Tag Archives: Elin Ralstrind

Bonus # 17: Judgment and Justice, part 4

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Selim’s cell had a better view than some drow families, which both provided a way to get him out and presented the largest obstacle. Extracting him through the house itself was not possible, not without explaining what he was doing with the slave (which he couldn’t), so they would have to go through the window. The family’s apartments in House Vyendir’s hold were along the wall overlooking the agricultural cavern, a position which had long been Vrashti’s greatest source of pride, at least until she acquired the human. The cells were below the family’s chambers, but still several stories above the cavern floor. Also, while it might be night for the Imperials, it was just the second dayshift for Narisians, and personnel from House Dalmiss and who knew what other visitors were about in the agricultural caverns, where they would surely observe someone climbing a wall and breaking open a barred window.

No amount of wracking his brain produced any means of climbing the wall and opening the window unseen. As the Gray Cleric had suggested, Tazun approached the problem from the standpoint of the tools and abilities he could secure and use easily. His first thought was stonecloth, which as an established crafter he could obtain from the markets without arousing interest. It was just that: a form of cloth which resembled stone enough to fool even elvish eyes—when draped. This was commonly used as a backdrop for various displays, and he already owned some small swatches. He could maybe hide the window with it, but could think of no use for that, and it would be no help in reaching the window. A patch of stone shaped like a cloaked person climbing a wall would probably bring soldiers faster than just the sight of a man doing so.

Unfortunately, his ideas only went downhill from there, to the point that he was seriously considering making a couple of stonecloth cloaks and hoping nobody in the entirety of the agricultural caverns happened to so much as glance at the entrance, where Houses Vyendir and Dalmiss bracketed the main path from the city proper. In which case it was starting to look like his best option would be to just climb the wall and throw himself off.

Distracted by his ruminations as he paced through the streets, Tazun quite literally stumbled upon the answer. Not paying attention to where he was going, he had to bring himself to an awkwardly sudden halt to avoid plowing into a city drudge refreshing the glowstalks lining a market street. He apologized effusively, as his carelessness demanded, and the woman answered him with a diffident nod and murmured acknowledgment, as was proper given their respective stations and the circumstance.

And he suddenly realized that there was more than one kind of invisibility. The eyes of elves were hard to fool, but Narisians were accustomed to deliberately ignoring one another—so long as the person they saw was doing what they were expected to do.

In the end, Tazun had to practically beggar himself, unloading all his finished pieces to a wholesaler at well below their value for the sake of making the sale quickly, and even to part with much of his stock of raw materials and, more painfully yet, tools.

Much as that hurt, the reality was that he would be all but finished in Tar’naris once this business was done with,anyway. He hadn’t yet gotten as far in his thinking as planning what to do next, in large part because he was afraid to consider it. To betray one’s mother and family in this manner merited disownment at the least; Vrashti was not cruel, but she could be temperamental, and he wasn’t sure how much it would matter that he had been heavily coerced into this. To her, or to him, since his own conscience supported freeing Selim, and he didn’t think he would be able to lie to her during the inevitable confrontation. Maybe he could go to House Awarrion and demand some compensation for the hardship. Nahil, he suspected, would lack sympathy, but Matriarch Ashaele had a reputation as a reasonable woman, as did her elder daughter Heral. Or, forgotten hells, maybe he should just go to live with the humans. A mother betrayer would find Tar’naris a hostile place to live once word spread.

Obtaining clothes suitable for a workman was easy and inexpensive; what demanded most of his worldly resources was the scaffold. A traditional one would take far too long to erect, assuming such was even physically possible for one man working alone. Quite apart from the deadline set upon him by Sidewinder, the longer he was messing about on the wall, the likelier a patrolling soldier or agent of House Vyendir would come along and demand to know what he was doing and who had authorized it—and many of the second group would recognize him. Thus, he had to rent a levitating work platform, an import from the surface. The good news was that it doubled as its own cart; the bad was the price. Tazun was keenly and irritably aware that he was paying, with his life’s work and savings, for novelty and transport costs. The thing had probably cost a lot less for some enchanting factory in Tiraas to make than the wood and metal of a standard scaffold would have in Tar’naris.

At least it was easy enough to control. Before he could believe it was happening, he and his rented platform—piled not only with the tools and supplies he needed but some loose masonry he had picked up to complete the disguise—were at the base of the wall outside House Vyendir’s residence, peering upward to count windows. He blessed the peace and cooperation of Tar’naris. In any Scyllithene city, and in many human ones from what he’d heard, a noble House would have such guards on its premises that getting near any exterior window, much less a prison cell, would require nothing less than a full-scale invasion. As it was, his main concern was ensuring he had picked the right cell to which to ascend. There weren’t so many that were walled by bars, and after living here his entire life, he could identify the one by mentally reconstructing what the window arrangement in his family’s apartment would look like from the outside. If he was wrong, he was about to have an embarrassing encounter—and hopefully no worse than that.

He’d been right, though, about invisibility. Two patrolling soldiers passed him while he was maneuvering the scaffold into position under the window; both glanced curiously at him, but didn’t address him or even slow. He was half surprised they couldn’t hear the thudding of his heart. Another woman came by in the opposite direction almost as soon as they were gone, a member of House Vyendir from a family who lived not far from Tazun’s own. He had known her his whole life, albeit not closely, and she would certainly have recognized him, had she bothered to look at his face. She did not. A man in low-caste clothes doing base work clearly did not merit so much as a glance. Grateful as he was, Tazun was beginning to feel remorseful for how he’d treated drudges all his life.

The device rose smoothly and slowly once directed by the control rune, the soft hum of its levitation charms rising in intensity until it would probably be audible even to a human. Despite his initial unease, it did not wobble, list, or in any way indicate that it wasn’t moving on solid rails, and Tazun found himself impressed as he had never been with human enchanting work. It didn’t rise quickly, of course, but that was probably for the best. Reaching the level of the cell window took only a few minutes.

Then he was there, and it was time.

He was just just pressing his face to the bars to verify that this was the right place when Selim’s eyes appeared right in front of his own, startling him so badly that for a moment he feared he was about to fall.

“Whoah, take it easy,” the human said in some alarm when Tazun slumped against the outer wall, panting and pressing a hand to his heart. “Also…hi? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I could swear the door’s on the other side of the room.”

“Yes, yes, you are hilarious,” Tazun growled. “I’m breaking you out, obviously. Get back from the bars. The only silent way to remove them involves acid, which you do not want to touch.”

Selim obediently move back, but his dark eyes remained fixed on his rescuer while Tazun very, very carefully moved the bottle of stone softener he had purchased into place. Its mouth was designed for precise pouring, and he set about very carefully dabbing it around the base of each of the five vertical bars set in the open window. The stone immediately began to sizzle and steam; he had been assured the resulting gas was not toxic or dangerous, but averted his face anyway. Safety aside, the smell was sharp and unpleasant.

Applying a liquid would not work on the upper surface, so a different approach was necessary to remove the bars at the top. After considering his options, Tazun had ultimately decided not to. Rather than working on their stone housing, he once again resorted to Tiraan enchantment. The charm torch was something he had been eying with envy for quite a while, but could never justify the expense as it was clearly designed for larger applications of very hard metals, and thus not particularly useful to a jeweler. Its heatless flame would reduce metal temporarily to a malleable state. Really, with gadgets like these available, the things humans must be able to build now…

But it wasn’t time for that yet. Once the stone softener was all correctly applied and the bottle securely (very securely) re-corked and set aside, he began setting up the poles and tarp that would shield the scaffold from outside view. People would not bother with a workman mucking about on the wall, but somebody climbing out of a barred window would raise an outcry if anyone in the cavern below happened to notice it.

“Why are you doing this?” Selim asked quietly, and Tazun sighed. Well, it was an obvious question, after all.

“It is the right thing to do,” he said simply, keeping his eyes on his work. The scaffold was cleverly designed, with slots along its side and base meant to hold poles for various purposes. Assembling the improvised awning wasn’t difficult at all.

Selim left him alone for half a minute before responding, in such a tone that Tazun could hear his grin. “The Guild got to you, didn’t they?”

“My people are not as hard of hearing as yours,” Tazun retorted. “The less talking, the better.”

“All right, all right,” the human said peaceably. “Look…whatever they did or didn’t do, I’m still grateful as hell for this. I’m pretty sure you bringing me the food was all your own idea, right?”

Tazun sighed as he lashed the last edge of the tarp in place. “Yes. And yes, the Guild reached me. Them and House Awarrion.” Satisfied it was solidly in position, he turned to meet Selim’s curious gaze. “And it is still the right thing to do. I am only shamed that it took outside pressures to spur me into acting.”

Selim nodded. “I get that. Look… Respect for your mother is a big deal in your culture, right?”

“The biggest deal,” Tazun said, sorely tempted to let some of his emotion past his public face, just to slap the man with it. “Some might argue the only deal.”

He nodded again, his own face serious. “Then what you’re doing is a hell of a thing, in your position. Seriously, my friend, I will owe you hugely for this. I’d shake your hand, but…y’know.” He grinned, stepped back, and bowed. “I’m Selim Darousi.”

“Also known as Squirreltail, I’m aware,” Tazun replied, bowing back. “Tazun tyl Vrashti n’dar Vyendir. Possibly the last time I will be able to introduce myself as such… All right, stand back, please.”

The stone softener was no longer smoking, which was supposed to signal that its work was done. With an awl he had acquired more for camouflage than because he expected to use it, Tazun prodded at the base of one iron bar, and found that it was set in a clumpy mixture of sand and dust.

“Hey, that is a neat trick,” Selim observed, sounding fascinated.

“Indeed,” Tazun agreed, picking up the charm torch. “This one is neater. Assuming it works.”

“Let’s hope for that, yeah. What’s it do?”

Rather than answering, he held its nozzle in place and pressed his thumb to the rune atop its handle. The nozzle glowed. Supposedly, that was all it should be doing, but it seemed wrong; there was no visible change in the state of the iron at the top.

After a few seconds, though, he deactivated the torch, grasped the bar, and pushed. It shifted inward easily, the loosened base giving away without effort and the point at the top where he’d applied the charm flexed like a mushroom stalk.

“You, sir, are a genius,” Selim marveled.

“Whoever designed this device was a genius,” Tazun corrected. “I am a craftsman. To my mind, that’s just as good.”

“Man, from my position I’m not about to argue.”

“All right, we’ll bend the bars inward, not out; less likely they’ll be noticed that way, at least until someone comes to check on you. I’ll use the torch, you pull; the faster this is done, the better.”

“You got it.”

It turned out he had been overly generous with the charm torch. With Selim pulling on the bars as soon as he applied it, they started shifting almost immediately—not as easily as the first one, but the iron became flexible enough after only a second’s application for the human’s superior strength to bend it. Between them, they had the rest of the bars out of the way in barely a minute.

Defacing ironwork in House Vyendir. Someone was likely to take this as a personal insult. Well, someone in addition to his poor mother.

Tazun chanced a glance down at the floor of the cave through one of the thin gaps in the folded tarp. He could see people moving about in the cultivated fields beyond, but no one was nearby.

“The stone softener should be inert by now,” he said, “but all the same, try to grip the edge away from the places where it was used.”

“There’s not much away to grip,” Selim said doubtfully. “My hands are bigger than yours.”

“Ah. Here.” Tazun swiftly pulled off the heavy work gloves he’d worn to protect his own hands from the acid. They were overlarge and bulky on him, enough that they fit the human’s hands adequately.

Selim’s exit through the window was utterly human: he had significant upper body strength and had no problem hoisting himself up and over, but wriggling through was so awkward it almost hurt to watch, and he tumbled gracelessly to the platform once past the opening. Fortunately the scaffold’s hovering charms were top quality; it remained as steady as the living rock of the cave. Nonetheless, Tazun glanced worriedly at the glass tube of enchanting dust next to the control runes. Still mostly full. The thing was designed to stay up all day, after all.

The Eserite was back on his feet in a bound, though, grinning hugely and drawing in a deep breath through his nose. “Freedom!”

“Not nearly,” Tazun said curtly. “And keep your voice down. That was the easy part; the city won’t be as simple to escape.” He opened the lid of the large tool chest he had purchased, which was sitting, empty, next to the pile of unused stone.

“Please tell me you have a plan for getting out of town,” Selim said, his expression suddenly worried.

“I don’t,” Tazun replied, “but I’ve made arrangements to get you to the Imperial enclave. I have friends among the soldiers there. They will have to get you the rest of the way; I assume they have the resources. Getting there will be the fun part. Into the box, please.”

Selim winced, staring at the open chest. “Oh…hell. Just when I thought I was done being cooped up…”

“Maybe you’d like it back in your cell?”

“All right, all right, I’m going.” Despite his grudging tone, the thief grinned at him as he clambered into the chest. “Did you remember to poke air holes in this?”

“The lid isn’t airtight, I checked,” Tazun said. “Hurry, please, you need to be out of sight before I can pull the tarp down.”

“You really do think of everything, huh?” Selim replied. “Seriously, this is a well-planned job. You’d make a pretty good thief.”

“I am a craftsman,” Tazun retorted, indulging in the smallest measure of audible rancor as he pushed the lid down on the folded human. At least Selim was flexible; he’d been a little worried about cramming him into the chest, but it stood to reason that a thief would be able to bend.

