Tag Archives: Yancey

16 – 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a date!” Iris promised.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She arched one eyebrow at his rudeness, saying nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All three high elves fixed glares on Veilwin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My lady,” Arivani acknowledged, saluting.

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

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

“You forcibly abducted—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And even if he did not, she would.

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16 – 13

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They were met at the gates of Madouri Manor by an actual Butler, who introduced himself as Yancey and provided their escort into the house itself, where they were to meet the Duchess.

Compared to its counterparts in Veilgrad, Madouri Manor seemed more like the capital of a nation than the residence of a noble family. Uniformed guards stood at attention flanking the entrance despite the cold, and inside, the trappings were almost decadently lavish, with white marble columns and wall facades interspersed with suits of armor and tapestries, while from the towering ceiling hung banners in the House colors of crimson and gray. The great entry hall itself resembled a throne room, and seemed large enough to contain the entirety of Dufresne Manor.

“This place is ridiculous,” Sherwin grumbled, slouching along with his hands jammed deep in his pockets, partly against the chill; no amount of wealth made it practical to heat a space that size in the dead of winter. “Is this supposed to be a mansion or a cathedral? The Madouris were always full of themselves, even for nobles.”

“Sherwin,” Malivette said evenly, “try, if you are able, to imagine a person with basic manners and social skills. And then, for today, pretend to be that person.”

“How about you kiss my ass, Vette?” he suggested. “You’re the one who was so damn determined to make me come here today. Now you can live with it.”

Though he was facing away from her, she flashed her fangs. “Are you sure you want my mouth near anything sensitive, Sherwin?”

“Lay off him, you smug lamprey,” Natchua ordered. “All Sherwin wanted was to stay in his house and not bother anybody. That’s probably in everybody’s best interests. If you’re gonna keep dragging him out places, you can at least not bully him about it.”

“Thank you!” Sherwin exclaimed.

Perhaps fortunately, there was no time for further byplay, as they had drawn close enough to their hostess to be addressed.

Ravana Madouri herself stood before the centerpiece of the long hall, which was not actually a throne but a bronze statue of some ancient Duke of Madouris, atop a marble base itself taller than the human average, on the front of which was carved the crest of House Madouri; Ravana had, doubtless not by accident, positioned herself so that the coat of arms perfectly framed her golden head.

“Duchess Malivette,” she said graciously, inclining her head. “Duke Sherwin. It is an honor to finally meet you both. And Natchua! How wonderful to see you again.”

“I thank you for your magnanimity, Duchess Ravana, in agreeing to host us,” Malivette replied, inclining her head to exactly the same degree. “I apologize profusely for thus imposing upon you; my deepest gratitude to you for agreeing to this meeting.”

“It is no imposition at all,” Ravana assured her. “It suits me perfectly, as I’m afraid I cannot afford to be long away from Madouris while I have time home from Last Rock, and in any case hospitality is one of the great joys of my life.”

“Yo,” Sherwin grunted. “Seriously, just call me Sherwin. My House is barely a thing anymore, and good damn riddance to it.”

“Of course, Sherwin,” she said smoothly. “I’m so glad to be on such good terms already! Please, you must call me Ravana.”

“Hi, Ravana,” Natchua said a bit tersely. “Long time, no see.”

“I do hope you can stay long enough for us to catch up, Natchua!” Ravana said with an apparently sincere smile. “I believe the last time we spoke was during all that excitement when the campus was invaded.”

“Excitement is one word,” she agreed, then turned her head toward Sherwin. “Not to change the subject, but I didn’t know you were a Duke! You should’ve told me, I feel like I’ve been rude all this time.”

“You have,” he said frankly. “That’s why I like you, rudeness is more my speed anyway. Seriously, it’s just Sherwin. Say Duke and then my last name, Natchua. Go on, say it out loud.”

She didn’t, but paused to consider for a moment, then grinned. “Ah. I see your point.”

“I have a suitable chamber prepared for us to converse in private,” Ravana said politely, “if you would be so good as to accompany me. Natchua, will you be joining us?”

“Oh, I’m just the transportation,” Natchua said quickly. “Last thing I want is to intrude on noble business. If you’ve got a servant’s lounge or something where I can hang out until it’s time for Vette and Sherwin to go home, that’d be just dandy.”

“Actually, since you’re here, why don’t you come with?” Malivette suggested brightly. “I hadn’t planned on you being along for this trip, Natch, but I bet you’d be very interested in the discussion! In fact, the outcome might be important to you, too.”

Natchua turned to stare at her, sucking her lips back in between her teeth and biting down. The vampire just smiled innocently back.

“Yep,” she said after a moment, shifting her gaze to Ravana. “Figures. You two’ll get along great. Didja know, last time we met Ravana and I were both curse victims, and she somehow convinced our whole party to go torture a dryad instead of running away from a battle like sensible people. It was every bit as asinine as it sounds, but in the heat of the moment she starts talking and the next thing you know, you’re doing whatever harebrained thing she suggested and damn if it doesn’t seem to make perfect sense at the time.”

“Oh,” Sherwin said dourly. “One of those.”

“I apologize for that, and in advance for everything else Duke Leduc is going to say,” Malivette said sweetly, ignoring his twitch. “He is not accustomed to being outside his bedroom, or speaking to anyone except demons.”

“Oh, but this all works out splendidly,” Ravana said, her pleasant good cheer undiminished. “I should be delighted to have Natchua join us. In fact, if you don’t mind, I would like to include my lady in waiting, unless your business is too sensitive. May I present Daina Antevaan. Daina, these are the Duchess Malivette Dufresne of Veilgrad, Duke Sherwin Leduc, and my old school friend Natchua.”

Another woman approached from the shadow of a colonnade lining the great hall, a statuesque blonde who had hair a shade darker than Ravana’s and stood head and shoulders taller than her Duchess.

“It is an honor,” she said tonelessly, the brief greeting hinting at an accent that was neither Imperial nor Stalweiss. Her blue eyes fixed on Sherwin, narrowed slightly.

“The pleasure is ours, of course,” Malivette replied. “The matter I wish to discuss is somewhat sensitive, Ravana, but anyone who has your trust has my own. We don’t object in the slightest. Right, Sherwin?”

“I seriously don’t care about any of this,” he complained, looking somewhat unnerved by Daina’s continued appraisal of him, which was both intense and icy. “I’m just here because Vette is pushy, and she hasn’t even bothered to tell me what the big deal is yet. All of you do what you want.”

“Splendid,” Ravana said brightly. “If you would accompany me, then? I have had refreshments laid out for us.”

She turned and led the way toward a towering archway opening onto another long columned hall, this one far more compact than the great entryway but just as lavish in décor. Before following, Natchua, who had been staring bemusedly at Daina, suddenly gasped.

The blonde woman finally tore her eyes off Sherwin to meet Natchua’s gaze, and they stared at each other in tense silence for a moment.

Malivette finally cleared her throat. Pausing only to glance at her, Daina inclined her head once in acknowledgment, then turned and glided off after Ravana, who had paused under the arch to wait for them.

The party proceeded after their hostess in silence, even Sherwin apparently cowed by the tension in the air. It was a terse few minutes, which served to further accentuate the sprawling size and confused layout of Madouri Manor, but they finally came to another tall oak door with an arched top, currently standing open to reveal an ornately appointed sitting room far larger than was necessary for their small group. Ravana came to a stop next to the door and gestured them inside, still smiling.

Natchua drifted to the back of the procession, save only Yancey, who trailed diffidently along with several yards of space between him and the guests. Upon coming abreast of the door and their smiling hostess, instead of turning to enter the room, Natchua grabbed Ravana by the upper arm and kept going, stepping forward till the two of them were just out of sight of those within.

Yancey was on top of her almost as if he’d teleported, but he only placed himself nearby and pointedly within her field of view, holding off from any more direct action at a subtle hand gesture from Ravana.

“What the hell do you think you’re playing at?” Natchua growled in a low tone, leaning forward. Malivette could probably still hear her, but at least Sherwin would be kept out of the loop.

Ravana, looking only mildly bemused at this treatment, raised one eyebrow. “I’m afraid you’ll need to be considerably more specific, Natchua.”

“I’m talking about putting Scorn in a room with Sherwin Leduc!” she hissed. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Oh, drat,” the young Duchess said with a little pout. “You can tell that easily? And after all the effort it took to design a disguise ring that would work on her; Rhaazke seem somewhat resistant to applied enchantments.”

“Wh—no, I’m sure it’s fine, I’m the best warlock you’ll ever meet. That is not the point, Ravana!”

“What I am playing at, in your words,” Ravana murmured, matching Natchua’s low volume but with considerably more calm, “is testing her restraint. She is justifiably repulsed and enraged by the sight of him, and given Malivette’s presence, is unlikely to successfully harm him in the worst case scenario. Really, it’s an ideal opportunity!”

Natchua tightened her grip and tugged the girl forward, baring her teeth. “People are not toys for you to experiment on for your amusement, Duchess.”

At that, Ravana’s pleasant expression abruptly cooled, and she finally grabbed Natchua’s hand with her free one and pried it off her arm. “Toys, is it? Scorn is one of the more physically and magically powerful individuals in the world at present, but arrived on this plane with a notable lack of nuance, subtlety, and self-control. With my help, over the last year, she has been gaining these qualities, and doing an excellent job, I might add. I am turning her into someone neither I nor anyone else could hope to control, because she is my friend, and I want what’s best for her. Everyone deserves to live free and empowered, yet most people never will. If I failed to share what I know of the method with someone important to me, that would be treating them like a toy. And given that you are blatantly using Sherwin himself for free room and board, Natchua, you should perhaps pause and consider your prerogatives before you begin flinging accusations.”

Natchua narrowed her eyes to slits. “If not for me, Sherwin would still be hiding in his room. I’m the reason your little campaign to draw him into your politics has yielded anything at all.”

“Why, there, you see?” Ravana said primly, suddenly all smiles again. “It’s just as I said. We do what we can for those close to us, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable for them. And now, I believe we are keeping the others waiting.”

So saying, she nodded once, then stepped around Natchua and the door and glided in.

Yancey remained behind, watching Natchua impassively until she threw up her hands in frustration and followed the blonde Duchess into the parlor.

“There you are, I was beginning to worry,” Malivette said with deceptive mildness as Natchua perched beside her on the loveseat she’d chosen. A cozy arrangement of furnishings surrounded a low table on which was laid out a tea set complete with platters of sandwiches and scones. Sherwin was sprawled in an armchair with a disgruntled expression, while Scorn in the guise of Daina Antevaan perched on the edge of another seat in an almost excessively ladylike posture. She had finally broken off her grim stare at Sherwin, her eyes now tracking Natchua. Rhaazke hearing was no better than human, and Natchua had sensed no infernomancy at work in here, so the demon shouldn’t have caught any of her quick conversation with Ravana, but she was definitely sharp enough to know something was up. Malivette leaned toward Natchua, regaining her attention, and murmured, “Remember what I said to Sherwin about social skills? Same goes.”

“Remember what he said back to you?” Natchua muttered in reply. The vampire had the temerity to flutter her eyelashes at her.

“I must, woefully, apologize for the state of my hospitality, Malivette,” Ravana said once they were all seated, an ironic statement as Yancey was already deftly distributing tea. Without having to ask, he gave Natchua a cup with exactly as much honey as she liked. “In point of fact, more than one of my ancestors regularly played host to vampires, and there is a unique human blood cookbook among my steward’s hereditary effects. Unfortunately, it seems to presume means of acquiring the essential ingredient which were not ethical even then, and most definitely are not legal now.”

“On the contrary, I’d be a bit disturbed if you had provided me refreshments,” Malivette replied with a wink. “Don’t you worry, I get plenty to eat.”

“No, you don’t,” Sherwin grunted. “Look at you, Vette, you’re like a scarecrow. Those four thralls are enough to keep you alive without sucking any of them dry, and that’s about it.”

“That’s a very cheerful thing to bring up in mixed company, Sherwin, thank you,” she said with a tiny sigh. “Daina” shifted her stare back to him, thinning her mouth in overt dislike. “Under the circumstances, I hope you won’t be offended if I come right to business.”

Ravana glanced at Sherwin and then Natchua, her polite little smile widening to the point of real amusement. “Perhaps that would be best.”

“I’m for it,” Sherwin mumbled around a bite of cucumber sandwich.

“I’m going to narrate a bit,” Malivette continued, “for the benefit of those who haven’t been raised in the traditions of the aristocracy. Sherwin and Ravana doubtless know all this background detail, but it will help our newcomers to follow along.”

“Hey, works for me.” Sherwin took a loud slurp of tea, then waved his cup vaguely at her. “If I ever knew any of that shit I’ve worked hard to forget it.”

“The three houses of Dufresne, Leduc, and Madouri are in the same predicament, certain specific details aside,” Malivette said, no longer paying him any overt attention. “Our bloodlines are reduced to a single individual each, with no heir available. In this situation, the meanest cobbler in the Empire can legally adopt someone to hand down whatever possessions he may have upon death, but as part of the reforms which followed the Enchanter Wars, the Houses are constrained in this ability. Most of those reforms actually expanded the powers of the aristocracy at the expense of the Throne, but this was an example of the Great Houses acting to enable themselves to…cull the weak, as it were. Once a noble House has been reduced to the point that it cannot perpetuate its own bloodline, it is forbidden from adding new members to the family through adoption. Thus, faltering Houses are encouraged to die off so that their rivals can more easily scavenge their remains.”

“Good fuckin’ riddance,” Sherwin grunted. A short silence fell, in which everyone turned to stare at him, and he had the grace to blush and straighten up a bit. “I mean, ah… I’m sure you both come from very nice families, I was just referring to my case. Nothing good has ever come out of House Leduc and nobody’ll miss us.”

“Daina” opened her mouth, Ravana shot her a piercing sidelong look, and she shut it silently.

“The adoption of new heirs can be done,” Malivette continued, disregarding the byplay, “but there are checks upon it. For any of the three of us to designate a new family member and heir to our legacies would require the approval of either the Silver Throne itself, or two other Great Houses. This, unfortunately, will not be forthcoming in our case. Though Ravana and myself have both worked diligently to prove our loyalty to the Throne, there is no advantage to House Tirasian in helping us to perpetuate our lineages when the Emperor benefits far more from keeping us subservient and dependent. And it goes without saying that none of the other Houses in the Empire want any of us to continue, least of all any of the Great Houses.”

“Uh, scuze me?” Natchua raised a hand, and Malivette nodded graciously to her. “What exactly is a Great House? I didn’t realize there was a hierarchy.”

“There is always a hierarchy,” Ravana said with dark amusement. “Those who are by nature obsessed with power tend to be…well…obsessed with power. Specifically, a Great House is one which holds an Imperial governorship. As the Imperial provinces are each on average the size of most nations of the world and mostly used to be independent kingdoms, they are effectively the families of kings and queens, subordinate only to the Emperor himself.”

