Tag Archives: Empress Eleanora

12 – 51

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“You know the plan, Quentin,” the Empress said the instant he had shut the door behind them. It wasn’t that Imperial Guards weren’t trusted, but security was security. Nearly every door and wall in the harem wing was enchanted for silence at need, which was exactly why they were left open unless someone specifically required privacy. “I assume your part is in motion, now, and you wished to speak to me so urgently about something else—that, or something has gone wrong.”

She gave him one of those looks that seemed like it should be directed over a pair of schoolmarm’s spectacles. He took it as a sign of fondness; Eleanora gave most people looks that would freeze falling water.

“We have a brief window,” he said crisply, “in which Darling is proceeding to his agent’s home to extract his Majesty. And…no, I have not yet given the order for my people to withdraw from the district.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Quentin…”

“Before doing so,” he pressed on, “I would like to discuss doing anything else, your Majesty. If you will clear it, I can arrange a safe escort to another facility.”

“Quentin.”

“We know the Thieves’ Guild is active in the region, and we have now specifically antagonized them on top of their general unpredictability, to say nothing of what his Majesty hoped would unfold in the first place.”

“And,” she said sharply, “by getting my approval for completely eviscerating Sharidan’s plan and wasting all the effort put into it thus far, you are likely to find yourself simply dismissed from your post rather than charged with treason. You feel so strongly about this?”

“I am very good at my job,” he said, the merest hint of sharpness encroaching upon his tone. “You will be hard-pressed to replace me, your Majesty. But ultimately, as difficult a task as it may be, I can be replaced. That is not true of the Emperor! Your Majesty, this is a bad idea.”

“So you said in the first place,” she acknowledged with a sigh. “And yet, here we are.”

“The risk vastly outstrips any potential reward! There is as yet no heir to the Throne, and we’ve only just begun to learn why. It’s unconscionable for the Emperor to jeopardize his safety this way!”

“I note you avoided words like ‘unconscionable’ when making your point to his face,” she said dryly. “And you know as well as I that the end of the Tirasian bloodline would not automatically end the name. I am still of House Tirasian, if even by marriage. I can still have a child.” Her lips compressed momentarily in displeasure at the thought, more of a lapse than she ever showed in public.

“That was before Elilial’s gambit,” Vex snapped, all pretense of decorum lost. “We now know the Tirasian bloodline has not ended, and any hint of impropriety in the succession will inevitably precipitate a crisis. We don’t yet know what play she intends, but that matter is unresolved and must be planned for.”

“Time is wasting while we discuss this, Quentin,” she said. “Darling is on the move, and the Emperor’s orders are not being obeyed.”

“Please,” he begged. “Your Majesty… Eleanora. It’s too much a risk. Please, give the order.”

She regarded him in expressionless silence for a moment. When she spoke, though, her tone was softer than before. “And if I do not, Quentin, will you give it yourself? Defy the Emperor for his own sake and face the consequences it would bring?”

He opened his mouth a fraction, froze, then closed it.

Eleanora took two steps toward him, close enough to reach out and lay a hand on his upper arm. “We wouldn’t be having this argument if you didn’t care about the Empire enough to sacrifice yourself at need, Quentin. You hesitate because you’re uncertain. Because you know, as I do, the truth about Sharidan Tirasian: he needs cold-blooded people like us to support him and moderate some of his impulses and idealistic tendencies—moderate, not thwart. The most irritating thing about being in his service is how often he is right when by all accounts he really should not be.”

It was Vex’s turn to press his lips into a thin line. He let out a long breath through his nose.

“To win when you absolutely ought to lose,” Eleanora murmured. “Isn’t that what they say defined the heroes of old? The trait that separated them from the rabble of mere adventurers.” Her grip on his arm tightened subtly, and threads of the old steel reappeared in her voice. “This is as long as we can delay, Quentin. The signal.”

Vex sighed heavily, a most uncharacteristic display of emotion, but produced a pocket watch from inside his coat and turned the key twice clockwise, once the other way, then three times clockwise again. There was no flash or sparkle, no sound but the gears clicking—much as arcane magic tended to create spectacles, the charms used by Imperial Intelligence’s field agents were very specifically designed for subtlety. The companion devices carried by Vex’s people would convey the signal, and that would be that; his agents would begin withdrawing from the neighborhood, leaving the Emperor apparently unprotected.

“He does this on purpose, you know,” he complained, slipping the watch back into his pocket. “Always has. He enjoys making me worry and chase him around. Don’t deny it, part of the motivation for this whole scheme was nostalgia. Well, he’s not the crown prince anymore, and we all have better things to do than play round-the-bush.”

“That’s right, get it out of your system,” Eleanora said wryly, stepping back and folding her hands in a gesture that would have looked demure on anyone else. “You said Darling bought it. How deeply, do you think?”

“I can’t say whether he was fully taken in or just playing along,” Vex replied, his usual composure falling back into place as if it had never been ruffled. “Our exchange might have been written by a bard, so I suspect the latter. But in either case, he will stay in the area after giving his message. He needs to understand what’s happening, now that he’s neck deep in it. Himself and those two elven apprentices of his, at minimum; I rather think he’ll have other thieves about, too. He gave it nearly a full day after the tip was leaked to his students before acting, and then penetrated my house’s security as if it wasn’t there. The pattern suggests he has been making preparations since last night.”

“And in a sense,” she mused, “Sharidan was more right than he could have known; thanks to Milanda, the Archpope is reeling. He may have the good sense to withdraw, you know. Justinian is nothing if not cautious. This could all come to nothing.”

“Anything could always end in a nice, clean, peaceable nothing,” Vex replied irritably. “I find that possibility is never worth considering.”

“We will have to trust,” she said quietly. “That Sharidan knows what he is doing, that Milanda’s efforts will bear fruit…”

“That Darling knows which side his bread is buttered on, that the Hands are not too compromised… I’m not one of those paranoid fools who think you can never trust anyone, your Majesty. That’s an impossible way to live, and we both know it. But one must act carefully, and trust rationally, and now we are extending far too much trust in far too many directions.”

“And yet, here we are,” she repeated. “It’s done, Quentin; stand ready to act when action is called for. Sharidan knows what he is doing.”

“We all know what he’s doing,” Vex said bitterly, turning and grasping the doorknob. “I deeply hope some of us are wrong.”


“Unprotected?”

“That is what the spirits indicated,” the dragon said in perfect serenity.

Justinian felt an urge to drum his fingers on something. Bad enough Khadizroth had managed to summon him here so quickly; he should not be able to get messages past the usual secure channels, but it seemed the dragon had developed enough pull among the soldiers supposedly watching him that most of them were willing to do him favors. Extravagant ones. That development was no less ominous for having been foreseen; Justinian hadn’t had the trusted troops to spare for rotating his guards even before the assassin had carved half of them to chum. Now, here he was; however the message had gotten through, its urgency was such that he could not ignore it without losing further face by making it plain he was playing petty mind games.

All of which, of course, Khadizroth knew. The time was rapidly approaching when he would have to do something about this.

“I hope,” he said aloud, “you don’t think me foolish enough to leap into rash action based upon this.”

“Indeed not,” Khadizroth replied, nodding gracefully, “I’m well aware of your foresight, your Holiness, and grateful that I don’t have to explain these matters. You understand, of course, the difference between oracular seeing such as I can use and arcane scrying. Precise details about who is where and doing what I cannot give you; only a sense of the state of things. An Emperor of Tiraas being suddenly without protectors, at large in the city…that is a state which swiftly garners the attention of spirits who are already being asked to look in on him. He is not unwatched, but the parties currently with their eyes upon him are…separate.”

“How so?”

“Unaligned,” the dragon said with a thoughtful frown. “Forgive me, I am not trying to be vague. It is always difficult to put into words what was conveyed mentally. Someone is near the Emperor and watching him, but someone not moved either to attack or defend, at least at present. I saw a shadow, a grey shape lurking at a distance without intent. Whoever it is, they likely know more than I about the particulars of the situation.”

Darling and his thieves? The Black Wreath? Foreign agents, like the dwarves who had so nearly upended the city recently? Anyone would take an interest in the Emperor being in play like this, and most of the competent players would watch to see what was happening before committing themselves. Almost the only thing he could rule out was the Rust, who had not spread beyond Puna Dara. Speculation, of course, was pointless—and would have been even if he were absolutely sure Khadizroth could be trusted.

“How very ominous,” the Archpope murmured, putting on a pensive frown of his own. “The pattern of the last week barely makes it believable… But still. This raises a crucial question.”

“Only one?” Khadizroth lifted an eyebrow, and Justinian had to actually concentrate for a moment to be sure he did not betray irritation in his voice or expression.

“One which supersedes the many others, in my opinion,” he clarified. “Why is the Emperor alone and undefended? With so much importance resting upon his safety, and the resources of the Tiraan Empire at his disposal, it seems hard to credit. Is it possible your spirits were…mistaken?”

“I hesitate to call anything impossible,” Khadizroth replied, “but that prospect is one so very unlikely that I find it hardly worth considering. Again, what I do is not scrying; a scryer can be very easily blocked. Only a fae user of enormous age and skill even can interfere with the seeing of an oracle, and then only to the minutest degree. For someone to first perceive, then intercept, and then change the content of spirit messages I have sought out… Hypothetically, for such a thing to happen, it would almost mean Naiya herself had moved against me. Which, of course, is also not impossible but unlikely enough to be dismissed from consideration.”

Arrogant. Dragons were known to be prideful, of course, and justly so, but one as old and wise as this should know better than to assume he could never be countered. Justinian filed this away for later use; first, the demands of the moment.

“If we accept, then, that this is the truth…the question remains: why?” He began slowly pacing up and down the limited space provided by the cramped office, aware of and ignoring the dragon’s gaze following him. “I can think of only two possibilities. Either there is a schism within the Imperial government itself and the Emperor is on the run from his own guardians, or this is a trap intended to lure his enemies out.”

“If it is the first,” Khadizroth said, “the second is also a possibility; it would be a canny move, since only traitorous protectors would be in a position to expect the Emperor to be unprotected.”

“Just so,” Justinian agreed, nodding without glancing at him. “And besides, if it were a trap…the risk involved is astronomical. I cannot believe Sharidan would be so reckless, and I know Eleanora and Vex would intervene if he were.”

“Unless,” the dragon added, “one or both of them had turned against him.”

“Then we are back in the same position,” Justinian said with a humorless smile. “Not impossible, but hardly likely enough to bother considering. Their whole world revolves around him.”

“So the more immediate question,” Khadizroth prompted, “is what are we going to do about this?”

We. Placing himself subtly on equal footing with the Archpope. He betrayed eagerness by asking, though, and not just at the prospect of some action; this was the moment when the Archpope would have to either reaffirm his loyalty to the Emperor, or reveal himself as a traitor with murderous designs on Sharidan’s person.

Oh, yes, Justinian decided he had had just about enough of this. His current crop of adventurers served as the perfect foil for Darling’s team, just what he needed to keep them in play and invested without letting them cause real damage. Darling’s five, however, were the players that mattered; he needed red herrings and chew toys for them, not legitimate rivals, and he’d been of the mind for some time now that he needed to switch this lot out for something more…controllable. Kheshiri and the Jackal were more trouble than they were worth to keep occupied, Shook and Vannae just didn’t perform well enough to merit their status, and Khadizroth was increasingly determined to make himself an actual problem.

So he thought Justinian was in a corner, did he? He was hardly the first.

“This is delicate,” he said aloud. “Very, very delicate. Obviously the risk to his Majesty is severe, and should be mitigated; the loss of a sitting, childless Emperor would cause a shock the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Enchanter Wars, and our society is troubled enough without exposing it to that. Such a disaster must be prevented.”

“It goes without saying,” Khadizroth agreed in a grave tone. Justinian looked up, nodding seriously at him, and they both politely pretended to have forgotten Khadizroth’s recent attempt to cause a far worse shock than that to the Empire.

“However,” Justinian continued, “we must also consider recent events. I’m afraid the Throne is particularly mistrustful of the Church right now, and not nearly enough time has passed for me to soothe over the ripples caused by our misunderstanding. If our people are found to be hovering over the Emperor in his time of vulnerability, Lord Vex will be quite justified in taking it amiss. Frankly he would be remiss in taking any other way.”

“Forgive me,” Khadizroth said with diffidence that poorly suited him, “but I had been operating on the assumption that anyone sent to address this would be…off the books, as it were.”

“At moments like this, it is best not to make assumptions about who knows what,” Justinian said seriously. So Khadizroth wanted his companions sent out on this, did he? Why? “But you’re right. An official Church presence would be clearly antagonistic. Let me pose you a question.” He came to a stop, turning to face the dragon fully. “What of your team? If I sent them to keep watch over the Emperor until he can be secured by his proper guardians…can they be trusted with such a mission, in your opinion?”

“They are…reasonably effective,” Khadizroth said slowly. “I hesitate to use the word ‘competent;’ though they are each good at their respective roles, none of these personalities are well-suited for teamwork, and their competing agendas can raise…issues…in the field.”

“That is my concern exactly,” Justinian agreed. “Some of them in particular, I fear, would view this opportunity to create havoc on a colossal scale as too great a temptation to resist.”

“Mm. No, I don’t believe that is a problem,” the dragon mused. “The Jackal likes his havoc small and personal, and Kheshiri is on a leash whose length and hardiness I have spent much of my acquaintance with Jeremiah verifying. He is not the master of her, whatever he thinks, but his control suffices to keep her from doing anything so destructive as that.”

“And you, of course, cannot go along,” Justinian said with a gentle smile.

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Khadizroth replied, grinning. “It spares me the awkwardness of refusing to. With my cousins active in the city, the risk of me doing anything in public is simply too great.”

“I appreciate your insight,” Justinian said. “These divinations of yours. Do you know where the Emperor is, specifically?”

“Specifically, no, but I’m confident I can find him quickly.”

“And can you direct Vannae to do this for you?”

The merest hesitation. “…yes, that should be possible.”

Justinian kept his smile calm, beatific. Vannae, the only one of the crew Khadizroth truly cared about, and was invested in. Putting him at the vanguard should be…revealing. And now to begin applying the pressure.

“Then we must prepare to mobilize the team,” he said solemnly. “I will leave it to you to brief them; I must make other preparations. After all, it seems prudent, in this case, to have someone to watch the watchers. Discreetly.”

“Of course,” Khadizroth said, after another very faint pause, then bowed. “I’ll go gather them immediately, your Holiness.”

“Thank you,” Justinian said warmly. “Your aid to us in these last painful days has been a godsend which cannot be appreciated enough.”

“We all do what we can,” the dragon replied with a good effort at proper draconic inscrutable aloofness. Justinian smiled benignly at his back as he left the room.

Ohh, yes. Chew on that.


“I’ll get it!”

