The residence of House Dalmiss was built into a great natural wall between the main cavern of Tar’naris and the secondary cave in which the city’s agricultural works had been built, with an enviable view overlooking both. The Duchess of House Madouri and her Butler were escorted by diffident guards to their appointment with the Matriarch in a colonnade open to the air on the agricultural side, lit by the golden gleam of its huge sun crystals.
The chamber was set up as a miniature throne room, with its entrance at one narrow end leaving a long approach to the opposite wall, where a dais held a single ornately-carved chair upon which Ezrakhai awaited them. Two House soldiers stood impassively at attention at the foot of the dais, bracketing the guests’ view of her, and a single chair was set up in the center of the floor, facing the throne.
“Duchess Ravana,” she said by way of greeting, with a single dip of her head.
“Matriarch Ezrakhai,” Ravana replied with a matching nod, seating herself without waiting for an invitation. Yancey stepped up to place himself behind her left shoulder, folded his hands behind his back, and assumed a stillness that would have suited even a Narisian.
“I ask your pardon for the sparse accommodations,” the Matriarch said tonelessly. “Your visit was unexpected. We are unaccustomed to entertaining guests of your esteemed rank with so little warning.”
A robed servant, the only other drow in the room now that Ravana’s guides had departed and closed the door behind her, stepped forward with a deep bow, and poured wine from a stone bottle into a goblet which she then handed to the Duchess.
“On the contrary, the fault is mine for so abruptly imposing upon you,” Ravana said smoothly, taking the cup without otherwise acknowledging the servant, who then backed away against the wall. “I can find no fault with your hospitality. My thanks for receiving me in person on such short notice.”
Ezrakhai inclined her head again, then hesitated, her eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly; Ravana had taken a tiny sip, grimaced, and set the goblet down upon the arm of the chair.
“To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” the drow asked, her tone still even.
“There is but one concern we heads of House must always put first, is there not?” Ravana replied pleasantly. “The welfare of our people.”
“Indeed,” Ezrakhai said impassively, “though I am uncertain how I might aid you in the care of your own, your Grace.”
“Ah, but as it turns out, you can.” Ravana folded her hands demurely in her lap, still smiling. “I was recently made aware that several citizens of Madouris and Tiraan Province are currently held in Tar’naris against their will. According to my investigations, five have been placed in indentured servitude of unlimited duration to members of House Dalmiss.”
“I see,” Ezrakhai said with the faintest downturn of the corners of her mouth. “I assure you, your Grace, that enslavement in Tar’naris is assigned only as a just punishment for serious crimes of which the subject has been duly convicted.”
“Yes, I am aware of the politics involved,” Ravana said, languidly waving one hand. “I could, of course, argue with the procedural details of each trial; I have taken time to gather information on the various improprieties of all five convictions—”
“That would be something to take up with the courts, which answer directly to the Queen. I cannot intercede in their judgments.”
“—but we both know that would be missing the forest for the trees, as it were. At issue is that the very institution of slavery in Tar’naris is applied selectively to humans and enforced through corrupt trials, in order to secure a rare luxury for those able to purchase a miscarriage of justice. I’m sure it must shock and horrify you that any such exist among your House.”
“Again,” Ezrakhai said, now with a faint edge to her tone, “that is a matter you would have to bring before the courts. If you can prove that those trials produced an improper verdict, Duchess, you could have them overturned. The guilty would then, of course, be freed.”
“That all sounds rather tedious, does it not?” Ravana mused. “They could also be freed if those in custody of them relinquished their claim.”
“I think you would find that a rather hard sell,” the Matriarch said dryly. “A slave is a rare and prestigious acquisition.”
“To be sure, to be sure. Thus why I have requested an audience with yourself, Matriarch. I assume you have sufficient authority over your House to order the release of my people. I formally request that you exercise it.”
In the heavy silence which followed, Ezrakhai very slowly drummed the fingers of both hands upon the armrests of her throne.
“I am not thoroughly versed in the details of House politics within the Empire,” she said at last, “but I cannot imagine it is news to you that no aristocrat reigns by complete and incontestible fiat. Power is made of the agreement of one’s subordinates that one is to be obeyed, and can be damaged by excessive use. I’m afraid it is simply out of the question for me to make such demands of multiple members of my House simultaneously, your Grace. It would be at minimum deeply disruptive, and in all likelihood severely damaging to my rule.”
“I sympathize,” Ravana said with apparent sincerity, inclining her head. “Nonetheless, that is, not to put too fine a point on it, your problem. I require the release of my citizens.”
Another beat of silence passed. This time, Ezrakhai stared down at her, silent and still as a gargoyle.
“That remains beyond my ability.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Ravana said, still smiling pleasantly. “Merely beyond your willingness.”
