Tag Archives: Natchua

16 – 51

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Tendrils of shadow rose beneath her, twining together into a great twisted trunk and entangling her legs, and lifted Natchua straight up. She rose to a solid twenty feet in height, balanced perfectly in the tentacles’ grasp, until she judged that a sufficient altitude to do what she needed. Off to the south, beyond the range of human senses, she could see the necro-drake thrashing about and erratically charging in different directions as its new targets teased and tormented it from all sides. The green blotches of elven groves were barely visible to her in other directions—close enough the woodkin shaman would undoubtedly be aware of the large-scale infernomancy that was about to be performed on this spot. Hopefully they’d do as woodkin usually did: duck their heads and wait it out rather than taking action. The last thing she needed was nosy shamans disrupting her casting, to say nothing of what would happen if they appealed to the Confederacy and brought more of those damned Highguard.

Projecting steady streams of fire from her palms, Natchua quickly sketched out two huge spell circles, establishing only the basic boundaries to delineate their overall purpose, then paused to survey her work before getting down to refining the specific—rather elaborate—details this was going to need. For a moment, she considered a third, then thought better of it. Two should be plenty.

Next was supplies. In quick surges of shadow, she summoned from Leduc Manor the extra materials necessary for this that she hadn’t carried on her person: a selection of power crystals, enchanting dusts of three distinct grades, and finally, two bemused succubi.

“What the f— ” Melaxyna broke off and clapped a hand over her eyes. “Well, at least she’s not dead, I was more than half convinced…”

“What kind of bassackward nowhere is this supposed to be?” Kheshiri complained, peering about at the vacant prairie. “You never take me anywhere nice.”

Both demons fell silent as they caught sight of the sprawling circles burned into the ground to either side of their arrival point, the nearby stalks of tallgrass still smoking. In eerie unison, their expressions changed to a matching look of tremulous uncertainty as they recognized what she was about to do and basic pragmatism rebelled at the implications, while their Vanislaad attraction to carnage reveled in them.

“Have you finally lost your last vestiges of sense?” Melaxyna demanded. Kheshiri just began squealing and giggling. After that first moment of uncertainty, they seemed to have taken off in opposite directions, almost as if they’d planned it.

“Enough!” Natchua barked from atop her shadow-tendril perch. “I do not have time to argue; either you trust me or you don’t. I need those circles charged. You both understand the proper lines to augment with enchanting dust and the runic nexi where power crystals will need to be placed. Each of you pick a circle and get to work. Double-check with me if you have any questions, but otherwise no dawdling! We have one chance to save Veilgrad.”

Kheshiri instantly snapped her wings out, snatching up a bag of enchanting dust and swooping off to begin tracing glittering purple lines around the perimeter of one of the circles. Melaxyna hesitated for two full seconds, just long enough Natchua feared the succubus was about to rebel at this. But then she just shook her head, gathered up an armful of power crystals and launched herself at the other circle, muttering under her breath. Even Kheshiri wouldn’t have been able to make out any words at that distance, but Natchua of course heard her clearly.

“Hell with it, either I trust the little freak or everything’s twice-fucked anyway. She hasn’t ended the world yet.”

Natchua forbore comment outwardly, though she spared a moment to hope that remark didn’t prove prophetic. Then she resumed firing jets of flame into the ground, carefully avoiding both swooping succubi and searing the finer details of her summoning circles into place. The Wreath would hold the line for a while, but the clock was ticking.


Despite his dire commentary on their situation, Rogrind seemed in little hurry to remedy it. Of course, as he subsequently pointed out when she complained, they were a short walk from one of the province’s main highways, and with an iota of luck, could there flag down a lift to Tiraas. In the absolute worst case scenario, they’d have to walk to Madouris, which was closer; in nicer weather that would have been merely tiring and time-consuming. At present, it would be a very unpleasant slog through the thick snow, though Rogrind insisted he had enough of his resistance potions to tide them both over. Which did nothing to make the prospect appealing to Rasha, who was already not enjoying standing here in the snow while he fussed over the ruins of his carriage.

She understood his purpose, of course, for all that it was no concern of hers and thus annoying. A custom carriage outfitted by Svennish intelligence contained all sorts of goodies his agency wouldn’t want falling into the hands of anyone who might come to investigate this wreck. Already Rogrind had pried loose multiple concealed devices and made enough of them disappear to reveal he had potent bag-of-holding enchantments on multiple pockets. Including, she noticed with amusement, the vehicle registry plates. Undoubtedly those wouldn’t lead directly to the Svenheim embassy, but Imperial Intelligence would take one look at what had happened to this carriage and begin tracking everything as far as its substantial resources would allow.

“Oh, that’s real subtle,” she scoffed as Rogrind very carefully uncorked a vial from his apparently substantial alchemy kit and poured its contents over a console which had been hidden beneath the driver’s seat. Most of its dials were shattered anyway, but the thing itself must have been distinctive. At least before the metal had begun to dissolve under the potent acid with which he was now dousing it. “I’m more nobody’s gonna have any questions about that.”

“Obviously,” the dwarf replied without looking up, continuing to be unperturbed by her disapproval, “the best technique is to avoid notice entirely. When that fails, it can suffice to ensure that there remains nothing to notice. Alas, this is somewhat more labor-intensive, and less likely to succeed. In the business one must not expect the fates to align in one’s favor.”

“Can’t see, don’t see, won’t see,” she agreed. The dwarf sighed softly but said nothing, and Rasha gleefully filed that away. He didn’t like being reminded that the Thieves’ Guild’s work was very similar to his own. There was more amusement to be leveraged from that, surely. “While we’re standing around making small talk anyway, what are you still doing in Tiraas at all? I’d’ve figured you’d be reassigned as hell after your cover got blown last year.”

“An agent whose identity is not known has many uses,” he explained, still outwardly calm. “An agent whose identity is known in his country of operation has other, specific ones. In particular when one operates opposite skilled players like Quentin Vex, it is vastly useful to have obvious targets for him to follow around. There are no wins or losses in the great game, Rasha, merely changes upon the board. Hm.”

“Something wrong?” He’d stopped pouring, as a faint light had begun to flicker on one of the surviving pieces of the instrument panel he was destroying. Rogrind hesitated before continuing his work, quickly drizzling acid over that, too, and snuffing it out.

“No more wrong than we should expect, I think. Apparently we are being tracked by means of fae magic.”

“Hm,” she echoed, frowning. There were tradeoffs in fae versus arcane divination; fae tracking was all but impossible to deflect or evade, but so inherently imprecise that it was often not more useful than more vulnerable but specific arcane scrying. “Friend or foe?”

“Sadly, we would need an actual practitioner to determine that. The simple ability to detect fae attention via a passive enchantment is state of the art. By your leave, I believe we should adopt a cautious posture, in any case.”

“Leave granted.”

He took great care to re-cork the bottle which had contained acid and wipe it off on the surviving upholstery before stowing it away. Rasha would’ve just discarded the bottle on the grounds that any idiot would be able to discern what had happened here and one more piece of glass wouldn’t tell them anything, but then again, thieves and spies weren’t so similar that they had exactly the same training. Only when that was done did he produce a device made to look like a pocketwatch—a standard deception, Glory had over a dozen enchanted devices set in watch casings—and flipped it open.

Whatever it was, the information it contained instantly changed the dwarf’s mood.

“Hide,” he hissed, already turning and bolting. Rasha’s only instincts were trained enough to set her into motion before she bothered to ask questions. For a dwarf, Rogrind was amazingly agile, but she was still faster, and so managed to beat him to the shelter of one of the angled sheets of rock Schwartz had summoned out of the ground last year. Funny how things worked out; for all she knew, this was the second time she’d taken shelter behind this particular bulwark.

“What is it?” Rasha breathed once they were concealed. Rogrind still had his device out; she snuck a peek over his shoulder but couldn’t make heads or tails of the multiple tiny dials set into its face.

“We’re about to have company,” he whispered. “An arcane translocation signal just activated in this vicinity.”

“Scrying?”

“No such luck, this is for teleportation.”

“Shit,” she whispered. It might not be bad; Rasha’s friends would definitely be looking for her by now. Off the top of her head, though, she didn’t know of anyone in her inner circle who could teleport. Then again, Trissiny knew all sorts of wacky people, and Glory knew everyone. She looked at the very clear tracks the two of them had made through the snow right to their hiding spot and grimaced, noting Rogrind doing the same.

He pulled out another vial, drank half, and handed the rest to her. Rasha downed it without asking, and he immediately tugged her arm, beckoning her to follow. They set off to another position behind a large hunk of fallen masonry—this time leaving behind no traces in the snow. That was some good alchemy; thanks to Glory’s tutelage, Rasha had some idea what potions like that cost. It stood to reason an intelligence agent would have resources, but she hadn’t realized Svenheim made such heavy use of potions. That information was worth taking back to the Guild.

Even as they moved, a shrill whine like a very out-of-season mosquito began to resonate at the very edge of her hearing, growing steadily louder. No sooner had the pair ducked behind their new concealment than sparks of blue light began to flicker in the air over by the carriage’s wreck. It was but another second before a bright flash blazed across the ruins, and then over a dozen people materialized.

Rasha did not curse again, though she wanted to. These were not friendlies.

By far the majority were soldiers in crisp uniforms, with battlestaves at the ready; they instantly spread out, forming a perimeter around their landing zone and several detaching themselves from the formation to cover the wrecked carriage and the body of Sister Lanora. Rasha didn’t recognize those uniforms. They were white, vaguely resembling Silver Legion formal dress, but their insignia was a golden ankh over the breast. She’d thought the Holy Legionnaires only wore that ridiculously pompous armor, but one of the other parties present revealed the troops could not be anyone else.

Glory had insisted all her apprentices attend occasional services at the Universal Church, simply for the sake of being exposed to polite society. It was not the first time she had seen him, thus, but his presence here threw everything Rasha thought she understood into disarray. Archpope Justinian never left the safety of his power base in the Cathedral. And why would he? There, he was all but invulnerable, even against the countless factions and powerful individuals he had spent the last few years industriously antagonizing. Yet, there he was, his powerful build and patrician features unmistakable, behind a golden shield which had flashed into place around him the instant he’d arrived.

Rasha snuck a glance at Rogrind, who was staring at the new arrivals with the closed expression of an observant man determined to take in all possible data and reveal none in turn.

“Ugh!” shouted one of the other people with the Archpope, a stoop-shouldered individual bundled up as if against an Athan’Khar winter rather than a clear day in the Tira Valley. “These conditions are totally unacceptable!”

“Unfortunately, Rector, this is what we have to work with,” Justinian replied, his mellifluous voice utterly calm. “I apologize, but I must rely on your skill to overcome the inconvenience. This is the last place Lanora’s spirit existed upon the mortal plane, and distance from it makes the task more difficult. Seconds and inches are precious. Nassir, is that…?”

“Think so, your Holiness,” reported one of the soldiers, straightening from where he’d been kneeling at the very edge of the bloodstained patch of snow. The man’s face was hard, but Justinian’s grumpy companion took one look at the remains of Sister Lanora and was noisily sick into the nearest snowdrift. “No other bodies nearby, and she’s wearing Purist gear. Unfortunately her face is…gone.”

The Archpope, perhaps fittingly, was made of sterner stuff. His expression was deeply grave as he joined the soldier and gazed down at the body, but he did not flinch or avert his eyes. “What terrible damage. I don’t believe I have ever seen the like. It’s almost as if…”

“It looks like something triggered small explosions inside her body,” Nassir said, scowling deeply. “In the head, and look, there in the side. That wound would’ve been inflicted first. The head wound would be instantly lethal, so there’s no point in attacking again after that.”

“Have you seen such injuries before, Nassir?”

“Not in person, your Holiness. I’ve been briefed on the like, though, in the Army. Not sure anything I’ve heard of would’ve done it here, though. Some fairies are known to do nasty things like this, but nothing that lives this close to the capital. And of course, if you see unusually ugly wounds, infernomancy is always a suspicion…”

“There has been nothing of the kind done upon this spot in many years,” Justinian stated, raising his head to slowly direct his frown across the scenery. “At this range, I would sense it even under the Black Wreath’s concealment.”

The soldier nodded. “That leaves arcane attack spells. They exist. Very illegal, though. The Wizards’ Guild and the Salyrites both prohibit such craft.”

A moment of contemplative silence fell.

And then, a hand came to rest on Rasha’s shoulder, causing her to jump.

“Go on, say it,” breathed a new voice next to her. “Ask him.”

She just barely managed to stay silent, turning to gawk at the man who had appeared from nowhere between her and Rogrind: the waiter from the cafe who had warned her and Zafi of the Purist ambush. He was even still in his askew tuxedo, the cravat untied and hanging unevenly down his chest. Now, he was watching the scene unfolding before them with the wide-eyed eagerness of a child at a play.

Then she noticed that Rogrind had slumped, unconscious, to the ground, face-down in the snow.

“What of a Thieves’ Guild hedge mage?” Justinian asked, and the waiter began cackling aloud in sheer glee. Rasha frantically tried to shush him without adding to the noise herself.

“They…would be very hesitant to do such a thing, your Holiness,” the soldier named Nassir answered, his voice slowed with thought. Amazingly, neither he nor any of the others appeared to notice the gleeful hooting coming from Rasha’s hiding place. “The legal authorities would investigate any such thing, and possibly get Imperial Intelligence involved. Plus, if the Guild were feeling particularly cruel, they’d do something that would kill far more painfully and slowly. As deaths go, it doesn’t get much more merciful than the sudden loss of the entire brain. It’s not in their nature to risk official attention for something that gains them so little. Still,” he added pensively, “if I had to list mages who might know spellcraft like this, a back-alley Guild caster would top the list, even if they were hesitant to use it in practice. For example, this could be a vicious repurposing of a lock-breaking spell.”

“Oh, relax,” Rasha’s new companion chuckled, patting her on the head as the conversation over Lanora’s corpse continued. “They can’t hear or see us, I took care of that. Also your dwarf buddy here. Don’t worry about him, he’ll be fine; he’s just taking a nap. We’re about to see some shit that he really doesn’t need to, is all. You’ll have to convey my apologies when he wakes up.”

There were just too many questions; she settled on one almost at random. “Who the hell are you?!”

The man turned to meet her gaze, still wearing a cocky half-grin. And for just an instant, he let the veil slip, just by a fraction.

Weight and sheer power hammered at her consciousness as Rasha locked eyes with an intelligence as far beyond her own as the sun was beyond a candle. It was just for the barest fraction of a second, but it was enough to cause her to sit down hard in the snow.

Before them, Justinian raised his head suddenly like a hound catching a scent, and once more turned in a slow circle, studying his surroundings with a frown.

“Easy, there, Rasha,” Eserion said kindly, helping her back up. “I know you’ve had a pisser of a day already, but stay with me; you really need to see this next bit. Moments like this are rare, and you’ll almost never get forewarning of them, much less a front-row seat. We’re about to watch the world change right out from under us.”


One of the worst things about Natchua was that she was sometimes extremely right.

The Black Wreath didn’t fight; at most they laid ambushes. They contained, and that only after preparing the ground ahead of them to the best of their ability, luring their prey exactly where they wanted it before striking. Whether putting down loose demons, rogue warlocks, or their own traitors, it was simply not their way to engage in a frontal assault. Maybe, occasionally, the appearance of one after setting up the scene with the most exacting care, but actually fighting? Hurling themselves into the fray with spell and weapon and their own lifeblood on the line? It simply wasn’t done. It was not Elilial’s way.

Be foxes, not spiders.

The damnable thing was that their usual approach absolutely would not have worked here. The necro-drake was very much like a demon in how predictably it reacted, but there was a lot they could do about demons. Against this thing, their spells were simply not able to make a lasting impact. The mission wasn’t even to destroy or contain it, but only to keep it busy. There was nothing for it but to fight.

Embras Mogul wasn’t particularly surprised at how satisfying it was to simply let loose with all his destructive skill at an enemy, nor how the other survivors of his cult were clearly finding the same liberating vigor in it. After all they’d been through, it was only natural. He was rather surprised to find out that they were, in fact, pretty good at it.

They knew each other intuitively, with the intimacy of long cooperation and bonds forged in suffering. The Wreath moved in small groups, noting and reacting to one another so intuitively it felt like pure instinct. One trio would vanish as the necro-drake dived at them, and others would pummel it from multiple directions with shadowbolts, forcing the increasingly frustrated monster to whirl about and struggle to pick a target while under attack from all sides, only to be thwarted again when its chosen victims vanished into their own conjured darkness when it even tried to get close.

The poor thing was actually rather dumb. It never improved its strategy, just got progressively sloppier as going on and on without making any progress made it ever more angry.

It wasn’t as if they were making progress, either, but the difference was they were having fun. For once, the shoe was on the other foot: after a string of debacles and defeats, they were the cats tormenting the mouse and not the other way around. Embras kept an eye on the others every moment he could spare his attention from the necro-drake, watching for injury or signs of fatigue, but rather than growing tired, he saw his compatriots having more fun than he’d seen them have in years. Some, like Hiroshi, seemed to have fallen into a trancelike state of flow, concentrating in apparent serenity on their spells and tactics, while others were smiling, grinning with savage vindication as they did what no responsible warlocks ever allowed themselves to do: poured unrestrained destruction at their target.

It was, as Vanessa had said, cathartic. And he was a little afraid of what it might mean for the future, perhaps more than he was of the inept monstrosity trying to slaughter them all. It was going to be…a letdown, going back to their usual ways after this burst of sheer release. If they even could. Was there still a place for the Wreath as it was in the world? And if not, how big a mistake was it to tie their fates to Natchua of all bloody people?

Despite his misgivings, Mogul was having such a grand time shadow-jumping about and hammering the chaos best with infernal carnage that his immediate reaction to the sudden end of the exercise was a surge of pure disappointment. In the next moment, as he beheld the nature of that end, his emotional response felt more…complex.

The sound that echoed suddenly across the prairie brought stillness, as warlocks and necro-drake alike all stopped what they were doing and turned to stare. It was a terrible noise rarely heard on the mortal plane, and always a herald of catastrophe: a low sibilance that was like a hiss, if a hiss was a roar, a sound that was at once subtly slender and deafening.

The necro-drake’s bony face was unable to convey expression, but somehow, its body language as it turned to confront this new threat showed shock, even a hint of fear. It crouched, letting its wings fall to the sides, and lowered its head.

Embras Mogul, meanwhile, suddenly sat down in the tallgrass, laughing his head off.

Vanessa appeared next to him in a swell of shadow. “You know, I think we may have miscalculated, allying ourselves with that girl.”

“She doesn’t do anything halfway, does she?” Rupi added, coming to join them on foot. “Bloody hell, Embras. It’s like a…an infernal Tellwyrn.”

He just laughed. It was all too much.


They were adolescents; she’d made the summoning circles smaller on purpose, simply because full-sized adults would be too large to effectively grapple with the necro-drake the way she needed them to. All they had to do was pin the bastard down so she could step in and deliver the coup de grace. Behind their beaked heads, between their triple rows of crimson eyes and the flared directional fins, they wore collars of glowing crimson light, containing the runes which imbued them with the pact of summoning, restricting their behavior to that commanded by the warlock who had called them to this plane. Such bindings had never been placed on demons of this species before. They floated above her, eel-like bodies larger than a Rail caravan undulating sinuously as they awaited their mistress’s command.

It was with grim satisfaction that Natchua beheld the suddenly cowering necro-drake. Standing on the prairie beneath two captive nurdrakhaan, she pointed one finger at the monstrosity.

“Boys? Sic ‘im.”

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16 – 50

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She didn’t dare stop moving.

The necro-drake reacted a lot like a demon, for all that there was no infernomancy in or around it and indeed, any such conventional magic would have disintegrated due to its innate chaos effects, as Natchua had been quick to observe. When attacked, it attacked back, predictable as clockwork. It had gone after everyone in Veilgrad who had fired spells at it, and only been dissuaded from dive-bombing the mag cannon emplacement because Natchua had intercepted it mid-attack. And like many species of demon, it had no strategy beyond rabid frontal assault. That was the good thing: leading the creature away from the city was as simple as hammering it with spells and shadow-jumping away to strike again before it could kill her in retaliation. It didn’t get tired and never wised up to her strategy, just kept coming after her. The beast was no dragon; it wasn’t sapient, and not even particularly clever as animals went. A bear or wolf would have long since given up and gone to do something less futile.

That was the extent of the good news.

Natchua had nothing with which to fight except magic, and against a creature of chaos, magic was useless. Worse than useless—some of the misfires caused by her infernal spells hammering the necro-drake could easily have rebounded on her devastatingly had she been standing closer, which of course was exactly why she kept herself at a distance (aside from the threat posed by the beast itself). Also why she only attacked with magical projectile spells, no energy beams or other effects that would make a connection between her and her target. Spells rebounded, disintegrated, fizzled, transformed into harmless puffs of mist or far less harmless bursts of fire and acid; it seemed each one found a new way to go wrong. They certainly weren’t doing the necro-drake any harm, for all that it clearly perceived her hostile intent and continued coming after her.

She had worked out one trick so far which seemed to do the thing some damage, and was reluctant to use it. It was complex enough that only her elven speed and infernal mastery made it possible: she had to summon a fragment of native rock from Hell and use the inherent volatility of the dimensional transit to fling it at the necro-drake at high velocity, which was at least three individual things few warlocks could have done. Worse, that would leave infernally irradiated chunks of rock littering the landscape unless she took the time to both banish them back to Hell and siphon up the local infernal energy before it corrupted someone, two more feats that were beyond the average warlock’s ability and difficult enough even for Natchua that taking a few seconds to clean the mess she’d left in Veilgrad had nearly allowed the chaos monster to grab her. Thus, she wasn’t about to do that again, for all that it had been far more effective at harming her foe than any of her direct spells.

Worst of all, what harm she did do was quickly reversed; the thing had some kind of innate healing ability. Amid all the constant misfires, there were now again explosions and conjured projectiles which struck the necro-drake, revealing that the craggy black glass of its skeleton was exactly as fragile as it seemed like it should be, but when broken its shards would immediately flow back into place.

Infernomancy was the magic of destruction. All other things being equal, Natchua was certain she could destroy it through brute force alone; she had more than enough of that at her fingertips to compensate for any amount of rejuvenation. But things were not equal, and all her terrible power was good for nothing more than antagonizing it. That wasn’t nothing; she’d managed to lead it away from the city, out past the outlying towns and into the wide empty stretches of the Great Plains, leaving behind a trail of charred tallgrass, outcroppings of conjured rock, at least two mutated trees which had spontaneously grown from nothing, and an annoyingly whimsical variety of other lingering effects. Between constantly dancing ahead of the beast, checking the distance to make sure she wasn’t leading it toward a village or a woodkin grove (the Confederacy would really let her have it for that), and also doing her due diligence to make sure nothing being left behind was too dangerous, Natchua was rapidly becoming overextended. Even elven stamina wouldn’t enable her to keep this up forever, or for long. She needed a solution.

And of course, the only thing she could come up with was the absolute last thing she ever wanted to do: prayer.

“Hey, bitch!”

Undoubtedly the Wreath had rituals for communing with their goddess as did any faith, and undoubtedly that wasn’t one. Natchua didn’t know them, though; Elilial had given her knowledge of infernal magic, not Elilinist ritual practice, and while there was overlap it didn’t extend to religious sacraments. But she was, after all, connected to the Queen of Hell on a personal level, and so she fell back on her own character and resorted to shouting at her. The necro-drake didn’t seem to take the yelling personally; it was already trying to slaughter her due to all the spellfire, so it wasn’t as if some harsh words would make a difference.

“Yeah, I’m talking to you,” Natchua snapped aloud at the air as she stepped out of another swell of shadows twenty yards to the northwest of where the necro-drake was now clawing at the ground where she’d been standing a second before, and fired and short burst of shadowbolts right at its head to get the stupid thing’s attention. There was one factor that would make all the difference here, and only one person she could ask about it. “Paladins are supposed to be immune to chaos! That’s why they always send paladins when there’s a chaos event. I know you can do that, so why the fuck isn’t my magic working on this thing?”

The thing in question emitted its spine-grating wail and vaulted through the air at her. Natchua peevishly launched a carriage-sized fireball right into its face and shadow-jumped out of range a split second before its claws reached her, already conjuring another flurry of shadowbolts to be discharged once she’d positioned herself to lead it farther toward the Golden Sea. If worse came to worst, maybe she could keep going long enough to lure the thing into there and just let it get lost?

Of course, then there’d be no telling where or when it’d come back out…

In all honestly Natchua had not really expected an answer. Thus, the surprise at receiving one caused her a moment’s hesitation that nearly proved fatal before she jumped away again, scowling at the amused voice that rang clearly inside her own head.

Oh, Natchua, you do get yourself into the most interesting situations.

“Yeah, that’s real fuckin’ cute,” she snarled. “Are you going to help me or not?”

I believe you made it clear we would not have that kind of relationship, my dear. I acquiesced readily to those terms. You want nothing to do with me…unless you need help?

She hammered the necro-drake with another huge fireball. Then a second, when the first fizzled out into a harmless puff of smoke seconds before impact. The follow-up spell detonated in a shockwave of kinetic force that sent her flying backwards and smashed the skeletal dragon into the ground.

Natchua was back on her feet immediately, wincing and taking stock. Nothing broken; Professor Ezzaniel had taught her how to fall and her reflexes had been enough to compensate for the suddenness. She was nicely bruised all over, though, just from the force of the hit. The necro-drake stumbled drunkenly about, its bones re-forming right before her eyes.

“And you,” she replied, straightening her sleeves, “said I could call on you for help when I needed it!”

And you don’t need it. There is no need for you to continue fooling about with that thing. You can easily escape—even retrieve your family from Leduc Manor and go back to Mathenon until all this blows over.

“It attacked my city!” she snarled, blasting the chaos beast with a particularly heavy shadowbolt. It transmuted into a three-second burst of choral song in four-point harmony, of all things, but at least that sufficed to get the monster’s attention. It came after her yet again, and she shadow-jumped deeper into the plains, heckling it with desultory spells to keep it interested while she focused on mobility and arguing with the recalcitrant deity in her head. “Protecting Veilgrad is my responsibility! That is not negotiable.”

I will protect you if I must, Natchua, but not from the consequences of your own choices. Trust me, I know more of the history of House Leduc than you ever will, dear. No one will be surprised or even disappointed if you duck your head and sit this one out. Playing hero accomplishes nothing except to fluff your ego.

