Tellwyrn paused in chewing when the newspaper was slapped down on the table inches from her plate. She then resumed and swallowed her bite of fish before even looking up.
“You know, Emilio, there are countries in this world where you can be summarily dismissed for approaching your employer that way. Or beheaded.”
“Have you seen this, Arachne?” Professor Ezzaniel demanded curtly.
“No, of course I haven’t,” she said, delicately cutting off another piece of trout without even glancing at the paper. “I make a determined effort to have no idea what’s going on in the world, especially right after a Bishop of the Universal Church starts taking public potshots at me, and of course, you are the only person on this campus clever enough to think of bringing me a newspaper of course I’ve seen it. Let me eat in peace, damn you!”
“I have sufficient restraint not to interrupt classes for this, thank you,” Ezzaniel replied calmly. “It’s not as if we never discuss business over lunch. And this is most definitely business.”
“Pshaw,” Rafe snorted from the other end of the table. “How bad can it be? I wasn’t even mentioned.”
“Gods and ministers of grace preserve us,” Yornhaldt rumbled into his beer.
“Exactly!” Rafe cried. “I mean, really. They’re looking for embarrassing dirt on the University and don’t even hint at me? Bunch of amateur dilettante hacks, is all.”
“Admestus,” Tellwyrn said without rancor, “shut up.”
“Oh, that’s what you always say.”
“And it never works, but I continue to hold out hope. And the rest of you—yes, I see you gearing up to argue—just relax and eat, will you? Mrs. Oak did not slave away over a hot stove just so you could ignore today’s excellent main course in favor of gossip.”
The faculty lounge in Helion Hall was not full, many of the professors preferring to eat alone in their classrooms or living quarters (or the cafeteria, occasionally), but as usual several of the staff had assembled there. Including Professor Yornhaldt, who despite his protestations of enjoying his sabbatical, had become markedly more sociable since returning to the campus and finding himself with no academic duties.
“I am not one to get worked up about anything in the press ordinarily,” Ezzaniel said with a deep frown, “but I just received a telescroll from Marjorie Darke’s mother. She paid the extra fee to have a runner bring it up to me directly from the scrolltower office.”
Taowi Sunrunner looked up from her own plate, raising an eyebrow. “The scrolltower employs a runner now?”
“It turns out Silas Crete occasionally employs his granddaughter,” Ezzaniel said to her, “who incidentally has begun to reek of cigarettes since I last spoke with her, which I suspect is related. Regardless, this has officially reached the point where the kids’ parents are getting nervous.”
“Lady Annabelle Darke,” said Tellwyrn, cutting herself another piece of fish, “has nothing going for her except far too much inherited money and a surname that her grandfather was dashing enough to get away with and which just sounds laughably pretentious on anyone else. Marjorie is only here because Sebastian Darke and I did some jobs back in the day—which turns out to be lucky for all of us, as that kid’s the first one in the line who’s got some of the old man’s spark. The point being, we are officially hearing from the slow-witted, easily agitated demographic. Don’t rush to join them, Emilio.”
“I’m well aware of the Lady Annabelle’s shortcomings,” Ezzaniel said, seating himself across the table from her. “I am paying attention to her because the woman is a weather vane. Not an admirable character trait, but it does make her a useful sign of which way the social winds are blowing this week. It’s going to get worse, Arachne. This is in all the papers.”
“Really, you’ve read all the papers that came out this morning?” she mused, eying him languidly. “Who was teaching your classes, then?”
“Arachne!” he exclaimed in exasperation.
“Calm yourself, Emilio,” Yornhaldt urged, reaching across to pull the paper toward himself. “Just because she is calmly eating lunch doesn’t mean she is ignoring the issue.”
“I prescribe a calm meal as the go-to treatment for many minor ailments,” Taowi added.
