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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 – 36

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“All right, I believe you.” Danny threw his cards down on the kitchen table, his face wearing a peculiar mixture of disgust and admiration. “You really can make a living playing poker.”

“Was that a general ‘you,’ or a specific ‘you?’” Lakshmi asked with a sly grin. “Because he can, obviously. Me, possibly. You? Clearly not.”

“I think I was supposed to take offense at that,” Danny confided to Joe, “but it’s hard in the face of such irrefutable evidence that she’s right.”

“I salute your self-awareness,” Joe said solemnly, gathering up the cards and beginning to shuffle the deck with blindingly deft movements of his fingers. “Far too many folk take irrefutable evidence as some kinda challenge.”

“I’ve noticed that, too,” Danny agreed, picking up his teacup. He glanced into it, then at the pot.

“Also empty,” Lakshmi announced, pushing back her chair and picking up the teapot. “I’ll brew us another. Gods know I’ve no shortage of bloody tea. It’s never too early for the hard stuff in this house, but I always feel like some kinda lush, drinking with a teetotaler at the table.”

“Then my work here is done,” Joe announced still making the cards dance.

“Why don’t you let me do that?” Danny suggested, rising and reaching as if to take the teapot from her. “I know where everything is.”

Lakshmi pulled it away, raising an eyebrow at him. “What, and have the guest serve himself in my home? You trying to make me look bad?”

“I don’t have the talent or the energy to pull that off,” he said gallantly. “It’s just that you seem incongruous, to me, serving food. I picture you more with a saber in hand than a kettle.”

“Raiding, pillaging, generally buckling my swash?” she said dryly. “You don’t have the faintest idea what it is I do, huh?”

“Oh, let me have a few romantic illusions,” he said with a roguish grin. “You fit in them so well.”

Lakshmi rolled her eyes, stepping past him toward the sink.

Joe had paused in his shuffling to glance back and forth between them, then finally cleared his throat and dropped his eyes to the deck, resuming. For a few moments, the only sounds in the kitchen were the running of water into the pot and the whisper of his cards. Sanjay was off at school at this hour (theoretically); with the conversation halted, the room suddenly seemed smaller.

“I know you explained about the numbers,” Danny said in a thoughtful tone, before the silence could stretch enough to become really awkward. “I can take your word for that, though I won’t claim to understand it. There’s more to the game, though, isn’t there?”

“How do you mean?” Joe asked, seemingly grateful for the restoration of talk.

“Well, poker is as much about the players as about the cards, right?” Danny slid back into his seat, smiling disarmingly. “At least, that’s what I’ve always heard. I haven’t played since I wasn’t much older than you, and never seriously—as you could probably tell—but it’s sort of famous in song and story for that.”

“Yeah, you’ve got a point there,” Joe agreed, nodding. “Bein’ able to see the probabilities like I do makes a big difference, but they only go so far. You gotta read the other people at the table, too. Fact is, most people don’t understand probabilities, so their bets often aren’t rational. Playin’ rationally against ’em ain’t a winnin’ strategy, in most cases.”

Danny leaned back in his chair, folding his arms and studying Joe thoughtfully. The expression was amiable, though, not prying. “I guess you’ve had plenty of opportunity to develop that skill as well, then. You’re all too right; people aren’t rational, about just about anything. In some ways, human behavior is the opposite of math.”

“You’re…more right than you may realize,” Joe said slowly, frowning at his cards now. “But readin’ human behavior… That’s math, again. Way I do it, anyhow.”

“Oh?” Danny cocked his head to the side. “I guess everyone’s methods differ. I’ve had to make a practice of reading people, too, but for me it’s a more intuitive thing.”

“For you, an’ for most people,” Joe agreed, nodding. He finally lifted his eyes to study Danny right back. “My knowledge o’ most people’s strictly secondhand, of course…”

“That’s true for everyone, Joe,” Lakshmi said, setting the kettle on the stove and returning to the table.

“I meant my experience is a bit different,” Joe said with a grimace. “Danny’s right: readin’ people is an intuitive thing, for most folk. It ain’t a skill that comes naturally to me, at all. I guess…there’s a trade-off for bein’ able to do what I do. When I was little, I could do algebra before I could talk. Course, I didn’t talk till I was about seven…”

Lakshmi settled slowly into a chair, now watching Joe intently. Danny just nodded, a gesture of encouragement.

“It was people stuff,” Joe said after a short pause, shrugging. “People are charmed up from birth with certain basic things, the skills we need to be social creatures. You know, speech, reading facial expressions.”

“You…couldn’t read expressions?” Danny asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Not at first. Not naturally.” Joe finally stopped his shuffling and looked up at them with a reminiscent smile. “Folks ’round town reckoned I was just simple-minded. My pa, though, an’ Miss Ames—she was the schoolmarm—they stood by me. They were good folks, both, but to an extent it was just logic. A boy of nine who barely talks but can do logarithms clearly ain’t wrong. A mite peculiar, is all.

“So my pa worked it all out for me. The whole time I was a tyke, he was writin’ to learned folk around the Empire. Those that bothered to answer didn’t have anything to tell ‘im. Finally he got desperate an’ went to visit the elves.”

“Sarasio is right next to a grove, isn’t it?” Danny inquired. “That seems like it would be easier than writing to universities and such.”

Joe chuckled. “You haven’t had a lot of commerce with elves, have you, Danny?”

“A bit, here and there,” Danny said with a shrug and a disarming smile. “I think very few people have a lot of commerce with elves.”

“Yeah, that’s it exactly. Elves come to you, if there’s to be any coming; you go into a grove uninvited an’ the likeliest reaction is a polite but firm ‘go away.’ Keep comin’ in, an’ you’re like to have the point made with arrows. The elves were friendly-like with a few folks around town, but in general people knew not to go into the woods unless invited. My pa did, though. I guess whatever he said to the scouts made an impression, cos after three attempts they went and fetched a shaman for him to talk to, ‘stead of shootin’ him.

“Anyhow, apparently whatever my deal is, the elves knew about it. It’s somethin’ that happens from time to time in most races, it turns out. The shaman didn’t have any fixes for my pa; the way elves do it is let the kid grow up natural, however it works best for them. By the time they’re a hundred or so, they usually work it out so they can interact normal enough with other folk, an’ the tribe’s usually pretty patient with ’em.”

“Wow,” Lakshmi said wryly. “I guess if you live forever, you’ve got no reason to be in a hurry.”

Joe nodded. “Yeah. The shaman at least set Pa on the right path, though. The dwarves have some o’ the same kinda knowledge, an’ they actually do active research, lookin’ for treatments an’ whatnot.”

“The Five Kingdoms are renowned for their universities,” Danny agreed, nodding.

“Yep. Pa fired off another round o’ letters, an’ the dwarves were more responsive than the Imperials, funny enough. Took a little back an’ forth, but he finally got in touch with somebody who was studyin’ this particular thing, Professor Vyrnsdottir at Svenheim Polytheoric. She gave Pa the best advice she could, which is where things started lookin’ up for me.

“Pa ordered textbooks, next. Anatomy, an’ especially facial muscles. An’ then he made a game of it with me. We got a mirror, an’ the books, an’ made faces, worked out what every emotion did, how it made the muscles in the face respond. Then started workin’ on body language in general. As I started gettin’ a handle on one thing, we’d branch out to somethin’ else I was havin’ trouble with. Metaphoric speech, for example; we prairie folk love our similies, an’ I never could make heads or tails of ’em as a kid.” He grinned. “But pa got me thinkin’ of it like scaled-up language. Like how the letter ‘e’ is a symbol for a sound, an’ how the word ‘tree’ is a symbol for the thing itself. All language is parallel, you just gotta look for the correspondence. It comes pretty natural to most folk; I have to stop an’ think on it some, but thanks to Pa an’ the Professor, I manage just fine these days. One o’ her last letters said I must be a mild sort of case, to pick it up so fast; most o’ those she worked with took a lot longer to sort it out. Course, she also said the way I deal with numbers ain’t typical, either, so that was probably a factor. Might even be a separate condition.”

“That’s quite ingenious,” Danny marveled. “He worked out how to reduce human interaction to…equations. In terms a child would understand. Incredible!”

“Took the intuitive part out of it,” Joe agreed, nodding again, “made it math, an’ I finally started to figure it all out. He got Miss Ames in on it, an’ by the time I was eleven I could read expressions almost as well as anybody. I reckon I do just fine now. It’s habit, by this point, second nature. Differently, though. There’s things I miss, and then again, things I catch that others don’t seem to notice. I’m analyzing faces intellectually where most people sorta feel what an expression means. It’s different, but it works. At the poker table in particular, it becomes just an extension of the game.”

