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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 – 29

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“It’s not as urgent a crisis as that,” Ingvar assured her. “My people are pretty accustomed to rough sleeping arrangements and close quarters; we hardly know what to do with ourselves in a place as lavish as this. That goes for the Harpies, too. And it seems the lizardfolk like to cluster together even tighter. I keep getting the impression they would pile themselves in twelve to a room even if the lack of space didn’t mandate it.”

“I’m relieved to hear that,” said Ravana, gazing down at the dense throng of scaly bodies milling about the great hall of her ancestral hunting lodge.

“That just means this is stable in the very immediate term,” he cautioned. “This many people, in this little space, representing two distinct groups with little reason for mutual trust… It’s going to become an issue sooner than later. And more immediately, we are out of food. Our guests aren’t going to starve, they seem to have carried their own winter provisions, but we opened our stores to help facilitate trust and settle them in, and well…”

“I will see that you are resupplied immediately,” Ravana promised. “Foodstuffs, and anything else you need. And obviously, this is not a permanent solution. Before doing anything with them, however, I must decide what to do with them, and that is a decision I judge myself not yet sufficiently informed to make. What have you learned about their intentions and reason for being out here in such numbers in the winter?”

The lodge had been designed for aristocrats and thus possessed a number of highly specific architectural features such as the one she and Ingvar were currently using: a small balcony shaded by heavy curtains—really more like an opera box—overlooking the great hall. From this vantage, the nobles of House Madouri could stand at the edge of the rail, as they were now, and be seen gazing down upon their domain from on high, with the added benefit that the carefully designed acoustics of the spot would keep their conversation private from those below.

“All I’ve gotten definitively is that this is some kind of religious pilgrimage,” Ingvar reported, staring down at the two hundred or so lizardfolk below—less than half those currently housed in the lodge. His Shadow Hunters were moving carefully through the crowd, both to see if any help was needed and to generally keep order. The spirit wolves, unsurprisingly, had refused to have anything to do with such a dense crowd indoors and were all outside in the snow. “And that… Well, that kind of inherently puts a stop to learning more. The lizardfolk’s religious practices are private. No doubt there are Nemitite records that could help me gain some insight, but this situation is too tense to be left simmering while I engage in a lengthy research project. I’m sorry I don’t have a better report for you, my Lady. In my opinion, more suitable housing needs to be found for these people before we seek a permanent solution. That is, unless you wish to just let them go about their business. They made it this far without disturbing anyone…”

“Any insight as to how they’ve managed to come this far, undetected?”

“’The safe way is the slow way,’” he quoted with a wry grimace. “Or so they’ve repeated when asked. What they are doing and why are apparently spiritual concerns, and therefore not for discussion with outsiders, but in talking with various individuals I’ve been able to pick up some details about what they’ve already done. Bits of stories about shamans contacting all the tribes across the western part of the Empire, and some interesting notes about who didn’t come. Apparently every tribe sent about half its members, leaving enough back home that the human authorities wouldn’t notice their sudden absence.” He hesitated, his frown deepening. “My lady, this is just a hunch, but I’m increasingly getting the impression that the lizardfolk were the first of the insular races to organize this way. But while the dragons and elves made a big production of it as soon as they were in a position to do so, these seem to have been careful not to reveal what they were doing. I think they’ve been working up to this for a few years, at least.”

“They are just standoffish enough for that to work,” Ravana mused. “It bodes ill for their intentions, that they devoted such effort to secrecy. On the other hand, the fact that they allowed you and your followers to herd them in here suggests the opposite. You could not have compelled them, had they chosen to resist. I mean no disrespect…”

“You gave none,” he said quickly. “You’re quite right, my lady, we had no chance of forcibly rounding them up like this. In fact, they’ve been most cooperative…at least, until I start asking what they are doing.”

“They’re looking to join the Empire.”

Both of them turned to face the speaker who approached from behind, in some surprise but no alarm; with Yancey standing guard at the entrance to the box, there was no chance of being ambushed from that direction. Juniper strolled up, accompanied by her pet bird-lizard, which Ravana studiously ignored. In truth she found Sniff more alarming than the huge spirit wolves, though it had to be said that he was better-behaved than Juniper’s previous pet.

“How do you mean?” Ingvar asked, stepping aside to make room for the dryad at the rail with them.

Juniper leaned against it, gazing downward in a posture that caused her Omnist medallion to slide out of the neck of her dress and dangle. As usual, she was wearing an elven-style beaded robe that was better suited for the summer, but the cold and snow outside didn’t seem to bother her.

“Just what I’ve put together from what the shamans have said,” she explained. “More than one has mentioned rallying under the black banner. One guy said their only hope for salvation was beneath the gryphon’s wings.”

Ravana and Ingvar hesitated at that, glancing at each other. True, the Imperial flag was a silver gryphon on a black field, but…

“Sounds awfully vague,” Ingvar ruminated, “but it’s more than I was able to get out of them. What’s your secret?”

“My secret is their religious practices are shamanistic,” Juniper said, shooting him a playful smile. “People who are into fae magic are usually delighted to chat with a dryad.”

“Oh? I wonder why Aspen hasn’t been able to get anything out of them, then.”

“Do you?” she asked dryly. “You’ve been hanging around with Aspen for a while now, Ingvar. I’m sure you’ve noticed she is not exactly a people person.”

“I can hear you!” Aspen’s voice floated up from the floor below.

Juniper leaned farther over the rail, shouting back, “Yeah? And when you can refute me, you know where I’ll be!” There was no audible response to that, and she straightened back up, smirking.

“And here I thought this spot afforded privacy,” Ravana sighed.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Juniper reassured her, “dryads aren’t elves. Our sensory acuity is variable, and consciously controlled. Aspen being able to hear us up here just means she was deliberately eavesdropping. Nobody else except your wizard should be able to overhear.”

“We had a lizardfolk classmate,” Ravana said pensively, still staring down at the crowd. “She graduated last year. Lriss was always so cosmopolitan, downright urbane; well-dressed, well-spoken, and as witty as any socialite I have ever met, particularly when she was deflecting questions about her people without giving offense. Last Rock does famously draw exceptional individuals, but I cannot find it in me to believe the lizardfolk are less intelligent than anyone else. Their withdrawal from the society of others is their choice, and they still visit and trade in cities. Two hundred years ago, they were a common sight in adventuring parties. As such, I am forced to consider this…facade of primitive tribalism no more than that. These people know what the Empire is, and how it works. To set out for its heart while camouflaging their intentions behind mystical doublespeak signals unequivocal hostility.”

“That is one interpretation,” Ingvar said, “but I don’t think the likelier one, my lady, with all due respect.”

Ravana turned her head toward him, raising an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I may not understand the lizardfolk religion, but I’m very familiar with religion itself, as a broad concept. Among other things, it encourages people to express themselves in grandiose, poetic terms, even when it would serve them better to speak plainly. These people are far away from everything they know, with apparently nothing but their faith to cling to. I’d be very surprised if they didn’t couch everything in ritualism and pageantry.”

“Hm… You do have a point, Sheriff. Who is in charge among them?”

Ingvar and Juniper both pointed without hesitating.

“The fellow sitting by that fireplace, with the shawl and the kinda cracked-looking scales,” Juniper answered. “I think that’s what they get instead of going gray.”

“He gives all the orders among them,” Ingvar added. “What’s interesting is he doesn’t have a name.”

“You mean…he refused to give it to you?”

“No, he was very clear about this,” the hunter disagreed, shaking his head. “He has no name. That’s also something of significance in their religion which, of course, he refused to explain. He did hint that he gave up his name for the sake of this…whatever it is they’re doing. The others just call him Elder.”

“Well, then!” she said briskly, stepping back from the rail, “named or not, I know where to start. Come, let us go have a word with the gentleman.”

Yancey fell into step beside and just behind her as she emerged into the hallway. Veilwin, lounging against the wall and sipping from her horrific-smelling flask, gave Ravana a challenging look and refused to budge, all of which Ravana of course ignored. No possible good could have resulted from involving the surly elf in the conversation she planned, anyway. With Ingvar and Juniper following, she led the way briskly through the halls and staircases that brought them back to the main floor, and then the great hall itself.

Only the upper hall itself had been free of crowds; immediately after that, they began to encounter clusters of lizardfolk refugees. Ravana simply strode forward at the same measured pace, her head held high even though it came barely to the shoulder of most of the guests in her lodge. Without exception, they got out of her way, several bowing and murmuring apologies at which she nodded graciously.

The effect continued to work even in the dense crowd in the great hall, resulting in a constant ripple as she strode forward through a cleared space that opened itself around her with every step. As a result of that, by the time she reached her target, he was already upright and watching her approach. The last thin curtain of bodies parted to reveal the sight of him, standing slightly hunched with age and leaning upon at all staff from the top of which hung several bird skulls and one softly glowing crystal on leather cords.

“Greetings, Elder,” Ravana said politely, and though she did not raise her voice, it caused silence to ripple outward, snuffing out the muttering which had been caused by her own arrival. “Welcome to Tiraan Province and to this household. I am the Duchess Madouri, mistress of these lands. You have my apologies for the paltry accommodations, and my tardiness in greeting you. I came as soon as I was informed I had guests.”

