“Oh, hey!” Fross cried suddenly, and zipped off toward the door of the cafe, leaving her classmates staring after her, mystified. The door opened a few inches, untouched, and she swerved through the gap into the street outside.
“Uh…” Gabriel looked down at his sandwich. “Are my table manners that bad?”
“Yup,” said Ruda lazily, then belched. “You should be ashamed of yourself. Uncouth fucker.”
The door swung open again, fully this time, and Teal stepped back, holding it for Shaeine, who passed through with a smile. They made straight for the other students’ table, Fross buzzing excitedly around their heads.
“Hey, guys!” Ruda said cheerfully, waving a breadstick. “How’ve you been? Seen Juno and the boys?”
“We have not encountered them since this morning,” Shaine said, “though we’ve been outside the district.”
“We actually went to see Imperial Square, and Shaeine had to stop by the Narisian embassy on the way,” said Teal, holding out a chair for Shaeine.
Trissiny looked up from her ruminations at that. “Official business?”
“Of a sort,” the drow replied, calmly folding her hands in her lap. “I anticipate no further need of my presence at the embassy, but it was necessary to present my compliments and offer my services to the Ambassador.”
Trissiny frowned. “Why’s that, if you don’t think you’re needed?”
“It is a question of status,” she explained, smiling at Teal as the bard sat beside her before returning her gaze to Trissiny. “As the matriarch’s daughter, my hereditary rank in House Awarrion considerably exceeds hers. As an appointed ambassador to our most important ally, however, her earned position considerably exceeds mine.”
“So how do you decide who’s top dog?” Ruda asked.
“That is precisely the issue. Those two things do not correlate in any way. So long as the matter was left unaddressed, my presence in the city would throw the social calculations of all resident drow into disorder; leaving the matter that way would be considered an openly hostile act on my part. Quite apart from the fact that my mother would seal me in a spider box for doing such a thing, it would be incredibly irresponsible to so disrupt Narisian operations in the city.”
“Well, yeah,” said Ruda, grinning. “Hence the spider box.”
“You guys actually do that?” Gabriel exclaimed. “I thought that was a joke!”
“Presenting myself to the Ambassador,” said Shaeine, disregarding the byplay, “and publicly placing myself at her disposal, resolved the issue. I acknowledged myself to be subordinate, and thus her authority remains unquestioned.”
“When I was growing up,” said Teal, “my parents always told me that social rules and customs were arbitrary and often silly, but it was important to respect them in order to get along with people. Going to social events and dealing with the nobility, it always seemed to me they were dead right. The more I learn about Narisian culture, though, the more elegant it all seems. Purposeful.” She smiled at Shaeine. “Everything they do has an immediate reason behind it.”
“You think spider boxes are in any way reasonable?” Gabriel said, grimacing.
“Narisians are extremely courteous and responsible from a very young age,” Shaeine noted serenely. “How has your morning been?”
“We found some trouble,” Trissiny said dourly. “I don’t know if it’s what Tellwyrn brought us here to do, but it’s not something I think we can afford to just leave alone.”
“Oh?” Teal frowned. “What’s up?”
“It seems the guard have been pressuring the residents of Lor’naris. They don’t seem to like the idea of the locals providing their own neighborhood security.”
“I suppose,” Shaeine said slowly, “that is not entirely unreasonable. Tiraas is a military power; the thought of foreign citizens establishing a militia in its capital might be seen as hostile.”
“Those people are not a militia,” Trissiny said firmly, scowling. “They have no armor, no weapons. They don’t even have a chain of command! There’s barely even a schedule, they just show up and keep an eye on things. There are never more than six on duty at one time; four to watch the entrance to the district and two more to walk up and down the street. All they do is walk and watch; if there’s an actual problem, they call for help from the rest of the citizens. I think I know a little about military matters, and I’m here to tell you the Lor’naris volunteer watch is a complete and total non-threat. They wouldn’t pose a hazard to an actual militia, much less to the world’s highest concentration of the world’s largest and best-equipped military.”
