Tag Archives: Tariq Shavayad

Bonus #36: Divine Right, part 3

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Teenagers sneaking out of their houses at night were a cliché so ancient the trope was well-represented not only in the modern chapbooks Theasia had been able to sneak, but in the staid old bardic sagas her mother approved for her. She had always rather resented those fictional kids their freedom. As it turned out, sneaking out of a palace secured by a sizable army, a corps of sorcerers, and an invisible network of spies leavened among the very servants was slightly less of a prospect for a teenage girl than tunneling out of a prison using a spoon. She had given up on it by age sixteen, when she had never once made it to the outer walls, let alone past them, and the repercussions of getting caught had started to eat significantly into her already scant freedoms.

Amazing how much easier it was when she was abetted by Imperial Intelligence itself.

“Oh, your Highness, I really think this is a bad idea,” Asfaneh fretted even as the carriage emerged from the courtyard into the street running alongside the Palace, totally unchallenged. “Please, can’t we go back? This is extraordinarily dangerous, how can it possibly be worth it?”

“I appreciate you coming with me, Asfaneh,” she said with a kind smile. Her mother had taught her not only the smile, which was as carefully constructed as a suspension bridge, but the trick of “addressing” the concerns of subordinates by politely failing to address them. Truthfully, she didn’t much like Lady Asfaneh Sakhavenid, but it was only because of the woman’s personality; she had no moral objection to her and no cause to complain of her service. Quite the contrary.

An Imperial Princess obviously needed ladies-in-waiting, a need which was complicated by Theasia’s medical condition. She had to be accompanied by nurses whenever possible, without letting it be known that she was. Her parents had found a solution by carefully fostering a few insignificant noble families like House Sakhavenid, which (like House Tirasian until very recently) only barely qualified as nobility and were treated with disdain by wealthier and more influential Houses. It was useful for many reasons to have a core of smaller Houses scattered around the Empire who were both grateful to House Tirasian and aware that the rug could be yanked out from under them if they displeased; just one of the benefits was the supply of noble daughters who could be trained in medicine and sworn to secrecy. The prospect that fidelity to the Tirasians might provide access to the capital and the Palace for their youngest generation could then be dangled in front of more recalcitrant Houses as well. Not that any of those would ever have a member placed close to the Princess, but as her father had explained to her, a political action should serve multiple purposes, or not bothered with.

Asfaneh was an Izarite priestess of low rank and ability, but a competent nurse with an encyclopedic knowledge of the various medicines, alchemical and mundane, which Theasia’s condition might require, and what symptoms called for the application of each. She was also a feather-headed puff of fluff who sighed at handsome boys, obsessively read execrable poetry, and generally behaved like the worst stereotype of an Izarite—but she was also the only one of Theasia’s attendants who had gone so far as to intercede with the Empress to argue that Theasia needed more freedom more than she needed coddling. In the face of that loyalty, Theasia was very careful never to let slip how much Asfaneh’s personality annoyed her, and took pains to see to it she was well-rewarded for her service. In fact, she felt rather guilty about involving the poor woman in this escapade, but she had not been willing to risk this without the accompaniment of one of her nurses, and the nature of the adventure required the one she trusted most.

Now, the tightening of Asfaneh’s mouth indicated that she had noticed Theasia’s little trick and didn’t appreciate it, but she looked mutely out the carriage window instead of arguing. Theasia continued to smile blandly, despite her nervousness which she felt like an electric charge buzzing in her limbs.

All this had been carefully arranged. It was practically scripted; if all went well, she would have accomplished everything she set out to and be back in her bed before her parents ever marked her absence. But so much could go wrong…

She looked down at her hands folded in her lap, watching the shifting light of passing street lamps gleam upon the jewelry there where it managed to penetrate the curtains. It was a more florid piece than she favored, a construct of jeweled rings connected by loops of worked gold and stretches of twisted golden chain, all linked to a sizable sapphire in a golden setting sewed right into her fingerless satin gloves at the back of each hand. More dangling chains tied each jewel to lavish bracelets, and the rest was thankfully hidden by the wide, lacy sleeves currently in vogue. In fact, those wires twined all the way up her arms and around her upper body, where they were linked to less extravagantly designed crystal settings hidden beneath her dress. Having this thing made had been the main reason for the delay, and even so it had been very rapid work for a jeweler; Shavayad’s man in the city clearly was accustomed to strange projects and discreet orders. It was impressive enough that he had re-worked Araani’s cumbersome gauntlet into this, let alone so swiftly.

Two weeks after their conversation in the Araanis’ basement, everything had finally been arranged. Now came what the spymaster had called “the fun part.”

Theasia had firmly steeled herself against reacting to that statement.

“What unusual pieces, your Highness,” Asfaneh commented, having noticed the direction of Theasia’s gaze. “I never saw you wear those before. In fact… I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that.”

“Exotic, aren’t they? It’s a Sheng design,” the Princess lied with her bland smile firmly in place. “To be quite honest, I don’t think it is to my taste, but I find myself curious whether I can spark a fashion. How many times do you think I need be seen in public wearing these before all the ladies in Tiraas absolutely must have a set?”

Asfaneh pursed her lips for a moment. “Your Highness, I don’t wish to overstep,” she said with the hesitant condescension of someone who intended to widely overstep, “but I’m growing more and more concerned about you with everything I learn tonight. The jewelry is one thing, but…sneaking out to a party? These diversions are growing dangerous, and you mustn’t let them become a pattern. Believe me, your Highness, I understand about wanting to test boundaries! I was your age once, after all.” She was exactly two years older than Theasia, still not old enough to legally work as a secretary in a government office. She’d been younger than Theasia was now when they had met. “But one must be mindful of consequences! The damage to your reputation is the least of what could go wrong with an…an adventure like this. Princess, please take no offense, but you have been very sheltered and I begin to wonder if you’re truly aware of the concept of danger.”

This was one of those times when Lady Asfaneh’s proven track record of devoted loyalty was all that stood between her and a slapping. On average Theasia smiled through at least one such event a day.

“I’m aware of more than you realize, Asfaneh,” she said pleasantly. “As always, I appreciate your willingness to accompany me despite your own misgivings.”

“I wish you would stop doing that,” the lady said with overt annoyance for the first time in their relationship, and Theasia blinked. Now, how to go about encouraging more of that? She found it both more likable and more worthy of respect than all her years of simpering.

The carriage rocked slightly as if something had impacted it, then came to a stop, one of the horses whickering in confusion.

“What’s happening?” Asfaneh asked in alarm. “Why are we stopping? This is the middle of nowhere!”

This was close to the center of Tiraas, barely four blocks from the Palace itself, the absolute minimum distance they had to travel to reach a spot where there would be nobody on the street even in the middle of the night.

The carriage door abruptly opened and a man in a ragged black coat stepped swiftly inside. “Good evening, ladies!”

Asfaneh screamed and scrabbled away from him—but rather than retreating to a corner, she stumbled awkwardly across the space to plant herself in front of (and half on top of) Theasia. “Get out! Get out!”

She went silent when he raised a wand, a thick shaft of wood as long as his forearm, deeply engraved with enchanting symbols along its length and with a softly glowing power crystal protruding from its angled handle. Theasia noted it was a newer model with no charging lever attached to its clicker mechanism, meaning it could be fired as fast and as frequently as its wielder desired, at least until it overheated. The man did not point it at them, at least, but its presence was a firm enough message.

“I apologize for this interruption,” he said, grinning, his gravelly voice suiting his scruffy attire and thick stubble perfectly. “I’m afraid you’ll be late to your party. But don’t you worry, ladies, this evening should be plenty diverting.”

“Do you have any idea who—”

“Course we do,” a woman interrupted Asfaneh, climbing into the carriage from the other side. She was as roughly-dressed as the man and otherwise unremarkable in appearance, except for her vivid green eyes, a shade of viridian that seemed almost to glow in the dim light. “And may I just say, it’s a real honor to make your acquaintance, Princess! And you too, miss, of course.”

