Tag Archives: Queen Arkasia

Bonus #56: Accursed, part 2

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She inhaled slowly to steady herself, drawing in the scents of sweetened coffee, the faint fragrance of coral and shimmerkelp transmitted into the room by the enchantments on its glass walls. Anlin and her father kept their eyes on her, expressions intent but not pushing.

“At first it appears to be a mundane illness. Dizziness, fainting spells. It escalates into sleep disruption; sufferers will be insomniac for days at a time, and then practically narcoleptic for a similar period. It struck the children first, the youngest. That was the stage when the shaman began to be worried, and Iridi called for me to come. We…can find nothing. No trace of physical disease, and no sign of a magical cause. Soon after that, the first of their parents began to show symptoms; they progress much more slowly in adults. They were still fully lucid while it took the children completely.”

“Took?” Vynlian’s voice was suddenly hollow. Despite everything, despite the very irony, the horror in his eyes warmed Kuriwa’s heart slightly. These children might be woodkin, and the living evidence of her rejection of his very culture, but even so, even having known of their existence for only minutes, he feared for their fates as any grandfather would.

“They live,” Kuriwa assured him, managing a weak smile as some of the tension left his shoulders and Anlin reached over to touch his wrist. “When it worsened, the grove shaman and I decided to intervene and place them in suspension. Well, what you would consider suspension; to our sensibilities it is a sleeping curse, and an act of true desperation. It was better than letting them suffer. They gradually lost the ability to sense and interact with their surroundings; it became nearly impossible to keep them fed. They suffered…nightmares. Constant, waking visions of terror. Only when some of the adults reached this stage did we begin to realize that the victim’s consciousness is being affected dimensionally. Over time they cease to perceive the mortal plane. Their senses are bringing them data from a different one.”

“Hell?” Anlin asked tersely.

Kuriwa shook her head. “The space between.”

Vynlian closed his eyes. “Veth’na alaue.”

“Father!” Anlin exclaimed.

Kuriwa had not been aware he even knew any grove dialect, though it made a certain kind of sense that he had picked up a few curses, given the way their conversations usually went.

“It moves slowly upward along generational lines,” she continued. “There is no discernible transmission vector in real space. It affects only my own direct descendants; no one who has worked with or been near any victims has manifested symptoms. One brave young shaman did everything she could to expose herself to infection in order to test this. She got bronchitis and ringworm, but no hint of the curse.”

“What is ringworm?” Vynlian demanded.

“A common skin parasite, affecting only humans. For an elf to contract it… Well, that she did satisfies me that she could not contract the curse.”

He nodded, and gestured her with one hand to continue.

“In addition to only striking my descendants, it strikes them all. Even those who have had no contact with others since the second war. I’ve traveled to every grove where my roots extend and warned them. In each community, no matter how isolated, it was appearing. I was able to warn the Elders to put the children in suspension before their suffering grew extreme. It is three generations up, now. A few of my grandchildren are showing the earliest symptoms.”

Her father drew in a slow breath. “All right. The groves cannot possibly have sufficient medical facilities to handle this. Everyone in the bloodline must be brought to Qestraceel. Anlin and I will make the necessary permits happen.”

Kuriwa was already shaking her head. “It’s too risky to move the youngest victims, father, and given the dimensional element of the curse, you must realize we can’t risk teleporting them, philosophical agreements aside.”

He sighed, but grudgingly nodded. “That is true.”

“And you are letting cultural bias seep through, father,” Anlin added. “Fae magic has always been better suited for healing than arcane. The woodkin possess all the medical knowledge we do, and have never been shy about asking for our help when they needed it. And yet, it’s been historically far more common that we have had to turn to the groves in the case of difficult illnesses.”

Vynlian pursed his lips together. “Fine. But with neither biological nor magical cause to be found, it is clear that we must investigate the possibility of prevention. Your own children at least, Av—Kuriwa, should come here for observation. If we can catch this thing as it comes upon them…”

“I suggested that very step,” she admitted. “My granddaughter Lanaera would like to come; she has not shown symptoms yet and has always been curious about Qestraceel. All my own offspring refused, however.”

“What stories did you raise them on, exactly?” he snapped.

She hadn’t been planning to bring it up, but needled by that remark, Kuriwa shot back, “They can’t all legally enter the city, anyway. Or has the prohibition on dragons been lifted in my absence?”

Vynlian stared at her, his face settling into a politician’s blank mask. Then, slowly, he leaned forward, placing his head in his hands and nearly knocking his cooling coffee to the floor with an errant elbow.

“Honestly, Kuriwa,” Anlin said, shaking her head. “You know I’m on your side, but there comes a point when even I have to suspect you’re just acting out.”

“In my earliest years on the surface, I was definitely doing exactly that,” Kuriwa acknowledged. “I cannot even say my decisions were mostly good ones during the first two centuries. But even choices which I now recognize as mistakes have led to the existence of living people, my own children. Scions of our bloodline. Their lives are now in danger.”

“Yes.” Vynlian straightened, his expression resolute again. “Yes, and at a time like this, castigating you for past mistakes is foolish. We have none of us always made perfect decisions. Such as now, for instance, I am jumping to solutions when I should have waited for you to finish your description of the curse, daughter.”

She leaned over, reaching to take his hand. “You act out of care, father. It gladdens me to see. Even flawed as we are as a family, I’ve never once doubted that you loved me.”

He squeezed her hand back, returning her smile.

“Before you leave, sister, we will definitely have to devote some time just to moments like that,” said Anlin with a wan smile. “But right now, it’s also a distraction. What else can you tell us about this curse?”

“Right.” Kuriwa drew back her hand. “Obviously, I’ve done everything I can think of. Yes, father, I have been reluctant to come back here, I admit that, but it’s not as if the surface world lacks options. Qestraceel is a latter resort, but not the last one. We’ve tested every known type of healing against this curse. The wood elves are unmatched in the fae arts, and I also brought in divine healers. Human, dwarf, gnome, tauhanwe…”

Vynlian frowned. “Tauhanwe? That can’t mean what it sounds like it means.”

“You have your renunciates,” she explained, “we have ours. Some not suited to grove life come to Questraceel and apply for citizenship; others run off to live with humans, or do things even more foolish. There are elves among most Pantheon cults, and I begged the aid of any I could find. Even the Salyrites had nothing to offer. I have stopped short of calling upon a warlock…so far.”

“That might be a fruitful avenue to pursue,” Anlin murmured, “if this does stem from Elilial.”

“I do know one,” Kuriwa admitted. “As mentally stable as any ever are, who holds a khaladesh demon in thrall which is clever enough to possibly be useful. I consider that a desperate act not to be bothered with unless the knowledge of the high elves fails as well. If even that yields nothing… I do have a promising solution to pursue, but it is sheer madness.” She hesitated, averting her eyes from their sudden frown. “To protect my family, I will embrace madness if I must. But not as anything but a last resort.”

“What else have you tried?” Vynlian asked quietly.

“The drow,” she said, and they both grimaced.

