1. the act of inviting.
2. incentive or allurement.
3. a provocation: Her comments were an invitation to rebuke.
There is a house in New Orleans.
It's also the only house in New Orleans, at least in the sense that any human would recognize something as a 'house'. Faeries have some very peculiar ideas about architecture, usually involving gigantic treeborne villages of majestic spires, or living structures made of wood and leaf, or strange cathedral-like buildings half made of living rock and half made of mysterious glassworks, and so on, and so forth. The higher in your Court you sit, the more beautiful and majestic and unearthly your domain shall be. Emphasis on 'un-EARTHly.'
The exception to this is the House of the Rising Sun. It was crafted to resemble an Earth-ly mansion... a design throwback to the Victorian era, with majestic ivory spires, bedchambers upon bedchambers, and an opulent ballroom with the world's most majestic chandelier. It took the elf-servants hours just to light all its candles, using delicate little Light spells. Having a home in human design was the peak of decadence, of wallowing and playing about in low foreign motifs -- and the house was no stranger to various manners of decadence.
Of course, the house was a new structure, raised by Lady Morgana of the Summer Court using a strong weave of building spells and glamours. Before her arrival, there was nothing here but the ruins of some ancient human city, still loosely bearing the name "New Orleans." A hundred years of abandonment led to most of the city to be overgrown, flooded, or otherwise simply collapsing from old age. Without humans around to maintain and repair their structures, nature will fiercely and swiftly retake any city, after all.
The new owner of New Orleans, appointed by Lady Summer herself, ordered the soggy remains of the city pulverized to make room for her plantations. Her business was medicinal herbs and roots that grew well in swampland, cultivated by her legions of lowly indebted elves. The few standing structures of the French Quarter fell within a day to destructive spellwork; the above-ground graveyards had their stone crypts ground to dust. Within a week the slate had been wiped clean, ready to be remade in the Faerie image.
But Lady Morgana refused to make her own home in the resulting muck and ruin... she considered herself a modern Faerie. So, she built the House of the Rising Sun on the edge of the city, in the spitting image of human opulence -- mostly because it seemed like a good idea and she was bored. In time she came to enjoy the strange comforts humans idolized, like canopy beds and fresh linens and what they once called "chambermaids." Her new mansion was now named after an ancient folk song she'd once heard her slaves singing, about drunkenness and gambling and endless crushing debt, which seemed quite fitting to one such as her. After all, Lady Morgana adored the art of the gamble.
When the agricultural industry bored her (which was frequently) the Lady would throw a lavish party of games -- various Faerie styles of gambling would act as centerpieces. They could be word and imagination, games competitions to outmaneuver your opponents, or all manners of combat-by-proxy with creatures (and even slaves, at certain special occasions). Faeries didn't care for little laminate cards and plastic chips. They went for the thrust and riposte of intellectual fencing... or betting on games of brutality that they rarely took part in themselves. That was the style of decadence the House of the Rising Sun was famous for.
Naturally, it wasn't considered a place for proper Faeries, or even proper witches. Nobody sensible would go there. Not that this stopped sensible Faeries from going there in droves, even while steadfastly denying they had visited it.
Emily had heard of the House, of course; it was a subject of frequent excited yet whispered gossip, about how so-and-so would never go to such a place, honestly, really. If she'd had her druthers, Emily wouldn't be there now. Unfortunately, her druthers were quite disregarded by the Summer Court.
They had committed the crime of trespass. (This was a strange crime, given the 'turf' they walked on embedded within Edmonton was stolen from the Winter Court in the first place, but you didn't want to argue legal semantics when a Lion of Summer had his lance pointed in your face.) The penalty chosen by the Summer Court was Hospitality.
"But why is being invited to a fancy party with the elite of Faerie society a punishment?" Una asked.
"Because it's a trap," Emily explained, while pacing back and forth in one of the many guest bedrooms of the House.
The three of them had been brought to this room by a Lion of Summer, ordered to stay put and wait for further instructions -- and not get any of the muck and dirt and other horrible fluids they'd collected from the fallen city of #BE12 on the furniture. After that, they were left alone... and given this would be one of the few times they could speak without eavesdropping, Emily felt the need to give her companions the thumbnail sketch of the Hospitable doom in front of them.
"A trap? A party is a trap?" Una wondered, not quite grasping it.
"Faerie parties aren't just about wining and dining and dancing and polite conversation," Emily continued. "Even without any actual declared games currently in play, the party itself is an elaborate game of cat and mouse, where the politeness is a defensive technique. Nothing a Faerie offers is free unless they expressly say so, and even then, you're going to want to watch the particulars. That means the appetizers could come with a heavy price tag, a poorly chosen word could insult your host, even the dress you show up in could be enough to lock you into owing some massive favors. It's like being offered a fresh apple pie that just happens to be sitting in the middle of a big rusty bear trap."
"But... why would the Faeries enjoy anything like that? It sounds horrible!"
"For many of them, attendance is mandatory. If they owe the host, the host can collect by insisting on an RSVP. Plus... well. You have to understand, the Faerie mindset is not the same as a human one, certainly not an Orbital one. Many Faeries enjoy the cat and mouse game, especially as the mouse who manages to outwit the cat. And the higher court Faeries, if they do slip up, well, they've got plenty of favors in their back pocket they can spend to avoid any real penalty. It's a kind of gambling. Only instead of losing your shirt you could lose your life -- in the sense of getting killed or in the sense of being enslaved in bottomless debt."
"Sooo... we're being forced to attend a party... in hopes that we'll fall deeper into their clutches?"
"Exactly. Now, not all Faeries are vicious bastards about it -- remember, I was assuming Esrever was a sneaky bastard at first, until he went out of his way to assure us his 'hospitality' wasn't malevolent and freed us from any possible obligation. --but this is different! We're in the House of the Rising Sun! It'd almost be better if we were in some wealthy pervert's orgy palace, compared to the kind of playful "fun" they can have here without even needing to take off your clothes. You don't want to hear the stories I've heard of this place...!"
"How distasteful! I can only imagine what sort of foulness transpires here."
"No, actually, you can't. You've led a sheltered little utopian space life. No, that's not an insult, I wish I didn't know about this place, frankly. I envy you that. ...so. Now that I've tuned you in to the nasty, let's go over the rules--"
Scout counted them off, from memory. "Don't eat or drink anything," he said. "Indebts you to come to the host's next party. Don't insult anyone. You do that, your only hope is they insult you worse and tip the scales in your favor. Blend in, move with the crowd, don't stand out or create a scene. Don't be an awkward loner. And don't say anything about what we're really up to here."
"Yes, thank you, Scout, that just about covers it," Emily said, nodding along.
"Very well! I shall be cautious and careful," Una promised. "...what are we really up to here, then? Oh, wait, I know -- trying to find out more about the hypertech that Lady Summer stole from Lady Winter. ...but can we really do that, when we're under such stringent self-control?"
"Prrrobably not," Emily admitted. "But if you see an opening, a safe one, take it. We need to get as far away from this place as fast as possible and as soon as possible, so if there's any investigation to be done it has to be done tonight. Once the party's over and Hospitality ends for us we need to clear out. So. Any questions?"
"Yes. Why would Lady Summer utilize such a terrible place for her Solstice Ball?"
...that had been nagging at Emily ever since one of the Lions of Summer that dragged them here let it slip.
There were two problems with it.
One, the House itself was all wrong. Lady Summer was a Faerie's Faerie, the Queen of the Summer Court, bearer of the Crown of Flame. As the ultimate expression of what it is to be Faerie, choosing Lady Morgana to host her yearly Solstice Ball made no sense whatsoever. The House's dis-reputation meant it was the least likely of the great houses to be given this honor.
Two, Solstice was June 21st this year... which was actually five days away. They were celebrating too early -- the yearly ball was always held on the longest day of the year, without exception. It was the height of Summer's power, when the Summer Court was at its greatest strength. You don't shuffle up the date of the party like that and still call it "Solstice," and yet, that's exactly what was going on.
"I have no idea," Emily admitted. "And that scares the hell out of me. Something's very wrong here. The only positive upshot is there won't be any obvious games of chance in play, since the Solstice Ball is a formal affair. ...which means the games will be non-obvious, which is probably worse. Jeez... as if things weren't wrong enough with magical creatures toting energy blaster rifles..."
Scout kept his eyes glued to the closed doors of the guest bedroom. "We're being kept waiting. They're preparing something, or hiding something. You know Summer Court more than I do. What comes next?"
"Next... I suspect we're going to be given a gift," Emily said. "Probably no favor attached, thankfully, to avoid an incident. That's because if we don't accept it'd only deepen our insult against Lady Summer worse, AND make things very bad for our host to boot. Not that I'm going to enjoy this gift at all...
"What is it?"
"In all likelihood? Two very beautiful dresses and a fine suit of clothes. Going to the party in these yucky rags would be suicide for all involved. We're going to end up being the belles and beau of the ball, whether we like it or not."
by stefan gagne
The dress was indeed beautiful. It would be the finest garment Emily had ever worn, and she hated it with a burning passion.
"Can't you de-glitz it more?" she asked the young Sprite who brought it in for her. "Less shiny bits, less frilly bits? I'm going to look like a disco ball at this rate!"
"Ma'am, I've already tuned the glamour-stones down as far as they'll go," the Sprite protested. "This is as dull as it gets, I'm afraid..."
"Well... can you tint it an earthy tone? Something boring. To go with my hat."
"Oh, you can't wear that old thing to the ball...!" the Sprite protested. It produced a spool of thread in one hand and an enchanted needle in the other. "At the very least, let me patch it up some--"
Emily yanked the hat off her head, and held it behind her back, protecting it. "You touch this hat and I will grow very cross. Is that understood? This is a priceless family heirloom. I'm wearing it as-is. I know the accords -- wearing an old hat isn't going to be enough to count as an insult against the host."
The Sprite considered that. It was a flighty little thing, as all Sprites were... a cross between a tiny, tiny little Pixie and a human-sized Faerie, 'standing' about a foot tall and hovering on gossamer wings of iridescent silk. They had a tendency to take things that looked shiny, regardless of legal ownership... meaning quite a few of them ended up owing rather severe favors.
This one wore the usual ragged, leafy one-piece garment afforded to servants of Lady Morgana's house; something simple that could be grown from a seed. No sense wasting good hand-crafted clothing on a serving-slave, after all. The only piece of finery was a velvet choker, with a a silvery pendant engraved with Lady Morgana's silhouette. Rather like a neo-Victorian dog collar.
"If you insist on wearing that hat... then yes, I suppose an earthy tone would be more appropriate," the Sprite decided, after searching its constantly-bouncing thoughts for some workable logic. A few words of a glamour spell were mumbled, and the dress Emily wore shifted to a light brown tone, with sandy beige highlights. "Hmm... it'll do. That and the adjustments made to, ah, de-emphasize your figure have flattened out its impression considerably. It does look very unimpressive now, my lady... are you certain that is your wish?"
"I'm certain. I've got absolutely no reason to show off," Emily said, turning this way and that to study the plain-ified dress in a mirror. She put her hat back on, reasonably assured it was safe now from spontaneous repair and glamourization.
"I understand. No doubt you do not wish to outshine your companion!"
