“She needs a minecart,” Teal said as they emerged into the cellar of Dufresne Manor.
“A what?” Trissiny asked distractedly.
“You know! A little box on wheels, set on tracks, to go back and forth. I mean, that’s a long walk in the dark.”
“Mm,” Trissiny said noncommittally, heading for the stairs up to the kitchen. “Let me do the talking.”
“What a good idea,” Shaeine said serenely. “Then Toby and I can handle the punching, and Juniper can go chop down a tree so we have something with which to stake our hostess through the heart.”
“I would never!” Juniper exclaimed in horror.
“I think that’s the joke,” Fross stage whispered.
Trissiny had stopped and turned to stare incredulously at Shaeine.
“Triss,” the priestess said in a gentler tone, “we are all taking this seriously, but you are not the most diplomatic person here.”
“Actually,” Fross said, “since Ruda stayed in town with Gabe she may be the least diplomatic person here!”
“Thanks, Fross,” Toby said resignedly.
“That was exactly my point,” Trissiny said sharply. “Sometimes you need diplomacy. Sometimes you need to make a stand and demand answers.”
“It has been my considerable experience, and that of my House over many centuries of practicing and perfecting that very art, that getting answers—or anything in general—is easiest when one doesn’t make demands.” Shaeine shook her head. “We know Malivette practices some necromancy; we all saw the horses. We utilized them, in fact. She is trusted by Tellwyrn and Rafe, and has been kind to us. We will approach her calmly.”
“I have every intention of being calm,” Trissiny said stiffly. “Did you forget the commonality in every chaos cult that’s sprung up in Veilgrad lately? They all turned to necromancy.”
“So we’ll ask for answers,” Toby said. “And if she doesn’t want to give answers…”
“We’ll ask more assertively,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Fine, we’ll try it your way first.”
“And if it comes to being assertive,” Teal said firmly, “no stabbing, please.”
“Assaulting Malivette is not even on the table,” Trissiny said with a sigh, turning back to the stairs. “Frankly I’m not positive the lot of us could take her. If, and I am not suggesting that it’s going to happen, but if we end up needing to fight her for any reason, we’ll retreat and get Gabriel. Let the valkyries do their jobs.”
“I foresee that this will not be a negotiation about which I will tell my mother with pride,” Shaeine murmured, following Trissiny up the steps.
They paused at the top, the others having to gently push Trissiny forward, to take in the scene.
Pearl stood with her back to them, washing her hands in the sink. Professor Rafe lounged in a chair beside the fireplace; he grinned at the students as soon as they entered. At the center island, Schkhurrankh the Rhaazke demon stood wearing an apron at least two sizes too small over a dress that had clearly been hastily constructed from what seemed to be curtains, chopping onions.
She paused, staring at the students.
“BEHOLD!” Rafe shouted. At the sink, Pearl jumped and whirled, finally catching sight of them.
“Hello,” said Schkhurrankh.
“W—you speak Tanglish now?” Trissiny exclaimed.
The demon blinked and tilted her head. “Khhhhhello?”
“We’ve been having lessons!” Rafe proclaimed. “Rather one-sided conversations, but upon my honor, progress was made!”
“I’m surprised that conversation had any sides,” Teal said, frowning.
“Hah! Oil of Understanding, baby!” Rafe grinned, rocking his chair back and forth and ignoring Pearl’s disapproving look. “Of course, that only works on me, and me understanding her growling and snarling was only half the battle. A lot of alchemy is buggered up by demons, we’ve been over that in class. Actually, though! I can make a brew that’ll work for her, too, but for that I need a blood or tissue sample.” He paused, glancing speculatively at the demon. “I, uh, figured we’d wait till Vadrieny was here to translate before having that conversation. Not sure what’d happen if I came at her with a mithril scalpel, but I don’t reckon it’d leave anybody happy.”
Schkhurrankh grinned and casually tossed a handful of raw diced onion into her mouth, crunching happily.
“Save them for the roast,” Pearl said firmly. The demon stopped chewing, looking actually guilty, and hastily spat the mouthful back onto the pile. Pearl sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Thank you, Scorn.”