“What drow?” Vynlian demanded. “Please tell me you haven’t delved into Scyllith’s reaches, daughter.”

“Not yet,” she said grimly. “Some few of the Themynrite cities are…approachable, with enough effort. I sought the Nathloi first, and that yielded my first true breakthrough, though I was not able to speak with the drow. Emi herself intercepted me at Kiyosan and said I carried a curse of a temporal nature, and was not welcome in Sifan until it was removed.”

Anlin’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Temporal?”

“Emi or her sisters could help, surely, if anyone could,” Vynlian suggested.

“Yes,” Kuriwa agreed, not without bitterness, “but she declined to either do that or convey a request to her sisters. I didn’t press her.”

“Wise, daughter,” he said, nodding. “A kitsune who tells you to leave has not begun to be difficult. There is no situation so dire it cannot be worse by antagonizing them.”

She had to physically hold her teeth shut for a few seconds to stifle several comments about him lecturing on the patently obvious. Fortunately, Anlin rescued her.

“But what does that even mean? A temporal curse? That is outside my field, of course, but I can’t even imagine how you could use time travel as an attack vector without drawing Vemnesthis into it.”

“It’s not just you, sister,” Kuriwa assured her. “No one knows how that would work; I’ve checked. Consider the important fact that Elilial’s greatest tactical advantage is that she can hide her moves from the other gods. Obviously that has limits when it comes to time travel. Anything thus changed would draw the notice of the Scions. But there may be a way to transmit something very subtle and specific—like a curse—along timelines that she can hide with her gift of stealth. If it causes physical effects in the real world below a certain threshold, the Scions might not notice. Or bother to act.”

“That could account for the strange path the curse takes,” Vynlian said slowly, his own eyes narrowed in thought in an expression that emphasized the resemblance between Anlin’s face and his. “Clearly targeted at you, but beginning with your most distant descendants and proceeding backward, as it were. Avenues of investigation into temporal mechanics are limited, obviously, but several of your mother’s colleagues have studied it as a sort of hobby. I specifically recall Magister Ethliron having such an interest. I will see what is known and whether we can use it.”

“Well, with regard to that,” Anlin suggested, “aren’t the Scions themselves the best possible experts to consult on this?”

“The Scions do not answer questions, nor explain their actions,” Vynlian said severely. “They do not help. You know this well, daughter.”

“We are dealing with an apparently time-traveling curse, father, which has been hidden from them by Elilial’s shadow. If their attention were called to it, they may act with no further prompting.”

“This should go without saying,” Ariel interjected, “but since nothing ever does in this family, I will say it. If any of you does anything to provoke a Scion of Vemnesthis to visit Qestraceel, you will all three be banished and your bloodline stricken from the records.”

“You are right, daughter, but so is the sword,” Vynlian agreed. “The Scions may have exactly the solution, but there is simply no viable way to approach them. It is the kitsune all over again.”

“I had further luck with other drow,” Kuriwa said quietly, and they both turned to her again with expectant faces. “I suspect the Irivoi know something, but their eagerness to involve themselves and aggressive insinuations about what I could do for them in return were deeply alarming.”

“No Themynrites should have been so eager to deal with an outsider,” Vynlian agreed. “You were right to sense danger, daughter.”

“Any other drow in this hemisphere would be all but impossible to approach,” said Anlin. “All but the Narisians refuse outside contact as if everyone carries a plague, and Narisians are worthless rodents even among drow. Slavers and scavengers.”

“On the contrary, sister,” Kuriwa demurred, “I made the last progress I have managed in Tar’naris. The Narisians were remarkably polite once they understood that attacking me was futile and costly. Better yet, they were the first who had some knowledge of similar curses. Princess Arkasia took an interest in me and arranged for me to access the royal archives. Since she was blatantly using my presence in her political maneuvers against her rivals rather than betraying Themynra’s charge as were the Irivoi, I took advantage. Their accounts did not match mine precisely, but they have seen conditions that compare to this curse. Such insidious workings have been wielded against them by the Scyllithene drow.” She paused, drawing another steadying breath. “And so… I know where I can look for final answers.”

“Madness,” Vynlian whispered.

She nodded to him. “Madness. If I must delve the Underworld and seek answers from the shadow priestesses to save my family… If I must, I will. But I desperately seek any better option.”

He lowered his head to stare at the mosaic floor, frowning in thought. Anlin chewed her lower lip, also staring sightlessly out at the anemones.

“Then we know what we must do,” Vynlian suddenly said, raising his chin and using his head-of-the-family voice, “even if we do not yet know how. You have had a long journey, daughter, and a terrible period before it. Take one night simply to rest in your ancestral home. It is an earned respite, and you must sustain yourself for what is to come. Your sister and I will consult the family archives and see if anything therein might help. At the onset of working hours tomorrow, we must make a full report on all these matters to the Magistry.”

Kuriwa had already set aside her coffee cup; now, in spite of herself, she could not help grasping the arms of her chair in nervousness. “Father… Every magister I trust is in this room. You know how they feel about renunciates. These are the people who just today conveniently misplaced the arrival ticket Anlin filed for my visit!”

“He’s right, sister,” Anlin said gently. “The Magistry of Qestraceel is the greatest concentration of arcane mastery in existence. If the luminous science holds any answers, our colleagues will know how to find them. But there’s also the fact that we have to report this. Father and I are not of the higher circles, but we are still magisters, and the news that we may find ourselves soon incapacitated by a mysterious curse is something of which the Archmagister herself must be forewarned.”

Kuriwa closed her eyes. “I… I am so sorry. Father, you warned us, and—”

“And you ran off,” he interrupted with an edge to his voice, “involved yourself in the Hellwar, and drew the personal antagonism of Elilial. Twice. And…you did it to protect and preserve life. Because you believed it necessary. I remember well our argument, daughter, and even then… Though I disagreed with your assessment of the cost/benefit ratio, I could not say you were reckless. You did what you thought was right, knowing you could suffer. That is how your mother and I raised you, and it is more important than…than any of the innumerable things about which we disagree.” He managed a watery smile at her before shaking his head in disgust. “And I will admit to you, in the privacy of our home, that in the years since I have grown to doubt my conviction that you were wrong. I am as cautious as any high elf of my rank, but I have not seen caution or conservatism in the Magistry’s refusal to acknowledge the world above us so much as blind, craven cowardice.”

Anlin raised her eyebrows and let out a whistle. “That’s news to me, too.”

“We can exchange further words about how responsible you are for all this,” Vynlian said to Kuriwa, giving his other daughter a passing glance, “but they will wait till our family is not in danger. Agreed?”

Emotion threatened to choke her for a moment, but she mastered it. Kuriwa was an elder shaman, not the disconnected girl who had run away from this place, no matter how the vivid memories of this house and this city always seemed to bring her back to that younger self. “Thank you, father.”

“Tonight, rest,” he said decisively, rising from his chair. “And tomorrow, action.”