“What kills me,” said Ruda, leaning back in her chair and folding her arms, “is the goddamn stupidity of it all. Doesn’t the local guard benefit from people keeping their own shit together? The less trouble there is, the better they look.”
Gabriel drew in a deep breath and blew it out in an explosion that was barely a sigh; Fross, hovering silently over the middle of the table, was actually pushed back a few inches. “You guys are missing the point. Tiraas is a human power.”
Everyone stared at him.
“Yes,” said Teal. “And?”
“And,” he said, frowning at her, “right here in its capital, in the very jewel of the Empire, a bunch of weird-ass foreigners show up—no offense, Sheaine—move into a slum district that even the local guard had given up on, and whip it into shape in just a couple of years. Suddenly the place where you could always go to get knifed or robbed is full of people taking their kids to school, all clean, orderly and increasingly prosperous. It’d be a slap in the face to the guard if Tiraan citizens had done it. The Narisians made them look bad.”
“That’s fucking idiotic,” Ruda snorted. “The guard made themselves look bad. I’m sorry, but if a bunch of outsiders who don’t know the culture show up out of nowhere and make a better go of it than you were, the issue is that you suck.”
“Yeah?” Gabe said wryly. “Why don’t you go explain that to the soldiers. See what happens.”
“Soldiers?” Shaeine tilted her head. “I thought the problem was with the civil guard.”
“They’re—” Trissiny and Gabriel started to speak at the same moment and broke off, staring at each other. He bowed his head, gesturing for her to continue.
“In the capital, they’re the same,” she said. “Tiraas is Tiraas. In many respects, the city is the Empire, at least in miniature. There’s no mayor or distinct municipal government; the Emperor is the local head of state, and Imperial offices run the city directly.”
“Holy shit,” Ruda said, shaking her head. “And stuff actually gets done?”
“Well, the relevant Imperial offices have separate departments for managing the city,” Gabriel said with a grin. “Otherwise, no, nothing would get done. But yeah, among other things, there’s no civil guard as such. The Imperial Army provides military police.”
“So it’s the Lor’narisianites against the Army?” Fross chimed in distress bobbing up and down. “Wow. Oh, wow. They’re really not gonna win that.”
“So far it hasn’t become a ‘versus’ issue,” said Trissiny, “and hopefully it will not.”
“Well, hell, if it comes to it, Trissiny can just call in the Legionnaires, right?” Gabriel suggested, grinning.
“I sincerely hope you’re not suggesting I set the Silver Legions into armed conflict with the Imperial Army in the heart of the Empire,” she grated, glaring at him. “Yes, they would muster if I called them, unless their officers invoked the long-standing precedent we have of disregarding unethical or incredibly stupid orders. And then, once Avei got through ripping my hide into strips, High Commander Rouvad would take her turn.”
“Was just a thought,” he mumbled.
“I thought you had the same rank in the Imperial Army?” Teal asked.
“That…is a courtesy, as I understand it,” Trissiny said more calmly. “A concession to Avei’s authority and the influence of the Sisterhood, based on the logical presumption that a Hand of Avei is well-trained in matters of strategy and may at any time be involved in campaigns that might necessitate the aid of soldiers. Those men are not spontaneously harassing the locals on a whim; someone is ordering it. If I start countermanding them… Well, I would pretty much have to go to whatever barracks is responsible for securing this area and take it over. That would also cause endless trouble.”
“But, uh, what are you gonna do, then?” Fross asked. “It sounds like you’re taking this pretty seriously.”
Trissiny sighed. “I got the name of a commander and am going to send him a letter. If it continues, I’ll go down there and speak with him personally.”
“Fear the Hand of Avei!” Ruda crowed. “For her wrath is terrible and her boots are shiny!”
Trissiny scowled. “And what’s your idea to help, then?”