“You stay put,” Lakshmi said quickly, reaching up to grab one of the hands kneading her shoulders as their owner started to pull away toward the door. “You’re in hiding, remember? You can’t possibly be bored enough to risk blowing it after just a couple days.”

“Well, right at this moment, I can’t say that I am, no,” Danny murmured, and she grinned, carefully not looking up at him.

“Sanjay! Door!”

“Yeah, yeah, I heard it,” Sanjay grumped, coming through the living room from the kitchen. He pointed accusingly at them on his way to the front door. “You two keep it above the waist. I’m tryin’ to have an innocent childhood, here.”

“No you aren’t,” she said lazily.

“No, I’m not,” he agreed with a grin, then pulled the door open. “Sweet! Heya! What’s new?”

“Nothing good, kid,” the Bishop said, wearing a grim frown. He leaned forward, peering around the door frame. “Is—ah, good. You!”

“Me?” Danny raised his eyebrows, removing his hands from Lakshmi’s shoulders.

“Yes, you.” Sweet pointed at him. “Out. Now.”

“Whoah, what the fuck?” Lakshmi stood up, scowling. “You don’t just barge into somebody’s home and start barking orders, I don’t care what you were the Boss of.”

“I made you a promise, Peepers. Remember?”

She hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at Danny, who was now expressionless. “I remember.”

“I said,” Sweet continued, his dour expression gradually giving way to carefully-controlled anger, “that if I learned anything which suggested this arrangement was one bit more dangerous than I believed, I’d come right down here and put an end to it. Well, this is me honoring my word.”

“What’s happened?” she said in alarm, again looking back at her guest. “Is he in more danger?”

“No,” Sweet snapped. “No, he is not. It turns out that the people after him are not so much the stalking-through-the-streets kind as the teleporting-right-to-your-door kind, and they have the means to find out exactly where he is the moment they decide to. And despite what I was explicitly told, this has been the case from the beginning. This is danger I would not have dropped on any Guild member knowingly. Promise or no promise, Peepers, I owe you big for doing this to you.”

Lakshmi turned very slowly to face Danny, backing away. By the door, Sanjay was staring, his mouth hanging open incredulously.

“Did you know this?” she asked quietly.

“Matters aren’t as simple as he makes—”

“No!” Sanjay yelled so abruptly and so loudly that his voice cracked. “You don’t give us that noble doublespeak. You answer her question!”

“Did. You. Know. This,” Lakshmi growled. “Did you deliberately put me and my little brother in danger from your problems?”

“Lakshmi—”

“The lady asked you a very simple question, Danny,” Sweet said in a quiet tone which nonetheless cut him off completely. “The only answer it needs is one syllable either way.”

Danny gave him a long, inscrutable look, then turned a different but equally cagey one on Lakshmi. Finally, his shoulders shifted in a soft sigh. He did not avoid her gaze, though.

“Yes. I knew it.”

The silence was excruciating. Fortunately, it was brief.

“You son of a bitch!”

“No!” Sweet streaked across the room the moment she clenched her fists; by the time she flew into action, he got close enough to grab her, and that only because Danny retreated circumspectly behind the sofa.

“Get your fucking hands off me!” Lakshmi raged, struggling ineffectually against the grip on her wrists. “I’m gonna break his fucking head!”

“No, you’re not!” Sweet shouted, and shook her hard enough to momentarily stall her thrashing. “Peepers! Listen to me, you have no idea who this guy is. Harm him and you’re kicking over more trouble than you can imagine. I’m getting him out of here and away, where he’s not a danger to you—or from you, because both of those will hurt you just as bad, trust me.”

She drew her lips back in a snarl. “Trust you. This is all your fault!”

“Yes, that’s right,” he agreed, holding her gaze. “But I haven’t lied to you, nor will I. I thought I was telling you the truth when I said this was safe. I found out it’s not, so I’m putting a stop to it. And I will make this up to you.”

“He’s right, Shmi,” Sanjay said. He was practically quivering with fury, fists clenched at his sides, but aside from the accusing glare he fixed on Danny, he made no move. “Sweet fucked up, but he’s been straight with us. He’s Guild.”

“And he,” Sweet added, jerking his head in Danny’s direction, “lied to the Guild. He’s not walking out of here without consequences, Peepers, that I promise you. Let me protect you from them, at least. It’s the best I can do for you right now.”

She jerked against him once more, but weakly, then suddenly slumped, letting her head hang. After a moment, Sweet released her arms, and they fell limply to her sides.

“Get him the fuck out of my house.”

“Well, you heard her,” Sweet said, turning a totally unsympathetic look on Danny. “Let’s go.”

Danny sighed softly. “If I—”

“Did somebody ask you something?” Sanjay snapped, voice cracking again. “This isn’t a conversation. Fucking go.”

He crossed the room to stand next to his sister, who had lifted her head to stare at Danny. They looked eerily alike, glaring at him with matching venom.

Danny sighed again, then turned and strode unhurriedly to the door, where Sweet stood aside for him in a hostile mockery of politeness. He paused just before stepping out, turning to look back at them again. “For what it’s worth, I—”

“Don’t,” she said icily. “Don’t you fucking dare.”

He hesitated, then nodded once, and stepped out.

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12 – 50

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Iris stared at her, mouth slightly open, and Maureen found herself in the odd position of feeling too awkward even to cringe. She simply froze, waiting for the hammer to come down.

“Oh,” Iris said after an excruciating pause, clearly grasping for something to say. “…you are?”

“No!” Maureen blurted. “I mean, yes, but… I, it’s, I don’t…”

She opened and closed her mouth twice, and then finally gave up and hid her face in her hands.

It was another silent few moments before the bench shifted, Iris having stepped over to settle onto it beside her.

“So, um,” the human said a few seconds later, “I don’t…know how good my advice might be. I’m guessing not very. But…I’ve been told I’m a pretty good listener? If that’ll help?”

“I don’t know what to do,” Maureen whispered.

Iris finally settled an arm around her shoulders. Well, a forearm. The difference in their sizes made it a slightly awkward gesture, but less awkward than the rest of this, all things considered.

“Is it about the Sleeper?”

Maureen sighed, then nodded miserably, finally peeking over her fingers. “I’m such a coward.”

“I think being terrified in this situation just means you aren’t crazy.”

“That’s got nothing to do with it,” she whispered. “You can be afraid when you’re in danger. You’re right, that’s just sense. Somethin’s wrong with you if you’re not. Courage an’ cowardice is all in what you do about it. An’ I just wanna run away.”

Iris held silent, rubbing her shoulder gently for a moment, before speaking. “Well, um. I missed you at lunch, but all your stuff’s still in the room. What I mean is, it doesn’t look like you’re trying to bolt, here. I wouldn’t have thought you were gonna until you said something.”

Maureen heaved a much heavier sigh, and leaned against her for a second before straightening up again. The position had tucked her right under Iris’s arm, which was a little uncomfortable.

“Truthfully, I hadn’t made up me own mind. I’ve been standin’ down here, ditherin’ on it.”

“Well, there you go, then,” Iris said with only sightly forced cheer. “Sounds like you’re not a complete coward.”

“You don’t understand,” she muttered.

“…okay, so, maybe I don’t. You can explain it to me, if you want.”

“I’m a gnome,” Maureen exclaimed. “Adventure is what we do. Hell, it’s what we are. Surely ye know that much?”

“I…well, gnomes do have that reputation, yes. I wasn’t gonna try to make assumptions, though. Since coming to this school and meeting all kinds of people I’ve been learning not to do that if I can avoid it. Gets awkward.”

“Sure, that’s sense. But when it comes to gnomes, aye, the stereotype’s there for a reason. We made it ourselves an’ work at livin’ up to it. Me mum already thinks I’m a nutter cos I like tinkerin’ with machines more’n roughhousin’. Me whole life, I never wanted t’go out an’ play with they other kids. They were always explorin’ the woods around the Hold, fightin’ off boars, fallin’ in caves, gettin’ lost fer weeks on end…”

“You let kids do that?” Iris demanded in horror.

“We’re gnomes,” Maureen said with a shrug, finally looking up at her. The human’s expression was equal parts fascinated and aghast. “It’s… Well, look, Iris, we don’t often talk about our business outside the Folk. There’s stuff you’re just not meant to know, so…don’t feel bad if some of what I do say doesn’t make much sense to ye.”

“Well, I mean, sure,” Iris said hastily. “You don’t have to tell me anything, Maureen, I’m not gonna pry. I’m just here to listen if you want to talk. Talking to somebody always helped me when I struggled with things.”

“Aye, don’t worry,” she said a little wryly, “I’m not about t’give away any great secrets. But you’ve gotta understand… Aye, gnomish children are pretty well expected to get into scrapes that’d bally well kill off humans twice their age, see? So when yer a kid who likes t’stay indoors, readin’ books an’ stackin’ yer toys up into interesting new shapes… Well, when I was real young, me mum thought I was barmy. An’ those were th’good years. Past a certain age, ye get to the point where not doin’ what your society wants makes people think…poorly.”

“I know a little about that, myself,” Iris said quietly.

Maureen nodded. “So, aye. I hate this, Iris. I just wanna make stuff! I like buildin’ things, not riskin’ me ears on adventures. Makes me a fair lousy gnome, but I’m me, y’know? An’ this…this Sleeper nonsense…” She swallowed heavily. “I was actually excited t’be comin’ here. Sure, I got a place at the school cos me uncle went adventurin’ with Tellwyrn back in the day, before she was a Professor an’ all. I got sent to the school cos me folks figured it was the only place left for a classic adventurin’ education. But Tellwyrn came to our place ta give me the interview, an once me mum an’ dad were outta the room, she made it clear what I could learn here didn’t have to be adventure if I didn’t want it to be.”

“You always seemed okay on field trips,” Iris said softly. “Like, out in the Golden Sea. Honestly I kinda thought you were in your element. You knew all about making campsites.”

“Oh, any gnome knows stuff like that,” Maureen said, waving a hand dismissively. “Raw basics. An’ we didn’t even have proper adventures!”

“Proper adventures,” Iris repeated, her eyebrows climbing. “I’m sorry, but do you remember the manticore? Or the harpies? Or that whatsit that wanted to eat Raolo?”

“That whatsit was a fairy, an’ those were all nothin’,” the gnome said with a grin. “Trash mobs an’ beginner dilemmas. Have ye heard the story o’ what the sophomores went through on their Golden Sea trip? Now that was a proper adventure!”

“The way I heard it, half of them nearly died. And considering most of them are nearly un-killable…”

“Exactly.” Maureen leaned back, letting her head thunk against the bench. “…exactly. There’s a part o’ me that can appreciate a story like that. Me upbringin’, aye? But not me. A life spent workin’ in a big factory, designin’ new machines… A dwarf’s life, basically, not a gnome. It’s a gnomish idea of hell, but t’me, it sounds like heaven. No matter who scared an’ fed up I am, I can’t go runnin’ home at the first sign o’ lethal danger. I can’t, Iris. I’m already the worst gnome there is. I can’t bear how me mum’d look at me…”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Iris murmured, “but…maybe being a good person is more important than being a good gnome? You’re one of the best people I know, Maureen.”

“Have you thought about runnin’?” Maureen asked, looking up at her again. “Tell ye the plain truth, Iris, half o’ what scares me is how all this seems targeted at us. Half our dorm’s been hit, an’ Raolo, who’s also our year. Plus Natchua an’ Shaeine, who’re connected to Szith through the exchange program. I’d suspect it was Addiwyn actin’ up again if she wasn’t one o’ the first to go.”

“I don’t run from enemies,” Iris said quietly, her eyebrows settling into a hard line. “Especially warlocks.”

“…you’d have made a more’n fair gnome.”

She grinned. “Well. I dunno about that, but considering the source, I get the feeling that’s one of the nicest things anybody’s ever said to me.”

“It’s like everything that makes me love this place is bein’ taken away,” Maureen whispered. “Even Rook’s gone. I’ve got nobody left to Patter with.”

“Rook?” Iris’s eyebrows shot upward and she leaned away, staring down at her in shock. “You had a thing with Rook? The scruffy one?”

“A thing with—oh, ew!” Maureen wrinkled her nose. “Don’t be utterly daft, he’s well too old for me, an’ not my type even if I was inta tall boys! It’s not like that, Iris, it’s just…he spoke a bit o’ Patter, as much as a human can. It was a wee bit o’ home.”

Iris blinked, then shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Maureen rubbed at her face with both hands. “…all right. Well. You’ve noticed how me accent tends to…come an’ go?”

“I, uh, didn’t want to say anything. It seemed rude…”

“Oh, it’s not rude,” Maureen replied with a rueful smile. “And I’ve a million ways to deflect the conversation if ye had, we all learn ’em growin’ up. It’s not just an accent—it’s Patter. There’s a rhythm to it, a second language threaded through the Tanglish. A whole other layer of meanin’, a way to communicate that shares so much more than just words can.”

“Oh.” Iris blinked. “And Rook can do that?”

“Humans can’t do it,” Maureen explained, wincing. “It’s…this is a bit of a secret, by the way. Not a huge one, the Nemitites an’ some others doubtless know about Patter, but it’s not somethin’ we talk about outside the Folk, except with our most trusted friends.”

“Well, I’m honored, then,” Iris said with a smile.

Maureen smiled back. “But it’s a gnomish thing. It’s intuitive; half of it isn’t even verbal. You have to be a gnome to Patter properly. But there’s some very few humans, those who were brought up by the Folk as babies—aye, that does happen, there’s not a gnome alive who’d throw out an infant if there was nobody else to take care of ’em. They pick up a wee bit of it. Not enough to Patter fully, but if ye get ’em young, when their minds are unformed, they can do some o’ the basic patterns. Rook can, so we’d talk sometimes. Made me feel at home, a bit. Him too, I guess.”

“Huh.” Iris blinked again, twice. “So…Rook was raised by gnomes. How ’bout that.”

“I dunno ‘is story,” Maureen said, shrugging. “He didn’t offer, an’ fer anybody with a gnomish upbringing it’s powerfully rude t’pry. But…now he’s gone, him an’ the other lads, an’ nothin’ left behind ’em but rumors that a Hand o’ the Emperor did ’em in. Bit by bit, Iris, everythin’ I love about bein’ here is bein’ taken away.”

It seemed Iris could find nothing to say to that. For a few more long minutes, they sat in silence.

“I can’t stay here,” Maureen whispered at last. “I can’t. And…I can’t go home either. I can’t do anything. Iris, what am I gonna do?”

“I don’t know, Maureen,” Iris replied softly. “Hon, I don’t think this is something I can help you answer. But… I can sit with you while you figure it out, if you want.”

“…aye. Yeah, that’s not nothin’.”

Slowly, Maureen leaned against her again. It was still awkward, but all things considered, that wasn’t so bad.


