Elise enjoyed a particular talent with light essence. Not, however, with illusions. She could bend light, warp it, twist it to her desires. Crafting an image in the open air was beyond her. She simply didn't possess the artistic ability. Leaving a reflection of herself as a simulacrum or a semblance step was the extent of her illusory spellcraft.
Invisibility, however, that she could do.
A privacy ward extended around her body and no further. She wished to be silent and unseen, but once she found who she was looking for, she wondered if the precautions against discovery she'd taken had been unnecessary. Elise crouched down beside Enfri's bath while her niece scrubbed half-heartedly at her skin.
Enfri was hardly aware of the handmaiden bustling in and out with soaps and lotions. She stared straight ahead, her beautiful eyes dulled by shedding tears until none were left.
"Flames curse me," Elise whispered, her voice unable to reach beyond the boundary of her ward. "This is my doing, girl. I'm so sorry."
She reached forward as if to lay her hand on Enfri's head. Elise stopped herself. She couldn't bear the thought of revealing herself, being exposed to the hatred Enfri would direct towards her.
Enfri would blame Elise. It was certain. Enfri would blame her for tempting her betrothed to betrayal. It wouldn't matter to her that Jin came to Elise, and she would be right not to make the distinction.
"I warned you. You can't trust anyone but you to look out for yourself."
She was a fool not to listen to you, Shoen said. Fortunately for our people, she was given a hard lesson.
Elise frowned. You don't know her as well as you think you do, Grandfather.
She could feel Shoen's scowl in his silence.
Her strength has always been different from ours. People like you and me are strong because we force ourselves to get stronger. We smash down the walls in front of us. Not her. She's strong because she's the wall that can't be broken down.
Shoen laughed derisively. Does this weeping girl look like she's unbroken?
Elise stood from beside Enfri's bath and waited for the handmaiden to return before slipping out through the open door. Damaged, Grandfather. Not broken.
Elise hadn't come to New Sandharbor for Enfri, but she knew, even as she stole into the palace, what would happen. There was no way Elise could leave before seeing her niece one more time. She would've given anything for the chance to hold her again, but she was afraid Enfri wouldn't allow it.
Somber, Elise stepped carefully through the corridor. She ran a finger along the spellwrought walls. Well made, if perhaps a little unimpressive for her tastes. It needed more gold. Silver, at the least. A good deal more metal of any kind would have helped make Enfri's palace look like less of a glorified country cottage.
It suited the girl, though. Simple and straightforward, with spellwrought stone at its core. Elegant in its humility. Elise adored this palace for feeling like Enfri.
Descending a switchback staircase to the lower floors, Elise pressed against the wall as that impressive specimen of a Ruby passed her on his way from the sixth floor to the third. There was a grim look about him, and he had ten House Yora armsmen trailing in his wake. A few of the soldiers wore the armbands marking them as crewmen for the Arcane Knights. Each from different orders. The ones who weren't aviators came from separate battalions. Elise raised an eyebrow, wondering what the First Knight of Shan Alee was up to with a disparate band of soldiers like that.
Elise was tempted to follow him, perhaps get some insight into what Enfri's next move would be. Thinking better of it, she continued down to the second floor. The Karst dallied with fey, and a goblin's nose would detect Elise's presence.
Enfri's Gaulatian first minister directed a small army of clerks to their offices near to Enfri's quarters, where they would always be on hand and at the Dragon Empress' disposal. Once she was alone, the pretty thing slumped against the wall and rubbed at her thigh. The wound Jin gave her the previous night was troubling her, and she didn't have a dragon bond to repair the damage.
"Get that looked at, girl," Elise admonished in a low growl. She passed the minister by, careful not to upset the stack of papers in her hand. She passed near enough that Elise felt it necessary to manifest a small, mind-effecting spell that would dampen the girl's senses for a brief moment. Just in case.
Something about that girl seemed familiar, but Elise couldn't place it. Had she been with Enfri during one of their previous encounters? That seemed the most likely explanation.
An attractive young Nadian man approached the minister from the opposite end of a hallway. The exile, Darian the Teranor. It seemed he would be staying in New Sandharbor now that Jin was exposed as the real traitor. He exchanged polite if stilted words with the minister.
