12 – 52

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“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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12 – 51

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“You know the plan, Quentin,” the Empress said the instant he had shut the door behind them. It wasn’t that Imperial Guards weren’t trusted, but security was security. Nearly every door and wall in the harem wing was enchanted for silence at need, which was exactly why they were left open unless someone specifically required privacy. “I assume your part is in motion, now, and you wished to speak to me so urgently about something else—that, or something has gone wrong.”

She gave him one of those looks that seemed like it should be directed over a pair of schoolmarm’s spectacles. He took it as a sign of fondness; Eleanora gave most people looks that would freeze falling water.

“We have a brief window,” he said crisply, “in which Darling is proceeding to his agent’s home to extract his Majesty. And…no, I have not yet given the order for my people to withdraw from the district.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Quentin…”

“Before doing so,” he pressed on, “I would like to discuss doing anything else, your Majesty. If you will clear it, I can arrange a safe escort to another facility.”

“Quentin.”

“We know the Thieves’ Guild is active in the region, and we have now specifically antagonized them on top of their general unpredictability, to say nothing of what his Majesty hoped would unfold in the first place.”

“And,” she said sharply, “by getting my approval for completely eviscerating Sharidan’s plan and wasting all the effort put into it thus far, you are likely to find yourself simply dismissed from your post rather than charged with treason. You feel so strongly about this?”

“I am very good at my job,” he said, the merest hint of sharpness encroaching upon his tone. “You will be hard-pressed to replace me, your Majesty. But ultimately, as difficult a task as it may be, I can be replaced. That is not true of the Emperor! Your Majesty, this is a bad idea.”

“So you said in the first place,” she acknowledged with a sigh. “And yet, here we are.”

“The risk vastly outstrips any potential reward! There is as yet no heir to the Throne, and we’ve only just begun to learn why. It’s unconscionable for the Emperor to jeopardize his safety this way!”

“I note you avoided words like ‘unconscionable’ when making your point to his face,” she said dryly. “And you know as well as I that the end of the Tirasian bloodline would not automatically end the name. I am still of House Tirasian, if even by marriage. I can still have a child.” Her lips compressed momentarily in displeasure at the thought, more of a lapse than she ever showed in public.

“That was before Elilial’s gambit,” Vex snapped, all pretense of decorum lost. “We now know the Tirasian bloodline has not ended, and any hint of impropriety in the succession will inevitably precipitate a crisis. We don’t yet know what play she intends, but that matter is unresolved and must be planned for.”

“Time is wasting while we discuss this, Quentin,” she said. “Darling is on the move, and the Emperor’s orders are not being obeyed.”

“Please,” he begged. “Your Majesty… Eleanora. It’s too much a risk. Please, give the order.”

She regarded him in expressionless silence for a moment. When she spoke, though, her tone was softer than before. “And if I do not, Quentin, will you give it yourself? Defy the Emperor for his own sake and face the consequences it would bring?”

He opened his mouth a fraction, froze, then closed it.

Eleanora took two steps toward him, close enough to reach out and lay a hand on his upper arm. “We wouldn’t be having this argument if you didn’t care about the Empire enough to sacrifice yourself at need, Quentin. You hesitate because you’re uncertain. Because you know, as I do, the truth about Sharidan Tirasian: he needs cold-blooded people like us to support him and moderate some of his impulses and idealistic tendencies—moderate, not thwart. The most irritating thing about being in his service is how often he is right when by all accounts he really should not be.”

It was Vex’s turn to press his lips into a thin line. He let out a long breath through his nose.

“To win when you absolutely ought to lose,” Eleanora murmured. “Isn’t that what they say defined the heroes of old? The trait that separated them from the rabble of mere adventurers.” Her grip on his arm tightened subtly, and threads of the old steel reappeared in her voice. “This is as long as we can delay, Quentin. The signal.”

Vex sighed heavily, a most uncharacteristic display of emotion, but produced a pocket watch from inside his coat and turned the key twice clockwise, once the other way, then three times clockwise again. There was no flash or sparkle, no sound but the gears clicking—much as arcane magic tended to create spectacles, the charms used by Imperial Intelligence’s field agents were very specifically designed for subtlety. The companion devices carried by Vex’s people would convey the signal, and that would be that; his agents would begin withdrawing from the neighborhood, leaving the Emperor apparently unprotected.

“He does this on purpose, you know,” he complained, slipping the watch back into his pocket. “Always has. He enjoys making me worry and chase him around. Don’t deny it, part of the motivation for this whole scheme was nostalgia. Well, he’s not the crown prince anymore, and we all have better things to do than play round-the-bush.”

“That’s right, get it out of your system,” Eleanora said wryly, stepping back and folding her hands in a gesture that would have looked demure on anyone else. “You said Darling bought it. How deeply, do you think?”

“I can’t say whether he was fully taken in or just playing along,” Vex replied, his usual composure falling back into place as if it had never been ruffled. “Our exchange might have been written by a bard, so I suspect the latter. But in either case, he will stay in the area after giving his message. He needs to understand what’s happening, now that he’s neck deep in it. Himself and those two elven apprentices of his, at minimum; I rather think he’ll have other thieves about, too. He gave it nearly a full day after the tip was leaked to his students before acting, and then penetrated my house’s security as if it wasn’t there. The pattern suggests he has been making preparations since last night.”

“And in a sense,” she mused, “Sharidan was more right than he could have known; thanks to Milanda, the Archpope is reeling. He may have the good sense to withdraw, you know. Justinian is nothing if not cautious. This could all come to nothing.”

“Anything could always end in a nice, clean, peaceable nothing,” Vex replied irritably. “I find that possibility is never worth considering.”

“We will have to trust,” she said quietly. “That Sharidan knows what he is doing, that Milanda’s efforts will bear fruit…”

“That Darling knows which side his bread is buttered on, that the Hands are not too compromised… I’m not one of those paranoid fools who think you can never trust anyone, your Majesty. That’s an impossible way to live, and we both know it. But one must act carefully, and trust rationally, and now we are extending far too much trust in far too many directions.”

“And yet, here we are,” she repeated. “It’s done, Quentin; stand ready to act when action is called for. Sharidan knows what he is doing.”

“We all know what he’s doing,” Vex said bitterly, turning and grasping the doorknob. “I deeply hope some of us are wrong.”


“Unprotected?”

“That is what the spirits indicated,” the dragon said in perfect serenity.

Justinian felt an urge to drum his fingers on something. Bad enough Khadizroth had managed to summon him here so quickly; he should not be able to get messages past the usual secure channels, but it seemed the dragon had developed enough pull among the soldiers supposedly watching him that most of them were willing to do him favors. Extravagant ones. That development was no less ominous for having been foreseen; Justinian hadn’t had the trusted troops to spare for rotating his guards even before the assassin had carved half of them to chum. Now, here he was; however the message had gotten through, its urgency was such that he could not ignore it without losing further face by making it plain he was playing petty mind games.

All of which, of course, Khadizroth knew. The time was rapidly approaching when he would have to do something about this.

“I hope,” he said aloud, “you don’t think me foolish enough to leap into rash action based upon this.”

“Indeed not,” Khadizroth replied, nodding gracefully, “I’m well aware of your foresight, your Holiness, and grateful that I don’t have to explain these matters. You understand, of course, the difference between oracular seeing such as I can use and arcane scrying. Precise details about who is where and doing what I cannot give you; only a sense of the state of things. An Emperor of Tiraas being suddenly without protectors, at large in the city…that is a state which swiftly garners the attention of spirits who are already being asked to look in on him. He is not unwatched, but the parties currently with their eyes upon him are…separate.”

“How so?”

“Unaligned,” the dragon said with a thoughtful frown. “Forgive me, I am not trying to be vague. It is always difficult to put into words what was conveyed mentally. Someone is near the Emperor and watching him, but someone not moved either to attack or defend, at least at present. I saw a shadow, a grey shape lurking at a distance without intent. Whoever it is, they likely know more than I about the particulars of the situation.”

Darling and his thieves? The Black Wreath? Foreign agents, like the dwarves who had so nearly upended the city recently? Anyone would take an interest in the Emperor being in play like this, and most of the competent players would watch to see what was happening before committing themselves. Almost the only thing he could rule out was the Rust, who had not spread beyond Puna Dara. Speculation, of course, was pointless—and would have been even if he were absolutely sure Khadizroth could be trusted.

“How very ominous,” the Archpope murmured, putting on a pensive frown of his own. “The pattern of the last week barely makes it believable… But still. This raises a crucial question.”

“Only one?” Khadizroth lifted an eyebrow, and Justinian had to actually concentrate for a moment to be sure he did not betray irritation in his voice or expression.

“One which supersedes the many others, in my opinion,” he clarified. “Why is the Emperor alone and undefended? With so much importance resting upon his safety, and the resources of the Tiraan Empire at his disposal, it seems hard to credit. Is it possible your spirits were…mistaken?”

“I hesitate to call anything impossible,” Khadizroth replied, “but that prospect is one so very unlikely that I find it hardly worth considering. Again, what I do is not scrying; a scryer can be very easily blocked. Only a fae user of enormous age and skill even can interfere with the seeing of an oracle, and then only to the minutest degree. For someone to first perceive, then intercept, and then change the content of spirit messages I have sought out… Hypothetically, for such a thing to happen, it would almost mean Naiya herself had moved against me. Which, of course, is also not impossible but unlikely enough to be dismissed from consideration.”

Arrogant. Dragons were known to be prideful, of course, and justly so, but one as old and wise as this should know better than to assume he could never be countered. Justinian filed this away for later use; first, the demands of the moment.

“If we accept, then, that this is the truth…the question remains: why?” He began slowly pacing up and down the limited space provided by the cramped office, aware of and ignoring the dragon’s gaze following him. “I can think of only two possibilities. Either there is a schism within the Imperial government itself and the Emperor is on the run from his own guardians, or this is a trap intended to lure his enemies out.”

“If it is the first,” Khadizroth said, “the second is also a possibility; it would be a canny move, since only traitorous protectors would be in a position to expect the Emperor to be unprotected.”

“Just so,” Justinian agreed, nodding without glancing at him. “And besides, if it were a trap…the risk involved is astronomical. I cannot believe Sharidan would be so reckless, and I know Eleanora and Vex would intervene if he were.”

“Unless,” the dragon added, “one or both of them had turned against him.”

“Then we are back in the same position,” Justinian said with a humorless smile. “Not impossible, but hardly likely enough to bother considering. Their whole world revolves around him.”

“So the more immediate question,” Khadizroth prompted, “is what are we going to do about this?”

We. Placing himself subtly on equal footing with the Archpope. He betrayed eagerness by asking, though, and not just at the prospect of some action; this was the moment when the Archpope would have to either reaffirm his loyalty to the Emperor, or reveal himself as a traitor with murderous designs on Sharidan’s person.

Oh, yes, Justinian decided he had had just about enough of this. His current crop of adventurers served as the perfect foil for Darling’s team, just what he needed to keep them in play and invested without letting them cause real damage. Darling’s five, however, were the players that mattered; he needed red herrings and chew toys for them, not legitimate rivals, and he’d been of the mind for some time now that he needed to switch this lot out for something more…controllable. Kheshiri and the Jackal were more trouble than they were worth to keep occupied, Shook and Vannae just didn’t perform well enough to merit their status, and Khadizroth was increasingly determined to make himself an actual problem.

So he thought Justinian was in a corner, did he? He was hardly the first.

“This is delicate,” he said aloud. “Very, very delicate. Obviously the risk to his Majesty is severe, and should be mitigated; the loss of a sitting, childless Emperor would cause a shock the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Enchanter Wars, and our society is troubled enough without exposing it to that. Such a disaster must be prevented.”

“It goes without saying,” Khadizroth agreed in a grave tone. Justinian looked up, nodding seriously at him, and they both politely pretended to have forgotten Khadizroth’s recent attempt to cause a far worse shock than that to the Empire.

“However,” Justinian continued, “we must also consider recent events. I’m afraid the Throne is particularly mistrustful of the Church right now, and not nearly enough time has passed for me to soothe over the ripples caused by our misunderstanding. If our people are found to be hovering over the Emperor in his time of vulnerability, Lord Vex will be quite justified in taking it amiss. Frankly he would be remiss in taking any other way.”

“Forgive me,” Khadizroth said with diffidence that poorly suited him, “but I had been operating on the assumption that anyone sent to address this would be…off the books, as it were.”

“At moments like this, it is best not to make assumptions about who knows what,” Justinian said seriously. So Khadizroth wanted his companions sent out on this, did he? Why? “But you’re right. An official Church presence would be clearly antagonistic. Let me pose you a question.” He came to a stop, turning to face the dragon fully. “What of your team? If I sent them to keep watch over the Emperor until he can be secured by his proper guardians…can they be trusted with such a mission, in your opinion?”

“They are…reasonably effective,” Khadizroth said slowly. “I hesitate to use the word ‘competent;’ though they are each good at their respective roles, none of these personalities are well-suited for teamwork, and their competing agendas can raise…issues…in the field.”

“That is my concern exactly,” Justinian agreed. “Some of them in particular, I fear, would view this opportunity to create havoc on a colossal scale as too great a temptation to resist.”

“Mm. No, I don’t believe that is a problem,” the dragon mused. “The Jackal likes his havoc small and personal, and Kheshiri is on a leash whose length and hardiness I have spent much of my acquaintance with Jeremiah verifying. He is not the master of her, whatever he thinks, but his control suffices to keep her from doing anything so destructive as that.”

“And you, of course, cannot go along,” Justinian said with a gentle smile.

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Khadizroth replied, grinning. “It spares me the awkwardness of refusing to. With my cousins active in the city, the risk of me doing anything in public is simply too great.”

“I appreciate your insight,” Justinian said. “These divinations of yours. Do you know where the Emperor is, specifically?”

“Specifically, no, but I’m confident I can find him quickly.”

“And can you direct Vannae to do this for you?”

The merest hesitation. “…yes, that should be possible.”

Justinian kept his smile calm, beatific. Vannae, the only one of the crew Khadizroth truly cared about, and was invested in. Putting him at the vanguard should be…revealing. And now to begin applying the pressure.