“Hello,” she said sheepishly.
Teal blinked rapidly. “W—Scorn? How did that happen?”
“Very carefully,” Pearl said, shaking her head and turning back to the sink.
“So it’s a mortal insult if you pronounce her name wrong,” Trissiny said, frowning, “but she’s okay with a nickname?”
“Well, not at first,” Rafe admitted. “But with much pantomime, we were able to express to her what it means. And now she likes it.”
Schkhurrankh—Scorn—grinned again. “Hello!”
“Vrackdish khnavai?” Teal asked.
Scorn blinked at her twice, then began snickering.
“I really need to practice that language,” Teal muttered. Shaeine patted her gently on the back.
“Shkhalvrik, d’min sklacth,” the demon said, still grinning.
“Well, she seems to be having fun, anyway,” Teal said. “Do you have any garlic?”
Pearl turned to frown at her. “…is that a joke?”
“Oh!” The bard clapped a hand to her face. “Oh, gods, I’m sorry, I didn’t even think… I mean, um, turnips or anything like that? She’ll really enjoy starchy things like roots, and strong flavors. If you set her to chopping onions she’ll probably just eat them unless you give her something else to snack on.”
“Ah. That’s not a bad idea,” Pearl said with a smile. “Thank you. Yes, we have garlic; I’ll get her a few cloves.”
“Hello!” Scorn said brightly.
“Wait, you do have garlic?” Toby asked.
“It’s not actually harmful to vampires,” Trissiny said. “That’s a myth. Come on, we can catch up with Shl—Scorn later. I want to speak with Malivette before it gets any closer to dark.”
“It’s not much past noon,” Juniper pointed out.
“The mistress is resting at the moment,” Pearl said, giving Trissiny a narrow look. “Between chaperoning your demon friend and contracting repairs to the manor, it has been an eventful morning.”
“That was a broad hint,” Professor Rafe explained. “Pearl is suggesting you should refrain from stirring up any further shit, being that you’ve already been less than ideal houseguests, what with all the nonsense and whatnot. She didn’t come out and say that because she’s super nice.”
“Thank you, Professor,” Pearl said, shaking her head as she strode over to a cupboard.
“I live to serve!”
“We will try to keep this conversation brief, then,” Trissiny said, turning and striding out of the room before anyone could say anything else. The others followed more slowly.
“Uh, how do you know where you’re going?” Teal asked as they ascended the stairs in the main entrance hall.
“Sense evil,” Toby murmured. “Whether or not she’s actually evil, she…registers. I could point her out exactly anywhere on the grounds.”
“Excuse me,” said Sapphire, frowning at them as they stepped into the upstairs hallway. “I know it can be easy to get turned around in here. Your rooms are in the other wing.”
“We need a word with Malivette,” Trissiny said, not slowing. “Now.”
“She is taking some time to herself,” Sapphire said more sharply, stepping in front of the paladin. “Can this wait?”
“It’s about necromancy and Veilgrad,” Trissiny replied, staring evenly at her. “Excuse me.”
“That can wait, then,” Sapphire replied, not moving an inch. “You should perhaps take some time to freshen up. Pearl will have lunch ready soon; you can talk to Malivette this evening.”
“We can also talk to her now,” Trissiny said, taking a step forward. “When it is broad daylight and we have someplace to go if Malivette doesn’t like the direction of our discussion.”
“Trissiny,” Shaeine said firmly. “You are being provocative, and very nearly rude.”
“Young lady,” Sapphire said, staring the paladin down, “it is exceedingly bad manners to impose upon your hostess in this fashion.”
“I’m sorry for that,” Trissiny replied inexorably, “truly. But this won’t wait.”
“We are perilously close to having a disagreement,” Sapphire said quietly.
“Whoah, now,” Teal exclaimed. “Peace, please! Triss…”
“Yes, I know exactly what your capabilities are,” Trissiny said, her eyes locked on Sapphire’s. “You are no threat to me, and I am no threat to Malivette, and I think you know both those things. So we’re going to go speak with her, and nobody needs to get needlessly upset.”