"The one with the snow-white hair, yes? Such a fair maiden, she!" the androgynous little Sprite spoke, swooning in midair. "I've not a doubt she will make a wondrous impression on the Court tonight, especially with that handsome lad on her arm..."
Emily cleared her throat. "Ex-CUSE me, but that 'handsome lad' will be on MY arm tonight," she corrected. "...I mean... not that I've asked him, but it's likely. Y'know. Bound to happen."
"Ah, I see. Please forgive my mistake, ma'am. ...but while factually that may be... no doubt those at the party will assume him to be her fancy lad, what with you appearing so utterly ordinary and forgettable. My lady."
The young witch studied her gift-dress in detail. And in thought.
"Maybe turn up the glitz a little. Just a little," she said, making a pinchy gesture with her fingers. "Maybe this much. ...little more. ...little more than that. --right, there. ...oh, and about my figure..."
While Emily was being fitted with an now-increasingly pretty dress, Una was relaxing in one of the many guest baths.
The inset ivory bathtub was far larger than she would've expected a simple hygiene apparatus to be. It had gold and silver inlaid into the taps, the knobs, and even decorative trim. The little dishes that held soaps and sponges were also solid gold. While it was quite lovely and reminded her very much of the self-polishing metals of her home, it seemed a bit too much for what she knew of Earth. Metals like these were valuable, and rare. Why waste them on a device for routine cleansing of foreign contaminants?
She'd asked this question to her attendant.
"Lady Morgana has expectations upon her," the young elven girl explained, while carefully scrubbing Una's back with a sponge. "Guests come to expect this sort of finery when they stay at the House. It would be an insult not to provide a customary level of luxury."
The girl's name, or at least the one she had given, was Nel. She was an elf, with light brown hair and (when they weren't downcast) matching brown eyes. She wore a simple leafy green tunic Una thought was quite lovely, a collar of some sort, and little else. Her purpose in being here was to make Una presentable, which was a harder task than Emily or Scout faced, given hours ago Una was busy being violently ill in every conceivable way.
The first step was a bath, of enchanted oils that would utterly dissolve anything repulsive. Later, Una would be fitted with the exceptionally wonderful-looking silver dress provided (free of favor) by their host, Lady Morgana. Nel explained it all in simple tones, then set about helping 'Lady Una' cleanse herself... but Una insisted on conversation during the process, which Nel was not prepared for. She tried answering the first questions, but that just led to more questions, and more questions...
"An insult...? So... while the party is a trap for guests, it's also a trap for the host. Such a strange way to live," Una pondered aloud, while washing her own arms. (She'd also insisted on doing the lion's share of the bathing, eager to experience Earth cleansing techniques after years and years of boring nano-cleansing.) "But even beyond the strange system of debt and politeness, this bath itself is overdesigned! I suppose aesthetic appeal has a much stronger value in Faerie culture. Not that Orbitals are any less keen on the art of aesthetics, but dipping that art into even the most mundane of activities would be unusual... but I will admit, the scents on these soups are exhilarating! Smell this, smell it!"
The servant elf blinked a few times in surprise, and sniffed the back of Una's wrist, as requested.
"Isn't that great? I wonder what's in it? Pressed flowers, perhaps. I wonder if I could get some to bring with me before we leave?" Una talked and talked on. "And to think, you get to enjoy these bathing methodologies every day!"
"...I do not, ma'am."
"Huh? Why?" Una asked, turning in the bath, despite being mid-back-scrub. "Are the soaps a conserved resource? Perhaps bathing only occurs on a longer temporal cycle?"
"No, ma'am. The perfumes and soaps are kept plentiful at all times."
"Then... the water is in short supply? I know obtaining clean water can be taxing, and is one of the reasons humans build cities primarily along rivers and oceanfronts..."
"No, ma'am. Spellwork keeps a steady amount of clear water available."
"Ah... why, then?"
Nel lowered her eyes a moment, while wringing out the sponge. "It's not my place to use this bath. I use the water pump and bucket at the servant quarters outside the House. Now, ma'am, lift your arms please, so I can finish washing--"
"Ahh, wait, this is a concept I know!" Una said, recalling Emily's discussions. "Servants, I mean. They are hired by people to perform mundane, routine tasks, freeing them to focus on their areas of expertise. We don't really have them, where I'm from. I suppose servants are needed when the group, be it familial or professional, lacks a strong enough membership to distribute tasks among the collective. But... if you're part of Lady Morgana's collective, why can't you use her resources?"
"...because I'm her servant."
"And... and I'm her servant," she tried again, not sure how else to say it, voice increasingly unsteady.
"I'm not sure I follow-- ahh, Nel? Why do you look relatively alarmed...?"
"I... I am not alarmed," Nel protested. "We should finish your bath. You need to go. I need to go..."
Una pointed out various signs. "Your eyes are darting back and forth lightly, and you've been nibbling your lip. It's my understanding these are stress indicators. Is something wrong? Should I call for a biologist?"
"N-no, there's no need to call anyone for anything!" Nel insisted, horrified at the idea of the Lady causing a scene on her behalf. "I... ah... please, a thousand apologies, ma'am, but... I'm not used to being asked so many questions. I don't understand all the things you say. I'm trying to answer to the best of my ability, but... I'm sorry! Please, forgive me! Don't hurt me!!"
Una cocked her head, curious and confused. "Er, forgive you for what? Hurt you? You've done nothing wrong. Why would I want to hurt you? Ah, I'm the one who should apologize -- your culture's quite unfamiliar to me, mostly I engage in human sociology studies, not Faerie, and... oh, dear, I'm upsetting you more...!"
She quickly climbed out of the bath, wrapping a nearby towel around herself, and tried to steady the shaking elven girl.
"Please... I mean no harm," Una insisted, keeping her eyes on the girl's, despite the servant trying very hard to avoid a direct look. "I just want to understand you better, that's all. ...ah, I know! Let's try this from another direction. Nice and simple! What sort of things do you do here for your employer?"
Nel tried to steady herself. "Emp...loyer?" she asked, unfamiliar with how the term applied here.
"Ah, for Lady Morgana. What sort of routine work tasks are you employed to perform?"
The elven girl told her what sort of routine tasks she performed.
More importantly, she found herself telling Una about what happened whenever her tasks weren't done to the Lady's approval. Which was always.
This wasn't the first time Scout had been imprisoned. It was certainly the most pleasant cell he'd been held in, given it was shaped like a luxurious fitting room. If you looked very, very carefully, you'd still never see the bars... but the bars were there, all the same.
He was Winter Court. This was a place of the Summer Court. That put him at unease, but it was one he could control, despite his inner Fae self's desire to run wild and tear down the building. He was getting better at selective control every day... more practiced at deciding what he would or would not feel, not just what he would not feel.
So, he decided that rather than taking his usual "patiently wait for a moment to strike" approach to imprisonment, he'd make the most of his time. He did some warmup exercises, stretches, a few martial forms. It was a different sort of lying in wait for the enemy, true, but it was one that kept him focused and sharp, rather than simply coiled tight and waiting to spring.
Scout was studying the wooden beam in the closet normally designed for hanging suits, wondering if it was structurally sound enough for him to do some chin-ups on it, when the Lion of Summer entered.
The Lions were the counterparts to the Winterhounds. Where a Hound was a wild thing, a creature of mad violence and lust, a Lion was a noble warrior of poise and strength. (Oddly enough, the sort of thing Scout had shaped himself to become, to counter the Hound within.) They wore ceremonial battle armor at all times, emblazoned with the flaming sun of Summer. And rumor had it they too could not be killed.
Seeing this warrior-priest put to task as a laundry errand boy was a strange sight, as he came not bearing arms, but bearing a neatly folded and pressed uniform. He did casually dump it on the floor at Scout's feet, as a token gesture of dissatisfaction with his current role.
"You can abandon that tattered suit you have on," the Fae soldier suggested in a way that implied it was not a suggestion. "I can see from the shoulder insignia's reversed text -- and from the smell of the thing -- that it's likely some product of Esrever the Mirror-Fiend's false empire. Unacceptable for a guest of Lady Summer to wear, of course. Be thankful the Sprites were skilled enough to weave you something similar to replace it."
Scout picked up the pile of uniform from the floor, shaking out the top, to study it.
The uniform consisted of military dress blues, in a Frontliner cut. Similar to his old uniform, similar to the mirrored one, but of a far finer fabric weave, with more piping and decorations. Even the patch on the shoulder, the old familiar crosshair and embroidered title of SCOUT, were of superb craftsmanship.
"What I can't comprehend is why a bloodhound of Lady Winter would want to wear a human soldier's clothes. But you're no ordinary bloodhound, are you?" the Lion spoke. "A Winterhound of human make. The Scout. I've heard of you. Specifically, of how you've hunted my kind, from time to time... and even your fellow Winterfae."
"I hunted the hunters," Scout explained. "Those who had it coming, for preying on the innocent and weak. That's all."
"Harumph. I won't defend the behavior of others; my charge is strictly to defend my Lady Summer," the Lion said, with a rolling shrug of armored shoulders. "Nor will I absolve you of any past deeds, however. Frankly, right now, you are not my concern. I suggest you continue to not be my concern, Wintertouched. I intend to see this evening through in peace and security. Unlike you, I am willing and ready to die to protect my Lady."
"As am I," Scout said, as he started to undo the buttons on his mirror-uniform.
"So you are oathbound to Lady Winter, then...? The rumors of your wild streak, of the beast off its leash, are false?"
"I didn't say that was my lady," he clarified. "Do you mind? I'd like to change. Get this evening over with sooner."
The Lion nodded in agreement. "The sooner you are gone from here, the happier I will be. Agreed. But I will be in the ballroom, waiting, and watching. Mind yourself, Winterling."
Nel the house elf was crying.
Partly, it was from her recounted stories of her time spent in the House of the Rising Sun. How she tended to Lady Morgana personally, as her glamour specialist... tuning and fine tuning and re-tuning her Mistress's appearance near endlessly each morning, until Morgana was satisfied with the results. Which was almost never, no matter how much effort Nel put into covering up the Lady's fading beauty. That "failure" always resulted in some sort of punishment, from mundane to creative...
Partly, it was because she knew she was now raising a scene -- the worst kind of scene, with someone who didn't truly understand why it was becoming a scene. This would not end well for Nel.
Una felt supremely bad about this. Her inquisitive nature had turned some simple questions of an anthropological interest into a full blown interrogation. But once the answers started coming... she couldn't STOP asking. Partway through, Una realized why. She was purposefully building a rather impressive amount of rage. Not an emotion she was familiar with, rarely feeling actual hate towards anyone or anything... which fortunately let her stand outside it, recognize it, know what it was by virtue of how alien the sensation was.
"I... I still miss them. I barely remember my family but I miss them," Nel was saying. She'd kept talking, minutes after Una had stopped asking questions. "I'll never see them again. I try, I try so hard, I do everything I'm asked, but it's never good enough. It seems I'll never be out of my debt to Lady Morgana..."
"Y-Yes, ma'am...?" Nel asked, between sobs...
...and Una reached over, to dry those tears with her the corner of her towel.
"I'm going to ask you to do some things you'll be hesitant to do," Una said, being very careful now with words. The plan had been forming behind her eyes... piecing together, component by component, like software. "But I promise you... if you do as I request... you will see your family again. I think I know how I can make it happen. I cannot stand by my principles as a Optimist and allow this... this madness to continue, this frivolous causation of despair. ...do you trust me?"
