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“I see,” Shaeine whispered, not voicing the obvious rejoinder. It was, then, a question of who survived to tell the tale.
Her mother was going to be exceedingly irate about her playing a role in wiping out a major Imperial House, but at this point, it couldn’t be helped.
The priestess reached within herself again, connecting to the power of the goddess. Immediately the so-called lamp reacted again, but this time Shaeine was done exercising restraint. Her aura blazed, a silver shield flashed into place around her, and still she kept drawing energy, pulling until she could feel the warning twinges of burnout. Her shield was a well-practiced technique that required fairly little concentration; the rest of that power she pushed straight outward in a torrent against the Scyllithene artifact she could feel trying to strike back against her.
Whatever the thing’s origins and powers, it was just a static artifact—a nasty surprise for anyone channeling the wrong kind of magic near it, but not up for a direct challenge by a priestess of Themynra on the offensive.
White and silver light burst through the room, to the accompaniment of shouts from the House Madouri soldiers as human eyes were blinded by the eruption. Drow eyes being inherently sensitive to light, Shaeine like any cleric of her order knew a minor working to shield her vision and pushed through. The magical impact sent the artifact careening off the table.
Directly, to her immediate chagrin, at Vadrieny. The demon let out a shriek of pain and staggered away. There was no time to wallow in remorse, however; the room was split by a thunderclap as one blinded soldier discharged his staff, and Shaeine swept back into action, cursing herself for the moment of hesitation caused by making her lover collateral damage.
Before any of the soldiers could recover, she formed a solid wall of light and swept it against them, slamming the men along one side of the room into the wall, then repeated the maneuver against those on the other. She couldn’t hit hard enough to kill with that technique—not in quarters this tight—but it should at least daze and perhaps injure them. More boots were pounding toward the doors, however, so Shaeine wasted no more time, vaulting onto the table and kicking Ravana’s abandoned plate upward.
It wasn’t just elven agility and reflex; she had been taught, specifically, to fight in a formal dining hall. Her fingers closed around the handle of the steak knife, snagging it out of the air, and she launched herself directly at the Duke. He was just lowering his hand from the blinding flash, eyes widening as the next thing they beheld was a cold-eyed drow bearing down on him with steel bared.
Then thunder cracked again; Dazan had drawn a sidearm and fired at her point blank. He was in the process of visibly flailing, making it a distinctly lucky shot, but then again at that range and given that she was charging right past him it might have been harder not to hit her, especially as the bubble of light around her made a much bigger target than the slender shape within. That shield saved her life, but the wandshot impacted her even as she lunged through the air with both her feet off the table; with nothing to brace against, the force of it sent her careening into the wall practically on top of one of the soldiers she had just felled.
She had blocked wandshots with her personal shield at Sarasio, but even that didn’t prepare her for the power they held, given that the shield was designed to blunt incoming attacks as much as possible. To truly feel the impact one had to be hit while flying through the air. The force of a single wandshot sent her violently off course with no more volition than a billiard ball.
A hidden door she had not observed opened behind the head of the table, by one side of the great display surmounted by the Madouri quest on which her ill-received gifts now rested, and more soldiers dashed into the dining room, weapons at the ready as they fanned out behind their Duke.
“Well, well,” Ehriban drawled, straightening up in his seat and looking past Shaeine. “Bringing weapons and shields into the presence of your governor? You are making this easier for me, Geoffrey—”
A beam of white light impacted nothing right in front of his face; the Duke jerked backward, gaping. It was likely no one had ever dared directly attack him before.
“Yeah, didn’t really think so,” Geoffrey Falconer said, still holding his wand aimed right at Ehriban. “You cannot imagine how much I have wanted to do that, though.”
“You’re only digging your own grave,” Ehriban snarled. “A professional like yourself should know I can have that wand analyzed after I take it off your corpse. When Intelligence learns it was used to fire on my personal shield—”
Two more hits to said shield shut him up for a moment, at least until Dazan turned and fired two lightning bolts right back. The first sparked off an arcane shield around Geoffrey, who had planted himself in front of Marguerite; the second was intercepted by another wall of silver light Shaeine raised.
