Bonus #18: Heavy is the Head, part 1

< Previous Chapter

“Vultures,” the Lord of House Turombi said under his breath, gazing out across the dance floor. “And the descendants of vultures, picking clean the same bones. A hundred years ago, the Tirasians were back-country farmers barely fit to call themselves a House. A little scheming, a little murder, and now here they sit. Pleased as the foxes they are, amid the ruins of the henhouse.”

Eleanora was sitting with her head angled away, idly tapping a frilled court fan against her cheekbone, which prevented either her father or the crowd from seeing her mouthing along in perfect sync with the familiar speech. Her mother, however, shifted her eyes once, caught Eleanora’s gaze, and held it for a second, silently promising a conversation later. In many ways, Lady Kheethi was her role model; she could scarcely aspire to convey as much detail as her mother did with a simple glance.

Theirs was a sufficiently important House that their box was positioned fairly close to the Imperial dais along the west end of the ballroom. The vast chamber was cleverly laid out for its purposes, with the tables of food on its lowest level just inside the huge doors, the dance floor reached via a short flight of stairs, and ringed by elevated platforms where people not currently moving about could sit in conversation with a splendid view of the dancers. The boxes nearest the stairs were open for general use, while those closer to the dais from which the Empress observed the festivities being reserved, mostly for powerful Houses, heads of cults, ranking Imperial functionaries and the like. House Turombi was only two boxes distant from the Empress herself, a high honor.

Alduron Turombi was less than flattered.

“And here comes one such buzzard now,” he muttered, drawing Eleanora’s attention back to the dance floor.

Indeed, the crown prince was approaching.

Her father’s expression of magnanimous affability was fully back in place by the time Prince Sharidan reached the steps of their box, with Kheethi and Eleanora wearing more demure smiles. The family rose upon his arrival, sketching shallow bows and curtsies, the women taking Alduron’s cue for their precise degree. It would not do to publicly snub the Prince by showing insufficient respect, but showing him one degree more than was absolutely necessary would affront Alduron’s personal pride. They would be hearing about it for days, which Eleanora, at least, would much rather avoid.

“Lord Turombi!” Sharidan said with a broad smile, bowing back to precisely the same degree, which caught Eleanora’s attention and interest. A simple nod of acknowledgment was all protocol required of him; what sort of game was this boy playing? “Lady Kheethi, Lady Eleanora. House Turombi’s presence at our little gala is an honor, but if I may say so, ladies, yours makes it a pleasure.”

Alduron laughed obligingly, and Eleanora doubted that anyone but herself and her mother discerned the display of too many white teeth in his broad, dark face. “Ah, my young prince, you are as dangerous as they say! Have a care; I did not woo this graceful creature only to have her stolen away.”

Kheethi carried on smiling obligingly, but the faint annoyance in the set of her eyes was enough to make both Alduron and Sharidan pause. Eleanora’s smile broadened slightly.

“Well,” the prince said gallantly, rallying, “while I’m sure challenging a man of your stature would teach me some of that humility my mother insists I need, I hope you’ll understand if I prefer to spare myself that lesson.”

“Then you’re already a wiser man than I was at your age,” Alduron replied jovially. “I give my lady wife a great deal of credit for whatever restraint and sensibility I have learned. Perhaps you would find Eleanora a more gentle teacher?”

“Whether I would or not, I suspect the lesson would be a delight!” the prince replied, turning to her and bowing. “Lady Eleanora, would you grant me the honor of a dance?”

Her father barely shifted his head, looking at her out of the corner of his eye, but the barely controlled expression was avid. Eleanora was too practiced to grimace outright as she rose, accepting Prince Sharidan’s proffered hand. “I’m sure the honor would be entirely mine, your Highness,” she said demurely, allowing him to lead her down to the floor. Her father despised the Tirasians over past insults, real and imagined, between their Houses, and never let go of his resentment over the fact that they had ascended to the Silver Throne, while House Turombi had lost its chance. But at the merest prospect of handing her over to Prince Sharidan, his eyes practically lit up with doubloons. It was just a dance, but she knew very well Alduron would marry her off to the Tirasians in a heartbeat, should the possibility arise.

It was the twelfth century, of course; her father couldn’t make her marry against her will. But while there were worse things to her mind than an ingrate who spat in her House’s face after it had invested so much in her upbringing…there weren’t many.

This was a more and more central concern occupying Eleanora’s thoughts, lately.

“My apologies for stealing you away from what I’m sure was a fascinating conversation,” Sharidan said with a smile that was just a shade too knowing. “If I’ve presumed, call it…projecting. I, too, have a parent who knows everything.”

Eleanora raised an eyebrow, studying his expression while they slipped into a waltz with the ease of mutual practice. He was a good dancer, deftly leading without overbearingly trying to manhandle her around the floor. He was also dangerously handsome. Not in the sense of being too handsome; on the contrary, Sharidan Tirasian didn’t have the kind of blinding good looks that made people fall at his feet with no effort on his part. He was just plain enough that he’d had to learn to be charming. And he was very good at it.

“The rescue is appreciated, warranted or not,” she said aloud. “Though I’m forced to wonder whether you would be as quick to spring to my aid if I were less pretty.”

“And so modest!” he said with a truly amazing grin. It was a grin that was open and cheerful, without the faintest hint of malice even though he was technically making fun of her. Expressions like that came from people who were either vastly open-hearted by nature, or phenomenally skilled in manipulation, and she had a feeling she knew which was the case here. “Regardless, of course I would eagerly put myself forward to greet such a distinguished guest to our city. But I greatly appreciate you having the courtesy to be so pretty. Otherwise, this would all be dreadfully tedious.”

Eleanora smiled, finding to her surprise the expression was genuine. “You are very smooth, my prince. Well played.”

“You left yourself wide open for two inappropriate innuendos there, my lady,” he replied with a wink. “I restrained myself, because I am a gentleman.”

“More than two. I was curious how many you would catch, and how many you would go for.”

“Ah, the tests begin! You are clearly as formidable an adversary as you are graceful a dancer!”

“And not exactly a guest, though I appreciate the welcome,” she added. “My father has decided to relocate our family to Tiraas for the forseeable future. Call me…a transplant.”

“Oh.” Sharidan’s expression sobered slightly. “Well, I’m sorry.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Indeed? Are you that worried at having your city full of Turombis?”

“It’s for my mother to worry about tiresome politics, and I don’t think she worries about much, to be frank. I meant personally, my lady. It must be a pain, being suddenly isolated from all your friends and favorite places. Well, I shall do my best to ensure your stay in Tiraas is a pleasant one!”

“That is most kind of you to offer,” she said wryly. “But considering your mother suspects my father of designs on her throne, and he believes your grandfather responsible for the assassination of his grandfather, something tells me we will seldom find ourselves casually socializing.”

“Oh, these older generations and their dreary squabbles,” he said airily, spinning her lightly around. “Everyone’s always so worked up about who’s after whose position or who murdered whose family. That’s just dreadful for the blood pressure; no wonder they all look so pinched all the time. I see no reason we need let such trivialities come between us!”

“No doubt they thought much the same at our age,” Eleanora said sardonically. “It’s funny how today’s rebellious youth become tomorrow’s cantankerous old fogeys.”

“Madam, you are far too young and pretty for such maunderings.”

“Just practicing in advance, my prince. I like to be well-rehearsed before I have to play a role. Otherwise one tends to…trip.”

He grinned while they deftly wove through the other dancers, waiting a moment before replying. “Now, that was a suggestively timed verb! I actually thought you were going to trip me for a second there.”

“I was actually planning to,” she said, grinning back. “But then, I thought you’d have placed a hand on my rear by this point, too. One act of restraint begets another.”

“It’s a small foundation on which to build peace between our Houses, but it’s a start!”

“Do you really care about politics all that much?”

“I can’t afford not to, any more than you can,” he said, and suddenly his expression was serious. It was as if a mask had been dropped, revealing his true face. Eleanora knew very well this was a rapport-building technique, and clamped down on her instinctive response even as she admired the skill of it. “But politics…aren’t everything, you know? It really would be good for our Houses if we were friends, Lady Eleanora. More immediately, it would be good for us. Don’t you agree?”

“Some things,” she said quietly, “are simply too difficult and too fraught to be worth the effort.”

“Hmm.” His smile returned slowly, this time with more than a hint of mischief. “Well. We’ll have to do something about that, won’t we?”


It wasn’t that Eleanora didn’t enjoy going to parties, despite what her parents thought. She allowed them to continue under the impression that she was an introverted wallflower, because despite her own enjoyment of social events, going to parties with her family was absolutely exhausting.

They only started by ruining everything good about it. There were always interesting people to talk to—with whom she could never get any privacy, and her mother and father’s respective agendas would heavily color any conversation she managed to have in their company. There was excellent food, music, dancing, and other sensory distractions, which of course were extremely difficult to enjoy under a constant barrage of her mother’s passive-aggressive reminders of the importance of ladylike behavior. There were always pretty women in daring gowns, and the gods forbid Eleanora could properly appreciate that. Lady Kheethi had caught her side-eyeing her peers a few times too often, and this was only prevented from being a true source of family drama because her mother cultivated a firm denial that this was An Issue. Eleanora wasn’t about to correct her.

Then, of course, the legacy of House Turombi lay heavily over everything they did. Once, nearly a century ago, their House had almost seized the Silver Throne, and none of them had forgotten it since. The generations-old almost-claim was the reason full-blooded members were always given Tiraan names rather than traditional Onkawi ones, and their choice of styles in everything from fashion to interior décor to cuisine reflected Imperial sensibilities. If not for her mother’s insistence on some traditional education (for which Eleanora was in fact grateful), she could well have grown up knowing little of Onkawa’s actual culture. Her father certainly had.

His incessant muttering and ranting about Theasia Tirasian and all her clan had at least spared her the reminders from her mother of proper behavior and representation of House Turombi’s honor until they were home and out of the carriage—which it turned out was not to her benefit, because it meant she had to endure that much more before she could retreat to her room and some space, finally, to breathe.

It had been such a lovely ball, too. Someday, maybe when the rest of her family was dead, perhaps she could actually enjoy one.

Eleanora immediately felt guilty for that thought. Not as much as she thought she should have, though.

Consequently, when she finally shut the door of her room to find a pile of dirty laundry in the middle of her bed, she very nearly raised her voice, preparatory to excoriating the maid without mercy. Fortunately, she hesitated; Eleanora wasn’t certain her mother had found out about what she and her chambermaid back home had been up to in the privacy of her rooms, but she more than suspected it had played at least a partial role in their family’s relocation. Her father’s political ambitions were at the heart of it, of course, but the sudden termination of Lady Kheethi’s longstanding, stubborn resistance to the idea of moving had made her cautious about being seen or heard to pay too much attention to any of the remarkably pretty Tiraan serving girls who staffed their new residence.

In that momentary pause, she noted a peculiar sparkle atop the pile.

Eleanora approached the bed, studying the heap quizzically. On top of the muddle of soiled linens there was a gleaming silver broach in the shape of a peacock, decorated with tiny emeralds and sapphires—a truly exquisite piece which she did not own, and which was vastly out of place on a pile of laundry. It was holding down a folded piece of paper.

She narrowed her eyes. One of her mother’s? She had never seen it before… And why in the world would one of the servants have brought it in here? They hadn’t been in this house long, but she had seen no hint of such glaring incompetence from any of the staff.

Carefully, she lifted the brooch, picked up the paper, and opened it. A few lines were inked in a neat hand.

We’ll have to do something about that, won’t we? Meet me by the servant’s entrance, if you’d like to attend a party you can properly enjoy, my lady. —S. T.

Eleanora read it three times, drew in a deep breath through her nose, and let it out slowly. And then, somewhat to her own surprise, laughed.

Of course, she knew Prince Sharidan’s reputation. Simply by virtue of his position, the whole world was quite interested in his personal habits—and his appreciation for women was already approaching the status of legend. So, it seemed she had the opportunity to see one of his infamous seductions unfold from the closest vantage possible! Eleanora was actually more than a little tempted to play along, just to see how much she could wind the boy up before he quit. If he thought he was going to spread her legs, he was in for a world of disillusionment.

Setting the note down, she turned her critical eye upon the brooch. A closer inspection bore out her brief one earlier; this was a truly lovely piece, its materials authentic as far as she could tell, and the craftsmanship expert. Also, needless to say, quite expensive—the sort of gift that would turn any young lady’s head, were she of the inclination to have it turned. Eleanora’s first, cynical thought was that for a young man of Sharidan Tirasian’s resources, it was nothing special. It was a truly princely present from a suitor of her own rank; from an actual Imperial prince, she felt she should expect him to start with a Falconer carriage and work up from there.

The more pressing question was, how the blazes had he managed to deliver it? Penetrating a House’s interior security this way was no mean feat. Unless he’d had his eye on her for quite a while before the party—not impossible, but it seemed unlikely—there was almost no way he could have done this on a few hours’ notice with only his personal resources. That Empress Theasia had the means to stick her fingers into House Turombi’s business was a given; the question was whether she was in on this, or Sharidan had co-opted her resources in pursuit of his own desire. That, if anything, made her want even more to play along for a bit, to see just how deep this ran…

Eleanora hummed softly to herself, wandering over toward her vanity and almost absentmindedly pinning the brooch to her dress. The fashions this season were, to her mind, absurd, but they incorporated padded shoulders and lapels almost like men’s suits, which made brooches of this kind an indispensable feature of a lady’s wardrobe.

She froze, forgetting herself so far as to gasp aloud, when she suddenly changed.

Her dress vanished. Her skin altered! Eleanora experienced a moment of panic, then deliberately calmed herself and approached her mirror. By the time she reached it, she had put it all together well enough that she was not shocked to find a totally different face staring back at her.

The face was still pretty, but it was a narrow, much paler Thakari face rather than her own soft features and mahogany Onkawi complexion. That could potentially be construed as an insult, but after a moment’s contemplation, she decided it had probably not been intended as such. People here seemed oddly unable to distinguish between Westerners—not that she had much room to throw stones. Apparently it was possible to tell a Tiraan from a Calderaan at a glance, and she’d yet to figure out how.

More pressing was the matter of the disguise enchantment upon this brooch. This was seriously impressive work, and of course added to the value of the thing considerably. It also underscored the political research which had gone into this—she was now dressed in a perfect copy of one of the maid’s uniforms used by her House, which had been designed by her mother in consultation with a highly recommended tailor upon their arrival in the city.

Eleanora carefully unpinned the brooch, permitting herself a soft sigh of relief when her appearance and dress returned to normal. Then, after another moment’s thought, she smiled mischievously and put it back. Once in place, she could feel its weight at her collar, but it was no longer visible. An obvious precaution, as a servant wearing such a piece would immediately have been detained on suspicion of theft.

She glanced back at the bed, thinking rapidly, and her smile widened. He really had thought of everything. Even the laundry…

Eleanora paused to carefully tuck the prince’s letter into a drawer, then gathered up the armload of linens and slipped out into the hall.

“Hsst!”

She froze, turning, to find herself being approached rapidly by her own chambermaid.

“So you’re the new girl,” Eliza said in a low voice, deftly tucking a hand under Eleanora’s arm and escorting her down the hall at a rapid pace. “Well, you’re allowed a few slip-ups at first, but you’d best get it together quick-like, my lass. The Lady’s not a harsh one, but she’s particular, and the last thing you want is to be caught faffing around with the laundry at the wrong time. The family’s just back from a party—this should’ve been done hours ago. And what’re you doing in the young miss’s rooms, anyway? She’s my task, I’ll have you know.”

“I-I’m sorry,” Eleanora stammered as she was swept along, trying for a harried, confused aspect. In truth, she felt so gleefully mischievous at all this that her post-party weariness had all but melted away. “I’m new, this is my first post. I didn’t mean to overstep…”

“It’s no great harm, just you keep it in mind,” Eliza said sternly, but with a slight smile. “I was new once—we all were. Let me give you a bit of advice: there’s a pecking order, and you don’t want to forget your place in it. Each of us has a family member we look after, and you’ll not be appreciated for stepping on anybody’s toes.”

“Understood,” she said, nodding eagerly and barely forcing herself not to grin. Oh, this was just too perfect—even if she wasn’t actually planning to indulge Sharidan’s schemes, she felt she owed him something for the entertainment. Emboldened by how well this seemed to be going, she pressed on. “I don’t, that is, um… Are they hard to work for? Anything I should be wary of?”

“Oh, no, dear, you’ve picked a plum post to start out,” Eliza said, quickly leading her down a narrow side passage. “This way, girl, it’s not for servants to be loitering in the upper halls. A well-run household is run so the family needn’t see the running, that’s what Mrs. Raastri says. But no, they’re a good family. Standoffish, you don’t want to put yourself in their way, but his Lordship doesn’t leer or grope, and the Lady’s not cruel. She’s not gentle, but she’s fair and that’s what counts. You do your tasks and mind your conduct and there’s no reason you’ll run afoul of her. Nothing more a staff can ask of their family, so you just appreciate them.”

“I will,” Eleanora promised, nodding. She meant it, too. It was oddly gratifying to know her family were well thought of by their servants; perhaps she was a bit too hard on their parents. “And…the Lady Eleanora? You seem to like working for her…”

“It is not for us to like the family,” Eliza said severely, ushering her into a cramped rear staircase. She had never been in it before, but presumably it led to the servants quarters. Or…the kitchen? Where did they take dirty laundry? It had always just vanished, then reappeared in her closet, clean and pressed. “And you wouldn’t be thinking of moving in on the young miss, I hope.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t presume,” Eleanora assured her. “Just trying to get my bearings. It’s the young ones who’re going to cause trouble if anyone is, don’t you think?”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Eliza said dryly. “But no, not in this house. I’m jealous of my position, I’ll tell you that straight up—I take pride in my work and the young miss has never had cause to complain, nor will she. But you needn’t worry about that, either.”

That was so tantalizing Eleanora almost prompted her to continue when she fell silent. She couldn’t immediately think of a way that would be believable, though. Servants gossiped horribly, according to her mother, but now she was in a position to benefit from it, she was unsure how to proceed. Noblewomen gossiped just as badly, but…very likely not in the same terms.

Fortunately for her curiosity, Eliza continued after a moment’s pause. “She’s a tongue like a blade, the young miss has, but she’s no more cruel than the Lady of the house. No reason you’ll have it sharpened on yourself, unless you deserve it. I don’t mind her being a bit sharp, truth be told. She keeps to herself, the young lady does—her pleasures are quiet things. Books and the like. Only goes out with her family, and I’ve never known her to have a friend over. I don’t think the poor girl knows the first thing about having fun.”

