A man sauntered erratically down the narrow alley between two low buildings of polished sandstone. His left hand was braced on the hilt of the gracilensis at his side, and his right clutched the neck of a half-full (he would have said ‘half-empty’) wine bottle. As he wove from left to right, closing first on the wall of one structure, then veering off and swerving dangerously close to the gutter surrounding the opposite one, his boot-heels tapped an unsteady paradiddle against the paving stones, a rattling testimony to his all-too-obviously well-marinated condition.
He was cloaked, but his hood was down. Long, lustrous ebon hair flowed down his back, half unbound, half gathered into braids secured with silver rings. His eyes were so green that they fairly glowed in the moons-light – the same light that illuminated a fair face, a noble brow, a pair of delicately pointed ears, and rich, elegant clothing spotted with food and stained with wine.
After a moment of casting about, examining the wall-stones with bleary eyes, he found what he had been seeking: a scrap of shadow between two pilasters. Bracing his forearm against the wall (and doing so with exquisite care so as not to risk harm the bottle), he fumbled at his trousers. A moment later he sighed loudly, conscious only of the sensation of relief, seemingly unaware that he was irrigating his footwear – boots of tooled leather that a tradesman might have spent a year’s sweat to purchase.
Oddly, he evinced no surprise when the stone wall he was leaning against shifted slightly and sank noiselessly away into the darkness.
“You are urinating on my threshold,” a man’s voice said softly. The speaker’s accent was liquid, melodious and utterly alien. There was no light beyond the portal; not even the outline of the speaker was visible.
“Piss washes off,” the young man hissed, restoring his garments to good order. “Gods, it’s cold out here!”
“I always find it cold here,” the other replied. “Perhaps you should have dressed more warmly.”
“And cover up this wonderful cloak?” the newcomer feigned surprise. “Stop nattering, old friend. Let me in!”
“Of course.” A light step, and the way was cleared. The young man threw a cautious glance over his shoulder, then stepped forward into the square of blackness…
…and through it into a high, narrow hall, brightly lit, with dark panelling of carved wood decorating the walls, and thick, shoe-swallowing carpets underfoot.
“That was quite a performance,” the building’s occupant noted. “A trifle overdone, but convincing enough for an amateur.”
“I’ve seen a thousand summers come and go, Terreq,” the young man replied. “In my line of work, there are no amateurs. There are only professionals, and cautionary tales.”
The two men regarded each other coolly. The fellow who had opened the door saw a typical Third House rake, a young man of no more than eight-score years, tall, slender, and fine-boned, one whose features were so fair and refined that he could only be descended from the Duodeci. His clothing alone would have ransomed a lord, and the jewellery he wore – subtly understated, of course, but exquisite in design and execution – a prince. Black hair, green eyes, and a haughty set to the lips. There was no doubting this one’s origin.
Nor was there any doubting the origin of the man who had spoken with an accent. He was a good hand shorter than the newcomer, and similarly built, if a bit more muscular. What set him apart, however, were his features, which could not have differed more wildly from those of his visitor. His hair was white – brilliant, shining, star-white – and bound into a single bushy queue that reached to the small of his back. His face was black – not the grey-black of dyed wool, but the shiny black of silk; a black relieved only by scarlet lips, white eyebrows, and red-shot, violet eyes. His garb – all of it – was similarly black, relieved here and there by flecks of silver and the odd accoutrement. If the old fellow closed his eyes, he would, with the exception of his hair, disappear completely.
The host bowed. “Welcome.”
The young man nodded. “My thanks.”
“Egere phiala?” Something to drink?
“Not just yet,” the visitor said coolly. “But a washbasin would be nice.”
The older man nodded at a curtained archway. “Through there.”
The young fellow returned moments later, towelling his fingers dry with a spotless square of linen. He looked around for a convenient place to deposit it. The older man wordlessly held out a hand, and the younger passed him the cloth.
“Dusty voyage?” White-Hair asked. He nodded towards another archway. Together they entered what looked to be a library and study. Hundreds of books and scrolls occupied neat shelves of blood-red wood. An enormous desk, cluttered but orderly, stood close to one wall, beneath a battery of oil lamps.
The young man snorted. “No. I pissed on my hands. I don’t know how you fellows manage that…function.”
“Practice,” the older man said blandly. “You’re safe here, you know. This house is as well-warded as any.”
The young man glanced around the office, his eyes lingering on seemingly random and innocuous objects: the lintel of the archway, the carpet, the desk, one of the bookshelves, the fireplace mantel, the lamps. “A lot of active enchantments,” he murmured, impressed. “Did you do it all yourself?”
White-Hair bowed. “Ego primus magister.”
“Aren’t we all,” the nobleman murmured. “Very well, then.”
He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. Between one breath and the next his features softened, the cheekbones rising slightly, the lips becoming fuller, the eyes growing larger and changing from green to a brilliant amber-gold. His hair burst into life, first growing to the floor, then writhing and coiling itself into an intricate, tightly-bound coronet of midnight glory. Certain portions of his anatomy narrowed, while others took on lush, rounded curves – and one bit (the one he had been having such difficulty with) disappeared entirely.