“Duchess.” The shaman thumped his staff once upon the floor, and then bowed deeply to her. The gesture was ponderous, whether because that was just how they did it or because of his age, she didn’t know, though the way the two nearest lizardfolk watched him and edged forward protectively suggested the latter. “The People are grateful for your hospitality, and sorry to impose upon you. We are, in all our dealings, fair. We shall seek to repay your kindness in whatever way we are able, when the times allow it. For now, rest assured that we will relieve you of the burden of our presence very shortly.”

“It is no burden,” she replied in a tone which brooked no argument. “To extend kindness toward guests is among the most basic expectations placed upon all decent people, and I assure you, I can afford to host you. I am sorry for these cramped accommodations; I will find you something better as quickly as I can. As for your leaving, that remains to be seen.”

The softest of collective sounds fluttered through the onlookers, a concerted indrawing of breath.

The elder shaman made a clicking noise with his tongue, and a pair of filmy inner eyelids flickered over his yellow eyes for an instant. “We have tarried too long, Duchess, and it was never our intention to disturb you.”

“Or make yourselves known to me?” she replied with a thin smile. “That is the issue precisely, Elder. To surreptitiously cross my lands with such a large host is not neighborly behavior, with all due respect. I’m afraid your presence here, and your manner of conducting yourself, requires an explanation. What do you intend to do in the capital?”

At that, a swell of indistinct murmuring rose from the crowd, which was quelled in an instant by another thump of his staff.

“For the People, I apologize,” the Elder intoned, again bowing to her. “We have done and would have done no harm to you or yours, Duchess. If our crossing has done you insult, amends shall be made. For that, and for the slight we inflict by leaving now. But leave we must. A great doom is coming; the People have prepared as best we are able. Now is the time to act. There must be no more hesitation.”

“I fear you misunderstand,” Ravana said evenly. “I am a servant of the Silver Throne. As such, I am tentatively inclined to aid you further, if I may. Whatever benefits the Empire benefits me, and if you seek to pledge yourselves to my Emperor, I am duty bound to protect and assist you. Thus, at the very least, I shall inform his Majesty of your coming.”

Another, louder stir of voices resulted from that, again silenced by a thunk of the staff. Ravana kept speaking as though she had not been interrupted.

“However, you travel surrounded by a fog of uncertainty. I cannot send hundreds of people of unknown intention toward the seat of the Empire. As much as I would be pleased to aid your cause if it proves right that I do so, should it be true that you mean harm to my Emperor, your journey ends here and now.”

This time, there was no muttering. In fact, the silence was as chilling as it was sudden.

“Uh, Ravana?” Juniper muttered.

“So,” Ravana stated, folding her arms regally, “with apologies for pressing you, Elder, I am forced to demand that you explain yourselves.”

His thin chest swelled with a slowly drawn breath, and then his shoulders slumped as he let it out. “Already too much has been revealed, young Duchess. I swear to you, upon my forsaken name, upon the hopes of my People, on pain of severance from my every familiar spirit if I deceive, that we intend no harm to you or to Tiraas. More than that, I may not reveal to you. You have my apologies if I give insult, but this is absolute. Too much is at stake, and too much of our secrecy already compromised.”

“I thank you for that assurance,” she said solemnly, nodding her head once. “But I suspect you know well, Elder, that to a person in my situation, it cannot be enough.”

“Can it truly not?” he asked wearily.

She shook her head. “I know nothing of you or your spirits. You have your duty, and I respect that, but by the same token I have mine. The House of Madouri safeguards the lands around the Imperial capital, and has for a thousand years. To send a horde of strangers straight to the Emperor’s doorstep in ignorance of their intentions would be an utter betrayal of that responsibility. I cannot abrogate my duty in such a manner.”

He lowered his head for a moment. “Ah. To have come to such an impasse. The spirits did not forewarn that we would find allies or enemies here, only that we risked crossing the path of more able hunters than have watched these lands before. You do not know you can trust the People, Duchess; I understand. It is reasonable. If only the People knew we could trust you, this could be resolved.”

“Neither you nor I have time to dawdle here indefinitely,” she replied, “but I can spare the time for you to be certain, Elder. Surely you have the means.”

The old shaman regarded her pensively for a moment, blinking his inner eyelids once more. Then he thumped his staff yet again.

“So be it. By your leave, Duchess, I shall seek wisdom. For the patience you extend, I am grateful. Ilriss, Fninn. Prepare the way.”

A muted flurry of movement ensued as the lizardfolk rearranged themselves and Ravana stood immobile in her place. Ingvar and Juniper both drew closer to her; Sniff, on the contrary, separated himself from his mistress’s leg by a few feet, flattening his head crest and fanning his wings in a display from which the nearby lizardfolk wisely backed away. By that point, half a dozen of Ingvar’s people had joined them, including Aspen and three of the Harpies Ravana recognized, and they now arranged themselves in a protective cluster around her.

The Elder, meanwhile, had slowly stepped over to the fire and seated himself before it, his back to the flames and his tail curved around himself. Two of his nearest companions, probably the two he had named, positioned themselves on either side of him, each tossing a handful of some herbal powder into the hearth which made it splutter and produce a fragrant smoke. He appeared to be surrounded chiefly by other shaman, to judge by the way several of those nearest began to hum deep in their throats and thump their tails against the marble floor, quickly creating a rhythm that filled the air as did the scented smoke. In the midst of it, the Elder closed his eyes, breathing in deeply.

“What are you doing?” Juniper hissed at Ravana from inches away. “Who knows what’s going to happen if he does random magic at you? This could all blow up in our faces!”

“Nonsense,” Ravana said serenely, not troubling to lower her voice. “He is a shaman. When needing to ascertain whether he can trust me, he will naturally call upon his familiar spirits. And since fae divination is famously impossible to deceive or thwart, I know what they will tell him. One who lives a life of integrity need never fear the revelation of her true character.”

Ingvar’s own expression was guarded, but he shot her a long look at that.

The Elder was now rocking slowly back and forth, holding his staff horizontally in his lap. The herbal-scented smoke from the hearth had drifted forward and actually begun to form a halo around his head. That was the only clear sign of magic being done, at least until he suddenly opened his eyes. Only the outer eyelids; the translucent inner ones remained closed, revealing a muted green glow from beneath them.

Falling still and sitting bolt upright, the Elder spoke in a voice that suddenly echoed as if others were speaking in unison.

“Little hunting spider, spinner of grand and sprawling webs. Far too eager to strike, and with venom far too cruel.”

The muttering that rose from the surrounding lizardfolk was distinctly unhappy at that. The Shadow Hunters drew closer together around the Duchess, watching them warily. Ravana herself simply stood, impassively gazing at the old shaman.

“And yet,” he whispered, his soft voice cutting off the speech of the others like a blade. “And yet.”

He closed his eyes, bowing his head, and for almost a full minute, there was expectant silence.

“And yet,” the Elder said suddenly, lifting his snout again, “there is a cold honor in her. Yes. Faithful to her word, loyal to her master, generous to the weak. Destroyer and protector both, changing to suit those deserving of either spirit.”

He opened his eyes once more to reveal the green film, then blinked them rapidly, causing the glow to fade. The Elder shook his head, beginning to slump sideways until one of his attendants lunged to catch him. All around, the humming and drumming of tails trailed to a halt.

Finally, the old shaman opened his eyes fully, revealing their normal yellow, slightly clouded by age. Leaning on his companion, he gazed up at Ravana with an expression of sheer bemusement, and spoke with a voice that was just his own again, not shared by any familiar spirits.

“There is…there is no moderation in you, child. Omnu’s grace or Scyllith’s fury, with nothing in between.”

“Thank you for that assessment,” Ravana said with a noblewoman’s meaningless smile. “Back to the matter at hand, did you learn what you needed to?”

He sighed again, but nodded ponderously, and then actually smiled. “Yes… Yes, in truth. You are not the weaver against which we were cautioned.”

Another muted hubbub rose, this one excited and speculative, and thankfully not angry in tone.

Ingvar leaned closer to Ravana, speaking in a low near-growl. “And what if their intent had been hostile? My lady, we are in the middle of them.”

“If they meant harm,” she replied, “you would be dead, and I would never have learned of this. Sometimes one must take a risk, Ingvar. Every risk I take is calculated with care, I assure you.”

“Yes!” said the Elder, planting his staff against the ground and using it to heave himself upright, ignoring but not rejecting the assistance of his attendants. “Risk, yes. Your pardon, Duchess, for my skepticism. Everything has been with the utmost caution, the greatest care. Too much is at stake: the fates of the People, of the Empire, of all life upon this earth. But you have indulged me, and thus I am sure you are not our enemy. I must assure you of the same. In all our dealings, the People are fair.”

“I am relieved to hear it,” she said, smiling. “Shall we retire to a more comfortable setting to talk, Elder?”

“My old bones will bear me up a while longer,” he demurred, shaking his head. “Too much time is lost already. The omens have warned us of a great doom for some time now, little Duchess. We have consulted the spirits with great care, and learned of the shadow of a great spider, spinning webs across every possible future. Hence, my worry. But you are not that spider. In fact, you may be one who will aid us against it. The beast has laid strands of its web over every fate, and that is why the People have acted with such great care, in such meticulous silence and stealth, as we go to place ourselves before the Emperor. The spirits warned us that only thus will we avert disaster. The spider sees much…but not all. Even a spider may be plucked from its web by a wasp which does not disturb the strands. The People are no great force, in either magic or might, but we may yet save the future simply by arriving at the center of the web without touching it. What the spider does not see, it does not guard against.”

