Tag Archives: Teal

Bonus #62: Coming to Dinner, part 3

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The Madouri family being what they were, the Manor’s formal dining room was laid out with a giant display behind the seat at the head of the long table, positioned so that a huge House crest would loom above the person seated there, with below that a broad flat space like an altar which could be used for any situationally suitable decoration, the better to emphasize whatever point was being made. For this dinner, the Duke had apparently taken some amusement in designating this a suitable display spot for the gifts his family had just received, with the result that now a silver statue of the cowled goddess Themynra loomed directly behind him, just beneath the Madouri crest.

This, needless to say, was not appropriate placement for a sacred sigil. Any sigil; the symbolic implication that House Madouri stood above a god was too clear to have been anything but deliberate. Shaeine did not overtly react, of course, but considered the implications. Teal had described Duke Ehriban as motivated chiefly by ego, but that was when dealing with his own subjects. Surely a man in his position couldn’t be brash enough to kick up an international incident? Regardless, being Narisian, she filed the insult away to be redressed at a better time, and took some dark amusement of her own in the fact that Tellwyrn’s sword and dagger had been laid at the feet of Themynra’s idol, in an extra layer of symbolism.

Actually, Tellwyrn probably would have laughed at that, too. And blasted the Duke across the room for good measure, but with a sense of humor. Still, Shaeine rather suspected he wouldn’t have dared add that little touch had Tellwyrn herself been present to see.

And despite all of the diplomatic weight behind this pageantry, it wasn’t what commanded most of her attention.

“You like it, Lady Shaeine?” the Duke drawled at her in the manner of a man who knew he was being antagonistic and either didn’t care enough to fully hide behind a shroud of civility or simply lacked the requisite emotional control. “My House is rather famous, if you’ll forgive the boast, for the rarity of the treasures within its vaults, but even we haven’t a lot in the way of drow artifacts. Mostly arms and armor confiscated from various Narisians who’ve attempted to raid Madouri lands over the centuries. This was the only piece I could find on such short notice that seemed at all suitable for display on a dinner table. Alas, I had only scant warning to expect the pleasure of your company!”

“I do hope not to have inconvenienced you unduly, Lord Ehriban,” she replied, noting the resulting twitch of his left eye and not reacting—she, at least, could control her emotions while delivering a veiled insult. The correct title was Duke Madouri, the one she had used being suitable for a lesser member of his House, and to judge by the lack of an immediate rebuke, he wasn’t sure whether she’d done it deliberately. “Truly, it is a…remarkable piece. It is not, however, Narisian. I am very curious how it came to be in your House’s vaults.”

It was a candelabra of sorts, carved delicately of what appeared to be white marble in the shape of a tree, a strange motif for drow, but the marble trunk and obsidian base were both inscribed with runes in elvish—neither the surface nor Narisian dialects, but intelligible with a bit of effort to anyone who knew the language. Among the white tree’s bare branches were stretched delicate silver wires in the shape of intricate spider webs, and suspended within them were lodged thirteen tiny, exquisitely crafted silver skulls. Each contained a magic source, projecting beams of pure white radiance through the minute eye and nose holes, and the even more tiny gaps between teeth.

“Is that so?” Duke Ehriban replied with a deliberately knowing smirk. “Well, I’d love to know myself. Unfortunately, most of my more adventurous ancestors were rather more interested in collecting treasures than keeping records. I’m afraid there’s just no accounting for a good number of the artifacts collecting dust down there. What do you think, Dazan, could it be from that other city up north? What’s it called, Akhvaris?”

Lord Dazan paused in lifting a forkful of meat to his lips, giving his father a rather stupid look of surprise. “I, er…”

“The Akhvari refuse all contact,” Shaeine said quietly. “It is, in fact, Scyllithene, and most likely came to the surface through Tar’naris, which must have been an incredible story indeed. I appreciate the gesture, my lord Duke, but I must warn you that artifacts of Scyllith are as dangerous as those of the Elder Gods. Especially those, such as this one, which are magical in nature.”

“How fascinating!” the Duke said merrily. “I know what you mean—my ancestors have several Elder God trinkets squirreled away. Surely there’s no need to worry, though; those are all fully secured. The ancient Madouris did at least manage to catalog everything too hazardous to mess with and lock it up with all the requisite warnings. That this one wasn’t buttoned up similarly tells me it can’t be all that bad! Clearly it’s just a decorative centerpiece.”

“But father,” Dazan said, frowning, “I thought—”

“There’s only the one Elder God relic that’s even accessible down there,” Ehriban interrupted swiftly, shooting his son a cold look. “The sword of light, remember? I showed it to you once.”

“Oh! Yes!” Dazan’s face positively lit up. “Beautiful thing—it not only glows but makes music!”

“A musical sword?” Teal asked, her attention predictably grabbed.

“Not good music, of course,” Dazan said, turning to her and pantomiming swinging a blade with both hands. “It makes a rather pleasant humming sound that changes pitch as you move it. I suppose one could create a melody from that with a bit of effort, but that clearly wasn’t the intent. Father was loath to let me test it properly, but according to the notes old Lady Avelaan Madouri kept, the blade is weightless and will cut through anything! Since you mention it, Father, perhaps a demonstration for our guests would be the perfect excuse to show—”

“No fewer than five of your ancestors have dismembered themselves handling that fool thing, Dazan,” the Duke said in a quelling tone. “Two lethally. The Elder Gods did enjoy their little pranks. It’s for good reason the weapon is behind glass and displayed so as to be seen, not touched.

“But…you took it out,” Dazan protested. “That’s how you demonstrated the humming.”

“In any case,” Ehriban continued, “my ancestors, in their wisdom, saw fit to place no such protections around this piece of decoration and no ill has befallen as a result of it. I’m afraid your concerns are misplaced, Lady Shaeine.”

“As you say, your Grace,” she replied smoothly, deeming this a hill not worth planting a flag on…yet. It was not yet clear to her whether he truly had no idea what he was tampering with or intended something specific with the…lamp, if that was indeed its purpose. If the latter, they were all likely to regret it. Surface people tended to forget that Scyllithene artifacts by definition were Elder God artifacts, and exactly as dangerous for exactly the same reasons.

“I gather, from your wariness, that you’ve not seen the like in person?” Ehriban prompted, still watching her.

Shaeine shook her head. “In Tar’naris, such a thing would be summarily destroyed.”

“Ah, yes,” he said with a sage nod, taking up his knife and fork to begin cutting into the slab of meat before him. “Your people do have that historical tendency.”

Marguerite drew in a short breath and Teal’s jaw tightened; Dazan had the effrontery to smirk. Shaeine, of course, did not give him the satisfaction.

In fact, her attention was caught by Ravana, who was seated at her right, in the position directly to the left of her father and across from Dazan. The young noblewoman’s aspect had subtly but entirely changed during the conversation; where she had been virtually silent and adopted an almost aggressively unobtrusive posture all night, with her hands clasped in her lap and head slightly bowed, she was now sipping her wine. Slowly, her spine having straightened, holding a small mouthful on her tongue and inhaling gently through the nose with the glass held before her, eyes half-lidded in pleasure. It was the most unguarded posture Shaeine had seen her assume, and though a relatively minor thing, it was like looking at an entirely different person.

Ravana swallowed and her eyes shifted, noticing Shaeine watching her. She did not, as the drow half expected, hastily change her posture back or at all react as if caught in something, but delicately set her wineglass back down and once more folded her hands, returning smoothly to her previously demure pose.

Interesting.

“So,” Geoffrey said in a strained voice, clearly grasping for any change of subject, “how is the carriage serving you, your Grace?”

“Ah!” The Duke’s eyes lit with a little spark of malicious interest which had already become familiar to even his newest guest over the course of the evening. “Fine work as ever, Mr. Falconer! Smooth as satin on the roads; you’ve truly outdone yourself. I don’t know, though…” He picked up his glass and took a long sip which somehow did not interrupt his smirk. “Now that I’ve seen it on the streets a few times, I’m not so sure about the…detailing.”

Teal immediately set down her silverware and placed her hands in her lap, which Shaeine knew was to conceal the clenching of her fists. Her parents both tensed but retained careful facial control. Presumably a carriage commissioned by the Duke himself would have been one of the special projects overseen by the Falconer family personally, which meant its decorations would have been designed and in large part hand-crafted by Marguerite.

“What seems to be the issue, your Grace?” Marguerite asked in an impressively even tone.

“I’m afraid I can’t quite put my finger on it,” Ehriban said lazily, lounging back in his seat and holding up his wineglass as if it were a royal scepter while gazing down his nose at her. “I haven’t the benefit of your…artistic education, my dear. Something about it just seems off to me, once I observe the vehicle outside the carefully staged environment of your showroom.”

“I confess I’m surprised to hear that, your Grace,” she replied, still outwardly calm. “I recall you expressed effusive satisfaction when we displayed the carriage to you here on the Manor grounds.”

“Yes, well, you can’t really expect me to make a properly informed decision without observing it in action. An enchanted carriage is meant to travel, after all! To be seen in a variety of circumstances. There’s simply no way one can appreciate its final effect by looking at it parked on the driveway.”

“Art is indeed contextual,” Marguerite agreed, shooting a laden look across the table at her husband, who was beginning to glower openly. “Perhaps when it is convenient for you, your Grace, I could revisit the detailing to incorporate any notes you have.”

“Ever so accommodating, Marguerite! I always know I can rely on your kind nature and professionalism. I suspect you’re a luckier man than you know, Geoffrey,” the Duke added with an insufferable wink.

“Oh, I assure you I know,” Geoffrey replied in a tense tone which only made Ehriban grin more widely. Dazan made no attempt to hide his chuckle, sawing off another chunk of meat.

Shaeine held her peace, glancing at Teal, who appeared to be meditating, and Lady Ravana, who had touched nothing except her wine and currently looked half-asleep at the table. Altogether she was less impressed than she could possibly have imagined with these apparent apexes of Tiraan nobility. It wasn’t that her own people were any less cruel, particularly among noble circles, but the Madouris were just so boorish. Such barbaric behavior would be an invitation for attack from all sides in Tar’naris, not just by those they personally insulted but by every other House which would see nothing but weakness in this casual display of poor manners.

“While we are talking business, though,” Duke Ehriban continued after letting his guests simmer in the discomfort for a deliberate few seconds, “it’s good that I have you here before the formal announcement goes out. I’m afraid this concerns you directly.”

All three Falconers, just having relaxed somewhat, visibly tensed. Shaeine did not, of course, but she understood the impulse; Ehriban’s expression utterly failed to conceal his malicious satisfaction in whatever he was doing. Dazan, whom she did not assess as intelligent enough to pick up on such cues, was also smirking intolerably, which told her that this was indeed the planned main event of the evening. A quick sidelong glance found Ravana staring down at her plate with the hollow expression of someone determined not to think too hard about anything happening around her.

“More regulations, then?” Geoffrey asked after enough seconds had passed to make it clear the Duke did not intend to continue until prompted.

“Oh, no, nothing like that,” Ehriban replied with a magnanimous wave of his hand. “I don’t suppose you heard about the half-demon incident here in the city just this month?”

Teal failed to contain an expression of alarm; the older Falconers glanced uneasily at each other.

“I’m afraid not, your Grace,” Geoffrey said warily. “I gather it can’t have been all that bad, then. Usually such things make considerable waves.”

“Easy enough for you to say from the comfort of your mansion,” Ehriban snorted in such an astonishing display of hypocrisy that even Ravana blinked. “I assure you it was a big enough deal for those caught in the middle of it. Some half-shondrict creature that had been masquerading as a laborer went feral and mauled a few teenagers before they subdued it.”

“Schanthryct,” Teal corrected in a whisper which fortunately the Duke seemed not to hear; Dazan shot her an irritated look.

“So,” Marguerite replied in a firmer tone than she had used to defend her own work, “a half-demon citizen who was clearly stable enough to hold down a job attacked several youths. I can think of a number of common teenage pastimes which might provoke someone to violence even without demon blood. The sort of ruffians who get up to such antics do like to single out those who are different.”

“Well, the details hardly matter, do they?” the Duke scoffed. “We simply can’t have demons ravaging citizens in the streets. It’s an utter mockery of law and order.”

“How lawful or orderly is it for citizens to harass minorities in feral packs of their own?” Teal demanded. “It sounds like the details matter very much, your Grace, otherwise you risk acting to solve exactly the wrong problem.”

“I’ll thank you not to lecture me on the running of my province, girl,” Ehriban snapped, and right then and there Shaeine decided that rather than watching for an opportunity to knock him down a peg, she was going to begin making efforts to arrange one. Best to keep that firmly private from her mother and Heral, though Nahil would gleefully help… “The point is that even a Duke must respect a public outcry, lest it turn into actual unrest.”

“What outcry was this, precisely?” Geoffrey inquired. “I subscribe to every major newspaper in Madouris and two from Tiraas, and this is the first I’m hearing about any of this.”

The Duke was beginning to look annoyed at these interruptions. “Let us take it as given that I have access to sources of information you do not, Geoffrey. This situation has compelled me to draft new restrictions upon the activities and movements of demonbloods…and the demonically touched of any sort.” He looked sidelong at Teal, not even troubling to conceal an expression of vindictive satisfaction. “Obviously, as these affairs concern your family directly, and you have been such staunch friends to House Madouri, it is the least I can do to provide you with forewarning.”

“As I understand it,” Shaeine stated, “such restrictions would overtly contradict the Tirasian Dynasty’s long-standing policies toward racial minorities within the Empire, and possibly the Writ of Duties itself.”

“So you do know a bit about Imperial governance,” Ehriban said irritably. She inclined her head in a gracious gesture, already thinking several steps beyond this conversation. She was right, and he knew it; more to the point, while House Madouri would love nothing more than to challenge House Tirasian, for a century they had not, which could only mean such a challenge would not only fail but backfire. Thus, he was not actually planning to do this. Rather, the play was here and now—not the proposed legislation, but the revelation of it to the Falconers.

Not for the first time that evening, Shaeine longed for the ability to surreptitiously communicate with her allies. Elves could have entire conversations under the nose of humans who were none the wiser, and even Vadrieny was quite sensitive to sound, but not to the degree necessary for her to convey such complex information without betraying that she was doing so.

“And who knows?” the Duke continued, once again affecting a genial demeanor. “Perhaps you can help me in shaping the necessary rules. After all, it must be said that you have a unique insight into the matter, is that not so, Teal? But then again, mayhap I am asking the wrong half. Let’s see what Vadrieny has to say about this!” He waved a hand at her. “Bring her out.”

Teal’s shoulders tensed as she drew in a sharp breath. “With all respect, my lord Duke—”

“The only necessary respect I need be shown is obedience,” he interrupted, eyes glinting in the white beams of the Scyllithene candelabra. Shaeine focused on the thing itself again, beginning to get a sense of what he intended.

“She…” Teal frowned deeply and swallowed. “I apologize, your Grace, but something is wrong. Vadrieny senses…danger. She says it would be hazardous to embody herself physically here.”

“You question the security of my house?” Ehriban demanded. “I assure you, I do not take risks with my own safety. My security here is absolute. Come now, there is no call for shyness, Teal.”

“Vadrieny is the furthest thing from shy,” Shaeine interjected. The man had the abominable rudeness to make a silencing gesture at her, still focusing upon Teal.

“I understand your need for discretion, and the pressure this may place upon you, so allow me to make the question easier. It is technically unlawful for any Imperial subject to be in the presence of a provincial governor without revealing themselves; in the eyes of a magistrate, this is considered evidence of hostile intent. Now, clearly,” he drawled, gesturing broadly around the table at his guests, “common sense dictates that we make allowances for circumstance, does it not? I am a reasonable man and I do not seek to discomfit my subjects unduly. But I have, here, the legal prerogative to insist upon meeting your demonic counterpart face to face, and I do hereby invoke it, Teal Falconer. Now, then!” He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands before himself in a satisfied gesture. “Does that provide sufficient incentive to overcome your girlish reticence?”

“Your Grace,” Geoffrey practically growled, now gripping the arms of his chair as if about to lever himself forward out of it, “Vadrieny is an archdemon, not a misbehaving teenager. If she is warning of danger, it would be wise—”

“Enough,” the Duke interrupted, his convivial mask collapsing. “I have made my command clear.”

“I—we h-have been given a Talisman of Absolution,” Teal stammered, touching the artifact itself where it was pinned as usual to her lapel. “Vadrieny and I aren’t to be regarded as enemies by—”

“When last I looked,” the Duke said in a truly menacing tone, “it was Ehriban Madouri, not Justinian Darnay, who rules Tiraan Province.”

“I say, it’s just…Justinian, isn’t it?” Dazan piped up. “Without a surname, I mean. It’s a whole ritual formality, Father. The Archpope foregoes an identity beyond the office of…”

He trailed off as his father slowly turned his head to fix him with an exceedingly flat stare.

“Your Grace,” said Shaeine, “I must protest this.”

“Your protest has been heard,” he said impatiently. “Proceed, Teal. Or is it your intention to openly defy your liege before his entire household? I’m sure I needn’t remind you of the consequences to your business and family of forswearing my good graces.”

“This is a poor showing, your Grace,” Shaeine said coolly, seizing his attention again. “Where I am from, when one wishes to manufacture a pretext to create an incident, one does so in a plausibly deniable manner. Perhaps your Grace should consider trying this again when you have done sufficient preparatory work to withstand the inevitable inquisition of the Church and Empire into whatever results from—”

“You are not where you are from, Lady Shaeine,” he shot back, “as I’m sure you can see by the lack of spiders and general barbarism. If there is one consistent virtue of your people displayed since the Narisian Treaty, it has been the pragmatism and restraint not to bite the hands that feed you. This would be a most unwise moment to forsake that quality.”

“Don’t threaten her!” Teal snarled, slamming her hands down onto the table and half rising from her seat.

Except that it wasn’t in Teal Falconer’s nature to snarl, slam, or do any of that. The impulsive actions preceded her emergence, but Vadrieny was a split second behind, too fast even for Shaeine to warn her that she sensed a trap. Flames burst behind Teal’s eyes and in her hair; her clenched fingers upon the table lengthened into black claws which pierced the rich tablecloth.

And instantly, with a high-pitched keening sound that grated painfully upon the ears, the Scyllithene artifact beaming decorative light from the center of the table blazed with intense white radiance.

Vadrieny let out a shriek as multiple beams of white light concentrated directly upon her, staggering backward in a destructive flailing of arms that raked deep gouges in the table and smashed the heavy oaken chair she’d been sitting in.

At Shaeine’s side, the previously somnolent Lady Ravana burst out of her seat and fled from the room in the first sign of physical or mental coordination she’d displayed.

Shaeine herself reached within for the divine power, lashing out with a moving wall of silver light to sweep the hateful object off the table and smash it against the wall. That brought forth the second abrupt surprise, however, as contact with it caused an explosive backlash as if she had connected her power directly to a demonic source of similar concentration. Her own protective shield barely absorbed the burst of magic which impacted her directly, bowling her and her chair over backward.

Both she and Vadrieny ended up hurled forcibly away from the table, smoking slightly from the impacts, while the “lamp” continued to blaze fervently, untouched and apparently untouchable. Of course; there was only one source of power which would react violently to both Themynrite magic and infernal power, while still bypassing the Pantheon’s protection as embodied in the Talisman of Absolution.

Then the stomping of booted feet roared through the chamber as the doors opened and a dozen House Madouri soldiers streamed in, weapons at the ready.

“Attempting violence against your Duke?” Ehriban tsked reprovingly, sounding not the least put out for a man claiming to have just survived an attempt on his life. “I thought you had better judgment than that, Teal.”

“Oh, you cannot be serious!” Marguerite exclaimed, hovering protectively over the fallen archdemon, while Geoffrey had also risen from his seat, managing to place himself half in front of Shaeine before multiple battlestaves were leveled, causing everyone to freeze.

“I warned you,” Shaeine rasped, rising slowly and ignoring the weapons aimed at her. “This was…slightly clever, I’ll grant. Few would make plans against an exotic trinket such as they wouldn’t consider you might possess. But this is so obviously a plot of your own arranging it will disintegrate under the slightest challenge.”

“That only matters if anyone remains to challenge it,” the Duke said, grinning maliciously. He had pushed back from the table to cross his legs and now slouched in his thronelike dining chair, hands still folded before himself. “If I wished to charge you with something, to be sure, it would have to pass muster before a magistrate or the Empire. But when an attempt has been made to assassinate me? In the extremity of self-defense, you see, I have a great deal more…leeway.”

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Bonus #61: Coming to Dinner, part 2

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Teal’s room was in a tower. Not one of the castle towers; it occupied a timber-framed space with a shorter but more interesting history, which had once housed the machinery of a windmill connected to a primitive mana turbine over two centuries prior, in a time when the sorcerer who had then owned the property had been one of very few people who would even think to own such a thing. Subsequently, the machinery had been dismantled as much as possible by a later owner of noble birth who had been affronted at the very idea of something so functional visibly attached to her home, leaving only a vertical shaft suspended from the ceiling like a ship’s mast that didn’t quite reach the deck. It was a square space, rising three stories to shadowy beams hidden high above and a second-floor balcony surrounding the entire room accessible only by a ladder.

Teal loved it. The resemblance was partly why she spent so much time in the uppermost clock chamber of Clarke Tower—that, and the grand pianoforte. In her own room she had only an upright one which had been in need of tuning since before Vadrieny had entered her life.

As much as Teal had been anticipating showing Shaeine her personal space since leaving the University, immediately upon their arrival she had other concerns. The second the door closed behind them, signifying privacy for purposes of Narisian social mores, Shaeine clutched at her head, hard enough to make strands of her white hair bunch out between her fingers.

“Oh no, no no no…”

“What is it?” Teal demanded in alarm, rushing to her from the door. “Are you all right?”

Shaeine inadvertently evaded her intended hug without noticing it, whirling to begin pacing around the floor with a haunted expression directed at nowhere.

“A Duke who is also a provincial governor would be equivalent to a Matriarch in rank. And considerably greater in prestige, each one controlling a territory far larger than the whole of Tar’naris! It would be one thing if I were on intimate terms with him, but the Madouri family are strangers. Or even if it were a class trip! A visit at Tellwyrn’s behest would place the onus upon her… But I’m to represent my House and my people and I didn’t bring any suitable gift for such a person! I have to… Veth’na alaue, what am I going to come up with? If my mother learns I disgraced the name of Awarrion in front of a Duke…”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Teal said soothingly. “Madouri doesn’t care about anything beyond his own ego, there’s no way he even knows about Narisian noble customs.”

“That’s not the point!” Shaeine snapped.

Teal froze in the act of reaching out toward her again, blinking.

In the next instant the drow also went rigid, turning a stricken expression on Teal. She rushed forward and gently clasped Teal’s hands in her own, bowing her head before the surprised human in a posture of formal submission to press Teal’s fingers to her lips.

“I am so sorry, my love. To lash out at you is unforgivable. I can offer no excuse.”

“Hey, hey.” Teal gently extricated her hands to cup Shaeine’s cheeks and raised her face till their eyes could meet. “That’s not like you at all, so I know this must be something a lot more serious than I realized. I didn’t mean to minimize it. We’re a team, sweetheart. Explain to me what the problem is, and we’ll find a solution. Okay?”

Shaeine closed her eyes, leaning forward until she could rest her forehead against Teal’s. “What a time to show you one of my flaws. I am… I do adequately, I think, at balancing my own personal life with the needs of my position. But I’m the third daughter, a last-minute replacement for the Last Rock program. I am still not accustomed to being in a position where the prestige of my house and entire culture might rest on my actions. Clearly the pressure illuminates flaws in my character.”

“Maybe so, but unfortunately I can’t really help you work on that. I’m still kinda giddy about you being willing to show that much emotion to me, even if it’s…the less cuddly kind. But let’s talk about now. You’re stressed about providing a guest gift, right? Can you walk me through why it’s such a big deal?”

