Dusk was falling as the students disembarked from Malivette’s ostentatious carriages outside their destination. It seemed few people in Veilgrad were anxious to be out after or even too shortly before dark, to judge by the lack of passersby in this central area of the city. Those who were out on the streets, though, stared closely at them, some pausing unabashedly to gawk.
“Why do I have the feeling they’re not enraptured by our good looks?” Toby murmured.
“It’s a safe bet people in the city know whose carriages these are,” Trissiny replied. “Why do I have the feeling this is going to lead to trouble down the road?”
“There are access tunnels leading from the manor to various parts of the city,” Pearl said, stepping gracefully down from the driver’s seat of the carriage. Somehow, incredibly, she managed this without disturbing her expensive dress. “The Mistress considered sending you out through those, but you were already seen entering the carriages at the Rail platform. It will come out sooner or later that you are staying with us.”
“Wise,” Shaiene agreed, nodding. “Whether or not our associations are approved of, attempting to hide them would only make us look more suspicious.”
Jade descended to the pavement and strolled over to her counterpart, speaking as she did so. “Remember, kids, Mr. Grusser is technically not a noble, and his official title is Steward for House Dufresne, but for all intents and purposes, he is the acting governor of this city and the surrounding province. He doesn’t stand much on ceremony, but the man is popular and good at his job—a suitable combination for a public servant. He should be treated with due respect.”
“Is that really a concern?” Juniper asked, tilting her head quizzically. “Do we seem like the kind of people who’d be rude to the man in charge?”
“Well, let’s keep in mind that Arquin’s been in there for a couple hours and be prepared to do some damage control,” Ruda snorted.
“I don’t think you give Gabriel very much credit,” Fross said reprovingly. “So he’s not very practiced socially; he is trying, and getting better.”
“Also, he’s not just some kid anymore,” Teal noted. “The Hand of Vidius can probably get away with a gaffe here and there.”
“There’s another thing,” said Pearl. Jade gave her a pointed look, which she returned. After a tense pause, she turned her face back toward the cluster of students and continued. “Mr. Grusser’s consort, Eleny Feathership, is not his wife and has no legal status. She is, however, as loved by him as any bride, and also quite popular among the citizenry. I suggest you consider her the lady of the manor, and act accordingly.”
“There it is again,” Juniper complained. “Why would we be mean to this guy’s girlfriend?”
“It isn’t that,” Jade said with a wry little smile. “You might be…surprised, however.”
“Less so now,” Pearl added. “The Mistress enjoys her little jokes, but I fear too much social isolation has blunted her sense of what’s good fun and what may be hurtful. You are not going in completely unaware, but that is all I will say on the matter. She did wish for you to have a surprise this evening.”
“I’m thinkin’ the fewer of those we have, the better,” Ruda commented.
“Are you just…going to wait out here?” Teal asked a moment later, when the students had started moving toward the door and their drivers did not.
“We should remain with the carriages,” Pearl said, smiling. “It discourages pranksters.”
“Is that safe, though?” Teal asked, frowning. “I mean… Malivette said there’d been two riots. People attacked her house.”
“The Mistress has a penchant for dramatic effect,” said Jade, rolling her eyes. “It was more like one long riot with two particularly busy spells. She had to go outside twice, but after her second…performance…I highly doubt anyone in Veilgrad will challenge her or us directly. Unattended carriages might be just too tempting, however. So, here we stay.”
“I mean no disrespect,” Toby said diplomatically, “and you surely know the city better than we… But if it comes to another riot or something even similar, well… You’re two young women in fancy dresses.”
“They will be fine,” Trissiny said from up ahead. She caught Jade’s eye and nodded. “Trust me. Nothing around here is going to threaten them.”
“Now, is this you knowin’ something we don’t,” Ruda demanded, “or are you just willing to throw the vampire’s pals too the wolves?”
“Do any of you actually know anything about vampires?” Trissiny asked.
“A little!” Fross chimed. “A…very little. I really need to hit the books and bone up on undead. I was not expecting that information to be relevant on this trip.”
“What do you know about vampires?” Teal asked Trissiny.
