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Midmorning was a fairly busy time in Last Rock, so there were enough onlookers in the square to form a decent-sized crowd when the Rail caravan eased to a halt next to the platform. The town wasn’t a scheduled stop, so any Rail traffic was specially chartered—which meant the arrival of a caravan always heralded something interesting about to happen. It was fortunate that no one had had any forewarning, or most of the town would have shown up to gawk.

The caravan’s doors hissed open in unison, and showing no sign of the disorientation Rail travelers usually did, armed drow streamed out onto the platform. There were a few muted outcries from the bystanders, and a couple even reached for wands, but luckily everyone present had the sense not to act in rash haste.

The soldiers wore silk tunics under armor of scaled lizard-hide and plates that seemed formed of some kind of chitin, all of it close-fitting and dyed shades of red and green so dark that only under the prairie sun did they show any color to speak of; at night they would have simply looked black to human eyes. Each soldier carried a saber sheathed at the waist, and wore a wide-brimmed hat to shield their eyes from the sunlight. They took up positions clearly delineating a space adjacent to the parked caravan and stood at attention, putting their hands nowhere near their weapons and not acknowledging the townspeople.

A second wave disembarked, this consisting of four women in robes of the same red and green, these adorned with light gray sashes from the right shoulder to left hip, affixed by silver pins in the shape of Themynra’s balance scale emblem. Their robes had attached hoods to shield their eyes rather than hats. Showing no more sign of discomfiture from the ride than the troops had, the priestesses arranged themselves in an inner ring, with somewhat more casual postures, focusing their attention on the caravan rather than the growing crowd of locals.

Finally, two women emerged from the last compartment.

One wore robes with embroidery in House Awarrion colors, with a saber hanging at her waist—not a Narisian model, but one with a gold crosshilt and ivory handle—and a Punaji-style hat protecting her face, complete with colorful feathers. She stepped forward, glanced quickly around the square, then turned and bowed to the last person to disembark.

Matriarch Ashaele was dressed simply, in a plain robe of green with red trim. She had no head covering at all, leaving her snowy hair practically luminous in the sun. Even her eyes were not narrowed against the glare of the light.

It had been a swift and efficient discharge of personnel, but by the time it was over, an official response had already manifested—having been nearby anyway, as luck would have it. Sheriff Sanders approached slowly, glancing about with a faint frown but taking his cue from the Narisian troops to the extent of keeping his hand well away from his holstered wand.

“Excuse me,” he began.

The woman with the hat intercepted him, bowing politely. “Good morning—you are the Sheriff, I presume?”

“Sam Sanders, at your service,” he replied, seemingly relieved to have somebody to talk to, and doffed his hat respectfully.

“It is a pleasure. I am Nahil nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion. We apologize for descending upon your town so abruptly, and will of course do our utmost to minimize the impact of our presence. My mother has business with the University, but while she attends to that, perhaps you could help me arrange facilities for our stay?”

Nahil deftly took him by the arm, turning and steering him back toward the town. At her movement, one of the priestesses followed, and four soldiers slipped out of formation to arrange themselves around her and the Sheriff in a clear honor guard, the rest of the squad neatly rearranging themselves surrounding their matriarch.

“Uh, sure, I’d be glad to help,” Sanders said a little uncertainly as he was skillfully handled, turning to glance back over his shoulder at the Rail platform. “Um, exactly how long are you gonna be in town? There ain’t a whole lot o’ room…”

“For the time being, we must…what is that expression? Play it by ear. I am very eager to speak with more plains dwellers, Sheriff; my Tanglish is decent, I believe, but there is such poetry in the prairie dialect! Tell me, what exactly is a ‘pig in a poke?’”

The rest of the drow started forward, moving in perfect sync with Ashaele as she made a beeline for the mountain—a path which would inevitably take them right through the center of the town.

In the shadows of the porch in front of the Ale & Wenches, one man started to step out into the sunlight, and was suddenly halted by a huge hand upon his shoulder.

“Wilson,” Ox rumbled, “don’t you even damn well think about it.”

“I wasn’t thinkin’ about nothin’!” Wilson protested with an air of wounded innocence.

“That’s pretty much the whole problem with your entire life. You stay the hell away from exotic guests ’till we figure out if they’re bringin’ commerce or trouble, an’ maybe even then. Clear?”

“You’re not the boss o’ me, Ox Whipporwill!”

“That’s the plain truth, an’ a point for which I’m downright grateful.” Ox’s bushy mustache shifted, the only sign on his face of a smile which did not touch his eyes. “How’s about we make sure it stays that way? By you not doin’ anything that’ll get your ass thrown in a cell for once.”

The two men were well within the range of elven hearing, but none of the Narisians acknowledged them, or any of the other conversations taking place nearby. At that moment, anyway, they had a more immediate distraction which demanded a response.

The drow reacted swiftly to the appearance of Professor Tellwyrn in the middle of their formation, right in front of the matriarch, by whirling toward her and bringing up weapons. They froze mid-swing at a slight movement of Ashaele’s hand. Tellwyrn, for her part, gave no sign that she had even noticed them.

“Matriarch,” she said gravely. “I suppose we can dispense with some of the pleasantries. I will of course take you to her. At the very least, I can bring you directly—”

“Thank you, Professor, but I prefer to walk,” said Ashaele, suiting the words with action. She resumed her even pace forward, forcing Tellwyrn to either step aside or be collided with. The soldiers re-formed their ring about them, those closest to the Professor now keeping eyes on her and hands on hilts.

“I of all people respect the value of pride,” said Tellwyrn, falling into step beside Ashaele, “but also of reason. I know you are unaccustomed to climbing mountains in this heat, Ashaele. Let me help; it’s the least I can do.”

“Well, this is already going better than our last conversation,” Ashaele said calmly. “Perhaps you should abysmally fail to safeguard your charges more often, Arachne, if that is what it takes to squeeze a drop of respect from you.”

Tellwyrn simply looked at her, sidelong, wearing a lack of expression that would have done a Narisian proud. By the time they passed from the square into Last Rock’s main thoroughfare, she had returned her gaze forward. They continued on in a chilly silence which belied the prairie sunshine.


“These are—”

“I recognize everyone,” Ashaele said smoothly, interrupting Tellwyrn’s introduction as they drew to a halt outside the chapel. At some signal from her, too subtle to be noticed by anyone not looking for it, the priestesses and honor guard had shifted formation to proceed behind her, so that none stood between her and the chapel, and those now clustered outside it. “Most I’ve not met, but Shaeine greatly values her friendships, and has spoken at length of each of you.”

Toby and Gabriel bowed to her; Ruda swept off her hat, simply nodding respectfully. Scorn and Juniper glanced uncertainly at them, while Fross just hovered, showing none of her usual frenetic movement.

Teal stood slightly apart from the others, face impassive. She was pale, and her eyes visibly reddened within dark pits that told of sleeplessness, but at this moment at least, she carried a reserve that would have done any Narisian proud.

“They’re a good group, all things considered,” said Tellwyrn, folding her arms. “Actually, this is the first time I’ve found any of them skipping classes. Under the circumstances, I’m inclined to let it slide.”

Ashaele simply looked at her, a hair too long for it to qualify as a glance, and then proceeded forward toward the doors. The students shifted out of her way, Juniper after a moment’s awkward hesitation.

“I would like to see my daughter in privacy,” she said calmly.

“Of course,” Tellwyrn replied. “The chapel’s wards ensure that even for elvish ears. Back away, children, this is not a show.”

“I, uh…ma’am…” Gabriel trailed off, swallowing painfully. Ashaele paused on the chapel steps, then reached out and touched his shoulder for a bare instant. He gulped again and shuffled back, giving her another bow.

“Teal,” said the matriarch, “accompany me.”

“Teal,” said Tellwyrn quickly, “you don’t have to do anything you don’t feel is necessary.”

“I realize, Professor, that diplomacy is far from your strongest skill,” Ashaele said quietly, standing on the top step and staring at the closed doors, “so I shall assume that was not deliberate. To give you the benefit of my own expertise, insinuating that I might harm one of your students is an insult.” Slowly, she turned to fix an impassive gaze on Tellwyrn. “One which a person in your position would be well advised to avoid.”

“It’s all right, Professor,” Teal said softly.

Tellwyrn glanced between her and Ashaele, nose twitching once, then shook her head. “As you will. I’ll be right out here, Teal.”

Ashaele turned her back.

Teal slipped forward and unlatched the door, giving it a push, then stepped back to bow the matriarch through. Ashaele slipped into the dimness of the chapel without another word, and Teal followed, pausing only to close the door behind them.


The campus chapel was laid out like a standard prairie church, though built of stone rather than the planks which were more common, and devoid of Universal Church iconography. Even the gods were represented only as figures in the stained glass windows, with none of their sigils displayed. There was no choir loft and only a low dais with no pulpit; no preaching was done here, the space being used only by students for individual prayers and meditations. It was kept dim as a rule, the fairy lamps left dark to allow the colored illumination of sunlight through the stained windows, contributing to its peaceful atmosphere.

At the moment, the pews had been moved and rearranged, pairs positioned face-to-face and with deep cushions added to form impromptu beds, on which lay the students suffering the Sleeper’s curse. Each had been carefully tucked in with thick handmade quilts donated by the citizens of Last Rock.

