There was something supremely decadent, she decided, in lying abed when the Lantern hovered just below the western horizon, limning the cloud-speckled sky with all the colours in the Holy Mother’s palette. Once upon a dream, centuries ago, she would have been chivvied out of her blankets by her senis in the antediluvian darkness, and set to the day’s labours - cleaning and scrubbing, sorting and arranging, cooking and bathing and primping, all to be complete before the Communion. Years later, for an all too brief period, she had been senis, lording it over her own infima with imperious self-righteousness.
She remembered those days, and those sisters, better, it seemed, than she remembered any of the three-score times that she had served as praeceptrix - or any of the endless sequence of senisae and infimae that she had trained in turn. Time’s wheel had, in its remorseless turnings, crushed the memories out of her.
It did not help that she was still drowsing, of course; sleep clouded the mind and erected a soft, billowing barrier between the spirit and the waking world. In the bliss of the Communion, she knew, she would be able to remember them all, and in exquisite detail - every hair, every freckle, the colour of every eye, the lilt of every voice, the touch of every hand.
But the Communion would never come, she groaned to herself, if she laid any longer abed. Once, her subordinates would have woken her if she had decided to play the sluggard. Now there was no one within a thousand paces who would dare to disturb her dreams. She was no longer what she once had been; no longer the untutored infima, the confident senis, the magisterial praceptrix. She did not even have a name any more; she was no longer an individual, with an individual’s aspirations and ambitions. She had ceded those to the Goddess, just as she had ceded the moniker that she had borne for the better part of a thousand years. Innumerable tiny sacrifices, joyfully offered in an ecstasy of praise, transforming what had once been a proud daughter of the Third House into a selfless and obedient slave of the Maiden. A being of pure service: Lustrumater.
The Den Mother.
The Den Mother, she thought, groaning as she stretched, is getting old. Miyaga’s blessings had preserved her grace, her beauty, her poise and her skill, but they did nothing for the joints. In face and form, she knew, she was indistinguishable from any elf-woman a third her age, but her back felt every turn of the seasons. It was getting harder and harder to play the spry young vixen.
Enough. If she wallowed in luxurious self-pity any longer, the Lantern would be at zenith, and all the House would wonder whether the Mistress was losing her grip. She had a reputation to maintain, after all.
Tossing aside the peach-coloured sheets of flawless satin, she stretched out, bare as buttermilk, and wriggled her shoulders into the straga. She placed her hands beneath the small of her back, bent her knees, and straightened them again, toes pointing at the ceiling. She executed a few more leg-lifts in quick succession, feeling her stomach muscles contract pleasantly; and then, palms flat on the mattress, pressed herself backwards into a neck-stand. A quick shift of her forearms and she pushed herself up into a full hand-stand, gritting her teeth at an unexpected twinge between her shoulder blades. She held the pose until her shoulders began to quiver, then let her legs fall behind her back, rolling effortlessly into a walk-up.
A light sheen of perspiration dappled her brow, and her lifebeat was thudding languorously; she could feel the throbbing pulsations beneath her jaw, and in the great vessels of her thighs. Smiling to herself – Old, maybe, but not dead. Not yet! - she rolled her shoulders to ease the tension.
Glancing around her bed-chamber, she saw that her dressing gown was still laying strewn across her settee, and resolved to have a word with Grilani, her chambermaid. She crooked a finger, and the garment, a riot of brilliant scarlet, sky-blue and black, flew towards her, undulating like an airborne spectre. It settled upon her shoulders like gossamer, twisting and contorting to allow her to slip her arms into the sleeves. The thing arranged itself in decorative folds, and the belt knotted of its own accord.
She was desperately thirsty, and stared longingly at the water pitcher standing on a nearby table. But the Rule allowed no refreshment between waking and the Communion, and she would be damned before she broke it in response to base, animal needs. Rather than take a glass, she snapped a leaf from the sprig of sweetspire that Grilani had left beside the jug, popping it into her mouth and biting down. The Rule forbade food and drink before worship; but praise the Goddess, it allowed breath sweeteners.
