Tag Archives: Malivette

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 >

15 – 9

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

“What is a vampire?” Hesthri demanded.

The carriage went over a bump, jostling them all and causing Natchua to growl wordlessly as she had to scramble to sustain the plate-sized spell circle she was crafting in midair between them out of lines of fire.

“A vampire is an apex shadow magic creation,” Melaxyna replied. Unlike the rest of them, she appeared perfectly relaxed, having spun around on the carriage bench to lean her back against Sherwin’s shoulder, with one leg extended to brace a bare foot against the door. “The only monsters of any significant power that don’t derive their nature from any of the four primary schools of magic. It’s…a lot to go over, actually, what’s immediately relevant is that most of them are not to be trifled with. There are different blood lineages with different powers, as I understand it. Malivette Dufresne is a pretty heavy hitter.”

“Uh…huh,” Hesthri said slowly, wide-eyed. “And why are we just passively going along to her house, then?”

“Because she demanded it,” Sherwin said bitterly. “Which she can only sort of do, legally, but it’s the vampire part that concerns me more than the Imperial governor part.”

“Is it?” Jonathan grunted. “I’m a bit more concerned that a vampire is an Imperial governor.”

“Makes sense to me!” Melaxyna said lightly. “You want a governor who won’t be pushed around, right? And if she’s also an object of fear and revulsion, you don’t have to worry about her building a power base and leading a rebellion. Maybe all the Imperial governors should be vampires!”

“I wouldn’t make suggestions like that in front of Vette,” Sherwin advised. “The vampire who gave her the curse also wiped out her entire family.”

A strained quiet fell, in which they stared at each other and listened to the grinding of the carriage’s wheels and the clopping of hooves that pulled it along.

“Okay,” Hesthri said at last. “New question, then. How are we going to fight her?”

“No fighting!” Sherwin insisted, actually shrugging Melaxyna off to straighten up with an alarmed expression. “You may’ve got the wrong impression from that ‘heavy hitter’ talk—Malivette isn’t a thing like me or Natchua, or Mel, or you. She is off the Circle of Interaction entirely, which means there’s no easy counter to her powers. And her powers are just ridiculous to begin with. I’m frankly not sure the whole group of us could take her down in a fight, if it was her alone. But she’ll have her whole gaggle of thralls around, so that’s not even slightly possible.”

“Oh,” the hethelax said in a very small voice, leaning forward to look at Jonathan. The two of them were separated by Natchua on the bench. He shifted to meet Hesthri’s eyes, and started to reach across to take her hand, which brought his own close to the circle Natchua was creating in the air.

“Out of the way!” she barked.

“It’s not exactly all bad,” Sherwin added, almost grudgingly. “Vette probably won’t do anything too violent to us, for the other reason we shouldn’t try it on her.”

“Other reason?” Jonathan said incredulously.

“Imperial governor, remember?” Melaxyna prompted with a grin.

Sherwin nodded in sour agreement. “Even if we could take her, there’d be hell to pay. Likewise, she can’t just up and murder a bunch of people.”

“Why not?” Jonathan asked in his driest tone. “Aristocrats do that all the time. Who the hell cares about us?”

“I am the last member and nominal Head of House Leduc,” Sherwin said with a heavy sigh. “It’s not exactly a conventional situation up here, but Houses Leduc and Dufresne have been feuding and struggling over the control of Veilgrad and Lower Stalwar Province for generations. Only thing that kept it from getting nasty was the rest of the Houses watching the situation. The Empire wouldn’t give a crap about anything that happened to me, but if the vampire aristocrat was even implicated in my demise, the other Houses would raise a stink until the Silver Throne had to come down on her. They can’t have her bumping off competition, especially since nothing in any of their arsenals would even slow Vette down. Nobles reliably freak out about anything that even smells like a threat to their power, so she can’t afford to be anything but a model citizen. Fucking politics,” he added in a sullen grumble, crossing his arms and leaning his head against Melaxyna’s. “This crap is why I never leave the house.”

“Oh,” Jonathan said neutrally, “is that why.”

Sherwin narrowed his eyes at him, while Melaxyna grinned. Jonathan, meanwhile, shifted his attention to Natchua.

“Do you really have to do that right here and now? I’d at least like to know how much cancer we can all expect to get from being this close to hasty infernomancy.”

“Nothing I ever do will be so uncontained as to cause splash effects,” Natchua sneered.

“She’s right, that spell is fully inert beyond its boundaries,” Sherwin added. “Very tight confinement work. That’s the most important skill a warlock can have, you know. Which is not to say I can tell what she’s doing; I’ve never seen anything remotely like that.”

“The Black Wreath would make anybody they caught doing this disappear,” Natchua said, eyes on her spell. “Since the whole plan is to go after them before they even think to come after us, worrying about that would seem somewhat redundant. And no, Jonathan, I would rather not be doing this here and now. Handling it in a moving carriage makes it orders of magnitude more difficult. Circumstances have kind of forced my hand, though. There.” She lowered her hands, and the glowing runic circle remained in midair, rotating slowly and remaining perfectly in position relative to the carriage. Natchua snapped her fingers and opened her palm, and a dagger dropped from the empty air into her grasp, a short knife with a wickedly sinuously blade whose cutting edge glowed as if red-hot.

“Whoah, now,” Melaxyna said, finally looking somewhat perturbed.

“Hesthri, give me your hand,” Natchua ordered.

Hesthri immediately scooted away from her against the side of the carriage, tucking her hands against her chest and frowning. “What? Why? What are you going to do?”

“There is not time to go into it!” Natchua snapped. “I’m not going to hurt you; I didn’t go to the considerable trouble of tracking you down to treat you wastefully. But you also weren’t called here for a vacation! You agreed to follow my orders on this campaign, and if you’ve decided you’re not going to do that, you may as well go right back where you were.”

“Hey,” Jonathan said sharply, “don’t talk to her like that!”

“Hush, boy,” Melaxyna drawled. “Every word she just said was right. This whole scheme is crazy, but we did all agree to follow the drow, and by implication, trust her. Anybody who’s having second thoughts urgently needs to fuck off.”

Hesthri drew in a sharp breath as if anticipating pain, but then extended her hand to Natchua, albeit with some hesitation.