When the spell had been dismissed, a woman – an incomparably beautiful woman – stood on the carpet. She was still dressed like a man, but if anything her masculine garments emphasized and flattered her new form even more than they did her old. The light from the lamps seemed to swirl around her, circling her like the waters of a maelstrom, darkening the rest of the room and illuminating only her face. The same thing tended to happen in every room she entered.
White-Hair was grinning. “Very well done. Very well done indeed.”
“Practice,” she replied with a wink. “Hail, Auceps. It’s good to see you again.”
The old man bowed. “It’s good to see you, your Majesty.”
“How did Prestera take it?” White-Hair – Auceps was a title, not a name; it meant ‘Bird-Catcher’, and in Astrapratum, it connoted a very special servant of the crown, with a very special range of highly unofficial duties – handed the Queen a glass of thick, blue-black wine.
“Poorly. She threatened me,” Ælyndarka replied, taking the goblet. They had entered another room – a parlour of sorts – and she sat perched on the edge of a well-worn leather settee.
“I’m not surprised,” the man replied calmly. “The praetoriana are a dedicated lot, and your protector is understandably ferocious about keeping you safe. I’m sure she’s lurking outside, just out of sight.”
“No doubt. The bloody cheek!” the Queen fumed. “As if I can’t walk alone through my own capital.” She sniffed at the cup, tasted it gingerly, and took a sip. Her eyes widened.
“Do you like it?”
“I do!” the woman exclaimed. “What is it?”
“Gjakut tokë, in our tongue,” he replied. “Sangueterreus in yours. Blood of the earth.” He took a sip himself, pursing his lips with evident pleasure. “Ninety-one years settling in stone before being casked and shipped. A fine vintage. A little difficult to get,” he added with a grimace, “and dear as angels’ tears, but well worth it.”
The Queen had straightened up at his words. She shot him a suspicious glance. “There’s no actual blood in it, is there?”
Her host grinned, exposing very white, very even teeth. His incisors, she noted, were pointed and capped with silvery metal. “I thought you trusted me with secrets, Majesty?” he chuckled.
“Only as far as I need to, Terreq.”
“Misgivings? How dismaying.” The man put his goblet on a convenient table. “To return to the point, madam,” he said briskly, “no, you cannot walk alone through your own capital. Not in your own shape, at least. You know that better than most.
"And frankly,” he added, eyeing her with patent disapproval, “you might have picked a less risky disguise than that of an obviously wealthy, obviously intoxicated nobleman. You could have been set upon by thugs looking for an easy mark, or arrested by the Guard.”
“I wasn’t,” the Queen shrugged. “And if I had been, so what? Thugs I can handle. And if the Guard had stopped me, I could simply have revealed myself.
“And immediately exposed your activities, and mine,” the old Drow sighed. “Majesty, you really must pay attention to my advice. Why employ me otherwise?”
“I don’t see the problem,” the Queen shrugged.
“In the first instance,” Terreq replied, holding up a finger, “exposing yourself to the Guard would leave a handful of soldiers with the knowledge that their Queen was sneaking out of the Palace after hours, and frequenting an unsavoury quarter of the city, in arcane disguise.
“I would think,” he added with a touch of asperity, “that you had had your fill of salacious rumours about your family.”
The elf-woman grimaced. “I see your point. And the second instance?”
“The thugs?” he shrugged. “I’ve no doubt you could ‘handle’ them. Leaving behind you either a pride of brain-muddled Third House ne’er-do-wells looking for a healer, or a heap of smouldering bodies waiting for the dead-cart.”
Ælyndarka ground her teeth. “So what, then, is the lesson, Bird-Catcher?”
“The first rule of stealth is not to be able to extricate yourself from unfortunate situations,” he replied. She thought he might be quoting someone. “The first rule of stealth is to avoid unfortunate situations in the first place.”
“Duly noted,” the Queen replied. “Consider me chastened.” She took another sip from her glass, nodding appreciatively, and tilting it in salute. “You can hardly taste the blood.”
The Auceps sighed. “What really happened to my predecessor?” he asked. “Did he die of apoplexy at your stubbornness, or simply poison himself out of frustration at your refusal to follow advice crafted for your own protection?”
“I wasn’t his problem,” Ælyndarka snorted. “Gleboris was Third House, one of my brother Callaýian’s cronies. They both thought highly of his skills, a little more highly than was warranted, as it turned out. He was caught by the Hand while trying to penetrate the headquarters of the Order of the Tower in Irkhan. I’d told him to try to extract the code books before the priests could break the seals and ransack the place; for some reason, he decided to do so himself instead of sending a more competent subordinate.”
She shook her head, still frustrated at the man’s arrogant idiocy, even though his failure had take place a quarter of a millennium before. “Praise Hara he managed to destroy them before they were able to lay hands on him, or I would’ve had more than a cocky spy to replace.”
“This was a while ago, I take it,” the man said, frowning.
“Nearly three centuries. It was shortly after the Hand publicly tortured and executed the Magistatrix of the Order. Mishanirta of Arx Calidus.” He face grew bleak. “She was a cousin, you know.”
“I didn’t, actually,” the man replied soberly. “My condolences.”