“Then we must prepare to mobilize the team,” he said solemnly. “I will leave it to you to brief them; I must make other preparations. After all, it seems prudent, in this case, to have someone to watch the watchers. Discreetly.”

“Of course,” Khadizroth said, after another very faint pause, then bowed. “I’ll go gather them immediately, your Holiness.”

“Thank you,” Justinian said warmly. “Your aid to us in these last painful days has been a godsend which cannot be appreciated enough.”

“We all do what we can,” the dragon replied with a good effort at proper draconic inscrutable aloofness. Justinian smiled benignly at his back as he left the room.

Ohh, yes. Chew on that.


“I’ll get it!”

“You stay put,” Lakshmi said quickly, reaching up to grab one of the hands kneading her shoulders as their owner started to pull away toward the door. “You’re in hiding, remember? You can’t possibly be bored enough to risk blowing it after just a couple days.”

“Well, right at this moment, I can’t say that I am, no,” Danny murmured, and she grinned, carefully not looking up at him.

“Sanjay! Door!”

“Yeah, yeah, I heard it,” Sanjay grumped, coming through the living room from the kitchen. He pointed accusingly at them on his way to the front door. “You two keep it above the waist. I’m tryin’ to have an innocent childhood, here.”

“No you aren’t,” she said lazily.

“No, I’m not,” he agreed with a grin, then pulled the door open. “Sweet! Heya! What’s new?”

“Nothing good, kid,” the Bishop said, wearing a grim frown. He leaned forward, peering around the door frame. “Is—ah, good. You!”

“Me?” Danny raised his eyebrows, removing his hands from Lakshmi’s shoulders.

“Yes, you.” Sweet pointed at him. “Out. Now.”

“Whoah, what the fuck?” Lakshmi stood up, scowling. “You don’t just barge into somebody’s home and start barking orders, I don’t care what you were the Boss of.”

“I made you a promise, Peepers. Remember?”

She hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at Danny, who was now expressionless. “I remember.”

“I said,” Sweet continued, his dour expression gradually giving way to carefully-controlled anger, “that if I learned anything which suggested this arrangement was one bit more dangerous than I believed, I’d come right down here and put an end to it. Well, this is me honoring my word.”

“What’s happened?” she said in alarm, again looking back at her guest. “Is he in more danger?”

“No,” Sweet snapped. “No, he is not. It turns out that the people after him are not so much the stalking-through-the-streets kind as the teleporting-right-to-your-door kind, and they have the means to find out exactly where he is the moment they decide to. And despite what I was explicitly told, this has been the case from the beginning. This is danger I would not have dropped on any Guild member knowingly. Promise or no promise, Peepers, I owe you big for doing this to you.”

Lakshmi turned very slowly to face Danny, backing away. By the door, Sanjay was staring, his mouth hanging open incredulously.

“Did you know this?” she asked quietly.

“Matters aren’t as simple as he makes—”

“No!” Sanjay yelled so abruptly and so loudly that his voice cracked. “You don’t give us that noble doublespeak. You answer her question!”

“Did. You. Know. This,” Lakshmi growled. “Did you deliberately put me and my little brother in danger from your problems?”

“Lakshmi—”

“The lady asked you a very simple question, Danny,” Sweet said in a quiet tone which nonetheless cut him off completely. “The only answer it needs is one syllable either way.”

Danny gave him a long, inscrutable look, then turned a different but equally cagey one on Lakshmi. Finally, his shoulders shifted in a soft sigh. He did not avoid her gaze, though.

“Yes. I knew it.”

The silence was excruciating. Fortunately, it was brief.

“You son of a bitch!”

“No!” Sweet streaked across the room the moment she clenched her fists; by the time she flew into action, he got close enough to grab her, and that only because Danny retreated circumspectly behind the sofa.

“Get your fucking hands off me!” Lakshmi raged, struggling ineffectually against the grip on her wrists. “I’m gonna break his fucking head!”

“No, you’re not!” Sweet shouted, and shook her hard enough to momentarily stall her thrashing. “Peepers! Listen to me, you have no idea who this guy is. Harm him and you’re kicking over more trouble than you can imagine. I’m getting him out of here and away, where he’s not a danger to you—or from you, because both of those will hurt you just as bad, trust me.”

She drew her lips back in a snarl. “Trust you. This is all your fault!”

“Yes, that’s right,” he agreed, holding her gaze. “But I haven’t lied to you, nor will I. I thought I was telling you the truth when I said this was safe. I found out it’s not, so I’m putting a stop to it. And I will make this up to you.”

“He’s right, Shmi,” Sanjay said. He was practically quivering with fury, fists clenched at his sides, but aside from the accusing glare he fixed on Danny, he made no move. “Sweet fucked up, but he’s been straight with us. He’s Guild.”

“And he,” Sweet added, jerking his head in Danny’s direction, “lied to the Guild. He’s not walking out of here without consequences, Peepers, that I promise you. Let me protect you from them, at least. It’s the best I can do for you right now.”

She jerked against him once more, but weakly, then suddenly slumped, letting her head hang. After a moment, Sweet released her arms, and they fell limply to her sides.

“Get him the fuck out of my house.”

“Well, you heard her,” Sweet said, turning a totally unsympathetic look on Danny. “Let’s go.”

Danny sighed softly. “If I—”

“Did somebody ask you something?” Sanjay snapped, voice cracking again. “This isn’t a conversation. Fucking go.”

He crossed the room to stand next to his sister, who had lifted her head to stare at Danny. They looked eerily alike, glaring at him with matching venom.

Danny sighed again, then turned and strode unhurriedly to the door, where Sweet stood aside for him in a hostile mockery of politeness. He paused just before stepping out, turning to look back at them again. “For what it’s worth, I—”

“Don’t,” she said icily. “Don’t you fucking dare.”

He hesitated, then nodded once, and stepped out.

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12 – 50

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Iris stared at her, mouth slightly open, and Maureen found herself in the odd position of feeling too awkward even to cringe. She simply froze, waiting for the hammer to come down.

“Oh,” Iris said after an excruciating pause, clearly grasping for something to say. “…you are?”

“No!” Maureen blurted. “I mean, yes, but… I, it’s, I don’t…”

She opened and closed her mouth twice, and then finally gave up and hid her face in her hands.

It was another silent few moments before the bench shifted, Iris having stepped over to settle onto it beside her.

“So, um,” the human said a few seconds later, “I don’t…know how good my advice might be. I’m guessing not very. But…I’ve been told I’m a pretty good listener? If that’ll help?”

“I don’t know what to do,” Maureen whispered.

Iris finally settled an arm around her shoulders. Well, a forearm. The difference in their sizes made it a slightly awkward gesture, but less awkward than the rest of this, all things considered.

“Is it about the Sleeper?”

Maureen sighed, then nodded miserably, finally peeking over her fingers. “I’m such a coward.”

“I think being terrified in this situation just means you aren’t crazy.”

“That’s got nothing to do with it,” she whispered. “You can be afraid when you’re in danger. You’re right, that’s just sense. Somethin’s wrong with you if you’re not. Courage an’ cowardice is all in what you do about it. An’ I just wanna run away.”

Iris held silent, rubbing her shoulder gently for a moment, before speaking. “Well, um. I missed you at lunch, but all your stuff’s still in the room. What I mean is, it doesn’t look like you’re trying to bolt, here. I wouldn’t have thought you were gonna until you said something.”

Maureen heaved a much heavier sigh, and leaned against her for a second before straightening up again. The position had tucked her right under Iris’s arm, which was a little uncomfortable.

“Truthfully, I hadn’t made up me own mind. I’ve been standin’ down here, ditherin’ on it.”

“Well, there you go, then,” Iris said with only sightly forced cheer. “Sounds like you’re not a complete coward.”

“You don’t understand,” she muttered.

“…okay, so, maybe I don’t. You can explain it to me, if you want.”

“I’m a gnome,” Maureen exclaimed. “Adventure is what we do. Hell, it’s what we are. Surely ye know that much?”

“I…well, gnomes do have that reputation, yes. I wasn’t gonna try to make assumptions, though. Since coming to this school and meeting all kinds of people I’ve been learning not to do that if I can avoid it. Gets awkward.”

“Sure, that’s sense. But when it comes to gnomes, aye, the stereotype’s there for a reason. We made it ourselves an’ work at livin’ up to it. Me mum already thinks I’m a nutter cos I like tinkerin’ with machines more’n roughhousin’. Me whole life, I never wanted t’go out an’ play with they other kids. They were always explorin’ the woods around the Hold, fightin’ off boars, fallin’ in caves, gettin’ lost fer weeks on end…”

“You let kids do that?” Iris demanded in horror.

“We’re gnomes,” Maureen said with a shrug, finally looking up at her. The human’s expression was equal parts fascinated and aghast. “It’s… Well, look, Iris, we don’t often talk about our business outside the Folk. There’s stuff you’re just not meant to know, so…don’t feel bad if some of what I do say doesn’t make much sense to ye.”

“Well, I mean, sure,” Iris said hastily. “You don’t have to tell me anything, Maureen, I’m not gonna pry. I’m just here to listen if you want to talk. Talking to somebody always helped me when I struggled with things.”

“Aye, don’t worry,” she said a little wryly, “I’m not about t’give away any great secrets. But you’ve gotta understand… Aye, gnomish children are pretty well expected to get into scrapes that’d bally well kill off humans twice their age, see? So when yer a kid who likes t’stay indoors, readin’ books an’ stackin’ yer toys up into interesting new shapes… Well, when I was real young, me mum thought I was barmy. An’ those were th’good years. Past a certain age, ye get to the point where not doin’ what your society wants makes people think…poorly.”

“I know a little about that, myself,” Iris said quietly.

Maureen nodded. “So, aye. I hate this, Iris. I just wanna make stuff! I like buildin’ things, not riskin’ me ears on adventures. Makes me a fair lousy gnome, but I’m me, y’know? An’ this…this Sleeper nonsense…” She swallowed heavily. “I was actually excited t’be comin’ here. Sure, I got a place at the school cos me uncle went adventurin’ with Tellwyrn back in the day, before she was a Professor an’ all. I got sent to the school cos me folks figured it was the only place left for a classic adventurin’ education. But Tellwyrn came to our place ta give me the interview, an once me mum an’ dad were outta the room, she made it clear what I could learn here didn’t have to be adventure if I didn’t want it to be.”

“You always seemed okay on field trips,” Iris said softly. “Like, out in the Golden Sea. Honestly I kinda thought you were in your element. You knew all about making campsites.”

“Oh, any gnome knows stuff like that,” Maureen said, waving a hand dismissively. “Raw basics. An’ we didn’t even have proper adventures!”

“Proper adventures,” Iris repeated, her eyebrows climbing. “I’m sorry, but do you remember the manticore? Or the harpies? Or that whatsit that wanted to eat Raolo?”

“That whatsit was a fairy, an’ those were all nothin’,” the gnome said with a grin. “Trash mobs an’ beginner dilemmas. Have ye heard the story o’ what the sophomores went through on their Golden Sea trip? Now that was a proper adventure!”

“The way I heard it, half of them nearly died. And considering most of them are nearly un-killable…”

“Exactly.” Maureen leaned back, letting her head thunk against the bench. “…exactly. There’s a part o’ me that can appreciate a story like that. Me upbringin’, aye? But not me. A life spent workin’ in a big factory, designin’ new machines… A dwarf’s life, basically, not a gnome. It’s a gnomish idea of hell, but t’me, it sounds like heaven. No matter who scared an’ fed up I am, I can’t go runnin’ home at the first sign o’ lethal danger. I can’t, Iris. I’m already the worst gnome there is. I can’t bear how me mum’d look at me…”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Iris murmured, “but…maybe being a good person is more important than being a good gnome? You’re one of the best people I know, Maureen.”

“Have you thought about runnin’?” Maureen asked, looking up at her again. “Tell ye the plain truth, Iris, half o’ what scares me is how all this seems targeted at us. Half our dorm’s been hit, an’ Raolo, who’s also our year. Plus Natchua an’ Shaeine, who’re connected to Szith through the exchange program. I’d suspect it was Addiwyn actin’ up again if she wasn’t one o’ the first to go.”

“I don’t run from enemies,” Iris said quietly, her eyebrows settling into a hard line. “Especially warlocks.”

“…you’d have made a more’n fair gnome.”

She grinned. “Well. I dunno about that, but considering the source, I get the feeling that’s one of the nicest things anybody’s ever said to me.”

“It’s like everything that makes me love this place is bein’ taken away,” Maureen whispered. “Even Rook’s gone. I’ve got nobody left to Patter with.”

“Rook?” Iris’s eyebrows shot upward and she leaned away, staring down at her in shock. “You had a thing with Rook? The scruffy one?”

“A thing with—oh, ew!” Maureen wrinkled her nose. “Don’t be utterly daft, he’s well too old for me, an’ not my type even if I was inta tall boys! It’s not like that, Iris, it’s just…he spoke a bit o’ Patter, as much as a human can. It was a wee bit o’ home.”

Iris blinked, then shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Maureen rubbed at her face with both hands. “…all right. Well. You’ve noticed how me accent tends to…come an’ go?”

“I, uh, didn’t want to say anything. It seemed rude…”

“Oh, it’s not rude,” Maureen replied with a rueful smile. “And I’ve a million ways to deflect the conversation if ye had, we all learn ’em growin’ up. It’s not just an accent—it’s Patter. There’s a rhythm to it, a second language threaded through the Tanglish. A whole other layer of meanin’, a way to communicate that shares so much more than just words can.”

“Oh.” Iris blinked. “And Rook can do that?”

“Humans can’t do it,” Maureen explained, wincing. “It’s…this is a bit of a secret, by the way. Not a huge one, the Nemitites an’ some others doubtless know about Patter, but it’s not somethin’ we talk about outside the Folk, except with our most trusted friends.”

“Well, I’m honored, then,” Iris said with a smile.

Maureen smiled back. “But it’s a gnomish thing. It’s intuitive; half of it isn’t even verbal. You have to be a gnome to Patter properly. But there’s some very few humans, those who were brought up by the Folk as babies—aye, that does happen, there’s not a gnome alive who’d throw out an infant if there was nobody else to take care of ’em. They pick up a wee bit of it. Not enough to Patter fully, but if ye get ’em young, when their minds are unformed, they can do some o’ the basic patterns. Rook can, so we’d talk sometimes. Made me feel at home, a bit. Him too, I guess.”

