Back straight as a flagstaff, Amorda sat in a curule chair, dragging a silver-and-horsebristle brush vigorously through her waist-length hair. She was perched in front of what Breygon had come to think of as her “workbench”; a more precise (or at least more diplomatic) observer would have termed the thing a cosmetics table. It was so cluttered that the polished marble surface was all but invisible. The collection of innumerable pots, vials, flasks, jars and bottles of creams, ointments, unguents, perfumes, kohl, rouge, combs, brushes and unidentifiable devices designed to wrench one’s hair into different configurations was impressive.
More interesting, though, was what hung on the wall behind the table. An unimaginable luxury: a gilt-framed, silvered looking-glass only a little smaller than the bedchamber door. The half-elf hadn’t seen a mirror that big since he and Qaramyn had spied on Karventaa’s dread palace, months before.
Breygon hadn’t thought much about it; although obviously expensive, a mirror was still only a mirror, and he had little time for gauds. He was happy brushing his hair with his fingers and using a still pond or a basin for a reflecting surface. But when Amorda murmured, “Speculum, retexo!”, and the mirror, instead of showing her face, suddenly showed the back of her head, he sat up a little straighter.
He glanced over his shoulder, wondering where the ‘eye’ must be. When he looked back at his wife, Amorda was grinning at him. “Like it?”
“I’d’ve liked to have it when I was standing sentry,” he replied. “Though it looks a little heavy to tote around. Where in the world did you get it?”
“Came with the house,” she winked, turning back to her task. “Though it doesn’t seem possible, the former mistress of Domus Casia, whoever she was, must have been at least as preoccupied with her appearance as I am with mine.”
“It’s a pretty common preoccupation here, I’ve noticed,” he said drily. He slid off the settee, stood, and walked softly up behind her. “But in your case, a waste of time. You can’t gild perfection.” For good measure, he slid her hair to one side and kissed her lightly on the neck to distract her from what his hands were doing.
His temerity earned him a sharp crack across the knuckles with the brush. “Sir!” she gasped, feigning shock. “Art aware that thou stand’st in the presence of a princess of the realm?”
Her haughty demeanour was so convincing that he actually took a step back. An instant later she grinned playfully, sundering the effect. “You’ve been practicing that tone for a long time, haven’t you?” he asked with a wry smile.
“Since I could walk,” the elf-woman winked. She carried on with her toilette. To Breygon’s surprise, though, after only a few more strokes, she laid the brush on the table, turned to face him, and took his hands. “Truth between us, always, lupino. Aye?”
“Always,” he nodded. There was an uneasy look in her eyes. That made him nervous.
“Always.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “I don’t think you have any idea how much I owe you for tonight.”
Breygon frowned. “ ‘Owe me’? You don’t ‘owe me’ anything.”
“If you think that’s true, then you really don’t understand how filthy politics can get here,” Amorda said emphatically.
“I’m learning fast,” the ranger muttered under his breath, thinking of dragons, dukes, royal princesses, and a box with three fingers in it.
“Last week,” she went on, ignoring him, “I was nobody. Oh, I was a baroness, certainly; but by marriage, not by birth. Skill, a glib tongue, strength, magical might, political power…these things can gain you position in Starmeadow, but they cannot cement it. They cannot overcome common origins. Nor can they mitigate the taint of an ill reputation.”
“ ‘Taint’? What ‘taint’?”
“You know damned-well what taint,” she growled. “I told you, I earned my entrée to the court`s inner circle on my back. It’s not uncommon, nor was it ill thought-out, either on my part or the Bird-Catcher’s. And to be frank, it didn’t matter then, because as a common-born social climber who had married into her rank, I would never have been admitted to the inner circle of the blue-bloods anyway. I wasn’t good enough, you see?” She snorted angrily. “The truly privileged, the sons of the Duodeci, couldn’t wait to top me, but they would never stoop to wed me.”
“I did,” Breygon replied seriously. “And I wasn’t stooping. I was straining to reach a height that I’d never dared hope to attain.”
Amorda blushed at that. “I should take you to court more often. You’re becoming quite the gallant.” Clearing her throat, she went on. “All that changed, of course, when you gave me your rose, and told me who you really were. Not only a scion of the Twelve, but a son of the royal house itself!”
She shook her head. “You’ve no idea how fine a line you were walking when you asked for my hand. As a point of entry to the nobility, I could’ve helped you, and I would’ve done, even without the rose. But as one born to the highest family in the realm, you should’ve avoided me like the proverbial plague. To a common-born warrior trying to gain entrance to society – which, after all, is what I took you for, love, and do forgive me! – I was a catch, to be sure. But for the unknown son arriving in the Queen’s household like a comet, and a half-blood son at that, there were already too many stones in your boat. A baseborn slattern for a bride would only have weighed you down further. It might’ve sunk you altogether.”
She fell silent. Breygon frowned. “I’m not sure I grasp what you’re getting at.”
The elf-woman ground her teeth. “I was admitted to the court only on sufferance, as the widow of a genuine nobleman.” She all but spat the word. “And as such, my function, and the limits of my ambition, were clearly circumscribed by custom. Do you know how the Ancillulae are called ‘court-lilies’?”
“Well,” she grimaced, “my kind – the outsiders – are called by a different moniker: Pavona Aulicum.”
Breygon cocked an eyebrow. “ ‘Court peacock’? What’s wrong with that?”
“Pea-hen, actually,” she corrected. “And what’s wrong with it is that it designates me, and those like me, as the permanent outsiders. We’re the party girls. The laughing, brainless pushovers, always looking for the next amusement, the next vintage, the next fashion trend, the next lover, and most importantly, the next love-gift. Good enough, mayhap, for a quick megbaszt,” she hissed, using an orcish obscenity that turned Breygon’s ear-tips pink, “but not good enough to marry. Never that. Because what son of the Twelve would sully his bloodline by oathing a base-born trollop?”
“I wouldn’t,” the ranger snapped. “And I didn’t.”
Amorda barked a helpless laugh. “Of course you did, love. I did play your uncle’s cushion for a ten-year. And I did seduce Szyelekkan. And, at least insofar as most folk know, I did slither out of obscurity to marry the former Baron of Arx Incultus – a true-born son of the Twelve, bless his mouldering bones – for his money. These are all facts, well-known throughout the court, and undeniable. I am one the Pavonae.”
Then she smiled faintly. “Or at least, I was. Until tonight.”
Breygon scratched his cheek. “You’re going to have to walk me through this, I’m afraid.”
“It’s simple enough,” the elf-woman replied. “The Pavonae serve a specific function at court. To the highborn, we’re playthings. An easy conquest, an evening’s entertainment, posing no threat of oath or lifemating – and, if we’re wise, no chance of illegitimate offspring. To the gossipers, we’re a source of entertainment, of scandal – an object of derision, the thing that every true noblewoman can pride herself on not being. Even if she’s deluding herself, and even if she’s a loose-kneed, giggling title-grubber, like most of them!”
Her voice was growing increasingly strident. Breygon noticed that she had retrieved her hairbrush and was wringing the handle between her fingers, as if choking it.
