Tag Archives: Emperor Sharidan

12 – 22

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“Well, this isn’t so bad,” Danny said cheerfully, rubbing a plate dry with a towel. “Almost fun, in a way!”

“Fun,” Sanjay repeated, shooting him a sidelong look.

Their houseguest grinned. “Satisfying, at least. You do the thing, and the thing is done—there’s an inherent substance to it. Or maybe I’m just glad it’s not turned out to be as onerous as Lakshmi suggested. She made it sound like I was being sent to a salt mine.”

“Yeah, well, that’s Shmi for you,” Sanjay said with a shrug, rinsing off a cup. “Always gotta mess with everybody’s head. And she wonders why she’s still single.”

“I can hear you,” Lakshmi shouted from the next room.

“Seems like an Eserite thing, doesn’t it?” Danny remarked, stacking the plate and reaching for the next one waiting in the strainer.

Sanjay snorted. “So, really? You’ve never washed dishes before?”

“Technically, I still haven’t. It’s my fond hope that, in my time with you, I’ll earn enough trust to work my way up from drying.”

“Yeah, but…never?”

“Not once,” Danny mused, eyes on his current plate. “I can’t recall ever actually cleaning anything in my life. Never cooked, either, or had to fix anything…”

Sanjay let out a low whistle and shook his head. “Must be pretty damn nice.”

“Watch your language!” his sister barked from the living room. Danny and Sanjay exchanged a conspiratorial grin.

“It’s been a charmed life, I must admit,” Danny continued, now working on the last plate, while Sanjay loaded the last cup into the strainer and began scrubbing the silverware. “It’s not that I’ve been bored… Actually, they keep me pretty busy. There are always decisions to be made, things to organize, people I have to coddle or bully or placate. Honestly, they keep me busy from dawn till dusk, most days.”

“You poor baby,” Sanjay said, completely without sympathy.

Danny grinned as he continued talking and working. “In terms of just…day to day tasks, like this? The things everybody has to do to take care of themselves? I’ve never had to learn. I didn’t test it, but I have a feeling I wouldn’t have been allowed to learn, even if I’d tried. When it comes down to it, I don’t know how to do… Anything. If I ever lose my position permanently, I’m going to be pretty well screwed.”

Sanjay snuck a glance up at the man; he was frowning pensively at the cups as he rubbed water from them with the dampening towel. Initially, he’d found little to respect in the well-groomed, sweet-smelling, uncalloused and unfairly handsome man who had been inexplicably in his home when he got back from school. Danny was personable and hard not to like, though. And now, incredibly, he began to seem actually sympathetic.

“Didja ever think about just…running away?”

“I did, actually!” Danny’s expression brightened, and he winked, lowering his voice. “When I was younger, my best friend and I used to sneak out all the time, to go drinking and chase girls. My mother came down on that pretty hard when she found out, so that was that. It’s a shame I was so young and dumb, then; I could’ve been teaching myself all sorts of useful things instead.”

“Oh, I dunno,” Sanjay said airily. “Sounds like you had your priorities in the right order!” Danny laughed obligingly.

Lakshmi’s face appeared around the doorframe, wearing a suspicious expression. “What are you two snickering about in here?”

“Nothing,” they chorused, turning innocent looks on her.

“Omnu’s balls, that’s disturbing,” she muttered, scowling at them before retreating.

“You hear that?” Sanjay complained. “And then she tells me to watch my language.”

“Well, half the fun of being older is being able to be hypocritical about stuff like that,” Danny said cheerfully. “Wait till you have kids of your own, and you can spend your time making them crazy. I’m told that’s the whole attraction.”

“About running away, though,” Sanjay said more thoughtfully as he deposited the last fork in the strainer and let the water out of the sink. “I meant, like…more permanently.”

Danny’s smile turned wistful. “You know what, I actually do think about it with some regularity. It’s a pretty stressful job, being responsible for people.”

“I bet having your a—” He broke off, darting a glance at the door to the living room. “…getting catered to hand and foot all the time helps.”

“It sure does,” Danny said frankly. “Not gonna lie, the perks are pretty da—pretty nice.” He, too, glanced at the door, then winked. “But they’re not what stops me. The truth is, I enjoy the work, even as tiring as it is. It’s satisfying. I get to make a difference and actually help a lot of people. And…when I mess up, a lot of people can suffer.” His expression faded to a frown and he paused in drying the silverware to stare sightlessly at the wall in front of them. “I sort of feel I blew my chance to walk away the first time I let a bunch of people down in a way that has real consequences for them. You can’t make something like that go away, you know? There’s nothing to do but keep going forward. With every success, I feel more motivated… With every failure, I feel more responsible.”

“Sounds grim,” Sanjay murmured.

“Well, standing here, right now, my recommendation is that if you ever have the option to step into a noble’s place, don’t. This seems much more…free.” He shrugged. “Truthfully, though, I probably know as little about your life as you do about mine. So my opinion there probably isn’t worth much.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna have to agree on that one,” Sanjay said with a grin. “The last part. If I ever get the chance to step into a noble’s place, I’m gonna be all over that.”

“Where do these fellows live?” Danny asked, patting the short stack of plates.

“Top cabinet, to your left, there.” He watched Danny put dishes away in silence for a moment. “How do you learn that? Do they have special schools for nobles?”

“Oh, yes,” Danny said. “Expensive ones.”

“Naturally.”

“Silverware?”

“In the drawer, right in front of you.”

“Thanks. And yeah, there are classes in things like economics… Mostly, though, the craft of ruling is taught a lot the way the Thieves’ Guild trains its apprentices. You learn it by being coached by someone who’s done it a lot longer.”

“Most of the Eserites I know think nobles are worse thieves than they are,” Sanjay said skeptically, folding his arms and leaning against the sink.

“Most of the nobles I’ve met think Eserites are basically boogeymen,” Danny said frankly. “My feeling is both are right. I’ve known aristocrats who I have to say are completely useless human beings, and a few—more than a few—who I’d call outright monsters. The thing is… You see that everywhere, I think. But nobles are supposed to be responsible for a lot. When a leader is useless or evil, it does a great deal more damage than when an average person is.”

“I guess that makes sense. I haven’t met any nobles—before you, I mean—but I’ve met some pretty useless idiots and ass— Jerks.” He shot a look at the doorway and rolled his eyes. “People I’d hate to see in charge of anything.”

“Yeah. The reverse is true, though.” Danny shut the silverware drawer and gave him a contemplative look. “You may not learn about it directly, considering where and how you’re growing up, but it seems like a disproportionate number of the Eserites I end up hearing about are some really vile individuals. Maybe—”

“OI.” A paperback book came sailing through the door and bounced off the wall a few feet from them. “So help me, if I catch you trying to turn my brother against our religion, I will glue your dick to your leg while you sleep, and Sweet can whine about it all he likes!”

“Yep,” Sanjay said quietly, grinning. “Still single.”

“Aw, now, a lot of gentlemen go for women with spirit!”

“Ew.” The boy wrinkled his nose. “That’s my sister. I don’t need to be thinking about that!”

“You’re probably right,” Danny said gravely. “It’s for the best.”

“Anyway, that’s not the same, though,” Sanjay said thoughtfully. “Nobles and thieves. Or nobles and anything else, really. You can apprentice to be a thief no matter who you are. Legacy families are actually pretty rare in the Guild; most Eserites come from other places, other cults, even. And, like, most crafts are that way. There are some family businesses, but I think most people come to their trade because they have talent for it, or just want to do it.”

“I guess you’re right about that,” Danny acknowledged, turning to lean against the wall next to the sink and face him directly.

“Nobles, though, you have to be born noble.”

“Mm…not necessarily. That’s the most common way, sure. You can also marry into nobility, or be adopted.”

“Come on, how often does that happen?”

“Less often than it should,” Danny said ruminatively. “I think it would help keep the Houses fresh. You know, House Madouri has always made a point of marrying commoners, seeking out fresh blood. And they’ve been actual rulers of Tiraan Province for a thousand years, longer than almost any other House has even existed. I think there’s a lesson in that.”

“Does your House do that?”

“No, actually, my House is too young for that to have been a factor. And that’s the other thing. You always have to keep in mind that nobles got noble in the first place by accomplishing something, and then capitalizing on it. The gods didn’t select the Houses.” He smiled. “I’d have thought the Guild would make a point of mentioning that.”

“Well, I’m not old enough for proper Guild training yet, but yeah…I’ve heard that idea mentioned a time or two,” Sanjay admitted, grinning ruefully. “From Eserites and Punaji both. Shmi always says, the only reason she’s comfortable raising me outside Punaji culture is that Eserite culture is pretty much the same thing, with less fish.”

Danny laughed at that; Sanjay, emboldened, went on.

“So where’s your House from?”

“To the north of here,” Danny said vaguely.

Sanjay rolled his eyes dramatically. “Danny, Tiraas is on the southern coast. Everything is north of here.”

“Sanjay.” Lakshmi appeared in the door again. “That’s called an evasive answer, and you know it. Danny is in hiding, we’re being paid to help him, and we don’t ask questions about other people’s jobs.” She glanced back and forth between them and grimaced. “You know what, if you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean. And you,” she added, pointing balefully at her guest, “if you’re just gonna encourage him anyway, you can help him.”

“Sounds good!” Danny said gamely, even as Sanjay groaned. “More education! I shall be a wiser and stronger man when I go back home.” Lakshmi just snorted and disappeared back into the living room.

“Here,” Sanjay said with poor grace, tossing him a rag he’d just taken from the drawer. “The kitchen’s fine, just fix it up enough she doesn’t have an excuse to complain. Wipe down water off the sink and cabinet, see if you can find dust or something on the shelves. It’s not like we’re gonna be having tea with the Empress in here, anyway,” he added sullenly.

“You’d better hope not,” Danny agreed, already wiping off the edge of the sink. “I hear she’s pretty unforgiving.”

“Have you ever met her?”

“First rule of being powerful: try to stay away from people who are more powerful than you. They’ll cause you all kinds of headaches.”

“Hey, that sounds almost Eserite!” Sanjay glanced at him again, from his position standing on a chair, where he was halfheartedly flicking dust off the top of the cabinets. “So…who taught you? About ruling, I mean. You make it sound like your mother’s sort of strict.”

“Oh, that she was.”

“Was?”

“She’s been gone for a few years now.”

“Oh.” He lowered his eyes. “Sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“It’s fine,” Danny said, giving him a quick smile. “She wasn’t that bad, though. Yes, she’s the one I learned from, mostly. In a way… Have you ever noticed how you can love someone completely without ever liking them all that much?”

“Yes,” Sanjay said emphatically. “Yes, I have. I think that’s called family.”

“I know where you sleep, y’little brat!”

“And there she is now,” he added, smirking. “Yeah, that’s not just you. That’s everybody’s family.”

“Well, good, I feel a little better about it.” Danny’s smile quickly faded, and he slowed the motion of his hands until he was just leaning on the sink. “I miss her a lot, though. She was my mother and I loved her, but it isn’t just that. I believe I’ll always feel she was just better at this than I’ll ever be. It seems like at least once a day I’ll find myself baffled by something, and my first thought is always, ‘Mother would know what to do.’” The smile returned to his face, more wistful now. “And oddly enough, she still helps me, in that way. Thinking about what she would do always points me toward a solution. Of course, I don’t always do what she’d have done, but it’s a reliable starting point.”

“I didn’t get to know my mother,” Sanjay said quietly, staring at the remaining dust on the cabinet.

“I don’t think you’re right,” Danny said frankly. Sanjay turned to frown at him. “A mother’s a lot more than the person who gave birth to you, I think. You’ve got someone who loves you, provides for you, makes sure you’re getting an education and an upbringing. Someone who cares enough to be certain you go out into the world with the best preparation she knows how to give you. Sorry if I’m being presumptuous, Sanjay, but it seems to me you have as good a mother as anyone can.”

Sanjay coughed awkwardly, his cheeks coloring, and lowered his eyes. A moment later, they both turned, noticing Lakshmi standing silently in the doorway, arms folded, leaning against the frame.

“You,” she said to Danny, “are dangerous, aren’t you?”

“Oh, well.” He gave her a disarming smile. “Maybe a little.”


One could usually tell day from night, provided the sky was clear; beyond that, the passage of time in the Twilight Forest was inscrutable. In darkness, the ambient light was pale and blue, while by day it held a golden orange tone, and in either case, a haze hung in the air which inhibited the view even more than the underbrush and the shadows of the massive trees. It never grew brighter or dimmer, though. Dawn was a sudden thing, and dusk such a perpetual state that its arrival was impossible to notice. Aside from the light, it looked very much like any old growth forest, with the occasional path winding around the roots of ancient sentinel trees, and here and there the odd ruin appearing suddenly amid the shadows. The sounds, though, were eerie at best. The noises of insects, birds, and small animals were there, but less than in most such woods, and often one could hear what might have been the distant sound of laughter, the rapid patter of tiny feet, occasionally a note in the wind that could have been the agonized wail of someone far away.

Aside from the odd tauhanwe passing through one of the coastal cities, there were no elves in Sifan, and not because they were made unwelcome, either by the kitsune or the Sifanese. Elves liked their forests natural, and the full force of Naiya’s wild magic kept at a respectful distance. The presence of the Twilight Forest could be felt for miles out to sea in all directions from the archipelago, to those sensitive to it. In truth, there were no fairies of any kind, here, save those whose being sprang from the auspices of the kitsune. There were few clerics on the islands, the cults organized in ways that were often strange to their brethren elsewhere in the world. There were, assuredly, absolutely no demons. Sifan was a land unlike any other, and the Twilight Forest in many ways as alien as Hell.

But at least it was pretty.

Tellwyrn hadn’t been to Sifan often, and not to the Forest in decades. As frustrating as the experience of wandering aimlessly through the woods was when she was in urgent need of results, it did provide the opportunity to appreciate its oddly lovely scenery, an opportunity she rarely had. For now, that was the best she could do. One did not rush things, here.

“Why, hello there.”

She was not surprised at being suddenly addressed by someone standing very close, whose presence she had not detected through any of her enhanced senses, elvish or magical. It was unwise to let the Twilight Forest take you by surprise. Truthfully, it as unwise to be in it at all; best not to add foolishness on top of risk.

“Good day,” she said politely, bowing to the short old man who had appeared at the base of a tree next to the path. Little taller than her waist, portly, bald, and smiling beatifically with a face so wrinkled she could barely make out his eyes, he was dressed in the robes of a monk and carrying a staff more than twice his height.

“I don’t think I have seen you here before, my dear. Are you lost?”

“In fact, I am,” Tellwyrn replied. “Can you tell me how I might find the kitsune?”

The old man hummed softly to himself. “Dear me, what an unusual quest. Most who enter this forest would prefer to avoid the kitsune.”

“And yet, here I am,” she said with a patient smile.

He hmm-hmmed again. “The humans have shrines outside the woods, devoted to the fox-goddesses. That is the safest way to seek them out.”

“Alas, my business compels me to hurry. I have no time for the safest way.”

“Ah, so?” The old man rubbed his double chin with his free hand in a show of thought. “Well, perhaps I can help you, indeed. If you will do a favor for a fellow traveler, I shall do one in return.”

“What is it you need?”

“It’s a little embarrassing,” he said bashfully. “I seem to have lost my knapsack up a bush. It is wedged quite securely; I cannot prod it loose with my staff, nor reach it with my fingers. You, though, are so tall and graceful! I’m sure you could retrieve it for me with ease.”

“Why, however did you manage to lose it?” Tellwyrn asked with a smile.

The little old man sighed. “A mischievous monkey took it from me, and tangled it among the branches just out of my reach. They are such annoying creatures, monkeys. But if you will kindly help me retrieve my knapsack, I shall be only too glad to help you find what you seek.”

“Very well, it’s a bargain,” Tellwyrn said politely. “Where is this bush?”

“It’s just this way!” the old man replied, beaming happily. “I am fortunate you came along so quickly; who knows what might have happened to it, had I been forced to go down the path to seek help! Just through here.”

He turned and led the way off the little trail, Tellwyrn following without complaint at the slow pace he set. She didn’t bother glancing back at the path. Odds were good it wouldn’t be there the next time she looked.

The old man was as good as his word, at least. Despite the almost nonexistent speed mandated by his tiny stride and the rheumatic shuffling of his feet, they emerged after only a few minutes into a small clearing, floored with verdant moss and the occasional fern. Directly opposite this was a bush with dark, spiny leaves, and hanging in the upper branches, just beyond the reach of the little old man’s arms, hung a battered leather satchel by its strap.

“There, you see?” he said, pointing. “Look, we are in good time, it hasn’t been further disturbed!”

“How fortunate,” she said.

“I will wait here and keep watch,” he said seriously, nodding and thumping the butt of his staff against the ground in emphasis. “Thank you for helping an old man, traveler. Please bring me my knapsack, and then we shall see about your request.”

“Of course,” Tellwyrn replied, giving him a smile, then strode briskly across the clearing.

Behind her back, the old man’s beatific expression melted to one of shock.