“I see,” Eleanora said stiffly, suddenly regretting her curiosity.

They had reached the base of the stairs, which came out in another dim, narrow hall, and Eliza turned to brusquely take the linens from her. “Here, you just let me handle this, my girl. I don’t know what you were doing in the young miss’s room, but that’s not your zone. Go see Mrs. Raastri for what you’re supposed to be about. She doesn’t look well on idle hands.”

“O-of course,” Eleanora said, then dipped an awkward little curtsy. “Thank you for the help, Eliza.”

In the process of turning to go, Eliza paused, frowning at her. “Oh. Did I tell you my name?”

“I—of course, you must have. Excuse me.”

She turned and scuttled off down the hall in the other direction, leaving her suspicious chambermaid behind, and rounded the first corner she came to. Sloppy, she chided herself…but in her defense, intrigues of this nature were a bit outside her expertise. In any case, this wasn’t fun anymore. Time she returned to her room…

Wait, where exactly was she?

Taking stock of her bearings, Eleanora found she was actually in front of an exterior door, small but set with a frosted glass pane that gave her a watery view of the delivery alley behind the house. Right where Sharidan’s note told her to be.

The thought of him loitering out there all night by himself gave her a malicious little spark of satisfaction. In fact, she could probably arrange to embarrass him further by setting a city constable on him. The fury that would cause the Empress would earn her points with her father, as well.

But no, any man who could arrange all this would be prepared for such obvious possibilities. In fact…

Raising her chin, Eleanora grasped the handle, opened the door, and slipped out. So she didn’t know how to have fun? The hell she didn’t—she just wasn’t bloody well allowed to. If she wanted to enjoy herself a bit, she was more than entitled, after putting up with her parents all night. And if that meant enduring the company of a smarmy prince with improper designs upon her person, well, there were worse things. He definitely wouldn’t force his attentions, or allow her to be harmed. He wouldn’t dare. Her father scarcely needed such a pretext to unleash every hell his considerable resources could manage as it was.

She was still sullenly justifying this course of action to herself when a sleek, quiet enchanted carriage which did not belong in this back alley pulled up next to her, making her jump. The driver nodded courteously to her, tugging the brim of his cap, and then the passenger door door swung open to reveal a familiar face.

“My lady,” the prince of Tiraas said with a roguish grin. “I’m so glad you decided to join me.”

“I must say you went to a great deal of trouble,” Eleanora replied, folding her arms and lifting an eyebrow. Did he have some mechanism to see through this disguise? Did he just know what the person wearing it would look like? Or was he actually reckless enough to pick up the first servant girl who came out of her house? “Not that I wasn’t amused at the thought of you wasting all that effort, but it seems to me a man who could arrange all this could potentially show me an…interesting evening.”

“Interesting is what I do best,” he said with a wink, and extended a hand to her. Eleanora made a show of considering this before allowing him to help her into the carriage. “And since we are now partners in crime, let’s be honest with each other. You are well overdue for some proper fun, Lady Eleanora. I have the strangest feeling you’re positively starved for it.”

She sniffed disdainfully. “You know much less than you think, your Highness.”

“Now that, my lady,” he said, grinning widely, “is an absolute certainty. But I look forward to learning.”


If you support youthful hijinks, vote for The Gods are Bastards!

TGaB is crowdfunded art–free to all, updating at least once a week, and another time on Friday if funded!  Click here to learn how it works!

< Previous Chapter

12 – 64

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

As usual, the patch of blackened grass followed her on her way toward the teleporter. It was a convenient time for visitors, the little orb’s rotation having brought the gate within easy view of her construction project. Behind her rose the unfinished white marble columns of a Grecian temple, already twined with flowering vines despite the construction itself being in an early stage.

Milanda came forward to meet her, a hefty box tucked under one arm. After giving Walker a smile of greeting, her eyes shifted to study the new project, and then to the black streaks on the ground, where patches of dead grass and crumbling bushes showed Walker’s path.

“Wow,” she said, coming to a stop about halfway between the temple and the teleporter. “It looks kind of…Avenist.”

“The style is older than that by far,” Walker said, grinning, “but yes, you’re not wrong. Please pardon the destroyed vegetation; I can’t help it. It grows back fairly quickly; the Avatar had to adjust the settings down here, but with the facility already keyed to Naiya’s transcension field, re-growing plant life isn’t very taxing. I must say, lifting and placing marble blocks has been surprisingly therapeutic. I’m stronger than I realized.”

“What about those?” Milanda asked, pointing with her free hand. “Did you manage to create vines that are immune to your effect?”

“Oh! No, those are plastic. Really, decorative touches like that ought to be the last stage of construction, but…I was really yearning for some greenery that I could touch. Even if it’s fake.”

“Plastic?”

“Wonderful stuff! Lightweight, very resilient, incredibly versatile. It’s made from oils, both petroleum and organic. Having the fabricators produce it avoids the messy by-products of that, of course. Based on what I’ve gleaned of your civilization, I’d guess you’re within fifty years or so of producing something similar through alchemy.”

Milanda nodded, then cleared her throat and held up the box in both hands. “So! Where I come from, it’s customary to bring a house-warming gift when someone moves into a new home. Granted, this is apparently more of a pseudo-Avenist-temple-on-a-tiny-underground-planetwarming gift, but I believe the principle still applies.”

Walker chuckled as she took the box from her, tucking it under one arm to open the top. “I would say that it’s the thought which counts. It really was a very thoughtful…”

She trailed off, her expression falling still, then carefully reached in to extract the object, letting the box fall to the ground. The gravitational isolation chamber’s artificial sun gleamed blindingly on its glossy red paint, steel accents, and glass dome filled with tiny colored balls.

“I asked the fabricator for a gumball machine and it had thousands of schematics,” Milanda said almost nervously. “So…that probably doesn’t look anything like the one your mother had. And, of course, it’s not an Earth relic, I made it less than an hour ago. But I figured, at least… Well, it could be a start at making this a home, and not just a cell. You know. Um, you definitely don’t have to display it or anything, if it’s not to your taste…”

Walker took a step to the side, out of their way, and very carefully knelt to place the gumball machine upright on the ground. Then she rose, stepped back to Milanda, and wrapped her up in a tight hug.

“I just discovered something,” the fairy murmured. “It appears I can’t cry. That hasn’t really come up since I ended up like…this.”

Milanda squeezed her tighter.

It was a long moment before Walker finally pulled back. “You know…at first, I was planning to betray you. To go along with your intentions until I found something I could exploit to get out. No matter what I had to do, or to whom.”

“Was?” Milanda asked quietly. “What changed your mind?”

“I didn’t,” Walker said with a rueful smile. “Or…more accurately, I suppose, I don’t know. I just…happened to think of it at one point, and realized I didn’t want to anymore. I liked working with you, and talking with you. And your project was a challenge. To have something to do after so long… But mostly, I think it was you.”

Milanda grinned back. “Well…I guess I should also admit I was expecting a betrayal and trying to plan for it. The Avatar even gave me a book by Robert Greene to read, to help with outwitting you.”

Walker’s face collapsed in an incredulous grimace. “Ugh. Greene? That amoral, nihilistic, self-satisfied—”

“Yes, I honestly had a little trouble getting into it, though that’s partly because the historical allusions are over my head. You are not a fan, I take it?”

Walker scowled. “It’s a little personal, rationally or not. Greene is a favorite of Vidius. I hold him indirectly responsible for several of my ongoing frustrations. If you want to read Earth political philosophy, I would start with Rousseau. Oh, I bet you would really appreciate Marcus Aurelius, too. Actually, if you’re going to start somewhere, I suppose it should be with Aristotle and Plato, at the beginning. And that’s just the Western tradition! Personally, I’ve always been partial to Musashi, but he was more a warrior poet than a philosopher. Now, Lao Tzu—”

“How about this,” Milanda interrupted, grinning broadly. “You think it over, and pick the best book of philosophy that you’d consider a starting point on Earth’s tradition. Have the fabricator print one up for me on my next visit. And the visit after that, we can discuss it.”

“That…” A broad smile blossomed over Walker’s face. “That sounds excellent. Yes, it’s a date.”

“Perfect.” Milanda sighed, glancing at the teleporter, which had retreated several yards toward the horizon. “Well, I seem to have inadvertently finagled my way into a more central role in politics, and it’s a mess up there right now. The Imperial bureaucracy is resilient and Vex and the Empress held order the best they could, but after most of a week with no Emperor and the Hands acting unstable, there are a thousand fires to put out. Also, the Punaji are having some kind of crisis and Tellwyrn has picked this moment to pull something exceptionally cute.”

“I rather doubt that was personal,” Walker opined. “Tellwyrn isn’t a strategic thinker, and just doesn’t care about the doings of Empires.”

“Gods, I hope you’re right. This is not a good time for her to start caring.”

“It sounds like you had better get back to work, then,” Walker said, smiling. “Thank you for the gift, Milanda. It was just the thing I needed.”

“It’s going to be a hectic few days, but I’ll come down again as soon as I can,” Milanda promised. “Till next time, then!”

“Till next time, friend.”

She watched her all the way to the teleporter before turning to pick up the gumball machine again, almost reverently, and carried it into and through the temple. The roof was not in place, showing only the artificial sky, and sunlight which continued to gleam on the machine’s surfaces. Walker took it to the back of the main chamber, where the altar would be, and set it gently on the floor.

Still kneeling there, she pressed the mechanism, and with a satisfying little clunk, a gumball dropped through the metal door into her waiting hand. A pink one. Straightening up slowly, she popped it into her mouth and bit down.

Nothing but sugar, food coloring, and glue, as she’d said to Milanda, what seemed like ages ago. Saccharine sweetness erupted across her tongue, and with the flavor came an acute burst of memory and emotion.

She chewed in silence for several minutes, before abruptly turning and striding out of the temple. The grounds around were beginning to turn green again, though she unavoidably cut a black swath through them. Walker steered away from the trees—it seemed a shame to kill such sizable things—and set off through an open field for a good walk, leaving behind a path of blackened destruction.

After she was gone, slowly at first, new life began to rise in her wake.


Setbacks.

The labyrinthine corridors beneath the Grand Cathedral were useful for more than security; Justinian found the long process of traversing them gave him opportunity to think, and plan. Even here, he kept his expression serene, not allowing any of his thoughts even the slightest exposure. It did not do to let one’s self-control grow even the tiniest bit rusty. This was a fine opportunity to practice; his thoughts were not encouraging.

Naturally, he had kept the true Avatar template far from Rector’s workshop, so the destruction had merely cost years of work, tipped his hand to the Empire and forced him to scramble to cover his tracks, and not destroyed a truly priceless artifact. Merely. The Hands had suddenly reversed their changes, which proved Sharidan had his systems back under control, and strongly suggested there would be extra security on them now. That avenue of attack could be considered closed, and in the process of poking that beehive under the Palace…

The Holy Legion, decimated. He had faith in Ravoud, and even that Khadizroth would come through on his promises, now that he had given his word. The restoration of his maimed soldiers would take time, still, and far too many had been slain outright. Ravoud’s analysis was correct; building the Legion’s numbers back to their previous level would require a slackening of their standards, which he was not willing to do, yet. The plan had always been to open recruitment to less thoroughly vetted men and women, but not until the solid core of elite troops had experience working together, and the Silver Throne was not in a position to object. Neither was yet true.

Khadizroth was his own issue, too. He was growing slowly more ambitious, and the current situation would only further cement his hold on the Holy Legion and Justinian’s organization, in addition to the influence he wielded over the other adventurers gathered at Dawnchapel. Sending them into danger last night had been intended partly as a reminder to him that Vannae, at least, was physically vulnerable, but the improbable survival of every one of the team had rendered that an empty gesture. Justinian had his own theories about that, which he would shortly be able, finally, to test…

And as for last night, the loss of the Tide was a bitter pill to swallow. They had fulfilled the purpose for which he had spent the last ten years recruiting and grooming them: a sect of devoted fanatics, without traceable origins or proof of their true affiliation, ready to be hurled at whatever target he deemed necessary. But it was too soon—far too soon. He had intended them for use much closer to the endgame, when the accelerated pace of events would make such violent methods more appropriate, and the need to introduce chaos more pressing. Now, that joker had been played far too early. There was, at this point, no benefit in trying to rebuild them, not even as seeds for more chaos cults such as he’d deployed in Veilgrad. There just wouldn’t be time.

Unless…

Justinian did not allow himself a smile, but filed away that jolt of inspiration to be refined into a proper plan. As it was, the Tide were gone, used up for no greater purpose than to maintain deniability against the Throne’s increasing suspicions. Sharidan knew who his adventurers were, and he had made a much stronger show of friendship that way than any words from him could have done. It had been necessary, but the loss still rankled. It would be that much more keenly felt, the farther and faster events progressed; he’d been counting on having the Tide to use when he was in a tight spot. He had every hope that the upcoming confrontation with the Rust in Puna Dara would, at least for a while, cement his fracturing relationship with the Throne. It would not do for Sharidan to find reason to move openly against him too soon.

There was that, at least. The one bright spot in all this: the increasing pressure upon him had provided the leverage he needed to force Szaiviss’s hand. The Rust was her pet project, one he was not supposed to know about, and he had at least manipulated her into deploying them too early. The combined forces about to descend on them would wipe out the cult no matter what armaments they had cobbled together. All he had to do was ensure that any remaining tracks he had left in Puna Dara were covered in the chaos, which should not be hard. It would not do, of course, to think Szaiviss harmless or under control, but at least, now, he was confident she had no more external assets.

Except Scyllith. He had better be careful not to pressure her further; if she felt cornered enough to call her goddess’s attention, there would be no end of disaster.

Setbacks, on every side. This entire week had been a debacle without parallel in his plans thus far. None of these setbacks, alone, was enough to form a threat to his plans, but in aggregation the resources he had lost or been forced to expend seriously hampered his ability to maneuver. Not to mention pushing him close to a precipice. If he suffered one more major loss before he could rebuild his assets, it might all be over.

He put his grim ruminations aside, arriving at the door he sought. Almost mechanically, he passed through its security measures, entering a short hall leading to a whitewashed wooden door, and entered without knocking.

The little cottage inside was still somewhat under construction, but it was clearly a replica of that which had been outside Rector’s last workstation. The walls had just been painted, leaving most of the furniture pushed into the center of the floor, with boxes of smaller objects half-unpacked among them.

Ildrin had been splayed out in a rocking chair, the very picture of exhaustion, but upon the Archpope’s sudden appearance she jumped up.

“Your Holiness! I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting—”

“It’s quite all right, Ildrin. Please, rise,” he said kindly, helping her up from the kneeling position to which she had dropped. “These events have been extremely difficult for all of us. You are well? Getting enough rest?”

“I’m fine,” she assured him. “Really, don’t fret about me—I know my limits, and I’ll be sure to rest extra when I’m nearing them. It’s not that time, yet; Rector is still have trouble adjusting. He and Delilah need me.”

“Ah, yes,” Justinian said seriously. “And how is he faring, in your view?”

She hesitated, frowning pensively. “Your Holiness…I feel I’ve gained a new appreciation for Rector recently. He’s a creature of—that is, a man of routine, and it’s been very difficult for him, having all his work undone and then being uprooted. He’s making it difficult for us, too. But at the same time… This is the first time I’ve seen this, but it’s become clear he knows he’s unusual, and is trying to mitigate his own…issues, for our sake. I feel…quite ashamed of the way I thought of him when I was first posted down here.”

“Don’t,” Justinian advised gently, placing a hand on her shoulder and giving her a warm smile. “I know you’ve not mistreated him, or I would have heard about it from Delilah. We cannot help our thoughts, sister; it is our actions which define us. You have done well, here, and if you’ve learned something of empathy in the process, so much the better. For now, though,” he continued more seriously, putting on a carefully measured frown of contemplation, “I’m afraid recent events both here and elsewhere have forced me to adjust a number of my plans. Among other things, I am in need of trustworthy people in a variety of positions. I am sorry to keep shuffling you about this way, Ildrin, but I will soon need you elsewhere. Not immediately—we want to avoid subjecting Rector to any more abrupt changes than we can help, I think.”

“I’m eager to serve in any way you need me,” she assured him fervently. “I will…somewhat to my surprise…miss this place, and even Rector. But we all go where the gods need us most.”

“Quite so,” he agreed, smiling again. “And now, since I have to interrupt our resident genius again, best to do so quickly rather than dragging it out.”

“Of course, your Holiness.”

She followed him through the kitchen, similarly in a state of partial completion, and to the work area beyond. This was different than the workspace of Rector’s last project; though roughly the same size, it was a rectangular room with walls formed of massive stone blocks, not a natural cavern. Something of the same aesthetic was present, in the enchanting equipment lining its walls in a profusion of pipes, glass tubes, and wires, though that was also laid out much differently. The total apparatus was far bulkier than the previous one, but rather than concentrated in clumps, lined the walls and climbed to a central crystal disc set amid brass and copper fixtures in the middle of the ceiling. Apart from that disc, and the runic control console laid in the center of the chamber and connected to the rest, most of the arcane materials were clearly connectors; the bulkiest parts of the structure appeared to be small shrines spaced around the walls at regular intervals, each prominently featuring the sigils of a god of the Pantheon.

At their entry, Delilah turned and started to kneel, but before she could complete the gesture, Rector barked impatiently without looking up from his console, “There you are! I’ve been waiting!”

“Rector!” Delilah exclaimed, turning to face him. “Don’t speak that way to his Holiness!”

“It’s quite all right, Delilah, no harm is done,” Justinian said soothingly, striding into the room. “I apologize for the delay, Rector, there are numerous demands on my time. It sounds as if all is in readiness, then? Shall I proceed?”

“Yes, yes, let’s get on with it, I’ve had it set up for an hour,” Rector grumbled, still fidgeting with the runes on his console, his finicky motions evidently more for something to do than because anything needed to be done.

“Very good,” Justinian said calmly, striding across the room to a shrine set up in the center of one of the shorter walls, linked with enchanting paraphernalia to the two in each of the nearby corners. Prominently featured upon it were the gears and hourglass of Vemnesthis, one of the few gods whose sigil was not widely known—in his case, because he had no worshipers.

All around him rose a low hum as Rector powered up the new device. This time there was no sign of the Avatar, and in fact no display surface in which one could have manifested, but only the activation of various arcane circuits and their accompanying musical tones and azure light effects. Each of the shrines around the edges blazed to life, as well, glowing a mellifluous gold and emitting harmonic tones like the clearest of bells.

