Tag Archives: Natchua

16 – 17

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“Well…this changes matters.”

Darling nodded, staring ahead across the street with a slight frown. Though they were clearly the subject of attention, standing in front of a police barracks with Trissiny in her silver armor, they enjoyed the slight privacy of distance; passersby in Tiraas were generally adept at minding their own business, and few people anywhere would be eager to approach a paladin with that look on her face.

“I gotta check with Tricks, obviously,” Darling said abruptly after a loaded pause.

“Okay,” she agreed, but slowly. “And…if he…?”

“Everything we do next depends on what he has to say,” said the Bishop, finally turning to face her. “If Rake was on the up and up, I doubt Tricks will deny it. If he does… Well, that’ll have implications that we then have to deal with. In the likelier outcome, I’ve got enough pull to demand to know what he’s thinking with this. Tricks doesn’t do things without good reasons, Thorn, and we better know what the hell they are before charging ahead.”

Trissiny nodded. “Sounds like sense to me. I guess…this means we split up, for now.”

He emitted the tiniest huff of almost-laughter. “Yeah, ‘fraid so. You don’t have much say with Tricks and he’s not likely to appreciate being questioned with you in attendance. And your business at the Temple had better not wait any longer.”

“Gotta wonder if this isn’t exactly the play,” Darius commented from where he was leaning indolently against the station’s wall in a manner that would have him immediately picked up by the first passing soldier had he not been with Trissiny.

“Surely you don’t suggest Tricks works for…you know who,” Layla objected.

“I bet lots of people who don’t work for you know who end up doing his dirty work, regardless,” said Tallie. “Without knowing it, or even against their will.”

“Let’s not get too deep into speculation,” Darling warned. “Big mistake, to form theories when you don’t have the facts yet. Then, when the facts come, your brain’ll tend to try to fit them into your theories rather than the other way round. You may not be wrong, though,” he added, nodding at Darius. “Eyes and ears open, kids. We can’t be paralyzed by indecision, but don’t forget there’s some real shit afoot.”

“Shit afoot, nice turn of phrase,” said Tallie, grinning. “Sure does look like we’ve stepped right in it.”

“I know Sweet’s off on Guild business, and I’m not the boss of you,” said Trissiny, turning around to address the apprentices, “but I would appreciate it if you all stuck with me for now.”

“You want us at the Temple of Avei?” Darius demanded, raising his eyebrows. “Wow. I thought you were just humoring us.”

“No, Darius,” she snapped impatiently, “you were just pretending to think that because it gives you another excuse to act huffy. If what you want is to be left behind, keep that up, because I haven’t got time to hold the hand of a big boy who shouldn’t damn well need it.”

“Tooooold yoooooouuu,” Layla sang sweetly.

“The issue,” Trissiny continued more evenly, “is that Rasha’s presence is going to be necessary for the plan, and I may have to spend some time squirreled away with the High Commander or elsewhere that I can’t bring her along. After what happened last time, I’ll feel better with someone else on hand to watch her back.”

“I can take look after myself, you know,” Rasha pointed out. “I managed last time.”

“Yes, and you can do it better with friends behind you,” Tallie replied, patting her shoulder. “Thorn’s right; this isn’t a dig at you, it’s basic sense.”

“Not that I encourage you kids to pick a fight in the Temple,” said Darling, “but it is true that bullies like these Purists are much less likely to try to ambush someone moving in a group. Any predator will try to isolate prey before striking. All right, let’s burn mileage before we burn any more daylight. I’ll swing back by Glory’s this evening and hope to catch you so we can compare notes.”

“Right, same goes,” Trissiny replied. “If either of us can’t make it, Glory can make sure everyone’s up to date.”

“Now, remember, Sweet,” Layla said sternly, “as with most nights, Glory is having company this evening. Scruffy characters like you had better come in the servants’ entrance.”

“Just for that,” he said, winking, “I’m gonna take the sewer access, wipe my boots on the carpet, and tell her you told me to do it. Don’t try to sass the master, princess. All right, kids, work fast and stay safe. Catch up with you as soon as I can.”

They separated, heading in opposite directions up the sidewalk toward their respective next confrontations.


Kheshiri was still laughing after half an hour, though at least her initial hysterics had subsided to intermittent giggle fits that allowed the rest of them to converse. A look into her aura had informed Natchua that, while the initial outburst of hilarity was purely genuine, by this point she was just being deliberately annoying. That, Natchua was inclined to indulge. Enabling the Vanislaads to make pests of themselves helped take the edge off, reducing the risk of them doing something truly disruptive.

“It’s the weirdest damn thing,” Jonathan commented, gazing abstractly into his cup of tea. “After all the weird shit we’ve stumbled into and through since this summer, seems odd that this would be the thing that gives me pause. But…here we are.”

“This really bothers you more than all the…well, everything?” Natchua looked pointedly at Kheshiri, currently rolling about on the floor in front of the fire like a cackling dog, and the much more laid-back Melaxyna, who stood behind Sherwin’s chair, massaging his shoulders and cradling his head against her chest.

“The thing about demons,” Jonathan mused, “is that they just are what they are. They don’t get a choice, and can’t reasonably be any better. And even despite that, some of them choose to be better, and succeed.” Staring into space now instead of his tea, he reached to one side without looking, and Hesthri took his proffered hand. “As incredibly hard as it is for ‘em, they do. Nobles, now… Nobles are pretty much the opposite, in every respect.”

“Your point is well-taken, but that’s a little more grim than the reality,” said Melaxyna. “Nobles, like most mortals, are as good or bad as their upbringing and the choices they make. At their worst, they are no more monstrous than any mentally defective violent criminal, just more destructive due to their power. But the good ones are potentially enormous forces for good in the world, by the same token.”

“Honestly, Jonathan, I am inclined to see it the way you do,” Natchua said softly, stepping over to crouch by his chair. He finally focused on her at that, smiling, and she leaned her head against his knee with a sigh. Jonathan had more than a little Avenist in him and had initially been uneasy about the symbolism of having a woman he cared for sit by his feet, but Natchua found comfort in the position and had eventually brought him around. Even if she was still obviously the one with the power here, it was a relief to feel protected for a little while. “From everything I’ve read, Narisian nobility may not be any worse than the Imperial kind, relative to the two societies… But that just means they’re twice as vicious and underhanded on average, Tar’naris being the festering pit it is. Every instinct I have bridles at the idea.”

“I don’t want you to make a decision like this on my account,” he said quickly, setting his tea down on the table to stroke her hair, and then letting his hand rest lightly on the back of her neck, the way she liked.

“You are going to be a big part of any decision I make,” she replied. “Not the only part, but you matter a lot to me. I want to know how you feel before I do anything important.”

“I feel…wary,” he admitted. “Having had a few minutes now to think about how I feel, I’m starting to realize that much of my unease is due to the fact that I think you’d actually be a better noble than most. And as selfish as it sounds, it’s a little alarming because I have no idea how I would fit into that.”

“Well, look at it this way!” Sherwin said brightly. “You two could get married, and then you’d both be nobles. And hey, then Gabriel technically would be, too. I bet a paladin could get a lot of political use out of that.”

Everyone turned to stare at him except Kheshiri, who set off on another round of cackling, actually slapping one hand against the floor. Sherwin’s smile faded under their scrutiny and he shrank slightly in his chair, pushing his head back into Melaxyna’s chest as if to hide in her cleavage.

“Sherwin, honey,” the succubus murmured, squeezing his shoulders, “it’s a bit inconsiderate to put that kind of pressure on someone else’s relationship. Especially in public.”

“Oh, uh,” he stammered, “I didn’t… That is, I’m sorry if…”

“This is one of those things that you’ll only make worse by trying to fix, Sherwin,” Natchua said, not unkindly. “Hesthri, you’ve been quiet.”

The hethelax stepped closer, folding herself down to sit cross-legged practically on top of Jonathan’s feet, close enough to Natchua to reach out and place a hand on her knee. “That’s because I don’t think you’re going to like what I have to say.”

“And when has that ever stopped you?” Natchua retorted.

“When the matter is serious,” Hesthri said, gazing at her without reciprocating her levity, “and your feelings are on the line. I think it’s good for you to be regularly knocked off your high horse, Natch, but I never want to be the cause of real upset, not over something important.”

“I care what you think, too,” Natchua said, reaching out to clasp the clawed hand Jonathan wasn’t currently holding. “If it’s something important enough to worry you, I definitely need to hear it. I can take a rebuke, Hes.”

“Then I think you should do it,” she said frankly.

Natchua blinked once, then closed her eyes and turned her face slightly so that it was half-buried in Jonathan’s thigh. “Why do any of you think I would be good at this? I mean, specifically, why? I am not fishing for compliments or validation, here, I just don’t get it. I am just so very Natchua. It’s inconceivable to me that I would be good in this position. Am I really the only one?”

“I suspect,” said Hesthri, squeezing her fingers, “because all of us here are as suspicious of aristocracy as you are, for one reason or another, and that makes the very fact that you’d be such an unconventional choice comforting. But it’s not like I’d suggest any old fool off the street should be thrust into that position, even if I loved that fool as I do you. I think that Malivette hit the nail on the head, lovely. You would be good for Veilgrad, and Veilgrad would be good for you. Both those things have already been the case; this is really just formalizing it.”

“It’s because you’re such an apex asshole, mistress,” Kheshiri interjected suddenly. She had rolled herself around and was now stretched out on her belly facing them, chin propped up on her hands and grinning in continued glee. “You make your decisions based on pure principle, and your principles amount to protecting people from abuse if you can, and avenging them if you can’t. Your preferred strategy for doing this is always something so irrationally conceived and convolutedly executed that nobody ever manages to stop you. That, mistress, is precisely the profile of a reformer who comes along to burn all the bullshit out of a crooked system. ‘Natchua the Noble’ is one of those ideas no sensible person would think of on their own, but once it’s presented, damn if it doesn’t make an eerie kind of sense! It’s a classic Natchua idea, in other words.”

“That…is…actually quite well said,” Jonathan said slowly, studying Kheshiri, who winked up at him. “Puts my thoughts into words much better than I would have.” Hesthri nodded.

“That’s what succubi do,” Sherwin chuckled. “Well. Among other things.” Melaxyna bent forward to kiss the top of his head.

Natchua regarded Kheshiri sidelong, taking in her delighted expression and the magical signature which revealed the actual mental state it hid. She was in this habit for the obvious reason of trying to head off resistance and defiance from the succubus, but more and more lately, Kheshiri had regarded her with ever-increasing warmth and attachment. Something about that was even brighter and fiercer, now. Natchua couldn’t quite put a label to the demon’s feelings toward her, but they were intensely positive. Somehow, that was more unsettling than if the Vanislaad had meant her harm.

“Well,” she said aloud, “I have more thinking on it to do. Vette and Ravana want to move fast, for the sake of political shock value, but I am at the very least going to sleep on it. I’m interested in hearing more from all of you, too, if you have thoughts. For now, that’s not the only crisis brewing. Shiri, I have work for you.”

“Ooh!” Kheshiri executed a deft gymnastic maneuver by which she flowed from a lounging position to sitting upright without ever fully straightening up, the furor of delight behind her eyes only increasing at the attention. “I’m all yours, my mistress!”

Natchua winced at the phrasing, on purpose. Letting the succubus needle her and get reactions helped scratch that itch. “I’ve got the Black Wreath sniffing around me, and so far I can’t tell what the hell they actually want. They said revenge, but their actions don’t make sense in that context. You’re the Wreath expert, here. The way I heard it, you actually took them over a century ago.”

“Ah, good times,” Kheshiri said reminiscently. “I miss Onkawa. But yes, mistress, I recognize the pattern you’ve described. It’s a standard ploy: they are keeping you both in the dark and under pressure. The goals are variable—could be just trying to see what you do when stressed and confused, or they might be trying to weaken you in preparation for the real play.”

“I see,” Natchua murmured. “It does make more sense in that light. So as long as they retain the ability to move about mysteriously…they retain the upper hand. Even trying to figure out their movements slips me deeper into the trap. Hm. How would you suggest defeating a plan like that?”

“Now, just a moment,” Jonathan interrupted. “Not to doubt your expertise, Kheshiri—or reproach you for asking advice, Natch, that’s a very good habit to be in. But remember what we were just discussing about you and your plans? The Wreath are legendary schemers; facing them on their own terms seems like a bad idea. Better to retaliate with something they wouldn’t and can’t expect. If there was ever a time for a Natchua plan, this is it.”

“Yes, it is,” Hesthri agreed softly, but with a mischievous fervor in her expression.

“I do have insights, if you wish them, mistress,” Kheshiri added, “but I like the direction of Jonathan’s thoughts here. I would be delighted to see how you’d screw with Mogul and his crew.”

“How I would…” Natchua trailed off, frowning into space and barely feeling Hesthri’s gentle squeezing of her hand, or Jonathan subtly massaging the back of her neck in his grip. “So the game is to create confusion and pressure, then? You know what, I kind of love it. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

She snapped her eyes back into focus, finding Kheshiri grinning at her with a level of glee that verged on the psychotic. For once, Natchua found the expression, rather than alarming as usual, exactly what she wanted to see.

“First thing tomorrow, Shiri, you and I are going to have a prowl around Veilgrad with our respective knowledge of Wreath tactics and Elilinist magic. I don’t need to know what they’re planning, just where they’ve been and might be again. And then… If Embras Mogul thinks he’s pissed at me now, he’s about to learn how much worse things can always get.”


“All these…are not skilled enchanters?” Magister Danoris asked, visibly aghast. He did not go so far as it lean over the catwalk’s railing, but clutched it as if it were holding him up as he gazed down at the factory floor below.

“Well, yes and no,” Geoffrey Falconer answered in the same energetic tone with which he’d been playing tour guide since their arrival. Though in many ways he lived up to the stereotype of the absent-minded intellectual, Falconer was as intrigued as any expert in arcane magic would be at meeting high elves, and always pleased to show guests the workings of his factory. “Naturally we do employ quite a few enchanters by specialty, but the whole point of the assembly line is to make production as efficient as possible. We’ve set it up as best as possible to minimize the need for magical expertise; fully seventy percent of the positions along the line are manual. Some of those do require an application of magic, but using the standard inks and dusts—which we of course manufacture in house, from our own mana turbines. That increases the available hiring pool. We pride ourselves on paying well here at FI, but unskilled labor is still much cheaper than employing enchanters.”