She reached the bush, finding the strap draped over a thick branch, and not excessively entangled at all. It took hardly any effort to lift it clear; the spiky leaves caught on the leather, but not enough to impede her, and the sack itself was not heavy.

Holding the knapsack, she turned, evincing no surprise to find the little man gone.

Panting, he scampered back through the underbrush as fast as his paws could carry him, chancing a glance over his shoulder toward the clearing, which cost him dearly; he plowed directly into the shabby bulk of his own knapsack.

“Here you are!” Tellwyrn said brightly, again standing right in front of him. “I see you found time to change into something a little more comfortable.”

His robes were the same, but his body had become furred, wrinkled old face replaced by a sharp snout, clever little eyes, and a pattern of darker fur forming a black mask. He gaped up at her, then yelped and turned to flee again.

Tellwyrn seized the tanuki by the scruff of his neck before he made it another step, hiking him bodily off the ground like his knapsack.

“Now, then,” she said briskly, “that’s my part of the bargain fulfilled. Take me to the kitsune, please.”

He squealed in agitation, then twisted himself around with astonishing agility and sank his needle-sharp teeth into her wrist.

Blue arcane light blazed from the skin-hugging shield invisibly lining her arm; it was like biting into a firecracker. The tanuki hung, dazed by the blast, while Tellwyrn carried him back to the clearing.

“Now, this is where we were,” she said, “in case you were lost. Which direction shall we go?”

“I can’t!” he squealed, having recovered enough to squirm. “They don’t want to be bothered! They’ll kill me!”

“That,” she replied, “is a problem for the future. They aren’t here; I am. And believe me, my furry little friend, I have neither their playfulness nor their forgiving nature.”

“You don’t know what they’re like!” he wailed.

“Here’s what I know,” she stated flatly. “This conversation will end with you helping me to find what I seek. What I tell them at the end of that search will depend upon how the conversation goes. Am I going to have a story about how helpful and courteous you were?” Calmly, she tossed his knapsack to the ground in the center of the clearing, and the whole thing collapsed as if made of paper, the wafer-thin coating of moss disintegrating and dumping fern fronds and the unfortunate knapsack into the yawning pit concealed below. Tellwyrn stepped forward and dangled the squirming tanuki above the chasm. “Or, will they hear a very sad tale of a very stupid raccoon who smears their good name by breaking his oath to travelers in their forest?”

“Y-you don’t scare me, elf! N-not nearly as much as they do!”

She hefted him higher, enough that she could stare grimly into his eye from inches away.

“You don’t know me,” Tellwyrn said quietly. “You really, really don’t want to.”

A soft giggle sounded.

Slowly, Tellwyrn turned, lowering the tanuki but not relaxing her grip, and making no note at all of his redoubled but still useless attempts to wriggle free.

A young woman perched in the lower branches of the tree behind her, clad in a silk kimono white as snow, embroidered with patterns of blossoms in palest lavender. Her complexion was like bleached ivory, even her triangular ears and bushy tail a snowy white, though they were tipped in black.

“You’re such fun,” the kitsune tittered. “I do wish you would visit more often, Arakuni-chan!”

“If only I could find the time,” Tellwyrn said evenly. “How lovely to see you again, Emi. Can you tell me where I might find Kaisa?”

“Oh, no.” Emi hopped lightly from the branch, landing on a nearby fern which hadn’t enough structure to support a sparrow and balancing effortlessly on her toes. “No, I don’t think that would be any fun at all, do you? I can, however, show you where you might find Kaisa.”

“Oh, good,” the tanuki said shrilly, “I guess you don’t need m—”

“Noisy,” Emi commented, the levity abruptly vanishing from her face, and he broke off with a strangled croak. “I believe you owe this honored guest a favor, Maru. I know you value your word far too much to renege upon such an obligation. I’m sure, sooner or later, she will find some…use for you.”

Tears beaded up in his beady eyes; he whimpered, which the elf and kitsune both ignored. Emi turned a once again sunny smile upon Tellwyrn.

“This way, if you please!”

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12 – 15

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“What are you doing here?”

Milanda had nearly reached the spot Sharidan had told her about. At the sudden voice, she turned—carefully. Despite its abruptness, she did not jump. She was not a jumpy person to begin with, and years at the Imperial court had honed her self-control to a fine point.

There had been no one in the hall with her, and she had heard no one approach, but now a Hand of the Emperor stood scarcely three yards away, glaring suspiciously. They really could teleport now, then, and apparently without the characteristic crackle-and-flash of arcane teleportation or dark visual effect of shadow-jumping. That would have been very useful if they’d been able to do it while obedient and predictable.

“I live here,” she said, looking as nonplussed as she could. It had been the Empress’s suggestion to act as if they had noticed nothing at all amiss with the Hands, which the Emperor had agreed with. She could see the point—their behavior was suddenly almost childlike, their loyalty to their master constant but their execution of it wild and without judgment. Eleanora had already run afoul of the simmering paranoia behind their eyes, and deemed it best that no doubt be cast on them, as they would likely take it as provocation.

This only applied to the three of them, though. Hands did not hobnob with just anyone, but people in the highest levels of the government did interact with them, and were starting to notice. Even she had heard the rumors.

“Here,” he snapped. “In this hall. What is your business here?”

Milanda frowned slightly—perplexed, uncertain, the aspect of someone confused why she was being challenged. That took no political training, but only the experience of a strict Viridill upbringing which had never agreed with her. “This hall? It leads between the Emperor’s apartment and the west solarium without passing through the central corridor. The servants are busy cleaning in there right now. Why?” Sharpening her gaze, she took an impulsive step toward him, affecting not to notice the abrupt movement of his hand despite the jab of panic that it caused. He did not attack, though, nor even pull away when she “impulsively” laid a hand on his arm. “Is something wrong? Is the Emperor all right?”

“The Emperor is engaged in a task which requires privacy and isolation,” the Hand said, still watching her suspiciously, but with less overt hostility now. “You were informed of this.”

“Yes. Yes, I know.” Affecting frustration, Milanda released him and stepped back, folding her arms beneath her breasts. That achieved nothing useful, and not just because of the modest gown that Sharidan preferred her in; never once had any of the Hands looked at her with lust, nor hinted that they were capable of such. Before today, she had much appreciated that. It had been worth a try, anyway. “No doubt you think I’m just a silly girl, but I do care about him. I know he has the very best people watching over him, I know he is smart and capable as any man. But… He’s not here, and I can’t help…” She trailed off, and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to waste your time. You’ll tell me, though, if anything happens?”

Milanda took another step closer to him, gazing up with wide eyes, head carefully angled so she didn’t accidentally look coquettishly through her lashes. A more direct stare helped sell the emotion. Clasping her hands before her would have been too theatrical, but she bunched them in her skirts, a nervous habit she had deliberately cultivated while at court so she could hide real nervousness by not displaying it.

The Hand had relaxed visibly, now. He still frowned, faintly, which was far more emotion than she was used to seeing from any of them, but appeared no longer on the verge of attacking her.

“I can’t promise that, as you know,” he said, only a little stiffly. “You will be informed of anything relevant to you. And you needn’t worry, his Majesty is in full control of his current situation. If you want to help him, go about your daily routine as normal. It is central to his plan that any parties observing the Palace detect nothing amiss.”

“Yes, so he told me,” she said with a sigh. “Perhaps I am a silly girl, on some level. My apologies.”

She curtsied carefully, not a whit more deeply than was proper, then turned and continued on up the hall without even a suggestion of hurry. There was silence behind her; she did not turn to see whether he was still there, or had vanished as suddenly as he’d come. And she definitely did not so much as glance at the marble bust of Emperor Sarsamon against the wall, which concealed the access to the secret entrance.


Lakshmi wasn’t best pleased to have her door knocked upon first thing in the morning, scarcely after Sanjay had headed off to school. The neighborhood wasn’t moneyed enough to be afflicted with salesmen, but several of the cults did proselytize. It had been a few weeks, though; she’d begun to hope she had finally trained all the nearby temples not to pester the resident Eserite household…

Upon angrily opening the door, she couldn’t decide whether she was more or less pleased than she’d have been by wandering preachers.

“Peepers!” Sweet said, beaming and holding out his arms as if for a hug.

“Oh, what the fuck now,” she demanded, folding her own arms.

“That’s a little thing we do,” Sweet said, turning to address the man accompanying him, a stranger to her. “We Eserites like our byplay—almost as bad as bards, sometimes. This one here is a classic setup/payoff; you’ve probably seen it in a play at least once.”

“It was a tad vaudevillian,” the other man agreed politely.

“Sweet, it’s early,” Lakshmi said curtly. “And you’re grinning at me, which is downright unnerving. Early and unnerving are a combination that doesn’t work for me. What do you want?”

“I need a favor, Peepers,” he said, his expression suddenly earnest.

She snorted derisively. “Are you outta your gourd? The last time I did you a favor, I ended up getting chased around by goddamn demons.”

“Ah, ah, ah!” He held up a remonstrative finger. “That was a job. This is a favor. Totally different! And no demons involved this time, I promise. Or warlocks. Much of anything, really.”

“And I’m going to do you favors because…?”

“She’s still huffy at me,” Sweet explained to his friend. “Because of the demon thing.”

“Well, it sounds like she’s entitled,” he replied seriously. “Have you tried the usual? Chocolates, flowers, empty flattery?”

“I was going for the old ‘pretend it didn’t happen and hope she forgets’ routine.”

“Ah.” The newcomer shook his head regretfully. “A classic blunder. You never try that on the smart ones.”

Lakshmi cleared her throat.

“Right, yes!” Sweet turned his charming grin back on her, and she had the sneaking suspicion he was deliberately doing it to be annoying, now. “Aside from the fact that it’s just generally helpful to be in the good graces of people with my kind of connections, this is the sort of favor that comes with payment, in the amount of far more than it deserves.”

“So it is a job.”

“No, it’s a paying favor—the best kind! A job is where you have to go out and do stuff. This won’t affect your plans in the least, unless you were going to burn down your apartment for the insurance money.” Sweet grinned and edged aside in the narrow doorway, gesturing grandly to his companion. “This is my friend Danny. He needs a place to crash for a few days.”

Danny, assuredly not his real name, was a moderately well-dressed and actually rather good looking man of local Tiraan stock, in that indeterminate area between later youth and early middle age. He bowed politely, and formally.

“It is an honor and a privilege, Miss Peepers.”

“Psst, it’s just Peepers,” Sweet stage-whispered. “You don’t combine a tag with a title, unless you’re talking to the Boss.”

“Ah. My humble apologies.”

“And the reason he can’t stay in your giant house is?”

“C’mon, you’re sharp enough to know better than that,” Sweet replied. “A discreet sort of place. Where people won’t come looking for him. It’s just a few days, no more than a week. He doesn’t eat much, even.”

“People who need discreet places to crash are hiding from something,” she said, unimpressed. “I have a little brother to worry about, Sweet.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got everything covered,” Sweet assured her. “I will have people keeping an eye out—discreetly. Any trouble heads your way, he’ll be shuffled outta here, and you’ll get backup. But that’s just to satisfy my own sense of preparedness. I’m not gonna drop more trouble on you than you can handle.”

“Once again,” she said acidly, “demons.”

“Oh, let’s be honest,” he retorted airily. “Nobody expected that to turn out like it did, and I still had it under control, anyway. You’re mostly irked because that means you can’t blame me for it.”

“I can blame you for anything I please,” she informed him. “Woman’s prerogative. And now you’re dropping some shifty noble with me, one who’s running from trouble? Noble trouble is almost worse than demons, Sweet.”

“Who says I’m a noble?” Danny asked, seeming more amused than affronted.

“Is that a joke?” Lakshmi demanded. “That cheap suit is not a disguise. No calluses, nails expertly manicured. Your hair is styled, in a way you didn’t do yourself, unless you happen to be a professional barber. Omnu’s hairy balls, Sweet, the man’s wearing perfume. What the hell am I supposed to do with him?”

“It’s just my natural musk!” Danny protested. “I eat a lot of…” He lifted an arm to sniff delicately at his wrist. “…hibiscus, tangerine, and sanguine vanilla. My doctor swears it’ll add ten years to your life.”

“Well, he can banter up to my standards,” Lakshmi acknowledged grudgingly. “That’s better than nothing. But seriously, this is a three-room apartment in a contentedly cheap neighborhood. You will not like it here.”

“At least the company’s charming!” Danny said gallantly.

“It’ll be fine!” Sweet wheedled. “If he gets bored, you can teach him to do coin tricks. Hell, make him wash dishes, it’ll be character-building.”

“Hm,” she grunted, now studying Danny, who seemed amused. She would be astonished if the man had ever done housework in his life, but he wasn’t bridling at the suggestion, which meant he wasn’t the worst kind of noble. “I dunno…”

“Well, let me see if I can make it easier for you,” Sweet said. “Five decabloons up front, just for taking on the inconvenience, and an extra twenty in gold per day that he’s here. Plus, I’ll owe you one.”

Lakshmi was too experienced a bargainer to betray any reaction to the named sum, which was more than she’d paid in rent for this place the entire time she and Sanjay had lived here. Thanks to Principia’s accounts, she didn’t need money, but it was a measure of how serious the matter was. “Even though you’re paying me?”

“Hell with that, he’s paying you.” Sweet jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Danny. “Guy’s loaded. I’m just hooking him up with a reliable and trustworthy person who can provide him with a couch for a few days—for which, as I said, I’ll owe you. Come on, Peepers,” he added more softly. “Everything else aside, that thing with the warlocks just went south, and I never even suggested in the first place it would be safe. You know I wouldn’t put any Guild member in more danger than they could handle, or mislead them about the situation I was setting them up for. This is me, telling you I believe this is safe. If at any point I change my mind about that, I will haul ass down here immediately and pull him out. My word on it.”

She pursed her lips, making a show of mulling it over. “If he causes or attracts any trouble that affects my little brother, deal’s off then and there. And I keep the five decs and any gold paid up till that point.”

“More than fair,” Sweet agreed.

“And,” she added, “for thirty per day.”

“You’re proud of this place, aren’t you?” Danny observed with a smile.

“Oh, not at all,” Lakshmi replied, grinning at him. “I just enjoy squeezing you. Get used to it, roomie.”


On her way back through the hall, Milanda carried an apple. It wasn’t much as props went, but she had a story worked out to explain her presence here now that the servants had finished in the harem wing’s central halls. She had given it an hour, to be safe; with one Hand already suspicious of her, it was too risky to loiter in this region, or be seen here too often.

No one accosted her this time, though. Despite her looming awareness of the potential threat, Milanda moved without hurry, stopping in front of the side table on which the bust sat. She had seen this thing a thousand times and never paid it much attention, it fit so well with the décor of the Palace.

Now, moving as deftly as she could given the unfamiliarity of the motions, she reached under the table, her fingers finding the lever exactly where Sharidan had said it would be. She set the apple down on the table top, pulled the lever and held it, then carefully touched the rune hidden among the abstract patterns embossed in the table’s surface—also found right where she had been instructed to look.

There was no glow, or crackle, or any of the effects that tended to come with modern enchanted devices, nor even a mechanical click from inside the wall. A section next to the display simply shifted backward in silence, its borders marked by seams which had not existed a moment ago. After moving back six inches from the surface of the wall, it slid to the side, revealing the door.

Milanda retrieved her apple and stepped quickly through, not pausing a moment to study this spectacle. The moment she was through, the wall silently slid back into position, the apparatus clearly having been designed for maximum discretion. She didn’t find it particularly galling that Sharidan had been keeping this secret from her. Frankly, there was a lot he didn’t tell her, and she accepted that just as she did the fact that theirs was not a conventional relationship. She was not the only woman he kept in these apartments, and hadn’t even been his most preferred companion until the sudden departure of Lillian Riaje last year.

The less said about that, the better.

A small fairly lamp ignited as soon as the wall shut, saving her from the darkness. She was in a space no bigger than an average closet—an average closet from back home, not one of the cavernous spaces where the Emperor or Empress kept their clothes. Its walls matched the corniced marble from the corridor outside, a touch which amused her. Opposite the secret door was a ladder set into the wall, which vanished into an opening in the floor.

Milanda paused only for a moment to get her bearings in the cramped space before proceeding. She had no suitable pockets and it didn’t seem wise to leave litter in here, so she descended the ladder carefully with the apple clutched in her left hand. More tiny fairy lamps were set along the descending shaft; they came on when she approached, while the upper reaches of the ladder fell back into darkness.

This was a disorienting effect. Down she went in her own little island of light, which moved along with her, hiding what meager landmarks there were and erasing any sense of how far she had come. Already this had been a longer climb down than from any of the trees she had scaled as a child, and still, there was only darkness below. The Emperor clambered up and down this shaft? Alone? What if he fell? The sheer recklessness of it…

Halfway through that thought, her grip on the apple slipped. Milanda winced but did not jeopardize her balance by grabbing for it, resigning herself to having to find some way to clean up applesauce at the bottom.

It only fell two feet, though, before coming to a stop in midair. Well, of course; this had apparently been set up by Empress Theasia, who had been famous for never missing a trick. Obviously a place like this would have the best safety enchantments in existence.