Only the shrine of Vemnesthis remained dark, until Justinian reached out to touch its sigil with both his hand and his mind.

There was, and could be, no other device like this in the world. Only a sitting Archpope could invoke the powers of individual gods without drawing their direct attention—and even so, much of the apparatus constructed here served to ensure that what they did would not draw the gods’ notice. At his touch, the time-bending power of Vemnesthis poured into the system with the activation of that final shrine, the only temporal effect in the world guaranteed not to draw the Timekeeper’s swift censure.

With the final activation of the structure, the room was suddenly filled with a colossal spider web.

“Please, be calm,” Justinian said over Ildrin and Delilah’s shouts, loudly enough to be heard but careful to keep his own voice utterly serene. “This will not harm you—it was here before. What we have done is created a bridge between the subtler expressions of reality and human perception, enabling us to see this effect, in a manner which makes sense to our own minds.”

Both priestesses edged closer together, peering around nervously. The web was disturbing to look at, in the way that things in dreams did not quite stay put; its strands shifted position when not watched closely, creating a constant sense of motion out of the corners of one’s eye. It all spread from the crystal disc in the ceiling in a most disconcerting display, at once as if the web were a normal one radiating from that point, and a constant spiral funneling into it like water down a drain. Always in furious motion, yet totally constant. It was almost physically painful to look at; they all quickly decided not to.

“Your Holiness,” Delilah whispered, staring at him.

Justinian stepped back from the shrine of Vemnesthis, lifting his hands to study them thoughtfully. He was linked to the web—in fact, strands lay thick over both his arms, connecting to his fingers, wrapped around his waist and upper body. Every movement he made caused the whole thing to tremble.

“Don’t be alarmed, Delilah,” he said gently. “This is not directly harmful. We are simply seeing, now, the machinations of an entity which does not, at present, exist.”

“I…I don’t understand,” Ildrin said faintly.

“You will find her there,” he said, lifting a finger to point at the swirling vortex of webs in the ceiling. They both reflexively followed his gesture, then immediately averted their eyes. “And this is why it was the power of Vemnesthis, who guards the timeways, that was necessary to finally see it. That creature is dead, and has been for millennia. But it seems that in a time very soon to come, she will not be—and is reaching back through time to arrange things to her benefit. Possibly to arrange her own resurrection. Try not to think about it,” he added kindly, smiling at their expressions. “Causality breaks down in matters like these. That is why Vemnesthis and his work are so important.”

“But why is it all attached to you?” Ildrin squeaked.

“Not just me,” the Archpope said gravely. “I have noticed something, recently. A pattern, which this begins to confirm. Certain individuals, being drawn forcefully together in the face of events—and also resisting grievous harm, coming through trials which ought to destroy anyone, unscathed. As if they are being lined up in a particular formation, to serve a particular purpose.”

“So…it’s…good?” Ildrin asked, frowning deeply. “As long as the webs hold you, you can’t die?”

“Nothing in this world cannot die,” he replied. “But I take this as confirmation of my theory. I suspect that I, and the others who are bound to the strands of this great web, will find ourselves all but impervious to circumstance resulting in our death, imprisonment, disfigurement…anything which prevents us all arriving at that point, ready to play whatever part she intends.” Again, he indicated the crystal; this time, they didn’t look, though Ildrin grimaced with remembered discomfort, wiping her palms on the front of her robe.

“Can’t…Vemnesthis…deal with that?” Delilah asked faintly, glancing back at Rector, who was muttering over his runes, making fine adjustments. “Isn’t that what the Scions of Vemnesthis are for?”

“Vemnesthis has no proper cult,” Justinian said solemnly. “The Scions, with the exception of their leader, are effectively enslaved. They are the mages and warlocks gathered from across history, all those who tried to meddle in the timestream, and were given his ultimatum: serve, or be destroyed.” He shook his head. “No… Aside from the fact that this creature is, or will be, superior in power to their patron, the Scions of Vemnesthis are not a force which will stand against an Elder God. She will be ready for anything they do—able, even to subvert them, which makes it the wiser course not to bring them to her direct attention. This apparatus, however, is a thing which should not be, which no one will expect—not even our Pantheon. This is why the gods needs us, sisters. For all their power, there are things in their service which only mortals can do.”

He turned to gaze directly into the mind-wrenching chaos at the center of the spiral of webs, not flinching.

“It falls to us to thwart Araneid’s return.”

Setbacks…but also new opportunities.


“Hang on!” she shouted over the crash of the waves. “In fact, it’d be better if you sat down, but at least hang on!”

He ignored her, clinging to the bowsprit and staring grimly ahead through the spray, as he had since they had passed through the guardian stones and from calm, sunny seas into this chaos. The boat tipped over the precipice, shooting straight down the colossal wave into what seemed a chasm in the surface of the ocean.

He tightened his grip, wrapping one hand more firmly in the rope. He was stronger than a normal human by far, but even so… They were picking up terrible speed, and seemed about to plow straight into a wall of water thrown up by the undulating sea, taller than the walls of Tiraas. He drew in a breath, and closed his eyes, and they hit.

The boat plunged under—everything was water, roaring and pulling him, and suddenly, it was gone. Everything was gone. The noise, the pressure… Even his clothes weren’t wet anymore.

He opened his eyes, peering around at the flat, shimmering expanse of the ocean around them, glittering calmly beneath a sunny sky, then swiveled to look behind. The boat was in perfect condition, showing no sign of having just passed through that tempest. The towering sentinel stones that ringed Suffering were not to be seen, nor was the island.

“Woo! Made it again!” Karen cheered, pumping one fist in the air. Her heavy black robes prevented him from getting a glimpse at what she really looked like, not that he’d been curious enough to investigate. “I told you it was nothing to worry about. Next stop: Onkawa! Well, the docks below Onkawa, depending on whether you count them as part of the city proper. I do, just for simplicity’s sake. I don’t know what kind of sense it makes to build a city up on a cliff and its wharfs way down below, but hey, what do I know? I’m just the ferryman. Ferry person. I dunno, I’ve had Avenist passengers yell at me for it, but it doesn’t sound right, ‘ferry person.’ ‘Ferryman’ rolls off the tongue, y’know?”

She carried on prattling, as she had from the moment he’d stepped aboard, and he turned his back on her, tuning her out. Other things demanded his focus.

He could feel them again. The others, and his Emperor. But…distantly. Distorted. Altered. Something terrible had happened in Tiraas, something which cut at the core of his Empire. He feared the worst—anything which could alter the Hands had the potential to topple the Silver Throne itself. No wonder she had been so anxious to get rid of him, if something like this were about to unfold.

And that, at least, told him where to start. He would not be able to trust the others, at least until he learned what had happened, and how to free them from whatever the effect was that all but cut them off from his senses. It would be necessary to be cautious, subtle, investigate slowly and carefully. But at least he knew, circumstantially, who had to be behind it.

There was one Hand of the Emperor left, and Tellwyrn would rue the day she turned against the Silver Throne.


She closed the chapel door gently, and paused for a moment just inside to gaze abstractly into the dimness. Late afternoon sunlight streamed through the windows, creating shifting patterns upon the floor in the absence of fairy lights, and a heavy floral scent hung in the air from the veritable mountain of bouquets piled around Ravana’s resting place.

Slowly, Tellwyrn paced down the central aisle, turning her head to study each sleeping student without stopping. Natchua, she noted, had a Narisian blessing talisman resting on her chest just above her folded hands—one carefully painted in House Awarrion colors. Nothing had been sent from her own House. Other gifts and tokens lay in each of the improvised beds—coins, candles, notes, flowers, sent by fellow students and family members alike. More than that, in Ravana’s case.

Only at reaching the end, Shaeine’s resting place, did Tellwyrn finally stop. For a long moment, she gazed down at the sleeping drow. Then, moving slowly and wearily as if suddenly feeling every one of her three thousand years, she turned, and sank down to the floor, resting her back against the wood. There, she tilted her head back, gazing emptily through the silence.

“I’m sorry.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                 Next Chapter >

12 – 63

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

“My clan will not be interested in this, but there are others that definitely will,” Haunui said, nodding with his customarily solemn expression. “In particular, the idea that any representative sent will have equal footing with that of the Empire will sell it, alone. I will raise the matter at the next moot.”

“I appreciate it, Haunui,” Tellwyrn replied with a smile.

He nodded again. “It has been good to see the old campus once more. Surprising, how little it has changed. I’m grateful I got this opportunity, since it seems change is about to come in great force.”

She sighed softly. “Yes…it always does. Anyhow, if you’ll give me a few minutes I can take you home…”

“There’s no rush,” he said, finally smiling. “Actually, if you don’t mind, I would like to stay a few days. There are interesting new constructions in the town, and quite a number of people gathered here with whom I would like to have conversations.”

“You’re welcome, of course,” she said. “The guest chambers will be available as long as you need them. Just so you know, teleporting back to Tidecall is the work of seconds, but finding a few spare seconds might be increasingly tricky in the coming days. You may have to wait a bit on my convenience to go home.”

“The wind blows where it wants,” he intoned. “There is no rush.” Turning to go, the shaman paused and bowed politely to each of the others waiting nearby. “Huntsman. Daughter of Naiya.”

“Wavespeaker,” Ingvar replied, bowing with equal respect.

“Yo,” Aspen said, waggling her fingers.

Tellwyrn let out a sigh as Haunui strode down the hall toward the stairs descending to the lobby. She had spent the morning mobbed by people wanting a slice of her attention, dealing with dozens of conversations while slowly retreating toward her office, and even still hadn’t quite made it there. Most of those discussions had been with relative newcomers to the mountain; only Ingvar, Aspen and Haunui had had the foresight to wait in the upper corridors of Helion Hall.

“Well, Ingvar, you’ve certainly been more than patient with me during your time here.”

“We’ve kinda gotten used to being patient,” said the dryad.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said pointedly. She rolled her eyes, but subsided, and he continued more courteously to Tellwyrn. “We haven’t felt put upon in the least, Professor. We did, after all, appear out of the blue with a personal request for your time and attention, and you have clearly had more important things to deal with. We inadvertently picked a very trying time to visit, it seems.”

“Nonetheless, you’ve been quite helpful while you were here, and I’m sorry to keep you waiting for so long. I have given some thought to your questions, mostly while doing other things; I regret that that is as far as I’ve managed. Barring some fresh nonsense, though, things will hopefully be settling down here in the next few days.”

“Seems kinda like you’ve managed to make things more busy in the next few days,” Aspen said, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes,” Tellwyrn replied with a grim little smile, “but with plans. Lots of stuff to do, but stuff that will be done on my schedule, not while I run around willy nilly reacting to whatever fresh idiocy the Sleeper and whoever else throws. As such! Ingvar, this promises to be a somewhat involved conversation. Would you and Aspen join me for lunch tomorrow?”

“Gladly.”

“Perfect. I’m not absolutely certain how germane my insights will be to your quest, but I can describe in detail how I approached Shaath, as well as giving you general strategies for dealing with gods. Naiya might be the hardest to get to, but you have a big advantage, there.” She nodded at Aspen. “Additionally, let me take the rest of today to check some of my old notes; I believe we have quite a few volumes in our library that may be relevant to your search. Some are in the restricted archives, but I don’t think they are necessarily too sensitive to show you. I’ll put together a reading list and have Crystal assist you with it. You are, of course, welcome to stay on campus as long as you need. It’s the least I can do, after the help you’ve already given.”

“That is tremendously helpful, Professor,” he said, bowing. “Thank you very much. We’ll rejoin you tomorrow, then. After this morning I’m sure you’re eager to have a few moments to yourself.”

“Well, you know what they say,” Tellwyrn snorted. “Rest when you’re dead.”

“That’s just silly,” Aspen huffed. “A person needs rest. While alive. That’s the point.”

“It’s just an expression, Aspen,” Ingvar said, gently steering her toward the stairs.

“You keep saying that as if it justifies some of the dumbest ideas people keep spouting,” she complained while following him down the hall. “If someone’s wrong, the fact that it’s an expression doesn’t make them less wrong!”

“In fact, I think you’re onto something, there. My point was, expressions are part of culture. Challenging them isn’t going to get you anywhere; it just makes people dig their heels in, mostly. And anyway, even if someone is wrong, throwing it in their face usually doesn’t help.”

“Who said anything about helping?”

“We talked about persuasion, remember…?”

“Oh, sure, but honestly I don’t all that much care what nonsense people choose to believe. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta tell a bonehead they are one.”

Tellwyrn stood alone in the hall, staring abstractly in the direction they had gone, until their receding voices had departed the building entirely.

“I hope,” she finally said aloud, “you don’t think you’re sneaking up on me.”

“Well, one hates to interrupt,” Inspector Fedora said, materializing from empty space nearby. He was holding two brown bottles, and tossed one to her. “Here—compliments of Raffi Chandrakeran.”

“Mermaid’s Bite?” She raised her eyebrows, studying the label. “Impossible to get outside the Punaji Coast.”

“Can’t imagine why,” Fedora said, grinning and pulling the stopper from his bottle. “Absolutely vile stuff, but it is one of your favorites. Cheers.”

“Now how the hell did you oh never mind, don’t answer that.” She opened her own and took a swig; the drink made her grimace and shudder, but she let out a soft sigh of satisfaction after the first swallow. “Ahh, that takes me back. Well! You clearly want something, but so does everyone else today, and not one of them had the basic courtesy to bring me booze. That earns you the privilege of speaking.”

The Inspector took a more judicious sip of his own. “Bleh. Not the worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, to be sure. Well, you know quite a bit about what my kind are like, Professor. And not just due to your age, or long adventuring career, or magical proficiency. I’ve met archmages and ancient elves aplenty who clearly had no clue what they were dealing with. You, though! I know for a fact you’ve got Melaxyna and Rowe squirreled away down in that Crawl of yours. Impressive you managed to ensnare even one, much less both.”

“Just Melaxyna now,” she said sourly. “I failed to keep them separated.”

Fedora barked a laugh. “Aw, those two. I always did think they’d make a lovely pair. Well, anyway, I suspect you understand…the urge.” He began moving, at a slow amble, and Tellwyrn followed gamely along, sipping from her bottle and watching him. “It starts as an itch, right in the back of your head. Like that tickle in the throat that comes when you’re first getting sick. If not indulged, it grows…slowly, at first. Till it’s like ants crawling all over and under your skin, everywhere. The need to sow some chaos, cause a little misery. Flex your wings and your skills and break somebody. Infernal aggression, almost—almost suppressed.”

“Feeling itchy?” she asked in a deceptively mild tone.

He shrugged. “Less now than a week ago. Even if I’ve yet to catch the little fucker, stalking the Sleeper has been most therapeutic. See, when the Empire first picked me up, my new handlers spun this lovely story—it was positively Vesker in its overwrought romanticism. The lone incubus who turned himself to hunting criminals and outwitting those who took advantage of others, on a personal quest for redemption.” He grinned broadly. “I let them think it. Vex, of course, wasn’t fooled, but he of all people recognizes a useful lie; it enabled his spooks to work with me without being too jumpy about it. Truth is, I just found criminals the most satisfying challenge. Sure, you can destabilize a whole country by ensconcing yourself in the capital and pulling the right threads; that’s what most of my kind end up going for. Maximum collateral damage. It’s kind of fundamentally unsatisfying, though, playing a game with people who don’t know the rules. All those scheming aristocrats and priests and bankers and kings—they just can’t grasp that another player in their great game isn’t trying to win it, but just to make sure everyone loses. Almost unfair.”

“Somehow it’s even creepier to hear one of you admit it,” she grunted. They passed the closed door of her office without pausing.

“Crime, though,” Fedora continued, seemingly lost in his thoughts now, “that’s a game. There are laws and customs to form a neat board and a set of rules. The crook is trying to get away with something; I’m trying to stop them. One against one, now that is a challenge. Given a certain level of intelligence on the part of one’s opponent, of course. As I worked out an ever-better method for detective work I had to raise the stakes, till I needed to thwart the schemes of nobles to really get my fix. Those evil bastards are as ruthless as any incubus; I think I could’ve kept on indefinitely that way. Except…”

“Except nobles aren’t the only ones paying attention to themselves,” she said. “That’s a quick way to get Intelligence after you, as you discovered. Fedora, it’s not like you to make long speeches. Or reveal anything about yourself. I trust this is going somewhere relevant to my interests?”

“Oh, quite,” he assured her with a grin. “Indulge me just a moment longer, if you would. You see, Professor, I’ve been sensing a change in the wind, lately, at Imperial Intelligence. Vex made certain to let me indulge myself against real opponents—at first, for a while. Lately, though? It’s been all about administration. Organization. Teaching my methods to other Inspectors, to the Army, the police, his spies… Oh, it’ll be to the overall good of society, having police actually able to solve crimes rather than just grabbing the first likely bloke and clubbing a confession out of him. I’m going stir crazy, though, cooped up in that office, and Vex is far too canny not to fully understand what he’s doing, keeping me on administrative work. The pisser is, even knowing his game, I can’t help it. The pressure builds up, till eventually I’m going to have to do something. Something that’ll give him all the excuse he needs to stick me in a bottle and lose it in a vault somewhere.”

“That sounds like a Vex move,” she agreed.

“So!” Fedora stopped, turning to face her and grinning. “It seems to me it’s a good time for me to seek other employment.”

Tellwyrn faced him as well. “Something tells me the terms of your arrangement with Imperial Intelligence are not the kind of job one simply quits.”

“Oh, quite. Ordinarily? No, utterly out of the question. Matters become different, however, if my new employer, who had just given a speech about how nobody tells her what to do on her campus and could use a convenient excuse to prove it, were to tell Vex to keep his grubby fingers off her new head of campus security.”

She stared at him. “…all right. As thanks for the drink, and largely out of morbid curiosity, I’m willing to hear your pitch.”

“I was very impressed with what I heard at that assembly.” His jocular expression suddenly gone, he stared back intently. “It’s honestly a brilliant move, and all other things being equal, I think it’ll work. You can’t stop the world from changing, so you position yourself to be the administrator of that change. You do realize, of course, that the logical move on the part of all those people you brought here would be to boycott your University, cut you out of the loop and let you remain isolated until it finally puts you out of their misery once and for all?”

Tellwyrn snorted and took a gulp of her drink. “You’re suggesting the great powers of the world might do the sensible thing, when the alternative is to scheme against each other for tiny scraps of advantage? Don’t make me laugh.”

“And that’s it exactly.” He pointed the mouth of his bottle at her. “How those people think. It’s one thing to remind everyone that you’re Arachne goddamn Tellwyrn and they’d better mind their manners. But in your whole life, Professor, when you’ve come up against people intelligent enough they should know better than to test you, yet they didn’t… Who were they?”

