Tag Archives: Jonathan Arquin

15 – 1

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“You’d be welcome, if you wanna come along,” Toby promised.

“Nah, I need to get a head start on my research project; Yornhaldt and Tellwyrn both signed off on it, but with the clear understanding they expected to see me buckling down to the work.” Raolo grinned and leaned in to kiss Toby’s cheek, squeezing his hand. “Sides, it’s been close to a year since your whole group was together again. You guys go catch up; we’ll have plenty of time.”

“All right. I’ll come by and keep you company while you work tonight,” the paladin replied, unable to keep the grin off his face.

“It’s a date.” Raolo took two steps back, stretching their clasped arms out between them, before finally releasing Toby’s hand and turning to go skipping off back up the path through the center of the mostly-constructed new research campus toward the old gates. Toby was still smiling when he turned back around to face the rest of the newly-minted junior class.

“Aww,” Juniper, Teal, and Fross cooed in unison.

Ruda’s commentary, as usual, was less saccharine. “Has anybody else noticed our social circle is disproportionately queer?”

Trissiny sighed. “Ruda.”

“What? I’m serious! This makes two thirds of the full-blooded humans in our year. The species can’t possibly be this gay; even the elves would outbreed us!”

“Three individuals is not a statistically useful sample size, Ruda,” Fross said severely. “I realize you’re not a mathematics major but I would expect you to know that much.”

“Guys, relax,” Toby interjected, still smiling. “It’s just us here. If anything, I’d be offended if Ruda thought I was too fragile to face the rough side of her tongue.”

“See?” Grinning, Ruda punched him on the shoulder. “Paladin boy gets it!”

“Hey, as long as Ruda can have her fun without fucking stabbing someone, I say leave her to it.”

“You’re just tetchy because you’re the only one who ever gets stabbed, Arquin.”

“Oh, shoot,” Juniper said suddenly, pressing a hand to one of the pouches hanging from her belt. “I forgot to bring my money purse…”

“It’s okay, June, we’ll spot you,” said Trissiny.

“No, that’s all right, this is an opportunity. Sniff!”

Juniper knelt and the dog-sized creature which had been pacing silently alongside her chirped, skittering around in front to meet her gaze. He was covered in feathers and generally bird-shaped, albeit with a long, flat head filled with jagged teeth and a serpentine tail which ended in a colorful spray of plumes. His wings were clearly arms despite the pinions which flared outward from the wrist joint; they had already observed Sniff’s ability to pick up objects in his little clawed fingers. Now the crest of feathers atop his head stood upright in attention.

“Go back to the bedroom,” Juniper instructed slowly and clearly, staring into the creature’s eyes, “and get my money bag. Okay? You understand?”

Sniff made his croaking little chirp again, bobbed his head once, then stepped around her and dashed off back up the path into the campus.

F’thaan growled, taking a few steps after him, but Shaeine snapped her fingers and pointed at the ground by her feet. The little hellhound immediately scampered over to lie down beside her.

“It’s good for him to have tasks,” the dryad said, straightening and watching him go. “Part of where I went wrong with Jack was treating him like a pet. A druid’s familiar is meant to be helpful. I guess now we’ll find out if he knows what my money bag is… If not, I may need to owe somebody for drinks.”

“We’ll spot you, don’t worry,” Teal assured her with a smile.

“Well, since we’re talking about it now,” said Ruda, “what the fuck is that thing?”

“Sniff is not a thing,” Juniper replied, turning a frown on her. “He’s my companion.”

“Okay, point taken, but what is he?”

“He kind of resembles a sylph,” Trissiny mused.

“Sniff is a proto-bird!” Fross chimed. “I assume you found him in the Golden Sea, Juniper? That’s the most common place to find extinct species. You guys remember the smilodon we met on our first expedition? But yeah, I dunno his exact species; this school doesn’t have a lot of material on the subject in the library. You’ve gotta go to Svenheim for a university with an actual department of paleontology. Proto-birds are the general group of species that evolved into modern birds.”

“Yeah, I found Sniff in the Sea,” Juniper said. “Out by the edge of it, but still. I was performing a sunrise ritual Sheyann taught me how to incorporate into shamanic practice, and…there he was. It seemed kinda like fate.”

“Yeah, I didn’t wanna press you or anything,” said Gabriel, patting her shoulder, “but it’s obvious you had a busy summer.”

“I don’t mind talking about it,” Juniper said, smiling at him and unconsciously reaching up to touch the sunburst pendant resting on her upper chest, bound by a golden chain around her neck. Her entire appearance had undergone a change since the spring. In addition to her green hair being now combed back and bound in a single severe braid, the dryad’s customary sundresses had been traded in for dyed garments of traditional wood elven style which both covered a lot more skin and hugged her figure more closely. They had to have been made specially for her, as no elves had a frame as generously curvy as Juniper’s. She was also wearing a heavily laden tool belt rather like Trissiny’s, bristling with pouches of both shamanic reagents and mundane supplies. And, in its own leather holster, an Omnist libram whose cover glittered with the same golden sunburst sigil she now wore around her neck. Another sunburst hung, along with a string of prayer beads, from the tie holding the end of her long braid together. “After…you know, what happened at Puna Dara… Well, it was clear to me I needed some source of calm and focus, like you guys have. I mean, Toby, Trissiny, Shaeine. It may be all different religions but you’re all centered in a way I suddenly realized I was missing. Druidic traditions are great but they don’t exactly provide that. And, well… Themynrite worship seems pretty drow-exclusive, and no offense, Trissiny, but it didn’t seem to me like Avei was offering what I needed.”

“No offense is taken,” Trissiny assured her. “I think that was a good call, Juniper. Avei fills a crucial need, but…” Her eyes caught Gabriel’s, and she smiled. “Everybody does not have the same problem.”

“And so the dryad is an Omnist now,” Ruda chuckled. “Ain’t life a show?”

“I’m proud of you,” Toby said, also patting Juniper’s back. “And not because you picked my religion, Juno, but because you’re working on yourself. I hope you find what you need in Omnu, but remember: if you don’t, you’re allowed to keep looking. It’s a lot more important to me that you be happy than that you follow my own faith.”

“You’re a good friend,” she replied with a smile. “And a good monk.”

They had no sooner resumed their way down the mountain staircase toward Last Rock than Gabriel abruptly slowed. “Heads up. Vestrel says we’ve got company coming.”

“There’s usually some kinda company coming and going, it ain’t like this is a cloistered campus,” Ruda replied. “What’s got Spooky’s feathers in a ruffle?”

“Don’t call her that,” Gabriel said with a long-suffering sigh.

“I see them, too,” Shaeine interjected, and the rest all turned to her in surprise at the wintry undertone in her normally serene voice. Beside her, F’thaan growled, picking up on her mood. “Vestrel is right to be concerned. Trissiny, you should perhaps step to the front.”

It took only moments longer for the pair coming up the mountain to ascend within range of non-elven eyes, Shaeine’s vision being mostly adapted to sunlight after two years on the surface. The bronze Legion armor was evident as soon as the two were in view, and it wasn’t long afterward that at least one of the oncoming Legionnaires was personally identifiable.

“Well, hidey-ho, kids!” Principia Locke called, waving broadly as she and her companion came up the stairs toward them. “Fancy meeting you here!”

“We are supposed to be here,” Trissiny said pointedly. “And just because classes are out for the day does not mean I’m going to drop everything to spend time with you. Have you forgotten your last visit to this University? Because nobody else has.”

“Well, Trissiny, I’m always glad to see you,” Principia said with a grin, coming to a stop in front of them and a few steps down. Beside her, Merry came to attention, saluting. “And I hope we have a chance to catch up while I’m in town. But, and I’m sorry to have to tell you this, the sun does not rise and set on your golden head. We’re here to see Professor Tellwyrn. Legion business.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes slightly. “I don’t think I saw a salute, Lieutenant.”

“You’re out of uniform, General,” Principia replied with unruffled calm.

At that, Trissiny cracked a faint smile of her own. She did have her sword buckled on over a casual leather longcoat, but no other indicators of her rank. “Well, she’s right, as it happens. At ease, Corporal Lang.”

“I’ve developed a policy of not taking risks when Locke starts getting shirty with people who can kill us, ma’am,” Merry said, relaxing a bit.

“I guess we know who’s the brains in this operation, then,” said Gabriel.

“Is there something you’d like to tell me about, Locke?” Trissiny asked.

“Yes,” Principia said with clear emphasis, meeting her eyes directly. “In my personal and professional opinion, you should be fully briefed and involved. But the High Commander’s regard for my opinion runs pretty thin these days, especially after our little game of tag with Syrinx this summer, and until she says otherwise our business remains classified.”

“I see,” Trissiny murmured.

Principia cleared her throat and shifted, nodding politely to Shaeine. “Ms. Awarrion, I’m very glad to see you up and well. You weren’t at Puna Dara with the others, so I missed the chance to apologize—”

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but matters are not that simple,” Shaeine interrupted tonelessly. Beside her, Teal stuck her hands in her coat pockets, fixing Principia with an extremely level stare. “I am on this campus in my capacity as a representative of House Awarrion and Tar’naris. If you wish to offer amends for any slights given, you will have to take it up with my mother. Excuse me.”

She turned and resumed walking down the mountainside, Teal following her after giving Principia a last lingering stare. F’thaan growled at the two Legionnaires before trotting off after them. Slowly, the rest of the students began filing past after their classmates, Ruda with a dark chuckle and a wink at Principia.

“…that’s a trap, isn’t it,” Principia mused aloud, half-turned to watch Shaeine’s back retreating down the staircase.

“Yep,” replied Trissiny, the last of the juniors still present. “I suggest you don’t go within a mile of Tar’naris unless you want to spend some time in a spider box. Ashaele is about as forgiving as any drow matriarch. And I am assuredly not going to expend what little political capital I have to rescue you from the consequences of your own nonsense.”

Principia turned back to her, grinning. “Appreciate the concern, kiddo, but that’s one thing I will never ask you to do. Trust me, I got by just fine for centuries without having anybody to watch over me.”

“That’s right, keep calling me funny little pet names,” Trissiny grunted, finally turning to follow the rest of her friends toward the town. “Way to rebuild those bridges, Locke. Have fun getting immolated, which I assume you know is what’s going to happen the instant Tellwyrn finds you on her campus again.”

“Relax, Thorn, you know my tag. I always have a way in!”

“Your funeral.”

“Will you send flowers?” Principia called after her. Trissiny, now several yards down the path, didn’t turn or respond. For a moment, the elf stood watching her go, then turned back to meet her companion’s eyes. “Oh, shut up, Lang.”

“Didn’t say a word,” Merry replied innocently.

“Well, could you think it a little more quietly?”

“Don’t think I can, LT. C’mon, let’s go get you immolated. I don’t wanna miss that.”

She lay awake—normal enough for the late afternoon, though he slept deeply beside her. He was always a deep sleeper, especially after sex. Two months ago she had found it an annoying habit, but had begun to find charm in it. That warned her that it was probably past time to go.

Fortunately, she had what she needed, now.

Natchua turned her head to watch him breathe for a long moment. He lay on his side, facing her, mouth hanging open and making a raspy noise with each breath that wasn’t quite a snore. As always, he had thrown an arm over her waist. In the beginning, it had been to paw sleepily at her breasts while drifting off, but more and more, lately, it seemed he just like to hold her close.

Definitely past time to go. And a layered irony that after all her snooping and needling all summer, the tiny piece of information that had been her whole purpose in coming to Mathenon had slipped from his lips in the last few mumbled words before he faded into sleep. Well, that had been the whole reason she had let this entanglement become so intimate. Information could be effectively sealed away from all scrying by the Church and the Empire and still be carelessly spilled by a man in his lover’s arms; every spy in history understood that basic fact.

She had the name, and he was asleep. There was no reason to still be lying there, except that it was comforting… And yes, that just served to emphasize how necessary it was to get out and put all this behind her before she got in any deeper.

