Tag Archives: Melaxyna

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Natchua indulged in a slower approach on the way home to Leduc Manor, shadow-jumping only enough to avoid people or a trip that would have taken much of the day. She did enjoy a little time spent walking in the mountains, and approaching the half-ruined mansion from its switchbacking access road gave her a few minutes both to savor the view, and to think.

Melaxyna was out in front in a simple human guise, her own customary features with a less eerie coloration and her wings and tail hidden, whittling a chunk of wood with a rusty-looking knife.

“That took a good few hours,” she observed as soon as Natchua came into view. “I was on the verge of getting worried.”

She kept walking up the path. The succubus had called out once Natchua was within the range of elven hearing; she opted to approach closer rather than try to have a discussion while shouting back and forth. It was a small thing, and she didn’t regard Melaxyna as hostile, but it did not escape her notice that this placed Mel in control of the conversation’s dynamic. Holding her peace until she arrived at a position of her choosing was another small thing that served a similar purpose. She would probably never come to enjoy thinking in terms like this, but it was an unfortunately important habit to acquire, and Natchua was starting from behind.

“I had a really peculiar moment today,” Natchua said as soon as she was close enough to do so without raising her voice. “Kind of an epiphany. There was this one point during the…generally pretty difficult discussions I had to have, where suddenly these two incredibly clever, powerful women I was trying to wheedle just visibly dismissed me as a concern and focused on verbally fencing with each other instead. Like I obviously wasn’t smart enough, or important enough, to be a player in that game. And what made it so strange was that I was pleased by it. That’s usually…enraging.”

“Reputation is a powerful thing,” Melaxyna said sagely. “No matter what it’s a reputation for, there’s always some way to leverage it. And being thought of as less smart than you are is always crazy useful, I’ve gotten great mileage out of that one over the years. So, how’re our girls getting along?”

“They’ll keep each other busy for a while, that much I’m confident in. I’m going to have to separate them again before too long,” Natchua continued with a contemplative frown. “If Kheshiri actually messes up Malivette’s situation it’ll mean major problems for me, and likely everyone in the province. And if Vette decisively wins that… Well, actually, that would solve the Kheshiri problem neatly, but then I’m right back to needing to do something about her, and it might be better to still have Kheshiri around to help with that. Well, anyway, hopefully this’ll buy me a few days without either of ’em underfoot, and a chance to see what they both do under pressure.” She paused, then drew in a breath to steady herself. “How’s it looking on the home front? Awful quiet in there…”

“Most of the others are over in the north wing,” Melaxyna said, turning to nod in the direction of the half-ruined arm of the house. “The hobs have pretty well reached the end of what they can do in the front hall, here, without a lot of materiel and supplies, so they’re surveying the damage in the next section. They seem to be getting along well with Xyraadi, now. She’s surprisingly down to earth when she’s trying to make an impression; I was expecting more snobbery, what with all the gratuitous Glassian, but nope! Sweet girl, really. Probably due to her history with adventurers. The chapbooks lie, Natchua. Adventurers were usually filthy hobos who went off to kill things in dungeons because they couldn’t hack it in actual society. Classy, they were not.”

“Right,” Natchua said impatient. “And…?”

Melaxyna gave her a knowing little smile, which she repressed the urge to slap. It was in the nature of a succubus to needle, and she was beginning to think this one in particular was deliberately training her in self-control.

“Jonathan seems steadier with something to do with his hands. We took a stroll down to the nearest lumber camp. They don’t actually cut the trees around here, I think their roots are what keeps the mountainside from sliding down on Veilgrad, but there’s a lot of logging in the province and there are a couple of sawmills pretty close by. We got some price estimates on what the girls will need, and picked up a few bits and bobs. He’s currently up in my little improvised kitchenette, fixing it to be a tad less improvised. I do appreciate a man who’s handy around the house,” she added, putting on one of those little succubus smiles that was a hair’s breadth in every direction from becoming a smirk. “What with one thing and another, I never had the chance for a cozy domestic life.”

“A cozy domestic life would drive you gibbering insane,” Natchua said flatly. She knew too well how right Mel was, though. Jonathan liked working with his hands; having a project would do a lot to settle his mind. “Right, well then… I guess I’d better go deal with this while I have a reprieve from Kheshiri sticking her nose into it.”

She swept up the stairs to the ruined doorway, or tried to. Melaxyna reached out to stop her with a hand on her shoulder.

“You’re a flawed person, Natchua, and this is going to hurt,” the demon said softly. “Don’t be afraid of either. You will be okay. Getting there may be a bitch, but you’ll be okay.”

Natchua could only stare at her for a moment, finding no ready reply to that. She reached up to squeeze Melaxyna’s hand, then gently removed it and continued through the doorway.

With the space defined by the broken remains of its outer walls, the once-grand front hall of Manor Leduc was effectively a courtyard, now, with a gaping hole in its floor leading to a basement. There was certainly little in the way of privacy separating it from the front steps, ensuring that her conversation outside had been audible to the shattered room’s sole occupant. Natchua had, of course, known she was there, having reached out to locate her unique infernal signature along the faint lines of magic that connected them, and being aware of her presence, it was easy to hear her breathing.

Hesthri was perched at the edge of the room, near the doorway opening onto the corridor to Sherwin’s kitchen apartment, squatting on her heels in the way hethlaxi often did. The way the armor plating covered their joints made it more comfortable to adopt a slouch, but they were quite capable of standing up fully straight, as Hesthri now demonstrated on Natchua’s arrival. She rose smoothly to her full height, putting her head up, shoulders back, and chest out. The posture served to accentuate her figure, and by this point Natchua was certain she did that quite deliberately. Hesthri watched her approach for a moment before stepping forward to meet her, holding out her hands in a position that sought Natchua’s own.

She, however, kept them at her sides, maintaining her own straight-backed posture and drawing the cloak of Narisian reserve back over herself. Hesthri stood right in the middle of the narrow lip of navigable space between the wall and the hole; an elf was more than agile enough to slip past her, but Natchua didn’t intend to evade this discussion.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said, coming to a stop and projecting calm. “I take it Xyraadi and the horogki are getting on well enough that—hey, what are…”

Natchua having failed to reach out to take Hesthri’s hands, the hethelax instead raised them to gently cup the drow’s cheeks. Natchua started to pull away from her, but didn’t try very hard or very fast, and failed to escape before Hesthri stepped closer, raised her own face, and kissed her.

She stopped trying to move. It was barely two more seconds before she stopped pretending to be stiff. The breath leaked from her, mingling with Hesthri’s own, and her eyes drifted shut.

Hard and soft, just like Hesthri’s rapidly switching behavior. Her strategic plates of natural armor were as smooth and cool as iron, as if to emphasize what an otherworldly creature this was in Natchua’s arms. Elsewhere, though, she simply felt like a woman, at least in shape. She was so very warm; it was like embracing the coziness of a hearth. Her skin, where not armored, had an unusual but pleasing texture not unlike a snake’s scales. And her lips were just…

Natchua was the one to pull back, slightly, eventually, though by that point she had lost her grasp of how much time had passed. Her forehead rested against the unyielding armor of Hesthri’s, their breath still mingling. The hethelax’s blunt claws still cradled her face in a tender grasp, but Natchua found that she had at some point pulled the demon close and wrapped both arms around her.

Melaxyna, she now understood, had been entirely right. Her weakness wasn’t about a desire for sex, at least except as a means to an end. It was just the closeness, the warmth, the addictive feeling of another person touching her with tenderness, so sharply sweet it was nearly painful, like the first taste of candy on an unprepared tongue. She was just so unaccustomed to being loved that even the pretense melted her like butter in the sun. This was something she absolutely needed to fix, somehow. Kheshiri would make easy pickings of such a vulnerability, and after Melaxyna’s warnings Natchua well understood that even seeing her coming wouldn’t be enough to stop it.

“I don’t know you that well,” she said aloud, her voice rough, but soft. Hesthri’s eyes opened, regarding her own from inches away. “I don’t…truly know what it is you want.”

The demon’s smile was warm, and sad. “I want what’s best for you, Natchua. And I’m hardly surprised you’re wary, given how much I tend to disagree with you about what that is. Luckily for you, our pact requires my loyalty rather than obedience. I can’t decide if you’re the cleverest fool I’ve ever known, or the other way round.”

Natchua had to smile back at that, if somewhat bitterly. “What’s best for me, is it? Even at the expense of what’s best for you? Or Jonathan?” She hesitated, then pressed. “Or Gabriel?”

“I can’t say how I would handle it if you brought those loyalties into conflict,” Hesthri murmured, sliding her hands slowly down Natchua’s neck to her shoulders and making her entire spine tingle as if she were standing too close to an arcane spell matrix. “It hasn’t come up, Natch. If you and Jonathan will just stop being difficult about it, there’s no reason at all this cannot work out equally well for everyone.”

“Difficult,” she huffed, finally pulling back. “No reason to put yourself out, if it’s—”

“Of course there is. I love you.”

It hurt to hear. It was so unexpectedly blissful that it actually hurt. Gods, she was in so much trouble.

Natchua drew in another steadying breath, only belatedly noting that her reserve was long since in tatters. “Hesthri… It’s been days. We don’t actually know each other.”

“Intimacy takes time, and work.” Hesthri agreed. “But falling in love is easier than falling down the stairs. Faster, harder to do on purpose, and usually makes even less sense. Haven’t you studied any martial arts, Natchua? You lean into a fall. You get hurt by trying to fight it. Dear heart, I wouldn’t compel you even if it was within my power. If you truly want to struggle against this every step of the way instead of trying to see if we can make something good of it… Well, do you?”

Natchua backed up fully, out of her grip, and roughly dry-scrubbed her face with both hands. “I can’t decide whether we should have this out between the two of us first, or just go get Jonathan and see how much of a spectacle we can make of ourselves all at once.”

“Second one,” Hesthri said immediately. “This is a mess for everybody involved, and the three of us need to resolve it. It’s not fair to come at him as a united front. Jonathan deserves to be treated as an equal in this.”

“Your relentless logic is beginning to annoy me,” Natchua grumbled. Hesthri smiled at her with simple affection, and leaned forward to press a light kiss to the corner of her mouth. Natchua, despite her better judgment, let her.

“Come on, then. Let’s not put it off any further.”

Sherwin must have been off with Xyraadi and the hobgoblins; at least, there was no sign of him in his apartment, for which Natchua was grateful. She needed the entire walk through that space and up the stairs to the landing in which Melaxyna had cobbled together her little kitchen to settle her own mind. Despite what Hesthri claimed to intend, she had her own thoughts on how this situation needed to be settled. The sound of hammering grew louder as they climbed, each blow tightening the knot in her stomach, but at least the approach gave her the opportunity to pull back ahead of Hesthri and compose her features again.

Jonathan was kneeling with his back to them, pounding what looked like the last nail into a counter he had assembled along one wall of unfinished planks. The whole thing looked rough, but less so than Melaxyna’s arrangement of boxes and mismatched old furniture.

Their footfalls weren’t particularly heavy and it wasn’t as if he had elven ears, but regardless, he stilled as soon as the two of them emerged from the stairwell.

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said quietly.

Finally, he turned around, straightening upright and laying the hammer down alongside a handful of spare nails atop the surface he had just assembled. He was, Natchua found herself suddenly reminded, really tall, and much broader across the chest and shoulders than any elf. And, with his previous anger under control, dignified in a way that contained an emotional intensity, which she had always seen as more worthy of respect than the cold aloofness she had been taught in Tar’naris.

“So,” he said after a pause, looking back and forth between the two of them. “I guess we’re doing this, then.”

Steeling herself and clinging to every shred of her reserve, Natchua stepped forward before Hesthri could say anything.

“It’s time for you to go, Jonathan.”

His eyebrows shot upward. “Go? Excuse me, but—”

“Yes, yes, I know, you figured you were good and blackmailed into this, and at the time I was flustered enough to let you get away with it. But you aren’t really going to set the Empire and the Church and whoever else after Hesthri, are you? No matter how mad you are at me. And now that would drag Xyraadi into this, not to mention the three hobgoblins, who you know don’t deserve that trouble. So that’s enough of this, Jonathan. You’re going—”

A sharp blow to the back of her head made her stagger. Natchua caught her balance, whirling to glare at Hesthri, who was scowling right back and lowering her hand.

“I can’t decide which of you is more ridiculous,” the hethelax snapped. “Honestly. All of this could be so easy!”

“I can’t see any damn way it possibly could,” Jonathan exclaimed. “She’s right about one thing, this entire business is built on lies, blackmail, and infernomancy. Nothing about it is easy in any respect!”

“Because you make it hard! The both of you!”

“I am trying to make it easy!” Natchua shouted. “I don’t know how you’ve got this worked around in your head, but he has no business here and he’s just going to get killed.”

“I thought we all were,” Jonathan retorted. “Wasn’t that the entire plan, Natchua?”

“It doesn’t need to include you!” she yelled back. “Goddammit, haven’t I done enough to you? Would you just let me protect you?! Can’t I do one good thing?”

“Oh, Natchua,” Hesthri sighed. Jonathan was staring at her in something akin to shock, blinking rapidly.

He rallied, though, squaring his shoulders. “You should know I’m not afraid of death or pain, especially not when the end goal is to help my son. Because you weren’t totally wrong, Natch, despite being so amazingly wrong-headed about every detail in between here and your ultimate conclusion. You are in a unique position to mess up whatever Elilial is planning and that will be a way to protect Gabriel. Considering the kinds of powers he has to contend with now, it’s about all I can do. So, no, I’m not leaving. We are doing this stupid bullshit scheme of yours. Especially since, somehow, you’re actually making it work.”

“You do know if I decide to just send you somewhere, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”

“I think you’d be surprised what I can do,” he retorted, stepping toward her. “Do you think I got tangled up with a hethelax demon and protected her on this plane long enough to have Gabriel without being pretty damn resourceful? Has she told you the full story yet?”

“Oh, vrasksha sknithal!” Hesthri shouted, throwing both her hands in the air. “Enough! Get in the room, both of you. Come on!”

She grabbed each of them by an arm and harried the pair across the hall to the nearest accessible doorway, which luckily was to Natchua’s bedroom. Jonathan and Natchua exchanged a look past Hesthri even as she was dragging them, mutually deciding to submit to this with good grace rather than engaging in a pointless scuffle with her. Anyway, she was right; there were a number of ways the rest of this discussion could go, and they were all better done in privacy.

Hesthri didn’t give either of them a chance to start in again, however, whirling on them the instant she had shut the door behind.

“All right, we could hold an entire lecture series on everything Natchua has done wrong here, but by all the gods, Jonathan, she’s twenty.”

“Twenty-one—” Hesthri reached out and clamped a clawed hand over her mouth, by which Natchua was so astonished that she allowed it to happen.

“But you,” the hethelax continued, pointing accusingly at him, “are being purely thoughtless and selfish about this, and it’s beneath you. I expect better.”

“Selfish!” Jonathan’s voice, uncharacteristically, climbed an octave and a half, along with his eyebrows. Natchua finally pulled Hesthri’s hand off her face as he turned his incredulous stare on her. “Did you put her up to this?”

“Don’t look at me, I have no idea what she’s talking about,” Natchua protested. “Come on, Hes, he’s the only one of us who makes any sense. That’s why I want him away from all this!”

“Natchua, shut up a minute,” Hesthri said with a sigh. “And Jonathan, stop making all of this about yourself, because none of it is. Despite how Natchua mistreated you in the process, the truth is you were caught up in the edge of something that was never meant to involve you, by a combination of chance, her terrible ideas and your own damn stubbornness. Yes, she used and lied to you, but ever since she’s been trying to protect you. And she did all of this to protect Gabriel in the first place!”

“Thank you!” Natchua explained.

