“Thou art welcome to the hospitality of our grove,” Elder Shiraki intoned. “Verily, thy visit ignites a fire of joy within the hearts of all who dwell herein. And yet, so seldom do thy kind partake of this hospitality. I sense that thou hast come to us, as have so many before thee, seeking the aid of the immortal elves.”
“Wow,” Fross breathed. “The way you speak…it’s so pretty! It’s like a poem!”
The elf smiled at her and bowed from the waist. Somehow, this didn’t disturb the golden flows of his hair, which were draped over his shoulders and trailing to the ground behind him in a way that suggested accidental placement but was just too perfect to have occurred without help.
“He’s only doing that to be difficult,” said Elder Sheyann with a sardonic half-smile. “It’s a statement that he’s far too important to bother keeping up with human trends. Languages don’t evolve that fast, and Tanglish isn’t hard to keep on top of.”
“You’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition,” the pixie noted.
“Fross,” Shaeine said firmly. “Please don’t correct the elders.”
“On the contrary, this is how we stay abreast of the flow of the world.” If anything, Sheyann’s smile grew.
“Let it nowhere be said that those of this grove turned away from the wisdom of the fae folk,” added Shiraki. He seemed much less amused, though it was hard to tell. The Elders had a gravitas, a stillness about them that made them difficult to read, even when they emoted deliberately.
The elves certainly did not lack hospitality, though several of those who had interacted with the visitors showed the same standoffishness as Thassli and Fraen. Nobody was outright rude, but there were a thousand subtle ways to slip into a conversation hints that they weren’t interested in getting to know humans. That attitude was far from universal, however, and of the dozens of elves crowding around the meeting area in which they were being hosted, quite a few seemed intrigued and delighted to meet Teal. Juniper was universally a celebrity; very few of them appeared willing to warm up to Shaeine. It made for a tricky social space to navigate.
The grove itself was a ring of enormous trees surrounding a wide glade. A stream, not broad but brisk and evidently deep, entered from the north and had been diverted into two channels which completely encircled the central meeting area, rejoining at the southern edge of the grove and departing back into the forest. Like everything else here, the stream gave the impression of great age; it had cut deeply into the ground through which it ran, and now mossy overhanging lips of stone protruded over the rushing waters. Bonfires built atop rough, ancient-looking stone slabs were positioned equally around the inner side of the stream, bathing the seating area in the middle in orange light, but despite that and the climate of the surrounding prairie, it wasn’t hot.
The actual homes of the elves were outward and up, woven into the branches of the trees themselves. The trees in the grove proper were absolutely massive, greater in diameter than the height of a human and rising impossible distances; the common area in the center of the glade was not small, but surrounded by those giant sentinels, it felt like a tiny island. Steps spiraled around many of the trunks, apparently grown outward from the wood itself. Some elvish residences had apparently been built into the trunks themselves, to judge by little doors appearing here and there, but the majority were constructed of wood, balancing on branches and systems of bridges. They were unpretentious in design, but beautiful, their proportions graceful and highly polished surfaces contrasting pleasingly with the rough bark and deep foliage surrounding them. The same design ethic showed in the wooden bridges which spanned the creek at intervals, and the low tables which dotted the central meeting area.
The welcome of the elves involved a meal, but a rather eclectic one, taken sitting cross-legged on the ground around low tables. Shaeine nibbled politely at the handful of fruit that had been arrayed before her; Juniper had been handed a haunch of deer. Literally, a raw leg off a deer, uncooked and apparently quite fresh. She had tucked in with enthusiasm, which resulted in a ghastly amount of blood dripping down her face and onto her chest. Though the elves were clearly acquainted with the habits of dryads, to have served her thus, even they seemed put off by the spectacle. Teal had been served baked beans and cornbread on a dented tin plate, and was trying to decide whether this was an honest effort at accommodating her or some kind of jab at humans.
“You see truly, Elder,” Shaeine said politely, setting down an oblong yellow fruit in a thick peel that she hadn’t figured out how to open. “We would not presume to trouble the peace of your grove except at need.”
