Tag Archives: Milanda Darnassy

12 – 20

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“Computer! Map!”

Walker waited in expectant silence for a few seconds before heaving a sigh.

“Security protocols,” Milanda said. “With all due respect, you are not trusted with unfettered access to the system. And where are you going? The terminal is here.”

“There’ll be terminals concealed in most every surface,” Walker replied, pacing back toward her. “I know how the Order like to arrange their structures; there’s probably a terminal at the end of this hall, where it turns, and also probably a door facing the teleporter. If not, the ‘porter itself can be reconfigured to send us somewhere else. At bare minimum, there will be one right next to the teleporter. But since you are here, would you do the honors?”

Milanda raised her eyebrows wryly, but turned to the currently exposed wall terminal. “Computer, map.”

The screen lit up with a complicated series of red squiggly lines on a black field which resembled no map Milanda had ever seen.

“Project in 3D,” Walker ordered. Nothing happened; after a moment, she turned a pointed look on Milanda, who dutifully repeated the phrase.

Then she instinctively stepped back as the diagram lifted off the surface of the panel to hover in the air above it. As it did so, it suddenly began to make sense. The red lines formed a network of chambers and tunnels which, to judge by their general shape and arrangement, had to run through a large portion of the mountain.

“Hmm,” Milanda mused. “Can you make it bigger? And focus on this location?”

“The computer is fairly smart, but it’s not designed for social interaction like the Avatar. You get the best results with clear and precise instructions. Terse, even.”

Milanda made no response, occupied as she was studying the map as it shifted, grew, and moved, the lower portions fading from view. Despite Walker’s admonition, the computer had apparently understood her request. A small section of hallway rose to prominence and the red wire-frame structure was filled in with light, conforming to the shape of the hall in which they stood, cells and all. Icons represented the entrance, with the elevator just beyond it, as well as the teleporter. Right across from that, exactly where Walker had said it would be, was a door leading to a larger, round chamber, with more hallways branching off from it, and three elevator shafts descending lower into the complex.

In the course of the shift, before they were moved out of the map’s current frame of view, Milanda noted that the nearby surface elevator was not the only one protruding upward toward the city. She made a mental note to investigate that later. It seemed unlikely anyone but the Empress had found a way down here, or more would be known about it. If the possibility had existed that someone one day might, it was worth taking precautions. After all, she had no idea when or how Theasia herself had discovered this place.

“Perfect,” Walker said in a satisfied tone. “As I suspected, that’s a security station. Apparently a fairly important one, from the size of it. Look, there’s a crew barracks attached; that will provide you a place to sleep. I’m assuming, here, that you are not eager to go back above and explain yourself to the Hands.”

“Not until I’m ready, anyway,” Milanda agreed, still studying the map. The Avatar had warned her that she and the Hands would be able to sense each other if they drew close enough together. That was to be avoided, which meant she should avoid the Palace for the time being.

Walker had already headed back down the hall again; when Milanda joined her, she was waiting patiently at the intersection, and gestured toward the flat wall.

Milanda cleared her throat. “Computer… Uh, door.”

Lines appeared in the blank milthril surface, delineating a doorway; a second later, the cut-off mithril panel slid silently into the floor, revealing a door that appeared to be of steel, marked with the same emblem as the outer door.

Milanda carefully stepped forward and touched it with her fingertips. Nothing happened.

“Computer,” she said, annoyed, “open the door.”

“Warning.” The computer spoke in a rapid tone devoid of inflection. “Security lockdown in effect.”

Milanda sighed. “Well, end the—”

She broke off and stared at Walker, who had begun waving frantically to get her attention.

“Clear, precise, terse,” she said firmly. “Since the Avatar apparently gave you clearance, if you just tell it to end the lockdown without any qualifiers, it’ll do so everywhere. There is no telling what’s buried in these halls, or what might happen if all the doors are suddenly unsealed. You can open rooms one at a time, which is what I strongly recommend.”

Milanda regarded her uncertainly for a moment before nodding. It was true that Walker’s incentive here was to make herself useful, but it was difficult to trust the eerie creature. It would have been even if she were not alone with her, in the apparently perfectly functional ruins of a civilization that Walker fully understood and Milanda did not. Hopefully, at minimum, there would be no more head-grabbing. In this case, at any rate, her advice made sense.

“Computer,” she said carefully, “end the lockdown only in the security station beyond.”

A pleasant, two-toned chime sounded. Milanda frowned, turning to Walker.

“That’s an acknowledgment,” the ex-valkyrie explained. “Descending tones means there’s an error; in that case, it’ll usually explain what’s wrong.”

“I see.”

“You’ll pick it up quite quickly,” Walker continued. “I’ve heard it said that the degree of a civilization’s advancement can be judged by how much of its work is automated; the Infinite Order were very advanced, and arranged their structures to avoid having to lift a finger without need. The computers are designed for maximal efficiency, convenience, and user-friendliness.”

“Then why is the door still not open?” Milanda asked in some irritation.

Walker smiled. “That room has been blocked off for eight thousand years, and with lockdown protocols in effect, the systems wouldn’t be working to keep it habitable. It won’t open the door until it’s safe. Housekeeping functions are cycling in fresh atmosphere, removing dust, purging any biological contaminants. It should take just a minute or two.”

“A minute or two?” Milanda asked, turning to gaze thoughtfully at the door. “To clean eight millennia of mess?”

“Very advanced indeed.”

In fact, it was faster than that; no sooner had she spoken than the ascending chime sounded again, and the door opened on its own with a soft hiss.

Milanda stood there uncertainly, craning her neck to peer through the opened doorway, until Walker sighed and pushed past her, striding into the security station. Suppressing her annoyance, Milanda followed.

The room’s general shape she could recognize, both from the map and as the product of the same minds which had designed the Nexus on the dryads’ mini-planet. It was round, and sizable; the central floor was sunken, with doors opening in four directions (including the one from which they entered), and an upper ring of floor forming bridges over the doorways, reached by four narrow flights of stairs which had those glowing lights under each step. Another round structure stood in the center, chest-high and flat, with screens and panels protruding from it on all sides. The arched ceiling was black and decorated with a pattern of glowing stars which slowly rotated, the whole thing supported by rounded steel beams, culminating in a round purple hemisphere in the center which was faintly luminous. Lights were cleverly hidden along the steel walls, illuminating the space more completely than any fairy lamps Milanda had ever seen.

It was clean, the air fresh, and there was no sign of dust. The room did not look as if it had been sealed off for eight thousand years, but it was still a mess. Metal crates and barrels of various sizes were piled haphazardly all around, as well as racks and display cases of various kinds of equipment, all of it unfamiliar to her. There were chairs, strewn without order across the floor, a few on their sides, and quite a lot were piled with boxes or draped with lengths of clothing. Just to the left of the doorway through which they emerged stood a transparent cylinder taller than she, illuminated from within by a sickly green light. Milanda stared at this in fascination; the unmistakable shape of a katzil demon was suspended, motionless, within it.

“Well, look at that,” Walker marveled, studying the demon. “A quetzal. Such graceful creatures. You can tell they were some of Scyllith’s early work.”

“Can you?”

“She always had a strong sense of aesthetics,” Walker said, now examining the cylinder in which the katzil hung, seemingly unsupported and not touching the walls. “Initially, that meant she created beautiful things. As time went by and her personal transcension field began to have an effect on her psyche, she took to collecting the more hideous and horrible cast-offs from her colleagues’ experiments, so that she and her own work appeared more pleasant by contrast. Never a likable woman, so I understand, even before succumbing to infernal corruption.”

“What’s it doing here?”

“That is a fascinating question,” Walker mused, turning to pace slowly through the maze of chairs and containers. “I wasn’t on this plane of existence when the renegades attacked the spaceport. There must have been quite an interesting chain of events, to result in these piles of random junk being shoved into what seems to have been a major security hub. I confess I’m at a loss. This reinforces what I said, though; let us refrain from unsealing any more rooms unless we find a good and specific reason to enter them.”

Milanda picked her way through the mess, pausing to examine a segmented cylinder perched on wheeled legs, its protruding spider-like arms drooping. “What’s this?”

