Tag Archives: Ashaele

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The furniture appeared upon the main lawn shortly after breakfast, as students were making their way there as directed. This was no surprise; the lawn was used for addresses, sporting events, and graduation ceremonies, and was home to several arrangements of seating which could be called up apparently out of thin air at a command from Professor Tellwyrn. Today, the arrangement was that used for graduations: rows of chairs, facing a dais with a lectern at its center.

The new guests arrived more or less together, though they were hardly in formation, trailing in from wherever Tellwyrn had housed them overnight. Other visitors began to arrive from Last Rock, many gazing around with a combination of nerves and wonderment, and the whole assemblage began to mix with the student body and the handful of watchful faculty who accompanied them.

They were an interesting assortment, Tellwyrn’s guests; the spellcasters who had participated in her working in Last Rock were the lesser part of the whole. Religious representatives were about half the group, hailing from several of the major cults, as well as a parson from the Universal Church and an armored templar whose tabard bore the insignia of the Order of the Light. There was even a taciturn fellow who identified himself only as Buttons and, with his deliberately shabby suit and five o’clock shadow at nine in the morning, could have been a bard’s caricature of a Guild thief. Embras Mogul was present, and was the subject of constant stares and whispers, though he traveled in a bubble of isolation as no one was willing to approach him. He seemed to find this quite amusing.

Also among the visitors were a surprising number of national representatives, of varying levels of significance. The warlock from Rodvenheim, Wrynst, and his counterpart from Svenheim both appeared to be low-ranking government employees, based upon their comments in the milling about that ensued before the assembly was underway. The scale ran all the way up to royal families, however; proceedings were briefly disrupted by a squeal and then a playful scuffle when Ruda discovered her uncle Raffi among the honored guests. Both Sheng delegates were actual government ambassadors, though the woman representing the Emperor of Shengdu and the Lesser Speaker for the Republic of Sheng-la deliberately kept as far away from one another as possible. A somewhat bemused-looking young woman in a drab semi-formal dress was the Tiraan Empire’s official representative, identifying herself when asked as a secretary from the Interior Ministry, which said something about how seriously the Silver Throne was taking this business. Most surprisingly, a magelord from Syralon was present, holding himself aloof and ignoring the fascinated attention lavished upon him. The Floating City might not literally float, but it was certainly isolated and its magocracy was famously reclusive; this might have been the first time they had ever bothered to send a representative anywhere.

Seats on the dais were reserved, the area’s sanctity enforced by Crystal and Maru; the former was very polite, while the latter mostly deterred interlopers by jabbering frantically at them in Sifanese and, if that failed, bursting into tears. Gradually, the seats were filled mostly by representatives from the town: Sheriff Sanders, Mayor Cleese, Father Laws, and the banker Mr. Taft. Matriarch Ashaele was also seated in that place of honor, and a chair provided for her daughter Nahil as well, though after a hurried consultation, Nahil departed the dais to sit below with Teal. Maru attempted to remove her chair, succeeding only in falling off the back and landing beneath it. Most interestingly, the only other person invited to remain with them was Inspector Fedora.

The professors were just finishing up the task of herding everyone (guests and townsfolk courteously, students with a bit less patience) into chair when Tellwyrn herself finally arrived, appearing out of nowhere behind the lectern.

She braced her hands on the sides of the lectern and simply stood in silence, watching the crowd, while the last slowpokes found their way to seats. A hush fell over the assembly at her presence, especially on the part of the students. They were accustomed to being lectured by Arachne Tellwyrn, and this watchful stillness was not her usual demeanor.

“I founded this University,” she said abruptly once the shuffling had died down, “for the same reasons institutions of learning are always founded: to promote knowledge, and reason. I’ve complained often enough that almost everything wrong with the world is ultimately caused by someone’s foolishness; most of you have undoubtedly heard it from me many times. It seemed obvious to me from the very beginning that in order to build an institution of higher learning in such a very, very stupid world, the University would have to stand apart.”

Her voice rang cleanly over the lawn, without any obvious aid of magic. She was, of course, accustomed to projecting to the back of a classroom for the last fifty years, and well-practiced at shouting in general for the last three thousand, but Tellwyrn’s delivery was calm, even if her expression grew slightly troubled.

“And it does…to an extent. History is rife with the destruction or exploitation of schools by entrenched powers seeking to either control or limit the spread of knowledge. Unjust authority relies upon people not knowing their best interests, and more importantly, not knowing how quickly a mass movement of people can shrug off an authority. But…there are limits.

“In a way, this last year has been a series of lessons on the perils of isolation. The University has come under political attack in the public eye—an issue which was remedied through connections, through the efforts of alumni willing to speak up on the school’s behalf. We have suffered a rift between the University and the town on which it depends, which was easily resolved with polite words and compromise—a rift which opened because the people of Last Rock, who by nature aren’t afraid of much, did not dare try to voice their grievances to the cranky old sorceress up on the mountain.” She grimaced, amid the polite titters which followed. “I’ll certainly accept the blame for that. And then…the Sleeper.”

Tellwyrn drew in a long breath through her nose, and let it out in a sharp huff. “I’m willing to take a lot of blame, here. Let me make sure everyone understands what is happening and why: this Sleeper is one of my students, one of you here at this assembly, who was caught trying to summon a greater djinn in the Crawl. Caught by Elilial herself.” She paused, waiting for the murmurs to abate somewhat before continuing. “Elilial, being an old acquaintance of mine and irked at my investigations of some of her schemes, granted the students involved power over the infernal, and set them loose here to distract and interfere with me. Among other things, the power to conduct great workings without succumbing to corruption, and while remaining hidden from perception. Since then, this kid, or kids, has been generally acting like a twit. They opened the hellgate last year that forced the town’s evacuation, and took an act of the gods themselves to close. More recently, they have been playing cat-and-mouse with all of us, casting a sleeping curse on their fellow students which so far has defeated all our efforts to unmake.”

She paused again, clutching the edges of the lectern, her lips drawing back in a snarl which incited a few nervous mutters—but not from her students, all of whom had frozen at the sight.

“Altogether,” Tellwyrn spat, “this is just about the stupidest thing I have ever seen. All that power, all those gifts, and one of you little bastards can’t think of a single better use for them than to see how much you can get away with. I said I’ll accept blame, and in this case I certainly feel like I’ve failed someone, very badly. For one of my pupils to act in such a brainless manner… Oh, yes, I consider this a failure. But in the longer term, I’ve failed all of you by creating a situation in which this could happen.

“It couldn’t happen in Tiraas.” She released the lectern abruptly and began to pace up and down behind it, a lecturing habit many of those present recognized. “Not with all the eyes and powers of the Throne at work. Power for power, I personally can match anything the Tiraan Empire can throw at a problem, but for sheer versatility and resources? No one person, no one organization, could compete. Similar considerations hold in Rodvenheim, in Syralon, in Kiyosan, Chansong, Tar’naris… But it can happen in Last Rock, because of the bargain I’ve made out here. The price for the freedom from control and scrutiny that we enjoy. We can pretty much do what we like out here in Last Rock.” This brought a few muted cheers from several of the townsfolk present, followed by a smattering of hushing noises. “And as a price for that privilege, when trouble strikes, we are on our own.”

Tellwyrn came to a stop, standing off to one side of the lectern now, and let that sink in silently for a moment before continuing.

“From the very beginning, I’ve been worried about the world bearing down on my University, trying to stop me from teaching my students—or worse, control what I teach them. And so I’ve kept the world firmly at arm’s length. The result has been as you see. Without the bonds that tie together the civilizations of the world, that tie them increasingly tightly with each passing year, one malcontent with the right kind of power can not only hide in the shadows, but reach out to constantly poke at us. And with only one established power to keep control…well, here we are. I may be one of the greatest mages alive, but I’m one person, and even with all the talent on my faculty, I can’t match the pressure and oversight of civilization itself. And I’ve finally come to realize my mistake.”

Again, she bared her teeth, but this time the expression was more familiar—not quite her customary wolfish grin, but something closely akin to it.

“Worrying about being pressured by outside forces is valid, but in my worry I let myself forget something important. I am Arachne god damned Tellwyrn, and nobody tells me what to do.”

Cheers and applause erupted from many of the students; Chase let out a whoop, leaping upright and brandishing both fists in the air. The Last Rock residents and various guests in the audience looked around uncertainly at these displays, while Tellwyrn waited for quiet to descend again.

“And so, I’ve brought you all here to announce some changes,” she said, her tone suddenly brisk and matter-of-fact. “To begin with, this has always been called simply the University to the outside world. Those of you who are initiates of the institution understand the deeper reason for this, but it has always been something of a sticking point in academic spheres. There are many excellent schools out there, particularly in the Tiraan Empire and the neighboring Five Kingdoms, and a lot of those have expressed to me irritation at the implied claim that this University alone deserves the name.” Again, she grinned. “To be frank, that’s exactly what I meant to express…but that’s also one of the actions I have come to repent. Brazen egotism signifies neither real power nor respect. As such, I feel it’s time to cede some of our claim to exceptionalism in the name of acknowledging the help to which we owe much of our continuing success. Beginning immediately…or, well, I guess beginning once I’ve managed to get new stationary printed up, this school will style itself to the world at large as the University of Last Rock.”

More cheers interrupted her, this time from the townspeople in the audience, and these even more exuberant than the students before them. Upon the dais, Taft and Sanders grinned broadly, while Cleese beamed with cherubic self-satisfaction.

Tellwyrn smiled benignly down at the crowd, allowing them to carry on without interruption until they subsided in their own time.

“That is but the first and least of the changes upon us. Much more importantly, I’m here to announce a massive expansion to the campus. In most of the civilized world, institutions of higher academia serve multiple purposes where this one has till now served only one. This oversight will now be corrected. You have all noticed the presence of many highly esteemed guests, whom I brought here yesterday and whose purpose for being here I’m sure you’ve been wondering about. Let me just add, here, that I greatly appreciate everyone’s patience—in particular that of those whom I lifted from their normal lives to come out here and assist me. I’m finally able to explain my purpose to all who are not yet in the know.

“This will now be a research University as well as a school, as many universities are. I will provide facilities, resources and funding for the advancement of knowledge itself. Those whose proposals are accepted will be supported in their study of…” She smiled, and spread her hands broadly. “Whatever. You see, we are somewhat uniquely positioned, out here. I will not be party to research that I consider too dangerous to my students, or just morally unacceptable…but on this mountain, what I say goes, and I have rather different ideas about what’s dangerous and immoral than most societies, governments, and boards of trustees do. Somewhat more prosaically, I’m able to provide types of assistance that no other such institution can match. It will be possible for research to proceed here that simply cannot be done anywhere else. I have already listened to some very interesting proposals from some of you who were kind enough to join us, and anticipate hearing more.

“I should think the benefits of this will be obvious, to all concerned. Science will prosper, of course, that’s a given. The student body will have access to connections which greatly increase their career prospects after graduation—and, conversely, the objects of those connections will have access to some of the world’s greatest up-and-coming talent. The town of Last Rock itself is likely to suffer some growing pains, in the process of being suddenly elevated from a provincial backwater to a worldwide hub of academia, but the upsides to that should require no explanation.

“However,” she carried on, her expression sobering again, “we will be doing things a little bit differently here at Last Rock. I will be taking applications for research fellowships not from individuals, but from organizations. Any which I feel deserve representation here—major cults, national governments, extra-governmental agencies, perhaps even other schools. That will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Second, there will be a finite number of projects running at one time; space will not be limitless, even with the expansions to the campus that I intend, and I’m not going to just throw money at every hare-brained scheme that crosses my desk. Research fellows will have to work together, to support one another, to earn favors in order to be supported in turn.”

She paused again, panning her stare over the now-muttering assembly.

“Which brings me to the most important issue, and the answer to some questions many of you have been pondering. I’m not going to deny anyone a chance to participate. You may have seen that we have been graced by a representative from the Universal Church of the Pantheon—an organization which launched an unprovoked and mean-spirited smear campaign against this very school not long ago. We have a guest from the Magocracy of Syralon, whose famed disdain for the squabbles of the outside world I frankly empathize with. Elder Sheyann is among us, representing her grove—and while the elven groves have made themselves synonymous with reclusiveness for thousands of years, if they wish to participate, I will not deny them. And, of course, there is Mr. Mogul, behind me.” She half turned to nod at him, and he tipped his hat in reply, grinning. “The leader of the Black Wreath. I’m certain I don’t need to explain to anyone why his polite and public participation in an event such as this is entirely unprecedented. But he is as welcome a guest here as anyone. As is the Wreath itself, even despite my recent personal grievance with its patron goddess.”

This time, the muttering began slowly growing instead of dying down, until Tellwyrn raised her voice and bulled on, forcibly overriding it.

“The rules which will matter here are my rules. All delegates and research fellows will respect the campus, the students, the town, and one another. The only organizations which will be excluded will be as punishment for violating my terms here—and that exclusion will last for whatever period I deem an appropriate consequence for the infraction. The only specific stipulations laid upon any represented organization will be whatever is necessary for the protection of my students. For example, Mr. Mogul and the Wreath have already been informed which members of the student body they are under no circumstances to go near. As of this moment, I am declaring Last Rock and this University worldwide, universal neutral ground. You may come here and be safe, participate in the advancement of knowledge, and interact with whatever enemies, allies, or neutral parties your nation or faith acknowledges freely and openly. Your actions will reflect on whatever order sends you as a delegate; your misbehavior will result in that order’s removal from the premises. Every nation, every cult, every other group who deserves a chance will be able to send a voice to the University of Last Rock and be met as equals, to benefit from the exchanges which will take place here. Or.” Slowly, she raised one eyebrow, staring down at the assembled over the rims of the spectacles. “Be denied the opportunity, while everyone else comes together without them.

“I can say without undue arrogance that this is the only place where such an offer can be made, and I the only person who can make it. We are nominally within the territory of the Tiraan Empire, here, but I can assure you that the Silver Throne will have exactly as much of a voice in this as everyone else—no more, and no less. And I can say that loudly and in public in the absolute confidence that there is not one damn thing the Emperor can do about it. If my rules are not honored, I am fully able to punish any nation or order on this planet for its temerity. There will be peace, cooperation, reason, science, and progress, or I’ll kick whatever ass I have to to make that happen. I am Arachne Tellwyrn, and I have spoken.”