“And these…laborers…will produce self-motivated vehicles?”

“Twenty an hour,” Falconer said proudly.

“How sophisticated are your horseless carriages?” Danoris demanded.

“It depends; we have a range of products. The higher-end models have more features, obviously, but they also require more specialized attention from enchanters and other artisans. This assembly line happens to be producing our most basic model, the FI-320. Full seating for four passengers, weatherproof wheel charms, maximum speed of forty miles per hour, and fully rechargeable power crystals—”

“I wish to inspect one of these vehicles.”

“Of course,” Falconer said, his good cheer seemingly undiminished by Danoris’s abrupt tone, though his fellow Magister shot him a reproachful look which he did not see. This was not even the first such grimace Ravana had observed, simply by hanging back and studying her guests as intently as they did the factory facilities.

Magisters Danoris and Talvrin had accompanied her on the tour while Veilwin systematically drained a bottle of wine in the lobby, along with two of their Highguard escort, leaving the other two soldiers and Magister Eveldion to oversee proceedings back at the Manor. So far, Ravana hadn’t teased out any differences in rank; Danoris and Talvrin had the same title, and while Danoris generally took the lead, that might just reflect the differences in their personalities as there had been no giving or taking of orders between them. Talvrin let him talk, but did not show much in the way of deference, preferring to walk somewhat apart and study their surroundings on her own time.

“What is a mana turbine?” she now asked.

“Ah, those are actually the very foundation of Falconer Industries,” Geoffrey said animatedly. “Also called mana wells, they are essentially just electrical generators situated on a ley line nexus, which produce steady quantities of the raw dust which can then be refined into various grades of enchanting powders, and further mixed with alchemicals to make enchanting inks that can be used to inscribe enchantments on spell parchment. We both use these in house on our own products, and sell the raw materials directly through outlet shops. FI started when the Enchanter’s Bane shifted ley lines enough that a major nexus formed on real estate my family owned; our activities here tugged them further so that there are now two smaller nexi nearby, which we also control. There are turbines on each. In fact, the nearest is just at the other end of this factory! Would you like to see it firsthand?”

“Yes, we would!” Magister Danoris snapped. Again, Magister Talvrin cast an irritated glance his way. This time, she caught Ravana’s eye. The Duchess gave her a bland smile.

“Right this way!” Geoffrey said, leading the way along the catwalk.

Their course took them to the end of it, down a metal staircase to the factory floor, and through a door at its end. The hallway beyond extended past the building itself, well-lit by both fairy lamps and broad windows which revealed the domed structure to which it led, some fifty yards distant.

Ravana let herself fall to the rear, studying her guests as they strode along, and only deduced halfway down the hall that the Magisters were engaged in conversation the whole time. They spoke in the minutest exhalations that only an elf could hear, but the argument irritated Danoris enough that he turned his head to scowl at Talvrin, enabling her to see his lips move.

She made a mental note to learn to read lips. Somehow it had never come up, but in the moment, Ravana could only castigate herself for overlooking such a clearly useful skill.

The door into the mana turbine was both locked and guarded, though of course the factory’s owner was not impeded by these things in the slightest. He led them through, and into the huge round chamber beyond.

They emerged onto another catwalk surrounding the circular pit dug fully ten yards into the ground, where the machinery of the mana well itself whirred ceaselessly, its mechanical arm spinning and filling the very air with static.

“This chamber is bristling with both conventional lightning rods and the best grounding charms available!” Geoffrey practically shouted over the noise as he led the way around the perimeter of the room toward the glass-walled control booth. “There is basically no chance of electric shock, though with the turbine running at this capacity there’s obviously a lot of static! This way, please, the booth is charmed against both the noise and the electricity.”

The elves were visibly grateful to be shut inside the calm and quiet of the control booth, even the two soldiers. Two enchanters in hard hats and coveralls embroidered with the FI logo gawked at their guests; their employer and even Ravana they knew by sight, but the high elves were well worth staring at even among dignitaries. They seemed both reluctant and relieved when Mr. Falconer himself asked for privacy in the booth, taking his seat before the runic control panel as they slipped back out.

“Is it always so…extreme?” Danoris demanded once the six of them were again alone, fingering one of his long ears.

“Actually, no!” Geoffrey said brightly. “This turbine is the smallest and oldest still in service, and borderline obsolete. We’ve perfected a method of producing much higher-grade mana powder which will enable the creation of far more sophisticated and powerful enchantments. Well, actually, we already have the capacity to make those enchantments, but dedicating a new turbine to mass-producing that quality of dust will finally make them economical and thus more widely available. But it’ll require completely dismantling the turbine and building a new one, which will of course seriously cut down our production while it’s being done. So! We’ve installed heavy-duty safeguards in here to ensure there won’t be any kind of magical event when the machinery breaks, and are running it round the clock at four hundred percent capacity to build up a backlog of dusts. Once it gives out, we’ll replace it with the upgrade.”

Both Magisters looked distinctly alarmed at that.

“Ah, but I don’t mean to sound boastful,” Geoffrey added with a wry grin. “Obviously, none of the magic we’re doing here is anywhere near on a par with what you’re used to back home.”

“Obviously not,” Danoris said dismissively, even as he frowned in clear worry through the noiseproof enchanted windows at the overworked turbine. This time, Talvrin didn’t bother to express disapproval at his rudeness. She was also frowning at the same sight, though more pensively.

Ravana looked rapidly between them and chanced a glance at the Highguard who had each positioned themselves to cover one of the booth’s doors; both were likewise studying the mana well. This, she decided, was the moment to strike.

“Naturally,” the Duchess stated in a light and airy tone, “our magical capability itself is not the source of the Magister’s worry.” Danoris whirled to glare at her, but she just carried on speaking with a blithe smile. “Rather, it is the fact that he came here expecting to see fur-wearing primitives in stone castles, with scarcely one individual in ten thousand an arcane user. And before the Enchanter Wars, that might have been the case. Tell me, how much has Qestraceel changed in the last hundred years? The last thousand?”

All the elves were staring at her now, Danoris in open anger, Talvrin with eyes narrowed intently. Geoffrey Falconer also watched her with a knowing little smile. Ravana quite liked Geoffrey, in large part because he liked her. Not that she craved his approval in and of itself; he had been present when she’d finally gotten rid of her father. While Teal had been deeply unnerved by that event, Geoffrey took grim satisfaction in the unmaking of the Duke who had caused him so many headaches over the years. Ravana respected pragmatism, and his appreciation of revenge.

“Young woman,” Danoris began.

“It must be quite a thing,” she said sweetly, “to be winning a race by default, and only realize you have competition when you feel its breath upon your neck.”

Danoris did not like that at all, and it showed all over his face. Talvrin remained thoughtfully focused upon Ravana, though for the moment, neither spoke.

“It seems to me,” she mused aloud, stepping forward to look out over the mana well herself, “that we have a great deal more to offer one another beyond today’s specific business. Clearly, your unparalleled mastery of the arcane makes your people a font of wisdom from which mine would be both honored and delighted to learn. And even if we can reciprocate little along the same lines, it is obviously advantageous for you to have a weather eye upon the state of human advancement.”

“That,” said Danoris, recovering some of his hauteur, “is hardly worth the—”

“You are by far the most inept politicians I have ever seen,” Ravana informed him, causing the Magister to stammer in incoherent offense. “You control your emotions no better than children. Every thought you have is displayed far in advance of expressing it. Were we truly at cross purposes, your transparent predictability would render the briefest conversation a strategic victory for me. How fortunate that I am not ill-disposed toward you!”

“Most fortunate indeed,” Magister Talvrin said quietly.

“If this is the way even the ranking dignitaries of the Qestrali comport themselves,” Ravana continued, staring aimlessly out the window, “it goes without saying that the Narisians have taken you for a ride in every negotiation between your peoples thus far. I am, as you have cause to be aware, on unfriendly terms with certain factions in Tar’naris; I’ve had cause to grow adept at handling them. I should be delighted to assist my new friends from Qestraceel in getting the better of any further dealings with the drow. And while I am a loyal and devoted subject of the Silver Throne, I would not consider it to be against the Empire’s interests to assist such valued comrades in mitigating the utter spanking your delegates are undoubtedly receiving in Tiraas even as we speak.”

Danoris physically swelled up, which was downright comical given his thin build and the way his ostentatious hovering shoulder armor shifted with the motion. Less amusing was the way his fingers twitched hungrily; for a moment, Ravana thought he might cast some spell at her out of sheer outrage. The much more composed Talvrin turned her head to stare at him.

After a few seconds, however, the Magister composed himself with a visible effort. It took him another heartbeat to put on a small and insincere smile, but he managed, for the first time, to direct a shallow bow toward Ravana.

“Perhaps,” the elf said with obviously strained courtesy, “there is potential for…useful intercourse between us after all…my lady Duchess. Once this day’s work is settled to everyone’s mutual satisfaction, I should be…willing…to discuss further…business. With you.”

Ravana regarded him sidelong, thankful she’d taken the risk of annoying Natchua earlier in the day to press her for details of her encounter with the Highguard squad she had disabled. There were political differences between them, and in fact, they apparently had formal means of addressing these in the field. It was time to take the second risk.

She turned to face Magister Talvrin directly and inclined her head. “It would be my pleasure, not to mention and unmatched honor, to develop a direct relationship between House Madouri and the Magistry of Qestraceel. For such a privilege, I should naturally do my utmost to be as accommodating and useful a friend as I am able. On one condition, of course.”

“Oh?” Danoris grated, further aggravated at being given the cold shoulder.

Ravana pointed at him with one hand, keeping her gaze fully on Talvrin. “This individual is never to be in my presence again. I am certain that so ancient and graceful a civilization as yours must have countless members who are able to conduct themselves appropriately in the presence of a Duchess. I therefore see no reason I should be subjected to the company of those who do not.”

“Now, see here!” Danoris barked.

“Such a trifling request is more than reasonable, Lady Madouri,” Magister Talvrin assured her with a broad smile. “I can only apologize for any offense my colleague has caused you thus far. I shall be glad to ensure that you see only the better face of our society henceforth.”

“Talvrin!” he exploded.

Geoffrey had turned his back to all of them by that point and was pretending to be absorbed in the dials and levers of the booth’s runic control panel.

“I mean no offense,” Ravana said pleasantly, “but I am honestly curious how such an obviously sophisticated civilization ends up with such boorish individuals in positions of power.”

Danoris had gone scarlet in the face; it was the first time she had seen an elf do that.

“Qestraceel all but runs itself,” Talvrin explained. “Manual labor is done by autonomous constructs—what you call golems. More physical functions than otherwise are performed by fully automated enchantments. The city’s functions need maintenance more than they need actual oversight. Even much of the necessary decision-making is handled by intricate and permanent data processing spells running sophisticated algorithms. In addition, our culture prizes above most other concerns its ancient and direct lineage; our society began immediately following the Elder War and more than a few Qestrali elves remember that time. Thus, political power tends to accrue those who have seniority and magical aptitude, rather than…people skills.”

“Magister Talvrin!” Danoris shouted shrilly. “The Magistry will hear of your divulging of our secrets to outsiders!”

“And then,” she shot back, whirling on him with a fierce scowl, “they will hear about how you made a spectacle of every weakness we possess before Imperial nobility, and the measures I was forced to take to keep said nobility positively disposed toward us and disinclined to hostility! You have rendered your presence diplomatically offensive, Magister Danoris. It would be appropriate for you to absent yourself from further engagements, or at the very least, remain silent.”

“Witnessed,” both Highguard stated, in unison and with audible satisfaction. Falconer’s shoulders quivered and he hunched further forward over the console.

Danoris looked as if he might vibrate through the floor.

“After all,” Talvrin continued, turning back to Ravana with a gracious nod, “the Duchess impresses me as a pragmatic woman who would rather benefit from our friendship than initiate needless friction.”

“Oh, very much so,” Ravana agreed brightly. “Revenge, as the Eserites say, is a sucker’s game. I look forward eagerly to a bright future. As friends.”

Eventually, she actually would have to teach them some of the sly circumspection a politician absolutely needed to survive on the surface; it wouldn’t be long after that before they adapted their own. But for a while, at least, there was much more candy to be taken from these babies.

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16 – 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you!” Sherwin exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravana nodded once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now just a goddamned minute,” Natchua squawked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was just bored!”

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

“I—that—you—this isn’t—fucking—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Goddammit, Sherwin!” Natchua snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone stared at her in dead silence.

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

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

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16 – 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Listen, you—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded back. “I withdraw my challenge.”

“Witnessed,” said the third with clear relief.

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

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

“Uh, excuse me,” Natchua exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He did not dignify her with a response.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m gonna throttle that man!”

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

“Malivette,” Natchua warned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I welcome perspective, officers.”

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

“Concurred,” the laconic one added.

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

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

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

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

Her smile abruptly vanished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What of it?” she asked warily.

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

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

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

“Blackmailer,” he muttered sullenly.

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

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

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

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16 – 10

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Though the scheduling of this entire affair had been necessarily impromptu, it was Lord Vex’s responsibility to stay on top of events, and thus he was there to greet the Empress when she and her escort returned. They materialized in the secure room of the Palace’s harem wing set aside for teleport arrivals, Eleanora accompanied by two of the Imperial Guard and the two Azure Corps battlemages who had provided her transport—an almost cursory escort for a sitting Empress, but then, the entire business had been meant to be discreet.

Obviously, Vex did not react to her appearance. Eleanora wore her usual severe gown and had her hair pulled back into its customary tight bun. The gown, though, was unbuttoned to below her collarbone, and she had a woven crown of lilies perched lopsidedly atop her head. At her hip, hanging from a broad leather shoulderstrap decorated with Tidestrider beadwork, was a heavy satchel, itself dangling streamers of colorful beads and shells that clattered with her movements.

“Good morning and welcome home, your Majesty,” Vex said in his normal, distant voice once the battlemages had saluted their Empress and departed in flashes of blue glitter. “I hope your mission was fruitful.”

Eleanora gave him a momentary look, her own expression as closed and guarded as always, to the point that it clashed with her touches of holiday frippery.

“Tellwyrn was amenable to sharing, with some persuasion,” she said briskly, stepping forward off the teleport pad and striding toward the chamber’s door. Vex fell in alongside her and the two Imperial Guards silently brought up their rear. “She is not, as it turns out, a high elf.”