“Huh.” Iris blinked again, twice. “So…Rook was raised by gnomes. How ’bout that.”

“I dunno ‘is story,” Maureen said, shrugging. “He didn’t offer, an’ fer anybody with a gnomish upbringing it’s powerfully rude t’pry. But…now he’s gone, him an’ the other lads, an’ nothin’ left behind ’em but rumors that a Hand o’ the Emperor did ’em in. Bit by bit, Iris, everythin’ I love about bein’ here is bein’ taken away.”

It seemed Iris could find nothing to say to that. For a few more long minutes, they sat in silence.

“I can’t stay here,” Maureen whispered at last. “I can’t. And…I can’t go home either. I can’t do anything. Iris, what am I gonna do?”

“I don’t know, Maureen,” Iris replied softly. “Hon, I don’t think this is something I can help you answer. But… I can sit with you while you figure it out, if you want.”

“…aye. Yeah, that’s not nothin’.”

Slowly, Maureen leaned against her again. It was still awkward, but all things considered, that wasn’t so bad.


The door was not locked, for much the same reason Darling’s own was not; anybody trying to break into this house was either an imbecile or fishing for more trouble than most people wanted to risk. Darling, of course, preferred not to think of himself as an imbecile, but the next few minutes would likely tell.

It wasn’t, of course, as easy as just strolling up the path and walking in, but he hadn’t come here alone. Quietly removing the guards from the home of the head of Imperial Intelligence had required him to call in more favors than he’d ever before expended on a single job, but damn if it wouldn’t impress the hell out of Vex, which of course was the point.

He quietly closed the front door and paused in the entryway, examining the place. It was eerily familiar—very much like his own home, in fact. The tastefully expensive furnishings might have come right out of a magazine illustration, without a hint of personal identity anywhere. Whatever personality this place had, it was well concealed and likely not immediately accessible from any of the entrances. Which meant Darling wasn’t going to see it on this visit. He wasn’t nearly daft enough to think a house like this would have no interior defenses; getting inside had been as much as he’d been able to arrange. He had no plans to step through one more door. Gods only knew what might befall him further in.

No one was there to greet him at first, interestingly. Vex did not employ a Butler, and in fact had made a point of disapproving of Panissar employing one. Despite the Service Society’s vaunted discretion and neutrality, the spymaster felt it a gross abrogation of security to have such a powerful outside organization in a position to access Imperial secrets. It seemed strange that there were no servants, however. True, he had come in without knocking, but any well-trained household staff would be attuned to the sound of the door opening. This place was spotlessly clean, and Darling would eat his own shoes of Vex dusted it himself.

Even while he wondered on it, though, the swishing of fabric and rapid footsteps announced someone coming. Darling put on a pleasant smile and tucked his fingertips into his sleeve discreetly. He was still in full view of the windows…

A young woman bustled into the entry room from a hall doorway and stopped, staring at him rather stupidly. She was an immediately recognizable archetype: blonde, lovely, with elaborately styled hair and too much makeup, wearing a dress which was necessarily out of fashion. Current trends followed the Empress’s personal taste in severe, dark-colored gowns, which poorly suited the professional floozy. Her richly embroidered dress of blue velvet was daring, in the sense that if she moved too abruptly it was likely to slide right off her entirely. Despite its long, blousy sleeves and ankle-length skirts, it left enough of her chest on display she might have been cited for indecency if she left the house during daylight hours.

“Oh,” the girl said finally, in a voice so high-pitched it went past cute and into the territory of grating. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I never heard you knock! That silly maid should’ve answered the door.” She turned to look back into the hall, twisting her torso admirably into profile in the process. “Elzi! You silly girl, where are you?! There’s a visitor!”

“Now, that’s not necessary,” Darling said smoothly, not moving from his position. There was a wall immediately to his left; the room opened up on the right, with tall windows, the curtains currently not drawn, and a single low sofa flanked by end tables occupying the space. An entry where visitors could be kept waiting in a modicum of comfort while it was decided whether they should be allowed deeper into the house. Also, ample space for brawling, if necessary. “So sorry to barge in like this, but I need to speak with Quentin. Immediately.”

“Oh,” she said, turning back to him and batting her thick lashes, blue eyes wide and vacant. The girl sashayed forward a few steps, and he infinitesimally shifted his fingertips to touch the throwing knife up his sleeve, keeping his right hand against his side where she couldn’t clearly see it without doing anything so overtly shifty as moving it behind his back. “Well, Quenty’s usually not home at this time of afternoon—”

“He’s here,” Darling said. Calm and pleasant, but flatly implacable, with the faintest edge to his tone that she seemed not intelligent enough to grasp.

She showed no sign of having grasped it.

“Oh, you think so?” the girl tittered, coming forward another step. “Well, he’s probably up in his office, then. I can take you right to him!”

“That’s all right,” he said with a flirtatious wink. “I’ll wait right here.”

The girl stopped again, once more batting her lashes with an expression of thought which suggested it was a difficult labor for her. “But…but if he doesn’t know you’re here…”

“He knows,” Darling said quietly. “I can be patient. For a while.”

She tilted her blonde head to one side, staring quizzically up at him, then her expression cleared and she smiled, a touch too warmly. “Well, then, if you’re sure. Maybe while we wait—”

The projectile made only the softest sound when it punched through the glass of the front window, boring a neat hole rather than shattering the whole pane. It struck her perfectly on the side of her graceful neck and lodged there, little more than a needle attached to a pencil-thick length of rune-engraved wood. The girl managed a single gurgle and collapsed, slumping against the sofa with one arm draped across it, her head lolling back.

“I don’t think that was called for,” said Quentin Vex, stepping into the room and regarding Darling with a mildly disapproving expression. “There’s really no point in asking what happened to my house guards, is there?”

Darling stepped over to the fallen woman and calmly plucked the dart from her neck, tucking it into his pocket. “There we go; wouldn’t want you to overdose. I’m told alchemical drugs are very precise, but no sense taking risks, eh?” In fact, there was virtually no risk at all, except of him leaving evidence.

Vex shook his head and strode forward. “If you insist on—”

“Not one more goddamned step, Quentin.”

He didn’t bother pulling out his knife. Vex halted two steps into the room, blinking somnolently.

Darling, meanwhile, picked up the girl’s hand, running his fingertips along her wrist, up under her sleeve. Her eyes tracked him, the only thing she could currently move; even her facial expression was frozen in vacancy.

“There we are,” he said in satisfaction, withdrawing the wand he found strapped to her forearm. “Long, baggy sleeves—not part of the kept bimbo’s customary uniform. She’s good, isn’t she? If I hadn’t come here looking for something like this, I’d never have given her a second thought. Oh, my, this is a nice piece, isn’t it?”

The wand was beautifully crafted, its haft bounded in fancifully wrought silver with a large pearl on the end. Darling held it up to the light, admiring the workmanship. It was a shortened variety, perfect for concealing in pockets, at the expense of most of its firepower and accuracy; a weapon like this was all but useless at a range of more than two yards, but a nasty surprise for up-close fighting. Illegal for exactly those reasons, of course. This was a type of wand favored by spies and criminals.

“A gift,” Vex said curtly.

“Well, I promise I shall treasure it,” Darling replied, giving the young woman a wink and slipping her wand into his own sleeve.

Vex cleared his throat. “Maybe you should consider not digging yourself any deeper, Antonio. Trixie isn’t someone you want for an enemy.”

“Oh. Really?” Darling stared down at the paralyzed girl, blinking in apparently thought, her hand still held in his. She gazed blankly back.

He shifted his grip, squeezed, and wrenched. In the quiet foyer, the snap of her wrist breaking was plainly audible. She couldn’t even blink, but her pupils shrank to pinpricks.

Vex had not so much as twitched. That said nothing about whether he cared for the girl; he was too much a professional, and the injury too easily healed. Darling hadn’t really expected him to show his hand in response to what amounted to petulance. “This begins to seem downright out of character, Antonio,” Vex said. “Not your actual character, of course, but the role you like to play in public. Are you sure you want to take the masks off?”

“They’re off,” Darling said curtly, straightening and dropping Trixie’s arm. Vex’s eyes locked on his, sharp and focused, with no trace of the spymaster’s normally sleepy expression. “My apprentices overheard the most interesting thing last night, Quentin. Care to hazard a guess what it was?”

“You have indulged in all the melodrama you’re going to, Antonio. Say your piece before I decide you’re not worth allowing to leave here.”

He didn’t acknowledge the threat, which they both knew was empty. All part of the scene. “I took the time to follow up on rumors rather than risking all this based on one source. And guess what? It seems pretty well confirmed that the newly-unhinged Hands of the Emperor have acquired the ability to teleport.”

He took one step forward; Vex held his ground, eyes narrowed.

“So perhaps you can clarify something for me,” Darling said icily. “I have the Emperor hidden, at your request, with a member of my Guild—in her own home, where a child lives. All this on the presupposition that if the Hands start moving in his direction, your people on the scene will know in advance and have time to give warning and get my people to safety. Perhaps you would like to explain to me, Quentin, how they are meant to do this if the Hands can be on the site instantly?”

“Oh, don’t stop now,” Vex sneered. “Finish your monologue, Antonio. Storybook villainy suits you so perfectly.”

With the tiniest jerk of his arm, Darling dropped the wand out of his sleeve into his hand and shot him.

That, finally, got a reaction. The room was too long and the wand too inaccurate to hit at that distance, but the unfocused blast of light smashed a fairy lamp and charred a wide burn in the wallpaper far too close to Vex for comfort; the spymaster bolted to the side, bringing up a weapon of his own from behind his belt.

They froze, wands aimed at each other. The wall smoldered.

“You find me annoying, I know,” Darling said calmly. “You don’t know whose side I am truly on, and even as well as you control yourself, it irritates you, the way I play both ends against the middle.”

“Both?” Vex spat. “There are far more ends than that in your game.”

“Well, if you want to know what really matters to me, congratulations! You’ve forced my hand, Quentin.” Darling’s voice rose steadily as he continued. “You do not screw over the Thieves’ Guild! You came to me in good faith, promising to look after one of my people if she did the Throne an enormous favor. I added my own word to this. You made me a liar, put Eserites at risk of harm by your own agents, and broke faith with Eserion after coming to us for help. Do you have any idea what you’ve nearly sparked off? You can’t possibly not know! The Guild has taken kings right off their thrones for lesser insults than this!”

“Oh, spare me,” Vex snarled, no sign of his customary reserve in place. “Don’t you dare try to paint this as some kind of moral issue, you hypocrite. You’re no less a cold-blooded snake than I, and you know damn well what thrones and guilds are like! Yours, mine, everyone’s, everywhere. We did what we had to do, it required playing loose with the truth, and if it had all gone well, you’d never have been the wiser. Well, you caught me, fine. Win some, lose some. There’s nobody here but us bastards, Antonio; insult me by playing the martyr and I may decide to take all this personally.”

“I’m going to show you a little more of who I really am, Quentin,” Darling said flatly. “Right now, what I ought to do, as a faithful servant of Eserion, is take this right to the Boss and call for punishment for this hubris. We both know what would happen next—or at least, one of us does, and one has a general sort of idea.” Slowly, he lowered his arm. Vex did not do likewise, keeping the wand aimed at him, but his eyes flicked momentarily to the hole punched in his window, and he did not fire. “Instead, I’ve pulled out all the stops to stay his hand. You’ll never know how hard I had to lean on Tricks to keep this under wraps—and I only did that because I didn’t think I could keep it from him. I did this to stop the kind of bloodbath that should ensue when a sitting Emperor betrays the cult of Eserion the way ours just did. I did this because I am not your enemy, despite your apparent effort to make one of me.”

He slipped the wand into the pocket of his coat, eyes never leaving Vex’s.

“So now, I’m going to go to the home of my friend and Guildmate Peepers, and inform her that her houseguest lied and screwed us over and placed her and her little brother in immense physical jeopardy. I will not harm him in any way, nor allow her to—and not gonna lie, it may be a hell of a task to stop her. But his safe house is about to be gone. You’ve got that long to find another place to stash him. That’s your problem, not mine; in the position you’ve stuck me in, I can’t do you any more favors, however positively I may feel toward the Emperor. Or did until very recently, anyway. And that’s the end of it, Quentin. The Empire will not retaliate—against me, against Peepers, against the Guild. You will not interfere with me going over there. This all hangs by a thread, which you will cut if you make one more move in a direction the Boss finds even mildly distasteful. Understand?”

Darling held his gaze one moment longer before turning his back. He grasped the door handle, but paused before turning it, and spoke without looking back at Vex.

“You can’t fuck up like this again. Not one more time. I’ve worked too long and too hard to keep the Guild and the Throne in good standing with each other. No matter what duress you’re under, Quentin, do not make us enemies. We’ve both got much bigger fish to fry.”

Finally, he opened the door and stepped out.


The Imperial Guard, naturally, raised their weapons as someone teleported directly into the residence. In theory, only duly authorized mages should have been able to get through the wards, but those guarding the harem wing had recently had harsh lessons about the danger of trusting too much in their defenses.

Neither Vex nor the Azure Corps battlemage batted an eye at the staves leveled at them, simply standing motionless and waiting for the all clear.

“Stand down,” the officer on duty said after a moment, and all four soldiers returned their weapons to the upright position, falling back into parade rest around the room.

“Thank you, Major,” Vex said to the mage who had brought him. The man saluted, stepped back from him, and then with a short sparkle of blue light, vanished. The spymaster turned back to the officer who had spoken. “Where is she?”

“Here,” Eleanora herself stated, gliding into the room. “Fortunately—or is that why you chose to come during my customary tea time?” Despite her light tone, the Empress’s expression was sharp, tension visible in the set of her shoulders.

“I did not decide on the timing myself, your Majesty,” Vex replied, nodding deeply in a gesture that was nearly a bow. “I came to report that it’s in motion, now. Darling bought it.”

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12 – 49

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“Morning, Chase!”

“It’s barely still morning,” he said automatically, looking up from his open textbook, the top edges of a comic peeking above its pages. “Oh, hey, creepy government guy and his eerily hot friend!”