A year ago, Ravana might have disdained that idea; her whole philosophy of action was centered upon finding and deploying the greatest concentration of force possible at the enemy’s weakest point. And yet, what he described was the exact strategy Natchua had recently used to humble Elilial. The weakness of schemers—such as herself—was that even the best plan was vulnerable to any variable for which it had failed to account. Even a weak blow could be lethal, if it arrived unseen, and struck the right spot.

And so she nodded, slowly, considering his words. “A sound plan, Elder. Yes, I see why you were so concerned with the element of surprise.”

“Just so,” he agreed, nodding back. “We shall have only the one chance to avert catastrophe. Let us speak, then, of the great doom that is coming.”

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16 – 27

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“I dare to hope this will not take long, but it doesn’t pay to make excessively optimistic assumptions about wholly unprecedented events,” Ravana said, coming to a stop in the middle of the marble-floored parlor adjacent to her chambers which she had designated an official teleportation arrival and departure point. “Regardless of how much time this demands, Veilwin, I’ll expect you to remain sober for the duration, and I will have Yancey enforce this if need be. Take us to the lodge, please.”

The elf wasn’t even looking at her, staring at one of the doors to the chamber with her eyes narrowed. Yancey quirked an eyebrow at this, which was as voluble an expression of disapproval as he ever produced in the presence of the Duchess.

“Veilwin?” Ravana prompted. “While we’re young, please.”

“Hang on,” the sorceress replied. “There’s news coming that I think you’ll wanna hear.”

Ravana bit back her instinctive reply, reminding herself that there was no point in having an elf as her Court Wizard if she wasn’t going to take advantage of all the fringe benefits.

Indeed, it was only seconds later that the pounding of booted feet came into the range of human hearing, and moments after that, the door burst open to admit the commander of her House Guard—likely the only person who could have dashed through the halls of Madouri Manor without being detained by soldiers.

“My lady!” he exclaimed upon finding her waiting, barely out of breath. “Thank the gods I caught you. There’s a situation unfolding in front of Falconer Industries you’ll want to see.”

“Lord-Captain Arivani,” she replied evenly, “there are hundreds of inexplicable refugees attempting to cross my lands, and currently detained by Sheriff Ingvar in a facility which does not have the resources to keep them. Is this more important than that?”

“I…couldn’t say, my Lady,” he admitted. “But it was your explicit instruction that any incidents of public rebellion against your authority be brought directly to your attention.”

“Gods send me patience,” Ravana hissed. “Rebellion, is it? Very well, Lord-Captain, you are correct. This I want to see. How great is the danger?”

“My men have secured the roof of the tariff office just across from FI, my Lady. It has a good view of the action.”

“Excellent work. Veilwin, it seems we shall be taking a detour before visiting the lodge, after all.”

“Yeah,” the elf said smugly, already making one of her needlessly dramatic hand gestures as sparkles of arcane light gathered in the air around the four of them. “I had a feeling.”


The rest of the excursion was uneventful and smooth, even to the extent of the entire party being teleported back to the Conclave embassy in Tiraas with a minimum of backtalk, which likely was exactly why Ampophrenon chose that moment to spring his surprise.

“Principia Locke may deny involvement in classical adventuring, but it is clear she understands the practicalities better than one who has learned of them only from books,” the gold dragon said as he and Trissiny talked quietly a bit apart from the rest of the group, who were being courteously given a city map and directions from the Conclave’s public steward. “The division of deployed assets into five-person bands is traditional for good reason, and her training style is exactly that which got the best results from the greatest adventurer guilds, when they still operated.”

“I’m relieved to hear that,” Trissiny admitted. “It all seemed a little chaotic to me.”

“In comparison to a proper military boot camp, I shouldn’t wonder,” Ampophrenon replied with some amusement. “But the looser approach will help enforce standards while respecting the freedom agents like that require, and she has applied the necessary strictures to keep everyone on task and aimed at the same goals—methods developed over centuries. Locke was either in one of those guilds at some point, or has studied them extensively. Altogether, General, I deem it a most promising endeavor, and an enjoyable visit on my part. I only regret I was unable to speak with Khadizroth, but doubtless he has his own tasks to pursue.”

Snuck in at the end as it was, that stinger had the desired effect of rocking Trissiny’s composure—not by much, but she failed to suppress a slight jerk of her head.

The dragon’s monochrome eyes made it impossible to tell exactly where he was looking, but his expression and the position of his head gave her the impression of someone watching her sidelong for exactly such a reaction.

“If I might ask a favor, General Avelea,” Ampophrenon continued in the same courteous tone before she could recover, “when next you see Khadizroth, I wonder if you would be so kind as to pass along to him that he is always welcome to join us here.”

The extra few seconds were enough for her to regain her footing, though this had altogether been a valuable reminder that she wasn’t equipped to play mind games with a being such as he.

“Attempting to poach my personnel, Lord Ampophrenon?” Trissiny replied, raising her eyebrows and affecting a bland tone. “I could call bad form.”

The dragon’s lips quirked in a faint smile, but his voice remained as even and mannerly as ever. “I suspect you must be aware that the Conclave’s formation was inspired in part by Khadizroth’s own adventures of the past few years. We do not compel any of our brethren to join, but all have a place with us should they choose it. In any case, we have long since opted not to pursue any action against Khadizroth for his various errors in judgment, in particular as he has been helpfully in contact with us concerning the deeds of Archpope Justinian.”

“Has he.”

“This was before he enlisted in the First Legion,” Ampophrenon clarified. “We have not heard from him since. It seems needlessly vindictive to castigate one of our own for errors which he has fully committed himself to correcting, in his own way. Perhaps a stint in Avei’s service will provide him the penance he seeks, as well as the opportunity to effect some progress in undoing Justinian’s schemes.”

“So,” she said, watching him intently, “you are aware of the Archpope’s…ambitions.”

“Their specifics are frustratingly obscure, but we make it a point to be as aware of the world as possible, and I in particular am quite concerned with such a betrayal of the Pantheon’s most sacred charge,” the dragon said gravely. “I lack your insight into the recent events at the Temple of Avei, but even from the reports that reached me I can discern a pattern. It seems to me, General Avelea, that this is no time for those of us who are driven by principle to let ourselves be divided by misunderstandings. Khadizroth’s place among your Legion will not be a sticking point between the Sisterhood and the Conclave. On that you have my word.”

He smiled, the expression calm and open. After a moment, Trissiny had to smile back.

That silence hung for a few seconds, in which her own expression faded back to thoughtfulness, and Trissiny decided to accept his implied invitation by taking a slight risk.

“Where do they all come from?” she asked quietly, making a subtle gesture toward the two Conclave soldiers currently talking with her own party. Joe was well-mannered as always and McGraw seemed likewise, but the two Avenist priestesses—despite the fact that neither of them would be taken for such at a glance, which was no doubt part of what they were doing here—seemed openly skeptical. “If the Conclave had been scouring the streets of Tiraas for every pretty woman who might want a job…that’s the kind of thing the Sisterhood would notice.”

“Indeed,” he acknowledged, nodding once. “It was, in fact, the opposite; the Conclave did not elect to employ many of those who first sought us out, as they were a melange of opportunists and spies. Instead, my brethren have recruited from among the most unfortunate. Employment here comes with a very progressive package of benefits, including medical care by green dragons, which in addition to being better than most nobles receive, includes cosmetic glamour of the recipient’s choice. A proper application of the fae craft can even suppress the effects of chemical addiction.”

For a moment, Trissiny was again rendered silent by the weight of it. If they could gather drunks and shroomheads out of the gutters and turn them into this… Well, it explained a great deal. And raised further questions.

“I gather,” she said aloud, “such benefits would be suspended if the individual in question left the Conclave’s service. That is quite an incentive for loyalty, Lord Ampophrenon.”

He nodded again, his expression more grim. “It becomes inherently somewhat coercive, does it not? To say nothing of the implications of deliberately recruiting among the most unfortunate in the first place. There is also the fact that such exotic benefits are a ruthless cost-saving measure, as people willingly work for less than the average wage to have access to them. I raised these concerns with my fellow members of the Conclave, who it must be said indulged me in a full meeting to discuss the matter. Ultimately, their decision was that since no one is being forced to do anything against their will and our compensation is the finest they could ever hope to receive, we are not committing any ethical violation.”

“I see,” she said, not meaning her voice to be cold but hearing it anyway.

“The Conclave of the Winds is a necessity of this political moment,” the dragon said softly, now gazing across the great hall of the embassy. “More importantly, it presents the hope of betterment, for both your kind and ours. Our institutions are never perfect, Trissiny. Governments, faiths, the Church itself, my own Order of the Light… All are unavoidably flawed. I believe the Eserites have a saying about this.”

“I’ve heard it a time or two,” she agreed wryly. The dragon gave her a sidelong smile.

“Yet we cannot abandon them,” he continued, his expression quickly sobering again. “The world is always somewhat…broken. I have come to think it is meant to be. Can you imagine a world with no hardship—or more farfetched, with no difficult decisions to be made?” Ampophrenon shook his head. “Such eternal complacency could only bring out the worst in us all. We are tested, yes, constantly. It is our duty, and our only option, to rise to these trials, and make what difference we can.”

“People have often said to me that the gods never test us beyond what we can bear.”

His lips thinned for a moment. “I have seen far too many people destroyed by trials they had no reasonable hope of overcoming. Good people, who were sorely missed. Life is not so conveniently purposeful. And yet, we stand.”