“Me?” She snorted and took a swig of her drink. “Hell no, I’m staying out of this.”
Trissiny straightened up, frowning. “What? But I thought…”
“Look, it’s not that I don’t sympathize with the people here,” Ruda said. “I’m always gonna side with the people keeping their own shit together over uniformed assholes trying to push them around. But, first of all, I am not convinced that us butting into this is a great idea at all. Folks in Lor’naris are, as I said, capable of dealing with their own issues. It seems to be pretty much their defining trait.”
“Furthermore,” Ruda went on firmly, “let’s keep in mind that I am heir to the throne of the Punaji nation. I can let my hair down in Last Rock and nobody gives a damn. This is different. Me sticking my sword into an internal security matter in Tiraas would cause an even bigger shitstorm than you calling in the Legions.”
“That…kind of goes for me, as well,” Teal said nervously. “I mean, my family aren’t royal, or even noble, but anything I do in the capital will reflect on Falconer Industries. Me butting into the Army’s affairs is… Well, we can afford to lose some business, frankly, but it’s not just about the bottom line. Damaging my family’s credibility could put a lot of good enchanters out of their jobs. At minimum.”
“Opposite problem.” Gabriel raised a hand. “First rule of being a half-demon in Tiraas: keep your head the fuck down. This city is full of people who barely need an excuse to blast it off, and have the authority to do that.”
“Pfft, you can count on me, Trissiny!” Fross declared, zipping back and forth. “Apparently nobody takes pixies seriously around here. We’ll just see about that!”
“I’m not asking for any rash action, Fross,” Trissiny said quickly. “I still don’t know what needs to be done. I’ve spoken with the residents at some length, at least those who serve in the watch, but I don’t yet have the Army’s perspective on the matter.”
“I will speak with Ambassador Shariss about this,” said Shaeine. “It clearly is a diplomatic concern if Narisians are being abused by the Army in the capital—though in acknowledgment of Ruda’s point, the fact that the residents of Lor’naris have not already sought aid from the embassy is telling. They would take such action if they deemed it necessary. However, with regard to your plan to talk to the Army… Perhaps it would save time to go over the heads of the local barracks? Seek out a higher authority? You have the explicit rank, not to mention the prestige.”
“It isn’t that simple,” Trissiny said glumly. “I think you may underestimate how much bureaucracy is involved in running an army. It’d take me longer to get an appointment with a highly-ranked official than we’ll probably be in the city. I could barge in, but that’s an excellent way to guarantee they don’t listen to a thing I tell them, particularly when they’ll probably resent me butting into their business in the first place. The local barracks captain is my best bet. I do have enough authority to get to him and make him listen.”
“You realize that’s probably the guy whose idea all this is,” said Gabriel. “Some outsider forcing her way in and telling him how to run his barracks is likely just gonna make him dig his heels in.”
“Yes,” she snapped, “I do realize that, thank you.”
“Perhaps there is another option,” said Shaeine. “As part of my introduction at the Narisian embassy, I was informed of major social events occurring in the city during the course of my projected stay. I did not think any such would likely be relevant to me at the time, but I do recall that General Toman Panissar, the commander of the Imperial Army, is hosting a very lavish party at his home tomorrow night.”
A momentary silence fell.
“You’d need an invitation to get into that,” Teal said at last, frowning.
“Oh, the hell you would,” Ruda replied with a grin. “C’mon, look who’s at this table. We’ve got foreign royalty, foreign nobility, the heiress to the biggest non-noble name in the Empire and the freakin’ Hand of freakin’ Avei. One or two of us might be able to gatecrash. Three, they probably wouldn’t turn away. All four? No chance, they wouldn’t fucking dare tell us we couldn’t come in. And hey, Fross is a curiosity! Extra points right there.”
“Yay! I’m curious!”
“What about me?” Gabriel demanded.
“Gabe,” Ruda said condescendingly, “what the hell would you do at a fancy society party? Do you even know which one is the shrimp fork?”