He worked as quickly as he could without impairing his hand-eye coordination, or seeming to be in haste. There was no good reason for a mason performing wall repairs to be in a hurry, and he didn’t want attention. Even so, it was only a few minutes later that they were drifting to rest at the base of the wall, the scaffold’s hover charm bringing it a few feet short of the ground.

Tazun was beginning to worry about Selim; there was no sound of protest from within the chest, but it occurred to him that at the speed this thing moved, the trip to the Imperial enclave might be worse than merely uncomfortable. He couldn’t check on his passenger at the moment, though, because a drow man was approaching along the wall, hands folded demurely at his waist and moving in a stately glide that suited his expensive robes.

Tazun didn’t recognize him as a member of House Vyendir, but obviously he didn’t know them all; he stepped back off the path to the side of his scaffold and bowed low, both in keeping with his role of a low-caste workman, and to hide his face.

The man stopped in front of him, and his heart plummeted. Keeping his face neutral as always, he straightened up. “Well met.”

The drow grinned broadly and winked at him, replying in Tanglish. “Well, right back atcha, Taz. See, I knew you could do it! You just needed a little push, is all.”

He could only gape at him.

The lid of the chest rose a few inches. “I know that voice,” Selim said from within, peeking out. “Sidewinder? You’re the one who leaned on this poor guy? You should be ashamed.”

“Aw, don’t be like that,” the drow with Sidewinder’s voice said cheerfully. “You don’t even know what I did. Does he?” he asked, turning to Tazun, who just stared.

“I don’t need to know,” Selim retorted. “You should always be ashamed. General principles.”

“Well, I can’t really argue with that, I guess!”

“What are you doing here?” Tazun hissed, finally finding his voice. He glanced furtively up and down the wall. No one was within drow earshot.

“Oh, come on, you didn’t really think I was going to leave you to handle something like this all on your lonesome,” Sidewinder replied with a total lack of remorse. “Actually, I’m quite impressed with the plan you put together, kid. This is almost Guild-quality work—you’ve got care and a good eye for detail. But I made damn sure to be nearby in case you needed backup, just the same. But enough about that!” He stepped up onto the platform and knelt, holding out a silver ring to Selim. “Squirreltail, will you marry me?”

“Aww,” Selim cooed, grinning madly, “you always did know how to make a lady feel special!”

Tazun stared at them, nonplussed. Based on their jocular tone, this had to be human humor. In Tar’naris, a man referring to himself as a lady was asking to be kicked in the jewels. Tazun didn’t bother to dwell on that, though, watching in disbelief as Selim slipped the ring onto his own forefinger and transformed instantly into another well-dressed drow man.

“Don’t worry, I didn’t forget you,” Sidewinder said to Tazun, offering him another identical ring.

He didn’t move to take it. “But…I’m already a drow.”

“Yes,” Sidewinder said patiently. “You are a specific drow, who will quite shortly be much sought after to give explanations that I’m sure you don’t want to. For now, and until we reach the enclave, were just three perfectly ordinary and anonymous Narisian lads out for a walk.”

“Take it,” Selim advised, climbing down to street level. “He’s right, this’ll draw much less attention than this hover-cart. I don’t think these things are all that common here. Honestly, they’re not even that common topside.”

Tazun sighed, but accepted the ring and put it on. The illusion had no physical sensation, but looking down at himself was discomfiting nonetheless. His illusory identity was much wealthier than he, to judge by the quality of his robes… But Tazun was comfortable with his own body and identity. He’d felt it under enough attack lately without turning against it like this.

But it was what it was, and the humans were right. This was a better extraction plan than his own.

As they made their casual way toward the gate back into Tar’naris proper, he glanced back once at the hovering cart, abandoned at the base of the wall. It would quickly reveal exactly what had happened here, and also this was a breach of his contract with its owner. But more than that, it represented everything Tazun had ever had.

Everything he was leaving behind.


The response was indeed swift, but not swift enough.

“Tazun d’what, now?” Corporal Hayes asked innocently. The door to the antechamber of the barracks had been left cracked just wide enough that those inside could hear the conversation without. Other soldiers chattered and went about their business in the background, obscuring any small sounds Tazun’s group might make. As he understood it, it was yet early for the soldiers to be up; he didn’t know what relationship the Thieves’ Guild had with the military, but clearly the squadron were very sympathetic to Selim’s plight.

He, Tazun, Elin, and Sidewinder all clustered as silently as possible against the wall behind which Hayes sat at his desk, dealing with the House Vyendir representative who had appeared only moments previously, just barely too late to catch them.

“Tazun tyl Vrashti n’dar Vyendir,” the drow said tonelessly. “Vrashti’s son; she is also the owner of an escaped slave who is being sought. He might answer to the name Salaam Drushti. The diplomatic officer on duty in the main compound suggested you might know something of this.”

Selim rolled his eyes; Sidewinder grinned so widely it appeared he might hurt his face.

“Oh, do you mean Selim Darousi?” Hayes said innocently. “Sure, he’s here. Poor guy’s had kind of a hard day, as I understand it. I don’t know anything about any Tayzon, though, sorry.”

“That man is a duly tried and convicted criminal,” the Vyendir representative said calmly. “Per the terms of our treaty, you are obligated to immediately return him to his purchaser’s lawful custody.”

“Per the terms of our treaty,” Hayes replied, “he is entitled to contest his conviction and sentencing and have the matter reviewed by Tiraan diplomats. Apparently he was not only specifically denied this right at trial, but by some unfortunate mix-up was moved around so quickly afterward that the ambassador’s office wasn’t able to track him down to his current location. How very fortunate that he turned up here, eh? We wouldn’t want Miss Vrashti to be owning a Tiraan citizen under improper circumstances. How very embarrassing that would be.”

There was a short pause.

“All transfers of slave contracts are thoroughly reviewed by House Vyendir’s solicitors before being ratified,” the representative said finally. “If any impropriety occurred, it is not the fault of Vrashti or her House. Unless the slave is returned, she will require and is entitled to expect monetary compensation for his loss and for all associated inconveniences.”

“Well, that’s fine,” Hayes said equably. “She can file a grievance with the ambassador’s office. I’m reasonably confident there will be no unfortunate mix-ups with that paperwork. Our clerks are very dedicated to taking proper care of rich drow who clearly think of our entire species as cattle. Meanwhile, Selim Darousi is under the protection of this embassy, and no one’s getting a brass penny for any inconvenience they’ve suffered by abducting him.”

“Please be careful, Corporal,” the drow said tonelessly. “An accusation of abduction can have serious consequences.”

“An abduction itself can have serious consequences,” Hayes replied gravely.

“Corporal, I find that you are being unnecessarily confrontational about this matter, and will be discussing that with your superiors in the embassy, as well.”

“I wish you the very best of luck with that.”

“I strongly advise, sir, that you cooperate with the law and treaty. If Vrashti does not receive satisfaction in one form or another, she may well pursue this matter in person. I assure you, sir, you do not want that.”

“I assure you, sir, you are mistaken.” Hayes’s voice had suddenly gone cold. “This Vrashti has deliberately abused the spirit of the treaty to even more personally abuse a Tiraan citizen for her own personal gain. I would love nothing more that for her to show her face here. After I’ve punched her in the teeth, she can learn firsthand about crooked trials where witnesses only saw what they’re told to have seen. I think that would be a valuable lesson in empathy for her.”

Selim looked serenely smug, while Sidewinder was physically struggling to control his laughter. Elin, though, had reached over to grab Tazun’s wrist, squeezing it comfortingly and gazing up into his eyes, her expression serious and sympathetic. He had, in fact, made a reflexive jerk toward the door at the direct threat to his mother, but just as quickly got himself back under control. With a soft sigh, he nodded to her, and did not pull his hand away.

“Threatening a well-ranked lady of Tar’naris can have very severe consequences, Corporal,” the representative said in the same even tone. “I assure you, I will be reporting every detail of this conversation to the requisite authorities in both your government and mine.”

“I’m sorry, threatening who?” Hayes asked innocently. “Private Shaffar, did you hear someone threatening a lady of Tar’naris?”

“Sorry, sir,” the other soldier present replied, her tone overtly smug. “Didn’t catch that. You know how poor human hearing is.”

Another silence fell.

“Thank you for your time, Corporal.”

“Drop by anytime!” Hayes said brightly. “The door is always open to our very good and trusted friends in House Vyendir!”

Sidewinder managed to wait until the heavy outer door had boomed shut after the representative before collapsing in laughter. Selim just sad back on one of the soldiers’ bunks, smiling beatifically.

“You okay, Taz?” Elin asked softly, still holding his wrist and watching his face.

“Not really,” he admitted. “All right…not even remotely. I have no idea what’s going to happen to me know… But, for all of that, I feel…very satisfied.” He looked over at Selim, who nodded deeply to him. “This was a good thing. I’m glad to have been a part of it.”

A warm smile spread across Elin’s face. It was the most beautiful thing he recalled seeing in the last week.

“Well, I’m glad you’re all enjoying yourselves,” Hayes said dryly, pushing through the door into the barracks. “Right now we need to make some plans concerning what to do with all of you. Darousi, how quickly do you think you’ll be able to travel?”

“Can’t wait to get rid of me, huh, Corporal?” Selim asked with a grin.

The soldier grunted, but his expression remained amiable. “I’ve checked in with a few sympathetic ears in the diplomatic corps while we were waiting to see if you lot made it back. They’re reasonably confident there’s no risk of you having to be returned to this Vrashti, now that you’re back in Imperial hands, but with bureaucrats it’s always better safe than sorry. Once you’re out of Tar’naris, that drops to no chance. Even if House Vyendir is willing to pursue the matter past the borders, House Awarrion won’t help, and the Imperial authorities would completely blow off a claim like this. So, the sooner you’re out of town, the safer.”

“Right,” Selim said, getting to his feet. “In that case, I feel ready to embark on my next adventure this very moment!”

“You may want to scrounge up a shirt, first,” Elin said wryly.

“Bah, they’ve got shirts in Fort Vaspian,” Selim said cheerfully, turning back to Tazun. “Well, my friend, it seems Sidewinder and I are going to be out of your hair before I have the chance to pay you back for this. Don’t think that means I’ll forget it, because you have my word, that’ll never happen. I owe you big.”

“Actually,” Sidewinder said lazily, “you’ve got that the wrong way ’round. I still have some business in Tar’naris, but our good buddy Taz will be heading back to Tiraas with you.”

Selim blinked. “Oh?”

“What?” Tazun frowned at him. “I am? Since when?”

“Well, guess this is as good a time as any,” Sidewinder said, straightening up from his slouch. “C’mon, Taz, let’s have a quick word somewhere private.”

“Um…”

“You don’t have to do anything, Tazun,” Elin said firmly. The look she directed at Sidewinder made him reconsider the relationship between the Guild and the military.

“Now, what do you take me for?” the thief said reproachfully. “Taz here has just gone way out on a limb to do an Eserite an enormous favor, at considerable risk and cost to himself. The hell we’re just gonna throw that away! The Guild takes care of its friends, but, you know how it is. There are some aspects of our business that aren’t for audiences.”

“I don’t know if I like the sound of that…” Tazun said, frowning harder.

“You should be fine,” said Hayes, glancing between them. “It’s usually best to hear Eserites out when they want something, Tazun, and even if he meant you harm, he wouldn’t do anything here. You gentlemen can borrow the sarge’s office for a bit.”

“Nobody has any faith in me,” Sidewinder complained. “That’s what’s wrong with the world.”

Elin shifted her grip to Tazun’s hand, and squeezed it, looking questioningly up at him. He squeezed back, nodded to her again, and somewhat reluctantly let go.

The office was at the opposite end of the barracks; the other soldiers glanced at them curiously in passing, but didn’t address them. Moments later, Sidewinder was shutting the door, closing them into the small, neatly organized space.

“Now, here’s the slightly awkward fact of the matter,” the thief said in a cheerful tone, strolling around behind the sergeant’s desk and helping himself to a seat. “Getting Squirreltail out was a big part of the operation, yes, but not the whole deal.”

“What’s the whole deal?” Tazun asked suspiciously.

“Well, you see, our good friends over at House Awarrion are very concerned with this slave trade; they want to lean hard on the people benefiting from it. And that aligns very nicely with the Guild’s own goals. Eserites, you see, don’t just steal; we have a religious obligation to deliver humility and comeuppance to people who abuse their power or wealth at the expense of others. Stealing your mother’s prized possession was only half the response to her enslaving a member of the Guild. The other half is delivering pain.”

Tazun clenched his fists, taking an impulsive step forward and glaring openly. “If you even dare—”

“Shut the hell up.” Sidewinder had his feet propped up on the desk, now, and his hands behind his head, but despite his lazy posture, his face was suddenly hard and cold. And something in his eyes warned Tazun not to attempt what he’d been about to. “Let me make this clear to you, kid: you are not being asked for anything. I’m tellin’ you how it is. And how it is is this: your mother is going to suffer for what she did. Now, it seems to me the easiest and most convenient way is for her to lose her son. So, you will be going back to Tiraas with Squirreltail, where the Guild will make good on its debt to you by helping you settle in as generously as possible, and Vrashti will be told that we’ve brought you to an excruciating end. While she mourns that, the story will leak across the whole city, and even before we start working on the next knife-eared fucker who thinks humans exist for their amusement, people will start reconsidering this whole ‘slaving’ thing.”

