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.
“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.