“Hey yourself,” Ashley said with a smile as the pair came to a stop alongside him, perched on one of the campus’s low retaining walls.

“I can’t decide exactly what it is that makes you hot,” Chase said, studying her with an expression of deep contemplation. “I mean, sure, you’re pretty, but that suit hides the best parts. Maybe it’s the suit itself! Drag is so delightfully transgressive. But no, I never got that vibe from Teal…”

“It’s a dryad thing,” Fedora said, his lips twitching in a smirk. “They’re all pretty much irresistible, even the ones who aren’t your type.”

“I don’t have a type, that’s so limiting,” Chase said automatically. “But I’m prepared to believe your theory! Juniper’s just about the scorchingest thing I ever saw, not to mention a hellcat in the sack.”

“Also a dryad thing,” Ashley said, her smile widening.

“Weellll, then, I’ll just have to try out a few more to test that assertion, won’t I?” he rejoined, waggling his eyebrows. “Whaddaya say, sweetheart? Lose the spook and let’s find a nice comfy bush? Or hell, bring him along.”

She laughed. “I suggest you stick to Juniper. Any of the rest of her sisters would just kill you after. Or possibly during.”

“Present company excepted, of course…?”

Her smile widened enough to show teeth.

“Damn if that isn’t the hottest thing yet,” Chase said to Fedora.

“I don’t disagree.”

“What’s with you, by the way? You look a little…peaked.”

Ashley huffed softly in amusement and released the Inspector’s arm, taking a step away from him. Immediately the color flowed back into his pale complexion; even the shadows under his eyes and his perpetual five o’clock shadow deepened. He gave her a sardonic look.

“What is she, poisonous?” Chase asked, watching this curiously.

“So, Masterson,” Fedora said, jamming his hands in his pockets. “Had a chance to consider the deal I offered you?”

Chase blinked. “Uh… Excuse me? The whozamawhuh?”

Fedora smiled, the expression far from friendly. “Because I suspect we’re rapidly approaching a point where the option’s not going to be on the table. These Sleeper antics have managed to impact the Imperial government on multiple levels—the governance of Tiraan Province and its good relationship with Tar’naris. Not to mention the Narisians themselves, what remains of House Madouri… It is probably, barely, still possible for a settlement, but there are powerful people out for blood, now. One more straw is gonna break the donkey’s back.”

Chase slowly tilted his head to one side, his eyebrows drawing together in confusion. “Um… Yeah. The Sleeper is pissing people off. But seriously, man, I haven’t been drunk enough since all this shit started to have forgotten you making me some kind of offer, not to mention I don’t get what… Waaaait a second!” Suddenly a grin blossomed across his face. “Hang on, do you think I’m the Sleeper? Because that’s… Aw, man, that’s just too rich. Did nobody tell you I was the first one to get sleeped? I mean, come on, to have arranged all that and still be in control of everything, not to mention cursing Natchua while I was unconscious, that’d make me just about the craftiest son of a bitch on the—actually, wait up, that sounds pretty good. Is it too late to claim I am the Sleeper? Especially if it comes with a government deal? Aw, shit, I already said too much for that, didn’t I.”

He tried to pout sullenly, an effort that went mostly wasted due to the grin that kept breaking through.

Fedora just shrugged. “Welp, just thought I’d bring it up. You take care, kid.”

Chase leaned forward so far he seemed in danger of tipping off the wall, now leering avidly. “Now, stop me if I’m wrong, but didn’t I just hear that you’ve been offering deals with a crazy magic terrorist asshole? Oh me oh my, I’m not at all sure that’s something a fine, upstanding servant of his Majesty’s government such as yourself ought to be doing! Why, just imagine if Professor Tellwyrn heard about this!”

“Heard about what?” Ashley asked innocently. “From whom?”

“There’s a certain strength in being as much of a career asshole as you’ve made a point of being, kid,” Fedora said with a smirk. “People can afford to let things slip to you. Probably shouldn’t, true, just because the gods only know what a little prick like yourself would do with sensitive information. But you can tell whatever you know to whoever you wish. It’s not like anybody’s gonna listen.”

“Pfft, I’ll have you know—”

“MISTER MASTERSON!”

Professor Tellwyrn was suddenly there—and not teleporting out of thin air as she normally did, but stepping out from behind a nearby sapling far too small to have concealed even her slender frame. “I distinctly recall not seeing you in class this morning. Care to explain yourself?”

“It’s…it’s all the stress, teach,” Chase said tearfully, his expression transitioning to wide eyes and trembling lips without an instant’s hesitation. “I’ve lost friends, lost sleep…why, we could all be struck down at any moment! It’s just too much to—”

She blinked forward, transitioning across the space between them without actually passing through it and ending up barely a foot from Chase, who again nearly tumbled off the wall in startlement, this time backwards.

“No one is impressed, Masterson,” she said flatly, “and no one is fooled. No one is ever impressed or fooled, so stop wasting my time with these antics. Tanq has your assignments; if you break your pattern and ask quite politely he will perhaps allow you to peruse his notes. And henceforth, unless you are the one cursed, you will be in class at the appointed time. That is all.”

“Well…yes, ma’am,” he said, blinking. For once, he seemed almost at a loss for words.

“Well?” she said impatiently. “Notes! Tanq! Move!”

Chase slapped his book shut, comic and all, and hopped down. He gave her a mocking salute, but didn’t pause to so much as leer at Ashley before turning and scurrying off down the path.

“And as for you,” the Professor continued, turning on Fedora, “I believe I was explicitly plain on the subject of you badgering my students.”

“Have you seen those coon skin hats the settlers sometimes wear?” he said mildly. “Y’know, kind of a gray furry cap with the fluffy tail hanging down the back. I just ask because you’re gonna end up as one if she didn’t give you permission to wear her face like this.”

“Inspector, do you find that anyone ever knows what the hell you’re babbling about?” she said impatiently. “This is an altogether disappointing performance—if you’re serious about catching this Sleeper, I sincerely hope you have more tricks up your sleeve than just making random accusations. That’s all I’ve seen from you today, at least.”

“Uh huh,” he said dryly.

“Progress,” she said, leveling an accusing finger at him. “Make some. Quickly. Without haranguing students when you’ve no evidence. Chop chop, Fedora, time’s a-wasting.”

Tellwyrn snapped her fingers once and vanished completely with a soft whoosh of air, leaving them standing alone in the sunshine.

“Um…” Ashley turned to look expressively at Fedora. “What the fuck?”

“That’s interesting,” he mused.

“You don’t think she’s actually lost control of that…critter? I’m not even sure what kind of fairy he is.”

“Something from Sifan, they’ve got some weird shit in kitsune-land. Anyhow, if so, it’s his ass, as I mentioned. But no…” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Doesn’t fit. I think she’s just trying to be clever, now. Finally. What remains to be seen is whether she’s any good at it. I really hope she’s got more to her plan than that, or it’s gonna result in the opposite of progress.”

“Hmph.” She stepped closer and threaded her arm through his again. At her touch, his magic immediately weakened, making his illusory countenance falter. Not too badly, but enough to strongly hint at his naturally bone-white complexion. Fedora bore this without complaint or comment, allowing the dryad to tug him off down the path at a slow stroll. “Well, that doesn’t seem to have yielded anything. And after all the trouble we went to to make sure there were no elves within earshot, too. You really think that Masterson kid’s the Sleeper?”

“Nope,” he said immediately, patting her hand. At the touch, his fingers shifted for a moment, becoming long and almost delicate, before resuming the rougher, tobacco-stained and bitten nails of the Inspector when he moved his hand back away. “No, I said that to Tellwyrn in the first place, and I stand by it. The Sleeper’s a mastermind type, loves to manipulate people and create intrigues. That habit of lashing out once confronted suits Masterson, but he’s not the sort to have created all these smokescreens in the first place.”

“Okay, you lost me, then,” she said, shooting him an annoyed sidelong look. “Why did you feel the need to come poke at him, then?”

“It occurs to me,” he mused, “that we’ve been operating on an assumption that may not be warranted. After all, we know where the Sleeper’s powers come from.”

“A gift of Elilial, intended to cause trouble, yes,” she said, nodding.

“And we know the kinds of students who would be doing something as fucknut stupid as trying to summon greater djinn—of which Chase Masterson is a perfect example. We also know there was more than one kid present for that. Some of the inconsistencies in the Sleeper’s behavior begin to make sense when we ask one question: why assume the Sleeper is only one person?”

“…hm.”

“Or has only one agenda. I could well see one of them doing this bullshit and another trying to stop it without revealing them both to Tellwyrn… So no, I don’t think Masterson’s our boy,” he said, staring ahead into the distance with a predatory glint in his eye. “But I’ve got a funny feeling that if I poke at him, it’ll eventually be felt in the right places.”


“She’s crazy,” Hawthorn hissed furiously. “I’m telling you, she’s stark raving nuts in the head! We gotta get her out of here!”

“Yeah, okay,” Mimosa said disinterestedly, studying her with her head tilted so far her ear nearly rested on her shoulder. “But…what are you wearing?”

Hawthorn was wearing a kimono, and was not the least bit happy about it. Its application had involved a large mirror and a display of inscrutable sleight of hand by Akane, the sight of which had probably been even more confusing to Milanda, who’d had a full view of the whole thing, than the dryad who had found herself stuffed into it. Even replaying the event in her head, she wasn’t sure how it had happened.

What was a little more believable (not to mention memorable) was the tongue-lashing which had ensued when Hawthorn had tried to tug the garment off. Even now, when she unconsciously fidgeted with the sash holding it together, her hands froze in the next moment and she shot an apprehensive look at Akane, who was standing near the teleport gate, speaking in a low tone with the Avatar.

“This is only the beginning,” Hawthorn warned ominously. “You just watch, if she moves in here you’re both gonna end up stuffed into these…these damn…things!”

“I dunno, that actually looks sorta nice,” Apple mused, reaching out to finger Hawthorn’s sleeve. Indeed, the kimono was of black silk embroidered with white leaves and thorns, which offset her coloration beautifully. “It’s pretty. Maybe I could try yours on? Since you don’t like it.”

“I wouldn’t mind it if I’d been allowed to try,” Hawthorn said furiously, her voice rising. “She just put me in it! That’s what she does, swaggers around jamming things at people! She’s awful!”

“Girls!” Akane barked, turning to stare disapprovingly at them. “We are having a conversation. Remain quiet, please!”

Hawthorn whirled at her and opened her mouth furiously to reply. The kitsune’s green eyes seized and held hers. A moment later, the dryad shut her mouth and hunched her shoulders.

“And stand up straight,” Akane added firmly. “Are you a tree or a bramble bush?”

She turned back to the Avatar’s panel without waiting for a reply.

“I hate her so much,” Hawthorn whispered.

They stood a good few yards distant, far enough that the kitsune was hidden from the knees down, thanks to the curvature of the tiny planet; they were due north, so she remained in view even as she walked slowly to keep pace with it as the world orbited, though the occasional tree passed between them and her. Milanda, at least, couldn’t hear the details of her discussion with the Avatar, even with her newly enhanced senses. She didn’t know the acuity of the dryads’ hearing, but suspected Akane did… Then again, Akane’s request for privacy had probably had more to do with her than them. She had little to fear from her younger sisters, who clearly understood none of what was going on. Milanda, though…

“Remember how you felt about Walker, at first?” she asked. Hawthorn scowled at her.

“…that’s different. That’s just…how she is. It’s not her fault her whole existence is a great screaming wrongness, that’s all crap that was done to her. Walker is super nice, and I can learn to ignore the scary awful part to spend time with her because she’s worth it. This one is the complete opposite.”

“I really gotta meet this Walker,” Mimosa said with a yawn.

“Yeah, you should,” Hawthorn replied, turning to her. “Walker’s awesome. I really wasn’t expecting to learn we had other sisters, but so far it hasn’t been all bad.” Again, she glared accusingly at Akane in the distance.

“I think you have your priorities right, there,” Milanda said with what she hoped was an encouraging smile. The nap she’d managed was not enough for this kind of cat-herding… “Judge people by the way they act, not your instinctive reactions to them. I just mean there might be something more to Akane than you’ve seen so far.”

“Do you like her?” Hawthorn said pointedly.

“No,” Milanda replied, not caring in the least if Akane could hear her, “I really don’t. But she’s not my sister. And whether I like someone has no bearing on whether I can work with them and speak to them respectfully.” Most days, she wanted to slap Empress Eleanora on general principles, but there was almost as little point in discussing that as in doing it. “Akane, if she decides to, may be able to help fix the Hands.”

“Hm,” Apple grunted, folding her arms and studying Milanda thoughtfully. “So…I guess that tells us what you’re concerned with.”

“Hey, yeah,” Mimosa added. “If she sticks around, you get what you want! Is that why you’re trying to foist her off on us?”

“Foist, that’s a good word,” Hawthorn said emphatically, nodding.

Milanda cracked a rueful smile in spite of herself. “You girls are pretty smart, you know that?”

“Yes,” Hawthorn said, while Apple and Mimosa blushed and tittered, respectively.

“I’m serious, though,” Milanda continued. “In my honest opinion, if Akane stays around… Well, she’s going to irritate the hell out of you. Frankly think you’ll find her very difficult to get along with. But, as hard as it might be to believe, I think that in the end you’ll benefit from it.”

“You’re crazy,” Hawthorn said bluntly.

Milanda drew in a breath and let it out, resisting the urge to rub at her eyes. “You girls haven’t had any kind of upbringing, you know that?”

“We don’t need one,” Mimosa said petulantly. “We’re dryads.”

“And yet,” Milanda persisted, “Akane walked in here, immediately started pushing you around, and so far, you’ve let her.”

That brought all three of them up short. They glanced uncertainly at one another, then at the kitsune, who was still apparently ignoring them.

“Dryads get left alone because you’re powerful, and because Naiya looks out for you,” Milanda went on. “But that leaves you vulnerable to other things. You can be manipulated, pushed into things you don’t necessarily like. There’s an art to dealing with other people, you see. Your…eldest sisters have learned it. Mastered it, even. Frankly, I think that for you to learn it will end up benefiting you more than enough to be worth the frustration Akane would almost certainly cause you in the process.”

