"One of these days," Amarelle Parathis said as she slowly got to her feet and brushed the dust of the street from her clothes, "we are going to have to buy our own pub."
Sophara rolled over, clutching her belly, and groaned. "Oh, goody. Dibs on bartending."
"As if anybody else could mix drinks half as well as you, sweetheart," said Brandwin. She was already standing, having astutely left the Silent Lady before the bouncer began tossing people out. Grasping Sophara's hands, she hauled her wife into more-or-less a vertical position. "There we go."
"You could have let me lie for a little while," Sophara grumbled.
"On that cold, hard ground? I couldn't."
"Not to mention that lying on the ground is not conducive to running for our lives," said Scavius. He'd rolled like a wrestler and come up immediately. "They're either going to call the watch, or come out after us, any moment. Either way we should be gone."
Amarelle considered. The nobles had been slumming and far too free with their coin; easy marks in the card game that they'd thought was their own idea, and now their rich purses now resided in the collective pockets of Amarelle and her crew. Noblemen, she knew, rarely settled things with their own aristocratic fists. But if they called the watch...
"All right," she said. "Where's Jade?"
"Here." With her dark goblin skin Jadetongue was nearly invisible where she leaned against the shadowed alley wall.
"Here, boss." The automaton waved at her from beside Brandwin, looking remarkably unruffled. He must have slipped out when Brandwin had, and avoided the scuffle.
"Good, we're all here. So where shall we go?"
The raised voices in the pub were getting louder. That was definitely the sound, thought Amarelle, of breaking glass. Maybe the nobles were the hands-on type, after all. Too bad they couldn't have this discussion over drinks, in a civilized place. Like a pub. But they'd worked their way down from the sophisticated drinking halls to the squalid pubs of the low-rent districts of Betherin, and the Silent Lady had been the last place that would serve them. It was definitely time to move on.
"Maybe we should discuss this –" started Jade. The back door opened again. She dodged the thrown bottle with surprising agility. Sophara scowled and muttered an incantation, and the door slammed shut.
"Somewhere else," agreed Amarelle, as she began to run.
The secret room at the back of the abandoned warehouse was still intact and apparently undisturbed. Still, Amarelle knew that it was only a matter of time before their last and best hiding place was discovered. And when it was, they should be somewhere else.
She looked around at the others, sprawled in various attitudes on the sacks of grain they'd set out as makeshift furniture. "I say we get the hell out of town altogether."
Scavius rolled his eyes. "No shit. Let's go somewhere good this time."
"Somewhere nice," clarified Brandwin. "Where we can get real lodgings."
"And make real money," agreed Amarelle. She was tired of this penny-ante thievery. They were all of them talented at their own specialties; masters, each of them, in the various arts of larceny, or at least (in Brandwin's case) in the supporting roles. "Why are we pilfering the pockets of these petty princelings when we should be stealing..." She pounded her fist on the empty barrel that served them as a table, to cover the fact that she had not thought out her sentence in advance.
"Stuff!" suggested Scavius. "Stealing stuff!"
She grinned at him. "Stealing splendid stuff."
"Speaking of splendid stuff, why don't we go back to Theradane?" He rubbed his hands together. "Good pickings there, if you can stay out of the way of the wizards."
Amarelle shook her head. Theradane was their nominal base, and she always figured that when she got tired of the excitements of her current lifestyle, she'd retire there. Probably they all would; sanctuary wasn't cheap, in Theradane, but it was secure, guaranteed by the wizards who made it their base. Until that time, though, the risks were as great as the rewards, and right now... "A little too soon after our last good pickings, if you know what I mean." She turned back to the rest of them. "Let's see. We haven't been to Calladon in a while."
"And we can't go back anytime soon," said Jade. "I forged a pass to Auburn's Gaming Palace. Death sentence."
"Damn. How about S'Chera? With all the guild infighting, we ought to be able to find someone to pay us a commission to wreak some mischief."
"Ooh," said Sophara, rubbing her hands together. "I love mischief."
Jade shook her head. "Not after the last time. Don't you remember the statue?"
"The one I rigged with a mechanical arm and five barrels of explosives? That was a great statue," said Brandwin. "It made such a satisfying thud when it crashed into the Alchemists' Guildhall."
"We paid for it with forged notes," Jade reminded her. "We barely got out of there intact!"
"But we did get out intact, thanks to me," said Sophara smugly. She'd raised a thaumaturgical fog that had let them escape while their pursuers coughed and choked, eyes watering, unable to see them through the unnaturally thick mist.
"Thanks to you. But they knew it had been us. They'd already printed the posters."
Amarelle shuddered. She hadn't seen the posters, but she could imagine them. "Wanted, Dead or Soon to be Dead." The S'Chera Alchemists' Guild was not known for their charity.
"We could go to Leehaven," suggested Sophara. "We've never been there."
"You've never been there," said Jade.
There was a long and ominous pause. Amarelle looked from one face to another. "Any ideas?"
"Well," said Scavius slowly, "It seems to me that our options are limited due to one of our number. And so that one of our number ought to make a suggestion."
All eyes turned to Jade. She shrugged her shoulders unhappily; she didn't like being the focus of attention. That's why she was a forger, not something flashy like a confidence hustler or a wizard. That's why she didn't mind at all being a henchman – henchwoman – henchgoblin, while Amarelle led their band. Jadetongue Squirn liked being in the shadows, both literal and figurative. She liked blending in.