She retrieved her apple and continued down.

It was at least ten minutes, maybe longer, before she finally put her slippers on solid ground again. The chamber at the base of the ladder was stone, well-cut but clearly old—it looked like it belonged in some ancient fortress rather than the opulent Imperial Palace above. Still, nothing about it was evocative of ruins. It was clean and in good repair. Milanda gave it scarcely a glance.

On the wall of this chamber opposite the ladder was the door. Sharidan had been unable to warn her in detail of what she would find beyond the hidden entrance above, which was modern work and no part of the geas governing and empowering the Hands, a geas which apparently protected itself by preventing any in the know from speaking of it. Only the fact that she expected some kind of door made her assume that was what this was.

It was metal, that much was plain, but not steel. It was too pale, and shone too brightly even in the dim light of the tiny fairy lamp set next to the ladder. The door itself was a mostly vertical panel engraved with a sigil which meant nothing to her, flanked by two columns of glass in which a faintly luminous purple substance slowly oscillated. This seemed to glow, but the strange metal did not take on any purple tint from it.

In fact…

Milanda’s breath caught as she realized what she was looking at. Mithril. The whole wall was made of it. In addition to being totally impervious, the value of this thing would practically buy the Palace itself. Slowly, she crept forward, reaching out to inquisitively touch the sigil in the center of the door.

It instantly shifted upward into its frame with a soft hiss. She did not jerk back, but paused momentarily to study this.

The room beyond was tiny. Scarcely wider than the ladder shaft and circular except for the flat wall which made up the door, it was also formed entirely of pale, glossy mithril.

Milanda stepped carefully inside, peering around for some hint what she was meant to do next. The thing was almost featureless, though there was a palm-sized panel beside the open doorway which was made of a different material. Some kind of glass, perhaps, like the tubes outside; it glowed faintly, this one a pale blue like the characteristic luminosity of arcane magic.

The door suddenly hissed shut behind her, and this time she did jump. A low hum rose from the metal floor, and in the little glowing panel appeared a black circle, which began to dissolve starting from a point at its top and cycling around clockwise until it vanished completely. The instant it did, only a few seconds later, the door opened again, unprompted.

It wasn’t the same room outside. Belatedly, Milanda realized that the little round chamber wasn’t actually a room, but a conveyance, which had just taken her… Well, hopefully where she needed to be.

This was clearly the product of the same minds which had made the moving chamber. Everything—everything—was made of mithril. She was in a short hallway, brightly lit, the air incongruously fresh considering how far underground this had to be. The lights were set into the ceiling, while more glowing purple columns marched along the walls. Up ahead was another door, this one larger.

Milanda strode forward with more confidence, reaching out to touch the sigil engraved on the door’s surface. This time, she wasn’t surprised when it vanished into the ceiling.

Beyond that was another corridor, which extended up ahead for a few yards before terminating against a mithril wall, where the hall itself turned to the right. The lights and border columns here were the same, but this corridor was lined by glass panels opening onto other rooms.

Tiny, empty rooms.

She paced forward, carefully peering into each as she passed. What was the purpose of this? There were eight of them along the hallway, but the third one on the right had another mithril wall instead of a glass pane with a room beyond. When she came abreast of that one, though, she had to stop and stare.

The cell opposite it was occupied.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to be here,” the resident observed.

Milanda was not at all sure what she was looking it. It was a woman…sort of. In fact, she looked more like a doll than a person. Her skin was deathly white, as she had heard Vanislaad demons described, and subtly glossy. It didn’t look like skin at all. She had black eyes, so dark their pupils were invisible, which did not contain any reflection, a most eerie effect. Her features seemed oddly stylized, with a very pointed chin and enlarged eyes, as if she had been crafted by someone working from a rough description of elves and not really striving for believability. She had normal human ears, though.

That wasn’t the limit of her strangeness. The woman’s hair…was not hair. It took a moment’s study for Milanda to realize what was wrong with it: what looked at first glance like short black hair was simply the shape of her skull, pigmented to contrast with her face and formed to look roughly like a backswept hairdo, but it was all of one glossy surface. And her black clothes were not clothes. They were part of her, hanging in ragged edges from her cuffs but fading into being from her throat, with no collar; her skin just shifted color and changed shape to very roughly mimic garments. The slightly baggy “pants” they formed tightened below the knee to cover gleaming black feet which seemed bare. At any rate, they had visible toes.

“…who are you?” Milanda asked, only belatedly realizing she had been staring.

The creature shrugged. “A prisoner.”

“Why are you imprisoned?”

“Because I am dangerous.” At that, she smiled. Her lips were bloodless as the rest of her face, and painfully thin.

“I see,” Milanda said carefully. “…what do you know about the Hands of the Emperor?”

“Ah.” The woman’s smile widened. “I suspected as much. You’ll be having some trouble with them, no doubt.”

Milanda turned to face her directly. “What do you know of this?”

“Little,” the prisoner replied. “I could find out more, given access to the resources in this facility. I might be able to help you fix the problem, though I am reluctant to promise that. The system access is designed to be user-friendly, but there have been tweaks made to the underlying code itself, and I’m not a computer tech.”

Several terms in that speech were unfamiliar to Milanda, who decided to pass over them for now and focus on what she did understand. “I was cautioned not to let you out.”

“Very wise,” the prisoner said, nodding. “If you do, I’ll kill you.”

She stepped back. “Why would you do that?”

The woman shrugged. “It’s what I do.”

Milanda could find no answer for that.

“Anyway, you have more immediate problems,” the prisoner continued. “You are not authorized to be here. Hands will be coming to check soon—they’ll know when someone enters here, and I suspect they’ll know it’s not the Emperor or one of their own.”

Milanda backed away against the far wall. “You’re trying to trick me into letting you out.”

“You should not let me out,” the woman said matter-of-factly.

“Don’t you want to get out?”

“Of course I do, but that’s another subject. We’re talking about you. There is only one place for you to hide until the Hands investigate and leave—down there, at the end of the hall. Fortunately, what you’ll find in there is exactly what you need to proceed with your goal anyway. Unfortunately, they’ll probably kill you, too.”

“Is there anything in this place that won’t kill me?” Milanda demanded in aggravation.

The prisoner shrugged again. “That’s not the right question. They might kill you. I will. I might be able to help you. They probably can. They are your only hope, however slim, of surviving the next few minutes. And if they do decide to help rather than kill you, their help could even make it safe for you to let me out. This doesn’t seem like a dilemma to me.”

Milanda started to grasp at her head in frustration and belatedly realized she was still holding an apple. “I have no reason at all to trust you.”

“You can either go back, or go forward. You can’t do anything standing here except talk to me. It’s nice to have company, but I can’t do much for you while I’m in here.”

“Except kill me,” she said sarcastically.

“I can’t kill you while I’m in the cell,” the woman replied in complete calm. “That’s why you should not let me out.”

“Are you insane?”

“Yes,” she replied, still calm. “Isolation does that to a person, and I’ve been down here for a long time. My mind was damaged by trauma long before I was captured, though. That’s why I kill everything. Regardless, you’re concerned with your own business, right? I could trick you into getting killed, which would be entertaining very briefly and gain me nothing. Or I could help you, which could be entertaining for much longer while you struggle to survive and overcome this situation, and that course might potentially end with me getting out of here.”

“At which point you’ll kill me,” Milanda said. “No, thank you.”

“As you are now, yes, I would,” the woman said frankly. “If you go see the others, they might change that.”

“Who are they?”

“Less dangerous than I.” The prisoner smiled again. “Marginally. I am very predictable. I’m really not sure what they might do. Honestly, I don’t think they are, either.”

Suddenly, lines of text appeared in the upper corner of the glass panel which walled her off from Milanda, in a language she couldn’t read.

“Someone’s coming,” the prisoner said, studying the script. “Either the Emperor or one of his Hands. I extrapolate from your presence that it’s not the Emperor. It’s time for you to move.”

“Bloody hell,” Milanda cursed uncharacteristically, bolting down the short remainder of the hallway. Behind her, the imprisoned creature offered no further comment.

After its ninety degree right turn, the hall terminated in another door, this one obviously a door. It was more heavily built up, with an elaborate frame of metal which was a matte black, clearly not mithril; the door itself was of the same material, inset with glowing blue runes. No, not runes—letters. Some of them were the same as the alphabet used in Tanglish, though the words made no sense to her.

Grimacing and clutching her apple for moral support, Milanda stepped forward and pressed her hand to the door.

Nothing happened.

In growing panic, she prodded at various words, none of which had any effect.

“You’ll need to find the access panel in the frame,” said the prisoner’s voice from around the corner behind her. “It should be on the left.”

Milanda hesitated, then stepped back, studying the heavily carved door frame. In fact—yes. On its left side, at chest height, was a little square space about the size of the one in the tubular conveyance. At her touch, this came alight, displaying more lines of illegible text.

A second later, the door opened, parting along a central seam and sliding into the frame on either side. It was thicker than the other doors, and more complex, revealing a second set of panels which slid apart in different directions. What it revealed was nothing but a wall of blue light.

Milanda carefully reached out to touch this, then thought better of it. Who knew what that creature in the cell was trying to trick her into doing? After a moment’s thought, she stepped back and gently tossed the apple in.

It vanished into the blue surface without a ripple.

Milanda drew in a deep breath and let it out through her teeth. The Hands were coming; even if the prisoner had lied, they would be anyway, and probably soon. The creature in the cell had been right about one thing: it wasn’t as if there was anywhere else for her to go down here. Muttering a quick prayer, she stepped carefully forward, holding up her hands, and began to pass through the light.

She just had time to watch her fingertips vanish into its surface before her apple came whizzing back out, clocking her right on the forehead. Milanda yelped and fell backward, landing painfully on her rump halfway through the door, whereupon she discovered that whatever was beyond didn’t have a floor on the same level. Flailing gracelessly and disoriented by the blow to the head, she slid and tumbled through into the unknown.

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12 – 14

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Despite the late hour, Darling was alert and energetic even without the aid of strong tea, much less coffee. The sense of a new and interesting game suddenly afoot did wonders for his personal motivation. Price claimed his addiction to intrigues was worse than anything he could eat, drink, or smoke. If it kept him upright, moving, and sharp close to midnight after a long day, though, he wasn’t going to complain. Particularly as his current adventure was a response to an urgent summons by Imperial Intelligence. Whatever this was, he didn’t want to go into it at less than his best.

The neighborhood through which he strode was quiet at this hour, and in fact quite safe, being an upscale place occupied chiefly by pricier businesses and thus heavily patrolled. He was probably the scruffiest person it had seen all day, attired presently as Sweet the thief rather than the Bishop, but luckily there were no soldiers immediately in sight to question him. Not that he couldn’t talk his way out of that, but it didn’t do to keep the Imps waiting.

His steps slowed briefly as he passed through an intersection, glancing down the side avenue, only a few blocks into which he had twice found the Elysium.

Nah.

The address he had been given was an Imperial safe house, which of course he knew despite no such explanation being included in the message summoning him. In fact, this was one of the safe houses he wasn’t supposed to know about, not that he planned to enlighten whoever he met. Darling liked Vex well enough and meant no ill toward his department or the regime it served, but just coexisting with a man like Vex necessarily meant hoarding whatever advantage he could secure.

He stepped into a back alley, which was actually clean; the space had been designed as a service entrance for the three buildings clustered around it, and rich folks had their standards. The good ones applied the same standards to spaces occupied by their servants. He strode smoothly past the first two doors, well aware that his approach had to be observed, and grasped the handle on the third without bothering to knock.

The door opened instantly and silently, and he slipped through, pulling it shut behind him. There was no one present to greet him, leaving him to choose between going down a darkened hallway and descending a narrow flight of stairs. Light and faint voices came from the bottom of the steps, so that way he went.

It occurred to him in passing that this would be a fantastic place for an ambush. His message had come from an Imperial functionary he knew, though, and Vex had no reason to pull a stunt like that. Still and all, he tucked his fingertips into his sleeves, where he had throwing knives concealed.

A moment later, he removed them, upon stepping into the room at the bottom of the stairs and seeing who awaited him. Quentin Vex himself was present, lounging against the wall; General Panissar stood near the door in full uniform. The third man was dressed casually, in a suit that had seen no wear and was of good quality but clearly not tailored for him; it had probably been procured from some department store particularly for this exercise. Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian, Emperor of Tiraas, assuredly did not have any such garments in his own wardrobe.

“Please don’t,” the Emperor said quickly when Darling started to kneel. “The formalities have their place, Darling, but there’s nobody here to impress. Let’s not bog this down with ceremony, shall we?”

“As you wish, your Majesty,” he said diplomatically, straightening up and adjusting his lapels. He glanced at Vex, then Panissar, then back at the Emperor. “Well, here we are, then! I didn’t even know what to expect and I’m still alarmed. Shall I assume the Emperor isn’t nearly as unprotected here as he looks?”

“Obviously,” Panissar said with disdain. “I’d feel better if I could have brought a few Imperial Guards, but the situation being what it is…”

“My people are keeping watch,” Vex said with a yawn. “My best people. Blanketing the district with them would risk drawing eyes, which is exactly what we don’t want. A handful of my top operatives represent more effective power than a platoon, anyway.”

“Are you gonna let him talk to you like that?” Darling asked Panissar, who snorted derisively. “Sorry, I don’t know a better way to lighten the atmosphere of impending doom. What’s going on, how bad is it, and how can I help?”

“To begin with,” Sharidan said seriously, “anything and everything discussed here is Sealed to the Throne.”

He paused for acknowledgment, and Darling nodded deeply in a gesture that verged on a bow.

“The situation is this,” the Emperor continued. “Something has interfered with the Hands of the Emperor. All of them are exhibiting mental instability, coupled with the sudden possession of powers they never had before.”

“Holy shit,” Darling whispered. “Ah…excuse me.”

Sharidan actually smiled. “Not at all; I’d say that is the correct reaction.”

“We are working to contain this situation,” said Vex. “Intelligence and the Army are both shifting assets to strengthen protection of the Imperial family, and monitor any ongoing projects in which Hands are participating. As discreetly as possible, of course; as effectively as can be done without informing the assets in question of the nature of the problem. It may not prove feasible, but ideally we can resolve this before it turns into a crisis.”

“Hang on,” said Darling. “The Hand who usually sits on the council with us. Is he still at Last Rock?”

Vex gave him a sleepy, mirthless little smile. “Indeed. Verification of the problem has come from that quarter; we’re aware of the potential for escalation, there, and watching it carefully.”

“Professor Tellwyrn has been helpful and surprisingly restrained,” Sharidan agreed.

“Excuse me,” Panissar growled, “but in the version of events I was told, the woman broke into the Imperial Palace, assaulted one of the Empress’s companions and vandalized her bedroom.”

“In the course of delivering a friendly warning, yes,” Sharidan replied, smiling. “Which, for her, was helpful and surprisingly restrained. She bypassed an annoying bureaucracy in order to deliver a message, and I can’t say I don’t sympathize with the impulse, irksome as her methods are. Last Rock isn’t the worry, here; I am. The Hands surround and follow their Emperor above all else. Their current instability is a grave threat; one has already tried to arrest Eleanora. It has been decided,” he continued with clear displeasure, “that the best response in this situation is to remove me from a position where I can do anything to help.”

“Your Majesty knows why,” Vex replied calmly, “and clearly are in agreement. It’s not as if we could force you to comply, nor would.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Sharidan said with a sigh. “I do know. I don’t have to like it, though. For the time being, in any case, the Empress will maintain the government.”

“You need a place to hide,” Darling guessed.

“Exactly.” The Emperor nodded. “Which is why we asked you here, your Grace.”

He frowned. “Don’t you have safe houses?”

“Many. All of them, however, are known to the Hands,” Sharidan replied. “They will be able to find me anyway, given the need, but not as easily as if I am in a place unknown to them. Each Hand can sense my direction and approximate distance from their position, but that’s it. Getting to me will take time, and involve figuring out a route, gauging the situation…”

“And if one or more start moving in his direction, we’ll know,” Vex added. “This operation will involve me posting agents to watch both his Majesty and the Palace, and any other Hands in circulation. As soon as one makes a move at the Emperor, we’ll intervene to extract him. Unfortunately, Hands have unrestricted access to all of Imperial Intelligence’s assets, including the power to give orders to my personnel with the Emperor’s own authority. They can find any of our bolt-holes nearly as easily as they can the Throne’s own.”

“We are addressing this as best we can,” said the Emperor, “by keeping the agents in question in the field with orders not to report back until they are told otherwise. The Hands, meanwhile, have been informed that all of this is a gambit on my part to flush out a conspiracy. Which is roughly true; they simply weren’t told they were its target. The downside of needing to keep them pacified is that I cannot curtail their authority while we work. This should suffice for a while to keep them away, but if the emotional instability they’ve begun to demonstrate worsens, one or more is likely to make an irrational move.”

“This whole situation is disastrously unstable,” said Darling. “I trust something is being done to rectify the root problem?”

The Emperor sighed. “Clearly, something has interfered with the magic powering the Hands. Unfortunately, there are no specialists on that particular…arrangement. I have sent someone I trust to attempt to address it, but… It may not be possible.”