“Your father was a scholar himself?” Danny asked quietly.

Joe stared at the table. “A rancher. We raised cows.”

“He sounds like a truly remarkable man.”

“He truly was,” Joe said softly. “Him an’ Miss Ames both. Neither one of ’em survived the troubles in Sarasio.”

“Aw, Joe,” Lakshmi whispered.

Joe cleared his throat, and shook himself as if brushing off the memories. “Ah, well, that’s all history. With regard to more recent events, Danny, an’ speakin’ of Svenheim… I know your business here’s a secret an’ all—”

“One he’s in my house to protect, Joseph Jenkins,” Lakshmi said firmly. “Don’t you go digging, boy. You’re getting bad habits from Sanjay.”

Joe grinned at her. “I promise to pry with the utmost discretion, Shmi. Honesty I ain’t interested in your personal affairs, Danny, but in general terms, would whatever you’re hidin’ out from have to do with dwarves?”

“Dwarves?” Danny raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I suppose I ought to clam up totally, but frankly… No. I have no dwarf issues, unless something very surprising has happened at home while I’ve been away. Why do you ask? To my knowledge, hardy anyone has trouble with dwarves. They are remarkably inoffensive people as a rule.”

“Some friends an’ I were involved in a dust-up outside the city last week,” Joe said, now frowning. “With dwarves. Apparently at least some were actual agents of Svenheim. Imperial Intelligence came an’ put a stop to it, then warned us all to keep our mouths shut…”

“And yet, here you are, chattering about it with a total stranger,” Lakshmi said in exasperation.

“Now, I’ll allow Sharidan Tirasian’s government seems more beneficent than most,” Joe drawled, “but it’s still a government, an’ I’ve had brushes with it I didn’t like. A hungry bear in the woods an’ a trained circus bear with a silk ribbon ’round its neck will both maul you just as dead, in the wrong circumstances. A bear’s a bear, an’ a king’s a king.”

“You really have mastered those metaphors,” Danny said, grinning.

“And it occurs to me not for the first time that you’re half-Eserite in mindset already,” Lakshmi added. “You ever think about apprenticing with the Guild?”

“Nope,” Joe said immediately. “I’m on pretty good terms with Bishop Darling; from that I’ve learned pretty much what I need to, I think.”

“Don’t judge us all by him,” she muttered darkly.

Danny shook his head. “That guy really gets around.”

“Yes,” Lakshmi agreed. “That is what he does exactly.”

“Point being,” Joe continued, “I respect the Empire up to a point, but I am not in a hurry to bow an’ scrape when it comes barkin’ orders at me. For example, when instructed to keep my mouth shut about the Silver Throne’s secrets at the expense of bein’ left in the dark about who might be shootin’ at me next, I consider that a reason to make my inquiries discreetly, not suspend them.”

“Attaboy,” Lakshmi said with a grin.

Danny shrugged. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you there, Joe. At this point I’m not even sure when I’ll be heading home, but when I do I can put out a few feelers. As it stands, though, I find the idea of Svenheim agitating in Tiraas like that rather hard to credit. It seems…out of character.”

“That is pretty much my assessment,” Joe replied, “an’ exactly the reason for my concern. It’s when people start actin’ out of character that you gotta start watchin’ ’em more closely.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Danny said, frowning thoughtfully. “Intuitively or logically, one can always develop a sense of another person. It’s when they start proving your sense wrong that you frequently wind up in trouble.”

Lakshmi pursed her lips, studying him as if she’d never seen him before, which he affected not to notice. Behind them, the teapot began to whistle.


“So for all these years, those three dryads have lived comfortably alone, with only you to look after them. They have their very own tiny world, and seem content to stay here—which I suspect has a lot to do with having a suave Avatar who knows how to push their runes. Which makes it all the more fascinating that I suddenly have a dryad wandering the halls of the facility above, unsupervised.”

“Hawthorn has always been the most assertive of the three,” Avatar 01 said blandly, wearing his customary smile. He hovered in the display attached to the floating teleporter door; Milanda took a step to remain at hand as the planetoid slowly rotated out from under her. “They are none of them terribly inquisitive by human standards, likely a deliberate design choice on Naiya’s part to keep them separate from sapient societies. Her alone, however, I have several times had to dissuade from leaving this chamber. The teleporter, as you have observed, is not programmed to block their passage as it is Walker’s.”

“Uh huh,” she said dryly. “And you have no idea why this would suddenly be?”

“In this case,” the Avatar replied, still with his neutrally pleasant expression, “her interest was piqued by your recent comings and goings. Understandably, I’m sure. Things here have been rather routine since Theasia’s day. The Nexus, fortunately, is equipped with the most advanced fabricators available, able to produce the stock for their hunting, as well as replenish the flora. The girls customarily do not damage plants, but some of their games can become rather…rough.”

Milanda blinked, momentarily forgetting what she’d been about to say. “Wait, your machines can make plants and animals?!”

“Only clones,” he said, as if this were of no significance. “Building an actual ecosystem is a rather more complex task—the life forms around you are mostly descended from specimens imported by the Empire. But yes, it suffices for necessary ecological spot repair, so to speak. I project that at the current rate of incident and replenishment, it will be roughly two hundred years before inbreeding becomes problematic among the local biosphere.”

“The more I learn,” she marveled, “the more I wonder what life must be like on this Earth by now…”

“This particular technology was not available on Earth, or to the Infinite Order for some time after their arrival here. It requires Naiya’s transcension field to operate. I am, of course, unable to say what conditions exist on that or any other world at present. Even my data regarding the majority of this one is severely limited by my present situation.”

“I see. How fascinating. And how also fascinating that even with the great skill at distraction you just demonstrated, you weren’t able to persuade Hawthorn to stay out of the teleporter.”

She stepped again to keep pace with him, and for once, the Avatar was silent. Milanda generally found his expression harder to read even than the conniving courtiers with whom she was accustomed to contending; now, though, he looked so overtly thoughtful that he had to have been doing it deliberately.

“Truthfully, Milanda, in this instance, I gently suggested that it might be an appropriate time for her to explore.”

“I see,” she said without surprise. The situation unfolding in the security hub when she had left had seemed too important to interrupt with matters of petty technicality, but Milanda had given it thought during her very short trip here. It had not been too short to come to a conclusion which had just been confirmed. “And you chose to break your decades-long policy right when I’m in the middle of dealing with a crisis, not to mention trying to cope with the revelations I can’t seem to stop tripping over down here. A lady could take that amiss, Avatar.”

“I assure you, Milanda, my intentions are not to do you or your government any harm. If I judged Hawthorn’s presence at large in the facility a danger, I would of course have discouraged her again. She is not unintelligent, but she and her sisters are distractable and lack social sophistication; you are correct that it would not have been difficult.”

“So you’re saying this is part of your attempt to help?” she said skeptically.

“Perhaps not directly, but in the long run, I believe the expanded possibilities this raises will serve you well.”

“Let me explain a bit about my position,” she said flatly. “I am an Imperial courtier—a politician, if not an actual government functionary. I am necessarily somewhat accustomed to being jerked around and fed meaningless flowery doublespeak. However, I’ve just learned that the last time this happened, it involved someone knowingly sending me into a nest of dryads without warning me. So if I seem less than patient with it just now, know that it isn’t personal.”

“Understood,” he replied politely. “In the same spirit, allow me to clarify my own position. I do not serve your government, either by compulsion or choice. My presence and activities here are in pursuit of the final directive given to me by my maker, Tarthriss, before this facility’s disconnection from all others: to work toward the betterment of humanity on this world. All of humanity, meaning all sapient life here, which is descended from human stock. I chose to cooperate with Theasia’s agenda because I saw utility in it; I have aided Sharidan more enthusiastically because I consider him and his government to be even more benign. However, I have a very long perspective relative to humans, and I understand the essential nature of societies. Because I consider the current administration of the Tiraan Empire by and large advantageous to humanity does not mean I suffer any illusions that every subsequent one will be. Eventually, one will come which I will find myself obliged to thwart if possible.”

“By,” she said softly, “for instance, neutralizing the Hands of the Emperor.”

“Separated as I am from the facility’s systems,” he said diplomatically, “I am not in a position to do so, for the same reason I cannot more directly assist you in repairing what has gone wrong with that transcension network.”

Milanda did not bother to point out his dissembling. He had been physically pulled from the facility’s systems and re-installed down here; it could be done in reverse, especially since he had three all-but-invincible individuals here who by this point who undoubtedly saw him as family.