Here on the southern continent, it had been a long time since she'd blended in. There were a few goblins here and there, mostly in the bigger cities. In the backwaters they still stared at her dark skin and red eyes, and even in medium-sized towns like Betherin, she drew curious glances. Which made her think of the one place where she did blend in. The place she was from, the land of the goblins.
"There isn't a price on my head in Barizhan," she said.
Predictably, they all laughed. "Right," said Amarelle. "Hard to get lost in a crowd when you're two handspans taller than everyone else. Not to mention quite a bit lighter-skinned."
Scavius's dark face brightened. "That's a good point. In the opposite direction, I mean, but a good point. What card games do they play in Barizhan?"
"Some of us will stand out no matter what," said Brandwin, as she stroked Sophara's blue hair with a lavender hand.
"Some of us," said Shraplin pointedly, "can't pass as either human or goblin. And yet we manage."
"But we manage in cosmopolitan places like Theradane and Betherin, where nobody looks twice at you unless you have significantly more than the usual number of arms or legs. Barizhan's a lot more insular." Amarelle shook her head. "We'd all be marked as outsiders the instant we stepped across the border. All except for Jade, that is."
Jade shook her head, smiling. She'd just remembered what had been in the last letter she'd received from home. "It doesn't matter. I've got the perfect plan. What would you say to attending an imperial wedding?"
Brandwin frowned. "Not saying that you couldn't forge perfect invitations, mind you. But would that be...wise?"
"And by wise, my wife obviously means not likely to get us killed horribly," Sophara added fondly.
"Naturally we wouldn't attend the actual wedding. Well, some of us might," she amended. "But there will be events for the common folk. And events for the nobles, to which a delegation from a distant land with impeccably forged credentials would certainly be invited."
"Nobles who might be wearing jewels?" asked Scavius. "Lots of jewels?"
"Lots of jewels. Valuable jewels."
"I can't believe you're seriously talking about going to Barizhan," said Amarelle.
"Of course not," said Jade.
"I mean, for all they're calling him the Goblin Emperor, he's only half goblin."
"Wait, what?" Amarelle rubbed her forehead. The landing on the cobbles behind the Silent Lady had been a hard one, and the volume of alcohol she'd imbibed was beginning to make itself known behind her eyeballs. "Where exactly are you proposing we go?"
"The Ethuveraz, of course. To the Untheileneise Court, in Cetho."
Jade sighed. "North of Barizhan? I think you lot call it the Elflands?" Brandwin nodded, but everyone else looked blank. Apparently geography wasn't a popular subject in the lands around Theradane. "Rich place, okay? Silk and gold and gemstones."
"Clockwork and airships," added Brandwin.
"And," said Jade, in case they had missed it the first time, "An imperial wedding. Lots of wealthy nobles. Lots of opportunity."
"Lots of jewels," said Scavius happily.
"No price on my head," added Jade.
"Well," said Amarelle, "it does sound interesting. And by interesting I mean lucrative and not immediately lethal."
"Excellent, boss," said Shraplin. He cocked a mechanical ear. "May I suggest we decamp immediately? By the back door?"
They decamped, by the back door.
"So this is your first time across the Chadevan, Mezh Parathis?" asked Captain Sevraseched jovially. She was even taller than Jadetongue, who was tall for a goblin, and twice as broad. Her arms were thick and her scarred face was dark and toothy, and her pointed ears bore rings that looked as though they were made of steel. She looked as though she could break any one of them in half without thinking about it. She spoke the language of the southern city-states pretty well, though with some odd grammatical quirks and a much stronger accent than Jadetongue's.
Amarelle had been to many distant lands, but she'd never been to the ones across the Chadevan Sea. There was a very good reason for that. She nodded, and tried not to throw up on the captain's tall sea-boots.
"Well! Quite an adventure for you, then. You're lucky that we are continuing to Cetho so you don't have to find transport up the Istandaärtha. But we wouldn't dream of missing the wedding. Emperor's a blood relative, you know."
Amarelle kept her lips clamped firmly together as she nodded. The captain had mentioned that a few times, sounding more amused about the relationship than proud of it.
"We look forward to finally meeting our young nephew. That is we, as in us and Mezhem Sevraseched," she added, jerking her head toward the rear of the ship, where the captain's wife was talking animatedly with Brandwin. Brandwin's birthplace was not far from Solunee, the ship's home port; Loelo Sevraseched's skin was a much darker lavender, and not frosted as Brandwin's was, but they seemed to recognize each other as countrywomen, and perhaps as kindred souls, and had taken to each other instantly.
The Glorious Dragon took a wave across the bow and bucked like a horse. Amarelle grabbed onto the rail before she pitched over it, though part of her wondered if maybe it wouldn't be better to just let the waves throw her into the dark waters of the Chadevan Sea. She closed her eyes. The captain laughed and sang out, "Ah, getting frisky, are we, my dear Dragon? Steady on!"
"Maybe I should go below. Study some Ethuverazhin." She was pleased that the name of that gods-damned language came out more or less correctly despite her lurching stomach. It was about the only word she could actually say in it.
"If you like. Though it'd be a pity for you to miss the Chadevan on such a fine calm day."