“A Caretaker unit,” Walker said. “Maintenance droid. Curiouser and curiouser… Lockdown protocols shouldn’t have shut them off, and if it was running, it would be able to repair itself indefinitely. Having a functioning Caretaker in here would have gone a long way toward keeping it orderly. This place looks like a student dorm after a party. Just what did the Pantheon do here, I wonder?”

“Hm. Maybe we should turn it back on, help clean this out.”

“Let’s wait and see how much time we’ll need to spend here, first.” Walker picked up an overturned chair, carelessly tossing aside the garment that had been draped over it, and set it in front of one of the panels sprouting from the central structure. She sat down, focusing her gaze on the panel itself. At a touch from her, it sprang to life, and two more narrow ones slid out from its frame, one below and one to the side. The symbol that marked the doors hovered in the middle of the transparent central screen, while a series of glowing icons appeared in the smaller ones. “I believe I will need your help, here. Would you kindly instruct the computer to give me access to the relevant records?”

Milanda paused to consider her phrasing, mindful both of Walker’s advice regarding talking to the computer, and her own lingering unease toward her new companion.

“Computer.” She paused, and the affirmative chirp sounded. “Give user…uh, Walker, here, access to records of changes made to…um, anything to do with the programming. For the last…” She looked helplessly at Walker, who was just giving her a sardonic stare. “…since the dryads moved in. Uh, go.”

The computer chimed again, and lines of text popped up on Walker’s terminal.

“Smoothly done,” she said, turning to examine it.

“Oh, shut up.” Milanda rescued a nearby chair, carefully moving a stack of rounded boxes from it to the floor, and set it down beside the fairy, positioning herself where she had a good view of the screen.

“Hmm,” Walker murmured, eyes flicking across the display. The lines slid up and down as she moved her finger on the smaller panel to the right. “Okay, this part is simple enough. The changes made are all fairly superficial… Some affect only the maintenance functions of the facility and shouldn’t impact the dryads or Hands at all. Since most of the facility is inactive, though, the majority of these dealt with that network. There just wasn’t much else to be messed with. I can reverse these changes. Actually, I can designate a restore point in the timeline, here, and simply reset the whole thing to how it stood there.”

“It’s that simple?”

“Not remotely. All I can affect here is the code. Think of it like…” She paused, ruminating for a moment. “The system is like vines climbing a trellis. They die off and are restored with each season, they grow naturally, they change. Change the shape of the trellis, and the vines will clearly be affected, but they’ll continue growing. Put it back the way it was…”

“And the vines won’t go back the way they were,” Milanda finished.

“Exactly. Restoring the code is a start. It’s very likely, though, that in order to restore the whole system to its previous state, we will need to do what was done to set it up in the first place, which will involve the conscious cooperation of the dryads.” She turned to look seriously at Milanda. “And as I said before, I really think you would be better off nixing the whole structure and restarting from scratch. If you want to make it identical to how it was before, the Avatar should remember what was done. That would be an excellent chance to make improvements, however.”

“Taking your analogy of vines further,” Milanda said slowly, “restoring such an organic network to a previous state is…difficult, and unlikely to work, correct? You can prune a vine, but that won’t make it a younger vine.”

Walker nodded. “And an elaborate spell structure made purely of fae magic is the very definition of organic. The code gives it shape, but the magic is what manifests the effects. That the Hands are so clearly affected shows it is doing just that.”

“Is there anything else you can learn from it?” she asked, putting off that decision for the moment. “Information on who did this would be extremely helpful.”

“Quite. Let me see.” Walker touched the large screen, and the lines of code shifted, retreating to the background while another box of text popped up. She touched this, moving the text. “Hm… This is interesting. This was done under Scyllith’s credentials.”

A chill worked its way down Milanda’s spine. She gave no outward sign of it.

“What else can you tell?”

“There’s a peculiar lack of information here,” Walker murmured, frowning at the display. “This should have logged details about the computer which interfaced with this one, but…there’s nothing. Like there was no computer, and the changes were just…made.”

“You mean, Scyllith did this personally?”

“No…there’s a record of a login under her user account. Direct access by an ascended being would be recorded differently. It’s as if she logged into some kind of void. This makes no sense… Huh.”

“What?” Milanda demanded when Walker fell silent.

“This isn’t the first time. These incursions started three days ago, but there’s something else in the records… The whole structure goes back decades ago, when it was first installed under Theasia’s reign. But there was another alteration made…about ten years ago. Also under Scyllith’s name. That one from a recognized facility.”

“What did it do?” Milanda exclaimed.

“I can’t tell.” Walker was frowning at the screen. “It definitely impacted the Hands…but this is a very minor, very careful and specific change. I don’t think this was the work of the same person who’s been meddling with this in the last week. To enact such a light touch and in such a way that it avoids leaving traces is the work of someone familiar with the system. This new person is fumbling about, trying to figure out what all the buttons and blinking lights do.”

“You said it was from a recognized facility?”

“Fabrication Plant One.” Walker touched all three screens in rapid succession, and the central one changed abruptly, showing a map of the continent. A glowing dot pulsed on the coast in the northeast.

“That’s Puna Dara,” Milanda breathed.

“Under it, more likely,” said Walker. “Possibly underwater off the coast. Any surviving Infinite Order facilities are well-buried at this point; Mother saw to that. No further access from there. Whatever happened, Scyllith or someone with access to her user account, likely someone working for her, tweaked the system and then hasn’t touched it since. Very curious…the transcension field connecting the Order’s facilities was supposed to be disabled. Mother saw to that, too. They must have piggy-backed on one of the other active fields, but that would be very difficult to do without seriously in-depth knowledge of how these machines work.”

“This is horrifying,” Milanda mumbled.

“Quite. Scyllith does not need access to these or any systems… I repeat, this appears to be a separate issue, but it also bears investigating. Honestly, Milanda, I believe we’ll need the Avatar’s help with both matters.”

Milanda leaned back and heaved a sigh. “And he can’t be brought up here. Is there any reason you can’t go down there?”

Walker shrugged. “Physically, no. It would severely agitate the dryads, though. It’s rare that they’ve been in a position to interact with a sister of my generation, but they always take it poorly. I think Mother built something into their nature that causes an instinctive aversion.”

“That seems cruel.”

“Cruelty is about taking pleasure in the pain of others,” Walker said evenly. “Mother is never cruel. Heartless, though, that would be accurate. She is generally not concerned with others’ pain, one way or the other. I’m going to set up a simulation,” she continued, her fingers suddenly flying across the narrow screen on the bottom. “Every little bit of data helps; this may give some insight into the ripple effects caused by the recent incursion. This may take some time…”

Milanda sighed, glancing around the room. “I guess I can find…something to do.”

“I recommend you do not touch anything in here,” Walker said, eyes on her screen. “Some of those devices are weapons and most of the rest are potentially dangerous if mishandled. Here… Computer, activate entertainment playlist on the next terminal. Novels, J.R.R. Tolkien, order of publication.”

The computer chimed obligingly and the next terminal came to life, text and icons appearing on the main screen and the supplemental ones sliding into place.

“Oh, how lovely,” Walker said with a smile. “It seems I don’t need your permission to access the entertainment database. The Avatar must feel somewhat sorry for my long imprisonment.”

“What’s this?” Milanda asked, scooting her chair over to frown at the lines of words on the other screen.

“Just a little something you may find interesting. Tolkien was quite popular among the Order; I rather think this will illuminate much of why your world is the way it is.”

Your world, Milanda noted. According to Walker’s own story, she had never lived on any world but this one, yet she didn’t think of herself as part of it. Well, considering how it had treated her, that was somewhat understandable. Out loud she said, “I suppose I could try. Are these number page counts? I’ve never been fond of dense novels…”

Walker shot her a look of pure irritation, unmistakable even on her peculiar features. “Fine. These systems contain the entire literary output of your species; perhaps Disney animated musicals would be more your—oh ho!” Suddenly she hunched over her screen, grinning fiercely. “Our friend has just appeared again!”

“What? What’s he doing?” Milanda demanded, scooting her chair back over and peering at the code, which didn’t help her at all to understand it.

“More of the same,” Walker murmured distractedly. “Poking around. Hmmmm. I could block his access. That will tip him off that someone’s here, working, however.”

