Darling’s irritating refusal to show weakness continued all the way up the winding trail that lead east, into the mountains beyond the city. To be sure, the trail they chose wound back and forth up the slope so as not to present an excessive challenge, but it was still a mountain climb; there was a significant vertical component to their trek. Joe’s indefatigable calm did not surprise him, for all that wandfighting didn’t seem like a particularly strenuous skill, at least physically. The Kid was a frontier dweller and had made his mark against many opponents; in any lodge of Shaath’s followers, he would be accounted a man regardless of his age. Darling, though, was a city slicker of the worst kind, and his failure to get even winded felt vaguely insulting to Ingvar.
Not for the first time, he considered setting off cross-country, straightening out the curves in the trail, so to speak. That was a good way to lose the track, though. Not that he couldn’t find a lodge in the forest purely on the strength of his own skills, but getting lost would add who knew how much time to the journey. Plus, he would eventually have to explain to the Crow why he’d ditched the companions she had selected for him. Ingvar had not totally ruled that out, but wasn’t to the point of deciding on it yet.
“Y’know,” Darling said breezily, stopping in the middle of the trail and craning his neck back to peer up at the pine boughs above, “in a way, I think I might be getting more out of this than you two country boys.”
Ingvar decided first not to hit him, and second not to dignify that with any response at all.
“Oh, I’m sure this’ll be rich,” Joe muttered.
“It’s just that… Well, I personally see a certain kind of beauty in the rhythms of a city,” Darling intoned, resuming his walk as Ingvar brushed past him. “In my city, anyway, though I suspect they each have a life and a glory of their own. But I can well believe that’s a kind of beauty you have to be particularly attuned to in order to appreciate it. This, though!” He spread his arms dramatically, as if offering to embrace the forest. It was a quiet, clear morning, the air filled with the songs of birds and insects, as well as the sharp scent of pine needles. Sunlight filtered through the branches over the trail in golden streams here and there, leaving most of the forest to either side in cool shade. The whole day could have been painted, as if it were someone’s perfect idea of an idyllic scene of nature. “I don’t care who you are, this is gorgeous.”
“It does have a kind of majesty to it,” Joe agreed. “Only forest I knew back home was the elven grove. Needless to say, I didn’t go in there much, but I vividly recall those few visits. The place was… It had this feelin’ to it, like it had been made for people. Not humans, necessarily, but people. Elves live in balance with nature, but while that means their land ain’t exactly parks, there’s a certain tameness to it. Like you can tell it’s under somebody’s control. This here’s… I dunno. Ancient, primal. Wild.”
“This is actually a very young forest,” said Ingvar from the front of the group. “Not much more than a hundred years old, if that.”
“Really?” Darling sounded legitimately interested, for whatever that was worth. “What gives it away?”
Ingvar paused, gesturing into the woods on their left. “To a limited extent, you can tell by the size and spacing of the trees. Note the lack of variation; almost all of them are about that big. There are no enormous elders, and relatively few saplings. Most of these trees grew up at the same time, and cast thick enough shade that younger ones haven’t space or sunlight to grow between them. That’s not a reliable proof, however; forests tend to reach a kind of equilibrium on their own that looks similar. More to the point, the spacing between them is very close to even. See how it almost forms corridors, going off into the distance?” He paused to let them both peer into the woods, noting the frowns when they saw what he meant. “In a way, Joe, this is the opposite of your elven forest. These trees were planted, on purpose, and then left to grow up wild.”
He turned and continued up the path, the others falling into step behind them. “To be truthful, though, I know the history of this land. There are a lot of centennial forests in the Empire. The Tirasian Dynasty has very careful laws about conservation. They needed them, there was so much clear-cutting and strip mining during the relative anarchy after the Enchanter Wars. The slopes around Veilgrad were one of the areas that were re-planted late in Sarsamon’s reign. A lot of the pine woods in this province were planted for logging, but the trees around the city itself are protected. They’re helping to hold the mountainsides in place and blocking snow, preventing avalanches.”
“Huh,” Joe mused.
“They also provide homes for game,” Ingvar added. “Meat and fur are economically significant around here, too.”
“Are you this well-versed on the state of the wilds everywhere?” Darling inquired.