She had to pause for a while, as the students all exploded in cheering, backed by exuberant applause from the Last Rock citizens and a good few of the other invited guests. Eventually, Tellwyrn held up her hands for quiet, which gradually descended.

“We all have a long way to go together, and I’m eager to get started, but I must first make a more specific and personal addition. To the little ne’er-do-well who has come to be called the Sleeper.” She stepped back behind the lectern, placed both hands on it, and drummed her fingers, scowling. “You are, obviously, done at this school… But I’m going to make you one last offer of leniency in the name of the greater good. If you come to me, in person, confess what you did and explain how to cure those of your fellow students you cursed, I will see to it that you’re protected and sent somewhere that you’ll not suffer punishment for your actions. That is the final protection I am willing to extend, and you will need it. Because as of this moment, the hounds are unleashed upon you. This campus is no longer an isolated school for adventurers, but a global center of science and diplomacy in its nascent form. Yes, we have barely begun the process of that evolution, but already the representatives present have begun to take advantage. I’m aware of the beginnings of two international treaties that are already being brokered just by the people here, thanks to my having brought them together, and that trend will only continue. Last Rock will grow ever more important to the kings and popes of the world, and gathered here will be their best and brightest—and most dangerous.”

She leaned forward over the lectern, glaring down at them all. “You had better take my offer, kid, because here’s the one I’m making to everyone else: whoever catches the Sleeper, gets him. I can think of countless uses most of the institutions represented here might have for a young warlock gifted personally by Elilial herself—which means that even those who have no need for such a creature could gain a lot of leverage from those who specifically do. Queen Arkasia of Tar’naris, for example, has already offered me a staggering bounty for the individual who dared assault two of her diplomats unprovoked; I have not replied to her yet, but Matriarch Ashaele has my blessing to extend that offer to whoever else finds themselves in a place to redeem it. You had all best behave yourselves and cause no untoward harm to my students, but any measure you can bring to bear to identify and pacify the Sleeper will be rewarded by me, both in immediate remuneration and in consideration for your order’s future privileges on this campus.”

Tellwyrn paused, drummed her fingers once again, then sighed.

“I don’t know which of you would actually do all this. I really don’t. It pains me to imagine any of you being so…pointlessly malicious, but more importantly, so unutterably idiotic. Obviously, I failed you badly in some regard. But you’ve made your own choices, and you will now experience the consequences for them. This is the last chance you’ll have to soften the blow. I suggest you take it.

“And with regard to our shared future.” She sighed again, and then a smile began to spread slowly across her face. “The planet doesn’t yet know, but it changed today. The University is joining the world, and it had better be ready. Because we are.”

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12 – 57

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They emerged from the alley into more trouble.

“Contact!” Rook called rather shrilly, placing himself in front of Danny and lifting his staff to take aim at the two figures in gray robes suddenly dashing down the street toward him.

Before he could fire, perhaps luckily, Joe pushed past, raising one of his wands. Two short, clean beams of light pierced each attacker straight through the head, causing them to collapse mid-stride.

“Holy shit,” Finchley said somewhat tremulously.

“Keep it together,” Moriarty muttered. “We have a mission still to complete.”

Kheshiri was the last out of the alley. She paused upon the sidewalk, surveying Joe’s handiwork with her fists on her hips, and incongruously grinned. “Well, well, you are learning!”

“Shut up,” Joe said curtly, his eyes scanning the street. It was narrower than the main avenue they had been trying to reach at the other end of the alley, and looked less planned, to judge by the way it kinked back and forth around irregularly-placed old buildings. Altogether this was a much more ambush-friendly corridor, though at least it showed no further evidence of cultist activity at the moment.

“Really, I applaud your dedication to preserving life,” Kheshiri continued in an overtly mocking tone. “I warned you, though: berserker drugs. Shooting to disable is not going to accomplish anything. Ah, well, what matters is you eventually got the—”

Joe very calmly turned and shot her through the foot. She yelped and staggered back, slumping against the face of the nearest building.

“Whoah, hey!” Rook protested.

“I understand the impulse, Joe,” Danny said more quietly, “but she’ll only keep needling if you give her reactions, and that isn’t going to help. If you’re not going to kill her, please don’t wind her up.”

The three ex-soldiers glanced at each other with wide-eyed alarm, while Joe heaved a heavy sigh.

“Fine,” he grunted after a pause. “We’d best move out.”

“Oh, I’m all right, thank you for your concern,” Kheshiri said bitingly. Indeed, after holding her foot off the ground for a moment and flexing her ankle, she set it down again, and set off up the street without any trace of a limp. “Good call, time is precious and enemies abound. This is the fastest—”

“Not that way,” Danny interrupted, already heading down the street in the other direction.

“Hey!” she called after him in irritation. “This leads directly to a major artery—there’ll be military police there. You’re going deeper into this dead end of a district that way!”

“We can circle around easily enough,” Danny replied, “and more importantly, not taking straight and obvious routes is key to avoiding pursuit.”

“Not in this situation,” she retorted. “Unless you have a better reason than that…?”

“He’s right,” said Joe, nodding solemnly at Danny. “We know somebody who lives just up the road there, and we ain’t leadin’ whoever these clowns are in that direction.”

“I said better reason,” she said dryly.

“Come on.” Danny turned and resumed walking without another word. He finally seemed motivated to pick up his pace; at any rate, there was no more of his previous aimless ambling. The troops fell into formation around him, and Joe quickly pushed ahead, weapons out. Kheshiri, grumbling and cursing under her breath, finally brought up the rear.

“Sooo, Kheshiri,” Rook said rather weakly after a few yards of awkwardness. “Interesting name. Is that Calderaan?”

“Vanislaad,” Joe said shortly.

All three came to an immediate stop, swiveled in unison, and pointed their staves at the disguised succubus. She rolled her eyes.

“Cut that out,” Danny ordered. “In fact, with all respect, I’d prefer if you three refrained from firing your weapons except in the last extremity of self-defense. Those are military-grade, and people are living all around us. We have a legendary sharpshooter along; let him do what he does best.”

“For people being all around, it’s awful quiet, don’t you think?”

They swiveled again, still raising weapons, as did Joe, to aim at the man who slipped out of another alley just up ahead.

“Oh, great,” Joe muttered.

“Master,” Kheshiri said warily. “I thought you were—”

“Situation’s changed,” he interrupted. “Jack and Vannae are still scouting and trying to keep our flanks clear, but you chowderheads are about to plow right into another big concentration of the Wreath.”

“They aren’t Wreath,” she said sullenly.

“Yeah, you really latched onto the important part of that,” he snapped. “Keep quiet if you’re just gonna waste air.”

“You know this guy, I take it?” Finchley asked.

“Shook,” said Joe. “Am I gonna have to shoot you, too?”

“Another time, kid,” Shook replied. He had two wands in hand himself, both pricey-looking enchanter wands rather than standard lightning-throwers, but had them aimed at the ground, and was seemingly ignoring all the weapons still trained on him. “We’ve got mutual fish to fry right now. These robed assholes are gonna kill everybody they stumble across, which raises some real concerns about what happened to everybody living around here. Come on, we gotta backtrack, fast.”

“They won’t go that way,” Kheshiri complained. “This is like herding suicidal cats.”

“I do not give a fuck,” Shook exclaimed. “You go back if you want to live.”

“We’ll not be doing that,” Danny replied in perfect calm, heading across the street. “Do you happen to know where this alley—”

The pounding of feet on the pavement was the only warning they got.

As before, the attackers came in disturbing silence. They rushed around the corner ahead with a speed and ferocity that seemed it should have been accompanied by mad howling, but the only sounds were footsteps and the rustling of robes. This time, though, there were a lot more of them.

“Into the alley!” Finchley barked, grabbing Danny roughly by the shoulder and shoving him through the opening. Rook and Moriarty backed after them, firing into the crowd as they went. Joe and Shook both joined in, shooting with much more accuracy, but even as they created enough bodies to physically impede those still coming, none of the berserkers so much as slowed.

“How the fuck many of these guys are there?” Shook snarled, furiously casting beam after beam into the throng.

“Master, quickly!” Kheshiri called, her voice inexplicably coming from directly above them. “Into the alley, now!”

“We’ll be trapped—”

“Trust me, now!”

Shook cursed, turned, and bolted after the others through the narrow gap. Joe was the last in, moving backwards and still shooting. By the time he passed through the opening, silent cultists brandishing clubs had nearly reached it.

Abruptly, a wall of solid stone shot straight upward from the ground, sealing off the entrance.

There were no cries from beyond; the rock was too thick, apparently, to carry the sound of bodies piling against it as they must be.

“There you are,” Shook said in relief. “Where’s the other one?”

“Still scouting,” an elf in a dark suit replied; he had been pressed against the wall of the alley, forcing the others to push past him, and seemed out of breath.

“Vannae,” Joe said stiffly.

“Jenkins,” the shaman replied in a similar tone, pressing a hand to his chest.

“That’s a useful trick,” Danny commented from just up ahead. “Can you do that again? They can’t possibly keep this up long before drawing attention. I’m surprised we haven’t already heard alarm bells, given the weapons being fired off.”

“Weapons being fired mean anybody with any sense is huddling inside, not going after the cops,” Shook retorted. “There’re always a couple of heroes without sense, but they’ve gotta get through those…them. And there are a lot of ’em out there.”

“Also,” Kheshiri added from above, “the rooftops around this whole area are lousy with Thieves’ Guild enforcers, who I suspect had something to do with it.”

“Shit,” Shook hissed, quickly holstering his wands. He drew a black bandana from an inner coat pocket and began wrapping it around his lower face.

“You mentioned that before,” said Danny, looking up at the succubus and seeming unperturbed at the fact that she now had spiny wings and was clinging spiderlike to the side of the building. “What’s the Guild doing?”

“Fuck all, as usual,” a new voice said cheerily. Another elf in a suit ambled toward them from up the alley, casually twirling a stiletto in one hand.

“Not another step!” Joe snarled, aiming a wand at him.

“Oh, keep it in your pants, child,” the Jackal said dismissively. “You and I will have to continue our discussion later. Right now we face more urgent questions. Who are these people? Where did they come from? What are they doing here?”

“We’ve already killed more of ’em than the Wreath has skilled operators left on the whole continent,” said Kheshiri, finally dropping to the ground. It made the alley even more crowded, even when she pressed herself against Shook’s side. “I’m at a loss. I may be a little behind on events, but I don’t know who could not only field a surprise army, but drop it into the middle of Tiraas on a whim.”

“The dropping is easy,” Vannae panted. “Shadow-jumping. Could come from anywhere…”

“Hey, are you okay?” Shook asked him.

“This city…” The shaman shook his head, slumping against the wall. “Worst possible place for my magic. So few natural materials, so much arcane… I overextended myself—”

“Then what the hell good are you?” the Jackal demanded, arching an eyebrow. “One more idiot for us to shepherd around, now. This whole business is entirely outside my skill set. I’m used to being the one doing the hunting.”

“Hey, Joe?” called Rook. “I’m gettin’ a vibe where it might be best to just shoot all of these people.”

“Generally, that’s correct,” Joe said, “but let’s not start a firefight in this alley.”

“Also, let’s none of us waste allies, however reluctant,” Danny added. “We seem to be in a tight spot, metaphorically as well as literally.”

“I just love the way he talks,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “Back to the matter at hand, let’s be honest with ourselves. We all know someone who it wouldn’t surprise any of us to learn could pull an army out of his butt—even if this really isn’t an army. They’re jumping into nearby buildings in parties of not more than a couple dozen each. It’s a raiding party, at most.”

“Oh, is that all,” Finchley muttered.

“Assuming you’re talkin’ about who I think you are,” Joe said warily, “don’t you creeps work for him?”

“Indeed, indeed.” The Jackal grinned so widely it looked physically painful. “I’m inclined to interpret this as a very careful notice of termination—one he can deny if it turns out we’re the ones doing the terminating.”

“Fuck,” Shook growled. “How sure are you of that?”

“I wouldn’t stake my honor on it, and not just because I left that at the bottom of a river a few decades back. But let’s face it, none of us is going to be surprised if that turns out to be the case.”

“So,” Danny said slowly, “perhaps we have grounds for a more than immediate alliance.”

“Danny, no,” Joe said firmly. “You do not wanna get mixed up with these…people.”

“Oh, he’s done business with worse,” the Jackal said merrily. “But let’s walk as we chat, my new friends! I’m freshly back from a scouting run sweep, and while the bulk of our enemies are just humans hopped up on alchemicals, they’ve got good magical support. Shadow-jumpers are not only bringing them in, they’re moving them around to avoid having to cross the streets in large groups, and cleaning up after themselves; there are no bodies left on the site of your first firefight, and I’ll bet by now there are none left on the street right out there, either. It’s inconceivable they don’t have tactical scrying, which means we’re gonna be constantly surrounded until we can call in the Army.”

“Fuck this whole business,” Shook muttered.

“Amen, brother,” Rook agreed.

“Time’s on our side,” said Danny. “This is still Tiraas. They can’t keep this up long without drawing official attention, and if the Guild has people on site, they’ll intervene before too many bystanders can be hurt.”

“Yeah, the Guild’s a real charity operation, I hear,” said Finchley.

“The Guild isn’t in it for the profit,” Shook snapped. “Whatever they’re doing here, they won’t allow magic assholes to carve up the population. But the Guild doesn’t use much magic, especially in fights, and there’s no way they’ve got as many people around here as the cultists do. They won’t wade into a pitched battle unless they’ve got an advantage…”

The Jackal cleared his throat pointedly. “I wasn’t finished. Yes, the clock is ticking down, the enemy surely knows this, which is why we can’t waste time either. They’ll be forced to take us out as fast as they can, which means they’ll shortly start leveraging their other assets. Like the undead I saw them starting to summon before I came to see what was taking you clods so damn long.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Seriously?” Moriarty exclaimed at last.

“Like I said.” The Jackal had turned and was already strolling away up the alley. “Walk and talk.”