“And there,” Malivette said with a grin, “is a loophole. Because, by the law, a Great House is one which holds or has held provincial rule.”

“Yes, like House Dalkhaan,” Ravana agreed, nodding. “You remember those thugs in ill-fitting livery who assaulted the University, as we were just reminiscing, Natchua? Guardsmen of House Dalkhaan, which by that point was nothing but a single bitter old woman presiding over a desiccated husk of a legacy. Yet because one of her ancestors was a Sultana of Calderaas, she was entitled to style herself a Duchess.”

“Oh!” Natchua turned to Sherwin. “And that’s why you’re a Duke! Because the Leducs and Dufresnes have been trading rule of Veilgrad back and forth for centuries.”

“Fat lot of good it did ‘em,” he grumbled.

“Ravana already knows the direction of my thoughts,” Malivette said with a coy smile. “You hinted at this from your earliest correspondence. But I believe, by now, you all understand what I now suggest.”

“Even though all three of your Houses lack allies,” Daina said softly, “you can form an alliance yourselves. Override the prohibition on adoption, designate heirs, and secure the continuation of your families, if not the actual bloodlines. Will that not invite retaliation?”

“None of us have much to fear from the other Houses,” Malivette stated. “Another point we have in common is that we have been left in peace by them because every sensible, self-interested noble family in the Empire fears to antagonize any of us, with some justification. I share a border with the holdings of House Daraspian, and even they haven’t dared try to stick their grubby fingers into Veilgrad. And I am but the newest monster of the trio; House Leduc has spent centuries demonstrating that to draw their ire is lethally dangerous. House Madouri’s reputation is a trifle less specifically fearsome, but it is still the single richest and longest-reigning House in the Empire, and not known to deal gently with rivals.”

“That leaves the Throne, though,” Natchua commented. “Can’t imagine Sharidan will be pleased about you going behind his back. Uh, just let me know if I’m talking too much, I realize this is none of my business.”

“On the contrary, Natchua, I’m quite pleased to see you taking an interest,” Malivette reassured her. “And yes, you are right. This suggestion is, by nature, somewhat antagonistic toward the Throne. But, as I said, the Dufresnes and Madouris of this age are established allies of House Tirasian, and this is not a direct attack upon its power—merely an assertion of independence, one which the Emperor is in no position to begrudge. I believe we can soothe any ruffled feathers through continued demonstrations of loyalty. Especially if we can bring House Leduc into the fold.”

“Right, well, I’m out,” Sherwin said shortly. “I don’t mind doing you two a favor; you seem like decent sorts, the both of you, at least as far as nobles go. Just lemme know when you’ve got all the paperwork and I’ll sign whatever. But House Leduc needs to die.”

“You’re wrong about that,” Malivette said, turning a serious expression on him. “Like it or not, Sherwin, Veilgrad needs the Leducs.”

“Bullshit,” he snorted. “I am by far the most benign member of my family since the conquest of the Stalrange, and let’s face it, the best thing that can be said about me is I’ve only ever harmed demons. Nobody fucking needs the Leducs.”

“There has been a balance in Veilgrad,” she said, her soft voice a pointed contrast to his gruffness, “one whose importance has only truly become clear to me since it was broken. We had the upright and righteous Dufresnes to reassure the people and provide guidance, and the sinister and dangerous Leducs to exert pressure on those who would encroach on our domain, not to mention the horrors that have a tendency to arise in the region. Let’s face it, our corner of the Empire is unusually prone to… Things that bump in the night. The vampire who destroyed my family may have been from one of the deadliest lineages, but lesser breeds have plagued the area for centuries. The werewolf problem has been ongoing for at least as long, there is a long tradition of necromancers infesting the area, and the mountain forests nearby are prone to coughing up some of the more disturbing breeds of fairy found on this continent. Not to mention that we are caught right between Avenist and Shaathist territory, with all the tension that implies, and the Daraspians aren’t the only house down in Vrandis who like to do the kind of business that spills trouble over into other people’s backyards. Veilgrad has always benefited from having its dark protectors, even as it has from its nobler family of leaders. I, finding myself alone, have tried to do both, and… I have to acknowledge, my hold is slipping. The chaos crisis was only the worst example, not by far the only one.”

There was silence in the wake of her soft admission, Ravana looking solicitous and even Sherwin frowning at the vampire in thought.

“My steward, Lars Grusser,” Malivette continued after a moment, “already effectively runs the province. He is both competent and popular, a reassuring presence who fills exactly the role that House Dufresne traditionally has. By adopting him into the House itself and continuing its name and holdings, I would only be legally legitimizing the de facto state of affairs. Ravana, of course, is still young enough to have plenty of time to produce an heir the old-fashioned way, but in the interim, having a designated successor will help to stabilize her rule.”

Ravana nodded once.

“And Sherwin,” Malivette went on, turning back to him.

“No,” he growled. “The last goddamn thing I want is more Leducs around.”

“Upon adopting an heir,” Malivette pressed, “you can immediately abdicate the High Seat and go back to enjoying your privacy while they handle the actual business of being Veilgrad nobility.”

“Anybody who might want that position absolutely can’t be trusted with it,” he snorted.

“He’s got a point,” Natchua agreed. “Not to rain on your parade, Vette, but take it from the world’s foremost expert: warlocks are a lot more trouble than they’re worth.”

“Ah,” Malivette said with a knowing smile. “But imagine if there was an ideally suitable candidate! Someone able to continue House Leduc’s tradition of infernomancy. Someone already known, liked, and trusted by the people. Someone well-regarded throughout the Empire and held in esteem by the Throne itself. Someone who has already shown care and concern for Veilgrad’s people, and involved herself in the community. Someone who, umprompted, is has even taken it upon herself to restore Leduc Manor to its former glory.” Her smile broadened, showing off her fangs. “Someone who, just as an added bonus, is functionally immortal.”

“Now just a goddamned minute,” Natchua squawked.

“Hmm,” Ravana murmured, turning an expression of delighted fascination upon the drow.

“And let me put it to you this way, Sherwin,” Malivette crooned, ignoring Natchua’s spluttering. “Tell me which would more enrage the ghosts of your parents: to let House Leduc quietly fade from the world, or to hand over their entire legacy to an irascible, stateless, juvenile dark elf?”

He, in turn, shifted to study Natchua. A malicious smile slowly blossomed on his face, followed by an exact replication of Ravana’s tone. “Hmm.”

“Sherwin, you backstabbing little earwig!” Natchua shouted.

“You even sound like my mother,” her replied, grinning openly.

“This is the single worst idea I’ve ever heard!” the drow exclaimed, waving her arms frantically. “I mean that, and I’m the one who deliberately picked a fight with Elilial! I am the last person who needs to be in charge of a province!”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Natchua,” Malivette said in a cooler tone. “It is still House Dufresne, not House Leduc, which rules Lower Stalwar Province. But that is just my point: the things you have already been doing for the city all this autumn are exactly what good non-ruling nobility should do.”

“I was just bored!”

“You were bored, and so you spent your time and resources making people’s lives a little better, in whatever ways were available to you. That’s exactly what people want in an aristocrat, and what so few aristocrats actually do in practice.”

“I—that—you—this isn’t—fucking—”

“Natchua,” Malivette said, softly and more seriously. “To be frank, not only do I think you would be good for the province, but I think this is exactly what you need.”

“You should see about sucking some of that blood directly to your brain!”

“There is your immediate problem with the Confederacy and House Dalmiss,” the vampire said relentlessly. “Right now you are stateless and thus vulnerable. You pretty much can’t apply for normal Imperial citizenship; all that demon-summoning is not going to be looked on positively, war hero or no. As an isolated exile, you’re one lapse in security from suffering whatever vengeance your erstwhile Matriarch sends at you next. But as the Duchess Leduc, you would be untouchable. Even if the Throne and the other nobles actively despised you—which, let’s be honest, isn’t unlikely—they would not tolerate such an assault upon Imperial aristocracy. The powerful will always protect their own position first and foremost.”

“Yeah, well… I mean, in theory, but I still don’t…”

“More to the point,” Malivette continued more gently, “I think this would be good for you. You had one purpose that was keeping you going, one you weren’t expecting to survive past its completion, and then… It was done, and here you still are. I know you’ve been floundering, Natch, trying to find your place. You’ve found it in Veilgrad. This is just making it official.”

“This is a little more official than I had in mind!”

“Welp, you’ve sold me,” Sherwin said cheerfully. “The more I hear about this, the more I like it.”

“Goddammit, Sherwin!” Natchua snapped.

“Hey, Natch, lemme pitch you the point that changed my mind,” he said, grinning. “Just take a moment and imagine your mother’s expression when she hears about this.”

That brought Natchua up short, staring at him with her mouth slightly open. After two heartbeats, she closed it, struggling against a small smile. “Well… Okay, that’s a pleasing thought, but…”

“I quite like this idea!” Ravana said brightly. “I do feel, though, that I may owe you an apology, Natchua.”

The drow narrowed her eyes, shifting them to the blonde Duchess. “Oh? What’d you do this time?”

“I am sorry to hear you have been having trouble from House Dalmiss,” Ravana said earnestly. “I confess, I may have been somewhat responsible for provoking them. You see, the Narisian slave trade has ensnared several of my citizens into involuntary servitude to various members of your former House. I felt that Matriarch Ezrakhai could do with a practical lesson in empathy on this matter. As such, I have her daughter in my dungeon.”

Everyone stared at her in dead silence.

“It is a very comfortable dungeon,” Ravana insisted. “I had it thoroughly renovated before installing anyone. I subscribe to the modern philosophy that there is more to be gained by showing consideration to political prisoners than by making them suffer needlessly. Of course, it may all be moot if Ezrakhai proves to be stubborn and I have to begin mailing her fingers and ears, but still. The principle of the thing, you understand.”

The silence continued for three more seconds, and then Natchua burst out laughing so hard she slid right off the loveseat.

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16 – 5

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“And this is the Sanhevid Suite, where you’ll be staying,” Ravana announced, coming to a stop in the center of the wide common area, planting herself beside a marble statue of a hooded woman wielding a bow and gazing sternly at some distant horizon. “Doors to either side of the hearth behind me lead to the residential area, where there are more than enough bedrooms for everyone. Beyond that, both halls open onto a small library with attached reading room and office. To the left, here, beyond the colonnade, is a solarium opening onto a private courtyard, with the dining hall adjacent. Kitchen, laundry, and servant’s quarters are in the basement; someone will be on staff at all hours, and the enchanted bell in each bedroom activates a signal in the kitchen, so do not hesitate to summon someone for anything you need, at any time. I do hope you’ll be adequately comfortable.”

“Wow,” Gabriel said simply, looking wide-eyed around the great hall of the Sanhevid Suite, which apparently counted for a small mansion in its own right. It was a two-story affair, with windows on the second floor admitting sunlight to complement the fairy lamps attached to each of the marble pillars. The place was laid out very much like a Shaathist lodge, a long area strewn with furniture extending from huge doors on one end to an enormous hearth on the other, though the décor ran toward marble, velvet, and gilt-framed paintings rather than hunting trophies.

“Adequately?” Toby added, grinning. “Ravana, this is… Well, it’s nicer than most of the places Tellwyrn’s made us stay on trips.”

“Most?” Gabriel gave him an incredulous look. “This is nicer than anyplace we’ve stayed. By orders of magnitude.”

“Um, ex-fuckin’-cuse me,” Ruda retorted, “but I distinctly recall putting you ingrates up at my house on one of those trips.”

Gabriel smiled sweetly at her. “I know what I said.”

“Arquin, how long’s it been since I fucking stabbed you?”

“Let us remember that we are guests here,” Shaeine interjected smoothly, “and refrain from getting hethelax blood on any of the furnishings. According to Professor Rafe, it is rather acidic.”

“It’s fine, there’s a courtyard,” Gabriel assured her. “Honestly, Ravana, I’m just a kid from the wrong side of Tiraas. I think I’m gonna be afraid to touch anything in here.”

“Ah, I take your point,” she mused, nodding. “Hm… How about this?”

Ravana stepped over to the nearest column, where a frosted glass vase full of out-of-season tulips rested atop a decorative plinth at its base. Picking up the delicate vessel in one hand, she regarded it critically for a moment, then turned and hurled it across the room.

It was a good throw; the crystal unerringly struck another marble column, where of course it shattered, strewing flowers, water, and glass fragments across a wide area. Everyone stared at it in disbelief, then turned those looks on Ravana herself, who had immediately folded her hands demurely at her waist, looking self-satisfied.

“I know that to some of you, servants are in and of themselves an unseemly indulgence,” she said lightly, “but do keep in mind that everyone working in this manor is paid from the House treasury, as I have reduced taxes to ease the burden on local business my father created. Any materials used in cleaning or repair are purchased nearby. I do ask that you please refrain from burning the place down, but short of that? The worst thing you can possibly do is contribute to the local economy. Keep that in mind, Gabriel, and please don’t hesitate to make yourself comfortable in whatever way you can.”

“You have a striking way of making a point,” Trissiny observed.

Ravana’s smile increased fractionally, and she inclined her head. “I have learned from the best.”

“Are we…still in the same house?” Juniper asked hesitantly, pulling her head out of the doorway to the solarium she’d circumspectly been investigating while everyone talked, Sniff silently at her heels as always. “It sounds like this ‘suite’ is bigger than most people’s houses.”

“Ah, yes, hence my uncertainty,” said Ravana. “This would ordinarily be used as guest quarters for visiting nobility and their own households. I believe its size is adequate to your group, but it is not in keeping with formal etiquette to house disparate individuals here. All things considered, and given that placing you each in separate rooms of a quality suitable to your stature would have made it logistically difficult for you all to find one another, I took the risk of presuming you would not be overly concerned with the formalities. If I have erred, I humbly apologize, and of course can make any alternate arrangement of your choosing. There are abundant private rooms, of course, or I can set you up as a group in one of the outlying guest houses. Or, if you prefer a familiar touch of whimsy, a suite of tavern rooms on the grounds.”

“Your first instinct was correct, Ravana,” Teal assured her with a faint smile. During the last year, she had either gotten over her antipathy toward the Duchess or learned to conceal it, and now appeared quite at ease in Madouri Manor. “This is more than comfortable enough, and we wouldn’t dream of putting you to any more trouble. Right, everyone?”

“Indubitably!” Fross chimed, swooping back into the room. “Guys, you have got to see that library! There’s a complete edition of the Encyclopedia Viridici!”

“Isn’t that one notoriously unreliable?” Trissiny asked.

“Yes, because it hasn’t been printed in six hundred years! It’s not even in intelligible modern Tanglish!”

“Hold on, back up,” Gabriel requested, still blinking at Ravana. “Did you say you have a tavern…in your house?”