Natchua slipped out from under his arm, freezing when he stirred and shifted. He didn’t wake, though, and she dressed in swift silence, the grace of an elf more than a match for a sleeping human’s senses. That should have been the very end of it.

Still, she hesitated.

On impulse, she stepped back to the bed and leaned over Jonathan, bending to lay a last kiss against his temple. Inches away, however, she paused. Foolish risk; the touch of her lips had a way of making him wake and reach for her. But the thought of just ending it like this, with nothing but a silent disappearance, sent a pang through her.

That was the final warning. Natchua straightened up, backing away from the bed, then turned and slipped in total silence out of Jonathan Arquin’s apartment, and life.

Long past time.

“What are you humming?” Ingvar asked.

“I don’t know!” Aspen said cheerfully, actually dancing a few steps. One of the elven groves they had visited had introduced her to dancing, and already her fondness for it bordered on passion. All it took now was a few bars of music to set her off. “Just going along with the music. It’s pretty!”

“Music?” Ingvar raised his head, paying more careful attention. There was no threat to be found in the forest; birds and squirrels were active and loud in the trees all around them, signifying a lack of nearby predators or disturbances. Those, plus the sound of wind whispering among the leaves, were all he could hear. “What music?”

“Oh, sorry. Sometimes I forget my ears are so much better than yours,” she said with an impish smirk.

“I’m sure,” he replied dryly. “Perhaps I could hear better if there weren’t another source of music so much closer at hand?”

Aspen made a face at him and he ruffled her hair. In the momentary silence, though, he could barely make out the thin notes of a flute.

“Hm,” Ingvar murmured, turning to look in that direction. The forest was just the way he liked them: too thick to see that far. Very thick, in fact; to judge by the concentration of underbrush, these woods were overdue for a burning. “I wonder who would be out playing a flute in the middle of the woods in N’Jendo, and why?”

“Because it’s pretty,” she explained slowly, as if he were being obtuse. “What more reason does anybody need for making music?”

“You really have taken to some of these mortal art forms, haven’t you?”

“My upbringing kinda missed out on…all of them,” she agreed. “C’mon, let’s go visit whoever’s playing.”

“Perhaps they would rather be left alone,” he suggested, even as he followed her in the direction of the notes. “Many who venture this deep into the forests don’t seek company. We’re out here for exactly that reason, remember?”

“Well, if they don’t want company, we can always leave ’em alone,” she said reasonably. “But I bet they do! Anybody who fills the forest with pretty music has to be nice.”

It was amazing how naive she could be, for a creature who predated the Enchanter Wars and could pick up a grizzly bear with one hand. Ingvar offered no further argument; he found that Aspen learned about people more quickly when allowed to interact with them, and immediately grew bored when he tried to lecture her. By and large, it was a good enough way to proceed. Obviously they couldn’t enter any actual towns, save the elven groves and scattered Ranger enclaves where she was a celebrity rather than a feared monster. Encountering isolated individuals who would not be enthused to meet a dryad was probably good for her, overall.

Reddish light filtered through the trees from the west; the shadow of the Wyrnrange in the east had already gone fully dark. It was about time to be looking for a campsite anyway. Hopefully whoever was playing that flute would be willing to share. If not, they would have to keep looking and probably risk traveling after dark. On his own, Ingvar would have been more perturbed at the prospect, but these woods held nothing that would challenge a dryad. Actually, they were too far below the mountains for cougars, and the small local black bears probably wouldn’t get aggressive with a human anyway. Still, traveling with Aspen had started to spoil him a little.

They found a stream before they found the music, and in fact followed the path it cut through the ground uphill to a flat stretch of rock that jutted over the water, upon which no trees grew. It had been cleared of underbrush and a fire built near its center. Upon a fallen log next to the fire sat the music maker.

It was an elf. He had black hair. Ingvar narrowed his eyes, studying him.

“Oh, that’s a weird flute,” Aspen blurted out.

The elf was apparently unsurprised by their appearance—but then, he had doubtless heard them coming for the last half mile, even with his music. He lowered the little potato-shaped instrument from his lips to grin at the.

“It’s called an ocarina! Bit of a family tradition, you might say. Well, then!” He looked back and for between them a few times. “I’ve gotta say, you two aren’t what I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?” Ingvar asked warily.

“It’s a funny thing, how you can have absolutely no idea what’s coming and still be surprised at the form it takes,” the elf said cheerfully. “Any shaman my age has to get used to the effect. The spirits told me that this is where I needed to come, that there was someone I needed to meet, and that I’d need to guide them to the next stage of their quest. But a dryad and a Huntsman of Shaath? That is a new one. Regardless, be welcome at my fire, daughter of Naiya, Brother of the Wolf. Consider the hospitality of my camp yours, as the hospitality of the forest is for all of us. My name is Rainwood.”

“Hey, thanks!” Aspen said brightly, trotting right up to him like a domestic horse and stretching out next to the flames with a pleased sigh.

Ingvar followed more judiciously, pausing to bow to the elf. “Our thanks, Rainwood.” It felt lacking; clearly the shaman’s welcome had been some manner of formal benediction, but it was one Ingvar had never heard. No great surprise, really. One could never tell how old an elf might be, and after their various visits with grove Elders he had grown almost accustomed to anachronistic etiquette. As long as the intent was clearly polite, he had found, showing courtesy in return never went amiss.

“So!” Rainwood tucked away his ocarina and tossed another piece of wood from the stack next to him on the fire. “I’m sure you two will have plenty of questions, and so do I. Let’s talk about quests, adventures, and the long road ahead of us.”

“Now that we stand upon the cusp of fruition,” Melaxyna intoned, “I feel I should state yet again, mistress, that this is surely one of the dumbest, most hare-brained—”

“Thank you, Mel, for sharing your opinion with me,” Natchua said flatly. “Double-check the spell circle.”

“Oh, come on, how many times—”

“Just do it!”

The succubus rolled her eyes, but obeyed, which was pretty much the pattern with her. Natchua had not found it necessary to impose discipline on her reluctant familiar, which she thought was for the best. Melaxyna already had a low opinion of every part of her plans, and adding tension to their relationship could only make it worse. So far, she followed orders without any funny business, and given the tendency of Vanislaad demons to creatively reinterpret instructions to their masters’ detriment, Natchua was quite content to endure backtalk if it meant Melaxyna actually did what she wanted her to do.

“It’s perfect,” the demon reported moments later, after pacing a full lap around the summoning circle, head bent to examine it closely. “And I’m sorry for jabbing at you about it.”

Natchua turned to her in surprise. “You’re sorry?”

“About that last bit,” the succubus clarified. “Precision and attention to detail are always vitally important in infernomancy, it’s a good idea to have me double-check your work, and I shouldn’t have downplayed that. I was not apologizing for my commentary on this dumb, pointless step in your hysterically asinine master plan.”

“Thanks, your approval means the world to me.”

“You know, kid, if you just wanted to fool around with that silver fox, I’m the last person in the world you need to justify it to with some grandiose plot.”

“I promise you, Mel, I will never justify anything I do for your benefit.”

“I kinda like that about you,” Melaxyna admitted.

Natchua turned back to the circle. “No more reason to wait then.” Raising both hands, she deftly channeled infernal power into the precise points on the circle, causing orange light to spread across the chalk lines on the floor and the five power crystals spaced around it to begin glowing. “You are summoned, HESTHRI!”

At the demon’s name, the infernal runes spelling it out in multiple places around the circle’s edge burst into flame.

“This whole thing has got to be the silliest use of infernal magic I have ever seen,” Melaxyna muttered. “And I once watched a guy burn down his house trying to curse rats out of the walls.” This time, Natchua ignored her.

A pillar of smoky light rose from the center of the floor, oscillating slowly. Within it, wisps of shadow coalesced into a humanoid figure, then solidified fully, and the light melted away. The circle itself continued to glow, though at a much dimmer intensity, with the only significant light sources being the power crystals and the still-flickering runes that spelled out Hesthri’s name.

Within, a hethelax demon spun rapidly about in confusion, spitting a few obscenities in demonic.

Natchua studied her with a more personal curiosity than she had expected to feel when this moment finally came. Yes…she could actually sort of see it. Hethelax demons were not generally held up as attractive specimens, not when there were the likes of Vanislaads and khelminash to which to compare them. The armor plating on their limbs made their elbows and knees permanently flexed, giving them a hunched posture like an ape’s. Additionally the scales and chitin protecting the forehead and cheekbones made a hethelax seem to be perpetually scowling. With this one, though, she could see how he had found her desirable. Her features were fine, if rather angular, and even her bent posture did not hide a quite fetching figure, which was well-displayed by a diaphonous garment in brown gauzy fabric not unlike a sundress in cut.

Hesthri’s eyes fixed on Natchua, and she switched smoothly to elvish in what was presumably the Scyllithene dialect.

“In a circle you can bend yourself and your own asshole chew upon until you can taste—”

“Tanglish,” Natchua interrupted in that language. “I understand your confusion, but no. You are in the Tiraan Empire, and won’t be meeting many drow apart from myself.”

At that, the hethelax hesitated, narrowing her golden eyes suspiciously. She answered in the same language, though. “Tiraas? Really?”

“The Empire,” Natchua repeated. “This is Mathenon, rather a long way from the capital.”

“Very well, then. Why in the Dark Lady’s name am I in Tiraas? You are overstepping your bounds, warlock. I am a servant of Princess Ixaavni, who does not take kindly to having her belongings tampered with. Send me back, or learn to fear her displeasure!”

“Well, this must be the one, all right,” Melaxyna drawled. “I never heard of a freshly-summoned demon being anything but delighted to be out of Hell.”

“Have you ever heard of this Ixaavni?” Natchua asked her.

The succubus shrugged. “Nope. That’s a khelminash name, though, and in the khelminash caste system hethelaxi are two steps above domestic livestock. Look, she’s got no tools, armor, or weapons, which means she’s not assigned any special use. I’d be amazed if this Princess gives half a shit about her going missing.”

“What about it, Hesthri?” Natchua inquired pleasantly. “Are you of any importance to your dear Princess?”

“She has no idea who I am and won’t miss me,” Hesthri replied immediately, and then scowled. “Oh, you conniving little twat. A truth compulsion ward built into a hethelax summons? Who does that?”

“My name is Natchua,” she said, folding her arms, “and I’ve called you here for a good and specific purpose.”

“I don’t care in the slightest, but I guess I’m not going anywhere until I hear you out, am I?”

“Very perceptive, Hesthri. I will explain in more detail in due time, but here’s the short version: I intend to punish Elilial herself for her overreaching, and toward that end I require the aid of trustworthy demons.”

Hesthri stared at her.

“No questions?” Natchua prompted lightly.

The hethelax turned to face Melaxyna and wordlessly pointed one finger at Natchua.

“I know,” the succubus said sympathetically. “Believe me, I know.”

“Okay, skipping the obvious,” Hesthri said with a heavy sigh. “If you want to kill yourself, fine, go nuts. But why me? If you think I am a trustworthy demon for this purpose, you’re even stupider than you already sound, and that’s really saying something. I am not going to join some demented crusade that’s only going to kill everyone involved. Even if I was, what good is one hethelax? You know we have no magic, right?”

“As I keep explaining to Melaxyna, here,” Natchua replied, “power is nothing. Trust is everything. You’re right, Elilial is far beyond me, and any force I could possibly conjure up. What matters is the situation. A great doom is coming, an important alignment at which the Dark Lady desperately needs everything to go her way. And yet, in the last handful of years, she has been handed a string of crushing defeats on the mortal plane. The Black Wreath has been viciously culled and is now on the run, and six of the seven of her own archdemons have been destroyed, right when she planned upon having their help. When the time comes, I will strike. It will be at a moment when all that is needed is one little thing to tip the balance. In that moment, it won’t matter what forces I have gathered, only that I can rely upon them to do what must be done, without being chivied, manipulated, or compelled by me.”