Asfaneh was still trying to block Theasia with her body, which involved a lot of awkward shifting and wiggling now that she had to do it from two directions. Theasia gently took her by the shoulders and pushed her aside onto the seat.

“Her title is ‘Lady,’” she said with the driest aloofness she could muster. “I hope my driver has not been harmed?”

“Course not, whaddaya take us for? Some kinda thugs?” The rough-looking man grinned as if this were a fantastic joke, pulling the carriage door shut and settling onto the seat across from them.

There came a muffled slap of reins and the vehicle started moving again, the green-eyed woman shutting her door even as they took off into the night.

“You will suffer for this, I promise you,” Asfaneh spat. “Once the Emperor learns what you’ve done, it’ll be your heads on pikes!”

“Young lady, this is the twelfth century,” Green Eyes said with a smirk. “Nobody uses pikes for any reason, much less for heads.”

“Might put our heads on plates,” her companion mused. “Whaddaya think? A nice silver platter? I think that’d set off my chiseled features pretty good.”

“Sarsamon’s too soft a touch for that, way I hear it,” she said amiably. “’Sides, beheading’s for traitorous nobles. Couple of trash like us abducting a member of the Imperial family, that’s a hanging.”

“Oh, well that’s no good,” he grumbled. “All that swingin’ around, how’m I supposed to keep my good side to the audience?”

“You’re insane,” Asfaneh blurted.

“Shh,” Theasia soothed, patting her shoulder and causing her jewelry to rattle. “Please compose yourself, Lady Asfaneh. They would have harmed us if they intended to.”

“That’s right, ladies,” the woman said airily. “You just sit back and relax, leave the work to us. We’re gonna go for a ride and have a little stopover. So long as everybody stays polite and professional, there’s not a single reason anybody should get so much as their hair ruffled. I promise we mean you no harm.”

“As if I would believe that!” Asfaneh snapped.

“Let’s not provoke them,” Theasia murmured, patting her again. “Just do as they say and remain calm. And when all this is over, you can tell me ‘I told you so.’ It’s something to look forward to, is it not?”

Her lady-in-waiting gave her a truly indescribable look. But at least she fell quiet.

Their new destination was a warehouse in one of the rising industrial districts, with a large door easily wide enough to admit the carriage. Torches and oil lamps lit the space, barely adequately; when the carriage doors were opened and they were directed to disembark, Theasia looked out upon a cavernous chamber whose ceiling and corners were lost to shadow.

All according to plan. Practically scripted. She was in control. She repeated this like a mantra as if it would ease the mounting speed of her heartbeat. Theasia could control her expression with practiced ease, but the doctors had warned her against stressing any of her organs excessively. One had admitted, when she pressed, that a heart attack would very likely be her cause of death, and that was practically optimal, considering how much faster it was than death by failure of the liver or kidneys.

“Princess, run!” Asfaneh abruptly screamed as soon as they were out of the carriage and surrounded by scruffy Thieves’ Guild reprobates. The lady bodily shoved the nearest thief away from Theasia, a gesture which proved totally ineffectual.

Theasia, of course, did not move, and would not have even had she not been here by her own design. Run where? They were shut in and surrounded. She was progressively revising her opinion of Asfaneh, who had considerably more courage than she had realized, but even less sense.

The man she had tried to body-slam stood a head taller and twice as broad; he was barely jostled, but turned a scowl on the young lady and raised a hand.

“Hey, Brick,” said the green-eyed woman, emerging from the carriage last. “You want your fingers broken in any particular order, or should I improvise?”

He hesitated, grimaced, and then lowered his hand and bowed to Asfaneh, to her visible amazement. “Beggin’ your pardon, miss, my apologies. Force o’ habit. We’re just simple thieves, after all, an’ not used to such…esteemed company.”

She squeaked and scurried over to Theasia, where she clung to the Princess’s arm.

“Welp! Here we are,” Green Eyes said, sweeping a grandiose bow and flinging out one arm to gesture around the empty warehouse and the gaggle of thugs. Theasia quickly took stock; the thieves were watching her mostly with a kind of bemusement, which was encouraging. She had expected leering. There was no sign of her driver, but a thin woman even younger than herself was tending to the horses. That was all she could take in with a single glance, but the woman kept speaking so the Princess quickly resumed meeting those eerie eyes. “Welcome to this miscellaneous spot in the manufacturing district! Please don’t bother memorizing the location; the poor sap who owns this joint doesn’t know we’re here and wouldn’t be happy about it. We aren’t quite daft enough to bring you to a real hideout.”

“Drat,” she said neutrally. “I shall have to re-work my escape plan entirely.”

That earned her several grins, including from the speaker, who seemed to be in charge. “I will be your host this evening; you can call me Catseye. You know Spiff, of course.” The ragged fellow from the carriage ride grinned and tipped his hat, winking at Asfaneh. “And despite Brick’s little lapse, rest assured you’re not here to be roughed up in any way, shape, or form. I’d introduce everybody else, but you don’t care and a lot of the lads prefer their anonymity.”

“Catseye?” Asfaneh said incredulously. “Spiff? Those can’t possibly be names!”

“This Empire was recently brought to its knees by someone called Horsebutt,” Theasia pointed out.

“Bit of Imperial propaganda, that,” Catseye said amiably. “Heshenaad translates more as ‘the space behind the horse;’ it’s an old equestrian term from Calderaas, referring to how not to handle horses. You don’t ever wanna approach them from their blind spot. The Empire misnamed him on purpose to make him sound ridiculous, which pretty much backfired when we then got our heshenaads kicked by the guy with the silly name.”

Theasia raised an eyebrow. “Our?”

“Hey, we may be thieves,” Catseye said, raising one of her own, “but we’re all Tiraan here.”

There came a muffled throat-clearing from a young woman in an overlarge coat, with a scarf hiding all of her face save her black hair and almond-shaped eyes.

“Except Wakizashi,” Catseye said with a sigh, “who would like to remind everyone that we are a brutish and savage people with a history no longer than the fall of last autumn’s leaves.”

Wakizashi bowed.

“Wakizashi,” Theasia said, tilting her head. “That’s a Sheng term, is it not?”

There came a beat of silence, in which the Sifanese woman’s glare turned murderous, followed by uproarious laughter from every other thief in the warehouse. Asfaneh pressed herself against the Princess amid the tumult, wrapping an arm around her protectively.

“Kid, I like you,” Catseye said, grinning at Theasia.

“How charming. Finally, something worth noting in my diary.”

“Well, timing being what it is, we’re gonna be here a little while,” the thief said, and clapped her hands loudly. “Let’s have some damn hospitality, already, you louts are making us look bad! Come on, roll out some seating and let’s bust open the refreshments.”

“What are they waiting for?” Asfaneh whispered while the thieves busied themselves fetching things from crates. Theasia just shook her head and patted her companion’s hand comfortingly.

“Luxury accommodations, as requested!” Brick proclaimed, setting down the second barrel a few feet behind them. The big man whisked off his coat and draped it over the two upright barrels, forming a makeshift bench.

“Good evening, ladies!” said another thief, approaching with a grin, a tin of salted fish and a box of crackers. “Tonight’s menu is herring, caught in the majestic waters of our very own Gulf of Punamanta, probably at some point in the last six months, chased by a local specialty: machine-formed nautical biscuits, made right here in Tiraas, the very jewel of our Empire. I recommend putting a little fish on each cracker, it makes it harder to taste both. And here’s Spangle with the wine list!”

The gestured grandly with the cracker box at another man, this one a lean Westerner with his hair up in braids threaded with beads and metal charms, who was holding a visibly dusty jug.