“I am not convinced,” Hawthorn stated.

“Well, let me tell you about my situation, then, since you brought it up,” said Milanda. “First of all, if I were being selfish here, I wouldn’t be encouraging you to learn how to be more crafty. This whole system works the way it does because an Imperial politician keeps control of it. My personal loyalty is to that politician. And why are the humans in control? It’s not as if they’re stronger than you.”

This sparked another round of dubious glances, but she pressed on.

“And as for Akane, as I’ve already said to her, involving her in this will only decrease the Empire’s control more. She’s at least as powerful as you three, and a lot more cunning.” Milanda glanced again at the kitsune, who continued not to acknowledge them. “What it comes down to is… By encouraging this, I’m sacrificing a lot of the Throne’s authority over this whole…thing. I’m willing to do it because I believe it’s right, because I believe that all of our self-interests coincide here. I think Empress Theasia was wrong to manipulate and bully everyone the way she did. I think that having us all on the same page and with nobody left in the dark will make all this better. I have that much confidence in Sharidan, and in the Empire. And…if, someday, the Empire turns into something that isn’t as just or fair, I’m not unhappy at the thought of there being neutral parties down here—like you, and Akane, and Walker—who can lean on it if necessary.”

“Hum,” Apple said. The other two just frowned.

Milanda had the thought, not for the first time, that it was difficult to tell decades or centuries of uneducated, undeveloped thought from simple stupidity. Her conversations with the dryads were generally somewhat frustrating, just because they talked and related like spoiled children. However, once in a while a beam of intelligence would shine through, as it did now. They were all thinking, which spoke well of their mental faculties; the churlish brats they sometimes acted like could probably not have followed her argument. If Akane forcibly adopted them all the way she seemed to be trying to do with Hawthorn, they might eventually become something truly formidable. Provided they didn’t kill her or something first.

Which made her hope all the more fervently that she was right. The more she contemplated this, the more it began to appear that by fixing the Hands in this manner, she was wresting ultimate control away from the Throne itself. That made the prospect of simply destroying them and their whole system one she had to consider… But she hadn’t lied to the dryads. Her feeling was that this was still the right thing to do—for the Empire, for the world, and for Sharidan.

If only she could be more confident that her own reasoning was working as it should. She was just so damned tired…

“Hey, are you okay?” Mimosa asked suddenly. “You’re, uh…kinda swaying there.”

“She hasn’t slept much,” said Hawthorn, and Milanda couldn’t help finding her guilty expression somewhat endearing. “Part of that’s my fault, I wrecked her nap. You wanna lie down for a bit, Milanda? We’ll letcha know if she comes back over here, kay?”

“Oh, no, I’m fine,” she said, and immediately had to smother a yawn. “Well… I think I’ll sit down, if that’s okay. But I’d rather keep alert.”

“If you want,” Apple assured her while she folded herself carefully to the ground. “No sense in forcing yourself, though. Really, relax. This is our place; let us show a little hospitality.”

“Well, I guess…if you don’t…” Somehow, she’d ended up lying on her back. When had that happened? The grass was so much softer than she remembered grass being…


It was only happenstance that she saw her coming. Maureen had been pacing back and forth in front of the telescroll office, clutching her Pack, long enough that the townsfolk about in the square had stopped giving her curious looks, and even so she had yet to decide whether she was going to go in or go back up the mountain. Iris, though, was such a distinctive sight, a tall and slim figure in her characteristic white dress which made her dark skin stand out, that Maureen couldn’t help but notice her approach the square.

She cringed and scuttled around behind the telescroll office, cradling her Pack against her chest for comfort. Had Iris seen her? She didn’t seem to have been looking in her direction…

After a moment, she took the extra precaution of scurrying forward and dropping off the platform next to the Rail line. There she was hidden…sort of. The platform was taller than she. Still, she couldn’t help feeling exposed even here…

Maureen took off again, ducking under the Rail between the spokes holding it up—which would have been a very tight squeeze for a human, but she didn’t even have to drop to her knees—and darted across to the base of the little footbridge which arced over the Rail itself, terminating in the small structure which housed a few benches where the stagecoaches stopped to discharge and take on passengers unwilling or unable to use the Rail line. There was no coach now, of course; just the dusty old road stretching away to either side, and ahead nothing but endless golden prairie until it reached the Wyrnrange, far over the horizon to the west.

She stopped inside the little shelter, catching her breath and coping with the shame of it all. Honestly…bad enough to be down here. Bad enough to be dithering this way… Now running from her own friend? And just because she couldn’t—no, just didn’t want to—face what she was doing. Her mother would’ve taken the rolling pin to her for such craven behavior.

Maureen sighed, and clambered up onto one of the benches, setting her Pack beside her. Well, at least there was seating, here. It was a better place to think—to dither, honestly—than out in the square in front of the scrolltower.

Now if only there were something conveniently provided in this little shelter to help her reach a decision…

So quickly and completely had she sunk back into her funk that the sound of footsteps on the bridge didn’t even register with her.

“Are you okay?”

Maureen started violently, then flushed, finding herself facing exactly the person she’d been running from. Iris leaned around the edge of the shelter, frowning at her in concern.

“Um, if you wanna be alone, I won’t bother you. Sorry, I didn’t mean to sneak up on you, it’s just that you look… Well, if you need any help, you know I’m here, right?”

Maureen opened her mouth to try to dissuade her with some platitude, and accidentally blurted out truth.

“I’m leaving the school.”

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12 – 48

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Milanda didn’t fly reflexively into action, either to attack or flee, which she took as a good sign. So far, her augmented reflexes had proved they could both kill whatever threat could be killed and run from one that couldn’t, all without her conscious input. The fact that the kitsune’s statement didn’t provoke a response from her suggested she wasn’t entirely serious.

“I’ve missed your penchant for the dramatic,” Walker said with a smile, further bearing out this assumption. “Would you release her, please? Dryads are not accustomed to being manhandled.”

Akane shifted to give Hawthorn a contemptuous look; the dryad was snarling and whining, while trying to yank the hand free from her ear, without success.

“Perhaps the experience would be beneficial to her in the long run,” Akane suggested, but after a deliberate moment, probably just to prove her point, she let go. Hawthorn immediately skittered backward, clutching her ear and glaring accusingly.

“You are a big jerk!”

Akane turned a cold shoulder to her, focusing her attention back on Walker. “I hope you can explain the condition of this place, Yrsa. It appears to have been upended by some kind of cyclonic toddler, whether before or after these Tiraan managed to disable the Avatar, I cannot begin to guess. Everything I have seen so far suggests to me that these people absolutely do not need to be left in custody of this facility!”

“Come on, Akane, you know better than that,” Walker replied. “No current humans would be able to shut down an active Avatar.”

“I should think you, of all people, would be familiar enough with the adventuring breed not to make assumptions regarding what humans can or cannot do,” Akane said haughtily, folding her arms. “I have learned the hard way that humans require careful shepherding—for their own good, not to mention everyone else’s.”

“Be that as it may,” Walker said, still in a deliberately calm tone, “the Avatar is fine. He’s been pulled from the main network here and installed in the gravitational isolation chamber. He did this, himself, willingly, and you can go talk to him if you wish. I’m sure he’d be glad to see you.”

“How about you stay away from there!” Hawthorn said shrilly. Everyone ignored her.

“Assuming you are correct,” Akane sniffed, “that doesn’t explain everything going on here. Why are the Tiraan keeping three dryads prisoner, to say nothing of you?”

“Nobody here’s a prisoner!” Hawthorn snapped. “Everybody but you is invited!”

Walker sighed softly. “I…sort of am a prisoner, Hawthorn. But!” She held up a hand to forestall Akane, the tip of whose tail had begun twitching in suppressed agitation. “As much as I don’t enjoy being kept underground, I’m also not inclined to fight it—not because the Imperials intimidate me, but because this is for the best.” She turned her full focus on the kitsune, her expression intent, almost pleading. “I don’t know if you’re aware of what I’ve been…like, since I was brought back to this plane.”

“I have heard…whispers,” Akane acknowledged quietly. “Troubling ones.”

Walker nodded. “As long as I’m down here, nobody dies from being near me. I consider it…a fair deal. I hate being a…walking hazard, Akane. Being a houseplant isn’t ideal, but it beats the hell out of the alternative.”

The kitsune shot Milanda a look. “I see. And…this? Standing here, clearly brimming with stolen power?”

“Given,” Hawthorn interjected before Milanda could speak, “not stolen. Milanda is very nice to us, unlike some uninvited visitors to this place!”

“I hardly even know where to begin with what the Empire is doing with all these children of Naiya,” Akane snapped. “Just the mere fact that they are in possession of this facility and have had the temerity to alter it is disturbing enough. I take some slender comfort in the evidence that they haven’t penetrated far.”

“Not even as far as we have,” Walker interjected. “The Imperials can only get into the access hall, out there, and the GIC.”

“Regardless,” Akane barreled on, “there are dangers in here which the Tiraan Empire unequivocally does not needs to get its hands upon! Yrsa, do you realize there’s an entire cache of anthropomorphs in suspended animation in this port?” She curled her lip disdainfully. “All females, in stasis chambers bearing Druroth’s personal seal, and you know very well what that means. Disgusting. It would be kinder to terminate their life support before the Tiraan find them. Those creatures have suffered enough without being unleashed in a barbaric cluster of mud huts like what’s—”

“You are not killing anyone!” Milanda snapped.

Total silence fell, even over Hawthorn. Akane turned a piercing stare directly on Milanda. Her eyes flicked over her once, and her right ear twitched.

“And,” she finally said, the full weight of her disdain filling her voice, “you are…?”

Despite the fatigue still pressing down on her, and the tension of the moment, Milanda had a sudden realization. Her outburst had been born of her own weariness and frustration, yes—some deferred horror from the death she herself had recently caused. But in its aftermath, the pressure of having to adapt and talk her way around this frighteningly powerful being, something snapped into place in her mind.

“Someone,” she said quietly, “who needs your help.”

Akane favored her with a scornful little smile. “Child, I give you credit for brazenness—whatever little credit that deserves. Why in the world do you imagine I would want to help you? I thought I made it plain I am a hair’s breadth from wiping your civilization clean like the stain I consider it to be.”

Walker had just mentioned that Akane had a fondness of drama, but it didn’t seem wise to make a point of that. “I really don’t think you mean that, Akane-sama.” The kitsune lifted her eyebrows fractionally at the formal address, but an instant later the corners of her mouth also tilted up almost imperceptibly. Encouraged, Milanda pressed on. “I understand all this must be shocking and an unpleasant reminder, but I can’t see you as unreasonable enough to take it out on so many uninvolved people. An entire culture.” It verged on fawning, but considering what this creature was capable of, that didn’t seem inappropriate. Hopefully, Milanda was reading Walker’s cues correctly, and her assessment of Akane’s temperament wasn’t too far off…

“An entire culture,” the kitsune said disdainfully. “You are down here, and acquainted with Yrsa; do I infer that you know something of the true history of this world? Something more than people at large have remembered?”

“We’ve had some very good conversations about history, yes,” Milanda said neutrally. “Obviously, I can’t say how much I may not yet understand…”

“Not much, I bet,” Hawthorn muttered. “We should think about calling her Talker instead of Walker.”

“One of my sisters and I are conducting a continuous go tournament,” Akane said, “which has run longer than your entire civilization. I am presently up ninety-three thousand four hundred thirty two games to ninety-three thousand four hundred twenty nine. Child, you are addressing the heir and custodian of the longest uninterrupted cultural lineage in existence. The kitsune have watched over and shaped the continuous prosperity of a society which stretches back long before the settling of this world—a society which was one of the noblest and most graceful cultures to exist on humanity’s birthplace. And you talk to me about culture? You’re a collection of primitives, jabbering in a borrowed language and pantomiming a hodgepodge of long-dead traditions, shaped by forces whose very existence you don’t even imagine. If Tiraas were wiped out this instant, the world would recover and be none the worse for the event in what history would come to record as an eyeblink.”

“Uninterrupted is really stretching it,” Walker said suddenly.

Akane turned a frown on her. “What?”

“Mother turned her back on her own society,” Walker said, “just as all her Order did. She later repented and revived its memories, but that’s definitely an interruption.”

“Pedantry does not suit you, Yrsa,” Akane said irritably. “My point stands.”

“More importantly,” Walker insisted, “there is no possible way an entire culture could survive completely intact after passing through the bottleneck of one woman’s recollections, goddess or no. I know you and the others did your own research in the Order’s files to piece together other fragments, but still—”

“Just who is this girl, Yrsa,” Akane interrupted with a faint smile, “that you’re so concerned for her welfare as to deliberately irritate me in order to draw my focus from her?”

Walker hesitated, glanced at Milanda, then turned her stare back on Akane.

“I have sisters,” she said quietly. “Many lost to me now…some few I can again speak to. And I owe that to Milanda’s intervention. But in all the universe, I have exactly one friend.” She shot Milanda another look, this one with a trace of asperity. “And it’s all I can do to keep her from getting herself killed, without you helping.”

The kitsune actually grinned at her, then turned her head to examine Milanda with more interest, now, and some amusement. “Very well, I’ll consider myself caught. You are correct, young lady—I am not shy about my occasional capriciousness, but genocide is something I would much rather threaten than carry out. Still, my original question remains.” She tilted her head back, her expression aloof now; her ears, though, were alert and swiveled forward, which Milanda interpreted as a positive sign. “Why should I help you? And to do what?”

This called for words to be chosen with great care. If only she were a little better rested for this confrontation…

“If you’ve been investigating the computers here,” she said, “I suspect you have some idea, at least, what this facility does now.”

“Yes, your little…project,” Akane sniffed, pursing her lips in disapproval. “I applaud the ingenuity, at least, but I take a very dim view of your Empire using the Order’s technology for its own benefit.”

“They didn’t just do that, however,” Milanda said firmly. “The Tiraan who first found this place couldn’t have forced the Avatar to move—he chose to cooperate, and to set up this system for them. And now it needs help to be repaired.”

“A curious fact, if true,” the kitsune said with a shade too much disinterest to be believable, “but I am still waiting to learn what this has to do with me.”