Elise smirked and had no doubt that the two had once been intimate. Only former lovers could be that awkward around each other. Then the thought occurred to her that if anyone could provide one of the pieces of information she'd come to New Sandharbor to learn, it'd likely be one of these two. They'd both been there when Jin was discovered. Elise decided to linger and eavesdrop.
"Another few days, at the least," Darian was saying. "I have a few leads. It won't take me long to find what's left of my men."
"And you mean to bring them here?" the minister asked. "They are Courtesans, and you know my concerns with Courtesans."
"My men aren't Courtesans," Darian replied with a tone that suggested he said this a lot. "We just worked with Courtesans. They're good people. Nadian patriots. But, if it'll make you feel better, I'll let your brute Onyx sic his spies on them."
The minister smiled sweetly. Definitely not genuine. "Darian, we do not need your permission to spy on you. It defeats the purpose."
Elise liked her.
Darian grinned charmingly. "Sure, but now you know I know you're spying on me. Power's back on my side of the game board."
Ooh. Elise kinda liked him, too.
The minister sighed and averted her eyes from Darian. "I will not object to you allying yourself with Enfri. Not if you are sincere that you mean to assist her."
"With the princess out there and at large, Her Majesty needs all the help she can get. I was there, Reyn. Me and your strongest arcanists together were no match for her. She cast one spell. One. A rumbling fire ward. And she didn't need to do more. What happens when Her Highness comes back to finish the job?"
Elise took a step closer. This was what she hoped to learn. A lot of what she would do next depended on the answer.
The minister's name… Definitely familiar. Was it in Ecclesia their paths crossed?
Reyn frowned. "She will not come back. Jin is stubborn in that way. The only circumstance that will see her returned to us is if we make her."
Darian nodded. "I have good trackers. Give me bound knights to assist, and I can find her before she reaches the Spired City."
"I very much doubt that is where Jin is going," Reyn said. "For now, we will leave her be. Do not provoke a wounded predator."
Elise frowned. She was disappointed in that response. She wanted Enfri to seek retribution for the injury done to her. Nothing could guarantee her coming to Elise's way of dealing with the Althandi sooner.
Darian sighed and gave a shrug. "As you say. Be well, dove. I'll be around for a little while yet."
Elise suppressed a sudden wave of anxious nausea. Calling the minister "dove" was the first mark against Darian in her book.
"And you, Darian. Also, please, do not spread word of me and Pacifica. It would not be proper at this time."
"I know how to keep your secrets," Darian said with a grin. "And don't worry about me. I mean, have you seen Aleesh girls? I'll be alright."
Reyn made a disgusted sound. "You are the worst."
"Agree to disagree, dove." He leaned a little closer to her. "May I kiss you?"
Oh ho ho. Elise liked him a lot.
Reyn eyed him sidelong. "Just this once," she said sullenly. "Consider it my final apology."
He gave her a light kiss on the cheek. A chaste kiss. He backed away, threw her a dashing smile and a wink, then walked off.
"Dratted joyboy," Reyn muttered before heading in the opposite direction.
Elise fanned herself. Flames, but if that young Nadian wasn't her type, no one was. Such pretty eyes. She continued deeper into the southeast wing, avoiding the door with heat shimmer coming from underneath. Best to avoid Enfri's silver at all costs. Elise recognized a vengeful soul when she saw one.
The next door down, at the very end of the hallway, was the personal quarters of the Dragon Empress. Elise looked over her shoulder to make certain no one was within eyesight of the door, then slipped inside.
Again, simplicity was the defining characteristic of the room. Enfri hadn't been in residence even a full day, but Elise doubted it would ever be much grander than this. She didn't expect to find much in the way of sensitive documents, but nonetheless, Elise rifled through a few papers on Enfri's desk. Trifles and minor items for the Dragon Empress' review. Enfri likely saw to these as she was ushered about her new city the previous day, before the night came with its troubles.
