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And done.

I'm probably a bit too tired at this point to properly comment on this, and quite frankly I should have finished this a day or two ago to prevent yet another sleepless night. But regardless, it's done. Now I just need to survive tomorrow.

The moon was dark, but Tariel took up Her sleeping younger sister’s burden this night: Her stars guided the way for their returning prodigal child, casting their lambent glow upon the lake and the boat crossing it. The reign of silence was only broken by the mechanical strokes of oars through the rippling water. The air was crisp and cool, thinned by the altitude: after her seemingly interminable tour working in and observing the new human Empire as it expanded to the very feet of their mountains, it was like a tonic to Lia.

The soaring towers of Aventis were just coming into view in the middle of the lake, barely distinguishable from the night-shrouded mountains on the other shore. One without her people’s preternatural sight would have seen nothing and ended hopelessly lost, if they could even make the trip without fatal consequences in the mountains, or dying painfully trying to pass through the Gate.

Darash’s slaves are always so quiet. I don’t know how Galen can stand dealing with them as much as he does…and I don’t want to know what goes on in the Dread Lady’s temples to make them that way. Her ivory brow furrowed in thought as she leaned back, draping long black hair about her willowy Aventine body, loosely robed in crimson silk. Pale skin shone in the Regal Lady’s starlight, combining with her dark attire to lend an unearthly cast to her look, like a barely embodied, inhumanly beautiful face hovering in the night.

The boat had deceptively comfortable seating given its small size, though, and as she settled in, her thoughtful expression predictably gave way to a languid smile, angular green eyes half-closing as a contented purr bubbled from her lips. I suppose this is how he can stand it. The Shadow Knights never skimp on the luxuries, for all their…worrisome friends. Sprawling in her seat, she let her thoughts drift to welcome dreams. She always loved coming home, regardless of what she brought with her.

* * *

The library deep within the temple of Sybra looked dramatically out of its place, with its smooth walls lined with bookshelves and panoramic paintings instead of playthings. Then again, many outsiders, especially those devoted to greater Gods like the Ladies of the Triad, thought the Goddess of Passion’s High Temple was nothing more than a perpetual orgy, and the knights looking to Her as Matron were simply feeble libertines with pinprick swords, unsuited to the task the Queen granted them. Many insiders were amused by that opinion: Galen el’Adas, the Shadow Archivist, was well-known as one such. It was the only thing he was well-known for: he rather preferred things that way.

He absently set the report he was reading to one side on his desk, turning to the door as a gloved fist rapped softly at it. “Lord Archivist?” his assistant called from the other side.

“Enter,” he answered, suddenly all business. The door opened easily to reveal a ruby-haired Aventine noblewoman even younger-looking than the silver-maned Archivist, though the smooth faces common to their immortal kind made guessing ages a risky game at best. Both were armed with the twinned rapiers and wore the black and violet uniform of their order, with the customary chain mail and white cape omitted while in the Temple. Galen glanced curiously up at the trainee, and his question did not even need to be asked.

“Sir, the Far Speakers have relayed a message for you from the western shore of the Tear. ‘The storm crow comes. You know where.’ ”

Finally. He tried to keep his voice even.

“Thank you, Catarin. I will be going into the city. Your duties are done for the night. “

“Might I ask-“, she began, but he cut her off, kindly as he could.

“Your curiosity will do you well in my service, Catarin, but not tonight. I fear you’ll learn soon enough anyway, with your father on the Council.”

She bowed and left: he followed soon after.

* * *
The Golden Phoenix Gallery was lavishly decorated, and lit by slowly pulsing globes of wizard-caged starlight, causing pools of shadow to drift in cycles between the marble statues of heroes and deities of the Star Children that adorned the foyer, crowned by the towering idols of the Triad at the back. Snatches of late-night conversation drifted in from the attached café, and Galen’s ears took note of what they could as he lingered beneath the stately effigy of Tariel. There was no such thing as useless information in times such as these.

“Some soldier you are,” came the sultry, mocking woman’s voice from behind him, as arms snaked around his head and waist, to cover his eyes and trap him helplessly against the sculpture’s gigantic leg. “I could kill you before you drew your next breath.”

He shivered in his captor’s grip, but managed to stay calm. “Thus my posting in a library, madame. And I know you will not kill me.”

Chilling laughter. “And how, by the Three-In-One, do you know that?”

A thin smile curved his sucked-in lips before the whispered reply, “Because only you know how I react to being touched there, Lia.”