It would be completely insane to put any trust in this stranger, of course. Nel recognized that. She came from a people that clearly had no idea how anything worked. One which had absolutely no concept of the word 'slave' and even a shaky grasp on the idea of asking someone else to do something you could do yourself.
The white-haired stranger had no concept of the word 'slave'...
Once her Lady found out about this scene, about upsetting a guest of the House regardless of the nature of that upset, Nel would be doomed, regardless.
One doom was as good as another.
The sun had set on the House of the Rising Sun, and the guests were at last arriving for the grand Solstice Ball.
They had gathered to pay homage to Lady Summer, the all-mother of the Summerfae, the goddess of that which is green and grows. It was one of the few times they could be assured she would make an appearance... although all Summerfae bent knee to the Crown of Flame, many would live their entire lives without laying eyes upon it. That honor was reserved for the Lions of Summer, high noble attendees of the Solstice Ball, and those who Summer took a unique interest in (for good or ill).
Two by two, the guests would be introduced by the Herald, a dapper old fellow who stood today in a human tuxedo-style suit, as befitting the House's motif. Always by twos... it was considered a great insult to be invited and not bring a guest with you of some sort.
It was a trap that Emily had unfortunately let slip her mind, when she was giving her friends the mission briefing. She waited in the antechamber, trying not to be noticed by the Herald, letting other arriving guests brush past her in their Faerie finery. Emily would be fine... provided Scout got here in time to be announced with her. But what would happen to Una...? Would some Faerie unfortunate enough to go stag snatch her up to get through the door without incident, and if so, how would the favor play out in that scenario? Perhaps one would cancel the other out...
She tried not to fret too much. Fretting would result in sweating. Sweating in a dress that was once beautiful and then homely and then, at her insistence, just SLIGHTLY more beautiful but not too much to be considered extravagant but still quite beautiful and honestly she felt very silly in it but on the other hand did kind of like the idea of wearing a nice dress even if the circumstances weren't to her liking and hopefully she hadn't gone too far in the tweaking particularly with the artificial corset spell which made her actually have a noticeable bust which she noticed a bit too late but went with anyway despite knowing she should have reservations about that sort of thing and--
No. No fretting. It was a survival tool for the ball and nothing more. ...even if it was also very lovely.
A figure without pointy ears approached. She was relieved to identify Scout on sight... even if on second sight, his uniform seemed considerably nicer than before. It had epaulets, of all things, and what looked like soft white gloves. A formal dress saber, a gilded weapon designed only to look macho-yet-stylish, had been placed at his hip through a blue sash.
They'd also combed his hair, properly combed. Emily couldn't recall the last time Scout bothered to do more than slightly de-wild his hair a little.
"Wow, Scout, you look--" "You look especially--"
"Ah, you first--" "No, go on--"
The two paused, not sure what to say next.
"I do feel a bit silly," Emily decided, to take some wind out of her own sails. "I've never owned actual jewelry before..."
"This sword doesn't even work," Scout complained, tugging at the hilt, which was simply attached to the scabbard with no blade within. "No reason to wear a weapon that doesn't work."
"Stabbing people is the last thing we want to do tonight, Scout. We need a low, low profile if we're going to get through this," she said. "Alright. Let's get announced. Hopefully Una'll be along soon, if she's not in there already. We're going to have to meet Lady Morgana after. Don't let her rile you up."
"And the same to you," Scout agreed. He offered her his arm, bent just so, and Emily tentatively slipped her own arm through it...
"Now announcing!" the Herald called out, his voice magically boosted for the evening, ringing across the already crowded ballroom. "Emily Moonthistle, Summerwitch in exile, and Scott Reinhold, rogue Winterhound! Both attending within Hospitality, by order of Lady Summer!"
Emily desperately tried to ignore the wide-eyed stares of dozens of Faerie nobles, as the magical candles of the grand chandelier swerved their lights to illuminate the couple.
"... ...Reinhold?" Emily whispered. "Your last name is Reinhold?"
"I prefer Scout," Scott 'Scout' Reinhold grumbled.
As the two descended the staircase to join the party itself, Scout scanned the surroundings, memorizing where the exits were. There were hallways off to the left and right, which presumably would lead out... large floor to ceiling windows, which he could jump through if need be... and of course, the double doors they had entered through. Tables lined the walls, with chairs suitable for taking a rest when you were tired of mingling, as well as being good for kicking over if you needed cover. The center of the room, just in front of the enormous overhead chandelier (which could be dropped with a VERY well placed shot to the rope that held it in place, good for a distraction) was covered in a wooden ballroom dance floor... a bad place to be if a fight broke out, although human... well, Faerie shields were a possibility...
His view was blocked by a six foot tall woman, a vision of apple-red silk and blood-red hair in cascading waves. Despite her looming height, she managed a practiced poise, one that screamed elegance and grace. Screamed it in such a way as you'd better agree she was elegant and graceful, or it might start screaming something else, maybe starting with "off with her head."
(Little did they know, but this vision of beauty was a veneer applied by one Nel the house-elf. If they had caught Morgana as she rose from slumber that morning, they would hardly be facing a well-groomed lady of confidence and power.)
"By order of Lady Summer, by order of Lady Summer... well, well. You two make a very interesting couple," Lady Morgana, Mistress of the House of the Rising Sun stated, smiling in an allegedly welcoming manner. "And here I was concerned this crowd of nobles would be far too droll an ensemble for a proper party, the kind I am famous for. I welcome you, Summerwitch in exile, and you, rogue Winterhound. My word, an actual slave of Lady Winter in my house...! They'll speak of this for years!"
Emily dropped into a formal curtsey; Scout took a deep bow, following her cue. "We are grateful to be here, Lady Morgana, in your lovely House," Emily blatantly lied. "We are grateful to Lady Summer for this opportunity to repay her for our unfortunate trespass on her private domain. I can think of no more wonderful a way to--"
"Oh, do stifle the false enthusiasm," Morgana said, rolling her eyes. "You don't want to be here, it's all over your face. But it doesn't matter, does it? You ARE here, and for the next hours, you are going to be quite popular. I'll be marching all sorts of dukes and duchesses your way, to show off my lovely and interesting guests. I'll cement my reputation, or rather, my disreptuation off of you, girl."
"As you like it," Emily said, through gritted teeth. The host was allowed some leeway with insult, particularly of the verbal sort... she didn't dare snap back at that.
"My very own relics of the old world...!" Lady Morgana exclaimed, clasping her hands to her chest. "How exciting! You know... soon, your kind will be irrelevant. It would be best to study you before you are made obsolete--"
The eyes of the room turned again to the doors, as was custom when a new couple arrived...
If Emily and Scout opened eyes, these two opened eyes and caused jaws to drop. Even the Herald stumbled a bit over the introduction.
"Una zero point one of Orbital Arcology #A076, daughter of Primary Council Leader Ono, and, er... Nelliwyn Myfanwy, servant of the House of the Rising Sun..."
The attendees looked from one girl to the other. It wasn't easy figuring out which one was which.
One was wearing an elegant silver dress, something befitting of an Orbital dignitary -- it was crafted by expert Sprites, able to weave tiny rainbow glimmers of Faerie-metal between the layers of silvery silk, spun by expert spiders. It was a dress to turn heads, a dress to grant an aura of mystique and allure to the wearer.
The other wore the rough leafy tunic of a house-elf slave, an ordinary organic thing, of no importance whatsoever. The velvet choker sealed the image of person as property.
However, the one with the pointy ears was wearing the beautiful dress.
Una, wearing the servant's uniform (along with her usual silver bracers and her small jetpack, oddly enough), led the reluctant and red-faced servant girl Nel in the lovely garment down the stairs, stepping along in her bare feet, all smiles like the cat who had swallowed the canary. Una paused in front of Lady Morgana, curtseying formally, even if she didn't have the proper bustle and skirt to do more than ape the gesture. Nel's bow was considerably more sincere and severe, nearly scraping the floor with her knees in a desperate attempt to show her servile nature...
Now, we are COMPLETELY boned, Emily thought, far too shocked to dive into the fray and try to salvage the situation.
"Lady Morgana, I am pleased to visit you in your lovely House, of which I have heard many a tale," Una explained, all smiles and good tidings. "I bring the well wishes of my people with me, as the chosen representative of Arcology #A076--"
The creak of Morgana's fist closing around the decorative vine-and-thorn whip at her side was audible from across the room.
"What. Is. The meaning of this," she asked, allowing her rage to seethe through in her words. "Miserable, pathetic little... little NOTHING! You have taken the dress intended for my guest--!"
Una kept her arm locked around Nel's, to prevent the elf from immediately diving to the floor to beg forgiveness. "Nothing was stolen, gracious host," she clarified. "I was given the garment, as was your intention. A fine gift, which the Orbitals show deep gratitude for! And in turn, I gave it to Nelliwyn, in thanks for her assistance in my preparation for this evening's festivities. Of course, I could hardly attend in the nude, as I did not wish to insult you, so I requested her dress in exchange. It is a simple matter, yes? All quite above board."
"Simple? Simple!? You disgusting little alien freak--!"
Nel wrenched herself away from the arm hold, diving to the floor, a deep kneel with her forehead pressed to the floor. "No, mistress, not her! I confess it all to be my idea. She does not understand our ways! If anyone is to be punished, let it be me, not Lady Una! Please--"
Scout was in motion before the whip of thorns was uncoiled.
And Emily blocked him with an arm, quickly shaking her head, no. Not this time.
Lady Morgana reared her arm back, pouring all her outrage, all her mindless fury into the strike. She would tear that dress from her disobedient slave's back piece by piece if needed, and then tear HER apart piece by piece, and then...
She got two strikes in, before realizing that she wasn't whipping the miserable little speck of an elf.
The whip had repeatedly struck Una, who'd interspersed herself between the two. A bleeding gash had opened on her shoulder... and one ugly, jagged line had been drawn down her left cheek.
Una could have used the energy shield in her bracers, Emily realized. Could have deflected the blows. She didn't. She was playing a gambit against the Mistress of Games, one that she won handily...
"To harm the beauty of a fair maiden is unforgivable," Emily spoke, quoting from her knowledge of traditional Faerie insults. "To lash out at a guest, particularly one under the Hospitality of Lady Summer, who had done no true harm to you is deeply unforgivable. And most importantly... to enact violence against a diplomatic representative, one here on a mission of peace and cultural learning -- to do violence despite her harmless and understandable faux pas -- is to bring the entire wrath of the Orbitals upon this House, if not upon all of Summerkind. Utterly, completely, and totally... unforgivable."
The air pressure in the room reduced sharply, as the guests inhaled, tension rising. They were smiling, of course. Attendees to the House certainly loved a good gamble... and one played against the host herself was truly drama of the finest caliber...
Lady Morgana had realized the severity of the situation even before Emily started running down the list of offenses. The whip had fallen from her trembling fingers, coiling neatly and magically in a little spiral upon the floor.
"I believe you owe Lady Una of Arcology #A076 considerable favor," Emily concluded. "Una, you've an idea of what you'd like in return for this insult, don't you...?"
Una looked up, from cradling the sobbing elf, consoling the trembling girl. She locked her eyes sharply on Lady Morgana... so fierce that the Faerie mistress actually took a step backward.