“You shut your mouth,” Hesthri shot back. “I know you’re trying your best, but you seduced and deceived the man so you could recruit his own former lover into your suicidal crusade. Never mind facing off with Elilial at the end of all this, between that and your general pattern of decisions it’s astonishing you’re not dead yet! Can the pair of you honestly not see how badly you need each other? Jonathan, you were moldering away in Mathenon while Gabriel is out risking his life for the Pantheon, and I know that was eating away at you. It’s not like you to accept your own helplessness that way. Say what you will, Natchua’s nonsense has gotten you back moving, working, and helping, and you love it. And you!” She tried to swat Natchua’s head again, but this time the drow saw it coming and ducked away. That did nothing to stop Hesthri’s tirade. “Why is every idea you have just convoluted and outlandish enough to be completely unworkable? Are you honestly under the impression you can outmaneuver the goddess of cunning with the power of sheer daffy nonsense? That will work right up until she actually notices you. Natchua, Jonathan Arquin is the best thing that’s ever happened to you and the way you keep trying to get rid of him is the dumbest thing you’ve done yet. That is really saying something.”

They both stared at her in shock.

Hesthri sighed heavily. “You need her energy. You badly need his steadiness. She inspires and pushes you; it’s her influence that’s returning you to the vital, driven man I knew and fell in love with. He has so much to teach you about life, and love, and his influence is so exactly what you need to even you out. This man is exactly the one who can help you grow into the enormous potential I see in you. You’re a charming enough kid, Natch, but it’s the woman you are trying to become…” Her voice hitched, but she steadied it and continued. “…that I fell in love with. You need each other. It’s time to forgive, let go, and take the risk. Yes, we’re all going to get hurt. But if we’re together, we’ll get over it. That’s what people do.”

Another few seconds of silence passed between them before Jonathan cleared his throat roughly. “And…are you suggesting… How exactly do you fit into this, Hes?”

“In all the spaces between you,” Hesthri said, smiling now. “I’ve been a servant my whole life, Johnny. I am comfortable letting others take the lead. It’s… What I’ve never had is someone I respected, someone I loved, to dedicate myself to. Somehow, the three of us are a ridiculous, perfect couple. That is, if you two clowns will stop fighting it.”

He shook his head. “I don’t…that’s just too weird, even for—”

“Selfish,” she interrupted, but more gently this time. “We represent three different cultures here, Jonathan, and yours is the only one where it’s not completely normal to have multiple partners.”

“I don’t have a culture,” Natchua muttered. “Narisian anything is a vicious nightmare.”

“Even better, then,” Hesthri replied, taking her by the arm and pulling her forward. “This will just continue to be a wreck if we keep trying to be where we’re from. Can’t we just be who we are, instead? Everyone in this room is stupidly in love with everyone else. I’m not trying to claim this will be magical, or easy, or not prone to dramatic episodes like this. But it can work. And even if it doesn’t, it’s worth trying. Life is short, and often bitter, my darlings. You have to embrace whatever warmth and sweetness you can find. Even if it fails, take a chance on love. Even in Hell we know that.”

“It’s not that…” Jonathan swallowed painfully. “That wasn’t easy to get over, Hesthri. The way she—”

“Stop,” Hesthri ordered. “Say it to her, not to me.”

His expression turned wry for a moment, but he complied, shifting his eyes to Natchua’s. “It hurt me, Natch. It wasn’t just…being conned by some smooth operator. I know we didn’t talk about where any of this was going, in Mathenon, and I was content to just let things develop as they would, but…but she’s right. I loved you.” He hesitated, breathed in and out once, and corrected himself. “I love you. And you betrayed me.”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice was ragged, but she had to say it anyway. “I know that…that’s not enough, nothing is. It’s all I can say, Jonathan. I knew it was going to hurt you, and I hated myself for it, but I did it anyway. I thought…it was important enough. I didn’t have a better idea. I’m just sorry.” She had to stop talking, mostly because the lump in her throat was too painful, but partly because trying to babble out her feelings wasn’t getting her anywhere.

Tears, she noticed belatedly, were running down her face. This was a bad day for Narisian reserve.

“Look at her, Jonathan,” Hesthri all but whispered, stepping next to Natchua and wrapping one arm around her waist, leading her gently but inexorably toward him. “Isn’t that just Natchua in a nutshell? It was stupid and hurtful, but she didn’t have a better idea. She did what she could think of, because it was important, and it doesn’t really matter to her whether she gets hurt. Look at your girl. Your brave, selfless, reckless, beautiful, dumb, clever girl. What the hell is she going to do without you?”

“He doesn’t owe me anything,” Natchua mumbled, looking away.

“That’s for damn sure,” Jonathan sighed.

“Exactly. You’re better off hating me.”

“Oh…hell.” He sighed heavily. “Never once did I hate you. I was… Goddammit, Natch, it’s hard even to stay angry at you, no matter how much you deserve it. At times I downright resent how hard you try to do better. I’m just…I’m not even mad, anymore. It just still hurts.”

His callused fingers took her chin, gently moving her face back toward him. She let him, finding he had stepped close enough to embrace.

“You are not getting rid of me, Natchua. So all that leaves is…how are you planning to make it up to me?”

She opened her mouth, producing exactly as much useful commentary as a fish.

“You’re so focused on everything you do wrong all the time,” Hesthri said softly, gently stroking her back, “I don’t think you’ve ever even noticed how you bring people alive around you, Natchua. Everyone in this house is a better person because you lit a fire under them. People are loyal to you, even after knowing you for just a few days. It’s not because you have any particular idea what you’re doing, and you know it. It’s because your stubborn effort to be better, to accomplish something with the limited and horrible tools you’ve got, inspires people. You showed me the importance of my own potential. And Natchua, you’ve brought my love, the father of my child, back to life. He needs you, too.”

“This…is crazy,” she whispered. “I’m just going to fuck it all up again.”

Jonathan’s hand was still on her chin, and now shifted to caress her cheek. “Yeah…I’m pretty sure you will. You’re kind of a dumbass. Natchua…the hell with it. Hesthri is right, anything breakable is still fixable. I have no idea how this is going to work out, I really don’t. But doesn’t it beat the alternative?”

“I…I don’t…” She could barely breathe out the words; there were no more thoughts forming behind them. Just his face looming right above her, gazing down at her with that gentle expression she had fully expected never to hear again. Everything inside her was cracking under the weight of it.

Hesthri shifted to position herself between them, wrapping an arm around each to push them closer. One clawed hand took each of them by the back of the neck, pushing them the last few inches together.

If not for the both of them holding her up, Natchua probably would have collapsed when he finally kissed her. She slumped against his broad chest, barely held in place by one of his arms and one of Hesthri’s binding her to him. It felt as if she were molten, a warm jelly of sunshine wanting to dissolve into their embrace.

Hesthri nuzzled her cheek when they came up for air. Then the demon lifted her chin as the embrace around them shifted, to be the three holding each other in a circle more than Hesthri pulling them together. Jonathan’s lips met Hesthri’s, and Natchua watched from close enough to taste their shared breath. She looked for jealousy inside herself, and found nothing. She was too close, too much a part of this.

Jonathan pulled them both against his frame, his big hands caressing up and down both their backs, gazing down at them avidly as Natchua and Hesthri kissed deeply in his arms.

Hesthri was the first to hook a claw in Natchua’s robe, insistently tugging the garment aside and slipping in, blunt claws tracing over the soft shape of her. Hands caressed bodies, touching light brown skin and slate gray skin and chitin plates over snakelike scales, catching in the edges of fabric and pulling clumsily.

They shuffled backward, Jonathan’s knees coming to the edge of the bed, and Natchua wasn’t sure which of them giggled as they staggered down onto it.

It was awkward, and uncomfortable, and at moments embarrassing, and somehow, it all worked.

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15 – 38

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No one ever made it more than a few steps into an Izarite temple without being approached by a priest, but given the way he looked by that hour of the morning, Shook couldn’t blame them for being particularly on the ball. He was still in a tailored suit, at least, and had made sure his hair was still slicked back with the aid of his pocket comb and the tin of Sly’s Gentleman’s Cream he always carried—plus a judicious use of his reflection in store windows—but after the night he’d had, he was unshaven, hollow-eyed from lack of sleep, and teetering on his feet. As such, he didn’t even make it fully in the door before a priestess materialized seemingly out of nowhere and gently took him by the arm.

“Welcome,” she said in a soft tone, leading him to the side out of the doorway. “This is a safe place; you can rest here. We’ll take good care of you. What’s your name?”

“Uh…call me Jerry,” he stammered, embarrassingly unprepared for that simple question. With, by this point, Syrinx and her bullshit Inquisition doubtless added to the list of people hunting for his head, which already included the Sisterhood and the Guild, neither his full name nor his tag were safe things to throw around. Of course, in the last couple of years he’d almost never had to interact with the general public, except briefly and in passing, and usually Kheshiri had handled that.

“Jerry,” the woman said, smiling up at him warmly as though she were genuinely delighted to make his scruffy acquaintance. His customary annoyance at the two-faced trickiness of women in general started to well up, but he deliberately pushed it away. She was Izarite, after all; the expression was probably genuine. They were a bunch of feather-headed nutbars, but it was impossible to hate them for it. “I’m Nakhi, and I’m so glad you came. Come sit with me for a moment, and let’s talk.”

“Yeah, about that.” He planted his feet, causing her also to stop, still with a light grip on his arm. “I’m not lookin’ for the usual run of TLC, here. Who’s in charge of this temple?”

Nakhi looked quizzically up at him, stepping closer. “Brother Lokoru is the head priest, but he’s usually not up at this time of morning. We keep unconventional hours here, as you may have heard. But I’ll be more than glad to help you with anything, Jerry. Whatever’s going on, I can tell it has you under a lot of pressure. You’re in exactly the right place to have that turmoil relieved. That is what we do in Izara’s name, after all.”

She gave him that warm, gentle smile again, and he noted she was actually sort of pretty. Not a woman he’d have looked twice at on the street, but Izarites had a way about them; something about that relentless kindness of theirs was irresistibly attractive regardless of what they looked like.

“Thank, doll,” he said, gently extricating his arm from her grip. “Look, I know you got a job to do and I’m sure you’re good at it, but I’m gonna have to pass on having that turmoil relieved. I’m still using it. Can you maybe answer a couple questions about Izarite business in Ninkabi?”

“Well…it depends on the questions,” the priestess replied, her expression growing concerned. Exactly like a nurse whose patient wouldn’t take their medicine. “Obviously, we place a high value on privacy here. I would never repeat anything you shared with me in confidence, and I can’t betray any other guest’s confidence to you, either. But the cult itself doesn’t have many secrets. I meant what I said, Jerry: if there’s anything I can do to help you, then that’s what I’m here for. Are you in some kind of trouble?”

Omnu’s balls, was he in some kind of trouble. Nothing she could actually help with, though, and trying would likely just land him in hot water with the Church or one of the Pantheon cults with which he was already having problems.

“If there was some higher-up in town,” he said, evading the question, “some big important Izarite personnel from the capital, and they were being discreet and didn’t want their presence known, what’d be my best chance of meetin’ up with ’em?”

Nakhi blinked twice. “I’m…not sure I understand the question, Jerry. If somebody important were here and specifically wanted to avoid being known or seeing anyone, then it sounds like you couldn’t meet them. And I probably couldn’t, either, for that matter. I’m definitely not aware of anybody like that being in Ninkabi.”

“And if you were, you couldn’t tell the likes of me, anyway. Well, it was worth a try. Thanks anyway.”

“Are you looking for someone in particular, Jerry?” she asked. “We just don’t have a lot of celebrities or important officials within the Brethren. I can’t think of anybody who might match your description other than High Priestess Delaine or Bishop Snowe, and they’re both in Tiraas.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he said, forcing a grin. “Sorry to waste your time, sister. Have a good one.”

He turned to go, but she reached out and caught his arm again. Anger surged; he did not appreciate being grabbed.

“Are you sure you won’t stay and talk for a while?” Nakhi asked, her voice as tender as a doting mother’s. “Whatever else is going on, Jerry, it’s obvious you could do with some rest, and probably a hot meal. We can provide both. And even if you weren’t looking to unburden yourself, I bet you’d be amazed at the difference it can make.”

Fucking whore, exactly like all the rest of them, looking to ferret out whatever secrets she could exploit. Izarites were supposedly empathic as a gift of their goddess; she had to be aware of how angry she was making him, but there was no sign on her face of any concern. As if to prove she was operating on some hidden agenda…

Breathe. Let it go.

Everyone is absolutely out for themselves, Sweet’s advice whispered in his memory, but you have to put yourself in their perspective, think about what they want. People are social animals, Thumper. You’d be amazed how many of their selfish agendas will actually impel them to do nice things for others and except nothing in return.

She was an Izarite. This was her hidden agenda. Losing his cool over this was his own weakness, exactly the thing his teachers had tried to get him past, and Kheshiri had worked so hard to exacerbate. It was past time he paid due honor to the men who’d been actually trying to help him.

“I appreciate it, honey,” he said, once more removing her hand from his arm as gently as he could. She didn’t resist, giving him no reason to handle her at all roughly. He patted her hand once before letting it go. “You’re a sweetheart, but you don’t have what I need. Take care, now.”

Shook turned and strode back outside into the sunlight before she could try again to dissuade him, not slowing his steps to a more typical walking pace until he had rounded the temple’s corner and was pacing down its length on the sidewalk.

It wasn’t much of a play, but it was the best he could think of on short notice. It was pretty clear that going back to the Inquisition wasn’t an option. With Kheshiri run off and the Jackal himself evidently having snapped under the pressure of his own scheme, to say nothing of that rabid loon Syrinx now holding the reins, he had to face the fact that this entire keep-tabs-on-the-Archpope plan had gone belly up without producing any results.

That pretty much left him with Khadizroth as the only person to turn to. He already knew it was within K’s power to locate him in the city, and didn’t know why he hadn’t yet done so, though he could think of several possibilities. The least dismal was that the dragon was just too preoccupied keeping Syrinx from burning Ninkabi the fuck down to come looking; it was also possible he knew Shook had spent the night with the Wreath and assumed the worst about him. That left him with one, more slender hope.

Khadizroth was of the opinion that Snowe was a much cleverer operator than she let on, and Shook respected his opinion highly. She’d pretty much have to be, anyway, to have come out here in order to put Syrinx down—itself a worthy goal in his view. He was gambling that she was sufficiently on the ball to make sure she’d be informed of interesting developments in whatever city she was in. Such as a scruffy person matching his description sniffing around for her at Izarite temples, for example.

He pulled out the pamphlet he’d acquired at a small Universal Church chapel, which gave the addresses of all the temples of Izara in Ninkabi, double-checking the next on the list. Yep, he was heading the right way, at least if his recollection of the street layout was solid.

Now there wasn’t much left but to hope Snowe found his trail before the Inquisition, the Guild, or the Avenists did. Or the Wreath. Or the Jackal, since the gods only knew what that demented fuck was up to right now and given his personality, killing off his former allies was an ample likelihood. Or this mysterious necromantic cult of Justinian’s, since that was evidently a real thing and was actually up to big trouble in this city.

Nothing could ever be easy, could it.


It was her own fault for leaving Kheshiri unsupervised for five minutes, Natchua reflected when she returned to the kitchen to find everyone assembled and the whole group in the process of exploding.

The entire story was obvious at a glance. The bit players had carefully removed themselves to three corners of the room: the three hobgoblins huddled together with their heads down in one, Sherwin in another watching the unfolding show as avidly as a theater patron during the fight scene, while Xyraadi perched daintily on a stool near the fireplace, sipping tea from a cracked mug with the aloof aspect of someone who wanted something to occupy her hands and mouth a lot more than she wanted tea.