“Uh huh,” Hesthri said, manifestly unimpressed. “I still don’t care, though. I’m not your girl, warlock.”

“When you’ve been brought fully up to speed on the situation in the mortal world, you may feel differently,” Natchua said with a smile. “Of course, the important factor in this is your son.”

All expression immediately left Hesthri’s face. The demon stared at her, rigidly immobile and silent.

“That tense pause will be you struggling while under a truth compulsion to say you have no son, or some such,” Natchua stated, and couldn’t help but smirk at the twitch of Hesthri’s left eye in response. “Relax; I intend him no harm. Gabriel is…a friend of mine. Not a close one, but his well-being does matter to me. More important to you is the situation in which he finds himself. If you want to protect your son, you will help me bring down—”

She broke off, inwardly cursing herself. The sounds outside the basement door would have been inaudible to a human, but there was no such excuse for her elven senses. She had simply become wrapped up in the summoning and conversation, and missed the noise of feet on the stairs outside until too late.

“Melaxyna!” she barked, whirling. “The door!”

The succubus spun on command and got two steps toward it before the heavy door swung open and he stepped in, aiming a wand at them.

Everyone froze.

Jonathan Arquin’s eyes met Hesthri’s, then Natchua’s, and the blood drained from his face.

Hesthri emitted a little squeak totally unlike her previously defiant tone.

“Ooooh,” Melaxyna cooed, her tail beginning to wave behind her like a pleased cat’s. “Awk-warrrrrd.”

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13 – 53

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The darkness receded and he was released, immediately spinning away from his captor. The elf took a step back from him, grinning and raising both hands—not a greatly reassuring gesture, as one still held that stiletto and the other the shadow-jumping talisman.


Ayuvesh whirled to behold a tall, robed figure approaching him from the corridor ahead. Finding himself apparently not under attack, for the moment, he chanced a glance around at his surroundings. There wasn’t much to see; he stood in a small, perfectly square chamber, unadorned except for a single wrought iron stand in one corner containing a modern fairy lamp which provided the only illumination. The walls, floor, and ceiling appeared to be all of one piece.

He did not know the name of the material, but he had seen it before. It had a grainy texture like rough stone, but reflected light like metal, and was impervious to every tool or weapon he had tested against it. Only the Infinite Order of old had built with this substance.

The figure approaching him reached up and lowered his hood, revealing an angular elfish face with eyes of solid emerald green. His long hair and neat little goatee were the same color.

“We have met before,” the dragon said, “but I regret that circumstances at the time did not permit a proper introduction. I am Khadizroth the Green. You have already met the Jackal. I apologize for the drama; it was an unfortunate necessity. I hope he did not indulge overmuch in…theatrics. He does have that tendency.”

“Yeah, I’m a real stinker,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “But, hey, least I’ve never assembled a child harem out of genocide survivors. Everybody’s gotta draw the line somewhere!”

Khadizroth’s head shifted minutely; Ayuvesh had the expression he was glancing at the elf, but without visible pupils or irises the movement of his eyes was impossible to track. The dragon’s expression did not alter, in any case.

“Where are we?” he asked with all the poise he could muster. “And, if you will indulge me in a second question, why have you brought me here?”

Khadizroth bowed slightly to him. “This is the most secure location I know. I used it as a lair centuries ago, before it was found by an adventurer. This individual and I had an understanding and he never returned here, nor revealed its secret, but nonetheless I moved elsewhere once a single uninvited soul knew of it. That is a dragon’s way. I have kept…an eye, so to speak, on this spot, in case I one day required absolute security, and I can attest it has not been breached since. It is quite safe and quite empty now, I assure you, but it was originally made by the Elder Gods. There is no possibility of scrying or communicating through its walls, except at my instigation from within. Only one who has been here before can shadow-jump inside, and arcane teleportation in and out is quite impossible. That is why your escort paused to engage in that pantomime of murder. He observed, during our previous visit to Puna Dara, that you seem able to communicate with your fellows, likely via those machine augmentations of yours. Once here, that is no longer possible. But now they, like the Punaji authorities, will believe you dead. I apologize for the distress this must cause.”

He bowed again, more deeply.

“I see,” Ayuvesh said slowly. It was, he supposed, a good sign that his abductors were being so forthcoming—at least, so far. “And as for the why…?”

“You’re dead!” the Jackal crowed. “Sorry, kid, nothing personal. Archpope’s orders.”

Ayuvesh turned to examine the grinning elf, not bothering to suppress his disdainful expression. The Jackal pursed his lips and made kissing noises at him.

“This entire situation requires some explanation,” Khadizroth said with much more courtesy. “I will, of course, help you understand everything I may. If you would accompany me?”

He stepped to the side, politely gesturing Ayuvesh forward through the square corridor.

Well, it wasn’t as if there was anywhere else he could go. He nodded back to the dragon with equal courtesy and paced forward as indicated. When he drew abreast of Khadizroth, the dragon fell into step beside him.

“There is, in terms of space, not much to see,” Khadizroth said, sounding oddly apologetic. “The cavern has six small outlying chambers, identical to the one we just left—which has been set aside for shadow-jumping in and out. Another is serving for sanitation. In a vault which is as thoroughly sealed as this one, that involves a convoluted arrangement of portable holes and water conjuration devices which requires no small amount of power crystals.”

“How creative,” Ayuvesh said neutrally, reasoning it was safest and wisest not to irritate his host with all the questions racing through his mind.

“The rest we mean to set aside for individuals, as a matter of privacy. When those run out, we will be reduced to erecting barriers to subdivide the main space. Which you now see before you.”

They had just emerged from the corridor onto a wide chamber which was mostly lost in darkness. A ledge of the stone-metal ran along one of its narrow ends; more square corridors opened off this. At intervals were set up iron stands holding fairy lamps, their glow lighting the ledge adequately but not penetrating far into the vast darkness spreading off in the other direction. Ayuvesh stepped forward to peer down; the ledge was about nine feet tall. Off to his left a set of wooden stairs descended do the chamber floor.

“Everything is in a very early state, as you can see,” the dragon explained. “With time and effort it will become much more comfortable. At the moment, however, quarters are unavoidably somewhat spartan.”

“It looks like a vehicle hangar,” Ayuvesh commented. His voice created a faint echo, now that they were standing in the huge main chamber. “Which suggests the main entrance is at the other end; the entire wall would open. I assume it is too buried in a rockslide or some such to function, otherwise all this would have been found ages ago.”

“You are a surprisingly educated man,” Khadizroth observed.

“In a few highly specific areas, I suppose so,” Ayuvesh replied, nodding graciously. “When might I be permitted to rejoin my followers, if it’s not too much to ask?”

The dragon nodded slowly, turning to gaze out into the dark, empty space. To Ayuvesh’s minor discomfiture, the Jackal had followed them out of the corridor and now lounged against the wall nearby, trimming his fingernails with his stiletto and grinning that unsettling grin.

“I cannot give you a definitive answer to that at this time,” Khadizroth said, “though I hope the final answer is not ‘never.’ We must all be prepared for the potential worst-case scenario.”

“Which is?”

“That, I am still trying to determine.” The dragon grimaced bitterly. “You are here, Ayuvesh, because Archpope Justinian has commanded your death.”

Ayuvesh glanced over at the Jackal, who winked. “So I hear.”

“Therefore, you must remain dead, so long is he is aware—and his web stretches far indeed. The only way to ensure that Justinian is kept in the dark is to ensure that the world itself is.”

“The bomb may have been overplaying your hand, in that case,” Ayuvesh opined. “Such a measure is needless overkill for assassination; such a clever man as your Archpope will suspect it was meant to conceal a disappearance.”

“Oh, the bomb was his Holiness’s idea!” the Jackal said brightly. “He doesn’t want the Punaji thinking anybody knew or cared enough about you to send someone into their secure rooms and open your throat. But who knows what’s in all that hardware you’ve got strapped to your chassis, eh? Lacking any other explanation they may conclude you just malfunctioned and blew the hell up!”

“Anyone who thinks that is not giving Rajakhan nearly enough credit.”

“Hey, take it from an old pro.” The Jackal bowed deeply, flourishing his non-knife-holding hand out behind him. “Sometimes it’s just not possible to fully cover your tracks, in which case creating ambiguity and confusion is the next best measure.”

“We, as I presume you have surmised by now, serve the Archpope in a less than open capacity,” Khadizroth said. “Carrying out those of his orders which he does not wish connected to him. Some of such, anyway; he has many hands, most unknown to each other. We do this for two reasons: the Archpope is holding something over each of us, and more importantly, because we prefer to be close to him rather than hiding away in the hope that what he is planning simply fizzles out. Only by remaining active and nearby do we have any chance of creating an opportunity to thwart him.”

“And…” Ayuvesh slowly tilted his head. “What is the good Archpope planning?”

“That,” Khadizroth replied with a deep frown, “is a question which troubles me greatly. A person in his position, pursuing designs of the scale and complexity that he is, should be trying to simplify them. Consolidating power, eliminating rivals, controlling the situation. Justinian, in many ways, seems determined to do the opposite. Most prominently a cornerstone of his strategy appears to be keeping as many of his enemies alive and in positions to pester him as possible. He has repeatedly passed over opportunities to finish off a disadvantaged foe, and even arranged for some to receive much needed strokes of luck after suffering major setbacks. The only blood he seems willing to spill is that of his own agents, when their usefulness has ended.”

“And guess who gets to do the spilling,” the Jackal smirked.

“The heart of the problem with Justinian is that I cannot tell what he is attempting to do,” Khadizroth continued. “His machinations are too careful and too precise to be directed at stirring up simple chaos… But I fail, thus far, to see what other end result they could possibly have. He appears to want as many factions and powers in play as possible, in a state of maximum conflict with one another. Even his efforts to deflect their attention from him appear…begrudging, undertaken only when one becomes a true threat.”

“It looks a lot like he wants the whole world at his throat,” the Jackal mused, tossing his knife in the air and catching it. “Not right now, but at some point in the future. Fuck me if I can see why, though.”

“And so, here you are,” Ayuvesh mused, “tired of taking increasingly nonsensical orders, naturally wondering when it will be your turn upon the chopping block, and beginning to set up the pieces for an act of rebellion.”

Khadizroth nodded to him. “You are as perceptive as your reputation suggests, Ayuvesh.”

“I am as perceptive as any man who still has one working eye,” he replied sardonically. “Nothing about this situation is particularly subtle, now that I am in the middle of it. Let me ask you this: what was the Archpope trying to accomplish by manipulating my cult—and, I presume, the Punaji Crown?”

“The recent events in Puna Dara were only half that story, I’m afraid.” Ayuvesh turned at the new voice, finding himself approached by a man in a neat suit, with a neat beard, who had a Stalweiss complexion but spoke with a Tiraan accent. “A simultaneous debacle unfolded in Last Rock; I had the honor of a much closer vantage than I would have liked for that.”

“Ayuvesh, may I present Willard Tanenbaum, our first new recruit,” Khadizroth said politely. “A scholar of the Topaz College, and recently one of Justinian’s trusted, until he apparently outlived his usefulness and was slated for sacrifice.”

“Along with a great many of my fellows,” Tanenbaum said bitterly. “To answer your question, sir, his Holiness had recently come very close to open conflict with the Silver Throne. He has since been arranging opportunities to work alongside its agents. Purging the ‘corrupt’ from the Pantheon’s cults—specifically, those more loyal to himself than their gods, and no longer necessary to his plans. Setting up your Rust for a fall in order to have his agents build bridges with the Empire and, apparently, the Punaji.”

“All that carnage,” Ayuvesh whispered. “My friends, slain. My nation, brought to the edge of collapse. For a distraction.”

“So, yeah,” the Jackal drawled. “There’s a reason Justinian’s favorite pawns are pretty willing to turn on him.”

