“This was a good idea,” Gabriel murmured, looking around the square.
“Course it was!” Professor Rafe replied breezily. “It was Matriarch Ashaele’s—good ideas are the only kind that lady has! Reassure the townies, mend some fences or bridges or what-have-you that needs mending, give everybody some very much needed opportunity to unwind. You don’t get to be literally the most senior diplomat on the planet without picking up a trick or two!”
The event set up on the square next to the Rail platform had arisen quickly enough to pass for impromptu, but it had been organized with flawless efficiency that suggested considerable planning. Striped awnings had been erected around the periphery of the space along two sides, with tables and chairs borrowed from the A&W in front of the tavern itself; people were congregating quietly at the tables, partaking of food laid out on stands under the shade. There were tin plates, cups, and utensils, and in fact all the necessary details had been thought of, even those that would seem counter-intuitive to subterranean dwellers, such as pest-repelling charms. Everything was free for all, and had been purchased from local businesses, right down to the farrier’s son playing the guitar over by the telescroll office.
As parties went, it was rather subdued, the space being at least half occupied by drow, who were naturally quieter in their manners than Last Rock was used to. After Ashaele’s initial arrival, which bodyguards and priestesses, a second caravan had arrived with civilian personnel from House Awarrion, who had done the lion’s share of the organizing for this event. Though the townspeople in attendance largely seemed somewhat wary of their new guests, it was a polite wariness, escalating to downright friendliness in many cases. Most of the conversations taking place around the square were between Narisians and Imperials. Nonetheless, the Sheriff and Ox were both visibly present, holding themselves aloof and keeping a careful watch. As were several stony-faced armored drow bearing sabers.
“Looking for trouble?” Gabriel asked, still in a low tone and giving Toby an inquisitive look. His fellow paladin had, for the second time in as many minutes, panned his gaze around the square, wearing a faint frown.
“Trouble, no,” Toby replied. “Szith said Iris came down here earlier. Before the picnic was set up, even… I’m a little worried, about her and Maureen. Those two are pretty sensitive, and their dorm’s been hit especially hard by all this…stuff.”
“Look at you, everybody’s dad,” Gabe said with a grin, patting him on the shoulder.
Toby sighed. “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s nothing. There are other things to do in town, and not everybody likes crowds.”
“I’m a little surprised not to see Szith here, now you mention it,” Juniper added.
“Szith has responsibilities,” Professor Yornhaldt rumbled. “And, being the exceedingly conscientious young lady she is, feels responsible for far more than she actually is. The presence of so many Narisians might be a factor.”
“Poor kid,” Juniper said, frowning.
“Your concern speaks well of you, Juniper,” Yornhaldt said with a smile. “I’m sure she would appreciate a kind word when you see her next.”
He and Rafe were watching the event as closely as the Sheriff and the Awarrion House guards, though their mandate was limited to making sure none of the students in attendance partook of the free beer available—despite the fact that both professors had mugs of it in hand. The three sophomores had gravitated toward them on one edge of the square after a few minutes of aimless circulation, and now the small group simply stood aside, watching, while Juniper sipped from a cup of punch and Gabriel intermittently gnawed a drumstick.
“Okay, so,” Gabriel said after a pause, in an even softer tone than before. “This may be an inappropriate thing to say, considering the circumstances…”
“Have you considered not doing so, for once?” Ariel suggested.
He slapped her hilt lightly. “I gotta be me. Really, though. Did you guys notice that Shaeine’s mom is impossibly gorgeous? Even for an elf.”
Toby sighed again. “Gabriel.”
“Oh, yeah,” Juniper agreed, nodding. “You’re very correct. About both parts. Not really the time, Gabe.”
“The dryad is criticizing your sense of social propriety. You have officially reached peak Arquin.”
“Shut up, Ariel,” he said sullenly. “It’s not like I was talking loudly.”
“Gabriel, my man, I’m a little disappointed that I need to point this out,” Rafe said archly. “Drow. Elves. The ears. Nothing you say out loud is gonna go unnoticed on the other side of the square.”
