There were few spectacles so glorious as the coronation of the new Emperor of Tiraas. The world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, as was the nature of human nations in general, deemed it necessary to create as much pomp and splendor as its fathomless resources could arrange. To be fair, most of the common run of people just enjoyed having a reason to hold a party, and the three weeks of celebrations were probably the best party they would ever experience. Ashaele, though, had less sympathy for the organizers of this self-important spectacle of waste; the resources spent on food, decorations, costumes, servants and innumerable other displays would have sustained her city for years. She had very much enjoyed the fireworks, however. That was like nothing she had ever expected to see.
In its second week, now, they were nearing the halfway point of the festivities. The new Emperor, Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian, had been crowned and subsequently married in what was just barely two separate ceremonies. Ashaele did her best to follow the events as they unfolded, but the need to maintain her cover prevented her from gathering as much information as she would like, and the politics of the situation were doubtless immensely complex, and mostly over her head.
This particular ceremony was an actual Tiraan tradition, rather than a shallow display of wealth as so much of the last week had been: On the day after his coronation, the Emperor held court from dawn to dusk, and could be approached and petitioned directly by anyone. A thousand years ago when Tiraas had been a single city-state, the ceremony had likely been much more significant. Now, the line of people stretching out from the Palace and into Imperial Square were entirely of individuals whose presence here had been pre-approved by Imperial functionaries weeks ago. A commendable effort had been made to include a fair mix of commoners, foreigners and representatives of all classes and walks of life, but even so the nobility were much more heavily represented here than among the general population.
Whatever else it was, it was a day-long ceremony, and it was nearing noon; everyone was already tired, bored and thoroughly sick of the whole thing, and desperately struggling not to show it. The boy Emperor had made a heroic effort since taking his seat in the Silver Throne this morning to attend every citizen who approached him with care and sincerity, but even he was visibly weary by this point. Beside him on her own smaller throne, his young wife had started the day looking aloof at best, and by this point seemed severely annoyed. The people in the line were drooping; the countless courtiers packed into the sides of the great throne chamber were mostly half-asleep on their feet, a surly, drowsy sea of finery and painful-looking fixed smiles. Only the guards and the several black-coated Hands of the Emperor in the room were still alert. Even the official who had the honor of calling forth and announcing each new petitioner was drifting. He had flubbed two names and once let a moment of awkward silence stretch out before realizing it was time to bring up the next person.
Her moment was coming soon. There wouldn’t be a better.
Ashaele had long since carefully forced her way to the front of the crowd, and now was positioned a mere few yards from the foot of the steps up to the Emperor’s dais. Feeling so exposed did her nerves no favors, but it had been a necessary preparation; had she bulled her way out of the thick of the crowd, the disturbance would have been spotted immediately and guards would have been on her before she got anywhere near the Emperor. Guards and, terrifyingly, one of those unsmiling Hands had fixed their glares on her when she first pushed to the front, but by this point they had dismissed her as another position-jockeying dignitary and gone back to scanning the crowd.
Her attire was a hodgepodge of Punaji and Onkawi styles, with elvish touches and some completely random additions that served to conceal her as much as possible. She wore a heavy greatcoat with a ceremonial hooded shawl over that, complete with silken scarf that concealed her lower face. Her eyes and hairline were exposed, but they were altered by magic. The efficacy of the disguise was in its reliance on mundane measures; the less skin she revealed, the less would have to be concealed by charms, and it was vital to keep the charm work to a minimum. Plenty of noblewomen in Tiraas used minor enchantments to tweak their appearances, but anyone walking into an Imperial audience with enough magic on them to completely alter their appearance would have been set upon by wizards immediately.
Naturally, the costume caused her all sorts of anxiety. So far her hope that the aristocrats pressing in on her from all sides would dismiss her mismatched appearance as a miscellaneous foreigner had been realized… But all it would take was one astute member of the diplomatic corps to realize the woman in the greatcoat, shawl and mask had cobbled together the most concealing features of traditional costumes that by themselves wouldn’t have hidden half so much.
Also, with her own ceremonial robes underneath, it was insufferably hot.
It would all be worth it if she were successful.
