Tag Archives: Malivette

16 – 36

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

She did not stomp, and not because it wasn’t ladylike; Natchua had already resigned herself to the knowledge that she was going to disappoint anyone who expected her to behave like a proper Imperial duchess. No, Natchua restrained the impulse to slam her feet down with every step simply because she was somewhat overly conscious of social perception due to her embarrassing history of over-the-top melodrama at Last Rock and this Duchess business had only brought that closer to the surface. Even so, she really wanted to project anger with every fiber of her being as she bore down on the two elves who had intruded upon her domain.

Talvrin and Ashaele paused in the middle of the drive, watching her come; nobody else seemed inclined to approach them, perhaps unsurprisingly. Natchua made a sharp gesture with her right hand as soon as she drew close enough, wreathing the three in a subtle ring of shifting shadows and menacing whispers that hovered just at the edge of elven hearing. Even for non-elves, it obscured and mixed the sounds of their voices enough to ensure a measure of privacy.

“Shaeine has been a much better friend to me than I deserve,” she stated by way of greeting, “and I understand that you are here at the personal invitation of Ravana Madouri. That is why neither of you are being bodily hurled over the property’s walls right now. That fact is still subject to change if I am not extremely satisfied with your explanation of your bloody effrontery in showing your faces here.”

She folded her arms and waited imperiously to be answered. To her annoyance, neither woman appeared intimidated, but then Natchua hadn’t really expected it of them.

Magister Talvrin, at least, had the grace to bow to her. “Good evening and felicitations, Duchess Leduc. I am only too glad to offer an explanation, as it was my major concern in presuming to come here this evening.” She hesitated a split second before continuing. “Please understand that as a Magister of Qestraceel I am unable to express an apology, or anything else which might acknowledge fault on behalf of my government, in this difficult moment when tense negotiations with the Empire are ongoing.”

“You need to brush up on your Circles if you think coming here and dancing on my patience is a smart move, mage.”

The Magister continued, unperturbed but still solemn. “With that awkward reality acknowledged, speaking as a citizen of the Confederacy, I am deeply embarrassed that you were inconvenienced by our internal issues, and very relieved that you emerged unharmed. And I can assure you that there will be no repeat of that shameful event.”

“In fact, Natchua,” Ashaele added, “it may please you to learn that House Dalmiss has placed itself in disfavor with every level of our government from the Queen to the Confederacy itself, and Matriarch Ezrakhai has spared no effort in directing the resulting pressure onto Nassra’s head.”

Natchua stared at her, but after a moment allowed her mouth to quirk lopsidedly in a fragment of a smile. “Very well, you’re right. That’s pretty…gratifying. Was that all you came here to say?”

Ashaele glanced at Talvrin, who immediately bowed to each of them. “Please excuse me, Duchess, Matriarch.” She discreetly retreated outside the radius of Natchua’s sonic disruption, making her way toward Ravana.

Returning her gaze to Natchua, Ashaele stated in a much flatter tone, “Your mother is one of the most unbearable assholes I have ever had the misfortune to meet.”

Natchua went rigid. She happened to wholeheartedly agree, but between two Narisians there was virtually no more offensive statement that could be made. It was the kind of insult only a Matriarch could voice without expecting to be immediately punched in response; only a Matriarch had sufficient weight of social position that anyone would even defend her after such an offense.

And, Natchua realized after a shocked second, she was now equivalent in rank. Her right hand balled into a fist, and purple flames flickered across her fingers. Walled off in their cocoon of sound, with her attention fully on Ashaele, she didn’t hear the murmurs that rose, or even notice people rapidly backing away from the two drow.

“And I need you to understand that,” Ashaele said, her voice softer, eyes intent. “Your experience growing up was not normal. Narisian ways are ruthless and harsh, yes, but it is precisely because of this truth that our society can only function when we value each other. No one can lead her family the way a Narisian must, unless that family is held together by sincere bonds of love. In addition to her various defects of personality, Nassra has always failed to understand that simple and crucial fact. Goddess’s mercy, Natchua, a spider box is a weapon of last resort to punish those who knowingly and deliberately inflict shame upon their Houses. One should never be used to discipline children. That is nothing less than insanity! I will never condemn you for your behavior at Last Rock or elsewhere since you left us, and I have earned the ire of both Nassra and Ezrakhai by refusing to allow any pursuit of you through diplomatic channels. You were abused more than raised. Your anger and loathing is fully justified, and it is a tremendous credit to you that you’ve turned out as well as you have, after being raised by a selfish, thoughtless monster of a woman who saw you as nothing but a thing to be used. A daughter’s devotion is demanded in our culture, yes, but it must be earned through love and devotion in kind. I am…glad to see that you escaped, and are flourishing.”

She paused, still watching Natchua closely. Natchua, for her part, did not relax her fist just yet, but allowed the fire to flicker out, staring at Ashaele through narrowed eyes.

“Unlike my Qestrali colleague, I will apologize to you,” the Matriarch said after a moment. “The truth is that I am one of very few who had an inkling what was happening in your household and might have had the influence to do something about it. Even within another House, a Matriarch’s word is not nothing, and Ezrakhai does listen to me. But the truth is, I considered the costs and benefits and did nothing, for the sake of what I deemed the greater good. If you choose to despise me, Natchua, you’ve the right. I am sorry for failing you. It changes nothing, but I am. And if I can aid you now without compromising my responsibilities to Tar’naris and the Confederacy, I will be glad to do so. You’re owed it.”

“You never cared enough to say all this before now,” Natchua said, pleased to find her voice even. “Not a word to me, until the very moment I gained a noble rank. Do you imagine that you’re subtle, Ashaele? Even by my standards, you really aren’t. Spit out what you want before my patience finishes evaporating.”

It was heady, addressing a Matriarch by her first name, right to her face. Even a week ago, Natchua might have done so anyway, just to be aggressive. Somehow, the fact that Ashaele didn’t even have the right to complain about the presumption made it even sweeter.

To her credit, Ashaele offered no denial, nodding once in acknowledgment. “That is true, and all part of the pattern of my life. I must turn a blind eye to all manner of suffering in order to serve a higher purpose; such it is, to be Narisian. I don’t ask anything of you but patience and tolerance, Natchua. You’re now in a position to have some influence on the affairs of nations, however minor. All I ask is that you understand what was done to you was an inexcusable aberration. Please don’t punish an entire civilization for the actions of individuals.”

“Aberration,” Natchua whispered. “Really, now. You think my sad story is all that unusual?”

“I am well aware—”

“I’m sure you’d like to think that, Ashaele, but if you truly understand what life in Tar’naris is like for anyone who’s not born to power and privilege, you’re as despicable as my mother for presiding over that depravity and doing nothing about it. That festering shithole’s entire culture is based around the fact that whatever horrible thing it does must be okay, because after all, the Scyllithenes are always worse! It’s the most soulless possible approach to governing a society imaginable. Have you considered that, just maybe, your civilization deserves anything that might be coming to it, if not more?”

Ashaele tilted her head incrementally. “Do give me a minimum of credit. I am keenly aware of the flaws and failures of our society. What, exactly, is your plan to fix them?”

Natchua barked an incredulous laugh. “Is that my responsibility, somehow?”

“No, it is mine. And unlike you, I have not only given great thought to how our people must change, but worked steadily to achieve that end. It is obvious to anyone with eyes that Tar’naris cannot continue as it has. Irrespective of the weight of our moral failings, we have entered a world in which the unique Narisian blend of heavy-handedness and myopia will lead only to doom. But what do you imagine would happen if I tried to explain all this to the Matriarchs? Or even better, force them to comply? Has it been your experience that people politely listen and then change their ways when you calmly and rationally lecture them on the benefits of giving up their privileged positions?”

Natchua snorted. “All right, fair enough. But to rehash an earlier part of this conversation, I am done with Tar’naris and all its perfidy. This sounds like a you problem.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “hence my pleading with you not to make it worse. I will never insult you by downplaying your experiences, Duchess Leduc; I have offered my apologies for them, and my support with whatever cause of yours I can aid that does not contradict my loyalties. Only you can decide whether this is adequate. It is really all I can do.”

Natchua studied her in silence for a moment; Ashaele met her gaze firmly. There was nothing to be gained by trying to read a Narisian diplomat’s expression.

She snuffed out the sonic effect surrounding them, allowing the party music and soft conversation to rush back over their senses. Ashaele glanced to the side, noting the action, but making no further acknowledgment. Natchua did not miss the speculative and eager gazes fixed on them by a number of minor Tiraan nobility eager for any scrap of influence they could scavenge.

And so, she decided to throw them a bone.

“You needn’t worry that my experiences in Tar’naris will have any effect on elven-Imperial relations, Matriarch Ashaele.” Natchua did not raise her voice, but enough of the eavesdroppers had edged close enough that it wouldn’t matter. “House Leduc stands firmly behind House Tirasian, as I have made clear. Foreign policy is none of my business in any case, and I don’t aspire to influence it even indirectly. As for my own opinions, I am satisfied that Emperor Sharidan’s leadership is exactly what Tiraas needs. It should be obvious to you, to me, and to anyone who has paid attention to recent history that the Silver Throne has led us well these last years since the Narisian Treaty.”

Ashaele nodded and opened her mouth to reply, but Natchua pressed on over her.

“With that said, House Leduc takes its responsibility to this province seriously. That may not have been true for some time, but under my leadership, things will change. I have already made it clear to House Awarrion what will happen to pushy drow who come to Veilgrad looking to profit at the expense of my people. After my encounter with the Highguard, I will extend that warning to all the Confederacy: I protect these lands, and any pointy ears coming here had better be attached to excellent manners, if they know what’s good for them.”

If anything, the onlookers had drifted closer while she spoke, and at that, cheers and applause broke out from the surrounding Imperials. Natchua didn’t even glance aside at them, keeping her focus on Ashaele, who was studying her in turn, utterly impassive. Hardly any of these people were even local to Veilgrad, but apparently one couldn’t go wrong by appealing to patriotism. At least with this crowd.

After a pause in which they locked gazes, Natchua finally looked past Ashaele’s shoulder to an unfolding scene which she’d been aware of since dropping the sound screen, but had not brought to the forefront of her awareness. She lowered her voice before adding a final thought, since it was one none of the onlookers needed to concern themselves with.

“Except him, of course. Raolo’s cool.”


“Raolo?” Toby didn’t trouble to disguise the surprise and delight on his face when he spied the elf making a beeline toward him from the gates, and not just because he had little regard for the politics and appearances that were so important to so many at this party.

For his part, Raolo was already smiling as he approached, but his expression only brightened further in response to Toby’s. Which just made him happier in turn, and so on in a mutual feedback loop until both were outright beaming by the time they closed the distance enough to clasp hands. It was just as well Ruda had stayed in Madouris; this was exactly the kind of encounter that made her loudly complain that too much sugar disagreed with her whiskey.

Grinning like a fool and not caring, Toby squeezed Raolo’s slender fingers in his own, and then impetuously pulled him forward into a hug which set the elf laughing even as he reciprocated.

“So you are glad to see me!” Raolo chuckled. “Guess I don’t have to worry about that after all.”

“Oh come on, why would you ever need to worry about that?” Toby pulled back enough to grin at him again. “This is exactly the blessing I needed. No offense to our hostesses, but maybe now I can finally enjoy this party.”

“Oh, you and parties.” Raolo playfully rubbed at his hair, which fortunately was too thick and wiry for him to easily muss. “Are you finally getting tired of benignly observing from the sides?”

“Oh, that’s fine and dandy when it’s at Last Rock with friends, or at least acquaintances. A bunch of miscellaneous nobility, though…” He chanced a glance to the side, and sure enough, more than a handful of well-dressed strangers were studying him with expressions he could only think of as sharklike. For just a second Toby wavered, feeling the pressure of expectations rearing up, but he immediately and deliberately pushed that aside. If he could stand up to the expectations of his own cult, what did he care what any of these people thought? “Well, at least it probably won’t turn out the way my last aristocratic social event went down.”

“Mm, has anyone checked that Trissiny’s not hanging around near the punchbowls?”

“Oh, come on!” Trissiny’s voice exclaimed from the near distance. Both of them grinned but otherwise ignored her.

“Never mind them anyway,” Toby said, reaching up to lightly shift a lock of golden hair that was obstructing his view of Raolo’s eyes. Even remembering how much the elf felt like silk under his fingers never compared to experiencing it anew. “What are you doing here, Raolo?”

“Ah, I’m glad you made it, Raolo,” Ravana said, idly sauntering by them with an unusually smug expression even for her. “I trust your journey was comfortable?”

“I think you know it was,” the elf replied sardonically. “The carriage and driver were a little excessive, Ravana. Not that I object to being driven, but that thing had eight seats and a cold box full of sparkling wine. Is that how you cruise around all the time?”

“No, but it’s how I treat my friends,” she said, smiling placidly. “Luxury is so much better appreciated by those not born to it.”

Toby heaved a sigh. “Ravana, stuff like this is why people are always demanding what you did this time. Didn’t I specifically ask you not to interrupt Raolo’s vacation? Just this morning?”

“Oh, did you.” And just like that, Raolo’s entire aspect changed. He still smiled, but suddenly the expression was brittle and there was something sharp in the set of his eyes. Without quite releasing Toby’s hands, he nonetheless pulled back.

“You know I’m glad to be able to spend time with you away from campus,” Toby said quickly. “It’s just… Ravana. You know? I think if somebody didn’t stop her she’d try to put puppet strings on all of us.”

“I do say that’s a bit much,” Ravana protested.

“Well, he’s not entirely wrong, you know,” Raolo said to her. “This was a nice thing you did, Ravana, and I thank you. People do get tired of being treated like somebody else always knows what’s better for them, though. I get enough of that at home,” he added, his eyes cutting back to Toby. That withdrawn hardness was still in them.

Toby winced. “Was it…bad? I don’t want to pry, I just… Well, I hate to come between you and what time you’ve got with your family.”

“That’s very considerate.” If anything, the elf’s expression stiffened further, and Toby found himself frowning quizzically. Even Ravana suddenly glanced sharply back and forth between them, picking up on the tension.

“Are you okay?” Toby asked in concern. “I suddenly feel like you’re… Uh, did I do something to upset you?”

For some reason, that only appeared to make things worse, though instead of growing more tense, Raolo suddenly sagged. It was a slight motion, the merest lowering of his head and slumping of his shoulders, but it made him look unmistakably defeated.

That was much worse.

Now Ravana appeared nearly as concerned as he, and Malivette, who had just wandered into their proximity, cleared her throat pointedly. Neither Toby nor Raolo looked over at her, though.

“No, Toby,” Raolo sighed, and then gave him a resigned smile that felt worse than a slap. “Everything’s fine.”

“Everything’s clearly not fine,” Toby insisted, frowning. “I can tell you’re upset.”

“About what?” Raolo shrugged. “You’ve done nothing wrong, Toby. You graciously relinquished your claim on my time so I could go home to the grove…just like I asked. And sure, my family are insufferable, but thanks to Ravana being also insufferable now I can spend the evening with you instead of them. It’s a perfect outcome!” He smiled again, trying to inject some cheer into the expression, but so obviously trying that it was painful to behold.

“Ahem,” Malivette said, not that anyone paid her any mind.

“Hey.” Gently taking Raolo’s hands again, Toby ran his thumbs across the backs of the elf’s fingers, holding his gaze. “You don’t need to do that, not with me. Whatever’s—”

“Can we please just not?” Raolo pleaded. “It’s a party. Let’s relax and have some fun. Look, there’s dancing! And I could use a drink.”

“If…that’s what you want,” Toby said dubiously.

For some reason, that made annoyance flare in Raolo’s expression again, but the elf quickly mastered it, put on another public smile, and opened his mouth to answer.

At that moment, Malivette began coughing loudly, quickly escalating to a series of hacking wheezes like a cat passing a hairball, and actually doubled over. Ravana edged warily away from her, while the surrounding nobles stared incredulously.

“Blaaaah!” The vampire straightened back up, turning a beaming smile on them as she wiped the back of her hand across her lips. “Scuze me, must’ve inhaled a clot. Say, lads, I just wanted to mention, the party only started out here on the lawn, the whole manor is open. Lots of indoor space, y’know, private rooms. Places to have a conversation discreetly.”

“Thank you very much, Duchess Dufresne,” Raolo said with a slightly wintry smile, “but that won’t be—”

“It’s Raolo, right?” She grinned broadly at him in that expression of hers that showed off her fangs a lot more than it actually suggested a good mood. “Say, just for the record, elves aren’t edible for me. I only mention that because it’s gonna become an extremely relevant reassurance if you do something to create a debacle at this extremely politically important party.” Malivette let the silence hang for two heartbeats of dramatic effect, just grinning at their shocked expressions, before continuing in a lower tone. “Go inside, boys, and have a chat. Quietly.”

“Um…maybe that would actually be best,” Toby said, turning his attention back from her to Raolo.

The elf clenched his jaw for a moment, then nodded in a single jerky little motion. “Fine.”


“Uh…” Trissiny watched Toby and Raolo disappear into the manor, frowning in consternation. “I hope they’re… Do you think we should do something?”

“Like what, Triss?” Gabriel asked. “What possible thing could anyone butting into that do that wouldn’t just make it worse? And that’s not even touching on the fact that neither of us is Mister or General Social Skills to begin with.”

“Hey, I think we’re both a lot better than we used to be,” she protested. “But still… Yeah, fair point. It’s just that I hate to think of… You know?”

“I do,” he nodded. “If there’s anybody who deserves some straightforward uncomplicated happiness, there they went. But relationships aren’t like that. You just gotta deal with stuff, and unless it’s an Izarite cleric involving somebody else in it doesn’t usually help.”

“And I think we’ve all had as much Izarite influence as we need for one night,” she muttered, glancing at the gates. At least Bishop Snowe had been as good as her word and left the grounds once her message was delivered. All things considered, that might have been simple self-preservation on her part.

“Well, anyway, it’s a party,” he said after a momentary pause. “I can think of a much better use of our time than standing here fretting.”

“I am terrified to ask,” Trissiny deadpanned.

He grinned and had the audacity to wink at her. “You remember our first week? Specifically, the first night of punishment duty, washing dishes for Oak?”

“Yes,” she said dryly. “You invited me to a town dance, and that was when I knew you were completely insane.”

“Exactly!” Gabriel stepped back, turned toward her, and held out one hand with a shallow bow. “You never did give me an answer on that, and the town social came and went. So you owe me one, Triss.”

“Are you serious?” Teetering on the verge of incredulous laughter, she glanced around at the grounds. “This is a political event, you know. Think politics. Us dancing would kick off a flurry of wild rumors.”

“Let ‘em speculate, it’s not like any of these people would know what they’re talking about. And hey, we might as well provide them some free entertainment! These parties tend to end with us terrorizing them one way or another, so we might owe it to ‘em. Just so you’re aware, the drinks are served over there on the buffet table,” he added helpfully. “It’s mostly bottled wine and hot cider at this time of year, but I did notice a lovely crystal punch—”

“I have no compunctions about hitting you since I know it doesn’t actually hurt you.”

“What’s the point of doing it then?” he rejoined. Trissiny made a face at him; he grinned more broadly and lifted the hand he was still holding out. “C’mon, they’re playing a waltz. That’s basically the easiest one.”

She studied him skeptically for a long moment, then finally permitted herself a smile of dour amusement and reached out to take his hand. In the next second, they were swirling out across the drive amid the other couples moving to the music.

In the moment after that, both of them stared at each other in shock and said in unison, without faltering in the motion, “You can dance!”

They completed one more stationary revolution before the other shoe dropped, and both paladins scowled, this time talking over one another rather than speaking in chorus.

“Wait a second, were you just trying to embarrass—”

“This was a trick, you sneaky—”

Both broke off, and then burst out laughing. And kept dancing.

“Seriously, though,” Gabriel said merrily. “You? Can waltz?”

“Hey, I grew up in a barracks up in the mountains with dozens of other girls. The only entertainment was whatever we made for ourselves! What about you?”

“Oh, Teal taught me,” he admitted. “It was after that trip to Tiraas in our first year, remember? You all went to that party at General Panissar’s house?”

“Ah, yes. That was…a mess.”

“Could’ve been worse, the way I heard it,” he said lightly, twirling her around the decorative fountain in the center of the roundabout drive. “Upon reflection what I’m most surprised about is that you’re letting me lead.”