“I hope you have a longer-term plan in that case, your Majesty,” Darling said.

Sharidan nodded. “She is to attempt a repair if it can be done; if not, her instructions are to destroy the entire system.”

“Can that be done?”

“Anything can be destroyed,” the Emperor said softly. “Whether that proves feasible in this instance is another matter. She will do what she can, and we have other plans ready to be activated if she fails, which are not germane to our discussion here.”

“What you need,” Darling said slowly, “is someone who can hide you in the city, using resources and personnel not known to the Imperial government, close enough to the Palace but also far enough that you can either return to it or flee it on very short notice.”

“Exactly,” Panissar grunted. “Hence you. Despite your known tendency to play all ends against the middle.”

“I won’t waste anyone’s time denying that, but in a case like this…” He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.I’d say this is no time for games. Far, far too much would come unraveled if something happened to the Emperor. Speaking of which, first things first: you gentlemen have probably already decided this and were maybe about to make a point of it to me, but under no circumstances can any Thieves’ Guild or other personnel be told who he is, much less why he’s hiding.”

“We are firmly in agreement,” Panissar snorted.

Darling nodded. “With that established… Yes, this shouldn’t actually be too hard. Any number of people either owe me favors or would love to do me one, and for Eserites, someone needing a no-questions place to crash where they’re encouraged to stay away from the windows isn’t an odd circumstance at all. I’ll have to winnow it down to people who can be both trusted and relied on. To do that, I’ll need to put my ear to the ground for a bit, find out who is or is not currently in a bad situation we don’t want to be near. Also not unusual for Eserites. What’s our timetable, here?”

“That will ultimately be determined by his Majesty’s agent,” said Vex. “The base situation will be resolved when she does so, one way or another. I will say, however, that having a bunch of physically overpowering, highly-ranked government officials slowly growing more and more unhinged will escalate this into either a massive crisis or a cluster of smaller ones, sooner than later. I give this no more than a week before it devolves into a disaster we will be hard-pressed to contain. Current problems aside, if the Emperor is out of sight for longer than that, political tensions will begin to form which could impair the government’s function on their own. Coupled with the Hands…”

“A week.” Darling rubbed his chin in thought. “This is gonna be a no-sleep night for me, then. Let me head back to the Guild and rule out some options; I want to be sure what we’re stepping into before we take the Emperor near it.”

“Is your Guild involved in a lot of things that physically dangerous in the city?” Panissar demanded.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Darling said with a shrug. “But a lot of what the Guild is involved in could be instantly escalated into a dangerous mess by putting the Emperor and Vex’s watchers anywhere near it. The underworld functions on a delicate balance, gentlemen; that’s what keeps it from affecting the lives of most citizens who don’t seek it out. If we’re going to do anything to affect that balance, we’ll do it carefully, especially given the stakes. This, I assume, is one of those spots the Hands know about?”

“Indeed,” Sharidan said, nodding. “And in theory should be safe; all of this is an added precaution, because we expect more than fear that some of them will act rashly, in spite of my orders. It should suffice for a while, though.”

“All right,” Darling replied. “A while is all I need. I’ll have something more permanent for you by morning.”


The entrance to the Wells was an unassuming sight, disguised as a small shed. Still, when the door opened, all three leaped to attention and saluted, Rook after twitching as if stung by a wasp.

Ravana stepped out, looking calm and composed as usual, if inquisitive, and swept a curious look across them. Behind her, two of her classmates followed, Scorn having to duck to get through the doorway and make room for Szith.

“Gentlemen,” Ravana said mildly. “Good evening. When Afritia said I had visitors, I confess I rather expected some of my classmates.”

“Your Grace!” Moriarty practically shouted. “We humbly thank you for taking the time to speak with us an apologize profusely for this imposition and the late hour!”

“At ease,” Ravana said with clear amusement. “All the way at ease, Private Moriarty. We’ve known each other only briefly, but it has been enough for me to be certain you would not trouble me were the matter not important.”

Behind her and to either side, the drow and demon mutely folded their arms in an eerily identical posture, framing the diminutive Duchess with the subtlest hint of menace.

Rook cleared his throat, dropping his salute. “Thanks, Duchess Madouri. And, uh, all due respect, but you can probably expect a little more bowing and scraping, ‘cos the plain truth is we came to ask a favor of you and you probably can’t even imagine how uncomfortable that is, oh gods I’m really sorry to bother you.”

She actually laughed softly. “Perhaps you’d better blurt it out before Moriarty suffers a cardiac event, then. Mr. Finchley, I have several times had the thought that your porridge is neither too hot nor too cold. Would you care to take over?”

Finchley froze, blinking. “P-porridge, your Grace?”

“An old Stalweiss fable,” she said ruefully. “My apologies, I do have something of a predilection for esoteric allusions.”

He cleared his throat. “Ah, yes, well, I’m sure it’s just one of your many charming—”

“What do you want?!” Scorn barked, making all three jump backward.

“Scorn, please,” Ravana said in the same tone of mild amusement. The demon just grunted. Szith raised one eyebrow.

Finchley took a deep breath, clearly steeling himself. “Your Grace, we would like to ask your help in acquiring legal counsel.”

“Interesting,” Ravana mused. “For what purpose?”

“Getting early discharge from the Army!” Rook blurted.

“Under circumstances which are, in the best possible interpretation, highly suspicious,” Moriarty added.

Ravana stood silently for a few seconds, taking the time to examine each of their faces in detail, before speaking. “I do say that is unexpected. Forgive me if I presume, gentlemen, but it has been my observation, in the course of our admittedly brief interactions, that all three of you find great pride and satisfaction in serving in his Majesty’s army, even if politics beyond your control have relegated you to an irrelevant backcountry nonsense post which negates any possibility of career advancement.”

“Oh, there were never any hard feelings about that,” Rook chuckled. “It’s not like any of us was gonna have career advancement anyhow. Moriarty’s the only one who even knows any regulations, and he literally cannot shoot the broad side of a barn. Funny story, we tested that.”

“After you got me drunk,” Moriarty snarled, “and let us not waste the Duchess’s time!”

“Here’s the thing, your Grace,” Finchley said. “There’s a Hand of the Emperor on campus, and the short version is, he’s gone crazy. Even Professor Tellwyrn is alarmed by how he’s been acting. But he’s a man with absolute authority. At the end of the week, if she hasn’t fixed this Sleeper problem to his satisfaction, he’s going to try to punish her by…disappearing us.”

“He used the actual words ‘never seen again,’” Rook added, gulping.

“Forgive me,” said Szith, “but…how would that punish Professor Tellwyrn?”

“It wouldn’t,” Moriarty replied, “in any way, shape, or form.”

“Finchley wasn’t kidding,” Rook added. “The man is completely off his nut.”

“So that’s our predicament,” said Finchley. “The ultimatum is probably impossible for Professor Tellwyrn to meet—she’s doing her best about it anyway, so what was even the point? And when it doesn’t happen, well… I mean, theoretically, he could just be reassigning us…”

“Our posting here is a political matter, though,” Moriarty said glumly. “We’re supposed to be out of the way. Us being stationed in the capital might have…um, repercussions.”

“Plus,” said Rook, “not to harp on this, but this guy is seriously unhinged. There is absolutely no telling what he’ll do with us. And legally? He can do any damn thing he wants.”

“How does a lawyer help you, then?” asked Szith.

“That is simple enough,” said Ravana. “The Empire is not an oligarchy, despite constant attempts by families such as mine to make it so. In a society of laws, the law can be used to challenge power on its own terms. In this case, by pressing suit over their treatment and securing early discharge on the grounds of abusive treatment by superiors, they create records, and attention. A threat like this would have to be carried out quietly; by making that impossible, they pull at least a few of its teeth. His only counter would be to declare this a matter of national security, which would bring the eyes of Imperial Intelligence onto his own misconduct. Seeking legal counsel of the kind I could connect you with is actually a very good idea, gentlemen, as it would take more than the common run of lawyer to pull this off. I am more concerned by your allegation that a Hand of the Emperor has become unstable. The implications are positively staggering.”

“Even I find it hard to believe,” Szith agreed. “The Hands are legendary. Their position and stability seems immutable.”

“A society is basically a collection of things we agree to believe,” Finchley said quietly. “It’s…a shape we give to what would otherwise be chaos. These things seem immutable until the moment they come crashing down, and we have to face the fact they only ever existed because everybody said so.”

Ravana cocked her head to the right, regarding him with a suddenly thoughtful expression. “Very insightful, Mr. Finchley.”

Finchley coughed awkwardly, flushing. “I, ah, well… My dad’s in the Wizard’s Guild. I grew up listening to wise old educated people chatting about life over tea.”

“I do believe my House attorneys could do what you wish,” she mused. “The first step would be to file injunctions protecting you from reprisal while you physically remove yourselves from the clutches of your superiors.”

“You can get permission to go AWOL?” Rook said in apparent delight.

Ravana gave him a vulpine smile. “With the right lawyer, Mr. Rook, one can do whatever one likes, and acquire permission retroactively. That isn’t even much of a trial, as it is within both the letter and the spirit of several laws aimed at protecting soldiers from exactly this sort of abuse. The real challenge would be contesting the orders of a Hand, which are the same as those of the Emperor, for all intents and purposes. That command cannot be gainsaid. It would have to be…interfered with, misdirected, undermined, sabotaged. Which, of course, is also within the purview of a truly good lawyer.” Her smile widened. “By which, of course, I mean a truly evil one.”

Finchley drew in a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Your Grace, I know this is a vast imposition, but we’re desperate. Could you…?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid it’s totally out of the question,” she replied, and continued when they all visibly deflated. “Not for lack of willingness to help on my part, gentlemen, but my House is still in hot water with the Silver Throne as it is. I have made progress during the last half year, but I am far from the point where I can afford to have my House attorney’s spit in a Hand of the Emperor’s eye.”

“I see,” Finchley said morosely. “Well. Again, your Grace, we’re sorry to have bothered you.”

“Now, just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand, again smiling very faintly. “I cannot afford to have my House attorneys step into this, which is exactly why I cultivate contact with highly effective, highly disreputable legal firms in both Tiraas and Madouris. One never knows when an inconvenience such as this will arise. I can put you in touch with the perfect person by telescroll. However,” she said quickly as all three perked up and Rook opened his mouth, “no one fitting that description can be simply approached from the street, as it were. Such a firm will require an introduction from an established client, and proof that their rather significant remuneration is assured.”

Rook blew out a sigh. “Welp, there’s that. Like the man said, m’lady, we’re sorry for bothering you.”

“You three have quite the penchant for getting ahead of yourselves,” Ravana said with amusement. “I’ll take care of everything. The telescroll office is closed, but I can have orders dispatched and funds procured by noon tomorrow. By dinner, we can have you on a caravan to the capital, out of this Hand’s immediate reach, and with the support of a powerful ally.”

“Your Grace, we cannot ask you to do that,” Moriarty said firmly.

“Man, we literally just asked her to do that,” Rook retorted, jabbing him with an elbow.

Moriarty stepped away from him, setting his jaw. “Asking for help from her personal lawyers is asking for a big favor—that’s bad enough. Asking her to pay for some lawyer in Tiraas… That’s asking for money. A lot of money. It’s out of the question!”

“We are, of course, deeply grateful for the offer, your Grace,” Finchley said, making a shushing motion at them. “I have to tell you, though, the three of us combined have basically no prospect of ever being able to pay you back.”

“I’m not in the habit of loaning money,” Ravana replied, “except after negotiating a suitable interest rate and securing collateral. You may consider this a gift, gentlemen. A favor for friends, if you will.”

“I…see,” Finchley said slowly. “I’m… Forgive me, I don’t wish to be rude, but I wouldn’t have thought you’d care about us all that—”

“Finchley!” Moriarty shouted, aghast. “Do not insult the Duchess!”

Ravana actually laughed. “Oh, not at all, Private Moriarty. I’d suggest a little more circumspection when speaking to nobles in the future, Mr. Finchley, but your point is well taken indeed. It is rare that powerful aristocrats pause their own business to grant expensive favors to passing acquaintances. When you see that, you should always look for the hidden agenda.”

“I, uh…oh.” Rook looked over at the others. “Um, can you guys think of anything safe to say to that? Because I got nothin’.”

“In this case, you may be assured it is nothing that will bode ill for you,” Ravana said, smiling. “Scorn, you are developing a decent mind for politics. Can you see the advantage for me in this?”

“I really, really can’t,” Scorn admitted, scowling. “These boys, I like them well enough, but they aren’t good for much.”

“And that’s our epitaph right there,” Rook said, grinning.

“This situation with the Hand,” Szith said softly, “cuts to the very heart of the Imperial government. Something of great import must be happening in Tiraas, something which will cause ripples of change. If you ignore it, it will wash over you, and perhaps push you under. If you pick a side, you run the risk of being wrong. But if you intervene subtly, you can deny involvement if ends badly, but take credit if it ends well.”

“Bravo, Szith,” Ravana said approvingly. “You have good political instincts, yourself.”

“In Tar’naris, one needs those to survive,” the drow replied, face as impassive as always. “The mighty are often not careful where they place their feet. One must be adroit to avoid being stepped on.”

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, turning her sly little smile on the three baffled-looking soldiers, “indeed one must.”

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12 – 13

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

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

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

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

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

“Again, your Majesty—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” she said neutrally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How dangerous is it?” Milanda asked suddenly.

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

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

“Exactly so,” Eleanora agreed, nodding back.

“Now just a moment,” Sharidan began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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12 – 9

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“Afternoon!”

Scorn frowned, looking sidelong at the man who approached her with a greeting and a cheery wave. “I don’t know you. What are you doing here?”

“And it’s nice to meet you too, Scorn,” he said amiably, falling into step beside her. Considering her legs were three quarters the length of his entire body, he had to practically jog to match her pace, but for all that he kept his knowing smile in place and seemed not at all out of breath, or otherwise discomfited. “It is Scorn, I assume? I mean, I flatter myself that if there was somehow another Rhaazke demon attending this or any Imperial university, I’d know about it. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions.”

She came to an abrupt stop, turning to glare down at him.

“This is not an Imperial university,” Scorn stated, “and Professor Tellwyrn says I am allowed to throw reporters off the mountain. There is a sign posted by the gates this semester. You consent to these terms by coming in here.”

“Yes, I saw,” he said, his grin actually widening slightly. “Real classy. But no, I’m not a reporter. Inspector Fedora, Imperial Intelligence.” He turned back his lapel momentarily, flashing a silver gryphon badge at her.

“I do not need to talk to Imperials,” she said sharply. “Tellwyrn does not answer to the Empire. I am a student here.”

“Well, Scorn, there are needs, and then there are needs,” he said lightly. “You can blow me off, sure, but I think you’ll find—”

He made no effort to dodge as she bent forward and grabbed, nor did he resist, passively allowing her to hike him off the ground by the neck. The Inspector dangled in her grasp, regarding her sardonically, while she glared and bared her fangs.

“Listen closely, annoying tiny man,” Scorn growled. “You are bothering me, and I don’t have to hkraasf it. I get a little annoyed with you, maybe I just toss you off the mountain. I get very annoyed, I take you to Professor Tellwyrn and you learn all about not being a dumbass on her lawn.”

“I’m here at Tellwyrn’s invitation, if that matters to you,” he said, his voice only slightly strained by the grip around his neck.

Scorn narrowed her eyes. “That is the bull shit.”

Fedora huffed a soft laugh. “By all means, go ask her. And as for you and I and questions, this isn’t even about you, Scorn. I’m looking for answers about the sleeping curse.”

“I know nothing of that!” she barked.

“Good,” he replied, smiling disarmingly. “Then we needn’t have a problem. Mind setting me down?”

She stared at him a moment longer before complying, more abruptly than was necessary.

“Thanks,” he said without a trace of irony, straightening his coat. “Here’s the thing, Scorn: I’m not really considering you as a significant suspect. But the facts are, we’re looking at infernal magic as a very likely vector for this thing, and it’s of a craft and style which is hitherto unknown and has so far defeated the efforts of some of the best magic users alive to even examine it. And here you are, the world’s only resident Rhaazke. A hitherto almost unknown demon species, known to be extremely powerful, both physically and magically. You see why this is—”

“I know nothing about that!” she snarled, taking an aggressive step toward him.

Fedora just looked placidly up at her. “Okay, I believe you. But I answer to Imperial Intelligence, as I said, and think about how all this looks to them. If I can’t bring them something, some kind of alibi for you, you’re likely to end up as a major suspect no matter what I say. And I’ve gotta warn you, young lady, getting aggressive with the first person who comes asking you questions about this makes you look guilty as hell. So how about we help each other out, here?”

She bared her teeth and drew in a deep breath as if preparing to start shouting, but quite suddenly the tension drained from her powerful shoulders, and she squinted suspiciously.

“You believe me? Why?”