“I see. Well, it was still a worthwhile prospect to investigate. I am sorry you did not meet with more success.”

She flicked a sidelong glance at him, that extremely subtle look he knew so well which few would even have caught. That look meant she’d done something clever, and Vex had to consciously refuse to sigh.

“Tellwyrn has been in Qestraceel,” the Empress said, opening her satchel and carefully extracting a large, heavy volume bound in scuffed leather, its yellow pages unevenly trimmed. The thing looked positively ancient. She handed it very carefully to him. “She was so deeply offended by her treatment there that her first act upon departing was to assemble the most thorough record of her observations she could while the memory was fresh, and set it aside against a future occasion when unveiling the secrets of the Qestrali to an interested third party might, in her words, ‘inflict some damn humility’ upon them.”

Vex tucked the volume protectively against his side. “The most peculiar thing about knowing Professor Tellwyrn is how often one is forced to appreciate what a mulish, irritating bully she is.”

“Tell me about it,” Eleanora replied with an open sigh. “I have given that book a cursory examination; it’s quite legible, though the language is somewhat archaic, having been written some three hundred years ago.”

“Ah. Well, even if it is not up to date intelligence, historical data is still extremely valuable, given our complete lack of it.”

“It is definitely dated, but may be more pertinent than you imagine,” the Empress replied. “In addition to the written record, Tellwyrn was willing to speak at some length about the high elves. It’s not all that hard to get her to start complaining, actually. By her description, the most pronounced characteristic of Qestrali culture is their presumed exceptionalism. They believe themselves to have constructed a perfect society and appear as prideful and resistant to change as any elves, if not more so. It seems their society has not diverged significantly since its founding not long after the Elder War.”

“Did she have any insight into why they would suddenly join the world now?”

“I asked, of course. Obviously we cannot know without direct data, but in Tellwyrn’s opinion, such an abrupt action indicates an equally abrupt political shift within Qestraceel itself—which, she emphasized, would only occur if several very important people died within a short period. We may wish to investigate whether some disaster has occurred in the region, perhaps a volcanic action that damaged their city. The book contains its exact latitude and longitude.”

“Ah. How do they hide their island, did she mention?”

“It’s not on an island,” Eleanora said with a wry smile. “We were correct as to its general location, but were looking at the wrong altitude. Qestraceel is located at the bottom of a huge marine trench deep below the Stormsea. Tellwyrn also mentioned that the entire purpose of their vaunted navy is to spread misinformation concerning their location, numbers, and capabilities. I’m afraid all your observations of high elven caravels may have to be thrown out.”

“Even a misdirection can be revealing, once you know it is one,” he disagreed. “Omnu’s breath, what else is in this thing?”

“Population estimates, including troop and caster numbers—probably the least accurate information, after three centuries. Descriptions of their social structure, economy, government, and religion, the basic composition and preferred strategies of their military, which in Tellwyrn’s opinion are unlikely to have been significantly updated. A cursory but still useful overview of their interactions with the outside world and how they maintain secrecy. Diet and food sources, numerous descriptions of various uses of both active spells and passive enchantments, some of which we might ourselves be sophisticated enough now to reverse-enchant from the descriptions alone. There’s a whole section on etiquette which should be a tremendous help to our diplomats. Also,” she added with another little grin, “a very detailed account of the Qestrali criminal justice system in action, and an extremely vivid depiction of one of their prisons.”

“Bless that cantankerous old bitch,” Vex said fervently. “Did she say why she’s sat on this so long?”

“The high elves do make an active effort at secrecy. Revealing this information is necessarily going to provoke a severe reaction from them; Tellwyrn judged that the Empire at its present strength needn’t fear direct reprisal, and given recent events, has an actual need for this information. We should not forget that simply possessing data on the Qestrali is going to be seen by them as antagonistic.”

“Duly noted, though it remains to be seen exactly how much we shall have to care what they think.”

They came to a stop outside the door to Eleanora’s chambers.

“Does your Majesty wish to rest and freshen up,” the spymaster inquired, “or proceed with your day as usual?”

“I feel fresher than I have in years,” Eleanora said, almost wistfully, then shook her head. “Which, of course, is exactly what can’t be shown in public. Do have my steward cancel my usual morning appointments, if you would, Quentin. This must take priority, but I should have time to straighten up a bit while everyone is gathered. Please relay all this to Sharidan and have him get Panissar and the ministers here for a consultation. I want that book copied and put in the hands of analysts in Intelligence and the Foreign Ministry; in the meantime, I will brief everyone on what I’ve learned personally, which should be enough to get them a head start.”

“Consider it done, your Majesty,” he said, bowing over the heavy book. “Good to have you back.”

Eleanora nodded once, then turned and entered her bedroom, while the guards took up positions flanking the door and Vex strode off down the hall to see her will done.


Natchua was ambushed by demons the moment she stepped out of her room, which wasn’t all that unusual.

“There you are! Were you planning to sleep all day?”

“Some of us have been at work under your orders since before sunrise, you know.”

“Both of you stuff it,” she said irritably, pushing between the two succubi and forcing them to follow her on the way down to the first floor. “I was up past midnight being interrogated by Imperials, and just for your edification, I own a clock and know how to read it. It’s barely past breakfast time. Report in, and hold the whining.”

“Ooh, I love it when she’s commanding,” Kheshiri cooed, then shrieked playfully at Melaxyna’s slap to her rump.

Natchua sighed loudly and rubbed at her eyes with both fists.

“Yeah, well, I’ve got nothing,” Melaxyna said. “I’ve been up and down the city for two hours starting at dawn, lurking in all the markets. I didn’t encounter any unusual magic of any kind, or even a rumor of any. All the gossip is the elves this, the elves that. Even as big a deal as this Confederacy is, had there been even a whisper of a chaos event near Veilgrad, I guarantee that would be on everybody’s lips. But no, not a hint.”

“Afraid I have nothing better, mistress,” Kheshiri added as they rounded the corner and descended the wide stairs to the nearly-restored entrance hall. “Malivette is still taking your warning seriously, and according to Jade, so is Imperial Command. Everyone’s more concerned about the Wreath sniffing around for unknown reasons than they are about whatever spooked them into fleeing the catacombs, though.”

“Well, they’re not wrong,” Natchua grunted, coming to a stop at the base of the stairs and gazing absently around. The restoration was going well, especially now that she’d found some local laborers willing to work in a house full of demons under the direct supervision of three hobgoblins; oddly enough, Veilgrad locals seemed to find a strange comfort in knowing that nominally friendly evil lurked in the old manor again. For all that Natchua was herself becoming a fixture in the local community, Veilgrad’s regional culture was still mystifying at times.

The walls and roof were up; it was chilly and drafty in the hall, with boards still taking the place of the glass that had yet to be installed in its tall windows. There were no carpets, drapes, or other decorative touches yet, the floor and wood paneling hadn’t been properly varnished, and the place was strewn with tools, sawhorses, stacks of wood and other construction debris. The new wrought iron chandelier sat in one corner beside a pile of yet-unassembled enchanting equipment awaiting expert installation for its light-sensitive fairy lamps.

“It’s still too early in whatever the Wreath is doing to have a plan yet,” Natchua said after a contemplative pause. “I want your eyes and brains on whatever they come up with, though, Shiri.”

“You always know what I like to hear, mistress,” Kheshiri purred, grinning wickedly and slowly swaying in her hips in time with the waving of her tail. “Ahh, running rings around the Wreath, it’ll be just like old times.”

“And both of you be careful,” Natchua added more severely, setting off around the steps toward one of the newly reopened hallways. “You’re both made of magic. A proper chaos event could fuck you up beyond my ability to repair.”

“Are you sure that’s what it was?” Melaxyna asked. “Not trying to be difficult, Natchua, it just seems…”

“I know exactly how it seems,” she grumbled. “And as I told the Imps, I’m not a hundred percent certain of anything. I’m not personally very familiar with chaos interactions. But it scared off the Wreath, it came out of the same deep tunnels where that chaos cult was operating, and it just felt like that creepy place Kuriwa showed me. None of that’s more than suggestive. When it comes to chaos, though, it doesn’t pay to get sloppy. Worst case scenario, it’s nothing. Then you can say you told me so, and we’re not all hopelessly fucked, so… Everybody wins.”

Like the hall leading to it, the dining room had been almost fully restored. It still lacked furnishings, aside from a few surviving chairs and the enormous carved table which had endured its years of neglect with little ill effect that some polish hadn’t healed. The fairy lamps were awaiting installation, so old-fashioned oil lamps perched in their sconces, currently unlit. The fireplace was kindled, adding heat and warm light to the cool gray that beamed in through the open windows, their new glass in wrought iron housings revealing a gentle fall of snow to add to the covering already on the grounds outside.

“There she is,” Hesthri said fondly, sidling up to Natchua to kiss her cheek. “I made scrambled eggs with those spicy peppers you like, they’re under the cover on the table there. Should be fresh, but I can whip up some more.”

“Thanks, Hes. Don’t you worry about me,” Natchua replied, giving her a one-armed hug before turning to the table. “I grew up eating beetles and mushrooms, anything that’s not actually moldy still feels decadent.”

“Damn it, wench, let me pamper you a little,” the demon scolded, earning a mischievous grin in response.

Natchua’s path toward breakfast was interrupted when she came abreast of Jonathan, who was sitting sideways in one of the few chairs, his own empty plate pushed away and a cup of tea at his elbow while he read a newspaper.

“WHAT THE HELL?” she bellowed, ripping it out of his grasp.

Jonathan had quick enough reflexes to let go rather than let the paper be torn, and sat there with his empty hands still in position to hold it up, blinking through the space where it had been at Natchua, who was glaring at the front page.

“You know, girl, sometimes I wonder if you were raised in some kind of cave.”

“Why am I on the front page?!” she demanded of the room at large, slapping the offending document with the back of her hand. “What the fuck is wrong with these people?! The elves bust out the most astonishing political development in all of history, and somehow ‘Natchua fends off annoying reporter’ deserves a fucking headline? Who do I have to sacrifice to what to get some goddamn peace? Because I’ll do it, see if I don’t!”

“That’ll be Imperial Intelligence at work,” Jonathan said, picking up his teacup and taking a sip.

She rounded on him, brandishing the paper. “What? Why?”

“You,” he explained, smiling, “a beloved local oddball and hero, and also a foreigner who has no attachment to the Empire to speak of, reacted to the elves’ big surprise by urging people to stay the course and trust the government. The Throne couldn’t have asked for a better endorsement if they’d arranged it themselves. The Empire may not control any papers outright, thanks to the Veskers’ influence, but they definitely have means to lean on them. You’d better believe strings were pulled to get that to the front page.”

“Aaugh!” Natchua rolled up the paper and smacked herself repeatedly in the forehead with it. “I only said that because I thought it was the thing least likely to stir up trouble! And now look what—oof.”

Tiring of her carrying on, Jonathan had set down his tea, and now reached forward, grabbing her by the waist and pulling her into his lap.

“What’s done is done,” he stated, wrapping his arms around her and resting his chin atop her head. “It was a good idea, Natch, I think you made the right call. Sometimes you just get cornered and any step you take is gonna kick over some bucket of crabs. That’s life.”

Kheshiri deftly plucked the paper out of the drow’s grasp and unrolled it, Melaxyna leaning over her shoulder as they both perused the front page.

“Whoah boy,” Kheshiri said, her eyebrows climbing. “This is a bigger deal than your putative chaos flicker, mistress.”

“The hell you say,” Natchua snapped.

“It’s possible nothing’ll come of it,” Melaxyna added, “but it’s also possible she’s right. If Intelligence is content with this, great. But if they start approach you for more active cooperation…”

“They’ll be disappointed, is what!”

“No!” both succubi shouted, looking up at her in alarm.

“They’re right, love,” Jonathan said gently, squeezing her. “You gotta consider the way spooks and operatives think. If you’re not with them, you’re against them. ‘Neutrality’ is not an idea they respect.”

Natchua bared her teeth in a wild grimace and seized his arms, hissing and physically swelling up as she drew breath for another outburst.

Hesthri glided smoothly across the gap between them and pushed herself into their embrace, slipping an arm around Jonathan’s shoulders and the other behind Natchua’s head to insistently press the drow’s face into her cleavage.

Natchua made muffled noises of protest, squirming and flailing the one arm she could slip free, at least for a few moments. Very quickly, the struggle went out of her and she slumped forward, going limp and letting out a half-stifled groan.

Hesthri stroked the green stripe in Natchua’s white hair, smirking over her head at the two amused succubi. “It works on Jonathan, too.”

“’strue,” he agreed, slipping one arm free of Natchua to wrap around Hesthri’s waist and pat her hip.

“And on Sherwin,” Melaxyna said sardonically, “and on everyone. I hope you don’t think you invented that, Hes. Feeling better, Natch?”

“Uh bff, fankth.”

“Good.” Hesthri bent her neck to kiss the top of her head before withdrawing. “Then eat your eggs, pretty. The world will still be full of enemies after breakfast; I’ll not have you kicking ass on an empty stomach.”


An hour later, she left the Manor in a much better mood, at least partly due to a full stomach.

Though she could easily have used magic to protect herself from the cold, Natchua much preferred to wear the nice winter coat and boots Jonathan had bought for her. The coat she especially enjoyed, a deep blue knee-length garment lined with speckled fox fur; it was amazingly comfortable and she was so fond of the look she willingly forgave him for saying her old black leather duster made her look like a pretentious wannabe cowboy poet.

Externally, Leduc Manor was still a shambles, but at this point it was the shambles of construction rather than decay. The outer fence and gate had been fully repaired and fresh gravel coated the driveway, though of course no landscaping had yet been done and everything not stomped flat by the ongoing work was a maze of brambles and dead weeds. Carts and carriages were parked on its grounds, along with stacks of masonry waiting to be installed, all of it now buried under a layer of fresh snow. Construction had slowed considerably during the winter; as far as their hired workmen were concerned, it was stopped, but the three hobgoblins kept gamely on, unbothered by temperature and taking great satisfaction in their progress. There was no way they’d have the whole manor shipshape by spring, but Natchua rather expected the hired hands to be shocked at the state of the place when they returned.

The old Leducs must have leaned hard into their sinister reputation, to judge by their fondness for overwrought gothic architecture and decorative ironwork, to say nothing of the gargoyles, all of which were deliberately shaped to look like actual demon species. Still, the place must have been beautiful, in its way, when it was kept up. The layer of cleansing snow made it oddly appealing even now, and likely would have then.