“It’s like this,” said Tellwyrn, finally setting down her fork. “Yes, I am aware that this is a concern. No, I am not going to run around in a panic, or in any other way interrupt my routine. The day I deprive myself of an excellent plate of fish over clumsy politicking by the likes of Justinian, I will probably drill a hole to the planet’s core and let out all the molten iron out of sheer spite.”
“From anyone else I would assume that to be empty hyperbole,” Ezzaniel said warily. Rafe cackled around a mouthful of steamed vegetables. “Anyway, isn’t it a leap to pin this on Justinian? It was Snowe who made that speech, and she’s definitely got contacts in the papers. Almost all of them run her column.”
“Branwen Snowe,” said Tellwyrn, “despite being possessed of considerable gifts—”
“They are very nice,” Rafe said, nudging Yornhaldt with an elbow.
“—has never had an original thought in her life,” Tellwyrn continued. “Sorry to disabuse you of this notion that I am sitting obliviously atop an ivory tower, Emilio, but I have been keeping track of political, social and theological trends. This secular humanism Snowe has been spouting for the last few months is a direct extension of ideas the Archpope has been promoting with more circumspection. And the fact that she’s an Izarite Bishop in and of itself signifies that she’s his creature; the followers of Izara regard Church politics as an unnecessary burden, and fob those positions off on people they want to get rid of.”
“If anything, that makes it worse,” Ezzaniel said with a scowl.
Tellwyrn rolled her eyes, gesticulating disparagingly with her (fortunately almost empty) teacup. “There is not a damn thing Justinian can do to me or this University except earn my ire, and he’s far too savvy not to know it. This isn’t directed at us, Emilio. He’s using it for some other purpose. That is why I’m not rushing to take action. It would be rash to blunder into any plan without understanding what’s actually going on, and that has yet to be revealed. What is fascinating to me is that Justinian isn’t the first source of these up-with-people notions he and Snowe have been propounding. It’s point-for-point Black Wreath theology.”
“Oh, dear,” said Rafe. “How villainous. Do you think we should assassinate him?”
“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” Tellwyrn said irritably.
“Yes, you did, and may I just say your persistence in the face of impossible odds is one of the things I admire about y—”
His voice abruptly stopped, though his mouth kept moving. Rafe paused, blinking, and tried to speak again, then turned a scowl on Professor Yornhaldt, who smiled innocently back even as he lowered his casting hand.
“Thank you, Alaric,” Tellwyrn said dryly.
“My pleasure,” Yornhaldt replied while Rafe dug in his belt pouches for the anti-magic potions he always kept on hand.
“Arachne,” said Taowi, “you seem to be trying to reassure us, but each revelation you drop about Archpope Justinian is only more alarming than the last. Now you suggest that he’s involved with the Black Wreath?”
“Hardly,” Tellwyrn snorted. “If anything he’s been more persistent than his last three predecessors in hounding them. No, those ideas are basically good ones, I’ve always thought so. There are cults within the Pantheon that have similar priorities, notably the Eserites and Veskers. It has never been Church doctrine, though, far from it. Justinian’s not with the Wreath, but he’s up to something that he knows the general public is likely to be leery of. Hence designating a scapegoat. It’s the oldest trick in the book, when you want a great mass of people not to notice what you’re actually doing to them.”
“You’re very calm, considering you speak for the scapegoat in question,” Yornhaldt noted.
Tellwyrn shrugged, picking up her fork and resuming work on her fish. “Even if I considered this a crisis, I’ve never found freaking out to be a useful strategy for anything. It’s not a crisis, though, and even so I’m not ignoring it. Just stay the course, ladies and gentlemen—if you have any more irate communications from parents, handle them as best you can while I deal with this.”
“Why would we be fielding communications from parents?” Taowi inquired. “In fact, come to think of it, why did Lady Annabelle send that directly to you, Emilio?”
“I may have incidentally encouraged her to think of me as a sympathetic ear,” Ezzaniel said noncommittally.