Ashaele forced herself not to peer around the room as the man kneeling just a few feet from her droned on about agricultural quotas in the frontier provinces. She held herself as still as possible, avoiding any action that would draw attention. It was enough to know that her allies were in the crowd. She had brought three friends from House An’sadarr to observe and report back to the Queen if her mission went awry. They were individuals she trusted; members of her own House would have been better for several reasons, but if it came down to it, any of them would have tried to protect her if she failed, and inevitably ended up sharing her fate. The An’sadarrs were reliable precisely because they would leave her behind. It wasn’t that her people lacked discipline or obedience, but the military House’s famous dedication to the mission at hand was, in this case, much more useful than the personal loyalty her family would have shown.
“I appreciate your concerns, Master Tethloss,” the Emperor said when the kneeling man paused to draw breath. It was very nearly an interruption, but it was becoming clear that he was not about to stop speaking any time soon. “Understand, though, that your perspective is only that: your own. I must be responsible for the economy as a whole. To intervene at one level would have repercussions well beyond what you intend. In my judgment this is not the time or the proper place for dramatic action. However, your concerns are valid, and you have my word that I will consider them and consult with my advisers. Perhaps the Throne can and should exert some influence.”
Tethloss looked far from happy, but he managed a suitably obsequious thanks, bowing as he backed away. Ashaele was less concerned with him than with Sharidan. This answer was consistent with the rest of his performance today. He was intelligent; he cared for the welfare of his people. It boded well for her plans.
The seneschal was watching Tethloss’s departure impatiently; the disgruntled petitioner was in no hurry to yield the floor, and still partially blocked the path of the next in line. Around the room, assembled nobles rustled in the lull, fanning themselves and whispering to one another. The Emperor sat back in his chair, indulging in a barely perceptible sigh. For a precious moment, everyone was distracted, everything paused.
Ashaele grabbed a fistful of her mask and shawl, ripping them to the side, and shrugging out of her greatcoat in the same motion. They fell to lie puddled on the marble mosaic floor. Her illusions, having been attached to the clothes rather than herself, vanished with them. Somnolent and irritable as they were, it was a dramatic enough move that she gathered immediate attention, and screams rang out, spreading like wildfire. Nobles devolved into a pushing panic to escape the drow suddenly in their midst.
Ashaele crossed the floor in long, smooth strides, turning to face the Throne, and sank to one knee, bowing her head before the Emperor. That was as much as she managed before being seized by both arms. Guards roughly kicked her legs out from under her; a staff was thrust directly under her chin, humming with an active charge just waiting to be released. Her hair and the collar of her robes lifted in response to the static. She offered no resistance. Everywhere there was shouting, Imperial guards yelling contradictory orders and imprecations, onlookers screaming.
She permitted herself a small, fatalistic sigh. Too slow… She would be sad not to see her children again. Heral would lead House Awarrion well, however. It had been worth the effort; if she had succeeded, everything would have changed.
The acoustics of the room were carefully designed to maximize the voice of whoever sat on the Throne. Sharidan now stood in front of it; his order boomed through the massive hall, causing a sudden lull in the activity. The hands pulling at Ashaele from every direction stilled, though they did not relax their grip.
“Stand down,” the Emperor commanded. “Release her.”
The guards glanced at each other uncertainly, and at the dark elf kneeling placidly in their grip. One wearing a captain’s insignia cleared his throat. “Your Majesty—”
He broke off as Eleanora surged to her feet. The Empress stepped forward to lay a hand on her husband’s arm, staring down at them with icy fury.
“Your Emperor,” she said, her voice promising merciless death, “has spoken.”
They hesitated a fraction of a moment longer, and then Ashaele was released. She staggered inevitably, barely catching herself, but quickly resumed her position on one knee, surreptitiously smoothing down her hair and disturbed garments. The guards eased backward, but not so far that she failed to see the assortment of swords, wands and staves aimed at her, even with her eyes lowered.
“Lady, you have the apologies of the Tiraan Empire and of House Tirasian for this ill treatment,” the Emperor said. “My men are zealous in their protection of me, and your appearance was…rather startling.”
“Your soldiers’ zeal and loyalty is a credit to their master,” Ashaele replied. “It is I who should apologize, your Excellency, for intruding in this way. I regret that I failed to find a more polite way to gain an audience.”