“Trissiny,” Toby said sharply. “Stop. We are the guests here—don’t talk to her like that.”
“Fine,” Sapphire said curtly, abruptly stepping backward. “I see war and justice leave little room for social skills. You apparently know where you’re going, then.”
“Thank you,” Trissiny said politely, nodding deeply to her. Sapphire folded her arms and wrinkled her nose disdainfully.
“Sorry,” Fross whispered loudly. “Really. She has the best intentions, I promise, she just gets worked up when things are evil.”
“There is nothing evil here,” Sapphire said bitterly, directing it at the paladin’s back rather than the pixie.
Trissiny, ignoring her, pushed open a set of double doors and stepped into the cavernous bedroom beyond. Its furnishings were carved of dark-stained wood, sparse in number and simple in design, though elaborate and clearly expensive rugs littered the floor haphazardly and the large four-poster bed was strewn with rumpled sheets of crimson satin. There were no wall decorations aside from the sconces of fairy lamps, currently unlit.
She didn’t pause, turning and striding toward another door along the wall, the others trailing along after her.
“Hang on, wait a second,” Toby said, hurrying to catch up. “I really don’t think you should burst in on—”
Ignoring him, Trissiny grasped the latch and yanked the door open, revealing a brightly-lit bathroom with brass and marble accents.
Malivette stood at the sink, wearing a bright pink bathrobe of some impossibly fluffy material. On her feet were whimsical slippers shaped like rabbits, also pink. She stood with one hand in the robe’s pocket, the other holding the end of the toothbrush currently in her mouth. Minty foam was bubbled up around her lips. The vampire stared at them quizzically, her crimson eyes wide and surprised.
“If fher a profful?” she inquired.
“Vette,” Sapphire said anxiously from behind the students, “I’m so sorry, I tried to stop them, but this pushy girl insisted…”
“If fife erfay, uffee,” Malivette said kindly. “Un fife f’gheff.”
“Can we speak to you, please?” Trissiny asked, finally looking uncertain.
Malivette finally withdrew her hand from her pocket, holding up one finger. “Uff a momum, phleef.”
While they stared, she resumed scrubbing her teeth, humming softly to herself. It went on for easily another minute; she was quite thorough. The vampire turned her back to spit in the sink and rinse her mouth.
“There!” she said brightly, turning to face them again. “Ah, much better. Let me tell you, nothing drives home the importance of oral hygiene like having to subsist on blood. Even if you like the stuff, once it starts getting all congealed…blech. And that happening between your teeth! Blargh. Bleugh! Bleughrer!”
“Why are you collecting materials and equipment for necromancy?” Trissiny demanded loudly.
“What makes you think I am?” Malivette asked pleasantly. “I mean, I’m not even going to consider the idea that you’ve been rummaging about in my personal possessions.”
“We are exceedingly sorry to impose like this,” said Shaeine, looking pointedly at Trissiny. “There are surely any number of reasons you might have need of necromantic arts, not least of which are the horses. Perhaps this conversation could have waited for a more convenient moment.”
“Yes, I suppose this may be rather jarring to you,” the vampire said, smiling with a hint of mischief. “It doesn’t really make it into the bards’ songs, for whatever reason, does it? They’re like terriers going after rats.”
“Uh, what?” Juniper asked. “Who is?”
“The Hands of Omnu are a conservative lot,” Malivette went on, nodding to Toby, “always have been. It’s all about healing and blessing wherever they happen to be. Hands of Avei have this compulsion, though. It goes well beyond just sensing evil. If there’s something nasty occurring, they go right for it, every time. Often without fully realizing what they’re doing. It’s instinct, see? You kids should listen to your friend more, especially when she seems irrationally aggressive. The obvious reason Trissiny is worked up about necromancy is I’m doing horrible, dangerous and utterly depraved necromantic experiments on the grounds.” She grinned broadly, showing off her fangs. “Wanna see?”
“Uh,” said Fross.
“Hang on a tick, lemme just change into something less comfortable.” Malivette suddenly erupted into a cloud of mist and shrieking bats; all of them stumbled reflexively back from the door, Trissiny drawing her sword. She re-formed in seconds, now wearing her customary slinky black dress. “Well, c’mon, this way!” she said brightly.