“You’re of the opinion this person is a modern human?” Milanda said thoughtfully.

“It’s my leading theory, but of course I don’t know.”

“Can you get more data with him actively engaged?”

“I’m trying… This is so strange. He’s logged in as Scyllith, but Scyllith wouldn’t be doing this foolishness. It’s the same effect, though: it’s as if the machine he’s on…” She trailed off, her eyes widening. “Wait. I think… I think he built it.”

“Built it? A machine that can access the Infinite Order’s computers? How?”

“That is a question to which I would love an answer… Hang on, I’m querying his system specs.” She paused, then narrowed her eyes and leaned forward. “…that kicked him off. His rig didn’t even have the processing power to handle the request while logged in. He did, Milanda. The simplest surviving Order device would register and handle such trivial tasks effortlessly. Somehow, he’s doing this on something he made. From modern enchanting parts.”

“Well, he knows we’re here now, if you knocked him out of the system,” Milanda pointed out.

“Maybe.” Walker leaned back gazing thoughtfully at the screen. “Whatever he’s using is so primitive the sub-OS here doesn’t even recognize it as a fellow computer; something like that would be prone to crashing on its own. This does change the color of the matter. There’s something else odd…something there, but not, like the machine itself. See, it’s indicating an Avatar’s presence, but it isn’t identified.”

“You can identify Avatars?”

“Indeed. They are numbered, and few; the Order didn’t like to leave artificial intelligences lying around.” Milanda glanced over at the deactivated Caretaker while Walker continued speaking. “Each Avatar should be instantly recognized by the computer; it’s registering the presence it recognizes as one, but it doesn’t know which, and that doesn’t make sense.”

“The Avatar I spoke to was many, many times more complex than the most advanced modern golem,” Milanda said slowly. “He was effectively a person. Would I be correct in assuming such a thing couldn’t possibly be run on contemporary logic controllers?”

“You would. The idea is laughable.”

“So…what if he’s somehow got hold of an Avatar and is running part of it? Just enough to make his system work without overloading it?”

“That…is…not impossible,” Walker said grudgingly. “If so, we have a real problem on our hands, Milanda. An Avatar is an AI designed by a spacefaring society to administer city-sized complexes in the most minute detail. This character is trying to run one on a cobbled-together steampunk gumball machine. The significant fact isn’t that it doesn’t work, but that he got it to boot up at all. If the theory is correct, this person would have to be a genius of a caliber even the Order would have respected.”

Milanda blinked, working her way through several unfamiliar terms in that sentence. “…what kind of machine?”

“Mother had one,” Walker murmured, leaning forward and again rapidly touching sigils on the control panels. “A valuable antique from Earth… I suppose it’s rusted away to scrap in some vault, now, if it wasn’t destroyed outright in the uprising. She even had the fabricators make gumballs for us.” She smiled faintly as she worked. “Vile things, really. Nothing but sugar, dye, and…glue. Still. It was…a happy memory. All right, I’m working on a little something, here, for the next time he logs in. We can shut him out easily enough, but that doesn’t help us figure out who this is or how he’s doing this, which I gather is a priority. It’ll take some adjusting to get the sub-OS to interact fluidly with his incredibly dinky computer, but…” A sly grin stretched across her uncanny features. “I do believe we can turn the tables.”

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12 – 19

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Everything was the same, but the world was totally different.

According to the Avatar, the initiation was designed to fully incorporate the proper muscle memory and thus avoid the difficulty moving that could come from a person being suddenly far stronger and more agile than before, but he had warned her that this modification of the Hand procedure could have unpredictable side effects, and that she should take it slow.

She felt fantastic, however, and fully in control.

The first test of her newfound athleticism had come when she returned to the hallway where the Dark Walker was imprisoned. The door, apparently, remained stationary while the “planetoid” (the Avatar’s word for it) slowly rotated; finding it necessitated walking south until she came to the long band cleared of trees around its equator, and then following that. Looking at it, she felt rather foolish for not having noticed before, though at least now, she was accustomed enough to the peculiar shrunken horizon to find it less disorienting.

The door had drifted slowly toward her, but Milanda hadn’t waited for it. She didn’t even need a running jump; one smooth hop, and she was through, landing lightly in the brightly-lit mithril hall beyond.

The lack of visual stimuli here actually helped her re-orient herself. There was just nothing to see but mithril walls, the little lights in the ceiling, the turn of the hallway just ahead. It made her even more conscious of her own body…her own strength.

But there was nothing to be gained by standing here.

Milanda strode purposely forward, rounding the corner and continuing to the proper cell.

“You look well,” the Dark Walker said calmly upon her arrival, sizing her up. “I gather the outcome of your…adventure…was optimal? I recognize that calm self-possession; it wasn’t on you earlier. Of course, I could sense the truth, if not for this.”

She rapped her knuckles on the transparent panel. Despite transmitting sound as if it were nothing but empty air, when struck it made a muted noise as if she had tapped on a stone wall a yard thick.

“I have protection from you, now. Apparently.”

“Felicitations.”

Milanda studied her, taking in the eeriness of her features. The almost-humanity of her.

“The Avatar was confident it would work. And that you can help. Before doing anything rash, however, I have questions for you.”

“That’s wise.” She spread her arms. “I have nothing but time. Ask.”

“How do you know how to help, if the Emperor and the Hands themselves don’t?”

The Walker gazed at her impassively for a moment, then smiled, and there was something in that expression Milanda didn’t care for. It was hard to tell exactly what, though; her features were so doll-like, it was as if she were a machine built to convey emotion but not truly feel it.

“It amuses me how you’ve made gods of the ascended beings of your so-called Pantheon. Sure, by any reasonable definition they might as well be… But the Infinite Order were more powerful beings by far, and they never built actual religions around themselves. At first, they were scientists, conducting experiments. In the end, they were kings and queens, drunk with power and lacking any feeling for the people living on this world. But gods? The idea would have insulted them.” She shook her head. “But then, it seems Scyllith got in on the act. In her case, specifically, it does not surprise.”

“What does this have to do with what I asked you?” Milanda demanded impatiently.

“I am explaining why your Emperor, and the Empress before him, did not do a more thorough job of setting up this system properly.” Again, she tapped on the transparent screen between them. “Religions are the creation of primitive people to impose a semblance of order upon a world they do not understand. Science renders them…obsolete, but not unnecessary, because it is a feature of human psychology that you need something to believe in, for your lives to be fulfilled. So it is with the systems here. Sharidan is quite intelligent. Theasia was more so. But in this facility, they tampered with things vastly beyond their comprehension, and succeeded to a point by imposing the structures they knew, the systems of magic and religion. They achieved…a happy medium. The system works. For it to be truly refined, they would have to know how it works. They do not.” She grinned. “I do.”

“You said you were not a… The exact words escape me.”

“A computer tech, which I am not.” The Walker began to pace back and forth in her cell, swiveling her head smoothly to keep Milanda in view as she did. The effect was even more creepy than she herself was. “A computer is a machine that processes information. Not a true thinking machine; that is an AI, an artificial intelligence, such as the Avatar you met in the gravitational isolation chamber. Tech is just a shortening, in this case, of technician, though in other contexts it can also mean technology.”

“Then how can you help, if you’re not one?”

She stopped her pacing, and shrugged. “I hear tell of wondrous enchanted devices you have, now. Lights that need no fuel; vehicles that travel without horses.”

“I’m sure that must seem abominably backward to you,” Milanda snapped.

“Not really. You are still primitive compared to the Infinite Order at its height, but recall, I have been on this planet these eight thousand years. I am accustomed to thinking of humans as mud-dwelling apes with marginally better linguistic skills to compensate for their lack of upper body strength. Your current civilization is actually rather impressive. But this is beside the point: you can use an enchanted carriage, yes? Or a fairy lamp? To live in your society, you would perforce need to know how.” She smiled again. “But could you build one?”

“What we are talking about doing,” Milanda said slowly, “is a great deal more complex than driving a carriage. Certainly more so than flipping a switch. I take your point, but still…”

“Very well, you require more data to be reassured. That is reasonable.”