Tar’naris was an eerie counterpart to Qestraceel; the parallels went well beyond it being a hidden city below the surface. Its society was also obsessed with family, though drow Houses and high elven bloodlines were barely comparable social systems. The Narisians in particular were formal and had a surprisingly intricate etiquette, at least toward people they were not trying to murder or enslave, and sometimes even then. Even the attitudes of its ruling class… But then, Kuriwa had observed similar mindsets among human warlords who ruled stretches of barely a few acres from thatch-roofed longhouses. Power was power, no matter how slight its degree, and did predictable things to the mind.

They were a peculiar, twisted shadow of the high elves, she had thought upon her previous visit. Tar’naris reflected Qestraceel more than any of the tribes of the groves. It was an observation she kept firmly to herself in both cities.

Of course, wood and high elves still had a lot more in common with each other than with drow, Kuriwa reminded herself as she hurled a blast of wind peppered with razor-sharp leaves into the formation of soldiers currently trying to charge her. She watched impassively as they were decimated, those augmented leaves ripping through lizard-hide and carapace armor as easily as they did flesh. Narisians produced excellent metalwork, but the control the Houses exerted over the mines meant that only nobles wore metal armor. Such as these were lucky to have steel weapons.

Behind her she had left a profusion of drow in the colors of all three feuding Houses through whose territory she trespassed asleep in the streets of Tar’naris, with pulsating mushroom sprouting from various surfaces and putting off the mist that incapacitated them. It would likely take their priestesses long enough to clean that up that they would lose some soldiers to scavengers before they could all be awakened, but after having had to make it plain she was not to be trifled with on her first visit here, Kuriwa was already out of patience. Even her campaign to passively neutralize the attackers on this trip had not stopped them from sending another wave out of every alley, until she finally gave up and ripped this one to literal shreds.

Which, it turned out, was what she should have done in the first place. Over two dozen drow were felled by her onslaught of wind and razorleaves, and suddenly there was a lone priestess standing ankle-deep in blood and corpses, protected only by a silver sphere of light. Her face betrayed no fear at her predicament, though it did reveal open anger as the reinforcements coming up behind her turned and fled in disarray.

The priestess of Themynra turned back to face Kuriwa, making ritualistic gestures with both hands, but the shaman was already concentrating. Gathering a sufficient charge of static in this environment required her to draw deep upon her various pacts, but even as a wall of silver light manifested in the street and rushed toward her, she released her summoned spell.

For probably the first time in its history, a bolt of lightning split the air in Tar’naris, lashing down from the roof of the cavern to strike the lone priestess. Her shield collapsed and so did she, to lie smoking in the street with the shredded remains of her comrades. The shieldwall about to strike Kuriwa dissolved into glitter and mist a few feet from her.

This marked the first moment since she had entered the city’s central district that there was a measure of quiet around her. Kuriwa could hear them moving, but now they were all moving away. Well, that was what she got for trying to wield a light touch with these…people. In fairness to the drow, Underworld life demanded severe pragmatism, and Themynra was, after all, the goddess of judgment. Narisians had excuse for fighting only when it advantaged them, and even some for eschewing mercy except when they saw political purpose in it.

Still, it was not only prejudice that made high and wood elves alike dismiss drow as scuttling vermin.

She made a further point of removing the obstructions from her path; a sharp gesture and an even more powerful blast of wind cleared the street ahead of bodies, spraying an entire stretch of the buildings to both sides with blood that she scoured so thoroughly from the pavement that her moccasins barely squelched in passing.

They didn’t bother her again all the way to the palace.

There, of course, there were more drow, and of much sterner stuff. An entire phalanx awaited her in front of the gates, half their number hooded priestesses already glowing with silver light and the armored women actually wearing steel helmets and breastplates over chitin mail tunics. Interestingly, the gates behind them were open.

Kuriwa approached without slowing. When she passed the last row of structures into the cleared area around the palace walls, the soldiers raised shields and knelt in unison. These were actually trained to fight in formation, then, unlike the howling rabble she’d carved through on her way here. Even so, they troubled her less than the clerics, who raised their hands and called up a single wall of silver light across the street in front of them.

She kept coming, ignoring a shouted demand that she halt. For the moment, though, Kuriwa did not call up a spell. After all, she could hear what was coming from the other side.

So could they, and though they parted with reluctance, they did part, the formation shuffling away to both sides to open a path. Even the priestesses leaned to the sides, gesturing, and a single break appeared in the center of their wall.

As the lone figure emerged from the palace gates, one priestess lowered her hood and stepped in front of her, speaking in words in the drow dialect which, at that distance, Kuriwa had no difficulty hearing.

“Princess, with respect, this is not safe—”

Arkasia nil Anatima yiyir Fanamnisth neither responded nor slowed, but simply lashed out with the coiled whip she carried. Its length unfurled faster than even elven reflexes could match, being launched by elven speed in the first place; she was clearly well-practiced with that weapon. The priestess did not cry out as she staggered back, despite the splatter of blood that suddenly decorated the armor of the nearest soldier. Who also did not react.

“Kuriwa!” the Princess of Tar’naris called with a pleasant smile, casually winding the whip around her arm as she strode forward to meet the shaman. “I devoutly hope your quest has already brought you unqualified success, and you now return to me only because you desire to resume our acquaintance.”

There was just the faintest emphasis in her words, the most fleeting glance over Kuriwa’s form. She had been surprised to find that the Narisians did not go for insinuation; they either said precisely what they meant or wasted time with polite nothings until you got fed up and left. Arkasia had made it explicitly plain the first time they had been alone that Kuriwa would be eagerly welcomed to her bed, should she be so inclined.

Not being Narisian, she had declined politely and without explaining that the woman utterly repulsed her. It was bad enough that the Princess carried an impractical weapon whose chief purpose was to wound her own subjects when they displeased her. Most of the drow—in fact, nearly all, including some of their nobility—were sufficiently hollow with perpetual hunger their larger frames made them seem almost skeletal. This one, though, was as full-figured and glossy-haired as a human noblewoman. Her ornately dyed spidersilk gown would probably have paid to feed her own servants for a year. The average drow she could excuse as desperate; Arkasia’s selfish sadism was unnecessary and deliberate.

“How fascinating it is,” she said aloud, “that three Narisian Houses should suddenly burst into open battle right in my path…but not until there had been ample time to note my coming and arrange themselves. I could almost think you meant me ill, Princess.”

“You need never fear that,” Arkasia said serenely, stepping to one side and gesturing forward at the palace gates. Kuriwa stepped forth as invited and they fell into step together, approaching the formation of priestesses and soldiers. “Those cretins? Please. Rest assured, I would never allow any who actually pose you a threat to have drawn near. Consider them fodder for sport.”

The soldiers were visibly unhappy at Kuriwa’s approach. One of the priestesses edged out of formation and opened her mouth to say something.

The Princess flicked her wrist, causing a few feet of her whip to uncoil. The cleric immediately ducked back into line.

“Your passage was fortuitous indeed,” Arkasia continued as they passed through the outer walls. “Those factions had begun to pose a slight nuisance. Their infighting has become an inconvenience to commerce in the city, and yet it would be politically disadvantageous for my mother should any one of them emerge a clear victor. Having their forces mutually wrecked by an outside actor is a nearly ideal solution! Truly, the goddess has sent you to us as a blessing.”

