Tag Archives: Colonel Azhai

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“It isn’t that you’re wrong, Mr. Mosk,” Tellwyrn said, pacing slowly up and down her dais as she usually did while lecturing, “it is a question of detail. The difference between an educated person and an uneducated one is comprehension; both perceive the same basic reality, in this case that the Age of Adventures is trailing to a halt and has been for centuries now, but you are studying to become the sort of people who can name specific causes, understand how those factors interact, draw insights from them and then apply those to current and future events.

“Specifically, in this case, we are covering the end of the Age of Adventures to illustrate a rather uncomfortable and little-appreciated but vitally important fact that underpins all societies.” She came to a stop, resting a hand on the lectern, and regarded the class over her spectacles. “The single, unavoidable, core reality which separates an organized state from primitive, tribal societies, is that the state holds a monopoly on violence. Police forces exist to enforce this internally, and armies externally. A state which fails to maintain this monopoly has failed to exist, and is by definition already in the process of collapsing by the time this effect can be widely observed. An organized state only exists when it is the sole entity within its purview whose exercise of force is considered legitimate.”

The door at the rear of the classroom opened and Colonel Azhai slipped inside, quietly pushing it shut behind her and taking a position against the upper wall. Almost every head in the room turned at her arrival, and several students twisted around fully to stare up at the visitor.

A shrill whistle followed by small explosions seized everyone’s attention; Tellwyrn had pointed one finger upward, which had spouted a small display of fireworks.

“Class is still in session,” she said peevishly, “and I am down here.”

The Professor waited for everyone to fully focus upon her again, and then a few seconds longer just to make her point, before continuing.

“With regard to the adventurer problem, it is important to consider that for most of recorded history, human civilizations have been islands built around useful clusters of resources; on most continents and especially this one, a combination of limited populations and abundant hazards have kept the borders of nation-states from pressing against each other. To take what is now the Tiraan Empire as an example, there was a time when Calderaas existed a two-month ride through bandit-infested no man’s land from the Tira Valley or Viridill, and much longer to any of the dwarven kingdoms. Constant pressure existed on all states in the form of marauders from Tar’naris, from Athan’Khar, from the dozens of dungeons, centaur and plains elf raiders from the Golden Sea, the odd fairy excursion from the Deep Wild… Even from other groups of humans, as the Stalweiss, Punaji and Tidestriders regularly molested any of their neighbors who neglected their defenses for a moment. In this era, adventurers served a vital role in legitimizing the states from which they launched. They exerted counter-pressure, thinning out these aggressive agents at their source without requiring kings to institute expensive military action. They also appropriated wealth from these targets, which then bolstered local economies, and served to keep trade routes clear simply by traveling along them and representing hazards that most bandits wouldn’t try. I trust you can all, by this point in the semester, explain what changed that? Miss Fillister.”

“Human populations expanded,” the girl called upon replied, lowering her hand, “and all of those external threats were eventually pacified, one way or another.”

“Precisely,” Tellwyrn said with an approving nod. “The role of population is very understated in most modern discussion of the adventurer problem. Everyone knows there is not much left for adventurers to do; few appreciate the importance to them of having a place in which to do it. While there were broad gaps between states, blank spots on the map and regions considered too dangerous to settle, adventurers were useful in keeping the hazards therein from encroaching upon established kingdoms. They aided the legitimacy of states by keeping violence outside their borders. But when all the borders come together, when there are no more gray areas outside the law, the opposite happens. Adventurers doing what they do within the purview of a state’s authority are an inherent challenge to that authority, because so long as people are committing violence, for any reason, it means the local government has failed to assert itself. Thus, the government is forced to either assert itself harder, or collapse. For a time, when the dungeons began drying up and rogue societies were either contained, destroyed, or folded into the Empire, some adventurers tried turning to vigilantism. They were landed on harder than those who flocked to the frontiers. Yes, Miss Willowick?”

“Talkin’ of current events,” Maureen said, lowering her hand, “ain’t this sorta what’s goin’ on in Puna Dara right now? Rumor is, the local government’s facin’ the prospect of a change, if it can’t keep its own house in order.”

“That’s an excellent example,” Tellwyrn agreed.

“And…in Last Rock?” Maureen said more hesitantly. “Like…last night, fer example. I know we’re only technically within Calderaan Province here, an’ the Sultana’s writ runs pretty thin. But if there’s t’be mobs an’ chases an’ whatnot…”

“An interesting point,” Tellwyrn said, beginning to pace again. “Last Rock is a somewhat unusual case, due to my presence and this University’s. A better example would be the ongoing expansion of wand regulations in frontier towns throughout the Great Plains. In the decades since their initial settlement, private ownership and use of firearms was considered a widespread necessity given the hazards represented by the Golden Sea. More and more, though, laws are changing; the situation in Sarasio was something of a tipping point, showing that heavily-armed residents are more of a danger to one another now than centaur or plains elf raiders. Not coincidentally, it took an event which directly challenged the Empire’s authority to provoke a wave of reforms. All of which are potential topics for your homework! Next class, I want a two-page essay from each of you on a current application of this principle, covering an example of your choice: discuss a modern situation in which a state’s success or failure to assert control of violent action within its borders reflects upon its overall stability. And with that, we’re out of time for today. Class dismissed.”

She remained by the lectern, watching placidly, while they all gathered their books and filed out, several exchanging greetings with the Colonel on their way to the door. Azhai was a woman of reserved and formal bearing, but compared to some of the fellows assembled at the new research division of the school, she was not standoffish with students and had already garnered a positive reputation.

Once the last of the pupils had shut the door behind them, she finally strode down to the dais, where Tellwyrn was waiting with a mildly quizzical expression.

“My apologies, Professor,” Azhai said. “I didn’t mean to disrupt your class.”

“Nonsense, you were perfectly decorous,” Tellwyrn said, dismissing that with a wave of her hand. “Maintaining focus in the face of extremely slight distraction is just one of the basic life skills I have to teach these kids, since so many of their parents clearly couldn’t be arsed. What can I do for you, Colonel?”

Azhai drew in a slow breath, frowning in thought. “I wanted to let you know in person that I’ve been recalled. I’m to abort my assignment here and depart Last Rock.”

“I see,” Tellwyrn replied, raising an eyebrow. “Well, I must say you will be missed. I confess this surprises me, Colonel. Have you been told anything about a replacement? I am assuming, here, that the Empire’s interest in my program has not abruptly ceased. I’ve not heard so much as a hint of this from Tiraas.”

“That’s…the thing, Professor,” Azhai said, a grim note entering her tone. “No, I was not given any instructions regarding my successor. I have also not heard so much as a rumor from the Azure Corps that the Throne has changed its position on you and your research program. Staying in touch with Tiraas from out here is a bit of an undertaking, as I’m sure you know, but I have been doing my best to remain on top of the rumor mill. Everything I have heard suggests that the University is in good standing with the Empire, and with Intelligence in particular. Furthermore, Professor… Forgive me if I seem to be dancing around certain topics, but I was explicitly instructed not to reveal details of my reassignment to you.”

“I see,” Tellwyrn repeated in a low drawl. “How extremely mysterious.”

“Off the record,” said Azhai, glancing at the door. “As I am no longer on duty here, and in the interest of casual conversation… I transferred to the Azure Corps from the Corps of Enchanters, Professor; I have no shortage of personal experience working with special forces. When you’re not attached to one of the regular corps, you tend to gain some insight into the politics behind the Army. There are lots of factions wanting to make use of forces with special skills, and some which simply resent the special corps and like to throw petty inconveniences our way when they can get away with it. You learn to watch for certain red flags… And I am seeing a lot of those today. Being told to abandon a mission and vacate the premises but not given instructions on where to report next. The sudden reversal of policy from Command—and most damning, orders to keep this hushed from the Azure Corps’s brass and Intelligence. Professor, somebody, somewhere, is up to something they should not be, and which I seriously doubt is being undertaken with the Empire’s best interests in mind.”