There was a pause before she responded. “What, you want a list?”

“Just a category,” he said with a grim little smile. “Because I think you’ll find there’s just one.”

“Quite a few, in fact,” she said slowly. “Largely aristocrats. Kings and queens, which is the same thing, really. Priests—”

“Average priests, or high-ranking ones?” When she didn’t respond, he nodded. “That really is one category, along with all the other sub-groupings you can list. The rich, the powerful. At their core, Professor, powerful people simply cannot accept the idea that they won’t get their way. Even no matter how many times other powerful people thwart them, they keep coming back for more. They don’t know restraint or moderation; they are driven by the unshakable conviction that they are entitled to possess absolutely everything, and the irrational belief that they one day will. It takes a certain amount of adversity to shape someone’s mind into knowing their place in the world. The mighty, the kings and popes and bishops and bankers? They’ll never stop.”

“And?” she drawled.

“And I like what you’re about to do here, Professor. Irrespective, even, of my own need to find different employment, I’d like to be a part of it. But more important to your interests… You do not appreciate what you’ve begun, Tellwyrn. I mean it: they will never stop. In the long term, no matter what rules you lay down or what consequences you impose, the people you’re planning to gather here will scheme and plot and not hesitate to threaten your students if it gets them what they want.”

“I’m well aware they will,” she said irritably. “The point is not to prevent them from scheming but to enforce rules upon how they do.”

“Good!” He pointed the bottle at her again, nodding approvingly. “Then you grasp the basics of the situation—but not the details. Professor, the fact that you can destroy all these people with a wave of your hand isn’t going to deter them. To do that, to really keep this court you’re assembling under control, you need someone cunning. Someone who thinks the way they do, and is tireless and relentless. Someone who needs the challenge.”

“Someone like you.”

“Well, Melaxyna would also do,” he said with a grin, “if you think you can trust her.”

She grunted. “Fortunately, decades of teaching adolescents have burned away any shame I once felt at stating the blazingly obvious. I don’t trust you, Fedora.”

“Well, obviously. Trust is earned; that takes time. I don’t know how you came to be hooked up with someone like Admestus bloody Rafe, but I can’t imagine it was all snuggles and puppies at first sight. And in the shorter term, we have something better than trust!”

“Oh, this should be absolutely priceless,” she muttered.

“Self-awareness!” Fedora held out his arms, beaming. “Nobody can offer me a better deal than what I’m asking from you, Professor. It’s protection from my enemies, and assurance that I will never get bored. I have nothing to gain by screwing you over, and everything to lose by pissing you off. And you, for your part, need someone to do this for you. You couldn’t even control the Sleeper, Tellwyrn. You can’t run your University and herd the cats you’re proposing to. This plan of yours involves filling your campus with people you cannot trust, and who are all working their own angles. Even if you had the right temperament to engage in the necessary conniving, you’re only one person. I, however, am a bloody well avatar of deceit. All you have to do is keep your eye on me, while I keep mine on all the others. It’s simple delegation.”

She just stared in silence. After a moment, he continued.

“I’ve just heard from Tiraas that the situation with the Hands of the Emperor has been resolved. That being the case, I know the perfect staff I’d like you to hire for me! There are three ex-Imperial soldiers who’ll be needing jobs, and are absolutely perfect for it. They’re already known and liked on this campus, and they are clearly, even famously, not useful for damn well anything—the perfect smokescreen to reassure the people I’ll actually need to be watching that campus security is just a token gesture. I know you’re familiar with this strategy, yourself. Good move, having that Sifanese fairy of yours play the fool so he’s free to do things like impersonate you while you’re away to prevent the Sleeper from trying something in your absence. Didn’t exactly work, but it was a good ploy and it did keep him from doing it on the campus.”

“On the subject of the Sleeper,” she said, “I can’t help thinking it doesn’t speak well of your qualifications that you, the big scary agent from Imperial Intelligence, have done fuck all to actually catch him.”

“Unfair and untrue, and you know it,” he countered without ire. “He’s not caught, yet, but we’re closing in. I hate using this phrase because it makes me sound weak, but it’s true: that’s not my fault. Crime is a game of connections, Professor. The victim and the perpetrator are always linked by circumstance and motivation, and that web of threads is what you have to follow and untangle to catch the guilty. Random crimes of passion or opportunity are always harder to solve than premeditated ones. And serial attackers like the Sleeper, the hardest yet. What he’s doing only makes sense inside his own head. With nothing linking him to his victims, I have no threads to follow. Serial killers are caught when they make a mistake—which they always do. We’ll get him, especially with the pressure you’ve just turned up. Hopefully before he does any more damage.”

“Hnh,” she grunted. “This is all starting to sound very reasonable. That alone makes me skeptical.”

“Good! Run with that—you’ll need that outlook. Because let me give you the bad news now.” Fedora folded his arms, the bottle dangling loosely from one hand, and frowned seriously. “You and your University are about to come under attack like you have never been before, Professor. What you’re doing… You are poised to change the world for the better, and that is the most dangerous position anyone can possibly be in. When the world needs change, it’s because the most powerful people in it are profiting from the way it is now—and the one thing they absolutely cannot stand is the grubby little fingers of do-gooders all over their playthings. They have to stop you. Have to. The crucible will come very early in this campaign, Tellwyrn; someone, or likely a consortium of someones, will strike from beyond your sight, using the very system you’re building here. And they don’t even have to beat you, they just have to make you default to your established methods; that’ll lower you to their level, force you to play their games, and from there it’s only a matter of time. Your force against their cunning is just another contest. You need to outfox them on their own terms, and then impose consequences with your superior firepower. Once you’ve won that first battle, you’ll be in the position you need to go forward: not another player in the game, but the arbiter standing above it, enforcing the rules. That is what will secure the future of this University. First, though, you have to win—and don’t forget that your students are going to be right on the front line of this battle. You’re going to need every ally and scrap of influence you’ve got to pull this off, and what you’ve got isn’t going to be enough.

“You need me.”

“You are wildly overstating the danger,” she snapped.

“No,” he said quietly, “I am not. And you’re pissed off now because now that I’ve said it, you realize I’m right.”

They locked eyes, and the silence stretched out. After a long pause, Tellwyrn took another long swig from her bottle, her gaze never leaving his.

“Fah,” she gasped, coming up for breath. “Well, this is usually the point where I’d threaten someone…”

“You’re used to dealing with people who need the reminder,” he said, suddenly grinning. “We’ve already been over that: I know exactly what I’m getting into.”

“And you understand my rules,” she began, but he cut her off.

“Not in any particular detail, but you can fill me in at your leisure. More importantly, I understand your priorities. The students’ safety is the first and foremost concern. After that, securing the University’s position against the onslaught that’s about to come. And once that’s taken care of, well, riding herd on the scheming politicians you’re filling this place with will be rather more low-key, but it’s never going to stop or relent. There’s plenty to do.”

“But the students come first.”

“The students come first.”

She sighed heavily. “Gods help us all… I’ll pick you out an office.”

He cleared his throat. “Actually, just build me one.”

Tellwyrn had turned to head back up the hall, but now swiveled back, pinning him with a gimlet stare. “Is this how it’s going to be? Because you’ll find I have little patience for demands.”

“Oh, to be sure,” he said cheerfully. “But you’re also going to be constructing a whole new extension of the campus to house the research facilities, right? Those are the whole reason we’ll need security; it only makes sense to have that office housed there.”

“Well, damn,” she mused, regarding him thoughtfully. “You actually are going to be sort of good at this, I suppose.”

Fedora grinned widely. “Best you’ve ever had. That’s a promise.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

12 – 62

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

The furniture appeared upon the main lawn shortly after breakfast, as students were making their way there as directed. This was no surprise; the lawn was used for addresses, sporting events, and graduation ceremonies, and was home to several arrangements of seating which could be called up apparently out of thin air at a command from Professor Tellwyrn. Today, the arrangement was that used for graduations: rows of chairs, facing a dais with a lectern at its center.

The new guests arrived more or less together, though they were hardly in formation, trailing in from wherever Tellwyrn had housed them overnight. Other visitors began to arrive from Last Rock, many gazing around with a combination of nerves and wonderment, and the whole assemblage began to mix with the student body and the handful of watchful faculty who accompanied them.

They were an interesting assortment, Tellwyrn’s guests; the spellcasters who had participated in her working in Last Rock were the lesser part of the whole. Religious representatives were about half the group, hailing from several of the major cults, as well as a parson from the Universal Church and an armored templar whose tabard bore the insignia of the Order of the Light. There was even a taciturn fellow who identified himself only as Buttons and, with his deliberately shabby suit and five o’clock shadow at nine in the morning, could have been a bard’s caricature of a Guild thief. Embras Mogul was present, and was the subject of constant stares and whispers, though he traveled in a bubble of isolation as no one was willing to approach him. He seemed to find this quite amusing.

Also among the visitors were a surprising number of national representatives, of varying levels of significance. The warlock from Rodvenheim, Wrynst, and his counterpart from Svenheim both appeared to be low-ranking government employees, based upon their comments in the milling about that ensued before the assembly was underway. The scale ran all the way up to royal families, however; proceedings were briefly disrupted by a squeal and then a playful scuffle when Ruda discovered her uncle Raffi among the honored guests. Both Sheng delegates were actual government ambassadors, though the woman representing the Emperor of Shengdu and the Lesser Speaker for the Republic of Sheng-la deliberately kept as far away from one another as possible. A somewhat bemused-looking young woman in a drab semi-formal dress was the Tiraan Empire’s official representative, identifying herself when asked as a secretary from the Interior Ministry, which said something about how seriously the Silver Throne was taking this business. Most surprisingly, a magelord from Syralon was present, holding himself aloof and ignoring the fascinated attention lavished upon him. The Floating City might not literally float, but it was certainly isolated and its magocracy was famously reclusive; this might have been the first time they had ever bothered to send a representative anywhere.

Seats on the dais were reserved, the area’s sanctity enforced by Crystal and Maru; the former was very polite, while the latter mostly deterred interlopers by jabbering frantically at them in Sifanese and, if that failed, bursting into tears. Gradually, the seats were filled mostly by representatives from the town: Sheriff Sanders, Mayor Cleese, Father Laws, and the banker Mr. Taft. Matriarch Ashaele was also seated in that place of honor, and a chair provided for her daughter Nahil as well, though after a hurried consultation, Nahil departed the dais to sit below with Teal. Maru attempted to remove her chair, succeeding only in falling off the back and landing beneath it. Most interestingly, the only other person invited to remain with them was Inspector Fedora.

The professors were just finishing up the task of herding everyone (guests and townsfolk courteously, students with a bit less patience) into chair when Tellwyrn herself finally arrived, appearing out of nowhere behind the lectern.

She braced her hands on the sides of the lectern and simply stood in silence, watching the crowd, while the last slowpokes found their way to seats. A hush fell over the assembly at her presence, especially on the part of the students. They were accustomed to being lectured by Arachne Tellwyrn, and this watchful stillness was not her usual demeanor.

“I founded this University,” she said abruptly once the shuffling had died down, “for the same reasons institutions of learning are always founded: to promote knowledge, and reason. I’ve complained often enough that almost everything wrong with the world is ultimately caused by someone’s foolishness; most of you have undoubtedly heard it from me many times. It seemed obvious to me from the very beginning that in order to build an institution of higher learning in such a very, very stupid world, the University would have to stand apart.”

Her voice rang cleanly over the lawn, without any obvious aid of magic. She was, of course, accustomed to projecting to the back of a classroom for the last fifty years, and well-practiced at shouting in general for the last three thousand, but Tellwyrn’s delivery was calm, even if her expression grew slightly troubled.

“And it does…to an extent. History is rife with the destruction or exploitation of schools by entrenched powers seeking to either control or limit the spread of knowledge. Unjust authority relies upon people not knowing their best interests, and more importantly, not knowing how quickly a mass movement of people can shrug off an authority. But…there are limits.

“In a way, this last year has been a series of lessons on the perils of isolation. The University has come under political attack in the public eye—an issue which was remedied through connections, through the efforts of alumni willing to speak up on the school’s behalf. We have suffered a rift between the University and the town on which it depends, which was easily resolved with polite words and compromise—a rift which opened because the people of Last Rock, who by nature aren’t afraid of much, did not dare try to voice their grievances to the cranky old sorceress up on the mountain.” She grimaced, amid the polite titters which followed. “I’ll certainly accept the blame for that. And then…the Sleeper.”

Tellwyrn drew in a long breath through her nose, and let it out in a sharp huff. “I’m willing to take a lot of blame, here. Let me make sure everyone understands what is happening and why: this Sleeper is one of my students, one of you here at this assembly, who was caught trying to summon a greater djinn in the Crawl. Caught by Elilial herself.” She paused, waiting for the murmurs to abate somewhat before continuing. “Elilial, being an old acquaintance of mine and irked at my investigations of some of her schemes, granted the students involved power over the infernal, and set them loose here to distract and interfere with me. Among other things, the power to conduct great workings without succumbing to corruption, and while remaining hidden from perception. Since then, this kid, or kids, has been generally acting like a twit. They opened the hellgate last year that forced the town’s evacuation, and took an act of the gods themselves to close. More recently, they have been playing cat-and-mouse with all of us, casting a sleeping curse on their fellow students which so far has defeated all our efforts to unmake.”

She paused again, clutching the edges of the lectern, her lips drawing back in a snarl which incited a few nervous mutters—but not from her students, all of whom had frozen at the sight.

“Altogether,” Tellwyrn spat, “this is just about the stupidest thing I have ever seen. All that power, all those gifts, and one of you little bastards can’t think of a single better use for them than to see how much you can get away with. I said I’ll accept blame, and in this case I certainly feel like I’ve failed someone, very badly. For one of my pupils to act in such a brainless manner… Oh, yes, I consider this a failure. But in the longer term, I’ve failed all of you by creating a situation in which this could happen.

“It couldn’t happen in Tiraas.” She released the lectern abruptly and began to pace up and down behind it, a lecturing habit many of those present recognized. “Not with all the eyes and powers of the Throne at work. Power for power, I personally can match anything the Tiraan Empire can throw at a problem, but for sheer versatility and resources? No one person, no one organization, could compete. Similar considerations hold in Rodvenheim, in Syralon, in Kiyosan, Chansong, Tar’naris… But it can happen in Last Rock, because of the bargain I’ve made out here. The price for the freedom from control and scrutiny that we enjoy. We can pretty much do what we like out here in Last Rock.” This brought a few muted cheers from several of the townsfolk present, followed by a smattering of hushing noises. “And as a price for that privilege, when trouble strikes, we are on our own.”

Tellwyrn came to a stop, standing off to one side of the lectern now, and let that sink in silently for a moment before continuing.

“From the very beginning, I’ve been worried about the world bearing down on my University, trying to stop me from teaching my students—or worse, control what I teach them. And so I’ve kept the world firmly at arm’s length. The result has been as you see. Without the bonds that tie together the civilizations of the world, that tie them increasingly tightly with each passing year, one malcontent with the right kind of power can not only hide in the shadows, but reach out to constantly poke at us. And with only one established power to keep control…well, here we are. I may be one of the greatest mages alive, but I’m one person, and even with all the talent on my faculty, I can’t match the pressure and oversight of civilization itself. And I’ve finally come to realize my mistake.”

Again, she bared her teeth, but this time the expression was more familiar—not quite her customary wolfish grin, but something closely akin to it.

“Worrying about being pressured by outside forces is valid, but in my worry I let myself forget something important. I am Arachne god damned Tellwyrn, and nobody tells me what to do.”

Cheers and applause erupted from many of the students; Chase let out a whoop, leaping upright and brandishing both fists in the air. The Last Rock residents and various guests in the audience looked around uncertainly at these displays, while Tellwyrn waited for quiet to descend again.

“And so, I’ve brought you all here to announce some changes,” she said, her tone suddenly brisk and matter-of-fact. “To begin with, this has always been called simply the University to the outside world. Those of you who are initiates of the institution understand the deeper reason for this, but it has always been something of a sticking point in academic spheres. There are many excellent schools out there, particularly in the Tiraan Empire and the neighboring Five Kingdoms, and a lot of those have expressed to me irritation at the implied claim that this University alone deserves the name.” Again, she grinned. “To be frank, that’s exactly what I meant to express…but that’s also one of the actions I have come to repent. Brazen egotism signifies neither real power nor respect. As such, I feel it’s time to cede some of our claim to exceptionalism in the name of acknowledging the help to which we owe much of our continuing success. Beginning immediately…or, well, I guess beginning once I’ve managed to get new stationary printed up, this school will style itself to the world at large as the University of Last Rock.”

More cheers interrupted her, this time from the townspeople in the audience, and these even more exuberant than the students before them. Upon the dais, Taft and Sanders grinned broadly, while Cleese beamed with cherubic self-satisfaction.

Tellwyrn smiled benignly down at the crowd, allowing them to carry on without interruption until they subsided in their own time.

“That is but the first and least of the changes upon us. Much more importantly, I’m here to announce a massive expansion to the campus. In most of the civilized world, institutions of higher academia serve multiple purposes where this one has till now served only one. This oversight will now be corrected. You have all noticed the presence of many highly esteemed guests, whom I brought here yesterday and whose purpose for being here I’m sure you’ve been wondering about. Let me just add, here, that I greatly appreciate everyone’s patience—in particular that of those whom I lifted from their normal lives to come out here and assist me. I’m finally able to explain my purpose to all who are not yet in the know.

“This will now be a research University as well as a school, as many universities are. I will provide facilities, resources and funding for the advancement of knowledge itself. Those whose proposals are accepted will be supported in their study of…” She smiled, and spread her hands broadly. “Whatever. You see, we are somewhat uniquely positioned, out here. I will not be party to research that I consider too dangerous to my students, or just morally unacceptable…but on this mountain, what I say goes, and I have rather different ideas about what’s dangerous and immoral than most societies, governments, and boards of trustees do. Somewhat more prosaically, I’m able to provide types of assistance that no other such institution can match. It will be possible for research to proceed here that simply cannot be done anywhere else. I have already listened to some very interesting proposals from some of you who were kind enough to join us, and anticipate hearing more.

“I should think the benefits of this will be obvious, to all concerned. Science will prosper, of course, that’s a given. The student body will have access to connections which greatly increase their career prospects after graduation—and, conversely, the objects of those connections will have access to some of the world’s greatest up-and-coming talent. The town of Last Rock itself is likely to suffer some growing pains, in the process of being suddenly elevated from a provincial backwater to a worldwide hub of academia, but the upsides to that should require no explanation.