The drow seized her index finger with her left hand, and with her right, very carefully began trimming away the claw on her fingertip. Hesthri winced, watching, but did not twitch.

“Huh,” Sherwin grunted, peering at this in fascination. “I thought hethelax armor was completely invulnerable.”

“Not to that thing,” Melaxyna said in a tight voice, her eyes now locked on the dagger. “How did you get your hands on one without tipping off the Wreath? I thought they hid all of those away.”

“They did,” Natchua said absently, focusing on her work. “I made this one myself. There we go.” She released Hesthri’s hand and the hethelax immediately snatched it back, retreating again to the edge of the bench. “That should grow back on its own, Hesthri. If it hasn’t started in a couple of days, let me know and I’ll fix it. Are you okay? That wasn’t supposed to hurt.”

“No,” Hesthri said, grimacing and holding up her declawed finger. “I mean, yes. I mean—I’m fine, it doesn’t hurt. Just feels weird.”

Natchua carefully dropped the trimmed claw into the circle of glowing lines, where it immediately snapped to the center and hung there. “Your turn, Mel. Hand.”

“What?” Melaxyna squealed, abruptly scrabbling away from Sherwin. “Me? Why?!”

“Hush, girl,” Jonathan said solemnly. “We’re doing as the nice warlock orders, remember?”

“Jonathan Arquin,” Natchua growled, “we have established that you’re here explicitly because I don’t have the heart to kill or disappear you. If you’re going to do shit like that, my mind can change. If the succubus can refrain from needling everybody, you have no excuse. Mel, we don’t have time for this, we’re getting closer to the vampire’s lair by the second. Give me your hand.”

Melaxyna whined like a kicked dog and made gruesome faces, but obeyed, even more hesitantly than Hesthri had. Natchua had to reach out, seize her wrist, and haul her hand closer, but the actual procedure was much quicker: she simply jabbed the succubus’s fingertip with the knife’s point, causing an entirely excessive squeal of pain.

A single drop of black blood welled up. Natchua released Melaxyna, who yanked her arm back, but the droplet remained behind. The warlock gestured and it drifted through the air to join the slice of hethelax claw.

Instantly the entire circle snapped inward, forming a tiny ball of fire around the two joined specimens. That burned out in half a second, emitting a puff of acrid smoke and leaving behind a blob of viscous black substance with an oily sheen on its rippling surface. It undulated and squirmed in midair.

“If that’s what I think it is,” Sherwin said warily, “I can see why the Black Wreath wouldn’t want you doing it. Or anyone, for that matter.”

“And…what do you think it is?” Jonathan asked in the same tone.

Natchua simply took the wriggling thing between her thumb and forefinger; it squirmed but failed to escape. “All right, Mel, other hand.”

“Whyyyyy,” Melaxyna whined. “Come on, I already donated! It’s her turn again!”

This time, Natchua simply pointed at her with the hand not holding the blob, and chain of orange fire lashed out of her fingertip, twined around one of the succubus’s arms, and dragged it closer. Before Melaxyna could react further, she dropped the blob right into her palm.

It immediately sank into her skin and vanished.

“What did you do?!” Melaxyna squalled, struggling so violently the carriage rocked. “Get it out! What is that? So help me, you knife-eared little darkling freak, if you’ve—”

She broke off suddenly, as the other hand which she’d raised in a fist was suddenly encased in a black gauntlet with spikes protruding from the knuckles.

“Oh, no,” Sherwin whispered. “Natchua, what have you done?”

“Good,” Natchua said approvingly, ignoring him. She let go of the glowing dagger and it vanished, freeing her hand to pull out her mundane belt knife. “It’s made with your own blood, so it should sync directly with your native shapeshifting and give you full intuitive control. Make a gauntlet on your other hand.”

The other hand was still imprisoned by the chain, which did not prevent Melaxyna from obeying. A second gauntlet formed over her skin.

Natchua lashed out with elven speed, stabbing the blade right at the center of Melaxyna’s palm. It impacted the armor with an impotent clink, snapping off its tip. The gauntlet was not so much as scratched.

Melaxyna’s expression morphed to one of incredulous delight. “Best. Boss. Ever.”

“D-did you just give hethelax invulnerability to a succubus?” Jonathan breathed. “Natchua, no!”

“Natchua, yes!” Melaxyna crowed.

“Pardon me while I just double-check that the wards in here are actually preventing those thralls from hearing this,” Sherwin muttered.

“It’s not total invulnerability,” Natchua explained, finally dismissing the fiery chain and releasing Melaxyna’s arm. “Your shapeshifting has been, in a word, upgraded: you can now create armor which, yes, inherits hethelax invulnerability. That means it’s vulnerable to all the things you already are, like divine magic and valkyrie scythes. The theory is you should be able to alter the appearance as you see fit; you can make ordinary-looking clothes that will stop a wandshot, or a full suit of armor. Whatever you like. And the point of all this,” she added more loudly as three people drew breath to begin protesting, “is to have an ace up our sleeves! Just because Malivette Dufresne is generally disinclined to murder us all does not mean she can’t, and in case I need to remind you lot, we have a notable lack of legal standing, here. Of all four schools, infernal users are least equipped to deal with a vampire, or with undead in general. I want to go in there with at least something Dufresne isn’t expecting and won’t have a convenient way to handle, just in case, and this is the only idea I had prepared.”

“Well,” Hesthri said after a short silence, “you’ve absolutely just created a crisis for somebody somewhere down the line, but that’s the future. I guess right now we’d better concentrate on dealing with the vampire. So if we can’t fight her or run away, what the hell are we going to tell her?”

“I was counting on our presence here being a secret,” Natchua said, giving Sherwin a look.

“Oh, don’t scowl at me,” he snapped. “If you didn’t know her vampire senses would spot you landing here, how the hell would I?”

“The point is, I didn’t plan for this! I don’t have a story that would explain this group and I don’t know how fast I can cobble one together.”

“I dunno if you even can,” said Jonathan. “Unless you actually work for the Empire, the Church, or the Topaz College, summoning sapient demons is pretty damn illegal. Summoning a Vanislaad is the kind of illegal that gets you locked up for life!”

“Well, everybody’s clear, there,” Melaxyna said absently while changing the appearance of both her armored gloves and admiring them. “Natch didn’t summon me, I was already on this plane. Arachne can vouch for that, if it comes down to it.”