Ashaele paced quietly down the center aisle. She gave a bare glance to the profusion of flowers and trinkets piled around Ravana, and paused only momentarily to look down on Natchua, remaining otherwise focused on her destination. In only seconds, she stood beside the bed of pews on which Shaeine lay.

The matriarch stood, her back to the entrance, beside which Teal stood like a guardian. She bent slightly to lay her fingertips against Shaeine’s cheek. The curse was thorough and the sleep profound; only to an elf was the victims’ breath audible.

For a long moment, there was silence.

“Please explain how you allowed this to happen.”

Teal’s flinch was only the barest twitch of her left eye, which Ashaele could not see, with her back to the door. Vadrieny’s outrage howled within her, though. It quickly subsided at Teal’s silent plea.

“The campus was under widespread attack,” she answered quietly, her voice slightly raspy from fatigue and long hours of crying. “The Sleeper targeted multiple groups of students, including Shaeine and I. We were with three others, including Szith. Demons attempted to herd us into a trap, but Shaeine formed a plan to outmaneuver them. We entered the music building, which to the Sleeper should have been a dead end, but she led us to the roof and had Iris—a classmate who’s a witch—form a ladder of vines to escape down the back, and directed Vadrieny and I to counter-attack the demons and prevent them from observing her ploy. It…nearly worked. Shaeine insisted on being the last one down. The others escaped as she planned. We…Vadrieny and I…returned to help, and found her asleep on the rooftop. Unresponsive.” She paused to swallow heavily against the lump forming in her throat. “Just like the others. The Sleeper outmaneuvered us.”

Ashaele gazed down at her daughter in silence. After a pause, Teal opened her mouth to speak again, but the matriarch’s soft voice cut her off.

“When Shaeine brought you to visit us, Teal, I was favorably impressed. As an applicant to join House Awarrion, you presented yourself quite well.”

“For a human,” Teal finished softly, too tired even to sound resentful.

“For anyone.” A faint edge appeared in Ashaele’s tone—borderline inappropriate for any Narisian, but a matriarch could get away with a lot. She straightened and turned her head to put her face in profile from the door, regarding Teal sidelong. “I would not diminish the strength or prestige of my House by holding any prospective member to a relaxed standard. For House Awarrion, in the current political climate, a human as my daughter’s consort would be a curiosity, but a prestigious one. A Tiraan-trained bard, too, would bring us great prestige. Vadrieny also represents a tremendous asset—even if, as you insist, she does not fight aggressively. Nor do we, as diplomats, but I’m sure the utility of an ambassador who is functionally impervious to harm or imprisonment is plain. Your own status and education make you an asset, as well. Such a union between my House and Falconer Industries would be potentially bumpy, there being no precedent for such a thing, but in most possible outcomes, greatly advantageous for both. Even in your ignorance of our culture and customs, I see favorable potential. You showed me a greater willingness to learn than even most Imperial diplomats, and your unfamiliarity represents a useful…malleability. Potential that I could shape in a direction of my choosing. And…” She shifted again, to resume gazing down at Shaeine. “My duty as matriarch supersedes my duty as a mother, but the fact that my daughter adores you is hardly insignificant. If for no other reason than that Shaeine, from her earliest years, has always been a gifted judge of character.”

She turned fully around, folding her hands and gazing at Teal.

“For all that, only one concern has led me to reserve judgment. One which weighs more heavily on me as a mother than a matriarch, but is not without importance to both. There is you: first and sole daughter of a greatly powerful family, famous and wealthy beyond the imagining of most Narisian nobility, coupled with a nigh-unstoppable power in the form of your demon counterpart. And there is Shaeine: a third daughter, in practical terms a spare. Heral and Nahil both have daughters of their own, securing the matriarchal line against my own death, and are both groomed for the necessary administrative positions in the House. Shaeine, before it was decided that she should come here, was to be a House priestess—a minor position for one of her hereditary rank. Were your family another House of Tar’naris, Teal, in the union between you, it would be she who went to live with your family, answerable to your mother. Subordinate to you.”

“The comparison…isn’t exact,” Teal said after a moment.

“I am well aware. But politics aside, there remains the fact that the force you represent overshadows her. As a mother, I do not wish to see my child trailing passively in anyone’s footsteps. As matriarch, with responsibility both to the health of House Awarrion and the diplomatic interests of Tar’naris, I must be wary of setting a precedent in drow/human relations which will not serve our interests. All this has made me leery of this union. But this.” She shifted her head infinitesimally, its faint tilt to the right indicating curiosity. “What you tell me now…strongly implies that between the two of you—between the three of you, in fact—Shaeine is the dominant personality.”

Teal stared at her, blinking twice, gathering her thoughts before replying. “Matriarch… I’m a bard. And Vadrieny…in her own words, is more weapon than warrior. Something of a blunt instrument. Shaeine and I don’t think or relate in terms of dominance. But in most regards… She is the one with the political education, with the experience. And, I have to say, a personality with more innate wisdom. Vadrieny and I have both become comfortable following her lead. The dynamic between us feels natural. And it’s served us very well.” She hesitated, then swallowed again. “Until…very recently.”

Teal drew in a deep breath and lowered her eyes, her fists bunching slowly at her sides despite her efforts to cling to what she could manage of Narisian reserve. Vadrieny’s barely-contained rage and agony pulsed within her, fury feeding on fury in a cycle that grew ever harder to control.

“The Sleeper is a student here. They have to be. It’s a small campus and a small community; this is someone who knows us. Someone who’s observed us and has a grasp of how Shaeine and I relate. This wasn’t an accident or an attack of opportunity, this was very carefully planned. You asked how this happened: it was done by someone who understands our relationship, and used it to get to Shaeine.” She drew in a long breath through her teeth, which elongated subtly as she did so. Her hands un-clenched, lengthening into ebon claws, and sparks of fire danced behind her eyes. “The Sleeper is not going to get away with this much longer. Tellwyrn is closing in on them. Others are getting involved, including the Empire. No warlock can escape this kind of pursuit for long. And when we know who has done this, I am going to personally tear them into small pieces and make them eat each one.”

She broke off, squeezing her eyes shut. Despite Vadrieny’s presence flickering through, the words had been entirely her own. The archdemon’s consciousness flowed around her, clutching her for comfort against the pain, even as their anger resonated.

Caught in her inner battle, Teal hadn’t heard Ashaele move, and when the matriarch’s arms slipped around her, the shock brought her inner battle to a standstill, even Vadrieny freezing in confusion. Claws and fangs vanished, leaving Teal physically herself again.

Ashaele held her close, pressing Teal’s face gently into her shoulder with the hand cradling the back of her head.

“As matriarch, I recognize this union. You are consort to my own blood, welcomed by House Awarrion as its own. We embrace you, daughter.”

She gave Teal a final, gentle squeeze, then pulled back to hold her by the shoulders and study her face. In the interim, it was as if Ashaele’s own expression had come alive, showing finally her own weariness, her worry, and despite that, a warm smile.

“How are you, Teal?” she asked gently, with open care and concern.

Teal could only stare up at her for a moment. “Um. Aside from the obvious?” She glanced past Ashaele’s shoulder, at Shaeine’s bed of pews, then back to her face. “…confused.”

The drow’s expression shifted toward wryness. “I see. Shaeine has been coaching you in our customs, or so she told me. I trust you do understand the significance of formal adoption into the House? This is the closest parallel we have to your custom of marriage.”

“Ah, yes, that we discussed. In fact, it was one of the first things she taught me,” Teal added, a faint flush rising in her cheeks. “But it takes more than a year to absorb an entire culture.”

“Quite.” Ashaele nodded and stepped back, gently taking one of Teal’s hands and leading her up the aisle, toward Shaeine’s sleeping form. “I presume she has taught you things as she thought of them, or as they came up—it’s understandable that this one might not have occurred to her yet. It isn’t commonly invoked, but it is traditional for courting couples to have their adoption expedited in the case of a sudden…bereavement. Death, illness, injury, even imprisonment. Provided the matriarch in question had no specific objection to the union, in most such cases she would acknowledge the loved one immediately. It is a way to help build and strengthen bonds throughout our society, as well as serving the individual adopted by providing the comfort of family—and the protection of House—at a time when such is most necessary.”

“I…see,” Teal said slowly. Ashaele squeezed her hand once, then pulled her closer and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. After a moment of stiffness, she relaxed against the taller woman. A moment longer, and even Vadrieny calmed in the embrace. “I will do my utmost not to disappoint you.”

“I have little worry about that, Teal,” she said without hesitation. “I was quite frank with you; from our first meeting, I judged you a suitable mate for Shaeine, if a surprising choice. Now that I understand your situation a bit better, my last lingering concern is assuaged. This is the right thing for us all, and I’ve no doubt you will be an asset to our House. But with that established, regarding your threat toward the Sleeper.” She squeezed Teal gently, rubbing her shoulder. “You will do no such thing. In this matter I am speaking to you as both mother and matriarch, and I expect to be obeyed.”