“However,” she carried on, her expression sobering again, “we will be doing things a little bit differently here at Last Rock. I will be taking applications for research fellowships not from individuals, but from organizations. Any which I feel deserve representation here—major cults, national governments, extra-governmental agencies, perhaps even other schools. That will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Second, there will be a finite number of projects running at one time; space will not be limitless, even with the expansions to the campus that I intend, and I’m not going to just throw money at every hare-brained scheme that crosses my desk. Research fellows will have to work together, to support one another, to earn favors in order to be supported in turn.”

She paused again, panning her stare over the now-muttering assembly.

“Which brings me to the most important issue, and the answer to some questions many of you have been pondering. I’m not going to deny anyone a chance to participate. You may have seen that we have been graced by a representative from the Universal Church of the Pantheon—an organization which launched an unprovoked and mean-spirited smear campaign against this very school not long ago. We have a guest from the Magocracy of Syralon, whose famed disdain for the squabbles of the outside world I frankly empathize with. Elder Sheyann is among us, representing her grove—and while the elven groves have made themselves synonymous with reclusiveness for thousands of years, if they wish to participate, I will not deny them. And, of course, there is Mr. Mogul, behind me.” She half turned to nod at him, and he tipped his hat in reply, grinning. “The leader of the Black Wreath. I’m certain I don’t need to explain to anyone why his polite and public participation in an event such as this is entirely unprecedented. But he is as welcome a guest here as anyone. As is the Wreath itself, even despite my recent personal grievance with its patron goddess.”

This time, the muttering began slowly growing instead of dying down, until Tellwyrn raised her voice and bulled on, forcibly overriding it.

“The rules which will matter here are my rules. All delegates and research fellows will respect the campus, the students, the town, and one another. The only organizations which will be excluded will be as punishment for violating my terms here—and that exclusion will last for whatever period I deem an appropriate consequence for the infraction. The only specific stipulations laid upon any represented organization will be whatever is necessary for the protection of my students. For example, Mr. Mogul and the Wreath have already been informed which members of the student body they are under no circumstances to go near. As of this moment, I am declaring Last Rock and this University worldwide, universal neutral ground. You may come here and be safe, participate in the advancement of knowledge, and interact with whatever enemies, allies, or neutral parties your nation or faith acknowledges freely and openly. Your actions will reflect on whatever order sends you as a delegate; your misbehavior will result in that order’s removal from the premises. Every nation, every cult, every other group who deserves a chance will be able to send a voice to the University of Last Rock and be met as equals, to benefit from the exchanges which will take place here. Or.” Slowly, she raised one eyebrow, staring down at the assembled over the rims of the spectacles. “Be denied the opportunity, while everyone else comes together without them.

“I can say without undue arrogance that this is the only place where such an offer can be made, and I the only person who can make it. We are nominally within the territory of the Tiraan Empire, here, but I can assure you that the Silver Throne will have exactly as much of a voice in this as everyone else—no more, and no less. And I can say that loudly and in public in the absolute confidence that there is not one damn thing the Emperor can do about it. If my rules are not honored, I am fully able to punish any nation or order on this planet for its temerity. There will be peace, cooperation, reason, science, and progress, or I’ll kick whatever ass I have to to make that happen. I am Arachne Tellwyrn, and I have spoken.”

She had to pause for a while, as the students all exploded in cheering, backed by exuberant applause from the Last Rock citizens and a good few of the other invited guests. Eventually, Tellwyrn held up her hands for quiet, which gradually descended.

“We all have a long way to go together, and I’m eager to get started, but I must first make a more specific and personal addition. To the little ne’er-do-well who has come to be called the Sleeper.” She stepped back behind the lectern, placed both hands on it, and drummed her fingers, scowling. “You are, obviously, done at this school… But I’m going to make you one last offer of leniency in the name of the greater good. If you come to me, in person, confess what you did and explain how to cure those of your fellow students you cursed, I will see to it that you’re protected and sent somewhere that you’ll not suffer punishment for your actions. That is the final protection I am willing to extend, and you will need it. Because as of this moment, the hounds are unleashed upon you. This campus is no longer an isolated school for adventurers, but a global center of science and diplomacy in its nascent form. Yes, we have barely begun the process of that evolution, but already the representatives present have begun to take advantage. I’m aware of the beginnings of two international treaties that are already being brokered just by the people here, thanks to my having brought them together, and that trend will only continue. Last Rock will grow ever more important to the kings and popes of the world, and gathered here will be their best and brightest—and most dangerous.”

She leaned forward over the lectern, glaring down at them all. “You had better take my offer, kid, because here’s the one I’m making to everyone else: whoever catches the Sleeper, gets him. I can think of countless uses most of the institutions represented here might have for a young warlock gifted personally by Elilial herself—which means that even those who have no need for such a creature could gain a lot of leverage from those who specifically do. Queen Arkasia of Tar’naris, for example, has already offered me a staggering bounty for the individual who dared assault two of her diplomats unprovoked; I have not replied to her yet, but Matriarch Ashaele has my blessing to extend that offer to whoever else finds themselves in a place to redeem it. You had all best behave yourselves and cause no untoward harm to my students, but any measure you can bring to bear to identify and pacify the Sleeper will be rewarded by me, both in immediate remuneration and in consideration for your order’s future privileges on this campus.”

Tellwyrn paused, drummed her fingers once again, then sighed.

“I don’t know which of you would actually do all this. I really don’t. It pains me to imagine any of you being so…pointlessly malicious, but more importantly, so unutterably idiotic. Obviously, I failed you badly in some regard. But you’ve made your own choices, and you will now experience the consequences for them. This is the last chance you’ll have to soften the blow. I suggest you take it.

“And with regard to our shared future.” She sighed again, and then a smile began to spread slowly across her face. “The planet doesn’t yet know, but it changed today. The University is joining the world, and it had better be ready. Because we are.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                 Next Chapter >

 

12 – 61

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                 Next Chapter >

“I promise to explain everything,” Milanda said a little nervously. Her practiced self-possession was ample to suppress such displays of emotion, but she was in the habit of relaxing her guard when alone with Sharidan—and after the last few days, in which she’d not only not seen him but worried constantly for his safety in the back of her mind, it was an absolute relief to let him see her feeling nervous. “In fact, I’ll undoubtedly have help explaining everything. But…you’ll probably feel the need to spout a thousand questions immediately. Please just trust me, we’ll get there.”

“I will do my best not to act the fool,” he said with a playful little smirk, draping an arm around her waist. She sighed softly, leaning into him. After returning him to the Palace last night she’d had to come back down here and oversee the changes she was about to reveal; they’d had no real time together. By tonight they were both likely to be exhausted. But very soon, he was going to find himself vigorously jumped upon. As if he sensed her line of thought, his smile took on a more roguish note and he shifted his hand to briefly squeeze her rump. “You’ve already broadly outlined the situation. Unless there’s something else I should urgently know before meeting everyone?”

“No…I think you have what’s needed not to be taken by surprise.” The elevator door slid open, revealing the short mithril hallway to the door of the spaceport itself, and she took a deep breath, deliberately settling her expression back to neutrality, before stepping out. “Just…brace yourself.”

“I am never anything but braced, my dear,” he said, and his jocular tone was that of the Emperor, the man eternally in command of himself and his surroundings. It was distinct from the jocular tone of her lover, and at the moment, she appreciated the change. It was the Emperor she needed now.

Milanda stepped forward once more and touched the inner door. It slid smoothly open, and despite her warning, the Emperor froze, blinking in astonishment.

Warm air wafted out of the doorway, accompanied by the sounds of birdsong, chirping insects, and moving water. Milanda paused to smile up at Sharidan before stepping aside, bowing and gesturing him through.

He entered slowly, taking his time to study everything. The mithril was still there, forming the walls, and the basic layout of the short, straight hallway had not changed, but that was all that revealed this was the same place. Now, the floor of the hall had been coated in an undulating mixture of stone and dirt, both decorated by moss, with thick stepping stones forming a path down the center. Just inside the door, a tiny stream chuckled across the hallway, emerging from and then vanishing into small metal devices protruding from the walls on either side. The light, far from the cold purity with which the place had been lit before, was a dappled pattern of golden sunlight, shifting with the movement of trees and branches.

There were indeed, amazingly enough, trees. Small ones, and placed only against the walls so they did not block the view; their branches stretched across the hall above head height, adding decoration without obstruction—though some of the vines and veils of hanging moss did impede the sightline somewhat.

Sharidan paced carefully forward, Milanda on his heels, peering this way and that. The whole ceiling, above the fronds, was apparently a viewscreen, now showing a lightly-clouded morning sky, complete with a sun. All the cells were open, and arranged with a mixture of plants and furniture.

He paused before the cell which for decades had contained the Dark Walker. It was now a tiny grove, with a mimosa tree—or a quarter of one, at least—sprouting in one corner and dipping its fronds over the space. A stone fountain rose from the center, with matching stone benches along two walls and lining the third, a bookcase in the elven style, laden with volumes made from materials which would withstand all the moisture. They were in modern Tanglish, but none were books which had been read on this planet in thousands of years.

“Fabricators,” Milanda mused, drawing the Emperor’s attention. “It takes a lot of power to produce this much material, especially with so much of it being living. But apparently the whole complex is rigged with them. It seems it was fairly simple to set up a—”

“Hiyeeee!” A pink-haired figure skipped into view around the corner up ahead, waving exuberantly even as she scampered forward and launched herself onto the Emperor in a flying hug. “Sharidan! Hi hi hi! We missed you!”

“Mimosa!” he replied, squeezing her back before holding her at arm’s length by the shoulders. “Why, look at you! I like it, you look very sharp.”

“Don’t I, though?” she simpered. “I mean, it’s a little uncomfortable and I’m starting to get tired of it but dang am I pretty! Akane says it’s called a kimono, and apparently there are a lot of rules about wearing them.” Her expression suddenly fell into a scowl. “She’s all about rules. I guess you’ll find out pretty soon. Oh, and by the way, I told you my name is Tris’sini, now.”

“Oh?” He tickled her lightly under the chin, grinning, and Milanda allowed herself a small sigh. “I’m sorry, pet, I thought you were joking about that. You do realize there’s a paladin with that name, right?”

“What?” She gaped at him in disbelief. “A paladin? But…but that’s someone famous! I can’t go around calling myself…oh, pooh.” The dryad stomped a foot childishly. “How come nobody tells me anything? Milanda, you knew about this, didn’t you?”

The newly-decorated erstwhile cells had the doors open in their transparent barriers, but the barriers themselves were otherwise intact, and one now lit up with the figure of a bald man formed of purple light.

“In all fairness, Mimosa, everyone has been very distracted by the events going on. I’m certain nobody intended to keep you in the dark. Your Majesty.” Shifting his visage to face the Emperor, he bowed politely. “It is a pleasure to see you as always—and a relief, this time in particular, to find you in good health.”

“Thank you, Avatar, it’s something of a relief to be in good health,” Sharidan replied, nodding in return. “And it seems a welcome back is in order for you, as well. I like what you’ve done with the place. I never realized before now how dead it all felt as it was.”

“It was really dead,” Mimosa agreed, nodding.

“Thank you, your Majesty, but I cannot take credit for the décor. The current design was crafted to suit dryad sensibilities, as it seems this will be their home for some time to come.”

“And dryad sensibilities are a bit of an issue, when there are three of them to consider,” Milanda added wryly. “Don’t get attached to the scenery. Something tells me it’s going to be different every time you visit, depending on who comes out on top on a given day.”

“Ugh, tell me about it,” Mimosa agreed, rolling her arms. “Those two. No taste at all! Hawthorn wanted it to snow. Can you imagine?”

“I can barely imagine what I’m seeing now,” the Emperor said frankly. “Can you make it snow?”

“Apparently!”

“Hey!” Another head appeared around the corner, this one crowned in patchy green and white, and wearing a scowl. “You lot about done chattering back there? There’s some kind of meeting you’re apparently late for, and believe me, this one doesn’t need to get any grumpier. She’s no fun as it is.”

“Indeed,” Milanda said more smoothly, tucking her hand into the Emperor’s arm, “everyone will be delighted to see you back safe and sound, but we have a very important guest who should not be kept waiting.”

“You are quite right, my dear,” he replied. “On to the little world, then?”

“Actually, no,” she said. “The other way at the turn. I’m afraid you won’t be able to visit the little world anymore.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah!” Mimosa said cheerfully. “That’s how come we made this place dryad-friendly, everybody had to get moved around cos—”

“A-hem!” Hawthorne barked.

“We’re coming, Hawthorn,” Milanda said with amusement. Sharidan ruffled Mimosa’s hair affectionately as he stepped past her, eliciting a girlish squeal.

Hawthorn waited until they nearly reached her, then turned on her heel and flounced back around the corner into the security hub. Sharidan paused at the intersection, glancing back at the teleporter with an eyebrow raised, before turning to examine the new doorway—which had been a blank wall every time he had been here before. The teleporter itself was unchanged, though climbing vines now decorated the walls all around it, but the other door had been framed by stone columns which looked ancient and worn, despite being only a few hours old.

Even Milanda had to gaze around appreciatively as they entered the hub. It had been cleaned up, of course, all the clutter strewn about its floor packed away, but that was only the beginning. Every wall which was not a viewscreen had been coated in intricately carved stone, with the screens active to show a panoramic view of the surroundings of Tiraas itself, as if this room now hovered high above the center of the city. To the upper walkway circling the room had been added stone columns and a low, sloping roof with tiles in the Sifanese style; the floor in the main area was divided into paths and sections of gently undulating grass, themselves laid out with either stone garden furniture or raised beds in which beautiful profusions of flowers thrived.

The computer screens in the center were as before, but their housing had been decorated to resemble a temple altar, crafted from intricately carved white marble. Even the chairs had been replaced; the new ones hovered, rather than rolling, and were each positioned in front of one screen instead of tossed about chaotically, their design a simple wooden style adorned with red silken cushions. Of the clutter which had bedecked the room, all that remained was the katzil’s suspension tank, itself now banded in carved and whitewashed wood upon which flowering vines clambered, making the whole thing resemble an arbor with a frozen demon sleeping in its center.

The ceiling itself was a screen, it seemed. The view of the sky was uninterrupted and fully realistic; there was even a light breeze. Had she not known how far underground they were, and seen this technology before, Milanda would have firmly believed this to be an outdoor space.

Apple was sitting off to the side in one of the new chairs, giggling to herself and spinning in circles, but after a quick glance in her direction, Milanda and the Emperor fixed their attention upon the figure standing in the center of the path ahead, just in front of the main computer station. They both bowed politely.

She was surprised when Akane bowed back, but apparently an Emperor was a thing which demanded certain courtesies, even from an ancient demigoddess.

“And you must be Akane-sama,” Sharidan said. “I am deeply grateful for the aid you have given Tiraas in our time of need. Sifan is truly a beneficent and most cherished ally of the Silver Throne.”

“I am pleased to have been of assistance, your Majesty,” she replied, smiling politely, “and have quite enjoyed my time here. I do not, however, speak for the Queen, or for my sisters. It pleases me that you regard our homeland so warmly, but in this matter, I represent only myself.”

“I assure you, our regard for your country is in no way diminished by that consideration,” he said, “but I thank you for the clarification. That being the case, my gratitude to you, in particular.”

“Okay, okay,” Apple said, listing dizzily in her seat and bracing one foot against the floor. “You people and your manners. Don’t we have actual stuff to talk about?”

“Apple,” Akane said simply, not even glancing at her. One of her pointed ears swiveled in the dryad’s direction, however, and Apple actually cringed, scooting her floating chair a few feet further away from the kitsune.

“You see what I mean?” Mimosa muttered from behind them.

Milanda cleared her throat and stepped forward. “I see no harm in exchanging courtesies, but why don’t we involve everyone who has a stake in this conversation? Avatar, if you would?”

One of the computer panels, untouched, swung outward upon unseen hinges and extended itself, till it resembled a free-standing floor-length window. The purple image of Avatar 01 appeared within, bowing first to Sharidan and then to Akane.

“Gladly. Welcome to the new center of administration for the system governing the Hands of the Emperor, your Majesty. I am certain you must have many questions. We shall, of course, endeavor to explain everything to your satisfaction.”

“To begin with,” Akane said smoothly, “you have already noticed there has been a…shuffling of living quarters.”

“Quite,” Sharidan agreed. “I understand this facility is actually the natural habitat of the Avatar. It had been my impression that he couldn’t be removed from the dryads’ little planet without shutting down the whole system, however.”

“Your impression was correct, your Majesty. And indeed, we were forced to temporarily deactivate the system in order to reboot it, and add some protections to prevent another incursion like the one it recently suffered. My restoration to the central systems of the facility enabled us to keep those to a minimum; with a functioning Avatar governing the computers, any attempt to hack into our system will be summarily rebuffed. I must acknowledge that some components of the previous iteration of this system were features I designed at least in part to limit the ambitions of its human components—including my own isolation and inability to make…improvements.”

“I definitely see the point in that,” the Emperor mused. “If improvements were possible, my mother would never have given you a moment’s peace.”

“Indeed, I observed that her Majesty could be quite persuasive. It seemed most prudent in the short term to orchestrate a state of affairs in which her persuasion was irrelevant, to be possibly revisited with a future heir.” The purple man in the window smiled disarmingly. “And thus, here we are.”

“Girls, do not hover in the door,” Akane said firmly. “This discussion concerns you as well. All the way in, please. Your Majesty,” she continued, turning to Sharidan, “the Avatar raises a pertinent point. We have re-started your Hand system almost entirely as it was, or as close to its previous state as we could arrange. Its somewhat organic nature meant a precise copy was not possible, but the difference should be negligible. The only significant alteration we have made, aside from re-shuffling the living quarters here, has been to build in the possibility of further alterations—if all relevant parties are agreed that they are necessary. And with that, we should include the other individual who shall have a say. Avatar?”

“Activating the link now,” he replied, and indeed another computer screen swung forward and expanded. A moment later, its transparency solidified into an image that appeared to be outdoors upon a sunny hill, with a lean figure dressed in black in the center of the frame.

She had been half-turned, staring into the distance, but upon the screen’s activation shifted her attention to it. Something about being displayed on a viewscreen highlighted the unnatural look of her, the heavily stylized shape of her features. Pictured thus, she actually looked more like a moving doll than a person.

The Emperor took one step forward, his attention fixed on the screen. “Ah…at last. I understand from Milanda that I have you to thank for a great deal of her success here…Walker.”