Ingvar shrugged. “I could probably tell you the basics for most provinces. You can deduce a lot just from the climate, geography and nearby population. But no. Any Huntsman, even one who has never been here, knows how the wilds of the Stalrange live.”
“I see,” Darling murmured.
“For instance,” Ingvar went on. “There. Hear that?” He pointed upward. “There it is again—that bird, with the high-pitched, whooping voice.”
“Mm hm,” said Joe. “What’s that?”
“It’s a scarlet heron,” the Huntsman explained. “They’re not true herons, actually, they just happen to resemble them. It’s a coastal, tropical bird; it wouldn’t survive a week in a pine forest in this climate, at this altitude. However, the call is pretty widely known, as it’s uniquely easy for humans to imitate.”
Behind him, Joe and Darling’s steps both faltered as they paused. Ingvar glanced back over his shoulder. Joe had tucked his thumb into his belt, placing his hand near a wand; Darling ducked both hands slightly into his sleeves, curling his fingers back until they nearly reached the cuffs. Just for a moment, but it was enough of a tell for Ingvar to deduce the presence of throwing knives up his sleeves. A weak sort of weapon, in his estimation, and entirely characteristic of the thief.
“So,” Darling said lightly, “our approach has been noticed. Well, Mr. Grusser did say this path led right to the Shadow Hunters’ lodge. I guess that’s a good sign! They seem not to have hostile intentions.”
“How did you come to that conclusion?” Ingvar demanded.
“Well, anybody watching us can clearly see we’re in the presence of a Huntsman of Shaath, traditional attire and all,” he said, grinning. “So they’d have to assume you would recognize that bird call. Whoever else that message was meant for, it was basically an announcement to you that our approach has been noted. Seems like they’d be a lot more circumspect if they wanted to communicate privately. Or don’t you think these Shadow Hunters can imitate local birds, too?”
“Could be,” Joe allowed. “Could also be lettin’ us know we’re bein’ watched is a warning.”
“Meh.” Darling shrugged. “Not impossible, but as warnings go, that’s pretty flimsy. No, I think if they wanted to tell us anything, it’d be more direct. It makes more sense to me to take this as a peaceable sign.”
“Or,” Joe suggested, “they don’t care at all about three guys strollin’ through the woods, an’ there’s somethin’ truly dangerous in the forest not far from here.”
“Joe, you’re a regular little basket of sunbeams, you know that?” Darling said sourly. Ingvar held his peace.
The trees thinned as they climbed, affording a better view both ahead and behind them. Rounding one of the trail’s switchbacks, the three discovered they suddenly had an astonishing perspective of Veilgrad from above. The city jutted out from the foot of the mountains, a long finger pointed into the vastness of the prairie beyond. From this altitude, there were even signs of its recent pains; far more buildings were under construction and repair than normally would be, and there was a scar near its northwestern quarter where a whole block had burned.
Incredible as the vista was, they had to turn and examine the scenery ahead and above them in more detail, for they had finally come into view of the lodge of the Shadow Hunters.
Its general design was similar to the traditional Shaathist lodge: a huge longhouse, its peaked roof formed of enormous pine beams and covered in thatch, built upon a high stone foundation with a broad flight of steps rising a full story to its front doors. This one, fittingly enough, was more eclectic in design, somewhat resembling a medieval castle built around the main structure. Battlements were in evidence here and there along its peaks, notably surmounting the round tower attached to one front corner of the lodge. The tower soared twice the height of the lodge’s roof, but was so broadly built it managed to look squat; it had to have as much interior space as the main lodge, and more. There was also another rectangular segment jutting out from the lodge at right angles, smaller but built along similar lines, with a steep thatched roof. This one, however, was unmistakably a chapel, complete with stained glass windows and a steeple rising from its far end. Rather than an ankh as was traditional for Universal Church chapels, this one was surmounted by a stylized horned eagle wrought from iron. It was not the traditional eagle symbol of Avei, though it could well have been a rendition of the same kind of bird.
As they stood in the path, staring up at the lodge, a spine-chilling scream echoed from high above, and a shadow passed over them.