Still chewing, she started up the stairs that led to the roof of the House. There was a spring in her step that she hadn’t felt moments before. Time to set the example, and show her worthless crowd of juvenile know-nothings that this Den Mother didn’t just enforce the Rule; she lived it.
Her heart was still racing, her breath coming in short, hitching gasps, as she opened her eyes, squinting a little. The Communion had been especially powerfully this morning. There was something about a clear dawn - light limning the high-pitched gilt-and-silver roofs of the Isle, sparkling from dew-speckled treetops, and glancing off the bottoms of fleeing clouds, turning them from purple to red to orange to gold - that seemed to kindle something within her. She had long ago learned to accept it. On rainy mornings, the Maiden’s divine touch was tentative, slow and fleeting; but when the Lantern hovered just below the horizon, in the tremulous moments before it peeked above the hilltops to the west, the ecstasy came swift and hard. It always did. Today, she had scarcely had time to close her eyes and compose herself before it was there, springing upon her like a tiger from the jungle green.
Swift and hard. She felt a bead of sweat trickle down her spine, and shivered. It was more than the exquisite aftershocks of the Communion; a stiff spring breeze had preceded the dawn, shaking the leaves and blossoms of the rooftop garden, making the thin fabric of her robe flutter, and raising what felt like an acre of gooseflesh. Before her devotions she had hardly noticed the chill; now it was enough to make her teeth chatter. At the same instant, she became conscious of the pebbles pressing into her knees and the ache of the ankles bent beneath her.
She sighed. Getting old. It was time that she got below. Anteliora, the Apprentice-Mother, had warned her of a new draft of supplicants, and she had promised the archivist that she would look over a leaf-book that had come in the previous day. Naumastis, her principal deputy, wanted to discuss budgeting. Probably pressing for an increase in the programme of offerings, she mused. As if we weren’t already squeezing our patrons for every libellum. And in the wood smoke rising from a nearby chimney - she cursed her stomach for betraying her so - she could smell bread baking.
Base needs! she sneered to herself. The Disciples strove always to quell them, the better to allow their passions free rein. And the better to control others through their own animal desires. But she had learned, over the course of a long and fruitful life, that one needn’t deny one’s-self to master others.
You’re stalling. She was. Stretching a little, she could see over the low parapet that ringed the rooftop garden. Many of the buildings of the Ancient Isle had such luxuries; some were so covered in verdure that, viewed from above, parts of the city looked like the forest was encroaching upon the elves’ capital, re-conquering land that had been first claimed from the woods in Tîor’s day. The illusion wasn’t quite complete, however; those structures with classical roofs - slate and wood, copper and gilt - were just as numerous, and many were massive things, graceful, tall and imposing. The Palace - out of sight to the south - was like that, as were many of the Houses of the Twelve. The House of Light and Fire, too - Yarchian’s great conlectio, his timeless monument to the elves’ masterworks, preserving all that was left of the magnificent arts crafted before the Darkness - was likewise a marvel.
Most imposing, though - You have the same thought every morning, you old fool, she chastised herself with mild contempt - was the College. Ludus Astralis, another of Tîor’s innumerable legacies, glimmering like snow and pearl, its flawless, pristine spire seven times the height of any other structure on the Isle. Tîor had built it, wrenching its beauteous fabric from the bones of the earth; and his brother Dîor, that no one might ever dare to attempt to surpass the feat, had made it an article of his law that no building in Starmeadow could exceed it in height. The tip of the spire was already illuminated by the rising sun, glowing like a spear-point left too long in the forge, sparkling with glints of the inestimable power and wisdom that lay within its walls.
The Den Mother knew a little about that power and wisdom. Magi were special folk, to be sure; but they were mortal too, enjoying the animal needs and desires that the Holy Mother, in her eternal wisdom, had implanted in all of the Kindred. She knew them, and they knew her, and her Disciples.
As she watched, the glimmering blade of light crept down the great spire; she could almost see it moving. Skyward, deep purples changed to dark reds, then to bright orange. She loved the dawn. It was like a painting, the most marvellous of works; a mystical canvas that froze when you stared at it, but that, if you glanced away for even an instant, changed into something new. She wished it could last an hour, or a day, or even a year. If she could, she would have set the sky in crystal, the better to display it in -
She started, glancing over her shoulder, and wincing a little as the muscles in her neck pulled uncomfortably tight. Evidently the Communion had been more demanding than she had realized.