Shaeine inhaled deeply and let the breath out slowly in a meditative practice. “It is an apparently simple tradition, steeped in deeply complicated Narisian issues that are…tricky to summarize. The guest gift is basically about prestige.”

“Right,” Teal nodded, gently bumping their noses together. “That thing Narisian Houses compete in so they don’t compete in ways that cause blades to come out.”

Shaeine nodded back, finally lifting her head. “The Duke’s ignorance of our culture is thus irrelevant. If the representative of House Awarrion failed to offer a suitable token to House Madouri upon being formally hosted, the social and political damage to our standing in Tar’naris could be…significant.”

“If they even learned of it.”

“There is nothing preventing them from doing so, save the relative improbability of Duke Madouri commenting upon it at any potential date in the future, which…”

“Right, I see your point,” Teal winced. “Well… Love, it’s like my parents said, you don’t actually need to do this. You can still invoke diplomatic privilege, and we’re definitely in a position to absorb whatever new bullshit Madouri wants to throw at us. Mom and Dad will understand.”

“Me and my big mouth,” Shaeine moaned. “This is exactly how I ended up at Last Rock in the first place, you know. Tellwyrn was disrespectful to my mother and I ripped her a new one.”

“Yes, you’ve told me,” Teal said, grinning in spite of herself, “but I never get tired of that story. Well, at least that one worked out, right? If you hadn’t, we wouldn’t have met.”

The drow couldn’t help giving her a glowingly warm smile at that, again leaning forward to nuzzle her nose against Teal’s. “Yes. I acted rashly, out of temper, but even so… I was serious, Teal, and I stand by what I said. I won’t have you mistreated on my account.”

“We can still—”

“I would consider it a pure failure of character to retreat now,” the priestess interrupted, her garnet eyes fiercely intent. “And…it’s a failure I may yet have to accept. But if I can still do this, I would join you. To stand alongside your family against an enemy would be a deeply meaningful gesture in my culture.”

“In any culture,” Teal said, leaning in to give her a quick kiss. “Okay, then. Like you said: there has to be a way to turn this to an advantage. Let’s assume we can find a sufficient guest gift. From what I do know about Narisian culture, there’s no possible way you don’t have a tradition for giving something suitably prestigious in a way that’s also backhandedly insulting.”

“Well, ouch,” Shaeine said in clear amusement, “but also, very much so, yes. It’s the particulars that matter. Mmm…who would be the lady of House Madouri?”

“There’s not one at the moment. The Duchess passed away years ago and the Duke hasn’t remarried. He’s got a daughter. Um…Rava, I think? She’s named after the former Duke, Ravaan, but I forget what the feminine form is. She’s a child, and kind of a non-entity, to be honest. I pretty much only know the kid exists because Madouri likes to prance her out at public functions like a show pony.”

“That has potential,” Shaeine murmured. “Yes, it suggests a method… But to make that work I would need a much more modest token, and still a sufficiently grandiose guest gift to satisfy my House’s honor. The dilemma is still how to scrounge up a national treasure in the next hour.”

“Okay!” Teal clasped her hands for a moment to give them an affectionate squeeze, then pulled back. “All right, actually, I think I can solve that.”

She stepped away, turning to the neat stack of luggage the house servants had arranged alongside the door. The box teal wanted required a little bit of excavation, being of sturdy bronze-bound oak and thus currently underneath a suitcase, guitar case, and handbag, in that order, but with a little bit of shifting she extricated it and trotted over to the piano, where she laid the flat case down on the bench and carefully unlatched it. Shaeine drifted over to observe, peering past Teal’s shoulder as the lid was raised.

Within, upon a bed of black velvet, lay a gracefully curved saber and matching dagger, in apparently pristine condition and marked along their blades with subtle scripts in elvish.

Shaeine inhaled sharply. “Those are…”

“Yep.” Teal stepped back, slipping an arm around the drow’s shoulders and staring down at the weapons. “The grand prize from our Crawl expedition: Arachne Tellwyrn’s personal weapons, from before she switched to those two gold-handled swords she’s got now. The ones Rowe was using as the focal point for his jiggery-pokery. I actually did a little digging in the library and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t pulling our legs; there are several old paintings that depict her having these. So, I’m thinking, just on the surface they’re elven masterwork blades and over a thousand years old at least. That’d be enough for anybody’s collection, but these are also the weapons a major historical figure used to stab a bunch of other major historical figures, which makes them priceless. Betcha even Duke Madouri can’t get something like this easily.”

She hesitated, then gently squeezed Shaeine’s shoulder.

“I, uh, was gonna use them as my guest gift, to your mother. I figured that’d made a decent enough impression.” Shaeine jerked her head up, staring wide-eyed, but Teal was still gazing self-consciously down at the case containing the sword and dagger, now with a faint pink hue hovering on her cheeks. “But, we have the leeway of a few more days before we go to Tar’naris, and Madouris is a major city. I’m not exactly broke, so I’m sure we can find something that’ll make a respectable gift for a Matriarch. If worst comes to worst, it’s barely an hour’s drive to Tiraas, but I’m pretty sure we won’t even have to go that far. Madouris even has a Glassian district, lots of import stores, some very exclusive. Those people love their artwork. We can take a day and I’m sure come up with something suitable. Meanwhile, would this satisfy House Awarrion’s honor as a gift?”

“Teal,” Shaeine said tremulously, “these are yours. You won the Crawl challenge.”

“I was the one who went to the center to get them,” Teal argued, “but that only worked cos the rest of the team kept Rowe off my back. So, they’re ours. Besides.” She turned fully to Shaeine, gently wrapping her arms around the shorter girl. “I told you: we’re a team. I thought we were in agreement that’s what this relationship is going to mean. Not that I don’t enjoy…ah, you know.” She cleared her throat, flushing, and Shaeine’s lips quirked slightly in a mischievous smile. “But I’m not in it just because you’re beautiful and charming. You are the partner I want. You don’t have problems, Shaeine; we have problems. So we find solutions.”

“Oh, my songbird.” Shaeine squeezed her, leaning in and burying her face against the side of Teal’s neck. “I can only hope to someday deserve you.”


The city of Madouris spread outward from the peak of its low mountain in a series of semicircles bisected by the great canyon at its back. Far below rushed the River Tira, with no crossings except at Tiraas a few miles to the south and many more miles to the north, where the first bridge was near the Calderaan border and before the riverbed descended into the chasm. Before the Imperial period, the canyon had been a useful natural barrier against the warring feudal desmenes of Leineth, which were more likely to send raiders than traders over the river; during the reign of Tiraas, it better suited the Silver Throne’s interests to route traffic and commerce through the capital.

Over the course of centuries the city had descended the slopes of its core mountain, building and then surpassing concentric semi-rings of walls till it sprawled even beyond the outermost battlements, confident in the security of Imperial rule. The lowest tier of Madouris had paid for that complacency during the Enchanter Wars, but though the city itself had been not only rebuilt but expanded further since then, another ring had not been established as the advent of mag artillery had rendered city walls nearly as superfluous as they were expensive. The half rings grew richer as they grew more secure, with the outskirts being mostly new manufacturing facilities and the neighborhoods where those who worked them lived. Inside the first wall was the largest part of Madouris, occupying a gentle slope up the foot of the small mountain until it was arrested by the second wall and home to most of its relatively prosperous middle class. Beyond that lay a smaller band around the mountain itself, home to nobles, government offices, foreign consulates, major cultural and financial institutions, and the various commercial ventures which served them, including the city’s famed Glassian district.

And beyond that, further up and farther in, was the oldest ring of walls, the original city of Madouris, now in its entirety the largest single residence in the known world: Madouri Manor. As if the looming structure of domes and spires were not impressive enough, the approach to it necessarily intimidated its guests, which was the only way the House of Madouri preferred to deal with all who dared approach them.

Like the Falconer mansion, Madouri Manor had a great entry hall, which was the totality of the resemblance. The entire Falconer house could have fit the colossal chamber which was a visitor’s first introduction to the palatial manor; some of its wings would have to be rearranged, of course, but by volume there was more than enough space. The room dwarfed even several of the world’s great temples and cathedrals.

Of the four guests invited this evening, only Teal looked even slightly nervous at the overwhelming grandeur into which they were ushered. Marguerite and Geoffrey had seen it all before, repeatedly, and the associations it carried forced them to concentrate on repressing expressions of annoyance, not awe. Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion was Narisian, a priestess, and a daughter of a noble House in her own right. It would take a great deal more than shocking displays of wealth to crack her serenity.

By contrast, the Duke Ehriban Zefraam Talos Madouri had a degree of facial control about on par with the two elder Falconers, which was definitely on the low end for his social class. He covered his emotions well, but not so well that it was not obvious he was covering. There were enough hints left clear to reveal his smugness toward the Falconers, and the unease Shaeine sparked in him. And, as the introductions progressed, his mounting annoyance with her.

“What a charming custom,” Duke Ehriban said with a bland smile, holding the silver idol of Themynra with which Shaeine had just presented him. The artifact, hastily acquired from the Narisian consulate in Madouris, was more valuable than anything a factory-working family might own just due to its material and craftsmanship, aside from its religious significance; the Duke handled it like a bouquet of flowers he’d just been given and didn’t have a place to put down yet. In this of all households the treasure was scarcely a knickknack, which did not offend Shaeine as it had been a calculated move on her part. “Perhaps I should introduce it among my own peers! Far too many of them lack manners, I find. Thank you, Lady Shaeine, for your most gracious gift. I shall see about finding a suitable place of honor for its display.”

Having thus shown the offering the minimum necessary appreciation, he turned to hand it off to a steward who slid up to him on cue. The servant held the idol more respectfully, correctly upright and protectively in both hands, even as he withdrew with a bow toward the Duke who it was plain had already dismissed him from thought.

“The honor is mine, your Grace,” said Shaeine, inclining her head politely. Ehriban’s eyebrows drew together in a momentary expression of consternation, swiftly suppressed. In the Empire there was hardly anyone save a few members of the Imperial court of sufficient rank to address him with such shallow obeisance; he had failed to entirely disguise his satisfaction at keeping the Falconer family kneeling for several seconds longer than protocol required. Even among other Dukes and Imperial governors, there were few Houses which commanded as much history or respect as the name of Madouri, possibly none save the ruling family of Calderaas. Of course, civil relations with Tar’naris were still new, historically speaking, and matters of rank and deference between Narisian and Tiraan nobility were still somewhat up in the air.

Nobles of any culture, however, were sensitive to the subtleties of status, and the Duke was not about to forget that his holdings alone rivaled the power and wealth of all Tar’naris, considerably dwarfing that of House Awarrion. This fact was clearly not being reflected in the posture the Matriarch’s daughter had taken toward him.

For the moment, he alone reflected the tension. Shaeine remained purely unruffled as always, Teal was managing a decent approximation of Narisian reserve, and they had mutually decided not to brief the two elder Falconers, who were deeply disinterested in noble contests of ego even if they’d had the training to follow them. As it was, Geoffrey and Marguerite were waiting patiently for the entire night’s business to be over with, a fact which they were failing to disguise.

The two Madouri children likewise showed no response to the subtle challenge to their House’s authority. Neither of them appeared to be very bright.

Dazan Madouri, heir to the House, closely resembled his father, being still square of jaw and shoulder in a way that spoke of a fondness for active pastimes and not yet showing the softness around the jowls and midsection that the Duke had acquired in middle age. He was a few years older than Teal and as prideful as his father, but even less subtle about his satisfaction at the subordinate position of the Falconers and evidently not as perceptive of subtleties of rank.

Ravana, the younger scion, clearly took after her mother, being blonde, pale, and quite noticeably petite where her father and brother had large frames. She was also demure to the point of submissiveness, keeping her eyes downcast and her voice so soft that her murmured pleasantries at being introduced to her family’s guests were barely audible. Standing next to her brother, she had a tendency to shuffle both closer to him than etiquette suggested and to edge a step behind, as if to hide in his shadow. Altogether, as Teal had observed, she gave the impression of a deliberate non-entity, which made the next step in Shaeine’s campaign of mischief even more pointed.

“I ask your pardon if this seems odd,” the priestess continued, “but please be assured I mean only respect to your House, my lord Duke. My people are matrilinial, and the honor of my own family demands a token of respect to the lady of the manor.”

“Ahh.” Ehriban nodded, looking mollified now, and turned a fond smile in the direction of his children. “An unusual thing, here in the Empire, but what father could raise a complaint about that? Ravana, my little starling, the drow has a present for you!”

The comment was so breathtakingly condescending, both to Shaeine and his daughter, that Geoffrey blinked and Marguerite let a scowl slip through before marshaling her expression, but Shaeine of course remained fully serene. Ravana finally raised her eyes, wide with apparent nerves, and glanced up at her father, then at the priestess, saying nothing.

“My Ravana takes after her mother,” the Duke said proudly and somewhat unnecessarily. “I’m afraid she is rather frail; Dazan and I are perhaps a little too protective, but here on the surface we treasure our women, rather than sending them into danger. I’ve still not decided whether she should attend a proper university next year or continue studying under her tutors, you know. It’s hard to believe she’s just a year younger than you, Miss Falconer!”

“She is?” Teal blurted in surprise before clamping her lips shut. Marguerite shot her daughter an exasperated look, but Teal, despite her own faint blush at her gaffe, was studying the youngest Madouri in bemusement. Ravana, a full head shorter than she and diminutive to match, looked about fourteen at the absolute most. The young Lady herself showed no sign she had even heard the question, glancing rapidly between Shaeine and her father in trepidation.

“Of course, there’s no question of sending her to such a…quaint institution as Last Rock,” the Duke said with a bite in his tone belying his broad smile. “Imagine, a school for adventurers, in this day and age! I’m sure it has its value for some, but a lady of my Ravana’s breeding obviously requires a proper education.”

“Indeed,” Shaeine agreed placidly. “Professor Tellwyrn is fond of saying the University is meant for those who will determine the course of the future. Given the choice of students she has gathered, I have never quite managed to discern what she means by that.”

Dazan chuckled, and Ehriban blinked, visibly struggling to determine whether she had just embraced his jab or retaliated. Teal, by then, had fully composed her own features, and now held up the wooden case for Shaeine, which drew the eyes of all three of the Madouri family. They had of course noted her carrying it, but had not commented.

Now Shaeine opened the latch and raised the lid, reached in, and withdrew the sleek elven weapons from within. The watching House Madouri soldiers tensed as the drow produced sharp steel within range of the entire family, but Shaeine held them deftly by the blades, bowing before Lady Ravana and offering both hilt-first.

“My Lady Ravana of the honored House of Madouri, I offer a humble gift as a token of your prestige, in the spirit of friendship between our families. These were, for centuries, the personal weapons of Arachne Tellwyrn, crafted and enchanted over a millennium ago through the greatest of elven skill and wielded by the archmage herself in countless battles. May they serve you well, as tools of violence or simply trophies to honor your household.”

“I say,” Dazan exclaimed, patting his bewildered little sister on the back so hard she nearly stumbled forward into the swords. “Tellwyrn’s own blades? Ravana, that’s a priceless treasure, a bit of history right in your hands! However did you come to possess something like these, Lady Shaeine?”

“Yes, that must be a curious story indeed,” rumbled Duke Ehriban, staring down at the drow from under lowered brows. Dazan was just impressed, and Ravana appeared mostly confused on top of having been barely aware of what was happening to begin with; the Duke, however, had immediately noticed that his shy young daughter had been offered a prize which utterly dwarfed in value that which had been given to him.

“I fear it is less so than it ought to be, my lord Duke,” Shaeine said ruefully, still holding out the handles of the weapons to the befuddled young noblewoman.

“They were a prize from an academic exercise,” Teal added. “I know how that sounds, your Grace, but… If you were acquainted with Professor Tellwyrn, it would make more sense. The woman is as odd as she is impressive. At least.”

“I shouldn’t wonder!” Lord Dazan guffawed. “Elves are queer folk to begin with, and living that long, doing half the things Tellwyrn has done? Why, I’d be mad as a hare!”

“Well, go on, little starling,” the Duke said in a surprisingly gentle tone. “We mustn’t be rude. Take your gift and thank the Lady.”

Ravana started as if only just realizing what Shaeine’s gesture meant and hastily reached forward to grasp both handles. The moment Shaeine withdrew her hands, Ravana’s arms dropped precipitously before she caught herself, as if totally unprepared for the relatively meager weight of the slim elven blades. She managed to mumble something indistinct and dipped her whole body in a quick, awkward facsimile of a curtsy, then actually retreated backward a step and half-hid behind Dazan, the weapons hanging uncomfortably at her sides.

To what school the Lady Ravana would be going might be a moot question; to judge by her performance tonight, the girl wasn’t all there in the head.

“What a charming guest you’ve brought me this evening, Geoffrey,” Duke Ehriban said, his frosty stare sliding from Shaeine to the man he was addressing only after he began speaking. “You must be thrilled to be keeping such exotic company.”

“Yes, your Grace,” Geoffrey said in the flat tone of a man who knew there was no correct answer.

“We feel very honored to be hosting Shaeine, your Grace,” Marguerite added softly. Her voice remained polite, but she wasn’t quite as adept at keeping the aggression out of her eyes.

“Indeed, and I can see I shall owe you a favor in kind for sharing that honor with me,” replied the Duke, his lip curling up in a lopsided grin which had more than a hint of sneer in its lineage. “But I fear I am being rude, keeping you standing about in the hall! Come, let us repair to the dining room. I do believe you will find this an…interesting evening indeed.”

He paused, taking the time to make eye contact with each of the four of them, then turned with no further comment and strode toward a doorway at the far end of the hall. His son gave their guests an even more openly sly smile before following.

Ravana dithered, looking rapidly between her occupied hands and her retreating family as if perplexed by the task of walking while carrying something before belatedly hurrying after them, leaving their guests to bring up the rear.

They did so slowly, clustering together as they walked.

“Well, that wasn’t even subtle,” Teal muttered.

“Oh, good,” grunted Geoffrey. “I was about to ask whether I was being paranoid or that was a threat.”

Shaeine nodded at him.

“Yes.”

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Bonus #60: Coming to Dinner, part 1

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Author’s Note: The next two side stories are set in the summer after the Class of 1182’s freshman year, between Books 7 and 8. They were originally planned to be short story ebook releases, but that ended up never happening and I want them to actually see the light of day, so here they are, belatedly.

In the future I may adjust the chapter links to place them in their right position chronologically for those reading through TGAB in the future. For now, here’s a look back at the early days of the story.


They did not sit in awkward silence, because there was none of that to be had aboard a zeppelin. Wind rushed past the glass surrounding the cockpit, the powerful hum of the propeller thrusters was audible even from up here at the front of the craft, and as always there was an omnipresent multi-tonal hum of arcane magic everywhere from the instrument panels to the wiring in the bulkheads. It was not silent, just awkward.

After years of partnership in marriage, business, and their shared creative work, Geoffrey and Marguerite were simply never awkward with each other. They had that in their favor, at least; awkward spells were always a unified front of the pair against whatever had left them both stymied for something to say.

“Well,” Marguerite finally said after glancing over her shoulder to verify that the hatch between the cockpit and cabin was properly sealed, “she’s…certainly polite.”

“Of course she’s polite!” It was as if the cork had been pulled from a shaken bottle of beer; Geoffrey turned to his wife with a furious scowl, finally releasing his unnecessary death grip on the wheel. “They’re all polite, Rita! It’s all smiling and bowing while they’re kidnapping your son for some inbred darkling’s harem!”

“Are you worried Sheen is going to enslave Teal?” Marguerite replied with a slight smile. “In all honesty I think I would enjoy the aftermath of someone trying that. Surely she knows about Vadrieny by now.”

“You think it’s funny?” he snapped. “You want me to go tell Telimaan how funny it was? Daoud was down there for two years before we managed to lean on the right people and get him out. Did you hear what he went through?”

Marguerite’s smile vanished entirely and she turned to face her husband with a flat stare. “You know very well better, Geoffrey Falconer.”

At that, at least, he looked abashed, lowering his eyes. “Right. I’m sorry, Rita, I know. That wasn’t fair. It’s just…” He gestured helplessly with both arms, a risky move in the tight confines of the cockpit had his wife not known him well enough to have already leaned out of the way in anticipation.

“Geoff,” she said more gently, reaching up to squeeze his shoulder, “it’s the nobles who do that. Not to sound all Eserite, but you can’t blame an entire race of people for what the most powerful of them do. How’d you like it if people’s treatment of you was based on the Duke’s behavior? Look on the bright side: this is still an improvement in Teal’s judgment. Or have you forgotten Lady Hesthia?” She grimaced. “I have not forgotten Lady Hesthia.”

He made an identical expression. That was more understandable. I would definitely have fallen for the ol’ big-boobs-covered-in-practically-nothing routine when I was a teenager. That you grow out of.”

“Do you?” Marguerite countered in a dangerously wry tone. “Because my experience with men older than you says otherwise.”

“Well, you can,” he acknowledged with a faint grin of his own. “My point is, that’s not something I worry about with Teal. She’s steady enough not to make libido-based life decisions. At least, I’d thought so before this…”

“Geoffrey, Hesthia was in her thirties and transparently angling to make political connections. That woman was a slimy creep and I’m just grateful Teal wised up before I had to go and do something against my principles. This is a completely different situation.”

“Is it?” Geoffrey demanded, again clutching the wheel, which didn’t need his help to hold steady. “You know what they’re like, Marguerite.”

“Geoffrey Falconer, I do not like the sound of straightforward racism out of your mouth.”

“Oh, please, you know very well it’s not about that! We both know enough elves to know that people are just people. I mean they’ll deny it but there’s no ‘strange’ elven behavior anyone else wouldn’t do exactly the same if they’d been raised in that culture. That’s what it’s about, culture!

“Okay,” she said soothingly, “but Geoffrey, consider your sample bias. We’ve had one employee whose son was the victim of a serious crime in Tar’naris. Have you had any other interaction with the drow? At least have enough faith in our daughter to believe she wouldn’t bring home a criminal or predator.”

“Right, because Lady Hesthia was such a good pick,” he grumbled.

“Oh, now you’re just reaching,” his wife retorted, not without fondness. She slid a hand up his back to ruffle his hair gently. “I won’t say I wasn’t startled. Just give it a chance, Geoff. Give her a chance. She could be a perfectly lovely girl.”

“A perfectly lovely example of someone raised in a society of grasping, murderous raiders! Shane might well be the best of the lot, for all we know, but come on. How much is that worth?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s pronounced Sheen. Look, Geoff, you can look on the bright or the dark side of it all you want—and yes, there are definitely upsides, especially if the girl’s a Matriarch’s daughter—but at the end of the day this is Teal’s choice. Has it been so long since you were nineteen that you’ve forgotten what someone will do if her parents forbid her to see her new object of infatuation?”

“For all the time and effort it took to get somebody out of Tar’naris, it was money well spent. I wonder how hard it is to send somebody back—”

The cockpit shuddered from impact, and before either could react to that, the door was yanked open. Not the hatch behind them, which opened onto a corridor leading to the passenger compartment. The exterior door, opening onto cold wind and a thousand-foot drop.

HEY!” Vadrieny shouted at them, sticking her face practically into Geoffrey’s while clinging to the frame with all four claws. It was a slightly less aggressive action than it otherwise might have been; she needed to raise her voice to be heard over the howling of the wind around them. Fortunately, Vadrieny had more than sufficient lungs to overcome this challenge. “For a couple of people who’ve had elf friends their whole lives, you two sure are in a hurry to forget to those ears are not just decorative!”

Marguerite and Geoffrey had both been staring in wind-blown shock just beginning to morph into displeasure, but at that, they simultaneously cringed in embarrassment.

“Teal had this carefully planned,” the archdemon continued to lecture them. “She spent weeks working out the best way to introduce you to Shaeine and minimize the shock, but no. You two just had to surprise us all by flying the damn airship to Last Rock like a couple of newspaper caricatures of out-of-touch rich people! Seriously, who flies a zeppelin to school? Is the company that hard up for advertising? Did you think Last Rock was a great expansion market? Or was this a prank to make sure we spend the next three years getting relentlessly mocked?”