“What he means,” Rafe said with a deranged leer, “is that he nailed her. Good on you for not boasting, old man! I would. She’s quite the hottie for a dame her—”
He fell abruptly silent again, paused, and then snatched a handful of vegetables from his plate and hurled them at Yornhaldt. They splattered across a shield of blue light that appeared around him.
“Boys,” Taowi said scathingly. “Cease that immediately. And clean it yourselves!”
Tellwyrn shook her head. “As I was saying, I am dealing with this. I’m not going to ignore it, but managing public opinion is a task outside my usual skill set. As such, and since I have no afternoon class, I am going to seek the counsel of an expert. But not, I repeat, until I finish my lunch.”
“Well, well, wouldja look at that,” Ruda drawled. “Arquin’s figured out the dog-in-the-park trick.”
Scorn came to a stop, frowning at the scene on the lawn before them. “Trick? Is for what?”
“Is for gettin’ girls,” Ruda said, grinning.
“Getting…” The demon blinked her eyes. “Where is dog? That is thing… The word I am told is ‘horse,’ yes?”
“Barely,” Trissiny murmured.
Gabriel was, indeed, surrounded by several girls, including most of those from the freshman class, as well as Hildred and a couple of seniors. As they watched avidly, with a variety of high-pitched noises of approval, he drew back his arm and hurled the branch he was holding the length of the lawn.
Whisper’s invisible hooves were soundless on the grass as she charged after it; her ephemeral mane and tail streamed behind her, leaving a wispy trail of smoke like the exhaust of a dwarven engine. She skidded to a halt by the stick and picked it up in her teeth, pausing to prance a few steps in place before trotting back to her master, head held high.
“I have never seen a horse play fetch,” Trissiny said.
“I think you had the right of it, Boots,” Ruda replied. “That thing’s just barely a horse. Hey, maybe Arjen would like a game of fetch!”
“He wouldn’t,” Trissiny said curtly, walking forward again. Ruda and Scorn trailed after her, the pirate chuckling.
“Oh, c’mon, have you ever tried? Or do you just treat him like a big, armored carriage for your convenience?”
Trissiny let out an irritated snort. “Arjen doesn’t need to eat and exists in a state of perpetually perfect grooming, but I still brush him and give him apples. I am not neglecting my horse just because I don’t play fetch with him. Horses don’t do that!”
“And yet…” Ruda grinned.
“I thought we’d established that Whisper is barely a horse.”
“Well, hello to you too,” Gabriel replied, the girls having drawn close enough to be heard by the end of that comment. Whisper nickered a greeting.
“Don’t make that face, Arquin,” Ruda said lightly. “You’ve apparently just finished demonstrating she’s at least part puppy.”
“Yeah, she’s fun, isn’t she?” he said, grinning up at Whisper as he stroked her nose. She whinnied in delight, bouncing once in place, very much like an overeager dog. Szith, Maureen and Ravana all took a couple of steps back from her at this; the “puppy” in question was still big enough to crush someone if she moved too carelessly.
“She is pretty,” Scorn breathed, stepping forward and reaching out with one clawed hand to pat the horse.
Whisper immediately bellowed in outrage and reared up, slashing at the Rhaazke with her front hooves. Scorn yelped and bounded backward, and the rest of Gabriel’s audience scattered in fright, even Iris, who had been stubbornly sticking by his side.
“Whoah, whoah!” he exclaimed, fearlessly stepping in front of the rearing horse and reaching up to pat her on the neck. “Easy, girl. Be nice to Scorn, she’s a friend. Easy, now.”
“Your dog-horse is a butt!” Scorn shouted, baring her teeth. Whisper thrust her head over Gabriel’s shoulder and snorted disdainfully, ears laid back.
“And you be nice, too,” he snapped, pointing at her. “Whisper is from the divine plane—she’s not going to take to a demon easily, or quickly. You have to be patient with animals. She’s very smart; as long as you’re not a jerk to her, she’ll come around.”