“How very refreshing,” Sheyann noted, sipping her tea, “to meet an Awarrion who would not presume to trouble the peace of our grove.”
“Elder Sheyann speaks truly,” said Shiraki, his expression solemn. His long, lean face sported a small goatee, the only facial hair on any of the elves present, even among the other elders. “Thy family oft comes bearing gifts and pleasing words, seeking to curry our favor. Never have I heard one of thy breed ask aid of us. Verily, thy company pardons many a shortcoming, yet we dare not lay down our vigilance lightly.”
“I must make a clarification,” said Shaeine, “with apologies for not having done so in the first place. My friends and I are here as visitors and free agents; I do not represent my House or Tar’naris. To my knowledge, none of my people are aware of my presence here.”
“That may be fair news or ill,” Shiraki said, nodding. “Speak thy piece, child of the dark, and we shall decide.”
In their stillness was an absolute mastery of nuance. Sheyann merely sipped her tea, somehow conveying both a shrug and an eyeroll. Teal watched her in such fascination that she nearly missed Shaeine’s reply.
“We have recently come from the town of Sarasio, which as you likely know, is in a dire situation. It is our intention to help the residents as best we can, and hopefully find a resolution to their troubles. To do this without the aid of the neighboring elves would seem brash…and, in frankness, unlikely to succeed.”
A stir ran through the assembled elves, dying down as Sheyann swept a cool gaze around the clearing. “Then you have stepped into an established discussion,” the elder said, returning her calm stare to Shaeine. “We are in the process of deciding whether the matter warrants our attention.”
“It is hardly up for debate,” said Shiraki, giving her a cool look. “Did we stir ourselves from our lives each time the humans upset themselves, never would we have a moment to attend our own affairs. The suggestions of a paltry few younglings do not hint at division within the grove.”
“I do not consider any of our people ‘paltry,’ Shiraki,” Sheyann replied with weary reproof, “nor dismiss their concerns out of hand. Neither the elders nor the tribe as a whole have raised a quorum of voices proposing to intervene in Sarasio. The tribe, thus, does not move. This does not mean the views of the minority are without merit.”
“Merit they may have, but the fact is as thou hast spoken: our course does not stray. The humans must, as always, attend to their own problems, or fail in the trying.”
“But surely some of the townsfolk are friends of yours,” Teal protested. The expressions of several nearby elves hinted that she was right, while others regarded her with veiled hostility. Most held themselves carefully aloof. “Don’t you care about them at all?”
“That may be, though such attachments are concerns of individuals, not of the tribe. Yet our relationships with humans must always come at a price. Tell me, child, hast thou ever had a pet?”
“Shiraki, that is enough,” Sheyann said firmly.
“I’ve had pets, yes,” Teal said, frowning. “I don’t see what that has to do with it…”
“It’s a metaphor,” Juniper supplied, wiping blood from her chin. “Kind of an old one, actually; it pops up pretty often if you talk with the immortal races. I’ve heard it from my sisters. Basically, you can get attached to a person with a shorter lifespan, but you always know they’re going to die soon, so don’t get too attached.”
“Oh, wow,” said Fross. “That is really condescending.”
“Fross,” Shaeine warned.
“What? It is! We’ve been perfectly nice, here. There’s no reason to call us pets. It’s just rude!”
“It is pretty condescending, yeah,” Juniper agreed. “Honestly I’d have expected a lot more courtesy from an elder of a grove.”
“You are not alone in that,” Sheyann said wryly.
“I ask thy pardon if my frankness hath wrought offense,” Shiraki said in a stiff tone that belied his apology. “Look, if thou canst, through elven eyes. Condescending as our view may be, it is nonetheless ours. Year by year, we watch the generations of humankind rise and fall like the grasses of the field. Wherefore should we invest our hearts and energies into their care?”
“You will note, Shiraki,” Sheyann said, “that the validity of your perspective was not questioned, but only your manners in mentioning it. Be mindful that the tribe’s hospitality is represented here, and let us not insult guests we have invited to sup.”
