The rented theater was only less than half full, with just minutes to go before the announced time of the event. That was by design; it was a last-minute affair, deliberately advertised in such a way that only the extremely interested were likely to see notice of it and arrive on time. There would be reporters, of course, and while Teal hadn’t gone out of her way to make sure they would be those in Ravana’s pocket, there were few enough in Madouris who weren’t. Though the Duchess had, grudgingly, blessed this event, it had been too belated to lend her resources even had she been so inclined. The Falconers didn’t lack for money, but they didn’t have things like Ravana’s spies. Teal had made do by asking where the protest outside the factory had originally been planned, getting the names of a few pubs and tearooms, and having fliers put up there. It seemed to have worked all right; there weren’t as many people here as there had been marching at the gates, but some of those had no doubt been scared off by what had happened at the end of that event. Also, none of Ravana’s agitators were present. Or at least, there had better not be.
This crowd was anticipatory, but distinctly nervous; it was all over a lot of their faces. Already there had been three separate incidents in which someone had tried to sit down and knocked over half a row of chairs with a sudden surge of a personal force field. And those were only the ones who’d just bought their first shielding charms for this event and didn’t know how they worked; they could be set to “always active,” if you were paranoid and failed to understand that keeping them in the default reactive mode both conserved power and enabled you to sit down, not to mention stepping within a yard of other people and objects. Undoubtedly, a lot more of those in attendance were shielded—properly. Given how their protested had ended, they weren’t wrong to be concerned. Teal just hoped they stayed nervous rather than angry. Most of those present were surreptitiously eyeing her, and some not so surreptitiously. She kept a watch on expressions and attitudes as best she could without breaking character.
“It’s the extras I’m curious about,” Ruda commented, again glancing out over the seats. “Not hard to pick out the reporters, and the Imperial spooks’ll be blending seamlessly with the average folks. We got cops, we got the ushers you hired—”
“Actually they came with the theater,” Teal said, plucking a deft arpeggio on her guitar. “Back up, Imperial spooks?”
“Oh, there’s absolutely no way they’re not keeping an eye on this,” Ruda said, grinning. “I give it even odds whether they were surprised about the protest, but with forewarning? Yeah, you got at least one plainclothes Marshal in the crowd. Long as nobody’s inciting riot or rebellion, they won’t do more than watch, but watch they sure as fuck will. Nah, what I’m more curious about are the elves. Your people?”
The last was directed to Nahil, who shrugged.
“In the sense that they are citizens of my nation, yes. But Shaeine and I are the only endorsed representatives of House Awarrion in attendance, and I know nothing of the Confederacy itself taking an interest in this. To me, at least, it is a positive development that some of its member tribes have begun to watch the world more carefully. I am surprised to find that they already had representatives in Madouris.”
“Probably locals,” said Teal. “There’s been an elven community here for a long time; the city elves are practically a mini-grove in their own right. They’re respected; before the Enchanter Wars they actually used to marry into House Madouri now and then.”
“Huh,” Ruda grunted. “Wonder what I gotta do to get that goin’ in Puna Dara. Friendly elves seem like they’d be handy to have around.”
At that, several of the half dozen elves scattered around the theater turned to look at her directly, one woman with a knowing smile, but that was the only reaction. They were all wood elves, by their ears, and wore a mix of tribal costume and modern Imperial style attire. No elves had been present at the protest earlier, which Teal took as a positive sign.
Without needing to be told, Shaeine, Ruda, and Nahil had all arranged themselves around Teal in such a manner that the Falconer heiress could see and be seen by the crowd from her perch on the stairs leading up to the stage. She sat there in a carefully casual half-sprawled pose, idly playing with her guitar. These three, all born and raised in the nobility, had understood the value of pageantry long before Teal herself did, and while only Shaeine explicitly knew the exact role Teal was playing, it seemed likely Ruda and Nahil wouldn’t need it explained.