“Why am I being not the jerk?” Scorn snapped, stomping a foot childishly. “I being the nice and horse stupid dog get rrhaash k’thavkh nhak drroughn!”
“Scorn,” Trissiny said firmly, “Tanglish.”
The demon swelled up in fury. For a moment she tremble with repressed anger, clenched fists vibrating at her sides, then she whirled and stomped away. “Bah! Not being my problem, your horse is cannot behave! Come on, we go see the town. Find your demon trails!”
“Oh, that sounds like a great fuckin’ idea with her in this mood,” Ruda muttered.
“Come, paladin!” Scorn shouted, stopping and turning to glare over her shoulder.
Trissiny folded her arms, braced her feet, and stared at her.
For just a moment, it seemed like Scorn was on the verge of another outburst. After a moment, however, she drew in a deep breath and spoke in a slightly less furious tone. “Will you please to come, yes?”
Trissiny sighed and shook her head, but strode off toward the demon. “We’re not going off this campus unless you calm down, Scorn. It’s going to be enough of a challenge to introduce you to the townspeople, especially with all this newspaper nonsense going around. Animals don’t like demons, and you absolutely cannot react this way every time something snarls at you.”
“I being am calm!”
“Then why are you shouting?”
“I NOT ARE SHOUTING!”
Whisper snorted again, pawing at the ground. Her hooves weren’t visible, but nonetheless tore up a clump of grass.
Gabriel let out a low whistle, patting Whisper on the nose. “Well, none of that was encouraging.”
“What was that about demon trails?” Szith inquired. “I’m not certain that was translated correctly… But she did sense the same demon Trissiny did. Are they actually hunting for one?”
“Honestly, all that worries me less than the dialect,” Gabriel said thoughtfully, still petting Whisper and gazing in the direction in which Trissiny and Scorn had gone. “Her Tanglish hasn’t made any progress in a while.”
“Well, give the girl a bit o’ credit,” Maureen said reasonably. “She’s only been learnin’ it a handful o’ weeks, aye? I’d say she’s doin’ pretty well, considerin’ that.”
“That’s the thing,” Gabriel replied, frowning. “She does speak it pretty well for being new at it… But most of that progress she made in the first week. It was crazy how fast she picked up the language. Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with Scorn’s intelligence, quite the opposite. But then she just quit. She’s been talking that way ever since.”
“Why d’you think that is?” Iris asked, gazing at him with wide eyes while patting Whisper’s neck. Behind her back, Hildred repressed a grin, winking at Maureen.
“Mm,” Gabriel mused, finally turning back to face the rest of them. “I grew up in Tiraas, which is a big melting pot of a city. People from all over settle there, including lots of immigrants. And you can kind of tell the degree of investment someone puts into fitting in. There were people from outlandish places like Shengdu and Glassiere who had basically no accent after just a couple of years, because they were constantly working to improve their diction. And then there were those who still speak this barely comprehensible pidgin Tanglish after living here for decades and raising their children in Imperial culture, who just couldn’t be bothered.”
“Languages do not come to all with equal facility,” Szith noted. “They are much easier to learn if one starts young.”
“That’s true,” Gabriel acknowledged, nodding to her.
“I think I see what he’s getting at, though,” said Ruda, frowning. “And it’s a good point. There comes a point where someone decides they’ve learned enough for their purposes and just doesn’t fuck with it anymore. Arquin’s right, Scorn’s as sharp as a tack when she wants to be. It’s a real issue if she’s just not gonna worry about improving her Tanglish now she’s gotten mostly understandable, most of the time. She’s supposed to be proving she can fit in and make her way on this plane. Proving it to Tellwyrn, who doesn’t accept ‘meh, good enough’ as a valid attitude from anybody.”
“What’s going to happen to her if she doesn’t learn to fit in?” Iris asked.
“Not sure,” Gabriel mused. “I highly doubt it’ll be pretty, though.”
