Tag Archives: Empress Eleanora

16 – 5

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“And this is the Sanhevid Suite, where you’ll be staying,” Ravana announced, coming to a stop in the center of the wide common area, planting herself beside a marble statue of a hooded woman wielding a bow and gazing sternly at some distant horizon. “Doors to either side of the hearth behind me lead to the residential area, where there are more than enough bedrooms for everyone. Beyond that, both halls open onto a small library with attached reading room and office. To the left, here, beyond the colonnade, is a solarium opening onto a private courtyard, with the dining hall adjacent. Kitchen, laundry, and servant’s quarters are in the basement; someone will be on staff at all hours, and the enchanted bell in each bedroom activates a signal in the kitchen, so do not hesitate to summon someone for anything you need, at any time. I do hope you’ll be adequately comfortable.”

“Wow,” Gabriel said simply, looking wide-eyed around the great hall of the Sanhevid Suite, which apparently counted for a small mansion in its own right. It was a two-story affair, with windows on the second floor admitting sunlight to complement the fairy lamps attached to each of the marble pillars. The place was laid out very much like a Shaathist lodge, a long area strewn with furniture extending from huge doors on one end to an enormous hearth on the other, though the décor ran toward marble, velvet, and gilt-framed paintings rather than hunting trophies.

“Adequately?” Toby added, grinning. “Ravana, this is… Well, it’s nicer than most of the places Tellwyrn’s made us stay on trips.”

“Most?” Gabriel gave him an incredulous look. “This is nicer than anyplace we’ve stayed. By orders of magnitude.”

“Um, ex-fuckin’-cuse me,” Ruda retorted, “but I distinctly recall putting you ingrates up at my house on one of those trips.”

Gabriel smiled sweetly at her. “I know what I said.”

“Arquin, how long’s it been since I fucking stabbed you?”

“Let us remember that we are guests here,” Shaeine interjected smoothly, “and refrain from getting hethelax blood on any of the furnishings. According to Professor Rafe, it is rather acidic.”

“It’s fine, there’s a courtyard,” Gabriel assured her. “Honestly, Ravana, I’m just a kid from the wrong side of Tiraas. I think I’m gonna be afraid to touch anything in here.”

“Ah, I take your point,” she mused, nodding. “Hm… How about this?”

Ravana stepped over to the nearest column, where a frosted glass vase full of out-of-season tulips rested atop a decorative plinth at its base. Picking up the delicate vessel in one hand, she regarded it critically for a moment, then turned and hurled it across the room.

It was a good throw; the crystal unerringly struck another marble column, where of course it shattered, strewing flowers, water, and glass fragments across a wide area. Everyone stared at it in disbelief, then turned those looks on Ravana herself, who had immediately folded her hands demurely at her waist, looking self-satisfied.

“I know that to some of you, servants are in and of themselves an unseemly indulgence,” she said lightly, “but do keep in mind that everyone working in this manor is paid from the House treasury, as I have reduced taxes to ease the burden on local business my father created. Any materials used in cleaning or repair are purchased nearby. I do ask that you please refrain from burning the place down, but short of that? The worst thing you can possibly do is contribute to the local economy. Keep that in mind, Gabriel, and please don’t hesitate to make yourself comfortable in whatever way you can.”

“You have a striking way of making a point,” Trissiny observed.

Ravana’s smile increased fractionally, and she inclined her head. “I have learned from the best.”

“Are we…still in the same house?” Juniper asked hesitantly, pulling her head out of the doorway to the solarium she’d circumspectly been investigating while everyone talked, Sniff silently at her heels as always. “It sounds like this ‘suite’ is bigger than most people’s houses.”

“Ah, yes, hence my uncertainty,” said Ravana. “This would ordinarily be used as guest quarters for visiting nobility and their own households. I believe its size is adequate to your group, but it is not in keeping with formal etiquette to house disparate individuals here. All things considered, and given that placing you each in separate rooms of a quality suitable to your stature would have made it logistically difficult for you all to find one another, I took the risk of presuming you would not be overly concerned with the formalities. If I have erred, I humbly apologize, and of course can make any alternate arrangement of your choosing. There are abundant private rooms, of course, or I can set you up as a group in one of the outlying guest houses. Or, if you prefer a familiar touch of whimsy, a suite of tavern rooms on the grounds.”

“Your first instinct was correct, Ravana,” Teal assured her with a faint smile. During the last year, she had either gotten over her antipathy toward the Duchess or learned to conceal it, and now appeared quite at ease in Madouri Manor. “This is more than comfortable enough, and we wouldn’t dream of putting you to any more trouble. Right, everyone?”

“Indubitably!” Fross chimed, swooping back into the room. “Guys, you have got to see that library! There’s a complete edition of the Encyclopedia Viridici!”

“Isn’t that one notoriously unreliable?” Trissiny asked.

“Yes, because it hasn’t been printed in six hundred years! It’s not even in intelligible modern Tanglish!”

“Hold on, back up,” Gabriel requested, still blinking at Ravana. “Did you say you have a tavern…in your house?”

“Three, on the grounds,” she said placidly. “Madouri Manor as it stands today was the original fortified city of Madouris. As the Lower City spread beyond its walls, the larger structures around the citadel became the residences of lower nobility. Then the Outer City rose around the second ring of walls, and gradually my ancestors encouraged the other families to gentrify the Lower City, eventually leaving these grounds for House Madouri and the city and provincial government alone.” She paused, grimacing prettily. “Unfortunately, my more recent ancestors pushed even those out, leaving the Manor as the largest private residence in the world, a testament to excess that even a Sheng Emperor would have thought a bit much. I have been migrating government offices back into the grounds; you would not believe how hobbled the local bureaucracy has been, simply due to being scattered across the city. Of course, you have the run of the Manor; you will be able to tell what structures serve official purpose. It should not be hard to avoid getting in anyone’s way. Feel free to patronize the taverns, if you like. I am quite serious about encouraging you to take advantage of any available amenities, everyone. It is the least I can do, as I fear I shall perforce be a somewhat negligent hostess.”

“This is your idea of negligent?” Ruda snorted, flopping down on a gilt-armed sofa. “Damn, girl. I’m scared to see what it looks like when you get generous. Be honest, you ever drowned somebody in champagne?”

“Oh, it’s not the accommodations,” Ravana said, smiling. “Those I can provide. It’s just that this is necessarily a working vacation for me. While attending school, my ability to manage the province is hampered by distance, even in this modern age of telescrolls and Rails. I must make full use of the time I have at home to attend to as many affairs as can be squeezed in. Rest assured, I shall make every effort to attend to you, but it won’t be as much as I’d like, so the least I can do is provide ample comfort and entertainment during your stay.”

“I see,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Well, we don’t want to get in your way, then…”

“You are anything but in my way,” Ravana said firmly. “I have been quite looking forward to showing you all around my city. Scorn and the other girls from the Wells will be arriving by tonight, and I mean to have a proper welcome banquet with everyone. Indeed, I find myself eager to consult the political minds among you on the newest issue with the elves.”

“Do understand that neither Teal nor I can render comment in any official capacity,” Shaeine began.

“Please.” Ravana held up one hand, still smiling. “You are my guest, Shaeine, I will not have you put on the spot or otherwise discomfited. If you’d like to chat about it, I would obviously love to hear your take. If not, that is the end of it. It’s very important to me to maintain personal connections beyond the political. Bad enough I can’t publicly associate with Sekandar anymore, I’ll not have any tension raised between Houses Madouri and Awarrion.”

“Wait, what happened with Sekandar?” Gabriel asked. “I thought you two got along well.”

“Oh, we do, but unfortunately his mother is…out of sorts with me. Being a well-bred Calderaan boy, Prince Sekandar obviously cannot gainsay her in public, so our conversations at school have been somewhat abridged in the last few months. It’s dreadfully tedious, but such are politics.”

“Ravana,” Teal asked in the chiding tone of a teacher interrogating a child over a broken vase—while, herself, standing practically in the shards of a broken vase— “what did you do to the Sultana?”

Ravana shrugged daintily. “I have simply been a good neighbor to the people of Last Rock while enjoying their hospitality. I furnished several small business loans to residents, after the fashion I have found so productive here in Madouris. Sadly, her Excellency has chosen to take this as a territorial infraction. I do say she is overreacting somewhat.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Trissiny said, folding her arms. “You, the sitting governor of another province and rival Great House, began an economic program obviously modeled on the means you used to secure your influence in Madouris, in a fringe territory over which the Sultana has nominal but little real control, probably causing her to lose face in front of the other Houses of Calderaas, who at their most congenial are a pit of underfed alligators. And you’re surprised she was miffed?”

“I said that her Excellency overreacted,” Ravana replied, lifting her nose, “not that she was entirely without a point.”

“Yeah, I’d get on top of fixing that if I were you,” Gabriel suggested. “Sekandar’s a swell guy and all, but if Princess Yasmeen is anything to go by you do not want the Aldarasi women on your case. I think even you may not be rich enough to shrug that off, Ravana.”

“Mildly sexist,” Trissiny stated, giving him a pointed look, “but regrettably apt.”

He bowed grandly to her.

Ravana herself drew in a breath, causing her thin shoulders to rise, then let it out slowly, sweeping a languid and incongruously warm smile around the group. “Now, this is exactly why I was so grateful you all agreed to visit me over the holidays. I am surrounded by legions of yes-men at home; nobody outside of school dares talk back to me. It’s no wonder my father entirely lost his sense of proportion.”

The front door of the Sanhevid Suite clicked discreetly shut, and the group shifted to look that way as Ravana’s Butler came gliding swiftly across the floor toward them.

“Your pardon, my Lady,” Yancey said, bowing to her. “The contacts in N’Jendo with whom you were corresponding concerning the Harpy affair have arrived.”

Poised as always, Ravana betrayed her incredulity only by a momentary pause, and the most infinitesimal lift of one eyebrow, before replying. “How?”

“It appears a telescroll signaling their acquiescence to your last suggestion arrived while you were welcoming our guests, my Lady. Veilwin intercepted and read it, and took it upon herself to teleport to Jennidira to retrieve them. I have made them comfortable in the Azure Parlor.”

Butler training was truly a rival for a noble upbringing in terms of facial control; Yancey managed to convey his withering disapproval of this Veilwin’s presumption without altering his expression a hair beyond the strictly polite.

“I see,” Ravana said, pausing to press her lips into a thin line. “Well. Speak of the Dark Lady. Or…can we even say that anymore?”

“I think I’d rather we did,” said Trissiny. “Elilial is neither dead nor neutered, and undoubtedly is already at work encouraging the world to forget what a monster she has always been. Let’s not oblige her.”

“Duly noted,” Ravana agreed, nodding to her. “Well! It seems it has begun. I am terribly sorry to abandon you all so abruptly, but this matter won’t wait. I shall do my utmost to join you and the others for dinner; this should not occupy me beyond the afternoon. In the meantime, Yancey will see to all your needs.”

“Hey, don’t you worry about us,” Ruda said lazily from the sofa, on which she was sprawled lopsidedly with one leg thrown over its arm. “Go on, be the boss lady. See ya at dinner.”

“And thank you again for having us,” Toby added.

“The pleasure is entirely mine,” Ravana assured them, inclining her head deeply. “Do excuse me, then.”

She turned and glided out, Yancey on her heels. The Butler held the suite’s door for her with a bow, then slipped out behind the Duchess and pulled it shut after them.

“So, uh…” Fross darted over to swoop across the mess of the shattered vase. “Should we…call somebody about this? Cos I could probably clean it up pretty easily but I’m not sure if that’s, like, rude to the servants or what.”

“Hmm.” On the other side of the chamber, Gabriel ambled toward a matching vase and reached for it.

“No, Gabriel!” Trissiny shouted, charging to intercept him.

Teal slipped an arm around Shaeine’s waist; F’thaan, already tired from the day’s journey, was draped asleep across the drow’s feet. “And to think I was afraid we’d have a dull holiday.”


In any other house, the Azure Parlor would have been considered a ballroom. A relatively small and intimate one, suitable for parties of no more than two dozen, but still. The majority of its floorspace was taken up by a sunken area reached by steps down from the carpeted main floor, where the dancing surface itself was a mosaic depicting a cloudy sky. Its matching domed ceiling was a far more intricate fresco of a blue dragon, painted nearly to scale and coiling in on himself as though twisting about in midair in a pose that just barely crammed his entire sinuous length into the available space.

Ravana’s new guests had remained on the upper portion, where seats and refreshment tables were distributed. They had been generously served; on one of the tables were laid out trays of tea, hot mulled cider, and warm pies of both meat and fruit in portions that would have provided a full meal for more than the three of them. The woman in the group was sipping a mug of cider, but other than that the refreshments appeared untouched. Still wearing their fur-lined winter cloaks, all three were standing, and staring upward at the ceiling fresco.

Veilwin was slouched in an armchair off to one side in a posture that clashed with her elegant brocaded dress, munching on a slice of cherry pie.

“Zyndirax the Blue was an off-again, on-again paramour of Duchess Tamira Madouri,” Ravana said, gliding into the room. “I suspect the scandal was the sole cause of her interest in him; she did love to ruffle people’s feathers. Welcome to Madouri Manor, Brother Ingvar and guests! I most humbly apologize for keeping you waiting. The truth is that I was not expecting you to visit me so soon.”

She shot a sidelong look at her Court Wizard, who snorted (spraying crumbs in the process) and pointed a forkful of pie at her.

“You said you were on a tight schedule for the next two weeks,” the elf said accusingly. “Made a whole production of it, big speech and everything. Remember? We’re all to chip in an’ try to smooth things along. Well, I cut off some corners and saved you some time. You’re welcome.”

Veilwin was the only elf Ravana had ever seen with dark circles around her eyes, and they had never diminished in the time she’d known her. As usual, her gown was of expensive silk brocade, and free of any tear, stain, or wrinkle due to the considerable enchantments laid upon it, which contrasted starkly with the mussed state of her blonde hair. Now, she also had crumbs all over half her face, which somehow suited her.

“I assure you, we are not put out,” Ingvar interjected, striding forward with a warm smile. “It’s a great pleasure to see you again, your Grace. Especially conscious.”

“Ah, ah,” Veilwin chided with her mouth full, wagging the now-empty fork. “It’s ‘my Lady.’ The Duchess is trying to retire the ol’ Grace thing, says it’s old-fashioned. She’s a modern girl, is Ravana.”

“Veilwin,” the Duchess said with a too-wide smile, “do you recall our discussion about you speaking in front of guests?”

Veilwin grunted and tucked silently back into her pie.

“Yes, I understand this is not the first time we have met,” Ravana said, accepting Ingvar’s outstretched hand and inclining her head in response to his bow. “As those events were relayed to me, I owe you my life.”

“I did little…my Lady,” he demurred. “Anyone would have carried an unconscious woman out of a battlefield.”

“I assure you, it was not a small thing to me. A Madouri pays her debts.”

“I would consider it a grave dishonor to claim a debt over something so morally obligatory, my Lady,” Ingvar said gravely, then smiled again. “But perhaps it can be a starting point for a positive relationship.”

“Well said,” she agreed, smiling back. “Now, I see you have met my Court Wizard. I also apologize for whatever Veilwin said and/or did before I was able to intervene.”

Behind her, Veilwin snorted again.

“I have no complaints, my Lady,” Ingvar said tactfully. “We hunters have straightforward manners ourselves. Allow me to introduce my friends, Dantu and Dimbi.”

They nodded in turn, clearly uncertain of the formalities involved in meeting a Duchess; Ravana inclined her head politely to each of them in response, allowing her amusement to tinge her smile. Dimbi was a young woman, Dantu a surprisingly old man, and both were Westerners, probably locals from the area around Ninkabi where Ingvar and his followers had been roaming in the months since the battle. Though Dimbi was visibly uncomfortable in these opulent surroundings, the white-haired Dantu seemed quite at ease, and even intrigued by everything he saw.

“A pleasure,” she said. “And on the subject of beginning a positive relationship, there is the matter concerning which I reached out to you.”

“Yes, indeed,” Ingvar said, his expression sobering. “I confess, Lady Madouri, I was surprised to learn you had involved yourself in this at all. I mean no offense by that, of course. You have been extremely generous, and I thank you for what you’ve done.”

“But you are uncertain about my motives?” she prompted, then smiled gently. “Please, Brother Ingvar, don’t worry, no offense is taken. We are what we are: myself a scheming noble, and you too intelligent not to know a scheming noble when you meet one. I would never be so churlish as to be affronted by a person possessing basic common sense. We have time to delve into my reasons for stepping in; for now, I suspect you must be very eager to meet the Harpies. I know they will be very glad indeed to finally meet you.”

“That is certainly true,” he agreed. “Are they here, then?”

“Not in the city, no; it didn’t seem the wisest place to house them. Rest assured, I have made sure to provide for their safety and comfort. I’ll take you to them now, if you’re amenable.”

“Very much so,” he said, allowing the eagerness to touch his voice.

Ravana smiled again, then half-turned. “Veilwin, take us to the lodge, if you please.”

The sorceress sighed through her nose and swallowed a bite of pastry. “I am almost finished with my pie.”

“You are finished with it,” Ravana corrected. “You may order anything you want from the kitchens later. It’s not as if I don’t feed you. It’s time to work.”

“Ugh.” With ill grace, Veilwin tossed her plate down onto the table and the fork after it, then stood, absently brushing crumbs off her face. “Fine, if you’re in such a damned hurry.”

She strode toward the group, raising one hand as she went, and blue light began to flicker within her eyes. Matching sparks snapped in the air around them, accompanied by a faint whine of gathering arcane energy.

“Uh, hang on now,” Dimbi said nervously, “is she really—”

Veilwin snapped her fingers, the arcane light flashed, and the five of them vanished.