“Oh, you evil—” It was doubtless for the best that she had to break off and jump repeatedly away as the monster came after her in a renewed frenzy; for a few moments she didn’t even have to fire back at it to hold its interest. Natchua ultimately made a longer shadow-jump, putting enough distance between herself and the necro-drake that it paused, looking around in confusion.

Then she launched a seething kernel of hellfire into the air in a parabolic arc that came down directly on top of the beast. Before it drew close enough to be mangled by the chaos effect, she detonated the spell, causing another huge swath of tallgrass to be charred flat and the monster crushed into the ground. It instantly began trying to rise again, though it took several moments to regather itself sufficiently.

This was not a winning strategy. She needed to kill this thing. She could kill it, of that she was absolutely certain, if only the stubborn goddess would lend her protection to Natchua’s spells.

“I. Need. Your. Help.” Baring her teeth, she growled the admission with all the reluctance of her desperate predicament.

The surge of amused laughter resounding her head made her right eyelid begin to twitch violently.

Because I like you, Natchua dear, I’ll share with you a vital life lesson someone should really have made clear to you long before now: nobody cares what you want. They care what they want. Negotiation is the art of convincing others that meeting your needs will meet their own.

She chewed on that almost literally, working her jaw and watching the necro-drake get its bearings. Despite the distance, she was the only visible landmark around them as by that point she’d taunted it far out onto the prairie. With a keening roar, it charged across the ground at her like a galloping bear rather than trying to fly.

Natchua exploded the ground under it, sending it hurtling away. Unfortunately the monster had enough wit to recognize and abandon a doomed strategy, and came at her through the air again, forcing her to shadow-jump once more to avoid its dive. The interlude had bought her precious seconds to mull Elilial’s words.

“Well, I’m not leaving,” she stated aloud. “Not until that thing is dead. If it kills me, you lose your anchor.”

I like you, my dear, truly I do, and I’m willing to help you up to a point simply because I acknowledge how much I owe you. That doesn’t mean you have a blade to my throat, Natchua. You’ve bought me enough stability that if you insist on squandering your life, I have time to find a replacement. Your existence is not vital to me. Try again.

She cursed a few times each in elvish, Tanglish, demonic and Glassian (Xyraadi was right, it was perversely gratifying to be obscene in such a pretty language). And then for a few minutes longer as Elilial laughed at her again and she had to dance once more with the necro-drake.

It wasn’t getting tired. Natchua wasn’t either, yet, but she knew that would come before too much longer. She had already kept this up longer than a human spellcaster could, and even elven stamina had its limits.

“This is your chance to redeem yourself,” she tried again, moving and firing ineffective spells while speaking. “With the truce in place, if you take action to protect—”

It doesn’t work that way, not for creatures like me. You can have a redemption story because you’re a mortal woman. I am a goddess, a fixture of history. No one will believe I acted out of anything but self-interest.

Natchua did not shriek in frustration, instead channeling her ire into a particularly vicious blast of infernal destruction. The spell disintegrated an instant before smashing into the necro-drake, instead showering it with a cloud of flower petals.

She and it stared at one another in disbelief for a second. Then she zapped it again with a shadowbolt, and carried on evading its furious retaliation.

“What do you want?” she demanded in desperation.

More infuriating, wordless amusement. You’ve already hit on the real issue, and I have explained it to you further. Show me you can work that brain, Lady Leduc. Connect the dots and make this crusade of yours useful to me; you know exactly how. Do that, and I promise you’ll have your divine protection. And yes, you’re correct: with that, you can bring this thing down.

It hit her in a burst, the way her own squirrelly schemes often did, the insight that told her what Elilial was hinting at but refused to say outright. And then she could only curse again, because she knew what she had to do.


As distractions went, it wasn’t anyone’s best work, but Natchua figured it was pretty good for a spur-of-the-moment desperation spell. One of the basic summoning spells for katzil demons bound them to obey certain commands, and if carefully memorized and practiced beforehand could be employed to instantly summon a pre-bound flying, fire-breathing servitor to attack one’s enemies. That was one of the old standbys of the seasoned warlock. She was able to augment the base spell considerably, requiring only a few more seconds of conjuration, to compel one of the flying serpents to harass the chaos dragon while remaining out of reach and avoiding leading it toward any signs of civilization. Designing a binding to make it goad the necro-drake toward the Golden Sea proved more intricate than she could manage while casting by the seat of her pants, but hopefully this would distract it long enough to buy her a few precious minutes.

Natchua returned to Veilgrad in a series of jumps rather than directly just to lay a pattern of wards across the general path back, to warn her of the necro-drake’s return if it came back to the city after finishing off her enhanced katzil, which even optimistically she didn’t think would keep it busy for long. Most of them might not help, as the thing might not fly in a straight line and infernal wards had a starkly limited radius of sensitivity, but close to the city walls she swiftly set up three wide arcs that should give her a few seconds of forewarning if it returned.

From there, it was just a matter of shadow-jumping to the last place she’d seen her quarry and stretching out her senses. They were adept at concealing their presence from magical detection, even from her, but had little recourse against the ears of an elf. Natchua hated opening herself up this way in a city—even subdued as it was, Veilgrad was still painfully noisy, and the amount of screams and weeping she could hear made her heart clench.

Finally, though, something went right. It worked, and she found them not far at all from the rooftop on which their smoking barbecue still stood, abandoned.

The collected Black Wreath were making their way three abreast through a wide alley toward the mountainside gate of the city, and slammed to a stop with a series of muffled curses when her final shadow-jump placed her directly in their path.

“You’re going on foot?” Natchua demanded. “Well, whatever, I’m glad I caught up with you.”

“Excuse me, lady, but not everyone’s crazy enough to shadow-jump in the presence of a chaos effect,” Embras retorted.

“It’s arcane teleportation that’ll fuck you up if you do it anywhere near chaos. Shadow-jumping is relatively safe, so long as you don’t actually jump into the source.”

“You may have forgotten,” Vanessa said icily, “but we have particular reason to be leery of anything chaos-adjacent.”

“Right.” Natchua drew in a deep breath, steeling herself. That was the worst possible segue into her next argument, but she didn’t have the luxury of time to finagle this conversation back around. “I need your help to take that thing down.”

Mogul, Vanessa, and about half a dozen of the others outright laughed in her face. Which, she supposed, wasn’t the worst reaction she could have expected.

“Bye, Natchua,” Mogul said, shaking his head and stepping forward and one side as if to brush past her. “Good luck with that.”

Natchua reached to to press her hand against the cold brick wall, barring his path. “We made a deal, Embras.”

“No part of our deal involved us committing outright suicide,” he shot back, his expression collapsing into a cold scowl. “Don’t pretend what you’re asking is anything else. Remember when you handed me that oh so helpfully collated binder of yours? You said in particular to avoid chaos-related issues until everything else was wrapped up. If you intend to make this a stipulation of our arrangement…deal’s off.”

In the back of her head, Natchua felt one of her outlying wards disintegrate as proximity to a chaos effect unraveled it. The beast was coming back. Time grew ever shorter.

She had to inhale once fully to compose herself. Mogul being recalcitrant and petty in the middle of a crisis was just begging to be screamed at and belabored, but Natchua had a suspicion that was exactly the reaction he was fishing for, the perfect excuse to blow her off. As she had just been reminded, he didn’t care what she wanted to begin with. People cared about their own interests. She had to put this in the right way…

“This is your one chance,” Natchua said aloud, not a hundred percent sure where she was going but riding the sense that some subconscious part of her knew what it was doing; that approach had mostly led her to success so far. “The Wreath have always talked a big game about how you’re really in the business of protecting the world—”

“From demons,” Rupi interrupted, “not chaos.”

“—but the last time there was an incident like this in Veilgrad, your help was blatantly self-serving and only caused more problems. This is the moment when you can prove you mean your own rhetoric. Fight to protect this city, and it will be remembered.”

Mogul, expression skeptical, opened his mouth to reply, but Natchua pressed on, overriding his intended interruption.

“This is the only chance! Running away is not the neutral action here, it will sink your prospects permanently. We’re at a unique moment in history: Elilial is at peace with the Pantheon, the Wreath has official sponsorship from Imperial nobility, and you’ve been winnowed down to a fragment of a remnant. Elilial’s name will be mud for centuries to come, no matter what she’s done now, she’s been the universal enemy of civilization for so long. But you are at a moment, the only moment you’ll get, when you can prove you have changed and people just might start to believe it. This can either be the rebirth of the Black Wreath, or its final slide into obscurity.

“That thing reacts like a demon; you know how to deal with demons. Magic isn’t effective against it, but it’ll attack anything that attacks it, however futile the spell is. Mages can’t reliably teleport around it, but with shadow-jumping you can stay mobile, get it to chase you away. I did it, and I’m just one person; a whole group can watch each other’s backs and pull it out of range of the city. Only warlocks can do this. It’s not just your reputation on the line here, but the future of infernomancy itself! I don’t even need you to take it down! I can do that, but I need someone to buy me time to prepare the spells I need.”

They were silent, now. Another ward went dark—much farther inward. To judge by the position, the necro-drake wasn’t returning in a straight line, but it was definitely coming this way. Fast.

“Help me,” Natchua said urgently, “and you can change…everything. This is your chance to make a new future, where the Wreath and Elilial can be part of the world instead of pushed into the shadows. Throw this chance away, and you won’t get another.”

Slowly, Mogul shook his head. “I can respect your passion, Natchua, but not enough to die for it.”

Then the chaos beast crashed through her outer string of wards arcing past Veilgrad’s western walls, then the next, and time was up. Natchua snarled at him and vanished in a swell of shadow, already cursing to herself when she rematerialized on the plains outside just as the necro-drake, roaring, crashed through her final line of wards and nearly reached the walls. She immediately snared it with a colossal tentacle of shadow—which, for a wonder, actually did snare it, as the purple-black tendril of energy solidified into a huge structure of glass upon contact with the chaos effect. It immediately shattered, of course, but it had been enough to interrupt the monster’s flight and send it flopping awkwardly to the ground just outside the gates.

She was already hammering it with fireballs and shadowbolts before it could get up, and retreated in a series of small shadow-jumps even as the necro-drake regained its bearings and came after her, howling in outrage. The whole time, she never stopped cursing.

This development not only sank her best idea, but her Plan B as well. With a promise of a paladin’s resistance to chaos and accomplices to buy her a few minutes to put her plan into action, she was certain she could kill the monster. Failing that, there were other paladins, and Natchua was certain they’d come running for something like this.

And had it been several hours ago, she could’ve shadow-jumped right to Madouri Manor and collected them. But now all three were neck-deep in major political actions in their own temples—structures with ancient and powerful wards that prevented her shadow-jumping, to to mention basically all of her magic, currently swarmed with dozens if not hundreds of people each who’d be demanding the paladins’ attention, and staffed by clerics who were unlikely to be impressed by her noble title and would probably become overtly hostile at the first hint of infernomancy. Untangling that could take, potentially…hours.

Natchua had just learned that she could distract this thing for, at best, a few minutes at a time. She was officially on her own. Which left the backup plan: stay alive long enough to goad it for hundreds of miles until they reached the Golden Sea and try to lose it there. That would be kicking the problem down the road, and probably not by more than a few days, not to mention guaranteeing it was uncertain where it would come back out again. But at least it would buy enough time for the paladins to rally, and the Empire to throw something together. Tiraas ran mostly on arcane magic, but its resources were unfathomable. Surely Imperial Command could come up with something.

That was a hope for later, though. For now, she had her task in front of her.

Cursing didn’t take much energy, so she didn’t stop even as she retraced her steps, past the wreckage and peculiar stains left by her last try to leading the necro-drake away from Veilgrad. Having to cover the same ground, in the same exhausting way, made it all feel so…futile.

But Natchua Leduc did not stop fighting in the face of futility. She cussed at futility and smashed it with shadow-bolts. So that was what she did.

The surviving spires of Veilgrad were still within view when suddenly infernal magic swelled around her. In the next second, the skies were filled with demons.

Katzils swarmed the necro-drake, distracting it from Natchua’s own attacks and earning her a reprieve. They fared poorly, of course, dramatically dying just by coming too close, to say nothing of what happened if it got its claws on one. But there were dozens of them, and they were being directed to spray it with green fire from the maximum possible distance. Better yet, they whirled around the monster, attacking it from all directions, which sent it into a confused frenzy. The necro-drake whirled like a dog chasing its tail, snapping and slashing, and demons perished, but for the moment, they held its attention.

Natchua took the opportunity to turn around and stare incredulously at the assembled warlocks who had just appeared behind her.

“Did you seriously just do that so you could make a dramatic entrance?” she demanded. “Are you bards now? No, wait, never mind, what am I saying? Bards would never do something so cliché.”

“Excuse you, bards wallow in cliché like pigs in their own filth,” Embras Mogul retorted, grinning at her. “Anyway, no, we obviously had to discuss our options without you hovering around to overhear and put in your two pennies’ worth. Fact is, Natchua, you made a compelling case, but you are also just about the last person we trust. There’s a general feeling, here, that you’re as likely as not to be planning to double-cross us at the first opportunity. It was Vanessa who pointed out that we’ve got a pretty good handle on your numerous character flaws. And not only are you too generally bullheaded to be duplicitous, if there is one thing we can rely on you to do, it’s keep going after an enemy long after all sense and reason should tell you to drop it and leave well enough alone.”

Despite herself, despite everything, Natchua found herself grinning as he spoke, and finally barked an involuntary laugh.

“Besides,” Vanessa added, “since we’re apparently not allowed to murder you, pummeling the hell out of a chaos creature sounds fucking cathartic.”

“I’ve never been so glad to see a bunch of assholes in my life,” Natchua replied. “Just…stay moving. This is no time for grandiose schemes or clever plots, you need to be agile and think on the go. The monster isn’t hard to trick as long as you don’t get too cocky. Keep in motion, watch each other’s backs, and keep it distracted and agitated. Be foxes, not spiders.”

“I am not losing any more of my people because of you,” Mogul warned. “If someone’s injured or we collectively get too tired to keep on, we’re pulling out. However long that takes, that’s how long you’ve got to put together whatever you’re planning.”

Natchua glanced behind her. The necro-drake was still tearing apart the katzils; it was getting close to finishing them off. Any second it might decide the assembled warlocks were a more tempting target than a mere handful of swarming demons.

“I’ll be as fast as I can manage,” she promised. “I will not abandon you. Just hold out for a few minutes. And Mogul—”

He held up a hand. “Don’t say it. Just get to work, Duchess. If we’re all still alive in an hour, I plan to gloat at length.”

“Here’s hoping,” she said, and called the darkness to carry her away to another broad, flat stretch of tallgrass, unmarred by habitation or any sign of combat, leaving the Black Wreath to tangle with the monster.

Before she could even start work, the resonant voice sounded in her head.

A deal’s a deal. You’ll have your divine protection.

“Good,” Natchua said curtly, pushing up her sleeves. “Now, I’ll also need spell formulae to confer that protection into the binding element of a demonic summoning. Damned if I’m gonna be the only one in this relationship earning my keep.”

The dark goddess’s delighted laughter echoed in her mind as she began casting.

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16 – 49

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“It went very well,” the newly re-minted Bishop Shahai assured her quietly, smiling.

“It’s kind of a blur,” Trissiny admitted, having to restrain herself from rubbing her hands against herself. At least the uniform gauntlets ensured no one could tell her palms were still sweaty. “I hate public speaking. Goddess, send me more demons instead…”

“More and more, politics is the arena of modern warfare,” said the elf. “No disrespect, Trissiny, but perhaps you should be glad you have a knack for making speeches and make peace with the need.”

“General Avelea!”

At that voice, they both looked up at the still-chattering scrum of reporters being held behind the line of Silver Legionnaires in the Temple’s main sanctuary. He was not the only person calling Trissiny’s name, as many of the journalists were still trying to get her or Shahai’s attention, but that voice out of them all cut straight through the noise. He did much the same physically, striding forward with a courteous nod to the Legionnaires—who, despite orders, instinctively shifted to let him through.

You just didn’t argue the right of way with a dragon.

“Lord Ampophrenon?” Trissiny asked in surprise.

Ampophrenon the Gold strode up to her and Shahai and inclined his head respectfully to each of them. “General, Bishop. Congratulations on your day’s work. I am truly sorry to so abruptly impose myself on Avenist business, especially at a time like this, but I fear the need is urgent. General Avelea, have you received a personal summons from Avei recently?”

“I haven’t…” She paused, narrowing her eyes. “What’s this about?”

Ampophrenon was already standing with his back to the reporters, and at that made a quick gesture with one hand. A shimmering rose in the air behind him like a heat mirage and the sound of voices cut off.

“I dare to hope that I will owe you an apology for wasting your time, General, but if not, you and your two counterparts may be urgently needed. The Conclave has had advance warning that a chaos event may be unfolding, or about to. And,” he added with a piercing glance at Shahai, “the specific timing rouses…suspicions.”

“Chaos event,” Shahai murmured, narrowing her own eyes. “He…would, wouldn’t he? If we presume his hand was behind the events at Ninkabi…”

“And at Veilgrad,” said Ampophrenon. “The evidence that he was involved with the skull of Belosiphon is all but conclusive. By the General’s own account, it is now in his possession.” The dragon paused, turning his attention on Trissiny, who had closed her eyes in an expression of concentration.

She opened them not two seconds later, her face going pale. “Veilgrad. Again.”

Ampophenon drew in a breath. “Curse that man’s remorseless ambition. That was at the goddess’s warning, I take it?”

“I had to ask directly, but yes. If she didn’t reach out to me first, it may not be as serious as it could.”

“There is that,” he agreed, “but such things must never be taken lightly. We cannot afford to risk teleportation to or near a chaos event, but I can still provide quick transportation there, for you and the other paladins.”

“Hopefully their gods will have warned them as well,” she said quickly. “I appreciate your aid, Lord Ampophrenon. Nandi…?”

“You go do what you do best, Trissiny,” the Bishop answered. “Goddess be with you. I’m going to summon Elwick and the squad. If Justinian has been forced by your maneuver to act in haste, he may have made a mistake upon which we can capitalize. Let me worry about the politics for now.”

Trissiny nodded, then grimaced. “And let that teach me to be careful what I pray for.”


“Hunter’s Quarter reports civilian evac is complete!”

“Squad C is in position, sir. Squad D moving up. The bait squad is standing by.”

“Colonel! Quartermaster reports there’s enough raw flashpowder in that fireworks depot to assemble enough explosive bolts for a full volley from the crossbows we’ve got on hand. He’s proceeding with the construction.”

“Good,” Adjavegh grunted without taking his eyes from their ceaseless scan of the windows. “Make sure his entire department is on it, Timms. There are no other priorities.”

“Yes, sir!”

A shadow fell over the command center and most of those present reflexively crouched down. It passed, though, and seconds later the skeletal dragon set down on another rooftop halfway across the city. Colonel Adjavegh alone had not moved, standing at parade rest in the center of the activity around him, eyes on the enemy. It was simple bravado, perhaps, but it mattered to the men and women under his command to see their leader focused and calm in the face of absolute, literal chaos.

Veilgrad’s Army barracks had its command center in a squat, square chamber on its roof, below only the watchtowers. All four walls had tall windows interspersed with thick stone columns—an addition constructed well after the Enchanter Wars, but in the age of mag cannons stone walls were of little use and the commanding view over the city and its surroundings was of more utility, especially at a time like this. Even so, the windows of course were heavily enchanted. Right now, several of them had soldiers with spyglasses keeping a constant watch on the beast currently terrorizing the city, while the command center itself roiled with messengers keeping Adjavegh appraised of all unfolding developments and conveying his orders.

“Sir!” His aide, Sergeant Timms, darted to his side bearing a sheet of paper she’d just taken from another such messenger. “A response from ImCom!”

“Finally,” Adjavegh grunted, snatching it from her. “I’m glad this is more interesting than the fresh gossip in the capital—what in the hell?”

“It’s pretty garbled, sir.”

“I can see that it’s garbled, Sergeant!”

“It was transcribed faithfully, sir. This came via telescroll, like our initial report to ImCom.” She craned her neck over his shoulder to study the page, which was a mishmash of letters strung together in an order that only formed words about half the time. “The scrolltower transmissions were probably scrambled by the chaos effect, Colonel. See, this looks like a request for clarification. The message they got from us was probably just as mangled.”

“If that’s the case…” Adjavegh hesitated a moment, squinting at the message, then raised his voice to a battlefield roar. “I want a full emergency shutdown on the Rail stations, now!”

“Sir,” replied a lieutenant, “the Rails immediately stopped running when—”

“The emergency shutdown, son! Get on it!”

“Yes, sir!” The man snapped off a salute and dashed for the stairs. The Rail stations in cities as large as Veilgrad were capable of launching a shutdown signal through the physical Rails themselves that would effectively disable the entire network, Empire-wide. It could be re-activated from Tiraas, but that would let Imperial Command know there was a crisis here, if they couldn’t communicate directly. To Adjavegh’s knowledge, the emergency shutdown had never been used, even during the Battle of Ninkabi. Its implied message was that the city sending it was under conditions too dangerous to approach.

They had worked out very quickly that the dragon was a chaos beast, when it had come under immediate attack from both the city’s formal defenders and several magic-wielding civilians. That had gone disastrously; Adjavegh had lost four squads of soldiers in the first five minutes, and who knew how many citizens who’d rallied to the defense. But with that bitter lesson had also come the insight that conventional lightning weapons did damage the beast, so long as they were fired from beyond point blank range. Once past the enchantment itself which conjured the lightning bolt, it was just an electrical discharge like those that came from the sky. The dragon seemed to recuperate rapidly from damage, but it had been damaged, if briefly.

Hence his current strategies in place. Adjavegh was laying a trap in one of Veilgrad’s open squares, positioning soldiers with battlestaves in windows surrounding the square. Once they were in place, the all-volunteer “bait squad” would attempt to provoke it into the killbox where it could be blasted apart by a torrent of lightning from all directions. So far the skeletal dragon hadn’t used any kind of breath weapon, merely attacking with its jaws, talons, and tail. If that failed, there was his backup plan underway: Timms and the Quartermaster had rustled enough working crossbows to outfit two squads and Q was at work crafting explosive bolts, using chemical flashpowder from fireworks rather than alchemicals, which might be ineffective against chaos.

As of yet, he had no Plan C.

“Damn scrolltowers,” he growled, crumpling the garbled message in his fist. “Guess that means we won’t be hearing an explanation from the Conclave of the Winds, either.”

“That’s not a dragon, sir!” called one of the young men at the windows with a spyglass.

“Come again, soldier?”

“It’s too small by half, sir, and when I can get a glimpse through all the smoky shit… Yeah, those aren’t bones. It’s made to look like a dragon, but that isn’t a skeleton, it looks like carved…uh, what’s that shiny black rock? Volcanic glass?”

“Obsidian,” said Timms.

“Right, thanks, Sergeant. It’s a necromantic construct, sir. Like those things with the last chaos crisis.”

“Good eye, soldier,” said Adjavegh. He had no idea how to put that information to use, yet, but more intel was always better. “Keep it up. Timms, what’s the status of the killbox?”

“Squads still moving into position, sir. It’s slow getting through the catacombs, with all the civilians down there.”

He gritted his teeth, but didn’t complain. It wasn’t safe to move troops aboveground, but this inconvenience was a sign that the measures in place to protect Veilgrad’s citizens were at least working. With the upper levels of the catacombs cleared and entrances to them in countless buildings across the city, people had fled below. Most had gone without even needing to be chivvied along. This was now city policy in response to emergencies like this; at Duchess Dufresne’s insistence, they had held drills. Bless that creepy woman’s foresight.

Now, the city was almost eerily quiet, for all that parts of it were burning and dozens of buildings in various states of collapse. With everyone fled or fleeing underground, there were few screams, and even the alarm bells had gone silent—mostly because once people stopped shooting at it, the chaos dragon had gone after those. Only two of the belltowers were still standing, as they were mostly automated and the chaos effects caused by the dragon’s mere proximity had shorted out the enchantments running them before it felt the need to knock them down.

Unfortunately, that left it with nothing to do but circle above the city, hunting for stragglers. Which it was now doing again, perched atop a trade hall and craning its neck this way and that.

“What?” Timms burst out suddenly. “No, no. Who ordered— Stop them! You, get over there and shut that down!”

Adjavegh turned to follow her furious stare even as another soldier darted to the steps. To his incredulous horror, he saw one of the mag cannon emplacements atop the nearest watchtower powering up and swiveling to take aim at the dragon. Some clicker-happy artilleryman apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity of the thing finally holding still.

“Omnu’s hairy balls,” he breathed, seeing the inevitable unfold. He hadn’t given orders that the dragon not be fired upon with mag cannons; instead, he had disseminated the information that it was a chaos beast and presumed his soldiers knew what the fuck that meant, since every damn one of them had been trained on it. Allegedly. A running messenger wasn’t going to get down the stairs, across the battlements, and up the stairs in time…

And didn’t. Everyone in the command center cringed half a minute later as the mag cannon discharged with a roar.

It was a good shot. The barrel-thick beam of white light pierced the sky above the city and nailed the target dead-on—or would have, had it not been a chaos dragon. Several yards before the point of impact the beam itself dissolved, spraying the dragon with a heavy dusting of snowflakes. A solid coating of ice formed across the rooftop on which it sat, and then the ice burst into flame. A mag cannon burst contained a lot of magic for chaos to randomly distort. Adjavegh supposed it could have been a lot worse.

Not that it wasn’t plenty bad enough. The dragon shook itself furiously and roared, it’s eerie voice like nails upon a blackboard. Then, turning its blazing chromatic eyes upon the barracks from which the shot had come, it launched itself into the air and came winging right at them.

“Colonel!” Adjavegh turned to Timms just in time to catch the battlestaff she tossed at him. She was holding another herself. The two locked eyes for a second, and then he nodded. There was no need to communicate more.

Staff fire wouldn’t do much to help them, but if it was time to die for their Emperor, they would go down shooting. Across the command post, other officers and enlisted were drawing sidearms or equipping themselves from the weapon racks. There really wasn’t time for more than that, not even evacuating the tower.

It was a damn shame, Adjavegh reflected as time seemed to slow around them with the chaos dragon bearing down. He’d been skeptical of having an Eserite as his personal aide—you didn’t get many of them in the military—but Timms was the best he’d ever had. A con artist’s approach to logistics meant his soldiers got what they needed, regardless of what ImCom had decided to send where, and she had a deft hand at navigating Veilgrad’s peculiar local politics. Timms would’ve made a damn fine officer in time, if she wasn’t poached by Intelligence first.