She dissolved again into silver mist, flowing like water through their legs and taking form again behind them, standing in the door and beckoning eagerly. “Come along, now! I think you’ll like this. Follow me!”
The vampire turned and skipped into the hallway, her fluffy pink bunny slippers peeking out from below the hem of her gown.
The Conclave’s embassy had not changed much in the short time since Bishop Shahai and Squad One had last visited, except with regard to personnel. The building was the same, and still guarded by Imperial soldiers; there were still petitioners in the entrance hall, and lining up outside. Now, however, there were more humans present who had clearly aligned themselves with the Conclave. They had no livery as such, at least not yet, but several of those in attendance wore badges like that sported by the man who had accosted Principia in the old spice market.
They were a disparate lot, having in common only that they were relatively young, none yet into middle years, and all physically fit. Their attire varied widely, though none seemed shabby or excessively casual. Aside from the badges, what marked them out was their bearing. These few men and women were proud, alert, and taking their jobs very, very seriously. Considering their jobs seemed so far to consist of standing around the embassy looking officious and chaperoning the various petitioners, it was an open question how long they could keep that up.
The Avenist delegation paused in the middle of the floor, conversations trailing off and eyes turning toward them. Principia looked questioningly at the Bishop, who nodded deeply to her and took a step back. Principia saluted and turned, making a beeline for the nearest individual with a Conclave badge, her squad at her heels.
“I will speak with Zanzayed the Blue,” she said sharply, coming to a halt in front of the young man. “Now. I have a personal grievance to discuss with him.”
The fellow blinked, then glanced to the side at another nearby dragonsworn, who only shrugged helplessly. He was the youngest-looking individual among their ranks, of blond Stalweiss stock, tall and broad-shouldered. Despite this, he seemed somewhat cowed by the aggressive elf before him, despite the fact that he dwarfed her, armor and all.
“Ah… I can add your name to the list,” he offered. “Of course, there are many people who wish an audience with the exalted delegates. You, um, are likely to be accorded special consideration—”
“Not good enough,” she snapped. “I’m not negotiating with you, young man. If you can’t get me to Zanzayed, get me to someone who can. You have sixty seconds.”
He finally seemed to locate his backbone, straightening up and frowning disapprovingly down at her. “Now, see here, miss—uh, Ms… Uh, soldier—”
“Sergeant,” she said caustically.
“Suppose you tell me the nature of your grievance,” he continued doggedly, “and I will convey the message. You surely can’t expect to just walk in here and talk with a dragon.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Principia said coldly, her voice even by carrying through the marble hall. “This is what you can tell Zanzayed: I am Principia Locke, of the line of the Crow, favored agent of Eserion and soldier of Avei. Zanzayed the Blue is going to answer to me, to my face, for his recent transgressions. If I’m not in front of him within five minutes, I will leave, and when I come back it’ll be with a mix of backup from those various sources I just named. And I promise you, boy, I will make very certain you are present to learn firsthand who and what a dragon does not want to challenge.”
“Uh,” he said frantically, his aplomb now disintegrating in rising panic. “I, uh—”
“That is a new approach,” purred a more musical voice. Principia stepped back from the flummoxed young dragonsworn, turning to the speaker. Gliding toward the assembled soldiers was a strikingly beautiful young woman, pale and dark-haired, wearing a flowing gown of blood-red silk. “Few people would approach dragons with threats. My congratulations, Sergeant Locke; you are the first since we came to Tiraas. I had rather expected such would come from the Empire, not…well. What’s Zanza done to you?”
“Well met,” Principia said flatly. “Whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”
“Of course, my apologies. How rude of me.” The woman curtsied, gracefully but not deeply. “I am Maiyenn, consort of Razzavinax the Red. If you will kindly leave off badgering my household staff, I will be only too glad to escort you directly to Zanzayed. It sounds as if you have very serious business indeed.” She smiled languidly, her eyes half-lidded. “I ask your pardon for the reception. Niels is actually a most admirable young man, but we are still in the process of training all our people. If you will follow me?” She gestured at the curving marble stairs, the motion smooth and elegant.
