Tag Archives: Empress Theasia

Bonus #37: Divine Right, part 4

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The great double doors were limned in white destruction for an instant before crumpling under the onslaught. Very fortunately they were too heavy to completely disintegrate, but burst violently inward, one sloughing off its hinges in the process. Even so, several shards of wood flew across the room and a couple of the thieves cursed, one doubling over in pain.

Theasia flinched at the sudden violence, and was immediately annoyed at herself for it. An Empress could not afford to evince such basic human weaknesses; a Princess should already be rising above them. Of course, behind her, Asfaneh squealed in terror, which made her feel a little better by comparison.

The horses still hitched to her carriage liked all this least of all, screaming and rearing against their bonds. Someone was trying to calm them, probably the same diminutive woman who’d taken over their care, but Theasia did not turn to look, even as panicked equine bellowing and the clatter of abused hitching continued. Her attention remained on what came through the door.

They were very professional, if she was any judge. The soldiers streamed in through the opening they had forcibly made two at a time, immediately peeling away to both sides with their staves raised and trained on the arc of Eserites, establishing a firing line across the front of the warehouse. Eight of them in total, men in Madouri crimson and gray, who moved with the fluid precision of experienced or at least well-trained troops.

She did note, though, that the Duke had let his armorers fall behind the times. These men carried the same heavy thunderbusses used in the Enchanter Wars, thick staves with cumbersome charging levers attached to their clicker mechanisms, exposed power crystals in their hafts, and copper tracings along their etched runes to help direct electric currents. Multiple points of potential failure, those; the things were finicky and tended to malfunction unless maintained with the most exacting care. But there were a lot of them still around after the wars, and in addition to being cheaper than newer staves which offered more reliability and a better rate of fire, the old models still hit harder per shot. Theasia had only contempt for any commander who felt this tradeoff a good bargain. These were the same weapons which had failed utterly to stand up to Horsebutt and his mounted archers.

“Easy,” Catseye murmured, and the Princess wasn’t sure who she was talking to. Between the pounding boots of invading soldiers and the ongoing panic of the horses, only she and the few nearest thieves were able to hear the quiet admonition.

A cloud of dust drifted through the warehouse, concentrated at the doors from whose ruin it came, and obscuring the street outside; the glow of the streetlamps and the feebler lamps inside made an eerie fog of it. The soldiers were standing right in it with uncovered faces, but they neither coughed nor closed their eyes even momentarily. Theasia had never had occasion to see House Madouri’s troops in action, but obviously they were soldiers worthy of the name. A number of House Guard forces were either ceremonial props or glorified brigands. She took note of this.

“Secure!” barked one man, and Theasia marked him as the commander. Nearest the door on the right, no visible insignia. That was standard procedure; Imperial codes of war forbade the targeting of officers as their lack turned a force of troops to a general menace to civilians and the countryside. In scuffles between Houses, the killing of officers was common for exactly that reason.

Two more silhouettes appeared out of the swirling dust—quite dramatically, Theasia had to admit. At the fore was the Duke himself, dashing as always in a long tailored coat in his House colors, wearing a grim expression and with a shamshir bared in his hand. He strode boldly into the warehouse with his weapon upraised, then spoiled his posturing by squinting and heaving an involuntary cough against a mouthful of dust.

She managed not to smirk.

“Princess, are you unharmed?” he asked. She had to give him credit, the tone was perfect. Sharp and commanding without being brusque, the voice of a noble in control of himself and the situation. Without doubt he’d had actual bards coach him on how to posture in front of others during a crisis. She had.

Theasia lifted her chin infinitesimally. “I was only just brought here, my lord Duke, and have not been mishandled. These thieves are…oddly personable.”

“I’m sure,” he began with exactly the wry tone she expected, just like the hero in a chapbook would have. Theasia had seen enough plays and read enough novels, both modern and classical, to be able to recite the entire next five minutes of conversation in advance, complete with stage directions, and was not looking forward to it. Thus, she found herself actually grateful when Asfaneh went shrilly off script.

“Oh, thank the gods you’ve come, your Grace!” the lady squalled, barely visible behind a rank of now-bemused thieves, except that she was hopping up and down and waving one hand. This flailing spooked one of the horses which their current handler had only just begun to calm.

Theasia did not miss the tiny flicker of annoyance that passed across Ravaan’s expression, and had to firmly expel amusement from her own. Poor fellow, he so wanted his dramatic moment. Unfortunately for him, this was not his play.

She did take advantage of the distraction to glance past him, taking in his companion without letting her gaze linger. Casper Scheinrich, in the final analysis, made for a more striking presence than the dashing young hero his liege was trying to be, which she suspected would have been unwelcome news to them both. Taller by half a head, he had his blond hair slicked back in a way which made his pale features even sharper; his own lack of coloration was a stark contrast to the tight, sweeping black coat he wore, the traditional garment of a Vidian priest.

Unintentionally, she met his blue eyes directly. The man inclined his head to her in a respectful gesture, then resumed sweeping his gaze back and forth across the assembled thieves.

“I am beyond relieved to find your Highness in good health,” Ravaan said with ostentatious sincerity. “It is only by the grace of the Gods I learned of this. Fortunately, I keep an ear to the ground—I’ve found it a good habit to cultivate, when one is trying to uproot a stubborn nest of bandits.”

“I’ll. Just. Bet,” Catseye drawled. There were a few snickers from her companions.

Ravaan fixed his gaze on her, along with a disapproving scowl. “Are you in charge of this rabble then, woman?”

“This is a posse, boy,” she said sardonically. “Arguably a band, if you like the classics. A rabble doesn’t stare you down when you level weapons. But sure, if you’ve got something to say, you can say it to me.”

“Charmed, I’m sure,” he quipped, even quirking his eyebrow. Gods, he’d apparently seen all the same plays she had, and wasn’t that a stinging indictment of her own tastes? “Very well, to business. I assume you people have done this for what you think is a good reason, but obviously whatever you hoped for is now off the table. You will immediately release the Princess to my custody.”

There came a shrill whimper from behind the group, and Theasia cleared her throat pointedly. Not that she would have admitted it, but she was starting to enjoy this just a little.

“And her companion, of course,” Ravaan added, almost managing not to look miffed.

Catseye blinked languidly, glanced back and forth along the ranks of his stony-faced soldiers, and then tilted her head like an inquisitive feline. “Or?”

For a span of three seconds, he actually looked taken aback. Scheinrich’s ever-moving eyes fixed on Catseye momentarily, then upon his master, before resuming their vigil.

“Come, now,” Ravaan said, gathering himself and frowning in patrician reproach. “I have a rank of military battlestaves leveled at your…what was it? Ah, yes, your posse. Excuse my befuddlement, but in the circles in which I move it is considered gauche to render overt threats of violence, so one strives to make them unnecessary. Perhaps you would be more comfortable if I leered and blathered something about your own charred corpse.”

“Now, son, the last thing I want is to criticize your sense of drama,” Catseye said, folding her arms, and Theasia could tell she was definitely enjoying this. “That was a hell of an entrance. One of the best I’ve ever seen, and I’m not just saying that. But you don’t seem to have considered the strategic implications of all this. For starters, you’ve got the Princess right in the line of fire your boys have laid out, there. Yourself, too, by the way.”

Ravaan hesitated, mouth slightly open, and his aristocratic self-mastery wavered. He shifted minutely backward, and went so far as to turn his head as if to glance at Scheinrich for support, though he quashed the gesture. Too late; the damage was done. It was the clearest confirmation of what Lord Shavayad had told her: the Duke was not the one making the plans in that pair. The slight lapse further revealed that Ravaan didn’t improvise well. He had come here expecting things to play out according to a certain script, had taken care to set it up thus, and at the first departure from it he was at a loss.