It was just in front of the hall door, opposite the external door through which Natchua and Melaxyna emerged, that the real drama was playing out. Jonathan and Hesthri faced each other across the gap, he with his fists clenched and apparently on the verge of lunging at her, she just looking resigned. Natchua was in no way worried about that; aside from Hesthri’s physical invulnerability, she knew Jonathan Arquin would never get any closer than that to striking someone he cared about, especially a woman. That it had gone this far was a testament not only to how upset he was, but how suddenly the provocation must have come on, clearly before his prized self-control had a chance to re-assert itself.

And between them, just far enough back in the doorway not to obstruct their view of each other, Kheshiri looked confused and worried, glancing back and forth as if this outcome were a complete surprise to her. Given who and what she was, that was unlikely to be fooling anyone. It was certainly not fooling Natchua, who could read the malicious glee coursing through her aura like a newspaper headline.

Well, Mel had warned her Kheshiri’s campaign would begin with deliberately making a nuisance of herself.

“Oh dear,” Kheshiri said worriedly, wringing her hands. “Should…I not have said anything? I’m sorry, I don’t know all the history here…”

Jonathan tore his eyes from Hesthri to turn an incredulously furious stare upon Natchua. “Is this true?”

“Is what…” He physically swelled, and she broke off, shaking her head. “No, Jonathan, I am not being disingenuous. I’m pretty sure I know what this is about, but since the rogue succubus obviously started it, I’m not willing to assume.”

“That’s what this is about,” Hesthri said quietly. “And yes, Jonathan, it’s true.”

Amazingly, he managed to puff up even further, his face flushing almost crimson with the pressure of not lashing out. At least he managed to keep it strictly verbal.

“What is wrong with you?” he roared, addressing himself to the ceiling.

Natchua chose to assume, regardless, that it was directed at her.

“Well, if I knew the full answer to that, I’d already be at work fixing it, now wouldn’t I?” she asked wearily. “Nothing you don’t already know about, really. And I did try to warn you.”

“Nothing is wrong with me,” Hesthri said, her voice still soft. “Not now that I’m with you, and safe from my former mistress, and able to help Gabriel. All of it thanks to Natchua. What’s more,” she added in a firmer tone, stepping forward to compel his attention, “a lot less is wrong with Natchua than either she or you thinks, and none of it able to be addressed by carrying on this way. This isn’t how I wanted to you find out, obviously, but I was also not going to hide it from you, Jonathan. Since this is how it’s begun, though, let’s talk about it.”

“You want to talk.” He clutched his head for a moment, fingers clenching into bloodless claws. “…no. This is more shit than I can deal with.”

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said urgently as he rounded on Kheshiri. “Please, you can’t—”

“Later,” he snapped, not looking at her. “I can’t even look at you right now. Get out of the way!” he roared at Kheshiri, who quailed backward, still blocking the door.

The nigh-hysterical mirth roiling in her aura rose to such a pitch that Natchua was honestly impressed she managed to keep acting, but indeed she did, quivering and stammering and giving a very good impression of a woman too panicked by the sight of the man cornering her even to flee.

Natchua wasn’t sure what would result from the succubus continuing to antagonize Jonathan right now, but was not about to indulge her. A simple extension of her will caused the shadows to flicker and gather, sweeping Kheshiri away to stand at the opposite side of the room, well out of his path.

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said as he stomped out down the corridor toward the ruined great hall. She only spoke his name, though, not raising her voice or trying to call him back.

“Mistress, I’m so sorry,” Kheshiri burbled frantically, “I didn’t realize—”

“Silence,” Natchua ordered with neither emphasis nor inflection. “I’ll deal with you in a moment. Melaxyna, would you please go make sure Jonathan doesn’t do anything…unwise?”

“He will not,” Hesthri stated, turning to her. “And he definitely doesn’t want to be hovered over. Just let him calm down on his own time.”

“I agree,” Natchua replied. “Which is why I asked Melaxyna, whose presence he won’t detect if she doesn’t wish it. I trust Jonathan, but I’ve never seen him that angry, and the woods around Veilgrad are not safe even by the standards of woods in general.”

Hesthri nodded at that, as did Melaxyna, pausing only to squeeze Natchua’s shoulder once. She slipped across the room, diverting momentarily to the corner to peck Sherwin on the cheek, then departed silently into the hallway, fading to invisibility as she went.

“Xyraadi,” Natchua said, turning to the khelminash, with a deep bow of her head, “this is more menial than the work you’re used to, I know, but can I ask you to supervise the horogki’s work today?”

“Pas de probleme,” Xyraadi assured her, rising smoothly and setting her cup on the mantle. “After helping Mortimer in Second Chances, I fancy I have acquired a knack for administration.”

“Oh, uh, about that, boss lady,” Pizzicato squeaked. Natchua turned to find her hunched as if expecting to be kicked; Glissando and Staccato were actually trying to hide behind her. “We, uh, sorta need some quality time with Mr. Moneybags, here. We gotta see about orderin’ some stuff to work with—stone, lumber, glass, tools, nails an’ shit. Cleanup’s well and good and a lotta that rubble is reusable but not even we can rebuild a house outta good intentions and slobber.”

“That’s Lord Moneybags, actually,” Natchua corrected her, smiling in spite of herself.

“Hey, just Sherwin’s fine,” he demurred. “The House of Moneybags doesn’t stand on formality. What’s left of it. And anyway, uh, I don’t really know what to tell you. I have my lawyers arrange for my supplies and stuff. If I need something in particular that’s not on the regular delivery I have them order it. If you just write down what you need…”

“I can certainly attend to that myself,” Xyraadi said, smiling. “If you girls will just tell me what you need, I shall arrange a full list for Sherwin to deliver to his steward.”

“Oh,” Pizzicato croaked, looking less than reassured. “Well, then. Great. Okay.”

“Is there a problem?” Natchua asked.

All three of them suddenly straightened up, frantically waving. “No, no! No problem! Everything’s fine and dandy!”

“There is not a problem,” Hesthri interjected, “but I see why they would fear otherwise. Girls,” she went on more gently, turning to the hobgoblins, “Xyraadi is not like the other khelminash. She fled from their cities and from Hell itself to come here and live free of them. I have found her to be kind and entirely reasonable; she won’t treat you the way the mistresses back home did. Right?” she added, turning a pointed look on Xyraadi.

“Oh, absolutement,” Xyraadi agreed hastily. “I apologize, ladies, for failing to consider your perspective. I, of all people! No, we are all five of us exiles from the same nightmare, are we not? And good riddance to it. I see no reason we cannot all be friends; it is not a hard thing to treat one another with a little basic respect.”

“Xyraadi has my trust as well,” Natchua added, seeing that the three hobs looked less than convinced. It would likely take time and exposure to bring them around; she just needed to apply a little encouragement to get them started. “But if anyone here has any problem with anyone else, you bring it right to me and I will take care of it. Okay? You’re not slaves here. It’s not possible for you to leave and roam this plane, I’m afraid, but if you wanted to go back to where you came from, I’ll arrange it.”

That prompted another round of frantic demurrals, and Hesthri winced.

“I’m sorry,” Natchua said ruefully, “that sounded like a threat, didn’t it? I promise it wasn’t. Don’t worry, girls, I’m not going to banish you unless you ask me to. I just mean, this is a small community and we need to get along. So long as everybody pulls their weight, I will make sure you’re treated as well as I can reasonably arrange. Fair?”

“Come, why don’t you show me what you have done so far?” Xyraadi suggested, smiling at the quailing hobgoblins and gesturing toward the door. “I would be delighted to hear your plans for the ongoing repairs.”

“Hes,” Natchua said, “would you mind going along? Not that I think they need more supervision, but they might feel better with you there.”

“Not at all. In fact, I’d be grateful to have something to do with myself right now.” She gave Natchua a warm smile before gently shepherding the still-uncertain horogki toward the great hall.

Sherwin cleared his throat as Xyraadi followed them out. “Well! I guess I’ll, uh…”

“That’s okay, Sherwin, it’s your room, after all. Don’t put yourself out; I’ll just get the rest of this mess out of your hair. Come, Kheshiri.”

The sunlight wasn’t as glaring as it had once been; the actual shadow spell to protect her eyes from the brilliance hadn’t been part of the repertory of infernomacny Elilial had given her, but it had been easy enough to work out. She didn’t even need dark glasses anymore.

“Mistress, I apologize,” Kheshiri said demurely. “It seems I misread the situation and spoke out of turn. If any trouble has resulted—”

“Yes, I know,” Natchua interrupted in a disinterested tone. Narisian reserve didn’t exactly prepare her for this kind of playacting, but she made do by trying to channel the attitude she felt best fit her needs: Tellwyrn’s. One of Tellwyrn’s specific attitudes, in fact, the slightly irritated dismissal she showed to problems that were only just barely worth addressing. As if this pivotal conversation with this highly dangerous individual were a fleeting annoyance, beneath her attention. “You’ve only seen me using brute force to solve problems, so you assumed that was the only trick I had, and therefore assumed you’re smarter than I. And that was fine, while you were an unwanted stray I had to gather up. Now, however, I have a task for you, and so it’s time for you to learn some things.”

“Oh?” Kheshiri murmured. “I will be glad to serve you in any way I can, mistress.”

Her expression, now, was surprised and intrigued, and for once the emotion in her aura was exactly the same.

The thing was, Kheshiri absolutely was smarter than she, and had to at least suspect it. But if she thought Natchua was dim enough not to recognize the disparity in their scheming ability, she might relax her efforts enough to make a mistake. Plus, by taking a leaf out of Hesthri’s book and abruptly changing her entire demeanor every so often, apropos of nothing, she might stave off the succubus from getting a true handle on her actual personality.

Gods, this was going to be exhausting.


By the time early afternoon rolled around, Shook was seriously considering trying to catch a nap in an alley like some kind of bum. Keeping moving the whole day was exactly the exhausting icing his already exhausting cake did not need; after visiting every Izarite temple in Ninkabi to sow the necessary seeds of suspicion, he had carried on a gradual circuit of the city, pacing between the temples in the hope that anybody who came looking for him would be less likely to catch him unawares as long as he was moving. If he got the first look, he could meet up with Snowe or Vannae if it was one of them, or flee from anyone else. But gods, he was about ready to drop right where he stood. It wasn’t like this was his first all-nighter, but it also wasn’t as if he were as young as he’d once been.

And ultimately it didn’t even work. He was shambling along, too out of it even to register where he was going anymore, much less what was happening around him, when a luxury enchanted carriage driven by a man in nondescript livery pulled up to the curb alongside him.

One of its windows swung outward, and Branwen Snowe’s face appeared in the gap. “May I offer you a ride, Mr. Shook?”

He was too tired to hesitate or even upbraid himself for being snuck up on after all his preparations. He just turned toward the carriage and grasped the door handle, Snowe already retreating along the seat. Shook clambered in and slumped against its plush cushions, only belatedly remembering to pull the door shut.

“Gods, am I glad to see you, lady,” he said as the carriage pulled smoothly back into traffic. “How’d you find me?”

“Khadizroth has been instrumental in tracking you. I must say, though, your plan to draw my attention was impressively clever. I’ve already had several confused reports of your movements. I’d like to think that even without our dragon friend, I would have been sharp enough to locate you.”

She smiled, and it was even better than the smiles he’d been getting from Izarite priests all morning, for all that it had that same ineffably gentle Izarite quality to it. The difference, he figured, was that Branwen Snowe was also out and out gorgeous, and clearly worked at it. None of the others had worn cosmetics, or applied more to their hair than water and a comb. She looked like she was on the way to one of her book signings or public addresses. He’d known plenty of women like this; they always looked that way.

“So K’s with you,” he said wearily. “Good. Makes this a lot easier.”

“Yes, it will be good to have everyone’s information in the same room,” she agreed. “I gather you must have had a very interesting night. And Khadizroth will be able to update you on events within Basra’s Inquisition since you slipped out.”

Shook grunted. “I bet Syrinx is about ready to chew her fuckin’ foot off.”

“She was close to that point before all this started.”

Despite the fatigue, he studied her face closely. “I guess that’s the best news you’ve had all week, right? You must really hate the bitch to go to all this trouble.”

Snowe sighed very softly, turning her blue eyes to the passing scenery outside the window. “Even if I were inclined toward hate…no. That seems like an emotion for enemies. Other people. Basra Syrinx is just a mad, deadly thing which has run amok for far too long. All I feel is pity for those she has harmed, and…remorse. This summer I stood in the Grand Cathedral while the paladin of her own faith demanded she be brought to justice, and heard the fellow Bishop whose opinion I respect the most point out something which has stayed with me ever since: all those of us who tolerated Basra because she was politically useful, even knowing what a monster she is, are complicit in her crimes. Her destruction is redemption, to me. That’s all.”

“I can respect that,” he said, nodding and letting his eyes close of their own accord. Shook was just too bone-weary to dissemble; that actually was a sentiment to which he could relate. “Oh…right. You’d best not bring me to whatever safe house you’re using, Bishop. Among the shit I need to bring everybody up to speed on, I spent the night with the Black fuckin’ Wreath. I’d bet my left nut they’re still tracking me. They damn sure can, and they’d be pretty stupid not to.”

“I see,” she said, turning back to him with her eyebrows raised. “Well… Thank you for the warning, but we must go where we are going regardless. That is where Khadizroth awaits us. After that, however, I’m confident he can erase any trace the warlocks can lay upon you, and my own roots in this city are shallow. We can move to a new, safer location easily enough.”

He just nodded. Sounded like good sense.

“I’m proud of you, Mr. Shook,” she said quietly.

He opened his eyes. “Excuse me?”

“I know nothing except what I cannot help but sense,” Snowe said, again giving him that Izarite smile. “But it is…familiar to me. You are a man struggling with inner demons, and slowly but surely, rising above them. Forgive my presumption; I just wanted you to know that I honor the effort.”

Shook stared at her for a moment. It seemed that this was the sort of thing that usually made him angry. Right at that moment, though, he just didn’t have the energy.

He leaned his head against the window and let his eyes drift shut again.

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15 – 36

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“It’s not going to be like the last time,” Natchua insisted. “I’m not going to just set her loose. You’re right, that was reckless. Look, I was serious when I told Malivette I wanted to talk with her about this; she’s my likeliest chance of getting rid of Kheshiri. All that’s changed is that if it doesn’t work, I might still gain some benefit by having Kheshiri disrupt her activities…whatever those are. The beauty of it is I don’t need to deceive anyone. I can tell Malivette the truth that I’m bound by contract not to deliberately rid myself of Kheshiri, but I won’t shed a tear if somebody powerful and clever enough makes her vanish. I can tell the demon that I’m somewhat dependent on Vette’s goodwill and don’t want anything too awful to happen to her, but she’s apparently decided to be clever at my expense and it would be swell if somebody gave her something more urgent to worry about. Which is also true. Vette will probably be happier with the succubus under her eyes than mine, and Kheshiri needs something dangerous and cunning to chew on to keep her engaged. It’s perfect.”

“You’re learning fast,” Melaxyna said with a hint of approval. “The best deceptions are not lies, but truths carefully framed. You can rely on people to act toward their own interests, irrespective of yours. Control what someone knows and you control what they’ll do. Good lessons, all. But you’re still committing the very major blunder of trying to play this game against people you know are better at it than you.”

“This isn’t the final play of this game,” Natchua murmured, her eyes narrowing as her gaze turned inward in thought. “Unless… Maybe if Malivette abruptly does something extremely final to Kheshiri, but I don’t think that’s the likeliest outcome, she knows better than to kill a child of Vanislaas and there’s no reason she would know how to make a soul jar. No, there’s not really a win condition for me if I let that keep playing out, is there? Keshiri is unlikely to overthrow Vette and will only make a big mess for me if she has a serious go at it. Plus, the longer they’re in contact, the greater the chance of them mutually deciding they like each other more than they like me, and that could be no end of trouble. I suspect something awkward will happen pretty soon, but even if it doesn’t, I’ll find an excuse to draw Kheshiri back here and keep them separated. I don’t understand either of them nearly well enough, is my problem. Forcing them into contact and seeing what they do when both are off-balance will be…illuminating.”