Gabriel’s cheeks darkened slightly and he ducked his head for a second, before catching himself and straightening up defiantly. “Yeah…well… Narisians. They’re very respectful of private conversations. You’ve heard Shaeine talk about it.”
“Mm hm,” Yornhaldt grunted. “Now if only everyone would be respectful of their feelings.”
“No offense was taken, I assure you.”
All five looked up in surprise at being addressed. A drow woman with short hair had approached them, wearing a simple lizard-scale breastplate over a dark red tunic, rather than the full armor of the guards; she carried a long knife at her belt instead of a saber. She stopped a respectful conversational distance away and bowed courteously.
“I am Vengnat eyr Vrainess n’dur Awarrion, subcommander in the lower House guard, off-duty for this excursion. It is an honor and a distinct pleasure.”
She bowed again, though less deeply, at each of their introductions, the whole time wearing a polite little smile such as Shaeine often did.
“I wonder, Mr. Arquin,” she said when everyone was introduced, “if you are familiar with the particulars of the House system of Tar’naris?”
“I…am aware that it exists,” he said hesitantly. “Sorry, but to be honest, I have my hands full understanding Imperial politics most of the time. Despite Shaeine’s noble efforts, the details of Narisian government are mostly over my head.”
Vengnat’s smile widened fractionally. “Please don’t feel bad—we are not all diplomats, after all. Well, to put it simply, we are drow. We have our Houses and our intrigues, our jockeying for advantage; it is, in many ways, intrinsic to our kind. However, the governance of Tar’naris is far more civilized than that of our deeper-dwelling Scyllithene cousins. Queen Arkasia devised the current House system to end infighting.”
“Oh, yeah! That much I know,” he said, nodding. “Every House has a particular role in the running of the city, so attacking another House damages the city itself. Any infighting would be outright treason, so it doesn’t happen.”
“It very rarely happens,” she corrected, still smiling. “Very rarely indeed, and that largely because we have found other outlets for our competitive impulses, which is as valuable in heading off conflict as punishing transgressors. Specifically, rather than for power, advantage, or wealth, the Houses of Tar’naris compete vigorously for prestige.”
“How so?” Juniper asked.
“Mr. Arquin’s observation was a perfect example,” Vengnat explained. “Matriarch Ashaele is widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful women in Tar’naris. It is a trait with virtually no practical application, contributes nothing to the running of the House…but it’s a point of pride. That is the kind of thing around which our little intrigues are built in this era. So, while we are accustomed to hearing our Matriarch praised in somewhat more gracious terms, the observation itself supports a minor point of honor for us. And after all, those of us present were made aware that plain speech is a trait of the plains dwellers in which they take pride.” She bowed to Gabriel, her smile widening another hair. “On behalf of House Awarrion, I accept and thank you for the compliment in the spirit in which it was intended.”
A few yards away, one of the gray-robed priestesses looked in Gabriel’s direction and deliberately smiled.
“Oh,” he said awkwardly. “I, uh, that’s… Well, you know. Um.”
“Perhaps you should take the opportunity to learn about diplomacy from these drow, Gabriel. Though it is very fortunate that you have a career already established.”
“Ah, yes,” he said sourly, “I forgot to introduce Ariel, whose constant commentary on my social skills is a never ending source of irony.”
“What an intriguing weapon,” Vengnat said, studying the sword. “The design is clearly elvish, though it is surprising that elves would conduct the kind of rituals which are necessary to create a talking sword.”
“Drow would,” Ariel replied. “Hands off.”
“Hey!” Gabriel snapped. “I put up with your sass, but do not insult visiting diplomats!”
“Oh, not to worry,” Vengnat assured him. “I am, as I said, not on duty for this trip. Any conversations I have are strictly personal and I am not properly a diplomat in any case. Besides, I do know a bit about weapons such as Ariel, here; certain allowances must be made for their conduct.”