“I feel like it’s sort of beside the issue, anyhow,” Teal said somewhat hastily. “So the tribe as a whole doesn’t wish to get involved, that’s quite all right, we can respect that. We know some of your people care enough to act, though. Elves have been supplying food to refugees in the bordello.”
Another soft ripple of reaction flowed through the surrounding crowd, and Teal glanced around somewhat nervously.
“We do not presume to dictate the actions of each member of the tribe, so long as those bring no danger nor harm down upon us all,” said Shiraki. “Those who choose to sprinkle water on the forest fire may do so; their time is their own to waste. We elders intercede only ere they burn themselves.”
“If I may ask,” Shaeine said respectfully, “what restrictions have been placed on the movements of tribe members within the town?”
“To date, none,” Sheyann said before Shiraki could reply. Five other elves had been introduced as elders, but they remained as silent as the rest of the tribe, watching the conversation. It was clear that the two elders who bothered to participate represented two factions of opinion…but beyond that, the politics of this group were opaque to the outsiders. “There is a somewhat delicate dance being carried out, there. Certain of our number have, as you say, rendered aid to their friends in Sarasio. As the tribe as a whole has withdrawn, they have been increasingly careful not to risk crossing any possible line. Should the elders deem it necessary to forbid their efforts…that would be that.”
“Okay…what about this,” Teal said carefully, shifting. She was unaccustomed to the position, and her legs were rapidly stiffening. “As it is, the elves helping out in town are being careful to stay safe and stay out of it. I understand you must be concerned for their welfare, but… I really think the best help they could offer doesn’t necessarily put them at risk. It would mean the world to the townsfolk to see a little solidarity. Most of them are basically trapped in their homes right now, or in small groups where there’s some safety. The White Riders can only intimidate a town that size into submission by keeping people afraid and separated; if somebody were to help rally the—”
“Thy suggestion treads upon dangerous ground,” Shiraki warned. “I tell thee true, ere any of this tribe involve themselves in the politics of that blighted human settlement I will bend my efforts to forbidding all contact. Far too often have I seen groups of mankind destroy themselves, and all in their purview. I will not watch as my people are caught up in their insanity.”
“Your whole plan is really to just sit in this grove and wait for everything to blow over?” Juniper tilted her head. She had finished eating and was busy cleaning herself off with a damp towel given to her by a nearby elf. “That’s, uh… I think that’s a survival tactic for a very different situation.”
“Little changes, in the long run,” Shiraki intoned.
“A great deal has changed, in fact,” Shaeine countered. “A century ago, could you have imagined my presence here, at this table?” There came a soft murmur from the onlookers; she allowed it for a moment, then went on before any of the elders interrupted. “The existence and the power of the Tiraan Empire completely alters the equation. Your tribe is already relevant to the situation, and the Empire will see it as such. If matters are allowed to run the course they are currently on, there is likely to be Imperial reprisal against everyone involved.”
“Thy concern gladdens my heart, child of Tar’naris,” Shiraki said dryly. “We do not worry for the retribution of mankind, however.”
“Shiraki is still adjusting to the notion that humans outnumber us,” said Sheyann wearily.
“What?” Fross emitted a discordant chime. “That tipping point happened like five centuries ago. It’s not even about that! The Empire is organized, they conquered pretty much the whole continent! They’ve got much better weapons now. If they get mad at this grove, you’re gonna have big problems!”
“Often in the past have I heard this rhetoric,” said Shiraki, his expression growing colder by the word. “Always, these threats prove impotent.”
Fross fluttered lower, her glow dimming. “I wasn’t threatening you. You guys might be in danger here, I just don’t want—”
“I thank thee for thy visit, travelers,” he said, standing abruptly. “It has been our honor to host thee. Please, enjoy the bounty of our grove until thy travels call thee elsewhere.” With a curt bow, he turned and glided away, the assembled elves parting to make a path for him. The elder’s departure was clearly a signal; may of the rest of the tribe began drifting off.