“You can’t possibly think I’ll help you in this,” Tazun snapped. “There is nothing you can say or do to make me hurt my mother!”

Sidewinder actually laughed at him. “Ahh, you poor, dumb kid. I kinda love how you drow have grown up not knowing about the Guild; there’s a freshness to this whole experience. Did you know, Tazun, that there’s actually a slave trade in the Empire? It’s true. And it’s pretty much exactly like the one in Tar’naris in every particular. We’ve got industry, enchantment, golems…nobody needs slaves for any legitimate purpose. Only people who have ’em are rich fuckheads who just get off on the power of it. Collectors…mostly of the rare, and exotic.” He smiled blandly. “Do you know what a well-bred, attractive drow woman—like, oh, let’s say, your sister Syraal—is worth on the right market?”

Tazun stared at him in frozen horror.

Very slowly, Sidewinder straightened up, lowering his hands and tucking his feet back under the desk. His expression fell flat again, until he was staring up at Tazun with eyes as predatory and unfeeling as a snake’s.

“I do.”

He held Tazun’s gaze for another long moment, then stood and stepped back around the desk to pass him and grasp the doorknob.

“Go to Tiraas, Tazun,” he said calmly. “Start your new life. Enjoy it. As thanks for your help, I’m giving you the opportunity to help us stick it to your mother without actually harming your family. If you don’t want to accommodate me in that, well…” He shrugged, again wearing that friendly smile. “I’ve gotta tell you, I don’t care all that much one way or the other.”

Sidewinder opened the door and strolled out, whistling.

By the time Tazun collected himself and returned to the others, Sidewinder had been and gone, and somebody had given Selim a shirt. Elin was watching him approach with open worry; he double-checked his public face, and found it mostly intact. Enough to pass general muster in Narisian society, but…

“What happened?” Elin demanded as soon as he was close enough for conversation. “What did he say?”

“I…” Tazun paused, swallowed heavily, and squared his shoulders. “He, um, made a pretty good case. What with the trouble I’ll be in here, going to Tiraas is probably my best bet. He said the Thieves’ Guild would help me, you know, settle in.”

“Hell yes they will,” Selim affirmed, nodding emphatically. “I will personally pull every string I can reach to make it happen—but honestly, Tazun, it won’t be hard. For the kind of favor you did for me, and for us, the Guild won’t be skimpy with its gratitude. Hell, I’ll talk with the Bishop, he loves helping interesting new people.”

“Tazun.” Elin’s voice was both insistent and gentle. She stepped forward, taking both his hands in her own. “Are you okay?”

“I’m. I.” He swallowed again, and forced a smile. “Of course I am. I mean, apart from…that is you know…”

“I know,” she said softly. “But you look less okay than when you went in there with that man.”

“It’s just,” he said lamely, “the stress…”

“Threatened your family, didn’t he?” Selim said. Tazun whipped his gaze to the thief, and he sighed. “Yeah… Sidewinder is a creatively vicious piece of shit, Taz. Soon as I saw he was the one they’d sent, I had a feeling this was gonna end very badly for someone.”

“Oh, my gods,” Elin whispered, eyes widening.

“Let me guess,” Selim continued grimly. “You get to go peacefully to Tiraas and he tells your mother we slit your throat, right? To punish her. Otherwise someone’s actual throat gets slit.”

Tazun clenched his jaw, not trusting himself to form words. He managed to nod.

And then suddenly Elin was in his arms, her face buried in his shoulder, squeezing him firmly.

Selim shook his head. “He’s got the Guild’s backing and I can’t contradict him here. But I’ll tell you what. Soon as we hit Tiraas, we’ll have a telescroll sent to Fort Vaspian and make sure your mother’s notified you’re okay.”

For the first time in all this madness oddly, Tazun found himself wanting to actually cry. “You’d do that? Go against your own Guild, for…”

“Not for her,” Selim said firmly. “I mean no offense, but I’ve got ample reason not to give a damn about that woman.”

“I can certainly understand that,” Tazun agreed.

“But,” the thief continued, reaching past Elin’s shoulder to place a hand on Tazun’s, “for you, my friend? If I can do it, you name it.”

“Thank you,” Tazun managed, nodding.

Elin finally pulled back, looking up at him earnestly. “All right, look. My tour’s up really soon, just three months. I was going to re-enlist, but screw it. I’ll come back to Tiraas.”

“Elin,” he protested, “please don’t upset your career! Your own life—”

She had to stand on her toes to kiss him, but he found himself as firmly silenced as he had ever been in his life. And, also, suddenly keenly conscious of her scent, of the feel of her in his arms…

Selim cleared his throat after a few long (but not long enough) moments, and finally they parted.

“Sometimes,” Elin said softly, giving him a brilliant smile and reaching up to lay one hand on his cheek, “you have to do the reckless thing.”

“I think,” he replied, allowing himself to smile right back, “I’ve recently learned that lesson very well.”

“It’ll be great!” Selim said cheerfully. “We’ll arrange a place for you in Lor’naris—not that you have to live there in particular, but it’ll probably be the easiest place to start when you’re getting settled in.”

“Lor’naris?” Tazun said, turning to frown quizzically at him. He’d never heard that contraction before; it translated as “faraway home.”

“The drow district in Tiraas,” Elin explained.

“There’s a drow district?” he exclaimed.

“Sort of,” Selim said, grinning. “I’ll give you the whole history on the ride there. But yeah, we’ll set you up with a place and whatever you need to get started as a jeweler there. Hell, you’ll be richer than me within a year—I bet they don’t see a lot of authentic Narisian jewelry in the capital.” His smile relaxed slightly, becoming a less enthusiastic but warmer expression, and he squeezed Tazun’s shoulder. “This is a hell of a thing right now, I know, but I promise you, friend. You’re going to be okay.”

Tazun subtly tightened his grip on Elin, feeling her squeeze him back even as she gave him that blinding smile he had come to love so much. “You know… I think you’re right. I actually will.”

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Bonus # 16: Justice and Judgment, part 3

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By the time he had detoured home yet again to collect what he needed and made the trek to the royal palace at the center of Tar’naris, Tazun had recovered enough of his equilibrium to avoid shaming himself publicly, at least. Only his strict Narisian upbringing enabled him to keep it in place. At least he hadn’t been called upon to enact any kind of elaborate plan; going for help, the only help he could think of, had been his first and only thought, and seeing that through had at least given him an attainable goal upon which to focus, rather than the mounting panic of his situation.

Or rather, he had been called upon to not only enact an elaborate plan, but somehow think of one first. He was doing this instead.

Situated on an island in the center of the lake around which the city was built, the palace was both highly defensible and a thing of beauty. Carved from a huge formation of living rock into a roughly pyramidal shape bedecked with terraces and angular spires, its walls were still adorned by the native crystals which had been all over this immense cavern when the drow had first moved in. Over millennia of conservative mining, never taking more than they needed both for crafts and to clear the way for construction, Tar’naris had cleared out much of the glittering gems, while leaving others strategically placed and cut into facets while still in their native housing, frequently augmented with nearby luminescent mushrooms to make them sparkle bewitchingly. The walls of the Queen’s palace held the greatest concentration by far, of both intact crystals and luminous fungus, and the island resembled a massive jewel itself.

Clutching his sample case, currently replete with the very best of all his available work, Tazun made his way across the long bridge toward the palace, nodding respectfully to the soldiers as he passed. They ignored him, mostly, though a few gave him very direct looks. In theory, he had a perfect right to be here and wasn’t about to try setting foot anywhere that was off-limits to the likes of him, but most of those who visited the Queen’s home were far more richly dressed than he—or, in the case of Imperial visitors, at least more exotic. Here, all the guards were female. Only the unequivocal best served this close to the Queen.

Upon reaching the island itself, he immediately went to the right, to the temple of Themynra situated against the base of the edifice. An unprepossessing structure, it had an open front with no visible door (though he knew there had to be mechanisms to secure it in the event of attack), and a statue of the goddess in its small courtyard. Themynra was depicted in the usual fashion: robed, her cowl drawn forward over her eyes, head lowered in contemplation and hands folded before her.

House An’sadarr soldiers stood to either side of the temple’s entrance; one glanced at him as he passed, but neither spoke or moved to intercept. It was at the latter part of a dayshift, and traffic was light, so at least he had the place mostly to himself—along with the undivided attention of its denizens, which was somewhat less comfortable. Inside, two more women stood vigil bracketing the door, these in the pale gray robes of the clergy.

Of all the necessary functions which served Tar’naris, the worship of Themynra alone was not affiliated with any House. Each raised priestesses from within its own ranks, and provided them for training here, at the central temple. The goddess approved Queen Arkasia’s division of the city’s infrastructure among the Houses as a highly functional system, but insisted that no House should control access to her clerics.

“Welcome,” said the priestess on the left as Tazun paused inside, glancing around.

“Well met,” he replied, stepping forward and turning so that his deep bow of respect could be directed at both of them. “If it is not troublesome, I seek an audience with a Gray Cleric.”

The priestess who had spoken quirked one eyebrow almost imperceptibly, then glanced at her companion, who remained impassive.

“Of course,” she said after a bare moment. “Follow me, please.”

“My thanks,” he said, bowing again, then had to hurry after her; she had set off at a stately glide without waiting for him to fully straighten up.

Here, again, he had a perfect right to seek out a Gray Cleric, but doing so was generally the province of the nobility, to the point that his presence here would inevitably be odd to the priestesses. Not suspicious, probably, but a curiosity. The Gray Clerics answered directly to Queen Arkasia, and formed an integral part of the careful political system by which she kept Tar’naris stable, prosperous, and peaceful. Anything the Gray Clerics learned, Arkasia would learn, and they provided advice, information, and blessing to most political maneuvers in the city. In the end, most nobles went to them before attempting anything ambitious simply because if they did not, their opponents might, and to create the impression that they sought to cut the Queen out of their manipulations could be fatal. Tar’naris, it was said, was a web with Arkasia at the center, and not a thread was plucked whose vibration she did not feel.

As the priestess led him through the temple, Tazun couldn’t help feeling all this was getting him even more over his head, not less. But it was all he could think of.

Their destination was a small stone room deep enough within the carved island to have no windows. It contained nothing, in fact, but simple insets in the walls carved to make convenient if uncomfortable benches. There was a door, at least, standing open when they arrived.

The priestess stopped outside, gesturing him through; Tazun paused to bow again to her before obeying.

“Whom may I tell the Gray Clerics has come?” she asked quietly.

He bowed again, feeling slightly foolish but preferring to err on the side of courtesy. “Tazun tyl Vrashti n’dar Vyendir.”

“Be welcome, Tazun,” she said, inclining her head fractionally. “You will be attended shortly.”

“My thanks.”

She turned and glided away with no more ado, and he was left alone in the small room. It really was bare; one bench on each side, the whole place barely wide enough for two people to sit facing each other without intruding on personal space. Glowstalks had been cultivated in small alcoves along the ceiling; it was well-lit, anyway.

Seating himself on one, he carefully arranged his sample case in his lap and opened it, just for something to do. Within were his best pieces—the fullest selection the case could hold of the best he had ever produced, not simply his primary stock of silver work that he had been trying to sell at the Imperial enclave. Several of these were items he hadn’t planned to part with at all; early works of his, first attempts in a variety of styles and materials that he had found satisfactory, most with sentimental value. But, desperate times demanded desperate measures, as the saying went.

If only he could keep the times from becoming any more desperate…

“Greetings, Tazun.”

He had barely the mental wherewithal to securely close his sample case before shooting to his feet and bowing. That was remarkably fast; he had really expected to be left dithering for a good while before one of the Queen’s own priestesses found time for him.

The woman who stepped into the little chamber was not physically remarkable in any way; her skin was perhaps a shade darker than his, but only the most ancient drow cared about that at all. Narisians came in a variety of shades of gray, due to millennia of interbreeding with surface folk; while stark black complexions were a sign of pure drow blood, it was also heavily associated with the Scyllithenes, who had no surface contact, and thus was not considered desirable. This priestess had her hair cut at chin level, which was unusual as it was a style associated with warriors…but then, he did not know her story. Aside from that, she wore the gray robe of a Themynrite cleric, her order indicated only by the black armband with Queen Arkasia’s spider sigil embroidered in white.

“Thank you very much for seeing me,” Tazun said, lowering his eyes demurely after getting a look at her. “I shall try not to take any more of your valuable time than absolutely necessary.” He bowed again, proffering the sample case. “I realize my offerings are doubtless lesser in quality than the Queen is accustomed to, for which I apologize. This is the best of my work.”

The priestess smiled faintly, lifting one eyebrow, then turned and pulled the door shut.

“There,” she said. “We are private; please, Tazun, relax and be yourself. Everyone has the right to see a Gray Cleric, as I’m certain you know.”

She reached out and, without taking the case from his hands, unlatched it and lifted the lid, studying its contents. Tazun was somewhat taken aback by this; he remained in a bowed position, beginning to feel his back stiffen, while she examined his work. After only a few moments, however, the priestess carefully picked up a single item from the case.