Teal froze. “I—but…”

“You are part of a drow House, now. You know very well we are not savages, Teal. Vindictive we are indeed—but in the proper way. This is about more than you and Shaeine and the Sleeper, more than her other victims and Tellwyrn. This is a clash between civilization and barbarism. I have studied Tellwyrn’s explanation of these events closely, and this Sleeper’s motivations are obvious to me. She is a young fool with unearned power, blindly asserting it. The Sleeper represents an idea: that the strong dominate the weak simply by virtue of their strength. That she is allowed to do what she will to others simply because she is able to. This is the opposite of the purpose of all civilization, Teal. If you catch and kill her, you eliminate one threat, but you grant her the moral victory.”

“I…forgive me, mat—mother. I can’t find it in me to be concerned with moral victories right now.”

Ashaele pulled her even closer, leaning her own head against Teal’s. “Be concerned with them, daughter. They are what define you. Aren’t you the girl who tamed an archdemon through the power of love? Don’t rush to an action that will plague your dreams forever, Teal. Besides, there are greater things at stake than our feelings. We must not simply strike down the Sleeper. We will apprehend, try, convict, and duly punish her. She will be dragged before the gaze and the full force of civilization, and made to acknowledge her own impotence and insignificance against it, before being crushed beneath its heel. That is justice, distinct from retaliation. These are the principles to which Shaeine has dedicated her life. We will give her no cause to be ashamed of us when she wakes.”

She moved her arm, taking Teal’s hand and into the improvised bed, laying it atop Shaeine’s own hands, which were folded at her breast. Both of them gently twined their fingers about the sleeping girl’s.

“And I,” Ashaele finished in deadly quiet, “will settle for no lesser revenge.”

After a silent moment, Teal leaned into her again, and once again, Ashaele rested her temple against the crown of her head.

“Yes, mother.”

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Bonus #15: Judgment and Justice, part 2

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Author’s Note: This is a continuation  of a side story which began quite a while ago.  Here is its first installment, if you need a refresher.


“It is not so bad,” Elin said, in her thickly accented and slightly halting elvish. “For the part mostly, the peoples are no in argument. Very much was changed by the Enchanter Wars. Before, it was always nations to their own, even inside the Empire. Then the wars, when it was fighting about principle. About freedom, and survival. Both to break away from Tiraas, and then after, to be together again with a same enemy. But yes, that is also a reason why it is harder for the Stalweiss. They remember, everyone is known, the Stalweiss were the barbarians from the stories, scary and savage. And then they are people who brought Horsebutt the Enemy, moving down from the Stalrange into the Plains. No one is forget.”

“I see,” Tazun murmured.

“So, one Empire, people all together, but still we have a bad…um…remembrance? Knowing thing…”

“Reputation?”

“Reputation, yes!” She nodded. “Not fair, but that is life. Anyway, it is not very bad. I am a soldier, which is respect, and I really am Tiraan. My accent and all. Very few people have care that I am pale and yellow-hair. Once in a while, though, you meet stupid ones. Always annoying! I am raised in Madouris, I go to an Imperial school, I join the Emperor’s army and wear the uniform, and still drunk fool calls me barbarian in the marketplace. Worthless people are in every country, I think.”

“That’s good to hear.”

There was a brief pause.

“I suppose being our own fault,” she went on seriously. “Because we Stalweiss are secretly vegetables. Our parents plant us in the ground like turnips, and up we pop in the spring!”

“That makes sense.”

More silence.

Suddenly Tazun realized what she had said and tore his gaze from the blank wall on the other side of the compound’s courtyard to look at her. Elin was staring at him with lips pursed and one eyebrow upraised. He had grown relatively comfortable with these public displays of emotion, but the sight of one he’d so often seen from his sisters in the family quarters was jarring. Especially since he knew what came afterward. Fortunately, he also knew how to address it.

Tazun stood smoothly, setting his jewelry case aside, turned to face Elin directly, and bowed. “I deeply apologize for my rudeness, Elin. Your accounts truly are interesting. I’m very sorry; I am simply not terribly good company today. I assure you, it has nothing to do with you. You have my regret for spoiling our conversation with my own troubles.”

“Wow,” she said in Tanglish, with clear amusement. “That was downright effusive. Did you learn that from an Awarrion friend?”

“No,” he replied. “I have sisters.”

Elin smiled, and he took that to mean he was forgiven. Her expression quickly sobered again, but instead of annoyed, she now looked concerned. “Tazun, are you all right?”

“I will be fine,” he said with a polite little smile. “Please don’t be troubled on my behalf—I’ve already made too much of my own affairs, when after all we agreed to discuss your home and work on your elvish today.”

“We can do that anytime,” she replied. “It’s very unlike you to be so distracted. I can’t help being worried.”

They even talked about their feelings so openly, as if showing them wasn’t enough. Despite how annoying he felt it ought to be—how annoying it was, when he was surrounded by it for too long at a stretch—from her, it was strangely endearing. Perhaps simply because he had grown accustomed to speaking with her one on one, unlike most of his interactions with groups of humans.

Tazun slowly sat back down on the ledge beside her, considering.

“I know it isn’t your way to talk about personal business outside the family,” she said seriously, “so please, don’t think I’m picking. But you’re a friend, Tazun, and whatever that means to drow, to me it means your happiness matters. If there’s anything I can do, just name it.”

He couldn’t fully repress a smile at that; they really were starting to rub off on him.

“Let me ask you a theoretical question, if I may.”

“Shoot.”

He blinked, turning his head to stare at her.

“Ah.” She smiled ruefully. “That’s just a turn of phrase. It means go ahead.”

“Oh. Of course, yes, that’s clear in hindsight. Well, I… I suppose this relates to what you were just saying, about the Stalweiss and the Empire. Have you ever felt you were at odds with your society? With its expectations?”

“Oh, all the time,” she said immediately. “You just described the experience of growing up human. Adolescence is all about figuring out who you are, and finding your place in the world.”

“I see,” he murmured.

“Which,” she said thoughtfully, “probably doesn’t do you a bit of good, does it? I may not know Narisian culture in very much detail, but it’s not at all like that, is it?”

“No, not at all,” he agreed, shaking his head slowly. “Who we are as individuals is very much a function of who we are as a people. We each have a place in society; great sacrifices are made and resources invested in the rearing of any child, and the expectation that the investment will be repaid is central to our identity. Just by existing, I have placed a burden upon my family, my House, my whole society. If I do not contribute back, and not just to break even but to become a credit and an asset to family, House, and city, I am a thief.”

“Hm.” She tucked one leg under herself, kicking the other softly against the ledge. “Is there a particular reason you have to contribute in a certain way? Not to pry, Tazun, but it sounds like you’re questioning your place. If it doesn’t feel like the right place, wouldn’t it be better for you and for your family and all if you found one where you can do better?”

He smiled again. “I like my place. I like my work. I guess I’m questioning…other people’s places, which is shockingly presumptuous. I’m not certain if all the things I was taught as truth really…make sense.”

Elin grinned. “Well. That, again, sound like…y’know, life, to me. I think I feel what you mean a little, though. I’m a soldier, and a pretty low-ranking one. I can earn advancement, but for now, I still have a lot to prove. And there are expectations. Discipline, conformity, codes of conduct. A chain of command, orders…hm.” She tilted her head inquisitively to one side. “You know, when I think about it that way… Considering you Narisians like a whole nation of soldiers makes a lot of stuff suddenly make sense.”

“I suppose it does, at that,” he said thoughtfully.

“Remember I was talking about the Enchanter Wars?”

“Of course.”

“Soldiers rebelled against their Emperor then. Soldiers, governors, cities, whole nations. There were some existing rebel groups, sure, but for the most part, those were all loyal Imperials who couldn’t be part of an Empire that would do what the Throne had done to Athan’Khar. They all had expectations and duties to Tiraas, but those expectations ran both ways. The Empire had betrayed their trust, become something it was never supposed to be. It wasn’t their Empire anymore. I dunno, Tazun… Maybe you’re still fit for your place, but it isn’t fit for you?”

He sighed softly. “What you say has great sense to it…but the idea is very unsettling.”

“Why?” she asked gently.

“I am my place.” He glanced down at his jewelry, glinting in the harsh fairy light of the enclave. “I am defined by my position, my skills, my relationships. By the space I occupy in this life. If that is wrong…I would have no idea who or what I am.”

She placed her hand over his on the ledge between them, gazing at him but saying nothing.

He didn’t pull away.


If anything, Tazun was even more confused as he made his way through the streets later. He had gone home, secured his wares in his chambers, but then gone back out, too restless to stay put. The same issues swirled around in his head—the slave, his mother, his role in the family, Saash’t’s oblique but infuriatingly incisive observations.

Now, though, there was also Elin, and her infuriatingly incisive observations. And the fact that his friendship with her was beginning to cloud more than just his judgment. He really had better start keeping his distance; he’d already spent an awful lot of time in personal conversation with her. With one unmarried woman. That was the kind of thing that could very easily spread the spores of rumor, and a rumor like that would wreak no end of mischief. His mother would be livid at the mere suggestion of him taking up with a human.

The fact that he felt physically pained at the idea of breaking off that friendship was probably not a good sign.

Tazun found himself in a familiar market street; subconsciously, his feet had brought him to the very doorstep of his favorite tea room. Well, across the street from it. He usually limited his visits to restaurants to one per tenday, which was a degree of indulgence he felt suitable to his station and personal resources. A calm, quiet booth with a cup of his favorite tea sounded too absolutely perfect to pass up, however. Sometimes, exceptionally trying times demanded exceptionally soothing measures.