Scheinrich’s eyes had narrowed slightly, though. In what befuddled Ravaan, he saw meaning; the thieves were not sticking to the agreed upon plan, which meant they must have their own design. Theasia allowed herself to watch him directly now that he had focused his attention upon Catseye. Her right hand clenched unconsciously, rings and chains shifting against each other.

“So it is a stalemate,” he said aloud while Ravaan dithered, his Stalweiss accent slight enough to be barely perceptible. Clearly he had spent most of his life in Madouris, but had apparently come from his people’s home country, unlike the small clusters of local Stalweiss who were effectively just pale Tiraan. “Let us all do nothing hasty—these situations can suddenly resolve themselves in unforseeable ways.”

“Do tell,” Catseye simpered at him.

“Listen, you lot are lucky it’s me who found you first,” Ravaan said, and already he was reduced to blustering, puffing his chest out and raising his shamshir as if that were more threatening than the eight primed battlestaves. “As soon as the Emperor gets his hands on you, what he’ll do will redefine the Thieves’ Guild’s understanding of pain.”

“Seems to me we won’t have to worry about that if we’re charred corpses,” Catseye said with good cheer. “But since, again, your firing line is also facing the Princess, you might.”

“Now, look here,” he said peevishly. “You’ll get no possibility of mercy from the Silver Throne for this. Deal with me and it’ll go a lot better for you.”

“Ohh,” she mused. “So…you are offering us mercy, then.”

Theasia remained silent and as calm as she could manage, and was glad of it when Scheinrich’s unblinking gaze suddenly fixed upon her. There was no courteous nod this time; he smelled a rat.

“It is a prospect,” the Vidian said. “You can take no action while our weapons are upon you, and we cannot afford to harm the Princess. Clearly, we must come to some manner of arrangement.”

“You would really parlay with treasonous reprobates who have endangered my well-being?” Theasia asked, folding her hands primly before her. She immediately regretted that gesture, but neither Scheinrich nor the Duke appeared to notice it, and thus did not have occasion to note and wonder about her unusual jewelry.

“I must say I don’t care for the taste of it either, Princess,” Ravaan said with such perfect well-bred reluctance that it was clear he was back on a script he recognized. “Your own welfare is paramount, however. I will embrace an unseemly compromise if that is what it takes to save you.”

Theasia slowly drew in a breath, steeling herself for what must come next. All this, she had to acknowledge, was procrastination on her part, born of fear. This entire discussion was pointless, a chance for her and Catseye to amuse themselves at the Duke’s expense, and while that might be good enough for a Guild ruffian, she should demand better of herself. All that mattered had been getting them here. It was done, now it should be finished with.

Catseye had notice her inhalation, and was looking at her now.

“Got what you need, Princess?”

“That should be sufficient, yes,” Theasia replied as graciously as she could manage. On cue, all the thieves reached into their own coats.

The soldiers took a step forward in unison, raising their weapons higher. Ravaan peered at Theasia in open befuddlement.

Scheinrich’s eyes narrowed to blue slits.

“The lesson here, my lord Duke,” Theasia said, lifting her chin, “is not to reach too eagerly for low-hanging fruit. When your first overture to the Guild was rebuffed, you should have considered it final. When they later reached out to you in turn, you should have been far more suspicious.”

“Your Highness?” Ravaan raised his eyebrows quizzically. “With respect, I believe you may be confused as to—”

“Stop,” she said disdainfully. “Refrain from wasting my time, Ravaan. If it is not painfully clear to you already, this is not your scheme—it is mine. You are guilty of conspiring to abduct the Princess of Tiraas. That you planned to immediately return me safely home and take credit for the rescue does not make it any less treasonous.”

“How dare you!” he retorted, quite clearly aghast and insulted, and with none of his previous uncertainty or blustering. That fact might have made it more believable, had he not been a noble. This was precisely how they reacted to being fairly caught in their own lies: with completely sincere outrage at the idea that their actions might have consequences.

“Your Grace,” Scheinrich said quietly, “with respect, do not offer her the satisfaction. It is pointless; clearly this has been her plan from the beginning.”

A puff of air escaped Catseye’s nose and her shoulders jerked once in a silent little chuckle. “All this time, everybody thought the Princess was a piece to be moved on the board, when it turns out she’s a player. We live in interesting times.”

“You are a roguishly charming sort, Catseye,” Theasia said lightly. “I rather look forward to hearing your testimony.”

“I’ve got a simple rule about going to court, your Highness. Well, less a rule than a word: don’t. Still…testifying for the prosecution? That’d be a gas. Might be worth it just for the novelty.”

“All right, see here,” Ravaan said quickly, his voice beginning to rise in pitch. “You have nothing to gain by harming me, your Highness, and you already know I intended nothing but for you to be treated with the utmost respect. As you are clearly eager to step out of your father’s shadow, I see every prospect for us—”

“It’s too late, your Grace,” Scheinrich said, barely above a whisper, then raised his voice. “Sergeant at arms.”

Ravaan froze, then turned to him, already shaking his head. “No, Casper. I know what you’re thinking, and it’s out of the question.”

“There’s no compromise to be made here,” Scheinrich insisted softly. “Treason is treason. The degree of the offense matters less than who witnesses it.”

“Absolutely not!” Ravaan said vehemently. “You can’t even consider—”

“Ravaan,” the older man said, his tone oddly gentle. “It’s them, or us. Her life or yours.”

The Duke stared at him in silence for a drawn-out beat, then quite abruptly turned his back on the Princess and the thieves, his shoulders hunching in shame.

“This truly will mean dark days for the Empire.” Scheinrich’s own aspect was cool and collected as he turned instead to face them, meeting Theasia’s gaze without flinching. “But House Madouri will survive. Sergeant at arms, you may fire at will.”

“M-my lord?” the man said uncertainly. Disciplined they may be, but even House Madouri’s most trusted troops balked at orders to assassinate the heir to the Imperial throne. Interesting, and worth knowing.

Theasia was already raising her fingers to her brooch, but despite previous orders that they would wait for her signal, she wasn’t the first. A luminous sphere of blue light flashed into place around one of the thieves, kicking off a chain reaction. Each charm in succession activated, each personal shield flickering alight and then merging into a single long bubble, putting of sparks and a constant crackle of arcane power.

Upon reviewing Professor Araani’s early designs, she had responded to his request for further direction with orders that the charms should be suitable for soldiers fighting in formation, and thus could not interfere with one another at close range. Quite the contrary, the design he had finally produced would connect to any identical charm within its radius, forming a single arcane shield. According to Araani, this had the added effect of strengthening the overall defense, as stress upon any point would be distributed across the entire network, giving it effectively no single weak spot. In order to break it through brute force, an enemy would have to overpower every linked charm simultaneously.

That immediately proved highly relevant.

The House troops had no idea what they were seeing, but a soldier had one instinctive reaction to enemies at close range suddenly lighting up with unfamiliar magic.

The thunderbusses discharged very nearly in unison, a volley of high-powered lightning capable of splitting stone walls at that range slamming into the Guild’s defenses. The shields sparked, whined, and blazed nearly white, but they held.

Theasia did not begrudge herself a tiny gasp of relief.

“Drop ’em!” Catseye bellowed above the noise of Asfaneh’s shrill keening and the renewed panic of the horses, and Theasia, in unison with the thieves, reached up to switch off her shielding charm. The barrier flickered unevenly out of existence.

One of the charm’s weaknesses was that weapons could not be fired through it from the inside (yet; the Professor was optimistic that that could be overcome). That made this second the most dangerous part of the whole encounter, when they stood exposed before their enemies, but those lever-action thunderbusses had weaknesses of their own, including that they had to be manually recharged before they could be fired again. Well-drilled troops could fire a shot every four seconds. Four seconds was less time than the thieves needed to whip out wands and return fire.

Their mismatched collection of little sidearms didn’t even approach the firepower of the soldier’s staves. At that range, there was no reason they needed to.