“Ah, the potential,” Melaxyna sighed.

“You agree, then, it will work?”

“I mean you. For such a ham-fisted little galoot, you do have a mind in there. Given time, practice, and some guidance, you could become something really…” She trailed off, then shook her head. “Well, keeping our eyes on the here and now, let me illuminate something important that you haven’t figured out.”

“I’d be grateful for the advice,” Natchua said in all sincerity.

Melaxyna turned to face her directly. “You should be more open with Kheshiri.”

The wind whistled softly between them while they regarded each other in silence. The half-crumbled tower rooftop of Manor Leduc on which they stood offered several advantages in terms of privacy, not least of which was that it was inaccessible without the benefit of wings or shadow-jumping, but rising above the treetops as it did, the constant wind streaming down from the mountains made for an ever-present threat of a tumble. Not that an elf and a succubus were likely to lose their balance.

“I know what you’re doing, you know,” Natchua said at last. “A statement like that obviously requires an explanation. You’re not getting the satisfaction of hearing me beg for it.”

“You really do learn,” Melaxyna murmured. A pleased smiled bloomed on her features, but just as quickly withered. “Think in terms of motivations, not your own prejudices. Yes, it’s always wise to be wary of children of Vanislaas, but that becomes a weakness if you think of us as boogeymen who must be tiptoed around in constant terror. Believe me, we get excellent mileage out of that. You need to consider what Kheshiri is and what she wants. Right now, you’ve got her cooped up in one place with nothing to do except talk to your other followers, which is a nightmare waiting for an excuse. Natch, your mad crusade against the Dark Lady has been a hard sell to everyone so far, I know, but Kheshiri? Her entire shtick is testing her talents against the most dangerous foes she can, with no regard for her own well-being, just to see how far she can push it. And Elilial, don’t forget, is personally responsible for her being in that reliquary for a century. I respect the impulse to keep her at arm’s length, but I think it would be better to brief her fully. Odds are she will love this whole insane scheme of yours. And she can sure as hell contribute a lot to it.”

“Hm,” Natchua grunted, turning to gaze out at the stunning view their vantage gave them of Veilgrad and the Great Plains beyond.

“And more immediately,” Melaxyna continued, “that will give her something to focus on besides you. She’s tricky to read, even for the likes of me, but I have a strong sense that she’s actually quite enamored of you. If you can’t distract her with something good and juicy, well, she has nothing better to do than squirm her way into your affections.”

“I am not going to take that creature to bed,” Natchua said acidly. “I realize I’ve earned some skepticism, myself, but I’m not that stupid.”

Melaxyna gazed at her in silence for a moment before answering in a softer tone. “The only person who cannot be seduced is a person who’s perfectly content. Does that describe you, Natch? In the slightest?”

“Oh, what are you on about—”

“That really is the most elementary mistake, you know. Love and hate aren’t opposite things. They are two aspects of one phenomenon: infatuation. The emotional fixation on another person which precludes all rational thought. Their mutual opposite is apathy. Someone whom you despise can seduce you far more easily than someone in whom you have no interest at all, so long as they know the technique. I assure you, Natchua, there are few techniques Kheshiri doesn’t know.”

“I am skeptical.”

“Did you know hostages have a tendency to fall in love with their kidnappers?”

“If anything, she’s the hostage in this scenario.”

“But you’re the emotionally agitated one, and that’s what matters. A hostage has to watch an abductor closely for their own survival; they must learn their moods and methods, avoid provoking them, learn how to earn little kindnesses. Understanding someone begets empathy; empathy and an emotional charge is the recipe for passion, and what emotion specifically is used in the brew matters far less than most people think. To seduce someone, the last thing you want them to feel is safe.

“She’ll continue playing pranks like that business with the milk this morning. Anything to keep you annoyed and off-balance. She’ll gradually, the smallest bit at a time, reveal little vulnerabilities—and they’ll be real ones, things you could use to actually hurt her. She will prove this by giving you some ammunition she knows you’ll use, wittingly or not, to cause her real pain. You’ll be watching her for trouble this whole time, tense and on edge, and growing gradually more intimately acquainted. It will build, and blossom, and then all she has to do is wait till it’s built enough and then find the right moment, something that has emotions running high enough to crowd out rational thought. The aftermath of some kind of battle is perfect for that, and in a group like this, one of those is never too far off. I realize you like to think you’d never fall for it, but…so does everyone. That’s why it works. It’s not weakness on your part, Natchua, it’s just arithmetic for someone who knows all the variables.”

Natchua chewed on her bottom lip. “I…respect your insight, Melaxyna, but come on. That all sounds kind of far-fetched.”

“Oh, yeah?” The succubus tilted her head back, arching an eyebrow. “That’s pretty rich, considering Hesthri just pulled that exact routine on you. Quite successfully.”

The drow froze, then closed her eyes. “So…you know about…”

“Oh, honey, I’m an empathy demon. Of course I do.”

“Then…”

“Yes, I guarantee Kheshiri knows, too. What she’ll do with that information precisely remains to be seen.”

Natchua covered her face in both hands. “Fuck. That is exactly what she did, isn’t it? Fuck. Why am I such a horny idiot? I never was before.”

“Oh, child.” Melaxyna stepped close and wrapped an arm around Natchua’s shoulders, folding one spiny wing around her protectively. “An overactive libido has never been your problem.”

“Sure looks like it,” Natchua said dully.

“Mm. So, you hate your mother, your House, and your entire home culture. It’s not much of a stretch to guess you did not have a warm and caring childhood.”

“I don’t want to discuss that,” Natchua snapped, trying to pull away. To her surprise, Melaxyna’s grip tightened, clinging stubbornly to her.

“Then, at the University… Well, why exactly did you stop fooling around with Juniper? Even I know she’d happily open her arms to just about anyone, and I only saw her twice a year at most.”

“That…she…” Natchua swallowed, giving up on her attempted escape to concentrate on controlling the unpleasant lump of emotion trying to climb up her throat. “That was fine, it was a good thing anyway. Juniper felt I was growing too attached, and wasn’t comfortable having a close emotional… Which, I mean, it’s good that she drew the line before I got in over my head. Falling in love with a dryad would be an utter disaster.”

“Mm hm.” Melaxyna rubbed her shoulder soothingly with the hand around her. “And why was Chase Masterson your closest friend on campus?”

“I did not sleep with Chase!”

“Okay. But he’s the one you hung around with the most, am I right?”

“My fucking classmates gossip too much,” Natchua growled.

“At a guess? That surly, hostile act you were putting on to protect yourself drove everyone else away; most people will quickly get tired of being snapped at, and even born therapists like Toby Caine will eventually figure out when their help isn’t actually helping. But Chase, being the twisted little shit he was, remained undeterred by punishment and lived to have fun. He stuck by you, no matter how much of a snot you were to him about it, and always had something to do that kept you entertained. Right?”

“What the hell is your point?” Natchua snapped. She still didn’t pull away again, though.

The demon folded her wing tighter, hugging her close. “Natchua, honey, people need to be loved. It is as essential to life as food, if not as urgent. Deprive a person of all social contact and they’ll start going insane within mere days; deprive them of love, and the damage is slower to build, but still severe. It’s not weakness on your part that you melt for anyone who shows you genuine affection. As starved for it as you are? It’s like waving a sausage in front of someone who hasn’t eaten in a week.”

They were silent for several full minutes. Natchua eventually let herself lean against Melaxyna, who continued to gently rub her upper arm.

“Kheshiri will have no trouble figuring that out, will she,” Natchua finally whispered.

“And using it,” Melaxyna said, nodding.

“What am I going to do?”

“Well, first of all, I recommend you let Hesthri continue with what she’s doing.”

“Oh, gods.” Natchua squeezed her eyes shut again. “Are you barking mad? There was enough of a mess between me and Jonathan, and between her and Jonathan, before that. Now, this is a whole order of magnitude more… I don’t know what the hell she was thinking.”

“Exactly. Filling in the third line is the most stable solution to the problem of a love triangle. Unfortunately it’s not an option in most cases; most people get too jealous to carry on a relationship like that. Someone usually ends up feeling neglected and hurt. But if the option exists? Absolutely go for it.”

Natchua leaned away slightly to frown at her. “What?”

“You three aren’t just any three randos, y’know. Well, two of you aren’t. One’s a self-effacing submissive brought up and conditioned to slavery who seems to draw her only joy from satisfying the people she cares about. Trust me on this; empathy demon, remember? Then, one’s an aggressive, over-emotional young tyrant who needs, above all else, a support system. If anything, Jonathan’s the sticking point here, being the most…forgive the word…normal of the lot of you. But I rather think if you continue to let Hesthri work on it, she’ll bring him around. It really shouldn’t be all that hard. He’s busy castigating himself for loving two women; I quite think the prospect of being able to have both will be extremely persuasive.”

Natchua just stared at her. “You’re…actually suggesting…”

“I am,” Melaxyna said seriously, meeting her eyes. “Come on, who are you to get hung up on what’s conventional? I’m telling you, Natchua, as your friend, this would be the best thing for you if you can make it work. You need some comfort, and safety, and love more than almost anyone I’ve ever known. The fact that both of them are twice your age is, if anything, the best part. You can definitely use four times the maturity to help balance you out.”

“Why is it even when you’re being sweet it comes out insulting?”

“Well, be fair,” Melaxyna said, grinning. “I’m a demon, and you’re a mess. I’m serious, though. I know these things aren’t your strong suit, but Hesthri is capable of arranging such intimate details. My advice to you is to let her.”

Natchua rubbed at her eyes with both fists. Not to repress tears, as none were coming, but just because the pressure and flashing lights it caused in her vision were a welcome distraction from the roiling turbulence inside her head.

“On the other hand,” Melaxyna said solemnly, “this is all gonna be hysterically awkward if you ever do link up with Gabriel again.”

The laughter that burst out of her was a simple release of pressure. Melaxyna just held her, even as it built to near hysteria, helping balance them both against the wind and sheltering the drow within her wing for the several minutes it took her to calm herself back down somewhat.

“Remember, too,” the succubus said at last, “with Kheshiri slinking about, tending to your own happiness is a strategic necessity. Your martyr complex doesn’t change the fact that she can wreck your entire psyche unless you position yourself such that it’s too difficult for her to manage. Support system, Natchua. Let the people willing to love you do so, as long as they’re all alive to do it.”

Still hiccuping, Natchua nodded weakly, brushing tears out of her lashes. Melaxyna squeezed her again.

“I want to make sure you’re as…all right as can reasonably be arranged, before I go.”

At that, Natchua stiffened, turning to stare at her. “Wait, what? Go?”

“We had a deal,” the succubus said, quietly but implacably. “Remember? In exchange for my freedom from the Crawl, my help to set yourself up with the assets and crew you need for your campaign. But you promised I would be released once I was no longer needed, before you get too close to drawing Elilial’s ire. Look around, Natch. You have a secure base, and what amounts to a staff working to build it up. Xyraadi is a major tactical asset, a warlock close to as knowledgeable as you and able to actually do a lot of those really dicey infernal spells that you can’t without incinerating yourself. And…without any false modesty…anything I can do tactically, Kheshiri can do better. You just need to get her aimed in the right direction and be certain she’s working with rather than against you—which is more feasible, I assure you, than it may look. I told you, it’s all about providing what she really wants, which you’re uniquely positioned to do.” Melaxyna gave her a gentle shake. “You’re there, Natch. You have what you need to watch for that opening you were talking about taking against Elilial. Or, at the very least, to continue building your position and assets. The truth is, you don’t need me anymore.”

“It’s…that’s not what…” Natchua swallowed painfully, refusing to meet her eyes now. “You’re not just an asset anymore, Mel. I don’t…want to lose…a friend.”

The succubus was silent, until she could no longer bear the strain and finally raised her face to meet her gaze. Melaxyna’s expression, though, was soft, a sad smile lingering on her lips.

“Friends don’t drag friends into suicidal crusades when they’ve explicitly promised not to.”

Natchua had to lower her eyes again. But she nodded, acknowledging the point, and not trusting herself to speak.

“Hey, I’m not gonna flitter off right this minute,” Melaxyna said more lightly, giving her another affectionate little jostle. “Or this week. I do want to stick around till you resolve this thing with Hesthri and Jonathan, and help with it if I can. I’m also making some good progress with Sherwin that I don’t want to abandon; he’s got potential in him under all the…well, Sherwin-ness. Nobody’s ever encouraged him to be something more. I’m still doing stuff, is what I’m saying, and not looking to cut this too short. I just wanted you to be aware, it’s coming. I won’t be around a lot longer.”

Natchua nodded again, drawing in a succession of deep breaths to steady herself.

“Thank you, Melaxyna. For…all of this. You’re a good asset, after all. And thank you for being a friend. I know you didn’t have to.”

“Well, now, the truth is I sort of did,” the succubus replied with a rueful chuckle. “Maybe another child of Vanislaas in my position wouldn’t have to, but hell. I gotta be me.”

Natchua hesitated before speaking again. “I…have been examining Kheshiri. Not in detail, yet, though I do intend to find time to study her closely. I’m learning things about how Vanislaads are put together… Mel, if it’s possible to cure you of the itch, would you want me to?”

Melaxyna stiffened slightly. “Natchua, that’s my outlet. It’s what lets us process the infernal corruption. If you cut that off, there’s no telling what madness and decay you’d be condemning me to.”

“Possibly, yes; I know that’s what everyone believes. But I’ve been looking, Mel, and I’m really not so sure anymore. It’s easier for me to study Kheshiri, due to her being contracted to me and all the shadow magic inside her, but I can see it in you, as well. You’re a framework of infernomancy around a captive soul. But the thing is, that’s a stable framework. It’s perfectly balanced, not drawing any excess power. You can do that with infernal magic, it’s just hard. It’s not outside the skill of a creature like Vanislaas, though. I can see the mechanism of the itch, even if I don’t understand it very well yet. It’s woven through the connections between your soul and the magic that provides your body and powers, right where it’s hooked up to your emotions. And… I’m not absolutely positive yet, and I definitely won’t tamper with anything unless I am. But looking at it… I think it may not be necessary. It doesn’t seem to do anything but cause that emotional effect. It’s not siphoning off any excess power. There is no excess.”

Melaxyna was dead silent; Natchua turned to watch her for a moment, finding her face uncharacteristically lacking expression.

“It just seems to me,” the drow said quietly after a pause, “if I were going to create creatures like succubi and incubi, I’d want some mechanism of keeping them doing what I wanted them to do, rather than integrating into mortal society to build lives of their own, free from my influence.”

“Son of a bitch,” Melaxyna whispered.

“I’m not certain,” Natchua repeated hastily. “It needs more study, and I may still be wrong. I just… Well. If I have an answer by the time you’re ready to go, Mel, I… It may not be in your contract, but you are a friend. I also want to make as sure as I can that you’ll be okay out there. Whatever I can do to help you, I will.”

Now it was Melaxyna’s turn to draw in a deep, steadying breath. “Well. There’s some time yet, after all. If you learn anything more, before… Keep me posted.”

“I will,” Natchua promised.

They were quiet again after that. Just standing there, now, leaning against each other and against the wind. There wasn’t much time before the next trial would have to be faced, but there was a little.

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15 – 33

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“I realize I’m repeating myself,” Jonathan said as the carriage eased up to the curb by the governor’s mansion in the center of Veilgrad, “but it bears repeating. This is a trap, Natchua. There’s no reason—”

“Jonathan,” she interrupted, “enough. It would be pointless for Malivette to maneuver me into a trap, given the number of daggers she’s got over my head. She’s already tight with Imperial Intelligence; it would take her one telescroll to ruin my day good and proper. Back me up, Mel,” she added, turning to the carriage’s other occupant. “Whether or not you can trust someone, you can rely on them to act logically toward their goals, and base your plans around that. Right?”