He chanced a glance upward to see which. Ah, but of course, she had chosen the amber. The smoothly polished stone was apparently fossilized tree sap, and thus unavailable in Tar’naris. Even better, this one had an ancient spider embedded within it. Tazun had obtained the gem from a minerals trader who clearly had failed to realize the rarity of what he had in the Underworld; apparently amber was a less-valued substance on the surface, only pieces containing insects or other things being prized at all. Even so, it had cost most of Tazun’s free money at the time, and yet he had still not brought himself to part with it. The white gold setting was unobtrusive, yet very carefully worked to resemble tangled cobwebs, a pleasing association with the spider within. It was his favorite piece.

“A most generous offering,” the priestess said, lifting the pendant and admiring it in the light before tucking it into her hand. “Your modesty is becoming, Tazun, but I believe the Queen will quite like this. It is not often that I am presented by a petitioner with a selection; most presume to know her Majesty’s tastes and pick a gift accordingly. They are mostly wrong.”

“Ah…forgive me,” he stammered. “I apologize, but… I had meant the entire case to be an offering. I am not unaware that most who solicit an audience are far wealthier…”

“And for exactly that reason, it would hardly serve Tar’naris, Themynra, or Queen Arkasia to beggar a talented young artisan,” she said gently. “Someday, Tazun, I believe you will be quite famed for your craft, if this is your early work. If you seek us out again at that time, perhaps a more opulent offering will be appropriate. For now, this is most generous. Now please, sit. Be comfortable. You need not be public with me.”

“I…see,” he said slowly, sinking back down onto the bench as she did the same on the other. Indeed the woman’s expression was clearly not a public face, though her smile wasn’t particularly effusive. Well, it wasn’t as if he’d given her much to smile about. “I’m sorry. I’d never realized that one was expected to be private with a Gray Cleric. Forgive me, it never occurred to me that I would need to know the protocol.”

“It speaks well of you that you don’t presume above your station,” she said, still with a kind smile. “Clearly, something very serious must be troubling you, to bring such a modest young man here to seek us out. Speak at leisure, Tazun; I have all the time you need.”

That served as a reminder. She might have time, but he didn’t.

He drew in a deep breath, allowing his expression to set itself in what he hoped looked like determination, and began.

“All right. Well… To begin with, for some time I have been cultivating friendships and business contacts among the humans at the Imperial enclave.”

“Yes, I know.”

He blinked, permitting himself to show surprise, though he wasn’t yet entirely sanguine at letting his public face lapse with this highly-ranked stranger. “You do?”

“The attendant asked your name for a reason, you know,” she said with a faintly wry smile. “None of us know every detail of the city’s doings, but between my sisters and I, we know most. I, personally, am acquainted with your House’s affairs, and your family’s. That is why you are speaking with me, and not someone else.”

“I see,” he said, frowning.

The priestess tilted her head back slightly, her expression growing more serious. “Is this by chance related to your mother’s recent acquisition of a human slave?”

Well, perhaps this wouldn’t be as hard a conversation as he’d feared, if she already knew the high notes.

“Yes, priestess, that is the beginning of it.” Tazun hesitated a moment longer, marshaling his thoughts, which had resisted efforts to be organized the whole way up here. She simply watched calmly, waiting for him to continue. “I… From the beginning, I was very troubled by that. It bothered me so much I couldn’t find rest, and had to seek counsel from a friend. Mother is very proud of the acquisition, and clearly put a great deal of effort into it. She believes it will be a source of great prestige and ultimately social advancement for our family. I…wanted to agree. I trust my mother implicitly, please believe that. The last thing I would ever want to do is challenge her judgment, or her word.”

He had to pause again, there; having allowed emotion onto his face, it now required a little extra effort to keep under control. So it was with feelings; given an inch, they took a mile.

“But you didn’t agree, is that it?” the priestess prompted.

He sighed. “No, I… No. I was very troubled, as I said. Perhaps it’s because I have grown to know humans as individuals. To many, I think they are seen as exotic curiosities, not really people. And the worst part is what I know of how human slaves are acquired. I mean, in theory, enslavement is only inflicted as a due punishment for a justly convicted crime, but…”

“But,” she said, her expression now sober and faintly angry, “the punishment has enjoyed a startling renaissance since the Imperial Treaty, after having been all but unused for centuries. And even now, it remains a striking rarity when it is imposed upon a citizen of Tar’naris. Yes, Tazun, I know of this, as does the Queen. It is a serious problem, and a constant threat to our relationship with Tiraas—and thus, a threat to our newfound prosperity. Her Majesty tolerates this trade only because she is not yet able to extinguish the demand for human slaves. And so long as that demand exists, the desperate and greedy will rise to meet it. Destroying the existing traffickers would force their heirs into hiding without ending the practice itself. As it is, House Awarrion is able to extract many of the unfortunates ensnared, and the Imperial and Narisian governments are able to warn human visitors of this, and offer advice for avoiding entrapment. This can only be done while it goes through legal channels. If banned outright, it will change into secretive abduction without oversight or recourse.”

“I see,” he murmured. The thought hadn’t even crossed his mind of demanding to know how the Queen could continue to allow such a thing, but he most certainly had wondered. The priestess’s explanation made a weary kind of sense. Nobles and the rich always got their way through the law. At least this way, the law could provide a countermeasure. He knew nothing at all of black markets or how feasible it was to exterminate them, but logically, it must not be possible to do completely, or they wouldn’t exist.

“I have a suspicion,” the priestess said after a moment, “this is not the only thing troubling you?”

“I—yes, forgive me, I was lost in thought,” he admitted. “This is pursuant to the same matter, but it grows worse. Today I was visited… Well, no, the word is cornered. I was cornered by Nahil nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion and a human whom she called Sidewinder, who is a member of the Thieves’ Guild. Apparently, so is Mother’s new slave. And from what Nahil said of the cult of Eserion…”

“That places your mother and your whole family in immediate danger,” the priestess said, her eyes widening. He had come here expecting to see only a placid public face on whatever cleric met with him; the sight of open alarm was even more dispiriting because of that. “Can you warn your mother of this?”

“That wouldn’t help,” he said miserably. “I was ordered not to, and besides, Mother would never back down from a threat. She would only petition our House and possibly even House An’sadarr for more protection. And…in the long run, that would backfire. The Guild doesn’t quit. More importantly, they aren’t just operating here with one man and whatever resources he has. She did not admit it openly, but Nahil made it quite clear the Eserites are backed by House Awarrion in this. She’s using the thieves to attack the slave trade. And my family is caught in the middle.”

“I see,” the priestess said softly.

Tazun had to swallow a lump rising in his throat. “Before they let me go, Sidewinder ordered me to get Selim—that’s the slave—out of my family’s custody by tonight. Or there would be…consequences, he said. And with Awarrion’s connections and wealth backing him, there’s almost no limit to what he could do. So I either have to steal my mother’s most prized possession, and aside from all the horrible problems with that I haven’t the faintest idea how to break someone out of a cell! And…I mean, or. Or something terrible will happen to someone I care about. He didn’t say what.”

“The mind boggles,” she said grimly. “I have studied the surface cults. Eserites can be vicious when riled. Far less chaotic than Scyllithenes, but their match in cruelty if they think it needful.”

“I don’t believe I wanted to hear that,” he moaned. “This whole situation… I have no way out. I can’t even tell my mother! Sidewinder warned me that would only bring down their punishment, and anyway, Nahil was right; mother would just do exactly the thing that would make all this worse. I’m not someone who can protect my family from a threat, and I’m not someone who can defy my mother and wrangle a jailbreak! I’m the wrong person for this! Maybe if I were a warrior or something, I could…at least…” He had to stop and swallow heavily again, gazing pleadingly at the priestess. “I…I know everything in these sessions is taken to her Majesty’s ears, if you deem it needful…”

The cleric sighed regretfully and shook her head. “Tazun… I will definitely inform the Queen of this, and as soon as she is free to hear it. The matter is clearly of concern to her interests and the welfare of Tar’naris. But I must tell you, in my judgment, it is very unlikely that Arkasia will see fit to intervene. Your pain and your family’s danger are most regrettable, but the Queen is tasked with the welfare of society as a whole. Her life is filled with painful choices, and the abandoning of some for the greater good. And from the perspective of her Majesty’s aims, Nahil’s ploy is an excellent one. By using the Thieves’ Guild to directly attack the purchasers of human slaves, in a way against which they have no defense or recourse, she attacks the market itself. Without that market, the marketers will vanish without having to be leaned upon. It is cunning, elegant, and if successful, for the good of all.” She shook her head. “I am sorry, Tazun, but your problem remains your own to deal with.”

“I see,” he whispered, crushed. He couldn’t even complain. Well, not about this; the situation itself was unfair to the point of cruelty, but every Narisian grew up with the knowledge that those in power had to make painful choices. Even with the prosperity brought by the Empire, even when people were very unlikely to be left to starve by a bad turn of luck, they sacrificed to the greater good. It was the only way their society could endure.

“That does not mean your visit here is wasted,” the priestess said, leaning forward and speaking more gently. “People come to the Gray Clerics not just to attain the Queen’s attention, but for insight and counsel. Those I have for you.”

She paused, waiting for him to raise his head, and continued when he did so.

“First of all, Tazun, I think I can give you some moral clarity. Even without the pressures upon you to act, you are confused and conflicted by your role in this, is it not so?”

“It certainly is,” he mumbled.

The priestess nodded sympathetically. “I believe you have been tricked by the variety of factors at play here into seeing a variety of pressures which are not there. The dilemma, as is often the case, is simpler than it appears when you are caught in the middle of it. Not easier, to be sure, but simpler. On the one side is your respect for your mother. On the other,” she said more firmly, “is everything else. The Guild, House Awarrion, the perspectives of your human friends, your concern for your family’s safety, the needs of Tar’naris. And your own conscience, which is more important than I believe you realize. All of these things tell you it is wrong to keep that human a slave. Matters of good and evil are easy, Tazun, even when they’re painful. It’s when our virtues are tested against each other that we are truly tried. Your loyalty and respect for your mother reflects very well on you, but when it is in conflict with every other factor, it seems clear to me which virtue you must abandon.”

“But…” He spluttered, barely able to find words for a thought that no drow should even need to articulate. “But she’s my mother! I’m just—I’m a man, I’m barely an adult, who am I to challenge her judgment?!”

“Tazun,” she said softly, “judgment is an action, not a passive thing. It is not something you just have. It’s something you have to do. And, by the same token, sometimes the best of us do it poorly. I don’t want to insult you, because you are torn enough over this and I admire how dutiful you are to her, but I could go on at some length about how your mother’s judgment in this matter is severely lacking.”

He bit back a bitter reply. The priestess smiled sympathetically.

“Themynra doesn’t expect anyone to be infallible, Tazun, and she certainly does not demand that you subordinate your own judgment to your mother’s, the Queen’s, or anyone’s. There are sometimes more urgent matters than right and wrong, times when we must accept the dictates of those above us even if we cannot agree with them. But Themynra insists of all her people that we think. Your mother cannot think for you. You shouldn’t wish for that.”

He nodded weakly, unable to squeeze out words.

“And you know, don’t you, what you must do,” she prompted.

“I have to free Selim,” he said reluctantly. In truth, she was right: the clarity that came from facing the fact did a great deal to alleviate his inner torment. But it also cast the rest of his problem—the bigger, more solid part of it—into a starker light. “I just have absolutely no idea how.”

“Well, as to that, I may be able to offer you some perspective, as well,” said the priestess, smiling encouragingly. “You seem to be thinking of this as some kind of adventure, something you would need to be a warrior or spy to do. But no warriors or spies have been called on to handle this, Tazun; you have. And so you must meet it as what you are: a craftsman.”

“So,” he said slowly, “I should…craft an escape?”

“Exactly,” she said with a warm smile. “And as with any craft, it begins by establishing what you have to work with. What are your materials? Your workspace?”

“And,” he whispered, “my tools.”


The light was dimmer in the Imperial enclave than usual. It was the lower dayshift, corresponding to night on the surface, and the humans mostly chose this time to sleep, rather than dividing themselves into shifts as Narisians did. It had always struck Tazun as a weird habit to maintain underground, and painfully inefficient, but there was nobody in evidence around the enclave except the soldiers stationed on guard duty. The gates were still open, of course, and there would be personnel awake to address the needs of any later-shift Narisians who chose this time to visit, but most of the enclave’s population was inert, and even their fairy lamps had been shifted to a lower light level, and a bluer shade.

Not that the lower light was any problem for drow eyes. If anything, it made the place more comfortable for them, and he actually saw more drow about than he usually did during the humans’ customary business hours. He was the only one waiting in the front room of the barracks, though, the uniformed man behind the desk studying him with naked speculation. His partner had gone into the barracks proper to see to Tazun’s request, to his relief. He had half expected them to tell him to shove off and come back at a more decent hour.

“Tazun?”

He whirled to the door at the familiar voice. Elin emerged, golden hair tousled and eyes bleary. She was dressed in loose cotton drawers and a tight pullover shirt, and it occurred to him suddenly that while she was smaller and slimmer than most of the humans here, by elvish standards she had a very lush figure indeed. He swiftly and ruthlessly quashed that line of thought. Really, of all times…

“What’s going on?” Elin asked, seemingly more awake, and he realized he had simply stood there, staring embarrassingly at her.