The Queen nodded. “Gratia agere. A distant cousin, to be sure, but I’d met her once or twice. And blood is blood, after all.” She took another pull at her glass. “I’d only been on the throne a few years, and that was one of the worst I’ve ever had. I’ll tell you that for nothing. Gleboris wasn’t much help, and the people weren’t happy with me simply expelling all the humans. I suppose they wanted me to stand up the army, sound the trumpets, let fly the banners, and march on Norkhan. That’s what Callaýian would have done.”
“It would have been suicide,” Terreq said flatly. “Even fragmented by a religious schism, the Empire was incomparably strong. And political folly as well. A show of force by the Elves would have lent weight to the Hand’s calumny against your people, and unified the fractured humans behind their prelates.”
“You know that, and I know it,” she shrugged. “All the common folk could understand was that a high-born mage of the Third House had been dragged to a scaffold in chains, stripped, flogged, broken and burnt in the city of
while the Hand Knights stood by and applauded.
My people wanted to see blood flow, Terreq. So did I.
I just didn’t want it to be more elf blood.”
“You made the right decision.”
“Perhaps. Right or wrong, it was a long time ago,” the Queen said glumly. “It’s a different world now. The humans have memories like springflies. They’ve all but forgotten the Hand, so we need to try to do so too, for the sake of peace.” She rolled her eyes. “Hara’s blood, it simply boggles my mind that I’m now trying to figure out how to defend innocent humans against elven religious fanatics, instead of the other way around.”
“The world turns, and times change,” the old Drow shrugged. “You can ride the earthquake, or let it bury you, Majesty.”
“You’re supposed to be giving me riding lessons,” the Queen reminded him. “You’re the first Auceps since Gleboris, Terreq. I need you to do a better job than he did.”
“Well,” the old fellow said pensively, “for my part, I hope I don’t disappoint. If only because I don’t especially feel like having my skin pulled off one inch at a time. By humans, or by elves.”
“Or by me.” Ælyndarka blew out a breath, aggravated. “At the moment, the humans are the least of our worries, as well you know. Hara’s love, they’re more trustworthy than my own blood relatives!” She addressed herself to her glass again, discovered that it was empty, and put it down with a sharp tap. “Which brings us, presumably, to the reason you summoned me here tonight, instead of attending on me at the palace.”
“Two reasons, actually,” Terreq corrected. “It’s no longer safe for me to teleport in to visit you. You need to have Kalestayne draw the abjurations tighter. Someone’s developed a scrying sensor that can penetrate your present array. I’ve noticed it poking around here, and had to figure out how to screen it out.”
“How did you do it?” the Queen asked, intrigued. The Drow were masters of arcane secrecy, and Terreq was a talented and innovative mage.
The Bird-Catcher nodded at his shelves. “I added an alchemical element to the warding. I thought that if the Grim…if your niece could figure out how to open a necromantic siphon through a scrying sensor, then surely a Drow could figure out how to send a little poison back up the link.”
The Queen’s eyes widened. “Did it work?”
Terreq dropped an eloquent shrug. “I believe so. If he’s lucky, the chap who was scrying me will be out of action for a few days with a splitting headache.”
“What if he’s unlucky?” she asked.
The old Drow looked momentarily embarrassed. “Sekretohet zorrë,” he replied.
“And that means…?”
He hesitated. At last he said, “I don’t know the exact words in your tongue, Majesty, and I’d rather not try to explain it in detail. Suffice it to say that he will suffer from the externality of things that ought normally to remain internal.”
The Queen worked her way through that, and shivered. “It sounds like you’re well protected,” she said weakly.
“At least until the Priscossium finds a way to penetrate that abjuration as well,” he replied. “They always do. But for the time being, this house is safe. That’s why I asked the mountain to come to Miros, as it were.”
“I’ll remember,” the Queen replied. She glanced at the candles, and noticed that they were already half-consumed. Time was getting away from them. “What’s the second reason you wanted me here?”
“I’ve come across something I didn’t want to have to smuggle past the Guard,” he replied. “Let alone past your terrifying praetoriana. Hence my request that you leave her behind.”
“Terreq,” the Queen said, her patience fraying, “I know you like to be inscrutable. All of your folk love their mysteries. And while I'd like to indulge you, I’ve got a knighthood to confer, a new Gasparri vizier to greet, a count from the north who wants six hundred thousand aureae that I don’t have to rebuild a fortification line that we haven’t needed since the days of Fineleor, an ambassador to threaten, and a trade delegation from Vejborg that wants to give me a rug or some other foolishness. Apparently I need to see Kalestayne – again – about the palace abjurations. I have to write another letter to my damnable niece asking her why she didn’t appear at court on the Day of the Bargain, in accordance with tradition, to renew her oath of fealty. And before any of that can happen, I have to work my way back to the palace in disguise. So I don’t have time for mysteries.”
The Auceps stood immediately, bowing deeply. “Apologies, your Majesty. I had no idea.” He waved her towards a door. “This way, please.”
Ælyndarka stood, snorting a chuckle. “ ‘No idea’, indeed! You know my schedule before I do.”
The old Drow produced a key and unlocked the door, nodding again. “I thought it impolite to say so, Majesty. However, since you mention it, first, it’s a tapestry the Zarans are bringing you, not a rug. And it’s gnome-make and rather exquisite, if I may say so.