“I think we might wanna bring this up with Teal,” Ruda said to him. “Scorn’s doin’ okay with listening to people in general, but Vadrieny’s still the only one she seems actually motivated to please.”
Behind them, Ravana was still gazing down the path the paladin and demon had taken, her expression deeply thoughtful. After a moment, a faint smile crossed her features.
The central temple of Vesk in Tiraas was a deliberate study in contrasts. Most of it was built in rounded patterns, a rather chaotic arrangement of white marble towers and domes, surmounted by a minaret wreathed by a spiraling staircase, atop which musicians would perch to entertain the entire district on days considered holy to the Veskers—who considered any occasion holy when they could get away with creating a spectacle. Its uppermost great hall, however, was almost like a Shaathist lodge in design and layout, right down to its enormous exposed timbers. It had better lighting and a sloping tile roof, but even its décor seemed deliberately evocative of the Huntsmen’s aesthetics, with old instruments and weapons prominently displayed in place of animal trophies. Along its walls, between the windows, stood statues of various gods of the Pantheon, Vesk himself notably not among them.
Despite being called the great hall and serving as the center of the temple’s own society, it was actually not meant to be accessible to the general public. The temple’s entrances led to public spaces outside its various theaters and performance halls—the areas used by the bards for their own purposes were reached by networks of spiraling, deliberately confusing hallways, which themselves were peppered with barriers ranging from simple locked doors to enchanted alarms and force fields, and a couple of rather whimsical booby traps. It took quite some doing to reach the great hall, which was why everyone congregated there looked up in surprise when it was entered by someone not of the faith.
By the time she had crossed it to the dais at its far end, those who recognized Professor Tellwyrn had whispered her name to the others, which of course explained the matter of how she’d gotten in. The bards began drifting toward her, eagerly anticipating a show. There was nothing they loved like a good show.
Master Harper Roundol was seated on the dais, having been in conversation with two other bards. They all broke off, staring, as the legendary elf made a beeline for them. At her approach, all three rose and bowed respectfully.
“Professor,” Roundol said, straightening back up and absently stroking the neck of his guitar. “This is an unexpected honor! What can we do for you?”
Tellwyrn came to a stop in front of the dais, planted her hands on her hips, and looked him up and down. Then she studied the other two bards for a moment, and finally glanced around the hall.
“Um,” the Master Harper prompted.
She pointed at his guitar. “Can I see that for a moment?”
Roundol protectively tightened his grip on the instrument. “Ah… Might I ask why—”
In the next instant, with barely a puff of displaced air, it was out of his hands and in hers.
“Perfect, thank you,” Tellwyrn said briskly. “Stand back.”
Grasping the guitar by the neck, she lifted it over her head. The sound of wordless protest that tore free from the high priest’s throat was almost musical in its poignancy.
A hand grabbed Tellwyrn’s wrist from behind.
“That instrument,” said Vesk, gently but firmly taking it from her, “is an absolute masterwork. It has passed through the hands of seven of my high priests, cherished by each as if it were a child. The wood from which it’s made is simply not attainable anymore; in addition to being possibly the finest example of its craft to be found, anywhere, it is one of the most sacred objects in the world which is not actually overlaid with divine blessings. And in utterly typical fashion, here I find you threatening to smash it, just to get my attention.”
With another soft breath of air, the guitar was back in its owner’s hands, and Roundol lost not time in retreating from the elf, glaring reproachfully at her as he clutched it protectively to his chest. The god, incarnated as usual in his nondescript form, completely with absurd floppy hat, smiled thinly as Tellwyrn turned to face him. “For once in your interminable existence, Arachne, as a personal favor to me…”
And suddenly layers of reality peeled back, Vesk’s presence filling the temple and beyond. Without seeming to change physically, his very identity blazed forth with such sheer pressure that lesser mortals were driven back against the walls and to the floor, even before he bellowed in a voice that seemed it should have cracked the mountain.