Plus, now he wouldn’t get to tar and feather whatever absolute driveling moron had fired that cannon. That was a regret, too.

“Gentlemen, ladies,” the Colonel said, raising the battlestaff to his shoulder and keeping his eyes fixed upon the apparition of smoke and black bone surging toward them, “I am honored to have served with every one of you. For the Emperor!”

Then an explosion burst in midair directly next to the dragon, sending it tumbling away over the city walls and shattering windows and rooftiles in a four-block radius.

While the soldiers gaped from their command post, the dragon recovered, pirouetting in midair to face this new threat, and immediately being peppered by a series of purple-black streaks, all of which misfired in some manner upon impacting it. They fizzled, careened off-course, transformed into bursts of fire or clumps of dirt, even a flurry of flower petals. Enough of those effects were painful to fully distract their target from the barracks.

The dragon pivoted on a wingtip, diving at another rooftop. Adjavegh saw a blot of darkness swell seconds before its impact, and then the beast was under attack from another direction as it investigated the crushed roof under its claws. An orange summoning circle appeared in midair and out of it hurtled a chunk of black stone. That was apparently not magic; it hit the beast hard enough to send it tumbling off into the street below.

Once it burst into the air again, another series of shadowbolts seized its attention and it went haring off in a new direction.

“What in the hell?” Adjavegh lowered his staff in disbelief.

“Sir!” exclaimed the soldier with the spyglass, “it’s the Duchess!”

“The vampire?”

“No, sir, the other Duchess. The new one!”

“The—wait, the warlock? What in blazes is the woman thinking? No spellcaster can bring that thing down!”

“No,” said Timms, “but she can herd it out of the city!”

Indeed, the distant shape of Natchua Leduc was only visible now in the momentary surges of shadow as she vanished from one rooftop after another, continually firing her ineffective spells at the chaos dragon and goading it to chase her ever farther away. Toward the western walls, and the empty prairie beyond.

Colonel Adjavegh had not been best pleased at the recent political developments. In his opinion, the last thing House Leduc needed was to continue existing, and his impression of Natchua herself was that she was an irascible brat whose primary talents were rabble-rousing and preening. It had certainly not pleased him to learn that she’d publicly cut a deal with the Black bloody Wreath just the night before. In this moment, he was forced to revise his opinion somewhat.

“Avei’s grace,” he said grudgingly. “the girl may be an evil bitch, but if she’s going to be our evil bitch, I can live with it. All right, people, we’ve got a breather! The killbox and flashpowder plans are not to be discontinued in case it gets away from her and comes back. Timms, see if we can get some telescrolls through to Tiraas now that that damn thing’s leaving the area. Send physical messengers, too, through different city gates. Carriage and horse riders; worst case, something’s gotta slip through. Notify the evac squads there’s been high-level infernomancy cast above the streets and put together a cleansing team to get to work as soon as we have an all-clear.”

He paused amid the flurry of activity his orders provoked, and then added another.

“And I want the officer in command of that artillery post replaced and in a cell before I finish this sentence.”

“On it, sir,” Timms said crisply, already scribbling on her clipboard and gathering two messengers with pointed jerks of her head.

Adjavegh allowed himself a deep, steadying breath as he turned back to the western windows of his command post. In this day and age, one could forget that the oldest Imperial Houses were founded by adventurers. Modern nobles were the descendants of the people who had the fancy magic weapons looted from deepest dungeons and the skill and experience to use them. They made themselves rulers by stepping up and doing what was necessary during crises, when no one else had the will or the capability. Even the Leducs and Dufresnes had earned their position by conquering the greater part of the Stalrange on the Empire’s behalf. Having known his share of prissy aristocrats, he had assumed those days were long over.

Instead, he now found time, and a need, to mutter a prayer for the warlock of Veilgrad.

“Godspeed, you crazy witch. Give ‘im hell.”

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16 – 46

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“I haven’t done anything wrong!” Rehvad Salimon protested, his voice growing shrill.

“Master Salimon,” Ravana said in a calm and not unkind tone, “there is no one truly innocent. We all have something upon our conscience. The only person who makes such a blanket protest of innocence is, quite obviously, laboring to conceal guilt.”

He gaped at her for one fishlike moment, then began stammering. “I—but that—what does—”

Keeping her expression even as always, Ravana inwardly rebuked herself. It was a pointless observation, which a man less intimidated and out of his depth would naturally dismiss for the silly philosophical time-wasting it was. Playing such mind games with someone like this was purely self-indulgent, and needlessly cruel.

“More specifically,” she went on, cutting off his fumbling protests, “I should remind you that it is not customary for miscellaneous citizens to have a personal audience with their Duchess in the preliminary stages of an investigation. I am well aware of your role in organizing that lamentable incident outside Falconer Industries. Of greater import, I am aware that you did so at the instigation of the Universal Church, in exchange for a monetary bribe.”

“That’s not a crime!” he burst out, and then went pale. “I mean—that is, I don’t know what… My concerns about that archdemon were perfectly valid! Our concerns.”

The man was visibly sweating now. Ravana stared at him in silence. It was a favorite trick of Tellwyrn’s, one she’d not had an opportunity to learn before Last Rock. When her father had wanted to unsettle someone, he blustered and threatened. Cold silence was far more deadly to an already-burdened conscience, and easier to deliver with dignity.

This room was carefully chosen for such a purpose, a small office lined with dark-stained oak paneling and deep blue wallpaper that made it feel close, even claustrophobic, especially with five people present. Mr. Salimon occupied an uncomfortably small wooden chair in the center of the room, with two House Madouri guards looming behind him in positions flanking the door. Ravana sat across from him, in a comfortable armchair designed to evoke the aspect of a throne, Yancey standing like a solemn statue at her left. It was an interrogation chamber, designed for exactly this use, and all the more intimidating for a middle-aged shopkeeper like Salimon for being in Madouri Manor rather than a police barracks. Soldiers and police officers in the Empire scrupulously followed the letter of the law and handled citizens with care under the Tirasian Dynasty’s rules, with the occasional exception of Imperial Intelligence. The Madouris, on the other hand, were known to make inconvenient people vanish.

He drew in a deep and slightly shaky breath, making a deliberate effort to square his shoulders, and raised his chin. “I believe that the Writ of Duties requires me to be represented by a qualified attorney before any judgment is rendered.”

Ravana lifted one eyebrow. “Of course. Master Salimon, our purpose here is to determine the details of what happened. It has not yet been decided that you are to be charged with any crime. Should it come to that, you will of course have access to a lawyer of your choosing, or be provided one by the state if you are unable to secure such services on your own. Why?” She subtly leaned forward, holding her gaze on his. “Is there something to which you would like to confess that would require a trial?”

Even more color leached from his cheeks. That was the only reply he managed to produce.

“So,” Ravana continued more briskly, “as a key witness in this ongoing investigation, you will naturally be our guest here until the matter is brought to a conclusion, one way or another.”

“Y-your Grace,” he said weakly, “I…I mean, my Lady… I have a family.”

She frowned in reproach. “Good heavens, man, we are hardly going to torture you. This is the twelfth century, and we are all professionals here. You will be interviewed at whatever duration the specialists I employ deem necessary, and until they are finished, housed here when not speaking with them. Comfortably, Master Salimon, not in a dungeon cell. With all due respect, I imagine my humblest guest chambers are more salubrious than your own home. Simply cooperate with your interviewers to the greatest extent you can, and this matter can be resolved with the utmost speed.”

“But I…” He wrung his hands, staring pleadingly at her. “Please, Lady Madouri, you must understand I only meant to do what was right.”

“And make some easy coin in the process?”

Salimon cringed. “It—it was just that—”

“These are the details you should explain at length when asked. Now you must excuse me, Master Salimon, as I have many other engagements today.”

“I beg you, Lady Madouri—”

“That will be all.”

The guards immediately stepped forward and helped their guest to rise and make his way to the door. Politely, even gently, but no less firmly for that. Ravana had taken pains to ensure that her House Guard understood the distinction.

When the door clicked shut behind them, leaving herself and Yancey alone in the chamber, she allowed her expression to descend into a flat stare at the wall.

“He is a small business owner,” she said aloud after nearly a minute of silence. “A lifelong resident of Madouris. Born and raised.”

“Yes, my Lady,” Yancey replied. “A bootmaker. His shop is not large, but rather successful.”

“And that,” she whispered, “due to one of the business loans furnished by my treasury, before which he was a cobbler in a factory. I consigned everyone I loved to the headsman to rescue this province, Yancey. Opened my House’s wealth and resources to improve my people’s lives to the greatest extent I could—and with amazing success, if I may boast, in only two short years. Now, here I find one of the most direct recipients of my generosity, paid in my family’s blood, trying to stab me in the back. For a handful of doubloons. I begin to understand why the powers of this world still insist on resorting to torture, despite centuries of accumulated knowledge to show how ineffective the tactic is. There’s an appeal to the simplicity, is there not? If the subject won’t comply, hurt them until they do.”

“Torture is indeed an extremely effective tool for securing compliance, my Lady,” the Butler said diffidently. “It is sadly counterproductive when used to acquire valid information.”

“And even so,” Ravana hissed, her fingers tensing into claws on the arms of her chair, “it is tempting. So very tempting, when the subject in question is an infernally presumptuous ingrate.”

Two heartbeats of silence ensued before Yancey discreetly cleared his throat. “Veilwin and Barnes have both successfully attached magical traces to the priority targets Barnes’s spirits identified. The ‘bigger fish,’ as he put it. Lord-Captain Arivani also has his best men observing their movements. It is my understanding, my Lady, that those are the anticipated sources of intelligence on his Holiness’s connections in the province. Mr. Salimon’s detention is more designed to provide a pretext for your upcoming declaration, and convince the Archpope that we have failed to identify his true agents. If we do not truly expect to garner worthwhile information from Mr. Salimon… Strictly speaking, it would seem not to matter what befalls him here.”

With a Butler’s customary subtle precision, he managed to express the suggestion without voicing it directly.

Ravana continued staring at the wall in silence for another long moment before very slowly shaking her head. “Such self-indulgent brutality all too quickly becomes a habit, Yancey, and I have seen firsthand what that habit in a leader does to a realm. No… I fear I have already indulged myself to excess, here. The wretch will be handled with all due care and then thrown back to his sad little life when he’s no longer useful. Perhaps that, at least, will teach him some caution, if not virtue.”

“Very good, my Lady.”

She could not fault him for the suggestion, for all that it ran against her practices and stated policies for the running of her province. In truth, this entire interview had been unnecessary; nothing about Salimon’s case had required her personal attention, and indeed only took time away from the actually professional interrogators she employed, not that she expected them to get anything useful from him anyway. All of this was simply because she’d wanted to look him in the eye, see the man and hear his excuses for aiding the enemies of his Duchess. Ravana had expected nothing from him, and still come away disappointed. From Yancey’s point of view, it was a purely logical extrapolation to suggest she might wish to vent her ire on the little toad of a man—and Yancey, of course, would not venture an opinion on the subject one way or another. Whatever his mistress chose to do, he would see done with the greatest efficiency.

Ravana did not have that luxury. As a leader, she had to make better choices. The monster within her that eternally snarled for vengeance must remain leashed, until there were more fitting targets upon whom to loose it.

And in fact, only for minutes longer. She was about to declare total war upon a worthy target indeed.

“Time?” she asked crisply, rising from the chair.

“The reporters you invited have begun gathering, and will be ready when you appear to deliver your address,” he replied smoothly, the Butler of course not needing to consult any messengers or even a watch to know the exact status of any project within his domain. “As you requested, my Lady, only journalists from Madouris have been summoned, though we have not limited the conference to representatives of papers under your direct control. The paladins will begin delivering their own speeches within the hour.”

“I hope they took my advice,” she murmured.

“It appears so, my Lady. All three will make their announcements in a staggered order, to avoid drawing attention from one another, and build political momentum.”

“Good. And we have magical oversight to notify us when the last paladin announcement is complete?”

“Yes, my Lady. Veilwin expressed her displeasure at the need for her to remain sober for the duration.”

“She will live, provided she does not antagonize her employer much further.” Timing would be important; Ravana had suggested to the paladins that they would achieve a greater effect by chaining their formal announcements one after another rather than delivering them simultaneously, and she planned to launch her own as soon as they were finished to further extend the chain, and avoid stepping on their toes. Against the right kind of foe, a rapid succession of blows could be more devastating than a single more powerful one.

Ravana swept toward the door and her much anticipated date with full-scale conflict, but hesitated with her hand upon the latch. “And Yancey, make arrangements for me to have a fencing tutor during my vacations from Last Rock. Professor Ezzaniel believes I am not without talent, and… I suspect this seething desire to pummel the crap out of someone is going to become a recurring part of my life. I should cultivate a properly graceful means of expressing it. As befits a Lady.”


She emerged in a split-second surge of darkness as usual, and immediately had multiple destructive spells aimed at her. For a given value of “immediately;” Natchua had the dual advantages of faster-than-human reflexes and preparation, since only she had known in advance the precise timing of her arrival. Infernal countermeasures were already sizzling at her fingertips before the stepped out of the shadows onto the rooftop, and had assembled mental preparations to neutralize or reverse every hex the other warlocks conjured before they could attack.

But they didn’t. After a tense second, most of them released their gathered energies, and the few holdouts kept their spells in a suspended low-power state. Natchua, frankly, was disappointed. Her life would be so much simpler if they would just throw down honestly so she could put a final end to all this. And yet, here they were.

“Only you weirdos would hold a picnic on a rooftop in Veilgrad at midwinter,” she snorted, folding her arms and looking down her nose at the assembled Black Wreath.

“Like it?” Embras Mogul asked cheerfully, gesturing around. They had dragged—or more likely shadow-jumped—a wooden table and several benches up here, and even set up a grill. None of the warlocks appeared to be cold, which meant they hadn’t actually done any serious infernomancy, as that would destabilize most commercially available arcane heating charms. No, it appeared they were simply relaxing in the open air, working their way through a big cauldron of mulled cider and sandwiches made of grilled sausage and a horrible local specialty called sauerkraut which Natchua didn’t care to be within smelling range of. “I’m surprised more people don’t do this, what with modern warmth charms. Hot food and cold air make for a delightful contrast! Rupa, get the Duchess a sandwich.”

“The Duchess can get her own fucking sandwich,” retorted a Punaji woman before taking a long draught of cider.

“No, thank you,” Natchua sniffed. “I don’t suppose the owners of this building even know you’re up here?” She was answered by a variety of disdainful expressions. For once, and for whatever reason—likely having to do with eating and drinking—the Wreath had their hoods down. They were a collection of humans of various ethnicities; Natchua wasn’t sure she liked seeing all their faces this way. Wiping them all out would feel easier if they could be dismissed as formless robed mooks.

“Really, how many flat rooftops are there in Veilgrad?” Mogul retorted. “They’re practically asking for it. We should demand payment for clearing off the snow; that’s exactly why they build those steep gabled roofs around here, you know.”

“I guess I can’t fault your inventiveness when it comes to finding new ways to get my attention.”

“Yes, that’s right, Natchua,” he replied with gratuitously heavy-handed sarcasm. “Everything we do revolves around you.”

She folded her arms, refusing to rise to that bait. “Well, here I am. So go ahead, Mogul, do your gloating. Don’t hold back, let’s get it all out of your system up front.”

He actually hesitated with a sandwich halfway to his mouth, staring at her through slightly narrowed eyes. Several of his fellow cultists were regarding her with similar expressions, those who weren’t scowling outright.

“Gloating,” Mogul said slowly, rolling the word around as if to taste it.

“Are you really going to make me start?” Natchua demanded. “You know what, fine, whatever gets this done with faster. I’m big enough to admit when I’ve been beaten. So congratulations, you called my big bluff. I’ll own up to it: the thought genuinely never crossed my mind that you would actually grovel in public. I wouldn’t have. So, you win. And now I’m stuck with you freaks, because no, my word means too much for me to renege on a public promise, even to…you. I’m sure I have many long years of you finding ways to torture me with it to look forward to.”

She grimaced right back at their scowls, only belatedly noting that some of those scowls had melted into expressions of confusion. Natchua glanced back and forth at the displeased warlocks whose picnic she had crashed; now, for some reason, they mostly looked bemused or suspicious, as if trying to figure out what she was up to. Mogul himself was just staring at her with a curious blank face, sandwich still held halfway to his mouth.

“Well?” she prompted. “That’s it. If you were hoping for more, you’re gonna be waiting a long time. I just said I’m not willing to humiliate myself any—”

Natchua broke off again as Embras Mogul burst out laughing, then just stared while he appeared to fall into outright hysterics. Dropping his sandwich, the high priest of Elilial staggered into the picnic table, only haphazardly managing to slide onto a seat rather than tumbling to the frozen rooftop along with his spilled bread and sausage. Even the other Wreath were watching him with varying degrees of confusion and alarm, Vanessa stepping closer and reaching out but then hesitating, as if unsure how to deal with this.

“Does he often…?” Natchua gestured vaguely at the cackling warlock. Nobody answered her, except with a few spiteful stares.

“Y-y’see,” Mogul wheezed, removing his omnipresent hat and tossing it carelessly down on the table. “You see what she’s doing, though?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Natchua huffed. “What is it you think I’m doing now?”

“Not you,” he snorted, his laughter cutting off as abruptly as it had begun. “No, Natchua my dear, you pegged me right in the first place. I’m right there with you; I’d sooner chew off my own foot, if the alternative was making a degrading public spectacle of myself. Only a direct command from the Dark Lady could make me even consider such a thing.” He bared his teeth at her in an expression very much like a fox in the kind of trap that could only be escaped by the means he’d just suggested. “And so it was.”

Natchua narrowed her own eyes, feeling a chill down her back that was unrelated to the cold air. She had suspected at the time, having felt that moment of Elilial’s dark attention in the moment before the man had buckled to the ground. “I really don’t know how you can still trust her enough to do such a thing, after all that’s happened. Much less why she would see any advantage in humiliating you like that.”

“Why, that’s exactly what I just realized,” he replied, grinning bleakly up at her. “It’s a classic trick—but then, simple tricks are the best tricks. If you want mutually hostile people to get along, you give them a mutual enemy. And for people who are all, to varying degrees, averse to being ordered around, there’s no more tempting enemy than someone in authority over them. You see?”

She did see, but found nothing to say, for once.

“I don’t believe it,” one of the warlocks growled.

“That’s too…” Vanessa trailed off mid-sentence, as though unsure what she’d actually meant to say.

“It fits, though,” Mogul said, still staring up at Natchua. “It has to be said there’s not a shred of trust here, nor even amity. You know, what with all the murder and torture and ambushing and all.”

“I don’t believe you,” Natchua managed at last, echoing one of Mogul’s own followers. “I can believe Elilial would be cruel enough to make you humiliate yourself, but not for no point. There’s no reason she would care enough whether we get along. There’s no reason we need to.”

“I think you know better,” he replied, his stare again gone flat and expressionless. “There’s a new paradigm brewing; none of us know what the new order will shape up to be. But the Dark Lady isn’t one to just let things happen without applying her own finger to the scales. And obviously, whatever plans she has are better off with her cult and her paladin able to work together.”

Wind whistled over the rooftop, carrying with it the sounds and smells of the bustling city laid out around them.

“So,” Natchua said at last, “you do know about that.”

“Oh, come on, why did you think we were here?” he scoffed, spreading his arms. “Our only business with you should have been a quick and lethal ambush. But we had to know, Natchua. What other question could there have been, except why. In all of recorded history, even we have no hint there was ever a Hand of Elilial. And she chooses an enemy? Someone who did to us what you did? Of all the possible prospects, why you?”

It would be so easy to seize that opportunity to say something spiteful, or simply deflect the question, but something stayed her impulse. They were all starting at her with an intensity which, if it didn’t exactly bring down the masks, said this question was absolutely sincere, and pivotal. That was only understandable, even if she couldn’t see the raw aspect of their faces. Natchua had been trying to pay attention to this feeling, and while she didn’t feel she’d made much progress in understanding it, she had learned to at least recognize these moments of decision, when an unknown impulse prompted her to do something that seemed irrational. So far, these had turned out better for her than she had any right to expect. This time, it pushed her to simply be straightforward with the Black Wreath.

“She said I was cunning,” Natchua answered him, fixing her eyes on Embras’s and ignoring the intent stares of the other warlocks—and not, of course, relaxing her defenses for an instant, just on the chance one of them got agitated and then impulsive. “Apparently the archdemons were her equivalent of a paladin, and with them all gone and Vadrieny effectively against her, she needed something to fill the gap. It didn’t make sense to me why an avowed enemy was a good choice, either, but…here we are. Cunning, she said. I got the impression your cult has been disappointing in that regard. Clever and deceitful rather than cunning. She spent some time lecturing me about the difference.”

She hesitated, once more glancing around; Mogul remained expressionless, but some of the other warlocks were starting to look angry again. On that, she couldn’t exactly blame them.

“As for what’s really going on, I couldn’t tell you,” Natchua snorted. “The whole thing was a crock of bullshit. I have no idea what her game is, but honestly. Cunning? I know my faults, thank you, and I’m not stupid enough to swallow that. I’m impulsive and lucky, that’s all. Whatever game Elilial is playing, I guess she didn’t feel the need to bring you into the loop either, and I’m afraid I can’t help. Cunning, my gray ass.”

“Hm,” a bearded man grunted from one side of the group, shifting his eyes to stare pensively out over Veilgrad’s skyline rather than at her.

“I know that grunt,” Mogul said with a sigh, turning back to him. “That is the grunt of forbidden wisdom. Well, come on, Bradshaw. Let’s not keep us in suspense.”

Bradshaw’s eyes focused on him, and then he glanced again at Natchua. “Are we giving explanations to the…her, Embras?”

“The her has deigned to be forthcoming with us,” Mogul acknowledged. “And it does seem we are stuck with one another for the time being. Let’s hear what you know.”

The other warlock’s nostrils flared once in a silent sigh which connoted annoyance, but he did turn back to Natchua. “What you did at Ninkabi was…or at least, could be interpreted as a ritual called an Offering of Cunning. Someone who out-maneuvers the Black Wreath in open combat and then…” He paused, gritting his teeth so hard the expression was visible even behind his beard. “Well, the spirit of the thing calls for withdrawing at that point before delivering a deathblow. You technically didn’t kill anyone with your own hands, though your next actions certainly were the next worst thing. For whatever reason, it seems the Dark Lady chose to interpret that as an Offering of Cunning. The reward is a personal audience with her, in which the successful offerer is allowed to ask questions and receive truthful answers.”

“That’s the first I ever heard of that nonsense,” she assured him. “I really was just trying to kill you and ruin her day.”

“Yes, well, the last time we got an Offering of Cunning was two years ago and at that time, none of us had heard of it, either, including Embras. Understand that for most of the Wreath’s history, our core operations have been concentrated on this continent, as with most of the Pantheon cults. And that led to a dramatic change in the nature of our operations a century ago, as the Wreath was damaged almost as badly as the Empire during the Enchanter Wars.”

“I didn’t know you fought in the Enchanter Wars,” Natchua admitted, beginning to be intrigued in spite of herself.

“Ugh,” Vanessa grunted, folding her arms.

“Oh, I assure you our forebears did their level best to stay out of that mess,” Mogul said wryly. “Unfortunately, other parties taking advantage of the chaos took their own toll. The Wreath’s leadership at the time was entirely wiped out by… Well, actually, your friend Kheshiri could tell you that story far better than I, as she was neck-deep in it.”

“You lost the right to complain about Kheshiri when you let her out of her bottle in the first place.”

“I have to give you that one,” he agreed. “Anyway, your pardon, Bradshaw. Please continue.”

“The point,” said Bradshaw, “is that the Wreath keeps a mostly oral tradition; few of our secrets were ever written down. That loss of important personnel cost us a great deal of our magical and ritual knowledge, and so the Wreath subsequently pivoted from a largely mystical to a mostly political organization. A lot of its more esoteric knowledge was left lost. After the battle at Tiraas two years ago when we were abruptly reminded of the Offering of Cunning, I’ve been focusing on digging up what I can of the Wreath’s past mystical traditions. Ironically, the best sources now are hidden archives of the Pantheon cults recording their various observations. It’s been slow, but I have turned up a number of fascinating things.”

“One of which you just recognized,” she said.

“The grunt of forbidden wisdom,” Mogul said solemnly. “Go on, Bradshaw, lay it on us.”

“I know of cases like yours,” Bradshaw explained, now studying Natchua through narrowed eyes, his stare more analytical than angry. “Not exactly like it; I’ve seen no record of the Dark Lady gifting someone the way she did you and that Masterson boy. But the old Wreath used to deliberately do a similar thing, using the auspices of greater djinn. Actually that practice had fallen by the wayside long before the Enchanter Wars, as it was more risky than rewarding. Given the kinds of people who’d be selected for a task like that, the circumstances in which the risk was considered warranted and what usually happens when a greater djinn is invoked, it was mostly a recipe for losing key personnel exactly when they were needed most. When it did work, though, the warlock could gain, all in one moment, vast knowledge of the infernal.”

“Sure, no great mystery there,” Natchua said with a shrug. “Obviously a more powerful warlock is more useful.”

“It wasn’t about power,” Bradshaw said irritably. “It has never been our way to go head-to-head with our enemies. Even if we weren’t heavily outnumbered in every contest, we serve the goddess of cunning. And cunning was always the point. A person who was abruptly gifted a vast command of infernomancy would usually become almost preternaturally devious. Able to think faster than any of their foes, taking actions that seemed nonsensical at the time but always seemed to work out to their advantage.”

That, finally, brought Natchua up short. She narrowed her own eyes to slits, and at last nodded grudgingly. “…go on?”

“Subjective physics,” the one called Rupa said thoughtfully. “What’s that old expression, Hiroshi, the one the Salyrites like to use?”

“Magic,” replied a man with Sifanese features in a soft tone, “is data processing.”

“That’s basic magical theory,” Vanessa agreed. “Magic isn’t about power; the power comes from mundane universal principles. Magic is…information. It bridges the gap between what conscious minds can conceive and sub-atomic phenomena, and then performs the vast calculations necessary to produce physical effects based on ideas.”