“I appreciate you offering me your insight on this, Manaan,” Tellwyrn said, nodding. “I understand there are risks to you in doing so. Rest assured you can count on my discretion.”

“Thanks, Professor,” Azhai said, nodding in reply, a hint of relief passing across her features. “Understand that I like it here, I support your program and I was very much looking forward to the research we were about to undertake. My loyalty, though, is to my Emperor. And as a soldier I will follow orders, but if those orders aren’t for the Emperor’s benefit…”

“You don’t have to justify anything to me,” Tellwyrn assured her. “Assuming all this gets resolved soon and the Empire’s participation in my research initiative continues, I’ll hope to see you back here. You will always be welcome.”

“I’ll hope to be back,” Azhai said fervently. “In the meantime… I have been ordered to be packed and out of Last Rock by tonight.” She tilted her head forward, staring into Tellwyrn’s eyes with as much emphasis as she could muster.

“Thank you for keeping me in the loop,” Tellwyrn replied, patting the shorter woman on the shoulder. “I had better not detain you any longer if you’re on a tight schedule. And don’t worry about me, Colonel, you take care of yourself for now.”

“Worrying about you seems presumptuous, somehow,” Azhai said wryly. “Just… Take care of the kids, Professor. I mean that in a general sense, of course.”

“Oh, I always take care of my kids,” Tellwyrn replied flatly. “I mean that as generally or specifically as the situation requires, and you might pass it along to whoever needs to hear it.”

“I will. Here’s hoping to see you again soon, Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Safe travels, Colonel Azhai.”

Tellwyrn waited until she had departed the classroom before snapping her fingers. Maru popped out of midair nearby, dropping a foot to land lightly on the dais.

“If you must do that, you could at least teleport me directly onto the ground,” the tanuki complained. “I know you do this on purpose, Professor.”

“Maru, I should hardly have to remind you that we met when you tried to drop me into a spike pit,” she retorted. “You don’t get to fuss about these little jokes.”

“Ah, but my fussing about them is half the fun,” he said, grinning widely. “For you, I mean.”

Tellwyrn did not smile in response. “I brought you here because making Fedora vanish out from in front of whoever he’s pestering right now would be the fastest possible way to reveal that something’s up. I may have secured a brief head start, which could be squandered if whoever’s watching this campus realizes I know. Find that incubus and both of you haul ass to my office as quick as you can without drawing attention. Whatever’s going down, it’s going to be tonight.”


“I see your hunt was successful,” King Rajakhan stated as he strode into the room, his daughter on his heels. Ruda paused to kick the door shut, her eyes also on the guest perched on a chair at the end of the conference table.

The Queen and the rest of the sophomores were scattered around the table, Juniper playing with Jack in one corner and Teal in another, experimentally plucking at a sitar—which, to judge by the results produced, she had never played before. Principia lounged next to the door, making a show of cleaning her fingernails with a dagger. Most of them, overtly or not, were monitoring the woman garbed in black, including a climate-inappropriate cloak, who was seated in a prim posture with her hands on her knees, watching them all calmly.

“My business also went well, husband, thank you for asking,” Anjal said archly.

The King grunted. “I always assume your efforts meet with success, wife. I can’t be so safe about all of these.”

“Flatterer,” she accused, but with a smile.

“So what’s the story with this one, then?” Ruda asked, scowling at the woman in black.

“She came along quietly enough,” Gabriel reported. “And in fact she’s been quite willing to help. That is, with anything we ask that’s not explaining who she is, or who she works for.”

“Also, she’s got an invisible friend.” Juniper looked up from her jackalope at the ensuing silence, finding everyone staring at her. “You guys didn’t notice? She does the same exact thing Gabe does when Vestrel’s talking. Tilting her head to listen and staring at nothing for a second.”

“Well, how about that,” Gabriel drawled, turning fully to face their guest. “Anything you wanna add, Milady?”

She cleared her throat. “I don’t suppose you would believe I was talking to another valkyrie.” Her accent was Tiraan, her voice with the precise diction of an educated person.

“Do you find that funny?” he asked coldly. “Because I guarantee, you’re the only one.”

“Yeah, an’ this standoffishness isn’t gonna work,” Ruda added, glaring and ostentatiously fondling the jeweled hilt of her rapier. “Way I heard it, your fuck up sank negotiations with the Rust and spooked them into releasing that fucking thing in the harbor. I wanna know just who the hell you think you are, in detail.”

Toby cleared his throat. “I don’t want to tell you your business, Ruda, but consider that there may be an advantage in leaving it vague.”

“Ex-fucking-cuse me?” she exclaimed, rounding on him.

“Well, I mean, it’s pretty likely she’s from the Imperial government,” Fross chimed, swooping around the woman in black in a wide circle. “I mean, gosh, look at all these enchantments. She’d have to be an archmage to make this gear herself, which I don’t think she is. That means it was probably supplied by a government, and not a dinky little poor one.”

“Like ours?” Anjal said dryly.

“Oh.” The pixie dimmed, fluttering lower. “I didn’t mean…”

“And that’s the point,” Toby said quickly. “If she is Imperial, as seems overwhelmingly likely, there are benefits to everyone having some deniability. As soon as we all officially know the Empire has been unilaterally acting here and making a mess of it to boot, the Crown will pretty much have to respond to that, right? Which will create a whole slew of new complications.”

“As things stand,” Anjal added grimly, “we can avoid wrestling that shark, and make it damn clear to the Empire that we know and don’t appreciate this, without being forced to do so through formal channels. Listen to the boy, Zari, he has surprisingly good political instincts for an Omnist.”

Toby returned her smile. “Actually, your Majesty, that little theater we put on earlier helped me work through a spiritual problem with which I’ve been grappling.

“Happy to be of service,” Anjal said, tipping her hat. “But back to the point at hand. You two haven’t missed much, yet, but the revelations so far are not small. Apparently we have an ancient hideaway of the Elder Gods buried underneath the middle of the harbor.”

The woman in black cleared her throat as everyone focused on her again. “Yes, a fabrication plant—a place where they made their machines.”

“That explains some stuff about the Rust, doesn’t it,” Gabriel muttered.

“And you know this…how?” Rajakhan demanded.

“All the facilities of the Elder Gods were sealed at the end of the Pantheon’s uprising,” she explained. “And then, after that, they were all buried underground or sunk underwater by Naiya, probably to keep Scyllith from getting at the resources in them if she ever got out of the hole Themynra has her in. Some, though, have subsequently been re-opened by various mortals. I have worked closely in one of these. You might say I’m the closest thing available to an expert on the Infinite Order’s technology. I mean the real Infinite Order,” she added. “The actual Elder Gods, not these Rust idiots.”

“They’re idiots,” Teal muttered from her corner, plucking a discordant twang. “Who got caught screwing around in their tunnels and borked our mission there?”

The woman sighed. “Fair enough. I’m sorry; I tripped an alarm I failed to see coming. But back to the point at hand, the Order’s machines have the ability to connect to each other and communicate over long distances. It was severely diminished when the Pantheon shut off the transcension field linking them, but it can still be made to work in a limited capacity.”

Gabriel scratched his head. “Trans what?”

“A kind of magic. The point is, I learned from another of these systems elsewhere, weeks ago, that the fabrication plant in Puna Dara had been opened and accessed. Actually, this was done ten years ago.”

“Ten years,” Anjal muttered.

“It gets worse,” the woman in black warned. “The Infinite Order’s machines and facilities require their personal input to be re-activated. The one here was opened under Scyllith’s credentials.”

“Ffffffuck,” Gabriel whispered.

“Now, nobody panic,” Toby said hastily. “If Scyllith were loose, problems would be a lot worse than the Rust and a lot more widespread than Puna Dara.”

“That’s correct,” the woman agreed, nodding. “It’s far more likely that someone got hold of her credentials somehow and used that. There are ways; I have some experience with them.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Juniper said. “If you need one of the Elder Gods to open these things and you’ve opened one, whose credentials are you using?”

She sighed, making a resigned face. “Naiya’s.”

“And how did you do that?” the dryad demanded.