As predicted, the rozzk’shnid proved not to be a great threat. Having been summoned into a ring around the town, they effectively blockaded Last Rock, at least for a while, but that didn’t last long. Like most towns this far into the frontier territories, weapons control laws were lax at best, and rare was the household that did not own several wands and staves. Had the demons been in any way organized, they might have prevailed, but they were essentially wild animals, blind and isolated, and their discovery by citizens resulted in their dying in a swift hail of lightning. By the time the Sheriff had gathered a hunting party to clean them out, at least half the rozzk’shnid had been reduced to smoking husks.

The town was in a general state of disorder, however, having found itself surrounded by demons. The doctor was already busy treating injuries—so far, none of these were demon-inflicted, but resulted mostly from surprise-related accidents, including one electrical burn from a friendly fire incident.

By far the worst of it, though, were the katzils.

Where the ring of nearly-blind, slow-moving rozzk’shnid did little to contain or damage the town, the fast-moving, fire-breathing flying serpents were causing havoc. Lighning bolts blasted skyward nearly constantly, from almost every street, and there were several small fires where errant shots had clipped the eaves of buildings, or demons had come close enough to exhale on rooftops. The katzils as a rule moved too fast to make easy targets, and so far none had been felled by wandshots, but on the positive side, the constant barrage of thunderbolts mostly chased them away when any dived low enough to spit flame at anyone.

Unfortunately, it was also making them angry.

As the crowd assembled outside the church watched, another katzil rammed into a wall of silver light which suddenly appeared in front of it. Dazed, it reeled away, and in the next moment Vadrieny had swooped in, seizing the creature in her claws and ripping it cleanly in half. By the time its pieces fell to earth, they had crumbled away to charcoal.

Several other smears of charcoal and ash were scattered around; after the first four had been incinerated, the remaining katzils had learned to avoid the gathering which included Toby and the priestesses. That, however, had forced them to branch out ever more aggressively in taking the flying demons down; even Vadrieny wasn’t nimble enough in the air to catch them unassisted, though in a straight flight she was faster.

“Be careful,” Matriarch Ashaele snapped in the most openly irate tone any of those present had heard from her, after a stray wandshot clipped the archdemon, sending her veering off course with a screech of protest.

“S-sorry, ma’am,” the man responsible stammered, backing away from her glare.

“She’s all right,” Toby said soothingly. “Nothing we’re throwing will harm her.”

“This ain’t good,” said Mayor Cleese to himself, frowning deeply as he watched the sky. “We can win this…eventually. Longer it goes on, though, th’more fires are gonna be started. Whole town’ll be ablaze by the time we take ’em all down…”

“Rafe and Yornhaldt are helping with damage,” Toby reminded him.

“I know, son,” the Mayor said with a sigh. “A wizard an’ an alchemist, and that’s a darn sight more than nothing. But you want fire suppression, you need fae magic.”

“I think you may be underestimating Professor Rafe,” Juniper assured him with a smile.

An abrupt chorus of loud pops occurred in the street just ahead of them, causing the Awarrion guards to spin, raising sabers and flowing between the sound and their Matriarch. A whole group of people appeared out of thin air. At their head was a figure they all recognized.

“Professor Tellwyrn!” Toby exclaimed in clear relief.

She paused for only a moment to scan the sky before turning to face the cluster of diverse individuals she had just teleported in. “All right, what exactly are we dealing with?”

“There are active dimensional rifts around the town,” a dwarf in formal robes reported, closing his eyes in concentration. “Summoning circles…cloaked from immediate view.”

“Open, but inert,” added Embras Mogul, himself frowning in thought. “From the feel of it, I’d say prepared to bring more demons, but not currently doing so. That suggests the summoner’s attention is elsewhere.”

Tellwyrn shifted her attention to the nearest elf. “Sheyann?”

“Child’s play,” the Elder said calmly, her eyes drifting closed. She inhaled deeply through her nose, then fell totally still.

“While she is putting a stop to that,” Tellwyrn said, turning back to Mogul, “what have you got for a mass banishing?”

“You know very well if we could do that our lives would be a lot easier,” he said testily. “You want to banish demons, you have to catch them, individually. For lesser critters like katzils, it’s faster and easier to just kill them.”

“Fast is a factor here,” she retorted. “Easy, not so much. It’s time to send a message. Haunui!”

The man she addressed was a Tidestrider windshaman, barefoot and bare-chested, with his hair gathered into braids adorned with seashells and feathers. An intricate, sprawling tattoo depicting an octupus was inked across his back, its tentacles adorned with runes and spiraling along his right arm.

“If the winds allow it,” he intoned dourly, “the skies themselves can be called to repudiate the unclean things. I do not know the spirits here, though, nor they me.”

“I can assist you, Wavespeaker,” Sheyann said, opening her eyes. “Portals are closed, Arachne.”

“I can confirm that,” the dwarf added.

“Thank you, Mr. Wrynst,” Sheyann said dryly.

“Please refrain from bickering,” Tellwyrn said in a clipped tone. “All right, we can do this. Sheyann, Haunui, do what you can to weaken demons in the vicinity. It doesn’t have to be decisive, just put them off balance and buy the rest of us some space to cast. Father Raas, I’d like you to invoke whatever blessing you can around this immediate area without interfering with them. We need them kept away from here long enough for us to work.”

“Blessings are easy,” replied the man addressed, an older gentleman in a Universal Church parson’s frock. “Structuring it so as not to impede the fae casters is trickier. I’ll do what I can; if anything impacts either of your work, please speak up so I can correct it.”

“What do you have in mind, Professor?” Mogul asked.

“A mass banishing,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “Don’t start, Mogul; we can discuss what is and isn’t possible after we’ve done it. Ashaele, I’m very glad to see you here. May I borrow your priestesses?”

“Provided they are returned in the same condition,” the Matriarch said sardonically, directing a nod to the three cowled women now hovering beside her.

“Thank you. Caine, and all of you with wands, you’ll have to take over keeping the creatures away until Raas gets some results. Hopefully this won’t take long enough to matter. All right, I am going to set up an ambient spell lattice over the area to intermix and control magic of different schools. That is every bit as difficult as it sounds and will require my full concentration, so I need each of you to handle your individual parts. It should become intuitively apparent how to work your own spells into the whole—I’ve recently had some practice in mind magic, but it’s not my forte, so please sing out if you have any trouble understanding what the matrix calls for. Mogul, Wrynst, combine your focus and set up some demon chains for me. I need those creatures immobilized.”

“There’s a stark limit to how many of those spells we can conjure at once,” Mogul said with a frown. “Especially since we don’t have a clear line of sight to many of the katzils or any of the rozzk’shnid.”

“I will take care of that. You just have the spell templates ready to be slotted into the whole; you should be able to tell how it works once I have it running.”

“I’ve done multi-school cooperative spells before,” Wrynst said, nodding. “It should be achievable.”

“Good. I am aware that you’ll need a power boost to get as many chains as we’ll require. Mr. Saalir, that’s where you’ll come in. I won’t have the focus to spare on it, so I need you to establish a standard arcane-to-infernal energy conversion pipeline. Please wait until I have the overall matrix assembled; I need everything to be structured, and piping in energy from an unconnected system will threaten its stability.”

“Now, wait just a moment,” said a lean Westerner in blue Salyrite robes, scowling heavily. “I’m willing to endure this individual’s presence for the sake of the greater good, Professor Tellwyrn, but what you’re asking me is that I lend power to the Black Wreath!”

“Yes, I am,” she said in a tone that warned of fraying patience. “I appreciate your willingness to help me, Saalir, very much. I did not promise you that this would be easy, however, and this is what we need to do to protect this town. There’s no time for arguing.”

“There are serious matters of principle—”

Nearby, Inspector Fedora loudly cleared his throat. “Pardon me,” he said with an insouciant grin, “but maybe you should pause and think about what happened to the last Salyrite who got up into Arachne Tellwyrn’s face?”

Tellwyrn closed her eyes. “Oh, good. You’re here. Stop helping me, Fedora. Saalir, please ignore him. I am not going to blast you for refusing to help. I’m asking for your contribution.”

The Salyrite frowned at her, at Fedora, then at Mogul, then at Fedora again.

“To be clear,” he said at last, “is everyone aware that that man is a—”

“Yes!” chorused half a dozen people.

“Right,” he muttered. “Well. There’s the greater good, after all. For the time being, Professor, I’ll choose to trust you. Please don’t make me regret this.”

“I’ll do my utmost,” she assured him. “And thank you. Now, ladies.” Tellwyrn turned to the three Themynrite priestesses, nodding deeply in respect. “I don’t know your specialization, but when I last spent any time in Tar’naris, every priestess of Themynra was trained to banish demons.”

“That much has not changed,” the woman in the center of their group replied. “Our method will not send them neatly back to Hell like your Elilinist friend’s; the demons will be simply destroyed.”

“Even better,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “If you would, please, come closer, and attend to the spell matrix as I organize it. I am going to direct energy pathways along the demon chains our warlocks will be establishing, and applying dispersal systems which should enable you to strike multiple targets simultaneously.”

“Provided the demons are immobilized, that should work,” the priestess said, nodding her hooded head.

“They will be,” Tellwyrn assured her. “With three of you, I expect you’ll have adequate power without needing to draw from our shamans; if it begins to appear otherwise as I set it up, please let me know.”

“Of course.”

“All right, everyone, you know your part. I’ll make this as quick as I can.”

There was some shuffling and nervous glancing from the assembled townspeople in the silence which followed, as well as from several more of the individuals who had appeared in Tellwyrn’s mass teleport who were apparently not involved in the spell. To outside viewers, it seemed a large and complex magical working of this nature mostly involved several people standing around with their eyes closed, frowning in concentration.

After a pause, Toby sidled over to Fedora, murmuring. “What happened the last time she had an argument with a Salyrite?”

“Oh, you haven’t covered that in class, yet?” the Inspector said, smirking. “I was referring to Magnan, the last Hand of Salyrene. Also the out-of-control piece of shit who built the Enchanter’s Bane that destroyed Athan’khar. Guess who ultimately took his ass down?”

Toby sighed. “Right.”

The event, when it came, was so sudden that quite a few of the onlookers jumped in surprise, and more than a couple cursed. Tendrils of pure black limned with a thick purple glow sprang from the ground at a single point in the middle of the street, spiraling skyward; each of the katzils twirling overhead was snared and held in place midair, where they immediately began hissing and squawking in protest. More of the shadow tentacles arched toward the ground around the outskirts, apparently seizing the rozzk’shnids still surviving around the periphery.

“Hold your damn fire, you knuckleheads!” Sheriff Sanders bellowed at the men who took the opportunity to shoot at the suddenly stationary katzils. “You don’t fire wands into the middle of the most complex spell this town’s ever seen! What’s wrong with you?”

The actual banishings were not exactly simultaneous, but a cascade of sharp retorts, each accompanied by a burst of silver light, flashed through the air above the town, rather like a giant kettle of popcorn cooking. In each, a katzil exploded into nothingness, and a suddenly unmoored tendril of shadow was wrenched loose and drawn back into the point from which they spawned.

The whole thing took only seconds. Then, quite suddenly, it was all over: no spells, no demons, nothing but the evening sky. Shock at the abruptness kept the onlookers silent for only a few seconds, before the whole town erupted in cheers, and more than a few celebratory wandshots fired skyward.

Before that had a chance to escalate into a proper celebration, however, there came the pounding of hooves.

Whisper rounded the corner just up ahead, slowing to a canter as she approached the group. Astride her, Gabriel held the reins with one hand, his other wrapped around Maureen’s waist, where she was perched in front of him.

“Professor Tellwyrn!” he shouted, drawing his steed to a stop just in front of the assembled crowd. “Thank the gods.”

“That’s something I don’t often hear,” she said with a sigh. “How bad is it?”

“Where’s Iris?” Juniper demanded in alarm.

“It’s the Sleeper!” Maureen burst out frantically. “They’re in the Golden Sea! He’s got her!”

“Oh, does he,” Tellwyrn said in such a grim tone that several people immediately took a step away from her. “We will see about that.”

 

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12 – 54

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As afternoon faded into early evening, the overall light in Tiraas did not diminish, even in this relatively dingy district, though it changed in character with the transition from gloomy, cloud-obscured sunlight to the sharp golden glow of the fairy lamps lining the streets. Given the typical weather in the region, nightfall often had the ironic effect of enlivening the colors of everything the light touched. At any rate, the approach of dusk did little to diminish the activity in the street. This particular district was a fairly quiet one most of the time, not rich by any means, but with several temples and regular patrols by the military police; it was a safe enough place to stand outside, observing passersby.

That was fortunate for the man currently calling himself Danny, as he lounged against a corner, simply watching the people as they went about their business. City folk were not terribly ebullient with strangers as a rule, but he received and returned a few polite greetings, nonetheless. One pair of patrolling soldiers slowed slightly as they passed him, but a smile and cordial greeting, coupled with his calm demeanor, apparently assuaged their concerns. People did much stranger things than stand around doing nothing in the city, and those up to no good either avoided troops or were with the Thieves’ Guild, which in either case was encouragement not to bother him.

When not greeting someone, though, he tended to let his expression lapse into a near-frown, more pensive than unhappy. He was normally quite adept at concealing his thoughts; here, he was nobody worth looking at twice, and being able to let his guard down just a little was a luxury.

Three young men approached, immediately standing out. They were moving faster than the average passerby, they had come out of an alley across the street rather than down the main avenue, and they went right toward him with obvious intent. All three drew up on the sidewalk next to him, looking nervous and generally shifty, and he suppressed a sigh. This would draw far more attention than anything he’d been doing.

“Your, uh,” the red-haired one stammered, “I mean mister—I mean, um…”

“My friends call me Danny,” he said mildly. “For the time being, that is. Are we friends?”

“We would never presume,” said the only one with an obviously military bearing, his tone as stiff as his spine. “It would be entirely inappropriate—”

“Yes, we most certainly are friends of yours,” interrupted the third, the only ethnic Tiraan in the group and with an impressive enough habitual slouch to make up for his companion’s posture. “Have been for a good long time. Look, uh, Danny, you don’t know us, so I get that you’ve got no reason to trust us here, but—”

“If I am not mistaken,” he said with a smile, “Privates Finchley, Rook, and Moriarty, yes?”

They all gaped at him.