“The Avatar isn’t loyal to the Empire,” Milanda said, watching her reactions closely. “He’s following the last directive left to him by Tarthriss: to be of service to the survivors of the human race.” This was what she had just finally figured out, the thing that explained the Avatar’s recent machinations, as well as his entire presence here and willingness to work for the Silver Throne. It was amazing, in hindsight, that she hadn’t put it all together before. “He is doing this because he considers the Tiraan Empire to be good for humanity. At least,” she added pointedly, “in its present form. And that’s the really important thing, here. A government is not its governor; even a benign leader will be succeeded, and eventually a less competent and/or more malevolent one will rise. Having a system like the Hands of the Emperor does a great deal to secure the safety of the Silver Throne while the system works—and while its operator judges that the Throne deserves it. But if he decides it doesn’t, then he has…leverage.”

“What you are suggesting,” Akane mused, still studying her quizzically, “is that I, of all people, should be placed in a position to have that…leverage. I take it you, yourself, are skeptical of this Empire’s beneficence?”

“My loyalty is to the Emperor,” Milanda said quietly. “He tasked me with restoring the Hands to their proper state. But in the end… His loyalty is to the Empire, and to its people. He may not have realized that the Hands were placed in part as a measure to keep the Empire on the right track, but I know him, and I believe he would approve. One lever does not control the Throne, after all. This whole situation has proved the Emperor and the Empire can survive with minimal disruption without them. Even if you don’t trust or care for the Empire, having the ability to neutralize the Hands does not make you a crippling threat to it. But it does make you—and Walker, and the Avatar, and whoever else is involved—a party who can insist on being listened to.”

There was a beat of silence, in which they all regarded each other—most thoughtfully, Hawthorn with a blend of confusion and mounting alarm.

“This is a compromise,” Milanda finally added. “It’s not the ideal outcome I would have wanted. It is, of course, an imposition to ask it of you, Akane-sama. Keeping Walker here is certainly an imperfect balance of her own interests, and even the dryads infer both costs and benefits from their involvement. But I believe this is the best thing for everyone. For us, for the Empire, for the world.”

“I believe you are getting ahead of yourself,” Akane said loftily. “You are correct that I have little care for the Empire. I’m puzzled by your conclusion that I should care for the world itself. I have my sisters and our nation to consider. Nothing more.”

“However,” Milanda countered with a smile, “I am also talking to a being who can erase me with a flick of her tail—but I note that’s not the point you emphasized when challenged. You talked of culture, tradition. Yes, I am gambling, and perhaps I’m wrong… But something tells me you do care about the world. Maybe more than you’ve ever allowed yourself to express.”

Akane stared at her in silence, one ear twitching.

“The Infinite Order are gone,” Milanda said, meeting her gaze. “Whatever promises you made to Naiya to stay on your island… We both know she has not been herself for far longer than Tiraas has existed. She sent you there for your own protection, from threats that no longer exist. It’s not just that, though. The fact is, Akane-sama, you might not find it within your power to wipe out the Imperial capital now. Oh, you’re a threat which could cause unprecedented damage, but… In the century since the Enchanter Wars, the Empire has become something that can neither be ignored, nor unilaterally destroyed, by any other power remaining in the world. Even the dragons have found themselves compelled to come to terms with this. I’m not asking for a pure favor; this is a chance for you to take a hand in the shaping of the world.”

Akane continued to stare for a long moment. Then, unexpectedly, she smiled. “You sound very much like Kaisa.”

“I see,” Milanda said carefully. “Is that…a compliment?”

“Yes and no,” the kitsune said offhandedly. “She is someone whom I dearly love, who frustrates me to no end with her wild notions. You may consider me, for now…tentatively interested. Let us go see what Avatar 01 has to say. This should be quite revelatory; it’s been a very long time since I spoke with him last.”

“Now wait just a minute!” Hawthorn shouted. “This crazy jackass with the tail is not coming to our home! I live there, dang it—my sisters are there! What the crap do you people think you’re—”

She fell very abruptly silent as Akane surged forward, drawing herself up to her full height. Their proximity emphasized that the kitsune actually wasn’t terribly tall, which seemed incongruous, given the way her personality filled the whole room. Physically, though, she needed the extra few inches added by her ears to stand over Hawthorn. Even so, the dryad backed away, staring at her in alarm.

“And just what do you mean,” Akane said in a dangerously quiet tone, “by expressing yourself like a common tavern wench, to say nothing of cavorting about in the nude? The sheer disgrace. You are a child of Naiya, heir to a legacy whose importance you can’t even begin to grasp. Very well, I see we have a great deal of work to do—here, to say nothing of these humans and their little pet project. Henceforth, I shall expect better of you.”

“I—what the—hey!” Hawthorn finally drew herself up to her own full eight, crossing her arms and trying for a haughty expression, which only managed to appear childishly sullen next to Akane’s far more expert poise. “I am a dryad. I do what I do, and I don’t need to explain myself to anybody! Just who do you think you are?”

This time, Akane moved so fast she didn’t appear to move at all. Suddenly, she was just there, her nose inches from Hawthorn’s, without seeming to have crossed the intervening space. The dryad froze, eyes widening; the kitsune smiled, and something in the expression was far more alarming than her previous anger.

“You,” she said in a tone of silken steel, “may call me onee-san.”

Hawthorn stared at her. Then, very slowly, she leaned to the side to peer around Akane at the others. “Walkeeerrrrrrr?”

“It’s out of my hands now, kid,” Walker said with clear amusement. “’Fraid you’re on your own.”

“Enough of this,” Akane said decisively. “We will go discuss these matters with the Avatar—and then, depending in part on what I find there, we shall proceed…” She swept a piercing stare across the room, Milanda, and finally Hawthorn. “…with whatever needs doing.”


In a perfectly nondescript apartment in a lower-class but not too rough neighborhood of Tiraas, an unremarkable-looking man in an uninteresting, inexpensive suit sat beside an open window, a newspaper held in front of his face. Its angle did not obscure his view out the window, or through the windows of the apartment across the street and one story down.

At the sound of footsteps in the hall, he coughed discreetly, lifting one hand to his mouth and making a fist to cover it. The steps, muffled slightly by the carpet, shuffled slightly as their occupant carefully stepped over the stack of newspapers in the hall which had toppled over and partially blocked the way—providing the pretext for her to step in the prearranged pattern. It was the right sequence of steps and pauses, but even so, the man by the window did not lower his hand until she had entered the room and he recognized her face. Only then did he let his arm come to rest on the end table next to his reading chair, removing his fingers from the handle of the wand concealed up his sleeve.

“Evening, Rex,” the woman said cheerfully to the man, whose name of course was not Rex. “How’s the birdwatching?”

“Blessedly dull,” he replied with a bland smile. “The eagle hasn’t left the nest—gods send this is all that’ll happen until this whole business is resolved.”

“Nothing definitive from back at the office on that,” she replied, settling herself into the other chair facing his and positioned next to the room’s other window, “but indications are things are settling down. Whoever’s working on the problem seems to be getting results. The Hands are stabilizing, causing fewer ruffled feathers. Still suddenly popping up where they can’t be, though.”

“Mm. If they can just work out how to keep that new teleporting without having it coupled with them being unstable, that’ll be the bee’s knees,” Rex grunted, tossing his paper down next to the chair and getting to his feet. “Thanks for being early, by the way.”

“No worries—I know you pulled a double. No sense in any of us getting too run-down,” she said, smiling, but not looking at him. Her attention was also not on the book she had picked up and opened, but at the apartment across the way, watched through her peripheral vision. “Grab a few winks, I’ll hold this down.”

“Cheers.”

He strode from the room, betraying none of the stiffness that should be expected of a man who had not moved in four hours. The woman hummed softly to herself, and turned a page. She hadn’t read a single line, of course.

Outside the open window and a few feet straight up, two figures dressed in black were perched on the eaves. Flora and Fauna exchanged a long, loaded look, then in unison turned and bounded away over the rooftops, silent as falling leaves.

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12 – 47

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“Hey. How you holding up?”

Teal lifted her head, which had been resting against the back of the couch, and gave Ruda a weary smile. “Actually… Considering everything, not bad. It’s one of those things where… I can see myself overreacting to stuff and can’t stop it.”

“Well, sure, this whole thing’s a fuckin’ mess,” Ruda agreed, strolling over to sit down beside her. For the moment, they had Clarke Tower’s first-floor living room to themselves, Nahil having departed only minutes before after a long visit with Teal. “You know you’re not alone and you can count on us for anything. I mean, I credit you with enough smarts to know that, but I’m sayin’ it anyway. Sometimes it’s just good to hear.”

“Yes, it is,” Teal agreed, her smile widening slightly. “Thanks, Ruda. Honestly, I hate to sound ungrateful; the support of—of family has been wonderful right now. But on the other hand, trying to fit myself into a new family is a tricky enough thing to keep me tired all by itself. And…and I hadn’t expected to be doing it alone.” The smile drained away, leaving her looking just pale and tired again, and she allowed her head to slump.

Ruda draped an arm around her shoulders. “I know, hon. It’s… Okay, look, the last thing I want is to add to your concerns right now. But I gotta say something before it turns into the kind of issue this can if nobody talks it out with you. Teal… You’re wearing her clothes. I’m startin’ to worry.”

At that, Teal cracked a more genuine smile, going so far as to chuckle softly. She was, indeed, dressed in Awarrion robes, of green trimmed in red, and both in shades so dark they weren’t immediately distinguishable from black to human eyes, at least under indoor lighting.

“I appreciate the concern, Ruda, but come on. You don’t really think I would fit in Shaeine’s clothes, do you? I’m taller and…you know, a good bit bigger around, in several places.”

“Well, okay,” Ruda said, her eyebrows still drawn together in an expression of concern. “And, yeah, you’re right, those fit you like hers fit her, which is…sorta the same worry, Teal, if it means you’re getting them tailored. Any time somebody suddenly changes their personal habits right on the heels of a major shock, I get worried. My Uncle Raffi suddenly started collecting seashells after his boat went down in a storm. We didn’t think anything of it until one of the maids went in his room and—”

“Seriously, Ruda, I’m fine,” Teal interrupted, shaking her head. “It’s…family stuff. Like I was saying. There’s still a member of House Awarrion attending this school, and now that’s me. I want to represent it properly, is all.”

If anything, Ruda’s frown deepened. “Um…exactly what kind of pressure are they putting on you?”

“It’s not like that,” Teal explained. “The truth is… The haircut, the men’s clothes, it was never because they’re exactly me. It’s more that they weren’t what I was brought up to see as socially acceptable. I wasn’t trying to be anything, just to…make a point that I wasn’t something. Does that make sense?”

“I’ve gotta say, you never struck me as the rebellious type,” Ruda said skeptically.

“I’m really not,” Teal replied with a small grin. “And besides, it’s hard to be rebellious when your parents are as easygoing as mine. I just reached a point where I had to give Imperial society the finger, you know? If the alternative was letting it constantly beat me down with admonitions about how wrong it is just to be who I am…”

“Totally getcha,” Ruda said, nodding.

“Yeah, so. I’m not giving anything up, and nobody’s pressuring me, Ruda, don’t worry. This is nothing like growing up being told I had to wear dresses and kiss boys. I just landed in Tiraan Province at birth, and had the whole world dictating terms at me right from the start. Tar’naris may be virtually alien in many ways, but the difference is it’s something I chose.” She smiled again, self-consciously running a hand over her head. “I’m going to start letting my hair grow out, too. They don’t have the same ideas about hairstyles down there, but there is a perception that short hair on a woman indicates a martial path in life. It’s common for soldiers. Like Szith. Ol’ Tom will be delighted; he makes the most mournful faces at me whenever I go into town for a trim.”

Ruda leaned back against the couch, staring at her thoughtfully. “Well…okay. As long as nobody’s giving you a hard time about it.”

“Nobody but the Sleeper,” Teal said, her face falling into grim lines.

“Sooo. Now you find yourself the de facto ambassador for a family and whole culture you’re only just starting to understand. Wow, no fuckin’ pressure, huh?”

Teal sighed, and shifted to lay her arm across Ruda’s shoulders in kind. “You know, Ruda, I’ve always liked you. Even right from the beginning, when you thought Trissiny was going to murder you in your sleep. I’m glad to call you a friend.”

“…but shut the hell up?”

“Please and thank you.”


“Well, as far as I can tell, you’re fine,” Tellwyrn stated, folding up the scrying apparatus she’d been using. It resembled an overlarge book with panes of inscribed glass for pages, bound with thick brass hinges. “At least, in comparison to my last examination of you. The truth is, Crystal, you are a sort of…perpetual work in progress. I was never absolutely sure how all your functions operate, and the spells are complex enough that changes could very well be hidden in the background. Your natural state is adaptive; it would be odd if there weren’t any changes from the last recorded point of reference.”

“I see,” the golem replied.

Tellwyrn sighed, and held the scrying panes out to one side. “Maru, put this up, please.”

The tanuki eagerly skittered forward from the corner where he’d been waiting. Halfway across the carpet, he tripped on his robes and went sprawling at her feet. He bounded swiftly back upright, though, reaching for the apparatus, only to have Tellwyrn yank it back out of his grasp.

“On second thought,” she said dourly, “I’ll do it.”

Crystal shifted her metallic head to follow the Professor as she stepped over to the closet and carefully replaced the scrying device on the high shelf where it belonged. Maru retreated to his corner, anxiously dry-washing his paws and watching them both.

“There is one thing,” Tellwyrn said, shutting the closet door and turning to face the golem again. “The interference you describe was clearly caused by absorbing one of the Sleeper’s projections. Infernal projections are…well, not exactly a thing. The Sleeper is clearly operating close to the threshold where the schools of magic blur together. It’s said the highest application of any form of magic is to be able to use it without limitation, moving past the inherent boundaries and strictures imposed by the nature of the specific school.”

“I’m familiar with the principle, Professor,” Crystal said softly.

“The point being, I can’t be sure what you absorbed would register as fully infernal magic… But the Wreath agents we have on campus at the moment recognized the description. Projections of that kind aren’t any part of what infernal craft I know, so they must be very advance Elilinist technique. If you would like, I can ask them to examine you. That carries its own risks, however,” she added with a scowl. “It would inevitably lead to the Black Wreath gaining an insight into what makes you tick. I trust I don’t have to explain why that is a chancy proposition.”