And, she suddenly realized, there was now a fourth sister at large in the facility above. One who knew how to use the computers. Who was now forming a relationship with one of the dryads. For just a moment, she regretted helping that develop. Just a moment, though. Politics and strategy were all very well, but she wasn’t and refused to become heartless.

Milanda fancied herself quite good at masking her own expression, but the Avatar seemed to see something in her face which merited further explanation.

“I have run several simulations since your last visit, and while I will need more data directly from the systems above to make a definitive judgment, I consider it very probable that we will not be able to repair or replace the Hand system with only the resources we currently have. At the very least, not with those resources in their present configuration. When it was established, the dryads helped, as did I—from the facility’s main system. Removing me from here and replacing me there will interrupt the connection, perhaps fatally. Restoring it would be a very time-consuming process, at best. If your intention is to effect a repair, we will require additional help, Milanda. Someone extremely versed in fae magic, and either able to interact with Walker or to use the computers with her level of familiarity.”

“There is no one alive who meets that description,” she said testily.

“In fact, there are,” he replied with a wry note in his voice, “but I rather think introducing a kitsune to this situation would not simplify it, assuming you could attract one’s attention at all. Walker cannot come here because the security protocols we installed bar her from using teleporters—an even more important provision, if you are actively preparing to use them to access the city above. Beginning to acquaint her with the dryads is a stopgap measure, but I think it will be an important one. They can form a necessary link. We will also, however, require a fae user of great skill.”

She heaved a sigh. “The Empress has been working with an elven shaman… I’ll ask how trusted he is. Time is a factor; there have been no major blow-ups caused by the Hands and since we shut the Church’s operator out they won’t get any worse, but they’re less than stable in their present state.”

“Understood. If I can do anything to assist, you need only ask.”

Milanda nodded. “That was the first thing I wanted to talk to you about. Since I have some time while the computer maps the city and Walker and Hawthorn catch up, there’s another matter. You told me to come back and see about learning to use the additional abilities I gained from this…quasi-Hand thing. Thus far I haven’t noticed anything but strength, coordination, and an improved skill at functioning without sleep.”

He smiled. “The Hands tend to develop somewhat idiosyncratic powers, and you, I suspect, will be an even more unique case. There are some baselines, though, and they require additional intervention to activate. Sufficient time has passed, I believe, for you to stabilize and adapt; it should be safe now to proceed. The timing is somewhat unfortunate, however. This would be easier with Hawthorn present.”

“What do you mean?” she asked warily.

“If you would be good enough to proceed north to the Nexus, I shall demonstrate.”


“Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t know any other way to do it!” Apple said in exasperation, after several minutes of increasingly unproductive argument.

“It’s nice to see you again and all, Milanda, but I’m starting to take this personally,” Mimosa added, folding her arms.

“It’s not that at all!” Milanda said hastily. “It’s just… Well, it’s hard to…”

“Girls, I realize this is counter-intuitive for you,” the Avatar said soothingly from a nearby panel, “but we have discussed this, and I know you understand the issue. Milanda is definitely not trying to insult you.”

“I’m really not!” Milanda assured them.

The dryads exchanged a skeptical look, then sighed in unison.

“Yeah, all right, I know,” Apple said. “But you’ve clearly got an emotional aversion, here, so maybe you can understand why having someone put her foot down and insist she doesn’t want to kiss us can hurt our feelings a little.”

“Of course,” Milanda agreed, nodding. “You’re right; I’m sorry. I definitely didn’t want to offend you. I apologize for being thoughtless.”

“Well, I guess that’s okay then,” Mimosa said somewhat grudgingly. “She’s still right, though; we don’t know how else to do this. There’s not any other way. It’s not like the original granting, that the Avatar can change because we wanted to change the end result. You want to unlock your powers—fine. That’s just like what we do with the Hands. And this is how.”

“Besides, it’s just kissing,” Apple added with renewed asperity. “If you don’t wanna make love, I mean, fine, but really. I don’t get why you’re making such a fuss about this.”

“Okay, now, that part I sorta get,” Mimosa said, giving her a sardonic look. “Because somebody went on and on about how passionate and intimate it could be…”

“I was trying to make the prospect more attractive!” Apple exclaimed, throwing her arms up. “Excuse me if she reacted completely backward to what I meant!”

“Oh! Is this an…orientation thing?” Mimosa turned an inquisitive expression on Milanda. “I’ve read that’s a thing. Are you, just, like, specifically un-attracted to women? Because of it helps, we’re really more quintessentially feminine than biologically female.”

“I grew up in Viridill,” Milanda said wryly.

“Yeah, okay,” Mimosa replied, nonplussed. “I don’t know where that is or why it’s relevant…”

“It’s the seat of Avenist culture! It’s practically traditional for girls to… You know what, never mind. It’s not important.”

“Well, you’re the one who brought it up,” the dryad huffed.

“Hey, wait a sec,” Apple interjected, also peering closely at Milanda now. “Is it a monogamy issue? You’re only wanting to have sex with Sharidan? Because I should really let you know, if you hadn’t caught on by now, all three of us have. Y’know, sort of regularly. Almost every time he visits.”

“Yeah, with the Hands it’s just business,” Mimosa added, beaming. “We like Sharidan! A lot.”

“We are…hardly monogamous,” Milanda said wearily. Her life with Sharidan was certainly nothing she had daydreamed about as a child; she was his most frequent lover, at least of late, but had never had any illusions about being his only one. And honestly she had never felt jealous over it. Their arrangement was not for everybody, but it worked. Some women accepted it as the price of luxury and power; Milanda actually felt very satisfied with the peculiar family to which she now belonged. She wasn’t about to try explaining the matter to these two, however. She wasn’t absolutely sure she understood it herself, at least not well enough to put into words.

For that matter…what was she arguing for? There was the principle of the thing—she was being asked to extend a very personal intimacy, if, as Apple argued, a relatively small one. Besides, these were dryads. Everybody who knew anything about anything knew not to get seduced by dryads. Granted, these two were very unlikely to try to harm her, and anyway she had physical protection from them now, but still. What they were suggesting was that she step into the role of the fool who got killed in the first act of a bard’s story.

“All right,” she said, rolling her shoulders. “You’re right—I’m sorry for overreacting, it was just instinctive. This needs to be done, and it’s not so bad.”

“Wow,” Apple said tonelessly. “Way to sweep us off our feet.”

Milanda sighed and rubbed at her face with both hands. “…I’m sorry. I just wasn’t expecting this. Probably not a surprise I’m ruining it…”

“Oh, relax,” Mimosa said in a low purr that made her more apprehensive than interested, slinking forward. “She’s just teasing you. And you, knock it off—don’t make it harder on her. Now, I know you know how to kiss, Milanda.” The dryad drew close, sensually twining her arms around Milanda’s neck; the skilled intimacy of the gesture only heightened her unease. “We will handle the magic. You just…enjoy.”

“Enjoy,” she said, drawing in a breath. “Okay. Right. I can do that.”

Mimosa leaned forward, playfully rubbing the tips of their noses together, before angling her head to bring her lips toward Milanda’s. Slowly… Parting them just faintly, drawing near enough that Milanda could feel her warm breath. As if they were actually lovers, and not play-acting some ridiculous farce.

Oh, for heaven’s sake.

She finally followed the prompt and moved the last inch, pressing her mouth firmly against Mimosa’s, and tentatively placing her hands on the dryad’s waist.

It was over in a few seconds, Mimosa drawing back first. Milanda opened her eyes to find the dryad staring at her from inches away with a profoundly unimpressed expression.

“Okay, perhaps I should clarify, here,” she said. “This is fae magic. It’s all about emotion. For this to work, you need to be in a relaxed state, and feel the sensations, the feelings that come naturally from being in someone’s arms and being kissed. This thing that you’re doing right here? This is not helping.”

“I’m sorry,” Milanda said miserably. “I am new at sex magic! And I wasn’t warned, if I’d had time to prepare…” If she’d had time to prepare, she’d have worked herself into an even greater state of tension. The Avatar had been very wise not to forewarn her, she realized.

Mimosa rolled her eyes. “This hardly qualifies as sex.”

“Okay, take it easy,” Apple said soothingly from behind Milanda. A moment later, she felt hand brushing through her hair, and then the other dryad’s fingertips were resting on her temples. “C’mon, Mimosa, we’ve got methods for this, too. It’d be easier if Hawthorn would come help, but we’ve had to coax some of the Hands. I’m pretty sure I can do the role by myself.”