“Three, on the grounds,” she said placidly. “Madouri Manor as it stands today was the original fortified city of Madouris. As the Lower City spread beyond its walls, the larger structures around the citadel became the residences of lower nobility. Then the Outer City rose around the second ring of walls, and gradually my ancestors encouraged the other families to gentrify the Lower City, eventually leaving these grounds for House Madouri and the city and provincial government alone.” She paused, grimacing prettily. “Unfortunately, my more recent ancestors pushed even those out, leaving the Manor as the largest private residence in the world, a testament to excess that even a Sheng Emperor would have thought a bit much. I have been migrating government offices back into the grounds; you would not believe how hobbled the local bureaucracy has been, simply due to being scattered across the city. Of course, you have the run of the Manor; you will be able to tell what structures serve official purpose. It should not be hard to avoid getting in anyone’s way. Feel free to patronize the taverns, if you like. I am quite serious about encouraging you to take advantage of any available amenities, everyone. It is the least I can do, as I fear I shall perforce be a somewhat negligent hostess.”

“This is your idea of negligent?” Ruda snorted, flopping down on a gilt-armed sofa. “Damn, girl. I’m scared to see what it looks like when you get generous. Be honest, you ever drowned somebody in champagne?”

“Oh, it’s not the accommodations,” Ravana said, smiling. “Those I can provide. It’s just that this is necessarily a working vacation for me. While attending school, my ability to manage the province is hampered by distance, even in this modern age of telescrolls and Rails. I must make full use of the time I have at home to attend to as many affairs as can be squeezed in. Rest assured, I shall make every effort to attend to you, but it won’t be as much as I’d like, so the least I can do is provide ample comfort and entertainment during your stay.”

“I see,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Well, we don’t want to get in your way, then…”

“You are anything but in my way,” Ravana said firmly. “I have been quite looking forward to showing you all around my city. Scorn and the other girls from the Wells will be arriving by tonight, and I mean to have a proper welcome banquet with everyone. Indeed, I find myself eager to consult the political minds among you on the newest issue with the elves.”

“Do understand that neither Teal nor I can render comment in any official capacity,” Shaeine began.

“Please.” Ravana held up one hand, still smiling. “You are my guest, Shaeine, I will not have you put on the spot or otherwise discomfited. If you’d like to chat about it, I would obviously love to hear your take. If not, that is the end of it. It’s very important to me to maintain personal connections beyond the political. Bad enough I can’t publicly associate with Sekandar anymore, I’ll not have any tension raised between Houses Madouri and Awarrion.”

“Wait, what happened with Sekandar?” Gabriel asked. “I thought you two got along well.”

“Oh, we do, but unfortunately his mother is…out of sorts with me. Being a well-bred Calderaan boy, Prince Sekandar obviously cannot gainsay her in public, so our conversations at school have been somewhat abridged in the last few months. It’s dreadfully tedious, but such are politics.”

“Ravana,” Teal asked in the chiding tone of a teacher interrogating a child over a broken vase—while, herself, standing practically in the shards of a broken vase— “what did you do to the Sultana?”

Ravana shrugged daintily. “I have simply been a good neighbor to the people of Last Rock while enjoying their hospitality. I furnished several small business loans to residents, after the fashion I have found so productive here in Madouris. Sadly, her Excellency has chosen to take this as a territorial infraction. I do say she is overreacting somewhat.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Trissiny said, folding her arms. “You, the sitting governor of another province and rival Great House, began an economic program obviously modeled on the means you used to secure your influence in Madouris, in a fringe territory over which the Sultana has nominal but little real control, probably causing her to lose face in front of the other Houses of Calderaas, who at their most congenial are a pit of underfed alligators. And you’re surprised she was miffed?”

“I said that her Excellency overreacted,” Ravana replied, lifting her nose, “not that she was entirely without a point.”

“Yeah, I’d get on top of fixing that if I were you,” Gabriel suggested. “Sekandar’s a swell guy and all, but if Princess Yasmeen is anything to go by you do not want the Aldarasi women on your case. I think even you may not be rich enough to shrug that off, Ravana.”

“Mildly sexist,” Trissiny stated, giving him a pointed look, “but regrettably apt.”

He bowed grandly to her.

Ravana herself drew in a breath, causing her thin shoulders to rise, then let it out slowly, sweeping a languid and incongruously warm smile around the group. “Now, this is exactly why I was so grateful you all agreed to visit me over the holidays. I am surrounded by legions of yes-men at home; nobody outside of school dares talk back to me. It’s no wonder my father entirely lost his sense of proportion.”

The front door of the Sanhevid Suite clicked discreetly shut, and the group shifted to look that way as Ravana’s Butler came gliding swiftly across the floor toward them.

“Your pardon, my Lady,” Yancey said, bowing to her. “The contacts in N’Jendo with whom you were corresponding concerning the Harpy affair have arrived.”

Poised as always, Ravana betrayed her incredulity only by a momentary pause, and the most infinitesimal lift of one eyebrow, before replying. “How?”

“It appears a telescroll signaling their acquiescence to your last suggestion arrived while you were welcoming our guests, my Lady. Veilwin intercepted and read it, and took it upon herself to teleport to Jennidira to retrieve them. I have made them comfortable in the Azure Parlor.”

Butler training was truly a rival for a noble upbringing in terms of facial control; Yancey managed to convey his withering disapproval of this Veilwin’s presumption without altering his expression a hair beyond the strictly polite.

“I see,” Ravana said, pausing to press her lips into a thin line. “Well. Speak of the Dark Lady. Or…can we even say that anymore?”

“I think I’d rather we did,” said Trissiny. “Elilial is neither dead nor neutered, and undoubtedly is already at work encouraging the world to forget what a monster she has always been. Let’s not oblige her.”

“Duly noted,” Ravana agreed, nodding to her. “Well! It seems it has begun. I am terribly sorry to abandon you all so abruptly, but this matter won’t wait. I shall do my utmost to join you and the others for dinner; this should not occupy me beyond the afternoon. In the meantime, Yancey will see to all your needs.”

“Hey, don’t you worry about us,” Ruda said lazily from the sofa, on which she was sprawled lopsidedly with one leg thrown over its arm. “Go on, be the boss lady. See ya at dinner.”

“And thank you again for having us,” Toby added.

“The pleasure is entirely mine,” Ravana assured them, inclining her head deeply. “Do excuse me, then.”

She turned and glided out, Yancey on her heels. The Butler held the suite’s door for her with a bow, then slipped out behind the Duchess and pulled it shut after them.

“So, uh…” Fross darted over to swoop across the mess of the shattered vase. “Should we…call somebody about this? Cos I could probably clean it up pretty easily but I’m not sure if that’s, like, rude to the servants or what.”

“Hmm.” On the other side of the chamber, Gabriel ambled toward a matching vase and reached for it.

“No, Gabriel!” Trissiny shouted, charging to intercept him.

Teal slipped an arm around Shaeine’s waist; F’thaan, already tired from the day’s journey, was draped asleep across the drow’s feet. “And to think I was afraid we’d have a dull holiday.”


In any other house, the Azure Parlor would have been considered a ballroom. A relatively small and intimate one, suitable for parties of no more than two dozen, but still. The majority of its floorspace was taken up by a sunken area reached by steps down from the carpeted main floor, where the dancing surface itself was a mosaic depicting a cloudy sky. Its matching domed ceiling was a far more intricate fresco of a blue dragon, painted nearly to scale and coiling in on himself as though twisting about in midair in a pose that just barely crammed his entire sinuous length into the available space.

Ravana’s new guests had remained on the upper portion, where seats and refreshment tables were distributed. They had been generously served; on one of the tables were laid out trays of tea, hot mulled cider, and warm pies of both meat and fruit in portions that would have provided a full meal for more than the three of them. The woman in the group was sipping a mug of cider, but other than that the refreshments appeared untouched. Still wearing their fur-lined winter cloaks, all three were standing, and staring upward at the ceiling fresco.

Veilwin was slouched in an armchair off to one side in a posture that clashed with her elegant brocaded dress, munching on a slice of cherry pie.

“Zyndirax the Blue was an off-again, on-again paramour of Duchess Tamira Madouri,” Ravana said, gliding into the room. “I suspect the scandal was the sole cause of her interest in him; she did love to ruffle people’s feathers. Welcome to Madouri Manor, Brother Ingvar and guests! I most humbly apologize for keeping you waiting. The truth is that I was not expecting you to visit me so soon.”

She shot a sidelong look at her Court Wizard, who snorted (spraying crumbs in the process) and pointed a forkful of pie at her.

“You said you were on a tight schedule for the next two weeks,” the elf said accusingly. “Made a whole production of it, big speech and everything. Remember? We’re all to chip in an’ try to smooth things along. Well, I cut off some corners and saved you some time. You’re welcome.”

Veilwin was the only elf Ravana had ever seen with dark circles around her eyes, and they had never diminished in the time she’d known her. As usual, her gown was of expensive silk brocade, and free of any tear, stain, or wrinkle due to the considerable enchantments laid upon it, which contrasted starkly with the mussed state of her blonde hair. Now, she also had crumbs all over half her face, which somehow suited her.

“I assure you, we are not put out,” Ingvar interjected, striding forward with a warm smile. “It’s a great pleasure to see you again, your Grace. Especially conscious.”

“Ah, ah,” Veilwin chided with her mouth full, wagging the now-empty fork. “It’s ‘my Lady.’ The Duchess is trying to retire the ol’ Grace thing, says it’s old-fashioned. She’s a modern girl, is Ravana.”

“Veilwin,” the Duchess said with a too-wide smile, “do you recall our discussion about you speaking in front of guests?”

Veilwin grunted and tucked silently back into her pie.

“Yes, I understand this is not the first time we have met,” Ravana said, accepting Ingvar’s outstretched hand and inclining her head in response to his bow. “As those events were relayed to me, I owe you my life.”

“I did little…my Lady,” he demurred. “Anyone would have carried an unconscious woman out of a battlefield.”

“I assure you, it was not a small thing to me. A Madouri pays her debts.”

“I would consider it a grave dishonor to claim a debt over something so morally obligatory, my Lady,” Ingvar said gravely, then smiled again. “But perhaps it can be a starting point for a positive relationship.”

“Well said,” she agreed, smiling back. “Now, I see you have met my Court Wizard. I also apologize for whatever Veilwin said and/or did before I was able to intervene.”

Behind her, Veilwin snorted again.

“I have no complaints, my Lady,” Ingvar said tactfully. “We hunters have straightforward manners ourselves. Allow me to introduce my friends, Dantu and Dimbi.”

They nodded in turn, clearly uncertain of the formalities involved in meeting a Duchess; Ravana inclined her head politely to each of them in response, allowing her amusement to tinge her smile. Dimbi was a young woman, Dantu a surprisingly old man, and both were Westerners, probably locals from the area around Ninkabi where Ingvar and his followers had been roaming in the months since the battle. Though Dimbi was visibly uncomfortable in these opulent surroundings, the white-haired Dantu seemed quite at ease, and even intrigued by everything he saw.

“A pleasure,” she said. “And on the subject of beginning a positive relationship, there is the matter concerning which I reached out to you.”

“Yes, indeed,” Ingvar said, his expression sobering. “I confess, Lady Madouri, I was surprised to learn you had involved yourself in this at all. I mean no offense by that, of course. You have been extremely generous, and I thank you for what you’ve done.”

“But you are uncertain about my motives?” she prompted, then smiled gently. “Please, Brother Ingvar, don’t worry, no offense is taken. We are what we are: myself a scheming noble, and you too intelligent not to know a scheming noble when you meet one. I would never be so churlish as to be affronted by a person possessing basic common sense. We have time to delve into my reasons for stepping in; for now, I suspect you must be very eager to meet the Harpies. I know they will be very glad indeed to finally meet you.”

“That is certainly true,” he agreed. “Are they here, then?”

“Not in the city, no; it didn’t seem the wisest place to house them. Rest assured, I have made sure to provide for their safety and comfort. I’ll take you to them now, if you’re amenable.”

“Very much so,” he said, allowing the eagerness to touch his voice.

Ravana smiled again, then half-turned. “Veilwin, take us to the lodge, if you please.”

The sorceress sighed through her nose and swallowed a bite of pastry. “I am almost finished with my pie.”

“You are finished with it,” Ravana corrected. “You may order anything you want from the kitchens later. It’s not as if I don’t feed you. It’s time to work.”

“Ugh.” With ill grace, Veilwin tossed her plate down onto the table and the fork after it, then stood, absently brushing crumbs off her face. “Fine, if you’re in such a damned hurry.”

She strode toward the group, raising one hand as she went, and blue light began to flicker within her eyes. Matching sparks snapped in the air around them, accompanied by a faint whine of gathering arcane energy.

“Uh, hang on now,” Dimbi said nervously, “is she really—”

Veilwin snapped her fingers, the arcane light flashed, and the five of them vanished.


The distant sounds of birds calling from the nearby rainforest were barely audible over the murmur of breeze and the waves. It was a gorgeous day, cloudless and just cool enough that the unimpeded sun did not feel too hot. Such weather was rare, as this was usually the rainy season; it likely wouldn’t last more than an hour or two. From her chosen lounge chair on the beach, she had a view of the wide central bay of the Tidestrider archipelago, with the forest-clad peaks of mountainous islands rising all around the horizon. During the summer months, the lodge she was renting would have housed several groups of the vacationing wealthy, but now the winter chill assured her solitude. The first peace and quiet she’d had in months.

The lounge chairs were arranged in pairs, with low wooden tables between them; she had piled hers with books. Mostly novels, though the volume currently open in her hands was a treatise on bardic archetypes printed in Glassian. Tellwyrn’s eyes had stopped tracking back and forth across the page for the last few minutes; she just held the book up almost like a shield, scowling at it and listening to the crunch of footsteps in the sand steadily encroaching upon her privacy.

“I just can’t get over how warm it is,” Eleanora Sultana Tirasian marveled aloud, setting a tray bearing a pitcher and two glasses on the table next to the book pile and folding herself gracefully into the second lounge chair. “Isn’t this place at more or less the same latitude as Ninkabi?”

“Ocean currents,” Tellwyrn said tersely. “Tropical water comes straight down the west coast from the equator. You’re from Onkawa, there’s no way you don’t know that. You also had to be aware I noted your battlemages porting in all around. This had better be pretty damn good, Eleanora. I am on vacation.”

She finally looked over at her, then raised her eyes in surprise. Tellwyrn was wearing a loosely-fitted kimono, but the Empress of Tiraas, she now observed, had clad herself in a skimpy traditional Tidestrider garment—traditional, at least, in the warmer latitudes to the north—which showed off far more of her dark skin than she ever did in public.

“Yes, Arachne, I know,” Eleanora said with a smug smile. “Terrible vengeance if I disturb it, and so on, and so forth.”

“Do you know how much time off I get a year?”

“Of course I do, the academic year is common knowledge. Do you know how much time off I get a year? None, Arachne. The answer is zero.”

“Oh, yes, your life is so very dreary,” Tellwyrn sneered. “In your extravagant palace, where you spend each night in the arms of a different beauty gathered from across the Empire. My heart bleeds.”

