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A Matter of Trust

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It comes as no real surprise to Essek when, after the adjournment of the meeting so unceremoniously interrupted by his charges, the Bright Queen turns to him, fixing him with a look that tells him, without words, to stay an extra moment. After all, the entire course of their meeting was changed with the information that his wards brought and the Empress, whatever else she might think about their wayward band of defectors, cannot deny that, at least.

Still, he is not fully prepared for her to direct a sharp gaze at him and raise a brow, something inscrutable, even for him, in her eyes.

He bows his head, his face carefully blank. “My Queen?”

When he straightens, it is to find a hint of a smile curving her lips. “Essek. If it were truly so surprising that I might have additional questions after all of that,” a graceful hand indicates the area his charges stood, “then I might start thinking that I need to find a replacement for my Shadowhand, since my current one must be becoming a little slow.”

In spite of himself, the corners of his mouth twitch and, as if in response, a faint twinkle dances in her eye. “Certainly, my Queen.”

He watches as she sits forward, a slender finger pressed against her upper lip. “Now. You have much faith in these deserters.”

“Indeed.” Much like the first time, his reply falls from his mouth without thought and her second eyebrow joins her first. Not that he can blame her; he is surprised himself with his own conviction on the topic.

Still, her astonishment is only apparent in the way she shifts in her seat, watching him with steady eyes. “What do you know of them, then? What have you heard and observed?”

“They are…” He pauses, thinking of the human female and her clumsy but well-meaning insistence on offering him hospitality, the goblin’s genuine affection for her husband, the tiefling’s guileless, if unnecessarily prolonged, embrace. “They are perhaps a bit naive in their views and hopes for the end of the conflict, certainly, but I do not believe they mean any duplicity or harm to you or the Dynasty.”

She hums, though judging from her expression, his assessment is of no surprise. Even so, her mien is stern when she lowers her hand and turns, facing him directly. “And your tutelage for the one who was once in training to be one of these so-called Scourgers?”

“I admit that was news to me as well, though information on these arcane assassins is hard to come by as it is. I do not believe there has been anything more concrete than whispers and rumors.”

He meets her gaze directly and her expression softens. “No, I hardly believe that those so keen on their covert operations such as the Dwendalian Empire would broadcast their existence to their citizens. It certainly bodes well for your wards that they should even inform us… assuming they spoke true.”

“They do speak true when they ask for clemency on behalf of the Empire’s innocents, and it would hardly benefit their position or their bargaining to lead us astray, nor did they shy from admitting that they are serving their own interests first and foremost.” He lowers his gaze for a moment before meeting her eyes once more. “No, I believe them.”

Her quiet chuckle echoes faintly in the chamber. “For one who has long been seen as unemotional to the point of coldness, you speak quite passionately in their defense, Essek.” The smile that graces his Empress’ face is clearly meant for his sight and seems to lessen her gravitas from only moments earlier. “Then tell me, my Shadowhand, what say you on this arcanist? He is the one you taught, is he not? You have never taken such tutelage lightly but you trust him with this knowledge?”

Her light tone belies the weight of her words, but does little to hide the depths of her curiosity, the unspoken questions she harbors. He sits forward, pressing his hands together more firmly, and inclines his head. “I do.”

“May I ask why?”

The vision of a thin yet sightly face arises, unbidden, in his mind, expression glimmering with sincerity and passion, soft voice calm but with a thread of genuine curiosity and idealism that is almost refreshing in its simplicity. And behind it, the striking blue eyes that are at once hungry and cautious, that seem to have seen more trauma than one human individual should, that still carries scars of the past in their depths. It is a face that he could not refuse, that he suspects, even with all he knows now about the man’s past, he still will not be able to refuse.

A soft cough interrupts his thoughts and, belatedly, he realizes that he still has not provided an answer to a question that, despite its phrasing, was hardly discretional, but judging from the amusement that remains visible in her eyes, she is hardly irritated by the delay. He draws a breath, willing his features to remain impassive. “I believe he is quite genuine about his desire to better understand us, and such a small act may build a mutual trust.”

“As you have said.”

He offers a small smile. “As I have. And I find his curiosity is… familiar. I do not believe such small instruction may result in particularly onerous consequences, especially in light of their continued assistance on matters concerning the Dynasty.”

The corners of her eyes crinkle with her smile. “Particularly as you have faith in your tutelage.”

“That I do.”

“And you intend to continue such.”

It is a comment, not a question, but he inclines his head nonetheless. “If you have no objections, my Queen.”

Something resembling a smirk crosses her face, though it smooths into her usual smile so quickly that he wonders briefly if he imagined it. “So long as he does not use our own knowledge against us in the conflict to come, nor use it to manipulate us from our chosen path, I have none, other than for you to keep me updated on everything that transpires.”

“Of course.”

“Very well.” She sits back, then, a clear dismissal in her eyes, and he rises, offering a small bow that she acknowledges with a nod.

He makes his way towards the exit, thoughts racing, flitting between the various projects awaiting his attention, the nature of the Bright Queen’s questioning, and… curiosity at his charges’ plans. And, as he is now coming to expect, the whereabouts of this band of mercenaries takes priority once more.

“Essek.” Already beyond the doorway, he pauses, turning back to face the throne and where the Empress is standing, her teasing smile visible even across the distance. “If I may suggest, perhaps consider accepting an invitation for dinner sometime. I hear it can be an excellent method of fostering relationships.”

Before he can force his suddenly scattered thoughts into something resembling coherence, the doors to the throne room close, leaving him staring at the solid stone, uncharacteristically speechless.