“I don’t think you realize what kind of threat I was to you,” she went on in a rush, bowing her head. “Not physically; I’d die before I’d let anyone hurt you. But to your chance of taking your rightful place at court, and in society. By marrying me, one of the Starhall’s most widely-known party-girls - even by oathing me - you put your whole future in your family at risk. Instead of the long-lost son, the hero of the Deeprealm, the dragon-slayer, you would’ve been the dim-arsed half-breed who crawled out of the muck to rose-and-cup the first featherhead willing to tumble his bones – a gold-digging, money-hungry harpy who’d slept her way into noble circles.”
Breygon noticed an odd noise behind her voice. It was a moment before he realized that it was coming from him. He was grinding his teeth.
Amorda patted his hand. “And that inbred simpleton, your dear uncle...he would’ve led the charge,” she went on. “Whether to prevent you from firming up your position, or doing yourself credit before the Queen, or gaining the prestige necessary to ensure the Council listens when you speak, or…or simply, or of pure spite, to poison our love” – she gripped his fingers tightly at that – “he was trying, tonight more than ever, to ensure that we continued to look like clowns. The verruca-dupe and his whore.”
“I should’ve cut his giblets out when I had the chance,” the ranger growled.
“If you had, we’d’ve been doomed,” the elf-woman said seriously. “Instead, you beat him on his own ground, and spat his venom back in his face in front of his – your – entire family. You turned his japes back on him. The Queen must’ve loved it! I know Mya and Landioryn did, neither of them can stand that preening jackass. Gyennareen too, probably; she hates Bræagond with a passion.”
“Because he tried to seduce her,” Amorda replied. “About a century ago.”
“His own niece?” Breygon choked.
“Welcome to Starmeadow, my love,” she shrugged. “At least he waited until she’d come of age. That's more restraint than I'd've expected him to show.
“In any event, he’s not well-liked around that table, but what he did – and it was artfully done, you have to give him that – was within the bounds of propriety, if only barely. If you’d attacked, or even challenged him – which was almost certainly what he was trying to provoke – then you’d have been the one to breach protocol, and he’d have been able to paint you as an uncouth foreigner, and me as your shield-maid.”
She frowned. “That means something different here than it does in human lands, by the way. It’s not a compliment.”
“So I gathered,” the ranger snorted. “So you’re saying I did the right thing?”
“Exactly the right thing,” Amorda chuckled weakly. “Words, instead of blows. I was terrified you were going to gut him, right then and there.”
“Nothing would’ve made me happier,” he replied. “Except, obviously, not embarrassing you.”
Amorda laughed out loud. “ ‘Embarrassing me’? Love, you’re not listening! I was embarrassing you! By my very existence, as a visible reminder of your plebeian taste! This is what I’ve been trying to tell you! If I hadn’t been there, your uncle would’ve had no weapons to wield against you before the rest of your clan. He was using me – my present, and my past, my well-known peccadilloes, and especially my storied stint as his mistress – to try to weigh you down with scandal. If you’d failed to rise to his bait and beat him, or if you’d struck him against all custom and courtesy, you’d have proven yourself a low-born thug. You’d still have been a nobleman, of course – but only by the Queen’s courtesy, not by natural right.
“Had you thrashed him, it would’ve been the end of us at court. But you refrained, and beat him at his own game. Words! You played by the rules, love – our rules. And you won. You showed restraint, and grace, and true nobility – and by our customs, absent overt proof, no true noble can be accused or even suspected of harbouring ignoble tastes or desires. Which means that your choice of bride is likewise above reproach.
The elf-women took his hands, squeezing his fingers until the knuckles cracked. “You’ve done the impossible, lupino - you’ve rehabilitated me at court! You proved yourself noble at heart...and therefore, you proved me noble too. After tonight, we can start afresh, as Lord and Lady of Arx Incultus, with clean slates, as proper members of your House.”
“You mean, as Prince and Princess of House Æyllian,” Breygon corrected drily.
“Well, of course!” Amorda giggled. “Once I add ‘Lewat’ and ‘Lewat’s Fertile Beauteous Mate’ to them, our calling cards are going to be the size of a tea-tray.”
Breygon found his head pounding as he tried to absorb her explanation. He rubbed his temples wearily. “I’d still rather have killed him,” he sighed.
“You’ve done far worse than kill him,” Amorda said soberly. “You’ve hurt him. And you’re going to go on hurting him. Every moment you spend in the light of the Queen’s favour will be a reminder to him that you are more than he is; and that you possess things of incalculable value. Things that he will never, ever possess.” She winked. "Me among them."
Breygon pulled the elf-woman to her feet and wrapped his arms around her waist. “You foremost,” he murmured into her hair.
Amorda pushed him playfully away. “Actually,” she laughed, “I meant ‘courage’. But seeing as how a talking tree told me that I’m destined to be yours, I suppose I’m hardly in a position to disagree.”
The ranger tightened his grip, then swung her up into his arms. “Maybe you should try disagreeing from a different position,” he suggested with a wink.
The elf-woman tried to look outraged, but failed utterly, bursting into laughter. “It’s a good thing we met the way we did,” she gasped, giggling, “because with that sort of repartee, you’d’ve been laughed out of the palace. You’d be spending your nights with Karrick down at the Fang.”
Breygon trotted over to the bed and deposited his snickering wife gently atop the down-stuffed covers. “I hear good things about the Fang,” he protested.
“I’m ‘good things’,” Amorda murmured. She crooked a finger at him. “Come here, husband, and let me show you how a pavona handles a son of the throne.”
By the time Breygon had managed to come up with a witty rejoinder to that, his lips were too busy to articulate it.
When the knock sounded against the door, rattling the thin wood in its frame, Perdo leapt to his feet. His nerves were on edge; Letifera had been shrieking threats at him for the past hour, and he was beginning to fear for his hide. Worse, Laes had the night off, and he had no way of distracting the damnable women. So when the door swung wide, revealing the enormous human who had paid them a visit the night before, the elf shouted in relief, and embraced the surprised warrior like a long-lost brother.
“Nice to see you, too,” Karrick said, stepping back and regarding the little man oddly. Perdo stepped back as well. “What are you wearing?” he asked, looking the human up and down.
“Uniform. Just came from a party.”
“Ah. Well, hurry up! She’s been waiting, and she’s impatient.”
“Let’er wait,” the warrior replied. “It’s good for’em. Makes’em appreciate us more.” He held out the bottle he had ‘borrowed’ from the wine steward at Pax Lymphus. “Want a snort?”
“No, thanks very much,” the door-man replied. He stepped behind Karrick and pushed him towards the door that led out to the balcony rooms.
The warrior bit the cork out of the bottle and spat it in the general direction of a refuse basket. He waggled the flask at Perdo. “Queen’s own vintage,” he said enticingly.
“I’m fine,” Perdo sighed. “Can we get on with this?”
Karrick shrugged. “Your loss.” He put the bottle to his lips. A moment later, he handed it – empty – to the elf.
Perdo took the bottle, staring at the human with wide eyes. He neither moved nor spoke.