Geoffrey gaped at her with a fishlike expression of bemusement; Marguerite had her lips not only sealed but tucked inward and clamped between her teeth.

“So I’m sorry if this has your feathers ruffled,” Vadrieny spat, “but if you’d just done as Teal asked it wouldn’t be this bad, so now we all get to suck it up. If you can manage to show the same manners you raised your daughter to have and not talk shit about Shaeine where she can hear for the rest of this trip, that would be fantastic, but right now I’d settle for making it the rest of the flight home. And now, if you’ll excuse me, apparently we have to go explain Hesthia. So…” She bared her fangs in an exceedingly displeased expression. “Thanks for that.”

Vadrieny let go with three of her claws and used the last to slam the hatch shut as she unfurled her wings and let the wind catch and yank her backward toward the other entry to the passenger compartment. It was suddenly a lot quieter in the cockpit, a relative silence that was a lot less awkward and a lot more stunned.

“Well,” Marguerite managed after a protracted pause, “she sure told us.”

Geoffrey blew out a long breath. “Yep. Kid wasn’t wrong, either.”

“Hey, that’s a positive, right? At least there’s one surprising girl in our daughter’s life who turned out a lot better than we had any right to expect. I’m…you know what, I think Vadrieny has been a really good influence. For a long time I was concerned about how Teal let other girls push her around.” She managed a soft chuckle, shaking her head. “I guess this is at least worth having a daughter who occasionally turns into a flaming fanged monster.”

“Mm.” Geoffrey stared straight ahead out the windscreen toward Madouris in the distance ahead, keeping his expression deliberately neutral. “Not that much different from just…having a daughter, is it?”

Marguerite had to laboriously tug the seat cushion out from under her struggling husband to clobber him with it, but it was worth it.


The Falconer household had been the residence of several noble families over the course of its long life, all various vassals of House Madouri and all either extinct or sufficiently diminished in stature that they could no longer afford such a sizable estate. Or, in the case of its previous owners, sufficiently advanced in stature that they had moved to a palatial mansion in the heart of Madouris itself, feeling that their expanded dignity was too great for such a rambling, eccentric manor. Indeed, the house, though as sizable as most nobles’ mansions, was built on an erratic, improvised plan that was generally difficult to navigate and reflected multiple architectural styles spanning nearly seven hundred years, with its oldest section being a literal castle. A very small one, little more than a fort, but still complete with battlements, arrow loops, and a couple of proper towers; Geoffrey had installed a telescope on one, his wife having talked him down from putting in a vintage siege engine that would have antagonized both the neighbors and the government. The most recent additions were to the grounds: the Falconer family had elven friends who had been invited to make themselves at home, and now the sprawling wings of the estate could be difficult to see from the road through the various groves of trees which filled the grounds.

Altogether it suited the Falconer family perfectly, for many of the very reasons it was no longer considered suitable for most of the noble families who could have afforded such a manor.

Like any edifice which had been the residence of Imperial nobility, the house had a great hall, a grandiose entry chamber which served to formally greet important guests and impress upon them the wealth and power of their hosts. Unlike most, this formal entry was accessible from the main driveway only by going over a small bridge, through a grove of imported cedars, around a long wing of Avenic marble colonnades, down the center of a courtyard lined with dogwood trees and rose bushes, and up a one-story flight of broad stone steps. It was, even for nobles, a little much, especially considering the great hall beyond really wasn’t. Barely twenty feet long, lined with simple wood pillars instead of the traditional stone columns and lit by floating fairy lamps which drifted about just out of reach overhead, the great hall was disproportionately small for such a sprawling manor. Also, its position marked what had originally been a drawbridge, which was why its opposite side from the door terminated in the former exterior wall and main gateway of the old castle, opening onto the former great hall and current indoor garden.

One would, of course, never know the Falconer estate could be considered unusual, much less insufficient, by the reaction to it of Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion.

“Your home is as beautiful as it is impressive, Mrs. Falconer,” the drow said with a deep bow toward Marguerite, after pausing to spend enough time admiring the woodwork that the observation seemed plausibly sincere. “I confess I already feel somewhat at home here. Most places in the Empire seem rather wedded to their stylistic themes; this is the first I have seen which has as much personality as the University. I could almost imagine it being a product of the same mind which designed Clarke Tower.”

“Why, aren’t you sweet!” Marguerite beamed. “I’m afraid we’ve not had the likes of Arachne Tellwyrn to lend a hand to our décor, but I am rather proud of how we’ve made this place our own.”

I helped,” Geoffrey commented in an uncharacteristically stiff tone. “You may’ve noticed it’s not just the women who do things on the surface.”

Behind Shaeine, Teal bared her teeth at him and pantomimed a strangling motion with both hands.

“Geoffrey, stop pouting before your face freezes that way,” Marguerite chided. “It’s true, Sheen, ours isn’t a matriarchial culture, but as long as my husband insists on being difficult you can feel free to address yourself to me. I’ll smack him later.”

Shaeine,” Teal enunciated. “It’s an elongated vowel, like the ‘aa’ in Tiraas, but smoothly transitioning in the middle. It sounds trickier than it is; you already speak elvish, Mom, you can pick up Narisian pronunciation before you know it.”

“Please do not discomfit yourself on my account,” Shaeine said smoothly, bowing again. Without straightening up, she extended both hands, offering Marguerite the folded length of dark cloth she had been carefully carrying since disembarking from the zeppelin. “I am grateful for the hospitality offered, and humbled by this household and your benevolence. I dare to hope that this meager token of my thanks may in a small way enhance the splendor of your home.”

“Oh, that’s all right, dear,” Marguerite said hastily, “you didn’t need to—”

Teal shot across the space between them, leaning close to her mother’s ear and gritting out very quietly through clenched teeth, “It’s an important cultural tradition which I will explain later, please take the gift.”

“I guess that’d be one of those things we’d have been properly prepped for if we hadn’t decided to take the zep,” Geoffrey observed, not without humor.

“Well, it was your idea—oh!” Marguerite was distracted from retorting when she focused on the length of folded silk she had just absently taken from Shaeine’s hands, then immediately brought it up to her face to squint through her glasses. “Oh, my, this is… Geoffrey, look at this! The texture…why, this is woven in patterns that—yes, these are pictures! Oh, and the dye, Geoff, just look!”

She very carefully unfolded the silk and held it up to the light; to the human eye in the relative dimness of the hall it might have been taken for a plain black sheet at a casual glance, but it was in fact dyed in intricate patterns of very dark red, blue, and purple, not to mention embroidered in raised patterns of thread with subtly glinted under the fairy lamps.

Sinit isthr’adh is a Narisian traditional art,” Shaeine explained while Marguerite cooed enthusiastically over the fabric and Geoffrey leaned over her shoulder, studying it with unfeigned interest. “Each color of dye depicts a different scene, overlaying and interconnecting with the others, while the embroidered image in raised thread is another which ties together the narrative and philosophical theme. The intended means of viewing is to study it at length and let the eye focus on the individual images, while the mind contemplates the interplay between them. Some isthr’adh pieces require a grounding in Narisian history or culture to understand the references, but I selected a design I thought would be more broadly accessible. Teal has described you as an artist; I hoped you would enjoy a cultural expression that might be new to you.”

“Oh, but you thought so very right,” Marguerite all but squealed. “This is the most beautiful thing! Omnu’s breath, the skill that went into—look at this dye work! Why, these threads were woven into it in that order to… Oh, my stars, Shayeen, what an absolutely gorgeous piece. I can’t thank you enough! Teal is right, I definitely enjoy meeting a new form of art. And that’s probably the kindest way she’s ever described me,” she added with a wry glance at her daughter.

“Mom, you named me after a color.”

“A pretty color. Be glad I was over my Glassian phase; you could’ve been called Chartreuse.”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

Shaeine was smiling now, with as much genuine warmth as Narisian manners permitted in public. “She did say you had designed the stained glass in this very hall. I do note a preference for blue-green hues.”

“Hah!” Marguerite gave her a delighted grin. “Would you care to guess how old Teal was before she made that connection?”

“I have been asked not to embarrass her unduly while, as she put it, ‘they have that job covered,’” Shaeine said solemnly. “May I?”

“Oh, please!” Marguerite gestured enthusiastically toward the north wall of the great hall and the drow glided over to it to examine the glass up close. She started to follow, then hesitated and leaned over toward Teal, murmuring as softly as she could, “How’d I do?”

Teal wrapped an arm around her mother in half a hug, replying in the same tone. “She wouldn’t expect you to know the Narisian formalities, or perform them in your own home. The guest gift to the matron of a house is important in her culture. Anyway, you can’t go wrong by gushing over a present.”

“Well, I wasn’t faking, this is the most stunning piece I’ve seen in ages. I definitely see what she meant; I’m going to have to spend some time just looking once I’ve got it properly displayed. I’ll find a place in—no, what am I saying? This is a centerpiece, it deserves to have a suitable setting designed around it. Geoffrey, what do you think about… Geoff?”

The man of the house had been handed a letter by one of the servants not engaged in bringing Teal and Shaeine’s baggage in, and was now staring at it with a truly thunderous expression, the expensive-looking paper creasing in his grip.

“Oh,” Teal said in resignation, “isn’t that House Madouri stationary?”

“You better believe it,” Geoffrey grated. “We have been invited to dine with his Grace the Duke. Tonight.”

“An honor,” Shaeine said neutrally, drifting back over to them. She remained poised as ever, but could not mess the tension that had suddenly gripped all three Falconers.

“Is this…the sort of invitation we can beg off?” Marguerite asked warily. “Teal just got home, and with Shaeine…”

“Oh, he knows,” Geoffrey spat. “Teal and her ‘guest’ are mentioned. No, love, I don’t think this is one of those optional invitations.”

“How did he know?” Teal demanded.

“The University campus is quite secure,” Shaeine observed, “but Last Rock itself would not be difficult to keep under observation. I surmise that several political forces and newspapers within the Empire do so. Apparently there was an episode last year when several of them annoyed Professor Tellwyrn. Please forgive my ignorance, but I did not realize a Duke had the authority to command people to his presence?”

“Well, there’s authority and then there’s authority,” Geoffrey said bitterly, folding up the letter with little regard for its original creases. “There are things they can order because the law gives them that explicit prerogative, and things they can order because they can make your life unbearably difficult if they feel slighted.”

“Ah,” she said, nodding in total comprehension.

“It doesn’t matter,” Marguerite interjected in a firm tone, clutching the tapestry protectively to her chest. “You’re our guest, Shayeen. I’ll not have you forced to dance for that man’s amusement.”

“Yeah, I should warn you that this is a trap,” Geoffrey added. “The Duke is… Hon, what’s a polite way to put it?”

“He’s a big enough asshole that the stick up his doesn’t even slow him down,” Marguerite said primly. Teal made a choking noise.

“That about sums it up, yeah,” Geoffrey agreed, grinning at his wife. “His Grace likes swinging his…um, authority around. Usually at us; he seems to feel personally slighted by FI’s success. Any time he does something like this, it means he’s planning to pull something squirrely before it’s over. If we’re very lucky the whole plot is just to inflict embarrassment on us. Rita’s right, you’re a guest of our family and Teal’s girlfriend. I’ve put up with a lot from that man; I’m not going to have him start in on you as well.”

“I am grateful for the sentiment,” Shaeine answered with a gentle smile. “I urge you not to risk House Madouri’s censure on my account, however. It may be an unplanned diversion, but I confess I am rather intrigued by this invitation.”

Marguerite and Geoffrey exchanged a long look.

“It’s kind of you to think of us,” Marguerite said, “but…”

“Allow me to be more plain,” said Shaeine, nodding deeply toward her. “There are politics, of course, and on that point I am inclined to defer to your judgment and familiarity with the situation. If it comes down to it, I have the prerogative to invoke the strictures of international relations. I can easily make a case that to meet with an Imperial Duke without my mother’s oversight exceeds my diplomatic mandate. However, would I be correct in surmising that his Grace would vent his frustration at such a maneuver on you?”

“That’s not something you need to worry about,” Geoffrey said firmly. “He’s going to vent something on us, one way or another. I don’t mind at all getting to tweak his nose out of the bargain.”

“That being the case, I reaffirm that I would like to attend,” the drow said, smiling more broadly.

Teal cleared her throat. “Mom, Dad, you know I respect your intelligence…”

“Oh, nothing complimentary ever follows that setup,” Marguerite said, giving her daughter a long look.

But,” Teal continued doggedly, “we are none of us the most socially adroit or cunning people.”

“It’s true,” Geoffrey acknowledged. “Those are rather famously not gifts of the Falconer clan.”

“Shaeine, however,” said Teal, turning to the priestess with a proud smile, “is a professional diplomat.”

A contemplative pause descended.

“Sometimes,” Shaeine said pleasantly, “the greatest retribution one can have against a person who is determined to be hostile is to skillfully deprive him of any excuse for hostility. Powerful as he may be, an individual of the higher nobility in any culture lives and dies by social perception. If it could be arranged, for example, that his Grace the Duke is left with no cause to acceptably express anything but satisfaction with the Falconer family and have his blood pressure elevated to dangerous levels in the process, would you perhaps find that…amusing?”

Geoffrey and Marguerite exchanged another married look at that, both of them having to visibly repress smiles. Marguerite, at least, sobered quickly.

“Amusing, yes, but… Shayeen, honey, we may be rich enough that a Duke isn’t all that dangerous to us, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to poke at him unnecessarily.”

He is poking at us,” Teal protested. “As usual!”

“You have expressed a laudable determination not to allow a guest under your roof to suffer even a minor indignity,” Shaeine said. “I relate strongly to that sentiment. Not simply out of guesthold honor, or consideration for politics. Marguerite, Geoffrey… I realize that I am not only a stranger to you, but an unexpected one, and perhaps an alarming thing to have suddenly dropped into your lives. I hope to earn a measure of affection and trust, but that inevitably takes time. What matters in this moment is that you are Teal’s family, and…” She hesitated the merest fraction of a second before voicing something which would not have been acceptable in her own household. “And I love Teal dearly. Where I am from, we do not suffer those we love to be put upon.”

“Well,” Geoffrey mused, studying her with a new interest, “that’s…a starting point, then, isn’t it? Because that is definitely one thing we have in common.”

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16 – 58

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“Above all, in such times, we must have faith.”

The sanctuary of the Grand Cathedral was as packed as it had ever been, despite the Empire-wide state of emergency and warnings for all citizens to take shelter. In a way, they had, for all that a dense crowd might be even more vulnerable to attack; shelter was more than physical, and just as the Archpope now said to the assembled throng, it was in precisely such times that people sought the comfort of faith.

“The word is often invoked in this temple, and countless like it,” Justinian continued, his mellifluous voice filling the sanctuary to its farthest corners with its perfect, sonorous gravity. “Faith, most often spoken of as a religious sacrament. Faith in a god, in a dogma, in a church. I will remind you all in this most desperate hour, my friends, that faith goes far beyond religion. It is upon faith that everything hinges. We have faith that our friends and loved ones will not abandon us. Faith that those who sell our food, our clothing, our tools, have not shortchanged us. Faith that our governments will protect and provide as we need them to. Every interaction each of us has with another person is a thread of faith, and it is of the countless thousands of these threads that the web of our lives is made.”

He paused, gripping the sides of his lectern for a moment. No arcane magnification charm was applied to the ancient wood; Justinian needed nothing but the Cathedral’s acoustics and his own trained diaphragm to make himself heard in the back row, even now, when he lowered his voice for emphasis.

“And never is the importance of faith clearer than when it disappoints us. I understand, sisters and brothers, how your faith has been betrayed. We may speak of the gods and their mortal agents which we thought to protect us from crises such as this. We might speak of our government with its armies, which in city after city has been powerless to stand against threat after threat. But even in the midst of renewed crisis, I caution you: do not abandon faith. Faith, you see, is not certainty.”

He smiled, with both sorrow and warmth.

“In life there are no certainties; even the gods do not promise us that. The universe is chaotic, and it is not given to us to live in perfect bliss. For what would be the point of that? What is life without opportunities to strive, to grow wiser and stronger? And how could we do so if we were never challenged—and not only challenged, but specifically beyond what our faith can bear?

“No, friends, we must not despair because our faith has not protected us. The role of faith is that we may continue to believe, even in the face of evidence that what we believe in has failed. And this, friends, is the true power of faith: its capacity to triumph over reality itself. For by acting upon faith, by proceeding upon assumptions that have been broken, we remake the world around us until it falls back into line with what we have faith that is should be. Faith, friends, is the power to band together and triumph.

“I will not minimize the threat we face, nor excuse those who have failed when they should have protected us. Instead, I will caution you all not to abandon faith. Have faith in the gods, in paladins, in thrones, in all those things you count upon—for even if they have responded imperfectly, it is through the support of our faith that they may be empowered to rise to the threat.

“Above all, have faith in one another. It is the darkest times which show us the brightest light within our hearts. It is when we are tested that we raise ourselves up to persevere. It is when the bonds between us are attacked that they strengthen.”

He raised his hands in an uplifting gesture, both benediction and incitement.

“Have faith, brothers, sisters, friends, fellow members of this human family. Have faith that all will be well—and in so doing, go forth together and make it so.”


“That brilliant, evil son of a bitch,” Ruda said, hurling the transcript of the Archpope’s sermon down on Ravana’s dining table.

“Eh, it sounded a right nice speech t’me,” Maureen admitted. “So, I assume that means I missed somethin’, aye? I never claimed t’be the savvy type, politically speakin’.”

“He’s changed the terms of engagement.” Teal’s voice was barely above a whisper, her eyes fixed on a distant point beyond the fireplace. “It’s…a brilliant move. The cults are beginning to turn on him, and after Veilgrad Triss and the boys have what they need to prove he’s behind the chaos monsters.”

“Okay, I don’t get it either,” Iris said in some annoyance. “Why isn’t that good? I mean, now he’s gone and let loose dozens of the fuckers. Obviously that’s a big problem but if there’s proof Justinian is behind it, hasn’t he just nailed himself to the wall?”

“I can’t.” Ruda slumped down in her chair, tipping her hat forward to cover her eyes. “I just cannot with this horseshit. Not you, Iris, you’re fine, it’s just the sheer fuckery of it. I need a moment to wring some of the sleaze outta my soul. Shaeine, can you take over?”

“By unleashing both unstoppable monsters and immortal warriors which are among the only things which can combat them, the Archpope has effectively invalidated all the laborious preparatory work that has been done up till now to work him into a corner,” Shaeine said tonelessly. “It is now a matter of public opinion, and the facts are thus barely relevant. Now, any accusations against the Archpope will be seen as sowing division exactly when it can least be afforded—especially by Ravana and the paladins, who by taking a stand against him previously will have made it seem they are prioritizing old political vendettas above the public good.”

“But they ‘ave proof!” Maureen protested.

“That matters a lot less than it should,” Teal replied wearily.

“Politics and facts are, at best, tenebrous allies,” said Szith.

“It’s a crisis,” Ruda explained from under her hat, not shifting her position. “Can’t have division in a crisis. Didja note in the speech, how he emphasized that? And also how the gods an’ paladins and especially the Throne have let everybody down by allowin’ all this to happen.”

“Just the…the gall,” Iris hissed. “He did all this!”

“It’s politics,” Teal said, heaving a sigh. “Fuck. He played us all. He played everyone.”

“I seriously do admire the gambit,” Ruda admitted, finally lifting her hat enough to peer up at everyone. “It’s maybe the evilest bullshit I ever fuckin’ heard of but god damn was that clever. A master fuckin’ play.”

“That is public opinion, though,” said Scorn, who was not wearing her disguise ring, drumming her clawed fingertips upon the table. The group assembled was somewhat diminished in size; Juniper was still in Tiraas and the paladins, after checking in, had gone right back out to hunt necro-drakes with assistance from the Conclave. “There is still proof. The Empire can act upon this, yes?”

“That is what makes it a master stroke, as opposed to simply a clever one,” said Shaeine. “The great secret of power is its fragility. The cults, the Throne, the Church… Indeed, all religious, political, financial and other establishments, rely upon consensus for their very existence. They only come to seem immutable because we grow accustomed to them. Any can be toppled if enough of their followers decide they should no longer be obeyed—or if not destroyed outright, deprived of enough of their support to function. That was the overarching lesson of the Enchanter Wars, and that lesson is still very much on the minds of the cults and the Houses.”

“So, in order for the Empire or the Trinity cults or anyone to act on the proof,” Teal chimed in, “they would have to, in essence, invade the Cathedral in force to seize Justinian. It could still work, if it was possible to do it swiftly, but with all the power of the Pantheon backing him up and him apparently able to control it even against the Pantheon’s will… Well, the various forces assembled against him could maybe take him down eventually, maybe not. Either way, it would be a long, bloody, drawn-out struggle. And given all Justinian’s done to make himself and the Church popular over the years, a lot of the public will side with him. Especially now. It would mean a schism in basically every participating cult and very likely a rebellion against the Empire.”

“Most of the Houses’d side with ‘im,” Ruda grunted in a dispirited tone. “Specifically because they don’t give a fuck about religion. They care about their own power, which means they’re automatically against the Throne reaching beyond its traditional powers.”

“House Tirasian does have its allies,” Shaeine murmured. “Powerful ones, even. Houses Madouri, Leduc and Dufresne represent enough of a threat to give many of the lesser Houses pause, but there would also be opportunists… He also has the orthodox Shaathists, doubtless other loyalists within every cult. Justinian will not have done this until he is certain of enough allies to at the very least force a stalemate if the established powers dare attack him openly. He is, by all appearances, a meticulous planner.”

“That’s what everybody will be considering,” Teal added. “The political cost of turning on him now would be crippling… And even if he is transparently behind it, the fact is there are chaos dragons rampaging across the continent and nobody can afford a civil war in the middle of that.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Iris said tremulously, “but…I mean, surely the Trinity cults? The Guild? Didn’t the paladins just go through all that rigamarole to make sure they’d side against the Church?”

“And that’d be why Justinian just yanked out the rug,” said Ruda with a bitter laugh. “Way Boots an’ the boys tell it… Boss Tricks ain’t exactly the portrait of reliability right now, the Dawn Council isn’t interested in doin’ fuck all under any circumstances, an’ Lady Gwenfaer’s paper cuts bleed politics. High Commander Rouvad seems like the kind o’ broad who’d take a stand on principle, but then again, she’s also the one who decided Basra fuckin’ Syrinx being good a politics made ‘er worth putting up with all the rest of her general Syrinxitude. We got coin tosses in the best case scenario.”

“Some might still be willing to act, if there were a plan in place and a certainty of, at least, a chance,” Shaeine said quietly. “But whoever acts first will embrace tremendous risk, and the full brunt of the opposition. The pressure will be heavily against anyone sticking their neck out.”

“I’ll go one further,” Teal said quickly. “Soon as we can talk to ‘em again we need to make sure our paladins don’t try to charge at Justinian with blades out.”

“There’s really only one of ‘em likely to do that,” Ruda said with a grin.

“Sure,” Teal replied a touch impatiently, “but it matters that they have credibility and the pull to motivate a lot of people into action behind them. Frustrating as it is, appearances matter, even to paladins. They can’t squander it by seeming to pick a political fight in the middle of a crisis.”

“So,” Scorn rumbled, “what is needed is a person in a position of power, interested in doing the right thing, and willing to be seen as a villain.”

She immediately turned to look straight at Ravana. One by one, so did everyone else in the room, until every eye was fixed upon her except that of her Butler, who stood silent as a gargoyle behind her left shoulder.

Ravana said with perfectly ladylike posture at the head of the table, casually swirling her wineglass in one hand and gazing thoughtfully at nothing. As the room fell silent, she ceased toying with the glass and raised it to her lips for a sip. It was a pink elven wine; she usually did not prefer their sweetness, but the lower alcohol content made it a beverage of choice when she had thinking to do.