Teal was here in costume, in character, playing the role she needed to. This, to her, was an important performance not just because of what its outcome could mean for her and Vadrieny’s place in human society; it was her first serious test of the mindset and methodology she had spent the last semester working to establish.
Her “costume” was, nearly in its entirety, just what she wore anyway: a well-tailored men’s suit. Except with subtle differences: it wasn’t quite as well-tailored, the coat being cut to hang a bit more loosely on her, shirt and pants conforming better to the lines of her body. She kept the top two buttons of her shirt open, not quite to the point of showing off cleavage but hinting that she might (a trick Ruda had taught her), and over that wore a loose bolo tie, inspired by Joe Jenkins’s characteristic tigerseye piece but this one unique and handmade by her father. It featured a small crystal, glowing so faintly arcane blue that it was hardly visible under full light, set in an inch-wide gear from one of the factory’s dismantled machines. The shirt also had slightly longer sleeves, so she could roll the cuffs back over the ends of her coat sleeves to show off the way they, too, hung open. Ironically the effect was truly completed by her customary rubber sandals, the one touch she’d always disliked about her personal style.
When it came to a young woman in men’s clothing, the difference between an awkward girl struggling to find and express herself and a Dashing Rogue straight out of every adventure story ever was pure attitude.
And that was how she thought of it, capitals and all. It was a Vesker archetype, though Teal had crafted her chosen persona from multiple influences, most provided by her friends. In her opinion the main difference between the Vesker and Vidian approaches was that the Doctrine of Masks was unnecessarily creepy, but Gabriel’s explanations had actually helped her to piece together something she liked from various bits and pieces that worked for her better than trying to embody a pure archetype. The Rogue she wore like a mask had a bit of Ruda, some historical influence from Laressa of Anteraas, and quite a lot of Principia Locke, with just a hint of Juniper’s casual and nearly oblivious sexuality. Trissiny’s coaching in the customary bearing of Thieves’ Guild enforcers had helped a great deal—Teal had never considered that the Guild actually trained that predatory slouching manner of theirs, but in hindsight, it made way too much sense. Her schooling in the Narisian art of wearing a public face helped tie it all together, and left her with the comfortable feeling that she’d created something really hers, something unique from the way the Veskers, Vidians, and everyone else did it.
She strummed three quick chords while casting another quick look around the room. Nearly everyone present was in a seat now; the mood was growing more tense by the second. And if the clock hadn’t just reached the appointed hour, it was close. That, after all, was the detail that mattered least to a Rogue.
“All right, ladies,” Teal said softly, climbing to her feet. “Showtime.”
“Break a leg,” Ruda said, tipping her a wink and then turning to swagger off to claim a seat. Nahil just smiled and inclined her head before gliding three rows back, where she sat down next to Marguerite Falconer. Matriarch Ashaele had apparently gone to Ravana’s thing in Veilgrad for some reason, and Geoffrey had been asked by his daughter to stay home, as his presence tended to be more distracting around Madouris than his wife’s. That left Marguerite and Nahil as the designated family support, Shaeine having her own assigned role to play in the evening’s performance. And a performance it would be.
And like so many good stories, it started with a kiss.
Just a peck on the cheek, which was pushing Narisian etiquette far enough—and which made it a good thing, in retrospect, that Matriarch Ashaele was in a different province at that moment. Shaeine, however, respected diplomacy and its theatrical element, and so received her kiss on the cheek with a smile before stepping aside to stand demurely at the very edge of the stage, just above the uniformed officer positioned at that corner of the room to keep an eye on the crowd. And so Teal crossed the stage to the podium amid the murmurs of the audience in response to that display.
