Tag Archives: Empress Eleanora

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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12 – 9

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“Afternoon!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know nothing of that!” she barked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You believe me? Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Welcome back, my lord,” she murmured.

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

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

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

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

“The matter of—”

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

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

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

Silence and total shock descended.

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

Hands did not speak to their Emperor that way.

They simply did not.

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

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

Rest would have to wait.


Afternoon was fading into dusk as they neared the town.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Trouble?” she asked mildly.

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

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

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

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

He nodded. “I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

Her chance was coming, she could feel it.

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10 – 30

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

“How so?” the Emperor inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Juniper asked, frowning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone turned to stare at her.

“Um, what?” Gabriel asked uncertainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you learn?” she interrupted.

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

“That is difficult to credit,” Shaeine observed.

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

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

“That does fit,” Toby said pensively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How utterly typical,” Trissiny growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Creepy,” Juniper muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True,” Gabriel admitted, frowning in thought.

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

“Dangerous?” Trissiny asked, frowning.

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

“What did you learn?” asked Shaeine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t—”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a date.”

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