The door was not locked, for much the same reason Darling’s own was not; anybody trying to break into this house was either an imbecile or fishing for more trouble than most people wanted to risk. Darling, of course, preferred not to think of himself as an imbecile, but the next few minutes would likely tell.

It wasn’t, of course, as easy as just strolling up the path and walking in, but he hadn’t come here alone. Quietly removing the guards from the home of the head of Imperial Intelligence had required him to call in more favors than he’d ever before expended on a single job, but damn if it wouldn’t impress the hell out of Vex, which of course was the point.

He quietly closed the front door and paused in the entryway, examining the place. It was eerily familiar—very much like his own home, in fact. The tastefully expensive furnishings might have come right out of a magazine illustration, without a hint of personal identity anywhere. Whatever personality this place had, it was well concealed and likely not immediately accessible from any of the entrances. Which meant Darling wasn’t going to see it on this visit. He wasn’t nearly daft enough to think a house like this would have no interior defenses; getting inside had been as much as he’d been able to arrange. He had no plans to step through one more door. Gods only knew what might befall him further in.

No one was there to greet him at first, interestingly. Vex did not employ a Butler, and in fact had made a point of disapproving of Panissar employing one. Despite the Service Society’s vaunted discretion and neutrality, the spymaster felt it a gross abrogation of security to have such a powerful outside organization in a position to access Imperial secrets. It seemed strange that there were no servants, however. True, he had come in without knocking, but any well-trained household staff would be attuned to the sound of the door opening. This place was spotlessly clean, and Darling would eat his own shoes of Vex dusted it himself.

Even while he wondered on it, though, the swishing of fabric and rapid footsteps announced someone coming. Darling put on a pleasant smile and tucked his fingertips into his sleeve discreetly. He was still in full view of the windows…

A young woman bustled into the entry room from a hall doorway and stopped, staring at him rather stupidly. She was an immediately recognizable archetype: blonde, lovely, with elaborately styled hair and too much makeup, wearing a dress which was necessarily out of fashion. Current trends followed the Empress’s personal taste in severe, dark-colored gowns, which poorly suited the professional floozy. Her richly embroidered dress of blue velvet was daring, in the sense that if she moved too abruptly it was likely to slide right off her entirely. Despite its long, blousy sleeves and ankle-length skirts, it left enough of her chest on display she might have been cited for indecency if she left the house during daylight hours.

“Oh,” the girl said finally, in a voice so high-pitched it went past cute and into the territory of grating. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I never heard you knock! That silly maid should’ve answered the door.” She turned to look back into the hall, twisting her torso admirably into profile in the process. “Elzi! You silly girl, where are you?! There’s a visitor!”

“Now, that’s not necessary,” Darling said smoothly, not moving from his position. There was a wall immediately to his left; the room opened up on the right, with tall windows, the curtains currently not drawn, and a single low sofa flanked by end tables occupying the space. An entry where visitors could be kept waiting in a modicum of comfort while it was decided whether they should be allowed deeper into the house. Also, ample space for brawling, if necessary. “So sorry to barge in like this, but I need to speak with Quentin. Immediately.”

“Oh,” she said, turning back to him and batting her thick lashes, blue eyes wide and vacant. The girl sashayed forward a few steps, and he infinitesimally shifted his fingertips to touch the throwing knife up his sleeve, keeping his right hand against his side where she couldn’t clearly see it without doing anything so overtly shifty as moving it behind his back. “Well, Quenty’s usually not home at this time of afternoon—”

“He’s here,” Darling said. Calm and pleasant, but flatly implacable, with the faintest edge to his tone that she seemed not intelligent enough to grasp.

She showed no sign of having grasped it.

“Oh, you think so?” the girl tittered, coming forward another step. “Well, he’s probably up in his office, then. I can take you right to him!”

“That’s all right,” he said with a flirtatious wink. “I’ll wait right here.”

The girl stopped again, once more batting her lashes with an expression of thought which suggested it was a difficult labor for her. “But…but if he doesn’t know you’re here…”

“He knows,” Darling said quietly. “I can be patient. For a while.”

She tilted her blonde head to one side, staring quizzically up at him, then her expression cleared and she smiled, a touch too warmly. “Well, then, if you’re sure. Maybe while we wait—”

The projectile made only the softest sound when it punched through the glass of the front window, boring a neat hole rather than shattering the whole pane. It struck her perfectly on the side of her graceful neck and lodged there, little more than a needle attached to a pencil-thick length of rune-engraved wood. The girl managed a single gurgle and collapsed, slumping against the sofa with one arm draped across it, her head lolling back.

“I don’t think that was called for,” said Quentin Vex, stepping into the room and regarding Darling with a mildly disapproving expression. “There’s really no point in asking what happened to my house guards, is there?”

Darling stepped over to the fallen woman and calmly plucked the dart from her neck, tucking it into his pocket. “There we go; wouldn’t want you to overdose. I’m told alchemical drugs are very precise, but no sense taking risks, eh?” In fact, there was virtually no risk at all, except of him leaving evidence.

Vex shook his head and strode forward. “If you insist on—”

“Not one more goddamned step, Quentin.”

He didn’t bother pulling out his knife. Vex halted two steps into the room, blinking somnolently.

Darling, meanwhile, picked up the girl’s hand, running his fingertips along her wrist, up under her sleeve. Her eyes tracked him, the only thing she could currently move; even her facial expression was frozen in vacancy.

“There we are,” he said in satisfaction, withdrawing the wand he found strapped to her forearm. “Long, baggy sleeves—not part of the kept bimbo’s customary uniform. She’s good, isn’t she? If I hadn’t come here looking for something like this, I’d never have given her a second thought. Oh, my, this is a nice piece, isn’t it?”

The wand was beautifully crafted, its haft bounded in fancifully wrought silver with a large pearl on the end. Darling held it up to the light, admiring the workmanship. It was a shortened variety, perfect for concealing in pockets, at the expense of most of its firepower and accuracy; a weapon like this was all but useless at a range of more than two yards, but a nasty surprise for up-close fighting. Illegal for exactly those reasons, of course. This was a type of wand favored by spies and criminals.

“A gift,” Vex said curtly.

“Well, I promise I shall treasure it,” Darling replied, giving the young woman a wink and slipping her wand into his own sleeve.

Vex cleared his throat. “Maybe you should consider not digging yourself any deeper, Antonio. Trixie isn’t someone you want for an enemy.”

“Oh. Really?” Darling stared down at the paralyzed girl, blinking in apparently thought, her hand still held in his. She gazed blankly back.

He shifted his grip, squeezed, and wrenched. In the quiet foyer, the snap of her wrist breaking was plainly audible. She couldn’t even blink, but her pupils shrank to pinpricks.

Vex had not so much as twitched. That said nothing about whether he cared for the girl; he was too much a professional, and the injury too easily healed. Darling hadn’t really expected him to show his hand in response to what amounted to petulance. “This begins to seem downright out of character, Antonio,” Vex said. “Not your actual character, of course, but the role you like to play in public. Are you sure you want to take the masks off?”

“They’re off,” Darling said curtly, straightening and dropping Trixie’s arm. Vex’s eyes locked on his, sharp and focused, with no trace of the spymaster’s normally sleepy expression. “My apprentices overheard the most interesting thing last night, Quentin. Care to hazard a guess what it was?”

“You have indulged in all the melodrama you’re going to, Antonio. Say your piece before I decide you’re not worth allowing to leave here.”

He didn’t acknowledge the threat, which they both knew was empty. All part of the scene. “I took the time to follow up on rumors rather than risking all this based on one source. And guess what? It seems pretty well confirmed that the newly-unhinged Hands of the Emperor have acquired the ability to teleport.”

He took one step forward; Vex held his ground, eyes narrowed.

“So perhaps you can clarify something for me,” Darling said icily. “I have the Emperor hidden, at your request, with a member of my Guild—in her own home, where a child lives. All this on the presupposition that if the Hands start moving in his direction, your people on the scene will know in advance and have time to give warning and get my people to safety. Perhaps you would like to explain to me, Quentin, how they are meant to do this if the Hands can be on the site instantly?”

“Oh, don’t stop now,” Vex sneered. “Finish your monologue, Antonio. Storybook villainy suits you so perfectly.”

With the tiniest jerk of his arm, Darling dropped the wand out of his sleeve into his hand and shot him.

That, finally, got a reaction. The room was too long and the wand too inaccurate to hit at that distance, but the unfocused blast of light smashed a fairy lamp and charred a wide burn in the wallpaper far too close to Vex for comfort; the spymaster bolted to the side, bringing up a weapon of his own from behind his belt.

They froze, wands aimed at each other. The wall smoldered.

“You find me annoying, I know,” Darling said calmly. “You don’t know whose side I am truly on, and even as well as you control yourself, it irritates you, the way I play both ends against the middle.”

“Both?” Vex spat. “There are far more ends than that in your game.”

“Well, if you want to know what really matters to me, congratulations! You’ve forced my hand, Quentin.” Darling’s voice rose steadily as he continued. “You do not screw over the Thieves’ Guild! You came to me in good faith, promising to look after one of my people if she did the Throne an enormous favor. I added my own word to this. You made me a liar, put Eserites at risk of harm by your own agents, and broke faith with Eserion after coming to us for help. Do you have any idea what you’ve nearly sparked off? You can’t possibly not know! The Guild has taken kings right off their thrones for lesser insults than this!”

“Oh, spare me,” Vex snarled, no sign of his customary reserve in place. “Don’t you dare try to paint this as some kind of moral issue, you hypocrite. You’re no less a cold-blooded snake than I, and you know damn well what thrones and guilds are like! Yours, mine, everyone’s, everywhere. We did what we had to do, it required playing loose with the truth, and if it had all gone well, you’d never have been the wiser. Well, you caught me, fine. Win some, lose some. There’s nobody here but us bastards, Antonio; insult me by playing the martyr and I may decide to take all this personally.”

“I’m going to show you a little more of who I really am, Quentin,” Darling said flatly. “Right now, what I ought to do, as a faithful servant of Eserion, is take this right to the Boss and call for punishment for this hubris. We both know what would happen next—or at least, one of us does, and one has a general sort of idea.” Slowly, he lowered his arm. Vex did not do likewise, keeping the wand aimed at him, but his eyes flicked momentarily to the hole punched in his window, and he did not fire. “Instead, I’ve pulled out all the stops to stay his hand. You’ll never know how hard I had to lean on Tricks to keep this under wraps—and I only did that because I didn’t think I could keep it from him. I did this to stop the kind of bloodbath that should ensue when a sitting Emperor betrays the cult of Eserion the way ours just did. I did this because I am not your enemy, despite your apparent effort to make one of me.”

He slipped the wand into the pocket of his coat, eyes never leaving Vex’s.

“So now, I’m going to go to the home of my friend and Guildmate Peepers, and inform her that her houseguest lied and screwed us over and placed her and her little brother in immense physical jeopardy. I will not harm him in any way, nor allow her to—and not gonna lie, it may be a hell of a task to stop her. But his safe house is about to be gone. You’ve got that long to find another place to stash him. That’s your problem, not mine; in the position you’ve stuck me in, I can’t do you any more favors, however positively I may feel toward the Emperor. Or did until very recently, anyway. And that’s the end of it, Quentin. The Empire will not retaliate—against me, against Peepers, against the Guild. You will not interfere with me going over there. This all hangs by a thread, which you will cut if you make one more move in a direction the Boss finds even mildly distasteful. Understand?”

Darling held his gaze one moment longer before turning his back. He grasped the door handle, but paused before turning it, and spoke without looking back at Vex.

“You can’t fuck up like this again. Not one more time. I’ve worked too long and too hard to keep the Guild and the Throne in good standing with each other. No matter what duress you’re under, Quentin, do not make us enemies. We’ve both got much bigger fish to fry.”

Finally, he opened the door and stepped out.


The Imperial Guard, naturally, raised their weapons as someone teleported directly into the residence. In theory, only duly authorized mages should have been able to get through the wards, but those guarding the harem wing had recently had harsh lessons about the danger of trusting too much in their defenses.

Neither Vex nor the Azure Corps battlemage batted an eye at the staves leveled at them, simply standing motionless and waiting for the all clear.

“Stand down,” the officer on duty said after a moment, and all four soldiers returned their weapons to the upright position, falling back into parade rest around the room.

“Thank you, Major,” Vex said to the mage who had brought him. The man saluted, stepped back from him, and then with a short sparkle of blue light, vanished. The spymaster turned back to the officer who had spoken. “Where is she?”

“Here,” Eleanora herself stated, gliding into the room. “Fortunately—or is that why you chose to come during my customary tea time?” Despite her light tone, the Empress’s expression was sharp, tension visible in the set of her shoulders.

“I did not decide on the timing myself, your Majesty,” Vex replied, nodding deeply in a gesture that was nearly a bow. “I came to report that it’s in motion, now. Darling bought it.”

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12 – 31

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Milanda emerged from the barracks again, which was still like stepping indoors. It had taken a little doing to figure out how the Infinite Order’s toilet facilities worked; the basics were familiar, but the controls were totally alien. In the end, she had had to ask the computer for instructions, which was humiliating, even though she knew the talking machine wasn’t capable of passing judgment or finding humor at her expense.

Strange and awkward, yes, but also luxurious. The facilities allotted for security personnel compared favorably to any luxury she had enjoyed in the Palace. Once she figured out how to work them, at least.

After that, navigating the kitchen had been relatively simple. All she wanted was a cup of strong tea. The exact blend which had been produced by the fabricator was unfamiliar; the computer had identified it as Earl Grey. After one sip, Milanda decided she was going to have to come back for more of this when there was time.

Regardless, she had taken only enough time to refresh herself with a quick wash and an invigorating drink before heading back to the security hub. The barracks was still displaying Hawaiian Night, and while she didn’t know what Hawaiian meant, the warm tropical darkness was enough to make her want to stretch out on one of the bunks and let the birdsong and night breeze carry her off to sleep. She had no time for that, though. Feeling somewhat re-invigorated despite the long time she’d been awake, she stepped out.

Walker was still hunched over her screen; for a being whose very name implied movement and who had spent years in a cell, she seemed remarkably devoted to that machine.

“Feeling better?” the fairy asked without looking up.

“Much, thank you. I’ll be back shortly; we have a lot more to do, and I won’t feel comfortable loafing in my own bed until it’s done. But these events do need to be reported as quickly as possible.”

“Just a moment, please,” Walker said as Milanda made her way through the maze of crates toward the door. “I’ve uncovered something you might find relevant—or at least, worth carrying to the Emperor.”

“Oh?” She turned to face her. Ever since the Avatar’s ritual, she felt stronger and more vigorous, but it had been a long day. Another cup of that tea would’ve been heavenly…

“With our intrusive friend thoroughly offline for the time being, I’ve been examining his pattern of incursions, most of which are every bit as fumbling and incompetent as I told you. I wouldn’t absolutely swear his tampering with the Hands program was deliberate or malicious.”