“By recruiting some of her daughters to help,” she said wearily. “Dryads and a kitsune.” The woman frowned suddenly, looking to the side. “I do not think that’s a good idea. No, seriously, that’s just going to agitate… Okay, fine, but there’s still security to—”

“Have you utterly lost it?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“Invisible friend, remember?” Juniper said, gathering Jack into her arms and standing up. The jackalope’s behavior had indeed improved; he hardly struggled at all. “This is good, though, it’s finally something we can verify. Which dryads? What kitsune?”

“I don’t know how we can verify that part,” Fross objected. “We only know one kitsune and she’s not exactly available to ask.”

The woman in black was frowning now, staring into the distance. After a moment, she sighed heavily. “All right, fine. I said all right! I don’t… Oh, whatever, it hardly matters now, anyway. Apple, Hawthorn, and Mimosa,” she finally answered, turning to Juniper.

The dryad let out a low whistle. “Well. Aspen told me those there are in Tiraas.”

“Mm hm,” Anjal grunted, scowling. “Tiraas.”

The woman in black sighed again. “Fine, fine, on your head be it. And I am being requested to convey a message.” She turned to Gabriel. “For Vestrel. Yrsa would like her to know that things were hard for a long time, but she is doing well, now. She sends her love.”

“Okay, what the hell was that?” Gabriel demanded after a short pause. “Vestrel is completely freaking out. And not in a good way, Milady. If that scythe were tangible on this plane you would be headless right now.”

“I told you so,” the woman muttered, rubbing unconsciously at her neck.

“Are we seriously calling her Milady?” Ruda snipped.

“Well, she won’t tell us her name, and it’s as good as—” Gabriel broke off, wincing. “Yeah, you’re gonna have to explain that some more. And no more of this cagey—”

“If I may?” Everyone turned to look at Principia, who had raised a hand. “With apologies to Vestrel, this sounds like family business. And if there’s one thing I know about family business, it’s that it is messy. We really have much more urgent things to discuss; valkyrie drama is going to have to wait for now. It sounds like what we’ve gotta do is break into an Infinite Order facility and destroy it. I’ve been in those before; this is not a small undertaking.”

“Not destroy it,” Milady said quickly. “In fact, the opposite. The Infinite Order are using something called nanites to do what they do. I don’t know what those are, but I do know it’s a prohibited technology; the Order sealed it and even blocked records that explain them. Which means if the Rust have got them out and working, they have disabled the security in that facility. There should be an intelligent system governing it, which has to have been seriously messed with for this to have happened. If we can get to that and repair it, we may be able to completely disable them.”

“Intelligent system,” Principia grunted. “And you say it’s broken. When an intelligence breaks, that’s called madness. I do not look forward to trying to wrangle an insane Avatar.”

Milady’s gaze snapped to the elf. “How do you know what an Avatar is?”

Principia grinned at her. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, pumpkin.”

“Enough,” Rajakhan growled. “You say we have to fix this thing. How do you propose to do this, not even knowing what’s wrong with it?”

“That’s the hard part,” Milady admitted. “I’ve done so before, but it took days, and we have no choice but to go in blind. It is in no way going to be easy. But this is not like repairing a machine; it has more in common with…counseling. These are thinking, feeling things with personalities.”

“I may be able to help with that,” Toby said slowly. “Though I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up.”

“Juniper’s help will also be invaluable,” Milady said. “She is a link to Naiya, which may help get us access. And I think Principia had better come,” she added reluctantly. “Anyone who knows anything about Infinite Order systems will be useful.”

“Someday I’ll learn not to open my goddamn mouth,” Principia said philosophically. “Oh, who’m I kidding? No, I won’t.”

“Before that,” Gabriel interjected, “we have to get into this place. Something tells me the Rust isn’t going to be enthused about that prospect.” He was still scowling at Milady, clearly having picked up some of Vestrel’s agitation. “How do we even find the way there?”

“I can guide you,” said Milady. “My…counterpart has a complete map of the tunnels and mineshafts all around Puna Dara and can convey directions to me in real time. Several of them link up to the corridor the Rust have dug connecting to the old fabrication plant. There are a number of paths that avoid areas they traffic.”

“So we need to distract them,” Anjal said, suddenly grinning. “We are already working on that. Rajakhan has been exhorting the people while I worked on the powerful; Puna Dara itself is going to turn on the Rust.”

“If you can provide me with some disguise charms,” Principia added, “something to make my squad look like locals, I can furnish a more focused distraction. Like, outside that warehouse that they’re using for their public face. Five people who start screaming and throwing rocks can turn an angry crowd into a mob in seconds.”

“What you are talking about,” Rajakhan grated, “is dangerous almost beyond comprehension. To everyone involved.”

“I comprehend the danger, your Majesty,” she said seriously. “The offer stands, if you decide the risk is worthwhile. But I agree—if somebody has a better idea, that would be excellent.”

“It’s too bad the weather’s nice,” said Fross. “The Rust’s mechanical augmentations are metal and run on electricity; rain will impede them. Maybe not much, but every little bit helps.”

“Maybe more than a little, actually,” the King said, frowning. “We have noted, in monitoring them, that they avoid going out in storms. Most Punaji love rough weather—it was a notable pattern of behavior.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think we can afford to wait around for a storm,” Ruda snorted. “Fross is right, the weather’s gorgeous and gonna stay like that for at least a while. We can’t afford to fuck around; every minute that thing is in the harbor, the city’s economy is hemorrhaging, to say nothing of how it’s riling up the populace. And while we’re on the subject, distracting the Rust is only part of the issue. If we’re going to be out in the harbor, the sea serpent’s a factor, too. Not to mention that it could attack the city if the Rust feel too threatened.”

“A nice, big storm would solve that problem as well,” Fross offered. “It’s still subject to the laws of physics, even if it’s designed to withstand mag cannon fire. With the water agitated it will be unable to navigate and will have to go to the bottom to avoid getting beached. It might be forced to leave the harbor entirely.”

“Fross,” Ruda said with strained patience, “it is not storming. It is not going to storm any time soon, and no power in creation is going to make the weather change. Trust me, that’s in Naphthene’s hands, and Naphthene does not give a shit. That is the core reality of Punaji life. Talking about storms is wishful thinking.”

A suddenly loud twang chimed from the corner, making Principia wince.

“So,” Teal said slowly, “a storm would temporarily neutralize the sea serpent and the cultists, and since the Punaji like harsh weather, might actually help the public move against the Rust. Do I have all that right?”

“Teal, what did I just fucking say?” Ruda exclaimed.

Teal carefully set the sitar down and stood, adjusting her robes. “That we can’t conjure up a storm. All due respect, Ruda, but… I bet I can.”

 

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“YOU DO NOT FUCKING ROB THE FUCKING SISTERS OF FUCKING AVEI!”

“We didn’t,” Darius protested. “I mean, quite specifically, we did not rob them!”

“If anything, we un-robbed them!” Tallie added. “They were getting snookered and we—”

“Do not get cute with me,” Style snarled. “You entered their facilities under false pretenses and appropriated shit which was not yours. This is the fucking Thieves’ Guild, if you little wankstains haven’t noticed. I know what a fucking robbery is, and you just pulled one.” She stopped her pacing right in front of Tallie, and leaned in close. “ON THE GODDAMN SISTERHOOD OF FUCKING AVEI.”

“We’re not evading,” Jasmine said in perfect calm. “The matter just wasn’t as simple as you’re making it sound. We took things out of the temple, yes, but—”

“Let me see if I got the details,” the enforcer interrupted, straightening and turning to pace again. “You interrupted a Salyrite delivery of potions, reagents, magical shit in general, to a local temple of Avei. Jasmine, dressed in Legion armor, drags in Layla, pretending to be bringing her in as a prisoner. Scuffling ensues, everyone is distracted. Meanwhile, Tubby and Smarmy, here, drive a delivery truck up to the temple and accidentally block the Salyrite vehicle in.” She scowled at Ross and Darius in turn as she paced by them.

“How come the girls don’t get nicknames?” Ross muttered.