Scheinrich stepped in front of the Duke even as lightning blazed all around them, the shield of golden light with which he wreathed himself and his master rippling as it was clipped by wandshots. The thieves had been specifically instructed not to kill the Duke, but in such a tumult, accidents happened. Even if some of them had been inclined to make an accident happen, Theasia had expected this outcome; the average priest’s divine shield could stand up to multiple hits from an average lightning wand.

Silence did not fall, though every single Madouri soldier did. The horses had had absolutely enough of this and appeared to be trying to tip over the carriage, and Asfaneh was wailing ceaselessly as if she had been shot, which Theasia knew was impossible. The room stank of smoke, ozone, and a surprising meaty smell. It took her a couple of seconds to realize, with abject horror, that no one nearby was barbecuing at midnight. That was charred human flesh.

That was not a useful emotion, so she crushed it down.

“So,” Theasia said, stepping forward out of the Guild’s formation and raising her right hand, “it’s treason, then.”

Scheinrich released the Duke to turn back to her, though he kept the golden shield up around them both.

She moved the fingers of her left hand to place the tips of the middle two against the sapphire positioned in her palm, activating the enchanted device. Light blossomed in the sapphires set into the gems along her right hand, accompanied moments later by tiny arcs of loose electricity. The network of enchantments included what Araani called a grounding charm, creating a sympathetic connection to the earth through which any electricity which escaped the weapon’s innate directional charms would be redirected without passing through her body.

Scheinrich stared her down, secure behind the power of his god, as Theasia stalked toward him. She was not deterred; the well of divine magic might be infinite, but the amount one man could draw was not.

Theasia raised her right hand and pressed it flat against the bubble of the shield, causing it to ripple and spark. Then she added the tip of her little finger to the crystal on her left palm.

Power surged, her entire hand crackled with renewed arcs of contained lightning, and Scheinrich’s shield turned white under the abuse. A high chiming noise rose in the air around them, sounding like nothing so much as a bell in pain. Arcane pounded divine toward a conclusion the Circle of Interaction made foregone.

The cleric’s shield fizzled, and he stumbled back, both he and the Duke receiving a nasty shock from the burst of suddenly uncontested magic. Not a lethal one, just disorienting; channeling enough power to crush the shield at a single blow would have instantly burned out her weapon, which was why she had instead worn it down over time.

Scheinrich retained enough presence of mind to push Ravaan roughly away from himself, throwing his arms wide to block him from Theasia. Ineffectual, but revealing. Even in the last extremity of danger, he did not flee or try to sacrifice his master. Conniving and self-serving the man might be, but ultimately, his loyalty was real.

Not that it mattered.

Theasia took two steps to her right, re-positioning herself so that her line of fire at Scheinrich would not arc through him onto Ravaan, and added a fourth finger to the crystal on her left hand.

The power which raged from her fingers was not like the single, neat shot of a battlestaff. It was a constant torrent, a storm of wild arcing bolts that surged over the priest’s body, consuming him in searing arcane light. He was hurled the entire width of the warehouse to impact the wall and then slump to the ground, unmoving.

That was also as much as the weapon itself could handle. Even as Theasia withdrew her fingers from the activator crystal, its output was fading to desultory little crackles; glancing down, she could see that several of the sapphires were cracked, and patches of the gold had corroded where it had been partially transmuted under the strain to something which wasn’t quite gold. Ah, well. She had known beforehand that the device was only good for one shot. That was not what occupied her mind now.

Theasia Tirasian’s entire life had been predominated by a feeling of weakness. Even the trappings of Imperial power which festooned her at all times only served to underscore the fragility of it all. The rule of House Tirasian was, at best, tolerated, and that only because her father was exceptionally good at playing the Houses against each other. She herself was a frail creature, sick with something for which no possible cure existed, doomed to a short life spent in bouts of intermittent pain and illness.

Yet at that moment, standing in the dark heart of her city with a fistful of lightning, an enemy charred to ruin before her and another cowering at her feet, she had a vision of the future. Her future, and that of the Empire.

Her Empire.

Ravaan had staggered to his feet, staring at her with eyes wide as the moon. When she turned to face him, he stumbled backward reflexively—and then, belatedly, noble pride reasserted itself and he straightened his spine. At some point he had dropped his sword and now had nothing with which to face her except his own hauteur. That he drew around himself like a suit of armor, tilting his head back to look coldly down his nose at what he must think was his approaching death.

Theasia stepped within arm’s reach, raising her hand and its enchanted weapon, and straightened his tie.

The Duke’s eyebrows drew together in an uncertain little frown. The Princess smiled up at him through her lashes, putting on the insipidly simpering smile she used to beguile men at court who were too stupid to be worth bothering with but too powerful to ignore.

The glacial cold of her voice stood in stark contrast to her expression.

“No one will believe you.”

It was satisfying in a way that was almost sexual, seeing so close the naked fear which peeked through his aristocratic composure.

Oh, there was going to be no end of cleanup necessary after this night’s work. Shavayad would help immensely—but then, he was something upon which she would also need to get a grip, him and whatever angle he was working. Handling Ravaan after this was going to be dicey; an enemy under control was in many ways more useful than an ally, but that was a path fraught with countless risks. She had not only drawn the very personal interest of the Theives’ Guild but handed them advanced enchantments to play with, which she had better see distributed to the Imperial Army posthaste lest they fall behind. And her parents. They were going to eat her alive.

For the first time in her life, Theasia felt not a hint of doubt that she would handle it all.

“And now, my lord Duke, let us discuss the future.”

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Bonus #36: Divine Right, part 3

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Teenagers sneaking out of their houses at night were a cliché so ancient the trope was well-represented not only in the modern chapbooks Theasia had been able to sneak, but in the staid old bardic sagas her mother approved for her. She had always rather resented those fictional kids their freedom. As it turned out, sneaking out of a palace secured by a sizable army, a corps of sorcerers, and an invisible network of spies leavened among the very servants was slightly less of a prospect for a teenage girl than tunneling out of a prison using a spoon. She had given up on it by age sixteen, when she had never once made it to the outer walls, let alone past them, and the repercussions of getting caught had started to eat significantly into her already scant freedoms.

Amazing how much easier it was when she was abetted by Imperial Intelligence itself.

“Oh, your Highness, I really think this is a bad idea,” Asfaneh fretted even as the carriage emerged from the courtyard into the street running alongside the Palace, totally unchallenged. “Please, can’t we go back? This is extraordinarily dangerous, how can it possibly be worth it?”

“I appreciate you coming with me, Asfaneh,” she said with a kind smile. Her mother had taught her not only the smile, which was as carefully constructed as a suspension bridge, but the trick of “addressing” the concerns of subordinates by politely failing to address them. Truthfully, she didn’t much like Lady Asfaneh Sakhavenid, but it was only because of the woman’s personality; she had no moral objection to her and no cause to complain of her service. Quite the contrary.

An Imperial Princess obviously needed ladies-in-waiting, a need which was complicated by Theasia’s medical condition. She had to be accompanied by nurses whenever possible, without letting it be known that she was. Her parents had found a solution by carefully fostering a few insignificant noble families like House Sakhavenid, which (like House Tirasian until very recently) only barely qualified as nobility and were treated with disdain by wealthier and more influential Houses. It was useful for many reasons to have a core of smaller Houses scattered around the Empire who were both grateful to House Tirasian and aware that the rug could be yanked out from under them if they displeased; just one of the benefits was the supply of noble daughters who could be trained in medicine and sworn to secrecy. The prospect that fidelity to the Tirasians might provide access to the capital and the Palace for their youngest generation could then be dangled in front of more recalcitrant Houses as well. Not that any of those would ever have a member placed close to the Princess, but as her father had explained to her, a political action should serve multiple purposes, or not bothered with.