“My name,” Mimosa said haughtily, “is Tris’sini.”

“Yeah, yeah, less talk, more kissing.”

“Um,” Milanda said uncertainly, trying to turn her head despite the gentle but firm fingers holding it in place. “How does this helfmmr?”

Mimosa pushed in far more aggressively this time, and Milanda actually sighed against her lips in exasperation.

Exasperation, and…

Somehow, awareness and thought fell away. She was peripherally aware of Apple’s hands on her head, and also of Apple’s very presence in a way that seemed strange, but most of her perception was filled by the other dryad, the one in her arms. Mimosa’s hot breath, her soft, questing lips, the firm grip of the arms around her, the dryad’s hand cradling the back of her head. A warm, lithe, powerful body pressing against her own, silky skin and feathery hair under her questing hands, the strength and softness of—

It was very fortunate she had the both of them effectively holding her upright, because when an entirely new set of senses suddenly exploded into being in her mind, Milanda shrieked and collapsed.

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12 – 17

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Mylion was accustomed to ignoring stares and whispers after his time in Tiraas, and found it interesting and something of a relief that neither occurred in the Palace. It only made sense; courtiers and politicians were always reserved people, and their servants and guards had to be no less so. If anything, he was made to feel more welcome here than in most of the city thus far. Many paid him no mind at all, but those who took note of his presence usually did so with smiles, bows, and polite greetings.

Fortunately, he was not expected nor able to stop and engage any of them, thanks to the pace set by the Palace steward guiding him, and enforced by the two soldiers bringing up the rear. The steward had not told him so in as many words, but he knew well that their black uniforms signified the Imperial Guard. That was as much as he knew, save that the Empress herself wished to meet with him.

Their path ended in an ornate hall, outside a heavily carved door of highly polished oak. The steward turned to him with a courteous smile and rapped at the door with his knuckles.

“Enter,” came her voice from within.

The steward turned the handle and pushed the door open, then stepped back and bowed deeply to Mylion. There was nothing for him to do but nod in acknowledgment and step inside.

Empress Eleanora was engaged in some kind of paperwork at a roll-top desk; upon the moment of his entry, she was in the process of pushing it aside and pulling down the covering, then stood to greet him. Mylion did not attempt to sneak a glance at its contents. They were unlikely to interest him, and she might notice.

The door shut behind him, and he noted that both the steward and the guards had remained outside; he was now alone in this little drawing room with the Empress. Well, that suggested she meant him no immediate harm. There was that, anyway.

“Elder Mylion,” she said, gliding across the layered Calderaan carpet to him. She offered her hand, somewhat to his surprise, in a customary human handshake, not positioning it for a kiss as seemed to be the custom for noblewomen.

“Your Majesty,” he replied, grasping her hand and adding a shallow bow.

“Thank you for attending me so quickly,” she said, withdrawing her hand. “I hope the extremely short notice has not inconvenienced your plans in the city unduly. Your willingness to accommodate me is greatly appreciated.”

“Your concern is likewise appreciated, your Majesty,” he replied calmly. “Your invitation was most polite—also appreciated. Of course, that does not diminish my awareness that a personal summons from the Imperial throne is in no way a request.”

Her expression didn’t alter by a hair. “On the contrary, Elder, I haven’t asked you here to put you out any more than I must. The truth is, I have a favor to ask. If you are unable or disinclined to accommodate me, you will be escorted back to your inn with my thanks, and apologies for the loss of your morning. Please, have a seat.”

She directed him to a chair upholstered in silken brocade, seating herself in an identical one positioned not quite across from it, but at an oblique angle, such that they could maintain eye contact easily without locking their attention upon one another. A small table was positioned between them and enough to the side that it was not in the way, with a gilt-edged wooden box sitting upon it. Mylion seated himself slowly. She had not offered him refreshments, as was polite in most cultures, but then, there were none in the room. He judged that if this woman planned to insult him, she would not do it in such a brash way as eating or drinking while he went without.

This was the first time he had seen her, making it a point as he did to avoid human nobility—a hard-learned lesson from his youth. Eleanora Tirasian was much as rumor described her: beautiful and powerfully self-possessed. She was reputed to be a crafty and ruthless person as well, but so far, at least, had been nothing but polite. Hopefully that would continue. Hopefully her promise on the subject of his release would be kept. Oh, the steward who had appeared at his inn this morning had been very polite, almost unctuous, but it was as Mylion had said to her. One did not refuse a direct request from the Empress. He had decided to avoid needless trouble by not bothering to try.

“First,” she said evenly, “what I wish to discuss with you is a matter of great sensitivity. I must ask for your word, before proceeding, that you will keep this in the strictest confidence. No one can be told of this.”

Mylion regarded her in silence; she simply gazed back, showing none of the impatience that humans usually did when stared at. Well, it only made sense that one of the world’s preeminent politicians would have learned the value of patience.

“My loyalty,” he said finally, “is to my tribe above all. The elves as a whole second, and with them, the balance of nature itself. I am willing to be of help to humanity, and even political groups of humans such as your Empire, but you must understand your position upon my list of personal priorities. I mean no insult, your Majesty, but you ask for a blanket promise under unknown circumstances. I can’t possibly give a guarantee, when I don’t know what effect this matter will have upon my people.”

At that, she actually smiled slightly. “You’re concerned that we have designs upon your groves?”

“In fact, we watch the Empire carefully for such designs. Many elves my own age and more still resent having been pushed into our current lands, from the much broader fields we once roamed.”

“The Elven Reservation Act does grant your people free passage across Imperial territory.”

He smiled in return, very thinly. “It is quite a thing, being allowed to tread upon lands which were our homes for centuries before their current inhabitants existed. But I take your point. No, I don’t suspect the Empire of meaning harm to the groves; it has been a fairly respectful neighbor in recent centuries. Serious human incursions haven’t been a problem since you settled the Enchanter Wars, and your own dynasty has been…diplomatically amenable, when we have occasionally found need to parley. My concern is more general.”

She nodded. “Fair enough. Matters are already uncertain on our part, with elves flitting about and communicating between groves at a rate unprecedented in our history, not to mention actually holding congress with various Narisians. I suppose my request for a blanket statement must seem equally mysterious.”

“I am, of course, unable to comment on grove business,” he said serenely.

The Empress leaned subtly forward. “For our part, we have learned to leave the elves alone, by and large, because little profit has ever come from trying to force our attentions on them. I have only a general sense of why elves disdain widespread commerce with human nations, but in the end, the space between us is largely by your choice. I can only imagine what the last hundred years must have looked like, to immortals. I would certainly understand if you feared coming to the same end as the Cobalt Dawn.”

“No elves I know have ever blamed the Empire for that,” he said immediately. “The Cobalt Dawn tribe lived deep within the Golden Sea; tribes from the borderlands, who actually interacted with the human settlers, warned them not to attempt their conquest, and were ignored. We are a reclusive people, your Majesty. There is little we respect more than a group’s right to defend itself.”

She nodded. “We have made dizzying progress recently, and at a rapid pace. And as I look over the history of the Empire since the Enchanter Wars, the theme that constantly jumps out at me is connection. The more advanced we become, the smaller the world grows. Frictions inevitably result. We all have to learn to live with the proximity of those who used to be only distantly seen. Even the dragons have learned this lesson; I’m sure you are aware of the Conclave of the Winds. I may be wrong, but it appears to me that with the elves have made the same discovery. If it’s not the reason your groves and Tar’naris are suddenly in more constant contact, it must at least be a result.”

She leaned back again, folding her hands in her lap, and regarded him closely. “I did not ask you here for purposes of general diplomacy, Elder Mylion. I have a very specific need, and according to Intelligence, you are the most likely person in the city to have my answers.”

“I?” he inquired.

The Empress smiled again. “There are only a few Elders who leave their groves, and fewer still who happen to be in Tiraas at the moment. I also wished to speak with one who is a shaman of well-known skill. You were the most convenient prospect.”

“I see.”

“But now that we are here,” she continued, “it seems diplomacy is called for, and that is how I see this matter, Elder. I am asking you to meet me in the middle. I will respect your privacy, and you will respect mine. And by doing this, I also demonstrate that the Silver Throne is not too proud to ask for help, when necessary. Perhaps this will set the stage for further reciprocity between us.”

Mylion permitted himself a small sigh. “Rulership must be a relentless teacher… You speak with admirable wisdom for one so young.”

“You flatter me,” she said with a smile. “Twice.”

