“The surface traces have already faded, your Majesty,” Colonel Azhai reported. “They likely began as soon as you opened the bathroom door; based on your description of the binding spell’s collapse, that was almost certainly the trigger to break it. A more in-depth analysis requires scrying of all affected surfaces, which my people are now doing. My apologies for the intrusion upon your apartments. We will be finished and gone as quickly as possible.”
“How much detail do you expect to find?” Eleanora asked.
Azhai pursed her lips in irritation. “I hesitate to make a prediction, your Majesty. A mage of Tellwyrn’s caliber is capable of arranging the spell to void all traces upon its collapse, in which case whether we can find anything will become a test of the Azure Corps’s skill against hers. Both parties have avoided that contest until now, so I’m unsure how to call it. Based on Tellwyrn’s known personality, however, it’s just as likely she didn’t bother. I must caution your Majesty again that I do not expect to learn anything of practical strategic value from this, either way. Containment spells of this kind are old, and quite standard.”
“Yes, so you’ve said,” Eleanora replied with a hint of impatience. “I understand, Colonel. Policy and principle demand as thorough an investigation as we can perform, however. Anything we may learn can be filed away against future incursions by Tellwyrn or other arcane threats. An ever more relevant concern, now that the city hosts at least one blue dragon as a welcomed guest.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” Azhai said calmly. She looked more the part of the soldier than the sorceress; a stocky, square-faced woman in her fifties, with iron-gray hair and the rigid posture instilled by habitual military discipline. In truth, Eleanora rather liked the woman. Manaan Azhai was intimidated by nothing, including her Empress. The faint hint of ire she had just expressed had been known to reduce some of the Palace’s staff to gibbering puddles of frantic apology.
“Again, your Majesty—”
“Stop apologizing,” Eleanora ordered the Imperial Guardsman in exasperation. “The invasion of my personal space notwithstanding, neither I nor the Emperor, nor anyone else, was threatened. And had her intentions been hostile, there is little you could have done.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” the soldier said, still visibly unhappy. Well, it was good that the Imperial Guard took their duties so seriously, but she wouldn’t stand for them to start simpering about. Hopefully their embarrassment over this could be channeled into greater effort in the future—even though, as she had twice had to remind him now, they were by no means at fault.
Colonel Azhai cleared her throat discreetly. “There is another thing, your Majesty. Lady Isolde having been the focus of the spell, we may be able to learn more by examining her directly and in detail. A living person retains traces of magic in a different way entirely than inanimate objects, and it is more difficult to purge them. However, such scrying methods are by nature somewhat intrusive. I would not wish to—”
“Count me in,” Isolde said sharply. She nodded to Azhai, then to Eleanora. “Anything I can contribute, anything at all, you need only ask. It would be my pleasure.”
The Empress gave her a nod in return, along with a very tiny smile, the warmest she dared considering all the soldiers, servants, and mages now teeming about her chambers. It wasn’t as if her relationship with Isolde was a secret, but there were appearances to be maintained in front of others. That she took the care to maintain them sent a message in and of itself. As to the point, she well understood; there were few experiences as humiliatingly disempowering as being effortlessly manhandled by an archmage, and she wasn’t about to stand in the way of Isolde striking back at Tellwyrn, in whatever tiny way she could manage.
“That is greatly appreciated, my lady,” Azhai said diplomatically. “Any traces will fade rapidly, so time is a factor. If you would be good enough to join my scryers in our post?”
“Lead on, Colonel,” Isolde said, giving Eleanora a final smile before following the battlemage out into the hall. The Empress allowed herself to watch her go for a few seconds. There had been time only for a lingering hug when she had first entered the bathroom to retrieve her, and then…all this.
Another Imperial Guard entered as soon as the women had departed, marching up to the Empress and saluting crisply. “Your Majesty, the Emperor has been informed of these events and is on his way back to the harem wing.”
“I gave instructions that Imperial business was not to be disrupted for this,” Eleanora said dangerously. “I was explicitly clear.”