“You are in luck, your Highness,” he declaimed. “Tonight we feature a particularly amusing Calderaan corn moonshine. I find this a surprisingly oakey vintage, with the most delicate notes of wheat and citrus, with an almost playfully presumptuous finish. It is, of course, white, as the main course is fish.”

Asfaneh whimpered and squeezed Theasia tighter.

“That’s very kind,” the Princess said politely, “but no thank you.”

“As you wish,” Catseye said amiably. “We have a bit of a wait ahead of us, though, and I’m afraid luxurious accommodations aren’t even adjacent to our list of priorities. This is a big nuisance for you girls at absolute best; I don’t mean to make it any more uncomfortable than necessary.”

Theasia gave Asfaneh’s hand a squeeze before the girl could say anything. Either she got the message or hadn’t been planning to chime in that time; at any rate, she stayed quiet, and Theasia turned her attention fully to Catseye, disregarding the offered “amenities.”

“What made you decide to become a thief?”

That, finally, pierced the veneer of conviviality, not just from Catseye but from the room at large. Smiles faded and the Guild members grew still, turning suddenly contemplative stares on her. Asfaneh squeaked softly at the attention.

Catseye, after a pause, tilted her head back, looking defiantly down her nose. “What made you decide to become a princess?”

“Hmm.” Despite the stress of the situation and the risk she was taking by effectively poking at this woman, Theasia couldn’t help being actually interested. All her life, the Thieves’ Guild had been presented in her social circles as a monster that lurked in every shadow. Yet obviously, these people had their own perspectives and reasons for the things they did. They certainly did not act quite like anyone else she had ever met. Thieves in stories were altogether more…menacing. “So you imply that all our lives are scripted, our fates preordained?”

“That’s more grandiosity than I would give to anything, ever,” Catseye said in a drier tone, tucking her hands into the pockets of her ratty longcoat. In the faded golden lamplight, her vivid green eyes seemed practically to glow; it was clear (and even a little unimaginative) where her nickname derived from. “Life is about what you do with what the gods hand you. You got a palace, an education, and a shitload of responsibilities nobody sane would ask for, with all the lavish luxuries to match. Me, pretty much the opposite. Same goes for most of those here. Either of us could’ve chosen to be resentful and make a general pest of ourselves. Or, we can take life seriously, stifle our complaints, and see how much we can get done in the situation we’ve got to work with.” She shrugged, quirking one side of her mouth in an ironic smile. “I know what I chose. After this night’s work, I’m getting increasingly curious about you.”

“Oy, Catseye!” Theasia was spared having to respond to that by the voice from the rafters; a scrawny boy who could hardly have been more than fifteen had appeared, balanced precariously on a beam in the upper darkness near the window through which he had just clambered. “We got incoming, looks like our mark. Two swells in fancy suits and six guards with swords and staves, just like he promised.”

“He’s early, though,” Catseye murmured, meeting Theasia’s gaze. “Nobles never can wait their bloody turn… All right, Selim, good work. Get back up there and sing out if anything unexpected happens, but remember to stay quiet about the rest of what’s planned.”

“I’m not stupid, Cat,” he snorted, shimmying back out into the night.

“Curtain’s rising! Places, everybody!” Catseye clapped her hands and the various thieves flowed into motion, arranging themselves in a menacing half-ring around their leader, the Princess, and Lady Asfaneh, who was trembling so hard Theasia was partially holding her up by now. “Ladies, this marks the last portion of the evening where I can personally guarantee that everyone involved will remain polite. You may wanna discreetly remove yourselves to behind the carriage over there.”

“You know very well that isn’t an option for me,” Theasia replied. “Asfaneh, here.”

It was easy, in light of her peculiar hand jewelry, to miss the relatively simple sapphire brooch she had pinned to the throat of her gown. Now, she withdrew an identical one from the cunningly hidden pocket in her skirts and carefully affixed it to Asfaneh’s own dress, to the woman’s clear confusion.

“Princess, what—”

“Lady Asfaneh,” she said, firmly but gently. “I want you to stand behind the thieves until I tell you otherwise. If at any point you feel you are in physical danger, grab this brooch and press down on the sapphire until it clicks. But not unless you actually discern a threat. Is that clear?”

“Your Highness, no,” she said, forgetting protocol. “I’m not going to leave you!”

“I’ll be right here,” Theasia insisted. “This is important. I will make it a command if I must, but I would rather you trust me.”

Asfaneh peered at her, wide-eyed, then glanced around at the watching thieves.

“I know what I’m doing,” Theasia said softly.

“I’m very much afraid you know less than you think, Princess,” the lady whispered.

“There is simply not time. Go, Asfaneh. Now.”

She drew in a deep breath and scrunched up her face, and for a moment Theasia feared she would have to ask the Guild to manhandle her attendant. But Asfaneh finally let out a tiny noise of dismay and turned, scurrying off through a gap in the thieves’ loose formation.

“You ready for this, Princess?” Catseye asked her quietly as she turned back to face the door.

Theasia shook her head. “Is anyone ever—”

Lightning flashed and the huge warehouse door exploded inward.

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Bonus #35: Divine Right, part 2

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“Why are we circling back?” Theasia asked, leaning toward the carriage’s window as it swung to the left through the traffic on Imperial Square.

“Ah,” Lord Shavayad said in a satisfied tone, and sidled along his bench to look outside. “I gave the driver instructions to veer toward Duke Ravaan’s retinue should it still be visible. There is someone I would like you to see, Princess.”

“Oh?” She also shifted closer to the window, but did not bring her face into view of it, simply watching through the curtains. Invisibly sneaking a good vantage was a necessary skill in the Imperial court. The anonymous mode of transport was an asset; she was accustomed to touring the city either in a full procession with her parents, or in her private carriage—a brand-new horseless model which hummed with enchantments, and was accompanied by two ladies-in-waiting (in her case, nurses in disguise), two drivers (a backup in case one were incapacitated), four guards riding atop the vehicle and six mounted soldiers surrounding it at all times. By comparison, the unmarked two-horse carriage Shavayad had provided was virtually invisible in its anonymity. Oddly, in the spymaster’s competent presence, she did not feel particularly vulnerable.

“The tall man alongside him, with the blond hair,” Shavayad murmured, both of them peering through the curtains now.

Ravaan was just emerging from the Palace himself, and seemed in no hurry to step into the carriage emblazoned with House Madouri’s coat of arms, drawn by a truly excessive six white horses. A fop like the young Duke loved nothing more than to strut and pose in the middle of Imperial Square to be gawked at, and now was apparently provided ample excuse by a conversation with the man Shavayad had indicated. Actually, Theasia noted an odd resemblance between this individual and Shavayad himself. Not a physical one; this man was so pale it was almost creepy, with hair a very light gold and sharp features—in fact, now that she looked closely, she suspected he might be a half-elf. It was in his demeanor and style, though. He wore the same kind of old-fashioned black suits, with a rigidly upright posture and superciliously dignified cast to his features.

Then their path brought the Madouri carriage between them and the two men, and both Princess and spymaster leaned back into their own seats as they were carried on through the city.

“Who is he?”

“Casper Scheinrich,” Lord Shavayad said, regarding her with a faint smile which did not quite disguise the hawk-like focus of his eyes. He was studying her, watching for something. “A priest of Vidius and, as of shortly after the late Duke’s passing, Ravaan Madouri’s closest and most highly-placed lieutenant. His ideas do much to shape House Madouri’s actions; Ravaan prizes his counsel above all others. I suspect his hand in the escalation of the bandit attacks on our treasury caravans in Tiraan Province. Mental acumen aside, he is a very dangerous man, a veteran of the Enchanter Wars in which he served as a combat healer with the Madouris militia. He has fought Silver Legions, drow, the Imperial Army, and Horsebutt’s raiders. Handy with sword and wand and extremely skilled with divine shields.”

“So Ravaan’s right-hand man is Stalweiss,” she mused. “How odd.”