“I am so glad to have been of service,” Kuriwa said coldly.

“My honored mother shared some vivid opinions with me after your previous visit,” Arkasia said in the same pleasant tone, “on the subject of indulging an elder shaman from the tree folk. We have little enough to share with our own people; some looked askance on the extension of hospitality to a high representative of distant cousins who cannot be troubled to acknowledge us except to show contempt. And, of course, any discourse with those above invites all manner of commentary from the Gray Priestesses. But now, you have done my House a great service! And raised urgent questions about how wise it may be to challenge you. As a result, Kuriwa, I can safely offer you any aid you may require. Even if you desire something more than the pleasure of my company.”

“I have made…little progress,” Kuriwa said, staring ahead at the approaching inner gates of the palace rather than meeting her eyes. “My father’s people, with all their knowledge, could not supply a solution. At best, they had insight and suggestions regarding the details of dragging more information out of Scyllith’s followers. The demon thrall could offer no help, either…except in the same direction. I’m afraid I have come to take you up on the offer you made when I was last here.”

“Then ahead of you is a dark road indeed,” the Princess murmured. “Come, then, let me show you welcome before your journey resumes. It may be your last chance…indefinitely…to relax. I am certain that even so, I can take your mind off your great troubles for a little while.”

She had the temerity to place her hand against Kuriwa’s lower back as they walked. Not the hand holding the whip; that one was now lightly smeared with the blood of one of her own priestesses.

Kuriwa made no response. Securing Arkasia’s cooperation was apparently going to be an unpleasant process indeed, but one she could bear. If it meant saving her entire family, she could bear anything. Would bear anything.

And Arkasia at her worst was nothing compared to what lay ahead.

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Bonus #3: Hero

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There were few spectacles so glorious as the coronation of the new Emperor of Tiraas. The world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, as was the nature of human nations in general, deemed it necessary to create as much pomp and splendor as its fathomless resources could arrange. To be fair, most of the common run of people just enjoyed having a reason to hold a party, and the three weeks of celebrations were probably the best party they would ever experience. Ashaele, though, had less sympathy for the organizers of this self-important spectacle of waste; the resources spent on food, decorations, costumes, servants and innumerable other displays would have sustained her city for years. She had very much enjoyed the fireworks, however. That was like nothing she had ever expected to see.

In its second week, now, they were nearing the halfway point of the festivities. The new Emperor, Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian, had been crowned and subsequently married in what was just barely two separate ceremonies. Ashaele did her best to follow the events as they unfolded, but the need to maintain her cover prevented her from gathering as much information as she would like, and the politics of the situation were doubtless immensely complex, and mostly over her head.

This particular ceremony was an actual Tiraan tradition, rather than a shallow display of wealth as so much of the last week had been: On the day after his coronation, the Emperor held court from dawn to dusk, and could be approached and petitioned directly by anyone. A thousand years ago when Tiraas had been a single city-state, the ceremony had likely been much more significant. Now, the line of people stretching out from the Palace and into Imperial Square were entirely of individuals whose presence here had been pre-approved by Imperial functionaries weeks ago. A commendable effort had been made to include a fair mix of commoners, foreigners and representatives of all classes and walks of life, but even so the nobility were much more heavily represented here than among the general population.

Whatever else it was, it was a day-long ceremony, and it was nearing noon; everyone was already tired, bored and thoroughly sick of the whole thing, and desperately struggling not to show it. The boy Emperor had made a heroic effort since taking his seat in the Silver Throne this morning to attend every citizen who approached him with care and sincerity, but even he was visibly weary by this point. Beside him on her own smaller throne, his young wife had started the day looking aloof at best, and by this point seemed severely annoyed. The people in the line were drooping; the countless courtiers packed into the sides of the great throne chamber were mostly half-asleep on their feet, a surly, drowsy sea of finery and painful-looking fixed smiles. Only the guards and the several black-coated Hands of the Emperor in the room were still alert. Even the official who had the honor of calling forth and announcing each new petitioner was drifting. He had flubbed two names and once let a moment of awkward silence stretch out before realizing it was time to bring up the next person.

Her moment was coming soon. There wouldn’t be a better.

Ashaele had long since carefully forced her way to the front of the crowd, and now was positioned a mere few yards from the foot of the steps up to the Emperor’s dais. Feeling so exposed did her nerves no favors, but it had been a necessary preparation; had she bulled her way out of the thick of the crowd, the disturbance would have been spotted immediately and guards would have been on her before she got anywhere near the Emperor. Guards and, terrifyingly, one of those unsmiling Hands had fixed their glares on her when she first pushed to the front, but by this point they had dismissed her as another position-jockeying dignitary and gone back to scanning the crowd.

Her attire was a hodgepodge of Punaji and Onkawi styles, with elvish touches and some completely random additions that served to conceal her as much as possible. She wore a heavy greatcoat with a ceremonial hooded shawl over that, complete with silken scarf that concealed her lower face. Her eyes and hairline were exposed, but they were altered by magic. The efficacy of the disguise was in its reliance on mundane measures; the less skin she revealed, the less would have to be concealed by charms, and it was vital to keep the charm work to a minimum. Plenty of noblewomen in Tiraas used minor enchantments to tweak their appearances, but anyone walking into an Imperial audience with enough magic on them to completely alter their appearance would have been set upon by wizards immediately.

Naturally, the costume caused her all sorts of anxiety. So far her hope that the aristocrats pressing in on her from all sides would dismiss her mismatched appearance as a miscellaneous foreigner had been realized… But all it would take was one astute member of the diplomatic corps to realize the woman in the greatcoat, shawl and mask had cobbled together the most concealing features of traditional costumes that by themselves wouldn’t have hidden half so much.

Also, with her own ceremonial robes underneath, it was insufferably hot.

It would all be worth it if she were successful.

Ashaele forced herself not to peer around the room as the man kneeling just a few feet from her droned on about agricultural quotas in the frontier provinces. She held herself as still as possible, avoiding any action that would draw attention. It was enough to know that her allies were in the crowd. She had brought three friends from House An’sadarr to observe and report back to the Queen if her mission went awry. They were individuals she trusted; members of her own House would have been better for several reasons, but if it came down to it, any of them would have tried to protect her if she failed, and inevitably ended up sharing her fate. The An’sadarrs were reliable precisely because they would leave her behind. It wasn’t that her people lacked discipline or obedience, but the military House’s famous dedication to the mission at hand was, in this case, much more useful than the personal loyalty her family would have shown.

“I appreciate your concerns, Master Tethloss,” the Emperor said when the kneeling man paused to draw breath. It was very nearly an interruption, but it was becoming clear that he was not about to stop speaking any time soon. “Understand, though, that your perspective is only that: your own. I must be responsible for the economy as a whole. To intervene at one level would have repercussions well beyond what you intend. In my judgment this is not the time or the proper place for dramatic action. However, your concerns are valid, and you have my word that I will consider them and consult with my advisers. Perhaps the Throne can and should exert some influence.”