“Your orders were obeyed, your Majesty,” the soldier replied, unperturbed. A veteran of Palace service, he knew when her burgeoning fury was for dramatic effect, as opposed to promising real suffering, and Eleanora never penalized her people for doing their jobs. “His Majesty’s session with the security council concluded earlier than expected, and we notified him upon his emergence without interrupting the meeting.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Discreetly, I hope?”
“Of course, your Majesty. None of the other gentlemen present were permitted to overhear.”
“Good.” Very good. In point of fact, she had every intention of informing both Vex and Panissar of this invasion, the matter being relevant to both of their duties, but her general policy was that Bishop Darling needed to know not one more iota of information about Imperial business than absolutely necessary, and ideally less. He was likely to hear some version of these events anyway, eventually, but neither the man himself nor any of the powers to which he reported had any business getting involved in this. As for the Hand… They, too, would learn of it all soon, but she was more unsure of them by the hour.
As if summoned by her very misgivings, suddenly he was there.
“So,” the black-coated Hand said coldly, regarding her through narrowed eyes with an expression she had never seen one of them use, much less directed at herself, “you saw fit to deliberately deprive the Emperor of vital intelligence pertaining to this intrusion into the Palace.”
He had not been in the room previously, nor entered through any of its doors; Hands had never evinced any teleportation ability.
A split-second lull occurred surrounding the Empress, while in the background servants carried on tidying up the periphery of the room as if their diligence could erase the fact of Tellwyrn’s intrusion, while Azure Corps battlemages buzzed around the bathroom, conducting their own business. Closer at hand, though, the soldiers froze. Hands of the Emperor were known to posses the highest possible degree of trust, yet this one had just spoken directly to the Empress in a clearly accusatory manner.
An instant later, the two Imperial Guards subtly shifted to stand closer to her. Only one was carrying a staff, but he altered his grip almost imperceptibly. Half a second after that, the Army battlemage who had been attending Colonel Azhai likewise turned to face the Hand directly. Despite everything, Eleanora felt a little glow of satisfaction at the tiny show of loyalty. None of these troops would get aggressive with a Hand, and in all likelihood would be swiftly demolished by one if a fight broke out, but in a moment where their loyalties were confused and tested, it seemed their instinct was to defend her.
“The Emperor, as you just heard, has been informed,” she said in total calm, folding her hands at her waist. “In my opinion, the intrusion did not constitute a threat, and thus did not merit the disruption of Imperial business. I gave instructions that his Majesty was to be notified the moment doing so would not interfere with the prosecution of his duties. This was done. Alarming as Tellwyrn’s penetration of Palace defenses is, every step of the staff’s response has been extremely satisfactory.”
His nostrils flared once in a silent snort, and he opened his mouth to speak again.
“And you,” Eleanora continued in a lower tone, “will never again speak to me in that fashion. Is that understood?”
The Hand’s expression did not alter. “Allow me to be clear, your Majesty. I serve the Emperor. Any aid rendered to you in the course of this duty is entirely ancillary. Any threat to his Majesty, from any source, will be swiftly met and destroyed by the Emperor’s Hands.”
She was not blind to the danger of this situation. Tellwyrn had been right; something was wrong with this man. Hands had been a fixture in her life ever since she had moved into the Palace with Sharidan, and for all these years they had been consistent, even uniform. It was as if they shared a personality—an admirably discreet, disciplined personality. Further, no one had ever so much as hinted that she of all people had less than perfect trust. Something was affecting their minds—and considering the physical feats of which these men were capable, that made them an unparalleled threat, positioned as they were everywhere in the Palace. The three soldiers nearby and reflexively defending her could likely not bring him down. If the entire group of Azure Corps battlemages saw what was going on and intervened…maybe.
“That was perilously close to an accusation,” Eleanora said. Carefully, carefully. She could not afford to back down, both for the Hand’s sake and that of those watching. Weakness could never be displayed in her position. At the same time, she could not be too confrontational; he was clearly looking for a fight, and she couldn’t permit one to be found. “You are out of line and behaving unacceptably. Publicly sowing dissension at this level of the Imperial government poses a greater threat to his Majesty than anything Tellwyrn did today.”