“I hope your Highness does not subscribe to that claptrap about the Stalweiss being genetically prone to barbarism.”

“Nonsense, they are a people from a resource-poor region whose recent warlord very predictably took advantage of the Empire’s weakness. We must not ascribe to congenital defect that which is explained by circumstance.” Shavayad nodded approvingly at her recitation of one of her father’s aphorisms. “I meant, pursuant to that, the Stalweiss have been particularly out of favor throughout the Empire since the war. It would be difficult for one to attain such a high rank in this political climate, and expose both him and House Madouri to potential risk.”

“Just so, your Highness. Scheinrich is also capable of playing a long game. After the war, he attached himself to Ravaan as a mentor, passing up multiple opportunities for promotion and personal enrichment. Understand that young Ravaan’s childhood was not unlike your own, Princess. He was barely an infant when his siblings were slain in the war, following on the heels of the entire Mathenon and Veilgrad branches of House Madouri being massacred. The old Duke was extraordinarily protective, treating his last son very much like a delicate greenhouse orchid. Scheinrich endured years of being dismissed as a glorified nursemaid to be the only man who always took Ravaan seriously, and as his reward, now effectively determines Madouri policy on almost everything.”

She narrowed her eyes slightly, but was staring past him in thought. “What do you think is his ultimate goal?”

“Since he was a glorified nursemaid for so many years, I’m afraid Intelligence was lax in studying him until very recently. So far, the man is difficult to read. The reputation of Vidian clerics for byzantine intrigues is somewhat inflated, mostly by themselves; they are not more canny on average than any intelligent, motivated player of the great game. But they are frustratingly hard to predict. The Doctrine of Masks is based upon psychological principles that apply to everyone, but Vidians take it to an extreme such that they effectively have different personalities in different situations. He might be working toward a higher ambition, serving what he believes is a moral cause, or simply playing the game for love of playing it. Or any combination thereof, alternately or even simultaneously. What we know is that his presence lends Duke Ravaan much greater cunning and competence than he natively possesses.”

“Hmm…” Theasia focused her eyes on Shavayad’s own; he was still watching her with that sharp, almost expectant look. “And his relationship with Ravaan is a close one? Irreplaceable?”

“An interesting choice of words,” Shavayad said mildly. “Yes, you could put it that way. May I ask why you inquire, Princess?”

“A pillar of strength becomes a crippling weakness once knocked down. If this Scheinrich is so precious to Ravaan, removing him will leave a vacuum which Ravaan won’t be quick to fill. If he even can.”

The spymaster nodded once, mutely.

“That is the kind of observation my father would chastise me for making,” she said with a sigh, settling back against the carriage bench.

“Your father is a wise and far-sighted man,” Shavayad replied, his expression especially inscrutable. “It has served his rule well to think in terms of connection rather than destruction.”

“Rule demands both.”

“For every task its own tool,” he agreed.

And he had wanted to brief her on this Scheinrich’s importance. Why? The truth hovered between them in the carriage: her father would not have considered eviscerating House Madouri’s ambitions by depriving Ravaan of such an asset. Her father dealt with the Houses by maneuvering them such that their desires aligned with his. Theasia had grown increasingly aware of the risks and flaws in that strategy as she had matured, and it occurred to her now that if anyone in the Imperial government might prefer a more hawkish approach to keeping the nobles in line, it would be the head of Imperial Intelligence.

Exhilarating as it was to finally be treated as a valued equal by someone with real power, she felt keenly aware of her own inexperience. Shavayad was undoubtedly working toward a goal of his own, here. What was he after? What would it mean for her, for her father, and for the Empire?

Social instincts honed by court life told her that he felt that conversation finished and would deflect further queries on this matter, which suited her for now as there was a more pressing topic for them to discuss.

“Now that we have time to talk, Lord Shavayad, perhaps you could explain where we are going, and why?”

“Of course, Princess,” he said with a courteous inclination of his head. “This matter began with an investigation into the embezzlement of Imperial funds. I realize your Highness is rather hands-off with financial matters, so it may come as a shock to learn that it was your own salary being skimmed.”

Uh oh. Theasia kept her expression blank and inquisitive despite the tangible weight of unease which had suddenly manifested in the pit of her stomach. “I see. You found those responsible?”

“Unfortunately a number of accountants would be in a position to have done this, your Highness. At present we are watching all who handle your finances. Sometimes it is better strategy to let a plot unfold, under careful supervision. There are risks, of course, but also the prospect of catching more than the small fish whose maneuvers first drew attention. Strike too quickly and you may snare only a lackey who has nothing of value to offer; too late and a potentially dangerous scheme may reach its ruinous fruition. Finding the right moment is as much art as science.”

“I see,” she murmured. “I will consider that.”

Shavayad nodded politely again. “In this case, what we are still missing is the identity of the person who organized this ploy. I am pleased to say that we have learned its purpose. It is that which we are now going to investigate.”

She had a very bad feeling about this. “Is that wise, Lord Shavayad? I mean, is it customary policy to involve the heir to the Throne in an ambush?”

“I assure you, your Highness, the area is secured and the subjects pacified,” he said smoothly. “I promise I would never expose you to serious danger. But I believe you may have insights to offer, once you have personally inspected the scene and the subjects. As they are drawing funds from your own coffers, it may be that some of this is familiar to you.”

“I see,” she said as offhandedly as she could manage, hoping the racing of her heart was not evident to him. His face revealed nothing, but then…it wouldn’t.

“This is a mistake!” Professor Araani protested for at least the third time since they had entered the room, sitting on a bench against the wall with his arm around a weeping young woman. Two agents of Imperial Intelligence in gray coats with silver gryphon badges stood before him, wands in hand; the weapons were aimed scrupulously at the ground, but the message was clear. “Please, you must believe me! I am no criminal or traitor, I am operating on orders from the Silver Throne itself!” His voice hitched, and he shifted position to put both his arms around the young woman’s shoulders. “I…I thought I was. I was so sure, we were instructed to keep everything in the strictest confidence, but my orders came with the Imperial seal—”

“Professor,” Shavayad finally interjected, apparently tiring of waiting for the man to run out of spark. “I am Lord Tariq Shavayad, director of Imperial Intelligence.”

The girl’s crying grew louder and she buried her face in the Professor’s jacket. Araani glanced at Theasia, who had not been introduced; to someone unfamiliar with her face, she might have been any richly-dressed young woman, which made her presence here understandably curious.

Theasia made a show of scanning the room. The large basement of this townhouse, clearly a converted wine cellar, was set up as an enchantment laboratory, strewn with components, equipment, and projects in various states of completion. Whatever order there was in the layout was apparent only to the Professor himself. This was her first time seeing it in person, otherwise she might have spoken to him about the apparent chaos.

The question which chiefly occupied her mind now was how to get out of this mess without having what little freedom she was allowed permanently eclipsed. At this point, she took it as given that Shavayad knew more than he had told her, perhaps everything. But why do it this way? He could have ratted her out to her parents easily enough…

“Our investigation is ongoing,” Shavayad said to Araani. “Your cooperation will do much to determine the shape it takes from here, Professor. I will tell you that at this time, it is my inclination to regard you as a victim of fraud, rather than a perpetrator.”

The girl lifted her head, eyes wide with apprehension; the Professor drew in a short breath, straightening his back slightly.

“My people will need to interview you in detail, of course,” Shavayad continued, “as well as your daughter. I assure you, Intelligence is not in the habit of extracting information through force; these will be civil conversations. If you will kindly go with these agents, show them any documents you have received alleging to be from the Imperial government and answer any questions they have, I’m confident we can settle this matter with a minimum of further disruption. So long as you have been truthful, you need fear nothing.”

“Yes,” Professor Araani said hoarsely. “Yes, I…I thank you very much, Lord Shavayad. I am a loyal subject of his Majesty. We both are. If we have been misused against his wishes… That is, yes, we will gladly tell you everything we can.”

