Tag Archives: Emperor Sharidan

Bonus #21: Heavy is the Head, part 4

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“Are you sure this is an Izarite temple?”

It didn’t look like any kind of temple; the structure only stood out from its neighbors by the lack of a sign advertising what went on inside. This area was all business, mostly of the sort that catered directly to the public. The three-story stone edifice in front of them was slightly narrower than those flanking it; if anything, it looked like a medium-sized townhouse, though it was unlikely anyone who could afford such a residence would prefer to have it around here.

“As sure as I am that you’re asking out of sheer tension, and not as a dig at my intelligence,” Sharidan said without turning around. He lifted his fist and rapped sharply on the door again.

Eleanora snuck a glance over her shoulder. The crowd was approaching—slowly, reminding her more of a predator on the prowl than one which was closing on prey it had sighted. Still a predator, though. She knew very well how dangerous a mob was; whether or not they were looking for the Crown Prince or had any idea he was around, the fact that the two of them were clearly trying to get away could be enough to set them off, to judge by the blur of angry voices.

“Hurry up,” she muttered.

“Oh, yes, of course,” Sharidan said scathingly, turning to give her a look. “Forgive me, I’ll knock faster.”

He raised his hand to do so, but before it struck wood, the heavy door suddenly opened inward.

The man who stood in the doorway practically filled it. He made Eleanora think of a Stalweiss chieftain with modern attire and grooming; he was tall, broad-shouldered and powerfully built, square-jawed and handsome, his goatee neatly trimmed and dark brown hair only beginning to show flecks of silver at the temples and chin.

“Your Grace,” Sharidan said in a tone of clear relief.

The Bishop’s gray eyes flicked past him at the crowd approaching up the street, then widened slightly, and immediately he stepped backward out of the door. “Come in, please.”

They hardly needed to be asked.

“There’s a bit of a story behind this,” Sharidan began as Bishop Darnay carefully shut the door behind them.

“I will listen to anything you wish to share,” the Bishop said, pausing to shift a curtain aside from one of the narrow windows flanking the door and peer out, then turned to give them a smile. “But I see an apparent mob forming, and two people seeking shelter. That tells me all the story I need. We in Izara’s service are well accustomed to protecting the privacy of all who come to us.”

The prince cleared his throat softly, then grasped the silver ring on his finger and pulled it off, reverting to his normal appearance.

Apolitical as the Izarites tended to be, a Bishop was accustomed to exercising self-control, and Justinian Darnay betrayed startlement only in the sharp rise of his eyebrows, then almost immediately marshaled his expression. “I…see. That story must be more interesting than I’d first thought, though the same terms apply; you are safe here and I’ll ask nothing more personal than you feel the need to reveal.” He glanced at Eleanora, only the look itself betraying any curiosity, but true to his word did not pry. “If I am not mistaken, there was a demonstration by the Voters a few blocks over…”

“This appears to be them, yes,” Sharidan said, nodding and slipping the ring back on. “I have no reason to think they know who I am or even that I am out…but then, I don’t understand how this even happened. The military police would be watching a Voter rally like hawks. This should not be so out of hand.”

“It is my experience that unlikely things rarely happen unless made to,” Darnay replied, eyes narrowing in thought. “This is troubling. I hope you have some sort of protection coming? This structure is not designed to be defensible.”

“Intelligence will be closing in,” Sharidan replied. “As soon as they locate me, the Azure Corps will extract us.”

“Ah. Good.” The Bishop nodded, allowing himself a soft sigh of relief. “Then we need only wait, and hopefully not for long.”

“We are very sorry to involve you in this, your Grace,” Eleanora said.

He held up a hand, smiling at her. “You have nothing to apologize for, young lady. This is not a temple proper, but it is sacred to my goddess, and I am her priest. Any who need sanctuary here may claim it, and I will protect them to the utmost of my ability. I involved myself when I took my oaths, and no one else is responsible.”

They all paused as the roar outside swelled. Through the curtains, the light wavered as sources of illumination were brandished.

“Where did they even get torches?” Eleanora muttered.

Darnay had stepped back to the window and glanced out again. “Hm. They have stopped directly outside.”

She clasped Sharidan’s hand again. “Of course they have.”

“Anger, fear…unfocused.” Darnay’s voice had dropped to a murmur. “They were clearly provoked, but are not…controlled. I am fairly confident that this crowd is not hunting for you or anyone in particular, your Highness.” He released the curtain and turned back to them with a grave expression. “That grants us insight into the nature of the danger, I warn you, but does not necessarily lessen its degree. Rare is the mob that does not result in someone being hurt.”

“Bless Izara and her gifts,” Sharidan said.

The Bishop smiled, but even as he opened his mouth to reply, sharp crackles sounded in the room, accompanied by blue flashes. No less than four battlemages appeared, and immediately flowed into a formation around the prince.

“Stand down,” Sharidan barked at the one who had leveled a wand at Darnay. “That is a Bishop of the Universal Church, who just sheltered us!”

“I’m very relieved to hear that,” stated Quentin Vex, who had materialized while he was speaking. The agent bowed politely to the Bishop, who nodded in reply. “The thanks of the Throne, your Grace. At a less urgent moment, a more substantive show of gratitude—”

“Please.” Justinian held up a hand again. “One does not enter the priesthood with the expectation of reward. I share your relief, sir. Now that the prince and his companion are presumably safe, I will try to address that crowd.”

“I strongly advise against that, sir,” Quentin warned. “The situation is inherently unstable.”

“Precisely,” Darnay replied, “and when the troops get here, it will become more so before they can restore order. A mob is not a colony of lichen; it is people. Their fear and anger is individual, and often reminding them of that is enough to defuse incipient violence.” He had moved back to the door, but paused with his hand on the latch. “Please forgive me for making this terse, but the sooner his Highness is removed from the area, the better.”

“I have to concur,” Quentin replied. “Once again, our deepest thanks. And now, you two have an audience with her Majesty.”

“Excuse me, what?” Eleanora said in alarm. “Surely you don’t mean me as well.”

“I’m afraid I do, my lady.” It was an oddly touching moment; the look of commiseration he gave her showed the first open sentiment Quentin had directed at her personally. “Her Majesty’s explicit, personal orders.”

“Oh, bollocks,” Sharidan muttered. Not even the squeeze he gave her hand made that comforting.

“Gentlemen, take us out,” Quentin ordered. Before Eleanora could say anything else, the world dissolved in an arcane flash.


Empress Theasia’s personal chamber was large, but not excessively opulent. It was dim at four in the morning; the Empress had not seen fit to ignite any of the fairy lamps, but a servant had stoked the fire to provide them enough illumination to converse. Altogether, had Eleanora not known they were in the harem wing of the Imperial Palace, she could have taken this for the bedroom of someone about her own rank, if not less.

Theasia herself was a handsome woman with graying hair drawn back in a severe bun, and rectangular spectacles perched on her nose which were not often in evidence in her public appearances. In fact, this woman looked almost startlingly unlike Eleanora’s recent recollections of her. She had never been this close before, but she remembered a woman as regal in her attire as in bearing and surroundings. Now, Theasia wore a plush robe, and was seated in a simple wooden chair with a quilt covering her lap, and over that, a tray upon which rested a small tea service. Altogether the whole arrangement made her seem almost…frail. Certainly older than her forty-seven years.

Of course, Eleanora herself was in an open-collared shirt and trousers, with her hair awkwardly tousled and feet not only bare, but filthy from running on the city streets. The comparison, she was painfully aware, did not favor her.

She made them wait in silence while fixing her tea the way she liked it. Even being aware of that transparent tactic, Eleanora could not help being affected by it, and tried to blunt the induced nerves by focusing on details, imagining she was gathering data for some potential political purpose. One never knew what might prove useful. The Empress, she noted, used cane sugar rather than honey in her tea. Unsurprising given her position, but after Mary the Crow’s infamous decimation of the plantations in Onkawa, sugar was a rather grandiose affectation—

“So,” Theasia said suddenly, and Eleanora loathed herself and the Empress both for being made to jump, “how did you enjoy meeting the next Archpope?”

They stared at her blankly.

“Ah, yes,” the Empress said, fractionally lifting one eyebrow. “You two have been everywhere except church, I suppose. Archpope Allaine has announced her upcoming retirement. Just tonight—well, last night, technically. Late in the evening, as the day came to a close, so much of the city is not even aware, yet, and won’t be till the morning papers are printed.”

“If the Bishops are to elect a new Archpope,” Sharidan said slowly, “the last I heard, Sebastian Throale was considered the favorite…”

“There is an interesting pattern of events unfolding in my city,” Empress Theasia said, and paused to take a sip of her tea. “Most interesting. A populist movement rising in the streets—well-funded and organized, and in contrast to the usual pattern of such things, emerging in the absence of a general public unrest. House Turombi has moved to the capital and been busy making a public spectacle of itself. Declarations by the orcish clans that their vendetta against Tiraas shall never be forgiven are being granted a purely odd amount of attention in the papers, and the rumor mill in general. It’s not new, and it’s not as if they can even leave Sifan, but suddenly everyone finds this fascinating. There is tension between the Colleges of the Collegium of Salyrene, tensions between the cults, tensions between the traditional bards and the new forms of media. Seemingly unprompted public debate about the impotence of Imperial power in Viridill, how the province is a province in name only. Recent actions by Houses Aldarasi and Madouri, individually petty flexings of muscle serving to remind the Throne that they are still a power to be respected. Unrest in the Stalwar provinces, this time coupled with public support for reforms in the treatment of the Stalweiss. You see?”

Eleanora frowned. Pattern? That was a random sampling of current events, none of it connected…

Sharidan, though, was quicker on the uptake than she, this time. “The Enchanter Wars,” he breathed. Theasia smiled very faintly, inclining her head in the tiniest nod. He caught Eleanora’s eye and explained. “Houses Turombi and Tirasian butting heads, Houses Aldarasi and Madouri asserting power, public revolts, bards stirring the pot, orcish aggression, a Salyrite schism…”

“The Sisterhood asserting independence,” she said, catching on. “The Stalweiss rising up… Yes, those were the factional ingredients of the Enchanter Wars! But…I still don’t see what the connection is…”

“The rhetoric is already starting,” Theasia said, taking another sip. Eleanora would have killed for some tea… “The need for restoration of order, this being no time for rash action. Don’t forget that the major cause of the Enchanter Wars, the catalyst of all those lines of conflict, was the last Hand of Salyrene. Magnan built the Enchanter’s Bane, his pressure upon the Silver Throne caused both the crackdown on witches and the deployment of the Bane on Athan’Khar. His private war on fae magic tore his cult apart and the Universal Church with it. No, with all this going on, the prospect of an Archpope Sebastian is all but gone. The Bishops will not elect a Salyrite in this climate.”

“It seems rather…tenuous,” Eleanora said doubtfully.

“Did you learn nothing from your brush with the Voters?” Theasia asked scathingly. “This is what elections are. People are irrational creatures, and nothing squelches their reason like encouraging them to make decisions in large groups. Democracy is nothing but rule by whoever has the best propaganda, even in a venue as small as the Bishopric.”

“But Mother,” Sharidan asked, frowning, “what does all of this have to do with the Izarite Bishop?”

The Empress sipped her tea. “We cannot yet link him to anything criminal, but Justinian Darnay was the direct impetus for far too many of those factors. He is your father’s special correspondent, Eleanora. The one who planted the idea of coming to Tiraas to angle for prestige. He has a similarly cozy relationship with the Sultana of Calderaas and the Duke of Madouris; Darnay is altogether uncommonly interested in having noble friends for an Izarite. He also is fond of reaching across the aisle to support the initiatives of other cults—such as the Avenists and Veskers suddenly asserting themselves. He’s even spoken in public of the need for mourning and ongoing repentance for the cataclysm of Athan’Khar. He also tried to involve other players who would be reminders of the Enchanter Wars, though King Rajakhan proved too intelligent to let himself be drawn into Imperial politics, and Arachne Tellwyrn ignored his overtures, if she noticed them at all. Bless that woman’s staggering arrogance, if it serves to keep her out of my city.”

“I…see,” Sharidan said slowly. “That is certainly suggestive, Mother. But how does it result in him being elected Archpope?”

“I don’t know, Sharidan,” Theasia replied. “What I know is that he arranged all this without me even noticing that he was doing it until Allaine dropped her little surprise, and the pattern suddenly became clear. Justinian Darnay used to be an adventurer, did you know that? A healing cleric of the classic style, traveling with groups of heavily-armed nomadic malcontents. There was a period of fourteen years in which there is no record of where he was, or doing what. Talking to whom. And ever since, he has perfectly played the innocuous, apolitical, universally compliant Izarite—which quite incidentally has gained him more favors and friends than practically any of the other Bishops.”

“Who are the other likely prospects?” Eleanora heard herself ask.

The Empress gave her an unreadable look over the lenses of her spectacles. “At present? Only the Bishops of Avei, Eserion and Vidius are positioned with the will and the political clout to oppose such an upset.”

“There has never been an Eserite Archpope,” Sharidan protested.

“And there never will be,” Theasia agreed. “Grasping for power is against their religion. By the same token, however, Eserites can often be counted upon to thwart those who do reach for power—sometimes just on general principles. But in this case, internal politics of the Guild make it unlikely. The new Boss seems motivated chiefly to prove how much more amiable he is than Boss Catseye was; Sweet won’t stir the waters unless he sees a specific and pressing need. Ironically, Bishop Vaade is one of his predecessor’s appointees, the kind of uncharacteristically well-behaved lapdog Catseye favored. Vaade won’t so much as scratch her nose without the Boss’s order, which will not be forthcoming.”

“Bishop Tannehall would make a fine Archpope,” Eleanora said thoughtfully.

“The Archpope is elected,” Theasia said in a biting tone. “How good they would be at the job is not a consideration; it comes down to an impossible calculus of the whims of everyone involved. And there, again…internal politics. High Commander Rouvad is new to her position, and was elevated from the Silver Legions rather than the clergy. She lacks both experience and connections in politics, and relies heavily on Tannehall—who, herself, is not an ambitious woman. Neither of them would want Tannehall to be elected.”

“Which leaves Bishop Maalvedh,” Sharidan said, folding his hands behind his back. “I should think she would be a contender, if anyone. Am I about to have my ignorance explained to me yet again, Mother?”

Theasia actually smiled at him, and sipped her tea again before answering. “Gwenfaer Maalvedh is ambitious, devious, and as two-faced as only a Vidian can be in good conscience. She would love nothing more than to become Archpope, and more than anyone I would think has the will and the means to make that happen. Now that Throale’s justly-earned reputation for wisdom and neutrality has been rendered moot.” She paused to sip again. “And I have begun investigating Justinian Darnay because Maalvedh nominated him immediately upon Allaine’s announcement.”

“You might have begun with that,” Eleanora said, forgetting herself. “Leaving it for the end makes for fine dramatic effect, but not much in the way of accuracy.”

The Empress’s steely gaze fixed on her. “Have you given much thought to how very easily I could have you charged with treason after tonight’s events, girl?”

“That is not going to happen, Mother,” Sharidan said evenly before Eleanora could even open her mouth.

“Oh?” If anything, Theasia seemed amused. “Testing your will against mine has never gone well for you in the past, Sharidan.”

“I have only fought you over things I wanted, Mother,” he said quietly. “Not something that mattered. Eleanora is the closest friend I have, and saved my life tonight. She is one of very, very few people in this city whom I trust without reservation. Try to make a scapegoat of her, and we will both learn how much I’ve grown since I was fifteen and wanted to spend a holiday in Puna Dara.”

They locked eyes, both in apparent calm. Eleanora hardly dared take a breath.

Finally, the Empress set her teacup down on the lap tray. “You certainly think well of yourself, young man. I give you due credit for the various noblewomen you’ve seduced. Particular felicitations on bagging Duchess Arauvny; I honestly thought she was as gay as your little playmate, there.”

“I am no one’s little anything,” Eleanora snapped, lifting her chin, “and I have had enough of this. If you intend to punish me for something, be about it. I will not stand here and be insulted by a crotchety old woman who has all the power in the world and still feels the need to bully her lessers!”

Sharidan had met the Empress’s will without flinching, but now stared at Eleanora in open horror. Theasia, though, simply gave her a calm glance before continuing as though there had been no interruption.

“Every other woman you’ve had since you were fourteen, however, was in the employ of the Imperial government, and serving to help keep an eye on you. The twins, tonight? Agents of Imperial Intelligence. I vetted them myself.” Smiling faintly, she picked up her teacup again, but did not drink. “Only the best for my little prince.”

Sharidan, after a long pause, finally shut his mouth. Then he turned to Eleanora and said with nonchalance that was only slightly forced, “And no, this is not the most awkward conversation I have ever had with my mother. Not even the top ten, frankly.”

“You have never been out from under my eye,” Theasia continued, her tone growing firmer. “Quentin Vex has dogged your steps for years, Sharidan, and you’ve never given him the slip for more than ten minutes at a time—such as tonight, when you nearly flung yourself into a mob. He has let you have your fun, because those were his orders. And for the gods’ sake, when you are Emperor, give him more responsibility. The man is a treasure, and being shamefully wasted as a nursemaid.”

The prince swallowed heavily. “I…see. Are you going to make me ask the obvious question?”

“Play is the duty of children,” Theasia said, and quite suddenly she looked tired, the cup drooping in her fingers. “We learn more about living from youthful games than from books or teachers. My father made sure I had time to grow…to live. A person who grows up confined to a palace cannot know what the lives of his subjects are like, and that is a recipe for a dangerously terrible leader. A person who grows up knowing nothing but duty may possess self-discipline, but little self-awareness. You must be you before you can be an Emperor. And yes, letting you challenge the boundaries of my authority under discreet supervision was the best possible training at some of the skills you will need to rule. It was…a calculated risk.”

“You left him terrifyingly vulnerable,” Eleanora breathed.