“While the scrawny one engages the Salyrite driver in an argument and generally adds to the confusion, the beefy one starts loading crates in and out of the place, and lifts the Salyrite shipment while they’re all distracted. And while this is going on, our little burgeoning cat burglar oozed first into the temple through an upper window and then the Salyrite truck to swipe documents.” Again, she stopped, folded her arms, and glared at them. “I miss anything?”

“After that,” Layla said primly, “we made copies of the documents from both cults, which prove that agents within the Sisterhood and the Collegium were massaging the figures of what had been delivered and how much paid to skim revenue and poach supplies from these transactions.”

“Which,” Tallie added with a grin, “we then had delivered to the central temples of Avei and Salyrene, along with giving the Salyrites their stuff back. So nobody lost any property, and both cults now know who in their ranks was screwing ’em over.”

“They’re welcome, incidentally,” Darius added.

Off to the side of the room, Lore chuckled, still lounging against the wall. “Not gonna lie, kids, that’s a pretty damn neat job. I’d expect full Guild members to do that kinda work, never mind apprentices on their first unsupervised heist. Only thing you forgot was how to get yourselves paid.”

“We are but lowly apprentices,” Jasmine said with a beatific smile. “Happy to work for the experience and prestige.”

“You, stop helping,” Style barked, pointing at Lore, then turned to glare at Jasmine. “And you. If you’re so insistent you didn’t actually rob the Sisterhood, wanna explain what the fuck you were doing with a set of Silver Legion armor in the first place?”

“I borrowed it,” Jasmine said blandly.

Style took two strides and leaned down directly into her face. “You wanna try again, squirt?”

Lore cleared his throat. “I’m not sure if any of your trainers have covered this explicitly, Jasmine, but the ‘borrowed’ defense isn’t regarded kindly around here. We’re thieves; we steal stuff. Taking without permission is theft, whether or not you bring the item back. Have some pride and don’t make excuses or beat around the bush.”

“Actually nobody had mentioned that, but thank you,” Jasmine said, glancing at him sidelong but keeping most of her attention on Style’s uncomfortably close glower. “Really, though, I wasn’t doing that. I did borrow it. Glory hooked me up with a dealer who had two almost-complete sets of armor. I helped him assemble them properly and showed him where to get the missing pieces, and he let me take one for the day as thanks.”

“I still say we should have borrowed both,” Layla huffed. “I would really have liked—”

“Layla,” Darius said in exasperation, “you couldn’t both be Legionnaires. If neither one was the prisoner, what the fuck would you have been doing there?”

“And if she was a prisoner,” Style growled at Jasmine, “how the fuck did you get out without her being in a cell?”

“The story we used was she was a runaway Legion cadet,” Jasmine replied, leaning subtly backward in her seat. “Which is breach of contract at the worst; it’s a legal gray area whether the Sisterhood has the authority to detain people for that. It made the perfect cover for her to kick up a fuss for half an hour and then still get to leave. Can I get some personal space, Style? I can taste what you had for lunch, here. Not everybody likes Punaji curry.”

Lore burst out laughing.

“Kid,” Style said, slowly straightening back up but not releasing Jasmine from her glare, “there are days when I think you were put on this world specifically to be a thorn in my ass.”

“I thought the expression was ‘thorn in my side?’” Tallie piped up.

“Thorn in the foot’s also used,” Ross grunted. “The ass thing is new.”

“Classic Style!” Darius chirped.

“Shut the fuck up,” Style ordered, and they immediately did; she had spoken calmly and flatly. Style cursed and yelled and threw things as part of her ordinary conversation. Everyone who survived a month of Guild apprenticeship knew to step very lightly, however, when she lowered her voice. “Lore, I can’t deal with this magnitude of horseshit. Explain their stupidity whilst I take a mental health break.”

She turned and stomped over to a cabinet against the far wall of the underground meeting room, from which she extracted a bottle of wine and took a long swig.

Lore coughed, suppressing his earlier laughter, and finally straightened up from the wall, stepping toward them. He was one of the Guild’s few actual priests, and its foremost specialist in Eserite philosophy and what little actual dogma the cult had. For the most part, that meant he stayed around the Guild’s headquarters, assisting the Boss and training apprentices.

“You kids have really stuck your collective foot in it,” he said more somberly. “You know our relations with the other cults can be dicey. There are long-standing tensions, such as the way we like Avenists more than they like us, and Vernisites like us more than we like them. In general, though, there’s a lot of widespread dislike of thieves. Lots of groups, religious and secular, have the attitude that Eserites are only tolerated because Eserion is a god of the Pantheon, and they resent having to tolerate us. And that, kids, is why any jobs pertaining to other cults are undertaken very carefully. Very carefully. Usually with the direct say-so of and organization by the Bishop and the Boss himself. Not a gaggle of out-of-control apprentices…you know, as a general rule.”

“Ohh,” Tallie said quietly, then swallowed. “Um…”

“In the time it took you to drive back to wherever you staged all this, transcribe those documents, arrange to have them delivered, and get back here, the beehive you kicked hasn’t stopped buzzing. Sweet has already had an earful from Bishops Throale and Syrinx. The Universal Church has gotten involved, trying to smooth things over, and the Boss has been fully occupied keeping some of our hotter heads in check, because all they can see is spellflingers and soldiers getting up in the Guild’s face apparently on their own initiative.”

“Oh, fuck,” Darius mumbled.

“WELL SAID,” Style thundered, slamming the bottle back onto a shelf and turning to glare at them. “Let’s have a little pop trivia! Who can tell me under what circumstances it is acceptable for the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild to have to clean up after a pack of goddamn apprentices?”

“Um…none?” Tallie ventured.

“Wrong! Who else wants to try?”

“Well,” Jasmine said carefully, “I suppose, theoretically, in a situation where the Boss himself was considered corrupt—”

“Jasmine, it’s a constant mystery to me how you can think so goddamn much and never about the right things. Anybody else got the answer I’m looking for?”

Ross hesitantly raised a hand. “…fucking none?”

“WINNER!” Style shouted, pointing at him.

Lore shook his head. “Look… How the hell did you kids find out about this in the first place? Shenanigans between elements in the Sisterhood and the Collegium aren’t the kind of thing into which random junior Eserites normally have insight.”

“Well, actually, that was just a right place, right time sort of deal,” Tallie said almost timidly. “See, our friend Schwartz is in the Emerald College, and he’s been involved in both interfaith relations and disseminating supplies. Apparently it was all part of his own plan to get to know Eserites, which, I guess, worked. But he mentioned he’d been seeing some funny activity…”

“And then there’s our other friend Rasha,” Darius added. “Who happens to have insight into some of the alchemical reagents the Avenists use, you know, cos he goes to them for—I mean, she—they… Dammit! I knew her all of a week the other way, why am I still not used to that?”

“Because you’re a clod,” Layla said fondly, ruffling his hair.

“Rasha,” Jasmine said quickly before Style could swell up any further, “has treatment sessions with the Sisterhood as part of transitioning. She’s not using alchemy yet because they do very thorough counseling before starting on that, but she talks with the sisters about the program, and they’ve mentioned there are unexplained shortfalls in some of their alchemical supplies.”

“Which was the other thing with which Glory helped,” Layla continued primly. “She really is the most fabulous source of gossip, and I enjoy very much being a guest at her salons. There, I heard rumors about some unexpected personnel changes in various cults; individuals who are known to favor the Universal Church have been maneuvering into positions where they serve as the intermediaries between cults. It’s all very subtle, and might never have been noticed at all except one has some kind of feud with the Avenist Bishop, who made noise about this particular priestess horning in on her territory, so to speak. Even so, only the sort of people with whom Glory associates follow these dealings. If not for our very fortuitous acquaintance, the likes of us would never have learned of this.”

“But we put that together, saw a pattern, and looked further,” Jasmine finished. “Black market dealings, places where those mislaid alchemical supplies might have been turned into untraceable cash. Pick’s connected to those, and he helped us out.”