“Flattery is empty,” he said wryly. “I give compliments when they are warranted, and often with qualifiers. ‘Young’ is not a term of esteem where I am from. I do see the sense of your argument, your Majesty. Very well… I will grant you this. If I can help you without compromising my duty to my people, I will do so. That duty will always come first, and will supersede any promise I make you. I ask only that you consider this, and please do not place me in a position where I have to go back on my word.”

“For my part,” she said seriously, “I can assure you that the Empire has no current designs on the independence of the groves; it is Imperial policy to leave you strictly alone as much as possible, which is nearly all of the time. I do have a concern, however, that this matter will impact your business. Not because Tiraas seeks to interfere with the elves, but because the evidence suggests that elves have tried to interfere with Tiraas. So I caution you, Elder: if you know anything of this, be warned in advance that what I ask of you may bring you into that conflict.”

Mylion frowned. “I am aware of no elven plot against the Empire. If such exists, I would consider myself duty-bound to end it as swiftly as possible. Ideally through the agency of my own people, but it it comes down to a choice, I would consider it more important that whoever has done this be stopped, before they bring the wrath of Tiraas down on us all. Whatever that demands.”

She nodded. “Then we have terms. And an agreement?”

“An agreement,” he replied, offering his hand. She took it again, this time with a firmer shake.

“A final question, then, before we proceed,” the Empress said, taking the box from the nearby table and holding it in her lap. “I apologize for the impertinence, Elder, but were you planning to have children in the near future?”

He slowly raised his eyebrows. “I was not. You pique my curiosity, your Majesty. This is…relevant to your query?”

In response, the Empress thumbed the catch on the box and opened it, revealing a handful of chocolates in brown paper wrappers nestled on a black velvet lining. “Try one, please, Elder.”

He studied the candies, then lifted his eyes to meet hers. She gazed back at him calmly.

“I would hardly poison or drug you at this juncture,” she said with the ghost of a smile, “after all that wrangling.”

“Forgive me,” he replied, finally reaching forward to choose a chocolate. “I didn’t mean to imply that. This simply grows…more and more curious.”

Mylion carefully unwrapped the candy, under her even gaze, and bit off half of it. The Empress simply watched in silence while he contemplatively chewed and swallowed the confection.

He took another moment to gather his thoughts before speaking.

“I see. Your concern is appreciated, your Majesty, but your last question was unnecessary. Sylphreed only works as a contraceptive for women.”

“Ah. Forgive me, but we have almost no current knowledge on it.”

“I can, at a guess, see the shape of this, I believe,” he continued. “The Emperor has yet to produce an heir, this is not so? A state of affairs which seems most odd for such a reputedly virile man who does not lack for dedicated female company.”

She simply nodded in silence.

“I’m curious… If sylphreed is now unknown to you, how…?”

“Through happenstance,” the Empress said with a grimace. “The Palace recently had an uninvited visitor who helped herself to most of the rest of this box of candy, and commented on it.”

“Uninvited visitor?” He frowned. “Who would dare…”

The Elder trailed off, and they gazed at each other in silence for a moment. Then he sighed.

“Arachne?”

“You know her, then?”

“I have had the very great fortune never to make her acquaintance in person,” he said fervently, earning a small smile. “I doubt there are any elves who don’t know of her, though.”

“This has been perfectly characteristic of her,” the Empress said with the faintest tightening of her mouth. “Unexpectedly helpful, in the course of being obnoxious.”

Mylion sighed. “What a mess. I can show your alchemists how to test for the presence of sylphreed in food, which I suspect that are currently unprepared to do. My methods may be different, but I’m confident they can adapt them. And beyond that, your Majesty, I will certainly assist you in this matter, in whatever manner I can—with the previously mentioned proviso. No, in fact, in pursuit of that same objective. Securing the welfare of my people demands that I help you hunt down the source.” His expression fell into a concerned frown. “I don’t know where this came from, or who has brought it here, but they are jeopardizing the stability of both your people and mine. If elves are involved in this, I assure you, they will rue it.”


“You believe me?” Milanda asked in some surprise. “Just like that?”

“Your story is not difficult to understand or accept,” the Avatar replied. “We likely would not take it at face value in the absence of any corroborating evidence, but in fact we have that. His Majesty recently came to visit us to inquire about the stability of the system, citing unusual behavior in a Hand of the Emperor. Subsequently, Apple has probed at the transcension field effect supporting the Hands and detected irregularities.”

“So did I!” Mimosa added brightly.

“And didn’t bother to tell anyone,” Apple snapped at her.

Hawthorn grunted around a mouthful of the apple Milanda had brought, which she had nearly finished eating. “Wouldn’t have mattered. Not like either of you came up with details, just funny feelings. Now we’ve got stories from up top that match it, though. I figure this is a real problem.”

“So you came down here to fix it?” Apple asked Milanda, who nodded.

“Yes, if that can be done. Do…you know how?” she asked the Avatar, choosing not to mention Sharidan’s order to find a way to destroy the system if it couldn’t be salvaged.

“That is difficult,” the Avatar replied seriously. “As it is, we cannot even diagnose the problem accurately, nor determine its source. At issue is how the Hands are made, and how the linkage between them works.”

“Can you explain it to me?” she asked.

“Eee, story time!” Mimosa squealed, folding her legs under her on the divan. Hawthorn snorted again.

“This function is executed through Administrator Naiya’s personal transencsion field,” the Avatar began, “the source of energy you know as fae magic. It is a hybrid structure, requiring these dryads both for their extremely high levels of energy and control necessary to maintain it, and also because their status as avatars of Administrator Naiya enable high-level access to the Infinite Order equipment when form the other part of the system.”

“We help!” Mimosa said with apparent delight, clapping her hands. Hawthorn rolled her eyes, while Apple threw an arm around Mimosa’s shoulders and jostled her affectionately.

“I…don’t think I understood all of that,” Milanda said carefully. “If I follow correctly, this Infinite Order… That’s the Elder Gods?”

“It is the name of their organization,” the Avatar replied, “which may now be considered effectively defunct. I have confirmation of the survival only of Naiya and Scyllith, and also confirmation of their lack of collaboration since the Order’s collapse. There may be other survivors, but there is no conclusive evidence for it, and they appear to have been inactive in the eight thousand years since, if indeed they do still exist.”

“I see,” Milanda mused. “So this…this trans…”

“Transcension field!” all three dryads chorused.

The Avatar nodded, smiling at them. “It is a technical term. Your society refers to the effect as ‘magic,’ which is not incorrect. Transcension fields were first conceived, in part, as a way to create what had previously only existed in fiction.”

“In a word, magic,” she said with a smile.

“Precisely.”

“So…this thing with the Hands runs partly on these dryads, and partly on some surviving equipment of the Elder Gods? The stuff in the mithril hall up there?”

“None of the machines which serve that function are actually housed in or near that particular hall, but you have the idea. The complex itself is extremely large, occupying a great deal of the space under this mountain. Since it was sealed off, the Tiraan have only been able to access that very small portion. In fact, that is the core of our problem. Considering the limitations involved, Empress Theasia’s creation was quite ingenious: with the aid of the dryads and the very limited jury-rigging she was able to perform of the still-accessible equipment, she cobbled together the network empowering and sustaining the Hands of the Empress—now, of the Emperor. The necessary drawback of the system is that it is not fully understood even by its creators.”

“I miss Theasia,” Apple said wistfully.

“Here’s our problem,” Hawthorn stated, directing herself to Milanda. “We don’t do magic, in the way you humans do. No…finger wiggling or spells or anything to make specific effects. We are magic, but really all we’ve got is the gifts our mother created us with. So we can sort of sense things about the condition of this magic, but actually doing careful and specific alterations?” She shook her head. “Hopeless. I don’t even feel any of the irregularities these two are talking about. Frankly, I suspect Pinky here of making her part up to sound smarter than she is.”

“I told you, my name is Tris’sini,” Mimosa said stridently, then scowled. “And what is that supposed to mean?!”

“Do not sell yourself short, Hawthorn,” said the Avatar. “You have a more methodical and linear style of thought than your sisters. It makes you somewhat less sensitive to intuitive matters such as this, but may be helpful in resolving this problem.”

“So…there’s nothing we can do?” Milanda asked plaintively.

“Doesn’t sound like it,” Apple said, chewing on her lip. “Crap, that’s bad. We gave the Hands a lot of power. If it’s making them crazy, they’d be real dangerous. I hope Sharidan’s okay…”

“What is necessary,” said the Avatar, “is the aid of someone capable of using the Infinite Order’s systems.”

“Someone like you!” Mimosa said, grinning.