“Your Majesty,” she said, sketching a sardonic little bow. “I understand from Milanda that you firmly instructed her to keep me in that cell. I hope you are not too disappointed.”

“I never imagined I would one day find myself saying this,” he replied, “but I’m very glad to see you well. It always bothered me, having to see you confined in that tiny space.”

“It bothered him,” Hawthorn muttered scornfully. Mimosa shushed her frantically even as Akane shot a flat look in their direction.

“I believe you,” Walker said simply, her porcelain face impassive.

The Emperor tilted his head slightly. “If I may ask…where are you?”

“Where do you think I am?” she asked mildly, amusement entering her tone.

“Walker,” Milanda said reproachfully, “there’s no need to be obstreperous.”

“Need, no. It’s not as if I have so very many ways to amuse myself.”

“You have the entire catalog of information and entertainment archived in the Order’s files, Yrsa,” Akane retorted. “Don’t be needlessly difficult. And don’t worry, your Majesty, we have definitely not released her into the world. Yrsa’s condition is no fault of her own, but it means that for the safety of all people and living things, she must be contained. We simply found a kinder prison for her.”

“…the dryads’ world,” he said slowly, studying the screen in which Walker was displayed and prompting a grin from her. It was barely apparent, due to the narrow field of view and the fact that half of it was taken up by the metal construction of the nexus, but the horizon behind her was strongly curved, as if she stood atop a hill…or upon a very tiny planet.

“The teleporter has new security measures installed,” Milanda said, nodding. “She can’t come through it, obviously. The only people who can are those with protection from her death field effect.”

“Her sisters!” Apple said brightly, waving at Walker.

“And the Hands,” Akane added with a little smile, “and Milanda. She has access to the machines and database, she has the possibility of visitors now. And she has an entire world of her own upon which to roam, albeit a small one. With its installed fabricators, her ability to alter the landscape is nearly limitless.”

“Which is how come we got to re-do the halls up here,” Mimosa said. “It’s a little more cramped, but they’re opening up some of the rooms for us to explore and the fabricator thingies can make it nice and natural, so this isn’t so bad! We can still visit our little world, but honestly Walker needs it a lot more than us.”

“I was getting tired of it anyhow,” Hawthorn said dismissively.

“As prisons go,” Walker said, now smiling widely, “it barely even is one. This is a happier ending for me than I could have asked for.”

“It’s hardly an ending,” Milanda replied, grinning back.

“Indeed,” Akane said more solemnly. “Your Majesty, there is one more thing to bring up before we discuss the future. While resetting the system, we neutralized an intrusive feature which had been activated ten years ago.”

“Records show conclusively that this was done remotely,” the Avatar added, “from Fabrication Plant One, which now lies off the coast of a modern city Milanda identified as Puna Dara.”

Sharidan’s eyes narrowed. “Oh? What sort of intrusive feature?”

“It piggy-backed upon the energy field governing the Hands to suffuse the residential wing of the Imperial Palace above with the diffuse essence of an engineered plant called silphium.”

“Sylphreed, in more recent parlance,” Akane added.

The Avatar nodded. “It was named for a plant known to have existed on Earth, the world of the Infinite Order’s origin and humanity’s, which was recorded but had been consumed into extinction long before space flight or biological engineering were developed. The plant was an effective contraceptive, and it was for this purpose that the Order created modern silphium. It is a transcension-active lifeform, making it particularly useful for the purpose of this invasion. Its essence was quite amenable to diffusion through a non-physical medium in this way.”

“This intrusion,” the Emperor said quietly, his face having gone blank, “caused the infertility of every woman in the Palace?”

“That would be its effect, yes. Access to the fabrication plant has since been blocked, and there are no further records—and none which identify the perpetrator, except that they logged into the system under Scyllith’s identification. Akane assures me that her personal involvement in this is highly unlikely.”

“Entirely impossible,” Akane scoffed. “Scyllith could be subtle, but we know very well how constrained the remaining Elder Gods are by their condition, and what the Pantheon did to the phenomenon of ascension itself. Either of them taking personal action would be noticed. Scyllith does, however, have a substantial cult of her own, and it would perhaps be naive to assume they are as effectively barred from the surface as Themynra’s drow would have us believe.”

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this,” Sharidan said quietly, frowning.

“It was the least we could do,” the kitsune replied with a polite little smile. “Frankly, to leave such an obvious assault upon Tiraas in place would have been an overtly aggressive act. Bearing you no ill will, we could hardly have done such a thing.”

“I’m afraid investigating it will be up to us, now,” Milanda added. “Though even finding an old Infinite Order facility in Puna Dara will be…well, difficult, to put it mildly.”

“Obviously it’s accessible,” Walker said, shrugging. “Or was ten years ago.”

“So…the effect is over, then?” Sharidan asked, directing himself to the Avatar. “There will be no more infertility?”

“I’m afraid the effects will linger upon all who were subjected to it,” the Avatar said apologetically. “Any woman resident in that part of the Palace will find it difficult if not impossible to conceive for at least another year. There should be no lingering health effects apart from that; even if one happened to have a silphium allergy, the nature of this diffusion would not trigger it. Normal fertility will restore itself over time.”

“In the meantime,” Akane said, her tail twitching once, “we have the present, and the future, to discuss.”

“Indeed,” the Emperor replied, turning to her with a respectful nod. “It seems odd, at this juncture, to speak of trust—you have assuredly proved your goodwill, Akane-sama. These are, however, some of the most central and precious secrets of the Empire.”

“In fact,” the kitsune said with a vulpine smile, “secrets of a most…particular nature. As we have seen, the Hand system is close to the core of Tiraan government, but not essential to it. If the Hands are corrupted, great danger and disruption ensues—but if they are shut off, the Empire will not fall, nor suffer unduly, as evidenced by your instruction to Milanda to destroy the system if she could not repair it. Our improvements should make it impossible for a repeat of this incident to occur; we shall not have to worry about further corruption. And the prospect of terminating the system would only deny the Silver Throne one of its favorite assets, without threatening the integrity of the Throne itself.”

“Is there a particular reason,” Sharidan asked lightly, “we should consider the possibility of the system being terminated?”

Milanda drew in a deep breath. “I set her on this line of thinking, your Majesty. It was necessary to gain her help…and her trust. Anyone who can shut off the Hands has power—not to destroy the Throne, but to ensure that its occupant must listen to them. And…in all honesty, I would not have done this if I thought that an unacceptable compromise. But I believe, honestly believe, that having an outside power who can command the Throne’s attention at need is good for it.”

“I don’t know much about your style of governance, obviously,” Walker interjected, “but when it’s come up, I keep hearing one theme over and over. Milanda may be biased, but she thinks you are a very good Emperor.”

“That is gratifying to hear,” he said, smiling at Milanda and taking her hand.

“But,” Walker continued, “you’re only one Emperor. There will be another after you, and another after that. And they aren’t all going to be good ones. There was that braying jackass who caused the Enchanter Wars, for example.”

“I hesitate to delineate rulers into such simplistic categories as ‘good’ and ‘bad,’” the Avatar added, “but the point stands: a country will have many governments in the course of its existence, and their various incarnations are not equal. I have already demonstrated, I believe, that you are best related to in an entirely different manner than your own mother, your Majesty.”

“If I may?” Sharidan held up a hand. “You don’t need to persuade me. In point of fact, I find this line of thought reassuring. Especially since we do not yet know who will take the Throne after me. The question I have is the nature of the power you propose to wield over the Throne. Who shall have it, and what they plan to do with it.”

“In short,” Akane said pleasantly, “those of us you see here. And to answer your other question…that remains to be seen. For now, upon reviewing your foreign policies, I find nothing so objectionable that I feel the need to exert influence upon Tiraas. In the future, though…who knows?”

“We have, in essence, created an informal council,” said the Avatar almost apologetically. “Those here are codified into the system, either as individuals or as offices which can be occupied by other individuals in the future. The occupant of the Silver Throne, obviously. Myself, by necessity. Walker, as an outsider bound by this facility but not beholden to Tiraas, and well acquainted with the systems here. Akane-sama, or another kitsune she designates, should she decide to do so. The three dryads present. And finally, this has required that we make Milanda’s position a permanent feature of the system—a Hand of the Emperor, in effect, but not bound to the same network as the others. One less constrained.”

“I like it,” he said, smiling at her again, and squeezing her hand. “You know, I find I like this idea a great deal. The…Left Hand of the Emperor.”

“That was easier to work into the system,” Akane said offhandedly, “because, unfortunately, we lost one in the reboot process. I apologize, your Majesty, but I could not find a way around it. One of the nodes in the network was isolated behind some kind of barrier—something arcane in nature, but fiendishly complicated and whose origins and structure I couldn’t analyze.”

“I see,” Sharidan said, frowning. “When you say lost…”

“I cannot be sure what that means, exactly,” she admitted. “He might now be separate from the system, as Milanda is, either with or without powers. It’s more likely, I think, that the reboot simply killed him. I’m sorry; I tried to reconnect him to the system, but whatever he’s behind warps space and time itself. I couldn’t penetrate it while restoring the entire network.”

“Thank you for letting me know,” he said gravely. “I’m already in the process of calling roll, as it were, but with so many of my Hands scattered across the Empire, that will take time. Now I at least know not to panic if one fails to answer.”

“With regard to our future,” the kitsune continued, “I do have a few considerations upon which I must insist, concerning your continued access to this facility. We are opening more of it, simply because the currently opened parts are not very spacious, considering they will have to serve as the residence of three of my youngest sisters. However, this will be done slowly, piecemeal, and with great care, and I intend to clear anything dangerous we discover into storage and use the space as only that: space. The fabricators will serve to support the facility here, and that is all. I have already had the Avatar seal off the teleportation array, since you have mages to fulfill that need anyway. There shall be no dissemination of Infinite Order technology into the world above. Pursuant to which,” she added, directing her stare at Milanda, “I believe I overheard that Lord Vex is currently in possession of an Order communication earpiece. That will be retrieved and stored.”

“May I ask why you are so adamant about this, Akane-sama?” Sharidan inquired. “Milanda has told me only the very basics, but it seems the world could learn a great deal from the information stored here, if not the technology itself. And after all, isn’t this the legacy of humankind? Don’t people have a right to this knowledge?”

It was Walker who answered him. “In eight thousand years, you have made less progress than your ancestors on Earth did in half that time—and that is not necessarily a bad thing. By the time the Infinite Order left Earth, the planet was practically in ruins. Its climate thrown into chaos, nearly eighty percent of its native life forms extinct, all caused by the reckless use of technology. Cities abandoned, sunk beneath the ocean, reduced to rubble by fighting over the few remaining resources—”

“Yes, it was a great big mess,” Hawthorn said impatiently. “Walker, you’re drifting into a monologue again. We talked about this, remember?”

“She loves to explain things,” Apple added to the Emperor in a stage whisper. “Get her going and we could be here all day.”

“The point is,” Walker said with some irritation, “it was an open question among the Order whether humanity could be trusted with its own technology. They never came to a conclusion—though, in fairness, they had ceased discussing such matters long before they were brought down. Points could be made either way. For my part, I support Akane’s decision. The fact that your relatively primitive society hasn’t utterly destroyed itself shows you are already better off than your ancestors.”

“There also is the fact,” the Avatar added, “that the technology being developed now is based upon transcension fields, which necessarily limits it to this world, as well as directly involving ascended beings who can serve as a further check upon the human race’s self-destructive impulses.”

“I see,” the Emperor said quietly.

“Beyond that,” Akane said, smiling languidly, “I’m sure we can discuss any future changes you wish to make—and any concerns the rest of us may have. For now, I’m sure you are eager to return to the running of your Empire. I, for my part, wish to spend some time re-acquainting myself with my sister—and becoming acquainted in the first place with my three new sisters. You may rest assured that my presence here will not in any way disrupt your government, or your life.”

“Yeah,” Hawthorn said challengingly, as the other two dryads clustered next to her, “we’ve decided we’ve hidden away down here long enough. Now that we have all these resources, we’re gonna get ourselves educated.”

“Quite so,” Akane said beatifically. “They are wild spirits, but I have already grown very fond of them. Soon enough I can teach them—”

“Whoah, no, you don’t,” Hawthorn said grimly.

The kitsune slowly turned to face her, one ear twitching. “…I beg your pardon, Hawthorn?”

“Now, that’s not actually a ‘no,’” Apple said hastily. “I really do want to learn about your culture and stuff. I mean, it’s Mother’s culture, and let’s face it, she’s not gonna teach us anything. But not just that.”

“Girls, believe me, I know what’s best for you,” Akane stated. “In time, you will appreciate—”

“In time,” Hawthorn snapped, “after nobody but you has had a say in our education, we’ll think and do whatever you decide is right. Yeah, that’s not happening.”

“Walker’s gonna show us stuff from the files!” Mimosa said brightly. “History and knowledge and…uh, lore, and stuff! They’ve got everything in these machines!”

“Plus,” Apple added, “Sharidan, could you send us…books? Things from Tiraas? We’d like to learn about the world as it is now, too.”

“Why, I would be only too glad to, my dear,” he said gallantly. “I’ll get to work on starting a library for you right away. In fact…how would you girls like some newspaper subscriptions?”

“Oh, we’d love that!” Mimosa bubbled. “That sounds awesome! What’s a newspaper?”

Akane, meanwhile, had spun to face the screen, her ears flattening backward. “Yrsa.”

“You’ve always been so clever, Akane,” Walker said in a fond tone. “And you have always failed to consider that other people might be, too. I’m so glad to see you again, and have you around. I really do love you, y’know? But they’re my sisters, too.”

“Surely,” Akane said in a more careful tone, “you realize that letting them get into the archives willy-nilly—”

“And also,” Walker continued, still smiling, “no, I will not be helping you gain majority control of this little council, sister. Milanda is my friend. And in fact, I think well of Sharidan, there, too. He tried to be as kind to me as he could—me, the horrible death monster he was forced to keep in a cell. That tells me what I need to know about him.”

Milanda cleared her throat. “This does not mean we value your contributions one whit less, Akane-sama. In fact, if you are amenable, there is a great deal I would love to learn from you, myself.”

The kitsune stared at her through narrowed eyes, then shifted to rapidly peer at Walker and the dryads in succession.

“There, see?” Mimosa said, wearing a dopey smile. “Everything worked out for the best!”

“Oh, everything isn’t worked out, just yet,” said the Emperor, again taking Milanda’s hand and giving it a gentle squeeze. “But I think we’ll find we can all work together.”

 

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                  Next Chapter >

12 – 60

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                 Next Chapter >

“I am not in the habit of divulging anybody’s personal business to anybody else,” Professor Tellwyrn began as soon as she settled herself behind her desk, “a fact for which several of you have abundant cause to be personally grateful. I am, in this one case, going to make an exception because the cat is pretty well out of the bag, and it’s better that those who saw it understand exactly what type of cat it was before the rumor starts flying that there’s a lion on campus.”

“Nice turn of phrase!”

“Shut up, Arquin. Since a classmate’s personal privacy is being abrogated here, I will have to insist that what I am about to tell you travels no further. If it does, the repercussions will be severe and indiscriminately applied to everyone present. And,” she added with rising asperity, “I would have thought all of this went without saying, but I can’t help noticing that this group is already larger than I expected.”

She paused to glare around her office, which in addition to the students who had been present in Last Rock for the Sleeper’s attack, now contained the entire population of the Wells and the sophomore class who remained un-cursed, as well as Scorn.

“Iris is our friend,” the Rhaazke said stidently, laying a heavy hand on Szith’s shoulder. “We care about her!”

Tellwyrn fixed a gimlet stare on her. “And in your mind, this entitles you to be involved in her personal business?”

“That, yes,” Scorn said with an emphatic nod.

Ruda cleared her throat. “So, Iris is a half-demon, right? I mean, that’d explain her being Sleeper-proof, not to mention her fixation on Gabe…”

“What?” Gabriel frowned at her. “Iris is hardly fixated on me. Where are you getting that from?”

“Arquin, you elevate cluelessness to a fucking art form.”

“Iris Domingue is not a half-demon!” Tellwyrn said loudly. “She comes from a respectable old Vernisite family from Thakar, with no traceable demon lineage on either side, and no evidence of demonic corruption that could explain her situation. She is simply, for reasons nobody understands, an infernal savant.”

There was a momentary pause while they all stared at her in varying degrees of confusion.

“So…wait,” Fross said at last. “I know what both those words mean and I can infer what they mean in connection with each other, but that can’t be right because it doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know you are all aware, by this point in your academic careers, of the basic nature of infernal magic,” Tellwyrn said, folding her hands atop her desk and regarding them over the rims of her spectacles. “Anyone can use it; the challenge for warlocks is in using it safely. Without the inherent protection granted by full-scale demonic mutation from having one’s entire lineage forged in Hell itself, the infernal is unfathomably dangerous and nearly impossible to control. A significant error can cause catastrophic, usually explosive destruction; even a minor error will cause the first stage of lifelong degenerative disease, with cancers being the most common, though they are not the totality or even the worst of it. Half-demons tend to have both a greater aptitude and a measure of protection, but neither is absolute even for them. And yes, I’m aware you have all heard this lecture before, but you’re hearing it again now, and will every time I find a reason to discuss infernal magic with my students. It is that dangerous.” She paused, and heaved a little sigh before continuing. “Iris Domingue, for whatever reason, can wield the infernal with perfect, intuitive control. Without understanding or even thinking about it, she uses it in such a way that she avoids corruption, either in the form of combustion or illness. And she can do things with it, despite knowing zero technique, that no warlock has even thought to try.”

Another silence descended, marked this time by expressions mostly of consternation.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Toby said at last.

“Nobody has, Mr. Caine,” Tellwyrn replied. “That is why I brought her here. It’s not widely known, because very few organizations are both positioned and invested in identifying and recruiting unusual young people—I haven’t been arrogant enough to assume this, but it’s possible I’m the only one who’s noticed. But within the last decade, roughly since the time the gods retreated and stopped calling paladins, individuals have begun popping up who can use magic in ways that aren’t exactly…normal. November Stark’s case is unusual, but not without precedent; there have occasionally been humans who can touch the divine unaided, just as there are occasionally drow who can wield the arcane. The prevailing theory is that it’s the natural state for all sapients to have access to all magic, and occasionally whatever force bars certain races from certain schools…misses a spot. More seriously, though… No, if there’s ever been a case like Iris before, I’ve never heard of it. And nobody who has studied her has the faintest clue what the cause is. Similarly, I have never heard of any fairy, much less a pixie, who can use arcane magic without simply exploding. Fross is, after all, the effective grandchild of an Elder God, but still. It’s never happened before. Something is up in the world.”