“I only have three regular mistresses at the moment,” the Empress said lightly, pouring tropical punch into both glasses. “Sharidan keeps only four. You know, it’s surprisingly difficult to collect them, even with the resources at our disposal. Women beautiful enough to catch my eye, but also with enough intellect and character to be worth talking to…well, they tend to get jealous and competitive with one another, which we obviously can’t have. There just aren’t that many candidates who meet all the right criteria. A life of power is such a lonely one…”

“You do realize that you being Empress is the only reason you don’t get punched more often, right?”

“Obviously. So, have you heard about the elves?”

“No, and fuck ‘em. Nobody likes elves. Stuck-up pricks.”

Eleanora chuckled. “They’ve announced a unified government. A permanent alliance of Tar’naris, every forest tribe on the continent, twenty-nine participating plains tribes, and Qestraceel.”

“Bullshit,” Tellwyrn snorted. “The drow have been sending out feelers for, what, a year? Two? It’ll take ‘em a century to get even a quarter of that roster off their asses.”

“Yes, that is more or less everyone’s analysis. And yet, they’ve gone and done it. You can imagine the shockwaves this has created.”

“Is this you trying to make small talk due to being unable to discuss anything except politics, or are you actually going to try to convince me to cut short my vacation? Answer carefully, Eleanora.”

“Yes.” The Empress held out one of the glasses to her, smiling slyly. “You know, Quentin suspects you are a high elf.”

Tellwyrn heaved a sigh, and finally slapped her book down on the table, but made no move to accept the drink. She just glared mulishly at the Empress.

“I don’t get to take vacations,” Eleanora repeated, the levity fading from her expression. “And I most especially can’t now, Arachne, not with this crisis unfolding. So consider my position. I do need your help, which means disturbing your cherished peace and quiet. I don’t have the power to compel you, and persuading you means not disturbing your cherished peace and quiet. You see my dilemma?”

“So,” Tellwyrn drawled, “you are going to crash my vacation, because buttering me up is your only viable option, and thus you get to finagle a beach vacation for yourself out of a political disaster. I am, grudgingly, quite impressed.”

“How often do you think doing my duty to the Empire will require me to loaf about in a resort with the single most interesting woman I’ve ever taken to bed?” Eleanora rejoined, the self-satisfied smirk returning to her face. “I can hardly afford to pass up this chance, you see.”

“And what if I just decide to tell you everything I know about the high elves right away? That’s what you’re fishing for, right? I know you don’t think I’m in good with any of the other kinds.”

“Well,” the Empress mused, “I suppose that would be the absolutely ideal outcome for me. And I confess, if you pick this of all moments to be agreeable and compliant for once in your life I will be rather pissed off.”

The elf finally accepted the outstretched glass. “I’m not a high elf, Eleanora. At least, not that I know of. I went to Qestraceel to find out. It didn’t go well.”

“I see. Then…?”

“Yes, I do know quite a bit about them. And in keeping with my general ‘fuck the elves’ policy, I find I’m quite amenable to dishing on them to the Empire. Provided, of course, that I am sufficiently buttered up.” She lay back in the reclining seat, smirking herself and lifting the glass to her lips. A second later, she grimaced. “Eugh. I hate coconut.”

Eleanora shook her head, lounging back in her own chair. “You have got to be the most disagreeable person I’ve ever met.”

“Oh, come on. That’s not even close to true, and you know it.”

The Professor reached out with her glass, the Empress clinked her own against it, and they both gazed placidly out across the waves.

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16 – 1

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The residence of House Dalmiss was built into a great natural wall between the main cavern of Tar’naris and the secondary cave in which the city’s agricultural works had been built, with an enviable view overlooking both. The Duchess of House Madouri and her Butler were escorted by diffident guards to their appointment with the Matriarch in a colonnade open to the air on the agricultural side, lit by the golden gleam of its huge sun crystals.

The chamber was set up as a miniature throne room, with its entrance at one narrow end leaving a long approach to the opposite wall, where a dais held a single ornately-carved chair upon which Ezrakhai awaited them. Two House soldiers stood impassively at attention at the foot of the dais, bracketing the guests’ view of her, and a single chair was set up in the center of the floor, facing the throne.

“Duchess Ravana,” she said by way of greeting, with a single dip of her head.

“Matriarch Ezrakhai,” Ravana replied with a matching nod, seating herself without waiting for an invitation. Yancey stepped up to place himself behind her left shoulder, folded his hands behind his back, and assumed a stillness that would have suited even a Narisian.

“I ask your pardon for the sparse accommodations,” the Matriarch said tonelessly. “Your visit was unexpected. We are unaccustomed to entertaining guests of your esteemed rank with so little warning.”

A robed servant, the only other drow in the room now that Ravana’s guides had departed and closed the door behind her, stepped forward with a deep bow, and poured wine from a stone bottle into a goblet which she then handed to the Duchess.

“On the contrary, the fault is mine for so abruptly imposing upon you,” Ravana said smoothly, taking the cup without otherwise acknowledging the servant, who then backed away against the wall. “I can find no fault with your hospitality. My thanks for receiving me in person on such short notice.”

Ezrakhai inclined her head again, then hesitated, her eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly; Ravana had taken a tiny sip, grimaced, and set the goblet down upon the arm of the chair.

“To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” the drow asked, her tone still even.

“There is but one concern we heads of House must always put first, is there not?” Ravana replied pleasantly. “The welfare of our people.”

“Indeed,” Ezrakhai said impassively, “though I am uncertain how I might aid you in the care of your own, your Grace.”

“Ah, but as it turns out, you can.” Ravana folded her hands demurely in her lap, still smiling. “I was recently made aware that several citizens of Madouris and Tiraan Province are currently held in Tar’naris against their will. According to my investigations, five have been placed in indentured servitude of unlimited duration to members of House Dalmiss.”

“I see,” Ezrakhai said with the faintest downturn of the corners of her mouth. “I assure you, your Grace, that enslavement in Tar’naris is assigned only as a just punishment for serious crimes of which the subject has been duly convicted.”

“Yes, I am aware of the politics involved,” Ravana said, languidly waving one hand. “I could, of course, argue with the procedural details of each trial; I have taken time to gather information on the various improprieties of all five convictions—”

“That would be something to take up with the courts, which answer directly to the Queen. I cannot intercede in their judgments.”

“—but we both know that would be missing the forest for the trees, as it were. At issue is that the very institution of slavery in Tar’naris is applied selectively to humans and enforced through corrupt trials, in order to secure a rare luxury for those able to purchase a miscarriage of justice. I’m sure it must shock and horrify you that any such exist among your House.”

“Again,” Ezrakhai said, now with a faint edge to her tone, “that is a matter you would have to bring before the courts. If you can prove that those trials produced an improper verdict, Duchess, you could have them overturned. The guilty would then, of course, be freed.”

“That all sounds rather tedious, does it not?” Ravana mused. “They could also be freed if those in custody of them relinquished their claim.”

“I think you would find that a rather hard sell,” the Matriarch said dryly. “A slave is a rare and prestigious acquisition.”

“To be sure, to be sure. Thus why I have requested an audience with yourself, Matriarch. I assume you have sufficient authority over your House to order the release of my people. I formally request that you exercise it.”

In the heavy silence which followed, Ezrakhai very slowly drummed the fingers of both hands upon the armrests of her throne.

“I am not thoroughly versed in the details of House politics within the Empire,” she said at last, “but I cannot imagine it is news to you that no aristocrat reigns by complete and incontestible fiat. Power is made of the agreement of one’s subordinates that one is to be obeyed, and can be damaged by excessive use. I’m afraid it is simply out of the question for me to make such demands of multiple members of my House simultaneously, your Grace. It would be at minimum deeply disruptive, and in all likelihood severely damaging to my rule.”

“I sympathize,” Ravana said with apparent sincerity, inclining her head. “Nonetheless, that is, not to put too fine a point on it, your problem. I require the release of my citizens.”

Another beat of silence passed. This time, Ezrakhai stared down at her, silent and still as a gargoyle.

“That remains beyond my ability.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Ravana said, still smiling pleasantly. “Merely beyond your willingness.”

“As you say,” the Matriarch retorted, finally wearing open annoyance. “As such, I wish you good fortune in pursuing your dispute with Queen Arkasia’s court. Now I must excuse myself, as it is a particularly difficult time for my House and certain matters require my ongoing attention.”

“Ah, yes, of course,” Ravana said, nodding. “The disappearance of your second daughter. I imagine that is most preoccupying.”

Ezrakhai had begun to rise from her throne, but now hesitated, narrowing her eyes again. “You are indeed well-informed, your Grace.”

“Oh, naturally,” Ravana said airily. “After all, I have her.”

Both House Dalmiss guards finally reacted, shifting position subtly to stare at her directly, one moving a hand to the hilt of her saber. Ezrakhai herself abruptly sat back down, leaning forward to stare at the Duchess.

“What did you say?” she whispered.

“It was quite easy,” Ravana explained, smiling broadly. “I simply had her snatched right off the street. That is a thing I can do, Ezrakhai, while your people must resort to elaborate trickery to do the same. I say that not to boast, but to emphasize an important point which I believe has gone over your head.”

The Matriarch shot upright, baring her teeth. “You will return my daughter immediately, you smirking child!”

“I have every intention of it,” Ravana agreed, folding her hands again. “The condition in which she is returned, of course, depends entirely upon you. Now, as I said, I require the immediate release of all citizens of Tiraan Province behind held in slavery by your House. You have forty-eight hours to remand them, unharmed and without exception, to Imperial custody. If this is not done by that point, you will receive…an ear.”

Ezrakhai’s eyes widened. “You dare—”

“At intervals thereafter,” Ravana continued, “unless these demands are met, further…bits and bobs. The other ear, fingers, feet… Eyes, tongue. You know, whatever protrudes and is accessible. This should afford you quite some time to carry out this difficult task, as I have no intention of killing Ezranat and there are so many things a person can lose and still live. One way or another, you’ll receive her back, alive. In the worst case scenario, a blind, mute, limbless torso. In any case, one who knows exactly whose intransigence resulted in her state. And if that somehow has still not moved you to comply, I will simply seize another member of your family and begin again.” Ravana’s smile widened, showing the tips of her teeth. “Which I can also do, Ezrakhai, regardless of any defenses you raise. For the simple reason that I am, by every measurable standard, your superior.”

The Matriarch pointed at her, barking a few harsh syllables in elvish, and both guards lunged at the human, bringing up their swords. With typical elven speed, they crossed the space faster than a human could have noticed them moving.

Most humans.

Yancey intercepted them just as rapidly, seizing the wrist of the closer soldier and snapping her arm with a jerk even as he tripped the other. The guard screamed as she was sent hurling over the side of the open colonnade to plummet into the fields below. By that point the second guard was already in the process of spinning back to her feet and slashing at him with her saber in the same motion.

The Butler hopped nimbly over the blade, once more kicking her, but this time hooking a foot under her body in the process and hiking her physically upward before she could regain her footing. It closed the distance enough for him to seize her by one ankle.

He spun in a full circle and hurled her in the opposite direction. The guard struck the servant, slamming both into the stone wall hard enough to crack it. They tumbled to the floor and lay unmoving, a puddle of blood already beginning to spread.

Yancey stepped back behind Ravana and resumed his formal posture. Exactly three seconds had passed.

“This is what I mean,” Ravana admonished. “A sensible, civilized person would have paused to consider that Ezranat’s life rests in my hands, and acted accordingly. You, Ezrakhai, are a savage, and that is why you are now in this situation. Your people thrive because the Empire wills it. You survive because the Silver Throne deems your existence advantageous. In the prosperity brought by the patronage of Tiraas, you have grown ungrateful and arrogant. As you have chosen to squander my goodwill, you shall now be relegated to dealing with me in a more proper manner: as befits a lesser civilization, existing at the sufferance of a greater. Yancey.”

She spoke with a subtle emphasis as Ezrakhai took two long steps across the floor toward her.

“If this overweening termite presumes to lay a finger on my person, break both of her legs.”

“Yes, my Lady,” the Butler intoned in perfect serenity.

The Matriarch froze, glaring with pure hatred. Ravana leaned slowly forward, her smile finally slipping.

“Forty-eight hours,” she repeated, “until the dissection begins. You needn’t worry for Ezranat’s life; I am actually able to guarantee the safety of people under my protection, as I am the ruler of a true noble House and not a cave-dwelling arthropod with pretensions of significance. I expect you to remember this lesson, should the opportunity arise for you to falsely enslave a citizen of my province in the future. If I am forced to put you back in your place again, I shall not do so as gently.

“And when you attempt to attack me in retaliation,” she added with a condescending smile, “which you will, because you are a brute savage with the capacity for only a few predictable thoughts, you will not be getting the personnel you send back. At least, not immediately. I mean to commission a very stylish drowhide trench coat in the Imperial style, when I have accumulated enough leather. I will send it to you, as a personal gift from House Madouri. Just the first one, though. After that, I believe I’ll begin work on a lovely sofa.”

“You are a sadistic little monster,” the Matriarch hissed.

“No, Ezrakhai,” Ravana retorted, the smile vanishing from her features. “You are a little monster. I am a far greater one. If, as I suspect, you are capable of absorbing no other lesson from this, get that into your head. The reminders will only grow more costly with repetition. Now, then!”

She stood smoothly, pausing to incline her head once more in a courteous gesture.

“My Butler and I are going to walk out of this House unimpeded. Either because you belatedly summon the basic sense not to interfere with me while your daughter’s fate hangs in the balance, or because you have nothing capable of impeding us. In truth, it makes no difference to me.”

Ravana turned and glided away, back toward the audience room’s door.

“You cannot be arrogant enough to think this ends it,” Ezrakhai snarled behind her. “No matter how this plays out, Madouri, for an insult of this magnitude there will be vengeance. On the last drop of my blood, I swear it!”

The Duchess paused, and looked over her shoulder with a raised eyebrow. “The mole bares its teeth. It would be endearing, were it not so sad. Come, Yancey.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

They departed the room in silence.


The namesake fortifications of Fort Vaspian physically barred the tunnel entrance to Tar’naris, funneling all commerce between the drow city and the surface through Imperial-controlled gates, but in the decade of peacetime a civilian presence had expanded around the battlements, until the label of Fort Vaspian was used to refer to what amounted to a mid-sized town as much as the citadel at its heart.

Thought it offered numerous accommodations, including several comfortable enough to suit the standards of an aristocrat, Ravana’s next meeting was deep within the old fortress itself, where absolute security could be ensured by the Empire, and more specifically, one of the individuals already waiting when she arrived.

“Ah, I see I am the last here,” Ravana said, gliding forward to join Lord Quentin Vex and Nahil of House Awarrion at the fireplace, while Yancey shut the door behind them. “I do hope I have not kept you waiting. Departing the city was surprisingly difficult; a large, apparently informal procession of some kind has slowed traffic along the main thoroughfare to the gates.”