Slowly, Ayuvesh shook his head. “I certainly sympathize with your aims, gentlemen, but… I fear I have very little to offer you. These…” He held up his mechanical arm and pinged the nail of his other index finger against its hard surface. “…are now deprived of the essential power that maintains them. They will seize up, and cease to work. I do not know how soon, but it’s more than my arm and leg that are controlled by these machines. When those which replaced my heart fail, so will I. Little time have I left, and for every minute of it I will grow gradually less functional.”

“I am a green dragon,” Khadizroth said gravely. “Regeneration is within my power. It will not be quick, Ayuvesh. It will not be simple, nor easy. But your body can be restored. Your true body, the flesh and bone nature gave you. And indeed…with this done, you will find yourself much less confined. After all, you are very distinctive in appearance. I rather think people will not recall where they have seen you before, if they see you without those modifications.”

Ayuvesh stared at him. Tanenbaum simply raised an eyebrow, while the Jackal balanced the stiletto on his finger by its tip, wearing a manic grin.

“You said Mr. Tanenbaum was the first new recruit,” he said at last. “And I?”

“The second,” Khadizroth replied. “More will come.”

“And what will we do?”

“At this time, I cannot yet tell,” the dragon said patiently. “As I’ve said, it remains a mystery what our devious benefactor is doing, himself. But the longer it goes on, the more difficult it will become for him. Eventually—in fact, soon, I believe—a point will come…a fulcrum. One spot upon which all will hinge, and a swift, unexpected action will bring him to the ruin he has brought upon so many others. What I propose is that we take steps to ensure that when this happens, we are ready.”

“Ready. Yes. After all…” Ayuvesh nodded. “One can always become more.”

“So that’s the Tellwyrn.”

“Ugh.” Trissiny grimaced. “Please don’t give her a the, her ego is out of control as it is.”

“Well, of all the people on this world, I figure she is entitled,” Darius said, stepping up beside her on the wall. The Rock was awake by that hour of the morning, and her friends had begun to trickle out of their rooms in ones and twos, but whole groups had not assembled yet. They were poking about on their own, processing the events of the last few days in their own way. She was surprised to see Darius of all people up here; strolling the battlements seemed more a way for her to orient herself than he. Nonetheless, here he was.

They stood in comfortable silence for a few moments, watching Tellwyrn, Ruda, and Anjal have a conversation across the courtyard below, near the damaged front door of the Rock itself.

“So,” Darius said finally, “I guess you’ll be going back with the Last Rock people, huh.”

“Oh…not necessarily,” she replied lightly. “I took the whole semester off, so there’s really not much for me to do there. It’s been good to see everyone again, but I’ll see them in the fall. Don’t worry, I still plan to come back to Tiraas with you guys. I need to thank Glory and say goodb—”

“You need to go back where you came from.”

She broke off in surprise, turning to face him. Darius was still gazing down below, his expression empty.

“People like me, like us,” he said quietly, “people who aren’t paladins, or dryads, or witches, or half-demons, or… We get killed for being too close to you lot, and the kind of shit that follows you.”

“That isn’t fair,” she whispered.

“Course it isn’t,” he agreed, shaking his head. “It’s not fair, and it certainly isn’t your fault. It just…is what it is. I read all the same bard stories you did, growing up, I bet. Paladins always have companions, and the companions always die. Because that is what happens when you’re a squishy nobody who gets in the line of fire. That kind of fire. I learned something, yesterday, about how brave I am, and how brave I’m not.” He raised his head and turned to meet her eyes, unflinching. “If it was just me? Right now I’d be asking you to take me with you, wherever the hell you’re off to next. I am quite willing to die from getting into paladin shit I had no business going near. Hell, that’d be a nobler end than anything I’ve got planned for my life. But… It turns out I am not willing to watch that happen to any more of my friends. And definitely not to my little sister.”

He reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. She hadn’t put on her armor this morning, nor even her leather coat as a concession to Puna Dara’s climate, and felt his grip clearly through her shirt.

“There’ll always be people willing to die for the cause, Trissiny. Just…do me a favor? Make sure the next guy that happens to knows what he was signing up for, before it happens.”

She flinched.

“Thank you, for everything…Thorn. You’re my hero, and that’s not an exaggeration.” Darius squeezed her shoulder, and gave her an affectionate little jostle. A tiny, sad smile flickered across his features. “Now go home.”

He released her, turned and walked away along the wall, unhurried, jamming his hands into his pockets.

Trissiny stared after him in something like shock. With her head turned to follow him leaving, she didn’t see Tellwyrn look up at her and sigh softly before returning to her own conversation.

Night always fell early on Mathenon, thanks to the Stalrange rising in the west. On this particular night, a storm had come with it—the kind that was all wind, occasional lightning, and no rain. The way weather behaved around the edge of the Great Plains, this wasn’t unusual, either. Nothing was really unusual. Sometimes it hailed in midsummer; the Golden Sea made a mess of air currents. Prairie folk had learned to put their heads down and endure.

All this made it a perfect night to while away in the pub with the gang, drinking and talking, as the sky howled outside.

The Fallen Arms stood in a somewhat rough part of the city, but it wasn’t a rough establishment. Neither boisterous nor dull, it had a dedicated clientele of hard-working men and women who liked to stop in and unwind after a day’s work; they liked stiff drinks, friendly conversation, and not having to deal with any foolishness. In Mathenon, “working class” most often meant accountants, House servants, or fancy private guards. The regulars at the Fallen Arms were a different breed; they worked with calloused hands and strong backs, and it was well within their ability to insist on some damn peace and quiet if some pushy lout wandered in and tried to start something. The proprietor encouraged them to do so.

“Now, don’t go puttin’ words in my mouth,” Roy said with mounting exasperation, pointing an accusing finger with the hand still holding his beer. “I didn’t say anything about joining the Huntsmen, I’ve already got a job. What kinda fool you take me for?”

“All right, fair,” Elsa replied agreeably. “But suppose your boy wanted to run off and join a lodge. What would you say to that, since you like ’em so much?”

“I dunno why you’re rarin’ to start a fight tonight,” Roy grumbled. “All I said was, they got their virtues, see? They ain’t totally without a point. How’d you get to me liking ’em so much from that?”

“I’ve got tits, that’s how,” she retorted. “Every time those pelt-wearing asshats come through town I have to deal with ’em talking down to me in a way you never have to worry about. This ain’t a theoretical exercise to me, Roy, or any woman, it’s you talkin’ out of your ass about stuff you don’t understand.”

“Now, I never said they didn’t have their bad sides, either!” he said, his voice rising defensively in pitch. “Come on, Elsa, you know me better’n that. All I’m saying is, some of that they have to say ain’t completely stupid. They’re all about self-reliance, an’ having respect for nature. What’s the matter with any of that?”

“What’s the matter is the bullshit it comes with!”

“Omnu’s balls, there’s no talking to you tonight,” Roy grunted. “Hey, Jonathan! Settle an argument.”


“Yeah, Jon, set this asshole straight,” Elsa chimed in, leaning around Roy to grin at the man seated on his other side at the bar, nursing a beer. “You’re the most level-headed guy here.”

He sighed, and rolled his eyes. “How many times do you think I’m gonna fall for that?”

“Oh, let’s not do this,” Elsa said dismissively. “You love playing the wise old man.”

“What do you mean, old?” he demanded, and she snorted a laugh in response. He had to grin back, despite his efforts to look offended.

Gods, he’d missed this.

Jonathan Arquin regretted none of the decisions he had made in life, even though they had made his lot hard in some ways. Now, though, things were looking brighter. The Church had relocated him out here to Mathenon for his protection, and had arranged a monthly stipend on which he could live very comfortably indeed, and never have to work.

He donated it every month to an Omnist shelter for the poor. Had to funnel it through a Vernisite temple in order to do so anonymously, which meant the Vernisites took a cut—six percent, the bloodsuckers—but that was a small price to pay for not having to explain why and how a man of his humble bearing could make such a generous gift on the regular. And whatever else could be said about bankers, they were admirably discreet people, particularly the religious ones. Meanwhile, he’d gone out and gotten a job.

A man was meant to work, otherwise, what was he good for? Work rooted him in the world, in society, kept him strong and centered and useful. And as an added bonus, it brought him this again, the kinship of other people who labored for a living. People who didn’t know about the demon and the child he’d had with her.

“Yeah, shut her up for me, Jon,” Roy added. “You don’t think the Huntsmen are totally bad, do you?”

Jonathan took a judicious sip of his beer before answering. “I can’t see anybody as totally bad, Roy, and that’s not a point for your argument. Not being an irredeemable monster is the baseline, not something a person gets praised for. Let’s face it, Huntsmen of Shaath are fanatical weirdos on their best day. Nobody who treats women the way they do is worth crossing the street to spit on, you ask me.”

“Thank you!” Elsa exclaimed, while Roy grumbled something and took a swig of his beer. He then sputtered on a mouthful of foam when she smacked him a little too hard on the shoulder. Jonathan almost missed the sound of the door opening in the ensuing playful scuffle, occurring as it did right in his ear.

The spreading silence was what warned him. Though they weren’t loud, or boisterous, the patrons of the Fallen Arms talked, and laughed, and drank. It was a place where people went for good company and good conversation. When the noise faded away, once table at a time, it meant something was up.

He raised his head, turning to examine the new arrival, and found himself staring like everyone else.

Mathenon was a city of merchants, and those who supported them; positioned on the single most important trade route between the inner provinces of the Empire and the mountain paths to Svenheim and Stavulheim, it was mostly inhabited by humans but saw its fair share of dwarves. It didn’t see many drow, however.

She paced slowly across the floorboards, the gnarled ebony staff in her hand making a rhythmic thunk each time she set it down, deep red eyes scanning the room as if searching for something. Dressed in pure black, both her leather trench coat and the robe underneath it, she cut a dark swath through the rustic ambiance the Arms cultivated. Her hair, though, had a streak of livid green dyed down the center, marring the white.

By the time she reached the bar, total silence had fallen upon the tavern, every eye fixed upon the drow woman, which she gave no sign of noticing. Slowly, she glided along the row of stools, feet soundless and only the butt of her staff making noise to mark her passing. She stepped past Jonathan, past Roy, then paused.

Elsa stiffened, but the dark elf turned and went back a few steps, this time stopping right behind Jonathan, who had turned around on his stool to study her direction.

She gave him a slow, insolent once-over, then nodded as if deciding on something.

“You,” the drow ordered. “Buy me a drink.”

Jonathan tore his gaze from her crimson eyes to glance at Roy, who shrugged helplessly.

He cleared his throat. “Lost your wallet, have you?”

One corner of her lips twitched upward. “This isn’t my first visit to the Empire. I know the custom in bars like this. The man buys the woman a drink. Or are you refusing me?”

She raised one snowy eyebrow, the expression somehow challenging.

Jonathan studied her right back, with the same measured impertinence. She was, it occurred to him, quite pretty. But hell, she was an elf; they were all pretty. He hadn’t known a lot of elves, and even fewer drow, certainly not enough to make a mental comparison. It was unnerving, having no idea how old she was. By her looks, she could’ve been barely out of her teens…which meant she was just as likely to be as old as the Empire. What might a creature like this have seen in her life?

“No offense,” he said at last, “but lady… You’re kind of scary.”

The drow tilted her head to one side in an inquisitive gesture, still maintaining eye contact. After another beat of silence, she smiled.

“Perhaps. But you still haven’t refused, I notice. Maybe you like that in a woman?”

He narrowed his eyes very slightly.

She did the same.

“Hey, Eliott,” Jonathan said at last, still looking at the dark elf and not the bartender he was now addressing. “Pour something…sweet, fruity, and pink. With a little paper umbrella if you’ve got any.”

“Sure, Jon,” Eliott said, deadpan. “And for the lady?”

A few chuckles from around the room broke the tension, and the drow herself grinned broadly in mischievous delight. The expression transformed her entire face.

Grinning back at her, Jonathan Arquin experienced the familiar feeling that he was about to make an excellent series of mistakes.