“Oh, look who has suddenly discovered responsibility.” To her astonishment, the Empress smiled at her. “The same goes, Eleanora. And you, young lady, continue to impress. You can bend your pride and accept chastisement when necessary, but know enough of your worth not to tolerate senseless abuse—even from power far above your own. That was where I would have drawn the line, as well—though you should not have snapped. Maintain composure while asserting yourself, girl, or you look like a petulant child, which you cannot afford. I am exceptionally glad you two found each other, for a great many reasons.” Her gaze shifted back to Sharidan, and softened further. “Tonight marks a change. In you, and in the political climate due to the upcoming transition of Archpopes. I have given you all the time I can, my son. Now, you have to grow up, and learn that even with the wealth of an Empire at your fingertips, the two things of which you will never have enough are time, and yourself.”

There was a heavy silence, in which the Empress finished off her tea, and set down the cup again.

“To begin with,” she said, suddenly more brisk, “you two will be married as soon as it can be arranged without scandal.”

They both twitched.

“Ah, Mother…”

“It’s not that I am not honored…”

“Oh, shut up,” Theasia ordered disdainfully. “No law says you have to share a bed; you can exchange one kiss at the ceremony without vomiting on each other, surely. Uniting Houses Tirasian and Turombi will heal one of the last lingering breaches of the Enchanter Wars; placing his scion upon the Swan Throne will shut Alduron’s mutterings up good and proper. Much, much more importantly, Sharidan, the girl is your best friend. She’s clever and determined enough to be a very valuable ally, and the value of having someone at your back whom you can both trust and rely on cannot be overstated. You will need to produce heirs, but they don’t particularly have to come from your wife. She’s the only one entitled to raise an objection if you place a bastard upon the Silver Throne, and I trust that won’t be an issue.” The Empress shot Eleanora a distinctly sardonic look. “Honestly, the fact that one of you turned out gay is what makes this perfect, as opposed to merely fortuitous. Asking you two tomcats to be sexually faithful to each other would be an open invitation to future scandals the Throne does not need.”

They both refused to meet each other’s eyes, or hers.

The Empress heaved a sigh. “I’ll give you a space to grow accustomed to that arrangement, if I can. But as soon as possible, I plan to abdicate the Throne.”

Sharidan snapped his gaze back to her, and took an impulsive half-step forward. “Mother—are you all right?”

Theasia smiled sadly at him. “As much as I have always been. I’ve kept this from you, Sharidan, but…I am ill. Quite, quite severely, in fact.”

“I don’t understand,” he said in consternation. Eleanora stepped forward, too, and took his hand.

“Sarsamon Tirasian, like Justinian Darnay, was an adventurer in his youth,” the Empress said. “He had quite the fine old time, truth be told. Among other things, he was in southern Viridill when the Enchanter Wars broke out. Specifically, when the Enchanter’s Bane went off, he was standing close enough to see it.”

“Gods,” Eleanora whispered.

“It is known as the Banefall,” Theasia said, irritation creeping into her tone, “I can only assume because of a general lack of imagination among the dwarven scholars who first categorized it. Persons exposed to the Bane at such a range—close enough to be affected, but far enough away to survive—have had great difficulty having children, often not doing so until late in life. And those children…” She paused, her jaw tightening, before continuing. “Essentially, their organs simply stop functioning, one by one, at a very young age.”

“How young?” Sharidan swallowed heavily. “…how long?”

Theasia smiled wistfully. “I don’t know, son. I am the only known Banefall victim to live out of my teens; you can do a lot of things with the full resources of an Empire. With enough alchemists and clerics and witches working on it, organs that wish to give up and die can be prevented from doing so for a long time. But how long…? I live in the realm of experiment. I might last as long as a half-elf, so long as I keep up my treatments. Then again, I could drop dead mid-sentence right before your eyes. I meant what I said, Sharidan. I have given you as long as I could. It is simply not safe to delay any longer. It’s amazing I have managed to keep this secret for so long; never mind my abrupt death, just the fact of this getting out could induce a crisis.”

He licked his lips. “So…it’s…hereditary?”

“It stops with me,” she said firmly. “Trust me, if you had it, you would know by now. I had you carefully examined and tested, regardless. But the progression is known and understood. The children of other Banefall victims have all grown up unaffected. It ends after a single generation. Once I die, this peculiar little disease will pass from the world, and good riddance to it.”

“But…I can’t believe there’s that much data! If victims never live past their teens, how many children could they possibly have had?”

Eleanora cleared her throat softly, squeezing his hand. “That…is actually very common, in the southern regions of N’Jendo which border Athan’Khar. ‘Breed early, breed often,’ as the orcs used to say. The Jendi had to follow suit to maintain a match for their ever-growing numbers.”

“I’m not ready for this.” He was staring at the far wall, now, giving no hint which of them he was talking to, if either.

“Sharidan.” Theasia waited until he dragged his gaze back to hers. “You will never be ready. No one possibly can be. But now, at this juncture? You are more ready than you have ever been. I judge that you are ready enough. There are things I still need to teach you, but you now have what you need to find your own way.”

Slowly, she settled back into her chair, and once again, Eleanora couldn’t help noticing how exhausted the Empress suddenly looked. “The future is yours, children. I have done the best I can—had my successes, but failed often. I am sorry I could not give you better. You give me confidence, though. Sharidan, I find you frequently as frustrating as your father was…” She smiled, slowly. “And just like him, I have never loved you the less for it. I have never been less than proud of you.”

He swallowed heavily, again. “I…will try not to let you down, mother.”

“My time will soon be over; you will have to stop worrying about me. It is Tiraas you must not disappoint, and I am laying this upon you now because at this moment, I am confident that you will succeed. Eleanora.”

“Your Majesty?” she asked nervously.

Theasia smiled at her. “Please…watch over my son.”

She squeezed his hand. “We will watch each other, your Majesty. As we will our Empire.”

He squeezed back. “For Tiraas.”

Empress Theasia allowed herself a soft sigh, and closed her eyes. “Good. First, though, have some tea. You will need it; it’s going to be quite a day.”

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Bonus #20: Heavy is the Head, part 3

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Evading her parents was hardly necessary anymore, after the effort she’d made in the last few months to be politically useful to her father’s ambitions. At this point, Alduron and Kheethi trusted that if Eleanora was not under their eyes, she was not necessarily in trouble, and in fact might well be networking on House Turombi’s behalf.

Similarly, evading the various servants, hangers-on and bodyguards who formed her family’s ever-changing entourage was not excessively difficult, largely because she was careful not to abuse the privilege. Eleanora never vanished in areas that were not considered safe, and made a point to do so only rarely; so long as she wasn’t habitually absent, they might not even notice amid all the hubbub and social circulation, and likely would not find it necessary to intervene. In a place like the Imperial Museum, particularly at a time when it was closed to the public for the purpose of an aristocratic social event, wriggling out from under their watchful eyes required only some careful maneuvering.

Evading reporters was another matter.

It wasn’t that they didn’t have newspapers in Onkawa, or people who worked for them, but the culture was very different. In Onkawa, her father was not only the Imperial governor, but by tradition the High Chieftain, a position which commanded immense respect even after all these years of Imperial rule—even after almost a century of House Turombi trying to be as Tiraan as it could, often in open defiance of Onkawi customs. Reporters asked him questions—but politely, by appointment, and with an unspoken assurance that whatever article they produced would be tasteful and not reflect badly upon Lord Alduron or his House.

In Tiraas, only the Empress and her son were accorded such deference, and that more out of sensible fear of Theasia’s displeasure than any culture of respect. There were a lot more papers here, making the competition for juicy stories stiffer, and the resident nobles were favorite targets. These journalists were like sharks, and in this city, the Turombis were just another bucket of chum. Her mother and father still hadn’t resigned themselves to this fact, but Eleanora had been busy adapting.

That wretched man with the notebook was still following her as she slipped into the central complex. The museum was jointly administered by the cults of Ryneas and Nemitoth, whose collusion apparently required some moderating presence by the Universal Church, not to mention the offices of the Imperial government which actually owned the place. It had all been planned in advance, resulting in the art and historical wings of the Imperial Museum being physically separate structures, connected by an architectural bridge of sorts containing the entrance halls, various office spaces, and lots of staircases. Due to the general shortage of real estate in Tiraas, the central section was practically a tower, packing as much as it could into a vertical space. Lots, and lots of staircases—winding ones, wrapping around other rooms, connecting oddly-shaped halls that linked with the museum wings on both sides, and generally leading to a profusion of useful little nooks and crannies.

Eleanora was hardly the only one at the party to seek a little privacy; it took some trekking and quite a bit of climbing before she left behind scattered couples and small groups. At this particular event, there was a lot more wheeling and dealing than canoodling going on, but she passed a little of everything before reaching a truly quiet part of the complex. And still the reporter followed.

She rounded a corner, finding the hall empty, and flattened herself against a wall, tugging the locket from inside the neck of her dress. Opening it, she withdrew one of the small leaves neatly stacked within, then snapped it shut before tenderly blowing that one leaf—apparently as fresh as the day it was plucked from the bush, like all the rest—from the tip of her finger.

The sensation was faint, and now familiar—a slight tug at something deep in her being, and then the ghostly image of herself stepped away, and hurried down the hallway at a graceful glide.

A moment later, the reporter rounded the corner after her, and paused. He stood close enough she could have touched him had she wanted, and could smell his cheap cologne though she decidedly didn’t want to, but he ignored her, immediately setting off after the wavering image of herself that vanished down the hall ahead.

She knew, from practicing on her hapless servants, that the image would lead him on a merry chase before disappearing, and would do so out of his sight in a way that left him believing he had simply lost her. Only in the few moments after diverging did it conceal her; anyone observing it would fixate on the image and ignore the real woman left behind. Once they were separated by enough distance, however, she would be as visible as always to whomever she encountered.

Eleanora tucked the locket away, smiling smugly, and hurried on, making for a flight of steps and choosing a path to a particular spot she knew. She couldn’t be absent long; if he wasn’t there, this would be a bust, but she was reasonably sure he would be. And that her deception would remain unnoticed, once it had played out. With arcane enchantment so heavily favored among human societies, particularly in urban centers like Tiraas, fae magic was all but unknown and had been since Archpope Sipasian had helped ignite the Enchanter Wars by trying to stamp it out. Thus, it was not commonly planned for. Privately, she wondered how many times she could use this trick before word got around. It had already been worth every doubloon she’d paid that witch, though.

She heard them, and quickened her pace. On the second highest floor of the complex, she abruptly rounded the corner into the little nook where they were, then skidded to a halt, gasping dramatically and affecting an expression of shock.

“Oh! Excuse me!”

The pair leaped apart—or rather, the young woman in the uniform of the museum’s staff hopped away from the prince as if stung. She was Tiraan, with maybe a bit of Stalweiss; at any rate, she was pale enough that her blush looked almost painful. The girl mumbled something to Eleanora, refusing to meet her eyes, then gathered up her skirts and all but ran out.

Eleanora stepped aside, watching her till she rounded the corner onto a staircase that took her down toward the party.

Sharidan, meanwhile, came forward to poke his head out and look up and down the halls, verifying they were alone. Only then did he turn his scowl on her.

“For the last time, Nora, I said I was sorry. I did not mean to interrupt you with that blonde in the theater, and if you had left the signal we agreed on the door to the box obviously I wouldn’t—”

“All right, for the last time, then,” she agreed with a grin. “I’ll consider us even. In fact, how about I make it up to you tonight? I’ve managed to arrange a little something for us at the Cat and Mouse.”

“How little?” he asked skeptically.

“Well, a bit more little than we prefer,” she acknowledged, pointedly patting her own breast. It was a peculiarly comfortable feeling, how he noted the gesture without any lascivious expression. “But still worth sneaking out. Twins, Sharidan.”

The prince rolled his eyes. “Nora, what the hell are we going to do with twins? The whole point of—well, I assume you haven’t suddenly developed a hankering to be in the same room during? What do you plan to do, trade off? Because we both know I don’t mind your seconds, but last I checked—”

“Redheads.”

That brought him up short. Her grin widened.

“You’re right, it’s a bit more awkward for the two of us. But come on. Twin redheads, Sharidan. Look me in the eye and tell me that’s not worth the trouble.”

He did look her in the eye, and after a momentary pause, a smile stretched across his features to mirror her own.

“Lady Eleanora, I do believe I have been a bad influence on you these last few months.”

“And I will be forever grateful,” she said as solemnly as she could while smirking. “Don’t send the carriage, my mother noticed it prowling the neighborhood last time.”

“Right. Meet you at the Cat, then? Eleven?”

“Eleven o’clock, but let’s link up at the pub on the corner a few blocks north of it—the one with the old fighting pit turned into a sitting area, you remember? We’ll head out from there and throw off any pursuit. I have a new toy; I want to see how long it can make Quentin chase his tail.”


“I think…we may be doing this wrong,” she said idly, blowing smoke. Just tobacco; for the same reason they were careful to indulge sparingly in wine on these outings, she had tried only the tiniest bit of sevenleaf, and absolutely eschewed poppy milk and any alchemicals. They both needed their wits about them to sneak back into their respective homes.

“Nonsense,” he said equally lazily, propping his feet on the balcony rail; he’d tugged the outdoor couch over toward it specifically so he could do that. “This is as old as humanity. It’s called afterglow. You’re supposed to relax and chitchat or cuddle for a bit after sex.”

“Right, that’s what I mean,” she replied, pausing to puff a little cloud at him. He languidly waved it away, but was apparently too mellow to protest; Sharidan did not care for anything that had to be burned and inhaled, even incense. “Traditionally, one chitchats with the person with whom one just had sex.”

“Ah, well. What would be the fun of just doing what all the other sheep do, Nora?”

She chuckled, though it hadn’t really been that funny, and flicked the hand-rolled cigarette over the rail.

They were dressed again, mostly. Trousers and a shirt each, though the shirts were unbuttoned and and neither had put on shoes or coats. They were just lounging on low couches on the balcony outside the suite she had discreetly secured, while the two sisters they’d just been with dozed together in the master bed. Eleanora assumed her hair was a dead giveaway what she’d just been doing, to judge by the state of his, though at least her complexion was too dark to betray the same lingering glow.

It was so odd, and so oddly comfortable, the thing to which she had referred obliquely with her little joke. This, somehow, was more intimate than the actual lovemaking had been; neither of them had much inclination to fall in love or settle down. Sex was about the pleasure and sometimes the thrill of the hunt. Whatever there was between them had none of that element; she knew his tells well enough by now to know that he actually didn’t sneak glances into her cleavage, whereas he was just discreet about it with other women.

A strange thing, but a pleasant one. Back home, all her “friends” had been young noblewomen with whom she socialized out of mutual political interest. She and Sharidan talked about things, though. About politics, yes, but also history, their lives, the art and music and books they enjoyed. About girls and what they did with them and wanted to. And sometimes, about nothing, just sitting in friendly silence. Over the eight months since their first acquaintance, he seemed to have grown to value as much as she did having someone with whom to share these things.

“Are they still going on over there?” he asked idly, breaking her reverie. They didn’t have a great view of the city from this third-floor balcony, due to the size of the neighboring structures, but they were facing a canal and the back of a factory on its other side, which at least gave them some space. It also was open enough to transmit sound—in this case, of a still-agitated crowd barely a block distant. “Gods, don’t these people have jobs in the morning or something?”

“You’re one to talk,” she said without asperity. “I’m surprised the police haven’t intervened, though.”

“Oh, this is a scheduled protest; they’re on private property which they were given permission to use. One of those factories has an open loading lot in front. The owner made a big fuss about how he’d been pressured into it, likely just to keep himself out of trouble with my mother.”

“Well, that would’ve been helpful to know before I planned a little get-together a stone’s throw away,” she commented.

“I wasn’t exactly involved in your planning, remember? Anyhow, I never heard of a Voter meeting going on this long before. It’s gotta be after three. What are they doing over there?”

“Shouting, as far as I can tell. I don’t hear anything being broken.” She glanced over at him. “These people have kept popping up all year, Sharidan. Why hasn’t your mother come down on them?”

“Well, you know how she feels about republican ideas in general,” he said, shrugging. “But cracking down on protest movements just lends them legitimacy. Mother favors a subtler approach this time; she’s the reason all the papers are covering the Sheng civil war in so much detail. People are less likely to want democratic reforms when they get regular updates on a whole country currently being destroyed by them. Still…this kind of rally is an escalation. She might have to get more aggressive.”

“Hm.”

They lounged in silence, listening to the sounds of the city, what wasn’t obscured by the hubbub two streets over. Tiraas glistened under its omnipresent fairy lamps with the evidence of a recent shower; the clouds scudded rapidly by overhead, permitting intermittent views of a sky whose stars were obscured by the city’s arcane glow.

“Did your grandfather kill my great-grandfather?”

“Yes, I expect so.”

Eleanora froze. She hadn’t meant to bring that up, and had no idea why she’d asked; the only thing more surprising than that slip on her part was how readily he had answered.

“If you were expecting some great revelation, I’m afraid I can’t help you,” Sharidan added wryly, glancing over at her. “If there was any real evidence, I’m sure it was long since buried or destroyed. By my mother, if not by her father before she even came along. But honestly, I can read the same from history as everyone else. Two men emerged from the Enchanter Wars calling themselves Emperor. Sarsamon Tirasian might have been a puppet of the Church at first, but he did control the actual Silver Throne, and the capital itself, and had the backing of the cults and Houses Aldarasi and Madouri. Tambisi Turombi, though, was an actual warlord who had taken control of all the western provinces, and unlike Sarsamon, actually ruled them. They would have turned the civil war from a dozen feuding states to two large ones and made it drag on another decade. And then, suddenly, one dies of a stroke in his sleep? Coincidences that politically convenient don’t just happen.”

She nodded slowly. He was right; that was nothing more than everyone knew. And he was undoubtedly also right that if Sarsamon had left any evidence of the assassination, it was long gone.

“I wish my father could just let it go,” she whispered. “It was a century ago. Everyone involved is dead, the whole world is different…and frankly, the right man won. Sarsamon Tirasian outwitted the Church and his other backers and made himself a true Emperor. Tambisi ruled by force and the threat of it; the Church and the cults would either have made him a puppet, or killed him themselves.”

“Maybe they did,” Sharidan murmured. “Or maybe a third party who saw things the way you do now. I tend to agree with you, Nora; it’s long past mattering.”