“WOULD. YOU. PLEASE. NOT?!”
“You know, I like this much better than the last time I had to seek you out,” she said smugly, folding her arms. “This is altogether a lot easier when I don’t need your full cooperation. And much, much quicker.”
The god’s awesome presence retreated as quickly as he had brought it forth, leaving only an apparently mortal bard scowling at the Professor. “I suggest you watch that attitude, missy. The Pantheon has several excellent reasons for tolerating your shenanigans—that doesn’t mean each of us has endless patience. You can fulfill your most important purpose in the world just as well sealed away in a dimensional bubble as you can running around on your own. Arguably a lot better, in fact. Several suggested it, after that nonsense you tried to do in the Deep Wild.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Tellwyrn said with a grin. “Remember, I’m the one who’s spent a full human lifetime researching each of you megalomaniacal fuckers. I know who can be pushed, and exactly how far.”
The assembled bards watched all this avidly; with the reality-rending grandstanding apparently over, they seemed mostly interested in the conflict and not unduly impressed by the presence of their primary object of worship. Vesk and Tellwyrn stared flatly at each other from mere feet apart, she smirking, he scowling.
“Oh my gods!”
The new voice belonged to a young woman with somewhat unruly dark hair, who came skittering into the great hall as if late for her own wedding, the lute case slung over her shoulder bouncing against her as she pelted forwards. “Ohmygodsohmygodsohmygods!”
She skidded to a stop barely before crashing into the glaring pair. “Professor Tellwyrn, Arachne, oh gods this is so awesome, it’s such an honor, I’m a huge fan!”
Tellwyrn turned to stare at her. “What.”
“I’ve read all the stories about you, even the ones that are obvious lies because honestly those are the funniest. You have the best stories! I’ve wanted to meet you ever since I first heard the Plavoric Epics recited—I sat through the entire Saga of the Third Hellwar sung in Sheng because nobody performs it anymore just for the parts at the end where you came in. You’re the reason I became a bard! This is just, wow, I can’t even… Will you sign my face?”
“That’s weird,” Tellwyrn said bluntly. “You’re weird. Go away.”
“Eeee heeheehee!” The girl actually did a little jig, clapping her hands in pure delight. “Classic Tellwyrn!”
“Kelsey,” Master Harper Roundol said gently, taking her by the shoulders from behind and starting to pull her away. “The Professor is here on business with Lord Vesk. Let’s give them a moment to chat before she vaporizes somebody. Or worse, my guitar.”
“Oh, she’d never do that,” Kelsey protested, still staring avidly at Tellwyrn. “I mean, the second one—she blasts people to dust all the time, but she’s super respectful of valuable art. She’ll threaten to break things but like in the battle with Almophriscor the Red she only lost cos they were fighting in his lair and she kept pulling her punches to avoid damaging his hoard, he had basically the world’s best collection of marble statuary, and after that he was so impressed he let her stay there to recuperate and even gave her…”
“Yes, yes,” Roundol said soothingly, dragging her bodily back to the dais. “Shush.”
“There, y’see?” Tellwyrn said smugly, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at Kelsey. “Research. You should give it a try, Vesk; I bet you’d be less vulnerable to obvious and transparent ruses.”
The god heaved a sigh. “What do you want, Arachne?”
“To seek your inimitable advice,” she said. “I trust you have noticed the issues I’m having with your Archpope. I must say I’ve never been the target of a campaign of slander that I actually had to care about before.”
“I am not getting rid of Justinian for you,” Vesk said with the ghost of a smile. “And get with the times, Arachne. Slander is spoken—or sung, for that matter. Printed slander is called libel.”
“I don’t need him gotten rid of,” she said in exasperation. “There’ll always be another one. You’re the expert on manipulating public opinion. Don’t think I’ve forgotten how you helped us to both dismantle the Empire during the Enchanter Wars and put it back together afterward. You owe me, Vesk, both for that business and for wasting sixty years of my time!”