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Bonus #9: On Being a Man, Part 2

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A week was basically an eternity. Gabriel managed to go that long without having a complete breakdown, which maybe wasn’t so terribly impressive as he only really felt like doing that at about two in the morning when he was lying awake, staring at the ceiling. His father mostly let him be; Toby was clearly perplexed by his newly surly disposition, but after a gentle reminder that Gabe could talk to him about anything, didn’t push. Toby was always understanding that way. For once, Gabriel actually felt grateful that his entire social circle consisted of two people. While he occasionally missed the opportunities to eyeball the girls in his former class, it wasn’t as if his fellow students had ever gone out of their way to make him feel welcome, and right now he definitely didn’t want to deal with their crap.

It was a week after he walked out of the cafe, leaving Madeleine behind, that he received a note from her, delivered to his home and distinctly smelling of her perfume. Jonathan handed it to him with a faint, knowing smile—not an amused or teasing smile, just knowing, which almost made it worse. It came right at the point where his resistance was weakest, and Gabriel couldn’t help wondering if she had timed it that way precisely…and if she had, where she’d learned to do such things.

He had told Madeleine he needed to think, and he’d spent the week doing exactly that. He had nothing to show for it. Exactly what he felt toward her was impossible to sort out; one minute he thought he might be in love with her, another he felt certain he’d just been overwhelmed by a pretty face and an impressive bosom whose owner favored tight bodices. Not to mention the comforts of her lifestyle. He couldn’t make head or tail of her motivations, either. Did she truly just like him? Was she up to something? If so, what could it possibly be?

He couldn’t think of anything anyone would want him for, diabolically speaking; it was the children of spellcasting demons who made prodigy warlocks. What use was there for a half-hethelax, who had no gifts but nigh-invulnerability and an urgent need not to lose his temper? The problem was that he didn’t know, and didn’t dare to research it. Even asking those questions would be enough to raise the kind of alarms that resulted in a visit from Imperial Intelligence. Could he be rendered down for reagents? Demons were, by nature, magically reactive… Horrifying as that idea was, Gabriel couldn’t envision Madeleine’s treatment of him leading in that direction, even at his most paranoid. Someone who wanted to cut him up would just have snatched him off the street; as much as he roamed around the Wide Spot, these days often alone, it wouldn’t have been hard.

Hours of pacing the alleys and his room, going round and round this way, led him nowhere, until he finally decided he had no choice but to bite the belt and reach out.

“And that’s pretty much where I am,” he said, the day after receiving Madeleine’s letter. He’d been pacing back and forth as he recounted the last part of his story, and now came to a stop, shrugging helplessly.

Toby nodded slowly, looking earnestly up at him from his seat on one of the stone benches. Technically they were trespassing, but the owner of this building was out of the city at present, and had never been particularly uptight about the two boys sitting in his rooftop garden before; they’d always been careful not to make a mess or disturb anything. It was quiet and out of the way, and more to the point, one of the few places now where Toby could be free from both the monks of his order and journalists or other curiosity-seekers.

“Sounds…confusing,” he said.

Gabriel rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’d say that about bloody sums it up.”

“Well…how do you feel?”

“Um…confused? Weren’t you listening?”

“I was.” Toby shook his head. “It sounds to me like you’ve been trying to think this thing through. Which, yes, is a good idea, especially given the risks. But on the other hand… Has this Madeleine ever given you a reason to think she’s up to no good? Or is that just a fear? That makes all the difference, Gabe. If you’ve seen a real warning sign, that’s cause to stay away from her, I think. But if you’re just being afraid, then you may be blowing something possibly very good for no real reason. What you feel is pretty central, then.”

“How I feel?” Groaning, Gabriel sank back down on the bench opposite him. “I feel like I’m self-aware enough to know I’m an idiot about girls. I don’t think I can trust my feelings. All they tell me is ‘smell pretty, look pretty, cuddly soft and wow those boobs.’ None of that is particularly helpful, y’know?”

Toby laughed. “Fair enough. Yeah, I know the feeling… Sometimes you just have to make the mistake.”

Gabe sighed. “I don’t…know if the risk is worth it, though.”

“Well, what is the risk? What do you think she’s going to do to you?”

“I don’t know! But just because I don’t know what she might do doesn’t mean there’s nothing!” He sprang to his feet and resumed pacing. “Toby, it’d be one thing if she wasn’t bothered by me being a half-demon. That would be awesome. But she was…she was interested. And she knew what hethelaxi are. Do you see why that might concern me?”

“Well,” Toby said, not trying very hard to repress a grin, “don’t rule out that she just has a very interesting fetish.”

Gabe stopped his pacing and glared down at him. “That’s cute. Real classy, man.”

“Sorry,” Toby said, openly laughing now, but holding up his hands in surrender. “It’s just… In seriousness, that’s not unlikely. Never underestimate the appeal of a bad boy.”

“I’m a bad boy?” Gabriel snorted.

“For someone who hasn’t grown up with you? You’re a demonblood from a poor neighborhood. That might be plenty bad enough for a sheltered rich girl, which is how she sounds to me. Gabe, I’ve actually done some reading about hethelaxi since Omnu called me. The Church has given me access to lots of material, and I thought… Well, I thought maybe I could stumble across something helpful.”

“Yeah?” Gabriel folded his arms, trying not to look interested. “Did you?”

“In this case? Maybe…” Toby shrugged. “You could say it’s good news. A hethelax isn’t a spellcasting demon, as—yes, I’m aware you know that, stop making faces at me. Warlocks who summon a hethelax are usually looking for muscle—that’s actually pretty common. Half-bloods sometimes end up doing that kind of work if they can get it. The Thieves’ Guild and the Army don’t want half-demons as a rule, but there are nobles and others who have money and no scruples. Half-hethelaxi are very useful brawn.”

“This is real fuckin’ cheerful,” Gabriel muttered.

“My point is, Gabe, that’s it,” Toby said, staring intently up at him. “Just like any other half-demon, they tend to get targeted by sshitherosz to become warlocks, but just because they’re outcast and emotionally vulnerable, not because they have more magical potential. You’re in no danger of that.”

“Yeah, I like to think I’m not quite that stupid.”

“So, no, I really don’t think Madeleine is likely to be…y’know, up to something. If anything, the fact that she knows a bit about demons is a good sign. A novice warlock might think you’d be useful to them for power; somebody who’s read up on hethelaxi would know better. It sounds like she really does just like you.”

Gabriel sighed heavily, dragging a hand through his hair. “Man… I just wish I could be sure.”

Toby nodded slowly, frowning. “Well… Hm. In the letter, what does she say she wants?”

“To talk to me,” he said, shrugging. “She wants me to meet her tomorrow. At the Falour Street market. Someplace nice and public, as she points out.”

“Okay.” Toby straightened up on the bench. “Then I think you should meet her.”

Gabriel frowned. “Just like that?”

“Well, not just like that. Like I said, I don’t think there’s probably any danger. But just in case…” He grinned. “It’s not like you have no way to protect yourself.”


He would have recognized her in the crowd even had he not been looking for her specifically. She was just… Madeleine. Her dress was royal blue—she favored blue—and her hair, that rich chocolatey shade just shy of black, tumbled down her back in curling waves. She wasn’t overly tall, and some might have thought her a bit on the plump side; the Avenic ideal favored a wide bust and hips, it was true, but it preferred them on a long, lean, muscular frame. For Gabriel’s money, though, she was the most perfectly beautiful woman alive.

That was why he was in such trouble.

She turned as he was approaching through the crowd. The the way her whole face lit up at seeing him made his heart stutter.

“You came,” she said quietly, reaching out to squeeze his arm when he got close enough.

He had to pause and swallow painfully before he could answer. “I… Didn’t come alone. So…yeah.”

Her expression fell slightly; the note of hurt in it made him want to kick himself right in the face for being such a heel, even as the paranoid little voice in the back of his mind wondered whether this wasn’t precisely the reaction she was trying to convey.

“Well, my dear, it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of witnesses here anyway,” she said wryly.

“Yes, that’s true,” he replied, unable to think of anything wittier. “It’s… I just… I’m really glad to see you.”

Her eyes lit again, and he began to have the strong feeling he wasn’t going to win here.

“Gabriel,” she said softly, “you haven’t told me more than bits and pieces about your life… Has it been terribly hard, having to hide? Are you constantly hounded by people trying to take advantage of you?”

“I…wouldn’t say constantly,” he said nervously, glancing around at the crowded market street. “Or…ever, really. I do have to be discreet, you know, but I don’t think anyone’s ever tried to use me.” He stopped himself barely short of adding before.

She gazed up at him, her expression serious and with that faintest tinge of reproach that made him feel like an utter ass. “Then… I’m wracking my brain trying to think what I’ve done to earn such suspicion, and… I confess I don’t understand.”

“It’s not…that you’ve done anything,” he said awkwardly. “It’s more that… No one’s ever done anything. I’ve never had a reason to…to talk about… That is, what I mean is, you’re the first person who seemed to think of it as a good thing. The only people who think positively about…well, you know, are… Well, you know.”

Madeleine raised one eyebrow, her perfect lips quirking in amusement. “Would you like to step indoors and talk? I know a charming little cafe not at all far from here.”

“I think…” He glanced around again. “I think it’d be better to stay in public. For now.”

“All right, then,” she said amiably, then raised her voice just a hair. “The thing about demonbloods—”

“Hsst!” Gabriel quickly shushed her, looking surreptitiously about. At least half a dozen people had turned to stare at Madeleine’s comment. Grabbing her by the arm, he ushered her quickly through the crowd to an open alleyway. Stacks of pallets and empty wooden crates filled it beyond a few feet in, but there was a little nook left clear near the opening. She allowed herself to be pulled along without protest. “Fine, you win,” he growled, pushing her in ahead of himself and sticking his head out to peer around.

“Gabriel, for heaven’s sake, stop looking shifty,” she said, amused. “That only draws more attention. We’re two attractive young people in a shadowed alcove; believe me, no one will question that, unless you act like you’re up to something.”

He sighed heavily, gritting his teeth. For having done the pulling himself, he had the distinct feeling of having been maneuvered.

“I understand your concerns,” she said more quietly. “Not having grown up with the pressures you have… Well, I can only imagine the things you have to worry about. But, Gabriel… It breaks my heart, seeing you so willing to give up on yourself.”

“Me?” He stared at her. “I’m not giving up on anything.”

“No? Yet after our conversation over tea, you seem to have decided I must be up to something insidious. Why?”

“You were…” He looked away, finding himself unable to meet those big blue eyes. “Madeleine, it’s not normal for someone to be happy when they find out your mother was a demon.”

“It is normal to be happy,” she said so fiercely that he turned back to stare down at her. She stepped in closer till their bodies were nearly touching, grasping him by both upper arms. “Everyone has the right to be happy! Even—no, especially you. After all you’ve been deprived of, don’t you deserve it?”

“It’s not about what I deserve,” he said doggedly. “Demons are incredibly dangerous. People are right to be worried about me.”

“Are you dangerous?”

“I… I could be.”

“Oh, Gabriel.” Her smile as achingly sad. “Your whole problem is that you couldn’t be if you had to. You’re the most harmless person I have ever met. The agonizing thing is how afraid you are of yourself. You’re not worried about me, my darling. You’re afraid of what I represent.” She lifted one hand to press her palm against his cheek. “The first person who’s ever told you it’s good to be what you are. That you deserve the same happiness, the same respect as anyone.”

“That… I don’t…that isn’t what…” He trailed off, finding no answer for her. In that lack of rebuttal came a new and deeply disturbing uncertainty.

Madeleine pulled back slightly, studying his face. “You want some assurance that I mean you no harm?”

“I…I guess… I mean, what could that be?”

“Come with me,” she ordered, smoothly stepping up next to him and sliding her hand through his arm. She led him back out into the street. “Now, where did you leave your father and Mr. Caine?”