The man behind the desk cleared his throat pointedly, a smile tugging at his lips. “Y’know, Ralstrind, if you wanna carry on with the locals there’s no regulation against it, but could you train your boy not to wake up the whole barracks?”

“Up yours, sir,” she said without rancor, frowning at Tazun. “It’s not like you to bend your schedule, Taz. Hell, you even look worried. What’s wrong?”

He paused, glancing between her and the other man, before answering. “Elin… Do you trust this man?”

“Hayes?” She glanced at him. “Sure, he’s part of the unit.”

“I don’t mean in a general sense,” Tazun insisted. “Do you trust him. With matters of life and death, or things more…sensitive?” He had no idea how rude he was being, by their standards. By Narisian etiquette, Corporal Hayes had cause to demand a duel for such insinuations.

“My squad is like family,” Elin said, now wide awake and clearly concerned. “We weren’t just brought together to sit on our hands down here—we’ve done frontier duty at the Deep Wild. At a post that ate an entire regiment sixty years ago. Yes, I trust Hayes and all the others. Tazun, what is going on?”

He drew in a deep breath, glancing at Hayes, who was also frowning at him seriously, now. “I’ve come here because I need help.”

“With what?” she demanded.

Here it was. He glanced around. The doors were shut, and deliberately designed to be thick enough to baffle elvish senses; he could hear no one outside. There were no drow positioned to overhear.

“My family recently acquired a human slave.”

Instantly, both of their expressions went hard. Elin opened her mouth to speak, but Tazun pressed on.

“I’m sure you know that this is done through deceit and abuse of the law. Well… All right, it’s a long, complicated matter, and I’ll tell you the whole thing someday, but what’s important right now is that I’m going to break him out. And I need a place to take him, or he’ll just be sent right back, and me along with him. If I bring an Imperial citizen who’s been in trouble with the law here, can you shelter him?”

“That depends on the trouble,” Hayes said, now studying him with clear speculation. “Did this guy actually hurt someone, or do anything that would deserve getting locked up like this?”

“No,” Tazun said immediately.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” he insisted. “People who commit actual crimes get fair punishments. Those who hand out sentences of slavery are corrupt, and in league with the people doing the entrapping. I don’t know exactly what he was convicted of, but the fact he was sold into slavery is sufficient evidence that it’s a thin and dishonest charge.”

“That squares with what I’ve heard,” Hayes agreed, nodding, and glanced at Elin. “Then hell yes, we can shelter him. The only concern would be that the diplomats might send him back if the local law came asking. If he was an actual, dangerous criminal, they’d pretty much have to.”

“The law won’t come asking,” Tazun assured them both, his eyes on Elin. “Representatives of my family probably will.”

“And in that case, the diplomats will very politely tell them to fuck off,” Hayes said with grim pleasure. “Meanwhile, we can get your boy on an official transport back to the surface. With military escort, if need be.”

Tazun sighed softly in relief. “Good. All right…good. Then that was the last thing I needed to be sure of. All right, I’m going to go do this—time is a factor. It’ll be tonight. A few hours, if that. Please be ready.”

“We will,” Elin promised, staring at him. “I’ll get some of the others up and ready. Is there anything else we can do besides just wait?”

“No,” Hayes said firmly. “Butting into Narisian affairs like this will bite you on the ass, Ralstrind. You know better.”

“He’s right,” Tazun agreed before she could protest. “I have plans for everything else; all I needed was a place to come with him. Look…to you, and to me, this is a matter of moral necessity, but legally I am just stealing an incredibly valuable object from my own mother. This will go very badly for me if we’re caught. So…” He swallowed, but rushed on when Elin opened her mouth again. “If you don’t see us back here tonight, it…didn’t work. And in that case, Elin, I… I have enjoyed our conversations very much. I will miss them.”

He bowed to her, then turned and strode for the front door, pulling it open and slipping through.

“Tazun, wait,” she called, but he didn’t. He could not; there was far too much to do, and too little time.

It had been an optimistic thing to say, anyhow. If this all went as badly as it very possibly could, he might end up in no position to miss anything.

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Bonus #15: Judgment and Justice, part 2

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Author’s Note: This is a continuation  of a side story which began quite a while ago.  Here is its first installment, if you need a refresher.


“It is not so bad,” Elin said, in her thickly accented and slightly halting elvish. “For the part mostly, the peoples are no in argument. Very much was changed by the Enchanter Wars. Before, it was always nations to their own, even inside the Empire. Then the wars, when it was fighting about principle. About freedom, and survival. Both to break away from Tiraas, and then after, to be together again with a same enemy. But yes, that is also a reason why it is harder for the Stalweiss. They remember, everyone is known, the Stalweiss were the barbarians from the stories, scary and savage. And then they are people who brought Horsebutt the Enemy, moving down from the Stalrange into the Plains. No one is forget.”

“I see,” Tazun murmured.

“So, one Empire, people all together, but still we have a bad…um…remembrance? Knowing thing…”

“Reputation?”

“Reputation, yes!” She nodded. “Not fair, but that is life. Anyway, it is not very bad. I am a soldier, which is respect, and I really am Tiraan. My accent and all. Very few people have care that I am pale and yellow-hair. Once in a while, though, you meet stupid ones. Always annoying! I am raised in Madouris, I go to an Imperial school, I join the Emperor’s army and wear the uniform, and still drunk fool calls me barbarian in the marketplace. Worthless people are in every country, I think.”

“That’s good to hear.”

There was a brief pause.

“I suppose being our own fault,” she went on seriously. “Because we Stalweiss are secretly vegetables. Our parents plant us in the ground like turnips, and up we pop in the spring!”

“That makes sense.”

More silence.

Suddenly Tazun realized what she had said and tore his gaze from the blank wall on the other side of the compound’s courtyard to look at her. Elin was staring at him with lips pursed and one eyebrow upraised. He had grown relatively comfortable with these public displays of emotion, but the sight of one he’d so often seen from his sisters in the family quarters was jarring. Especially since he knew what came afterward. Fortunately, he also knew how to address it.

Tazun stood smoothly, setting his jewelry case aside, turned to face Elin directly, and bowed. “I deeply apologize for my rudeness, Elin. Your accounts truly are interesting. I’m very sorry; I am simply not terribly good company today. I assure you, it has nothing to do with you. You have my regret for spoiling our conversation with my own troubles.”

“Wow,” she said in Tanglish, with clear amusement. “That was downright effusive. Did you learn that from an Awarrion friend?”

“No,” he replied. “I have sisters.”

Elin smiled, and he took that to mean he was forgiven. Her expression quickly sobered again, but instead of annoyed, she now looked concerned. “Tazun, are you all right?”

“I will be fine,” he said with a polite little smile. “Please don’t be troubled on my behalf—I’ve already made too much of my own affairs, when after all we agreed to discuss your home and work on your elvish today.”

“We can do that anytime,” she replied. “It’s very unlike you to be so distracted. I can’t help being worried.”

They even talked about their feelings so openly, as if showing them wasn’t enough. Despite how annoying he felt it ought to be—how annoying it was, when he was surrounded by it for too long at a stretch—from her, it was strangely endearing. Perhaps simply because he had grown accustomed to speaking with her one on one, unlike most of his interactions with groups of humans.

Tazun slowly sat back down on the ledge beside her, considering.

“I know it isn’t your way to talk about personal business outside the family,” she said seriously, “so please, don’t think I’m picking. But you’re a friend, Tazun, and whatever that means to drow, to me it means your happiness matters. If there’s anything I can do, just name it.”

He couldn’t fully repress a smile at that; they really were starting to rub off on him.

“Let me ask you a theoretical question, if I may.”

“Shoot.”

He blinked, turning his head to stare at her.

“Ah.” She smiled ruefully. “That’s just a turn of phrase. It means go ahead.”

“Oh. Of course, yes, that’s clear in hindsight. Well, I… I suppose this relates to what you were just saying, about the Stalweiss and the Empire. Have you ever felt you were at odds with your society? With its expectations?”

“Oh, all the time,” she said immediately. “You just described the experience of growing up human. Adolescence is all about figuring out who you are, and finding your place in the world.”

“I see,” he murmured.

“Which,” she said thoughtfully, “probably doesn’t do you a bit of good, does it? I may not know Narisian culture in very much detail, but it’s not at all like that, is it?”

“No, not at all,” he agreed, shaking his head slowly. “Who we are as individuals is very much a function of who we are as a people. We each have a place in society; great sacrifices are made and resources invested in the rearing of any child, and the expectation that the investment will be repaid is central to our identity. Just by existing, I have placed a burden upon my family, my House, my whole society. If I do not contribute back, and not just to break even but to become a credit and an asset to family, House, and city, I am a thief.”

“Hm.” She tucked one leg under herself, kicking the other softly against the ledge. “Is there a particular reason you have to contribute in a certain way? Not to pry, Tazun, but it sounds like you’re questioning your place. If it doesn’t feel like the right place, wouldn’t it be better for you and for your family and all if you found one where you can do better?”

He smiled again. “I like my place. I like my work. I guess I’m questioning…other people’s places, which is shockingly presumptuous. I’m not certain if all the things I was taught as truth really…make sense.”

Elin grinned. “Well. That, again, sound like…y’know, life, to me. I think I feel what you mean a little, though. I’m a soldier, and a pretty low-ranking one. I can earn advancement, but for now, I still have a lot to prove. And there are expectations. Discipline, conformity, codes of conduct. A chain of command, orders…hm.” She tilted her head inquisitively to one side. “You know, when I think about it that way… Considering you Narisians like a whole nation of soldiers makes a lot of stuff suddenly make sense.”

“I suppose it does, at that,” he said thoughtfully.

“Remember I was talking about the Enchanter Wars?”

“Of course.”

“Soldiers rebelled against their Emperor then. Soldiers, governors, cities, whole nations. There were some existing rebel groups, sure, but for the most part, those were all loyal Imperials who couldn’t be part of an Empire that would do what the Throne had done to Athan’Khar. They all had expectations and duties to Tiraas, but those expectations ran both ways. The Empire had betrayed their trust, become something it was never supposed to be. It wasn’t their Empire anymore. I dunno, Tazun… Maybe you’re still fit for your place, but it isn’t fit for you?”

He sighed softly. “What you say has great sense to it…but the idea is very unsettling.”

“Why?” she asked gently.

“I am my place.” He glanced down at his jewelry, glinting in the harsh fairy light of the enclave. “I am defined by my position, my skills, my relationships. By the space I occupy in this life. If that is wrong…I would have no idea who or what I am.”

She placed her hand over his on the ledge between them, gazing at him but saying nothing.

He didn’t pull away.


If anything, Tazun was even more confused as he made his way through the streets later. He had gone home, secured his wares in his chambers, but then gone back out, too restless to stay put. The same issues swirled around in his head—the slave, his mother, his role in the family, Saash’t’s oblique but infuriatingly incisive observations.

Now, though, there was also Elin, and her infuriatingly incisive observations. And the fact that his friendship with her was beginning to cloud more than just his judgment. He really had better start keeping his distance; he’d already spent an awful lot of time in personal conversation with her. With one unmarried woman. That was the kind of thing that could very easily spread the spores of rumor, and a rumor like that would wreak no end of mischief. His mother would be livid at the mere suggestion of him taking up with a human.

The fact that he felt physically pained at the idea of breaking off that friendship was probably not a good sign.

Tazun found himself in a familiar market street; subconsciously, his feet had brought him to the very doorstep of his favorite tea room. Well, across the street from it. He usually limited his visits to restaurants to one per tenday, which was a degree of indulgence he felt suitable to his station and personal resources. A calm, quiet booth with a cup of his favorite tea sounded too absolutely perfect to pass up, however. Sometimes, exceptionally trying times demanded exceptionally soothing measures.

He noted the presence of two House guards bracketing the door as he crossed the street toward the tea room. Some noble was visiting, then. Well, nobles were generally not trouble if one stayed out of their way, which he made a point to do. His hesitation was infinitesimal; he really wanted that cup of jasmine tea.

The two soldiers remained at attention as he passed through the doors, ignoring him utterly.

Once inside, though, he paused again; the place was much more crowded than usual, people seeming to fill nearly every table. He paused, glancing about.

“Well met,” said the server, whom he recognized, but whose name he had never learned. Their relationship had never made it necessary; personal conversation would have been inappropriate while one was serving. The man looked just faintly tense, which was understandable, given the crowd. “I apologize for the lack of space.”

“There is nothing to apologize for,” Tazun said diplomatically, suppressing regret. “I congratulate you on your successful business. I can return another time.”

“There is a table free,” the man said swiftly, and Tazun had the oddest sense that he was even more unhappy about this. “Please, I would not send a favored guest away. I shall speak with the mistress about arranging a small discount for your discomfort.”

“That is entirely unnecessary,” Tazun demurred, as was proper. “I am not in the least imposed upon.”

The server replied with the meaningless little smile that was appropriate in that situation, gesturing diffidently with one arm. “If you would honor us by staying, this way, please.”

Tazun allowed himself to be ushered to what seemed the only remaining open table, maintaining just enough presence of mind to avoid rudeness to his host or to any of the other patrons. Most of his attention remained on his inner turmoil, and it was with relief that he sank into the thinly padded seat of the small booth. His order placed, he was left in blessed solitude, the low walls of the booth serving to delineate a personal space which any Narisian would respect.