“As you say,” the Matriarch retorted, finally wearing open annoyance. “As such, I wish you good fortune in pursuing your dispute with Queen Arkasia’s court. Now I must excuse myself, as it is a particularly difficult time for my House and certain matters require my ongoing attention.”
“Ah, yes, of course,” Ravana said, nodding. “The disappearance of your second daughter. I imagine that is most preoccupying.”
Ezrakhai had begun to rise from her throne, but now hesitated, narrowing her eyes again. “You are indeed well-informed, your Grace.”
“Oh, naturally,” Ravana said airily. “After all, I have her.”
Both House Dalmiss guards finally reacted, shifting position subtly to stare at her directly, one moving a hand to the hilt of her saber. Ezrakhai herself abruptly sat back down, leaning forward to stare at the Duchess.
“What did you say?” she whispered.
“It was quite easy,” Ravana explained, smiling broadly. “I simply had her snatched right off the street. That is a thing I can do, Ezrakhai, while your people must resort to elaborate trickery to do the same. I say that not to boast, but to emphasize an important point which I believe has gone over your head.”
The Matriarch shot upright, baring her teeth. “You will return my daughter immediately, you smirking child!”
“I have every intention of it,” Ravana agreed, folding her hands again. “The condition in which she is returned, of course, depends entirely upon you. Now, as I said, I require the immediate release of all citizens of Tiraan Province behind held in slavery by your House. You have forty-eight hours to remand them, unharmed and without exception, to Imperial custody. If this is not done by that point, you will receive…an ear.”
Ezrakhai’s eyes widened. “You dare—”
“At intervals thereafter,” Ravana continued, “unless these demands are met, further…bits and bobs. The other ear, fingers, feet… Eyes, tongue. You know, whatever protrudes and is accessible. This should afford you quite some time to carry out this difficult task, as I have no intention of killing Ezranat and there are so many things a person can lose and still live. One way or another, you’ll receive her back, alive. In the worst case scenario, a blind, mute, limbless torso. In any case, one who knows exactly whose intransigence resulted in her state. And if that somehow has still not moved you to comply, I will simply seize another member of your family and begin again.” Ravana’s smile widened, showing the tips of her teeth. “Which I can also do, Ezrakhai, regardless of any defenses you raise. For the simple reason that I am, by every measurable standard, your superior.”
The Matriarch pointed at her, barking a few harsh syllables in elvish, and both guards lunged at the human, bringing up their swords. With typical elven speed, they crossed the space faster than a human could have noticed them moving.
Yancey intercepted them just as rapidly, seizing the wrist of the closer soldier and snapping her arm with a jerk even as he tripped the other. The guard screamed as she was sent hurling over the side of the open colonnade to plummet into the fields below. By that point the second guard was already in the process of spinning back to her feet and slashing at him with her saber in the same motion.
The Butler hopped nimbly over the blade, once more kicking her, but this time hooking a foot under her body in the process and hiking her physically upward before she could regain her footing. It closed the distance enough for him to seize her by one ankle.
He spun in a full circle and hurled her in the opposite direction. The guard struck the servant, slamming both into the stone wall hard enough to crack it. They tumbled to the floor and lay unmoving, a puddle of blood already beginning to spread.
Yancey stepped back behind Ravana and resumed his formal posture. Exactly three seconds had passed.
“This is what I mean,” Ravana admonished. “A sensible, civilized person would have paused to consider that Ezranat’s life rests in my hands, and acted accordingly. You, Ezrakhai, are a savage, and that is why you are now in this situation. Your people thrive because the Empire wills it. You survive because the Silver Throne deems your existence advantageous. In the prosperity brought by the patronage of Tiraas, you have grown ungrateful and arrogant. As you have chosen to squander my goodwill, you shall now be relegated to dealing with me in a more proper manner: as befits a lesser civilization, existing at the sufferance of a greater. Yancey.”
She spoke with a subtle emphasis as Ezrakhai took two long steps across the floor toward her.
“If this overweening termite presumes to lay a finger on my person, break both of her legs.”
“Yes, my Lady,” the Butler intoned in perfect serenity.
The Matriarch froze, glaring with pure hatred. Ravana leaned slowly forward, her smile finally slipping.
“Forty-eight hours,” she repeated, “until the dissection begins. You needn’t worry for Ezranat’s life; I am actually able to guarantee the safety of people under my protection, as I am the ruler of a true noble House and not a cave-dwelling arthropod with pretensions of significance. I expect you to remember this lesson, should the opportunity arise for you to falsely enslave a citizen of my province in the future. If I am forced to put you back in your place again, I shall not do so as gently.