He came to a dead stop. “I never told you who I brought with me.”

“Gabriel, dearest,” she said, smiling knowingly up through her lashes. “There are precisely two people in the world you could have brought as backup, which you say you did. It’s either them, or only one of them, or you were bluffing. I do hope it’s Mr. Caine, otherwise I’m afraid I’ve dragged you back out here for nothing.”

He sighed heavily. “It really doesn’t help that you’re smarter than me.”

“I really am not,” she said gently, pressing herself into his side in that extremely distracting way she had. “Just more accustomed to maneuvering. That’s what happens when you grow up around moneyed people. I’m sure I wouldn’t last a week in your life, either. Now, which way?”

Resignedly, he led her back up the street to where he’d left Toby and his dad lounging against the iron fence surrounding someone’s private yard. They both came alert at his approach, their attention fixing on his companion.

“Dad,” he said somewhat nervously. “Toby… This is Madeleine.”

“Glad to finally meet you,” Jonathan said calmly, offering his hand. Madeleine offered hers in such a way there was nothing he could really do except bow and kiss it. To Gabriel’s amazement, his father did so smoothly and without hesitation.

“The pleasure is all mine,” she said warmly. “Gabriel speaks glowingly of you both. And Mr. Caine, what an honor!”

“Oh, I’m nothing so special,” Toby said, smiling a little uncomfortably.

“You clearly are very modest, for being one of the most important people in the world,” Madeleine said with a smile. “Forgive me if you don’t prefer to discuss it, but I think you can perhaps help put Gabriel’s mind to rest. I believe he is worried I’m out to corrupt him or something. Tell me, isn’t it true that paladins can sense evil?”

“Um…’evil’ is a hugely subjective term,” Toby said carefully, frowning. “I can’t sense hostile intentions or differing philosophies or anything like that…which is most of what’s commonly called ‘evil’ end up being.”

“That has the ring of dogma,” Madeleine noted.

“Well, yes,” he replied with a sheepish grin. “The monks of Omnu are careful not to condemn anyone just for having different perspectives. But some things… Undead, demons, some kinds of spirits, yes. I can sense those.”

“Fascinating,” she said. “Are you certain? Have you ever encountered such a thing?”

Toby’s smile faded and he glanced around. No one was paying them any attention; his image hadn’t been widely circulated, and once he’d ducked the press, as far as anybody could tell he was just a teenager of Western descent in rather drab clothes. “After I was called… The Church keeps summoners on retainer. I was brought to a secure location and shown demons confined to spell circles, so I’d recognize the sensation. Yes, I’m sure.”

“I am glad to hear it,” she said, smiling. “And…?”

Toby smiled bad. “You seem positively lovely, miss, and about as evil as I am, I’d say.”

“Thank you, Mr. Caine,” she said smugly, smiling up at Gabriel. He had to smile back.

“So,” said Jonathan in a deceptively mild tone that Gabriel recognized with dread, “any particular reason Gabe thought you might have it in for him?”

Madeleine turned the full force of her smile on him. “I would say it is the result of a lifetime spent in hiding. He was, perhaps understandably, startled at being told that there is nothing wrong with being who and what he is. That perhaps there may even be advantages.”

Jonathan stared at her in silence for a long moment; Gabriel didn’t dare to speak. Toby glanced rapidly between the three of them. “That,” Jonathan said finally, “is a very dangerous line of thinking.”

“Dangerous doesn’t mean wrong,” Madeleine noted calmly.

“No, it doesn’t,” said Jonathan, his eyes boring into her. “It just means dangerous. No, it’s not fair, the way the world sees and treats Gabriel. It’s not right. But I’ve had a go at changing the world myself, and I know exactly how much the world doesn’t like that. I want my son to survive, and find what happiness he can. That means keeping his head down and not courting trouble.”

“It means being a second-class citizen,” she said grimly.

Jonathan transferred his gaze to Gabriel. “Yes,” he said softly, “it does. And I hate it so much that sometimes it could choke me. But I want him to live. If you stand up to the world, the world will put you back down. As hard as it can.”

“The world is changing,” Madeleine said, tightening her grip on Gabriel’s arm. “In a lot of ways. I happen to think that in the coming order, those who leverage whatever gifts they have will rise to the top. Your son is an extraordinary young man, Mr. Arquin, and it pains me how unaware of that he is. He could be destined for great things.”

“Mm.” Jonathan studied her face carefully. “How old are you?”

“Dad!” Gabriel burst out, mortified. Toby winced.

“Oh, my,” Madeleine said mildly. “How toweringly rude.”

“It’s just that I do recall, dimly, being a teenager,” Jonathan continued. “I wasn’t bad looking, if I say so myself.”

“I believe that,” Madeleine said sweetly.

He rewarded her with a ghost of a smile. “And even so, I couldn’t have dreamed of attracting the attention of a beautiful, wealthy woman in her…twenties?” She only smiled in silence, and after a moment he continued. “Between that and your…opinions concerning Gabriel’s prospects, I begin to see how he might wonder about your intentions.”

“Perhaps,” she replied, “you simply are so accustomed to worrying about his survival you haven’t had the chance to think about his prospects for having something greater than just existence. To answer your question, Mr. Arquin, I am far too young for you, and not too old for Gabriel. That is all that anyone needs to know.”

“Fair enough,” he said with a shrug. “As you said, though, I do have to think about these things. He’s a good boy, but it is somewhat odd that learning about his heritage makes you more interested and not less. You’re certain there’s nothing you’d like to tell us? Something that might explain your, shall we say, attraction to—”

“Have you lost your mind?” Gabriel burst out. “Do not talk to her like that!”

“It’s all right, darling,” Madeleine said, patting him on the arm, though she kept her eyes on Jonathan. “It’s a parent’s right and duty to be protective.”

“And there are any number of perfectly innocent explanations,” Jonathan said agreeably. “If you have a relative with a certain kind of bloodline yourself, for example…”

“Mr. Arquin, you seem to enjoy speaking bluntly, so allow me to do the same,” Madeleine said, her voice steely now. “Gabriel is, for all intents and purposes, as human as you or I, at least to look at. I have seen illustrations of full-blooded hethelaxi. Perhaps you, of all people, should think carefully before criticizing anyone else’s choice of lover.”

Everyone froze.

“Gabriel,” Jonathan said after a moment, meeting Madeleine’s gaze.

“Yes?” Gabe asked tensely.

Jonathan turned to look him in the eyes, finally, and smiled. “I like her.”


“But be careful around her,” he admonished as they walked.

Gabriel sighed. The sun was setting and they were finally heading home, having parted from Madeleine some time ago. He felt a great deal more at ease with and about her, but the tension between her and his father was clearly not completely in the past.

“I’m not going to bother explaining,” Jonathan continued, eyes on the street ahead, “as you clearly figured it all out. There are a few things that are…odd. Just speaking more generally, she’s clever and strong-willed, which characterizes the best women you can possibly get involved with, and also the worst.”

“As Toby pointed out,” Gabriel said, glancing over his shoulder at Toby, who was walking a few steps behind them, “it’s hard to imagine an ulterior motive for her. There’s almost no point in manipulating a part-hethelax. When they tested us at school they said I have pretty much the normal human aptitude for magic and no notable infernal gifts.”

Jonathan nodded slowly, making no reply. They continued on in silence for a while before he spoke again, his voice softer. “You’ve never asked me about your mother. I keep waiting for it, but you never have.”

Gabriel drew in a deep, slow breath and let it out just as slowly. “Is…there any chance of me meeting her?”

Jonathan shook his head. “I can’t imagine any situation where that could happen. If it looks like one is about to arise, you have my word I’ll give you as much warning as I can.”

“Do you think…I ought to know her?”

“I don’t know,” Jonathan said after a moment.

“Then, unless you change your mind, don’t worry about it,” Gabriel said firmly. “I know it’s been hard on you, Dad. Having me around, I mean. I figure talking about…her, and whatever happened between you, has to be rough. You don’t need any more stress on my part. And anyhow… I don’t really want to be any more in touch with that side of my heritage than I absolutely have to. Being Jonathan Arquin’s son is as much as I could want.”

Jonathan moved closer and threw an arm around his shoulder. “Madeleine and I agree on at least one thing, Gabe. There is nothing, not one damn thing, wrong with you. It’s the world that has the problem. You’ve gotta keep it in mind, got to be careful not to provoke trouble you’re not prepared to contend with. But don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re less than anyone else.” He stared forward as they walked, as if challenging the horizon. “Don’t you dare let them.”

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Bonus #8: On Being a Man, Part 1

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“It feels weird… I mean, it’s the least of what feels weird, but being at school would be something familiar, at least. The term’s starting and I’m not there. It’s like being adrift. A little something else about my life that’s different.”

“Man, you overthink everything,” Gabriel said, grinning and kicking an errant pebble out of the path. “My dad pulled me out of school and I am as happy as a shroomhead.”

Toby looked at him in surprise. “You? Why? Gabe, tell me you didn’t flunk out. Your grades—”

“Excuse you, I am an extremely mostly acceptable student,” Gabe said haughtily. “Nah, it’s just… Well, it’s not exactly a secret we’re friends, y’know? People would be after me to tell them all the juicy secrets about you, and Dad figured me being the center of attention was a bad idea for several reasons.”

“I suppose that’s logical.” Toby frowned. “I don’t like being the cause of upending your life.”

“Toby, seriously, you are the glummest human being alive. I am not in school!” Gabriel grinned hugely. “When Dad first said ‘tutor’ I was having visions of some hot blonde number in a tight little bodice like Mrs. Tanner used to wear—”

“What is it with you and blondes?”

“—and instead I got this beak-nosed old guy who smells like dust, I kid you not. I didn’t realize dust had a smell till I met this man. And even so, I can’t say I was disappointed, because hello, not in school!”

Toby kept his eyes on the sidewalk ahead of them as they approached the Omnist complex. He had resisted, thus far, efforts to have him moved into the main Temple of Omnu on Imperial Square, but felt it was coming whether he liked it or not. “So, uh, how is… I mean, your dad, how’s…”

“How’s he affording a tutor?” Gabriel’s smile rapidly diminished. “He just tells me not to worry about it.”

“And you left it at that?”

“Of course not. I kept asking until the answer turned into ‘don’t worry about it’ in his ‘boy I am not damn well kidding’ voice. That’s where I left it.”

Toby chuckled ruefully. “Even I wouldn’t challenge that voice.”

“What, you, the great and mighty paladin?”

“Gabriel, I’ve met Omnu, and I’ve met your dad. In my official opinion as his Hand, I can honestly say that Omnu is a safer person to have mad at you.”

The last vestige of Gabriel’s smile faded. “For you, I guess.”

Toby winced. “I didn’t mean—”

“It’s okay.” Gabe gave him a quick little smile. Then they had reached the gates of the monastery, where a small knot of monks in traditional brown homespun were trying not to look like they were waiting.

“Tobias,” said the man in the forefront, a middle-aged, hawk-nosed man whose black hair was no longer retreating and had been thoroughly routed. “Did you have a pleasant walk?”

“Yes, Brother Cavin,” Toby said dutifully.

“Very good,” the man said with a sharp nod. “Come, it is nearing time for evening prayers. Say good-bye to your friend.”

Toby gave him a polite smile, turning to Gabriel. “Well, guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“In fact,” Cavin said firmly, “you had better make it good-bye.”

Toby stiffened, slowly turning back toward him. “I don’t think I take your meaning, Brother.”

“This…acquaintance…has been good enough, I suppose, for a child. Indeed, it seems you have done your part to keep him out of trouble. Some trouble, from what we hear. But a time comes to put away childish things. It comes for all, but you in particular have your role in Omnu’s plans to consider.”

“You can’t be serious,” Toby said incredulously.

Cavin continued addressing him directly, not acknowledging Gabriel with so much as a look. “Tobias, we have made our views on this clear from the beginning. You must accept the reality of your changing situation, and your responsibilities. What you do and with whom you do it will reflect on all of Omnu’s people from now on. Now… Say good-bye to your acquaintance.”