A lot about the area was beautiful; one couldn’t help but enjoy the vista the Manor had over the city of Veilgrad below and the Great Plains beyond. The forested mountains soaring upward on all sides were an equally breathtaking sight. Even after a few months here, Natchua had not become inured to the spectacle, and so always left the house on foot when she was going into town.

She especially loved the snow, aware that at least part of it was the novelty. Even with an academic awareness of how deadly winters had been to humans until very recently in history, the sight of it was just…pure. Natchua couldn’t put words to the sense of serenity that came when heavy flakes were floating down from the clouds, but she took every opportunity to savor it. Even in Last Rock, winter had just been the months when it didn’t rain. Veilgrad’s unfriendly climate felt like a welcome part of the setting, something almost designed to appeal to creatures such as herself.

Obviously, shadow-jumping was a more efficient way to get anywhere, and she had been around and over Veilgrad enough by now that she could jump almost directly to any point she might need in the city. There was certainly no question of walking down the winding mountain road from Leduc Manor to the gates of Veilgrad, and then back up the other winding mountain road to Dufresne Manor. How long she walked before getting tired of it and jumping the rest of the way varied by trip, but she always made a point of setting out on her own two legs to begin with.

Evidently she’d done this enough for the habit to have been widely observed; they clearly knew to intercept her just below the first switchback past the gates.

Darkness coalesced in a ring out of the drifting snowflakes around her, and Natchua instantly gathered an arsenal of spells, having nearly limitless destruction ready at her fingertips by the time their gray robes were fully visible.

“Are you kidding me?” she demanded of the white-suited man who again led the dozen warlocks. “Again? What are you expecting to go differently this time?”

“Scuze me, miss, not to be rude,” Mogul said almost diffidently, holding up one finger. “If you’ll bear with me, please, I’ll be with you in just a second. All right, boys and girls, light ‘em up.”

They, too, had had spells ready, and at his word, a torrent of shadowbolts flashed at her from every direction.

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16 – 7

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“Well, of course,” Mogul drawled, thrusting his hands into his pockets and adopting a slouching pose so clearly exaggerated for effect it was reminiscent of a vaudeville performer. “That’s the only trick you know, isn’t it? Kill it with fire, ask questions never, then flounce away and let the authorities sift through the wreckage. No, Natchua, if I meant to mix it up with you, I promise you’d never have seen us coming. I want to have a word with you.”

“I don’t recommend having words with the Wreath,” Fedhaar said tersely.

“I notice you haven’t opened fire yet,” she replied, glancing back at him.

“Standard procedure not to force a confrontation with warlocks if it’s not necessary. If they don’t want to fight, grand, but that doesn’t make it smart to listen to notorious manipulators. We need to evac.”

“And that’ll be why he’s put himself between us and the exit,” Svanwen said.

Mogul tipped his hat.

“All right, sunshine, I’ll tell you what,” said Natchua, folding her arms imperiously. “Convince me you have something worthwhile to say and I’ll hear it out. Waste any more of my time and I shadow-jump all of us right out of this entirely pointless pain in the ass.”

“Any reason you can’t do that now?” Fedhaar asked.

“I’ll send you all back up top if you want,” she said. “He’s gone to the trouble of setting this up once, and cost Agatha’s people two days of work. I’d just as soon he get it out of his system before the next attempt is even more of a headache.”

“Hn,” the captain grunted, flexing his fingers along the haft of his battlestaff. “That said, I prefer we stay and keep an eye on this, then. Thanks for the offer.”

“Appreciate having you,” Natchua said, glancing back again to give him a nod. “Well? We’re waiting, Mogul. Spit it out, while we’re young.”

“Kind of an impossible position, isn’t it?” he mused. “I’m to impress someone whose core problem is being too up her own butt to possess basic empathy, or an awareness that actions have consequences.”

“Well, he came to the point more directly than I expected,” Natchua said, smirking faintly.

“Glib in the face of anything that might cause the discomfort of a real emotional response,” Mogul retorted. “I know you didn’t learn that in Tar’naris. You must’ve devoured those chapbooks and comics as soon as you hit Last Rock, kiddo. That would explain several things, actually.”

“I’m getting bored,” she warned.

“Now, as best as I’ve been able to piece together events after the fact, you actually spent a short time in chaos space yourself. You and the Crow; she’s just about the only person who can get into there and is insane enough to use it for transportation. So you know that’s not boring.” He was still showing teeth, the corners of his mouth still turned upward, but his upper lip had twisted the expression into a feral snarl beneath the shade of his hat. “Don’t you?”

“Did you honestly set all this up to complain at me?” Natchua exclaimed. “It was a warzone. I caught you idiots red-handed summoning more demons into it. And I’m the one who’s unaware of consequences? At least have enough courage of conviction not to whine when you get hurt in the process of being hilariously evil.”

“’Evil’ is a word people use to dismiss anything they can’t be bothered to understand,” Mogul shot back. “But don’t you worry, darlin’, we’re more than accustomed to being the bigger person. Case in point: I’m not even going to rant about how evil it is to consign a couple dozen bystanders to a dimension of unimaginable torment for no better reason than that you wanted to hurt the deity they answer to. Because I do understand it, Natchua. And mark me now: before I’m done, you will understand it, too.” His smile thinned, which ironically made it look more sincere, though it was still not a warm or cheerful expression. “Consider this the thrown gauntlet. Any fool can hurt someone; there is no greater vengeance than to make a person confront their own fundamental inadequacy. For most people, a personality is little more than a lifetime’s worth of built up defenses against the realization of what a piece of shit they truly are. I’m going to take that from you, Natchua. And when you finally have to acknowledge the true depth of your own stupid, selfish perfidy, that will hurt more than anything suffered by us, or by our comrades who never made it out of where you sent them. So you have that—”

“Oh, gods, are you done?” she demanded.

Mogul sighed, his smile finally inverting into an annoyed grimace. “Really, now, I’d think you could at least let me have my moment of drama. Surely even you will acknowledge you owe me that much.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Natchua snorted. “I’m gonna tell you what I told your bitch goddess: you’re no better. However justified Elilial is in her beef with the Pantheon, she’s a spiteful, destructive monster with oceans of blood on her hands. You think you’re so very put upon? Please. Yeah, I messed you up, but—and I can’t believe I have to keep repeating this—you were summoning an army of demons into Ninkabi. What, did you look around at the city being torn apart by demons and think, ‘hey, I know what this needs: more demons!’ Just fuck right off.”

“We were acting under orders from the Dark Lady,” another of the Wreath cultists interjected harshly. Her voice was feminine, though none of their faces save Mogul’s was visible, and the echoes in the tomb made it difficult for even Natchua to tell which one was talking. “We were trying to put a stop to the invasion! Her forces—”

“Even you don’t believe what you’re saying,” Natchua scoffed. “You were trying to stop a demon invasion with a demon invasion? You’re supposed to be the ultimate anti-demon experts. There is zero possibility you’re not fully aware that is the opposite of how it works.”

“When you’re given marching orders from an actual deity,” Mogul began.

Natchua barked a harsh laugh which reverberated through the tomb, prompting an agitated hiss from the chained rozzk’shnid behind the wall.If you’re the Black Wreath and living on a diet of your own prideful resistance to the gods, you question your orders. If you’re the Black Wreath and have been close enough to Elilial’s plans to have seen firsthand how she’s been unraveling for years now, you definitely question orders that you can plainly see are only going to make a catastrophe worse. Apparently, you idiots couldn’t be bothered. So what does that make you?”

“Are you trying to suggest we’re not the actual Black Wreath?” Mogul asked, his tone amused. “I have to say, that’s something I’m rarely accused of. In fact, this may be a first.”

“I’m saying you’re exactly like every other poor sap wrecking the world and coming up with no better excuse than ‘my god told me to.’ You think the Pantheon and their cults are assholes? Fine, maybe so, I wouldn’t really know. You think you’ve been mistreated? Sure, I handled you roughly, and so have a lot of others. But you think you’re in any better position to look down your noses? Please. You had your chance to prove you were better; I caught you right smack dab in the middle of it. That was your opportunity to show that all your resistance to the gods was something more than asshat us vs. them tribalism, your chance to stand up to an unjust goddess and do what was right instead of what you were told. And did you take it? Did you prove your character? Or did you duck your head and obey, and try to fuck up a disaster even worse? Well, Mogul?” She threw her arms wide, sweeping a glare around at the robed figures. “Any of you? What did you do?”

They remained hooded and inscrutable, though a growl sounded in the feminine voice which has previously spoken, softly enough that only Natchua could have heard it. Mogul’s mouth had pressed into a thin line, no longer showing any amusement either real or dramatically feigned.

The ensuing two heartbeats of silence were broken by a low whistle from one of the soldiers, followed by a muffled snort from another.

“Never mind, you don’t have to say anything,” Natchua stated in the most condescending tone she could muster. “We all know the answer. I just wanted to see your face wrap itself around that stupid expression. And you chuckleheads came here to make me confront my inadequacy? No wonder your goddess had to surrender.”

“You have no idea what that place was like!” the woman snarled.

“Vanessa,” Mogul warned, but ignoring him, she stepped forward, revealing herself to be the hooded figure closest to him on his left.

“People I cared about died in agony right in front of me because of you,” she snarled, pointing accusingly at Natchua. “Torn apart by monsters, because you had to pursue your own little grudge with Elilial! You don’t get to climb up on a high horse and lecture us!”

Natchua folded her arms again. “You know what? Fuck your dead friends.”

“Little beast!”

Vanessa hurled a shadowbolt of such intensity that its sullen purple glow lit the chamber for a split second. Natchua deftly brought up a hand to intercept it and plucked the thing out of the air; in her grasp, the streak of energy was suddenly a yard-long shaft of irregular violet crystal which streamed with sulfurous smoke. She contemptuously tossed it aside, and the solidified magic shattered upon the stone floor, brittle as old charcoal. By the time the soldiers managed to bring their weapons to bear, the fragments were already decaying into nothing.

“Fuck your nihilistic crusade,” Natchua continued relentlessly. “Fuck your whingeing goddess, fuck her hurt feelings, and fuck you all. You’ve been through some shit, fine, you can be upset about that, but you’re not going to act like the aggrieved party. You know what you did, and this entire stupid thing is nothing but you trying to make yourselves feel better by pretending there’s someone worse than you out there. And the proof of it is that you’re trying to pick on me instead of Mary the Crow, who was at least as responsible for that whole thing and would flick her fingers and annihilate the lot of you if you went near her, you self-involved cowards. You made your choices, and you chose to lick Elilial’s hooves and in the process throw away your own vaunted spirit of defiance and your divine mandate to protect the world from demons. So yeah, I sent your asses to Tentacle Super Hell, and you are now getting on my case about it so you don’t have to face up to the fact that that was what you deserved.”

Vanessa practically vibrated with rage, but silently; Mogul had gone still and stood stiffly upright, with none of his theatrically slouched demeanor. The other cultists, previously impassive, shuffled restlessly in their robes.

“Fuckin’ told,” Lieutenant Bindo observed, prompting another derisive snort from a fellow soldier.

“Quiet,” Captain Fedhaar ordered tersely.

All of them stilled, though not in response to him. The sound that echoed through the tunnels hovered right at the edge of hearing, even Natchua’s, resembling both a groan and a whisper. It came from the gate into the deeper, unmapped catacombs, accompanied by a soft stirring of air and the acrid smell of old decay. The rozzk’shnid whined and began scrabbling furiously at the stone, as if trying to burrow into the floor; mostly smothered by its noise was an ephemerally faint suggestion of murmuring voices, with words hinted at but nothing meaningful to be discerned.

It faded in little more than a second, though, and in the next instant the darkness momentarily deepened in the tomb, shadows drawing together around the cultists in unison. They receded immediately, and with them the Wreath vanished.

Ms. Svanwen let out a huff of pent-up breath. “Well. That’s…that, I suppose.”

“Not hardly,” Natchua murmured, frowning at the spot where Embras Mogul had stood. “There is no possible way that was all he wanted.”

“Agreed,” said Fedhaar, raising his battlestaff to plant its butt on the stone floor. “That kind of confrontation isn’t their pattern at all, though it can be the first step of a characteristic misdirection. Whatever they came here for, that was just the opening move.”

“Well, if they’re after me in particular, hopefully they won’t mess up your work any more,” Natchua offered, turning to face them.

Svanwen shook her head. “If nothing else, now they know they can draw you out by messing with Veilgrad’s interests. Blessed Light, and I played right into it. It was me who went and drew you into this, just like that prancing cockerel wanted.”

“Don’t beat yourself up about the Black Wreath thinking two steps ahead of you, ma’am,” Fedhaar advised. “That is pretty much what they do. For now, we need to get out of here and report this nuisance to ImCom and Duchess Dufresne. Jevani, finish what we came here for.”

“Sir!” One of his soldiers saluted, then swiftly stepped around the dividing wall with her staff at the ready.

“I could’ve done without that last bit of theater, though,” Fedhaar commented. The crack of lightning was deafening in the tomb, causing Natchua to wince and cover her ears; Jevani had to shoot the rozzk’shnid three times in succession to finish the armored creature off, but the captain continued as though there had been no interruption the second its squeals ceased. “That was just plain creepy. Didn’t seem like it fit with the rest of that guy’s performance, either.”

Natchua turned to face the direction of the doorway into the deeper tunnels, hidden out of view by the likenesses of the ancient kings, her face again drawn into a pensive frown. “I don’t…think…that was them. We may have additional problems.”


The whole exchange so far had taken place in the lodge’s grandiose entrance hall, simply because that was the only indoor space large enough to contain the whole group. The Harpies numbered thirty-eight women in total, most somewhere in their middle years but including a handful of teenagers and three gray-haired grannies, one of whom required a cane to walk, not that it had apparently held her back from rebelling against the regime in Shaathvar. There was a single Tiraan among them, a woman in her thirties named Sadhi who had looked singularly depressed every time Ravana had seen her; all the rest were Stalweiss, with hair in shades of brown and gold when not gray, plus two with the rarer red, most of them with the solid build of hardy mountain folk.