“My thanks, Lady,” Principia replied, bowing. “Lead on.”
“Oh, my,” Maiyenn said, smiling more broadly. “You actually do know some draconic etiquette. What fascinating stories you must have! I believe I shall enjoy observing this conversation.”
She led them up the stairs and down a side hall branching off from the upper landing. Bishop Shahai stepped forward to walk alongside Principia, the rest of Squad One marching on their heels. Behind them, the group left a thunderous silence; only when they passed the threshold into the corridor did muted conversations begin to rise again in the entry hall.
It was somewhat less awkward to follow Maiyenn once they were off the stairs, and her waist no longer at their eye level. The woman walked with an entirely gratuitous sway in her hips.
Their guide led them the full length of the hallway, ignoring the doors they passed. At the end, rather than terminating in a wall or a room, the hall widened into a small sitting area occupying what was clearly a tower; the space was circular, and instead of walls had paneled windows braced between gracefully fluted columns. Above, more glass panes were set into the domed roof, creating a kind of greenhouse. Fittingly, there were large potted ferns at the bases of columns, and one dwarf fig tree, with settees and chairs casually laid out between these.
There was also, incongruously, a crib on wheels pushed against one window. Maiyenn went directly to this, after giving her guests a final mysterious smile, bending over to coo softly at what lay within. The Legionnaires spared her scarcely a glance, their attention on the other individuals present.
The dragons, to judge by their eyes and hair, could be none other than Zanzayed the Blue and Razzavinax the Red. Upon Maiyenn’s arrival, Razzavinax rose from his seat to join her over the crib, giving the visitors a brief, inquisitive look in passing. He place a hand on Maiyenn’s lower back, his expression softening as he peered down at his infant child.
Even they didn’t command the soldiers’ full attention. The other person present, who had stepped away from the crib to make room for the proud parents, was a striking young woman with milky pale skin, deep black hair and peculiar crystalline eyes in an unlikely shade of aquamarine. She also had spiny bat wings and a spaded tail.
“Easy, now,” Zanzayed cautioned them, grinning idly. He made no move to rise from the settee on which he was lounging. “Rizlith is a friend.”
“Demons make poor friends,” Bishop Shahai said quietly.
“And Avenists make poor guests,” the succubus retorted. Her eyes flicked across the group, coming to rest on Ephanie, and a sultry smile unfolded across her lovely face. “As we are all poor together, why can’t we…get along?”
“Riz,” the red dragon said reprovingly. “Please don’t taunt Silver Legionnaires. In fact, don’t do anything with them. If you’re bored, I can find entertainments for you.”
“I am anything but bored, Razz,” she said idly, taking two steps back and draping her wings about her shoulders like a cloak. The demon leaned backward against the window behind her and folded her arms under her impressive bosom, deliberately emphasizing it. “This all looks to be exceedingly fascinating. You may have to send me away after all, but give a girl a chance, hmmm?”
“I assume you must know a little something of demonology,” Razzavinax said apologetically to the Bishop. “One must make allowances for the children of Vanislaas. I assure you, Rizlith is no threat to you, or to anyone here.”
“At this time,” Rizlith crooned to no one in particular.
“One must make allowances for one’s hosts,” Bishop Shahai replied smoothly, keeping her eyes on the dragon and ignoring the demon. “If you are confident you have the creature under control, no more need be said about it.”
“Well!” Zanzayed said brightly, straightening up to a sitting position and rubbing his hands together, his numerous jeweled rings flashing in the light. “Before this devolves any further, let me just say how delighted I am that you’ve accepted my invitation, Principia! I guess you found something to say to me after all!”
“Yes, I did,” she said acidly. “Quit sending people to pester me, you swaggering jackass!”
“He set himself up for that one,” Maiyenn murmured.
“He did it deliberately,” Razzavinax replied, sliding an arm around her shoulders. “Zanza has peculiar ideas about fun.”
“All right, so maybe I was a tad overbearing,” the blue acknowledged, grinning unrepentantly. “But…here you are! Can’t really fault my strategy, then, can you?”