“Then perhaps we can put these misunderstandings behind us,” said Sharidan, slowly sinking back onto the Silver Throne. His wife remained standing, though she stepped back to place herself slightly behind him, one hand on his shoulder; she stared down at Ashaele through narrowed eyes. “I gather you have come to observe Tiraan custom? Anyone may ask a boon of the Emperor today.”
“If it pleases your Excellency, yes,” she replied. “I am Ashaele nur Tamashi zae Awarrion, matriarch of House Awarrion of Tar’naris, most humbly at your service.”
The general volume of whispers echoing around the room increased slightly, then faded as Eleanora lifted her gaze from the kneeling drow to pan a glare around the chamber. Sharidan regarded her in thoughtful silence for a moment.
“I have heard,” he said at last, “that matriarchs of the drow Houses kneel to no one, even their Queen.”
“That is correct, your Excellency,” Ashaele replied. “We do not lack respect for Her Majesty, but such obeisance is not our custom.”
“Then it shall not be asked of you here,” he said firmly. “Please, stand. Be at ease; you are welcome here.”
The whispers started anew; Ashaele rose smoothly to her feet and raised her head, letting them wash over her. Hope soared in her chest. This was going better than she had dared hope. A brief manhandling by a few guards was the tiniest price to pay if this man listened to her.
“I must clarify that I do not speak for Tar’naris. I have come of my own volition, and not on the orders or permission of my Queen.”
“Then, for the time being, you shall be the guest of the Imperial Palace,” the Emperor replied, causing another stir. “Now, you have surely not come all this way for small talk. What can Tiraas do for you, Lady Ashaele?”
“Your Excellency,” she said, bowing, “I most humbly and respectfully beg, as a citizen who loves her people and her state, that the Tiraan Empire extend diplomatic contact to Tar’naris toward the goal of normalizing relations between our two great societies.”
This time there was an outcry, quickly rising to such chaos that the last part of her sentence was all but inaudible. Luckily it had ended on a fluff of diplomatic flattery; the important part of her request had been clearly heard. The noise was so pervasive that she couldn’t identify many individual threads…except for the few loudest shouts, which were almost universally imprecations. She did hope her Narisian allies were managing to remain hidden. There would be no end of trouble if somebody stumbled upon one of them right now.
“Silence.” Empress Eleanora’s voice cracked like a whip. The crowd obeyed her, though perhaps not as instantly or completely as she would have liked; they did, at least, trail off to a constant undercurrent of murmurs. She swept another baleful stare around the room before turning it on Ashaele. “It is curious, lady, that such a request comes from one who takes pains to assure us that she does not speak on behalf of her government.”
“Nations have their pride, as do their rulers,” Ashaele replied smoothly. “The exchanges over the last decades between Narisian scouts and the Imperial forces at Fort Vaspian have decisively demonstrated that Tiraas is militarily superior. For Queen Arkasia to extend a request for peace at this time would be for her to sacrifice face—a thing I do not wish to see. The Silver Throne, being in the dominant position, does not suffer this drawback. An overture from Tiraas would be an offering, not a plea.”
“This verges on flattery,” Eleanora said sharply. Sharidan glanced up at her, then returned his gaze to Ashaele, his expression neutral. He seemed content, for the moment, to let his wife speak, despite the fact that she had been mostly silent through most of the day’s ceremony. How interesting that he deferred to her now that there were hard questions to ask… Ashaele’s finely tuned political mind immediately sussed out the implications. Oh, these two were very clever. They were likely to make a most effective team. “The entire history of human relations with Tar’naris,” the Empress went on, “with any drow, has consisted of your people raiding ours. Stealing, destroying, and enslaving. Today of all days your request will be considered with all due weight, but do not think we fail to see the context. No drow has attempted to approach us until we held a decisive advantage.”
“It is not my intention to explain or excuse history,” Ashaele said calmly. “It is relevant, however, to consider history, as your Excellency has said. Nations and peoples act in a manner that they believe is justified; Tiraas has assuredly considered itself justified in its systematic conquest of this continent.” Another rumble rose around her at this, but she pressed on. “I humbly call to your Excellencies’ attention the manner of this conquest: Tiraas has enjoyed such success in part because it exercised military force only in the absence of better options, in keeping with Avei’s doctrines of war. Nations that have joined you voluntarily have historically become your most prosperous provinces.”