Karick stared back. At last, he said, “What’re you waiting for?”
“For you to fall over,” the elf said, clearly astonished.
“From elfy wine? Gods, I’d have to drink so much of it that I’d drown before I keeled.” He slapped his hands together, all eagerness. “So! The little missy still in room 101?”
“She is,” Perdo confirmed. “But…but she’s…”
“Save it.” Karrick stomped over to the door, lifted the latch and flung it wide. As an afterthought, he turned back to Perdo. “She pays me again,” he said, waggling a finger at the elf, “I’m keeping it all. Just so you know. You want half the loot, you gotta do half the work.”
Perdo held his hands up in shocked horror. “You’re on your own, friend! And you can keep the money! I wouldn’t go in there on a bet. I like my skin where it is.”
“Outstanding.” Karrick wrenched the door shut. Trotting easily down the hallway, nodding in time to the pulsating music filtering up from the bar two stories below, he counted off the rooms.
When he reached 101 he lifted the latch, flung the door wide, and stepped into the room. “Here I am, lovey!” he crowed.
Then he paused. His eyes widened. Letifera, whom he remembered (vividly!) from the previous night, was standing in the centre of the room. She was dressed differently, in scarlet leathers and silks that defied description, concealing almost nothing, and emphasizing everything else. Her whip was coiled in her hands, and there was an evil grin of anticipation on her lips.
The thing that had stopped him – the cause of that demonic grin – was the fact that there were two more elf-women in the room, one on either side of their mistress, both clad all in black. The one on the left held a long, rattan cane; and the one on the right, a trio of jointed poles with long spikes protruding from each of the ends. That one had shockingly silver-blonde hair.
“Little short to be wielding a dire flail, ain’t you?” he asked, blinking in surprise.
“Welcome back.” Letifera glared at him. “You’re in my den, now, you disgusting roundear, and you’re going to pay for insulting me last night.” She eyed him carefully. “If you walk out of this room, alive and on your feet, your prize is a thousand aureae.”
The girl on her left tapped the staff on the floor for emphasis.
Karrick thought about that for a long moment. “Sounds good,” he said at last. “Send the money to the Ekhani Embassy.” And with that, he spun on his heel and walked out of the room.
Letifera’s eyes widened in shock. She glanced at her assistants, stunned.
The girl holding the dire flail blinked several times. “Maybe…” she ventured weakly, “…maybe we…we should’ve locked the –”
Karrick stuck his head back around the door frame. “Kidding!” he laughed. He stomped into the room, slammed the door hard enough to crack the wood, spun the key, yanked it out of the lock, and, with uncanny precision, tossed it out the window.
“So!” he chortled, rubbing his palms in glee. “Who’s first?”
“You’re up late, father.”
Shields folded his stole and laid it carefully atop the altar. When he turned, he saw that the footsteps that he had heard approaching quietly (but not stealthily) during his devotions had been generated by Thanos’ boots.
The priest nodded politely. “Prayer knows no hourglass, Ambassador,” he replied.
Thanos sighed. “Look, I’m as much a stickler for protocol as…well, as the next colonel-slash-temporarily-accredited envoy. But I’ve asked you to call me ‘Thanos’, please. Or, if you must, ‘colonel’. Or ‘hey, you’.”
“ ‘Colonel’ it is, then,” Shields chuckled. “I’m an old man, son; I have to keep reminding myself who’s running the show, or I’m liable to start running it myself.” He nodded at the window above the altar. “We’re pushing midnight…colonel. What brings you back here at such a godless hour?”
The priest nodded. With a slight bow, he led Thanos out of the tiny shrine and into his office, which wasn’t much bigger. But at least it had a pair of chairs. Shields took one, the warmage the other.
“What sort of advice?” Shields asked. “Spiritual, or temporal? They’re both free, and worth what you pay for’em.”
He pulled the towel off a large stoneware teapot and poured a generous measure into a pair of handle-less porcelain cups, and slid one across the desk.
“Temporal,” Thanos replied, trying a sip. His eyes widened, and he nodded appreciatively. “What is this? It’s excellent!”
“Vespertinum,” Shields replied. He sipped at his own cup.
“It’s an allegory, I think,” the priest shrugged. “It also means ‘of the dawn’. I just ask for ‘sunrise tea’. The blender at the tea shop knows me pretty well now.”
Thanos regarded the cup. The liquid in it was a clear, bright yellow with a subtle hint of pink. He ran his tongue across his teeth, sniffing with the nose of a professional alchemist. “Amaranth,” he said after a moment’s thought. “And some sort of mushroom. And leaves, too, but I can’t place the tree. Laurel?”
“Linden,” Shields supplied. “And it’s two mushrooms, I believe. I don’t know what they’re called, though; the Wilder folk gather them, and the blenders use the Wilder words.” He shrugged. “I never learned the sylvan tongue.”
Thanos rolled his eyes. “Ask Breygon. With this ‘Lewat’ business, he’s got all the sylvan tongue he can handle right now.”
That sally earned him a disapproving grin from the priest. “Sounds like you’re in need of both kinds of advice, son,” he chuckled.
“Couldn’t hurt,” Thanos grunted, doing his best not to think too much about Ara. Changing the topic, he asked, “Any reply from the high command yet?”
Shields shook his head. “Too soon, I’m afraid. It was already night in Norkhan when we sent your message; I wouldn’t expect anything before first light, our time. That’ll be midday back home. Hopefully the officer of the day at the message centre will have the wit to take it straight to the Vendicar’s aide.
“If he’s in town, that is,” the priest added morosely.
Thanos ground his teeth. “Who’s Wartack’s deputy right now?”
“Varos Kald,” Shields replied. “He was made up last summer, when Hauvvak retired.”
“I knew Hauvvak,” Thanos mused. “I don’t know Kald. What order?”
“That’d explain it,” the warmage grimaced. “They’ve always been an insular lot. Is he any good?”
Shields shrugged. “As an administrator, none better. In the field…I can’t say. The Mystic Shrine lads spend a lot of time on the Gasparri border. It’s all mountains, as you know. He’s commanded a division, so he can’t be completely useless…but...”
“But never fought them all at once. No major actions in the mountains for the past century. Right.
“Well,” the warcaster sighed, “not much we can do about it. If Wartack’s away, let’s hope Kald has the sense to deal with this as a priority, or the wit to forward the message on to the CinC, wherever he is.”
Shields nodded. He refilled both their cups. “Was that the advice you were looking for?”
Thanos snorted. “Not really. We’ve got some letters to write. I want your help with the wording.”
“Happy to oblige. What letters?”
“I want to lodge an official protest with the Chancellor about the attack on the embassy,” Thanos said, “and to request a full investigation as to why high elves and necromancers violated the diplomatic sureties between our respective thrones.”
“Hold on!” Shields said, holding up his hands in alarm. “Necromancers, I’ll stipulate. Only a powerful deathmage could bind the soul of a wizard like the Colonel. But we don’t know that it was high elves!”
“Sure we do,” Thanos grinned. “Karrick killed two of them a few nights ago.”