“Almost,” the succubus said with an amused little smile, already shifted into a human disguise—a local woman of Stalweiss coloring this time. “You can very rarely rely on people to act logically, at all. A better word would be ‘predictably.’ But yes, in this case, I agree with your assessment of Dufresne.”

“Back me up, Mel,” Jonathan said sharply. “This is at the very least a hostile move! She shows up out of the blue, demanding you do things, and now you’re being sent into the gods know what and refused to explain it!”

“I think,” Melaxyna said pensively, turning her head to look at the doors of the mansion through the carriage’s window, “you’re half right. This is a sneak attack, not a trap, and we aren’t the target. Consider: Malivette is about to drop Natchua into a situation she doesn’t understand and probably won’t like. It smells to me like the lady governor intends harm to somebody in there, not to us.”

“That tracks,” Natchua said irritably. “Our deal hinged on me being available to do her favors as long as I’m keeping my menagerie of demons in Veilgrad. Malivette Dufresne has all the scalpels she needs, and doesn’t dare wield herself as a hammer despite all the power at her disposal. She had mobs at her manor during the chaos crisis, and she wasn’t even behind that; everybody’s eager enough to blame the local vampire without her swooping around terrorizing people. No, for someone in Vette’s position, I can see how it would be very handy to have an unpredictable warlock she can just kick into the middle of things and then claim she wasn’t involved.”

“Oh, gods,” he grunted, rubbing at his face.

The carriage door was finally opened from the outside by Ruby, who peeked inquisitively in at them. “Everything all right?”

“Yep,” Natchua replied, sliding off her seat and clambering out as the vampire’s handmaid stepped back. “Just a little last-second strategizing. Come on, you two, let’s go see what this rhubarb is about.”

Jade was not in evidence, despite having accompanied Ruby on the driver’s seat. Ruby, with that vague little smile all four of Malivette’s attendants cultivated (a shade more sly than the Narisian average, just enough to be subtly threatening), opened the door to the governor’s mansion and led them inside, leaving the carriage unattended on the street outside, its undead horses standing motionless as tombstones. There was scant possibility of anyone in Veilgrad messing with it.

Natchua let her eyes wander as they passed through the corridors, though there wasn’t much to see as she was not a connoisseur of gothic architecture. This wasn’t her first visit to Veilgrad, but previous class trips had not brought her to this manor. Supposedly it was from here that the city and all of Lower Stalwar Province were actually run, but based on the lack of activity she heard in midmorning on a weekday, she had her doubts. Stretching out her senses, Natchua detected movement and conversation in multiple places throughout the manor, but not nearly the bustle the rule of such a region would generate. More likely administrative tasks were handled at the city hall and nearby structures, while the acting governor Mr. Grusser used the residence for the backroom dealings that kept Veilgrad under control. This city was a cultural nexus where Tiraan, Calderaan and Stalweiss sensibilities collided and often failed to blend; the friction between the heavily Shaathist Stalweiss and the heavily Avenist Calderaan kept local politics at a constant simmer, to say nothing of the Empire’s interest in keeping its fingers in this resource-rich area. Natchua was not a fan of surreptitious dealings that ran other people’s lives, but in fairness, it probably took a fair amount of constant cloak-and-dagger just to keep Veilgrad from exploding politically even when it wasn’t doing so literally, as had happened last time the paladins and their classmates were here.

It would be just her luck if she ended up creating a mess that topped even that. The prospect was regrettably believable.

“Just follow my lead,” she said quietly, but not so much so that the two flanking her one step behind would fail to hear. Ruby could also hear, of course, but that couldn’t be helped. Natchua had brought these two along because they blended best; even Hesthri in a disguise ring had some odd mannerisms that might pass in a crowded nightclub but would invite closer scrutiny in quieter circumstances. And she had wanted at least two to back her up. “Remember: don’t hesitate to interject if you think I need…to be reminded of restraint. Otherwise, try not to draw attention.”

“I do admire a lady who knows her weak points,” Jonathan said, tension warring with amusement in his tone. Melaxyna just reached out to pat her shoulder.

Ruby half-turned as she walked to give her a coy little glance, unperturbed by Natchua’s answering cold stare.

Fortunately, the next door through which Ruby guided them appeared to be their destination. Beyond it was a snug little sitting area with doors set in three walls; waiting for them were Jade and Lars Grusser, Malivette’s steward and the man who did the actual governing of the province. Natchua had met him once before, in passing. He was the perfect foil for Malivette: the living portrait of a bland, inconspicuous bureaucrat, to the point that it took her a couple of seconds of staring and the forewarning of whom they had come to meet to confirm it. She would not have sworn under oath that he was the same human.

Evidently the disinterest was not mutual.

“Why, it’s Natchua, isn’t it?” Grusser said, raising his eyebrows in surprise.

“Nope,” she replied, deadpan, “I’m one of the other green-haired drow. Common mistake.”

“You’re doing the thing, Natch,” Jonathan murmured behind her. Annoyance warred in her with guilty acknowledgment that he was right, as well as…another source of distraction. He had leaned in close enough that his warm breath was far too tingly on her sensitive ear.

“Ah…hah,” Grusser said, nonplussed. “Well! Jade tells me Malivette has sent us a negotiator to help resolve this little stand-off.”

Natchua blinked. “…did you say negotiator?”

Melaxyna made a noise that was too perfectly a strifled laugh to have been anything but premeditated.

“Well, I’ve learned to trust Vette’s judgment, and I’ll confess at this point I’m grateful for any help,” Grusser said, running a hand over his hair in frustration. “This is the second day of no progress being made, and quite frankly I’m surprised it hasn’t come to violence already. I’m confident that if something miraculous doesn’t unfold, it will before another sunset.”

“So, no pressure,” she sighed. “Summarize the situation for me, please?”

“Vette didn’t…? Oh. Well, then, in brief, it’s to do with the reconstruction. Most of the rebuilding of the city is either done or nearing completion, after the chaos crisis, but the catacombs were a major source of the problem. They provided a very convenient hiding place for cultists, and also are mostly emptied out now, after the…use to which the ancient burials were put.”

“That’s a very polite way to describe a skeleton army,” Jonathan commented.

Grusser sighed, nodding. “Well, the rebuilding started off later because the whole maze had to be crawled over by exorcists and archaologists first, but it’s now underway. We’re updating the city’s sewer system while we’re down there, and essentially retrofitting the upper levels of the entire catacomb system to be more…well, habitable, and more importantly, controllable. It’s an ambitious project that will effectively add an entire subterranean layer to the city. And for this, the city and the Empire have brought in dwarven contractors, since there’s a lack of domestic specialists in underground construction. We’ve never needed any, with the dwarves being as happy as they are to rent out their services. And of course, they do excellent work. The sewers of Tiraas are dwarven work; before that, the city flooded some three times in an average year.”

“Sounds like the matter is well in hand, then,” Natchua said impatiently. “Why do you need a negotiator?”

He grimaced. “As it turns out, there is another party interested in joining the work, also skilled in underground construction. We have no real need of them, and our existing contractors object strongly to their involvement. But, it turns out they have an official prerogative to put in at least a bid, and since we neglected to offer them the opportunity, they are now insisting on being assigned a share of the work. Unfortunately it’s over my head, and even Malivette’s. There is…an international treaty involved.”

Natchua closed her eyes. “Oh, bloody brilliant.” No wonder Malivette had called her in for this. Damn vampire was probably laughing herself sick right now.

“I don’t suppose,” Grusser said cautiously, “you have some standing that gives you…”

He trailed off at her bark of harsh, contemptuous laughter.

“Oh, pretty much the opposite, m’lord steward. But…I will see what I can do.”

“Ah, right,” he said warily, then turned and picked up a thick folder from the room’s sole desk, which he then held out to her. “I’ve prepared a set of documents you’ll find applicable. Established plans, reports on the work done thus far, a copy of the treaty in question with the relevant sections underlined, copies of the formal petitions and complaints submitted by the parties involved. If you’d like to take some time to study…”

“Thank you,” she said, immediately handing the folder off to Jonathan, “but I think I’d rather get right to work, as it were. Lead the way.”

“They’re assembled in the conference room just through here, actually,” he said, indicating one of the doors.

Natchua frowned. “I don’t hear anything.”

“Indeed, you wouldn’t. We’re prepared for elven guests; I situated the discussion in the Silent Room. The door enchantments ensure absolute privacy.”

“You sealed them off where they can’t be heard?” she said skeptically. “Well, maybe we’ll get lucky and they’re already dead.”

“I rather hope not,” he said. “The paperwork alone…”

“All right, let’s get this over with,” Natchua grunted, striding toward the indicated door.

“You think you can just get a delicate negotiation over with?” Jonathan demanded. “I don’t think that’s how that works, Natch.”

“Jonathan, Jonathan, when are you going to learn? As I had to explain to someone recently, I don’t do things the way they work.”

She yanked open the door, causing the sound of an argument in progress to billow out, and strode through it. The discussion broke off at her entry, and there was silence until Jonathan and Melaxyna had trailed in after her, the latter shutting the door.

“What’s this, then?” demanded one of the dwarves. “More of you?”

Three dwarves were seated along one side of the long table, a woman and two men. The woman wore an avuncular suit with gold cufflinks, while her companions were both attired in sturdy denim, cotton, and leather suited to physical laborers. All were glaring across the table with open hostility at the two impassive drow women who had now turned to regard Natchua and her companions, no sign of surprise crossing their features.

“I’m not with them,” Natchua said briskly. “The Duchess felt this discussion could use a neutral perspective.”

“Neutral?” the dwarf woman exploded, rising from her chair.. “And so she sends another drow! I’ll not have this blatant—”

“Sit your ass down!” Natchua barked.

Total silence descended. The dwarf did not sit down, but blinked at her in bemusement. If she’d spent the last two days contending with typical Narisian reserve and expected more of the same, that had to have been startling.

“Natchua yil Nassra y’nad Dalmiss,” one of the drow said quietly. “I confess, I am astonished to find you, of all people, here. And you are in the employ of Lady Dufresne?”

Oh, lovely. Now everyone in Tar’naris who might care where she was would know by the time a telescroll could be sent to Fort Vaspian. Fucking Malivette… Mastering her irritation, she kept her own voice even and soft. “Yil and y’nad, is it. My, my, the old bitch must’ve been royally torqued off.”

Both drow stiffened slightly, indulging in reproachful frowns.

“Come again?” Jonathan inquired.

“Apparently my mother had my honorifics changed,” she explained. “You don’t often hear those; usually anybody who offends their House that badly is just kicked out of it. Somebody must really want to have a claim to shove me in a spider box.”

“You know, I would honestly like to see someone try that,” Melaxyna said in a fascinated tone. Natchua gave her a filthy look, then turned back to the two bemused Narisians.

“Anyway. You may report to whoever it is you curry favor with that it is just Natchua. I renounce House Dalmiss, Tar’naris, and in particular my bloodless wendigo of a mother, and anyone who attempts to come collect me will be mailed home in a soul jar. Now!” She grinned broadly, and modified her tone to a sugary simper. “Whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”

A moment of silence answered her.

“I’m Agatha Svanwen,” the dwarf woman said finally, “and it’s my company that’s been performing the underground renovations in Veilgrad. To, I want it noted, nothing but praise from the local government.”

“I am Alrith nor Alvenn n’rin Vyendir,” one of the drow said, inclining her head fractionally toward Natchua, “here to represent my House’s claim to the opportunity we are owed by Tar’naris’s treaty with the Tiraan Empire.”

“I am Shinar syl Raelis n’rin Awarrion,” said the other, also nodding slightly. She had been the one to name Natchua. “I have been tasked by my matriarch with the honor of assisting in making the necessary arrangements to the satisfaction of all involved.”

“Not ruddy likely, that,” one of the dwarf men sneered. Neither male had offered names, and Narisian sensibilities being what they were, neither Natchua nor the other two felt it necessary to ask.

“An Awarrion,” she said, sighing softly. “Well. I suppose that buys you a smidge of favor. Ashaele is the only matriarch in that nest of vipers I even slightly respect, and I owe one of her daughters.”

“Excuse me,” Svanwen said sharply, “but I imagine you understand why I’m not happy to hear our supposedly neutral negotiator open by acknowledging a bias in favor of my enemy, here?”

“Let me add some context,” Natchua said with another wide grin. “The favor that buys her is not being summarily kicked in the throat for misnaming me. Now, then!” She stepped up to one narrow end of the table and leaned forward, planting her fists upon it. “Kindly state your positions, as succinctly as you can.”

Shinar and Ms. Svanwen’s eyes met, and for a wonder they both seemed more bemused than hostile. After a tense pause, Shinar nodded politely and gestured the dwarf to proceed.

“There’s not much to tell,” Svanwen said shortly, finally sitting back down, “and forgive me if I’ve grown a little sick of going over it. We were hired to do a job, we came to do a job, we’ve been doing our job—and doing it well, I might add. There was no problem here of any kind until these—” She broke off, looking warily at Natchua, then continued in a more careful manner. “…people showed up and involved themselves. Now work has been stopped, I’m paying skilled laborers to sit on their thumbs, the entire shebang is falling behind schedule and nobody is happy. Nor will be, until these interlopers butt out!”

“Tar’naris, in accordance with its treaty with the Empire,” Shinar said smoothly, “is granted the right to submit an offer to participate in certain types of infrastructural activity relevant to our specific skills as a culture, including subterranean construction. House Vyendir has already been denied that by what I feel certain was an accidental omission, and not a malicious breach of treaty. This has been an awkward situation for all involved, and it has always been our position to seek a compromise, rather than assert sole right to the work in question. Ms. Svanwen has, thus far, declined even the slightest measure to meet us partway.”

“And why the bloody hell should I?” Svanwen demanded. “Your treaty isn’t my problem. I have a contract, and it includes nothing to do with fucking drow!” She caught herself again, glancing at Natchua with a subtle wince.

“All right, then,” Natchua said, straightening back up. “Do either of you contest the facts of the other’s position, as stated?”

Shinar shook her head. “I understand and sympathize with Ms. Svanwen’s position, and give her full credit for not attempting to deceive us, or you, at any point.”

“Those who’re right have no need to deceive—”

Natchua cleared her throat loudly.

Svanwen drew in a breath and let it out in a huff, scowling. “Yes, fine. I’m no expert on your treaty, but she accurately described her attempts to insert her people into my business.”

“Very good,” Natchua said pleasantly. “Now, Shinar, I would like to hear you answer Ms. Svanwen’s question. Why the bloody hell should she stir herself to meet you halfway on this?”

Another moment of silence passed, marred slightly but a muffled chuckle from Melaxyna.

“Because,” Shinar said finally, her voice quieter now, “that is what civilized people do. Ms. Svanwen is not at fault for this situation, but it is what it is. We have our rights. A person who is in an uncomfortable situation has the option of making an accommodation with it, or being swept aside.”

“Well said,” Natchua concurred. “So! Since we all agree that you aren’t needed or wanted here and are only delaying this task by your presence, have you considered voluntarily withdrawing your claim?”

“That is not on the table,” Alrith said with an audible edge to her tone. Evidently two days of being shouted at by dwarves could fray even a Narisian’s reserve, if they weren’t an Awarrion and trained for such stress.

“I think,” Natchua replied pleasantly, “you should seriously consider putting it on the table.”

“Excuse me,” Shinar said in deadly calm, “but your phrasing there could be interpreted as a threat. I am certain that was not your intent. Would you like to clarify?”

“Do you think I’m out of line, here?” Natchua asked, turning back to her own companions.

“Nope,” Jonathan said immediately. He had the folder open and was leafing slowly through it, perusing pages with a practiced eye. “Been a while since I was in construction on this scale, but these work logs are impressive. These dwarves have put in fine work thus far. Everything’s been ahead of schedule, under budget and up to standards. Basically what we’ve got here is honest folks doing good work and bureaucrats mucking it up by trying to profit from what they’ve no business being involved in.”