Teal let out a soft breath. “A great doom—”

“Don’t fucking say it!” Ruda groaned.

“So, um…” Gabriel frowned pensively. “Now you mention it, Professor, I know this is supposed to be a school for exceptional and dangerous people, but on reflection it occurs to me quite a few of our classmates seem pretty…normal. How many of these secret walking magical anomalies have we got on this campus?”

“Arquin, what did I just say about other people’s personal business?”

“Right. Sorry.”

“Anyway,” the Professor went on more briskly, “that’s the context. This meeting was convened because your classmate and friend has just had a traumatic experience, and needs support, not suspicion. It may be impossible to keep a lid on this; too many people from the town know she got cornered by the Sleeper, and others will wonder how she got away. It’s up to Iris to decide what she wants to tell anybody. It’s up to you lot to be there for her and back her up.”

“This we will do,” Szith said firmly.

“Aye,” Maureen agreed in a quieter tone. “Thank th’Light it wasn’t more traumatic, though. Way I understood it, she right whipped ‘is arse, an’ more power to ‘er.”

“There’s a lot more to trauma than being physically wounded,” Tellwyrn said gravely. “Consider Iris’s life up until now. She has refused to learn any infernomancy, which shows wisdom, but also has downsides. It’s that technique which makes the infernal useful for anything besides destruction; she cannot shadow-jump, become invisible, summon anything… With training, Iris would be the greatest warlock who ever lived. Without that training, she is a walking weapon comparable in scope to the Enchanter’s Bane. Her decision to eschew all infernal magic and immerse herself in the fae to suppress it is obviously in her best interests, and the world’s best interests. But there are people who care nothing for the interests of the world, and worse, people who care deeply and automatically conflate the world’s interests with their own agendas. The Black Wreath has been after her since before she could walk, and even those who protected her did so with the presumption of repayment. Iris has only grown to adulthood without being conscripted by one power or another because her parents are both bankers, which is the next best thing to aristocrats in terms of ruthless cunning. They’ve managed to play the Universal Church and Imperial Intelligence against each other for eighteen years, but that can’t last forever. I brought Iris here to give her four years to just…be a person. And more importantly, to develop the skills and the connections that will enable her to live her life without becoming anybody’s pawn.”

“We’ll help her,” Teal said quietly.

“Fuck yes!” Ruda agreed with much less restraint. “I don’t like to bust out my tiara, but the hell with it; anybody who tries to slap a collar on her is gonna have words with the Punaji nation about it.”

Toby cleared his throat. “I think we had better let Iris make decisions about her own life and back her up, rather than declaring our intentions unilaterally. Bad enough we’re having this discussion behind her back.”

“Gods, thank you, Toby,” Tellwyrn groaned. “The rest of you chucklefucks listen to him, for heaven’s sake.”

“Yeah, she’s right,” said Juniper. “Our job’s just to be friends. Wherever Iris decides that takes us.”

“So…what happens now?” Gabriel asked. “About the Sleeper? That warlock you brought in seemed to think he might have gotten killed…”

“He wasn’t,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “I’ve already verified the presence of every student on campus. None of them appear to have had their asses kicked in the Golden Sea, either, and to find that out in detail I would pretty much have to throw out any pretense of anyone having any privacy or personal security on this campus. For obvious reasons, I’m not willing to do that.”

“When’d you manage this?” Ruda demanded. “Cos you just got back and I know that weird new fuzzy assistant of yours didn’t check up on everybody and report in. He doesn’t even speak the language!”

“Crystal checked in on me earlier,” Toby reported.

Scorn grunted and curled her lip, baring fangs. “That tame incubus of hers was snooping around, too.”

“He’s neither tame nor mine, and don’t you forget either of those things,” Tellwyrn said irritably. “To answer your question, Arquin… What happens now is that you lot go back to your dorms and sleep. Those of you going to the Wells anyway take the time to hug your roommate, and the rest of you leave it be until you see her again normally. Tomorrow… Well, there are going to be some changes around here. Tomorrow will be a big day. You’ll want to be rested up and ready.”


Dawn, as always, was more a shift change than an awakening in the sleepless capital of the Empire. Most people who kept typical business hours were barely awake, much less contemplating breakfast yet, and the city as a whole was still early in the process of rising toward its usual frenetic pace. This was certainly not an hour when those who had been up till nearly midnight would be expected to be already at work, and yet, here they were.

The hour was all part of the pantomime. The Imperial family received their guest in one of the harem wing’s smaller formal parlors, no bigger than the average drawing room in a modestly well-to-do home, but deliberately laid out like a throne room, with a narrow strip along the wall opposite the door raised a single step and two chairs set upon it, with their backs to the windows. Sharidan and Eleanora sat in these, Milanda and Vex respectively standing at their sides. There was no other furniture, nothing for the person called before them to do but stand amid the heavy reminder of their respective stations.

Bishop Darling seemed perfectly calm and at ease, as he usually did, and was doing as well as they at presenting himself as though fully rested and alert. Doubtless he, like the Imperials, had been at the coffee. The stuff was starting to show up on the menus of tea rooms in the city, and rumblings had begun that it should be classified as a drug and regulated as such. Sharidan was considering it, if only to keep the drink out of general circulation and maximize the advantage of those who had access to it. Not that that would have helped today; Antonio Darling would have no trouble getting his hands on whatever he felt himself entitled to.

So far, no one had remarked upon the presence of the two black-coated Hands of the Emperor standing just inside the doors to the room, as impassively watchful as always, nor the fact that Milanda Darnassy was dressed in one of their uniforms, tailored to her figure.

“You are too modest, your Grace,” the Emperor said smoothly in a continuation of a back-and-forth of pleasantries which had now gone on long enough that it was verging on tediousness. “The fact remains that you are owed a great debt by the Silver Throne—you personally, and the Thieves’ Guild as a whole. I flatter myself that I am known to honor my debts.”

“It’s nothing more than the duty of a citizen to aid the Throne, should the opportunity present itself,” Darling said blandly. There came a momentary pause, the briefest hesitation in this practiced social ritual in which the next step was silently contemplated, and finally the Bishop chose to give ground by acknowledging ignorance—a slight concession, and one he was in a position to afford, but a concession nonetheless. “Your Majesty, I have to confess that I don’t understand more than a fraction of what transpired last night.”

Eleanora drummed her fingers once on the arm of her chair, giving Sharidan an expressionless sidelong look—a reminder that Darling wasn’t the only one in the dark on some points. The Emperor allowed himself a slight smile.

“I’m afraid this isn’t like a story in which everything is neatly explained in the end, your Grace. There are details we ourselves have not entirely sorted out—and of course, there are details we are not able to share with you. The entire matter, obviously, is enormously sensitive. That said, I didn’t call you here at this ungodly hour just to express my thanks. After the help you and your enforcers rendered, I want to explain as much as I am able. Even aside from my appreciation of your rescue…we both know some explanations are owed.”

“I wouldn’t presume to make any such demands,” the Bishop said with a bland smile. “But I would of course be glad to understand as much as possible of what I stumbled into.”

“The last part was the biggest mystery,” said the Emperor. “I was not expecting those…cultists. In truth, we still don’t know who they were. Apprehending their leader did us little good, I’m afraid; he killed himself via lethal injection, using a hypodermic syringe.”

A frown creased Darling’s serene expression. “Well, that certainly is…suggestive.”

“Lord Vex?” Sharidan prompted, turning to look past Eleanora at the spymaster.

Vex was the only person present who actually looked sleepy, but then, it was unusual for him to appear alert. He blinked languidly before speaking.

“We are not seriously entertaining the idea that the attackers were Black Wreath. The tactics were all wrong, the Wreath has no motive to have done such a thing, and this is hardly the first time someone has tried to pin the blame on them by donning silly robes before engaging in shenanigans. The syringe and shadow-jumpers were nice touches, more effort than we’re used to seeing at selling this old charade, but the facts stand. We know what the Wreath want, and we know how they fight. They don’t use necromancy, they do use infernomancy, they don’t meddle in politics unless there are demons involved, and there quite simply aren’t that many of them. Or if there are, they at least do not throw bodies at their problems.”

“All of us here,” Darling said quietly, “know of the Wreath’s attempt to meddle in politics. At the highest possible level.”

An absolute freeze descended momentarily. This was as touchy a subject as could possibly be raised in this particular company. Eleanora’s hands tightened on the arms of her chair.

“That wasn’t the Wreath,” Vex said mildly after a moment, “but their goddess. They are no more in control of her than any cult, and not alone in occasionally finding themselves stumbling over her trail. Most gods are more of a hassle to tidy up after than yours, Antonio. My man in Last Rock reports the Wreath is actually cleaning up one of her messes out there, or rather trying to help Tellwyrn do so.”

“The spider and the scorpion, meeting in the dark,” the Empress said frostily. “Someone’s getting stung, and I don’t much care which.” Sharidan grinned at her in open amusement, which she ignored.

His expression sobered as he turned back to the Bishop, however. “More to the point, your Grace, I owe an apology to you and yours. The truth is, you aided the Empire in good faith, you and the Guild, and we were less than honest with you from the beginning about our intentions. It all turned out as well as I could have hoped, and I certainly would not have agreed to such manipulation had it not been absolutely necessary. Still, I did not like having to deceive you, and I regret doing so—and not only because of the aid you subsequently rendered. You have the apology of the Throne, which I hope you will convey to Boss Tricks as well. We are doubly in your debt.”

“For my part, your Majesty, it’s all water under the bridge,” Darling said smoothly, putting on a magnanimous smile. “As Lord Vex himself pointed out to me yesterday, we’re all old hands at politics, here. These things have to be done, from time to time; there’s no use in taking anything personally.” He deliberately sobered his expression before continuing. “I feel I can say with relative certainty that the Boss will bear no grudge, either. However, with the greatest possible respect, I must remind your Majesty that the Thieves’ Guild is not a thing to be antagonized, particularly from atop a throne. At the core of Eserion’s faith is the command to watch the halls of power, and thwart their overreaches. You risk worsening your problems exponentially by playing the Guild for fools, and I may not always be able to intercede.”

“Well, that’s a little backward, isn’t it?” Sharidan spoke pleasantly, but he suddenly leaned forward, propping his arms on his knees; the change in his demeanor was abrupt and striking. “We’re glad, even eager, to make whatever amends we can for any offense taken by your cult, or anyone in it. But you, specifically, were the one tricked, Bishop Darling—that is, Sweet. And you are the one taking this tone with me now. Are you certain you wanna do that?”

Eleanora, Vex, and Milanda all shifted infinitesimally to stare at him, eyes widening by fractions despite their practiced reserve. This was not what they had discussed before the meeting.

Darling, too, was thrown off enough to cause the briefest hitch in his smooth presentation. “Your Majesty—”

“Okay, let’s cut the crap, shall we?” the Emperor suggested. “We’ll be here all morning at this rate. I don’t know about you, but I have an impossible number of things to do today and it looks like I’m already going to miss breakfast. You and I both know the score well enough to speak plainly.”

“Sharidan,” Eleanora said sharply.

“In addition to expressing my apology for this mess to your Boss,” the Emperor continued, “I’d take it as a personal kindness if you’d carry it to Lakshmi and Sanjay. And not on behalf of the Throne. I hate having abused their hospitality; those two were never anything but kind to me. It rankles, having to leave things like this.”

“I’ll tell her,” Darling said slowly, watching the Emperor with open wariness, now. He wasn’t the only one in the room doing so. “I have to warn you, though, Peepers probably doesn’t want to hear anything from you. Do…you want to let her know who you actually were?”

Sharidan sighed softly, and leaned back in his chair. “…no. No, best not; I can’t see anything but more trouble coming of that. I’m just someone who did her wrong, and regrets it. That’s how things will have to stand.”

“All right, well—”

“But with that aside, we were talking about us.” He actually shifted to lounge against one side of his chair and crossed his legs in a deliberately casual posture totally unlike his normal carriage before guests. Eleanora had returned her gaze forward, but Milanda was watching him with wide eyes. “Here’s the simple truth, Sweet: you are a pain in the ass. You’re everywhere, involved in the government, in the Church, in whatever your Guild is up to on a given day, and yet, nobody knows what it is you actually want. All we know is that you’re one of the Empire’s foremost experts on playing both ends against the middle, and you should know that by this stage in your illustrious career, everybody is getting tired of it. Now, I will gladly—humbly, even—offer my apologies and make amends to the Guild, for the sake of the necessary politics. To Lakshmi as a friend, as well, if such overtures won’t be immediately spat on. But you, Antonio Darling? I won’t do anything as pointless as suggest you pick a role and stick to it, but if you’re seriously going to have the face to stand here and complain about someone playing you false in this game…” Sharidan grinned broadly, the expression showing a lot of teeth and not reaching his eyes. “Blow me.”

The silence was absolute.

Darling cleared his throat discreetly, once he had recovered. “With greatest appreciation for the kindness of your Majesty’s offer, I must respectfully decline.”

The Emperor’s grin softened, becoming marginally more sincere. “Vex thinks you’re a true Eserite at heart. I realize we didn’t exactly spend much time bonding over the last few days, but I’m inclined to lean toward that conclusion myself, after watching you in action. As such, I realize you’re not inclined to trust anyone who sits on a throne for a living—as you yourself pointed out. Just keep in mind that there are powers in this world, and then there are powers, and you’d be wise to consider which of them rule just to rule, and which are trying to help people. There’s a limit to how long you can keep playing this game of yours, Sweet.”

“There are limits to everything, your Majesty,” the Bishop said pleasantly, his poise back in place. “Men like you and I are forced to push them as far as we humanly can. And let’s be honest: we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Sharidan heaved a sigh and straightened his posture. “There are a lot of things I wish could be other than they are… In any case. We thank you for accommodating us at this early hour, your Grace, especially after such an eventful night. Your assistance to the Throne is, as always, duly appreciated, and it is our hope that you will convey our sincere gratitude to the Thieves’ Guild as well.”

Long before the end of his speech, he had fully resumed the serenely regal bearing expected of an Emperor, and finished by inclining his head in a kingly gesture of dismissal.

Darling bowed deeply. “It is my honor to aid the Empire however I may, your Majesty. I’m certain the Guild will appreciate your overture. By your leave, then?”

“Go in good health, your Grace.”

Vex was drawing in breath for a heavy sigh before Darling was fully out of the room, and began speaking in a tone of strained patience the instant the doors had shut behind him. “Your Majesty—”

“Have you lost your mind?” Eleanora exclaimed.

“If anything, I’ve recently found it,” Sharidan said lightly, again relaxing into his chair. “You know what your problem is, Quentin?”

“I very much fear I am about to,” Vex said flatly.

The Emperor grinned at him. “In fairness, it’s not really a problem. You are so fixated on facts, on knowing all the details and angles, you tend to undervalue the squishier variables. People’s personalities, their passions, their hearts.”

“I assuredly do not neglect to consider individual character in my calculations, your Majesty,” Vex said with open annoyance, “but I also understand their place in the greater equation.”

“People aren’t rational creatures,” Sharidan replied. “They can’t be rationally predicted in their actions. Sometimes, you have to follow your intuition. You have to extend a little faith, a little trust. It’s not a criticism; your way of looking at the world is what makes you so good at your job. It’s not the only way, however, nor even necessarily the best.”

“Exactly what faith and trust are you displaying by needlessly antagonizing that smirking Eserite weasel after all the effort we just put into mollifying him?” Eleanora demanded.

Sharidan winked at her, and for a moment she looked like she was about to hit him.

“After spending a few days among Eserites, I’ve gained some insight,” he said cheerfully. “I just did more to earn that guy’s respect than we’ve managed in the entire time we’ve been trying to court him. Trust me, Nora. I know what I’m doing.”

“Your Majesty,” said Vex, “with all due respect, I question that assertion. I have never agreed with any part of this plan of yours, and with it now completed I consider it lucky that you escaped serious harm. And we’ve gained nothing.”

“Not at all,” the Emperor said more seriously, reaching over to take one of Milanda’s hands. “We know who was behind the attack on our magical systems, even if we can’t prove it. We forced Justinian to react rapidly to protect his schemes, and in the process learned something we’ve previously only suspected by watching his general pattern: he is strongest when he’s allowed to set up the board before the game, and not so smooth when he’s forced to improvise.”

“You believe he sent those…whoever they were, last night?” Milanda asked quietly.

“Oh, please, who else? I realize your people are still analyzing the bodies we recovered, Lord Vex, but I think we all know there won’t be any useful evidence. Who but the Church has the resources to build an entire disposable cult to fling at us anonymously? What’s important is that we made him do it. We forced him to expend resources, cover his rear and make a show of sending those adventurers we know work for him to aid us in an effort to demonstrate that he’s not the enemy. There’s been a lot we know he’s done that we can’t prove, but he has finally overplayed that hand.”

“He did play it, though,” Vex said, frowning. “We have no solid indication of Justinian’s duplicity. He succeeded in covering his tracks, and turned the situation to his advantage.”

“No,” the Emperor disagreed, “all he managed to do was mitigate his losses, and I’ll bet he doesn’t fully appreciate the gains we’ve made. I established contact with his high-ranking killers; I want you to work on getting in touch with them, Vex. If they can be turned against him, it’ll be a decisive blow, and one we’re even more likely to be able to land now that they’ve seen him try to get them killed. They know who sent those cultists, I assure you. Just because nobody can prove it doesn’t mean everybody doesn’t know.”

Vex opened his mouth to speak, but Sharidan pressed on.

“Which is my main point: I accomplished exactly what I set out to. We’ve got the Guild on our side now, when previously they were nominally aligned with the Church. Their inclination is to be hostile to any entrenched power, and overall have been as adept as Darling at dealing with both sides while avoiding a commitment. I assure you, Darling knows as well as we that Justinian is the only one who could have been summoning a necromantic mass-murder cult in the middle of a residential district last night, and Tricks sure as hell does. Putting the Throne in debt to the Guild is a bond between us, as strong as if we’d put them in our debt, and a lot more possible to achieve. As long as we don’t screw this up, when Justinian finally makes his move, he’ll have the Guild against him, not on his side or even neutral.” Smiling smugly, he lounged in his pseudo-throne. “It was dicey for a while, but this is a success, people. You all know we haven’t been winning this game recently. This time, we did.”

“Your Majesty,” Vex said firmly, “be all that as it may, and allowing for differences of opinion on your final analysis, I will have to insist that you never again take such a risk as you did this week, and especially last night.”