He shook his translucent head. “As you know, girls, when I consented to my removal from the systems of the facility to be re-installed on a closed network here, I gave up direct access to the main systems above. The facility itself is now run by the sub-OS, which will require a skilled user to make any significant alterations in the absence of an Avatar.”

“Can you be…put back into those systems?” Milanda asked.

“Yes,” he said seriously, “but not without completely resetting the entire network. My current position is part of it. This might de-power the Hands, or contribute to their decay. Or virtually anything else; I’m afraid the irregular nature of this structure results in great unpredictability.”

“They could even explode,” Mimosa said solemnly, making an expansive gesture with her hands. “Kaboom.”

“Unlikely,” the Avatar said with a smile, “but not, I’m afraid, out of the question.”

“So it is hopeless, then,” Hawthorn mused. “Hmm. Sounds like the most responsible thing we can do, here, is shut down the whole damn thing.”

“But we’ve worked so hard at it!” Mimosa said plaintively.

“Oh, shut up,” Hawthorn snorted. “Literally our entire contribution has consisted of lazing around here in kept luxury and occasionally screwing people.”

Milanda blinked. “Um. Screwing people?”

“Yeah!” Apple said brightly. “Y’know, Emperors, prospective Hands. It’s how we bond them to the magic!”

Milanda turned to stare at the Avatar.

“Due to certain idiosyncratic design features Administrator Naiya instilled in them,” he said with apparent calm, “their sexuality is a rather central aspect of their limited ability to access magic. This particular system involves ritual magic which does, indeed, have a sexual component.”

Milanda closed her eyes. Sharidan. No…he only inherited this mess. She rather doubted he had found his role in it objectionable, but this had been designed by his mother. Which brought up mental images she could have done without.

“That’s interesting,” she said aloud, “but doesn’t really help. There doesn’t seem to be any way to fix this. Can we shut it down from here?”

“Possibly,” said the Avatar, “but before we commit to that course of action, your statement is not entirely correct. There is a known individual skilled in the use of Infinite Order technology—one who is immediately accessible, in fact. She is currently imprisoned in the holding facilities above.”

Milanda went pale. “That…creature? Sharidan told me never to let her out. She threatened to kill me!”

“The Emperor’s warning was wise,” the Avatar agreed solemnly. “She is extremely dangerous to any biological life which exists in her vicinity, and not altogether mentally stable.”

“Wait a sec,” said Apple, frowning. “Who’ve they got up there?”

“She is known in current folklore as the Dark Walker,” said the Avatar.

“I have no idea what that means,” Apple said crossly.

“I do,” Milanda whispered. The Dark Walker was the kind of story used to frighten children into going to bed. Supposedly, she simply walked in straight lines, over mountains, under oceans, across continents and through cities, leaving behind a trail of blackened grass and dead bystanders, killing everything she encountered simply by existing near it. Milanda was no scholar of folklore, but she had read in passing that the Walker, like other horrors of the Age of Adventures, had credible evidence supporting her existence, but had not been actually sighted in so long that much of that was dismissed as myth.

Of course, if she had been locked away in recent decades, that could also explain it. Omnu’s breath, that thing had been under the Palace.

“She dates from the era of the Infinite Order,” the Avatar continued, “and had in fact been an assistant to Administrator Naiya. She can operate the computers. I suspect she would even be willing to bargain for her freedom, which provides a means of securing her cooperation.”

“How’s she supposed to cooperate with this critter if it’ll just kill her?” Apple protested. “Honestly, we just made a new friend, and you wanna kill her? Rude!”

“I’d prefer to leave the…Walker…locked up,” Milanda agreed.

“Actually, there is a means of rendering you invulnerable to her dangerous traits,” said the Avatar. “She, like the dryads, draws her power from Administrator Naiya’s transcension field. However, while their access and expression is very direct, hers is…inverted. She ends life, while they support and sustain it. A strong magical tie to the dryads will shield you. That, in fact, is how the Hands of the Emperor were able to capture her: they are immune to her power. If we make you a Hand, you can safely release and work with her.”

“Ooh!” All three dryads cooed in unison, straightening up and beaming at Milanda.

She flushed. “Oh. Um. Well.”

“If you find the prospect uncomfortable,” the Avatar said with a smile, “let me point out that we will need to modify it in any case. If we introduced you to the system as it currently is, you would immediately be subject to the same flaws which are causing the Hands to degrade. The dryads are not affected, which signifies that they are not the source of the trouble, and should be impervious. I believe I can design a different means of creating something similar to a Hand of the Emperor, enough to provide you the requisite protection, without making you vulnerable to the system’s current failures. It should be a relatively simple matter of making do with the resources available here, and not tying you into the network. And, if you wish, it should be possible to do this in a way which does not require any greater intimacy than you are willing to offer.”

“Aww.” The dryads simultaneously deflated, pouting.

“That sounds perfect,” Milanda said firmly. “What do we need to do?”

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12 – 16

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She landed in an awkward heap, having scraped her lower back badly on the lip of the door, her legs folded under her at a painful angle. A moment later, the damn apple thumped softly to the grass next to her head. Well, she was about due a stroke of luck; if it happened to roll back through the doorway, at least it wasn’t sitting up there in the hall for the Hands to find.

Wait, grass?

Milanda untangled herself as quickly and gracefully as possible, sitting upright to take stock. She managed to collect only a quick impression of her surroundings: it seemed she was now outside, somehow, atop a hill on a much sunnier day than it had been in Tiraas. That was as much as she could spare for the scenery; immediately her attention was focused upon the other person present.

Directly in front of her stood a pretty young woman, completely nude and with fists planted on her hips in an annoyed posture. Her expression, however, was quizzical. She was taller than Milanda and far more lean of build, nearly flat-chested and just short of bony, but it was her coloration which was most eye-catching. Though not as bad as the creature in the cell, it clearly wasn’t natural: she was pale-skinned, with a very peculiar complexion of subtle striations rather like willow bark, and had a mane of feathery hair which seemed to have been dyed in patches of pale green and white. Her eyes had white irises.

“Huh,” she said thoughtfully. “You’re new. Are you the jackass who threw that apple?”

“I’m very sorry about that,” Milanda said, getting to her feet and sketching a polite curtsy. “I was just trying to see if the door was safe. I didn’t hit you, did I?”

“Please, I’m far too nimble for you to hit,” the girl said scornfully. “It’s rude to toss crap into people’s homes, though.”

“Again, I apologize. I didn’t realize—”

“What was that?”

Milanda blinked. “Um. What was what?”

“That…thing.” With an irritated expression, the naked girl did a very brief and awkward pantomime of her curtsy. “Looked like you were dancing.”

“Oh. It was just a curtsy. It’s like a bow. It’s polite, meant to show respect.”

“Hm. Weird.” Her expression cleared somewhat, though. “Still, respect is good. You seem sorta nice, if clumsy. What are you doing here?”

“Well, as to that…”

“Hey!” Another young woman appeared over the crest of the hill, waving exuberantly. She was shorter and rounder than the first, but just as nude, with a rosy complexion and hair shimmering in shades of pink and red. “Whatcha got there, Hawthorn? Who’s this? Someone new?”

“That’s what I was just finding out,” Hawthorn said irritably. “If someone would shut up and let me talk to her.”

“Hey, you’re not supposed to be in here,” the new arrival said, frowning as she came up to join them. “Only—oh, no!” She gasped in horror and pressed her hands over her mouth. “Oh, I know what this is, it’s just like before! Sharidan’s dead, and now there’s a new one! Oh, that’s so sad! He was so sweet, and we didn’t get to say goodbye…”

“Don’t be a ninny,” Hawthorn said crossly. “The Hands would come tell us if he was dead, like last time.”

“Are you sure?”

“Use your head!”

Milanda took advantage of their brief quarrel to surreptitiously peer around. The hill could have been like any in the Tira Valley: thronged with lush grass, wildflowers and small bushes, with stands of trees in the near distance. The sky was brilliant blue, trailed with wisps of cloud. It was disorienting, though… Almost as if there were no horizon. The ground simply fell away to the sides of the hill, as if it were floating in the sky. The sun, too, was low against the ground off to her left, but it didn’t look right. It was too large, the light too pale…

“Maybe we can eat her!”

Milanda’s attention snapped back to the arguing women at that development.

“Oh, that’s what you think about everything,” the redhead said crossly. “Honestly, I don’t see how you can even consider eating people at this point. It was fine when they were rare and strange, but how many of ’em have we gotten to know, now? It’d just be weird.”

“Maybe I like a little weird now and again,” Hawthorn replied, now eyeing Milanda in a way she didn’t like at all. “Why else would they send us a girl? We don’t need one.”