“Not to Alduron Turombi,” she said with a heavy sigh. “He’s obsessed with House Tirasian and what might have been. What might have been,” she added bitterly, “is that none of us would have existed because our ancestor would not have succeeded in taking Tiraas, or survived the attempt. Gods, there’s no way for an army to cross the Wyrnrange except at the southernmost point, and no force in the world could have plowed through Viridill. The Sisterhood had already broken the Imperial legions for trying exactly that, and south of them the Enchanter’s Bane was still burning! But no, all he knows is that Tambisi was trying to hold some semblance of the Empire together while Sarsamon was goofing around with adventurers. A stroke of luck is the only reason he’s not Emperor today. It wouldn’t have worked like that, but there is just no telling him so.”

Sharidan looked over at her directly, concern showing on his face for the first time. “Nora… I don’t want to put you on the spot…”

“But will my father move against your mother?” Eleanora shook her head slowly. “I don’t… I don’t want to think so. My father is a cautious and practical man, in his governing. He has to know what a hopeless, suicidal move that would be. But then…he moved us here and left Onkawa in the hands of stewards, all on the urging of some cleric he knew, and I’m not sure what to think. He’s also a prideful man, and he has these impossible dreams… I worry, Sharidan. My father would never attack Theasia under just his own impetus. But if the wrong person whispers the wrong thing in his ear…”

The prince sighed. “It would look bad. Really bad. Enough people assume Sarsamon had Tambisi murdered that for Theasia to use force against Alduron…that could get ugly. We’re a lot more secure on the Throne than Sarsamon was, especially at first, but the Throne itself just isn’t as powerful as it was before the Enchanter Wars. Especially against the Houses, and the Church. If your father gets stupid, my mother will exercise some restraint; she’ll have to. But still…”

“Yes.” Eleanora sighed again. “Still….”

Slowly, he began straightening up. “What if we—”

At the suddenly surging roar of the crowd, they both jerked upright, heads swiveling to look.

“That came from behind us,” Sharidan said unnecessarily.

“Okay,” she said, frowning deeply. “They’ve crossed the bridge into this district. I think it might be time to call it a night.”

“But how?” His eyes were narrowed in concentration. “They do not have permission to rampage through the streets, and the military police are more than capable of containing a mob…”

“Sharidan!”

“Ah, right. You’re right; let’s pack it in.”

They both paused again as the sound surged again.

“Is it my imagination,” she said, slipping her disguise ring back on, “or have they moved into the street outside the Cat and Mouse?”

“If not right outside, close,” he muttered, re-applying his own disguise. They had both been entertained by this evening’s choice, having basically swapped; he was now a dark Onkawi, she an olive-skinned Tiraan. Neither was smiling now. “Hell, this is pretty worrisome. Let’s—”

The balcony door swung open and one of the girls leaned out. “There you are! Come on, there’s trouble.”

“We hear it,” Eleanora said tersely, following her back in. Both the red-haired young women had donned robes, and Eleanora had to resist the temptation not to pat the one who’d beckoned them on the rump; she was (embarrassingly) not certain which was the girl in whose arms she’d spent the last couple of hours. “Is it out front?”

“Yes,” said the other redhead, shutting the door to their suite after having peeked out. “The street’s pretty…you don’t want to go out there. Come on, there’s a tunnel in the basement that leads to the brewery next door. From there we can get to the roof and onto the public house on the other side; it has a fire escape down to street level. Hopefully we’ll be out of range of the mob by then.”

Eleanora frowned at her. “How do you know all that?”

“I know many things, my lady,” she replied, giving her a sly smile. “As you should remember.”

“Cut it out, Lara,” the other sister ordered. “She loves that game. I’m the one you were with.”

“I was hoping we’d have time to swap, but…here we are,” Lara said resignedly. “Bring up the rear, Sara; I don’t think they’ll break in here, but I have the oddest impression that crowd is looking for something.”

Sharidan and Eleanora exchanged a loaded look. Theoretically, nobody here but the two of them knew their proper identities. But the two pretty young women they were now with were suddenly acting a lot more canny than their giggly personalities of a few hours before, and after all… A crowd of angry pro-democracy activists had a built-in reason for wanting to get their hands on the heir to the Silver Throne.

They followed Lara out into the hall, Sara coming behind them. Eleanora leaned close to Sharidan and murmured, “As you were saying…coincidences that convenient?”

He glanced at her sidelong and nodded once, then shifted his eyes momentarily without moving his head. She followed his glance; at the end of the hall was an open window. A third-floor window…but right through it, barely visible, the edge of an iron railing attached to a fire escape.

An alarming roar sounded from outside; Lara and Sara both froze in their tracks, turning to stare in that direction. The opposite direction, as fate determined, from the open window.

Sharidan grabbed Eleanora’s hand, and without pausing to think, they were both running. Behind them the girls shouted; she deliberately fell back so he could get out first. That they were friends and their families enemies both fell from consideration against the fact that his life was simply more valuable than hers. Without him, the best case scenario for the Empire was a drawn-out succession crisis.

The prince was nimble, more so than she; he literally dived through the window, while she had to clamber. She paused to slam the window shut after herself, though, and then they were racing down the metal stairs.

The fire escape only took them down another floor; from there, they had to jump to the ground in the alley. Eleanora panted, slumping against the damp brick wall. She had never actually run before in her life. It was probably worse for being barefoot; she had no frame of reference. Gods, the pavement must be filthy…

“Come on,” Sharidan said insistently, grabbing her hand and tugging. “Back this way.”

“That’s the canal!”

“Yes, and the buildings don’t come right to the edge of it; we can get around behind.”

“And go where?”

“The other way from the brewery. Did you also get the vibe that…”

“Yes,” she said, already following him onto a narrow ledge behind the next building over, only a waist-high wall separating them from a drop to the water far below. “They were like two completely different women all of a sudden.”

“Where’d you find those girls?”

“Later,” she said tersely. “Where are we going?”

They both froze at another roar from the crowd, then began moving again. The noise was concentrated back in front of the Cat and Mouse.

“There’s a place we can go, not far from here,” Sharidan said grimly. “Quentin and his people will be tracking us already, despite your little gimmick. They’ll find us before long. We’re going to claim sanctuary till then; I know an Izarite temple in this district. A very small one, which is not obviously a temple from outside, so people tend not to notice.”

“Izarites?” she said skeptically. “I’d prefer to find some Silver Legionnaires…”

“Beggars and choosers, Nora,” he said. Though he still kept a grip on her hand, he looked only ahead, tugging her along without meeting her gaze. “More to the point, someone works there who can be…well, I don’t know about trusted, but he’ll protect us, at least. Bishop Darnay keeps his office and personal residence there.”

“What? Doesn’t the Bishop work at the Grand Cathedral?”

“Yes, and the central Temple of Izara, but his personal office is here. This is one of the quasi-secrets my mother made sure I knew in case of emergencies like this; a Bishop will protect the Crown Prince, regardless of politics, and I’ve never heard of the Izarites having a quarrel with anyone. Even anyone as difficult as my mother. Their religion requires them to minister to whoever’s in need; they tend to tuck their higher-ranking people away in private little crannies, because they only get any work done if they stay relatively isolated. Quentin knows I know this; he’ll check there.”

“Izarite Bishop,” she said, frowning. “My father knows him.”

“Well, good,” Sharidan said curtly, pausing to peer around the next corner before leading her across the open space to the back of the building beyond. “Izarites keep their heads down, politically speaking, so I don’t know much about Justinian Darnay, but I guess we’re both about to.”

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Bonus #19: Heavy is the Head, part 2

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“Now, first of all, you’ll need to un-pin that brooch…”

“Why, your Highness,” Eleanora said in mock reproach, placing a hand protectively over the spot where the invisible peacock’s weight tugged at her lapel, “for shame! To think you would so quickly seek to rescind a gift to a lady. What would your mother say?”

“I rather think I’d be in a cell before she got down to that part,” the prince replied merrily. “Regardless, my lady, it wounds me that you would even suspect such a thing! No, I merely meant that the next leg of the journey calls for a different disguise. But of course, this being our first outing together, it should after all be the lady’s choice. If you wish to be seen in public with either your true face or the livery of one of your House’s servants, I’ll not gainsay you! I have, however, prepared something a bit more discreet, in case you think either of those might lead to awkward questions at home.”

“You have a prepared answer for everything, don’t you?” she asked dryly.

“Oh, hardly everything. But for most things, I daresay I do. You know what the secret is?”

“Do tell.”

He winked. “Not making the same mistake twice. You have years of youthful embarrassments and blunders to thank for the much wiser man before you today. I rather think you would not have enjoyed talking with me before that long, painful education.”

“I rather suspect you’re right,” she replied in a solemn tone. “Something tells me you’d have been one of those boys who never learned what I looked like above the collarbone.”

“Well, I’m afraid you’ve got me nailed, there. It’s much better that we didn’t meet until just recently.”

“And I’m to just take this on faith?” Eleanora covered the upper half of her face with a hand. “What color are my eyes?”

“Brown,” he said immediately. “A very deep brown, that in this light could be taken for black, but under bright fairy lamps shows the most intriguing depths of warmer color. Like garnets glinting from the bottom of a pool.”

She peeked at him from between her fingers, finding him wearing a knowing little smile. “…you’re dangerous, aren’t you?”

“Perhaps a tad,” he said with a roguish grin. “Anyway, we’ve veered off topic. Here, my lady. You’ll want to remove the brooch before trying it on; I’m not sure the effects of using both at once, but it’s generally a better idea not to mix enchantments.”

The ring he extended to her was a pretty but not extravagant piece, the perfect host for an enchantment which was meant to avoid notice. Hammered silver, set with a small, opaque red stone and with a simple engraving of curved lines around its band. He offered it on a flat palm, no doubt deliberately eschewing any of the romantic implications that might come from offering a lady a ring.

Eleanora plucked it carefully from his hand with her fingertips, prompting a faint widening of his smile which she ignored. She tucked the ring into her palm before carefully un-pinning the brooch, in the process reverting to her own face and the party dress she’d worn to the gala.

“You can leave it in the carriage for now,” Sharidan offered. “Unless you’re the only lady in Tiraas whose seamstress had the sense to give you pockets.”

“I’m afraid not, but I suspect if I tell her it was a recommendation from the crown prince, I can perhaps make some headway finally,” she said, placing the peacock on the seat next to her. “With all the Avenist activity in this city, one would think…”

She trailed off, having slipped the ring onto her finger and immediately lost all the pigmentation in her hands.

“Do you have a…” He was already offering her a hand mirror. “Of course you do. Thank you.”

“My pleasure.”

Eleanora regarded her new face critically. She was now a pale Stalweiss—in fact, a blonde, with blue eyes, of all things. Still quite lovely, but…

“It doesn’t meet with your approval?” the prince asked almost diffidently. “My humblest apologies; many people find the use of magical disguise the perfect time to explore a little variety. I’m afraid I can’t get a new one on short notice, but for next time…”

“I suppose it would be craven not to try it once. Briefly. Hm… Are the Stalweiss really as savage as they say?”

“No more or less than anyone else, I expect. Any living in Tiraas are likely as cosmopolitan as any of their neighbors. The Stalwar Provinces are somewhat backward, but more because they weren’t treated well after the Enchanter Wars than because of any defect in the breed.”

“And whose fault was that?” she murmured.

“I understand they made a convenient scapegoat after Horsebutt’s rampage,” he said, his forehead tightening in the faintest shadow of a frown. “Hopefully, enough time has passed that we can begin correcting that. We’ll see. My mother has had more immediate priorities.”

“Hmm,” she said noncommittally. Either he actually cared for his people—even the infamous “barbarians” of the mountains—or could put up a good front. And why should he play that game with her? No one who had researched her would find any hint of interest in the plight of the mountain folk. Eleanora found herself warming toward him a bit, despite her better judgment.

She looked up to find him also wearing a new face—also a pale Stalweiss face, though he at least still had hair a proper shade of brown. Really, Eleanora fancied herself as open-minded as the next person, but it didn’t seem right for humans to have elven coloration.

“Oh, now this is fortuitous,” Sharidan commented, sliding over to the window and peering out. Eleanora joined him, noting somewhat belatedly the hubbub of a crowd outside; she’d developed a habit of tuning out exterior noise when riding in a carriage.

Their driver had to slow slightly to accommodate the traffic, which was itself somewhat impeded by the disruption. She couldn’t see much at this angle, but people with signs and placards seemed to be standing in front of a darkened building.

“Does the Writ of Duties allow people to impede traffic this way?” she asked, frowning and trying to get a closer look through the intervening vehicles.

“Actually it’s the rubbernecking drivers who are slowing down traffic,” Sharidan said merrily. “Those guys are very carefully within the law. See, they’re only on the sidewalk, and while that is a government office, it’s not open at this hour, so they’re not disrupting Imperial business. Look, there are soldiers watching; they’ll jump in the moment they have a reason. The Voters are very careful not to give them one.”

“Voters,” she murmured, finally making out one of the signs. Really, it would help them not to wave the things about, if they wished them to be read… “And you call this fortuitous? Those people want you dead.”

“Nonsense,” he said brightly, sliding back into his seat and smiling again. “They want my mother dethroned and the aristocracy abolished. Beyond that, it’s not personal. Only some of them want me dead. And they’ve as much chance of accomplishing any of that as the orcish revanchists have of launching so much as a dinghy from Sifan to invade us. It’s fortuitous because now we have an anecdote! Something to talk about at the party, aside from how our accents and mannerisms clearly don’t match our faces.”

“Yes, about that,” she said, resuming her own seat. “I note you’ve neglected to mention where you are taking me.”

“To a pleasant little late-evening gathering being held at the home of one Ms. Lorelei Talushaad, also known to her compatriots in the Thieves’ Guild as Gossamer.”

“Talushaad?” she repeated, suddenly intrigued. “The courtesan?” Her mother would have seen her dead before allowing her to visit such a person—which was only part of the reason she wanted to.

“The very same!”

“How…interesting,” she mused, allowing herself a slow smile. “All right, you have my attention. I doubt I’ve ever been to such a raucous party before.”

His grin widened. “Ah. Well, my lady, I’m afraid you may be disappointed.”


“It’s all about a happy medium, you see,” the disguised prince murmured to her as he escorted her through the entrance hall of the manor at which the carriage had discharged them. “If the party is too dull, well, there’s hardly any point in sneaking out to see it. Too rowdy, though, and the same is true. Excessive noise and debauchery makes it impossible to properly enjoy oneself. You want an event that falls somewhere in the middle, and Lorelei’s are always perfect. There’s good music, which you can actually hear. Good food, which will be eaten and not stomped into the carpets. Interesting people to talk to, and most will be sober enough to converse for at least a few more hours.”

“You make it sound downright pedestrian,” she murmured back, though she was looking around in fascination. Though the style of décor naturally differed, the house’s furnishings were of no lesser quality than those of the palatial residence House Turombi had occupied in Tiraas. Denser, and running more toward jewel and earthen tones than the light, spacious style her mother favored, but well-chosen and clearly expensive. The party itself was, indeed, more crowded and somewhat more noisy than the social events to which she was accustomed, but not to the extent that she felt uncomfortable. In fact, the prince had a point; it was all rather exciting. At the very least, they’d had no trouble getting in. It surprised her when the uniformed footman watching the door had allowed them inside with nothing more than a glance at the high quality of their clothing and the carriage which had brought them. Speaking of which… “And what, pray tell, are we to tell the lady of the house about ourselves?”

“Well, as to that,” he said with a wink, “I like to wing it, but unless you’re feeling adventurous, why don’t we save that until the next time? I rather doubt Lorelei will evict us, but there may be all manner of nuisance if we’re found out.”

“I think you may be a bad person, Sharidan.”

“On that point, Eleanora, I shall defer to your no doubt considerable expertise.” Despite his cool facade, he glanced around; they were hardly alone, but all the people nearby were engaged in their own conversations, none paying them any attention. The sound of a string quartet from the large room up ahead provided auditory camouflage, as well. There was no reaction to their names. “Give me just a moment to secure some provisions, if you would. Getting to the bar is always a struggle at these things; much faster with just one.”

“I shall defer to your considerable expertise on the subject of bars,” she said archly. The prince grinned at her and released her arm.

“Back in a flash.” Then he had slipped through the doors ahead—and the dense crowd within, about which he’d not exaggerated—leaving her alone.

She was standing in a sort of foyer, just inside the vestibule and clearly serving as a sort of indoor crossroads. A sweeping staircase curved up to the second floor, the wide door opened onto the main party area to her right, with a smaller door to a dining room (also heavily occupied) to the left and one into a shadowed hallways just ahead. Eleanora took note of the architecture. While a noble House would arrange its residence to impress upon the first entry, this one was clearly designed to provide space in which people could lose themselves from sight almost immediately. Which, she supposed, served the needs of a courtesan quite well.

Eleanora directed one long look at the door through which her escort had vanished, and then a small smile quirked the side of her mouth. The exact details of the Prince’s plan for her this evening she didn’t know, of course, but the general shape was obvious. Considering that, she saw no harm in making him do a little extra work. Not that it was going to pay off, which was sort of the point. It would be good for him; he likely had rarely had to cope with disappointment.

She turned and began ascending the staircase.

At the first landing, Eleanora paused, glancing down the second-floor hall, which was dimly lit and lined with doors on only one side, some of which were closed. A couple were walking away from her, arm-in-arm and heads together. After a moment’s hesitation, she decided to keep climbing and see if anything more immediately interesting presented itself.

And indeed, the next landing paid off. The stairs stopped here, but rather than a single corridor, it opened into a sort of balcony ringing the open main chamber below. Heavy pillars, low walls, and hanging curtains broke up the space into little alcoves offering privacy while also providing a clear view of the party going on—not unlike the ballroom at the Imperial Palace. Was this a common arrangement? It certainly was a suitable one for intrigues, which could explain its popularity in the capital.