That brought him up short; he actually blinked. Gratifying as it was to stymie his aggression, it only underlined the problem. Hands were never so expressive, or so easily discomfited.
“An apology would be appropriate,” Eleanora said in the same emotionless tone, “but not at this time, with this audience. The Emperor will of course want your full accounting of events at a time of his own choosing.”
She had intended it diplomatically, to throw him a bone and negate hostility, but his eyes immediately narrowed further, and she realized her error. To a belligerent, insecure mind, her acknowledgment of his importance took on another character entirely.
“That,” the Hand said coldly, “was perilously close to a threat.”
“I’m certain neither of us has anything to fear from the truth, or from our Emperor,” she said mildly. Could he hear her heart pounding? What were his powers? Dryads? Sharidan was damn well going to explain this in detail, and damn her for not insisting on it years ago. At least Isolde was out of the room; she would have defended Eleanora possibly to the extent of starting a fight.
“Just so,” the Hand snapped. “He is on his way here. You will wait to be questioned at his leisure. Secure her,” he ordered the two Imperial Guards.
A beat passed; the battlemage was wide-eyed and clearly frighteningly out of his depth. The Imperial Guards, fortunately, were made of sterner stuff.
“This chamber has been swept and secured, sir,” one said crisply. “The Empress is safe.”
The Hand actually bared his teeth, like a feral dog. “That is not what—”
“Ah, thank you.” Sharidan himself swept into the room, trailing Imperial Guards and for some damned reason his little pet Milanda, and Eleanora barely avoided physically sagging with relief. “I’ve been assured that all is well, here, but nonetheless I appreciate the certainty that my family is defended.”
He strode up to the group, a very picture of unflappable calm despite the very deliberate emphasis, and placed a hand on his Hand’s shoulder. “All’s well? Anything further to report?”
The Hand tightened his jaw. “The Azure Corps is still investigating, sir; a full report on the intrusion itself will be forthcoming. The Empress delayed notifying you.”
“Yes, quite so,” Sharidan said easily. “Interrupting my meeting would not have disturbed business unduly, but I prefer not to let it be known to some of those who were present that anything worth the interruption had occurred. Quick thinking as always, Eleanora. I shudder to think of managing this place without your aid.”
“Of course,” she said neutrally.
The Hand drew a short breath and released it in a soft huff. “Well, then. Since she and the Lady Isolde are the only direct witnesses—”
“Quite so,” the Emperor interrupted. “I was told there is no active threat, but I’m still understandably curious about this. I would like to hear your account in private, Eleanora. I trust your insight more than anyone’s.”
Again, the emphasis; the Hand squinted, but actually backed off a half-step. “Shall I have the other woman brought?”
“Isolde is currently under examination by the Azure Corps,” Eleanora said swiftly. “She is highly annoyed by Tellwyrn’s treatment of her and eager to help in any way, but I think it would inconvenience the mages to have her answering questions while they are trying to scry.”
“Quite so,” Sharidan repeated, nodding calmly. “That gives us an itinerary, then. We can speak with her after I’ve heard your account, and by that point she’ll be more than entitled to a little rest, I think. Would you join me in my own chamber, dear?”
“Of course,” she replied, taking his proffered arm.
The Hand hovered irritatingly about them as Sharidan led her from the room, Milanda trailing along behind their little procession. Hands never hovered. They were a silent presence, preternaturally skilled at being just where they were needed without being in the way. The Imperial couple regally ignored him until reaching the door of Sharidan’s personal chamber, at which point he turned to the offending Hand.
“Not to disparage the Azure Corps,” he said smoothly, “but we both know you have means of seeing things they do not. I want you to have another look at the Empress’s chamber, just for thoroughness’s sake.”
“Your Majesty,” the man said unhappily, “I would rather attend—”
“And,” Sharidan continued, “please be as quick as you can without sacrificing certainty. I’ll want you at hand when we speak with Lady Isolde, in case you can detect traces on her person that the Corps might miss.”