“Second, Count Orriano doesn’t need more than two hundred thousand at most, and he’s already got half that, because he’s been shorting his impost returns. I can show you the receipts if you like, or if you’d prefer a more direct message, I can simply have one of my people bring you his head.
“Third, Her Grace the Duchess of Eldarcanum missed your levee because she’s abroad at the moment – although where, I do not know.”
Her eyebrows rose at the admission. She thought he might be blushing, but had no idea how to tell.
“As for the Ekhani Ambassador, Prochiliarch Cornu,” he went on, preceding the Queen down a long, curving flight of stairs, “I don’t believe that there is any truth to the rumours circulating about him seducing your daughter, the Princess Cæfalys.”
“I appreciate your attempt to spare my feelings,” the Queen growled, following close on his heels. “But I know what my daughter is. And the way I heard it, she seduced him.”
The Auceps cleared his throat delicately. “As you say, Majesty. Granted, that would normally be the most likely interpretation of such a rumour. But Cornu’s said to be an extraordinarily honourable man. I looked into his background when he was appointed and found nothing untoward. He has a wife and six children back in
and there’s every reason to believe he’s entirely devoted to her. In this case – if perhaps in no other – the
Princess may be an innocent victim of ill-intentioned gossip-mongering.”
“There’s a first time for everything, I suppose,” the Queen muttered darkly. She heaved a sigh. “If half the tales about her were true, there wouldn’t be nursery space for all her whelps. I’d be hip-deep in bastard grand-children.” There was little light in the stairwell, and she had to watch her footing.
“You could just drown them,” the old Drow shrugged.
The Queen halted on the stairs. “Every now and then, Terreq, you remind me what you really are.”
The Auceps paused on the stairs, glancing back at her. He, of course, did not need any light. “Customs differ, Majesty. In Qetevaditur, rival claimants rarely draw breath. Those who do must be taken far away, or hidden until they can defend themselves.”
“Terreq, I don’t really have time –”
He held up a hand. “This is important, Majesty. The late Glycomondas, the king who led the ill-fated expedition of conquest to the Deeprealm, and never returned – he took a thousand lovers in his time, and doubtless seeded many of them. Only one son – Savohexadar, the one the king picked to succeed him – survived. Glycomon’s son has been our prince for sixty years, and there will be no struggle for succession.”
“ 'Prince'?" she repeated. "You mean ‘King’, don’t you?”
He shook his head. “Glycomondas had Tokë Kurorë Uritur, the Crown of the Hungry Earth, with him when the dwarves vanquished him. Without the Crown, the succession cannot be confirmed. Savohexadar, son of Glycomondas, is prince of Qetevaditur, yes. But he cannot become king unless the crown is found.
“Or,” the old Drow shrugged, “until he proves himself some other way. For example, by being victorious in war.”
“What does all this have to do with drowning children?” the Queen asked darkly.
“Savohexadar has maintained the ancient custom,” the Auceps shrugged. “There will be no struggle for the Weeping Chair. He suffers no rivals to live, for though he keeps a vast harem, and has had many liaisons among the nobles, he has sired no children.”
A muscle in the man’s cheek twitched slightly, and Ælyndarka’s eyes narrowed. “What was that?” she snapped.
“I beg your pardon?”
She stared at him stonily.
“What is it, Majesty?” the man asked, clearly nervous.
“You’re lying to me!”
Terreq flinched at the rage in her tone. “Majesty, I –”
The Queen clenched her fist.
down from her fingertips, spattering on the floor. “You’re more skilled than I,” she said
quietly, “and while you can’t deceive me, you could probably defeat me if you
When he said nothing, she went on. “I’m here in your house, Bird-Catcher, alone and unattended, because I trust you. If this trust is misplaced, tell me now, and we’ll part as friends. I’ll give you a day to clear out of Starmeadow, and a week to depart my realms.”
Her lip curled as she unconsciously bared her teeth. “But lie to me again…”
The old Drow’s shoulders slumped. “Very well. The tale in full, then. But…after tonight’s business, Majesty, if you please?”
Ælyndarka eyed him stonily for a long moment. “Very well,” she said at last.
The ‘business’, as the Shadelf called it, turned out to be a soldier of the High Guard. He had been shackled to the wall of a converted storage room in the cellar of the Auceps’ house. Terreq occasionally found it necessary to keep a close eye on certain individuals under controlled circumstances, and the old root cellar, with its thick stone walls and impenetrable door, had proved adequate to the task. He was shifting tiredly from foot to foot. The chains were too short to allow him to sit, and he had been standing for the better part of a day.
The rest of the room betrayed its origins; it was half-full of a jumble of furniture, crates, barrels, casks and miscellaneous bric-a-brac.
Outside the cell, Terreq passed a hand over the upper half of the door. The wood faded to transparency. The Queen, looking through the shaded portal, hissed in surprise.
“I know,” the Auceps said, nodding. “It shocked me, too.”
“I know him, Terreq,” she said flatly. “I’ve seen him around the palace.”
“Yes, I thought you might know the face. He’s a long-service veteran.” The old Drow clucked disapprovingly. “I suppose that explains why he did what he did.”
“Can he see us?” she asked.
“Through the door? No,” the old Drow replied. “Nor even when we enter. As a necessary precaution, I’ve blinded him.”