“The Silver Throne appreciates your cooperation,” Shavayad said with a bland smile. “Umunti, Dazaar, please escort Professor and Miss Araani to a more suitable room and see they are provided with some material comforts. It has been a trying day for them. I’m sure we shall have no further trouble.”

“We shall not, indeed,” Araani agreed, getting slowly to his feet and rubbing his daughter’s back with one hand. “Come, Lacey, it will be all right.”

Shavayad and Theasia both stepped aside to allow the agents and their prisoners to climb the stairs back to the kitchen, Agent Dazaar pausing to shut the door again at the top and enclose the two of them in the now-silent workshop.

“The good Professor was understandably somewhat irascible when we first imposed upon him this morning,” Shavayad commented, idly pacing over to a table upon which were displayed a rack of matching charms, expensive-looking objects each consisting of a rune-etched disc inset with polished gemstones. “Of course, he and the young lady have spent the day under the supervision of my agents while I reported to your parents and then brought you here, your Highness. They were not mishandled, I assure you. I find I get the best results through subtler pressures. Harm someone and they will expect more harm and act out of fear; treat them gently while encouraging their own minds to conjure up all the harm they might do, and they will often become eager to cooperate.”

“Thank you for the lesson in strategy,” she said evenly.

“Of course,” Shavayad went on with his back to her, picking up one of the charms and turning it over in his fingers, “all this began with the document which I am confident Professor Araani will now produce from his safe. Not only does the Imperial seal carry a magical signature which court sorcerers are able to track, but the stationary used for Imperial edicts is watermarked and serialized. When a blank document goes missing, it can be quickly traced. At least, that has always been the theory; this is actually the first such incident since we instituted this system, and I am gratified to learn that it works so well.”

She closed her eyes. Obviously, had she known any of that in advance, things would have been very different.

“Of course, there are very few people who even potentially have access to the Emperor’s seal and stationary. As I was explaining earlier, Princess, it is often wisest to let a plot unfold. I have been watching the Professor’s progress with great interest these last three months. I feel that once we learn who—”

“All right, enough,” she said curtly. “This game is not amusing, Shavayad. Why did you really bring me here?”

He turned to face her, still idly rubbing his thumb across the charm in his hand.

“It’s as I told you, Princess. My job is to curate the information which reaches his Majesty. Right now, I am…determining whether this is something he needs to know.”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

“It was an amateurish effort,” he observed, “but shows some inherent talent. Clearly you were unaware of the ways through which your maneuvers could be tracked, both magical and mundane. There is a science to moving illicit funds, Princess, in which you lack experience. My curiosity was in what you would hire a down-on-his-luck enchanter to design. These efforts appear rather…unfocused.”

“I gave him free rein to experiment,” Theasia said, grimacing. “I wouldn’t know what to ask him to build, and the point was to come up with something, anything, that nobody else had.”

“Within, that is, a certain theme.”

“A certain theme,” she agreed quietly.

Shavayad pinned the charm to his belt and pressed the jewel in its center. The light in the basement shifted as a translucent sphere of blue energy flickered into place around him, accompanied by a faint buzzing noise and the lifting of the fine hairs on her neck at the accompanying static.

“Personal shielding charms,” Shavayad marveled aloud, raising one arm and watching his private bubble shift along with it. “This was supposed to be impossible.”

“As I understand it, energy shields are actually quite simple. The tricky part was modulating it to let air, sound, and light pass through, and clip through the ground to let the subject walk while still protecting them from subterranean attack. The personal shields of a wizard or paladin avoid these shortfalls by being conscious workings.”

“The man is clearly a genius,” Shavayad agreed, pressing the gem again and switching the shield off. “Quite a find, Princess, I compliment you. And that magical-magnetic rail system in the corner. A mode of transportation?”

She glanced at the rack of metal he indicated. “Hardly. That’s a tiny prototype; a full-sized version would accelerate cargo to several times the speed of sound. It would probably be lethal to put people in it. Araani didn’t invent that, it was a theoretical design of Magnan’s that he never got around to experimenting with.”

“And so the lethality becomes the very purpose. Imagine, artillery with a range of miles. Not to mention this little beauty.” He picked up a metal glove, heavily engraved with runes, embedded with gemstones and trailing lengths of gold wire attached to more crystals and filaments. “Oh, what I could do with these, if only the materials weren’t so prohibitively expensive. A matched pair for every agent and we could make so many problems disappear…”

“Their power consumption is heinously inefficient, though,” she demurred. “Each is good for one use, two at the most, and it’s not a question of recharging them; it suffers catastrophic damage in the process.”

“Pity.” Shavayad carefully set the device back on its table and turned to her again. “You understand, Princess, why magical weapons research is practically a taboo in this day and age?”

“I am hardly going to have a nice old man and his daughter build a new Enchanter’s Bane in their basement,” she said acidly.

“There’s the matter what when an heir to a monarchy begins surreptitiously building weapons, an assassination generally follows,” he pointed out.

“Never!” Theasia snapped, clenching her fists and taking a step toward him. “I would die before I allowed harm to come to my father!”

“I believe you,” he said simply. “Though it is my job to, among other things, prevent that outcome. The Empire needs you as well as your father, Highness. And you are correct; what you’ve enabled here is hardly a path back to Magnan’s folly. This is a question of perceptions, though. Of how it would look to the public and to House Tirasian’s enemies to find the Imperial government researching sparkly new ways to kill people. You do understand this, I hope?”

“Of course I do,” she said curtly. “I am inexperienced, Tariq, not an idiot.”

He titled his head slightly. “Then I am curious, Princess, why you juded it worth the risk?”

Theasia turned her head to stare at the wall in front of which the Araanis had sat minutes before. Shavayad waited in silence for her to gather her thoughts.

“I cannot do it the way my father does,” she whispered, finally. “You know of my…condition. He has to spend every moment on his ploys and schemes. You know this, you’re the man who orchestrates half of them. Father is a vigorous man and still the burden of constantly playing the Houses and the Empire and the Punaji and everyone else against each other exhausts him. I don’t have the strength, Shavayad. Simply not the physical strength. And I cannot afford to show the weakness that would be revealed if I drive myself to collapse.”

“So you will strike first,” he said quietly.

“No.” Theasia turned her face back to him, shaking her head once. “Too much aggression begets retaliation, it would lead to the Enchanter Wars all over again. But they must know that I have the ability and the will to strike them. An example must be made of someone, to bring the rest in line. Whoever gives me a reason first. It has not escaped my notice that the only thing in living memory which has forced the Houses, even temporarily, to behave like civilized people was the near collapse of civilization itself. An orcish invasion, a drow invasion, a Stalweiss warlord’s invasion, and in the middle of that a handful of concurrent civil wars. All to furnish proof that their noble blood spills as easily as anyone’s. Then, the moment they felt it was safe, they went right back to their self-serving plots. ‘The bastards will stop when they are stopped, and not before.’”

“Foxpaw,” he said, quirking one eyebrow in the strongest expression of surprise she had ever seen from him. “I never imagined your mother would have allowed you to read the Exploits, your Highness.”

“My mother knows me too well to limit my leisure activities to books and then expect that I will adhere to her curated bibliography.”

“It is perhaps for the best, then, so long as she doesn’t catch you quoting Eserite dogma.” A fleeting smile passed across his features. “And so. You had no specific plans for these devices?”

She shook her head again. “Merely preparedness. The squeamishness after Magnan’s fall doesn’t serve us, Shavayad. Magic is the future, and those who control it will rule. The Sapphire College is diminished but not gone; we may all dismiss Syralon and the Wizards’ Guild as laughingstocks, but they are growing slowly stronger, and will only grow more so. And I don’t believe for a moment that Tellwyrn is dead. A woman like that comes and goes as she likes, and would never have the courtesy to perish conveniently out of sight. I will be Empress, however briefly. I have to be prepared. And… And my parents have not only failed to prepare me, in their good intentions they are trying to prevent me from being ready.” Theasia lifted her arms to gesture helplessly at the laboratory. “I need options.”