“But that was two days later! And they were common thieves! It had nothing to do with the attack!”
The warmage crossed his arms. “Are you sure of that?”
“No!” Shields sputtered. “Of course I’m not sure!”
“Okay, then. Let’s let our ignorance work in our favour for once,” Thanos shrugged. “If we can show the Guard that a couple of point-ears broke in and assaulted Karrick while he was guarding the vault, it’ll strengthen our hand, and light a fire under Ælyndarka’s lovely backside.”
He spread his hands as if holding a large scroll. “I can see the Norkhan broadsheets now: ‘Elves violate Ekhani sovereignty; Ambassador dead!’ I guarantee, the Queen’ll be motivated to do everything in her power to ferret out the real culprits, and prove they weren’t her folk.”
Shields frowned. “What makes you so sure of that?”
“Two reasons. First, we’ve proof of necromancy. Soul bind is one of the most potent spells in the arsenal of the deathmage.” Thanos shook his head. “I just wish we’d found the material receptacle that the spell requires. That’d be all the proof we’d ever need. Plus, of course, we’d be able to release Kieret, so you could raise him.”
The priest cocked an eyebrow. “I’m not that familiar with the spell. What’s the receptacle?”
“Black sapphire,” the warcaster replied. “For a target of Cornu’s power, a big one.”
Shields scratched an ear. “Didn’t find anything like that,” he said sadly. “The attackers probably took it with them when they left. What’s the second reason?”
“Eh?” The warmage was frowning. Something he’d heard…from Breygon? “What?”
“You said there were two reasons the Queen will want to help us find the assailants.”
“Right.” Thanos leaned back in his chair and put his boots up on the priest’s desk. “One of the first things I looked up in the College library was the treaty guaranteeing reciprocal inviolability, for the Elven embassy in Norkhan, and for our embassy here.
“Specifically,” he added with an air of vast contentment, “the provisions for R&R in the event of a violation of one side’s embassy by the other.”
The priest raised an eyebrow. “Rest and recreation?”
“Restitution and retribution,” Thanos replied, emphasizing the words with a rap of his knuckles against the priest’s desk.
“You’ll have to explain that.”
“With pleasure,” the warmage gloated. “According to the treaty, a violation of sovereign territory requires restitution, or in the absence thereof, invites retribution. And this is Ekhan and the Elf-Realm we’re talking about, so the restitution specified in the treaty is more than a wheel of cheese, my friend.”
“How much?” Shields frowned.
“Two-score thousand, thousand sovereigns,” Thanos chortled.
Shields went white. “Holy bleeding Vara!” he gasped. “You’re not serious?!”
“I am. Forty million ‘orries, my good priest!” He slapped the table for emphasis. “Forty! Million!”
“She’ll never pay it!” the priest whispered, appalled. “She can’t afford that!”
“Nobody could,” Thanos said soberly. “But she’ll have to pay it, because if she doesn’t – and within sixty days, too, of receiving our complaint, mind you! – then the ‘retribution’ clause kicks in.”
“And that means…?”
“War,” Thanos said gravely.
“That’s insane!” the priest barked. “We can’t afford a war with the elves right now!”
“Nor they with us,” the warmage agreed. “Nor even the appearance of war. Nor, for that matter, even a hint that the alliance between us is anything other than rock-solid. Even a suspicion of hostility, a hint of distrust between this land and the Empire would be absolutely disastrous. It would distract us from whatever’s going on out west, in the Vale; and it would deal that insane harpy in Eldarcanum a winning hand.”
“Eldarcanum?” Shields looked blank.
“Absolutely,” the warcaster replied. “Look, Æloeschyan wants the throne, right? But Ællyndarka has too many loyal lords on the Council. Politically, she’s unassailable, at least at the moment. But what happens if she bungles the realm into war with the Empire? Will her allies remain loyal? Or will they support a pretender who promises peace?”
He grinned happily. “See what I mean? Aunty Ælyndarka will bust her cunny helping us find Kieret’s killers.”
“Your tongue, Colonel,” Shields admonished. “Your tongue. It will send you to hell.”
Thanos bowed. “Apologies, father. Talk of war takes me back to the field.”
The priest grinned suddenly. “Me, too.” He looked grave. “Forgive me for questioning your strategy, colonel,” he said suddenly, “but I have a concern about the letter you intend to write.”
The warmage cocked an eyebrow. “What is it?”
“Well,” Shields said, frowning as if deep in thought, “if a complaint to Ælyndarka will inevitably force her into a corner where her only choices are paying an indemnity that she can’t afford to pay, and fighting a war she can’t afford to fight…then wouldn’t it be wiser for us to keep silent, not make this formal, and solve the mystery on our own? Or, if we absolutely must have the throne’s resources to solve the puzzle, to bring the Queen into it secretly and informally, in a way that doesn’t automatically invoke the treaty?”
“That’s the beauty of it!” Thanos gloated. “Sure, a formal complaint will push her closer to the precipice! But when we provide her with proof that her corpse-loving niece was behind it all, it will give her the excuse she needs to finally arrest Ælloeschyan for treason, and stomp Eldarcanum into the ground!”
Shields’ eyes widened. “So instead of provoking a war between the Elf-Realm and Ekhan, you want to provoke a civil war here?”
“There’s already a civil war here,” Thanos said patiently. “Kaltas is on the march right now. He’ll be here in a fortnight, with half the warriors in the land. Only a fool would think that the Grim Duchess doesn’t know this, and isn’t making preparations. The Queen’s wavering; she hasn’t begun any preparations that I’ve seen. This’ll force her to get ready.”
He took a deep breath before continuing. “Besides, Ælloeschyan has something we need. Something that’s more important than either realm. If he has the troops to do it, Kaltas will crack Eldarcanum open like a chestnut, and we’ll be able to get in, find what we’re looking for, and get out in the confusion. But that’ll work only if Kaltas has every last man the realm can muster. If he’s on his own, without the rest of Ælyndarka’s levies, Æloeschyan will squash him like a pillbug.”
The priest’s face was white. “So either way, tens of thousands of elves will die.”
“Yes,” Thanos admitted. “That’s war, father. But if we do it my way – if we give the Queen the proof she needs to condemn her niece and summon her troops – then Kaltas will have an overwhelming force, and more of them will come home when its all over.”
Shields stared at him a long time without blinking. “Problem?” Thanos asked.
“Yes, actually,” the priest said drily. “I think this might constitute interference in the political affairs of an ally. It’s hardly…ambassadorial.”
“I didn’t ask for this job, even temporarily,” the warcaster shrugged. “Blame High Command, if you like. But if they give me a problem, I’m damned-well going to solve it. That’s what I do. Question is, are you on board, or not?” He smiled lopsidedly. “Tell me if you’re not, and I’ll keep you out of it.”
“I’m on board,” Shields murmured, “so long as you promise to run this plan past the Vendicar before executing it. Agreed?”
“That’s why I’m going to Norkhan as soon as Wartack gets back to me,” Thanos nodded. “Agreed.”