All three men turned to behold a winged shape gliding overhead. It swept out in a wide arc before coming in to land atop the lodge’s round tower, where it was hidden from view by the battlements. Given the speed with which it moved, and their disadvantageous position, they were not afforded a clear look at the bird. Its wingspan, though, had to be broader than any of them was tall.
Ingvar grunted and set off walking again. After a moment, the others followed.
A standing stone of clearly ancient provenance stood at the next bend in the path, marking the point where it turned to lead directly to the lodge. At least eight feet tall, the stone was so old it had been worn round by the elements, yet still bore traces of what must once have been very deep carvings, now outlined by the lichen clinging to them.
Atop it sat a blonde woman in coarse, practical garb similar to traditional Huntsman’s kit, casually working at a piece of wood with a knife.
“Good morning, guests,” she said as they drew abreast of her perch. “What brings you?”
The three paused, and Ingvar’s two companions looked at him, Darling with an encouraging nod. As if he needed encouragement.
“Well met,” Ingvar said, bowing slightly. Given how high up she was, dipping his head too deeply would have seemed ridiculous. “I am Brother Ingvar, a Huntsman of Shaath.”
“Not from around here, you aren’t,” she commented, pointing at him with her carving knife. “Not with that beardless face. I don’t imagine the local Huntsmen went out of their way to make you feel welcome, now did they?”
“You have trouble with the Huntsmen?” Darling asked. His tone and expression were a masterpiece of polite, neighborly interest; they seemed to work on this Shadow Hunter (for such she had to be) better than they did Ingvar, to judge by the way she smiled down at him.
“It waxes and wanes,” she replied. “Lately, the situation is not ideal. The Huntsmen got pushier by the day while the city was suffering from chaos effects, and now there’s absolutely no living with them, since they acquitted themselves so well fighting undead in the catacombs. Grusser threw them a parade. Only a matter of time until they overstep and he has to rein them back in, and they’d better hope it’s him doing it and not the Duchess. Oh, but I’m interrupting your introductions.”
“With me,” Ingvar said somewhat stiffly, “are Joseph Jenkins of Sarasio, and you seem to have already met Bishop Antonio Darling of the Universal—”
“Did you say Joseph Jenkins of Sarasio?” They finally seemed to have the woman’s full interest; she set down her knife and carving and leaned alarmingly over the edge of the stone, staring avidly down at Joe. “No fooling? The Joe Jenkins?”
“The ‘the’ himself, ma’am,” Joe said, tipping his hat. “Somewhat less impressive in the flesh than in song, so I’m told.”
“He’s a modest one,” Darling said cheerfully. “I guarantee no one has told him that.”
“Not true. Weaver manages to squeeze it in at least once a day.”
“Well, you guys must have quite a story,” she said, grinning now. “I’m Liesl, the gabby and insignificant. Since the honor’s all mine, I’ll try to make the pleasure all yours. Really, though, what brings you to our doorstep? This is like the beginning of a bar joke. A Huntsman, a Bishop and the flippin’ Sarasio Kid walk into a lodge…”
Darling laughed obligingly; Ingvar gritted his teeth momentarily, gathering his patience, before answering.
“My companions and I have come in pursuit of a spiritual matter. We were sent to seek the Shadow Hunters for… I…honestly don’t know.”
“Hm,” Liesl mused. “Sent by whom?”
“By Mary the Crow.”
She fell still at that, gazing down at them with a suddenly closed face.
“Well,” she said at last. “Well, well. You just get more interesting with every word you say. Not to mention more alarming… All right, hang on.”
She hopped nimbly to her feet, tucking her knife back into its sheath and her piece of wood into an inner pocket of her leather vest. Before any of them could say a word, Liesl stepped off the edge of the standing stone, plummeting to the ground.
It wasn’t a lethal drop by any means, but longer than a person ought to casually jump. She hit the ground in a roll, coming smoothly to her feet right in front of them and pausing only to brush off her leather trousers. Ingvar recognized the move well enough; young Huntsmen like Tholi were always doing similar things, as if to prove to themselves, each other, and the world that they deserved their rank. He felt grateful to have outgrown that phase, himself.
“Walk this way, gentlemen,” the Shadow Hunter said with a knowing little smile. “Your business is over the head of the likes of me, I think. You’d better come inside and talk to Raichlin.”