“Considering where he was working from, I rather think it was,” Milanda said impatiently. “You said this was important…”

“So,” Walker continued, “I looked farther back, to that other incident ten years ago. The one where this system was accessed under Scyllith’s credentials from Fabrication Plant One.”

“Puna Dara, yes. I remember.”

“I’ve identified the changes made,” Walker said, fingers gliding across the screen and bringing up boxes on it. Streams of numbers and text, mostly, but she also displayed a picture of a plant for some reason, shifting so Milanda could see it and turning to look at her. “That one didn’t alter the existing functions of the Hand system, but added something to it. Another signal piggybacked on it, disseminated through what I think was a specific wing of the Palace.”

“Oh?” Despite her fatigue, Milanda’s attention sharpened.

“You see,” Walker said, folding her hands in her lap and regarding Milanda with an expression that was becoming familiar, “all the Infinite Order’s biological projects can be broadly sorted into two categories: those which do and do not require transcension field energy to survive. There are, unfortunately, several sapient strains in the first group, notably elves. But as is the case with any life form created with and from transcension fields, the ongoing interaction—”

“Walker,” Milanda interrupted, “is this going to be another ten-minute speech, filled with flowery language and dramatic pauses and sweeping revelations I’ll find out later from the Avatar were just your opinion?”

The fairy stared at her in silence, mouth slightly open.

Milanda raised an eyebrow. “Can you summarize it?”

After another moment of silence, Walker snapped her mouth shut, her nostrils flaring once in a silent snort of irritation which served to accent the uncanny daintiness of her nose.

“The system powering the Hands of the Emperor has been modified, in this event ten years ago, to disseminate the essence of a magical plant called silphium through part of the Palace. The Emperor’s residence, I think. The essence of this would render any female mammals in the radius of influence infertile while within it, and probably for a few years thereafter.”

Now, it was Milanda’s turn to silently stare. Shock hit her first, followed by comprehension and the uncomfortable familiarity of realizations which made all too much sense. And then, rage.

She clamped down on all of them to be dealt with later.

“I see,” she said aloud. “Thank you very much. You were right; that is important, and well worth telling the Empress. I’m glad you stopped me.”

“Are you,” Walker said tonelessly.

Milanda nodded, and turned to go. “All right, I’ll be back as soon as I can. Don’t cause trouble.”

“Thanks to your security protocols, there’s a stark limit to what trouble I can cause.”

“Well, don’t test them, please.” At the door, she paused, one hand on the frame, then turned and smiled at the ex-valkyrie, who was still staring at her. “When I come back, you can give me that speech. It sounded like it would’ve been interesting.”

“Just go,” Walker snorted, finally turning back to her computer.

The door hissed shut behind Milanda, and she stared at the screen, for the moment not touching it. After a few seconds, a smile began to stretch across her features. Shaking her head, she chuckled, and then got back to work.


“If this is anything less than disastrously urgent, I am going to have one of them flogged,” Eleanora announced as she emerged from her chambers.

Lord Vex awaited her in the hall, looking just as composed and well-rested as she, which meant he was probably every bit as weary and disgruntled at being rousted at one in the morning. They had both taken time to groom and compose themselves, as it would not do to appear before someone like the Archpope in any state which so much as hinted at weakness.

“May I suggest Bishop Darling in that case, your Majesty,” Vex said diffidently. “Assaulting a sitting Archpope would create…complications.”

She gave him a flat glance, at which he smiled blandly, then turned to stride up the hall without bothering to point out the havoc the Thieves’ Guild would unleash if she actually had their Bishop and former Boss whipped. His comment had been as facetious as hers, and she didn’t keep Vex around for his skill as a humorist.

They were intercepted at the next intersection of hallways by, if not the last person Eleanora had expected to meet at this hour, someone who placed high on the list.

“Oh, your Majesty, perfect,” Milanda Darnassy said in a tone of obvious relief, curtsying deeply. “I’m so glad I found you so quickly. I have a great deal to report.”

“Yes, so I would imagine,” Eleanora replied. “I’m very glad to see that you’re safe, Milanda. Right now, however, we are on the way to deal with an urgent matter of state, as you might surmise from Lord Vex’s presence in the harem wing at this hour. Please make yourself comfortable and we shall be back with you soon.”

“Urgent matter?”

“Yes,” the Empress said somewhat impatiently. “Not to downplay the significance of your own tasks, but I have to prioritize. Things have become increasingly hectic in your absence. Now, if you will excuse me…”

“Of course, your Majesty,” Milanda said quickly, curtsying again, but continued as Eleanora swept past her. “Does this happen to involve the Universal Church?”

The Empress slammed to a halt, turning to give the concubine a piercing look. Vex regarded her thoughtfully, as well.

“Now why,” Eleanora asked quietly, “would you ask that?”

“I suspected the Archpope might do something, which is why I came up to find you in the middle of the night,” Milanda replied. “You should know, your Majesty, that I have not yet repaired the damage done to the Hands of the Emperor, but for the moment insured no further changes will be made, and ascertained that the source of the problem came from within the Grand Cathedral.”

The Empress and her spymaster gazed at Milanda in silence.

“Also, I’ve just learned that there’s a related problem which has been causing infertility in every woman in this wing of the Palace.”

Eleanora, despite all her training and experience, felt a furious expression descend on her features. She drew in a long, deep breath through her nose.

“You are busy, of course,” Milanda said smoothly, unperturbed. “If you need to address something urgently, I can of course wait; the situation below appears stable, for the moment.”

Eleanora turned a flat look on Vex. “Upon consideration, Quentin, I think we had better hear Ms. Darnassy’s detailed report first. His Holiness can await my convenience a while longer.”

“His Holiness is likely to take that as a hostile gesture,” Vex pointed out.

The Empress drew back her upper lip in an expression that was not a smile. “I have never cared less about Justinian’s feelings than at this moment.”


The solarium was a downright eerie place at night; even with the fairy lamps ignited, the ferns and flowers didn’t look quite right. The entire room was laid out to be beautiful in the sunlight, which its towering glass walls were enchanted to magnify appropriately, Tiraas’s climate being what it was. In Theasia’s day, this had been a private refuge, but Sharidan had installed suitable arrangements of furniture to use it as a private and informal place to receive petitioners.

It was after three in the morning by the time Justinian and Darling had finally left. Eleanora had remained quiet through most of their presentation, watching them. Neither man had shown surprise at Vex’s presence, though both had given Milanda speculative looks. It was impossible to say how far outside the harem wing Eleanora’s lack of personal warmth toward the Emperor’s favorite concubine was known; they had no shortage of servants, and servants did gossip. If anybody in Tiraas bothered to keep up with such seemingly irrelevant social minutia, it would be those two. Regardless, Eleanora could not help noticing that Milanda and Darling seemed to take mirrored roles in the discussion: quiet, a step behind their respective leaders, not overtly involved, but listening. Even in the presence of Empresses and Archpope, Antonio Darling was not a man to step back and shut up, which suggested that he was as much in the dark and being led along as Milanda. This both amused and intrigued her.

Vex had led the way in the discussion, asking questions and with occasional prompts from Eleanora. Justinian would not fail to find some significance in that, which was fine with her. Let him chase his tail. She had likewise deflected his inquiries about the Emperor’s absence, which could potentially lead him to discovering actually worthwhile facts, but there was nothing to be done about that.

The whole time, Milanda’s revelations had laid firmly in the forefront of her mind while she listened to Justinian spin a web of artifacts of the Elder Gods and Punaji cults.

“It’s all so very…plausible,” she mused after their guests had been absent for nearly a full minute. “His account is reflected in Milanda’s. It perfectly matches hers if he is telling the complete truth… And just as perfectly if he was behind all our recent troubles and now urgently covering his derriere.”

“He cannot know how much we know,” Vex observed. “Vagueness and scrupulous adherence to all possibly known facts would be vital in constructing a suitable story. Of course, if he is telling the truth, we cannot afford to risk worsening the situation by acting rashly.”

“How much do you know about this…Rust?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he said immediately. “If it is a matter occurring in Punaji territory, I can assure your Majesty of two things: my people will have observed it, and if it has not been brought to my attention, they did not deem it significant. He described it as a cult, which fits. The lack of organized religion among the Punaji leaves fertile ground for those to crop up. They either implode on their own or are cleaned out by Rajakhan.”

Milanda cleared her throat diffidently. “Excuse me, your Majesty, but…he was not telling the truth. I have access to a great deal more information down there than the Archpope can possibly know, and my source strongly indicated his own efforts to use the Elders’ machines have been halting and clumsy in comparison to Theasia’s, and now Walker’s.”

“Yes, and we should discuss that, now that no one is waiting on us,” Eleanora said sharply, turning to her. “I believe I heard Sharidan specifically tell you not to let that creature out.”

“Not specifically,” Milanda replied, gazing right back at her in complete calm. “Specificity was impossible, given the geas he was under. I’m fortunate to have escaped that; it must be tied into the Hand system. Regardless, yes, releasing the Dark Walker was a risk. It was a calculated one, however, taken with ample precautions, and has paid off. If any harm comes of it, I will of course take full responsibility.”

Eleanora stared at her, firmly concealing her surprise.

Milanda has always been downright submissive around her, which was the lion’s share of the reason Eleanora had never liked her. Some women legitimately did enjoy being told what to do, and the lack of responsibility that came from being kept. Milanda, though, had a spine and plenty of personality; she was just selective about where she displayed them. Knowing that, having seen it at a distance, made Eleanora both mistrust and personally dislike her for the constant diffidence she showed. The woman before her now was totally self-possessed, unintimidated, and seemingly constitutionally incapable of bowing her neck, despite her complete courtesy. If only she’d been like this for the last few years, Eleanora suspected they would be friends by now. As it was, the sudden change was deeply alarming, especially in this situation.

She leaned back in the throne-like chair positioned with its back dramatically to the view over the city, and drummed her fingers on the armrests. “Very well; for now, I will have to be content with that. Frankly I cannot say anyone could have done better under the circumstances. Your efforts are greatly appreciated, Milanda.”

Milanda simply nodded in acknowledgment.

“I will, of course, get all available information on the Rust immediately from my department,” said Vex, “and instruct my agents in the field to get more. If we are to follow Ms. Darnassy’s suggestion and consider this a red herring, however, that cannot be our primary focus. Counter-action against Justinian is obviously necessary, but we are constrained.”

“Yes,” Eleanora said, thinking aloud. Gods, it was late; she was so damned tired. “The Throne cannot act directly against the Church without overwhelming evidence of malfeasance. Our evidence, though solid, might not be compelling enough, and anyway the need to protect Imperial secrets means we can’t even present it. Going for Justinian directly would create massive pushback from the cults, as well as the population in general. In the worst case, it could be the Enchanter Wars all over again.”

“It is, of course, never my policy to do anything directly, your Majesty,” Vex said with a thin smile.

Milanda cleared her throat. “Our actions against the Church’s computer was designed to leave the connection open while destroying his ability to use it, at least temporarily. It may be possible to act through that.”

“Rather than acting,” said Vex, “I suggest you see if you can gather more information through it. This matter with sylphreed is a great deal less sensitive than the systems which maintain the Hands. Using forbidden artifacts of the Elder Gods to terminate the Tirasian line of succession is a story that holds together—sensational, but plausible. If we can obtain evidence, we can quite possibly have Justinian deposed. The Sisterhood, the Guild, and the Veskers would back us, and those are the three who matter.” They were, he did not need to add, the three cults which had effectively overthrown the previous dynasty after it had used the Enchanter’s Bane on Athan’Khar.

“That’s another thing,” said Eleanora, “and the thing which disturbs me. You said this change which added sylphreed to the system was done from Puna Dara. Ten years ago, and by someone more skilled in the system’s use than Justinian’s lackey. Now, he points to Punaji lands as the source of this new problem. I don’t believe in coincidence.”

“If the Rust is something Justinian has been monitoring,” said Vex, “or possibly even something he created, the matter still hangs together neatly.”

“But then why would their attack have been so much neater and more successful than what he has done now?” She shook her head. “Too many questions, not enough answers… Quentin, I am considering how much we can trust Elder Mylion. He was unsurprised to learn of Tellwyrn’s involvement, and from the moment she mentioned dryads, I have been thinking we might find elven representatives useful if we could find one trustworthy.”

“I vetted Mylion as thoroughly as possible on short notice,” said Vex. “I am still in the process of investigating him comprehensively. I urge your Majesty to wait for the outcome of that before involving him in something this sensitive. At the least, that will give him more time to demonstrate his trustworthiness, or lack thereof.”

“Sensible,” she agreed, nodding. “Which leaves us with the question of what to do about Justinian in the meantime.”

“Indirect action of the sort that seems to be needed is normally my department,” he said with a grimace, “but matters are complicated by the current situation with the Hands. They will unavoidably learn of it if I enact a major campaign against the Church’s assets; then, inevitably, they will learn why. In their current state of instability, I shudder to think what they might do. If the Hands attack the Church…”

“Yes, we’ve been over that,” she said wearily.

“The Avatar arranged for me to have some of the Hands’ advantages,” Milanda reminded her. She was now staring at Eleanora with an intensity that made her uneasy. “Walker is doing most of the actual work through the computers; I may see what I can find down there that will enable me to come and go from the facility without having to go through the Palace. I know they have methods of teleportation; I’ve had to use one to get around.”

“She is totally off the books,” Vex mused, “unknown to the Hands… Or at least, not known outside the context of his Majesty’s personal life. Which also creates the advantage of deniability if she is caught.”

“Milanda has far too much on her plate already to wage a shadow war on Justinian,” Eleanora exclaimed.

“Alone, certainly. But with some assets to leverage… She can investigate and possibly impair his operations in the city, perhaps even breach some of his facilities. In fact, I have just the thing: Panissar recently dumped three men in my lap who have ample experience keeping Imperial secrets, are not officially connected with the government, and are in fact in hiding at the moment.”

“What?” Eleanora demanded. “Who?”

The spymaster gave her a little smile. “Privates Finchley, Rook, and Moriarty, most recently stationed at Last Rock. If your Majesty has not been briefed, the short version is that the Hand currently out there threatened their safety to get at Tellwyrn, and they fled here, found a good lawyer, and got themselves discharged from the Army on the grounds of malfeasance by superior officers.”

“Where would those three idiots get the money for a lawyer who could pull that off?”

“That is officially a secret, which I have not deemed important enough to investigate directly, but given where they’ve been, I’d say either from Tellwyrn herself, Duchess Madouri, or Teal Falconer. Would you like me to find out?”

“Yes,” she snapped. “And I cannot believe you are suggesting involving those characters in this, Quentin.”