“Really, now?” he said sourly. “What would most of you do at a society party? I can see Shaeine fitting in there, but… Do you know which one is the shrimp fork?”
Ruda grinned. “Yup. The shrimp fork is the one with which I stab the shithead who tells me I’m using the wrong fucking fork.”
“I shall consider my point made,” he said.
“I don’t know about this,” Teal said nervously. “I mean… I try to avoid parties. That means dresses, and I really do not have one. And tomorrow night? That’s kind of late to…”
“Nah, it’s fine,” Ruda said breezily. “A good tailor with the right enchanted equipment can do a rush job, set us up with suitable duds overnight. That shit ain’t cheap, but let’s be honest, we can afford it.”
“Okay, you want me to come out and say it?” Teal grimaced. “I hate wearing dresses.”
“Then don’t,” Shaeine said quietly. Teal turned to her, raising her eyebrows in surprise. “I have seen Imperial formal wear, and… You would look positively stunning in a well-fitted tuxedo.”
Teal flushed slowly, but said nothing, merely holding the drow’s gaze. They stared into one another’s eyes in silence.
“Ugh,” Ruda groaned, throwing her head back. “People are still eating in this room, you two.”
“I don’t have a dress uniform with me,” Trissiny murmured, “but I could get one easily enough at the Temple. And… Gabriel isn’t wrong; I can’t imagine being anything but profoundly uncomfortable at a society event. But it would get me in a room with General Panissar.”
“Yup,” Gabe said fatalistically. “And that can only end well.”
Silence held sway in the room.
Amanika stared at Kheshiri, blank-faced. Saduko and Kamari glanced uncertainly at once another, at Vandro, at Kheshiri and Shook. Vandro himself simply stood there, holding his drink and smiling complacently. Kheshiri kept her gaze on Shook, who had tensed to the point that his hand quivered on the glass it held, the other clenched in a fist at his side.
“Shiri, honey, we’re waiting,” Vandro prompted gently.
At last, she cut her eyes to him, expression blank. “You don’t command me.” She returned her gaze to Shook.
After a tense moment, he nodded slowly. “Do it.”
She sighed, shrugged…and changed.
Warm brown skin bleached white in two seconds—not pale as some strains of humans were, but white, an icy matte color that didn’t belong on flesh. The broad features of a pretty Onkawi girl lengthened into more sharp-edged shapes; her black hair uncoiled itself from its braids, taking on subtle highlights in unnatural colors. Dark eyes faded to crystalline blue-violet, her tail uncoiled behind her, and finally, in acknowledgment of Vandro’s initial command, a pair of spiny wings stretched into existence, then stretched further, extending until they brushed the walls.
Kamari dropped his glass.
“Aiya,” Saduko whispered, backing up until she was pressed against the wall.
“Now, let’s nobody go an’ do anything abrupt,” Vandro said cheerfully. “My boy Jerry has full control over her. Ain’t that right?”
Shook nodded curtly, glancing at Kheshiri. The succubus dropped her eyes demurely. Then, moving with a sinuous grace and far more sway than necessary, she stepped over to him, descended to crouch on the ground at his feet and wrapped her arms around his leg. Cheek pressed to his thigh, she stared smugly at the others in the room.
Shook rested his free hand on her head after a moment, twining his fingers in her hair.
“So you see,” Vandro went on, swirling his daiquiri idly in one hand, “just what we have attending to stealth and security. You have nothing to worry about, my friends. Anybody trying to put pressure on you will be very capably dealt with.”
“And,” Saduko said quietly, “any betrayal from us will be punished beyond the mercy of death.”
“My dear,” said Vandro, shaking his head sadly, “I am very nearly hurt. I only hope in time I can reassure you that I don’t deal so heavy-handedly with my business associates.”
“Bringing this thing here was not a step in that direction,” she said evenly.