Bradshaw nodded. “If you already have the right personality type…say, an aptitude for lateral thinking, that probably wouldn’t manifest well before you received the gift. Would I be right in guessing your antics mostly caused you embarrassment and trouble before your first encounter with the Dark Lady, Natchua?”

She managed not to cringe at the forcible reminder of her behavior during her first years at Last Rock. “That’s…not inaccurate.”

“Some people are just dumb,” Bradshaw continued, raising an eyebrow. “Or thoughtless, or overly aggressive, or any number of other things. But sometimes, people who act unpredictably or unwisely are just trying to extrapolate too much from their surroundings. Sometimes, if gifted with a great deal of magic, the gaps are filled in. They start to draw information from sources even they aren’t consciously aware of, and process it faster and in ways most people can’t. Their actions appear random, but they are instinctively led by…magic. Data processing.”

“Huh,” she said, blinking. “I guess…people with odd magical mutations do exist. Tellwyrn sort of collects them. November, Fross, Iris…”

“Yes, I’m sure you’d like to think of yourself as a unique and beautiful snowflake,” Bradshaw said with a disdainful sneer, “but no, I’m not talking about anything so interesting. It’s simply one possible effect of being suddenly inundated with magical knowledge the way you were, and it explains your subsequent pattern of blundering and failing your way into ever-greater success better than…well, anything.”

“Why am I just now hearing about this?” Mogul demanded.

Bradshaw turned back to him with a shrug. “It’s just a theory, Embras. Another possibility is that she hasn’t actually succeeded at anything and is being used by more powerful figures for their own ends. This Duchess business is definitely an example of that. And after all, it’s usually wise to look for mundane explanations before exotic ones. We don’t know, but…given her description of what the Dark Lady said, it’s at least a possibility.”

“If our fate is to be tied to hers anyway,” Hiroshi said softly, “perhaps it behooves us not to allow rival powers to manipulate her too badly.”

To judge by their displeased expressions, none of the other warlocks were enthusiastic about that idea. But no one offered a word of rebuttal; the fact was, he was right. The same held true from Natchua’s perspective. As little as she liked any of these…people, she had given her word, in public. As long as they were willing to toe the line, they now had the right to demand her protection.

She and Embras studied each other in mutual reluctance. Despite the animosity here, this was the situation they were in. They could either struggle further, or try to make the best of it.

“Okay,” Natchua said grudgingly, “I see what you mean. She is a manipulative one, huh. Why are you so eager to be jerked around like this?”

“You’ve never devoted yourself to a cause greater than your own life, have you,” he replied, and it wasn’t really a question. “I could explain, but the result would only be another argument with no winner. You’ll come to understand in time, or you won’t.”

“That’s super fucking helpful, thank you.”

Mogul grinned unrepentantly. “Well, then… What now?”

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16 – 40

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“Altogether, a successful evening,” Ravana declared.

If the night wasn’t technically over, it was getting there. In truth, it wasn’t much past midnight, and an event like this wouldn’t truly stagger to a halt until after dawn, but by this point in the party it wasn’t so much a single party as several dozen smaller ones. Many of the guests were thoroughly drunk, on both the alcohol Malivette had provided and various other substances they’d brought themselves. Natchua wasn’t very well-versed in drugs, though she could of course recognize the several people sprawled out in blissful glittershroom highs, both in relatively private corners and…not so much. Several individuals had been courteously but firmly escorted from the grounds by guards due to manic behavior that Ravana explained resulted from cocaine. This, it seemed, was a substance popular among the nobility and virtually unavailable to anyone else. Natchua had already resolved to find out if there was any hidden away in House Leduc’s vaults and if so, dump it in a fire. She was still Narisian enough to hold nothing but contempt for those who hid from their problems in a fog of intoxication.

Aside from pickling themselves in whatever their brine of choice was, guests were taking advantage of Malivette’s private rooms—and shrubbery, and under the chestnut tree in her rear garden, and in a nearby toolshed—in groups of between two and five, many leaving trails of hastily abandoned clothing to their various hiding spots. Natchua, and presumably Malivette, had to politely ignore a lot of intimate noise they couldn’t escape hearing.

She was doubly glad that Leduc Manor was still in such an incomplete state that she could not reasonably have offered to host the party there.

“Is it always going to be like this?” she demanded once the three Duchesses had convened upon the widow’s walk atop Dufresne Manor for a private chat.

“Oh, don’t expect it to be nearly this easy most of the time,” Malivette replied.

“Easy?!”

“These are the lower nobility,” Ravana explained, one of her little almost-smirks hovering about her mouth as usual. “The more ambitious among them are rather clever; it is to them I referred when calling this event a success. We have established influence, which can be parlayed into practical benefit as they come to us for further opportunity. They, however, are the minority; most of these are the sons and daughters of actually clever ancestors who made something of themselves so that their descendants could spend money managed by servants who deserve it better. Things will indeed be very different when you begin to interact with the higher nobility—our actual peers. The movers and shakers of Imperial politics are as ruthless as any Narisian.”

“I suspect you don’t know what you’re saying,” Natchua murmured, staring down at the party grounds on which a handful of well-dressed bodies were sprawled, “but I take your point.”

“If anything, they’re worse,” said Malivette. “Narisians are ruthless because they’re from a low-resource environment which requires them to be. Imperial nobles are monsters by choice, for the sheer love of power. But don’t worry, we’re still the bigger monsters; there’s nothing to be gained and a lot of risk in coming after us. Complacency remains a killer, ladies, but as of now, the game is ours to lose.”

“By the way, I’ve been busy talking to my…new fan club,” Natchua grimaced. A number of fashionable young nobles had been quite taken with her handling of the Wreath’s leader early in the evening. They were witty and closer to her own age than most of the party guests, but she suspected, not very useful political contacts. Still, she hadn’t wanted to be rude, and so had indulged their interest. Not any of the several invitations to bed she’d received, but the conversation at least. “I’ve sort of lost track of who’s still here. Are we private up on the roof? There were at least a few individuals who have means…”

“The elves left early on,” said Ravana, “and the rest of the Last Rock contingent departed about an hour ago. I loaned my wizard to the three Hands for rapid transportation to Tiraas, and Bishop Darling gave Fross and Juniper a ride back to Madouris. A perk of rank is the ability to charter a Rail caravan even at this ungodly hour. Speaking of which, Vette, I give it about fifty fifty odds Veilwin will ‘misinterpret’ my instructions and not return to collect me. I can, of course, get my own caravan, eventually…”

“Pish tosh, nobody wants to deal with Imperial functionaries at the end of a long day, much less rattle about in that infernal contraption,” Malivette said airily. “I’ll be only too glad to host you overnight. Rest assured, the best rooms are thoroughly sealed off from the rabble.”

“I deeply appreciate your hospitality.”

“Least I can do. So yeah, we can consider this a private moment, finally, in which to talk.” The vampire turned her red eyes upon Natchua and grinned a little too broadly. “What’s a good topic… Oh, I know! How about all the surprises you are so full of suddenly, Natch?”

“I am sorry about that mess,” she said, grimacing. “That was a real cute trick Mogul pulled. In hindsight, I think I was pretty overconfident not to see something like this coming, the way he’s been hanging around…”

“Oh, pff.” Malivette waved a hand. “That wasn’t a bother, I thought you handled him well, and it’s not like you hadn’t kept me updated about his stalking. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but don’t let yourself believe that is in any way put to bed; I suspect you finally found a way to piss him off even more than you did by killing his friends. But no, Natchua, I was in fact referring to your brilliant idea to restock my city with Eserites.”

“Didn’t we already settle this?” Natchua said mildly. “I thought we all came to a satisfactory arrangement with his Grace.”

“Oh, yes, because obviously I’m going to tell an Eserite right to his face I don’t want him around after I went to all the trouble of cleaning up my city enough that they bloody well left. Listen here—”

“Malivette, really,” Ravana interjected in a soothing tone. “They’re not so very troublesome unless you intend to do the sort of thing which antagonizes them, and I thought we were in agreement that such practices are unhealthy for the economy anyway. Truly, so long as you don’t plan to abuse your subjects, having Eserites about is quite beneficial. I find they save me a bundle on law enforcement and they are fabulous for clearing out entrenched corruption. The Vernisites like seeing them around, too, which is a further economic boon.”

“I am less bothered by the Eserites than by the fact that I suddenly have to deal with them,” Malivette complained. “Surprise thieves are about as much fun as surprise rats. Nobody who deposits either on my front steps is getting a grateful smile from me!”

“Come now, I know you didn’t agree to include Natchua in this in the expectation we would be able to control her. A certain amount of indulgence should be extended, to say nothing of a measure of resignation toward the…unexpected. But you,” she added, turning a stern look on Natchua, “ought to keep in mind that springing surprises upon your allies will cost you in the long run if you make it a habit. It’s not as if you have any to burn.”

“I don’t take you lightly,” Natchua assured them both. “And it’s not as if we’re at cross-purposes. Any time I feel the need to trip you up, you can be assured it’s over a matter of principle. Nothing else would be worth it.”

“Your principles are…vague,” Malivette said skeptically.

“Well, then, you get the satisfaction of figuring me out,” Natchua replied with a saccharine smile. The vampire just wrinkled her nose. “Anyway, with that settled, isn’t there anything more important we should be doing right now? We haven’t said so explicitly, but at this point it’s unambiguous that the three of us and our Houses are set against whatever it is Justinian is cooking up.”

“After Ninkabi, any but the most cravenly opportunistic are set against him,” Ravana replied, her voice gone cold. “He has slithered as usual into the gap between what we can reasonably assume he has done and what can be proven in a court of law, and skillfully leveraged his own propaganda apparatus to keep broad public opinion on his side. But even in that, the cracks are forming. The Veskers are refusing to aid his public relations, and my own papers have significantly eroded Church support in Tiraan Province in the last few months.”

“I think our next business lunch should focus on that,” said Malivette. “I confess, it’s not a tactic I would have thought to employ. I’m quite interested in learning from your techniques, Ravana.”

“I shall be glad to instruct you,” Ravana replied, inclining her head. “For now, though. You are correct, Natchua, but we should take care to recognize a contest in which our interjection would gain nothing. The paladins will have to deal with whatever Justinian is about to spring on him. And petty as it may seem by comparison, we still have our own event to oversee.”

She gestured broadly at the grounds stretching out around their feet, filled now with long-suffering servants and entertainers, and party guests casually debauching themselves in every corner.

“Ugh,” Natchua grunted. “I’d almost rather deal with the Wreath.”


Even after midnight in the dead of winter, Tiraas never truly slept. The city gates remained open and under full guard, the streets were well-lit, and though traffic was light, it still flowed. Thus a procession such as theirs could not avoid being the center of attention. Especially as their transport to the capital had been via the auspices of a particularly grouchy mage who had refused to teleport any closer to the city center than the gate town on the western side of the chasm, forcing them to ride the rest of the way to Imperial Square. Across the long bridge and up one of the city’s most important avenues, accruing crowds all the way. Long before they arrived, people had lined the streets, all watching and some cheering as all three living paladins rode their divine mounts abreast through the capital.

At least everyone cleared out of the way enough for them to do so. Trissiny rode in the center, if only because Arjen towered over the other two horses. In proximity to other steeds, his enormous bulk was even more striking, huge enough that a slender half-elf perched astride him might have looked comical, had she not borne herself with straight-backed military dignity. Flanking Trissiny and Arjen were a study in contrasts, Whisper’s fiery eyes and shadowy aspect a stark counterpoint to Roiyary, whose sorrel coat glistened in the lamplight as if she were a living sculpture of sunbeams. As luck would have it, the three paladins were even dressed for the occasion, having come straight from a formal party. Trissiny had summoned her silver armor atop her Silver Legion dress uniform, Toby was in his seldom-worn Cultivator robes, and Gabriel had on a dark suit under his midnight green Punaji greatcoat.

The only odd touch was Raolo, sitting behind Toby in Roiyary’s saddle. He was the object of no small amount of speculation, but Toby just rode calmly on, a small smile hovering about his features. Blessedly, all four were insulated from the chill in the air by top-quality warming charms, a parting gift from their recent hostess. There were perks to palling about with Duchesses.

They passed in a kind of island of solemnity, the crowds around the intermittent and often fairly quiet, though isolated cheers and hails did greet them regularly. This performance would likely have caused bedlam at any other hour of the day, but in the deepest part of the night, even Tiraas was sleepy enough that there just weren’t all that many people willing to stand in the frigid air and gawk. It afforded them the opportunity to speak as they rode, at least.

“This may work even better than you thought, Triss,” Toby said, nudging Roiyary closer to Arjen. “I didn’t think there’d be even this much attention.”

“You’re too humble,” Raolo chided playfully. “You’re paladins. The only paladins! And these are some damn impressive horses.” Roiyary blew out a snort and Whisper tossed her head, whickering.

“Yeah, we’re lucky that Veilwin is such a sourpuss,” Trissiny agreed. “Where did Ravana dig that woman up? But I should’ve thought to ask her to put us down outside the gates myself. This is drawing much more attention. Even he won’t be able to hush this up.”

“Tauhanwe sometimes get like that, especially arcanists like us,” said Raolo. “I don’t like to judge somebody whose story I don’t know, particularly when I have cause to feel sympathetic. You’re not kidding, though, that elf is amazingly unpleasant. What I wanna know is how Ravana of all people puts up with that. I once saw her make a waitress at the A&W cry for bringing her the wrong wine.”

“Once in a while I have to pause and ask myself why we’re friends with Ravana,” Toby muttered.

“Because she campaigned hard for it,” said Trissiny. “Gotta respect the sheer determination.” She paused, glancing to the other side. “You’re quiet, Gabe. You okay?”

“Mm.” Gabriel stared absently ahead, guiding Whisper with his knees. “Yeah, just… Had a hell of a conversation. I’ll be fine.”

“Well, good.” Trissiny hesitated again, wincing. “Uh, I really don’t want to be insensitive, especially since I prodded you into that…”

“Don’t worry.” Gabriel shot her a smile. “I’ll have it together when we need to face down you know who. It’s not a traumatic revelation or anything, just some stuff that bears thinking about.”

“Wanna talk about it?” Toby offered. “No pressure, but it often helps.”

“I’ve been unfair to Hesthri,” Gabriel admitted, frowning ahead again. “And I feel guilty about that. I was… Well, it really wasn’t a situation like Locke at all.”

Trissiny gave him a look of wide-eyed surprise. “Wait, don’t tell me that was your main comparison!”

“Hey, it’s not like I have many points of reference for absentee mothers! You gotta understand, I never thought about this. I know that sounds weird, but at a very young age I worked out that my dad was a really good man, doing a really good job by me, even though it was incredibly hard on him. I definitely understood what a demon was. I just figured… He made a mistake, it was behind us, and I never wanted to drag that up again. I didn’t want anything to do with that half of my heritage. I avoided thinking about it. So, when she pops up again, yeah, my brain went right to Locke. She’s the closest analogue in my experience. But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t… What happened wasn’t Hesthri’s fault. Locke is just an asshole. Uh, no offense, Triss.”

“No offense taken, and the point is not contested,” she said, shaking her head. “Well, I’m willing to admit I’ve always wondered. It must’ve been an incredible story.”

“Not that it’s any of our business, if you don’t care to talk about it,” Toby said pointedly.

“It’s fine,” Gabriel hastened to assure them as Trissiny started to grimace apologetically. “She’s right, it is a hell of a story. I’d kinda like to share it with you, in fact. For instance, I never knew my dad was a spy.”

“He what?” Toby exclaimed, only belatedly composing his features for the benefit of the crowds they were passing. “I mean… Are you serious? Are we talking about the same man?”

“I know, right?” Gabriel grinned. “Well… Maybe spy is too strong a word. Dad was…uh, he called it the Shadow Corps.”

“That sounds like spy stuff to me,” said Raolo. “I mean, just the name.”

“Sort of,” said Trissiny. “That’s discreet ops—not quite the same stuff Imperial Intelligence does, but those are the soldiers the Army deploys in places where it can’t afford to be seen deploying soldiers. Lots of Shadow Corps veterans go on to become Imperial Marshals, mostly with Intelligence. Those who survive, that is. It does mean your father’s probably one of the few Tiraan soldiers to see actual combat while enlisted during peacetime.”

“Yeah, so,” Gabriel said, “it is a humdinger of a story, but it’s also classified to hell and back, so maybe this isn’t the place to bring it up.”

“I can see how that might be slightly indiscreet,” Toby said solemnly, even as he waved to a knot of young citizens on a passing street corner who raised a cheer as the three divine steeds drew abreast of them.

“Tell you one interesting tidbit, though,” Gabriel added thoughtfully. “Apparently I owe General Panissar my life. Strictly by the letter of the law, both Dad and Hesthri could’ve ended up executed when they were caught, and my ass tossed in some shithole orphanage. It seems the General put his foot down on that. Said dishonorable discharge was bad enough for a good soldier who made a mistake.”

“Panissar does have a reputation for backing up his troops, even when it’s not politically convenient,” Trissiny mused, herself frowning at the street in front of them now. “I hope to meet him again. In hindsight, I think I was unfair to him during our one previous conversation.”

“Lots of regretful unfairness going around tonight,” Gabriel agreed.

“You sure you don’t wanna tell the story now?” Raolo asked, grinning. “It sounds like it’d be good enough for a novel on its own. And hey, I’ve got a great new muffling spell I’ve been meaning to debut. It blocks lip reading as well as sound.”

“Hey, really?” Gabriel looked over at him in interest. “That sounds like fae craft, how’d you integrate that?”

“Actually that was what made me think of it! You can still do a lot of things with arcane spells that’s more the province of fae magic, it’s just that the fae automatically does a lot of the legwork that you have to do manually with the arcane.”

“Sure, sure, but it seems like a lot of that effort is prohibitive, hence the specialization.”

“Exactly! So you gotta look for shortcuts. See, I found a way to make a barrier that doesn’t alter sound so much as language processing. Have you heard of Hathanimax’s Curse of Dysphasia?”

“Holy shit, you worked that into a barrier spell? Or would it be more a field of influence? No, if you did that it’d also—”

“Sorry to interrupt, magic nerds, but we’re here,” Trissiny stated. The others fell quiet as they emerged from the mouth of the street into Imperial Square itself. The great temples, the Imperial Palace, and the Grand Cathedral loomed all around, stark against the cloudy night sky, their upper spires rising beyond the illumination of the streetlamps. “I hope you’re ready, gentlemen. It’s time to go to work.”


The private prayer chamber of the Archpope was also quiet at midnight, even with him there. The lamps had been dimmed, casting its high arched ceiling into shadow. Upon the dais at the top of the stairs had been set a single candle, its wavering light reflecting off the three masterwork stained glass windows surrounding it in mesmerizing patterns. Aside from that, the room was not dark, but dim, as if in concession to the late hour despite the lack of any external light. Even those windows did not border the outside of the Cathedral; rather, the central one hid the doorway down to the Chamber of Truth.

Archpope Justinian knelt before the altar in prayer, exactly where he had been for hours now. It was a feat of endurance; there he had remained while the candle before him slowly burned down. There was no one present to see, no need for him to put on a show. He simply took matters of spiritual discipline that seriously.

When, finally, a triple knock on the door resonated through the room, he at long last raised his head. Justinian rose to his feet, his movements smooth and precise despite the stiffness of his long immobility, and turned to face the door far below. There he stood, framed by the candlelight and the stained glass depicting the Trinity, patron gods of those he had summoned here. Perhaps to stare down from on high at his guests was a petty maneuver; he certainly gave them enough credit to assume they would perceive and be resistant to the symbolism. But it was still worth doing. Power was power, in all its forms, and Justinian did not deny even to himself that what was about to unfold was a contest of power.

“Enter,” he called, his voice even and mellifluous as always, untouched by hours of meditative silence.

The door opened, and three figures stepped inside, pausing for the last to push the chapel’s door shut behind them, and knelt.

They were not the three figures he had summoned.

“Branwen, Nassir,” Justinian said with a smile, inclining his head to his two trusted lieutenants. “And Bishop Raskin, welcome. I hope all is well?”

He did not descend the stairs or invite them to climb, so the three stood up, as there would clearly be no formal kiss of his signet ring offered.

“I humbly apologize for disturbing you at this late hour, your Holiness,” the Vidian Bishop said diffidently. He of course did not outwardly acknowledge the fact that he had been addressed formally by title, marking him apart from the other two. Raskin was as inscrutable as any member of his faith, constantly taking in more information than he gave out.

“I am not at all disturbed,” the Archpope assured him, still smiling kindly. “In fact, I was awake in any case, awaiting an appointed meeting.”

“Yes, your Holiness,” Raskin replied, inclining his head in an almost-bow. “So Colonel Ravoud informed me. Please do not reprove the Colonel; he admitted me to your presence despite this preexisting appointment because it is pursuant to this matter that I have come to you. As a service to my paladin and his colleagues, I come bearing a message.”

“I see,” Justinian murmured, shaking his head once. “The paladins decline to grace me with their presence, then? Most regrettable, but not a complete surprise.”

“I humbly beg your Holiness’s pardon,” Raskin demurred, “but that is not the case. Gabriel Arquin, Trissiny Avelea and Tobias Caine are as always ready to serve the Pantheon and available to coordinate efforts with the Universal Church. Given your Holiness’s late and hasty summons, the Hands of the gods assume the matter to be one of urgency and hastened back here from Veilgrad to place themselves at your disposal. They await in a prepared space within the Temple of Vidius. If it pleases your Holiness, I stand humbly at the ready to conduct you to them.”

The silence of midnight hung heavy in the chapel for a long moment. Raskin remained benignly impassive; Branwen was also blank-faced, which was far more unusual.

Finally, Nassir Ravoud’s shoulders swelled as he sucked in a hissing breath through his teeth. “Those three arrogant, disrespectful little—”

And then he was cut off by the Archpope’s laughter. Justinian’s warm voice boomed through the tall chapel with pure, joyful mirth, causing his visitors to stare up at him in bemusement.

“Ah, truly, what admirable young people,” the Archpope said at last, wiping a tear from one eye. “Please, Nassir, take no offense on my behalf. After all, how could I be so presumptuous as to demand that paladins attend my presence and then refuse to meet them halfway? I thank you, Bishop Raskin, for being so quick to accommodate them and myself. Come, my friends, we must not keep such important personages waiting.”

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16 – 38

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“What the hell is this?”

For just a moment, he’d made her freeze up. Confronted with this public gambit, Natchua’s mind ran away with all the dire possibilities, aided by the pressure of the incredulous glares upon her, and the part of her that was meant to respond intelligently came up completely blank.

For just a moment.

Then she found herself talking, and in a suitably scornful tone, not entirely sure what she was doing but riding the feeling she had that this was the right move. According to Elilial, Natchua’s “cunning” was an instinctive quality, a gift of hers that propelled her onward past what the likes of Mogul himself had achieved through practice. If the goddess was right, perhaps this unthinking confidence was precisely what she needed to prevail.

And of course, if the goddess was wrong—or lying—Mogul had just decisively outflanked her and anything she said from here was only going to make it worse.

“Why, it’s a kraagthshnorik,” Mogul said with theatrical innocence. “You did send us to deal with it, if you’ll recall, my lady. Your notes were most concise; it was entombed precisely where you indicated.”

The kraagthshnorik snarled a muffled protest, squirming against its bonds and achieving nothing but a puff of smoke from its nostrils and a patch of disturbed gravel. That, and a few abortive shrieks from the nearest aristocracy.

“Oh, he’s a comedian now, too,” Natchua snorted, ignoring the speculative murmurs that sprang up from all around the party grounds. “You just blew the last tattered shreds of my patience, Mogul, don’t pretend you don’t know I was referring to its presence here. Do I walk into your home and defecate on the carpet?”

“Are we speaking literally or metaphorically?” he inquired.

Natchua flicked out her right hand, spewing forth a column of shadow tentacles to the accompaniment of another few screams—really, at some point these people were going to have to run out of things by which to be shocked—and brought the whole fifteen-foot-long mass down at the imprisoned demon. Mid-descent, the ends of the tendrils formed together into a massive scythe blade of black light limned in sullen purple, which stabbed straight through the kraagthshnorik’s central body.

The demon emitted a booming yet plaintive groan and collapsed, its huge bulk disintegrating into charcoal and sulfur-smelling smoke right before their eyes. Mogul’s magical chains around it also slumped loose, and then dissipated themselves.

“Explain yourself,” Natchua ordered, pleased with her mask of icy contempt.

“Me?” Mogul spread his hands, still making himself a picture of well-meaning confusion. “My lady, whatever do you mean? You ordered—”

He at least had the good sense to break off when her shadow apparatus, which she had not dismissed so readily as his chains, whipped back into the air to bring the tip of its blade to rest right in front of his face. The scythe itself was nearly as long as he was tall.

“Natchua, I did not realize you and Embras had a relationship,” Malivette stated, gliding over to stand by her.

“Best of friends!” Mogul said cheerily.

She could kill him, of course. She was at least thrice the warlock he could ever hope to be. The tentacle scythe inched fractionally closer to his face.

Then she dismissed it, withdrawing the tendrils which had formed its base and in general continuing to make decisions faster than the rational mind could process what she was doing.

She should kill him, which he knew, and there was the rub. He had walked right up to her and made a pest of himself. Natchua could not see, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of any other Wreath or demons in the vicinity, but she knew they had means of hiding, even from her senses. Their gift of stealth she could penetrate, but the trick of warding themselves against even an elf’s natural perceptions was a thing of shadow magic, not infernomancy, and all they had to do was actively abstain from infernal craft and she would be unable to detect them that way. Mogul would not have done this without insurance, and whatever countermeasures he had planned risked collateral damage among these assembled nobility that would be politically catastrophic for her, well beyond the embarrassment he was trying to inflict. Unless he expected her to think of all that and… No, that was a dead end line of thought and not something upon which he would have banked his very life; Mogul’s whole problem was that he was an overly cautious planner, a schemer spinning webs rather than the aggressively fox-like master of cunning Elilial had claimed she wanted.

Plus, he’d walked into the home of Malivette, who might or might not be smarter than Natchua but had proven she had less patience for his bullshit, on an evening when she was hosting all three living paladins—who not only were likely to attack him on sight regardless of anything else going on, but had learned the necessity of so doing right here in Veilgrad.