The two Hands by the door had been silent for the whole conversation thus far, but now shifted to stare at Vex. People did not use words like insist when addressing their Emperor. Sharidan made a quick placating gesture at them, even as he replied.

“In that, I have to agree. That gambit only worked because it was unthinkable; if me going out in disguise becomes a pattern, it’ll be all too easy for someone to use it against me. And for purposes of this discussion, twice constitutes a pattern. I don’t think that trick will be usable again for…oh, about thirty years or so. Regardless, for now!” He stood up, still holding Milanda’s hand, and bowed to her courteously. “I have a lot of appearances to make; after this week, people need to be reassured that their Emperor and his Hands are in place and functioning as usual. But first, I think you had something to show me down below?”

“Indeed,” she replied with a smile, “it’s been a little tense, but to my own surprise, I actually got everything settled. It’s going to take some…explaining, however.”

“Splendid! Eleanora, I’ll meet you after breakfast and we shall proceed with our first meeting of the day. For now, after being out of the action all week, I’m anxious to see how this has finally turned out.”

 

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                  Next Chapter >

12 – 59

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                 Next Chapter >

The sunset had gone unnoticed, as the night blazed with hellfire.

For a half mile all around, the tallgrass had been scoured to ash, and even beyond that, fallout from various spells burned merrily. The stars were obscured by an ugly blend of airborne ash, greenish clouds of some residue from a misfired hex, and the angry glow of portals and dimensional rents both half-formed and fully blaring infernal energy onto the scene. All around lay the corpses of demons, those which hadn’t already crumbled to charcoal when the magic left them, interspersed with fresh craters and clumps of jagged obsidian one of the two warlocks had called up to make the landscape nearly impossible to navigate.

Still, they fought on, and at this point only one was growing tired.

Their styles were virtually opposite. The Sleeper was on his fourth suit of armor and the most haphazard yet, as he was continually battered by Iris’s spells and had to re-arrange his defenses under ever-increasing pressure. Whether or not he still cared about concealing his identity, some manner of magical protection was absolutely essential for survival in the hellscape they had created, and so he was still warded, but down from his earlier hulking carapace to a human-sized shroud of greenish flame, hastily fixed into conventionally styled plates of armor. He summoned demons, cast circles which either blocked her path or spat out hostile magic, used curses to alter the terrain with clouds of dust, darkness, and even a patch of slowed time.

The Sleeper had (almost) all the knowledge of the queen of Hell herself, and he was barely slowing her down. He would long since have given up and fled if his opponent had let him.

Iris had virtually no style, not technique at all. She did basically nothing but hurl fire and shadow, and yank open dimensional rents which devoured his spells and occasionally spat more fire and tendrils of darkness to impede his way. He called up demons, and she effortlessly blasted them to ash. His summoning circles went haywire at her merest glance, flickering out, exploding dangerously, or even altering to unleash horrific magical backlash on their creator. Curses, area-of-effect attacks, even direct damage spells she easily unraveled, neutralized, or hurled right back at him, without even seeming to realize what she was doing. Every time he tried to run, shadowy tendrils snared him, or a new rip appeared in reality, unleashing a blast of force that hurled him back toward her. That was still gentler than what happened when he attempted to shadow-jump, a prospect upon which he had given up early in their duel.

The fire-armored Sleeper finished obliterating the obnoxious tentacles of shadow which had impeded his last escape attempt and turned to face her once more. Iris paced forward with a measured stride, face still twisted in a snarl of animal fury. Her dark skin and white dress were both liberally stained with ash, but neither had suffered so much as a burn or scrape.

He gesticulated with both arms, and all around her, a ring of thirteen spell circles formed out of the air, glowing flame-orange with infernal runes. The very air within them thickened, darkened, the charred ground beginning to bubble.

Iris made a slashing motion with one hand, and five of the circles on that side shattered like glass; the rest, destabilized, began to misfire, causing the shadows to dissipate and the aggressive decay to spread outside their boundary. Even as she strode forward beyond their range and the remaining circles collapsed, he was already conjuring again.

The orb of flame which descended from the sky at a steep angle was the size of a house, and moving at such an impossible speed it was almost upon her seconds after its first appearance over the horizon; Iris was already pointing at it before it came into view, and a mere two yards from impacting her it struck an invisible barrier and rebounded, arcing through the air to strike the ground scarcely twenty yards away. The roar and shockwave of the explosion blasted everything in the vicinity clear, momentarily obscuring the whole scene.

The Sleeper, relatively secure behind his armor, seized this opportunity to flee again. As before, he didn’t make it more than two steps. This time, rather than the multitude of shadow tendrils which had grabbed him previously, a single tentacle burst from the ground, coiling around his ankle, and whipped him through the air to slam him against the ground.

“Well, you got your way,” Iris said, stalking forward. “Proud of yourself? Are you happy? Is this what you wanted to see?!”

He tried to roll to his feet to face her, and the tentacle yanked him away again, smashing him to the ground a few yards away in the other direction. The shadowbolt he had barely formed went careening harmlessly into the sky.

The Sleeper, still alert despite the impacts, unleashed a blast of fire at the tentacle holding his leg, just in time for another to grab his arm and whirl him away again. This one whipped him back and forth, smashing him hard on the ground three times in three places yards apart before finally giving him a break.

This time, he just lay there, apparently stunned. And this time, Iris finally closed the gap.

Seething darkness appeared over her hand like a gauntlet as she bent to grasp him by the neck. Iris straightened up, hefting the Sleeper bodily upright, a feat for which she likely lacked the physical strength; more tendrils of shadow sprang up from the ground, snaring his limbs and helping to push him upward.

“Might as well keep your secrets,” she said coldly, glaring at the inscrutable mask of flame. “We’ll find out who you were when somebody doesn’t show up for class tomorrow.”

“Need…me…” His voice was weak, clearly male, disguised this time by fatigue, smoke inhalation, and possibly the grip of the dark gauntlet around his throat. Even without his earlier pretentious vocal effect, it was unrecognizable. “I can fix—”

“Professor Tellwyrn is the greatest mage in the world, you little stain,” she snarled. “Your curse won’t last much longer, anyway.”

The air around them rippled again, and Iris turned her head in the direction from which the wave had come, raising a hand. Two figures had appeared upon the charred landscape nearby, neither of them demons.

“Miss Domingue, I presume?” the dwarf said politely. “Your Professor sent us. Dear me, what a mess,” he added, peering around at the destruction and ongoing infernal radiation.

“This must cease,” added his companion, a tall Tidestrider man with an octopus tattoo along his right arm.

A sharp crack sounded, and the Sleeper’s armor began to fragment. Fractures appeared and spread across it, white lines interrupting the dance of the green flames, making them resemble reflections in a broken mirror.

“No, you don’t,” Iris snapped, squeezing harder. A thin film of purple shadow coalesced over his body, even as the fractures deepened and spread further.

“Oh dear,” said the dwarf. “A little closer, Haunui, if you please. This is going to be tricky.”

He made a lifting motion with both hands, and four square basalt columns thrust upward from the ground around them in a square formation, trailing lengths of black chain from their upper edges. They rose to a height of seven feet, all the while the lengths of chain reached for each other as if magnetic. Within seconds, they had formed an impromptu cage.

“What is this?” the Wavespeaker demanded. Before Wrynst could reply, the Sleeper exploded.

The noise alone was enough to knock a person bodily over; the concussion of the blast made the cage shudder, to say nothing of the wash of white-hot flame with raked away a foot of topsoil in all directions. It was over quickly, though, leaving Iris holding a handful of nothing.

“No,” she whispered, staring at her black glove even as it dissipated. There was no sign of the Sleeper at all; nothing had survived in the vicinity except Wrynst’s cage, which had only barely endured. Lengths of chain broke away and fell like pieces of dried-up vines, and one of the square columns, cracked across its middle, toppled over.

“An inverted containment spell,” Wrynst said matter-of-factly as Haunui pushed his way out of the now-limp chains. “Only effective against infernal power, but rather impressive, if I say so my—”

He was cut off by Iris’s scream of pure frustration. She sank to her knees, then toppled forward, slamming both her fists into the ground.

“I had him! I was so close!” She began rhythmically punching the earth, kicking up puffs of ash with each blow. “All of this was for nothing. Years of work, my whole life, gone for nothing!”

“Child.” Haunui had strode over quickly, and now knelt in front of her. “Nothing is gone.”

“LOOK AT THIS!” she screamed at him, throwing her arms wide.

As far as they eye could see in every direction, the golden tallgrass was gone; flickers of fire still raged along the horizons. There were several impact craters still, though the other detritus of their fight had been destroyed by the final destructive spells she and the Sleeper had unleashed. The sky was all but hidden by a sick mockery of the northern lights, seething rents in reality from which tongues of flame and eye-wrenching darkness seeped all around.

“This is all I’m good for,” Iris said, suddenly toneless. Her arms fell limply to her sides. “I was just fooling myself. First time it came down to it, this is—”

Haunui grasped her face gently in both hands, capturing her attention.

“The tide comes and goes, beyond our power to affect,” he said, holding her gaze in perfect calm. “The wind blows as it will, bringing what it will. The world turns, the clouds change. We are specks adrift on the surface, hefted by powers we cannot contest. This is true.”

“Excuse me,” said Wrynst from a short distance away, “but this whole area is massively unstable. We had really better—”

“The one thing that is yours to command,” Haunui continued, ignoring him, “the one thing, is your own hand on the tiller. The world will do with you whatever it does. You, and only you, decide who you are.”

“I can’t,” she whispered. Tears streamed down her cheeks, washing over his callused fingers. “I can’t do this. I lost it all.”

The shaman smiled gently. “Child, I hear the spirits around you still. They do not abandon you so quickly; no friend does. Still your mind, as you were taught. Reach out, and find them still there.”

“But…”

“Reach,” he insisted. “You are your choices, not your gifts. Reach out. Make a choice.”

Iris heaved in a shaking breath, swallowed heavily, and closed her eyes.

“I really must insist we go,” Wrynst said nervously. “Sheyann was unsure how long she could sustain the link anyway, and we are surrounded by active and uncontrolled dimensional rifts. Now, please!”

“We will heal them,” Haunui said, not looking up from Iris’s face. “Patience, warlock. What was done will be undone. What was destroyed, remade. The magic of the earth and the wind holds sway here, not the magic of the nether.”

Wrynst threw up his hands in a hopeless gesture, turning and stomping back toward the point at which they had first appeared.

Haunui closed his own eyes. Light blossomed along his tattoo, the inked tentacles glowing brilliant green along his arm and back. For achingly long moments, he and Iris knelt in the dust, eyes closed, while hellfire flickered hungrily in the destruction all around them.

A faint whisper of wind rose.

The first changes were too slight and too slow to be noticeable, but they swiftly grew in speed, and strength. The glaring rents in the sky began to close, shrinking to points and lines until finally the last flickers of fire and shadow vanished. Reality reasserted itself, the corruption of the infernal shrinking away. Finally, after scarcely a minute had passed, the last of them were gone, and the stars shone again unimpeded.

Iris drew another breath again, shaking from a withheld sob, but a smile blossomed on her face.

“They do not forget so quickly,” Haunui repeated. “Come, there is more to do.”

It took a few minutes longer, but finally the first green shoots began to appear. Once they initially manifested, they grew quickly, rising and spreading. In another ten heartbeats, the fires in the distance had flickered out and a veritable carpet of pale green spread around them. As the two knelt, concentrating in silence, the tallgrass continued to blossom, pushing its way upward.

The rate of its growth slowed as rapidly as it had first accelerated, and all too soon came to an apparent stop. It was nowhere near as well-developed as the usual grasses of the Sea, rising barely knee-high, and the green of new shoots rather than the golden amber of the mature tallgrass…but it was there, spreading away in all directions over what had been a battlefield torn by flame. Dips in the landscape still marked the craters left by spells of destruction, but they were covered by a green shroud of new growth.

From somewhere nearby, impossibly, came the chirp of a cricket.

Haunui let out a long sigh, at last opening his eyes, and lowering his hands from Iris’s face. “These things go in cycles, as you know well. Ash is good for the ground. Look.”

She finally opened her own eyes, meeting his gaze, then following it to a point on the ground between them.

A single red flower rose from the soil amid the blades of new tallgrass, a cluster of cone-shaped blossoms shifting slightly in the faint breeze. The old symbol of regrowth after fire, the versithorae, a bloom that only rose from ashes. A sign of the earth’s forgiveness.

“As I live and breathe,” Wrynst marveled, gazing around. “You actually did it… Total infernal nullification. I’d never have thought such a disaster could be cleaned so quickly.”

“A choice was made,” Haunui said gravely, finally standing up. He held a hand down to Iris.

After a moment, she tore her gaze from the flower and looked up at him. Her dark eyes were clear, despite the tracks left by tears through the dust on her cheeks. Finally, she accepted his hand.

“Thank you.”

He nodded to her, once, then turned back to the warlock. “And now, we had better go. It does not do to keep an Elder waiting.”

Wrynst sighed and rolled his eyes. “Well, if you’re certain you’re finished here.”

“We’re done,” Iris said in a small voice. “Let’s go. Please.”


“Uh, Professor,” Gabriel said nervously, “if you don’t mind my asking—”

“Because, Arquin,” Tellwyrn said, “some problems are not best solved by exercising force. If I thought Iris in danger you had better believe I would be there myself. The situation, however, is that she needs to be rescued from the Golden Sea, not the Sleeper. We need the best shaman and the best warlock to navigate the shifts inflicted upon it. That means Wrynst and, with Sheyann forced to stay here and hold the path open, Haunui. Trust me,” she added grimly, “I’m not worried about the Sleeper hurting her. I guarantee he is regretting forcing Iris Domingue into a corner right now.”

“Um,” he said carefully, “…okay.”

Gabriel had dismissed Whisper, who tended to quickly grow restive with nothing to do. Now they all stood in the tallgrass at the outskirts of the Sea, waiting. Sheyann knelt on the ground, eyes closed and lips moving constantly in a silent soliloquy; nearby, an unceasing rustle moved back and forth through the tallgrass where Maureen paced, muttering to herself. Tellwyrn and Gabriel simply stood, she staring fixedly at the horizon, he fidgeting.

“Actually,” he offered after a terse silence, “I was going to ask—”

“They’re coming,” Sheyann said suddenly, relief audible in her voice, as well as fatigue. Maureen darted toward them, pushing amber stalks roughly aside.

Reality itself heaved, the ground seeming to roll like the tide, without actually displacing the grass or any of them standing upon it. The undulation carried three figures, though, and deposited them right in front of the group.

“Iris!” Maureen wailed, throwing herself forward.

Iris, filthy and clearly exhausted but apparently unharmed, knelt to catch her, wrapping the gnome up in a hug and rocking slightly back and forth.

Tellwyrn quickly joined them, bending down to rest a hand on Iris’s shoulder, heedless of the ash staining her dress.

“Iris,” she said in an uncharacteristically soft voice, “are you all right?”

Iris nodded, swallowed, and finally looked up. “I’m not hurt. Professor… I’m sorry. I almost had him, but—”

“None of that,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “I’m responsible for protecting you, not the other way round. I’m sorry. What’s important is that you are okay. We’ll finish dealing with the Sleeper very soon, I promise you.”

“I’m not absolutely certain he got away, though,” Wrynst added, straightening his robe. “That effect he unleashed… It might have been a ploy to conceal a shadow-jump, or it may honestly have been his destruction, whether self-inflicted out of spite or resulting from the damage you did. Either way, it was a desperate maneuver. You really had him on the ropes, young lady.”

“Keeping us in the dark would be just like him,” Gabriel chimed in, then added fervently, “I am damn glad to see you back safe, Iris. We were worried sick.”

She actually twitched, her eyes falling on him and widening in shock. Iris opened her mouth, but no sound emerged.

Maureen’s shoulders jerked slightly, and she finally drew back, grinning. “Oh, aye, that reminds me. Before I forget to tell ye, Gabe’s here. He’s the one who came to fetch us; hasn’t left ever since, not till we were sure you were safe.”

“I—uh—I mean…thank you,” Iris said weakly, ending on a squeak.

Tellwyrn sighed, straightening. “Sheyann? Are you all right?”

“Quite well, thank you, Arachne,” the Elder said smoothly. “That was by no means easy, but far from the most tiring thing I have ever undertaken. Most instructive, as well. You know, I may have gained some insight into Kuriwa’s trick of traveling between places.”

“Now, why the hell would you want to do a damn fool thing like that? Let Kuriwa play footsie with unspeakable horrors if she wants. I thought you had more sense.”

Sheyann raised an eyebrow, but smiled faintly in amusement. “I allowed you to teleport me for this escapade of yours, Arachne; I expect to be spoken to with a bit more restraint. At least for a while.”

“Yes, you’re right. Sorry.” Tellwyrn sighed heavily, and grimaced. “I’ve been quickly using up my store of restraint over the last two days.”

“In fact, you’ve been doing quite well,” Sheyann replied, gliding over to pat her on the shoulder. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed. You have conducted yourself very nearly like a person with normal, basic social skills. It may seem an odd thing to say, Arachne, as I certainly have no claim to responsibility for you, but I am…proud.”

Tellwyrn glared at her. Then, incongruously, her lips twitched, and she emitted a soft snort that was clearly the lesser part of a laugh.

“Well…all right. We’ve got a crowd back at Last Rock to reassure, most of you will be needing some food and rest, and I owe a series of explanations to several people. Most urgently, Iris had better get into a bath and then bed. Let’s move this out, people. Wrynst, Haunui, I thank you very sincerely for helping to protect my student.”

“Oh, no need for that, Professor,” Wrynst said cheerfully. “This beats the daylights out of laboratory work. I’m having a smashing old time!”

Haunui just nodded gravely.

They started slowly, Iris having to detach herself from Maureen and push upright with obvious weariness, but soon enough the little procession got underway, heading back toward Last Rock. Tellwyrn stood aside, letting them all pass before finally bringing up the rear, alongside Gabriel, who had hovered nearby.

“So, Professor,” he said in a low tone, nodding at Wrynst and Haunui a few yards ahead of them. “What I was actually going to ask… Who are those guys?”

She sighed. “Later, Arquin. Tomorrow, you’re going to learn a lot of things, some of which will explain the presence of all the…guests I brought with me. More immediately… Gather your comrades when we reach the town, if you would. Before people start scattering to the winds and spreading rumors, there are some things you’ll need to understand.”

He followed her gaze past Haunui’s shoulder, to where Iris was trudging along, slumped with exhaustion, then nodded silently.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                  Next Chapter >