“They aren’t known to be especially competent,” he admitted. “Panissar had some godawful idea about involving them in my watch program over his Majesty, perish the thought. This is another matter, however. What’s most necessary here is their ability to keep a secret, and that much at least is proven. As for the rest… Ms. Darnassy will be the brains and heart of this operation, she simply needs more pairs of hands. And there is something to be said for cultivating expendable assets.”

“Very well,” she said wearily. “Given the corner we’re in, it’s the least terrible idea we are likely to find. Proceed.”

“Dryads,” Milanda said softly.

Eleanora turned to her, frowning. “I beg your pardon?”

“You mentioned Tellwyrn and dryads,” Milanda continued, still giving her that unnerving stare. “Implying that she mentioned them when she was here before.”

The Empress frowned. “Yes?”

“And it did not occur to you to mention the involvement of dryads to me before sending me down to where you knew they were?”

Vex, face impassive, subtly shifted to face Milanda, idly tucking a hand into his coat pocket.

“You’re right,” Eleanora said after a moment of tense silence. “That was a grave oversight. I apologize, Milanda. I’m very grateful no harm came to you because of it.”

Milanda nodded curtly. “Fine. I will return below and investigate the possibilities of getting in and out of the facility directly, avoiding the Palace. I’ll return when I know something; that should give Lord Vex time to make arrangements of his own. And I devoutly hope that any further oversights will be due to the confusion of these trying times, and not because you personally don’t care for me, Eleanora. Considering what is at stake. Excuse me.”

She turned and strode out of the room without waiting to be dismissed, shutting the door gently behind her.

Eleanora stared at the doors for a long time after she was gone. “Quentin… When are things ever going to start becoming less complicated instead of more?”

“Rest easy, your Majesty,” he said, smiling. “We’ll all be dead eventually.”

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12 – 25

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“I apologize for keeping you waiting,” Eleanora said as she entered the kitchen.

“Not at all, your Majesty.” Elder Mylion did not rise to greet her, but bowed politely from his position cross-legged on the floor, next to some kind of spell circle. “I’m certain your time is precious and your business important.”

“I also needed directions,” she admitted, stopping to peer around. “At the risk of sounding like an aristocratic cliché, I’ve never actually been in this room.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t usually look like this,” he said gravely. “Your staff seems quite efficient.”

Indeed, the harem wing’s kitchen was something of a mess. Mylion was surrounded by barrels, bags, and in some cases, disorganized heaps of food. Fruits and vegetables, beans and rice, various grains, sausages, spices both bottled and bagged, countless other items. There was some pattern to the disorder, things being generally separated into categories, but almost every container had been opened and some of its contents spilled out, as well as samples contained in the dozen ritual circles laid out on the flagstones all around him.

“All kitchen staff are currently being examined by my people,” Lord Vex said, lounging against a nearby counter and looking bored as usual. They were alone in the kitchen at present, Imperial Guards being stationed outside all the doors.

“Gently, I hope,” Eleanora said.

“Of course, your Majesty. At present, our assumption is that these are all loyal and dutiful servants, and the assumption will stay thus until we have solid evidence otherwise. In fact, according to the Elder’s findings, we may not have a spy here at all.”

“Oh?” She turned expectantly to the shaman. “Your message said you had found widespread sylphreed contamination.”

“Widespread is putting it mildly,” Mylion replied, frowning up at her. “Your Majesty…this is most peculiar. Most unnatural. I began by examining a random sampling of food containers, and found the presence of sylphreed in every one of my samples, without exception. Then I went through them more carefully; it took most of the morning, but I have determined that every single container in this kitchen, from the largest barrel to the smallest spice bottle, is tainted.”

“We’ve brought him samples from the main Palace kitchens,” Vex interjected, “and those apparently turned up negative. Only the harem wing’s supplies are affected. And that is a logistically significant finding; all the supplies that come here start there.”

“When I have finished here,” Mylion added, “I mean to prepare a sampling of the plant for your alchemists to examine, so they can test for it themselves. Alchemical methods may yield different results, or at least more precise ones. If I may be permitted to take some samples from the stocks here, I believe I can distill the essence of sylphreed for them from the food without needing to send to a grove for some. That would take weeks, at minimum. My own grove does not cultivate it.”

“Of course,” said the Empress, nodding. “Whatever you need.”

“Moving on,” he continued, “I began a series of more intensive divinations. Your Majesty… It’s everywhere. Everywhere. Every bean, every grain of rice, every infinitesimal speck of spice is touched by sylphreed. At least, every one I have tested. Obviously I’ve not examined every single iota of food in the kitchens that intensively, as I’ve not spent the requisite months at it. But at this point, I’ve been over what I consider a representative sampling, and am confident that is what I would find.”

Eleanora frowned, then looked between him and Vex. “That seems…excessive.”

“It almost completely rules out a physical delivery vector,” the spymaster agreed, nodding. “The only possible way such could be done would be to somehow distill sylphreed into some kind of liquid and spray all the food.”

“Which,” Mylion added, “would alter the texture and taste of most of it, and also would be impossible to do without attracting notice. Either your entire kitchen staff are involved, or none are.”

“When you say it rules out a physical delivery vector…”

“Yes, Lord Vex, I think the Empress should know of your other finding,” Mylion said seriously.

Vex actually sighed. “I’ve had my aide collate reports on the personal lives of every staff member who has worked in this wing of the Palace during Emperor Sharidan’s entire reign thus far. Beginning with the kitchen staff, but I expended it to all servants, and then soldiers. Your Majesty… I have to admit a serious failure in having failed to catch this before now, but we were simply not watching for patterns of this kind, and don’t habitually examine these aspects of everyone’s family life. I assure you, that is about to change. But to the point, none of the female staff, not one, have become pregnant while on duty here, nor within two years thereafter.”

“Two years is a highly significant time frame,” Mylion continued. “I assume a person of your education is aware of the way elves metabolize food?”

She nodded. “Yes, go on.”

“Two years,” the Elder explained, “is approximately how long the effects of sylphreed would remain in an elvish woman’s aura if she ingested the plant. That is an elf, though; our auras are slow to change once affected. In the case of humans, the dose would need to be administered weekly, at least, to remain effective. That is a large part of why your kind’s over-harvesting all but wiped it out. That, and habitat destruction, which…is a topic for another time.”

“If the substance is not being delivered physically,” she said, “and is affecting the humans exposed the way it would an elf…”

“And the third significant fact,” Mylion said, nodding, “is the distribution throughout the entirety of your food supply. Your Majesty, I don’t believe the actual plant has been introduced to your food. Its effects appear to be delivered by the dissemination of its magical essence into this wing of the Palace.”

“I had no idea that was even possible.”

“It is fae magic of an extremely sophisticated level,” he said seriously. “And it has its limits. There would be no way to focus the effect on the Palace or even the people here; that would take a constant, massive supply of sylphreed, applied to a constantly maintained spell. It would require less of the plant to just administer the drug conventionally to everyone. However, impregnating—forgive the pun—the food supplies here with its essence is another matter. There is a sympathetic principle at work, since these items are all biological in origin, most also being plants, and all are food. For this? A sufficiently skilled caster would not even need a sample of sylphreed. He or she could project its essence directly, from memory, assuming they had internalized it at some point in the past.”

“You suggest not just any shaman could do this,” she mused. “How much does this narrow the prospects?”

“Considerably.” Mylion finally rose, smoothing his hands along his vest. “Your Majesty, I am not certain I could do this. Examining the evidence, I can conceive a method in reverse, so the speak, but the actual doing would be exceedingly…tricky. Fae magic is far more organic and less methodical than the arcane, or even the divine. Each caster’s methods are different, at least subtly. But this? Only the most powerful shamans could create this effect. And that means the oldest. Your Majesty… If an elf is behind this, it is almost certainly a grove Elder. That being the case, we must know who, and address this recklessness. The tribes cannot tolerate such brash intervention in the Empire’s affairs; it threatens us all directly. Done by another sovereign state, this would be…”

“An act of war,” she said quietly when he trailed off.

Mylion nodded, his expression grim, almost haunted. “I must insist upon knowing who is responsible, if your agents are able to learn.”

“You insist?” Vex asked mildly.

“Quentin.” Eleanora’s tone of reproof was gentle, but unmistakable. “Elder Mylion is an honored guest, and is putting forth great effort for us, not to mention protecting our secrets—all of which are favors. Don’t forget that. Besides, in his position it is an extremely reasonable request. However,” she added to the shaman, “I must warn you, Elder, that if we identify and apprehend the culprit, the Empire will exercise its own right to justice in this matter. He or she is very unlikely to be handed over to any other party, for any reason.”

“I understand that,” he agreed. “I personally will not contest it, nor do I imagine that any of my fellow Elders would. I simply want to know who is behind this. We must identify any such behavior among our own, and yank it out, stem and root. The groves cannot afford to be implicated in antagonizing the Empire this way.”

“If anything,” Vex said lazily, “this raises prospects beyond the groves. This has clearly been going on longer than the Conclave has existed, so I doubt the dragons in the city could be involved. However, after the recent business in Viridill, we have word that Khadizroth the Green is not part of the Conclave, and has been associated with actors hostile to the Empire.”

“A green dragon could do this,” Mylion mused, frowning. “Any but the very youngest.”

“Also,” Vex added, “Mary the Crow has been repeatedly seen in the city of late.”

Mylion’s expression soured further. “The Crow could definitely do this. My intuitive response to the thought, though, is that it isn’t likely.”

“Oh?” Eleanora raised an eyebrow. “She is certainly hostile to the Empire, and this kind of roundabout scheme is far more her style than anything overtly violent. There is, in fact, a historical precedent of her interfering in lines of succession.”

“Yes,” the Elder agreed, “but as I said, actions of this kind bring danger to all elves. If she were caught, her position among the groves would be damaged irreparably. Even as tauhanwe as she is, the Crow values elves too much to take the risk, I think, much less to provoke the Elders this way.”

“And is that an impression, or certainty?” Vex inquired.

“An impression,” Mylion admitted. “One of which I am fairly confident, but it is not proof.”

Vex nodded. “Proof we don’t have. Not yet. But this is definite progress.”

“Doesn’t the Palace have wards against magical attack?” Eleanora demanded.

“The very best in existence, your Majesty,” Vex replied, his face falling into an irritated scowl. “But there is, as they say, always a bigger fish. I assure you, I will be revisiting this subject at length with our magical defenders in the days to come.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said impatiently, waving a hand. “For something like this to be in constant effect for ten years, through multiple cyclings and upgrades of the wards, it would have to be done by an entity with a clear and decisive magical advantage—over the Empire itself, which employs the best defenses available. That seems implausible.”

“It is, at the very least, highly mysterious,” Mylion agreed.

“If,” she continued, “it were penetrating the wards. But Quentin, do these wards function like shields around the Palace, or like detection fields within it?”

“That…depends on the wards in question, your Majesty,” he said, frowning in thought. “The wards are complex and multi-layered; that is an absolute necessity, considering they are meant to counter all four major schools and every known manifestation of shadow magic. Not all of them have identical coverage.”

“Then,” she said, “it seems to me that the most obvious blind spot someone could use against our defenses is if this magic were being cast from inside the Palace.”


The castle rose from a hill in the forest, surrounded by an infinite sea of trees stretching to the horizons on all sides. In fact, from its vantage, there should have been ample view of the mountains rising in the center of the island, the coast on the opposite side, and human cities in the distance, but that was not how the Twilight Forest worked.

It was a beautiful structure in the traditional Sifanese style, with high, subtly angled stone walls, battlements and arrow loops, and wooden walls rising above the fortifications, surmounted by decorated, sloping roofs. The boughs of massive, ancient cherry trees rose from multiple courtyards, standing higher than the walls in defiance of the castle’s apparent military purpose. They were heavily laden with pink blossoms, despite this being entirely the wrong season. It was also the wrong season for the thick snow which was falling over the castle, and only over the castle. The effect was beautiful, though, and that was what mattered.

Their feet crunched only subtly in the snowfall as they crossed the bridge to the castle’s opened gates, Emi skipping along ahead, carefree as a lark. Tellwyrn followed more sedately, looking appreciatively around at the scenery.

The tanuki dangled limply from her hand, her fingers clutching him by the scruff of his neck. He whimpered, softly and constantly, front paws covering his eyes, rear ones trailing despondently along in the snow. Considering how fat he was, and how thin Tellwyrn’s arms were, it looked downright odd that she could carry him with no apparent effort.

“Good day.”

There had been no one present when they first approached, but suddenly another kitsune was there, just inside the gates. Taller than Emi and with raven-black ears and tail, she was dressed in a much simpler style of robe, with a traditional sword and short sword thrust in her sash. She regarded the approaching party calmly, one ear twitching.

Tellwyrn stopped and bowed to her.

“Kyomi!” Emi squealed, bouncing up to her. “Look, look who’s come to visit! It’s Kuni-chan!”

“I can’t believe you still let her call you that,” Kyomi said dryly to Tellwyrn. “You know it just encourages her.”

“Yes,” Tellwyrn replied with a faint smile, “but arguing about it would only encourage her more. Someday, I really must find time to come back and play those little games, but I’m afraid I have responsibilities right now, and no free time to endlessly push that boulder up that hill.”

Kyomi nodded in simple understanding, while Emi tittered in delight, now skipping around her with her tail bouncing gaily.

“Well met, then; on whatever business you have come, it is always a pleasure, Arachne. What brings you?”

“Oh, she’s looking for Kaisa,” Emi reported, coming to a stop nearby and smiling coquettishly.

“Ah. I thought she was waiting for someone. Kaisa has been unusually reserved since she got back.”

“Nice to know I’m so predictable,” Tellwyrn muttered. “So she is here?”

“Of course she is,” Emi said reproachfully. “I brought you here, didn’t I?”

“In the courtyard just beyond,” Kyomi said, half-turning to nod at an interior gate which opened onto a snow-dusted garden, past the wider but shallower gravel-paved ground onto which the castle’s main gate opened. “She doubtless is expecting you.”

“Then I’d best not keep her waiting,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “Something tells me this is a conversation I won’t enjoy.”

“They never are,” Kyomi replied, smiling mysteriously and ignoring Emi’s gales of laughter. “Will you have time for a game of go while you are in the country, Arachne? None of my sisters play with quite your aggressive style.”

“I have to return to my school more urgently than usual, I’m afraid. You know, if you’re that eager to see me embarrassed, you could always visit me, for once.”

“I could do that, yes,” the solemn kitsune replied in a tone suitable for commenting on the weather.

“Go right ahead,” Emi added with a broad grin which showed off her long incisors, pointing at the quivering tanuki still dangling from Tellwyrn’s hand. “I’ll keep an eye on that for you.”