“If it lurks in the night and kills people, I’ve been trained to destroy it,” the paladin replied. “I’ll bring you all up to speed on everything I know later, though that research is still a good idea, Fross. My own intel is singularly focused, and we presumably won’t be destroying Malivette.”
“You had better move along,” Pearl said gently. “You’re expected for dinner; it won’t do to be late. Mr. Grusser might think we delayed you on purpose.”
“Righto, then,” Ruda said with a shrug. “If you’re sure…”
Despite its foreboding outer walls, the general architecture within Veilgrad might be best described as “quaint.” It ran heavily to tall stone foundations and whitewashed walls braced by dark-stained beams. The structure to which they had been delivered was a particularly large specimen of the style, half fortress and half overblown cottage, and somehow it all worked. The elaborately carved window shutters and corner posts beautifully offset the grim towers of granite blocks; in some places, graceful wood-and-plaster walls rose straight from behind battlements which were obviously decorative rather than functional.
The building had been described to them as the administrative center of Veilgrad, encompassing both its city hall and the residence of the mayor, whom they had come to visit. Thus, they’d been brought to a rear entrance, where a small cul-de-sac made room for the carriages. Rather than climbing the broad steps to the hall’s towering front doors, they approached a much smaller, more cozy entrance, flanked by cheerful fairy lamps and narrow windows.
Toby pulled the bell; the door was opened mere moments later, revealing an older man in understated livery, his coat a dark purple offset by sober deep gray.
“Good evening, sir and ladies,” he said. “Welcome to Dufresne House. Please, come in; you are expected.”
He stepped back, bowing them through, and the students trooped in, gathering uncertainly in the hall while the servant shut the door behind them. It was warmly lit, fairy lamps shining through golden glass sconces; the stone floor and dark-paneled walls were decorated by a long rug and hanging tapestries. An actual suit of armor stood next to the door.
“This way, if you please,” the servant said diffidently, ushering them forward. “The Steward awaits you in the dining room with the last member of your party. Dinner will be served anon. Please, enter and be comfortable.”
It was a pretty short distance to the dining room, reached by a narrow side hall; they could already hear voices, one of which was laughing. The other was familiar.
“I still can’t believe it! A princess!” one speaker said, still chortling. “Right in the foot!”
“Well, I can’t deny it worked. Those horses got one whiff of demon and went haring off like…well, like they’d seen a demon. That doesn’t mean I’m ever going to let go of it, of course.”
“Oh, indeed, you should milk that for every precious drop. It’s not often you get something to hold over a woman; usually that goes the other way ’round!”
They’d begun filing into the dining room as he spoke, and at the last sentence Trissiny cleared her throat pointedly.
At the head of the long table, the man who had been seated there looked up and quickly rose to his feet, beaming in apparent pleasure at his guests. Beside him, Gabriel stood a moment later, grinning. Mayor Grusser was surprisingly young, somewhere between his later youth and earliest middle years; it was hard to say precisely. His Stalweiss origins showed clearly in his fair hair, pale complexion and square features. That was no surprise, the name having been a tip-off, and anyway more than half the population of Veilgrad were Stalweiss, most of the rest being Tiraan. Before the Imperial conquest, it had been considered part of the Stalrange. He was tall, but in addition to his relative youth, was also quite slim of build. Somehow his image didn’t quite match the title of his office.
“Everyone! Welcome!” Grusser exclaimed, enthusiastically waving them forward. “Please, please, everyone, sit, make yourselves comfortable—we don’t over-emphasize ceremony here. While you are my guests, my home is your home. I am Lars Grusser, Steward of House Dufresne and sort of the mayor by default of Veilgrad. And you are… Of course, please allow me to guess. Gabriel has been telling me the most hilarious stories—I feel as if I already know each of you!”
Their round of introductions was just coming to a close when another door at the opposite end of the room opened, apparently by itself. A pause fell, Juniper trailing off her apology for not being able to bring her pet (fortunately, she wasn’t positioned to see her classmates’ expressions), as everyone turned to look quizzically at the door. Those on the wrong side of the table couldn’t immediately see anyone present.
“Oh, heaven’s sake, Lars, why am I the last one to dinner in my own house?” a female voice exclaimed. “You could have sent for me—I thought they weren’t arriving till later!”