“Because I figured you’d try to, and we’re probably creating enough of a stir without turning it into a scuffle,” she snorted. “A wise feminist conserves energy for the necessary battles by not fighting pointless ones.”

“Ever the strategist. Well, if there’s gonna be a scuffle, we should probably save it for later in the evening.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, everybody’s out here watching right now. As the night progresses and the drink is drunk, people will start pairing off and disappearing into those private rooms Malivette helpfully reminded us she has.”

Trissiny wrinkled her nose. “How would you know? Do you attend a lot of aristocrat parties?”

“I know what people are like,” he chuckled, “and I listen to aristocrats. We’ve got a good handful on the campus, you know, and several of them love talking about their fancy social events.”

“I see. Well.” She finally looked away from his face, glancing sidelong across the crowd they were still dancing through. “If we’re going to head back to Tiraas tonight and deal with Justinian, I’m afraid you and Juniper aren’t going to have the opportunity to sneak off.”

“Wh—Juniper?” Gabriel blinked at her in astonishment. “You thought we— Triss, that hasn’t been going on since freshman year!”

She blinked right back, equally startled. “What? Really? I thought… I mean, you’re…”

“Okay, I am straining not to take offense,” he complained. “Really, is that what you think, I have nothing on my mind but chasing skirts?”

“Well, in fairness, you do also like playing with your wand…”

“It would serve you right if I tripped you.”

Trissiny grinned, then cleared her throat with a little discomfort, glancing away again. “So, uh, not to pry, but what made you two decide to…?”

“Oh, it… Well, actually, we never decided. That is, there was never a conversation about it. It just sort of…stopped happening, and that was fine. Both of us, I mean individually, we both kind of came to a place where that wasn’t what we needed or wanted anymore, so it worked out fine.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Actually, I guess it worked out ideally. Maybe closure would’ve been nice, but I don’t feel like I missed out on it. June doesn’t seem to, either. This way there was no awkwardness, and I got to keep a really good friend without making it, uh, messy.”

Slowly Trissiny nodded, staring at him with an oddly pensive expression. “Yeah… I guess there’s something to that.”

“What do you mean, to it?”

“Sometimes,” she said distantly, her eyes seeming to look at something far away, “having a conversation isn’t really…the best thing, necessary, or even useful. Not if everybody already understands up front that there’s no point.”

They had drifted to the edge of the dancing area, coming close to the end of one of the buffet tables, and that was the moment when the band brought the waltz to an end. Across the lawn, couples separated, many applauding politely. Trissiny and Gabriel slowly released each other in silence, studying one another’s eyes.

“Well,” Trissiny said abruptly, putting on a smile, “good timing. I’d better go supervise that.” She tilted her head to one side, where over by the manor’s steps, Malivette and Natchua had cornered Bishop Darling. “And I see you have fallen into my trap, as well.”

“Excuse me?” he exclaimed.

Rather than answering, Trissiny turned aside to address the woman in servant’s livery who was standing by the edge of the table with her hands neatly folded in front of her. “It’s Hesthri, right?”

The servant’s eyes widened and she focused on Trissiny, having been watching Gabriel. “I…beg your pardon, miss? You must have me mistaken for…”

“You were staring,” Trissiny said, not unkindly. “At him. And let’s face it, he’s not that good looking.”

“Those Eserites turned you into a spiteful little beast,” Gabriel complained.

“Yep,” she said with an unrepentant wink. “But seriously, Gabe, there are some conversations that actually do need to be had. I’ll catch up with you later.”

So saying, she turned and sauntered off in the direction of the Bishop and the Duchesses, leaving a tense island of quiet behind.

Gabriel shifted to study the serving woman, who was watching him closely in kind. They didn’t speak for a few long seconds, which under the circumstances was as good as a confession.

“She’s a sharp one,” Hesthri said at last, then grinned. “Not to mention pretty. So, you two…?”

“Oh, uh…no.” He shook his head, averting his eyes as his cheeks darkened slightly. “That is, there may be a tense…um, but not… Well, it’s, we’re friends, okay? We’re pretty close and I’d hate to mess up… Anyway, paladins don’t live the kind of life that…” Growling in frustration at his own inarticulate babbling, he trailed off and shook his head, scowling across the dance floor at nobody. “It’s just… It’s not a good idea.”

Hesthri studied him in silence for a few more beats, a gentle smile playing about her own lips, before finally reaching out to very lightly touch his arm.

“Tell me about her.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter >

16 – 35

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                  Next Chapter >

The grounds of Dufresne Manor had been transformed, which was good, because they had urgently needed it. Its gravel drive had been freshly smoothed, of course, but far more strikingly was that its broad lawns, formerly choked by waist-high weeds as part of Malivette’s deliberate effort to make her property look uninviting, was now neatly trimmed at the regulation three inches above soil level. That, of course, was only the beginning; the entire property had been laid out with tables of food, an outdoor stage where entertainment would be provided, and hung with House crests and banners in the colors of Houses Dufresne, Leduc, and Madouri. Pumpkin-sized apparatuses of crystal floated above the grounds, providing both light and heating charms that kept the environs comfortable despite Veilgrad’s lethal midwinter chill. That alone had been a staggering expense, but for aristocrats, wildly grandiose displays of wealth and power were not an indulgence but a necessity for survival. No one who walked the halls of power lacked enemies, and enemies would pounce upon any perceived weakness.

Natchua wished they would go ahead and pounce so she could vaporize somebody. All this pomp and ceremony was wearing on her nerves.

Every culture had its rituals, and so there was a procedure for events such as this. Guests had begun to arrive, and had been trickling into the protected warmth of the grounds for over half an hour, with servants (Ravana’s on loan, as the hostess employed no staff save her four vampiric thralls) collecting winter coats at the gates. A string quartet played on the stage, more servants distributed food and drink, and the arriving lower nobility and other guests circulated with one another at apparent ease, but by the customs of Imperial aristocracy, the party had not officially begun.

The three Duchesses—Natchua’s adoption and Sherwin’s abdication had been an anticlimactically quiet affair which took place earlier in the day, in an office with lawyers—stood atop the steps to the Manor itself, each beneath a hanging banner bearing her House’s crest. They just stood there, the picture of poise, waiting until they judged the grounds had filled enough to start the party properly. At that point, they would descend and begin to circulate themselves; until then, the guests kept their distance—even the various Last Rock invitees, who had had to have the proprieties explained to them just like Natchua—and made an effort not even to stare at their hostesses, at least not openly. Natchua had asked whether they couldn’t do this part sitting down, and been informed that that was only appropriate for provincial rulers, and Malivette and Ravana had abstained from seats so as to make a show of their support for her by not putting her in a subordinate position.

Natchua couldn’t decide if this was better than Narisian rituals or much worse. She was still hung up on the fact that she was now an aristocrat, and in fact a rich and very powerful one. Nothing about it felt real.

“Well, well,” Malivette murmured as the three stood there like graceful statuary. “Irana Daraspian actually showed up. She must smell opportunity.”

“You invited a Daraspian?” Ravana replied equally softly but with scorn weighing her voice.

“All of them; they’re my neighbors. I didn’t imagine any would show. Irana heads a minor branch of the House down in Anteraas. Well, bluff called! Now we shall have to be warm and welcoming, and follow up with diplomatic and business opportunities for her, the scheming little bitch.”

“Even I know the Daraspians are trouble,” Natchua said at the same low volume. “What’s the worst case if we make this one unwelcome? I thought you said anybody who actually showed up would be lower nobility, not powerful enough to matter.”

“Our whole gambit here required us to move fast,” Malivette replied. “This necessitated incredibly short notice for the party. To invite nobility to a social event with less than a day’s notice is an insult; the dignity of the more powerful Houses demanded they snub us.”

Ravana picked up the explanation when she paused for breath. “To insult someone and then make it worth their while is a power move; to heap insult upon insult with no recompense is asking to be ganged up on by minor players who wouldn’t dare attack us on their own. Tonight we shall either gain significant influence among these lesser Houses or make a lot of enemies we don’t need, based on how we treat our guests.”

“What she’s saying, Natchua—”

“Yeah, yeah, be nice to the nest of vipers. I survived in Tar’naris as a farming peasant, I know how to avoid insulting the overbred wealthy.”

“How reassuring,” Ravana said with an audible smile.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Malivette added, “I saw the first one today. From a distance, of course.”

“First…?” Ravana shifted her head subtly to regard her sidelong.

“A young woman in the city. She had bleached her hair white and dyed a green stripe down the center.”

“What— Oy, that’s my thing!” Natchua snapped, barely remembering to remain still and not too loud while Ravana laughed quietly.

“You’re a celebrity, dear,” Malivette said with more than a touch of condescension. “If you’re going to cultivate a unique and striking appearance, people are going to imitate it.”

“Do try to enjoy it; this is the fun part,” Ravana chuckled. “If it becomes a trend, it will inevitably run its course and then you will find yourself the target of mockery for continuing to express a fashion which has fallen from vogue.”

“That is the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard of.”

“Then you need to get out more,” Malivette said merrily. “If it makes you feel better, those colors look repulsive on a human.”

“Why on this blighted earth would that make me feel better?”

“Mm, that one’s Irana Daraspian, yes?” Ravana interjected. “In the red gown and with that thing in her hair?”

“It’s called a tiara, Ravana,” Malivette explained. “Yes, that’s she.”

“It is an asinine affectation and in the days when they were a sign of rank a bottom-feeder like her would be asking for a flogging by wearing it. But now I see she has found friends. And if I am not mistaken, those simpletons are trying to bully Juniper.”

“Lady Sarideh and Lady Volsten,” Malivette said. “I didn’t know they knew each other. Those are both new Houses, elevated after the Enchanter Wars. Little more than merchant syndicates that own some land. Still, there’ll be no end of paperwork if Juniper does them like they’re asking for.”

“June is very serious about her religion,” Natchua said, “and she’s not the kind of Omnist who’s into martial arts. She’ll speak politely to them until she gets tired of it and then walk—yep, there she goes.”

Across the lawn, the disinterested dryad had turned and strolled away from the three noblewomen with no outward sign of discomfiture. Unlike her ever-present pet Sniff, who raised his crest and hissed loudly, causing Lady Volsten to shriek and accidentally hurl her champagne glass. A ripple of laughter spread through the surrounding party guests.

“I cannot fathom what those three were trying to achieve,” Ravana murmured wonderingly.

“Juniper is prettier than they are, and has more powerful friends,” Malivette explained. “Thus, they went on the attack to cut her down. You surprise me, Ravana. This is Rich Girl 101.”

“I’m afraid my upbringing was rather…isolated. My understanding of noble society more heavily emphasized coercion and the thwarting of assassins than forming social ties.”

“That explains everything just so very well,” the vampire muttered.

Natchua’s lips curled in a reminiscent smile and she softly recited, “Two is the optimal number of hench wenches for the appearance-minded alpha bitch.”

“See?” Malivette said. “Even the surly drow knows this stuff better than you. We have got to bring you to more parties, Ravana.”

“Why two?” the Duchess Madouri demanded, still quietly but indulging in a tone of overt annoyance. “It seems to me that in any form of warfare, even social, the greater one’s forces, the better.”

“One follower is just a friend hanging out with you,” Natchua explained. “More than that, and you start having problems managing the pack, plus the risk increases of one aspiring to unseat your position.”

“None of my friends behave that way,” Ravana said, frowning. “It sounds exhausting and self-defeating.”

“If you’re referring to your roommates, they’re all working-class people and thus more generally sensible than nobles,” Natchua agreed. “Anyway, did you see how those other two flanked Daraspian, one to each side? Social threat display. You can target one victim with that for good effect, while keeping the group small enough to maneuver through crowds, and best of all it emphasizes who’s in command.”

“I am more than a little disturbed to learn how much you’re absorbing from those succubi of yours,” Malivette commented.

Ravana glanced sidelong down their own formation, where Malivette, as the hostess, stood in the center.

“Oh, well played, Vette.”

“Ain’t my first rodeo, cowgirl,” the vampire said smugly.

“What the hell?” Natchua suddenly hissed, her eyes fixing on the gates and the figures which had just stepped through them. “What are they doing here?”

“Easy,” Malivette soothed. “Remember, poise. Don’t let them unsettle you.”

“Which one of you invited her?”

“Neither of us know the drow, I assumed it was you.”

“I sent announcement messages to my mother and Matriarch Ezrakhai stating that House Dalmiss was specifically unwelcome here—”

“Nice,” Malivette said with an approving grin. “Power move.”

“—but I definitely didn’t reach out to her!”

Ravana cleared her throat softly. “That is my friend Magister Talvrin, who is here at my invitation, and I gather, her surprising choice of plus one.”

The two women who had just stepped into the grounds caused a wide ripple of reaction from the assembled minor nobility. Of them, Talvrin was by far the most ostentatious, wearing a gown that appeared to be woven from shimmering streamers of azure light. A heavy golden mantle hovered six inches off her shoulders, trailing another light-woven cape down her back, and above her head floated a bejeweled circlet which slowly rotated in the air.

At her side, looking spartan by comparison in her dark formal robes, was Matriarch Ashaele of House Awarrion.

“Do you suppose she’s naked under that lightshow?” Malivette wondered.

“You know she can hear us, right?” Natchua muttered.

“Yup.”

Just below them, a man approached the steps a shade closer than was strictly proper given that the Duchesses had not officially started the festivities. Lars Dufresne, formerly Grusser as recently as that morning and now legally Malivette’s son despite being roughly her age, glanced pointedly around at the crowd and then gave his head of House a significant look with his eyebrows raised. Notably, he had spent the last several minutes discreetly gathering the attendees who the Duchesses knew from Last Rock; they had now arranged themselves in a staggered formation that at a glance looked like nothing but people standing around chatting but which nonetheless formed a bulwark between the steps and the crowd beyond.

“Your man has a deft hand at these maneuvers, Malivette,” Ravana said with clear approval. “I see why you chose him.”

“I am so glad Sherwin didn’t want to come,” Natchua muttered.

“And I believe he’s right,” Malivette decided. “Come, ladies. It’s time to face the music.”

As one, they stepped forward and down the stairs. The entire party responded, everyone shifting to face them and breaking into polite applause as the three heads of House finally set foot on the ground and began, officially, to mingle.

Thanks to Lars’s tactics, they were first met by friendly faces which protected them from the fortune-seekers beyond. Most of those closest by were the guests currently staying at Ravana’s mansion, though a few others from the school itself had turned up in response to the belated invitations.

Professor Rafe inhaled deeply, his thin chest swelling as he prepared to deliver his customary greeting.

Malivette pointed one finger at him. “So help me, little man, I will drain you like a shot of bourbon.”

At Rafe’s side, Professor Yornhaldt drove a blocky elbow into his waist, eliciting a grunt. “Thank you for thinking of us, ladies, this is just the diversion the winter break needed. Arachne said she might drop by later.”

“Meaning,” Rafe added, “she’ll only show up when she can make a grand entrance and be the center of attention.”

“Oh, good,” Ravana said cheerfully, “something to look forward to.”

Natchua, meanwhile, had gravitated toward the current junior class, those who had come, her eyes flicking to Trissiny’s extra guest.

“Teal and Shaeine have an important event in Madouris tonight,” Toby said to her, “and Ruda stayed to support them.”

“That’s perfectly fine,” Natchua assured them. “This was stupidly short notice and it’s very good of you all to have come. I really appreciate it.”

“Wow,” said Gabriel, “not even noble for a day and somebody’s already taught her manners.”

“Trissiny,” Natchua said pleasantly, “if Gabe’s gonna act like this all night I may loan you one of the punchbowls.”

The Hand of Avei heaved a sigh. “I’m never gonna live that down, am I?”

“Yeah, people are so dramatic,” Natchua agreed with a solemn nod. “You waterboard one person in public and everybody gets an attitude.”

“This is a great party, Natchua! Congratulations on everything!” Fross chimed, zipping around her head. “I never would’ve expected this but I really hope it works out well for you! Do you think Vette would mind if I examined these levitating constructs? They’ve got several really powerful static enchantments that you don’t often see combined but the overall structure is quite elegantly designed! I promise I won’t break one!”

“I…guess that’s…and she’s gone,” Natchua said, watching Fross’s glow disappear as the pixie zoomed right into the corona of light around one of the floating sources of heat and illumination. “So! If I had to guess, you must be Bishop Darling.”

“That I am,” he said with a gallant bow, taking her hand and raising it gracefully to his lips. “My heartfelt congratulations on your ascendance, Duchess Leduc. This is precisely the kick in the pants to Imperial nobility that Eserites like myself love to watch unfold.” Straightening back up, he winked as he released her hand. “Tell me, before I embarrass myself, what’s your policy on social flirting?”

“That’s…very flattering, your Grace,” she said with a smile of surprised amusement, “but I’m not on the market.”

“Oh, good heavens no, I’m way too old for you anyway. Sometimes the fun of a chase is not the catch, though. Have you ever seen a dog running after an enchanted carriage and then looking lost and confused when it stopped?”

“Wow,” she said. “You were not kidding, Trissiny. I think I owe you an apology.”

Darling turned a sidelong look on Trissiny. “Oh? Scale of one to ten, Thorn, how offended should I be?”

“How offended do you want to be?” she retorted. “I’m flexible.”

“Anyway,” said Darling, “I understand you wished to have a private chat later, your Grace, which would of course be both an honor and a pleasure. More the former than the latter, don’t worry! But I wouldn’t dream of monopolizing your time so early in the evening.”

“What’s this, now?” Malivette inquired, sliding into the conversation. “And a good evening to you, Bishop Darling, how absolutely lovely to see you again.”

“Duchess Dufresne! You’ve done an absolute wonder with this place, I swear I didn’t recognize it.”

Natchua glanced rapidly between them and then smirked. “Well, discretion aside, Malivette is my dear friend and political ally, and I wouldn’t dream of going behind her back. Vette, Trissiny was good enough to bring the Bishop at my request. I wanted to see about bringing the local Guild presence back up to a full complement for a city this size.”

Malivette was holding a wineglass. Her grip did not visibly shift, and her already-bloodless fingers didn’t whiten when flexed anyway, but abruptly a hairline crack appeared on it. “Did you, now?” she inquired in a saccharine tone that made most of the onlookers take a step back.

“Why, my dear Duchess,” Darling said smoothly, “I do hope this is not an unwelcome surprise! If you have some…specific objection to an Eserite presence in your city, I should be only too happy to convey it to Boss Tricks. I’m sure he would be most intrigued to hear exactly why.”

The vampire turned her pleasant smile upon him, saying nothing. He smiled right back, not yielding an inch.

“As much as I’m tempted to see how this plays out,” Natchua interjected, “you need to settle down, Vette. You’re the one who set up our whole alliance of Houses, here. You’re surely aware that Ravana has already thrust herself into the middle of the Shaathist schism on the reformist side, and how that places us with regard to the Universal Church. Whatever else Eserites do, right now strengthening ties with the Thieves’ Guild is just good sense.”

“After tomorrow,” Toby interjected in a tone of calm that seemed to almost forcibly leech some of the tension from the air, “that position will also bring you into alignment with the three Trinity cults. I don’t pretend to understand the undercurrents here, but Natchua is correct. It’s an advantageous position.”

“Perhaps we should indeed have a nice, discreet chat about this,” Malivette said. “I trust you won’t mind if I tag along, your Grace?”

“Why, your Grace, if Duchess Leduc doesn’t object, nothing ever makes me happier than the company of yet another charming young lady,” he said smoothly.

“Omnu’s breath,” Gabriel said, staring at him. “How do women not stab you? I would get stabbed, acting like that.”

“Yeah, you probably would, Gabe,” Darling agreed. “The secret is to pick your targets. It’s actually not difficult to avoid pestering people who won’t find it funny.”

Trissiny smiled mischievously. “And yet…”

“You hush it,” Gabriel ordered. “Anyway, Natch, I don’t see, um…”

“Jonathan’s inside, hanging out with the servants in the kitchen,” she said. “He was almost as put off as me at the thought of having to hobnob with nobles, and since I’m the only one who actually has to I didn’t have the heart to insist he join me out here. And Hesthri is here. Over there, by the buffet. She’s wearing a disguise ring and serving canapes.”

Gabriel straightened up, scowling. “You made her serve food?”

“Her idea,” Natchua clarified grinning at him, “and she thought it was hilarious. I mostly went along because I was curious whether you’d forget you were supposed to be all suspicious of her and get offended on her behalf. Thanks a lot, by the way, now I owe Jonathan a doubloon.”