“You are offering submission and absorption into the Empire, then?” Eleanora asked, her tone deceptively mild, now.
“No,” Ashaele said evenly. “Even were it within my authority to offer, you shall not have that. Nor is it the only prospect suggested by history. Tiraas has very productive relationships with the Punaji and Tidestrider nations, which remain independent but tightly linked to the Empire.”
“Both play a vital role in securing our borders,” the Empress shot back. “With respect, Tar’naris is hardly positioned to offer such a service.”
“With respect,” Ashaele replied, her voice soft, “with the greatest respect, you are deeply mistaken. Tar’naris must guard its gates on two fronts. You can scarcely imagine the horrors of the true Underworld. Your forces could hold it back, now…perhaps. Thousands of years of the effort and spilled blood of my people has bought your society the luxury of developing to this point.”
Another rustle began to swell in the chamber, but it quickly died as the Emperor held up one hand for silence. He leaned forward on the throne, staring intently down at Ashaele.
“For obvious reasons, we don’t get the freshest reports from beyond Tar’naris,” he said, “but in fact I do know something of what lurks in the Deep Dark. For that reason, and the others you have raised, your request is… Interesting.”
Everyone stared at him with baited breath now, Ashaele perhaps most of all. He leaned back against the Throne, glancing up at Eleanora. She met his eyes momentarily, and a silent exchange seemed to pass between them. For having been married only a day, they seemed to share a significant bond.
“Lady Ashaele,” he said in the tone of a pronouncement, “as it seems we cannot host you as befits an ambassador, you shall, as I have said, be our personal guest for the remainder of the Coronation, during which time the Throne’s focus is and must be largely inward. After that, we shall furnish you a suitable escort back to Tar’naris.” She tensed, barely, in spite of herself; all around her, whispers swelled anew. “If you will kindly do us this service, Tiraas will thank you to escort our ambassadors to your Queen.”
The crowd truly erupted again, but was swiftly silenced by the Empress’s roared threat to have the great hall cleared.
Ashaele felt the tension drain from her for what had to be the first time in weeks. She bowed deeply. “Your Excellency, it shall be my honor.”
“Ugh, I can’t believe you’re reading that. It’s in Tanglish. Have you run out of domestic books completely?”
Shaeine lifted her head to scowl at her grinning sister. “This is an account of Mother’s first journey to Tiraas,” she said pointedly. “A little respect would be appropriate.”
“Oh, come on,” Nahil said despairingly. “How many times have you read that story? You probably know it better than she does at this point.”
“Yes, but those are the Narisian accounts,” she shot back. “This is a novelization by a Tiraan bard.”
“Really?” Heral asked, her mild tone a contrast to Nahil’s aggressive ribbing. “Do they portray her with horns and shooting fire from her eyes?”
“In fact she is treated very respectfully,” Shaeine said stiffly. “Heroically, even. There’s some fudging of the facts, of course, for drama’s sake, but I must say that if this is Tiraas’s introduction to Mother… Well, it’s a good one, that’s all.”
“Course it is,” Nahil said cheerfully. “She probably paid to have it written. She doesn’t miss a trick. Sneaky lady, like all good negotiators!”
“Respect, you hooligan!” Shaeine shouted, making as if to throw the book at her.
“All right, you two, behave,” Heral said reprovingly. “I didn’t interrupt your reading and her carousing on a whim, Shaeine. Mother’s in the grand hall with the Queen, the ambassador from Tiraas and that aggravating gold elf. She’s asked for us to attend them.”
“Attend them?” Nahil asked sharply. “Why?”
Heral grimaced. “General purposes.”
Nahil and Shaeine winced. “General purposes” meant standing there looking calm and pretty, and being ready to back Ashaele up should the need arise. “General purposes” meant the meeting was not going well.
Regretfully, Shaeine marked her place and set the book down on her bench, smoothing her hair as she rose. “Best get out there, then.”
“That aggravating gold elf has a name, you know,” Nahil pointed out as the three sisters strode down the hall.