The distant sounds of birds calling from the nearby rainforest were barely audible over the murmur of breeze and the waves. It was a gorgeous day, cloudless and just cool enough that the unimpeded sun did not feel too hot. Such weather was rare, as this was usually the rainy season; it likely wouldn’t last more than an hour or two. From her chosen lounge chair on the beach, she had a view of the wide central bay of the Tidestrider archipelago, with the forest-clad peaks of mountainous islands rising all around the horizon. During the summer months, the lodge she was renting would have housed several groups of the vacationing wealthy, but now the winter chill assured her solitude. The first peace and quiet she’d had in months.

The lounge chairs were arranged in pairs, with low wooden tables between them; she had piled hers with books. Mostly novels, though the volume currently open in her hands was a treatise on bardic archetypes printed in Glassian. Tellwyrn’s eyes had stopped tracking back and forth across the page for the last few minutes; she just held the book up almost like a shield, scowling at it and listening to the crunch of footsteps in the sand steadily encroaching upon her privacy.

“I just can’t get over how warm it is,” Eleanora Sultana Tirasian marveled aloud, setting a tray bearing a pitcher and two glasses on the table next to the book pile and folding herself gracefully into the second lounge chair. “Isn’t this place at more or less the same latitude as Ninkabi?”

“Ocean currents,” Tellwyrn said tersely. “Tropical water comes straight down the west coast from the equator. You’re from Onkawa, there’s no way you don’t know that. You also had to be aware I noted your battlemages porting in all around. This had better be pretty damn good, Eleanora. I am on vacation.”

She finally looked over at her, then raised her eyes in surprise. Tellwyrn was wearing a loosely-fitted kimono, but the Empress of Tiraas, she now observed, had clad herself in a skimpy traditional Tidestrider garment—traditional, at least, in the warmer latitudes to the north—which showed off far more of her dark skin than she ever did in public.

“Yes, Arachne, I know,” Eleanora said with a smug smile. “Terrible vengeance if I disturb it, and so on, and so forth.”

“Do you know how much time off I get a year?”

“Of course I do, the academic year is common knowledge. Do you know how much time off I get a year? None, Arachne. The answer is zero.”

“Oh, yes, your life is so very dreary,” Tellwyrn sneered. “In your extravagant palace, where you spend each night in the arms of a different beauty gathered from across the Empire. My heart bleeds.”

“I only have three regular mistresses at the moment,” the Empress said lightly, pouring tropical punch into both glasses. “Sharidan keeps only four. You know, it’s surprisingly difficult to collect them, even with the resources at our disposal. Women beautiful enough to catch my eye, but also with enough intellect and character to be worth talking to…well, they tend to get jealous and competitive with one another, which we obviously can’t have. There just aren’t that many candidates who meet all the right criteria. A life of power is such a lonely one…”

“You do realize that you being Empress is the only reason you don’t get punched more often, right?”

“Obviously. So, have you heard about the elves?”

“No, and fuck ‘em. Nobody likes elves. Stuck-up pricks.”

Eleanora chuckled. “They’ve announced a unified government. A permanent alliance of Tar’naris, every forest tribe on the continent, twenty-nine participating plains tribes, and Qestraceel.”

“Bullshit,” Tellwyrn snorted. “The drow have been sending out feelers for, what, a year? Two? It’ll take ‘em a century to get even a quarter of that roster off their asses.”

“Yes, that is more or less everyone’s analysis. And yet, they’ve gone and done it. You can imagine the shockwaves this has created.”

“Is this you trying to make small talk due to being unable to discuss anything except politics, or are you actually going to try to convince me to cut short my vacation? Answer carefully, Eleanora.”

“Yes.” The Empress held out one of the glasses to her, smiling slyly. “You know, Quentin suspects you are a high elf.”

Tellwyrn heaved a sigh, and finally slapped her book down on the table, but made no move to accept the drink. She just glared mulishly at the Empress.

“I don’t get to take vacations,” Eleanora repeated, the levity fading from her expression. “And I most especially can’t now, Arachne, not with this crisis unfolding. So consider my position. I do need your help, which means disturbing your cherished peace and quiet. I don’t have the power to compel you, and persuading you means not disturbing your cherished peace and quiet. You see my dilemma?”

“So,” Tellwyrn drawled, “you are going to crash my vacation, because buttering me up is your only viable option, and thus you get to finagle a beach vacation for yourself out of a political disaster. I am, grudgingly, quite impressed.”

“How often do you think doing my duty to the Empire will require me to loaf about in a resort with the single most interesting woman I’ve ever taken to bed?” Eleanora rejoined, the self-satisfied smirk returning to her face. “I can hardly afford to pass up this chance, you see.”

“And what if I just decide to tell you everything I know about the high elves right away? That’s what you’re fishing for, right? I know you don’t think I’m in good with any of the other kinds.”

“Well,” the Empress mused, “I suppose that would be the absolutely ideal outcome for me. And I confess, if you pick this of all moments to be agreeable and compliant for once in your life I will be rather pissed off.”

The elf finally accepted the outstretched glass. “I’m not a high elf, Eleanora. At least, not that I know of. I went to Qestraceel to find out. It didn’t go well.”

“I see. Then…?”

“Yes, I do know quite a bit about them. And in keeping with my general ‘fuck the elves’ policy, I find I’m quite amenable to dishing on them to the Empire. Provided, of course, that I am sufficiently buttered up.” She lay back in the reclining seat, smirking herself and lifting the glass to her lips. A second later, she grimaced. “Eugh. I hate coconut.”

Eleanora shook her head, lounging back in her own chair. “You have got to be the most disagreeable person I’ve ever met.”

“Oh, come on. That’s not even close to true, and you know it.”

The Professor reached out with her glass, the Empress clinked her own against it, and they both gazed placidly out across the waves.

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16 – 2

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“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.

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13 – 49

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“Is he going to be all right?” Raolo asked worriedly, hovering around Oak and the small tanuki cradled in her arms. “I mean, if he made those dents in the brickwork that was a hell of an impact. Should we have moved him? I know if someone has spinal damage it’s very risky—”

“He is a fairy,” the dryad grunted, her irritated tone belying the gentleness with which she had handled Maru. “He’s made of magic, even more than you are, elf. Any physical injuries he gets will mend if given the chance.”

Maru stirred, grimaced, and grasped his head with his paws. “Eeeee-teteteteh…”

“Well, now he’s…ticking,” Addiwyn observed, walking on Oak’s other side. “I’ve no idea if that’s good or bad.”

“I’m glad to see you awake, Maru,” Ravana said from the front of the group. She did not stop walking, but turned her head to speak. “Your aid against that Hand was tremendously appreciated. I am terribly sorry to have left you behind; it was a strategic decision, not a personal one, rest assured. I consider that I owe you for it.”

“Hai, hai,” Maru mumbled, waving vaguely at her. He yawned hugely, displaying rows of needle-sharp teeth, then rolled over in Oak’s arms and snuggled himself into the bemused dryad’s bosom.

“Well,” Addiwyn said with a faint smirk, “and here I’d always heard the Sifanese were famously polite.”

“Tanuki are fairies, after all,” Shaeine replied, absently scratching behind F’thaan’s ears while she walked. “They are polite in the presence of a bigger, more dangerous fairy, and that is about it. With no kitsune on the campus…”

Abruptly, someone materialized on the path in front of them with a shimmer of blue light.

Natchua yelled and hurled a shadowbolt; it impacted empty space in front of the new arrival, the blow causing a spherical arcane shield to become momentarily visible.

“Whoah, cease fire!” the man said, holding up his hands, palms out. He wore an Imperial Army uniform with a Strike Corps insignia in blue. “Friendly! You’re students here, right? Is everyone okay?”

The group paused, studying him warily.

“We are unharmed,” Ravana said after a moment, stepping forward and inclining her head slightly. “With the exception of our tanuki friend, who apparently just needs rest. He is campus staff, as is the lady carrying him; the rest of us are, indeed, students. Please forgive my classmate’s reaction. We have had very bad luck, recently, with uniformed individuals claiming to be acting on orders from the Throne.”

“So I’ve been given to understand,” he said, still holding his hands up. “We’re here to help. Rest assured, my team is acting on the orders of the Throne. The Emperor himself sent us. Major Tavathi of his Majesty’s Strike Corps, at your service.”

“A pleasure, Major,” she replied. “I am Ravana, Duchess of House Madouri.”

“Your Grace.” At her introduction, Tavathi straightened up and saluted. “It’s a relief to find you unharmed—and awake! Can you tell me your situation, please?”

“Can we trust this guy?” Natchua asked, flexing her fingers. “Just because he’s a mage and is wearing a uniform…”

“A fair concern,” Major Tavathi. “Would the rest of my team serve as valid credentials in your eyes?”

“That would be quite adequate, Major,” Ravana said quickly, before Natchua could interject.

Tavathi pointed one finger straight up, and a pulse of blue light shot from its tip, rising twenty yards into the air, where it erupted like a firework.

“What the hell does that prove?” Natchua hissed, rounding on Ravana. “Just because he’s got more people who you just let him signal—”

“There are no analogues for an Imperial strike team,” Ravana said smoothly, “at least not on this continent. The Silver Throne is not gentle in discouraging imitation. And if they are not an Imperial strike team, they will be well within our capacity to demolish.”

At that, Tavathi smiled in clear amusement, but offered no comment.

The group edged backward at the sudden, large swelling of shadow out of nowhere nearby. It receded immediately, revealing three more uniformed soldiers with Strike Corps insignia—in gold, orange, and green, respectively—as well as four men in House Dalkhaan uniforms. One of these fainted on arrival.

“Hey—you can’t just do that!” another squawked. “We’re acting on orders from a bloody Hand of the Emperor! It’s not our fault if—”

“Yes, we know,” the woman with the gold badge said loudly. “Your position is understood, gentlemen. You are not in trouble.”

The team’s warlock shook his head. “Is it mission critical that they not be in trouble? Because unless somebody silences the excuses—”

“Nix the chatter, Weiss,” Tavathi ordered. “I’ve found us what looks like a prime LZ in addition to these locals. Scan and secure this area. Is this satisfactory, your Grace?” he added much more politely to Ravana.

“I believe that will suffice, yes,” she said, having studied the rest of his team while they were talking. “To answer your—”

“Hey!” the boldest of the Dalkhaan guardsmen blustered, stomping forward. “I demand—”

“Shut up,” Tavathi barked at him. The man blinked and actually stepped backward. “My apologies, your Grace. Please, continue.”

“To answer your question,” Ravana repeated, her poise unruffled, “most of the campus’s population is in the Crawl, seeking sanctuary in the Grim Visage. The campus seems to have been under attack by these gentlemen, led by a Hand of the Emperor who appears to have gone renegade.”

“Nonsense!” the Dalkhaan soldier interrupted. “These kids are just…”

Shaeine slipped forward and touched him lightly on the forehead before he could react. The man’s eyes rolled up and he slumped to the ground, unconscious. One of his fellows let out a whimper.

“Thank you!” Weiss exclaimed. Shaeine nodded at him.

“We recently fended off the Hand,” Ravana continued calmly, “and have not seen any soldiers on the uppermost level except those you just brought. There was a Vidian priestess helping him as well. It appears they have all gone to the Crawl to try to extract our classmates.”

“Thank you, your Grace,” Tavathi said, saluting her again. “Team, report.”

“No demonic presence nearby,” Weiss said crisply.

“There’s a dryad and a tanuki in this group, of all things,” the woman with the green insignia added, “but no faeries or fae effects in the vicinity.”

“The region is divine-neutral,” the priestess said. “It seems almost like it as deliberately prepared for a teleportation platform. Given Tellwyrn, that’s not improbable.”

“Very good.” Tavathi pulled what appeared to be a pocket watch from inside his coat and flipped it open; it produced a faint blue glow, though the watch face was hidden from the students by his hand. “Azure One, this is ST39 in the field. LZ secured, ready to port on your signal.”

“Understood, Team 39,” a faintly distorted voice replied from the watch. “Azure One is ready to port, standing by.”

“Incoming.” Tavathi closed his eyes, forehead creasing in concentration. His team moved without orders like precisely engineered dwarven clockwork: the priestess began to glow subtly, directing a gentle stream of divine energy toward Tavathi, where it soaked into the blue spell circle that had spread across the grass from his feet, transmuting divine into arcane power to boost whatever he was doing. The witch and warlock, meanwhile, took up positions flanking them, facing outward and each raising their right hand in preparation to hurl a spell at any threat which might appear.

“Is that a handheld magic mirror?” Addiwyn asked, staring. “I thought that was impossible!”

“Not impossible,” Raolo replied, “just really, really unlikely. You don’t see magic mirrors often because no one’s figured out how to mass-enchant them; they still have to be individually hand-crafted by master enchanters. And they’re fragile because you can’t add any strengthening charms to the glass. So it doesn’t make sense to try to carry one around. But I guess if you’re in the Strike Corps, you’ve got the resources for equipment anybody else could only fantasize about.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty great,” Weiss said cheerfully without looking at them.

“Well, at the least, I guess that’s more evidence they really are Imperial,” Addiwyn said, smirking at Natchua, who just gave her an irritated look.

A faint, crackling hum rose in the air around them, and the group edged away from a spot nearby on the lawn as sparkles of blue light began to manifest there. It was almost half a minute before Tavathi’s spell finished, but finally there came a sharp crackle of displaced air and six Azure Corps battlemages materialized on the campus lawn.

“Tellwyrn is not going to be greatly enthused about this,” Addiwyn murmured, watching them immediately leap into efficient action.

Four of them spread out, defining a region of the lawn which encompassed the groups already present and an adjacent area of empty grass. These were surrounded by faint auras of light, clearly maintaining active shields; rather than watching where they were going, all four had their attention focused upon handheld scrying devices. Once in position at the corners of the space they had claimed, they each faced outward, apparently keeping watch. Meanwhile, the other two set down the hefty backpacks they had holstered and began extracting lengths of metal, crystal, and glass, and quickly fixing them together.

While this was going on, there came another swelling of shadow and a second strike team materialized in the spot where Tavathi had summoned the battlemages. Not wasting a moment on pleasantries, the four of them strode off, keeping in a pristine diamond formation, and began pacing around the outside of the Azure Corps’ perimeter.

“Are we being invaded?” Natchua asked pointedly. “Because I have to tell you, Tellwyrn’s already going to be mad enough…”

“We have our orders,” Tavathi said almost apologetically. Almost. “I can’t say this is going to make Tellwyrn happy, but no, we’re here to help clean up, not take over the campus or anything. I’m not the one in charge here—she’s coming shortly—but as I understand it the plan is to have Imperial interests off the campus and out of everyone’s hair as quickly as can feasibly be done.”

“Hm,” Natchua grunted, folding her arms.

Shaeine had set F’thaan down to romp around her feet during the preceding chatter, but now picked him up again when he set off toward the apparatus the mages were building. The puppy squirmed and yipped excitedly in her arms, but she held him close, whispering soothingly in elvish while watching the Corps work. F’thaan calmed quickly, and even seemed to follow her gaze. It was obvious, by that point, what they were building: a gate. The mages finished attaching the last large power crystals and one tapped a code into the runic console appended to one of its upright pylons.

Light swirled in the center of the doorway, then coalesced into a flat, glowing sheet. Barely a second later, two men in the black uniforms and long coats of the Imperial Guard rushed through, each with a battlestaff in hand and at the ready. Both immediately stepped to the side and took up flanking positions around the gate. They were followed by two more, who joined them, and then a further four who spread out, positioning themselves as far distant in the Azure Corps perimeter as they could go while remaining inside it; once this last four had spread themselves evenly around the edges, they began a steady counter-clockwise patrol of it, moving in the opposite direction as the strike team patrolling outside.

Next came two Hands of the Emperor, wearing familiar black coats; their outfits were identical to the uniforms of the Imperial Guard except they lacked insignia, decoration, or even color of any kind. They were also not visibly armed, not that that meant anything. Both Hands stepped smoothly to the sides, joining the Guards now watching over the gate.

Yet a third strike team emerged through the gate now, in single file with the cleric in front, maintaining a golden shield as soon as he was clear of the arcane portal. They stepped forward and stationed themselves in a square, holding a small region just beyond the gate itself.

“Omnu’s breath,” Raolo muttered, staring at the multiple concentric rings of the Empire’s finest securing a single patch of the cafeteria lawn. “What the hell do you people need all this for? Who’s coming, the Emperor?”

“No,” Tavathi said, now with a grin. “Not quite.”

He and his team all snapped to attention and saluted, and not a moment too soon: seconds later, Empress Eleanora stepped out of the gate and stopped within the third strike team’s space, slowly turning her head to survey the campus with a faintly upraised eyebrow.

Ravana and Shaeine immediately bowed; belatedly, Addiwyn dropped to one knee. Raolo made an astonished gagging noise, and one of the Dalkhaan guards whimpered again.

“Who’s that?” Oak asked. At some point in the last minute, Maru had vanished from her arms and was now nowhere to be seen.

“Report,” the Empress ordered curtly.

“We have secured those of the local troops we found, your Majesty,” Major Tavathi said. “According to these students, they engaged the renegade and he retreated. The rest of the campus’s population is hiding in the Crawl and they believe he has gone there, along with any other personnel he brought. They mentioned a priestess of Vidius.”

“So, Reich is still here,” Eleanora said, narrowing her eyes. “Very good, Major. You two,” she gestured to the nearby Hands of the Emperor, “take Strike Team 34 into the Crawl, find the renegade, and secure him. That is priority one. If possible, safely extract Lorelin Reich, and order any more House Dalkhaan soldiers and anyone else with him to report back here. Team 37.” She paused only momentarily for them to assemble; the strike team pacing around outside the perimeter shadow-jumped all of ten yards to stand in front of her, saluting. “Search the campus and locate any remaining soldiers, and bring them to this location. They are not to be treated as hostile; they believed they were following legitimate orders from the Throne. But if any resist, do keep in mind that Duchess Dalkhaan is not in the Throne’s good graces at the moment.”

The team saluted again, turned, and jogged off down the path deeper into the campus. The two Hands and the other team had already vanished in a crackle of arcane light.