Tethloss looked far from happy, but he managed a suitably obsequious thanks, bowing as he backed away. Ashaele was less concerned with him than with Sharidan. This answer was consistent with the rest of his performance today. He was intelligent; he cared for the welfare of his people. It boded well for her plans.

The seneschal was watching Tethloss’s departure impatiently; the disgruntled petitioner was in no hurry to yield the floor, and still partially blocked the path of the next in line. Around the room, assembled nobles rustled in the lull, fanning themselves and whispering to one another. The Emperor sat back in his chair, indulging in a barely perceptible sigh. For a precious moment, everyone was distracted, everything paused.

Now. Now!

Ashaele grabbed a fistful of her mask and shawl, ripping them to the side, and shrugging out of her greatcoat in the same motion. They fell to lie puddled on the marble mosaic floor. Her illusions, having been attached to the clothes rather than herself, vanished with them. Somnolent and irritable as they were, it was a dramatic enough move that she gathered immediate attention, and screams rang out, spreading like wildfire. Nobles devolved into a pushing panic to escape the drow suddenly in their midst.

Ashaele crossed the floor in long, smooth strides, turning to face the Throne, and sank to one knee, bowing her head before the Emperor. That was as much as she managed before being seized by both arms. Guards roughly kicked her legs out from under her; a staff was thrust directly under her chin, humming with an active charge just waiting to be released. Her hair and the collar of her robes lifted in response to the static. She offered no resistance. Everywhere there was shouting, Imperial guards yelling contradictory orders and imprecations, onlookers screaming.

She permitted herself a small, fatalistic sigh. Too slow… She would be sad not to see her children again. Heral would lead House Awarrion well, however. It had been worth the effort; if she had succeeded, everything would have changed.

“HOLD.”

The acoustics of the room were carefully designed to maximize the voice of whoever sat on the Throne. Sharidan now stood in front of it; his order boomed through the massive hall, causing a sudden lull in the activity. The hands pulling at Ashaele from every direction stilled, though they did not relax their grip.

“Stand down,” the Emperor commanded. “Release her.”

The guards glanced at each other uncertainly, and at the dark elf kneeling placidly in their grip. One wearing a captain’s insignia cleared his throat. “Your Majesty—”

He broke off as Eleanora surged to her feet. The Empress stepped forward to lay a hand on her husband’s arm, staring down at them with icy fury.

“Your Emperor,” she said, her voice promising merciless death, “has spoken.”

They hesitated a fraction of a moment longer, and then Ashaele was released. She staggered inevitably, barely catching herself, but quickly resumed her position on one knee, surreptitiously smoothing down her hair and disturbed garments. The guards eased backward, but not so far that she failed to see the assortment of swords, wands and staves aimed at her, even with her eyes lowered.

“Lady, you have the apologies of the Tiraan Empire and of House Tirasian for this ill treatment,” the Emperor said. “My men are zealous in their protection of me, and your appearance was…rather startling.”

“Your soldiers’ zeal and loyalty is a credit to their master,” Ashaele replied. “It is I who should apologize, your Excellency, for intruding in this way. I regret that I failed to find a more polite way to gain an audience.”

“Then perhaps we can put these misunderstandings behind us,” said Sharidan, slowly sinking back onto the Silver Throne. His wife remained standing, though she stepped back to place herself slightly behind him, one hand on his shoulder; she stared down at Ashaele through narrowed eyes. “I gather you have come to observe Tiraan custom? Anyone may ask a boon of the Emperor today.”

“If it pleases your Excellency, yes,” she replied. “I am Ashaele nur Tamashi zae Awarrion, matriarch of House Awarrion of Tar’naris, most humbly at your service.”

The general volume of whispers echoing around the room increased slightly, then faded as Eleanora lifted her gaze from the kneeling drow to pan a glare around the chamber. Sharidan regarded her in thoughtful silence for a moment.

“I have heard,” he said at last, “that matriarchs of the drow Houses kneel to no one, even their Queen.”

“That is correct, your Excellency,” Ashaele replied. “We do not lack respect for Her Majesty, but such obeisance is not our custom.”

“Then it shall not be asked of you here,” he said firmly. “Please, stand. Be at ease; you are welcome here.”

The whispers started anew; Ashaele rose smoothly to her feet and raised her head, letting them wash over her. Hope soared in her chest. This was going better than she had dared hope. A brief manhandling by a few guards was the tiniest price to pay if this man listened to her.

“I must clarify that I do not speak for Tar’naris. I have come of my own volition, and not on the orders or permission of my Queen.”

“Then, for the time being, you shall be the guest of the Imperial Palace,” the Emperor replied, causing another stir. “Now, you have surely not come all this way for small talk. What can Tiraas do for you, Lady Ashaele?”

“Your Excellency,” she said, bowing, “I most humbly and respectfully beg, as a citizen who loves her people and her state, that the Tiraan Empire extend diplomatic contact to Tar’naris toward the goal of normalizing relations between our two great societies.”

This time there was an outcry, quickly rising to such chaos that the last part of her sentence was all but inaudible. Luckily it had ended on a fluff of diplomatic flattery; the important part of her request had been clearly heard. The noise was so pervasive that she couldn’t identify many individual threads…except for the few loudest shouts, which were almost universally imprecations. She did hope her Narisian allies were managing to remain hidden. There would be no end of trouble if somebody stumbled upon one of them right now.

“Silence.” Empress Eleanora’s voice cracked like a whip. The crowd obeyed her, though perhaps not as instantly or completely as she would have liked; they did, at least, trail off to a constant undercurrent of murmurs. She swept another baleful stare around the room before turning it on Ashaele. “It is curious, lady, that such a request comes from one who takes pains to assure us that she does not speak on behalf of her government.”

“Nations have their pride, as do their rulers,” Ashaele replied smoothly. “The exchanges over the last decades between Narisian scouts and the Imperial forces at Fort Vaspian have decisively demonstrated that Tiraas is militarily superior. For Queen Arkasia to extend a request for peace at this time would be for her to sacrifice face—a thing I do not wish to see. The Silver Throne, being in the dominant position, does not suffer this drawback. An overture from Tiraas would be an offering, not a plea.”

“This verges on flattery,” Eleanora said sharply. Sharidan glanced up at her, then returned his gaze to Ashaele, his expression neutral. He seemed content, for the moment, to let his wife speak, despite the fact that she had been mostly silent through most of the day’s ceremony. How interesting that he deferred to her now that there were hard questions to ask… Ashaele’s finely tuned political mind immediately sussed out the implications. Oh, these two were very clever. They were likely to make a most effective team. “The entire history of human relations with Tar’naris,” the Empress went on, “with any drow, has consisted of your people raiding ours. Stealing, destroying, and enslaving. Today of all days your request will be considered with all due weight, but do not think we fail to see the context. No drow has attempted to approach us until we held a decisive advantage.”