The Dark Walker broke off and paced a complete lap around her cell, counter-clockwise, seeming to gather her thoughts. When she was front and center again, she turned to face Milanda, and folded her arms behind her back.

“Of the daughters of Naiya, there are three generations, of which I am of the second.”

“You’re a valkyrie?” Milanda asked in surprise.

The creature raised an eyebrow. “A valkyrie is a thing out of Norse myth. But…I suppose, thanks to Vidius, the description is more or less accurate, depending on whether one agrees that the things my sisters gather are in fact souls, which is a vast debate for another time.”

“What are you doing here?”

She smiled thinly. “In this cell, or upon this world?”

“I know why you’re in the cell. Valkyries were banished from the mortal plane.”

“To the dimensional insulation layer, yes. It is a peculiarity of all Naiya’s daughters, resulting from the immense power accessible through us, that when heavily traumatized, we mutate in entirely unpredictable ways.” She leaned one forearm on the barrier, lounging against it, and gave Milanda a recognizably sardonic look. “When one has been banished to the dimensional insulation layer, being ripped back out of it by a third-rate warlock is an extremely traumatic experience. Take my word for it. I wouldn’t wish it upon you.”

“I’m sorry,” Milanda said automatically.

“Are you? Well, that doesn’t really matter. Thank you for the sentiment. We were discussing more practical things, though.”

She straightened up, and again began pacing back and forth, this time keeping her gaze where she was going and not bothering with eye contact.

“Most of the Infinite Order regarded their experiments and creations, sapient or not, as of no more significance than lab equipment. Naiya, however, created daughters; she truly did care for us, and presumably still does, no matter the lengths she has gone to in her efforts to care less. The first generation… They truly were her children. She actually raised them, brought them up in the traditions of her own native culture, which they have since recreated in Sifan. Part of the Order’s whole purpose was breaking with the customs of old Earth, but by that point, none of them were much listening to each other, and I suspect she longed for the comfort of familiarity. When the kitsune proved too dangerous for the other members of the Order to allow running around, it was all she could do to insist on their containment on the islands, rather than their destruction. After that… Well, obviously, she tried again. But I think she grieved that separation, and wanted a bit more…distance, this time around. To protect herself.”

Milanda felt another platitude bubbling up, and silenced it. She was getting the impression that the Walker didn’t much care for displays of sentiment. If nothing else, she definitely enjoyed hearing herself talk, and Milanda had known enough people like that at court to know better than to interrupt.

“My sisters and I were made with fully-formed minds, not educated through a childhood like our elders. Mother preferred not to develop so close a relationship, I think. I resented it, until I saw how she has treated the dryads. I’ve come to…count my blessings, as they say. She was distant, with us, imperious… But at least she was present. And she made certain to look after us. Regardless,” she went on, suddenly more brisk, “the point is that what I know of the systems and functions of Infinite Order technology is part and parcel of my very being. My mind was constructed to have all the relevant information, organized and complete in a way that no…organically learned skill ever truly is.” Smiling faintly, she tapped her temple with a fingertip. “Would you be better off with an actual specialist? Undoubtedly. Sadly for us both, you don’t have one. Unless you can tempt a kitsune here from Sifan to help you, or one of your gods down from their celestial palaces, and bring yourself to trust such a creature, I am the only source of that information to be found on this world.” Her smile broadened; her teeth were blindingly white and perfectly even. “And most fortuitously for you, I am right here. How very…providential. Is it not?”

She was right, of course, but it wasn’t that which held Milanda’s concentration at the moment, but something she had just realized. It hadn’t been necessary for the prisoner to talk about her creator and sisters to make her points, nor to go on digressions about history and the world she had known eight thousand years ago. Despite her reserve, she was desperate to connect with someone.

Isolated first from her sisters by being jolted back to this plane, and then from everyone in this cell. Whatever else she was, this woman, this creature, was unbearably lonely.

That didn’t make her a whit less dangerous.

“All right,” she said aloud, “you have, in theory, the correct knowledge. But you are still an incalculably dangerous creature, and I hope you’ll pardon me if I’m reluctant to unleash you on the world on the basis of theory.”

“Ask anything you need to,” the Walker said calmly. “One of us has all the time in the world.”

“Then let’s hear some specifics,” Milanda said, folding her arms. “Tell me what’s going on, and how you would fix it.”

“This facility has been remotely accessed by a third party,” the Walker said immediately, tapping the window. “You saw the information feed in this panel—it has been keeping me updated. And no, it would not be standard policy for prisoners to have access to that, it’s just another artifact of the slapdash half-measure rigging that was done to set up this network of yours. And that, I believe, is the core of your problem. Most of the essential functions of the facility are either turned off or doing something they weren’t meant for. If everything were running properly, there would be firewalls in place to prevent unauthorized access. If the Avatar were installed here where he should be, instead of having been yanked and moved to the GIC to ride herd on those three dryads, he would have detected and countered any such incursion. As it is, the system was, and is, defenseless.”

“Who has done this?” Milanda demanded.

“I don’t know. This only gives me information, and not much at that; it doesn’t allow me to give commands, or I’d just have it let me out. With clearance and access to a proper terminal, I could examine more detailed records of what was accessed and changed, and give you more information. I will tell you one thing, though.” Again, she leaned against the panel, smiling faintly and reminding Milanda of several cocky young men who had tried to flirt with her when she was newly arrived in the capital. “To do this, someone would need two very important things: a piece of the Infinite Order’s technology capable of interfacing with this facility’s systems, and personal clearance granted by a member of the Infinite Order.”

Despite her practiced poise and the heady feeling of power now coursing through her, Milanda’s breath caught.

“You mean… An Elder God did this?”

“They would hardly have to do something so subtle, nor would it be in their nature. At least, not if they were acting directly.” The Walker shrugged. “Several possibilities come to mind. Scyllith does have her own cult, now; they are theoretically isolated underground by Themynra’s drow, but it wouldn’t be the first time one of them dug a long tunnel straight up and got loose on the surface. That doesn’t usually last long before the Pantheon’s agents land on them—or, for that matter, Elilial’s—but there’s precedent. It is also possible, though it would be out of character and contrary to her established pattern of the last few millennia, that my mother has decided to intervene in the mortal world again. Alternatively, it may be that one or more of the Infinite Order thought slain in the Pantheon’s uprising has survived, and now resurfaced. Ascended beings are nothing if not resilient, and most of them were exceedingly intelligent. Then, too, some members of the Pantheon would know how to use these systems, even before acquiring the nigh-limitless knowledge of godhood. They picked up some walking detritus in the course of their adventures, but a good few of them were trusted lab assistants who worked directly under members of the Order.” She shrugged. “The list of possibilities is long… But it is, now, a list, and not the wide-open vagueness it was when you stepped into this hall.”

Milanda unconsciously frowned and rubbed her chin, a gesture Sharidan made when concentrating. Catching herself at it, she immediately ceased.

“All right… You can find out who did it, then?”

“I’m not going to make promises based on information I don’t have, but I believe so. The access made to the systems gave me the impression it was…exploratory. Incompetent, even. A trained user would not have bumbled about, messing with random functions, the way the interloper did. My personal theory at the moment is that this is another human who’s got his hands on something he shouldn’t. If, somehow, somebody unearthed a functioning terminal with transcension field access and an authorized user’s credentials still active, that might be enough.”

“So…it’s an inexperienced user.”

“That much I can all but guarantee.” The Walker smiled. “I, as we have discussed, actually know how to use the systems. Provided our uninvited guest doesn’t get too much more time to practice, I should be more than a match for him. There’s been no such activity in the last day or so. Perhaps he’s asleep.”

Milanda frowned. “Can you reverse what was done to the Hands?”

“That’s trickier.” The prisoner began to pace again. “The system logs will tell me every change made by the intruder; putting everything back the way it was should be a very simple matter. This, however, is a hybrid system, designed to run at least partially if not mostly on the highly intuitive magic of the dryads. What’s been done may have had ripple effects that we can’t so easily put right. The whole mess is easily complex enough for chaos theory to be a potential factor. It should, in theory, still be correctable, but if that happens, we’re looking at a longer and more difficult operation entirely.”