Near her, two soldiers were trying to stagger to their feet. She swatted them back down with a mobile shield.
“That’s right, just keep digging!” the Duke exclaimed. “I already have more than I need to hand over Falconer Industries to my son to manage once you’re all—”
Then, while they were all distracted with that, another burst of white light flashed through the room.
When everyone could see again, it was to behold Vadrieny standing upright, clutching the shattered and now-inert remnants of the Scyllithene artifact. Fragments of marble and silver crunched and trickled from between her claws as she clenched down, further pulverizing the remains.
“Didn’t. Think. That. Through,” the archdemon snarled. Already, the half-dampened fire of her hair and wings was beginning to reassert itself, burn marks along her skin receding now that Scyllith’s light had been extinguished.
“Hold it,” Ehriban barked, beginning to look genuinely alarmed. “Don’t be a fool, girl. You may be able to kill me, but this room is full of my men, with military weapons. Those shields your parents and your little girlfriend have won’t last long.”
“They had better,” Vadrieny hissed, baring her fangs to their full unsettling extent. “If you so much as singe a one of them, I will disassemble you piece. By. Piece.”
A moment of relative quiet passed, broken only by the House Madouri soldiers getting back to their feet.
“Well, well,” the Duke said at last, forcing a thin smile. “It seems we have a standoff, then. How droll.”
“He can’t let us leave,” said Shaeine. “He has attempted conspiracy, corruption, and murder. If we leave here, we will return with Imperial troops to end his reign.”
“Or we can end it now!” Vadrieny barked, shifting her legs as if about to spring. A visibly frightened Dazan turned to cover her with his wand.
“Boy, I have told you to aim always at the weakest point,” his father said softly.
“B-but… I mean, has she got a vulnerable—”
“Them!” Ehriban exclaimed, pointing at the two older Falconers. Blanching, Dazan swiveled again, taking aim at them. “This is quite the dilemma we have on our hands, is it not? It seems if we are all to leave this room, we must come to an agreement. Now…”
Another figure slipped out of the knot of soldiers behind the Duke’s chair, catching Shaeine’s eye. No one else took notice of her until she raised her hand, holding Tellwyrn’s ancient saber, and pressed the edge against Dazan’s throat. The young lord emitted an embarrassing squeak, and the Duke turned to scowl at him, then froze, expression utterly shocked.
His wasn’t the only one.
“Conspiracy, corruption, and murder,” Ravana Madouri repeated. She stood straight as a battlestaff, as poised with the blade in her hand as if on a ballroom floor. “Altogether a typical Thursday evening in the House of Madouri, with the exception that this time you have assaulted with premeditated murderous intent a diplomat of an allied power. That, Father, is treason.”
There was dead silence, everyone in the room staring at Ravana as if they had never seen her before. For the most part, they may as well not have.
“…Ravana?” Ehriban said at least, hesitantly.
Dazan hissed and tried to raise his head higher as his sister tensed her arm. A line of noble blood appeared across his throat and began to trickle down the surface of the elven steel.
“Your swaggering and bullying has squandered every political alliance this House once had,” Ravana lectured her father in an icy tone. “That, coupled with the repeated offenses you have given House Tirasian, means the Emperor will not hesitate to exact the fullest penalty for this the law allows. Thanks to you, not only will no other House press him to stay his hand, the vultures will circle to strip whatever they can from the corpse of House Madouri. This asinine scheme could doom us all. And for what? Because you are personally offended that the Falconers are wealthy enough to detract attention from you? For shame.”
“They…you…” Ehriban stammered, stopped, swallowed heavily. “Ravana, little starling, please put that down. I promise you, I won’t let anything happen to you.”
His daughter curled her lip sardonically. “What happens to me appears to be entirely out of your hands at this juncture, Father.”
“Vana?” Dazan squeaked. Everyone ignored him.
“That…is quite enough,” the Duke stated, clearly regathering his poise sufficiently to straighten in his chair. “Men, escort Lady Ravana to her chambers and keep her there until I can attend to her.”