Despite the opulence of the lodge, with its gilt-fluted marble columns, the atmosphere in the room was surprisingly convivial, largely due to the noise from the front area near the doors, where Dantu had taken over shepherding the Harpies’ dozen or so accompanying children. The old man appeared to be having the time of his life, guiding the youngsters through a game that seemed to involve alternately sitting in a wide circle and chasing one another around it; fortunately he’d selected as the site for this roughhousing a large swath of plush carpet which had been enchanted so as to both repel stains and not inflict burns when skidded across. Ravana had already decided never to inform any of them that her great-grandfather had commissioned the thing for sexual purposes and her father had laid it before the door as its magic conveniently prevented mud from being tracked into the lodge. For the most part, she kept her focus on Ingvar and the Harpies, but periodically stole inquisitive glances at the elder and the children. She’d never had the opportunity to play such games at that age…

With the sounds of play as a backdrop, the more serious scene unfolding around the great hearth at the opposite end of the hall was spared from excessive solemnity. The refugee women stood and sat in a roughly semicircular formation, their attention mostly on Ingvar, who spoke in a steady and soothing tone that Ravana admired for how deftly he had perceived the mood of this crowd and the best approach to them. At least a few of the Harpies were still studying Dimbi with awed expressions. The younger Shadow Hunter had taken the form of a great wolf as a demonstration, and not seen fit to change back; she now sat next to Ingvar before the fire, a tawny creature the size of a small donkey surrounded by a gentle aura of light as if occupying her own private sunbeam, the golden geometric patterns marking her fur glowing gently.

“There’s nothing more natural than to feel that way,” Ingvar was saying earnestly in response to Brenhild’s last statement. The closest thing the Harpies had to a leader, she was a broad-shouldered woman with dark brown hair done in a single long braid and then wrapped around her head like a crown; apparently she had personally fended off Huntsmen trying to drag her and her comrades back home, first with a broomstick, then a cudgel, and later with the Avenic leaf-bladed gladius now hanging at her hip. She watched Ingvar with a skeptical frown as he continued, but showed no signs of disagreeing. “Every person has the right to space of their own; in Shaath’s service, we learn to appreciate solitude, and the fact that women are so frequently denied it in traditional lodges is just one of the crimes heaped upon you.”

More of the women than otherwise nodded at that, a couple grunting approval.

“As free beings, you’re entitled to decide whose company you keep, and when,” Ingvar went on, still holding Brenhild’s gaze with that inexhaustible calm of his. “If you don’t want anyone around sometimes, that is fine. If you don’t want any men near you at certain times or places, that’s entirely your right. It would be even if you hadn’t been through ordeals that would make it particularly understandable. Being part of the wild means determining these things for yourself. As a group, though, and as a doctrine, we will not be segregated by sex.”

“The Avenists cultivate women-only spaces,” Brenhild stated, narrowing her eyes.

“So they do,” Ingvar agreed with a nod. “In fact, so do Izarites and some sects of Vidians. We do not. This thing with men against women is the whole root of all our miseries, and needs to end. There is a lot we can learn from Avenists, and others, but not to the point of losing our own identity as Shaathists. As I said, when you need times and spaces to be by yourself, they’ll be available—but this will be because you are human beings with the absolute right to determine with whom you will keep company, and when, and under what circumstances. It will never be about formal segregation within the Shadow Hunters. That is a point of principle, yes, but there is also a crucial matter of overcoming bad habits within our own ranks. We have many former Rangers who are already accustomed to this and provide good examples; we also have Huntsmen who need to get used to accepting women as equals, and women from both Shaathist and other backgrounds who I will not see brushed aside into separate spaces. Even with the best intentions, that can all too easily lead to exactly the kind of gendered divide Shaath’s people urgently need to overcome.”

At that, Brenhild nodded, her expression finally softening; clearly taking a cue from her, several of the others nodded as well. Some of the Harpies still seemed skeptical of Ingvar, but fewer than when he had started speaking, and quite a few were gazing at him with utterly rapt expressions. Watching all this unfold from the shadow of a marble column a few yards away, Ravana was impressed by how well and quickly he was winning the group over.

“We’ve our own scars to heal, you know,” said Gretchen. A widow, she had had the personal privacy to take up a very cursory study of the fae arts without any Huntsman preventing her; the woman was no witch, but even her slight connection to magic had made the wolf dreams especially vivid and informative for her, leading to her taking a role as the Harpies’ unofficial shaman. It had been Gretchen who had foreseen Ingvar’s coming even before Ravana had informed the group of her intention to bring him, and she had ardently championed him as a solution to many of their problems. Now, though, her expression was concerned, even cynical. “Not that I doubt the seriousness of what you’re suggesting, Brother Ingvar, but I don’t think any of us are anxious to take on the obligation of tending to more Huntsmen of Shaath, even if it’s to teach them how not to be pompous puffed-up arses. There’s plenty of pain here that needs to be healed before any of us look to take responsibility for anyone else.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Ingvar agreed, inclining his head toward her. “I mean no offense, but you all have a great deal of learning to do in the ways of the wild, due to being unfairly kept from them for all these years. If you’re ever to be responsible for guiding others, that will come later, and only if you choose to embrace that task. For now, it will be the Shadow Hunters who take on the duty of guiding and nurturing you, not expecting you to do likewise just yet. I confess we are not an ascetic or healing-oriented order. There are other cults with deep arts for soothing hurts to the spirit. In Shaath’s service, we have the wild.” He smiled, glancing about at the group. “And honestly? The wild is good medicine. Simply being out in nature is one of the most healing experiences a person can have. The harmony of wild places soothes the spirit and guides the mind back into balance. This is true for anyone, but as you grow in your knowledge of woodcraft, your connection to the earth will grow stronger. That eternal comfort will always be there.”

He paused, glancing aside at one of the hall’s towering windows, and shook his head ruefully.

“Well. Words are cheap; this is the point where ordinarily I would lead you outside to walk among the trees and show you what I mean, but unfortunately, we’re in the middle of winter.”

“Hah!” Ritta, the eldest among them, cackled and thumped her cane against the floor. “You call this winter, sonny boy? You’ve not spent much time up in the mountains.”

Amid the laughter which followed, Ingvar grinned right along.

“All right, fair enough! I certainly have time, and I came prepared for a Tiraan winter.” He picked up his bearskin cape and swung it over his shoulders. “No one need feel obligated, if you’d rather stay in here by the fire, but anybody who’d like to accompany me in a short exploration of the forest is more than welcome. There’s no time like the present to introduce you to your birthright. The wild belongs to all who are called to it.”

Smiling broadly, Brenhild clapped her hands. “You heard him! Cloaks and scarves, everybody, and let’s not keep Brother Ingvar waiting. Give us five minutes, young man.”

To Ingvar’s visible bemusement, every last one of them headed off to the hallway toward the inner rooms where their effects were kept, from stooped old Ritta to little thirteen-year-old Mittsin, herself barely mature enough to be welcomed by the group as a sister rather than consigned to Dantu’s care with the other children. Evidently not a one of the Harpies was willing to be held back from her formal introduction to Shaathist woodcraft by anything so paltry as a foot of snow.

As the last of them streamed out of the hall, Dimbi stretched out in front of the fire, resting her head on her forepaws, and Ingvar slowly crossed the room to join Ravana.

“You impress me, Brother Ingvar,” she said before he could speak. “You’ve handled all of this with great skill. I did hope you would be the one to guide them forward; my faith was clearly well-placed.”

“It’s I who should thank you, my Lady,” he replied. “All of this is thanks to your kindness.”

Ravana nodded once, then made a languid gesture at the great hall itself. “I realize the pretentiousness likely doesn’t suit your aesthetic, but what do you think of the lodge?”

“I do feel slightly out of place,” he admitted, “but it is a magnificent edifice.”

She smiled coyly up at him. “How’d you like to keep it?”

Even his well-mastered expression faltered into startlement. “Pardon?”

“There are drawbacks, of course,” Ravana mused, turning her head to gaze toward the hearth. Dimbi was watching them sidelong, her ears pricked upright despite her relaxed posture. “Being stationary poses risks, with Grandmaster Veisroi and his loyalists baying at your heels. But it will also better enable more followers to find you, and Tiraan Province is in a far more central location on the continent than N’Jendo. There is certainly ample room for your extant group and quite a few more additions, even counting the Harpies.”

“I…” He trailed off after one syllable, staring at her in apparent confusion.

“It’s not charity I offer,” Ravana assured him. “There is a traditional relationship between House Madouri and the Huntsmen of Shaath, allowing them free reign of the forests in the province in exchange for providing forestry services. You’ll be aware of this, of course, as I understand you lived in the lodge in Tiraas for several years. The Huntsmen have similar agreements with a number of Houses. With a single ducal decree I can award this traditional right to your group.” She allowed her smile to widen slightly. “To keep up appearances, of course, that means I will have to formally and publicly acknowledge your sect to be the legitimate cult of Shaath.”

Dimbi raised her head at that, turning it to stare directly. Ingvar had belatedly marshaled his features, and now peered down at Ravana through narrowed eyes.

“Why would you do such a thing?” he asked. “Supporting the Harpies is one thing, Lady Madouri. What you suggest would place you right in the center of what may yet become a violent religious schism. It seems like an impolitic move.”

“I’m a calculating creature, Brother Ingvar,” she murmured. “If I choose to take sides in any conflict, it is a sign of my confidence that the side I select will be the winning one. So the question is: do you want me on your side?”

He studied her in silence for a handful of seconds before answering.

“I am not sure.”

Ravana grinned. “Your reticence shows wisdom. I do think you are in the right in your conflict, but more importantly, I think that you are the future. Veisroi and his ilk are the past. Have you considered the meaning and the nature of the progress we have seen in the last century, Ingvar? Telescrolls, Rails, zeppelins, wands, shielding charms. What does it all mean?”

“Connection,” he answered. “The world grows smaller.”

“Oh, everybody knows that,” she said, waving a hand. “House Madouri has reigned over this land for a millennium by looking always to the future. The future I see is one in which secrets will grow harder and harder to keep, and even the most common people more and more able to defend themselves. With every advancing decade, people will grow harder to deceive, and harder to oppress. The Shaathist traditionalists have a regime built upon lies and persecution; it will grow ever more unsustainable, and would even without the wolf god himself plaguing their nightmares. It is people like you, who seek to liberate and enlighten, who will move to the fore in the coming century.

“Which is not to say that your victory is preordained,” she cautioned. “It’s early, yet, and Veisroi is well-positioned to make his enemies disappear. Someone will topple his kind, in the end; it may or may not be you. As I see it, by throwing my support into making sure that you are the one, I position House Madouri to enter the world of tomorrow with hard-won credibility and valuable allies.”

“Hm,” he murmured.

“And then, there is the more immediately practical,” Ravana continued, lowering her voice nearly to a whisper. She gazed at the fire past Dimbi, who was still staring at her. “I am…a patriot, Brother Ingvar. Acknowledging my bias, I judge the Tiraan Empire to be the preeminent example of the potential of human civilization in the world today. I consider the Tirasian Dynasty the most effective the Empire has yet known, and Sharidan a superior ruler to either of his predecessors. His Majesty is regrettably constrained by the politics of his position from openly acknowledging that Archpope Justinian has deliberately made himself an enemy of the Throne.”

She deliberately parted her lips, showing the tips of her teeth in what was not a smile.

“I am not.”

“And to think,” Ingvar said softly, “I feared you underestimated the scope of the conflict you offered to enter. It’s the opposite, isn’t it? You are looking to an even grander struggle.”

“You deserve to succeed,” she replied, “and the Empire must endure. It is the general practice of those in my station to sit upon the fence until they feel they see which way the wind is blowing. Then again, it is the general practice of nobles to think nothing matters more than their own power. I choose to make a stand upon what I deem a greater purpose than my own desires. And in so doing, I mean to help shape the course of the wind itself.

“So!” she said, suddenly brisk, turning to face him directly with a broad smile. “This is what I propose, specifically. House Madouri shall formally recognize your sect as the true Shaathists, and award you the traditional rights, duties, and privileges of husbanding the wilds of Tiraan Province. You will be granted indefinite use of this lodge as a headquarters, with its upkeep and defense still funded by my treasury. Given the precarious nature of your situation, in order to lend further legitimacy I will bestow upon you the traditional title of Warden; it is long retired, like Court Wizard, but still on the books and will throw the weight of custom behind your position. In fact… Yes, to make certain you have the full authority to act in your new capacity as Warden of this province, in my capacity as governor I will appoint you an Imperial Sheriff, which will enable you to enforce the law within this domain, as well as create severe repercussions for any who seek to attack you.”

Dimbi shifted her head to stare at Ingvar.

“That is…incredibly generous, my Lady,” he said slowly.

“No, it isn’t,” Ravana replied, her smile unfaltering. “I have considered the matter carefully. What I propose will lay obligations upon you, as well as expose you to certain risks. This arrangement comes with plentiful compensation, to be sure, but only that which I deem necessary and suitable considering what I gain from it.”

“I see,” he murmured. “This is a larger decision than I had planned to make today, Lady Madouri. Obviously, I would like to discuss it with my fellow hunters.”

“You should of course do what you think is right,” said Ravana. “I will not, however, promise that the offer will still be on the table when you have finished with that.” He frowned, but she continued before he could speak. “I’m certain that consulting your fellows sets a most admirable precedent for spiritual purposes, Brother Ingvar, but with all due respect, such matters are between you and your followers. For my purposes, I require a leader who can act decisively when it is called for. I judge you to be just such a man. If I am thus in error, it of course changes the situation.”

She gave him a single beat of silence in which to mull that, during which he stared narrowly at her eyes as if trying to glimpse what lay behind them.

“Decisively, but not in unseemly haste,” Ravana added in a gentler tone. “You were just informing our guests of the calming powers of a walk in the forest, and are just about to lead them upon one. By all means, embrace this opportunity to ponder; I’m sure it will be every bit as soothing for you as for them. And when you return, we can discuss our shared future.”

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16 – 6

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“My family’s hunting lodge,” Ravana said, gesturing at the scene before them.

They stood upon a snow-covered hill in the western reaches of Tiraan Province, near the Viridill border, with a dense stand of leafless oaks behind them and in front, the long descent to the lodge itself in the middle distance. It rose proudly from a lower hill of its own, positioned right on the border between the ancient forest (one of the few in the province not burned or leveled in the Enchanter Wars) and the broad plain stretching toward the low hills that would become Calderaan Province beyond the northeastern horizon. Half a mile from the gates of the lodge stood a sleepy little village, looking quite picturesque buried under a heavy snowfall and with the smoke of a dozen fires streaming upward from its chimneys.