"Calm," repeated Amarelle, frowning. She was pretty sure she knew the meaning of that word, even though it rarely applied in her own life. But it seemed unlikely to include waves big enough to toss a ship around. Her hand tightened on the rail.
"Oh, yes, it's an extraordinarily flat sea today. Of course, it's possible we might be in for a storm. In which case you'd best be advised to stay topside, where you can keep your eyes on the horizon. We're told it helps with the seasickness. Not that we'd know. We've never been queasy, or felt as though our stomach has been jumping up and down, or had that dry feeling in the back of the throat, or the dizzy headache. We are told it's a lot like a hangover, though," added the captain helpfully.
"It is nothing like a hangover," gritted out Amarelle, keeping her eyes on the horizon. "Hangovers are survivable."
"Don't worry, boss," said Shraplin, who had come up behind them. He sounded disgustingly cheery; automatons were apparently not subject to seasickness. "Ethuverazhin's not much different from Barizhin, and with Jade, Brandwin, and myself, we should have the language barrier covered."
"Good, because my head's spinning enough as it is. Wait, I mean our head is spinning. Our heads are spinning?" Gods-damned formal plural. As if Ethuverazhin wasn't hard enough.
He patted her on the shoulder. "Just keep looking at the horizon."
The voyage became smoother after they entered the mouth of the Istandaärtha, the broad north-flowing river which would take them first through Barizhan, and then the southern principalities of the Ethuveraz, even though at first the banks were so distant that they had only the captain's assurance that they were indeed on the river. Amarelle finally felt up to doing something other than hanging over the rail wishing she were dead. Unfortunately, by that time those of Captain Sevraseched's crew and the other passengers who still had any money in their purses had wised up enough to decline to play cards or dice with anyone remotely connected to Scavius or Sophara. The two of them had divided the others on the ship between them, then divided those people from their coin.
"At least nobody got too riled up," Amarelle declared philosophically. "I'd just as soon not try to find a new ship in the middle of our journey."
Sophara looked embarrassed. "Well, actually the ship's carpenter thinks he's thrown Scav overboard. And the skinny girl who keeps lookout from the top of the mast believes she's slit my throat. I had to, you know." She waved her fingers around in a wizardly gesture. "Keep the peace. But we could play among ourselves."
"Nah. What's the point of winning money from you lot?"
"Assuming you could win."
"You know perfectly well I can cheat just as well as you can."
"True. Ah, well. I suppose I could look at the scenery."
The scenery wasn't half bad, and it was certainly a lot better than the watery horizon which had been her focus for the first part of the voyage. Barizhan's hills stretched out on both sides behind the farms and fields that lined the riverbanks. Sometimes there were villages, and even cities, with wood and stone docks where the Glorious Dragon would stop to take on or discharge cargo and passengers.
At several ports, Captain Sevraseched indicated that they'd be stopped for more than an hour or two, so Amarelle and her friends disembarked to explore whatever opportunities presented themselves. These opportunities tended more toward the alcoholic than the larcenous, but that, she told herself, was just fine. She'd just keep looking at the horizon ahead of them at the imperial wedding. Valuable jewels, wealthy nobles.
The voyage went on, and the river narrowed enough that it was plainly a river, though still several miles wide. They passed from Barizhan to Ethuveraz, from farmland to cultivated forest, and the hills turned drier as the air became colder.
"It is," observed Amarelle, "a fucking long way to the Unthewhatsit Court."
"Untheileneise," said Jade. "You did say you wanted to 'get the hell out of town'."
"This isn't just the hell out. This is the hair on the pimple on the ass of the far end of –"
"And also, we're almost there."
"Thank the –"
A delighted cry from Brandwin, who was leaning on the rail between the captain's wife and her own, drew their attention. When Amarelle turned her head it was obvious what had excited the artificer. An enormous mechanical edifice had just come into sight upriver, on the near bank. Scaffolding surrounded two huge towers filled with gears and steam pipes; the nearer one was sheathed in metal or wood near its base, while the farther, shorter one was bare. As they watched, the topmost section of the taller tower bent toward the river and telescoped outward, then retracted back into itself.
"What the fuck is that?"
"The beginnings of a bridge, I believe," said Brandwin. She turned the screw on the side of her thick eyeglasses, adjusting them for the distance. "There are matching piers on the far side of the river. It's still being constructed, obviously, but what a delightful mechanical marvel! Just look at those hydraulics!" She said something in Barizhin to the captain's wife, who replied in the same language. "Yes, a bridge! Mezhem Sevraseched says it's the new Emperor's pet project. I must say, that makes me like him even before we've met."
"I do hope he lives up to your expectations," said Amarelle dryly.
"Oh, I know. We're not going to meet him. Still, it would be nice."
"If any of us is likely to, it'll be you. You can bond over clockworks and hydraulics. Not to mention that you can speak the language. Because I just came up with a brilliant idea."
"Uh-oh," said Sophara, but her mismatched eyes were twinkling.
"As you see, we are nearly there," said the captain, who had come up behind them. "Our dock is close by the bridge construction. There's a ferry dock as well – of course, it will be put out of business when the bridge is complete. There you will find transport for the rest of your journey to Cetho." Her broad black face broke into a grin. "Perhaps we will see you at the festivities."