Mixed; undoubtedly some of those present found it charming, but there was disapproval as well. Tiraan Province had always had more of a Shaathist element than a well-settled region usually did, owing to House Madouri’s traditional employment of the Huntsmen to look after its forests. Enough, at least, to push back against the Avenist influence from neighboring Viridill. Teal had borne the brunt of the resulting prejudices growing up, even as privileged as she was. She had hope that with Ravana’s pivot to backing the Reformists under Ingvar, things would be better for the next generation. But still, there were undoubtedly some in attendance who weren’t comfortable with her reminder that she was married to a woman. That her wife was a drow probably did not help.
All part of the plan, though, as was everything right down to her gait.
She strolled—ambled, really, in a rolling saunter that showed her to be fully at ease, her face set in a knowing little smile. Both had been laboriously rehearsed. Teal actually walked past the podium to set her guitar down in a stand she had very deliberately put on the other side of the stage for exactly this purpose, giving the watchers the opportunity to soak in her insouciance as she returned to the podium. And then, rather than standing behind it, positioned herself by its side and casually leaned one elbow atop it. The projection charm set into its surface would work just fine from this angle; she had made certain in advance that it would.
“Thanks for coming, everybody,” Teal said, her voice ringing through the theater with the force of both magic and her own well-trained ability to project. Her nerves were kept fully masked by her performative lightheartedness, though in truth it was only the stakes of this meeting that had her feeling nervous at all. Teal was a born performer, and if this wasn’t exactly music, some of the same rules applied. At her voice, the last few people who were still chatting fell silent and turned their focus on her, a final couple of stragglers finding their way into seats. “My name’s Teal, and I refuse to take any blame for that. My mom’s Rynean.”
That earned her a laugh—a low and somewhat uncertain one (Ruda’s cackle notwithstanding), but it was enough to get her foot in the door. She deliberately did not look at Marguerite in the crowd.
“For the past five years, I’ve been possessed by a demon.” That, as expected, brought dead silence. “Clearly, you’re curious about the details, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t care to dig too deeply into ‘em. That…” Teal hesitated, making her laid back expression falter for a moment, displaying an inner pain she didn’t actually feel, then cleared her throat before continuing. “That event was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever… Well, suffice it to say I know what it feels like to be burned to death from the inside out, and survive it.”
The silence hung, absolute. For four seconds, she let it.
“Sorry, I guess I don’t think about that very much anymore,” she went on with a slightly bashful grin. “It was five years ago. Since then I’ve spent what feels like weeks at a stretch being poked and prodded by the Church and every Pantheon cult that felt like having a go to make sure I’m safe.” She tapped the Talisman of Absolution, pinned in its customary place at her lapel. “Then almost as much time at school, where I had the likes of Tellwyrn and the paladins looming over me. No joke, the first time I met Trissiny Avelea I thought she was gonna have a go at me with her sword, but actually she’s one of the most reasonable people I know. Well, sometimes.” Another nervous chuckle from the crowd. “I don’t feel bad talking about Triss that way because I know she’d agree. Anyway, I understand this is a big deal for the community and I don’t mean to downplay that. It’s just…weird, to me.” She grinned again. “Five years. And it’s just now y’all start complaining?”
“Well, we only just learned about this!” a woman said from the seats, earning widespread mutters of agreement. Teal looked right at her and nodded; she had ordered that the theater lights not be dimmed, both so she could see everyone without being blinded by the stage lights, and so they could all see each other. People behaved differently in the dark.
“Fair enough. And surprising in its own right, isn’t it? But, it is what it is, I guess. Nonetheless…” Teal spread her arms in a shrug, smiling disarmingly. “Here we are. This has been going on for years now, and that’s probably the most reassuring thing I can say. If you were going to be in danger from my demon, believe me, you’d have known about it long since.”
“But this isn’t just some demon!” exclaimed a man in the third row, on the other side of the central aisle from her family. “We’re talking about an archdemon! Vadrieny the Ravager herself!”
Teal nodded at him, opening her mouth to deliver the prepared response she’d planned for exactly that, then paused, frowning in recognition. “Oh, hey. Isn’t it Mr. Telvid?”