“You know us?” Finchley croaked at last. “I mean—you—but that’s—”

“You lads have had a rather interesting couple of years, so I understand,” Danny said lightly. “You might be surprised how many people are aware of you. Just as I am surprised to find you, of all places, here. I’m sure this is quite a story.”

“We’re here to escort you to safety, y-your…” Moriarty swallowed hard. “…Danny.”

“It is quite a story, but he’s right,” Rook added. “This probably isn’t the best time. We’re working with Ms. Darnassy, whom I trust you also know?”

At that, Danny straightened up. “That’s…very interesting. Last I heard, she was fully occupied with matters that didn’t include my immediate safety. How you three factor into it is quite the puzzle.”

“The short version is, by accident,” Finchley said hurriedly, glancing around in a way that would be sure to draw the attention of any patrolling soldiers, had any been nearby. “The, uh…the…men…who are a little…”

“I have some friends who are presently under the weather, yes,” Danny said mildly. “Milanda was working on that. Please, continue.”

“Uh, right. Well, one was at the college where we were…um, attending, and he caused…some trouble.”

“Yadda yadda, some stuff happened,” Rook continued airily, “our mutual friend Quentin found us and pointed us at the lovely and talented Ms. Darnassy, and when he heard you lost the couch you were crashing on, we got tapped to lead you to a new one. So, speaking of that, shall we? This is all very, y’know…terrifyingly exposed.”

“Hmm.” Danny considered them thoughtfully for a long moment, not minding their obvious signs of anxiety. A trap? That, he decided, was very unlikely. They knew who he was, and the core of all their recent problems was that they had more personal loyalty to him than sense or talent; that made them the worst possible choice of agents to mean him harm. Plus, this would be just like Vex. The spymaster had not been happy in the least with his plan, and this way he could put a token watch around him and be able to argue later that as incompetent as these three were, they didn’t count as real guards. In fact, it was sort of perfect. “Very well, I appreciate you going out of your way, gentlemen.”

“It is no trouble, sir,” Finchley said fervently. “So, uh, this way, if you please.”

“Now, now, wait up,” Danny said smoothly as they all three took a step up the street. He paused to straighten the lapels of his suit. “It’s such a fine evening, isn’t it? There’s no hurry. I so rarely get to stroll the streets; no need to set such a pace.”

He actually passed them, at a leisurely amble, while they gaped at him as if wondering if he were insane and not daring to say so. He recognized that specific expression; it was directed at him with fair frequency.

“Um,” Rook said finally, “with all due respect…there kind of is a hurry. Because you’re…pretty vulnerable here, y’know, and if something happens to you, it’s not just you who’s gonna suffer for it. Danny.”

“Relax,” Danny said, turning to grin at him. “I know what I’m doing. Coming?”

There was another pause while they hastened to catch up and fell into an obvious formation behind him, looking nervous. He repressed another sigh; attracting certain kinds of attention was, after all, part of the plan, but this was going to get random soldiers or Silver Legionnaires involved. Did the Legions even patrol this district?

“As I understand it,” Finchley said, clearly choosing his words with extreme care, “the plan involves…our friends who are unwell. Yes? Maybe they aren’t the most reliable of…friends…right now? Kind of by definition?”

“I’m not expecting much from them except trouble, truth be told,” Danny agreed. “If they end up showing up tonight, the trick will be making sure it’s trouble for the right people, but I’m reasonably confident I can arrange that. No, gentlemen, I’m counting on other parties to become involved in this.”

Even with all three of them behind and thus out of his line of sight, he could practically hear them exchanging dubious looks.

“Who?” Moriarty finally asked.

“Let me pose you a hypothetical question,” said Danny. “Suppose you were trying to outmaneuver someone who is adept at manipulating events from a safe distance, someone who works with exacting precision and never takes a risk unless he’s certain he has control over the whole environment. Suppose that a major part of your long-term plan in this regard involves gaining the allegiance of his opposites: individuals who thrive on adapting on the fly to chaotic situations, and who have been stubbornly refusing to take a side. In that situation, what would you do?”

“I suppose,” Rook said slowly, but without pausing, “in that purely hypothetical scenario, I would create some goddamn chaos.”

“Watch your language!” Moriarty barked.

“It’s fine,” Danny said with a grin. “And quite so, Mr. Rook. That is, indeed, the plan.”

“Which means,” Rook continued sourly, “you’re gambling that you can control the chaos when it breaks out.”

“Unlike the antagonist I referred to, I don’t bother to wait until everything is certain before acting. Adaptation is crucial. That doesn’t mean I don’t hedge my bets, however. It’s a critical mistake to gamble without an ace or three up one’s sleeve, gentlemen.”

“Oh, gods,” Finchley muttered. “Please tell me he doesn’t mean us.”

Danny laughed.


“Now, who the hell is that?” Sweet muttered, leaning over the rooftop’s edge to frown at the four men proceeding up the street below. “Those three resemble some individuals I know by description, but there’s no possible way it’s them.”

“Actually, we know them,” said Flora.

“Yeah,” Fauna agreed, “they were with Professor Tellwyrn and her students in Lor’naris last year.”

“They wore Army uniforms then, but she treated ’em like bellboys.”

“Which, to be fair, could just be Tellwyrn being Tellwyrn.”

“If I were a lesser man,” he complained, “I would need to sit down. What the fuck is going on here? With everything I learn, this makes less and less sense. C’mon.”

He stepped back from the ledge and strode up the fortunately gently angled slate roof beside them, swiftly cresting it and proceeding with more care down the other side. At the base of that, they had to vault across a narrow alley to the flat roof opposite in order to keep pace with their quarry.

“According to what they said to him,” Flora reported, “Vex and Darnassy sent them here.”

“Darnassy,” Sweet muttered. “That one keeps popping up lately—and suddenly. She’s been an Imperial mistress for a few years now and never made a peep about wanting to do more than warm Sharidan’s bed until this week. I don’t like unknown quantities butting into my already messy job…”

“Is this a job, though?” Fauna asked. “Do we really need to keep doing this? Maybe the best thing is to back off and let the Imps deal with their own crap.”

“You have a point,” he said, “and yet, you aren’t right. Think back: you said you overheard about the Hands being able to teleport by lurking above an open window, yes?” He paused to look at them, waiting to get nods of acknowledgment before proceeding. “Doesn’t it strike you as odd that seasoned Intelligence operatives on a mission of no less importance than keeping watch over the Emperor himself would chatter about sensitive mission details right next to an open window? They do know we like to use the rooftops. Did you take any special steps to make sure you weren’t seen?”

“No,” Flora said, frowning in thought. “You’re saying they leaked it to us on purpose?”

“But why?” Fauna asked. “That would just set the Guild against Intelligence. Which it did.”

“Not exactly,” he said. “Everything that happened after that might as well have been scripted. Based on the roles we play, I pretty much had to go down to Vex’s house and make a show of being able to kick his ass—a ranking Guild priest who’s been given the runaround by Intelligence has little other option. He knows this. Not only did he play along, with an aggression I’ve never seen from him before, he actually threatened me to the point I had to hurt one of his people to avoid breaking character.”

“You’re saying he forced you to act that way?”

“You know better than that, Flora,” he reproached. “Force is the least effective of all kinds of coercion, and Vex knows that as well as any Eserite loremaster. No, he told…a story. Laid out a neat narrative that I had to follow unless I wanted to break character, and doubled down on it to make sure I followed along. I had the option not to comply, but would pay for it by signaling that my allegiance is elsewhere than with the Guild—which is not true, and considering where else I’ve got strings tied, would have created complications for me and the Guild’s business. It was neatly done, actually. The point is, it’s unusual for him to be even that pushy. The only reason he would even try to back me into a corner like that is if something big were on the table, either something he hoped to gain for the Empire, or an unexpected threat he had to move against.”

“Like the Hands?”

“That’s the thing,” Sweet mused. “Any other time, I’d think he was just trying to make me take a side and declare allegiance. But he’s never shown interest in pressing that issue before, and this is the worst possible time. The whole government should be in damage control mode as long as the Hands are off-kilter, and with Danny running around down there, the stakes are far too high for Vex to be playing games like that with me, of all people. None of this makes any goddamn sense, and that means we don’t know what’s really going on. And that means we need to learn, fast, given how involved we already are.”

“That kinda goes back to the original question,” Flora pointed out. “Couldn’t we…disengage?”

“Isolation is death,” he said severely. “There is no safety; a fortress is a trap. We’re already engaged, and whatever’s happening has already proved it’s going to seek us out. This strategy is already as conservative and hands-off as I’m willing to go; we urgently have to figure out what the hell is going on here.”

All three paused at the hoarse cawing of a crow, turning to look in the direction of the noise. Darling nodded at Fauna, who nodded back, and then produced a few notes of a starling’s call. Flora paced along the edge of the roof, keeping an eye on the torturously slow progress of their targets, while the other two waited tensely.

They didn’t have to wait long. A woman in a long coat hoisted herself over the opposite edge of the roof and strode toward them, scowling.

“That bad, huh?” Sweet asked.

“Dunno from bad, but it’s weird,” she said. “You were right, Sweet, they’ve all started moving. I’m late to report in because we’ve had to wait to make sure of what we were seeing. You sure that guy down there is important to the Imps? You made it sound like they’d wanna protect him.”

“Spit it out, Duster,” he said tersely.

“They’re bugging out,” she replied. “All across the neighborhood. And not in one direction; they’re fanning out like they’re fleeing a fire. Intelligence is abandoning the whole district.”

Slowly, his expression crumpled into a thunderous scowl. “What the hell?”

“You tell me,” she said, folding her arms.

“You’re sure of—no, never mind, you already said so. Hn… Seen any signs of…special agents?”

“Seen, no,” the enforcer said with a shrug. “Sure, Intelligence has assets we wouldn’t be able to spot, but by definition, how the hell would I know if they’re hovering around?”

“You’re right, of course,” he agreed, clapping her on the shoulder. “Sorry, Duster, I wasn’t snapping at you. This whole thing is just balls-out crazy. Good work; have everybody pull carefully to this area. Not clustered all together, but I want us to be able to react in concert to anything that goes down in this vicinity.”

“You got it,” she said, nodding, then turned and dashed away. Reaching the edge of the roof, she vaulted over, causing a metallic thump as she hit the fire escape below.

“Vex,” Darling whispered, turning to stare down at the Emperor of Tiraas, walking the streets accompanied only by three of the worst soldiers in the Empire, “have you lost your mind?”


Gabriel was still shrugging into his coat as he entered the town hall, but just inside the door he stopped, staring at the standoff which had developed. “Uh…what’s this, now?”

“Ah, welcome back,” said Toby. “You heard about the demons?”

“Vestrel warned me before one of Vengnat’s friends got there, yeah. What’s this doing here?” he demanded, pointing at the gray-robed Black Wreath warlock.

“That is the subject of some discussion, Mr. Arquin,” Matriarch Ashaele said.

“They’ve offered to help,” Teal added. “Nobody’s happy about this, but we may not be able to afford to turn them down.”

“They? Them?” Gabe exclaimed. “There’s more?”

“Any time you see one Wreath, you can assume there are more,” Toby said grimly. “This didn’t get really awkward until she spilled the beans about him.”

“Let me just point out, again,” said Inspector Fedora with a long-suffering sigh, “that I am the only person here with legitimate government credentials.”

“Hey,” the Sheriff protested.

“And he’s hardly the first child of Vanislaas to get those,” the warlock said cheerfully. “This is supposed to be a secret, but one of his ilk was governor of Mathenon for over a month a few decades back. It’s never a smart idea to let them weasel into positions of power.”

“Very much the same can be said about you,” Toby snapped. “Fedora, what are you even doing here? I thought you were up on the campus.”

“I have made careful arrangements to know when and where demons are being summoned in the whole region around Last Rock, for obvious reasons,” the Inspector replied. “That’s here, and so here I am.”

“Speakin’ of which, I’ve got demons in and around my town, apparently,” Mayor Cleese said tersely. “I don’t think we’ve got time for this, people. I recognize this is literally makin’ deals with devils, but if it keeps Last Rock from bein’ overrun with hellspawn, I’m prepared to take whatever help presents itself.”

“I’ll leave this to wiser heads than mine to settle,” Sanders added. “But for the record, if the order that comes down is ‘shoot ’em both,’ I ain’t gonna complain.”

“I am not excessively worried about lesser warlocks such as the Elilinists,” Ashaele said smoothly. “She is correct about the incubus, however.”

“Now, I realize you don’t much care for me, friendly neighborhood paladins,” Fedora said with a grin, “but you both know my credentials are legitimate, and my superiors know who and what I am. Turning on a duly appointed agent of Imperial Intelligence will create trouble none of you want.”

“And now he’s threatening us,” Teal said, scowling.

“Hey!” Gabriel shouted, earning surprised silence. “The only person here making a lick of sense is the Mayor. We do not have time for this! Am I correct about those robes? Are there two priestesses of Themynra in this room?”

“You are indeed,” one of the drow women he indicated replied with a thin smile.

“Fine,” he said firmly. “I’m not much of a theologian, but some of us here should remember what we’ve learned from Shaeine. If the ladies will oblige us, a simple blessing by the goddess of, among other things, judgment, will reveal who is and is not trying to screw us over.”

“It is not quite so simple,” the other Themynrite cleric said. “A simple blessing will not reveal agendas or plots. However, it will burn any who are aligned with evil against Themynra’s objectives, which appears to be the fundamental question here. I’m sure the goddess will not consider this a frivolous use of her power.”

“Well spotted, Gabriel,” Ashaele said, smiling.

“Themynra, huh,” Fedora mused. “You know, I’ve never actually had a divine blessing on me that wasn’t used as an attack. By all means, go for it. This oughtta be interesting.”

“Whatever,” the warlock said irritably. “If that’s what it will take to get some action taken here, I’ve no objection.”

“And aren’t they gracious,” Sanders muttered.

Toby gently nudged Gabriel out of the doorway and toward one corner of the town hall, where Juniper was hovering with her sister Ash. “Nicely done,” he murmured. “Though for the record, you just insulted a room full of important people, including the Matriarch.”

“I—wait, what? No, I didn’t!”

“You kinda did, though,” Juniper observed. “I mean, if the mayor’s the only one making sense, it implies…”

“Aw, fuck,” he muttered. “I mean, that is. Um. I’m sure Shaeine has mentioned to her mother that I tend to have my foot in my mouth. And any of the drow who were at the picnic can attest I’m a big fan of the lady.”