Lodge?” Dimbi repeated incredulously. “Don’t you mean summer palace?”

It could be fairly called palatial in its proportions. The main building was designed in the shape of a traditional Stalweiss longhouse, though the resemblance did not extend beyond shape. Its roof was expensive Sheng-style gabled slate, the tall windows stained glass, and even its towering support pillars were hand-carved into the shapes of upright animals, every one a work of art which had taken an entire ancient oak trunk. From the central longhouse spread rambling wings of faux-rustic timbers supported by fluted marble columns, the more recent featuring huge banks of plate windows made feasible even in the depths of winter by modern arcane heating.

She wasn’t about to mention that the nearby village existed entirely to staff and support the lodge. Ingvar, at least, had probably already figured that out.

“The House of Madouri has reigned over this province continually for a thousand years by cultivating certain defining strengths of character,” Ravana said proudly. “I will acknowledge that restraint and modesty are not among them. Honestly, I’m just glad to have found a useful purpose for this property, as I confess I don’t hunt. Nor, I suspect, did most of my ancestors who stayed here. Please forgive the distance; those staying in the lodge currently have been subject to a great many upsets of late, and I have observed they seem somewhat uncomfortable with grand displays of magic. I try to approach them in the most humble and unobtrusive manner feasible. My Court Wizard has been very accommodating in—Veilwin, really.”

The rest of them turned from their study of the lodge to follow Ravana’s gaze, now fixed on the wizard herself. Veilwin was now gulping deeply from a silver flask, and did not stop while meeting Ravana’s stare with raised eyebrows.

“You know, you’re just going to have to down a sobriety potion to teleport us back,” the Duchess said, exasperated. “It’s unlikely to be more than an hour from now.”

“An hour?” Veilwin replied, finally lowering the flask and grimacing bitterly. “An hour of complete, uninterrupted sobriety? Girl, do you have any idea what that feels like?”

“Yes, in fact,” Ravana retorted. “Speaking as a wine lover of, if I may flatter myself, some local repute, sobriety is my default and preferred condition.”

“And you’re easily the worst person I’ve ever met. Coincidence?” Veilwin brought the flask back to her lips and resumed an uninterrupted sequence of long gulps, while holding an arch stare at Ravana and, with snaps of her fingers, conjuring an armchair and a small bonfire. The sorceress flopped down in her seat and stretched her feet out toward the arcane blue flames as the surrounding snow hissed away to steam.

Ravana shook her head and turned her back on the elf. “Anyway. I presumed that veteran outdoorspeople such as yourselves would not mind a short winter hike, but if you are in any way uncomfortable I will not hesitate to send Veilwin back for coats.”

“That’s not necessary at all,” Ingvar said smoothly. “Your judgment was correct, my Lady, we are quite comfortable. Shall we?”

“Let’s,” she agreed, setting off down the hill. Ravana noted he did not question her comfort, but the man was doubtless intelligent enough to infer the presence of a heating charm. The enchantment woven into her own dress was more sophisticated than anything on the market (a Falconer prototype; Geoffrey came up with the most marvelous things when he got bored of tinkering with carriages). Even her breath did not mist upon the frigid air.

“What is she drinking?” Dimbi muttered as they strode through the knee-deep snow toward the distant lodge. “I could smell that flask from two yards away, it was like a burning alchemy lab.”

“I don’t know,” Ravana admitted. “Though I have observed its contents to be quite combustible. Between an elvish constitution and the resistance built up over a lifetime of drinking, I suspect what it takes to get Veilwin tipsy would kill an orc.”

“She’s…interesting,” Dantu said, grinning.

“Veilwin is a powerful and exceedingly skilled mage; I am quite satisfied with the performance of her duties. She is also, in addition to the alcoholism, congenitally incapable of withholding her opinions. I don’t think she’s ever held a single job for more than a month before.”

“I just meant,” the old man chuckled, “I’ve managed to meet a handful of nobles in my long years, none half so important as a Duchess, and I can’t see a one of ‘em letting one of their employees talk to them like that.”

“Not long ago,” Ravana murmured, gazing ahead as they plowed through the snow, “as I was listening to Professor Tellwyrn rightly excoriate my entire character, I experienced an epiphany: no one had ever spoken to me that way before. And further, no one ever spoke to my father in such a manner, either, and I now believe that is directly why he ended up the way he did. My father was neither evil nor unintelligent, he simply failed to comprehend that his own desires were not synonymous with the highest good of the universe. It is a failing to which nobles are regrettably prone due to the circumstances of our upbringing, and in fact, those circumstances are an unavoidable necessity. A chain of command only functions of those at its top are respected and obeyed. This is…a dilemma.”

“So,” Ingvar said softly, “you seek to surround yourself with those who will speak truth to power.”

“I was considering leaving university,” Ravana admitted, “but this understanding changed my mind. At Last Rock, I am surrounded by royalty, paladins, demigods… All manner of people who are in no way impressed by me. And those are just my classmates; the faculty are on another level entirely. It is an extremely healthy environment for people such as myself. Additionally, it buys me two and a half more years to collect advisors who will not hesitate to challenge me at need. Hopefully I can find some with more nuance than Veilwin, but she is…a start.”

“I respect that a great deal,” said Ingvar. “To know one’s own faults and seek to overcome them is both the least and the most that can be asked of anyone.”

They reached the base of the hill, which was less than half the distance to the lodge, but changed their trajectory. No longer descending toward the grounds, they now in fact began to push upward through the snow toward the rise upon which it was built.

“In any case,” Ravana said briskly, “our correspondence was relatively brief before Veilwin took it upon herself to fetch you, Brother Ingvar. How much do you know about the conditions from which the Harpies fled?”

“Less than I should,” he admitted, frowning. “We have stayed largely on the move; most carriers of news have been less persistent than your agents in finding us, Lady Madouri. Hunters have continually sought us out to join since Shaath’s call first went out, both Huntsmen and Rangers, and some have brought news from the Stalrange. It is somewhat sketchy regarding events in and around Shaathvar, however.”

“You are probably getting more applicants from Lower Stalwar, where the Rangers have more enclaves,” Ravana said. “Yes, I shouldn’t wonder; the situation around Veilgrad is quite different. People there have ample recent experience at rolling with large metaphysical punches, and Duchess Dufresne is a pragmatist after my own heart. Loudly dissident Shaathists have been inexplicably vanishing all winter, and not long ago, someone shadow-jumped a group of their runaway wives and daughters to the Abbey in Viridill.”

“I would be grateful to know anything you have learned of their circumstances,” Ingvar said in a carefully neutral tone.

“They are somewhat dire,” Ravana warned, now frowning herself. “Shaathvar has been an ongoing disaster from the day of the Battle of Ninkabi until I intervened last month. With the dreams that won’t stop coming every night, the core Shaathist regime there has been tearing itself apart, and one of the biggest sources of conflict is the simultaneous unraveling of more families than otherwise as women have been trying to either flee with their children, or in some cases, attacking their husbands.”

Dimbi grimaced. “Yikes. I support anyone wanting to live free, but that sounds…”

“Can’t rightly expect a person to remain calm and logical after they get divine confirmation they’ve been lied to like that for their whole lives,” said Dantu. “I don’t blame the women one bit.”

“It’s been chaos,” Ravana continued. “Nearly coming down to guerrilla fighting in the streets of Shaathvar and the surrounding forests, as women and sympathetic Huntsmen have been trying to escape, most willing to shed blood in the process, and traditionalists have taken it upon themselves to forcibly retrieve them. The governor declared a curfew and martial law, which didn’t help; the Empire had to send troops to hold the city, and that barely helped. The jails are crammed beyond capacity and the courts overwhelmed trying to figure out who drew steel on whom, and whether any of them were justified. And as if all of that were not chaotic enough, the Sisterhood sent a detachment of priestesses with a Silver Legion escort to counsel and support any Stalweiss women who desired freedom from their circumstances. The loyalist Huntsmen still in nominal control took that about as well as you would expect. And that, too, began to spiral, as various Huntsmen have arranged for themselves to be reminded why it is not wise to assault servants of the goddess of war.”

“I would have thought High Commander Rouvad had better sense than to poke the bear in such a manner,” Ingvar muttered, his eyes narrowed.

“I suspect that after the Syrinx debacle this summer, Rouvad is anxious to be seen standing on Avenist principle regardless of the political repercussions. Then, too, the Archpope has been deliberately dragging his heels on confirming a new Avenist Bishop, and it is known that the Huntsmen are his greatest pillar of support within the Pantheon cults. The Sisterhood may be growing tired of waiting to be listened to, and looking to make a point that they can insist upon it.”

“You said your intervention calmed things?” Dantu inquired.

She nodded. “It started as mass chaos but quickly coalesced into factional conflict, as such things do. The Shaathist traditionalists remained in control of the bureaucracy of the province, but once the Avenists got involved, they secured a defensible structure and began teaching runaways both the art of self-defense and the relevant laws around it. By then the group of local women who rose to find and shelter other runaways had begun to organize, and took to calling themselves the Harpies. Which was also a provocation, as no one has seen a living harpy outside of Inner Anvedra in a thousand years; it is obviously a reference to the harpy eagle on Avei’s sigil. By last month, a bitter stalemate had ensued, as the Harpies more or less rescued everyone they were apparently able to, and then had to turtle down and defend themselves from outraged husbands and fathers trying to drag them back home. When I offered to remove them en masse from the province, even the local government was grateful. They were themselves glad of a safe route out of the situation, the Sisterhood and the Silver Throne supported me, and with the Harpies gone from Shaathvar, it has finally begun to settle. Of course, I am inundated with complaints from various lodges about my unwarranted interference, but my lawyers are handling all of it so far.” She shrugged, allowing herself a cold little smile. “And what they cannot, the House guards stationed at the lodge will. I have made it clear that any rogue Huntsman trying to sneak into these grounds is asking for whatever he gets.”

All three Shadow Hunters glanced sidelong at her, but none responded directly to that.

“Did you have them teleported here by your mage?” Ingvar asked after a momentary pause.

Ravana shook her head. “These are women from a very traditional Shaathist background and their young children, who have already lost the most central underpinnings of their understanding of the world. They’re not sanguine about arcane magic and I have found it best not to rattle them any more than I absolutely must. Plus, teleporting this many individuals would have required me to hire most of the Wizards’ Guild, who themselves came from the great Salyrite schism a century ago. I made inquiries of the Archmage, who was leery of getting into internal Shaathist affairs. In the end, the Harpies’ escape served as the inaugural mission of my new private zeppelin. It was a little cramped, but more of them than otherwise seemed to enjoy the flight.”

Ingvar nodded, glancing at her again, and she could practically hear the unexpressed thought in his eyes: why was she willing to stick herself into the center of a bitter religious feud in which both sides were willing to shed blood and neither offered her any apparent gain? He kept quiet, though, and Ravana indulged in another knowing smile. It wasn’t yet time for that conversation.

The other two likewise held their peace, looking to Ingvar for guidance, and Ravana took note of the political acumen on display. He had clearly picked this group with care, even though it didn’t include his dryad friend or any of the others closest to him, or those most intimidating in a confrontation; his Shadow Hunters had only survived this long because they were too physically dangerous for any Shaathist lodge to attack in force. Obviously Ingvar had opted for a gentler approach here. Dimbi was a young woman, a good choice to help put the Harpies at ease and demonstrate that women were equals in his new Shaathism; Dantu was an old man, and doubtless a source of wisdom, while also not being an even remotely intimidating figure. And tellingly, both were socially adroit enough to follow Ingvar’s lead without overt instruction. It was a small thing, but it showed greater sophistication than she was accustomed to expecting of Shaathists.

Which boded well for her own plans.

“I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that you have done this, Lady Madouri,” Ingvar said softly as they ascended the last steps of the hill upon which the lodge stood, its gables now towering over them. “The effort must have been considerable, and the results…are priceless.”

“No one else was doing it,” she said noncommittally. “A person in my position can do a great deal of good. I could also exhaust myself and my resources trying to put out every fire in the world, an error I am not about to commit. To an extent, one must pick and choose from many worthy causes. This one…resonated with me. I know what it’s like to live under the thumb of a man whose brittle ego and need to keep me there informed his entire view of the world. I brought you here, Brother Ingvar, because I believe you are the best possible person to help these women find their footing in this strange new world. And I daresay you will find a warm welcome here: the dreams of Shaath that continue to come have, according to some of them, mentioned you by name.”

“Now, that I did not know,” he murmured as they climbed the broad stone steps to the front door of the lodge.

“Regardless, we can only do what we can,” Ravana said, grasping the latch and turning it. She pulled the door wide, letting a rush of warm air out, and gestured within. “What will be, will be. After you.”


“It’s simple economics,” Svanwen explained as another fairy lamp clicked on in the tunnel ahead, and one behind the party winked out. “Lights with motion-sensing charms are a lot more expensive up front, yes, but they save me both the cost of a lot of recharging dust that needn’t be burned while nobody’s around and the man-hours it would take to have somebody come through switching them on and off. It’s one more thing my people can ignore and get on with their work. This project is likely to take decades, years at the very least. Over time, it’ll save a fortune. A good businesswoman takes the long view.”

“How’s all the flashing on and off on your eyes?” Captain Fedhaar asked Natchua. “I know drow see well in the dark, but I’ve heard you lot have some trouble in bright light.”

She had long since perfected the magic to maintain her vision without the need of dark glasses, but was not inclined to delve into that for his benefit.

“Don’t you worry,” Natchua said with a wink. “I can see better than any of you under any light level.”

Fedhaar grunted and turned his gaze back forward. “Elves are bullshit.”

Svanwen shot him a look as if fearing a racial conflict was about to erupt, then switched it to Natchua when the drow chuckled.

“Well,” Natchua said, shrugging, “he isn’t wrong.”

The dwarf shook her head. “Anyway. How’s the trail looking?”

“We’re still following,” reported Fedhaar’s tracker, a Western human called Lieutenant Bindo, who was walking at the head of the group with his attention on the ground. “The beast’s healthy, which is both good and bad; means it’s not leaking any infernal radiation. Harder to follow, that way, but much safer for everyone. Lucky there’s so much stone dust in these tunnels. Nothing that belongs on this plane has feet like this.”

“My people know what they’re about,” Fedhaar said coolly.