“Not to worry, your Grace,” Nahil said serenely, “I’m just relieved to hear that was your only delay. I might have worried for your safety, if Matriarch Ezrakhai took offense at your demands.”

“I found the Matriarch eminently reasonable, after some judicious prompting,” Ravana replied with a smile, settling herself in a chair across from Nahil while Vex lounged against the hearth.

“Then everything proceeded as planned?” the spymaster inquired.

“Precisely according to our agenda,” she reported, “though I cannot say with certainty what the Matriarch’s response will be. Narisians are, I fear, rather inscrutable to me, and she is an aristocrat besides, with all the implied poise. I am confident I did what could be done, but I won’t predict with certainty that she will accede to my demands.”

“She will,” Nahil said with a humorless little smile. “Ezrakhai is a cautious and conservative person by temperament. In any case, I am already making arrangements for House Awarrion to ‘accidentally’ learn about this confrontation; if Ezrakhai proves resistant, my mother will apply pressure. We will have our precedent within the week. A confrontation between one Narisian and one Imperial House may not, in and of itself, make the necessary waves,” she added, directing her gaze at Lord Vex.

“It is only a starting point,” he assured her, “and I am already at work preparing the next steps. When it is believable for word to spread, the narrative we will seed through our press contacts is of the Duchess personally intervening to restore the affronted honor of House Madouri and Tiraan Province. The very fact of House Madouri’s diminished prestige will all but force other Houses who have lost citizens to the slave trade to follow suit, just to save face.”

“And once confrontation with the larger and wealthier Houses of the Empire becomes a serious prospect,” Nahil finished, allowing herself a smug smile, “the danger to Tar’naris’s very infrastructure will give Queen Arkasia plentiful leverage to pressure the Houses to turn against the slave trade. Even in the best case scenario, this likely will not obliterate it completely, but depriving the market of its primary buyers will be a crippling blow. It may be too early to celebrate yet, but I believe her Grace has now done the difficult part; so long as we manage the next few days carefully, all should turn out as we have planned. On behalf of myself, my mother, and the Queen, I thank you both for your assistance.”

“We all profit by this,” Vex replied, nodding deeply to her. “The Silver Throne thanks you and Matriarch Ashaele for making this possible, Nahil.”

“May our friendship continue to prosper,” she said, rising smoothly. “I hope you will both forgive me for rushing off, but it is a momentous day, and my mother will require a swift report on our progress.”

“Of course,” Ravana said graciously. “Please give Matriarch Ashaele my compliments, Nahil.”

“I shall. Goddess’s guidance to you both; please do not hesitate to call on me if House Awarrion can assist you in the future.”

With a final bow, she turned and strode to the door. Yancey opened and held it for her, bowing.

The second the Butler had shut it behind her, Vex turned to Ravana. “And the additional steps we discussed, your Grace?”

She didn’t bother to ask whether the room was secured against elvish hearing, though there was no visible sign of a warding charm, nor the distinctive prickle of arcane magic in the air. Such things could be hidden, and Quentin Vex did not make stupid blunders.

“A smashing success,” Ravana reported primly. “I can say with all confidence that Matriarch Ezrakhai was left so bitterly affronted that she will never cease to seek revenge as long as I remain alive. I believe I can milk further insults from her inevitable attempts at retaliation, but ensuring that the resulting destabilization of House Dalmiss imperils Tar’naris’s food supply will fall to you, Lord Vex. I would gladly offer further aid toward increasing the Narisians’ dependency on the Empire, but Tiraan Province must still import crops to sustain itself. I gather we have been somehow outmaneuvered?”

He actually blinked in surprise. “What makes you say so, your Grace?”

“You look unhappy, Lord Vex,” she replied gently. “Given your famous self-control, that can only be deliberate. Either unexpected developments have derailed the plan, or you intend to double-cross me. I choose to err on the side of optimism.”

“Hm,” he grunted, reaching into his coat and withdrawing a folded sheaf of paper, several pages thick. “I appreciate your faith, Duchess Ravana. It is the first, I fear. While you were meeting with the Matriarch, the situation changed right out from under us.”

She accepted the sheets from him, opened it, and began rapidly perusing their contents. Half a minute passed in silence while Ravana’s eyes darted rapidly across the pages, and her brows slowly lifted.

“Well,” she said finally, turning to the third page. “I see. Indeed, we appear to have outsmarted ourselves. This will ensure the security of Tar’naris’s food supply without Imperial help, not to mention possibly granting Ezrakhai access to strategic resources I may live to regret.”

“That is the least of what this will change,” he said dourly. “Of course, your Grace, you shall have the full backing and protection of the Imperial government. You have been a staunch ally of House Tirasian and your involvement in this project was at my instigation. The Silver Throne does not abandon its allies.”

“I appreciate that,” she said with a nod, casually holding up the papers. Yancey ghosted across the room to pluck them from her hands, the Butler then stepping discreetly back to begin reading the documents.

“It’s too early to say what form that aid will need to take,” Vex continued, pressing his lips together in displeasure. “Rest assured, your Grace, I will be in contact. In the immediate term, however, this has left me with a thousand new fires to put out. I must touch base with my people on the ground here at Vaspian, and then return to the capital with all haste.”

“Yes, of course,” she said seriously. “You will know where to find me; I’ll not keep you any longer.”

The spymaster bowed to her, then turned and followed Nahil’s path to the door.

“Lord Vex,” Ravana said suddenly, “do you believe there is any possibility that Nahil suspected our secondary objective?”

“I don’t see how she could have,” he replied, turning to regard her with one eyebrow quirked. “Based on what she knows, needlessly antagonizing the Matriarch would have been both pointless and out of character for you. But it goes without saying that even the part of your mission she knew would make you an enemy of House Dalmiss.”

“Yes, of course,” Ravana mused. “And it is inconceivable that she did not know of this development…indeed, this entire affair very neatly kept you occupied while it unfolded. Well. Thank you, my lord.”

“My Lady.” He nodded again, and turned to step out, Yancey having already opened the door courteously.

The Butler closed it behind the spymaster, and only then returned to his mistress’s side, the folded documents already tucked into his own coat.

“His Lordship’s lack of admonition against pursuing a grievance against Nahil could be interpreted as tacit blessing, my Lady,” Yancey said diffidently. “Shall we begin formulating an expression of displeasure at her maneuvering?”

“Now, Yancey, it does not do take these things personally,” Ravana mused, staring pensively into the fireplace. “This is how the game is played. Nahil acted with the resources and knowledge at her disposal toward the best interests of her House and monarch, precisely as a noblewoman ought. I feel no personal ire toward her. Even, I daresay, a touch of admiration. It was quite neatly done.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“For now!” Ravana stood, her gaze snapping back into focus. “Our guests will be arriving at the Manor by this evening, and indeed, these events are certain to send shockwaves across the continent. Even not being formally involved in international relations, there will be repercussions we shall feel directly. The politics of both our nations are about to be thrown into a tumult that no one can ignore. Come, we must dig Veilwin out of the tavern and return to Madouris immediately.”

“Very good, my Lady,” he said, preceding her to the door to hold it open.

“And later, when circumstances provide a suitable opportunity,” Ravana murmured to herself, “I will gently notify Nahil nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion that House Madouri does not forgive.”

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Bonus #28: Life’s Work

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Ben Morgan!

Crossing through the grand ballroom was not the most direct or efficient way to reach the solarium which served as the Duchess’s study and private audience chamber, but at this moment, for this purpose, it was the correct way. A household was a living organism, an unfathomably complex machine whose health depended upon countless details from the towering to the infinitesimal. A doctor would study for years to know every medical detail that could be known, and still barely scratch the surface; a hedge witch could immerse herself in lore and familiarity until intuition told her things that medical science could not, yet lack the power to achieve a surgeon’s sometimes miraculous results.

Though they worked upon lives rather than bodies, Butlers had to do both, and more.

There was, sadly, nothing yet which could do for the living body what a Butler could do for a household. But though she was not yet fully accredited, and though this was not truly her household, Price was Butler enough to know where she needed to be. Right now, that was in the grand ballroom just in time to ward off a disaster.

The arrangement would be stunning once completed, but was inherently precarious. The columns had been exquisitely detailed by master artists to resemble carved marble with gilded trim, but were in fact made of cast plaster, and thus too light to be reliably stable, given their height. Placing expensive ceramic urns atop them was just asking for trouble, and while the finished arrangement would be more sturdy, at this stage it was all exceedingly delicate.

Price entered the ballroom just as a young man—a worker from Leineth, not one of the household staff—lost his grip atop a ladder, and in his fumbling to avoid dropping the large and heavy vase in his arms, managed to not only finish dropping it but topple the pillar he’d been about to place it atop.

She surged smoothly into motion, flashing across the ballroom in one second, and vaulted into position. Everything about the situation was spelled out before her, senses taking in details that few would have gathered and mind parsing them into usable data in calculations no one who had not undergone the Treatment could have performed.

Even for a Butler, that was an impossible vertical leap, forcing Price to approach at an angle. One step brought her to the top of the long table which would be laid out with finger foods at the ball. The next, kicking off with all her considerable strength, hurled her into the wall of the ballroom. She hit that like a spring and uncoiled, shooting across the open space in nearly horizontal flight.

Price intercepted the urn as it tumbled; the thing was custom-made for this event, designed to look like a beautiful vase from the perspective of those below the pillars, meaning it had to be more than half as tall as a person and correspondingly broad. Awkward to lift, had she tried to wrap arms around it. Instead, she smoothly caught it with one hand flat under its base, as her other arm and both legs coiled around the pillar.

Using her momentum, Price spun in a full circle around the falling column, arresting her flight and accelerating the column’s own descent. That would have naturally sent the urn flying out of her grip as soon as the rotation ceased, had she not spun her arm to invert its orientation mid-fall, so that once again her flat hand was between the fragile vase and the direction of its momentum. Completing the rotation brought it back to rest upright upon her palm, while she uncoiled her body from the pillar.

Price extended her full height as she descended, positioning herself beneath the plaster column with her feet reaching the floor the second she completed this maneuver, one hand held up above her head to support the tumbling pillar, the other held out to the side with the tall vase balanced upon her palm. She folded her body up again like a spring, this time a collapsing one, absorbing the energy of the fall, and thus ended up with her feet fully on the ground, having prevented either pillar of base from breaking. Quite fortunately, too, as replacing them at this juncture would have been challenging.

Total silence had descended upon the ballroom, all the servants and workmen present staring at her. The entire thing had unfolded before everyone had even noticed the tumble about to occur.

“Ahem,” Price said pointedly, being pinned beneath a mostly-fallen plaster column with her free hand holding up a heavy (and expensive) piece of ceramic.

Her prompting brought servants rushing forward; one man very carefully took the vase from her, while two others got themselves under the pillar, lifted it from her hand, and finished lowering it gently to the floor. Price straightened her coat, turning to address the youth standing atop the nearby latter, staring down at her in frozen horror.

“I will remind you, Master Borson, that your employer regards every aspect of these preparations as an expense without emotional investment. Workmen are more easily replaced than custom-made masterwork ceramic, and distinct in her Grace’s eyes primarily by their ability to feel pain. More caution from you would be advisable.”

“Yes, Miss Price,” he choked. She did not have to waste time staring him down to ascertain that the point was made. The room, the servants present, the state of ongoing preparations, it all factored into the rhythm of the household. It all washed over and through Price—intuitively, cognitively, both and neither, informing her of the state of things. The nascent disaster was thwarted; Borson and the rest of those present would go about their tasks with greater care.

Price turned and continued on to the ballroom’s side entrance without another instant’s delay. A Butler always knew where she was needed, and that was no longer here. Once again, everything was Proper.

By lengthening her stride, she reached the door of the Duchess’s solarium in what was still acceptable time to answer her Grace’s summons. Price tapped twice, at precisely the correctly diffident volume.

“Enter.”

The solarium, like everything Duchess Tiradegh owned or used, was a weapon. At this hour of the morning, sunlight streamed aggressively through it, framing the Duchess herself in her wheeled chair and glaring in the eyes of anyone who stood before her. Price, of course, entered to the exact distance that placed the shadow of the wall across her eyes, protecting them from direct glare. Thanks to the Treatment, she was also not impeded in her assessment of the room and its occupant.

She bowed to the Proper degree. “Your Grace.”

“Ah, Miss Price.” Inara Tiradegh’s voice was only lightly cracked with age; she had been a singer of some fame in her youth, and carried on the hobby her entire life. The old woman, now frail in body though her mind was not a whit less sharp, regarded Price expressionlessly. “How go the preparations?”

“Everything within my purview is on schedule and completed to your Grace’s standards. Yancey, of course, has a more complete knowledge of the state of the household. I can consult him for greater detail, if your Grace wishes?”

“That will not be necessary.” Perfectly neutral, that tone, just like the expression. Inara’s social instincts had been crafted through a noblewoman’s upbringing and honed by decades of ruthless practice; she was a living masterpiece of control. Were Price not a Butler, she would probably be unaware of the old woman’s vivid personal dislike of her. She did not yet know the reason for it, much less while the Duchess had consented to have Price conduct her Trial in this household under Yancey’s supervision, but on both points she had suspicions. “I summoned you here, Miss Price, because I wish to have a conversation.”

“How may I be of service, your Grace?”

“When service is required, I’ll inform you. At this moment, I would simply satisfy my own curiosity.”

Price did not alter her aspect by a hair; even another Butler would not have been able to detect her feelings about this. “Needless to say, your Grace, I am no more authorized than Yancey to discuss the Service Society’s internal business.”

“Oh, spare me,” Inara replied with, finally, the lightest hint of asperity. “Invaluable as Yancey is, I have never found your Society intriguing enough to be personally interested. Avenist alchemists have been turning men into women and elves into humans for centuries; your parlor tricks are more useful, but an order of magnitude less impressive.”

Highly imProper. The Treatment was a far more substantial achievement than the Sisterhood’s work—and both those descriptions broadly mischaracterized their alchemists’ achievements in treating transgender women and bringing elves up to Legion standards of physical strength. More importantly, Inara Tiradegh was well aware of these facts and a known stickler for precision in all things. Price didn’t need to be a Butler to tell she was being deliberately needled here.

“My inquiry is of a more personal nature,” the Duchess continued, regarding Price with a vaguely disinterested expression they both knew to be a lie. “I understand that you are, somewhat unconventionally, an Eserite.”

Ah, yes. As she had suspected.

“If your Grace wishes to have my room and belongings searched, I have no objection,” Price said blandly.

“I would consider such an obvious deflection damning, were Yancey not so fond of doing exactly the same,” Inara said with a wry twist of her lips. “Nor is he the only Butler I’ve met by far. Do they teach you that servile snark at your Society?”

“A good servant must be proficient at all skills relevant to the running of a household, your Grace,” Price replied.

Duchess Tiradegh actually smiled at her. Faintly, but with evident amusement. That fact by itself meant nothing, but Price sensed the emotion was sincere, if grudging.