“That’s true,” Sherwin agreed, “and merely consorting with a Vanislaad isn’t a crime. The presumption of the law is that anybody entangled with them is probably a victim of their manipulation.”

“That’s the dumbest law I ever heard of,” Hesthri scoffed.

“Yeah, you’re welcome,” Sherwin grumbled. “House Leduc called in a lot of favors to get Empress Theasia to institute that one. Gods, am I glad my whole family is dead. Legally speaking, we’re in trouble, here, but not mortal trouble. The hethelax is a relatively minor threat…”

“This hethelax in particular is going to create waves if the Empire identifies her,” Jonathan said grimly, “which they might from my presence alone.”

“Vette isn’t the Empire,” Sherwin offered. “And she has her own reasons for not wanting attention called to her business. We can spin this, hopefully in a way she’ll go along with, but… Honestly, Natchua, we may have to just tell her what’s going on.”

The carriage lurched as it came to a stop.

“Time’s up,” Natchua said fatalistically. “Looks like we play it by ear.”

Further discussion was precluded by the opening of the carriage door.

“Welcome,” Ruby said pleasantly, stepping back and gesturing them out with a graceful bow. “Please, honored guests, this way.”

They disembarked one by one, feet crunching on the gravel drive. The gravel, at least, looked relatively fresh, unlike the waist-high weeds which choked the surrounding lawn. Before them, the manor house itself was largely covered by climbing ivy.

“Do the nobles here just not bother taking care of their property?” Melaxyna muttered. “At least this place looks better than yours, Sherwin.”

“The nobles here don’t want company,” he said pointedly.

“How’s she govern the province, then?” Hesthri asked, equally pointedly.

“The actual administration is done by her steward, Grusser, down in the city,” Sherwin explained, already shuffling toward the mansion’s front door. Natchua caught up in two long strides and then held back to glide along at his shoulder. The rest followed more warily, Jonathan pausing to peer at the stone obelisk which stood in the middle of the circle drive.

The manor’s front doors opened before the reached the steps, and two more women emerged, also wearing striking evening gowns. So far all of Malivette’s attendants were beautiful young women of local Stalweiss extraction, and all were uniformed in extravagant dresses that were identical apart from being color-coded. Ruby and Jade had driven them in the carriage, garbed in red and green respectively: these were in white and blue.

“Sapphire and Diamond, yes?” Melaxyna prompted.

“Pearl,” Sherwin corrected her.

“Welcome,” said Sapphire courteously. “Please, step this—”

“Yeah, yeah, spare me,” Sherwin interrupted her, stomping up the front stairs. “Nobody but you has the energy to pretend this is a polite social call. Let’s get this bullshit over with.”

“He’s not used to being around people,” Melaxyna said apologetically.

“We’re familiar with Lord Leduc,” Pearl replied with a smile. “We wouldn’t dream of disturbing his solitude except at great need.”

“Ladies,” Jonathan said far more politely, bowing to each of them before entering.

“If any of you were thinking of trying something, let me just repeat: do not.” Inside the remarkably bare front hall of Manor Dufresne, Sherwin paused to turn a warning look on the rest of his party. “Vampire thralls are as strong as a human in good shape, and as fast and agile as elves. They’re basically Butlers, functionally. In fact, my pet theory is that’s literally what Butlers are, since nobody’s seen whoever leads the Service Society in the eighty-odd years since it was founded.”

“Good guess, but no!”

They all jumped at the voice which came from the top of the staircase before them. A moment ago no one had been there, but now at the head stood a young woman in a black dress, smiling cheerfully down at them. She had the gaunt look of someone who habitually didn’t get enough rest or food, not to mention an unhealthily pale complexion. Even so, she might have passed for human if not for her crimson eyes.

Malivette Dufresne descended the stairs with mincing little steps, trailing her fingertips along one of the banisters on the way down. “I’ve been around Butlers; believe me, I would know if they were even vampire-adjacent. My pet theory is it’s done with alchemy. You know, like how the Silver Legion can turn elves into specimens with basically human strength.”

“Huh,” Sherwin grunted, “well that’s disappointing. Alchemy? There’s no romance in that.”

“Tragic, I know,” Malivette agreed, alighting at the base of the stairs. “I welcome you, Lord of House Leduc, to my home in the spirit of mutual interest and the long respect which has stood between our great Houses. In honor of that friendship, and with the deepest apology for disturbing your much-cherished quiet, I must make a most humble inquiry.” She swept an arm in a wide gesture to indicate the whole group, and abruptly her tone and expression changed to one of sheer exasperation. “What the hell, man?!”

“Me?” he exclaimed. “Which of us is sending their goons to drag the other one outside on no notice, huh?”

“Sherwin!” Malivette pressed the heels of both her hands against her eyes. “How many times have—look, I seriously am not trying to start something here. You know I don’t have a problem with you. Heck, in another life, you and I might have found ourselves joined in a loveless political marriage, and I assure you the revulsion I feel at that prospect is purely general, not personal.”

“Right back atcha, buttercup,” he huffed.

“But, for the last time, you cannot have a succubus!” Malivette pointed dramatically at the demon in question, glaring at Sherwin. “I was willing to overlook this when you built the world’s most excessive Vanislaad cage, but I know for a fact you’ve had that thing dismantled and now here’s this creature traipsing around my province unattended, and holy shit, Melaxyna?”

“Hi, Vette!” Melaxyna said cheerfully, waving. “You’re looking terrible. But less so than the last time I saw you, so… I guess you’re doing well?”

“Still always hungry, but less pissy about it,” Malivette replied, tilting her head quizzically. “And here you are, out of the Crawl. Did Professor Tellwyrn finally let you go, then?”

“Well, Arachne hasn’t come storming out here to haul me back, and that’s well within her capability,” the succubus said thoughtfully, “so I take that as notice that my services are no longer required.”

“You two…are acquainted?” Natchua said pointedly.

“I did go to that cockamamie school, you know,” Malivette replied. “Crawl expeditions and everything. Mel’s been an institution down there since long before you enrolled, and by the way, hello, Natchua. I’m so glad you’ve stopped wearing your hair up in that ridiculous spiky number, the green stripe is actually quite fetching when you let it lie flat. Drow have such lovely hair.”