Finally, the Empress turned to the students, and nodded acknowledgment. “Please, rise. It’s a relief to see all of you well, to say nothing of up and about.”

“It is a relief to be so, your Majesty,” Ravana replied. She and Shaeine only straightened when so bid; likewise, Addiwyn had not risen from her kneel until given permission. A round of bemused glances passed between Oak, Natchua, and Raolo.

After all that, the arrival of Arachne Tellwyrn was downright anticlimactic. She appeared in her usual barely-perceptible puff of displaced air, and tilted her head to stare around at the scene over the rims of her spectacles, ignoring the profusion of spells and battlestaves which were suddenly raised in her direction.

“Well. I knew I’d have a mess to clean up when I got back here, but this specific one is a surprise. Madouri, you insufferable little asp, shall I assume from context that my cafeteria has also been half-demolished?”

“No, just my kitchen,” Oak snorted. “Hi, Arachne.”

“Now, why would you assume I—”

“Miss Madouri, you are welcome to think you’re smarter than I am,” Tellwyrn snapped, “but if you speak to me as if you think that, we are going to have a long discussion about manners which you won’t enjoy at all.”

“Enough.” The Empress’s voice was not raised or given emphasis, but it stifled the discussion like a wet blanket over a campfire. She raised one hand in a casual gesture, and only then did the last strike team and Imperial Guard stand down, lowering the weapons they’d aimed at Tellwyrn. Eleanora’s flat stare had never left the archmage. “The situation here is currently under control, no thanks to you, Arachne.”

“Now, listen here—”

“No. For once, you will listen. We are going to have a conversation about these events, right now. Your office.”

“I have—”

“I. Said. Now.”


Peace was famously the central essence of Omnu’s character. In the aftermath of his touch upon the Rock, it continued to hold sway even as the awe of the god’s visit via his paladin began to give way to the practical necessity of cleaning up the aftermath. It wasn’t that the situation lacked any tension; all the parties present had very recently been in a pitched battle, after all. But calm persisted, and not only due to divine intervention. The leaders of the main factions had made themselves present and set a firm example.

Ayuvesh’s deportment around the King and Queen was downright demure, and that, as much as his firm orders to the remaining Rust cultists, ensured their compliance with the Punaji. By the same token, Rajakhan had made it emphatically plain that the conflict was over and no abuse of prisoners would be tolerated. At first, Anjal herself had paced among the soldiers carefully disarming and securing cultists while the King and Ayuvesh watched from a distance, but after some minutes and no outbreaks of tension, she had rejoined them, followed by Ruda.

There were other watchers, anyway. The very Hand of Avei was present with a small squad of Legionnaires. And while it had been made known that the three scruffy young people accompanying her were from the Thieves’ Guild, no one had bothered to mention that they were all just apprentices. Avei and Eserion were the two gods likely to react the most vehemently to any abuse of power; their simple, observant presence was more of a deterrent than any over threat could have been.

Schwartz had occupied himself with Fross; even after the pixie had recovered her glow, she saw fit to perch on his hand, engaging in an animated conversation with her new friend and Gabriel. They made an odd little tableu in one corner of the courtyard, even Ariel being somehow balanced on her tip, blue runes occasionally flickering as she added to the discussion, which had quickly grown both magical and technical.

Vadrieny was perched like a gargoyle atop the gatehouse, along with both Huntsmen of Shaath. The archdemon had made it plain she was watching them, though she didn’t bother to upbraid Arlund for his performance. Brother Ermon seemed to be doing an adequate job of that.

“And now,” Ayuvesh said finally, breaking a long pause, “this has unfolded the way it must, and we should consider the future.” He turned to Ruda, and bowed deeply. “Princess, I beg that you restore the Elixir.”

She raised her eyebrows. “The what?”

“It is…the source. Of all this.” He raised his mechanical hand and pointed to it with his opposite one. “I brought it out of the ancient factory of the Infinite Order in the vessel provided, but after that it was able to reproduce and expand itself. Tiny traces of the Elixir suffuse us, our workings, the technology that keeps us upright. It was your incursion into that old temple which caused it to abruptly cease working today, and forced me to take this drastic action. We might not even have noticed, immediately, but the machines spoke a warning.”

“Oh.” She sighed softly. “That’d be the nanites. Do you even understand what those were?”

“Yes. Tiny machines, each the size of a molecule, working perfectly in concert.” He managed a wry little smile. “We are a religious order, after all; such institutions lend themselves to a certain…grandiosity of speech. That doesn’t mean I do not know what my elegant terms refer to. We need them, your Highness.”

Ruda glanced at her parents, who watched in silence, then back at him. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you. They’re gone now, for good.”

“I…understand your reluctance to extend trust,” he said carefully. “Nothing is more sensible. But please, Princess, understand our position. The Elixir was not merely a source of power and a weapon. We need it. It is the thing which animates our very bodies. Without it, these limbs and attached machines will function for a while…but there is nothing sustaining them, maintaining them. They will break down, and die. The lucky among us will be left merely without working limbs. Some of my people are kept alive by this technology; it serves in place of hearts and lungs, not just arms and eyes. I will accept whatever provisions you must impose as a fair price, but please, we must have the Elixir. Without it, more will die.”

Ruda closed her eyes for a moment, but when she opened them again, her gaze was resolute. “Then I’m sorry, Ayuvesh, but there’s nothing anyone can do. I wasn’t refusing to help; I am telling you that I can’t. We didn’t destroy anything in that facility, just the opposite. We found the machine intelligence the Elder Gods left behind to watch over it, the one your people tormented till he was too crazy to stop you from taking the nanites in the first place. And we repaired him. You understand what that means? The first thing he did when he was awake and lucid again was shut down your…Elixir. But he didn’t tell us that; he said he wouldn’t do it for us unless we helped repair more of his stuff. So we did, and then he admitted he’d tricked us, and said because of the way he’d been treated he had no more trust for mortals and was going to shut all the doors permanently. Then he teleported us to the surface. That guy, or thing, was the only thing that could have restored your nanites, and thanks to you, he is entirely done with people. I don’t think anybody’s ever going to see him again.”

Ayuvesh stared at her for a long, silent moment. Finally, he bowed his head. “I see.”

“I think it would be a mistake to take ancient Elder God thinking machines at their word,” Rajakhan said thoughtfully. “Especially one with a history of insanity. We will, at the very least, send scouts through the tunnels to the entrance and verify that it is closed.”

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed, nodding. “And we can leverage what little knowledge we have of the Elders’ technology to see if we can get it open again—without pissing the Avatar off any further, that is. I wouldn’t put it past that asshole to flood the whole place if he gets any more unwanted visitors. We had to ditch that Imperial spook who was the expert on Infinite Order stuff, and I’ve got a feeling we won’t be seeing her again, either. But Locke knows a bit about it, too.”

“Lieutenant Locke’s mandate is pretty much fulfilled,” Anjal pointed out. “She and her squad will be heading back to Tiraas soon.”

Ruda grinned. “If Locke isn’t feeling helpful, we can have Trissiny lean on her. I bet she’d love to make pointy ears jump through a few hoops.”

“I will, it goes without saying, lend any expertise I and my people have to this endeavor.” Ayuvesh bowed, deeply, to all three of them in turn. “I am very grateful that you would extend this much consideration to me and mine, after all that has happened.”

“You are our prisoners,” Blackbeard rumbled. “The Punaji do not abuse those in their power. Besides, the points you made to us were valid. We have common foes, it is clear.”

“The screamlances are not run by nanites,” Ayuvesh said, meeting the King’s gaze with a slight frown. “I don’t know how long they will function, but they won’t break down nearly as quickly as our more…complex parts. I urge you, your Majesty, to hide them away, and let it be widely known that they have been destroyed. They may provide Puna Dara an edge, some day, when she needs it most. But if Tiraas knows that you are keeping such things…”

“If nothing else,” Rajakhan said thoughtfully, “you will make a perceptive advisor.”

“I will be glad to be of service to my country in whatever way I still can.” Ayuvesh shifted his gaze to watch the Punaji soldiers politely guiding the bedraggled remnants of his cult into the fortress. “For whatever time I may have left.”


“You didn’t come directly here from the zeppelin crash,” the Empress stated once they were alone in the Professor’s office.

“Oh?” Tellwyrn’s tone was disinterested. She strolled around behind her desk and flopped down in her chair with a sigh. “And you think that because…?”

“Timing. Just before I left Tiraas, I received a report that Zanzayed the Blue had teleported himself directly into the main Omnist hospital in the city with nine burn victims in tow. The rest was not hard to piece together, especially in light of his and your rather dramatic departure some hours previously.”

“Zanza did that?” Tellwyrn actually chuckled softly. “Well, well. The old lizard’s getting positively soft-hearted.”

“I guess that makes one of you,” Eleanora said pointedly. “In any case, with the immediate crisis over, we can move on to…supplementary business.”

“Do you plan for this to be a long conversation?” Tellwyrn asked, raising an eyebrow. “Because I’m not absolutely positive it is over. I make a point never to take a thing like that on faith until—”

“Spare me, Arachne. The very fact that you found other business before coming back here goes to show you are, if anything, more confident of this resolution even than I. Would you care, for transparency’s sake, to enlighten me as to what you were up to?”

“Is that an official request, or a personal one?” she asked sweetly.

Eleanora stared down at her without expression.

“Oh, fine,” Tellwyrn said after a pause, again adopting a vague smile. “Actually I did teleport straight here from the zeppelin…just not here here. I checked in on matters in the Crawl first.”

“It is supposedly impossible to teleport in or out of there,” Eleanora said with a sigh. “Though it doesn’t really surprise me to find yet another rule that seems not to apply to you.”

“Quite,” Tellwyrn said smugly. “But…yes, things down there are even stranger than they are up here. Strange, but well in hand. Your agents will find their renegade neatly trussed for pickup and most of his lackeys conveniently on hand to come along.”

“Most?”

At that, Tellwyrn frowned. “There was a warlock helping him, who seems to have vanished. It’s easy enough for them to do, of course, but shadow-jumping out of the Crawl also should not be possible, at least for one not properly attuned. But the Crawl is…under new management, so to speak. Its normal security may have gaps. I will be plugging those quickly, but it seems to have given that one all the opportunity he needed. Anyway, I presume you’ll just be chucking this rogue of yours into an incinerator? After all, there’s not much you can—”

“You really are a monster,” Eleanora said disdainfully. “That rogue of ours has been a devoted and priceless servant of the Throne for years. The trouble he’s caused is due to an attack upon the Hands themselves, from which the Throne failed to protect him. We bear a responsibility.”

“Ah,” Tellwyrn smirked. “In that case—”

“In that case.” Eleanora planted her fists on the desk, leaning over it to glare at her. “The Throne has a responsibility, but the fault for this lies with whoever whisked him away behind some kind of dimensional barrier which prevented him from being restored along with the rest of the Hands! I don’t suppose you’d care to offer any insight into who that was?”

Tellwyrn opened her mouth, then shut it. “Oh. Well, I—”

“You went swaggering around, dealing with the problem right in front of you with the maximum force at your disposal, and giving no thought to the long-term consequences. For a change,” she added with blistering sarcasm.

The elf schooled her expression, folding her hands atop the desk. “I have the sudden feeling we are no longer just talking about the current situation.”

“I did harbor a lot of bitterness for a lot of years, Arachne,” Eleanora said in a lower voice. “I’m sure the whole thing was nothing to you, just a way to amuse yourself and indirectly threaten my father.”

“Your father was the one foolish enough to try to make a political point of attacking my school—”

“And so you picked on his child?”

“Nonsense,” Tellwyrn snapped, suddenly straightening up and bringing their faces much closer together. “I showed up uninvited to his fancy party and was a model guest. For someone who was just castigating me for throwing force around, I should think you’d appreciate the tactic!”

“Oh, quite, you very handily made your point about how little ground he had to stand on. And I’m sure the opportunity to expose and humiliate his confused daughter was just icing on the cake. I am deeply ashamed of how much time I wasted wondering whether you were actually interested, or just planning to use me against him. Or what might have happened if you’d stayed to talk the way you offered to. In fact, I rather owe you thanks for breaking into my rooms the other day; it gave me a minor epiphany. It doesn’t matter what you might have done if you’d stayed, or why you bothered at all.” She leaned forward further, eyes narrowing to slits. “Because I was seventeen, you abominable creep.”

Slowly, Tellwyrn eased back in the chair, and let out a soft sigh. She did not lower her eyes, though. “It was just a little harmless flirting, Eleanora. If I hadn’t been called away, that’s all it was ever going to be. Because you were an adolescent, and I’m an asshole, not an ephebophile. It honestly didn’t occur to me how big a deal it would have been to you…”

“I’m sure,” Eleanora said icily.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “Not that I don’t understand in hindsight. That’s a hell of a vulnerable age… Well, regardless. I am sorry.”

Eleanora tilted her head slowly, studying the elf’s face. “You actually are, aren’t you?”

“Not a good look on me, is it?” the Professor said bitterly. “I suppose it doesn’t matter, anyway.”

“Of course it matters. How much, I can’t say… But it matters. And you aren’t wrong. It was a little harmless flirting, a long time ago. A very minor infraction in the grand scheme of things, which I blew far out of proportion for far too long. It’s left you…a ghost, so to speak, that I need to exorcise.”

Tellwyrn leaned back further in her chair, eyes widening in startlement, as Eleanora smoothly continued forward, actually climbing on top of the desk and bearing down on her with a distinctly predatory glint in her eye.

“Uh…excuse me?” she said incredulously as the Empress rested one hand on the arm of her chair for balance, and boldly grabbed the collar of her vest with the other. She made no move to retreat or push her off, however, just staring in disbelief. “I don’t care what throne you sit on, nobody—”

“If we’re going to discuss the adventures of nobody,” Eleanora said, her voice suddenly falling to a murmur, “I’ve one to add. Nobody turns me down, Arachne.”

“Young woman,” Tellwyrn replied, still not moving, “years of co-ruling the mightiest nation in the world have gone right to your head.”

“It isn’t about power, you blustering fool.” The Empress slid her fingertips along Tellwyrn’s throat, her full lips curling up in satisfaction at the sharp little breath the gesture elicited. Slowly, she slipped her hand around to grasp the back of the elf’s neck. “On the contrary, it’s about knowing who you’re dealing with. No one says ‘no’ to me because I only approach people…who simply aren’t going to.”

Before Tellwyrn could conjure another objection, Eleanora pulled her forward, leaning down to find her lips, and put an end to the conversation.

 

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13 – 29

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After its previous chaos, the darkness and quiet of the fabrication plant was oppressive. It also served to alarmingly magnify the sound of rushing water.

“Looks like something’s still switched on,” Gabriel said, pausing at the bottom of the stairs while the rest of the group crept back in behind him. Indeed, directly ahead, lights still glowed in the central command station. It was the only source of illumination aside from the transparent ceiling, which barely emitted enough sea-filtered light to stand out from the darkness.

“I will go check it out!” Fross chimed, and zipped forward before anyone could stop her. The pixie vanished into the station and the rest of the party watched her silver glow dart around within while they lined up at the base of the metal stairs.

“Wouldn’t your valkyrie friend make a better scout?” Milady murmured. “Undetectable and invulnerable…”

“She’s already looked, says its safe,” Gabriel replied quietly, then grinned. “Fross saves all our butts twice in an average week; I don’t like to discourage her from jumping in.”

“Time is a factor,” Principia said pointedly, glancing at the nearest spout of water, which glistened faintly in the dim glow of the command center, and stepped forward off the stairs and onto the walkway proper.

Before she got any further, Fross returned. “It appears safe!” the pixie reported. “There are still some lights turned on in the machines built into the walls and floor and I couldn’t tell what they do but nothing that was nailed down reacted to my presence. There is something else there, though, some kind of golem, I think. It looks like a trash bin with metal spider arms and one of those little flat display panels for a face, and it makes bell noises almost like me!”

“See!” Juniper exclaimed. “Giant mechanical spider! I told you!”

“Oh, a Caretaker unit,” Milady said eagerly. “That’s good news! They’re meant to look after Infinite Order facilities like the Avatar, but they’re kept separate from the machines and their programming can’t be altered. Poor guy’s probably the only thing holding this place together; we couldn’t ask for better help in fixing it. Come on!”

She set off down the walkway, Principia close behind her. Fross shot ahead again, a silver streak zooming back into the alcove. The rest followed more slowly, peering warily around at the darkness as they went.

Their approach was halted just before the entrance to the command alcove, when a chunk of the machinery within detached itself and moved to sit in the doorway. It was very much like Fross had described: a squat tube on wheels, bristling with multi-jointed mechanical arms and with a single flat panel on the front of its upper segment which glowed with lines depicting a stylized face.

“See!” Fross chimed, zipping back to hover above the golem. It emitted a chiming noise in response, the lines of its “face” altering to form a broad grin. It made unmistakable beckoning gestures with two of its arms and retreated back into the alcove.

“And…you’ve seen those before?” Toby asked warily.

“One,” Milady admitted. “And…it wasn’t turned on. But I’ve had their functions described to me in detail.”

“I’ve seen ’em,” Principia said. “Caretakers are perfectly harmless at worst. They’re designed to be annoyingly friendly and helpful. The Mysterious Stranger here is right, this is a stroke of luck. C’mon.”

She brushed past Milady and stepped into the alcove after the Caretaker golem, leaving the rest to follow.

The platform was octagonal, with entrances on two sides for walkways and walls of glass that sloped outward; it had no ceiling, being open to the roof of the plant itself with its view of the murky seawater above. The original construction seemed to have included transparent panels at waist height, horizontal and slightly angled, which housed the controls. Several of these were knocked out, though, and more machinery had been installed, in a rather haphazard fashion. The additions looked altogether tacked-on and seemed to be the product of a different mind than the clean, glossy aesthetic of the Infinite Order. With moving parts, blinking lights, protruding hoses and wires, they looked rather like things modern dwarves might build, or even the workings of an enchanted factory. These ran along the edges, a couple were installed onto the floor itself, and several extended from the upper edges of the slanting walls to hang overhead. Altogether the whole looked too heavy for this platform to support, but the metal felt as solid beneath their feet as the very ground, not vibrating at all when stepped on.