She paced slowly down one side of the upper ring, carefully glancing into the alcoves she passed from the corner of her eye without staring rudely. Three people were sitting in conversation in the first, the second was empty, and a couple were locked in a passionate embrace in the third, prompting her to pick up her step slightly. The next alcove was also unoccupied, and Eleanora decided to take the opportunity to get a closer view of the ballroom below. Or was it properly a ballroom? If the bar was in there, it didn’t seem likely they were dancing in the space…

She stepped over to the rail and carefully leaned over the three-story drop. Indeed, this seemed more a staging area than a place where people congregated. There was a bar, and also long tables of food; as she watched, a set of doors opened and liveried servants bustled out with fresh trays. The musicians were there as well, ensconced in a raised area which seemed to occupy a turret jutting from the far corner of the room. There was no sign of the Prince—but then, from this vantage he’d have been nothing but a blob of brown hair, hardly distinctive.

Eleanora turned around, and gasped in surprise.

Lounging in the corner of the alcove, drink in hand, a woman was regarding her with a curious expression. She had seated herself so that her head was below the level of the decorative wall which separated off this little space, making her invisible from the outer ring.

“Oh, I am sorry!” Eleanora exclaimed. “I didn’t—”

“Now, no apologies,” the woman said, smiling. “You’re not who I was expecting, but it seems he’ll not be joining me. I gather I’m not who you expected, either?”

“I thought this space was empty,” Eleanora said. “I wasn’t expecting anyone, so…yes, that’s correct. I’ll just make myself scarce before your companion arrives.”

“Oh, don’t let me keep you if you’ve business elsewhere! But also, don’t hurry off on my account.” The woman’s eyes shifted, glancing over her quickly, and Eleanora suddenly took particular note of the fact that her new acquaintance was quite pretty. Not what she’d have considered her “type,” being rather lean of figure and face, with that sharp-featured aspect so common to the Tiraan, but still… “My husband thought he might make it, but…he would have by now, were he going to. Never the most reliable man. Are you here by yourself?”

“Why, no,” Eleanora said, allowing herself a smile. “At the moment, it would appear I’m here with you.”

She smiled back, warmly. “Then why don’t you join me? I’m Tashi.”

“…Nora,” she said after the barest hesitation, then stepped over to seat herself carefully on the couch next to Tashi.

“Nora, how exotic!” The woman straightened up, eyeing her with renewed interest. “Now, is that a traditional Stalweiss name?”

Oh, right, her face. Again, the urge for mischief rose in her, this time accompanied by something else. “I can honestly say it has been in my family for at least one generation,” she replied solemnly, then deliberately spoiled the image with a smile.

Tashi laughed obligingly. “I’ve not seen you at one of Lorelei’s events before. I am positive I would remember.” And something in her expression…

Oh, right, her face. A thrill of realization shivered though Eleanora. Flirtation had always been such a delicate, careful thing, bound by the need to dance around the utmost discretion. The sheer scandal that could erupt if she made the wrong move on the wrong person was, in her case, far worse than that which faced the average young aristocrat—at least, back home. Tiraas did have a much stronger Avenist and Izarite influence, but she’d not had time to experiment. That, too, would have to be done slowly, and with exceeding caution.

Unless, of course, she were in a place where the Lady Eleanora Turombi would never go, wearing the face of someone who did not exist. A place where, perhaps, she could follow up on such little hints as she was getting now without making a five-month courtship of it.

“You could say I’m stretching my wings,” she said, carefully scooting closer to Tashi and leaning subtly toward her. “This is, indeed, my first visit. In fact, I’ve not properly explored the house yet. I found something very much more interesting right away, you see…”

“Why, it sounds as if I’m depriving you, then,” Tashi murmured deep in her throat. “I should offer you a drink for the inconvenience, at the very least. Alas…” Moving carefully so that she did not draw further from Eleanora in the process, she reached to pick up the wine bottle perched on a low table before the couch, and topped off her glass. “I’ve only the one glass.”

“Well.” She moved carefully, slow enough to give her companion opportunity to object or move away if she wished. But while Eleanora carefully took Tashi’s hand in her own and shifted the glass toward herself, the other woman simply regarded her with a knowing little smirk. “I don’t mind, if you don’t.”

Holding eye contact, she very deliberately took a sip, placing her lips right on the dampened spot from which the glass had already been drunk. Tashi’s smile widened slightly. The thrill racing through her was only somewhat to do with lust; this was just so easy. Oh, the fun she had missed out on for all these years, having to be so damn careful. She had barely even believed people actually did this, but…here they were.

“If I may ask,” Eleanora murmured, now that her head was close enough to make a lower tone appropriate, “if you were expecting your husband, why only one glass?”

It had been a tacit offer of withdrawal, but Tashi declined to take advantage of the reminder.

“He said he might come,” she replied, her head tilting and gradually drifting closer. “That is not the same as me expecting him.”

“Well, that is a shame,” Eleanora said softly, leaning further. “He’s missing a fine vintage.”

“Why, Nora,” Tashi all but whispered, smiling with pure mischief, “it’s only a common bottle, after all. Did you even taste it?”

“I wasn’t talking about the wine.”

It tasted better from Tashi’s lips, anyway.

Somehow, in the intervening moments, Tashi shifted to set the glass down on the table, and then to angle her body toward Eleanora’s, reaching up to cradle her cheeks in both hands. Eleanora, for her part, moved somewhat more aggressively, heady with the power and freedom of being able to do this. She slipped on arm around Tashi’s waist, prompting a soft squeak when she tugged her firmly closer—but not a squeak of protest, to judge by the ensuing giggle and the hand that moved to tangle in her hair.

Then she stopped thinking for a few minutes, lost in softness and quiet laughter and gently insistent exploration, until she finally came up for air and found herself staring into another pair of eyes.

It took her a moment for the fog to recede, but then it was replaced by dawning horror as she recognized the disguise currently worn by Prince Sharidan.

“Oh, my humble apologies,” he said mildly, blinking in bemusement. He had a glass of effervescent wine in each hand. “This spot looked empty from…”

No no no no—

Eleanora lunged up, ignoring the startled protest of her new companion and pushing rudely past the prince, incidentally spilling one of the glasses. In pure panic, she tore down the hall.

No no no, how could she have been so reckless? He could ruin her worse than if he’d bedded her. If her mother found out about this…

“Eleanora, wait!”

She redoubled her speed, dodging around people who exclaimed in irritation at her passage, ignoring them. The balcony ring ended in a little seating area from which hallways branched off; she picked one at random and raced down it.

Almost immediately, it dead-ended, and Eleanora hissed in frustration. There were three doors; she yanked open the narrowest one and darted through.

“Will you wait a moment?!”

Gods, was he still after her? This was some kind of servants’ passage, obviously, to judge by its narrowness and the unpainted plank walls. Behind her, the door opened again, and footsteps pounded into the corridor. The boy just wouldn’t take a hint.

The passage turned sharply left, and partway down this length, she found an open door through which cool air flowed.

“Eleanora! No—stop!”

Ignoring him, she dashed through, and immediately tried to skid to a halt. It had rained, though, and the narrow strip of flat roof was slick. Wheeling her arms frantically, she fought for balance, teetering on the edge of a three-story fall overlooking an alley behind the house.

Then a hand grabbed her hair, yanking her backward. She squawked in pain, but in the next moment he was holding her by the shoulders. They both stood there, panting.

“My hair?” she asked weakly, managing a tiny spark of outrage.

“Well, I’m sorry,” the prince snapped, in the first open annoyance she’d heard from him. “We are still learning one another’s preferences, after all. Next time would you prefer I let you fall to your death?”

She allowed herself a few more calming breaths.

“…thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Here.” Sharidan carefully released her and slipped past. “This is not the first time I’ve brought company out to this little spot, though previously the circumstances were more…cordial.”

“Omnu’s breath, how often do you come to this place?” she asked, even as she followed him along the side of the house. Just a few feet to the left of the doorway was a small bench. “And…what is the point of this? Architecturally, it doesn’t make a shred of sense.”

“Of course it does,” he said lightly, seating himself and then patting the bench. “This house belongs to a member of the Thieves’ Guild. This is a convenient roof access. I was once rather embarrassingly interrupted here with a young lady by another young lady who carried a lot of knives, and let me tell you, that did not turn out the way I fantasized as a boy. Sit down, catch your breath.”

“Your…fantasies…generally involve knives?” She found herself sinking down onto the bench. Her legs seemed to want to give out, anyway, so…might as well.

“On the contrary,” he said wryly. “That’s when I knew the night wasn’t going to go my way.”

Eleanora made no reply to that. In fact, now that she had a moment to breathe, she found it unbearable to meet his gaze. Propping her elbows on her knees, she lowered her face into her hands.

“So,” Sharidan said after a short pause, “I gather this evening was never going to turn out the way I had in mind, either.”

“And what makes you say that,” she mumbled. It wasn’t really a question.

To her annoyance, he actually laughed softly. “It’s not so uncommon, a lady with a soft spot for other ladies. Your friend back there? Antashi Shivaan picks up a new girl at every party. To share with her husband when he can come, but to bring him an exciting story when he can’t. You’ll be pleased to know you weren’t breaking up a marriage. You, though…that was panic I saw, the kind that gets people killed. As you discovered. I can’t help concluding,” he added in a gentler tone, “this is rather a secret I inadvertently uncovered. So would I be wrong in guessing this is more an…inflexible preference?”

Eleanora heaved a deep sigh, but lowered her hands. “I’m sorry.”

Sharidan was watching her with a calmly open expression, but now he actually smiled. “And you were going to let me chase you fruitlessly all night? You absolute minx.”

For some damned reason, she couldn’t help grinning back. “Oh, poor baby. Something tells me you’d have survived.”

“Well, I always have before!” His grin abated slightly. “Forgive me if I’m prying, but… Is this about House Turombi’s succession? I know you’re the only child…”

“That, partially,” she said with a deep sigh. “But apart from that… Onkawa is not Tiraas. We have all the Pantheon cults, of course, but it’s Omnist territory, with a Vidian and Shaathist influence. Women loving women isn’t disallowed, but it’s…it’s not…favorable. Never mind,” she added, shaking her head. “It’s more complex than that, and it would take me far too long to explain.”

“It’s a hell of a thing, though,” he said quietly. “So many people grow up dreaming of one day finding true love. Not us. Nobles who have such ideas end up being cautionary tales. We marry for a purpose, and that’s all there is to it.”

“You don’t sound bitter,” she said softly.

He shrugged. “I’ve had time to get used to it, as have you. And clearly, I have less reason to be bitter in the first place.”

“You’re also much better at finding your own fun than I ever was,” she replied sardonically. “I’ll freely admit I’d never have dared to do something like this.”

“Well, that’s a shame! I bet you’d have pulled it off quite well. So long as you learned to suppress that panic reflex.”

“Yes, yes, laugh it up. I should thank you for the lesson, anyway. Maybe I’ll be able to sneak away now and again to experience a little of life. Gods know you will be.”

“No.” At his tone, she looked up again, finding him staring at the sky with a strangely sad expression. “I’m twenty-two, Eleanora; how much longer do you think I’ll be able to get away with acting like a teenager?”

“Was that a rhetorical question? I can try to estimate, if you’d like.”

He didn’t smile, this time. “I’m not that guy. The dissolute wastrel who throws away his country’s wealth and credibility on pleasure and nonsense. I… Tiraas means something. It’s a legacy of a thousand years; it’s the lives of millions of people. I needed something for myself, but… I’ve never felt entitled to keep doing this forever. Someday I’m going to have to stop, settle down, grow up, and serve. Someday quite soon.” He looked over at her again, and managed another little smile. “Maybe sooner than I imagined… I’ve had close calls of my own.”

“We have to grow up eventually,” she practically whispered. He nodded.

The silence was strangely comfortable.

“So, what are you missing out on?” he asked finally, with a lightness that she appreciated all the more for how forced it clearly was. “Not one of those who harbored dreams of true love, I hope? I mean, there’s a precedent, at least in this part of the world. More than one noblewoman in Calderaas has married another noblewoman. A few princesses, even.”

“Oh, honestly,” she muttered. “My parents stay together because of politics and habit. They were never in love; I don’t think they were truly fond of each other till I was a teenager. True romance…it’s just not something I longed for. It was something for storybooks, not life.”

“Well, I guess that’s not so bad, then.”

She hesitated, then let out an exasperated sigh. “I—I just…” Eleanora pressed her hands against her temples. “By the gods, I do feel deprived. Every time I pass a really excellent pair of tits and don’t get to bury my face in them, I feel I’ve lost a piece of myself I will never get back!”

The prince stared at her in open shock.

And then he burst out laughing.

“I’m glad you’re amused,” she said wryly after a minute of this. Sharidan, gasping for breath, actually slumped over against the wall next to him. “All right, settle down,” Eleanora said in mounting alarm. “If you fall off the roof your mother will have me beheaded.”

“Right…there…with you,” he wheezed, still holding his ribs. “I’m sorry, I just…” Chuckling, he grinned widely at her. “You’ll think this is crazy, but of all the women I’ve found myself in secluded corners or balconies with… I think you’re the first one I truly get.”

“I’m still not sleeping with you,” she informed him, unable to keep the grin off her own face now.

“Well, I mean, sure. At this point, I honestly think that would ruin it.”

His laughter had subsided enough, and the noise of the city was distant enough, that they could clearly hear a series of sharp clicks.

Eleanora straightened up. “What was that?”

Sharidan, by contrast, slumped in his seat, laughter suddenly gone. “Oh, for…ugh. Hello, Quentin.”

“Good evening, your Majesty.” A man stepped around the corner onto their little stretch of roof—an almost painfully nondescript man in a suit who wouldn’t have looked out of place behind the counter of a bank, and yet also appeared quite comfortable on a damp rooftop in the middle of the night. As he came into view, he turned the knob of his silver pocketwatch a few more times, making it click again, and tucked it into his pocket. “Ready to go home?”

“Eleanora, this is Quentin,” Sharidan said sourly, waving a hand at the man with poor grace. “Who I am surprised to find here, slumming around the city in person. Last I heard, he was up for promotion to the city bureau chief at Imperial Intelligence.”

“Yes, and I thank you for the ringing recommendation, your Highness,” Quentin said mildly. “Of course, since I am the only local agent who’s been able to keep up with your little excursions, and your Highness’s ulterior motive was quite obvious, it wasn’t seriously considered. And if I may say, it was altogether a lesser caliber of chicanery than we at Intelligence are accustomed to expecting from your Highness. Is your Highness feeling well?”

“Yeah, well, they can’t all be gems,” Sharidan said irritably. “And quit calling me that. Honestly, Quentin, how long have we known each other? After all, you’ve been to almost every party I’ve crashed. At some point you ought to just start calling me by my first time.”

“Yes, your Highness, I’ll get right on that. You may wish to brace yourself, young lady.”

The air shimmered with a blue haze and a faint whine sounded in the edges of her vision, and then the whole world vanished.

The bench went with it; she and Sharidan were both sent sprawling to the floor, though the prince at least caught himself—due to experience, she suspected. He immediately bounded to his feet and gallantly offered her a hand up.

They were in a small outdoor courtyard, with a gate on one side and a door into a stone building on the other.

“First time being teleported?” Sharidan asked.

“Yes,” she admitted, brushing off her dress. “I was expecting something less…annoying.”

He grinned and opened his mouth to reply, but Quentin cleared his throat. Looking over at him, Eleanora realized there were two Azure Corps battlemages standing at attention in the background, doubtless the reason for their sudden change of scenery.

“If you will please follow these gentlemen, your Highness, we shall have you home as quickly and quietly as possible.”

“Yes, yes,” Sharidan said with a sigh, then turned to Eleanora and smiled. “Well! This evening did not go like I had planned, but oddly enough, I can’t recall having enjoyed myself more. What say we try for something a little less boisterous on our next outing?”

She raised an eyebrow, and folded her arms. “We will not be doing this again, Sharidan.”

The prince gazed at her with that knowing little smile for a long moment, and then winked. “Yes, we will.”

With no more ado, he turned and strolled toward the wall. One of the battlemages moved to open the door for him, and then both followed him through and shut it behind.

Eleanora stared at this momentarily before turning to Quentin. “Is it treasonous to slap the Crown Prince?”

“If so,” he said dryly, “it’s treason Intelligence has no interest in prosecuting. We have much bigger and less numerous fish to fry. Now, let’s get you home, my lady.”

“Right,” she said with a heavy sigh. “Time to face the music.”

“I can’t say whether you’ve been missed,” he said. “If so, this will become difficult; we’ll find out upon reaching your home. If not, I can insert you carefully and your family will be none the wiser.”

Eleanora had taken one trudging step toward the gate, but now paused, turning to him in surprise. “I thought… I mean, why would you want to protect…me?”

“Intelligence is in the business of gathering information,” Quentin replied, “and I won’t pretend the Empress has no interest in politically inconveniencing your father, in particular. With regard to the Prince’s little…adventures…however, there is a policy in place. Making them public would embarrass the Throne, not to mention exposing his Highness to danger, as he lacks the sense to refrain from them. It is altogether easier to silence the whole matter as much as possible. This is why we prefer it when he chooses compatriots who have their own secrets to protect. Things can become unpleasant if I have to be…persuasive.”

“Say no more,” she muttered. “Although… I am sorry to put you out so. This must be a serious inconvenience, and you surely have more important things to do.”

This time it was Quentin who paused in the act of turning to go; he regarded her almost quizzically. “Hm. You know, of all the young women the prince has gallivanted about with, you are the first to offer me an apology.”

“Then his Highness has rather poor taste in women,” she said archly, “which does my ego no favors. Surely you could do something to lean on him? This must be a drain on your resources.”

“Well.” The spy actually smiled at her. “It’s all for a good cause. A prince who can outmaneuver his security detail will become an Emperor who can outwit all the enemies who will be constantly braying at his heels. And if he makes us work a little harder in the meantime…what are we here for, after all?”

“For the Empire,” she murmured, already deep in thought.

 

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Bonus #18: Heavy is the Head, part 1

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“Vultures,” the Lord of House Turombi said under his breath, gazing out across the dance floor. “And the descendants of vultures, picking clean the same bones. A hundred years ago, the Tirasians were back-country farmers barely fit to call themselves a House. A little scheming, a little murder, and now here they sit. Pleased as the foxes they are, amid the ruins of the henhouse.”