She spun on him, fury in her eyes.
“The spell, Majesty,” he said quickly, holding up a hand. “The spell. It’s completely reversible. Calm yourself, please. Interrogations are supposed to be an ordeal for the prisoner, not the jailer.”
“ ‘Interrogation’?” she said, taken aback. “I thought you’d already questioned him?”
“I did. But you haven’t.”
She blinked. “You want me to question him?”
The Auceps nodded. “I think you need to. And Majesty…you need to do it as yourself.”
That made her jump. “Are you mad?”
“I thought you trusted me?” he asked with a predatory grin.
Ælyndarka took a deep breath. Terreq hadn’t yet led her astray. “You’ll be the death of me yet. Very well, open the door.”
“Perhaps first you’d best…ah, your clothing, Majesty. You don’t exactly look the part.”
She rolled her eyes. Muttering a spell under her breath, she transformed her nobleman’s breeks and tunic into a gown of gold and green, brocaded shoes, a silk wrap, and a light tiara of emeralds and pearls. “Presumably you don’t want a full train, Fletusilex, and the Laurastralis?” she said waspishly.
“The imperial regalia might be a little ostentatious for a dungeon visit,” he agreed without expression.
He turned the key in the lock. Through the transparent wood, they both saw the man’s head come up.
Before opening the door, Terreq said softly, “He hasn’t seen me, majesty; one of my agents brought him under compulsion. That’s worn off by now, but I haven’t reapplied it. I’m convinced he’s loyal. I just want you to ask him how he came to be here.”
“What about the blindness?” she asked. “How do I deal with that?”
“Just dispel it, Majesty.”
She rolled her eyes. “I didn’t prepare that incantation, Terreq.”
The Auceps blinked. “What on earth are you wasting your spell slots on?”
Ælyndarka cocked an eyebrow. “You mean, aside from illusions so I can pay you midnight visits? Still, silent, heightened detect poison. I use that one a dozen times a day. I live with my family, after all.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm.
The old Drow frowned. “All right. Just tell him you’re lifting the curse, and I’ll sunder the enchantment from here.”
“Good enough,” she nodded. “Let’s go. We’re burning moons-light.”
He opened the door, and she stepped through.
The chained man reacted immediately. “Who’s there?” he shouted.
“Someone who wishes to hear what you have to say,” she replied, keeping her voice gentle. “What is your name?”
“Stellan Claro,” the man replied immediately. His eyes were wide, staring, and covered with a milky white caul. “Centurio of the second file, second cohort, eighth Guards regiment. And that’s all you’re getting,” he added with a snarl. “I have nothing to say to turncoats and torturers!”
“I merely wanted to ask a few questions,” she said gently.
“Go sodomize yourself.”
Ælyndarka smiled. “Centurio Claro!” she said, unable to keep a stern mirth out of her voice. “Is that any way for a sergeant of the High Guard to talk?”
“I’ll talk any way I like, traitor,” the man spat. “And who the hells are you to tell me how to speak anyway, heya? You don’t sound like my Tribune.”
The Queen laughed aloud. “You’re right there. I’m not your Tribune. Centurio Claro, open your eyes and see.”
A whisper of power as soft and delicate as wind-blown silk rippled through the flux. Ælyndarka shivered despite herself. Terreq’s touch was masterly; even Kalestayne couldn’t match the Drow’s exquisite subtlety at the arcane arts.
The milky ichor covering the man’s orbs dissolved and vanished at once, and he blinked in stunned surprise. Even the dim light emanating from the enchanted lamps in the hallway outside seemed blindingly bright.
She watched as his eyes slowly came into focus, marking the exact moment when his stare switched from angry belligerence to gob-smacked awe.
“Hello, Guardsman,” she said as regally as she could manage, given the circumstances.
The soldier’s mouth worked for a moment. Then his gaze hardened. “Illusion!” he spat.
She shook her head. With the flick of a finger, she opened the locks on his shackles. He staggered and nearly fell to his knees; but before he could fall, she stepped forward and got a hand under his arm, helping him to stand.
“Thank you,” he said unsteadily.
When he straightened up, he eyed her closely. She remained still, inviting examination.
“I should strangle you here and now,” he growled.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” she said, smiling. “I don’t recall the penalty for regicide, but it can’t be pleasant. Hooks, knives, horses…that sort of thing.”
“Illusion,” he repeated. “Why would the Queen lock up a loyal soldier?”
“I don’t know why you’re here,” she said honestly, “but I didn’t order it.” She nodded at one of the benches. “Let’s have a seat and try to find out, shall we?”
He appeared to think about that for a moment. “Got anything to drink…your Majesty?” he asked at last. The formal address was not quite a sneer.
“Sorry,” she said, spreading her hands.
He nodded. Glancing around the room, he spied the barrels. His expression changed. “Do you mind?” he asked, nodding in their direction.
“They’re not mine,” she replied with a shrug. “But be my guest.” Smoothing the back of her gown, she took a seat and watched the man, deeply interested.
Claro stomped over to the jumbled heap of stores, selected a small cask, inspected the markings burnt into the wood, and with a blow of his fist, smashed the top in. He licked his fingers dry, and grinned suddenly. “Not bad!”