“We’re running a complicated job,” he replied with a grin. “We’ll make use of every available resource—particularly the ones nobody expects we have. To that end, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway for thoroughness’s sake: the demon is a secret. Not a word of this is to be breathed to anyone outside this room. Clear?”
He waited for them to nod before carrying on, beaming. “Jolly good! Now, I beg your forgiveness for hustling you along, but I need to clear up a few things with Jerry in private. Of course, you are all honored guests here; avail yourselves of any amenities my villa has to offer. Kamari, I’m afraid you’ll have to do so in the private areas, as we don’t want to getting around that you have any association with me just yet. Still, there’s plenty for you to do. Wilberforce will see to it you don’t lack for entertainment.”
“Thank you, sir,” the burly servant said nervously. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Kheshiri yet.
They filed toward the door in silence, all three stepping well out of their way to avoid the spread of the demon’s wings, now somewhat furled and closer to hip level. As soon as the door clicked shut behind Saduko, the last to leave, Shook whirled on Vandro.
“Just what the hell—”
“First of all,” Vandro said calmly, “I am not upset at you bringing a demon into my home, Jerry. It’s apparent you do have her restrained, and hell, in light of our earlier conversation I’m glad to see you reaching at unconventional resources. You’re gonna need that if you mean to run down this Locke bitch and straighten out the elements in the Guild that’ve turned on you. But boy, you have got to be more careful. She was spotted the first day here.”
“How?” Kheshiri demanded, scowling.
Shook swatted her on the side of the head. “You keep your mouth shut till someone asks your opinion, whore,” he growled without looking at her. “It’s a good question, though, Alan. How? Who?”
“Jerry, my boy, you were just in a room with a priestess. You had a demon within arm’s reach of her; you really think any magical disguise would’ve fooled someone soaked in the light of the gods? Come on, now. Amanika’s in and out of this estate all the time; she spotted your little pet immediately.”
“She did? She is?” Shook frowned. “I never…”
“Never noticed her?” Vandro said dryly. “No, I’ll just bet you didn’t. No rack or ass to speak of, face of a billy goat, dresses like she’s trying to convince all the other dykes to bow down before their queen. Boy, I have told you about this, time and again. Women are trouble, every last one of ’em, but most are not in any way stupid. That’s exactly why they’re trouble. You have got to start paying attention to the women around you. There are much more important calculations to be made about a woman than the likelihood and desirability of nailing her. The pretty ones use beauty as a weapon; the homely ones make use of the fact they’re basically invisible. If Amanika didn’t happen to be more indebted to me than the local Guild chapter…well, guess how that would’ve ended for you. She’ll keep your secret because I vouched for you.”
He stopped and sighed; Shook actually lowered his gaze, abashed.
“Anyhow,” Vandro went on, “Amanika assures me you’ve got no more infernal magic in you than the piddly residue you’d get from spending time around this critter.” He leaned down and ruffled Kheshiri’s hair. “So either you’re one of the most powerful warlocks alive, or not a warlock at all, and having trained you myself I pretty much know which. So I busted out the scrying equipment and observed you have an object of considerable infernal and arcane power on you. That’s the mechanism, I take it.”
“Yeah,” Shook said slowly, nodding. “She’s bound to a reliquary. I can put her in it, when I get tired of her mouth. It’s vintage Black Wreath work, but I had it modified with some modern enchantments to secure her more thoroughly and bind it to me.”
“Good man,” Vandro said, nodding approvingly. “This is why you’re still my favorite student. You’ve got your blind spots, Jerry, but you use the ol’ noggin more than most enforcers can be bothered to. Still, you’re pushing your luck. What was spotted once can be spotted again. I’m gonna hook you up with my magic guy in the city; he can mod this reliquary of yours to help keep your pet concealed. Long as you take a little more care about who you rub elbows with, it should prevent another slip-up like this.”
“This guy’s trustworthy?” Shook asked tensely.