“You’re off duty for the whole trip?” Toby asked curiously. “Forgive me, but…”
“What am I doing here?” If anything, Vengnat seemed even more amused. “The Matriarch’s second daughter requested off-duty personnel from a variety of specializations to attend in a strictly social capacity, to circulate politely with the residents.” She nodded toward Nahil, who was holding court in the opposite corner of the square, having surrounded herself with most of Last Rock’s more well-to-do women. “I am a House guard by profession, but we are all expected to develop some skill in diplomacy, and I was particularly interested in the opportunity to mingle with Tiraan in their own environment. It’s a chance I rarely have at home.”
“I dunno if this qualifies as the average Tiraan environment,” Rafe mused. “Still and all, we’re damn glad to have you!”
“I’m impressed,” Toby added with a smile. “For someone who’s not even a diplomat by focus, your Tanglish is amazingly fluent. You barely have an accent!”
“Not to mention a better vocabulary than some of our classmates,” Juniper added.
“I appreciate that very much,” Vengnat said, bowing to each of them. “The language is rather counter-intuitive for me; it’s gratifying that my efforts have paid off. And I am, of course, honored to serve my House in the capacity in which I was trained, but I aspire to a more varied life than a simple soldier’s.”
“Hey, I’m glad some good came of all this,” Gabriel added, smiling at her. “Always good to make new friends! Maybe we could show you around while you’re here.”
She turned a much more direct look on him, and took one step closer. “I’m very glad you suggested that, Gabriel. Nothing would please me more.”
“Oh, yeah,” Rafe snorted. “Be sure to get a good look at the saloon, and the Rail platform, and the scrolltower before you leave the town. Whoop, there we go! Tour over.”
Yornhaldt heaved a sigh. “Admestus.”
“What? It’s a nice little town, but let’s face it. Everything interesting’s up on the campus.”
“I would not dream of disturbing Professor Tellwyrn’s school,” Vengnat said smoothly, her eyes still on Gabriel’s. “And you may find Last Rock provincial, but to me, everything is new and endlessly fascinating. For instance, I have at some personal expense secured a private room in that establishment just yonder—considering the number of my colleagues present, it required calling in a few favors, but it was a worthwhile investment. Everything is made of wood. I can’t tell you how much that fascinates me, we so rarely see it in Tar’naris.”
“Huh,” Gabriel said, grinning. “It’s funny, how you don’t think of things like that until confronted with them. The simplest stuff is radically different in other places.”
“Precisely,” Vengnat said with a smile which was downright warm. “Wood furniture, cotton fabrics. The bed alone is a work of art, to my eyes. Why don’t you let me show it to you? At length,” she added, her voice dropping to a subtly huskier register, “and in detail. I have the whole evening free.”
Gabriel gaped at her; his chicken leg fell from suddenly limp fingers. Juniper grinned, seemingly on the verge of bursting into laughter, while Rafe and Yornhaldt exchanged a long look. Toby sighed softly through his nose, though his expression was amused. Vengnat kept her crimson eyes fixed on Gabriel’s, one graceful white eyebrow slightly arched in invitation.
“Um,” Gabriel said carefully after a long pause. “I, uh, am…let’s just say, not the most perceptive person. You know, socially. Forgive me if I misunderstand, but…”
“All is forgiven,” Vengnat said smoothly, smiling up at him again. “Forgive me, but concessions to local culture aside, there are certain things I’m simply not accustomed to saying any more…explicitly.”
“Ah. Yes. Well, then. I would be honored to…show you around. Not to mention delighted, of course.” He bowed politely to her, then turned to the others. “Well! Sorry to abandon you, guys, but I can hardly neglect a guest in our lands. If you’ll excuse me…”
“No extra credit for stuff that just falls into your lap,” Professor Rafe said severely, then extended his arm, hand clenched. “I am, however, obligated to offer you a manly fist bump.”