Eleanora was sitting with her head angled away, idly tapping a frilled court fan against her cheekbone, which prevented either her father or the crowd from seeing her mouthing along in perfect sync with the familiar speech. Her mother, however, shifted her eyes once, caught Eleanora’s gaze, and held it for a second, silently promising a conversation later. In many ways, Lady Kheethi was her role model; she could scarcely aspire to convey as much detail as her mother did with a simple glance.

Theirs was a sufficiently important House that their box was positioned fairly close to the Imperial dais along the west end of the ballroom. The vast chamber was cleverly laid out for its purposes, with the tables of food on its lowest level just inside the huge doors, the dance floor reached via a short flight of stairs, and ringed by elevated platforms where people not currently moving about could sit in conversation with a splendid view of the dancers. The boxes nearest the stairs were open for general use, while those closer to the dais from which the Empress observed the festivities being reserved, mostly for powerful Houses, heads of cults, ranking Imperial functionaries and the like. House Turombi was only two boxes distant from the Empress herself, a high honor.

Alduron Turombi was less than flattered.

“And here comes one such buzzard now,” he muttered, drawing Eleanora’s attention back to the dance floor.

Indeed, the crown prince was approaching.

Her father’s expression of magnanimous affability was fully back in place by the time Prince Sharidan reached the steps of their box, with Kheethi and Eleanora wearing more demure smiles. The family rose upon his arrival, sketching shallow bows and curtsies, the women taking Alduron’s cue for their precise degree. It would not do to publicly snub the Prince by showing insufficient respect, but showing him one degree more than was absolutely necessary would affront Alduron’s personal pride. They would be hearing about it for days, which Eleanora, at least, would much rather avoid.

“Lord Turombi!” Sharidan said with a broad smile, bowing back to precisely the same degree, which caught Eleanora’s attention and interest. A simple nod of acknowledgment was all protocol required of him; what sort of game was this boy playing? “Lady Kheethi, Lady Eleanora. House Turombi’s presence at our little gala is an honor, but if I may say so, ladies, yours makes it a pleasure.”

Alduron laughed obligingly, and Eleanora doubted that anyone but herself and her mother discerned the display of too many white teeth in his broad, dark face. “Ah, my young prince, you are as dangerous as they say! Have a care; I did not woo this graceful creature only to have her stolen away.”

Kheethi carried on smiling obligingly, but the faint annoyance in the set of her eyes was enough to make both Alduron and Sharidan pause. Eleanora’s smile broadened slightly.

“Well,” the prince said gallantly, rallying, “while I’m sure challenging a man of your stature would teach me some of that humility my mother insists I need, I hope you’ll understand if I prefer to spare myself that lesson.”

“Then you’re already a wiser man than I was at your age,” Alduron replied jovially. “I give my lady wife a great deal of credit for whatever restraint and sensibility I have learned. Perhaps you would find Eleanora a more gentle teacher?”

“Whether I would or not, I suspect the lesson would be a delight!” the prince replied, turning to her and bowing. “Lady Eleanora, would you grant me the honor of a dance?”

Her father barely shifted his head, looking at her out of the corner of his eye, but the barely controlled expression was avid. Eleanora was too practiced to grimace outright as she rose, accepting Prince Sharidan’s proffered hand. “I’m sure the honor would be entirely mine, your Highness,” she said demurely, allowing him to lead her down to the floor. Her father despised the Tirasians over past insults, real and imagined, between their Houses, and never let go of his resentment over the fact that they had ascended to the Silver Throne, while House Turombi had lost its chance. But at the merest prospect of handing her over to Prince Sharidan, his eyes practically lit up with doubloons. It was just a dance, but she knew very well Alduron would marry her off to the Tirasians in a heartbeat, should the possibility arise.

It was the twelfth century, of course; her father couldn’t make her marry against her will. But while there were worse things to her mind than an ingrate who spat in her House’s face after it had invested so much in her upbringing…there weren’t many.

This was a more and more central concern occupying Eleanora’s thoughts, lately.

“My apologies for stealing you away from what I’m sure was a fascinating conversation,” Sharidan said with a smile that was just a shade too knowing. “If I’ve presumed, call it…projecting. I, too, have a parent who knows everything.”

Eleanora raised an eyebrow, studying his expression while they slipped into a waltz with the ease of mutual practice. He was a good dancer, deftly leading without overbearingly trying to manhandle her around the floor. He was also dangerously handsome. Not in the sense of being too handsome; on the contrary, Sharidan Tirasian didn’t have the kind of blinding good looks that made people fall at his feet with no effort on his part. He was just plain enough that he’d had to learn to be charming. And he was very good at it.

“The rescue is appreciated, warranted or not,” she said aloud. “Though I’m forced to wonder whether you would be as quick to spring to my aid if I were less pretty.”

“And so modest!” he said with a truly amazing grin. It was a grin that was open and cheerful, without the faintest hint of malice even though he was technically making fun of her. Expressions like that came from people who were either vastly open-hearted by nature, or phenomenally skilled in manipulation, and she had a feeling she knew which was the case here. “Regardless, of course I would eagerly put myself forward to greet such a distinguished guest to our city. But I greatly appreciate you having the courtesy to be so pretty. Otherwise, this would all be dreadfully tedious.”

Eleanora smiled, finding to her surprise the expression was genuine. “You are very smooth, my prince. Well played.”

“You left yourself wide open for two inappropriate innuendos there, my lady,” he replied with a wink. “I restrained myself, because I am a gentleman.”

“More than two. I was curious how many you would catch, and how many you would go for.”

“Ah, the tests begin! You are clearly as formidable an adversary as you are graceful a dancer!”

“And not exactly a guest, though I appreciate the welcome,” she added. “My father has decided to relocate our family to Tiraas for the forseeable future. Call me…a transplant.”

“Oh.” Sharidan’s expression sobered slightly. “Well, I’m sorry.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Indeed? Are you that worried at having your city full of Turombis?”

“It’s for my mother to worry about tiresome politics, and I don’t think she worries about much, to be frank. I meant personally, my lady. It must be a pain, being suddenly isolated from all your friends and favorite places. Well, I shall do my best to ensure your stay in Tiraas is a pleasant one!”

“That is most kind of you to offer,” she said wryly. “But considering your mother suspects my father of designs on her throne, and he believes your grandfather responsible for the assassination of his grandfather, something tells me we will seldom find ourselves casually socializing.”

“Oh, these older generations and their dreary squabbles,” he said airily, spinning her lightly around. “Everyone’s always so worked up about who’s after whose position or who murdered whose family. That’s just dreadful for the blood pressure; no wonder they all look so pinched all the time. I see no reason we need let such trivialities come between us!”

“No doubt they thought much the same at our age,” Eleanora said sardonically. “It’s funny how today’s rebellious youth become tomorrow’s cantankerous old fogeys.”

“Madam, you are far too young and pretty for such maunderings.”

“Just practicing in advance, my prince. I like to be well-rehearsed before I have to play a role. Otherwise one tends to…trip.”

He grinned while they deftly wove through the other dancers, waiting a moment before replying. “Now, that was a suggestively timed verb! I actually thought you were going to trip me for a second there.”

“I was actually planning to,” she said, grinning back. “But then, I thought you’d have placed a hand on my rear by this point, too. One act of restraint begets another.”

“It’s a small foundation on which to build peace between our Houses, but it’s a start!”

“Do you really care about politics all that much?”

“I can’t afford not to, any more than you can,” he said, and suddenly his expression was serious. It was as if a mask had been dropped, revealing his true face. Eleanora knew very well this was a rapport-building technique, and clamped down on her instinctive response even as she admired the skill of it. “But politics…aren’t everything, you know? It really would be good for our Houses if we were friends, Lady Eleanora. More immediately, it would be good for us. Don’t you agree?”

“Some things,” she said quietly, “are simply too difficult and too fraught to be worth the effort.”

“Hmm.” His smile returned slowly, this time with more than a hint of mischief. “Well. We’ll have to do something about that, won’t we?”


It wasn’t that Eleanora didn’t enjoy going to parties, despite what her parents thought. She allowed them to continue under the impression that she was an introverted wallflower, because despite her own enjoyment of social events, going to parties with her family was absolutely exhausting.

They only started by ruining everything good about it. There were always interesting people to talk to—with whom she could never get any privacy, and her mother and father’s respective agendas would heavily color any conversation she managed to have in their company. There was excellent food, music, dancing, and other sensory distractions, which of course were extremely difficult to enjoy under a constant barrage of her mother’s passive-aggressive reminders of the importance of ladylike behavior. There were always pretty women in daring gowns, and the gods forbid Eleanora could properly appreciate that. Lady Kheethi had caught her side-eyeing her peers a few times too often, and this was only prevented from being a true source of family drama because her mother cultivated a firm denial that this was An Issue. Eleanora wasn’t about to correct her.

Then, of course, the legacy of House Turombi lay heavily over everything they did. Once, nearly a century ago, their House had almost seized the Silver Throne, and none of them had forgotten it since. The generations-old almost-claim was the reason full-blooded members were always given Tiraan names rather than traditional Onkawi ones, and their choice of styles in everything from fashion to interior décor to cuisine reflected Imperial sensibilities. If not for her mother’s insistence on some traditional education (for which Eleanora was in fact grateful), she could well have grown up knowing little of Onkawa’s actual culture. Her father certainly had.

His incessant muttering and ranting about Theasia Tirasian and all her clan had at least spared her the reminders from her mother of proper behavior and representation of House Turombi’s honor until they were home and out of the carriage—which it turned out was not to her benefit, because it meant she had to endure that much more before she could retreat to her room and some space, finally, to breathe.

It had been such a lovely ball, too. Someday, maybe when the rest of her family was dead, perhaps she could actually enjoy one.

Eleanora immediately felt guilty for that thought. Not as much as she thought she should have, though.

Consequently, when she finally shut the door of her room to find a pile of dirty laundry in the middle of her bed, she very nearly raised her voice, preparatory to excoriating the maid without mercy. Fortunately, she hesitated; Eleanora wasn’t certain her mother had found out about what she and her chambermaid back home had been up to in the privacy of her rooms, but she more than suspected it had played at least a partial role in their family’s relocation. Her father’s political ambitions were at the heart of it, of course, but the sudden termination of Lady Kheethi’s longstanding, stubborn resistance to the idea of moving had made her cautious about being seen or heard to pay too much attention to any of the remarkably pretty Tiraan serving girls who staffed their new residence.

In that momentary pause, she noted a peculiar sparkle atop the pile.

Eleanora approached the bed, studying the heap quizzically. On top of the muddle of soiled linens there was a gleaming silver broach in the shape of a peacock, decorated with tiny emeralds and sapphires—a truly exquisite piece which she did not own, and which was vastly out of place on a pile of laundry. It was holding down a folded piece of paper.

She narrowed her eyes. One of her mother’s? She had never seen it before… And why in the world would one of the servants have brought it in here? They hadn’t been in this house long, but she had seen no hint of such glaring incompetence from any of the staff.

Carefully, she lifted the brooch, picked up the paper, and opened it. A few lines were inked in a neat hand.

We’ll have to do something about that, won’t we? Meet me by the servant’s entrance, if you’d like to attend a party you can properly enjoy, my lady. —S. T.

Eleanora read it three times, drew in a deep breath through her nose, and let it out slowly. And then, somewhat to her own surprise, laughed.

Of course, she knew Prince Sharidan’s reputation. Simply by virtue of his position, the whole world was quite interested in his personal habits—and his appreciation for women was already approaching the status of legend. So, it seemed she had the opportunity to see one of his infamous seductions unfold from the closest vantage possible! Eleanora was actually more than a little tempted to play along, just to see how much she could wind the boy up before he quit. If he thought he was going to spread her legs, he was in for a world of disillusionment.

Setting the note down, she turned her critical eye upon the brooch. A closer inspection bore out her brief one earlier; this was a truly lovely piece, its materials authentic as far as she could tell, and the craftsmanship expert. Also, needless to say, quite expensive—the sort of gift that would turn any young lady’s head, were she of the inclination to have it turned. Eleanora’s first, cynical thought was that for a young man of Sharidan Tirasian’s resources, it was nothing special. It was a truly princely present from a suitor of her own rank; from an actual Imperial prince, she felt she should expect him to start with a Falconer carriage and work up from there.

The more pressing question was, how the blazes had he managed to deliver it? Penetrating a House’s interior security this way was no mean feat. Unless he’d had his eye on her for quite a while before the party—not impossible, but it seemed unlikely—there was almost no way he could have done this on a few hours’ notice with only his personal resources. That Empress Theasia had the means to stick her fingers into House Turombi’s business was a given; the question was whether she was in on this, or Sharidan had co-opted her resources in pursuit of his own desire. That, if anything, made her want even more to play along for a bit, to see just how deep this ran…

Eleanora hummed softly to herself, wandering over toward her vanity and almost absentmindedly pinning the brooch to her dress. The fashions this season were, to her mind, absurd, but they incorporated padded shoulders and lapels almost like men’s suits, which made brooches of this kind an indispensable feature of a lady’s wardrobe.

She froze, forgetting herself so far as to gasp aloud, when she suddenly changed.

Her dress vanished. Her skin altered! Eleanora experienced a moment of panic, then deliberately calmed herself and approached her mirror. By the time she reached it, she had put it all together well enough that she was not shocked to find a totally different face staring back at her.

The face was still pretty, but it was a narrow, much paler Thakari face rather than her own soft features and mahogany Onkawi complexion. That could potentially be construed as an insult, but after a moment’s contemplation, she decided it had probably not been intended as such. People here seemed oddly unable to distinguish between Westerners—not that she had much room to throw stones. Apparently it was possible to tell a Tiraan from a Calderaan at a glance, and she’d yet to figure out how.

More pressing was the matter of the disguise enchantment upon this brooch. This was seriously impressive work, and of course added to the value of the thing considerably. It also underscored the political research which had gone into this—she was now dressed in a perfect copy of one of the maid’s uniforms used by her House, which had been designed by her mother in consultation with a highly recommended tailor upon their arrival in the city.

Eleanora carefully unpinned the brooch, permitting herself a soft sigh of relief when her appearance and dress returned to normal. Then, after another moment’s thought, she smiled mischievously and put it back. Once in place, she could feel its weight at her collar, but it was no longer visible. An obvious precaution, as a servant wearing such a piece would immediately have been detained on suspicion of theft.

She glanced back at the bed, thinking rapidly, and her smile widened. He really had thought of everything. Even the laundry…

Eleanora paused to carefully tuck the prince’s letter into a drawer, then gathered up the armload of linens and slipped out into the hall.

“Hsst!”

She froze, turning, to find herself being approached rapidly by her own chambermaid.

“So you’re the new girl,” Eliza said in a low voice, deftly tucking a hand under Eleanora’s arm and escorting her down the hall at a rapid pace. “Well, you’re allowed a few slip-ups at first, but you’d best get it together quick-like, my lass. The Lady’s not a harsh one, but she’s particular, and the last thing you want is to be caught faffing around with the laundry at the wrong time. The family’s just back from a party—this should’ve been done hours ago. And what’re you doing in the young miss’s rooms, anyway? She’s my task, I’ll have you know.”

“I-I’m sorry,” Eleanora stammered as she was swept along, trying for a harried, confused aspect. In truth, she felt so gleefully mischievous at all this that her post-party weariness had all but melted away. “I’m new, this is my first post. I didn’t mean to overstep…”

“It’s no great harm, just you keep it in mind,” Eliza said sternly, but with a slight smile. “I was new once—we all were. Let me give you a bit of advice: there’s a pecking order, and you don’t want to forget your place in it. Each of us has a family member we look after, and you’ll not be appreciated for stepping on anybody’s toes.”

“Understood,” she said, nodding eagerly and barely forcing herself not to grin. Oh, this was just too perfect—even if she wasn’t actually planning to indulge Sharidan’s schemes, she felt she owed him something for the entertainment. Emboldened by how well this seemed to be going, she pressed on. “I don’t, that is, um… Are they hard to work for? Anything I should be wary of?”

“Oh, no, dear, you’ve picked a plum post to start out,” Eliza said, quickly leading her down a narrow side passage. “This way, girl, it’s not for servants to be loitering in the upper halls. A well-run household is run so the family needn’t see the running, that’s what Mrs. Raastri says. But no, they’re a good family. Standoffish, you don’t want to put yourself in their way, but his Lordship doesn’t leer or grope, and the Lady’s not cruel. She’s not gentle, but she’s fair and that’s what counts. You do your tasks and mind your conduct and there’s no reason you’ll run afoul of her. Nothing more a staff can ask of their family, so you just appreciate them.”

“I will,” Eleanora promised, nodding. She meant it, too. It was oddly gratifying to know her family were well thought of by their servants; perhaps she was a bit too hard on their parents. “And…the Lady Eleanora? You seem to like working for her…”

“It is not for us to like the family,” Eliza said severely, ushering her into a cramped rear staircase. She had never been in it before, but presumably it led to the servants quarters. Or…the kitchen? Where did they take dirty laundry? It had always just vanished, then reappeared in her closet, clean and pressed. “And you wouldn’t be thinking of moving in on the young miss, I hope.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t presume,” Eleanora assured her. “Just trying to get my bearings. It’s the young ones who’re going to cause trouble if anyone is, don’t you think?”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Eliza said dryly. “But no, not in this house. I’m jealous of my position, I’ll tell you that straight up—I take pride in my work and the young miss has never had cause to complain, nor will she. But you needn’t worry about that, either.”

That was so tantalizing Eleanora almost prompted her to continue when she fell silent. She couldn’t immediately think of a way that would be believable, though. Servants gossiped horribly, according to her mother, but now she was in a position to benefit from it, she was unsure how to proceed. Noblewomen gossiped just as badly, but…very likely not in the same terms.

Fortunately for her curiosity, Eliza continued after a moment’s pause. “She’s a tongue like a blade, the young miss has, but she’s no more cruel than the Lady of the house. No reason you’ll have it sharpened on yourself, unless you deserve it. I don’t mind her being a bit sharp, truth be told. She keeps to herself, the young lady does—her pleasures are quiet things. Books and the like. Only goes out with her family, and I’ve never known her to have a friend over. I don’t think the poor girl knows the first thing about having fun.”

“I see,” Eleanora said stiffly, suddenly regretting her curiosity.