“We know her name,” Shaeine grunted. “Everyone knows her name. I’d rather not pronounce it; I hear that summons her.”
Nahil laughed, but Heral gave her a gently remonstrative look. “You haven’t even met her, little sister.”
“I’d have been extremely content never having met her,” Shaeine muttered, then fell silent as they passed through a door which was held open and then closed behind them by armored House guards. House Awarrion’s residence, in addition to being their home, served as Tar’naris’s universal embassy and the place where negotiations between Narisian Houses were held. By crossing that threshold, they had passed into the palace’s public wing. All emotion faded from the three women’s expressions, and they glided the rest of the way in perfect, silent serenity, public faces firmly in place.
What was now the grand hall had been a series of smaller rooms originally. Upon the renovation of Tar’naris’s caverns using Tiraan enchantment, House Awarrion had knocked down both interior and exterior walls, making a long, tall chamber bordered on one side by archways which led to the House’s new outdoor gardens. Full-sized willow trees speed-grown by the most powerful witchcraft they could import shielded the hall from the glow of the cavern’s sun crystals; the hall, in addition to its beautiful view, was livened by the splashing of fountains and an artificial stream, plus the smell of flowers and greenery. It was also equipped with modern fairy lamps of the highest quality, straight from the factories of Calderaas, and lined with discreet padded benches. At one end stood a huge stone chair on a low dais, on which sat the matriarch of House Awarrion, or, when she was conducting meetings here, Queen Arkasia.
The Queen sat there now. She glanced at the three daughters of the House as they entered, but did not acknowledge them further. Their mother gave them a fleeting little smile, no more than politeness dictated. All three women stopped just inside, bowing to the Queen and then their matriarch, before gliding over to stand behind her.
A small delegation of women in House Dalmiss colors were just departing, leaving Arkasia and the Awarrions alone with two humans and a surface elf who wore gold-rimmed spectacles and a thunderous scowl. Ambassador Conover gave them a nod and a warm smile; his aide, Rashid, bowed much more politely, his expression neutral.
Shaeine rather liked Rashid. Most of the Imperial staff in residence kept to their own customs and trusted diplomatic immunity to gloss over their missteps. Rashid had actually bothered to learn why the Narisians cultivated emotional reserve, and did his best not to inflict his every little feeling on everyone. His efforts were imperfect, of course, but she gave him a great deal of credit for trying. In her opinion, he’d have made a better Ambassador than Conover.
Shaeine did not, as a rule, enjoy the company of humans. True, they were an attractive people, with their powerful physiques, adorable little ears and exotic colorations, but she found them easier to enjoy from a safe distance. They were like children, casually emoting every little feeling that flickered across their minds. It was charming for the first five minutes, then quickly became exhausting, and from there downright offensive. The worst part was that far too many of them just wouldn’t learn.
These two she knew, however, and gave more attention to the other person present. Shaeine had never left Tar’naris, and despite her family’s attempts to establish contact with the surface tribes, none of them had yet deigned to venture below. As such, this was her first sight of an elf from the sun-blasted wastelands above, and she found the sight rather disturbing. Humans were one thing; an elf with human coloring was just…unnatural. The woman had skin like the paler breed of humans, the lightest possible tan with pinkish highlights, hair the color of polished gold and green eyes. It was downright creepy…and all the worse because Arachne Tellwyrn’s reputation preceded her.
“I understand that this is not what you expected, Professor,” Queen Arkasia said calmly.
“That is one way of putting it,” Tellwyrn snapped. Shaeine barely managed not to wince. Just who did this woman think she was, speaking to the Queen in that tone? Of course, it was a silly reaction. Tellwyrn knew exactly who she was.
“I really think it will work out, though,” Lord Conover said brightly. “House Dalmiss oversees agriculture, as I’m sure you know—”
“It was mentioned once or twice,” Tellwyrn said with heavy sarcasm. “Roughly every third sentence, in fact.”
“Yes, well, that’s something they’ll have in common with a lot of Imperial citizens,” Conover pressed on, his good cheer beginning to look a little desperate. “Especially in the Great Plains region around Last Rock. Ambassadors are well and good for dealing with other ambassadors, but the whole point of this program is to begin getting the citizens of Tar’naris and the Empire acclimated to each other. Miss Natchua probably has a lot more in common with most of your students than the average drow. It’s a solid start!”