Her fingers jerked away from the pointed, upswept tip of his ear as if it was suddenly red hot, and she released him with a guilty-looking blush. “Damn you, Galen,” she murmured as he turned around to face her. His keen eyes spoke from spymaster to spy, but his laughter spoke from lover to lover as she made her contrition. “So I couldn’t resist. It’s been ages. Could you blame me? Or indulge me?”

“No, and not as you have doubtless dreamt.” he answered, with a bit of a wistful tone himself. “Welcome home, Lia, love.” The Archivist leant in for a brief kiss, cupping her chin gently for a lingering moment. “This will have to do for now. That is, unless you want to be interrupted at our sport by an angry Templar of the Dread Lady.”

“Depends; which one?” retorted Lia with a wicked grin: Galen only gave a good-natured roll of his eyes as he answered, “The Night Knife, Lord Commander Ayren himself.” She went even paler than normal at that, levity fleeing with all colour in her face, and he nodded, satisfied that his point had come across. “He has been pestering me for a new report on the Empire for months, he knows you work for me, and by now he knows you have returned to the City – though probably not where yet, thanks to your…inspired choice of meeting place.”

Lia’s pleased smile at that could have lit up the room. “Sybra’s divine providence, to remind me of our first evening together.”

“No doubt,” Galen chuckled. “You had nothing to do with that memory coming to the surface. Well, we can repeat it – though instead of talking about painters over coffee, we shall have to talk about what the humans and their new Prince are up to down in the lowlands.”

“And the ending?” Lia asked playfully.

“We can keep the old ending. Our esteemed Lord Ayren will get his report and finally leave me alone for a week or two while he locks himself in the Black Temple and plans to bring his sacrificial genocide crusade up in the Queen’s Council. That should be ample time for us to…catch up.”

Don’t,” she muttered under her breath as she looped her arm through his and they walked together into the café, “be so sure that will suffice. You’ve no idea how much I missed you down there.”

“Gentle Lady preserve me,” he intoned with a wry grin and a squeeze to her hand. “Don’t kill me just yet, love – it may fall to me to stop a war.”
* * *
She turned out to be correct: it had not been nearly long enough for either of them when the insistent, long-expected knock came to the door of Galen’s bedchamber in the High Temple. Lia whimpered sleepily but seemed not to wake as he carefully disentangled himself from her greedy embrace, rolling out of bed and padding over to his wardrobe to pull on a formal dress uniform.

Armed, armoured, and caped in dazzling white, he made for the door, stopping at the imposing obsidian altar to Sybra. Bowing his head, he whispered a prayer to his Matron.
That we in Passion’s service are all about the pleasures of the flesh is a misconception. The passion of lovers, of seekers after knowledge, of patriots, of guardians…it all belongs to you, our Lady, and to us, your servants. Grant me, O Lady, the strength and passion to sway their minds in Your name, the name of the Triad, the name of the Queen, and the name of our people.

Resolved, he straightened and opened the door to reveal the waiting Catarin. His fellow Sybran didn’t even bat an eye at the dozing woman in his bed or the paintings of the pair on his chamber walls, but he stepped out and closed it behind him regardless.

“Yes, Catarin? I take it you were sent to summon me?”

The young trainee nodded, her eyes slightly downcast. “Indeed, my lord: forgive me for the interruption, but you have been called to the Star Chamber to testify before the Queen and Council.”

“Why should I need to forgive you, Catarin? You were only doing as ordered. Just wish me luck and we will be even. I take it you have an inkling of what is going on by now? Or have I misjudged you?” he added in a joking tone.

“Never, my lord. I know what the Black Temple aims for, and I find it…improper for our people to fight and die for Darashian bloodlust. Good luck, my lord.” Raising fingers to lips in the Order’s traditional salute, she dipped her head and left him.

The trip up the Tarielline Hill to the Palace was short, and in the light of day the birch-lined, winding street was just as beautiful as by night, with sunlight glinting off the polished stones as they passed underfoot, but with his mind on the task to come the beauty eluded him. Few of the other councillors, according to his best information, leaned naturally towards the stance of the Temple of Night and Death, but there was no telling how much embellishment of the human threat would need to be overcome…or even how much of it was embellishment. They know little of our Gods and even less of our people, but fear both them and us; they are weaker but outnumber us. Who is to say they will not come after us if we do not do it first?

And then, there was no more time to mull, for he had arrived. An impassive guard guided him through the ornate palace hallways to the Star Chamber itself, named for the shape of the great blackwood table around which the Councillors sat. The Queen herself sat at its head, resplendent in robes of office and tiara, and her councillors spread out around her in a panoply of noble finery: the Dukes of the Great Houses, all the high priests, and the lords commander of the militant and arcane orders, including his own. He sank respectfully to his knees, briefly overwhelmed, but the Queen’s soothing voice brought him back to himself.