The man in question, a gray-haired fellow in his late middle years, looked uncomfortable, as well he might; people who were planning on heckling from the anonymity of a crowd usually didn’t care to take the spotlight themselves, which of course was why she’d done it. Teal had not taken Rafe’s oratory class, but he’d been glad to give her some pointers. That was the thing about Rafe: as much as his classes could be a circus, he was a good teacher who wanted his students to learn, and surprisingly focused when approached alone. Thus, Teal knew important facts about the difference between crowds and individuals, and the means of turning the one into the other.
“Ah, yes, that’s me,” he said awkwardly. “Haman Telvid. I’m surprised you recognize me, Miss— uh, Mrs. Falconer.”
No doubt, otherwise he wouldn’t have opened his mouth. Teal just smiled at him in apparent happiness. “Nonsense, Mr. Telvid, you’ve been a fixture around the factory since before I was born! And now your daughter works there, too. I’m sorry I haven’t seen either of you in forever; I’ve been off at school, mostly.”
Look, everyone, at how personable she was. And get a load of this guy, biting the hand that fed him. It was a cheap way to make the onlookers reconsider their position, but cheap tricks were often the best tricks. To work a crowd that didn’t want to be worked, single out a target.
“Oh, well, I’m retired, ma’am,” he admitted. “As of last year. I, uh, thank you, by the way, for helping my Damania get a job there. I understand she spoke to you before applying.”
The nervousness of being put on the spot often caused people to offer extraneous explanations of things nobody wanted to hear about. And in this case, the suggestion of nepotism might have been damaging to Teal’s position, but she saw an opportunity and pounced.
“What are you talking about?” she asked, tilting her head quizzically. “Damania made it through a degree program at a Svennish engineering school in three years, and she’s your daughter. We’d have been bonkers not to hire her, I didn’t have to… Wait, is that what she told you we were talking about?” Teal laughed lightly, shaking her head. “Oh, no, nothing like that, Mr. Telvid, we were just clearing the air. See, Damania used to bully me when we were kids.”
Once again silence fell, this time under the weight of sheer awkwardness. Telvid went pale, his lips working as he stammered soundlessly and his neighbors turned disapproving stares on him. Not long ago, Teal herself would have found the humiliation crushing. Now, it was a weapon she wielded.
“Man, that’s another thing I haven’t thought about in years,” she said with a reminiscent little grin. “Heh, I remember one time Damania and her friends shoved a wet, muddy dog into a bathroom with me and blocked the door. It takes some real moxie to pick on somebody who can have your entire family fired and run out of the province; in hindsight I almost have to respect that. She even kept at it after I had Vadrieny. I’m afraid the last time she got a bad scare out of it—this would’ve been just before she went off to school—but don’t worry, nothing happened. I don’t believe in violence, Mr. Telvid. It’s not in my nature to retaliate, and Vadrieny respects my convictions. Besides, who isn’t an asshole as a kid?” Teal grinned disarmingly, shrugging again. “I always say, there’s two kinds of people: those who regret stuff they did as teenagers, and liars.”
She got a much bigger laugh from that, which was perfect to let the underlying lesson sink in without making people dwell on it consciously. Telvid’s attempted heckling might have just saved her half her planned presentation; she’d had a whole scheme laid out for subtly delivering her point, but it wasn’t going to be necessary now.
Teal Falconer abhorred violence in all its forms, and she firmly considered threats a form of violence. That put her in a bind, here, because it was necessary to remind these people that she was one of the most powerful women in the province even without the strength of an archdemon backing her up, and if they had a problem with her, at the end of the day there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it. But she couldn’t come out and say that. It was necessary to gently prod them into contemplating the fact without dwelling on it.
In a way, she almost regretted this unexpected expediency; she and Shaeine had planned out a whole routine. They had props and everything. But in the end, what mattered was that the message was received, and she could see on the uncertain expressions behind the laughter that it was sinking in, along with the reminder that Teal Falconer didn’t exert force to punish people who wronged her, even when she so clearly could.