What was he going to do? The painful thing he just kept coming back to was his overwhelming sense that keeping Selim a slave was wrong. It was so wrong it brought him a nauseating blend of sorrow and shame whenever he allowed himself to dwell upon it.

But…who was he to make such determinations? Tar’naris had kept slaves for thousands of years, especially humans. The weight of culture and tradition behind the practice was so enormous that the sheer temerity of his instinctive dislike of it felt sacrilegious. Worse, this was his mother’s decision. His mother! How could he even be thinking of questioning her judgment? Themynra had granted him no special gift of judgment himself, that much he certainly knew. He was a craftsman, a skilled up fairly inexperienced one. He was young. His mother had led their family to honor and a valued station in House Vyendir. And now he entertained doubts about her decisions?

His sisters would slap him senseless. He would not begrudge them doing it.

Why couldn’t he just make all this go away? It was only in his head. His head should obey, both his own wishes and the dictates of his culture.

Quite suddenly, a shabbily-dressed human man slid into the seat opposite him.

“Not want any, thanking you,” Tazun said immediately in the thick pidgin Tanglish he used to discourage pushy Tiraan merchants, a trick Elin had taught him. Unthinkable that one would do something this aggressive; the man wasn’t going to last long like this. In mere moments he would be removed by the tea room’s proprietress. In fact, he was likely to end up like Selim Darousi if he made a habit of this.

“That’s quite all right, my good man, I’m not selling,” the human replied smoothly in elvish. He had a peculiar accent, but his command of the language seemed fluent, bringing Tazun up short.

“You are intruding,” he said with a thin little smile of courtesy. “I wish to be alone.”

“Life is sometimes disappointing,” the uninvited guest said solemnly. “But disappointments can lead to good surprises, if you let them. I think, first of all, you should listen to what the lady has to say.”

“Lady?” Tazun glanced pointedly around.

In that moment, he realized something. There was no conversation in the shop; dead silence hung over the crowd. Couples sat at each table, not speaking, but simply watching each other, the tabletops, the walls… All had been served tea, but no one drank.

Also, one of the House guards outside the door had stepped in, and was blocking the entrance, staring directly at him with a face that was blank even by Narisian standards. Paying closer attention now, he realized her armor and insignia marked her of House Awarrion.

In fact…everyone in here was dressed in red and green.

He began to be very, very nervous.

“Good day, Tazun,” said a smooth, feminine voice from directly behind him, on the other side of the partition between his booth and the next. “Thank you for joining us.”

“I…apologize if I was late,” he said, eyes on the grinning human, choosing his words with extreme care. “I did not realize I was expected. Whom have I the great honor of attending?”

“I am Nahil nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion. And we have things to discuss.”

Oh, Scyllith’s lost hells.

If he had to get cornered by a matriarch’s daughter, the Awarrions were probably the safest; nobles were nobles and they were all bloodless spiders as far as he was concerned, but House Awarrion existed for the purpose of diplomacy, and they never caused any harm that they could by any measure avoid, even to the most insignificant person. On the other hand, of that matriarch’s three daughters, this one was the worst. Heral, the eldest, was a born peacemaker and the very soul of diplomacy; the youngest, Shaeine, had not been active in the city enough to generate much talk, but she was known to be a priestess of Themynra. Nahil, though. Rumors disagreed on whether she was perpetually at odds with her mother, or was quite close to Ashaele and the trusted agent sent to do whatever unpleasant things needed doing in a manner that the matriarch could claim had been none of her work. It made little difference from his perspective. Nahil was trouble.

And just by virtue of being a matriarch’s daughter, she could have her guards beat him senseless at a whim, and anyone nearby would assume he had done something to richly deserve it. Oh, she would pay for that; his mother would raise the damned, House Vyendir would complain formally of the insult, and Ashaele would punish her. But that wouldn’t save him from the beating. Or whatever else she felt like doing to him.

“In what way might I be of service to you?” he asked with exceeding care. The human’s knowing little smile was not improving his equanimity in the least.

“Tell me, Tazun,” his invisible captor said calmly from behind the barrier, “what do you think of the traditional institution of human slavery in Tar’naris?”

“I think nothing of it,” he said as evenly as he could manage.

“Really? Nothing?” Nahil permitted open curiosity into her voice, a social breach only someone of her rank could get away with. Then again, she could get away with probably anything here, and he had best keep aware of that fact.

“It is not my place to consider such matters,” he said stiffly. Well, stiffness would suffice in place of the serenity which was currently beyond him. “Such luxuries are well beyond my means, and thus none of my business.”

“But your family has one, is that not so?”

Oh, no.

“If you wish to discuss my family’s slave,” he said cautiously, “with respect, you must speak to my mother on the subject. I am not honored with the responsibility of overseeing or even consulting on any such matters in my household.”

He did not miss the way the human’s stare had hardened, and taken on a distinctly predatory aspect. Elin had spoiled him; humans and their emotional outbursts were not merely cute or trying. They could be absolutely terrifying.

“But I don’t want to speak to your mother,” Nahil replied. “I am speaking with you. This is a great problem for my House, you see, Tazun. The market for slaves only exists through abusive exploitation of Narisian law, and even more abusive entrapment of Tiraan citizens. The Imperial government currently tolerates this for the sake of the greater good, but the Tiraan people feel about it precisely as we would, were the reverse occurring. Notably, it is not, despite the fact of human societies finding us as exotic and intriguing as we do them. Why do you suppose that is, Tazun? Are they simply our moral superiors?”

She was doing this on purpose. This was not going to stop until she’d ensnared him into saying something at which she could justify taking violent offense. Well, there was no reason he had to make it easy for her.

“Such matters are well above my station. I am not a moral philosopher, and certainly not an expert on humans.”

“Are you not, though? You are, after all, quite friendly with the humans at the Imperial enclave. It seems you do most of your business there.”

Of course she had done her research on him before arranging this ambush. Belatedly, he realized that the effort involved in this had to have been immense. She couldn’t have known he would be here at this hour; even he hadn’t. This visit had been a pure whim. For how many days had she filled and lurked in his favorite tea room? What could she possibly want from him?

“I have human friends,” he said diffidently. “I don’t believe that qualifies me to render an opinion upon their ways. I find them very strange, still.”

“Ah, so smooth,” she said with open amusement. “You would not do badly at all in my House, Tazun.”

“You honor me greatly.” Indeed, from a noble, that was staggeringly high praise. Somehow, he only felt more nervous.

“Morality aside,” Nahil continued, “this practice of taking and enslaving humans is a constant source of animosity for the Imperials, and thus a constant drain on my House’s efforts. It taxes our attention and resources to extract what humans we can from bondage, and every one we cannot—which is most of them—is an open wound in our relationship with the Empire. These are families torn apart, Tazun. People horrifically abused, at least as they see it. Even as we try to strengthen social ties with the empire, slavers sharpen the suspicion with which many see our people into pure hate. House Awarrion is committed to ending this practice, permanently and absolutely.”

“I wish you good fortune in that task,” he said quietly, beginning to have an idea where this was going. Merciful goddess, let it be anything else…

“You could do more than wish, if you support the idea,” she said calmly.

Tazun drew in a deep, calming breath and let it out slowly. “I do not see any way I could. All of these matters are above my station.”

“You do not think it possible, at least?”

“All these matters—”

“Damn your station,” she said, just sharply enough to chill his blood with terror. “I want your opinion, Tazun. There is no crime in having opinions, and no one can blame you for saying what I have demanded that you say. What do you think of this?”

He swallowed heavily, aware that his public face was cracking, and too frightened to care as much as he should. The flat stare of the human across from him was even worse than the noblewoman behind. “I…think…that trying to separate the richest and most powerful members of our society from one of their favorite luxuries will be impossibly difficult.”

“Mm hm. Look at this. What do you think?”

A slender arm suddenly appeared next to his shoulder, the noblewoman turning to extend her hand. It glittered with two tasteful rings.

“Exquisite work,” he said honestly, relieved to be back on somewhat safer ground, and aware it would not last. “But forgive me if I sound boastful. Unless I am wrong, the sapphire is my sister’s handiwork?”

“Not the rings, Tazun,” she said with naked amusement. “The sleeve. Beautiful, is it not? Sifanese silk. It’s made by worms, I understand, rather than spiders. Not as strong as our native silk, but far, far softer, and the way it catches the light…”

“It is most becoming on you.”

“Thank you. And twenty years ago, its worth would have been greater than the sum of the Queen’s treasury. Now? Still expensive, but I have a dozen at home, and I am far from the best-dressed daughter of a matriarch in Tar’naris. The Imperial treaty brings us security, wealth, luxury beyond imagining. And yet, a few souls still cling to the idea of owning the one treasure whose acquisition threatens to bring all this down upon our heads. That is weakness, Tazun. It is stupid, selfish frailty. To be Narisian is to root out such traits and crush them. They cannot be allowed to take root in our society. They would destroy us.”

“I do not understand how I can help you,” he said stiffly. The wretched woman had just indirectly insulted his mother, and there was no way she didn’t realize it; she was a trained diplomat, after all. Were she anyone else, he would have spoken right back to her in even sharper terms. In fact, were she still at matriarch’s daughter and he not completely surrounded by her retainers, he probably still would have.

“I have not arranged all this simply to make idle conversation,” Nahil said smoothly, withdrawing her arm. “Your mother’s recent acquisition is a male human named Selim Darousi. Tell me, Tazun, what do you know of the god Eserion?”

“The… Ah, little,” he said, blindsided by the apparently abrupt change of topic. “That is the thief god, isn’t it?” Humans and their gods. Why did they need so many? No wonder they came in such a wild array of colors and builds.

“One side effect of the opening of our two societies is that the Pantheon’s cults have begun creeping into Tar’naris,” Nahil said. “They are certainly not poised to threaten Themynra’s worship, have no fear of that, but there are drow among us who have begun to follow some of these gods, in very small numbers. Eserion is not among them. You see, Tazun, the Eserites do not steal simply to enrich themselves; they steal out of a religious duty to humble the powerful, and to disrupt all social systems which they consider unjust. Which, as I understand it, means all systems. We do not have Eserites here, and we do not want them. Our society is not built to endure the presence of such individuals, and if they are allowed to take root, removing them will be a nightmarish prospect. The cult would take such action as a direct attack and respond in kind. No…they must simply be prevented, at all costs, from establishing a presence here.”

“Hey, no offense taken,” the human across from Tazun said lightly.

“Ah, yes,” Nahil said. “Allow me to introduce my guest, Sidewinder.” She paused significantly. “An enforcer of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“I just can’t tell you how charmed I am to make your acquaintance,” the human said, grinning toothily at Tazun in an expression that he could not manage to interpret as friendly.

“I am somewhat puzzled,” Tazun admitted. “If you don’t want the Thieves’ Guild here…”

“Then,” Nahil replied, “it is necessary to accommodate them to an extent, and not create what they will see as a need to be here. And that, Tazun, has just become very much your business. You see, Selim Darousi, also known as Squirreltail, is also a member of the Thieves’ Guild.”

Tazun suddenly heard a great roaring in his ears. “…oh.”

“Oh, indeed,” Nahil said with audible grimness. “And that, Tazun, means that Tar’naris, House Vyendir, and your family in particular, all have a very big problem.”

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Bonus #14: Judgment and Justice, part 1

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“It has occurred to me,” said Tazun, “that our conversations hinge almost entirely on Narisian culture—which would seem to be fairly easy for you to experience anyway, surrounded by it as you are. I have learned very little about Tiraan culture, by comparison.”

“Well, I still think that’s fair,” Elin said with a mischievous smile. Over the last few months he had gradually grown comfortable enough with her that such expressions no longer made him feel awkward, or at least not much. “We also end up having all our conversations in Tanglish. You’ve gotten quite fluent, and meanwhile my elvish is still almost as rough as the day I arrived.”

“Surely I can’t be the only possible source of practice for you,” he said.

“Yeah? Same goes. Anyway, there’s a compliment in there, Taz. Learning about Tar’naris is fascinating; I bet if we had a really in-depth discussion about life in the Empire, you’d nod off.”

“I would never do something so rude,” he said, putting on a tiny social smile to clarify that he was joking. “What an insulting thing to say.”

“All right, then, I’d nod off.” Elin hopped up onto the ledge behind her, legs dangling. Even after all this time, it amazed him how casual, how childlike the humans could be in their mannerisms. “Make you a deal, then? Next time you visit, we’ll talk about Tiraas. In elvish.”

“Hmm.” Tazun made a show of contemplating this, tapping his chin with a finger. “You’re right, that does sound quite tedious.”

“I would thump you, but that’s pretty explicitly against regulations,” she shot back, grinning outright now. “Damn you and your diplomatic protection. All right, before you dragged us off topic, you were going to explain the honorific system.”

“Yes, of course.” He paused as another soldier strolled by, escorting a young human woman in civilian attire; they both smiled and nodded politely, but did not pause or show any interest in the case of jewelry he had on display on the ledge.