Ælyndarka smiled when she saw him searching vainly for a cup. Focussing her concentration of a moment, she bent the flux into the right shape, and plucked a wooden piggin out of the air. “Here you are,” she said, holding out the vessel.
Eyeing her suspiciously, he took the mug. “Much obliged.” Before dipping it into the sundered barrel, he said, “That’s a point in your favour, by the way. The Queen’s supposed to be a powerful mage. So I guess you’re probably not just some whore off the street.”
“Kalestayne is powerful,” Ælyndarka replied, ignoring the jibe. “I’m just a dabbler by comparison.”
“Or you could be a demon temptress, sent to poison my mind with lustful thoughts and beguile me into committing treason,” the soldier snorted.
Ælyndarka smiled despite herself. “ ‘Lustful thoughts’?” she chuckled. “Really?”
“Sure,” he shrugged. “You’re…well, I’ve no doubt you know exactly what you look like.”
“The Queen is supposed to be the most beautiful woman in the kingdom,” she said drily.
“Whatever you say,” the man snorted. “But I’ve done palace duty a hundred times, and I’ve seen her Majesty up close.” He looked her up and down. “There’s a resemblance, sure,” he said at last, “but that’s all. Ælyndarka’s no boar-hound, lady, but she’s got nothing on you.”
She found herself trying to suppress a grin. “Are you saying I’m too pretty to pass for the Queen?” she asked, her eyebrows climbing skyward.
“Are you joking?” To her astonishment, he gave her a wink. “Whoever you really are, missy, you could get a rise out of a dead man. If I weren’t so damned stiff and tired, I’d have you down on the floor and that dress over your head in a – ”
“Please,” she interrupted, holding up a hand. “Please, sir. You were doing so well for a moment there. Don’t spoil it.”
Shrugging, he plunged the cup into the barrel and withdrew it, brimful and dripping. To her surprise, before drinking himself, he offered it to her.
“Thank you,” she said. “You’re a gentleman. More or less.”
“I’m a soldier,” he replied stiffly. “One you might be trying to poison.”
The Queen laughed. She took a long drink and handed the cup back to him. “Satisfied?”
Without taking his eyes from her, he upended the vessel and drained it. As he did so, his eyes widened in shock.
“Could you taste the poison?” she jested.
“It’s good!” the man exclaimed.
“It’s called sangueterreus,” Ælyndarka said. “Although I’m told there’s no actual blood in it.” She grinned as she thought of the look on Terreq’s face at the fate of his beloved Deepdark libation.
“I don’t care if it’s made from stingweed and orc-muck,” the soldier laughed. “It’s the best wine I’ve ever tasted.”
“Good,” she said. She tapped the bench next to her. “Come and talk to the demon temptress for a few minutes, will you?”
Still watching her closely, the man approached and sat. “Don’t know what you think you’re going to get,” he warned. “If I wouldn’t unfold in the face of knives and thumbscrews, a glass of wine and a flash of titty aren’t going to do it.”
Ælyndarka glanced down at her gown, colouring slightly. She had unconsciously chosen a disguise with a décolletage more appropriate to a ball than an official court function. Twisting the magic a little, she moved the bust-line several inches north. “Better?” she asked.
The soldier looked disappointed. “Well…no, not really.”
“Too bad. Look, Centurio,” she said briskly, “I’ve enjoyed this, I have to admit. There’s something charming about being treated like a mortal for once. Nobody’s flirted with me for about seven hundred years, and I haven’t been complimented with that sort of filthy honesty since my lifemate went to wind. But I’m a busy woman with a long night of work and no trancing ahead of me. We need to get to the point, here.”
Claro had begun blinking rapidly, the colour draining from his face.
“And as much as I enjoy clever banter,” she went on remorselessly, “in the last quarter of a stick, you’ve called me a traitor, a turncoat, a whore and a boar-hound, ogled me, casually offered to assault my virtue, accused me of necrophilia, and threatened to strangle me. So the romance, as they say, is over.”
The cup fell to the floor, bounced twice, and vanished.
“As for my bona fides,” Ælyndarka continued, “I do in fact remember you from palace duty. About a century or so ago, my great-granddaughter Lara disappeared for a day. Everybody thought she’d drowned in one of the fish-ponds of the Lucum Regalis. Turns out she’d managed to wriggle her way into one of my father’s cuirasses in the Hall of Heroes, and fell asleep. A guardsman found her, prised her out, and brought her back to my grandson.”
The soldier’s jaw dropped open, his chin smacking into his chest.
“Just out of curiosity,” she said conversationally, “how did you find little Lara, Centurio Claro?”
“She…she was snoring,” the man said, his face as pale as snow. “It was ech…echoing. I thought it was the ghost of King Allárychian, come back from the grave to…to…” His voice trailed off as the enormity of his situation sank in.
“To snore at you?” she asked, eyebrows raised. “Peculiar behaviour for a ghost.”
Claro slid from the bench onto his knees, looking utterly tragic and gaping like a landed fish.
“You’re a good man, Claro” Ælyndarka said, patting his cheek with a happy smile. “Although perhaps a little too forward with your Queen.
“Now,” she added briskly, “if you can keep your eyes off the royal bosom for a few minutes…let’s talk.”