“What else can we do?” she whispered.

The dragon inclined his head to her, the gesture both a nod and a bow. “I enjoy your conversation, General Avelea. You, too, are always welcome here. Feel free to call up on me if I can aid your battles, however overt or subtle they may be. Or simply if you wish to visit.”

“Thank you for everything today, Lord Ampophrenon,” she replied, nodding back. He gave her a final smile before retreating to the stairs.

Trissiny turned around, finding her own party approaching at the signal that her conversation had ended. Zanzayed, somewhat to her surprise, was still with them, and it was he who spoke up before any of them could.

“You do realize he was hitting on you, right? You’re exactly his type, Trissiny.”

“Really, Zanzayed,” she sighed.

“Hey, you’re family! I wouldn’t lead you wrong. I’m serious, Puff absolutely does have a type, and it’s ‘Hand of Avei.’ He’s had seven of ‘em over the years.”

“The hell you say!” Shay Iraa exclaimed.

A silence fell over the chamber as the various dragonsworn present turned to stare at the rough-looking woman who had just sassed a dragon right to his face. Sister Shay was still glaring at Zanzayed, clearly not bothered by any of this. Trissiny was already beginning to like her.

“Yeah, they don’t teach you that, do they?” the blue rejoined, smirking. “You’ve got the rank to bully your way into the Sisterhood’s hidden archives; do it if you’re curious, Triss. But seriously, though. If you decide to pursue that, wait till you’re ready to settle down. Puff is a nice, old-fashioned, marriage-minded dragon. Don’t toy with his little heart.”

“Well, he did invite me to drop by,” she said. “Maybe I’ll come around sometime and see what other hilarious gossip you’ve accumulated over the millennia, cousin.”

Zanzayed grinned. “Always a pleasure. Do give Arachne my love.”

“If you keep trying to get a rise out of me, I’m gonna tell her you challenged her to a duel.”

“You are a horrible little wench,” the dragon chuckled, ruffling her hair. “You’d better come visit. We need to hang out more.”


“’Rebellion’ may have been overstating it, Lord-Captain, but you were still correct to bring this to me,” Ravana said, lowering the spyglass from her eye and handing it to Yancey. “Has this demonstration shown any signs of becoming violent?”

“No, my Lady,” he admitted. “There’s at least one Omnist monk in there, which is probably helping keep things calm. So far they’re just marching in a circle with those signs. But they’re blocking the factory’s main entrance, which is not doing FI any favors.” Yancey handed him the spyglass after having a look, and he raised it to his own face, which fell into a scowl as he studied the demonstrators. “Unwashed ingrates. If the young Mrs. Falconer and her wife want to slaughter idiots who tried to steal their dog, what business is it of theirs? It wasn’t even in Madouris.”

“You’re asking for whatever you get, fucking with somebody’s pets,” Veilwin opined, looking bored. “I’d’a just killed the bastards.”

“I pity any poor animal which has to depend on you for care,” Ravana said absently, herself frowning in the direction of the protest. It was sizable, already more than thirty people. She wouldn’t have thought there were that many people in the city who’d be willing to protest Falconer Industries, which was deservedly popular. If anything, they were risking retaliation from FI’s own employees, who had famously once squared off with Thieves’ Guild enforcers. The House Madouri guardsmen currently standing in a line in front of the closed gates were probably protecting the demonstrators as much as the factory, whether they knew it or not.

Yancey, as usual, echoed the direction of her own thoughts. “Several of those signs mention Vadrieny by name, my Lady. While not a secret, the archdemons have been absent from the mortal plane since the Hellwars; their names were reduced to obscure theological trivia before the founding of the Empire. It does not prove anything…”

“And yet,” she murmured in agreement.

“Madouris is prosperous under you,” Veilwin added, which may have been the closest thing to a compliment she had ever paid her employer. “And most of those yahoos look pretty well dressed. Takes a lot to get comfortably well-fed people out in the goddamn snow at mid-morning on a workday to march around chanting slogans. Especially over something that clearly doesn’t affect them at all.”

“I did wonder at the attempted kidnapping,” Ravana mused. “Apart from my expectation of better treatment from the Thieves’ Guild, such a fool’s gambit is unlike them. As a deliberate provocation, it makes more sense.”

“Give the word, my Lady,” Arivani urged grimly, “and I can have my men clear that rabble into cells where they belong.”

“No!” she barked, causing him to jerk back in surprise. His startled expression quickly morphed into near-hurt reproach before he mastered it.

Ravana took a breath of the chill air, reminding herself what she was dealing with. She employed Ludo Arivani because he believed the sun shone out of her skirts, because an administration such as hers which favored the velvet glove over the iron fist absolutely needed a high-ranking thug for situations in which its preferred approach would not do, and because it was generally advisable to keep a military commander who hadn’t the aptitude to organize a coup, even had he been inclined to try. Also, men like him came in useful in the event of regrettable situations in which a scapegoat needed to be discarded. All of this factored into her handling of him; it was for these reasons precisely that she had made it clear he was not to try to deal with civil unrest except under her direct oversight.

“I have made carefully-cultivated popularity a cornerstone of my rule,” she explained in a more moderate tone. “The damage caused to my reputation by engaging in the type of brutality for which my father was notorious would be catastrophic. That, I suspect, is at least part of the reason for this…episode.”

The Lord-Captain nodded, seeming mollified by the explanation. “I’ve got men under my command who’re good at knife work and listening in the dark, Lady Madouri. We can avoid more episodes like this if you’ll let me spread them through the city.”

“Madouris is not a sovereign state,” she said patiently. “I can have my own propaganda machine or my own secret police, and the one I chose is already pushing the Throne’s tolerance. If I tried to have that slice of cake and eat it too I would be set upon by the Veskers and Imperial Intelligence. I need neither headache, let alone both.”

And so she lacked convenient knives in the dark, as indeed Lord Vex would never tolerate that, but there was also the fact that her network of listeners spread through the province did not report to Arivani; he didn’t need that kind of influence. More immediately, those listeners had not forewarned her of this. A demonstration of this size could not be assembled in total silence. Thus, it had not sprung up organically. This had been orchestrated; the question was by whom?

“Veilwin,” she said, staring at the protesters through narrowed eyes, “can you work any kind of divination which would isolate members of that crowd who were set there as deliberate agitators, rather than the gullible sheep I must presume most of them to be?”

“Come on, you know better than that,” the sorceress said brusquely, ignoring Arivani’s displeased glare at her tone, “you study at Tellwyrn’s school. You’re talking about fae divination, not arcane scrying.”

“That is what I feared,” Ravana said with a sigh. “Then do you believe Barnes is competent to perform such a ritual?”

Veilwin snorted loudly. “That puffed-up—”

“Veilwin,” she interrupted in an unusually steely tone, “I put up with a great deal from you, and mean to continue so doing. In return, I expect the skills for which I generously compensate you to be available when I need them. It’s time to work. In your professional opinion, with no needless inter-disciplinary sniping, can Barnes do this?”

“Well…sure,” the elf said, her voice more subdued. “Any witch could, and…yeah, he’s better than most. But that’s contingent on the targets not having been warded against it, which when it comes to fae magic, well… That ends up being a pissing contest between Barnes and whoever’s at the other end, which there’s just no way to call in advance.”

Ravana nodded once.

Arivani opened his mouth to speak, but she held up one hand for silence, and he obediently subsided. She stared sightlessly out over the square ahead and the chanting individuals currently complaining about the violent archdemon in their midst, eyes shifting rapidly back and forth as she contemplated.

“Lord-Captain,” the Duchess said at last, “these…specially skilled soldiers you mentioned. Are there any among your command who could discreetly join that crowd, out of uniform and without revealing their affiliation, and agitate them to attack the factory?”

Veilwin turned an incredulous stare on her, which she ignored.

“I’ve just the man, my Lady,” Arivani said avidly. “Montrois used to do union-breaking work in Chevantre. That’s why he’s here, the local Vernisites set the Glassian Theives’ Guild after him and he had to leave the country. I’ve not had him train any of the other troops, my Lady, but he’s pointed out a few he thinks have the knack.”

“Splendid.” Finally, a stroke of luck. “This is what you will do, Lord-Captain Arivani. Send this Montrois into that crowd, along with whatever other personnel you and he deem competent for the task, forewarned to watch for a signal from you. Summon Barnes from the Manor and instruct him to be ready with whatever materials he needs to divine hostile intent; bring him here and have him stand by. Also, bring out as many medics from the House Guard as you can assemble, and place Barnes among them. Gather my lightcap artists and place them here and on other nearby rooftops, wherever they can get the best view of the action down there. Understood so far?”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“When all this is prepared, then you will give the signal to your men below, and get that crowd to try storming the gates. At the very least, have them attempt to attack the police forces in place and cause some property damage nearby. I want an abundant selection of lightcaps of these violent criminals in action ready for tomorrow’s papers, to discredit any further attempt at this utter nonsense. My people among the writing staffs will handle the rest. Give the cappers time to get enough shots before you intervene, and then put down the mob. No energy weapons or blades, make a show of restraint, but the more minor injuries inflicted, the better.”

He grinned wolfishly. “As you command, Lady Madouri.”