They had reached the base of the stairs, which came out in another dim, narrow hall, and Eliza turned to brusquely take the linens from her. “Here, you just let me handle this, my girl. I don’t know what you were doing in the young miss’s room, but that’s not your zone. Go see Mrs. Raastri for what you’re supposed to be about. She doesn’t look well on idle hands.”

“O-of course,” Eleanora said, then dipped an awkward little curtsy. “Thank you for the help, Eliza.”

In the process of turning to go, Eliza paused, frowning at her. “Oh. Did I tell you my name?”

“I—of course, you must have. Excuse me.”

She turned and scuttled off down the hall in the other direction, leaving her suspicious chambermaid behind, and rounded the first corner she came to. Sloppy, she chided herself…but in her defense, intrigues of this nature were a bit outside her expertise. In any case, this wasn’t fun anymore. Time she returned to her room…

Wait, where exactly was she?

Taking stock of her bearings, Eleanora found she was actually in front of an exterior door, small but set with a frosted glass pane that gave her a watery view of the delivery alley behind the house. Right where Sharidan’s note told her to be.

The thought of him loitering out there all night by himself gave her a malicious little spark of satisfaction. In fact, she could probably arrange to embarrass him further by setting a city constable on him. The fury that would cause the Empress would earn her points with her father, as well.

But no, any man who could arrange all this would be prepared for such obvious possibilities. In fact…

Raising her chin, Eleanora grasped the handle, opened the door, and slipped out. So she didn’t know how to have fun? The hell she didn’t—she just wasn’t bloody well allowed to. If she wanted to enjoy herself a bit, she was more than entitled, after putting up with her parents all night. And if that meant enduring the company of a smarmy prince with improper designs upon her person, well, there were worse things. He definitely wouldn’t force his attentions, or allow her to be harmed. He wouldn’t dare. Her father scarcely needed such a pretext to unleash every hell his considerable resources could manage as it was.

She was still sullenly justifying this course of action to herself when a sleek, quiet enchanted carriage which did not belong in this back alley pulled up next to her, making her jump. The driver nodded courteously to her, tugging the brim of his cap, and then the passenger door door swung open to reveal a familiar face.

“My lady,” the prince of Tiraas said with a roguish grin. “I’m so glad you decided to join me.”

“I must say you went to a great deal of trouble,” Eleanora replied, folding her arms and lifting an eyebrow. Did he have some mechanism to see through this disguise? Did he just know what the person wearing it would look like? Or was he actually reckless enough to pick up the first servant girl who came out of her house? “Not that I wasn’t amused at the thought of you wasting all that effort, but it seems to me a man who could arrange all this could potentially show me an…interesting evening.”

“Interesting is what I do best,” he said with a wink, and extended a hand to her. Eleanora made a show of considering this before allowing him to help her into the carriage. “And since we are now partners in crime, let’s be honest with each other. You are well overdue for some proper fun, Lady Eleanora. I have the strangest feeling you’re positively starved for it.”

She sniffed disdainfully. “You know much less than you think, your Highness.”

“Now that, my lady,” he said, grinning widely, “is an absolute certainty. But I look forward to learning.”

 

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12 – 61

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“I promise to explain everything,” Milanda said a little nervously. Her practiced self-possession was ample to suppress such displays of emotion, but she was in the habit of relaxing her guard when alone with Sharidan—and after the last few days, in which she’d not only not seen him but worried constantly for his safety in the back of her mind, it was an absolute relief to let him see her feeling nervous. “In fact, I’ll undoubtedly have help explaining everything. But…you’ll probably feel the need to spout a thousand questions immediately. Please just trust me, we’ll get there.”

“I will do my best not to act the fool,” he said with a playful little smirk, draping an arm around her waist. She sighed softly, leaning into him. After returning him to the Palace last night she’d had to come back down here and oversee the changes she was about to reveal; they’d had no real time together. By tonight they were both likely to be exhausted. But very soon, he was going to find himself vigorously jumped upon. As if he sensed her line of thought, his smile took on a more roguish note and he shifted his hand to briefly squeeze her rump. “You’ve already broadly outlined the situation. Unless there’s something else I should urgently know before meeting everyone?”

“No…I think you have what’s needed not to be taken by surprise.” The elevator door slid open, revealing the short mithril hallway to the door of the spaceport itself, and she took a deep breath, deliberately settling her expression back to neutrality, before stepping out. “Just…brace yourself.”

“I am never anything but braced, my dear,” he said, and his jocular tone was that of the Emperor, the man eternally in command of himself and his surroundings. It was distinct from the jocular tone of her lover, and at the moment, she appreciated the change. It was the Emperor she needed now.

Milanda stepped forward once more and touched the inner door. It slid smoothly open, and despite her warning, the Emperor froze, blinking in astonishment.

Warm air wafted out of the doorway, accompanied by the sounds of birdsong, chirping insects, and moving water. Milanda paused to smile up at Sharidan before stepping aside, bowing and gesturing him through.

He entered slowly, taking his time to study everything. The mithril was still there, forming the walls, and the basic layout of the short, straight hallway had not changed, but that was all that revealed this was the same place. Now, the floor of the hall had been coated in an undulating mixture of stone and dirt, both decorated by moss, with thick stepping stones forming a path down the center. Just inside the door, a tiny stream chuckled across the hallway, emerging from and then vanishing into small metal devices protruding from the walls on either side. The light, far from the cold purity with which the place had been lit before, was a dappled pattern of golden sunlight, shifting with the movement of trees and branches.

There were indeed, amazingly enough, trees. Small ones, and placed only against the walls so they did not block the view; their branches stretched across the hall above head height, adding decoration without obstruction—though some of the vines and veils of hanging moss did impede the sightline somewhat.

Sharidan paced carefully forward, Milanda on his heels, peering this way and that. The whole ceiling, above the fronds, was apparently a viewscreen, now showing a lightly-clouded morning sky, complete with a sun. All the cells were open, and arranged with a mixture of plants and furniture.

He paused before the cell which for decades had contained the Dark Walker. It was now a tiny grove, with a mimosa tree—or a quarter of one, at least—sprouting in one corner and dipping its fronds over the space. A stone fountain rose from the center, with matching stone benches along two walls and lining the third, a bookcase in the elven style, laden with volumes made from materials which would withstand all the moisture. They were in modern Tanglish, but none were books which had been read on this planet in thousands of years.

“Fabricators,” Milanda mused, drawing the Emperor’s attention. “It takes a lot of power to produce this much material, especially with so much of it being living. But apparently the whole complex is rigged with them. It seems it was fairly simple to set up a—”

“Hiyeeee!” A pink-haired figure skipped into view around the corner up ahead, waving exuberantly even as she scampered forward and launched herself onto the Emperor in a flying hug. “Sharidan! Hi hi hi! We missed you!”

“Mimosa!” he replied, squeezing her back before holding her at arm’s length by the shoulders. “Why, look at you! I like it, you look very sharp.”

“Don’t I, though?” she simpered. “I mean, it’s a little uncomfortable and I’m starting to get tired of it but dang am I pretty! Akane says it’s called a kimono, and apparently there are a lot of rules about wearing them.” Her expression suddenly fell into a scowl. “She’s all about rules. I guess you’ll find out pretty soon. Oh, and by the way, I told you my name is Tris’sini, now.”

“Oh?” He tickled her lightly under the chin, grinning, and Milanda allowed herself a small sigh. “I’m sorry, pet, I thought you were joking about that. You do realize there’s a paladin with that name, right?”

“What?” She gaped at him in disbelief. “A paladin? But…but that’s someone famous! I can’t go around calling myself…oh, pooh.” The dryad stomped a foot childishly. “How come nobody tells me anything? Milanda, you knew about this, didn’t you?”

The newly-decorated erstwhile cells had the doors open in their transparent barriers, but the barriers themselves were otherwise intact, and one now lit up with the figure of a bald man formed of purple light.

“In all fairness, Mimosa, everyone has been very distracted by the events going on. I’m certain nobody intended to keep you in the dark. Your Majesty.” Shifting his visage to face the Emperor, he bowed politely. “It is a pleasure to see you as always—and a relief, this time in particular, to find you in good health.”

“Thank you, Avatar, it’s something of a relief to be in good health,” Sharidan replied, nodding in return. “And it seems a welcome back is in order for you, as well. I like what you’ve done with the place. I never realized before now how dead it all felt as it was.”

“It was really dead,” Mimosa agreed, nodding.

“Thank you, your Majesty, but I cannot take credit for the décor. The current design was crafted to suit dryad sensibilities, as it seems this will be their home for some time to come.”

“And dryad sensibilities are a bit of an issue, when there are three of them to consider,” Milanda added wryly. “Don’t get attached to the scenery. Something tells me it’s going to be different every time you visit, depending on who comes out on top on a given day.”

“Ugh, tell me about it,” Mimosa agreed, rolling her arms. “Those two. No taste at all! Hawthorn wanted it to snow. Can you imagine?”

“I can barely imagine what I’m seeing now,” the Emperor said frankly. “Can you make it snow?”

“Apparently!”

“Hey!” Another head appeared around the corner, this one crowned in patchy green and white, and wearing a scowl. “You lot about done chattering back there? There’s some kind of meeting you’re apparently late for, and believe me, this one doesn’t need to get any grumpier. She’s no fun as it is.”

“Indeed,” Milanda said more smoothly, tucking her hand into the Emperor’s arm, “everyone will be delighted to see you back safe and sound, but we have a very important guest who should not be kept waiting.”

“You are quite right, my dear,” he replied. “On to the little world, then?”

“Actually, no,” she said. “The other way at the turn. I’m afraid you won’t be able to visit the little world anymore.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah!” Mimosa said cheerfully. “That’s how come we made this place dryad-friendly, everybody had to get moved around cos—”

“A-hem!” Hawthorne barked.

“We’re coming, Hawthorn,” Milanda said with amusement. Sharidan ruffled Mimosa’s hair affectionately as he stepped past her, eliciting a girlish squeal.

Hawthorn waited until they nearly reached her, then turned on her heel and flounced back around the corner into the security hub. Sharidan paused at the intersection, glancing back at the teleporter with an eyebrow raised, before turning to examine the new doorway—which had been a blank wall every time he had been here before. The teleporter itself was unchanged, though climbing vines now decorated the walls all around it, but the other door had been framed by stone columns which looked ancient and worn, despite being only a few hours old.

Even Milanda had to gaze around appreciatively as they entered the hub. It had been cleaned up, of course, all the clutter strewn about its floor packed away, but that was only the beginning. Every wall which was not a viewscreen had been coated in intricately carved stone, with the screens active to show a panoramic view of the surroundings of Tiraas itself, as if this room now hovered high above the center of the city. To the upper walkway circling the room had been added stone columns and a low, sloping roof with tiles in the Sifanese style; the floor in the main area was divided into paths and sections of gently undulating grass, themselves laid out with either stone garden furniture or raised beds in which beautiful profusions of flowers thrived.

The computer screens in the center were as before, but their housing had been decorated to resemble a temple altar, crafted from intricately carved white marble. Even the chairs had been replaced; the new ones hovered, rather than rolling, and were each positioned in front of one screen instead of tossed about chaotically, their design a simple wooden style adorned with red silken cushions. Of the clutter which had bedecked the room, all that remained was the katzil’s suspension tank, itself now banded in carved and whitewashed wood upon which flowering vines clambered, making the whole thing resemble an arbor with a frozen demon sleeping in its center.

The ceiling itself was a screen, it seemed. The view of the sky was uninterrupted and fully realistic; there was even a light breeze. Had she not known how far underground they were, and seen this technology before, Milanda would have firmly believed this to be an outdoor space.

Apple was sitting off to the side in one of the new chairs, giggling to herself and spinning in circles, but after a quick glance in her direction, Milanda and the Emperor fixed their attention upon the figure standing in the center of the path ahead, just in front of the main computer station. They both bowed politely.

She was surprised when Akane bowed back, but apparently an Emperor was a thing which demanded certain courtesies, even from an ancient demigoddess.

“And you must be Akane-sama,” Sharidan said. “I am deeply grateful for the aid you have given Tiraas in our time of need. Sifan is truly a beneficent and most cherished ally of the Silver Throne.”

“I am pleased to have been of assistance, your Majesty,” she replied, smiling politely, “and have quite enjoyed my time here. I do not, however, speak for the Queen, or for my sisters. It pleases me that you regard our homeland so warmly, but in this matter, I represent only myself.”

“I assure you, our regard for your country is in no way diminished by that consideration,” he said, “but I thank you for the clarification. That being the case, my gratitude to you, in particular.”

“Okay, okay,” Apple said, listing dizzily in her seat and bracing one foot against the floor. “You people and your manners. Don’t we have actual stuff to talk about?”

“Apple,” Akane said simply, not even glancing at her. One of her pointed ears swiveled in the dryad’s direction, however, and Apple actually cringed, scooting her floating chair a few feet further away from the kitsune.

“You see what I mean?” Mimosa muttered from behind them.

Milanda cleared her throat and stepped forward. “I see no harm in exchanging courtesies, but why don’t we involve everyone who has a stake in this conversation? Avatar, if you would?”

One of the computer panels, untouched, swung outward upon unseen hinges and extended itself, till it resembled a free-standing floor-length window. The purple image of Avatar 01 appeared within, bowing first to Sharidan and then to Akane.

“Gladly. Welcome to the new center of administration for the system governing the Hands of the Emperor, your Majesty. I am certain you must have many questions. We shall, of course, endeavor to explain everything to your satisfaction.”

“To begin with,” Akane said smoothly, “you have already noticed there has been a…shuffling of living quarters.”

“Quite,” Sharidan agreed. “I understand this facility is actually the natural habitat of the Avatar. It had been my impression that he couldn’t be removed from the dryads’ little planet without shutting down the whole system, however.”

“Your impression was correct, your Majesty. And indeed, we were forced to temporarily deactivate the system in order to reboot it, and add some protections to prevent another incursion like the one it recently suffered. My restoration to the central systems of the facility enabled us to keep those to a minimum; with a functioning Avatar governing the computers, any attempt to hack into our system will be summarily rebuffed. I must acknowledge that some components of the previous iteration of this system were features I designed at least in part to limit the ambitions of its human components—including my own isolation and inability to make…improvements.”

“I definitely see the point in that,” the Emperor mused. “If improvements were possible, my mother would never have given you a moment’s peace.”

“Indeed, I observed that her Majesty could be quite persuasive. It seemed most prudent in the short term to orchestrate a state of affairs in which her persuasion was irrelevant, to be possibly revisited with a future heir.” The purple man in the window smiled disarmingly. “And thus, here we are.”

“Girls, do not hover in the door,” Akane said firmly. “This discussion concerns you as well. All the way in, please. Your Majesty,” she continued, turning to Sharidan, “the Avatar raises a pertinent point. We have re-started your Hand system almost entirely as it was, or as close to its previous state as we could arrange. Its somewhat organic nature meant a precise copy was not possible, but the difference should be negligible. The only significant alteration we have made, aside from re-shuffling the living quarters here, has been to build in the possibility of further alterations—if all relevant parties are agreed that they are necessary. And with that, we should include the other individual who shall have a say. Avatar?”

“Activating the link now,” he replied, and indeed another computer screen swung forward and expanded. A moment later, its transparency solidified into an image that appeared to be outdoors upon a sunny hill, with a lean figure dressed in black in the center of the frame.

She had been half-turned, staring into the distance, but upon the screen’s activation shifted her attention to it. Something about being displayed on a viewscreen highlighted the unnatural look of her, the heavily stylized shape of her features. Pictured thus, she actually looked more like a moving doll than a person.

The Emperor took one step forward, his attention fixed on the screen. “Ah…at last. I understand from Milanda that I have you to thank for a great deal of her success here…Walker.”

“Your Majesty,” she said, sketching a sardonic little bow. “I understand from Milanda that you firmly instructed her to keep me in that cell. I hope you are not too disappointed.”

“I never imagined I would one day find myself saying this,” he replied, “but I’m very glad to see you well. It always bothered me, having to see you confined in that tiny space.”

“It bothered him,” Hawthorn muttered scornfully. Mimosa shushed her frantically even as Akane shot a flat look in their direction.

“I believe you,” Walker said simply, her porcelain face impassive.

The Emperor tilted his head slightly. “If I may ask…where are you?”

“Where do you think I am?” she asked mildly, amusement entering her tone.

“Walker,” Milanda said reproachfully, “there’s no need to be obstreperous.”

“Need, no. It’s not as if I have so very many ways to amuse myself.”

“You have the entire catalog of information and entertainment archived in the Order’s files, Yrsa,” Akane retorted. “Don’t be needlessly difficult. And don’t worry, your Majesty, we have definitely not released her into the world. Yrsa’s condition is no fault of her own, but it means that for the safety of all people and living things, she must be contained. We simply found a kinder prison for her.”

“…the dryads’ world,” he said slowly, studying the screen in which Walker was displayed and prompting a grin from her. It was barely apparent, due to the narrow field of view and the fact that half of it was taken up by the metal construction of the nexus, but the horizon behind her was strongly curved, as if she stood atop a hill…or upon a very tiny planet.

“The teleporter has new security measures installed,” Milanda said, nodding. “She can’t come through it, obviously. The only people who can are those with protection from her death field effect.”

“Her sisters!” Apple said brightly, waving at Walker.

“And the Hands,” Akane added with a little smile, “and Milanda. She has access to the machines and database, she has the possibility of visitors now. And she has an entire world of her own upon which to roam, albeit a small one. With its installed fabricators, her ability to alter the landscape is nearly limitless.”

“Which is how come we got to re-do the halls up here,” Mimosa said. “It’s a little more cramped, but they’re opening up some of the rooms for us to explore and the fabricator thingies can make it nice and natural, so this isn’t so bad! We can still visit our little world, but honestly Walker needs it a lot more than us.”

“I was getting tired of it anyhow,” Hawthorn said dismissively.

“As prisons go,” Walker said, now smiling widely, “it barely even is one. This is a happier ending for me than I could have asked for.”

“It’s hardly an ending,” Milanda replied, grinning back.

“Indeed,” Akane said more solemnly. “Your Majesty, there is one more thing to bring up before we discuss the future. While resetting the system, we neutralized an intrusive feature which had been activated ten years ago.”