Ælyndarka swirled the wine in her glass, eyeing the colour with appreciation. “I should start serving this at banquets,” she said contemplatively.
“You couldn’t afford it,” Terreq said gloomily.
“I could just expropriate your stock,” she said with a grin. “After all, your presence here is an offence against the Codex. One word to the Guard, and all this is mine.”
They had returned to the upstairs parlour. Ælyndarka had sent the centurion back to his barracks with a kiss on the cheek, a handful of aureae, and one of her rings as a keepsake, with strict instructions not to sell it. The man had been positively thunderstruck, and had tottered out into the street like someone who had taken a mace to the back of the head.
“You’re welcome to it,” the Auceps growled. “A good, firm racking would be preferable to trying to work an interrogation with you.”
Terreq had kept prudently out of sight while the Queen had questioned her soldier. The Bird-Catcher’s identity was precious and he could not afford to compromise it. “Anyway, before you murder me for my wine cellar, I should warn you that you might be disappointed. Your pike-pusher rinsed his greasy paw in my last cask.”
“Wasn’t he a dear?” she chortled. “ ‘Too pretty to pass for the Queen’. I think I’m going to promote him.”
“Your prerogative, Majesty,” the spy murmured. “It’s a shame he’s lower-caste. With that sort of spirit, he’d make a good general.”
“I’ve got enough generals, Terreq,” she replied. “The Palace is awash in them. I need real soldiers.” She thought for a moment, then added, “I think I’ll give Claro a field command. A cohort for a little seasoning, and then maybe a regiment. Where should I send him?”
“To learn the Tribunate? That’s easy,” the old Drow snorted. “Send him to Kaltas.”
“I would if I could, believe me,” the Queen murmured. “But that’s out of the question. And I don’t want him cooling his heels on guard duty either. Where will he see action? Somewhere up north?”
“Hard to say,” Terreq replied. Suddenly his expression changed. “What about the Convallis garrisons?” he asked slyly.
Ælyndarka grinned. “This is why I keep you around. Of course, Convallis! A man who feels about traitors like Claro does is just the sort of man I need to keep an eye on my bloody-handed niece.”
“That was my thought.” Terreq steepled his fingers under his chin. “What did you think of Claro’s story?”
The Queen toyed with her wine glass. “I’m not sure yet. Didn’t you have a story of your own to tell me?”
The old Drow pursed his lips. “About Savohexadar, you mean.”
She nodded. “Yes, that thing you were lying to me about,” she said rather coolly.
Terreq sighed. “I won’t ask for forgiveness, your Majesty. But lives are at stake. I ask for your word that what I am about to tell you will remain between us, and us alone. Unless I agree to allow you to pass the tale on.”
“Done. Now talk, liar.”
Terreq snorted a bitter laugh. “Savohexadar has not entirely succeeded in preventing the birth of a rival. Although he doesn’t know it, he has a daughter.”
“Really?” She was surprised. “From your folk’s perspective, that’s a serious oversight. How did he come to slip up?”
The Auceps spread his hands. “Even we are not omniscient, Majesty. One of the prince’s paramours, seven-score years or so ago, was a singer of great renown. A Daughter of Miyaga, too – a disciple of the goddess of ecstasy. She managed to capture Savohexadar’s heart – or at least some other part of his anatomy – and held onto it for more than a year.”
“That sounds like an occupation fraught with peril,” the Queen said, intrigued despite herself. The Disciples of the Maiden of Blinding Beauty were consummate courtesans, legendary for their physical skills. The distant ancestor that she shared with Terreq – the fiend of desire, Shannyra – had, according to legend, learned the ars amatoria in the Cortina Sacra of the goddess Miyaga herself.
“It can be,” he shrugged. “But the rewards can be equally great. For a year, the prince’s lover was a princess of Qetevaditur in every sense but the legal one. She lived like a queen. Then she vanished.”
“Really?” Ælyndarka asked, intrigued. “Where did she go?”
“Into the acid vats at the
said soberly. “Vilyacarkin, to you. Savohexadar himself shoved the High Priestess
aside and summoned a demon to violate his paramour, garrotte her, and claw her
apart on the altar. A blood sacrifice to
the goddess of the Deepdark.” Temple of Dashnorrej
The Queen froze in disbelief. “Why?”
“Because she was with child,” he shrugged.
“That’s abominable,” she breathed.
He shrugged again. “That’s just the tale. It’s not what really happened.”
Ælyndarka relaxed. “Good. So nobody died, then?”
“Oh, somebody died,” Terreq corrected. “The sacrifice took place as I described. Some pregnant woman ended up on the altar. It just wasn’t the prince’s consort. She had already managed to engineer her escape.”
“So…then…she allowed somebody else to be sacrificed in her place?” Ælyndarka asked, looking nauseated.
“I doubt it was as laissez-faire as ‘allowed’,” the old Drow nodded. “Probably some sort of magical compulsion. Very clever, really, and masterfully executed. Savohexadar never found out.”
His eyes narrowed. “That’s the secret part, by the way. If word ever got back to Qetevaditur that his treasonous consort was still alive, the prince would spend the rest of his days hunting her down. To safeguard his throne, and restore his honour.”
The Queen nodded soberly. “I can just imagine. What happened to the singer? The prince’s lover, I mean? Where did she go?”