“What happened? Where’s he going?” Fross demanded.
“Leaving,” said Juniper. “I think we offended him.”
“What? Us? How?”
“Thank you for escorting us, Elder,” Shaeine said as they walked slowly through the forest.
“The pleasure is mine, child,” Sheyann replied. “I confess I rather enjoyed seeing my…beloved colleague’s feathers ruffled. I fear little will come of it, though.”
“The ruffling of feathers is seldom productive. I certainly did not set out to achieve that end.”
“Yes,” the elf said with a faint smile. “For a trained diplomat, to have attempted that meeting with the exuberant help you enjoyed must have been very like trying to weave a basket with the aid of three friendly woodland creatures.”
“Is that us?” Fross stage whispered. “Are we the woodland creatures?”
“I’ve been called worse things,” Teal replied, smiling.
“I could not say,” Shaeine said diplomatically. “I have never tried my hand at weaving.”
Sheyann’s light laugh was a pure pleasure to hear. It added to her ethereal aspect; she walked so smoothly even over the uneven ground that she seemed almost to hover.
“Wait,” Teal said suddenly. “We’re missing someone.”
“Your dryad friend backtracked to the grove, to visit Shiraki alone,” Sheyann said calmly. “You’ve tried your method of persuasion; she is trying hers.”
“What? What’s her…” Teal trailed off, then clapped a hand over her eyes. “Oh, come on, Juniper.”
“There is little use in arguing with her ways,” Sheyann said, amused. “In fact, I would advise against attempting to thwart a dryad under any circumstances. In any case, she is unlikely to shift him, but I cannot help thinking he will be much improved in mood when next I see him, for which I’ll be grateful. It’s been many a year since any of us have lain with a dryad. I’d rather hoped to mate with her myself before you leave the area, if she’s amenable.”
Teal flushed and looked down at her feet, ostentatiously picking her way with great care over the moss.
“Juniper, in my experience, is rarely anything but amenable,” Shaeine noted in perfect calm.
“Yes, she is one of the youngest. They, as with most kinds of people, are always the most eager to try new things.”
“If it is not too great a presumption to say so,” Shaeine went on, “I thought it seemed you were somewhat more sympathetic to our pleas than Elder Shiraki.”
“You really are an Awarrion,” the elder said wryly. “You needn’t worry so about ruffling my feathers, child. Yes, I don’t mind saying that I would prefer to see our tribe—and our people as a whole—take a more active role in the world. The issue of our friends in this town aside, the world is changing around us, and I foresee the day fast approaching when we’ll not have the luxury of ignoring it. Variants of this debate are happening among every elvish tribe, and unfortunately, each has its Shirakis. The satisfaction of seeing the look on his face when the Empire’s progress grinds us all underfoot will, I think, not be worth the cost.”
“The Empire isn’t quite that bad,” Teal protested.
“Now? I suppose not. It has at various points in the past been quite bitterly oppressive, and employed degrees and types of violence that would stagger your imagination. Human society is a tumultuous and changeable thing. Such days will come again…but in the future, they will come with wands and staves, and we will not be able to ride out the storm as we have always done.”
“Well, then, help us!” Fross chimed in exasperation. “This mess right here would be a great place to start! If you allied with the people of Sarasio and cleaned all this up, you’d be on good footing with the Empire, and—”
“If that were up to me alone,” Sheyann interrupted, “I would do so in a heartbeat. But we elves live in balance with our world, and with each other. The tribe moves as one, or not at all. That is our way, ancient beyond imagining.”
“Ways change,” said Shaeine. “They must change, if those who practice them are to survive in a changing world.”
“You, too, come from a society of immortals,” Sheyann replied. “I trust you have seen firsthand the pains that come from too much change, too rapidly.”
“I have indeed, and I have seen both the benefits of enduring it, and the price of failing to do so. Drow have never enjoyed the bounties you have here on the surface, elder. We are practical people—ruthlessly so, at times. We have made our accord with the Empire, and prospered mightily for it.”