“Especially if we want to take measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again…”

“In all honesty,” the Walker said with a grimace, “if you’re going to do something like that, I would recommend dismantling the whole system and replacing it with another one, built from the ground up by someone who knows what they are doing.”

“Someone like you.”

She shrugged. “I could help, yes. The Avatar would be a better choice. I’m mystified what sequence of events could have led him to be stuck down there while this nonsense is going on up here. Theasia clearly persuaded him to help; she’d have been far better off persuading him to design her whole Hand apparatus. It couldn’t have been made without his input, but he definitely did not engineer this jury-rigged thing.”

Milanda drew in a deep breath and peered around the empty hall. “All right… What, then, would you do? I assume there’s more to this facility than this hall, but I don’t see any doors…”

The Walker grinned and tapped again on her invisible barrier. “You wouldn’t. You don’t see one here, either, but I assure you, this is where it is. This facility was put under lockdown when the renegades attacked, and that order was never rescinded. Most of it is inert and walled off. I don’t know how this was left open enough that comparatively simple humans thousands of years later could have entered and turned on the lights, but here we are. I can unlock the rest of it, easily. There will be terminals in this hall; you just have to know how to access them. We’ll want something more central to do the kind of work necessary, though.”

“How big is this place?” Milanda asked curiously.

“It runs through most of the mountain,” the Walker replied. “You’ve built your city upon what used to be the planetary spaceport. The Infinite Order were rather paranoid and grew increasingly mistrustful of one another; they insisted on there being only a single point where spacecraft were permitted to land and depart, so they could all watch it, and thus watch each other’s comings and goings, as well as see who was doing what with the off-planet facilities scattered about the solar system. To that end, they flattened the top of this mountain and used it for a giant landing pad, building all the actual facilities the port needed underground.”

“But…the mountain isn’t flat,” Milanda protested, fascinated in spite of herself. “Tiraas is on a perfectly symmetrical hill.”

“It isn’t flat now,” the Walker said with a mirthless grin. “The Pantheon, when they came visiting, were not in a…talking mood. But yes, this is not even the tip of the iceberg. It’s scarcely a snowball, the gravitational isolation chamber notwithstanding. That, by the way, is deep below the mountain, accessible only by teleporter; it’s not actually at all close to here. These passages are practically a city unto themselves, with spaces set aside for every conceivable use. I would suggest,” she added, suddenly frowning, “that we not unlock anything more than we need, which should be minimal. The security lockdown caused by the renegades’ attack would shut off virtually all of the housekeeping functions in chambers without living occupants—which would be all of them. A space that hasn’t been touched in eight thousand years will not be pleasant to visit, and there’s no telling what the Order had in some of those chambers. This, up here, was clearly a detention wing; there should be a security station close by. That will do splendidly for our purposes. If not, or if it’s not accessible, the hidden terminals here will have maps.”

Milanda drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, aware that what needed to be said had already been said. She was stalling, now, afraid of the implications of what she would have to do here. But there was no time for that.

“Very well, then. Terms.”

“Terms,” the Walker agreed.

“First, you are not to leave here,” Milanda said firmly. “Ever.”

The Walker tilted her head. “From one prison to another?”

“It’s the same prison, and surely having the run of it is a different matter than being cooped up in that cell.”

“Very true. All right, I accept.”

“Second, your access to the facility’s systems will only be toward specific goals approved by myself or the Emperor. Third, you will not go near the Emperor, or any other guest who does not have the Hands’ protection against your magic. I’ll warn you, I am explaining, not bargaining; all the terms I am laying out will be programmed into the system, and you will not have the clearance to alter them.”

“You can do that?” the Walker asked mildly. “Then I’m curious why you need me.”

“I can’t,” Milanda replied, “but I know someone who can.” She tucked a hand into the pocket hidden in her skirt and withdrew the object the Avatar had given her, ejected directly from a small fissure in his metal complex back at the Nexus, where the dryads kept their personal effects. It actually rather resembled a power crystal, though more square in shape and encased in a framework of steel, with a complex little apparatus on one end. The Walker’s eyes fixed on it instantly. “So no, you will not go near the Emperor. When he approaches, or anyone who is potentially in danger from you, the system will issue a warning and give you time to secure yourself in a cell. This one, or another. There you will remain until the facility is cleared, at which time you will be free to resume roaming the whole complex at will. If you do not secure yourself in a timely fashion, interior defenses will be activated to do it for you.”

“If those were a threat to me,” the Walker said in a deceptively calm tone, “the Infinite Order would not have bothered to banish my sisters and I to the insulation layer, against Mother’s wishes.”

“The Infinite Order were very impressive, yes, but they did not have dryads, or the ability to use Naiya’s personal transcension field against you through their auspices. Or have you forgotten how you were corralled into that cell in the first place?”

The Walker stared flatly at her, all pretense of friendliness erased now, but after a long moment, she nodded.

“Very well. Your concerns are entirely valid. And…this is still a step up from my current situation. I accept those terms, and will not cause needless difficulty.”

Milanda, ever the courtier, caught the qualifier; what was needless was in the eye of the beholder, and someone who had no intention of causing trouble wouldn’t need to cover herself that way. She let it pass for the moment, however.

“I wasn’t finished. Fourth, these terms are not final; more may be imposed as they are deemed necessary by the Emperor, or his heirs.”

“There, we have trouble,” the Walker said, folding her arms. “You ask me to agree to an open-ended deal which you could change at any time to any terms you like.”

“Fifth,” Milanda barreled on, “and pursuant to the point above, if you resist or attempt to attack any Imperial personnel, you will be conclusively terminated.”

The Walker’s eyes narrowed to slits. “If you could do that, you would have.”

“Once again, the dryads—”

“Don’t talk to me about dryads,” she said curtly. “I am far too dangerous to be left alive. That I am proves my captors don’t have the capacity to kill me.”

“That’s where you are sadly mistaken,” Milanda said softly. “I have not spoken with the Emperor about you, thanks to the geas on this place, but I know him as well as anyone alive, and it’s no trouble for me to understand his position on this. It would trouble his conscience enough to keep you imprisoned, simply because of what you are through no fault of your own. He places duty and necessity above his personal feelings when he must, but he would absolutely not countenance the injustice of executing you when you are not to blame for what you are.

“His mother was a different matter. Empress Theasia, I’m afraid, never learned the lesson of Athan’Khar despite her own father’s remonstrations; her ministers had quite a time preventing her from creating and stocking, much less using, horrible weapons with the advances in magic and alchemy which occurred under her reign. None of that is common knowledge, of course. In fact, now that I’ve met you, I suspect the world owes you a debt. I do believe part of the reason the Empress allowed herself to be persuaded not to pursue such projects was because she had you down here, ready to be unleashed on any enemy she judged deserving of it. Theasia was quite the pragmatist, not to mention ruthless and paranoid even by the standards of politicians. I sometimes wonder if she wasn’t part drow.”

“I see,” the prisoner said tonelessly.

“And allow me to elaborate on your earlier objection,” Milanda continued grimly. “I am not negotiating with you, as I said, nor asking for your approval. I am explaining what will happen. Computer, display terminal.”

With a soft beep, a section of flat wall next to the Walker’s cell suddenly manifested borders, then slid upward to reveal a glowing panel above a rack of controls that vaguely resembled the runic interfaces with which Milanda was familiar. Positioned as it was, the Walker couldn’t see it, but her eyes cut in that direction regardless. Milanda, as the Avatar had directed her, carefully inserted the data crystal into the appropriate slot.

“Security protocols updated,” a curt and toneless feminine voice said from the air all around them. “User Milanda Darnassy acknowledged.”

“It’s done,” Milanda said, stepping back and dusting off her hands. “Once you’re out of there, the rules as I have explained them will be in effect. It was worth doing, on general principles, since the Avatar went to the trouble of making that for me. All this, though, has been my way of deciding whether I want to run the risk of letting you out.”

She stepped toward the panel again, meeting the prisoner’s featureless black eyes.

“Help me decide.”

They locked gazes, and the seconds slipped by. Finally, though, a small smile crept onto the Dark Walker’s thin lips. It was hard to tell, peculiar as her face was, but Milanda had the distinct feeling the expression was genuine.