The girl stood by the door to the tower stairs, hands folded and eyes downcast, as custom demanded in her presence. She recognized the intruder, of course; it was Taustani, a recent graduate of the Pergulatibia – the
, the capital’s oldest
college of all things terpsichorean. A
marvellous singer, Taustani had for some reason found her true calling in the
Maiden’s service. After more than eight
hundred years, the Den Mother knew true devotion and skill when she saw it, and
she had immediately added the girl to the Cortina
Maxima, her personal quorum of senior votaries. Taustani had been at the House for only a
little more than five years, but was making rapid progress. She would soon be ready to be sent into the
wider world to begin her own Cortina
– the better for having received her final polish at the knee of Miyaga’s
Chosen. The Den Mother’s only regret was
that the moment the girl had seen their library, she had all but forgotten her
mesmerizing talent, and now spent more time buried in books than trilling the
Maiden’s praises. School
Learning wasn’t a bad thing, the Mother reflected. But she did miss the girl’s singing. “What is it, daughter?” she asked.
“Am I disturbing you?” Taustani asked, a little more hesitantly than was normally her wont.
“No,” the Den Mother replied, somewhat nonplussed by the girl’s unaccustomed timidity. “Speak up.”
“You...Mother, I beg your pardon, but...but is your Communion...”
“The moment is past,” the older woman said drily. Suddenly, she understood, and grinned. “You were watching, were you?”
The girl’s face went white, and she stared at the ground. “I apologize, Mother, most profoundly. I did not...not mean to...to intrude...”
The Den Mother burst out in happy laughter. “Nonsense. If I’d been worried about privacy, I’d’ve locked the door, child. Besides, the Communion is something that we are meant to share.”
“Oh!” Taustani gasped. “Oh, I know! And I did! I mean...”
The older woman cocked an eyebrow. “Got caught up in it, did you?”
The girl nodded, blushing furiously.
“Well, good. I’m glad to see you’re attuning so quickly.”
“How...Mother, may I ask a question?”
The Den Mother levered herself to her feet, frowning a little at the twinges that shot through her lower back. Old. “Ask away, dear,” she sighed.
“How did you manage to...how do you reach the stars and the clouds so quickly?”
“Eh?” The older woman shot the younger a querulous glance.
Taustani looked dumbfounded. “It took you seconds! And you didn’t even move!” she said, incredulous.
“Ah.” She understood. The Disciples taught that the acme of divine sensitivity was the ability to reach true Communion rapidly, in perfect motionlessness. Few elder sisters, and precious few acolytes, were able to do so. She had mastered it long ago. She shrugged. “Practice, child.”
The girl looked surprised. “Really? That’s all?”
“A lot of practice,” the Den Mother qualified. “Years, and years, and years...” She made a face, and the girl laughed. The older woman laughed with her, relieving the unaccustomed tension.
She leaned down and brushed a few specks of dust from her dressing gown. “So,” she asked, straightening up again and joining the girl by the tower, “what brought you to the roof so early?”
Taustani looked stunned. “Oh! I’m sorry, Mother. A message.”
“Triparanakin. She’s back. She says she has urgent news for you.”
The Den Mother’s eyes widened. She had been waiting to hear from the woman who had been one of her most talented students, and was now her most skilled envoy.
Well, she amended mentally, better to not mince words. My most skilled spy. “Do you know what it is?” she asked.
“The message? No, Mother,” Taustani replied. “Although...she told me to ask you to meet her in the library. May I...may I come along?” She held the door open.
“Certainly,” the older woman replied. “Although I may have to dismiss you again, if Tripa has secrets to pass on.”
The Den Mother shot the girl a curious glance. She seemed nervous, and was even flushing. “Is something troubling you?” the older woman asked.
“She...it’s been more than a year,” Taustani whispered. “Since she left.”