“Your strategy,” Principia said flatly. “How many women have you had, Zanzayed?”
“Oh, my!” he said, placing his fingertips against his lips in an expression of mock horror. “You surely wouldn’t ask a gentleman to kiss and tell! And in front of these fine upstanding soldiers, no less!”
“You are old enough to have carried out some great seductions,” Principia continued unrelentingly. “Any dragon more than two centuries along has, and you’re at least as old as Arachne.”
“Older,” he said idly.
“So you understand how the game is played. So do I.”
“Why, Principia,” Zanzayed exclaimed, grinning. “How many women have you had?”
“More’n you, I bet,” she shot back. “And we both know that this is not the way to do it. You don’t gain someone’s attention or their favor by drowning them in aggressive, unfriendly solicitations. That is harassment, Zanzayed, and I’ll not stand for it.”
“Are you going to let her talk to me like that?” he asked Bishop Shahai.
“If it comes down to it,” she said mildly, “I’m going to let her punch you.” Maiyenn laughed in pure delight.
“Prin, my dear, you’ve got me all wrong,” Zanzayed protested, spreading his hands innocently. “As I told you before, this is a simple matter of family concern. I have nothing but the highest regard for your bloodline, and you’re a particularly famous example of it! How could I do anything but extend to you every possible courtesy?”
“I am not blind to the fact that there are anti-dragon activists at work in Tiraas,” Principia said coldly.
“Anti-dragon activists,” Maiyenn repeated, her voice oozing disdain. “More correctly called ash stains in training.” Rizlith giggled.
“And I am not dumb enough to fail to see what you’re doing,” Prin continued. “Painting a target for them on my head is an extremely hostile act, Zanzayed.”
“You seem absolutely determined to ascribe the worst possible motivations to me, no matter what I say,” he replied in a mournful tone. “I’m starting to wonder if I have been mistaken. It doesn’t look like we’re going to have a productive discussion, here.”
“On the subject of my bloodline,” she replied with a cold smile, “Mary the Crow is in Tiraas.”
“No, she isn’t,” he shot back, with the same expression. “She was in Tiraas.”
“Want to know how quickly I can find her?”
“Exactly as quickly as everyone else can,” he replied, grinning. “If anything, less. Look, Principia, you’ve clearly got this all worked up in your mind so that I’m out to get you, and just as clearly you’ve brought your friends, here, on board.”
“I am guided by my own reasoning,” Bishop Shahai said serenely. “I have chosen to allow Principia to make this a personal issue because that will cause far less trouble than what will occur if I’m forced to address your treatment of a Legionnaire under my command in an official capacity.”
“They do bluster, don’t they?” Maiyenn mused.
“And here I thought these Legionnaires would be boring,” Rizlith said, her tail waving excitedly. “Elves aside, this is statistically the straightest group of Avenist women I’ve ever seen together in a room. They must have the faith’s officially dullest barracks.”
“Both of you, cease,” Razzavinax ordered, his voice quiet but firm. “Zanzayed is capable of being more than provocative enough for all of us.”
“Well, I’m gonna have to let you down, then, Razz.” The blue finally stood, and bowed extravagantly to Principia. “I give you my word, upon my honor, Principia Locke: I mean no ill to you or yours. I will not harm you, nor suffer you to be harmed if it is up to me to prevent it. Does that satisfy you?”
She pursed her lips. “Is there a single reason it should?”
Zanzayed’s monochrome eyes made it impossible to tell when he was rolling them, so he threw his entire head backward melodramatically, letting out a long groan. “You just can’t win with some people!”
“You want to make progress here?” Principia said coldly. “Quit sending people out to pester me.”
“Is that really all you want?” he said with a sigh. “All right, fine. Done. Is there anything else I can do for you, while you’re here?”
She stared at him in silence for a long moment, then turned and looked inquisitively at the Bishop.
“If you’ve no further business, Sergeant, I am content with this, for now.” Shahai smiled languidly. “This has been an extremely instructive meeting.”
Aside from the other members of Squad One, who remained woodenly stiff at attention, all those present smiled at one another with eyes like daggers.