“And then,” she continued, turning to meet and hold his gaze, “take them to the medics. Understand? No jails, except in the case of any individuals who make it truly unavoidable. Use the chaos to separate your plants out from the crowd and treat everyone for injuries, then let them go—but not til Barnes has had the opportunity to scan everyone. He is to do so discreetly, passing it off as medical diagnosis. If he manages to identify any of the agitators, they are also to be released, as soon as he’s confident he can track them. When this is all done, I want a spectacle to be made of my restraint and mercy in the face of reprehensible violence by despicable ne’er-do-wells. Are my orders clear?”

“Explicitly, my Lady!” he promised, saluting.

“There is likely to be significant collateral damage, my Lady,” Yancey said diffidently, “and substantial risk to the factory and its personnel. Should we warn the Falconers?”

Ravana shook her head. “I know Geoffrey’s uses; they are many and I respect him for them, but they do not include subtlety. They can’t be brought into the loop.”

“The Falconers have been the victims in all this from the very beginning,” Veilwin pointed out with an edge to her voice.

“It is often said,” Ravana observed, “that to make an omelet one must break a few eggs. To rule is to make an endless succession of omelets while standing in the very henhouse. Explaining the process to the chickens would be not only pointless, but cruel. We will continue on our way, Veilwin. This day’s work is likely to bring the Throne’s attention, and I want numerous witnesses able to attest that I was on the other side of the province while it all happened. That means all of this will rest upon you, Lord-Captain Arivani. Hew closely to my instructions, improvising only what you must, and remember my ultimate goal.”

He saluted again, his eyes fervent. “I will not fail you, Lady Madouri.”

Ravana smiled and reached out to touch his arm, which undoubtedly made his entire week. “That is why entrust you with your position, Lord-Captain.”

That, and on the day when he did fail her, it shouldn’t be too hard to replace him.

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16 – 23

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The winter wind carried a particularly bitter chill just after dawn, when the sun was only barely up, not that it slowed them down. Ingvar naturally kept an eye on the trainees, but what they lacked in acquired skill they made up for in sheer grit, which only made sense given where they’d come from.

It was a sizable group, for what amounted to a standard patrol party, but it wasn’t as if the woods of western Tiraan Province needed much patrolling; the greater part of the purpose in being out was to help the newest Shadow Hunters get accustomed to woodcraft. He had brought November, a spirit wolf, two pixie companions, and three of the Harpies who were just along for the experience. Of them, little Mittsin, who at thirteen was the youngest of the entire group to be treated as an apprentice rather than one of the children, was by far the most intent and seriousness. Ingvar could relate, remembering well what it was like being that age and having so much to prove. The others, a woman in her late twenties and one who had to be pushing fifty, both tended to break into snickers any time they glanced at one of the fairies or the wolf.

It was the names, of course. Ingvar couldn’t begrudge them having a chuckle at Zap and Flicker; the pixies preferred simple, evocative names like that, and rather than being offended seemed pleased when humans found amusement in it. Now, though, he was starting to wonder if giving their wolf companions Stalweiss honor names had been a good idea; only people raised in the traditions of the Stalrange would even be able to interpret them, but he would have expected any such to take them seriously. There was a reason such names were seldom translated for the benefit of outsiders—exactly the same reason the Empire had made sure Heshenaad was remembered by the Tanglish version Horsebutt, where he was remembered at all. So now here he was, in the woods with a cherished packmate and two women who both knew that Nirtaath literally meant “nice bitch” and couldn’t seem to stop giggling about it.

“Really?” November demanded sharply, turning to give them a flat look at the latest round of snickers. Both of them quieted, having the grace to look abashed. Ingvar tried to take a gentler tone with these women, given what they’d been through, but he couldn’t deny that November’s razor tongue had its uses. Mittsin gave them a matching look of disapproval, which fortunately for her they weren’t positioned to see.

“Sorry,” Hilden muttered. Illia nodded agreement, keeping her mouth shut.

“I don’t get it,” Flicker whispered loudly, drifting over by Ingvar. “What’s funny?”

“Nothing is funny,” November stated, turning back around, “and some people should keep that in mind.”

“This is one of those things,” Zap added.

“Ohhh.” Flicker bobbed once in midair, chiming in acknowledgment. “Got it.” The pixies in general were remarkably sanguine about social dynamics which they recognized their failure to understand, once they recognized one of those was going on.

Ingvar cleared his throat, pointing off to the group’s right. “Look there, in that clear area between the trees. What do you see upon the snow?”

“Animal tracks,” Mittsin answered quickly, her voice slightly muffled by the scarf wound over the lower part of her face. She and the other two Harpies trudged forward through the snow to get a closer look, stopping only when Ingvar held out an arm to forestall them. Both pixies floated closer; Nirtaath glanced in that direction, then turned to survey the nearby woods, her ears pricked.

“Specifically, a story,” said Ingvar. “That’s one of the best things about tracking, in my opinion. It’s far more than recognizing when something has passed this way. Once you know how to read them, the signs of the wild are as clear as text on a page. Can any of you tell what this one says?”

“They just…end, suddenly, up there,” Illia answered, pointing. “Look, it’s like a bit splash.”

“But there are no tracks leading away,” Hilden added. “Did the animal just start flying?”

“It did indeed,” Ingvar said gravely, “but not on purpose. Those are a hare’s tracks. Look, follow the progression of events. It starts out from within those bushes, see? Hopping this way and that, in no great hurry, likely foraging. But then, suddenly, the tracks are deeper and much farther apart; it suddenly started running.”

“Something scared it,” said Mittsin.

“Exactly,” he said with an approving nod. “Look how it zigzags; the hare was dodging back and forth, trying to evade something.”

“I don’t see any other tracks, though,” said Illia.

“But you see the splash, as you called it. That disturbance is where the last struggle happened. Look at those shallow, wedge-shaped marks to either side of the crater. What do you think of that?”

They were silent, all three squinting at the spot in puzzlement.

“Wings!” Mittsin said suddenly.

“Wings,” Ingvar agreed, grinning. “Looks like a hawk; none of the owls that live around here are big enough to eat a hare. That one’s journey ended right on that spot.”

“Aw. Now I feel bad for the bunny,” Flicker chimed.

“All life exists by consuming other life,” Ingvar explained, more for the benefit of the three apprentices than the pixie. “We hunt to sustain ourselves; so do hawks, and wolves, and every predator. Animals exist within the balance and are intrinsically part of it. It’s only humans who learn to hunt, consume and destroy without respecting what they take, and what they take it from. Our duty as guardians of the wild is to understand that balance, so that was can protect it. We kill, but with respect, and gratitude.”

Suddenly Nirtaath growled softly, and he turned to follow her gaze. She was staring through the trees in the other direction from the hare’s tracks, ears forward.

“What’s the matter?” November murmured, kneeling beside her.

Ingvar didn’t speak, just following the wolf’s gaze and scanning for signs of anything amiss. Those who had undergone the fey transformation, human and wolk alike, had gained an instinctive understanding of one another’s communication. Nirtaath obviously didn’t speak Tanglish and it was debatable how much actual language she grasped, but she picked up on intent very well. He and November could read her lupine signals just as clearly; something was amiss in that direction, something she did not expect to find in this forest, but not something that alarmed her.

“Is…is something wrong?” Hilden asked.

All three of the other women gasped when the light swelled around November and she changed, standing beside Nirtaath in the form of a golden-coated spirit wolf with white wingmarks gleaming at her shoulders. She lifted her head, scenting the air for a moment, then shifted back.

“I smell magic,” she reported. “Fairy; not hostile, but it doesn’t belong here. And something else, underneath it, almost wiped away. A scent I don’t recognize. Almost…reptilian?”

“Zap, Flicker,” Ingvar said. “What do you think?”

Both pixies fluttered forward, drifting back and forth among the trees in that direction. Zap’s blue-white glow could be difficult to spot against the snow, but Flicker was a fiery orange and easy to follow. She was the first to come back, bouncing in midair in excitement.

“Wind magic!” she reported. “Something made a strong breeze blow through here last night. Right through here. Definitely magical, it wasn’t part of the normal air.”

“Hey, yeah!” Zap chimed, shooting back to join them. “I think it was covering tracks!”

“He’s right,” said November, shuffling forward in a crouch. “Look, the snow here’s more windblown. In a straight path through the trees, there. Something used a fae wind spell to wipe tracks and blow away most of their scent.”

“What kind of fairy would do that?” Illia asked nervously.

“I don’t know of any,” Ingvar mused, staring through the trees with a frown. “The few fairies that bother to cover their tracks either obliterate them with no trace or just use mental magic to deflect attention. This is more likely to be a witch.”

“Elves?” Mittsin asked.

“If an elvish shaman didn’t want their tracks to be spotted, we wouldn’t have spotted them.”

“It was more than a shaman,” November added. “Look how wide the area covered is. Could be…ten people walking abreast, and no telling how many deep.”

“Hm.” Ingvar looked back at his three charges, rapidly thinking. All three met his gaze and matching looks of stubbornness fell across their features; he decided not to bother trying to send them away. This was no time or place for an argument, and anyway, they had to learn sometime. “Neither November nor Nirtaath smelled a threat. Still, per our arrangement with the Duchess, we are responsible for these forests and this is something we need to investigate. Illia, Mittsin, Hilden, you three stay behind us and keep a sharp eye out. Flicker, would you please head back to the lodge and let Aspen and the others know we found something?”

“You got it!” the fire pixie chimed, swooping around him once and then shooting off through the trees, back the way they had come.

Ingvar rested a hand on Nirtaath’s back. “Let’s go see who our visitors are.”