At the other side of the noisy room, Ashaele shifted her head slightly to look at him and very deliberately smiled, before returning her attention to the front, where Fedora and the warlock were being limned with silver light by the two priestesses. In keeping with their previous attitudes, the incubus seemed fascinated by the whole procedure, while the warlock had her arms folded and extended one leg so her foot peeked out from beneath the hem of their robes, just to make sure everyone could see her tapping it. Neither appeared to be burning.

“Smooth, kid,” Ash said with a grin.

He sighed. “Thanks, I try. Has anybody else turned up? Ruda and Fross would be handy to have around about now, or any of the remaining freshman girls…”

“No sign of our classmates,” said Toby. “I haven’t heard anything about Szith, but actually Maureen and Iris were in town. From what I’ve been told, they were the first to spot a demon, and got a warning to the drow. Then apparently they retreated into the prairie to avoid sparking off a fight, and that’s the last we heard—”

“What?!” Fedora’s insouciant demeanor instantly collapsed, and he lunged across the room toward them, prompting Sanders and three of Ashaele’s bodyguards to level weapons, all of which he ignored. “You idiots! What are you standing around here for?!”

“Um, excuse me,” Juniper said, frowning, “but I think we were just discussing—”

“You know the Sleeper likes to create distractions to herd people off and strike them alone! You’ve got two classmates who’ve isolated themselves out there away from help, and that wasn’t your first priority?”

There was a second of shocked silence.

“I hate to acknowledge it, but the hellspawn is right,” Ariel observed. “You’re idiots.”

“Come on!” Gabriel barked, spinning and bolting for the door.

“You cannot just run out there without a plan,” Ashaele said firmly, coming after him with a swiftness which did nothing to diminish the smoothness of her glide.

“I don’t intend to, ma’am,” he said. The Matriarch actually pushed ahead of Toby and Juniper, following him outside. Gabriel bounded down from the town hall’s steps, put two fingers to his lips, and whistled.

Several nearby townsfolk yelped and dashed away at the explosion of smoke and shadow which erupted from the ground in the middle of the street. Whisper lunged out, prancing to a stop near Gabriel and pawing one of her invisible hooves at the ground in eagerness.

“It’s not a complex plan,” Gabriel continued, placing a hand on his steed’s neck, “but it’ll work. I need to go after them. I have the fastest mount, my valkyries can conduct a search pattern at very high speed, which’ll be the most reliable way of finding the girls, and I’m hardly defenseless. Nobody else has the same combination of advantages.”

“I see your point,” Ashaele acknowledged, though not without a faint frown.

“I can still help,” Teal disagreed, stepping out of the town hall. “Vadrieny is faster than Whisper, and there’s not a thing the Sleeper can do to us. Let’s be realistic, Gabe, we don’t know if you being a half-demon has any effect on that curse. What if you get sleeped out there on the prairie? We’d never find you.”

“Keep in mind I’m the Hand of a god,” he said with a grim little smile, nodding at Toby. “Trissiny clued us in about this, remember? You do something magical enough to a Hand, particularly if it’s demonic in nature, and you’re begging for their patron’s direct attention. We can only hope the Sleeper’s dumb enough to want a face-to-face chat with Vidius. I kinda doubt he is.”

“Gabriel is correct,” said Ashaele, placing a hand on Teal’s shoulder. “He is the best suited for this. And while you are also correct, daughter, there are other factors to consider. The town is still in immediate danger, and Vadrieny is one of our most potent combat assets. There are more people than your friends who will need protection; he can help two, but it will take every pair of hands we have to look after the whole town.”

“I’ll be quick as I can,” Gabe said with a roguish grin, then took a step back from Whisper, got a brief running start, and vaulted onto her back.

He landed awkwardly and she whinnied in protest, prancing and pivoting about to give him a reproachful look. Gabe yelped, snatching ineffectually at her mane as he tumbled off the other side.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Ariel, “he remembered to mount from the left. Believe it or not, this represents marked progress in the Hand of Vidius’s horsemanship.”

Standing in the door of the town hall, Fedora folded his arms and heaved a sigh. “Ohh, yeah. We’re all boned.”

 

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12 – 43

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Midmorning was a fairly busy time in Last Rock, so there were enough onlookers in the square to form a decent-sized crowd when the Rail caravan eased to a halt next to the platform. The town wasn’t a scheduled stop, so any Rail traffic was specially chartered—which meant the arrival of a caravan always heralded something interesting about to happen. It was fortunate that no one had had any forewarning, or most of the town would have shown up to gawk.

The caravan’s doors hissed open in unison, and showing no sign of the disorientation Rail travelers usually did, armed drow streamed out onto the platform. There were a few muted outcries from the bystanders, and a couple even reached for wands, but luckily everyone present had the sense not to act in rash haste.

The soldiers wore silk tunics under armor of scaled lizard-hide and plates that seemed formed of some kind of chitin, all of it close-fitting and dyed shades of red and green so dark that only under the prairie sun did they show any color to speak of; at night they would have simply looked black to human eyes. Each soldier carried a saber sheathed at the waist, and wore a wide-brimmed hat to shield their eyes from the sunlight. They took up positions clearly delineating a space adjacent to the parked caravan and stood at attention, putting their hands nowhere near their weapons and not acknowledging the townspeople.

A second wave disembarked, this consisting of four women in robes of the same red and green, these adorned with light gray sashes from the right shoulder to left hip, affixed by silver pins in the shape of Themynra’s balance scale emblem. Their robes had attached hoods to shield their eyes rather than hats. Showing no more sign of discomfiture from the ride than the troops had, the priestesses arranged themselves in an inner ring, with somewhat more casual postures, focusing their attention on the caravan rather than the growing crowd of locals.

Finally, two women emerged from the last compartment.

One wore robes with embroidery in House Awarrion colors, with a saber hanging at her waist—not a Narisian model, but one with a gold crosshilt and ivory handle—and a Punaji-style hat protecting her face, complete with colorful feathers. She stepped forward, glanced quickly around the square, then turned and bowed to the last person to disembark.

Matriarch Ashaele was dressed simply, in a plain robe of green with red trim. She had no head covering at all, leaving her snowy hair practically luminous in the sun. Even her eyes were not narrowed against the glare of the light.

It had been a swift and efficient discharge of personnel, but by the time it was over, an official response had already manifested—having been nearby anyway, as luck would have it. Sheriff Sanders approached slowly, glancing about with a faint frown but taking his cue from the Narisian troops to the extent of keeping his hand well away from his holstered wand.

“Excuse me,” he began.

The woman with the hat intercepted him, bowing politely. “Good morning—you are the Sheriff, I presume?”

“Sam Sanders, at your service,” he replied, seemingly relieved to have somebody to talk to, and doffed his hat respectfully.

“It is a pleasure. I am Nahil nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion. We apologize for descending upon your town so abruptly, and will of course do our utmost to minimize the impact of our presence. My mother has business with the University, but while she attends to that, perhaps you could help me arrange facilities for our stay?”

Nahil deftly took him by the arm, turning and steering him back toward the town. At her movement, one of the priestesses followed, and four soldiers slipped out of formation to arrange themselves around her and the Sheriff in a clear honor guard, the rest of the squad neatly rearranging themselves surrounding their matriarch.

“Uh, sure, I’d be glad to help,” Sanders said a little uncertainly as he was skillfully handled, turning to glance back over his shoulder at the Rail platform. “Um, exactly how long are you gonna be in town? There ain’t a whole lot o’ room…”

“For the time being, we must…what is that expression? Play it by ear. I am very eager to speak with more plains dwellers, Sheriff; my Tanglish is decent, I believe, but there is such poetry in the prairie dialect! Tell me, what exactly is a ‘pig in a poke?’”

The rest of the drow started forward, moving in perfect sync with Ashaele as she made a beeline for the mountain—a path which would inevitably take them right through the center of the town.

In the shadows of the porch in front of the Ale & Wenches, one man started to step out into the sunlight, and was suddenly halted by a huge hand upon his shoulder.

“Wilson,” Ox rumbled, “don’t you even damn well think about it.”

“I wasn’t thinkin’ about nothin’!” Wilson protested with an air of wounded innocence.

“That’s pretty much the whole problem with your entire life. You stay the hell away from exotic guests ’till we figure out if they’re bringin’ commerce or trouble, an’ maybe even then. Clear?”

“You’re not the boss o’ me, Ox Whipporwill!”

“That’s the plain truth, an’ a point for which I’m downright grateful.” Ox’s bushy mustache shifted, the only sign on his face of a smile which did not touch his eyes. “How’s about we make sure it stays that way? By you not doin’ anything that’ll get your ass thrown in a cell for once.”

The two men were well within the range of elven hearing, but none of the Narisians acknowledged them, or any of the other conversations taking place nearby. At that moment, anyway, they had a more immediate distraction which demanded a response.

The drow reacted swiftly to the appearance of Professor Tellwyrn in the middle of their formation, right in front of the matriarch, by whirling toward her and bringing up weapons. They froze mid-swing at a slight movement of Ashaele’s hand. Tellwyrn, for her part, gave no sign that she had even noticed them.

“Matriarch,” she said gravely. “I suppose we can dispense with some of the pleasantries. I will of course take you to her. At the very least, I can bring you directly—”

“Thank you, Professor, but I prefer to walk,” said Ashaele, suiting the words with action. She resumed her even pace forward, forcing Tellwyrn to either step aside or be collided with. The soldiers re-formed their ring about them, those closest to the Professor now keeping eyes on her and hands on hilts.

“I of all people respect the value of pride,” said Tellwyrn, falling into step beside Ashaele, “but also of reason. I know you are unaccustomed to climbing mountains in this heat, Ashaele. Let me help; it’s the least I can do.”

“Well, this is already going better than our last conversation,” Ashaele said calmly. “Perhaps you should abysmally fail to safeguard your charges more often, Arachne, if that is what it takes to squeeze a drop of respect from you.”

Tellwyrn simply looked at her, sidelong, wearing a lack of expression that would have done a Narisian proud. By the time they passed from the square into Last Rock’s main thoroughfare, she had returned her gaze forward. They continued on in a chilly silence which belied the prairie sunshine.


“These are—”

“I recognize everyone,” Ashaele said smoothly, interrupting Tellwyrn’s introduction as they drew to a halt outside the chapel. At some signal from her, too subtle to be noticed by anyone not looking for it, the priestesses and honor guard had shifted formation to proceed behind her, so that none stood between her and the chapel, and those now clustered outside it. “Most I’ve not met, but Shaeine greatly values her friendships, and has spoken at length of each of you.”

Toby and Gabriel bowed to her; Ruda swept off her hat, simply nodding respectfully. Scorn and Juniper glanced uncertainly at them, while Fross just hovered, showing none of her usual frenetic movement.

Teal stood slightly apart from the others, face impassive. She was pale, and her eyes visibly reddened within dark pits that told of sleeplessness, but at this moment at least, she carried a reserve that would have done any Narisian proud.

“They’re a good group, all things considered,” said Tellwyrn, folding her arms. “Actually, this is the first time I’ve found any of them skipping classes. Under the circumstances, I’m inclined to let it slide.”

Ashaele simply looked at her, a hair too long for it to qualify as a glance, and then proceeded forward toward the doors. The students shifted out of her way, Juniper after a moment’s awkward hesitation.

“I would like to see my daughter in privacy,” she said calmly.

“Of course,” Tellwyrn replied. “The chapel’s wards ensure that even for elvish ears. Back away, children, this is not a show.”

“I, uh…ma’am…” Gabriel trailed off, swallowing painfully. Ashaele paused on the chapel steps, then reached out and touched his shoulder for a bare instant. He gulped again and shuffled back, giving her another bow.

“Teal,” said the matriarch, “accompany me.”

“Teal,” said Tellwyrn quickly, “you don’t have to do anything you don’t feel is necessary.”

“I realize, Professor, that diplomacy is far from your strongest skill,” Ashaele said quietly, standing on the top step and staring at the closed doors, “so I shall assume that was not deliberate. To give you the benefit of my own expertise, insinuating that I might harm one of your students is an insult.” Slowly, she turned to fix an impassive gaze on Tellwyrn. “One which a person in your position would be well advised to avoid.”

“It’s all right, Professor,” Teal said softly.

Tellwyrn glanced between her and Ashaele, nose twitching once, then shook her head. “As you will. I’ll be right out here, Teal.”

Ashaele turned her back.

Teal slipped forward and unlatched the door, giving it a push, then stepped back to bow the matriarch through. Ashaele slipped into the dimness of the chapel without another word, and Teal followed, pausing only to close the door behind them.


The campus chapel was laid out like a standard prairie church, though built of stone rather than the planks which were more common, and devoid of Universal Church iconography. Even the gods were represented only as figures in the stained glass windows, with none of their sigils displayed. There was no choir loft and only a low dais with no pulpit; no preaching was done here, the space being used only by students for individual prayers and meditations. It was kept dim as a rule, the fairy lamps left dark to allow the colored illumination of sunlight through the stained windows, contributing to its peaceful atmosphere.

At the moment, the pews had been moved and rearranged, pairs positioned face-to-face and with deep cushions added to form impromptu beds, on which lay the students suffering the Sleeper’s curse. Each had been carefully tucked in with thick handmade quilts donated by the citizens of Last Rock.

Ashaele paced quietly down the center aisle. She gave a bare glance to the profusion of flowers and trinkets piled around Ravana, and paused only momentarily to look down on Natchua, remaining otherwise focused on her destination. In only seconds, she stood beside the bed of pews on which Shaeine lay.

The matriarch stood, her back to the entrance, beside which Teal stood like a guardian. She bent slightly to lay her fingertips against Shaeine’s cheek. The curse was thorough and the sleep profound; only to an elf was the victims’ breath audible.

For a long moment, there was silence.

“Please explain how you allowed this to happen.”

Teal’s flinch was only the barest twitch of her left eye, which Ashaele could not see, with her back to the door. Vadrieny’s outrage howled within her, though. It quickly subsided at Teal’s silent plea.