“And when you attempt to attack me in retaliation,” she added with a condescending smile, “which you will, because you are a brute savage with the capacity for only a few predictable thoughts, you will not be getting the personnel you send back. At least, not immediately. I mean to commission a very stylish drowhide trench coat in the Imperial style, when I have accumulated enough leather. I will send it to you, as a personal gift from House Madouri. Just the first one, though. After that, I believe I’ll begin work on a lovely sofa.”
“You are a sadistic little monster,” the Matriarch hissed.
“No, Ezrakhai,” Ravana retorted, the smile vanishing from her features. “You are a little monster. I am a far greater one. If, as I suspect, you are capable of absorbing no other lesson from this, get that into your head. The reminders will only grow more costly with repetition. Now, then!”
She stood smoothly, pausing to incline her head once more in a courteous gesture.
“My Butler and I are going to walk out of this House unimpeded. Either because you belatedly summon the basic sense not to interfere with me while your daughter’s fate hangs in the balance, or because you have nothing capable of impeding us. In truth, it makes no difference to me.”
Ravana turned and glided away, back toward the audience room’s door.
“You cannot be arrogant enough to think this ends it,” Ezrakhai snarled behind her. “No matter how this plays out, Madouri, for an insult of this magnitude there will be vengeance. On the last drop of my blood, I swear it!”
The Duchess paused, and looked over her shoulder with a raised eyebrow. “The mole bares its teeth. It would be endearing, were it not so sad. Come, Yancey.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
They departed the room in silence.
The namesake fortifications of Fort Vaspian physically barred the tunnel entrance to Tar’naris, funneling all commerce between the drow city and the surface through Imperial-controlled gates, but in the decade of peacetime a civilian presence had expanded around the battlements, until the label of Fort Vaspian was used to refer to what amounted to a mid-sized town as much as the citadel at its heart.
Thought it offered numerous accommodations, including several comfortable enough to suit the standards of an aristocrat, Ravana’s next meeting was deep within the old fortress itself, where absolute security could be ensured by the Empire, and more specifically, one of the individuals already waiting when she arrived.
“Ah, I see I am the last here,” Ravana said, gliding forward to join Lord Quentin Vex and Nahil of House Awarrion at the fireplace, while Yancey shut the door behind them. “I do hope I have not kept you waiting. Departing the city was surprisingly difficult; a large, apparently informal procession of some kind has slowed traffic along the main thoroughfare to the gates.”
“Not to worry, your Grace,” Nahil said serenely, “I’m just relieved to hear that was your only delay. I might have worried for your safety, if Matriarch Ezrakhai took offense at your demands.”
“I found the Matriarch eminently reasonable, after some judicious prompting,” Ravana replied with a smile, settling herself in a chair across from Nahil while Vex lounged against the hearth.
“Then everything proceeded as planned?” the spymaster inquired.
“Precisely according to our agenda,” she reported, “though I cannot say with certainty what the Matriarch’s response will be. Narisians are, I fear, rather inscrutable to me, and she is an aristocrat besides, with all the implied poise. I am confident I did what could be done, but I won’t predict with certainty that she will accede to my demands.”
“She will,” Nahil said with a humorless little smile. “Ezrakhai is a cautious and conservative person by temperament. In any case, I am already making arrangements for House Awarrion to ‘accidentally’ learn about this confrontation; if Ezrakhai proves resistant, my mother will apply pressure. We will have our precedent within the week. A confrontation between one Narisian and one Imperial House may not, in and of itself, make the necessary waves,” she added, directing her gaze at Lord Vex.
“It is only a starting point,” he assured her, “and I am already at work preparing the next steps. When it is believable for word to spread, the narrative we will seed through our press contacts is of the Duchess personally intervening to restore the affronted honor of House Madouri and Tiraan Province. The very fact of House Madouri’s diminished prestige will all but force other Houses who have lost citizens to the slave trade to follow suit, just to save face.”
“And once confrontation with the larger and wealthier Houses of the Empire becomes a serious prospect,” Nahil finished, allowing herself a smug smile, “the danger to Tar’naris’s very infrastructure will give Queen Arkasia plentiful leverage to pressure the Houses to turn against the slave trade. Even in the best case scenario, this likely will not obliterate it completely, but depriving the market of its primary buyers will be a crippling blow. It may be too early to celebrate yet, but I believe her Grace has now done the difficult part; so long as we manage the next few days carefully, all should turn out as we have planned. On behalf of myself, my mother, and the Queen, I thank you both for your assistance.”
“We all profit by this,” Vex replied, nodding deeply to her. “The Silver Throne thanks you and Matriarch Ashaele for making this possible, Nahil.”
“May our friendship continue to prosper,” she said, rising smoothly. “I hope you will both forgive me for rushing off, but it is a momentous day, and my mother will require a swift report on our progress.”
“Of course,” Ravana said graciously. “Please give Matriarch Ashaele my compliments, Nahil.”