“Motive,” he said promptly. “Personality. Circumstance. There’s no benefit to you and substantial potential loss in stirring up trouble here, and if you were the type to do so just for shits and giggles, it’s hard for me to credit that it would’ve taken you this long to start. No, this is a formality. But I do need some details from you, Scorn. And who knows? Somewhere in your extra-dimensional knowledge of magic, there may even be a tidbit we can use to put a stop to whoever’s casting this curse.”

“What if they come at you next?” she demanded.

Fedora’s smile widened to a broad, distinctly malicious grin. “You really are an innocent, aren’t you, Schkhurrankh? Or at least, you’re no mastermind.”

“If you are just to insult me,” she began.

“Look at me,” he ordered. “Look closely. Use your senses. Get a good whiff.”

She was already inspecting him with more attention than before, and at that, her eyes suddenly widened and she took a step back, hands balling into fists.

“Yeah,” Fedora drawled, “let’s just say I am not particularly worried about being struck by the Sleeper. Now. Why don’t we stroll over to someplace a bit quieter—”

“I have class,” she said curtly, stepping backward again.

“Oh?” The Inspector raised an eyebrow. “It’s rather late in the afternoon for—”

“I have extra classes,” Scorn snapped, “tutoring. Because I missed the last semester of classes, and also twenty years of knowing how this world is work—how it works. I have to catch up. I am going to my teacher now. After, I will find Professor Tellwyrn and as if you are allowed here and I am to answer your questions. If she say yes, then we will talk. If she say no…” Scorn leaned down till her slitted eyes bored into his from less than a foot away. “I will pull all your limbs off like an ant, and watch you try to squirm around. Yes? Good.”

“It’s a date,” Fedora said, tipping his hat to her.

She snorted nearly hard enough to loosen it, then turned and stalked off down the path.

“Be seeing you real soon, princess,” he murmured, watching her go.


“Smile, dear,” Eleanora murmured, squeezing his arms.

Sharidan gave her a sidelong look. “About what?”

Her own lips quirked in faint amusement, prompting a responding smile from him. In truth, it was not their wont to go about beaming with beneficence. Their public facades were very carefully crafted: he maintained an aspect of serene calm, while she carried herself with sternness hinting at the possibility of incipient executions. Good guard, bad guard. The “smile” thing had been a joke, but she was right. He’d been allowing weariness and worry to creep into his expression, and that would not do.

“Are you all right?” she asked even more softly.

He squeezed her hand in return. “Yes, just a little overtired. I didn’t sleep well.”

“Then do so tonight,” she said, still softly, but firmly. “You know you can’t let yourself—”

“Yes, I know.” He patted her hand, giving her another small smile.

Their entourage as they returned to the harem wing of the Palace was as small as usual, which was still not insignificant. Simple protection mandated escort by one Hand of the Emperor and four Imperial Guards, arranged in a defensive formation surrounding the Imperial couple; this deep inside the Palace, they were purely practical, not an honor guard. Not that he had ever been attacked this deep in the palace, but his grandfather had, and that at the instigation of an Archpope less powerful and hostile to the Throne than the current one. A steward also accompanied them a few steps ahead, and two servants in the rear, just in case they should happen to need something between the throne room and their private apartments. Not all the weight and authority of the Silver Throne was able to put a stop to some customs; Sharidan had ended several of his mother’s more excessive practices, but his seneschal had flatly put his foot down on the subject of even risking the Emperor’s momentary discomfort when hundreds of individuals were actively employed to see to the running of the Palace. At Eleanora’s wry observation that they were at least helping fuel the economy, he had given in.

The steward picked up his pace, moving ahead to open the doors to the harem wing for them. The two Imperial Guards standing at attention to either side saluted, but did not otherwise stir, as was proper. Sharidan nodded to each of them in passing; they kept their eyes ahead and made no response, also as was proper. Truthfully, there was nothing obliging him to acknowledge military personnel only doing their duty, and it wasn’t as if he paused to speak with every soldier in every formation he passed. In his opinion, though, failing to show basic regard for people serving him when he was that close was what made the difference between a healthy reserve and the kind of aloofness which made rulers dangerously out of touch.

The grand entrance hall of the wing was clearly a seraglio in the old style, with a sunken middle lined with rugs and cushions, and a profusion of potted plants and hanging curtains arranged to grant privacy. The harem’s original designers had doubtless envisioned this space with concubines lounging decoratively about, and to be sure, under some previous rulers this had been the case. Sharidan and Eleanora, however, didn’t keep enough women between them to fill the room, and none of their paramours were merely decorative. The wing also housed a library, gymnasium, and even a small observatory, not to mention rooms where visiting officials could be entertained. To share a bed with the Emperor or Empress, one was expected to be sharp of mind and useful to the Imperial administration.

At the moment, only Milanda was present; the current acknowledged favorite, she took it upon herself to act in a wifely manner toward him in the privacy of this wing, where Eleanora let that facade drop. She now stepped forward with a smile and a graceful curtsy, and Sharidan had to smile back, taking her hand and laying a gentle kiss upon her knuckles.

“Welcome back, my lord,” she murmured.

Eleanora cleared her throat. “His Majesty,” she said pointedly, “has seen fit to exhaust himself in the service of his people. He requires to fully rest this evening.”

“I shall see to it that he does, your Majesty,” Milanda replied demurely, earning a nod of acknowledgment. She was only demure with Eleanora, who generally approved of but did not personally like her. Not for the first time, Sharidan counted his blessings that he enjoyed as much peace as he did in his home.

Eleanora had stepped away, giving him a final pat on the shoulder, and now glided toward the hall leading to her own rooms. Milanda slipped her arm through his, looking coquettishly up at him through her lashes in a way which made his blood begin to warm. She had a very effective way of ensuring he slept well, and to judge by the way she pressed herself to his side, she clearly planned to get an early start.

He had absolutely no intention of disobliging her. But first, last, and always, he was still Emperor.

“The matter of—”

“Will keep,” Eleanora said with clear exasperation, stopping and turning to give him a look. “The elves, the dwarves, the Sifanese, the Wizard’s Guild, the bards, that absurd business in Last Rock, and all the thousand other things going on are being attended to. Sharidan, I love the responsibility you feel toward your people, but I grow tired of explaining that you serve them poorly by wearing yourself down. You employ the best people alive to administer your Empire. They will manage all the ongoing situations while you have a well-earned respite; if something arises which demands your attention, they will come to inform you. They are all of them competent enough to know such a situation if it appears.” She tilted her head forward as if to look at him over nonexistent spectacles, and once again he regretted confiding the effect on him that gesture had had when his mother had habitually done it. “Let it be.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sharidan said wryly, turning to the servants waiting by the door toward his own chambers and slipping an arm around Milanda’s waist. “Some wine and fruit, please. Oh,” he added, shifting toward the Hand of the Emperor standing guard a few feet away, “and in the case of the ongoing operation in Rodvenheim, with all respect to my lady wife, I decline to wait for Lord Vex’s judgment to decide I should be informed. The moment word of progress appears, it is to be brought to me.”

The Hand’s face abruptly snapped toward him, scowling. “It is being tended to!” the man barked. “We know our duty. Have patience.”

Silence and total shock descended.

The Hand turned again to resume his constant, blank-faced survey of the room, as if a threat my spring out of any shadow—and as if nothing had just transpired. Everyone else, however, stared at him. Sharidan and Eleanora, as much politician as feeling human being by that point in their careers, kept impassive, though in the glance they exchanged he discerned her shock as clearly as his own. Milanda was a veteran courtier herself, and maintained her own outward equanimity, but her sudden stiffness against him told a different story. The Imperial Guards present had all shifted stance, wide-eyed and uncertain, and two had half-raised their staves. The servant about to leave to fetch the Emperor’s wine and fruit had frozen, gaping at the Hand of the Emperor in horror.

Hands did not speak to their Emperor that way.

They simply did not.

“Of course,” Sharidan said pleased by the mildness of his tone, then turned and added offhandedly to the servant. “Oh! Bring a carafe of coffee, as well.”

He squeezed Milanda, even as he met Eleanora’s resigned stare. He had no idea what this meant, but it meant something, and it was clearly not a thing he could afford to ignore.

Rest would have to wait.


Afternoon was fading into dusk as they neared the town.

“I’m telling you, it’s too late,” Aspen said petulantly. “Humans are fussy about their diurnal rhythms. You can’t just visit them during sleeping time, they get all grumpy.”

“Yes,” Ingvar said, giving her an amused smile and reaching out to pat her back. “Yes, I think you’re right. Well, I really thought we were making better time. Here we are, though.”

“How come you think faster time’s better time?” she asked. “We came here, we got here. There’s plenty of tomorrow to go say hello. The elves were right, humans are way too obsessed with being speedy. Time’s just time, is all.”

“Elves, like you, have forever in which to live,” he said. “We have to do things while we can.”

The look she shot him was filled with sudden dismay, and he found himself feeling uncomfortable under her regard. It wasn’t the first time, lately. It was simple fact that she could live more or less indefinitely, while he had only the usual span of decades, but Aspen seemed to be having trouble with the idea. Darling’s warning about the nature of her growing attachment to him sprang once more to the forefront of his mind.

“So,” he said, more to fill the silence than anything, “would you like to go into town and get a room for the night?”

“Is that a joke?” she asked, her momentary unhappiness gone in the scathing tone she so enjoyed employing with him. “Dryads aren’t allowed in human towns, as people keep reminding me, and you know very well both of us are more comfortable in the wilderness than in beds.”

“Once again, you’re right,” he said solemnly, rather enjoying the satisfaction on her face. She loved being right, and loved even more having him acknowledge it. “The tallgrass isn’t quite the wilderness either of us prefers, though. I miss trees.”

“Present company excepted?” she asked with a grin.

“Of course.”

“Yeah, well… Still beats being under a roof.”

“I have to agree,” he replied, hitching up his pack, then turned his back on Last Rock and the looming mountain beyond it. “Well. Let’s backtrack a little bit, then. If you’re going to camp close to a town, I find it’s best not to camp too close. People range about, and it can be awkward if they trip over you in the dark.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” she muttered, following him.

They were content with silence and each other’s company, by this point in their travels together. It wasn’t any particular attunement to her that enabled him to sense her mood, though; Aspen wore her every passing feeling right on her face. As they walked and the tallgrass blazed red around them with the deepening sunset, she gazed glumly at the ground in front of her feet, a pensive little frown now and again flickering across her features.

“It’ll be all right,” Ingvar said quietly. “Trust me. She’s your sister. She’ll understand. Just from what you told me, I’m certain she loves you.”

“I’m…not worried about that,” Aspen said, then heaved a deep sigh. “It isn’t her. It’s me. I… She was right, Ingvar. Juniper was right about all the stuff I called her crazy over. I just don’t know how to face her.”

He moved closer and draped an arm over her shoulders. She leaned against him, not slowing their pace.

“Then don’t think of it as facing her,” he advised. “I bet the first thing she’ll do is hug you. Everything will seem simpler after that.”

“I guess.” He felt her nod against his shoulder. “Not just that, though. We’re going to see the Arachne. Nothing about that is gonna be comfortable. Never is.”

He chuckled. “Well, I’m sure you’re right on that point.”

He wasn’t in a position to see her smile, but he knew she did, and it lightened his own mood.


She saw him coming, of course. Approaching visitors were high on the list of things she instructed the system to inform her of. Naturally, she had to order the panel to go dark in preparation for his arrival. For the first time she regretted it; there had never before been anything ongoing which was worth paying attention to. Obviously, though, letting him observe her using the system was out of the question. If they ever found out she could, her only source of diversion would dry up. They didn’t have a lot of control over the sub-OS, but they could probably influence it enough to lock her out.

The hiss of the facility’s inner door was just audible from her cell, as were his gradually approaching footsteps. Moments after entering, Sharidan Tirasian passed into her view from the approach corridor. It had been beyond her just what the practical effects of the ongoing tweaks to the jury-rigged dryad/Hand system would be, but to judge by the Emperor’s expression, they had begun. It wasn’t often that he visited without one of his pets actually with him.

“Trouble?” she asked mildly.

He stopped, turning his head just enough to study her. She never usually spoke to him. This was risky, hinting that she had access to information in here, but it was worth it for the sudden, clear discomfiture she inflicted. She didn’t even care to play mind games with people as a rule. That was what they got for locking her up with nothing to keep herself entertained.

A politician born and raised, he was impressively impassive; she could not at all follow his train of thought based on his expression, and she’d observed enough people over the millennia to have a pretty good read on human emotions.

“Are you comfortable?” he asked suddenly, and she had to admit she was impressed. The clever boy had actually managed to surprise her.

“No,” she said with a shrug. “You could give me things to make me comfortable. You’d have to open the cell, though.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Hmm.” Languidly, she blinked. “You actually are, aren’t you? Such a sweet boy. Not at all like your predecessor.”

His unreadable eyes remained on her for a bare moment longer, then he turned without a word, proceeding down the hall toward the dryads.

She began pacing as soon as he was gone. The panel, of course, she left dark, and would until he was safely out of the facility and in the elevator back to his palace. Still… This was only beginning. Something really interesting was bound to come of all this, sooner or later.

Her chance was coming, she could feel it.

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10 – 30

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“It was simply an attack of opportunity,” Lord Vex informed the Imperial couple, who were both studying the newspapers laid out on their breakfast table. “Embarrassing Bishop Snowe won’t yield any significant dividends, and anyway she quickly regained control of the crowd. I’ve had my people in Vrin Shai keeping track of her whole group; one saw the opportunity last night and took it, which I approve. The significant aspect of this is that it demonstrates she is there on her own, not on assignment from the Archpope.”

“How so?” the Emperor inquired.

“She was unaware of the content of those newspapers,” Vex replied. “After the effort that had to have gone into placing the Archpope’s agenda into them, seeing stories run that so neatly countered it is a serious matter, and Justinian is too smooth to have failed to notice, or to be so easily tripped up. He would not permit anyone operating on his agenda to be so out of touch. Thus, Snowe is assisting Syrinx for her own purposes.”

“Hm,” Eleanora mused. “And what do you make of that?”

“It’s too early to tell anything definitive, or useful. At present, my general policy toward Syrinx is to leave her alone.”

“You considered it established that she was deep in Justinian’s camp the last time we spoke of it,” the Empress said sharply.

“Indeed, your Majesty,” Vex answered, “but we must consider why each of his inner circle are there. Snowe is personally and ideologically loyal to Justinian, Varanus speaks loyally for a cult which also backs the Archpope, and Darling is playing all factions against each other for his own purposes. He and Syrinx are the angles I will use when it is time to act against Justinian directly; that woman has no true interest in anything but herself. For that reason, I choose not to risk antagonizing her at this time. The recent trouble that caused her to be exiled to Viridill indicates she still has a vindictive streak.”

“With regard to that,” said the Emperor, finally looking up from the newspaper, “your report on the matter suggested an internal Avenist shake-up that might end with Shahai or Locke permanently fulfilling Syrinx’s role. Does that factor into your calculations?”

“Very much so, your Majesty. If Syrinx ends up retaining her position, it won’t do to irritate her; if she does not, it’s not worthwhile to invest in her. Frankly, I would prefer either of the elves you mentioned, but we will work with whatever resources are available. It is far too early to consider moving openly and aggressively against Justinian, but when that time comes, turning the cults against his Church will necessarily be a central aspect of the plan. Having the Avenists and Eserites positioned to strike at the heart of his organization will serve us well on that day.”

“It seems to me,” said Eleanora as she pushed aside the paper to reach for her teacup, “that getting these stories into the papers is a far greater victory than anything involving Snowe. This was admirably quick work, Quentin.”

“Thank you, your Majesty,” he said with a languid little smile. “And I concur with your assessment. Momentarily tripping up Bishop Snowe was merely one sign of our success, and one of the less important.”

“How did you counteract Justinian’s influence on the newspapers?” asked the Emperor, smiling thanks at Milanda when she stepped forward to refill his teacup.

“Justinian thinks in terms of power and force,” said Vex. “He has leveraged several factors to maintain a hold on the papers: their near-infiltration by the Black Wreath, the protection of the blessings the Church provided after that, and especially the financial benefit of their association with Bishop Snowe. A newspaper only looks monolithic from the outside, however, and the print media as a whole barely do at all. It is not in their nature to all point in one direction; there is significant infighting within each editorial staff, and deep rivalries between papers. A good many editors and reporters rather resent their reliance on Snowe, and virtually everyone resents having the Archpope dictate to them.” He smiled and blinked slowly, a distinctly catlike expression. “Intelligence services and newspapers have in common that we attract Veskers; as many as half my staff are affiliated with that faith. I am in a firsthand position to know that there is little bards hate more than being told what to say. Rather than trying to attack Justinian’s influence on the papers directly, I have simply had my people place the information we want disseminated in front of elements within the media whom I have identified as particularly resentful of the Church’s heavy hand.”

“Elegantly done,” the Emperor said with approval, picking up the paper again. “And these? The two lead stories are interviews with this Punaji weather-witch and the dwarven inventor. Surely that wasn’t all…”

“Indeed not, your Majesty. They were simply the two whose stories most quickly got out, which has as much to do with luck as anything I did. We targeted and nudged a selection of carefully chosen University graduates.”