Asfaneh was an Izarite priestess of low rank and ability, but a competent nurse with an encyclopedic knowledge of the various medicines, alchemical and mundane, which Theasia’s condition might require, and what symptoms called for the application of each. She was also a feather-headed puff of fluff who sighed at handsome boys, obsessively read execrable poetry, and generally behaved like the worst stereotype of an Izarite—but she was also the only one of Theasia’s attendants who had gone so far as to intercede with the Empress to argue that Theasia needed more freedom more than she needed coddling. In the face of that loyalty, Theasia was very careful never to let slip how much Asfaneh’s personality annoyed her, and took pains to see to it she was well-rewarded for her service. In fact, she felt rather guilty about involving the poor woman in this escapade, but she had not been willing to risk this without the accompaniment of one of her nurses, and the nature of the adventure required the one she trusted most.

Now, the tightening of Asfaneh’s mouth indicated that she had noticed Theasia’s little trick and didn’t appreciate it, but she looked mutely out the carriage window instead of arguing. Theasia continued to smile blandly, despite her nervousness which she felt like an electric charge buzzing in her limbs.

All this had been carefully arranged. It was practically scripted; if all went well, she would have accomplished everything she set out to and be back in her bed before her parents ever marked her absence. But so much could go wrong…

She looked down at her hands folded in her lap, watching the shifting light of passing street lamps gleam upon the jewelry there where it managed to penetrate the curtains. It was a more florid piece than she favored, a construct of jeweled rings connected by loops of worked gold and stretches of twisted golden chain, all linked to a sizable sapphire in a golden setting sewed right into her fingerless satin gloves at the back of each hand. More dangling chains tied each jewel to lavish bracelets, and the rest was thankfully hidden by the wide, lacy sleeves currently in vogue. In fact, those wires twined all the way up her arms and around her upper body, where they were linked to less extravagantly designed crystal settings hidden beneath her dress. Having this thing made had been the main reason for the delay, and even so it had been very rapid work for a jeweler; Shavayad’s man in the city clearly was accustomed to strange projects and discreet orders. It was impressive enough that he had re-worked Araani’s cumbersome gauntlet into this, let alone so swiftly.

Two weeks after their conversation in the Araanis’ basement, everything had finally been arranged. Now came what the spymaster had called “the fun part.”

Theasia had firmly steeled herself against reacting to that statement.

“What unusual pieces, your Highness,” Asfaneh commented, having noticed the direction of Theasia’s gaze. “I never saw you wear those before. In fact… I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that.”

“Exotic, aren’t they? It’s a Sheng design,” the Princess lied with her bland smile firmly in place. “To be quite honest, I don’t think it is to my taste, but I find myself curious whether I can spark a fashion. How many times do you think I need be seen in public wearing these before all the ladies in Tiraas absolutely must have a set?”

Asfaneh pursed her lips for a moment. “Your Highness, I don’t wish to overstep,” she said with the hesitant condescension of someone who intended to widely overstep, “but I’m growing more and more concerned about you with everything I learn tonight. The jewelry is one thing, but…sneaking out to a party? These diversions are growing dangerous, and you mustn’t let them become a pattern. Believe me, your Highness, I understand about wanting to test boundaries! I was your age once, after all.” She was exactly two years older than Theasia, still not old enough to legally work as a secretary in a government office. She’d been younger than Theasia was now when they had met. “But one must be mindful of consequences! The damage to your reputation is the least of what could go wrong with an…an adventure like this. Princess, please take no offense, but you have been very sheltered and I begin to wonder if you’re truly aware of the concept of danger.”

This was one of those times when Lady Asfaneh’s proven track record of devoted loyalty was all that stood between her and a slapping. On average Theasia smiled through at least one such event a day.

“I’m aware of more than you realize, Asfaneh,” she said pleasantly. “As always, I appreciate your willingness to accompany me despite your own misgivings.”

“I wish you would stop doing that,” the lady said with overt annoyance for the first time in their relationship, and Theasia blinked. Now, how to go about encouraging more of that? She found it both more likable and more worthy of respect than all her years of simpering.

The carriage rocked slightly as if something had impacted it, then came to a stop, one of the horses whickering in confusion.

“What’s happening?” Asfaneh asked in alarm. “Why are we stopping? This is the middle of nowhere!”

This was close to the center of Tiraas, barely four blocks from the Palace itself, the absolute minimum distance they had to travel to reach a spot where there would be nobody on the street even in the middle of the night.

The carriage door abruptly opened and a man in a ragged black coat stepped swiftly inside. “Good evening, ladies!”

Asfaneh screamed and scrabbled away from him—but rather than retreating to a corner, she stumbled awkwardly across the space to plant herself in front of (and half on top of) Theasia. “Get out! Get out!”

She went silent when he raised a wand, a thick shaft of wood as long as his forearm, deeply engraved with enchanting symbols along its length and with a softly glowing power crystal protruding from its angled handle. Theasia noted it was a newer model with no charging lever attached to its clicker mechanism, meaning it could be fired as fast and as frequently as its wielder desired, at least until it overheated. The man did not point it at them, at least, but its presence was a firm enough message.

“I apologize for this interruption,” he said, grinning, his gravelly voice suiting his scruffy attire and thick stubble perfectly. “I’m afraid you’ll be late to your party. But don’t you worry, ladies, this evening should be plenty diverting.”

“Do you have any idea who—”

“Course we do,” a woman interrupted Asfaneh, climbing into the carriage from the other side. She was as roughly-dressed as the man and otherwise unremarkable in appearance, except for her vivid green eyes, a shade of viridian that seemed almost to glow in the dim light. “And may I just say, it’s a real honor to make your acquaintance, Princess! And you too, miss, of course.”

Asfaneh was still trying to block Theasia with her body, which involved a lot of awkward shifting and wiggling now that she had to do it from two directions. Theasia gently took her by the shoulders and pushed her aside onto the seat.

“Her title is ‘Lady,’” she said with the driest aloofness she could muster. “I hope my driver has not been harmed?”

“Course not, whaddaya take us for? Some kinda thugs?” The rough-looking man grinned as if this were a fantastic joke, pulling the carriage door shut and settling onto the seat across from them.

There came a muffled slap of reins and the vehicle started moving again, the green-eyed woman shutting her door even as they took off into the night.

“You will suffer for this, I promise you,” Asfaneh spat. “Once the Emperor learns what you’ve done, it’ll be your heads on pikes!”

“Young lady, this is the twelfth century,” Green Eyes said with a smirk. “Nobody uses pikes for any reason, much less for heads.”

“Might put our heads on plates,” her companion mused. “Whaddaya think? A nice silver platter? I think that’d set off my chiseled features pretty good.”

“Sarsamon’s too soft a touch for that, way I hear it,” she said amiably. “’Sides, beheading’s for traitorous nobles. Couple of trash like us abducting a member of the Imperial family, that’s a hanging.”

“Oh, well that’s no good,” he grumbled. “All that swingin’ around, how’m I supposed to keep my good side to the audience?”

“You’re insane,” Asfaneh blurted.

“Shh,” Theasia soothed, patting her shoulder and causing her jewelry to rattle. “Please compose yourself, Lady Asfaneh. They would have harmed us if they intended to.”

“That’s right, ladies,” the woman said airily. “You just sit back and relax, leave the work to us. We’re gonna go for a ride and have a little stopover. So long as everybody stays polite and professional, there’s not a single reason anybody should get so much as their hair ruffled. I promise we mean you no harm.”

“As if I would believe that!” Asfaneh snapped.

“Let’s not provoke them,” Theasia murmured, patting her again. “Just do as they say and remain calm. And when all this is over, you can tell me ‘I told you so.’ It’s something to look forward to, is it not?”

Her lady-in-waiting gave her a truly indescribable look. But at least she fell quiet.

Their new destination was a warehouse in one of the rising industrial districts, with a large door easily wide enough to admit the carriage. Torches and oil lamps lit the space, barely adequately; when the carriage doors were opened and they were directed to disembark, Theasia looked out upon a cavernous chamber whose ceiling and corners were lost to shadow.