He noted the presence of two House guards bracketing the door as he crossed the street toward the tea room. Some noble was visiting, then. Well, nobles were generally not trouble if one stayed out of their way, which he made a point to do. His hesitation was infinitesimal; he really wanted that cup of jasmine tea.

The two soldiers remained at attention as he passed through the doors, ignoring him utterly.

Once inside, though, he paused again; the place was much more crowded than usual, people seeming to fill nearly every table. He paused, glancing about.

“Well met,” said the server, whom he recognized, but whose name he had never learned. Their relationship had never made it necessary; personal conversation would have been inappropriate while one was serving. The man looked just faintly tense, which was understandable, given the crowd. “I apologize for the lack of space.”

“There is nothing to apologize for,” Tazun said diplomatically, suppressing regret. “I congratulate you on your successful business. I can return another time.”

“There is a table free,” the man said swiftly, and Tazun had the oddest sense that he was even more unhappy about this. “Please, I would not send a favored guest away. I shall speak with the mistress about arranging a small discount for your discomfort.”

“That is entirely unnecessary,” Tazun demurred, as was proper. “I am not in the least imposed upon.”

The server replied with the meaningless little smile that was appropriate in that situation, gesturing diffidently with one arm. “If you would honor us by staying, this way, please.”

Tazun allowed himself to be ushered to what seemed the only remaining open table, maintaining just enough presence of mind to avoid rudeness to his host or to any of the other patrons. Most of his attention remained on his inner turmoil, and it was with relief that he sank into the thinly padded seat of the small booth. His order placed, he was left in blessed solitude, the low walls of the booth serving to delineate a personal space which any Narisian would respect.

What was he going to do? The painful thing he just kept coming back to was his overwhelming sense that keeping Selim a slave was wrong. It was so wrong it brought him a nauseating blend of sorrow and shame whenever he allowed himself to dwell upon it.

But…who was he to make such determinations? Tar’naris had kept slaves for thousands of years, especially humans. The weight of culture and tradition behind the practice was so enormous that the sheer temerity of his instinctive dislike of it felt sacrilegious. Worse, this was his mother’s decision. His mother! How could he even be thinking of questioning her judgment? Themynra had granted him no special gift of judgment himself, that much he certainly knew. He was a craftsman, a skilled up fairly inexperienced one. He was young. His mother had led their family to honor and a valued station in House Vyendir. And now he entertained doubts about her decisions?

His sisters would slap him senseless. He would not begrudge them doing it.

Why couldn’t he just make all this go away? It was only in his head. His head should obey, both his own wishes and the dictates of his culture.

Quite suddenly, a shabbily-dressed human man slid into the seat opposite him.

“Not want any, thanking you,” Tazun said immediately in the thick pidgin Tanglish he used to discourage pushy Tiraan merchants, a trick Elin had taught him. Unthinkable that one would do something this aggressive; the man wasn’t going to last long like this. In mere moments he would be removed by the tea room’s proprietress. In fact, he was likely to end up like Selim Darousi if he made a habit of this.

“That’s quite all right, my good man, I’m not selling,” the human replied smoothly in elvish. He had a peculiar accent, but his command of the language seemed fluent, bringing Tazun up short.

“You are intruding,” he said with a thin little smile of courtesy. “I wish to be alone.”

“Life is sometimes disappointing,” the uninvited guest said solemnly. “But disappointments can lead to good surprises, if you let them. I think, first of all, you should listen to what the lady has to say.”

“Lady?” Tazun glanced pointedly around.

In that moment, he realized something. There was no conversation in the shop; dead silence hung over the crowd. Couples sat at each table, not speaking, but simply watching each other, the tabletops, the walls… All had been served tea, but no one drank.

Also, one of the House guards outside the door had stepped in, and was blocking the entrance, staring directly at him with a face that was blank even by Narisian standards. Paying closer attention now, he realized her armor and insignia marked her of House Awarrion.

In fact…everyone in here was dressed in red and green.

He began to be very, very nervous.

“Good day, Tazun,” said a smooth, feminine voice from directly behind him, on the other side of the partition between his booth and the next. “Thank you for joining us.”

“I…apologize if I was late,” he said, eyes on the grinning human, choosing his words with extreme care. “I did not realize I was expected. Whom have I the great honor of attending?”

“I am Nahil nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion. And we have things to discuss.”

Oh, Scyllith’s lost hells.

If he had to get cornered by a matriarch’s daughter, the Awarrions were probably the safest; nobles were nobles and they were all bloodless spiders as far as he was concerned, but House Awarrion existed for the purpose of diplomacy, and they never caused any harm that they could by any measure avoid, even to the most insignificant person. On the other hand, of that matriarch’s three daughters, this one was the worst. Heral, the eldest, was a born peacemaker and the very soul of diplomacy; the youngest, Shaeine, had not been active in the city enough to generate much talk, but she was known to be a priestess of Themynra. Nahil, though. Rumors disagreed on whether she was perpetually at odds with her mother, or was quite close to Ashaele and the trusted agent sent to do whatever unpleasant things needed doing in a manner that the matriarch could claim had been none of her work. It made little difference from his perspective. Nahil was trouble.

And just by virtue of being a matriarch’s daughter, she could have her guards beat him senseless at a whim, and anyone nearby would assume he had done something to richly deserve it. Oh, she would pay for that; his mother would raise the damned, House Vyendir would complain formally of the insult, and Ashaele would punish her. But that wouldn’t save him from the beating. Or whatever else she felt like doing to him.

“In what way might I be of service to you?” he asked with exceeding care. The human’s knowing little smile was not improving his equanimity in the least.

“Tell me, Tazun,” his invisible captor said calmly from behind the barrier, “what do you think of the traditional institution of human slavery in Tar’naris?”

“I think nothing of it,” he said as evenly as he could manage.

“Really? Nothing?” Nahil permitted open curiosity into her voice, a social breach only someone of her rank could get away with. Then again, she could get away with probably anything here, and he had best keep aware of that fact.

“It is not my place to consider such matters,” he said stiffly. Well, stiffness would suffice in place of the serenity which was currently beyond him. “Such luxuries are well beyond my means, and thus none of my business.”

“But your family has one, is that not so?”

Oh, no.

“If you wish to discuss my family’s slave,” he said cautiously, “with respect, you must speak to my mother on the subject. I am not honored with the responsibility of overseeing or even consulting on any such matters in my household.”

He did not miss the way the human’s stare had hardened, and taken on a distinctly predatory aspect. Elin had spoiled him; humans and their emotional outbursts were not merely cute or trying. They could be absolutely terrifying.

“But I don’t want to speak to your mother,” Nahil replied. “I am speaking with you. This is a great problem for my House, you see, Tazun. The market for slaves only exists through abusive exploitation of Narisian law, and even more abusive entrapment of Tiraan citizens. The Imperial government currently tolerates this for the sake of the greater good, but the Tiraan people feel about it precisely as we would, were the reverse occurring. Notably, it is not, despite the fact of human societies finding us as exotic and intriguing as we do them. Why do you suppose that is, Tazun? Are they simply our moral superiors?”

She was doing this on purpose. This was not going to stop until she’d ensnared him into saying something at which she could justify taking violent offense. Well, there was no reason he had to make it easy for her.

“Such matters are well above my station. I am not a moral philosopher, and certainly not an expert on humans.”

“Are you not, though? You are, after all, quite friendly with the humans at the Imperial enclave. It seems you do most of your business there.”

Of course she had done her research on him before arranging this ambush. Belatedly, he realized that the effort involved in this had to have been immense. She couldn’t have known he would be here at this hour; even he hadn’t. This visit had been a pure whim. For how many days had she filled and lurked in his favorite tea room? What could she possibly want from him?

“I have human friends,” he said diffidently. “I don’t believe that qualifies me to render an opinion upon their ways. I find them very strange, still.”

“Ah, so smooth,” she said with open amusement. “You would not do badly at all in my House, Tazun.”

“You honor me greatly.” Indeed, from a noble, that was staggeringly high praise. Somehow, he only felt more nervous.

“Morality aside,” Nahil continued, “this practice of taking and enslaving humans is a constant source of animosity for the Imperials, and thus a constant drain on my House’s efforts. It taxes our attention and resources to extract what humans we can from bondage, and every one we cannot—which is most of them—is an open wound in our relationship with the Empire. These are families torn apart, Tazun. People horrifically abused, at least as they see it. Even as we try to strengthen social ties with the empire, slavers sharpen the suspicion with which many see our people into pure hate. House Awarrion is committed to ending this practice, permanently and absolutely.”

“I wish you good fortune in that task,” he said quietly, beginning to have an idea where this was going. Merciful goddess, let it be anything else…

“You could do more than wish, if you support the idea,” she said calmly.

Tazun drew in a deep, calming breath and let it out slowly. “I do not see any way I could. All of these matters are above my station.”

“You do not think it possible, at least?”

“All these matters—”

“Damn your station,” she said, just sharply enough to chill his blood with terror. “I want your opinion, Tazun. There is no crime in having opinions, and no one can blame you for saying what I have demanded that you say. What do you think of this?”