“Records show conclusively that this was done remotely,” the Avatar added, “from Fabrication Plant One, which now lies off the coast of a modern city Milanda identified as Puna Dara.”

Sharidan’s eyes narrowed. “Oh? What sort of intrusive feature?”

“It piggy-backed upon the energy field governing the Hands to suffuse the residential wing of the Imperial Palace above with the diffuse essence of an engineered plant called silphium.”

“Sylphreed, in more recent parlance,” Akane added.

The Avatar nodded. “It was named for a plant known to have existed on Earth, the world of the Infinite Order’s origin and humanity’s, which was recorded but had been consumed into extinction long before space flight or biological engineering were developed. The plant was an effective contraceptive, and it was for this purpose that the Order created modern silphium. It is a transcension-active lifeform, making it particularly useful for the purpose of this invasion. Its essence was quite amenable to diffusion through a non-physical medium in this way.”

“This intrusion,” the Emperor said quietly, his face having gone blank, “caused the infertility of every woman in the Palace?”

“That would be its effect, yes. Access to the fabrication plant has since been blocked, and there are no further records—and none which identify the perpetrator, except that they logged into the system under Scyllith’s identification. Akane assures me that her personal involvement in this is highly unlikely.”

“Entirely impossible,” Akane scoffed. “Scyllith could be subtle, but we know very well how constrained the remaining Elder Gods are by their condition, and what the Pantheon did to the phenomenon of ascension itself. Either of them taking personal action would be noticed. Scyllith does, however, have a substantial cult of her own, and it would perhaps be naive to assume they are as effectively barred from the surface as Themynra’s drow would have us believe.”

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this,” Sharidan said quietly, frowning.

“It was the least we could do,” the kitsune replied with a polite little smile. “Frankly, to leave such an obvious assault upon Tiraas in place would have been an overtly aggressive act. Bearing you no ill will, we could hardly have done such a thing.”

“I’m afraid investigating it will be up to us, now,” Milanda added. “Though even finding an old Infinite Order facility in Puna Dara will be…well, difficult, to put it mildly.”

“Obviously it’s accessible,” Walker said, shrugging. “Or was ten years ago.”

“So…the effect is over, then?” Sharidan asked, directing himself to the Avatar. “There will be no more infertility?”

“I’m afraid the effects will linger upon all who were subjected to it,” the Avatar said apologetically. “Any woman resident in that part of the Palace will find it difficult if not impossible to conceive for at least another year. There should be no lingering health effects apart from that; even if one happened to have a silphium allergy, the nature of this diffusion would not trigger it. Normal fertility will restore itself over time.”

“In the meantime,” Akane said, her tail twitching once, “we have the present, and the future, to discuss.”

“Indeed,” the Emperor replied, turning to her with a respectful nod. “It seems odd, at this juncture, to speak of trust—you have assuredly proved your goodwill, Akane-sama. These are, however, some of the most central and precious secrets of the Empire.”

“In fact,” the kitsune said with a vulpine smile, “secrets of a most…particular nature. As we have seen, the Hand system is close to the core of Tiraan government, but not essential to it. If the Hands are corrupted, great danger and disruption ensues—but if they are shut off, the Empire will not fall, nor suffer unduly, as evidenced by your instruction to Milanda to destroy the system if she could not repair it. Our improvements should make it impossible for a repeat of this incident to occur; we shall not have to worry about further corruption. And the prospect of terminating the system would only deny the Silver Throne one of its favorite assets, without threatening the integrity of the Throne itself.”

“Is there a particular reason,” Sharidan asked lightly, “we should consider the possibility of the system being terminated?”

Milanda drew in a deep breath. “I set her on this line of thinking, your Majesty. It was necessary to gain her help…and her trust. Anyone who can shut off the Hands has power—not to destroy the Throne, but to ensure that its occupant must listen to them. And…in all honesty, I would not have done this if I thought that an unacceptable compromise. But I believe, honestly believe, that having an outside power who can command the Throne’s attention at need is good for it.”

“I don’t know much about your style of governance, obviously,” Walker interjected, “but when it’s come up, I keep hearing one theme over and over. Milanda may be biased, but she thinks you are a very good Emperor.”

“That is gratifying to hear,” he said, smiling at Milanda and taking her hand.

“But,” Walker continued, “you’re only one Emperor. There will be another after you, and another after that. And they aren’t all going to be good ones. There was that braying jackass who caused the Enchanter Wars, for example.”

“I hesitate to delineate rulers into such simplistic categories as ‘good’ and ‘bad,’” the Avatar added, “but the point stands: a country will have many governments in the course of its existence, and their various incarnations are not equal. I have already demonstrated, I believe, that you are best related to in an entirely different manner than your own mother, your Majesty.”

“If I may?” Sharidan held up a hand. “You don’t need to persuade me. In point of fact, I find this line of thought reassuring. Especially since we do not yet know who will take the Throne after me. The question I have is the nature of the power you propose to wield over the Throne. Who shall have it, and what they plan to do with it.”

“In short,” Akane said pleasantly, “those of us you see here. And to answer your other question…that remains to be seen. For now, upon reviewing your foreign policies, I find nothing so objectionable that I feel the need to exert influence upon Tiraas. In the future, though…who knows?”

“We have, in essence, created an informal council,” said the Avatar almost apologetically. “Those here are codified into the system, either as individuals or as offices which can be occupied by other individuals in the future. The occupant of the Silver Throne, obviously. Myself, by necessity. Walker, as an outsider bound by this facility but not beholden to Tiraas, and well acquainted with the systems here. Akane-sama, or another kitsune she designates, should she decide to do so. The three dryads present. And finally, this has required that we make Milanda’s position a permanent feature of the system—a Hand of the Emperor, in effect, but not bound to the same network as the others. One less constrained.”

“I like it,” he said, smiling at her again, and squeezing her hand. “You know, I find I like this idea a great deal. The…Left Hand of the Emperor.”

“That was easier to work into the system,” Akane said offhandedly, “because, unfortunately, we lost one in the reboot process. I apologize, your Majesty, but I could not find a way around it. One of the nodes in the network was isolated behind some kind of barrier—something arcane in nature, but fiendishly complicated and whose origins and structure I couldn’t analyze.”

“I see,” Sharidan said, frowning. “When you say lost…”

“I cannot be sure what that means, exactly,” she admitted. “He might now be separate from the system, as Milanda is, either with or without powers. It’s more likely, I think, that the reboot simply killed him. I’m sorry; I tried to reconnect him to the system, but whatever he’s behind warps space and time itself. I couldn’t penetrate it while restoring the entire network.”

“Thank you for letting me know,” he said gravely. “I’m already in the process of calling roll, as it were, but with so many of my Hands scattered across the Empire, that will take time. Now I at least know not to panic if one fails to answer.”

“With regard to our future,” the kitsune continued, “I do have a few considerations upon which I must insist, concerning your continued access to this facility. We are opening more of it, simply because the currently opened parts are not very spacious, considering they will have to serve as the residence of three of my youngest sisters. However, this will be done slowly, piecemeal, and with great care, and I intend to clear anything dangerous we discover into storage and use the space as only that: space. The fabricators will serve to support the facility here, and that is all. I have already had the Avatar seal off the teleportation array, since you have mages to fulfill that need anyway. There shall be no dissemination of Infinite Order technology into the world above. Pursuant to which,” she added, directing her stare at Milanda, “I believe I overheard that Lord Vex is currently in possession of an Order communication earpiece. That will be retrieved and stored.”

“May I ask why you are so adamant about this, Akane-sama?” Sharidan inquired. “Milanda has told me only the very basics, but it seems the world could learn a great deal from the information stored here, if not the technology itself. And after all, isn’t this the legacy of humankind? Don’t people have a right to this knowledge?”

It was Walker who answered him. “In eight thousand years, you have made less progress than your ancestors on Earth did in half that time—and that is not necessarily a bad thing. By the time the Infinite Order left Earth, the planet was practically in ruins. Its climate thrown into chaos, nearly eighty percent of its native life forms extinct, all caused by the reckless use of technology. Cities abandoned, sunk beneath the ocean, reduced to rubble by fighting over the few remaining resources—”

“Yes, it was a great big mess,” Hawthorn said impatiently. “Walker, you’re drifting into a monologue again. We talked about this, remember?”

“She loves to explain things,” Apple added to the Emperor in a stage whisper. “Get her going and we could be here all day.”

“The point is,” Walker said with some irritation, “it was an open question among the Order whether humanity could be trusted with its own technology. They never came to a conclusion—though, in fairness, they had ceased discussing such matters long before they were brought down. Points could be made either way. For my part, I support Akane’s decision. The fact that your relatively primitive society hasn’t utterly destroyed itself shows you are already better off than your ancestors.”

“There also is the fact,” the Avatar added, “that the technology being developed now is based upon transcension fields, which necessarily limits it to this world, as well as directly involving ascended beings who can serve as a further check upon the human race’s self-destructive impulses.”

“I see,” the Emperor said quietly.

“Beyond that,” Akane said, smiling languidly, “I’m sure we can discuss any future changes you wish to make—and any concerns the rest of us may have. For now, I’m sure you are eager to return to the running of your Empire. I, for my part, wish to spend some time re-acquainting myself with my sister—and becoming acquainted in the first place with my three new sisters. You may rest assured that my presence here will not in any way disrupt your government, or your life.”

“Yeah,” Hawthorn said challengingly, as the other two dryads clustered next to her, “we’ve decided we’ve hidden away down here long enough. Now that we have all these resources, we’re gonna get ourselves educated.”

“Quite so,” Akane said beatifically. “They are wild spirits, but I have already grown very fond of them. Soon enough I can teach them—”

“Whoah, no, you don’t,” Hawthorn said grimly.

The kitsune slowly turned to face her, one ear twitching. “…I beg your pardon, Hawthorn?”

“Now, that’s not actually a ‘no,’” Apple said hastily. “I really do want to learn about your culture and stuff. I mean, it’s Mother’s culture, and let’s face it, she’s not gonna teach us anything. But not just that.”

“Girls, believe me, I know what’s best for you,” Akane stated. “In time, you will appreciate—”

“In time,” Hawthorn snapped, “after nobody but you has had a say in our education, we’ll think and do whatever you decide is right. Yeah, that’s not happening.”

“Walker’s gonna show us stuff from the files!” Mimosa said brightly. “History and knowledge and…uh, lore, and stuff! They’ve got everything in these machines!”

“Plus,” Apple added, “Sharidan, could you send us…books? Things from Tiraas? We’d like to learn about the world as it is now, too.”

“Why, I would be only too glad to, my dear,” he said gallantly. “I’ll get to work on starting a library for you right away. In fact…how would you girls like some newspaper subscriptions?”

“Oh, we’d love that!” Mimosa bubbled. “That sounds awesome! What’s a newspaper?”

Akane, meanwhile, had spun to face the screen, her ears flattening backward. “Yrsa.”

“You’ve always been so clever, Akane,” Walker said in a fond tone. “And you have always failed to consider that other people might be, too. I’m so glad to see you again, and have you around. I really do love you, y’know? But they’re my sisters, too.”

“Surely,” Akane said in a more careful tone, “you realize that letting them get into the archives willy-nilly—”

“And also,” Walker continued, still smiling, “no, I will not be helping you gain majority control of this little council, sister. Milanda is my friend. And in fact, I think well of Sharidan, there, too. He tried to be as kind to me as he could—me, the horrible death monster he was forced to keep in a cell. That tells me what I need to know about him.”

Milanda cleared her throat. “This does not mean we value your contributions one whit less, Akane-sama. In fact, if you are amenable, there is a great deal I would love to learn from you, myself.”

The kitsune stared at her through narrowed eyes, then shifted to rapidly peer at Walker and the dryads in succession.

“There, see?” Mimosa said, wearing a dopey smile. “Everything worked out for the best!”

“Oh, everything isn’t worked out, just yet,” said the Emperor, again taking Milanda’s hand and giving it a gentle squeeze. “But I think we’ll find we can all work together.”

 

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12 – 60

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“I am not in the habit of divulging anybody’s personal business to anybody else,” Professor Tellwyrn began as soon as she settled herself behind her desk, “a fact for which several of you have abundant cause to be personally grateful. I am, in this one case, going to make an exception because the cat is pretty well out of the bag, and it’s better that those who saw it understand exactly what type of cat it was before the rumor starts flying that there’s a lion on campus.”

“Nice turn of phrase!”

“Shut up, Arquin. Since a classmate’s personal privacy is being abrogated here, I will have to insist that what I am about to tell you travels no further. If it does, the repercussions will be severe and indiscriminately applied to everyone present. And,” she added with rising asperity, “I would have thought all of this went without saying, but I can’t help noticing that this group is already larger than I expected.”

She paused to glare around her office, which in addition to the students who had been present in Last Rock for the Sleeper’s attack, now contained the entire population of the Wells and the sophomore class who remained un-cursed, as well as Scorn.

“Iris is our friend,” the Rhaazke said stidently, laying a heavy hand on Szith’s shoulder. “We care about her!”

Tellwyrn fixed a gimlet stare on her. “And in your mind, this entitles you to be involved in her personal business?”

“That, yes,” Scorn said with an emphatic nod.

Ruda cleared her throat. “So, Iris is a half-demon, right? I mean, that’d explain her being Sleeper-proof, not to mention her fixation on Gabe…”

“What?” Gabriel frowned at her. “Iris is hardly fixated on me. Where are you getting that from?”

“Arquin, you elevate cluelessness to a fucking art form.”

“Iris Domingue is not a half-demon!” Tellwyrn said loudly. “She comes from a respectable old Vernisite family from Thakar, with no traceable demon lineage on either side, and no evidence of demonic corruption that could explain her situation. She is simply, for reasons nobody understands, an infernal savant.”

There was a momentary pause while they all stared at her in varying degrees of confusion.

“So…wait,” Fross said at last. “I know what both those words mean and I can infer what they mean in connection with each other, but that can’t be right because it doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know you are all aware, by this point in your academic careers, of the basic nature of infernal magic,” Tellwyrn said, folding her hands atop her desk and regarding them over the rims of her spectacles. “Anyone can use it; the challenge for warlocks is in using it safely. Without the inherent protection granted by full-scale demonic mutation from having one’s entire lineage forged in Hell itself, the infernal is unfathomably dangerous and nearly impossible to control. A significant error can cause catastrophic, usually explosive destruction; even a minor error will cause the first stage of lifelong degenerative disease, with cancers being the most common, though they are not the totality or even the worst of it. Half-demons tend to have both a greater aptitude and a measure of protection, but neither is absolute even for them. And yes, I’m aware you have all heard this lecture before, but you’re hearing it again now, and will every time I find a reason to discuss infernal magic with my students. It is that dangerous.” She paused, and heaved a little sigh before continuing. “Iris Domingue, for whatever reason, can wield the infernal with perfect, intuitive control. Without understanding or even thinking about it, she uses it in such a way that she avoids corruption, either in the form of combustion or illness. And she can do things with it, despite knowing zero technique, that no warlock has even thought to try.”

Another silence descended, marked this time by expressions mostly of consternation.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Toby said at last.

“Nobody has, Mr. Caine,” Tellwyrn replied. “That is why I brought her here. It’s not widely known, because very few organizations are both positioned and invested in identifying and recruiting unusual young people—I haven’t been arrogant enough to assume this, but it’s possible I’m the only one who’s noticed. But within the last decade, roughly since the time the gods retreated and stopped calling paladins, individuals have begun popping up who can use magic in ways that aren’t exactly…normal. November Stark’s case is unusual, but not without precedent; there have occasionally been humans who can touch the divine unaided, just as there are occasionally drow who can wield the arcane. The prevailing theory is that it’s the natural state for all sapients to have access to all magic, and occasionally whatever force bars certain races from certain schools…misses a spot. More seriously, though… No, if there’s ever been a case like Iris before, I’ve never heard of it. And nobody who has studied her has the faintest clue what the cause is. Similarly, I have never heard of any fairy, much less a pixie, who can use arcane magic without simply exploding. Fross is, after all, the effective grandchild of an Elder God, but still. It’s never happened before. Something is up in the world.”

Teal let out a soft breath. “A great doom—”

“Don’t fucking say it!” Ruda groaned.

“So, um…” Gabriel frowned pensively. “Now you mention it, Professor, I know this is supposed to be a school for exceptional and dangerous people, but on reflection it occurs to me quite a few of our classmates seem pretty…normal. How many of these secret walking magical anomalies have we got on this campus?”

“Arquin, what did I just say about other people’s personal business?”

“Right. Sorry.”

“Anyway,” the Professor went on more briskly, “that’s the context. This meeting was convened because your classmate and friend has just had a traumatic experience, and needs support, not suspicion. It may be impossible to keep a lid on this; too many people from the town know she got cornered by the Sleeper, and others will wonder how she got away. It’s up to Iris to decide what she wants to tell anybody. It’s up to you lot to be there for her and back her up.”

“This we will do,” Szith said firmly.

“Aye,” Maureen agreed in a quieter tone. “Thank th’Light it wasn’t more traumatic, though. Way I understood it, she right whipped ‘is arse, an’ more power to ‘er.”

“There’s a lot more to trauma than being physically wounded,” Tellwyrn said gravely. “Consider Iris’s life up until now. She has refused to learn any infernomancy, which shows wisdom, but also has downsides. It’s that technique which makes the infernal useful for anything besides destruction; she cannot shadow-jump, become invisible, summon anything… With training, Iris would be the greatest warlock who ever lived. Without that training, she is a walking weapon comparable in scope to the Enchanter’s Bane. Her decision to eschew all infernal magic and immerse herself in the fae to suppress it is obviously in her best interests, and the world’s best interests. But there are people who care nothing for the interests of the world, and worse, people who care deeply and automatically conflate the world’s interests with their own agendas. The Black Wreath has been after her since before she could walk, and even those who protected her did so with the presumption of repayment. Iris has only grown to adulthood without being conscripted by one power or another because her parents are both bankers, which is the next best thing to aristocrats in terms of ruthless cunning. They’ve managed to play the Universal Church and Imperial Intelligence against each other for eighteen years, but that can’t last forever. I brought Iris here to give her four years to just…be a person. And more importantly, to develop the skills and the connections that will enable her to live her life without becoming anybody’s pawn.”