All according to plan. Practically scripted. She was in control. She repeated this like a mantra as if it would ease the mounting speed of her heartbeat. Theasia could control her expression with practiced ease, but the doctors had warned her against stressing any of her organs excessively. One had admitted, when she pressed, that a heart attack would very likely be her cause of death, and that was practically optimal, considering how much faster it was than death by failure of the liver or kidneys.

“Princess, run!” Asfaneh abruptly screamed as soon as they were out of the carriage and surrounded by scruffy Thieves’ Guild reprobates. The lady bodily shoved the nearest thief away from Theasia, a gesture which proved totally ineffectual.

Theasia, of course, did not move, and would not have even had she not been here by her own design. Run where? They were shut in and surrounded. She was progressively revising her opinion of Asfaneh, who had considerably more courage than she had realized, but even less sense.

The man she had tried to body-slam stood a head taller and twice as broad; he was barely jostled, but turned a scowl on the young lady and raised a hand.

“Hey, Brick,” said the green-eyed woman, emerging from the carriage last. “You want your fingers broken in any particular order, or should I improvise?”

He hesitated, grimaced, and then lowered his hand and bowed to Asfaneh, to her visible amazement. “Beggin’ your pardon, miss, my apologies. Force o’ habit. We’re just simple thieves, after all, an’ not used to such…esteemed company.”

She squeaked and scurried over to Theasia, where she clung to the Princess’s arm.

“Welp! Here we are,” Green Eyes said, sweeping a grandiose bow and flinging out one arm to gesture around the empty warehouse and the gaggle of thugs. Theasia quickly took stock; the thieves were watching her mostly with a kind of bemusement, which was encouraging. She had expected leering. There was no sign of her driver, but a thin woman even younger than herself was tending to the horses. That was all she could take in with a single glance, but the woman kept speaking so the Princess quickly resumed meeting those eerie eyes. “Welcome to this miscellaneous spot in the manufacturing district! Please don’t bother memorizing the location; the poor sap who owns this joint doesn’t know we’re here and wouldn’t be happy about it. We aren’t quite daft enough to bring you to a real hideout.”

“Drat,” she said neutrally. “I shall have to re-work my escape plan entirely.”

That earned her several grins, including from the speaker, who seemed to be in charge. “I will be your host this evening; you can call me Catseye. You know Spiff, of course.” The ragged fellow from the carriage ride grinned and tipped his hat, winking at Asfaneh. “And despite Brick’s little lapse, rest assured you’re not here to be roughed up in any way, shape, or form. I’d introduce everybody else, but you don’t care and a lot of the lads prefer their anonymity.”

“Catseye?” Asfaneh said incredulously. “Spiff? Those can’t possibly be names!”

“This Empire was recently brought to its knees by someone called Horsebutt,” Theasia pointed out.

“Bit of Imperial propaganda, that,” Catseye said amiably. “Heshenaad translates more as ‘the space behind the horse;’ it’s an old equestrian term from Calderaas, referring to how not to handle horses. You don’t ever wanna approach them from their blind spot. The Empire misnamed him on purpose to make him sound ridiculous, which pretty much backfired when we then got our heshenaads kicked by the guy with the silly name.”

Theasia raised an eyebrow. “Our?”

“Hey, we may be thieves,” Catseye said, raising one of her own, “but we’re all Tiraan here.”

There came a muffled throat-clearing from a young woman in an overlarge coat, with a scarf hiding all of her face save her black hair and almond-shaped eyes.

“Except Wakizashi,” Catseye said with a sigh, “who would like to remind everyone that we are a brutish and savage people with a history no longer than the fall of last autumn’s leaves.”

Wakizashi bowed.

“Wakizashi,” Theasia said, tilting her head. “That’s a Sheng term, is it not?”

There came a beat of silence, in which the Sifanese woman’s glare turned murderous, followed by uproarious laughter from every other thief in the warehouse. Asfaneh pressed herself against the Princess amid the tumult, wrapping an arm around her protectively.

“Kid, I like you,” Catseye said, grinning at Theasia.

“How charming. Finally, something worth noting in my diary.”

“Well, timing being what it is, we’re gonna be here a little while,” the thief said, and clapped her hands loudly. “Let’s have some damn hospitality, already, you louts are making us look bad! Come on, roll out some seating and let’s bust open the refreshments.”

“What are they waiting for?” Asfaneh whispered while the thieves busied themselves fetching things from crates. Theasia just shook her head and patted her companion’s hand comfortingly.

“Luxury accommodations, as requested!” Brick proclaimed, setting down the second barrel a few feet behind them. The big man whisked off his coat and draped it over the two upright barrels, forming a makeshift bench.

“Good evening, ladies!” said another thief, approaching with a grin, a tin of salted fish and a box of crackers. “Tonight’s menu is herring, caught in the majestic waters of our very own Gulf of Punamanta, probably at some point in the last six months, chased by a local specialty: machine-formed nautical biscuits, made right here in Tiraas, the very jewel of our Empire. I recommend putting a little fish on each cracker, it makes it harder to taste both. And here’s Spangle with the wine list!”

The gestured grandly with the cracker box at another man, this one a lean Westerner with his hair up in braids threaded with beads and metal charms, who was holding a visibly dusty jug.

“You are in luck, your Highness,” he declaimed. “Tonight we feature a particularly amusing Calderaan corn moonshine. I find this a surprisingly oakey vintage, with the most delicate notes of wheat and citrus, with an almost playfully presumptuous finish. It is, of course, white, as the main course is fish.”

Asfaneh whimpered and squeezed Theasia tighter.

“That’s very kind,” the Princess said politely, “but no thank you.”

“As you wish,” Catseye said amiably. “We have a bit of a wait ahead of us, though, and I’m afraid luxurious accommodations aren’t even adjacent to our list of priorities. This is a big nuisance for you girls at absolute best; I don’t mean to make it any more uncomfortable than necessary.”

Theasia gave Asfaneh’s hand a squeeze before the girl could say anything. Either she got the message or hadn’t been planning to chime in that time; at any rate, she stayed quiet, and Theasia turned her attention fully to Catseye, disregarding the offered “amenities.”

“What made you decide to become a thief?”

That, finally, pierced the veneer of conviviality, not just from Catseye but from the room at large. Smiles faded and the Guild members grew still, turning suddenly contemplative stares on her. Asfaneh squeaked softly at the attention.

Catseye, after a pause, tilted her head back, looking defiantly down her nose. “What made you decide to become a princess?”

“Hmm.” Despite the stress of the situation and the risk she was taking by effectively poking at this woman, Theasia couldn’t help being actually interested. All her life, the Thieves’ Guild had been presented in her social circles as a monster that lurked in every shadow. Yet obviously, these people had their own perspectives and reasons for the things they did. They certainly did not act quite like anyone else she had ever met. Thieves in stories were altogether more…menacing. “So you imply that all our lives are scripted, our fates preordained?”

“That’s more grandiosity than I would give to anything, ever,” Catseye said in a drier tone, tucking her hands into the pockets of her ratty longcoat. In the faded golden lamplight, her vivid green eyes seemed practically to glow; it was clear (and even a little unimaginative) where her nickname derived from. “Life is about what you do with what the gods hand you. You got a palace, an education, and a shitload of responsibilities nobody sane would ask for, with all the lavish luxuries to match. Me, pretty much the opposite. Same goes for most of those here. Either of us could’ve chosen to be resentful and make a general pest of ourselves. Or, we can take life seriously, stifle our complaints, and see how much we can get done in the situation we’ve got to work with.” She shrugged, quirking one side of her mouth in an ironic smile. “I know what I chose. After this night’s work, I’m getting increasingly curious about you.”

“Oy, Catseye!” Theasia was spared having to respond to that by the voice from the rafters; a scrawny boy who could hardly have been more than fifteen had appeared, balanced precariously on a beam in the upper darkness near the window through which he had just clambered. “We got incoming, looks like our mark. Two swells in fancy suits and six guards with swords and staves, just like he promised.”