Tellwyrn tilted her head back, staring at the ceiling as if she expected to find patience there. “Conovor, do you know what kind of school I run? Exactly how many farmers do you think I have enrolled in an average year?”
“House Dalmiss has been more heavily involved with Imperial personnel than most, what with the agricultural projects here,” Rashid said more quietly. “That should give Natchua an advantage.”
“And was this Natchua involved in any way with any of those discussions?” Tellwyrn snapped.
“I’m afraid we don’t know, precisely,” Ashaele said smoothly. “But there is still time for her to meet with embassy personnel and grow acclimated—”
“Do you know who’s already acclimated to humans?” the Professor interrupted. “House Awarrion.”
Shaeine kept her calm, but inwardly she bristled. How dare this ill-mannered woman cut off her mother?
“I’m sure you gleaned the basics of the situation during the introductions,” Queen Arkasia said with total calm. “The reality is that House Dalmiss has amassed considerable favor and influence due to their position and involvement with the cavern renovations. Matriarch Ezrakhai is owed certain concessions, and her protege’s inclusion in the exchange program is her fondest wish.”
“I’m still waiting for someone to explain what that has to do with me.”
“Politics are an inescapable fact of life everywhere,” Ashaele said soothingly. “The Queen’s obligation is first and foremost to the city, and this requires certain accommodations. Surely you can find it in you to be reasonable.” That last came very near to a reprimand; it was a sign that the normally unflappable Ashaele’s patience with this woman was already considerably frayed.
“Reasonable?” Tellwyrn snorted and folded her arms, looking mulish. “I can’t think of a single reason why I should. None of this is my problem, and I don’t appreciate you trying to make it so. I agreed to participate in this program as a favor to both the Empire and your city. This is not something I have any need to do. I went along because, in part, I was promised an Awarrion.” She turned the full force of her glare on Ashaele, and Shaeine was not the only one present who stiffened imperceptibly. “Putting a trained diplomat on my campus is an entirely different matter from some random drow!”
“Natchua d’zun Dalmiss is hardly random,” Arkasia said languidly. “Her matriarch would not have nominated her were she not confident of the girl’s ability to represent her House and Tar’naris well.”
“And what does the matriarch of a House of subterranean farmers know about what makes a good citizen ambassador?” Tellwyrn shot back. “Maybe this Natchua is the perfect bloody candidate; stranger things have happened. But far more likely is she’ll react the way most people do when suddenly immersed in a completely alien culture. She could withdraw completely and piss everybody off acting like the worst caricature of a surly drow… Or she might go native and come back here in four years using Tanglish slang and acting like a dime novel cowboy. The point is, we don’t know. Anyone care to place a bet which of those outcomes would do more damage to your little exchange program?” She set her teeth, staring at the Queen. “I was invited—begged—to participate in this rigamarole because I was offered a student from House Awarrion, whom I could count on to actually promote the peace on my campus.”
“And you shall have one,” said the Queen. “Next year. For the time being, the politics of the situation are what they are. I regret your disappointment.”
“You are not alone in incurring costs,” Ashaele added. “That is the very essence of compromise. I have been grooming a young man for this post as well, and those plans will have to be put off.”
“Well, you sure picked a great time to misplace your backbone, Ashaele,” Tellwyrn said dryly. Shaeine clung to her serenity by a fingernail, unable to stop her body from going rigid with rage. That this creepy blonde lout should speak to her mother in such a manner was absolutely intolerable. “What happened to the daring hero who crept alone into Tiraas to make peace with the savage surface-dwellers?”
“I did that in the service of my Queen and my city, as I do everything,” Ashaele replied, calm as ever. “Just as I do this.”
“I hope you’re happy with your service, then,” the Professor said sardonically. “I can’t help noticing that your ‘compromise’ is nothing but costs on my part, and no benefits. The old diplomacy a little rusty, hmm?”
“Perhaps you could do better, Professor, since you are clearly an expert. There are nearly three whole rules of basic civilized behavior you have managed not to flout in the last five minutes.”