Lowering the glass, and seeming to ignore the silent regard of her friends and classmates, the Duchess allowed her lips to slowly curl upward into a viper’s smile.

“Yancey,” she said, “make the arrangements for another press conference tomorrow. In addition to my accusations at this morning’s event, I will publicly charge that Archpope Justinian is behind the chaos drakes, and that he has deliberately caused all this destruction and loss of life for personal, political gain.”

She paused to take another dainty sip; Yancey, attuned to his mistress, watched her without acknowledging the command, as he detected another part forthcoming.

“I will also,” Ravana continued after swallowing, “detail the method by which an Angelus Knight is created, describe the final fate of Sister Lanora, and announce that any cleric who has been personally excommunicated by their former deific patron will be made welcome in Madouris and placed under my personal protection. Along with a warning that their lives are in urgent danger otherwise.”

“Very good, my Lady,” said Yancey. “Shall we arrange protection for the source of this intelligence?”

The Duchess shook her head. “She indicated confidence that her involvement was absolutely unknown to the enemy, and in this case I fear we must take her at her word. The irritating truth is that none of my field agents are of a quality that can match what Justinian has at his disposal. Posting a watch over her would likely do nothing but to draw his attention to her, and in the end my people would be unable to provide sufficient protection.”

“I might’ve known you’d Ravana it,” said Ruda, sounding impressed despite herself. “I know we practically asked for it this time, but c’mon, that’s gonna put you right at the top of Justinian’s shit list.”

“Yeah, no offense,” Teal agreed, “but this business in Madouris up till now has been small potatoes, Ravana. You’re not high on his priorities. If you start spewing his secrets in public…”

“It is a strategic truism,” Ravana said, again idly swirling her wine, “that when one is losing a game of chess to a clearly superior opponent, the correct move is to punch them in the face and overturn the board. This advice, while a valid point, ignores the broader political ramifications which you were just discussing. To be seen as the one to forebear the pretense of civilized behavior that we like to think governs us is to cede a significant material advantage. The solution, thus, is to provoke one’s opponent to throw the punch, and accept the censure of the onlookers.” She smiled again, showing just the tips of her teeth. “And then, in the name of self-defense, stab them in the throat.”

“Why is it even your hypotheticals jump directly to six steps too fuckin’ far?” Ruda demanded.

“Ravana,” Szith said quietly, “the Archpope can punch harder than you can. Significantly.”

“One does not just punch, though,” Ravana replied primly. “As a martial artist, you know it very well. There are questions of position, leverage, angle, maneuver… Teal has the right of it: I must admit, to my chagrin, that I have been up till now little but an inconvenience to his Holiness. If I begin revealing in public fundamental secrets which he will have no idea how I learned, I become a problem. He will be forced to…solve…me. And for me to defend myself will look altogether different than if I, or anyone, were to assault the Universal Church during a universal crisis.”

“I fear you have missed my point,” Szith insisted. “You would have to survive his attack, Ravana. Giving you full credit for the ability to cause trouble upon which this plan seems to rest, even you must acknowledge that you are not at your best on the defensive!”

“Am I not?” Ravana narrowed her eyes; her smile, if anything, widened. “Justinian is a creature of meticulous plans. Unexpected and uncontrolled violence is antithetical to his mode of operation. Even when he has unleashed it—such as now—it has always been safely far from his own base of operations, and with himself in at least partial control of all sides of the performative conflict. True carnage, the rapid unfolding of unforeseeable events, heavily disadvantages web-weavers such as he. That is the domain of paladins, adventurers, and it must be said…” Smirking, she actually bowed slightly from her chair. “…villains. I do not delude myself that this is my fight to win, or that I even could. No; our predicament is that Justinian has changed the nature of the battle to advantage himself. I will simply change it again.”

She sipped her wine once more, eyes glinting with manic anticipation.

“If his Holiness truly wishes to play about with chaos, then we shall go on a journey together, and explore the truth of what chaos means.”


“Really. Two minutes?” Despite the disappointing news, Justinian sounded more impressed than anything.

“That’s a broad guess,” Rector grunted, hunched over an instrument panel as usual and not looking up at his guest and patron. “Approximating from initial attack range, but even at the most conservative value, it was fast. Way faster than the one lost at Veilgrad. Weird readings, too… The chaos shard itself blinked out. Usually there’d be a major divine event concentrated on it before nullification. I think it was moved back to the dimensional insulation layer.”

“I suppose it is no more than should be expected,” Justinian mused. “Very well. I see I shall have to arrange something to keep the good Professor occupied. Interference of that caliber could be disastrous at this stage.”

Rector finally hesitated in his manipulation of the ancient data screen. He did not look up from it, but froze with his fingers above the glowing panel, staring at nothing.

“Thought you decided to leave her alone. Tried that, right? Didn’t work.”

“I probed at her, yes,” Justinian said mildly. “The point was, in part, to gauge her reaction; among other things, the attempt verified that she does have an interventionist streak, which has just become immediately relevant. I will consider my options. Fear not, Rector; I have several contingencies in varying states of readiness. Some may require your aid, but as always, I shall provide you the greatest advance notice I am able.”

“It’s Tellwyrn,” said the enchanter, still not moving. “Not much gets her attention except for threatening her students. Right? Is that… There’s already a lot of collateral damage.”

Justinian studied the back of his head pensively for a second before answering. “These are the painful decisions of strategy and moral cost versus benefit of which I spoke to you before, Rector. I fear that the closer we come to the final steps, the more…difficult they will grow. And we are very close indeed. Have patience for just a while longer. Soon, all of this will be finished.”

Rector remained in his rigid position for a moment, then grunted and resumed scrolling the screen as if he’d never stopped moving. After watching him for a moment longer, the Archpope retreated, not bothering with a farewell. He was not one to forebear such courtesies, but had learned that Rector was more annoyed than reassured by extraneous social rituals.

Seconds after the door shut behind the Archpope, Azradeh appeared from invisibility in the corner.

She was still testing her limits. According to one of her books—theology was among the subjects Justinian had been quite willing to let her read—a sitting Archpope gained a great deal of divine power but lost the cult-specific gifts as they were elevated from the servant of one god to the servant of all. So, in theory, he shouldn’t have Izarite empathy. Thus, she’d been lurking about him invisibly to see if he ever reacted, which he had not.

Unless he was a natural empath; those did seem to be drawn to Izara’s service. That would mean he was only pretending not to know when she was invisible in his vicinity, a thought which verged on paranoia but also wasn’t entirely implausible when it came to Justinian. But even in that eventuality, he was still pretending he couldn’t sense her, which meant she had a little leeway of maneuver until he was willing to blow his advantage. Even that was useful.

Of course, it was more likely he just couldn’t tell, period, but she was unwilling to commit to assumptions about the man.

“Wow, busy day, huh?” she said cheerfully, sauntering over toward Rector.

He just grunted, as usual. The handy thing about Rector was how little interest he had in anyone else’s comings and goings. As long as she didn’t pop out of invisibility right in front of his eyes, he wouldn’t wonder where she’d come from. Actually, Azradeh wasn’t completely sure even that would get his attention.

“Now, you make sure you’re getting enough sleep,” she lectured, circling behind him. “I will not hesitate to tattle to Delilah on you, see if I don’t.”

“Go away, pest,” he growled.

“Yeah, yeah.” Azradeh sat down on one of his less-cluttered workbenches, just loudly enough to make it clear from behind that that was what she’d done. He twitched in the most amusing way, but didn’t turn to chastise her further. “So what was that about collateral damage and attacking students? That doesn’t sound like you.”

He froze again.

“Or his Holiness,” she continued in a light tone. “Or…well, I wouldn’t’ve thought so, but who knows with that guy? He’s been really good to me, y’know? And you too, I guess. Man, though, it’s hard to say what goes on in his head. I wouldn’t think he’d deliberately get anybody hurt, but—”

“Just get out!” the enchanter snapped, snatching up a handful of brass screws from the nearest table and hurling them backward in the vague direction of her voice. Azradeh watched them sail past a good yard to her right. “I don’t have time for you right now!”

“Hey, it’s okay,” she said soothingly. “You’re just the equipment guy, right? It’s Justinian who makes the decisions. If somebody gets hurt, well, is that really your fault?”

“GET! OUT!”

Rector finally spun, snatching up a wrench and flinging it with far more accuracy. As usual she didn’t blink when it bonked off the bridge of her nose, but when he hurled his data screen she plucked it deftly out of the air.

“Hey, be careful,” Azradeh urged, setting the panel gently down on the workbench. “I know those things are durable, but they’re thousands of years old and it’s not like you can make more.”

“LEAVE! GO AWAY, DEMON!”

“Okay, I can see you’re busy,” she said, hopping off the table and ignoring the constant barrage of tools, crystals, and metal parts which pelted her. “Promise you won’t forget to eat, all right? See ya later.”

Azradeh turned and strolled toward the door, not reacting when a glass tube shattered on the back of her head. The deluge of metal and glass only halted before she actually exited because he ran out of conveniently throwable objects within easy reach.

Once the door shut behind the archdemon, Rector abruptly sat back down in his chair and sagged, leaning forward and resting his face in his hands.

For once…for perhaps the first time in a long time…the architect of so much of the future was not thinking about his next project. He just sat alone in his secret underground laboratory, thinking about some of the things he had created.

And what they might mean.

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16 – 42

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“All right, so. How did we mess that up?”

Breakfast in Madouri Manor was a somewhat subdued affair, due to the late hours everyone present had kept the night before. In fact it was a late hour now, closer to brunch than proper breakfast, but the Lady of the house had only just returned from her overnight stay in Veilgrad and many of her guests, for all that they were at least out of bed now, couldn’t be said to be fully awake. No one answered Gabriel’s question, at least not immediately; most of them just blinked blearily at him.

Yancey emerged from the servant’s entrance to the dining room in which they convened with his usual fortuitous timing, pushing a trolley laden with cups, saucers, and serving pots, one of which produced fragrant steam.

“Ah, splendid,” said Ravana, perking up visibly. “A spot of coffee is just the thing to begin a challenging day following another of the same.”

“Hard drugs for breakfast,” Raolo said with a raised eyebrow. “Damn, I should pal around with more nobles.”

Hard drugs,” Scorn chuckled. “You are a very cute elf, Raolo. I will have a cup, please, Yancey.”

“Right away, miss,” the Butler said with a deferential nod, already stirring sugar into the cup he had placed at Ravana’s hand.

“In point of fact,” said the Duchess primly, “coffee is explicitly not a drug within the Tiraan Empire, as of a Treasury ruling issued two months ago. On the grounds that its active ingredient is also present in tea and chocolate, and is no more addictive than alcohol and overall less deleterious to one’s health, coffee is classified as a foodstuff. Immediately following this ruling, I purchased one of the few domestic plantations in the Onkawa highlands. This is one of my own products, and quite splendid in quality if I do say so myself.”

“One of your products,” Toby drawled. “Somehow, I can’t picture you working on a plantation.”

“I can,” said Trissiny, “and I will call up the image whenever I need a laugh from now on. But seriously, Gabe asked an important question. How did we mess that up?”

“Well, it seems pretty clear that you underestimated the Archpope’s capabilities,” Fross chimed, swooping in a circle over Trissiny’s head. Despite not needing to eat, the pixie enjoyed socializing with friends and rarely missed a meal. “So I guess the pertinent question is whether you blundered or he’d hidden his powers well enough you really couldn’t have anticipated that.”

“In fairness,” said Toby, “we didn’t actually go in there planning to try to assassinate him. That just sort of…happened.”

“Three guesses which of you made that happen,” said Ruda, grinning and leaning over to prod Trissiny with her elbow.

“I saw the man turn off the entire Trinity like they were a fairy lamp,” Trissiny retorted, leaning away from her roommate. “I maintain it was a reasonable reaction.”

“I for one will not sleep well,” Szith murmured, “knowing that a man willing to flood entire cities with demons and undead has such power at his fingertips.”

A hush fell over the table, in which only the soft clink of porcelain was audible as Yancey distributed coffee to those who indicated they wanted it.

“Anyway, I’m not sure how we could have seen that coming,” Trissiny finally said, frowning at the center of the table. “That’s just not the kind of thing anyone should be able to do. That, and the power behind that divine shield he used…”

“I talked with Vestrel about that,” said Gabriel. “Apparently to resist the scythe like it did, it had to constantly rejuvenate itself. Which… I mean, if he’s drawing from the entire Pantheon, stands to reason, but the thing is that amount of power should theoretically be running through him, which should theoretically fry him like a fillet at a fraction of that intensity.”

“Those feats are a logical extension of what we know he can do,” said Fross, now drifting slowly in figure eights above the table. “He is the Archpope and thus a divine caster of significant strength, and you had firsthand knowledge that he’s been monkeying with the Elder God machinery that created the Pantheon in the first place…”

“I’ll tell you what you did wrong,” Ruda declared, resting an elbow on the table to point at him. She had declined coffee, tea, or anything else, having brought her own jug of local Last Rock moonshine to breakfast. “You shoulda gone in there and Ravana’d him right from the beginning.”

Ravana set down her coffee cup in its saucer with a soft but decisive clink. “I know that I will regret learning exactly what that means, and yet I must ask.”

“Oh, c’mon, it’s not like we blame you for all the evils of the world,” Ruda said, grinning at her. “It’s one specific and consistent thing. You dig up the most unconventional and horrifically overpowered insanity you can find and point it at the first person who pisses you off. That is the approach you guys should’ve taken with Justinian. The reason you didn’t know his physical capabilities is because he’s managed to never have to show them to anybody before; he’s that good a string-puller. You don’t try to get clever with a man like that, it’s just playing his game, on his terms. You drown him and everything in his vicinity with a tsunami of overkill.”

“Hey! You pronounced that correctly!” Fross chimed in excitement, swooping around Ruda’s head. “Most Tanglophones just substitute a silent t instead of properly articulating the tsu syllable! That’s actually a very ironic phenomenon, since ‘tsunami’ is Tanglish’s only loanword from Sifanese and contains one of the very few sounds that don’t—”

“Fross,” Teal interjected, gentle but firm.

The pixie immediately halted in midair, dimmed her glow and floated lower. “Aaaaand I’m being pedantic and de-Railing the conversation. Sorry, I was just happy. I like it when things are correct.”

“I’m not sure exactly what…” Trissiny hesitated, glancing at Fross. “…tidal wave of overkill we could have leveled at him. I mean, that is more or less what we tried to do.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t Ravana him,” Ruda said cheerfully. “Ravana, care to explain the difference?”

“Your own capabilities are well established, frequently and in public,” Ravana explained, giving Ruda a somewhat dour look. “It sounds as if you attacked him with everything in your standard arsenal—all of which he would be aware of in advance and thus, being Justinian, prepared for. To destroy a target such as he, one must employ not only overwhelming firepower, but unconventional assets which he could not reasonably anticipate.”

“Hm,” Trissiny grunted, again frowning at nothing.

“There was something I noticed,” Gabriel said slowly, his own eyes narrowed in thought. “Remember when he did all that with the Light to stop us beating on him? At the time I thought he just broke our concentration with sheer physical pushback, but looking back I noticed… Didn’t it seem like all our shields, Triss’s wings and Toby’s invocation shut down at precisely the same instant?”

“Well, it was an area of effect attack,” said Trissiny. “And it hit pretty hard. Naturally that would break our focus, and at the same time.”

“Not the same, though,” Gabriel said, shaking his head. “Toby was a couple yards further away. And look, if you’re hit with a big wall of energy and something you were trying to concentrate on goes belly up, you’d naturally assume that was why. It just seems really in character for that guy to do something sly under the cover of something overt, just to stop us from noticing. Divine magic is where most mental magic lies, right? Are there methods of disrupting enemy spellcasting?”

“There very much are,” Shaeine answered immediately. “Themynrite and Scyllithene clerics both employ them. That craft is exceedingly difficult to learn. Less difficult to ward against, but even that is not a skill one acquires in an afternoon.”

“That’s a really good observation, Gabe,” said Trissiny. “Something we need to be on guard for, next time. As for…unconventional overkill…” She leaned back in her chair, staring up at the chandelier. “I think I’ll pay another visit to the Conclave, as soon as I have the time. After our business in Tiraas today, maybe. Zanzayed seems to like having me around, but if I want to learn some divine craft, Ampophrenon is probably a better bet. I think I can get him to teach me. It’s hard to read a being like that, but he seemed to regard me positively.”

“Yeah, he mentioned you last night,” Teal agreed. “Quite favorably. Overall he comes across as surprisingly progressive for someone older than Tellwyrn.”

“I can begin coaching you in the basics of defense against a divine interrupt,” said Shaeine, “but yours is a good idea, Trissiny. As Ruda and Ravana point out, our enemy will be aware of what you can learn from me. The dragons are a likely source of magical skill he will not know.”

“Seems to me that learning divine skills is a good starting point,” said Gabriel, “but, and nobody hit me, it might be a good idea to pick up some specifically anti-divine techniques. At least, whatever we can safely use alongside our own magic.”

“I’m instinctively leery at the notion, but it seems strategically sound,” Toby murmured.

Gabriel nodded. “Yeah, if Trissiny’s got an in with the Conclave anyway, it might be worthwhile to ask… Oh, what’s the red guy’s name? Vaz something.”

“Razzavinax the Red,” Ravana corrected. “A capital idea, Gabriel. He is quite personable, and in fact an established teacher of magical technique to mortals. I doubt you wish to or even can study any infernomancy in detail, but he undoubtedly knows several basic tricks to use against divine casters.”

Everyone stared at her.

“I know,” Iris said, “I know I’m going to regret the answer, but… Why, Ravana, have you been hanging out with the red dragon?”

“Oh, I’ve not had the pleasure of Lord Razzavinax’s company myself,” Ravana said lightly. “I have struck up an amicable correspondence with his consort, Lady Maiyenn, after I sent her a baby gift.”

Everyone continued to stare at her.

“This is the bulk of what a lady in society does,” the Duchess explained, now with a sardonic undertone. “Form connections to be exploited at need. I am a very useful person to know, as is Maiyenn, and each of us recognized this trait in the other. Intelligent self-interest begets courtesy. You likely have sufficient contacts within the Conclave as it is, Trissiny, but should Lord Razzavinax prove resistant to aiding the Hand of Avei I would be pleased to arrange an introduction.”

“Thank you,” said Trissiny, a bit dryly. “So, the dragons are a good starting point for some extra tricks against Justinian. I also need to arrange another quick trip to the First Legion’s base.”

“Uh, hang on, there,” Ruda protested. “I know I told you to use overkill, Shiny Boots, but I dunno if bringing in more of your pet adventurers is exactly gonna help against the Archpope.”

“No, I tend to agree,” Trissiny said with a smile. “The team I brought to Tiraas has already performed beyond my expectations, but still, you’re right. Justinian isn’t the Battle of Ninkabi; in most situations, adventurers work better in small groups. It’s not about that. Talking of unconventional assets… I need to notify Billie Fallowstone that one of her pet projects has just become urgent. And, Captain Locke knows how to build divine disruptors.”

Another short silence fell, in which most of the junior class grimaced.

“Those things,” Toby said, shaking his head. “I never imagined a day would come when I’d want to have them around.”

“And yet, here we are,” Gabriel said with a wry grin. “Good thought, Triss. If my scythe didn’t break his shield, I don’t expect any handheld weapon will, but even so. Most of his tricks are going to be divine in origin, or at least his minions’ will. Those damn things will come in very useful. That is, if Locke can produce some.”

“Um, if I recall correctly,” Fross interjected, “which, not to chime my own glockenspiel, I always do, those weapons are made largely from gold.”

“I didn’t say it would be convenient or budget-friendly, but this is urgent,” Trissiny replied, grimacing. “The Sisterhood can afford it. I may have to arrange some more resources for the First Legion, but it’s doable. Meanwhile, all of this is tomorrow’s battle. More immediately we’ve got our announcements with our respective cults, and that will begin putting major pressure on Justinian in the political and religious arena.”

“As such,” Ravana stated, “were I he, I would choose this moment while you are all thus engaged to launch a preemptive retaliation.”

“…fuck,” Gabe muttered.

“I think,” Iris suggested, “this would be an excellent day for all of us to have a little outing into Tiraas. We can do some sightseeing and shopping while the paladins do politics. And, you know…be around.”

“Some of us are…very unconventional assets,” Scorn agreed with a toothy grin.

“I am shamed to say this,” Szith replied softly, “but I cannot assist.”

“Right, Narisian politics,” Ruda said quickly. “Last thing we want is to land you in trouble with House An’sadarr, Szith, don’t worry about that. Teal, Shaeine, I assume the same goes?”

“On the contrary, we have more freedom to assert ourselves,” said Shaeine, taking her wife’s hand. “Both by virtue of our respective rank and position in our own societies, and our effective alignment as of Justinian’s recent attack on Falconer Industries and his general opposition to the Silver Throne, toward which the Confederacy desires a conciliatory stance. Szith risks censure by stepping into human politics, but I am positioned to do so with more impunity.”

“That raises a pertinent question,” said Ravana, adopting a sharp expression which was ominously familiar to most of them. “Have you, any of you, issued a formal and public accusation against Justinian regarding the various disasters we are relatively certain he has engineered during the last several years?”

“You know the problem with that,” Toby replied. “Just because we’re pretty sure it was him pulling the strings doesn’t mean we can prove it. And accusing someone that powerful of something we can’t compellingly back up…”

“Yes, I understand,” she said, nodding. “Very well, then. While you are launching your salvo on behalf of your cults, I shall make a formal announcement that yesterday’s altercation in Madouris was instigated by the Universal Church, and also accuse Justinian of arranging the disasters which befell Ninkabi, Veilgrad, and Puna Dara.”

“Whoah,” Gabriel protested. “Ravana, I know you’re already kind of neck deep in this, but that’ll make you a major target. And he’s covered his tracks too well—”

“So did my father,” she said coldly. “I was forced to lie to have him removed; that the lie in question happened to be the very truth he so skillfully concealed was beside the point. I realize you all enjoy making facetious remarks about my predilection for frontal attacks, but this, specifically, is the time for them. Justinian can attempt to discredit me, sue me for slander, and launch propaganda against me, but I am more than equipped to handle all of the above. With the three Trinity cults, the Eserites and half the Shaathists poised to turn on him, it is the optimal time to add House Madouri’s weight to the cause. The point is to put constant, widespread pressure on him from every side, more than he can wiggle out from under. Our enemy is a master manipulator who thrives when he can keep his foes dancing about; I submit that he has been indulged more than long enough. It is time, my friends, to declare war.”

This time the pause which fell was grim and intent. No one suggested disagreement, even by facial expression.

“Then I guess we better eat up good, and head to Tiraas for some ass-kicking right after breakfast,” Ruda said, grinning. “Uh, I guess that means we need to wake up our missing teammate first. Juniper was pretty tuckered out after getting home last night, huh?”

The usual number of seats at the breakfast table were filled, but that was because Raolo had joined them overnight. One familiar face was, indeed, absent.

“Oh, uh,” Fross chimed awkwardly. “Yeah, about that…”


“Thank you,” Juniper said, smiling up at Price as the Butler refilled her teacup. Price inclined her head graciously in acknowledgment as she retreated from the table.

“Don’t be shy, if you’re still hungry I’m glad to empty the larder,” Sweet assured her with a grin, lounging in his chair at the head of the table. He was attired in his Eserite style this morning, calculatedly shabby and wearing louder colors than befitted a Bishop of the Universal Church. In fact, he hadn’t had cause to put on the ecclesiastical persona of Bishop Darling for months, though ironically the pressure of the political situation behind it had been wearing on him. Today, he looked and felt more relaxed than he could remember being in ages. “I don’t often get to entertain guests; it’s a pleasure to roll out the red carpet!”

“Oh, this is already plenty generous,” Juniper assured him with a smile, forking up another bite of sausage. Behind her, Sniff chomped more of the same from a bowl set on the floor against the dining room wall. “You’re a good host, Antonio.”