“What is it, then,” Inara asked, settling subtly backward in her wheelchair, “which prompts a member of the Thieves’ Guild to enter human society in a productive capacity?”

Price did not rise to that obvious bait, either. She did permit herself the indulgence of hesitating, a thing which was done only for effect. A Butler was poised at all times, prepared with the proper response for any contingency. A conversation, like a household, was a thing with rhythms which could be sensed and anticipated, and while talking to the Duchess of House Tiradegh was an entirely different level of challenge from the house servants, even the sly-tongued nobility did not outmaneuver a Butler with words. Delaying for a moment was simply a way of asserting a measure of power—in this case, mirroring the same petty effect achieved by Inara insulting her religion.

“Your Grace is naturally aware of the personal benefit of dedicating oneself to a cause. Being the head of a noble House, your Grace has had such a calling provided from birth.”

“Are you comparing House Tiradegh to the Thieves’ Guild?” Inara inquired in a dangerously polite tone.

“I would never so insult either, your Grace, much less both in the same breath.” The Duchess quirked another faint smile at that, but did not speak again, and so Price continued. “Those not granted such a cause by birth must seek one out. For some, religion is enough. At the core of the Service Society is the belief that it is a fine choice to select, as one’s life’s work, a deserving person. Not everyone can be a force who moves the world. It can be enough to seek out someone who is, and devote oneself fully to their success.”

“Yancey has never spelled it out in those terms,” Inara said in a much more introspective tone. “So. Is that how he sees me, then?” Price did not answer; the question had not truly been directed at her. After a thoughtful pause, the Duchess’s gaze sharpened once more, returning from its brief wander to her own eyes. “You describe your own vocation in terms which would apply to a housewife helping support a factory laborer.”

“A serviceable analogy, your Grace. And were your Grace a factory laborer, a housewife would suffice. A sufficiently interesting person, however, requires a Butler.”

Again, that minute smile. “That’s good flattery, Miss Price. Subtle. At your age I might not have noticed it, and definitely would have missed the underlying mockery.”

“I dared to hope your Grace would appreciate the technique.”

“Yes, quite, and you can desist.” She straightened up in her chair as much as her slightly hunched spine allowed, a subtle signal that the conversation would now turn to business. “I have found no complaint with your work here, Miss Price, and not for lack of trying. At this time, I am prepared to render a favorable report to the Service Society on your performance. I understand that it is Yancey’s endorsement which matters…but that his satisfaction hinges largely upon mine.”

“Your Grace’s understanding is correct,” Price replied neutrally. “I am gratified that I have served adequately.”

“Yes, I’m sure you are,” Inara said dryly. “With all that in mind, Miss Price, I have a specific task for you.”

“I am here to be of service, your Grace.”

“I know. Tonight, at the ball, I will need you to embarrass me.”

Once more, Price hesitated. This time, because the momentary pause would appeal to the Duchess’s sense of dramatic timing. Her own mind was racing over the multitude of possibilities which had exploded from that command, the closest thing a fully trained and Treated Butler experienced to confusion.

“Your Grace?” she asked after the appropriate number of seconds, in the correct tone of polite bafflement.

The Duchess’s satisfied smile said she had done it Properly. “Allow me to explain.”


A woman like Inara Tiradegh never explained herself one bit more than was absolutely necessary, and so Price came away with instructions no more specific than what she was to spill on Lord Reine Daraspian, and when. On the face of it, the reasons a Head of House might want to inflict a minor, slightly embarrassing inconvenience upon a volatile member of a rival House were beyond counting. The majority of them consisted of little more than petty spite. Duchess Inara, however, did nothing without a purpose in mind and a plan in place.

A well-laid scheme was like a conversation, or an organism, or a household. It had rhythms, patterns. Details which yielded themselves both to intuition and to analysis—and therefore, despite any secrecy involved, to a Butler. With the right parts of her mind accelerated by the Treatment and advanced further by the Bargains the Service Society required its full members to make, Price could see somewhat beyond her own relatively tiny role. Possibilities unrolled in every direction, narrowed into a few chains of events of varying likelihood constrained by the other factors already in place. This insight was one of the services Butlers provided their contract-holders, though most of those approved by the Society as business partners were well capable of examining the threads of mortal plots on their own.

She could not read, exactly, the whole of the plan, but it took several potential shapes, most deeply troubling.

Price had gone so far as to push the very limits of what was Proper by taking her concerns to Yancey, only to be rebuffed in his Properly polite but firm manner. She could sense nothing from him, none of the unease he would definitely be feeling if her fears were well-founded—and if they were, Yancey would know in detail. He, however, was a Butler of greater experience than she, and would be well able to conceal his mental state even from another Butler.

Her concern, in truth, was not only for Yancey and his contract. This was her Trial; if it ended in as great a disaster as the Duchess might be actively trying to arrange, that could reflect very badly upon her indeed.

Nonetheless, she went about her duties with all the poise a Butler must exhibit at all times. The preparations were completed, the ball unfolding to the clear delight of the Duchess’s guests. Assisting with the arrangement of social events had all been part of Price’s training, and almost nothing about the early part of the evening proved memorable to her, at least not in the shadow of her nervous anticipation. With two Butlers present to oversee the affair, even with one only on Trial, it could hardly have gone wrong.

At least, not until the point where Duchess Inara Tiradegh intended it to.

Once fully set up, those vases atop the pillars housed plants—vines enhanced by witchcraft from common philodendron and begonias, to form an arboreal network of greenery connecting the vases and the columns. The Duchess had brought in an engineer, rather than a florist, to finalize the arrangement. That was, to say the least, revelatory. More so was what Price could discern about how physical impacts would affect the entire interlaced structure.

And more, still, the way Yancey, at the Duchess’s urging, had casually positioned certain relevant players in the night’s forthcoming drama.

As a minor milestone, Price had already been complicit in a crime this evening, albeit a very, very small one. The Society made clear to its members that service to their contract-holders was considered to supersede adherence to the law; between that and her own religious affiliation, Price had no personal qualms. In this case, even drugging someone’s cup wouldn’t qualify as a crime, given that the dosage in question was non-lethal, generally recreational, and a known indulgence of the person to whom it was administered, and legal precedent established that a host (and their servants) were not to be held responsible for adverse reactions to “mixed drinks” served at a private venue such as this, the responsibility resting upon the drinker to understand what they were imbibing.

These were the sort of obscene technicalities a person had to know, when working for the likes of Inara Tiradegh.

No, the only offense (so far) was in the trafficking; cocaine being a banned substance for which the Imperial Treasury sold exemption licenses, it was legal to own and use it, but not to distribute it to others without acquiring such an exemption, which neither Price nor the Duchess had. Drug trafficking, however, was a white-collar crime of interest to no one but the Treasury even in volumes that involved significant money. This quantity would have been ignored by any Imperial prosecutor, especially with the actual cocaine in an alchemical formulation designed to be dissolved in wine; less than half of the powder was the actual drug.

Price was more concerned that she was being made party to a murder. The Eserite in her wouldn’t mourn the death of anybody in this room save possibly Yancey, and least of all the notoriously corrupt young sot Reine Daraspian, but this was the sort of thing that could damage a person’s career prospects.

Attentive as duty required she be to the festivities, she saw it coming clearly. Yancey’s deft positioning of the already-drunk Lord Reine was accomplished all but invisibly, by leading the man with precisely-positioned trays of snacks and drink; once Price had slipped him the altered wine, the blend of alcohol and cocaine in his system made him as malleable as a sheep—and raised serious ethical questions about whatever alchemist had decided to cook up a way for those two drugs to function simultaneously to the point of enhancing each other.

Few of the other guests marked this, save with the occasional contemptuous glance. The younger Lord Daraspian was known to imbibe worse than wine; it was known, also, that he was here chiefly to be a target, given the relationship between Houses Daraspian and Tiradegh. It was early in the evening; people were still arriving, milling about, chatting, sampling the delicacies laid out, and admiring the decorations. It would be almost another hour before the ballroom would be put to use for dancing. Now, for the most part, people were passing through on their way to the more comfortable chambers next door.

“The ballroom is more active than anticipated at this hour,” the Duchess said offhandedly. “Yancey, instruct the musicians to set up now.”

“At once, your Grace,” her Butler replied, stepping away from the columns, the target, and whatever they had arranged for him.

“…thank you, Yancey,” Inara said after the merest hesitation. Her voice was soft, barely audible through the murmur of chat, the look she gave him superficially even yet loaded with meaning that even Price could barely scratch the surface of.

He actually paused in the act of turning to leave the room, and bowed to her. Deeply. Then finally departed.

It was the realization that she had just witnessed a farewell which collapsed all the possible outcomes of this ploy in Price’s mind. She could see where the young Daraspian stood beneath the arboreal display—and where the aged Duchess had positioned her wheelchair. She was well aware that Inara Tiradegh’s health had been failing for years now, the process accelerating in recent months. She understood the basics of House Tiradegh’s political situation, how its ambitions were impeded by House Daraspian and the fact that the young Lord currently present was the de facto representative of his House at this event specifically because anything done to him would be politically pointless.

And suddenly she knew that she was not involved in a plot to murder Lord Reine Daraspian.

Duchess Inara caught Price’s eye and infinitesimally tilted her head in young Daraspian’s direction. It was not an agreed-upon signal—they hadn’t prearranged one—but to someone with a Butler’s situational awareness the message was explicit.

Very much to Price’s surprise, she found herself considering open defiance. She did not, however, consider it long enough for her hesitation to be outwardly observable.

This was not her contract. Her position here was not such that she had the privilege of questioning the Duchess’s commands. It was not a servant’s place to make such decisions on behalf of their master. Yancey knew what was coming, had accepted it.

So she administered her role in the homicide with poise, as was Proper.

“More wine, my Lord?” Price said diffidently, deliberately sneaking up on Lord Reine with the carafe and startling him into stumbling into her. Twitchy with the stimulant and clumsy with the depressant—truly a diabolical concoction—he was easy to ambush, and in his flailing likely would have knocked her down had she not been a Butler. As it was, avoiding the sweep of his elbow and even protecting the carafe upon the tray would have been simpler than breathing, had that been her duty.

Instead, she neatly arranged for the blow to knock it over, pouring crimson wine straight down the front of his suit, falling to shatter upon the marble floor and splashing his shoes.

“Clumsy goat!” Daraspian snarled as Price retreated two judicious steps.

“I’m terribly sorry, sir—”

“You did that deliberately!”

Obviously, yes; he wasn’t too impaired to have noticed that. Merely enough not to handle it with anything like the grace befitting his station.

“Whatever is all this noise about?” Duchess Inara demanded, deliberately pitching her well-honed voice to cut across what little talk remained in the room after Daraspian’s outburst.

“Excuse me, your Grace,” said Price, “there has been a slight—”

“Your servant attacked me!” he snarled, rounding on the Duchess and nearly toppling over. Price steadied him with one hand and he violently shrugged her off, once more barely avoiding a fall—and snagging his arm in the vines dangling from one of the pillars.

Price could see the shape of the structure, the tension in the vines—far sturdier than those plant species ought normally to be—the shape of the base of the column which would determine the direction it fell. The way Inara had planted her chair so that in turning on her the drunk Lord Reine would entangle himself, and then…

“Oh, don’t be absurd,” she said disdainfully. “She is new, training under Yancey. Price, you fool, get away from there if you’re only going to make a mess.”

Price bowed, stepping back through the columns. Philodendron leaves brushed her coat; she, obviously, did not snare herself in the vines, despite the way they hung in cunning loops rather than the usual dangling strings. Obvious why this was being done so early in the evening; it was only a matter of time before somebody got themselves caught in these.

“You vicious, petty old cow,” Lord Reine spat, taking a lurching step toward the Duchess and absently trying to jerk his arm free. Seemingly fragile vines held him as securely as braided cord; the pillar rocked, the vase atop it teetering very precariously. “You invited me here just to make a spectacle of me!”

“Young man,” the Duchess said in her driest tone, not giving herself away by glancing up at the wobbling column, “I wouldn’t presume to take credit for that which you have achieved on your own. If you cannot behave in civilized society, perhaps you ought to return to your own House.”

“Oh, you’d like that!” he raged, trying to take another step, and reaching the end of the slack he had with those vines. Not paying attention, he gave a final jerk.

Price saw it coming. There were innumerable ways she could have stopped it. Duchess Inara caught her eye once as the column finally began to topple, and a sly little smile flitted across her face.

It was so skillfully done. The column bases were triangular, creating only three lines along which they would inevitably fall if pulled upon. They had been arranged in a very particular orientation, each of them. Inara had planted herself right in the proper line, right at the perfect distance. Lord Reine’s lunge in her direction and furious yank at the vines—so cleverly looped around the column—looked, from the perspective of the onlookers, like a convincingly deliberate act.

Or could be made to, assuming the proper rumors had been planted ahead of time. Price did not doubt for a second that they had.

Just as she did not doubt what the effect would be of Reine Daraspian’s implication in the death of the Duchess of House Tiradegh.

And so she watched, unmoving, as the tower of weighted plaster descended straight onto the smirking old woman’s head.


It was a strange thing, death. She had never liked the old lady in the least, and the feeling had been fully mutual. Price frankly had a low opinion of hereditary nobility in general; her aspiration was to attach her career to someone like the Falconers, people who had earned their wealth and power by making actual contributions to the world. The Eserite in her counted the damage done to two noble Houses as a hilarious success for the human race.

And yet, she couldn’t make herself feel satisfied about any part of this.

The Eserite in her also grudgingly admired Inara Tiradegh’s final gambit. House Tiradegh was no better than any of them, built on the backs of thousands of people who actually did work and lived meaningful lives, unlike the nobles who grew fat from their sweat. But House Daraspian was the next best thing to a crime syndicate themselves; the Guild had rapped its knuckles repeatedly and was widely believed to be the reason for a few untimely deaths within its ranks. But the Daraspians thrived by corruption and bribery, and the Guild could only terrorize so many people at a time—particularly when most of those people were Imperial functionaries. Matters became very different when a young noble of their House was accused of publicly murdering the head of a rival House in a drunken rage.

It was far from certain, yet, whether Reine Daraspian would be convicted. Price didn’t really care what happened to him; the damage was already done. Imperial Intelligence had taken a hand in the investigation, considering the stature of the victim, and was uprooting Daraspian interests right and left, not to mention cleaning out much of the damage they had done to Leineth’s political infrastructure. By the time that finished, Vrandis Province was likely to end up with a whole new government. Sensing weakness, the other Houses had turned on the beleaguered Daraspians, and the Thieves’ Guild had grown increasingly bold throughout Vrandis. In Leineth itself, the Guild was currently being circumspect, since the city was presently crawling with Imperial spooks, but if House Daraspian managed to survive the investigations relatively intact, the Boss was almost certainly going to declare open season on them once Intelligence withdrew.