Sheyann shook her head. “I applaud your intention and effort, child. Every part of it. The fact remains, though, you are trying to carry a snowball across the prairie in your cupped hands. No amount of skill or luck on your part will make this task feasible.”
They came to a stop; ahead the trees thinned markedly, and the town was just visible between them in the distance.
“Well,” Teal said with a sigh, “we really shouldn’t get separated, or let any of our number wander into town alone. I guess we’ll wait here for Juniper to…um. Finish.” She coughed, her cheeks burning anew. “Will she be able to find us okay?”
“Undoubtedly,” Sheyann replied. “But in any case she will have an escort. You will be safe here; we have taught the Riders not to enter the trees. Forgive me for leaving you, but I must return to the grove and attempt to wrest some order out of the eddies you have left in your wake.”
“I hope we have not disrupted your lives too much,” said Shaeine.
The elder smiled at her. “You came here to do specifically that. And, in all sincerity, I wish you fortune in your task.” She bowed once more, then turned and glided back into the dimness of the forest. Green shadows swallowed her up in seconds.
“Well,” said Fross after a few moments, “here we are.” She buzzed around in a lazy circle. “Hey, how come you two’ve never had sex with Juniper? I bet she’d be glad to.”
Shaeine and Teal looked at each other, then quickly away in opposite directions.
“What?” Fross darted toward one, then the other, then hovered midway between. “What’d I say?”
“Here they are,” Robin called, re-entering the lounge area of the bordello with the last four students on her heels.
Fross buzzed ahead, chiming excitedly, but came to a halt above Gabriel, who was sitting with his leg propped up on a chair, foot wrapped in a bloodstained bandage. “Whoah! What happened to you?”
“It’s kind of a funny story,” he said brightly. “Once upon a time, Ruda fucking stabbed me.”
“Language,” said Joe softly. Tellwyrn just rolled her eyes.
The Professor and the Kid were sitting at one of the round tables with Toby, Trissiny and Ruda, who flicked a cork at Gabriel, grinning. He was lounging a few feet away, where the space between tables gave him room to elevate his leg.
“Glad to see you’re all okay,” Toby said feelingly. “I hate to start making requests if you’ve had as exhausting a morning as we have, but Shaeine, none of us can safely heal Gabe’s foot…”
“Of course,” she said, gliding forward and kneeling beside the half demon, placing her hands on his leg. “You do seem to be experiencing the brunt of the excitement on this trip, Gabriel.”
“Oh, I dunno if I can claim that,” he replied. “Trissiny’s already killed a guy today. Ah, that’s so much better. Thanks, Shaeine, I’m sorry to keep putting you out.”
“It is never a hardship to be of service to one’s friends,” she replied with one of her polite little smiles, then lifted her gaze to Trissiny. “I gather you have an interesting story to tell?”
“It would be more accurate to say that Avei killed him,” said the paladin, “but yes, there is one less White Rider troubling the town.”
“That’s not good,” Teal said, frowning. “The rest will be out for revenge…and not on us. They’re the type to pick on people who can’t fight back.”
“I know,” Trissiny said grimly.
Ruda snorted. “So, do you give Avei credit for everybody you kill?”
“Since I’m guessing you’re not looking for a theological discussion, let me just clarify that in this specific case—”
“Oi!” Tellwyrn slapped a hand on the table, making most of them jump and Gabriel fall out of his chair as he tried to reposition himself. “Honestly, it’s been months. At this point I’m pretty sure the eight of you just squabble because you like it. I’ve had freshman classes full of bitter feuds who could put their heads together with less griping and general nonsense. Both groups, start at the beginning and tell each other plainly and sequentially what you’ve been up to.”
“We got fed and then sassed by some elves and then Juniper had some sex with one of them!” Fross declared.
“That’s it,” said Gabriel. “Next time I wanna be in Juniper’s group.”
“Oh, don’t be a grouse,” the dryad said affectionately, ruffling his hair, “you know you can just ask me anytime. Come to my room tonight and we’ll—”
“Can we please try to keep this a little more on point?” Toby pleaded, wincing.