One entire wall had been knocked out to make room for a flat display which protruded half out into space, and this was the source of most of the light still active. It was a broad, flat table with a three-dimensional map of the middle part of the continent, its geography obvious to those familiar with it, centered on the Golden Sea and with the Wyrnrange, Stalrange and Dwarnskolds forming borders, apparently crafted of solid light. Hovering above this, also formed from light, was a slowly rotating globe. It was difficult to gather around the map because a large gate of some kind had been installed attached to it, little more than an empty metal door frame on a thick base with built-in machinery and control panels. This jutted out into the center of the alcove, taking up much of the available space.

The Caretaker wheeled over to this apparatus and began gesticulating at it and at them with its multiple arms, whistling and chiming urgently.

“Okaaay,” Ruda drawled. “So…it’s a map, and a globe of the world.”

“That’s not the world,” Juniper said. “Look, the continents are all wrong.”

“It’s a world.” Principia slipped past the Caretaker and leaned partly over the map display, peering closely at the planet hovering above the continent. “That’s Earth.”

“I thought this was earth,” Toby said.

“What?” Milady frowned at him. “I’ve never heard it called that.”

“Every word for the world I’ve encountered in any language means some variation of ‘dirt,’ ‘land,’ or ‘home,’” said Fross, now orbiting Earth and casting very odd shadows across its luminous surface. “I guess planets only need names if there’s more than one, otherwise it’s just a constant, like the air or sky. And there aren’t any other planets within sight of our telescopes or astro-scryers, so…”

“Adventurers and their bantering,” Principia muttered. “That is Earth, the planet the Elder Gods came here from, thousands of years ago. Where the human species originated.”

“Okay,” Ruda repeated irritably. “What the fuck is it doing hovering over the Golden Sea?”

“Hey, there’s Last Rock!” Juniper said, pointing to the protrusion of the familiar mountain near the edge of the map.

“It’s their escape hatch.” Everyone turned to stare at Gabriel, who himself was staring off to the side, frowning in concentration in the way he did when relaying words from Vestrel. “It’s… Okay, the thing itself isn’t here, but this gadget is clearly some kind of link to it. Apparently… The Elder Gods were prepared for their experiments here to go badly, so they set up a permanent portal back to where they came from. Except, not exactly there.” He paused, his frown deepening. “It’s…not exactly Earth, but an alternate dimension. That’s what a lot of their technology was based on, traveling between dimensions. It’s how they came to this planet without having to spend years in—Vestrel, do we really need to know that part? Okay, so they opened a portal to this alternate Earth that was almost identical to theirs, at a fixed point in the past where a lot of their favorite myths and stories came from and where the technology was advanced enough they wouldn’t be dealing with ignorant savages, but not so much that the people there could have stood against them. If they had to abandon this planet, they were gonna go there and conquer it.”

“That,” Ruda stated, “is vicious, cowardly, and generally fucking despicable.”

“Sounds about right,” Milady remarked.

“And apparently the gate still works and is still open.” Gabriel transferred his pensive stare to the map display. “And…it is in the center of the Golden Sea, which is what causes the whole region to be spatially unstable. Huh. The things we learn.”

“I am just kicking myself for not spending more time asking Vestrel about the past,” Fross chimed in agitation, now zipping back and forth in midair. “Of course I can’t exactly talk to her but there have to be workarounds there and I didn’t realize how old she is but oh the things she must know!”

“Vestrel would like everyone to know that she’s not an encyclopedia,” Gabriel said wryly. “And also I’m to add to our enigmatic friend here that if she wants to hear long-winded valkyrie explanations, she knows who to ask.”

“Oh, good, that fun conversation isn’t done, then,” Milady muttered. “Something to look forward to.”

“None of which explains what the fuck all this is doing here,” Ruda said loudly. “This place is flooding as we fucking speak, guys. Archaeology later, fixing this shit now!”

“That is a point.” Principia, now frowning deeply, slid out of the group and began prowling around the edges of the alcove, studying the panels. They were active, emitting a faint glow, but displayed nothing but the Infinite Order’s sigil. “We told this thing to reboot, right? I can’t help noticing that nothing is booting up. I realize this place is wrecked, but the central computer was functional enough to talk to us. Should it take this long?”

“You’re asking us?” Juniper exclaimed. “I thought you were the expert! Isn’t that why we brought you?”

“Vestrel recommends percussive maintenance,” Gabriel reported. “If that means what it sounds like, I have…doubts.”

The Caretaker began chiming loudly. As they all turned to stare, it backed up to the far edge of the alcove, and then retracted all its metal arms until just the clawed grabbing mechanisms from each protruded from its central body.

“Um,” Juniper said hesitantly, “what’s it doing—”

She broke off as the golem suddenly burst into motion, charging across the alcove to slam its body against the side of the metal gate. It rebounded, chiming in agitation, and toppled over; Toby reflexively dived to catch it, and then yelped and was borne to the floor under the golem, whose weight he had clearly underestimated.

“Oh, that’s grand,” Ruda exclaimed. “I thought you said that thing would be helpful!”

Suddenly, all the lights in the room flashed, and the panels turned red. A hum rose in the air as technology came to life around them. Everyone froze, though moments later Juniper un-froze at Toby’s grunt and resumed heaving the Caretaker off him.

“I am not going to say that,” Gabriel muttered into the tense silence which followed. “If you want to tell people you told them so, get somebody else to summon your spooky ass.”

The oddly resonant, feminine voice from the panels outside suddenly spoke, though not comprehensibly. Several of them jumped in surprise, while the rest just frowned at the unintelligible jabbering.

“I recognize some of those syllables,” Fross said thoughtfully.

“You’re doing better than I am,” Toby grunted, brushing himself off. The Caretaker chimed apologetically at him, extending an arm tipped with an actual brush to help.

“Is this…progress?” Principia asked.

Milady cleared her throat. “Computer, set language to—”

“Dialect identified,” the computer’s voice declared from all around them. “English, North American, twentieth century. Warning: there are multiple leaks emitting seawater. The facility’s structural integrity is below seventy percent and in danger of collapsing from water pressure. Warning: the Avatar governing intelligence has suffered catastrophic corruption and cannot be safely booted in its current state. Warning: there has been a category one security breach resulting in nanite contamination of the planet’s surface. Warning: this facility is flooded. Warning: widespread damage to the facility has reduced the production capacity of this fabrication plant below twenty-five percent. This facility’s condition is beyond critical. Multiple immediate actions are urgently necessary.”

“No shit!” Ruda exclaimed. “How the fuck do we fix this?!”

“Uh, computer!” Fross said loudly. “What course of action do you recommend to begin repairs?”

“That’s what I just said,” Ruda growled.

“The major repairs necessary will require the guidance of this facility’s Avatar.”

“But the Avatar’s broken!” Principia exclaimed. “That’s the whole damn problem, you hunk of—”

“A fresh iteration of the Avatar can be loaded,” the computer informed them. “Corruption resulted from the installation of unapproved equipment, which can be removed with the Avatar’s guidance. Recommendation: the extant iteration of the Avatar program should be isolated behind firewalls and left inert, and a new iteration loaded from the last stable restore point to oversee repairs. It should be possible to complete repairs before the Avatar becomes too corrupt to function, and then either debug its program or load another fresh iteration.”

The computer stopped talking, and they all peered around at each other in varying degrees of confusion.

“Did you guys follow any of that?” Toby asked.

“I think so,” said Fross. “If I understand correctly, it sounds like sense.”

“Yes, actually,” Milady said slowly. “I think that would work.”

“Vestrel agrees,” Gabriel added. “Okay, then, if there are no objections? Then I think you’re still nominally the voice of Naiya here, Juno. Care to do the honors?”

“I, uh…” The dryad shrugged fatalistically. “Oh, why not. Computer thingy! Do the…stuff you just said. The plan. The iterations and loading and all of it.”

A musical chime sounded from the air around them, and a circular image appeared on all the surviving screens, slowly cycling down.

“What was that, now?” Ruda demanded.

“Two ascending chimes is an affirmative acknowledgment,” said Milady. “It’s doing it. So now, I guess, we wait…”

And then the screens cleared, and patterns of light appeared all around them in the air. From one rose a three-dimensional, translucent projection of the bald man in tight purple clothing. Unlike his previous appearance, he was calm and composed in aspect, smiling slightly at them with his hands folded.

The Caretaker began chiming in delight, brandishing its arms victoriously overhead.

“Greetings,” his resonant voice said soothingly from the machines all around. “Welcome to Fabrication Plant One. I am Avatar Zero Two, the governing intelligence of this facility. And… I am extremely embarrassed.”


“Are you seriously going to stand there doing drugs?”

“You should try some of this, Eleanora,” the Emperor said with a smile and a hint of mischief.

“I will not,” she said scathingly.

“There’s barely enough coffee in here to be detectable,” he said, taking another sip and ignoring her growl. “It’s mostly milk, sugar, whipped cream and…some kind of syrup. This is basically a warm mug of dessert.”

“It’s called a Tiraano, your Majesty,” Underminister Shanaar said tremulously. A mousy woman with large spectacles and a habit of holding her thick folder of paperwork before herself as if she could hide behind it, she was clearly overwhelmed at presenting her report to the Imperial couple in person. “It’s… Ah, that particular one is from La Chez, a Glassian cafe which has pioneered artisanal coffee in the city. I have procured samples from six other establishments if you wish to try—”

“That will not be necessary,” Eleanora said frostily, and Ms. Shanaar cringed, shuffling surreptitiously behind her cart of warming mugs. The rich scents of coffee, cream, and flavored sugar filled the room headily, drifting from the steam her “samples” emitted.

Sharidan gave Eleanora a reproachful look, and she repressed a sigh, but deliberately moderated her expression. He was right; there was nothing to be gained by bullying hard-working public servants just doing their jobs as ordered.

Shanaar cleared her throat and began shuffling papers pointlessly, lowering her eyes to them. “Yes, well, um, your Majesties… As you can see for yourselves… Or, uh, not, if you prefer… Most of the uses of coffee in the city’s upscale cafes are relatively harmless. The flavor of the raw stuff is quite unpalatable and the upper class don’t seem to take to it without heavily mixing it with more, ah, wholesome ingredients. The temperance movement is targeting them mostly because the rich are usually the source of major social impetus. My report clearly indicates the only potential public health risk is from the less-common uses of the drink in its purer form, which is beginning to catch on among the working class. The Thieves’ Guild has begun to make institutionalized use of it, and it’s increasingly popular among factory workers… Actual risks are uncertain, we haven’t linked coffee to specific diseases. It simply grants a rush of energy when consumed. The, uh, long-term effects… There’s just no data, yet. We need time to study. It will take years to know the full implications.”

“The short-term effects are already known,” Eleanora said brusquely. “And this is beginning to grow popular in the city?”

“The first coffee crops planted on the continent have been harvested, processed, and distributed,” Shanaar said timidly. “Not much yet, but it’s a start. They’re out in the Onkawa highlands, the only region with the right climate in the Empire. With that, the price has suddenly dropped, and… That is, yes, your Majesty. My department has recorded a nearly four hundred percent increase in use over the last five years. That began from negligible numbers, of course, but still. Coffee is still much less popular than alcohol or glittershrooms, but it is catching on.”

“It seems simple enough to me, then,” Eleanora said, turning her disapproving stare back on her husband, who continued to sip appreciatively at his mug of the drug under discussion. “We add it to the list of proscribed narcotics and begin issuing exemptions for establishments that want to sell it, just like alcohol or opium. We silence those temperance harpies and gain a new source of revenue…”

“We can’t do that, your Majesty.”

Shanaar quailed at Eleanora’s cold stare.

“Can’t?”

“Th-the active ingredient is called caffeine,” the Underminister sputtered. “I-it is also the source of th-the stimulant properties of tea and ch-chocolate. If the government declares it a health hazard, entire industries will be massively disrupted, channels of trade—”

Quentin Vex suddenly strode into the room; the Hand of the Emperor standing discreetly in the corner looked at him but did not otherwise move, indicating he detected no threat. Vex stepped to one side of the door and coughed softly into his fist.

“Underminister,” the Emperor said smoothly, “you will please excuse us. Thank you for your report; we will finish this meeting at a later time.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Shanaar squeaked, pressing her folder to her chest and scurrying gratefully out. Vex shut the door behind her.

“Well?” Eleanora demanded.

“Tellwyrn, Vadrieny, and the Sleeper were all in the city a few minutes ago,” the spymaster said immediately. “Fortunately, that ended as well as it possibly could have. Tellwyrn bound the warlock—the Masterson boy—from using magic, then allowed Vadrieny to abduct him. She headed off in the direction of Tar’naris with him in tow.”

“Well, that’s one way to resolve that,” Sharidan murmured. “Narisian justice might be exactly what that little beast deserves.”

“Further,” Vex continued, “I have addressed the issue of the traitors by informing Tellwyrn of their probable destination.”

“I suppose that means we won’t be getting that airship back,” Eleanora said sourly. “Really, Quentin, you usually prefer a lighter touch.”

“Desperate times, your Majesty.”

She shook her head. “And the situation in Last Rock?”

“Is under control. She did not mention it.”

The Empress narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean, she didn’t mention it?”

“Just that, your Majesty. She made no reference to the renegade Hand on site. Thanks to Fedora’s appeal to his surviving connections in the city, we know she must be aware. That she did not request further help with the matter tells me she is addressing it. As I said before, your Majesties, Tellwyrn putting him down is an optimal outcome. She has nothing to gain by exposing Imperial secrets or using them as leverage against us.”

The Hand present glanced at him again, then resumed his ceaseless survey of the room.

“Unless Fedora is working against her, as well?” Sharidan suggested.

Vex shook his head. “If there is one child of Vanislaas I trust not to bite the hand that feeds him, it’s Fedora. He only turned on us because he had neared the end of his usefulness to the Throne, I would soon have needed to get rid of him, and he is too intelligent not to discern those facts. Tellwyrn can keep him busy potentially forever. No, I rather expect she’ll find Murgatroyd a surprisingly loyal agent. More than any of his kind I’ve encountered, he desires stability. Further, we have independent confirmation from Colonel Azhai that she warned Tellwyrn to the best of her ability. She and Reich both smelled a rat, but Azhai toed the line. Reich was willing to defy the renegade Hand’s direct orders to get back in touch with Intelligence. I suspect the Archpope’s influence there.”

“And she didn’t mention this.” Eleanora turned to stare at the window, frowning deeply in thought.

“Nora,” Sharidan said quietly, finally setting down his absurd coffee-laced beverage, “I have never pried into this, but you haven’t exactly made it a secret that you’ve got some personal grudge with Tellwyrn. Be mindful of your bias, here.”

“You’re right,” she said, then returned her stare to Vex, noting for the first time that he looked physically haggard. The man had apparently not slept in two days. “Quentin, in your professional opinion, what is the error in judgment Arachne Tellwyrn is most likely to make?”

He hesitated only momentarily before replying. “She is rather prone to overestimating herself, your Majesty. So…your point is taken. That Tellwyrn believes the situation in Last Rock to be under her control does not necessarily mean it is so.”

“What, specifically, do we know of the situation? Beyond the presence of the renegade Hand and his intentions?”

“…little, your Majesty. He has recruited Reich and several local civilians. With the departure of the zeppelin in that direction we can assume someone in the Archpope’s conspiracy has knowledge of these matters and an interest in intervening. We do not know his exact plans or timetable. I have dispatched agents to investigate, but it will take time for them to get in position. And there is also the inherent danger of irritating Tellwyrn.”

“Damn Tellwyrn and her precious little feelings,” Eleanora barked. “She lost control of one of her students, who has cause a major crisis with that hellgate, assaulted Narisian diplomats and apparently was just in the capital. Quentin, can your people penetrate her wards on scrying and teleportation?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” he said warily. “In theory. But…so doing will, of course, provoke a response. She’ll strengthen the wards and it will be that much more difficult the next time. With Tellwyrn, that could very quickly make them impenetrable, even to us. Again, I prefer not to poke at—”

“Sharidan.” She turned to the Emperor. “Am I overreacting?”

“You’re reacting more personally than usual,” he said, meeting her gaze. “But…no, Nora. I think you’re right; the combination of the Sleeper, the conspiracy, and an apparent connection to Justinian’s plots, plus our own renegade, and you’re right. I believe the time for the hands-off approach has ended. Quentin.” He turned back to the spymaster. “I want you to shift every scryer you can spare to punch through those wards. Find out what is happening in Last Rock, in detail.”

“And,” Eleanora added, “have mages standing by to teleport troops on site.”

“Now that may be too much,” Sharidan warned.

“Invading the University in force would be a disaster,” she agreed, “as I bet the renegade is about to learn. But if what we learn from scrying indicates that the situation there is as out of control as I fear, we should be ready to move in support of the Professor. A small force, comprised of specialists.”

“Very good,” the Emperor agreed, nodding. “Put a strike team and a squad of the Imperial Guard on standby, but do not deploy anyone without our express order. I’ll want your report on the situation on the ground ASAP, Quentin.”

Vex, in defiance of both his customary demeanor and all formal protocol, heaved a heavy sigh. “Yes, your Majesties. Your will be done. I will see to it immediately.”

Then, while they watched in bemusement, he stepped forward, picked up one of the steaming cups of coffee from Shanaar’s tray, and took it with him as he strode out to make the arrangements they had ordered.

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Bonus #21: Heavy is the Head, part 4

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“Are you sure this is an Izarite temple?”

It didn’t look like any kind of temple; the structure only stood out from its neighbors by the lack of a sign advertising what went on inside. This area was all business, mostly of the sort that catered directly to the public. The three-story stone edifice in front of them was slightly narrower than those flanking it; if anything, it looked like a medium-sized townhouse, though it was unlikely anyone who could afford such a residence would prefer to have it around here.