“Among that crowd,” Eleanora pointed out, “there are likely several who saw immediately what you were doing.”

“I don’t doubt it, your Majesty. They can also see where their own interests lie; some may be curious enough to come to Tiraas, exploring these political currents, but I anticipate no hostile action toward us. Others will get their stories out there in the days to come, as they and various reporters follow the trails of breadcrumbs I’ve placed between them.”

“Is it your intention to replace Justinian’s hold on the newspapers with our own?” Sharidan asked.

“That would be quite difficult, your Majesty, and in my opinion also a mistake. As I said, it is not a natural state of affairs for every paper to tell the same story in the same voice. The great masses of people will think whatever they are told to think by whoever they respect most, but those who are clever enough to influence the game will have taken note of the recent spate of attacks on the University, and realized it signified an organized campaign. For now, it better serves our interests to re-assert the natural back-and-forth between differing opinions among the media. I will, of course, be taking steps to promote this theme among those who speak up on behalf of the University; I chose these candidates carefully to suggest it.”

“Yes, I noticed that,” Sharidan agreed. “Both of these seemed to go on at some length about how their noble-born and otherwise powerful classmates benefited from associating with commoners like themselves.”

“Indeed, your Majesty. A good propaganda campaign establishes a narrative; that’s why bards are so attracted to the business, I suspect. The story we are telling here is an egalitarian one about elevating common folk into heroes, and teaching the more highly-born to appreciate the lot of the common man. I am assisted in this in that it happens to be more or less true; it was probably not her intention, but Professor Tellwyrn has liberally seeded her student body with some rather humble voices, and their influence has been noted in the conduct of many of the University’s noble-born graduates. Nor did she invent the tactic. Your Majesties are aware that history’s more successful noble lineages, like the Punaji royal family and House Madouri, have always taken steps to keep themselves integrated with their subjects.”

“The Madouris are simply more careful than most aristocrats about inbreeding,” the Empress said with mild distaste. “They breed their children with the same care they do racing thoroughbreds. Still, your point is well-taken.”

“How do you intend to proceed?” the Emperor inquired, pausing to take a sip of tea.

“For the time being, as is,” said Vex, folding his hands behind his back. “Though I am observing and managing it somewhat, the rest of this campaign will be an organic process of the University alumni I contacted coming forward and adding their voices to the debate. More direct action may become appropriate depending on what the Archpope does, but for now, things proceed satisfactorily. However, there is the other matter about which I asked to speak with you. An opportunity has unexpectedly arisen to rap Justinian’s knuckles far more sharply.”

Sharidan and Eleanora exchanged a glance, then leaned froward in unison. “Do tell,” said the Emperor.

“First thing this morning, I received a communication from Professor Tellwyrn. Much to my surprise, she was, in fact, relaying a message from Gabriel Arquin.” Again, that feline smile spread across Vex’s features. “I believe your Majesties will like this.”


“What is this stuff?” Trissiny asked warily, frowning into the cup of thin black liquid Ruda had just poured for her. A large pot of the stuff sat next to the plate of sandwiches on their breakfast table, filling the air with an unfamiliar but delightful scent.

“It’s called coffee,” Ruda said cheerfully. “And it smells a hell of a lot better than it tastes. But it’s a powerful stimulant that makes black tea look like water. I figured some of us would be grateful for the boost, since some of us were up late knocking over and then fixing up the town, before Arquin requested everybody meet for an early breakfast.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Gabriel said, wincing. “We need to have a pretty important discussion, and as soon as possible… But by the time we got back to campus last night, everybody was pretty dead on their feet. And also, not everybody was present.”

“I note you did not invite any of the freshmen,” Shaeine observed.

“Yeah,” he nodded, “and we may wanna bring them up to speed, depending on what we decide here. But I thought, for now, it’d be best to keep this between us.”

“Hlk!” Everyone turned to stare at Teal, who was in the process of setting down her cup and making a face. “…sorry. It’s not the first time I’ve had coffee, but it always takes me by surprise. I mean, that smell, and then it tastes like a mud puddle under a salted turd factory.”

“I like it!” Scorn proclaimed, holding out a suddenly empty cup. “Almost like home! You are too afraid of strong flavors in this world. More, please?”

“Uh…” Ruda eyed the towering demon up and down warily. “I’m not sure that’s a great idea…”

“It’s probably fine,” said Fross. “She’s got a lot of body mass, and anyway the kinds of adaptations that make creatures resistant to infernal corruption also makes them less susceptible to mind-altering stimuli in general, so Rhaazke likely have a high tolerance.”

“By the same token,” said Ruda, “I’m not sure I want to see a Rhaazke on a coffee high.” She poured Scorn another cup, however.

“I’m really sorry I wasn’t there to help, Triss,” said Fross. “I sensed it when the wards were triggered, but something was really off about… Oh, uh, I guess Gabriel should go first, since he asked for the meeting. But this may be urgent, too, so we should talk about it before we go to class.”

“Duly noted,” said Gabe, who had touched neither his sandwich nor his coffee. He folded his arms on the table, drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh. “All right, well… I guess I have to start by apologizing. I did something pretty stupid. And we came scarily close to somebody getting hurt because of it.”

“Note the lack of gasps following that confession,” Ruda said dryly.

“Ruda,” said Toby, frowning at her. “Quit. Okay?”

“Fine, fine. Spit it out, Arquin, how bad did you fuck up this time.”

Gabriel tightened his mouth for a moment, then raised his eyes to look at all of them. “Okay, well… The truth is, I’ve been keeping information back from you. I know more than I’ve let on about what’s happening around here.”

“Why?” Juniper asked, frowning.

“Mostly because…I thought some of you would be mad about how I was getting it. I’ve, uh, asked the valkyries to follow people around and report on what they were doing.”

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed, her eyes darting nervously about. “Follow people? Us?”

“No, no!” Gabriel said hastily. “None of you, don’t worry. But, um… The two new priestesses in town. Lorelin Reich and Sister Takli. And…the Black Wreath warlocks who’ve been messing with us.”

A short silence descended, in which they all stared at him.

“Annnnd,” Ruda drawled at last, “the excellent reason we’re just now hearing about this would be…?”

“It’s not an excellent reason,” Gabriel said glumly, “it’s a dumb one, and I only did it because I wasn’t thinking it through. Yesterday I went to talk with Val about it, because I really didn’t like keeping things from you guys and it was weighing on me even though it had seemed like the right thing for a while, and… Well, he kind of pointed out that by controlling information I was trying to control the group. Which…was a shitty thing to do. I was just afraid somebody would do something abrupt and get hurt, and didn’t stop to consider what a jackass I was being by making assumptions like that and having the gall to manipulate you. So… I’m sorry, everyone. That was stupid as hell. I didn’t mean any insult or harm, I just messed up.”

“Okay,” said Ruda with a shrug. “Apology accepted. What’d you learn?”

Everyone turned to stare at her.

“Um, what?” Gabriel asked uncertainly.

Ruda raised an eyebrow. “Oh, I see how it is. Ruda’s the temperamental one who cusses everybody’s ear off over the slightest thing, right? So that’s what you’re expecting here.”

“Uh, that’s kind of true, though,” Fross pointed out.

“Fine, you want details?” Ruda planted an elbow on the table and pointed at Gabriel. “You, Arquin, are a dumbass. You never think this shit through and you’re always fucking up one thing or another. But here’s the deal I’ve noticed about you: it’s never malicious, and it’s always an exciting new way of fucking up.”

“That’s fantastic, thanks,” he muttered.

“It is pretty fuckin’ fantastic, and shut your grumblehole till I finish. You make new and different mistakes because you don’t repeat the old ones. You learn. Annoying as it frequently is to clean up after you… Hell, you’re doin’ constantly better and you try. Can’t fairly ask a lot more than that of anybody, now can we?”

“Not for the first time,” Shaeine observed, “Ruda’s viewpoint is surprisingly insightful. I cannot say I don’t somewhat resent your actions, Gabriel; I had thought that by this point there was more trust between us.”

“I’m sorry,” he said miserably. “I’ll make it up to you, somehow.”

The priestess gave him one of her warm little smiles. “I am sufficiently confident of that to let go of the matter and trust it will happen.”

“Agreed,” Toby said firmly. “I’m glad you’re doing better, Gabe, but seriously. Do not try something like that again. Failing to share information in dangerous situations is what gets people badly hurt, or worse.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel said, nodding. “Agreed. Again, I’m sorry.”

Another lull fell; several of them shifted to look at Trissiny, who was staring fixedly at Gabriel. She finally glanced aside, meeting their glances, then shook her head and spoke in an oddly quiet tone. “Ruda’s right.”

“Well,” Gabriel said with a hesitant grin, “thank—”

“What did you learn?” she interrupted.

He broke off, staring at her, then blinked and cleared his throat. “Right, well… Okay, there are two things that I think are important. First of all, the Wreath have been a little careless because they’re used to stealth magic and shadow-jumping away. The stealth can work on my girls, but valkyries can actually follow a shadow-jump, which I don’t think the Wreath knows. They’ve been watching conversations that took place where the Wreath thought they were in private. And apparently, they don’t mean us any harm.”

“That is difficult to credit,” Shaeine observed.

“Not very so,” Scorn disagreed, gesticulating with her again-empty coffee cup. “We have here Vadrieny and Teal, yes? They are very important to the Wreath. Not to be trusted, these warlocks, but they will not do harm to us on purpose. Manipulate us, yes.”

“That’s…pretty much the long and the short of it, actually,” said Gabriel slowly, giving Scorn a thoughtful look. “What they’re trying to do is goad us into chasing them so they can lead us into learning things about the Universal Church.”

“That does fit,” Toby said pensively.

“It worked,” Trissiny muttered, staring at the table.

“Here’s the thing, though,” Gabriel went on. “I think Tellwyrn is allowing this.”

“What?” Juniper frowned heavily. “You’ve gotta be kidding. You know how Tellwyrn gets when people threaten her students!”

“However,” Shaeine countered, “if they are specifically not threatening us, and in fact trying to help us learn something…”

“Oh, I could totally see that,” Fross chimed. “I mean, c’mon, think about the things she has us do. We keep getting sent into politically volatile situations to try and fix them, not to mention dangerous stuff like the Crawl and the Golden Sea. And these are supposed to be educational excursions. Tellwyrn wouldn’t be shy about letting the Wreath play around with us, as long as she had some control.”

“And she does,” Gabriel agreed. “Specifically, she’s got Professor Ekoi riding their tails. There was a bit of a lull before last night while the warlocks tried to figure out just what Ekoi was and what to do about it. It seems they actually managed to speak with her, though, and apparently reached some kind of agreement, because…” He trailed off, wincing. “Well, then there was last night.”

“So,” Teal said, frowning deeply, “we can consider this…a University-sanctioned activity?”

“How utterly typical,” Trissiny growled.

“Tellwyrn, it sounds she is a good teacher,” Scorn observed. “The world is not easy, even a soft one like this. Best to learn hard things in hard ways, while there is someone to watch over and keep you safe, yes? Then when you go out to the world, you are not surprised by how hard it hits.”

“I believe that is Tellwyrn’s educational philosophy precisely,” said Shaeine.

“Let’s back up for a moment,” said Toby. “Gabe, you said the Wreath are trying to lead us by the nose into something about the Universal Church?”

“Well, that’s the other thing,” Gabriel said grimly. “You remember our last discussion about this, after Bishop Snowe’s little stunt? We decided the Archpope was being sneaky, but he was probably a lower priority than the Wreath. Well, Vestrel and her sisters had been keeping tabs on those two new priestesses, as I said. First off, both of them are Universal Church loyalists, sent here specifically by Justinian.”

“How certain are you of that?” Trissiny asked quietly.

“Takli has a magic mirror,” he replied. “It’s connected to another one in the Cathedral in Tiraas; Aelgrind actually watched her communicate with a handler back there. Aside from that, though, she hasn’t done anything; her assignment is to try to bring you around to the Archpope’s side, Triss.”

“Really,” Trissiny said, scowling. “And she thought yelling at me would accomplish that?”

“Under the circumstances, I could see that being a valid opening move,” said Shaeine. “You grew up in the military, Trissiny; I would assume that being spoken to sharply about your mistakes is not an unfamiliar experience for you. A campaign such as that would take considerable time. She probably expects to build a relationship with you over the course of months or years.”

“Creepy,” Juniper muttered.

“Yeah, Takli’s… Honestly, that may be creepy, but it worries me less,” said Gabriel seriously. “The real problem is Lorelin. Guys… In all honesty, I think the Wreath has a point, here, in that she’s worse than anything they’re doing.”

“Here,” Toby said firmly. “Whatever she’s done may be worse than they’re doing here. Never forget who the Black Wreath are or what they’re capable of.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel said ruefully, “I think that may be part of what tripped me up. I wanted to wait and see what they and she did, and I thought you guys would insist on going after them directly…”

“Oh, for fuck’s fucking sake!” Ruda burst out. “Arquin, what did this woman do?”

“Right, sorry,” he said, grimacing. “Well… At the higher levels of Vidian formal casting are varieties of misdirection and emotional influence that are almost like fae magic. I’ve just barely started studying this stuff; I’m nowhere near being able to do it, but I know what it is. Well, Lorelin has an apparatus set up in her private chamber that lets her extend her influence over the whole town.”

“Ohhh, I don’t think I like where this is going,” Fross whispered.

Gabriel nodded grimly. “It wasn’t specifically meant to harm, just to aid in Justinian’s propaganda campaign. The effect she’s been trying to put into place is meant to make people more emotional, more susceptible to manipulation.”

“So,” Teal said slowly, “for example… If a paladin went chasing a demon through the town, people who might otherwise take that in stride…”

“That fucking asshole,” Ruda snarled. “A priest is supposed to serve people! You don’t fucking do that to a whole town full of people!”

“I say we go right to Tellwyrn with this,” said Juniper decisively. “Last Rock may not be exactly her domain, but that could affect the students, too!”

“Actually, I already went to Tellwyrn,” said Gabriel. “The scrolltower office was closed last night, and anyway, I thought it as a little sensitive for public transmission… So I asked her to get a message to the Imperial government.”

“That is an excellent idea,” Shaeine said approvingly. “Whoever else is affected by this Lorelin Reich’s actions, that was an abusive and highly illegal magical effect to place over a whole town full of Imperial civilians.”

“Sorry for not including you guys in that,” Gabriel said hastily, “but I wanted to get it done as quick as possible, and everybody was already off to bed at that point. And yeah… I want to go down there and punch her teeth in as much as everybody else, but in this case I think it’s better to do it properly. Tellwyrn agreed. She was, uh, much less condescending than usual about it.”

“I think you still should do something,” said Trissiny. “Or say something at least, before the Empire takes over. You’re the Hand of her god.”

“True,” Gabriel admitted, frowning in thought.

“Um, I think I have something to add to that,” said Fross. “Okay, Trissiny, this is about what I was going to tell you—last night when the wards went off, the signal was really strange. It was a false demon trace, like we suspected, but there were elements to it that looked peculiar.”

“Dangerous?” Trissiny asked, frowning.

“Actually, no, not that I could see. That’s why I didn’t come help; I know you can take care of yourself and I didn’t think you were in any danger. It seemed more important to figure out what was happening, because there were layers to that spell that were clearly aimed at more subtle effects.”

“What did you learn?” asked Shaeine.

“Well!” The pixie bobbed up and down twice. “First I recognized an energy signature in the spell matrix that really jumped out at me, because the only place I’ve ever seen before is in Juniper’s aura.”

“Wait, what?” the dryad exclaimed, straightening up in alarm.

“Specifically in the block in your aura. It’s a frequency that relates somehow to Avei. See, I don’t detect divine magic directly but its presence can be inferred from how fae and arcane energies are changed by it. Took me most of the night to unravel this and study it properly, but I’m pretty sure what I found is… Okay, there’s that energy signature, right? Only it’s set up with a disruptive counter-frequency.”

“Wait, you’re saying the Black Wreath has the ability to disrupt my connection to Avei?” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Oh, no, absolutely not, that’d never work. You could maybe do that to a priest, but if you did it between a deity and her paladin, Avei would notice and step right in, which is exactly what the Wreath doesn’t want. No, it doesn’t try to sever your connection to her, but… Um, for want of a better term, agitate it. It really puzzled me, because it seemed like what it would do is diffuse her influence more broadly through your own aura. I don’t really know the specifics of how you’re linked to her, but that seems like, if anything, it would make you more in tune with her, not less.”

“Of course,” said Scorn, shrugging when everyone turned to look at her. “The Wreath, they are wanting to get a reaction, yes? Well, Trissiny is a trained warrior—maybe not crafty, but also not stupid. So if they can make her more like the big angry goddess and less like the soldier, maybe she is more easy to manipulate.”

“That’s…absolutely horrifying,” Toby breathed. “Have they always been able to do this?”

“Surely not,” said Trissiny, her eyes wide. “It has to be a new spell. I mean, if the Black Wreath could do that… Someone would have noticed before now.”