“The campus was under widespread attack,” she answered quietly, her voice slightly raspy from fatigue and long hours of crying. “The Sleeper targeted multiple groups of students, including Shaeine and I. We were with three others, including Szith. Demons attempted to herd us into a trap, but Shaeine formed a plan to outmaneuver them. We entered the music building, which to the Sleeper should have been a dead end, but she led us to the roof and had Iris—a classmate who’s a witch—form a ladder of vines to escape down the back, and directed Vadrieny and I to counter-attack the demons and prevent them from observing her ploy. It…nearly worked. Shaeine insisted on being the last one down. The others escaped as she planned. We…Vadrieny and I…returned to help, and found her asleep on the rooftop. Unresponsive.” She paused to swallow heavily against the lump forming in her throat. “Just like the others. The Sleeper outmaneuvered us.”

Ashaele gazed down at her daughter in silence. After a pause, Teal opened her mouth to speak again, but the matriarch’s soft voice cut her off.

“When Shaeine brought you to visit us, Teal, I was favorably impressed. As an applicant to join House Awarrion, you presented yourself quite well.”

“For a human,” Teal finished softly, too tired even to sound resentful.

“For anyone.” A faint edge appeared in Ashaele’s tone—borderline inappropriate for any Narisian, but a matriarch could get away with a lot. She straightened and turned her head to put her face in profile from the door, regarding Teal sidelong. “I would not diminish the strength or prestige of my House by holding any prospective member to a relaxed standard. For House Awarrion, in the current political climate, a human as my daughter’s consort would be a curiosity, but a prestigious one. A Tiraan-trained bard, too, would bring us great prestige. Vadrieny also represents a tremendous asset—even if, as you insist, she does not fight aggressively. Nor do we, as diplomats, but I’m sure the utility of an ambassador who is functionally impervious to harm or imprisonment is plain. Your own status and education make you an asset, as well. Such a union between my House and Falconer Industries would be potentially bumpy, there being no precedent for such a thing, but in most possible outcomes, greatly advantageous for both. Even in your ignorance of our culture and customs, I see favorable potential. You showed me a greater willingness to learn than even most Imperial diplomats, and your unfamiliarity represents a useful…malleability. Potential that I could shape in a direction of my choosing. And…” She shifted again, to resume gazing down at Shaeine. “My duty as matriarch supersedes my duty as a mother, but the fact that my daughter adores you is hardly insignificant. If for no other reason than that Shaeine, from her earliest years, has always been a gifted judge of character.”

She turned fully around, folding her hands and gazing at Teal.

“For all that, only one concern has led me to reserve judgment. One which weighs more heavily on me as a mother than a matriarch, but is not without importance to both. There is you: first and sole daughter of a greatly powerful family, famous and wealthy beyond the imagining of most Narisian nobility, coupled with a nigh-unstoppable power in the form of your demon counterpart. And there is Shaeine: a third daughter, in practical terms a spare. Heral and Nahil both have daughters of their own, securing the matriarchal line against my own death, and are both groomed for the necessary administrative positions in the House. Shaeine, before it was decided that she should come here, was to be a House priestess—a minor position for one of her hereditary rank. Were your family another House of Tar’naris, Teal, in the union between you, it would be she who went to live with your family, answerable to your mother. Subordinate to you.”

“The comparison…isn’t exact,” Teal said after a moment.

“I am well aware. But politics aside, there remains the fact that the force you represent overshadows her. As a mother, I do not wish to see my child trailing passively in anyone’s footsteps. As matriarch, with responsibility both to the health of House Awarrion and the diplomatic interests of Tar’naris, I must be wary of setting a precedent in drow/human relations which will not serve our interests. All this has made me leery of this union. But this.” She shifted her head infinitesimally, its faint tilt to the right indicating curiosity. “What you tell me now…strongly implies that between the two of you—between the three of you, in fact—Shaeine is the dominant personality.”

Teal stared at her, blinking twice, gathering her thoughts before replying. “Matriarch… I’m a bard. And Vadrieny…in her own words, is more weapon than warrior. Something of a blunt instrument. Shaeine and I don’t think or relate in terms of dominance. But in most regards… She is the one with the political education, with the experience. And, I have to say, a personality with more innate wisdom. Vadrieny and I have both become comfortable following her lead. The dynamic between us feels natural. And it’s served us very well.” She hesitated, then swallowed again. “Until…very recently.”

Teal drew in a deep breath and lowered her eyes, her fists bunching slowly at her sides despite her efforts to cling to what she could manage of Narisian reserve. Vadrieny’s barely-contained rage and agony pulsed within her, fury feeding on fury in a cycle that grew ever harder to control.

“The Sleeper is a student here. They have to be. It’s a small campus and a small community; this is someone who knows us. Someone who’s observed us and has a grasp of how Shaeine and I relate. This wasn’t an accident or an attack of opportunity, this was very carefully planned. You asked how this happened: it was done by someone who understands our relationship, and used it to get to Shaeine.” She drew in a long breath through her teeth, which elongated subtly as she did so. Her hands un-clenched, lengthening into ebon claws, and sparks of fire danced behind her eyes. “The Sleeper is not going to get away with this much longer. Tellwyrn is closing in on them. Others are getting involved, including the Empire. No warlock can escape this kind of pursuit for long. And when we know who has done this, I am going to personally tear them into small pieces and make them eat each one.”

She broke off, squeezing her eyes shut. Despite Vadrieny’s presence flickering through, the words had been entirely her own. The archdemon’s consciousness flowed around her, clutching her for comfort against the pain, even as their anger resonated.

Caught in her inner battle, Teal hadn’t heard Ashaele move, and when the matriarch’s arms slipped around her, the shock brought her inner battle to a standstill, even Vadrieny freezing in confusion. Claws and fangs vanished, leaving Teal physically herself again.

Ashaele held her close, pressing Teal’s face gently into her shoulder with the hand cradling the back of her head.

“As matriarch, I recognize this union. You are consort to my own blood, welcomed by House Awarrion as its own. We embrace you, daughter.”

She gave Teal a final, gentle squeeze, then pulled back to hold her by the shoulders and study her face. In the interim, it was as if Ashaele’s own expression had come alive, showing finally her own weariness, her worry, and despite that, a warm smile.

“How are you, Teal?” she asked gently, with open care and concern.

Teal could only stare up at her for a moment. “Um. Aside from the obvious?” She glanced past Ashaele’s shoulder, at Shaeine’s bed of pews, then back to her face. “…confused.”

The drow’s expression shifted toward wryness. “I see. Shaeine has been coaching you in our customs, or so she told me. I trust you do understand the significance of formal adoption into the House? This is the closest parallel we have to your custom of marriage.”

“Ah, yes, that we discussed. In fact, it was one of the first things she taught me,” Teal added, a faint flush rising in her cheeks. “But it takes more than a year to absorb an entire culture.”

“Quite.” Ashaele nodded and stepped back, gently taking one of Teal’s hands and leading her up the aisle, toward Shaeine’s sleeping form. “I presume she has taught you things as she thought of them, or as they came up—it’s understandable that this one might not have occurred to her yet. It isn’t commonly invoked, but it is traditional for courting couples to have their adoption expedited in the case of a sudden…bereavement. Death, illness, injury, even imprisonment. Provided the matriarch in question had no specific objection to the union, in most such cases she would acknowledge the loved one immediately. It is a way to help build and strengthen bonds throughout our society, as well as serving the individual adopted by providing the comfort of family—and the protection of House—at a time when such is most necessary.”

“I…see,” Teal said slowly. Ashaele squeezed her hand once, then pulled her closer and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. After a moment of stiffness, she relaxed against the taller woman. A moment longer, and even Vadrieny calmed in the embrace. “I will do my utmost not to disappoint you.”

“I have little worry about that, Teal,” she said without hesitation. “I was quite frank with you; from our first meeting, I judged you a suitable mate for Shaeine, if a surprising choice. Now that I understand your situation a bit better, my last lingering concern is assuaged. This is the right thing for us all, and I’ve no doubt you will be an asset to our House. But with that established, regarding your threat toward the Sleeper.” She squeezed Teal gently, rubbing her shoulder. “You will do no such thing. In this matter I am speaking to you as both mother and matriarch, and I expect to be obeyed.”

Teal froze. “I—but…”

“You are part of a drow House, now. You know very well we are not savages, Teal. Vindictive we are indeed—but in the proper way. This is about more than you and Shaeine and the Sleeper, more than her other victims and Tellwyrn. This is a clash between civilization and barbarism. I have studied Tellwyrn’s explanation of these events closely, and this Sleeper’s motivations are obvious to me. She is a young fool with unearned power, blindly asserting it. The Sleeper represents an idea: that the strong dominate the weak simply by virtue of their strength. That she is allowed to do what she will to others simply because she is able to. This is the opposite of the purpose of all civilization, Teal. If you catch and kill her, you eliminate one threat, but you grant her the moral victory.”

“I…forgive me, mat—mother. I can’t find it in me to be concerned with moral victories right now.”

Ashaele pulled her even closer, leaning her own head against Teal’s. “Be concerned with them, daughter. They are what define you. Aren’t you the girl who tamed an archdemon through the power of love? Don’t rush to an action that will plague your dreams forever, Teal. Besides, there are greater things at stake than our feelings. We must not simply strike down the Sleeper. We will apprehend, try, convict, and duly punish her. She will be dragged before the gaze and the full force of civilization, and made to acknowledge her own impotence and insignificance against it, before being crushed beneath its heel. That is justice, distinct from retaliation. These are the principles to which Shaeine has dedicated her life. We will give her no cause to be ashamed of us when she wakes.”

She moved her arm, taking Teal’s hand and into the improvised bed, laying it atop Shaeine’s own hands, which were folded at her breast. Both of them gently twined their fingers about the sleeping girl’s.

“And I,” Ashaele finished in deadly quiet, “will settle for no lesser revenge.”

After a silent moment, Teal leaned into her again, and once again, Ashaele rested her temple against the crown of her head.

“Yes, mother.”

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Bonus #3: Hero

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There were few spectacles so glorious as the coronation of the new Emperor of Tiraas. The world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, as was the nature of human nations in general, deemed it necessary to create as much pomp and splendor as its fathomless resources could arrange. To be fair, most of the common run of people just enjoyed having a reason to hold a party, and the three weeks of celebrations were probably the best party they would ever experience. Ashaele, though, had less sympathy for the organizers of this self-important spectacle of waste; the resources spent on food, decorations, costumes, servants and innumerable other displays would have sustained her city for years. She had very much enjoyed the fireworks, however. That was like nothing she had ever expected to see.

In its second week, now, they were nearing the halfway point of the festivities. The new Emperor, Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian, had been crowned and subsequently married in what was just barely two separate ceremonies. Ashaele did her best to follow the events as they unfolded, but the need to maintain her cover prevented her from gathering as much information as she would like, and the politics of the situation were doubtless immensely complex, and mostly over her head.

This particular ceremony was an actual Tiraan tradition, rather than a shallow display of wealth as so much of the last week had been: On the day after his coronation, the Emperor held court from dawn to dusk, and could be approached and petitioned directly by anyone. A thousand years ago when Tiraas had been a single city-state, the ceremony had likely been much more significant. Now, the line of people stretching out from the Palace and into Imperial Square were entirely of individuals whose presence here had been pre-approved by Imperial functionaries weeks ago. A commendable effort had been made to include a fair mix of commoners, foreigners and representatives of all classes and walks of life, but even so the nobility were much more heavily represented here than among the general population.

Whatever else it was, it was a day-long ceremony, and it was nearing noon; everyone was already tired, bored and thoroughly sick of the whole thing, and desperately struggling not to show it. The boy Emperor had made a heroic effort since taking his seat in the Silver Throne this morning to attend every citizen who approached him with care and sincerity, but even he was visibly weary by this point. Beside him on her own smaller throne, his young wife had started the day looking aloof at best, and by this point seemed severely annoyed. The people in the line were drooping; the countless courtiers packed into the sides of the great throne chamber were mostly half-asleep on their feet, a surly, drowsy sea of finery and painful-looking fixed smiles. Only the guards and the several black-coated Hands of the Emperor in the room were still alert. Even the official who had the honor of calling forth and announcing each new petitioner was drifting. He had flubbed two names and once let a moment of awkward silence stretch out before realizing it was time to bring up the next person.

Her moment was coming soon. There wouldn’t be a better.

Ashaele had long since carefully forced her way to the front of the crowd, and now was positioned a mere few yards from the foot of the steps up to the Emperor’s dais. Feeling so exposed did her nerves no favors, but it had been a necessary preparation; had she bulled her way out of the thick of the crowd, the disturbance would have been spotted immediately and guards would have been on her before she got anywhere near the Emperor. Guards and, terrifyingly, one of those unsmiling Hands had fixed their glares on her when she first pushed to the front, but by this point they had dismissed her as another position-jockeying dignitary and gone back to scanning the crowd.

Her attire was a hodgepodge of Punaji and Onkawi styles, with elvish touches and some completely random additions that served to conceal her as much as possible. She wore a heavy greatcoat with a ceremonial hooded shawl over that, complete with silken scarf that concealed her lower face. Her eyes and hairline were exposed, but they were altered by magic. The efficacy of the disguise was in its reliance on mundane measures; the less skin she revealed, the less would have to be concealed by charms, and it was vital to keep the charm work to a minimum. Plenty of noblewomen in Tiraas used minor enchantments to tweak their appearances, but anyone walking into an Imperial audience with enough magic on them to completely alter their appearance would have been set upon by wizards immediately.

Naturally, the costume caused her all sorts of anxiety. So far her hope that the aristocrats pressing in on her from all sides would dismiss her mismatched appearance as a miscellaneous foreigner had been realized… But all it would take was one astute member of the diplomatic corps to realize the woman in the greatcoat, shawl and mask had cobbled together the most concealing features of traditional costumes that by themselves wouldn’t have hidden half so much.

Also, with her own ceremonial robes underneath, it was insufferably hot.

It would all be worth it if she were successful.

Ashaele forced herself not to peer around the room as the man kneeling just a few feet from her droned on about agricultural quotas in the frontier provinces. She held herself as still as possible, avoiding any action that would draw attention. It was enough to know that her allies were in the crowd. She had brought three friends from House An’sadarr to observe and report back to the Queen if her mission went awry. They were individuals she trusted; members of her own House would have been better for several reasons, but if it came down to it, any of them would have tried to protect her if she failed, and inevitably ended up sharing her fate. The An’sadarrs were reliable precisely because they would leave her behind. It wasn’t that her people lacked discipline or obedience, but the military House’s famous dedication to the mission at hand was, in this case, much more useful than the personal loyalty her family would have shown.