“As sure as I am that you’re asking out of sheer tension, and not as a dig at my intelligence,” Sharidan said without turning around. He lifted his fist and rapped sharply on the door again.

Eleanora snuck a glance over her shoulder. The crowd was approaching—slowly, reminding her more of a predator on the prowl than one which was closing on prey it had sighted. Still a predator, though. She knew very well how dangerous a mob was; whether or not they were looking for the Crown Prince or had any idea he was around, the fact that the two of them were clearly trying to get away could be enough to set them off, to judge by the blur of angry voices.

“Hurry up,” she muttered.

“Oh, yes, of course,” Sharidan said scathingly, turning to give her a look. “Forgive me, I’ll knock faster.”

He raised his hand to do so, but before it struck wood, the heavy door suddenly opened inward.

The man who stood in the doorway practically filled it. He made Eleanora think of a Stalweiss chieftain with modern attire and grooming; he was tall, broad-shouldered and powerfully built, square-jawed and handsome, his goatee neatly trimmed and dark brown hair only beginning to show flecks of silver at the temples and chin.

“Your Grace,” Sharidan said in a tone of clear relief.

The Bishop’s gray eyes flicked past him at the crowd approaching up the street, then widened slightly, and immediately he stepped backward out of the door. “Come in, please.”

They hardly needed to be asked.

“There’s a bit of a story behind this,” Sharidan began as Bishop Darnay carefully shut the door behind them.

“I will listen to anything you wish to share,” the Bishop said, pausing to shift a curtain aside from one of the narrow windows flanking the door and peer out, then turned to give them a smile. “But I see an apparent mob forming, and two people seeking shelter. That tells me all the story I need. We in Izara’s service are well accustomed to protecting the privacy of all who come to us.”

The prince cleared his throat softly, then grasped the silver ring on his finger and pulled it off, reverting to his normal appearance.

Apolitical as the Izarites tended to be, a Bishop was accustomed to exercising self-control, and Justinian Darnay betrayed startlement only in the sharp rise of his eyebrows, then almost immediately marshaled his expression. “I…see. That story must be more interesting than I’d first thought, though the same terms apply; you are safe here and I’ll ask nothing more personal than you feel the need to reveal.” He glanced at Eleanora, only the look itself betraying any curiosity, but true to his word did not pry. “If I am not mistaken, there was a demonstration by the Voters a few blocks over…”

“This appears to be them, yes,” Sharidan said, nodding and slipping the ring back on. “I have no reason to think they know who I am or even that I am out…but then, I don’t understand how this even happened. The military police would be watching a Voter rally like hawks. This should not be so out of hand.”

“It is my experience that unlikely things rarely happen unless made to,” Darnay replied, eyes narrowing in thought. “This is troubling. I hope you have some sort of protection coming? This structure is not designed to be defensible.”

“Intelligence will be closing in,” Sharidan replied. “As soon as they locate me, the Azure Corps will extract us.”

“Ah. Good.” The Bishop nodded, allowing himself a soft sigh of relief. “Then we need only wait, and hopefully not for long.”

“We are very sorry to involve you in this, your Grace,” Eleanora said.

He held up a hand, smiling at her. “You have nothing to apologize for, young lady. This is not a temple proper, but it is sacred to my goddess, and I am her priest. Any who need sanctuary here may claim it, and I will protect them to the utmost of my ability. I involved myself when I took my oaths, and no one else is responsible.”

They all paused as the roar outside swelled. Through the curtains, the light wavered as sources of illumination were brandished.

“Where did they even get torches?” Eleanora muttered.

Darnay had stepped back to the window and glanced out again. “Hm. They have stopped directly outside.”

She clasped Sharidan’s hand again. “Of course they have.”

“Anger, fear…unfocused.” Darnay’s voice had dropped to a murmur. “They were clearly provoked, but are not…controlled. I am fairly confident that this crowd is not hunting for you or anyone in particular, your Highness.” He released the curtain and turned back to them with a grave expression. “That grants us insight into the nature of the danger, I warn you, but does not necessarily lessen its degree. Rare is the mob that does not result in someone being hurt.”

“Bless Izara and her gifts,” Sharidan said.

The Bishop smiled, but even as he opened his mouth to reply, sharp crackles sounded in the room, accompanied by blue flashes. No less than four battlemages appeared, and immediately flowed into a formation around the prince.

“Stand down,” Sharidan barked at the one who had leveled a wand at Darnay. “That is a Bishop of the Universal Church, who just sheltered us!”

“I’m very relieved to hear that,” stated Quentin Vex, who had materialized while he was speaking. The agent bowed politely to the Bishop, who nodded in reply. “The thanks of the Throne, your Grace. At a less urgent moment, a more substantive show of gratitude—”

“Please.” Justinian held up a hand again. “One does not enter the priesthood with the expectation of reward. I share your relief, sir. Now that the prince and his companion are presumably safe, I will try to address that crowd.”

“I strongly advise against that, sir,” Quentin warned. “The situation is inherently unstable.”

“Precisely,” Darnay replied, “and when the troops get here, it will become more so before they can restore order. A mob is not a colony of lichen; it is people. Their fear and anger is individual, and often reminding them of that is enough to defuse incipient violence.” He had moved back to the door, but paused with his hand on the latch. “Please forgive me for making this terse, but the sooner his Highness is removed from the area, the better.”

“I have to concur,” Quentin replied. “Once again, our deepest thanks. And now, you two have an audience with her Majesty.”

“Excuse me, what?” Eleanora said in alarm. “Surely you don’t mean me as well.”

“I’m afraid I do, my lady.” It was an oddly touching moment; the look of commiseration he gave her showed the first open sentiment Quentin had directed at her personally. “Her Majesty’s explicit, personal orders.”

“Oh, bollocks,” Sharidan muttered. Not even the squeeze he gave her hand made that comforting.

“Gentlemen, take us out,” Quentin ordered. Before Eleanora could say anything else, the world dissolved in an arcane flash.


Empress Theasia’s personal chamber was large, but not excessively opulent. It was dim at four in the morning; the Empress had not seen fit to ignite any of the fairy lamps, but a servant had stoked the fire to provide them enough illumination to converse. Altogether, had Eleanora not known they were in the harem wing of the Imperial Palace, she could have taken this for the bedroom of someone about her own rank, if not less.

Theasia herself was a handsome woman with graying hair drawn back in a severe bun, and rectangular spectacles perched on her nose which were not often in evidence in her public appearances. In fact, this woman looked almost startlingly unlike Eleanora’s recent recollections of her. She had never been this close before, but she remembered a woman as regal in her attire as in bearing and surroundings. Now, Theasia wore a plush robe, and was seated in a simple wooden chair with a quilt covering her lap, and over that, a tray upon which rested a small tea service. Altogether the whole arrangement made her seem almost…frail. Certainly older than her forty-seven years.

Of course, Eleanora herself was in an open-collared shirt and trousers, with her hair awkwardly tousled and feet not only bare, but filthy from running on the city streets. The comparison, she was painfully aware, did not favor her.

She made them wait in silence while fixing her tea the way she liked it. Even being aware of that transparent tactic, Eleanora could not help being affected by it, and tried to blunt the induced nerves by focusing on details, imagining she was gathering data for some potential political purpose. One never knew what might prove useful. The Empress, she noted, used cane sugar rather than honey in her tea. Unsurprising given her position, but after Mary the Crow’s infamous decimation of the plantations in Onkawa, sugar was a rather grandiose affectation—

“So,” Theasia said suddenly, and Eleanora loathed herself and the Empress both for being made to jump, “how did you enjoy meeting the next Archpope?”

They stared at her blankly.

“Ah, yes,” the Empress said, fractionally lifting one eyebrow. “You two have been everywhere except church, I suppose. Archpope Allaine has announced her upcoming retirement. Just tonight—well, last night, technically. Late in the evening, as the day came to a close, so much of the city is not even aware, yet, and won’t be till the morning papers are printed.”

“If the Bishops are to elect a new Archpope,” Sharidan said slowly, “the last I heard, Sebastian Throale was considered the favorite…”

“There is an interesting pattern of events unfolding in my city,” Empress Theasia said, and paused to take a sip of her tea. “Most interesting. A populist movement rising in the streets—well-funded and organized, and in contrast to the usual pattern of such things, emerging in the absence of a general public unrest. House Turombi has moved to the capital and been busy making a public spectacle of itself. Declarations by the orcish clans that their vendetta against Tiraas shall never be forgiven are being granted a purely odd amount of attention in the papers, and the rumor mill in general. It’s not new, and it’s not as if they can even leave Sifan, but suddenly everyone finds this fascinating. There is tension between the Colleges of the Collegium of Salyrene, tensions between the cults, tensions between the traditional bards and the new forms of media. Seemingly unprompted public debate about the impotence of Imperial power in Viridill, how the province is a province in name only. Recent actions by Houses Aldarasi and Madouri, individually petty flexings of muscle serving to remind the Throne that they are still a power to be respected. Unrest in the Stalwar provinces, this time coupled with public support for reforms in the treatment of the Stalweiss. You see?”

Eleanora frowned. Pattern? That was a random sampling of current events, none of it connected…

Sharidan, though, was quicker on the uptake than she, this time. “The Enchanter Wars,” he breathed. Theasia smiled very faintly, inclining her head in the tiniest nod. He caught Eleanora’s eye and explained. “Houses Turombi and Tirasian butting heads, Houses Aldarasi and Madouri asserting power, public revolts, bards stirring the pot, orcish aggression, a Salyrite schism…”

“The Sisterhood asserting independence,” she said, catching on. “The Stalweiss rising up… Yes, those were the factional ingredients of the Enchanter Wars! But…I still don’t see what the connection is…”

“The rhetoric is already starting,” Theasia said, taking another sip. Eleanora would have killed for some tea… “The need for restoration of order, this being no time for rash action. Don’t forget that the major cause of the Enchanter Wars, the catalyst of all those lines of conflict, was the last Hand of Salyrene. Magnan built the Enchanter’s Bane, his pressure upon the Silver Throne caused both the crackdown on witches and the deployment of the Bane on Athan’Khar. His private war on fae magic tore his cult apart and the Universal Church with it. No, with all this going on, the prospect of an Archpope Sebastian is all but gone. The Bishops will not elect a Salyrite in this climate.”

“It seems rather…tenuous,” Eleanora said doubtfully.

“Did you learn nothing from your brush with the Voters?” Theasia asked scathingly. “This is what elections are. People are irrational creatures, and nothing squelches their reason like encouraging them to make decisions in large groups. Democracy is nothing but rule by whoever has the best propaganda, even in a venue as small as the Bishopric.”

“But Mother,” Sharidan asked, frowning, “what does all of this have to do with the Izarite Bishop?”

The Empress sipped her tea. “We cannot yet link him to anything criminal, but Justinian Darnay was the direct impetus for far too many of those factors. He is your father’s special correspondent, Eleanora. The one who planted the idea of coming to Tiraas to angle for prestige. He has a similarly cozy relationship with the Sultana of Calderaas and the Duke of Madouris; Darnay is altogether uncommonly interested in having noble friends for an Izarite. He also is fond of reaching across the aisle to support the initiatives of other cults—such as the Avenists and Veskers suddenly asserting themselves. He’s even spoken in public of the need for mourning and ongoing repentance for the cataclysm of Athan’Khar. He also tried to involve other players who would be reminders of the Enchanter Wars, though King Rajakhan proved too intelligent to let himself be drawn into Imperial politics, and Arachne Tellwyrn ignored his overtures, if she noticed them at all. Bless that woman’s staggering arrogance, if it serves to keep her out of my city.”

“I…see,” Sharidan said slowly. “That is certainly suggestive, Mother. But how does it result in him being elected Archpope?”

“I don’t know, Sharidan,” Theasia replied. “What I know is that he arranged all this without me even noticing that he was doing it until Allaine dropped her little surprise, and the pattern suddenly became clear. Justinian Darnay used to be an adventurer, did you know that? A healing cleric of the classic style, traveling with groups of heavily-armed nomadic malcontents. There was a period of fourteen years in which there is no record of where he was, or doing what. Talking to whom. And ever since, he has perfectly played the innocuous, apolitical, universally compliant Izarite—which quite incidentally has gained him more favors and friends than practically any of the other Bishops.”

“Who are the other likely prospects?” Eleanora heard herself ask.

The Empress gave her an unreadable look over the lenses of her spectacles. “At present? Only the Bishops of Avei, Eserion and Vidius are positioned with the will and the political clout to oppose such an upset.”

“There has never been an Eserite Archpope,” Sharidan protested.

“And there never will be,” Theasia agreed. “Grasping for power is against their religion. By the same token, however, Eserites can often be counted upon to thwart those who do reach for power—sometimes just on general principles. But in this case, internal politics of the Guild make it unlikely. The new Boss seems motivated chiefly to prove how much more amiable he is than Boss Catseye was; Sweet won’t stir the waters unless he sees a specific and pressing need. Ironically, Bishop Vaade is one of his predecessor’s appointees, the kind of uncharacteristically well-behaved lapdog Catseye favored. Vaade won’t so much as scratch her nose without the Boss’s order, which will not be forthcoming.”

“Bishop Tannehall would make a fine Archpope,” Eleanora said thoughtfully.

“The Archpope is elected,” Theasia said in a biting tone. “How good they would be at the job is not a consideration; it comes down to an impossible calculus of the whims of everyone involved. And there, again…internal politics. High Commander Rouvad is new to her position, and was elevated from the Silver Legions rather than the clergy. She lacks both experience and connections in politics, and relies heavily on Tannehall—who, herself, is not an ambitious woman. Neither of them would want Tannehall to be elected.”

“Which leaves Bishop Maalvedh,” Sharidan said, folding his hands behind his back. “I should think she would be a contender, if anyone. Am I about to have my ignorance explained to me yet again, Mother?”

Theasia actually smiled at him, and sipped her tea again before answering. “Gwenfaer Maalvedh is ambitious, devious, and as two-faced as only a Vidian can be in good conscience. She would love nothing more than to become Archpope, and more than anyone I would think has the will and the means to make that happen. Now that Throale’s justly-earned reputation for wisdom and neutrality has been rendered moot.” She paused to sip again. “And I have begun investigating Justinian Darnay because Maalvedh nominated him immediately upon Allaine’s announcement.”

“You might have begun with that,” Eleanora said, forgetting herself. “Leaving it for the end makes for fine dramatic effect, but not much in the way of accuracy.”

The Empress’s steely gaze fixed on her. “Have you given much thought to how very easily I could have you charged with treason after tonight’s events, girl?”

“That is not going to happen, Mother,” Sharidan said evenly before Eleanora could even open her mouth.

“Oh?” If anything, Theasia seemed amused. “Testing your will against mine has never gone well for you in the past, Sharidan.”

“I have only fought you over things I wanted, Mother,” he said quietly. “Not something that mattered. Eleanora is the closest friend I have, and saved my life tonight. She is one of very, very few people in this city whom I trust without reservation. Try to make a scapegoat of her, and we will both learn how much I’ve grown since I was fifteen and wanted to spend a holiday in Puna Dara.”

They locked eyes, both in apparent calm. Eleanora hardly dared take a breath.

Finally, the Empress set her teacup down on the lap tray. “You certainly think well of yourself, young man. I give you due credit for the various noblewomen you’ve seduced. Particular felicitations on bagging Duchess Arauvny; I honestly thought she was as gay as your little playmate, there.”

“I am no one’s little anything,” Eleanora snapped, lifting her chin, “and I have had enough of this. If you intend to punish me for something, be about it. I will not stand here and be insulted by a crotchety old woman who has all the power in the world and still feels the need to bully her lessers!”

Sharidan had met the Empress’s will without flinching, but now stared at Eleanora in open horror. Theasia, though, simply gave her a calm glance before continuing as though there had been no interruption.

“Every other woman you’ve had since you were fourteen, however, was in the employ of the Imperial government, and serving to help keep an eye on you. The twins, tonight? Agents of Imperial Intelligence. I vetted them myself.” Smiling faintly, she picked up her teacup again, but did not drink. “Only the best for my little prince.”

Sharidan, after a long pause, finally shut his mouth. Then he turned to Eleanora and said with nonchalance that was only slightly forced, “And no, this is not the most awkward conversation I have ever had with my mother. Not even the top ten, frankly.”

“You have never been out from under my eye,” Theasia continued, her tone growing firmer. “Quentin Vex has dogged your steps for years, Sharidan, and you’ve never given him the slip for more than ten minutes at a time—such as tonight, when you nearly flung yourself into a mob. He has let you have your fun, because those were his orders. And for the gods’ sake, when you are Emperor, give him more responsibility. The man is a treasure, and being shamefully wasted as a nursemaid.”

The prince swallowed heavily. “I…see. Are you going to make me ask the obvious question?”

“Play is the duty of children,” Theasia said, and quite suddenly she looked tired, the cup drooping in her fingers. “We learn more about living from youthful games than from books or teachers. My father made sure I had time to grow…to live. A person who grows up confined to a palace cannot know what the lives of his subjects are like, and that is a recipe for a dangerously terrible leader. A person who grows up knowing nothing but duty may possess self-discipline, but little self-awareness. You must be you before you can be an Emperor. And yes, letting you challenge the boundaries of my authority under discreet supervision was the best possible training at some of the skills you will need to rule. It was…a calculated risk.”

“You left him terrifyingly vulnerable,” Eleanora breathed.

“Oh, look who has suddenly discovered responsibility.” To her astonishment, the Empress smiled at her. “The same goes, Eleanora. And you, young lady, continue to impress. You can bend your pride and accept chastisement when necessary, but know enough of your worth not to tolerate senseless abuse—even from power far above your own. That was where I would have drawn the line, as well—though you should not have snapped. Maintain composure while asserting yourself, girl, or you look like a petulant child, which you cannot afford. I am exceptionally glad you two found each other, for a great many reasons.” Her gaze shifted back to Sharidan, and softened further. “Tonight marks a change. In you, and in the political climate due to the upcoming transition of Archpopes. I have given you all the time I can, my son. Now, you have to grow up, and learn that even with the wealth of an Empire at your fingertips, the two things of which you will never have enough are time, and yourself.”