“So, can…can you smell hostility?” Hilden asked as they proceeded slowly after the obscured tracks, Nirtaath at the head of the group with her nose to the ground.

“It’s debatable whether ordinary canines can pick up on things like that,” Ingvar replied, eyes ahead. “Our wolf blessing is fae in nature, and fae magic is excellent for discerning emotional states. Let’s proceed quietly, now, we don’t know who we’re approaching.”

“It goes right for that big ridge,” November said, pointing. “Look how rocky it is; do you think they could have climbed it? Or turned aside?”

“Depends on who it is,” he murmured.

Nirtaath growled very softly, but kept going, and her ears remained up. Ingvar patted her fur once again, continuing to creep through the snow.

“Oh,” Hilden whispered, peeking over November’s shoulder. “It’s a cave.”

“So it is,” Ingvar agreed softly. “Big one, too. All right, you three, remember never to do what I’m about to when you’re first out on your own. A cave in the winter more often than not means a sleeping bear. Stop here, stay alert, and if I shout to run, you run, straight back to the lodge. Look after your own survival first; I can take care of mine.”

He left them, trusting November and Nirtaath to keep them calm despite how alarming that last instruction must have been, creeping forward until he passed gingerly below the rocky overhang into the deep depression beneath the ridge.

At first, Ingvar’s eyes could discern nothing, accustomed as they were to the white landscape outside under gray dawn light. Then Zap floated up by his shoulder, casting a dim but helpful bluish illumination into the underground space.

The cave was much bigger than he would have expected, broad and so deep there was not even a hint of the back visible, but that was not what commanded Ingvar’s attention. In the pixie’s glow, hundreds of tightly-packed red eyes glowed back, all staring right at him.


At least Kheshiri got to disguise herself. Natchua would have preferred the comfort of a disguise charm, given how much attention she drew even at this pre-breakfast hour of the morning. There was only one resident drow in Veilgrad and she had been a well-known figure even before everybody wanted to hear her opinion of the new Elven Confederacy. Unfortunately, making herself known was the point of this excursion. She just had to endure the cheerful attention of passersby who weren’t the people she wanted to encounter.

“Nothing?” she grumbled aloud as the two of them paced through a still-sleepy residential street, where for once nobody was around to approach her. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think these jackasses didn’t want attention.”

“Well, aside from the relative likelihood of finding traces in any given disused warehouse or empty lot,” Kheshiri said reasonably, “the prospects of finding them in one of those at all is a coin toss. The odds are not in our favor, mistress, not taking this approach. To be really thorough we’d need to investigate influential people with whom they might have ingratiated themselves. That’s a Wreath standard, and usually preferable to skulking in squalor, for a whole host of reasons.”

“I don’t fucking have time for that,” Natchua grumbled, tapping the thick folder she carried against her thigh. “Anyway, it’s not like we’ve got a reasonable chance of finding them no matter what; the idea is make it easy for them to find me, the way Mogul seems obsessed with doing. You really think they’ve wormed their way into Veilgrad society?”

“You have to remember, mistress, the warlocks who know dangerous secrets are only a fraction of the Black Wreath, by the numbers. They’re the only fraction that’s important, but for every one of them there are a hundred cretins who’ve just learned a secret handshake so they can get off on how naughty they’re being, dabbling in Elilial’s business. Mostly that’s just the true Wreath’s recruitment pool, but it does provide them with connections to hide in places with indoor plumbing, when they need to. There are bound to be at least a handful in a city the size of Veilgrad.”

“Huh,” Natchua grunted. “After Ninkabi I bet they’ll be relaxing their recruitment standards.”

“They do need to replenish their numbers,” the disguised succubus agreed. “But they may actually find that harder after the truce. Elilial’s no longer as eeeeevil. That takes away a lot of the appeal.”

“I really want to insist that nobody’s that stupid,” she said with a sigh. “But we know the truth, don’t we.”

Kheshiri grinned maliciously. “Everybody’s that stupid, mistress.”

“I’d like to think I’m not. Hopefully, most of my personal friends and acquaintances aren’t.”

“Actually, you’ve got yourself a pretty good group, yeah. But statistically everybody.”

“Oh, Kheshiri, ever the pessimist.”

“Finally!” Natchua exclaimed, stopping mid-stride and turning to face the man who’d suddenly spoken from right behind them. “You took your damn time. Is this it, today? Oh, don’t tell me, everybody’s still at breakfast.”

“Now, now, the Black Wreath aren’t stray dogs,” Embras Mogul informed her, stuffing his hands into his pockets and slouching indolently against somebody’s front gate. “You’re generally not gonna get results with a ‘come hither’ as pitifully obvious as this one. If this is your idea of a trap, Natchua, I’m not impressed. And are you aware who this succubus is, exactly?”

“What succubus?” Kheshiri asked innocently. “I am a pure maiden from a good family of—”

“Don’t bother,” he said curtly. “As tempted as I am to just let you try to control this creature and suffer the consequences—”

“I’m not gonna take any sass on the subject of Kheshiri from the jackass who went and let her out of her bottle in the first place,” Natchua interrupted. “And for what, to try to cause trouble for some rando Eserite? Shit like this is why nobody takes you seriously when you start ranting about how the Wreath actually protects the world. Now listen up, I’ve already wasted enough time on your lollygagging today.”

“I feel I should remind you,” he said with a brittle grin, “that you should always worry less about the Wreath you see than the many you do not. Whatever you planned to spring today, Natchua my dear, I highly suggest—”

“Yes, all right, shut up.” Natchua calmly tossed the folder at him; by simple reflex alone, he caught it, his grin disappearing. “You’ll note I added colored tabs to the pages. The green ones are fairies and the black ones possible chaos events; I recommend you steer clear of those, or at least approach with care if you won’t take my word for it. The orange ones are infernal, that’s what I want you to focus on. If you get done with those, maybe have a look at the black tabs; undead problems aren’t exactly your purview, but if there’s one thing infernomancy is good for it’s breaking shit and you usually can’t go wrong just destroying zombies.”

“I beg your god damned pardon,” he said, clearly affronted.

“Every entry has a rough map and a serviceable description. Have a look at the kraagthshnorik entombed up in the hills,” Natchua advised. “It’s been there at least a couple hundred years and might hibernate forever, but being asleep it’s an easy target. It’s a place to start, anyway. The hedge warlock who’s camped out by the northern lumber camp probably just needs a scare put into him; I’d appreciate it if you approach that circle of imp summoners in the city with more care. They’re stupid teenagers and probably just gonna kill themselves, but they all have rich parents and I don’t need you stirring up the whole city. I was just going to collect evidence on them and turn it over to the Empire.”

“Are…are you… Are you giving me homework?” Mogul demanded incredulously.

“You Elilinists always make such noise about your mandate to protect the world from demons, right? Well, I went and found a bunch of demons for you. There they are, go nuts.”

“Listen here, you preposterous knife-eared wench,” he hissed, his usual facade of conviviality fading away, “the Black Wreath are not your fucking lackeys.”

“Here’s how it is, Mogul,” Natchua stated while Kheshiri grinned in insane delight. “I don’t know what you’re up to around here except that what you’ve told me you’re up to is a load of nonsense. And you know what? I officially don’t give a shit. I have things to do and no more time for your hogwash. The next time you want my attention, you can come to the Manor and knock like a civilized person. As long as you’re not bringing me hostility I will guarantee you safe passage. But if you want my attention, you’ll bring proof that you’ve done something to help protect Veilgrad or you will be directed to fuck right off. If you’re going to hang around my city, you will make yourself useful. That is all.”

“Now, you listen—”

Rather than listening, however, she snapped her fingers and shadow-jumped both of them away, cutting off Kheshiri’s howl of delighted laughter and leaving him glaring at empty space, holding the folder of local threat assessments.


Breakfast and the dining room of Madouri Manor was a cheerful affair reminiscent of the cafeteria at the University, despite its opulent surroundings, mostly due to the familiar company.

“I really wouldn’t want to put you out,” Toby assured Teal. “It’s fine, all three of us have mounts!”

“Toby, for heaven’s sake,” Teal replied in exasperation, “it is freezing out there and it’ll take you an hour to get to Tiraas on horseback. Let us give you a ride.”

“But weren’t you going to teach Shaeine to drive later? I mean, a big multi-seater coach can’t be the best vehicle for that…”

“I would like to think I thrive in extremely minor adversity,” Shaeine said primly.

“Is this that thing again?” Fross asked, floating over Toby’s plate. “The one where you’re so determined to take care of everybody you won’t let us do the same? I thought we talked about this.”

“Shame Raolo’s spending the winter break at his grove,” Iris added. “Raolo can always make him behave.”

“Hey, that’s a point!” cackled Ruda. “Maybe we should get him! Is there a scrolltower near his folks’ place?”

“Please don’t interrupt Raolo’s vacation,” Toby exclaimed.

“Yeah, there’s really no need,” Trissiny agreed. “This’ll blow over as soon as he realizes he just volunteered me and Gabe to freeze our toes off all morning.”

Toby halted mid-interruption, his mouth open, and then leaned back in his chair, groaning and covering his face with both hands.

“We love you too, bro,” Gabriel assured him, leaning over to drape an arm around his shoulders.

“It is seriously fine, Tobes,” Teal chuckled. “If it helps you, we’ve got a new truck model my dad would be delighted to have me show off in the capital. Heated rear compartment and everything. You’d be doing us a favor.”