“It is not my intention to explain or excuse history,” Ashaele said calmly. “It is relevant, however, to consider history, as your Excellency has said. Nations and peoples act in a manner that they believe is justified; Tiraas has assuredly considered itself justified in its systematic conquest of this continent.” Another rumble rose around her at this, but she pressed on. “I humbly call to your Excellencies’ attention the manner of this conquest: Tiraas has enjoyed such success in part because it exercised military force only in the absence of better options, in keeping with Avei’s doctrines of war. Nations that have joined you voluntarily have historically become your most prosperous provinces.”

“You are offering submission and absorption into the Empire, then?” Eleanora asked, her tone deceptively mild, now.

“No,” Ashaele said evenly. “Even were it within my authority to offer, you shall not have that. Nor is it the only prospect suggested by history. Tiraas has very productive relationships with the Punaji and Tidestrider nations, which remain independent but tightly linked to the Empire.”

“Both play a vital role in securing our borders,” the Empress shot back. “With respect, Tar’naris is hardly positioned to offer such a service.”

“With respect,” Ashaele replied, her voice soft, “with the greatest respect, you are deeply mistaken. Tar’naris must guard its gates on two fronts. You can scarcely imagine the horrors of the true Underworld. Your forces could hold it back, now…perhaps. Thousands of years of the effort and spilled blood of my people has bought your society the luxury of developing to this point.”

Another rustle began to swell in the chamber, but it quickly died as the Emperor held up one hand for silence. He leaned forward on the throne, staring intently down at Ashaele.

“For obvious reasons, we don’t get the freshest reports from beyond Tar’naris,” he said, “but in fact I do know something of what lurks in the Deep Dark. For that reason, and the others you have raised, your request is… Interesting.”

Everyone stared at him with baited breath now, Ashaele perhaps most of all. He leaned back against the Throne, glancing up at Eleanora. She met his eyes momentarily, and a silent exchange seemed to pass between them. For having been married only a day, they seemed to share a significant bond.

“Lady Ashaele,” he said in the tone of a pronouncement, “as it seems we cannot host you as befits an ambassador, you shall, as I have said, be our personal guest for the remainder of the Coronation, during which time the Throne’s focus is and must be largely inward. After that, we shall furnish you a suitable escort back to Tar’naris.” She tensed, barely, in spite of herself; all around her, whispers swelled anew. “If you will kindly do us this service, Tiraas will thank you to escort our ambassadors to your Queen.”

The crowd truly erupted again, but was swiftly silenced by the Empress’s roared threat to have the great hall cleared.

Ashaele felt the tension drain from her for what had to be the first time in weeks. She bowed deeply. “Your Excellency, it shall be my honor.”


“Ugh, I can’t believe you’re reading that. It’s in Tanglish. Have you run out of domestic books completely?”

Shaeine lifted her head to scowl at her grinning sister. “This is an account of Mother’s first journey to Tiraas,” she said pointedly. “A little respect would be appropriate.”

“Oh, come on,” Nahil said despairingly. “How many times have you read that story? You probably know it better than she does at this point.”

“Yes, but those are the Narisian accounts,” she shot back. “This is a novelization by a Tiraan bard.”

“Really?” Heral asked, her mild tone a contrast to Nahil’s aggressive ribbing. “Do they portray her with horns and shooting fire from her eyes?”

“In fact she is treated very respectfully,” Shaeine said stiffly. “Heroically, even. There’s some fudging of the facts, of course, for drama’s sake, but I must say that if this is Tiraas’s introduction to Mother… Well, it’s a good one, that’s all.”

“Course it is,” Nahil said cheerfully. “She probably paid to have it written. She doesn’t miss a trick. Sneaky lady, like all good negotiators!”

“Respect, you hooligan!” Shaeine shouted, making as if to throw the book at her.

“All right, you two, behave,” Heral said reprovingly. “I didn’t interrupt your reading and her carousing on a whim, Shaeine. Mother’s in the grand hall with the Queen, the ambassador from Tiraas and that aggravating gold elf. She’s asked for us to attend them.”

“Attend them?” Nahil asked sharply. “Why?”

Heral grimaced. “General purposes.”

Nahil and Shaeine winced. “General purposes” meant standing there looking calm and pretty, and being ready to back Ashaele up should the need arise. “General purposes” meant the meeting was not going well.

Regretfully, Shaeine marked her place and set the book down on her bench, smoothing her hair as she rose. “Best get out there, then.”

“That aggravating gold elf has a name, you know,” Nahil pointed out as the three sisters strode down the hall.

“We know her name,” Shaeine grunted. “Everyone knows her name. I’d rather not pronounce it; I hear that summons her.”

Nahil laughed, but Heral gave her a gently remonstrative look. “You haven’t even met her, little sister.”

“I’d have been extremely content never having met her,” Shaeine muttered, then fell silent as they passed through a door which was held open and then closed behind them by armored House guards. House Awarrion’s residence, in addition to being their home, served as Tar’naris’s universal embassy and the place where negotiations between Narisian Houses were held. By crossing that threshold, they had passed into the palace’s public wing. All emotion faded from the three women’s expressions, and they glided the rest of the way in perfect, silent serenity, public faces firmly in place.

What was now the grand hall had been a series of smaller rooms originally. Upon the renovation of Tar’naris’s caverns using Tiraan enchantment, House Awarrion had knocked down both interior and exterior walls, making a long, tall chamber bordered on one side by archways which led to the House’s new outdoor gardens. Full-sized willow trees speed-grown by the most powerful witchcraft they could import shielded the hall from the glow of the cavern’s sun crystals; the hall, in addition to its beautiful view, was livened by the splashing of fountains and an artificial stream, plus the smell of flowers and greenery. It was also equipped with modern fairy lamps of the highest quality, straight from the factories of Calderaas, and lined with discreet padded benches. At one end stood a huge stone chair on a low dais, on which sat the matriarch of House Awarrion, or, when she was conducting meetings here, Queen Arkasia.

The Queen sat there now. She glanced at the three daughters of the House as they entered, but did not acknowledge them further. Their mother gave them a fleeting little smile, no more than politeness dictated. All three women stopped just inside, bowing to the Queen and then their matriarch, before gliding over to stand behind her.

A small delegation of women in House Dalmiss colors were just departing, leaving Arkasia and the Awarrions alone with two humans and a surface elf who wore gold-rimmed spectacles and a thunderous scowl. Ambassador Conover gave them a nod and a warm smile; his aide, Rashid, bowed much more politely, his expression neutral.

Shaeine rather liked Rashid. Most of the Imperial staff in residence kept to their own customs and trusted diplomatic immunity to gloss over their missteps. Rashid had actually bothered to learn why the Narisians cultivated emotional reserve, and did his best not to inflict his every little feeling on everyone. His efforts were imperfect, of course, but she gave him a great deal of credit for trying. In her opinion, he’d have made a better Ambassador than Conover.

Shaeine did not, as a rule, enjoy the company of humans. True, they were an attractive people, with their powerful physiques, adorable little ears and exotic colorations, but she found them easier to enjoy from a safe distance. They were like children, casually emoting every little feeling that flickered across their minds. It was charming for the first five minutes, then quickly became exhausting, and from there downright offensive. The worst part was that far too many of them just wouldn’t learn.