And yep, there was Trissiny, already stalking over toward them, her furious glare switching from Mogul to Natchua even as the drow made note of her presence. The other two were… She quickly sorted through the haze of muffled sounds to isolate their voices, both inside the manor. They’d have to be properly distracted to have failed to sense the arrival of that large demon on the grounds—which made Natchua suspect afresh that Mogul wanted a violent confrontation. Yes, Gabriel was in a room talking quietly with Jonathan and Hesthri, and Toby was…good and diverted. He might still get what he wanted, to judge by Trissiny’s expression. Allegedly she was better about thinking before acting since training with the Thieves’ Guild, but she was still Trissiny, and this was still exactly what it looked like.

All these thoughts flashed across Natchua’s mind in the space of a half second, and were still in the process of sorting themselves when she answered Malivette in a tone of aloof irritation.

“I did brief you, Vette; he’s been loitering around, pestering me for days. I finally decided if the Wreath were planning to make a local nuisance of themselves, they might as well be useful in the process. So I directed Embras here to a list of local dangers around Veilgrad which I intend to vanquish anyway before any more loggers and trappers fail to come home from the woods. The Wreath do love to talk a big game about how they serve and protect the world from demons. I assure you, I did not give him license to make a mess upon your front lawn,” she added, returning her glare to Embras with a disgusted curl of her lip, as if he were a dog which had just tracked mud into the house.

“You do not let the Black Wreath help,” Trissiny interjected through gritted teeth. “Take it from someone who learned it firsthand, Natchua, in this very city. The chaos crisis was worse than it needed to be because we failed to destroy them when they came with an oh so reasonable offer of aid. Their demon-summoning unbalanced the whole region, and that was before they turned on us!”

Natchua made her expression deliberately more polite, as much as she could be non-confrontational with the paladin and not lose any more of the face she was desperately scrambling to save in front of the gathered nobility. All while wishing she could afford to make pointed expressions to the effect that this was not the time for any Hand of Avei antics.

“That’s because you let them help, Trissiny. I gave them specific tasks and outlined consequences for failure, noncompliance, or collateral damage. Which it seems I shall now have to enforce.”

“I sense that I have disappointed you, my Lady,” Mogul intoned with a farcical display of solemn contrition. “Do inform me how I might make amends, I beg you. I remain ever humbly at your service.”

And now Xyraadi had emerged from the crowd, approaching them with a similar expression, and Natchua nearly despaired. She’d been pleased to invite the khelminash, who was not only a friend but someone to whom she owed a lot, and in fact it had seemed her presence here would set a useful precedent, but Xyraadi’s feelings about the Wreath were roughly the same as Trissiny’s and her approach to expressing them only minimally more subtle.

Well, at least if this whole thing ended up as bad as it looked like it was about to, she could be reasonably sure Embras Mogul would be dead before he could enjoy the results of his scheming.

“I say, that was a rather prescient strategy,” Ravana said smoothly, herself gliding forward into the fray armed with a wineglass and an aloof smile. “The world has awaited with trepidation the full outcome of Elilial’s peace with the Pantheon; I suppose it stands to reason that the Wreath need not strictly be a banned organization any longer, provided they can render a useful service like the other cults. And abide by a…” She looked pointedly at the large patch of charcoal dust and disturbed gravel and sniffed. “…standard of behavior.”

“You’re not serious!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“I see the sense in it,” said Malivette, regarding Mogul with a more pensive expression. Like a specimen on a dissection table rather than a misbehaving animal. “Obviously they must make some accommodation with the new order of things. Equally obviously, they need to get over their grudge about Ninkabi; we cannot have warlocks jumping about, harassing our nobility. It’s an elegant solution, Natchua, and how very like you to step out in front of a problem and shape it toward a useful end. I knew you would do well in this role.”

“You are too kind, Malivette,” Natchua replied graciously, inclining her head and hardly having to fake her amicable expression. Inwardly, she felt a rush of pure gratitude toward the pair of them for closing ranks with her in the face of this. Not that they had a choice; any public humiliation Natchua suffered at this moment would impact Malivette and Ravana nearly as much, and she was undoubtedly going to hear more about this at length later.

“That, of course, presupposes that the cult in question possesses the basic sense to comply with the needs of civilized society and not make nuisances of themselves,” Ravana added, looking down her nose at Embras, which took real skill on her part as he was a head and a half taller than she. “This little episode shows, at best, exceedingly poor judgment.”

“It does seem quite clearly to be an attempt to embarrass you in public, Natchua,” Malivette agreed, still examining Mogul with disdainful interest. “A rather sophomoric one, though. Is this really the best the notorious Black Wreath could conjure up to avenge their defeat? I recall them being… Well, I won’t say impressive, but less desultory in their machinations than this.”

Even Trissiny seemed to have calmed, studying Mogul through slitted eyes but making no move to intervene. Xyraadi was still bouncing a ball of golden fire from hand to hand, but did not appear about to throw it.

“Well, I think you’ll find that is the Black Wreath in a nutshell,” said Natchua, deliberately pitching her voice to resonate across the grounds. “People forget that Elilial is the goddess of cunning, not demons; her own cult certainly did. The last handful of years leading up to the Battle of Ninkabi have been an uninterrupted string of defeats and debacles at the hands of virtually everyone they ran across. The Empire, the Universal Church, the Thieves’ Guild, Trissiny here and her fellow paladins. I understand even my magic professor from Last Rock found time to slap a few of them around on a lark. They were reduced to a handful of warm bodies by the time I got down to them. And all because of…this.” She gestured with ostentatious contempt at the dirty spot that had moments before been a fearsome demon. “The Black Wreath are many things. Devious, duplicitous, arguably not unintelligent, even rather crafty at times. But cunning? No.” Natchua tilted her own head back, staring down her nose at Embras in an imitation of Ravana’s posture. And beginning to hear alarm bells in the back of her head at the lack of any discomfiture on his part under this verbal abuse, but she pressed on. He had to be put in his place in front of these onlookers or her own burgeoning reputation would take damage she’d require years to repair. “Cunning is an entirely different quality, the ability to scheme while on the move and under pressure. The Wreath under this one’s leadership has been utterly dependent on their ability to lay plans in advance, unable to adapt or respond swiftly to changes on the board. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what becomes of a cult which forgets its deity’s central value: it becomes a sad remnant whose sole means of retribution is making a stain on the floor.”

To her immense satisfaction, they laughed. The same privileged observers who a minute ago had been squealing in terror of a bound demon now produced a chorus of judgmental titters at the expense of the warlock standing in their midst.

And Mogul himself… He kept his head angled so that Natchua could not see his eyes, but his mouth beneath the broad brim of his hat remained set in an easygoing smile. He stood easily, his posture loose and nonchalant with both hands in his pockets, quite lacking the telltale signs of tension and displeasure she’d managed to wring from him on every previous encounter around Veilgrad. As she stared down at him, his lips stretched infinitesimally, that knowing smile broadening just enough to betray a flash of white teeth.

In that moment, now that it was too late, realization slammed down on Natchua and she understood how he’d just outmaneuvered her.

Mogul finally unfolded himself, sweeping off his hat and executing a low bow before the three disapproving Duchesses.

“My dear Lady Leduc! And Lady Dufresne, upon whose home I have so brashly intruded. Even the Lady Madouri, clearly a more honored guest here than I. It occurs to me, belatedly, that my little jape was in rather poor taste. If this unworthy servant might beg your indulgence for another moment, do tell me how I might make amends for this affront! My only desire is to prove my goodwill. After all, we must all enter this brave new world together, is it not so?”

Natchua breathed in and out carefully. She could still kill him… But no, she’d been right in the first place; he undoubtedly had backup ready to cause carnage among her guests and the havoc that would create might set Imperial Intelligence after her, or worse. At the absolute least, she would look petty, violent, and unstable if she attacked him after that speech, which would rule out any of the cooperation they were hoping to gain from the nobility gathered here.

Ravana and Malivette, to her deep displeasure, shifted subtly to aim their faces toward Natchua, inclining their heads forward slightly in a clear signal that they would defer to her on this matter, exactly when that wasn’t what she needed. Even Trissiny was just watching, silent and intent, but showing no sign she meant to thrust her sword into this. Typical, the one time Natchua wanted her to lash out…

But no. There they stood, having successfully saved face and blunted Mogul’s social attack. And all it had cost was the public agreement of three Duchesses of Great Houses of the Empire, before a notoriously vengeful Hand of Avei who now publicly deferred to their judgment, that the Black Wreath had a valid role to play in the world.

Even the Silver Throne, though it wasn’t bound by anything they said, might hesitate to outright contradict the formal stance of all three Houses, given the relationship between the aristocracy and the Emperor after the post-Enchanter Wars reforms. This would undoubtedly set every minor House represented here to scheming for whatever scraps of advantage they might gain from this, but there was no question at all of any of them openly defying the dictates of Houses Leduc, Dufresne, and Madouri.

Mogul had just goaded her into formally legitimizing his cult.

How many people, now, had warned Natchua that sooner or later her hasty approach was going to backfire? Well, she bitterly reflected, it was probably a blessing that nothing in the process had exploded or gotten anyone killed. Yet.

“Ladies,” she said, putting on a light tone and stalling for time in which to frantically think of a way out of this, “I am, as you know, somewhat new to this position. How would you recommend dealing with an obstinate servant who presumed to disrupt a social event with a petty display of pique?”

“Any such servant would be summarily dismissed, at the very least,” Ravana said, idly swirling her wineglass. “But I suppose that rather puts us back where this started, does it not? Clearly this…individual…needs to be taken in hand. And have his knuckles rapped.”

“Where I am from,” said Xyraadi, “he would lose his left hand for such an affront, and be sent to employ the other one breaking rocks in a quarry.”

“Are you talking about Hell or medieval Glassiere?” Trissiny asked.

The demon paused, tilted her head contemplatively, and then nodded. “I stand corrected. Where I am from, he would be partially flayed and suspended above a bed of tissue-dissolving carnivorous plants until his frame disintegrated too much to be restrained, with a steady stream of healing magics applied to prolong the process and ensure he remained conscious throughout.”

From somewhere nearby came the sound of an unfortunate noblewoman being sick.

“That sounds like rather more time and effort than this is worth,” Malivette said dryly.

Mogul continued to look unperturbed by this line of discussion, even amused, but it had given Natchua the few seconds she needed to hit on an idea. If he wanted to play mind games, she could play mind games.

She took two strides forward, physically separating herself from her allies and coming within a few feet of Mogul, then lifted her chin regally and stared down at him.

“I gather it is considered inadvisable for warlocks to visit Sifan.”

“Oh, indeed, my Lady,” Mogul assured her, grinning. “Do not mistake the indulgence you and I have both received from Ekoi-sensei in these lands for the reaction of the kitsune if we dared set foot on their precious islands. They tend to express their displeasure with even more imagination than Xyraadi, here.” He had the utter gall to wink at the Khelminash, who conjured another fireball and visibly contemplated hurling it at him.

“Then I gather you may be rather ignorant of their culture.”

He shrugged. “I’ll admit that was something of a sticking point in my previous interactions with the esteemed Professor Ekoi. I believe I wrapped my head around the basics, though not with much…nuance.”

Natchua put on a vulpine smile that required little effort at dissembling. “Do you know how a Sifanese retainer delivers a formal apology?”

“If you are suggesting that I open my belly, dear lady, I’m afraid I lack the appropriate ceremonial sword.”

“Oh, no, no,” she assured him with a cold grin. “We both know you haven’t enough guts to spill. No, Mogul. You will kneel. Down on both knees, and then press your forehead to the ground, with your hands palm down in front of you.” She tossed her hair, taking note with malicious satisfaction of the way his smile finally slipped away. “Words are worth nothing; if you are penitent, show me. Prostrate yourself, servant, and when I judge you have made an adequate show of submission to my will, I shall forgive your transgression. This time.”

He stared at her, all amusement gone from his face, and beneath his outrage at the suggestion Natchua could practically sense the wheels turning. There was no such custom in any of the nations of the Empire and never had been. What might be a formal display in Sifan was a grotesque humiliation anywhere in the domain of Tiraas.

This was a battle of social positioning, not magical power; if the price of legitimacy granted by House Leduc and its allies was for the mortal leader of the Black Wreath to debase himself like a slave before its upstart Duchess… Well, that was simply a bad bargain. The Wreath was already down to a shadow of its former strength, and dependent on its dangerous reputation to gather the defiant personalities it needed to rebuild itself. If he did such a thing, in front of an audience which would ensure the story spread to every corner of the Empire by dawn, he would all but place himself and all his followers directly in Natchua’s power. They would have no other hope of being taken seriously, much less support, from any quarter.

There was no way the proud arch-warlock of Elilial would take such a bargain. Staring him down, she allowed her lips to curl further upward even as his scowl deepened. Natchua silently enjoyed watching him suffer on the horns of that dilemma. All his careful scheming, and still she got the better of him!

The timing of what happened next, descending on them just as she dared to think herself victorious, was undoubtedly not a coincidence.

It did not bear her down as the experience had in the past. It appeared not to affect, or even be noted by, any of the others present; Trissiny in particular would have reacted violently, but there was no sign that she, the Duchesses or Xyraadi felt anything, much less so much as a peep from the minor nobility watching this confrontation. Mogul, though… He felt it. She could see it in the sudden stiffening of his shoulders, the way his expression froze. This was only happening to the two of them.

The pressure. The unmistakable sensation of another intelligence looming over them, a mind so vast and powerful that just to be in its presence was to feel one’s own insignificance before the full scope of the universe. For an infinite moment, the silent intelligence of a deity weighed down on Natchua and Embras. Examining, judging.

And then, through its touch upon their minds, there came a clear surge of amusement.

Then the sensation lifted entirely from Natchua, leaving her once again alone in her own thoughts. But not Mogul. He stiffened further until he was nearly vibrating, his whole face clenching with rage as a command was laid upon him—a command he clearly abhorred with his entire being.

But he obeyed it. As Natchua stared in utter disbelief, the leader of the Black Wreath sank to his knees before her. Then bent forward, stretching out his arms toward her feet, and pressed his face to the gravel, causing his hat to slide gracelessly to the side.

Trissiny emitted a strangled sound. Natchua just barely managed not to echo her.

“With the utmost humility,” Mogul said, his voice somewhat muffled by the ground but impressively clear of emotion, “I apologize for my affront, mistress. I beg the opportunity to serve you, in the hope of making amends. Myself and mine are pledged to your cause.”

For the first time, Natchua silently prayed to the patron goddess whose favor she had sworn never to seek.

Oh, you evil cunt. So help me, I will get you for this.

Elilial sent her nothing further, not so much as a vague sensation to show that she’d been listening.

And she, as the Duchess of House Leduc, had to honor her word. Otherwise, her failure to do so would be part of the story spread across the Empire and no one would ever cooperate with her again.

“You are forgiven.” Natchua had to draw on her full store of Narisian reserve to keep her tone expressionless, but she managed. “This time. Be aware that you have fully expended your share of my tolerance, Mogul. If I am forced to correct you again, it will be the last time.” She hesitated, then added grudgingly, “You may rise.”

He did so with far more speed than he had descended, settling his hat back in place atop his bald head and immediately tilting it again to obscure as much of his expression as possible. The remainder showed that his own self-control hung by a thread.

“By your leave, then, my Lady,” Mogul intoned. “I look forward to working with you again.”

Before anyone could comment on the obvious sarcasm, shadows swelled up around him, and then he was gone.

Immediately, a surge of exclamations and the swell of excited chatter erupted from the noble audience all around them. Within the small group still standing around the spot where Mogul had been, Trissiny was the first to speak.

“I cannot believe you just did that.”

“You and me both, sister,” Natchua sighed, then caught herself. Actually, Trissiny of all people she might want to bring into the loop on this, if it was going to be an ongoing thing. Not here and now, though; that conversation called for the assurance of privacy. There were still other elves on the grounds, and also she had been warned that some of the nobility liked to employ expensive arcane charms to snoop on one another’s conversations at social events like this. “It occurs to me, in hindsight, that making him pay for it in humiliation might not make him any easier to deal with in the future.”

“You think so?” Trissiny snapped.

Natchua cleared her throat. “Yes, well. I’m embarrassed to ask you to help clean up my mess, Triss, but… If I understand how this paladin thing works, I think you sort of have to.”

Xyraadi let out a low whistle.

“You understand this is why nobody likes you, right?” Trissiny said, staring at the drow. “Tell me you do get that.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Natchua sighed. “Shall I go ahead and bring you a punchbowl?”

For just a moment, she thought the paladin was going to slug her.

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16 – 37

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They chose a room at random down the first hallway they explored, and once inside immediately stopped, momentarily so forgetting what they were here for that Raolo didn’t even bother to push the door all the way closed. Instead, both of them stared at the wall of the small study, which was covered with newspaper articles, framed and under glass, and all featuring headlines about a certain drow.

“So this is why they made her a Duchess,” Raolo said in disbelief. “I was really wondering about that.”

“It’s all noble politics. I was mostly concerned she was being taken advantage of somehow,” Toby admitted.

The elf shook his head, still staring at the framed papers. “Always worried about others, Toby.”

It was a quality Toby valued in himself, one he couldn’t see as inherently a bad thing even if he had to acknowledge he took it too far sometimes, yet the undercurrent in Raolo’s tone told him they were already returning to the problem. Whatever the problem actually was; he remained far from certain about that.

He reached out, almost gingerly, to take Raolo’s hand. Immediately Raolo squeezed his in turn, and the relief was like a physical force straightening his spine again. He needed that to cling to, as the elf finally turned away from the wall of articles to meet his eyes again.

“So.”

“So,” Toby repeated awkwardly. “I… Well, I don’t understand what I did wrong, but I’m sorry. I won’t do it again if you’ll just explain it to me. The last thing I want to do is hurt you.”

For whatever reason, that just made Raolo look exasperated. “Augh… Toby, you’ve done nothing wrong. You have been faultlessly respectful and considerate and did exactly as I asked.”

“Okay, then… What’s—”

“Did you ever consider that I didn’t want you to do what I asked?” Raolo asked plaintively.

He blinked. Then twice more. Opened his mouth to speak, closed it, squinted, and blinked yet again.

“…no?”

“Of course not,” Raolo sighed. “Look, Toby… I love my family, okay? They gave me everything I have, made me who I am. The same goes for my tribe as a whole. It’s just so much easier to love them from a thousand miles away in Last Rock where I don’t have to deal with them constantly disapproving of the thing that most defines me.” He held up his free hand, allowing tiny blue arcs of unformed arcane power to crackle between his fingers for a second. “Maybe in, like, ten years I’ll be glad to go home for, oh I dunno, a week. That sounds like about how long I’ll be able to stand the pressure by then. But right now? It’s miserable. I would rather do anything else, especially if it means I get to do it with you.”

“I see,” Toby said slowly. “But…you were pretty insistent.”

“Yeah.” Raolo nodded, grimacing. “I should go home and be the dutiful son. I really, really ought to. I owe it to them. So…that’s what I said.”

“Okay, I guess I’m beginning to get it,” said Toby. “Wow, it makes so much sense when you point it out. I’m really sorry I failed to read between the lines, there. In hindsight—”

“Would. You. Stop that?!” Raolo exclaimed, finally letting go of his hand. “Veth’na alaue, Toby, I am not in the right, here! I’m being irrational and childish and unnecessarily difficult!”

“I. Um.” There was really no serviceable answer to that, forcing him to fall back on the old standby. “Sorry?”

Raolo stared at him for three seconds, then said very calmly, “Would you excuse me for just a moment?”

“Oh. Well, sure…”

“Thanks.” The elf turned away, walked to the other side of the room until he stood six inches from the wall, facing it. Then he reared back and thumped his forehead against the oak paneling, causing several of the framed articles to bounce.

“Raolo!”

“Okay.” Turning back and showing no sign of pain despite the red mark on his forehead, Raolo returned to him with a serious expression. Tobias, you are… You’re the best person I know. I love how caring you are, how you’re always looking out for others. But the thing is, you do that for everyone. It’s how you… Well, I know we’re young and this has only been a thing for a few months and I haven’t wanted to push at you, and I definitely don’t want to seem ungrateful to the first person in my life who’s unequivocally put my needs first, but… But I am starting to feel like I’m just another person around you. Being looked after the way you do for all your friends.”

“Are you…under the impression that the, ah, the things I do with you are things I do with everybody?” Toby demanded.

That earned a reluctant smile. “No, and I don’t mean to undervalue that intimacy. It’s just… Aw, balls, this is why I didn’t want to talk about it.” Raolo covered his eyes with both hands, shaking his head in helpless denial. “I sound like such a lunatic right now.”

“No, you don’t,” Toby said automatically. It was the wrong response; Raolo lowered his fingers, revealing a scowl.

“You’re doing it again.”

“Sorry.”

“What do you think that is?!”

“Well, sorry!” Toby exclaimed, throwing his own arms up. “I don’t understand what’s happening here! Can’t you just tell me what it is you want me to do?”

“That!” Raolo surged forward, grabbing him by the shoulders, and then pulled him into a hug which Toby immediately reciprocated despite his exasperation. “I just want you to sometimes not take care of me. I want to feel special to you.”

“You want…” Toby tightened his arms around him, biting back the first response that came to mind. And then the second. And only belatedly realized he was still doing the exact opposite of what Raolo was asking. But this was hard, and he still didn’t understand it. “Have I made you think you aren’t special to me?”

“You did nothing wrong,” Raolo insisted, squeezing him in turn. “You did what you always do, what makes you so unequivocally good, and part of what I love you for. It’s just…”

“I do that for everybody?” Toby echoed.

Raolo’s nod rubbed his hair distractingly against Toby’s cheek. “Here it is, the first time we’re away from school and at liberty since we’ve been an item, and I can’t fault your choices or your respect for my choices, but the fact remains, you’re off having paladin adventures with your friends and I went home to be passive-aggressively sniped at by my parents. And less passively by my sister.”

“I said I was sorry for…wait.” Toby drew back, just enough to be able to study his face. “Are you jealous?”

Raolo grimaced. “I told you I was being irrational.”

“Raolo!”

“I know.”

“Raolo, aside from the guy who’s basically my brother, they’re all women! Two of them are married and one’s three inches tall and physically sexless!”

“I know! I promise I don’t feel threatened by Gabriel. It’s not about them, it’s…” Closing his eyes, he leaned forward to rest his forehead against Toby’s, right where he’d recently bonked it on the wall. “The bond you have with them is made of shared experiences, trauma, victory… I can’t help being bitter at you letting me go home instead of having the opportunity to share another adventure with you. I want to build something like that between us. You know, I have read my adventuring histories; paladins always have their own parties. I may not be a dryad or archdemon, but do you have any idea how powerful an elven wizard can become? I can totally pull my weight as a Hand’s companion.”

Toby chuckled in spite of himself. “I hear what you’re saying, but Rao… Most of these adventures have been due to class trips. I’d love to have you come with us on the next one. Do you want to be the one to pitch that to Tellwyrn?”

The elf snorted softly in amused agreement. “I know, that’s fair. I’m not blaming you. This is…talking about the future. You know, someday, Teal will be running Falconer Industries, or helping with whatever it is Shaeine will end up doing for the Confederacy. Ruda will be off ruling her country, gods only know what the fairies will be up to, and you’ll probably still work with Gabe and Triss from time to time but we both know the Trinity will likely send their Hands in different directions. But I can still be by your side. I know this is new, Toby, but… Elves don’t love lightly. We heal slowly from heartbreak, and try not to risk it. I do love you, and I wouldn’t be involved with you at all if I didn’t see a future. If I thought you were treating this casually.”

“I…like the sound of that,” Toby whispered, shifting his head just enough to rub Raolo’s nose with his own. “Even if I don’t like the idea of putting you in danger… Just the thought of you being there with me is perfect.”

“But that’s the future,” Raolo agreed. “In the present, I just wish you could stop with the Omnist thing, at least with me.”

“Rao, my faith is at the very core of who I am.”

“I know! I’d never ask you to change, just to…relax. Stop looking after me the way you do everyone else.” He opened his eyes, and they glittered with emotion. “I want you to feel…comfortable, and safe enough to let down that sense of duty and let yourself be mad at me when you feel it. I want you to desire me enough to ask me to come home with you for the holidays instead of seeing my family. I’d do it in a heartbeat, if you asked. I just want you to ask. I want to be special.”

Toby drew in a slow breath and let it out equally slowly.

“That’s a meditation exercise,” Raolo accused.

“Relax,” Toby murmured. “That’s…what you’re asking isn’t easy.”

“I know, love. Honestly, if it was just selfish, I wouldn’t even ask. But Toby, everybody needs to have a safe place to let go and just be. Let me be your safety.”

“My safety.” Slowly, he nodded, the gesture incidentally rubbing his nose against Raolo’s again. The elf nuzzled him in return. “Okay.”

Then Toby drew back, shifting his grip to seize Raolo by his thin shoulders, and gave him a hard shake.

“I am not a telepath! Damn it, you know I’d do anything I could to make you happy, but crap like this is just gonna keep happening if I don’t know what you want! Omnu’s breath, Rao, I adore you but this is some grade-A free-range nonsense! If we have a problem I need you to talk to me about it like the grown-ass elf you are—”

That was as far as he got before a display of elven agility brought Raolo squirming out of his grip, and then forward, throwing his arms around Toby’s neck and silencing him with a kiss that was as close to bruising as such a slender creature could manage. He found he didn’t mind the pressure in the least, and in fact, found it the best medicine. The tension and frustration of the last few minutes faded as if banished by a spell. Toby clutched him close, sliding one hand up to cradle his head and all but drinking him in.

Raolo also took the initiative in pulling back, but only after a few minutes and even then only because he needed air.

“That’s my boy,” he whispered with a grin of avid mischief.

Toby squeezed him closer, beginning to walk them both insistently toward the far wall—or more specifically, toward the writing desk standing against it. “And?”

Raolo bit his lower lip coyly. “And, yessir.”

“Good.”

The elf’s legs hit the desk and he nimbly slid up onto it, his fingers pulling at Toby’s robe as the paladin surged forward to seize him in another breathless kiss.

Behind them, unheard even by Raolo’s acute ears, the door to the study pulled the rest of the way shut. Out in the hall, Sapphire carefully stretched a stocking over the latch in the universal signal, and then turned to stroll back to the party, smiling.


Iris was standing off to the side, out of range of the dancers, holding a glass of sparkling wine. Ravana knew she didn’t like sparkling wine, or wine in general. Which wasn’t the point; Ravana also knew the glass was a prop, something for her to do with her hands. One hand, anyway, the other being occupied clenching in her skirt.