“Well, that was the plan, love,” Grusser said, smiling broadly and rising from his seat again. “But you know how Vette enjoys her little pranks. Fortunately Hans had more foresight than we, otherwise our guests might have been waiting a long time for dinner. Everyone, this is my companion, Eleny Feathership.”
Gabriel had already got to his feet, bowing courteously to the new arrival; the others respectfully stood in the next moments, most trying not to look confused or startled after Pearl’s warning.
Eleny was a gnome, scarcely more than three feet tall, with curly brown hair that fell to her waist. She wore a conservatively cut dress of red brocade, and smiled warmly up at Grusser as he fell to one knee beside her, taking her hand and placing a gentle kiss on her knuckles.
“Ah, yes, Vette’s jokes. You’re right, love, one of us really ought to have seen that coming. Well, here we are now!” She smiled broadly up at her guests. “Did I miss the introductions?”
Dinner was plentiful and good. The simple and hearty fare consisted of Stalweiss staples: sausage and cabbage soup, fried potatoes, wedges of spicy cheese, and apples for dessert. The only thing missing from the traditional spread was beer. Apparently Professor Tellwyrn’s drinking policy had been advertized ahead of them. Mayor or no mayor, Grusser clearly was wise enough to respect it.
Once over the initial surprise, the students found their host and hostess excellent conversationalists, skilled at maintaining a pleasant mood over dinner. Rehashing some of Gabriel’s stories provided them plenty of fodder; Ruda in particular chose to challenge his interpretations of certain events. Grusser sat at the head of the long table, Eleny at the far end, her seat specially designed to keep her at the same level as the rest of the diners. After the confusion and subtle menace that had marked their visit to Veilgrad thus far, it was altogether a blessedly pleasant evening.
Eventually, though, apples were being polished off, the efficient manservant Hans was removing plates, and finally the mayor leaned back in his chair, folding his hands on the table in front of him, and spoke in a deceptively casual tone.
“So! I understand you’ve been sent here to find and remove the source of the troubles we have been experiencing.”
Silence suddenly fell, the sophomores glancing around at each other. Eleny watched them all, her expression pleasantly neutral.
“First of all,” Toby began, “we greatly appreciate your patience, Mr. Grusser. Please understand the last thing anyone here intends is to step on your authority in any way. Professor Tellwyrn has a tendency to assign these…projects…without much regard for how people will be affected by them.”
“Well,” Grusser said with a wry smile, “my ‘authority,’ or lack thereof, is a sort of complicated matter. The political situation in Veilgrad is…unusual, and somewhat tense, but it has worked for us. At least until very recently. I will tell you this, though.” He leaned forward again, his expression growing intent. “I am only a few years younger than Malivette; I was but a schoolboy when she was attacked by the vampire and House Dufresne all but destroyed. I knew her, though, distantly. We did not really socialize, but my family have been stewards to hers for generations, and I was definitely aware of her. She was always such a bright girl, cheerful and fond of jokes. After that…” He sighed heavily. “Well. It was certainly to be expected that she would be full of darkness, given all that she had experienced. I only saw her once more before she left for the University. I recall thinking, at the time, that that was the face of a woman who truly, deeply hated herself, the world and everything in it.
“Then,” he continued pensively, “four years later, I was working as a secretary under my father when she returned. The darkness was still there, obviously, and I rather think always will be. But she was herself again. To the extent that it was possible, whatever happened at that school put her back right. She smiled and laughed again, had friends.”
“Oh, did she ever have friends,” Eleny said, grinning.
“Indeed, my dear, and that is the next point I was about to make,” Grusser said, nodding to her. “She came back with half a dozen classmates, visiting for the summer before going off to resume their own lives. At that time, my friends, Veilgrad was suffering a significant demon problem.”
“Demon problem?” Trissiny said sharply.
“The city had had one for a good many years,” he replied solemnly, “though it had escalated in the years since the fall of House Dufresne. By that point, people walked about armed; there were two known katzils nesting somewhere in the roofs, imps had a tendency to appear in the streets at night, and there was an incubus operating in the city, spreading chaos. He was the worst of all.”
“What was he trying to do?” Teal asked, fascinated.