These two she knew, however, and gave more attention to the other person present. Shaeine had never left Tar’naris, and despite her family’s attempts to establish contact with the surface tribes, none of them had yet deigned to venture below. As such, this was her first sight of an elf from the sun-blasted wastelands above, and she found the sight rather disturbing. Humans were one thing; an elf with human coloring was just…unnatural. The woman had skin like the paler breed of humans, the lightest possible tan with pinkish highlights, hair the color of polished gold and green eyes. It was downright creepy…and all the worse because Arachne Tellwyrn’s reputation preceded her.

“I understand that this is not what you expected, Professor,” Queen Arkasia said calmly.

“That is one way of putting it,” Tellwyrn snapped. Shaeine barely managed not to wince. Just who did this woman think she was, speaking to the Queen in that tone? Of course, it was a silly reaction. Tellwyrn knew exactly who she was.

“I really think it will work out, though,” Lord Conover said brightly. “House Dalmiss oversees agriculture, as I’m sure you know—”

“It was mentioned once or twice,” Tellwyrn said with heavy sarcasm. “Roughly every third sentence, in fact.”

“Yes, well, that’s something they’ll have in common with a lot of Imperial citizens,” Conover pressed on, his good cheer beginning to look a little desperate. “Especially in the Great Plains region around Last Rock. Ambassadors are well and good for dealing with other ambassadors, but the whole point of this program is to begin getting the citizens of Tar’naris and the Empire acclimated to each other. Miss Natchua probably has a lot more in common with most of your students than the average drow. It’s a solid start!”

Tellwyrn tilted her head back, staring at the ceiling as if she expected to find patience there. “Conovor, do you know what kind of school I run? Exactly how many farmers do you think I have enrolled in an average year?”

“House Dalmiss has been more heavily involved with Imperial personnel than most, what with the agricultural projects here,” Rashid said more quietly. “That should give Natchua an advantage.”

“And was this Natchua involved in any way with any of those discussions?” Tellwyrn snapped.

“I’m afraid we don’t know, precisely,” Ashaele said smoothly. “But there is still time for her to meet with embassy personnel and grow acclimated—”

“Do you know who’s already acclimated to humans?” the Professor interrupted. “House Awarrion.”

Shaeine kept her calm, but inwardly she bristled. How dare this ill-mannered woman cut off her mother?

“I’m sure you gleaned the basics of the situation during the introductions,” Queen Arkasia said with total calm. “The reality is that House Dalmiss has amassed considerable favor and influence due to their position and involvement with the cavern renovations. Matriarch Ezrakhai is owed certain concessions, and her protege’s inclusion in the exchange program is her fondest wish.”

“I’m still waiting for someone to explain what that has to do with me.”

“Politics are an inescapable fact of life everywhere,” Ashaele said soothingly. “The Queen’s obligation is first and foremost to the city, and this requires certain accommodations. Surely you can find it in you to be reasonable.” That last came very near to a reprimand; it was a sign that the normally unflappable Ashaele’s patience with this woman was already considerably frayed.

“Reasonable?” Tellwyrn snorted and folded her arms, looking mulish. “I can’t think of a single reason why I should. None of this is my problem, and I don’t appreciate you trying to make it so. I agreed to participate in this program as a favor to both the Empire and your city. This is not something I have any need to do. I went along because, in part, I was promised an Awarrion.” She turned the full force of her glare on Ashaele, and Shaeine was not the only one present who stiffened imperceptibly. “Putting a trained diplomat on my campus is an entirely different matter from some random drow!”

“Natchua d’zun Dalmiss is hardly random,” Arkasia said languidly. “Her matriarch would not have nominated her were she not confident of the girl’s ability to represent her House and Tar’naris well.”

“And what does the matriarch of a House of subterranean farmers know about what makes a good citizen ambassador?” Tellwyrn shot back. “Maybe this Natchua is the perfect bloody candidate; stranger things have happened. But far more likely is she’ll react the way most people do when suddenly immersed in a completely alien culture. She could withdraw completely and piss everybody off acting like the worst caricature of a surly drow… Or she might go native and come back here in four years using Tanglish slang and acting like a dime novel cowboy. The point is, we don’t know. Anyone care to place a bet which of those outcomes would do more damage to your little exchange program?” She set her teeth, staring at the Queen. “I was invited—begged—to participate in this rigamarole because I was offered a student from House Awarrion, whom I could count on to actually promote the peace on my campus.”

“And you shall have one,” said the Queen. “Next year. For the time being, the politics of the situation are what they are. I regret your disappointment.”

“You are not alone in incurring costs,” Ashaele added. “That is the very essence of compromise. I have been grooming a young man for this post as well, and those plans will have to be put off.”

“Well, you sure picked a great time to misplace your backbone, Ashaele,” Tellwyrn said dryly. Shaeine clung to her serenity by a fingernail, unable to stop her body from going rigid with rage. That this creepy blonde lout should speak to her mother in such a manner was absolutely intolerable. “What happened to the daring hero who crept alone into Tiraas to make peace with the savage surface-dwellers?”

“I did that in the service of my Queen and my city, as I do everything,” Ashaele replied, calm as ever. “Just as I do this.”

“I hope you’re happy with your service, then,” the Professor said sardonically. “I can’t help noticing that your ‘compromise’ is nothing but costs on my part, and no benefits. The old diplomacy a little rusty, hmm?”

“Perhaps you could do better, Professor, since you are clearly an expert. There are nearly three whole rules of basic civilized behavior you have managed not to flout in the last five minutes.”

Dead silence fell. Shaeine realized only belatedly that it was she who had spoken. As everyone turned to stare at her, horror welled up in her—to have spoken out of turn like that, to have lost control, and in front of the Queen—but it did not lessen her fury. In fact, if anything, she felt a giddy sense of liberation. Well, the cat was out of the bag now, as the Imperials said. At least she hadn’t lost her serenity.

“I beg your pardon?” said Tellwyrn, her tone and expression suddenly very mild.

“You have it,” Shaeine replied, “though I confess I am puzzled as to the utility of the request. It seems I am the only person present whom you have not personally insulted.”

“Shaeine,” her mother said, very quietly, completely without expression. Oh, yes, she was in trouble now. Well… In for a penny, in for a pound. The Tiraan really did have such pithy colloquialisms.

“And this is another budding diplomat, I take it?” Tellwyrn asked, still in that soft tone.

“Quite so,” Shaeine replied, bowing to her. “It is my pleasure to offer you a remedial instruction in diplomacy: one succeeds in negotiations by showing respect toward the other party’s position while keeping one’s own goals firmly in mind. In this case, the central dilemma seems to be your determination to behave like an undisciplined child despite being in civilized company. I, for my part, would be deeply mortified if I were to go over there and kick you in the midsection. If, however, that will make you more comfortable in our home, it is a sacrifice I am willing to embrace.”