“I never told you to do any of that,” he complained. “See, this is why nobody’s happy to see you when you visit—apart from all the smashing, I mean. All this blaming everybody for failing to contend with your various bullshit. You’re like an emotionally abusive old mother. Have you been hanging out with Naiya much lately, by any chance?”
“Actually…wait, that’s right. It was sixty-three years.”
The god of bards groaned dramatically and massaged the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “If I help you, will you cease harassing my clergy and bugger off?”
“That is the deal I was offering, yes,” she said with a feline smile.
“Fine. Loath as I am to encourage this behavior, your problem really is so incredibly simple it almost pains me to see you floundering with it. Honestly, Arachne, the fact that you don’t have better people skills after three thousand years of this has got to be history’s greatest failure of character.”
“Less character assassination, more practical advice,” she said sharply.
“Justinian’s campaign is a political one,” Vesk said, staring intently at her face now. “Political campaigns are never won—they are only lost. Right now, the attention is on you, as is the onus to refute or validate his accusations. In that position, you have no winning moves. Honestly, your policy of ignoring him could conceivably be used against you, but it might also be your safest way to go. If, however, you decide to actually engage with this issue, what you need to do is make the matter about him, not about you.” He leaned forward, gazing deep into her eyes, and spoke with deliberately excessive emphasis. “And if that is what you intend, then I am not the one you should be speaking to.”
“All right, all right,” she said, leaning back as if he had bad breath. “Point taken. Really, I’d have expected less ostentatious delivery from you of all people.”
“Well, forgive me,” he said sardonically, straightening back up. “I may not be the best at research, but I have met you, after all. Seriously, though, that was all you wanted? Any number of political operatives could have told you that much.”
“Yes, no doubt,” she said with a smile. “But I don’t trust any number of political operatives.”
“And there it is,” Vesk said, shaking his head and smiling ruefully. “The real reason I continue to tolerate your crap. For being such an apparent brute, you do know how to pluck the right strings.”
“I had some good teachers,” Tellwyrn replied cheerfully. “All right, then! Seems I’ve some more planning to do. As you were, ladies, gentlemen…and bards.”
She turned her back on the deity and strolled off toward the door through which she had entered, leaving most of her audience looking incongruously delighted at the spectacle they had just witnessed. Except, of course, for the Vesker high priest, who was again clutching his guitar protectively and giving her back a resentful look.
“Arachne,” Vesk said in a suddenly knowing tone. “You realize that since you think it’s acceptable to show up at my place and take liberties with my people, I’m going to consider that a mutual arrangement.”
“Well, it’s past time, I’d say,” she replied, pausing to glance back at him with a raised eyebrow. “Honestly, I do my best, but there are things that girl needs to learn that I’m just not a good person to teach her. Just try not to disrupt my class schedule too much, please.”
She resumed her path toward the door, and almost got there before being intercepted by Kelsey.
“So, hey, since you’re here, I would love to chat a bit, hear some stories, maybe buy you a drink? Wouldja like to hear the song I’m composing? It’s about you!”
“Oh, I would,” Tellwyrn said brusquely, brushing past her, “but I’m very busy doing absolutely anything except that.”
“My treat! I’ll take ya to the best restaurant in town! Fancy a hundred-year-old scotch? Or a quick screw? Or a slow one? Honestly I’m not even into women—or skinny people, for that matter—but it’d just be such an honor—”
“Young woman, you are one more ill-advised comment from being transformed into something small and edible.”
“Ma’am, that would be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.”
“You’re a creepy little snot, aren’t you?”
Roundol approached Vesk, staring thoughtfully at the door through which the two women had just vanished. “M’lord, do you think we ought to go do something about that? The poor girl’s setting herself up for more trouble than I think she understands.”
Vesk grunted. “She’s survived three thousand years of trials and tribulations, Tamelin. She’ll survive Kelsey. Probably.”