Toby looked at Gabriel, who looked thunderstruck, then back at the implacable Brother Cavin. Then, slowly, his own shocked expression resettled itself into firm lines.

“Brother Cavin,” he said softly, “of what crime, precisely, are you accusing Gabriel?”

Cavin frowned. “It is not a question of what he has done, but what he is. The demonblooded—”

“That’s not the question I asked you,” Toby went on, his voice firming.

“Toby,” Gabriel warned, but Toby held up a hand to silence him.

“I am asking you, Brother Cavin, what grounds you have to stand in front of Gabriel Arquin and declare, to his face, that he is unsuitable company for a member of our faith.”

Cavin was starting to actually look unsettled. “It—Tobias, you are not just a member of the faith.”

“Am I not? Should I lord over the faithful like a Vernisite trade priest? Gabriel has been my best friend for years. He is one of the best people I know. If you are going to condemn him for an accident of blood, you’re on very dangerous ground.”

Cavin’s mouth hung open now. In the entire seventeen years of his acquaintance with Tobias Caine, the boy had never once talked back to him.

“The people of Omnu, above all else, are to show compassion,” Toby said, his voice pitched loud enough to resonate both on the street and into the courtyard of the monastery. “Care between living things is the stuff of which life is made. You taught me that; I am disappointed to see you’ve forgotten. I think you should go back inside and ponder it.”

Brother Cavin stammered in shock. “I—Toby, that—”

“Go!” Toby snapped, pointing past him at the monastery.

The monk gaped at him in silence for a long moment, before jerking in a half-hearted bow and backing away. He turned and strode off to the wooden doors of the monastery’s main building, pausing once on the threshold to glance back at Toby, then vanished within.

The other monks slowly trickled after him, though several gave Toby encouraging grins. “Don’t be out too long, Toby,” an older woman said gently, then gave Gabriel a quick smile before following the rest of the group.

Toby drew in a deep breath; it shuddered audibly on the way back out.

“Wow,” Gabriel said in awe. “That was… Damn. Are you sure… I mean, be careful, Toby. I don’t want you messing things up for yourself on my account.”

“Gabe, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but that was only slightly about you.” Toby managed a shaky smile. “It was slightly about me getting out from under Brother Cavin’s shadow before he makes himself my personal agent or something, but mostly it was exactly what I said. Omnists are to be compassionate. We don’t make as much a thing of justice as the Avenists, but you can’t be kind without some basic grasp of fairness.” He paused, then reached out to squeeze Gabriel’s shoulder. “I’ve been your friend long enough to see the way society treats half-demons is messed up. And I can’t very well be the Hand of Omnu if I see something like that without trying to do something about it.”

Gabe squeezed his lips together, trying to fight back a grin and ultimately failing. “So… Do you actually have the authority to give them orders?”

“Eh,” Toby hedged, wincing slightly. “It’s not a doctrinal prerogative, but… Hey, if the Hand of Omnu gave you a direct order, would you say ‘no?’”

“Heh, is that a hypothetical question or am I gonna have to find out?”

“Well, if we’re talking hypotheticals… I’m not saying I can be bribed with pastry…”

Gabriel laughed aloud, a sound that was more relief than amusement. “See you tomorrow, then?”

“Yes,” Toby said firmly. “You will.”

He stayed to watch the Hand of Omnu re-enter his monastery before turning and heading back toward his own apartment, whistling softly. Not even the furtive watchers in the street spoiled his good mood. Ever since Toby had been called by his god, the both of them had drawn more attention and curiosity than either liked, and the countermeasures against it weren’t much better. People had quickly figured out to leave them both alone, due to a combination of the monks’ influence, Gabriel’s father’s firm hand in the community, and worst of all, a heavily increased Imperial presence.

Even now, he could see more soldiers patrolling the Wide Spot than it reasonably warranted, and even a woman in the ankle-length navy blue coat of Imperial Intelligence. Aside from its long cut, that coat was identical in style to those worn by the Army, but it meant so much more. Intelligence operatives didn’t gad about in uniform due to the nature of their work; the presence of an agent in formal attire as a message that whatever was happening was Imperial business and all those present had better mind their own. The pestering had thus been much less than it otherwise might have, but Gabriel wasn’t about to argue with his father’s wisdom in pulling him out of school.

On the other hand, he didn’t much care for being watched. It was a learned instinct.

“Hey, pretty lady,” he said impishly to the woman in the Intelligence longcoat as he passed her spot on the street corner. “Where do I get a coat like that?”

The look she gave him was a skillful blend of amusement and condescension. “You don’t.”

“Well, that’s okay, it was just a pretext to break the ice anyhow,” he said, stopping. “What’s the matter? Never been flirted with before?”

Her smile remained unchanged; he noted a little belatedly that it didn’t go anywhere near her eyes. She moved on hand slightly, drawing back the coat just enough to reveal the heavier-than-normal wand holstered at her belt. “Not twice.”

Gabriel coughed awkwardly and resumed walking, a little quicker than before.

Head down, he very nearly ran smack into the next woman he encountered, who was backing carefully into the sidewalk from an antiques shop. Gabriel actually (to his mortification), let out a yelp of surprise, having to dance awkwardly into the street itself to avoid plowing into her.

“Oh!” she exclaimed in startlement, whirling and dropping her shopping bags.

“Gods, I’m sorry,” he blurted. “I wasn’t watch…I just…I…”

At some point deep in the abyss of her blue eyes, he forgot what he’d been trying to say. They were exquisitely framed by dark lashes, set in a heart-shaped face that somehow combined adorably rounded cheeks with an almost elvishly pointed little chin. Her rosebud lips were strikingly deep pink against her pale skin; dark hair flowed around her visage like…like a… Gabriel found himself trying to concoct a poetic simile and shook his head as though to chase fog out of his eyes.

“Uh, here, let me help you,” he said, bending to reach for one of the fallen bags. He slowed in the process, nearly forgetting what he was doing again as he noticed the rest of her. She had the kind of figure that could have been described as “thick” or “curvaceous,” depending on how she carried it… And she carried it very, very well indeed. The sleek, tailored blue dress she wore did a lot to heighten the effect. He had never imagined a bosom like that could exist…

Well, that wasn’t true. He’d just never expected to see one in person. Not this close, at least.

“That’s…all right?” she said somewhat archly as the silence stretched out. “I guess I can manage?”

Gabriel flushed, realizing that he was half bent over, one hand outstretched toward her bags, face inappropriately close to her chest and unabashedly staring. Quickly he finished the motion, fumbling to snatch up the shopping bag and hand it to her.

The amused, knowing expression on her face made his flush heat to the point he feared combustion. Even so, he couldn’t stop looking. Those eyes… Five minutes ago he couldn’t have conceived of a pair of eyes that could draw his gaze away from such a pair of…well.

“Mm, well,” she said without reaching for the bag, perfect lips curling up in an impish smile, “if you’d like to make it up to me, you can help me carry those. My carriage is parked just around the corner.”

“Oh! Uh, sure, that’s… I’d love to! I mean, least I can do, you know. Nearly hit you and all. I mean, not hit you, but almost…”

“That’s settled, then,” she said brightly, stepping around next to him and tucking her hand into his free arm. He was instantly paralyzed; she had to tug gently to get him moving. “My name’s Madeleine.”

“Madeleine,” he breathed. “That’s…wow, that’s gorgeous.”

Her laughter was a delightful trill, like birdsong. “You’re too kind!”

“I’m serious. It’s really pretty.”

She smiled up at him through her lashes, an incredibly unfair maneuver. “And… You are…?”

“Oh! Uh, I’m, uh…”

“You’ve forgotten?” she inquired sweetly. “Take your time.”

“Um, Gabe. Arkriel. I mean, Gabwin…” He closed his eyes, gritting his teeth in mortification. “Gabriel Arquin,” he managed finally.

“You’re sure, now?” Madeleine asked, grinning openly. “You wouldn’t like to reconsider? I have time.”

“Positive,” he mumbled, flushing to his collar and probably lower. “I’m just… Sorry. Not good at… I, uh, don’t know what to say.”

“Try the truth?” she suggested.

“The truth… The truth is stupid.”

“Probably less so than you think. Try me.”

“…and embarrassing.”

“I would never judge you, Gabriel Arquin,” Madeleine promised, again doing that brutal through-the-lashes trick.

“…you are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life and I cannot think with the words making right now.”

She laughed brightly. He could have listened to it forever.

“You just may be the sweetest boy I’ve ever met,” she said, eyes twinkling up at him.

“I’m quite serious,” he said, her encouragement doing wonders to repair his equilibrium. “I am extremely stupid right now and it’s all your fault. Well, mostly your fault. I was only slightly stupid before, I promise.”

“Well, that’s good to know,” she murmured. “A lady likes to be reassured that she can render a gentleman…stupid.” She hugged his arm closer, quite coincidentally pressing his elbow into the plushness of her breast.

Gabriel managed to freeze completely without losing his stride, nearly the entirety of his attention concentrated on that elbow. He felt like a hunter staring, frozen, at a grazing deer, afraid the slightest movement on his part would spook her into flight. He was young enough, yet, to think such a maneuver on her part could be accidental.

“Perhaps I should make it up to you, then,” Madeleine suggested, coming to a stop and causing him to do the same. Belatedly, he realized they were standing next to a late-model Falconer roadster. This was the first time in his life he’d been this close to such an expensive carriage, and he had almost no attention to spare for it.

“What’s that, then?” he asked dumbly.

“Would you be a love and help me with these?” she asked sweetly. He found himself obediently lifting her bags into the carriage and settling them on the passenger’s seat. It was a tiny little thing, with hardly room for two.

Madeleine climbed gracefully into the driver’s seat, producing the control rune from a pocket. “For being rendered stupid on my behalf. I feel I ought to give you a chance to show me how clever you can be. A gentleman deserves the opportunity to put on his best face in order to win a lady.”

“W-win,” he stammered, gazing up at her.

“Mm. How does tea sound?”

“…tea? Sounds…good.”


“Um… Tea tomorrow? I guess…”

“Splended,” she said, smiling mysteriously. “Four o’clock. Be here. Ta ta, Gabriel Arquin.”

She wiggled her fingers flirtatiously at him, and then the carriage was smoothly accelerating away with a whisper-faint arcane hum.

Gabriel stood on the corner, gazing after her. When he finally gathered himself enough to turn and head back home, he was whistling again, mostly as an exercise in self-control. What he wanted to do was sing.

“So what’s her name?”

Gabriel choked on a mouthful of stew, which luckily provided him with a priceless few seconds of coughing in which to formulate a clever reply.

He finally lifted his eyes to look at his father across the table. “…what?”

Jonathan Arquin was smiling at him, an expression just short of smugness. “Y’know, son, as much as you enjoy getting in trouble, I’d think you’d have learned to lie better after seventeen years. Come on, now, is it that you think I’m an idiot, or that you think I sprang up fully-formed and was never a teenager? It’s been two weeks. You’re constantly running off to mysterious assignations which I know aren’t with Toby. And if they are, well, that raises some questions about the dopey grin you’re always wearing.”

Gabriel dropped his eyes again at that, his expression sobering. His father didn’t know how on the nose that crack actually was. The reminder jarred him back to a semblance of control. “I don’t know if…if I’m ready to… Well. Introduce…um.” He trailed off. Well, a semblance was better than nothing.

Jonathan leaned back in his chair, the mirth slipping away from his face. He pushed aside his stew bowl and folded his arms. “Gabriel, I think it’s time we had a talk.”

“Oh, no. Oh no.” Gabe dramatically covered both his eyes with his palms. “Dad, I’m begging you, please. We have had the talk. It was every bit as hideously awkward as every joke about parenting in every story makes it sound. Let’s never, ever go there again.”