He stared at her, blinking repeatedly, while Trissiny and Toby looked elsewhere and did a poor job of not laughing out loud.

“Anyway,” Natchua said, nodding as gracefully as she could manage to everyone, “please excuse me for scampering off, but I need to go have a…less pleasant conversation. I’ll chat with you soon, Bishop Darling. And all of you, I hope. I’ll probably be in desperate need of better company before this night is over.”

“I don’t know about better,” Toby said with a smile, “but we can probably do less stressful. Break a leg, Natch.”

She smiled at him and turned away. The expression slid off her face, replaced by a grim stare as she strode straight for Talvrin and Ashaele.

Watching her go, Darling let out a low whistle. “I wonder if it might be safest to remove ourselves from the fallout radius?”

“Natchua has her issues, but she’s not some kind of wild animal,” Gabriel said grudgingly. “It’s not like she’ll— What the hell?”

All of them turned as their group was approached by a fifth, Malivette having already slipped away to join Ravana in speaking with some of the others from Last Rock. The paladins and Bishop all raised their eyebrows in surprised response to their new arrival’s welcoming smile.

“Good evening, children. Antonio,” she said, nodding her head courteously.

“Branwen,” said Darling, staring at her. “Well, well. I was…specifically not expecting you.”

“How the hell’d you get in here?” Gabriel demanded. “There’s no way you were invited.”

“It’s a funny thing, celebrity,” Bishop Snowe replied with a benign smile. “When one is a Bishop of the Universal Church and a well-known columnist and public speaker, one seldom encounters servants willing to risk turning one away.”

“Mm,” Toby murmured blandly. “When you put it like that, it stands to reason. I guess you don’t even strictly need to be a busty redhead anymore.” Trissiny and Gabriel both turned to him in utter surprise; Darling clenched his lips to suppress a grin.

Bishop Snowe was not in the least put off, just smiling mischievously at Toby. “No, that’s purely for my own enjoyment, although it doesn’t hurt. That’s here, though. The guardians of Madouri Manor are made of more disciplined stuff; that tends to be the case in any household overseen by a Butler. Regardless, I don’t plan to remain long enough to wear out my welcome. Speaking of invitations, I am only here to deliver one, in a manner of speaking. Antonio, would you excuse us for a moment?”

Darling raised one eyebrow, and then turned to the paladins. “What do you think? Shall I excuse you for a moment?”

“We like him more than you,” Trissiny said curtly to Snowe. “What do you want?”

“As you wish,” she replied with a gracious bow of her head. Then she straightened and her intonation shifted to a formal, even ceremonious declamation as she held her head high. “Hands of Avei, Omnu, and Vidius, by the ancient compact of the Universal Church which binds together the faiths of the Pantheon in common cause, you are summoned by his Holiness Archpope Justinian to his presence.”

They all stared at her in astonished silence.

“Not right this minute, of course,” Branwen continued, abruptly reverting to her pleasantly casual demeanor. “Please, take your time and enjoy the party; I understand the new Duchess Leduc is rather counting on your support. But this evening, afterward, his Holiness awaits you at the Grand Cathedral. I fear it will be rather late by then, but perhaps it’s for the best. With most of the world asleep, you should have a greater expectation of privacy.”

“And for what possible reason would we wish to accommodate him?” Toby asked at last.

“He doesn’t actually have the authority to command us,” Trissiny added, “and quite frankly I’m disinclined to create the impression that he can.”

“It is an invitation,” Branwen said gently, “not a command. But I cannot imagine why you would want to decline, in all honesty.”

“Yes you can,” Darling replied in apparently perfect calm. “Don’t play games like that with this lot, Bran, it’s really not helping your case.”

“Very well, my apologies,” she said, nodding her head again. “I of course cannot speak for his Holiness’s inner thoughts; I know only what he has told me. And in all honesty, he does take actions which I neither understand nor approve of. But I remain loyal to his cause, because he has earned that trust from me. I suppose, however,” she went on in a musing tone, “that if I were in his position, I would consider your unfolding plot to politically attack him and preemptively set you up to discredit yourselves by refusing a perfectly reasonable invitation to talk in favor of partying with your warlock drow friend. In what amounts to a battle of public appearances, such things do matter a great deal.”

They all stared at her again, once more reduced to silence.

“On the other hand,” Branwen said pleasantly, “perhaps I am just employing reverse psychology to nudge you in the direction I want. I suppose it must be a dilemma.”

“Gabe,” said Trissiny, staring at the Izarite Bishop, “fetch me a punchbowl.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                   Next Chapter >

16 – 13

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                 Next Chapter >

They were met at the gates of Madouri Manor by an actual Butler, who introduced himself as Yancey and provided their escort into the house itself, where they were to meet the Duchess.

Compared to its counterparts in Veilgrad, Madouri Manor seemed more like the capital of a nation than the residence of a noble family. Uniformed guards stood at attention flanking the entrance despite the cold, and inside, the trappings were almost decadently lavish, with white marble columns and wall facades interspersed with suits of armor and tapestries, while from the towering ceiling hung banners in the House colors of crimson and gray. The great entry hall itself resembled a throne room, and seemed large enough to contain the entirety of Dufresne Manor.

“This place is ridiculous,” Sherwin grumbled, slouching along with his hands jammed deep in his pockets, partly against the chill; no amount of wealth made it practical to heat a space that size in the dead of winter. “Is this supposed to be a mansion or a cathedral? The Madouris were always full of themselves, even for nobles.”

“Sherwin,” Malivette said evenly, “try, if you are able, to imagine a person with basic manners and social skills. And then, for today, pretend to be that person.”

“How about you kiss my ass, Vette?” he suggested. “You’re the one who was so damn determined to make me come here today. Now you can live with it.”

Though he was facing away from her, she flashed her fangs. “Are you sure you want my mouth near anything sensitive, Sherwin?”

“Lay off him, you smug lamprey,” Natchua ordered. “All Sherwin wanted was to stay in his house and not bother anybody. That’s probably in everybody’s best interests. If you’re gonna keep dragging him out places, you can at least not bully him about it.”

“Thank you!” Sherwin exclaimed.

Perhaps fortunately, there was no time for further byplay, as they had drawn close enough to their hostess to be addressed.

Ravana Madouri herself stood before the centerpiece of the long hall, which was not actually a throne but a bronze statue of some ancient Duke of Madouris, atop a marble base itself taller than the human average, on the front of which was carved the crest of House Madouri; Ravana had, doubtless not by accident, positioned herself so that the coat of arms perfectly framed her golden head.

“Duchess Malivette,” she said graciously, inclining her head. “Duke Sherwin. It is an honor to finally meet you both. And Natchua! How wonderful to see you again.”

“I thank you for your magnanimity, Duchess Ravana, in agreeing to host us,” Malivette replied, inclining her head to exactly the same degree. “I apologize profusely for thus imposing upon you; my deepest gratitude to you for agreeing to this meeting.”

“It is no imposition at all,” Ravana assured her. “It suits me perfectly, as I’m afraid I cannot afford to be long away from Madouris while I have time home from Last Rock, and in any case hospitality is one of the great joys of my life.”

“Yo,” Sherwin grunted. “Seriously, just call me Sherwin. My House is barely a thing anymore, and good damn riddance to it.”

“Of course, Sherwin,” she said smoothly. “I’m so glad to be on such good terms already! Please, you must call me Ravana.”

“Hi, Ravana,” Natchua said a bit tersely. “Long time, no see.”

“I do hope you can stay long enough for us to catch up, Natchua!” Ravana said with an apparently sincere smile. “I believe the last time we spoke was during all that excitement when the campus was invaded.”

“Excitement is one word,” she agreed, then turned her head toward Sherwin. “Not to change the subject, but I didn’t know you were a Duke! You should’ve told me, I feel like I’ve been rude all this time.”

“You have,” he said frankly. “That’s why I like you, rudeness is more my speed anyway. Seriously, it’s just Sherwin. Say Duke and then my last name, Natchua. Go on, say it out loud.”

She didn’t, but paused to consider for a moment, then grinned. “Ah. I see your point.”

“I have a suitable chamber prepared for us to converse in private,” Ravana said politely, “if you would be so good as to accompany me. Natchua, will you be joining us?”

“Oh, I’m just the transportation,” Natchua said quickly. “Last thing I want is to intrude on noble business. If you’ve got a servant’s lounge or something where I can hang out until it’s time for Vette and Sherwin to go home, that’d be just dandy.”

“Actually, since you’re here, why don’t you come with?” Malivette suggested brightly. “I hadn’t planned on you being along for this trip, Natch, but I bet you’d be very interested in the discussion! In fact, the outcome might be important to you, too.”

Natchua turned to stare at her, sucking her lips back in between her teeth and biting down. The vampire just smiled innocently back.

“Yep,” she said after a moment, shifting her gaze to Ravana. “Figures. You two’ll get along great. Didja know, last time we met Ravana and I were both curse victims, and she somehow convinced our whole party to go torture a dryad instead of running away from a battle like sensible people. It was every bit as asinine as it sounds, but in the heat of the moment she starts talking and the next thing you know, you’re doing whatever harebrained thing she suggested and damn if it doesn’t seem to make perfect sense at the time.”

“Oh,” Sherwin said dourly. “One of those.”

“I apologize for that, and in advance for everything else Duke Leduc is going to say,” Malivette said sweetly, ignoring his twitch. “He is not accustomed to being outside his bedroom, or speaking to anyone except demons.”

“Oh, but this all works out splendidly,” Ravana said, her pleasant good cheer undiminished. “I should be delighted to have Natchua join us. In fact, if you don’t mind, I would like to include my lady in waiting, unless your business is too sensitive. May I present Daina Antevaan. Daina, these are the Duchess Malivette Dufresne of Veilgrad, Duke Sherwin Leduc, and my old school friend Natchua.”

Another woman approached from the shadow of a colonnade lining the great hall, a statuesque blonde who had hair a shade darker than Ravana’s and stood head and shoulders taller than her Duchess.

“It is an honor,” she said tonelessly, the brief greeting hinting at an accent that was neither Imperial nor Stalweiss. Her blue eyes fixed on Sherwin, narrowed slightly.

“The pleasure is ours, of course,” Malivette replied. “The matter I wish to discuss is somewhat sensitive, Ravana, but anyone who has your trust has my own. We don’t object in the slightest. Right, Sherwin?”

“I seriously don’t care about any of this,” he complained, looking somewhat unnerved by Daina’s continued appraisal of him, which was both intense and icy. “I’m just here because Vette is pushy, and she hasn’t even bothered to tell me what the big deal is yet. All of you do what you want.”

“Splendid,” Ravana said brightly. “If you would accompany me, then? I have had refreshments laid out for us.”

She turned and led the way toward a towering archway opening onto another long columned hall, this one far more compact than the great entryway but just as lavish in décor. Before following, Natchua, who had been staring bemusedly at Daina, suddenly gasped.

The blonde woman finally tore her eyes off Sherwin to meet Natchua’s gaze, and they stared at each other in tense silence for a moment.

Malivette finally cleared her throat. Pausing only to glance at her, Daina inclined her head once in acknowledgment, then turned and glided off after Ravana, who had paused under the arch to wait for them.

The party proceeded after their hostess in silence, even Sherwin apparently cowed by the tension in the air. It was a terse few minutes, which served to further accentuate the sprawling size and confused layout of Madouri Manor, but they finally came to another tall oak door with an arched top, currently standing open to reveal an ornately appointed sitting room far larger than was necessary for their small group. Ravana came to a stop next to the door and gestured them inside, still smiling.

Natchua drifted to the back of the procession, save only Yancey, who trailed diffidently along with several yards of space between him and the guests. Upon coming abreast of the door and their smiling hostess, instead of turning to enter the room, Natchua grabbed Ravana by the upper arm and kept going, stepping forward till the two of them were just out of sight of those within.

Yancey was on top of her almost as if he’d teleported, but he only placed himself nearby and pointedly within her field of view, holding off from any more direct action at a subtle hand gesture from Ravana.

“What the hell do you think you’re playing at?” Natchua growled in a low tone, leaning forward. Malivette could probably still hear her, but at least Sherwin would be kept out of the loop.

Ravana, looking only mildly bemused at this treatment, raised one eyebrow. “I’m afraid you’ll need to be considerably more specific, Natchua.”

“I’m talking about putting Scorn in a room with Sherwin Leduc!” she hissed. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Oh, drat,” the young Duchess said with a little pout. “You can tell that easily? And after all the effort it took to design a disguise ring that would work on her; Rhaazke seem somewhat resistant to applied enchantments.”

“Wh—no, I’m sure it’s fine, I’m the best warlock you’ll ever meet. That is not the point, Ravana!”

“What I am playing at, in your words,” Ravana murmured, matching Natchua’s low volume but with considerably more calm, “is testing her restraint. She is justifiably repulsed and enraged by the sight of him, and given Malivette’s presence, is unlikely to successfully harm him in the worst case scenario. Really, it’s an ideal opportunity!”

Natchua tightened her grip and tugged the girl forward, baring her teeth. “People are not toys for you to experiment on for your amusement, Duchess.”

At that, Ravana’s pleasant expression abruptly cooled, and she finally grabbed Natchua’s hand with her free one and pried it off her arm. “Toys, is it? Scorn is one of the more physically and magically powerful individuals in the world at present, but arrived on this plane with a notable lack of nuance, subtlety, and self-control. With my help, over the last year, she has been gaining these qualities, and doing an excellent job, I might add. I am turning her into someone neither I nor anyone else could hope to control, because she is my friend, and I want what’s best for her. Everyone deserves to live free and empowered, yet most people never will. If I failed to share what I know of the method with someone important to me, that would be treating them like a toy. And given that you are blatantly using Sherwin himself for free room and board, Natchua, you should perhaps pause and consider your prerogatives before you begin flinging accusations.”

Natchua narrowed her eyes to slits. “If not for me, Sherwin would still be hiding in his room. I’m the reason your little campaign to draw him into your politics has yielded anything at all.”

“Why, there, you see?” Ravana said primly, suddenly all smiles again. “It’s just as I said. We do what we can for those close to us, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable for them. And now, I believe we are keeping the others waiting.”

So saying, she nodded once, then stepped around Natchua and the door and glided in.

Yancey remained behind, watching Natchua impassively until she threw up her hands in frustration and followed the blonde Duchess into the parlor.

“There you are, I was beginning to worry,” Malivette said with deceptive mildness as Natchua perched beside her on the loveseat she’d chosen. A cozy arrangement of furnishings surrounded a low table on which was laid out a tea set complete with platters of sandwiches and scones. Sherwin was sprawled in an armchair with a disgruntled expression, while Scorn in the guise of Daina Antevaan perched on the edge of another seat in an almost excessively ladylike posture. She had finally broken off her grim stare at Sherwin, her eyes now tracking Natchua. Rhaazke hearing was no better than human, and Natchua had sensed no infernomancy at work in here, so the demon shouldn’t have caught any of her quick conversation with Ravana, but she was definitely sharp enough to know something was up. Malivette leaned toward Natchua, regaining her attention, and murmured, “Remember what I said to Sherwin about social skills? Same goes.”

“Remember what he said back to you?” Natchua muttered in reply. The vampire had the temerity to flutter her eyelashes at her.

“I must, woefully, apologize for the state of my hospitality, Malivette,” Ravana said once they were all seated, an ironic statement as Yancey was already deftly distributing tea. Without having to ask, he gave Natchua a cup with exactly as much honey as she liked. “In point of fact, more than one of my ancestors regularly played host to vampires, and there is a unique human blood cookbook among my steward’s hereditary effects. Unfortunately, it seems to presume means of acquiring the essential ingredient which were not ethical even then, and most definitely are not legal now.”

“On the contrary, I’d be a bit disturbed if you had provided me refreshments,” Malivette replied with a wink. “Don’t you worry, I get plenty to eat.”

“No, you don’t,” Sherwin grunted. “Look at you, Vette, you’re like a scarecrow. Those four thralls are enough to keep you alive without sucking any of them dry, and that’s about it.”

“That’s a very cheerful thing to bring up in mixed company, Sherwin, thank you,” she said with a tiny sigh. “Daina” shifted her stare back to him, thinning her mouth in overt dislike. “Under the circumstances, I hope you won’t be offended if I come right to business.”

Ravana glanced at Sherwin and then Natchua, her polite little smile widening to the point of real amusement. “Perhaps that would be best.”

“I’m for it,” Sherwin mumbled around a bite of cucumber sandwich.

“I’m going to narrate a bit,” Malivette continued, “for the benefit of those who haven’t been raised in the traditions of the aristocracy. Sherwin and Ravana doubtless know all this background detail, but it will help our newcomers to follow along.”

“Hey, works for me.” Sherwin took a loud slurp of tea, then waved his cup vaguely at her. “If I ever knew any of that shit I’ve worked hard to forget it.”

“The three houses of Dufresne, Leduc, and Madouri are in the same predicament, certain specific details aside,” Malivette said, no longer paying him any overt attention. “Our bloodlines are reduced to a single individual each, with no heir available. In this situation, the meanest cobbler in the Empire can legally adopt someone to hand down whatever possessions he may have upon death, but as part of the reforms which followed the Enchanter Wars, the Houses are constrained in this ability. Most of those reforms actually expanded the powers of the aristocracy at the expense of the Throne, but this was an example of the Great Houses acting to enable themselves to…cull the weak, as it were. Once a noble House has been reduced to the point that it cannot perpetuate its own bloodline, it is forbidden from adding new members to the family through adoption. Thus, faltering Houses are encouraged to die off so that their rivals can more easily scavenge their remains.”

“Good fuckin’ riddance,” Sherwin grunted. A short silence fell, in which everyone turned to stare at him, and he had the grace to blush and straighten up a bit. “I mean, ah… I’m sure you both come from very nice families, I was just referring to my case. Nothing good has ever come out of House Leduc and nobody’ll miss us.”

“Daina” opened her mouth, Ravana shot her a piercing sidelong look, and she shut it silently.

“The adoption of new heirs can be done,” Malivette continued, disregarding the byplay, “but there are checks upon it. For any of the three of us to designate a new family member and heir to our legacies would require the approval of either the Silver Throne itself, or two other Great Houses. This, unfortunately, will not be forthcoming in our case. Though Ravana and myself have both worked diligently to prove our loyalty to the Throne, there is no advantage to House Tirasian in helping us to perpetuate our lineages when the Emperor benefits far more from keeping us subservient and dependent. And it goes without saying that none of the other Houses in the Empire want any of us to continue, least of all any of the Great Houses.”

“Uh, scuze me?” Natchua raised a hand, and Malivette nodded graciously to her. “What exactly is a Great House? I didn’t realize there was a hierarchy.”

“There is always a hierarchy,” Ravana said with dark amusement. “Those who are by nature obsessed with power tend to be…well…obsessed with power. Specifically, a Great House is one which holds an Imperial governorship. As the Imperial provinces are each on average the size of most nations of the world and mostly used to be independent kingdoms, they are effectively the families of kings and queens, subordinate only to the Emperor himself.”

“And there,” Malivette said with a grin, “is a loophole. Because, by the law, a Great House is one which holds or has held provincial rule.”

“Yes, like House Dalkhaan,” Ravana agreed, nodding. “You remember those thugs in ill-fitting livery who assaulted the University, as we were just reminiscing, Natchua? Guardsmen of House Dalkhaan, which by that point was nothing but a single bitter old woman presiding over a desiccated husk of a legacy. Yet because one of her ancestors was a Sultana of Calderaas, she was entitled to style herself a Duchess.”

“Oh!” Natchua turned to Sherwin. “And that’s why you’re a Duke! Because the Leducs and Dufresnes have been trading rule of Veilgrad back and forth for centuries.”

“Fat lot of good it did ‘em,” he grumbled.

“Ravana already knows the direction of my thoughts,” Malivette said with a coy smile. “You hinted at this from your earliest correspondence. But I believe, by now, you all understand what I now suggest.”

“Even though all three of your Houses lack allies,” Daina said softly, “you can form an alliance yourselves. Override the prohibition on adoption, designate heirs, and secure the continuation of your families, if not the actual bloodlines. Will that not invite retaliation?”