“Well, that’s great and all,” said another woman—this one younger, nobody Teal recognized. She looked like a secondary schooler, in fact, probably here on a lark to judge by the way she slouched back in her seat. “That’s you, though. How can we trust the freaking archdemon Vadrieny to have the same attitude?”
Teal nodded in a gesture of solicitous understanding. This provided a neat segue into the other main point she wanted to make, but it was less of a surprise than Telvid’s interruption. Somebody was bound to have raised this obvious objection, and thus it had been planned for.
“Lemme pose you a question,” she said over the murmurs of agreement that rose in the wake of the laughter, keeping her gaze fixed on the teenager. “What is it that makes you, you?”
She was answered mostly with quiet, though a few people murmured uncertainly. The unfortunate girl at whom Teal stared with a friendly smile shifted uncomfortably in her chair, glancing around her as if uncertain whether the question had been addressed to her personally. In the habit of adolescent loners everywhere, she had chosen a spot with no close neighbors.
Teal waited for the girl to mumble out an uncertain “Um,” before rescuing her, smiling kindly.
“Sorry, that must sound pretty out of the blue, I guess. Well, let me put it another way: if you lost you memories—and I mean, all of them, everything that formed your whole life and history and had to start over with a completely blank slate… Would you still be the same person?”
At that point she finally relented, raising her eyes to look about at the expressions of the crowd. Confused, pensive, annoyed… There didn’t seem to be a single consensus with regard to how they felt about this line of questioning.
“I ask,” said Teal the instant she calculated this confusion had gone on long enough, “because that is what happened to Vadrieny. The event that caused her to be bound to me was… Well, nobody’s been able to figure out exactly what happened, but it destroyed all the other archdemons. She only barely survived. And in the process, the trauma wiped out her mind. There was only barely enough of her left for the Church’s scholars to identify her. Everything… Everyone Vadrieny used to be, is gone. She’s had only the last five years, and my company, to rebuild an identity for herself. So, as to exactly who and what she is…” Teal shrugged lopsidedly. “That’s a huge question, one I don’t know how to even begin answering. But what I can tell you is that the person sharing my body isn’t anybody who deserves to be called the Ravager.”
There was, of course, more muttering at that—the sound of the people in the audience talking to themselves and each other, not to her. It seemed no one was inclined to speak up in response to that. Perhaps it was partly because she had by now demonstrated she’d single out anyone who tried to become the new center of attention, but even so, the lack of anyone shouting “Bullshit!” was a positive sign. This was going better than Teal had expected it to be by this point in the evening.
She glanced aside to meet her spouse’s garnet eyes; Shaeine inclined her head in an infinitesimal nod, the nigh-imperceptible expression on her face encouraging. Likely only Teal and Nahil, out of all those present, could perceive that she had communicated anything at all. From within, Vadrieny sent her a wordless and complex push of emotion that was signaled readiness and trust that this was going according to plan. The archdemon had been silently watching thus far; she was out of her element in this theater, but knew the part she must play.
Teal made a show of looking from one side of the room to the other, not actually looking at anyone or for anything but suggesting a conspiratorial attitude that was heightened when she leaned forward toward the crowd as if whispering to them.
“Would you like to meet her?”
That brought up more muttering, louder and more alarmed this time, but that was still about the best Teal had dared expect at the idea. She gave them a second to chunner to themselves before fixing her gaze back on the teenager near the front, grinning and raising her eyebrows in a carefully crafted expression that was challenging without being overt enough to be called out for it.
Perhaps a more socially adept youth wouldn’t have bought the bait, but this girl frowned and straightened up in her seat.
“Hell yeah, let’s meet her,” she said, her voice ringing through the theater. “I wanna see what all the fuss is about.”