He swallowed heavily, aware that his public face was cracking, and too frightened to care as much as he should. The flat stare of the human across from him was even worse than the noblewoman behind. “I…think…that trying to separate the richest and most powerful members of our society from one of their favorite luxuries will be impossibly difficult.”

“Mm hm. Look at this. What do you think?”

A slender arm suddenly appeared next to his shoulder, the noblewoman turning to extend her hand. It glittered with two tasteful rings.

“Exquisite work,” he said honestly, relieved to be back on somewhat safer ground, and aware it would not last. “But forgive me if I sound boastful. Unless I am wrong, the sapphire is my sister’s handiwork?”

“Not the rings, Tazun,” she said with naked amusement. “The sleeve. Beautiful, is it not? Sifanese silk. It’s made by worms, I understand, rather than spiders. Not as strong as our native silk, but far, far softer, and the way it catches the light…”

“It is most becoming on you.”

“Thank you. And twenty years ago, its worth would have been greater than the sum of the Queen’s treasury. Now? Still expensive, but I have a dozen at home, and I am far from the best-dressed daughter of a matriarch in Tar’naris. The Imperial treaty brings us security, wealth, luxury beyond imagining. And yet, a few souls still cling to the idea of owning the one treasure whose acquisition threatens to bring all this down upon our heads. That is weakness, Tazun. It is stupid, selfish frailty. To be Narisian is to root out such traits and crush them. They cannot be allowed to take root in our society. They would destroy us.”

“I do not understand how I can help you,” he said stiffly. The wretched woman had just indirectly insulted his mother, and there was no way she didn’t realize it; she was a trained diplomat, after all. Were she anyone else, he would have spoken right back to her in even sharper terms. In fact, were she still at matriarch’s daughter and he not completely surrounded by her retainers, he probably still would have.

“I have not arranged all this simply to make idle conversation,” Nahil said smoothly, withdrawing her arm. “Your mother’s recent acquisition is a male human named Selim Darousi. Tell me, Tazun, what do you know of the god Eserion?”

“The… Ah, little,” he said, blindsided by the apparently abrupt change of topic. “That is the thief god, isn’t it?” Humans and their gods. Why did they need so many? No wonder they came in such a wild array of colors and builds.

“One side effect of the opening of our two societies is that the Pantheon’s cults have begun creeping into Tar’naris,” Nahil said. “They are certainly not poised to threaten Themynra’s worship, have no fear of that, but there are drow among us who have begun to follow some of these gods, in very small numbers. Eserion is not among them. You see, Tazun, the Eserites do not steal simply to enrich themselves; they steal out of a religious duty to humble the powerful, and to disrupt all social systems which they consider unjust. Which, as I understand it, means all systems. We do not have Eserites here, and we do not want them. Our society is not built to endure the presence of such individuals, and if they are allowed to take root, removing them will be a nightmarish prospect. The cult would take such action as a direct attack and respond in kind. No…they must simply be prevented, at all costs, from establishing a presence here.”

“Hey, no offense taken,” the human across from Tazun said lightly.

“Ah, yes,” Nahil said. “Allow me to introduce my guest, Sidewinder.” She paused significantly. “An enforcer of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“I just can’t tell you how charmed I am to make your acquaintance,” the human said, grinning toothily at Tazun in an expression that he could not manage to interpret as friendly.

“I am somewhat puzzled,” Tazun admitted. “If you don’t want the Thieves’ Guild here…”

“Then,” Nahil replied, “it is necessary to accommodate them to an extent, and not create what they will see as a need to be here. And that, Tazun, has just become very much your business. You see, Selim Darousi, also known as Squirreltail, is also a member of the Thieves’ Guild.”

Tazun suddenly heard a great roaring in his ears. “…oh.”

“Oh, indeed,” Nahil said with audible grimness. “And that, Tazun, means that Tar’naris, House Vyendir, and your family in particular, all have a very big problem.”

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Bonus #3: Hero

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There were few spectacles so glorious as the coronation of the new Emperor of Tiraas. The world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, as was the nature of human nations in general, deemed it necessary to create as much pomp and splendor as its fathomless resources could arrange. To be fair, most of the common run of people just enjoyed having a reason to hold a party, and the three weeks of celebrations were probably the best party they would ever experience. Ashaele, though, had less sympathy for the organizers of this self-important spectacle of waste; the resources spent on food, decorations, costumes, servants and innumerable other displays would have sustained her city for years. She had very much enjoyed the fireworks, however. That was like nothing she had ever expected to see.

In its second week, now, they were nearing the halfway point of the festivities. The new Emperor, Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian, had been crowned and subsequently married in what was just barely two separate ceremonies. Ashaele did her best to follow the events as they unfolded, but the need to maintain her cover prevented her from gathering as much information as she would like, and the politics of the situation were doubtless immensely complex, and mostly over her head.

This particular ceremony was an actual Tiraan tradition, rather than a shallow display of wealth as so much of the last week had been: On the day after his coronation, the Emperor held court from dawn to dusk, and could be approached and petitioned directly by anyone. A thousand years ago when Tiraas had been a single city-state, the ceremony had likely been much more significant. Now, the line of people stretching out from the Palace and into Imperial Square were entirely of individuals whose presence here had been pre-approved by Imperial functionaries weeks ago. A commendable effort had been made to include a fair mix of commoners, foreigners and representatives of all classes and walks of life, but even so the nobility were much more heavily represented here than among the general population.

Whatever else it was, it was a day-long ceremony, and it was nearing noon; everyone was already tired, bored and thoroughly sick of the whole thing, and desperately struggling not to show it. The boy Emperor had made a heroic effort since taking his seat in the Silver Throne this morning to attend every citizen who approached him with care and sincerity, but even he was visibly weary by this point. Beside him on her own smaller throne, his young wife had started the day looking aloof at best, and by this point seemed severely annoyed. The people in the line were drooping; the countless courtiers packed into the sides of the great throne chamber were mostly half-asleep on their feet, a surly, drowsy sea of finery and painful-looking fixed smiles. Only the guards and the several black-coated Hands of the Emperor in the room were still alert. Even the official who had the honor of calling forth and announcing each new petitioner was drifting. He had flubbed two names and once let a moment of awkward silence stretch out before realizing it was time to bring up the next person.

Her moment was coming soon. There wouldn’t be a better.

Ashaele had long since carefully forced her way to the front of the crowd, and now was positioned a mere few yards from the foot of the steps up to the Emperor’s dais. Feeling so exposed did her nerves no favors, but it had been a necessary preparation; had she bulled her way out of the thick of the crowd, the disturbance would have been spotted immediately and guards would have been on her before she got anywhere near the Emperor. Guards and, terrifyingly, one of those unsmiling Hands had fixed their glares on her when she first pushed to the front, but by this point they had dismissed her as another position-jockeying dignitary and gone back to scanning the crowd.

Her attire was a hodgepodge of Punaji and Onkawi styles, with elvish touches and some completely random additions that served to conceal her as much as possible. She wore a heavy greatcoat with a ceremonial hooded shawl over that, complete with silken scarf that concealed her lower face. Her eyes and hairline were exposed, but they were altered by magic. The efficacy of the disguise was in its reliance on mundane measures; the less skin she revealed, the less would have to be concealed by charms, and it was vital to keep the charm work to a minimum. Plenty of noblewomen in Tiraas used minor enchantments to tweak their appearances, but anyone walking into an Imperial audience with enough magic on them to completely alter their appearance would have been set upon by wizards immediately.

Naturally, the costume caused her all sorts of anxiety. So far her hope that the aristocrats pressing in on her from all sides would dismiss her mismatched appearance as a miscellaneous foreigner had been realized… But all it would take was one astute member of the diplomatic corps to realize the woman in the greatcoat, shawl and mask had cobbled together the most concealing features of traditional costumes that by themselves wouldn’t have hidden half so much.

Also, with her own ceremonial robes underneath, it was insufferably hot.

It would all be worth it if she were successful.

Ashaele forced herself not to peer around the room as the man kneeling just a few feet from her droned on about agricultural quotas in the frontier provinces. She held herself as still as possible, avoiding any action that would draw attention. It was enough to know that her allies were in the crowd. She had brought three friends from House An’sadarr to observe and report back to the Queen if her mission went awry. They were individuals she trusted; members of her own House would have been better for several reasons, but if it came down to it, any of them would have tried to protect her if she failed, and inevitably ended up sharing her fate. The An’sadarrs were reliable precisely because they would leave her behind. It wasn’t that her people lacked discipline or obedience, but the military House’s famous dedication to the mission at hand was, in this case, much more useful than the personal loyalty her family would have shown.

“I appreciate your concerns, Master Tethloss,” the Emperor said when the kneeling man paused to draw breath. It was very nearly an interruption, but it was becoming clear that he was not about to stop speaking any time soon. “Understand, though, that your perspective is only that: your own. I must be responsible for the economy as a whole. To intervene at one level would have repercussions well beyond what you intend. In my judgment this is not the time or the proper place for dramatic action. However, your concerns are valid, and you have my word that I will consider them and consult with my advisers. Perhaps the Throne can and should exert some influence.”

Tethloss looked far from happy, but he managed a suitably obsequious thanks, bowing as he backed away. Ashaele was less concerned with him than with Sharidan. This answer was consistent with the rest of his performance today. He was intelligent; he cared for the welfare of his people. It boded well for her plans.