“I am glad to say that the minds of demons are inscrutable to me,” Grusser said with a grimace.
“He wasn’t necessarily trying to do anything in particular,” Trissiny noted. “An incubus would attempt to destabilize whatever city he found himself in just on general principles.”
“That summer,” Grusser continued, his grin returning, “all of that ended. Oh, the University graduates were very subtle. I only know they were involved at all because of my father’s position; it was to us that they came for advice on navigating the city. Within a few weeks, the demons were just gone, and the next we heard, nearly all of House Leduc had been quietly arrested in the night by Imperial Intelligence and shipped off to trial in Tiraas.”
“This House was responsible for the demon attacks?” Shaeine asked, frowning in polite disapproval.
“No official confirmation of that was ever published,” Eleny said, rolling her eyes, “but it was an open secret from the beginning. Veilgrad started suffering intermittent demonic problems at the same time members of one of its two noble families started universally dying of sudden cancer in their forties, while nevertheless growing richer by means no banker could seem to track. Subtle, they were not.”
“Subtle enough to avoid official censure, at least until the University people stepped in and broke them,” Grusser said with obvious satisfaction. “The point of my story, friends, is that I have no objection to your presence or activities here. None. I don’t presume to know what happens at that school of yours, but Professor Tellwyrn clearly knows what she is about. As do her students. Now that Veilgrad is suffering from some unknown darkness—again—I have to admit being relieved that you are here.” He grinned, and winked. “Meddling.”
“Perhaps you can elucidate the political situation for us?” Shaeine suggested. “You spoke of two houses. Our hosts said that House Dufresne were your employers, yet you speak as if they are gone.”
“Yes, quite right,” he replied. “Well, to begin, Veilgrad has had two resident Houses since it first became an Imperial province. Houses Dufresne and Leduc arrived simultaneously, and in fact were instrumental in the Tiraan conquest and the subsequent campaign into the Stalrange. Now, however, both teeter on the brink of extinction, reduced to a single member each. In fact, the last member of House Dufresne, who officially holds the title of Duchess of this province, is legally dead. She is still up and walking about, however, and even the Empire has declined to try stripping her of her position. This…makes the matter complicated, as I’m sure you can imagine.”
“Wait, Malivette is the ruler of this province?” Trissiny exclaimed.
“On paper,” Grusser said seriously. “In practice, I handle all of her affairs except the personal. It is really the only way; the populace would never tolerate a vampire’s direct control over them.”
“Where did you think she got that giant mansion from?” Eleny asked, grinning.
“Dufresne, Leduc,” Teal murmured. “Those aren’t Stalweiss names. Nor Tiraan… If anything, they sound Glassian.”
“Just so!” Eleny said, smiling broadly. “You’ve a good ear for tongues. Aye, the history is actually quite fascinating. The earliest Dufresnes and Leducs in the region fled Glassierre due to some politics in the old country; when they came to this continent, they went right to Tiraas, presented themselves to the Emperor and offered their fealty. Well, Tiraas was at that time launching its conquest of this region, and these two were a godsend. Few of the native nobility wanted to risk their own assets against the Stalweiss and their Huntsmen, who were sort of legendary terrors at that time. And here came two brand new Houses from a cold country which was famous for its art and culture despite having to beat back constant incursions of its borders. Who better to conquer and civilize the Stalrange?”
“Sounds like they were on pretty good terms, then,” Gabriel noted.
“At that time, aye, they were,” the gnome replied, nodding. “But that was centuries ago. Ever since, with the conquest long accomplished…well, they were two big birds in the same nest, and fell to infighting as nobles always do. The rulership of Veilgrad and the province passed back and forth between them in the course of just all kinds of intrigues. Toward the end, there, it was widely known the Leducs were practicing some kind of diabolism; in fact, twice that there are records of, the Black Wreath themselves intervened to shut down some project of theirs. But they kept at it, and only House Dufresne, being rulers at the time, had the power to keep ’em in check. Then the Dufresnes were slaughtered in their beds by a vampire and the only heir turned, and the Leducs saw weakness. It got bad before it got better,” she added solemnly.
“She’s quite the historian, is my Eleny,” Grusser said, smiling fondly.