“I like you,” the imprisoned fairy said simply. “You’re smart. Very well, it’s not as if there is a downside in this for me; your deal is an unqualified improvement in my own situation. I don’t at all mind helping you in exchange. In fact, after all these years, I find myself eager at the prospect of something constructive to do.” She stepped backward from the barrier, then bowed. “We have a deal.”

Milanda drew in another calming breath and let it out. “What’s your name?”

The eerie woman’s expression closed down again. “It doesn’t matter. The name belonged to…who I was. With my sisters. She is gone.”

“Well, in modern folklore you’re known as the Dark Walker,” Milanda said wryly. “I have to call you something, and forgive me, but I’d prefer it not be that.”

“Indeed,” the prisoner mused, “in all my years I have rarely met anyone who could pull off being called ‘The Dark’ anything. Walker is fine. I do enjoy a good stroll.”

“So be it, then. Computer, open the cell. Come on out, Walker.”

Even as she finished her sentence, the facility’s sub-OS beeped in acknowledgment, and an aperture suddenly appeared in the transparent wall near its right edge; roughly door-shaped, with rounded edges, it manifested silently where before the surface had been utterly seamless.

Walker moved without hurry, slowly pacing toward it, then as Milanda backed away to give her room, out. She paused in the corridor, then drew in a deep breath, her thin chest expanding.

Milanda smiled and opened her mouth to speak, but abruptly Walker whirled on her, lunging forward to grasp her head in both hands. Milanda seized her forearms reflexively, feeling her own newly-enhanced strength; she could have picked the woman up and tossed her one-handed, and that was the least of it. Walker’s grip was like iron, though, strong enough that even she couldn’t hold it back by brute strength alone.

The fairy smiled, however, and released her a moment later.

“You really are protected,” she marveled, still standing uncomfortably close, but having relaxed her arms such that Milanda was able to shove them apart and away. “Forgive me. You cannot imagine how long it has been since I could touch someone. All right!”

Grinning, she pulled back completely, rubbing her hands together in a mimicry of the gesture Milanda herself had made moments ago. “Then it seems we have work to do. There is no sense in delaying further. Come!”

She stepped around her, heading back up the hall toward the bend to the teleporter, and Milanda could only follow, desperately hoping she had not just made a critical mistake.

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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 – 16

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She landed in an awkward heap, having scraped her lower back badly on the lip of the door, her legs folded under her at a painful angle. A moment later, the damn apple thumped softly to the grass next to her head. Well, she was about due a stroke of luck; if it happened to roll back through the doorway, at least it wasn’t sitting up there in the hall for the Hands to find.

Wait, grass?

Milanda untangled herself as quickly and gracefully as possible, sitting upright to take stock. She managed to collect only a quick impression of her surroundings: it seemed she was now outside, somehow, atop a hill on a much sunnier day than it had been in Tiraas. That was as much as she could spare for the scenery; immediately her attention was focused upon the other person present.

Directly in front of her stood a pretty young woman, completely nude and with fists planted on her hips in an annoyed posture. Her expression, however, was quizzical. She was taller than Milanda and far more lean of build, nearly flat-chested and just short of bony, but it was her coloration which was most eye-catching. Though not as bad as the creature in the cell, it clearly wasn’t natural: she was pale-skinned, with a very peculiar complexion of subtle striations rather like willow bark, and had a mane of feathery hair which seemed to have been dyed in patches of pale green and white. Her eyes had white irises.

“Huh,” she said thoughtfully. “You’re new. Are you the jackass who threw that apple?”

“I’m very sorry about that,” Milanda said, getting to her feet and sketching a polite curtsy. “I was just trying to see if the door was safe. I didn’t hit you, did I?”

“Please, I’m far too nimble for you to hit,” the girl said scornfully. “It’s rude to toss crap into people’s homes, though.”

“Again, I apologize. I didn’t realize—”

“What was that?”

Milanda blinked. “Um. What was what?”

“That…thing.” With an irritated expression, the naked girl did a very brief and awkward pantomime of her curtsy. “Looked like you were dancing.”

“Oh. It was just a curtsy. It’s like a bow. It’s polite, meant to show respect.”

“Hm. Weird.” Her expression cleared somewhat, though. “Still, respect is good. You seem sorta nice, if clumsy. What are you doing here?”

“Well, as to that…”

“Hey!” Another young woman appeared over the crest of the hill, waving exuberantly. She was shorter and rounder than the first, but just as nude, with a rosy complexion and hair shimmering in shades of pink and red. “Whatcha got there, Hawthorn? Who’s this? Someone new?”

“That’s what I was just finding out,” Hawthorn said irritably. “If someone would shut up and let me talk to her.”

“Hey, you’re not supposed to be in here,” the new arrival said, frowning as she came up to join them. “Only—oh, no!” She gasped in horror and pressed her hands over her mouth. “Oh, I know what this is, it’s just like before! Sharidan’s dead, and now there’s a new one! Oh, that’s so sad! He was so sweet, and we didn’t get to say goodbye…”

“Don’t be a ninny,” Hawthorn said crossly. “The Hands would come tell us if he was dead, like last time.”

“Are you sure?”

“Use your head!”

Milanda took advantage of their brief quarrel to surreptitiously peer around. The hill could have been like any in the Tira Valley: thronged with lush grass, wildflowers and small bushes, with stands of trees in the near distance. The sky was brilliant blue, trailed with wisps of cloud. It was disorienting, though… Almost as if there were no horizon. The ground simply fell away to the sides of the hill, as if it were floating in the sky. The sun, too, was low against the ground off to her left, but it didn’t look right. It was too large, the light too pale…

“Maybe we can eat her!”

Milanda’s attention snapped back to the arguing women at that development.

“Oh, that’s what you think about everything,” the redhead said crossly. “Honestly, I don’t see how you can even consider eating people at this point. It was fine when they were rare and strange, but how many of ’em have we gotten to know, now? It’d just be weird.”

“Maybe I like a little weird now and again,” Hawthorn replied, now eyeing Milanda in a way she didn’t like at all. “Why else would they send us a girl? We don’t need one.”

“Hey, wait a sec,” the redhead said, suddenly stepping toward Milanda, who froze. Not so much because of the approach, but because she had just recalled that a hawthorn was a kind of tree, and put it together.

Dryads.

She was alone who knew where with a pair of dryads. The prisoner’s warning suddenly rang very true. They probably would kill her. They usually did.

The red-haired one grabbed her by the arm and tugged her close, burying her face in Milanda’s hair and inhaling deeply. Milanda kept still, trying to breathe as little as possible. Neither her youthful education in Viridill nor her court-learned political skills had prepared her for this. Fairies were known to be generally insane; there was no telling how these two might react to anything she did. The only real certainty here was that she had no hope of physically extracting herself from the dryad’s grasp.

“Mm,” the redhead mused, finally pulling back. “Come smell her.”

“So we can’t eat her, but you want me to smell her?” Hawthorn folded her arms and looked snide. “Apple, are you trying to piss me off, or just being a nitwit?”

“You’re such a jerk,” Apple said without rancor. “Fine, if you’re too good to see for yourself, I’ll tell you. She smells like Sharidan. He’s all over her. So no, I really don’t think you should eat or otherwise hurt her, because I bet he’d be very upset.”

“Hnh. Well, fair enough, I suppose.” Hawthorn turned a challenging stare on Milanda. “All right, then. Who are you, and what are you doing in here? We’re supposed to be a secret.”

Apple had released her but not backed up; Milanda shifted her weight slightly to gain some personal space, but decided not to risk antagonizing either of them by trying to get further away. “I’m here because the Emperor is in trouble. Do you two know anything about the Hands of the Emperor?”

“Course we know about the Hands, we make them,” Hawthorn snorted.

“Wait, hold on,” Apple interjected. “What do you mean, Sharidan’s in trouble?”

“Something has gone wrong with the Hands,” Milanda explained. “They’ve started acting very erratic and unhinged, and strangely aggressive. They’ve begun threatening people who don’t deserve it, even the Empress. And they are developing abilities they didn’t have before. Some kind of teleportation.”

“Nonsense,” Hawthorn stated. “We don’t mess up.”

“Hah!” Apple pointed triumphantly at the other dryad. “I told you! I said something was weird!”