The seneschal was watching Tethloss’s departure impatiently; the disgruntled petitioner was in no hurry to yield the floor, and still partially blocked the path of the next in line. Around the room, assembled nobles rustled in the lull, fanning themselves and whispering to one another. The Emperor sat back in his chair, indulging in a barely perceptible sigh. For a precious moment, everyone was distracted, everything paused.

Now. Now!

Ashaele grabbed a fistful of her mask and shawl, ripping them to the side, and shrugging out of her greatcoat in the same motion. They fell to lie puddled on the marble mosaic floor. Her illusions, having been attached to the clothes rather than herself, vanished with them. Somnolent and irritable as they were, it was a dramatic enough move that she gathered immediate attention, and screams rang out, spreading like wildfire. Nobles devolved into a pushing panic to escape the drow suddenly in their midst.

Ashaele crossed the floor in long, smooth strides, turning to face the Throne, and sank to one knee, bowing her head before the Emperor. That was as much as she managed before being seized by both arms. Guards roughly kicked her legs out from under her; a staff was thrust directly under her chin, humming with an active charge just waiting to be released. Her hair and the collar of her robes lifted in response to the static. She offered no resistance. Everywhere there was shouting, Imperial guards yelling contradictory orders and imprecations, onlookers screaming.

She permitted herself a small, fatalistic sigh. Too slow… She would be sad not to see her children again. Heral would lead House Awarrion well, however. It had been worth the effort; if she had succeeded, everything would have changed.

“HOLD.”

The acoustics of the room were carefully designed to maximize the voice of whoever sat on the Throne. Sharidan now stood in front of it; his order boomed through the massive hall, causing a sudden lull in the activity. The hands pulling at Ashaele from every direction stilled, though they did not relax their grip.

“Stand down,” the Emperor commanded. “Release her.”

The guards glanced at each other uncertainly, and at the dark elf kneeling placidly in their grip. One wearing a captain’s insignia cleared his throat. “Your Majesty—”

He broke off as Eleanora surged to her feet. The Empress stepped forward to lay a hand on her husband’s arm, staring down at them with icy fury.

“Your Emperor,” she said, her voice promising merciless death, “has spoken.”

They hesitated a fraction of a moment longer, and then Ashaele was released. She staggered inevitably, barely catching herself, but quickly resumed her position on one knee, surreptitiously smoothing down her hair and disturbed garments. The guards eased backward, but not so far that she failed to see the assortment of swords, wands and staves aimed at her, even with her eyes lowered.

“Lady, you have the apologies of the Tiraan Empire and of House Tirasian for this ill treatment,” the Emperor said. “My men are zealous in their protection of me, and your appearance was…rather startling.”

“Your soldiers’ zeal and loyalty is a credit to their master,” Ashaele replied. “It is I who should apologize, your Excellency, for intruding in this way. I regret that I failed to find a more polite way to gain an audience.”

“Then perhaps we can put these misunderstandings behind us,” said Sharidan, slowly sinking back onto the Silver Throne. His wife remained standing, though she stepped back to place herself slightly behind him, one hand on his shoulder; she stared down at Ashaele through narrowed eyes. “I gather you have come to observe Tiraan custom? Anyone may ask a boon of the Emperor today.”

“If it pleases your Excellency, yes,” she replied. “I am Ashaele nur Tamashi zae Awarrion, matriarch of House Awarrion of Tar’naris, most humbly at your service.”

The general volume of whispers echoing around the room increased slightly, then faded as Eleanora lifted her gaze from the kneeling drow to pan a glare around the chamber. Sharidan regarded her in thoughtful silence for a moment.

“I have heard,” he said at last, “that matriarchs of the drow Houses kneel to no one, even their Queen.”

“That is correct, your Excellency,” Ashaele replied. “We do not lack respect for Her Majesty, but such obeisance is not our custom.”

“Then it shall not be asked of you here,” he said firmly. “Please, stand. Be at ease; you are welcome here.”

The whispers started anew; Ashaele rose smoothly to her feet and raised her head, letting them wash over her. Hope soared in her chest. This was going better than she had dared hope. A brief manhandling by a few guards was the tiniest price to pay if this man listened to her.

“I must clarify that I do not speak for Tar’naris. I have come of my own volition, and not on the orders or permission of my Queen.”

“Then, for the time being, you shall be the guest of the Imperial Palace,” the Emperor replied, causing another stir. “Now, you have surely not come all this way for small talk. What can Tiraas do for you, Lady Ashaele?”

“Your Excellency,” she said, bowing, “I most humbly and respectfully beg, as a citizen who loves her people and her state, that the Tiraan Empire extend diplomatic contact to Tar’naris toward the goal of normalizing relations between our two great societies.”

This time there was an outcry, quickly rising to such chaos that the last part of her sentence was all but inaudible. Luckily it had ended on a fluff of diplomatic flattery; the important part of her request had been clearly heard. The noise was so pervasive that she couldn’t identify many individual threads…except for the few loudest shouts, which were almost universally imprecations. She did hope her Narisian allies were managing to remain hidden. There would be no end of trouble if somebody stumbled upon one of them right now.

“Silence.” Empress Eleanora’s voice cracked like a whip. The crowd obeyed her, though perhaps not as instantly or completely as she would have liked; they did, at least, trail off to a constant undercurrent of murmurs. She swept another baleful stare around the room before turning it on Ashaele. “It is curious, lady, that such a request comes from one who takes pains to assure us that she does not speak on behalf of her government.”

“Nations have their pride, as do their rulers,” Ashaele replied smoothly. “The exchanges over the last decades between Narisian scouts and the Imperial forces at Fort Vaspian have decisively demonstrated that Tiraas is militarily superior. For Queen Arkasia to extend a request for peace at this time would be for her to sacrifice face—a thing I do not wish to see. The Silver Throne, being in the dominant position, does not suffer this drawback. An overture from Tiraas would be an offering, not a plea.”

“This verges on flattery,” Eleanora said sharply. Sharidan glanced up at her, then returned his gaze to Ashaele, his expression neutral. He seemed content, for the moment, to let his wife speak, despite the fact that she had been mostly silent through most of the day’s ceremony. How interesting that he deferred to her now that there were hard questions to ask… Ashaele’s finely tuned political mind immediately sussed out the implications. Oh, these two were very clever. They were likely to make a most effective team. “The entire history of human relations with Tar’naris,” the Empress went on, “with any drow, has consisted of your people raiding ours. Stealing, destroying, and enslaving. Today of all days your request will be considered with all due weight, but do not think we fail to see the context. No drow has attempted to approach us until we held a decisive advantage.”

“It is not my intention to explain or excuse history,” Ashaele said calmly. “It is relevant, however, to consider history, as your Excellency has said. Nations and peoples act in a manner that they believe is justified; Tiraas has assuredly considered itself justified in its systematic conquest of this continent.” Another rumble rose around her at this, but she pressed on. “I humbly call to your Excellencies’ attention the manner of this conquest: Tiraas has enjoyed such success in part because it exercised military force only in the absence of better options, in keeping with Avei’s doctrines of war. Nations that have joined you voluntarily have historically become your most prosperous provinces.”

“You are offering submission and absorption into the Empire, then?” Eleanora asked, her tone deceptively mild, now.

“No,” Ashaele said evenly. “Even were it within my authority to offer, you shall not have that. Nor is it the only prospect suggested by history. Tiraas has very productive relationships with the Punaji and Tidestrider nations, which remain independent but tightly linked to the Empire.”

“Both play a vital role in securing our borders,” the Empress shot back. “With respect, Tar’naris is hardly positioned to offer such a service.”

“With respect,” Ashaele replied, her voice soft, “with the greatest respect, you are deeply mistaken. Tar’naris must guard its gates on two fronts. You can scarcely imagine the horrors of the true Underworld. Your forces could hold it back, now…perhaps. Thousands of years of the effort and spilled blood of my people has bought your society the luxury of developing to this point.”

Another rustle began to swell in the chamber, but it quickly died as the Emperor held up one hand for silence. He leaned forward on the throne, staring intently down at Ashaele.

“For obvious reasons, we don’t get the freshest reports from beyond Tar’naris,” he said, “but in fact I do know something of what lurks in the Deep Dark. For that reason, and the others you have raised, your request is… Interesting.”

Everyone stared at him with baited breath now, Ashaele perhaps most of all. He leaned back against the Throne, glancing up at Eleanora. She met his eyes momentarily, and a silent exchange seemed to pass between them. For having been married only a day, they seemed to share a significant bond.

“Lady Ashaele,” he said in the tone of a pronouncement, “as it seems we cannot host you as befits an ambassador, you shall, as I have said, be our personal guest for the remainder of the Coronation, during which time the Throne’s focus is and must be largely inward. After that, we shall furnish you a suitable escort back to Tar’naris.” She tensed, barely, in spite of herself; all around her, whispers swelled anew. “If you will kindly do us this service, Tiraas will thank you to escort our ambassadors to your Queen.”

The crowd truly erupted again, but was swiftly silenced by the Empress’s roared threat to have the great hall cleared.

Ashaele felt the tension drain from her for what had to be the first time in weeks. She bowed deeply. “Your Excellency, it shall be my honor.”