Parvashti opened her eyes, sighed, and hopped down from the rigging. It wasn’t a long drop to the deck; the Sleepless was a nimble little ship, built for speed rather than capacity. She barely had enough of a fall for her feet to make a good, satisfying thump, but it was still enough to alert the Captain that she was finally down. He had doubtless been twiddling his thumbs and listening for it.
“Well?” Captain Nayar demanded, thrusting his bearded head out of his cabin’s porthole. “Storm, or no storm?”
“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “The sea is…making up its mind.”
“Not sure?” he bellowed, vanishing back below. In moments he came bursting out on deck in his towering entirety, glaring. “Not sure? We either sail in two hours, or not, based on my esteemed windshaman’s prognostication. I’ve got cargo rotting in my hold!”
“How fast do you think Narisian platinum rots?” she asked mildly.
“Woman, I don’t pay you for not sure!”
Parvashti strode forward, glaring right back at him, and thrust a ringed forefinger into his substantial paunch. “No, Captain, you pay me not to nail you amidships with a harpoon, so caulk it before I decide I’m overdue a raise! Are you Punaji or a cave elf your own damn self? It’s the sea! It’ll make up its mind when it does, and I’ll know before anyone else. You want certainty of a storm? Stick your great bearded gob into the waves and tell Naphthene what a twat she is. Until then, you’ll have to be content with being a little ahead of everyone else on these docks!”
“Bah!” Nayar roared, throwing up his hands and turning to scowl at the city behind. Anteraas perched on a narrow wedge of flat land between the cliffs that made up the Tiraan Gulf’s coast, flanked by the ancient stone arms of its harbor. Those cliffs rose in both directions, climbing toward the Stalrange in the east and toward Tiraas itself, atop the Tira Falls barely visible to the west. In times past, the capital had been visible only on the clearest of days, but now its glow made it a constant presence on any night that wasn’t too thickly shrouded by fog.
“Oh, keep your beard on,” Parvashti said in a milder tone. “How much money have I made you already? I guarantee no one else knows the portents my familiars can read. We’ll need most of those two hours anyway to wait for the others to get back with the supplies.”
“Fine, fine,” Nayar grunted. “As soon as everyone’s aboard and everything stowed, we set sail.”
He held up a hand to forestall her. “Trade is as much a game of strategy against mortal opponents as it is a game of chance against the elements. You know that slimy arseplug Gupta is watching us—he’s figured out that my windshaman knows things no other knows. When we leave the harbor, he’ll follow, while everyone else dithers to see what comes of this.” He gestured out at the gray sea and gray sky, calm but of a worrying color. The chilly southern sea was unpredictable at the best of times; some days, it seemed it went out of its way to obscure its intentions. “If you give us the clear to keep on for Puna Vashtar, so be it; the Sleepless can outrun that tub of his no matter what charms he’s finagled in port. If not, we’ll put in at Tehvaad and leave him to wallow in the storm.”
“Truly, you are a master of your craft, o great and canny one,” she said solemnly.
Nayar snorted to express his opinion of her wit. “Oh, did you get your paper?”
“Paper? What paper?”
“The newspaper. You didn’t subscribe to one?”
“Sub— News— Captain, what have I told you about drinking on the job?”
“That I’d better invite you?” he replied with a grin.
“Damn right! What the fuck newspaper do you think I would subscribe to? When would I do such a thing? What address do I have? Why would I care what the shorecrawlers think is fit to print? Use that shaggy hatstand for its intended purpose!”
“You’re going to make some poor bastard a dreadful wife someday, you ungodly shrew,” he said. “All I know is—in fact, here.” He ducked back below decks for a moment, reemerging almost immediately with a newspaper bound in twine, a small note tied to it. “This was delivered by some boy while you were up there mumbling at the wind. Has your name and all, so I figured… Eh. Maybe one of the crew just thought you’d be interested and sent it along. The headline’s about that crazy school you went to.”
“What?” Parvashti strode forward, snatching it from his hand. “Give me that!”
She ripped away the twine while he muttered imprecations about her manners and stomped to the port rail to glare out at the sea. Parvashti’s eyes darted rapidly back and forth across the page, a frown growing on her features as she read.
“Captain,” she said, “when we next make port… I might want to take a little leave soon.”