Shavayad studied her in silence for a moment, then suddenly stepped toward her. Theasia stiffened, but refused to retreat at his approach. To her surprise, he simply extended his arm to hand her the shielding charm he was still holding.

“My agency has received word of a plot against your Highness’s well-being,” he said abruptly.

Theasia’s eyebrows shot upward. “Mine?”

“Not much of a plot,” he said. “One which has zero realistic prospects of succeeding, and frankly is quite unlikely to get off the ground as the persons behind it I judge far too intelligent to take the risk. Unless…” Tilting his head again, he studied her face thoughtfully, now with a knowing little smile. “They might be encouraged to do so, with the proper incentives.”

She narrowed her eyes slightly, running her own thumb over the charm. It was warm, whether from its magic or his hand. “Incentives which you could provide.”

“Unfortunately not,” he said. “Certain individuals have been making discreet inquiries about an attempted abduction, your Highness. No one who is capable of such a feat would be foolish enough to attempt it, nor would they respond favorably to an overture from me. If approached by a rebellious Princess who quotes Ashner Foxpaw and finances secret weapons labs, however…”

“My father would summarily dismiss you from your position even for suggesting this,” Theasia said softly.

“You have never given your father enough credit for ruthlessness,” the spymaster replied lightly. “He would have me jailed, at the very least.”

Of course she understood what he was doing. Now they each had a secret to hold over the other—and he had had no reason at all to offer her one. This was an offering not only of peace between them, but alliance. Which begged the question…

“Why would you propose this?” she asked.

“Because,” he said, meeting her gaze, “in my professional opinion, Princess, you need this. You need the experience and the guidance. And you need to vanquish an enemy, both for your sake and to make it known that you can.”

Being practiced chiefly at repressing her anger, boredom and frustration, the smile of excitement caught her off guard and crept onto her features before she could successfully stifle it. “What, exactly, did you have in mind, Lord Shavayad?”

He smiled in return, glancing down at the shielding charm in her had. “Well. First of all, I want to introduce you to a jeweler…”

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Bonus #34: Divine Right, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Digitize27!

Wanting to punch his Grace the Duke of House Madouri in the throat was not even the worst part. His duplicious ilk were merely the background noise of her existence, and he was far from the lowest specimen of his kind. Her whole family had to put on polite smiles and solicitous manners when dealing with the menagerie of treacherous nobles who circulated through the Imperial court, but Theasia’s lot was far worse than that of her parents. They might be frustrated, but the worst thing happening to them was the progress of age.

Princess Theasia’s army of secretive healers had not come right out and said violent outbursts would be harmful to her health, but to parents who not only doted on a sickly daughter but feared for the Empire if the Tirasian bloodline were suddenly extinguished… These looming disasters were further complicated by the need to keep her condition a secret. If it became known that the future Empress suffered from the Banefall, the ever-circling vultures of the court would swoop in as one.

Constant monitoring, daily checkups, and regular applications of medicine whose value would have beggared some of the lesser Houses and magics so rare as to be borderline taboo all meant that Theasia went through her life with no greater hardship than an enforced limit on her degree of physical activity and the occasional twinge of pain. She had suffered the first symptoms of incipient organ failure at fourteen and received the diagnosis soon thereafter. Four years later, she was not particularly bothered, anymore, by the specter of death hovering constantly over her; it was amazing what a person could learn to live with.

To her parents and the Empire, however, Theasia Sabah Tirasian might as well have been some elven sculpture of butterfly wings and lily petals. Thus, not only could she not excoriate Duke Ravaan for being a slithering waste of blood for fear of the political trouble it would cause her father, she could not even vent to her parents later in private. Based on past experience, her mother would have her confined to bed for twenty-four hours to be certain her “episode” had caused no lingering effects.

So she refrained from glaring, but did not manage to smile. That much should give no offense; the young Princess had a reputation for being dispassionate in public. Encounters like this were the lion’s share of why.

“I share your concern about this issue, your Majesty,” Duke Ravaan said gravely to her father the Emperor about an issue of which he was almost certainly the cause. “I have just requested additional personnel from the Imperial foresters—this was only today, your Majesty may not have been yet informed—but to be frank, I consider it mostly a formality. The lands around Tiraas and Madouris are recovering well from the war, but it takes more than twenty years to re-grow a forest. I simply don’t think the woods provide enough cover to shelter bandits.”

“You make a good point, your Grace,” Emperor Sarsamon replied, his face solemn and attentive. Glancing over, Theasia noted with amusement that on his other side, her mother had not managed anything more than blank detachment in the face of Ravaan’s dissembling. The Empress was a serene soul by nature, but did not have her husband’s knack for pretending to like despicable people to their faces. “And yet, these ambushes continue. The banditry not only exists, but shows a distinct preference in targets. Perhaps you have some insight into the cause, if it is not brigands lurking in the forests?”

How she wished her father would just demand the boy account for his failure to secure the roads in Tiraan Province. They were even holding a private audience in a smaller chamber in the Palace, the only concession to Ravaan Madouri’s lesser stature being that he had not been offered a seat; there were none in the chamber save the ornate chairs on which the royal family sat. Had Theasia her way, this conversation would be held in the throne room, in full view of the court, while the young Duke stood below the Silver Throne like the worm he was to explain why Imperial revenue collectors kept being ambushed in his lands.

“There have been enough of the incidents now that it cannot be a coincidence,” Ravaan agreed, nodding with such a perfectly convincing expression of thought that Theasia itched to lunge from her chair and claw it off his face. She contented herself with drumming her fingers once on the armrest. “And in that time, the culprits have avoided apprehension. That, to me, suggests a political motive. Were they simply opportunists, and foolish enough to think the greater riches of an Imperial tax caravan worth the risks involved, they would have been destroyed by now.”

“Yet they remain free,” Empress Tamar said quietly. “They have weaponry and training sufficient to challenge Imperial soldiers, and appear to vanish.”

“There are no shortage of veterans and hardware still at loose ends, as your Majesties are of course aware,” said Ravaan. “It seems to me the only possibility is that they are blending into the populace.”

Or they’re being funded and hidden by a powerful interest, such as House Madouri, for example, Theasia did not say. Her parents did not require that she remain silent during such audiences, but anything openly suspicious or combative from her would result in lectures at best.

“Or perhaps,” her father said mildly, “someone with means is providing them shelter.”

Thank you, Father.

“There are no entrenched powers in Madouris or Tiraan Province who would dare openly defy the Silver Throne,” Ravaan replied with an unctuous smile. “Of that much I can assure your Majesties. There have been…difficulties…since my father’s passing. It was sudden and I fear he did not reveal everything he knew to me about the state of the province; I have been struggling, during this last year, to solidify my position while numerous interests within my domain vie to take advantage of the confusion. Perhaps your Majesties can relate?”

He dared compare himself to her father while knowingly contributing to the very travails about which he complained? Theasia gripped the arms of her chair for a moment before forcing her hands to relax. Ravaan, fortunately, did not seem to notice. Sarsamon simply acknowledged him with a magnanimous gesture of one hand, and the young Duke continued.

“I am deeply embarrassed to say that there is a significant well of anti-Imperial feeling in Tiraan Province left over from the war. Not enough to threaten the public order, but sufficient that even a few ambitious malcontents would have no trouble finding, at the very least, accomplices. Uprooting such diffuse troubles as public sentiment is a perennial challenge. I have even attempted to make overtures to the Thieves’ Guild. That…went nowhere.”