"You will release Nelliwyn's service, transferring it to me," she said. "She leaves this House with me, never again to glamourize you, or to feel your wrath. That will repay your debt. ...I'm correct about that, right, Emily? It seemed it'd be a a fair exchange, so--"
"Yes, very fair, thank you," Emily said, before Una could explain too much of her plan.
...it was a slow shift, but within moments, Lady Morgana had regained her poise. She shrugged it off, a dismissive gesture. "This miserable creature is of no importance to me whatsoever," she said, as if that was the only factor involved in her decision. "She is a failure at the only form of magic she knows. Why should I want to keep such a worthless thing? Take her away, if you desire her so. I've plenty more elves in my stable who can do her job, and with far greater skill. ...what are the rest of you all staring at!? This is a party! We are here to celebrate, to mingle and be merry! So mingle, damn you!"
The conversation level of the room resumed normality immediately, as Lady Morgana stomped off into the crowd, determined to mix socially. Preferably at the furthest point away from this scenario.
Emily quickly opened her small spellbook, flipping to a Mending spell, closing up the cuts in Una's skin before they could scar over. Una nodded briefly, grateful, before helping her companion rise from the floor.
"...what.. what just happened?" Nel asked.
"We've won!" Una declared, smiling brightly. "I promised you would see your family again, and you shall! I played a game, winning your services. Now you can leave this terrible place! You'll never have to face her wrath again. ...ah, how was my performance, Emily? I had to absolutely insist on how the Herald announced us, make sure they understood I was more or less an ambassador--"
"Una... that was very noble of you," Emily admitted, impressed. "Very courageous, very noble. ...and utterly stupid. There's any number of valid, legal interpretations of your position here that would've given her every right to smack you around. You're lucky she had an audience and needed to save face!"
"Well... I suppose, but... but we won," Una insisted. "I've struck a blow for Optimism! No longer will my new friend need to live in hopelessness--"
"Very good, very nice, have a cookie. Now can we please get back to work tracking down the hypertech?" Emily insisted. "You know, the thing we need to do before we're booted out of the house if we're going to have any hope of stopping Summer from using it...?"
Una sighed. "Yes, Emily. I understand."
"Right. ...and Una?"
"Good work," Emily said, offering her a smile. "I meant it when I said that was noble of you. Crazy, true, but... good work. Your mother and father would be proud."
After that incident, the group avoided further contact with their host, and the host avoided further contact with them. But much as Lady Morgana had predicted, they were officially the topic d'jour, and highly sought after by the various nobles in attendance.
High-court Faeries of all stripes were eager to talk to the four of them, although only two were talking back, Una and Emily. Scout stayed on alert without looking like he was on alert, never leaving Emily's side; Nel, the latest addition to their merry band of outcasts and madmen, was doing her best not to be noticed. She was arguably even better at it than Scott "I Fade From Your Short Term Memory" Reinhold, having years of practice at going about her work without being a blemish on the landscape that anyone important would find worthy of ill attention.
But conversation after conversation passed, dancing in and around and through the hoops of smalltalk, without any real progress on their investigation. They couldn't come right out and ask "So, seen any big piles of hypertech lying around, being used for nefarious purposes?" That would be a Very Bad Idea. So, instead, Una would talk up her experiences Orbital society in hopes of intriguing curious onlookers and getting them to admit what they may already have known about it... meanwhile, Emily talked about being a traveling witch, a mobile problem solver, who happened to run across Una's path, oh didn't you know she's from outer space, isn't that interesting, have you ever met someone like her before, etc...
The Faeries either were forewarned about this sort of thing, or were simply playing it coy to avoid admitting ignorance. They'd give little knowing smiles and looks, the graceful magical creature version of "I see what you did there." But they'd admit nothing. Oh, they weren't the least bit surprised at the concept of aliens from space (although it was impossible to tell if they knew those 'aliens' were from a parallel Earth) and had clearly heard OF the Orbitals, but how, why, and where they learned... those remained secrets. A good tangential topic could be deployed to deflect any questioning, direct or otherwise.
As the party wore on, Emily found herself facing another problem. Her body was being quite rude, in the form of a growling stomach. She hadn't eaten anything since breakfast back at the campsite in Edmonton. Eager to get off her feet and conserve her energy, she led Scout off to an unoccupied side table, slumping into the chair.
"Do you think if I pulled a blank page from my spellbook and wrote 'FREE FOOD' on it, planting it by those appetizers, I could trick them into feeding us without indebting us to come back to this horrible place?" she wondered.
Scout shook his head. "Doubtful. I could go steal some bread from the pantry... they'd never see me."
"I don't trust Lady Morgana not to have anti-theft tracking spells on everything she owns. No way. Ergh. I wish I knew how long these stupid balls lasted..." Emily complained. "And I doubt there's a fast food place anywhere within a hundred miles we could visit after finally being set free. Maybe you could, I don't know, wrestle an alligator and we could eat it."
"Una's new servant might be willing to bring us back to her former quarters, find us some food there..."
"It'd still be Lady Morgana's. I'm not giving that bitch any chance to get her hooks in us. No doubt she's already started planning some massive, multi-year revenge scheme. ...why did Una have to pick NOW of all times to take up the cause of liberating slaves?" Emily groaned. "Don't get me wrong, I loved watching her stick it in and break it off, and I hate the practice of indentured servitude... but... I don't know. It's just lousy timing."
"Battles choose you. You do not choose battles."
"Very zen of you, o warrior priest. ...where is Una, anyway? Haven't seen her in awhile--"
The melodious strains of a harp cut through the air, amplified by a series of hollow gourds positioned at each corner of the room. Excited tittering flowed through the crowd, as couples relocated from their conversation pits, migrating inwards... to the dance floor.
Trying to avoid panic, Emily consulted her limited knowledge of Faerie balls. "...I'm.. not sure if it'd be an insult to the host not to take part in the dances," she said, quickly. "Crap. I have no idea how to dance. Do you?"
"No," Scout admitted.
"We could risk it less by playing wallflower. If we go out there and stomp all over some baron's toes it could get ugly... maybe we should stay put. "
"...no. No need. Come on."
The boy rose to his feet, offering a white-gloved hand to his lady... although his eyes were on the dancers, on their feet, quickly memorizing the steps. As he led the perplexed witch out to the floor, he'd already gathered the basics by the time they reached a suitably open space.
Scout fell into the pattern of the dancers, doing his best to lead Emily along. Quick glances left and right confirmed his predictions of the enemy-- of the guest's movements. It wasn't all that different from engaging a foe with a unique combat style, adapting quickly, read the footwork until you could know exactly how to flow along with it...
The two pressed in close, a half-turn making Emily slightly dizzy, as she grasped onto Scout's hand for support. "Uh... Scout... you sure about this--?
"Left, then right," he whispered to her. "Like this. Then a turn. Repeat. Relax your body; move with it, don't tense. It may shift later but this should do for now. I'll keep an eye out for changes. Don't worry."
"Left, then right. Right. --correct, I mean. Okay, got it..." she said, glancing down at her own feet, making sure everything was A-OK down there. She followed the patterns in silence for a minute, until she felt confident enough to move along with her partner without fear. ...the lovely Faerie music wafting through the air, enchanted notes from enchanted instruments, certainly helped soothe the anxiety.
Here she was, wearing a lovely dress, dancing with a handsome boy, enjoying pleasant music, surrounded by beauty and majesty. Why did it have to be such a horrible thing...?
"...if it wasn't for all the secrecy and doom and the Faeries screwing me over years ago, I might've enjoyed things like this," Emily pondered aloud, in a voice like a resigned sigh.
"Fancy parties?" Scout guessed.
"Yes. God, yes. I was a silly little girl, once," Emily admitted, with an awkward half-smile. "I was all about ponies and pretty dresses and rainbows and big romantic dances with magical, graceful Faeries. I'd read a lot of books about that sort of thing, had a lot of daydreams. ...it's all crap, of course. I know that now."
"...wouldn't say that. That's just a viewpoint."
"It is what you make of it," Scout said gently, before doing a sweeping turn, changing direction, Emily held close. "Assume it's one thing and it will be. There is objective truth, but the larger part is perceptive, in how you choose to approach it. ...hmmh. Example. Figured life would just be one fight after another, so it was. An endless battle. Seemed true at the time, it got me by, but... I'm opening up to other possibilities, now. Maybe I was wrong. If I can see it another way, maybe it'll be that way. Perspective changes."
"Uh.. huh. This is you and the mirror, isn't it -- that last one, where we all got weirdly introspective. Kind of like when you actually enjoyed cooking dinner, yesterday night..."
Scout nodded, acknowledging it. "Right now, it's just little things. Here and there. Practicing. Keeping control, as always... but not ignoring it all anymore. Trying to keep an open mind."
"So... and correct me if I'm wrong... while before you might not have been able to... right now, you're enjoying dancing with me," Emily concluded, despite the levels of pink that rose to her cheeks at the thought.
"Yes. I am," the boy spoke, in honesty.
The two danced in silence, for one long moment. That unspoken mood lasted somewhere between the length of no time at all and all the time in the world.
"...hey," Emily prompted, to get his attention.
"Una said something to me, back in that wreck. I've been.. thinking about it, and..."
Emily took a deep breath. "...and I should warn you, I think I'm about to do something that goes against all my former instincts as to what a prim and proper witch is supposed to be doing with her life. Brace yourself."
She had to pull him in close and rise on her toes an inch to do it, but Emily managed to firmly place her lips on those of Scout.
It wasn't her first kiss. There was a boy back in the village, but he ran away screaming something about cooties. And there was an elf who lived out in Florida, but that had been a mistake.
This, despite the hesitancy that had kept her at bay for so long, was not a mistake. Not in the slightest. It was the best kiss she'd ever experienced in her life, even if it was only the third one, best by far...
If there was a 'mistake' aspect to it, it'd be how she forgot to pay attention to the music. Because it had cut out several moments into the kiss. And the enchanted chandelier lights were now spotlighting them. And all the nobles were grinning and offering light applause...
She broke contact when she realized nearly the entire room was watching. That sucked all the romance out of the moment, replacing it with a feeling of icy dread. They were making a Scene. An amusing scene which the crowd approved of, but a Scene nonetheless.
Oh god, oh god, be graceful, don't make a fuss, don't insult the host... Emily thought in a panic. Scout picked up on her worry, stepping away from her slightly... mirroring the sloppy if grateful curtsey she gave the crowd with his own bow. And then they fled for the tables, to sit the next dance out and hopefully fade from view.
The two sat very awkwardly, in an awkward silence, on awkward chairs at the awkward table. Emily was hoping to shrink down enough to hide inside her hat. Scout had chosen to toy with a napkin at the place setting.
He's not saying anything, she thought. I'm not saying anything. I ought to be saying something. I'm pretty sure the standard thing to say here is "I love you." I'm more than pretty sure I want to say that. I am not stalling. A witch is neither early nor late with a love confession. A witch confesses love precisely when she means to. ...I think I should've said it a minute ago.
She took a second deep breath. "Scout--"
"Emily? Emily Moonthistle...? "
--that wasn't Scout. It was a familiar voice, though...
She turned in her chair, to get a better look -- and saw an elderly Faerie in a brown cloak approaching, his long white beard neatly braided in the way Emily had once taught him to do.