“We’ll help her,” Teal said quietly.

“Fuck yes!” Ruda agreed with much less restraint. “I don’t like to bust out my tiara, but the hell with it; anybody who tries to slap a collar on her is gonna have words with the Punaji nation about it.”

Toby cleared his throat. “I think we had better let Iris make decisions about her own life and back her up, rather than declaring our intentions unilaterally. Bad enough we’re having this discussion behind her back.”

“Gods, thank you, Toby,” Tellwyrn groaned. “The rest of you chucklefucks listen to him, for heaven’s sake.”

“Yeah, she’s right,” said Juniper. “Our job’s just to be friends. Wherever Iris decides that takes us.”

“So…what happens now?” Gabriel asked. “About the Sleeper? That warlock you brought in seemed to think he might have gotten killed…”

“He wasn’t,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “I’ve already verified the presence of every student on campus. None of them appear to have had their asses kicked in the Golden Sea, either, and to find that out in detail I would pretty much have to throw out any pretense of anyone having any privacy or personal security on this campus. For obvious reasons, I’m not willing to do that.”

“When’d you manage this?” Ruda demanded. “Cos you just got back and I know that weird new fuzzy assistant of yours didn’t check up on everybody and report in. He doesn’t even speak the language!”

“Crystal checked in on me earlier,” Toby reported.

Scorn grunted and curled her lip, baring fangs. “That tame incubus of hers was snooping around, too.”

“He’s neither tame nor mine, and don’t you forget either of those things,” Tellwyrn said irritably. “To answer your question, Arquin… What happens now is that you lot go back to your dorms and sleep. Those of you going to the Wells anyway take the time to hug your roommate, and the rest of you leave it be until you see her again normally. Tomorrow… Well, there are going to be some changes around here. Tomorrow will be a big day. You’ll want to be rested up and ready.”


Dawn, as always, was more a shift change than an awakening in the sleepless capital of the Empire. Most people who kept typical business hours were barely awake, much less contemplating breakfast yet, and the city as a whole was still early in the process of rising toward its usual frenetic pace. This was certainly not an hour when those who had been up till nearly midnight would be expected to be already at work, and yet, here they were.

The hour was all part of the pantomime. The Imperial family received their guest in one of the harem wing’s smaller formal parlors, no bigger than the average drawing room in a modestly well-to-do home, but deliberately laid out like a throne room, with a narrow strip along the wall opposite the door raised a single step and two chairs set upon it, with their backs to the windows. Sharidan and Eleanora sat in these, Milanda and Vex respectively standing at their sides. There was no other furniture, nothing for the person called before them to do but stand amid the heavy reminder of their respective stations.

Bishop Darling seemed perfectly calm and at ease, as he usually did, and was doing as well as they at presenting himself as though fully rested and alert. Doubtless he, like the Imperials, had been at the coffee. The stuff was starting to show up on the menus of tea rooms in the city, and rumblings had begun that it should be classified as a drug and regulated as such. Sharidan was considering it, if only to keep the drink out of general circulation and maximize the advantage of those who had access to it. Not that that would have helped today; Antonio Darling would have no trouble getting his hands on whatever he felt himself entitled to.

So far, no one had remarked upon the presence of the two black-coated Hands of the Emperor standing just inside the doors to the room, as impassively watchful as always, nor the fact that Milanda Darnassy was dressed in one of their uniforms, tailored to her figure.

“You are too modest, your Grace,” the Emperor said smoothly in a continuation of a back-and-forth of pleasantries which had now gone on long enough that it was verging on tediousness. “The fact remains that you are owed a great debt by the Silver Throne—you personally, and the Thieves’ Guild as a whole. I flatter myself that I am known to honor my debts.”

“It’s nothing more than the duty of a citizen to aid the Throne, should the opportunity present itself,” Darling said blandly. There came a momentary pause, the briefest hesitation in this practiced social ritual in which the next step was silently contemplated, and finally the Bishop chose to give ground by acknowledging ignorance—a slight concession, and one he was in a position to afford, but a concession nonetheless. “Your Majesty, I have to confess that I don’t understand more than a fraction of what transpired last night.”

Eleanora drummed her fingers once on the arm of her chair, giving Sharidan an expressionless sidelong look—a reminder that Darling wasn’t the only one in the dark on some points. The Emperor allowed himself a slight smile.

“I’m afraid this isn’t like a story in which everything is neatly explained in the end, your Grace. There are details we ourselves have not entirely sorted out—and of course, there are details we are not able to share with you. The entire matter, obviously, is enormously sensitive. That said, I didn’t call you here at this ungodly hour just to express my thanks. After the help you and your enforcers rendered, I want to explain as much as I am able. Even aside from my appreciation of your rescue…we both know some explanations are owed.”

“I wouldn’t presume to make any such demands,” the Bishop said with a bland smile. “But I would of course be glad to understand as much as possible of what I stumbled into.”

“The last part was the biggest mystery,” said the Emperor. “I was not expecting those…cultists. In truth, we still don’t know who they were. Apprehending their leader did us little good, I’m afraid; he killed himself via lethal injection, using a hypodermic syringe.”

A frown creased Darling’s serene expression. “Well, that certainly is…suggestive.”

“Lord Vex?” Sharidan prompted, turning to look past Eleanora at the spymaster.

Vex was the only person present who actually looked sleepy, but then, it was unusual for him to appear alert. He blinked languidly before speaking.

“We are not seriously entertaining the idea that the attackers were Black Wreath. The tactics were all wrong, the Wreath has no motive to have done such a thing, and this is hardly the first time someone has tried to pin the blame on them by donning silly robes before engaging in shenanigans. The syringe and shadow-jumpers were nice touches, more effort than we’re used to seeing at selling this old charade, but the facts stand. We know what the Wreath want, and we know how they fight. They don’t use necromancy, they do use infernomancy, they don’t meddle in politics unless there are demons involved, and there quite simply aren’t that many of them. Or if there are, they at least do not throw bodies at their problems.”

“All of us here,” Darling said quietly, “know of the Wreath’s attempt to meddle in politics. At the highest possible level.”

An absolute freeze descended momentarily. This was as touchy a subject as could possibly be raised in this particular company. Eleanora’s hands tightened on the arms of her chair.

“That wasn’t the Wreath,” Vex said mildly after a moment, “but their goddess. They are no more in control of her than any cult, and not alone in occasionally finding themselves stumbling over her trail. Most gods are more of a hassle to tidy up after than yours, Antonio. My man in Last Rock reports the Wreath is actually cleaning up one of her messes out there, or rather trying to help Tellwyrn do so.”

“The spider and the scorpion, meeting in the dark,” the Empress said frostily. “Someone’s getting stung, and I don’t much care which.” Sharidan grinned at her in open amusement, which she ignored.

His expression sobered as he turned back to the Bishop, however. “More to the point, your Grace, I owe an apology to you and yours. The truth is, you aided the Empire in good faith, you and the Guild, and we were less than honest with you from the beginning about our intentions. It all turned out as well as I could have hoped, and I certainly would not have agreed to such manipulation had it not been absolutely necessary. Still, I did not like having to deceive you, and I regret doing so—and not only because of the aid you subsequently rendered. You have the apology of the Throne, which I hope you will convey to Boss Tricks as well. We are doubly in your debt.”

“For my part, your Majesty, it’s all water under the bridge,” Darling said smoothly, putting on a magnanimous smile. “As Lord Vex himself pointed out to me yesterday, we’re all old hands at politics, here. These things have to be done, from time to time; there’s no use in taking anything personally.” He deliberately sobered his expression before continuing. “I feel I can say with relative certainty that the Boss will bear no grudge, either. However, with the greatest possible respect, I must remind your Majesty that the Thieves’ Guild is not a thing to be antagonized, particularly from atop a throne. At the core of Eserion’s faith is the command to watch the halls of power, and thwart their overreaches. You risk worsening your problems exponentially by playing the Guild for fools, and I may not always be able to intercede.”

“Well, that’s a little backward, isn’t it?” Sharidan spoke pleasantly, but he suddenly leaned forward, propping his arms on his knees; the change in his demeanor was abrupt and striking. “We’re glad, even eager, to make whatever amends we can for any offense taken by your cult, or anyone in it. But you, specifically, were the one tricked, Bishop Darling—that is, Sweet. And you are the one taking this tone with me now. Are you certain you wanna do that?”

Eleanora, Vex, and Milanda all shifted infinitesimally to stare at him, eyes widening by fractions despite their practiced reserve. This was not what they had discussed before the meeting.

Darling, too, was thrown off enough to cause the briefest hitch in his smooth presentation. “Your Majesty—”

“Okay, let’s cut the crap, shall we?” the Emperor suggested. “We’ll be here all morning at this rate. I don’t know about you, but I have an impossible number of things to do today and it looks like I’m already going to miss breakfast. You and I both know the score well enough to speak plainly.”

“Sharidan,” Eleanora said sharply.

“In addition to expressing my apology for this mess to your Boss,” the Emperor continued, “I’d take it as a personal kindness if you’d carry it to Lakshmi and Sanjay. And not on behalf of the Throne. I hate having abused their hospitality; those two were never anything but kind to me. It rankles, having to leave things like this.”

“I’ll tell her,” Darling said slowly, watching the Emperor with open wariness, now. He wasn’t the only one in the room doing so. “I have to warn you, though, Peepers probably doesn’t want to hear anything from you. Do…you want to let her know who you actually were?”

Sharidan sighed softly, and leaned back in his chair. “…no. No, best not; I can’t see anything but more trouble coming of that. I’m just someone who did her wrong, and regrets it. That’s how things will have to stand.”

“All right, well—”

“But with that aside, we were talking about us.” He actually shifted to lounge against one side of his chair and crossed his legs in a deliberately casual posture totally unlike his normal carriage before guests. Eleanora had returned her gaze forward, but Milanda was watching him with wide eyes. “Here’s the simple truth, Sweet: you are a pain in the ass. You’re everywhere, involved in the government, in the Church, in whatever your Guild is up to on a given day, and yet, nobody knows what it is you actually want. All we know is that you’re one of the Empire’s foremost experts on playing both ends against the middle, and you should know that by this stage in your illustrious career, everybody is getting tired of it. Now, I will gladly—humbly, even—offer my apologies and make amends to the Guild, for the sake of the necessary politics. To Lakshmi as a friend, as well, if such overtures won’t be immediately spat on. But you, Antonio Darling? I won’t do anything as pointless as suggest you pick a role and stick to it, but if you’re seriously going to have the face to stand here and complain about someone playing you false in this game…” Sharidan grinned broadly, the expression showing a lot of teeth and not reaching his eyes. “Blow me.”

The silence was absolute.

Darling cleared his throat discreetly, once he had recovered. “With greatest appreciation for the kindness of your Majesty’s offer, I must respectfully decline.”

The Emperor’s grin softened, becoming marginally more sincere. “Vex thinks you’re a true Eserite at heart. I realize we didn’t exactly spend much time bonding over the last few days, but I’m inclined to lean toward that conclusion myself, after watching you in action. As such, I realize you’re not inclined to trust anyone who sits on a throne for a living—as you yourself pointed out. Just keep in mind that there are powers in this world, and then there are powers, and you’d be wise to consider which of them rule just to rule, and which are trying to help people. There’s a limit to how long you can keep playing this game of yours, Sweet.”

“There are limits to everything, your Majesty,” the Bishop said pleasantly, his poise back in place. “Men like you and I are forced to push them as far as we humanly can. And let’s be honest: we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Sharidan heaved a sigh and straightened his posture. “There are a lot of things I wish could be other than they are… In any case. We thank you for accommodating us at this early hour, your Grace, especially after such an eventful night. Your assistance to the Throne is, as always, duly appreciated, and it is our hope that you will convey our sincere gratitude to the Thieves’ Guild as well.”

Long before the end of his speech, he had fully resumed the serenely regal bearing expected of an Emperor, and finished by inclining his head in a kingly gesture of dismissal.

Darling bowed deeply. “It is my honor to aid the Empire however I may, your Majesty. I’m certain the Guild will appreciate your overture. By your leave, then?”

“Go in good health, your Grace.”

Vex was drawing in breath for a heavy sigh before Darling was fully out of the room, and began speaking in a tone of strained patience the instant the doors had shut behind him. “Your Majesty—”

“Have you lost your mind?” Eleanora exclaimed.

“If anything, I’ve recently found it,” Sharidan said lightly, again relaxing into his chair. “You know what your problem is, Quentin?”

“I very much fear I am about to,” Vex said flatly.

The Emperor grinned at him. “In fairness, it’s not really a problem. You are so fixated on facts, on knowing all the details and angles, you tend to undervalue the squishier variables. People’s personalities, their passions, their hearts.”

“I assuredly do not neglect to consider individual character in my calculations, your Majesty,” Vex said with open annoyance, “but I also understand their place in the greater equation.”

“People aren’t rational creatures,” Sharidan replied. “They can’t be rationally predicted in their actions. Sometimes, you have to follow your intuition. You have to extend a little faith, a little trust. It’s not a criticism; your way of looking at the world is what makes you so good at your job. It’s not the only way, however, nor even necessarily the best.”

“Exactly what faith and trust are you displaying by needlessly antagonizing that smirking Eserite weasel after all the effort we just put into mollifying him?” Eleanora demanded.

Sharidan winked at her, and for a moment she looked like she was about to hit him.

“After spending a few days among Eserites, I’ve gained some insight,” he said cheerfully. “I just did more to earn that guy’s respect than we’ve managed in the entire time we’ve been trying to court him. Trust me, Nora. I know what I’m doing.”

“Your Majesty,” said Vex, “with all due respect, I question that assertion. I have never agreed with any part of this plan of yours, and with it now completed I consider it lucky that you escaped serious harm. And we’ve gained nothing.”

“Not at all,” the Emperor said more seriously, reaching over to take one of Milanda’s hands. “We know who was behind the attack on our magical systems, even if we can’t prove it. We forced Justinian to react rapidly to protect his schemes, and in the process learned something we’ve previously only suspected by watching his general pattern: he is strongest when he’s allowed to set up the board before the game, and not so smooth when he’s forced to improvise.”

“You believe he sent those…whoever they were, last night?” Milanda asked quietly.

“Oh, please, who else? I realize your people are still analyzing the bodies we recovered, Lord Vex, but I think we all know there won’t be any useful evidence. Who but the Church has the resources to build an entire disposable cult to fling at us anonymously? What’s important is that we made him do it. We forced him to expend resources, cover his rear and make a show of sending those adventurers we know work for him to aid us in an effort to demonstrate that he’s not the enemy. There’s been a lot we know he’s done that we can’t prove, but he has finally overplayed that hand.”

“He did play it, though,” Vex said, frowning. “We have no solid indication of Justinian’s duplicity. He succeeded in covering his tracks, and turned the situation to his advantage.”

“No,” the Emperor disagreed, “all he managed to do was mitigate his losses, and I’ll bet he doesn’t fully appreciate the gains we’ve made. I established contact with his high-ranking killers; I want you to work on getting in touch with them, Vex. If they can be turned against him, it’ll be a decisive blow, and one we’re even more likely to be able to land now that they’ve seen him try to get them killed. They know who sent those cultists, I assure you. Just because nobody can prove it doesn’t mean everybody doesn’t know.”

Vex opened his mouth to speak, but Sharidan pressed on.

“Which is my main point: I accomplished exactly what I set out to. We’ve got the Guild on our side now, when previously they were nominally aligned with the Church. Their inclination is to be hostile to any entrenched power, and overall have been as adept as Darling at dealing with both sides while avoiding a commitment. I assure you, Darling knows as well as we that Justinian is the only one who could have been summoning a necromantic mass-murder cult in the middle of a residential district last night, and Tricks sure as hell does. Putting the Throne in debt to the Guild is a bond between us, as strong as if we’d put them in our debt, and a lot more possible to achieve. As long as we don’t screw this up, when Justinian finally makes his move, he’ll have the Guild against him, not on his side or even neutral.” Smiling smugly, he lounged in his pseudo-throne. “It was dicey for a while, but this is a success, people. You all know we haven’t been winning this game recently. This time, we did.”

“Your Majesty,” Vex said firmly, “be all that as it may, and allowing for differences of opinion on your final analysis, I will have to insist that you never again take such a risk as you did this week, and especially last night.”

The two Hands by the door had been silent for the whole conversation thus far, but now shifted to stare at Vex. People did not use words like insist when addressing their Emperor. Sharidan made a quick placating gesture at them, even as he replied.

“In that, I have to agree. That gambit only worked because it was unthinkable; if me going out in disguise becomes a pattern, it’ll be all too easy for someone to use it against me. And for purposes of this discussion, twice constitutes a pattern. I don’t think that trick will be usable again for…oh, about thirty years or so. Regardless, for now!” He stood up, still holding Milanda’s hand, and bowed to her courteously. “I have a lot of appearances to make; after this week, people need to be reassured that their Emperor and his Hands are in place and functioning as usual. But first, I think you had something to show me down below?”

“Indeed,” she replied with a smile, “it’s been a little tense, but to my own surprise, I actually got everything settled. It’s going to take some…explaining, however.”

“Splendid! Eleanora, I’ll meet you after breakfast and we shall proceed with our first meeting of the day. For now, after being out of the action all week, I’m anxious to see how this has finally turned out.”

 

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They emerged from the alley into more trouble.

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

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

“Holy shit,” Finchley said somewhat tremulously.

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoah, hey!” Rook protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I said better reason,” she said dryly.

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

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

“Vanislaad,” Joe said shortly.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, great,” Joe muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll be trapped—”

“Trust me, now!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Vannae,” Joe said stiffly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, are you okay?” Shook asked him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, is that all,” Finchley muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck this whole business,” Shook muttered.

“Amen, brother,” Rook agreed.

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

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

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

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

There was a beat of silence.

“Seriously?” Moriarty exclaimed at last.

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


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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, it was also making them angry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Professor Tellwyrn!” Toby exclaimed in clear relief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can confirm that,” the dwarf added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There are serious matters of principle—”

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

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

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

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

“Yes!” chorused half a dozen people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

Toby sighed. “Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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