Dead silence fell. Shaeine realized only belatedly that it was she who had spoken. As everyone turned to stare at her, horror welled up in her—to have spoken out of turn like that, to have lost control, and in front of the Queen—but it did not lessen her fury. In fact, if anything, she felt a giddy sense of liberation. Well, the cat was out of the bag now, as the Imperials said. At least she hadn’t lost her serenity.
“I beg your pardon?” said Tellwyrn, her tone and expression suddenly very mild.
“You have it,” Shaeine replied, “though I confess I am puzzled as to the utility of the request. It seems I am the only person present whom you have not personally insulted.”
“Shaeine,” her mother said, very quietly, completely without expression. Oh, yes, she was in trouble now. Well… In for a penny, in for a pound. The Tiraan really did have such pithy colloquialisms.
“And this is another budding diplomat, I take it?” Tellwyrn asked, still in that soft tone.
“Quite so,” Shaeine replied, bowing to her. “It is my pleasure to offer you a remedial instruction in diplomacy: one succeeds in negotiations by showing respect toward the other party’s position while keeping one’s own goals firmly in mind. In this case, the central dilemma seems to be your determination to behave like an undisciplined child despite being in civilized company. I, for my part, would be deeply mortified if I were to go over there and kick you in the midsection. If, however, that will make you more comfortable in our home, it is a sacrifice I am willing to embrace.”
Her pulse pounded in her ears, to the point she was certain the others in the room could hear it. Terror, shame, exhilaration, rage…emotions whirled in her to such an extent that she couldn’t predict which would would shine through if she allowed her calm facade to crack. She clung to it desperately. Already she’d dug herself into an impossible hole; at least she’d go down courteously.
Everyone was staring at her, the drow with appropriate calm, Rashid wide-eyed and struggling for control; Conover gaped like a fish. Tellwyrn’s expression…was an expression, quite unlike the Narisian idea of reserve, but Shaeine couldn’t interpret it.
Tellwyrn turned to Ashaele, pointing a finger at Shaeine. “And…this is…?”
“Shaeine,” the matriarch said, the very picture of serenity. “My youngest daughter.”
“I see.” The Professor grinned slightly, and for some reason dread began to drown out the other emotions fighting for Shaeine’s attention. “Very well, your Majesty, since we were just discussing compromise, I have decided to be reasonable.”
“How lovely,” Arkasia deadpanned.
“I’ll accept your random farmgirl,” Tellwyrn went on, “with the proviso that next year…” She grinned more broadly and again pointed at Shaeine. “I want this one.”
Shaeine’s reserve very nearly faltered. No, no no, absolutely not, anything but that.
“Oh?” the Queen said laconically. “An interesting choice.”
Ashaele stepped back and sideways, placing a hand on Shaeine’s shoulder. It verged on inappropriate display, but rank enabled one to get away with some things. Such a show of overt protectiveness from a matriarch would have warned any drow that they were stepping on dangerous ground indeed. Of course, Tellwyrn probably understood the gesture just as well and didn’t care. “Shaeine is a cleric, not a diplomat by vocation. She is training to serve in the House chapel.”
“Still beats the hell out of a farmer,” the Professor said bluntly. “Don’t give me that look, Ashaele, I am not aiming to punish the girl for speaking out. Quite the opposite; I think she’s absolutely perfect. She’s got spine, spirit, loyalty…and she’s funny. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Narisian with an overt sense of humor that I wasn’t sleeping with. This is what your exchange program needs. Natchua is going to do the gods only know what; a well-trained diplomat will manage, at best, to ward off conflict. Shaeine, though, has a very good chance of making people like her. You want drow and humans to start getting used to each other? She’s the perfect place to begin.”
No, Goddess, please, I don’t want to go to Tiraas…
“That,” Lord Conover said slowly, “makes a great deal of sense. I mean no disrespect to your culture, your Majesty, but the single greatest hurdle we’ve faced in getting our people to work together is that Narisian reserve seems so cold and aloof to Tiraan sensibilities that it comes off as very nearly hostile. Diplomacy and charm may be exactly the ticket.”
“Interesting,” Arkasia mused. “What say you, Shaeine?”
Please, please no!
