even then. At their worst, the Narisians only sent raiding parties to the surface, never an organized invasion. The Cobalt Dawn are the only recorded case of elves trying to seize human territory, and we are frustratingly in the dark regarding what happened within that tribe in the years leading up to their attack.”
“Then, if no one disagrees, I believe we should proceed upon the assumption that the elves will meet us halfway,” Sharidan stated, nodding once. “They are generally conservative and risk-averse, and are doubtless aware of the potential for all of this to go badly. It seems to me they would not have taken this risk at all unless they were confident that an accord could be reached with the Empire.”
“That analysis is reasonable to my mind, your Majesty,” Minister Rehvaad agreed.
“Very good.” The Emperor smiled once at the Empress before returning his attention to Rehvaad. “Minister, I require a precedent.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” Rehvaad said with an answering smile. “What does the Empire need history to suggest?”
“We need a precedent for the application of an agreement between two legal parties to the relationship between one signatory and an organization which the second signatory unilaterally joins,” Sharidan said, his smile taking on just a hint of a smirk. Eleanora grimaced at him.
A moment of silence fell in which everyone digested that.
“It may be…challenging,” Rehvaad said delicately.
“It doesn’t need to stand up under arbitration,” the Emperor assured him, “just to have the veneer of established protocol, so it doesn’t appear we are throwing our weight around.”
“Ah.” Rehvaad nodded. “That is much more doable. I will have my assistants scour the law library; I believe I can have a draft before you in hours, your Majesty.”
“If I understand your Majesty’s intent,” Panissar said slowly, “you mean to approach the Confederacy under the assumption that our treaty with Tar’naris establishes the terms of our relationship?”
“As a starting point, yes,” Sharidan agreed.
“They will never go for that,” Eleanora stated.
Panissar shook his head. “Among other things, that treaty establishes open borders. Applied to the Confederacy, it would give every Imperial peasant the prerogative to track mud through Qestraceel itself. Whatever else we don’t know about high elves, I’m reasonably certain they would rather see every last human dead.”
“Not to mention that there are numerous other provisions of the treaty which are less applicable in this situation,” the Emperor acknowledged, nodding. “It is, as I said, a starting point. We should not forget that the elves launched this endeavor with an active effort to prevent us from responding until it was done; I interpret that more as a gambit to retain control of the situation than an aggressive act. The fact remains, they stand to lose as much as we from any hostilities that may ignite. No matter what happens, this is going to be delicate. My intention is to signal that we will make every effort to meet them halfway, and negotiate fairly and in good faith.” He leaned forward, his expression intent. “But, that the Empire will not be put upon. We are in a position of strength, and it will be important to leverage that. The difficulty is in doing so without signaling an intent to exercise that strength…or acknowledge our reluctance to do so.”
“Your Majesty has hit the nail on the head,” Lord Vex murmured. “Delicate.”
“If any of you can identify an aspect of this I have not considered,” said Sharidan, “now is the time to speak up.”
“Your Majesty,” Rehvaad said after a tiny pause, “in fact, I believe this discussion has overlooked an extremely important element which we must keep in mind as we make any plans for the future: the dwarves.”
Eleanora turned her frown on him directly.
“What in Avei’s name do they have to do with this?” Panissar demanded.
“Only that the Five Kingdoms have received the same notice of this as every other state,” Minister Rehvaad said seriously, “and there is only one course of action available to them: they must follow the example of the Conclave and now the Confederacy. The Alliance of the Five Kingdoms is, at present, basically nothing; it’s a treaty organization which serves no purpose but to express their solidarity in their nonsense war on Tar’naris. The nature of the Alliance will immediately have to change anyway, since as of this morning it is now at war with the combined wood and plains tribes, as well as Qestraceel, which unlike Tar’naris represents a serious threat to them.”
“So they’ll have to make peace,” Eleanora said, studying him narrowly. “That would seem to suggest the Alliance’s dissolution entirely.”
“That is one prospect, if the dwarves are stupid,” Rehvaad replied. “They are not. The situation on this continent since the Enchanter Wars has been our united Empire surrounded by smaller states which posed no major challenge to us. Now, with the Confederacy? There are suddenly two sizable power blocs on the continent, necessarily in competition. It must be said that the dwarves are as conservative as the elves, and nearly as incapable of reacting quickly; three of the Five Kingdoms are republics in all but name, and even the other two can do little unilaterally without navigating the intricacies of clan politics. Democratic organizations can’t do anything swiftly. But unlike elves, the dwarves believe in science and rationality, and part of the reason they move ponderously is because they look to the future and try to plan ahead. They are positioned to re-shape their Alliance into another, closer bond. And, I believe, they have to. Unless they take the opportunity to form a new counter to the Empire and the Confederacy, they will be pushed aside by one or the other, or both.”
“What, do you think, this would entail?” the Emperor asked quietly.
Rehvaad’s expression was downright grim now. “In the short term, it alleviates some of the pressure of conflict between us and the elves, your Majesty. A third party at the table makes everything more complicated, but does have the effect of lightening the tension. Anything which prevents us from being two opposites staring each other down in that regard will help. But in the longer term? The thing about trinary political structures is that there needn’t be parity of strength or position to keep them in flux. They are inherently unstable, but they serve to prevent any one party from gaining the upper hand. Whenever one begins to, the other two can apply concerted pressure to upset them, and start the cycle anew.”
He hesitated, grimaced, and finally continued, reaching forward once more to tap the copy of the elven Constitution resting on the conference table. “When the dust settles, your Majesty… I believe this presages the end of human dominance of this continent.”
Silence fell over the room again. This time, it lingered.