“You got it,” Teal promised. “Now, nobody worry. I think you might be surprised.”
Leave them on an open-ended statement to keep interest; she could have promised that Vadrieny was perfectly safe, if she wanted to open up the floor to doubts and challenges. As it was, she had everyone’s undivided attention when she took three steps to the side, away from the lectern, and began to transform.
This, too, they had practiced. Vadrieny’s physical emergence was, of course, a familiar process, and one they could complete instantaneously, but that wouldn’t do here. Thus, the two of them had worked out a way to make a whole performance of it.
Teal closed her eyes, lifting her chin and smoothing her expression as if she were slipping into a meditative state. She inhaled deeply, her chest swelling and shoulders drawing back, and made that ascending motion a part of the first stage of the transformation, continuing to rise smoothly in a shift that kept attention on her upper body until the snap of one of her rubber sandals breaking brought eyes to the great talons on which she now stood, prompting a few gasps and one muffled cry from the audience.
She lifted her hands then, holding them at chest height and flexing the fingers, expression shifting into a frown as if this required concentration. The onlookers murmured nervously as, with aching slowness, Teal’s graceful fingers elongated and blackened, transforming before their eyes into Vadrieny’s wicked claws. Once they were fully extended, she flexed them each and then lowered them to her sides, her expression clearing into a small, satisfied smile.
The next part had been the hard one to work out, testing their control over their shared form, but once they got the hang of it, repeating the process had proved pretty easy. The first sparks of fire danced across Teal’s hair, sliding backward over the crown of her head as if someone had set a match to her, which of course caused even more exclamations from the audience. Flames caught and spread quickly, growing to a sheet of orange light which encompassed her head, and then she tossed it back and forth as if shaking out her hair. On cue, Vadrieny’s longer wreath of fire soared out behind, waving avidly about her head entirely unlike Teal’s own short trim.
At that there were actually appreciative oohs from the audience, and Teal was certain she had them.
The wings were last, and in contrast to the meticulously slow emergence of every other demonic feature, they snapped outward in a single powerful motion which swept a gust of air through the theater, ruffling the stage’s curtains and drawing gasps from the onlookers.
Two people applauded. They trailed off almost immediately as no one joined them, but it was all Teal could do to repress her satisfaction. Fortunately, by that point Vadrieny was in control, so she didn’t have to try.
The archdemon finally opened her eyes, gazing out across the theater, and blinked once, languidly.
Then, as they had practiced, she shrank in on herself slightly, hunching her shoulders and raising one clawed hand to cover the lower part of her face, her wings lowering almost to the point of trailing on the floor of the stage. Her eyes, devoid as they were of pupils, didn’t easily convey the act of glancing nervously about, forcing her to shift her head slightly this way and that to do it, but this part had been practiced with great care using mirrors and feedback from Shaeine (Ruda had laughed too hard to be useful) until they had refined the performance into a suitably endearing display of bashfulness.
“Um.” The demon’s glorious, polyphonic voice resonated without need of the projection charm, even when expressed in an awkward syllable like that. “I, uh… Sorry. I’m not very…” Vadrieny paused and swallowed hard enough to make the shifting in her throat visible, not easy to do from up on stage, then emitted a shaky and obviously forced laugh. “Well, I’ve heard more people are afraid of public speaking than death, but until right now I thought that was idiotic. I owe somebody an apology.”
The crowd was staring and whispering avidly, and at that, some actually laughed. Nervously, but they did.
You’re doing fantastic, Teal’s consciousness whispered from within her. I’d never have guessed you’d be such a good actress!
I’m just barely faking! Vadrieny shot back silently, still peering nervously about the room. Why is this so scary? We’ve fought monsters and zombies and demons and—
Because you’re a person, and social pressure is powerful. It’s okay, love, you’ve got this. I’m right here with you. Remember your lines.