“Yes, sir,” the Hand said, bowing with ill grace, then turned on his heel and stalked back down the hall.
Milanda, to Eleanora’s irritation, slipped into the room ahead of them while this was transpiring. Not until they had all entered and the door was firmly shut behind them did the Emperor release a pent-up sigh of obvious relief, allowing consternation to show on his face.
“Eleanora, are you all right?” he demanded, grasping her by the shoulders.
“Fine,” she said wryly. “As is Isolde, albeit justly angered. The same goes for me. Tellwyrn, much as I dislike acknowledging it and despite her continuing overweening arrogance, is not the enemy here. In point of fact, she came specifically to give me a warning which I have just learned to be entirely justified.”
His eyes cut to the door as he released her and stepped back. “There’s a Hand at Last Rock right now. Is that one also…?”
“Yes,” she said curtly. “And she had several other fascinating tidbits to drop. Sharidan, they are all like this. What is going on, and what in Omnu’s name do dryads have to do with it?”
At that, he looked sharply at her, then at Milanda, who stood a few yards away, watching them in silence. Finally, he sighed and shook his head ruefully.
“Especially in light of all this, I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that Tellwyrn knows more than she ought. What else did she tell you?”
“That is not the point here,” Eleanora snapped, then cast a sharp look at Milanda, who to her annoyance did not flinch. “And does this discussion really require an audience?”
“When the Guard informed me of the break-in,” he replied evenly, “the message he relayed from you included an assurance that there was no crisis or danger. As such, I made a point of setting a leisurely pace in returning here. I don’t have to tell you the trouble that could result from anyone seeing me hurry through the halls for any reason, especially as we had to pass through public spaces. Had that been the end of it, there’s no telling how long I might have taken to reach you, or how that exchange you were having with the Hand would have progressed. I made it back this quickly because Milanda had been watching you, and ran to get me as soon as the Hand appeared.”
“I see,” Eleanora said, giving Milanda a grudging nod. The young lady bowed to her, face impressively impassive.
“In this room with me are the two living people I trust the most,” the Emperor continued firmly, “which is why it pains me to have to admit that I can’t give you the explanations you want, Eleanora.”
“I see,” she repeated acidly. “Can you at least explain why you can’t explain?”
“That, yes,” Sharidan replied with the ghost of a smile. “You understand the mechanic of state secrets which are Sealed to the Throne?”
“If they are spoken, the Hands immediately know,” she said. “Which, now that I consider it, sounds far more like a fairy geas than any arcane enchantment I ever heard, and makes this dryad business far more sensible.”
“Exactly,” he said with a sigh. “As part of the same effect, Eleanora, I can’t reveal to you where Hands come from, how they are made, or how they work. Physically cannot.”
“You know, Sharidan, how much I respected your mother,” she said with barely repressed fury, “but now that the moment is here, I find myself totally unsurprised that her paranoia is still putting us all in danger.”
He sighed and shook his head. “Well, regardless, I have to try to fix this…”
“You vanished at the first sign that one of the Hands was acting out of character,” she said sharply. “Didn’t you try already?”
“I did what I could,” he said reluctantly. “The truth is, I do not fully understand how…they work. No one does. I don’t know how the geas could have been affected, but the—” He broke off, then grimaced. “This is hard to talk about; I’m not used to being interrupted by my own… All right, this much I think I can say: any attempt to repair or change the magic powering the Hands will be, essentially, fumbling in the dark.”
“How dangerous is it?” Milanda asked suddenly.
“Extremely,” Sharidan said, giving her a solemn look. “At least potentially. The magic itself is not meant to be directly harmful, but accessing it is…hazardous.”
“Very well, then,” she said, nodding, and turning to look at the Empress. “We have contingencies in place for situations like this.”
“Exactly so,” Eleanora agreed, nodding back.
“Now just a moment,” Sharidan began.