There was a heavy silence, in which the Empress finished off her tea, and set down the cup again.

“To begin with,” she said, suddenly more brisk, “you two will be married as soon as it can be arranged without scandal.”

They both twitched.

“Ah, Mother…”

“It’s not that I am not honored…”

“Oh, shut up,” Theasia ordered disdainfully. “No law says you have to share a bed; you can exchange one kiss at the ceremony without vomiting on each other, surely. Uniting Houses Tirasian and Turombi will heal one of the last lingering breaches of the Enchanter Wars; placing his scion upon the Swan Throne will shut Alduron’s mutterings up good and proper. Much, much more importantly, Sharidan, the girl is your best friend. She’s clever and determined enough to be a very valuable ally, and the value of having someone at your back whom you can both trust and rely on cannot be overstated. You will need to produce heirs, but they don’t particularly have to come from your wife. She’s the only one entitled to raise an objection if you place a bastard upon the Silver Throne, and I trust that won’t be an issue.” The Empress shot Eleanora a distinctly sardonic look. “Honestly, the fact that one of you turned out gay is what makes this perfect, as opposed to merely fortuitous. Asking you two tomcats to be sexually faithful to each other would be an open invitation to future scandals the Throne does not need.”

They both refused to meet each other’s eyes, or hers.

The Empress heaved a sigh. “I’ll give you a space to grow accustomed to that arrangement, if I can. But as soon as possible, I plan to abdicate the Throne.”

Sharidan snapped his gaze back to her, and took an impulsive half-step forward. “Mother—are you all right?”

Theasia smiled sadly at him. “As much as I have always been. I’ve kept this from you, Sharidan, but…I am ill. Quite, quite severely, in fact.”

“I don’t understand,” he said in consternation. Eleanora stepped forward, too, and took his hand.

“Sarsamon Tirasian, like Justinian Darnay, was an adventurer in his youth,” the Empress said. “He had quite the fine old time, truth be told. Among other things, he was in southern Viridill when the Enchanter Wars broke out. Specifically, when the Enchanter’s Bane went off, he was standing close enough to see it.”

“Gods,” Eleanora whispered.

“It is known as the Banefall,” Theasia said, irritation creeping into her tone, “I can only assume because of a general lack of imagination among the dwarven scholars who first categorized it. Persons exposed to the Bane at such a range—close enough to be affected, but far enough away to survive—have had great difficulty having children, often not doing so until late in life. And those children…” She paused, her jaw tightening, before continuing. “Essentially, their organs simply stop functioning, one by one, at a very young age.”

“How young?” Sharidan swallowed heavily. “…how long?”

Theasia smiled wistfully. “I don’t know, son. I am the only known Banefall victim to live out of my teens; you can do a lot of things with the full resources of an Empire. With enough alchemists and clerics and witches working on it, organs that wish to give up and die can be prevented from doing so for a long time. But how long…? I live in the realm of experiment. I might last as long as a half-elf, so long as I keep up my treatments. Then again, I could drop dead mid-sentence right before your eyes. I meant what I said, Sharidan. I have given you as long as I could. It is simply not safe to delay any longer. It’s amazing I have managed to keep this secret for so long; never mind my abrupt death, just the fact of this getting out could induce a crisis.”

He licked his lips. “So…it’s…hereditary?”

“It stops with me,” she said firmly. “Trust me, if you had it, you would know by now. I had you carefully examined and tested, regardless. But the progression is known and understood. The children of other Banefall victims have all grown up unaffected. It ends after a single generation. Once I die, this peculiar little disease will pass from the world, and good riddance to it.”

“But…I can’t believe there’s that much data! If victims never live past their teens, how many children could they possibly have had?”

Eleanora cleared her throat softly, squeezing his hand. “That…is actually very common, in the southern regions of N’Jendo which border Athan’Khar. ‘Breed early, breed often,’ as the orcs used to say. The Jendi had to follow suit to maintain a match for their ever-growing numbers.”

“I’m not ready for this.” He was staring at the far wall, now, giving no hint which of them he was talking to, if either.

“Sharidan.” Theasia waited until he dragged his gaze back to hers. “You will never be ready. No one possibly can be. But now, at this juncture? You are more ready than you have ever been. I judge that you are ready enough. There are things I still need to teach you, but you now have what you need to find your own way.”

Slowly, she settled back into her chair, and once again, Eleanora couldn’t help noticing how exhausted the Empress suddenly looked. “The future is yours, children. I have done the best I can—had my successes, but failed often. I am sorry I could not give you better. You give me confidence, though. Sharidan, I find you frequently as frustrating as your father was…” She smiled, slowly. “And just like him, I have never loved you the less for it. I have never been less than proud of you.”

He swallowed heavily, again. “I…will try not to let you down, mother.”

“My time will soon be over; you will have to stop worrying about me. It is Tiraas you must not disappoint, and I am laying this upon you now because at this moment, I am confident that you will succeed. Eleanora.”

“Your Majesty?” she asked nervously.

Theasia smiled at her. “Please…watch over my son.”

She squeezed his hand. “We will watch each other, your Majesty. As we will our Empire.”

He squeezed back. “For Tiraas.”

Empress Theasia allowed herself a soft sigh, and closed her eyes. “Good. First, though, have some tea. You will need it; it’s going to be quite a day.”

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Bonus #20: Heavy is the Head, part 3

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Evading her parents was hardly necessary anymore, after the effort she’d made in the last few months to be politically useful to her father’s ambitions. At this point, Alduron and Kheethi trusted that if Eleanora was not under their eyes, she was not necessarily in trouble, and in fact might well be networking on House Turombi’s behalf.

Similarly, evading the various servants, hangers-on and bodyguards who formed her family’s ever-changing entourage was not excessively difficult, largely because she was careful not to abuse the privilege. Eleanora never vanished in areas that were not considered safe, and made a point to do so only rarely; so long as she wasn’t habitually absent, they might not even notice amid all the hubbub and social circulation, and likely would not find it necessary to intervene. In a place like the Imperial Museum, particularly at a time when it was closed to the public for the purpose of an aristocratic social event, wriggling out from under their watchful eyes required only some careful maneuvering.

Evading reporters was another matter.

It wasn’t that they didn’t have newspapers in Onkawa, or people who worked for them, but the culture was very different. In Onkawa, her father was not only the Imperial governor, but by tradition the High Chieftain, a position which commanded immense respect even after all these years of Imperial rule—even after almost a century of House Turombi trying to be as Tiraan as it could, often in open defiance of Onkawi customs. Reporters asked him questions—but politely, by appointment, and with an unspoken assurance that whatever article they produced would be tasteful and not reflect badly upon Lord Alduron or his House.

In Tiraas, only the Empress and her son were accorded such deference, and that more out of sensible fear of Theasia’s displeasure than any culture of respect. There were a lot more papers here, making the competition for juicy stories stiffer, and the resident nobles were favorite targets. These journalists were like sharks, and in this city, the Turombis were just another bucket of chum. Her mother and father still hadn’t resigned themselves to this fact, but Eleanora had been busy adapting.

That wretched man with the notebook was still following her as she slipped into the central complex. The museum was jointly administered by the cults of Ryneas and Nemitoth, whose collusion apparently required some moderating presence by the Universal Church, not to mention the offices of the Imperial government which actually owned the place. It had all been planned in advance, resulting in the art and historical wings of the Imperial Museum being physically separate structures, connected by an architectural bridge of sorts containing the entrance halls, various office spaces, and lots of staircases. Due to the general shortage of real estate in Tiraas, the central section was practically a tower, packing as much as it could into a vertical space. Lots, and lots of staircases—winding ones, wrapping around other rooms, connecting oddly-shaped halls that linked with the museum wings on both sides, and generally leading to a profusion of useful little nooks and crannies.

Eleanora was hardly the only one at the party to seek a little privacy; it took some trekking and quite a bit of climbing before she left behind scattered couples and small groups. At this particular event, there was a lot more wheeling and dealing than canoodling going on, but she passed a little of everything before reaching a truly quiet part of the complex. And still the reporter followed.

She rounded a corner, finding the hall empty, and flattened herself against a wall, tugging the locket from inside the neck of her dress. Opening it, she withdrew one of the small leaves neatly stacked within, then snapped it shut before tenderly blowing that one leaf—apparently as fresh as the day it was plucked from the bush, like all the rest—from the tip of her finger.

The sensation was faint, and now familiar—a slight tug at something deep in her being, and then the ghostly image of herself stepped away, and hurried down the hallway at a graceful glide.

A moment later, the reporter rounded the corner after her, and paused. He stood close enough she could have touched him had she wanted, and could smell his cheap cologne though she decidedly didn’t want to, but he ignored her, immediately setting off after the wavering image of herself that vanished down the hall ahead.

She knew, from practicing on her hapless servants, that the image would lead him on a merry chase before disappearing, and would do so out of his sight in a way that left him believing he had simply lost her. Only in the few moments after diverging did it conceal her; anyone observing it would fixate on the image and ignore the real woman left behind. Once they were separated by enough distance, however, she would be as visible as always to whomever she encountered.

Eleanora tucked the locket away, smiling smugly, and hurried on, making for a flight of steps and choosing a path to a particular spot she knew. She couldn’t be absent long; if he wasn’t there, this would be a bust, but she was reasonably sure he would be. And that her deception would remain unnoticed, once it had played out. With arcane enchantment so heavily favored among human societies, particularly in urban centers like Tiraas, fae magic was all but unknown and had been since Archpope Sipasian had helped ignite the Enchanter Wars by trying to stamp it out. Thus, it was not commonly planned for. Privately, she wondered how many times she could use this trick before word got around. It had already been worth every doubloon she’d paid that witch, though.

She heard them, and quickened her pace. On the second highest floor of the complex, she abruptly rounded the corner into the little nook where they were, then skidded to a halt, gasping dramatically and affecting an expression of shock.

“Oh! Excuse me!”

The pair leaped apart—or rather, the young woman in the uniform of the museum’s staff hopped away from the prince as if stung. She was Tiraan, with maybe a bit of Stalweiss; at any rate, she was pale enough that her blush looked almost painful. The girl mumbled something to Eleanora, refusing to meet her eyes, then gathered up her skirts and all but ran out.

Eleanora stepped aside, watching her till she rounded the corner onto a staircase that took her down toward the party.

Sharidan, meanwhile, came forward to poke his head out and look up and down the halls, verifying they were alone. Only then did he turn his scowl on her.

“For the last time, Nora, I said I was sorry. I did not mean to interrupt you with that blonde in the theater, and if you had left the signal we agreed on the door to the box obviously I wouldn’t—”

“All right, for the last time, then,” she agreed with a grin. “I’ll consider us even. In fact, how about I make it up to you tonight? I’ve managed to arrange a little something for us at the Cat and Mouse.”

“How little?” he asked skeptically.

“Well, a bit more little than we prefer,” she acknowledged, pointedly patting her own breast. It was a peculiarly comfortable feeling, how he noted the gesture without any lascivious expression. “But still worth sneaking out. Twins, Sharidan.”

The prince rolled his eyes. “Nora, what the hell are we going to do with twins? The whole point of—well, I assume you haven’t suddenly developed a hankering to be in the same room during? What do you plan to do, trade off? Because we both know I don’t mind your seconds, but last I checked—”

“Redheads.”

That brought him up short. Her grin widened.

“You’re right, it’s a bit more awkward for the two of us. But come on. Twin redheads, Sharidan. Look me in the eye and tell me that’s not worth the trouble.”

He did look her in the eye, and after a momentary pause, a smile stretched across his features to mirror her own.

“Lady Eleanora, I do believe I have been a bad influence on you these last few months.”

“And I will be forever grateful,” she said as solemnly as she could while smirking. “Don’t send the carriage, my mother noticed it prowling the neighborhood last time.”

“Right. Meet you at the Cat, then? Eleven?”

“Eleven o’clock, but let’s link up at the pub on the corner a few blocks north of it—the one with the old fighting pit turned into a sitting area, you remember? We’ll head out from there and throw off any pursuit. I have a new toy; I want to see how long it can make Quentin chase his tail.”


“I think…we may be doing this wrong,” she said idly, blowing smoke. Just tobacco; for the same reason they were careful to indulge sparingly in wine on these outings, she had tried only the tiniest bit of sevenleaf, and absolutely eschewed poppy milk and any alchemicals. They both needed their wits about them to sneak back into their respective homes.

“Nonsense,” he said equally lazily, propping his feet on the balcony rail; he’d tugged the outdoor couch over toward it specifically so he could do that. “This is as old as humanity. It’s called afterglow. You’re supposed to relax and chitchat or cuddle for a bit after sex.”

“Right, that’s what I mean,” she replied, pausing to puff a little cloud at him. He languidly waved it away, but was apparently too mellow to protest; Sharidan did not care for anything that had to be burned and inhaled, even incense. “Traditionally, one chitchats with the person with whom one just had sex.”

“Ah, well. What would be the fun of just doing what all the other sheep do, Nora?”

She chuckled, though it hadn’t really been that funny, and flicked the hand-rolled cigarette over the rail.

They were dressed again, mostly. Trousers and a shirt each, though the shirts were unbuttoned and and neither had put on shoes or coats. They were just lounging on low couches on the balcony outside the suite she had discreetly secured, while the two sisters they’d just been with dozed together in the master bed. Eleanora assumed her hair was a dead giveaway what she’d just been doing, to judge by the state of his, though at least her complexion was too dark to betray the same lingering glow.

It was so odd, and so oddly comfortable, the thing to which she had referred obliquely with her little joke. This, somehow, was more intimate than the actual lovemaking had been; neither of them had much inclination to fall in love or settle down. Sex was about the pleasure and sometimes the thrill of the hunt. Whatever there was between them had none of that element; she knew his tells well enough by now to know that he actually didn’t sneak glances into her cleavage, whereas he was just discreet about it with other women.

A strange thing, but a pleasant one. Back home, all her “friends” had been young noblewomen with whom she socialized out of mutual political interest. She and Sharidan talked about things, though. About politics, yes, but also history, their lives, the art and music and books they enjoyed. About girls and what they did with them and wanted to. And sometimes, about nothing, just sitting in friendly silence. Over the eight months since their first acquaintance, he seemed to have grown to value as much as she did having someone with whom to share these things.

“Are they still going on over there?” he asked idly, breaking her reverie. They didn’t have a great view of the city from this third-floor balcony, due to the size of the neighboring structures, but they were facing a canal and the back of a factory on its other side, which at least gave them some space. It also was open enough to transmit sound—in this case, of a still-agitated crowd barely a block distant. “Gods, don’t these people have jobs in the morning or something?”

“You’re one to talk,” she said without asperity. “I’m surprised the police haven’t intervened, though.”

“Oh, this is a scheduled protest; they’re on private property which they were given permission to use. One of those factories has an open loading lot in front. The owner made a big fuss about how he’d been pressured into it, likely just to keep himself out of trouble with my mother.”

“Well, that would’ve been helpful to know before I planned a little get-together a stone’s throw away,” she commented.

“I wasn’t exactly involved in your planning, remember? Anyhow, I never heard of a Voter meeting going on this long before. It’s gotta be after three. What are they doing over there?”

“Shouting, as far as I can tell. I don’t hear anything being broken.” She glanced over at him. “These people have kept popping up all year, Sharidan. Why hasn’t your mother come down on them?”

“Well, you know how she feels about republican ideas in general,” he said, shrugging. “But cracking down on protest movements just lends them legitimacy. Mother favors a subtler approach this time; she’s the reason all the papers are covering the Sheng civil war in so much detail. People are less likely to want democratic reforms when they get regular updates on a whole country currently being destroyed by them. Still…this kind of rally is an escalation. She might have to get more aggressive.”

“Hm.”

They lounged in silence, listening to the sounds of the city, what wasn’t obscured by the hubbub two streets over. Tiraas glistened under its omnipresent fairy lamps with the evidence of a recent shower; the clouds scudded rapidly by overhead, permitting intermittent views of a sky whose stars were obscured by the city’s arcane glow.

“Did your grandfather kill my great-grandfather?”

“Yes, I expect so.”

Eleanora froze. She hadn’t meant to bring that up, and had no idea why she’d asked; the only thing more surprising than that slip on her part was how readily he had answered.

“If you were expecting some great revelation, I’m afraid I can’t help you,” Sharidan added wryly, glancing over at her. “If there was any real evidence, I’m sure it was long since buried or destroyed. By my mother, if not by her father before she even came along. But honestly, I can read the same from history as everyone else. Two men emerged from the Enchanter Wars calling themselves Emperor. Sarsamon Tirasian might have been a puppet of the Church at first, but he did control the actual Silver Throne, and the capital itself, and had the backing of the cults and Houses Aldarasi and Madouri. Tambisi Turombi, though, was an actual warlord who had taken control of all the western provinces, and unlike Sarsamon, actually ruled them. They would have turned the civil war from a dozen feuding states to two large ones and made it drag on another decade. And then, suddenly, one dies of a stroke in his sleep? Coincidences that politically convenient don’t just happen.”

She nodded slowly. He was right; that was nothing more than everyone knew. And he was undoubtedly also right that if Sarsamon had left any evidence of the assassination, it was long gone.

“I wish my father could just let it go,” she whispered. “It was a century ago. Everyone involved is dead, the whole world is different…and frankly, the right man won. Sarsamon Tirasian outwitted the Church and his other backers and made himself a true Emperor. Tambisi ruled by force and the threat of it; the Church and the cults would either have made him a puppet, or killed him themselves.”

“Maybe they did,” Sharidan murmured. “Or maybe a third party who saw things the way you do now. I tend to agree with you, Nora; it’s long past mattering.”