“You two are acquainted?” Melaxyna asked, blinking.

“Most years there’s at least one field trip per class to Veilgrad,” Natchua explained, eyes locked with Malivette’s. “This city is prone to the kind of weird nonsense that makes for Tellwyrn’s idea of a useful class exercise, and also the governor is an alumna. It’s a handy little arrangement. I will point out for the record that my class excursion wasn’t the one that unleashed a zombie horde in the city.”

“I do say when I was warned of a succubus and a drow warlock I was not expecting either to be a familiar face, much less both.” Malivette turned her quizzical look on Jonathan and Hesthri. “Don’t tell me… Nope, you two aren’t ringing any bells. Well, then again, I don’t know any hethelax demons.”

“Yeah, about that,” Sherwin said belligerently, “we need to have a talk about whatever means you’re using to monitor my estate!”

“You just go ahead and hold your breath waiting for that,” Malivette retorted. “Look, here it is: I don’t know what all this is about, I’m glad Sherwin is finally making friends—truly—and I am nothing if not sympathetic to someone operating with what amounts to an illness that compels them to be dangerous to others. I probably relate to a succubus better than anybody who’s not one. But the fact remains, Mel, you are what you are and you cannot be running around loose in my city!”

Natchua stepped between the vampire and the succubus. “Then let’s talk about this.”

“Oh, we’re going to talk about this,” Malivette agreed, “but we’re going to do it once I’m certain she is taken care of.”

“I see old times don’t count for anything,” Melaxyna muttered.

Natchua continued matching Malivette’s stare. “You’re not touching her.”

“Young lady,” the vampire said, smiling in a way that displayed her elongated canines to great effectiveness, “would you like me to explain in detail why every part of that sentence was more wrong than the preceding, or shall I save time and demonstrate?”

“She is with me,” Natchua said coldly. “You take one of my people, and I’ll take one of yours.”

There was a moment of absolute silence.

“Okay,” Jonathan said finally, “however all this shakes out, can we establish a rule that Natchua doesn’t handle negotiations from now on?”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

10 – 14

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

Darling’s irritating refusal to show weakness continued all the way up the winding trail that lead east, into the mountains beyond the city. To be sure, the trail they chose wound back and forth up the slope so as not to present an excessive challenge, but it was still a mountain climb; there was a significant vertical component to their trek. Joe’s indefatigable calm did not surprise him, for all that wandfighting didn’t seem like a particularly strenuous skill, at least physically. The Kid was a frontier dweller and had made his mark against many opponents; in any lodge of Shaath’s followers, he would be accounted a man regardless of his age. Darling, though, was a city slicker of the worst kind, and his failure to get even winded felt vaguely insulting to Ingvar.

Not for the first time, he considered setting off cross-country, straightening out the curves in the trail, so to speak. That was a good way to lose the track, though. Not that he couldn’t find a lodge in the forest purely on the strength of his own skills, but getting lost would add who knew how much time to the journey. Plus, he would eventually have to explain to the Crow why he’d ditched the companions she had selected for him. Ingvar had not totally ruled that out, but wasn’t to the point of deciding on it yet.

“Y’know,” Darling said breezily, stopping in the middle of the trail and craning his neck back to peer up at the pine boughs above, “in a way, I think I might be getting more out of this than you two country boys.”

Ingvar decided first not to hit him, and second not to dignify that with any response at all.

“Oh, I’m sure this’ll be rich,” Joe muttered.

“It’s just that… Well, I personally see a certain kind of beauty in the rhythms of a city,” Darling intoned, resuming his walk as Ingvar brushed past him. “In my city, anyway, though I suspect they each have a life and a glory of their own. But I can well believe that’s a kind of beauty you have to be particularly attuned to in order to appreciate it. This, though!” He spread his arms dramatically, as if offering to embrace the forest. It was a quiet, clear morning, the air filled with the songs of birds and insects, as well as the sharp scent of pine needles. Sunlight filtered through the branches over the trail in golden streams here and there, leaving most of the forest to either side in cool shade. The whole day could have been painted, as if it were someone’s perfect idea of an idyllic scene of nature. “I don’t care who you are, this is gorgeous.”

“It does have a kind of majesty to it,” Joe agreed. “Only forest I knew back home was the elven grove. Needless to say, I didn’t go in there much, but I vividly recall those few visits. The place was… It had this feelin’ to it, like it had been made for people. Not humans, necessarily, but people. Elves live in balance with nature, but while that means their land ain’t exactly parks, there’s a certain tameness to it. Like you can tell it’s under somebody’s control. This here’s… I dunno. Ancient, primal. Wild.”

“This is actually a very young forest,” said Ingvar from the front of the group. “Not much more than a hundred years old, if that.”

“Really?” Darling sounded legitimately interested, for whatever that was worth. “What gives it away?”

Ingvar paused, gesturing into the woods on their left. “To a limited extent, you can tell by the size and spacing of the trees. Note the lack of variation; almost all of them are about that big. There are no enormous elders, and relatively few saplings. Most of these trees grew up at the same time, and cast thick enough shade that younger ones haven’t space or sunlight to grow between them. That’s not a reliable proof, however; forests tend to reach a kind of equilibrium on their own that looks similar. More to the point, the spacing between them is very close to even. See how it almost forms corridors, going off into the distance?” He paused to let them both peer into the woods, noting the frowns when they saw what he meant. “In a way, Joe, this is the opposite of your elven forest. These trees were planted, on purpose, and then left to grow up wild.”

He turned and continued up the path, the others falling into step behind them. “To be truthful, though, I know the history of this land. There are a lot of centennial forests in the Empire. The Tirasian Dynasty has very careful laws about conservation. They needed them, there was so much clear-cutting and strip mining during the relative anarchy after the Enchanter Wars. The slopes around Veilgrad were one of the areas that were re-planted late in Sarsamon’s reign. A lot of the pine woods in this province were planted for logging, but the trees around the city itself are protected. They’re helping to hold the mountainsides in place and blocking snow, preventing avalanches.”

“Huh,” Joe mused.

“They also provide homes for game,” Ingvar added. “Meat and fur are economically significant around here, too.”

“Are you this well-versed on the state of the wilds everywhere?” Darling inquired.