“I appreciate your concerns, Master Tethloss,” the Emperor said when the kneeling man paused to draw breath. It was very nearly an interruption, but it was becoming clear that he was not about to stop speaking any time soon. “Understand, though, that your perspective is only that: your own. I must be responsible for the economy as a whole. To intervene at one level would have repercussions well beyond what you intend. In my judgment this is not the time or the proper place for dramatic action. However, your concerns are valid, and you have my word that I will consider them and consult with my advisers. Perhaps the Throne can and should exert some influence.”

Tethloss looked far from happy, but he managed a suitably obsequious thanks, bowing as he backed away. Ashaele was less concerned with him than with Sharidan. This answer was consistent with the rest of his performance today. He was intelligent; he cared for the welfare of his people. It boded well for her plans.

The seneschal was watching Tethloss’s departure impatiently; the disgruntled petitioner was in no hurry to yield the floor, and still partially blocked the path of the next in line. Around the room, assembled nobles rustled in the lull, fanning themselves and whispering to one another. The Emperor sat back in his chair, indulging in a barely perceptible sigh. For a precious moment, everyone was distracted, everything paused.

Now. Now!

Ashaele grabbed a fistful of her mask and shawl, ripping them to the side, and shrugging out of her greatcoat in the same motion. They fell to lie puddled on the marble mosaic floor. Her illusions, having been attached to the clothes rather than herself, vanished with them. Somnolent and irritable as they were, it was a dramatic enough move that she gathered immediate attention, and screams rang out, spreading like wildfire. Nobles devolved into a pushing panic to escape the drow suddenly in their midst.

Ashaele crossed the floor in long, smooth strides, turning to face the Throne, and sank to one knee, bowing her head before the Emperor. That was as much as she managed before being seized by both arms. Guards roughly kicked her legs out from under her; a staff was thrust directly under her chin, humming with an active charge just waiting to be released. Her hair and the collar of her robes lifted in response to the static. She offered no resistance. Everywhere there was shouting, Imperial guards yelling contradictory orders and imprecations, onlookers screaming.

She permitted herself a small, fatalistic sigh. Too slow… She would be sad not to see her children again. Heral would lead House Awarrion well, however. It had been worth the effort; if she had succeeded, everything would have changed.

“HOLD.”

The acoustics of the room were carefully designed to maximize the voice of whoever sat on the Throne. Sharidan now stood in front of it; his order boomed through the massive hall, causing a sudden lull in the activity. The hands pulling at Ashaele from every direction stilled, though they did not relax their grip.

“Stand down,” the Emperor commanded. “Release her.”

The guards glanced at each other uncertainly, and at the dark elf kneeling placidly in their grip. One wearing a captain’s insignia cleared his throat. “Your Majesty—”

He broke off as Eleanora surged to her feet. The Empress stepped forward to lay a hand on her husband’s arm, staring down at them with icy fury.

“Your Emperor,” she said, her voice promising merciless death, “has spoken.”

They hesitated a fraction of a moment longer, and then Ashaele was released. She staggered inevitably, barely catching herself, but quickly resumed her position on one knee, surreptitiously smoothing down her hair and disturbed garments. The guards eased backward, but not so far that she failed to see the assortment of swords, wands and staves aimed at her, even with her eyes lowered.

“Lady, you have the apologies of the Tiraan Empire and of House Tirasian for this ill treatment,” the Emperor said. “My men are zealous in their protection of me, and your appearance was…rather startling.”

“Your soldiers’ zeal and loyalty is a credit to their master,” Ashaele replied. “It is I who should apologize, your Excellency, for intruding in this way. I regret that I failed to find a more polite way to gain an audience.”

“Then perhaps we can put these misunderstandings behind us,” said Sharidan, slowly sinking back onto the Silver Throne. His wife remained standing, though she stepped back to place herself slightly behind him, one hand on his shoulder; she stared down at Ashaele through narrowed eyes. “I gather you have come to observe Tiraan custom? Anyone may ask a boon of the Emperor today.”

“If it pleases your Excellency, yes,” she replied. “I am Ashaele nur Tamashi zae Awarrion, matriarch of House Awarrion of Tar’naris, most humbly at your service.”

The general volume of whispers echoing around the room increased slightly, then faded as Eleanora lifted her gaze from the kneeling drow to pan a glare around the chamber. Sharidan regarded her in thoughtful silence for a moment.

“I have heard,” he said at last, “that matriarchs of the drow Houses kneel to no one, even their Queen.”

“That is correct, your Excellency,” Ashaele replied. “We do not lack respect for Her Majesty, but such obeisance is not our custom.”

“Then it shall not be asked of you here,” he said firmly. “Please, stand. Be at ease; you are welcome here.”

The whispers started anew; Ashaele rose smoothly to her feet and raised her head, letting them wash over her. Hope soared in her chest. This was going better than she had dared hope. A brief manhandling by a few guards was the tiniest price to pay if this man listened to her.

“I must clarify that I do not speak for Tar’naris. I have come of my own volition, and not on the orders or permission of my Queen.”

“Then, for the time being, you shall be the guest of the Imperial Palace,” the Emperor replied, causing another stir. “Now, you have surely not come all this way for small talk. What can Tiraas do for you, Lady Ashaele?”

“Your Excellency,” she said, bowing, “I most humbly and respectfully beg, as a citizen who loves her people and her state, that the Tiraan Empire extend diplomatic contact to Tar’naris toward the goal of normalizing relations between our two great societies.”

This time there was an outcry, quickly rising to such chaos that the last part of her sentence was all but inaudible. Luckily it had ended on a fluff of diplomatic flattery; the important part of her request had been clearly heard. The noise was so pervasive that she couldn’t identify many individual threads…except for the few loudest shouts, which were almost universally imprecations. She did hope her Narisian allies were managing to remain hidden. There would be no end of trouble if somebody stumbled upon one of them right now.

“Silence.” Empress Eleanora’s voice cracked like a whip. The crowd obeyed her, though perhaps not as instantly or completely as she would have liked; they did, at least, trail off to a constant undercurrent of murmurs. She swept another baleful stare around the room before turning it on Ashaele. “It is curious, lady, that such a request comes from one who takes pains to assure us that she does not speak on behalf of her government.”

“Nations have their pride, as do their rulers,” Ashaele replied smoothly. “The exchanges over the last decades between Narisian scouts and the Imperial forces at Fort Vaspian have decisively demonstrated that Tiraas is militarily superior. For Queen Arkasia to extend a request for peace at this time would be for her to sacrifice face—a thing I do not wish to see. The Silver Throne, being in the dominant position, does not suffer this drawback. An overture from Tiraas would be an offering, not a plea.”

“This verges on flattery,” Eleanora said sharply. Sharidan glanced up at her, then returned his gaze to Ashaele, his expression neutral. He seemed content, for the moment, to let his wife speak, despite the fact that she had been mostly silent through most of the day’s ceremony. How interesting that he deferred to her now that there were hard questions to ask… Ashaele’s finely tuned political mind immediately sussed out the implications. Oh, these two were very clever. They were likely to make a most effective team. “The entire history of human relations with Tar’naris,” the Empress went on, “with any drow, has consisted of your people raiding ours. Stealing, destroying, and enslaving. Today of all days your request will be considered with all due weight, but do not think we fail to see the context. No drow has attempted to approach us until we held a decisive advantage.”

“It is not my intention to explain or excuse history,” Ashaele said calmly. “It is relevant, however, to consider history, as your Excellency has said. Nations and peoples act in a manner that they believe is justified; Tiraas has assuredly considered itself justified in its systematic conquest of this continent.” Another rumble rose around her at this, but she pressed on. “I humbly call to your Excellencies’ attention the manner of this conquest: Tiraas has enjoyed such success in part because it exercised military force only in the absence of better options, in keeping with Avei’s doctrines of war. Nations that have joined you voluntarily have historically become your most prosperous provinces.”

“You are offering submission and absorption into the Empire, then?” Eleanora asked, her tone deceptively mild, now.

“No,” Ashaele said evenly. “Even were it within my authority to offer, you shall not have that. Nor is it the only prospect suggested by history. Tiraas has very productive relationships with the Punaji and Tidestrider nations, which remain independent but tightly linked to the Empire.”

“Both play a vital role in securing our borders,” the Empress shot back. “With respect, Tar’naris is hardly positioned to offer such a service.”

“With respect,” Ashaele replied, her voice soft, “with the greatest respect, you are deeply mistaken. Tar’naris must guard its gates on two fronts. You can scarcely imagine the horrors of the true Underworld. Your forces could hold it back, now…perhaps. Thousands of years of the effort and spilled blood of my people has bought your society the luxury of developing to this point.”

Another rustle began to swell in the chamber, but it quickly died as the Emperor held up one hand for silence. He leaned forward on the throne, staring intently down at Ashaele.

“For obvious reasons, we don’t get the freshest reports from beyond Tar’naris,” he said, “but in fact I do know something of what lurks in the Deep Dark. For that reason, and the others you have raised, your request is… Interesting.”

Everyone stared at him with baited breath now, Ashaele perhaps most of all. He leaned back against the Throne, glancing up at Eleanora. She met his eyes momentarily, and a silent exchange seemed to pass between them. For having been married only a day, they seemed to share a significant bond.

“Lady Ashaele,” he said in the tone of a pronouncement, “as it seems we cannot host you as befits an ambassador, you shall, as I have said, be our personal guest for the remainder of the Coronation, during which time the Throne’s focus is and must be largely inward. After that, we shall furnish you a suitable escort back to Tar’naris.” She tensed, barely, in spite of herself; all around her, whispers swelled anew. “If you will kindly do us this service, Tiraas will thank you to escort our ambassadors to your Queen.”

The crowd truly erupted again, but was swiftly silenced by the Empress’s roared threat to have the great hall cleared.

Ashaele felt the tension drain from her for what had to be the first time in weeks. She bowed deeply. “Your Excellency, it shall be my honor.”


“Ugh, I can’t believe you’re reading that. It’s in Tanglish. Have you run out of domestic books completely?”

Shaeine lifted her head to scowl at her grinning sister. “This is an account of Mother’s first journey to Tiraas,” she said pointedly. “A little respect would be appropriate.”

“Oh, come on,” Nahil said despairingly. “How many times have you read that story? You probably know it better than she does at this point.”

“Yes, but those are the Narisian accounts,” she shot back. “This is a novelization by a Tiraan bard.”

“Really?” Heral asked, her mild tone a contrast to Nahil’s aggressive ribbing. “Do they portray her with horns and shooting fire from her eyes?”

“In fact she is treated very respectfully,” Shaeine said stiffly. “Heroically, even. There’s some fudging of the facts, of course, for drama’s sake, but I must say that if this is Tiraas’s introduction to Mother… Well, it’s a good one, that’s all.”

“Course it is,” Nahil said cheerfully. “She probably paid to have it written. She doesn’t miss a trick. Sneaky lady, like all good negotiators!”

“Respect, you hooligan!” Shaeine shouted, making as if to throw the book at her.

“All right, you two, behave,” Heral said reprovingly. “I didn’t interrupt your reading and her carousing on a whim, Shaeine. Mother’s in the grand hall with the Queen, the ambassador from Tiraas and that aggravating gold elf. She’s asked for us to attend them.”

“Attend them?” Nahil asked sharply. “Why?”

Heral grimaced. “General purposes.”

Nahil and Shaeine winced. “General purposes” meant standing there looking calm and pretty, and being ready to back Ashaele up should the need arise. “General purposes” meant the meeting was not going well.

Regretfully, Shaeine marked her place and set the book down on her bench, smoothing her hair as she rose. “Best get out there, then.”

“That aggravating gold elf has a name, you know,” Nahil pointed out as the three sisters strode down the hall.

“We know her name,” Shaeine grunted. “Everyone knows her name. I’d rather not pronounce it; I hear that summons her.”

Nahil laughed, but Heral gave her a gently remonstrative look. “You haven’t even met her, little sister.”

“I’d have been extremely content never having met her,” Shaeine muttered, then fell silent as they passed through a door which was held open and then closed behind them by armored House guards. House Awarrion’s residence, in addition to being their home, served as Tar’naris’s universal embassy and the place where negotiations between Narisian Houses were held. By crossing that threshold, they had passed into the palace’s public wing. All emotion faded from the three women’s expressions, and they glided the rest of the way in perfect, silent serenity, public faces firmly in place.

What was now the grand hall had been a series of smaller rooms originally. Upon the renovation of Tar’naris’s caverns using Tiraan enchantment, House Awarrion had knocked down both interior and exterior walls, making a long, tall chamber bordered on one side by archways which led to the House’s new outdoor gardens. Full-sized willow trees speed-grown by the most powerful witchcraft they could import shielded the hall from the glow of the cavern’s sun crystals; the hall, in addition to its beautiful view, was livened by the splashing of fountains and an artificial stream, plus the smell of flowers and greenery. It was also equipped with modern fairy lamps of the highest quality, straight from the factories of Calderaas, and lined with discreet padded benches. At one end stood a huge stone chair on a low dais, on which sat the matriarch of House Awarrion, or, when she was conducting meetings here, Queen Arkasia.

The Queen sat there now. She glanced at the three daughters of the House as they entered, but did not acknowledge them further. Their mother gave them a fleeting little smile, no more than politeness dictated. All three women stopped just inside, bowing to the Queen and then their matriarch, before gliding over to stand behind her.

A small delegation of women in House Dalmiss colors were just departing, leaving Arkasia and the Awarrions alone with two humans and a surface elf who wore gold-rimmed spectacles and a thunderous scowl. Ambassador Conover gave them a nod and a warm smile; his aide, Rashid, bowed much more politely, his expression neutral.

Shaeine rather liked Rashid. Most of the Imperial staff in residence kept to their own customs and trusted diplomatic immunity to gloss over their missteps. Rashid had actually bothered to learn why the Narisians cultivated emotional reserve, and did his best not to inflict his every little feeling on everyone. His efforts were imperfect, of course, but she gave him a great deal of credit for trying. In her opinion, he’d have made a better Ambassador than Conover.