And that new provincial government was likely to have a Tiradegh named Imperial Governor.

Price could admire it. She couldn’t convince herself that she would miss Inara. Yet this was all so…melancholy.

Sympathy for Yancey was most of it. He had been rigid even by Butler standards ever since that fateful night, and Price had respected his aloofness. She was not naive enough to think that just because she had never liked Inara, no one could; the bond a Butler shared with their contract-holder was, by design, something intimate and even intense. When you made another person your life’s work, the loss of that person must be a complete unmooring of everything in the world that mattered.

It was a sobering thing to think about. Price kept herself nearby, but kept herself contained—her presence an offer of support if it was needed, but not an imposition upon his already raw emotional state. Yancey had not taken it up, and she had not resented it. They had dealt with the investigations and fallout side by side, in professional silence. In grief, there was solace in remaining unshakably Proper.

Yancey was barely middle-aged, far younger than the Duchess. He had to have known, upon taking her contract, that this would be how it ended. Well, not this precisely, but that he would outlive her. Price silently resolved that she would not sign on with someone far different from herself in age. Some Butlers had two or occasionally even three masters over the course of a life’s work, but the Service Society’s ideal was one Butler for one master, for one lifetime.

Now, two weeks after Inara Tiradegh’s final ball, the two of them had at last returned to the Society’s headquarters in Tiraas. It was quiet, as always—the flawless quiet of a household in the most perfect order imaginable. Here, there was nothing not Proper, nothing out of place, no one who did not know their tasks. At least, not now that they had passed through the student training areas into the Society’s far more secretive lower reaches. Students were not permitted down here; even full Butlers did not enter except on specific and official business.

And yet, this was where Master Butler kept his personal office. It was only Proper for his Butlers to be reminded of the full details of their commitments whenever their presence was required before him.

So it was that Price found herself passing the alchemy labs where the Treatment was administered, in many sessions over a span of two years. And then the heavy vault doors to the summoning chambers where the Bargains took place.

Alchemy alone did not a Butler make, for all that it enhanced the body and to a lesser extent the mind. Their true facility came from deals with established agents, beings of each school of magic. Bargaining with fairies had its known risks; deals with demons were even trickier, not to mention extraordinarily illegal. Master Butler’s true genius was in rounding out the circle. It was not clear whether the arcane entities with which she had formed contracts were summoned from elsewhere or actually created for the purpose, but she had been most impressed by the last. Nowhere else had she even heard suggestion that there were consciousnesses out there in the world that stemmed from the divine, save the gods themselves. And yet…

It was the combination that created that which was Proper. Each being demanded its price; their bargains were laid out in a loop such that all costs were paid, but not by the Butler making the Bargains. Each price was parlayed into the next, in a devouring ring like the Circle of Interaction itself. The Society gained its gifts, and paid nothing.

These were the deepest secrets of the Service Society, the sources of power that the world entire would kill to possess. It was not the feared strength or prowess in combat of Butlers which kept the jackals at bay; each Butler was attached to someone of influence, each contract stipulating certain types of support which could be demanded at need. No government or cult dared move against the one organization which had positioned itself to topple any of them, anywhere, under any circumstances.

Master Butler’s brilliance was in forming balance. In creating these networks that sustained and supported themselves. In a very real sense, he was the Service Society.

“Enter,” he called from within his office as soon as Yancey and Price arrived outside the door. They had not even had time to knock.

They did as bade, stepping inside, closing the door, and bowing to exactly the Proper degree.

“Please, sit,” Simeon Butler said with a smile. “Both of you.”

His seat, of course, was much taller than theirs, and even so his head was below their level. For all that, to be in his presence precluded any thought of overpowering him. Price had not known many gnomes, but Master Butler was the single most impressive personality she had ever encountered, not least because even with her training, her Treatment and her Bargains, her senses and accelerated mind could not pin down exactly what it was about him which commanded such instinctive respect. He was simply that far above her level, and always would be. She had never met a dragon, but had read descriptions of the aura of majesty they cultivated; privately, Price suspected Master Butler had found some way to imitate that effect.

“You have my deepest condolences, Yancey,” Master Butler said with pure sincerity. “No matter how many times I have had this conversation, it never grows easier.”

Yancey nodded deeply, almost bowing from his chair. “Thank you, Master Butler.”

“She was a deeply impressive woman,” the gnome said, nodding back. “Well worthy of the Society’s favor. Your service was a credit to her and to us. Even as we share in your loss, Yancey, we welcome you home with honor. Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Yancey only nodded again, this time almost perfunctorily.

“Naturally, the home office is yours until you are ready to resume work,” Master Butler continued more briskly, sensing the mood and ushering the conversation past that painful area. “Simply make your needs known to me and I shall see to it that they are met.”

“If it pleases you, sir,” Yancey replied, “I would like to take part in the education of the students. Whatever vacation time I have accumulated, I would prefer not to redeem at this juncture.”

“I well understand the value of keeping busy,” Master Butler agreed. “Very well, it shall be done. Consult with Crispin at your convenience as to what classes and individuals need instruction. I shall make it known to him that you are to have your pick of available assignments.”

“Thank you very much, Master Butler.”

The gnome nodded to him again, smiling, and then turned to Price. “Well, then! Unusual as it is for me to have two such exit interviews simultaneously, it is also something of a relief in this case. Yancey has reported that your Trial’s results were more than satisfactory—and it seems that one of the late Duchess Inara’s last acts was to send me a glowing recommendation via telescroll. She spoke of you in the highest terms.”

Price raised her eyebrows a tiny fraction that none but a Butler or elf would even have noticed. In this company, under these circumstances, it sufficed to express her pure astonishment.

“Yes,” Master Butler said, his smile widening, “her Grace the Duchess did not make a secret of her lack of personal fondness for you, Miss Price, nor her specific dislike of your religious affiliation. She seemed, if anything, ruefully resentful of her failure to find fault with your performance. It was her belief that your ability to conduct yourself so professionally under such hostility was the mark of a true servant. I concur with that assessment wholeheartedly. And as you have passed your Trial with flying colors, it is my honor and pleasure to welcome you, Sabrina Price, as a full-fledged member of the Service Society.”

Price inclined her head deeply. “Thank you very much, Master Butler. And thank you, Yancey.”

“Congratulations, Price.” Yancey found a smile for her. Strangely, that was the most touching thing of all.

“Now, then,” Master Butler continued, once more growing brisk, “I’ll need a further word with you, Price. Yancey, your reserved chambers are in readiness. Once again, welcome home.”

“My thanks, sir.” Yancey rose smoothly and bowed to the Master, nodded to Price, and then excused himself.

“I want to caution you, Price,” Master Butler said seriously as soon as they were alone, “not to be in a hurry to choose a contract. This is a matter of the greatest seriousness and should not be approached lightly. It is common for newly accredited members of the Service Society to peruse applications for months if not years before making a selection. Most interview with multiple applicants before choosing one.”

“Of course, sir. I understand fully.”

He nodded, reaching over to open the top drawer of his desk, and withdrew a folder. “I am aware that you do, Price, and did not mean to imply any lack of attention on your part. The reminder is simply to assert that I am not applying any pressure to you now. With that said, this is fortuitous timing indeed, as an application has just arrived which made me immediately think of you.”

“Oh?” She glanced at the folder before returning her gaze politely to his own. The Master folded his hands atop it on the desk, regarding her solemnly rather than opening it.

“I realize you have been distracted with the final affairs of the late Duchess Tiradegh. I’m sorry to have to report to you that Bishop Vaade recently passed away.”

Price bowed her head respectfully, murmuring, “We are still here.” It was, in truth, a formality; rank-and-file like herself had little interaction with Bishops or any of the Guild’s higher-ups. Most Eserites wanted nothing to do with authority, even their own. Vaade was a person she was aware of, and that was about it.

“From this unfortunate loss,” Master Butler continued, “have issued a sequence of surprises. It seems that Boss Sweet has selected as her replacement none other than himself. He has stepped down as Boss of the Guild, and just two days ago been confirmed by the Archpope and the new Boss, Tricks, as the new Bishop of Eserion.”

“How…intriguing,” Price said thoughtfully. No exaggeration; that was intriguing. Even distant as she was from Guild politics, she could not help beginning to tease out some of the implications of this.

“Now, it appears that Sweet—or Antonio Darling, as I’m sure you are aware—has never lived lavishly. That is quite typical of Eserites, of course. But now he has purchased a house in Tiraas which befits his new social standing, and hired decorators to furnish in in such a manner as is appropriate for a man of such rank. More interestingly still, Bishop Darling’s first formal act as a ranking officer of the Universal Church has been to commission what appears to be the most in-depth historical study of all recorded encounters with and descriptions of Elilial ever undertaken.” The Master let that hang for a moment before finally unfolding his hands and pushing the folder toward her. “And, as of yesterday, he has submitted an application for a Butler to the Service Society. I thought, Price, you ought to be the first to peruse it.”

Price pulled the folder toward herself and opened it, but though she stared at the page, she did not yet read. Already her mind rushed ahead, finding the shape of it, determining what was Proper in this situation. Sweet was a famously people-oriented person, a man who lived to get his own hands dirty and hated both delegation and ostentation. He liked to be in the streets and trenches, making himself known and doing his best to make everyone else’s jobs easier. He was a lot more popular in the Guild than Boss Catseye had been. This was a striking departure. What could prompt someone to so completely and suddenly reverse all his habits?

He had gone to the Church. He was deliberately re-positioning himself as a man of power and influence. And it seemed he was launching a personal crusade at the Dark Lady.

Intriguing barely began to describe it. This, this was someone to whom, unless he personally proved otherwise, a person could devote their life’s work, and find it a life well spent in deed.

“Thank you very much, Master Butler,” said Price thoughtfully. “I believe I would like to interview Mr. Darling at his earliest convenience.”

The Master smiled. “I thought you would say that.”

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Prologue – Volume 5

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After everything, it was strangely pleasing just to be out in nature.

He walked at a moderate pace, being in no hurry. Golden tallgrass stretched away in all directions, a sight familiar from the border of the Golden Sea, though this was subtly different country. The ground here rolled and undulated slightly, the grass helping to conceal little valleys and subtle hillocks; it was the kind of terrain that could easily have tripped him up had he tried to rush through it, city boy that he was. This grass, too, seemed a shorter variant than what lived around the Great Plains. Its upper fronds rose barely to the level of his chin, not obscuring his view the way the tallgrass of the Golden Sea did. It was darker in color, too, closer to amber.

The sun was arcing toward its zenith and beating down from a cloudless sky, the kind of weather that threatened to burn exposed skin, were his skin vulnerable to that. He found the heat a little tiring, but also not unpleasant. Cicadas, invisible in the grass all around, provided a constant music underscored by a faint, refreshing breeze and the rustling it caused among the stalks. Once in a while there came the cry of a distant hawk.

On he walked, toward the line of trees in the distance. Though he hardly needed the support, he had his scythe out, held in one hand near the blade, and used it as a walking stick. Occasionally a strand of tallgrass would be nicked in passing and immediately wither, but luckily the weapon was long enough that few reached it. It was a good few miles from the nearest town—not a small hike. He had time, though. He’d never been an outdoorsy person, really, but something about the peace and quiet made him begin to appreciate some of Juniper’s speeches.

He tilted his head slightly, glancing to the side and listening to a voice not physically audible. After a few moments, he came to a stop, planting the butt of the scythe’s haft on the ground and slowly peering about. As far as the eye could see, he was totally alone out here on the rolling plain, still a long walk from the forest and already beyond sight of the town.

“Well, I appreciate not being shot,” he said aloud. “How close were you planning to let me get before saying anything?”

There was no sign of any response for another few moments. After pausing, he shrugged and took another step.

The elf seemed to materialize right out of the tallgrass, holding a staff and garbed in a robe dyed in patterns of white and bronze that blended perfectly with the plants. He inclined his head, expression remaining impassive. Three more popped up, one carrying a bow, two with tomahawks in hand. Though armed, they kept their weapons at their sides and their stances free of aggression, staring flatly at the person they had surrounded.

“Well met,” the man with the staff said. “I am Adimel. What brings you?”

“I’m Gabriel Arquin,” he replied, carefully nodding his head back to precisely the same degree.

“The Hand of Vidius.”

“Oh!” Gabriel blinked. “You know about that, then.”

“We live in a grove,” Adimel replied dryly, “not the underside of a rock.”

“Uh, sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it,” Gabriel said, wincing. “I’m not used to being…known. It’s barely been a year and I was kind of a nobody before. It’s eerie that word’s traveled all the way out… Y’know, that’s neither here nor there. First of all, I’m not looking to bring trouble, don’t worry.”

“Most of the trouble brought to the groves of woodkin has come packaged in good intentions,” Adimel said evenly. “I intend no disrespect. To answer your question, we have been studying you, and considering. An uninvited human would have been intercepted already, but you present…a puzzle.”

“I get that a lot,” he said solemnly.

“You smell of demon blood and divine magic. You have a soul reaper following you, which could be a great character reference or the opposite. You carry a weapon of the gods, but also…” Drawing his lips into a thin line, Adimel pointed at Ariel. “That.”

“I didn’t make Ariel, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” Gabriel said, placing his free hand on her hilt. “I don’t know who did. She’s helpful, if not exactly personable…”

“That wasn’t the worry at all; no one your age would know such craft. And…Ariel?” The elf raised an eyebrow. “You couldn’t find one called Jane?”

“What does everyone think that’s so very clever?” Ariel asked aloud.

“Shh.” Gabriel patted her scabbard. “Look, I know elves like your privacy, and I’m sorry to just show up like this. It isn’t my intention to be disruptive; I just need to ask your Elders for help with something.”

“What do you need, paladin?” Adimel asked in a neutral tone. “Your status as Hand trumps most other considerations, in the end. The grove would ordinarily be glad to host you, but this is an awkward time. If your request is important, the Elders will still hear it, at the least.”

Gabriel hesitated, glancing to the side; the elf followed his eyes, clearly somehow able to perceive Vestrel even if he couldn’t actually see her.

“I would like to speak with the Avatar.”

The cicadas sang over the wind in the silence which followed.

“I encountered one in an old Elder God complex under Puna Dara,” Gabriel explained when it became clear none of the elves intended to say anything. “That facility is, uh…no longer accessible. Vestrel said there are only two others still open on this continent, and the other one’s under Tiraas and being used by the Imperial government. I sort of figured the grove Elders would be more reasonable to talk to than the Emperor.”

“Why,” Adimel said slowly, “do you want to speak with another Avatar?”

“I have questions. About where the world comes from, how it ended up this way. About the gods, in particular.”

“Some of those answers may be dangerous to acquire,” the elf warned.

Gabriel nodded. “Vidius also has questions. He called me because of that. Because he thinks the gods have been wrong about some important things, and fears what might happen if they don’t adapt. The Pantheon is shifting all over; the new Hand of Avei is a half-elf who’s been trained by Eserites. My whole purpose is going to involve changing things. And… It’s dangerous to introduce change into a system you don’t understand. I’d think elves would know something about that.”