“None of us have much to fear from the other Houses,” Malivette stated. “Another point we have in common is that we have been left in peace by them because every sensible, self-interested noble family in the Empire fears to antagonize any of us, with some justification. I share a border with the holdings of House Daraspian, and even they haven’t dared try to stick their grubby fingers into Veilgrad. And I am but the newest monster of the trio; House Leduc has spent centuries demonstrating that to draw their ire is lethally dangerous. House Madouri’s reputation is a trifle less specifically fearsome, but it is still the single richest and longest-reigning House in the Empire, and not known to deal gently with rivals.”

“That leaves the Throne, though,” Natchua commented. “Can’t imagine Sharidan will be pleased about you going behind his back. Uh, just let me know if I’m talking too much, I realize this is none of my business.”

“On the contrary, Natchua, I’m quite pleased to see you taking an interest,” Malivette reassured her. “And yes, you are right. This suggestion is, by nature, somewhat antagonistic toward the Throne. But, as I said, the Dufresnes and Madouris of this age are established allies of House Tirasian, and this is not a direct attack upon its power—merely an assertion of independence, one which the Emperor is in no position to begrudge. I believe we can soothe any ruffled feathers through continued demonstrations of loyalty. Especially if we can bring House Leduc into the fold.”

“Right, well, I’m out,” Sherwin said shortly. “I don’t mind doing you two a favor; you seem like decent sorts, the both of you, at least as far as nobles go. Just lemme know when you’ve got all the paperwork and I’ll sign whatever. But House Leduc needs to die.”

“You’re wrong about that,” Malivette said, turning a serious expression on him. “Like it or not, Sherwin, Veilgrad needs the Leducs.”

“Bullshit,” he snorted. “I am by far the most benign member of my family since the conquest of the Stalrange, and let’s face it, the best thing that can be said about me is I’ve only ever harmed demons. Nobody fucking needs the Leducs.”

“There has been a balance in Veilgrad,” she said, her soft voice a pointed contrast to his gruffness, “one whose importance has only truly become clear to me since it was broken. We had the upright and righteous Dufresnes to reassure the people and provide guidance, and the sinister and dangerous Leducs to exert pressure on those who would encroach on our domain, not to mention the horrors that have a tendency to arise in the region. Let’s face it, our corner of the Empire is unusually prone to… Things that bump in the night. The vampire who destroyed my family may have been from one of the deadliest lineages, but lesser breeds have plagued the area for centuries. The werewolf problem has been ongoing for at least as long, there is a long tradition of necromancers infesting the area, and the mountain forests nearby are prone to coughing up some of the more disturbing breeds of fairy found on this continent. Not to mention that we are caught right between Avenist and Shaathist territory, with all the tension that implies, and the Daraspians aren’t the only house down in Vrandis who like to do the kind of business that spills trouble over into other people’s backyards. Veilgrad has always benefited from having its dark protectors, even as it has from its nobler family of leaders. I, finding myself alone, have tried to do both, and… I have to acknowledge, my hold is slipping. The chaos crisis was only the worst example, not by far the only one.”

There was silence in the wake of her soft admission, Ravana looking solicitous and even Sherwin frowning at the vampire in thought.

“My steward, Lars Grusser,” Malivette continued after a moment, “already effectively runs the province. He is both competent and popular, a reassuring presence who fills exactly the role that House Dufresne traditionally has. By adopting him into the House itself and continuing its name and holdings, I would only be legally legitimizing the de facto state of affairs. Ravana, of course, is still young enough to have plenty of time to produce an heir the old-fashioned way, but in the interim, having a designated successor will help to stabilize her rule.”

Ravana nodded once.

“And Sherwin,” Malivette went on, turning back to him.

“No,” he growled. “The last goddamn thing I want is more Leducs around.”

“Upon adopting an heir,” Malivette pressed, “you can immediately abdicate the High Seat and go back to enjoying your privacy while they handle the actual business of being Veilgrad nobility.”

“Anybody who might want that position absolutely can’t be trusted with it,” he snorted.

“He’s got a point,” Natchua agreed. “Not to rain on your parade, Vette, but take it from the world’s foremost expert: warlocks are a lot more trouble than they’re worth.”

“Ah,” Malivette said with a knowing smile. “But imagine if there was an ideally suitable candidate! Someone able to continue House Leduc’s tradition of infernomancy. Someone already known, liked, and trusted by the people. Someone well-regarded throughout the Empire and held in esteem by the Throne itself. Someone who has already shown care and concern for Veilgrad’s people, and involved herself in the community. Someone who, umprompted, is has even taken it upon herself to restore Leduc Manor to its former glory.” Her smile broadened, showing off her fangs. “Someone who, just as an added bonus, is functionally immortal.”

“Now just a goddamned minute,” Natchua squawked.

“Hmm,” Ravana murmured, turning an expression of delighted fascination upon the drow.

“And let me put it to you this way, Sherwin,” Malivette crooned, ignoring Natchua’s spluttering. “Tell me which would more enrage the ghosts of your parents: to let House Leduc quietly fade from the world, or to hand over their entire legacy to an irascible, stateless, juvenile dark elf?”

He, in turn, shifted to study Natchua. A malicious smile slowly blossomed on his face, followed by an exact replication of Ravana’s tone. “Hmm.”

“Sherwin, you backstabbing little earwig!” Natchua shouted.

“You even sound like my mother,” her replied, grinning openly.

“This is the single worst idea I’ve ever heard!” the drow exclaimed, waving her arms frantically. “I mean that, and I’m the one who deliberately picked a fight with Elilial! I am the last person who needs to be in charge of a province!”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Natchua,” Malivette said in a cooler tone. “It is still House Dufresne, not House Leduc, which rules Lower Stalwar Province. But that is just my point: the things you have already been doing for the city all this autumn are exactly what good non-ruling nobility should do.”

“I was just bored!”

“You were bored, and so you spent your time and resources making people’s lives a little better, in whatever ways were available to you. That’s exactly what people want in an aristocrat, and what so few aristocrats actually do in practice.”

“I—that—you—this isn’t—fucking—”

“Natchua,” Malivette said, softly and more seriously. “To be frank, not only do I think you would be good for the province, but I think this is exactly what you need.”

“You should see about sucking some of that blood directly to your brain!”

“There is your immediate problem with the Confederacy and House Dalmiss,” the vampire said relentlessly. “Right now you are stateless and thus vulnerable. You pretty much can’t apply for normal Imperial citizenship; all that demon-summoning is not going to be looked on positively, war hero or no. As an isolated exile, you’re one lapse in security from suffering whatever vengeance your erstwhile Matriarch sends at you next. But as the Duchess Leduc, you would be untouchable. Even if the Throne and the other nobles actively despised you—which, let’s be honest, isn’t unlikely—they would not tolerate such an assault upon Imperial aristocracy. The powerful will always protect their own position first and foremost.”

“Yeah, well… I mean, in theory, but I still don’t…”

“More to the point,” Malivette continued more gently, “I think this would be good for you. You had one purpose that was keeping you going, one you weren’t expecting to survive past its completion, and then… It was done, and here you still are. I know you’ve been floundering, Natch, trying to find your place. You’ve found it in Veilgrad. This is just making it official.”

“This is a little more official than I had in mind!”

“Welp, you’ve sold me,” Sherwin said cheerfully. “The more I hear about this, the more I like it.”

“Goddammit, Sherwin!” Natchua snapped.

“Hey, Natch, lemme pitch you the point that changed my mind,” he said, grinning. “Just take a moment and imagine your mother’s expression when she hears about this.”

That brought Natchua up short, staring at him with her mouth slightly open. After two heartbeats, she closed it, struggling against a small smile. “Well… Okay, that’s a pleasing thought, but…”

“I quite like this idea!” Ravana said brightly. “I do feel, though, that I may owe you an apology, Natchua.”

The drow narrowed her eyes, shifting them to the blonde Duchess. “Oh? What’d you do this time?”

“I am sorry to hear you have been having trouble from House Dalmiss,” Ravana said earnestly. “I confess, I may have been somewhat responsible for provoking them. You see, the Narisian slave trade has ensnared several of my citizens into involuntary servitude to various members of your former House. I felt that Matriarch Ezrakhai could do with a practical lesson in empathy on this matter. As such, I have her daughter in my dungeon.”

Everyone stared at her in dead silence.

“It is a very comfortable dungeon,” Ravana insisted. “I had it thoroughly renovated before installing anyone. I subscribe to the modern philosophy that there is more to be gained by showing consideration to political prisoners than by making them suffer needlessly. Of course, it may all be moot if Ezrakhai proves to be stubborn and I have to begin mailing her fingers and ears, but still. The principle of the thing, you understand.”

The silence continued for three more seconds, and then Natchua burst out laughing so hard she slid right off the loveseat.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                  Next Chapter >

16 – 11

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                      Next Chapter >

Natchua was a warlock and an elf; she could both feel the shape of the spells around her, and instantly discern in precise detail their velocity and direction. Instinct alone told her none of the shadowbolts were aimed at her, and held her in place, as several passed close enough to possibly graze her if she were to move.

Instinct only went so far, of course; she did not in the least trust the Black Wreath to be firing off combat spells in her vicinity, and had reflexively summoned the matrix of a shadow well which would draw all of them off course and absorb their energy to be cast back at their creators. Summoned, but did not deploy. In the blindingly rapid thought of that moment, she chose to refrain, prompted by what impulse she could not have precisely articulated. Perhaps this was the quality Elilial had insisted was her innate cunning, the tendency Natchua had to make snap decisions that appeared ludicrous at first glance but ultimately worked out in her benefit, a knack for intuitively making enormously complex calculations based on data of which she wasn’t even consciously aware.

Or maybe she was just impulsive and improbably lucky thus far and sooner than later it was all going to bite her lethally on the ass. Elf or no, Natchua couldn’t think fast enough to ponder this in any detail during the split second in which spells were flying all around her, she just made her choice and was immediately proved right.

Every one of the dozen shadowbolts converged on one of three spots in a rough triangular formation around her, farther out than the ring of Wreath warlocks, and at every impact spot there burst a surge of disrupted arcane magic.

Natchua lashed out with her own craft the instant they were revealed, and none too fast; with their ambush foiled, she was immediately the target of two abortive arcane spells and one physical assault, all of which she neutralized with a combination of shadow tentacles and an on-the-fly reworking of her shadow well to draw off and convert arcane energy.

The entire thing had taken less than a second, and left her standing in the center of a ring of robed cultists, holding three elves in the secure grip of dark tendrils of energy. They were wood elves, to judge by their ears, but in addition to being arcanists were dressed in the most preposterous costumes she’d ever seen. It appeared to be armor of some kind, but was made of a combination of gold and panels of apparent glass which scintillated with blue light. All three were now glaring furiously at her, an emotion to which she could relate.

“And what the fuck is this now?” Natchua demanded, using her tentacles to gratuitously shake the elf closest to the center of her field of view.

“Why, if I’m not very much mistaken,” Embras Mogul drawled with a self-satisfied grin, “these would be a sampling of the famed and mysterious high elves! Higher than most, if they thought ambushing a warlock with arcane spells was a good idea. Hell, what with the year I’m havin’, I wouldn’t turn down a nibble of whatever shroom these three are on.”

She bared her own teeth in displeasure, meeting the glare of the nearest high elf and not enjoying her thoughts on the subject. While living among humans, Natchua had been coasting on her superior reflexes and agility, but in this case, that advantage tipped the other way. These were also elves, and not only that, but clearly trained military; they were undoubtedly faster and more precise than she, even encumbered by armor. She hadn’t had the slightest hint they were sneaking up on her. No warlock, no caster of any kind, could prevail if they were taken out before they could even form a spell.

Mogul and his Wreath had in all probability just saved her life, and she was not enjoying the realization.

“I’ll deal with you in a minute,” Natchua informed her captives, then turned her glare on Mogul, whose grin did not diminish. “What’s all this about, then? Decided to give up on your revenge?”

“Oh, not in the least,” he assured her, his smile again altering subtly to hint at the snarl of a cornered animal. “Given our history, I simply didn’t enjoy being in your debt. But as for that, we’re square again, and can no resume our discussion of your murderous cruelty and what’s going to happen to you as a result. But while we’re here and on the subject…” Mogul’s grin faded and he tilted his head slightly. “I cannot help being curious. I’m sure you were aware our own skills were heavily dampened by the proximity of a chaos effect. Quite frankly I don’t think we could have extricated ourselves from that situation once it welled up. Why did you shadow-jump us out of the catacombs? Would’ve been far easier to take advantage and finish what you started in Ninkabi.”

Natchua pursed her lips for a moment before answering. “Yeah, well… Since you brought up Ninkabi, the truth is I felt kinda bad about it.”

“You felt,” said the female warlock who’d chewed her out last time, “bad. You felt bad. About stuffing us all in chaos space to die?”

“Well, wouldn’t you?” Natchua asked sweetly.

“Bitch, it is inconceivable that no one’s murdered you yet.”

“People keep trying, but I guess I’m just that much better than all of you.”

“Listen, you—”

“You listen,” she snapped, leveling a finger at the hooded woman. “I stand by every word I said to you in that tomb. What happened to you was no worse than you deserved, and apparently less than you deserved since so many of you survived it. But with that said, the whole maneuver was a matter of what I could physically do in that moment to take you off the board. Upon consideration… That is not something I would choose to do to anybody if I had the luxury of better options or time to plan. So, yeah, you had it coming and I have no patience for your complaints, but it still didn’t sit right with me. Thus, moving you out of range of a chaos effect that, yes, I knew you couldn’t escape yourselves. Besides,” she added begrudgingly, “you did go to all the trouble of warning me there was chaos in those catacombs. It was only fair.”

Mogul’s head shifted slightly as he met Vanessa’s gaze, and then another of his comrade’s, all of their eyes hidden by either hoods or hat brim. “Excuse me,” he said at last, “we did what?”

“Oh, don’t play coy,” Natchua scoffed. “You’re the Wreath, nobody listens to you. So if you want to give someone an important message, you use your overly convoluted Elilinist thinking to lead them into a position to discover it themselves while thinking they’re actually fighting you. And since your whole performance down there didn’t make a damn lick of sense, it was obvious.”

“Huh,” Mogul grunted. “Well, I do follow your logic—and yes, we’ve done that exact thing more than a few times. But no, Natchua, we had no idea there was any lingering chaos energy under or near Veilgrad. I assure you, after our own experiences, none of us want to go within leagues of that shit.”

“Right,” she drawled. “You’re gonna pitch to me that that grandstanding spectacle you put on instead of ambushing me like a sensible person was your real, actual plan? You, servants of the goddess of cunning, went about your vengeance in the one way absolutely guaranteed not to work? Mogul, I don’t get too worked up about people trying to murder me, that’s just business as usual, but if you keep implying I’m stupid our relationship is only gonna go further downhill.”

“I am honestly curious to see how much farther down we could possibly go,” he replied, shoving his hands in the pockets of his suit and adopting a slouched posture. “So, hey! Seems we’re all on track for even more interesting days ahead. Anyway, you scratched my back, I scratched yours, and now we can resume plotting each other’s demise, as the gods intended. Catch ya later, buttercup.”

He snapped his fingers once, and the whole group vanished again, the swelling darkness of their shadow-jumps slightly out of sync compared to the simultaneous departure they’d had when Natchua had removed them from the catacombs.

“Can you believe that guy?” she demanded of the angry-looking high elf still thoroughly ensnared off the ground in the grip of her shadow tendrils. All three had been trying to do some arcane craft or other during the entire conversation, all of which she passively siphoned away before it could form into actual spells. “Like I’m gonna swallow that he really thinks in terms of favors. Bullshit squared, I tell you. If you’re gonna scheme at someone right to their face you should at least admit it! That’s just polite, am I wrong?”

The high elf narrowed his eyes to slits and curled his lip back in a sneer. One of his compatriots began trying to struggle violently until Natchua directed the tentacles to hike her up in the air and shake her roughly.

“Well, anyway,” she said, folding her arms. “What the fuck is your problem? I dunno what makes you think you can go around assaulting people in Imperial territory but you are gonna spend the next little while learning in detail how wrong you are.”

“Natchua yil Nassra y’nad Dalmiss,” he finally spoke in elvish, “you are wanted for multiple crimes against the Elven Confederacy, including but not limited to trafficking with demons, embezzlement of House Dalmiss funds, and assault of Confederate diplomats. By the authority of the Highguard you are placed under arrest. Do you submit to the law?”

She stared at him in silence. Somewhere in the near distance, a lone winter songbird began to add a desolate cheeping to the quiet of the snowy forest.

Natchua gestured with one hand and the tentacles lifted him higher, then deliberately turned him upside down and brought him closer, until she was staring into his green eyes from inches away.

“Buddy,” she said, “part of that was more ridiculous than the rest of it, but I can’t for the life of me decide which.”

“You’re only digging your own grave, warlock,” he grated around clenched teeth. “Resisting lawful arrest and assaulting Highguard will add exponentially to the charges against you. In the end—”

A shadow tentacle stuffed itself in his mouth. To judge by the bulging of his eyes, this pleased him even less than his treatment up till that point.

“I tell you what,” she said with a pleasant smile, “if this is gonna become a legal matter, why don’t we go consult an expert?”

The shadows swelled around them again, and then all four were gone, leaving behind only a wide disturbance in the snow.


“My, my, my,” Malivette crooned. The vampire turned to her right, swiveling her head to keep her eyes fixed on the three captive high elves, still fully ensnared by shadow tendrils now emanating from a dark patch on the floorboards around Natchua’s feet, and began pacing slowly in that direction. “My, my, my, my.”

Coming to a stop, she paused, then turned back the other way and meandered along in reverse, folding her arms behind her back and still watching the elves. “My, my. My, my, my, my.”

Malivette reached the opposite apex of her course, slowly turned again, and started back the other way once more. “My, my—”

“How long does this usually take?” Natchua asked of the Duchess’s escort. Jade lifted a finger to her lips, and Ruby winked at her.

Despite the stark lack of adornment in Dufresne Manor’s entry hall, the vampire’s household had managed to make an impressive display for Natchua’s prisoners, with the black-clad Malivette herself pacing the room like a caged lion. Behind her stood Ruby, Sapphire, Pearl, and Jade in their matching jewel-toned gowns, evenly spaced in a line and holding identical positions with their hands folded demurely at the waist.

“Always the spoilsport, Natchua,” Malivette chided her. “Well, then! I know the Tiraan Empire does not have a unilateral extradition treaty with the Elven Confederacy. I know this because the Tiraan Empire has no treaties with the Elven Confederacy. I know this because the Elven Confederacy has existed for about five minutes and the hot new gossip out of Tiraas these days is how both governments are still informally negotiating the terms under which they’ll start formally negotiating formal negotiations. Thus!”

She stopped her pacing in the exact center of her handmaidens’ formation, framed by Sapphire and Pearl, and batted her eyelashes coquettishly at the captive Highguard.

“By process of deduction, I conclude that your mission is strictly off the books. And therefore, your government is in no position to make any objections if the three of you just disappear. Or are found in well-gnawed pieces in a nearby bear’s den. Y’know, six of one.”

“Is this monster supposed to intimidate us, warlock?” the male high elf sneered at Natchua. “Try harder.”

“You are in the presence of her Grace the Duchess Malivette Esmerelda Dufresne,” Pearl’s voice rang through the hall, “High Seat of House Dufresne, Lady Protector of Veilgrad and Imperial Governor of Lower Stalwar Province, subordinate in this domain only to the Silver Throne itself. You will speak when instructed and not otherwise.”

He didn’t look much impressed by that, but at least he shut up. The two women with him gave him pointed looks, as best they could while trussed up in shadow and suspended in midair.

“Tell me,” Malivette inquired airily, “what would happen to three uninvited interlopers in Qestraceel who took it upon themselves to attack and attempt to abduct a resident? Hmm?” She sidled forward, tilting her head to one side and thrusting her face right into his, crimson eyes widened psychotically despite her smile. “Hmmmmmm?”

He curled his lip in apparent revulsion, but answered her in Tanglish, thickly accented by grammatically correct. “Natchua yil Nassra y’nad Dalmiss is not a citizen of Veilgrad or the Tiraan Empire. She is a citizen of the Elven Confederacy and bound by its laws, and culpable for crimes committed against it.”

“Natchua,” Malivette said sweetly, “with no surname or honorifics, is not a citizen of your made up Confederacy, having renounced her citizenship in Tar’naris before said Confederacy existed. She is a guest I have personally made welcome in my province.”

He narrowed his eyes. “The warrant is valid. You are interfering with the lawful business of the Highguard, which is unwise.”