“Well, then,” the priest sighed. “I suppose I’ll put some tea on, and stand ready to welcome the Inquisitors of the High Guard as soon as they arrive. Whether it’s to investigate the Colonel’s murder, or to arrest us.”
“That’s the spirit!” Thanos laughed. “They’ll probably be on their way here about five minutes after the Queen sees the letter we’re about to write. But I promise, I won’t send it unless the big man approves my plan.” He leaned forward and slapped the wizened priest on the shoulder. “Fill your inkwell with poison, bone-rattler. It’s time for some ‘diplomacy’.”
Shields shook his head in wonder. “I’ll go find a quill.”
The warcaster stayed him with a gesture. “One more thing before we put pen to parchment. I was wondering who Cornu’s contact at the College was.”
“ ‘Contact’?” Shields frowned. “He had many contacts.”
“His scholarly contact,” the warmage specified. “Kieret was a great one for the books. I recall that from our college days; he got me into theory, and I got him through evocations.” He laughed. “Bugger kept stealing my scrolls. I was just wondering…whose books is he stealing now? Kalestayne’s? Or someone else’s?”
“Ah.” The priest smiled wanly. He ran a hand through his near-vanished hair. “I don’t recall anyone in particular. He did mention Magistatrix Onyshyla more than once. But I think that was because he got on so well with General Salus, and dined often at their house. I don’t think he corresponded with her on the Art.” He shrugged. “Mostly, he just made use of the college library, and the one at the Palace. And the scrinium, of course.”
Thanos frowned. “The what?”
“The scrinium,” Shields repeated. “You know…at the observatory.”
“I don’t know,” Thanos said flatly. “That makes no sense. Doesn’t ‘scrinium’ mean ‘parapet’? Or ‘rampart’?”
Shields laughed. “Everything in this land has two meanings. Hadn’t you noticed? Venefica means both ‘sorceress’ and ‘poison’? Magus means both ‘wizard’ and ‘wise man’? ‘Scrinium’ also means ‘ledge’. And, in this case, ‘bookshelf’.”
“The ‘bookshelf’,” Thanos mused. “At the observatory?”
Shields nodded again.
“The only one,” the priest shrugged. “The one Tîor built. At the palace.”
“Tîor’s observatory?!” Thanos felt an enormous grin spread across his face.
“That’s it,” Shields nodded. “They call it the ‘Starwatch’. That’s where Tîor’s bookshelf is.”
Thanos realized that his hands were shaking, and clasped them together to still them. “Whom do I have to kill to get in there?”
Shields blinked. “About two thousand High Guardsmen, as many servants, and most of the royal family,” he replied with a blank face. “Or, if you’re too busy fomenting civil war to indulge in regicide, you could always just ask.”
“Whom do I ask?”
The priest shrugged again. “The Queen, of course. The observatory’s part of Arx Magnificus, and nobody but her family is supposed to be in there, but she allows scholars into the tower from time to time.” He grimaced. “I’m sure she’d have no problem letting one of the ‘cousins of the throne’ paw through her ancestor’s collection.”
Thanos was so delighted that he could hardly sit still. “And how,” he said, excited beyond measure, “do I ask?”
“Write a letter.”
The priest rolled his eyes. “Now I’ll go find a quill,” he sighed.
“You could’ve come with us,” Joraz said.
“Why?” Lööspelian asked, smiling. “I need no sustenance, and I crave no companionship, save perhaps yours. And…” she glanced down at her ill-clad azure hide, “I would...stick out.”
“I would have enjoyed the company,” the monk mused. “But I understand your reticence. The purposeless focus on worldly concerns is like the chatter of insects. I’m learning to tolerate it…but I find it annoying.”
“A waste of time,” the fiend-woman nodded, “when there is so little remaining.”
“Just so.” He fell quiet, enjoying the still, snow-muffled air, the silence, and the warm, ethereal glow of her presence.
“It is of time,” Lööspelian said after a long moment, “that I wished to speak.”
Joraz looked at her.
“I thank you, fate-bearer,” she said carefully, “for the worlds that you have shown me. And for your kindness, and your compassion, and your aid in helping me find my path. It is time for me to set out upon it.”
The monk felt a hint of sorrow creep over him. He shook his head, banishing it. He was determined to find nothing but joy in his friend’s decision to give effect to her self-chosen purpose.
“Before I do,” she went on, “I wish to touch you one final time.”
Joraz, recalling their recent journey upon the River of Stars, tried to suppress a grin, and failed. “Nothing would give me greater pleasure,” he murmured.
“Nor I,” the fiend-woman replied, dimpling – and altogether alarming sight. “But that is not what I meant. I wish to give you the gift that you gave me. To show you the path that lies before you.”
Joraz blinked. “How – ”
“Take my hand.”
He did, feeling for her thoughts, and easing his consciousness seamlessly between them. Their minds had touched before, but it was becoming increasingly easy. His essence eased into hers as thought into a warm bath.
An instant later, the warmth of her mental embrace was sundered by a blast of terrible heat, the choking stench of brimstone, and the dry, acrid taste of smoking ash. In his mind’s eye, he saw a black sky dotted with low, blood-red clouds, and swarming with bat-winged beings with penetrating, pus-yellow eyes. Below, a river of flowstone, glimmering and smoking, ground endlessly across the ashen nightscape, speckled with islands of rock upon which writhed bound souls condemned to smoulder for all time. And far off in the distance, an island; a pinnacle of sooty basalt poised endlessly above a fall, where the river of magma roared, hissing and screaming, off the precipice and into eternity.
Negrenoctis, he said wordlessly.
Yes, Lööspelian replied. Now, follow.
He did. Together, separate but as one, they soared towards the upthrust fist of bleak, black stone. As they approached, it resolved itself into a vast, central spire surrounded by a dozen others, all of varying heights and thicknesses, like stalagmites in a cavern. He saw tiny specks of light emanating from here and there amid the stones, and realized the enormity of the scale of the thing. The central tower, from which smoke and flame rose like a living thing, must have been a thousand paces high.
They flew towards one of the taller, secondary towers, aiming for a ring of bright lights near its peak. The lights grew and grew, eventually becoming windows. Through one of them they passed, oozing like ghosts through the airtight crystal, alighting gently upon rich, blood-red carpets. Joraz stared in wonder at the high ceiling, lost in the shadows, buttressed with bone, and hung with chandeliers of incalculable value. Vast shelves of tomes and scrolls filled the place, along with chairs and sofas, reading lights and work-tables. The air smelt of incense. He had no idea how he was smelling anything.
The Hall of Skins, Lööspelian murmured.
Joraz didn’t reply; he had been stunned into awed silence by the immense scope, the unimaginable glory, and the sheer horror of the place.
And your friend, she added, nodding at one of the tables.
The monk’s head snapped around. Sure enough, at one of the tables a slender, hunched figure sat on a simple stool, surrounded by towering piles of books. Moving closer – he floated rather than walked – Joraz angled for a better look.