“That was real classy, Professor,” Toby said a few moments later, as they all watched Gabriel and the drow stroll toward the tavern, arm in arm. “Maybe I’m being paranoid, but that was kinda…sudden. Is there maybe another agenda at play, here?”
“Pff, nothing paranoid about it,” Rafe said glibly. “Drow culture being what it is, her ulterior motive’s pretty obvious. So long as Gabe has the sense to swallow the contraceptive I just slipped him, nothing’ll come of it. Really, though,” he added with a sudden frown. “This is verging on ridiculous. How does that kid keep stumbling ass-backward into the most exquisite piece of ass on display wherever he happens to be?”
“Why, thank you, Professor!” Juniper beamed.
“I’m serious! The chase is meant to be just that—you’ve gotta have a challenge to appreciate the conquest properly! He’s gonna come away with some pretty messed up ideas about women if this keeps up, ‘specially with Trissiny not here to kick his butt for him.”
Yornhaldt grunted into his beer. “Hmph. Hard to imagine where he’s learning it from, Admestus.”
“I kinda do wish Trissiny was here,” Juniper said with a sudden frown.
Toby sighed. “Yeah. Not that I think she cares how Gabe spends his time, but with this Sleeper thing going on…”
“That’s more what I mean, Triss is the one who knows about military strategy. I bet she’d understand what that means immediately.”
“What?” He straightened up, following her pointing finger.
“All the Narisian guards just suddenly moved while we were talking,” said Juniper. “See, three are covering Shaeine’s sister, over there, and the rest went up the street. Isn’t the Matriarch up at the town hall, with Teal and the mayor?”
Yornhaldt frowned deeply, turning to set his half-empty pint on a nearby table. “Well spotted, Juniper. Adventuring rule of thumb, students: if anything is happening, the elves will hear it first. I suggest we keep alert and prepare ourselves. Something…interesting…may be coming.”
“Y’know, you don’t have to settle all this right now,” Iris suggested gently. “Today, even. I’m not trying to rush you, Maureen, don’t worry. But maybe come back at this when you’re not so upset?”
“I…actually don’t feel upset, really, anymore,” Maureen said, kicking her legs in the empty space between them and the ground, and gazing at the horizon. “I really appreciate ye stayin’ with me, Iris. You were right, it helps a lot to have somebody listen. Anyhow,” she added with a sigh, “I reckon I have decided. Lettin’ fear make me choices, leavin’ me friends behind in danger… That’d make me not just a bad gnome, but a bad person. I’m not goin’.”
Iris nodded, and squeezed her shoulder. “Okay. I’m glad to hear it.”
“…d’ye mind if I stick around ‘ere for a while, though?”
“Of course not. Whatever you need.”
“I don’t really feel up to much company,” Maureen said, giving her a quick little smile, then jerked her head at the platform and square across the Rail some yards behind them. “But it sounds like they’ve got a full-on picnic goin’, up there. If you wanna go, I won’t be upset. You’ve helped me a lot just by stickin’ around this long.”
“Oh, well.” Iris shrugged, kicking her own legs—which, being much longer, resulted in her shoes scraping through the dirt. “I’m…not much for parties, generally. I pretty much get my fill of crowds in class and in the cafeteria.”
“Aye, I get that.” A sly glint appeared in the gnome’s eye, and she winked. “But you know… Gabriel might be there. I bet he’s the sort who loves gatherings.”
Iris heaved a deep sigh. “Ugh. I’m starting to think I should just forget the whole thing, stay away from him. If I can’t muster the guts to just…” She shrugged helplessly. “I don’t even know what.”
“Well, it can’t hurt ta hang around with ‘im a bit more! These things ‘ave a way of comin’ up on their own, if ye give ’em an opportunity.”
“Oh, come on, what would I do? Just walk up and proposition him?” Iris snorted. “He’d never go for that. Probably think I was some kind of a…a hussy.”
Maureen tilted her head, giving the human a long, thoughtful look. “…y’don’t actually know all that much about boys, do ye?”