“I never meant to imply otherwise,” Ms. Svanwen assured him. “If I forget myself and prompt everybody to keep alert for any infernal craft nearby, it’s not meant as a personal slight. Just my veteran tendency to micro-manage.”

“It’s good advice, no matter whose ego is at stake,” said Natchua. “The second rule of infernomancy is to triple-check everything, and then triple-check it again.”

There was a momentary pause.

“All right, fuck it, I’ll bite,” Fedhaar finally said with a sigh. “What’s the first rule of infernomancy?”

She grinned at him. “Don’t.”

The captain couldn’t help grinning back. “Good rule.”

“So,” Svanwen said pensively, “the big question is how there’s a rozzk’shnid in the tunnels. They’re not the sort of creature that tends to wander through hellgates, even underground. We’re thinking there are two possibilities, the first of which is that some deep drow have burrowed into the catacombs somewhere down below the areas we’ve explored. That’s a worst case scenario, obviously. Scyllithenes with access to Veilgrad would officially be a crisis.”

“Unlikely,” Natchua opined. “If you had Scyllithenes, you’d be finding the mutilated corpses of your crew, now tracks from what amounts to a loose animal.”

“That’s exactly my assumption,” Svanwen agreed, nodding, “hence coming here with a small team of specialists and not Captain Fedhaar’s entire battalion. Imperial Command and Duchess Dufresne agree, though they did insist on having another unit from the Azure Corps on standby to bring in more soldiers if this goes sideways somehow. But all things considered, it’s most likely the second possibility: some rogue warlock hiding in the deeper tunnels. They made a great hideout for shifty types even when they were still full of bodies. That’s exactly what drew the chaos cult that caused the big disaster in the first place.”

“Mm,” Natchua grunted. “One warlock shouldn’t be too hard to take down, if it comes to it. Question is what they would summon a rozzk’shnid for. The creatures make decent guard dogs in tunnels, and…that’s about it.”

“This hypothetical warlock will explain themselves when we get them,” Fedhaar stated dispassionately. “One way or another.”

Natchua gave him a nod of approval.

“Tunnel opens out up ahead,” Bindo reported. “Tracks are still leading that way.”

“There’s a sequence of larger vaults just ahead,” Svanwen added. “They mark the deepest regions my people have explored and secured. Beyond that, there’ll be no more installed lights, and we don’t even have reliable maps of the tunnels.”

“We’ve got light sources and directional charms,” said Fedhaar. “I’m not worried about getting lost. It’ll just be a little less comfortable, that’s all.”

They emerged into a broader chamber than the arched tunnel along which they had been traveling. Well-lit now with large fairy lamps Svanwen’s crew had set up in each of the rectangular room’s corners, it was lined entirely by deep alcoves in the wall of the right size for a human body to be laid out, all currently empty. The center of the long chamber held three huge stone sarcophagi, their lids pushed aside and lying broken upon the floor.

“It still gets to me, sometimes,” Svanwen whispered as the group stepped carefully through the rubble. “All these honored dead, just… Treated that way. It’s sickening. Did you know Veilgrad was originally a necropolis? The first living residents were Vidian priests who looked after the old Stalweiss chieftains interred here. Burial records extend back before the Hellwars. And all just…swept aside, in service to pointless, destructive madness.”

“The Vidians have been quite clear that they were just bodies, at least,” said Fedhaar. “The souls of the dead were long since in Vidius’s hands and beyond tampering. C’mon, no use dithering here.”

Natchua opened her mouth, but stopped herself from commenting at the last second. While she suspected that was the sort of thing the Vidians would say regardless of its veracity just to keep people from worrying needlessly, it belatedly occurred to her that suggesting it would also cause nothing but needless worry.

Then she frowned, tilting her head. “Wait.”

The others paused, turning to look expectantly at her.

“I hear… Up ahead, there’s something. Sounds like scratching… Claws on stone, maybe.” She brought her eyes back into focus, first on Svanwen and then Fedhaar. “May be our beastie.”

The captain turned his head toward his soldiers and nodded once; in unison, all of them drew wands. “Good to have the elven bullshit on our side, I won’t deny it,” he said. “How far?”

“It echoes weirdly down here,” Natchua murmured. “Hang on…”

She closed her eyes, reaching out through magic. Yes—definitely a demon, at about the outer limits of her perception in this manner.

“There’s a sequence of chambers like this,” Svanwen said while Natchua concentrated. “All in a neat row, the last being the biggest. Beyond it the tunnels are more rough-cut, smaller, and twist about more. The final gate is as far as we’ve explored. It was supposed to be barred, but I’ve not had people down this deep in weeks.”

“Yes, looks like a rozzk’shnid,” Natchua reported, opening her eyes. “I can’t tell anything about the surrounding tunnels, but it’s maybe a hundred yards up ahead. Not moving around much. I don’t detect any active magic nearby.”

“Right,” Fedhaar stated, moving ahead. “We’ll take point, then. Careful and quiet, people. This thing may just be an animal but we don’t know what’s what down here.”

The soldiers saluted, and he waited to get nods of acknowledgment from Svanwen and Natchua before proceeding.

It was a tense passage through a series of cleared out burial chambers, each growing progressively larger, and the ancient carved decorations more elaborate the deeper they went. By the time the group reached the final sepulcher, the scrabbling of the demon was audible to all of them, along with a soft, intermittent metallic clatter. It was loudest as they stepped into what Svanwen whispered was the largest final tomb, a space the size of a church. There were motion-activated fairy lamps down here, too, though they were already on before the group came into view of them.

The last gate opened onto an open space lined with more burial alcoves, these carved into the stone walls to a height of four per wall. Above, the vaulted ceiling lay in shadow, soaring high enough not to be easily reached by the installed fairy lamps. This chamber had no free-standing sarcophagi, but maybe two thirds of the way along its length a stone wall stood in the center of the open space, leaving passages to either side and not reaching the ceiling. Its purpose was apparently decorative, being carved with the solemn likenesses of five ancient Stalweiss kings, each with inscrutable runes engraved above their heads.

The scratching was coming from the other side of this.

At hand signals from Fedhaar, the troops split up, creeping forward with weapons upraised to both sides of the barrier. Natchua joined the captain himself, as did Svanwen, and ignoring his grimace of disapproval, stepped forward to be the first around the corner.

The demon was there, all right. The rozzk’shnid was the size of a large dog, proportioned somewhat like a monkey and plated in natural armor, and eyeless. It was also wearing a heavy iron collar, from which a chain trailed to an iron spike driven into the ground. At their approach, the best stopped its futile worrying at the chain, turning blindly toward them and hissing.

For a second, they just stared.

“It’s like…” Svanwen whispered, “like it’s set out as…”

“As bait,” Natchua finished. “Oh, fuck.”

“Retreat,” Fedhaar ordered, and the soldiers immediately stepped back.

“Now, now, now, let’s nobody go and panic,” a new voice said jovially, and the group trailed to a stop just beyond the stone wall, staring at the entrance to the tomb, where a dark-skinned human in a pristine white suit complete with a wide-brimmed hat had just sauntered out of the tunnel beyond.

The soldiers brought their weapons up as eight figures in hooded gray robes materialized seemingly from nowhere along the walls of the tomb.

“Whoah,” the man in white said soothingly, raising both his hands. “Easy, now! Sorry about all this rigamarole, but I assure you I’ve no beef with most of you. Last thing we want is to kick up a scrap with the Army, after all. And most especially not with the inimitable Ms. Svanwen, here. I confess after having a good look through these chambers I’ve become quite a fan of your work, ma’am. Why, the place is starting to look downright homey!”

“Most of us?” Svanwen demanded, ignoring his flattery.

“Hey,” Natchua said, narrowing her eyes to slits. “I remember you.”

“Oh, do you,” he replied, his smile growing broader and notably brittle. “What an honor it is to be remembered by the great Natchua! My heart is all a-flutter.”

“I’m positive I killed you fucksticks in Ninkabi,” she snorted. “How the hell did you get out of that—”

“You seem to’ve adopted Veilgrad as your home,” Embras Mogul interrupted, grinning more widely still until the expression looked nearly psychotic, especially as he held his head tilted so the brim of his hat concealed his eyes. “There’s an old Shaathist hunting axiom you really should’ve picked up by now, Natchua honey: never wound what you can’t kill.”

“Those robes…” Fedhaar said. “Are these Wreath? What exactly are you assholes playing at? Elilial’s not even at war with the Pantheon anymore. It was kind of a big deal.”

“Oh, indeed, our business is not with anyone aligned with either the Pantheon or the Empire,” Mogul assured him. “My humble apologies for drawing you fine folks into this. It seemed the least disruptive way to get this malicious little darkling off by herself, but rest assured, I’ll make amends for the inconvenience. Now, as for—”

He broke off, staring incredulously, as Natchua burst out laughing.

“Oh, this is too rich,” she chortled, striding forward into the center of the room and rolling up her sleeves. “The Black Wreath has come to exact terrible vengeance! And here I was afraid for a second that something bad was happening. Agatha, Captain, this shouldn’t take long, but you may wanna step back a few paces to enjoy the show. The front row of seats may see some splattering.”

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16 – 4

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“The one and only!” Rasha said with a broad smile. “Something I can help you ladies with? I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”

It was instinct, by that point: never let them see you’re afraid. Glory had not only schooled her apprentices in Eserite philosophy, but drilled them in roleplayed scenarios with herself and one another until she was satisfied that they would reflexively default to a Guild thief’s poise and confidence under any pressure. And so, in a situation wherein the old Rasha would have quailed and tried to run, or perhaps lashed out and suffered the consequences, she just smiled, giving them nothing.

Also, the well-practiced calm enabled her to keep in mind that she was a welcome guest in this temple and there were Silver Legionnaires within earshot. These three were working to project an intimidating presence, but if they actually did anything, it would be they and not Rasha who landed in hot water. Had Zafi already left? She didn’t dare concede her nervousness by turning to look.

“This isn’t a social call, boy,” the woman in the lead sneered, and Rasha was proud of herself for keeping her composure. They couldn’t tell, she knew it with an empirical certainty beyond even her own insecurities. Glory, a ruthless taskmaster as much as she was a nurturing mother hen, had deliberately put Rasha into social situations arranged entirely to prove to her that no one saw her as anything but a young woman after a year of transitioning, counseling, and coaching. Which meant…

“I don’t know exactly how you got your hooks into our paladin, but the last thing she needs is more of a corrupting influence,” the ringleader stated, tilting her head back to stare down the considerable length of her nose at Rasha. “It stops, now. Am I understood?”

Yep, there it was. Thorn was going to stomp these imbeciles into paste when she learned about this.

And as if by magic, that realization sucked all the menace out of their ambush.

Rasha kept her amiable smile in place, affecting an idly interested posture of her head while they prattled on.

“It’s bad enough the High Commander sees fit to indulge perverse men in…this,” the woman on the left said, putting on an identical sneer. “But don’t get too comfortable with it. Things are changing around here.”

“That’s a problem for another time, though,” added the third, folding her arms across her tabard. “Have your fun while you can. But you will keep away from General Avelea.”

“I don’t want to hear any more about you infecting her with Eserite nonsense, to say nothing of pushing the idea that your mental illness deserves to be recognized as Sisterhood doctrine,” the leader chimed in. “You thieves can be as sick as you want on your own time.”

“It’s Rasha, yes? Is that your made-up name? Well, whatever you’re really called, we know where you stay and—”

She broke off incredulously as Rasha yawned. Widely, but discreetly covering her mouth with her fingers. A lady, as Glory insisted, did not show off her molars.

“Excuse me, ladies,” Rasha said politely, managing not to betray her amusement at their expressions. “It’s been a long day already. Would you mind awfully getting to the point? It’s just that I don’t really have time for halfhearted schoolyard bullying today. Not that you’re not very good at it, I’m sure, but some of us are grown-ups, with jobs.”

They stared at her, the two on the sides with their mouths satisfyingly open. The leader managed to look even more belligerent, however.

“Oh, I see,” she snorted. “You think you’re clever. How very like an Eserite.”

“So, that’s a no, then?” Rasha said pleasantly. “Very well, you three have a lovely afternoon. I’m going to leave now.” She almost took a step backward to extricate herself from their formation, but then had a better idea. “And you,” she continued, polite as ever, “are going to get out of my way.”

The leader’s fingers shifted to grasp the handle of her longsword; the woman on the left actually gasped in outrage, while the other flushed nearly crimson, her Stalweiss coloring making it especially vivid.

“Oh,” the ringleader said quietly from behind clenched teeth. “Are we?”

“Yes, you are,” Rasha replied, batting her eyelashes. “I am an apprentice of the Theives’ Guild, and a welcome guest in this temple. Lay a finger on me or draw that sword, and you’ll be tossed out of here on your ear by Silver Legionnaires, just for starters. Then you will be dragged into an alley for an etiquette lesson by six enforcers before you can flee the city. And none of us wants that, girls. I don’t want it because stirring up drama like that would be a terrible repayment to all the people in the Sisterhood who have been very kind to me.” She smiled more broadly, again batting her eyes. Just because it was classically, stereotypically feminine, and they would hate it. “And you don’t want it because you’re cowards.”

“You little Punaji brat,” hissed the second woman, actually sliding her blade a few inches out of the sheath, but the leader reached across to grab her wrist. Rasha kept eye contact with the woman in the center, not looking around to check for intervention. The sanctuary was almost crowded; someone had to be overhearing this. Legionnaires might not have been able to see the almost-drawn sword, with the four of them clustered together, but it was only a matter of time before somebody stepped in.

“Cowards, are we,” the leader said very flatly.

“Well, you seem to think it takes three of you to corner a girl half your size,” Rasha simpered. “And there’s the fact that your entire spiritual philosophy is that the sex you were accidentally born into doesn’t feeeeeeel as special if just anybody’s allowed in. Yes, I think the word applies. Don’t you?”

“Now you listen to—”

“Nope.” Rasha took one step forward; the woman didn’t back up. “You’ve wasted enough of my time. Draw the sword, or get out of the way.”

She flexed her fingers once, adjusting her grip on the hilt, eyes narrowing to slits.

“Do it,” Rasha said softly, dropping the smile. “I dare you. Do. It. Coward.”

The woman tensed, and for an instant Rasha thought she actually might.

Before anything could come of it, though, a fifth person inserted herself into their cluster. Sliding in as deftly as an alley cat, she draped an arm around Rasha’s shoulders and pushed herself subtly to the fore mostly by surreptitiously forcing Rasha backward.