“Hey, wait a sec,” the redhead said, suddenly stepping toward Milanda, who froze. Not so much because of the approach, but because she had just recalled that a hawthorn was a kind of tree, and put it together.

Dryads.

She was alone who knew where with a pair of dryads. The prisoner’s warning suddenly rang very true. They probably would kill her. They usually did.

The red-haired one grabbed her by the arm and tugged her close, burying her face in Milanda’s hair and inhaling deeply. Milanda kept still, trying to breathe as little as possible. Neither her youthful education in Viridill nor her court-learned political skills had prepared her for this. Fairies were known to be generally insane; there was no telling how these two might react to anything she did. The only real certainty here was that she had no hope of physically extracting herself from the dryad’s grasp.

“Mm,” the redhead mused, finally pulling back. “Come smell her.”

“So we can’t eat her, but you want me to smell her?” Hawthorn folded her arms and looked snide. “Apple, are you trying to piss me off, or just being a nitwit?”

“You’re such a jerk,” Apple said without rancor. “Fine, if you’re too good to see for yourself, I’ll tell you. She smells like Sharidan. He’s all over her. So no, I really don’t think you should eat or otherwise hurt her, because I bet he’d be very upset.”

“Hnh. Well, fair enough, I suppose.” Hawthorn turned a challenging stare on Milanda. “All right, then. Who are you, and what are you doing in here? We’re supposed to be a secret.”

Apple had released her but not backed up; Milanda shifted her weight slightly to gain some personal space, but decided not to risk antagonizing either of them by trying to get further away. “I’m here because the Emperor is in trouble. Do you two know anything about the Hands of the Emperor?”

“Course we know about the Hands, we make them,” Hawthorn snorted.

“Wait, hold on,” Apple interjected. “What do you mean, Sharidan’s in trouble?”

“Something has gone wrong with the Hands,” Milanda explained. “They’ve started acting very erratic and unhinged, and strangely aggressive. They’ve begun threatening people who don’t deserve it, even the Empress. And they are developing abilities they didn’t have before. Some kind of teleportation.”

“Nonsense,” Hawthorn stated. “We don’t mess up.”

“Hah!” Apple pointed triumphantly at the other dryad. “I told you! I said something was weird!”

“Oh, please, you and your weird feelings don’t add up to something wrong with the Hands.”

“Me and my weird feelings plus someone telling us that something is wrong with the Hands adds up! You’re just being snippy because you were wrong!”

“I wasn’t wrong,” Hawthorn retorted, her voice riding in pitch.

“Well, I know a way we can settle this quick enough,” Apple replied, turning around. “Hey, Avatar!”

Milanda turned to follow her gaze, finally beholding the other side of the door she had come through, and was immediately disoriented again. It was way too far away; she hadn’t moved from the spot where she’d fallen from the step, but the thing was a good two yards distant. Also, it hovered motionlessly two feet above the ground. Apart from that, it looked like the door she had entered, its black frame carved into complex, blocky shapes, blinking here and there with tiny lights, all framing a seamless pane of blue light. It had the little glowing panel on the left of the frame, but also a very large one on the right, the size of the door itself and hanging lower so that it nearly touched the ground. This one was fully transparent.

At least, at first. At Apple’s hail, an image appeared in the glass pane, like a reflection, showing a thin, bald man wearing a peculiar tight suit, his skin and clothing a uniform purple. The image was translucent, but solid enough that she had no trouble making out details.

“I heard the entire exchange,” the purple man said in a peculiar voice, resonating as if echoing down a tunnel. He bowed to Milanda, who belatedly stepped forward after both Apple and Hawthorn made their way toward him. “Greetings, madam. I am Avatar Zero One, the administrative AI originally responsible for the planetary spaceport, and currently the personal custodian for these three avatars of Administrator Naiya and their private residence.”

She didn’t even try to untangle all that, well aware it would only get her lost in endless questions. She curtsied more deeply in response. “Greetings, sir. I am Milanda Darnassy, companion to his Majesty the Emperor, Sharidan the First.”

“Ooh, that’s a pretty name!” Apple trilled. Hawthorn rolled her eyes.

“Thank you,” Milanda replied with a smile.

“I am distressed to hear that the Emperor is imperiled,” the Avatar continued, serious-faced. “I believe we should discuss this in some detail. However, there may be a more urgent consideration. Do I infer correctly, based upon the circumstances as you describe them, that you are in this facility without the authorization of the Hands of the Emperor?”

“Yes, but I do have Sharidan’s authorization,” she said quickly. “He sent me here to look for a solution to the problem. But he wasn’t able to tell me what to expect down here due to the geas upon the place, and right now the Hands are considered untrustworthy.”

“I see. That being the case, and considering the ability of Hands of the Emperor to observe access to the facility, I surmise that one shall be here presently to investigate.”

“Oh.” Milanda went pale. “One was approaching when I came in… I mean, the prisoner out there said…”

“Prisoner?” Apple asked curiously.

“Then we should make haste,” the Avatar said quickly. “On the surface I am inclined to believe your account, which means you should swiftly absent yourself from view of the door. Apple, would you kindly escort our guest to the nexus?”

“Glad to!” Apple chirped. “Ooh, this’ll be fun! We get to be sneaky!”

“You do realize he’s sending you because I’m the only one smart enough to lie to a Hand, right?” Hawthorn asked smugly.

“Girls, please,” the Avatar said firmly as Apple turned to scowl at her sister. “Make haste. There may be little time left.”

“Oh…fine. C’mon, Milanda Darnassy. Can I just call you Milanda?” the dryad asked, already marching off downhill.

“Actually, I’d prefer that,” Milanda replied, jogging to catch up. Despite being no taller than she and rather plump in build, Apple set an impressively brisk pace. Perhaps she’d taken the Avatar’s warning to heart. “It’s much more comfortable that way, between friends.”

Apple gave her a sunny smile, her pique of a moment ago seemingly forgotten. She glanced pointedly over her shoulder and pressed a finger to her lips in an exaggerated motion. Milanda, feeling equal parts foolish and amused, nodded and winked. Well, foolish and amused was much better than fearing for her life.

The walk was even more disorienting than what she had seen thus far. They proceeded down what seemed to be a steep and ever-steepening hill; it looked like it must surely fall away into a vertical drop at any moment. Yet, her sense of balance told her she was walking on perfectly flat ground. Risking a glance back, Milanda discovered that the door had disappeared over the horizon. In fact, when she peered about, the scene looked very much as it had from the doorway itself, albeit with different trees and bushes in sight: as if she were standing on top of a hill.

Only belatedly did she put it together. This thing was round; it was a whole world. A very, very tiny one. Where had that door taken her? Surely there wasn’t a miniature planet under the Palace…

Apple led her silently toward a gap in a particularly large stand of trees up ahead, and Milanda focused on the sight of it heaving up over the shrunken horizon. It approached with disquieting speed as they traversed the rolling landscape, enough that soon she realized this was actually a sizable hill, ringed by a crown of towering oak trees. Only when they reached the treeline itself did she discover that the hill was hollow, its slope concealing a deep basin. And there, the surprises continued.

She could see at a glance that what lay below had originally been the product of the same intelligence which had created the facility beneath the Palace. This wasn’t made of mithril, looking more like burnished steel, but the depression was completely regular, with an octagonal floor in the center and flat metal panels forming its sloping walls. Two of these had metal steps attached to them, with accompanying handrails; she couldn’t see the one onto which Apple was leading her, but the one opposite had pale green lights glowing from beneath each stair. In the center of the metal floor stood a thick column, apparently of glass and bordered with a steel framework, containing two swirling substances suspended together; there was a heavy, glowing green stuff that seemed liquid based on the way it moved, while all around it roiled a pale blue gas, whirling as if caught in a hurricane. Panels like the one in which the Avatar lived by the door stuck out from this column on two sides. Two of the sides of the basin itself had large glowing screens thrust vertically up from them, as well.

Atop that, though, was all the evidence of long habitation. Furniture of clearly modern make had been brought here, a disorderly profusion of beds, sofas, chairs, and random scattered cushions and rugs. A lot of it was in rather poor repair, and there was even a pile of smashed chair pieces shoved into one corner. Shelves were lined with books, there was a pianoforte set near the glowing pillar, and a wild profusion of more personal items and knicknacks were strewn over every surface. One corner of the space had clearly been given over to food—which meant meat, apparently, to judge by the well-gnawed animal corpses present in varying stages of freshness. Amazingly, she detected no odor of decay.