“And there it is!” Vette suddenly hopped backward and resumed casually pacing up and down the room. “What’s at the root of it all. The presumption. The attitude, inherent both in your conduct and the sheer unmitigated brass of your superiors, that you are entitled to do what you wish, where you wish, because nobody can stop you. Look around yourselves, my little goslings. You are well and truly stopped.”

The Highguard clamped his mouth shut and stared at her in obstinate silence.

“It’s time to negotiate,” one of his companions suddenly said in elvish.

He tried to turn to glare at her, but couldn’t quite rotate himself around far enough. “We do not negotiate with savages or abominations.”

“I challenge by the authority of high law,” she replied. “Let us be judged by tribunal. Witness this.”

“So witnessed,” said the other woman in a resigned tone.

Rather than seeming angered by this defiance, the man in the center frowned pensively, and again tried to turn toward her. This time, Natchua obligingly rotated him just enough. “Are you certain, officer?”

“I would not disrupt command on mission save in absolute certainty, seeker-captain,” she replied solemnly.

He worked his jaw as if chewing that for a moment, then nodded once. “The benefit of your experience is valued, officer. Your recommendation will be followed.”

She nodded back. “I withdraw my challenge.”

“Witnessed,” said the third with clear relief.

“The warrant specifies the legal status of the accused,” he said, turning his attention back to Malivette and switching again to Tanglish. Natchua shifted him again to make it less awkward. “She is a citizen of Tar’naris, and thus, now a citizen of the Confederacy, as citizens of all member states are as of its formation. This renunciation is on record, but not relevant. Tar’naris has no established policy for the renunciation of citizenship; the concept apparently does not exist in Narisian law or tradition. The only Confederate member state with such doctrine is Qestraceel, which recognizes renunciation as a personal choice but maintains the prerogative of law enforcement over renunciate citizens as it becomes necessary. Thus, her legal status is that of a Confederate citizen and subject to the Highguard’s authority. This would only be in question had she applied for and received citizenship in another state, but we have verified that this is not the case.”

“Well, that’s all fine and good,” Malivette said dismissively, “not to mention highly debatable, but nobody here is arguing any of that.”

“Uh, excuse me,” Natchua exclaimed.

“Natch, hush,” the vampire said. “Let me work. At issue here is the Highguard’s prerogative to act without my or the Silver Throne’s permission in Veilgrad. To wit: there is none. You are not on Confederate territory, and thus you are not enforcing laws, but breaking them. You, active military personnel, are going around committing trespass and assault with intent to abduct.” She leaned forward again, simpering. “Under certain conditions, precious, that is an act of war.”

“The Empire is not going to go to war over this little reprobate,” he said with naked contempt. “If you feel your privileges have been stepped upon…Duchess…you may lodge a complaint with the Magistry—” He broke off, grimaced fleetingly, then composed his expression and continued. “I mean, with the High Council. Or, more likely, request that the Empire do so. But let’s be honest: this is an ill-behaved, unpleasant, demon-trafficking young troublemaker, and had her fellow warlock criminal friends not intervened, we would have successfully extracted her without any notice or inconvenience on your part. No one would have cared. Is your personal pride worth allowing a criminal to run loose?”

“Natchua, please refrain,” Malivette said pleasantly as Natchua swelled up and sparks of purple light began to flicker along the tentacles, to the visible alarm of the two female Highguard. “I think I see what the confusion here is. C’mon, I wanna show you something I think you’ll be very interested in. Do bring them along, Natch honey!”

The Duchess abruptly exploded into a swarm of shrieking bats, prompting all three high elves to try to cast something arcane, which of course was immediately drained away to nothing by Natchua’s secure hold over them. The bats whirled away around behind the staircase, disappearing into a hallway that led deeper into the Manor.

Sapphire curtsied diffidently. “This way, if you please?” Turning, she set off in the same direction, at a much more sedate pace.

Pausing only to give the Highguard captain a baleful look, Natchua followed, dragging her three prisoners along. The other three of Vette’s attendants brought up the rear, in single file.

Partway down the hall, a door opened just as Sapphire passed it, and a man’s tousled head emerged. “What’s all the… Natchua?”

“Sherwin?” she exclaimed, coming to a stop and blinking at him. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I’m allowed to visit people, you know,” he said irritably.

“Well, of course you’re allowed. Hell, I’m proud of you. I was just surprised, is all. You hate… Everything.”

The Lord of House Leduc snorted, stepping out into the hall to peer up at the three armored elves being dragged around by shadow tentacles like a trio of disgruntled balloons. “So, uh… What’s all this, then?”

“Long story,” she answered. “Short version: assholes. Sorry, I better move it along, I’m keeping Vette waiting.”

“Well, Vette’s keeping me waiting,” he groused, shoving the door closed with more force than it deserved. “I may as well come see what’s so damn important it’s holding everything up.”

“The more the merrier,” Natchua said cheerily, setting off again after Sapphire, and gave the Highguard captain a playful jostle. “Right, chuckles?”

He did not dignify her with a response.

Sapphire paused at another open door and gestured them politely though. Sherwin slipped in ahead of Natchua, who “accidentally” bumped all three floating elves against the door frame while following. With the five of them plus Malivette and a sprawling bundle of energy tentacles in the room beyond, it was rather cramped, being a fairly cozy office.

“Hi, Sherwin,” the Duchess said pleasantly, reaching out to ruffle his hair until he ducked away, growling. “Sorry to keep you waiting, this just came up. Shouldn’t take a—”

“What the hell are these doing here?” Natchua shouted, pointing accusingly at the wall. “I told Jonathan to throw these damn things out!”

The entire wall was covered by newspaper clippings, each one framed and under glass as if it were a rare portrait. All were headlines about her.

“Yes,” Malivette said, smirking, “and because that was silly and you are an irrational goober who likes to break things, Jonathan sent them to me so they’d be safe.”

“I’m gonna throttle that man!”

“You had better make a point to get down on your knees in front of that man before he realizes how much better he can do than you, y’little… What was the word you used?” She peered up at the Highguard captain. “Ah, yes, reprobate. I dunno, sounds a little…grandiose, don’t you think? Seems to me jackass is a better fit.”

“Malivette,” Natchua warned.

“And by get down on your knees,” the vampire continued seriously, “I am referring to—”

“Vette, I live with two succubi,” she snapped. “I do not need single entendres spelled out for me.”

“What the fuck is even going on here?” Sherwin asked, scratching his head.

“Quite so!” Malivette agreed, suddenly brisk. “As you can see, dear guests, these are newspaper headlines from the past four months, all about our dear alleged fugitive. You can read Tanglish, yes? Good, good. Now, you’ll note quite a few are just local interest pieces. Natchua judges pumpkin pie contest, Natchua comments on this or that thing somebody needed a quote for on a slow news day, Natchua transports ex-Shaathist refugees to Viridill, Natchua donates to the new Nemitite library, Natchua endorses local brewery… Oh, ew, a pale ale? Somebody seriously needs to explain beer to you, girl.”

“I will not have my taste in beverages critiqued by an overly self-satisfied deer tick!”

“Omnu’s breath, is this what you’ve been doing all autumn?” Sherwin asked. “This is, like, politician stuff. You do know there’s no elected council in Veilgrad, right? I don’t think there’s been an elected anything in the Empire since Theasia got a bug up her ass about that mess in Shengdu.”

“Hey, I get bored cooped up in the house all the time, Sherwin. Not everybody’s a self-imposed shut-in. And, y’know what, fine, I’ll admit it: I like attention. You don’t think I was born with green hair, do you?”

“Now, being such worldly and intelligent individuals,” Malivette continued solemnly, “you can no doubt infer from this alone that Natchua is somebody important enough locally that not only does she get invited to do stuff like this, but the newspapers consider it…well, in a word, news. And if you’ll kindly direct your attention to the full pages occupying pride of place here in the center, you can tell why!”

The vampire gestured grandly at the largest of the framed papers, while Natchua sighed churlishly and rolled her eyes.

“These are the big exploits that made her name. The speech that rallied Veilgrad together and averted a mob, and most especially her heroics at the Battle of Ninkabi. Yes, that’s right: you were sent here to arrest the woman who personally decimated the Black Wreath and played a pivotal role in forcing Elilial’s surrender to the Pantheon.”

“Wait, that’s what these are here for?” Sherwin rounded on the elves, scowling thunderously. “You were trying to haul off my friend and guest? Where the fuck do you get off?”

“Ah, yes, I should mention,” Malivette added in a solicitous tone, “this is Lord Sherwin Leduc, the head of the other major House in Veilgrad.”

By that point, the captain was staring, wide-eyed, at the wall, seeming to see something far beyond it; something which alarmed him. Both his comrades were still reading papers, their eyes darting rapidly and expressions increasingly unnerved.

“So let me see if I have this right,” Malivette said, watching the three elves closely. “You are, of course, well aware that House Dalmiss is taking advantage of the Confederacy’s formation to have the Highguard bring in their dirty laundry. You are obviously not best pleased about this, but at the end of the day, you’re professionals with a sense of honor; you follow your orders and do your duty with skill and pride, regardless of what you may feel about any of the politics involved. What you did not realize is that House Dalmiss has severely misled you about the situation. Far from a no-name nobody who won’t be missed, Natchua is an Imperial war hero and beloved local celebrity. Her unilateral seizure by the Confederacy would severely antagonize the Silver Throne, provoke an enormous backlash of anti-elven sentiment—mostly in Veilgrad and Ninkabi, but likely spread throughout the Empire—and earn you the undying enmity of two Imperial Houses. I don’t know whether it’s Matriarch Ezrakhai herself or just Nassra who pulled strings to make this happen, but you deserve to be aware that she is using you to pursue her own obsessions in a manner that very nearly caused you to ignite a major diplomatic incident, exactly when your nascent government can least afford one.”

She folded her hands at her waist and smiled beatifically at them. Sherwin crossed his arms, still glaring, and Natchua raised a sardonic eyebrow.

The three elves were silent for a moment, looking at the newspaper clippings, then at Natchua. Finally, the captain turned his head to one side and spoke softly in elvish.

“I welcome perspective, officers.”

“None of this perforce invalidates the warrant,” the more talkative of his subordinates replied, “but it is materially crucial intelligence which High Command should have been given before deploying forces. I recommend we withdraw, report, and request new orders.”

“Concurred,” the laconic one added.

“Duchess Due Freen,” the captain said in Tanglish, his tone suddenly a great deal more respectful, even as his accent mangled her name, “we apologize for this intrusion into your domain. It seems we have been misinformed as to the situation. I respectfully request our release so that we may explain these facts to our superiors and avoid any further misunderstandings of this nature.”

“There, see? All friends again,” Malivette beamed. “And hey, it worked out for everybody! You avoided causing a crisis and learned some valuable facts, and we got three shiny sets of Highguard armor! A nice trophy each for Natchua and myself, plus a spare for Imperial Intelligence to analyze. Cheers all around!”

“Absolutely out of the question,” the captain barked, his newly-acquired politeness instantly vanishing. “The surrender of Highguard property under any circumstances is not on the table!”

“Here’s the thing,” she answered with a silky smile that made Sherwin give her a nervous sidelong look. “I’m glad you got this Natchua business sorted out, don’t think I’m not. But there remains the matter of you being here in the first place because you presume you can do as you like in our lands. That, my darlings, is what is not on the table. We are at a great moment in history, a dawning of a glorious new age, and all feeling our way in the brand new world unfolding before us. Since you charming Qestrali are not accustomed to dealing with us backwater Imperials, let me just get us all started by establishing a very important fact you will need to keep firmly in mind:”

Her smile abruptly vanished.

“This is our land. And if you trespass in my domain, there will be consequences.”

The vampire let that hang in the air for a beat while the captain worked his mouth soundlessly, then just as abruptly plastered a sunny smile back on her face, showing off her fangs.

“Now, then, that’s all settled! Natchua, dear, be a lamb and give our new pals a quick ride to Fort Vaspian so they can report in.”

“See you ‘round, chickadees,” Natchua said with a smirk, and snapped her fingers again. Darkness gathered momentarily in the room, and then both it and the shadow tendrils dissipated. The three elves were gone, and three sets of golden armor clattered noisily to the floor.

“Tut tut,” Malivette clicked her tongue. “Saph, honey, I’m sorry to drop this on you, but would you be ever so kind as to sort these out? I’m afraid this business has already made us late for an important appointment.”

“Of course, Vette,” the vampire’s handmaiden replied, smiling placidly. “It’s no trouble.”

“Ooh! Natch, it’s lucky you’re here.” Malivette turned to Natchua with an eager look that made the drow take a step backward. “Sherwin tells me you’ve got the very remarkable knack for shadow-jumping to places you’ve not previously been!”

“What of it?” she asked warily.

“It’s just that Sherwin and I have a state visit we can’t afford to miss. House business, you understand. And what with all this unexpected hoopla, we’ve gone and missed our caravan!”

“We could just not fuckin’ do it,” Sherwin suggested.

Malivette batted her eyes at him. “Sherwin. Dear. We discussed this, remember?”

“Blackmailer,” he muttered sullenly.

“Uh…yeah,” Natchua said, glancing back and forth between them. “That’s no trouble. I can’t just send someone that way, though, I’ll have to come with.”

“Why, that’s perfect!” Malivette chirped, clapping her hands. “Then you can hang about with us and provide a ride home, too. Oh, don’t worry, it’ll be good to get out of town for a day, and I just know our hostess will be delighted to show you the most lavish hospitality in Madouris. Actually, now that I think of it, you know Duchess Ravana personally, don’t you?”

Natchua sighed heavily. “Yep. Yeah, there it is. That’ll teach me to think this day can’t get any more annoying.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                       Next Chapter >

15 – 32

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                            Next Chapter >

Full dawn found Natchua pacing amid the ruins of Manor Leduc’s front hall.

The progress made by the hobgoblins in just one day was astonishing to eyes unfamiliar with their kind—or, like Natchua’s, acquainted only with the theory and lore. They had fully cleaned what had been a jumble of smashed stones, timbers, and shingles, with all the debris carefully sorted into piles on the lawn outside, including several neat stacks of wood and masonry they considered reusable. The now-cleared floor still had a large jagged hole in the center and dangerously buckling floorboards, forcing her to confine her pacing to the edges, but it now looked like a room, rather than a hopeless ruin. In horogki, the aggression of the infernal taint was channeled into preternatural physical strength and frenetic energy, causing them to be enormously efficient laborers when kept on task and disastrously erratic when not. No wonder Jonathan had been so tired last night, after a day of supervising those three.

Jonathan. Natchua grimaced and rubbed at her eyes with both fists. Gods, what a mess. Why was she always such a mess?

She had already fallen hard on old habits this morning, starting with a deft escape from Hesthri’s embrace enabled by elven agility and compounded by throwing on the only readily available garment in her room that wouldn’t require buckles, laces, or any such time-consuming fiddling: a loose Narisian style robe that she only kept for sleeping. The hour since she had spent mostly relying on her hearing to be certain of where everyone was in the manor. It wasn’t exactly a breach of principle, merely a disheartening set of reminders. Natchua had not entirely gotten over her rebellious phase, and relying on these things rankled. She had no problem with being an elf, as such, though she resented being defined by it. Anything Narisian grated on her, though.

Regardless, her keen senses had enabled her to avoid everyone else in the manor during that last gray hour of the night. Jonathan had been lightly snoring in his room, Sherwin and Melaxyna likewise in the kitchen apartment. Their night, like the previous one, had been busy, but apparently Sherwin was tired out from the exertion by that hour. Another tidbit of Vanislaad lore that was not widely known and which Natchua wasn’t about to reveal to Mel that she did know was their differing need for sleep. They could do it more or less at will, and used dreaming as a mechanism to sublimate the itch to cause chaos for a while. A sleeping child of Vanislaas was basically engaged in a hallucinatory meditation, no less aware of their surroundings and able to come fully alert instantly. They didn’t strictly need to do it, but tended to become rather somnolent when bored to take the edge off. By contrast, when engaged in some scheme, they could be up for weeks at a time working at it. All things considered it was probably a good sign that Melaxyna was sleeping, no matter why she was doing it.

Kheshiri sure wasn’t. Per Natchua’s orders she hadn’t left the house, but had been prowling around silently from the moment Natchua fixed on her location, and probably the whole night prior. She couldn’t actually hear Kheshiri moving, but after having isolated her infernal signature yesterday could detect her position and general status nonetheless. At the moment she was evidently exploring the Manor’s shuttered basement rooms—far from the corner in which the three hobgoblins had made their nest, ironically in the now-empty room where Sherwin had once caged Scorn.

Xyraadi was so quiet that Natchua had to actually stand outside her door to detect her breathing. She suspected the khelminash might be meditating rather than sleeping. They definitely practiced the art, and if Natchua understood the timeline correctly, Xyraadi was still feeling very fresh wounds from the loss of loved ones six hundred years ago right before she had been sealed away. She was certainly composed in public, but it made sense that she’d prefer the control of meditation to what dreams might show her.

Hesthri, it turned out, was a heavy sleeper. Fortunately.

Natchua had given herself a quick and very cursory washing at the outdoor pump in the chill pre-dawn; her hair and a patch of her robe below her neck were still wet. While she was doing that, people had begun to stir, and now she was out here in large part to avoid everyone else. Voices and the muted clatter of cookware echoed from the kitchen apartment, accompanied by a muffled argument between the two succubi. Apparently breakfast was being prepared there, rather than in Melaxyna’s improvised kitchen on the second floor. Natchua wasn’t particularly soothed by the discovery that Kheshiri wanted to participate in domestic tasks, but for the moment she was glad to leave Melaxyna to foil her. It gave her the chance to turn her thoughts inward.

There was nothing in there that she particularly wanted to face, but would have to nonetheless, and the sooner, the better. This fine new situation wasn’t going to go away if she ignored it. Her utter lack of self-control had landed her in the center of a trashy romance novel, exactly what she did not need following on the heels of having a particularly dubious child of Vanislaas dropped into her already precarious web of haphazard espionage and infernomancy. Gods, just three days ago she’d been peacefully in Mathenon, shadow-jumping away for the odd bout of research or treasure-hunting in and around her primary task of…dating someone under false pretenses.

She had botched that, too, unable to keep her damn feelings out of it. Women and men alike had been coldly using sex to get what they wanted in every society for millennia; in Tar’naris it was practically an art form. What the hell was her problem? Jonathan Arquin wasn’t even all that interesting by any objective standpoint, his mysterious demon-adjacent past notwithstanding. All he was…was decent. On reflection, that made him exceptional among the people she knew. Everyone in Tar’naris was some type and degree of evil, in Natchua’s mind. Tellwyrn had a core of kindness within her, but her entire personality was violently unstable by design, and she largely recruited staff with the same general mindset. There had been a few people at the University, like Professor Yornhaldt and Toby Caine, who were just plain good, altruistic and respectful for no particular reason except that that was how they were, and Natchua had deliberately avoided getting close to any of them. She’d not trusted that. Not, at least, until she got close enough to Jonathan to realize that there weren’t hidden depths to the man. Put into words that made him sound like the most boring individual alive, but when experienced firsthand it had made him a solid pillar of support she had helplessly found herself clinging to, and then lost herself in. Right up until she’d betrayed him.

Hesthri…was something else. Natchua didn’t consider it an excuse for her own lack of restraint—she owned her choices, at the very least—but Hesthri had unquestioningly been the aggressor last night. That Natchua hadn’t tried very hard not to melt under her surprisingly skillful touch didn’t make it any less an obviously deliberate seduction on the hethelax’s part. And Hesthri unquestionably had hidden depths. Natchua as yet could barely guess what lay in them, but they certainly existed. She had been willing to take the contract and had, after all, sprung at the chance to join a campaign which she was told up front was almost certain to end with her death, all in the hope that it might help Gabriel. Her intentions were, on some level, good. But what else was she after?

Natchua grimaced and halted her pacing, scrubbing at her face with both hands. Ugh, Gabriel. Well, it wasn’t like she had ever been close to him before, and there was a solid chance she’d never actually see him again. That might be more comfortable, in fact. As of last night, there was no possible conversation the two of them could have that wouldn’t be excruciatingly awkward. Hell, the way things were going, they’d probably accidntally wind up in bed. Gods knew he’d always been a horny goat when it came to women, and Natchua was discovering this week that she herself was evidently a degenerate idiot with less self-control than those hobgoblins she’d summoned. Why not complete the trifecta?

“Morning.”

She jumped violently, spinning. Jonathan had frozen in place, staring at her uncertainly.