“Oh, I just bet he was,” Flora said acidly.

“Not that we need to bet,” Fauna added, tapping the pointed tip of her ear. “That was quite a production last night, you two.”

“My apologies for the rest of the household,” Sweet said to Juniper. “I swear to you I have taught them manners, but they usually decide not to use ‘em. Elves are kinda like cats.”

“Well, sorry if not everybody at the table has as much reason to be as loose and relaxed as the pair of you,” Flora snorted.

“Yeah, some of us had to make due with not even sleeping properly in our cold, lonely beds thanks to the racket from yours!”

“Maybe we’d like to boink the dryad, did you ever think about that?”

“No! You only think about yourself!”

“Did I think about you two while cavorting after midnight with a bosomy bundle of carnal ingenuity?” Sweet mused, idly swirling his teacup. “No, I honestly did not. Not for a second. And it seems to me it’d be creepy as hell if I had any other answer to that question.”

Juniper finished swallowing her bite of sausage and smiled gently at them while scooping up a forkful of scrambled eggs. “Now, now, no need to be competitive. I’d be glad to make love to either of you. Or both, whatever you prefer.”

“Ugh.”

“Ew.”

The dryad paused with her fork halfway to her mouth, raising her eyebrows at their matching grimaces. “Well. That’s a reaction I don’t often get. It’s not great for my feelings, I have to say.”

“Oh, sorry, it’s not about you,” Flora hastened to assure her.

“Yeah, you’re a sweetheart and astoundingly gorgeous,” Fauna agreed.

“But he’s pretty much our dad.”

“Yeah, going after him would be…”

They both shuddered dramatically.

“Well, okay,” Juniper said with a shrug, tucking back into her meal. “I’m still a little bemused by the nuances of family relationships, so I’ll have to take your word on that. If you ever change your minds, I’m up for it.”

“And what an odd little family we are,” Sweet said cheerfully.

“Yeah, well, all joking aside, we should probably thank you,” Flora said with a grudging little smile.

“It seems like forever since we’ve seen him this relaxed,” Fauna agreed.

“I am pretty good at what I do,” Juniper replied pleasantly.

“Damn skippy you are,” Sweet said emphatically. “It makes me think the whole world could benefit from a night of the ol’ slurp and snuggle. Or at least, several people who specifically need to be unwound a little bit. Hm, I bet I could even find somebody to ever so tenderly extract the stick from up Thorn’s butt…”

“Hey.” Suddenly frowning, Juniper pointed her fork at him. “You leave Trissiny alone.”

“Whoah, whoah!” He raised both hands in surrender. “I didn’t mean me. I wouldn’t lay a hand on her, even if I thought she was interested. Maybe it’s arrogant of me but I think of myself as kind of a mentor to Thorn. That’s not something you exploit. Some things are sacred, y’know?”

“Yeah, Tellwyrn has a rule like that. And that’s not what I’m concerned about,” the dryad shook her head. “It’s… Okay, I can’t help sensing sexual details about people, and I make a point not to share anybody’s private business with anyone else…”

“Appreciated,” Sweet, Flora, and Fauna all chorused.

“But, this is relevant, so I expect you to keep it to yourselves. Trissiny has a very monogamous nature, okay? She’s not like you and me; we do just fine with various casual lovers, but not everyone does. And she does look up to you, Antonio, so if you told her to go out and get laid I think there’s a chance she might go and do it. But she’d feel really bad about herself afterwards, and then I would be mad at you!”

“Well, every step in that chain is more to be avoided than the last,” he said solemnly. “I’m glad you spelled it out, Juniper, thanks for that. I’d hate to accidentally cause more problems for somebody who doesn’t need any.”

She nodded primly and went back to her sausage.

A second later, Price turned her head toward the door, then suddenly strode out into the hall.

“Oh,” Juniper said softly, glancing guiltily after the Butler. “Did I go to far? Sorry, no matter how many times it happens I sometimes forget not everybody’s okay with frank discussions of sexuality…”

“Nah, it’s not you,” Flora assured her.

“She just heard somebody coming to the door.”

“We still haven’t figured out how Price always picks up on that before we do.”

“Yet! Give it time!”

On cue, the doorbell rang, as Sweet brandished his teacup at the two elves.

“If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times to leave Price alone. On the list of shit I don’t need, you two stirring up trouble with the Service Society occupies several slots!”

The sounds of a visitor being welcomed into the front hall grew steadily louder while he spoke, until after only a few seconds, Price returned, face impassive as always.

“Sir, you have an urgent visitor from the Guild.”

“There you are,” Grip stated, striding in past the Butler. “I was afraid you’d already be halfway across town at this hour of the—what the fuck is that?!”

She came to a stop, pointing incredulously at Sniff, who had just finished his sausage and now raised his head to peer back at her.

Juniper scooted her chair back from the table, bringing her more into Grip’s line of sight. “I’m a dryad. It’s nice to meet you, too.”

The enforcer stared at her, then at Sniff, blinking rapidly. “I—that—what’re—no, fuck it, I don’t have time for this. Sweet, you need to get your ass down to the Guild, pronto.”

He had already stood up, abandoning his half-eaten breakfast. “How bad is it?”

“Pretty goddamn bad, and the core of the problem is how little pull anybody but you and Style has with the Boss—and Style’s apparently isn’t enough, on her own. You heard about how those Purist rejects tried to corner Glory’s apprentice yesterday?”

“Ohh, I don’t like where this is going,” he muttered.

Grip nodded. “Yeah, somehow Tricks has got his hands on a few of them, and he’s about to send us to war with the Sisterhood of Avei.”

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16 – 39

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The rented theater was only less than half full, with just minutes to go before the announced time of the event. That was by design; it was a last-minute affair, deliberately advertised in such a way that only the extremely interested were likely to see notice of it and arrive on time. There would be reporters, of course, and while Teal hadn’t gone out of her way to make sure they would be those in Ravana’s pocket, there were few enough in Madouris who weren’t. Though the Duchess had, grudgingly, blessed this event, it had been too belated to lend her resources even had she been so inclined. The Falconers didn’t lack for money, but they didn’t have things like Ravana’s spies. Teal had made do by asking where the protest outside the factory had originally been planned, getting the names of a few pubs and tearooms, and having fliers put up there. It seemed to have worked all right; there weren’t as many people here as there had been marching at the gates, but some of those had no doubt been scared off by what had happened at the end of that event. Also, none of Ravana’s agitators were present. Or at least, there had better not be.

This crowd was anticipatory, but distinctly nervous; it was all over a lot of their faces. Already there had been three separate incidents in which someone had tried to sit down and knocked over half a row of chairs with a sudden surge of a personal force field. And those were only the ones who’d just bought their first shielding charms for this event and didn’t know how they worked; they could be set to “always active,” if you were paranoid and failed to understand that keeping them in the default reactive mode both conserved power and enabled you to sit down, not to mention stepping within a yard of other people and objects. Undoubtedly, a lot more of those in attendance were shielded—properly. Given how their protested had ended, they weren’t wrong to be concerned. Teal just hoped they stayed nervous rather than angry. Most of those present were surreptitiously eyeing her, and some not so surreptitiously. She kept a watch on expressions and attitudes as best she could without breaking character.

“It’s the extras I’m curious about,” Ruda commented, again glancing out over the seats. “Not hard to pick out the reporters, and the Imperial spooks’ll be blending seamlessly with the average folks. We got cops, we got the ushers you hired—”

“Actually they came with the theater,” Teal said, plucking a deft arpeggio on her guitar. “Back up, Imperial spooks?”

“Oh, there’s absolutely no way they’re not keeping an eye on this,” Ruda said, grinning. “I give it even odds whether they were surprised about the protest, but with forewarning? Yeah, you got at least one plainclothes Marshal in the crowd. Long as nobody’s inciting riot or rebellion, they won’t do more than watch, but watch they sure as fuck will. Nah, what I’m more curious about are the elves. Your people?”

The last was directed to Nahil, who shrugged.

“In the sense that they are citizens of my nation, yes. But Shaeine and I are the only endorsed representatives of House Awarrion in attendance, and I know nothing of the Confederacy itself taking an interest in this. To me, at least, it is a positive development that some of its member tribes have begun to watch the world more carefully. I am surprised to find that they already had representatives in Madouris.”

“Probably locals,” said Teal. “There’s been an elven community here for a long time; the city elves are practically a mini-grove in their own right. They’re respected; before the Enchanter Wars they actually used to marry into House Madouri now and then.”

“Huh,” Ruda grunted. “Wonder what I gotta do to get that goin’ in Puna Dara. Friendly elves seem like they’d be handy to have around.”

At that, several of the half dozen elves scattered around the theater turned to look at her directly, one woman with a knowing smile, but that was the only reaction. They were all wood elves, by their ears, and wore a mix of tribal costume and modern Imperial style attire. No elves had been present at the protest earlier, which Teal took as a positive sign.

Without needing to be told, Shaeine, Ruda, and Nahil had all arranged themselves around Teal in such a manner that the Falconer heiress could see and be seen by the crowd from her perch on the stairs leading up to the stage. She sat there in a carefully casual half-sprawled pose, idly playing with her guitar. These three, all born and raised in the nobility, had understood the value of pageantry long before Teal herself did, and while only Shaeine explicitly knew the exact role Teal was playing, it seemed likely Ruda and Nahil wouldn’t need it explained.

Teal was here in costume, in character, playing the role she needed to. This, to her, was an important performance not just because of what its outcome could mean for her and Vadrieny’s place in human society; it was her first serious test of the mindset and methodology she had spent the last semester working to establish.

Her “costume” was, nearly in its entirety, just what she wore anyway: a well-tailored men’s suit. Except with subtle differences: it wasn’t quite as well-tailored, the coat being cut to hang a bit more loosely on her, shirt and pants conforming better to the lines of her body. She kept the top two buttons of her shirt open, not quite to the point of showing off cleavage but hinting that she might (a trick Ruda had taught her), and over that wore a loose bolo tie, inspired by Joe Jenkins’s characteristic tigerseye piece but this one unique and handmade by her father. It featured a small crystal, glowing so faintly arcane blue that it was hardly visible under full light, set in an inch-wide gear from one of the factory’s dismantled machines. The shirt also had slightly longer sleeves, so she could roll the cuffs back over the ends of her coat sleeves to show off the way they, too, hung open. Ironically the effect was truly completed by her customary rubber sandals, the one touch she’d always disliked about her personal style.

When it came to a young woman in men’s clothing, the difference between an awkward girl struggling to find and express herself and a Dashing Rogue straight out of every adventure story ever was pure attitude.

And that was how she thought of it, capitals and all. It was a Vesker archetype, though Teal had crafted her chosen persona from multiple influences, most provided by her friends. In her opinion the main difference between the Vesker and Vidian approaches was that the Doctrine of Masks was unnecessarily creepy, but Gabriel’s explanations had actually helped her to piece together something she liked from various bits and pieces that worked for her better than trying to embody a pure archetype. The Rogue she wore like a mask had a bit of Ruda, some historical influence from Laressa of Anteraas, and quite a lot of Principia Locke, with just a hint of Juniper’s casual and nearly oblivious sexuality. Trissiny’s coaching in the customary bearing of Thieves’ Guild enforcers had helped a great deal—Teal had never considered that the Guild actually trained that predatory slouching manner of theirs, but in hindsight, it made way too much sense. Her schooling in the Narisian art of wearing a public face helped tie it all together, and left her with the comfortable feeling that she’d created something really hers, something unique from the way the Veskers, Vidians, and everyone else did it.

She strummed three quick chords while casting another quick look around the room. Nearly everyone present was in a seat now; the mood was growing more tense by the second. And if the clock hadn’t just reached the appointed hour, it was close. That, after all, was the detail that mattered least to a Rogue.

“All right, ladies,” Teal said softly, climbing to her feet. “Showtime.”

“Break a leg,” Ruda said, tipping her a wink and then turning to swagger off to claim a seat. Nahil just smiled and inclined her head before gliding three rows back, where she sat down next to Marguerite Falconer. Matriarch Ashaele had apparently gone to Ravana’s thing in Veilgrad for some reason, and Geoffrey had been asked by his daughter to stay home, as his presence tended to be more distracting around Madouris than his wife’s. That left Marguerite and Nahil as the designated family support, Shaeine having her own assigned role to play in the evening’s performance. And a performance it would be.

And like so many good stories, it started with a kiss.

Just a peck on the cheek, which was pushing Narisian etiquette far enough—and which made it a good thing, in retrospect, that Matriarch Ashaele was in a different province at that moment. Shaeine, however, respected diplomacy and its theatrical element, and so received her kiss on the cheek with a smile before stepping aside to stand demurely at the very edge of the stage, just above the uniformed officer positioned at that corner of the room to keep an eye on the crowd. And so Teal crossed the stage to the podium amid the murmurs of the audience in response to that display.

Mixed; undoubtedly some of those present found it charming, but there was disapproval as well. Tiraan Province had always had more of a Shaathist element than a well-settled region usually did, owing to House Madouri’s traditional employment of the Huntsmen to look after its forests. Enough, at least, to push back against the Avenist influence from neighboring Viridill. Teal had borne the brunt of the resulting prejudices growing up, even as privileged as she was. She had hope that with Ravana’s pivot to backing the Reformists under Ingvar, things would be better for the next generation. But still, there were undoubtedly some in attendance who weren’t comfortable with her reminder that she was married to a woman. That her wife was a drow probably did not help.

All part of the plan, though, as was everything right down to her gait.

She strolled—ambled, really, in a rolling saunter that showed her to be fully at ease, her face set in a knowing little smile. Both had been laboriously rehearsed. Teal actually walked past the podium to set her guitar down in a stand she had very deliberately put on the other side of the stage for exactly this purpose, giving the watchers the opportunity to soak in her insouciance as she returned to the podium. And then, rather than standing behind it, positioned herself by its side and casually leaned one elbow atop it. The projection charm set into its surface would work just fine from this angle; she had made certain in advance that it would.

“Thanks for coming, everybody,” Teal said, her voice ringing through the theater with the force of both magic and her own well-trained ability to project. Her nerves were kept fully masked by her performative lightheartedness, though in truth it was only the stakes of this meeting that had her feeling nervous at all. Teal was a born performer, and if this wasn’t exactly music, some of the same rules applied. At her voice, the last few people who were still chatting fell silent and turned their focus on her, a final couple of stragglers finding their way into seats. “My name’s Teal, and I refuse to take any blame for that. My mom’s Rynean.”

That earned her a laugh—a low and somewhat uncertain one (Ruda’s cackle notwithstanding), but it was enough to get her foot in the door. She deliberately did not look at Marguerite in the crowd.

“For the past five years, I’ve been possessed by a demon.” That, as expected, brought dead silence. “Clearly, you’re curious about the details, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t care to dig too deeply into ‘em. That…” Teal hesitated, making her laid back expression falter for a moment, displaying an inner pain she didn’t actually feel, then cleared her throat before continuing. “That event was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever… Well, suffice it to say I know what it feels like to be burned to death from the inside out, and survive it.”

The silence hung, absolute. For four seconds, she let it.

“Sorry, I guess I don’t think about that very much anymore,” she went on with a slightly bashful grin. “It was five years ago. Since then I’ve spent what feels like weeks at a stretch being poked and prodded by the Church and every Pantheon cult that felt like having a go to make sure I’m safe.” She tapped the Talisman of Absolution, pinned in its customary place at her lapel. “Then almost as much time at school, where I had the likes of Tellwyrn and the paladins looming over me. No joke, the first time I met Trissiny Avelea I thought she was gonna have a go at me with her sword, but actually she’s one of the most reasonable people I know. Well, sometimes.” Another nervous chuckle from the crowd. “I don’t feel bad talking about Triss that way because I know she’d agree. Anyway, I understand this is a big deal for the community and I don’t mean to downplay that. It’s just…weird, to me.” She grinned again. “Five years. And it’s just now y’all start complaining?”

“Well, we only just learned about this!” a woman said from the seats, earning widespread mutters of agreement. Teal looked right at her and nodded; she had ordered that the theater lights not be dimmed, both so she could see everyone without being blinded by the stage lights, and so they could all see each other. People behaved differently in the dark.

“Fair enough. And surprising in its own right, isn’t it? But, it is what it is, I guess. Nonetheless…” Teal spread her arms in a shrug, smiling disarmingly. “Here we are. This has been going on for years now, and that’s probably the most reassuring thing I can say. If you were going to be in danger from my demon, believe me, you’d have known about it long since.”

“But this isn’t just some demon!” exclaimed a man in the third row, on the other side of the central aisle from her family. “We’re talking about an archdemon! Vadrieny the Ravager herself!”

Teal nodded at him, opening her mouth to deliver the prepared response she’d planned for exactly that, then paused, frowning in recognition. “Oh, hey. Isn’t it Mr. Telvid?”

The man in question, a gray-haired fellow in his late middle years, looked uncomfortable, as well he might; people who were planning on heckling from the anonymity of a crowd usually didn’t care to take the spotlight themselves, which of course was why she’d done it. Teal had not taken Rafe’s oratory class, but he’d been glad to give her some pointers. That was the thing about Rafe: as much as his classes could be a circus, he was a good teacher who wanted his students to learn, and surprisingly focused when approached alone. Thus, Teal knew important facts about the difference between crowds and individuals, and the means of turning the one into the other.

“Ah, yes, that’s me,” he said awkwardly. “Haman Telvid. I’m surprised you recognize me, Miss— uh, Mrs. Falconer.”

No doubt, otherwise he wouldn’t have opened his mouth. Teal just smiled at him in apparent happiness. “Nonsense, Mr. Telvid, you’ve been a fixture around the factory since before I was born! And now your daughter works there, too. I’m sorry I haven’t seen either of you in forever; I’ve been off at school, mostly.”

Look, everyone, at how personable she was. And get a load of this guy, biting the hand that fed him. It was a cheap way to make the onlookers reconsider their position, but cheap tricks were often the best tricks. To work a crowd that didn’t want to be worked, single out a target.

“Oh, well, I’m retired, ma’am,” he admitted. “As of last year. I, uh, thank you, by the way, for helping my Damania get a job there. I understand she spoke to you before applying.”

The nervousness of being put on the spot often caused people to offer extraneous explanations of things nobody wanted to hear about. And in this case, the suggestion of nepotism might have been damaging to Teal’s position, but she saw an opportunity and pounced.

“What are you talking about?” she asked, tilting her head quizzically. “Damania made it through a degree program at a Svennish engineering school in three years, and she’s your daughter. We’d have been bonkers not to hire her, I didn’t have to… Wait, is that what she told you we were talking about?” Teal laughed lightly, shaking her head. “Oh, no, nothing like that, Mr. Telvid, we were just clearing the air. See, Damania used to bully me when we were kids.”

Once again silence fell, this time under the weight of sheer awkwardness. Telvid went pale, his lips working as he stammered soundlessly and his neighbors turned disapproving stares on him. Not long ago, Teal herself would have found the humiliation crushing. Now, it was a weapon she wielded.

“Man, that’s another thing I haven’t thought about in years,” she said with a reminiscent little grin. “Heh, I remember one time Damania and her friends shoved a wet, muddy dog into a bathroom with me and blocked the door. It takes some real moxie to pick on somebody who can have your entire family fired and run out of the province; in hindsight I almost have to respect that. She even kept at it after I had Vadrieny. I’m afraid the last time she got a bad scare out of it—this would’ve been just before she went off to school—but don’t worry, nothing happened. I don’t believe in violence, Mr. Telvid. It’s not in my nature to retaliate, and Vadrieny respects my convictions. Besides, who isn’t an asshole as a kid?” Teal grinned disarmingly, shrugging again. “I always say, there’s two kinds of people: those who regret stuff they did as teenagers, and liars.”

She got a much bigger laugh from that, which was perfect to let the underlying lesson sink in without making people dwell on it consciously. Telvid’s attempted heckling might have just saved her half her planned presentation; she’d had a whole scheme laid out for subtly delivering her point, but it wasn’t going to be necessary now.

Teal Falconer abhorred violence in all its forms, and she firmly considered threats a form of violence. That put her in a bind, here, because it was necessary to remind these people that she was one of the most powerful women in the province even without the strength of an archdemon backing her up, and if they had a problem with her, at the end of the day there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it. But she couldn’t come out and say that. It was necessary to gently prod them into contemplating the fact without dwelling on it.

In a way, she almost regretted this unexpected expediency; she and Shaeine had planned out a whole routine. They had props and everything. But in the end, what mattered was that the message was received, and she could see on the uncertain expressions behind the laughter that it was sinking in, along with the reminder that Teal Falconer didn’t exert force to punish people who wronged her, even when she so clearly could.

“Well, that’s great and all,” said another woman—this one younger, nobody Teal recognized. She looked like a secondary schooler, in fact, probably here on a lark to judge by the way she slouched back in her seat. “That’s you, though. How can we trust the freaking archdemon Vadrieny to have the same attitude?”

Teal nodded in a gesture of solicitous understanding. This provided a neat segue into the other main point she wanted to make, but it was less of a surprise than Telvid’s interruption. Somebody was bound to have raised this obvious objection, and thus it had been planned for.

“Lemme pose you a question,” she said over the murmurs of agreement that rose in the wake of the laughter, keeping her gaze fixed on the teenager. “What is it that makes you, you?”

She was answered mostly with quiet, though a few people murmured uncertainly. The unfortunate girl at whom Teal stared with a friendly smile shifted uncomfortably in her chair, glancing around her as if uncertain whether the question had been addressed to her personally. In the habit of adolescent loners everywhere, she had chosen a spot with no close neighbors.

Teal waited for the girl to mumble out an uncertain “Um,” before rescuing her, smiling kindly.

“Sorry, that must sound pretty out of the blue, I guess. Well, let me put it another way: if you lost you memories—and I mean, all of them, everything that formed your whole life and history and had to start over with a completely blank slate… Would you still be the same person?”

At that point she finally relented, raising her eyes to look about at the expressions of the crowd. Confused, pensive, annoyed… There didn’t seem to be a single consensus with regard to how they felt about this line of questioning.

“I ask,” said Teal the instant she calculated this confusion had gone on long enough, “because that is what happened to Vadrieny. The event that caused her to be bound to me was… Well, nobody’s been able to figure out exactly what happened, but it destroyed all the other archdemons. She only barely survived. And in the process, the trauma wiped out her mind. There was only barely enough of her left for the Church’s scholars to identify her. Everything… Everyone Vadrieny used to be, is gone. She’s had only the last five years, and my company, to rebuild an identity for herself. So, as to exactly who and what she is…” Teal shrugged lopsidedly. “That’s a huge question, one I don’t know how to even begin answering. But what I can tell you is that the person sharing my body isn’t anybody who deserves to be called the Ravager.”

There was, of course, more muttering at that—the sound of the people in the audience talking to themselves and each other, not to her. It seemed no one was inclined to speak up in response to that. Perhaps it was partly because she had by now demonstrated she’d single out anyone who tried to become the new center of attention, but even so, the lack of anyone shouting “Bullshit!” was a positive sign. This was going better than Teal had expected it to be by this point in the evening.

She glanced aside to meet her spouse’s garnet eyes; Shaeine inclined her head in an infinitesimal nod, the nigh-imperceptible expression on her face encouraging. Likely only Teal and Nahil, out of all those present, could perceive that she had communicated anything at all. From within, Vadrieny sent her a wordless and complex push of emotion that was signaled readiness and trust that this was going according to plan. The archdemon had been silently watching thus far; she was out of her element in this theater, but knew the part she must play.

Teal made a show of looking from one side of the room to the other, not actually looking at anyone or for anything but suggesting a conspiratorial attitude that was heightened when she leaned forward toward the crowd as if whispering to them.

“Would you like to meet her?”

That brought up more muttering, louder and more alarmed this time, but that was still about the best Teal had dared expect at the idea. She gave them a second to chunner to themselves before fixing her gaze back on the teenager near the front, grinning and raising her eyebrows in a carefully crafted expression that was challenging without being overt enough to be called out for it.