All three royals nodded once in understanding. Though they all knew the little beast was lying through his teeth—Imperial Intelligence prioritized sniffing out any whisper of rebellion and there was none in the vicinity of the capital—the intractability of the Guild was a matter on which all aristocracy was in harmony. Her father’s friendly overtures over the years had resulted only in (relatively) gentle reminders from Boss Rider of the role the Guild had played in toppling his predecessor.

“I am sympathetic indeed to your plight, your Grace,” Sarsamon said in a kindly tone, earning a smile from the young man before him. “You are correct; it is a most familiar feeling you describe. I realize that things have become strained between our Houses since the war and its aftermath, but I well recall the aid your father lent both to me and the Empire in our darkest hour, and have long regretted that the growing coldness between us deprived me of opportunities to make my gratitude known. Perhaps, in this shared trouble, we can begin to mend that breach.”

“There is nothing that would please me more, your Majesty,” Ravaan said, bowing and smiling with the overt triumph of a nobleman who had just gotten away with something. “It was in exactly this hope that I came before you today.”

“I am glad,” Sarsamon replied, folding his hands in his lap and continuing to bestow a fatherly smile in return. “As you have provided such valuable insight into this difficulty, I shall be pleased to lend the aid of the Throne to its resolution. Let us spare the foresters any needless risk and labor; it will surely not take long for Imperial Intelligence to locate and subdue our bandits once I direct its full attention to Madouris.”

Though young, Ravaan was at least good enough not to let his smile falter; the split-second freeze as he realized how he had outsmarted himself might have been invisible to any but a fellow politician.

“I am humbled and grateful for your Majesty’s attention,” he said, bowing again—more deeply, this time, which hid his expression for a precious second. “And I apologize most sincerely for putting the Throne to such trouble on my behalf.”

“Don’t worry, Ravaan,” Sarsamon said pleasantly. “I remember being in your position. Is it not better for the Empire to work as one? We must ever stand ready to aid each other at need.”

Impatient as Theasia often was with her father’s gentle way of handling the nobles, at times like this she had to acknowledge he was Emperor for a reason. No matter how many times he reminded them, they just kept forgetting that Sarsamon Tirasian was nobody’s pushover.

“My only concern,” Ravaan said, putting on a pensive expression, “is whether such an action might exacerbate existing anti-Imperial sentiment.”

“The public’s feelings must of course be considered,” Sarsamon agreed, nodding. “What would you suggest we do about this prospect?” As good as forcing to young snake to come out with whatever it was he was angling for. Theasia still would have preferred putting the boy firmly in his place, but she couldn’t deny her father’s methods got results.

“As we have discussed, your Majesty,” Ravaan replied earnestly, “the Houses of Tirasian and Madouri share both goals and difficulties, and the state of the Empire as a whole begs for greater unity. Our enemies both within and without our borders smell weakness and watch for openings. There is the additional similarity that both our Houses were diminished to a single branch by the depredations of the war. A single accident now could end the thousand-year history of House Madouri, or the hard-won stability of the Empire itself. With the greatest humility, your Majesties, it has inevitably occurred to me that these problems might have a single solution.”

Theasia’s blood went cold, so noticeably that she momentarily feared she might be having some new kind of attack.

“Are you suggesting,” Empress Tamar asked in deathly quiet, “a union of our Houses through marriage?”

“I merely submit the idea to your Majesties for consideration,” Ravaan replied, bowing to her. “I believe it has merit—for the Empire, for Tiraan Province, and for us all. Such a unified power block would be positioned to withstand almost any domestic challenge, and with that established, the Empire could make far more rapid progress in restoring its prestige and prosperity.”

How much did it cost to have a man killed? Surely she could afford it. That wasn’t the real problem; where did one go about finding an assassin? The Empire had people, of course, but there was no way to use them without it getting back to her father…

“You think very highly of yourself, your Grace,” Theasia said aloud, earning a sidelong glance of warning from her mother.

“I confess that I do, Princess,” Ravaan replied, having the audacity to smile warmly at her, “though in truth, not so highly as I do of you.”

Her iron self-control must have faltered slightly, because he took one look at her expression and immediately changed tactics.

“Please understand, your Highness, that despite the immense personal esteem in which I hold you, I am not attempting an approach out of flirtatiousness. Though I do believe you and I have every possibility of developing great mutual respect, even fondness—else I would not raise the idea—in the end this is a political solution to political problems.”

“It is an idea of merit,” Sarsamon said quietly. “Though not without its drawbacks, as well. You understand, your Grace, we must consider all of these carefully—both as rulers, and as a family.”

“I understand all too well, your Majesty,” Ravaan agreed. “Such is the delicate balance required of those the gods have designated to rule.”

“I thank you for your time, and these…very interesting thoughts you have raised, my lord Duke,” the Emperor stated, straightening subtly in his chair. “You may be assured that we will consider them with the greatest of care.”

“I could ask for nothing more, your Majesties, and am ever grateful,” Ravaan intoned, bowing in reply to the polite dismissal. “By your leave, then.”

The three of them sat in silence for several long seconds even after the doors had shut behind him.

At last Sarsamon let out a sigh, and reached over to take his daughter’s hand. “Well, the obvious fact must be stated: it would solve a lot of the Empire’s current problems.”

Theasia squeezed his fingers, closing her eyes for a moment. He was right, of course. The power of the Silver Throne had been so weakened after the war that only her father’s status as a hero to the people kept House Tirasian in power, for now. The alliance of House Madouri, House Aldarasi and the Universal Church which had conspired to place him on the Throne as a virtual puppet had shattered when Sarsamon managed to wrangle actual power out of Horsebutt the Enemy’s campaign and the need for a united Empire in the face of it. The Aldarasis still stood firmly with them, both because the Sultana was too canny to take being outplayed personally and because her own daughter was now Empress. Archpope Vyara, ever the pragmatist, had grown cool toward House Tirasian since the war, and neither made herself helpful—often—nor actively caused them trouble—for the most part. The old Duke of House Madouri, however, had been embittered and furious at being cheated, as he saw it, and made himself a constant nuisance right up until his death last year. By uniting Houses Tirasian and Madouri, that alliance would be restored and, as Ravaan had pointed out, the triumvirate of Tiraas, Calderaas and Madouris would have enough pull to force the rest of the Houses back into line.

“How certain are we,” she asked, “that there are no other surviving branches of House Madouri?”

“Very,” her father said, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “That was most of the reason the old Duke supported placing me on the Throne. Facing the possible extinction of House Madouri, he grabbed for power in the only way available to him.”

“So,” she said thoughtfully, “if I were to marry Ravaan and something unfortunate immediately befell him, I would be in control of—”

“Theasia!” her mother exclaimed, aghast. Sarsamon’s lips twitched with barely-suppressed amusement.

“I…suppose the boy isn’t all bad,” Theasia allowed grudgingly, fumbling for something positive to say. “He’s never once groped me with his eyes, which is better than I can say of half the nobles of our generation.”

With a diffident little cough, Lord Tariq Shavayad emerged from behind the decorative screen which had hidden him during the audience. The head of Imperial Intelligence was a tall, silver-haired man who wore discreet stateliness like a second suit.

“Given his late father’s protectiveness and the brevity of his rule thus far,” the spymaster said, “we are still assembling a dossier on him, and the portrait thus painted is yet incomplete. House Madouri has always been adept at guarding its privacy. I have ascertained, however, that all of his Grace’s romantic dalliances to date have been with men. I can say with reasonable certainty that his interest in the Princess is purely political.”

“Well,” Theasia said after they digested that in silence for a moment, “I do believe I have never been so simultaneously unflattered and yet relieved.”

Her father squeezed her hand once more and then released it. “What are your impressions overall, Lord Shavayad?”

“It is, as your Majesty observed, a valid political maneuver,” Shavayad said neutrally. “And, of course, his Grace would not propose it unless he believed himself able to position himself in control of both the relationship and the Empire. It would not be the first time someone technically relegated to the Swan Throne held authority in truth over a weaker-willed spouse.”