“Rise, Archivist el’Adas. Your intelligence has been the cause of much debate, and we thought we should hear from the proverbial horse’s mouth. What do you see in the human activities, in the founding of the human city of Ardatha in the lowlands?”

He rose to his feet before the council table and gave a slow shrug. “They spread. They always spread: they must. The numbers of them must be seen, in their tens and hundreds of thousands and rising, to be believed. Their Emperor is a canny man and a great warrior, and his new heir is said to follow in his footsteps, so they expand. They will always need more space, and when the world no longer provides it to them, they will turn on themselves. Such is the way of the short-lived.”

Galen’s eyes found Lord Ayren’s then, as the Templar sat up straight in his chair, clad in black and silver stripes. The latter’s eyes gleamed with triumph as he asked in an unctuous voice, “Are they not, then, a dire threat as long as our home does not swarm with them?”

“No,” countered Galen. “They are not. Their advantage is in numbers, Numbers cannot ascend the mountains. Numbers cannot cross the Tear without spending months denuding its shores of trees. The magic needed to move an army so far would kill hundreds of wizards, since humans cannot use the Gate. Quite the undertaking, all in all, when they have no grudge against us and only the vaguest idea where we even live, for all of us who have already gone among them.“

“And would you risk our people on someone’s loose lips, spy?”

“As much as you would risk them to feed the Dread Lady, my lord. Your aim is yours and Hers, not that of the Triad, nor that of the Star Children.” There was a gasp, and Galen paused: he had gone too far in his accusations, in his sarcastic ire. Ayren’s countenance was murderous, and the others around the table were simply too shocked to really be listening. Heart sinking, he tried, more careful now, to recover the thread of the argument.

“They may be short-lived, but their grudges are as immortal as ours. Attack them, and you will inspire the threat you fear. Attack them with your stated aim of total destruction, and we will fail. Worse, you will make them take any effort, incur any cost, to find us and destroy us in return. We cannot win here, but we can most certainly lose.”

“The Triad will grant us victory, Archivist, whatever your doubts and your ignorance of the greater gods. It has always been such. Valana’s mercy nurtures us, Tariel’s wisdom guides us, and Darash’s wrath defends us.”

An interjection rang across the table from one of the secular nobles, and thrilled Galen’s heart. “Then why do you need us? Let the Temple fight the Temple’s war for the Temple’s good!” The Queen aimed a quelling glance at him, and the representatives from the Black Temple and the Temple of War glared with murder in their eyes, but the cracks were showing. Still, Galen frowned. The two temples staunchly in favour, and their militant orders, held the most and strongest armed force in the city. If even they all agreed, that is.

“Continue, Archivist?” queried the Queen once order had been restored.

“There is little enough left to say. It takes no spymaster to know most of what I have recounted, but merely common sense. Not a single human has managed to come here since we first met, what reason is there to think that thousands can? The people will not believe – some in this room do not believe, even. Ask yourselves, your Majesty, my lords and ladies, do you aim to fracture us?”

With that, he bowed deep and stepped back, looking around the table while waiting hopefully for his dismissal. There was no hope from Ayren or his counterpart from the Knights of Coreth, but from the rest of the table eighteen deadpan faces stared back at him, and he grimaced inwardly: typical politicians. They were moot anyway: only one really mattered to him, and hers shone with comforting resolve. “Thank you, Archivist, for your words and the service of your Order. I knew I chose my eyes aright..” nodded the Queen. “You may go.”

* * *
Another knock at his door, even more frantic and demanding than the last, but this one found both him and Lia clothed, kneeling in front of Sybra’s altar with worried and careworn faces. The Queen had been swayed: there would be no united Aventine attack on the Empire – but a divided City might be an even worse, and inevitable, outcome.

They both rose, alarmed by the racket, and Galen moved to open the door. It was Catarin again, her eyes shining with tears, but with new and hard-won poise in her stance. “Archivist, we must flee!” She gestured to a window at the end of the hallway. Atop the Hill, the Palace burned, and below the streets teemed with those taking her advice, streaming for the piers.

They dared?, he thought, and it was only when Catarin answered that he found he had spoken it aloud.

“They did. The Queen is dead, and…and my father…and several others of the Council when Templars of Darash and Coreth stormed the Star Chamber. They will have their war: all we can do is not be here for it. If their numbers dwindle from desertion, they may reconsider.”

The three of them looked out over the stricken city, then, as long as they dared, knowing it would be the last time they saw the beauty of home. At last, Lia sighed heavily and nodded to Catarin.

“Lead the way…Duchess.”