The Duchess came to stand silently beside her roommate and friend, following her gaze. They watched as the two paladins came to a stop and separated, then as Gabriel spoke briefly to a woman in uniform by the serving tables, and then as the two of them discreetly slipped away to go into the house.

Iris heaved a sigh. “I…am ridiculous.”

Ravana regarded her in silence.

“And worse,” the witch added after a pause, “I’m a coward. Well, you know what, this tears it. It’s been a year and a half. If I haven’t managed to screw up the guts to just talk to him, I am officially hopeless. It’s time to just forget the whole thing. Hey, Ravana, what are the odds I could find a nice young lord here to marry me?”

Ravana shook her head. “Nice lords of any description are rare, and aristocrats mostly marry for political advantage, not sentiment or even attraction. Now, I suspect you could quite easily find a wealthy lord or lady to make you a very lavishly kept mistress. You look ravishing in that gown, and your dark complexion is rather exotic in this part of the Empire.”

Iris made a grimace of mingled amusement and bitterness. “Thank you. So, hey, there’s my career planned out.”

“Don’t be absurd, you’re worth far more than that,” Ravana said almost brusquely. “I do agree with some of what you were saying, but rather than simply dropping the matter, what I’d suggest is just asking him. Even if it ends in nothing but rejection, at least that would be closure. And you wouldn’t be dithering anymore.”

“You saw that as clearly as I did,” Iris whispered.

The Duchess emitted a very ladylike little snort. “Those two are going to dither about with even more stamina than you have. I don’t expect it would be too difficult to snatch him, especially with that neckline. Not that Trissiny isn’t attractive, but you have the advantage in buxomness and everyone knows Gabriel’s pref—”

“You urgently need to stop,” Iris interrupted.

Ravana grinned. “I am only half jesting, Iris. If not now, then back at my manor. There is no shortage of available rooms.”

Iris covered her eyes with her free hand, still not drinking from her glass. “Ravana, please. What about you, then? Any of these fancy lads seem like a nice political prospect for you?”

“As I consider my point made, I shall indulge your transparent deflection,” Ravana said magnanimously. “In any case, no. I will not marry, I think. Any House in the Empire would benefit greatly from a union with House Madouri, but none have anything to offer me in return that is worth it. Especially now that I have achieved a firm alliance with Houses Dufresne and Leduc.”

“That seems kind of…grim. Doesn’t that fact free you up? You could marry for love, if you don’t need to do it for politics.”

Ravana’s expression had grown distant; she watched the party guests as they twirled into the next dance, not seeming to actually see them.

“I think I am what the Izarites call asexual.”

Iris looked at her sidelong. “You…divide in half to make two smaller Duchesses?”

Ravana made a silently eloquent face which both acknowledged and disapproved of the joke. “I refer to the orientation, not the reproductive strategy. I am twenty years old and have never felt the slightest stirrings of attraction toward anyone of any gender. Sexual desire is a thing I comprehend intellectually; on a visceral level I remain baffled at the damage people are willing to inflict upon themselves to indulge it. At my age, that seems rather definitive, don’t you think?”

“You make it sound like twenty is the verge of senility,” Iris said with a wry smile. “Maybe you’re just picky? Haven’t met the right person?”

“I don’t believe there are right or wrong people as a binary. As best I understand it, attraction is a spectrum, and my position on it is nowhere.” She paused to take a small, appreciative sip of her own wine. “This is not to complain, Iris. If anything I consider myself fortunate. Unburdened by the expectations of a spouse and living in an age in which children born out of wedlock face no legal and relatively little social stigma, I am free to rebuild my House’s imperiled bloodline by selecting the best available genetic donors.”

Iris shuddered. “That sounds so clinical.”

“It is, to me,” Ravana said, shrugging. “It is a tradition of my family. You may have noticed that I am blonde despite being—mostly—an ethnic Tiraan? The trait is recessive, but House Madouri has deliberately added infusions of elven blood at roughly hundred year intervals, for its longevity, stamina, and magical aptitude. We have endured for a thousand years without falling to the inbreeding that has destroyed so many noble Houses by managing our genome as if our children were thoroughbred racing steeds. It is especially relevant to me, as the last living member of my bloodline.”

“You make it sound like you can just…grab whoever you want to make them…perform.” Iris grimaced, finally took a sip of her drink, and then grimaced harder. “Ugh, bubbles.”

“I am hardly going to force anyone,” Ravana said, amused. “Nor do I expect much difficulty in the…acquisition. Though I am far daintier than the so-called Avenic ideal, I am hardly a warthog. And even if I were, many would not decline an invitation to the bed of a Duchess.”

“But…you don’t want to,” Iris protested. “I mean, if you’re not actually interested in…”

Ravana’s face went distant again. “You know, my grandfather was gay.”

Iris blinked at the abrupt change of subject, but didn’t answer. Ravana went on without apparently expecting her to, anyway.

“He managed to gird up his loins, in an unusually literal example of the expression, and sire one child in his lifetime. My father. Who so adored and remained loyal to my mother that even after her death he never so much as looked at another woman.”

“That’s so romantic,” Iris sighed with a slightly dreamy smile.

“My mind boggles at such abominable selfishness,” Ravana said icily, causing Iris’s smile to vanish in an instant. “Aristocrats are raised in depthless privilege. We wear and sleep in silk, dine on delicacies using silver and crystal, enjoy the benefits of the finest education that can be had and entertainments such as most people could never dream to experience. All this is a due and necessary offset for the tremendous pressures my social class must endure in the execution of our responsibilities. But far too many—including, to my shame, those within my own House—have embraced the privilege and eschewed the price. This luxury is paid for by the people who look to us for leadership. They are owed that leadership in return. Among other things, my people require stability and the assurance of continuity; a succession crisis can be absolutely devastating to a nation, or even a province. Yet, my own father and grandfather could not see past their own desires. At a time when our House had been driven to the edge of extinction by the Enchanter Wars, they left it there rather than submit to a minor personal indignity that pales before the suffering our populace will endure if the local government collapses.”

She paused, grimaced, and rubbed her finger around the rim of her wineglass, making it produce a clear, high-pitched tone.

“And just to rub salt in the wound, they were male. A man with the resources of an ancient and rich House can accumulate mistresses and sire a veritable village over the course of an average lifetime. Instead, that duty falls to me, whose ability to reproduce is…biologically constrained.”

“I think that may be the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”

Ravana shrugged, the ghost of a smile drifting across her features for a bare moment. “It is what it is. So, I will keep an eye out for interesting sources of genetic material and, when the time comes, dose myself with alchemical aphrodisiacs and do what is necessary. Five times, I should think. I calculate that is the greatest number of children I can balance with my other responsibilities while still giving them each the individual care and attention they require. That is not optional; people raised with great power but no tenderness often end up rather twisted. I consider myself a relative success story of that scenario, and I am well aware that many people find me…unsettling. I find I am sufficiently looking forward to motherhood that I am not excessively bothered by the…squishy realities involved in achieving it.”

“Squishy realities. Now there’s a turn of phrase,” Iris sighed. “Funny enough, my first thought was to remind you that love potions are illegal. As if that was even a consideration for you.”

“Actually, that is funny,” Ravana said with a smile. “Such potions are a felony to administer to another person, and potentially a capital crime to do so without the victim’s consent, but they fall within the Noble Loophole governing controlled recreational drugs. I can dose myself with anything I like under the law.”

“The what governing what?”

“Anything which one must have a government-issued exemption to sell,” Ravana explained. “Opium, sevenleaf, glittershrooms and the like, and also certain alchemicals. You see, it is illegal to manufacture, purchase, sell, receive, or bestow controlled drugs. But, if you happen to have one for whatever reason, it’s not a crime to own or use it on yourself. That’s part of why glittershrooms are so popular; they’ll grow anyplace dark and dank. It’s quite common for people to find them entirely by accident in their own cellars. The law only constrains any means of acquiring drugs rather than having them because of the nobility, you see. For most people, it is presumed that if you own a controlled substance you committed a crime to get it, shrooms aside, and can thus be prosecuted. But because the inventories of House vaults are private, the Treasury cannot prove we didn’t just have vials of cocaine and love potions sitting in there left over from a past generation.”

“Wait, if the Empire can’t tell what you’ve got in storage…”

“Oh, the Treasury has the right to inspect and tally coin, bank notes, real estate, basically any form of liquid assets, and concealing such from the Throne is an offense for which a House’s charter of nobility can be revoked. But the Treasury requires specific cause to inspect a House’s vaults, and the burden of proof necessary is steep. So! As long as a House doesn’t skimp on its taxes, as a reward its members have a legal excuse to do whatever drugs they might wish.”

She smiled placidly up at the taller girl, who just stared back in something like horror.

“You know, stuff like this is why nobody trusts the nobility,” Iris complained. “This is exactly what I worry about Natchua of all bloody people suddenly having access to.”


Natchua could physically hear everything happening on the manor grounds, but the nature of elven hearing meant most of it was a blur which her subconscious filtered out as superfluous. Under the circumstances, she couldn’t even zero in on mentions of her own name with any reliability, given how much speculation about her was going on at this party. So it was mostly coincidence that she caught Iris’s last comment, helped along by the fact that she made sure to check up on whatever Ravana and Malivette were doing at a given moment, on the grounds that she now heavily depended on both while still trusting neither. And Vette was currently right in front of her.

She glanced aside at the witch, but deemed it not worth pursuing. After all, Iris undeniably had a point.

More immediately, her focus was swiftly demanded when a sudden chorus of screams from the front gate of the property interrupted her own conversation with Malivette and Bishop Darling.

Immediately both Duchesses were moving forward toward the source of the disturbance; being each of them an extremely dangerous creature in her own right, if there was trouble it only made sense for them to lead from the front. Natchua was less certain why Darling followed along, but didn’t spare him the attention to question his apparent lack of survival instincts.

In fact, it was he who offered the perfect commentary at what was now approaching her through the manor grounds as terrified nobles fled in all directions.

“What in the secondhand celestial monkey fuck is he doing?”

Obviously, it was the demon most people were frightened of; the thing was a good twelve feet tall and covered with the obligatory scale armor and spikes, complete with glowing eyes and flickers of fire snorting from its nostrils. Natchua wasn’t particularly concerned with that, however, as she could tell at a glance that the magical chains trussing it up like a cocoon were solid and more than adequate to the task. Those same chains were holding the beast aloft as it was propelled through the air at a walking pace.

Behind, holding the other end of the chain, strode a grinning man in a white suit. He came to a stop in the middle of the driveway, shifted the imprisoned demon out of the way and then, with a flick of his wrist, slammed it to the ground. The resulting crunch brought a muffled growl of outrage from the muzzled beast, which in turn prompted a new chorus of screams.

Embras Mogul doffed his hat and swept an elaborately courtly bow.

“Duchess Natchua of House Leduc! Your humble servant has completed the task you assigned. By your kind patronage and at your command, the Black Wreath stands ready to continue our devoted service to our new mistress. What orders have you?”

In the terrified silence which followed, everyone on the grounds turned to stare at Natchua.

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16 – 36

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She did not stomp, and not because it wasn’t ladylike; Natchua had already resigned herself to the knowledge that she was going to disappoint anyone who expected her to behave like a proper Imperial duchess. No, Natchua restrained the impulse to slam her feet down with every step simply because she was somewhat overly conscious of social perception due to her embarrassing history of over-the-top melodrama at Last Rock and this Duchess business had only brought that closer to the surface. Even so, she really wanted to project anger with every fiber of her being as she bore down on the two elves who had intruded upon her domain.

Talvrin and Ashaele paused in the middle of the drive, watching her come; nobody else seemed inclined to approach them, perhaps unsurprisingly. Natchua made a sharp gesture with her right hand as soon as she drew close enough, wreathing the three in a subtle ring of shifting shadows and menacing whispers that hovered just at the edge of elven hearing. Even for non-elves, it obscured and mixed the sounds of their voices enough to ensure a measure of privacy.

“Shaeine has been a much better friend to me than I deserve,” she stated by way of greeting, “and I understand that you are here at the personal invitation of Ravana Madouri. That is why neither of you are being bodily hurled over the property’s walls right now. That fact is still subject to change if I am not extremely satisfied with your explanation of your bloody effrontery in showing your faces here.”

She folded her arms and waited imperiously to be answered. To her annoyance, neither woman appeared intimidated, but then Natchua hadn’t really expected it of them.

Magister Talvrin, at least, had the grace to bow to her. “Good evening and felicitations, Duchess Leduc. I am only too glad to offer an explanation, as it was my major concern in presuming to come here this evening.” She hesitated a split second before continuing. “Please understand that as a Magister of Qestraceel I am unable to express an apology, or anything else which might acknowledge fault on behalf of my government, in this difficult moment when tense negotiations with the Empire are ongoing.”

“You need to brush up on your Circles if you think coming here and dancing on my patience is a smart move, mage.”

The Magister continued, unperturbed but still solemn. “With that awkward reality acknowledged, speaking as a citizen of the Confederacy, I am deeply embarrassed that you were inconvenienced by our internal issues, and very relieved that you emerged unharmed. And I can assure you that there will be no repeat of that shameful event.”

“In fact, Natchua,” Ashaele added, “it may please you to learn that House Dalmiss has placed itself in disfavor with every level of our government from the Queen to the Confederacy itself, and Matriarch Ezrakhai has spared no effort in directing the resulting pressure onto Nassra’s head.”

Natchua stared at her, but after a moment allowed her mouth to quirk lopsidedly in a fragment of a smile. “Very well, you’re right. That’s pretty…gratifying. Was that all you came here to say?”

Ashaele glanced at Talvrin, who immediately bowed to each of them. “Please excuse me, Duchess, Matriarch.” She discreetly retreated outside the radius of Natchua’s sonic disruption, making her way toward Ravana.

Returning her gaze to Natchua, Ashaele stated in a much flatter tone, “Your mother is one of the most unbearable assholes I have ever had the misfortune to meet.”

Natchua went rigid. She happened to wholeheartedly agree, but between two Narisians there was virtually no more offensive statement that could be made. It was the kind of insult only a Matriarch could voice without expecting to be immediately punched in response; only a Matriarch had sufficient weight of social position that anyone would even defend her after such an offense.

And, Natchua realized after a shocked second, she was now equivalent in rank. Her right hand balled into a fist, and purple flames flickered across her fingers. Walled off in their cocoon of sound, with her attention fully on Ashaele, she didn’t hear the murmurs that rose, or even notice people rapidly backing away from the two drow.

“And I need you to understand that,” Ashaele said, her voice softer, eyes intent. “Your experience growing up was not normal. Narisian ways are ruthless and harsh, yes, but it is precisely because of this truth that our society can only function when we value each other. No one can lead her family the way a Narisian must, unless that family is held together by sincere bonds of love. In addition to her various defects of personality, Nassra has always failed to understand that simple and crucial fact. Goddess’s mercy, Natchua, a spider box is a weapon of last resort to punish those who knowingly and deliberately inflict shame upon their Houses. One should never be used to discipline children. That is nothing less than insanity! I will never condemn you for your behavior at Last Rock or elsewhere since you left us, and I have earned the ire of both Nassra and Ezrakhai by refusing to allow any pursuit of you through diplomatic channels. You were abused more than raised. Your anger and loathing is fully justified, and it is a tremendous credit to you that you’ve turned out as well as you have, after being raised by a selfish, thoughtless monster of a woman who saw you as nothing but a thing to be used. A daughter’s devotion is demanded in our culture, yes, but it must be earned through love and devotion in kind. I am…glad to see that you escaped, and are flourishing.”

She paused, still watching Natchua closely. Natchua, for her part, did not relax her fist just yet, but allowed the fire to flicker out, staring at Ashaele through narrowed eyes.

“Unlike my Qestrali colleague, I will apologize to you,” the Matriarch said after a moment. “The truth is that I am one of very few who had an inkling what was happening in your household and might have had the influence to do something about it. Even within another House, a Matriarch’s word is not nothing, and Ezrakhai does listen to me. But the truth is, I considered the costs and benefits and did nothing, for the sake of what I deemed the greater good. If you choose to despise me, Natchua, you’ve the right. I am sorry for failing you. It changes nothing, but I am. And if I can aid you now without compromising my responsibilities to Tar’naris and the Confederacy, I will be glad to do so. You’re owed it.”

“You never cared enough to say all this before now,” Natchua said, pleased to find her voice even. “Not a word to me, until the very moment I gained a noble rank. Do you imagine that you’re subtle, Ashaele? Even by my standards, you really aren’t. Spit out what you want before my patience finishes evaporating.”

It was heady, addressing a Matriarch by her first name, right to her face. Even a week ago, Natchua might have done so anyway, just to be aggressive. Somehow, the fact that Ashaele didn’t even have the right to complain about the presumption made it even sweeter.

To her credit, Ashaele offered no denial, nodding once in acknowledgment. “That is true, and all part of the pattern of my life. I must turn a blind eye to all manner of suffering in order to serve a higher purpose; such it is, to be Narisian. I don’t ask anything of you but patience and tolerance, Natchua. You’re now in a position to have some influence on the affairs of nations, however minor. All I ask is that you understand what was done to you was an inexcusable aberration. Please don’t punish an entire civilization for the actions of individuals.”

“Aberration,” Natchua whispered. “Really, now. You think my sad story is all that unusual?”

“I am well aware—”

“I’m sure you’d like to think that, Ashaele, but if you truly understand what life in Tar’naris is like for anyone who’s not born to power and privilege, you’re as despicable as my mother for presiding over that depravity and doing nothing about it. That festering shithole’s entire culture is based around the fact that whatever horrible thing it does must be okay, because after all, the Scyllithenes are always worse! It’s the most soulless possible approach to governing a society imaginable. Have you considered that, just maybe, your civilization deserves anything that might be coming to it, if not more?”

Ashaele tilted her head incrementally. “Do give me a minimum of credit. I am keenly aware of the flaws and failures of our society. What, exactly, is your plan to fix them?”

Natchua barked an incredulous laugh. “Is that my responsibility, somehow?”

“No, it is mine. And unlike you, I have not only given great thought to how our people must change, but worked steadily to achieve that end. It is obvious to anyone with eyes that Tar’naris cannot continue as it has. Irrespective of the weight of our moral failings, we have entered a world in which the unique Narisian blend of heavy-handedness and myopia will lead only to doom. But what do you imagine would happen if I tried to explain all this to the Matriarchs? Or even better, force them to comply? Has it been your experience that people politely listen and then change their ways when you calmly and rationally lecture them on the benefits of giving up their privileged positions?”

Natchua snorted. “All right, fair enough. But to rehash an earlier part of this conversation, I am done with Tar’naris and all its perfidy. This sounds like a you problem.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “hence my pleading with you not to make it worse. I will never insult you by downplaying your experiences, Duchess Leduc; I have offered my apologies for them, and my support with whatever cause of yours I can aid that does not contradict my loyalties. Only you can decide whether this is adequate. It is really all I can do.”

Natchua studied her in silence for a moment; Ashaele met her gaze firmly. There was nothing to be gained by trying to read a Narisian diplomat’s expression.

She snuffed out the sonic effect surrounding them, allowing the party music and soft conversation to rush back over their senses. Ashaele glanced to the side, noting the action, but making no further acknowledgment. Natchua did not miss the speculative and eager gazes fixed on them by a number of minor Tiraan nobility eager for any scrap of influence they could scavenge.

And so, she decided to throw them a bone.

“You needn’t worry that my experiences in Tar’naris will have any effect on elven-Imperial relations, Matriarch Ashaele.” Natchua did not raise her voice, but enough of the eavesdroppers had edged close enough that it wouldn’t matter. “House Leduc stands firmly behind House Tirasian, as I have made clear. Foreign policy is none of my business in any case, and I don’t aspire to influence it even indirectly. As for my own opinions, I am satisfied that Emperor Sharidan’s leadership is exactly what Tiraas needs. It should be obvious to you, to me, and to anyone who has paid attention to recent history that the Silver Throne has led us well these last years since the Narisian Treaty.”

Ashaele nodded and opened her mouth to reply, but Natchua pressed on over her.

“With that said, House Leduc takes its responsibility to this province seriously. That may not have been true for some time, but under my leadership, things will change. I have already made it clear to House Awarrion what will happen to pushy drow who come to Veilgrad looking to profit at the expense of my people. After my encounter with the Highguard, I will extend that warning to all the Confederacy: I protect these lands, and any pointy ears coming here had better be attached to excellent manners, if they know what’s good for them.”

If anything, the onlookers had drifted closer while she spoke, and at that, cheers and applause broke out from the surrounding Imperials. Natchua didn’t even glance aside at them, keeping her focus on Ashaele, who was studying her in turn, utterly impassive. Hardly any of these people were even local to Veilgrad, but apparently one couldn’t go wrong by appealing to patriotism. At least with this crowd.

After a pause in which they locked gazes, Natchua finally looked past Ashaele’s shoulder to an unfolding scene which she’d been aware of since dropping the sound screen, but had not brought to the forefront of her awareness. She lowered her voice before adding a final thought, since it was one none of the onlookers needed to concern themselves with.

“Except him, of course. Raolo’s cool.”


“Raolo?” Toby didn’t trouble to disguise the surprise and delight on his face when he spied the elf making a beeline toward him from the gates, and not just because he had little regard for the politics and appearances that were so important to so many at this party.

For his part, Raolo was already smiling as he approached, but his expression only brightened further in response to Toby’s. Which just made him happier in turn, and so on in a mutual feedback loop until both were outright beaming by the time they closed the distance enough to clasp hands. It was just as well Ruda had stayed in Madouris; this was exactly the kind of encounter that made her loudly complain that too much sugar disagreed with her whiskey.

Grinning like a fool and not caring, Toby squeezed Raolo’s slender fingers in his own, and then impetuously pulled him forward into a hug which set the elf laughing even as he reciprocated.

“So you are glad to see me!” Raolo chuckled. “Guess I don’t have to worry about that after all.”

“Oh come on, why would you ever need to worry about that?” Toby pulled back enough to grin at him again. “This is exactly the blessing I needed. No offense to our hostesses, but maybe now I can finally enjoy this party.”

“Oh, you and parties.” Raolo playfully rubbed at his hair, which fortunately was too thick and wiry for him to easily muss. “Are you finally getting tired of benignly observing from the sides?”

“Oh, that’s fine and dandy when it’s at Last Rock with friends, or at least acquaintances. A bunch of miscellaneous nobility, though…” He chanced a glance to the side, and sure enough, more than a handful of well-dressed strangers were studying him with expressions he could only think of as sharklike. For just a second Toby wavered, feeling the pressure of expectations rearing up, but he immediately and deliberately pushed that aside. If he could stand up to the expectations of his own cult, what did he care what any of these people thought? “Well, at least it probably won’t turn out the way my last aristocratic social event went down.”

“Mm, has anyone checked that Trissiny’s not hanging around near the punchbowls?”

“Oh, come on!” Trissiny’s voice exclaimed from the near distance. Both of them grinned but otherwise ignored her.

“Never mind them anyway,” Toby said, reaching up to lightly shift a lock of golden hair that was obstructing his view of Raolo’s eyes. Even remembering how much the elf felt like silk under his fingers never compared to experiencing it anew. “What are you doing here, Raolo?”

“Ah, I’m glad you made it, Raolo,” Ravana said, idly sauntering by them with an unusually smug expression even for her. “I trust your journey was comfortable?”

“I think you know it was,” the elf replied sardonically. “The carriage and driver were a little excessive, Ravana. Not that I object to being driven, but that thing had eight seats and a cold box full of sparkling wine. Is that how you cruise around all the time?”

“No, but it’s how I treat my friends,” she said, smiling placidly. “Luxury is so much better appreciated by those not born to it.”

Toby heaved a sigh. “Ravana, stuff like this is why people are always demanding what you did this time. Didn’t I specifically ask you not to interrupt Raolo’s vacation? Just this morning?”

“Oh, did you.” And just like that, Raolo’s entire aspect changed. He still smiled, but suddenly the expression was brittle and there was something sharp in the set of his eyes. Without quite releasing Toby’s hands, he nonetheless pulled back.

“You know I’m glad to be able to spend time with you away from campus,” Toby said quickly. “It’s just… Ravana. You know? I think if somebody didn’t stop her she’d try to put puppet strings on all of us.”

“I do say that’s a bit much,” Ravana protested.

“Well, he’s not entirely wrong, you know,” Raolo said to her. “This was a nice thing you did, Ravana, and I thank you. People do get tired of being treated like somebody else always knows what’s better for them, though. I get enough of that at home,” he added, his eyes cutting back to Toby. That withdrawn hardness was still in them.

Toby winced. “Was it…bad? I don’t want to pry, I just… Well, I hate to come between you and what time you’ve got with your family.”

“That’s very considerate.” If anything, the elf’s expression stiffened further, and Toby found himself frowning quizzically. Even Ravana suddenly glanced sharply back and forth between them, picking up on the tension.

“Are you okay?” Toby asked in concern. “I suddenly feel like you’re… Uh, did I do something to upset you?”

For some reason, that only appeared to make things worse, though instead of growing more tense, Raolo suddenly sagged. It was a slight motion, the merest lowering of his head and slumping of his shoulders, but it made him look unmistakably defeated.

That was much worse.

Now Ravana appeared nearly as concerned as he, and Malivette, who had just wandered into their proximity, cleared her throat pointedly. Neither Toby nor Raolo looked over at her, though.

“No, Toby,” Raolo sighed, and then gave him a resigned smile that felt worse than a slap. “Everything’s fine.”

“Everything’s clearly not fine,” Toby insisted, frowning. “I can tell you’re upset.”

“About what?” Raolo shrugged. “You’ve done nothing wrong, Toby. You graciously relinquished your claim on my time so I could go home to the grove…just like I asked. And sure, my family are insufferable, but thanks to Ravana being also insufferable now I can spend the evening with you instead of them. It’s a perfect outcome!” He smiled again, trying to inject some cheer into the expression, but so obviously trying that it was painful to behold.

“Ahem,” Malivette said, not that anyone paid her any mind.

“Hey.” Gently taking Raolo’s hands again, Toby ran his thumbs across the backs of the elf’s fingers, holding his gaze. “You don’t need to do that, not with me. Whatever’s—”

“Can we please just not?” Raolo pleaded. “It’s a party. Let’s relax and have some fun. Look, there’s dancing! And I could use a drink.”

“If…that’s what you want,” Toby said dubiously.

For some reason, that made annoyance flare in Raolo’s expression again, but the elf quickly mastered it, put on another public smile, and opened his mouth to answer.