Vadrieny nodded; she hadn’t intended to do so physically and then cringed, but fortunately both gestures were in keeping with the impression they were trying to convey. As she’d pointed out, it was a mostly accurate impression, so perhaps some fumbling on her part wouldn’t sink the whole performance.
But as it turned out, she never got to deliver her next lines.
A single figure stood up from the audience, where he’d been seated six rows back from the stage right on the aisle. Dressed in a long brown robe with an all-concealing hood, he was taller by a head than anyone else here save Vadrieny herself, and should have been one of the more distinctly noticeable people in the room for those reasons alone. Yet this was the first time she had noticed him. To judge by the looks he was getting from the surrounding audience members, she wasn’t the only one.
Then he lowered his hood and produced gasps and outcries to rival Vadrieny’s emergence.
The hood revealed a lean, graceful face, with smooth blond hair drawn back in a tight tail and eyes that were glowing jewels of gold. His armor, too, was gold, revealed as he dropped the robe to let it puddle around his feet. In fact, that armor couldn’t have been concealed under that robe without distorting it awkwardly. Clearly the disguise had been more magic than cloth, and both his concealment and the panache with which he discarded it showed a solid appreciation for drama. And, more importantly, a skill at executing drama. Teal respected that.
Ampophrenon the Gold had to stare upward at the archdemon, but he still conveyed the impression of looming over her. Dragons were like that.
“Do you know me?” he asked, not loudly, but his resonant baritone ringing through the theater regardless.
Vadrieny proceeded on mincing steps, careful not to scratch the stage with her talons, to stand at its very edge and peer at him. “You are… You must be Ampophrenon, am I right? Please forgive me if I messed up the name, it’s even more of a mouthful than mine. But you’re somewhat well known, the only gold dragon attached to the Conclave embassy in the capital.”
He inclined his head once in acknowledgment, his expression still inscrutable. “Correct. But that is public information. Do you know me?”
She frowned. “I don’t understand. I just…” Catching on, Vadrieny leaned backward slightly. “Oh. Did we meet…before?”
“We…interacted.” The dragon succeeded in making his tone wry without detracting from its solemnity, to Teal’s great admiration. “Whether it could be said that we met is subject to debate. You and I were both there, at the final battle of the Third Hellwar. You gave me some respectable scratches, Vadrieny. In turn, I pummeled you to the point of insensibility and hurled you bodily back through the portal into Hell.”
Dead silence had fallen in the theater as everyone stared at this confrontation, barely daring to breathe.
Slowly, Vadrieny nodded. “I’m sorry, but I have nothing left from that time. Nothing before I was bonded to Teal. I guess I should thank you, then.”
Ampophrenon raised his eyebrows. “Thank me?”
“I doubt I would have done so at the time,” she said. “Still, I’ve been told something of…of what I was like. That was undoubtedly the best thing to do. For this world, and probably even for me. I…suspect I didn’t make it easy?”
“You were a most respectable challenge, yes,” he said with the ghost of a smile. “Teal Falconer’s question is quite pertinent. If someone’s memory is wholly scoured away, are they still the same person they were before? I have mulled this question at length, with regard to you. At other times, it is little but an exercise for philosophers. In your case? The stakes are significant. And so, truly, you remember nothing?”
“Not…nothing,” she said slowly. She didn’t need Teal’s urging to warn her that it would be best, here, to be fully forthright. “Just nothing of me. Once in a while, there will be a…a flicker of recognition. Some basic knowledge of Hell that I don’t know how I could have learned. Nothing that’s helped me piece together my life from before, or why Elilial sent me here. Did this to me, and destroyed my sisters. I can’t even remember them.” Vadrieny closed her burning eyes. “We’ve gone to the Desolate Gardens, seen the Great Tree and the site of that battle. I thought if anything would bring back a memory… But nothing. Everyone, all our friends from Last Rock, say it’s probably for the best. My history wasn’t a good one to have, as Trissiny pointed out. I agree. It’s just…”
She trailed off, not knowing what she truly meant. Opening her eyes, Vadrieny saw the dragon nod once in understanding, oddly enough. Then again, he did have all his thousands of years of memory. Perhaps it made sense he would have enough perspective to understand her.