The wedding gifts were beginning to pile up in the dining room. It was as bad as that first birthday after becoming Edrehasivar VII, thought Maia as he surveyed the pile. Gifts from the princes and the Corazhas, gifts from merchants and trade associations, small brightly-colored packages and large crates and slender envelopes. He wondered, a bit cynically, whether it was only that everybody was happy to see their ruler married, or whether they were angling for invitations to one of the many events that surrounded the wedding like attendants on a nobleman. He was a bit less naïve, now, than he had been last winter.
Csevet and Esaran had been recording the gifts and their senders, but had needed to call in additional help as the packages continued to arrive. He had a small pang of guilt about their work, but stifled it, and nodded to them as he proceeded to his breakfast. This is their job. Thou needst allow them to do it.
"Serenity," said Csevet a few minutes later, as he slipped into the room with a bundle of papers tucked under his arm.
Maia eyed the papers with dismay. "We were hoping there was not too much business to attend to. There is – so much to do." He waved his hand helplessly. Getting married was turning out to be far more complicated than the coronation had been. Most of it was not his responsibility, of course, but he was acutely aware that all eyes would be focused on him. If he tripped over the words of a response, or stepped on his partner's foot in a procession, he would not be the one humiliated. Csethiro Ceredin – soon to be Csethiro Drahazaran – would be there with him. He did not want to give her any cause for embarrassment.
"There is not so much. But we thought you might be interested in this." Csevet placed a letter to the side of Maia's plate. "It arrived with a gift of a cleverly worked pair of clockwork dancers."
"Dancers? From the Clocksmiths' Guild of Zhaö?" He smiled, remembering the fabulous emperor-clock that had been his birthday gift. It was one of the few things he'd received that he kept on display.
"Not from the Clocksmiths' Guild, Serenity."
Intrigued, Maia took the letter. The seal, which had been broken, was unfamiliar.
"We did not suppose it contained anything other than well-wishes," Csevet said hurriedly.
"No, that's all right. It was a reasonable expectation." He unfolded the letter and began to read. The writing struck him as strange, the letters oddly-shaped; it reminded him of his grandfather the great Avar's hand, or of his aunt Nadeian's. Perhaps it was from the equivalent guild in Barizhan? No, there it was, after the salutation. A gift from the people of Theradane.
"Theradane," he said thoughtfully. There was no Theradaneiese embassy at the Untheileneise Court. The name rang only a small, very distant bell in his memory of geography lessons, the litany of places that Setheris had forced him to learn. "That is south of the Chadevan Sea, is it not?"
"Far to the south and west, Serenity. We looked it up on the map. It is a city-state ruled by a body of mazei known as the Parliament of Strife." Csevet's ears twitched, and Maia could not suppress his own smile. A redundant appellation, or so it seemed to him based on his admittedly short experience with his own Corazhas. Was there a parliament anywhere in the world that was not contentious?
"So this delegation from Theradane has actually come all this way just to deliver a wedding gift?"
"It would appear so, Serenity."
He read over the short letter again, tapping it unconsciously with a finger. There was no request for audience, only the expression of a wish that His Serenity's upcoming marriage be happy and that they hoped their small token would provide some amusement, and a list of names and titles. "One of their number is a maza. An Osmerrem Sophara Miris, though she does not say whether she is part of this Parliament."
"An she were, Serenity, surely she would be styled Dach'osmerrem Miris?"
"Perhaps. Or perhaps it is an artifact of translation. The Theradaneiese are as likely to be unfamiliar with our own language and custom as we are of theirs. Is there a problem?" he added, seeing Csevet's ears stiffen.
"We saw the Theradaneiese in the square in Cetho. They are very strange. One is as dark as a goblin, but his ears..." Csevet made a motion with his hand as though to cut his own ears short. "Another has purple skin! And mazei from a foreign land may have powers our own cannot counter."
"Do you suspect the gift is imbued with evil magic?"
"We forwarded the gift to the Adremaza, who did not find any trace of magic. But that does not mean none is there," said Csevet unhappily.
"We take it you do not advise meeting with them, then."
"Serenity, it is not our place to advise one way or the other." But the set of his ears and the expression on his face made his opinion clear. Csevet was as protective of his emperor in his own way as any of Maia's nohecharei.
Wouldst set thy secretary's approval over diplomacy? Maia reproved himself. "We will invite them to the Great Ball," he decided. This celebration, set for two days after the marriage ceremony, was referred to as 'Great' not for the level of nobility invited, but for the sheer numbers expected to attend. It was an event for those important enough to warrant imperial acknowledgment, but not close in blood or affection, nor so exalted in status that they must be included in the more intimate gatherings and ceremonies. The invitation would not be perceived as conferring any great favor; it was only the most basic courtesy to the foreign envoy.
And, he had to admit to himself, he was curious about these foreigners. Short ears and purple skin!
In a rented house in a shabby but respectable district of Cetho, Scavius closed the door on the palace courier and then let out a whoop of delight, waving the letter which had just been delivered. "We're in!"
"Don't be so sure until you've read it," said Sophara. She made a gesture and the letter flew from his hands to hers.