Another pause ensued. The soldiers clustered behind around Ravana, behind Ehriban and Dazan, shifted subtly, gripping weapons and turning to regard the young Lady, but did not otherwise move. After a moment, one of the other soldiers closer to Shaeine made as if to take a step forward, freezing when she half-turned her head to fix him with a stare.
“Now!” Ehriban exclaimed. “I have made my orders clear!”
Then Ravana Madouri smiled, and Shaeine felt a frisson coil its way down her spine.
“Lieutenant Arivani,” Ravana said aloud, “how fares your wife? I regret I have not had the opportunity to follow up with the doctor in some weeks.”
“She’s well, my Lady, thanks to your kind assistance,” said the soldier nearest her, turning toward her with the deepest bow the cramped quarters and his battlestaff would allow. “The doctor said it was a close thing. Could have lost her if it had gone untreated any longer, but she’ll recover now.”
Duke Ehriban was staring at this byplay with his jaw flapping in an amusingly fishlike expression. “Wh—how did— What?”
“Oh,” Geoffrey Falconer whispered, comprehension dawning. Vadrieny was now looking back and forth between the three nobles in confusion, but Shaeine had by that point figured it out. This was beginning to be downright Narisian, in fact.
“It is a basic principle of statecraft,” Ravana lectured her father with outright condescension, the blade at her brother’s throat unwavering. “Or, indeed, in any venture in which security is important. One must screen one’s employees—especially those such as soldiers in whose hands one’s safety rests—and not employ those with outstanding vulnerabilities exploitable by an enemy. No drug addictions, sick relatives, gambling habits, or the like. Not only have you consistently failed that basic step, you have gone further and created such cracks in our House’s security by not paying your soldiers adequately, and removing the traditional benefits they enjoyed under previous generations.” She finally turned her head to nod at the men clustering around her. “That is the first thing that’s about to change around here.”
The assembled Madouri troops stood straighter in response, several smiling at the diminutive Lady.
Duke Ehriban slumped back into his chair, gaping at Ravana in disbelief for a few befuddled moments. Then, finally, he emitted a forced chuckle, shaking his head.
“Well. Well, well. I, ah… I suppose I must bear some of the blame for this.”
“Some of the blame,” Marguerite muttered, but he ignored her.
“So much like your mother,” Ehriban continued, giving Ravana a fond smile. “Well then! I see there is yet another side to this…impromptu negotiation. Please remove that weapon from your brother, Ravana, and let us come to an agreement.”
“Negotiations are only necessary when one is not in complete control of a situation,” Ravana stated, her expression reverting to frigid detachment. “The soldiers here answer to me, as I have demonstrated. That leaves you nothing with which to pressure the Falconers or Lady Shaeine—whereas I can assure due recompense to House Awarrion for the grievous insult you have inflicted, as well as an immediate lessening of the entirely needless and punitive burden of taxation and administrative interference you have inflicted upon Falconer Industries.”
“Young lady, take what you’ve been given and be grateful,” Ehriban said, straightening up again and frowning down at her. “That is quite enough. We can discuss these matters in more detail later.”
“You fail to understand,” she intoned softly. “This province has been driven to the brink by your incompetence and malfeasance. Our people are harassed and abused instead of protected by your crooked police forces, your unreasonable taxes stifle economic activity, and your personal outbursts and petty cruelties have isolated us and made a virtual enemy of the Silver Throne itself. After years of corruption and abuse, you’ve finally crossed the line, Father. This is not an intervention. This is a coup d’etat. In the Emperor’s name, I arrest you for high treason. Once Imperial Intelligence has perused the proof of your planned murder of a Narisian diplomat, I imagine the ultimate sentence will be pronounced swiftly. Men, secure the Duke.”
“Don’t you dare—” was all Ehriban Madouri managed to bellow before being forcibly hiked from his seat by his own soldiers. Ravana finally lowered the sword as two more House guards seized Dazan and wrestled him to a kneeling position, arms held behind him.
“Vana, no!” the young lord exclaimed. “It wasn’t like that, she just… It was only supposed to be the Falconers!”
“Shut up, boy!” Ehriban snarled.
“Too late,” Ravana said, shaking her head wearily. “That is a confession, witnessed by all here.”