“Uh,” she croaked. “Good…morning, Jonathan.”

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. Actually, the thought that I even could sneak up on an elf never crossed my mind.”

She grimaced, running a hand over her damp hair. “Not one who’s paying attention. Don’t worry about it, I was just up my own butt.”

A faint smile quirked at the corner of his mouth. She loved it when he did that, when that little streak of mischief cracked through his resolute steadiness and oh, gods, she wanted to scoop out her brain and replace it with one that damn well worked.

“Yeah, I guess you’ve got plenty to think about,” he agreed. “Anyhow. Just letting you know, most of the group is up and straggling into Sherwin’s kitchen. The succubi made breakfast. Omnu’s breath, is that a sentence I never imagined I’d say.”

Natchua had to smile slightly at that, despite everything. “Thanks. I’ll…be along in a bit.”

He nodded, half-turned, paused, and shifted his face back to her, forehead creased in the tiniest frown.

“Anything else?” Natchua prompted after a tense little silence.

“Well…” Jonathan turned back to face her again across the three yards or so between them. “Like I said, you clearly have a lot to think about, and apparently more with everything that happens. Do…you want to talk about it?”

She really, really did, Natchua realized to her shame. She kept all of that away from her face, though. “Do we really have the kind of relationship where we talk about our feelings, Jonathan?”

His face lengthened, and the unspoken anymore hung in the air between them.

“It’s a pretty central question, isn’t it?” he said after a moment. “I won’t lie, I’ve spent a fair few hours in the last couple of days grappling with an overarching desire to punch you in the mouth. But—”

“Embrace that,” she said, her voice heavy with a harshness that wasn’t directed at him, though of course he couldn’t know that. “You should’ve just stayed in Mathenon instead of jumping aboard this doomed ship. With every passing day I learn more about what a weak, stupid, selfish creature I am. Fuck, I don’t even want to explain why, and that’s also selfish. I just don’t want you to…” Catching herself babbling, she broke off and drew in a ragged breath. “Never mind. The hell with it, even if I don’t manage to even dent Elilial, splattering myself across her defenses is probably what’s best for the world anyway.”

She couldn’t have said what she expected him to reply to that, but it definitely wasn’t what he actually did.

“You really think that, don’t you,” Jonathan murmured, staring at her as if piecing together a puzzle.

“Don’t you?” she demanded, then held up a hand. “No, don’t answer that. I’m just fishing for validation, and I don’t need or deserve any. Look, Jonathan, since you’re here, the best thing you can do is focus on getting yourself through whatever comes next alive. Try to save whoever else you can. Several of these demons are much better people than I am.”

His chest swelled with a deep indrawing of breath, and he stepped forward. Natchua wanted to retreat, but refused to, even as he came within arm’s length, close enough that she had to tilt her face up to meet his eyes.

“I’ve had some time to think about my various disappointments at your hands,” he said quietly.

“You were supposed to be watching the hobgoblins,” she retorted, a desperate attempt to misdirect him from whatever unbearable awkwardness he was planning to voice.

Again, his mouth quirked up in that damnable little half-smile. “Hell, they’re one of the best crews I’ve ever worked with. Those girls just need a reminder now and again when they get distracted, and the rest of the time they’re on task and making progress at an unbelievable rate. As you can see all around you. So yeah, I have had time to think, and I can’t escape the conclusion that while you have the most terrible judgment of any person I have ever known, you are struggling in your unbelievably mixed-up way to do what you think is right.”

“…best,” she whispered.

He raised his eyebrows mutely.

“I don’t deal in right or wrong. I’m not sure I believe in them. I just try to do…the best I can, with the ridiculous toolbox of destruction that’s all I have to work with.”

Jonathan sighed again. “And damn if that isn’t exactly what I mean. Augh… Look, the situation is what it is. You’ve made a damn mess, here. You sure as hell hurt me good and proper.” She flinched, physically enough for him to see, and immediately wanted to stab herself right through the heart. “But a few hours of thought and some insight from Hesthri and Melaxyna has pretty much taken away my ability to blame you. And with that, hurt or not, I’m finding it hard to still be angry.”

“Hesthri and Melaxyna should mind their own damn business,” she muttered sullenly, and he had the audacity to chuckle.

“Look,” he said gently, reaching out to take her by the shoulders.

“No!” Natchua jerked back out of his grasp. She raised her hands to cover her eyes, blocking out the sight of his expression. “Don’t. Can’t you please just stop being a good person for one damn minute?”

“Sure I can,” he said softly. “It’s scary easy. I refuse to.”

“Just…quit being gentle with me,” she croaked. “You don’t understand, I messed up again, and it’s just going to keep… I am a mess, Jonathan. Keep your distance and just let me do what I need to!”

“Hey.” She lowered her hands to find him taking a step closer, but he didn’t reach for her again. Of course; aggrieved party or not, Jonathan Arquin would never under any circumstances lay his hands on a woman who had told him not to. At that moment she resented it. Natchua wanted nothing more than for him to grab her in his strong, callused grip, even knowing how much objectively better it was for them both and the whole situation that he wouldn’t. At least one of them could managed to be an adult. “…okay.”

In spite of herself, Natchua straightened up in surprise. “Okay?”

“I’m not endorsing this, any more than any of the rest of your antics,” he said more seriously. “You really need to relax and accept some comfort before you twist yourself into an unfixable knot.”

“I know for an objective fact that is the literal last thing I need to do,” she said dully.

He just shook his head. “Well, the offer is on the table if you choose to take advantage. But that aside, in the here and now… You’re the boss, here, Natchua. You need to project steadiness to these people. And especially that Kheshiri; she’s going to have an eye out for any crack she can work a finger into.”

Natchua closed her eyes. He was dead right, of course.

“I am serious about opening up to somebody and dealing with your stress instead of choking yourself on it, even if that’s not me. If you trust Melaxyna enough, well…that sure wouldn’t be the most reckless thing you’ve done recently. But right now you need to put on the mask. Look… I know you hate anything to do with your upbringing in Tar’naris.” He did know that, didn’t he? He knew…her. Gods, this was a disaster. Jonathan continued in a softer tone. “But that did give you a skill you specifically need here. When you’re dealing with turmoil and you have people counting on you to be steady, you have to fake it. And nobody can do that like a Narisian.”

Word after word of relentless good sense. The asshole just wouldn’t stop being right. He had it pegged exactly: Tar’naris and its culture were as detestable as anything produced by Hell as far as she was concerned, but the drow had developed their ways in response to harsh practicality. Narisian reserve wasn’t simply custom, it had specific, strategic use.

And three measly years of trying to distance herself weren’t enough to eliminate the habits of upbringing. It came back with disheartening ease. She straightened her spine, tension in her posture fading away to linger in her gut where it belonged. All expression leaked from her features, leaving behind only her public face. The poise was meditative. A sublimation of everything that was her, put behind the facade of what she needed to be right now.

It didn’t make her the creature her mother and Matriarch Ezrakhai had tried to forge, she told herself. It just enabled her to be what the situation demanded.

Natchua opened her eyes and regarded Jonathan in icy calm.

He nodded once, approving. “Again, though. This isn’t good for you in the long term. When you can—”

“Enough, Jonathan,” she said in a chill tone that brooked no debate. He fell silent. And when she swept past him for the corridor into the kitchen, he fell into step behind her.

Xyraadi had yet to appear, but everyone else had gathered by that point. The three horogki were huddled in the corner around a pot of porridge, slurping noisily—for heaven’s sake, they’d managed to splatter the walls with it. Sherwin’s table had been cleared of his books and personal effects, which were now piled upon the unmade bed, and laid out with his mismatched collection of crockery now holding muffins, bacon, eggs, and tea.

“Help yourself, I have a powerful dislike of bacon,” Melaxyna was saying upon their entry. “Hey, you found her!”

“Good morning, Natchua,” Hesthri said to her with a neutral smile.

The stab of sheer emotion pulled her in half a dozen directions simultaneous, which she ignored. “Morning, Hes,” Natchua said briskly, striding over to the table and taking a seat. Enough chairs had been brought for everyone save the horogki; to judge by their dusty state, they had been pillaged from disused rooms in the residential wing. “Thanks for saving seats. Whom do I have to thank for this spread? I mean, aside from our host who’s paying for it,” she added, nodding to Sherwin.

His mouth was full of half a muffin, but he waved the other half at her in acknowledgment.

“I am taking care of the cooking,” Melaxyna said firmly. “This one kept trying to assist, but you’ll be glad to know I managed to remain in control of the proceedings and can thus guarantee that none of my food is poisoned.”

“Oh, honestly, you’re such a drama queen,” Kheshiri scoffed. “What could I possibly gain from poisoning everyone?”

“In your case, a cheap laugh,” Xyraadi replied, gliding into the room. “Bonjour, mes amis. Ah, this is what I smelled? May I?”

“Of course, you’re as much a guest here as anyone,” Sherwin said gallantly, somewhat to Natchua’s relief. In private conversation with Natchua the previous night, he had strained her already bedraggled patience trying to ascertain whether Xyraadi was the kind of khelminash woman who had a penis. She had ended that discussion by challenging him to predict a scenario in which that would matter to anyone but Xyraadi.

“Well, despite Miss Fusspot’s campaign of wet blanketry, I can assure you I do pull my weight,” Kheshiri said smugly. “I have provided milk for the tea.”

Hesthri, who had just poured some of said milk into her tea, froze.

Melaxyna narrowed her eyes. “We were out of milk.”

“Kheshiri,” Natchua growled, “you were told to remain in the house.”

“But mistress, how can you think I would disobey you? I’ve not set one toe outside!”

“I know I am going to regret learning,” Natchua said, “but how did you get milk here without leaving the Manor?” Jonathan had pulled the milk pitcher over to himself and was sniffing it suspiciously.

“It’s fresh-squeezed,” Kheshiri said proudly, shaking her shoulders back and forth. She was still wearing the outfit in which they’d first found her, a suitably succubesque bustier that supported amply and concealed little; the motion did interesting things to her chest. “The very freshest.”

Silence fell, in which everyone looked at Kheshiri’s smug expression, then at her bosom, then at the milk picture, and then back at her face.

“I am something of an expert at finely controlled shapeshifting,” the succubus said, beaming with pride. By contrast, the emotion pulsing through her aura was pure, malicious glee. “I can do things with my body chemistry you can hardly imagine! Don’t you worry, it’s completely free from infernal taint. You can feel free to check.”

In their corner, Staccato, Glissando, and Pizzicato burst into howls of laughter, falling over each other. Hesthri twisted away from the table, retching. Jonathan, curling his lip, pushed the milk pitcher away from himself. Sherwin immediately grabbed it, raising it to sniff, and Melaxyna just as immediately took it away from him.

“Repulsive creature,” Xyraadi sneered, delicately buttering a muffin.

“Right,” Natchua said, open annoyance leaking through her put-on reserve. “That’s my fault, I haven’t set down ground rules for you. To begin with—”

“And that would be the point,” Melaxyna interrupted. “Juvenile gross-out pranks are far beneath her level of scheming and, I suspect, not really to her taste. A system of rules favors whoever is best skilled at manipulating loopholes; anarchy favors whoever has the most power. Setting down rules for her cedes her much more of an advantage than if she has to devote that big brain to finding ways to stay on your good side.”

“Now, that is verging on the kind of behavior I should tattle to Prince Vanislaas about next time I see him,” Kheshiri said, scowling at the other succubus. “Laying out a sister’s angles in front of mixed company? Bad form, Melaxyna.”

“Oh, please,” Melaxyna grinned back at her. “You love it. After weaseling your way around Archpope Justinian and Khadizroth the Green for years on end, I’m the only thing keeping you from going completely stir-crazy here.”

Kheshiri stared her down for another beat, then a grin broke across her own features. “My, my. It’s been so long since I played with someone with a knack for proper foreplay.”

“I say,” Sherwin began.

“No,” Natchua declared, pointing at a corner not occupied by messy hobgoblins. “Kheshiri, go do one hundred sit-ups.”

Kheshiri’s expression flattened, and based on what went pulsing through her aura, her displeasure was real. Physical exercise was not the kind of thing that scratched her kind’s characteristic itch; they disliked tiring themselves out doing things that didn’t satisfy them. “Oh, but mistress—”

“Followed by one hundred push-ups. And then one hundred squats.”

The succubus put on a calm, very mildly piqued expression, while her aura seethed with resentment and offended pride. Good; at some point Natchua needed to refine her ability to manipulate Kheshiri’s aura directly, including managing her compulsion and emotions, but for now this would suffice to impose consequences.

“It was just a harmless little—”

“You have been given an order, and you will obey it.”

The succubus executed a bow that managed to be as mocking as it was obsequious, and then sashayed over to the indicated corner. Natchua remained twisted around in her chair to watch until she ascertained, to her grim satisfaction, that there was not a sexy way to do sit-ups, before turning back to her breakfast.

In a way, it seemed downright appropriate when the kitchen’s outside door burst abruptly open, admitting beams of garish sunlight and a vampire.

“Knock, knock!” Malivette Dufresne sang ironically. “Oh, good, everyone’s just sitting down for breakfast! None for me, thanks, I have a rule against snacking on neighbors.”

“Good fucking morning, Vette,” Sherwin grumbled. “Won’t you just come the hell on in.”

“I shall, thank you, but only because you were so gracious!”

“So…” Jonathan said warily, “that thing about vampires not being able to enter a house unless invited…”

“Complete myth,” Malivette said brightly, gliding into the room. “I am also not allergic to garlic! In fact, it adds a very nice texture to that is a khelminash demon. And…another succubus.” She stared at Kheshiri for a moment, and if she had any opinion about the unusual sight of a trickster demon grunting through a set of sit-ups, she offered no comment on it. Instead, her crimson eyes actually began to glow subtly as she turned them upon the group’s leader. “Natchua.”

“You knew I was looking for Xyraadi,” Natchua said irritably. “I told you that. Quit being melodramatic, I get more than enough of it from these freaks. That aside, Vette, you have good timing. I want to have a talk with you about these developments in particular.”

“Ah, so?” the vampire said, arching an eyebrow. “That has the ring of the fleeing deadbeat saying ‘I was just looking for you!’ to the thugs cornering him to collect what he owes.”

“I really couldn’t say, being that getting in debt to loan sharks is about the only dumbass thing I haven’t managed to do this week,” Natchua replied, marshaling her calm face again. “If you’re surprised to see the new arrival, I gather she’s not what you came here about. Before we discuss that, what is it you need?”

“Ah, yes. What I need.” Malivette gave a lingering, unfriendly look to Kheshiri, who was too busy exercising to acknowledge her, then redirected her attention to Natchua. “I’m sure you have not already forgotten our agreement, and the certain services you have promised to render as a condition for finding welcome in my province, and not being summarily handed over to Imperial Intelligence as common sense suggests I ought to do.” She smiled brightly, displaying her fangs in a manner that couldn’t possibly have been accidental. “It’s time to start paying the rent, Natchua.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

15 – 11

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                             Next Chapter >

“Do we really have to go already?” Aspen whined. “I like these people! They’re nice!”

“Do mean that in the sense that they actually are nice, or just that they fed you?” Ingvar replied dryly without slowing his pace.

“There’s no reason it can’t be both. Anyway, it’s afternoon! This is just about the worst time to be leaving a safe place to sleep, we’ve only got a few hours of travel time before dark.”

“There are hardly any unsafe places to sleep when you travel with a dryad,” Rainwood pointed out merrily.

“More important,” Ingvar added before Aspen could make another comment, “it is because these people are nice that we are taking ourselves and our very disruptive business away from their temple.”

“Oh.” Aspen scowled, turning her head to direct the expression over her shoulder. “Good, then. At least I know who to blame.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Tholi muttered. November, trailing along behind him at the end of the group, at least had the sense to keep her own mouth shut.

“It was pretty bad,” Ingvar stated. “When your shouting match can be heard through stone walls, you are officially not fit for civilized company. And I say that as someone who, like any Huntsman, does not have an excessively high opinion of civilized company. It isn’t hard to show some extremely basic consideration for other people. I can’t fathom any reason for two adult humans to be screaming like children in the front hall of monks who have offered them hospitality.”

“All right, all right!” Tholi exclaimed. “That was…a lapse. How long am I going to be hearing about it?”

“I’ll treat you in the manner your actions up to the moment have earned, Tholi. If you wish to be treated differently, every moment is an opportunity to begin building a new impression.”

“I’m just so glad all these people are coming with us,” Aspen groused. “I was getting real tired of all the peace and quiet when it was just the two of us.”

“Well, the good news is your sarcasm has improved greatly. I would never know you hadn’t been doing it your whole life.”

“Thanks a lot, Ingvar,” she demonstrated. “Why is the elf still here? I thought your spirit thingies just wanted you to bring us to the temple and…these two.”

“Evidently not,” Rainwood said. He was walking on the other side of Ingvar from her, a jaunty spring in his step that clashed with everyone else’s mood. “It’s a funny thing, spirit guidance; sometimes, the things it tells you to do are so downright odd as to seem like terrible ideas. I don’t mind admitting it took me longer than the average human lives to begin trusting my guides every time, but more than once my life has been saved by following guidance that at the time sounded suicidal. I’ve no idea where this merry adventure is leading us, but the word from the spirits is that my part in it is not over! Ah, and here’s our other new acquisition.”

“Other?” Aspen looked over at him with a frown, then forward again, and came to an abrupt stop. “Oh, no.”

“Oh yes, I’m afraid!” Rainwood said brightly, swaggering on ahead.

“Who’s that?” November asked in a stage whisper. “What’s the problem?”

They had descended the terraces of the Omnist temple complex in a different direction than the one from which they had come, and were now nearing the outer border on the road leading north west. A few yards ahead of them, on the edge of the lowest stone terrace, sat the same grouchy young woman who had first led them to the ziggurat. She was now perched in an indolent pose, kicking her legs against the retaining wall, and had traded her monk’s robe for a colorful tunic-like garment that was popular throughout N’Jendo and Thakar.

“There you are,” she said, hopping down to the road with a grunt. “I hear you’re off to the Shadow Hunter lodge next, right?”

“You hear that, huh?” Aspen said warily.

“I grew up in this hick-ass backwater, so I know where just about everything is,” the girl said. “I’ll take you there. My name’s Taka Mbino.”

“Nice to meet you again,” Ingvar said politely. “I’m—”

“Pretty sure I remember everybody,” Taka interrupted, grinning. “The great and famous Ingvar, Aspen the dryad, Rainwood the elf with the especially improbable name. And those two who obviously are too childish to matter.”

“Hey!” November protested. Tholi just scowled, adjusting his grip on his longbow.

“Yeah, thanks, but we’ve got an elvish shaman,” said Aspen. “Pretty sure we can find the way.”

“It’s no trouble,” Taka assured her, still grinning. There was a mocking cast to her features that few people had used with Aspen, to her visible annoyance. “It’s about time I moved on from here anyway. I gave Omnu a fair chance and I mean the big guy no offense, but I’m coming to the conclusion that this place is not for me. Maybe the Shadow Hunters are a better option.”

“Okay, fine,” Aspen snapped, “I’ll just come right out and say it. We don’t like you, Taka Mbino. You’re rude and snotty and full of yourself. I tried, Ingvar,” she added, turning to him. “I was polite and subtle at first, you saw me do it!”

“Uh huh,” Taka drawled. “And are you upset because I hurt your feelings, or because you don’t want the competition for the role of bitchy drama queen in the group?”

Aspen’s jaw fell open. For once, she appeared to have been rendered silent.

“You, uh, do realize this is a dryad, right?” November said hesitantly. “I don’t know if it’s a great idea to take that tone with somebody who can tear you in half the long way.”

“A daughter of the Mother is owed some consideration,” Tholi agreed, nodding reproachfully.

“I’ll keep it in mind. Welp, daylight’s burning. It’s this way.” Taka turned her back and set off up the road.

“What do the spirits say about this?” Ingvar asked quietly.

Rainwood just winked at him and set off following the young woman. Ingvar heaved a sigh, patted Aspen soothingly on the back, and followed. The dryad was growling to herself as she fell into step beside him, but at least she did so.

The other two started walking after a short pause, as well, but they both remained a few paces behind, where it was relatively safe.