“Yeah,” said Ruda with a grin, “those of us who aren’t into girls are being cruelly left out here. Where’s our muscly man-dryad to nibble on, huh? Am I right?” She prodded Trissiny with an elbow.
“Please don’t touch me.”
“I give up.” Tellwyrn stood and stalked over to the bar, where Lily sat, watching them and shaking with silent laughter, a hand pressed over her mouth.
Shaeine cleared her throat. “If I may? We very quickly made contact with the elves in the forest…”
Once they got started, telling the adventures of the morning went fairly quickly, most of the effort undertaken by Shaeine and Toby on behalf of their respective groups. Trissiny filled in details of her final encounter with the Riders, and then Juniper wanted to add some extra of her own last-minute efforts. The others hushed her and hurried on, over Ruda’s grinning protests.
“It seems to me,” Shaeine said finally, “that we have two variants of the same basic problem.”
“A completely intractable population,” Trissiny agreed, nodding.
“They aren’t completely intractable,” said Toby. “I mean, I can attest that there’s potential to bring together the different groups of townsfolk, and even the elves… I have to believe there’s common ground that can be built on.”
“Here’s a basic lesson in religion for the paladin,” said Ruda, pausing to take a swig of boubon. Everyone else was sipping water, Jenny having brought over a carafe and glasses while they laid out their stories. “Anything you believe because you have to is almost certainly wrong.”
“Let’s not derail this any further,” Trissiny said firmly. “As I said before, the problem isn’t that we can’t make the humans and the elves see reason, first separately and then together. I’m sure that could be done, at least in theory. The problem is that we don’t have time to do it.”
“That’s it in a nutshell,” said Gabriel, frowning into the distance. “Unless either of our diplomatic aces has a grand scheme to hustle the process along?”
“Afraid not,” said Toby with a sigh. “Though I’m hardly a diplomatic ace.”
“I could not in honesty characterize myself as such either,” said Shaeine. “And, as a rule, when the goal is to build trust and mutual understanding, schemes are seldom a good approach. I concur; the diplomatic possibilities are there, but we haven’t the luxury of the necessary time it would take to fulfill them.”
“Okay.” Still staring at nothing, Gabriel nodded. “Okay. I think I know what to do.”
“All right,” said Trissiny, rolling her eyes. “How about we do anything except that?”
He looked up at her and scowled. “You haven’t even heard my idea.”
“I’ve met you.”
“Ease up,” Toby said reprovingly. “If Gabriel has a plan, we’re off to a solid start. He makes good plans.”
Trissiny stared at him.
“Um, whoah, hold up.” Ruda pointed at Gabe. “Just for reference, we’re talking about this Gabriel. Arquin. This guy right here. The one with his foot perpetually in his tonsils whose only known act of diplomacy was screaming cusswords at the Hand of Avei.”
“It’s so nice to be appreciated,” Gabriel groused.
“I know what I’m talking about,” Toby said firmly, holding Trissiny’s gaze. “In a diplomatic situation, I would follow Shaeine’s lead. Out in the wild, I’d follow Juniper’s. If we were going into battle, I’d want you to take charge, Triss. If we’re going to execute any kind of complicated maneuver that incorporates elements of all of the above, then trust me: we want Gabriel to lay the plans.”
She frowned at him, cut her eyes to Gabriel, then back. “You’re serious.”
“You don’t know him like I do.” He grinned. “You’ve never played chess with him.”
Trissiny drew in a deep breath and let it out very slowly, then eased back in her chair, folding her arms across her breastplate. “All…right, then. Let’s hear it, Gabe.”
He stared at her with an annoyed twist to his mouth, then shook his head. “Okay, well… So the issue is we need to get all these people whipped into one unit, despite the fact that most of them hate each other and obviously would rather sit in their homes getting picked off one by one than unite. Fast. Sound accurate?”
“That pretty much sums it up,” Teal agreed.
Gabriel nodded. “Then it seems pretty simple to me. I say we don’t give them a choice.”