“Not to Alduron Turombi,” she said with a heavy sigh. “He’s obsessed with House Tirasian and what might have been. What might have been,” she added bitterly, “is that none of us would have existed because our ancestor would not have succeeded in taking Tiraas, or survived the attempt. Gods, there’s no way for an army to cross the Wyrnrange except at the southernmost point, and no force in the world could have plowed through Viridill. The Sisterhood had already broken the Imperial legions for trying exactly that, and south of them the Enchanter’s Bane was still burning! But no, all he knows is that Tambisi was trying to hold some semblance of the Empire together while Sarsamon was goofing around with adventurers. A stroke of luck is the only reason he’s not Emperor today. It wouldn’t have worked like that, but there is just no telling him so.”

Sharidan looked over at her directly, concern showing on his face for the first time. “Nora… I don’t want to put you on the spot…”

“But will my father move against your mother?” Eleanora shook her head slowly. “I don’t… I don’t want to think so. My father is a cautious and practical man, in his governing. He has to know what a hopeless, suicidal move that would be. But then…he moved us here and left Onkawa in the hands of stewards, all on the urging of some cleric he knew, and I’m not sure what to think. He’s also a prideful man, and he has these impossible dreams… I worry, Sharidan. My father would never attack Theasia under just his own impetus. But if the wrong person whispers the wrong thing in his ear…”

The prince sighed. “It would look bad. Really bad. Enough people assume Sarsamon had Tambisi murdered that for Theasia to use force against Alduron…that could get ugly. We’re a lot more secure on the Throne than Sarsamon was, especially at first, but the Throne itself just isn’t as powerful as it was before the Enchanter Wars. Especially against the Houses, and the Church. If your father gets stupid, my mother will exercise some restraint; she’ll have to. But still…”

“Yes.” Eleanora sighed again. “Still….”

Slowly, he began straightening up. “What if we—”

At the suddenly surging roar of the crowd, they both jerked upright, heads swiveling to look.

“That came from behind us,” Sharidan said unnecessarily.

“Okay,” she said, frowning deeply. “They’ve crossed the bridge into this district. I think it might be time to call it a night.”

“But how?” His eyes were narrowed in concentration. “They do not have permission to rampage through the streets, and the military police are more than capable of containing a mob…”

“Sharidan!”

“Ah, right. You’re right; let’s pack it in.”

They both paused again as the sound surged again.

“Is it my imagination,” she said, slipping her disguise ring back on, “or have they moved into the street outside the Cat and Mouse?”

“If not right outside, close,” he muttered, re-applying his own disguise. They had both been entertained by this evening’s choice, having basically swapped; he was now a dark Onkawi, she an olive-skinned Tiraan. Neither was smiling now. “Hell, this is pretty worrisome. Let’s—”

The balcony door swung open and one of the girls leaned out. “There you are! Come on, there’s trouble.”

“We hear it,” Eleanora said tersely, following her back in. Both the red-haired young women had donned robes, and Eleanora had to resist the temptation not to pat the one who’d beckoned them on the rump; she was (embarrassingly) not certain which was the girl in whose arms she’d spent the last couple of hours. “Is it out front?”

“Yes,” said the other redhead, shutting the door to their suite after having peeked out. “The street’s pretty…you don’t want to go out there. Come on, there’s a tunnel in the basement that leads to the brewery next door. From there we can get to the roof and onto the public house on the other side; it has a fire escape down to street level. Hopefully we’ll be out of range of the mob by then.”

Eleanora frowned at her. “How do you know all that?”

“I know many things, my lady,” she replied, giving her a sly smile. “As you should remember.”

“Cut it out, Lara,” the other sister ordered. “She loves that game. I’m the one you were with.”

“I was hoping we’d have time to swap, but…here we are,” Lara said resignedly. “Bring up the rear, Sara; I don’t think they’ll break in here, but I have the oddest impression that crowd is looking for something.”

Sharidan and Eleanora exchanged a loaded look. Theoretically, nobody here but the two of them knew their proper identities. But the two pretty young women they were now with were suddenly acting a lot more canny than their giggly personalities of a few hours before, and after all… A crowd of angry pro-democracy activists had a built-in reason for wanting to get their hands on the heir to the Silver Throne.

They followed Lara out into the hall, Sara coming behind them. Eleanora leaned close to Sharidan and murmured, “As you were saying…coincidences that convenient?”

He glanced at her sidelong and nodded once, then shifted his eyes momentarily without moving his head. She followed his glance; at the end of the hall was an open window. A third-floor window…but right through it, barely visible, the edge of an iron railing attached to a fire escape.

An alarming roar sounded from outside; Lara and Sara both froze in their tracks, turning to stare in that direction. The opposite direction, as fate determined, from the open window.

Sharidan grabbed Eleanora’s hand, and without pausing to think, they were both running. Behind them the girls shouted; she deliberately fell back so he could get out first. That they were friends and their families enemies both fell from consideration against the fact that his life was simply more valuable than hers. Without him, the best case scenario for the Empire was a drawn-out succession crisis.

The prince was nimble, more so than she; he literally dived through the window, while she had to clamber. She paused to slam the window shut after herself, though, and then they were racing down the metal stairs.

The fire escape only took them down another floor; from there, they had to jump to the ground in the alley. Eleanora panted, slumping against the damp brick wall. She had never actually run before in her life. It was probably worse for being barefoot; she had no frame of reference. Gods, the pavement must be filthy…

“Come on,” Sharidan said insistently, grabbing her hand and tugging. “Back this way.”

“That’s the canal!”

“Yes, and the buildings don’t come right to the edge of it; we can get around behind.”

“And go where?”

“The other way from the brewery. Did you also get the vibe that…”

“Yes,” she said, already following him onto a narrow ledge behind the next building over, only a waist-high wall separating them from a drop to the water far below. “They were like two completely different women all of a sudden.”

“Where’d you find those girls?”

“Later,” she said tersely. “Where are we going?”

They both froze at another roar from the crowd, then began moving again. The noise was concentrated back in front of the Cat and Mouse.

“There’s a place we can go, not far from here,” Sharidan said grimly. “Quentin and his people will be tracking us already, despite your little gimmick. They’ll find us before long. We’re going to claim sanctuary till then; I know an Izarite temple in this district. A very small one, which is not obviously a temple from outside, so people tend not to notice.”

“Izarites?” she said skeptically. “I’d prefer to find some Silver Legionnaires…”

“Beggars and choosers, Nora,” he said. Though he still kept a grip on her hand, he looked only ahead, tugging her along without meeting her gaze. “More to the point, someone works there who can be…well, I don’t know about trusted, but he’ll protect us, at least. Bishop Darnay keeps his office and personal residence there.”

“What? Doesn’t the Bishop work at the Grand Cathedral?”

“Yes, and the central Temple of Izara, but his personal office is here. This is one of the quasi-secrets my mother made sure I knew in case of emergencies like this; a Bishop will protect the Crown Prince, regardless of politics, and I’ve never heard of the Izarites having a quarrel with anyone. Even anyone as difficult as my mother. Their religion requires them to minister to whoever’s in need; they tend to tuck their higher-ranking people away in private little crannies, because they only get any work done if they stay relatively isolated. Quentin knows I know this; he’ll check there.”

“Izarite Bishop,” she said, frowning. “My father knows him.”

“Well, good,” Sharidan said curtly, pausing to peer around the next corner before leading her across the open space to the back of the building beyond. “Izarites keep their heads down, politically speaking, so I don’t know much about Justinian Darnay, but I guess we’re both about to.”

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Bonus #19: Heavy is the Head, part 2

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“Now, first of all, you’ll need to un-pin that brooch…”

“Why, your Highness,” Eleanora said in mock reproach, placing a hand protectively over the spot where the invisible peacock’s weight tugged at her lapel, “for shame! To think you would so quickly seek to rescind a gift to a lady. What would your mother say?”

“I rather think I’d be in a cell before she got down to that part,” the prince replied merrily. “Regardless, my lady, it wounds me that you would even suspect such a thing! No, I merely meant that the next leg of the journey calls for a different disguise. But of course, this being our first outing together, it should after all be the lady’s choice. If you wish to be seen in public with either your true face or the livery of one of your House’s servants, I’ll not gainsay you! I have, however, prepared something a bit more discreet, in case you think either of those might lead to awkward questions at home.”

“You have a prepared answer for everything, don’t you?” she asked dryly.

“Oh, hardly everything. But for most things, I daresay I do. You know what the secret is?”

“Do tell.”

He winked. “Not making the same mistake twice. You have years of youthful embarrassments and blunders to thank for the much wiser man before you today. I rather think you would not have enjoyed talking with me before that long, painful education.”

“I rather suspect you’re right,” she replied in a solemn tone. “Something tells me you’d have been one of those boys who never learned what I looked like above the collarbone.”

“Well, I’m afraid you’ve got me nailed, there. It’s much better that we didn’t meet until just recently.”

“And I’m to just take this on faith?” Eleanora covered the upper half of her face with a hand. “What color are my eyes?”

“Brown,” he said immediately. “A very deep brown, that in this light could be taken for black, but under bright fairy lamps shows the most intriguing depths of warmer color. Like garnets glinting from the bottom of a pool.”

She peeked at him from between her fingers, finding him wearing a knowing little smile. “…you’re dangerous, aren’t you?”

“Perhaps a tad,” he said with a roguish grin. “Anyway, we’ve veered off topic. Here, my lady. You’ll want to remove the brooch before trying it on; I’m not sure the effects of using both at once, but it’s generally a better idea not to mix enchantments.”

The ring he extended to her was a pretty but not extravagant piece, the perfect host for an enchantment which was meant to avoid notice. Hammered silver, set with a small, opaque red stone and with a simple engraving of curved lines around its band. He offered it on a flat palm, no doubt deliberately eschewing any of the romantic implications that might come from offering a lady a ring.

Eleanora plucked it carefully from his hand with her fingertips, prompting a faint widening of his smile which she ignored. She tucked the ring into her palm before carefully un-pinning the brooch, in the process reverting to her own face and the party dress she’d worn to the gala.

“You can leave it in the carriage for now,” Sharidan offered. “Unless you’re the only lady in Tiraas whose seamstress had the sense to give you pockets.”

“I’m afraid not, but I suspect if I tell her it was a recommendation from the crown prince, I can perhaps make some headway finally,” she said, placing the peacock on the seat next to her. “With all the Avenist activity in this city, one would think…”

She trailed off, having slipped the ring onto her finger and immediately lost all the pigmentation in her hands.

“Do you have a…” He was already offering her a hand mirror. “Of course you do. Thank you.”

“My pleasure.”

Eleanora regarded her new face critically. She was now a pale Stalweiss—in fact, a blonde, with blue eyes, of all things. Still quite lovely, but…

“It doesn’t meet with your approval?” the prince asked almost diffidently. “My humblest apologies; many people find the use of magical disguise the perfect time to explore a little variety. I’m afraid I can’t get a new one on short notice, but for next time…”

“I suppose it would be craven not to try it once. Briefly. Hm… Are the Stalweiss really as savage as they say?”

“No more or less than anyone else, I expect. Any living in Tiraas are likely as cosmopolitan as any of their neighbors. The Stalwar Provinces are somewhat backward, but more because they weren’t treated well after the Enchanter Wars than because of any defect in the breed.”

“And whose fault was that?” she murmured.

“I understand they made a convenient scapegoat after Horsebutt’s rampage,” he said, his forehead tightening in the faintest shadow of a frown. “Hopefully, enough time has passed that we can begin correcting that. We’ll see. My mother has had more immediate priorities.”

“Hmm,” she said noncommittally. Either he actually cared for his people—even the infamous “barbarians” of the mountains—or could put up a good front. And why should he play that game with her? No one who had researched her would find any hint of interest in the plight of the mountain folk. Eleanora found herself warming toward him a bit, despite her better judgment.

She looked up to find him also wearing a new face—also a pale Stalweiss face, though he at least still had hair a proper shade of brown. Really, Eleanora fancied herself as open-minded as the next person, but it didn’t seem right for humans to have elven coloration.

“Oh, now this is fortuitous,” Sharidan commented, sliding over to the window and peering out. Eleanora joined him, noting somewhat belatedly the hubbub of a crowd outside; she’d developed a habit of tuning out exterior noise when riding in a carriage.

Their driver had to slow slightly to accommodate the traffic, which was itself somewhat impeded by the disruption. She couldn’t see much at this angle, but people with signs and placards seemed to be standing in front of a darkened building.

“Does the Writ of Duties allow people to impede traffic this way?” she asked, frowning and trying to get a closer look through the intervening vehicles.

“Actually it’s the rubbernecking drivers who are slowing down traffic,” Sharidan said merrily. “Those guys are very carefully within the law. See, they’re only on the sidewalk, and while that is a government office, it’s not open at this hour, so they’re not disrupting Imperial business. Look, there are soldiers watching; they’ll jump in the moment they have a reason. The Voters are very careful not to give them one.”

“Voters,” she murmured, finally making out one of the signs. Really, it would help them not to wave the things about, if they wished them to be read… “And you call this fortuitous? Those people want you dead.”

“Nonsense,” he said brightly, sliding back into his seat and smiling again. “They want my mother dethroned and the aristocracy abolished. Beyond that, it’s not personal. Only some of them want me dead. And they’ve as much chance of accomplishing any of that as the orcish revanchists have of launching so much as a dinghy from Sifan to invade us. It’s fortuitous because now we have an anecdote! Something to talk about at the party, aside from how our accents and mannerisms clearly don’t match our faces.”

“Yes, about that,” she said, resuming her own seat. “I note you’ve neglected to mention where you are taking me.”

“To a pleasant little late-evening gathering being held at the home of one Ms. Lorelei Talushaad, also known to her compatriots in the Thieves’ Guild as Gossamer.”

“Talushaad?” she repeated, suddenly intrigued. “The courtesan?” Her mother would have seen her dead before allowing her to visit such a person—which was only part of the reason she wanted to.

“The very same!”

“How…interesting,” she mused, allowing herself a slow smile. “All right, you have my attention. I doubt I’ve ever been to such a raucous party before.”

His grin widened. “Ah. Well, my lady, I’m afraid you may be disappointed.”


“It’s all about a happy medium, you see,” the disguised prince murmured to her as he escorted her through the entrance hall of the manor at which the carriage had discharged them. “If the party is too dull, well, there’s hardly any point in sneaking out to see it. Too rowdy, though, and the same is true. Excessive noise and debauchery makes it impossible to properly enjoy oneself. You want an event that falls somewhere in the middle, and Lorelei’s are always perfect. There’s good music, which you can actually hear. Good food, which will be eaten and not stomped into the carpets. Interesting people to talk to, and most will be sober enough to converse for at least a few more hours.”

“You make it sound downright pedestrian,” she murmured back, though she was looking around in fascination. Though the style of décor naturally differed, the house’s furnishings were of no lesser quality than those of the palatial residence House Turombi had occupied in Tiraas. Denser, and running more toward jewel and earthen tones than the light, spacious style her mother favored, but well-chosen and clearly expensive. The party itself was, indeed, more crowded and somewhat more noisy than the social events to which she was accustomed, but not to the extent that she felt uncomfortable. In fact, the prince had a point; it was all rather exciting. At the very least, they’d had no trouble getting in. It surprised her when the uniformed footman watching the door had allowed them inside with nothing more than a glance at the high quality of their clothing and the carriage which had brought them. Speaking of which… “And what, pray tell, are we to tell the lady of the house about ourselves?”

“Well, as to that,” he said with a wink, “I like to wing it, but unless you’re feeling adventurous, why don’t we save that until the next time? I rather doubt Lorelei will evict us, but there may be all manner of nuisance if we’re found out.”

“I think you may be a bad person, Sharidan.”

“On that point, Eleanora, I shall defer to your no doubt considerable expertise.” Despite his cool facade, he glanced around; they were hardly alone, but all the people nearby were engaged in their own conversations, none paying them any attention. The sound of a string quartet from the large room up ahead provided auditory camouflage, as well. There was no reaction to their names. “Give me just a moment to secure some provisions, if you would. Getting to the bar is always a struggle at these things; much faster with just one.”

“I shall defer to your considerable expertise on the subject of bars,” she said archly. The prince grinned at her and released her arm.

“Back in a flash.” Then he had slipped through the doors ahead—and the dense crowd within, about which he’d not exaggerated—leaving her alone.

She was standing in a sort of foyer, just inside the vestibule and clearly serving as a sort of indoor crossroads. A sweeping staircase curved up to the second floor, the wide door opened onto the main party area to her right, with a smaller door to a dining room (also heavily occupied) to the left and one into a shadowed hallways just ahead. Eleanora took note of the architecture. While a noble House would arrange its residence to impress upon the first entry, this one was clearly designed to provide space in which people could lose themselves from sight almost immediately. Which, she supposed, served the needs of a courtesan quite well.

Eleanora directed one long look at the door through which her escort had vanished, and then a small smile quirked the side of her mouth. The exact details of the Prince’s plan for her this evening she didn’t know, of course, but the general shape was obvious. Considering that, she saw no harm in making him do a little extra work. Not that it was going to pay off, which was sort of the point. It would be good for him; he likely had rarely had to cope with disappointment.

She turned and began ascending the staircase.

At the first landing, Eleanora paused, glancing down the second-floor hall, which was dimly lit and lined with doors on only one side, some of which were closed. A couple were walking away from her, arm-in-arm and heads together. After a moment’s hesitation, she decided to keep climbing and see if anything more immediately interesting presented itself.

And indeed, the next landing paid off. The stairs stopped here, but rather than a single corridor, it opened into a sort of balcony ringing the open main chamber below. Heavy pillars, low walls, and hanging curtains broke up the space into little alcoves offering privacy while also providing a clear view of the party going on—not unlike the ballroom at the Imperial Palace. Was this a common arrangement? It certainly was a suitable one for intrigues, which could explain its popularity in the capital.