Perhaps a more socially adept youth wouldn’t have bought the bait, but this girl frowned and straightened up in her seat.

“Hell yeah, let’s meet her,” she said, her voice ringing through the theater. “I wanna see what all the fuss is about.”

“You got it,” Teal promised. “Now, nobody worry. I think you might be surprised.”

Leave them on an open-ended statement to keep interest; she could have promised that Vadrieny was perfectly safe, if she wanted to open up the floor to doubts and challenges. As it was, she had everyone’s undivided attention when she took three steps to the side, away from the lectern, and began to transform.

This, too, they had practiced. Vadrieny’s physical emergence was, of course, a familiar process, and one they could complete instantaneously, but that wouldn’t do here. Thus, the two of them had worked out a way to make a whole performance of it.

Teal closed her eyes, lifting her chin and smoothing her expression as if she were slipping into a meditative state. She inhaled deeply, her chest swelling and shoulders drawing back, and made that ascending motion a part of the first stage of the transformation, continuing to rise smoothly in a shift that kept attention on her upper body until the snap of one of her rubber sandals breaking brought eyes to the great talons on which she now stood, prompting a few gasps and one muffled cry from the audience.

She lifted her hands then, holding them at chest height and flexing the fingers, expression shifting into a frown as if this required concentration. The onlookers murmured nervously as, with aching slowness, Teal’s graceful fingers elongated and blackened, transforming before their eyes into Vadrieny’s wicked claws. Once they were fully extended, she flexed them each and then lowered them to her sides, her expression clearing into a small, satisfied smile.

The next part had been the hard one to work out, testing their control over their shared form, but once they got the hang of it, repeating the process had proved pretty easy. The first sparks of fire danced across Teal’s hair, sliding backward over the crown of her head as if someone had set a match to her, which of course caused even more exclamations from the audience. Flames caught and spread quickly, growing to a sheet of orange light which encompassed her head, and then she tossed it back and forth as if shaking out her hair. On cue, Vadrieny’s longer wreath of fire soared out behind, waving avidly about her head entirely unlike Teal’s own short trim.

At that there were actually appreciative oohs from the audience, and Teal was certain she had them.

The wings were last, and in contrast to the meticulously slow emergence of every other demonic feature, they snapped outward in a single powerful motion which swept a gust of air through the theater, ruffling the stage’s curtains and drawing gasps from the onlookers.

Two people applauded. They trailed off almost immediately as no one joined them, but it was all Teal could do to repress her satisfaction. Fortunately, by that point Vadrieny was in control, so she didn’t have to try.

The archdemon finally opened her eyes, gazing out across the theater, and blinked once, languidly.

Then, as they had practiced, she shrank in on herself slightly, hunching her shoulders and raising one clawed hand to cover the lower part of her face, her wings lowering almost to the point of trailing on the floor of the stage. Her eyes, devoid as they were of pupils, didn’t easily convey the act of glancing nervously about, forcing her to shift her head slightly this way and that to do it, but this part had been practiced with great care using mirrors and feedback from Shaeine (Ruda had laughed too hard to be useful) until they had refined the performance into a suitably endearing display of bashfulness.

“Um.” The demon’s glorious, polyphonic voice resonated without need of the projection charm, even when expressed in an awkward syllable like that. “I, uh… Sorry. I’m not very…” Vadrieny paused and swallowed hard enough to make the shifting in her throat visible, not easy to do from up on stage, then emitted a shaky and obviously forced laugh. “Well, I’ve heard more people are afraid of public speaking than death, but until right now I thought that was idiotic. I owe somebody an apology.”

The crowd was staring and whispering avidly, and at that, some actually laughed. Nervously, but they did.

You’re doing fantastic, Teal’s consciousness whispered from within her. I’d never have guessed you’d be such a good actress!

I’m just barely faking! Vadrieny shot back silently, still peering nervously about the room. Why is this so scary? We’ve fought monsters and zombies and demons and—

Because you’re a person, and social pressure is powerful. It’s okay, love, you’ve got this. I’m right here with you. Remember your lines.

Vadrieny nodded; she hadn’t intended to do so physically and then cringed, but fortunately both gestures were in keeping with the impression they were trying to convey. As she’d pointed out, it was a mostly accurate impression, so perhaps some fumbling on her part wouldn’t sink the whole performance.

But as it turned out, she never got to deliver her next lines.

A single figure stood up from the audience, where he’d been seated six rows back from the stage right on the aisle. Dressed in a long brown robe with an all-concealing hood, he was taller by a head than anyone else here save Vadrieny herself, and should have been one of the more distinctly noticeable people in the room for those reasons alone. Yet this was the first time she had noticed him. To judge by the looks he was getting from the surrounding audience members, she wasn’t the only one.

Then he lowered his hood and produced gasps and outcries to rival Vadrieny’s emergence.

The hood revealed a lean, graceful face, with smooth blond hair drawn back in a tight tail and eyes that were glowing jewels of gold. His armor, too, was gold, revealed as he dropped the robe to let it puddle around his feet. In fact, that armor couldn’t have been concealed under that robe without distorting it awkwardly. Clearly the disguise had been more magic than cloth, and both his concealment and the panache with which he discarded it showed a solid appreciation for drama. And, more importantly, a skill at executing drama. Teal respected that.

Ampophrenon the Gold had to stare upward at the archdemon, but he still conveyed the impression of looming over her. Dragons were like that.

“Do you know me?” he asked, not loudly, but his resonant baritone ringing through the theater regardless.

Vadrieny proceeded on mincing steps, careful not to scratch the stage with her talons, to stand at its very edge and peer at him. “You are… You must be Ampophrenon, am I right? Please forgive me if I messed up the name, it’s even more of a mouthful than mine. But you’re somewhat well known, the only gold dragon attached to the Conclave embassy in the capital.”

He inclined his head once in acknowledgment, his expression still inscrutable. “Correct. But that is public information. Do you know me?”

She frowned. “I don’t understand. I just…” Catching on, Vadrieny leaned backward slightly. “Oh. Did we meet…before?”

“We…interacted.” The dragon succeeded in making his tone wry without detracting from its solemnity, to Teal’s great admiration. “Whether it could be said that we met is subject to debate. You and I were both there, at the final battle of the Third Hellwar. You gave me some respectable scratches, Vadrieny. In turn, I pummeled you to the point of insensibility and hurled you bodily back through the portal into Hell.”

Dead silence had fallen in the theater as everyone stared at this confrontation, barely daring to breathe.

Slowly, Vadrieny nodded. “I’m sorry, but I have nothing left from that time. Nothing before I was bonded to Teal. I guess I should thank you, then.”

Ampophrenon raised his eyebrows. “Thank me?”

“I doubt I would have done so at the time,” she said. “Still, I’ve been told something of…of what I was like. That was undoubtedly the best thing to do. For this world, and probably even for me. I…suspect I didn’t make it easy?”

“You were a most respectable challenge, yes,” he said with the ghost of a smile. “Teal Falconer’s question is quite pertinent. If someone’s memory is wholly scoured away, are they still the same person they were before? I have mulled this question at length, with regard to you. At other times, it is little but an exercise for philosophers. In your case? The stakes are significant. And so, truly, you remember nothing?”

“Not…nothing,” she said slowly. She didn’t need Teal’s urging to warn her that it would be best, here, to be fully forthright. “Just nothing of me. Once in a while, there will be a…a flicker of recognition. Some basic knowledge of Hell that I don’t know how I could have learned. Nothing that’s helped me piece together my life from before, or why Elilial sent me here. Did this to me, and destroyed my sisters. I can’t even remember them.” Vadrieny closed her burning eyes. “We’ve gone to the Desolate Gardens, seen the Great Tree and the site of that battle. I thought if anything would bring back a memory… But nothing. Everyone, all our friends from Last Rock, say it’s probably for the best. My history wasn’t a good one to have, as Trissiny pointed out. I agree. It’s just…”

She trailed off, not knowing what she truly meant. Opening her eyes, Vadrieny saw the dragon nod once in understanding, oddly enough. Then again, he did have all his thousands of years of memory. Perhaps it made sense he would have enough perspective to understand her.

“So it is said,” Ampophrenon acknowledged. “Yet I have still wondered. You were always a brute, Vadrieny, but your mother is the very embodiment of deception. It seems foolhardy in the extreme to assume you are exactly what you say.”

Vadrieny drew herself fully upright, raising her wings in a threatening display, and flexed her talons. “Now you hear this, dragon.” Teal clamored frantically for her to calm down, but she pressed on. “My mother’s name is Marguerite Falconer. She is who cared for me when I was terrified and lost in this world, despite the danger I presented, and even though she had reason to hate me for what happened to Teal. Whatever Elilial was to the Vadrieny you knew, to me, she’s only a historical figure who has committed more slaughter and destruction than it would be possible to tally up. To the extent I have a personal tie to her, Elilial’s just the reason my sisters are dead, and I am reduced to sharing someone’s body. That’s what all her scheming has brought me. I’m not even going to argue with you, because we all know you’re right. She could plan something that underhanded. If I knew what Elilial was plotting, I would tell you. I don’t trust this peace of hers, but I’ll abide by it until either she or the Pantheon breaks the terms. But I reject Elilial and all her plots. I am not hers, and she is nothing to me.”

Ampophrenon just nodded. “I have watched you as carefully as I could since you emerged, Vadrieny. The Church and the Empire both sought to keep your presence discreet, but to one with my means, there are ways of keeping informed. It has been easier, I must say, since you have been studying under Arachne’s tutelage. I took care to receive ample reports of your activities, and study them in detail. I have seen the records of your actions, at Sarasio, at Lor’naris, at Veilgrad, and most strikingly, at Ninkabi. You have protected whoever you could, and shown a strange reluctance to bloody your claws. I could scarcely credit it, but the reports were unanimous. And then, there was Ninkabi, where you attacked Elilial herself.”

“Not that anything came of that,” she said sourly.

“Even symbolic actions matter,” he disagreed, “and gods are not so easily brought low. Perhaps it is only paranoia on my part that has maintained my suspicions. Yet, for those of us who have held back Elilial’s works for these thousands of years, to see her deviousness lurking in every shadow becomes a habit necessary for life itself.”

Vadrieny drew in a breath and let it out in a sigh, allowing her wings to slump again. “Well… That’s not unreasonable, I suppose. You’ll believe what you need to believe. That being the case, there’s nothing I could say to convince you anyway, is there?”

He studied her in silence for two heartbeats, and then, very faintly, smiled again. “At some point, one must have faith, if only because to live without it is not living at all. Perhaps it is a small thing, but it seems to me that Trissiny Avelea trusts you. And I only had the opportunity to meet her quite recently. I have known many Hands of Avei over the centuries, you see. It must be said that more of them than otherwise are rather blunt instruments—not unlike I remember you to be, Vadrieny. But the truly exceptional among them have always been the wisest and most canny individuals I was blessed to know. This one, I judge, will go on to be remembered as one of the greatest. A small thing, yes, but in the end, sometimes it is one straw which breaks the donkey’s back.”

To her amazement, the dragon stepped back, and bowed to her. Shallowly, shifting his upper body just far enough that he had no trouble maintaining eye contact, but he did it.

“I am five years too late to welcome you to this world, it seems. Regardless, Vadrieny, I hope that you find a purpose and a good life here. Madouris will be blessed indeed to count you its protector.”

She blinked her fiery eyes once, suddenly feeling very awkward. “Well, I… Thank you, I guess.”

So intense was their contest of personalities that Vadrieny—and Teal—had actually forgotten there was a whole theater full of people as an audience to this. Thus, it took them both by surprise when everyone burst into applause.

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16 – 33

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What did you do, Ravana?”

Not even a minute after materializing in her own mansion; they must have been waiting in ambush by the teleportation chamber. The young Duchess indulged in a half-second to scowl dourly at the far wall before putting on a polite smile and turning to face her accuser, deliberately ignoring Veilwin’s smirk.

“And hello to you, too, Teal. I trust you are having a pleasant day?”

Teal and Shaeine had both approached, accompanied by F’thaan pacing between them. At a single hand gesture from Shaeine, he laid down on the floor, lowering his head to rest on his front paws, and Ravana experienced a moment of weary envy. If only all her human subjects were so well-trained… But the pair before her demanded her full attention; the drow was serene as ever, the human decidedly less so.

“That’s great, Ravana, be glib with me,” Teal said, uncharacteristically acerbic for her. “What is it about my face right now that makes you think that’s going to smooth this over? Just answer the question.”

“I’m afraid I’ll need you to be considerably more specific, Teal.”

Teal stared, incredulous. “Is this a joke to you?”

“I believe I informed you that this would be a working vacation for me. Do you have any idea how many thing I have done since breakfast? Even narrowing the field to those which would upset you is surprisingly unhelpful.”

“Is that so surprising, really?” Shaeine murmured. Ravana and Teal both gave her long looks of pure annoyance, under which she just smiled beatifically.

Teal drew in a breath, turning the force of her glare back on Ravana. “I’m told there was a protest outside the gates of Falconer Industries this morning.”

“Ah, yes, I heard about that,” Ravana said in her blandest tone. “Well, people are legally allowed to protest on public property, so long as they remain peaceful. I trust that was the case?”

“Are we really going to do this?” Teal exclaimed. “You know what, fine, I’ll play. Yes, it was peaceful, at first. People marched in a circle shouting and carrying signs, and while we could have called in police because they were blocking the main entrance, Dad decided to just route deliveries through side gates since there was nothing to be gained by agitating people more. But then some more folks joined in, hours after it had started, and wouldn’t you know it? Within minutes they started throwing rocks, and the police had to step in.”

“What contemptible behavior,” Ravana said seriously. “I do hope no one was harmed.”

Teal stared at her, then shifted her focus. “Yancey, I am an avowed pacifist. If I grab your boss and start shaking her, you can be assured that’s all I’m going to do.”

The Butler gave her a shallow bow. “It is not my place to intercede in horseplay between friends, madam. I do respectfully ask that you remain mindful of the Duchess’s dignity while in mixed company.”

“Yes, well,” Ravana said, permitting some annoyance to enter her tone, “if we are quite finished, I have innumerable things still to do today, many of which you would not enjoy seeing. If you will excuse me?”

“I have always admired your optimism, Ravana,” Shaeine said placidly.

“Oh, I wasn’t finished with my little story,” Teal snapped. “You see, Ravana, just because my dad is a little absent-minded does not mean Falconer Industries is managed by fools. Mom was having the whole situation watched very carefully, and you know some interesting stuff she spotted? People with lightcappers on the rooftops all around, House Madouri guards forming up in actual phalanxes in the alleys nearby long before any rock-throwing started. That was my favorite part, as I’m sure you can imagine. You know what your problem is, Ravana?”

“I am incredulous that you think you know what my problem is, Teal,” she said coolly. “But please, do go on. This promises to be most amusing.”

“You seem to think,” Teal said in just as frosty a tone, “that everybody who doesn’t share your reptilian approach to life—which is to say, everybody—is dumber than you. And in truth? You’re pretty transparent. I am not a politically acute specimen, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that. If I spotted your little game, you had better assume anyone with an interest in local politics did.”

That comment nettled, though Ravana did not betray it by so much as a twitch. “Well, then. Since you believe you have all the answers, I must wonder why you came here demanding to know what I did?”

“The lightcaps were to discredit the protesters, correct?” Shaeine asked, her tone a mild as ever. “I gather we can expect to see them in tomorrow’s papers, accompanying articles decrying this disruptive violence. A clever move, Ravana, if rather nearsighted.”

Ravana frowned, opening her mouth to answer, but Teal had already pushed ahead.

“Omnu’s breath, Ravana, those are your people! You’ve built your entire image on how well you take care of your citizens. Is that all a lie, or have you actually twisted it around in your head to the point where corrupting a peaceful demonstration so you can unleash shock troopers on them is somehow in their own best interests? Because frankly, I’d believe either.”

“I do say you are awfully exercised about this,” Ravana retorted. “Everyone at that asinine protest was given full medical care and then allowed to go home unrestrained. If they acquired some bruises as a prelude to that remarkably gentle handling, what of it? May I remind you, Teal, that these people were specifically protesting your existence? This was not about any policy or action of FI; they were agitated to demand your removal from the city.”

“They were agitated,” Shaeine repeated with emphasis. “For once, Ravana, think beyond the enemy right in front of you. Falconer Industries and its founding family are perhaps the only people in this province more well thought of than yourself; was that not the core of your father’s venom toward them? Surely it would demand more than the revelation of an awkward family secret to incite even that much meager outrage.”

“Archdemon’s a hell of a family secret,” Veilwin commented. Ravana turned a baleful look upon her Court Wizard, who was guzzling from her acrid-smelling silver flask and looking unconvincingly innocent.

“Indeed, and that is another point,” Shaeine continued. “Vadrieny made herself an extremely visible presence at the crises in Sarasio, Veilgrad, and Ninkabi. In point of fact, the recent event is not even the first time she forcibly apprehended a criminal in Tiraas itself. The last one, furthermore, was a soldier in the Imperial Army. She also damaged the pavement then, as I recall,” the drow added, shooting her wife a sidelong look. Teal grimaced. “And yet, somehow, it is this which incites people to worry about her? Or more specifically, incites the papers to begin reporting on the story of Vadrieny rather than repressing it.”

“That’s not so hard to understand,” said Ravana. “The story hasn’t been in papers yet because both the Empire and the Universal Church have used their influence to silence it. Clearly, one has lapsed.”

“Not lapsed,” Teal said grimly. “A lapse would still not have blown up like this, and a more belated suppression effort would have ensued as soon as those papers hit the newsstands, long before anyone could organize a protest. This is a reversal; one of the factions suppressing the story suddenly started pushing it, instead. I suspect you know which.”

“I am not completely thoughtless, Teal,” Ravana retorted. “Shut up, Veilwin. I did not make a public statement of support for Ingvar’s faction and against the orthodox Shaathists without expecting retaliation from their primary backer. Not to mention that I’m currently harboring all three paladins while they maneuver to undercut his influence within their cults—influence which we must assume means he has been forewarned of their efforts. Justinian sniping at me was inevitable; I am only surprised he chose you as the method. Though with you also in your classmates’ camp, perhaps that only makes sense.”

“But consider this,” said Shaeine. “The events you describe are developments specifically of the last week. I doubt you were anywhere on the Archpope’s agenda prior to that, as to the best of my knowledge you, like most aristocrats, have kept out of religious politics.” She waited for Ravana’s terse nod of agreement before going on. “Justinian is a careful operator who clearly makes plans over the span of years. Given your political power, throwing your hat into the ring means he has no choice but to begin dealing with you, but even under urgency, a man like that will examine you and act carefully. You are being studied, Ravana. He will continued to probe at you to watch how you respond.”

“Yes,” Ravana said impatiently, crossing her arms, “and today he learned that meddling in my affairs will be swiftly thwarted. I am satisfied with the day’s work.”

“That is one thing he has learned, yes,” Shaeine said relentlessly. “You have also shown that you can be very easily goaded into reacting with force, and that you are willing to attack your own people to snuff out a perceived threat. That is the first major weakness you have revealed, as your people are your entire power base, given House Madouri’s unpopularity among the other nobility. Were I in the Archpope’s position, the lesson I would have taken from this day’s work is that you can be prodded into undermining yourself.”

Ravana hesitated, narrowing her eyes, then turned her gaze on the source of the soft grunt of amusement that came from her right.

“What’re you glarin’ at me for?” Veilwin asked sardonically, taking another swig from her flask. “Everything they’ve said is right.”

“This is not the kind of issue you’re going to resolve with exercises of force,” Teal stated, recapturing her attention. “Even you don’t have the wherewithal to trade body blows with the Universal Church and come out on top. And more importantly, you’d lose that contest because Justinian is too smart to engage in a conflict of attrition, even one he can win. Look, Ravana, you’re not wrong to come out of the gate swinging; I think Triss, Gabe, and Toby would really appreciate having another source of pressure applied to him.”

“But?” she prompted sardonically.

“But, it’s not enough to just thwart his first feeler, for exactly that reason. You need to turn it around on him.”

“For your edification, that was my first thought, as well. The reason for that drama at the gates of FI was so I could have my witch scan every person at that rally for hostile intent and cast a tracing spell that would lead me from the planted agents back to the bigger fish. I don’t yet know how successful the plan was, because I have only just this moment returned from attending to yet another crisis on the far end of my province, and as someone intercepted me with loud complaints right in my very teleportation chamber…”

“All right, fair enough,” Teal said with a dour ghost of a smile. “And that’s a good start, but still. You can see how tenuous it is, right? Espionage and magical supremacy; that’s another game very few people are equipped to play against Justinian, not even you. There’s a better means of creating a real win from this.”

“I am terribly apprehensive,” Ravana said, “but…intrigued. Let us hear your idea, then, Teal.”

“Well, Ravana,” Teal said, her little smile widening without growing significantly warmer, “you might say I’ve taken a page from your book.”

“Hm,” Ravana murmured, staring at her. “I begin to see what you mean. That is viscerally horrifying and I haven’t even learned why yet.” Even Shaeine smiled at that; Veilwin snorted so hard she nearly choked on her…seriously, what was in that flask? Varnish remover?

“All I mean is that I’ve taken steps to do what I think is necessary without waiting to consult with you. Consider this from the standpoint of the people demonstrating, Ravana. They’re not sheep, which I know is what you were thinking; manipulation aside, it is not the least bit unreasonable to be concerned about the presence of an archdemon among them. So I’m going to allay the public’s concerns. I have rented out a theater near the factory for tonight, and had fliers printed. They’ll be put up within the hour. We are going to have us an old-fashioned town hall meeting. The people of Madouris can come and voice their concerns, and I will address them, in person. And, if things stay calm enough, so will Vadrieny.”

Ravana stared at her, aghast.

“The extremely short notice works to our advantage,” Shaeine added. “We’ve notified papers to have reporters on site, the better to further control the story that you’ve planted in tomorrow’s editions. Relatively few others, however, will learn of this in time to attend, which should inhibit the formation of a mob. There is a limit to what can be arranged in a few hours. Certain interested parties will plant agents, of course, giving us another chance to check for any who slipped your net—or cross-reference names of individuals who appear at both events.”

“Teal,” Ravana said weakly, “what’s a way to put this gently… No, it turns out there’s not one. This is a terrible idea. You cannot reason with a mob! You can possibly reason with an individual, if you are very lucky in whom you meet, but a group? The bigger they are, the more irrational—”

“And the more predictable,” Teal interrupted. “You’re right, crowds are purely emotional, and that means that no, you can’t reason with them. But you can manipulate them. Ravana, what is it you think a bard does?”

“At this moment the greater question is to what extent you qualify as a bard!”

Teal’s eyes cut past Ravana’s shoulder to her Butler. “Yancey, I’m gonna bonk her.”

“Do please exercise due restraint, Mrs. Falconer.”

“Don’t you da—” Ravana was interrupted again, this time by Teal lightly bringing down a fist atop her skull, nowhere near hard enough to hurt.

“Consider yourself bonked,” Teal said severely, “and refrain from further personal attacks, if you please.”

“I do believe that transgressed both the letter and the spirit of principled pacifism.”

“You’re fine.”

“You have mussed my hair, you lamentable hooligan!” she complained, reaching up to smooth down her coif.

“And somehow, the House of Madouri will soldier on. Ravana, this has been the focus of my entire last semester. Spiteful commentary aside, you’re not without a point; I haven’t done much of a job of being a bard worthy of the name, hence why I have been studying this using every resource Last Rock has. How familiar are you with the career of Laressa of Anteraas?”

“Laressa?” Ravana wrinkled her nose. “A unique historical figure, to be sure. Without doubt the most interesting Hand of Avei, though not one of the more effective.”

Teal and Shaeine shared a very meaningful, very married look, and Ravana had to suppress the sudden urge to slap it off both their faces.