The figure aided him by sweeping its hood back. The monk caught his breath; beneath the black wool lay a bare skull, the white bone engraved with terrifying, cabalistic symbols, and the whole wreathed in flickering, blue-red flames. The thing held a gold-tipped, rust-feathered quill, plucked from some unimaginable bird, in bony, skeletal fingers. He was scribbling madly on a scrap of parchment, which must have been treated to resist his fiery touch, seemingly copying a page out of one of the enormous books that lay before him. Joraz took a closer look at the book. The cover had a familiar, loathsome texture, and he was glad that, in his present state, he was unable to touch it.
The flaming, skeletal figure completed his missive, signed it with a flourish, then folded it twice – and, to the monk’s immense surprise, wrote “JORAZ” carefully across the parchment.
Time to go, Lööspelian murmured.
Too late. At her guidance, they sank immaterially through the floor, easing through the stone, and back out into the choking, sulphurous air. This time, the fiend-woman led them towards the vast, central tower. Angling sharply downwards, they soared towards the magma, and Joraz, though he had no physical being, thought that he could sense the immense, churning heat being thrown up from it.
At the last instant, they levelled off and penetrated the stone of the greatest of the towers right at the level of the lava flow. They passed through a dozen small rooms and chambers, before emerging in a vast, central hall. Its smooth floor was hundreds upon hundreds of paces across; and, looking up, he could see that it was at least three times as high as it was broad. All along its height, he could see balconies, and doors, and windows peering out over the floor. They seemed to be in the central throat of what might once have been a volcano.
Before them, against a far wall, behind flows of lava running like river water through channels cut into the floor, was a colossal stone dais. Atop it lay the biggest dragon Joraz had ever seen. She – he knew who it was, instantly – was at least five times as long and as broad as Morowaeth Hedfan, the dragon they had faced in Novaposticum, and must have outweighed him by a hundred times or more. Her vast, bloated frame lay stretched across stone worn smooth by eons of writhing, and her tail, an enormous, armour-plated serpentine thing the length of a dromond, was coiled around her. Venom and vitriol dripped from abscesses in her ancient hide, and her horns, each long enough to spit-roast a storm giant, were dim and cracked. But her wings, had she extended them, would have spanned half the hall, and her hide, though scarred, bore as many scars of combat as of age. She was old, but she was mighty beyond reckoning. Her claws were brilliant, deadly scimitars; and her fangs, each of which was taller than he, glittered like poisoned razors in the eerie, scarlet rocklight.
And her eyes…Joraz caught himself at the last possible instant, jerking his gaze away, his heart hammering in his breast. Even in repose, her eyes were vast pools of whirling scarlet, alive with menace, the precise colour of the magma that surrounded her throne. In them he could see close to three thousand years of avarice, power-lust, a terrible, burning capriciousness, and a slack-jawed love of wanton cruelty. And, too, he could see her thought-numbing potency. Even in his immaterial form, he knew that, had she caught him with those eyes, she might have taken his sielu, and bent it to her will in a heartbeat. None of his companions would have withstood it for even that long.
The throne-hall, Lööspelian said emotionlessly. He glanced to his right; she was staring at the dragon with a peculiar mixture of seething hatred and abject terror.
Very nice, the monk said laconically. He nodded at the immense figure slumbering atop the dais. I’d imagine she could see us, if she were of a mind to try.
She could, the fiend-woman replied. Let us go. Last stop.
Where to now? he asked.
Down. Taking his hand, she led them down through the floor of the immense hall.
This time, their journey through the stone was longer. Joraz found the sensation of being entombed unpleasant, but bearable. As they descended through the gut-rock of the islet, though, the heat rose, and rose, and rose again, until he was certain that mortal flesh exposed to it would instantly char and combust. After a few tense moments, however, they passed out of the stone and into the high spaces of a rough, natural cavern, some hundreds of paces below the dragon’s vast throne room.
His ears were instantly assailed by a thunderous, hissing roar. He glanced around. The floor of the chamber was a seething, bubbling pit of magma at least a hundred paces across. At one end, it was closed off by rock, although he could see, in the distance, a spiralling stair of rough-hewn stone leading from a shimmering basalt ledge up and into the ceiling.
He looked the other way, and caught his breath. The far end of the cavern was vast, open to the red-clouded, poisonous air of Ebon Night. An intermittent curtain of shimmering, screeching flowstone poured endlessly past the opening in a continuous sheet of molten fury. He could see the terror-kites swooping through the sky, diving towards the boiling, grinding wave of magma as it washed over the edge of the precipice in its tumble to eternity. Condemned souls that had lost their precarious grip on whatever scrap of stone they had been clinging to were washed, screaming in agony, over the edge along with the liquid stone, some vanishing into the unimaginable abyss below, others shrieking in terror and pain as they were caught up, torn apart, and devoured by the skull-faced, leather-winged raptors that swarmed above the edge of the fall, fighting over the immortal remnants of the dead like jackdaws.
What is this place? he asked, sickened.
Look down, Lööspelian replied.
He looked. Directly below them, surrounded by the boiling sea of magma, lay a larger islet a few dozen paces across. Exploding pockets of flowstone burst along its edges, showering it with splashes of molten rock and exploding, gas-filled bombs that shattered into razor-edged obsidian knives. In the centre of islet was some sort of structure, and it was towards this that the fiend-woman directed them next.
Gods, he thought a moment later. Had he been in his natural form, his face would have been ashen. It was an arch – like the triumphal arches that dotted the length and breadth of Ekhan’s ancient highways. It was two dozen paces wide and a like amount high, with a passageway beneath it easily large enough to accommodate even the immense girth of the dragon they had seen above. But it was unlike any arch he had ever seen. For one thing, it was made of bones. And for another, instead of an empty gateway beneath its massive capital block, there was only a whirling, flashing void – a vortex, a whirlpool of acid, fangs, rusted iron, claws, and death. Close up, the maddening howl of the lava-fall faded, and he could hear the clicking, grinding cacophony of the storm of hatred that lay beneath the arch, contained only by the life-lost strength of ten thousand, thousand ancient bones.
What…what is it? he murmured, feeling for the first time truly lost.
Kapuk Borzalom, Lööspelian replied. She shivered when speaking the words, and Joraz shivered with her, for he knew what they meant: the Gates of Horror.
He stared at the flailing terror of the vortex for a long moment before speaking again. But he knew that eventually he would have to ask. When he could bear it no longer, he husked, Where do they lead?
To Her, Lööspelian replied. Her eyes were stark with memory, and her voice was quaking with barely suppressed terror. He reached out and took her hand again, willing soothing strength to flow from his spirit to hers. To Her. The Dark Queen.
Why show me this? he asked, struggling to hold on to his equanimity.
Because in five thousand years of service, the fiend-woman replied without taking her eyes off the deadly gate, first to Her, and latterly to the one who sleeps above, this is the only door I have ever discovered that leads to the Queen of the World’s fastness – to the broken city beneath the stone, beneath the sea, in the ancient capital that the Shadow King tried to destroy, but only succeeded in sinking into oblivion.
She pointed a quivering finger. Beyond that gate lies Yl, she said. Its mortal boundaries are defended by her dread power, and none may enter; but she had to leave one portal open for her servants to pass. This is that portal.