Ingvar shrugged. “I could probably tell you the basics for most provinces. You can deduce a lot just from the climate, geography and nearby population. But no. Any Huntsman, even one who has never been here, knows how the wilds of the Stalrange live.”

“I see,” Darling murmured.

“For instance,” Ingvar went on. “There. Hear that?” He pointed upward. “There it is again—that bird, with the high-pitched, whooping voice.”

“Mm hm,” said Joe. “What’s that?”

“It’s a scarlet heron,” the Huntsman explained. “They’re not true herons, actually, they just happen to resemble them. It’s a coastal, tropical bird; it wouldn’t survive a week in a pine forest in this climate, at this altitude. However, the call is pretty widely known, as it’s uniquely easy for humans to imitate.”

Behind him, Joe and Darling’s steps both faltered as they paused. Ingvar glanced back over his shoulder. Joe had tucked his thumb into his belt, placing his hand near a wand; Darling ducked both hands slightly into his sleeves, curling his fingers back until they nearly reached the cuffs. Just for a moment, but it was enough of a tell for Ingvar to deduce the presence of throwing knives up his sleeves. A weak sort of weapon, in his estimation, and entirely characteristic of the thief.

“So,” Darling said lightly, “our approach has been noticed. Well, Mr. Grusser did say this path led right to the Shadow Hunters’ lodge. I guess that’s a good sign! They seem not to have hostile intentions.”

“How did you come to that conclusion?” Ingvar demanded.

“Well, anybody watching us can clearly see we’re in the presence of a Huntsman of Shaath, traditional attire and all,” he said, grinning. “So they’d have to assume you would recognize that bird call. Whoever else that message was meant for, it was basically an announcement to you that our approach has been noted. Seems like they’d be a lot more circumspect if they wanted to communicate privately. Or don’t you think these Shadow Hunters can imitate local birds, too?”

“Could be,” Joe allowed. “Could also be lettin’ us know we’re bein’ watched is a warning.”

“Meh.” Darling shrugged. “Not impossible, but as warnings go, that’s pretty flimsy. No, I think if they wanted to tell us anything, it’d be more direct. It makes more sense to me to take this as a peaceable sign.”

“Or,” Joe suggested, “they don’t care at all about three guys strollin’ through the woods, an’ there’s somethin’ truly dangerous in the forest not far from here.”

“Joe, you’re a regular little basket of sunbeams, you know that?” Darling said sourly. Ingvar held his peace.

The trees thinned as they climbed, affording a better view both ahead and behind them. Rounding one of the trail’s switchbacks, the three discovered they suddenly had an astonishing perspective of Veilgrad from above. The city jutted out from the foot of the mountains, a long finger pointed into the vastness of the prairie beyond. From this altitude, there were even signs of its recent pains; far more buildings were under construction and repair than normally would be, and there was a scar near its northwestern quarter where a whole block had burned.

Incredible as the vista was, they had to turn and examine the scenery ahead and above them in more detail, for they had finally come into view of the lodge of the Shadow Hunters.

Its general design was similar to the traditional Shaathist lodge: a huge longhouse, its peaked roof formed of enormous pine beams and covered in thatch, built upon a high stone foundation with a broad flight of steps rising a full story to its front doors. This one, fittingly enough, was more eclectic in design, somewhat resembling a medieval castle built around the main structure. Battlements were in evidence here and there along its peaks, notably surmounting the round tower attached to one front corner of the lodge. The tower soared twice the height of the lodge’s roof, but was so broadly built it managed to look squat; it had to have as much interior space as the main lodge, and more. There was also another rectangular segment jutting out from the lodge at right angles, smaller but built along similar lines, with a steep thatched roof. This one, however, was unmistakably a chapel, complete with stained glass windows and a steeple rising from its far end. Rather than an ankh as was traditional for Universal Church chapels, this one was surmounted by a stylized horned eagle wrought from iron. It was not the traditional eagle symbol of Avei, though it could well have been a rendition of the same kind of bird.

As they stood in the path, staring up at the lodge, a spine-chilling scream echoed from high above, and a shadow passed over them.

All three men turned to behold a winged shape gliding overhead. It swept out in a wide arc before coming in to land atop the lodge’s round tower, where it was hidden from view by the battlements. Given the speed with which it moved, and their disadvantageous position, they were not afforded a clear look at the bird. Its wingspan, though, had to be broader than any of them was tall.

Ingvar grunted and set off walking again. After a moment, the others followed.

A standing stone of clearly ancient provenance stood at the next bend in the path, marking the point where it turned to lead directly to the lodge. At least eight feet tall, the stone was so old it had been worn round by the elements, yet still bore traces of what must once have been very deep carvings, now outlined by the lichen clinging to them.

Atop it sat a blonde woman in coarse, practical garb similar to traditional Huntsman’s kit, casually working at a piece of wood with a knife.

“Good morning, guests,” she said as they drew abreast of her perch. “What brings you?”

The three paused, and Ingvar’s two companions looked at him, Darling with an encouraging nod. As if he needed encouragement.

“Well met,” Ingvar said, bowing slightly. Given how high up she was, dipping his head too deeply would have seemed ridiculous. “I am Brother Ingvar, a Huntsman of Shaath.”

“Not from around here, you aren’t,” she commented, pointing at him with her carving knife. “Not with that beardless face. I don’t imagine the local Huntsmen went out of their way to make you feel welcome, now did they?”

“You have trouble with the Huntsmen?” Darling asked. His tone and expression were a masterpiece of polite, neighborly interest; they seemed to work on this Shadow Hunter (for such she had to be) better than they did Ingvar, to judge by the way she smiled down at him.

“It waxes and wanes,” she replied. “Lately, the situation is not ideal. The Huntsmen got pushier by the day while the city was suffering from chaos effects, and now there’s absolutely no living with them, since they acquitted themselves so well fighting undead in the catacombs. Grusser threw them a parade. Only a matter of time until they overstep and he has to rein them back in, and they’d better hope it’s him doing it and not the Duchess. Oh, but I’m interrupting your introductions.”

“With me,” Ingvar said somewhat stiffly, “are Joseph Jenkins of Sarasio, and you seem to have already met Bishop Antonio Darling of the Universal—”

“Did you say Joseph Jenkins of Sarasio?” They finally seemed to have the woman’s full interest; she set down her knife and carving and leaned alarmingly over the edge of the stone, staring avidly down at Joe. “No fooling? The Joe Jenkins?”