“Ugh, I can’t believe you’re reading that. It’s in Tanglish. Have you run out of domestic books completely?”

Shaeine lifted her head to scowl at her grinning sister. “This is an account of Mother’s first journey to Tiraas,” she said pointedly. “A little respect would be appropriate.”

“Oh, come on,” Nahil said despairingly. “How many times have you read that story? You probably know it better than she does at this point.”

“Yes, but those are the Narisian accounts,” she shot back. “This is a novelization by a Tiraan bard.”

“Really?” Heral asked, her mild tone a contrast to Nahil’s aggressive ribbing. “Do they portray her with horns and shooting fire from her eyes?”

“In fact she is treated very respectfully,” Shaeine said stiffly. “Heroically, even. There’s some fudging of the facts, of course, for drama’s sake, but I must say that if this is Tiraas’s introduction to Mother… Well, it’s a good one, that’s all.”

“Course it is,” Nahil said cheerfully. “She probably paid to have it written. She doesn’t miss a trick. Sneaky lady, like all good negotiators!”

“Respect, you hooligan!” Shaeine shouted, making as if to throw the book at her.

“All right, you two, behave,” Heral said reprovingly. “I didn’t interrupt your reading and her carousing on a whim, Shaeine. Mother’s in the grand hall with the Queen, the ambassador from Tiraas and that aggravating gold elf. She’s asked for us to attend them.”

“Attend them?” Nahil asked sharply. “Why?”

Heral grimaced. “General purposes.”

Nahil and Shaeine winced. “General purposes” meant standing there looking calm and pretty, and being ready to back Ashaele up should the need arise. “General purposes” meant the meeting was not going well.

Regretfully, Shaeine marked her place and set the book down on her bench, smoothing her hair as she rose. “Best get out there, then.”

“That aggravating gold elf has a name, you know,” Nahil pointed out as the three sisters strode down the hall.

“We know her name,” Shaeine grunted. “Everyone knows her name. I’d rather not pronounce it; I hear that summons her.”

Nahil laughed, but Heral gave her a gently remonstrative look. “You haven’t even met her, little sister.”

“I’d have been extremely content never having met her,” Shaeine muttered, then fell silent as they passed through a door which was held open and then closed behind them by armored House guards. House Awarrion’s residence, in addition to being their home, served as Tar’naris’s universal embassy and the place where negotiations between Narisian Houses were held. By crossing that threshold, they had passed into the palace’s public wing. All emotion faded from the three women’s expressions, and they glided the rest of the way in perfect, silent serenity, public faces firmly in place.

What was now the grand hall had been a series of smaller rooms originally. Upon the renovation of Tar’naris’s caverns using Tiraan enchantment, House Awarrion had knocked down both interior and exterior walls, making a long, tall chamber bordered on one side by archways which led to the House’s new outdoor gardens. Full-sized willow trees speed-grown by the most powerful witchcraft they could import shielded the hall from the glow of the cavern’s sun crystals; the hall, in addition to its beautiful view, was livened by the splashing of fountains and an artificial stream, plus the smell of flowers and greenery. It was also equipped with modern fairy lamps of the highest quality, straight from the factories of Calderaas, and lined with discreet padded benches. At one end stood a huge stone chair on a low dais, on which sat the matriarch of House Awarrion, or, when she was conducting meetings here, Queen Arkasia.

The Queen sat there now. She glanced at the three daughters of the House as they entered, but did not acknowledge them further. Their mother gave them a fleeting little smile, no more than politeness dictated. All three women stopped just inside, bowing to the Queen and then their matriarch, before gliding over to stand behind her.

A small delegation of women in House Dalmiss colors were just departing, leaving Arkasia and the Awarrions alone with two humans and a surface elf who wore gold-rimmed spectacles and a thunderous scowl. Ambassador Conover gave them a nod and a warm smile; his aide, Rashid, bowed much more politely, his expression neutral.

Shaeine rather liked Rashid. Most of the Imperial staff in residence kept to their own customs and trusted diplomatic immunity to gloss over their missteps. Rashid had actually bothered to learn why the Narisians cultivated emotional reserve, and did his best not to inflict his every little feeling on everyone. His efforts were imperfect, of course, but she gave him a great deal of credit for trying. In her opinion, he’d have made a better Ambassador than Conover.

Shaeine did not, as a rule, enjoy the company of humans. True, they were an attractive people, with their powerful physiques, adorable little ears and exotic colorations, but she found them easier to enjoy from a safe distance. They were like children, casually emoting every little feeling that flickered across their minds. It was charming for the first five minutes, then quickly became exhausting, and from there downright offensive. The worst part was that far too many of them just wouldn’t learn.

These two she knew, however, and gave more attention to the other person present. Shaeine had never left Tar’naris, and despite her family’s attempts to establish contact with the surface tribes, none of them had yet deigned to venture below. As such, this was her first sight of an elf from the sun-blasted wastelands above, and she found the sight rather disturbing. Humans were one thing; an elf with human coloring was just…unnatural. The woman had skin like the paler breed of humans, the lightest possible tan with pinkish highlights, hair the color of polished gold and green eyes. It was downright creepy…and all the worse because Arachne Tellwyrn’s reputation preceded her.

“I understand that this is not what you expected, Professor,” Queen Arkasia said calmly.

“That is one way of putting it,” Tellwyrn snapped. Shaeine barely managed not to wince. Just who did this woman think she was, speaking to the Queen in that tone? Of course, it was a silly reaction. Tellwyrn knew exactly who she was.

“I really think it will work out, though,” Lord Conover said brightly. “House Dalmiss oversees agriculture, as I’m sure you know—”

“It was mentioned once or twice,” Tellwyrn said with heavy sarcasm. “Roughly every third sentence, in fact.”

“Yes, well, that’s something they’ll have in common with a lot of Imperial citizens,” Conover pressed on, his good cheer beginning to look a little desperate. “Especially in the Great Plains region around Last Rock. Ambassadors are well and good for dealing with other ambassadors, but the whole point of this program is to begin getting the citizens of Tar’naris and the Empire acclimated to each other. Miss Natchua probably has a lot more in common with most of your students than the average drow. It’s a solid start!”

Tellwyrn tilted her head back, staring at the ceiling as if she expected to find patience there. “Conovor, do you know what kind of school I run? Exactly how many farmers do you think I have enrolled in an average year?”

“House Dalmiss has been more heavily involved with Imperial personnel than most, what with the agricultural projects here,” Rashid said more quietly. “That should give Natchua an advantage.”

“And was this Natchua involved in any way with any of those discussions?” Tellwyrn snapped.

“I’m afraid we don’t know, precisely,” Ashaele said smoothly. “But there is still time for her to meet with embassy personnel and grow acclimated—”

“Do you know who’s already acclimated to humans?” the Professor interrupted. “House Awarrion.”

Shaeine kept her calm, but inwardly she bristled. How dare this ill-mannered woman cut off her mother?

“I’m sure you gleaned the basics of the situation during the introductions,” Queen Arkasia said with total calm. “The reality is that House Dalmiss has amassed considerable favor and influence due to their position and involvement with the cavern renovations. Matriarch Ezrakhai is owed certain concessions, and her protege’s inclusion in the exchange program is her fondest wish.”

“I’m still waiting for someone to explain what that has to do with me.”

“Politics are an inescapable fact of life everywhere,” Ashaele said soothingly. “The Queen’s obligation is first and foremost to the city, and this requires certain accommodations. Surely you can find it in you to be reasonable.” That last came very near to a reprimand; it was a sign that the normally unflappable Ashaele’s patience with this woman was already considerably frayed.

“Reasonable?” Tellwyrn snorted and folded her arms, looking mulish. “I can’t think of a single reason why I should. None of this is my problem, and I don’t appreciate you trying to make it so. I agreed to participate in this program as a favor to both the Empire and your city. This is not something I have any need to do. I went along because, in part, I was promised an Awarrion.” She turned the full force of her glare on Ashaele, and Shaeine was not the only one present who stiffened imperceptibly. “Putting a trained diplomat on my campus is an entirely different matter from some random drow!”

“Natchua d’zun Dalmiss is hardly random,” Arkasia said languidly. “Her matriarch would not have nominated her were she not confident of the girl’s ability to represent her House and Tar’naris well.”

“And what does the matriarch of a House of subterranean farmers know about what makes a good citizen ambassador?” Tellwyrn shot back. “Maybe this Natchua is the perfect bloody candidate; stranger things have happened. But far more likely is she’ll react the way most people do when suddenly immersed in a completely alien culture. She could withdraw completely and piss everybody off acting like the worst caricature of a surly drow… Or she might go native and come back here in four years using Tanglish slang and acting like a dime novel cowboy. The point is, we don’t know. Anyone care to place a bet which of those outcomes would do more damage to your little exchange program?” She set her teeth, staring at the Queen. “I was invited—begged—to participate in this rigamarole because I was offered a student from House Awarrion, whom I could count on to actually promote the peace on my campus.”

“And you shall have one,” said the Queen. “Next year. For the time being, the politics of the situation are what they are. I regret your disappointment.”

“You are not alone in incurring costs,” Ashaele added. “That is the very essence of compromise. I have been grooming a young man for this post as well, and those plans will have to be put off.”