“Surprisingly decent little prick, in his way,” Tallie added thoughtfully. “Prob’ly just cos he owes us for getting him away from those dwarves, but still.”

“Mm,” Lore grunted. “Well, you kids do impress. That was good work, spotting an opportunity and finding a way to exploit it. But what you should have done when you figured out something was fishy was go straight to Style with it. Apprentices have no business messing in other cults’ affairs.”

“But we were helping them!” Layla protested. “At least—”

“The man didn’t fucking stutter!” Style snarled. “Apprentices have no fucking business fucking around with other fucking cults’ business! You don’t help them, you don’t thwart them, you stay the hell out of their shit entirely! If you spot something fucked up going on in another Pantheon cult, or between two of them, you bring it to the Guild. The Boss will decide whether it’s something we need to intervene in, and if so, how. Not. You.”

“I realize we emphasize independence and distrust of structures,” Lore said much more gently. “It’s an understandable mistake; most of the time you’re expected not to bother the Boss, or rely excessively on the Guild. But for exactly that reason, in the few areas where the Guild does need to be involved, we take it very seriously when people go off on their own and create exactly these kinds of problems.”

“Sorry,” Ross mumbled.

Style snorted and threw up her hands, but Lore nodded gravely. “I believe you. Look… This was overall damn fine work, all right? You planned and executed an extremely neat job, and that after making excellent use of your connections and available resources. But you acted without considering the ramifications, or the role the Guild would have to play in this. That is what we can’t have.”

“And before you start getting big heads,” Style said, “he was warning you, not praising you. That’s a dangerous spot to be in, kids. If you’ve got the skills of Guild members and don’t grasp what it means to be Guild members, you’re a potential problem, if not a threat. People who land themselves in this position and don’t straighten the fuck out usually end up getting dealt with in other ways.”

Tallie swallowed heavily again. “Um…”

“No, I’m not threatening you,” Style said with a sigh. “If I thought you were gonna be that kind of problem, I’d be kicking your asses, not telling you about it. You’re students; I’m teaching. Now you understand where you went wrong. Fix your shit.”

“Understood,” Jasmine said quickly.

“I believe you,” Style replied. “Which just leaves the matter of putting this right. For now… Just leave it alone. Stay close to the Guild and wait for orders. Since you little shits are the ones with firsthand knowledge of what went down, you’re likely to be part of the process of smoothing it over, but first the Boss and the Bishop need to figure out what’s what and how to straighten it out. In the meantime, wait. And for fuck’s sake, behave yourselves.”

Jasmine cleared her throat. “Okay. And…since we’re not being punched, what’s it to be? Are we going to be scrubbing the kitchens again?”

“Jas, shut up,” Darius hissed.

Style rolled her eyes. “Punishment is for assholes; dumbasses get correction. You never have figured out the difference, Jasmine. No, when I said you were gonna make this right, that is what I meant. Now you understand how you fucked up; once you do your part to fix it, that’s that. Abusing you further isn’t gonna accomplish anything. All right, enough. Get outta here and stay in this district until I tell you otherwise. And I suggest you keep in mind that malice accounts for the lesser part of all fuckups. Trouble is much more often caused by stupidity. You wanna avoid getting in trouble, fucking think.”

“Surprisingly good advice,” Darius murmured as they filed hastily out of the room before Style could change her mind.

“Yeah,” Jasmine agreed as quietly. “Actually, it reminds me of another teacher of mine. She’s fond of saying much the same thing.”

“But with less cussing?” Tallie asked with a grin.

Jasmine sighed. “It…depends.”


“I know you’re well aware of the phenomena, Professor,” said Wrynst, the designated spokesman of the group. “Demons which bleed or otherwise dispense bodily fluids inflict infernal corruption on whatever the substance touches—yet when they are killed on this plane, the bodies dissolve into ash which leaves minimal corruption behind, and in some cases none. In order to be magically reactive, spell components harvested from demons must be taken while the demon was alive. Yet, sapient demons which can use infernal magic mostly leave behind intact bodies, which may or may not be infernally active, depending on the situation. Vanislaads in particular appear to leave behind a fully intact body, and the very same demon may return later to this plane in a new body, while their previous one might still exist here. Altogether the nature of demons’ connection to magic, to life, and to this plane is not understood. We have only lists of observed effects and no understanding of the underlying principles involved.”

“Yes, of course,” Tellwyrn said neutrally, interlacing her fingers and regarding him over them. “And of course, you know why that understanding is lacking, even after thousands of years.”

“Actually, Professor, for most of that period, infernal magic was considered far more dangerous to use than it is today, and understanding of its use was correspondingly lacking. Until as recently as the Hellwars, ‘warlock’ was considered synonymous with ‘servant of Elilial,’ because no one without that goddess’s specific protection could even touch the infernal and not combust or mutate on the spot. The word itself is said to mean ‘oathbreaker,’ as the only people to whom it applied had specifically betrayed the gods. Now, though, there are not only the Wreath, but also organized warlocks in the service of Salyrene and many national governments and other organizations, not to mention independent practitioners—all because of the advancement of knowledge.”

“And you propose,” she said slowly, “to advance it again.”

Wrynst nodded, stepped forward, and laid a thick folder down upon her desk. “Yes, Professor. The full details of our proposal are there for you to peruse at your leisure. In brief, however, we have outlined an experimental protocol which will involve the repeated summoning of and experimentation upon lesser non-sapient demons to study the nature of their dimensional connection to Hell, and thus the nature of infernal magic itself. Katzils, mostly, as they are the most manageable. At present, infernomancy is more an art than science; its safe use is largely intuitive, and therefore difficult to teach and fraught with peril. We propose to study and quantify it. If our program meets with any success, it would be a great leap forward in magical understanding, as well as taking much of the inherent danger out of infernal magic. This will make it not only safer to use, but help in devising methods of resisting demons and their masters.”

Tellwyrn glanced at the folder without moving to touch it, then across the small knot of people assembled before her desk. Behind Wrynst stood the representatives from the factions which were backing Rodvenheim’s proposal: a warlock from the Topaz College of Salyrene, a magelord of Syralon, a robed Black Wreath cultist, and a battlemage of the Empire’s Azure Corps.

Strange bedfellows, indeed.

“This is, of course, possibly the most dangerous research project ever undertaken.”

“Yes, Professor,” Wrynst said solemnly, not even quibbling with her obvious hyperbole. “We are well aware of the risks, and seek to take all possible steps to mitigate them. That fact is why this research has never been conducted before.”

“Oh, it’s been tried,” said Fedora, who was lounging against a bookcase off to the side. “By many a warlock throughout the years. In slow bits and bites over the millennia, they added gradually to the knowledge of the craft, while meeting a succession of swift and grisly fates.”

Tellwyrn shot him a brief, irritated glance, which was mirrored by each of the research delegates before her. “I’m sure this lays out your proposed containment methods. Leaving that aside, in brief, what do you intend to do about the dimensional effects of such repeated summonings?”

Wrynst coughed discreetly and glanced behind himself. At his look, Colonel Azhai nodded and stepped forward.

“In short, Professor, we intend to monitor them. This campus’s inherent protections, and the fae geas laid upon it, will do a great deal to mitigate the inherent dimensional thinning effect. Our containment protocols will do more. But as part of our research protocol, we will be closely observing the state of dimensional stability in the region. Our program calls for a cessation of summoning activity should signs of dimensional instability appear, and that only as an initial measure. You are of course aware of the methods of repairing such unintended rifts.”

“They aren’t easy,” Tellwyrn murmured.

“No, ma’am,” Azhai agreed. “Which is why our strategy emphasizes prevention. But we will be prepared to take whatever restorative action is necessary, should the need arise.”

Tellwyrn looked at Fedora and raised an eyebrow.

“I’ll want to read over their protective measures, just to be in the loop,” he said with a shrug. “Ultimately, though, you know a lot more about this hoodoo than I. Suggest having Yornhaldt and Harklund sign off on it, as well. Long as everyone’s confident, that’s that.” He cleared his throat and straightened up. “I do have an additional thought on this, which I’d prefer to share with you in private, Professor.”