“Principle is less relevant here than strategy,” Shaeine said, turning back to her. “I presume you can agree on that point?”

“I’m sure you’re aware that is a very familiar perspective for me.”

Teal nodded, making a wry expression for which Ravana chose not to call her out. “Strategic pacifism is another matter. Honestly, I think you’d quite like it if you gave it a chance.”

She arched one supercilious eyebrow. “I will entertain any philosophy which brings results. I cannot help thinking it is signification that this one has not come notably to my attention before now.”

“Of course it’s significant,” Teal snorted. “You like to hurt people, Ravana. You do it even to the point of sabotaging your own interests.”

“You are saying I’m some sort of sadist?” Ravana exclaimed, offended and openly letting it show through her aristocratic facade of poise.

“Sadistic, no,” said Shaeine. “Not necessarily. Vindictive? Very much so, often to excess.”

“Whenever you feel you’ve been thwarted or defied,” said Teal, “you strike back. As hard as you can, with whatever you can grab. It’s a known pattern, Ravana—and more to the point, it’s an exploitable weakness. You’d better believe the Archpope has taken note of it. If you mean to tangle with him, you need to break with old patterns, and not just because some of your patterns are particularly disturbing.”

“And this brings us, somehow, to pacifism,” Ravana said skeptically.

“Strategic pacifism,” Teal emphasized. “Which, in practice, is a matter of weaving traps around your enemies until any violent action on their part will cost them support, make them enemies, and hamper their ability to move. The proper application of strategic pacifism means building a cage of matchsticks around your foes so that they’ll break the bars without realizing that cage was the only thing keeping them out of the pit you’ve dug at their feet.”

“Evocative,” Ravana admitted. “But…”

“When I say the word ‘pacifist’ you probably imagine the Omnist or Izarite desire for everyone to just get along. That’s the mistake a lot of people make; it’s the mistake I made and committed to for an embarrassingly long time. Proper, effective pacifism is more in the Vesker and Vidian mold, arranging the very world around you so that people slide into the grooves you’ve laid out for them without realizing what you did. Laressa of Anteraas was probably the most effective Hand of Avei who ever lived, and the very fact that you don’t realize that is the lion’s share of why; neither did the long list of people she thwarted without ever having to draw their blood. Don’t take my word for it, Ravana, read up on her. What I’m talking about is an arsenal of weapons you would find very effective, if you weren’t so enamored of the idea of sticking it to those who’ve offended you.”

“More immediately,” Shaeine added before Ravana could give voice to the skepticism still on her face, “this is very much the strategy which has just been used against you. A very careful trap was arranged, and you reacted to it with force. Are you truly arrogant enough to assume that a planner capable of executing such a thing would have failed to research your established habits and anticipate what you would probably do? In the days to come, the backlash you have just created will threaten your own rule, Ravana. Unless you allow us to neutralize it, and turn this into a victory.”

“That’s all…very well,” she said slowly. “Your philosophy hangs together nicely, Teal, but philosophy is a tool with starkly limited utility. It is results I respect, and… Teal, I must be brutally honest with you. I doubt your ability to control a crowd.”

“Don’t,” Teal said immediately, wearing a calm and self-confident smile. Shaeine took her hand, her eyes warm and proud as she regarded her wife. “This is what I’ve been training for, Ravana. All this semester I’ve done research projects for Tellwyrn’s class on Vesker heroes, taken Rafe’s elective on public speaking, put off every core class to fill my schedule with bardic studies. I can understand your wariness; I know I spent a lot of time daydreaming out loud like a moony-eyed farmgirl. But that was then. I am ready for this.”

“She is,” Shaeine agreed, her voice soft but firm. “I acknowledge that I am in no way unbiased regarding Teal, but my people are ruthlessly practical, as you have cause to know, Ravana. We do not encourage our loved ones to take unwise risks, even at the expense of their egos. A Narisian would rather have a living and hale spouse with hurt feelings than the reverse, and I still marvel that so many humans seem to feel otherwise. She is capable of controlling that crowd.”

“It’s a performance,” Teal added, still smiling. “That’s all. Regardless of our differing opinions about people, I am not naive enough to put my trust in something so irrational as a mob. You don’t reason with crowds, and you don’t take them for granted, you’re right about that. You pull their strings, push their buttons, and make them do as you command. It’s a matter of technique. With all due respect, Ravana, I am probably better at it than you.”

Ravana held her gaze for a long moment, then shifted to regard Shaeine. The drow just nodded to her once. Sighing softly, she glanced to the side at Veilwin, who had retreated to slouch against one wall, and now shrugged at her. She did not look back at Yancey; he only occasionally rendered advice, but only when explicitly asked, and never in front of others.

“Well,” the Duchess said at last, “the reality is that you have rented this space and commissioned the fliers. It is within your legal right to host a public event, per the Writ of Duties and, somewhat more pragmatically speaking, your material resources and status in the province. I could not stop you without resorting to unfriendly measures which would create consequences I think you know I am not willing to embrace. The deal is, in a word, done.” She twisted her lips bitterly in an expression that only obliquely hinted at a smile. “A page from my book indeed.”

“And that is the point of this exactly,” Teal said, leveling a finger at her. “Yes, I could very easily have just up and done this, like you did with your stunt outside my family’s factory this very morning. Instead, I am here, informing you of my actions, so you can plan around them, and I that I can ask you to cooperate with me. Surely you can see it’s insanity for us to constantly trip each other up when we have exactly the same enemy. Quite part from being stupid, that’s handing him a perfect weapon to turn against us.”

“Again, yes, philosophically you make a compelling case, but I am not sure I see the relevance. What is it you are asking of me, exactly? Just to stay out of your way? You’ve already seen to it I have little choice; this seems to be rubbing salt in the wound.”

Teal clapped a hand over her eyes, leaning her head back with a dramatic groan. Shaeine just sighed and shook her head. On the floor between their feet, F’thaan raised his head, looking up at his people in concern.

“I am going to slap you both!” Ravana exclaimed.

“I would welcome that,” Shaeine told her with a shallow bow and a benign smile that managed to suggest mockery without being overt enough to be called out; she was almost as good at that as a Butler. “It would be perhaps the first show of genuine emotion you have ever granted either of us. Which is not to say I would permit you to do it, of course.”

“Ravana…” Teal dragged her hand down her face. “Could you please, for just one moment, try to see the world through the eyes of someone who had been hugged once or twice as a child?”

“That does it! Veilwin, hex her!”

“Fuck off,” her employee snorted. “You are not rich enough to hire me to cast shit at an archdemon.”

“That was needlessly spiteful, my love,” Shaeine agreed with gentle reproach.

“You’re right, I apologize, Ravana, that was over the line. But you are just so frustrating!” Teal mimed a grabbing motion with both hands, as if throttling an imaginary Duchess. “Not everyone who contradicts your wishes is an enemy! Quite often, the opposite; I am trying to help you.”

“What we ask,” Shaeine said more smoothly, “is restraint. We want you to trust that we know what we are doing, and stay your hand while we make the attempt. This maneuver has been planned carefully; if it fails, the situation will not have markedly changed, and you can proceed as you were. But if it succeeds, it will change the landscape, to your benefit. Please have faith in Teal, Ravana. Watch, wait, and let her work.”

“And if this does work,” Teal added, “I want you to remember it. And don’t ever again stick your fingers unilaterally into Falconer business. Work with us, not around us. I promise everything will go much better with us working together than trying to one-up each other in some asinine game of checkers with Madouris as the board. The truth is, Ravana, I haven’t been a very good friend to you, or a particularly good ally. You deserve the credit for being the one to reach out. I’m trying to meet you halfway, but for that to work, you can’t just reach from atop your throne. Work with me.”

The Duchess hesitated, again glancing back and forth between them. “Faith…is not something which comes…naturally to me.”

“I know,” Teal said simply. “And more to the point, you have excellent reason for your general feeling that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. But having excellent reasons doesn’t make it true, Ravana. Trust me, and let me handle this. Let it be the start of a better working relationship.”

“The consequences if you fail…”

“Are as I said,” Shaeine reminded her gently. “No worse than the situation as it stands now. She must prove herself at some point, and there may never be a better opportunity.”

Ravana’s thin shoulders shifted once in a soft sigh. “All right, Teal. Shaeine. All that being said, I suppose I cannot reasonably deny you. I’ll stay my hand, for now, and watch what you accomplish tonight. Tomorrow, when the results begin to take shape… We shall see. You deserve that much trust, at least.”

They both smiled at her.

“You will not regret this,” Teal promised.

“I very much fear I shan’t have time to. This has all been very profound and cathartic, but at this moment I have to receive reports on a dozen urgent matters, prepare myself to attend a politically crucial social event in Veilgrad this evening, and it seems there is also an unconfirmed but not inconsiderable possibility that the world is ending. I feel someone really ought to address that. Now then, if you will excuse me?”

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16 – 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something scared it,” said Mittsin.

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

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

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

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

“Wings!” Mittsin said suddenly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is…is something wrong?” Hilden asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elves?” Mittsin asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Depends on who it is,” he murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, Kheshiri, ever the pessimist.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now, you listen—”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabriel frowned. “What kind of therapy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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16 – 21

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The spectacle they’d made in the sanctuary sufficiently distracted everyone that Trissiny and her entourage were able to make a relatively discreet withdrawal, leaving behind an agitated temple filled with exited visitors, distraught Purists, and Legionnaires rapidly moving to ensure the crowd remained under control. The paladin glanced back once just before stepping through a rear door of the sanctuary, and locked eyes just for a moment with Sister Magden, who had knelt to wrap her arms around the weeping Lanora’s shoulders.

Then they were moving through the relatively quieter halls beyond, the whole group sorting into rough columns of two abreast and making for the deeper temple where there would be fewer people.

By mutual contrivance, Rasha and Zafi ended up near the back of the troop, between Sister Azalea’s two priestess friends in the front and the other three Eserites trailing along behind them.

“Well, that…was altogether a hell of a thing,” Zafi finally said softly after they had walked for a minute to only the sound of their combined feet and the muted conversation between Trissiny and Azalea up in the front. “Mission successful and all. I’m glad those turkeys got dealt with. Dang, though. I did not get up this morning expecting to be in a room with Avei.”

Rasha opened her mouth and hesitated, fumbling for a suitable response to that. She had to pause and clear her throat for time, only belatedly murmuring, “That particular experience was a first for all of us, I think. But you get used to it, hanging around with a paladin. Expect the unexpectable, or be trampled by it.”

“I dunno whether to write this off as over my pay grade, or try to see if I can’t finagle a more permanent position around the General,” Zafi admitted. “I dunno, I think I’d make a pretty good lackey. I guess I’ll just have to hang around you a while longer and see if I don’t get the hang of it,” she added, giving Rasha a playful little sidelong smile. “After all, if I can’t pick up some secondhand poise from my lady of mystery, I guess that’d make me completely hopeless.”

There came a gagging sound from behind them, followed by the muffled thump of someone’s fist impacting someone’s midsection. Neither of them turned around.

“I think I can spare you some poise,” Rasha mused. She trailed off, frowning, then drew in a breath. “Look, Zafi, this coy back-and-forth is fun, but would it spoil the illusion if we talk frankly for a little bit? Between you and me, I’m a little wrung out after the day I’ve had.”

“Oh, thank the gods,” Zafi said, exhaling in relief. “Yeah, I honestly don’t know how much longer I could’ve kept it up. Not that I was trying to misrepresent myself, I just… Well, I gotta flirt at maximum strength before you realize how out of my league you are, is all.”

Rasha glanced at her, unable to repress a smile, and found the soldier staring forward with her cheeks flushed. The unexpected boost to her own ego brought back some of her well-trained smoothness, despite the fatigue of the day.

“Straight talk, then. When are you off duty tomorrow?”

Zafi didn’t quite stumble, but her stride hitched as if she’d had to remind herself how to take a step in the middle of one. “Uh, I, ah… Early shift. I’m free at three.”

“Perfect. There’s a Glassian cafe called La Chez just a few blocks from here. I will see you there at four.”

“I, um.” Zafi swallowed heavily. “Rasha, that place is a little out of…”

“My treat,” Rasha assured her. “And I’m not throwing money around; the owner is a friend of my sponsor. She got him his business license when he immigrated here. After that, we’ll see if we want to start traumatizing each other with the sorts of places soldiers and thieves actually like to hang out.” She glanced over at the Legionnaire again, and subconsciously bit her lower lip. “I’ve got a feeling you’re worth the effort.”

Zafi’s answering grin was clearly out of her control. “I…will not disappoint.”

“You haven’t yet.” Rasha winked at her, then subtly shortened her stride, fading backward such that Darius meandered up to take her place as smoothly as if they’d practiced the maneuver. Which, of course, they had.

Zafi was still grinning like a fool, but coughed and made an effort to marshal herself before glancing over at him. “Right. So, this is the part where you explain how much you’ll break my legs if I mistreat your friend?”

“Whoah.” He held up both hands as the two priestesses in front of them shifted their heads to look backward while walking. “As the resident dude-type person, I’m gonna delegate this conversation. Ladies, if you would?”

Another deft Eserite maneuver ensued in which he fell back and Layla and Tallie smoothly sidled up to flank Zafi on both sides, despite the fact they’d turned into a narrower hallway which made this a little cramped.

“First of all,” said Tallie in a pleasant tone, “we never issue a threat in front of witnesses. That’s proof of premeditation, which greatly raises your chance of being convicted if prosecuted and automatically increases your sentence.”

“Second,” Layla continued from her other side, “we don’t issue redundant threats. You are clearly aware of the perils of offending Eserites; making a production of it would just make us look petty and foolish.”

“And most important,” Tallie finished, “Eserites handle their own problems. If you ever hurt Rasha, you will answer to Rasha.”

“We’ll just be sitting on the sidelines, laughing and throwing coins,” Layla added smugly.

Incongruously, Zafi grinned again. “Y’know what? You girls are all right. Actually you remind me a little bit of my sergeant.”

“I do believe I approve of this one,” Layla declared.

At the head of the double column, Sister Azalea broke a lull in the softer conversation between herself and Trissiny to say, quietly, “Thank you for everything you did today.”

“Just my duty,” the paladin replied. “And there are already parts I wish I’d handled better…”

“Obviously, I’m grateful for the help you rendered to the Sisterhood, Trissiny, I don’t mean to minimize that. But I meant personally. It may be routine for you to commune with our goddess, but a simple priestess like myself can expect to spend her life without ever being in her actual presence. It was… Thank you.”

“Ah.” Trissiny smiled faintly at that. “Well, then, you’re welcome.”

The priestess gave her a pensive look. “You are dissatisfied with the outcome?”

“We still need to find the source of the Purists’ funding and equipment, as well as who organized them,” Trissiny said with a dour expression. “Based on your intelligence it seems Sister Lanora is the only one who has that information, and now… I rather doubt she will be inclined to be helpful, and since she is no longer part of the Sisterhood, we no longer have the legal prerogative to detain her. I might be willing to risk it anyway, but something tells me there would be immediate and voluble legal challenges if we tried, accompanied by press coverage of the Sisterhood’s ham-fisted abuses of power. All conveniently untraceable, of course.”

“Hmm.” Azalea narrowed her own eyes in thought. “Undoubtedly the goddess acted as she did for good reason. I must trust this will lead us to the course of action she desires.”

Trissiny indulged in a soft sight. “The consciousness of gods is…not entirely like our own, Sister. As Professor Tellwyrn once put it, Avei the deity can be influenced to do things which Avei the mortal strategist of the Elder War would have known not to. Calling upon her so dramatically, in public, may have been what led to this outcome. Well, anyway, recrimination is useless even when not focused on inscrutable deities; we have the next moves to consider. Sister Azalea…” She hesitated, studying the priestess sidelong for a moment. “Are you still interested in the office of Bishop?”

“I will of course serve Avei in whatever capacity I might,” she said diplomatically. “Surely that is less likely now, rather than more? We have probably just further affronted the Archpope, even if we cannot prove it.”

“I’ve spoken with High Commander Rouvad about this. We plan for the Sisterhood to appoint a Bishop unilaterally, who will be responsible for directing our interfaith relations, without going through the Universal Church.”

“I…see,” Azalea said. “That is a bold move. And now that I think on it, exactly what is needed.”

Trissiny nodded. “My next destination was going to be Viridill, to retrieve Nandi Shahai for that role. But you are here, Sister, and clearly more than capable… The position isn’t mine to appoint, of course, but I think my recommendation carries some weight with Rouvad.”

“I’d be honored to take on the task if the Commander wishes,” Azalea said seriously, “but if Shahai is another prospect, I’d encourage you to ask her first. She has served Avei for five centuries in a surprising variety of roles, and has exactly the web of long-standing connections this task requires. Thank you for thinking of me, however,” she added with a smile. “As these events have demonstrated, I think I am still valuable to the Sisterhood where I am.”

“Very much so,” Trissiny agreed, smiling.

“Then there remains finding and proving a link between the Purists and the Archpope, if possible. I dare to hold out hope that Lanora will still cooperate, but it is true that she now has ample motivation to obstruct us…”

“Well, we’re not entirely out of tricks just yet,” the paladin murmured, eyes straight ahead and narrowed in thought. “Actually… First thing tomorrow, I’m going to call in a favor.”


The door stood slightly ajar, emitting a slice of the clean glow of a fairy lamp, so he pushed it wider and poked his head in.

This wing was in the Manor’s most refurbished section, a hallway lined with bedrooms directly above the kitchen and dining room where the house’s residents spent most of their time. Thus, the room was clean and repaired, with new glass in the windows and modern fairy lighting, but starkly empty, lacking drapes, carpets, or even wallpaper. That had given Natchua plenty of room to lay out her various props.

She had hung maps of Veilgrad and Lower Stalwar Province on one wall and marked them heavily with both ink and pushpins. On the floor were no less than four now-inert spell circles, and another sprawling map of the city held down by a selection of chess pieces, silverware, and coins.

Natchua stood in the center of the room, slowly turning her head back and forth to study the various maps and tapping her lips with one fingertip, a characteristic tic of Professor Tellwyrn’s which she had begun unconsciously using in recent months.

Jonathan cleared his throat. “Planning an invasion?”

“Everybody talks about how dangerous and mysterious Veilgrad is,” she said without looking up. “I never really paused to consider what that actually means for people. It’s one thing to note that a steady trickle of people just vanish around here, every year. Sometimes entirely… Sometimes turning up later, in pieces. That’s continued happening as usual while we’ve been living here. While I was gallivanting around the city, getting my face in the papers and doing nothing about any of it. Every one of those statistics was a person, who left grieving people behind.”

He stepped the rest of the way in and pushed the door almost closed behind him, not quite to the point of latching it. “None of that was your responsibility, Natch.”

“Not specifically, no,” she murmured. “Aren’t we all at least somewhat responsible for doing what we can, for who we can, where we are? That seems like one of the basic necessities of being a decent person. Considering who and what I am, I really need to think about stuff like that.”

Stepping carefully to avoid disrupting any of her workings, Jonathan approached her and gently wrapped his arms around her shoulders from behind. She immediately leaned back against him. “What brought all this on?”

“Work,” she said sighing softly. “I’m not just up here flagellating myself, Jon. For tomorrow’s planned project I needed a list of targets around the city. And holy shit, there are a lot. Mostly fairies, which I can’t do a whole lot about. I did find a good handful of demonic activity, which is what I was looking for. Oh, also, I’ve accidentally solved Veilgrad’s central mystery.”

“Well, that’ll be a relief to a lot of people,” he observed.

“I think I’d actually better keep it to myself,” Natchua said, closing her eyes and resting her head against his collarbone. “There’s not really anything to be done about it and knowing will just scare everybody. Turns out there’s an abandoned drow city very close to here. Well, abandoned except for the divinely-created undead monstrosities it’s full of now. Themynrite magic was used in their creation, and the resonance between that and the native fairies is what keeps giving rise to necromantic events, despite the fact that none of them are related.”

“Well… Surely if you know where that is, the Empire can go in and clear it out?”

“Bad idea,” she insisted. “If a Themynrite city is abandoned, it’s because it was breached by Scyllithenes. That would be why it’s full of zombie monsters now. You should never open a path for them. And if the Scyllithenes haven’t managed to break through them in thousands of years of trying, those zombie monsters are not to be fucked with. Might be too big a mouthful even for the Imperial Army. Better to leave it alone, and start being more vigilant about undead events in the area.”

“Hence, all this.”

She nodded, opening her eyes to look up at him. “And this is just what I was able to find. It’s a start, anyway. Xyraadi is much better at divination than me; infernomancy doesn’t lend itself to the art.”

“I notice you’ve got your djinn bottle out,” he said in a neutral tone, nodding at the artifact still sitting in the center of one of the inert spell circles.

“Yeah… I don’t call on Qadira lightly, but at least I got what I needed.”

“You found the Wreath?”

“No, they’re not nearly so easy to track. They’re not what I was looking for, anyway. Kheshiri and I will still be chasing them down tomorrow. Given the established pattern, they’ll probably find us once we’re alone. And now I have what I need to be ready for them.” With another quiet sigh, Natchua reached up to grasp his hands and squeeze them momentarily, then pulled herself out of his embrace. “Fortuitously, both succubi are in another room down at the end of this hall. I’ll go brief her real quick.”

“Good idea,” he said with a smile. “And I’m sure it has nothing to do with wanting to break up whatever those two are doing in a room together.”

“Vanislaads are generally not social with each other,” Natchua agreed, leading the way back out into the hall. “Mel and Shiri are pretty focused and they both have plenty to do; I’m not hugely worried about a feud brewing, but still. Doesn’t pay to take risks with their kind.”

“I’m right with you on that.”

She reached one door, grasped the latch and pushed it open. Then both of them froze, staring into the room.

Melaxyna was on all fours on the floor—actually, upon a closer look, she had all four of her limbs bent double and then bound with leather straps, calf to thigh and forearm to bicep, forcing her to balance painfully on her knees and elbows. Her head was mostly obscured, between the gag, the blindfold, and the pair of felt bunny ears leftover from the last spring festival. Both her wings were splayed out to the sides and actually nailed to the floor.

Behind her stood Kheshiri dressed in a formal ballgown with the addition of a broad leather collar from which dangled a cowbell, busy feeding the other succubus’s tail into an old-fashioned laundry mangle they’d somehow dragged up to this room.

Both their heads turned to the door.

“Do you knock?” Kheshiri demanded acerbically.

Natchua and Jonathan jerked back out, yanking the door shut, and simultaneously pressed their backs against the wall to either side of it.

“On the other hand,” Natchua decided, “I could just brief her in the morning.”

He cleared his throat. “Um, I note that it was the significantly more evil succubus in the advantageous position over the more trustworthy one. Should you actually…?”

“In fact, no, it wasn’t; that was Shiri in the…restraints. They’d swapped appearances.”

Jonathan covered his eyes with a hand. “Okay. Somehow, that’s the kinkiest part, and I can’t even articulate why.”

“Well, hell, this is good,” Natchua said, pushing herself off the wall and taking him by the arm. “If you keep two Vanislaads together, they’ll either go at each other like strange cats, or… Go at each other like bunnies. And two Vanislaads getting busy usually means the kind of play that would kill most people. So, it beats the hell out of the alternative. Now let’s go turn in. Suddenly I find I would like to make love slowly in the missionary position with the lights off.”


It was past dark when Trissiny returned to Madouri Manor, though not by much. She found the rest of her class still up and gathered in the front sitting room of their suite, with one exception.

“Trissiny!” Teal exclaimed upon her entry. “There you are, we were starting to worry. Is everything okay?”

“It’s been…a day,” Trissiny said wryly, striding forward and flopping into an unoccupied armchair. Teal and Shaeine were perched together on the loveseat, Gabriel and Toby lounging in smaller chairs, and Fross as usual floating overhead. F’thaan lay curled in front of the fire, though he looked up at her arrival and his tail thumped against the floor. “Are you two okay? You got everything squared away all right?”