The light in the Tiraan enclave wasn’t the best, Tazun privately thought. Humans favored their fairy lamps, which had a sharp, golden tone to their light which apparently reminded them of the sun. The paler, gentler glow of bioluminescence favored in Tar’naris better reflected on his silver pieces, in his opinion. He had already made up his mind to do some work in gold, next, as the enclave was proving a profitable venue for him, but Tazun still had a fair amount of silver to work through before he could justify buying more materials. Actually, his House would probably give him a small amount of gold to test his belief that it would sell better in a spot where he had developed contacts, but he was still new as an established craftsman, and wished to build a reputation. Better in the long run to show effective stewardship of the resources he had before seeking more, he reasoned.

“Honorifics,” Tazun mused after the two potential customers had passed. “Well, let me take myself as an example.”

“That’s convenient,” Elin said. “Since you’re here and all.”

“I,” he said, placing a hand against his chest and bowing, “am Tazun tyl Vrashti n’dar Vyendir.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” she said gravely.

“There are three names within the name,” he continued, being used to her byplay by now. “First, my given name, Tazun. A Narisian’s second name is their mother’s given name—in my case, Vrashti. And, of course, Vyendir is my House.”

Elin nodded. “That much I’d actually figured out on my own.”

“Indeed, so far it is rather simple,” he said with an unforced smile, “but we were talking about honorifics. Each, you see, describes the person’s relationship with part of their name. The first delineates an individual’s relationship with their mother, the second with their House.”

“The whole relationship?” she protested, frowning. “With a couple of little syllables?”

“I…may have mistaken the connotation of the word,” he said carefully. “Obviously there are personal details of how someone relates to mother and House that are no one else’s business. I meant… Well, to continue the example of my name, my first honorific, tyl, indicates that I am a direct biological male child of my mother, in good standing with her.”

Elin blinked. “Wow. All that?”

“In most cases, adopted children have the same social standing as truebloods,” he continued, “but the Houses track bloodlines, and so natural-born offspring must be counted as such. Obviously, whether a person is female or male is taken note of in their name. And it is rare that someone will have their honorific altered to indicate that they are in their mother’s poor graces. It is a mother’s choice to do such a thing… It’s an extreme move. Someone thus humiliated is very likely to leave the family, if not the House entirely.”

“Harsh,” she mused. “but you said that’s not common, right?”

“I suspect we are roughly as prone to family drama as you,” Tazun replied, “but in Tar’naris, privacy is tremendously important. There would be no public airing of dirty laundry if it could be avoided. There are also additional honorifics to indicate one’s birth order, but using those is seen as old-fashioned and pretentious. You really only meet very old elves with such names.”

“Wait, but… It’s one syllable,” she protested. “It’s just tyl. How does it say all that?”

“Because that is what the word means,” he said, smiling.

Elin stared at him. Not for the first time, he thought it was subtly charming, the way her feelings could be so easily read. Peculiar, but cute. “So… You mean there’s an honorific for every possible permutation of those variables?”

“Those are the relevant variables, yes.”

“How can you know them all?”

“How many words do you know in Tanglish?” he countered. “How many of them describe social functions? The same way you learn anything else: you memorize them.”

She groaned dramatically. “I am just never gonna fit in here, am I.”

“I don’t think they expect the soldiers to retain information like that,” he said, his smile broadening to the very edge of what decorum allowed. Really, she was quite charming sometimes. “Some of your diplomats have taken the time to work it out. One obviously has a very great advantage if one begins learning it in early childhood.”

“Obviously…” Elin chewed her lower lip. “What’s nur?”

Tazun allowed his smile to fade. “That is a matriarch’s younger daughter. Of her bloodline, but not positioned to inherit the matriarch’s position should her mother pass. Be extremely polite if you meet one of those. They can be trouble even for foreigners, diplomatic protections or no.”

“Yeah,” she murmured, “we have nobles back home, too; I know the drill. Okay, what about the second honorific?”

As she clearly wasn’t going to answer the implied question, he continued. “The second honorific designates one’s relationship with one’s House. Like the example of nur, there is some overlap with the first honorific; there is a whole separate set of first honorifics for those in the matriarchal line, as well as some other unique situations. It has more to do with one’s mother than oneself; there are specific honorifics to designate someone who is elevated or lowered to a position different from their family’s, but for the most part, rank within House is influenced if not determined by the maternal line. I am n’dar Vyendir, indicating that my mother is highly placed within our House, though not of the nobility, and that I am thus the same, as my political relationship with her is normal.”

Elin whistled, a peculiar mannerism he’d caught a few times but wasn’t completely sure he could interpret. Confusion? Awe? “That’s just…so much information.”

“In Tar’naris,” he said, “there is a place for everyone and everything, and everyone’s proper place must be clear and understood. Our traditions are designed for this purpose.”

“Well, I guess I’m just not used to thinking that way,” she said with a wistful sigh, kicking her legs again. “There’s something to be said for not knowing all the details about a person up front. You have to find them, get to know them… There’s a little mystery, a little adventure to it. It’s an experience.”

“In Tar’naris,” he said quietly, “an ‘adventure’ is when there is not enough food, and a matriarch must decide whether it better serves her lineage to weaken everyone equally through distributed hunger, or sustain as many as possible by letting a few of her family starve.”

Elin’s face fell, and irrationally, he felt bad for distressing her. “And now I sound like an idiot.”

“No,” he assured her. “This is why we began these conversations, remember? Cultural exchange. I think we both understand each other a little better now.”

Her smile returned at that, and something about it was brilliant in its intensity. “You’re a smooth talker, Tazun tyl Vrashti n’dar Vyendir. Don’t ever change.”

“Is there a reason why I would?” he countered with a raised eyebrow.

Elin chuckled and hopped down from her perch, pausing to straighten out her uniform and run a hand over her short hair. Odd, now, to think he’d first seen its golden color as unnatural; it suited her so perfectly. “Well, I must resume my exciting duty of standing around looking sharp. How are my creases?” She half-pivoted, showing him the backs of her trousers.

“Perfect as always,” Tazun replied, retreating deep within his social facade and purging all emotion from his features. No matter how long they talked, a moment would always come when he’d be sharply reminded of the differences in their cultures of origin. She clearly had no idea how flirtatious that gesture would be considered here. He’d have warned her not to do it to others, but he couldn’t think of a courteous way to do so.

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said, pointing at him in mock accusation. “When we will talk about Tiraas, in elvish.”

“I can’t wait,” he said, smiling carefully.

He forced himself not to watch her walk away.


 

It proved not to be one of his more directly profitable visits to the Imperial enclave, though Tazun remained mindful of the importance of relationships in business. He found it encouraging that the humans, soldiers and civilians alike, were increasingly familiar with him, for all that they sometimes crossed the line into what his own culture considered impropriety. Some of his best sales there had come from referrals from others—a few of whom had not actually bought any of his pieces, merely seen them displayed. So he returned home, his jewelry case still mostly full, only a modest mixture of chips and Tiraan coins in his purse, but not disheartened. Every day could not be a rich one, or one risked losing appreciation for the good days when they came.

Despite his growing familiarity with humans, it was always with some relief that he departed their presence. It wasn’t that their enclave was rowdy or disorganized, they were just so…human. They laughed loudly, conversed in strident voices, hailed one another at the tops of their lungs from across the courtyard. In conversation their gestures were so broad that he had only recently begun to trust that no one would hit him by accident. Even the way they walked was energetic to the point of aggressiveness, and in some cases worse; he’d never caught any of the soldiers doing it, nor the diplomats on duty, but a good number of human women seemed to sway their hips a lot more than was necessary.

The streets of Tar’naris were calm, quiet, orderly…soothing. The Imperial enclave had taught him to truly enjoy so much that he’d always taken for granted, such as the silvery light of mushroom patches cultivated atop stone obelisks at regular intervals along the streets. Their colors varied slightly, but the overall effect was pale, and calming in comparison to the sharp gold and blue of fairy lamps. He also didn’t have to worry about seeming rude by failing to nod and smile at people he passed. Drow ignored each other and expected the same in kind, unless they had some specific business. The walk home through the gently winding streets was always enough to restore his equanimity by the time he reached the estate of House Vyendir.

The House guards did not acknowledge him as he passed, which was proper; it was a man and a woman on duty, and the male could hardly have nodded to Tazun while his compatriot could not. He gave them a respectful nod anyway. Quite apart from appreciating the guards for their work, he really didn’t need stories getting back to his mother that associating with the humans was damaging his social skills. There had been surly whispers ever since the Treaty that humans would have that effect on society. Deliberately seeking out their company had made Tazun more mindful of his own decorum than he probably needed to be.

House Vyendir occupied a compound carved into the living rock of the wall separating the main chamber in which sat the city of Tar’naris from the even larger agricultural caverns beyond. The House’s gates opened directly onto the passage between the two, facing the gates of House Dalmiss, which was positioned in a similar complex opposite them. As such, since the Tiraan Treaty ten years ago, golden light from the cavern’s sun crystals streamed in constantly through one side of the citadel. It was pretty enough, from a distance, but Tazun was glad his own family’s quarters were on the opposite edge.

He relaxed after passing through the door into their private wing of the complex, though just as quickly frowned. Private or no, the household was generally quieter than this. The babble of voices from their central meeting room up ahead suggested either a large party, or his mother and sisters were excited enough about something to be rudely talking over each other.

Tazun wasn’t sure he had the energy for either right now.

Keeping a public face in place in case it proved they had guests, he paced carefully down the hallway and entered the meeting room.

The whole family had gathered, not just his mother and sisters, but their mates and children, the servants, adoptees and even two of his aunts visiting from other family chambers. His arrival went unnoticed at first, everyone’s attention being on the figure standing in the center of the room. Tazun’s own focus locked onto him immediately.

The human was flanked by two of the family’s stronger servants, who functioned as unofficial guards, and rightly so. He was a tall specimen, of Tiraan descent if Tazun was any judge—bronze-skinned, black-haired, with light brown eyes and a narrow face, surmounted by an aquiline nose and almost elvishly pointed chin. The man was well-built, and wearing nothing but a pair of loose trousers of clearly Narisian make. His hands were bound in front of him, and an iron collar circled his neck.

“Clearly, this will need to be exchanged, as well,” Tazun’s mother was saying, pointing at the collar. “It clashes with the aesthetic of absolutely everything. I have in mind something in silver, with the House crest, of course.”

“Taz could make that,” suggested Syraal, his younger sister. “He’s brilliant with silver.”

“We’ll see,” Vrashti murmured, pacing in a slow circle around the bound human. His expression was murderous enough to have both guards keeping hands on their cudgels, which they ordinarily wouldn’t even be wearing inside the family chambers. “Tazun does excellent work, but there’s the House to consider; I’ve expended a fair amount of political capital with this acquisition, and I don’t want to be seen as pretentious. Yes, it may be better to give some business to—Taz!”

She smiled broadly, catching sight of her son in the doorway, and beckoned him forward. “Come in! I’m sorry you missed the big arrival, but look what we have!”

“I…see,” he said carefully, pacing into the room and clutching his jewelry case to his side for comfort. “This is not a guest, I take it?”

“Honestly, Tazun, I hope you don’t joke like that with the Imperials,” Vrashti said, gliding over to him and taking him by the hand to pull him forward. “You can clearly see the collar.”

“How did you manage this, mother?” he asked. “I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but human slaves are…rare.”

“The word you are politely avoiding is ‘expensive,’” said Laouri, his eldest sister, with one of her sly half-smiles. “And yes, Taz, he was.”

“Don’t you worry about that, young man,” his mother said, reaching up to stroke his hair. “I would not make such a purchase if we could not afford it. And this is, of course, not to be repeated outside the family chambers, but the bulk of the expense here was not in chips. You see the result of years of accumulated favors. And more to come; he’s a wild one, still. The few remaining slave trainers expect to be generously compensated for their services. But we can afford it. And the prestige! Just think—once he’s properly behaved, he’ll make the most fabulous showpiece. We can deck him in our jewelry, even rent him out to other families for display!”

“That may not work so well for my purposes,” Tazun said carefully. “My clientele down at the enclave would probably be disturbed by this…”

“Well, obviously,” Vrashti said with affectionate exasperation. “I’m sorry you’ll get less use from him than the rest of us, my son, but pursuing Imperial contacts was your idea, after all.”

“Yes, of course,” Tazun said quietly, finding it difficult to give his mother as much of his attention as was proper. The human had fixed his stare directly on Tazun. This was the first time he had locked eyes with someone who very visibly wished him dead. The experience was disturbing. “What’s his name?”

“Not settled yet,” Vrashti mused, stroking her chin. “I’m leaning toward Ludi. I think it suits him.”

“Mother, you can’t call him Ludi,” Laouri said in an exasperated tone suggesting this was not the first such exchange. “He’s not a pet lizard!”

“Well, we’re not going to name him after something out of one of your poetry books,” Vrashti retorted.

“My name,” the human said unexpectedly in elvish, “is Selim Darousi. I’m just so pleased to meet you all,” he spat, baring a set of gleaming teeth.

“Your name is yet to be decided,” Vrashti replied, raising her chin, “and you will express yourself with more decorum and respect in the presence of your betters.”

Selim Darousi stared at her for a moment, then, unexpectedly, smiled. It was a smile that made Tazun want to take two steps back.

“Something amuses you?” Vrashti inquired.

“Oh, yes,” the human said, now in Tanglish. “I’ve just decided how you’re going to die. It’s going to take some work; I’ll need tools.”