“Of course,” Wrynst said hastily, bowing and taking a step back from the desk. “We can come back…”

“Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Tellwyrn. “Let’s not take up any more of your time than we must. If you will excuse us for just a moment?”

“Certainly!”

She nodded politely and gestured.

A distortion flickered across the office, as if a wall of frosted glass had appeared to separate Tellwyrn and Fedora from the guests. Behind it were revealed only vague shapes, and no sound penetrated.

“Well?” she asked, swiveling her chair to face him directly. “What do you think?”

“In short,” he said, “I think you have to go for it.”

She raised one eyebrow. “Oh, I have to, do I?”

“C’mon, don’t get all Tellwyrn on me,” he said with a grin. “You’ll do what you want, and we both know it. But in this case, with regard to your stated goals for this whole program? This is just too perfect to pass up. It’s dangerous and potentially incredibly valuable if it’s a success. It’s exactly the kind of research you launched this whole initiative to do. This is the first real test of the whole plan. If you’re not willing to take this on, it all becomes kind of…moot. This research hasn’t been done elsewhere because nobody was willing to touch it. If you’re not…what’s the point of the new research division?”

“Mm,” she grunted, glancing at the obscured shapes behind the barrier, which were now shifting slightly as they interacted with one another.

“There’s more,” Fedora said in a less jocular tone. “This is also the perfect opportunity to deal with the other thing I warned you about when you hired me. It’s not only incredibly dangerous, it deals with warlocks and demons—exactly the subject that gets people riled up and frightened. It is the ideal avenue of attack for your enemies to use against you.”

“And so,” she murmured, “by controlling the path my enemies take, I control their fates.”

He tilted his head. “Huh. I dunno why it should surprise me that you’ve read the Aveniad, but it does.”

“If anything it’s more surprising that you’ve read it,” she sighed.

“Some good, solid advice in there,” he replied, winking. “Take a little time to review the proposal in detail; that’ll give me a little time to make preparations for whoever’s gonna take advantage to try it. This is it, Professor. Make or break.”

“All right,” she said, suddenly brisk, and turned back to the desk. The barrier vanished, and the assembled magical specialists turned expectantly to her. “Very well, upon consultation with my head of campus security, I am strongly inclined to endorse this program. Obviously, I will need to review your proposal in detail; there may well be adjustments upon which I will have to insist.”

“Oh, of course,” Wrynst said quickly, nodding.

“But, barring some absolute dealbreaker in the fine print, I believe you have just become the proud progenitors of this University’s first major research project. Give me a few days to review in detail, consult with my faculty and make some arrangements. I shall try not to drag my feet about it.”

“Professor, we are glad to grant you whatever you need,” Wrynst assured her, glancing back at his compatriots and getting a chorus of affirmative nods. “After all, you are being more than generous with us.”

A soft chime sounded, and everyone shifted to look at Fedora, who pulled a large silver pocket watch from inside his coat and flipped it open.

“Ah,” he said in a tone of deep satisfaction. “Professor! You remember that thing you asked me to watch for yesterday? It’s happening.”

“What?” she exclaimed, shooting upright. “Already?”

“Yes, well,” Fedora said glibly, shutting the watch and putting it away again. “I may have encouraged it along a little bit.”

“I asked you,” she grated, “to watch for the sophomore class trying to sneak off campus, not to goad them into doing it!”

“I swear to you I’ve not said a word to them!” he replied, holding up his hands in surrender, but grinning unrepentantly. “I did, however, have a few selective words with Raffi at our poker game last night, on the assumption they’d find their way to Zaruda and onward from there. Sometimes, Professor, watching for bad behavior means strewing a few seeds. That’s how you find out which soil is the most fertile.” He winked at the delegates.

Tellwyrn growled wordlessly. “Mr. Wrynst, everyone, I’m sorry to cut this meeting short, but it appears I have something rather more urgent to attend to. If you will excuse me.”

“Not to worry, Professor, we…” Wrynst trailed off; Tellwyrn had vanished in the middle of his sentence.

“She does that a lot,” Fedora confided. “It’s all part of the charm.”

 

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12 – 13

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“The surface traces have already faded, your Majesty,” Colonel Azhai reported. “They likely began as soon as you opened the bathroom door; based on your description of the binding spell’s collapse, that was almost certainly the trigger to break it. A more in-depth analysis requires scrying of all affected surfaces, which my people are now doing. My apologies for the intrusion upon your apartments. We will be finished and gone as quickly as possible.”

“How much detail do you expect to find?” Eleanora asked.

Azhai pursed her lips in irritation. “I hesitate to make a prediction, your Majesty. A mage of Tellwyrn’s caliber is capable of arranging the spell to void all traces upon its collapse, in which case whether we can find anything will become a test of the Azure Corps’s skill against hers. Both parties have avoided that contest until now, so I’m unsure how to call it. Based on Tellwyrn’s known personality, however, it’s just as likely she didn’t bother. I must caution your Majesty again that I do not expect to learn anything of practical strategic value from this, either way. Containment spells of this kind are old, and quite standard.”

“Yes, so you’ve said,” Eleanora replied with a hint of impatience. “I understand, Colonel. Policy and principle demand as thorough an investigation as we can perform, however. Anything we may learn can be filed away against future incursions by Tellwyrn or other arcane threats. An ever more relevant concern, now that the city hosts at least one blue dragon as a welcomed guest.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Azhai said calmly. She looked more the part of the soldier than the sorceress; a stocky, square-faced woman in her fifties, with iron-gray hair and the rigid posture instilled by habitual military discipline. In truth, Eleanora rather liked the woman. Manaan Azhai was intimidated by nothing, including her Empress. The faint hint of ire she had just expressed had been known to reduce some of the Palace’s staff to gibbering puddles of frantic apology.

“Again, your Majesty—”

“Stop apologizing,” Eleanora ordered the Imperial Guardsman in exasperation. “The invasion of my personal space notwithstanding, neither I nor the Emperor, nor anyone else, was threatened. And had her intentions been hostile, there is little you could have done.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” the soldier said, still visibly unhappy. Well, it was good that the Imperial Guard took their duties so seriously, but she wouldn’t stand for them to start simpering about. Hopefully their embarrassment over this could be channeled into greater effort in the future—even though, as she had twice had to remind him now, they were by no means at fault.

Colonel Azhai cleared her throat discreetly. “There is another thing, your Majesty. Lady Isolde having been the focus of the spell, we may be able to learn more by examining her directly and in detail. A living person retains traces of magic in a different way entirely than inanimate objects, and it is more difficult to purge them. However, such scrying methods are by nature somewhat intrusive. I would not wish to—”

“Count me in,” Isolde said sharply. She nodded to Azhai, then to Eleanora. “Anything I can contribute, anything at all, you need only ask. It would be my pleasure.”

The Empress gave her a nod in return, along with a very tiny smile, the warmest she dared considering all the soldiers, servants, and mages now teeming about her chambers. It wasn’t as if her relationship with Isolde was a secret, but there were appearances to be maintained in front of others. That she took the care to maintain them sent a message in and of itself. As to the point, she well understood; there were few experiences as humiliatingly disempowering as being effortlessly manhandled by an archmage, and she wasn’t about to stand in the way of Isolde striking back at Tellwyrn, in whatever tiny way she could manage.

“That is greatly appreciated, my lady,” Azhai said diplomatically. “Any traces will fade rapidly, so time is a factor. If you would be good enough to join my scryers in our post?”

“Lead on, Colonel,” Isolde said, giving Eleanora a final smile before following the battlemage out into the hall. The Empress allowed herself to watch her go for a few seconds. There had been time only for a lingering hug when she had first entered the bathroom to retrieve her, and then…all this.

Another Imperial Guard entered as soon as the women had departed, marching up to the Empress and saluting crisply. “Your Majesty, the Emperor has been informed of these events and is on his way back to the harem wing.”

“I gave instructions that Imperial business was not to be disrupted for this,” Eleanora said dangerously. “I was explicitly clear.”