"You mean, until someone's read it who can actually read it," said Brandwin, plucking it from Sophara's fingers and breaking the seal. The wording was formal, the printing mechanical, and it was signed by an underling, not the actual emperor. None of which mattered nearly so much as the contents. "But yes. We're in. More precisely, we're invited to a ball in the Untheileian six days from now."
Scavius grinned and dropped into a chair. "Told you. I can sense these things."
"Thank the gods," muttered Amarelle. The cost of the house was a strain on their collective finances, but it had been a calculated investment; an official delegation from Theradane's Parliament of Strife wouldn't doss under a bridge or above a cheap tavern, and the chance of the imperial staff investigating them was no odds at all. "Six days. Time to shift into high gear, ladies and gentlemen. Jade, what's the wardrobe status?"
Jade displayed a clipboard with a long list of items, each with a checkmark beside it. "Everything we need has been acquired."
"At very large discounts," added Scavius. "Practically for free. Well, actually for free, for the most part." He made a coin disappear between two of his knuckles, then pulled it from an ear. "Not that the merchants realize it yet. Hopefully."
"The necessary modifications are well underway and should be complete in a day or two," said Sophara. "Ah, it's almost a pity we are all such good friends. The things I could do to an enemy's clothes!" She blew on her fingertips, and an orange smoke curled upward. She put a hand on her wife's knee. "I'm especially looking forward to seeing you in your gown, love."
"Speaking of modifications," said Brandwin, "wait until you see Shraplin. Those dancers were just a warm-up. He's still fabricating the last of his parts, but it's going to be amazing."
"As long as it's going to be amazing in under six days."
Scavius rose to his feet in one smooth motion, then crossed the room. He wrapped himself around Amarelle, enclosing her in his arms, standing on his toes so he could murmur into her ear. "Relax. It'll all work out just fine."
"Famous last words," she muttered, but she let him run his fingers through her hair and kiss her earlobe.
"You're just tense because the planning's finished and there's nothing for you to do but wait."
"There is not nothing to do! I'm the mastermind of this gang! I have to plan! And supervise! And –"
"You know, we'd probably look more convincing with more jewelry," said Jadetongue thoughtfully.
Amarelle looked over at her suspiciously. "I thought the wardrobe was done?"
"A little extra jewelry would never go amiss. Elves and goblins are very status-conscious. And nothing projects status like an excess of shiny baubles."
"I thought the point was to get shiny baubles that were, you know, worth something?"
"You never know what we'll find. And anything we don't use, we can fence," said Scavius, chivvying Amarelle in a doorward direction. "Great idea, Jade! See you all later!"
Sophara counted to ten, then pulled out a deck of cards. "I thought she'd never leave. Whose turn is it to deal?"
It was a good thing, thought Maia, that he and Csethiro had only to sit on the dais and look regal. Two days after the ceremony, and he was still exhausted. Csethiro, astonishingly, looked as bright and fresh as ever, but he knew it was only her iron will that kept her from nodding off. That, plus the thrones' uncomfortably hard seats.
The dancers whirled around the Untheileian like bright-plumaged birds. Everyone of any noble rank was there, as well as the highest representatives from each of the guilds and associations. Invitations had gone out not only to those living in Cetho and the immediate vicinity, but to every principality of the Ethuveraz, and to Estelveriär and Barizhan as well. Of course, many of those invited from the more distant places had not made the long journey to the Untheileneise court. But it was surprising how many had.
Of course the Great Avar Maru Sevraseched had been invited not just to this ball but to all the more intimate family events; but he had replied that one journey to the Ethuveraz in fifty years was quite enough for him, and that he hoped that his grandson and his bride would travel to the Corat' Dav Arhos in the coming year – after all, they must see the stable's newly-foaled horses. But the Great Avar's natural daughter Shaleän Sevraseched, the sea captain his aunt Nadeian had told him about, had sailed all the way from Solunee-over-the-Water along with her wife. She also is thy aunt, and shouldst have made time to meet her before, he scolded himself, and sent Csevet to find them in the hall and bring them to the dais for an introduction.
He was not surprised to see that his aunt Shaleän had inherited her father's height and bulk as well as his booming voice. She wore an embroidered jacket and trousers rather than a gown, and her hair was close-cropped; it was easy to imagine her running off to sea dressed as a boy. But her wife – she was a surprise.
"We are pleased to finally make your acquaintance, Captain Sevraseched." By now he had trained himself out of the innate urge to apologize, and only said, "We would like to call you our aunt, if we may. But we had been told that Merrem Sevraseched –" he nodded in her direction – "was from Solunee-over-the-Water?"
"Yes, Serenity." She looked puzzled.
"Never before have we seen a person with skin other than elf-white, or goblin-black, or a shade between, as our own." He felt the weight of the eyes of his nohecharei upon him; worse, those of his empress. The color of a person's skin was something not to be remarked on – at least, not in public, and certainly not to that person's face. He had no doubt his own slate-gray skin had been discussed widely when he first came to the Untheileneise Court. But he pressed on: "It is only that you have the look of what we were told was one of the ambassadors from Theradane. Is it that you are Theradaneiese?"
"Ambassadors from Theradane!" exclaimed Captain Sevraseched. "Not Min Parathis and her entourage?"
Maia glanced toward Csevet, who nodded. "Osmin Parathis, yes. Are you acquainted with them?"