“Not that talk,” Jonathan said wryly. “No, I think we covered all the salient points that time. There’s more to all this than just…mechanics.”

“Dad, I swear by all the gods…”

“Shut up and listen.” He didn’t raise his voice or put any heat into it, but Gabriel knew his father’s tone well enough to tell when the time for slippancy was over. He lowered his hands, leaning back in his own chair and giving his full attention. Not without a dramatic sigh, of course.

Jonathan had paused, and was now gazing abstractly at the now-cold wood stove in the corner of their cramped little kitchen, gathering his thoughts. “Despite the best efforts of the Avenists,” he said finally, “women get put under a lot of pressure in our society. A lot of bullshit pressure, most of it. Wasn’t always this way. Your great-great grandfather was an actual, honest-to-gods adventurer, in a time when that meant something impressive. In the stories he used to tell, a good half the people in his field were women, and nobody dared show ’em a whit less respect than they asked for.” He shook his head. “You can pretty much tell things have changed. It’s like everyone turned a little bit Shaathist at some point without knowing how or why.”

He turned back to stare intently at his son. “You’ve spent enough time around other teenage boys by this point to have heard a lot of horsewash starting with ‘women are all.’ How they talk too much, how they manipulate men to get what they want, how they never say what they really mean and don’t make sense most of the time. The truth is… Well, there’s a lot of truth in all that.”

Gabriel cringed. “Ugh. Dad, every time I hear somebody say something like that I expect my old history teacher to pop up and smack ’em with a ruler.”

“Julin Avelea, right?” Jonathan nodded, eyes glinting approvingly. “I liked that lady. It was almost a shame you outgrew the levels she taught in. No, women really do have a tendency to do stuff like that, and the thing you need to keep in your mind is why. Fact is, women are taught from the cradle to be nice. They’re expected to be friendly, to be non-confrontational, nurturing. A woman simply can’t afford to approach problems the way a man does in this society. Unless she’s wearing Silver Legion armor, the best she could hope for is not being taken seriously. In some places—hell, a lot of places, that kind of thing could put her in real danger.

“In a way, you just might be better positioned to understand women than ninety percent of boys your age, Gabe. You’re under a lot of bullshit pressure, too. You know all about keeping quiet when it isn’t fair, when nobody else has to. Think about that when you react—no, before you react to anything a woman does. They’re nice because they have to be; they’re indirect because they can’t afford not to be. And it’s men who made up these rules. Far too many men see a girl’s smile and react like it means ‘take me, I’m yours.’ Most of the time, what it means is more ‘I’ve noticed that you exist, please don’t rape me.’ So yes, they play word games and mind games and whatnot, because what the hell else are they gonna do? Everyone has to live, and we don’t let women live fairly.

“There are two critical, very easy mistakes a man’s likely to make. The first is assuming he’s been promised something, or is entitled to something, when he’s been shown just a little bit of encouragement.” Jonathan’s eyes bored into Gabriel’s, his expression flat. “The second is trusting too easily that a woman’s manipulations are just harmless female hijinks, when there may actually be something sinister going on.”

Gabriel frowned. “…sinister?”

Jonathan drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh. “Gabe…you are who you are, and who you are is basically a good kid. But you’re also what you are, and… There are always going to be a lot of people looking to hurt you…and a good few people looking to take advantage of you.”

Gabriel stiffened. “Madeleine is not—”

“Easy, boy,” Jonathan said firmly. “I don’t know this lady of yours; I have no idea what she is or isn’t about. I want you to think about what you see and hear from her, understand? Getting to spend time around a girl intimately, especially for the first time… Well, if she’s anything like the girls I met at your age, you’re gonna find that huge swaths of what she says and does don’t make any damn kind of sense. That just means you’re thinkin’ about it from your perspective, not hers. Pay attention, try to understand where she’s coming from… And always think about what it means.

“A man who takes advantage of a woman and demands more than she’s willing to offer is less than a man. I’ve made my share of mistakes, but I know I’ve raised you better than that. On the other hand… Don’t be in a hurry to offer trust where trust hasn’t been earned. And don’t mistake pretty eyes and a soft body for rightly earned trust. Understand?”

Gabriel nodded, staring down at the table.

“Gabriel.” Jonathan’s voice was gentle, but firm. “I need to know if you understand what I’ve told you.”

Gabe lifted his gaze. “…yes, sir.”

Jonathan sighed again, running a hand through his graying hair. “All right. I know damn well it’s a bunch of theory and it won’t start making sense until after you’ve make a whopping big mistake or three. Just try to think back on what I said at that point, eh?” He huffed the soft shadow of a chuckle. “Well…anyway. Want the rest of your stew?”

Gabriel stared at his half-empty bowl. “I… No, thanks. I don’t think I’m very hungry.”

“I know I shouldn’t have told her off, but oh, she makes me mad! I mean, the catty little put-downs are one thing, but interfering with my dressmaker? There is a code. There are rules. For heaven’s sake, we are trying to have a society here!”

“Mm hm,” Gabriel observed.

Madeleine sighed prettily, cradling her teacup in front of her. “I know you must think me dreadfully shallow to care about these things, Gabriel dear, but… Such is the world I live in. If I don’t pay attention to it, it’ll eat me alive. Anyone’s world will do that, left unattended. You’re ever so tolerant to let me prattle on so about things that don’t concern you.”

“Mm hm,” he agreed.

She studied his face thoughtfully for a moment. “Well. I’ve decided to paint my teeth green and grow a second head. That’ll show them.”

“Good idea,” he said vaguely, gazing at a point over her left shoulder.

Madeleine remained quiet, simply looking at him with that thoughtful expression. After a protracted moment, Gabriel slowly turned his gaze back to her eyes.

“And…that last bit was a test to see if I was listening.”

“Bravo!” Her eyes twinkled with amusement, in that distinctive way they did that always made his heart flutter. No one else had eyes like hers. Not even close. “You passed. Belatedly, but still! That makes you more sensitive than most men.”

“Glad I have that going for me, then,” he said, trying at a light tone with only marginal success.

“Gabriel,” she said gently, “you have very kindly indulged my chattering all afternoon. It was probably easier, with you clearly being in another world. Would you like to share what’s on your mind?”

He dropped his gaze from hers, studying the tablecloth.

“I have never judged you,” she said quietly, “and never shall.”

He lifted his eyes again, meeting hers. There was nothing, for a brief eternity, except her blue gaze and the simple openness in it. The soft sounds of the upscale cafe around them seemed to fade into the distance. He had to forcibly jerk himself back to focus.

“I… There are things you don’t know about me.”

“We’ve known each other for…two weeks, yes?” She smiled lopsidedly, a mischievous expression he loved. “There are scads of things we both don’t know about each other. You can tell me anything you like, darling.”

He glanced around. The cafe was too perfect for intimate assignations to have been anything but designed for it. Tables were separated by thick walls which served as planters for enormously healthy philodendrons, their leafy vines crawling over decorative lattices and frosted glass partitions. The table was approachable only from the front; he could barely hear any of their neighbors, and couldn’t see them at all. It was a lovers’ place, a place for secrets.

Even so, he lowered his voice.

“I’m a half-demon.”

He had dreamed and feared saying the words for so long; now they hung in the air like a bad smell.

Madeleine just looked at him in silence, her expression not changing a bit. Gabriel met her gaze, shifting nervously in his chair.

Finally, when he was thinking seriously about getting up and fleeing, she spoke.

“What kind?”

Gabriel blinked at her. “Um… What?”

“I mean, what kind of demon,” she clarified. “There are several that are known to interbreed with humans.”

“You’re not… Surprised?”

“Oh, Gabriel.” Smiling fondly, she shook her head. “You mustn’t think I’ve been spying on you, but… Well, a lady gets curious about the gentleman with whom she keeps company. I have asked around a little bit, and people in your neighborhood are only too eager to talk about the resident demonblood.”

He stared at her. “You…you never mentioned…”

“Is there a reason it should bother me?” Her smile was vaguely feline. “I assumed you would tell me when you felt comfortable doing so. I’m very glad that day has come; I’m honored you would trust me. I am curious, though. What kind? It does make a difference, if I’m to know what to expect.”

He leaned back slowly in his chair, still staring at her eyes. “Hethelax.”

“Hmm…” Madeleine nodded slowly. “That’s good.”


“Hethelaxi aren’t spellcasters,” she said, as calmly as she had discussed dresses and the tea, and more calmly than she’d related the would-be theft of her seamstress by another well-heeled young lady. “If you’d had sshitherossz blood, for example… That could be problematic. Young demonbloods who accidentally develop magical skills… Well, that kind of magic tends to land one in trouble, no? Hethelaxi, though, that blood won’t give you anything too troublesome. A bit of a temper, maybe, which I know by now you haven’t got. So… All you’ll have inherited is an allergy to divine magic, and a complete imperviousness to…well, everything else!” She smiled broadly. “A very fair trade-off, don’t you think? After all, what use it the holy light to someone who can’t be hurt?”

“You know your demonology,” he said quietly.

“I read.” Her voice had a faint edge to it now. “Demons, as I’m sure you’re aware, are quite dangerous. It seems only foolish not to know the basics.”

“You’re just so… So gorgeous,” he murmured.

“Well, it’s an abrupt change of subject,” Madeleine purred, “but I can’t find it in me to complain. Do go on.”

“So, just, perfect. Beautiful and poised and sexy and fun.”

“Excellent, just excellent. Continue, please.”

“And in addition to all of that, you’re…” He waved a hand, indicating the demurely tasteful cafe, the lace-trimmed napkins, silken tablecloth and fine china. “Riding around in that fabulous carriage of yours, eating in places I could never dream of affording… It’s been like a dream.”

“Well, not quite as complimentary,” she said dryly, “but I suppose it would be churlish to refuse even distant praise.”

“And with all of this,” he said, “it just hasn’t occurred to me to wonder what a woman like you would want with someone like me.”

“A woman. Like. Me.” Madeleine set down her teacup, interlaced her fingers and propped her chin in them, gazing at him. “If I did not know you were such a sweetheart, Gabriel, I might have to strain to think of a context in which that was a compliment.”

“You could have pretty much any man in the capital begging at your feet. And here I am, a seventeen-year-old kid from a rough neighborhood. I really am an idiot for not…wondering.”

“Oh, so now I’m too old for you?” She raised one sculpted eyebrow. “You’re backpedaling in very much the wrong direction, darling.”

“And you are deflecting,” he accused.

Madeleine shrugged. “If you must pry, I am still well on the right side of thirty. Perhaps I seem distantly sophisticated and mature to you, Gabriel, but the gap between us isn’t as great as all that. It will grow less significant with each year that passes.”

“Maybe I’m being unfair…”

“That seems to be a man’s prerogative, in my experience.”

“But,” he continued doggedly, “now that the subject is raised, I just can’t stop wondering what it is you might want with a demonblood.”

Madeleine unlaced her hands and reached across the table, wrapping her dainty fingers around his wrist. Her skin was silky, soft and cool. “A demonblood in general? I can’t imagine. But one demonblood in particular? Gabriel.” Her tone was soft, firm, coaxing. “I know it hasn’t been long. I know there’s so much for both of us yet to reveal. But please don’t think I don’t see you for who you are. There is so much to you. Such…potential.” She all but breathed the last word, gazing limpidly at him.

Slowly, very slowly, he pulled back, withdrawing his hand. “I…” Gabriel finally broke his gaze from hers. His movements suddenly awkward, he rose from the table. “I, um. Thank you for the tea, Madeleine. And the company. I’m… I’m gonna walk home. I need to think.”

“Of course, love,” she said sadly. Gabriel swallowed heavily, turned and shuffled off, shoulders hunched and hands stuck in his pockets.

Madeleine watched him go, waited until he was out the doors of the cafe and beyond sight of its plate glass windows before moving again. She delicately picked up a fork and speared a bite of frosted sponge cake.

“You think, my dear,” she murmured to herself. “So will I.”

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