Manor Dufresne was not laid out with guests in mind, these days. There seemed to be very little furniture in the public rooms and almost no decoration. Nonetheless, it did feature a dining room, and Malivette’s four thralls were quick to seat their reluctant visitors and kept them well-plied with tea, cookies, and as the time stretched on toward the dinner hour, sandwiches and soup. The four of them were never less than gracious hostesses, which at least somewhat offset Sherwin’s reminder that they were a significant physical danger, and the fact that they were, effectively, holding the group against their will.

When the door to the dining room abruptly opened and Natchua poked her head in, Melaxyna was the first on her feet.

“Well?” the succubus demanded, hands clenching.

“We’re leaving,” Natchua said tersely. “Come on.”

Pearl cleared her throat, gliding forward. “Your pardon, but…”

“It’s quite all right, lovey!” Malivette cooed, appearing in the doorway behind Natchua with her chin practically resting on the drow’s shoulder. “So sorry to keep you all waiting so long! We’ve had a lovely chat and come to a series of understandings. Melaxyna, dear, I do apologize for all the rough talk earlier. I’m ever so glad that this isn’t going to turn unpleasant after all!”

“Oh, well then,” Melaxyna said tonelessly. “As long as you’re sorry and glad, I guess what’s a death threat or two between friends?”

“I realize you’re mocking me but in all seriousness that is a very healthy attitude to take in this situation,” Malivette replied, nodding solemnly. Natchua, giving her a peevish look over her shoulder, edged out of the way while the vampire continued. “I meant it when I said I empathized with you, y’know. People are about as excited to see a vampire move into the neighborhood as a succubus, and for a lot of the same reasons. With the shoe on the other foot I’m sure you’d have reacted exactly the same. At least, if you were seriously looking after the welfare of the city. But that’s all in the past now!” she added, beaming delightedly at them.

“Wait, really?” Jonathan asked. Standing with his hand protectively behind Hesthri with his hand on her shoulder, he looked mostly confused by this turn of events. “Just…like that? After just…talking? Is that really all it took?”

“Dunno what you mean ‘just like that,’” Sherwin groused. “We’ve been kicking our heels in here over an hour…”

“And why are you arguing, she is letting us go,” Melaxyna hissed.

“I guess I’m just surprised,” he said, frowning. “Natchua, is everything all right?”

“Everything is wonderful,” the drow spat. “Now come on. I think we have imposed on the Lady Dufresne’s hospitality quite enough for one day.”

“Hear, hear,” Sherwin grunted, shoving himself away from the table with poor grace and stalking toward the door.

The rest of them followed, subtly encouraged by the herding motion of Malivette’s four companions gathering at the opposite end of the room. Their hostess and Natchua had both already retreated into the broad entrance hall onto which the dining room opened.

“And don’t you worry a bit about my hospitality,” Malivette nattered on, looping her hand into Natchua’s elbow as they walked toward the front doors. “My door is always open, and there are so few who would even want to take advantage! That goes for you, too, Sherwin. I know you’re a houseplant by choice, but seriously, you’d be welcome.”

He sighed heavily and produced a rusty pocketwatch from his trousers, looking at its face and then giving Natchua a very pointed stare.

“Anyway, now that we know we have actual things to talk about, I do hope you’ll pop by again.” Malivette affectionately bumped Natchua with her hip on the last word. The drow sighed and gently but insistently disentangled her arm, stepping away from the vampire.

“Seriously,” Jonathan said, frowning, “are you okay, Natchua? Keeping a succubus near a city isn’t a small matter. I hope you didn’t have to do anything too…”

“Nothing,” she interrupted. “It’s just as she said, we talked and reached an understanding. And now I really would like to be moving along.”

“Yeah, so,” Sherwin said, frowning himself now, “I’m glad Mel’s safe, then. Did you—”

“Sst!” Natchua rounded on him, baring her teeth.

“If this is about the hobgoblins,” Malivette said kindly, “I don’t care about that, so long as you stick to your plan of only summoning females. Very clever solution, that! And really, Sherwin, you could use the help. What would your family say if they saw the state you’ve let their manor come to?”

“Oh, who cares,” he exclaimed. “Good riddance to them. I’m not absolutely certain, Vette, but I’m reasonably sure they had a hand in what happened to your family.”

“No.” The cheer faded from her expression rather abruptly. “Have you been carrying that all these years? See, this is why I think we should talk more. No, Sherwin, that wasn’t their doing.”

“Oh.” He blinked. “Well. I guess…I’m glad to hear that. Not like I was close to your folks or anything, but the gods know they were better people than mine. Not that that’s setting a high bar.”

“I’m serious, Sherwin,” she said, her smile returning and looking all the more sincere for being smaller. “Visit me. But for now, I imagine you’re feeling a little overstimulated; this has to be more social interaction than you’ve had in the last year. Yes, you’re all clearly eager to be heading back, and I’ve already delayed you too long. My sincere apologies for the inconvenience, but the important thing is we got it all sorted in the end! Ruby, Jade, would you bring the carriage back around, please?”

“No need,” Natchua said curtly, gesturing the others toward her. “We’ll see you around, Vette.”

“Don’t be a stranger, Natch,” the vampire said, as brightly as ever. The last thing they all saw as the shadows rose up around them was her waving cheerily.

The darkness fell away to reveal late afternoon sunlight and the clean air of the mountains, with Manor Leduc’s ruined bulk rising in front of them. Sherwin heaved a deep sigh and immediately slouched off, heading for the half-overgrown path around the corner toward the old kitchen entrance.

“Whew,” Melaxyna exhaled. “I could have done without that. My kind like room to maneuver, not being tucked away under guard. Are you sure you’re okay, Natchua? You probably had it worse than any of us.”

“I appreciate everyone’s concern, but I wish you’d all drop it,” Natchua said in a strained tone. “It was fine. We talked. I’d have preferred keeping Malivette and everyone else out of my business, but sometimes you have to compromise. And I learned some interesting things today.”

“Oh?” Jonathan asked warily.

“I learned that drow are not edible to her kind,” she said, turning and following after Sherwin at a much more sedate pace. He had already disappeared around the corner. “And apparently vampires can drink demon blood, but it works more like a drug than food. I learned that vampirism is exceedingly difficult to cure even for modern alchemical science. I learned that Ravana bloody Madouri has been making political overtures to both Malivette and Sherwin, which surprises me not in the least given that sneaky little egomaniac’s idea of a good time. I even learned a good deal I didn’t particularly need to know about why she has four attendants instead of three or five and what exactly she does with them. It was all very educational.”

“Uh…huh,” he said, frowning at her back. “Well, sorry for prying, I guess. I can’t help feeling a little responsible for any, um, compromises you had to make, since it was all our necks on the line…”

“Compromises?” she snorted, glancing over her shoulder at him. “I said I’d try to protect you and I meant it, Jonathan. That doesn’t mean my first act in a crisis would be to offer my neck to a vampire on your behalf.”

“Well, that wasn’t…” He grimaced, glancing to the side, and thus missing Hesthri urgently shaking her head to ward him off this line of conversation. “I just meant, well, it was obvious enough from those four women what sort of personal company that vampire prefers, and… Not to be indelicate, but we pretty well know that you’re willing to—”

Natchua slammed to a stop and whirled so fast her streaked hair flared out behind her. Jonathan Arquin was nobody’s coward, but at the expression on her face he actually backed up a step, instinctively moving one arm partly in front of Hesthri.

The very sunlight seemed to fade, as if the drow’s fury were leeching brightness from that piece of the world. Shadows lengthened around them, followed by an unintelligible whispering at the faintest edge of hearing that was barely distinguishable from the now-vanished sound of wind through the grass.

Just as quickly, it all faded away. The sound and light returned abruptly to normal, and the rage melted from Natchua’s features. Followed, apparently, by most of her energy, as her shoulders slumped and she dropped her head to stare at the ground.

“Well, look at that,” she said dully. “Turns out I have absolutely no right to even be angry about that remark. Go…rest up, Jonathan. This mess has delayed us a whole day and I have another prospect to look up first thing tomorrow.”

Natchua turned and trudged away, visibly dispirited, even from behind. The rest of them stood as if rooted until she had rounded the corner into Sherwin’s kitchen apartment.

“Very nice,” Melaxyna finally said, veritably dripping with venomous sarcasm.

“I don’t need criticism from you,” Jonathan retorted with a scowl. “I was just… Never mind, she’s right. Doesn’t matter, not my business.”

“Oh?” The succubus leaned toward him, sneering. “Then why so protective, and why do you care what she does, or with who?”

“What kind of idiot wouldn’t care about the well-being of a warlock he’s agreed to follow arou— Hey!”

He shied back, but not fast enough to prevent her from lashing out to smack the side of his head. She moved almost like an elf when she wanted.

“Next time you get an armored hand,” Melaxyna threatened. “You want to care about Natchua’s well-being? Try not hurting her, you dumbass. Honestly, I didn’t see it till right now but you are so Gabriel Arquin’s father. He clearly didn’t get it from this one!” She pointed at Hesthri, who had kept her mouth firmly shut through the entire discussion.

“Oh, please,” he said stiffly. “I’m here to look after Hesthri, not…her. We know for a fact she was only ever using me.”

“You absolute fucking idiot,” Melaxyn said, shaking her head. “Have you really never had a girl fall in love with you? Pfeh.” The succubus turned and flounced off after the warlock, leaving the two of them behind.

Hesthri sighed softly, but then pressed herself against Jonathan’s side, slipping an arm around his waist in half a hug. He draped his own around her shoulders unthinkingly, still staring ahead with a blank expression. She just looked up at him in silence until he suddenly laughed.

“So that’s where he got it from!”

“He?”

Jonathan shook his head. “Toby Caine reports that our son has amazingly good luck with women, provided he’s not trying to. Apparently it’s the trying that trips him up. Hes… I don’t even know what to say. This whole mess—”

“None of this is your fault,” she interrupted, reaching up to rest her clawed fingertips gently on his lips. “I know what she did and why. You’re not to blame for having feelings. Natchua is to blame for…doing this. I am out of Hell, free from your government and Church and facing a possibility of seeing my son again; I can’t find it in me to complain too hard about all the downsides that have come with it. Honestly, I can’t even blame the girl for having emotions herself, or failing to understand them. It’s her mess, but we were young and blind ourselves once.”

“I seem to recall that,” he replied, looking down at her with a wry little smile.

“Me, too.” Hesthri smiled back at him, though the expression faded a moment later. “Johnny… Remember what happened to us when we assumed nothing as intangible as feelings was going to trip us up? This thing with Natchua is not your fault, but it’s also not going to go away if we just ignore it.”

He closed his eyes, and drew in a deep breath. “…yeah. Damned if I know what the hell to do now, though.”

“You may be a little too close to the situation, my dear. Maybe…take a step back, and let me try?”


As a consequence of traveling into a mountain range from the east, the sun had slipped out of sight far earlier in the evening—late afternoon, really—than the group from Last Rock were accustomed to. Their guides had insisted on calling a halt due to the dark, and though none of them were anywhere near sleepy yet, the day of hiking had left them well ready for a rest. Camp had been made on a smallish ledge which provided them sufficient room not to worry about falling off, but not room to wander too far from each other.

And yet, Principia had managed to be rebuffed by enough cold shoulders to find herself drifting away to the very edge of the firelight. As with everything, she bore this with good humor and no sign of resentment, even as Merry was drawn into the group around the fire, sitting between Ruda and Juniper and chattering animatedly with both.

A shape detached itself from the small crowd throwing shadows along the cliff wall behind them, stepping toward her with both hands carrying laden plates of cornbread and baked beans.

“Hungry?”

Given the Legion schedule of mealtimes and her own frugal magic use, it could well be years before Principia needed to eat again. She was not, of course, about to make an issue of that.

“Why, aren’t you thoughtful! I’m surprised, though. I thought it was Toby who made a point to look after everyone.”

“I am nothing if not a gentleman,” Gabriel said, grinning and offering one of the plates. “Shut up, Ariel.”

“I didn’t—”

“You were going to, and don’t. Please, allow me.” He actually bowed as she took the plate, then bent to brush dust and loose scree off an uneven little lip of stone against the wall behind them before gesturing for her to sit.

“A gentleman indeed,” Principia replied, perching on the edge and smiling up at him. “Which, no offense, doesn’t exactly square with your reputation.”

“Yeah, that’s the bane of my existence,” he said solemnly, sitting down beside her. “I can deal with the demon prejudice and the gossipy newspaper stories and all the silly rumor-mongering, but I wish everybody would stop repeating facts. Hope you like cornbread, by the way, because there’s going to be plenty left over. Most of this group won’t touch the stuff. Apparently they had a bad experience in the Golden Sea, once.”

“You’ve gotta learn to let these things go,” she said sagely, scooping up a bite of baked beans with the tin fork that came with the plate. “If I turned up my nose at everything that had ever been used against me at some point or another I’d starve. So, Gabriel, if you don’t mind a little nosiness, what makes you so willing to come hang out with the local pariah? As you noted, Toby I understand…”

“A little nosiness?” he mused, looking at her sidelong with a small smile, idly pushing beans and cornbread around on his plate. “Impressive restraint. In your position I’d be going whole hog and demanding everyone’s backstory.”

“Seems unfair,” she acknowledged after swallowing the bite. “Since I don’t really intend to recount my whole history. Of course, there’s the fact that we literally don’t have time for that…”

“Shaeine is your problem,” he said, now gazing at his friends around the fire. “She’s the most reasonable person I’ve ever known and I don’t think is even that vindictive. But you have to understand the Narisian mindset. Shaeine as a person is a distinct entity from Shaeine the daughter of her matriarch; the one can forgive little offenses, while the other has to insist on repercussions for shit done to her. Besides, not much is more important to Narisians than their reserve. Slipping her something that took that away, in public, is a far more serious insult than it would be to basically anybody else.”

“I see,” she murmured. “That’s…all fair.”

“Teal will follow Shaeine’s lead, of course,” he continued in a pensive tone, his gaze now faraway in thought as if he were lost in this mental exercise. “As will Vadrieny. I hardly think you need to worry about being torn in half by an archdemon, though. She’s a little impulsive, but above all Vadrieny cares for Teal, who hates violence.

“Trissiny is likely to back Shaeine in this. Apart from her own issues with you, those two have a unique bond, in this group. Not the closest bond, that would obviously by Shaeine and Teal. But they’re both devout, composed, and value all the things that implies. And they both have a slight cultural bias—not a really bad one!—against males, thus why Toby doesn’t get the same benefit of that sisterhood. If you want Triss back on your side, you will need to persuade Shaeine.”

He paused, shrugging idly, and had a bite of cornbread. Principia just chewed in silence, watching him as if she didn’t dare to interrupt.

Gabriel continued after swallowing. “Toby is everybody’s friend. Fross is not going to bother you; she hates practical jokes. She’s making good progress at grasping humor but she doesn’t really get the difference between attacking somebody playfully and aggressively, and I don’t think Fross is capable of harming anyone she doesn’t fully think deserves it. Juniper is trying to be a good Omnist now, and is scared of her own propensity for violence, anyway. You’ll have no trouble from her.

“Ruda…” He trailed off, then grinned. “Hell if I know. She values loyalty, fighting, playing rough, standing on your own, and freedom. That leads to some weird combinations of values. Ruda’s always doing stuff that I would never have expected but then in hindsight makes perfect sense. So far Shaeine’s just been tripping and poking at you, but if this keeps up Ruda might join in or butt out entirely or maybe try to get her to back down. I have no damn idea. It’s always an adventure with her.”

Principia had given up all pretense of eating now, just watching his face. She let the silence hang for a few moments before speaking in a carefully neutral tone.

“That’s a very thorough report, Gabe. And what about the last person it’s missing?”

“Well! I’m not really objective about that, am I?” He turned a grin on her, setting his fork down on his plate. “Tell you what: after Puna Dara, I bet a smart lady like you has a pretty good measure of me anyway. And you’re also a hobbyist enchanter, right? So I bet you’ll have plenty of time to suss out where I stand on this whole thing while you’re figuring a way off that adhesive charm you just sat on. G’night, Lieutenant.”

He stood up with no more ado and sauntered off back to the fire.

Principia watched him go for a moment. Then she experimentally shifted. Her hips had barely an inch of leeway to move and wouldn’t rise at all off the stone. The elf grinned and leaned back against the cliff wall, spearing a bite of baked beans.

“Well. She’s got a good group of friends, anyway. Excellent.”


“Whew,” McGraw grunted, glancing back at the town. “Not to carp on about it, but why that town? I’m pretty sure I mentioned I am specifically unwelcome in Last Rock.”

“Aw, y’big baby, it’s fine,” Billie said cheerfully, slapping his thigh. “We didn’t get arrested or blown up, which is my standard fer a successful visit. Oy, this tallgrass is a towerin’ pain in the arse! I can’t see fer shite. Who wants t’give the gnome a piggyback ride?”

“What, all the way to the center?” Weaver snorted. “Dream on. Just keep making noise so we don’t lose you.”

“You wanna get from Tiraas to the Golden Sea frontier, Last Rock is the most direct route,” Joe said, pushing strands of tallgrass out of his way. “Anyway, no harm came of it. Which is good; it was enough of an ordeal getting this one into the caravan.” He grinned and flicked the tail of the nigh-omnipotent immortal hitching a ride on his shoulder. Mary didn’t deign to transform back and make a comment, though she did turn and peck him on the ear. “Ow. So, I take it spending the night in the inn back there is off the table? Cos not to complain, but it’s not more’n two hours before dusk. Basically the worst possible time to be headin’ out on a camping trip.”

“Everyone in this group is either perfectly comfortable sleeping rough, or actually prefers to,” Weaver grunted. “Under the circumstances I figure we can afford to cater to McGraw’s irrational fear of that poor little town.”

“A pissed-off archmage ain’t an irrational fear,” McGraw retorted. “Least, I wouldn’t call her that to her face.”

“Almost a shame,” Joe said lightly. “I was sorta lookin’ forward to explorin’ back there. Man, that place has changed—an’ fast! Sarasio’s havin’ kind of a boom the last year or so, too, but nothin’ like that.”

“Sarasio doesn’t have a world-famous University,” said McGraw. “These little frontier villages rarely get the luxury of stasis, Joe. They either wither away or grow into somethin’ more. Progress marches on.”

“Aye, lotta marchin’ goin’ on here, innit?” Billie said. “Ey, Joe, how’s about ye lend me yer other shoulder?”

“Why’s it always me?” he complained.

“Cos Elias is old an’ delicate an’ Damian’s a fuckin’ grouch.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Weaver grunted, and suddenly bent over in the tallgrass. One short scuffle and a whoop from Billie later, he reappeared with her riding on his shoulders. “Omnu’s balls, you just like to complain, I swear.”

“Oh, an’ that doesn’t describe you to a ruddy T, eh?”

He strode through the tallgrass and the falling dusk in silence for a few yards, holding her ankles and staring ahead at the distant horizon.

“Listen… All of you. Not that I want to make a whole thing of this, but—”

“Aw, come off it,” Billie said fondly, patting his head. “Breakin’ character fer one minute won’t kill ye. We’ll all still know yer a ruddy asshole come sunup.”

Weaver came to a stop, and the others did likewise. He regarded each of them for a moment in the fading orange sunlight.

Then he actually smiled. The unaccustomed expression transformed his whole face.

“Thanks. All of you.”

McGraw and Joe both tipped their hats in silence. Mary croaked and ruffled her feathers.

Then, as one, the group turned and marched off again, heading north toward the frontier and the unconquerable wilderness beyond.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

15 – 10

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                        Next Chapter >

“Natchua, honey,” Malivette said in a deliberately kind and gentle voice, “I hope you’re comfortable being condescendingly spoken to like you’re a child, because my only other response to that kind of talk…well, you’d like that even less. Now, really. Are you sure you want to make this confrontational? Have you maybe not thought this matter through carefully?”

“Of course I haven’t thought it through,” Natchua said bitterly. “I came here with every intention of never interacting with anyone in Veilgrad but Sherwin. If I had my way, everything would unfold without anybody knowing we were ever here, and everybody would have been better off that way. Instead I’m now dealing with you, and no, I don’t have a plan for that. What I have is a lot of infernal magic and a vested interest in protecting these people. That’s what you should keep in mind here, Lady Dufresne. You start messing with my friends and I’ve got exactly one recourse for that, and it won’t leave anybody happy. So instead of that, how about we walk this back a little bit and see if we can’t find a friendly resolution to this…difference of opinion?”

“Uh, Natchua?” Sherwin said warily, glancing around at Malivette’s four attendants, who had fully encircled the group. “Remember just a minute ago when I said very firmly that we do not want to start a fight here?”