“The ‘the’ himself, ma’am,” Joe said, tipping his hat. “Somewhat less impressive in the flesh than in song, so I’m told.”

“He’s a modest one,” Darling said cheerfully. “I guarantee no one has told him that.”

“Not true. Weaver manages to squeeze it in at least once a day.”

“Well, you guys must have quite a story,” she said, grinning now. “I’m Liesl, the gabby and insignificant. Since the honor’s all mine, I’ll try to make the pleasure all yours. Really, though, what brings you to our doorstep? This is like the beginning of a bar joke. A Huntsman, a Bishop and the flippin’ Sarasio Kid walk into a lodge…”

Darling laughed obligingly; Ingvar gritted his teeth momentarily, gathering his patience, before answering.

“My companions and I have come in pursuit of a spiritual matter. We were sent to seek the Shadow Hunters for… I…honestly don’t know.”

“Hm,” Liesl mused. “Sent by whom?”

“By Mary the Crow.”

She fell still at that, gazing down at them with a suddenly closed face.

“Well,” she said at last. “Well, well. You just get more interesting with every word you say. Not to mention more alarming… All right, hang on.”

She hopped nimbly to her feet, tucking her knife back into its sheath and her piece of wood into an inner pocket of her leather vest. Before any of them could say a word, Liesl stepped off the edge of the standing stone, plummeting to the ground.

It wasn’t a lethal drop by any means, but longer than a person ought to casually jump. She hit the ground in a roll, coming smoothly to her feet right in front of them and pausing only to brush off her leather trousers. Ingvar recognized the move well enough; young Huntsmen like Tholi were always doing similar things, as if to prove to themselves, each other, and the world that they deserved their rank. He felt grateful to have outgrown that phase, himself.

“Walk this way, gentlemen,” the Shadow Hunter said with a knowing little smile. “Your business is over the head of the likes of me, I think. You’d better come inside and talk to Raichlin.”


 

Parvashti opened her eyes, sighed, and hopped down from the rigging. It wasn’t a long drop to the deck; the Sleepless was a nimble little ship, built for speed rather than capacity. She barely had enough of a fall for her feet to make a good, satisfying thump, but it was still enough to alert the Captain that she was finally down. He had doubtless been twiddling his thumbs and listening for it.

“Well?” Captain Nayar demanded, thrusting his bearded head out of his cabin’s porthole. “Storm, or no storm?”

“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “The sea is…making up its mind.”

“Not sure?” he bellowed, vanishing back below. In moments he came bursting out on deck in his towering entirety, glaring. “Not sure? We either sail in two hours, or not, based on my esteemed windshaman’s prognostication. I’ve got cargo rotting in my hold!”

“How fast do you think Narisian platinum rots?” she asked mildly.

“Woman, I don’t pay you for not sure!”

Parvashti strode forward, glaring right back at him, and thrust a ringed forefinger into his substantial paunch. “No, Captain, you pay me not to nail you amidships with a harpoon, so caulk it before I decide I’m overdue a raise! Are you Punaji or a cave elf your own damn self? It’s the sea! It’ll make up its mind when it does, and I’ll know before anyone else. You want certainty of a storm? Stick your great bearded gob into the waves and tell Naphthene what a twat she is. Until then, you’ll have to be content with being a little ahead of everyone else on these docks!”

“Bah!” Nayar roared, throwing up his hands and turning to scowl at the city behind. Anteraas perched on a narrow wedge of flat land between the cliffs that made up the Tiraan Gulf’s coast, flanked by the ancient stone arms of its harbor. Those cliffs rose in both directions, climbing toward the Stalrange in the east and toward Tiraas itself, atop the Tira Falls barely visible to the west. In times past, the capital had been visible only on the clearest of days, but now its glow made it a constant presence on any night that wasn’t too thickly shrouded by fog.

“Oh, keep your beard on,” Parvashti said in a milder tone. “How much money have I made you already? I guarantee no one else knows the portents my familiars can read. We’ll need most of those two hours anyway to wait for the others to get back with the supplies.”

“Fine, fine,” Nayar grunted. “As soon as everyone’s aboard and everything stowed, we set sail.”

“But—”

He held up a hand to forestall her. “Trade is as much a game of strategy against mortal opponents as it is a game of chance against the elements. You know that slimy arseplug Gupta is watching us—he’s figured out that my windshaman knows things no other knows. When we leave the harbor, he’ll follow, while everyone else dithers to see what comes of this.” He gestured out at the gray sea and gray sky, calm but of a worrying color. The chilly southern sea was unpredictable at the best of times; some days, it seemed it went out of its way to obscure its intentions. “If you give us the clear to keep on for Puna Vashtar, so be it; the Sleepless can outrun that tub of his no matter what charms he’s finagled in port. If not, we’ll put in at Tehvaad and leave him to wallow in the storm.”

“Truly, you are a master of your craft, o great and canny one,” she said solemnly.

Nayar snorted to express his opinion of her wit. “Oh, did you get your paper?”

“Paper? What paper?”

“The newspaper. You didn’t subscribe to one?”

“Sub— News— Captain, what have I told you about drinking on the job?”

“That I’d better invite you?” he replied with a grin.

“Damn right! What the fuck newspaper do you think I would subscribe to? When would I do such a thing? What address do I have? Why would I care what the shorecrawlers think is fit to print? Use that shaggy hatstand for its intended purpose!”

“You’re going to make some poor bastard a dreadful wife someday, you ungodly shrew,” he said. “All I know is—in fact, here.” He ducked back below decks for a moment, reemerging almost immediately with a newspaper bound in twine, a small note tied to it. “This was delivered by some boy while you were up there mumbling at the wind. Has your name and all, so I figured… Eh. Maybe one of the crew just thought you’d be interested and sent it along. The headline’s about that crazy school you went to.”

“What?” Parvashti strode forward, snatching it from his hand. “Give me that!”

She ripped away the twine while he muttered imprecations about her manners and stomped to the port rail to glare out at the sea. Parvashti’s eyes darted rapidly back and forth across the page, a frown growing on her features as she read.

“Captain,” she said, “when we next make port… I might want to take a little leave soon.”