Shaeine did not, as a rule, enjoy the company of humans. True, they were an attractive people, with their powerful physiques, adorable little ears and exotic colorations, but she found them easier to enjoy from a safe distance. They were like children, casually emoting every little feeling that flickered across their minds. It was charming for the first five minutes, then quickly became exhausting, and from there downright offensive. The worst part was that far too many of them just wouldn’t learn.

These two she knew, however, and gave more attention to the other person present. Shaeine had never left Tar’naris, and despite her family’s attempts to establish contact with the surface tribes, none of them had yet deigned to venture below. As such, this was her first sight of an elf from the sun-blasted wastelands above, and she found the sight rather disturbing. Humans were one thing; an elf with human coloring was just…unnatural. The woman had skin like the paler breed of humans, the lightest possible tan with pinkish highlights, hair the color of polished gold and green eyes. It was downright creepy…and all the worse because Arachne Tellwyrn’s reputation preceded her.

“I understand that this is not what you expected, Professor,” Queen Arkasia said calmly.

“That is one way of putting it,” Tellwyrn snapped. Shaeine barely managed not to wince. Just who did this woman think she was, speaking to the Queen in that tone? Of course, it was a silly reaction. Tellwyrn knew exactly who she was.

“I really think it will work out, though,” Lord Conover said brightly. “House Dalmiss oversees agriculture, as I’m sure you know—”

“It was mentioned once or twice,” Tellwyrn said with heavy sarcasm. “Roughly every third sentence, in fact.”

“Yes, well, that’s something they’ll have in common with a lot of Imperial citizens,” Conover pressed on, his good cheer beginning to look a little desperate. “Especially in the Great Plains region around Last Rock. Ambassadors are well and good for dealing with other ambassadors, but the whole point of this program is to begin getting the citizens of Tar’naris and the Empire acclimated to each other. Miss Natchua probably has a lot more in common with most of your students than the average drow. It’s a solid start!”

Tellwyrn tilted her head back, staring at the ceiling as if she expected to find patience there. “Conovor, do you know what kind of school I run? Exactly how many farmers do you think I have enrolled in an average year?”

“House Dalmiss has been more heavily involved with Imperial personnel than most, what with the agricultural projects here,” Rashid said more quietly. “That should give Natchua an advantage.”

“And was this Natchua involved in any way with any of those discussions?” Tellwyrn snapped.

“I’m afraid we don’t know, precisely,” Ashaele said smoothly. “But there is still time for her to meet with embassy personnel and grow acclimated—”

“Do you know who’s already acclimated to humans?” the Professor interrupted. “House Awarrion.”

Shaeine kept her calm, but inwardly she bristled. How dare this ill-mannered woman cut off her mother?

“I’m sure you gleaned the basics of the situation during the introductions,” Queen Arkasia said with total calm. “The reality is that House Dalmiss has amassed considerable favor and influence due to their position and involvement with the cavern renovations. Matriarch Ezrakhai is owed certain concessions, and her protege’s inclusion in the exchange program is her fondest wish.”

“I’m still waiting for someone to explain what that has to do with me.”

“Politics are an inescapable fact of life everywhere,” Ashaele said soothingly. “The Queen’s obligation is first and foremost to the city, and this requires certain accommodations. Surely you can find it in you to be reasonable.” That last came very near to a reprimand; it was a sign that the normally unflappable Ashaele’s patience with this woman was already considerably frayed.

“Reasonable?” Tellwyrn snorted and folded her arms, looking mulish. “I can’t think of a single reason why I should. None of this is my problem, and I don’t appreciate you trying to make it so. I agreed to participate in this program as a favor to both the Empire and your city. This is not something I have any need to do. I went along because, in part, I was promised an Awarrion.” She turned the full force of her glare on Ashaele, and Shaeine was not the only one present who stiffened imperceptibly. “Putting a trained diplomat on my campus is an entirely different matter from some random drow!”

“Natchua d’zun Dalmiss is hardly random,” Arkasia said languidly. “Her matriarch would not have nominated her were she not confident of the girl’s ability to represent her House and Tar’naris well.”

“And what does the matriarch of a House of subterranean farmers know about what makes a good citizen ambassador?” Tellwyrn shot back. “Maybe this Natchua is the perfect bloody candidate; stranger things have happened. But far more likely is she’ll react the way most people do when suddenly immersed in a completely alien culture. She could withdraw completely and piss everybody off acting like the worst caricature of a surly drow… Or she might go native and come back here in four years using Tanglish slang and acting like a dime novel cowboy. The point is, we don’t know. Anyone care to place a bet which of those outcomes would do more damage to your little exchange program?” She set her teeth, staring at the Queen. “I was invited—begged—to participate in this rigamarole because I was offered a student from House Awarrion, whom I could count on to actually promote the peace on my campus.”

“And you shall have one,” said the Queen. “Next year. For the time being, the politics of the situation are what they are. I regret your disappointment.”

“You are not alone in incurring costs,” Ashaele added. “That is the very essence of compromise. I have been grooming a young man for this post as well, and those plans will have to be put off.”

“Well, you sure picked a great time to misplace your backbone, Ashaele,” Tellwyrn said dryly. Shaeine clung to her serenity by a fingernail, unable to stop her body from going rigid with rage. That this creepy blonde lout should speak to her mother in such a manner was absolutely intolerable. “What happened to the daring hero who crept alone into Tiraas to make peace with the savage surface-dwellers?”

“I did that in the service of my Queen and my city, as I do everything,” Ashaele replied, calm as ever. “Just as I do this.”

“I hope you’re happy with your service, then,” the Professor said sardonically. “I can’t help noticing that your ‘compromise’ is nothing but costs on my part, and no benefits. The old diplomacy a little rusty, hmm?”

“Perhaps you could do better, Professor, since you are clearly an expert. There are nearly three whole rules of basic civilized behavior you have managed not to flout in the last five minutes.”

Dead silence fell. Shaeine realized only belatedly that it was she who had spoken. As everyone turned to stare at her, horror welled up in her—to have spoken out of turn like that, to have lost control, and in front of the Queen—but it did not lessen her fury. In fact, if anything, she felt a giddy sense of liberation. Well, the cat was out of the bag now, as the Imperials said. At least she hadn’t lost her serenity.

“I beg your pardon?” said Tellwyrn, her tone and expression suddenly very mild.

“You have it,” Shaeine replied, “though I confess I am puzzled as to the utility of the request. It seems I am the only person present whom you have not personally insulted.”

“Shaeine,” her mother said, very quietly, completely without expression. Oh, yes, she was in trouble now. Well… In for a penny, in for a pound. The Tiraan really did have such pithy colloquialisms.

“And this is another budding diplomat, I take it?” Tellwyrn asked, still in that soft tone.

“Quite so,” Shaeine replied, bowing to her. “It is my pleasure to offer you a remedial instruction in diplomacy: one succeeds in negotiations by showing respect toward the other party’s position while keeping one’s own goals firmly in mind. In this case, the central dilemma seems to be your determination to behave like an undisciplined child despite being in civilized company. I, for my part, would be deeply mortified if I were to go over there and kick you in the midsection. If, however, that will make you more comfortable in our home, it is a sacrifice I am willing to embrace.”

Her pulse pounded in her ears, to the point she was certain the others in the room could hear it. Terror, shame, exhilaration, rage…emotions whirled in her to such an extent that she couldn’t predict which would would shine through if she allowed her calm facade to crack. She clung to it desperately. Already she’d dug herself into an impossible hole; at least she’d go down courteously.

Everyone was staring at her, the drow with appropriate calm, Rashid wide-eyed and struggling for control; Conover gaped like a fish. Tellwyrn’s expression…was an expression, quite unlike the Narisian idea of reserve, but Shaeine couldn’t interpret it.

Tellwyrn turned to Ashaele, pointing a finger at Shaeine. “And…this is…?”

“Shaeine,” the matriarch said, the very picture of serenity. “My youngest daughter.”

“I see.” The Professor grinned slightly, and for some reason dread began to drown out the other emotions fighting for Shaeine’s attention. “Very well, your Majesty, since we were just discussing compromise, I have decided to be reasonable.”

“How lovely,” Arkasia deadpanned.

“I’ll accept your random farmgirl,” Tellwyrn went on, “with the proviso that next year…” She grinned more broadly and again pointed at Shaeine. “I want this one.”

Shaeine’s reserve very nearly faltered. No, no no, absolutely not, anything but that.

“Oh?” the Queen said laconically. “An interesting choice.”

Ashaele stepped back and sideways, placing a hand on Shaeine’s shoulder. It verged on inappropriate display, but rank enabled one to get away with some things. Such a show of overt protectiveness from a matriarch would have warned any drow that they were stepping on dangerous ground indeed. Of course, Tellwyrn probably understood the gesture just as well and didn’t care. “Shaeine is a cleric, not a diplomat by vocation. She is training to serve in the House chapel.”

“Still beats the hell out of a farmer,” the Professor said bluntly. “Don’t give me that look, Ashaele, I am not aiming to punish the girl for speaking out. Quite the opposite; I think she’s absolutely perfect. She’s got spine, spirit, loyalty…and she’s funny. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Narisian with an overt sense of humor that I wasn’t sleeping with. This is what your exchange program needs. Natchua is going to do the gods only know what; a well-trained diplomat will manage, at best, to ward off conflict. Shaeine, though, has a very good chance of making people like her. You want drow and humans to start getting used to each other? She’s the perfect place to begin.”

No, Goddess, please, I don’t want to go to Tiraas…

“That,” Lord Conover said slowly, “makes a great deal of sense. I mean no disrespect to your culture, your Majesty, but the single greatest hurdle we’ve faced in getting our people to work together is that Narisian reserve seems so cold and aloof to Tiraan sensibilities that it comes off as very nearly hostile. Diplomacy and charm may be exactly the ticket.”

“Interesting,” Arkasia mused. “What say you, Shaeine?”

Please, please no!

Shaeine bowed deeply to the Queen, her expression perfectly calm. “I am less than confident of my competence in this matter, your Majesty. As my mother has said, the main thrust of my education has been in Themynra’s worship. If, however, your Majesty deems this a wise course, I shall be honored to serve Tar’naris in whatever way I can.”

“Perhaps it’s for the best,” Conover said, looking positively cheerful now. “She’s got a full year to bone up on diplomatic procedures.” Shaeine felt a sudden, intense urge to slap him off the balcony with a divine shield.

“Matriarch Ashaele, the matter is in your hands,” said the Queen languidly. “I will not command this of you, but I do endorse it as an elegant solution to the present standoff.”

Ashaele’s hand tightened slightly on Shaeine’s shoulder. “I would discuss this matter in privacy with my daughter before making a final decision, your Majesty.”

“Very well. We shall re-convene tomorrow.”

“Some of us don’t have time to take extended vacations down here,” Tellwyrn said sharply. “If this can be settled—”

“No.” Queen Arkasia’s manner was as emotionless as ever, but there was steel beneath it now. “I am well aware that your notion of compromise is to bully everyone until you get your way, Arachne, but you have pushed my patience as far as you will for one day. You are done browbeating my people. We will resume this discussion tomorrow. That is all.”


Shaeine was barely conscious of the walk back into the private part of the palace, clinging to her serenity in an almost fugue-like state. She was dimly aware of her sisters bidding her farewell, and then she was alone with her mother in the matriarch’s chamber.

Ashaele came to a halt in the center of the room, still as a sculpture, her back to her daughter. Shaeine, feeling some of the fog of shock clearing from her mind, took two deep breaths, and then bowed deeply.

“Mother, I humbly apologize for my shameful loss of composure. Hearing that woman speak to you that way… No, that is not an excuse. I will accept whatever punishm—”

All of a sudden she was hauled upright and swept into a fierce embrace. Ashaele squeezed her close, rocking them gently; Shaeine gratefully buried her face in her mother’s shoulder, wrapping her own arms around her waist. They were silent like that for several minutes.

“That can be addressed later,” Ashaele said finally. “First we must deal with the consequences. I don’t know what designs that sun-baked lunatic has on you, but it goes without saying that I am not just handing you over to her.”

“You should, though.”

“Shaeine, I will handle you myself, as I would any member of this House who stepped out of line. Don’t be overeager to punish yourself.”

“That isn’t what I meant.” Carefully, she pulled back, enough that she could lift her chin and look her mother in the eye. “My inclusion in this program will enable it to go forward despite Professor Tellwyrn’s stubbornness. That, then, is what I should do.”

Ashaele’s brow furrowed in consternation. “Is—Shaeine, do you want to go to the University?”

“Of course I don’t want to go!” she burst out, finally letting the repressed panic escape. Tears welled up in her eyes. “I don’t like humans, and the thought of being alone, surrounded by the Empire for four years terrifies me.” Firmly, she forced her breathing back under control, brushing tears from her cheeks. “But… This needs to be done, and I need to do it.”

“Shaeine…”

“You’re my mother,” she said simply, gazing up at her. “But…you’re also my matriarch. And you’re my hero. I’ve only ever done you justice in one of those capacities. Please, Mother, don’t try to protect me from my duty. You didn’t raise a lout who puts her own desires above the needs of Tar’naris. I need to serve.”

Ashaele drew in a slow, long breath; it shuddered on the way back out. She closed her eyes for a moment before opening them again, and gently placed a hand on Shaeine’s cheek. “My dearest little one… I’ve been selfish too. After we lost your father… I was so pleased you were called by Themynra. It meant I could keep you close to me.”

“I would never want to disappoint you,” Shaeine whispered.

“I am not disappointed. Just…” Impulsively, she pulled her daughter forward again into another hug. “You grew up. At some point you went and turned into the woman I hoped you’d be. I just never thought it would hurt so to realize.”

Shaeine nuzzled at her shoulder. “I hope I am. I want to make you proud. I just…need to prove myself.”

“My lovely, you don’t need to earn anything here.”

“I don’t need to earn your love,” she said softly. “I am so grateful for that. But…I do need to earn my place. I am Narisian. I have my duty.”

They were silent for another stretch of minutes. The matter was decided; there was nothing more to say about it.

“I love you so much.”

“I love you too.”

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