“He’s early, though,” Catseye murmured, meeting Theasia’s gaze. “Nobles never can wait their bloody turn… All right, Selim, good work. Get back up there and sing out if anything unexpected happens, but remember to stay quiet about the rest of what’s planned.”

“I’m not stupid, Cat,” he snorted, shimmying back out into the night.

“Curtain’s rising! Places, everybody!” Catseye clapped her hands and the various thieves flowed into motion, arranging themselves in a menacing half-ring around their leader, the Princess, and Lady Asfaneh, who was trembling so hard Theasia was partially holding her up by now. “Ladies, this marks the last portion of the evening where I can personally guarantee that everyone involved will remain polite. You may wanna discreetly remove yourselves to behind the carriage over there.”

“You know very well that isn’t an option for me,” Theasia replied. “Asfaneh, here.”

It was easy, in light of her peculiar hand jewelry, to miss the relatively simple sapphire brooch she had pinned to the throat of her gown. Now, she withdrew an identical one from the cunningly hidden pocket in her skirts and carefully affixed it to Asfaneh’s own dress, to the woman’s clear confusion.

“Princess, what—”

“Lady Asfaneh,” she said, firmly but gently. “I want you to stand behind the thieves until I tell you otherwise. If at any point you feel you are in physical danger, grab this brooch and press down on the sapphire until it clicks. But not unless you actually discern a threat. Is that clear?”

“Your Highness, no,” she said, forgetting protocol. “I’m not going to leave you!”

“I’ll be right here,” Theasia insisted. “This is important. I will make it a command if I must, but I would rather you trust me.”

Asfaneh peered at her, wide-eyed, then glanced around at the watching thieves.

“I know what I’m doing,” Theasia said softly.

“I’m very much afraid you know less than you think, Princess,” the lady whispered.

“There is simply not time. Go, Asfaneh. Now.”

She drew in a deep breath and scrunched up her face, and for a moment Theasia feared she would have to ask the Guild to manhandle her attendant. But Asfaneh finally let out a tiny noise of dismay and turned, scurrying off through a gap in the thieves’ loose formation.

“You ready for this, Princess?” Catseye asked her quietly as she turned back to face the door.

Theasia shook her head. “Is anyone ever—”

Lightning flashed and the huge warehouse door exploded inward.

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Bonus #34: Divine Right, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Digitize27!

Wanting to punch his Grace the Duke of House Madouri in the throat was not even the worst part. His duplicious ilk were merely the background noise of her existence, and he was far from the lowest specimen of his kind. Her whole family had to put on polite smiles and solicitous manners when dealing with the menagerie of treacherous nobles who circulated through the Imperial court, but Theasia’s lot was far worse than that of her parents. They might be frustrated, but the worst thing happening to them was the progress of age.

Princess Theasia’s army of secretive healers had not come right out and said violent outbursts would be harmful to her health, but to parents who not only doted on a sickly daughter but feared for the Empire if the Tirasian bloodline were suddenly extinguished… These looming disasters were further complicated by the need to keep her condition a secret. If it became known that the future Empress suffered from the Banefall, the ever-circling vultures of the court would swoop in as one.

Constant monitoring, daily checkups, and regular applications of medicine whose value would have beggared some of the lesser Houses and magics so rare as to be borderline taboo all meant that Theasia went through her life with no greater hardship than an enforced limit on her degree of physical activity and the occasional twinge of pain. She had suffered the first symptoms of incipient organ failure at fourteen and received the diagnosis soon thereafter. Four years later, she was not particularly bothered, anymore, by the specter of death hovering constantly over her; it was amazing what a person could learn to live with.

To her parents and the Empire, however, Theasia Sabah Tirasian might as well have been some elven sculpture of butterfly wings and lily petals. Thus, not only could she not excoriate Duke Ravaan for being a slithering waste of blood for fear of the political trouble it would cause her father, she could not even vent to her parents later in private. Based on past experience, her mother would have her confined to bed for twenty-four hours to be certain her “episode” had caused no lingering effects.

So she refrained from glaring, but did not manage to smile. That much should give no offense; the young Princess had a reputation for being dispassionate in public. Encounters like this were the lion’s share of why.

“I share your concern about this issue, your Majesty,” Duke Ravaan said gravely to her father the Emperor about an issue of which he was almost certainly the cause. “I have just requested additional personnel from the Imperial foresters—this was only today, your Majesty may not have been yet informed—but to be frank, I consider it mostly a formality. The lands around Tiraas and Madouris are recovering well from the war, but it takes more than twenty years to re-grow a forest. I simply don’t think the woods provide enough cover to shelter bandits.”

“You make a good point, your Grace,” Emperor Sarsamon replied, his face solemn and attentive. Glancing over, Theasia noted with amusement that on his other side, her mother had not managed anything more than blank detachment in the face of Ravaan’s dissembling. The Empress was a serene soul by nature, but did not have her husband’s knack for pretending to like despicable people to their faces. “And yet, these ambushes continue. The banditry not only exists, but shows a distinct preference in targets. Perhaps you have some insight into the cause, if it is not brigands lurking in the forests?”

How she wished her father would just demand the boy account for his failure to secure the roads in Tiraan Province. They were even holding a private audience in a smaller chamber in the Palace, the only concession to Ravaan Madouri’s lesser stature being that he had not been offered a seat; there were none in the chamber save the ornate chairs on which the royal family sat. Had Theasia her way, this conversation would be held in the throne room, in full view of the court, while the young Duke stood below the Silver Throne like the worm he was to explain why Imperial revenue collectors kept being ambushed in his lands.

“There have been enough of the incidents now that it cannot be a coincidence,” Ravaan agreed, nodding with such a perfectly convincing expression of thought that Theasia itched to lunge from her chair and claw it off his face. She contented herself with drumming her fingers once on the armrest. “And in that time, the culprits have avoided apprehension. That, to me, suggests a political motive. Were they simply opportunists, and foolish enough to think the greater riches of an Imperial tax caravan worth the risks involved, they would have been destroyed by now.”

“Yet they remain free,” Empress Tamar said quietly. “They have weaponry and training sufficient to challenge Imperial soldiers, and appear to vanish.”

“There are no shortage of veterans and hardware still at loose ends, as your Majesties are of course aware,” said Ravaan. “It seems to me the only possibility is that they are blending into the populace.”

Or they’re being funded and hidden by a powerful interest, such as House Madouri, for example, Theasia did not say. Her parents did not require that she remain silent during such audiences, but anything openly suspicious or combative from her would result in lectures at best.

“Or perhaps,” her father said mildly, “someone with means is providing them shelter.”

Thank you, Father.

“There are no entrenched powers in Madouris or Tiraan Province who would dare openly defy the Silver Throne,” Ravaan replied with an unctuous smile. “Of that much I can assure your Majesties. There have been…difficulties…since my father’s passing. It was sudden and I fear he did not reveal everything he knew to me about the state of the province; I have been struggling, during this last year, to solidify my position while numerous interests within my domain vie to take advantage of the confusion. Perhaps your Majesties can relate?”

He dared compare himself to her father while knowingly contributing to the very travails about which he complained? Theasia gripped the arms of her chair for a moment before forcing her hands to relax. Ravaan, fortunately, did not seem to notice. Sarsamon simply acknowledged him with a magnanimous gesture of one hand, and the young Duke continued.

“I am deeply embarrassed to say that there is a significant well of anti-Imperial feeling in Tiraan Province left over from the war. Not enough to threaten the public order, but sufficient that even a few ambitious malcontents would have no trouble finding, at the very least, accomplices. Uprooting such diffuse troubles as public sentiment is a perennial challenge. I have even attempted to make overtures to the Thieves’ Guild. That…went nowhere.”