“Well, you sure picked a great time to misplace your backbone, Ashaele,” Tellwyrn said dryly. Shaeine clung to her serenity by a fingernail, unable to stop her body from going rigid with rage. That this creepy blonde lout should speak to her mother in such a manner was absolutely intolerable. “What happened to the daring hero who crept alone into Tiraas to make peace with the savage surface-dwellers?”

“I did that in the service of my Queen and my city, as I do everything,” Ashaele replied, calm as ever. “Just as I do this.”

“I hope you’re happy with your service, then,” the Professor said sardonically. “I can’t help noticing that your ‘compromise’ is nothing but costs on my part, and no benefits. The old diplomacy a little rusty, hmm?”

“Perhaps you could do better, Professor, since you are clearly an expert. There are nearly three whole rules of basic civilized behavior you have managed not to flout in the last five minutes.”

Dead silence fell. Shaeine realized only belatedly that it was she who had spoken. As everyone turned to stare at her, horror welled up in her—to have spoken out of turn like that, to have lost control, and in front of the Queen—but it did not lessen her fury. In fact, if anything, she felt a giddy sense of liberation. Well, the cat was out of the bag now, as the Imperials said. At least she hadn’t lost her serenity.

“I beg your pardon?” said Tellwyrn, her tone and expression suddenly very mild.

“You have it,” Shaeine replied, “though I confess I am puzzled as to the utility of the request. It seems I am the only person present whom you have not personally insulted.”

“Shaeine,” her mother said, very quietly, completely without expression. Oh, yes, she was in trouble now. Well… In for a penny, in for a pound. The Tiraan really did have such pithy colloquialisms.

“And this is another budding diplomat, I take it?” Tellwyrn asked, still in that soft tone.

“Quite so,” Shaeine replied, bowing to her. “It is my pleasure to offer you a remedial instruction in diplomacy: one succeeds in negotiations by showing respect toward the other party’s position while keeping one’s own goals firmly in mind. In this case, the central dilemma seems to be your determination to behave like an undisciplined child despite being in civilized company. I, for my part, would be deeply mortified if I were to go over there and kick you in the midsection. If, however, that will make you more comfortable in our home, it is a sacrifice I am willing to embrace.”

Her pulse pounded in her ears, to the point she was certain the others in the room could hear it. Terror, shame, exhilaration, rage…emotions whirled in her to such an extent that she couldn’t predict which would would shine through if she allowed her calm facade to crack. She clung to it desperately. Already she’d dug herself into an impossible hole; at least she’d go down courteously.

Everyone was staring at her, the drow with appropriate calm, Rashid wide-eyed and struggling for control; Conover gaped like a fish. Tellwyrn’s expression…was an expression, quite unlike the Narisian idea of reserve, but Shaeine couldn’t interpret it.

Tellwyrn turned to Ashaele, pointing a finger at Shaeine. “And…this is…?”

“Shaeine,” the matriarch said, the very picture of serenity. “My youngest daughter.”

“I see.” The Professor grinned slightly, and for some reason dread began to drown out the other emotions fighting for Shaeine’s attention. “Very well, your Majesty, since we were just discussing compromise, I have decided to be reasonable.”

“How lovely,” Arkasia deadpanned.

“I’ll accept your random farmgirl,” Tellwyrn went on, “with the proviso that next year…” She grinned more broadly and again pointed at Shaeine. “I want this one.”

Shaeine’s reserve very nearly faltered. No, no no, absolutely not, anything but that.

“Oh?” the Queen said laconically. “An interesting choice.”

Ashaele stepped back and sideways, placing a hand on Shaeine’s shoulder. It verged on inappropriate display, but rank enabled one to get away with some things. Such a show of overt protectiveness from a matriarch would have warned any drow that they were stepping on dangerous ground indeed. Of course, Tellwyrn probably understood the gesture just as well and didn’t care. “Shaeine is a cleric, not a diplomat by vocation. She is training to serve in the House chapel.”

“Still beats the hell out of a farmer,” the Professor said bluntly. “Don’t give me that look, Ashaele, I am not aiming to punish the girl for speaking out. Quite the opposite; I think she’s absolutely perfect. She’s got spine, spirit, loyalty…and she’s funny. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Narisian with an overt sense of humor that I wasn’t sleeping with. This is what your exchange program needs. Natchua is going to do the gods only know what; a well-trained diplomat will manage, at best, to ward off conflict. Shaeine, though, has a very good chance of making people like her. You want drow and humans to start getting used to each other? She’s the perfect place to begin.”

No, Goddess, please, I don’t want to go to Tiraas…

“That,” Lord Conover said slowly, “makes a great deal of sense. I mean no disrespect to your culture, your Majesty, but the single greatest hurdle we’ve faced in getting our people to work together is that Narisian reserve seems so cold and aloof to Tiraan sensibilities that it comes off as very nearly hostile. Diplomacy and charm may be exactly the ticket.”

“Interesting,” Arkasia mused. “What say you, Shaeine?”

Please, please no!

Shaeine bowed deeply to the Queen, her expression perfectly calm. “I am less than confident of my competence in this matter, your Majesty. As my mother has said, the main thrust of my education has been in Themynra’s worship. If, however, your Majesty deems this a wise course, I shall be honored to serve Tar’naris in whatever way I can.”

“Perhaps it’s for the best,” Conover said, looking positively cheerful now. “She’s got a full year to bone up on diplomatic procedures.” Shaeine felt a sudden, intense urge to slap him off the balcony with a divine shield.

“Matriarch Ashaele, the matter is in your hands,” said the Queen languidly. “I will not command this of you, but I do endorse it as an elegant solution to the present standoff.”

Ashaele’s hand tightened slightly on Shaeine’s shoulder. “I would discuss this matter in privacy with my daughter before making a final decision, your Majesty.”

“Very well. We shall re-convene tomorrow.”

“Some of us don’t have time to take extended vacations down here,” Tellwyrn said sharply. “If this can be settled—”

“No.” Queen Arkasia’s manner was as emotionless as ever, but there was steel beneath it now. “I am well aware that your notion of compromise is to bully everyone until you get your way, Arachne, but you have pushed my patience as far as you will for one day. You are done browbeating my people. We will resume this discussion tomorrow. That is all.”


Shaeine was barely conscious of the walk back into the private part of the palace, clinging to her serenity in an almost fugue-like state. She was dimly aware of her sisters bidding her farewell, and then she was alone with her mother in the matriarch’s chamber.

Ashaele came to a halt in the center of the room, still as a sculpture, her back to her daughter. Shaeine, feeling some of the fog of shock clearing from her mind, took two deep breaths, and then bowed deeply.

“Mother, I humbly apologize for my shameful loss of composure. Hearing that woman speak to you that way… No, that is not an excuse. I will accept whatever punishm—”

All of a sudden she was hauled upright and swept into a fierce embrace. Ashaele squeezed her close, rocking them gently; Shaeine gratefully buried her face in her mother’s shoulder, wrapping her own arms around her waist. They were silent like that for several minutes.

“That can be addressed later,” Ashaele said finally. “First we must deal with the consequences. I don’t know what designs that sun-baked lunatic has on you, but it goes without saying that I am not just handing you over to her.”

“You should, though.”

“Shaeine, I will handle you myself, as I would any member of this House who stepped out of line. Don’t be overeager to punish yourself.”

“That isn’t what I meant.” Carefully, she pulled back, enough that she could lift her chin and look her mother in the eye. “My inclusion in this program will enable it to go forward despite Professor Tellwyrn’s stubbornness. That, then, is what I should do.”

Ashaele’s brow furrowed in consternation. “Is—Shaeine, do you want to go to the University?”

“Of course I don’t want to go!” she burst out, finally letting the repressed panic escape. Tears welled up in her eyes. “I don’t like humans, and the thought of being alone, surrounded by the Empire for four years terrifies me.” Firmly, she forced her breathing back under control, brushing tears from her cheeks. “But… This needs to be done, and I need to do it.”

“Shaeine…”

“You’re my mother,” she said simply, gazing up at her. “But…you’re also my matriarch. And you’re my hero. I’ve only ever done you justice in one of those capacities. Please, Mother, don’t try to protect me from my duty. You didn’t raise a lout who puts her own desires above the needs of Tar’naris. I need to serve.”

Ashaele drew in a slow, long breath; it shuddered on the way back out. She closed her eyes for a moment before opening them again, and gently placed a hand on Shaeine’s cheek. “My dearest little one… I’ve been selfish too. After we lost your father… I was so pleased you were called by Themynra. It meant I could keep you close to me.”

“I would never want to disappoint you,” Shaeine whispered.

“I am not disappointed. Just…” Impulsively, she pulled her daughter forward again into another hug. “You grew up. At some point you went and turned into the woman I hoped you’d be. I just never thought it would hurt so to realize.”

Shaeine nuzzled at her shoulder. “I hope I am. I want to make you proud. I just…need to prove myself.”

“My lovely, you don’t need to earn anything here.”

“I don’t need to earn your love,” she said softly. “I am so grateful for that. But…I do need to earn my place. I am Narisian. I have my duty.”

They were silent for another stretch of minutes. The matter was decided; there was nothing more to say about it.

“I love you so much.”

“I love you too.”

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