At that moment, Malivette began coughing loudly, quickly escalating to a series of hacking wheezes like a cat passing a hairball, and actually doubled over. Ravana edged warily away from her, while the surrounding nobles stared incredulously.

“Blaaaah!” The vampire straightened back up, turning a beaming smile on them as she wiped the back of her hand across her lips. “Scuze me, must’ve inhaled a clot. Say, lads, I just wanted to mention, the party only started out here on the lawn, the whole manor is open. Lots of indoor space, y’know, private rooms. Places to have a conversation discreetly.”

“Thank you very much, Duchess Dufresne,” Raolo said with a slightly wintry smile, “but that won’t be—”

“It’s Raolo, right?” She grinned broadly at him in that expression of hers that showed off her fangs a lot more than it actually suggested a good mood. “Say, just for the record, elves aren’t edible for me. I only mention that because it’s gonna become an extremely relevant reassurance if you do something to create a debacle at this extremely politically important party.” Malivette let the silence hang for two heartbeats of dramatic effect, just grinning at their shocked expressions, before continuing in a lower tone. “Go inside, boys, and have a chat. Quietly.”

“Um…maybe that would actually be best,” Toby said, turning his attention back from her to Raolo.

The elf clenched his jaw for a moment, then nodded in a single jerky little motion. “Fine.”


“Uh…” Trissiny watched Toby and Raolo disappear into the manor, frowning in consternation. “I hope they’re… Do you think we should do something?”

“Like what, Triss?” Gabriel asked. “What possible thing could anyone butting into that do that wouldn’t just make it worse? And that’s not even touching on the fact that neither of us is Mister or General Social Skills to begin with.”

“Hey, I think we’re both a lot better than we used to be,” she protested. “But still… Yeah, fair point. It’s just that I hate to think of… You know?”

“I do,” he nodded. “If there’s anybody who deserves some straightforward uncomplicated happiness, there they went. But relationships aren’t like that. You just gotta deal with stuff, and unless it’s an Izarite cleric involving somebody else in it doesn’t usually help.”

“And I think we’ve all had as much Izarite influence as we need for one night,” she muttered, glancing at the gates. At least Bishop Snowe had been as good as her word and left the grounds once her message was delivered. All things considered, that might have been simple self-preservation on her part.

“Well, anyway, it’s a party,” he said after a momentary pause. “I can think of a much better use of our time than standing here fretting.”

“I am terrified to ask,” Trissiny deadpanned.

He grinned and had the audacity to wink at her. “You remember our first week? Specifically, the first night of punishment duty, washing dishes for Oak?”

“Yes,” she said dryly. “You invited me to a town dance, and that was when I knew you were completely insane.”

“Exactly!” Gabriel stepped back, turned toward her, and held out one hand with a shallow bow. “You never did give me an answer on that, and the town social came and went. So you owe me one, Triss.”

“Are you serious?” Teetering on the verge of incredulous laughter, she glanced around at the grounds. “This is a political event, you know. Think politics. Us dancing would kick off a flurry of wild rumors.”

“Let ‘em speculate, it’s not like any of these people would know what they’re talking about. And hey, we might as well provide them some free entertainment! These parties tend to end with us terrorizing them one way or another, so we might owe it to ‘em. Just so you’re aware, the drinks are served over there on the buffet table,” he added helpfully. “It’s mostly bottled wine and hot cider at this time of year, but I did notice a lovely crystal punch—”

“I have no compunctions about hitting you since I know it doesn’t actually hurt you.”

“What’s the point of doing it then?” he rejoined. Trissiny made a face at him; he grinned more broadly and lifted the hand he was still holding out. “C’mon, they’re playing a waltz. That’s basically the easiest one.”

She studied him skeptically for a long moment, then finally permitted herself a smile of dour amusement and reached out to take his hand. In the next second, they were swirling out across the drive amid the other couples moving to the music.

In the moment after that, both of them stared at each other in shock and said in unison, without faltering in the motion, “You can dance!”

They completed one more stationary revolution before the other shoe dropped, and both paladins scowled, this time talking over one another rather than speaking in chorus.

“Wait a second, were you just trying to embarrass—”

“This was a trick, you sneaky—”

Both broke off, and then burst out laughing. And kept dancing.

“Seriously, though,” Gabriel said merrily. “You? Can waltz?”

“Hey, I grew up in a barracks up in the mountains with dozens of other girls. The only entertainment was whatever we made for ourselves! What about you?”

“Oh, Teal taught me,” he admitted. “It was after that trip to Tiraas in our first year, remember? You all went to that party at General Panissar’s house?”

“Ah, yes. That was…a mess.”

“Could’ve been worse, the way I heard it,” he said lightly, twirling her around the decorative fountain in the center of the roundabout drive. “Upon reflection what I’m most surprised about is that you’re letting me lead.”

“Because I figured you’d try to, and we’re probably creating enough of a stir without turning it into a scuffle,” she snorted. “A wise feminist conserves energy for the necessary battles by not fighting pointless ones.”

“Ever the strategist. Well, if there’s gonna be a scuffle, we should probably save it for later in the evening.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, everybody’s out here watching right now. As the night progresses and the drink is drunk, people will start pairing off and disappearing into those private rooms Malivette helpfully reminded us she has.”

Trissiny wrinkled her nose. “How would you know? Do you attend a lot of aristocrat parties?”

“I know what people are like,” he chuckled, “and I listen to aristocrats. We’ve got a good handful on the campus, you know, and several of them love talking about their fancy social events.”

“I see. Well.” She finally looked away from his face, glancing sidelong across the crowd they were still dancing through. “If we’re going to head back to Tiraas tonight and deal with Justinian, I’m afraid you and Juniper aren’t going to have the opportunity to sneak off.”

“Wh—Juniper?” Gabriel blinked at her in astonishment. “You thought we— Triss, that hasn’t been going on since freshman year!”

She blinked right back, equally startled. “What? Really? I thought… I mean, you’re…”

“Okay, I am straining not to take offense,” he complained. “Really, is that what you think, I have nothing on my mind but chasing skirts?”

“Well, in fairness, you do also like playing with your wand…”

“It would serve you right if I tripped you.”

Trissiny grinned, then cleared her throat with a little discomfort, glancing away again. “So, uh, not to pry, but what made you two decide to…?”

“Oh, it… Well, actually, we never decided. That is, there was never a conversation about it. It just sort of…stopped happening, and that was fine. Both of us, I mean individually, we both kind of came to a place where that wasn’t what we needed or wanted anymore, so it worked out fine.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Actually, I guess it worked out ideally. Maybe closure would’ve been nice, but I don’t feel like I missed out on it. June doesn’t seem to, either. This way there was no awkwardness, and I got to keep a really good friend without making it, uh, messy.”

Slowly Trissiny nodded, staring at him with an oddly pensive expression. “Yeah… I guess there’s something to that.”

“What do you mean, to it?”

“Sometimes,” she said distantly, her eyes seeming to look at something far away, “having a conversation isn’t really…the best thing, necessary, or even useful. Not if everybody already understands up front that there’s no point.”

They had drifted to the edge of the dancing area, coming close to the end of one of the buffet tables, and that was the moment when the band brought the waltz to an end. Across the lawn, couples separated, many applauding politely. Trissiny and Gabriel slowly released each other in silence, studying one another’s eyes.

“Well,” Trissiny said abruptly, putting on a smile, “good timing. I’d better go supervise that.” She tilted her head to one side, where over by the manor’s steps, Malivette and Natchua had cornered Bishop Darling. “And I see you have fallen into my trap, as well.”

“Excuse me?” he exclaimed.

Rather than answering, Trissiny turned aside to address the woman in servant’s livery who was standing by the edge of the table with her hands neatly folded in front of her. “It’s Hesthri, right?”

The servant’s eyes widened and she focused on Trissiny, having been watching Gabriel. “I…beg your pardon, miss? You must have me mistaken for…”

“You were staring,” Trissiny said, not unkindly. “At him. And let’s face it, he’s not that good looking.”

“Those Eserites turned you into a spiteful little beast,” Gabriel complained.

“Yep,” she said with an unrepentant wink. “But seriously, Gabe, there are some conversations that actually do need to be had. I’ll catch up with you later.”

So saying, she turned and sauntered off in the direction of the Bishop and the Duchesses, leaving a tense island of quiet behind.

Gabriel shifted to study the serving woman, who was watching him closely in kind. They didn’t speak for a few long seconds, which under the circumstances was as good as a confession.

“She’s a sharp one,” Hesthri said at last, then grinned. “Not to mention pretty. So, you two…?”

“Oh, uh…no.” He shook his head, averting his eyes as his cheeks darkened slightly. “That is, there may be a tense…um, but not… Well, it’s, we’re friends, okay? We’re pretty close and I’d hate to mess up… Anyway, paladins don’t live the kind of life that…” Growling in frustration at his own inarticulate babbling, he trailed off and shook his head, scowling across the dance floor at nobody. “It’s just… It’s not a good idea.”

Hesthri studied him in silence for a few more beats, a gentle smile playing about her own lips, before finally reaching out to very lightly touch his arm.

“Tell me about her.”

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16 – 35

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The grounds of Dufresne Manor had been transformed, which was good, because they had urgently needed it. Its gravel drive had been freshly smoothed, of course, but far more strikingly was that its broad lawns, formerly choked by waist-high weeds as part of Malivette’s deliberate effort to make her property look uninviting, was now neatly trimmed at the regulation three inches above soil level. That, of course, was only the beginning; the entire property had been laid out with tables of food, an outdoor stage where entertainment would be provided, and hung with House crests and banners in the colors of Houses Dufresne, Leduc, and Madouri. Pumpkin-sized apparatuses of crystal floated above the grounds, providing both light and heating charms that kept the environs comfortable despite Veilgrad’s lethal midwinter chill. That alone had been a staggering expense, but for aristocrats, wildly grandiose displays of wealth and power were not an indulgence but a necessity for survival. No one who walked the halls of power lacked enemies, and enemies would pounce upon any perceived weakness.

Natchua wished they would go ahead and pounce so she could vaporize somebody. All this pomp and ceremony was wearing on her nerves.

Every culture had its rituals, and so there was a procedure for events such as this. Guests had begun to arrive, and had been trickling into the protected warmth of the grounds for over half an hour, with servants (Ravana’s on loan, as the hostess employed no staff save her four vampiric thralls) collecting winter coats at the gates. A string quartet played on the stage, more servants distributed food and drink, and the arriving lower nobility and other guests circulated with one another at apparent ease, but by the customs of Imperial aristocracy, the party had not officially begun.

The three Duchesses—Natchua’s adoption and Sherwin’s abdication had been an anticlimactically quiet affair which took place earlier in the day, in an office with lawyers—stood atop the steps to the Manor itself, each beneath a hanging banner bearing her House’s crest. They just stood there, the picture of poise, waiting until they judged the grounds had filled enough to start the party properly. At that point, they would descend and begin to circulate themselves; until then, the guests kept their distance—even the various Last Rock invitees, who had had to have the proprieties explained to them just like Natchua—and made an effort not even to stare at their hostesses, at least not openly. Natchua had asked whether they couldn’t do this part sitting down, and been informed that that was only appropriate for provincial rulers, and Malivette and Ravana had abstained from seats so as to make a show of their support for her by not putting her in a subordinate position.

Natchua couldn’t decide if this was better than Narisian rituals or much worse. She was still hung up on the fact that she was now an aristocrat, and in fact a rich and very powerful one. Nothing about it felt real.

“Well, well,” Malivette murmured as the three stood there like graceful statuary. “Irana Daraspian actually showed up. She must smell opportunity.”

“You invited a Daraspian?” Ravana replied equally softly but with scorn weighing her voice.

“All of them; they’re my neighbors. I didn’t imagine any would show. Irana heads a minor branch of the House down in Anteraas. Well, bluff called! Now we shall have to be warm and welcoming, and follow up with diplomatic and business opportunities for her, the scheming little bitch.”

“Even I know the Daraspians are trouble,” Natchua said at the same low volume. “What’s the worst case if we make this one unwelcome? I thought you said anybody who actually showed up would be lower nobility, not powerful enough to matter.”

“Our whole gambit here required us to move fast,” Malivette replied. “This necessitated incredibly short notice for the party. To invite nobility to a social event with less than a day’s notice is an insult; the dignity of the more powerful Houses demanded they snub us.”

Ravana picked up the explanation when she paused for breath. “To insult someone and then make it worth their while is a power move; to heap insult upon insult with no recompense is asking to be ganged up on by minor players who wouldn’t dare attack us on their own. Tonight we shall either gain significant influence among these lesser Houses or make a lot of enemies we don’t need, based on how we treat our guests.”

“What she’s saying, Natchua—”

“Yeah, yeah, be nice to the nest of vipers. I survived in Tar’naris as a farming peasant, I know how to avoid insulting the overbred wealthy.”

“How reassuring,” Ravana said with an audible smile.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Malivette added, “I saw the first one today. From a distance, of course.”

“First…?” Ravana shifted her head subtly to regard her sidelong.

“A young woman in the city. She had bleached her hair white and dyed a green stripe down the center.”

“What— Oy, that’s my thing!” Natchua snapped, barely remembering to remain still and not too loud while Ravana laughed quietly.

“You’re a celebrity, dear,” Malivette said with more than a touch of condescension. “If you’re going to cultivate a unique and striking appearance, people are going to imitate it.”

“Do try to enjoy it; this is the fun part,” Ravana chuckled. “If it becomes a trend, it will inevitably run its course and then you will find yourself the target of mockery for continuing to express a fashion which has fallen from vogue.”

“That is the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard of.”

“Then you need to get out more,” Malivette said merrily. “If it makes you feel better, those colors look repulsive on a human.”

“Why on this blighted earth would that make me feel better?”

“Mm, that one’s Irana Daraspian, yes?” Ravana interjected. “In the red gown and with that thing in her hair?”

“It’s called a tiara, Ravana,” Malivette explained. “Yes, that’s she.”

“It is an asinine affectation and in the days when they were a sign of rank a bottom-feeder like her would be asking for a flogging by wearing it. But now I see she has found friends. And if I am not mistaken, those simpletons are trying to bully Juniper.”

“Lady Sarideh and Lady Volsten,” Malivette said. “I didn’t know they knew each other. Those are both new Houses, elevated after the Enchanter Wars. Little more than merchant syndicates that own some land. Still, there’ll be no end of paperwork if Juniper does them like they’re asking for.”

“June is very serious about her religion,” Natchua said, “and she’s not the kind of Omnist who’s into martial arts. She’ll speak politely to them until she gets tired of it and then walk—yep, there she goes.”

Across the lawn, the disinterested dryad had turned and strolled away from the three noblewomen with no outward sign of discomfiture. Unlike her ever-present pet Sniff, who raised his crest and hissed loudly, causing Lady Volsten to shriek and accidentally hurl her champagne glass. A ripple of laughter spread through the surrounding party guests.

“I cannot fathom what those three were trying to achieve,” Ravana murmured wonderingly.

“Juniper is prettier than they are, and has more powerful friends,” Malivette explained. “Thus, they went on the attack to cut her down. You surprise me, Ravana. This is Rich Girl 101.”

“I’m afraid my upbringing was rather…isolated. My understanding of noble society more heavily emphasized coercion and the thwarting of assassins than forming social ties.”

“That explains everything just so very well,” the vampire muttered.

Natchua’s lips curled in a reminiscent smile and she softly recited, “Two is the optimal number of hench wenches for the appearance-minded alpha bitch.”

“See?” Malivette said. “Even the surly drow knows this stuff better than you. We have got to bring you to more parties, Ravana.”

“Why two?” the Duchess Madouri demanded, still quietly but indulging in a tone of overt annoyance. “It seems to me that in any form of warfare, even social, the greater one’s forces, the better.”

“One follower is just a friend hanging out with you,” Natchua explained. “More than that, and you start having problems managing the pack, plus the risk increases of one aspiring to unseat your position.”

“None of my friends behave that way,” Ravana said, frowning. “It sounds exhausting and self-defeating.”

“If you’re referring to your roommates, they’re all working-class people and thus more generally sensible than nobles,” Natchua agreed. “Anyway, did you see how those other two flanked Daraspian, one to each side? Social threat display. You can target one victim with that for good effect, while keeping the group small enough to maneuver through crowds, and best of all it emphasizes who’s in command.”

“I am more than a little disturbed to learn how much you’re absorbing from those succubi of yours,” Malivette commented.

Ravana glanced sidelong down their own formation, where Malivette, as the hostess, stood in the center.

“Oh, well played, Vette.”

“Ain’t my first rodeo, cowgirl,” the vampire said smugly.

“What the hell?” Natchua suddenly hissed, her eyes fixing on the gates and the figures which had just stepped through them. “What are they doing here?”

“Easy,” Malivette soothed. “Remember, poise. Don’t let them unsettle you.”

“Which one of you invited her?”

“Neither of us know the drow, I assumed it was you.”

“I sent announcement messages to my mother and Matriarch Ezrakhai stating that House Dalmiss was specifically unwelcome here—”

“Nice,” Malivette said with an approving grin. “Power move.”

“—but I definitely didn’t reach out to her!”

Ravana cleared her throat softly. “That is my friend Magister Talvrin, who is here at my invitation, and I gather, her surprising choice of plus one.”

The two women who had just stepped into the grounds caused a wide ripple of reaction from the assembled minor nobility. Of them, Talvrin was by far the most ostentatious, wearing a gown that appeared to be woven from shimmering streamers of azure light. A heavy golden mantle hovered six inches off her shoulders, trailing another light-woven cape down her back, and above her head floated a bejeweled circlet which slowly rotated in the air.

At her side, looking spartan by comparison in her dark formal robes, was Matriarch Ashaele of House Awarrion.

“Do you suppose she’s naked under that lightshow?” Malivette wondered.

“You know she can hear us, right?” Natchua muttered.

“Yup.”

Just below them, a man approached the steps a shade closer than was strictly proper given that the Duchesses had not officially started the festivities. Lars Dufresne, formerly Grusser as recently as that morning and now legally Malivette’s son despite being roughly her age, glanced pointedly around at the crowd and then gave his head of House a significant look with his eyebrows raised. Notably, he had spent the last several minutes discreetly gathering the attendees who the Duchesses knew from Last Rock; they had now arranged themselves in a staggered formation that at a glance looked like nothing but people standing around chatting but which nonetheless formed a bulwark between the steps and the crowd beyond.

“Your man has a deft hand at these maneuvers, Malivette,” Ravana said with clear approval. “I see why you chose him.”

“I am so glad Sherwin didn’t want to come,” Natchua muttered.

“And I believe he’s right,” Malivette decided. “Come, ladies. It’s time to face the music.”

As one, they stepped forward and down the stairs. The entire party responded, everyone shifting to face them and breaking into polite applause as the three heads of House finally set foot on the ground and began, officially, to mingle.

Thanks to Lars’s tactics, they were first met by friendly faces which protected them from the fortune-seekers beyond. Most of those closest by were the guests currently staying at Ravana’s mansion, though a few others from the school itself had turned up in response to the belated invitations.

Professor Rafe inhaled deeply, his thin chest swelling as he prepared to deliver his customary greeting.

Malivette pointed one finger at him. “So help me, little man, I will drain you like a shot of bourbon.”

At Rafe’s side, Professor Yornhaldt drove a blocky elbow into his waist, eliciting a grunt. “Thank you for thinking of us, ladies, this is just the diversion the winter break needed. Arachne said she might drop by later.”

“Meaning,” Rafe added, “she’ll only show up when she can make a grand entrance and be the center of attention.”

“Oh, good,” Ravana said cheerfully, “something to look forward to.”

Natchua, meanwhile, had gravitated toward the current junior class, those who had come, her eyes flicking to Trissiny’s extra guest.

“Teal and Shaeine have an important event in Madouris tonight,” Toby said to her, “and Ruda stayed to support them.”

“That’s perfectly fine,” Natchua assured them. “This was stupidly short notice and it’s very good of you all to have come. I really appreciate it.”

“Wow,” said Gabriel, “not even noble for a day and somebody’s already taught her manners.”

“Trissiny,” Natchua said pleasantly, “if Gabe’s gonna act like this all night I may loan you one of the punchbowls.”

The Hand of Avei heaved a sigh. “I’m never gonna live that down, am I?”

“Yeah, people are so dramatic,” Natchua agreed with a solemn nod. “You waterboard one person in public and everybody gets an attitude.”

“This is a great party, Natchua! Congratulations on everything!” Fross chimed, zipping around her head. “I never would’ve expected this but I really hope it works out well for you! Do you think Vette would mind if I examined these levitating constructs? They’ve got several really powerful static enchantments that you don’t often see combined but the overall structure is quite elegantly designed! I promise I won’t break one!”

“I…guess that’s…and she’s gone,” Natchua said, watching Fross’s glow disappear as the pixie zoomed right into the corona of light around one of the floating sources of heat and illumination. “So! If I had to guess, you must be Bishop Darling.”

“That I am,” he said with a gallant bow, taking her hand and raising it gracefully to his lips. “My heartfelt congratulations on your ascendance, Duchess Leduc. This is precisely the kick in the pants to Imperial nobility that Eserites like myself love to watch unfold.” Straightening back up, he winked as he released her hand. “Tell me, before I embarrass myself, what’s your policy on social flirting?”

“That’s…very flattering, your Grace,” she said with a smile of surprised amusement, “but I’m not on the market.”

“Oh, good heavens no, I’m way too old for you anyway. Sometimes the fun of a chase is not the catch, though. Have you ever seen a dog running after an enchanted carriage and then looking lost and confused when it stopped?”

“Wow,” she said. “You were not kidding, Trissiny. I think I owe you an apology.”

Darling turned a sidelong look on Trissiny. “Oh? Scale of one to ten, Thorn, how offended should I be?”

“How offended do you want to be?” she retorted. “I’m flexible.”

“Anyway,” said Darling, “I understand you wished to have a private chat later, your Grace, which would of course be both an honor and a pleasure. More the former than the latter, don’t worry! But I wouldn’t dream of monopolizing your time so early in the evening.”

“What’s this, now?” Malivette inquired, sliding into the conversation. “And a good evening to you, Bishop Darling, how absolutely lovely to see you again.”

“Duchess Dufresne! You’ve done an absolute wonder with this place, I swear I didn’t recognize it.”

Natchua glanced rapidly between them and then smirked. “Well, discretion aside, Malivette is my dear friend and political ally, and I wouldn’t dream of going behind her back. Vette, Trissiny was good enough to bring the Bishop at my request. I wanted to see about bringing the local Guild presence back up to a full complement for a city this size.”

Malivette was holding a wineglass. Her grip did not visibly shift, and her already-bloodless fingers didn’t whiten when flexed anyway, but abruptly a hairline crack appeared on it. “Did you, now?” she inquired in a saccharine tone that made most of the onlookers take a step back.

“Why, my dear Duchess,” Darling said smoothly, “I do hope this is not an unwelcome surprise! If you have some…specific objection to an Eserite presence in your city, I should be only too happy to convey it to Boss Tricks. I’m sure he would be most intrigued to hear exactly why.”

The vampire turned her pleasant smile upon him, saying nothing. He smiled right back, not yielding an inch.

“As much as I’m tempted to see how this plays out,” Natchua interjected, “you need to settle down, Vette. You’re the one who set up our whole alliance of Houses, here. You’re surely aware that Ravana has already thrust herself into the middle of the Shaathist schism on the reformist side, and how that places us with regard to the Universal Church. Whatever else Eserites do, right now strengthening ties with the Thieves’ Guild is just good sense.”

“After tomorrow,” Toby interjected in a tone of calm that seemed to almost forcibly leech some of the tension from the air, “that position will also bring you into alignment with the three Trinity cults. I don’t pretend to understand the undercurrents here, but Natchua is correct. It’s an advantageous position.”

“Perhaps we should indeed have a nice, discreet chat about this,” Malivette said. “I trust you won’t mind if I tag along, your Grace?”

“Why, your Grace, if Duchess Leduc doesn’t object, nothing ever makes me happier than the company of yet another charming young lady,” he said smoothly.

“Omnu’s breath,” Gabriel said, staring at him. “How do women not stab you? I would get stabbed, acting like that.”

“Yeah, you probably would, Gabe,” Darling agreed. “The secret is to pick your targets. It’s actually not difficult to avoid pestering people who won’t find it funny.”

Trissiny smiled mischievously. “And yet…”

“You hush it,” Gabriel ordered. “Anyway, Natch, I don’t see, um…”

“Jonathan’s inside, hanging out with the servants in the kitchen,” she said. “He was almost as put off as me at the thought of having to hobnob with nobles, and since I’m the only one who actually has to I didn’t have the heart to insist he join me out here. And Hesthri is here. Over there, by the buffet. She’s wearing a disguise ring and serving canapes.”

Gabriel straightened up, scowling. “You made her serve food?”

“Her idea,” Natchua clarified grinning at him, “and she thought it was hilarious. I mostly went along because I was curious whether you’d forget you were supposed to be all suspicious of her and get offended on her behalf. Thanks a lot, by the way, now I owe Jonathan a doubloon.”

He stared at her, blinking repeatedly, while Trissiny and Toby looked elsewhere and did a poor job of not laughing out loud.

“Anyway,” Natchua said, nodding as gracefully as she could manage to everyone, “please excuse me for scampering off, but I need to go have a…less pleasant conversation. I’ll chat with you soon, Bishop Darling. And all of you, I hope. I’ll probably be in desperate need of better company before this night is over.”

“I don’t know about better,” Toby said with a smile, “but we can probably do less stressful. Break a leg, Natch.”

She smiled at him and turned away. The expression slid off her face, replaced by a grim stare as she strode straight for Talvrin and Ashaele.

Watching her go, Darling let out a low whistle. “I wonder if it might be safest to remove ourselves from the fallout radius?”

“Natchua has her issues, but she’s not some kind of wild animal,” Gabriel said grudgingly. “It’s not like she’ll— What the hell?”

All of them turned as their group was approached by a fifth, Malivette having already slipped away to join Ravana in speaking with some of the others from Last Rock. The paladins and Bishop all raised their eyebrows in surprised response to their new arrival’s welcoming smile.

“Good evening, children. Antonio,” she said, nodding her head courteously.

“Branwen,” said Darling, staring at her. “Well, well. I was…specifically not expecting you.”

“How the hell’d you get in here?” Gabriel demanded. “There’s no way you were invited.”