A lantern flared in the Den Mother’s mind. “I’d forgotten,” she said apologetically, laying a hand on the younger woman’s arm. “Tripa was your praeceptrix, wasn’t she? When you first arrived?”
The Den Mother smiled indulgently. “How long has it been?”
“Since I left her? Two years,” the girl replied, looking miserable.
The older woman put a companionable arm around the girl’s shoulders. “It’s natural to miss your first cortina, child. I still miss mine, and it’s been nearly eight centuries. My praeceptrix went to wind more than five hundred years ago.”
“I’d rather not talk about it, Mother,” the girl whispered. She reached into the wide girdle bound about her gown and extracted a rolled scrap of parchment. “She asked me to find this, and bring it to you, for your meeting.”
The Den Mother looked an obvious question.
“It’s a map of Ekhan,” the girl explained. “Tripa wanted one.”
“Ekhan?” The older woman’s eyebrows rose.
Taustani nodded. “Just the western half. It shows Veldt,
mountains, Chant, the Tamal Krak and the Niriam Vale.” She looked puzzled. “She particularly wanted a map of the
Vale. This was the only one I could
find.” Two Rivers
The Den Mother wrinkled her nose, perplexed. “What would she want that for?”
The girl shrugged. “She didn’t say, Mother.”
“Well, we’ll know soon enough,” the older woman said decisively. “Hold onto that,” she added, pointing at the map, “and come along. If we wrap this up quickly enough, the bread will still be warm.”
“Mother!” The new arrival knelt, grasped the hem of the older woman’s dressing gown, and pressed it to her lips.
The Den Mother took the woman’s hands and pulled her to her feet. Doing so always startled her; the newcomer was easily a hand taller than her senior. “Tripa!” she exclaimed warmly, enfolding the woman in her arms, then stepping back and pulling her head down, so as to and give her a peck on each cheek. “Welcome home!”
The newcomer was as dark as the Den Mother was fair; her features, as delicate and refined as those of any elf, were a rich, sun-sharpened brown, speckled across the cheeks with hints of lighter beiges, like the opposite of the freckles that popped up occasionally among the Hiarsk. Though only a little taller than the Den Mother, Tripa was half again her weight, with broad shoulders and hips, a lush, firm figure, and taut muscles. Most of her form was hidden beneath a heavy cloak that swept the floor. When she doffed her hood in response to her superior’s greeting, the two elf-women could see that her enormous mass of hair was bound tightly back by a long, heavy scarf of midnight silk. It seemed to move with a life of its own.
Her eyes were as brown as the rest of her, but shot through with flecks of glimmering gold. The Den Mother had always envied Tripa her eyes.
Triparanakin nodded briefly. Glancing over the Den Mother’s shoulder, she nodded a second time, at the elf-girl standing quietly against the wall of the library.
Taustani bowed. “Praeceptrix.”
The newcomer frowned, albeit prettily. “I’m not your praeceptrix anymore, Tausi. In fact, I’d imagine you’re about ready to assume that title yourself.”
“She is,” the Den Mother interrupted. “But you’ll always be her first, and you know how that is.” She indicated with a sweep of her hand that they should sit.
Tripa chose a seat on a settee near a low reading table; her elder took a more comfortable, high-backed chair, easing herself into it with a wince.
The newcomer’s eyes narrowed. “Mother, are you unwell?”
“Old bones,” the Den Mother said dismissively. “Nothing important. What brings you back? You’ve been in the Imperium of late, no?”
Tripa nodded. “I fit in better there than here, as you know,” she said with a wry grin. “No spells required; I just need a scarf.” She touched her hair self-consciously.
The older woman nodded. “How are your...ah, tresses?” she asked, eyeing the bundled mass of curls warily.
“Confined,” Tripa said drily. She glanced over at Taustani, who hadn’t moved. “Tausi? Sister, I mean...won’t you sit?”
The younger woman’s cheek twitched. “I thought...if this was a private discussion...” she stammered.
“It is,” Tripa said. “But I know your discretion. Nobody knows it better than I!” She touched her headdress again.
“ And,” she added, waving a finger at the capacious shelves surrounding them, “we’ll need your advice. Unless you’ve given up your ambition to be the Maiden’s foremost librarian.”