Vandro burst out laughing. “Boy, if you’re gonna ask dumb questions…”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Shook muttered.
“Boris has never let me down yet. He does infernal and arcane work; between the two, you can spot pretty much any type of magic if you’ve got the right equipment. Or, more importantly, you can stop any school of magic from spotting what you want hidden.”
“There’s always a bigger fish,” Kheshiri murmured.
“I see you’re forgetting your manners, bitch,” Shook said, staring coldly down at her. “We’ll discuss that in private, later.”
“Sorry, master,” she said, a quaver in her voice.
“Now that’s what I like to see,” Vandro said, beaming in approbation. “If only you could shut the real kind up as easily. But yeah, she’s got a point; you get her in a room with an archmage or paladin and the jig’ll be up no matter what kind of precautions you take. Still, shouldn’t be too hard to stay away from those. Now, then, about the plan. She can do it, I trust? Shapeshift to mimic us and secure our alibis?”
“Answer him, girl,” Shook said.
“Changing shape is simplicity itself,” the succubus said promptly. “Mimicry… That’s all about acting. To really sell the role, I’ll have to spend time around each of them, enough to properly observe their mannerisms. I don’t think they like me, though.”
“That shouldn’t matter,” said Vandro, waving a hand. “At the party you won’t be spending enough time around anybody to need to sell the illusion. You’ll have to do for all six of us, remember. The point is to be seen here and there. Don’t waste time conversing with people, just make sure you’re spotted with each face on.”
“Then yes, sir, I can do it,” she said, waving her tail. “Easily.”
“Attagirl,” he said with a grin, and turned his face back to Shook. “And now, of course, the real, ultimate question. How is she in the sack?”
Shook stared at him silently for a moment, then slowly, a smile stretched across his face. He lightly stroked Kheshiri’s hair with his fingertips. “Absolutely, incomparably magnificent. She’s a handful sometimes, but I’ve got to say, the bitch knows what she’s for, and she takes pride in her work. Justifiably.”
“Ah, my boy,” Vandro said, shaking his head, “I think this is divine compensation for your run of bad luck lately. What I wouldn’t have given for a girl with a body like that who’d shut up on command at your age… Hell, I’d give a lot more for one now.”
Shook looked contemplatively down at Kheshiri, then gave her hair a gentle tug. She rose smoothly to her feet.
“Well, don’t take my word for it,” Shook said with a faint grin. “Why don’t you try her out?”
Vandro raised his eyebrows. “You’re joking.”
“Alan, it’s like you said: we’re family. Besides, you’ve been more than generous with your hospitality. I’m serious, borrow her for the night. And don’t worry about bringing her back in the same condition; she heals up fast, and she’s an experience you won’t wanna hold back with. Now, Kheshiri,” he went on, turning his stare to her, “Alan is the man to whom I owe everything I know. I expect to hear you’ve given him the greatest night of his life, or I’m gonna take it out of your ass. Clear?”
She looked thoughtfully up at him for a moment, then turned her considering gaze on Vandro, and smiled. “Mm… He strikes me as a man who’s sampled innumerable pleasures over a very full life. That’s a tall order, master.”
Shook chucked her gently under the chin. “You’re a tall girl.”
“I won’t embarrass you, master,” she said, waving her tail, then gave him a wicked little smile, gazing up through her lashes. “And afterward, if I bring back a favorable review… Can you still take it out of my ass, please?”
“Okay, damn,” said Vandro. “I want one.”
“No, you don’t,” Shook replied. “Enjoy the good and don’t worry about the headaches involved with keeping her reined in. My gift to you.”
“Well, of course,” Vandro said easily, grinning as Kheshiri stepped over to him and snuggled under his arm, draping a wing around his shoulders. He wrapped an arm around her and squeezed her rump. “It’s like I’ve always said; if it’s got tits, it’s trouble. Best you can do is find one that’s no more trouble than she’s worth.”
The demon smiled.