“Your orders were obeyed, your Majesty,” the soldier replied, unperturbed. A veteran of Palace service, he knew when her burgeoning fury was for dramatic effect, as opposed to promising real suffering, and Eleanora never penalized her people for doing their jobs. “His Majesty’s session with the security council concluded earlier than expected, and we notified him upon his emergence without interrupting the meeting.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Discreetly, I hope?”

“Of course, your Majesty. None of the other gentlemen present were permitted to overhear.”

“Good.” Very good. In point of fact, she had every intention of informing both Vex and Panissar of this invasion, the matter being relevant to both of their duties, but her general policy was that Bishop Darling needed to know not one more iota of information about Imperial business than absolutely necessary, and ideally less. He was likely to hear some version of these events anyway, eventually, but neither the man himself nor any of the powers to which he reported had any business getting involved in this. As for the Hand… They, too, would learn of it all soon, but she was more unsure of them by the hour.

As if summoned by her very misgivings, suddenly he was there.

“So,” the black-coated Hand said coldly, regarding her through narrowed eyes with an expression she had never seen one of them use, much less directed at herself, “you saw fit to deliberately deprive the Emperor of vital intelligence pertaining to this intrusion into the Palace.”

He had not been in the room previously, nor entered through any of its doors; Hands had never evinced any teleportation ability.

A split-second lull occurred surrounding the Empress, while in the background servants carried on tidying up the periphery of the room as if their diligence could erase the fact of Tellwyrn’s intrusion, while Azure Corps battlemages buzzed around the bathroom, conducting their own business. Closer at hand, though, the soldiers froze. Hands of the Emperor were known to posses the highest possible degree of trust, yet this one had just spoken directly to the Empress in a clearly accusatory manner.

An instant later, the two Imperial Guards subtly shifted to stand closer to her. Only one was carrying a staff, but he altered his grip almost imperceptibly. Half a second after that, the Army battlemage who had been attending Colonel Azhai likewise turned to face the Hand directly. Despite everything, Eleanora felt a little glow of satisfaction at the tiny show of loyalty. None of these troops would get aggressive with a Hand, and in all likelihood would be swiftly demolished by one if a fight broke out, but in a moment where their loyalties were confused and tested, it seemed their instinct was to defend her.

“The Emperor, as you just heard, has been informed,” she said in total calm, folding her hands at her waist. “In my opinion, the intrusion did not constitute a threat, and thus did not merit the disruption of Imperial business. I gave instructions that his Majesty was to be notified the moment doing so would not interfere with the prosecution of his duties. This was done. Alarming as Tellwyrn’s penetration of Palace defenses is, every step of the staff’s response has been extremely satisfactory.”

His nostrils flared once in a silent snort, and he opened his mouth to speak again.

“And you,” Eleanora continued in a lower tone, “will never again speak to me in that fashion. Is that understood?”

The Hand’s expression did not alter. “Allow me to be clear, your Majesty. I serve the Emperor. Any aid rendered to you in the course of this duty is entirely ancillary. Any threat to his Majesty, from any source, will be swiftly met and destroyed by the Emperor’s Hands.”

She was not blind to the danger of this situation. Tellwyrn had been right; something was wrong with this man. Hands had been a fixture in her life ever since she had moved into the Palace with Sharidan, and for all these years they had been consistent, even uniform. It was as if they shared a personality—an admirably discreet, disciplined personality. Further, no one had ever so much as hinted that she of all people had less than perfect trust. Something was affecting their minds—and considering the physical feats of which these men were capable, that made them an unparalleled threat, positioned as they were everywhere in the Palace. The three soldiers nearby and reflexively defending her could likely not bring him down. If the entire group of Azure Corps battlemages saw what was going on and intervened…maybe.

“That was perilously close to an accusation,” Eleanora said. Carefully, carefully. She could not afford to back down, both for the Hand’s sake and that of those watching. Weakness could never be displayed in her position. At the same time, she could not be too confrontational; he was clearly looking for a fight, and she couldn’t permit one to be found. “You are out of line and behaving unacceptably. Publicly sowing dissension at this level of the Imperial government poses a greater threat to his Majesty than anything Tellwyrn did today.”

That brought him up short; he actually blinked. Gratifying as it was to stymie his aggression, it only underlined the problem. Hands were never so expressive, or so easily discomfited.

“An apology would be appropriate,” Eleanora said in the same emotionless tone, “but not at this time, with this audience. The Emperor will of course want your full accounting of events at a time of his own choosing.”

She had intended it diplomatically, to throw him a bone and negate hostility, but his eyes immediately narrowed further, and she realized her error. To a belligerent, insecure mind, her acknowledgment of his importance took on another character entirely.

“That,” the Hand said coldly, “was perilously close to a threat.”

“I’m certain neither of us has anything to fear from the truth, or from our Emperor,” she said mildly. Could he hear her heart pounding? What were his powers? Dryads? Sharidan was damn well going to explain this in detail, and damn her for not insisting on it years ago. At least Isolde was out of the room; she would have defended Eleanora possibly to the extent of starting a fight.

“Just so,” the Hand snapped. “He is on his way here. You will wait to be questioned at his leisure. Secure her,” he ordered the two Imperial Guards.

A beat passed; the battlemage was wide-eyed and clearly frighteningly out of his depth. The Imperial Guards, fortunately, were made of sterner stuff.

“This chamber has been swept and secured, sir,” one said crisply. “The Empress is safe.”

The Hand actually bared his teeth, like a feral dog. “That is not what—”

“Ah, thank you.” Sharidan himself swept into the room, trailing Imperial Guards and for some damned reason his little pet Milanda, and Eleanora barely avoided physically sagging with relief. “I’ve been assured that all is well, here, but nonetheless I appreciate the certainty that my family is defended.”

He strode up to the group, a very picture of unflappable calm despite the very deliberate emphasis, and placed a hand on his Hand’s shoulder. “All’s well? Anything further to report?”

The Hand tightened his jaw. “The Azure Corps is still investigating, sir; a full report on the intrusion itself will be forthcoming. The Empress delayed notifying you.”

“Yes, quite so,” Sharidan said easily. “Interrupting my meeting would not have disturbed business unduly, but I prefer not to let it be known to some of those who were present that anything worth the interruption had occurred. Quick thinking as always, Eleanora. I shudder to think of managing this place without your aid.”

“Of course,” she said neutrally.

The Hand drew a short breath and released it in a soft huff. “Well, then. Since she and the Lady Isolde are the only direct witnesses—”

“Quite so,” the Emperor interrupted. “I was told there is no active threat, but I’m still understandably curious about this. I would like to hear your account in private, Eleanora. I trust your insight more than anyone’s.”

Again, the emphasis; the Hand squinted, but actually backed off a half-step. “Shall I have the other woman brought?”

“Isolde is currently under examination by the Azure Corps,” Eleanora said swiftly. “She is highly annoyed by Tellwyrn’s treatment of her and eager to help in any way, but I think it would inconvenience the mages to have her answering questions while they are trying to scry.”

“Quite so,” Sharidan repeated, nodding calmly. “That gives us an itinerary, then. We can speak with her after I’ve heard your account, and by that point she’ll be more than entitled to a little rest, I think. Would you join me in my own chamber, dear?”

“Of course,” she replied, taking his proffered arm.

The Hand hovered irritatingly about them as Sharidan led her from the room, Milanda trailing along behind their little procession. Hands never hovered. They were a silent presence, preternaturally skilled at being just where they were needed without being in the way. The Imperial couple regally ignored him until reaching the door of Sharidan’s personal chamber, at which point he turned to the offending Hand.

“Not to disparage the Azure Corps,” he said smoothly, “but we both know you have means of seeing things they do not. I want you to have another look at the Empress’s chamber, just for thoroughness’s sake.”

“Your Majesty,” the man said unhappily, “I would rather attend—”

“And,” Sharidan continued, “please be as quick as you can without sacrificing certainty. I’ll want you at hand when we speak with Lady Isolde, in case you can detect traces on her person that the Corps might miss.”