The dining room door opened, admitting Yancey pushing a cart stacked with small envelopes.

“Ah, good morning, Yancey,” said Ravana, setting aside her teacup. “How is—good heavens.”

“There is no cause for alarm, my Lady,” the Butler assured her, bringing his cart around the table to park near her chair. “These are social invitations, sent by Duchess Dufresne to each of the individuals here.”

“Malivette?” Trissiny asked, blinking. “Us?”

“Oh, that’s right, she never really got to know me, did she?” Gabriel mused, accepting a card with his name in neat calligraphy from Yancey. “Only reason I can imagine why a noble would invite me to a social event.”

“Pursuant to that, my Lady,” Yancey continued while continuing to pass the invitations out around the table, “the Duchess reports that Natchua has acquiesced to her and your suggestion. The social event in question is meant to be the formal announcement of the Houses’ agreement. As protocol dictates, every ruling House and the minor Houses of Lower Stalwar and Tiraan Provinces shall be invited to attend.”

“Natchua?” Gabriel paused in the middle of opening his envelope, looking up with narrowed eyes. “At a social event? With Malivette? Ravana, what did you do?”

“Why does everyone always assume I did something?” she demanded.

The crackle of silverware and paper around the table fell silent as everyone paused in eating and opening cards to stare at her.

“Yes, all right, point taken,” the Duchess acknowledged with a wry little smile.

“One day is extremely short notice for a social event requesting the presence of such dignitaries,” Shaeine observed.

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, “I rather expect Malivette’s intent is to learn who is morbidly curious enough to show up despite the implied insult. One way or another, it promises to be an interesting evening! Was there anything else, Yancey?”

“Yes, my Lady,” he said, handing the last card to Iris and gliding back to her chair, where he folded his hands behind his back and stood at attention. “There appears to be a situation in the west of the province. This morning the Manor received an urgent signal from Sheriff Ingvar. I took the liberty of dispatching Veilwin to the lodge to collect a report.”

“Really? It’s not even eight in the morning,” Ravana said, raising an eyebrow. “I am most impressed that you managed to get her up.”

“I have found that Veilwin’s hangovers respond well to topical hydrotherapy,” Yancey said diffidently.

Gabriel frowned. “What kind of therapy?”

“He dumped water on her,” Ruda said merrily, still tucking into her pancakes. “Works on my Uncle Raffi, too!”

“It seems,” Yancey continued, “Ingvar has discovered a large group of lizardfolk attempting to surreptitiously cross the province, concealing their movements with fae magic.”

Once again, quiet fell over the room as everyone processed that.

“Lizardfolk?” Ravana demanded. “Why? How many?”

“The Shadow Hunters are still attempting to take stock of the situation, but Ingvar has ascertained so far that they are an assemblage of multiple tribes from the entire region of lizardfolk population, extending from Viridill to Mathena and the northern desert. They claim to be going to Tiraas in pursuit of some prophetic vision. The Sheriff has not obtained a thorough headcount, but Veilwin estimates there are at least five hundred of them.”

Ravana blinked twice. “…Trissiny, you grew up near tribal colonies in Viridill, yes? Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

“Uh…” Trissiny was still holding her knife and fork, apparently forgotten in both hands. “Based on what I knew, lizardfolk never live in groups of more than a hundred and usually less than half that, rarely approach human cities, have no organized religion, and hibernate in the winter.”

“Well, of course,” the Duchess said fatalistically, forgetting her manners to the point of placing one elbow on the table and leaning her face into her hand. “Because why should the high elves be the only race of people to suddenly abandon millennia of tradition in my backyard? I don’t suppose Ingvar happened to mention to these nomads that I am on vacation?!”

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16 – 17

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“Well…this changes matters.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tooooold yoooooouuu,” Layla sang sweetly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Twenty an hour,” Falconer said proudly.

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

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

“I wish to inspect one of these vehicles.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both Magisters looked distinctly alarmed at that.

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

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

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

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

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

“Young woman,” Danoris began.

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

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

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

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

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

“Most fortunate indeed,” Magister Talvrin said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now, see here!” Danoris barked.

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

“Talvrin!” he exploded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danoris looked as if he might vibrate through the floor.

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

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

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

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16 – 16

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“I’m sorry I missed ‘er, though,” Maureen said wistfully. “It’s been a real treat gettin’ to catch up with the junior class as well as you girls while everybody’s here. Seein’ Natchua woulda been a grand addition to the week!”

“I am not sure why,” Scorn grunted, idly playing with her expensive disguise ring now that she had taken it off. “Natchua behaves better now than she ever did at school, but it does not make her pleasant to be around.”

“Well, that just makes me actually want to catch up with her,” Iris said, grinning. “Which I never did before. Natchua was always a jerk; I’m suddenly real curious to see what she’s like, mellowed.”

“Her hair is less spiky,” said Scorn. “Still green, though.”

“Sometimes,” Ravana said with a beatific smile, “all it takes for a person to begin to flourish is the right environment. Apparently, Last Rock was not that for Natchua. It never occurred to me ahead of time, but I can entirely see Veilgrad agreeing with her.”

“I am just as grateful to have missed her,” Szith murmured, “and not out of any personal antipathy. Given Natchua’s situation with regard to Tar’naris, duty would have compelled me to bring a detailed report of any encounter to her House. I consider that prospect awkward in the extreme.”

“In point of fact, that occurred to me,” said Ravana, nodding to her. “Otherwise I would have invited her to stay a bit and chat with everyone. Perhaps it worked out for the best, in any case. She seemed in a hurry to return to Veilgrad. Also,” she added with a mischievous little smirk, “I don’t believe she cares for me, personally.”

“Hard to care what she cares about,” Scorn opined.

“Well, what’s done is done,” Ravana said briskly, glancing at the door of the lounge as it opened to admit Yancey. “I’m glad to have that bit of business over with, at least. Fortunately it ended early enough in the day that we’ve plenty of time to make the afternoon show I mentioned over breakfast. That is, if you are all still interested?”

“Aye, sounded a right pleasure!” Maureen chirped. “Ain’t often I get ta see a new art form bein’ born!”

“Moving lightcaps, though?” Iris asked skeptically. “As much as you like to chatter about lightcaps, Ravana, it seems like we’d have heard about it before today if that was a thing.”

“As I understand it, they are not true moving pictures like a magic mirror or scrying surface, but a sequential progression of images set to music and projected upon a large stage. For just that reason, Iris, I am extremely curious. If this works at all well, I may be inclined to invest in the company producing them. Is the carriage ready, Yancey?”

“Your pardon, my lady,” the Butler said, bowing deeply. “There is a situation in the grand hall which requires your attention.”

Ravana’s smile instantly disintegrated. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, what now?”

“I am deeply sorry to have interrupted your afternoon plans, my lady.”

“No.” She shook her head, closing her eyes momentarily. “No, Yancey, I’m sorry. It is the absolute height of stupidity to castigate a good servant for performing his duties well. I ought never vent my frustration at you.”

Yancey bowed again, his face adopting an astonishingly expressive little smile; only a Butler could have conveyed without words both forgiveness and the assurance that no forgiveness was necessary. “I shall redouble my efforts to protect your free time during this brief vacation, my lady. A delegation has arrived from the Elven Confederacy, accompanied by seven citizens of Tiraan Province liberated from captivity by House Dalmiss. You instructed that this be brought directly to your attention should it transpire, and in any case, the leader of this embassy demands your presence.”

“I see,” she said, chewing her bottom lip for a moment. “Well. That, in fact, is an extremely important matter. Girls, I am so sorry to do this yet again,” the Duchess continued, turning to her friends with a rueful expression.

“I shall never resent you for placing duty first,” Szith assured her with a deep nod.

“Yeah, you told us up front this was likely to happen,” Iris agreed, stepping forward to give Ravana a quick hug. “It’s okay, don’t you worry about us. We’re being ridiculously pampered by your staff, it’s not like it’s an imposition.”

“How about this, then?” Maureen suggested. “Tonight, we’ll all ‘ave a sleepover, an’ swap gossip like we used to back at the dorm. It’ll be just like old times!”

“I say, I like that idea!” Ravana said, smiling broadly. “We can stay in my chambers; goodness knows I have the room. After the Wells, my own bedroom feels rather like a museum.”

“It’s a date!” Iris promised.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Ravana, nodding to each of them. “I apologize again for running off on you like this, but I’m afraid it doesn’t do to leave foreign dignitaries twiddling their thumbs. Especially not after I’ve gone to all the trouble of blackmailing them.”

She turned to go, but not before seeing a cluster of alarmed expressions


There were fourteen individuals awaiting her in the great hall, seven elves and seven humans. Ravana’s first observation, even before she took note of her own liberated people, was that not one of the elven delegates was a drow.

In fact, it seemed clear that all seven were high elves. Four were evidently military escorts rather than diplomats, standing stiffly at attention in a formation enclosing the cluster of humans and all clad in armor that seemed made of blue glass and gold plating. Just as Malivette and Natchua had described, though at the time Ravana had privately thought it sounded wildly implausible. It looked wildly implausible, but…there it was.