“Thank you, Emi,” the elf said courteously, dropping him to the snowy planks of the bridge with no further ceremony. She paused only to bow again to both women before proceeding toward the inner gate.

“What’s this about?” Kyomi inquired, studying Tellwyrn’s erstwhile captive, who sat huddled in the snow, seemingly without the nerve even to try to run.

“Well,” Emi said with predatory relish, “it seems Maru has been tricking travelers into pit traps with the promise of giving them directions if they do him a favor.”

“Yes,” Kyomi said disinterestedly. “And?”

“And,” Emi drawled, “he tried that on Kuni-chan, and she didn’t fall for it.”

“Well, of course she didn’t.”

“And then, rather than honoring his promise, he tried to run.”

Very slowly, Kyomi turned her head to stare down at the tanuki. Her ears shifted to lie flat backward, and one hand drifted to rest on the pommel of her katana. “Maru.”

He let out a muted wail, prostrating himself in the snow before them.

“Anyway,” Emi continued gaily, “she has a claim on him, obviously. For now.”

“Yes,” Kyomi agreed, “for now. A favor is owed. And after that, we will discuss manners.”

Maru fainted.


“And I’m afraid that’s all we’re going to get out of him for now, your Holiness,” Delilah said apologetically. “He’s…focused, now.”

“So I see,” Justinian replied, favoring her with a brief smile before transferring his gaze back to Rector, who was puttering about his machine, carefully pulling levers with slow, smooth motions. As each slid into place, one of the attached power crystals hummed to life, putting off a steady glow. “It’s quite all right; I have long since resigned myself to appreciating the fruits of his work without necessarily understanding them.”

“Sorry about the delay, your Holiness,” Ildrin added, hovering at his other shoulder on the little porch overlooking the cave in which Rector’s workshop was set up. “After the last…incident…”

“Yes, of course,” Justinian said calmly. “Not to worry. Since our man of the hour is again distracted, ladies, were you able to discern from anything he said at the time whether the disconnection was deliberate?”

“You mean, on the part of the other…Avatar?” Delilah frowned. “Honestly, your Holiness, I have no idea. I was concentrating on keeping him…well, stable. He took that disruption rather hard at the time, though he bounced back from the disappointment unusually quickly. I take that to mean he is close to a breakthrough. His episodes always become both shorter and more frequent in proximity to real progress.”

“He mentioned it as a possibility,” Ildrin said quietly. Delilah turned to her, blinking in surprise, and she shrugged. “You’re better at keeping him happy when he’s in a mood, Dee. At times like that, I concentrate on listening to his muttering. There’s sometimes something worthwhile amid the noise.”

“There’s always something worthwhile,” Delilah said a little defensively. “Every thought he has is worthwhile. They just aren’t always sensible to others.”

“Of course, I didn’t mean to be disparaging,” Ildrin said, nodding. “I certainly don’t doubt Rector’s brilliance. But as you were asking, your Holiness, he mentioned that possibility while talking to himself. I don’t…think he came to a conclusion in that regard. He also muttered about it being an overload in his own system, or just another random failure…”

“I see,” the Archpope mused. “Regardless, I appreciate you keeping me informed. It sounds as if this attempt may yield significant results. It would be quite pleasant to observe one of these successes firsthand, for once, rather than hearing of it after the fact.” He smiled at each of them before turning his focus back to Rector, who had just activated the magic mirror which formed the focus of his sprawling device.

The peculiar symbol appeared on its surface, followed by the circle slowly burning itself down to nothing, and then the mirror turned white.

“Avatar template loaded,” a passionless voice said, crackling from interference. “Warning: personality subroutines inactive. Social subroutines inactive. Ethics parameters disabled. Overall intelligence reduced to ten percent of optimal value. Avatar individuation is impossible. Do you wish to continue using the template in debug mode?”

“Yes!” Rector cried impatiently. “Yes, as always, let’s get on with it!”

“Yes,” Archpope Justinian repeated very softly, watching. “Let it begin.”

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12 – 17

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Mylion was accustomed to ignoring stares and whispers after his time in Tiraas, and found it interesting and something of a relief that neither occurred in the Palace. It only made sense; courtiers and politicians were always reserved people, and their servants and guards had to be no less so. If anything, he was made to feel more welcome here than in most of the city thus far. Many paid him no mind at all, but those who took note of his presence usually did so with smiles, bows, and polite greetings.

Fortunately, he was not expected nor able to stop and engage any of them, thanks to the pace set by the Palace steward guiding him, and enforced by the two soldiers bringing up the rear. The steward had not told him so in as many words, but he knew well that their black uniforms signified the Imperial Guard. That was as much as he knew, save that the Empress herself wished to meet with him.

Their path ended in an ornate hall, outside a heavily carved door of highly polished oak. The steward turned to him with a courteous smile and rapped at the door with his knuckles.

“Enter,” came her voice from within.

The steward turned the handle and pushed the door open, then stepped back and bowed deeply to Mylion. There was nothing for him to do but nod in acknowledgment and step inside.

Empress Eleanora was engaged in some kind of paperwork at a roll-top desk; upon the moment of his entry, she was in the process of pushing it aside and pulling down the covering, then stood to greet him. Mylion did not attempt to sneak a glance at its contents. They were unlikely to interest him, and she might notice.

The door shut behind him, and he noted that both the steward and the guards had remained outside; he was now alone in this little drawing room with the Empress. Well, that suggested she meant him no immediate harm. There was that, anyway.

“Elder Mylion,” she said, gliding across the layered Calderaan carpet to him. She offered her hand, somewhat to his surprise, in a customary human handshake, not positioning it for a kiss as seemed to be the custom for noblewomen.

“Your Majesty,” he replied, grasping her hand and adding a shallow bow.

“Thank you for attending me so quickly,” she said, withdrawing her hand. “I hope the extremely short notice has not inconvenienced your plans in the city unduly. Your willingness to accommodate me is greatly appreciated.”

“Your concern is likewise appreciated, your Majesty,” he replied calmly. “Your invitation was most polite—also appreciated. Of course, that does not diminish my awareness that a personal summons from the Imperial throne is in no way a request.”

Her expression didn’t alter by a hair. “On the contrary, Elder, I haven’t asked you here to put you out any more than I must. The truth is, I have a favor to ask. If you are unable or disinclined to accommodate me, you will be escorted back to your inn with my thanks, and apologies for the loss of your morning. Please, have a seat.”

She directed him to a chair upholstered in silken brocade, seating herself in an identical one positioned not quite across from it, but at an oblique angle, such that they could maintain eye contact easily without locking their attention upon one another. A small table was positioned between them and enough to the side that it was not in the way, with a gilt-edged wooden box sitting upon it. Mylion seated himself slowly. She had not offered him refreshments, as was polite in most cultures, but then, there were none in the room. He judged that if this woman planned to insult him, she would not do it in such a brash way as eating or drinking while he went without.

This was the first time he had seen her, making it a point as he did to avoid human nobility—a hard-learned lesson from his youth. Eleanora Tirasian was much as rumor described her: beautiful and powerfully self-possessed. She was reputed to be a crafty and ruthless person as well, but so far, at least, had been nothing but polite. Hopefully that would continue. Hopefully her promise on the subject of his release would be kept. Oh, the steward who had appeared at his inn this morning had been very polite, almost unctuous, but it was as Mylion had said to her. One did not refuse a direct request from the Empress. He had decided to avoid needless trouble by not bothering to try.

“First,” she said evenly, “what I wish to discuss with you is a matter of great sensitivity. I must ask for your word, before proceeding, that you will keep this in the strictest confidence. No one can be told of this.”

Mylion regarded her in silence; she simply gazed back, showing none of the impatience that humans usually did when stared at. Well, it only made sense that one of the world’s preeminent politicians would have learned the value of patience.

“My loyalty,” he said finally, “is to my tribe above all. The elves as a whole second, and with them, the balance of nature itself. I am willing to be of help to humanity, and even political groups of humans such as your Empire, but you must understand your position upon my list of personal priorities. I mean no insult, your Majesty, but you ask for a blanket promise under unknown circumstances. I can’t possibly give a guarantee, when I don’t know what effect this matter will have upon my people.”

At that, she actually smiled slightly. “You’re concerned that we have designs upon your groves?”

“In fact, we watch the Empire carefully for such designs. Many elves my own age and more still resent having been pushed into our current lands, from the much broader fields we once roamed.”

“The Elven Reservation Act does grant your people free passage across Imperial territory.”

He smiled in return, very thinly. “It is quite a thing, being allowed to tread upon lands which were our homes for centuries before their current inhabitants existed. But I take your point. No, I don’t suspect the Empire of meaning harm to the groves; it has been a fairly respectful neighbor in recent centuries. Serious human incursions haven’t been a problem since you settled the Enchanter Wars, and your own dynasty has been…diplomatically amenable, when we have occasionally found need to parley. My concern is more general.”

She nodded. “Fair enough. Matters are already uncertain on our part, with elves flitting about and communicating between groves at a rate unprecedented in our history, not to mention actually holding congress with various Narisians. I suppose my request for a blanket statement must seem equally mysterious.”

“I am, of course, unable to comment on grove business,” he said serenely.

The Empress leaned subtly forward. “For our part, we have learned to leave the elves alone, by and large, because little profit has ever come from trying to force our attentions on them. I have only a general sense of why elves disdain widespread commerce with human nations, but in the end, the space between us is largely by your choice. I can only imagine what the last hundred years must have looked like, to immortals. I would certainly understand if you feared coming to the same end as the Cobalt Dawn.”

“No elves I know have ever blamed the Empire for that,” he said immediately. “The Cobalt Dawn tribe lived deep within the Golden Sea; tribes from the borderlands, who actually interacted with the human settlers, warned them not to attempt their conquest, and were ignored. We are a reclusive people, your Majesty. There is little we respect more than a group’s right to defend itself.”

She nodded. “We have made dizzying progress recently, and at a rapid pace. And as I look over the history of the Empire since the Enchanter Wars, the theme that constantly jumps out at me is connection. The more advanced we become, the smaller the world grows. Frictions inevitably result. We all have to learn to live with the proximity of those who used to be only distantly seen. Even the dragons have learned this lesson; I’m sure you are aware of the Conclave of the Winds. I may be wrong, but it appears to me that with the elves have made the same discovery. If it’s not the reason your groves and Tar’naris are suddenly in more constant contact, it must at least be a result.”

She leaned back again, folding her hands in her lap, and regarded him closely. “I did not ask you here for purposes of general diplomacy, Elder Mylion. I have a very specific need, and according to Intelligence, you are the most likely person in the city to have my answers.”

“I?” he inquired.

The Empress smiled again. “There are only a few Elders who leave their groves, and fewer still who happen to be in Tiraas at the moment. I also wished to speak with one who is a shaman of well-known skill. You were the most convenient prospect.”

“I see.”

“But now that we are here,” she continued, “it seems diplomacy is called for, and that is how I see this matter, Elder. I am asking you to meet me in the middle. I will respect your privacy, and you will respect mine. And by doing this, I also demonstrate that the Silver Throne is not too proud to ask for help, when necessary. Perhaps this will set the stage for further reciprocity between us.”

Mylion permitted himself a small sigh. “Rulership must be a relentless teacher… You speak with admirable wisdom for one so young.”

“You flatter me,” she said with a smile. “Twice.”

“Flattery is empty,” he said wryly. “I give compliments when they are warranted, and often with qualifiers. ‘Young’ is not a term of esteem where I am from. I do see the sense of your argument, your Majesty. Very well… I will grant you this. If I can help you without compromising my duty to my people, I will do so. That duty will always come first, and will supersede any promise I make you. I ask only that you consider this, and please do not place me in a position where I have to go back on my word.”

“For my part,” she said seriously, “I can assure you that the Empire has no current designs on the independence of the groves; it is Imperial policy to leave you strictly alone as much as possible, which is nearly all of the time. I do have a concern, however, that this matter will impact your business. Not because Tiraas seeks to interfere with the elves, but because the evidence suggests that elves have tried to interfere with Tiraas. So I caution you, Elder: if you know anything of this, be warned in advance that what I ask of you may bring you into that conflict.”

Mylion frowned. “I am aware of no elven plot against the Empire. If such exists, I would consider myself duty-bound to end it as swiftly as possible. Ideally through the agency of my own people, but it it comes down to a choice, I would consider it more important that whoever has done this be stopped, before they bring the wrath of Tiraas down on us all. Whatever that demands.”

She nodded. “Then we have terms. And an agreement?”

“An agreement,” he replied, offering his hand. She took it again, this time with a firmer shake.

“A final question, then, before we proceed,” the Empress said, taking the box from the nearby table and holding it in her lap. “I apologize for the impertinence, Elder, but were you planning to have children in the near future?”

He slowly raised his eyebrows. “I was not. You pique my curiosity, your Majesty. This is…relevant to your query?”

In response, the Empress thumbed the catch on the box and opened it, revealing a handful of chocolates in brown paper wrappers nestled on a black velvet lining. “Try one, please, Elder.”

He studied the candies, then lifted his eyes to meet hers. She gazed back at him calmly.

“I would hardly poison or drug you at this juncture,” she said with the ghost of a smile, “after all that wrangling.”

“Forgive me,” he replied, finally reaching forward to choose a chocolate. “I didn’t mean to imply that. This simply grows…more and more curious.”

Mylion carefully unwrapped the candy, under her even gaze, and bit off half of it. The Empress simply watched in silence while he contemplatively chewed and swallowed the confection.

He took another moment to gather his thoughts before speaking.

“I see. Your concern is appreciated, your Majesty, but your last question was unnecessary. Sylphreed only works as a contraceptive for women.”

“Ah. Forgive me, but we have almost no current knowledge on it.”

“I can, at a guess, see the shape of this, I believe,” he continued. “The Emperor has yet to produce an heir, this is not so? A state of affairs which seems most odd for such a reputedly virile man who does not lack for dedicated female company.”

She simply nodded in silence.

“I’m curious… If sylphreed is now unknown to you, how…?”

“Through happenstance,” the Empress said with a grimace. “The Palace recently had an uninvited visitor who helped herself to most of the rest of this box of candy, and commented on it.”

“Uninvited visitor?” He frowned. “Who would dare…”

The Elder trailed off, and they gazed at each other in silence for a moment. Then he sighed.

“Arachne?”

“You know her, then?”

“I have had the very great fortune never to make her acquaintance in person,” he said fervently, earning a small smile. “I doubt there are any elves who don’t know of her, though.”

“This has been perfectly characteristic of her,” the Empress said with the faintest tightening of her mouth. “Unexpectedly helpful, in the course of being obnoxious.”