It was a woman with tousled black hair and angular Sifanese (or maybe Sheng, Rasha still couldn’t reliably spot the difference) features, wearing a ragged Punaji-style greatcoat over a clearly armored leather vest.

“Hiiii,” she said in a breathy voice, eyes vacantly wide, and let her head list deeply to one side as if drunk, staring up at the central woman. “You have really pretty eyes.”

The Purist’s leader frowned, and actually took a step back, her two compatriots squinting in confusion at the new arrival. “What? I don’t… Listen, young woman, this is a private conversation.”

“Pretty eyes. Pretty, pretty eyes,” the woman crooned. Her accent was local, despite the foreign features. Well, the Empire had birthright citizenship and Tiraas itself was a melting pot, so one couldn’t assume. Rasha’s inward attempt to size up the interloper who was still clutching her faltered at her next comment. “Can I have them?”

The Purists all three stepped back, incidentally opening up their tight formation and exposing the center of lines of sight from several directions. Rasha, glancing rapidly about, immediately noticed two Legionnaires and a priestess watching them intently.

“They sing to me,” the Sifanese(?) woman cooed, beginning to sway back and forth subtly, tugging Rasha along with her. “I hear them in my dreams. They want to be mine. Pretty please, pretty eyes? I’ll give them a good home.”

Grimacing in pure disgust, the Purist leader finally turned and strode away. Her lieutenants fell in alongside her, the Stalweiss one with a lingering glare. In seconds they had departed through the temple’s front doors, all of the nearby Legionnaires openly turning to watch them go.

The second they were gone, the woman released Rasha and turned to face her. The daffy expression had vanished from her face, replaced by a sharp glare.

“You, apprentice, will run straight home and inform your sponsor of the dumbass stunt you just pulled. If you explain exactly why that was a stupid thing to do and what could have gone horribly wrong, she probably won’t box your ears the way you’d be in for if you were my apprentice. Glory’s a soft touch.”

“Me?” Rasha protested, at once relieved and offended. It was good news that the woman was Guild, but this… “I was just—”

“Oh, I was so worried!” the woman squalled suddenly, hurling herself forward and throwing her arms around Rasha in a big hug. It probably looked like a friendly gesture from the outside; only Rasha could feel the rigid fingertips digging into the pressure points at the base of her skull.

“The Guild and the Sisterhood are both unrepresented in the Church right now,” the Eserite hissed right into Rasha’s ear while soothingly rocking them both back and forth for the benefit of the onlookers. “We don’t get along great at the best of times. Intercult relations are incredibly delicate, and strained enough with that fanatical splinter sect suddenly infesting the city. What I do not fucking need is untethered apprentices picking fights with them in the temple.”

“They started—”

Rasha cut herself off, a second too late. The enforcer slowly released her, pulling back and gaze down at her face with a condescending little smirk.

“No, please, go on,” she said sweetly. “Finish your thought.”

Punaji were raised not to complain about fairness; under other circumstances, Rasha might have gracefully accepted the rebuke. But she had been standing up to bullies, doing exactly what Eserites were supposed to do. Straightening her spine, she stepped backward, pulling herself out of the woman’s grasp.

“Well. I won’t keep you any longer, if you’re here on business.”

“Too right, you won’t,” she said brusquely, already striding past her toward the rear of the sanctuary. Her voice rang out as she went: “Straight to Glory, now! She won’t like it if she has to hear about this from me.”

Still practically quivering with repressed fury, Rasha herself set off for the front doors at a stately glide, spine rigid and nose upright. One of the Legionnaires actually opened the door for her, with a sympathetic look. She barely had the self-possession to nod politely in acknowledgment.

That had stirred her up even worse than the ambush. Purists and other assholes she expected to behave that way; where the hell did a Guild enforcer get off rebuking her for doing exactly what she was being trained by the Guild to do?

Fortunately, the frigid air of Imperial Square did a lot to clear her head. Rasha turned up the fur collar of her dress, surreptitiously thumbing the rune on the warming charm hidden underneath it.

The Square was as stirred up as the temple had been; apparently she wasn’t the only one having an eventful morning. Rasha slipped to one side, out of the path of traffic, and paused in the shadow of one of the great columns to study the comings and goings. A column of soldiers was just marching past, and there were knots of people clustered together in excitable conversation all across the temple steps. What had gotten under everybody’s skin this morning?

Picking out a piercing voice from the hubbub, Rasha set off sideways toward one end of the temple steps, just in time to intercept a young boy coming round the corner, pulling a wagon full of newspapers, waving one over his head, and shouting at the top of his lungs.

“EXTRA, SPECIAL EDITION! READ THE BREAKING NEWS ON THE ELVEN CRISIS! IF IT’S KNOWN, THE LANCER KNOWS IT!”

She mutely tossed him a silver coin, receiving a grin and a deftly thrown paper in response. Rasha ripped off the twine and unfolded it enough to read the front page while he carried on into the Square.

Though she wasn’t personally much interested in politics, one didn’t live under Glory’s tutelage without developing a careful respect for the web of interconnected forces that made the Empire work, and sometimes prevented it from working. Rasha’s frown rapidly deepened as her eyes darted across the lines of text.

“The elves did what?”


“Formed a united government, including the legendary high elves! As Veilgrad’s most celebrated elven resident, my readers would be very interested in your insight into these developing events.”

Macy poised her pencil over her open notepad, gazing expectantly at her target with a big smile of anticipation in place.

“I straight up don’t believe you,” Natchua said bluntly. “If you told me the Matriarchs and Elders all linked arms and went square dancing in Imperial Square, that would be more plausible.”

The reporter had the temerity to grin at her, not looking down at where she was scribbling on the pad. Omnu’s breath, was she really writing that down? “Well, assuming for the sake of argument that I’m right, can I get a quote on this from you, Natchua?”

“Here’s a headline for you: annoying reporter continues to abuse the fact that I don’t indiscriminately immolate people.”

She wrote that down, too, looking not the least bit discomfited. “You grew up in Tar’naris, I’m sure you have more insight than practically anyone into what the ramifications of this might be. Veilgrad really respects your perspective, Natchua, and it’s especially applicable here. A word from you would mean a lot to people.”

Flattery and manipulation, and both so ham-fisted they would have provoked only annoyance in Tar’naris. Natchua indulged in an irritated sigh. Macy Vaucherot, which was pronounced in zee authentic Glassian manner, the pretentious tit (even though Veilgrad was full of old families with Glassian names who had been fully Imperial for at least five generations), was actually one of the less irritating reporters who tended to buzz around. One of the more persistent and least intimidated by casual displays of infernomancy, true, but at least she only published what she actually heard in that paper of hers, without the embellishments or outright fabrications which had almost sent Natchua to kicking down some of her rivals’ doors before her entire household had frantically talked her down from that idea.

And for that matter, she certainly did have opinions about Tar’naris and what such a development would mean for the Empire, and came perilously close to starting in on them before the recollection of Melaxyna and Kheshiri’s hurried advice about the power of the press came back to mind.

Elilial’s remarks about Natchua’s so-called “cunning” had, over the last several months, frequently made her stop and second-guess her first impulses. There was actually a pattern, she’d found; while most of her actions were described with words like “reckless” and “harebrained” by those close to her, in hindsight she noticed that they tended to lead to success when she spotted a benefit others had missed and aimed right at it with no regard for common sense, whereas just acting out of temper or apathy rarely ended well. It didn’t take much reflection to see which of those it would be to rant at a reporter about what abhorrent monsters most Narisians were. It was true, but the knowledge wouldn’t do anything to help anybody who got their news from Macy’s rag. Riling up the local populace and pissing off the Imperial Foreign Service might be worthwhile in a hypothetical situation where there was a benefit to her in it, but this was not one of those.

“I wasn’t a noble or anything, in Tar’naris,” Natchua said carefully. “I came from the farming House, and most of what I was taught about the affairs of the powerful was to stay as far from them as possible. I don’t think I actually have much in the way of insight into this, Macy.”

“But you were selected to attend the legendary University at Last Rock!”

“Yeah,” Natchua said dryly, “I’m the one who got kicked out, if you’ll recall. Look, international relations are over my head. What I do know is that the Tiraan Empire has not endured for a thousand years by being stupid, and the Tirasian Dynasty deserves credit for stitching the whole thing back together within a few years of the Enchanter Wars and keeping it that way during a century of unprecedented changes of all kinds. I have no idea how international relations should be handled, but it seems to me the people whose job that is are pretty good at it. Unexpected surprises like this are a good time for all of us out here in Veilgrad to stay the course and let the diplomats work. I can’t think of any recent examples of them letting us down.”

“But what about—”

“Good chat, Macy, but you caught me on the way to an appointment. Bye,” Natchua said firmly, turning away.

“I just wonder if you have any thoughts on—”

At least this time she didn’t shout or try to chase after her when Natchua shadow-jumped fifty feet up the street; experience had taught her that would only drive her quarry away faster.

The short range jump had put her in front of a public house with an outdoor terrace, on which a cluster of students from the nearby college were gathered around a brazier holding pints. Upon her appearance, one of them pressed himself against the waist-high wall, brandishing his tankard at her.

“Veilgrad stands!” he yelled unsteadily.

“Veilgrad stands!” she shouted back, pointing at him. A roar of approval rose from the whole group, and Natchua carried on down the sidewalk, grinning as they clamored behind her, though she did mutter to herself. “It’s one o’clock in the afternoon, ya louts.”

Her destination was another pub, this one abandoned since the chaos crisis, after which its owner had packed up and moved his operations to Mathenon, where the climate was mild, the coin flowed like water and nothing even slightly interesting ever happened. The Mad Marquis had stood empty till the catacomb reconstruction efforts had brought Agatha Svanwen’s company to Veilgrad. Then, its empty condition, central location, and basement access to the catacomb system had made it an appealing headquarters for her stonemasons.

The Svanwen Company guards out front waved her in with a smile. Inside, the common room was filled with masons and miners sitting around at tables and notably not doing any work; they raised such a cheer at Natchua’s arrival that it took her a few minutes to get it quieted down enough to receive directions to the basement access.

At least it was quieter down there, though notably tense, as she observed immediately on arrival.

Svanwen herself was present, along with two of her employees, a dwarven man who’d come with her from Stavulheim and a Veilgrad local, both wearing suits and holding clipboards rather than stoneworking tools. Standing at the other side of the room and looking notably unhappy were five humans in Imperial Army uniforms, complete with the eye symbol on a blue background of the Azure Corps.

“Finally, here she is,” said the man apparently in the lead, who wore a captain’s stripes and a disgruntled expression. “Can we get this over with?”

“And hello to you too,” Natchua said, raising her eyebrows. “I’m quite well today, thank you for asking.”

“Thanks for coming, Natchua,” Svanwen said with that firmly calm voice she so often used to keep order among her laborers. “I appreciate you going out of your way. This is Captain Fedhaar, from the Azure Corps.”

“Commander of the Fourth Infernal Containment Unit,” Fedhaar said with a bit more grace, finally nodding to her.

“Enchanté ,” Natchua replied. “So what’s this I hear about demons in the tunnel?”

“Probably not more than one,” Svanwen said before the captain could reply. “A few of my people have been seeing odd tracks since last week, but one finally got a look at it yesterday. Needless to say, I ceased operations and pulled everybody out, and we’ve had a guard posted on every entrance we couldn’t seal up outright. By the description, it’s pretty clearly a rozzk’shnid.”

Natchua glanced at Fedhaar, then back to her, frowning. “Well, those do like tunnels, but they’re not sapient and can’t use magic. What do you need me for, exactly?”

“She wants you to clear the creature out. Isn’t it obvious?” Captain Fedhaar said sarcastically, folding his arms. “Nothing but the legendary Natchua will do.”

Another time she might have taken exception to the attitude, but in this case Natchua had to agree with him.

“Seriously?” she demanded, pointing to the disgruntled battlemages while holding Svanwen’s gaze. “You’ve got the most highly-trained professionals at demon containment on the continent, on loan from the Imperial Army, to deal with what amounts to an animal control problem? That’s already overkill, not to mention a situation that can only get messier the more people are involved. What the hell is my gray ass doing down here?”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” said Fedhaar, apparently meaning it. At any rate, he looked a bit less irritated.

“You’re right, as demons go, a rozzk’shnid in the tunnels isn’t much of a crisis,” Svanwen agreed. “Hell, I could take care of the damn thing myself with a battlestaff and a hunting party. At this point, it’s more a matter of morale and personnel management, Natchua. Sometimes, the best person for the job isn’t the best person for the job.”

Natchua blinked at her, then turned to Fedhaar. “Do you know what she’s talking about?”

He shrugged. “Lady, I’m in the Army. The brass rarely uses the best person for the job, but I don’t think it’s on purpose.”

“It’s like this,” said the dwarf, now with some amusement. “My crew are composed of my own people from Stavulheim, who have no particular faith in the Imperial government, and locals who are of…divided opinions. Some of ‘em will no doubt be reassured by knowing the Army is on the case, but not all, and maybe not most. Like I said, this is not a big deal. All of us together are well more than a match for the creature. But what I need to get my people back to work is assurance that there aren’t demons in the tunnels, so they don’t have to be looking over their shoulders every five seconds. I asked you to come, Natchua, to lend your credibility. We track the thing down and kill it, and then I can get the say-so of everyone’s favorite friendly local warlock and hero of the Battle of Ninkabi that it’s safe to get back to work.”

Natchua heaved a sigh, then grimaced apologetically at Captain Fedhaar. “Well… Crap. I guess I can’t turn up my nose at that, can I? As the least actually useful person here, it’d be an asshole move to not contribute what relatively little I can. All right, Agatha, fair enough. I’m in.”

“Glad to have you,” the dwarf said with a smile. “I’ll earmark you an honorarium from the discretionary—”

“Oh, don’t bother. I mean, thanks, but what the hell would I buy? Anything I need, Sherwin is happy to squander his ancestral wealth on. Save your funds for the folks doing the real work.”

“Huh,” Fedhaar grunted, staring at Natchua. “You weren’t kidding, Ms. Svanwen. Everything about her screams ‘cocky, irritating college kid,’ but damn if she doesn’t leave me with a positive impression.”

“Yeah, I’m a real fudge-dipped strawberry,” she drawled. “Everybody loves Natchua. All right, then! C’mon, nobody’s getting any younger. Let’s go fuck around in the dark demon-infested tunnels.”

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