Her pulse pounded in her ears, to the point she was certain the others in the room could hear it. Terror, shame, exhilaration, rage…emotions whirled in her to such an extent that she couldn’t predict which would would shine through if she allowed her calm facade to crack. She clung to it desperately. Already she’d dug herself into an impossible hole; at least she’d go down courteously.

Everyone was staring at her, the drow with appropriate calm, Rashid wide-eyed and struggling for control; Conover gaped like a fish. Tellwyrn’s expression…was an expression, quite unlike the Narisian idea of reserve, but Shaeine couldn’t interpret it.

Tellwyrn turned to Ashaele, pointing a finger at Shaeine. “And…this is…?”

“Shaeine,” the matriarch said, the very picture of serenity. “My youngest daughter.”

“I see.” The Professor grinned slightly, and for some reason dread began to drown out the other emotions fighting for Shaeine’s attention. “Very well, your Majesty, since we were just discussing compromise, I have decided to be reasonable.”

“How lovely,” Arkasia deadpanned.

“I’ll accept your random farmgirl,” Tellwyrn went on, “with the proviso that next year…” She grinned more broadly and again pointed at Shaeine. “I want this one.”

Shaeine’s reserve very nearly faltered. No, no no, absolutely not, anything but that.

“Oh?” the Queen said laconically. “An interesting choice.”

Ashaele stepped back and sideways, placing a hand on Shaeine’s shoulder. It verged on inappropriate display, but rank enabled one to get away with some things. Such a show of overt protectiveness from a matriarch would have warned any drow that they were stepping on dangerous ground indeed. Of course, Tellwyrn probably understood the gesture just as well and didn’t care. “Shaeine is a cleric, not a diplomat by vocation. She is training to serve in the House chapel.”

“Still beats the hell out of a farmer,” the Professor said bluntly. “Don’t give me that look, Ashaele, I am not aiming to punish the girl for speaking out. Quite the opposite; I think she’s absolutely perfect. She’s got spine, spirit, loyalty…and she’s funny. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Narisian with an overt sense of humor that I wasn’t sleeping with. This is what your exchange program needs. Natchua is going to do the gods only know what; a well-trained diplomat will manage, at best, to ward off conflict. Shaeine, though, has a very good chance of making people like her. You want drow and humans to start getting used to each other? She’s the perfect place to begin.”

No, Goddess, please, I don’t want to go to Tiraas…

“That,” Lord Conover said slowly, “makes a great deal of sense. I mean no disrespect to your culture, your Majesty, but the single greatest hurdle we’ve faced in getting our people to work together is that Narisian reserve seems so cold and aloof to Tiraan sensibilities that it comes off as very nearly hostile. Diplomacy and charm may be exactly the ticket.”

“Interesting,” Arkasia mused. “What say you, Shaeine?”

Please, please no!

Shaeine bowed deeply to the Queen, her expression perfectly calm. “I am less than confident of my competence in this matter, your Majesty. As my mother has said, the main thrust of my education has been in Themynra’s worship. If, however, your Majesty deems this a wise course, I shall be honored to serve Tar’naris in whatever way I can.”

“Perhaps it’s for the best,” Conover said, looking positively cheerful now. “She’s got a full year to bone up on diplomatic procedures.” Shaeine felt a sudden, intense urge to slap him off the balcony with a divine shield.

“Matriarch Ashaele, the matter is in your hands,” said the Queen languidly. “I will not command this of you, but I do endorse it as an elegant solution to the present standoff.”

Ashaele’s hand tightened slightly on Shaeine’s shoulder. “I would discuss this matter in privacy with my daughter before making a final decision, your Majesty.”

“Very well. We shall re-convene tomorrow.”

“Some of us don’t have time to take extended vacations down here,” Tellwyrn said sharply. “If this can be settled—”

“No.” Queen Arkasia’s manner was as emotionless as ever, but there was steel beneath it now. “I am well aware that your notion of compromise is to bully everyone until you get your way, Arachne, but you have pushed my patience as far as you will for one day. You are done browbeating my people. We will resume this discussion tomorrow. That is all.”


Shaeine was barely conscious of the walk back into the private part of the palace, clinging to her serenity in an almost fugue-like state. She was dimly aware of her sisters bidding her farewell, and then she was alone with her mother in the matriarch’s chamber.

Ashaele came to a halt in the center of the room, still as a sculpture, her back to her daughter. Shaeine, feeling some of the fog of shock clearing from her mind, took two deep breaths, and then bowed deeply.

“Mother, I humbly apologize for my shameful loss of composure. Hearing that woman speak to you that way… No, that is not an excuse. I will accept whatever punishm—”

All of a sudden she was hauled upright and swept into a fierce embrace. Ashaele squeezed her close, rocking them gently; Shaeine gratefully buried her face in her mother’s shoulder, wrapping her own arms around her waist. They were silent like that for several minutes.

“That can be addressed later,” Ashaele said finally. “First we must deal with the consequences. I don’t know what designs that sun-baked lunatic has on you, but it goes without saying that I am not just handing you over to her.”

“You should, though.”

“Shaeine, I will handle you myself, as I would any member of this House who stepped out of line. Don’t be overeager to punish yourself.”

“That isn’t what I meant.” Carefully, she pulled back, enough that she could lift her chin and look her mother in the eye. “My inclusion in this program will enable it to go forward despite Professor Tellwyrn’s stubbornness. That, then, is what I should do.”

Ashaele’s brow furrowed in consternation. “Is—Shaeine, do you want to go to the University?”

“Of course I don’t want to go!” she burst out, finally letting the repressed panic escape. Tears welled up in her eyes. “I don’t like humans, and the thought of being alone, surrounded by the Empire for four years terrifies me.” Firmly, she forced her breathing back under control, brushing tears from her cheeks. “But… This needs to be done, and I need to do it.”

“Shaeine…”

“You’re my mother,” she said simply, gazing up at her. “But…you’re also my matriarch. And you’re my hero. I’ve only ever done you justice in one of those capacities. Please, Mother, don’t try to protect me from my duty. You didn’t raise a lout who puts her own desires above the needs of Tar’naris. I need to serve.”

Ashaele drew in a slow, long breath; it shuddered on the way back out. She closed her eyes for a moment before opening them again, and gently placed a hand on Shaeine’s cheek. “My dearest little one… I’ve been selfish too. After we lost your father… I was so pleased you were called by Themynra. It meant I could keep you close to me.”

“I would never want to disappoint you,” Shaeine whispered.

“I am not disappointed. Just…” Impulsively, she pulled her daughter forward again into another hug. “You grew up. At some point you went and turned into the woman I hoped you’d be. I just never thought it would hurt so to realize.”

Shaeine nuzzled at her shoulder. “I hope I am. I want to make you proud. I just…need to prove myself.”

“My lovely, you don’t need to earn anything here.”

“I don’t need to earn your love,” she said softly. “I am so grateful for that. But…I do need to earn my place. I am Narisian. I have my duty.”

They were silent for another stretch of minutes. The matter was decided; there was nothing more to say about it.

“I love you so much.”

“I love you too.”

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