All three royals nodded once in understanding. Though they all knew the little beast was lying through his teeth—Imperial Intelligence prioritized sniffing out any whisper of rebellion and there was none in the vicinity of the capital—the intractability of the Guild was a matter on which all aristocracy was in harmony. Her father’s friendly overtures over the years had resulted only in (relatively) gentle reminders from Boss Rider of the role the Guild had played in toppling his predecessor.

“I am sympathetic indeed to your plight, your Grace,” Sarsamon said in a kindly tone, earning a smile from the young man before him. “You are correct; it is a most familiar feeling you describe. I realize that things have become strained between our Houses since the war and its aftermath, but I well recall the aid your father lent both to me and the Empire in our darkest hour, and have long regretted that the growing coldness between us deprived me of opportunities to make my gratitude known. Perhaps, in this shared trouble, we can begin to mend that breach.”

“There is nothing that would please me more, your Majesty,” Ravaan said, bowing and smiling with the overt triumph of a nobleman who had just gotten away with something. “It was in exactly this hope that I came before you today.”

“I am glad,” Sarsamon replied, folding his hands in his lap and continuing to bestow a fatherly smile in return. “As you have provided such valuable insight into this difficulty, I shall be pleased to lend the aid of the Throne to its resolution. Let us spare the foresters any needless risk and labor; it will surely not take long for Imperial Intelligence to locate and subdue our bandits once I direct its full attention to Madouris.”

Though young, Ravaan was at least good enough not to let his smile falter; the split-second freeze as he realized how he had outsmarted himself might have been invisible to any but a fellow politician.

“I am humbled and grateful for your Majesty’s attention,” he said, bowing again—more deeply, this time, which hid his expression for a precious second. “And I apologize most sincerely for putting the Throne to such trouble on my behalf.”

“Don’t worry, Ravaan,” Sarsamon said pleasantly. “I remember being in your position. Is it not better for the Empire to work as one? We must ever stand ready to aid each other at need.”

Impatient as Theasia often was with her father’s gentle way of handling the nobles, at times like this she had to acknowledge he was Emperor for a reason. No matter how many times he reminded them, they just kept forgetting that Sarsamon Tirasian was nobody’s pushover.

“My only concern,” Ravaan said, putting on a pensive expression, “is whether such an action might exacerbate existing anti-Imperial sentiment.”

“The public’s feelings must of course be considered,” Sarsamon agreed, nodding. “What would you suggest we do about this prospect?” As good as forcing to young snake to come out with whatever it was he was angling for. Theasia still would have preferred putting the boy firmly in his place, but she couldn’t deny her father’s methods got results.

“As we have discussed, your Majesty,” Ravaan replied earnestly, “the Houses of Tirasian and Madouri share both goals and difficulties, and the state of the Empire as a whole begs for greater unity. Our enemies both within and without our borders smell weakness and watch for openings. There is the additional similarity that both our Houses were diminished to a single branch by the depredations of the war. A single accident now could end the thousand-year history of House Madouri, or the hard-won stability of the Empire itself. With the greatest humility, your Majesties, it has inevitably occurred to me that these problems might have a single solution.”

Theasia’s blood went cold, so noticeably that she momentarily feared she might be having some new kind of attack.

“Are you suggesting,” Empress Tamar asked in deathly quiet, “a union of our Houses through marriage?”

“I merely submit the idea to your Majesties for consideration,” Ravaan replied, bowing to her. “I believe it has merit—for the Empire, for Tiraan Province, and for us all. Such a unified power block would be positioned to withstand almost any domestic challenge, and with that established, the Empire could make far more rapid progress in restoring its prestige and prosperity.”

How much did it cost to have a man killed? Surely she could afford it. That wasn’t the real problem; where did one go about finding an assassin? The Empire had people, of course, but there was no way to use them without it getting back to her father…

“You think very highly of yourself, your Grace,” Theasia said aloud, earning a sidelong glance of warning from her mother.

“I confess that I do, Princess,” Ravaan replied, having the audacity to smile warmly at her, “though in truth, not so highly as I do of you.”

Her iron self-control must have faltered slightly, because he took one look at her expression and immediately changed tactics.

“Please understand, your Highness, that despite the immense personal esteem in which I hold you, I am not attempting an approach out of flirtatiousness. Though I do believe you and I have every possibility of developing great mutual respect, even fondness—else I would not raise the idea—in the end this is a political solution to political problems.”

“It is an idea of merit,” Sarsamon said quietly. “Though not without its drawbacks, as well. You understand, your Grace, we must consider all of these carefully—both as rulers, and as a family.”

“I understand all too well, your Majesty,” Ravaan agreed. “Such is the delicate balance required of those the gods have designated to rule.”

“I thank you for your time, and these…very interesting thoughts you have raised, my lord Duke,” the Emperor stated, straightening subtly in his chair. “You may be assured that we will consider them with the greatest of care.”

“I could ask for nothing more, your Majesties, and am ever grateful,” Ravaan intoned, bowing in reply to the polite dismissal. “By your leave, then.”

The three of them sat in silence for several long seconds even after the doors had shut behind him.

At last Sarsamon let out a sigh, and reached over to take his daughter’s hand. “Well, the obvious fact must be stated: it would solve a lot of the Empire’s current problems.”

Theasia squeezed his fingers, closing her eyes for a moment. He was right, of course. The power of the Silver Throne had been so weakened after the war that only her father’s status as a hero to the people kept House Tirasian in power, for now. The alliance of House Madouri, House Aldarasi and the Universal Church which had conspired to place him on the Throne as a virtual puppet had shattered when Sarsamon managed to wrangle actual power out of Horsebutt the Enemy’s campaign and the need for a united Empire in the face of it. The Aldarasis still stood firmly with them, both because the Sultana was too canny to take being outplayed personally and because her own daughter was now Empress. Archpope Vyara, ever the pragmatist, had grown cool toward House Tirasian since the war, and neither made herself helpful—often—nor actively caused them trouble—for the most part. The old Duke of House Madouri, however, had been embittered and furious at being cheated, as he saw it, and made himself a constant nuisance right up until his death last year. By uniting Houses Tirasian and Madouri, that alliance would be restored and, as Ravaan had pointed out, the triumvirate of Tiraas, Calderaas and Madouris would have enough pull to force the rest of the Houses back into line.

“How certain are we,” she asked, “that there are no other surviving branches of House Madouri?”

“Very,” her father said, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “That was most of the reason the old Duke supported placing me on the Throne. Facing the possible extinction of House Madouri, he grabbed for power in the only way available to him.”

“So,” she said thoughtfully, “if I were to marry Ravaan and something unfortunate immediately befell him, I would be in control of—”

“Theasia!” her mother exclaimed, aghast. Sarsamon’s lips twitched with barely-suppressed amusement.

“I…suppose the boy isn’t all bad,” Theasia allowed grudgingly, fumbling for something positive to say. “He’s never once groped me with his eyes, which is better than I can say of half the nobles of our generation.”

With a diffident little cough, Lord Tariq Shavayad emerged from behind the decorative screen which had hidden him during the audience. The head of Imperial Intelligence was a tall, silver-haired man who wore discreet stateliness like a second suit.

“Given his late father’s protectiveness and the brevity of his rule thus far,” the spymaster said, “we are still assembling a dossier on him, and the portrait thus painted is yet incomplete. House Madouri has always been adept at guarding its privacy. I have ascertained, however, that all of his Grace’s romantic dalliances to date have been with men. I can say with reasonable certainty that his interest in the Princess is purely political.”

“Well,” Theasia said after they digested that in silence for a moment, “I do believe I have never been so simultaneously unflattered and yet relieved.”

Her father squeezed her hand once more and then released it. “What are your impressions overall, Lord Shavayad?”

“It is, as your Majesty observed, a valid political maneuver,” Shavayad said neutrally. “And, of course, his Grace would not propose it unless he believed himself able to position himself in control of both the relationship and the Empire. It would not be the first time someone technically relegated to the Swan Throne held authority in truth over a weaker-willed spouse.”