“Once F’thaan was rescued, our afternoon was much more tedious than harrowing,” Shaeine assured her. “The authorities were not pleased by Vadrieny making a display of herself in broad daylight in the middle of the city, but we had ample legal representation.”

“Also, it helps that we were in the right,” Teal added. “Vadrieny’s actions were fully covered by the statutes governing defense of self and property. Except for some, ah, incidental damage to the pavement. The magistrate was persuaded to levy a fine and the bill for repairs, rather than anything more serious.”

“As it ever was,” Ruda drawled, gesticulating with her bottle of rum. “What’d get a factory worker jailed gets a factory heiress fined, in an amount that won’t even dent her allowance.”

“It does seem like people with money live under an effectively different set of laws,” Fross chimed.

“C’mon, doll, you know I love you,” Ruda added in response to Teal’s scowl. “But you exist in a context. There’s nothing gained by denying your advantages in life.”

“I’d like to see a factory worker make a Vadrieny-style crater in the street,” Gabriel remarked.

“I apologize that we were not able to drive you back here as planned,” Shaeine said to Trissiny.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Trissiny said quickly, “it ended up being Avenist business that kept me occupied most of the day. I wouldn’t have been able to take you up on it anyhow. I’m just glad to see you and F’thaan are back safe. Did June turn in already?”

“Actually, she’s spending the night up at Ravana’s hunting lodge,” said Toby. “With her sister, and the rest of Brother Ingvar’s group.”

“Yeah, you missed the big news of the day,” Gabriel added. “Ravana has effectively hired the whole sect to serve as the new foresters and game wardens for the province.”

“Really,” Trissiny said, leaning forward. “That’s…a peculiar move. Wouldn’t that get her in trouble with the Huntsmen?”

“Oh, but that wasn’t the big news,” he replied with relish. “There was a whole public announcement today while you were off in the capital. House Madouri has formally recognized Ingvar’s splinter group as the official and legitimate faith of Shaath.”

“Which means,” Toby added, “that legally they are, in Tiraan Province.”

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed. “She can’t just… Wait, why would she do that? It makes her an outright enemy of the orthodox Huntsmen! Not to mention probably the Universal Church. There’s a reason the Houses stay out of religious politics. The risk/reward calculation is never in the favor of people trying to meddle.”

“Well, like I was just saying before you came in,” Gabriel replied, “there’s a good chance of this getting her in good with the other cults. Pretty much nobody actually likes the Huntsmen.”

“And like I was just telling him, it doesn’t work that way,” Ruda retorted. “People who’ve got power and privilege want to protect those things above any other concern. The accepted thing is that nobles don’t meddle in cult business. If this becomes a precedent, the cults will be losing influence to the Houses. All the religious leaders are going to come down on her, or try to.”

“Ravana isn’t reckless enough to do something like that without considering the angles,” Trissiny mused. “What is she up to?”

“Uh, pardon me, but isn’t she kind of explicitly exactly that?” Fross objected. “I’m not denying that Ravana’s sly, but just from the stories I’ve heard it seems like her whole problem is a tendency to go on the attack without accounting for the broader context.”

“Oh, I think she’s considered the angles, all right,” Ruda drawled. “Question is how carefully she’s considered ‘em.”

“Well, that’s as good a segue as any,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “Gabe, Toby, I think we need to take a page out of Ravana’s book.”

“Well, sure,” Gabriel said lightly. “But where are we going to get a mag cannon and a team of assassins at this hour?”

“I see that verbal diarrhea still hasn’t cleared up,” Toby said. “You need to eat more fiber, Gabe. Triss, which book did you mean, specifically?”

“The part where she’s making this a working vacation. I have spent my day preemptively shutting down an attempt by Justinian to induce a schism within the Sisterhood of Avei, and encountering growing evidence that he’s trying to do the same thing within the Thieves’ Guild. That,” she added, turning to Shaeine and Teal, “is probably why they sent a couple of hapless goons to try to abduct F’thaan.”

“I wondered,” Teal murmured. “They never had a realistic chance of getting him. It does seem like the Guild was deliberately setting itself up for failure.”

“In response,” Trissiny continued, “the Sisterhood is dropping its attempts to get Justinian to confirm a new Bishop. Tomorrow, if the arrangements can be made fast enough, Commander Rouvad is going to appoint one without his approval, and have her take over our interfaith operations, as Bishop Darling is currently doing for the Guild.”

“Risky,” Ruda said, her expression intent. “You’ll either end up freezing the Universal Church out of the only thing it actually does, or being frozen out by the Church. It all depends on how many other cults you can get to sign on with you.”

“Exactly,” Trissiny agreed, nodding and turning back to the boys. “The Guild hasn’t been having much luck, but they’re nearly as unpopular as the Huntsmen. Joined by the Sisterhood, things will change. And if all three Trinity cults take a stand…”

“You realize we don’t actually have the authority to do that,” Toby said seriously. “I’m not refusing you, Trissiny. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree and I’ll back you on this. I saw what a danger Justinian is as close up as you did. I just want to warn you, whatever relationship you have with Commander Rouvad, it’s likely more productive than any attempt I could make to get the Dawn Council to… To do anything.”

“Same goes, sort of,” Gabriel agreed. “I like the idea, Triss. But Lady Gwenfaer is the scariest person I’ve ever met, largely because I suspect she’s the smartest and I don’t actually have any idea what she thinks or wants. I walk in there asking her to go to war with the Archpope, and the only certainty is she’ll find some way to profit from it.”

“I think I see an inherent risk in this,” Fross added. “So, Justinian’s closest backers are the Huntsmen, right? And thanks to Ingvar, they’re split and effectively neutralized, right? So now, a few months after that happened, the two cults that have most openly defied him are having internal divisions he’s fostered.”

“Yeah, that’s about the time frame it’d take to set up something like that,” Ruda agreed.

“I see where you’re going, Fross, and the same had occurred to me,” said Trissiny.

Gabriel chuckled. “Well, hell, I almost hope he does try to instigate a schism inside the Vidians. Let Justinian get a taste for dealing with real schemers.”

“Once again, Arquin, not how it fucking works,” Ruda said with clear exasperation. “A group that’s already prone to politicking and infighting is more vulnerable, not less. There may be elements in it that are too good for Justinian to fuck with, but there are also a million other cracks he can wedge his fingers into. Only takes one little grip for him to start pulling the whole thing apart.”

Gabriel sighed, his smile fading. “I see your point. Man… Bishop Darling suggested I pick a faction and commit to them, but… Val’s been trying to coach me on the intricacies of Vidian politics, but it’s like the web a spider would make after you dunked it in coffee. I still don’t even know where to start finding a group of allies who can stand up to him and hold the rest of the cult together if he attacks it.”

“Actually,” Toby said pensively, studying him, “I think you know exactly where to start, Gabe. You just won’t like it.”

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16 – 15

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The group which set out from the townhouse, in the end, was six strong. Only Darling and Trissiny were specifically needed for their planned business at the Temple of Avei; of the rest, only Rasha had a personal stake in the outcome. The other three apprentices, though, had clamored to come along, what with the alternative being essentially to twiddle their thumbs at home. Glory, having spent years laboriously building a web of connections centered on her own house, by far preferred to conduct business from the middle of it—especially, as she smugly reminded them, now that she had a flock of apprentices to do her bidding. As Trissiny was glad to spend time with her old friends again and Darling had opined that even apprentice thieves would be handy to have around, that settled the matter.

Their plans were thoroughly de-Railed almost the moment they all reached the sidewalk.

“Look alive,” Tallie said from a bit ahead of the group as they all clustered outside the gate. “We’ve got a… Wait, is that Flora?”

The figure approaching was just distant enough to be a confusing sight, before they recognized the slim, blonde elf surrounded by her black cloak, billowing amorphously in the winter breeze, one hand upraised to wave at them as she came forward at a near-run.

“It is,” Darling said tersely, pushing past Tallie to meet the oncoming elf. “Flora! What happened to Fauna? Is she okay? Are you okay?”

Flora slowed, lowering her hand and frowning quizzically with her head tilted as she entered conversational range. “What? Of course. Two people can cover more ground when they…y’know, cover more ground. I’m fine, she’s fine, I just came here looking for you.”

“You’re sure?”

At that, she scowled outright. “Is it seriously a cause for panic to see me alone? Surely you didn’t think we were biologically connected at the hip.”

Darling paused, then turned to Trissiny and the others, raising his eyebrows. “Well, gee, I dunno, why don’t we ask the jury? Kids, did you think they were connected at the hip?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“Maybe not biologically…”

“Man, you look weird on your own. Kinda lopsided. Were you always that tall?”

“All right, yeah, fine, you’re all hilarious,” Flora huffed. “Believe it or not, I didn’t run across town to enjoy your awkward comedy stylings. I’m glad I caught you, and still together. Thorn, Sweet, there’s been an incident you two in particular are gonna want to come see to.”

“Oh, so I guess our original plan is just yow!”

Trying to trot around the group so he could address Flora more directly, Darius abruptly lost his footing and ended up flat on his back in the slush filling the gutter.

“Darius!” Layla exclaimed, kneeling beside him. “Are you all right?”

“I’ve just had an important realization,” he said, staring at the overcast sky. “People who are not elves should not run on ice.”

“Seriously, kid, leave it to the professionals,” Flora said, visibly unimpressed. “Your slapstick isn’t any better than your wordplay.”

“Can you elaborate, maybe?” Trissiny asked. “What kind of incident are we talking about?”

“Well, first things first,” Flora replied, grinning. “Nobody panic, everyone’s all right. Even the dog.”


Trissiny summoned her armor during the trip across the city, and it was immediately useful upon arriving. A Bishop and the Hand of Avei got a lot of leeway in most places, and the pair of them were able to get deep into a police barracks based on rank alone, though they discovered upon reaching the crowded conference room which was apparently the whole debacle’s center of operations that rank only got so far.

“What the hell is all this now?” demanded the tall woman who seemed to be in charge, a gray-haired soldier wearing a captain’s insignia. “Who do you—actually, no, I don’t care. All of you, clear out. None of this is any of your business.”

“Excuse me, Captain,” Trissiny said mildly, “but I think I outrank you.”

That did not help.

“And I think,” the captain retorted, glaring, “my youngest kid is older than you, Avelea, and has more experience in actual soldiering. Your Imperial rank is honorary, and a courtesy for when there’s a dragon that needs slaying, which is the opposite of what’s going on here. As if it wasn’t bad enough to have half my station tied up in what should’ve been a simple snatch-and-grab case report, I’m now up to my stripes in Guild laywers, Falconer lawyers, Madouri lawyers, and just before you came, an official communique from this goddamn Elven Confabulation!”

“Confederacy,” a younger soldier holding a clipboard corrected softly. The captain made a slashing motion at him with one hand, her attention still fixed on Trissiny.

“I don’t know what stake the Sisterhood thinks it has in this, but go tell them to think otherwise, General. The absolute last thing I need right now is you stomping around. And if you have an issue with my failure to yield to your rank, feel free to take it up with my superiors. Go get a head start on the paperwork while I deal with this.”

Trissiny blinked once, then swept her eyes quickly around the various people in the room. The captain and her apparent aide were the only two Imperial soldiers present. Shaeine and Teal sat in chairs at the table, the former looking regal and aloof as she tended to when displeased, the latter holding F’thaan in her lap; the hellhound’s ears perked up when he looked at Trissiny, but otherwise he appeared mostly nervous, leaning heavily into Teal. The rest of the individuals already there were in suits, and apparently where the aforementioned lawyers, only one of whom she recognized.

“Madouri lawyers?” Trissiny asked finally. The captain outright bared teeth at her choice to ask questions rather than leave, but Teal piped up before an argument could break out.

“Somebody informed Ravana, who has more of a stake in this than I expected,” she explained, soothingly stroking F’thaan’s head. “Apparently she’s got an established relationship with the Thieves’ Guild. So does my family. Neither of us should’ve been targeted by the Guild.”

“I see. And which…”

“Yo.” The most disheveled of the three attorneys raised one hand, grinning at her. “Your gal pals here have a dispensation from House Madouri to be keeping that hellhound, so obviously there are questions of jurisdiction when they bring it into Tiraas but the order is still valid, because I’m here to make it valid if anybody wants to pick a fight. And just look at you! Hand of Avei, that’s the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen. You still hanging out with those chuckleheads? Where’s the fat guy?”

“Hello, Ms. Savaraad,” Trissiny said patiently. “I didn’t know you worked for House Madouri.”

“I’ve done work for the Duchess and the Guild, hence my being here.”

“Isn’t that a conflict of interest?” Tallie piped up.

“Would be if they were at cross-purposes, but her Ladyship’s position is that this unprovoked insult by the Thieves’ Guild is clearly some kind of misunderstanding and I’m here to make sure it’s all resolved amicably on all sides.” Bird managed to make the sentence both cloyingly sweet and bitterly sarcastic.

“That doesn’t seem like your specialty,” Tallie observed.

“Who the hell are you people?” the captain bellowed.

“Oh, don’t mind us!” Darius said, raising his hands. “We’re just the Paladin Pity Squad, here because the General felt bad about ditching us to handle business.”

Darling laid a hand on his shoulder, leaning over to murmur, “A police station’s not the worst place to get a chip on your shoulder, son, but it’s in the top five.”

“This is Bishop Darling, from the Guild,” Trissiny explained in a deliberately calm tone. “He has enough rank with them to give orders, and is very skilled at smoothing things over.”

“Consider me at your disposal, Captain,” Darling said, inclining his head courteously. “We are sorry to just descend on you in the middle of this, but I promise you we’re here to lessen your headaches, not add to them. And this lot are Guild apprentices, who don’t strictly need to be involved. They can fetch tea, and otherwise stash themselves somewhere out of the way.”

Surprisingly, the captain seemed somewhat mollified by that. “Well, finally. Someone with pull and sense. That doesn’t explain your interest in this,” she added, turning the force of her glare back on Trissiny.

“Also here to help,” she said. “I agree with Savaraad and the Bishop: this needs to be calmed down, not kicked further.”

“Uh huh. And you can just wave your magic sword and make that happen?”

“Maybe not that simply,” she acknowledged, smiling, “but I bet I can get them to talk.”

The captain narrowed her eyes again. “Of all the problems I’ve got right now, him talking is the least urgent.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, I was briefed on the move getting here. You’ve got two Guild thieves who used an infernal weapon, which means you very much need to find out where that came from and plug the source. This job was bungled, but they were obviously working with some inside information to know where and how to hit their targets, and considering those targets and the fact that the thing failed—really, couldn’t have succeeded—there’s at least a possibility this is all politically motivated. If Intelligence isn’t breathing down your neck to suss out who set this in motion, they will be within the hour. And since these guys are Guild, they’ve been cooperating up to a point but refusing to yield any information. Am I more or less right?”

Though her eyes were still narrowed, by the end of that the captain’s expression was more thoughtful than angry. “And you think you can get answers, is that right?”

“No guarantees, but I believe so.”

“Paladin,” she warned, “if you think you’re going to come into my station and beat up a prisoner—”

“I said get answers, not a confession,” Trissiny interrupted. “I’m assuming we want accurate intel and not desperate fabrications, right? Nobody professional uses torture to get information.” She glanced over at Darling, who nodded once in encouragement. “I know the right questions to ask a Guild thief, Captain, and I think hearing them from me in this armor will make your boys reconsider the position they’re in.”

“Boy, singular,” the captain grunted. “I’ve got the bag man in lockup. Your friends here did a real number on the driver. Healers tell me he should pull through just fine, but not before spending some time in the hospital.”

Trissiny looked over at them, frowning in concern. “You okay, Teal?”

“Mrs. Falconer is the victim, here,” one of the lawyers interjected, “and is under no obligation to answer questions to law enforcement.”

“She’s a friend, not law enforcement,” Teal said with a sigh.

“Ma’am, given the role she is taking here and your own—”

“That will do,” Shaeine stated, quiet but utterly implacable. The attorney clamped his mouth shut, giving the drow an openly annoyed look from behind.

“I’m not having a great day, Triss,” Teal said wryly, “but it could be a lot worse. F’thaan’s okay, and we’re both unharmed. If you think you can help settle all this mess, I’d be grateful.”

“House Madouri’s in favor of this,” Bird said cheerfully. “The Duchess has the utmost confidence in General Avelea. She filed a brief about it and everything.”

“My clients are not,” snapped the remaining lawyer, who by process of elimination had to represent the Thieves’ Guild. “I object to—”

“No, you don’t!” Darling exclaimed, raising both hands in a pacifying gesture. “It’s fine. General Avelea is known and trusted by the Guild. She is not going to mistreat our people or break any laws. Getting all this straightened out quickly is in everyone’s best interest. We’re not throwing anybody under the wheels here.”

The Guild lawyer studied him suspiciously for a moment, then grudgingly nodded, apparently already familiar with Darling’s position. “Objection withdrawn.”

“Well,” the captain said resignedly, “I guess it’s not like you can make this any worse. All right, Avelea, you get a shot. I will be watching, though, and I don’t want to see any funny business. This is an Imperial Army station, not an Avenist temple.”

“I don’t really do funny business,” Trissiny said solemnly, pointing over her shoulder with her thumb at Tallie, Darius, Rasha and Layla. “Ask them, they’ll tell you.”


Like most government structures in the city, the station itself was centuries old, but the interrogation room was obviously a modern renovation, complete with one of the newest features in police work which Murgatroyd Fedora had boasted was one of his inventions: a wall of glass enchanted to be a simple mirror from this side, but transparent from the other and blocking sound in only one direction. Behind it would be the captain and whoever else she judged needed to be privy to the ensuing conversation.

The thief sat on one side of the table to which his wrist manacles were chained, looking slumped and annoyed but not particularly cowed. He looked up when the door opened, and his eyebrows shot upward in surprise at the sight of Trissiny in her silver armor, but just as quickly his expression closed down again. He just stared at her as she pulled out the other chair and sat down across from him.

“So, it’s Rake, right?” she inquired. “Where are you from?”

His eyebrows drew together slightly, but he said nothing.

“I ask because I was told there was a guy tagged Rake here in Tiraas a couple of years ago, but apparently he got into some bad business with the Imperial government and ended up dead. Bishop Darling tells me there’s more recently a Rake operating out of Madouris. That you?”

“You talked to the Bishop?” he asked finally.

“Yep. The thing about that is, if you work in Madouris, you’re under Pizzazz. Right?”

Rake squinted at her in silence.

“And everybody in Madouris should know that the Falconers are strictly hands off,” she continued, holding his gaze. “Have been since Underboss Rogue’s time, and Pizzazz has upheld that. You could maybe argue that doesn’t hold here in Tiraas, but I’ve never met an Underboss who had a lot of patience for rules lawyering.”

“You meet a lot of Guild Underbosses?” he asked.

“A few,” she said noncommittally. “So, Rake. Whose big idea was this job?”

His face went blank again.

“Here’s the thing,” Trissiny continued, folding her gauntleted hands atop the table. “I’m sure you remember the big flaming demon who demolished you when you tried to kidnap her pet.”

He twitched.

“Her name is Vadrieny. Ever heard of—ah, I see you’re fairly well read. Yes, that Vadrieny, the Ravager of the Third Hellwar, last living daughter of Elilial. It’s a very long story, but she is currently incorporeal and sharing the body of the Falconer heiress. This isn’t a secret, you understand, just something those in power have not encouraged to get around. Anybody connected enough to set up this job and prep you for it would have been aware of that. So quite apart from the fact that they sent you to piss off arguably the most murderous creature in existence, who you never had the slightest chance of escaping from, you—a representative of Eserion—just broke the historic truce between Elilial and the Pantheon. So, good job on that.”

Rake swallowed heavily.

“In more local news,” Trissiny went on, “the other owner of that dog is the daughter of the Matriarch of the Narisian noble family who handles Tar’naris’s diplomacy. Yeah, you attacked a diplomat, which by itself would be grounds for the Throne to offer your head to Tar’naris on a plate in appeasement. But somehow, you arranged for that to not even be the worst part, since you pulled this job right as this Confederacy thing is kicking off, relations between the Empire and the elves are tense and very uncertain, and nobody has any patience for shenanigans. This is when you chose to commit a major diplomatic provocation.”

He had gone almost white, but still said nothing.

“Shaeine and Teal are personal friends of mine,” she stated evenly. “I have petted that dog. So yes, Rake, I won’t lie: I kind of want to punch you until your whole face is concave, let me just admit that up front. But I want to reassure you that I’m not going to do that. Even in the worst case scenario, if you continue to be obstreperous, you’re not going to get any further grief from me. You know the Guild’s codes on revenge. Beating you up wouldn’t solve any problems or make me feel better, and definitely won’t serve to discourage another incident like this, since we both know you’re not the one who had the bright idea in the first place.”

“You’re…pretty well-informed about Guild stuff,” Rake said warily. “Wait, is it true you infiltrated the apprentices last year?”

“Please don’t make me remind you who’s asking the questions here, Rake,” Trissiny said pleasantly. “That is just such a drizzt.”

He blinked in confusion.

“I think it’s better, in cases like this, to deal in positive reinforcement. So in fact, Rake, I’m going to offer to do what I can to protect you from the multiple world powers you’ve just pissed off. Right now you’ve got House Madouri, Falconer Industries, Imperial Intelligence and the Elven Confederacy wanting a piece of your hide. That would be pushing well beyond the bounds of what the Guild can protect you from just by itself, but taking into account the fact you just undercut Pizzazz’s authority by flouting the rule against ripping off the Falconers—and come on, that was a company carriage you robbed—odds are very good you’re not going to get even that much protection.”

“I don’t need—” He caught himself mid-sentence, clamping his mouth shut again.

“Don’t need Pizzazz to back you up?” she finished, watching him carefully. “Well, you must be pretty confident in your backer, then. Confident they can shield you from…well, do you really need me to recite the list again?”

Rake’s eyes darted from one side of the room to the other, settling for a moment on the mirrored wall and then back on her face.

“You should really think about this, though,” Trissiny added in a mild tone. “Your backer sent you right into Vadrieny’s claws. Considering how much intel you obviously had to plan this job? I’d say it’s even odds whether they just didn’t know what the stakes here were…or deliberately sent you to die like a stray dog in the street. Functionally, Rake, it doesn’t really matter, does it? That’s someone who either can’t protect you, or just isn’t going to bother. I think you really need my protection right now.”

She let the silence hang for a moment while he slumped lower in his chair.

“But for that, I’m going to need a name.”

He swallowed again.

“Jasper, too.”

“Excuse me?”

“My partner. They had to take him to the healers. If I tell you who sent us, you have to promise you’ll look after him, too.”

“You have my word,” she said, nodding her head once. “What I can do, I will.”

Rake fidgeted for a moment, grimaced, and then burst out, “It was Tricks!”

Trissiny blinked once, slowly, and then shook her head. “Rake. I believe I made it fairly clear that I don’t actually like you that much, correct? I am still willing to help you, but not out of the goodness of my heart; you need to help me first. Telling me fairy tales isn’t helping me.”

“I swear to you,” he babbled, “it was Boss Tricks himself who sent us. That’s the only reason we were willing to go after a Falconer target—yeah, we know about Pizzazz’s deal with the Duchess and FI, only the Boss himself can overrule that! Tricks didn’t just give us permission, this was his whole idea. He planned it, every step, had us rehearse it till he was satisfied we could pull it off.”

“Boss Tricks,” Trissiny said flatly, “does not pull half-assed schemes or make wildly stupid mistakes. He definitely doesn’t throw away the lives of Guild members to make some kind of point. That rules out every explanation for Tricks being behind this, which leaves me to conclude that you’re wasting my time.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Rake exploded, desperation audible in his voice. “I don’t have explanations! Gods help me, I trusted the bastard—we both did, or we wouldn’t have done this. I will swear on anything you want—I’ll go under with a mind-priest or take truth potion. I’m not lying, paladin! This wasn’t our idea. This job was a sanctioned Guild operation!”

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