“I shall. Goddess’s guidance to you both; please do not hesitate to call on me if House Awarrion can assist you in the future.”
With a final bow, she turned and strode to the door. Yancey opened and held it for her, bowing.
The second the Butler had shut it behind her, Vex turned to Ravana. “And the additional steps we discussed, your Grace?”
She didn’t bother to ask whether the room was secured against elvish hearing, though there was no visible sign of a warding charm, nor the distinctive prickle of arcane magic in the air. Such things could be hidden, and Quentin Vex did not make stupid blunders.
“A smashing success,” Ravana reported primly. “I can say with all confidence that Matriarch Ezrakhai was left so bitterly affronted that she will never cease to seek revenge as long as I remain alive. I believe I can milk further insults from her inevitable attempts at retaliation, but ensuring that the resulting destabilization of House Dalmiss imperils Tar’naris’s food supply will fall to you, Lord Vex. I would gladly offer further aid toward increasing the Narisians’ dependency on the Empire, but Tiraan Province must still import crops to sustain itself. I gather we have been somehow outmaneuvered?”
He actually blinked in surprise. “What makes you say so, your Grace?”
“You look unhappy, Lord Vex,” she replied gently. “Given your famous self-control, that can only be deliberate. Either unexpected developments have derailed the plan, or you intend to double-cross me. I choose to err on the side of optimism.”
“Hm,” he grunted, reaching into his coat and withdrawing a folded sheaf of paper, several pages thick. “I appreciate your faith, Duchess Ravana. It is the first, I fear. While you were meeting with the Matriarch, the situation changed right out from under us.”
She accepted the sheets from him, opened it, and began rapidly perusing their contents. Half a minute passed in silence while Ravana’s eyes darted rapidly across the pages, and her brows slowly lifted.
“Well,” she said finally, turning to the third page. “I see. Indeed, we appear to have outsmarted ourselves. This will ensure the security of Tar’naris’s food supply without Imperial help, not to mention possibly granting Ezrakhai access to strategic resources I may live to regret.”
“That is the least of what this will change,” he said dourly. “Of course, your Grace, you shall have the full backing and protection of the Imperial government. You have been a staunch ally of House Tirasian and your involvement in this project was at my instigation. The Silver Throne does not abandon its allies.”
“I appreciate that,” she said with a nod, casually holding up the papers. Yancey ghosted across the room to pluck them from her hands, the Butler then stepping discreetly back to begin reading the documents.
“It’s too early to say what form that aid will need to take,” Vex continued, pressing his lips together in displeasure. “Rest assured, your Grace, I will be in contact. In the immediate term, however, this has left me with a thousand new fires to put out. I must touch base with my people on the ground here at Vaspian, and then return to the capital with all haste.”
“Yes, of course,” she said seriously. “You will know where to find me; I’ll not keep you any longer.”
The spymaster bowed to her, then turned and followed Nahil’s path to the door.
“Lord Vex,” Ravana said suddenly, “do you believe there is any possibility that Nahil suspected our secondary objective?”
“I don’t see how she could have,” he replied, turning to regard her with one eyebrow quirked. “Based on what she knows, needlessly antagonizing the Matriarch would have been both pointless and out of character for you. But it goes without saying that even the part of your mission she knew would make you an enemy of House Dalmiss.”
“Yes, of course,” Ravana mused. “And it is inconceivable that she did not know of this development…indeed, this entire affair very neatly kept you occupied while it unfolded. Well. Thank you, my lord.”
“My Lady.” He nodded again, and turned to step out, Yancey having already opened the door courteously.
The Butler closed it behind the spymaster, and only then returned to his mistress’s side, the folded documents already tucked into his own coat.
“His Lordship’s lack of admonition against pursuing a grievance against Nahil could be interpreted as tacit blessing, my Lady,” Yancey said diffidently. “Shall we begin formulating an expression of displeasure at her maneuvering?”
“Now, Yancey, it does not do take these things personally,” Ravana mused, staring pensively into the fireplace. “This is how the game is played. Nahil acted with the resources and knowledge at her disposal toward the best interests of her House and monarch, precisely as a noblewoman ought. I feel no personal ire toward her. Even, I daresay, a touch of admiration. It was quite neatly done.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“For now!” Ravana stood, her gaze snapping back into focus. “Our guests will be arriving at the Manor by this evening, and indeed, these events are certain to send shockwaves across the continent. Even not being formally involved in international relations, there will be repercussions we shall feel directly. The politics of both our nations are about to be thrown into a tumult that no one can ignore. Come, we must dig Veilwin out of the tavern and return to Madouris immediately.”
“Very good, my Lady,” he said, preceding her to the door to hold it open.
“And later, when circumstances provide a suitable opportunity,” Ravana murmured to herself, “I will gently notify Nahil nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion that House Madouri does not forgive.”