“You wait a moment,” Eleanora ordered. “Thanks to these haywire Hands of yours, the Palace is not safe, and whatever secret lair you vanish into to govern them is equally unsafe, if not moreso. With no heir to the Silver Throne, your safety is absolutely paramount and cannot be risked. The Empire can survive losing its ruler, but the end of the Tirasian bloodline would precipitate a crisis.” She also had to discuss sylphreed with him, but set that aside for the moment in favor of the more urgent matter at hand. “Adapting our secret evacuation protocol to get you out of here without the Hands knowing will be very tricky, but we can do it.”
“The hard part will be keeping them off the scent,” Milanda said, frowning. “We can arrange a brief distraction that should suffice for even them. This matter is unlikely to be settled in a few hours or days, though. Possibly weeks. And they will find him if they decide to go looking.”
“It’s not that I don’t see your point, but this is not the solution!” Sharidan protested. “I have to fix this, or the problem won’t go away.”
“But you don’t know how,” Milanda pressed, gliding forward to wrap her arms around one of his. “Your Majesty, you said no one does. Is there any fae user you trust to try?”
He sighed heavily. “No. Anyone with the skill… It would take the likes of a green dragon, or perhaps a grove Elder, and the harm they could do with access to the—” He broke off as if something had seized his tongue, and grimaced in aggravation.
“So whoever goes to work on this will be feeling their way blind,” Eleanora said. “That places them in even more danger than the…geas…itself poses. Especially if there are dryads involved.”
“So each of our roles in this are quite obvious,” Milanda said, nodding. “Her Majesty will be needed to remain a public face in the Palace; with the Hands as they are, that places her in enough danger as it is. Her safety cannot be risked any further by exposing her to whatever magical mechanism has gone faulty and caused all this.”
“We will have to involve Vex in this,” Eleanora said thoughtfully. “His people can help secure the Palace, Hands or no Hands. They’ll also be necessary to secure you, once we get you safely away from the Palace.”
“And,” Milanda continued inexorably, “that leaves me to handle the Hands, geas, dryads, whatever.”
“Out of the question!” Sharidan burst out. “You have no idea what’s down there!”
“Then you’ll have to prepare me as best you can,” she said calmly. “Unless there is anyone else you trust more? Because it sounds to me as if trust is a greater concern than competence in fae magic, in this case. You are certainly no witch, yourself.”
“Milanda,” he said in a strained tone, wrapping an arm around her waist, “I don’t doubt your willingness or your cleverness, but this…”
“Now, see here,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “The Empire is positively awash with doe-eyed, empty-headed young beauties who would love to share your bed and offer nothing else of value. If that’s what you wanted, you’ve had plenty of opportunity to collect them. Instead, you have me. I am no one’s concubine, Sharidan, and I’ll not be treated as such. I am a courtier in this Palace, a loyal citizen, and…” Her tone grew more gentle, and she reached up to place a hand against his cheek. “I love you. You need to let me help.”
Eleanora sighed. “Leadership is sacrifice; this isn’t news to any of us. You know she’s right, Sharidan.”
He gave her a bitter look. “If it had been Isolde…”
“Then,” she replied flatly, “she would march straight into the danger. I would send her off without hesitation, and wait for the appropriate moment of privacy to weep into my pillow for her. You know me well enough to give me that much credit.”
The Emperor drew in a long breath, then pulled Milanda firmly against himself, squeezing her close and resting his chin atop her dark curls. She burrowed obligingly into his chest, rocking them slightly back and forth. Eleanora averted her eyes—out of respect, not embarrassment. Their peculiar little family had long since had to adapt its own ideas and practices concerning personal privacy.
“All right,” Sharidan said finally, releasing Milanda. “We have the bones of a plan, and a few points yet to refine. Best work out as much as we can now; I don’t know how long that excuse will keep the Hands off me, and we can’t afford to squander fresh ones, as we will certainly need to distract them again in the near future.”
“I’ll send for Quentin as soon as we are done here,” Eleanora agreed, nodding.
“And in the meantime…” He sighed and set his jaw firmly. “I will tell you as much as I can about what to expect…down there. You had better hear this too, Eleanora. Just in case. First and most importantly, whatever you may find in that…place…” He turned his gaze fully on Milanda, his eyes serious nearly to the point of being frantic. “Do not let it out.”