“I am a Duke! An Imperial governor!” Ehriban raged. “It is my word against—”
“You employ forgers, Father,” Ravana said pitilessly. “And in what may be the crowning achievement of your incompetence, you don’t pay them adequately, either. For your edification, if one must truck with scurrilous underworld types, blackmail does not suffice to keep them loyal—it only ensures they will be watching for the first opportunity to enact a betrayal. Lieutenant Arivani, I will require the ducal signet ring.”
“You will have to take my hand off first!” Ehriban raged at the soldier who stepped toward him. Arivani paused at the ferocity in his expression, glancing back at Ravana.
“If his Grace is committed to those terms, they are acceptable to me,” she said indifferently.
“Vana, please,” Dazan blubbered. “You can’t—if it’s treason, it’ll be— That’s the headsman for us, don’t you understand that?!”
Finally, for just a moment, Ravana hesitated, appearing uncertain. Attuned as she was to the subtleties of expression, Shaeine saw a transitory flicker as the young lady appeared to falter, somewhere between the vapid persona she had been effecting and the ice-blooded queenly facade to which she had switched. In that merest instance was a glimpse of a young girl who did not want to do this. And just like that, it was gone, leaving Shaeine feeling a sad kinship.
So it was, to be a noble. She would have done the same.
“If it is to be the headsman,” Ravana said in an impressively even tone, “remember you are a Madouri and try to face it with dignity.”
“Lady Ravana.” During the confrontation, Vadrieny’s form had faded away, leaving Teal looking deeply shaken. “They’re…your family.”
“My family,” Ravana said coldly, “exist for the sake of the realm and people of Madouris, not the other way around. They have forgotten this, and become too lost to pride to accept any reminder. A clean slate is needed if a true crisis is to be averted. Thank you, Lieutenant.”
She closed her tiny fingers around the heavy ring Arivani placed reverently in her hand, making no move to slip it on. Ehriban, in the end, had given it up with no further fight. In fact, he now slumped in the grasp of his captors, suddenly looking shocked and utterly defeated.
“Little starling,” he whispered.
“I have never enjoyed that nickname,” Ravana said quietly, staring at the table and refusing to meet his pleading eyes. “Starlings are an invasive pest. That is just one of the things you would know if you’d listened to your ministers when they tried to dissuade you from canceling those agricultural subsidies. It will take me years to untangle the mess you’ve created. Secure them in the lower cells—discreetly.” Ravana lifted her eyes finally, not to look at her father and brother, but at the soldiers holding them prisoner. “Until I can bring Imperial agents here to oversee and formalize the transition, his various partners in crime pose a risk. Permit no one to approach them. One warning, and then assume you are under attack and respond with lethal force. Against anyone—soldiers, servants, strangers. Make no assumptions and take no risks.”
“Your own servants?” Teal exclaimed.
“Teal,” Shaeine said softly, catching her gaze. She shook her head once. There was just too much to explain, and even if she explained it perfectly there was likely to be an argument as a result. This was not the sort of thing a person not raised to noble expectations was likely to understand.
The soldiers saluted Ravana, who turned her back on both them and the room while the two elder Madouris were hauled away, Ehriban in stunned silence, Dazan still shouting for his sister’s attention until the heavy dining room door was slammed shut behind him.
Facing the wall, Lady Ravana appeared to hunch in on herself. Her thin shoulders quivered once.
“Oh, honey,” Marguerite whispered, fortunately in a low enough tone that even Shaeine barely caught it. She started to take a step toward the young Lady, reaching out, but Geoffrey gently took her by the shoulders, pulling her close. Very much for the best, Shaeine knew; Ravana would not appreciate any such gesture at a time like this.
“How…how long have you been plotting this?” Teal asked, herself in a bare whisper. The words were accusatory, but her voice was simply horrified.
Ravana finally straightened and turned, her face once more composed when it was visible. “Too long. You seem rather put off by all this, Miss Falconer.”
Teal gaped in disbelief.
“If you would feel better removing yourself from the situation, I have a favor to ask.”
“Me?” Teal squawked.