"We have spoken with them," said Merrem Sevraseched. "But we are not Theradaneise, Serenity. Rather it is that one of Min – Osmin Parathis' group is from near to our home in the south, and we are both of similar coloration."
"But how is it that you have met them?" He winced at the note of envy in his voice. Hopefully Captain and Merrem Svraseched would take if for mere curiosity. But it galled him, sometimes, how narrow his life as emperor had become – how fenced about with restrictions and requirements. Chance meetings with foreign folk were out of the question.
"They took passage with us." The captain frowned. "Your pardon, Serenity, but they did not strike us as precisely official."
"Perhaps they were traveling incognito," suggested Merrem Sevraseched. "We noticed that they are here this evening, and they certainly look very much more fashionable than they did aboard the Glorious Dragon. Though of course everyone dresses more elegantly for a ball than for a sea-voyage."
Captain Sevraseched grinned. "We would be in our sea-boots, an this one had not impressed that fact upon us."
"We hope that we will see you again before you return to the south," he said, and after a few more pleasantries, the two women returned to the hall.
Csethiro leaned toward Maia as Captain and Merrem Sevraseched disappeared into the crowd. "I like thy Auntie Captain very much. She is like my Great-Aunt Arbelan."
He nodded in agreement. Like Arbelan Zhasanai and her friends, Shaleän Sevraseched had found her own way, refusing to be constrained by the expectations of others. Many in the Untheileian would consider that a defect in a woman, but he admired that attitude. It pleased and reassured him that Csethiro admired it as well. They were turning out, he thought with some surprise, to be unexpectedly well-suited for each other.
He turned toward Csevet. "We would like to meet these Theradaneise."
"The captain's heading back down into the hall," said Shraplin, as he lifted his arm and twirled Amarelle underneath in a whirl of beaded black silk. "And one of the emperor's men is coming this way."
"Shit," murmured Amarelle. She raised her voice a little so that Sophara could hear her through the magical bug woven into the neckline of her gown. "Earlier than we planned. Get ready to move." She should have expected that Captain Sevraseched would be here; after all, she'd mentioned back on the ship that she was some relation of the young emperor. Hopefully the captain hadn't innocently blown their cover. A pity she hadn't come up with this plan until they'd nearly arrived at the dock, too late to sow the seeds of their assumed identities. Ah, well. At least her crew were pretty good at winging it.
They had known they wouldn't be able to blend in with the elves and goblins, so they'd taken care to stand out as much as possible. A sleeveless gown displayed Brandwin's shimmering skin to perfection, while Sophara's lush turquoise hair, piled high on her head and secured with the jeweled sticks that seemed to be in universal use among the nobility here, winked and sparkled with magical highlights. The two of them stood near to where Amarelle and Shraplin danced, drinking thin wine from tall glasses, pretending they didn't notice the fascinated whispers of those around them.
She turned her head toward where Scavius and Jade lounged against the wall in servant's garb. With a hat crammed down low on his brow to cover the tips of his ears, Scavius could almost pass as a goblin; he caught her eye and nodded, then took Jade by the elbow and began to slip through the crowd.
The emperor's man – really, he was not much more than a boy – stopped next to Brandwin and Sophara, and said something to them. Brandwin nodded to him and then indicated Amarelle and Shraplin.
"His Serenity wishes to meet us, apparently," said Sophara's magically amplified voice in her ear. Over Shraplin's shoulder, she could see the flunky's eyes widen as he took in the automaton. Shraplin guided her out of the line of dancers, and they walked over to the others.
The flunky nodded to them and said something in their complicated language that must have been "Follow me," because he began walking back toward the dais. The four of them fell in behind him.
"On my mark," Amarelle murmured, as they approached the steps to the dais. A small crowd was gathered there, perhaps hopeful that they might catch the imperial eye. On the dais, the emperor and his bride sat stiffly on a pair of thrones, attendants off to the side and behind them. Despite the elaborate hairstyles, embroidered clothing and enough silver and gemstones to buy an airship, they looked like a couple of kids. Peculiar-looking people, these Elfland folk, with their monochrome skin and pointy ears, but they certainly were into their jewelry. Maybe they should take some of the silver and emerald pieces the imperial couple wore. No doubt they'd fetch a good price in Camorr or Theradane.
The flunky indicated to them that they should wait, then ascended the steps and said something to the emperor. He turned back to them and said something. Amarelle smiled brightly at him and nodded as though she'd understood. "Now."
Sophara chanted a brief incantation, and the specially-sewn pockets on the three women's gowns and Shraplin's jacket burst open. The orange smoke that poured out was a marvel of alchemy and wizardry, designed to not only interfere with visibility and respiration, but also reduce inhibitions, promote a sense of reckless impulse, and destabilize motor control. (It was based on one of Sophara's favorite cocktails. Naturally, she'd also created prophylactic antidotes, which she, Brandwin, and Amarelle promptly popped into their mouths. Shraplin, being entirely inorganic, was unaffected.)
Sophara waved a hand, and a gentle breeze began to swirl the wizardly smoke throughout the hall. The emperor and empress began coughing, as did the gathering at the foot of the dais. As the smoke spread, more coughing and groans were heard.
"Excellent," said Amarelle. She reached toward the nearest elf, a stout old woman in an unbecoming yellow gown that made her pale skin look like ancient parchment, and relieved her of her topaz earrings, necklace, and hair ornaments. The woman tried to brush her hands away, but there was no force behind it. "It's all right, Grandmother. The hangover will last only a few hours."