“She got away clean,” Terreq shrugged. “I’m the one who helped her do it, you see. That’s one of the reasons I decided to leave the Hidden Realm. She’s got a new face and a new name, and even I don’t know what she looks like, or what she calls herself. She’s been in the upper world for the past century or so, plying her trade as minstrel and giver-of-pleasure. Somewhere east of here, I understand. It’s been a while; I haven’t seen her since her daughter was born.”
“Ah, so the girl-child survived too?”
“And where is she? With her mother?”
“No,” the old Drow grinned. “She’s in Qetevaditur. She’s been there all her life, hiding and biding her time.”
The Queen started. “Isn’t that a little dangerous?”
“Of course,” Terreq agreed. “But she’s grown now, and stands high in the hierarchy of Dashnorrej, an arch-priestess, sworn to know no man’s touch. Her power’s not surprising, really; she’s the grand-daughter of the Spellweaver, a direct lineal descendent of Mærglyn – and before her, Bîardath Ill-Born, Tîor Magnus, Hara Sophus, and the Holy Mother, Bræa herself. Her blood is as royal and as rife with power as your own, Majesty.”
“She must be mad, to stay in a place where she wouldn’t survive an hour if she were found out.”
“Where else but among her own people,” Terreq asked reasonably, “can she learn what she needs to know, if she is to someday overthrow her father, paint Vilyacarkin’s altar with his blood, and take her rightful place on the Weeping Chair as Queen of the Drow?”
The Queen snorted in amazement. “And I thought I had ambitious relatives!”
Terreq retrieved the carafe and recharged both glasses. “Don’t fool yourself Majesty,” he warned. “If you think you niece’s plans for you are any more benign, you’re a fool. The altar might be different, but the knife will be just as sharp, and you’ll be just as dead.”
Ælyndarka shivered, staring deep into the fire that the old Drow had lit against the evening’s chill. “Do you believe him? Claro, I mean? About a lord trying to recruit an entire regiment to the Fax Albus, with a promise of bounty on human, Hîarsk, half-elf, and torva heads?”
“I have no reason to disbelieve him,” Terreq replied. “And I can see no reason why he would fabricate so…so outlandish a tale.”
“Could be a grudge against his commander,” the Queen mused. “Or some other score he’s trying to settle. Although that would go against what little I know of the fellow.” She threw him a hard gaze. “I wasn’t laying out a line for him, Terreq; I do remember him. He is a good man.”
The spy nodded. “And,” he said, “since we’ve eliminated magical, alchemical and pharmacological compulsion, there are few options left. He’s not under the influence of any spell, poison or drug that either you or I could detect. Perhaps he’s telling the truth.” He shook his head in astonishment. “An honest man!”
“An honest man,” the Queen muttered. “Still, I find the story hard to believe. The Lustroares have always been a phenomenon of the countryside. Nobody’s ever succeeded in seducing the upper classes into that ‘white fire’ nonsense, much less the Duodeci.”
“But if the Duodeci are leading it, this time…”
“I know.” She cut him off. “I know. There lies the danger. We Third House types…we’re herd animals, Terreq. Socially, anyway. We look to those above us to point the way, in fashions, in modes of speech, in the arts, and in such intangibles as behaviour and conduct.
“It’s a little pathetic,” she sighed, “but it’s the way it is, and there’s no point deluding ourselves about it. If the cream of society slips into that sort of thinking – Haradi against Elvii, Third House against the other houses, pure-bloods against half-bloods, point-ears against round-ears…not too overtly, not too grossly, mind you, but just a little tweak here, a push there…” Her voice trailed off.
“It might work?” he asked quietly.
She shrugged. “Whoever came up with this scheme knows us better than we know ourselves,” she muttered.
“Please, your Majesty,” the old Drow said, almost pleading. “I do not understand your folk as you do. This tactic would fail in my homeland; among my people, individual ambition throttles all other considerations. It is not possible to…to stampede an entire class of the Fourth House in this wise. Even if it were, our leaders would snuff it out brutally and completely. Here, you do not have that option.”
“Even if I did,” she muttered, “I wouldn’t use it.”
“So,” he nodded. “I need your judgement if I am to advise you. If the Duodeci led your people down the path of the Cleansers, would the people follow?”
“Yes.” The Queen nodded. “Terreq, they’d follow like sheep. The upper classes, anyway. The other castes – the artisans, the merchants, the soldiers, the freehold farmers and so forth – probably would not. They have more common sense than we do. Worse – or better, depending on your point of view – they have an ingrained contempt for anything their betters deem ‘fashionable’.” She ground her teeth helplessly. “And that, frankly, is the danger.”
“So,” Terreq mused, “if the upper classes go one way, towards suspicion and pogrom; and the lower classes go another, in fear and resentment at their betters…”
Ælyndarka stared into the fire.
“One of us has to say it,” the old Drow insisted.
“Revolution,” she whispered, shivering slightly. “Blood in the streets. Brother against brother.”
Terreq nodded soberly. “Civil war.”
“Civil war.” The Queen turned pleading eyes on her advisor. “How do I stop it?”
The Bird-Catcher stared at the guttering stump of a candle. “I don’t know, your Majesty. At this moment…I don’t know.”