Apple bounced cheerfully down the steps, Milanda following more slowly, taking it all in. No sooner did she reach the bottom, though, than a pile of rugs strewn over a nearby settee suddenly heaved up to reveal another dryad, this one with pink hair, blinking sleepily at her.

“Who’s this?”

“Shhh!” Apple waved her arms frantically over her head. “We’re being sneaky!”

The pink one blinked slowly, twice, cocked her head, shifted to study Milanda, and then shrugged with supreme unconcern. “Kay.”

“This is Mimosa,” Apple said as the new dryad swung her legs off the couch, yawning. “Mimosa, this is Milanda Darnassy, one of Sharidan’s mates.”

“I told you, my name is Tris’sini,” Mimosa said haughtily. “It’s unnecessary elvish. It’s pretentious.”

Apple rolled her eyes. “Sharidan made the mistake of telling her what ‘pretentious’ means. We haven’t been able to make her grasp the connotation.”

“It means I think I’m better than everyone!”

“That is not a good thing!” Apple said in exasperation.

“How could it not be?!”

Milanda cleared her throat. “Um, sorry to interrupt…but we were trying to be quiet, I think?”

“Oh.” Apple winced. “Right.”

Mimosa yawned again. “Uh huh. Why’s that?”

“Milanda says the Hands have gone crazy!”

“Huh,” Mimosa mused, sitting back down on her erstwhile bed. “Guess you were right about something being off. I thought I felt something funny with the attunement…”

“You could have said so,” Apple said, annoyed.

Mimosa shrugged. “I wasn’t sure enough to be worth arguing with Hawthorn. She always ends up calling me stupid. So what’s wrong with the Hands?”

Both dryads turned to look expectantly at Milanda.

“Hadn’t we better wait for Hawthorn and the Avatar?” she asked, somewhat nervously.

“Oh, why bother?” Mimosa snorted. “I wanna know now.”

“If we wait, she won’t have to explain it all a second time,” Apple said. “Be a little sympathetic.”

“Pff, once we understand, we can explain it!”

She was spared having to intervene in this by the appearance of Avatar 01 in one of the screens flanking the central column.

“For what it is worth, girls, I concur with our guest. It would be polite to wait for Hawthorn; her feelings will be hurt if we proceed without her.”

“She hurts my feelings all the time!” Mimosa shouted, causing Milanda to wince.

“I know,” the Avatar said with a kind smile. “And don’t you enjoy having the opportunity to be the better person?”

“That—I mean, yeah!” Mimosa nodded vigorously. “That’s right, I am the better person. She wouldn’t wait for her to come!”

“If she weren’t waiting, she wouldn’t need to,” Apple pointed out.

Mimosa blinked at her. “Huh?”

“What?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t worry about the noise,” the Avatar said to Milanda, who appreciated the distraction. Her first meeting with dryads hadn’t ended with her expected gruesome death and she was still disappointed; they acted like unruly children, and not particularly bright ones. “It is barely audible from the gate’s current location, and in any case, shouting is quite characteristic of our residents. I assured the Hand that no one had entered, and he took me at my word. Hawthorn will join us presently.”

“Thank you very much,” she said fervently.

“Not at all,” the Avatar assured her, serious-faced now. “I am designed to assist. It appears to me that we have a great many important things to learn from one another.”


The villagers milled about, coughing and waving away the dust, while Hasegawa stared in disapproval at the wreck. Fortunately, the new mill was on the outskirts of town, and the sudden drop of the enormous millstone hadn’t damaged anything but the ground, already torn up by the construction work around it. Even more fortunately, no one had been underneath. He drew in a deep breath through his nose and let it out the same way, glaring his disapproval at the crane set up just this side of the crates of enchanted equipment which, allegedly, would make the completed mill run without the aid of wind or water.

Hasegawa waited for everyone to calm, looking to him for direction, before speaking.

“Ishimaru,” he said flatly, “someone could have died. Explain this failure.”

The crane operator had already climbed down, pale and shaken. “I—I don’t understand, Headman. I—I checked the knots. I checked them, three times, like I always do! I don’t know what—” He broke off, swallowing heavily, then bowed as deeply as he was physically able, his upper body dipping below parallel with the ground. “I take full responsibility, Headman. I am very sorry.”

“Excuse me?” Hasegawa turned his stare on his daughter, who had actually climbed up the crane to examine the knots. Hasegawa Kanako had a habit of inserting herself where she wasn’t invited, and not for the first time he felt he ought to rein her in…but she never spoke or acted with anything less than the utmost respect, and more often than not, her borderline presumptuousness resulted in something useful. This appeared to be the case now. “Father, these ropes were cut.” She held up one of the now-dangling lines. “In fact, they were frayed. See, there are four scratches across this; the weakest one snapped when Ishimaru hoisted up the stone. This was done with claws.”

Once again, Hasegawa heaved a deep sigh. This was the fourth time in the last month. He of course had made all the requisite offerings at the shrines bordering the Twilight Forest before initiating any construction in his village, had even been far more generous than tradition demanded. And the offerings had been taken; had the kitsune ignored them, he would not have dared proceed. There was also the slim comfort that if the fox-goddesses were legitimately angry, they would make it plain. But these little incidents… This was more than the usual run of pranks.

“It can’t be helped,” he said. “We will replace the ropes and proceed again. Ishimaru, oversee this. Your ropework is always meticulous.”

“Yes, Headman!” Ishimaru said with clear gratitude.

“If I may?”

Hasegawa turned at being addressed from behind, and only his very keen awareness of the dignity of his office kept him from gasping and stepping back as most of his fellow villagers did.

She simply lifted a hand, and the millstone rose seemingly of its own volition. It drifted through the air, settling gently into its intended resting place inside the still-roofless mill.

“On behalf of the village, I thank you very much for your help, Teruwan-sensei,” he said, bowing deeply to her. “I don’t know what good fortune has brought you here, but we are in your debt.”

“Oh? I don’t remember introducing myself,” Tellwyrn said with a smile.

“Forgive my presumption, Teruwan-sensei. No elves live in Sifan, and your distinctive appearance is part of your legend. If I have named you wrongly, I humbly apologize.”

“It’s close enough,” she replied, still smiling, her characteristic golden spectacles glinting. “I see you are in the middle of something and won’t take any more of your time than I must.”

“Our time is yours, in thanks for the help you have given,” he said politely, inwardly cringing. What next? It was an old trick to place someone in your debt before demanding a favor in return, and who knew what this alien creature out of myth wanted? What was she doing here? “How may we aid you?”

“All I need is a little advice, from someone familiar with the lay of the land.” She shifted and tilted her head significantly at the distant treeline. “How have they been, lately?”

Ah. Well, that he was glad enough to tell her.

“Lately?” Hasegawa replied, frowning. “Unusually…playful. When the kitsune are displeased, they are not subtle about it. We have not been punished, so I don’t believe them to be upset. Recently, though, we have had the honor of witnessing many of their little jokes. Unusually many. Something has roused them… What it may be, or what they truly feel about it, is not for such as me even to guess.”

“I see,” she mused. “Then I’ll have to be extra careful not to irritate any of them, for the sake of everyone in the region. Kuso. I hate being careful; especially now, when I don’t have time for it. Regardless.” She bowed politely to him. “Thank you very much for the warning, Headman. I regret that I cannot stay to talk more politely, but as I said, my business is urgent.”

“I would not dream of impeding you, sensei,” he replied, bowing in return. “When you have time, please visit us again, so we may properly repay your kindness.”

She smiled. “You are too kind; I will remember the invitation. Farewell.”

He stood in silence, watching her proceed down the road, before it occurred to him that there was a lot of standing in silence going on in the general vicinity. Hasegawa turned to scowl at the assembled villagers, who immediately scattered back to their tasks. Having the millstone in place so soon helped their schedule a great deal, but there was still much to be done.

Kanako approached him rather than her work, though. “Is that really all right, Father?” she asked quietly. “We should offer her hospitality, at the very least.”

Hasegawa held up a hand, and she fell silent. In the legends, elves could hear even better than kitsune, but he couldn’t recall if there was any specific reason his daughter would know that. He resolved to rectify that hole in her education; with Tiraas an ever-growing menace looming on everyone’s horizon, it could not be safely assumed that the people of other lands were not their business any longer. The Queen attended to such matters, usually, and yet… The elf was here.

“This is for the best,” was all he said. Indeed, it was better than having the infamously troublesome elf a guest in their village. Hasegawa’s people already had to deal with their own terrifyingly powerful immortals without catering to foreign ones, too. Let them deal with her.

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