“We have our rights!” Alrith insisted.

“What you don’t have is a three-way dilemma,” Natchua retorted. “This is not you against the dwarves against the province. Everything was fine and everyone getting along swimmingly before you showed up. This matter consists of Lady Dufresne’s government and Ms. Svanwen’s company doing just fine until you and your rights came blustering in from nowhere to make a godawful pest of yourselves. A veteran negotiator such as Shinar must surely be well aware of this shaky position.”

“In fact,” Shinar replied, “we have a very firm position, as laid out by treaty.”

“A firm position that gives you absolutely no prospect of winning,” Natchua said pleasantly. “Your best case scenario is to have a lot of innocent House Vyendir laborers stranded in a city where everyone hates them and resents their presence. I don’t know if you’re up on local history, but Veilgrad isn’t kind to the vulnerable and unwanted. Or, you could write all this off as a bad job, go home to your dank spider hole, and cease making an abominable nuisance of yourselves.”

The dwarves were now watching this exchange as avidly as children gawking at a parade.

“Are you acquainted with recent Imperial history, Natchua?” Shinar countered. “It was not very long ago that the previous Duke of House Madouri was executed for treason against the Silver Throne—for, among other things, deliberately intervening in the relations between Tar’naris and Tiraas. Perhaps Duchess Dufresne should be reminded of these events before sending her agents to…negotiate.”

“Excuse me,” Natchua whispered, “but your phrasing there could be interpreted as a threat. I’m sure you couldn’t possibly be that fucking stupid.”

“I intend only the best for all parties involved,” Shinar said with a placid little smile, her eyes half-lidded and knowing. “I firmly believe that no situation is so uncomfortable that a compromise cannot be reached.”

Natchua stepped around the table and began to slowly pace back and forth behind the drow. Alrith stiffened noticeably.

“One,” Natchua said softly, and the fairy lamps in the room dimmed. The dwarves glanced nervously at them. “The previous head of House Madouri was a corrupt, incompetent fool who mismanaged his province into the ground and sought to undermine the Emperor at every opportunity. His daughter, who was instrumental in getting rid of him, has single-handedly resuscitated the economy of Tiraan Province in less than a year, and that while ruling it remotely from Last Rock. She is also closely aligned with House Tirasian. Ravana’s a friend of mine,” she added in a confidential tone, leaning down toward Shinar from behind as she passed. An exaggeration—Ravana was a megalomaniacal little creep with whom Natchua was just as happy being on politely distant terms—but there was no reason Shinar needed to know that. “Now, can you guess which of those two options better describes Malivette Dufresne?”

She continued pacing for several more steps, letting that sink in. The lamps had continued to dim; now, the shadows in the corners of the room were deeper and darker than they had any reason to be, even with the light running low.

“Two,” Natchua said suddenly, just when Alrith had been about to crack and break the silence. “Malivette Dufresne is not here. I am not affiliated with her in any formal capacity. I’m just here as a favor to an acquaintance; I’m not even a citizen of Veilgrad. So if your intention is to run crying to the Empire about how I was mean to you…well, knock your little self out, precious. The only living person who cares less than I is Duchess Dufresne.”

The whispering had begun at the very edge of hearing, even for elves; with Natchua talking over it, the words would have been barely audible even to the Narisians. It swelled, though, smoothly but quickly, until even the dwarves could hear the faint breath of voices from the ever-darker corners of the room. Even Jonathan had backed up against the door, now, eyes wide in unease. Melaxyna just stood placidly with her arms folded; she had somehow contrived to position herself so that the fading light cast her face in a series of ominous shadows. There was still no real meaning in the whispers, just disjointed snatches of gibberish and occasional demonic.

Natchua placed a hand on Shinar’s shoulder and leaned forward between the two drow. “Three,” she said, herself barely above a whisper. “If you’ve been here a few days, you’ll have begun to notice. This is a place where chaos and cultists rise out of the catacombs, bringing undead and worse. Where cemeteries come alive, and werewolves howl in the mountains at night. Those who travel the forests do so in groups, if they want to come back. The last nobility of Veilgrad are a vampire and a warlock. Of all the rumors that swirl through the streets, only the least wild are made up.” She added a second hand to Arlith’s shoulder, grinning when the woman flinched. “People disappear in Veilgrad.”

She held them in silence for a moment. By that point, the fairy lamps were sullen reddish patches in a dim room, which did nothing to explain the writhing shadows which shifted across the walls. Natchua only belatedly noticed that both male dwarves had lit up with golden divine auras, which were doing nothing to push back the darkness.

She clapped both drow women on the shoulder once, and straightened up. “Some people should think about disappearing voluntarily, while they still have that option.”

Shinar rose abruptly but smoothly, shoving aside her chair and pivoting in place to stare at Natchua, icy anger plain on her features now.

“I speak for Tar’naris,” she hissed, “and I will not be bullied by a selfish, disrespectful brat.”

“Oh, no,” Natchua whispered, “it’s happening already.”

The darkness swelled, congealed, rose, and when it was gone, so was Shinar syl Raelis n’rin Awarrion.

“What?!” Arlith squawked, her reserve shattering, and tried to scrabble away only to freeze when she almost fell out of her chair. “Where is she?”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s fine, don’t worry,” Natchua said, strolling around her and back toward the door. “Veilgrad’s cathedral spire is very tall, but elves are quite agile. She should be able to get down pretty easily. And who better than an Awarrion to explain to the police what she was doing monkeying about on a protected landmark?”

“It’s a very sunny day, you know,” Melaxyna said in a sepulchural voice from one dark corner. “I understand drow eyes are…vulnerable, in the sunlight.”

Natchua made a show of hesitating in thought, then turned to the succubus and raised one chiding finger. “Now, now, that’s a negotiator of Tar’naris you’re talking about. Have a little faith.”

“You can’t…” Arlith choked off when Natchua turned back toward her.

The woman flinched again when she reached out to gently take her by the shoulder.

“Go home,” she said in a soft, kind tone, as if soothing a child. “Tell your House what you found. There’s no profit for you in Veilgrad. There’s nothing here for you but evil.”

Arlith stared up at her like a frozen rabbit.

“Go!” Natchua snarled, her voice cracking through the small conference room.

Arlith exploded out of her chair in a panicked dash and raced to the door with all the speed an elf could muster; Jonathan barely got out of the way in time for her to claw it open and scramble out, leaving it ajar. He gently pushed it shut behind her.

Just like that, the whispering and shadows cut off and the darkness vanished, leaving the room as pleasantly lit as ever.

Natchua turned back to the dwarves, finding all three had backed their chairs up against the far wall and were staring at her as if at a monster. Which…was fair.

“I’m sure the Duchess appreciates all the good work you’ve put in so far,” she said brightly. “Lars Grusser is a capable administrator, but…these things happen. If anything else comes up that he can’t seem to deal with, feel free to reach out to Malivette directly. All right, then!” She clapped her hands together, guiltily enjoying it a little when the dwarves all twitched in reaction to the sound. “Another successful negotiation, resolved. Let’s run along, now, these fine people have plenty of work to catch up on.”

She led the way back into the sitting room outside, pausing to let the others catch up. After looking back through the door, Melaxyna pulled it closed behind her; evidently the dwarves weren’t in a hurry to join them. Dwarves, after all, were famously reasonable folk.

Neither Grusser nor Malivette’s handmaids were in evidence. Of course; they wouldn’t have reasonably expected anything to be resolved in such a short time. Arlith, of course, was long gone.

“So that’s her play,” Melaxyna mused aloud.

Natchua turned back to her, drawing in a breath. Shapeshifting aside, this was the main reason she had brought the succubus along. She herself was painfully out of her depth when being maneuvered about by aristocrats, and fully knew it. Melaxyna was another matter. “You have a thought?”

“A whole host of people are about to know exactly where you are, and what kind of power you’re messing around with,” Melaxyna said seriously, holding her gaze. “Those drow will go squealing to both their Houses, and even if they don’t reach out to the Empire directly, House Awarrion absolutely will. They’ll also inform House Dalmiss.”

“I’m not worried about anything my mother or Ezrakhai might be able to send after me,” Natchua said dismissively. “You think Malivette’s trying to get me in trouble with the Empire? That still doesn’t make sense, she wouldn’t have to go to such an effort. All she has to do is tell them. I haven’t specifically done anything to cheese off Imperial Intelligence but I can’t imagine they’d be happy about anything I’m involved in.”

“I thought it was fishy you were able to talk Malivette down at all,” Melaxyna admitted. “Considering what you showed up with and what her position was. Letting you establish a base in Veilgrad was just…weird. The fact that she wants to use you as some kind of fixer makes it more clear, but this completes the pattern. If she tells the Empire or anyone else you’re here making trouble, she becomes your enemy. But! If she puts you in positions where you can’t avoid attracting their attention, then she can use her clout to prevent them from taking you away.”

“Shit,” Jonathan said feelingly. “She’s right. That vampire isn’t trying to destroy you, she’s trying to control you. If she becomes your only protector from the Empire or the Church or whoever else…”

“Then she gets her fixer,” Natchua finished, her face twisting into a scowl. “And she gets to keep her. Oh, well fucking played, Vette.”

“How much does she know about…what you’re actually trying to do?” Jonathan asked.

“Malivette is under the impression that I’m on a campaign to hunt down remaining Black Wreath cells. Which isn’t inaccurate, just…less than complete. After all, she has reason to empathize with that, considering the Wreath’s involvement with the chaos crisis.”

“We can always leave,” Melaxyna pointed out. “It would mean sacrificing your investment with Sherwin and the horogki…”

“More than that,” Natchua said, shaking her head. “Sherwin gives us access to resources, not just a leaky roof over our head. We wouldn’t have any of that hiding out in some ruin in the wilderness. House Leduc also has a veneer of legitimacy and a history with diabolism. No, that’s the perfect position for us to take as a base. That’s why Vette is doing this, she knows I won’t abandon it easily.”

She paused, frowning deeply in thought. Then, suddenly, her expression shifted, a smile curling across her mouth.

“Ohhh, hell,” Jonathan groaned. “I know that look. That’s the look that happens right before one of your trademark lunatic schemes.”

“Well, after all,” Natchua said reasonably, “Malivette likes to surround herself with pretty girls. And oh, look! I have one whom I was just fretting over what to do with.”

Melaxyna clapped a hand over her eyes. “Natchua, no.”

“Stop it, this could not be more perfect. Malivette and Kheshiri both like to play mind games, right? Well, let them chew on each other for a while. No matter which loses, I win.”

“Yeah,” Jonathan said, “because that’s always how it ends up, isn’t it.”

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15 – 32

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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.”

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15 – 27

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“And now, not only have we lost a major asset, that thing is on the loose in Ninkabi with knowledge of our plans! I want every warm body in this place out there until we catch that filthy—”

“Inquisitor,” Khadizroth said loudly, the deferential attitude with which he tried to address Syrinx finally buckling under the strain. “City-wide manhunts never succeed in catching a Vanislaad, even when one has the manpower necessary to mount one—of which we have here only the tiniest fraction. All this would accomplish would be to tip our hand and stir the pot irrevocably.”

Silence fell. Leaning against the wall outside the conference room, well out of view of the door, Shook turned his head to face it more directly. He had the hallway to himself for the moment, lit only by a single fairy lamp and no guards or servants in sight. The conversation on which he was eavesdropping was, so far, not going terribly well. Part of him wondered exactly how bad it would be if Syrinx poked her head out and caught him there. A larger part didn’t much care anymore.

“I hope you will excuse me for speaking out of turn, Inquisitor,” Khadizroth finally said into the chilled silence. “I only meant—”

“No,” Syrinx interrupted, the scowl audible in her voice. “No, you’re right. That was a knee-jerk reaction on my part and no good could have come of it. Well, the fact remains, we are still in this mess. In an amazingly short time, this operation has careened off the Rail and is heading for a truly unrecoverable disaster. I don’t think any of us are in a position to rebound from squandering his Holiness’s support. Or do you disagree?”

“I’m afraid I cannot,” the dragon said quietly. “The matter before us, then, is how to salvage…something from these events.”

“Well,” she grunted, “while we’re trimming the fat around here, we may as well acknowledge that this debacle has cost us two agents, in a manner of speaking. Honestly, what use does that fool Shook even have, if not for holding the succubus’s leash? With her gone, he may as well be stashed in a closet. Or hurled into the canyon.”

Shook clenched his fists so hard they vibrated. He could feel the pressure rising up through him, the familiar pounding in his head, the taste of bile at the back of his throat.

And this time, he stopped.

Mind on the on the job, not on the insult, Alan Vandro’s distant voice reminded him. They’ll try to make you mad to throw you off your game. Bottle up that anger and use it. Rage is a good weapon, so long as you don’t let it control your actions.

You’ve got to let things go, Sweet had told him, back when he was Boss. Remember the broader situation, not just what’s right in front of you. If some fool shows in front of a Guild enforcer that they need an ass-kicking, they’re going to get one. But at the proper time and place, administered with a cool head and an eye for strategy. A good enforcer doesn’t just break knees, he controls the circumstances so that they practically break themselves.

Breathe in, breathe out, and keep doing so, Khadizroth’s more recent advice whispered. Be present, be conscious, be aware. Emotions are things that pass by; they do not require a reaction. A child is ruled by them. A man rules himself.

He had mostly humored Khadizroth by listening, and not just because the dragon could have obliterated him with one swipe of his claws. He liked Khadizroth, for all that mystical mumbo-jumbo was not to his own tastes. But how long had it been since he’d remembered his old Guild sponsor’s teachings? Webs had let him down hard in Onkawa, but Thumper had only ever benefited from practicing what the old conman preached. And Sweet… As much as he was to blame for Shook’s present situation, none of that had come about until long after he had tried to offer him guidance. Of course he’d sided with Keys. She played the game, like he’d tried to teach Shook to do.

And Kheshiri… Shook’s breathing stilled, his eyes widening slightly, as the connections began to form. She was always needling at him. Throwing up little reminders of the various people who’d wronged him, coaxing him to rant about how he’d even the score. She gave every indication of enjoying being treated violently, responded avidly when he displayed his temper. Always bringing him drinks, providing such a constant stream of blisteringly heated sex that even his appetites began to flag under the exertion.

Training him, he realized, now that it was too late. It was subtle, but in hindsight, the pattern was there. Everything Thumper had ever achieved had been through the control his various teachers had drilled into him, the conquest of the anger that had driven his entire life. Kheshiri had carefully undone years of work, provoking outbursts of passion and rewarding them, evincing boredom and disinterest when he controlled himself, discouraging restraint and promoting indulgence of all kinds. And the very fact that she had worked at it so subtly said worlds about her intentions, in comparison with those of the men who had patiently explained to him how to better himself.

A knot twisted in his gut. In Onkawa… Even looking back, the whole scene was tainted by a haze of fury and betrayal, but in the end, hadn’t that final showdown been dueling displays of spectacle by Webs and Kheshiri? Because of course, he’d shown her that he had a powerful, well-connected patron who actually cared about him, and she couldn’t have that if she was going to keep him under control. Gods, had Webs actually betrayed him? What was there in all their years together that hinted he even might do such a thing?

And he had bought it. Hook, line, and sinker.

Shook slumped back against the wall, almost losing his balance. For once, the understanding of how he had been played and thoroughly defeated didn’t make him angry. He couldn’t have put a name to what it felt like.

Khadizroth had been completely right. He was better off with that bitch out of his life. She’d done this to him in only two years; gods only knew what he might have been reduced to if she’d kept her claws in his psyche much longer.

He had never been in control of her.

While Jeremiah Shook was reeling from personal epiphanies in the hall, the conversation in the conference room had continued. His attention focused back upon it just in time to catch up on matters very relevant to his interests.