“How, though?” Gabriel asked. “Think about it. Detecting this required them to be doing it in proximity to a custom made divine-arcane fusion detection ward, under the direct attention of a mage who, being fae, is naturally sensitive to emotionally manipulative magic. How many times do you think those circumstances have lined up? And quite frankly, almost nobody gives Fross credit for being as smart as she is; it probably wouldn’t even occur to them that she could isolate and figure out that element in their spell.”

“It would be an extremely sensible spell for the Wreath to employ,” Shaeine said quietly. “Virtually no warlock is anything resembling a match for a paladin, particularly one of Avei. Yet, Hands of Avei have fallen to the Wreath in years past, usually through trickery. Any measure that could make a Hand more susceptible to their ploys would be immensely valuable to them.”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Trissiny whispered.

“And that is why you don’t turn your back on the Wreath,” Toby growled. “Whatever their intentions right now, they are still capable of doing things like this. They must absolutely not be trusted.”

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed, “but the fact remains… After these events, we pretty much can’t deny that the Archpope is also on our enemies list. Him and them, they’re apparently after the same thing: they want control of the paladins.”

“Bring them,” said Scorn, raising her chin. “Everybody bleeds the same!”

“It’s not as simple as that,” said Shaeine, nodding to her, “but at the core of that sentiment is truth. We must be prepared to contend with anyone and everyone who means us harm.”

“Uh, guys?” said Juniper hesitantly. “I know it’s kind of anticlimactic and I hate to break this up, but…we have class. We’d better get moving or we’ll be late for Tellwyrn. And she barely needs an excuse to be a jerk anyway.”

Gabriel sighed and slid off the bench. “Yeah… Well, needless to say, we aren’t done talking about this.”

“Agreed,” said Toby, rising as well. “We know what we’re dealing with, now; we need to decide on a course of action.”

They got to their feet with some stretching and groaning—it had indeed been a very long night for several of them.

“Gabriel,” Trissiny said quietly, catching his sleeve as they stepped into the rear of the line that straggled off toward Helion Hall. “Did you really think I would charge face-first at the Wreath if you told me this was going on?”

He winced. “I really wasn’t thinking in conscious terms, Triss. I’m sorry, nothing personal was meant—it was just a knee-jerk reaction. And it wasn’t just about you!”

“The rest of our class is two pacifists, two fairies, a diplomat and a competent combat strategist,” she said woodenly. “If you thought somebody was going to fly off the handle and do something violent, that pretty much leaves me, doesn’t it?”

“I didn’t—”

“And you didn’t even have to think about it,” she added, staring ahead at Toby’s back.

“Triss,” he said miserably, “this isn’t a reflection on you. I was an idiot. Please don’t be mad…”

“I don’t…think…I am,” she murmured. “I’m honestly not sure what I think. I’m…honestly not sure I’d have any right to be mad, after last night.”


There was a small rooftop terrace at the edge of Helion Hall’s large central dome, where a little round table and chair were attached to the stone roof. No stairs or other access led to it, which was hardly a barrier to many of those who dwelt on this campus. It was a signal, though: Professor Tellwyrn did not desire to share her private breakfast nook. Fortunately, most of the students never even learned it was there, otherwise a good many of them would have taken that for a challenge.

She sipped the remainder of her tea, watching the sophomore class trickle toward the building from the terrace below.

“I am extending a great deal of trust, Kaisa,” she said quietly.

“So you are!” Ekoi replied cheerfully, stepping out from behind her, where she had definitely not been a moment before. “And don’t think I haven’t noticed. I’m so proud of you!”

“I’ll accept certain risks as necessary,” Tellwyrn said bitingly, “but let’s keep the recklessness to a minimum, shall we? Last night was probably the first time in all of history that dragging Mabel Cratchley into a problem actually helped it.”

“That’s because of the dragging, Arachne,” said Ekoi, perching on the edge of the table. “You always drag people, or push them, or threaten them. If you do it properly, people will do what you want without once suspecting it wasn’t fully their own idea.”

Tellwyrn shook her head. “I am still not sanguine about this. Whatever assurances were given by this Mogul character, or Elilial herself, tolerating the Wreath’s presence here is an invitation to disaster.”

“Not, I maintain, if we manage them with care. Arachne,” the kitsune said more gently, “this will work. You’ve made progress with Trissiny, but, in truth, you’re the wrong person to reach her; you are just too much like her. I have been guiding young minds longer than you have existed—at least, as far as we know. Believe me, I know how to get through to her.”

Tellwyrn sighed. “All right, it’s not as if you haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt. But when Avei comes stomping down here to throw one of her divine fits about me letting the Wreath play with her paladin, you can talk to her. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a class.”

She vanished with a soft pop of displaced air, leaving behind the empty teacup.

Kaisa shifted her body to peer down at the approaching students, her tail waving eagerly.

“It’s a date.”

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Jenell rapped on the door a third time, her expression growing increasingly sour, and stepped back from it. As before, there was no sound from within the room.

It was still before sunrise; the sky peeking through the windows behind her was gray, but light enough to reveal the silhouettes of trees, and the shapes of the Viridill mountains beyond. She folded her arms, tapping a foot impatiently, then stopped and corrected her posture when another woman rounded the corner of the hall, strolling her way with a pastry in hand.

She was a little older than Jenell and not as pretty (a point of data she always noticed about other women, Avenist training be damned), wearing the long but clingy robes common to this temple, with a pink lotus badge at the shoulder. The Izarites here in Adhran had their sigil embroidered directly onto their robes, rather than using the enamel pins favored by the cults in Tiraas. The priestess gave her a warm smile and a nod of greeting; Jenell snapped to attention and saluted silently.

Not that she was obligated to, under the circumstances, but one of the Legionnaires stationed to guard this temple had taught her that trick the night before, after she had been cornered three times by clerics and offered everything from hugs and candy to therapy and sex. They meant well, but it got very obnoxious, very quickly. However, they wouldn’t bother a soldier they thought was on duty. Hence the saluting.

The woman passed around the corner on the other end of the hall, and Jenell scowled, stepped forward again, and rapped on the door for the fourth time.

She gave him to the slow count of ten, then raised her gauntleted fist and began hammering viciously on the wood.

It was absolutely amazing how long that went on before getting a response; by the time the door was opened from within, she was starting to expect another priest to come see what the racket was about before the room’s occupant did. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that.

Unfortunately, it immediately looked like her troubles were only beginning.

Schwartz was a wreck. The puffy bags under his eyes almost hid them, and he slumped against the door frame, apparently unable to balance on his own. He had the worst case of bed hair she had ever seen or imagined; in fact, it was almost unbelievable that he’d gotten it to stick up that much without effort and the application of some kind of product. His eyes were open unevenly, the left one barely slitted. As she took in the sight of him, he blinked, slowly, eyelids out of sync.

“Bmwlaah?” Scwhartz enunciated.

“Good morning,” she said crisply. “Time to go.”

He blinked again, more evenly this time. “Uh…bm. Carvin.”

“No, but close. You really don’t handle sleep deprivation well, do you?”

“Wha…I the…s’fin…” He paused to yawn widely enough to display molars. “Wha?”

“You’ve slept about four hours,” Jenell reported. “Based on your comments yesterday it was your second night in a row of not getting enough rest. I see we’ll have to avoid that in the future, if you’re going to be around much longer. Now get dressed, we have to go pick up the Bishop.”

“Was…saw th’elves,” he said blearily, still blinking his eyes.

“Yes,” she said patiently, “and that was the last interesting thing that happened yesterday, so I suppose I can forgive you for blurring out the subsequent details. You were half-asleep by the time we got here. You can nap in the carriage, we need to…”

She trailed off, staring. His eyes had drifted shut and he slumped against the door frame, gradually sliding forward and down. As she watched, he actually began to snore again.

Jenell sighed, gritted her teeth, and pulled off one of her gauntlets. Schwartz snorted and jerked when she thrust the tips of her forefinger and thumb into his left nostril. When she yanked out a few tiny hairs, he let out a yowl and shot upright, eyes wide and blinking.

“There,” she said. “Is that better?”

“Ow!” he protested, clutching his nose.

“Sorry,” she said, insufficiently motivated to try for a sincere tone. “It used to work on my dad when I was little. I know you’re tired and not used to it, Mr. Schwartz, but I need you to get ready and be downstairs, in the carriage, in fifteen minutes. We have to go to the Legion barracks and get Bishop Syrinx, then head back to the Abbey. And I will not be late.”

“Legion…barracks…Bishop.” Apparently marginally more alert, he peered around. “We’re not…there? She’s not here?”

“We are at the local Temple of Izara,” Jenell replied. “She left orders to pick her up by seven in the morning. That means we have to go. I would willingly break a few of your limbs to stay off Syrinx’s shit list, so believe you me I will not hesitate to drag you through the halls in whatever state of undress I find you in if you’re not down there in that carriage in fifteen. Clear?”

“Carriage,” he said, yawning hugely. “Broken limbs, yes. Fifteen. Just lemme…”

“Do,” she said curtly. “And don’t fall asleep again. You don’t want to test me on this.”

“M’kay,” he mumbled, turning to shuffle back into the room. Jenell stayed long enough to observe that he was going for the wardrobe, not the bed, before turning and striding back down the hall. She didn’t bother to shut the door. It wasn’t like anyone in this temple would be unused to the sight of a skinny man getting undressed.

On her way back to the temple’s side exit, she paused only to duck into a lavatory and thoroughly wash her hands before putting her gauntlets back on, checking her face in the mirror by habit in the process. Bags under her own eyes, though not as bad as his… She was used to functioning without much sleep, these days.

The stables were positioned around to the side of the temple, out of sight of the exquisitely manicured gardens and main courtyard out front, where guests would not have to behold such mundane trivialities as the horses that brought them—or what those horses left behind. Jenell wasn’t sure if this was due to Izarite doctrines about pleasure and relaxation, or simple old-fashioned snobbery. Likely some combination of the two. The temple did have designated parking for enchanted carriages next to its stables. Not much parking, there being only four slots, but it was something. It surprised her not in the least that some of those who frequented the Temple of Izara were wealthy enough to have such fripperies even in this district—or that the clerics would pander to them. Cults served everyone equally, in theory, but it was the rich whose donations kept things running, and the rich never let anyone forget it.

The carriage, unsurprisingly, was exactly as she had left it last night, after returning from driving the Bishop to the Legion fortress atop the hill. There was no reason it shouldn’t have been, considering the area, but Jenell had learned to assume the worst about everyone and everything, and let her life be filled with pleasant surprises. She climbed into the driver’s seat and activated the control rune, listening to the hum of the enchantments that purred to life from beneath. They were barely audible while parked.

A figure appeared in the temple door and headed toward her, waving. Jenell nodded politely back, considering repeating her salute trick for a moment, but decided against it. He was obviously coming right for her anyway, and in any case he would know her situation, having had it explained last night.

The high priest in charge of this temple had been introduced to her as Brother Nansin, no other title being given, not that she understood how Izarite rankings worked. He was a tall, slender man with broad Western features on a narrow face. Not bad-looking, but not one to turn heads. She had noticed that; it seemed the disciples of the goddess of love ought to be pretty people as a rule. This was Jenell’s first chance to spend prolonged time in their company, and found them to be generally average-looking.

“Good morning, Private Covrin,” he said politely, coming to a stop beside the idling carriage.

“Brother Nansin,” she replied. “Thank you again for your hospitality. I hope we weren’t too much of an imposition.”

“Guests are never an imposition, of any kind,” he said firmly, but with a warm smile. “The followers of Izara are here to provide for the needs of all who come to us. I appreciate Bishop Syrinx’s willingness to bring us up to date on the dangerous events unfolding. Obviously, Avei’s followers will and must take a more central role against such a threat, but it seems likely there will be many people hurting in the near future, if you are not successful in putting it to a swift end. We shall stand ready.”

Well, he was definitely a ranking priest. No one else could make a speech out of “good morning, and thanks.”

“The goddess grant it is so,” she said diplomatically. She could have tried for a solemn tone, but Izarites were supposed to be able to sense emotions and hidden motives; standing this close, he might be aware of her disinterest in the conversation. The most polite course of action seemed to be simple…politeness.

“I’m sorry you must leave us so soon,” Nansin said, still smiling. “Is your friend on the way?”

“I hope so,” Jenell said frankly. “He’s likely to be embarrassed if I have to go fetch him again.”

At that, the priest cracked a more genuine grin. It faded after as second, however, to a pleasant and calmly open look that she recognized, and she stifled a sigh. After last night, she recognized that expression.

“I feel I have to apologize for some of my brethren,” he said. “I didn’t learn until after you had retired last night that several members of the order had approached you. Obviously, they know not to bother the soldiers on duty guarding the temple, but here, a guest is a guest. I hope you weren’t made uncomfortable.”

Well. That hadn’t been quite what she was expecting.

“No harm done,” she said calmly. “I appreciate the good intentions.”

“Good,” he said, nodding, still wearing that caring almost-smile. “We have taken in Legionnaires in the past.”

Jenell went still. “Pardon?”

“Not often,” Nansin continued, “and not permanently. But situations arise from time to time in which a soldier is placed in a position that is not easily resolved through the chain of command. We have some experience in negotiating matters with the Legions to ensure they are protected from reprisal and able to return to duty. Really, it is not so difficult as one might fear. The Legions are nothing if not devoted to justice, and quick to discipline those who abuse their structure at the expense of fellow soldiers. Sometimes it just takes a little outside help to identify who is culpable, and who is a victim.”

“That’s very interesting,” she said stiffly, adopting a bored tone and turning to watch the door for Schwartz.

He followed her gaze, standing in silence for a moment. Not leaving. She repressed another sigh when he began speaking again.

“I assume you are aware of Izara’s gift to her clergy, the ability to feel the emotional needs of those around us.” Nansin hesitated for a moment before continuing, still gazing into the distance. “Of course, I mean no lack of respect to the Sisterhood or the Legions, but… It requires only being in a room with Basra Syrinx to sense that something isn’t right, there.”

He glanced up at her; Jenell stared woodenly ahead, ignoring him now.

“I was, of course, attentive to her warnings and requests when the three of you convened in my office last night,” Nansin went on. “Still, it was impossible for me not to notice, Private Covrin, the way you tense in her presence, and particularly the agitation you feel when she directs her attention at you. Obviously, that doesn’t tell me a whole story, but I have seen enough of humanity to paint a general picture—”

“Brother Nansin.” Jenell turned bodily in her seat, bending over the edge of the humming carriage and leaning down to stare flatly into his face. “Mind. Your own. Business.”

He held her gaze in silence for a long moment, then nodded. “Your privacy is sacrosanct. Anything an Izarite cleric senses in your presence will never be revealed to anyone, unless you request it. Just know, please, that we are never as trapped by circumstances as they make it seem. If you thought you had nowhere to go, Jenell, let me promise you that you can always come here.”

Jenell straightened up and stared icily at the temple’s side door, ignoring him in truth now. They were clearly past the point of politeness, and not at her instigation.

Nansin gave her another moment, then sighed very softly and bowed. “I wish you a safe journey, Private Covrin. Thank you again for the warning you brought us.”

He turned and glided away on long legs, around toward the front gardens this time, rather than back through the side door. Jenell glanced once after him, as he rounded the corner, but thereafter kept her eyes fixed on the side entrance, mentally composing herself.

Fortunately—for him—Schwartz emerged with a few minutes to spare, looking somewhat disheveled but far more functional. His hair had been wetted down and attended to, and was merely mussed rather than disastrous, and nothing was going to hide those bags under his eyes any time soon. He had managed to get into his clothes correctly, though, and was also carrying a bottle filled with dark liquid.

“Hi,” he said, clambering up beside her. “Morning. Very nice people in there, they gave me some strong tea for the trip.” He paused to yawn again. “Hope I didn’t make us late… I’d kill for a cup of coffee right now, but I expect it’s not realistic to expect that to be found outside a port city…”

“Don’t you want to ride in the back?” she said mildly, half-turning to nod at the cushioned seats behind and below.

“Oh,” he said awkwardly. “Well, uh, if it’s a problem, me being up here…?”

“I don’t care,” she said. “This bench isn’t very comfortable, though. With the lack of padding, you’ll feel every bump.”

“That’s fine, it’ll keep me awake,” he replied, managing a weak grin. “I’d just feel… Um, kind of awkward, being ferried around by myself back there, like you were my private driver. Sort of pretentious, y’know? I’ll probably hop in back when we get the Bishop.”

“Suit yourself,” she said, placing her hands on the turning wheel and thrust lever. The carriage’s hum heightened as she guided it forward.

He waited until they had exited the temple grounds and were on their way up the hill toward the fortress before speaking again.

“So… I expect you’ll find this an odd question, but…” He paused, grimacing self-consciously, and fiddled with his bottle of tea. “Why were we in the Temple of Izara?”

Jenell glanced over at him, permitting herself a small smile. “You really don’t function well without sleep, do you?”

“Well, I don’t think anyone does,” he said defensively. “It’s not just the last two days, either… I’d just finished up a research project when Sister Leraine asked me to assist the Bishop, and of course I was honored! But, you know, I’m not used to, uh, field work. Or field work and then half a night’s sleep…” Another yawn forced him to stop, and he took a long swig of tea. “Also, I could really go for some breakfast.”