Theasia was very glad she was no longer holding her father’s fingers; her grip on the arms of her chair was painful enough for her. The upholstery was going to have permanent marks if people did not cease pointing out such repulsive facts in her presence.

“And the matter of the banditry?” Sarsamon added in a dry tone.

“It was, at the very least, not Ravaan’s idea,” Shavayad replied. “Simply by dint of the timing. The attacks have grown more brazen lately, but they began before he took power. I was not able to verify definitively that his father instigated them, and at the time they were but an occasional and minor nuisance. Shall I make good on your Majesty’s offer, and divert resources to Madouris?”

“Do,” Sarsamon said, allowing himself to display a predatory satisfaction he carefully hid from the nobility, the public, and his enemies. “I rather suspect the mere knowledge that it’s coming will cause Ravaan to hastily dismantle the program, if he has any control over it. Anything you find, though, is something we can hold over him.”

“Is it possible that he was telling the simple truth?” Tamar inquired.

“It is…possible,” the spymaster allowed. “I assure your Majesties there is no significant rebellious sentiment in the core provinces. Not enough to mount an insurgency, but it is not unthinkable that disaffected former rebels might find sufficient armament and numbers to execute bandit raids of this kind. His Grace’s theory is plausible. Forgive me, your Majesties, but there is nothing I distrust more than an aristocrat with an agenda and a plausible excuse.”

“Quite,” Sarsamon agreed. “Do what you can, Tariq, but do it as discreetly as the situation allows. The damnable truth is that we cannot afford either the lost revenue or the loss of face any further, and we may not be able to endure the backlash that would result from marching troops into Madouris.” He paused, then sighed heavily. “I suppose I also can’t afford to rid myself of that little pustule, either.”

“Sarsamon,” Tamar said reproachfully. He reached over to take her hand.

“I advise against it, your Majesty,” Lord Shavayad said in the same calm tone he doubtless used to order lunch. “The elimination of a high-standing lord who caused you trouble would provoke severe retaliation from numerous Houses. Especially after what happened to Lord Turombi, even in the absence of proof the suspicion of your involvement would be enough. Duke Ravaan, inconvenient as he may be, is probably more manageable than the chaos that would result from the sudden extinction of House Madouri and the resulting power vacuum in Tiraan Province, which House Tirasian is unfortunately not in a position to fill. There is also the matter that I could not guarantee with certainty that an assassination would succeed. House Madouri has not endured for a thousand years by taking chances with its security, and they have accumulated unknowable resources in that time. The closer the bloodline is to petering out, the more avidly it will be defended.”

“It was just a passing thought,” Sarsamon said, not without a hint of bitterness. “Well. Ravaan and his proposal require consideration and discussion in detail, which I’m afraid we will have to postpone.”

“Ah, yes,” Tamar said with a sigh, rising from her chair. “Lord Dufresne and Lady Leduc will arrive for their audience presently, and if I am not there to mediate before they meet it’s likely one won’t leave the room alive.”

“Take no prisoners, my dear,” Sarsamon intoned, standing and raising her hand to his lips for a kiss. The Empress did not reply verbally, but gave him a look of wry fondness before turning her attention to her daughter.

“How do you feel, Theasia?”

She knew better than to say she was fine. “Irked, to tell the truth,” she replied honestly. “I believe I shall take a book to my garden this afternoon. I would rather be in a calmer frame of mind when we discuss this in earnest.”

“Very good,” Tamar agreed, nodding and smiling. Her mother approved of such passive pastimes for her frail daughter. A moment later, though, the smile faltered, leaving her staring at Theasia with a worried expression that was subtly unlike her usual worried expression. She stepped over and took her daughter’s hands as Theasia rose to meet her. “It isn’t such a terrible thing as you are probably imagining, little bird.”

While Theasia was still blinking at her in surprise, she turned and glided from the room.

She was aware that her parents’ marriage was a political one. They cared deeply for each other, but Theasia had garnered enough hints over the years to be fairly certain that had developed after the wedding. Of course, such talk as this would resonate with them in a way to which she couldn’t quite relate. It also meant she had best restrain herself even further than usual in discussing it. To express honestly the revulsion she felt at the idea might be an outright insult. As much as Theasia bridled at their over-protectiveness and their passive style of rule, she loved her parents deeply and held great respect for everything they had accomplished for the Empire. The thought of causing them hurt was intolerable.

Sarsamon turned to his daughter and gathered her into a hug, which she gratefully returned, ignoring Lord Shavayad standing discreetly nearby.

“I’m afraid my conversation with the generals is going to be less boring that I’d like,” he said, releasing her. “I had better not tarry, either. We’ll talk about all of this over dinner, Theasia.”

“Of course, Father,” she replied, smiling up at him. “Just don’t invade anyone without me, I would like to watch that.”

“It’s a promise,” he said, lightly tweaking her on the chin with a finger. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Theasia sighed, watching him stride from the room, then turned to nod politely to the spymaster. “Lord Shavayad, I bid you good afternoon.”

“Your Highness,” he said suddenly, “I wonder if I could prevail upon you for a moment of your time.”

She had started to turn toward the door herself and froze. Shavayad had never asked her for anything, nor treated her as more than an accessory of her parents, to be frank. No official of the Imperial government had, thanks to her mother’s insistence that she was not to be unduly burdened. For all that Theasia was encouraged to be present and observe the functions of government, her only actual duties to the Empire had been social thus far. Most days, she felt less like a princess than the invalid ateenage daughter of some industrialist.

“What can I do for you, my lord?” she inquired as evenly as she could manage around the surprising surge of excitement she felt. If this turned out to be something about an upcoming ball or some such rot…

“My people have tracked an illicit operation which I think you ought to be informed of, Princess. In detail.” His expression was totally inscrutable. Well, the man was spymaster for a reason.

“I?” she replied, raising one eyebrow. “And not my parents?”

“As head of Intelligence, the core of my duty is to curate information, your Highness. Your father the Emperor cannot be burdened with every detail of everything which transpires in the Empire. I must choose carefully what to bring before him, what to ignore, and what to deal with quietly on my own initiative. In this matter, it is my assessment that you are the appropriate person to whom to bring the issue.” He hesitated for a split second, and undoubtedly deliberate pause for emphasis. “I beg that your Highness will forgive my presumption, but it is my opinion that you are more than intelligent and mature enough to begin participating in statecraft, Princess, and that the health of the Empire requires that you begin acquiring experience. Your mother’s laudable concern for your well-being has made this process somewhat slower than it might otherwise have been.”

Flattery. Skillful and subtle flattery, but there nonetheless. Even seeing him do it did not quite quash the surge of satisfaction she felt at being acknowledged. Offered the chance to do something for the Empire.

Of course, the question remained…why?

“And what is this issue, precisely?” she asked, as deadpan as she could manage.

“To an extent, you will have to be shown rather than told,” he said apologetically, “but I will brief you to the extent that I can on the way.”

“The way?”

“Yes, your Highness. This will involve an excursion into the city. I can promise you both absolute discretion and the greatest security my agency can provide. Be assured, I would take no risks with your Highness’s well-being.”

Her heart was practically pounding, so vividly she instinctively reached for the vial of medicine concealed in her dress—which had been tailored for that specific reason, as ladies’ fashions otherwise suffered from an aggravating lack of pockets. A chance to leave the Palace, to go out into the city, on Imperial business. To help.

Shavayad was up to something, of course; all of this was too sudden and too unconventional. But then, he was never not up to something. He was the spymaster, that was literally what they paid him for. And he had the absolute trust of her parents.

Well, if the man was a traitor, they were all doomed anyway. She had lived her entire life without being allowed to take risks. This seemed a good place to start.

“Of course, Lord Shavayad,” Princess Theasia said, barely controlling an eager smile. “Lead the way.”

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