Adimel glanced at each of his comrades in turn; none of them spoke, but stared back with subtle changes of expression which seemed to communicate something to him.

“Well.” The shaman thumped the butt of his staff against the earth once. “At the very least, the Elders will wish to hear your request, Gabriel Arquin. If nothing else, it is news to us that there are accessible Elder God systems available to the Tiraan and Punaji. I will not make you a promise on the Elders’ behalf, but I believe that if you are willing to share information, they will respond in fairness.”

“Well, that sounds good to me,” Gabriel said with a broad grin. “Fairness is pretty much the best anybody can hope for, right?”

“Indeed,” Adimel said gravely, inclining his head again. “If they are very lucky.”


“I don’t know,” Aspen said worriedly. “This place… It’s not safe for humans. I mean, with us he’s fine, but if you want to leave him out here…”

“All of that,” Kaisa said severely, “would have been worth considering before you insisted on dragging him along, girl.”

“If you really thought I was gonna just leave him behind,” the dryad flared.

“Please.” Ingvar nodded to the kitsune, reaching over to touch Aspen’s cheek. “I am very honored to have been included this far. No Huntsman has ever journeyed so far into the Deep Wild. If I can go no farther, it’s not as if I’ve a right to complain. This is family business, after all. And if Ekoi-sensei says the protection she has left will be enough, I see no reason at all to doubt her. Has she misled us yet?”

“She was pretty much a butthole to me in Last Rock,” Aspen grumbled, folding her arms.

“No offense, sis, but you kinda brought that on yourself,” Juniper pointed out.

“I was worried about you!”

“Yeah, I know. And I love you for it. But that, and then what happened to you right after…” Juniper shook her head, turning to Kaisa. “That’s really what all this is about, isn’t it? Maybe it’s just the two of us so far, but dryads are starting to interact with the mortal world. And we can’t keep doing it the way we have. It just gets people hurt.”

“That is the heart of it, Juniper,” Kaisa replied. “The world is changing. The daughters of Naiya must change, as well, and change is an inherently difficult thing for us to face—but no less important for that. I have done everything I can to make my own sisters see this, and by and large they simply will not. Perhaps we can still salvage something of your generation, however. I allowed you to bring your young man on this journey which is manifestly none of his business, Aspen, because I deem him an extremely positive influence on you. I strongly advise you to listen when he speaks. And for that alone, you can be certain I won’t allow him to come to harm.”

“Go see to your sister,” Ingvar said gently, squeezing Aspen’s hand once. Then he stepped back, beneath the branches of the cherry tree Kaisa had just caused to sprout from nothing. It now fanned overhead to a great height, heavily laden with pink blossoms which continually drifted downward, already having laid down a plush carpet over its roots, delineating a circle of protection. “I will be here when you return.”

“Stay safe, Ingvar,” Fross chimed, zipping around him once in a quick pixie hug before returning to the others.

Kaisa led the way into the deeper, darker grove, Fross hovering along right behind her and casting a silver glow upon the shadowy underbrush. Aspen brought up the rear, constantly turning to look back until Ingvar was out of sight through the trees. He stood calmly, with his longbow in hand, gazing out at the jungle of the Deep Wild.

Within the forested crater of Jacaranda’s grove it was both cooler and darker, with moisture in the air as well as resounding through the stillness in the form of numerous streams trickling down toward the deep pool in the center. Tiny flickers of light and color were visible in the near distance, but none of the pixies were brave enough to approach the group.

“You’re unusually quiet, Fross,” Juniper observed softly as the procession picked their way steadily downward.

“Yeah, sorry. It’s just…memories, you know? This place seemed a lot bigger in my mind than it looks now. And scarier. Now it’s just…trees.”

“It’s called growing up,” Kaisa said from the head of the group, not glancing back at them. Amusement faintly laced her voice. “By and large, Fross, you have done well at it. The price for wisdom is innocence, but that is life’s best bargain. The only value of innocence is that which it persuades you it has—which is a lie.”

“Um, Professor Ekoi?” Fross chimed, drifting forward to flutter along beside the kitsune.

“It’s very unlikely I will be returning to Arachne’s school, Fross,” she replied, glancing at the pixie with a smile. “At least, not as a teacher. Since there is only family business between us now, you should call me Kaisa.”

“I, uh…okay. It’s just… Do you really think we can help her?”

A faint frown settled on Kaisa’s features, and one of her triangular ears twitched sideways twice. “A basic rule of life is that you cannot help a person who refuses to be helped. This entire situation…is tricky. Jacaranda’s predicament is not entirely her own fault. Any more than Juniper or Aspen’s is. Or yours. Or mine.” She shook her head. “Our mother scarcely deserves to be called by the word; we are all abandoned in one way or another, and none of you were taught anything you need to know before being hurled from the nest. This kind of intervention carries risk and no promise of success. But we must act on the presumption that any sister of ours is worth the effort. Jacaranda will not thank us for what we’re about to do…at least, not any time soon. But in the fullness of time, she yet may.”

“…okay.” Fross chimed a soft descending arpeggio.

“And Fross, purge irritating non-communication like ‘uh’ and ‘um’ from your speech. A wise person who has nothing to say says nothing; fools fill the air with meaningless noise. You are the daughter of a goddess, even if once removed, and the heir of a cultural legacy older than life on this world. Act like it.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“Welcome to the family,” Aspen muttered from the back of the line.

The pool was visible before they reached it, and the thick clustering of multicolored pixies around it apparent long before that; their chiming was audible form halfway up the sides of the crater, even with the intervening trees and underbrush to soak up noise. Activity over Jacaranda’s pool itself was a lot more fervent than normal. Clearly, the Pixie Queen had been warned of their arrival.

“How dare you come here?” she shrieked as they lined up at the edge of her pool. She had gone so far as to rise from her usual reclining position, and now hovered upright above her little island in the center of the water, gossamer wings buzzing furiously. “I will not have dryads in my realm! Vile creatures, begone with you!”

“Good to see you, too, Jackie,” Aspen said dryly, lounging against a tree trunk and folding her arms. “How’ve you been?”

“DON’T YOU CALL ME THAT!” Jacaranda screamed, turning vivid pink with rage. “Pixies! I want these invaders gone. Get rid of them, my little ones!”

“Fross?” Juniper said warily as the hundreds of glittering lights around began to swirl menacingly, raising a cacophony of shrill little voices and buzzing wings.

Fross hovered forward, putting herself in front of Kaisa; in this proximity to so many of her kind, it was immediately obvious that she had a much brighter glow and larger aura. The surrounding pixies surged forward at the four on the bank of the pool.

Fross emitted a single pulse of pure arcane magic. A blue corona rippled out from her, instantly disorienting and stunning their attackers. Little voices switched from threats to shocked outcries as pixies tumbled from the air all around them, or drifted off-kilter in confusion.

After the first blast, Fross maintained a steadier, more subtle arcane current; not enough to do anything, but plenty to create an unpleasant reaction with the fae magic which absolutely saturated the heart of Jacaranda’s little kingdom. An abrasive whine of protest rose from the air itself, a sound that was thicker than sound, that crawled across the skin.

“Stop that!” Jacaranda wailed, planting her hands over her ears. “Stop it, stop it! No, wait—where are you going? Come back! Don’t leave me!”

All around, the pixies were fleeing, shooting desperately away from the noise and disruption despite their queen’s pleas. Aspen and Juniper were wincing and Kaisa had laid her ears flat against her skull, but none of them seemed nearly as badly affected.

Once they were all gone, Fross let the effect drop. After it, the silence was somehow even louder.

“Hello, my queen,” Fross chimed quietly. “I don’t suppose you even remember me.”

“Remember… You. Fross.” Jacaranda lowered her hands slowly from her ears, her face twisting into a snarl. “How dare you betray your queen? I gave you everything—your very existence! You’re mine, do you understand? I made you. I own you! You will bring the rest of my pixies back here right this second!”

“My queen,” Fross replied evenly. “…mother. It’s time we had a talk.”


“This is unexpected, of course,” Ravana said as she led him through the halls of her ancestral home. “When I submitted my application to the Service Society, it was with the presumption that I would not have an honored place on the waiting list. To be frank, I had not expected to interview a prospect for several years.”

“The Society takes great care to match a Butler with any prospective client with the utmost caution, your Grace,” Yancey said diffidently, following her at a perfectly discreet pace which called no attention to how much longer his legs were than hers. “It is a matter of compatibility rather than seniority. Clients are obliged to wait until a suitable match is made, irrespective of how long it takes.”

“Of course,” she agreed, “a wise system. I understand the relationship is considered quite intimate—though, naturally, my data is all secondhand. I applaud your regard for custom, Yancey; I am something of a traditionalist, myself. Still, Grace is a somewhat archaic form of address for my rank—technically correct, but more commonly associated with Bishops these days. I am phasing it out, along with the rest of my father’s ponderous pomposities.”

“Very good, my lady.”

“I understand,” she said thoughtfully, “you were previously Butler to Duchess Inara of House Tiradegh.”

“I had that honor, my lady.”

Nodding pensively, Ravana paused while Yancey slipped ahead of her to open the door at the end of the hall. He held it for her, bowing, and she glided through.

“I do not wish to seem indelicate.”

“I beg that you speak your mind, my lady. A Butler does not take offense, and the aim of our discussion is to assess honestly our suitability to form a contract.”

“Very well,” she said, eyes forward and voice contained. “Part of a Butler’s function is, of course, as a bodyguard. Rumors abound concerning the late Duchess’s passing, but the official and most credible account is that she was murdered. I wonder how it came to be that you were unable to prevent this.”

“A most reasonable concern, my lady. Please take no insult at the question, but may I presume that anything said between us will go no further?”

“You may rely on my discretion.” He walked at her side, a half-step behind, positioned just forward enough to discern her very faint smile though she didn’t turn to look at him. “I realize trust between us is not yet earned; for the moment, rest assured that I am not fool enough to antagonize the Service Society by betraying a confidence.”

“More than adequate assurance, my lady. Her Grace the Duchess left this world at a time and in a manner of her own choosing, in the pursuit of her own goals. I would have considered it a rank betrayal of our relationship to intervene, however her passing grieved me.”

“Ah. Then Lord Daraspian did not kill her?”

“He did, my lady. She arranged it with the utmost care.”

“Thus disgracing House Daraspian,” Ravana murmured, eyes narrowing infinitesimally in thought, “and further bringing down the scrutiny of the Empire, effectively cutting off its largely illicit sources of funds. And thereby assuring the future of its principal rival, House Tiradegh. What a fearless and fiendishly elegant maneuver. If there is one thing we aristocrats consistently fail to anticipate in one another, it is a willingness to embrace sacrifice.”

“Just so, my lady.”

They had arrived at another set of doors, and again he stepped ahead to open them and bow her through. Ravana emerged onto a balcony, Yancey following and closing the door behind them.

After a thousand years of rule, the manor of House Madouri was a huge complex completely encompassing the rocky hill upon which the city of Madouris had originally been built. The manor itself was a relatively small structure at the apex of the miniature mountain, itself palatial in size but dwarfed by the sprawl of gardens, lawns, fortifications, and other structures which made the complex a self-contained little city within Madouris and the most heavily fortified House position in the Empire.

Madouris itself stretched out in three directions; the towering outcrop of the manor abutted the canyon through which the River Tira coursed far below. It was a sizable city, rivaling Tiraas in scope, though not nearly so tightly packed. Madouris didn’t have much heavy industry compared to its neighbors, and thus had preserved more of its traditional architecture than Calderaas or Tiraas; the scrolltowers were concentrated at a central location for efficiency’s sake rather than spread across multiple offices over the city, and there were relatively few factories. The huge bulk of Falconer Industries rose ominously past the city walls to the northwest, fairly bristling with lightning-wreathed antennae. It, like much of the newer construction, had grown up outside the old walls. The age of fortifications had ended with the Enchanter Wars, according to conventional military wisdom.

The manor had the best view in the province, and this, Ravana’s balcony, had the best view in the manor.

“I am…dithering,” she said pensively, gazing out across the city her ancestors had ruled for a millennium. “The prospect of retaining a Butler may weigh my decisions in one direction or another. Classes resume in a few weeks, and I must decide before then whether to return to Last Rock, or take my education in a different direction altogether. If I do return to the University, having a Butler along would present difficulties. I rather think Professor Tellwyrn would make them even more difficult than necessary. She vividly disapproves of what she considers presumption in her students.”

“I will keep this under consideration, my lady. We are, of course, only in the earliest stages of our acquaintance. It is yet too early to commit to a relationship.”

“Of course, of course. I simply want you to be aware of my situation.”

“I appreciate your candor, my lady.”

“So. You have come to meet me, because you perused my application and felt we might have some compatibility.”

“Just so, my lady.”

“Knowing what I do of Duchess Inara Tiradegh, I take that as high praise indeed. What is it, Yancey, that attracts you to the prospect of my service?”

The Butler’s posture remained exquisitely poised, his expression neutral and speech perfectly diffident. “You remind me of her, my lady, both by reputation and by the details you yourself provided in your application.”

“House Madouri is not presently in nearly so secure a position as House Tiradegh, it pains me to admit. We are older, wealthier, more powerful by any measure, that is a fact. But secure… In truth, my position is precarious indeed. Thanks to my father, many of our old alliances have been squandered to nothing. The Silver Throne is tentatively well-disposed toward me, but entirely out of patience with the Madouri name. I have just barely salvaged a relationship with the Falconers, and I fear I rather traumatized Teal in the process. And after my recent illness in Last Rock, any confidence my people had in me is shaken. You should know that any number of potential calamities might sweep me from power at any moment.”

“Yes, my lady.”

She turned to give him a cool look. “This appraisal does not surprise you, Yancey?”

“I made certain to be aware of it, my lady. It is part of what drew me to you.”

She raised one eyebrow mutely.

“I cannot say what the future holds for you or for House Madouri, my lady. But I can say with certainty that you will continue to face your trials as you have already: with cunning, ferocity, and to the great surprise of your enemies. I confess I am drawn to the prospect of seeing it firsthand.”

Ravana considered him for a moment, then gazed south, toward Tiraas; the capital was just barely too distant to be seen from Madouris, close enough that the two cities had viewed one another as severe threats before the Imperial era. Then she turned, directing her eyes north. Calderaas lay many miles in that direction, well beyond the horizon. And still further beyond that lay Last Rock, at the edge of the Golden Sea.

“Let me pose you a hypothetical question, Yancey,” she said at last, eyes still on the endless distance. “Say that you had it on good authority, from a source so trusted that you must take it as given despite the poetic melodrama of the very claim, that…a great doom is coming. How would you recommend proceeding?”

“I would advise, my lady, that you make yourself a greater doom, and lie in wait for it.”

Slowly, a smile curled her thin lips.

“Yancey… I have a very good feeling about this.”

 

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