“Sounds like she agrees with you, Sherwin,” Malivette remarked, giving him a thin smile. “Right, Natchua? Nobody here wants the outcome of any kind of brawl that might ensue, especially since there’s no such outcome that doesn’t include most or all of you dead. Natchua, I need you to button up your fly and think with your big head for a moment. I’m sure you are very protective of your friends, and that’s admirable and all, but that is a succubus. If you know anything about infernal magic, or if you’re able to read, you understand why she cannot be allowed to run loose. I’m responsible for this city, and this province, and you bringing her here is the kind of thing for which I could legally have already separated you from your skeleton if I had any intention of doing such a thing. Sometimes, kiddo, the right thing to do is back down, acknowledge exactly how you’ve made a gigantic cock-up of the situation, and let the nice Imperial governor contain the incredibly dangerous demon without making this any messier than it already is.”

“Don’t,” Sherwin urged, placing a hand on Melaxyna’s shoulder as she tensed up. “Even the thralls can track you by smell; Vette definitely can. Don’t go invisible or do anything else to set them off.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” the succubus muttered, tail lashing.

“It’s not even that you’re wrong,” Natchua said quietly, still standing between Malivette at the others. “But it is what it is. Melaxyna is not a threat to anyone right now, and won’t be so long as you leave her in my custody.”

The vampire’s scarlet eyes flicked past her to Sherwin. “Your custody, is it? Interesting. If anything, you’re even less qualified for that than he is.”

“She’s a lot more qualified than you may realize,” Hesthri offered.

“We can either come to some kind of compromise,” Natchua insisted, staring her down, “or you can suffer the consequences.”

“Would you stop threatening her?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“I’m afraid not, Jonathan,” Natchua replied without taking her eyes off Malivette. “That’s all we have to work with, here: the fact that interfering with us would be a lot more trouble than leaving us alone. I don’t want to do this, Malivette, but if you try to separate Melaxyna or any of my people, I’m going to have to stop you. And you may very well win that confrontation, but I can promise you it would cost you dearly. I intend to die elsewhere, do you understand? Not dealing with you. But I intend to die, regardless, and if you force my hand, it’ll be here and now, destroying a wide swath of whatever you may still love in this world. I don’t want to, and it may cost me everything, but I’ll do it anyway because I am way past being backed into a corner. Or you can avoid all this and we can find a compromise. Choose.”

In the short quiet which followed, it wasn’t just the vampires and elves who could hear Jonathan’s teeth grinding.

“Wooooow,” Melaxyna said at last. “I do believe that was the single edgiest thing I’ve ever heard. Did that sound impressive in your head before your mouth fell open? A chapbook author wouldn’t even cram a speech like that into the mouth of their most cliché villain—they’d re-read that and say ‘nah, everybody but consumptive thirteen-year-olds would find this unintentionally hilarious’ and start over. Really, Natchua, a vampire who lives in a crumbling manor with four beautiful maidservants is telling you to tone down the melodrama. You think about that for a moment, and reflect on the direction your life has taken.”

By the end of that, Natchua’s mouth was hanging slightly open. She blinked her eyes three times in rapid succession.

Malivette, meanwhile, clapped her hands together once and rubbed them briskly. “Well! I’ll say this much for this entirely too awkward conversation: now I know who’s responsible for belatedly jamming a spine up Sherwin’s butt, and to my surprise, it’s not the succubus.”

“You really don’t need to be an asshole about this, Vette,” Sherwin complained.

“It’s too easy to be with the effort of not doing it, Sherwin dear. I would like to have a pleasant little chat with the ringleader of this fascinating operation, without the peanut gallery. Girls, make our guests as comfortable as you can for a little bit. If,” she heavily emphasized the syllable, holding up one hand and meeting Natchua’s eyes, “Melaxyna attempts to escape, or does anything else that you judge requires it, kill her immediately. Failing that, she is an esteemed guest and is to be treated as such until I say otherwise.”

“Yes, Mistress,” all four chorused in eerie unison.

“And yet,” Melaxyna mused, “still not the kinkiest party I’ve ever been to.”

“Natchua,” Malivette said pleasantly, “do join me upstairs. I believe we should converse woman to woman without the distraction of all these onlookers.”

“I—”

“Now.” The syllable cracked with the force of a thunderbolt, seemingly through the entire house; the very floorboards shuddered and in the near distance, several doors slammed in emphasis.

Natchua slowly tore her gaze from Malivette’s and nodded at the rest of her group. “It’s all right. Please do as they ask, and be polite.”

“Look who’s telling who to be polite,” Jonathan said flatly. “Keep in mind we’re all still in the building and try not to start a brawl, will you?”

“I did manage to run my own life before you came along, Jonathan,” she said irritably, turning her back on him. “Lead the way, Lady Dufresne.”


Syrinx continued pacing up and down for a few minutes after hearing their report. The rest of them sat in silence in the conference room, watching her.

It wasn’t as if there was much for her to think about, and if this was some kind of power play, it clearly was not working. The three of them had returned to find Syrinx already stewing and both Kheshiri and the Jackal looking serenely pleased with themselves, which as good as said how that inevitable personality clash had played out in their absence. Now, Khadizroth and Vannae sat in matching poses of pure serenity, hands folded atop the table and regarding the pacing Inquisitor in total calm. The Jackal had tipped his chair up on its hind legs, slouching back in it and resting his snakeskin boots on the table. He was unnecessarily cleaning his fingernails with a stiletto and intermittently glancing up at Syrinx, his self-satisfied grin not wavering for a moment. Shook had pulled a chair away from the table and turned it to face the front of the room directly, and now slouched back in it with his legs splayed, watching the Inquisitor with a vague little smile with his head resting in Kheshiri’s bosom while she, standing close behind him, slowly ran her hands up and down his arms.

The Inquisitor’s clear anger was having no effect on its intended targets, and that appeared to be making it worse.

“And that’s all?” Syrinx abruptly demanded, coming to a stop and rounding on them.

“At this time, yes,” Khadizroth said, still utterly calm. “Your lead appears to have been fruitful. The results are slight, this is true, but one cannot expect miracles at the very first step of such an investigation.”

“Something wrong, boss lady?” Shook asked in a milder tone than his voice ever held when he wasn’t being deliberately spiteful. “It was your lead, after all. We met the mark and got results. I dunno why you seem so…tetchy.”

Ironically, that suddenly calmed Syrinx down. She straightened up and the tension melted from her stance, her incipient scowl fading away as she turned a more thoughtful stare upon Shook. He continued to sprawl indolently in his seat, but others in the room more sensitive to undercurrents clearly smelled danger; the Jackal’s blade froze, as did his expression, and he glanced rapidly between Shook and Basra. Kheshiri also stopped the movements of her hands, her fingers clenching on the sleeves of Shook’s coat.

“Quite so,” Syrinx said in a clipped tone, staring blankly at him. “For some reason I expected such a vaunted crew as yours to have achieved more progress, but in hindsight I cannot imagine why.”

“Well, don’t take it to heart, sugar,” he drawled. “We’ve disappointed even smarter people than you.”

Kheshiri’s fingers clawed an iota harder in a silent warning, which he disregarded.

“Mr. Shook,” Basra said, now with a pleasant little smile that made the Jackal’s grin widen slightly in anticipation, “it’s beyond my fathoming why you would even want to get a rise out of me in your situation, but what disappoints me most is that you aren’t better at it. Apparently the Thieves’ Guild doesn’t train its thugs nearly as well as they like to claim. Regardless, you will straighten up. You rely upon his Holiness the Archpope for protection from the Imperial law enforcement and multiple cults you have provoked, including your own. And right now, it is I who will decide how, and indeed whether, that protection will be extended over you.”

He had tensed up, but did not move, and kept his expression deliberately even. “That so?”

“You stand out even in this gaggle of reprobates, Shook,” she stated, planting her fists on the edge of the table and leaning forward to stare down at him. “I know your history. While we are here, I promise you, there will be no preying on or abusing women.”

Shook’s frozen expression suddenly thawed, and then warmed, a dark but genuine smile curling up the corners of his mouth.

“Rrrrright back atcha.”

The Jackal burst out laughing. The room filled with a series of shrill barks of his amusement which may have hinted at the origin of his nickname.

Slowly, Basra straightened back up, her expression revealing nothing.

“In a situation like ours, discipline is a necessity, not a luxury. It is sorely clear how the lack of it has rendered you lot virtually useless. For the duration of your service under my Inquisition, Shook, you will address me as Inquisitor, or ma’am. Is that clear?”

He gave her a lazy mockery of a salute. “Yes sir, ma’am.”

She elected not to push it, instead turning a wry look on the Jackal. “Are you just about done?”

“Wait, wait,” he gasped, holding up one finger with the arm not clutching his ribs. “A-almost…”

“Enough, Jack,” Khadizroth said quietly.

The elf instantly quieted as if a switch had been flipped, straightening up in his seat and folding his hands atop the table. The sudden display of obedience did not improve Basra’s mood; the look she turned upon the dragon was even more wintry than that which she’d directed at Shook.

“I am not very familiar with this city,” Khadizroth said in a courteously calm tone, bowing his head deferentially to Syrinx. “So I’m afraid I have little useful counsel to offer as regards our next move. We await your orders, Inquisitor.”

She held his emerald stare for a moment, then worked her jaw once as if chewing on the idea of him, and finally turned her gaze on the paper lying near her on the table. Scrawled in Khadizroth’s neat hand upon a sheet of enchanting vellum Vannae had been carrying was the short list of locations in Ninkabi where the contact Basra had sent them to meet had said cultist activity could be found. She picked it up, eyes tracking back and forth as she re-read the few lines.

“What was your impression of the contact in question?” Basra asked suddenly.

Vannae and Shook both turned to look at Khadizroth, who opened his mouth to answer.

“Shook,” Basra said curtly. “I want to hear from you.”

Shook hesitated, glancing at Khadizroth and then back to her with eyebrows raised. “Uh, you sure? As you were just commenting, I’m just muscle, here. Big K’s the—”

“Did I ask your opinion, Mr. Shook?”

“Well, yes. You literally just did that.”

“Jeremiah,” Khadizroth said softly. “The Inquisitor is correct. Please don’t add to her difficulties.”

Shook hesitated, then nodded at him. “Yeah, fair enough. My apologies, Inquisitor. Well, there wasn’t a lot to see. Shortish woman, wore Omnist robes with the hood up. Not much of a disguise, since even monks don’t just walk around that way—practically announcing that you’re up to something, walking around like that. But it worked as far as hiding her face, anyway, and it’s not like we came off any less weird, with K having to use practically the same get-up. Acted pretty standard, for an informant who’s not used to playing this game. Skittish, looking over her shoulders a lot. Low-pitched voice, I think might’ve been using a voice-altering charm, but I’m no enchanter. Gave us those locations and then bugged off outta there.”

For the first part of his recitation, Basra had kept a level stare locked on Khadizroth, who was watching Shook attentively, but by the end she had directed her full attention to the enforcer.

“Anything to add to that, either of you?” she asked when he came to a finish.

Vannae shook his head, turning to look at Khadizroth.

“A good description,” the dragon agreed. “I can confirm the presence of a voice-altering charm. More than that I did not discern, as any such measures would by nature be intrusive, and your orders were to get information without spooking or provoking the informant. I assumed you wished to avoid jeopardizing the source, which of course is wise.”

“Where’d you dig up this alleged source, anyway?” the Jackal asked lazily, now balancing his knife point-down on his fingertip.

“You know as much as you need to,” Basra snapped.

“As you wish,” Khadizroth said diplomatically before the elf could respond. “I certainly understand the operational need to control information. As a rule, the more we know, the more effective we are in the field. I must admit I am curious about your choice of agents to send on this particular assignment.”

“Dragon,” Syrinx said coldly, “understand this now: I will not tolerate your attempts to undercut my authority.”

“I apologize if I have overstepped,” Khadizroth said, bowing to her from his seat. “No disrespect was intended. I simply took you for a kindred spirit, so to speak.”

Basra actually betrayed surprise, straightening up suddenly. “I beg your pardon?”

Khadizroth glanced briefly around the table, then unlaced his fingers to spread his hands in a small gesture of self-deprecation with a wry little smile. “You are not far wrong to call us a gaggle of reprobates. Most of us here have nowhere else to go, and assuredly little other prospect of being of use to the world than in the Archpope’s service. Likewise, we face potential…difficulties…with certain parties we have offended, should we find ourselves outside his protection. Forgive me, but I thought perhaps you could relate.”

Her lips drew back to bare teeth in a nearly feral expression. Khadizroth kept right on speaking with truly impressive control, managing to hastily cut off any response without sounding at all rushed.

“Those of us who have been a bit longer in this situation have rather laboriously learned not to take offense when it is inevitably given; it has doubtless not escaped your notice that this is a group of large personalities stuffed into a small space. Despite the obvious conflicts, we are a surprisingly effective unit when we exercise our various skills cooperatively. It seems to me a woman of your formidable reputation makes a significant addition to an already significant array of talent.”

“You seem to be under a misconception,” Syrinx said icily. “I am not joining your little…club. This operation is mine. You lot are simply an asset which has been assigned to me for my use, at my discretion. The sooner and more thoroughly you internalize that fact, the more smoothly this inquisition will go. And you want it to go smoothly. If it does not, I promise you, it will not be I who suffers for the failure.”

“Of course.” Again, Khadizroth inclined his head respectfully to her. “What is our next move, Inquisitor?”

Basra turned away, again studying the page. She paced up and down the short end of the room twice more before abruptly stopping.

“You were wondering why I dispatched the muscle and not the subtlety to meet with an informant.”

“Seemed like a curious choice,” Shook agreed, leaning his head back into Kheshiri’s cleavage while she began kneading his shoulders. “But hey, what do I know. The muscle just goes where the brain says.”

Basra divided a look of withering contempt between the two of them, which earned her nothing but a flirtatious wink from the succubus.

“I risked acting on the assumption that even you had sufficient wits to follow simple directions and not create a complete debacle out of one short conversation. I’m somewhat relieved to have that faith validated. The choice of you three was because I was uncertain of the identity and origin of this…informant. I preferred to deploy the less fragile talents given the potential risks. We are not going to be friends, let us clarify that up front. But that doesn’t mean I intend to be wasteful with your lives. You are, after all, valuable assets. Except Shook.”

The enforcer’s face tightened, but he threw her another sarcastic salute, not shifting from his comfortable position.

“I don’t know any better than you what any of these places are,” Basra continued brusquely, flapping the page once at Khadizroth. “I am going to check with the Holy Legion’s local personnel and decide on our next target, at which time I will have your next orders. For now… Adequate work, so far. Dismissed.”

The group exchanged a round of glances.

“Is that…military speak?” the Jackal asked, scratching his head. “What’s that mean, exactly?”

“I believe it means we can go,” Vannae offered.

“I think there’s a subext that we’re expected to go,” Kheshiri added.

“Correct.” Khadizroth pushed back his chair and stood; as if at that signal, the rest began rising as well. “It is customary to depart upon dismissal. Come, the Inquisitor has work and we will only be underfoot.”

He led the way to the door, the rest filing out after. Behind them, Basra turned her back, making a show of studying the list again, which did not conceal the seething tension that gripped her form.

Kheshiri at least waited until they were out in the hall with the door shut before commenting. “Now, that one is wound way too tight. Baiting her is so easy it’s not even fun.”

“Maybe don’t, then?” the Jackal suggested, then giggled shrilly. “Aw, who’m I kidding. You do your thing, doll—me, I have a taste for low-hanging fruit. And I’ve been itching to have a go a that one ever since she and a bunch of her Bishop friends ruined my night a couple years back. Actually it was just before I met the rest of you freaks. And now look! Poor little Basra has come down hard in the world.”

“Peace,” Khadizroth said firmly. “This is neither the time nor the place.”

The Jackal snickered, but followed without further commentary as the dragon led them to the common area around which was clustered the small bedrooms they had been assigned.

Vannae carefully shut the door behind them while the group clustered around the couch and two chairs before their small fireplace. Shook opened his mouth to speak, but Khadizroth forestalled him with an upraised hand.

The dragon produced a bottle seemingly from nowhere, a glossy thing of green glass about as tall as a wine bottle but much thinner. Raising it to his lips, he blew once across the top, producing a soft tone, then handed it to Vannae. The elf did likewise, his breath making a brief puff several notes higher in pitch, then turned and held it out to Shook.

The enforcer took the bottle slowly, frowning, and turned a look on Khadizroth. At the dragon’s encouraging nod, he shrugged and also blew across the lip, then handed it to Kheshiri. They all repeated the little ritual, the Jackal last; he pretended to fumble and almost drop it in the act of handing it back to Khadizroth, snickering at Vannae’s abortive motion as if about to dive to catch it.

Ignoring the byplay, Khadizroth held the bottle up to his own lips one more time, but on this round simply whispered something inaudible. Then he held the bottle out at arm’s length and upended it.

Whispers poured out, slithering voices resonating through the small room and gradually rising. As the sounds grew more distinct, their own voices emerged clearly, raised in an argument. Khadizroth gestured outward once with his hands, and the noise suddenly cut off.

“That,” he said, “is what anyone listening from outside the room will hear. For a few minutes, at least, we can speak in privacy.”

“Nice trick,” said the Jackal. “How come you never used that one before?”

“We are usually under tighter observation, especially in Tiraas, and I prefer not to tip my hand any more than necessary where Justinian might see it. Syrinx has fewer skills, resources, and options. Now time is short—while the spell lasts, let me catch you up.”

“So, shall I assume you were less than forthcoming about your encounter with the good Inquisitor?” Kheshiri asked sweetly.

“The person who came to meet us,” Khadizroth reported, “was none other than Bishop Branwen Snowe.”

The Jackal let out a whistle, but the dragon continued before anyone had a chance to chime in.

“There is, indeed, more going on here than we know—and more than Basra Syrinx knows. This cult, as we suspected, was a weapon of the Archpope’s and our mission here a sham. Snowe does not know what, specifically, Justinian intends by sending us all here, but her stated objective is to destroy Syrinx, whom she regards as unstable, dangerous, and a threat to the Archpope’s long-term plans.”

“Which is good and believable,” Shook added, “by virtue of being the simple truth. I never met somebody who so obviously had ‘crazy bitch’ written all over her.”

“And you’re taking Snowe at her word, are ya?” the Jackal asked wryly.

“Hardly,” Khadizroth replied. “She is, at the very least, going against Justinian’s wishes and seeking the downfall of another of his agents. To have achieved even this much progress toward such a goal, she would have to be far too clever to blithely trust the likes of us with her true intentions.”

“This game is getting better by the minute,” said Kheshiri, her tail beginning to sway eagerly behind her. “So Snowe has inserted herself into the Church’s agents out here to pose as Basra’s source, unknown to Basra?”

“Oh, he hasn’t even gotten to the good part yet,” Shook said.

“Snowe claims she has documentation of this secretive cult’s activities that is more thorough than anything any investigation could possibly turn up, if it were a serious mission,” said Khadizroth. “Evidently—and this should surprise none of you—the full details would be quite incriminating to Justinian, and as such she will not share them all. It appears she is, at least on some level, personally loyal to the Archpope. But she is willing to dole out enough tidbits for us to report back to Syrinx, and sustain the impression that we are actually pursuing this sham of an assignment.”

“While we…?” Kheshiri prompted, raising her eyebrows.

“The intelligence we just turned over is, indeed, about cult activity in Ninkabi,” Khadizroth said evenly. “But the cult in question is the Black Wreath.”

“And what,” the succubus said slowly, “is the Wreath doing here?”

“That she didn’t know,” Shook answered. “Seems like it’d be worth finding out, don’t you think?”

“So you want to conduct a real investigation of the Black Wreath while conducting a pretend investigation of this mystery cult?” the Jackal said, an incredulous note creeping into his customary grin.

“While,” Khadizroth replied, nodding, “playing both ends against the middle between Syrinx and Snowe. We need to learn what each of them is really up to, here, since they are clearly neither telling us anything resembling the truth.”

“And,” Shook added, “the most important part: figuring out how we can best use all of these assholes to bring each other down, before one or some or all of them can do it to us. And what do we call that, kitten?” he added condescendingly, swatting Kheshiri on the rump.

Her grin had stretched to resemble the Jackal’s at his most unhinged. “That, master, we call fun.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                         Next Chapter >