“Oh, what would you—”
Turning toward her, Iris broke off abruptly, going rigid and grabbing Maureen by the shoulder.
“What? What’s the…” The gnome turned to follow her gaze, and gasped, scrambling up onto the bench.
“Easy!” Iris hissed. “Be calm, don’t do anything sudden.”
“What is that?!”
The creature was proportioned like a monkey and the size of a large goat, with a wedge-shaped head and jagged spines running down its back. Its eyes were sunken pits, the sides of its lips seeming to form its teeth—in fact, the thing looked like its whole hide was made of bone, rigid and the color of old ivory. It had an ugly, wasp-like stinger protruding from its bony rump, and enormous claws on each fingertip. As they watched, it snuffled around the base of the footbridge nearby, butting its head against the ground as if trying to bury itself.
“That’s a rozzk’shnid,” Iris said very quietly.
“Th’feck…” Maureen gulped audibly. “Seein’ as that’s a word made o’ sneezes an’ phonetic insanity, I assume it’s a demon?”
“Yes. Don’t worry—they’re stone deaf, and practically blind in sunlight. I don’t know what kind of idiot warlock would summon such a thing onto the prairie in the afternoon, but it’s easily dealt with.” Moving slowly and carefully, she stood and took a step to the side, positioning herself with a clear line of sight at the demon.
“Wait!” Maureen hopped off the bench after her, rushing over to grasp Iris’s leg. “Wait. Yer a witch—didja sense anything bein’ summoned?”
Iris had raised her hands, preparing to cast something, and now lowered them slightly, frowning. “No. Not a thing.”
“Aye. An’ I don’t ‘ear an outcry, from any o’ the students or drow priestesses right up there on the platform, so it was summoned subtle-like. That’s a good warlock, not one who’d pluck the wrong demon fer the wrong job.”
“The Sleeper,” Iris growled.
“Likely, aye,” Maureen said, still watching the rozzk’shnid, which seemed more interested in finding a patch of shade for its eyes than anything going on around it. “The Sleeper lays traps. He knows us. We can’t afford t’do the obvious thing—which’d be to attack that critter. It’s a trick somehow, I know it.”
“Well, what do you suggest?” Iris hissed.
Maureen swallowed. “Back away fer now.”
“I don’t run from demons!”
“There’s a difference between runnin’ away and retreat! Take it from somebody who was about t’do the bad one a wee bit ago. One’s an act o’ cowardice; the other’s a strategy. Look, we’re a gnome an’ a witch; we’re safer’n anybody out on the prairie. Heck, if we get to the Golden Sea, we’re home free. Somethin’ tells me the town’s about to get real interesting.”
“We can’t just go,” Iris insisted. “We have to warn everyone, at the very least!”
“Iris, that square’s full o’ drow,” Maureen said with a grim little smile. “I know the range of elvish hearing, trust me. Lemme just reiterate fer clarity that there’s a feckin’ demon sniffin’ around the square, an’ likely others, almost certainly summoned by an arsehole warlock who loves ‘is schemes an’ everybody needs ta deal with this as careful an’ quiet as they can. Nobody go off alone, or lash out rashly. There, everybody’s warned.”
Iris’s fingers actually twitched, as if desperate to begin hurling magic. “Maureen…”
“This is personal for you, isn’t it?” Maureen whispered. “Not just the Sleeper, but…demons. Warlocks.”
The human bared her teeth. “They live only to destroy. It should be personal for everyone. You need to listen to Trissiny on this subject, when she comes back.”
“Well, talkin’ o’ Trissiny, she’s a strategist. She’d never endorse lungin’ into a trap or doin’ the reckless thing. We’re not gonna let him win, Iris, an’ that means not doin’ what he wants. Come on. Step back, an’ we’ll come at this from another angle. One ‘e won’t expect.”
Iris hissed in pure frustration, but allowed the gnome to tug her gently away from the shelter and deeper into the tallgrass, leaving behind the demon at the edge of a crowded square, on which the drow were already quietly surging into motion.
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