“It’s a funny thing, celebrity,” Bishop Snowe replied with a benign smile. “When one is a Bishop of the Universal Church and a well-known columnist and public speaker, one seldom encounters servants willing to risk turning one away.”

“Mm,” Toby murmured blandly. “When you put it like that, it stands to reason. I guess you don’t even strictly need to be a busty redhead anymore.” Trissiny and Gabriel both turned to him in utter surprise; Darling clenched his lips to suppress a grin.

Bishop Snowe was not in the least put off, just smiling mischievously at Toby. “No, that’s purely for my own enjoyment, although it doesn’t hurt. That’s here, though. The guardians of Madouri Manor are made of more disciplined stuff; that tends to be the case in any household overseen by a Butler. Regardless, I don’t plan to remain long enough to wear out my welcome. Speaking of invitations, I am only here to deliver one, in a manner of speaking. Antonio, would you excuse us for a moment?”

Darling raised one eyebrow, and then turned to the paladins. “What do you think? Shall I excuse you for a moment?”

“We like him more than you,” Trissiny said curtly to Snowe. “What do you want?”

“As you wish,” she replied with a gracious bow of her head. Then she straightened and her intonation shifted to a formal, even ceremonious declamation as she held her head high. “Hands of Avei, Omnu, and Vidius, by the ancient compact of the Universal Church which binds together the faiths of the Pantheon in common cause, you are summoned by his Holiness Archpope Justinian to his presence.”

They all stared at her in astonished silence.

“Not right this minute, of course,” Branwen continued, abruptly reverting to her pleasantly casual demeanor. “Please, take your time and enjoy the party; I understand the new Duchess Leduc is rather counting on your support. But this evening, afterward, his Holiness awaits you at the Grand Cathedral. I fear it will be rather late by then, but perhaps it’s for the best. With most of the world asleep, you should have a greater expectation of privacy.”

“And for what possible reason would we wish to accommodate him?” Toby asked at last.

“He doesn’t actually have the authority to command us,” Trissiny added, “and quite frankly I’m disinclined to create the impression that he can.”

“It is an invitation,” Branwen said gently, “not a command. But I cannot imagine why you would want to decline, in all honesty.”

“Yes you can,” Darling replied in apparently perfect calm. “Don’t play games like that with this lot, Bran, it’s really not helping your case.”

“Very well, my apologies,” she said, nodding her head again. “I of course cannot speak for his Holiness’s inner thoughts; I know only what he has told me. And in all honesty, he does take actions which I neither understand nor approve of. But I remain loyal to his cause, because he has earned that trust from me. I suppose, however,” she went on in a musing tone, “that if I were in his position, I would consider your unfolding plot to politically attack him and preemptively set you up to discredit yourselves by refusing a perfectly reasonable invitation to talk in favor of partying with your warlock drow friend. In what amounts to a battle of public appearances, such things do matter a great deal.”

They all stared at her again, once more reduced to silence.

“On the other hand,” Branwen said pleasantly, “perhaps I am just employing reverse psychology to nudge you in the direction I want. I suppose it must be a dilemma.”

“Gabe,” said Trissiny, staring at the Izarite Bishop, “fetch me a punchbowl.”

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16 – 30

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My help?”

Natchua made a wry expression. “Is that so astonishing? You’re a paladin, I thought helping people was all part of the job.”

“Well, yes, but… I mean, in very specific… I’m just surprised you need something from me.” Trissiny cleared her throat, grasping for the remnants of her poise and studiously ignoring Gabriel’s insufferable grin. “Is this somehow related to your, ah, social event this evening? And congratulations on that, by the way.”

“It is, yes, and thank you,” Natchua replied, grimacing.

“Okay, not to de-Rail this,” Gabriel interjected, “but I’m sorry, I’ve just gotta. You’re going to be a noble, now? An Imperial noble?”

“A Duchess, so they tell me,” Natchua grumbled, her expression growing if anything more unhappy. “Look, I’m aware this whole thing probably seems like me conning my way into… Well, let me just be clear, this is something Malivette and Ravana have cooked up between them, and Sherwin’s on board because, honestly, can you imagine him holding out with those two trying to wheedle him into doing whatever thing they have in mind?”

“Oh, that makes sense.”

“Yeah, I can see it.”

“How has nobody murdered him yet? I shoulda taken that bet when Ruda offered it.”

“I,” Natchua continued irritably, “am going along with this because I have been persuaded that it’s in the best interests of Veilgrad, and of…me. That doesn’t mean I don’t have reservations.”

“Yeah, funny how becoming a high-ranking aristocrat can be in the best interests of you,” Gabriel said innocently.

“Being involved in that kind of power is very much a double-edged sword, Gabriel, and I know you’re smart enough to know that. For one thing, after this summer, apparently it carries a risk of being visited by you three in a waterboarding mood!”

“You really know how to ask for a favor,” Trissiny snapped.

Natchua pressed one hand to the side of her face and closed her eyes for a moment. “I… Sorry. You’re right, I’m sorry, that’s just the worry talking. Omnu’s balls, I am out of my depth with this entire thing… Oh, uh, sorry, Toby.”

“If he’s not going to take exception to that, I’m certainly not,” Toby replied, amused. “I decided long ago that picking my battles meant that one was never going to be on the agenda. Why don’t we have a seat over here, by the fireplace? I can tell you’re stressed by all this, Natchua. These things are often easier to discuss in more comfortable surroundings. Care for something to nosh? Apparently the kitchen here is always open, and the staff seems to take real pride in fulfilling requests.”

“Still the team dad, I see,” Natchua said, even as she allowed him to lead her to the sofa nearest the main hearth. “Uh, no thanks, I’m honestly too nervous to eat. You all got your invitations, right?”

“We did,” Trissiny answered, perching on the arm of a plush armchair while Gabriel flopped fully into another one. Toby and Natchua both elected to stand, she already beginning to pace back and forth in front of the fire. “Thanks for thinking of us, Natchua, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it. No slight intended, we’re just…kind of up to our necks in something, here.”

“That’s fine, I know it’s ridiculously short notice,” Natchua agreed, nodding. “It’s… Okay, that’s as good a segue as any. All this is pretty much what I wanted to ask you about, Trissiny.”

Segue or not, she then stopped talking, pacing a few laps up and down in front of the fire with a perturbed expression while the three paladins watched. After a few seconds, Gabriel opened his mouth, but Toby caught his eye and gave a single shake of his head. It was only a moment longer before Natchua finally found the thread of her thoughts again.

“So, there’s a lot of preparatory work involved in this noble thing, you know? And because Vette and Ravana are so dead set on moving fast to take everybody by surprise, it’s all being crammed in at the last second, so I’ve spent my morning dealing with… Just, all kinds of bullshit. But anyway, the thing that stuck out to me was my interview with the old steward of House Leduc. Scrappy old Vernisite guy, seems to be completely still there in the head despite his age. Under Sherwin he’s had basically nothing to do except make sure the Manor gets its weekly food delivery, and he was so excited that it’s going to be an actual House again.”

“What does that entail, exactly?” Gabriel asked. “I mean, being an actual House again. Not that I’m criticizing, you understand. Even you cannot possibly be a worse leader than Sherwin.”

“I don’t entirely know is the problem,” Natchua said in mounting frustration. “That’s exactly the issue! Apparently there’s a lot and I comprehend very little of it, but there are all these well-trained people who are oh so happy to step in and take all the details off my hands. It all came to a head for me when I was listening to Mr. Vonstraum—uh, that’s the steward I was talking about—tell me what kind of business and financial enterprises a fully active noble House is expected to do, and then there was this…this one moment.”

She abruptly stopped pacing, turning to meet Trissiny’s eyes.

“He mentioned how the Thieves’ Guild in Veilgrad is basically an afterthought since House Leduc withdrew from all its activities. Just a few people with nothing to do, really.”

“We discovered that when we were there,” Toby said, nodding. “What Eserites there still are have other priorities, too. Apparently the Underboss is in the Army, and one of the others ended up as one of Malivette’s…uh, attendants.”

“Jade, yeah,” Natchua said with a mirthless grin. “’Attendant’ is a word for it, I guess. But anyway, it was the way Vonstraum said this. He was practically drooling at the prospect of doing business in a Guild-free city.”

“I was never real clear on why that’s the case,” Gabriel added. “What about Veilgrad discourages Eserite activity?”

“Veilgrad’s a scary place,” Trissiny explained. “The Guild is active where there are powerful interests being predatory. And…that’s not really how things work, there; the usual predators are the prey. With the local ruler being a fair-minded vampire with an interventionist streak, it’s very hard for large-scale corruption that to take root. The way I understand it, the Guild was only needed to keep House Leduc itself in check, because they were the only ones with the oomph to push back against House Dufresne. With them effectively gone…” She spread her hands in a half-shrug.

“Exactly!” Natchua nodded. “That’s it exactly. To be frank, I’m not sure it was ever a great idea for the Guild to draw down with Malivette in charge, just because she doesn’t tend to pick on the little guys; that’s a lady who urgently needs some checks on her power if I ever met one. But now House Leduc is coming back, and… Trissiny, you’re the only Guild contact I know. I need to get more people out there to my city. Veilgrad needs a full Thieves’ Guild presence, as quickly as possible.”

All three stared at her in surprise while she gazed earnestly at Trissiny.

“Wait, so…” Toby blinked. “Your first act upon joining the nobility is to try to increase the Eserite presence in your domain? You do know how they tend to feel about nobles?”

“Of course I know,” Natchua said testily, shooting him a scowl. “That is literally the entire point, Caine, I thought I just explained that.”

“Well, this is pretty on-brand for you, Natch,” Gabriel said with a sigh. “First you make me grudgingly respect you, and then you immediately ruin it.”

“…sorry.” The drow lowered her eyes, her shoulder shifting in a small exhalation. “I know, you’re right, I’m not very… Well, you know. It’d be easy enough to say I’m only going to do business in a certain way, but the overarching lesson of my day so far has been that I do not in the slightest understand how a noble House operates. It’s a hugely complex enterprise, and apparently it’s able to function pretty well without much direct oversight, but here’s the thing: my options are to reactivate what remains of the old Leduc structure, with all the corruption and predation that implies, or allow Malivette to basically hand-pick one for me, which’ll effectively make me her pawn. I’d be wary of that even if she and Ravana weren’t conspiring to reshape the political landscape of the Empire for their personal benefit. Eventually, I’m sure I’ll figure it out. I’m a pretty fast learner; I know I’ll ultimately have it in hand, and be able to control my people properly. But that’s eventually. Nobles get trained for this from birth, and for good reason. It’ll likely take me years to be in full control, and in that time the gods only know what kind of havoc will be unleashed in my name, to say nothing of what Vette will do with her own reaffirmed authority over the province. I just… I will feel a lot safer with a firm presence in Veilgrad to keep the nobles in check. At least until I can wrap my head around the running of House Leduc’s interests enough to handpick better people for its agents and put some rules in place, but even after that point. Just, on general principles, you know? Nobles should not be free to do whatever goddamn thing they want, and with Vette in as good as she is with the Throne, Tiraas won’t help. I need the Guild. Can you help me, Trissiny?”

Her expression was very nearly pleading.

Trissiny inhaled deeply, blinking her eyes as if she was having difficulty processing all this. “Okay… Well, first of all, Natchua, there’s really not a thing I can do about this. I’ve got no operational control at all within the Guild.”

“What?” Natchua looked incredulous. “You don’t— But wasn’t it a huge deal when you joined up with them? I mean, you’re the Hand of Avei!”

“And in the Sisterhood of Avei, yes, that’s a big deal,” Trissiny said wryly, “but one thing Eserites really do not like is people trying to claim unearned authority over them. My Avenist rank means nothing there except for a quick way to piss everybody off if I tried throwing it around. In the Thieves’ Guild I’m just a bottom-ranking neophyte enforcer with no major jobs to her name and only a few connections.”

“I see.” Natchua’s shoulders slumped.

“Now, hang on,” said Trissiny. “Guys, were you leaning toward attending that coming-out party at Malivette’s place tonight? I know we’re busy, but…”

“I’m not sure what else is going to happen on this front between now and tomorrow,” said Toby. “That’s when our big announcements are all being made, right?”

“I was definitely planning to go,” Gabriel added. “Accepting Ravana’s invitation out here meant not going home for the winter; I’m not gonna pass up a chance to see my dad again if one pops up like this.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Natchua said, nodding eagerly at him. “Hesthri would also love a chance to spend some time with you.”

“Mnh,” he grunted, almost aggressively noncommittal.

“Right, so, here’s the bad news,” said Trissiny. “There’s some kind of issue in the Guild’s upper leadership right now that may impede any major operations or reassignments. The good news is that what you’re talking about here should appeal to any Eserite in principle. And I do happen to know exactly the right person to pull the strings I can’t and get some more people sent out to Veilgrad, if it can be done. So yeah, Natchua, I’ll be there tonight, and if I can make my RSVP plus one, I may be able to answer your request.”


“I’ve gotta say, Sweet, I’m surprised to see you comin’ to me with this.”

Ever the gracious host, Vandro waited till his guest was comfortably seated in his parlor with a scone in hand and the other members of the household likewise served before firing off the piercing question.

“Well, who else would I come to?” Sweet asked with his usual disarming grin, one Webs would naturally recognize as a facade. He wasn’t interested in wasting time playing mind games with this one; so long as Webs was likewise willing to keep the conversational chicanery to the necessary minimum, there was no reason this couldn’t be a civil discussion. “You know I like to cultivate my own networks, but let’s be honest, the both of us inherently limit ourselves purely because of who we choose to pal around with. And I’ll freely admit that the political hamster wheel I’ve been running since Ninkabi has cut down on my ability to keep up with even my usual rounds in the city. If I’m looking for dirt on Tricks… Well, who’s the most well-connected critic of Tricks to be found?”

“Hm,” Vandro murmured, actually taking a sip of his omnipresent blue cocktail. Sweet took that as a sign he was surprised by all this; the man was famously never without an alcoholic drink, but usually brandished it undrunk as a conversational prop, and was known to put people off guard by pretending to be impaired while stone sober.

He was the only one drinking. Sweet and Thumper had both declined cocktails, and Wilberforce hadn’t even bothered to ask Gimmick. The Butler was now off in the kitchen preparing tea while the four of them sat around the low parlor table with scones which none of them were eating.

Vandro was silent for the moment, holding the cocktail just under his nose and studying Sweet through pensively narrowed eyes. That was a good sign; he’d take pains to obscure his acute analysis if he thought they were at cross-purposes. Always ready to deflect awkwardness anyway, Sweet decided to give Webs whatever time he needed to ponder by switching the focus of the conversation.

“Thumper, you’re limping. What’ve you done to yourself this time? I honestly thought you’d lay low for a while after you got out Style’s tender care.”

“You bet your ass I have,” Thumper assured him. “I’m fine, Sweet, this is just a li’l momento of my last chat with Style. It’ll straighten out in time.”

“What?” Sweet scowled in sudden displeasure. “Style wasn’t supposed to fucking maim you, the Boss was crystal clear on that.”

“Oh, she didn’t,” Webs interjected, now watching Thumper with an annoyed grimace. “Style’s nothing if not a pro. And Jerry here would be back to a hundred percent long since if he’d gotten a proper healing and then stayed off his feet for a week like the docs goddamn well instructed. I keep tellin’ you, boy, what’s the damn point of me hirin’ the best healers in the capital if you won’t fucking do what they say?”

“I hear you, Alan,” Shook replied with the patience of a man who’d had this conversation repeatedly and expected to do so again. “An’ like I told you, I’m fine. It’s fine. Main project of my life right now is gettin’ my own head together, what with all the magic bullshit and that succubus, not to mention cleaning up after my own goddamn stupidity. A little pain here an’ there helps me focus. It’s not like I don’t have it coming, anyway.”

“Omnu’s balls, Thumper!” Sweet exclaimed. “You have got an absolute genius for taking the wrong lesson from any given situation. Walking around wounded is useful for exactly nothing! You wanna engage in self-flagellating bullshit, just join the Huntsmen and have done with it.”

“The hell you say,” Thumper retorted with a smirk, straightening one of his lapels. “Have you seen how those assholes dress?”

“He has been attending Avenist temple services,” Saduko commented, and then met Thumper’s annoyed scowl with a polite little smile.

“Yeah, and ain’t that the fuckin’ icing on the cake,” Vandro huffed.

“Hey, it’s instructive!” Shook protested. “I’ve already spotted half a dozen specific ways in which they are full a’ shit, but also a good handful of useful thinkin’ points I never considered before. Man’s gotta keep an open mind, y’know? Just not too open.”

Vandro cleared his throat pointedly before bringing the conversation back on track. “Well, Sweet, I gotta ask: what is it about this that’s got you scheming to knock Tricks off his pedestal? So he’s bein’ high-handed and too much in control; I’ve been sayin’ that for years.”

“First of all,” Sweet said flatly, setting his scone and plate down on the table, “nobody’s knocking anybody anywhere. My whole point here is to find out if it’s gonna be necessary to do anything about Tricks, which is why I’m here asking what else you might know about him overreaching.”

“All right, well, fact remains, it seems like an arbitrary thing to me. So he tried to rip off the Falconers. Why’re you so fond of them? Or that weirdo fuckin’ demon dog of theirs?”

“I struggle to have any opinion about the Falconers or their pets,” Sweet replied. “They seem okay, for industrialists, but who’s got tears to spare for the problems of rich people? My issue is who they’re connected to. That dog also belongs to the drow wife of the Falconer heiress, who is a noble of the Narisian diplomatic House—and this right at a moment when shit between the elves and the Empire is at maximum tension to begin with. And then there is fucking Vadrieny. That little snatch-and-grab could’ve kicked off a massive diplomatic crisis, which would make it a colossally goddamn stupid thing to do, and it sent two Guild members in good standing right into the claws of an archdemon without warning ‘em they were about to piss her off. Whatever you think about Tricks’s leadership style, he’s never been stupid, and he has never mishandled honest thieves like that before. Something is up, Webs.”

“Huh,” Vandro grunted, swirling his cocktail and staring at it. “When y’put it like that, I do kinda see your point. But that highlights the problem here, Sweet: it takes a little explainin’ to the likes of me to suss out why Tricks may be acting out of character. By the same token, most of my, shall we call ‘em, social circle likely haven’t noticed anything outta the ordinary either. Those who think the way I do are not likely to be happy about the Boss anyway, and I can’t say how many will share your observation that this is something new an’ different.”

Saduko cleared her throat. “Also, as Webs has been very clear that he is not interested in plotting to unseat the Boss, most of those who have his ear will not have been watching Tricks more closely than anyone else.”

Sweet raised his eyebrows. “Really?”

“Yeah, while we’re talkin’ about this, I gotta say I never got it,” Thumper admitted. “You’re always goin’ on about how much you don’t like Tricks’s leadership, Alan. That Om’ponole job in Onkawa that went so completely tits up sounded like you were beginning to work on a longer-term plan to undercut his authority. What changed?”

“You think anything’s changed?” Vandro chuckled. “Not to put too fine a point on it, Jerry m’boy, I’ve spent the last couple years largely worryin’ about you. But no, I have still been running jobs, and even moved myself back here to Tricks’s backyard to keep doin’ it. Being that I am not angling to take over his position, the best play to undercut him is to earn more cred than he is while loudly complaining about his leadership. Truth be told, it’s not gonna draw much attention except from the people who specifically keep an eye on Guild politics. But then, that’s exactly the point.”

“I’m not sure I see the point of it, then,” said Thumper. “You’d be as good a Boss as he is. If you’re not gonna try to take over, what—”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah!” Vandro leaned back in his seat, holding up his cocktail and his free hand in a defensive gesture. “I’m an operations guy, Jerry. That’s what I do: I plan big jobs and direct my minions with a firm guiding hand. The only thing that makes me any better than Tricks is I damn well know my place! The Guild’s not supposed to be run like a tight ship. Boss Webs would be the same shit from a new asshole. That’s why I’m not trying to unseat the Boss. I got no business doing that, when there’s no adequate replacement for him lined up. Best use of me right now is to use my influence to counter his.”

“It might not be as hard as you think,” Sweet murmured. “Tricks has hinted to me for years that he wouldn’t mind passing the job back…”

“Perhaps I do not understand,” Saduko said delicately. “I know the central operation of the Guild in Sifan is different, as with all the Pantheon cults. Leadership there is a position of honor, for which there is much competition. Is it truly not so in Tiraas?”

“Aren’t you half-Sheng?” Thumper asked. “I thought their branch of the Guild ran more or less like the Imperial one.”

“I am an Imperial citizen,” she said in such an icy tone that he leaned away from her, “and I have never been to Shengdu.”

“Way I hear it, nothing there that’s worth seeing is still standing after the civil war,” Vandro said lightly. “But no, Gimmick, around these parts we take it as given that anybody who wants to be in power is automatically disqualified. So,” he added with a grimace, “I’m well aware that my carrying on may result in exactly that. If I just didn’t care for the position, I might suck it up and try to move in on Tricks anyway, but my specific point is that I wouldn’t be a better Boss than he is—or even a much different one. So me tryin’ to take his job would be nothing but a completely pointless upset of the Guild’s operations. But!”

He leaned forward, brandishing his cocktail almost accusingly at Sweet.

“Now you’ve brought this up, Sweet, I’ll tell you what I can do for you. I got no answers for you right now, but you’re right that I’m in good with the people who can get ‘em. It’s a matter of askin’ some friends of mine to think carefully about things they may’ve seen lately, and start looking closer at other stuff. It’s doable. But the price I demand for this assistance is your backing if we decide what’s needed is a new Boss. I got somebody in mind who I think would be the best candidate to take over.”

“Once again, Webs,” Sweet said firmly, “I am not committing to that course of action yet. I’m still in the very early stages of deciding if that’s what needs to be done.”

“Of course, everybody’s clear on that,” Webs replied, waving his sloshing drink impatiently, “that’s why I said if with all the emphasis. If, Sweet.”

“All right, if,” he replied. “Obviously I’m not gonna sign off on something like that without knowing exactly who you’re planning to put forward.”

“Is it really not obvious?” Vandro grinned broadly at him. “Nobody here actually thinks we need a new Boss as such; we’re all just concerned about the current one. If the worst case scenario has to go down, it’ll mean massive disruption in the Guild, and the next poor bastard to fill the role needs to be both very familiar with its workings and very skilled at soothing people’s ruffled feathers and coaxing folks back to business as usual. I’m talking about you, Sweet.”

“Huh,” Thumper said into the startled silence which ensued. He and Gimmick were both studying Sweet pensively. That was the moment when Wilberforce bustled back into the room with a laden tray and began pouring tea.

“I, uh… I feel like I’ve skipped a chapter, here,” Sweet admitted after taking a moment to gather his thoughts. “It was my impression you weren’t much more pleased with my performance as Boss than Tricks’s, Alan.”

“Only problem I had with you was that your obsession with not rocking the boat came right after Catseye set it on a dangerous course, Antonio. That woulda been a problem just because she was so ham-fisted, but there’s also the fact that trying to transition from a Boss who was boinking the Empress to a Boss and an Emperor who weren’t even on speaking terms without functionally changing our methods made our legal position shakier than it needed to be.”

Thumper had just choked on a bite of his scone, and Saduko hesitated in lifting her teacup, staring at Vandro with wide eyes. Wilberforce simply carried on distributing cups as if he could hear none of this.

“Hey, now, let’s not distribute scurrilous rumors about the dead,” Sweet protested.

“Pardon me,” Vandro said wryly, “but isn’t your whole point in bein’ here an acknowledgment that I know stuff you don’t? Trust me, Sweet. It wasn’t every Thursday night or nothin’, but Catseye and Theasia hit the sheets at least a handful of times during their overlapping reigns. They were in bed politically speaking on a much consistent basis, to the point of the Guild being used more’n a few times to shut down Theasia’s opponents. You’re pretty cozy with the Empire, true, but not in the same way, and your throwdown with Justinian this fall proved to my satisfaction you’ve got a line past which you’ll take a stand for Eserite principle. What is important here is that you are here, concerned about this and taking action. If it turns out that Tricks has gone bad and needs to go, I’m satisfied you will recognize the need for change and do what needs to be done to fix whatever else he broke. I’ll have your back, if that’s the case, but I won’t try to tell you what to do. Me bein’ the power behind the throne ain’t any better than me taking over in person. So that’s the deal, Sweet. I’ll help you figure out what’s up, on the condition that if we decide Tricks is compromised like you fear, you will take your old job back.”

Sweet stared at him in consternation; Webs just gazed back, a knowing little smile hovering around his mouth.

“It’d…probably be easier,” Thumper offered after a few seconds of silence. “Everybody likes you, Sweet. And we know from history that you’re a competent Boss.” Saduko nodded mutely.

“All right…look.” Sweet shook his head. “I am going to proceed on the assumption that this is all theoretical and hope that stays the case, all right?”

“Sure,” Webs agreed. “I would too. But…”

Sweet heaved a sigh. “But… I’m not gonna make you any promises about how long I would stay in the big chair, Webs. You no doubt remember I didn’t go for a fraction of Catseye’s longevity last time.”

“Even better,” Vandro said with a broad grin. “Cos I know you also won’t step down until you’ve got somebody lined up who you’re sure can handle the job right.”

“Isn’t that exactly what got us into this situation?”

Vandro shrugged. “If we’re proceeding on the assumption that whatever’s up with Tricks is a new development, I don’t see how you could’ve anticipated it years ago. And maybe this’ll teach you something about picking a successor with a less hands-on approach next time.”

“How sure are you that your network can turn up the info we need, anyway?”

“How sure are you that Tricks is actually compromised?” Vandro retorted with a smug little grin.

Sweet indulged in glaring at him. He had not come here prepared to make a decision like this… Which, of course, was exactly why Webs was springing it on him now. And the truth was, it was a well-sprung trap. If he tried to deflect or put this off, Webs would take it as a refusal, and then… Could he dig up the information he needed without him? That was frustratingly unclear. He’d already spoken with Glory, who was also well-connected in the city and throughout the Empire, and they had the same problem: both were known to be generally well-disposed toward Tricks, which meant Guild members who shared Vandro’s viewpoint would be skeptical of them if approached. Some could be brought around, sure, but how fast? How much time did they even have left to work on this?

Damn it, he was cornered. The decision had to be made now. He’d just have to hope it was the right call… And that he could fix it, somehow, if he was making a mistake.

“All right, Webs. Deal.”

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