“She hasn’t,” the Den Mother laughed. “We have to drag her out of here for Communion. Child, sit down,” she added, beckoning to the girl.
Flushing mightily, Taustani sat next to her former mistress, hands folded demurely in her lap.
The Den Mother turned her eyes back to the newcomer, waiting.
“So!” Tripa began. “As you said, mother, I’ve been in the Imperium. Norkhan, to be exact.”
“Doing what, precisely?”
“Obeying orders,” the dusky woman said somewhat tartly. “Naumastis told me to try to penetrate the Council of Steel.”
“I’d heard about that,” the Den Mother nodded. “Are you telling me you succeeded? So quickly?”
Tripa nodded. “It was difficult at first, but over the past year things have changed, faster than you could possibly imagine. I think the Vendicar is preparing to expand the Imperial Army. To nearly double it, in fact.”
The older woman’s eyes widened. “Really? I hadn’t heard that! Why haven’t you reported it?”
“Because I didn’t know why he was doing it,” Tripa replied. “Or even if my suspicions were well-founded. Not until now, anyway.”
“Doubling the size of the Imperial Army is significant, daughter,” the Den Mother said, reproof in her voice.
Tripa held up a hand. “I said he’s preparing to double it,” the woman emphasized. “He hasn’t done so yet. The Council is promoting an awful lot of officers; that’s why it’s been so easy to expand my list of contacts as quickly as I’ve done. Everybody that can stand up, see lightning, and hear thunder is being handed a baton. Commissions to come later, or so I’ve heard.”
“That’s unusual,” Taustani ventured. “They’ve never risked diluting their senior command before.”
“I know, and that’s precisely the thing,” Tripa agreed. “It feels like they’re trying to flesh out an expanded cadre as fast as they can. Plenty of new commanders at the century, cohort and regimental levels, enough for a score of legions. But so far the troops themselves haven’t been enlisted.
“And,” she went on, sounding less certain, “they’ve nowhere near enough equipment to outfit such a massive force. The Empire’s resources are enormous, but they’ve already got a quarter of a million men under arms, and as many in the reserve, and their smiths have to keep the forges going day and night just to keep up with demand.”
“Are they importing weapons?” Taustani interjected, leaning forward. “That would be the key indicator of how serious they are about standing up any new formations.”
“I don’t know,” Tripa replied, looking thoughtful. “Not from us. From Gasparr? If they were, I wouldn't necessarily know. I’ve been working on developing contacts in the general planning staff.”
“What about horses?” the girl pressed. “An infantry legion needs as many mounts and draft horses as men. Where are they getting the horseflesh?”
“As I said, sister,” Triparanakin said somewhat stiffly, “ I haven’t really looked at that side of the show.” She shrugged. “I’ve been trying to figure out their strategy.”
“Amateurs talk about strategy,” Taustani said somewhat primly. “Professionals worry about logistics.” Then she clamped her mouth shut, looking shocked, as if stunned by her own temerity in correcting her former teacher.
Tripa’s eyes widened in outrage. Then she grinned. “Slapped down by mine own apprentice!” She put an arm around the younger woman’s shoulders and crushed her in a fierce hug. “Gods, I’ve missed you!”
The Den Mother watched, smiling indulgently. “She’s right, you know,” she said, as Taustani thrashed about, trying to escape her senior’s grasp. Tripa was a good deal stronger than the elf-girl. “Officer appointments are a denarius a dozen. But nobody marches an army without cuirasses and hay-wains.”
“I know, I know,” Tripa laughed. “Tausi’s always right!” She released the girl. Taustani sat up, struggling to catch her breath, smoothing her gown with her hands. “Mea culpa, mater maxima. I should have been working on penetrating the procurement staff. Gods know it would be easier. Anyone responsible for contracts is invariably corrupt.”
“You’ll address that, I trust, when you get back?” the Den Mother asked, serious again.
The dark woman pursed her lips. “That depends.”
“On you, Mother,” Tripa replied soberly. “I’m short-handed. There’s just me and my cortina. Vellocina’s good, and since she’s a diviner, she’s invaluable. But she’s only one woman. I have enough targets to keep ten archmages at their scrying pools all day long.”