Mylion sighed. “What a mess. I can show your alchemists how to test for the presence of sylphreed in food, which I suspect that are currently unprepared to do. My methods may be different, but I’m confident they can adapt them. And beyond that, your Majesty, I will certainly assist you in this matter, in whatever manner I can—with the previously mentioned proviso. No, in fact, in pursuit of that same objective. Securing the welfare of my people demands that I help you hunt down the source.” His expression fell into a concerned frown. “I don’t know where this came from, or who has brought it here, but they are jeopardizing the stability of both your people and mine. If elves are involved in this, I assure you, they will rue it.”


“You believe me?” Milanda asked in some surprise. “Just like that?”

“Your story is not difficult to understand or accept,” the Avatar replied. “We likely would not take it at face value in the absence of any corroborating evidence, but in fact we have that. His Majesty recently came to visit us to inquire about the stability of the system, citing unusual behavior in a Hand of the Emperor. Subsequently, Apple has probed at the transcension field effect supporting the Hands and detected irregularities.”

“So did I!” Mimosa added brightly.

“And didn’t bother to tell anyone,” Apple snapped at her.

Hawthorn grunted around a mouthful of the apple Milanda had brought, which she had nearly finished eating. “Wouldn’t have mattered. Not like either of you came up with details, just funny feelings. Now we’ve got stories from up top that match it, though. I figure this is a real problem.”

“So you came down here to fix it?” Apple asked Milanda, who nodded.

“Yes, if that can be done. Do…you know how?” she asked the Avatar, choosing not to mention Sharidan’s order to find a way to destroy the system if it couldn’t be salvaged.

“That is difficult,” the Avatar replied seriously. “As it is, we cannot even diagnose the problem accurately, nor determine its source. At issue is how the Hands are made, and how the linkage between them works.”

“Can you explain it to me?” she asked.

“Eee, story time!” Mimosa squealed, folding her legs under her on the divan. Hawthorn snorted again.

“This function is executed through Administrator Naiya’s personal transencsion field,” the Avatar began, “the source of energy you know as fae magic. It is a hybrid structure, requiring these dryads both for their extremely high levels of energy and control necessary to maintain it, and also because their status as avatars of Administrator Naiya enable high-level access to the Infinite Order equipment when form the other part of the system.”

“We help!” Mimosa said with apparent delight, clapping her hands. Hawthorn rolled her eyes, while Apple threw an arm around Mimosa’s shoulders and jostled her affectionately.

“I…don’t think I understood all of that,” Milanda said carefully. “If I follow correctly, this Infinite Order… That’s the Elder Gods?”

“It is the name of their organization,” the Avatar replied, “which may now be considered effectively defunct. I have confirmation of the survival only of Naiya and Scyllith, and also confirmation of their lack of collaboration since the Order’s collapse. There may be other survivors, but there is no conclusive evidence for it, and they appear to have been inactive in the eight thousand years since, if indeed they do still exist.”

“I see,” Milanda mused. “So this…this trans…”

“Transcension field!” all three dryads chorused.

The Avatar nodded, smiling at them. “It is a technical term. Your society refers to the effect as ‘magic,’ which is not incorrect. Transcension fields were first conceived, in part, as a way to create what had previously only existed in fiction.”

“In a word, magic,” she said with a smile.

“Precisely.”

“So…this thing with the Hands runs partly on these dryads, and partly on some surviving equipment of the Elder Gods? The stuff in the mithril hall up there?”

“None of the machines which serve that function are actually housed in or near that particular hall, but you have the idea. The complex itself is extremely large, occupying a great deal of the space under this mountain. Since it was sealed off, the Tiraan have only been able to access that very small portion. In fact, that is the core of our problem. Considering the limitations involved, Empress Theasia’s creation was quite ingenious: with the aid of the dryads and the very limited jury-rigging she was able to perform of the still-accessible equipment, she cobbled together the network empowering and sustaining the Hands of the Empress—now, of the Emperor. The necessary drawback of the system is that it is not fully understood even by its creators.”

“I miss Theasia,” Apple said wistfully.

“Here’s our problem,” Hawthorn stated, directing herself to Milanda. “We don’t do magic, in the way you humans do. No…finger wiggling or spells or anything to make specific effects. We are magic, but really all we’ve got is the gifts our mother created us with. So we can sort of sense things about the condition of this magic, but actually doing careful and specific alterations?” She shook her head. “Hopeless. I don’t even feel any of the irregularities these two are talking about. Frankly, I suspect Pinky here of making her part up to sound smarter than she is.”

“I told you, my name is Tris’sini,” Mimosa said stridently, then scowled. “And what is that supposed to mean?!”

“Do not sell yourself short, Hawthorn,” said the Avatar. “You have a more methodical and linear style of thought than your sisters. It makes you somewhat less sensitive to intuitive matters such as this, but may be helpful in resolving this problem.”

“So…there’s nothing we can do?” Milanda asked plaintively.

“Doesn’t sound like it,” Apple said, chewing on her lip. “Crap, that’s bad. We gave the Hands a lot of power. If it’s making them crazy, they’d be real dangerous. I hope Sharidan’s okay…”

“What is necessary,” said the Avatar, “is the aid of someone capable of using the Infinite Order’s systems.”

“Someone like you!” Mimosa said, grinning.

He shook his translucent head. “As you know, girls, when I consented to my removal from the systems of the facility to be re-installed on a closed network here, I gave up direct access to the main systems above. The facility itself is now run by the sub-OS, which will require a skilled user to make any significant alterations in the absence of an Avatar.”

“Can you be…put back into those systems?” Milanda asked.

“Yes,” he said seriously, “but not without completely resetting the entire network. My current position is part of it. This might de-power the Hands, or contribute to their decay. Or virtually anything else; I’m afraid the irregular nature of this structure results in great unpredictability.”

“They could even explode,” Mimosa said solemnly, making an expansive gesture with her hands. “Kaboom.”

“Unlikely,” the Avatar said with a smile, “but not, I’m afraid, out of the question.”

“So it is hopeless, then,” Hawthorn mused. “Hmm. Sounds like the most responsible thing we can do, here, is shut down the whole damn thing.”

“But we’ve worked so hard at it!” Mimosa said plaintively.

“Oh, shut up,” Hawthorn snorted. “Literally our entire contribution has consisted of lazing around here in kept luxury and occasionally screwing people.”

Milanda blinked. “Um. Screwing people?”

“Yeah!” Apple said brightly. “Y’know, Emperors, prospective Hands. It’s how we bond them to the magic!”

Milanda turned to stare at the Avatar.

“Due to certain idiosyncratic design features Administrator Naiya instilled in them,” he said with apparent calm, “their sexuality is a rather central aspect of their limited ability to access magic. This particular system involves ritual magic which does, indeed, have a sexual component.”

Milanda closed her eyes. Sharidan. No…he only inherited this mess. She rather doubted he had found his role in it objectionable, but this had been designed by his mother. Which brought up mental images she could have done without.

“That’s interesting,” she said aloud, “but doesn’t really help. There doesn’t seem to be any way to fix this. Can we shut it down from here?”

“Possibly,” said the Avatar, “but before we commit to that course of action, your statement is not entirely correct. There is a known individual skilled in the use of Infinite Order technology—one who is immediately accessible, in fact. She is currently imprisoned in the holding facilities above.”

Milanda went pale. “That…creature? Sharidan told me never to let her out. She threatened to kill me!”

“The Emperor’s warning was wise,” the Avatar agreed solemnly. “She is extremely dangerous to any biological life which exists in her vicinity, and not altogether mentally stable.”

“Wait a sec,” said Apple, frowning. “Who’ve they got up there?”

“She is known in current folklore as the Dark Walker,” said the Avatar.

“I have no idea what that means,” Apple said crossly.

“I do,” Milanda whispered. The Dark Walker was the kind of story used to frighten children into going to bed. Supposedly, she simply walked in straight lines, over mountains, under oceans, across continents and through cities, leaving behind a trail of blackened grass and dead bystanders, killing everything she encountered simply by existing near it. Milanda was no scholar of folklore, but she had read in passing that the Walker, like other horrors of the Age of Adventures, had credible evidence supporting her existence, but had not been actually sighted in so long that much of that was dismissed as myth.

Of course, if she had been locked away in recent decades, that could also explain it. Omnu’s breath, that thing had been under the Palace.

“She dates from the era of the Infinite Order,” the Avatar continued, “and had in fact been an assistant to Administrator Naiya. She can operate the computers. I suspect she would even be willing to bargain for her freedom, which provides a means of securing her cooperation.”

“How’s she supposed to cooperate with this critter if it’ll just kill her?” Apple protested. “Honestly, we just made a new friend, and you wanna kill her? Rude!”

“I’d prefer to leave the…Walker…locked up,” Milanda agreed.

“Actually, there is a means of rendering you invulnerable to her dangerous traits,” said the Avatar. “She, like the dryads, draws her power from Administrator Naiya’s transcension field. However, while their access and expression is very direct, hers is…inverted. She ends life, while they support and sustain it. A strong magical tie to the dryads will shield you. That, in fact, is how the Hands of the Emperor were able to capture her: they are immune to her power. If we make you a Hand, you can safely release and work with her.”

“Ooh!” All three dryads cooed in unison, straightening up and beaming at Milanda.

She flushed. “Oh. Um. Well.”

“If you find the prospect uncomfortable,” the Avatar said with a smile, “let me point out that we will need to modify it in any case. If we introduced you to the system as it currently is, you would immediately be subject to the same flaws which are causing the Hands to degrade. The dryads are not affected, which signifies that they are not the source of the trouble, and should be impervious. I believe I can design a different means of creating something similar to a Hand of the Emperor, enough to provide you the requisite protection, without making you vulnerable to the system’s current failures. It should be a relatively simple matter of making do with the resources available here, and not tying you into the network. And, if you wish, it should be possible to do this in a way which does not require any greater intimacy than you are willing to offer.”

“Aww.” The dryads simultaneously deflated, pouting.

“That sounds perfect,” Milanda said firmly. “What do we need to do?”

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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 – 11

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It had already been a long day, and the afternoon had barely begun. Eleanora had managed to arrange a short break for herself, Sharidan being trapped in a working lunch with ambassadors from the Five Kingdoms pursuant to the ongoing negotiations; she was very much looking forward to a light meal of fruit in the privacy of her room. And to having Isolde rub her shoulders. The woman’s fingers were positively magical, and nothing else was going to suffice to nix the gathering tension headache she felt coming on.

Stepping into her chamber, she paused for a moment.

Arachne Tellwyrn was sitting on her bed. The frontier adventure novel Eleanora had hidden under her mattress was open in the elf’s hands; the box of Svennish chocolates she kept in her nightstand sat on the sheets, open and now half-empty, surrounded by crumpled wrappers. A bottle of Glassian red wine she had been saving now sat on the nightstand, also half-empty.

“There you are,” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “I thought you’d never come back.”

The pause had been as much of a rise as she was going to get—Eleanora was far too self-contained to reveal any more of her feelings to this interloper. She cycled rapidly through all the obvious questions and dismissed them as things Tellwyrn would either refuse to answer or probably intended to anyway, and continued briskly into her room. Calling for the guards would be antagonistic and likely pointless; it was doubtful even a Hand of the Emperor could deal with the archmage. And after yesterday…

“What have you done with my chambermaid?” she demanded.

“Assuming you’re referring to that bosomy blonde number with the legs up to her neck, she is secured in the bathroom, completely unharmed, albeit rather miffed.” Tellwyrn smirked. “Does your consort know you call her a chambermaid? I have a hard time imagining she’d appreciate that. She seems…scrappy. By the way, your chocolates are poisoned.”

To Eleanora’s supreme annoyance, that made her pause again.

“Forgive me, that might have been a little overdramatic,” Tellwyrn mused, holding up a half-eaten chocolate and peering at it critically. “A better word might be ‘tainted.’ What’s in these won’t harm anybody who doesn’t have an extremely unlikely allergy, and honestly, you’d probably have to be an elf to detect the flavor. It’s distinctive, though. Especially in the presence of sugar, sylphreed makes this bitter, citrusy aftertaste…”

“Sylphreed,” Eleanora said with long-suffering patience, “does not exist.” Mentally, she was already counting down the elf’s allotment of seconds before she gave up on humoring her and summoned the Imperial Guard.

“Yes, yes,” Tellwyrn said, waving airily with the piece of candy. “The plant was a foolproof contraceptive and a reliable treatment for several common venereal diseases, so naturally humanity harvested it into extinction. Equally naturally, the elven groves which still cultivate it don’t let it be known that they do. I’m not kidding about the flavor; wood elves use it as a seasoning.”

“You use contraceptives for flavor?”

“They,” Tellwyrn said with a hint of annoyance for which Eleanora felt zero sympathy, “not we. I don’t move in those circles. And yes, elves are not prone to accidental pregnancy and even less in a hurry to have one. The stuff is easy enough to avoid when somebody wants a child. All of which is neither here nor there; his Majesty has yet to produce an heir, hmm? Now there’s this, and I don’t believe in coincidence. Someone, it seems, is resourceful enough to penetrate your security, connected enough to have access to elven secrets, and clueless enough to feed you contraceptives. That’s a truly horrifying combination.”

“And causes one name to spring immediately to mind,” the Empress said acidly.

Tellwyrn snorted and popped the rest of the piece into her mouth, speaking around it. “I wouldn’t know where to begin finding sylphreed; any place I might try would probably just lead to a fight with the local Elders. I certainly don’t mean your government any harm, and honestly, would I tell you about this if I were behind it?”

“That’s a common enough ploy…”

“To establish trust,” the elf said with a mirthless grin. “When performed by people who give a rat’s ass whether you trust them, yes.”

“That’s a fair enough point, I suppose. If you’ve only just discovered this, it’s not the thing which prompted this intrusion, I gather.”

“Indeed.” Tellwyrn set the book down on the bed and straightened to a more upright posture, shifting to face Eleanora directly with a serious expression. “There is a Hand of the Emperor at Last Rock who appears to be coming unglued.”

Having had the whole conversation thus far to steel herself, Eleanora did not betray even a hint of the sudden unease she felt, merely affecting a disdainful lift of her eyebrow. “Quite an accusation. Or it would be, were it less vague. Can you offer useful details, or have you come specifically to waste my time?”

Tellwyrn made no response to her open asperity. “How much do you know about the situation right now?”

“The situation at Last Rock? The broad strokes. Sleeping curses, your general inability to control your students, a likely connection to last year’s hellgate crisis—and by the way, thank you for that—and the aid of Imperial Intelligence in hunting down your perpetrator, which you should have sought immediately after the resolution of the last disaster when you failed to apprehend the guilty party.”

“All those years of charm school were a wise investment, I see,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “The Hand originally came to feel me out of his own volition, and I decided if the Throne was going to fart around on my lawn anyway it could make itself useful. That is why I’m only now accepting government help, not because I came begging for it, but I am about ready to change my mind.”