“There,” Erland grunted, backing out of the tight space between boilers into which he’d had to squeeze to reach the access panel. “You were right, Harald, it was the glass conduits. Somehow, some idiot managed to forget to fix them properly in their housings.” He made a point to speak respectfully to his partners at all times, even when correcting them; having been the idiot in question, he felt free to express his frustration a little more directly.
“And the glass?” Harald said nervously, apparently not making note of Erland’s mistake. “It’s all right, no cracks?”
“All in perfect order,” Erland assured him, holding up his pocket lens and thumbing the charm that made its rim glow. “The shutdown wasn’t due to damage, but Kjerstin’s protective charms working as intended. I double-checked the pistons for signs of strain while I was in there. Everything’s fine, no grinding or overheating.”
“I told you so,” Kjerstin said smugly, beginning to tick off points on her fingers. “Told you the charms were necessary, that they’d work, that you were too sleep-deprived to be putting in those conduits last night—”
“All right, all right,” Erland said soothingly, holding up his hands. “You can make your speech later. For now, we appreciate your charm work. The engine’s still intact, the conduits are now installed properly, and we’re ready to try again.”
The other two dwarves glanced at each other, nervousness plain on their faces.
“We are ready to try again, aren’t we?” Erland said dryly.
“All these false starts,” Harald muttered, rubbing his hands on his trouser legs. “Every time I get more nervous… Sometimes it feels the machine’s trying to warn us we’re up to something that should not be attempted.”
“Oh, bah,” Kjerstin snorted. “If nobody tried new things, the world would never change.”
“I know what my grandfather would say about this gadget,” Harald said, staring at the engine. “All this glass and filament… It looks like some kind of elvish sculpture.”
“Really, have you ever seen an elvish sculpture?” Erland said with amusement. “Make time to get out of the foundry and into a museum before your brain withers in your skull.”
“Your grandfather still wears his beard down to his belt,” Kjerstin said sharply, “and his generation isn’t too old to have to worry about getting it caught in gears. That is not a joke; you know good dwarves have suffered beard-induced decapitations, working with big enough machines. Some people are just too hidebound to embrace innovation!”
“You two want to re-hash this discussion again right now?” Erland said pointedly.
They paused again, staring at their machine.
“Feh, you’re right,” Harald said. “We’re putting it off. All right, Erland, let’s give her another go.”
“You could’ve built it with some extra dials or something,” Kjerstin muttered, folding her arms and betraying her own nervousness with a rapidly tapping foot. “Some dummy switches. Something for me to do.”
“I’ll work a few useless gizmos into the next iteration,” Erland promised, grasping the lever. “Here goes nothing, once again.”
He hauled the lever into the active position, opening the channel to the desktop-sized elemental forge hooked up to one end of the engine and letting raw heat blaze forth into its mouth.
Immediately, with gratifying smoothness, their creation purred to life. The sound it made was almost musical, high-pitched and harmonic, quite unlike any combustion engine they had ever worked with. Light shone forth from multiple points, orange fire from its exhaust ports, arcane blue beams racing through its exposed power conduits, multicolored runes igniting in sequence along the casing.
At the device’s opposite end from its power source, the piston began working. It barely had to accelerate, starting off pumping at nearly its full capacity.
They tensed, waiting for another alarm or sudden shutdown, as had happened the last four attempts. Nothing came, though. Just the light, the pleasant voice of the engine, and the rapid motion of its output piston against the springs and pulleys attached to the gauges Harald was monitoring.
“It’s stable,” Kjerstin breathed. “It’s working!”
“Kinetic output at fifteen jonors,” Harald reported excitedly. “By the Light, Erland, it’s even higher than we projected!”
“That’s a little too high,” Erland said, cautious despite his own enthusiasm. “We didn’t design it to stand up to that kind of power flow…”
“But it’s working!” Kjerstin squealed, bouncing up and down. “From a heat source to kinetic energy with zero waste or byproducts! Erland, we’re rich!”
A shrill whine sounded from the engine before he could respond; runes flared red, and suddenly its shutdown charms activated again, slamming the barrier shut to cut off its power source and force its lever back into lock position. The blue light faded from the conduits, and its soft voice wound down into silence.