“What about...” The Den Mother hesitated. Damned memory! She glanced at Taustani. “Her infima?”
“Eret,” the girl said.
The older woman looked back at her envoy.
“Eret’s quick enough,” Tripa shrugged, “but she’s too inexperienced. I can’t send her out on her own yet. Bottom line, Mother, I don’t have the people I need to do the job the way it ought to be done.”
“You’re begging for more hands,” the older woman said drily. “Get in line, daughter.”
“Not just hands,” Tripa objected. “Hands I can hire. I need ears and eyes. Mostly I need brains.”
“Don’t we all,” the Den Mother mused. “Well, you’ve got a point. If the Empire’s really preparing for war, then that’s the most important thing going on right now.”
“More so than Eldarcanum?” Taustani expostulated. “Really?”
“Really,” the Den Mother said decisively. “Don’t mistake me, Æloeschyan’s a major concern. But the worst she can do is disrupt the succession, march a few revenants here and there, and sow a little chaos. A war involving the Empire, though...” she whistled appreciatively. “That could draw everybody in. Everybody. The whole world would burn.”
Tripa nodded. “My thought exactly. It’s why I came back to report in person. Well,” she added hesitantly, “it’s one reason.”
“The other being to plead with me face-to-face for more staff?” the Den Mother asked with a slight grin.
Tripa shugged. “That was part of it. But also...Mother, I’ve inlaqued one of the mages at the College in Irkhan. An adventurer and a Knight of the Tower. He was telling me about a problem with flux-leaping; something about creatures from ‘beyond the walls’ forcing themselves into our world. Slime and tentacles and such-like.”
“Lovely,” the older woman snorted. Taustani shivered.
“What really worried me, though,” Tripa continued, “was that he said that flux-speaking in the elf-realm may have been compromised.”
“What?” the Den Mother cried, alarmed. “Are you certain?”
The dusky woman nodded. “He told me that the Vendicar’s prohibited summoning and calling, and has ordered manual encryption for all information passed by Sending and similar spells.”
The older woman went rigid. She turned to Taustani. “Find Naumastis. Tell her to go to protocol blue immediately. She’ll know what it means. Move!”
The younger woman bowed and fled.
The Den Mother turned back to her old pupil. “Who’s doing it?” she snapped.
“He didn’t say,” Tripa replied. Her face darkened slightly. “I didn’t ask. I was wasting my time trying to twist deployment charts and doctrine out of him. Like an ‘amateur’, as Tausi said.”
The older woman nodded, distracted. “Understandable,” she said. “You couldn’t know.” Her eyes cleared suddenly. “How long did it take you to get here?”
“I left Norkhan eight days ago.”
“Eight!” The older woman hissed.
“The winds were easterly,” Tripa sighed. “We spent three days beating about off Arx Tenebrus, trying to weather the point.”
The Den Mother grimaced. “We’ll have to check every message for the past fortnight. See if anything compromising might’ve gone out.”
Tripa blinked. “He...my contact didn’t say that whoever was doing this was targeting us,” she said hesitantly. “Not especially. I’m sure that -”
“Are you?” the Den Mother snapped. “I’m not.” She drummed her fingers on the table, clearly agitated.
Tripa said nothing. There was a long moment of uncomfortable silence. Finally, she ventured a meek apology. “Mother, I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’ve failed you.”
The older woman snorted. “You haven’t failed me,” she sighed. “I’ve failed you.”
Tripa straightened up. “Excuse me?”
“For the past two thousand years,” the Den Mother said heavily, “ever since men founded the Empire, every time the old order has been threatened, the threat has appeared in Ekhan first. I should have seen this coming.”
“Because it’s my job,” the Den Mother growled.
“No,” Tripa said. “I meant, why do catastrophes always seem to begin in Ekhan?”
“Because they’re human,” the older woman replied heavily. “They change faster than any of the other Kindred. And they don’t resist change, like we do, or the dwarves. They revel in it. They lust after it. The lure of the new is irresistible to them.” She sighed again. “It’s why they seem to achieve marvels in the time it takes me to braid my hair. And it’s why they’re so...susceptible, I suppose. To malefactors. To foolish ideas. And to disaster.”