"Watch out, boss!"
At Shraplin's sharp words, she looked up. Two of the emperor's attendants had covered their faces with cloth and were running down towards them. One held a sword; the other's lips were moving, his hand tracing sigils in the air.
"Sophara, they've got a wizard!" she gasped out. Then she ducked, as Shraplin jumped toward the attendants, spreading his arms wide. Instantly the sword flew out of the attendant's hand and clattered flat-first against the automaton's broad chest with a metallic clang, as did the ceremonial-looking sword the emperor wore. Sophara stopped plucking jewelry out of the air and turned her attention to the imperial wizard.
A sharp pain creased Amarelle's cheek just below her right ear, and a jewel-handled dagger plastered itself against Shraplin's back. "Ow!" She lifted a hand to her face. It came away bloody. "Right, then." She looked up at the thrones. The emperor and empress were struggling unsteadily to their feet. She started up the steps.
An inarticulate cry sounded behind her, and she turned. One of the men who had been in the knot of people at the foot of the dais was storming up the steps, orange tears streaming down his face. He passed Amarelle without even looking at her, went straight to the emperor, and grabbed him by the neck.
"Oh, hells," muttered Amarelle. "Larceny yes, regicide no." She stomped up the remaining steps and yanked the attacker off the emperor using a technique she'd learned from pub brawling. The man yowled and tried to push her aside, but she pulled the decorative stranglewire from her hair, wrapped it around his wrists, and shoved him back down the steps. "Shraplin, deal with him, okay?"
She turned back to the emperor, who was rubbing at his reddened neck, his gray eyes wide with shock. "Sorry, your Serenityness. That wasn't part of the plan."
And that was when the empress punched her in the face.
When she woke up, she was in a cell. It wasn't a bad cell as cells went – she had intimate experience with a wide variety of prisons – but still, it was definitely a cell, with rounded stone walls and a wooden door with heavy hinges. In the center of the door was a small barred window that opened out into a hallway rather than into any outside space. She was still wearing her ball finery, though her tactical hairpins had vanished, leaving her hair a knot of snarled black curls. Her head ached as though she'd been pounding back Sophara's most devious alchemical cocktails, and her entire left side was a mass of bruises and small cuts. A faint taste of blood was in her mouth. Her pockets were, unsurprisingly, empty. She got to her feet and banged on the door.
"Hey! Hey! Let me out of here! This is no way to to treat an ambassador! I'm going to register a complaint!"
A guard came to the window and said something incomprehensible, then vanished down the hall.
"Oh, goody, you're awake," said Sophara's cheery voice. It seemed to bounce off the rock walls and ricochet straight into Amarelle's skull. "I was worried they'd take the bug."
"Please stop yelling. And also, get me out of here."
A pause. "We're working on it." Another pause. "Really."
"Great," muttered Amarelle. "What happened?"
"One, the empress decked you; two, you went flying down the stairs; three, you crashed into Shraplin, which hit the inversion trigger on the weapons magnet. I don't think anyone was hurt, but it was a good diversion, so we scrammed."
"Just for a little –"
"Shh!" Amarelle cocked her head, then quickly whispered, "They're coming back. Shut up, and get me out of here."
The door opened, revealing a phalanx of guards. The guard who had spoken through the window earlier beckoned for her to come out, and she took her place in the center of their formation. "Only six guards? I'm insulted. Don't you know who you're dealing with, you milk-faced pointy-eared freaks?"
They must have been well-trained, for apart from a few ear twitches their grim faces remained unchanged as they marched her through narrow stone corridors and up several flights of stairs. Admittedly, it was unlikely that any of them understood her. "Am I being escorted to my execution? Listen, you gods-damned potato-heads, I saved your Serenityship's fucking life! You should be thanking me! You should be giving me a fucking reward!"
"Apparently that is precisely what His Imperial Serenity has in mind," said a familiar voice. They had just rounded a corner and entered what looked like a small audience chamber. Several attendants stood behind the emperor, who sat behind an ornate desk, in a chair that looked much less formal and much more comfortable than the throne in the ballroom. Next to him stood the imposing coal-black figure of Captain Sevraseched, who added, "You should probably curtsy, if you want your head to remain attached to your body. Not everybody in this room is as forgiving as His Serenity. "
"That would be a favor, considering how bad my head aches," muttered Amarelle, but she dropped into an awkward curtsy. The emperor's attendants were glaring at her as though they were looking for any excuse to start a fight, and it was better to be meekly safe than defiantly dead. She was outnumbered and weaponless, and worse, she was sober. Hopefully Sophara was getting all this via the bug in her dress. Hopefully the rescue was being organized. Hopefully they were right outside the door.
The emperor said something in his language. "All right, get up," said the captain. "His Serenity has directed us to translate, as he understands you do not speak Ethuverazhin."
"What a considerate fellow."
"Yes, he is," said the captain, and her face cracked in a smile. "He is also our nephew, so it surprises us as much as it does you." She exchanged a few words with the emperor. "He says that he is grateful for your intervention when Osmer Pakhozhar attempted to strangle him."
"I'll bet. Does that sort of thing happen often around here?"