“Oh, please, you and your weird feelings don’t add up to something wrong with the Hands.”

“Me and my weird feelings plus someone telling us that something is wrong with the Hands adds up! You’re just being snippy because you were wrong!”

“I wasn’t wrong,” Hawthorn retorted, her voice riding in pitch.

“Well, I know a way we can settle this quick enough,” Apple replied, turning around. “Hey, Avatar!”

Milanda turned to follow her gaze, finally beholding the other side of the door she had come through, and was immediately disoriented again. It was way too far away; she hadn’t moved from the spot where she’d fallen from the step, but the thing was a good two yards distant. Also, it hovered motionlessly two feet above the ground. Apart from that, it looked like the door she had entered, its black frame carved into complex, blocky shapes, blinking here and there with tiny lights, all framing a seamless pane of blue light. It had the little glowing panel on the left of the frame, but also a very large one on the right, the size of the door itself and hanging lower so that it nearly touched the ground. This one was fully transparent.

At least, at first. At Apple’s hail, an image appeared in the glass pane, like a reflection, showing a thin, bald man wearing a peculiar tight suit, his skin and clothing a uniform purple. The image was translucent, but solid enough that she had no trouble making out details.

“I heard the entire exchange,” the purple man said in a peculiar voice, resonating as if echoing down a tunnel. He bowed to Milanda, who belatedly stepped forward after both Apple and Hawthorn made their way toward him. “Greetings, madam. I am Avatar Zero One, the administrative AI originally responsible for the planetary spaceport, and currently the personal custodian for these three avatars of Administrator Naiya and their private residence.”

She didn’t even try to untangle all that, well aware it would only get her lost in endless questions. She curtsied more deeply in response. “Greetings, sir. I am Milanda Darnassy, companion to his Majesty the Emperor, Sharidan the First.”

“Ooh, that’s a pretty name!” Apple trilled. Hawthorn rolled her eyes.

“Thank you,” Milanda replied with a smile.

“I am distressed to hear that the Emperor is imperiled,” the Avatar continued, serious-faced. “I believe we should discuss this in some detail. However, there may be a more urgent consideration. Do I infer correctly, based upon the circumstances as you describe them, that you are in this facility without the authorization of the Hands of the Emperor?”

“Yes, but I do have Sharidan’s authorization,” she said quickly. “He sent me here to look for a solution to the problem. But he wasn’t able to tell me what to expect down here due to the geas upon the place, and right now the Hands are considered untrustworthy.”

“I see. That being the case, and considering the ability of Hands of the Emperor to observe access to the facility, I surmise that one shall be here presently to investigate.”

“Oh.” Milanda went pale. “One was approaching when I came in… I mean, the prisoner out there said…”

“Prisoner?” Apple asked curiously.

“Then we should make haste,” the Avatar said quickly. “On the surface I am inclined to believe your account, which means you should swiftly absent yourself from view of the door. Apple, would you kindly escort our guest to the nexus?”

“Glad to!” Apple chirped. “Ooh, this’ll be fun! We get to be sneaky!”

“You do realize he’s sending you because I’m the only one smart enough to lie to a Hand, right?” Hawthorn asked smugly.

“Girls, please,” the Avatar said firmly as Apple turned to scowl at her sister. “Make haste. There may be little time left.”

“Oh…fine. C’mon, Milanda Darnassy. Can I just call you Milanda?” the dryad asked, already marching off downhill.

“Actually, I’d prefer that,” Milanda replied, jogging to catch up. Despite being no taller than she and rather plump in build, Apple set an impressively brisk pace. Perhaps she’d taken the Avatar’s warning to heart. “It’s much more comfortable that way, between friends.”

Apple gave her a sunny smile, her pique of a moment ago seemingly forgotten. She glanced pointedly over her shoulder and pressed a finger to her lips in an exaggerated motion. Milanda, feeling equal parts foolish and amused, nodded and winked. Well, foolish and amused was much better than fearing for her life.

The walk was even more disorienting than what she had seen thus far. They proceeded down what seemed to be a steep and ever-steepening hill; it looked like it must surely fall away into a vertical drop at any moment. Yet, her sense of balance told her she was walking on perfectly flat ground. Risking a glance back, Milanda discovered that the door had disappeared over the horizon. In fact, when she peered about, the scene looked very much as it had from the doorway itself, albeit with different trees and bushes in sight: as if she were standing on top of a hill.

Only belatedly did she put it together. This thing was round; it was a whole world. A very, very tiny one. Where had that door taken her? Surely there wasn’t a miniature planet under the Palace…

Apple led her silently toward a gap in a particularly large stand of trees up ahead, and Milanda focused on the sight of it heaving up over the shrunken horizon. It approached with disquieting speed as they traversed the rolling landscape, enough that soon she realized this was actually a sizable hill, ringed by a crown of towering oak trees. Only when they reached the treeline itself did she discover that the hill was hollow, its slope concealing a deep basin. And there, the surprises continued.

She could see at a glance that what lay below had originally been the product of the same intelligence which had created the facility beneath the Palace. This wasn’t made of mithril, looking more like burnished steel, but the depression was completely regular, with an octagonal floor in the center and flat metal panels forming its sloping walls. Two of these had metal steps attached to them, with accompanying handrails; she couldn’t see the one onto which Apple was leading her, but the one opposite had pale green lights glowing from beneath each stair. In the center of the metal floor stood a thick column, apparently of glass and bordered with a steel framework, containing two swirling substances suspended together; there was a heavy, glowing green stuff that seemed liquid based on the way it moved, while all around it roiled a pale blue gas, whirling as if caught in a hurricane. Panels like the one in which the Avatar lived by the door stuck out from this column on two sides. Two of the sides of the basin itself had large glowing screens thrust vertically up from them, as well.

Atop that, though, was all the evidence of long habitation. Furniture of clearly modern make had been brought here, a disorderly profusion of beds, sofas, chairs, and random scattered cushions and rugs. A lot of it was in rather poor repair, and there was even a pile of smashed chair pieces shoved into one corner. Shelves were lined with books, there was a pianoforte set near the glowing pillar, and a wild profusion of more personal items and knicknacks were strewn over every surface. One corner of the space had clearly been given over to food—which meant meat, apparently, to judge by the well-gnawed animal corpses present in varying stages of freshness. Amazingly, she detected no odor of decay.

Apple bounced cheerfully down the steps, Milanda following more slowly, taking it all in. No sooner did she reach the bottom, though, than a pile of rugs strewn over a nearby settee suddenly heaved up to reveal another dryad, this one with pink hair, blinking sleepily at her.

“Who’s this?”

“Shhh!” Apple waved her arms frantically over her head. “We’re being sneaky!”

The pink one blinked slowly, twice, cocked her head, shifted to study Milanda, and then shrugged with supreme unconcern. “Kay.”

“This is Mimosa,” Apple said as the new dryad swung her legs off the couch, yawning. “Mimosa, this is Milanda Darnassy, one of Sharidan’s mates.”

“I told you, my name is Tris’sini,” Mimosa said haughtily. “It’s unnecessary elvish. It’s pretentious.”

Apple rolled her eyes. “Sharidan made the mistake of telling her what ‘pretentious’ means. We haven’t been able to make her grasp the connotation.”

“It means I think I’m better than everyone!”

“That is not a good thing!” Apple said in exasperation.

“How could it not be?!”

Milanda cleared her throat. “Um, sorry to interrupt…but we were trying to be quiet, I think?”

“Oh.” Apple winced. “Right.”

Mimosa yawned again. “Uh huh. Why’s that?”

“Milanda says the Hands have gone crazy!”

“Huh,” Mimosa mused, sitting back down on her erstwhile bed. “Guess you were right about something being off. I thought I felt something funny with the attunement…”

“You could have said so,” Apple said, annoyed.

Mimosa shrugged. “I wasn’t sure enough to be worth arguing with Hawthorn. She always ends up calling me stupid. So what’s wrong with the Hands?”

Both dryads turned to look expectantly at Milanda.

“Hadn’t we better wait for Hawthorn and the Avatar?” she asked, somewhat nervously.

“Oh, why bother?” Mimosa snorted. “I wanna know now.”