“To get rich,” Harald observed, “we’re going to have to make it run longer than thirty seconds…”
“Oh, you big fuddy-duddy,” Kjerstin said, darting over to swat at his shoulder. “We’re just building a proof of concept, here! We have something to show the Falconers now—their grant is provably not wasted money. They’ll invest in improving it, they have to!”
“I never assume humans are going to do the sensible thing,” Harald grumped. “Please, Kjerstin, don’t get worked up this time before we see results.”
“It’s obviously just a matter of control, right? We refine the runes so that they regulate the power input rather than just shutting it off when it gets too much—”
“Oh, just like that? You’re talking about a complete rebuild of the enchanted components! And we’ll have to re-design most of the physical machine to accommodate…”
Erland let their discussion wash over him, listening with half an ear as he stepped over to his cluttered work desk and sank into the battered chair there, feeling weak from a combination of excitement and relief. He couldn’t keep the grin off his face. They were both right: there was a long, long way to go before they had an engine that would actually power anything, but the concept worked. It could be made to work, at least. All their efforts were finally bearing fruit.
His eyes fell on a newspaper, printed in Tanglish, sitting on top of his stacks of paperwork. He hadn’t bought that… Had Kjerstin brought it in to show him?
Erland’s expression fell into a frown as he read the headline. Oh, this was not good. Professor Tellwyrn was going to immolate somebody.
“Hey, Kjerstin,” he called, interrupting their argument. “Didn’t you happen to mention that the Falconer’s daughter was attending my alma mater?”
“What of it?” she said, exasperated. “You bring that up now?”
“You were talking about funding, and politics,” he said, eyes still on the paper. “There’s something unfolding down there that we may want to pay attention to…”
“Your pardon, Princess,” Cartwright said diffidently, “but this newspaper was just delivered for you.”
“Newspaper?” Yasmeen said distractedly, picking it up from the silver tray on which the Butler held it out. “I’m not in the habit of reading the…” She trailed off, staring at the headline. “…Cartwright, who delivered this?”
“A young man who is not a member of the Palace staff,” Cartwright replied, her round face as impassive as always. “I took the liberty of ordering that he be followed. Needless to say, the Palace guardsmen are not equipped to pursue someone discreetly beyond the walls of Calderaas, but I suspect his point of origin is within the city.”
“A man penetrates this deeply into the palace,” Yasmeen said sharply, “a man you do not know, and you merely have him followed? What if, instead of a newspaper, he had been delivering a dagger? How did he get in here? He should have been apprehended the moment you knew something was amiss!”
“With respect, your Highness,” Cartwright said calmly, folding her hands behind her back, “the content of the paper, and the manner of its delivery, is suggestive. This means of conveying information is a favored tactic of both the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence; there are innumerable possible motives either might have to draw your Highness’s attention to Last Rock. Apprehending an agent of either organization would avail us little, and risk creating considerable backlash. When our agents report back, we will know more about who he was, and can act further at that time.”
“I see,” Yasmeen said more calmly, returning her eyes to the paper and reading below the headline. “Quite right, then. That was quick thinking, Cartwright.”
“Your Highness,” the Butler replied, bowing.
“…where is my mother at the moment?”
“Her Majesty is currently entertaining Lord Taluvir in the west drawing room, Princess. His Lordship appeared quite wroth; the matter is likely to tax her considerable stores of diplomatic skill, I fear.”
“Hmmmm. This is definitely not worth interrupting her for, then. Unless…”
“There has been no message from Last Rock from or concerning Prince Sekandar, your Highness,” Cartwight said serenely. “Given the esteem in which House Aldarasi is held by Professor Tellwyrn, he can be assumed to be well so long as we are not notified otherwise.”
“Very well,” Yasmeen said with a sigh, folding the newspaper. “When she has the liberty, please inform the Sultana that I wish to speak with her at her earliest convenience.”
“I have already made the arrangements, your Highness,” Cartwright replied, “and ordered your Highness’s writing desk to be prepared with your favorite jasmine tea and baklava. Your Highness was scheduled to be interviewed by that unmannerly individual from the Wizards’ Guild; he has been informed that the meeting must be delayed.”
Any other servant would be reprimanded for such presumption, but there was no point in going to the considerable expense of employing a Butler if one did not let them buttle.