“They’ll probably give us provisions at the barracks,” she said, focusing on guiding the carriage through the early morning traffic. The semi-rural townsfolk were up with the dawn, though luckily most of them weren’t on the roads yet. Other than the occasional chicken or dog, she had little trouble; the people they saw mostly wanted to stare at them. Or at the carriage, which to her amounted to the same thing.

“So, and I’m sure this was all explained last night and it just went in one ear and out the other… Uh, why were we sleeping in the Izarite temple while Bishop Syrinx went to the Legion fortress?”

“The Bishop felt it was important to inform the Izarites of the possible danger,” Jenell said, her eyes on the road ahead. “Once there, she asked Brother Nansin to put us up for the night. The reasoning, as she explained it, was that our group had clearly been targeted by our mysterious antagonist, and she was likely the primary target. In the event of an elemental attack overnight, she wanted it directed at her, in the presence of a barracks full of Legionnaires. Putting us in a separate place was a security measure, in case the worst happened; we could return to the Abbey and tell Abbess Darnassy what we discovered. The Izarite temple was ideal, since elementals are severely disadvantaged on holy ground, and Izarites in general are almost impossible to dislike, which would make such an attack less likely. At least, that was how she explained it.” She glanced over at him. “Also, where’s your rat? Did you forget her back there?”

“Oh!” Schwartz clapped a hand to his head. “Thanks for reminding me! No, she’s fine, I just dismissed her for the time being. What you were saying about elementals was true—Salyrite temples have protections for multiple kinds of magical beings, but Meesie gets very uncomfortable in other sanctified spaces. Hang on, I’ll—”

The carriage bumped on a loose cobblestone, and he had to grasp the bench for balance, nearly losing his grip on his tea bottle in the process.

“Told you,” Jenell commented.

“Ah, yes, on second thought, I believe I’ll wait to re-summon her until we’re on the way back. Don’t want to leave it too long; she gets depressed without regular attention. But the Legion barracks will be blessed, too, won’t it?”

“Probably,” she said, not bothering to remind him that their eventual destination was the Viridill Abbey, one of the most sacred places in the world.

“Anyhow,” he said, re-settling himself on the bench, “I suppose that all makes sense, when you explain it that way. I mean, honestly, I’m a little puzzled at some of the logic, there, but I’m sure the Bishop knows what she’s doing.”

“I’m sure she does,” Jenell murmured.

“It was good of her to think of protecting us,” he added after another swig of tea, sounding more cheerful. “And the Izarites! Very thoughtful…”

He seemed baffled when she burst out laughing.

“Ah, Schwartz, you are adorable, you know that?”

“Um, well, I…” He actually blushed. “Thanks?”

“Basra Syrinx is probably the only person who can lie to an Izarite priest right to his face and not be called down for it,” she said, her expression growing grim in the aftermath of her sudden mirth. “She was hoping for an attack directed on us. We’re weaker than she is, and we’d have been in the custody of a goddess weaker than hers, as she sees it. That’s what she would have done if she were targeting this group.”

He blinked twice. “I say… But that… Why?”

“She told the truth about one thing,” Jenell said, her eyes fixed on the approaching fortress. “Nobody hates Izarites. Even here in Viridill, where their religion isn’t widely approved of, it’s impossible to truly dislike them. They’re just so harmless. Downright cuddly. One of the biggest problems we face in finding the person behind the elementals is social: he’s probably a member of a community that holds itself apart. Or maybe not, I’m not sure I understand how the witches around here work. But the point is, people would rally against anyone who assaulted a temple of Izara. That would be an ideal outcome from her point of view.”

Schwartz was silent for a moment, staring straight ahead and seeming to forget his tea.

“That’s rather…cold,” he said at last. “Are you… That is, I mean, did she tell you this?”

“Didn’t need to,” Jenell said wearily. “I know how she thinks. You want some good advice, Schwartz, avoid getting on Basra Syrinx’s bad side. You have no idea what that woman is capable of. If you’re lucky, you’ll never have any idea.”

“Herschel,” he said quietly.

“Bless you.”

He grinned at that. “Hah, like I’ve never heard that one before. No, it’s… That’s me. Herschel Schwartz. Fine old Stalweiss name that nobody from Tiraas can pronounce, so I won’t take offense if you mangle it.”

She gave him a long, appraising glance, which he met with a hesitant expression. He was not at all the sort of person with whom she’d have been caught dead associating, in her life before the Legions. Still… He was nice. As banal a thing as that was, she was learning to see the value in it. It had been a long time since she’d talked with anyone who was actually, simply nice. Well, nice and not annoyingly aggressive about it, like the Izarites.

“Jenell,” she said finally, then added with a smile, “when I’m not on duty.”

“Jenell, then,” he said, smiling back. After a moment, he averted his gaze, coughing awkwardly. “Well, ah, anyhow, I appreciate the, er, heads up, as it were. I’ll keep it in mind. Though I suppose it’s to the best the Bishop’s on our side, isn’t it? I mean, sure, if you’ve got to deal with someone that cold, it’s reassuring to know they’re one of the good guys.”

Once again, he seemed confused as to why she was laughing.


 

Quentin Vex was permitted into the Imperial sitting room at his request, needing only to wait for the Imperial Guard manning the door to announce him. Once inside, he bowed deeply, tucking the newspapers he carried under his arm.

Two very attractive young women stood at the back of the room, near the breakfast service, carefully distant from the table where the meal was laid out. Milanda Darnassy and Isolde Fraunsteldt were both youthful and of a curvaceous build, but otherwise a study in contrast: petite and dark-haired, and tall and blonde, respectively. They would be those with whom the Emperor and Empress had spent the previous night, now present to serve breakfast in the absence of servants, one of the more peculiar little customs the Imperial couple had developed. There was always at least one, though the Empress chose to sleep alone about half the time. Also present and discreetly unobtrusive against the wall was a black-coated Hand of the Emperor, this one a pale man on the shortish side.

The Emperor and Empress were having breakfast with a nobleman Vex recognized, and had not expected to find here.

“Your Majesties,” Vex said. “Lord Amfaedred. My humble apologies for intruding.”

“You are forgiven,” Eleanora said mildly. “I assume this is important, Quentin?”

“Important, your Majesties, but not necessarily urgent. I can come back…?”

“Oh, please don’t put state business off for my sake,” Amfaedred said hastily, rising and bowing to his liege. “I thank you deeply for the honor, your Majesty, but I’m sure I have taken up too much of your priceless time as it is. With your permission, I’ll withdraw so Lord Vex can carry on with what I’m sure is very important business.”

“Of course,” Sharidan said, with a knowing little smile. “Thank you for visiting us, milord.”

“The pleasure was entirely mine, your Majesty. Entirely.” With another bow and an unctuous little smile, Lord Amfaedred turned and scurried out of the sitting room with more haste than was seemly.

“My sincere apologies,” Vex repeated as soon as the door had been closed behind him. “I was not aware that you were confronting Amfaedred today.”

The hint of reproach in his tone was so faint it might almost have passed unnoticed. That was still more than virtually anyone else alive could get away with, here.

“It was a spur of the moment idea,” Eleanora said with a mischievous smile. “If we weren’t planning on having him for breakfast, just think how surprised he was to be summoned. Anyway, Quentin, our aims were accomplished. He knows his financing of House Leduc is not a secret. Now we wait.”

“If I gauge the man correctly,” said the Emperor, absently picking at his fish, “he’ll either drop the whole thing, or panic and do something rash. In either case, you will of course have him under close observation?”

“He already is, your Majesty,” Vex replied. “I’ve no doubt I’ll be informed by my assistant that he was here the moment I return to the office. A remarkably capable young lady, but she does enjoy being cheeky.”

“What brings you here so early?” Eleanora asked. “Or should I simply ask how bad it is?”

Vex cleared his throat. “I wonder if your Majesties have seen the papers yet today?”

“Actually, I can’t remember the last time I read a newspaper,” Sharidan remarked. “Being that I have an Intelligence service full of individuals who are exorbitantly paid to bring me information before the journalists get to it.”

“Sometimes the news is not newsworthy,” said Vex, taking the papers out from under his arm and approaching the table. “Or rather, it reveals more about the editors than about the world. I trust your Majesties remember the affair last year involving the Black Wreath’s attempt to place columnists in all the major papers, subverted by the Universal Church?”

“Which resulted in the Church’s first celebrity Bishop,” said Eleanora, “who spouts ideas that are eerily similar to Wreath theology. Yes, this rings a bell.”

“It would appear the Archpope’s influence with the papers is still in effect,” said Vex, laying the newspapers down on the table and fanning them out so their headlines were visible to the Imperial couple.

They stared in silence for a moment.

“Snowe vs. Tellwyrn,” Sharidan read at last. “Don’t think less of me, Eleanora, but I suddenly want to actually see that.”

“Bishop blasts adventurer University,” said the Empress, reaching out to shift the paper on top so she could fully see the headline underneath it. “Who appointed Arachne Tellwyrn? A valid question, but one with an obvious answer. She did.”

“This is remarkably one-sided coverage,” Sharidan mused. “I assume this is a representative sample?”

“It’s not every paper carrying the story,” said Vex, folding his hands behind his back, “but the others have a consistent theme. Critical essays and opinion pieces challenging the University are running all over the Empire this morning; only most of them reference the Bishop’s rather inflammatory remarks at Last Rock this weekend. The unanimity of opinion, here, suggests an organized effort.”

“Now, why on earth would Justinian try to start something up with Tellwyrn?” the Emperor wondered aloud. “I confess, Lord Vex, when you reported Snowe’s speech to me I thought you were being over-cautious.”

“You were correct, your Majesty; I was. That is, after all, my job. The improbability of this campaign is, I think, largely why I didn’t notice it gearing up. That, and it would only take an afternoon to get these things written and sent to the printers. I didn’t truly imagine that Justinian would act so aggressively against Tellwyrn. There seems to be nothing to gain.”

“The question remains,” Elenaora said sharply, “what is he trying to do? That woman couldn’t possibly care less about public opinion; the best he can hope for is to rile her up, which will have consequences for a lot of people besides him.”

“For that reason alone, your Majesty, I suggest acting against him,” said Vex. “But in addition, I believe it suits our interests to support Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Oh?” Eleanora said dangerously.

Vex cleared his throat. “For the last year, since the success of the Sarasio incident, I have been discreetly in contact with the Professor, pointing her toward trouble spots throughout the Empire. She is, as you are aware, fond of using such things as class exercises; I deemed it a wise use of resources to have her students handle issues I was already monitoring.”

“Is that so,” the Empress said very quietly. “Why is this the first I am hearing of this?”

“I did not judge it worth your Majesties’ attention,” Vex said evenly. “I will, if you command, inform your Majesties of everything I do, but the sheer volume of reports would negatively impact both my efficiency and your attention span.”

“You are on thin ice, Quentin,” Eleanora said flatly.

“To be quite honest, then,” he replied, “I knew you wouldn’t like it, your Majesty. I wanted to see if it would work before you shut down the idea.”

“Does it?” Sharidan asked in an interested tone.

“Quite well, in fact,” Vex replied, turning to him. “Their success rate has been better than my agency’s, I must admit, though they do tend to cause a great deal of disruptive ripple effects that my agents avoid; that, I think, makes all the difference. Overall they perform as would be expected from trained adventurer teams. I am speaking, of course, of the adventurers from the days of the Heroes’ Guild, not the freelancers of the last century. And it goes without saying that I suggest only lower-priority incidents to Tellwyrn; I don’t want her or her students near anything truly sensitive. I would regard this project as a great success, and one with important implications for the future.”

“Go on,” Eleanora said evenly.

“The truth, your Majesties, is that Professor Tellwyrn and her University are just not going to go away, and nothing we do can make them. For fifty years she has managed to passively coexist with the Empire, but that cannot endure forever. I would rather she be with us than against us. Using her students to solve small problems advances our goals and hers, trains the Empire’s most dangerous young citizens to act in the Empire’s benefit, and strengthens the Throne’s relationship with Professor Tellwyrn. I am sure I need not remind your Majesties who it was that removed the last Emperor of the Ravidevegh Dynasty from the Silver Throne.”

“And so,” Sharidan mused, “she is tentatively with us, and Justinian is suddenly against her. Well, this does seem very cut and dried, doesn’t it?”

“That in and of itself is suspicious,” Eleanora remarked.

“Yes, your Majesty,” Vex agreed. “I cannot guarantee that part of the Archpope’s motivation is not to act against an established ally of ours. Regardless, he has mostly evaded reprisal from the Imperial government by operating scrupulously within the law, or through sufficient proxies that we could never justify action against him without seeming to be the provocateurs. In this case, he has overreached. Whether he does not expect a response from us, or expects a mild one, I feel it is time to surprise him.”

“What are you proposing?” asked the Emperor.

Vex leaned forward to tap one of the newspapers with a fingertip. “Whatever his goal, this is about public opinion. The Church and the Empire have different ways of swaying it; ours are better. I think it’s time to make Tellwyrn a hero and her Univeristy one of the Empire’s proudest holdings.”

Eleanora rolled her eyes; Sharidan glanced at her, then returned his gaze to Vex.

“Interesting,” the Emperor said. “I’m inclined to agree with your reasoning. The good Professor has never caused problems except in retaliation, and if it is indeed impossible to continue ignoring her, she makes a far better ally than enemy.”

“I’m afraid I can’t disagree,” Eleanora said, not without reluctance.

“There are a couple of additional points,” said Vex, “which I include strictly on the basis of timing, not because I see direct connections between them and this incident. But this propaganda campaign was launched literally overnight, and I take notice of anything related to the Church which happened at the same time.”

“Such as?” Eleanora prompted.

“For one, Bishop Snowe wrapped up her revival tour in Last Rock. She is now en route to Viridill, where Bishop Syrinx has been for the last few months. I do not yet know what either of them are up to; my information suggests that Syrinx is being punished for something by Commander Rouvad, though the Sisterhood is surprisingly adept at keeping me out of their business. Regardless, Snowe and Syrinx are known confidantes of the Archpope. And there is that unfolding issue in Viridill. I was informed yesterday that Syrinx herself was sent to address it by the Abbess.”

For a fleeting moment, he glanced up at Milanda, who stood demurely with her hands folded at her waist. She did not acknowledge the conversation, though Isolde looked at her sidelong.

“Mm,” Sharidan murmured. “Keep us informed.”

“Of course, your Majesty.”

“You said ‘for one,’” Eleanora prompted. “There’s more?”

Vex raised an eyebrow. “Antonio Darling has abruptly left the city.”

The Imperial couple exchanged a loaded glance.

“As I’m sure you recall,” Vex continued, “the last time he did so, it was to collar a handful of Black Wreath agents at the Archpope’s behest, in the company of his fellow Bishops. That was the incident, in fact, which brought them all to our attention. Now… I have seen no indication that he is working for the Archpope in this matter, but Darling’s motivations and loyalties are always a complex matter. He is currently in Veilgrad, in the company of Joseph Jenkins of Sarasio, and a Huntsman of Shaath named Ingvar, who may or may not be a woman. The issue is…muddy.”

“A female Huntsman?” Sharidan said, raising his eyebrows. “Is that even possible?”

“Is this perhaps a dual spirit?” Eleanora asked. “I believe the Shaathists disagree on that doctrine, but some of their sects support it.”

“Religious dogmas of that kind are outside my realm of expertise,” said Vex. “I have ordered a dossier compiled on this Ingvar character, and will be fully up to speed on the matter by tomorrow. For now, that is all I know. My policy with regard to Darling remains constant: we learn a great deal by watching what he does, and would gain little by interfering with him. If I begin to see signs that he is more strongly connected to the Archpope than I thought, however, I may revise that policy.”

“Agreed,” said the Emperor, nodding. He glanced at Eleanora, who nodded in return. “Very well, you may proceed at your discretion.”

“Thank you, your Majesty.” Vex bowed again, gathered up his papers, and turned to go.

“Lord Vex,” the Emperor said quietly when he was nearly at the doors. Vex turned back to face him; he and Eleanora were both gazing at him with inscrutable expressions.

“Yes, your Majesty?”

“The fact that Justinian got this plan of his to every newspaper before you learned of it,” Sharidan said evenly. “The troubles at the south gate that very nearly derailed negotiations with the Conclave, the disaster in Veilgrad where Intelligence agents were foiled by chaos cultists, the misjudging of the threat in Desolation… I do not expect perfection from our servants; that would be insane. But this sequence of bloody noses and black eyes begins to resemble a pattern.”

“I have observed it too, your Majesty,” Vex replied in perfect calm. “I assure you, it is about to cease.”

“Are you certain?” Sharidan asked. “The will of the people is the only thing that truly supports the Church or the Empire. Justinian is now acting on that directly. The stakes…”

“With respect, your Majesty, Justinian has played this game with us successfully till now because he was very careful to operate only in his own sphere of control.” Vex smiled, thinly, and coldly. “He is now in mine. I mean to make him feel unwelcome.”

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