"Instructor Elriel?" she recognized, twisting that recognition into a question from the sheer surprise of it. "When did you...?"
"Ah, I was a bit late coming to the ball, I'm afraid," he said. "I misplaced my spectacles -- oh, bother all that! It's good to see you again, little one! Come, come, let me have a look at you. Oh, how you've grown...! And you still have your ancestral hat, very good, it pleases me to see that. --oh, I'm sorry, I've been ignoring your companion... err... am I interrupting anything?"
Emily nibbled her lip. Here was a friendly face, one of the few friendly faces she'd met within the Summer Court. Someone she was overjoyed to see, someone she could talk to (and maybe ask about the hypertech directly AND safely). But, there was still the aftermath of that kiss hanging in the air...
Fortunately, Scout picked up on the problem right away. He nodded once to her, confirming. "I'll catch up with you later," he agreed.
"I'll be RIGHT back," Emily promised him, quietly, before turning to Elriel, all smiles. "Sir, I'm happy to see you again. Come, come... let's go somewhere and chat. Catch up a bit! Oh, oh! Did you know I found a copy of the Perfectea spell...?"
Emily gathered up her skirt bustles, wandering off with the elder Fae. And left Scout sitting alone at the table.
Leaving him to finally let out a long, tension-releasing exhale.
It was such a strange thing, the sensation that had gripped him. Nervousness. He was actually nervous about something, a rarity in and of itself. Even before his transformation, Scout hadn't felt actual fear in a very long time... all that boiled away when he began to approach life as a series of devil-may-care conflicts, neatly locking fear away. This wasn't fear of death, or fear of imprisonment, or anything of that nature... it was a different flavor.
The best label he could put on it was fear that he was a bad kisser. He had absolutely no idea what to do, once Emily had started kissing him. He'd never kissed anyone before in his life. What if he'd gotten it wrong? Would she be disappointed?
Still, experiencing that little jangle of anxiety had to be a good thing. Scout knew he had to be willing to explore his feelings if he was going to--
--he twisted in his chair, tracking the voice. It'd caught him completely unaware: a new and different sort of fear. Surprise. He'd been ambushed. HIM, ambushed.
The Lion of Summer stood, leaning casually against a wall, as casually as one could when wearing a formal set of armor emblazoned with the crest of his Lady.
"You were doing so much woolgathering I could've likely killed you before you could move a muscle, Mr. Scott Reinhold," he noted, lips curling around the name, as if testing it out for size. "...hmm. Still, I saw the incident that put you off your guard. If you weren't the least bit affected by her advances, I'd be damned disappointed. I suspect she would be, too. ...now. Come with me."
"An order from Lady Summer, sir?" Scout asked, curious.
"Call it a polite request. Yes, yes, no favor involved. I feel we should talk."
They'd found a stairwell off to a balcony, overlooking the main room. It was strangely private... even though everyone in the room could look up and watch them converse, nobody did. The main activity was in the swirl of social butterflies below, not in any aloof ravens of the rafters.
After arriving, Elriel reached into his cloak, and produced a cloth-wrapped bundle -- a finely baked piece of spiced bread, an elven design he knew Emily enjoyed greatly. He held it out, in offering.
"I never come to these parties without packing a lunch," he said, with a smile. "Here. I baked it myself. A gift to you, no favor involved. I figured you'd be quite hungry by now..."
Emily accepted the bread gratefully and tried very hard not to wolf it down on the spot. Tried and failed. She did manage to finish it off in about four quick bites, however, her body refusing to let her pause and chat politely until it was satisfied.
"I've been following your progress, little one," he said, leaning against the balcony railing. "Well, as best I can. After you were drummed out of Lilith's academy, you were persona non grata... but in visiting a human settlement while wearing glamour, I found your website."
"My whaf?" Emily said, trying to swallow the last of the bread.
"Your 'Witchipedia.' The one you started with that elven fellow from Florida. Such a clever name," Elriel said, with a smile. "I told no one, of course. I doubt my peers would appreciate your efforts the way I did... a shame, really. Why should one as old as I be the only forward thinker? We need more motivated young people willing to reach across those boundaries... oh, but I'm babbling, and there's so much to discuss! You are well, I take it? Although... why are you here, exactly?"
"We... kinda invaded one of Lady Summer's protectorates," Emily admitted. She felt safe discussing the truth with him, with the only teacher who seemed to care about her, back when she was studying magic. "Attending the party is our punishment. It's been touch and go, but I think we'll be able to ride out the rest of the event and then run for it."
"Advisable. Lilith will be in attendance," the elder teacher warned. "She is late in coming... but will be coming. And while she wouldn't be clumsy enough to break the barrier of insult with you, she will no doubt have cross words with you. Once she discovered that you survived the beating her chosen girls gave you, she was... inconsolable. If not for more important projects occupying her time, distracting her past her initial rage, she might have hunted you down."
Emily's good mood wobbled, darkening at the memory. ...she hated to ask the next question, but it HAD eaten at her now and then, ever since that day...
"Instructor... I'm sorry to be accusing, but... I have to know," she warned. "Why did you go along with her plans? The academy. Training the girls to be weapons for the Summer Court, knowing full well the damage they were doing to themselves. It... well, what I know of you, it doesn't seem like you to be a party to that..."
Elriel... sighed, his age finally showing as he slumped against the balcony railing. He couldn't meet her questioning eyes.
"We all owe fealty to someone or other, and ultimately, to Lady Summer," he explained. "I was ordered not to warn them of the dangers of Faerie magic in human hands. The mystique of the witch, the power and status we were offering, that had to be maintained. In my youth, when the program began to train human girls and burn them out on magic as disposable soldiers, I did try to lodge protest. I said that there were better ways, that spellbooks could serve as a buffer, a barrier against harm. But they would make our tools less efficient, and so, my plan was rejected."
"But you still taught me using books..."
"Well, you are the exception to most rules, are you not?" he spoke, eyes finally meeting hers, with a twinkle. "There was no other option, with your 'disability'. Your great grandmother was wise in her blessing. I could sense that hand in play... after all, I helped train her using the same techniques. It was my little rebellion, I suppose, to take one of the promising students and secretly show her another path. I was overjoyed to see my act of resistance bore fruit... and crushed, when I learned how Lilith attempted to purge her family line. ...when I then learned you had survived the destruction, I wept, girl. I wept with relief."
He might have wept a little at the very memory of it, the way he brushed one hand by his eyes, trying to make the gesture as casual and unimportant as possible.
"Emily... I see you as the future of witchcraft," he explained. "Not the wild and twisted creatures we have made, but someone who commands magic as well as she commands herself. A walker between worlds, one foot in the arcane wonders of the Faerie Court, one foot in the grounded rationale of the human world. You should continue your Witchipedia... perhaps one day it will carry forth the best of our ways, long after we are gone..."
"Instructor Elriel, you speak too highly of me! I am but a mere slip of-- wait, what?" Emily said, interrupting her practiced words of respect. "Long after you're gone? What do you mean?"
But Elriel had caught himself; the nervous look to him suggested he'd said too much. "I... ah. Emily. Please understand, I am oathbound... no matter the compassion I have for your unfortunate situation, there are some boundaries I cannot cross."
She considered this, measuring her response. "Is this to do with the stolen Orbital technology? The metal devices. The ones Lady Summer stole from Lady Winter. ...you can't tell me, can you. And silence is telling, too... drat. I've put you in a spot, haven't I..."
Elriel chose his own words twice as carefully. "My words to you are these: take your cleverness, girl, and hide it away. Survive. Something comes, something vast that will change everything. I wouldn't want you to be swept up in the madness that has taken the seasons. ...specifics, no, I cannot offer them. I've likely said too much, as is. But above all else... you need to survive. This is no world-shaking prophecy... I just couldn't bear to know that you came to harm."
Old joints creaking, he stood upright, adjusting his cloak. Making sure he looked presentable.
"I should join the party, at this point," Elriel decided. "I missed being properly announced. It would be unkind of me not to introduce myself to our host. ...no matter what I think of her ways. Be well, Emily Moonthistle, and may magic illuminate your days."
"Be well, Instructor Elriel, and may magic illuminate your days," Emily replied in turn, offering a curtsey.
"Hah. What few an old fellow like me has left to illuminate, indeed..."
"Oh, don't be silly, sir! You'll outlast us all!" Emily joked.
But the old man was thoughtful, and grave, in his reaction.
"Only by the grace of Lady Summer would that be," he noted.
Just outside the ballroom proper, a patio overlooked the plantations of New Orleans, and the many dirt hovels of the servants. They were hard to see, with the colorful array of magical herbs and plants arranged in neat grids -- sparkling fruit and vegetable matter, species of flora not of this world. Elves in green tunics moved through the rows, tending with watering implements, encouraging growth through spells, and killing the occasional pest. Even in the twilight hours, there was work to be done here.
It was a model of productiveness, and the true power behind the House. While it was known for its many games of chance, for hosting parties of a disreputable sort... the real reason it existed was to produce the crops, for use elsewhere in the Faerie Court. That always came first, even if Lady Morgana rarely paid attention to the harvesting.
Watching over the grounds, briefly scanning for any threats, stood the Lion of Summer. With him was a Winterhound. An unlikely pairing.
"I prefer this view," the Lion spoke. "Orderly. Organized. Put to purpose, rather than thrashing about in vice. A shame that the guardian assigned to this work should be such a bother, but Lady Summer's will is not to be questioned."
"Labors built on the backs of slavery, of course," Scout pointed out.
"We all bend knee to someone in the end, boy. There is no pure freedom. Even you, who wanders at will and defies Lady Winter, bend to forces outside you at times... or perhaps inside you. ...now, then. Let me regale you with a story. All it will cost you is a yes or a no answer to a question. Is that acceptable?"
"I see you've raised your guard again," he acknowledged, nodding in some manner of approval. "Very well. I will continue regardless, and where it takes us is where it takes us."
He turned his back to the fields, to address Scout directly.
"Many years past, when my kind were more actively at war with your kind -- and by that I mean humans -- there was a city some distance from here," he explained. "Which Lady Summer considered to be an insult, a human city surviving for so long deep in the deserts, in the warm places she wished to lay claim to. There had been efforts throughout the years to destroy the city, off and on, depending on Summer's whims. This latest one was not my first combat experience, but it was an early one.
"The difficulty was the human military. They fought hard, they fought well -- these 'Frontliners' had a firm backbone, not like the spineless, backward monkey men I'd assumed humans to be through years of military indoctrination. We tried every weapon in our arsenal to take the city... destructive magics, great towering beasts, airborne assault with winged pegasi. But these humans had a response for every tactic we used. Eventually, Summer withdrew her forces, as flailing about in futility was only draining our limited resources. The humans won the day.
"Now, understand that one man does not determine victory or defeat. The human commander was an import from the eastern shores, a pathetic man that even his own soldiers had no respect for. No, the real tactician who was quietly spreading his battle plans and methodologies through the ranks was another... a teacher, who prepared the humans for battle. He devised the many shields we broke our spears against.
"His name was Saul Reinhold. He is possibly the only human I have ever respected," the Lion admitted. "If more were like him, perhaps I'd have a better opinion of your species. ...so. That is my story. Now, the price comes in the form of a question I suspect you will be willing to answer. ...I heard the Herald announce your name, Scott Reinhold. You are the heir of Saul, are you not?"