Theasia was very glad she was no longer holding her father’s fingers; her grip on the arms of her chair was painful enough for her. The upholstery was going to have permanent marks if people did not cease pointing out such repulsive facts in her presence.

“And the matter of the banditry?” Sarsamon added in a dry tone.

“It was, at the very least, not Ravaan’s idea,” Shavayad replied. “Simply by dint of the timing. The attacks have grown more brazen lately, but they began before he took power. I was not able to verify definitively that his father instigated them, and at the time they were but an occasional and minor nuisance. Shall I make good on your Majesty’s offer, and divert resources to Madouris?”

“Do,” Sarsamon said, allowing himself to display a predatory satisfaction he carefully hid from the nobility, the public, and his enemies. “I rather suspect the mere knowledge that it’s coming will cause Ravaan to hastily dismantle the program, if he has any control over it. Anything you find, though, is something we can hold over him.”

“Is it possible that he was telling the simple truth?” Tamar inquired.

“It is…possible,” the spymaster allowed. “I assure your Majesties there is no significant rebellious sentiment in the core provinces. Not enough to mount an insurgency, but it is not unthinkable that disaffected former rebels might find sufficient armament and numbers to execute bandit raids of this kind. His Grace’s theory is plausible. Forgive me, your Majesties, but there is nothing I distrust more than an aristocrat with an agenda and a plausible excuse.”

“Quite,” Sarsamon agreed. “Do what you can, Tariq, but do it as discreetly as the situation allows. The damnable truth is that we cannot afford either the lost revenue or the loss of face any further, and we may not be able to endure the backlash that would result from marching troops into Madouris.” He paused, then sighed heavily. “I suppose I also can’t afford to rid myself of that little pustule, either.”

“Sarsamon,” Tamar said reproachfully. He reached over to take her hand.

“I advise against it, your Majesty,” Lord Shavayad said in the same calm tone he doubtless used to order lunch. “The elimination of a high-standing lord who caused you trouble would provoke severe retaliation from numerous Houses. Especially after what happened to Lord Turombi, even in the absence of proof the suspicion of your involvement would be enough. Duke Ravaan, inconvenient as he may be, is probably more manageable than the chaos that would result from the sudden extinction of House Madouri and the resulting power vacuum in Tiraan Province, which House Tirasian is unfortunately not in a position to fill. There is also the matter that I could not guarantee with certainty that an assassination would succeed. House Madouri has not endured for a thousand years by taking chances with its security, and they have accumulated unknowable resources in that time. The closer the bloodline is to petering out, the more avidly it will be defended.”

“It was just a passing thought,” Sarsamon said, not without a hint of bitterness. “Well. Ravaan and his proposal require consideration and discussion in detail, which I’m afraid we will have to postpone.”

“Ah, yes,” Tamar said with a sigh, rising from her chair. “Lord Dufresne and Lady Leduc will arrive for their audience presently, and if I am not there to mediate before they meet it’s likely one won’t leave the room alive.”

“Take no prisoners, my dear,” Sarsamon intoned, standing and raising her hand to his lips for a kiss. The Empress did not reply verbally, but gave him a look of wry fondness before turning her attention to her daughter.

“How do you feel, Theasia?”

She knew better than to say she was fine. “Irked, to tell the truth,” she replied honestly. “I believe I shall take a book to my garden this afternoon. I would rather be in a calmer frame of mind when we discuss this in earnest.”

“Very good,” Tamar agreed, nodding and smiling. Her mother approved of such passive pastimes for her frail daughter. A moment later, though, the smile faltered, leaving her staring at Theasia with a worried expression that was subtly unlike her usual worried expression. She stepped over and took her daughter’s hands as Theasia rose to meet her. “It isn’t such a terrible thing as you are probably imagining, little bird.”

While Theasia was still blinking at her in surprise, she turned and glided from the room.

She was aware that her parents’ marriage was a political one. They cared deeply for each other, but Theasia had garnered enough hints over the years to be fairly certain that had developed after the wedding. Of course, such talk as this would resonate with them in a way to which she couldn’t quite relate. It also meant she had best restrain herself even further than usual in discussing it. To express honestly the revulsion she felt at the idea might be an outright insult. As much as Theasia bridled at their over-protectiveness and their passive style of rule, she loved her parents deeply and held great respect for everything they had accomplished for the Empire. The thought of causing them hurt was intolerable.

Sarsamon turned to his daughter and gathered her into a hug, which she gratefully returned, ignoring Lord Shavayad standing discreetly nearby.

“I’m afraid my conversation with the generals is going to be less boring that I’d like,” he said, releasing her. “I had better not tarry, either. We’ll talk about all of this over dinner, Theasia.”

“Of course, Father,” she replied, smiling up at him. “Just don’t invade anyone without me, I would like to watch that.”

“It’s a promise,” he said, lightly tweaking her on the chin with a finger. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Theasia sighed, watching him stride from the room, then turned to nod politely to the spymaster. “Lord Shavayad, I bid you good afternoon.”

“Your Highness,” he said suddenly, “I wonder if I could prevail upon you for a moment of your time.”

She had started to turn toward the door herself and froze. Shavayad had never asked her for anything, nor treated her as more than an accessory of her parents, to be frank. No official of the Imperial government had, thanks to her mother’s insistence that she was not to be unduly burdened. For all that Theasia was encouraged to be present and observe the functions of government, her only actual duties to the Empire had been social thus far. Most days, she felt less like a princess than the invalid ateenage daughter of some industrialist.

“What can I do for you, my lord?” she inquired as evenly as she could manage around the surprising surge of excitement she felt. If this turned out to be something about an upcoming ball or some such rot…

“My people have tracked an illicit operation which I think you ought to be informed of, Princess. In detail.” His expression was totally inscrutable. Well, the man was spymaster for a reason.

“I?” she replied, raising one eyebrow. “And not my parents?”

“As head of Intelligence, the core of my duty is to curate information, your Highness. Your father the Emperor cannot be burdened with every detail of everything which transpires in the Empire. I must choose carefully what to bring before him, what to ignore, and what to deal with quietly on my own initiative. In this matter, it is my assessment that you are the appropriate person to whom to bring the issue.” He hesitated for a split second, and undoubtedly deliberate pause for emphasis. “I beg that your Highness will forgive my presumption, but it is my opinion that you are more than intelligent and mature enough to begin participating in statecraft, Princess, and that the health of the Empire requires that you begin acquiring experience. Your mother’s laudable concern for your well-being has made this process somewhat slower than it might otherwise have been.”

Flattery. Skillful and subtle flattery, but there nonetheless. Even seeing him do it did not quite quash the surge of satisfaction she felt at being acknowledged. Offered the chance to do something for the Empire.

Of course, the question remained…why?

“And what is this issue, precisely?” she asked, as deadpan as she could manage.

“To an extent, you will have to be shown rather than told,” he said apologetically, “but I will brief you to the extent that I can on the way.”

“The way?”

“Yes, your Highness. This will involve an excursion into the city. I can promise you both absolute discretion and the greatest security my agency can provide. Be assured, I would take no risks with your Highness’s well-being.”

Her heart was practically pounding, so vividly she instinctively reached for the vial of medicine concealed in her dress—which had been tailored for that specific reason, as ladies’ fashions otherwise suffered from an aggravating lack of pockets. A chance to leave the Palace, to go out into the city, on Imperial business. To help.

Shavayad was up to something, of course; all of this was too sudden and too unconventional. But then, he was never not up to something. He was the spymaster, that was literally what they paid him for. And he had the absolute trust of her parents.

Well, if the man was a traitor, they were all doomed anyway. She had lived her entire life without being allowed to take risks. This seemed a good place to start.

“Of course, Lord Shavayad,” Princess Theasia said, barely controlling an eager smile. “Lead the way.”

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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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