“Razao,” Vrashti said calmly, “stomach only, please. Be very careful not to damage him; he was costly.”

Tazun barely managed not to flinch as Razao slammed his cudgel into Selim’s midsection, causing the human to double over with a pained wheeze. Humans were incredibly sturdy physically, but Razao, like nearly all members of House Vyendir, was a metalworker—unlike most of their family, who specialized in jewelry and ornamentation, he had pounded iron for many years, and could hit like a skaalink’s tail.

“I think that’s enough excitement for him for now,” Vrashti went on, turning her back on the now-groaning slave. “Everyone’s had a chance to meet the new pet; best not wear him out excessively. The slave trainer will be here tomorrow. Until then, he can remain in his chamber. Thank you, Razao, Druuld.”

The two servants bowed to her, then grabbed Selim by both arms and proceeded to haul him from the room. The human didn’t make it easy for them, but mostly because he seemed too dazed and in pain to walk properly, forcing them to half-drag him. He was clearly in no condition to put up a fight.

Tazun turned back to his mother, but found her already engaged in conversation with his aunts. Despite the burning questions on his lips, he knew better than to interrupt.

“Why, little brother,” Laouri said, stepping up to him, “you look less celebratory than I would expect.”

He studied her face carefully. They weren’t tremendously close in an emotional sense, but there were no rivalries or intrigues within the family, and he and Laouri shared affection as well as a sense of duty. She hadn’t done anything to actively harm or meddle with him since they were both children. Still… The thoughts foremost in his mind verged on questioning their mother’s judgment, which was never a good thing to express to an eldest daughter.

“That fellow is…young,” he said, very carefully. “And clearly Tiraan. How did he end up as a slave?”

“I’m certain you know exactly how,” Laouri said, arching an eyebrow. “The same way they all do. He’s a criminal. Don’t you worry, Mother isn’t reckless enough to acquire us a human who’ll have the Imperial government wanting to fetch him back. He’s just some nobody—now, at least, he’s a useful nobody.”

“I see,” Tazun said, frowning.

“Honestly, Taz, you look downright upset,” she said, frowning right back. “Maybe you are spending too much time down at that enclave.”

“I’m bringing in money,” he said defensively. “Very good money for a jeweler with my level of experience.”

“You’re also growing used to humans,” she replied. “This’ll be good for you; it’ll help you keep a sense of perspective about things.”

“You’ve… Laouri, I’m sure you hear the same rumors I do. About how they…get humans, these days.”

“What of it?” she asked dryly.

Tazun glanced at their mother, still in animated conversation with her own sisters and looking thoroughly pleased with herself. “If he was somehow…tricked, or enslaved under false pretenses…”

“Oh, honestly, you worry too much,” Laouri said dismissively. “It’s all perfectly legal. Mother knows what she’s doing. Surely you know that.”

“Of course I do,” he said automatically. “It’s just… It seems like something to worry about.”

“You let her decide what’s to worry about, and do the worrying,” Laouri said archly, but softened the rebuke by patting him on the arm. “Really, Tazun, leave it alone. This will be good for the family—we’ll gain a lot of prestige, and Mother’s very good at using valuable assets carefully, as you know. She can parlay this into even more success for us down the line, once he’s trained.” She grimaced. “I just have to talk her out of naming the poor fellow after her childhood pet, is all. Though on the other hand, if he’s going to be that unruly, maybe it’d go a long way toward teaching him some humility. You know how it is with these people.”

“Mm,” he said noncommittally, eyes unfocused on the near distance. For some reason, he was suddenly seeing Elin’s face in his mind’s eye. She looked…disappointed.


 

“They’re called ladybugs!” Saash’t held up his hand, a few of the tiny creatures crawling on his fingers. One spread its spotted shell and took off, buzzing away. “Aren’t they beautiful?”

“If you say so,” Tazun said doubtfully, easing backward. He had the sudden mental image of one of the insects flying into his hood and getting trapped inside his clothing.

“One thing leads to another, you see,” Saash’t continued, gently shaking his hand to dislodge the remaining ladybugs, and rising from where he had knelt in the soil. He continued on his way down the path bordering the rows of plants, Tazun falling into step alongside him. The agricultural cavern was so bright it was almost painful, hence Tazun’s choice of a hooded robe, but Saash’t tyr Sreinde n’dar Dalmiss was quite at home here, not minding the brightness or the dirt now staining the knees of his canvas trousers. House Dalmiss had overseen food production since time immemorial, and Saash’t was one of those who had acclimated brilliantly to the imported techniques and crops now occupying the cavern. “First we had to bring in bees—fabulously useful creatures, though accursedly difficult to handle. They’re necessary to pollenate the plants, though, as well as producing honey.”

“Honey comes from animals?”

Saash’t stopped and turned to face him, his public face barely concealing his surprise. “You didn’t know that?”

“I thought it was… You know, like the berries!”

“No,” Saash’t said gravely, not concealing his amusement as much as was strictly proper. They had been friends for years, after all. “Honey is an animal product.”

“What…kind of animals are these bees?”

“Insects. A little bigger than the ladybugs. Bees, though, will sting you if you annoy them. Ladybugs are perfectly harmless.”

Insects? How did they produce the cloyingly sweet amber gel? A few possibilities came to mind, none of which he particularly wanted to dwell on. Food was food, and Narisians were no strangers to insects as cuisine. For some reason, though, it seemed different when they were talking about an imported luxury dish.

“It’s proved impossible to completely isolate any species from its ecosystem, though,” Saash’t continued, resuming his course. He paused several yards from the last spot and carefully opened the tiny cage he was carrying to release a few more ladybugs. “I’m not convinced the bees are what brought the aphids, though that is the official explanation House Dalmiss has given out. I’ve ordered some research materials from Tiraas, but it takes time for them to arrive; I just don’t think the two species have that kind of relationship. Regardless, the aphids are here, and that means the neatest way to handle them is the way humans do: with their natural predators.”

“We already have spiders.”

“Our native cave spiders are too big to catch aphids, and don’t seem inclined to try. The ladybugs should work. Hopefully. And then, of course, we will have to see what new challenges they bring!” Oddly, Saash’t looked downright pleased at the prospect of having more trouble to deal with.

“This actually is very interesting,” Tazun said, glancing around the cavern, “but I thought we were going to talk about my problem.”

Saash’t smiled faintly. “I was.”

Tazun barely repressed a sigh. Saash’t was the smartest person he knew, which was both good and bad. His thought processes could be taxing to follow. “This is one of your metaphors, isn’t it?”

“Well, Tazun, what seems to be upsetting you is the condition of this new slave, correct?”

“I’m more upset with myself,” Tazun muttered. “A man should have more respect for his mother’s judgment. I can’t shake the feeling she’s making a terrible mistake, and that…bothers me. She raised me better than that.”

“She did,” Saash’t agreed, moving on to the next stand of…what were these plants again? Corn? “And I have never heard from any source a suggestion that your mother’s judgment is lacking. Perhaps it is not an issue of lacking, then, but specificity. We are in the midst of a generational change, Tazun. Look at all this!” He gestured expansively around the cavern. “This changes…absolutely everything.”

“We’ve had this conversation before,” Tazun said. “Repeatedly.”

“Ah, good, you remember! Then I don’t have to go through it all again.” Saash’t grinned sidelong at him before pausing to release more insects. “I have seen this much more in my own House than you likely have in yours; metal is metal, but crops are a whole different subject than they were ten years ago. The fact is, some very wise, very learned individuals are well-trained to lead their people skillfully in a world which no longer exists. Applying their hard-earned wisdom to the new world can yield…less than optimal results.”

“What are you saying?” Tazun demanded. “I’m right not to trust my mother?”

“You are right to respect her,” Saash’t said diplomatically. “But you are of the new generation, and you specifically have acquainted yourself with humans in a way that most of your family have not. Presumptuous as it may seem to say it… We see and know things, you and I, that our elders have not had cause to. Like, for instance, the complex relationships of ladybugs and humans to life in what is a very strange environment for them.”

“Selim isn’t a ladybug,” Tazun snorted.

“Of course he is,” Saash’t said calmly. “Just as you would be in his world.”

“Goddess be kind, I’m dealing with family issues and political issues, and you’re talking about your animals and plants again. Is that all you ever think about?”

“It’s more a way of thinking,” Saash’t said, still calm and faintly amused. “Or a way of looking.”

He paused, as a patrolling soldier in House An’sadarr armor passed. Both men stepped off the path and bowed to her; she glanced at them in response, but didn’t so much as nod, continuing on her way.

“Now, that, for instance,” Saash’t murmured as they put some distance between themselves and the guard. “There was nothing odd about that exchange to you, correct?”

“Odd? Like what?”

“Like nothing. But think how it would have looked to one of your human friends.”

“How?”

The biologist gave him a glance that very nearly betrayed open exasperation. “That’s not a rhetorical question, I’m asking you.”

Tazun sighed. “Well… I suppose it would seem rude, to them. Her conduct, I mean. But that’s simply because a human wouldn’t understand our culture.”

“Exactly.” Saash’t gently shook a few more ladybugs loose as he continued. “You and I are aware that a female soldier on duty cannot possibly show any social interest in two men. An Imperial human would have no idea why that is so inappropriate to consider. It’s simply not fair to expect them to understand and adapt to Narisian ways like that. It doesn’t make sense to me to ask that they be held to the same standard of behavior. We’ve yet to see how well the ladybugs will adapt to our caverns in the long term, but it is a safe assumption they will have to adapt, one way or another. They cannot live down here the way they do up there.”

“You’re talking about the entrapments,” Tazun said slowly. “The way Selim and…all the others get taken in.”

Saash’t shrugged noncommittally. “I would simply rather you give yourself credit for the working mind I know you possess, Tazun. It is good that you respect your mother’s judgment, but it’s not truly respecting her to expect her to be flawless. That is blind worship, which doesn’t serve you, her, or your House.”

“I can’t possibly go against my mother’s judgment!”

“Is it going against her to point out information she does not have? It seems to me that is helping her to be the best leader she can.” Saash’t paused, watching a few of his ladybugs frolic on the stalks of…corn? Or were they beans? Whatever it was didn’t have any kind of recognizable fruit yet. “I don’t have answers, Tazun, only questions. That’s the best way I have found to keep an open and rational mind. But the more I consider this… The more I shudder to think of a world where people do not challenge injustice because it’s not their place.”


 

The windowless hallway was deserted, blessedly, and barely lit by single glowstalks growing in widely-spaced niches. Tazun crept as soundlessly as he could, expecting someone to come along any moment and demand to know what he was doing down here. His mother had made it clear that the slave was to be kept in deprivation and isolation until the trainer arrived tomorrow. A veteran human trainer she might not be, but one did not lead a drow family without knowing how to break recalcitrant slaves of some of their worst habits.

The door itself was of thick stone, but its small window was blocked by bars of metal. House Vyendir never lacked for metalwork in any of its furnishings. Tazun peered through, seeing the dim shape of Selim huddled against the far wall. None of the lights from the hall penetrated into the cell, but there was another barred window on its opposite wall, giving a view of Tar’naris beyond. The pale city, not the blazing agricultural cavern.

The sight of the man curled up like that was almost nauseating. He had the sudden, overwhelming thought that no intelligent being should ever be kept in a cage.

“Hey,” Tazun whispered. There was no response. After a few moments, he tried again. “Hey!”

Still the human just huddled there. Was he asleep? No, he was breathing too harshly for that…

Realization hit, and Tazun wanted to smack himself in the head in response. Obviously, there were whispers, and then there were whispers. He glanced furtively up and down the hall, seeing and hearing no sign of anyone approaching, then, with a wince, raised his voice to a level that, in his best judgment, the human should be able to hear.

“Hey! Selim!”

That was apparently loud enough; the man uncoiled and bounded to his feet so abruptly that Tazun jerked back from the bars.

“What do you want?” Selim growled, glaring at him.

“Keep your voice down!” Tazun hissed. “They’re not going to feed you. Look, here.” He held up a single, fist-sized loaf of mushroom bread, filled with a paste of fruit and lizard meat. It wasn’t the most appetizing fare, but it was nutritious.

“So you came to taunt me?” The human sneered, folding his brawny arms. “You’ll have to do better than that, knife-eared—”

“Oh, honestly,” Tazun muttered, and tossed the loaf through the bars. Selim caught it, but barely and after much fumbling. “You eat all of it, understand? Every bit. Leave no crumbs. If there’s any evidence left, they’ll make you tell who brought it, and then I won’t be able to help you anymore. Understand?”

Selim looked down at the loaf clutched in his hand, then back up at Tazun, narrowing his eyes.

“Look, if you can’t do it, give it back,” Tazun hissed. “Less trouble that way.”

The human took a step back from him, clutching the loaf protectively, which was as good as an answer to that suggestion. His expression did not warm, however. “Why would you help me?”

“Not a word,” Tazun said firmly. “Nobody knows about this, all right? If they find out, I’ll be in no end of trouble, and you’ll be on your own.”

“I understand,” Selim said, still watching him with naked suspicion. “You didn’t answer my question.”

Tazun just turned and scuttled back the way he had come. It was rude, yes, but these were exceptional circumstances. He’d have given an answer if he had one. Right now, he was more occupied with the question of what he was going to do next.

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