It was with no small amount of pride that Scout answered.
"Yes," he said. "He was the closest thing I had to a father, sir. He's the reason why I could resist the Hound."
The Lion nodded slowly, that piece of the puzzle clicking into place, as his view on Scout solidified. "Good. Perhaps there is hope for you yet, then. ...I heard of the fall of your great city, you know. It was a disgusting thing, the way Winter strangled its life away. That's no way for such an endeavor to end. Your city deserved to be destroyed in honorable combat, not murdered in its sleep."
"I'd rather it have avoided either fate. But it is what it is," Scout spoke.
"Anyone with Saul's strength who would fight that enemy to the bitter end, and to fight it even now after being supposedly conquered, is admirable to me," the Lion acknowledged. "Perhaps you are disloyal to your Queen... but your loyalty to your code -- and from what I saw in the ballroom, loyalty to your woman -- that I will accept. ...that strength may be needed, soon."
"Change comes. I've known the tides of war often enough to hear the wave as it begins to crest," he explained. "Strange devices, things I don't trust, are in play within the secretive hands of Lady Summer -- and formerly, the hands of Lady Winter. I break no oath telling you this; you already knew, no doubt. But I tell you in my experience that the sleepy warm evenings of Summer can flare red hot like a desert wind, when she chooses to act."
"War between Summer and Winter, perhaps?" Scout asked.
"Perhaps. Or war with the humans. Or something else entirely. I wouldn't tell you, even if I knew. If you are wise... you will take your woman and shield her from the storm, in whatever shape it may arrive. For all I know, a time may come where I have to test my steel against yours. And while part of me relishes in clashing with old Saul one more time... you should know that I would likely be ordered the fell the both of you. Be prepared."
"I will stand fast, sir."
The Lion nodded. He didn't salute or offer his hand -- it wasn't the way of their kind. The nod would be enough.
"I'd have it no other way," he agreed.
Glamour is a style of magic quite popular with Faeries, as it enhances beauty, covers blemishes, and makes the unpresentable nicely presentable. Millions of dollars a year may be spent by humans on cosmetics, both mundane and surgical, which are easily trumped by an expert in glamour.
However, while the most common use of it is beauty... at the core, it's all about illusion. Illusion can be applied many ways, as a knife can do everything from slice bread to spread butter to cleave a man in twain. For instance, glamour can run the opposite direction from making you the most noticeable figure in the room... it can make you the most unnoticeable figure in the room, too.
Nel was used to wandering the halls without notice. She'd gotten adept at turning her magic inside out, to avoid being seen by guests, to avoid any undue attention. Other than her obligatory morning sessions prettying up her Mistress... her former Mistress, that is... and other daily tasks, she tried to avoid the gaze of any eyes. Which meant fooling others into ignoring her, not only in sight, but sound and even smell...
She hadn't tried doing this trick on anyone other than herself, but was surprised to find how easy it was to make two people completely and utterly unimportant. Not that different from one person of no importance whatsoever...
Despite being totally ignored by wandering party guests and the occasional House guard, she was just as terrified as she was during Una's other grand plan.
"We shouldn't be doing this, ma'am!" she pleaded. (No need to whisper, even as they stepped around someone who was walking right towards them. Nobody would hear them.) "The basements are off limits! If we're caught, we'll be punished severely..."
"Then we won't be caught," Una spoke, with a reassuring smile. "As long as this spell is up, you said we can't be seen! It's amazing, this magic of yours!"
Nel glanced aside. "If it was so amazing... then my Lady-- I mean, Lady Morgana would not be so dissatisfied with my glamours..."
"Now, that's just silly. She's a horrid old woman, Nel! I bet she envied your own youth and beauty," Una guessed correctly. "It's her failing, not yours. Have confidence in yourself, and your skills! You've done so very well tonight, acting despite your fears, and as a result of that bravery a bright future now stretches before you! This little act of rebellion against Morgana is your first step towards freeing yourself from this terrible House!"
"I... I don't object to working against Morgana's purposes," Nel clarified. "I will do as you wish. You own me, now, and I am yours to do with as you please, ma'am."
Una sighed. She could tell this was going to be a sticking point for some time to come... "Nel, I already explained--"
"Please, ma'am, you need to understand my objection! It's not fear of Morgana's wrath. ...what I fear is HER wrath," Nel whispered despite not needing to. Some things you can't say aloud. "Lady Summer. I can't hide from her beneath a spell! I've... seen her, leaving the basements to speak to Lady Morgana, once. At night, I can hear the sounds she makes within her secretive place! What if she's there right now? This is why Lady Morgana was allowed to host the Solstice Ball, so Lady Summer would not be far from her work. She will see us! Even one as important as you would not be spared from her anger!"
"Nel, I promise you, if it looks like we will be in actual danger... we can abandon the plan. Turn around and rejoin the party. I won't put you at risk, not for me or my causes," Una assured. "But this may be my only chance to see what's going on down there. My friends are counting on me. We need to at least try!"
The pair paused, in front of a heavy oaken door. Nel looked left, looked right -- glamour would hide them, even hide the effect of the opening and closing door, but her innate fear gave her a need to make sure there was no chance of being spotted, regardless. She took her key-ring out from the pocket of Una's donated servant's garb, flipping through the decorative iron keys until she came to the proper one... and carefully, slowly, turned it in the lock. She closed her eyes, focusing her magic to cover the sound of the tumblers, and the squeaky hinges...
For her part, Una pulled a pair of modified glasses from the storage compartment on her jetpack. She powered them up before slipping them on. They provided a perfect view down into the gloom... rather than showing visible light, they showed the shift-spectrum colors surrounding objects.
She'd developed this tool back in Baltimore, to see through walls, to find the distinct blue glow of Orbital hypertech. The color represented the dimensional shift, the signature which highlighted items of Orbital origin, with other colors representing different origins... yellow, for humans, as well as Earth-made objects such as the walls and support beams of the basement. Red, for Faeries and their artifacts brought with them from the World of Faerie. Una was looking at the spectrum of worlds, not the spectrum of light.
If Lady Summer was down here, there would be a brilliant red glow, no doubt... something purely and undeniably Faerie. Perhaps the glasses would even show the sequence of contradictory errors, which arose from hypertech trying to parse magic effects. But aside from a few odds tools and knickknacks, tiny spots of red... there was nothing alarming down there.
And a HUGE amount of blue.
"She's not there," Una promised. "I'd be able to see her, if she was. Let's go down there. It won't take long; I just need to verify what I think I'm going to find..."
"I can't see," Nel noted. "How are you able to...?"
"Oh, sorry... special glasses," Una said. "Here, just... hold onto my hand. I'll lead the way. Mind the steps..."
Una grasped her companion's hand tightly, offering a reassuring squeeze and a smile, as the two descended into the basement...
...and into most of an Arcology's shift engine chamber.
A huge gyroscopic assembly took up the center of the room, where a space had been cleared away, wine casks pushed off to the walls. It was the missing core component of #BE12's engines... unworkably damaged, but nonetheless hauled all the way from Edmonton down to New Orleans, to be hidden away in the basement of a disreputable house. Far from Lady Summer's core power base, far from anywhere a sensible person would expect her to be. The perfect hideaway to run experiments from...
A few computers were still active, operating off a pair of cracked mass capacitors, which hadn't yet lost the quantum field that kept their heavily compressed planetary matter generating power, rather than reverting to a useless solid lump of rock. Una memorized what screens were currently active, so she could return to them after doing a little poking around... and after erasing her tracks.
"I just need a few minutes," she explained. "Just to try and get an idea of what Lady Summer's up to..."
Nel tried to see, in the dim lighting of the basement... making out lines and shapes of silver, the poor illumination reflecting off the objects in strange ways. "It's all made of... star-metal?" she asked. "Like your adornments?"
"These objects were created by my people, the Orbitals," Una explained, as she browsed the computer's active files. "They're... well. It's a science so advanced that it may as well be magic. Or maybe magic is just an advanced science... but either way, these things can be dangerous if misused. They're... anachronisms. Things which don't belong on your world, things which nobody here could have possibly invented yet. Maybe in thousands of years..."
"That assumes we'll live thousands of years, what with the wars and all," Nel spoke, as if resigned to it. "The humans have attacked New Orleans a few times since Morgana came here, trying to retake it."
"It's cooled off since then, though, hasn't it? I mean, not as many open attacks on each other..."
"I suppose, from what I've heard from the guests... but Faeries have long memories. It's been quiet before. It'll be loud again, and soon enough. ...I can tell, in their voices, while I serve drinks and move through rooms. Tensions are rising, ma'am. Something's coming..."
"Maybe something to do with all this," Una agreed, looking at the piles and piles of objects with blue auras lying around the glowing yellow floor, amidst the red spellbooks and arcane tools. Shift frequencies, superimposed over the real world, through her augmented vision...
Red and blue and yellow. Anachronisms from three worlds, three cultures, all overlaid on top of each other... but yellow was always here. The blue arrived by the might of Orbital science, using shift engines to transport Arcologies across the worldbleed...
But how did the red get here...? The Pandora Event was always assumed by Orbital anthropologists to be some sort of Faerie magical incursion. They certainly were hostile and powerful, likely capable of it, even if there was no direct evidence. Not that they'd gone looking for any. A simple theory and most likely correct, the scholars felt. But what if...
Una should have been browsing the files, paying attention to them. But something was tugging at her -- or rather, she'd found something to tug at. A loose thread in a weave of cloth. Something that had been there all the while, but had gone unnoticed. If she pulled at it just so...
"Nel...? What did the Pandora Event look like?" Una asked, her hands grasping in the dark for the idea.
"Er? The what?"
"When your people were transported to the human world. --yes, I know many Faerie believe it was the other way around, but... nevermind. My question is, what was the effect like, what did it look like they Fae arrived? Humans have shorter lifespans than Faeries. Your people might remember the first days of the chaotic age better than Earth records would."
"Ah... pardon, ma'am, but I'm still very young. I wasn't alive at that time... none of the Elders were, even. I mean, Archmagus Lilith is only one hundred and thirty! But... the stories do speak of it, yes," Nel clarified, trying hard to remember. "It was said to be a bright flash of light, and a sound, like... well. It's spoken of in the oral traditions, in poetry. My favorite way it was described was like a massive cork popping from a goddess's wine bottle, because it seemed more playful."
"Like... a sharp burst of wind? Filling in a vacuum, or pushing air aside?"
"Yes, I think wind was mentioned," Nel said. "Why, ma'am? Is this important?"
The flash was not blinding. It was a spray of misty light, a featureless white cloud of illumination... accompanied by a sound of displacing air. Like a cork coming out of an ancient bottle...
Of course, shift engines didn't work this way -- all they did was move Orbital ships from one world to another. Every good little boy and girl who took courses in the basics of planar mechanics knew that. Shift engines certainly didn't isolate lifeforms from one world and teleport them onto another. That'd be silly. It'd be like, well, like using classroom learning aids to create a mind controlled slave army...
Nevertheless, #BE12 had done exactly that, when its secrets were threatened. It shifted the lizard tyrant to Earth, a creature from another world. Called forth by a dormant self defense program, designed to ambush anyone who investigated the crash...