When the time comes for you to confront her, Lööspelian said calmly, this will be your road into her lair. There is no other path into that dread darkness; none that I have ever found.
Joraz stared at the horrible vortex. And you’ve been through it? he asked, knowing what her answer would be.
Countless times, the fiend-woman replied. It leads to a like portal, in the dark, blood-soaked hills above the Golden Temple of Bræa – the vast, ancient hall, greatest of the Lightbringer’s shrines, that the Dark Queen took, and occupied, and despoiled in ages long past, as a mark of her eternal hatred for the sister that entombed her in the mortal world. When the time comes, brother, it is there that you must go.
You have to go there, too, Joraz murmured. Don’t you? At least one more time.
Once more, Lööspelian nodded soberly. When I have found Cielagan, and freed him from his vile bondage, I must recover his heart, and break it loose from the Barkasteen. Only then will we be able to seek out our former mistress, and beg her to release my love from his long travail.
Joraz winced. We may meet each other there, he said carefully. For my colleagues and I, too, may have need of the Barkasteen, to fulfill our quest, and save the World Made from destruction.
Then I pray that we will tread lightly around each other, Lööspelian said firmly. I treasure you, fate-bearer, as I have never in all my long years treasured any other mortal. But my path is set, and I intend to see it through to the end.
She turned to face him, and their eyes met. Do not mistake me in this. I will save my love from bearing any longer the burden of my folly. And I will brook no interference with that goal.
What else could he do? Joraz bowed, and said, I wish you luck, servant of Tîan. If you should ever need them, my hand and my heart are yours.
I thank you, Lööspelian replied, smiling again. Then her face grew sober once more. This is the last gift that I can give you. I may delay no longer. I go now to descry where Bardan has hidden my love.
Where will you go to do that? he asked, wondering.
To the one place in all the mortal world where I may touch the Dark Ender’s power and perceive his thought, she replied, struggling to maintain her composure. To Ensher; to the mountain fortress of the Shadow King, that the Knights of Ekhan besieged a thousand years and more ago, and that the magi of the Elf-Realm brought down in a fury of arcane might.
Deep within its ancient depths lies the dread spring of power that granted the Shadow King his mastery: his greatest achievement, in the making of which he matched, if only briefly, the insights and mastery of Tîor Magnus. The place from which he drew the power to crack the world. Kút az Árnyék. The Well of Shadows.
She raised a hand. Her eyes were sad, and her voice hollow. Farewell.
Wait! Joraz cried. How do I get back from here?
Her cheeks dimpled again. She reached out a hand and touched her fingers to his lips. Even in their immaterial shapes, he could feel the new warmth of her, caressing his spirit like a benison. My heart belongs to Cielagan, she said gently, but a portion of it I reserve for you, forever.
We share the same blessing, Joraz Tyrellianus, Fate-Bearer and servant of the Imprisoned Goddess. We share the same wisdom. The knowledge of the ways of the winding road is in your soul.
You know the way home.
Joraz closed his eyes and bowed his head in reverent farewell.
When he opened them again, she was gone…and so was the fire, and ash, and the gate of bones. He was back amid the trees and flowers of Domus Casia.
He looked around and sighed. The silent, snow-swept gardens had never before felt so empty.
“Pick up a brush and help me, would you?” Ælyndarka snapped.
“With respect, Majesty,” her bodyguard, the elf-woman Prestera, replied, “I cannot wield a greatsword while distracted by your hair.” Her voice was laden with immense disapproval.
“Who’s going to attack me here?” The Queen waved a hand around her massive bedchamber. “A disgruntled interior decorator?”
“Perhaps your Majesty should not have dismissed her primae,” Prestera replied coldly. “While I could easily shave your Majesty’s scalp between one breath and the next, I am less adept with the comb.”
“When I have to abdicate and go to the block in disgrace, then I’ll let you near my neck with a blade,” the Queen laughed. “Not before.
“As for Ara and Cally,” she sighed, wincing as she tugged the brush through her floor-length raven locks, “I dismissed them because I want to talk about them. I need your advice.”
She shot a glance at Tarooq. Her champion was seated on the balcony railing, kicking his booted feet idly some two hundred paces above the rushing confluence of the Lymphus. “Yours, too,” she added, raising her voice. “And for the Holy Mother’s sake, would you come in here and close the doors? I don’t know what chills me more – the wind, or you dangling yourself over the cliff like that.”
“I disdain heights because the Protector’s grace defends me from fear,” Tarooq said airily.
“Having wings probably doesn’t hurt either,” the Queen snorted.
The paladin laughed. But he obeyed, sliding to the balcony, pulling the glass-paned doors shut, and securing them carefully. When he was done, he turned to the Queen and bowed neatly. “As her Majesty commands.”
“Better,” Ælyndarka replied. “Her Majesty has another command. Here.” She handed him the hairbrush, handle first.
The archon winced and shot a glance at Prestera. “Fight you for it? Loser has to brush her hair?”
“I accept,” the elf-woman said. In the flick of an eye, her courtblade, nearly as long as she was tall, and gleaming coldly in the candlelight, was in her hand, levelled at his neck.
Tarooq eyed the long lathe of blue-gold steel nervously. “I was thinking of arm-wrestling, actually,” he temporized.
“The challenge was yours,” Prestera grated. “The choice of weapons is mine. Draw, or concede.” The tip of the blade, needle-sharp and menacing, was an inch from his throat, and it didn’t waver so much as a hair’s-breadth.
The paladin sighed. Turning back to the Queen, he bowed again, took the brush from her, and, ignoring the amused glint in her eye, began brushing her hair.
“Gently!” Ælyndarka winced. “Gently! I don’t need to be piebald.”
Tarooq complied, slowing his strokes. “I don’t understand,” he said, “why you don’t just use magic for this.”
“I did,” the Queen snorted. “Magic’s good enough for dismantling the mess and for getting the tangles out. But it takes a thousand brush-strokes a day to keep the shine up. And at my age, I’m not about to skimp on maintenance.”
“You could conjure an unseen servant to wield the brush,” Prestera suggested, sheathing her great sword. “In fact, you could conjure an army of them. I’ve seen you do it before, when bathing for example.”
“It’s one thing to trust my wrinkled hide to a forcebeing with soap and a sponge,” Ælyndarka growled. “It’s quite another to turn one loose on the locks that’ve been my pride and joy for a thousand years.”
“What did you want to talk to us about?” Tarooq asked. He had a gift for changing the subject at an opportune moment – usually, seconds before Ælyndarka’s temper provoked a quarrel. “About Ara and Cally, I mean?”
The Queen blinked. “Yes, that was odd,” she said, reflecting on the evening’s events. “I was speaking with my great grandson, near the evening’s end, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he asked me to send Cally to Domus Casia tomorrow.”
“He specifically asked for Cally?” the paladin asked, his eyebrows climbing.
Ælyndarka nodded. “He asked me to send a handmaiden. When I turned to Ara, he stopped me, and said ‘the other one, please’.”
Prestera frowned. “Has he quarrelled with Ara? Is she unwelcome at Dame Amorda’s house?”