“Yes, yes,” Eleanora said impatiently. “What specifically is he doing that has you in such a tizzy?”

The Professor raised an eyebrow of her own, but answered. “Today his behavior suddenly altered. Dramatically. He was rude, pushy, aggressive, and deliberately provocative.”

“Is that really all?” the Empress said disdainfully.

“I have dealt with Hands of the Emperor since they were of the Empress, Eleanora. The moment I came back to society and found Theasia had begun screwing around with dryads, I made damn well sure to understand what to expect from them. Their conduct has never been anything but uniform. They are icily calm, collected, even laudably diplomatic. Now? Even that diabolical thing from Intelligence agrees his behavior was unprecedented and alarming. No, I don’t panic every time a government official acts out of character. Hands of the Emperor are another matter. Something is wrong. And aside from the host of issues this raises for you, it’s going wrong on my campus. If this guy loses it like he seemed close to doing today and I have to deal with that, legally I’ll have assaulted the Emperor. So here’s me, making an overture before that point arrives. I want it understood that I have dealt with the Throne’s representative in good faith and anything which follows will only be whatever is necessary to protect my students.”

Eleanora was still mulling points from earlier in that speech when it came to an end. Dryads? She now embraced a conclusion she’d begun considering yesterday: despite Sharidan’s explanations about her plausible deniability and his mother’s secrets, he was going to explain some things about those Hands of his.

“Diabolical thing from Intelligence?” she said aloud. “They sent Fedora out there? Well, I suppose that makes sense. He’d better have at least one of his handlers on site, too.”

“You seem to have latched onto the least relevant part of that,” Tellwyrn said irritably.

“You and I have very different standards of relevance, Arachne, and no, I didn’t miss anything you said. Mood swings—”

“And shadow-jumping.”

That brought her up short. “…you saw this?”

“He appeared out of nowhere and vanished the same way, and it wasn’t arcane teleportation. If it was mere illusion or stealth, it was enough to fool both my own senses and these,” she tapped the rim of her golden spectacles, “which is not a small thing. More to the point, it’s something the Hands have never had before. Have you been altering them?”

“Surely it goes without saying that I am not going to discuss business of that nature with you.”

“Well, if you have, the side effects include emotional instability, which, if you’ll excuse me for telling you your own business, is a bad trait in extremely powerful people who are always hovering around the Emperor.”

“Your concern is appreciated,” Eleanora said tonelessly.

“All right, fine.” Tellwyrn set the box of chocolates aside and rose, dusting off her hands. “I’ve brought you into the loop, that’s my moral responsibility taken care of. I haven’t made any secret of my self-interest, here, but this also is a matter of concern to the Throne. But if your personal antipathy is more important—”

“Don’t you dare,” Eleanora hissed, assuming a mask of icy rage. The emotion was quite genuine, but she was fully in control, now; her emotions were possessions which served her needs, not wild things which controlled her. She stalked toward the bed, backing the elf up against it. “You have intruded here by force, assaulted someone important to me and made a show of disrespecting my possessions—my personal ones, not the expensive trappings of my rank. You will not stand in my home and act like the aggrieved party trying to be reasonable. This was all the same ploy you always use with everyone: making a show of how unpredictable and dangerous you are, to cow the audience into giving you your way. I know your power, Arachne, but I do not bend my neck to bullies. I didn’t before I sat on a throne. If you plan to push me one inch farther, you’d better just kill me. Otherwise, you are going to learn just how different this Silver Throne is from the one you brought down in the Enchanter Wars.”

Tellwyrn met her furious stare with her eyebrows upraised in surprise. After a long moment, she nodded slowly and sidled away, extricating herself from between the Empress and the bed. “Well…all right. That’s pretty fair, the whole thing. Excuse me, then.”

She made it halfway to the door before pausing and half-turning.

“I’m sorry, by the way, for running out on you like that. No, this is not an attempt to curry favor, or regain any moral high ground. I actually just wanted to apologize; it’s overdue. I left so suddenly because of a call for help. In fact, I lost a good friend that night, which I’m afraid drove everything else right out of my mind. And then you were getting deeper and deeper into politics, and it seemed like a good idea to leave you alone, especially after you tied yourself to the Throne. But…there it is. If I hurt you, I didn’t mean to.”

Eleanora folded her arms, her face once again stonily impassive. “And is that finally all?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Tellwyrn said with a wry twist of her lips, turning back toward the door. “Look after yourself. I mean that very sincerely. Unless I’m badly overreacting to this Hand thing, you could be in real danger, Eleanora.”

She strolled out into the hall as casually as if she owned the place. Eleanora didn’t watch her leave; she suddenly had much more important matters to consider. First, though, she made a beeline for the bathroom. If Isolde had so much as a bruise or scraped knee, she was going to have a fortress built at Last Rock, and a battalion stationed there. With strike teams.


“I’m not arguing the moral point, Moriarty,” Finchley said wearily. “Just the practical one. What, exactly, do you think we could’ve done to protect the students from being attacked by an apparently invisible, un-trackable enemy who in all probability is one of them?”

“Hell, I’ll argue the moral point,” Rook said with a grin. “The Sleeper’s gotta be one of the little bastards, and they can all demonstrably take care of themselves better than we can. We don’t get sent into the Golden Sea and the Crawl every year just to see what happens, and thank the flippin’ gods for that, because what would happen would be us getting our asses killed. And that’d be a damn shame after we were within groping distance of Elilial and walked away, even if we can’t tell the story. Just anticlimactic, is all. Nah. There’s ‘not our fucking job,’ and then there’s this.”

“You are both missing the point,” Moriarty grated, “practically and morally, and you’ll note the total lack of surprise in my expression. It doesn’t matter what we do or don’t have the physical power to do. I hate that we’re sitting here, safe and comfortable, while civilians are being attacked. We’re soldiers! We are supposed to protect the people of this Empire!”

“Y’know, a good chunk of the student body aren’t even Imperial,” Rook said reasonably.

Moriarty clapped a hand over his eyes. “It’s like talking to a wall. A slovenly, lazy, undisciplined, insubordinate—

“Ease up,” Finchley said with a grin. “It’s not likely we’ll find ourselves in a position to help, but come on. All three of us would step in if we had the opportunity and the means. Surely we’ve proved that much to each other by now.”

Moriarty let out an irritated huff, turning to glare at the windows, which showed the prairie far below, stained orange with the beginnings of sunset. “I might feel better if the Sleeper targeted us next.”

“That is because you’re a fuckin’ idiot,” Rook grunted.

“Or a masochist,” said Finchley.

“Which,” Rook replied, “is a sub-species of fuckin’ idiot.”

“Me,” Moriarty said woodenly, “to appease my conscience, and you two because you deserve it!”

“Indefinite enforced bed rest?” Rook said, grinning insanely. “I haven’t been nearly good enough to deserve that! But hell, I’ll take it.”

“Attention.”

They managed, with some scrambling; Moriarty whipped around and snapped to attention immediately, Finchley a second later, Rook only after falling off the bed and leaping to his feet.

The resident Hand of the Emperor stood in the dorm they shared with Gabriel and Toby, studying them coldly. None of them had heard the door open. He paced slowly down the short rank they formed, then back, turning his head to keep his flat stare on them. Finally he stopped and grunted.

“At least one of you gets credit for good intentions—which, needless to say, are worth nothing. You men will pack your gear and be ready to move out upon my order. You have wasted quite enough time loafing about here; it’s time for you to act like soldiers, assuming you can remember how. But first.” He paused, then nodded. His expression was not a smile, but something in it hinted at satisfaction, and even a small degree of pleasure. “First, you are going, finally, to be useful to your Emperor.”


She opened and closed the door when passing through it, loud enough that from any other elf it might have been pointed. In Tellwyrn’s case, though, it probably meant nothing. She wasn’t prone to subtlety in any of her actions.

“Hey, Arachne,” Rafe said with a grin, turning from organizing his tools. “You missed dinner. Want a bit to nosh? I always keep some snacks on hand.”

“No, thanks, I filled up on candy and contraceptives,” she said, surveying the room with a raised eyebrow. “And I’m not just saying that because you offered me food while cleaning your alchemy lab.”

“Excuse you, my lab is a shining beacon of spotless perfection as always, and anyway I’m almost done.” He set the two beakers he’d been holding on their shelf, shut the cabinet and latched it, then turned and held his arms wide, grinning. “See? Done. It’s rather late in the day, Arachne, classes are long over with. What’ve you been out doing all afternoon?”

“State visits,” she said cryptically. “Admestus, I was just prompted today to take a closer look at something which is obvious in hindsight, but sailed right under my nose at the time.”

“Damn, and it’s not even Tuesday,” he said lightly. “Something I can help with, I gather? If you just wanted to think out loud, you usually roust Alaric for that.”

“Mm.” She was studying him closely over the rims of her spectacles, her eyebrows creased in a faint frown. “Kaisa overreacted.”

“Hsst!” He dropped to a crouch, looking rapidly back and forth in alarm. “Don’t speak ill of the creature! She can probably hear you!”

“From Sifan?” Tellwyrn said dryly.

“I am not going to rule that out! Other things I’m not going to rule out include her not actually being gone, because I do not understand why Ekoi Kaisa does anything and I don’t wanna get turned into a frog. She actually has done that, Arachne. Took great pleasure in telling me the story. It ended with soup.”

“She did overreact, though,” Tellwyrn mused, wandering idly into the lab and picking up a sealed jar of tiny eyeballs. She examined this abstractly, not seeming to really see it. “Played the perfect ‘volatile kitsune’ angle. She is prickly about being shown proper respect; most of her sisters are. Kaisa, though, likes to play that angle, and I can’t believe I let her make me forget it. I’ve seen her do it before, act offended and crazy in order to get the reaction she wants, or just to deflect attention. That business, though…that was more affront than your little prank warranted. Also, while I have known her to storm off in a huff, it was never over somebody playing a joke on her. That should have brought retaliation.”

He groaned. “Well, isn’t that just peachy.”

“And then there’s you.” Tellwyrn set down the eyeballs, turning to stare very flatly at him. “You do the same thing. I’m not the kids, Admestus, don’t even try to pull the wool over my eyes. I’ve no issue with your methods of deflecting, except when you take it too far—and I don’t even mind, all that much, cleaning up when you do. This, though.”

“This is all beginning to sound rather accusatory,” he said, folding his arms. “Also, it’s not like you to beat around the bush this way, Arachne. What’s on your mind?”

“Yes, all sorts of people are acting out of character lately,” she said. “Kaisa, flipping out and storming off over a little joke which, honestly, she would have thought was funny, and then got you back. Twice over. You, a person evincing a very healthy fear of irate kitsune—and by the way, take nothing I say here as discouragement of that, because you should fear them if you ever meet another one—who for some reason decided to play a highly aggressive prank on one. How many years has it been, Admestus? I do know you. I know the kind of jokes you like, the kind of targets you prefer and exactly what you get out of tweaking their noses.”

“Am I so transparent?” he asked mournfully.

“To me? Yes. I’m betting to several of your colleagues, as well. Alaric pretends to find you so annoying because he knows you enjoy it. This, though. I was so distracted by Kaisa’s antics and then this Sleeper crap I never paused to consider how very out of character it would be for you to deliberately provoke her that way.”

“Hah!” He struck a pose, planting his fists on his hips. “For the sake of my art, I will endure any travail!”

Tellwyrn folded her arms and stared at him over the rims of her glasses.

It was only a moment longer before Rafe visibly deflated. “Oh, all right, fine. I didn’t slip Kaisa an anti-magic potion—honestly, how would that even work? I’m pretty sure she’s got entire senses for people playing pranks. Drugging a kitsune probably isn’t even possible. She asked me to play along, Arachne. Which I did, for the two very excellent reasons that she scares the hell out of me, and I didn’t see any harm in it. If she was going to mess with the kids or with you, I’d have come to you. I thought she was just bored with teaching and wanted an excuse to quit, and it cost me nothing to make myself useful. I mean, Alaric was back and all…”

“No.” Tellwyrn shook her head, turning to frown at a rack of bottled reagents. “Kaisa does not get bored with teaching. I asked her to come teach because it’s what she does. Her one great joy in life. If she decided to walk out in the middle of her contract, she’s got good and specific reasons.”

“Hey…” His expression sobered. “Do you think this has anything to do with the Sleeper? I’m not an idiot, it did occur to me… But I couldn’t see her doing something like that. I mean, I can’t say I know her well, but she always seemed to care about the kids, in her way. And if nothing else, she respects you.”

“I think you’re right about that,” Tellwyrn mused. “I don’t believe in coincidence. This started up right when she left—but the connection there is obvious enough without weaving conspiracies out of cobwebs. What we’re dealing with is almost certainly a very powerful diabolist, but no diabolist is anything more than prey for a kitsune. However… Now I have to wonder what angle Kaisa is playing. I don’t have it in me to believe she was blind to the results of her departure. I’ve never known her to act without full knowledge of every repercussion her actions would have.”

“Hey, uh, look,” he said awkwardly, scratching behind one of his ears, “you know I wouldn’t…”

“Relax, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said, giving him a fondly exasperated look. “You’re not in trouble. You were right about both your points: defying Kaisa if she asked for your help wouldn’t have been wise, and helping her wasn’t any kind of betrayal of me. I do trust her, and you, and I don’t suspect either of meaning harm to the campus.”

“D’aww.” He beamed. “I’m all warm and fuzzy!”

“Yeah, well, you enjoy that luxury.” Tellwyrn turned back toward the door. “I now have to go and do something about this.”


“Sorry for being late,” Toby said, sliding onto the bench in the little reading alcove. “You were right, I think I may have over-committed myself a bit this semester. I’m gonna give it another week to hit a rhythm before I start paring anything down, so don’t worry, I’m still up for studying.”

Raolo didn’t raise his eyes from the spellbook open in his lap. Toby gave him a long look, then sighed.

“Oh, the silent treatment again? That’s not as entertaining as you think it is, Rao. I’m not that late. And who was it who decided to set up in the back corner over here instead of our usual table? You’re lucky Crystal saw you heading this way or I’d still be looking.”

He grinned and nudged the elf in the shoulder with his fist.

Raolo immediately slumped bonelessly in the other direction, the book sliding from his lap. Toby’s reflexes snapped into action; he grabbed the freshman before he could fall far.

“Raolo?” Gold light flashed into being around them; somewhat awkwardly, given their side-by-side position on the wall bench, Toby wrestled the elf around to face him, tilting his head back. The younger boy didn’t respond in the slightest to the manipulation, even when Toby had to grip his hair to hold his head up, and thumbed his eyelid open. He was breathing; his pulse was steady. He wasn’t an accomplished diagnostician by any means, but between his classes and some of Omnu’s innate gifts, he could sense enough to know Raolo was, more or less, healthy.

Just asleep.

“Oh, no.”

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