Shaeine bowed deeply to the Queen, her expression perfectly calm. “I am less than confident of my competence in this matter, your Majesty. As my mother has said, the main thrust of my education has been in Themynra’s worship. If, however, your Majesty deems this a wise course, I shall be honored to serve Tar’naris in whatever way I can.”
“Perhaps it’s for the best,” Conover said, looking positively cheerful now. “She’s got a full year to bone up on diplomatic procedures.” Shaeine felt a sudden, intense urge to slap him off the balcony with a divine shield.
“Matriarch Ashaele, the matter is in your hands,” said the Queen languidly. “I will not command this of you, but I do endorse it as an elegant solution to the present standoff.”
Ashaele’s hand tightened slightly on Shaeine’s shoulder. “I would discuss this matter in privacy with my daughter before making a final decision, your Majesty.”
“Very well. We shall re-convene tomorrow.”
“Some of us don’t have time to take extended vacations down here,” Tellwyrn said sharply. “If this can be settled—”
“No.” Queen Arkasia’s manner was as emotionless as ever, but there was steel beneath it now. “I am well aware that your notion of compromise is to bully everyone until you get your way, Arachne, but you have pushed my patience as far as you will for one day. You are done browbeating my people. We will resume this discussion tomorrow. That is all.”
Shaeine was barely conscious of the walk back into the private part of the palace, clinging to her serenity in an almost fugue-like state. She was dimly aware of her sisters bidding her farewell, and then she was alone with her mother in the matriarch’s chamber.
Ashaele came to a halt in the center of the room, still as a sculpture, her back to her daughter. Shaeine, feeling some of the fog of shock clearing from her mind, took two deep breaths, and then bowed deeply.
“Mother, I humbly apologize for my shameful loss of composure. Hearing that woman speak to you that way… No, that is not an excuse. I will accept whatever punishm—”
All of a sudden she was hauled upright and swept into a fierce embrace. Ashaele squeezed her close, rocking them gently; Shaeine gratefully buried her face in her mother’s shoulder, wrapping her own arms around her waist. They were silent like that for several minutes.
“That can be addressed later,” Ashaele said finally. “First we must deal with the consequences. I don’t know what designs that sun-baked lunatic has on you, but it goes without saying that I am not just handing you over to her.”
“You should, though.”
“Shaeine, I will handle you myself, as I would any member of this House who stepped out of line. Don’t be overeager to punish yourself.”
“That isn’t what I meant.” Carefully, she pulled back, enough that she could lift her chin and look her mother in the eye. “My inclusion in this program will enable it to go forward despite Professor Tellwyrn’s stubbornness. That, then, is what I should do.”
Ashaele’s brow furrowed in consternation. “Is—Shaeine, do you want to go to the University?”
“Of course I don’t want to go!” she burst out, finally letting the repressed panic escape. Tears welled up in her eyes. “I don’t like humans, and the thought of being alone, surrounded by the Empire for four years terrifies me.” Firmly, she forced her breathing back under control, brushing tears from her cheeks. “But… This needs to be done, and I need to do it.”
“You’re my mother,” she said simply, gazing up at her. “But…you’re also my matriarch. And you’re my hero. I’ve only ever done you justice in one of those capacities. Please, Mother, don’t try to protect me from my duty. You didn’t raise a lout who puts her own desires above the needs of Tar’naris. I need to serve.”
Ashaele drew in a slow, long breath; it shuddered on the way back out. She closed her eyes for a moment before opening them again, and gently placed a hand on Shaeine’s cheek. “My dearest little one… I’ve been selfish too. After we lost your father… I was so pleased you were called by Themynra. It meant I could keep you close to me.”
“I would never want to disappoint you,” Shaeine whispered.
“I am not disappointed. Just…” Impulsively, she pulled her daughter forward again into another hug. “You grew up. At some point you went and turned into the woman I hoped you’d be. I just never thought it would hurt so to realize.”
Shaeine nuzzled at her shoulder. “I hope I am. I want to make you proud. I just…need to prove myself.”
“My lovely, you don’t need to earn anything here.”
“I don’t need to earn your love,” she said softly. “I am so grateful for that. But…I do need to earn my place. I am Narisian. I have my duty.”
They were silent for another stretch of minutes. The matter was decided; there was nothing more to say about it.
“I love you so much.”
“I love you too.”