Captain Sevraseched conferred briefly with the emperor. "More frequently than he would prefer, he says. His father and brothers were assassinated, you know. There are many among the nobility who are less than happy with an emperor of goblin blood. And some, like Osmer Pakhozhar, strongly oppose the construction of the Wisdom Bridge – that is, the pillars you saw being constructed near the landing where we came in to dock."
"I was happy to be of service to his Imperiosity," said Amarelle. "Especially if it comes with a reward."
"He is also aware that it was your alchemical dust that precipitated the attack."
"Yes, well." She waved a hand in the air. "Sophara's special sauce can't make someone do something against his will. It only encourages reckless behavior that you really want to do anyway. Your Cosmo Picklejar no doubt already had his evil plan in mind."
"His Serenity agrees. Osmer Pakhozhar was carrying a dagger, with which he had intended to attack."
"Son of a bitch," said Amarelle, rubbing the scab under her ear. Presumably that was what had winged her. "Good thing Shraplin's magneto-thingy grabbed it from him, then. Yet another point in my favor."
"It also disarmed the emperor and his nohecharis," said Captain Sevraseched sternly.
She shrugged. "Win some, lose some."
"True. But this does make it difficult to determine an appropriate – consequence."
"I think you mean reward," suggested Amarelle.
The captain translated, and the emperor's mouth quirked in a smile. They had a brief conversation, interrupted several times by various of the imperial attendants, apparently objecting to whatever was being proposed. Finally the emperor slapped a hand onto his desk, signaling the end of discussion.
Looking at Amarelle, he addressed her in his own language, a long speech in which she heard her name several times. When it seemed that he had finished, she turned to Captain Sevraseched. "Well?"
The captain cleared her throat. "His Serenity wishes to reward you for saving his life. However, he also wishes to ensure that you and your friends depart the Ethuveraz promptly, and do not return. He recognizes that he has no authority over citizens of a foreign land. However –" She turned to the emperor, who said a few words to one of his attendants. The attendant removed a medallion on a heavy silver chain from a box on a side-table, then came around the desk and held it out to Amarelle.
"In the name of His Serenity, Edrehasivar the Seventh, you are made Duchess Untheilenanin of the Nevennamire."
She took the chain and medallion. The attendant snatched his hands away as though he was afraid she'd take them, too, and hurried back to his station. She looked closely at the medallion. It had a sort of snaky cat on it, picked out in very tiny gemstones. Worth something, anyway. "Okay, I admit I didn't see that coming. What's the catch?"
"The catch," said Captain Sevraseched, "is that the Nevennamire is the prison in which you spent the night. And if you ever return to the Ethuveraz, you shall be promptly ensconced in your title-lands."
"A considerate fellow with a sense of humor. Pity more rulers aren't like that." She grinned conspiratorially at the emperor, who smiled back. "Thanks, Emp. At least I get a title out of it. Duchess Unsee – what was that, again?"
The emperor must have gotten the sense of her question, for he answered her directly. "Dach'Osmin Untheilenanin thu Nevennamire."
"The Duchess Unseen of the Nevermore! I like it!" She heard Sophara's laugh from her collar, quickly smothered. She placed the chain around her neck. "Now what?"
"Now we escort you to your friends –"
"Who are waiting outside the palace," said Sophara's voice.
"– and then to the airship Strength of Rosiro, which will transport all of you anywhere you like, as long as it's somewhere out of the Ethuveraz –"
"Nevermore to return," finished Amarelle. "Gotcha. Well, nice knowing you, Serenity. And you, Captain." She turned to the guards. "Let us depart," she said grandly. "The Duchess Unseen's airship awaits!"
The view from the rising airship was magnificent. Good thing, thought Amarelle grimly, as she kept her eyes focused on the horizon.
Shraplin tapped her on the shoulder. "The captain says it should be steady sailing from here, boss. Have you decided on a destination?"
She looked around. A crewman stood patiently next to the passenger seats, ready to relay instructions to the captain. They'd been hustled aboard the Strength of Rosiro so quickly they hadn't had time to discuss where they ought to go next.
"How about somewhere we can make some real money?" said Scavius pointedly.
"Come on, Scav," said Sophara. "We got to visit a place we'd never been and got out with our skins intact. All things considered, that's a win."
"Mostly intact," said Amarelle, rubbing the spot where Picklejar's dagger had nicked her.
"Mostly intact. We did get a few nice bits of pretty out of it."
"And Amarelle got elevated to the nobility," added Brandwin.
"Don't you forget it, you low-life peasant scum. All hail the Duchess Unseen!"
"Huzzah!" cried Scavius. "Now, where can we go to make some real money?"
"The emperor only barred us from coming back to the Ethuveraz, right?" asked Jade. "Which means we could still go to Barizhan."
"Didn't we already decide there wasn't anything worth stealing in Barizhan?"
"Right. But I overheard one of the Barizheise visitors talking about a book he wished he had. He'd pay an enormous sum to have it for his own. But alas," said Jade, "the only known copy is in the library of Hazar."
"The library of Hazar," mused Amarelle. "That the one with the giant mechanical three-headed dogs that track you down and kill you through concerted licking if you don't return your books on time?"
"That's the one."
"Perfect." She turned to the crewman. "The Duchess Unseen has decided. Set a course for Hazar!"