“Thank you very much, Cartwright.”
“It is, as always, my pleasure, Princess.”
Agent Fawkes moved as casually as was humanly possible, conveying the impression to any onlookers that he had every right to be here, on these enclosed manor grounds. Not that there were any onlookers—he had cased the premises quite thoroughly before entering—but one did not last long in his profession if one suffered lapses of professionalism. He laid the newspaper down on the steps to the manor’s kitchen door, which his intel stated was more heavily used by the house’s occupants than the front, and turned to make his way back to the side gate.
He found himself staring directly into a wide pair of eerie crimson eyes. She had appeared in complete and utter silence.
“Hi there!” Malivette Dufresne said brightly, smiling. “Whatcha doin’?”
For the barest moment, he froze. Fawkes was trained to confront the unexpected, to confront death, to contend with attractive women and terrifying monsters. The combination of all of the above was enough to rock his equilibrium, though. Just a little bit.
“Good morning, ma’am,” he said respectfully, stepping back from the vampire and bowing. “Just delivering your paper.”
“That’s interesting,” the undead Duchess said, her smile widening to show off her fangs in what he was certain was not an accidental gesture. “Because people making deliveries tend to leave them at the gate, since it’s not, y’know, open. Also, I don’t subscribe to any newspapers. But since we’re getting all friendly, my pet peeves are poofy-sleeved dresses, sausage too heavily spiced, women who wear too much makeup, and people who come to my home and lie to me.”
Fawkes allowed himself the luxury of a small gulp. Such a show of vulnerability could actually be advantageous; establishing himself firmly as a lesser creature meant she was less likely to do something violent. That was, if his intel on Dufresne was correct; if she were the wrong kind of monster, it could have the opposite effect. Now, face to face with her in all her unnatural glory, he had to wonder. For one thing, it was broad daylight and she wasn’t so much as steaming in the sun…
Malivette was considered an ally of the Throne and a citizen in good standing, and this was a mission of relatively low priority. Under the circumstances, Intelligence’s policy for such a confrontation was clear.
“My apologies, your Grace,” he said, bowing again. “I work for the Imperial government; I was told to deliver this newspaper to your home. That is the entirety of what I know of the matter.”
“Ahh,” she said knowingly. “I see. Well, then. Be a good boy and let’s have it.”
She held out her hand expectantly. Fawkes glanced at it, decided against making any further comment, and turned to retrieve the paper he had just set down. He placed it in her hand with yet another respectful bow.
“Now then,” Malivette said briskly, “let’s see what we have here. Oh, my. Professor Tellwyrn still retains her absolute genius for annoying powerful people, I see…”
Fawkes cleared his throat very softly, stepping backward away from her. “Well. Enjoy your paper, your Grace. If there’s nothing further, I’ll be going.”
The vampire made no response, crimson eyes tracking back and forth as she read the lead article. Fawkes stepped back twice more before turning his back on her. He did not rush, nor pick up his pace in the slightest, as he made his way back across the grounds. Professionalism.
Still, it was with considerable relief that he finally slipped out the side gate into the overgrown path beyond. He didn’t quite indulge himself in a sigh, knowing roughly the range of that creature’s hearing, but allowed himself to un-tense slightly as he re-latched the gate behind him, then turned to head back into the forest.
He was instantly seized by the throat and slammed back into the gate.
“One other thing,” Malivette said in total calm, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for her to suddenly be standing there on this side of the wall. She wasn’t even looking at him, still reading the newspaper held in one hand; the fingers of her other one were as icy and rigid as marble against his neck. Fawkes had better sense than to struggle against them, merely rising up on tiptoe so he could continue to breathe. “Be a love and report to Lord Vex that if he wants to give me a message, he can do so like a civilized person. If I continue to find his playthings creeping about my back steps, I can’t guarantee he’ll get them back in one piece. Clear?”
“Explicitly,” Fawkes replied, unable to fully compensate for the strain on his vocal cords. “I shall relay the message, your Grace.”
“Attaboy!” she said brightly, releasing him.
He was, by that point, only slightly surprised when she exploded into a cloud of shrieking bats and swirled away, back toward the manor. At least she took the paper with her.