“…as great a loss as it first seems, anyway. I have been working with this group for some time now, and I can assure you that everything you’ve been warned about children of Vanislaas is true of that one. She is strategically useful, yes, but I have never been wholly satisfied that the benefits outweigh the constant trouble of keeping her in line. If anything, I believe Mr. Shook will be more helpful now that he is freed of that burden.”

“Is this what passes for dragon humor?”

“Alas, I have never been a humorous person,” Khadizroth said wryly. “It’s a real shortcoming; a well-timed joke can do a lot to improve morale. No, Inquisitor, I still speak out of familiarity with the parties involved. Thumper is a Thieves’ Guild enforcer, personally trained by one of Eserion’s most esteemed servants, as I understand it. He is far more than merely muscle under any circumstances. With respect, I would remind you that we are now engaged in surreptitious maneuvers in an urban setting; his skills are particularly relevant to our situation.” The dragon paused, then continued in a quieter volume. “And on the subject of our situation, can we really afford to divest ourselves of any more assets?”

A silence hung briefly. Then there were footsteps heading toward the door. Shook straightened up belatedly, preparing to face the music, but no one emerged. Instead, the conference room door swung shut with a decisive bang.

“Whew,” the Jackal giggled right next to his ear. “I see it’s been a hell of a day here!”

“Goddammit!” Shook barely held onto enough restraint to keep his voice low as he jumped away from the grinning elf; that door was thick, but shouting would be heard through it. Planting himself across the hall, he bared his teeth at the Jackal. “Where the fuck have you been all day?”

“Me?” The assassin put on a wounded expression, placing a hand theatrically over his heart. “I am affronted by the doubts implied in your question, Jerry old man. Really, after all we’ve meant to each other! I’ve been out doing my job. You know, carefully stirring up trouble as only I can. The work is begun, not finished, but I believe I can attest with fair certainty that there will be an increased police presence in the area around Agasti’s club in the days to come.”

“I should really demand what specifically that means,” Shook growled, “but fuck it, I’m pretty sure I don’t even wanna know right now. Here’s what I already know: we’re down a person, our whole mission here might be fucked, and it’s taking all of Big K’s smooth talking to keep that cunt Syrinx from losing every last ounce of her shit and sending what’s left of this whole mess straight to hell with all of us strapped to it. So this is not a good time for you to be haring off on your own!”

“Hmm.” The Jackal struck a pose, rubbing at his chin and screwing up his face in an expression of deep thought. “Hummmmmm. No, my man, I do believe this is an excellent time to go haring off on my own. Think about it: the options are being stuck in an enclosed space with Basra Syrinx while her extremely delicate self-control is being tested to its limits, or doing anything else.”

Shook paused, blinking twice.

“There, see?” the elf said, once again grinning cheekily. “That’s why they pay me the extra-shiny coins. I consider these angles.”

“Yeah, well… I’m not sayin’ it wouldn’t be good to clear my head, but…”

“Oh, don’t mistake me, ol’ top,” the Jackal breezed, turning and sashaying away up the hall. “You do what you like, I wouldn’t want you getting the impression I care. I’m outta here. I’ll be back when the boss bitch has had time to cool down and be grateful to see me again.”

“I don’t really think that’s how her mind works,” Shook said, trailing off as the elf suddenly turned, threw open the nearest window, and launched himself out.

That window opened onto a cliff wall overlooking the canyon about halfway down it. But then…he was the Jackal.

Shook stood there, chewing on the inside of his cheek, for a good five minutes before saying aloud, “Fuck it.”

He strode off toward the front door of the Inquisition’s small offices. There would be a Holy Legion guard on duty, but he could probably bluff his way past by claiming to be on official business. And if not, he was a Guild enforcer and those clowns were little more than living accessories. Either way, he was getting some goddamn fresh air.


“There, see? All that’s settled and everybody’s friends. We can finally all one big family!”

Kheshiri beamed at the room at large, spreading her arms as if expecting a hug. Everyone glared at her.

“Are you sure,” Natchua began, turning to Agasti, but he was already shaking his head.

“I apologize for being so mercenary, my dear,” the old man said sincerely, “but I quite simply do not need the headache. Speaking as your attorney with regard to this matter, the contract we just drew up places you in the best situation relative to her that you could reasonably expect. I’m afraid that will have to suffice for reassurance. She’s your problem now.”

“Well, I have to say, I appreciate your forthrightness,” she replied, smiling in spite of herself. “Where I’m from, that would’ve been a flowery ‘fuck you’ shrouded in tedious layers of false courtesy.”

“Yes, I’ve been told by several of my colleagues in the legal profession that they get on surprisingly well with Narisians as a matter of course,” he said, smiling back. “Besides, it doesn’t do to indulge in sly doublespeak in front of the succubus. She’s inherently better at it, and I don’t care to give her the satisfaction.”

Natchua heaved a sigh, followed by a sullen mutter. “Why do I always have to have the satisfaction?”

“Yes, you are very put upon,” Melaxyna deadpanned. “Obviously you’ve brought absolutely none of this situation on yourself.”

“Mel,” Natchua said shortly, “do I look like I’m in the mood?”

“So, you’re with her and not him, right?” Kheshiri inquired, regarding Melaxyna inquisitively. “I’ve met the hethelax and the khelminash. What’s your story?”

Melaxyna stared back at her for a long moment, then glanced at Natchua. Then, her human disguise melted away to reveal her alabaster skin, crystalline eyes, wings, and tail.

Kheshiri’s own smile melted just as quickly, leaving her glowering morosely at the other succubus. “Oh. Goody.”

“I believe that’s my line, sugar tits,” Melaxyna drawled.

“Let me be explicitly clear on this up front,” Natchua stated. “There will be a maximum of zero demon catfighting. Am I clear?”

“Hey, you know me,” Melaxyna said cryptically.

“You command, and I obey,” Kheshiri declaimed, sweeping an elegant bow in her direction. “I live to serve you, my mistress.”

“Ugh,” Natchua grunted. The troubling thing was, as best as she could suss out from her newfound skill at analyzing the succubus’s emotions directly, she appeared to be sincere about that. It wasn’t as simple as detecting truth from lies; emotions, even when read through any attempted dissembling, were just more complex than that. But she could see as plain as written words what Kheshiri felt toward her, and while that was also complex, it was disturbingly positive. Downright avid, in fact. She wouldn’t go so far as to say the succubus was in love—and thank all the gods for that—but she was at the very least utterly fascinated and delighted by Natchua, without a hint of the predatory instinct or malice that such attraction usually meant from her kind.

Whatever this would mean, in the long run, it was a safe bet that she’d not heard the last of it by far.

She had already found that this ability worked on Melaxyna, too, now that she knew the method. It didn’t work as well; the shadow magic suffusing Kheshiri’s body and aura helped a lot once Natchua had detected it, but just having the method down provided the insight. She could read Melaxyna plainly with a bit more focus and concentration, and even interpret things about the other succubus’s magical structure to which she had been blind before. The new insight told her Melaxyna wasn’t very happy about their current situation, obviously. But she was also surprisingly fond toward Natchua, regarding her with a layered mat of feelings which she interpreted, belatedly and with some surprise, as protectiveness.

Natchua wasn’t much for scientific research, but even she was not blind to the possibilities here. Considering that all her current plans were leading toward her own inevitable death, she really ought to relay this to someone else, perhaps someone like Agasti. It would be an invaluable tool for warlocks to counter the predations of Vanislaads. Of course, once it was known, Vanislaas himself and all his children would begin developing countermeasures, which was why she had decided to keep this to herself for the moment, even with Agasti and Xyraadi both right there. For now, it would be a priceless strategic asset if she encountered any more of their kind, which was not unlikely considering what she was about. In fact, with a bit more study and experimentation, she thought she might be able to develop a way to see through their invisibility and shapeshifting at a glance.

But she currently had to cut short her ruminations, as Kheshiri had fixed her attention on Hesthri.

“I really am sorry about all that, you know,” she said earnestly. “It wasn’t personal, for whatever that’s worth. I suspect you know what it’s like to be backed into a corner and desperate for some leverage to survive. But we’re on the same side now! I’m sure I’ll find a way to make it up to you.”

“Speak to your owner or not at all,” Hesthri said curtly. “You and I have nothing to discuss. I’m sure no one else wants to talk to you, either.”

“Oh?” Kheshiri said innocently. “Well, at the very least, it seems you and I can discuss how no one else wants to talk to me! Any point is a starting point, don’t you—”

“Shut up, Kheshiri,” Natchua ordered.

The succubus bowed again, as courtly and grandiose as before. “As you command, mistress, I—”

“That isn’t shutting up!”

This time Kheshiri did indeed fall silent, but proceeded with a grotesquely detailed pantomime of sewing her lips shut which she had to have practiced.

Natchua, Hesthri, and Melaxyna all grimaced and averted their eyes. Fortunately, there were other things to behold, as Xyraadi had taken the opportunity presented by the sudden quiet to approach Agasti.

“I cannot thank you enough, Mortimer, for your hospitality and your kindness these last weeks,” she said, gently taking one of his hands in both of her own and smiling warmly.

Agasti lightly squeezed her slender fingers. “My dear, you owe me no consideration; your presence here has been just the breath of fresh air I needed. My prayers have heavily featured gratitude for you and those three young heroes coming here to kick some life back into these old bones. Are you…resolved to do this, then?”

“I know it is sudden,” she said, nodding, “but I am indeed. I feel, above all else, certain that this is right.”

The old warlock sighed, lowering his eyes. “I can’t pretend I’m glad to see you go, considering…what you are going toward.”

Slowly, Xyraadi shook her head, her expression growing distant. “I am sorry for that, Mortimer, truly. I hate to make a friend watch. But the truth is…” She turned her head, meeting Natchua’s eyes. “I am not afraid. I don’t rush headlong toward death, but its inevitability does nothing to dissuade me. This world has changed beyond recognition while I was imprisoned. And I… It has not been six hundred years for me. I have very old wounds that are still very fresh. I lost my friends, my cause, my love.” The demon closed her eyes, and Agasti again gave her hands a comforting little squeeze. “What this drow is suggesting may be madness, but it’s exactly the madness I wished for when I asked the Sisterhood to imprison me in that crystal. Elilial must be made to answer for all she has done. And who better to make her than those who are willing to give everything to it?” She opened her eyes again, still facing Natchua, and her stare hardened. “She stepped on me once, too. Very recently.”

“Wait.” Kheshiri appeared to have forgotten the order to shut up; right now, the expression of concern on her face matched what Natchua saw in her aura. “What…exactly…are you lot trying to do?”

“Oh, it’s a rollicking good tale,” Melaxyna said in her driest tone. “We’ll catch you up on what you’ve signed on for, don’t you worry. I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”

“Remember that I am only a shadow-jump away,” Agasti said softly. “I hope you’ll visit again, Xyraadi. Before… Well, when you can.”

“I encourage that,” Natchua added. “If nothing else, this place is a lot more comfortable. Our current base of operations is, well… A work in progress.”

Melaxyna and Hesthri snorted in unison.

“I guess we might want to invest in a Glassian dictionary, then,” Melaxyna added to Natchua.

“Excuse me,” Xyraadi retorted haughtily, “but you are complaining about having a little culture injected into your lives. You speak of a language which is an ongoing work of beauty and inherently superior for any purpose except counting to seventy.”

Agasti cleared his throat, releasing Xyraadi’s hands, and reached behind himself to pick up Kheshiri’s reliquary, which had been hidden against the back of his chair by his body. “Well, then. I suppose the only remaining business is for you to retain custody of this, Natchua.”

He held it out to her. Kheshiri’s eyes fixed on the reliquary and her tail lashed twice. Natchua, though, tilted her head, making no move to take it.

“Upon consideration,” she said pensively, “no, thank you.”

“Point of order,” Kheshiri interjected. “By the contract we just signed, you’re not to imprison me in that thing or give it to someone who might.”

“Yes,” Natchua said, turning a flat grin on her, “that was worded very precisely. Once I have it again I’ll definitely be bound by those provisions. But I can’t exactly give away something that’s not in my possession, now can I?”

Kheshiri smirked wryly at her. “Well, well. I knew you were a smart cookie, mistress, but you continue to impress.”

Her blasé attitude stood in marked contrast to the surge of fury that pulsed through her aura. Natchua’s grin widened as she held the succubus’s gaze for a moment, then turned back to the lawyer, who was smiling at her with patrician approval.

“Now, make no mistake,” he cautioned, “based on your description of how she slipped its control, it is very unlikely I would be able to restore the reliquary’s function by working on it alone. The problem is not with it, but with her.”

Natchua shook her head. “You’ve been tremendously helpful already, Mr. Agasti, I won’t expect you to solve any of my problems for me. Don’t worry about that, I’ll deal with Kheshiri.” She tried to ignore the sly amusement that radiated from the demon in question, who was at least still keeping her expression even. “To my knowledge, this kind of Black Wreath spellcraft is rarely available for Pantheon-aligned warlocks to study; I’m certain it will be of at least some value to you, even if not for its intended purpose. And if nothing else, do you recall what I said I’d planned to do with it in the first place?”

“I do,” he said slowly. “That might be a bit trickier for me than for you; I have no personal connection…there.”

“You are courteous and professional,” she assured him with a smile. “Despite her reputation, that’s really all you need.”

Kheshiri remained outwardly calm, but her increasing curiosity and alarm was deeply satisfying. Melaxyna was grinning openly.

Hesthri snorted. “If you ever do manage to get her back in that bottle, just do us all a favor and drop it in the ocean.”

“Never drop one of those in the ocean,” Melaxyna retorted, her smile vanishing. “Rookie mistake. If the water’s deep enough, the pressure will crush it and release the demon. If it’s not, mermaids will find it; they’re drawn to magical objects.”

“You’re awfully free with your advice,” Kheshiri commented. “Pretty confident you’ll never be stuck in one of those, are you?”

Melaxyna shrugged. “It looks like a more comfortable prison than the last one I was in. If I never taste bacon and mushrooms again it’ll be far too soon…”

Natchua just sighed. “Well, I believe we have caused enough trouble here for one night.”

“Oh, come now, it’s scarcely an hour past dark! The night is—”

“Shut up, Kheshiri. Gather in, everyone. The sooner we get home, the sooner we get the next round of awkward explanations over with.”

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15 – 23

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“Kheshiri.”

Mortimer Agasti made an impressive figure despite his age, even when sitting down and hunched slightly forward to lean upon the cane planted between his feet. Those dark eyes remained piercing beneath his short frizz of white hair, as if he could unearth Natchua’s secrets simply by staring her down. Of course, the surroundings helped; facing him in his own expensively furnished apartment emphasized who had control, here. He had two more of his revenants flanking him from behind, with Xyraadi off to the side, now in her true form and deliberately positioning herself to emphasize whose side she was on. Natchua couldn’t help feeling a tad less impressive, even with her own escort and all three of them in their dashing finery.

“It would alarm me simply to learn that Kheshiri is once again active in the world,” Agasti continued after a momentary pause in which he grimly stared at each of them in turn. “Imagine how pleased I am to learn she is in my club. If, that is, we are certain it’s that bad. Xyraadi, my dear, you are sure this one did not trip the wards?”

“Quite,” Xyraadi confirmed. “I have examined her with such care as I could manage, when so pressed by the circumstances. I would not swear the craft used to conceal her is something even I could do. This Natchua is a practitioner of exceeding skill,” she added, directing a significant look at the old man.

Agasti met her eyes and nodded. “I hope, as established warlocks one and all, we can agree to eschew any violence, despite the various provocations already rendered here. Such engagements are always more expensive than they are worth, and with Kheshiri on the prowl, we cannot afford to be distracted.”

“Agreed,” Natchua replied, nodding deeply. “And again, I am very sorry for the trouble. We truly did come here with friendly intentions.”