“Lars thinks I tend to natter on and bore the company,” the gnome said, returning his expression exactly. “But it is immediately relevant to the topic! The Dufresnes were wiped out by a vampire; the Leducs were mostly cleared out by the Empire after University adventurers…well, did whatever they did. The last of ’em died off in prison or in shame, most by suicide. There’s one Lord of House Leduc left, moldering away in that mansion, and he has no political aspirations. Then there’s the Lady Dufresne, who has to keep out of politics to avoid inciting a rebellion. That is why Lars effectively runs this province, despite being no aristocrat.”
“That seems…peculiar, if you will pardon my saying it,” Shaeine said tactfully. “Would it not make sense for the Empire to appoint you governor, Mr. Grusser?”
“Politics,” he said with a dramatic sigh belied by his amused expression. “You see, my friends, doing that would establish a precedent. Specifically, that a noble ruler can be removed for such a paltry reason as being totally unfit to govern. The Houses would never stand for that; it’d put fully half of them out on the street if it became Imperial policy.”
“That’s…really weird,” said Juniper, blinking. “I’m not much for law or politics, but wouldn’t that be a really good idea? I mean, for the Emperor to do. Why does he let them push him around that way?”
“On paper,” Grusser replied, “the power of the Silver Throne is absolute. In practice, there’s a lot the Houses could do to make Sharidan’s life miserable if they chose, especially if a lot of them were in agreement on it. He’s very good at keeping them mollified. Among other things, that requires some unfortunate compromises. The issue in Veilgrad is that with as much unrest as this region has suffered, removing a familiar face who is—if I may flatter myself—rather popular and placing another leader in the governorship would be risking serious unrest, possibly verging on rebellion. Thus, it’s in the Throne’s best interests to let the situation stand. He can’t place another House in charge, and he definitely can’t risk the wrath of the aristocrats by simply removing the resident House and putting a commoner in charge.”
“Emperors have done that, though,” Trissiny said, frowning. “Repeatedly.”
“Conquering Emperors have done that,” Grusser corrected her with a smile. “The Tirasian Dynasty stitched this Empire back together after the Enchanter Wars through diplomacy and subterfuge. Sharidan has the backing of the military—no Tiraan Emperor lasts long without it—but he’s not willing to use that against his own people except at great need, and the Houses know it. No, the situation here is undesirable, but stable. Politically speaking, that is. If the escalating issues in this city aren’t brought to a halt, though… It’s impossible to say what might happen.”
“Thank you for explaining all of this, Mr. Grusser,” Toby said thoughtfully. “This answers a number of questions I had about Malivette and her position in the city.”
“So, the question now is, what’s our plan?” Gabriel said, looking around at them.
“First things first,” Eleny said briskly. “Coming here was a good start; you should also check in with the other political powers active in the city. The Omnist temple, the Huntsmen, the Universal Church parson and the Imperial barracks.”
“That would take days if we did it sequentially,” Shaeine observed. “I propose dividing our forces.”
“Yeah, pretty obvious who should go talk with the monks,” Ruda said, winking at Toby. “And of course, we should definitely send Trissiny up to the lodge to chat with the Huntsmen.”
“Is…is she joking?” Eleny asked in a tone of fascinated horror.
“Yes,” Trissiny said firmly. “If Ruda suggests anything tremendously stupid, you can be sure she is joking.”
“Aw, way to ruin my fun, Shiny Boots,” Ruda said, grinning.
“There’s another thing,” Grusser added seriously. “I presume that you will be wanting to look into the known threats facing the city after you have introduced yourselves to the potential stabilizing forces?”
“Any starting points you can suggest would be very helpful,” Toby said.
“Well…” Grusser sighed. “With regard to that, there is one prospect who stands right between the two categories. Or, rather, in both, at least potentially.”
“A known power…and a known threat?” Fross chimed. “Both? That sounds dangerous.”
“I mentioned there is a surviving member of House Leduc,” Grusser said grimly. “Lord Sherwin keeps to himself, which in all frankness is the best thing I can say about him. I have nothing to prove it, otherwise I would hand him over to the Empire—or, could I contact them, even the Black Wreath—but it is an open secret that he is carrying on his family’s traditions. All of them.”