 

“There,” Erland grunted, backing out of the tight space between boilers into which he’d had to squeeze to reach the access panel. “You were right, Harald, it was the glass conduits. Somehow, some idiot managed to forget to fix them properly in their housings.” He made a point to speak respectfully to his partners at all times, even when correcting them; having been the idiot in question, he felt free to express his frustration a little more directly.

“And the glass?” Harald said nervously, apparently not making note of Erland’s mistake. “It’s all right, no cracks?”

“All in perfect order,” Erland assured him, holding up his pocket lens and thumbing the charm that made its rim glow. “The shutdown wasn’t due to damage, but Kjerstin’s protective charms working as intended. I double-checked the pistons for signs of strain while I was in there. Everything’s fine, no grinding or overheating.”

“I told you so,” Kjerstin said smugly, beginning to tick off points on her fingers. “Told you the charms were necessary, that they’d work, that you were too sleep-deprived to be putting in those conduits last night—”

“All right, all right,” Erland said soothingly, holding up his hands. “You can make your speech later. For now, we appreciate your charm work. The engine’s still intact, the conduits are now installed properly, and we’re ready to try again.”

The other two dwarves glanced at each other, nervousness plain on their faces.

“We are ready to try again, aren’t we?” Erland said dryly.

“All these false starts,” Harald muttered, rubbing his hands on his trouser legs. “Every time I get more nervous… Sometimes it feels the machine’s trying to warn us we’re up to something that should not be attempted.”

“Oh, bah,” Kjerstin snorted. “If nobody tried new things, the world would never change.”

“I know what my grandfather would say about this gadget,” Harald said, staring at the engine. “All this glass and filament… It looks like some kind of elvish sculpture.”

“Really, have you ever seen an elvish sculpture?” Erland said with amusement. “Make time to get out of the foundry and into a museum before your brain withers in your skull.”

“Your grandfather still wears his beard down to his belt,” Kjerstin said sharply, “and his generation isn’t too old to have to worry about getting it caught in gears. That is not a joke; you know good dwarves have suffered beard-induced decapitations, working with big enough machines. Some people are just too hidebound to embrace innovation!”

“You two want to re-hash this discussion again right now?” Erland said pointedly.

They paused again, staring at their machine.

“Feh, you’re right,” Harald said. “We’re putting it off. All right, Erland, let’s give her another go.”

“You could’ve built it with some extra dials or something,” Kjerstin muttered, folding her arms and betraying her own nervousness with a rapidly tapping foot. “Some dummy switches. Something for me to do.”

“I’ll work a few useless gizmos into the next iteration,” Erland promised, grasping the lever. “Here goes nothing, once again.”

He hauled the lever into the active position, opening the channel to the desktop-sized elemental forge hooked up to one end of the engine and letting raw heat blaze forth into its mouth.

Immediately, with gratifying smoothness, their creation purred to life. The sound it made was almost musical, high-pitched and harmonic, quite unlike any combustion engine they had ever worked with. Light shone forth from multiple points, orange fire from its exhaust ports, arcane blue beams racing through its exposed power conduits, multicolored runes igniting in sequence along the casing.

At the device’s opposite end from its power source, the piston began working. It barely had to accelerate, starting off pumping at nearly its full capacity.

They tensed, waiting for another alarm or sudden shutdown, as had happened the last four attempts. Nothing came, though. Just the light, the pleasant voice of the engine, and the rapid motion of its output piston against the springs and pulleys attached to the gauges Harald was monitoring.

“It’s stable,” Kjerstin breathed. “It’s working!”

“Kinetic output at fifteen jonors,” Harald reported excitedly. “By the Light, Erland, it’s even higher than we projected!”

“That’s a little too high,” Erland said, cautious despite his own enthusiasm. “We didn’t design it to stand up to that kind of power flow…”

“But it’s working!” Kjerstin squealed, bouncing up and down. “From a heat source to kinetic energy with zero waste or byproducts! Erland, we’re rich!”

A shrill whine sounded from the engine before he could respond; runes flared red, and suddenly its shutdown charms activated again, slamming the barrier shut to cut off its power source and force its lever back into lock position. The blue light faded from the conduits, and its soft voice wound down into silence.

“To get rich,” Harald observed, “we’re going to have to make it run longer than thirty seconds…”

“Oh, you big fuddy-duddy,” Kjerstin said, darting over to swat at his shoulder. “We’re just building a proof of concept, here! We have something to show the Falconers now—their grant is provably not wasted money. They’ll invest in improving it, they have to!”

“I never assume humans are going to do the sensible thing,” Harald grumped. “Please, Kjerstin, don’t get worked up this time before we see results.”

“It’s obviously just a matter of control, right? We refine the runes so that they regulate the power input rather than just shutting it off when it gets too much—”

“Oh, just like that? You’re talking about a complete rebuild of the enchanted components! And we’ll have to re-design most of the physical machine to accommodate…”

Erland let their discussion wash over him, listening with half an ear as he stepped over to his cluttered work desk and sank into the battered chair there, feeling weak from a combination of excitement and relief. He couldn’t keep the grin off his face. They were both right: there was a long, long way to go before they had an engine that would actually power anything, but the concept worked. It could be made to work, at least. All their efforts were finally bearing fruit.

His eyes fell on a newspaper, printed in Tanglish, sitting on top of his stacks of paperwork. He hadn’t bought that… Had Kjerstin brought it in to show him?

Erland’s expression fell into a frown as he read the headline. Oh, this was not good. Professor Tellwyrn was going to immolate somebody.

“Hey, Kjerstin,” he called, interrupting their argument. “Didn’t you happen to mention that the Falconer’s daughter was attending my alma mater?”

“What of it?” she said, exasperated. “You bring that up now?”

“You were talking about funding, and politics,” he said, eyes still on the paper. “There’s something unfolding down there that we may want to pay attention to…”


 

“Your pardon, Princess,” Cartwright said diffidently, “but this newspaper was just delivered for you.”

“Newspaper?” Yasmeen said distractedly, picking it up from the silver tray on which the Butler held it out. “I’m not in the habit of reading the…” She trailed off, staring at the headline. “…Cartwright, who delivered this?”