“If we wait, she won’t have to explain it all a second time,” Apple said. “Be a little sympathetic.”

“Pff, once we understand, we can explain it!”

She was spared having to intervene in this by the appearance of Avatar 01 in one of the screens flanking the central column.

“For what it is worth, girls, I concur with our guest. It would be polite to wait for Hawthorn; her feelings will be hurt if we proceed without her.”

“She hurts my feelings all the time!” Mimosa shouted, causing Milanda to wince.

“I know,” the Avatar said with a kind smile. “And don’t you enjoy having the opportunity to be the better person?”

“That—I mean, yeah!” Mimosa nodded vigorously. “That’s right, I am the better person. She wouldn’t wait for her to come!”

“If she weren’t waiting, she wouldn’t need to,” Apple pointed out.

Mimosa blinked at her. “Huh?”

“What?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t worry about the noise,” the Avatar said to Milanda, who appreciated the distraction. Her first meeting with dryads hadn’t ended with her expected gruesome death and she was still disappointed; they acted like unruly children, and not particularly bright ones. “It is barely audible from the gate’s current location, and in any case, shouting is quite characteristic of our residents. I assured the Hand that no one had entered, and he took me at my word. Hawthorn will join us presently.”

“Thank you very much,” she said fervently.

“Not at all,” the Avatar assured her, serious-faced now. “I am designed to assist. It appears to me that we have a great many important things to learn from one another.”


The villagers milled about, coughing and waving away the dust, while Hasegawa stared in disapproval at the wreck. Fortunately, the new mill was on the outskirts of town, and the sudden drop of the enormous millstone hadn’t damaged anything but the ground, already torn up by the construction work around it. Even more fortunately, no one had been underneath. He drew in a deep breath through his nose and let it out the same way, glaring his disapproval at the crane set up just this side of the crates of enchanted equipment which, allegedly, would make the completed mill run without the aid of wind or water.

Hasegawa waited for everyone to calm, looking to him for direction, before speaking.

“Ishimaru,” he said flatly, “someone could have died. Explain this failure.”

The crane operator had already climbed down, pale and shaken. “I—I don’t understand, Headman. I—I checked the knots. I checked them, three times, like I always do! I don’t know what—” He broke off, swallowing heavily, then bowed as deeply as he was physically able, his upper body dipping below parallel with the ground. “I take full responsibility, Headman. I am very sorry.”

“Excuse me?” Hasegawa turned his stare on his daughter, who had actually climbed up the crane to examine the knots. Hasegawa Kanako had a habit of inserting herself where she wasn’t invited, and not for the first time he felt he ought to rein her in…but she never spoke or acted with anything less than the utmost respect, and more often than not, her borderline presumptuousness resulted in something useful. This appeared to be the case now. “Father, these ropes were cut.” She held up one of the now-dangling lines. “In fact, they were frayed. See, there are four scratches across this; the weakest one snapped when Ishimaru hoisted up the stone. This was done with claws.”

Once again, Hasegawa heaved a deep sigh. This was the fourth time in the last month. He of course had made all the requisite offerings at the shrines bordering the Twilight Forest before initiating any construction in his village, had even been far more generous than tradition demanded. And the offerings had been taken; had the kitsune ignored them, he would not have dared proceed. There was also the slim comfort that if the fox-goddesses were legitimately angry, they would make it plain. But these little incidents… This was more than the usual run of pranks.

“It can’t be helped,” he said. “We will replace the ropes and proceed again. Ishimaru, oversee this. Your ropework is always meticulous.”

“Yes, Headman!” Ishimaru said with clear gratitude.

“If I may?”

Hasegawa turned at being addressed from behind, and only his very keen awareness of the dignity of his office kept him from gasping and stepping back as most of his fellow villagers did.

She simply lifted a hand, and the millstone rose seemingly of its own volition. It drifted through the air, settling gently into its intended resting place inside the still-roofless mill.

“On behalf of the village, I thank you very much for your help, Teruwan-sensei,” he said, bowing deeply to her. “I don’t know what good fortune has brought you here, but we are in your debt.”

“Oh? I don’t remember introducing myself,” Tellwyrn said with a smile.

“Forgive my presumption, Teruwan-sensei. No elves live in Sifan, and your distinctive appearance is part of your legend. If I have named you wrongly, I humbly apologize.”

“It’s close enough,” she replied, still smiling, her characteristic golden spectacles glinting. “I see you are in the middle of something and won’t take any more of your time than I must.”

“Our time is yours, in thanks for the help you have given,” he said politely, inwardly cringing. What next? It was an old trick to place someone in your debt before demanding a favor in return, and who knew what this alien creature out of myth wanted? What was she doing here? “How may we aid you?”

“All I need is a little advice, from someone familiar with the lay of the land.” She shifted and tilted her head significantly at the distant treeline. “How have they been, lately?”

Ah. Well, that he was glad enough to tell her.

“Lately?” Hasegawa replied, frowning. “Unusually…playful. When the kitsune are displeased, they are not subtle about it. We have not been punished, so I don’t believe them to be upset. Recently, though, we have had the honor of witnessing many of their little jokes. Unusually many. Something has roused them… What it may be, or what they truly feel about it, is not for such as me even to guess.”

“I see,” she mused. “Then I’ll have to be extra careful not to irritate any of them, for the sake of everyone in the region. Kuso. I hate being careful; especially now, when I don’t have time for it. Regardless.” She bowed politely to him. “Thank you very much for the warning, Headman. I regret that I cannot stay to talk more politely, but as I said, my business is urgent.”

“I would not dream of impeding you, sensei,” he replied, bowing in return. “When you have time, please visit us again, so we may properly repay your kindness.”

She smiled. “You are too kind; I will remember the invitation. Farewell.”

He stood in silence, watching her proceed down the road, before it occurred to him that there was a lot of standing in silence going on in the general vicinity. Hasegawa turned to scowl at the assembled villagers, who immediately scattered back to their tasks. Having the millstone in place so soon helped their schedule a great deal, but there was still much to be done.

Kanako approached him rather than her work, though. “Is that really all right, Father?” she asked quietly. “We should offer her hospitality, at the very least.”

Hasegawa held up a hand, and she fell silent. In the legends, elves could hear even better than kitsune, but he couldn’t recall if there was any specific reason his daughter would know that. He resolved to rectify that hole in her education; with Tiraas an ever-growing menace looming on everyone’s horizon, it could not be safely assumed that the people of other lands were not their business any longer. The Queen attended to such matters, usually, and yet… The elf was here.

“This is for the best,” was all he said. Indeed, it was better than having the infamously troublesome elf a guest in their village. Hasegawa’s people already had to deal with their own terrifyingly powerful immortals without catering to foreign ones, too. Let them deal with her.

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12 – 15

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“What are you doing here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lakshmi cleared her throat.

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

“So it is a job.”

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

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

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

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

“Ah. My humble apologies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“More than fair,” Sweet agreed.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The less said about that, the better.

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

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

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

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

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

She retrieved her apple and continued down.

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

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

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

In fact…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiny, empty rooms.

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

The cell opposite it was occupied.

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

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

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

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

The creature shrugged. “A prisoner.”

“Why are you imprisoned?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman shrugged. “It’s what I do.”

Milanda could find no answer for that.

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

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

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

“Don’t you want to get out?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Except kill me,” she said sarcastically.

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

“Are you insane?”

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

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

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

“Who are they?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

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

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

It vanished into the blue surface without a ripple.

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

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

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12 – 13

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

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

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

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

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

“Again, your Majesty—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” she said neutrally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How dangerous is it?” Milanda asked suddenly.

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

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

“Exactly so,” Eleanora agreed, nodding back.

“Now just a moment,” Sharidan began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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12 – 9

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“Afternoon!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know nothing of that!” she barked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You believe me? Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Welcome back, my lord,” she murmured.

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

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

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

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

“The matter of—”

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

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

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

Silence and total shock descended.

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

Hands did not speak to their Emperor that way.

They simply did not.

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

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

Rest would have to wait.


Afternoon was fading into dusk as they neared the town.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Trouble?” she asked mildly.

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

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

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

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

He nodded. “I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

Her chance was coming, she could feel it.

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