“Indeed not, Professor.” Crystal tilted her head infinitesimally to one side, in one of the little gestures of curiosity she had carefully learned. “What do you think I should do?”

Tellwyrn was silent for a moment, staring at her with a frown. At last, she sighed and shook her head. “Crystal… My original intention was to activate you, see how you ran, then deactivate you and make improvements. Repeating as needed till I got an effect I liked, the way most spells are run. The truth is, I underestimated how sophisticated and potent your core enchantments are. Almost immediately, you were…a person. A somewhat stiff and glitchy one, yes, but right from the beginning, it turned out I didn’t have it in me to just…shut you off. Oh, I’m not shy about killing someone who needs it, but murder for the sake of my intellectual curiosity crosses a line I avoid. And yes…it would have been murder. The reason for all this rambling is… Well, this has to be your decision, Crystal. Me? I don’t want the Wreath anywhere near you. But Imperial law notwithstanding, I can’t see you as a thing I own. It’s your health we’re talking about, so if you want to ask for their help, it would be pretty damn hypocritical of me to bar you after I’ve already had the assholes looking at our curse victims.”

She paused, then shook her head again, and folded her arms, leaning back against the desk.

“But let me help you make an informed decision, with my bias acknowledged. This is a matter into which the Wreath may—or may not—have some specific insight. They will probably help, if it turns out their help is needed, and they actually can. That Mogul character is quite dedicated to sucking up to me these days. But at the end of the day, this is the Black Wreath we’re talking about. They are philosophically incapable of having an advantage without exploiting it to the fullest, and they assuredly respect fewer moral lines than most people. Fewer even than I, which as I’m sure you know is really saying something. I can’t say for sure that what they could learn from examining your enchantments would harm you eventually. I’d say, though, there’s a pretty good chance it’ll end up harming someone, at some point.”

Crystal stood in silence, then slowly folded her hands in front of her, almost bashfully. “Professor… What does make me tick?”

Tellwyrn drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “…all right. This is a conversation I’ve seen coming for a while. I expect it to be a rather long one. Right now, Crystal, I don’t have time to sit down and discuss this with you. I’ve got a full night planned, and it’s going to take me halfway around the world and back before I’m done.”

“Of course, Professor, I completely understand. I can come back when things are less—”

“Now, wait a moment,” Tellwyrn said, holding up a hand. “I’m not blowing you off. If you really want to have a sit-down and discuss this in detail when you have my undivided attention, I fully understand that. In that case, we’ll have to postpone it. But my errands tonight are going to involve a fair amount of travel time and more than a little waiting around, I expect. If you’d like to come with me, we can talk while in progress.”

“You mean…” For a moment, Crystal seemed actually lost for words. “Off the campus? Me, out exploring the world?”

“There’ll be no exploring,” Tellwyrn said with a wry smile. “Specific errands, Crystal, and no unnecessary dallying. But…yes, it’ll be a chance to see—”

“I would like to come, please.” The golem hesitated. “Oh…excuse me. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“No harm done,” Tellwyrn said, grinning. “Maru… I have not left the campus. Understand?”

He bowed. “Wakata.”

“All right. Off we go, then.”

There was no further fanfare; the elf and the golem simply vanished from the room with a soft pop of displaced air.

Maru stood in the middle of the carpet for a moment, glancing about as if uncertain that Tellwyrn had actually gone. Then a grin stretched his pointed muzzle. He suddenly began spinning around in a circle, faster and faster until he’d have been too blurry to make out any details, had anyone been there to see. His blurred shape shifted, growing taller, its hazy colors altering…

And then suddenly, slammed to a stop. Professor Tellwyrn stood in the center of the carpet, blinking. After a moment, she held out one hand and snapped her fingers, and a pair of golden spectacles popped into being above her palm. She deftly caught them and slipped them onto her nose.

“Growr!” she barked. “I’m Arachne Tellwyrn, goddammit! I’m gonna turn you into a newt, asshole! A dead newt! Or just a dead asshole, that sounds more efficient. Where’s my damn tea?!”

The elf grinned fiendishly at nothing, then turned and strolled toward the office door, giggling to herself.


They appeared in an enormous cavern, carved into cathedral-like dimensions around a square base, with pillars as thick as towers holding it up at each of the four corners of the room. A stone platform stood in the center, occupying most of the available space, and lined with iron rails except at one end, where stairs descended toward the only doorway into the chamber.

“Come along,” Tellwyrn said, stepping forward toward the metal stairs and beckoning Crystal along behind her. “It’s best not to loiter on the teleport pad. It’s heavily enchanted to prevent accidents, but just the possibility of one of those is enough to be wary of.”

“Yes, Professor,” the golem said, shifting into motion and following her. Tellwyrn’s steps were as soundless as any elf’s, but Crystal’s made heavy thinks on the iron stairs as they descended.

A gatehouse stood, half-filling the arched tunnel leading out of the chamber, with the remaining path blocked off into two lanes by iron rails matching those on the pad behind them. Dwarves were manning the checkpoint, two in military uniform standing to one side of the tunnel, another inside the gatehouse, visible only from the waist up. All three were watching them with slightly widened eyes; at the pair’s approach, the two soldiers bowed slightly. Tellwyrn nodded to them in reply.

“Greetings, Professor Tellwyrn, and…” The dwarf behind the counter peered curiously at Crystal. “…guest. Welcome to Rodvenheim. May I ask what brings you?”

“Academic business,” Tellwyrn said crisply. “I need to consult with Professor Arnheldt at Undertower College.”

“Of course,” he said politely. “And… If you would like to register your golem for a nominal fee, you can be reimbursed for accidental damage to it by the city’s enchanted facilities. Whether you choose to take advantage or not, you will be expected to be responsible should the reverse occur.”

“My librarian,” Tellwyrn said sharply, “is not chattel and shall not be entered into your records as such.”

He blinked, then looked warily at Crystal again. “Ah…if…um, very well. Regardless, Professor, with the greatest respect…”

“Don’t worry, I’ve no intention of causing any trouble,” Tellwyrn said, her tone softening slightly. “And Crystal has never damaged anything in her life. But yes, if she does, I will take responsibility.”

“Ah, very well then,” the gate guard said with obvious relief. “Then, Rodvenheim hopes you enjoy your stay.”

She just nodded to him, and continued on up the tunnel, Crystal following in silence.

It opened into a cavern of titanic proportions, far longer than it was wide—and it was wider than many city blocks were long. In fact, an entire city was clearly present here. The cavern stretched perpendicular to the access tunnel from which they now emerged, vanishing entirely into a haze caused by the faint smoke in the air on their left, and opening out into an even wider, round space off to their right. Directly in front of them ran a broad street, with beyond it a row of three-story buildings such as might have been constructed in any aboveground city. Past another street on the other side, more windows climbed the walls, to a height of almost ten stories, before the arch of the roof began, sweeping upward to meet in the center. The faint taste of wood and coal smoke hung on the air, but most of the light appeared to be the steady gleam of modern fairy lamps.

“I’m biased as hell, of course,” Tellwyrn said, stepping forward onto the sidewalk, “but Rodvenheim has always been my favorite of the Five Kingdoms.”

“Because they appreciate magic more than the others?” Crystal asked, falling into step beside her. At this hour the sidewalk wasn’t crowded, but Rodvenheim was as busy as any city anywhere would be at dusk, and they were hardly alone. Many of the passersby watched them, some actually stopping to stare. An elf was a rare enough sight here (though they did see a smattering of humans), but some might have recognized Tellwyrn by description, like the gate guard had. It was at Crystal that most of the stares were directed, however.

“That,” Tellwyrn agreed. “And they are generally less stuck in the mud. Less than other dwarves, and most societies in general. To someone with elven groves as a basis for comparison, this place is positively anarchic. And yet…not. The strong dwarven sense of social order and intellectual curiosity, with almost human adaptiveness and willingness to experiment. It’s no wonder this city alone isn’t suffering an economic depression right now. In Svenheim they can’t even afford to keep all the street lamps on.”

They proceeded in silence for a few moments toward the larger, open cavern up ahead. Tellwyrn wore a frown behind her spectacles. Only after gathering her thoughts for a couple of minutes did she speak again.

“To answer your earlier question, Crystal…I don’t know.”

“You don’t know…?”

“What ultimately powers you.” Tellwyrn glanced at her briefly before returning her eyes to the path ahead. “I did build you, but…from something. I found it deep in the Crawl, in one of my early explorations down there, right when I was first establishing the campus.”

“And what is…it?” Crystal asked, tension audible in her normally calm tone.

“Your namesake,” Tellwyrn said with a smile. “A piece of crystal, capped with metal. Actually, it looks rather like a modern power crystal, though larger. It took me quite a bit of divination and experiment to figure out what it was: a device that stored information. It took a lot more to figure out what that information was, since it clearly was designed to interface with other enchanted components, none of which were around. Your core was just thrown in a vault with a bunch of other artifacts, from dozens of sources and eras, all jumbled together. These things exist, you have to understand. Mages lived in the distant past who could do things that modern enchanters can barely dream. It’s the mass production of modern magic that is new; its actual scope and sophistication isn’t all that greater than what the archmages of old could manage. And nothing next to what existed in the days of the Elder Gods. Yes, there are still artifacts left over from them.”

“Am…I…one?”

“I just don’t know, Crystal,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “Understand… You were my hobby for years. Decades. The whole time since the University’s founding, I’ve been working on you in my spare time. Most of that was spend puzzling out what was in that crystal and how it works. Once I discerned it held a kind of base program for a personality—structured like a golem’s but many orders of magnitude more complex—I set to working out a means of activating it. The information wasn’t much use stored in a crystal. That was honestly the easy part, though; your initial activation only took about a year. It’s been less than four semesters since then, of course. And after that…well, you have memories from that point. Building a serviceable body for you was the simplest part yet, once I knew how to make it respond to your mind.”

Crystal’s face was a frozen mask; she had no expression. She turned her head as they walked, though, gazing at Tellwyrn. “Why? How does this body help your experiment?”

Tellwyrn kept her eyes straight ahead. “The experiment’s over, Crystal. I told you that. You’re…you, now. You have been since I first turned you on, though I’m a little ashamed how long it took me to really grasp that. I made you a body designed to interact with people because…I thought you should have one. And there are more improvements I plan to make, when there’s time. Things have been hectic.”

They walked in silence for another full minute.

“Thank you, Professor.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“I think I would prefer not to have the Black Wreath investigate me closely.”

Tellwyrn nodded. “Good.”

“I appreciate the offer, though, and your willingness to leave the choice to me. And… Professor, if it turns out that I’ve been corrupted in some way, I trust you to do what’s right.”

Tellwyrn sighed heavily. “I barely trust myself to know what’s right, anymore…”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

The Professor frowned deeply. “The issue with the Wreath… Is not the issue I was first thinking it would be. Elilial did this, Crystal. She gave knowledge to students, knowledge she knew they wouldn’t be able to handle, for the specific purpose of having them cause trouble even she wouldn’t be able to control.”

“I thought you were on good terms with Elilial, Professor. At least relatively speaking. That sounds like a specifically hostile action.”

“Considering I’ve been hounding her steps for a while before that… Well, yes, it was hostile, but not totally unprovoked. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though. The Wreath has been doing the same.”

“The same?”

“Last year,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully, “in Onkawa, I came across Kheshiri, a succubus I know they had bound in a bottle. I know because I helped put her there, over a century ago. The only way she got out is if they let her out—which would be a damn fool thing to do, considering the trouble she caused. Kheshiri not only screwed over the Wreath itself, I’m more than half convinced she had a hand in High Chief Tambisi naming himself Emperor after Tiraas fell to the Church. One careful action creating a mess that resonated across a continent—that has Vanislaad written all over it. And the kicker is that I know Elilial is rushing toward some kind of deadline—this ‘great doom’ I keep hearing about—and that her carefully laid plans are in ruins, thanks to what happened to Vadrieny and her sisters. They’re desperate. When you’re losing a game, sometimes your best bet is to jostle the board, and hope the pieces settle in a better configuration for you.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“What it all means,” Tellwyrn said as they passed into the larger cavern and proceeded right around its outer wall, “is that as much as Elilial and the Wreath’s actions make me want to personally ass-kick them all right up each other’s noses… Their situation creates an opportunity, if I’m willing to restrain my instincts and accept that I have to let them get away with some of the shit they’ve pulled recently.”

“I see,” Crystal said. “Are matters so desperate that you need them as allies, Professor?”

Tellwyrn came to a stop before a wide tunnel, blocked off by a set open gates. Above it, inscribed in both Tanglish and dwarven runes, was the label Undertower College.

“Matters are that desperate,” Tellwyrn said quietly, “and they’ll only become more so if I let myself be locked in an alliance with the Wreath, of all people. No, Crystal, it’s time for us to branch out. Take control of the board ourselves. And for that… I’m afraid we’re going to have to make some compromises.”

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12 – 46

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“First things first.”

He shifted his enormous bulk, and Milanda instinctively tensed, preparing to bolt again—but didn’t, remembering how well it had worked last time. The dragon actually settled to the ground, though, folding his legs beneath himself remarkably like a cat, all while keeping his long, pointed head aimed right at her. His tail, she did not fail to note, swept around in a wide arc to nearly encircle her. At the moment, at least, he appeared more interested in talking than fighting. She allowed herself a moment of optimism.

Then he spoke again.

“You will be silent.”

The voice rumbled in the ground, in the air, in her very being. Milanda was poleaxed, locked rigidly in place. She felt as if all her bones, all her cells, were resonating with the sheer power of his words. It was like gripping an unsealed electrical charm. Her body ignored all her pleas to flee, to fight, to do something.

“You will not reveal me, any word I speak, any action I take, not by word, deed, or omission.”