“Yes, sir,” the Hand said, bowing with ill grace, then turned on his heel and stalked back down the hall.

Milanda, to Eleanora’s irritation, slipped into the room ahead of them while this was transpiring. Not until they had all entered and the door was firmly shut behind them did the Emperor release a pent-up sigh of obvious relief, allowing consternation to show on his face.

“Eleanora, are you all right?” he demanded, grasping her by the shoulders.

“Fine,” she said wryly. “As is Isolde, albeit justly angered. The same goes for me. Tellwyrn, much as I dislike acknowledging it and despite her continuing overweening arrogance, is not the enemy here. In point of fact, she came specifically to give me a warning which I have just learned to be entirely justified.”

His eyes cut to the door as he released her and stepped back. “There’s a Hand at Last Rock right now. Is that one also…?”

“Yes,” she said curtly. “And she had several other fascinating tidbits to drop. Sharidan, they are all like this. What is going on, and what in Omnu’s name do dryads have to do with it?”

At that, he looked sharply at her, then at Milanda, who stood a few yards away, watching them in silence. Finally, he sighed and shook his head ruefully.

“Especially in light of all this, I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that Tellwyrn knows more than she ought. What else did she tell you?”

“That is not the point here,” Eleanora snapped, then cast a sharp look at Milanda, who to her annoyance did not flinch. “And does this discussion really require an audience?”

“When the Guard informed me of the break-in,” he replied evenly, “the message he relayed from you included an assurance that there was no crisis or danger. As such, I made a point of setting a leisurely pace in returning here. I don’t have to tell you the trouble that could result from anyone seeing me hurry through the halls for any reason, especially as we had to pass through public spaces. Had that been the end of it, there’s no telling how long I might have taken to reach you, or how that exchange you were having with the Hand would have progressed. I made it back this quickly because Milanda had been watching you, and ran to get me as soon as the Hand appeared.”

“I see,” Eleanora said, giving Milanda a grudging nod. The young lady bowed to her, face impressively impassive.

“In this room with me are the two living people I trust the most,” the Emperor continued firmly, “which is why it pains me to have to admit that I can’t give you the explanations you want, Eleanora.”

“I see,” she repeated acidly. “Can you at least explain why you can’t explain?”

“That, yes,” Sharidan replied with the ghost of a smile. “You understand the mechanic of state secrets which are Sealed to the Throne?”

“If they are spoken, the Hands immediately know,” she said. “Which, now that I consider it, sounds far more like a fairy geas than any arcane enchantment I ever heard, and makes this dryad business far more sensible.”

“Exactly,” he said with a sigh. “As part of the same effect, Eleanora, I can’t reveal to you where Hands come from, how they are made, or how they work. Physically cannot.”

“You know, Sharidan, how much I respected your mother,” she said with barely repressed fury, “but now that the moment is here, I find myself totally unsurprised that her paranoia is still putting us all in danger.”

He sighed and shook his head. “Well, regardless, I have to try to fix this…”

“You vanished at the first sign that one of the Hands was acting out of character,” she said sharply. “Didn’t you try already?”

“I did what I could,” he said reluctantly. “The truth is, I do not fully understand how…they work. No one does. I don’t know how the geas could have been affected, but the—” He broke off, then grimaced. “This is hard to talk about; I’m not used to being interrupted by my own… All right, this much I think I can say: any attempt to repair or change the magic powering the Hands will be, essentially, fumbling in the dark.”

“How dangerous is it?” Milanda asked suddenly.

“Extremely,” Sharidan said, giving her a solemn look. “At least potentially. The magic itself is not meant to be directly harmful, but accessing it is…hazardous.”

“Very well, then,” she said, nodding, and turning to look at the Empress. “We have contingencies in place for situations like this.”

“Exactly so,” Eleanora agreed, nodding back.

“Now just a moment,” Sharidan began.

“You wait a moment,” Eleanora ordered. “Thanks to these haywire Hands of yours, the Palace is not safe, and whatever secret lair you vanish into to govern them is equally unsafe, if not moreso. With no heir to the Silver Throne, your safety is absolutely paramount and cannot be risked. The Empire can survive losing its ruler, but the end of the Tirasian bloodline would precipitate a crisis.” She also had to discuss sylphreed with him, but set that aside for the moment in favor of the more urgent matter at hand. “Adapting our secret evacuation protocol to get you out of here without the Hands knowing will be very tricky, but we can do it.”

“The hard part will be keeping them off the scent,” Milanda said, frowning. “We can arrange a brief distraction that should suffice for even them. This matter is unlikely to be settled in a few hours or days, though. Possibly weeks. And they will find him if they decide to go looking.”

“It’s not that I don’t see your point, but this is not the solution!” Sharidan protested. “I have to fix this, or the problem won’t go away.”

“But you don’t know how,” Milanda pressed, gliding forward to wrap her arms around one of his. “Your Majesty, you said no one does. Is there any fae user you trust to try?”

He sighed heavily. “No. Anyone with the skill… It would take the likes of a green dragon, or perhaps a grove Elder, and the harm they could do with access to the—” He broke off as if something had seized his tongue, and grimaced in aggravation.

“So whoever goes to work on this will be feeling their way blind,” Eleanora said. “That places them in even more danger than the…geas…itself poses. Especially if there are dryads involved.”

“So each of our roles in this are quite obvious,” Milanda said, nodding. “Her Majesty will be needed to remain a public face in the Palace; with the Hands as they are, that places her in enough danger as it is. Her safety cannot be risked any further by exposing her to whatever magical mechanism has gone faulty and caused all this.”

“We will have to involve Vex in this,” Eleanora said thoughtfully. “His people can help secure the Palace, Hands or no Hands. They’ll also be necessary to secure you, once we get you safely away from the Palace.”

“And,” Milanda continued inexorably, “that leaves me to handle the Hands, geas, dryads, whatever.”

“Out of the question!” Sharidan burst out. “You have no idea what’s down there!”

“Then you’ll have to prepare me as best you can,” she said calmly. “Unless there is anyone else you trust more? Because it sounds to me as if trust is a greater concern than competence in fae magic, in this case. You are certainly no witch, yourself.”

“Milanda,” he said in a strained tone, wrapping an arm around her waist, “I don’t doubt your willingness or your cleverness, but this…”

“Now, see here,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “The Empire is positively awash with doe-eyed, empty-headed young beauties who would love to share your bed and offer nothing else of value. If that’s what you wanted, you’ve had plenty of opportunity to collect them. Instead, you have me. I am no one’s concubine, Sharidan, and I’ll not be treated as such. I am a courtier in this Palace, a loyal citizen, and…” Her tone grew more gentle, and she reached up to place a hand against his cheek. “I love you. You need to let me help.”

Eleanora sighed. “Leadership is sacrifice; this isn’t news to any of us. You know she’s right, Sharidan.”

He gave her a bitter look. “If it had been Isolde…”

“Then,” she replied flatly, “she would march straight into the danger. I would send her off without hesitation, and wait for the appropriate moment of privacy to weep into my pillow for her. You know me well enough to give me that much credit.”

The Emperor drew in a long breath, then pulled Milanda firmly against himself, squeezing her close and resting his chin atop her dark curls. She burrowed obligingly into his chest, rocking them slightly back and forth. Eleanora averted her eyes—out of respect, not embarrassment. Their peculiar little family had long since had to adapt its own ideas and practices concerning personal privacy.

“All right,” Sharidan said finally, releasing Milanda. “We have the bones of a plan, and a few points yet to refine. Best work out as much as we can now; I don’t know how long that excuse will keep the Hands off me, and we can’t afford to squander fresh ones, as we will certainly need to distract them again in the near future.”

“I’ll send for Quentin as soon as we are done here,” Eleanora agreed, nodding.

“And in the meantime…” He sighed and set his jaw firmly. “I will tell you as much as I can about what to expect…down there. You had better hear this too, Eleanora. Just in case. First and most importantly, whatever you may find in that…place…” He turned his gaze fully on Milanda, his eyes serious nearly to the point of being frantic. “Do not let it out.”

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