To judge by the other three, Qestrali fashions ran to long robes, inordinate amounts of jewelry, and lavish hairstyles. There were two men and a woman, all with long hair; one of the men wore his down his back in an elaborate cascade of braids, while the other two had theirs wound about their heads in extravagant styles. The woman’s was actually draped over a sapphire-encrusted halo of gold which hovered along behind her head under some enchantment, bobbing like a buoy as she paced slowly up and down the columned hall to examine the hanging banners. All three had robes woven with glowing patterns; the man in the lead, whose ostentatious coif was held in place by three bejeweled hairsticks, actually had large and heavy-looking shoulderpads of solid gold which hovered above rather than resting upon his thin shoulders.

Any Imperial House worthy of the title could afford to bedeck its members in such wealth, up to and including the decorative enchantments. Ravana was less sure about the feasibility of enchanting accessories to float along with clothes, simply because it would never have occurred to her to do such a thing. By Imperial standards, such ostentation was gauche in the extreme. In her opinion, excessive flaunting of luxury revealed a critical weakness of character. The question was whether this was the standard in Qestraceel, or they were trying to impress her specifically.

If the latter, they were broadly ignorant of Imperial customs, which had significant implications.

The seven humans were clumped together in clear unease bordering on outright fear, staying as far as they physically could from the Highguard escorting them. All wore dark robes of Narisian style, looking downright plain next to the surrounding elves. No coats were in evidence, but they showed no sign of having been recently chilled, so at least their escort had provided some magical protection from the cold. She also noted that they were all under thirty, five men and two women, and all notably attractive specimens of humanity.

A reminder of exactly what the Narisian elite usually wanted human slaves for, those execrable darkling bastards. Ravana had definitely arranged all this for broader political goals, but when now faced with the reality of it, the surge of revulsion and outrage she experienced was genuine. Not that she allowed any of it to show upon her face. There was a time and place for such openness, but this was not it.

Most of the elves and all of the humans were watching her and her own escort long before they met them midway through the great hall, though the man with the levitating shoulderpads was the last to look up; he was staring up at the hall’s chandeliers with a fixed frown until Ravana herself was barely five yards away. Surely he’d seen magical lights before. His clothes alone carried far more impressive enchantments than her fairy lamps.

“Ah,” he said in a peremptory tone, meeting her eyes and lifting his chin. “You are Duchess Madouri, then?”

She arched one eyebrow at his rudeness, saying nothing.

Ravana had arrived flanked by Veilwin and Lord-Captain Arivani, the commander of her House guard, with Yancey following discreetly and four of her own soldiers marching in formation behind—a detail Yancey had no doubt ordered to mirror the elves’ display.

Arivani was sufficiently disciplined not to scowl openly at guests in a formal greeting, but his expression was icy as he lifted his battlestaff to strike its butt against the marble floor with a sound that rang through the cavernous hall.

“You are in the presence of her Grace, the Duchess Ravana Firouzeh Laila Madouri, High Seat of the House of Madouri, Imperial Governor of Tiraan Province and Lady Protector of Madouris.”

That was not technically the correct greeting, nor his place to issue it, but she employed Arivani for his military competence and his personal loyalty to her, not his diplomatic skills. Besides, in this specific case, asserting who was in charge in this house did happen to be the correct action.

“Welcome to Madouris,” she said simply, a far cooler greeting than she’d so recently given the delegation from Veilgrad.

The other two high elves executed shallow bows in her direction, but the man who was apparently in the lead just pursed his lips in visible annoyance, his green eyes flicking over each of them in turn. It ultimately settled, but not on Ravana.

“What bloodline are you from?” he demanded, staring at Veilwin.

“Ah, ah, ah,” she chided, wagging a finger at him. “I’m honest grove stock, not from your fancy-pants city under the sea. If you’re thinking about trying to haul me back there, forget it.”

“Under the sea,” Ravana said aloud, allowing her eyebrows to lift in surprise. “Why…of course! I’d always heard it floated, but that makes so much more sense. There’s no need even to hide it if no one can dive that deep, after all.”

All three high elves fixed glares on Veilwin.

The Court Wizard grinned broadly and uttered the single most insincere “Oops” Ravana had ever heard, even after two years at Last Rock.

Finally tearing his gaze off the sorceress, the elves’ leader squared his shoulders and turned back to Ravana with a curt little nod. “I am Magister Danoris of Qestraceel, representing the diplomatic interests of the Confederacy. We’re here to oversee the previous agreed prisoner exchange. As soon as you produce Matriarch Ezrakhai’s daughter, you may have these…people, and we can all return to our own business with a minimum of further fuss.”

“She took the Matriarch’s daughter?” one of the Imperial women burst out in shock, then immediately clapped both hands over her mouth and tried to hide behind several of her fellows. In fact, the majority of the group huddled more closely together in a manner that made Ravana freshly furious at what must have been done to so cow them.

Not all, though. The shorter of the two men actually surged forward, ignoring the two Highguard who shifted to face him. They did not physically stop him, though, and he came up to stand abreast of the Magister, where he fell to one knee and bowed his head.

“My Lady,” he said in a voice coarse with emotion, “I swear by Omnu’s name, I am your man for life.”

“Rise,” Ravana ordered, keeping her voice calm. “And welcome home. You are a citizen of the Tiraan Empire, and now safe in your own land. This is a civilized country. Here, you will not be compelled to any obeisance that deprives you of basic dignity.”

He did stand, but hesitantly, and raised his head enough to peek shyly up at her. The expression on his face held a fervor she had usually only seen on people at religious services.

Interesting. Ravana made a mental note to keep track of these seven as they were re-integrated into society. Pawns they might be in this game, but a pawn which crossed the entire board as they had could be shaped into any piece.

“Right,” Danoris said, clearly unimpressed. “The prisoner, if you please?”

“Yes, that was the agreement,” she replied, turning a wintry little smile upon him. “I have given orders that she be prepared and can be handed over quite shortly. Of course, we must execute due diligence to ensure our own interests. As soon as the identity of these citizens has been verified, the exchange can be completed. Lord-Captain, please escort the civilians to the specialists I have arranged.”

“My lady,” Arivani acknowledged, saluting.

“Excuse me,” Magister Danoris interjected sharply, “but the essence of a prisoner exchange is that you get yours when we get ours. Not before.”

“This is a formality,” she stated, still wearing that tiny smile, “but a crucial one. I have fae magic users standing by who can verify true identities; imagine the embarrassment for all concerned if the Matriarch had sent me the wrong people. And since I am not the party here who has made a long-standing practice of enslaving citizens under false pretenses in a violation of treaty, it is not my word which is in question here.”

“You forcibly abducted—”

“Prove it,” Ravana demanded, widening her smile at his incredulous expression. “But! As a gesture of good faith, in acknowledgment of the Confederacy’s interests and to emphasize that my dispute is solely with House Dalmiss and not Qestraceel or the Elven Confederacy as a whole, I of course invite you to delegate one of your magic specialists and as many of your military escort as you deem necessary to observe the process. Perhaps you will find it intellectually interesting; I’m told fae magic differs vastly in methodology from your own.”

“My lady,” the man who had knelt to her said earnestly, dry-washing his hands, “my name is Samir Talvadegh, I’m from Tiraas and my family lives right here in Madouris, they’ll vouch for me—”

“I believe you, Mr. Talvadegh,” Ravana said gently. “I do not suspect foul play, but it is critically important that these things be done in the proper manner, and duly witnessed and recorded. This is not Tar’naris. As I am certain our noble guests from the graceful civilization of Qestraceel can attest, in an actual society the documentation of important events is an absolute necessity. Particularly when it concerns something as crucial as the relationships between sovereign nations.”

“It is to the advantage of all parties,” the female high elf said softly, “to have a verification on record to which observers from both sides have agreed, Magister Danoris. Not to mention,” she added with another shallow bow toward Ravana, “that we are all cognizant of the stakes involved, and none here would risk the ongoing negotiations between the Confederacy and the Empire by dealing falsely with one another.”

“Just so,” Ravana agreed, nodding courteously. “In particular, further diplomatic incidents must not be risked, after this morning’s events in Veilgrad.”

At that, Danoris’s scowl deepened, and two of the Highguard shifted to glare at her directly. Ravana took note that these elves were as well-informed as they were undisciplined. Really, she had never met either diplomats or professional soldiers who had such poor control of their emotions. Was this the result of too many millennia at the bottom of the sea, never having to test their wits against legitimate rivals? If this was what all high elves were like, the Imperial nobility would devour them like a school of piranha, and the Narisians had undoubtedly already made puppets of them.

Which, now that she considered it in those terms, would explain a lot.

“I’m given to understand that fae spells can be imprecise in execution,” Ravana said when no one else spoke for a handful of seconds, “but rest assured, I will take every measure to ensure the comfort of guests while the necessary is attended to, however long that may take. I pride myself on hospitality. In fact!” She put on a sudden broad smile as if just having an idea. “I believe I know just the thing to entertain such distinguished visitors while necessary formalities are carried out. This Manor is but a short distance from the Falconer Industries factory, the pride and principal economic pillar of Madouris. Veilwin can teleport us there for a quick tour and right back with no time lost.”

“We are not here to sightsee,” Danoris spat.

“I would welcome the opportunity to observe an Imperial enchanting facility firsthand,” the other male Qestrali said, his softer tone a deliberate counterpoint to their leader’s overt ire.

“Indeed, it sounds fascinating,” agreed the woman, fixing Danoris with a very pointed look.

“It goes without saying,” Ravana added smoothly, “the elves of Qestraceel have nothing to learn about arcane magic from the likes of us. Nonetheless, I believe you will find this…instructive, Magister.”

And even if he did not, she would.

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