“A young man who is not a member of the Palace staff,” Cartwright replied, her round face as impassive as always. “I took the liberty of ordering that he be followed. Needless to say, the Palace guardsmen are not equipped to pursue someone discreetly beyond the walls of Calderaas, but I suspect his point of origin is within the city.”

“A man penetrates this deeply into the palace,” Yasmeen said sharply, “a man you do not know, and you merely have him followed? What if, instead of a newspaper, he had been delivering a dagger? How did he get in here? He should have been apprehended the moment you knew something was amiss!”

“With respect, your Highness,” Cartwright said calmly, folding her hands behind her back, “the content of the paper, and the manner of its delivery, is suggestive. This means of conveying information is a favored tactic of both the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence; there are innumerable possible motives either might have to draw your Highness’s attention to Last Rock. Apprehending an agent of either organization would avail us little, and risk creating considerable backlash. When our agents report back, we will know more about who he was, and can act further at that time.”

“I see,” Yasmeen said more calmly, returning her eyes to the paper and reading below the headline. “Quite right, then. That was quick thinking, Cartwright.”

“Your Highness,” the Butler replied, bowing.

“…where is my mother at the moment?”

“Her Majesty is currently entertaining Lord Taluvir in the west drawing room, Princess. His Lordship appeared quite wroth; the matter is likely to tax her considerable stores of diplomatic skill, I fear.”

“Hmmmm. This is definitely not worth interrupting her for, then. Unless…”

“There has been no message from Last Rock from or concerning Prince Sekandar, your Highness,” Cartwight said serenely. “Given the esteem in which House Aldarasi is held by Professor Tellwyrn, he can be assumed to be well so long as we are not notified otherwise.”

“Very well,” Yasmeen said with a sigh, folding the newspaper. “When she has the liberty, please inform the Sultana that I wish to speak with her at her earliest convenience.”

“I have already made the arrangements, your Highness,” Cartwright replied, “and ordered your Highness’s writing desk to be prepared with your favorite jasmine tea and baklava. Your Highness was scheduled to be interviewed by that unmannerly individual from the Wizards’ Guild; he has been informed that the meeting must be delayed.”

Any other servant would be reprimanded for such presumption, but there was no point in going to the considerable expense of employing a Butler if one did not let them buttle.

“Thank you very much, Cartwright.”

“It is, as always, my pleasure, Princess.”


 

Agent Fawkes moved as casually as was humanly possible, conveying the impression to any onlookers that he had every right to be here, on these enclosed manor grounds. Not that there were any onlookers—he had cased the premises quite thoroughly before entering—but one did not last long in his profession if one suffered lapses of professionalism. He laid the newspaper down on the steps to the manor’s kitchen door, which his intel stated was more heavily used by the house’s occupants than the front, and turned to make his way back to the side gate.

He found himself staring directly into a wide pair of eerie crimson eyes. She had appeared in complete and utter silence.

“Hi there!” Malivette Dufresne said brightly, smiling. “Whatcha doin’?”

For the barest moment, he froze. Fawkes was trained to confront the unexpected, to confront death, to contend with attractive women and terrifying monsters. The combination of all of the above was enough to rock his equilibrium, though. Just a little bit.

“Good morning, ma’am,” he said respectfully, stepping back from the vampire and bowing. “Just delivering your paper.”

“That’s interesting,” the undead Duchess said, her smile widening to show off her fangs in what he was certain was not an accidental gesture. “Because people making deliveries tend to leave them at the gate, since it’s not, y’know, open. Also, I don’t subscribe to any newspapers. But since we’re getting all friendly, my pet peeves are poofy-sleeved dresses, sausage too heavily spiced, women who wear too much makeup, and people who come to my home and lie to me.”

Fawkes allowed himself the luxury of a small gulp. Such a show of vulnerability could actually be advantageous; establishing himself firmly as a lesser creature meant she was less likely to do something violent. That was, if his intel on Dufresne was correct; if she were the wrong kind of monster, it could have the opposite effect. Now, face to face with her in all her unnatural glory, he had to wonder. For one thing, it was broad daylight and she wasn’t so much as steaming in the sun…

Malivette was considered an ally of the Throne and a citizen in good standing, and this was a mission of relatively low priority. Under the circumstances, Intelligence’s policy for such a confrontation was clear.

“My apologies, your Grace,” he said, bowing again. “I work for the Imperial government; I was told to deliver this newspaper to your home. That is the entirety of what I know of the matter.”

“Ahh,” she said knowingly. “I see. Well, then. Be a good boy and let’s have it.”

She held out her hand expectantly. Fawkes glanced at it, decided against making any further comment, and turned to retrieve the paper he had just set down. He placed it in her hand with yet another respectful bow.

“Now then,” Malivette said briskly, “let’s see what we have here. Oh, my. Professor Tellwyrn still retains her absolute genius for annoying powerful people, I see…”

Fawkes cleared his throat very softly, stepping backward away from her. “Well. Enjoy your paper, your Grace. If there’s nothing further, I’ll be going.”

The vampire made no response, crimson eyes tracking back and forth as she read the lead article. Fawkes stepped back twice more before turning his back on her. He did not rush, nor pick up his pace in the slightest, as he made his way back across the grounds. Professionalism.

Still, it was with considerable relief that he finally slipped out the side gate into the overgrown path beyond. He didn’t quite indulge himself in a sigh, knowing roughly the range of that creature’s hearing, but allowed himself to un-tense slightly as he re-latched the gate behind him, then turned to head back into the forest.

He was instantly seized by the throat and slammed back into the gate.

“One other thing,” Malivette said in total calm, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for her to suddenly be standing there on this side of the wall. She wasn’t even looking at him, still reading the newspaper held in one hand; the fingers of her other one were as icy and rigid as marble against his neck. Fawkes had better sense than to struggle against them, merely rising up on tiptoe so he could continue to breathe. “Be a love and report to Lord Vex that if he wants to give me a message, he can do so like a civilized person. If I continue to find his playthings creeping about my back steps, I can’t guarantee he’ll get them back in one piece. Clear?”

“Explicitly,” Fawkes replied, unable to fully compensate for the strain on his vocal cords. “I shall relay the message, your Grace.”

“Attaboy!” she said brightly, releasing him.

He was, by that point, only slightly surprised when she exploded into a cloud of shrieking bats and swirled away, back toward the manor. At least she took the paper with her.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >