“Yoo hoo!” Malivette called from the distance as soon as they emerged from the basement. “We’re in the dining room, ducklings. C’mon in, join us!”
Trissiny and Ruda exchanged an expressive look, but obediently stepped out into the hallway and toward the side entrance of the long dining room as directed. Ruda fell back and moved behind Trissiny in the narrow hall, allowing Shaeine to slip in ahead of her; the drow gave her a nod of thanks in passing.
Upon entering the dining room, however, they all clustered in a knot at the door and stared.
Malivette was lounging against one end of the long, heavy table, grinning delightedly, which had the effect of emphasizing her elongated canines. Professor Rafe sat in one of the chairs, also grinning, with a large book open on the table between him and the next chair over. In that chair, sandwiched between Rafe and Malivette, sat Schkhurrankh, her towering form looking painfully out of place even behind the hefty table. In fact, she looked cowed and uncomfortable, which was jarring; even locked in a cage, the demon had not appeared actually intimidated at any point.
“There you are,” Malivette cooed at them, wiggling her fingers in a girlish little wave. Teal approached the door from the side, smiling in relief, and reached out to brush the back of her hand against Shaeine’s; the drow smiled back at her, permitting more warmth in the expression than she usually displayed in public.
“Well, everyone made it all right, then!” said Juniper, peeking over Ruda’s shoulder. “We were a little worried about you carrying her all the way here. She looks heavy.”
“We carried Gabe to Last Rock from halfway into the Golden Sea,” Teal pointed out. “Frankly, this was easier. She is heavier, but Vadrieny’s strength and flight are magical, so that doesn’t matter much. It was a much shorter flight, and she squirmed less, and didn’t complain at all.”
“Well,” said Rafe with an insane grin. “Not till you got back here, anyway.”
“Is…everything all right?” Trissiny asked carefully.
Teal cleared her throat, jerking her head toward the other end of the long dining room. The rest of the girls crept farther into the room, peering down in the direction she indicated.
“Oh,” said Fross. “Oops.”
At the opposite end of the room stood a heavy sideboard, which was now scattered around in pieces. The floral wallpaper had been ripped completely away from most of that wall, and even the oak paneling beyond was smashed in several places. There was a large dent in the floor, with the jagged end of a broken floorboard poking upward. The entire area was marred by scorch marks.
Teal cleared her throat. “There was a bit of a…”
“Yeah,” said Ruda, “looks like there was.”
“Well, as I said,” Teal continued quickly, “Rhaazke are are matriarchal culture. Now that it’s been established who’s the dominant female in this house, there won’t be any more issues.”
“Which is almost a shame,” Rafe said happily. “That was a hell of a spectacle. Pun not intended, but so perfect now that I think of it that I am retroactively claiming it was.”
“You beat down that?” Ruda exclaimed, turning to Malivette. The vampire was scarcely taller than she, gaunt as a winter tree, and her expensive black dress didn’t appear so much as rumpled.
“Don’t fight with vampires,” Trissiny advised quietly.
“Anyway, do watch your step if you have reason to be down at that end of the dining room,” Malivette said gaily. “I’ll have it all fixed up as quick as I can, but the way things are in Veilgrad right now, getting workmen is going to be a time-consuming prospect. They don’t much love coming up here at the best of times. It’s likely to remain that way for the duration of your visit; my apologies.”
“I brought her here,” Teal said quickly. “I’ll pay for the damages.”
“Oh, pish tosh,” Malivette said, waving her away. “I’ve got scads of money, and nothing to spend it on. I don’t eat, I hardly ever have guests, and I can only buy my girls so many pretty dresses before they start to ask what I’m bribing them for. Honestly, you kids are the most fun I’ve had in years! You’re even more interesting than my class at the University, and they sent me to Hell once!”
Rafe straightened up, swiveling his head around to frown at her. “Wait, they did freakin’ what?”
“It was very exciting!” Malivette said, beaming. “I was down there almost two days and actually got to meet Prince Vanislaas! He sent me back with a very strongly-worded letter for Professor Tellwyrn. Charming fellow.”
Everyone stared at her in dead silence. Schkhurrankh’s eyes darted back and forth; she seemed almost afraid to move.
“Well, the girls are preparing a room for our new guest,” Malivette continued lightly, “and Admestus is working on teaching her some Tanglish. Oh, but what happened to your boy?”
“Toby went back with Gabriel,” said Juniper. “He didn’t want Gabe to have to go home alone. He’s a very thoughtful person.”
“Gabriel, from what I understand, isn’t really alone most of the time,” Malivette noted, some of the good cheer leaking from her expression.
“Yeah, well,” Ruda snorted, “his personal company consists of grim reapers and fuckin’ Ariel. I can’t blame him for wanting some better conversation. If that sword had a head I’d say it was broken.”
“Ariel lacks empathy and isn’t able to adapt her personality to social changes,” Fross chimed. “That’s pretty standard for sentient objects; Gabe and I looked it up.”
“Anyhow,” Malivette went on, brightly, straightening up, “we’ll just keep something warm for Toby, and dinner will be ready for the rest of you in two shakes. Sapphire’s working up something marvelous; she hardly ever has people to cook for, you’ve just made her year! This is turning out to be such an exciting visit! I can’t wait to see what happens next!”
Beaming, she patted Schkhurrankh on the head, right between her horns. The demon flinched.
It took Trissiny more than an hour to give up on sleeping. The house was quiet; she didn’t want to disturb any of her classmates, or Malivette’s friends, and especially not the demon. Vampires did not sleep, but Rhaazke were an unknown species to her, and of unknown nature and habits. Regardless, she didn’t particularly want to have a conversation with either of them. Malivette made her nervous for reasons not necessarily related to her condition.
Moving as quietly as possible and taking nothing but her sword, rather than clunking around in full armor, Trissiny slipped out of the house. She paused for a moment outside, drawing in a deep breath and just experiencing the night. It was only partially cloudy, and cooler than Last Rock was at this time of year. For all that, though, if she lifted her eyes to gaze above the walls ringing the manor grounds, the view reminded her of home. While the Stalrange were craggy, younger peaks crowned by sharp edges rather than the ancient rounded mountains of Viridill, they had the same effect of blocking out swaths of the night sky all around. Feeling encircled by mighty, ancient sentinels was, for just a moment (if she squinted a bit), like standing on the parade ground of the Abbey at night.
She had entertained thoughts of taking a stroll around the property, but quickly changed her mind. Clearly no one bothered to trim or tend anything on these grounds; the lawn was overgrown and interrupted by small thorny bushes. Trissiny was willing to wade through any number of horrors, but not to collect ticks, fleas and scratched knees just to stretch her legs. With a soft sigh, she stepped down from the porch, heading slowly toward the gates of the manor, thinking a couple of laps up and down the path would help settle her nerves. The unease that lapped at her had diminished outdoors; she knew it wasn’t her senses for evil setting it off, for all that she could still pinpoint Malivette’s exact location in the house (she was in the far southeast corner of the attic). It was just…the situation.
Her plan was changed by the music.
It was a thin, high sound, clearly some kind of flute. It came from somewhere not too far distant, though obviously outside the manor grounds. Moreover, the melody was as familiar to her as the weight of her sword—no, more so, since she’d known it longer. Mother Narny had hummed that tune when calm and happy, usually when tending to the young girls in her charge, those not yet old enough for the barracks. Trissiny associated that tune with the happiest, calmest memories of her childhood, to the point that hearing it here of all places brought her to a physical stop. She had never heard it elsewhere.
Even while considering the various kinds of suspicious this was, she found her feet moving, her face falling into a scowl and her hand finding the hilt of her sword. She did not believe in coincidences of this magnitude; someone wanted her attention. If they meant her harm…well, they could try.
The wrought iron gates were not locked, nor were they as heavy as they looked; unlike the yard, they were well-cared for and didn’t even squeal as she pushed one open just enough to slip through. After a moment’s thought, Trissiny pushed it nearly shut, leaving just enough of a gap to slip a hand in. It would be extremely bad manners to leave Malivette’s estate open to the night, but she was aware that this excursion might result in a need for her to quickly re-enter the grounds.
After another moment’s thought, she braced her feet, focused her will and murmured a short prayer. Gold flared from her aura, along with blazing wings; for just a second, she lit up the night like a sunrise. When the light faded, she wore her silver armor and had her shield slung over her back. For the moment, she left it there, though she drew her sword as she advanced toward the music.
A convenient path branched off from the road just a few yards from the gates, leading into a dense stand of pine trees. As Trissiny paused at its entrance, the music grew slightly in volume, just a hair more than could be explained by her increasing proximity to the musician. She narrowed her eyes and started forward, the faintest limning of gold arising over her form.
It wasn’t a long walk, but a slightly winding one through just enough turns to hide the destination from view of the road. In short order, the path terminated in a small clearing which was obviously of some importance. Standing stones ringed it, defining a cleared space apart from the forest on all sides, and a lower altar of the same ancient granite stood just off-center amid the circle.
On that altar sat an elf.
She was a wood elf to judge by her ears, but was dressed in stereotypical plains elf style, fringed buckskins bleached pale and dyed with subtle vertical patterns that would provide camouflage in the Golden Sea’s tallgrass. The object she held to her mouth was clearly the source of the music, though Trissiny couldn’t quite make out how; it was palm-sized and potato-shaped, dark brown in color. Most strikingly, she had coal-black hair.
She also had impressive timing. The tune came to an end just as Trissiny stepped carefully within the circle of standing stones.
“Where did you hear that song?” the paladin demanded.
“It’s an old ballad,” the elf replied calmly, lowering her peculiar instrument. “Old even by the standards of my people. The story of an elven warrior and his human bride. Obviously, it does not end happily. The spirits told me that tune was the specific thing that would get your attention, so I find myself wondering where you heard it. I actually have not in several decades. Things fall out of favor with the passing of time, the shift of trends.”
“So you wanted my attention,” Trissiny said curtly. “You have it. Speak.”
The elf rose in one fluid motion, nodding deeply to her; standing atop the altar, she towered over the paladin. “My name is Kuriwa. Tell me, Trissiny, have you ever looked at someone and felt an inexplicable but powerful sense of kinship?”
“What?” Trissiny frowned, staring suspiciously up at her. “What are you talking about?”
“I see.” Kuriwa looked disappointed. “The blending of kinds can have middling effects on things like the shape of ears, general build, the acuity of senses… But there are elven traits that one either inherits, or not, always in whole, never in part. You have the aura and metabolism, I can see that much at a glance. I had thought perhaps… Well. Elves are not neatly sorted into generations like humans; we have a more complex relationship with heredity. An extra sense, a way to tell when we are in the presence of genetically close family. No doubt an adaptation against inbreeding. If you possessed it, you would know the feeling.”
“I’ve only met one elf who I was related to,” Trissiny said, scowling, “and all I felt was suspicion and disappointment.” She already had a sense of where this was going.
“Yes,” Kuriwa said with a rueful little smile, “she has that effect, though I think she would be hurt to hear you say it. For your future edification, however, the combination of black hair and the ears of a forest elf exists only in one bloodline. When you see it, you are in the presence of family.”
“The Sisters of Avei are my family,” she stated. This was not a surprising revelation after that build-up, but she was surprised at how little she felt toward this woman. After Principia, she had not really considered her heritage, nor felt inclined to seek it out.
“Yes,” Kuriwa repeated, nodding in agreement. “The bond of family goes far beyond blood, and may in truth have nothing to do with it. You have been denied even the opportunity to know those who are kin to you, however. I offer you the chance to rectify that lack, if you wish to take it.”
“What are you doing here, now?” Trissiny exclaimed. “If you were interested, you’ve had years to track me down. This is not exactly a convenient time for me to deal with this!”
“Convenient times do not exist,” Kuriwa said with an oddly roguish grin, which made her resemble Principia more strikingly. “But yes, you’re right. In truth, you have always been in competent care and once grown, admirably in command of yourself. Had I had cause to worry, I would indeed have sought you out. But no, this was something distantly related to happenstance. I have been in Last Rock a great deal lately, working on something with Arachne. She naturally prefers that her students not be meddled with—which I more than understand—but while at the University, I noticed you. It has made me think that it might be worthwhile for us to talk.”
Trissiny sighed heavily. “With all due respect, Kuriwa, I have not had great luck with relatives so far. What is it you want from me?”
“Nothing,” said the elf. “Not a thing. It is as I said: I came to offer you a connection to your heritage, if you want it. The only request I make is that you do not commit to a definitive answer right now. This is indeed a hefty thing to drop on you out of the sky, as it were.”
“Frankly, this is less hefty than finding out I was a half-blood in the first place. Much of that had to do with who the source of that half turned out to be. She’s not a very impressive example of your race.”
“Half-blood,” Kuriwa mused. “That term, I’ve found, is nearly universal…it seems odd to me, and somewhat annoying. You are clearly not half a person. If anything, you are twice-blooded. Both, not less.”
“Uh…” Trissiny took a half-step back, still watching her askance. “I never really thought about it.”
“You have more immediate things to think about,” the elf agreed, nodding. “I hope, though, that should you meet any more of your elven kin, you will greet them hospitably. Ours is a diverse an often fractious line, infamous among elves for its non-compliance with tradition, but there are no kinslayers among us, nor many who would disappoint your own standards. In fact, your own mother is the one example most likely to offend both elven and Avenist sensibilities.”
“She is not my mother,” Trissiny said firmly.
“Have a care,” Kuriwa replied, and while her tone remained calm, her gaze turned similarly firm. “Bearing and birthing a child may be a common enough thing, in the greater scope of the world, but you don’t get to decide it’s a small thing until you’ve done it. I know Principia’s numerous flaws very well, and I will not deny her what measure of credit she has earned. However disappointing you find her, it is to her that you owe your existence.”
“I can be lectured any time I like if that’s what I want,” Trissiny retorted. “By any number of people. I’m not interested in hearing about or discussing Principia, and if having family among the elves means being chewed out in the woods, I’ll pass. Good night.”
“Wait,” Kuriwa said, and her calm tone actually did prompt Trissiny to hesitate in turning away where a more commanding one might simply have spurred her on. The elf hopped lightly down from the altar; standing on the ground, she was almost exactly as tall as the paladin. “You’re right, of course; I ask your pardon. As a shaman and an elder I have developed a habit of dispensing wisdom to people, sometimes when they don’t want any. Meeting someone who feels like kin to me, it’s easy to forget that I have really no right to tell you what to do. Narnasia raised you well, and has much to be proud of; you’re doing fine without me. Again, my apologies. For now, I would like to give you something.”
She tossed the peculiar little instrument; Trissiny snagged it out of the air more by reflex than plan. It was carved from a single piece of wood, polished smooth and without any adornment. The instrument was a hollow, round-edged oval rather like a flattened egg, with irregularly-spaced holes for fingers and a small protrusion ending in another hole, presumably to blow into.
“Um,” she said intelligently.
“It’s called an ocarina,” Kuriwa explained with a smile.
“A traditional elvish instrument, I suppose?”
“Actually,” the shaman mused, “I believe it comes originally from the Tidestrider islands, though I have seen them in many places. It’s a conveniently portable and durable instrument. That one also has just a touch of magic.”
“Just a touch?” Trissiny repeated, holding it gingerly.
“Just enough to get my attention,” said Kuriwa, nodding. “Something I prepared for you, as it seemed unlikely you would want to sit and have a long talk here in the woods in the dark. Play the tune I was playing on that instrument, and I will come find you. It gives you a way to call me if you decide you wish to learn about your heritage—or if you are in trouble. Remember, whatever you may think about me, Principia or elves in general, I look upon you as kin, and I will not suffer you to be harmed if I can prevent it. If you play and I do not come, it means I am myself in immediate and extreme danger. Nothing else restrains me from my blood.”
“Ah,” Trissiny said, raising an eyebrow, “you do realize I have no idea how to play this thing?”
“It’s actually quite simple,” Kuriwa said with a grin. “That’s another reason they are popular in multiple cultures. You have a friend who is a bard, correct? Teal? I’m sure she wouldn’t mind teaching you how.”
“I’m pretty sure Teal doesn’t know how to play it, either. I’ve never even seen one of these.”
“Whether she does or not, I guarantee she can figure it out in moments, and teach you in only minutes more. The ocarina is a simple instrument for anyone, and as easy to play as a tree is to fall from for an actual musician.”
“I see,” Trissiny said carefully, the frown not leaving her face. “Well, then. Thank you, I suppose.”
“You are suspicious.” Kuriwa smiled at her. “Good. The world is full of enemies, and you have more than most—and the most dangerous among them are those who come bearing gifts and a fair countenance. Keep in mind, though, that the world is also full of friends, and teachers. You’ll find there’s more overlap than you expect between those categories.”
Trissiny sighed. “Okay.”
“And now I see I have strained your patience.”
“It’s just, this…inscrutable elvish wisdom. I’ve known enough elves by now that I’m surprised to find one actually matching the stereotype.”
At that, Kuriwa laughed aloud. “All right, all right, fair enough. I should be moving along anyway; your next teacher is on the way here as we speak.”
“Excuse me, my what?” Trissiny straightened up, hefting her sword. Having the ocarina in her other hand rather than her shield made the movement feel oddly incongruous.
“Keep your wits about you and your guard up,” Kuriwa advised. “I rather suspect you’ll do that anyway, but it bears repeating. Those you are about to meet can be trusted, and you can learn several very important things from them—both for yourself in the long term, and with regard to your mission here. Trust, but trust carefully.”
“What?” Trissiny exclaimed. “Who? What are you talking about?”
“You’ll find out by the time I could explain it, and things will go better if I’m not here. If you want to speak to me again, young one, you have the means. Go well.” With a final, warm smile, Kuriwa took two steps backward from her.
And then there wasn’t an elf there, just a crow that fluttered up above the level of the standing stones and then soared smoothly away into the darkened trees, cawing once as it went.
Trissiny stood for a long moment staring after it, then shook herself off as if banishing a dream from her mind. She had little idea what to make of that encounter, but suspected she would be chewing on it for a while. Perhaps tonight was going to turn out even more sleepless than she’d previously suspected.
With a soft sigh, she carefully tucked the ocarina into one of her belt pouches and turned to go back. The armor could be summoned, but not dismissed the same way; she was going to have to clank through the house, which would inevitably culminate in explaining to Ruda what she was doing up and armored at that hour. Odd that they would agree to share a room again when there were enough rooms for everyone, but neither felt fully relaxed around their hostess, and preferred known company in that house. That arrangement hadn’t been made with this specific situation in mind, though.
Abruptly she stopped. The forest was silent. She hadn’t particularly noticed while talking with Kuriwa, and anyway wasn’t attuned enough to nature in general to find meaning in the noises of various animals, but when she had set out there had been a constant hum of crickets, and the occasional calls of night birds. Owls, and others she did not recognize. Now, nothing. No birds, which meant a predator. No insects, which meant something unnatural.
Trissiny fired up her divine aura, reached out with her senses. Detecting evil wouldn’t necessarily work on…
The growl came from behind her.
She turned—quickly, but in a careful, smooth motion. Anything sudden or jerky might provoke an attack.
The werewolf towered over her, dwarfed only by the standing stone beside which it stood, and that not by much. It had to be as tall as Schkhurrankh, and similarly bulky with muscle. The creature’s pelt was a pale, tawny color that likely meant blonde hair when it was human, which was all she could deduce about its other form. Even its sex was hidden; it wore the ragged and torn remains of a shirt and pants, which hid its groin, and female werewolves in that form had no visible breasts. They weren’t even reliably smaller than males.
A dozen yards of space yawned between them. It could be across that in one bound. Exactly how aggressive the creature might be depended on a number of unknowable factors, but they were always more prone to attack than any simple animal. Like wolves, they fought with tooth and fang; like humans, they tended to kill what they had no intention of eating. The malice of whatever arch-fae had first created this curse left them unreasoning and violent in many cases, likely to show savagery in this form that their human selves would bitterly mourn later.
It wasn’t even a full moon. Something was horribly awry in this town; Gabriel’s chaos theory gained more weight with everything she learned.
Trissiny itched to reach for her shield, but there was no telling what reaction that would get. There were just so many variables, and she was not a specialist in werewolves, having known only one before. Depending on the individual, the specific strain of the curse, and the innumerable ways in which these and other factors interacted, a werewolf might be in nearly complete control of itself, or as vicious as a rabid dog. This one wasn’t charging on sight… But then, a sentient being didn’t stand and snarl at people with its hackles raised.
“If anything of the person you truly are can hear me,” she said quietly, “restrain yourself. I will not, and it is beyond my means to incapacitate you without doing grievous harm.”
If anything, the creature’s lips drew farther back; its growl deepened in tone, and it hunched forward, shifting toward her. Its half-human, partially canine form blurred the body language of either, but the pose of a creature preparing to lunge was unmistakeable.
That shaman would have been very useful right now. Trissiny shifted into a fighting stance, raising her sword and beginning to move her free hand carefully toward her shield.
The chime of a bell rang through the silent forest, and the werewolf twitched, turning to its right to stare into the darkened trees, its snarl vanishing. Ears pricked upright, it waited. Across the clearing, Trissiny waited, too. Anything which might lead to this ending without violence was worth a bit of patience on her part.
The bell rang again, and forms melted out of the darkness into the thin moonlight which illuminated the clearing, then came closer, close enough to be shown in more detail by the golden light streaming off her aura. There were five of them, all human, three men and two women. They wore sturdy leather clothes in shades of brown and green; two carried bows, two axes, and the last man held a bell in one hand and small mallet in the other.
As they eased carefully within the circle of stones, he struck the bell a third time.
The werewolf laid its ears back and actually whined, but then turned and shuffled away into the night, in the opposite direction from which they had come.
“She’s heading toward Malivette’s place,” said one of the men with a bow. “Klara, Rolf, follow. The vampire’s scent will turn her aside and there’s no telling which direction she’ll go.”
A woman carrying two tomahawks and the man with the bell both nodded at him and strode off after the departed werewolf, keeping their pace even and their footsteps eerily quiet against the forest floor. In moments they, too, were lost again among the shadows.
The man in the lead, who had spoken, turned to Trissiny, bowing. He had a full beard, originally a ruddy brown but now flecked with gray, and smile lines radiating from the corners of his eyes. “General Avelea, well met. You’re unharmed, I trust?”
“It—she didn’t attack me,” Trissiny said carefully. “Do I know you?”
“Well,” he replied with a grin, “you are the only person on the planet with armor like that, and we were made aware of your presence in Veilgrad. But no, we’ve not met before. I had dearly hoped that we might. There’s a great deal I have wanted to discuss with you.”
“I see,” she said, frowning. “And…you are…?”
“Oh!” He clapped one hand to his forehead, disturbing the cowl of his green cloak. “Bah, I’m sorry. Wolf-herding duty tires the brain. My name’s Raichlin; these are Tabitha and Frind.”
“It’s an honor,” said the remaining woman, bowing. The other man just nodded deeply to her.
“You’re…” Trissiny studied the woman, who carried a longbow and had a tomahawk and heavy hunting knife hanging from her belt. “…not Shaathists, are you. The Shadow Hunters?”
Tabitha rolled her eyes; Frind grunted.
“Not the name we choose,” said Raichlin with a humorless little smile, “but it suits well enough, for now. You are here to see to the troubles plaguing Veilgrad, yes?”
“That’s the plan,” she said warily. “Progress has been…spotty.”
“I can only imagine,” he said, his smile broadening again. “Well, General, I would certainly never have set out to take up your time in the middle of the night. But since you are up and about, may I offer you the hospitality of our lodge? It is only a few minutes’ walk away. We would dearly love to speak with you.”
“Your lodge is within walking distance of the manor?” she said in surprise.
“The manor was not always the home of a vampire,” he said seriously. “The Dufresnes have always been good neighbors, and often good friends. Malivette, for obvious reasons, keeps her distance… But like our other acquaintance whom you just met, she suffers from a cursed condition that grants her a predatory nature, and goes to great lengths not to actually prey upon anyone. Such restraint and honor one cannot help but respect.”
“I see,” she said, frowning. Kuriwa had said to trust these people, that they could teach her something important… But how much could she trust Kuriwa? Even if the elf was actually family, the only confirmed family she had was possibly the least trustworthy individual she had ever met.
Trissiny reached within herself, seeking that core of light that was the goddess’s presence. Avei rarely communicated with her directly unless she sought her out in ritual prayer, but she felt only calm within. No warning, just strength and serenity.
“I’d be honored,” she said, finally lowering her sword.
Dawn came late to the mountain-sheltered town, with the Stalrange barring the east. It would be hours until actual sunlight fell upon Veilgrad, and some time in fact before it even glowed over the mountaintops. But there was a gray pallor to the sky, now, that hinted the sun was at least considering making its ascent.
Trissiny yawned, carefully securing the gate behind herself and then trudging back up the path toward the manor. Sword sheathed and shield slung over her back, she had a hand free, holding the book the Hunters had given her; her other hand kept straying of its own accord toward the pocket in which rested Kuriwa’s ocarina.
This had been a strange night indeed, but fruitful.
And now she had a reception waiting.
There wasn’t normally any furniture on the manor’s porch—it seemed to eschew outward signs that people were actually welcome there. Rafe had apparently dragged one of the dining room chairs all the way out, and now sat with it propped up on its back two legs, leaning against the wall beside the door.
“Rough night?” he said sympathetically as she climbed the steps.
“Eh,” Trissiny grunted.
“Do me a favor,” said the Professor, gazing past her at the gate and its view of the mountain road beyond. Veilgrad itself was barely visible in the valley below, partially hidden by the bend of the road and the intervening forest.
“Hm?” Trissiny paused, turning her head to look at him.
“Next time you go haring off on a solo nighttime adventure, take your roommate along.”
She frowned. “I’m able to take care of myself, Professor.”
“Oh, for sure,” he said easily. “Nobody doubts that. But, aside from the fact that there’s hellacious trouble afoot in this region and people do actually care enough about you to be worried out of their fucking minds when you mysteriously vanish in the middle of the night… Zaruda needs the exercise.”
“She…what?” Trissiny stared at him, not sure whether to be more flummoxed by that statement or the oblique rebuke which had preceded it.
“Ever stopped to consider what you’re dealing with out here?” Rafe said in a mild tone. “And how Ruda might respond to it? She’s a fantastic kicker of asses, but you’ve yet to narrow the search to a culprit who can be apprehended. She’s a people person who’s good at motivating groups, but the locals are standoffish and specifically mistrustful of you lot, which denies her the chance to use that skill. She’s clever, good at making plans and unraveling mysteries, but there’s just so damned little to go on, you’re all still in the dark, at least mostly.” He shifted in his chair, making it wobble slightly, to face her directly. “Can you imagine anything that would grind on Zaruda Punaji more painfully than feeling useless?”
Trissiny gaped. “I…that…”
“Not much of a people person, are you, Avelea?”
Rafe shrugged. “Well, you aren’t. Should think about looking into it; people are actually really interesting. I bet if you bothered to pay attention to the ones who don’t need to be rescued or stabbed, you’d enrich your life considerably.”
It took her a few seconds to remember to shut her jaw.
“Well, anyway,” he carried on, leaning his head back against the wall and closing his eyes. “Imma nap out here for a while, but you’re probably better off back in your own bed, if you wanna try to catch some Zs before breakfast. Got at least an hour or so, I reckon. Go on, skedaddle.”
After a moment, she did. Mostly because she couldn’t think of a better idea, or a response.