She paced slowly down one side of the upper ring, carefully glancing into the alcoves she passed from the corner of her eye without staring rudely. Three people were sitting in conversation in the first, the second was empty, and a couple were locked in a passionate embrace in the third, prompting her to pick up her step slightly. The next alcove was also unoccupied, and Eleanora decided to take the opportunity to get a closer view of the ballroom below. Or was it properly a ballroom? If the bar was in there, it didn’t seem likely they were dancing in the space…

She stepped over to the rail and carefully leaned over the three-story drop. Indeed, this seemed more a staging area than a place where people congregated. There was a bar, and also long tables of food; as she watched, a set of doors opened and liveried servants bustled out with fresh trays. The musicians were there as well, ensconced in a raised area which seemed to occupy a turret jutting from the far corner of the room. There was no sign of the Prince—but then, from this vantage he’d have been nothing but a blob of brown hair, hardly distinctive.

Eleanora turned around, and gasped in surprise.

Lounging in the corner of the alcove, drink in hand, a woman was regarding her with a curious expression. She had seated herself so that her head was below the level of the decorative wall which separated off this little space, making her invisible from the outer ring.

“Oh, I am sorry!” Eleanora exclaimed. “I didn’t—”

“Now, no apologies,” the woman said, smiling. “You’re not who I was expecting, but it seems he’ll not be joining me. I gather I’m not who you expected, either?”

“I thought this space was empty,” Eleanora said. “I wasn’t expecting anyone, so…yes, that’s correct. I’ll just make myself scarce before your companion arrives.”

“Oh, don’t let me keep you if you’ve business elsewhere! But also, don’t hurry off on my account.” The woman’s eyes shifted, glancing over her quickly, and Eleanora suddenly took particular note of the fact that her new acquaintance was quite pretty. Not what she’d have considered her “type,” being rather lean of figure and face, with that sharp-featured aspect so common to the Tiraan, but still… “My husband thought he might make it, but…he would have by now, were he going to. Never the most reliable man. Are you here by yourself?”

“Why, no,” Eleanora said, allowing herself a smile. “At the moment, it would appear I’m here with you.”

She smiled back, warmly. “Then why don’t you join me? I’m Tashi.”

“…Nora,” she said after the barest hesitation, then stepped over to seat herself carefully on the couch next to Tashi.

“Nora, how exotic!” The woman straightened up, eyeing her with renewed interest. “Now, is that a traditional Stalweiss name?”

Oh, right, her face. Again, the urge for mischief rose in her, this time accompanied by something else. “I can honestly say it has been in my family for at least one generation,” she replied solemnly, then deliberately spoiled the image with a smile.

Tashi laughed obligingly. “I’ve not seen you at one of Lorelei’s events before. I am positive I would remember.” And something in her expression…

Oh, right, her face. A thrill of realization shivered though Eleanora. Flirtation had always been such a delicate, careful thing, bound by the need to dance around the utmost discretion. The sheer scandal that could erupt if she made the wrong move on the wrong person was, in her case, far worse than that which faced the average young aristocrat—at least, back home. Tiraas did have a much stronger Avenist and Izarite influence, but she’d not had time to experiment. That, too, would have to be done slowly, and with exceeding caution.

Unless, of course, she were in a place where the Lady Eleanora Turombi would never go, wearing the face of someone who did not exist. A place where, perhaps, she could follow up on such little hints as she was getting now without making a five-month courtship of it.

“You could say I’m stretching my wings,” she said, carefully scooting closer to Tashi and leaning subtly toward her. “This is, indeed, my first visit. In fact, I’ve not properly explored the house yet. I found something very much more interesting right away, you see…”

“Why, it sounds as if I’m depriving you, then,” Tashi murmured deep in her throat. “I should offer you a drink for the inconvenience, at the very least. Alas…” Moving carefully so that she did not draw further from Eleanora in the process, she reached to pick up the wine bottle perched on a low table before the couch, and topped off her glass. “I’ve only the one glass.”

“Well.” She moved carefully, slow enough to give her companion opportunity to object or move away if she wished. But while Eleanora carefully took Tashi’s hand in her own and shifted the glass toward herself, the other woman simply regarded her with a knowing little smirk. “I don’t mind, if you don’t.”

Holding eye contact, she very deliberately took a sip, placing her lips right on the dampened spot from which the glass had already been drunk. Tashi’s smile widened slightly. The thrill racing through her was only somewhat to do with lust; this was just so easy. Oh, the fun she had missed out on for all these years, having to be so damn careful. She had barely even believed people actually did this, but…here they were.

“If I may ask,” Eleanora murmured, now that her head was close enough to make a lower tone appropriate, “if you were expecting your husband, why only one glass?”

It had been a tacit offer of withdrawal, but Tashi declined to take advantage of the reminder.

“He said he might come,” she replied, her head tilting and gradually drifting closer. “That is not the same as me expecting him.”

“Well, that is a shame,” Eleanora said softly, leaning further. “He’s missing a fine vintage.”

“Why, Nora,” Tashi all but whispered, smiling with pure mischief, “it’s only a common bottle, after all. Did you even taste it?”

“I wasn’t talking about the wine.”

It tasted better from Tashi’s lips, anyway.

Somehow, in the intervening moments, Tashi shifted to set the glass down on the table, and then to angle her body toward Eleanora’s, reaching up to cradle her cheeks in both hands. Eleanora, for her part, moved somewhat more aggressively, heady with the power and freedom of being able to do this. She slipped on arm around Tashi’s waist, prompting a soft squeak when she tugged her firmly closer—but not a squeak of protest, to judge by the ensuing giggle and the hand that moved to tangle in her hair.

Then she stopped thinking for a few minutes, lost in softness and quiet laughter and gently insistent exploration, until she finally came up for air and found herself staring into another pair of eyes.

It took her a moment for the fog to recede, but then it was replaced by dawning horror as she recognized the disguise currently worn by Prince Sharidan.

“Oh, my humble apologies,” he said mildly, blinking in bemusement. He had a glass of effervescent wine in each hand. “This spot looked empty from…”

No no no no—

Eleanora lunged up, ignoring the startled protest of her new companion and pushing rudely past the prince, incidentally spilling one of the glasses. In pure panic, she tore down the hall.

No no no, how could she have been so reckless? He could ruin her worse than if he’d bedded her. If her mother found out about this…

“Eleanora, wait!”

She redoubled her speed, dodging around people who exclaimed in irritation at her passage, ignoring them. The balcony ring ended in a little seating area from which hallways branched off; she picked one at random and raced down it.

Almost immediately, it dead-ended, and Eleanora hissed in frustration. There were three doors; she yanked open the narrowest one and darted through.

“Will you wait a moment?!”

Gods, was he still after her? This was some kind of servants’ passage, obviously, to judge by its narrowness and the unpainted plank walls. Behind her, the door opened again, and footsteps pounded into the corridor. The boy just wouldn’t take a hint.

The passage turned sharply left, and partway down this length, she found an open door through which cool air flowed.

“Eleanora! No—stop!”

Ignoring him, she dashed through, and immediately tried to skid to a halt. It had rained, though, and the narrow strip of flat roof was slick. Wheeling her arms frantically, she fought for balance, teetering on the edge of a three-story fall overlooking an alley behind the house.

Then a hand grabbed her hair, yanking her backward. She squawked in pain, but in the next moment he was holding her by the shoulders. They both stood there, panting.

“My hair?” she asked weakly, managing a tiny spark of outrage.

“Well, I’m sorry,” the prince snapped, in the first open annoyance she’d heard from him. “We are still learning one another’s preferences, after all. Next time would you prefer I let you fall to your death?”

She allowed herself a few more calming breaths.

“…thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Here.” Sharidan carefully released her and slipped past. “This is not the first time I’ve brought company out to this little spot, though previously the circumstances were more…cordial.”

“Omnu’s breath, how often do you come to this place?” she asked, even as she followed him along the side of the house. Just a few feet to the left of the doorway was a small bench. “And…what is the point of this? Architecturally, it doesn’t make a shred of sense.”

“Of course it does,” he said lightly, seating himself and then patting the bench. “This house belongs to a member of the Thieves’ Guild. This is a convenient roof access. I was once rather embarrassingly interrupted here with a young lady by another young lady who carried a lot of knives, and let me tell you, that did not turn out the way I fantasized as a boy. Sit down, catch your breath.”

“Your…fantasies…generally involve knives?” She found herself sinking down onto the bench. Her legs seemed to want to give out, anyway, so…might as well.

“On the contrary,” he said wryly. “That’s when I knew the night wasn’t going to go my way.”

Eleanora made no reply to that. In fact, now that she had a moment to breathe, she found it unbearable to meet his gaze. Propping her elbows on her knees, she lowered her face into her hands.

“So,” Sharidan said after a short pause, “I gather this evening was never going to turn out the way I had in mind, either.”

“And what makes you say that,” she mumbled. It wasn’t really a question.

To her annoyance, he actually laughed softly. “It’s not so uncommon, a lady with a soft spot for other ladies. Your friend back there? Antashi Shivaan picks up a new girl at every party. To share with her husband when he can come, but to bring him an exciting story when he can’t. You’ll be pleased to know you weren’t breaking up a marriage. You, though…that was panic I saw, the kind that gets people killed. As you discovered. I can’t help concluding,” he added in a gentler tone, “this is rather a secret I inadvertently uncovered. So would I be wrong in guessing this is more an…inflexible preference?”

Eleanora heaved a deep sigh, but lowered her hands. “I’m sorry.”

Sharidan was watching her with a calmly open expression, but now he actually smiled. “And you were going to let me chase you fruitlessly all night? You absolute minx.”

For some damned reason, she couldn’t help grinning back. “Oh, poor baby. Something tells me you’d have survived.”

“Well, I always have before!” His grin abated slightly. “Forgive me if I’m prying, but… Is this about House Turombi’s succession? I know you’re the only child…”

“That, partially,” she said with a deep sigh. “But apart from that… Onkawa is not Tiraas. We have all the Pantheon cults, of course, but it’s Omnist territory, with a Vidian and Shaathist influence. Women loving women isn’t disallowed, but it’s…it’s not…favorable. Never mind,” she added, shaking her head. “It’s more complex than that, and it would take me far too long to explain.”

“It’s a hell of a thing, though,” he said quietly. “So many people grow up dreaming of one day finding true love. Not us. Nobles who have such ideas end up being cautionary tales. We marry for a purpose, and that’s all there is to it.”

“You don’t sound bitter,” she said softly.

He shrugged. “I’ve had time to get used to it, as have you. And clearly, I have less reason to be bitter in the first place.”

“You’re also much better at finding your own fun than I ever was,” she replied sardonically. “I’ll freely admit I’d never have dared to do something like this.”

“Well, that’s a shame! I bet you’d have pulled it off quite well. So long as you learned to suppress that panic reflex.”

“Yes, yes, laugh it up. I should thank you for the lesson, anyway. Maybe I’ll be able to sneak away now and again to experience a little of life. Gods know you will be.”

“No.” At his tone, she looked up again, finding him staring at the sky with a strangely sad expression. “I’m twenty-two, Eleanora; how much longer do you think I’ll be able to get away with acting like a teenager?”

“Was that a rhetorical question? I can try to estimate, if you’d like.”

He didn’t smile, this time. “I’m not that guy. The dissolute wastrel who throws away his country’s wealth and credibility on pleasure and nonsense. I… Tiraas means something. It’s a legacy of a thousand years; it’s the lives of millions of people. I needed something for myself, but… I’ve never felt entitled to keep doing this forever. Someday I’m going to have to stop, settle down, grow up, and serve. Someday quite soon.” He looked over at her again, and managed another little smile. “Maybe sooner than I imagined… I’ve had close calls of my own.”

“We have to grow up eventually,” she practically whispered. He nodded.

The silence was strangely comfortable.

“So, what are you missing out on?” he asked finally, with a lightness that she appreciated all the more for how forced it clearly was. “Not one of those who harbored dreams of true love, I hope? I mean, there’s a precedent, at least in this part of the world. More than one noblewoman in Calderaas has married another noblewoman. A few princesses, even.”

“Oh, honestly,” she muttered. “My parents stay together because of politics and habit. They were never in love; I don’t think they were truly fond of each other till I was a teenager. True romance…it’s just not something I longed for. It was something for storybooks, not life.”

“Well, I guess that’s not so bad, then.”

She hesitated, then let out an exasperated sigh. “I—I just…” Eleanora pressed her hands against her temples. “By the gods, I do feel deprived. Every time I pass a really excellent pair of tits and don’t get to bury my face in them, I feel I’ve lost a piece of myself I will never get back!”

The prince stared at her in open shock.

And then he burst out laughing.

“I’m glad you’re amused,” she said wryly after a minute of this. Sharidan, gasping for breath, actually slumped over against the wall next to him. “All right, settle down,” Eleanora said in mounting alarm. “If you fall off the roof your mother will have me beheaded.”

“Right…there…with you,” he wheezed, still holding his ribs. “I’m sorry, I just…” Chuckling, he grinned widely at her. “You’ll think this is crazy, but of all the women I’ve found myself in secluded corners or balconies with… I think you’re the first one I truly get.”

“I’m still not sleeping with you,” she informed him, unable to keep the grin off her own face now.

“Well, I mean, sure. At this point, I honestly think that would ruin it.”

His laughter had subsided enough, and the noise of the city was distant enough, that they could clearly hear a series of sharp clicks.

Eleanora straightened up. “What was that?”

Sharidan, by contrast, slumped in his seat, laughter suddenly gone. “Oh, for…ugh. Hello, Quentin.”

“Good evening, your Majesty.” A man stepped around the corner onto their little stretch of roof—an almost painfully nondescript man in a suit who wouldn’t have looked out of place behind the counter of a bank, and yet also appeared quite comfortable on a damp rooftop in the middle of the night. As he came into view, he turned the knob of his silver pocketwatch a few more times, making it click again, and tucked it into his pocket. “Ready to go home?”

“Eleanora, this is Quentin,” Sharidan said sourly, waving a hand at the man with poor grace. “Who I am surprised to find here, slumming around the city in person. Last I heard, he was up for promotion to the city bureau chief at Imperial Intelligence.”

“Yes, and I thank you for the ringing recommendation, your Highness,” Quentin said mildly. “Of course, since I am the only local agent who’s been able to keep up with your little excursions, and your Highness’s ulterior motive was quite obvious, it wasn’t seriously considered. And if I may say, it was altogether a lesser caliber of chicanery than we at Intelligence are accustomed to expecting from your Highness. Is your Highness feeling well?”

“Yeah, well, they can’t all be gems,” Sharidan said irritably. “And quit calling me that. Honestly, Quentin, how long have we known each other? After all, you’ve been to almost every party I’ve crashed. At some point you ought to just start calling me by my first time.”

“Yes, your Highness, I’ll get right on that. You may wish to brace yourself, young lady.”

The air shimmered with a blue haze and a faint whine sounded in the edges of her vision, and then the whole world vanished.

The bench went with it; she and Sharidan were both sent sprawling to the floor, though the prince at least caught himself—due to experience, she suspected. He immediately bounded to his feet and gallantly offered her a hand up.

They were in a small outdoor courtyard, with a gate on one side and a door into a stone building on the other.

“First time being teleported?” Sharidan asked.

“Yes,” she admitted, brushing off her dress. “I was expecting something less…annoying.”

He grinned and opened his mouth to reply, but Quentin cleared his throat. Looking over at him, Eleanora realized there were two Azure Corps battlemages standing at attention in the background, doubtless the reason for their sudden change of scenery.

“If you will please follow these gentlemen, your Highness, we shall have you home as quickly and quietly as possible.”

“Yes, yes,” Sharidan said with a sigh, then turned to Eleanora and smiled. “Well! This evening did not go like I had planned, but oddly enough, I can’t recall having enjoyed myself more. What say we try for something a little less boisterous on our next outing?”

She raised an eyebrow, and folded her arms. “We will not be doing this again, Sharidan.”

The prince gazed at her with that knowing little smile for a long moment, and then winked. “Yes, we will.”

With no more ado, he turned and strolled toward the wall. One of the battlemages moved to open the door for him, and then both followed him through and shut it behind.

Eleanora stared at this momentarily before turning to Quentin. “Is it treasonous to slap the Crown Prince?”

“If so,” he said dryly, “it’s treason Intelligence has no interest in prosecuting. We have much bigger and less numerous fish to fry. Now, let’s get you home, my lady.”

“Right,” she said with a heavy sigh. “Time to face the music.”

“I can’t say whether you’ve been missed,” he said. “If so, this will become difficult; we’ll find out upon reaching your home. If not, I can insert you carefully and your family will be none the wiser.”

Eleanora had taken one trudging step toward the gate, but now paused, turning to him in surprise. “I thought… I mean, why would you want to protect…me?”

“Intelligence is in the business of gathering information,” Quentin replied, “and I won’t pretend the Empress has no interest in politically inconveniencing your father, in particular. With regard to the Prince’s little…adventures…however, there is a policy in place. Making them public would embarrass the Throne, not to mention exposing his Highness to danger, as he lacks the sense to refrain from them. It is altogether easier to silence the whole matter as much as possible. This is why we prefer it when he chooses compatriots who have their own secrets to protect. Things can become unpleasant if I have to be…persuasive.”

“Say no more,” she muttered. “Although… I am sorry to put you out so. This must be a serious inconvenience, and you surely have more important things to do.”

This time it was Quentin who paused in the act of turning to go; he regarded her almost quizzically. “Hm. You know, of all the young women the prince has gallivanted about with, you are the first to offer me an apology.”

“Then his Highness has rather poor taste in women,” she said archly, “which does my ego no favors. Surely you could do something to lean on him? This must be a drain on your resources.”

“Well.” The spy actually smiled at her. “It’s all for a good cause. A prince who can outmaneuver his security detail will become an Emperor who can outwit all the enemies who will be constantly braying at his heels. And if he makes us work a little harder in the meantime…what are we here for, after all?”

“For the Empire,” she murmured, already deep in thought.

 

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