Silence fell over the dreamscape. Milanda drew in a sharp breath, only belatedly becoming aware that she had stopped breathing at all. She felt…heavy. The sensation was fading rapidly, but it was clear and powerful. A weight, a pressure, as if something had coated her entire skin, pushing in on her from all sides. It drifted from her awareness, though, leaving her wondering…

“The great irony of fairy magic,” the dragon said, this time again in his normal voice, “is that mastery in it increases vulnerability to it, at least in certain forms. A person with no spark of fae power within her is virtually impossible to lay under a geas. By contrast, the more fae magic one commands, the more vulnerable one is to such a geas, if laid by a rival practitioner who knows a way around one’s defenses.” He paused, then snorted irritably, violently ruffling her hair. “Even a dragon may find himself bound by a shaman of sufficient skill…and arrogance. But then there is you. Positively coursing with Naiya’s power, holding no active control over it…not truly understanding it, if I am not mistaken.” He lowered his head slightly, grinning at her, and by this point in the speech Milanda found herself too furious to be as unnerved by the proximity of all those fangs as she had been moments before. “A wide gap in your defenses which it was most unwise to leave open. I surmise you either came by that power though less than honorable means, or the being who granted it to you is not overly concerned with your well-being.”

Anger could be a wonderful thing. Milanda stared coldly up at him, simmering in the outrage that kept her fear at bay, denying him the satisfaction of any display of feeling.

After a moment of silence, the dragon shifted his long neck, tilting his head subtly to one side. “The Archpope’s head of security believes you did not intend to cause harm in the temple. That you were cornered and reacted out of panic. Such a tragic reason for so much death and suffering.”

Damn it. He was certainly adept at whipping her around emotional corners at breakneck speed.

“You do not know me,” Milanda said in the flattest tone she could muster.

“Our acquaintance is, indeed, brief,” he acknowledged. “But you are here, in a realm organized by fae power—the magic of emotion, of states of mind and being. And I, unlike you, am its master. I needn’t read your expression to see the guilt and agony roiling in you.”

She considered, for a moment, just attacking him. A pointless and possibly suicidal gesture, but…

“I think somewhat better of you for it,” the dragon mused. “Not, I expect, that my opinion concerns you overmuch. In any case, we have more immediately practical matters to discuss.” He shifted slightly, drawing his head back—and upward, so that he peered down at her from a much greater height. “The fact that you left my companions unharmed—relatively—suggests you were not looking for them. I quite expect you may find yourself facing us again soon, in which case you ought o be prepared.

“I, of course, am out of your league. Circumstances allowing, I may be inclined to stay my hand when next we meet. It’s the other members of our party you ought to be aware of. You met Jeremiah Shook, whom I’ll ask you to leave be. On his own, he is not a significant power, and is quite easy to manipulate. He is present only because he has control of the succubus Kheshiri, through no merit of his own; without her, I doubt the Archpope will keep him around in any case. In that event, he may be extremely useful to whomever can catch him next. Kheshiri, however, I suggest you bend all your energies to destroying if possible.” The dragon snorted softly, ruffling her hair again. “You may be aware that it is standard practice to trap rather than kill the more dangerous children of Vanislaas, as shuffling them off the mortal coil only sends them back to Hell, doubtless to return later. Kheshiri is a crafty enough beast I would expect her to arrange a return rather quickly. It is my judgment that in the present situation, removing her from the board will suffice. Killing is always easier than entrapment, and she is sly enough that simply forcing her to adapt and re-start her own plans from the beginning is an adequate compromise, if the benefit is taking her out of the equation. If only temporarily.

“Likewise, you faced the Jackal and failed to execute him, which I predict you will live to regret.” Khadizroth shook his head. “That elf is insane in the worst possible way: intelligent, stable but erratic, and utterly devoid of empathy. He is the type of maniac to begin torturing small animals when he is bored. Bless Justinian’s foresight in keeping him well away from children. I control him as best I am able, as does the Archpope, but aside from the wisdom of depriving Justinian of the Jackal’s skills, he needs to be removed from the world.

“And them, of course,” the dragon continued in a softer tone, “there is another shaman in our group, Vannae, whom you did not face last night. Leave him be. He is mine—not loyal to the Archpope, but present only due to circumstance. Vannae serves my interests, not Justinian’s. Moreover,” he added, lowering his head again to stare at her from closer up, “he is my friend. I will repay any harm done to him in kind—as a beginning.”

There was silence again, while she digested this.

“Why?” Milanda asked finally.

Khadizroth smiled. “At present, I serve Justinian…nominally. He has leverage over me which you need not know, but more to the point, my ultimate motivation for placing myself under his authority is simply that I much rather have him where I can watch him, than be at large and know that he is going about his schemes without a check upon his ambitions.”

“There are plenty of checks on his ambitions,” Milanda disagreed.

“Surely, but effective ones? That is another matter. At the core of the problem is that no one truly understands Justinian’s ambitions. Not even I, and I have devoted much of my mental effort in the last year to unraveling them. For the most part, recently, he has used our group as leverage in a variety of small matters—busy work, calculated mostly to keep Kheshiri and the Jackal from going utterly stir-crazy and murdering us all. It’s been some time since we were last deployed to deal with anything of consequence. His pattern makes no sense. Justinian desires control above all else—of that much I am certain. But his method toward achieving it seems to be…cultivating chaos.”

“How do you mean?” Milanda asked warily, increasingly intrigued in spite of herself.

“His use of our group. Those of his other projects which I have managed to observe. The way he continually pits his various enemies against each other, and then intercedes rather than finishing them off. His habit of withholding a killing blow when he has foes at a severe disadvantage. Only last year, he had the entire upper echelon of the Black Wreath at his mercy, and let them go—letting them believe, in the process, that they had escaped and got the better of him. By all appearances, he is trying to cultivate controlled chaos; keeping as many factions in play and at each other’s throats as possible, without ever trying to finally secure his own interests.” The expression on the dragon’s angular face was necessarily hard to read, but even so, Milanda could tell that he looked troubled. “I have long been an opponent of your Empire, which I consider the greatest threat to the world I have seen in all my long years. But of late…I have come to view Archpope Justinian as a much greater hazard. His ambition is totally without limit, he hesitates at nothing to achieve it… And, in the end, I do not understand what he wants. It makes him impossible to predict, or counter. This cannot stand.”

“Then help me,” Milanda said urgently. “Justinian just struck at the heart of the Imperial government, and there will be retaliation. You don’t need to place curses on me to get my aid in this. Undo that, and we can—”

“Forgive me, but I must interrupt you before the rest of this unfolds as it predictably must,” Khadizroth said with dry amusement. “No, young lady, I will not extend trust to someone whose predominant skills are lack of control and mass murder. I will not ally with the Silver Throne, even against a mutual foe such as this, nor will I forget who must be my next enemy when this is addressed—if it can be addressed. The enemy of my enemy, as they say, is still my enemy, but I can work with him if need be. With apologies, the geas stays. It is a basic necessity for me to protect myself. But in the short term, we can make use of one another.”

“But—”

“This is what you need to know right now,” the dragon rumbled. “Wherever the Emperor is hiding, the Archpope now knows that he is not currently administering the government, and has set forces in motion to find them. Out of concern, so he professes, but you and I both know he holds no love for Sharidan, or the Throne. If he finds the Emperor, he will move against him. For the sake of covering his own assets, he will do so using forces which cannot be proved to answer to him.”

“Meaning you,” she said quietly.

“That is my suspicion,” Khadizroth replied. “In that event, you will have your opportunity to thin out the…dangerous elements I just brought to your attention.”

“Or perhaps other dangerous elements,” she retorted.

He grinned. “If you think you can. Do keep in mind the long-term prospects, however. Whatever his ultimate goal, the Archpope’s method heavily relies upon pitting all available parties against each other to keep them from his own throat. You are not the first enemy with whom I have made contact; a web is carefully being formed around Justinian that may snare him, should the opportunity appear for his various foes to turn on him in unison at a moment he does not expect. Do not squander—”

Khadizroth broke off abruptly, raising his head like a startled horse and peering into the distance. Milanda took the opportunity to begin stepping carefully back from him, freezing again when he shifted once more to fix her with those green eyes.

“What interesting company you keep,” the dragon said thoughtfully, and then, with the suddenness of a thunderclap, the dream vanished.


She opened her eyes, fully awake and alert, in her bunk in the barracks.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Milanda said aloud. “…I hope.”

Swinging her legs over the side of the bunk made her reconsider her state of alertness. Her body was leaden, and it felt as her eyeballs were nestled in cups of gravel. She groaned softly in protest.

“Computer, display the time.”

Numbers obligingly appeared on the nearest wall screen, seeming to float in front of the Hawaiian night sky. Well, she’d managed about two hours of sleep, at least. Indeed, she felt a little less exhausted than before, though it was an open question how restful that particular nap had been.

And there was no question of going back to sleep now.

Milanda stood and headed for the barracks doors. They hissed apart to reveal the security hub looking as it always did. The Order’s sterile aesthetic and perpetual brilliant lighting made the place almost disorienting; her body’s inner clock and sense of rhythms were not helped by not being able to see what was day and what was night. Especially given the peculiar hours she’d been keeping lately.

Surprisingly—or perhaps, on second thought, not—Hawthorn was still (or again) present, sitting near Walker by the central computer terminals. They were facing each other and bent forward, clearly in conversation, neither of them messing with any of the screens for once. Both looked up at her entry, the dryad giving her a wave and a smile which Milanda couldn’t help returning. Despite how generally irritating Hawthorn could be, she seemed to have mellowed considerably from their first interaction.

“I expected you to sleep longer,” Walker observed. “How are you feeling, Milanda?”

“What do you know about…” About fairy geases. About dragons.

About anything relevant, damn it!

It was like trying to speak around a mouthful of solidified air. Her half-formed question hung between them, her voice flatly refusing to cooperate. Khadizroth, unsurprisingly, knew what he was about. The resurgent outrage that bubbled up helped to further dispel the lingering fog of weariness, at least.

“Milanda?” Walker prompted, now frowning in concern.

“Never mind,” she said with a sigh. “I had a…weird dream.”

“That’s no surprise, considering. The fabricators can produce medicines which—”

“No,” she said sharply, then moderated her tone. “I mean, no, thank you. The last thing I need right now is to dull my senses with drugs.”

“Generally a wise policy,” Walker agreed. “If you’re awake anyway, Milanda, we seem to have another problem.”

“Oh, gods, how I wish I could be surprised to hear that,” she groaned, finally descending the steps and making her way over to them. “What now?”

“Well, you recall those recent accesses to the facility’s records I told you about?”

“Of course,” Milanda said, shooting Hawthorn a pointed look and getting a scowl in return.

“That’s the problem,” Walker said seriously, following her gaze. “Hawthorn says she didn’t do any of that.”

The dryad folded her arms and stuck out her tongue at Milanda.

“I see,” she said slowly. “And…you’re certain you believe her?”

“Oh come on,” Hawthorn protested. “Seriously? You do realize I’m in the room?”

“Hawthorn,” Walker said quellingly, “let’s keep in mind that Milanda is very tired, her rest having been interrupted by you, and that dryads in general have a well-earned reputation for being flighty. This is not a situation in which there’s any point in taking offense.”

“Yeah, I guess,” the dryad muttered. “Sorry, Milanda.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Milanda replied. “That was rather rude of me.”

“Apology accepted.”

Walker cleared her throat. “That leaves us with the likelihood of another infiltrator, Milanda.”

She sighed, running her fingers through her hair, and discovering that it could do with a wash. “All right. We destroyed the Church’s equipment… Who else might be able to do that?”

“I’ve checked the system records. All of these accesses were physical activations of terminals in the facility.” Walker’s expression was grim. “This is not another remote incursion. If the Avatar is encouraging the dryads to broaden their horizons, we—meaning you, since I can’t get in the teleporter—should go ask them if they’ve been poking around. Otherwise…”

“Otherwise,” Milanda said, a chill working its way up her spine, “we have someone else in here with us. The Hands?”

“Haven’t been down in the last few days, and besides, the doors are still programmed to conceal themselves from them.” Walker, surprisingly, glanced to the side, avoiding her gaze. “I… Milanda, if it turns out to be that, you should know that I—”

“Maybe it was her?” Hawthorn suggested.

They both looked up at her, then followed her pointing finger, then jumped up in unison.

Standing at the top of the stairs opposite the barracks door was a tall woman in a silk kimono. Her head was crowned by a pair of triangular ears, lined with reddish-brown fur which faded at the tips into tufts of black which matched her hair. Milanda had assuredly never been this close to a kitsune before, but by description, they were unmistakable.

The expression with which the fair gazed down at the three of them was imperious, and far from friendly.

“Akane,” Walker whispered.

The kitsune’s eyes snapped to her, and then narrowed.

“Milanda,” Walker said quietly, still watching their guest, “what I was going to say was that I took the liberty of using the teleporter to…broadcast a signal.”

“You can do that?” Milanda hissed.

“Not…exactly. I can’t personally enter them. But I was able to work around one enough to sort of…transmit a fragment of my own aura through the ether. I thought…somebody who knows me might have picked it up and answered. And…here we are.”

Milanda got as far as opening her mouth to ask the obvious question, then shut it in the face of the obvious answer. Walker hadn’t told her she was going to do this because, clearly, Milanda wouldn’t have let her. That was going to be a long conversation—but for another time.

Right now, the kitsune had started moving.

She descended the stairs so smoothly she might have been gliding, and crossed the floor in a few long strides. Milanda and Hawthorn instinctively edged away, but Walker stood her ground. It was to her, specifically, that the kitsune went, eyes fixed and expression unreadable, but intense.

She stopped, an arm’s length away, then reached out and gently placed her hands on Walker’s cheeks, staring at her as if trying to read her mind.

“Yrsa?”

Walker drew in a slightly ragged breath, then managed a smile. “Hello, Akane. It’s been a while, hasn’t—”

And then the kitsune had surged forward, wrapping her up in a tight hug.

“Aww,” Hawthorn cooed, beaming. “Everybody gets to hug Walker. I think she needed it!”

That was as far as she got before one of Akane’s hands snapped out, seizing her ear between thumb and forefinger—both of which were tipped with claws. Hawthorn screeched in protest, trying to pull away, to no effect.

“I assume this is both a very long story and a very good one,” Akane stated, pulling back enough to sweep her supercilious stare across the room and the others present. “Yrsa, be good enough to begin with a quick and compelling set of reasons why I should not immediately shut all of this off, get rid of these two, and reduce that infernal palace of interlopers above to shrapnel.”

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