If she'd been wearing her glasses, what color would the creature have been? Purple? Orange? That strange monster, pulled away from all it had known and loved, shifted to this world by Orbital technology to be used up and discarded as a living weapon...?
And if that color could be pulled into Earth against its will by a crippled "ship transportation system," could something red not be moved by a wholly intact engine? A great deal of red, pouring into yellow...
Una's world reeled away from her. She grasped the edge of the computer, for support, as everything around her changed.
"We did it," Una said, the shock setting in. "My people. We caused the Pandora Event. It's just too similar to our technology to be a Faerie spell, or some Earthling's invention. I don't know how, I don't know why, but... the Orbitals overlaid the peoples of your world on top of this one, shifting the Faeries away from their homes... and gave way to centuries of bloody conflict. It's our fault. It's my fault..."
"...uh, my Lady..."
"It had to be an accident. It had to be," Una reasoned. "Shift engines gone awry, some glitch in the system. Maybe interference with Faerie magic, I know the two don't mesh properly. A mistake, that's all. Nobody would do this deliberately, this... this atrocity. It serves no purpose. It has no function!"
"My Lady! Someone comes!"
Una snapped out of her attempt to apply logic to horror. The stairs were creaking...
Regretfully her fingers flew across the keypad, erasing her tracks, despite having no time to truly study the files. The time for investigation was over; she had a promise to keep to her friend Nel. They would flee this place at the first sign of trouble. No more wrath of the Faeries for poor Nelliwyn, who had already experienced a Dennis-in-Baltimore of her own, so many times...
No more. No more suffering. Not for her, not for this world, not for anyone! Una declared within her mind, restoring the computer to its original state.
Moving quickly and with purpose, she led Nel out of the basement, sliding along the stairwell past a servant elf who had just come down to get another cask of wine.
The burly house elf felt as if something had brushed past him, but dismissed it immediately. It was probably nothing.
By some coincidence of fate, the four came together at the same time.
Emily was walking in from the hallway to the balcony stairs. Scout, approaching from the outside decks. A very pale looking Una (well, paler than her usual fair skin allowed for) accompanied by a confused looking Nel, from a servant's hallway. All four, arriving at an empty table in the ballroom, off to the side.
They took seats. Three of them did, at least; Emily raised a hand, to stop Nel.
"Y'know, I could just kill for a cup of tea about now," she said. "Nel, would you mind fetching some for us? I'm sure Una wouldn't mind, right?"
The servant girl looked to Una, for some sort of confirmation... but got no reaction whatsoever. For lack of a better option, she curtseyed politely, and slipped away to do as requested.
"Nel's not a slave anymore, you know," Scout spoke, not liking the taste of Emily's words.
"I know, I know," Emily said, sighing in apology. "But we need to discuss our secret clubhouse business, and--"
"I already told her," Una spoke at last, although her voice was barely over a whisper.
"...criminy. Una, we're trying to maintain a low profile. What if she goes back to her former owner and rats us out? Or Lady Summer, for that matter? Summerfae can't disobey the Crown of Fire! ...alright, fine, whatever. Look, I just got back from talking to an Instructor high in Lilith's circle, and he's told me some disturbing things. ...okay, some vague things that are also disturbing. I think he's worried about the Faeries dying out, or something... there's a madness overtaking the seasons. He told me to run and hide."
"I got the same suggestion from the Lion of Summer," Scout noted. "To avoid the coming storm. The Lion sees war on the horizon, although the sides involved in that war are unclear. He suggested we get out of the way, because we could become targets. He wasn't any clearer than your friend was, howev--"
"The Orbitals caused the Pandora Event," Una stated.
That effectively killed all conversation.
So, Una laid out what she saw, and what she deduced. About the shift frequencies, about how engines aren't supposed to do anything except move ships, and certainly not dinosaurs. And Nel's story about the impact of the Pandora Event.
"...we've been assuming all along that this... all of this, the crashed Arcology supposedly taken down by Faerie magic, the seasons plotting against each other... we thought it was all the Faeries. What if it wasn't?" Una asked, horrified at her own words. "What if... what if my people murder entire worlds? What if they're behind all of this?"
Emily cleared her throat. "Uh. Okay. ...look. Listen. Una. We... just know a few more things, that's all. We don't know anything for certain," she assured. "There's no damn reason to cause the Pandora Event on purpose. At least, none we know of. We don't know anything except what happened, not why. Let's not jump to conclusions--"
"What if everything I was taught was a lie? What if the Orbitals are... are the bad guys?" Una said, the last two words evoked like the name of the most terrifying devil to ever dig its talons into the imagination.
"Right now we've got no clue who the bad guys are, alright? Summer, Winter, the Orbitals, the Easter Bunny, who knows? We need to investigate more. ...any chance we can get into the basement again, to look at the files you missed? Summer's clearly up to something, here, and she sure as hell isn't an astronaut."
"I... maybe. I don't know. Nel could--"
"Emily. Five o'clock," Scout warned, leaning in to whisper. "Behind you. Real bad guys just showed up."
"What?" Emily said, turning instinctively to look--
At a phalanx of pointy hats, and the impossibly, magically beautiful Archmagus leading them. Lilith and her latest witch trainees.
Emily ducked her head, fast -- not that it would've helped, what with her wearing her Nana's hat. "Dammit. Dammit dammit. We could run. The ball's not over, not until Lady Summer makes her showing, but... it could be worth it to get out of here before anything goes wrong..."
"I won't let her hurt you," Scout stated.
"Yes, Galahad, that's very nice for you. Unkillable or not, Lilith could still splatter the walls with you in an instant. We need to go."
Una sat upright. "I won't leave Nel behind. She's mine, for better or worse, and she's experienced enough of this place. We have to wait for her to come back with the tea you wanted."
"Agh. Una, I appreciate your enthusiasm for the moral high ground, but--"
"Well well, what have we here?"
Standing nearby was a woman who, if you'd rearranged the facial features a bit, would pass for a clone of Lady Morgana. They had the same attitude, the same stance, even the same fashion sense. The only difference was in headwear, as Archmagus Lilith favored the pointed variety, as did the slightly gaunt looking human girls in her entourage... facial tics and poor complexion in a smear across the entire group, more evidence of humans minds rotting away from magical addiction.
Pausing a moment to hate her life, Emily rose to her feet, pasting on her best faux smile of politeness. A curtsey. And if she ever had to curtsey to another one of these bastards again she'd likely eat her hat. "Madame Archmagus," she greeted. "How wonderful to see you again, on this the most glorious eve of Solstice, where--"
"Oh yes, it's been SUCH a long time! You've grown considerably, whereas I am, of course, unchanging and beautiful," Lilith spoke. "And I see you've adopted your ancestor's hat! Very good, very good. Your 'Nana' would have been proud. Although from the looks of it, you likely had to dig it out of her grave. Mmm. Well, I suppose I'm not one to judge; sentimentality can make us do unusual things, can it not...?"
Lilith smiled away all the while, dancing on the edge between punishable insult against Emily's Hospitality, and light conversation. This was how it would be -- little passive-aggressive turns of phrase, backhanded complements. All needling away, trying to get under Emily's skin. To make her make a mistake...
I shouldn't give her the satisfaction of riling me up, Emily thought. If I want to survive this, I'm going to sit here and take it, let her chew on me for awhile until she gets bored and goes away. She's just a bully. I can endure bullying.
"And look, you have friends now! Isn't it nice, having friends? It's a shame you couldn't make any at school, what with your deplorable learning disability and poor control of magic," Lilith said, with a mock sigh. "Oh, we tried and we tried, but in the end I'm afraid we failed you, little Emily. I blame myself, of course. A good teacher never blames her students, no matter how often they fail. Again and again, failing in everything they do. Failing even to prevent the death of their entire family and everything they have ever known. If only I had done a better job of it, maybe your Nana would be alive today..."
I need to sit back and let her do this. I need to bow my head and let her slap me across the face. She knows I need to do that if I'm going to get out alive. And she's taking joy in browbeating me.
...yeah. Okay. You know what? Screw this. Una's not the only one who can take a stand against them.
"Ah, Miss Emily, your tea...?"
"Yes, thank you, Nel," Emily said, accepting the cup of delicately brewed tea from off Nel's silver serving tray. "Oh, and Lilith? Up yours, bitch."
With a light flick of the wrist, the splashed the tea directly in Archmagus Lilith's face.
The light music being played through the ballroom warbled to a halt, the sound amplification gourds letting out a strangled little gasp before ceasing their platitudes. A similar silence fell over the crowd... as whatever they were talking about was suddenly far less important than the scene that was about to transpire.
For her part... Lilith didn't even react, despite the warm beverage dripping off her face. If anything, her smile grew impossibly wide, the glamour she wore conflicting with her expression, twisting it into a rictus grin of delight.
"I believe this ends your Hospitality," Lilith noted, for the record. "Runt, I am going to enjoy murdering you very, very slowly..."
A hand shot out to block Scout, before he could rise to his feet. Emily didn't even look to him -- her eyes were locked on her enemy.
"I declare a duel of magic, under the traditions of Summer Court vendetta," Emily said. "A drink in the face is a traditional device for opening combat, yes? Yes. You want a shot at me? Then we do this old school."
Now Lilith's smile faltered. But only for a split second; she couldn't lose any show of confidence. "You can't be serious, monkey-girl. You're not a standing member of this court. Why should I agree to duel you as equals instead of turning you into a pile of living agony where you stand...?"
"You'll be insulting your host, who if I recall is quite keen on games such as these. You'd be denying her audience the pleasure the House of the Rising Sun is known for," Emily reminded. "So, I humbly request that Lady Morgana be Arbiter of our duel, as is her right as host."
...Emily was fairly sure that wasn't the sort of laughter she needed from her foe at the moment. She especially didn't like the way the tone of it, the cadence, was an identical match for Lady Morgana... who walked over to join them, the crowd parting for her effortlessly.
"Big sister, what trouble have you gotten yourself into now?" Lady Morgana asked... directing the question to Lilith.
"Oh, nothing I can't handle. Just some little human girl too big for her britches, sister of mine," Lilith replied. "But I do thank you for your concern. So, how do you feel about this 'humble request' to play Arbiter for our duel...?"
The reason why Lady Morgana and Archmagus Lilith looked so alike wasn't simply because both were haughty noblewomen with eight parts attitude and twenty parts power. They apparently were family, as well. Emily's confidence in her oh-so-clever scheme started to wobble on its feet.
The rules, she thought. Get them to stick to the rules. Play them in your favor...
"As Arbiter, your role is to enforce the rules of the duel," Emily reminded. "Each of us gets to pick one, from the traditional list of duelist's conditions--"
"Oh, no need to explain the process, child. As you yourself noted... I'm quite keen on games," Morgana said. "And yes, naturally, each of you gets to declare one condition to be placed upon the duel. By my whim, I allow my dear sister go first. Well, Lilith? What would rule would you like imposed on the combatants?"
Lilith began systematically flexing her fingers, itching to start the fight. "I place the condition of Solitary Spell upon the duel," she decided. "Each of us gets to cast a single spell. No more than a single spell. I shouldn't need more than one word of power to completely annihilate the exile, after all... and I'll even be generous and allow the cripple to use her spellbook, provided she too only casts a single spell from it. That is my condition. After all, what could Moonthistle possibly do to me? She's never had an interest in dueling spells. Will she Animate a butter knife? Toss a Shocked napkin at me? Or maybe she'll just Escape. It would be like her..."