Trissiny scowled deeply. “You mean…”
“Aye, afraid so,” Eleny said with a worried frown. “You see why it’s a hardship, not being able to brush aside the nobility, here. Why no other noble House has tried to finish them off and seize their territory, when they’d normally be on two critically weakened Houses like vultures on a corpse. The last nobles in Veilgrad are the vampire…and the warlock.”
The carriages trundled back up the road to the isolated Dufresne manor in total darkness. Each had lanterns dangling from all four corners, old-fashioned wrought iron fixtures housing modern fairy lamps; they proceeded in their own moving island of cheerful light. It was dimmer in their interiors, which were illuminated only by small lamps that cast a faint but warm glow, just enough for their passengers to see one another. It would probably have been impossible to read by, had any of them been so inclined.
It was a quiet ride, at least for the first leg. Aside from being tired—and full—all of them were processing the various revelations of the day, and contemplating their next steps.
“They seem like such a perfect couple,” Teal said suddenly, breaking the silence. “They were so in sync.”
“Indeed, they appeared to be very much in tune with one another,” Shaeine replied, placing a hand over hers on the seat between them.
“I wonder why he doesn’t just marry her,” Teal said pensively. “Is…interracial marriage that taboo in the Empire?”
“Maybe. Dunno.” Ruda shrugged. “That’s not the issue, though, either way. It’s all about politics.”
“How so?” Trissiny asked.
“C’mon, isn’t it obvious?”
“Ruda,” she said flatly, “I know you are socially adroit enough not to say things like that by accident. You’re not Gabe. Is there a reason you wanted to make me feel stupid for not having your political education?”
“Aw, I didn’t mean it like that, Boots,” Ruda said, affectionately jostling her roommate with an elbow. “You’re right, I’m sorry; I’ve got some bad conversational habits. Nothing personal meant. On the subject, though… The political situation in Veilgrad in a nutshell is that the resident nobles are a menace and a hardship, the Emperor can’t remove ’em because of what it’d mean for the nobility everywhere, and the current acting governor needs to stay in place to keep this very uneasy population from outright revolting. So he can’t be replaced with another House. With me so far?”
“Succinctly put,” said Shaeine.
Ruda nodded. “Well, there’s a simple solution to all of this. If Lars Grusser marries into a House, Veilgrad would get new nobility, which would pacify the Houses, and he could remain in power, which would pacify the populace. He can’t marry Eleny; he has to hope for a political marriage. It’s sad, sure, but…that’s politics. It’s an old and not uncommon story. C’mon, Teal, I bet you know a bunch just like it.”
“Yeah…several of them are among a bard’s standbys.” Teal sighed, turning to stare at the darkened window. Thanks to the interior lights reflecting on the glass, they had virtually no view outside. Not that there was much to see, anyway. “I don’t favor tragedies, myself.”
Shaeine scooted closer and leaned subtly against her shoulder.
“That leaves out another party, though,” Trissiny said, frowning. “Suppose Malivette doesn’t want to give up power?”
“Malivette doesn’t have power,” Ruda said. “She’s only Duchess in name, and everyone knows it. Besides, Malivette strikes me as a weirdo even apart from the undead thing, but I didn’t have the impression she’s in any way stupid. She has to be aware of all this, if she’s not actively in on it. The fact she allows the matter to stand is basically a tacit endorsement of the idea. Unless, of course, there’s more going on that we don’t know.”
“That much is a virtual certainty,” Shaeine murmured.
They froze as a long, mournful howl echoed through the mountains. It hung in the air for long moments, eventually trailing off in a descending note. Moments later, it was repeated from another direction, and then more voices sprang up. Soon, the howls sounded from all sides, carrying on like an eerie choir.
“Wolves,” Teal said softly. “How pretty.”
“We’re prob’ly safe in here,” Ruda noted. “Very few animals will come near an undead. The horses are like…wolf repellent, I bet.”
“Those are not wolves,” Trissiny said quietly. She had twisted her belt when she sat, so her sword was in her lap rather than jabbing into the cushions; now she held its hilt tightly. “This city is in very serious trouble.”