“You mean the White Hand,” Tripa said.
“Actually, I meant the Shadow King,” the Den Mother sighed. “But the Theocracy was no flash of brilliance either.”
“The Shadow King...” Tripa frowned. “That reminds me. I managed to get my hands on a copy of a report submitted by a Regimental commander stationed somewhere south of the Tamal Krak, in the Niriam Vale. There was a personal letter with it. There was something about the letter...”
“What was it?” the Den Mother asked, curious.
Trip looked embarrassed. “You’re going to think I'm insane,” she said.
The older woman snorted. “Try me. After eight hundred years, daughter, very little surprises me anymore.”
“Well...” the darker woman began. “The officer wrote something about a cavern in the cliffs below Ensher, on the west side of the Vale. He said there was a deep cave filled with red-hot flowstone, with enormous figures supporting the roof, and a dais with...with a statue of a demon. A ‘crouching demon’, he said.” She paused. “I wrote down the location he gave in his report. It’s why I asked Tausi to find a map of the Vale for us.”
“Sounds mysterious,” the Den Mother shrugged.
“But not familiar?” Tripa asked. “It doesn’t mean anything to you?”
The older woman blinked. “No,” she said slowly. “Why, what did it make you think of?”
Trip blushed furiously. “Infima Princeps,” she said softly. “The First Supplicant. And Lagu’s Curse.”
The Den Mother stared at her.
Tripa wilted under her mistress’s gaze. “I told you you’d think I was insane,” she muttered.
The older woman blinked again, and again. “Did you bring copies?” she asked at last.
“Of the report, yes,” Tripa admitted. “I only caught a glimpse of the letter. I never had time to copy it.”
“Show the report to Taustani when she gets back,” the Den Mother commanded. “If there’s something to it, she’ll track it down.”
The younger woman nodded.
The Den Mother shook her head in wonder. “Infima Princeps,” she murmured. Could it be possible? After so much time...more than four thousand years...
Tripa felt like an idiot for even raising the matter. Desperate to change the subject, she said, “So...you think that some new disaster is brewing in the Imperium?”
“Shouldn’t that be my question to you?” the older woman replied archly.
Tripa winced. “Yes, mother. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. You need another pair of ears. I should’ve known better. There’s too much going on in Norkhan for a single Cortina to manage.”
The dusky woman nodded. “Ears and brains,” she repeated.
“You’ll get them,” the Den Mother promised.
A squeaking hinge announced Taustani’s return. The Den Mother shot her an inquiring glance. “Did you find Naumastis?”
“Yes, mother, and I passed your message,” the girl replied.
“You’ll also have to tell her -”
“And,” Taustani continued, “I told her that you would probably want her to check all outgoing and incoming traffic for the past three weeks, to see if anything important might have been compromised.” She looked a little nervous at having interrupted her chief.
Tripa and the Den Mother glanced at each other, and burst into laughter.
Taustani glanced from one to the other, deeply confused.
Triparanakin wiped her eyes. Nodding at Taustani, she asked, “Can I have her?”
The Den Mother shot the dusky woman a quizzical glance. “Really?”
“She’s put her time here to good use,” Tripa said earnestly. “She’s a lot brighter than I am. I need her in Norkhan.” She grinned without humour. “You need her in Norkhan, Mother.”
The Den Mother frowned. Taustani was one of her best pupils, and an invaluable adjutant. But if things really were going to the nine hells in the Imperium...
She cocked an eyebrow at the girl. “What do you say, child?” she asked. “Care to travel to the City of Sea and Stone, and reforge your old cortina?”
Taustani glanced between the two older women. “You’re...this is not a jest, is it?” She flushed a bright, brilliant pink.
“No jest,” Triparanakin replied soberly. “I need an experienced senis. Even more than that, I need what’s between your ears. What do you say?” She winked. "Want to come home?"
Taustani couldn’t speak; she simply nodded.
The Den Mother grinned. “We'll take that as a 'yes',” she laughed.