“Well, more accurately, your counterpart.” Lady Ravana stepped forward, holding out her father’s ring. “We will not be truly safe here until the…previous Duke is in Imperial custody and the transition of power ratified by the Emperor. Perhaps not even then, unless his Majesty sees fit to loan me Imperial troops until I have thoroughly cleaned house. Even your family may be at risk unless we act swiftly. To that end, I would ask Vadrieny to carry this to General Tulivaan at the Imperial garrison here in Madouris. He…will understand what it means, though I rather expect he’ll ask you to explain what you’ve seen tonight.”
“You would send Vadrieny into an Imperial fortification?” Shaeine demanded.
“Tulivaan knows her,” Geoffrey said quickly. “He’ll, uh, have some questions if she drops in out of the blue, I’m sure, but his soldiers won’t fire on her at sight. Actually, even if they did, I guess that wouldn’t do her much harm, would it?”
“Please, Teal,” Ravana said quietly, still holding out the signet ring.
“I don’t…understand how you can…do this.”
“Then count yourself blessed. You would make a poor aristocrat…and for that, a much better person.”
They stared at each other in silence for a moment. When Teal finally took the ring, it was in a sudden grab. She hesitated only to look at Shaeine, her eyes wide and haunted.
“It will be all right,” Shaeine assured her quickly. “I am here, and your parents had the forethought to come armed. We will look after each other.”
“I…” Teal swallowed heavily, nodding once in a jerky motion. Then Vadrieny burst forth again in an explosion of fire and claws.
“Be careful,” the archdemon said. “I’ll be quick as I can.”
Then she was gone, pushing open the great double doors into the dining room from the formal hall outside and causing a scream from some passing housemaid. Geoffrey stepped over to gently pull the door shut.
Ravana sighed softly. “I fear I have rather unsettled her.”
“Teal is a sensitive soul,” said Shaeine. “It is a trait that ill befits someone in your position or mine, but a source of surprising strength for her. And one I value greatly.”
Ravana looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, then down at the ancient saber hanging from her hand, her brother’s blood still forming small streaks along the blade. She roughly wiped it off on the tablecloth, then crossed to the display beneath the Themynrite idol and picked up the accompanying dagger.
Both Falconers tensed when Ravana approached Shaeine with both blades in hand, but with surprising deftness, the young noblewoman reversed her grip and offered them hilts first.
“For offense given by my House to yours, honor compels me to return your generous offering, with the promise that full recompense shall be made. When next you deign to grace my hearth, no gift shall be owed, for I will regard you as…a…cherished comrade in battle.”
Shaeine, even poised as she was, blinked in surprise. It didn’t quite work in Tanglish; Narisian elvish had multiple levels of formality which could be used interchangeably throughout a sentence to add complex nuances of meaning. The lack was evident in Ravana’s faltering at the end there, when she clearly struggled to express a thought using unfamiliar formalities. It impressed Shaeine deeply that Ravana knew the Narisian etiquette at all.
“I accept the sentiment in the spirit in which it is offered,” she said aloud, reaching out to grasp the handles and gently reclaim the blades. Apparently her mother would get her guest gift from Teal after all. “Though your House has offended, you have done me great honor in seeking to correct it at personal cost, Lady Ravana. I would impose no further burden upon you in what I know is a painful time.”
Ravana met her eyes, and they shared a small nod of mutual understanding.
“I, uh… Would it be…gauche if I sat down?” Marguerite asked faintly.
“Not in the least, Mrs. Falconer,” Ravana assured her. “Please be as comfortable as you can. I am deeply sorry for… Well, everything.” She grimaced. “But most immediately for keeping you cooped up in here. I’m afraid I spoke the simple truth to Teal, however. This manor is teeming with my father’s sycophants; until they are secured, my loyal soldiers returned and the Empire on its way, I fear it’s simply not safe for any of us to wander about.”
“I think it would only be bad manners at this point if we went back to eating,” Geoffrey said, attempting a jovial smile as he helped his wife back into her chair. “So! Heck of a night, eh? Here we are, then. What, ah, shall we talk about?”
Each of them looked at each of the rest in turn, and the silence stretched out.