"Always with your pride, aren't you, sister? Very well. Human, declare your rule."
It took her a moment to find exactly the right words. She didn't want to lose on a technicality of declaring a nonexistent rule.
"...I place the condition of Heart's Guardian upon the duel," Emily decided.
This sent the crowd a-chattering. Some confused, some knowing... depending on who was present and paying attention earlier in the evening, during the dances...
"You can't be serious," Lilith said. "Clearly your mind is addled. Heart's Guardian is a tool for lover's quarrels, not a blood vendetta--"
"Two brothers were in love with the same woman," Emily spoke, reciting the fable from memory. "They began a duel, to see who would win her hand in marriage. But the clever brother spoke for the Heart's Guardian, that any who cherished him would be allowed to stand at his side during the battle... and the woman moved to his side. Heartbroken, unable to raise a hand against his love, the other brother withdrew. ...but the relevant bit there is that any who cherish the duelist are allowed to stand at the duelist's side, and take part in the fight."
"Very romantic, but you do realize you've sealed your doom, correct?" Archmagus Lilith spoke. She swept her arms open to either side, gesturing to the contingent of trainee witches. "I am the Archmagus, child. All these girls are ready and willing to die for me, if need be. I am cherished by all! In fact, I suspect at least a dozen nobles in this court owe me favor or fealty. By your own rule, now you face an army! Hah! Your little friends have no chance against--"
"Sister... I'm afraid that's not how it works."
"--what?" Lilith exclaimed, her prideful boast snapped in half by the ruling.
And now, Lady Morgana was the only one smiling. She did appreciate a cleverly played game, after all... and seeing her "dear" sister at the other end of a brutal gambit helped soothe the wounds she'd suffered earlier that night in a similar situation. Her own reputation's injury could be addressed if she oversaw a fine game of wits, restoring faith in her House as a place of wonders...
"There's no love in their hearts for you," Morgana explained. "The Heart's Guardian condition is very clear on this. Fealty is not the same as love. Favor is not the same thing as compassion. Therefore! I ask my guests, assembled here within my House: will any man or woman in this room stand by the Lilith's side, not because of her position as Archmagus, not due to any prior debt or obligation... but merely because she is Lilith, and she is cherished...?"
Absolute silence. Not even the gathered witches made a sound. But if smiles could make noise... a wave of amusement would've rolled across their ears. Because there was nothing a crowd enjoyed more than watching the underdog get an upper hand...
"Oh dear, oh dear... sorry, love, it seems you stand alone today," Morgana declared, in mock-sympathy. "And as Arbiter, I'm exempt, even if I do cherish you, my dear, sweet, wonderful, only occasionally very annoying sister. --now, then! Who here will stand by Emily Moonthistle, not because of her standing as a witch in exile, but merely because she is Emily?"
Scout stepped up next to Emily, unbuttoning the cuffs on his formal uniform, preparing for battle. He had no weapon... but rarely needed one, these days. He was a living weapon, after all, one now put to just cause.
"I'll defend her to the end of this world," he spoke, voice as firm as granite. "And beyond, if need be."
Una stood at Emily's other side, drawing the energy blaster from her jetpack's storage compartment, firing up the mass capacitor charges to prime the weapon. Her silver bracers were already starting to glow, ready to snap a force shield into place.
"Emily is my dearest friend. I'd sooner die than let her come to harm," Una agreed.
...and finally, Nelliwyn the slavegirl attempted to brandish her mirrored serving tray in a menacing fashion.
"I... I won't let my Lady stand alone," she said, with a bit less confidence. "That means I have to love her friend as I love her, so... I'm involved. ...despite being scared down to my toes, I'm involved..."
"It's four on one, Lilith Goatmother," Emily said... spreading her arms, in the same gesture Lilith used when gesturing to her now-useless flock of toadies and sycophants. "My advice is you withdraw. Despite all you've done to me, honestly? I don't want to kill you. It's not my way, no matter how much I hate your guts. Deal's on the table -- give up and I'll be out of your hair. Nobody stands with you, and all you have is a single spell."
...the crowd quickly began to withdraw, leaving the elder Fae and the young witch's friends with a wide, wide berth. The absolute rage burning behind the Archmagus's eyes suggested it would be a good idea not to be nearby when she finally exploded...
"I... HATE... that name," Lilith glowered. "You will call me Archmagus. You will call me Archmagus as the last thing you ever say! I need no one by my side -- all I've ever needed is my own power, whelp! !!"
The air in the ballroom exploded with a massive heat wave, as a column of solar fire burst from her outstretched hands. It was enough to make the tile of the dance floor curl and melt in its wake, enough to ignite the draperies hung over nearby tables. It was more than enough power to boil all four of them away and obliterate the ashes themselves.
That sideways pillar of flame slammed hard into Una's force fields, both bracers crossed, forming a protective dome. The four gathered behind it immediately, even if a shocked Nel had to be yanked in by Scout's grasping hand.
That's her one spell, the small, still part of Emily spoke. The Insight, the gift from deep within her grandmother's side of the family... Lilith has to maintain the fire, has to break through Una's shield with it. It's draining her Will with every second she keeps the spell going. If she can't kill us before she collapses, it's over. But at this rate the convection will cook us well before then, so, we have to act...
Eyes glancing around the brightly lit room fast, looking for resources, looking for...
"Una, blaster!" Emily screamed, over the roar of the fire. On command, Una dropped the gun -- she couldn't use it with all her focus on blocking the flame, anyway. Emily kicked it backwards with a foot, careful not to lose her balance and fall outside, where fire was streaming all around them... kicking it towards Scout. "Scout! Lights out!"
The Scout scooped up the weapon. He'd never fired it before... but he'd seen them fired before. Particularly the panic fire from a crazed highwayman, in an encounter that felt like it was years in the past... but not such a fuzzy memory as to forget how it worked off reflective surfaces, like the edge of a well polished chainsaw, for instance...
"Nel, please hold your serving tray up," Scout said, calmly.
Too shocked to do anything other than obey, Nel did so. And at the precise moment where it would give him the bank shot he needed... he fired.
The energy beam bounced off the mirrored tray, through the gouts of flame, off a wall-hanging mirror, and then finally slicing cleanly through the ropes that held the magically lit ballroom chandelier aloft.
The delicate structure of spellwork and glasswork dropped to the floor, spraying sparks and shards in all directions. Panicked guests scattered even farther away than they already were scattered, as the only source of light in the room went out in a piffle of failed magic...
That is, the only source other than Lilith's Inferno spell. Which now was casting a VERY sharp shadow from Emily and Una's bodies.
"Thanks for your help," Scout said to Nel, before stepping into the shadow and vanishing through the floor.
Less than a second later, and the fire had been redirected to the ceiling -- Lilith wasn't even screaming, as Scout slapped the modified anti-caster hold on her from behind, pulling her arms up while cupping a hand over her mouth.
NOW, Emily thought... swerving around Una's shields, sprinting across the dance floor, her spellbook out and open. One glance of the eyes to the page, to load up the Word and its Way, then apply the touch of a single to Lilith's exposed chest as she quietly spoke her Solitary Spell...
The fired died immediately, as the Will powering it collapsed. Scout let go, as Lilith began to thrash, to gag... collapsing to the ground in agony.
"One spell," Emily informed, snapping her book shut. "A spell I learned recently, which goes by the name of Perfectea. I just poured a cup of warm, steaming tea directly into your lungs, Lilith. You're drowning, and likely about to die. I've won the duel."
No haughty smile. No angry glare. This time... the Archmagus's expression was one of terror. And the entirety of the Summer Court nobility was there to watch it happen...
She fell unconscious, brain deprived of the oxygen it needed.
"I... declare Emily Moonthistle the victor," Morgana belatedly said, although without mirth. As much as she loved and hated her sister... the concern on her face was clear. "The... ah... death of the Archmagus is, of course, Lady Moonthistle's right, in payment for insult..."
But Emily shook her head, groaning at the thought of what was about to happen. "As much as I hate to do this, given, oh, she murdered my entire family... I said it before. Killing isn't my way."
The young witch got to her knees... and began chest compressions, followed by mouth to mouth breathing. CPR, to save a drowning victim.
It took several cycles of the process, before the doomed Archmagus began coughing up a tea slurry, her airway clearing. Emily rolled her, to let the fluid drain as best it could -- before being roughly shoved away by Lilith, who would not dare to be helped any further.
The assembly gathered in closer, wanting a good look, as the aftermath of the game played out...
"Sister... you are twice defeated, it seems," Morgana spoke, trying not to sound relieved. "Defeated in magic, and even saved from the icy grip of death by your foe. By Faerie law... you owe this girl considerable favor, now."
"nnhgh," Lilith choked, spitting up more tea, her robust Faerie constitution helping her fight off the effects... but not negating them. The fire returned to her glare, as she gazed at her hated former student. "...no. No. Never. I owe her nothing! I will do nothing for her--"
Do not deepen your humiliation, Lilith Goatmother.
The fallen lights of the chandelier, flickering and fading... began to brighten anew. They swirled away from the wreckage, forming a rough bell shape, which became a rough dress shape... which became the shape of a beautiful woman, with stray leaves and flower petals wafting in from open windows joining the light-form. The figure had no face, simply an eternal swirl of sunlight in the shape of one. At last, igniting point by point... upon her head hovered a majestic ring known as the Crown of Flame, a series of tiny dancing flames in the shape of a circlet.
"L... Lady Summer...?!" Lilith recognized, and expression of shock taking root...
Yes. As promised, I am appearing before my children during this, my glorious Solstice Ball... and what do I bear witness to, on this joyous evening? Your disgrace, Archmagus. You have disrupted my Solstice with violence and the stench of failure. So yes, you indeed owe the human child a boon. I suggest you grant it and be done with this foolishness. Be thankful I do not demand more of you than to fulfil your obligation.
"...she started it," Lilith mumbled, petulant to the end.
And you will end it. I've more important matters to tend to than to put up with your childishness...
With eyes like miniature suns, the gaze of Summer fall on the victor of the duel... Emily.
Well played, child. But don't think this will win you any more favor in my Court. The future comes closer with each day. The silver city will be mine -- you cannot change this destiny. Now. Speak your request.
"What do you mean, the silver city will be yours?" Emily most absolutely did NOT say.
It was a trap. Summer was baiting her -- she knew damn well what Emily was up to, what she was investigating. A little bait would be dangled, so that instinct would jump at the chance to ask about it... and the answer given in exchange would then count as the boon Lilith owed her. With the favor paid in full... she'd still be surrounded by Summerfae, and with no safety net. It'd mean game over.
So. Her request would have to be well chosen. But quickly chosen, lest the ire of Summer be raised...
"I request my friends and I be given safe passage to Orbital Arcology #A076," Emily spoke.
As you like it. Lilith? This is your boon to grant, in a method of your choosing.
Fallen and disgraced... but not without a streak of mischief, Lilith applied her trademark smile once more.
"As you like it," she agreed, speaking a Word of power...
Emily's eyes widened. Oh dammit wait no I take it back I didn't specify not to be teleported directly into the vacuum of space--
The four of them vanished from the House of the Rising Sun in a flash of sunlight.
to be continued
copyright 2009 stefan gagne