“So it is said,” Ampophrenon acknowledged. “Yet I have still wondered. You were always a brute, Vadrieny, but your mother is the very embodiment of deception. It seems foolhardy in the extreme to assume you are exactly what you say.”
Vadrieny drew herself fully upright, raising her wings in a threatening display, and flexed her talons. “Now you hear this, dragon.” Teal clamored frantically for her to calm down, but she pressed on. “My mother’s name is Marguerite Falconer. She is who cared for me when I was terrified and lost in this world, despite the danger I presented, and even though she had reason to hate me for what happened to Teal. Whatever Elilial was to the Vadrieny you knew, to me, she’s only a historical figure who has committed more slaughter and destruction than it would be possible to tally up. To the extent I have a personal tie to her, Elilial’s just the reason my sisters are dead, and I am reduced to sharing someone’s body. That’s what all her scheming has brought me. I’m not even going to argue with you, because we all know you’re right. She could plan something that underhanded. If I knew what Elilial was plotting, I would tell you. I don’t trust this peace of hers, but I’ll abide by it until either she or the Pantheon breaks the terms. But I reject Elilial and all her plots. I am not hers, and she is nothing to me.”
Ampophrenon just nodded. “I have watched you as carefully as I could since you emerged, Vadrieny. The Church and the Empire both sought to keep your presence discreet, but to one with my means, there are ways of keeping informed. It has been easier, I must say, since you have been studying under Arachne’s tutelage. I took care to receive ample reports of your activities, and study them in detail. I have seen the records of your actions, at Sarasio, at Lor’naris, at Veilgrad, and most strikingly, at Ninkabi. You have protected whoever you could, and shown a strange reluctance to bloody your claws. I could scarcely credit it, but the reports were unanimous. And then, there was Ninkabi, where you attacked Elilial herself.”
“Not that anything came of that,” she said sourly.
“Even symbolic actions matter,” he disagreed, “and gods are not so easily brought low. Perhaps it is only paranoia on my part that has maintained my suspicions. Yet, for those of us who have held back Elilial’s works for these thousands of years, to see her deviousness lurking in every shadow becomes a habit necessary for life itself.”
Vadrieny drew in a breath and let it out in a sigh, allowing her wings to slump again. “Well… That’s not unreasonable, I suppose. You’ll believe what you need to believe. That being the case, there’s nothing I could say to convince you anyway, is there?”
He studied her in silence for two heartbeats, and then, very faintly, smiled again. “At some point, one must have faith, if only because to live without it is not living at all. Perhaps it is a small thing, but it seems to me that Trissiny Avelea trusts you. And I only had the opportunity to meet her quite recently. I have known many Hands of Avei over the centuries, you see. It must be said that more of them than otherwise are rather blunt instruments—not unlike I remember you to be, Vadrieny. But the truly exceptional among them have always been the wisest and most canny individuals I was blessed to know. This one, I judge, will go on to be remembered as one of the greatest. A small thing, yes, but in the end, sometimes it is one straw which breaks the donkey’s back.”
To her amazement, the dragon stepped back, and bowed to her. Shallowly, shifting his upper body just far enough that he had no trouble maintaining eye contact, but he did it.
“I am five years too late to welcome you to this world, it seems. Regardless, Vadrieny, I hope that you find a purpose and a good life here. Madouris will be blessed indeed to count you its protector.”
She blinked her fiery eyes once, suddenly feeling very awkward. “Well, I… Thank you, I guess.”
So intense was their contest of personalities that Vadrieny—and Teal—had actually forgotten there was a whole theater full of people as an audience to this. Thus, it took them both by surprise when everyone burst into applause.