“And you expressed these intentions by unleashing Kheshiri in my backyard?” Agasti retorted, now with a hard edge in his tone.

“I certainly did not,” she said firmly. “I simply…did not take the first opportunity to button her up again. And, as it turns out, that wouldn’t have helped anyway. She did not figure out how to circumvent a Black Wreath soul vessel in one afternoon; even one of us would have been hard pressed to match that feat. She has had, at my best guess, almost two years to work at it.”

“But if you had at least tried, you could have been forewarned,” he said sharply. “Ironic; that would have given you a ready-made pretext to come here and earn favor with me. I would be extremely interested to learn that she was off her leash in my neighborhood. Would you indulge an old man and explain why you, clearly someone who understands the danger a Vanislaad poses in an urban environment, did not immediately act to button her up when you had the power right in your hands?”

“Because you also have the Black Wreath and a new incarnation of the Inquisition prowling around this neighborhood,” Natchua replied. “It seemed to me that between them, they would provide enough pressure to hamper her—and she would give them both trouble.”

“Young lady,” he said, and while she loathed being scolded in that patrician tone she couldn’t quite blame him in this instance, “what could possibly have made you think that was a good idea?”

“I don’t have good ideas,” Natchua snapped, ignoring the shuffling of the two revenants and Xyraadi’s frown at her belligerent tone. “Circumstances have left me wielding powers no sane person would touch against foes no smart person would challenge. There are no good courses of action available to me! I stay one step ahead of my enemies solely by doing whatever mad thing they don’t expect, usually because they can’t conceive of it. And yes, this mostly leads to an endless succession of crises and messes, which I always clean up, and in the process am one step ahead of the Wreath, the Church, and whoever else, moving in a direction they haven’t even thought to look! It’s not pretty, but it works, and I can’t afford to be picky.”

“That’s no way to live,” he said quietly. “By the time you slip up and die, you will be so exhausted you might just welcome it. And at this rate, that will be tragically soon.”

“That is specifically the end toward which I am planning,” she said flatly.

Agasti closed his eyes and shook his head. Xyraadi was still frowning at Natchua, but now more in apparent puzzlement than reproach.

Hesthri cleared her throat discreetly. “Are you sure it’s wise to trust this man to this extent? The khelminash is one thing, since we came here for her specifically…”

“Xyraadi,” Natchua corrected. “Let’s not make this worse by being rude, Hes. Or would you like it if she called you ‘the hethelax?’”

“That’s exactly how most of her kind speak to mine,” Hesthri retorted, narrowing her eyes.

“She is not incorrect,” Xyraadi admitted.

“Anyway,” Natchua continued, her eyes now on Agasti’s, “we came here to ask for trust, and have already gotten off firmly on the wrong foot. Wise or not, I do intend to offer trust in turn. We’re in no position to refuse to.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Agasti said in a deceptively mild tone. “And on the note of trust, may I know whom, specifically, I have the honor of hosting?”

“Ladies,” Natchua ordered, “disguises off.”

“Natch, I don’t think—”

“Do it, Mel.”

The succubus sighed with ill grace, but shifted, and in the next moment was flexing her wings. Hesthri slipped off her disguise ring, revealing her blunt claws and patches of chitinous armor—another reason it had been necessary to give her the loosest clothes.

“These are my friends,” Natchua said simply, “Hesthri and Melaxyna.”

Agasti’s eyebrows shot upward. “You continue to drop the most surprising names, Natchua. Is Professor Tellwyrn aware you’ve liberated one of her captive Vanislaads?”

“Three things I know Tellwyrn can do,” Natchua replied, “are notice that Melaxyna is no longer in the Crawl, figure out who is responsible, and find me. It would seem she feels Mel has served her time. Silence, as they say, gives assent.”

“Mm.” He shifted his gaze to the other demon, expression inscrutable. “Yours is an even more surprising name, Hesthri.”

“You’ve heard of me?” she squawked. “Don’t tell me I’m famous!”

“I’m going to be very put out if that’s so,” Natchua growled, “given how hard it was for me to get your name.”

“Oh yes,” Hesthri spat, “we all know exactly what trouble you went to and what was hard about it!”

“On the contrary,” Agasti interjected as they rounded on each other, both clenching fists, “I highly doubt more than ten people in the Empire know your name, all sworn to confidentiality. But I am both an attorney and a warlock, and privy to a small amount of rather shady Imperial business. Your…anomalous case, Hesthri, is one about which I never expected to hear another word. Usually, unless one is dealing with a child of Vanislaas, when a demon is banished back to Hell, that’s the end of it.”

“Well…good,” Hesthri muttered. In contrast to her aggressive pose of seconds ago, she now appeared to be trying to edge behind Natchua. “I think I’d rather not be as recognizable as this Kheshiri.”

“That is unlikely in the extreme,” he said, “more because of her case than yours. Kheshiri is a figure of historical significance in this part of the world. Specifically, during the Enchanter Wars, she wriggled her way into a position as the unofficial spymaster for House Turombi, where her actions played a major role in shaping the world as it still is today.”

“Oh?” Natchua tilted her head. “This I hadn’t heard.”

“Provinces were rising up in revolt, thanks to the Veskers,” Agasti explained. “I doubt most Imperial citizens would have cared much what happened to the orcs otherwise, but when every bard is pushing for a specific goal, that is typically what happens—especially in the court of public opinion. That is exactly why the Bardic College all but never does this; no government would allow them to move freely, were they in the habit of toppling thrones. But with the whole Empire a feuding patchwork of rebels and loyalists, almost no governing body could maintain order. The exception was here in the Western provinces, thanks to House Turombi carving out a substantial power block by playing both sides against each other and making its own propaganda push to encourage people to embrace a cultural identity that was both Western and Imperial.”

“And all of this…was thanks to Kheshiri?” Natchua said, frowning. She’d been taught this history, of course, but not from this angle.

Agasti nodded. “That is not widely known, of course. But matters became dire indeed when Tiraas fell to the rebels and the Emperor was slain. Lord Turombi proclaimed the capital lost, the Western provinces the true Tiraan Empire, Onkawa the new seat of power, and himself Emperor. Thanks to Kheshiri’s groundwork, these claims were mostly embraced throughout Onkawa, Thakar, and N’Jendo. And not even he knew that a succubus was the power behind his would-be throne. She was that close to being the implicit ruler of her own empire.”

“According to Mel, here,” said Natchua, “by the time she was caught she had replaced the leader of the Black Wreath and taken over the cult. It apparently took Elilial herself to collar her.”

His eyes widened. “Now that is news to me. It is…frighteningly plausible.”

“That’s insanity,” Hesthri protested. “She couldn’t possibly have gotten away with all that. The Pantheon themselves would have intervened if she’d managed to become an actual ruler!”

“And that is why people react the way they do to Kheshiri’s name,” Melaxyna said quietly. “There’s a certain pattern with most of our kind: they cause what trouble they can, and move on when things look like they’re getting too heated. Most would rather abandon their schemes than risk a return to Hell, and most have no real attachment to those schemes anyway. Kheshiri, though, likes to push the envelope. You’re right, she couldn’t have won. But she’d have wanted to see how close she could get, how much she could achieve, and what was finally necessary to bring her down. The fact that it took the Dark Lady in person probably means she counts it as a total victory. I’d been wondering what she could possibly have been doing for two years under the nominal control of some Eserite goon who’s not even a warlock, but I think this Inquisition explains it. It’s rare that she’d have the chance to work under a green dragon and who knows how many priests of multiple cults. This has been a chance for her to practice operating under tremendous pressure and evading notice from powerful foes at close range. And based on the fact that she won’t go back in her bottle, it’s clearly paid off.”

“Natchua,” Agasti said flatly, “I have some sympathy for your position. As little as I understand directly, I can infer much of the rest. This, however, was an extraordinarily foolish thing to do. A creature like that is not a weapon you can wield, but a universal hazard on a scale that threatens whole kingdoms.”

“Once again,” Natchua snapped, “I didn’t release her, and—no. This argument is pointless and we don’t have time for it. You’ve convinced me she needs to be caught, and I’ll acknowledge some responsibility in this, let’s leave it at that. Now we need a course of action.”

“She is somewhere on the premises,” Xyraadi said. “The wards barely reacted to her and cannot pinpoint her; she is clearly employing some manner of stealth beyond their usual type. But the wards were tripped when she entered and continue to faintly register her presence, which means she has not yet left.”

“What is she doing?” Hesthri asked. “Why come here?”

“It is a logical move,” Agasti murmured. “A child of Vanislaas, freshly at liberty, and caught between the Wreath and the Church. Seeking the aid of a neutral party adept at navigating these political currents, and inclined to be receptive toward infernal beings, is a sensible approach. I have been sought out by a number of rogue demons and warlocks over the years.”

“Yes…that fits,” Natchua said, nodding and narrowing her eyes in thought. “By the same token, she’ll be seeking a friendly approach—like we were. The last thing she’ll want is to make an enemy of you.”

“Kheshiri does not think the way you do,” said Melaxyna. “And I say that acknowledging that your squirrelly idea of strategy is about as close to the Vanislaad approach as I’ve ever seen from a mortal, Natch, all madcap improvisation and inscrutable sideways anti-logic. But you, fundamentally, have ethics and a regard for other people, which she does not. So yes, she’ll make a friendly approach to Agasti, but not without leverage.”

“What kind of leverage?” Xyraadi asked quietly.

“Dunno,” Melaxyna replied in a grim tone. “She’s probably looking to pick something up on the fly. The longer she’s loose in this club, the more progress she’ll be making toward that. It’ll take her time to figure out the angles and form a plan, but I really don’t recommend sitting here waiting for her to come knocking. She will, but if you wait till she’s ready, somebody will suffer for it. You’ve got your own revenants to care for, not to mention a whole crowd of customers, and that’s just listing the obvious targets.”

“Then she must be intercepted before she is ready,” Agasti said with a heavy sigh. “Xyraadi, I must lean heavily upon you for aid in this matter. I am sorry to so burden a guest in my home…”

“It is nothing, Mortimer,” she said, turning a warm smile upon him. “You are a true friend and I would not leave you in need. Besides, I have missed this! And to think, when the paladins left, I thought I was done with adventures.”

“The paladins were here?” Hesthri said sharply, almost shoving Natchua aside in her haste to scramble to the front of the group. “Which ones? When?”

“You needn’t worry, they are gone,” Xyraadi assured her.

“That, I think, is not her concern,” Agasti said softly. “All three, Hesthri, just this last summer. I am not averse to discussing it with you, but we have more urgent problems first. As I see it, we must do two things: find Kheshiri, quickly, and find a way to contain her again. This brings us to a potential point of conflict.” He fixed his gaze on Natchua. “Since, I assume, you will insist upon being the one to work on her reliquary.”

She frowned. “Why is that… Oh, yes, I see. You obviously would prefer to stay here; I know you don’t like to go out. No, in fact, that seems to me a perfect division of labor. Xyraadi, Mel, and I are probably more useful on the hunt, while you have the luxury of time to crack this.”

Natchua stepped forward till she was within arm’s reach of him, ignoring the way his three demon companions tensed, and held out the reliquary.

“I suspect what she has done is focused on herself rather than the artifact; I don’t think she had much direct access to it. In short, nothing can ever be the easy way. But hopefully a practitioner of your skill can get some results, with it in hand.”

He stared up at her in silence for a few seconds. Then, carefully reached out and grasped the other end of the reliquary. Natchua released it and stepped back.

“Your good faith is noted,” Agasti said at last. “And what do you intend to do with this once Kheshiri is back inside it?

“If you have a plan, I’m inclined to trust you,” she said frankly. “If you’d rather not be burdened with that, you can give it back. I was just going to take it to Professor Tellwyrn. According to some of the other faculty at Last Rock, she’s good at making dangerous artifacts disappear.”

“Last Rock,” he murmured, shaking his head. “I might have known. You…really do mean well, don’t you?”

Natchua let a bitter little grin flicker across her face. “Well. The ill I mean is strictly directed at those who royally deserve it. I don’t want anyone else to get hurt in the process, if it can be avoided.”

“That being the case,” he said wryly, “failing to immediately act against a succubus on the loose is an…interesting choice of approach.”

“Did you catch the part where she said she has no good ideas?” Melaxyna said sweetly. “Because you really have no idea how true that actually is.”

Natchua sighed. “I’m surrounded by ingrates, as usual. All right, Xyraadi, can you give us any hints? I’ll understand if you don’t want to give me access to the ward structure, but without it I’m as blind as anyone, here.”

“Just a moment,” Agasti interrupted even as Xyraadi opened her mouth. “While the trust offered thus far is appreciated, there is a limit to how far it goes. I’m afraid having a second child of Vanislaas loose in my club is beyond that limit.”

“Oh, come on,” Melaxyna protested. “Who better to hunt a succubus than another succubus?”

“Mortimer is a kind and very courteous man,” Xyraadi said pleasantly, “so it falls to me to be blunt. That your warlock friend seemingly trusts you means nothing to us, especially as her judgment is very much in question here. I quite agree; having a second Vanislaad running around loose is not acceptable. However,” she added, turning a small frown upon Agasti, “I am also not so sure about leaving her alone with you, Mortimer.”

“I’m hardly alone,” he said, shifting in his chair to smile at one of the revenants. The other reached forward and patted his shoulder.

“Still,” she said skeptically. “Provided the creature is sufficiently contained—”

“I should clarify something at this juncture,” Natchua interrupted. “If you insist on Mel staying here, that’s reasonable and I’ll agree to it—”

“Oh, come on!” Melaxyna repeated, this time in a shrill whine.

“—but I will specify that she is not my thrall or servant. She is my friend, and if she is bound, dispatched to Hell, or in any way mistreated, I will take massive offense. If you think I’m irrational when—”

She broke off with a grunt as Hesthri jabbed her from behind with a fist. “Okay, your point is made, this is all tense enough without anybody making threats.”

“The essence of compromise,” Agasti said gravely, “is that every party gets something they desire, but no party gets everything they ask. I do insist that Melaxyna remain under my own supervision, but I am willing, upon your word that her intentions are not malign, to leave her outside of a binding circle.”

“Mortimer,” Xyraadi warned.

“So long as it is understood,” he clarified, “that I will take any and all actions necessary to protect myself, my employees, and my property should I find a demon in my presence suddenly behaving in a threatening manner.”

Natchua nodded, then turned to Melaxyna. “Is that agreeable, Mel?”

The succubus threw up her hands. “It’s stupid! You seriously want to try hunting down Kheshiri in this place without my help?”

“I meant—”

“Well, of course I’m not going to try to hurt him! I know what we’re here for, and it’s not like I need any new enemies of my own. Hell, if you put a succubus and a warlock alone in an apartment, it’s not the warlock who’s in the more physical danger. Especially when he’s brought his own muscle,” she added, scowling at the revenants. They smiled in unison.

“It’s not strictly a waste of talent,” Natchua pointed out. “Remember, we’re acting on the assumption that Kheshiri is going to come for Mr. Agasti himself at some point. If we can’t manage to nab her before that happens, I’ll feel better if he’s got some extra backup. She won’t have made a move on Second Chances without doing some research and having some idea what to expect, but Kheshiri has no way of knowing there’s another Vanislaad here. In the worst case scenario, you’re still an ace in the hole.”

“Mmm,” Melaxyna hummed, frowning.

“There is also that,” Agasti agreed. “Though of course I shall hope not to have to rely on her. Now, Natchua, much as I am looking forward to having a very detailed conversation with you, I fear we have already spent too much time at this. Helping me contain this mess will go a long way toward proving your good intentions to me. Xyraadi, I leave the matter in your charge. Please direct our guests as you see fit.”

The Khelminash turned to him and executed an old-fashioned curtsy. “Consider it done. Come, ladies, the hunt awaits.”

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