“ ‘Princess Amorda’,” the Queen corrected. “No, not to the best of my knowledge. In fact, I can’t imagine him quarrelling with anyone. Except maybe the other Bræagond in the family.” She grinned suddenly. “It was all I could do not to applaud when the young fellow put that preening weasel in his place.”
“I’m surprised Amorda didn’t kill him,” Tarooq said quietly. “You know what she is, Majesty. I’ve always been astonished that you tolerate her at court. I can’t believe you’re allowing her into your family.”
“You can condemn people for their conduct, but not for their lineage, Kozeal,” the Queen reproached her champion. “Young Bræagond’s proof enough of that, and Amorda is too. Sometimes, a little outside help is necessary to bring new blood into a wasting line.”
The paladin shrugged.
“But no problems?” Prestera pressed. “Between your great-grandson and Ara, I mean?”
“Not so far as I know,” the Queen shrugged. “There’s been some intimacy, I understand – between Ara and that Ekhani fellow, Mastigo – but no disputes that I’m aware of.”
“Would you know, necessarily?” Tarooq frowned.
“Yes,” the Queen said firmly.
“Er…” Prestera began, sounding uncertain.
“What?” Ælyndarka asked.
“Isn’t Ara really male?” the bodyguard wondered.
“Yes. It seems they were experimenting.”
Tarooq shook his head sadly.
The Queen caught the motion and shot a glance over her shoulder. “You disapprove?”
“Not at all, your Majesty!” the paladin averred. “Pleasure, between two who seek it and are free to do so, is its own justification.”
“Then why the head-shake?”
“That?” He laughed. “It was the word you used. ‘Experimenting’. I find it impossible to keep up with the shifting vernacular you mortals employ to euphemize that particular act.”
“If you think we’re bad,” the Queen scoffed, “you should try living with humans sometime. All you have to do is blink, and suddenly they’re speaking a whole new language.” She reached back and took the brush. “You’re well past a thousand strokes now, my friend.”
“Yes, but I was enjoying it,” the paladin protested.
“So was I,” Ælyndarka winked. “But the night’s growing old, and the enjoyment is only just getting started.”
Tarooq stared at her in disbelief. “After the day you’ve had? Are you serious?”
“Deadly serious,” the Queen replied. She unbelted her robe and let it fall to her feet, giving the lie to her earlier complaint about ‘wrinkled hide’. Her form was an artist’s dream, and her skin, like her hair, was flawless.
She leapt nimbly into the enormous bed, thrust the covers back with her feet, and patted the mattress. “Come along now,” she said, crooking a finger at the paladin.
Tarooq sighed and began unbuckling his cuirass. “I haven’t bathed since this morning, you know,” he groused.
Ælyndarka burst out laughing. “You’re a celestial being, you idiot!” she chortled. “You could shovel shit in the midden all day, and come out smelling like orchids!”
A sudden grin twisted her lips. Turning to Prestera, she winked, and said, “You too, missy. Let’s have some fun.”
The bodyguard’s right eye narrowed in what could only be described as a tic. “With respect, Majesty,” the swordswoman replied, clearing her throat nervously, “I cannot wield the greatsword while distracted by you…by your…” She gave up and fluttered a hand in her mistress’s general direction.
The Queen’s expression didn’t change. “Now,” she ordered.
Prestera heaved a great sigh, and complied. To her credit, though, she wedged a chair under the door-handle before disrobing, and laid her naked sword beside the bed.
Some immeasurable time later, Ælyndarka murmured, “Kozeal? Are you awake?”
“Of course, your Majesty,” the archon whispered. “My kind don’t sleep.”
“Of course you don’t,” the Queen sighed. She blinked repeatedly, trying to see through the inky darkness. “Where’s Prestera?”
“Drooling on my stomach,” Tarooq said. She could hear the grin in his words. “At least she’s quiet now. Your bodyguard snores like three-nosed dretch. Shall I wake her?”
“No, no,” Ælyndarka whispered. “Look, will you make certain I’m up with the dawn?”
“If you like,” he replied. “Why so early? If one may ask.”
“One may,” she snickered. “I think I’ve figured out how to find out what my great-grandson and his friends want with Cally.”
“Ah,” Tarooq murmured. “And your plan involves rising with the Lantern?”
“Yes,” Ælyndarka confirmed. “I’ve got a letter to write.”
It was Tua. Breygon ground the heel of his hand into his eye, regretting the excesses of the night before, and the surfeit of sweaty exercise and lack of sleep that had followed them.
“What?” he groaned.
“A letter’s come for you,” the Wilder elf muttered. He extended a silver salver. Atop it was a scroll bound in green ribbon.
“This is getting to be a habit,” the ranger sighed. He took the scroll, glanced at it, and frowned. “This one’s for Amorda, not me.”
“You’re lord of the House, now,” Tua argued. “You –”
“I may be lord,” Breygon laughed, “but I’ll be dead and gone to wind before I open my wife’s mail.” He glanced down at the elf-woman, still sleeping beside him, and smiled at her delightfully tousled state. “Let her sleep.”
“Due respect, Lewat,” Tua said nervously, “but you’re going to want to wake her. Look at the seal.”
Breygon, puzzled, did so. Then he swore foully, snapped the wax in half, slid the ribbon off the parchment, unrolled it, read it, and swore again.
Then, sighing, he shook Amorda’s shoulder until she stirred. After a moment, she sat up, rubbing her eyes.
At that moment Breygon remembered that they were both unclad. The sheets puddled around Amorda’s waist, and Tua was eyeing her with an appreciative grin. Breygon was about to snap a reprimand when he remembered where he was, and shut his mouth with a click. He wasn’t going to make any headway against either the earthy sensuality of the Wilder elves, or his lifemate’s utter lack of anything resembling modesty.
Once her eyes were open, the elf-woman smiled happily. “Greet the dawn, my prince.”
“Greet the dawn, my princess,” he replied automatically. “Look, I’m sorry to wake you so early, but we’ve received another letter from great grand-mama.”
“Really?” She stretched like a cat, prompting another grin from Tua. Breygon caught the tribesman’s eye and jerked a thumb at the door. Still grinning, the old fellow beat a hasty retreat, stealing a final peek before disappearing into the library.
“What does the old dear want?” the elf-woman continued, leaning her cheek against his arm.
“She…ahh, she says she’s going to drop by. ‘To view the flowers’,” he replied. “I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean. It’s winter, and there aren’t a lot of flowers out there.”
“It’s just an expression,” Amorda yawned. “It means she’s inviting herself over for tea. She’ll probably come with her whole retinue.”
Breygon sucked air through his teeth. The elf-woman didn’t notice. “How delightfully formal!” she laughed, teasing the tangles out of her hair. “And how kind of her to give us notice so I can prepare for a royal visit.” She took the scroll from Breygon’s hands and unrolled it again. “When’s she coming? Next week?”
Breygon glanced out the bedroom door at the light falling through the library cupola. “In about an hour, I’d say.”
Cayless was spared her usual task of rousing the house. Amorda’s anguished scream woke most of the neighbourhood.