Little of it was interesting. A request from the fey empty ones that they be allowed to construct their own embassies and not use whatever the Amber Knights gave them. An odd thing to ask for, but it bore Enfri's seal of approval. An invoice from the Sky Corps mercantile office; it seemed Shan Alee was beginning to call for fresh food stocks rather than preserved. In addition to the invoice, the letter included a request for the specific dimensions of New Sandharbor's new mooring tower. A list of names, potential candidates for the Arcane Knights. Another list penned by Dragon Lord Thaan, the scholars and researchers he wished to contact to help found an new arcane institute. A new item that had yet to be reviewed; Elise skimmed the first page that outlined a rescue operation inside the Jade Empire before setting it aside. There was also a letter of complaint from a Nadian quarry. Elise chuckled at the revelation that all the spellwrought construction in Shan Alee was demolishing the price of cut stone in the region. At least one western house was extending a challenge to duel Enfri's appointed champion over the matter. Elise laughed harder when she saw a notation in Enfri's hand stating "I'll thump the Carolêna myself if he wants to be rude about it". Followed immediately by a clerk's scrawl "not to be considered imperial decree".
Only one item among the papers was something Elise needed for her own purposes. It was a scouting report signed by the Lord of Quartzes. Espallan tribes were gathering at the southernmost holdfasts, flocking to the banner of the Harkh'alash led by the hallah'ha known as Lita. Dragon Lord Grellin's report suggested that the Espallan tribes were preparing to head towards World's End Gate. The report didn't suggest a motive for the movements of so many Espallan hallah, but Grellin voiced concern over the state of the western defenses of Shan Alee.
Elise folded the paper and placed it into a holding spell. She doubted it would be missed, and if it was, Enfri's clerks probably had it copied in triplicate somewhere around here.
Before she withdrew from Enfri's room, she left something on the desk. A thin spike of iron, along with a diagram of the various points on a human body where a Dekaam's arts could take hold.
"Before this is over," she said to the empty room, "you may need to defend yourself against your princess, and your spear won't be enough. I need you to know how."
Elise turned around and pulled up short. She took in a sharp gasp of air.
"You broke the truce, my lady." The First Minister of Shan Alee drove a Dekaam spike down through Elise's invisibility and into her chest, right beneath the throat.
The spellcraft surrounding Elise was torn away, every one of her spells destroyed. She froze in place, unable to move as the ether in her blood was locked away from her. The report she'd sequestered into her holding spell rematerialized and fell at her feet.
Elise could feel the spike driving through her imprint. It severed the connection between her and her active spells. She felt it drive still deeper, coming to rest against the bond between Elise and Draxa the Inamorata. Elise braced, but the spike stopped before it tore her joined soul apart. The threat remained, like a blade against her throat.
"How…" Elise managed to gasp.
"I could smell you. Your parfum is quite lovely. It must be your favorite, because you wore it when we first met. Granted, my nose is not equal to a fey or were, but it serves me well enough." Reyn pulled something from her vest pocket. A small vial, filled with a blue, viscous liquid. She gave it a little shake for emphasis as she held the spike on Elise. "This also. Oren is dreadfully inconvenient. That is, until an intruder attempts a spell that targets my imprint directly."
Elise tried to snarl, but… She was so strong. Elise had never met a mage slayer more skilled than herself. Reyn gave no leeway in her hold on Elise's ether.
"I have been waiting for this moment for a very long time, Elise Alinwé."
Against her will, Elise started to shake. Flames take her. She was afraid. This fear came as if out of nowhere, growing stronger with every word this girl said.
Reyn put the oren away, then slapped Elise across the face.
"Do you remember me now?"
Recognition. The Courtesan scrivener's apprentice. The Courtesan Elise killed. She'd killed him in front of this girl. Elise looked at her, trembling beneath this press of foreign dread, and nodded.
"I informed the knight-marshal of your presence," Reyn continued. "The Huntress and the Ascendent located your Inamorata and have her in custody. Your followers who were awaiting your return will soon find the full might of the Arcane Knights bearing down on them. Ten leagues away? Northeast of here, yes? In the thickets surrounding a large plateau?"
Elise narrowed her eyes. How could she have possibly known where Elise left Cardin, Tola, and the rest?
"Do not worry, my lady," Reyn said, guessing the question without needing it to be spoken. "It was no mistake on your part. Merely an unfortunate happenstance for you. A tribe of spriggans lives in those thickets, and they are quite beside themselves after allowing vampires to pass through their territory to assault the Storyteller's lair. You could not have known it lies on top of that plateau. Wishing to make amends, the spriggans informed Deebee of your arrival. You have been expected since this morning."
Elise's knees were shaking so badly she almost lost the ability to stand. This girl's voice was hypnotic, making it feel as if Elise were sinking deeper and deeper into a bog.
The spike twisted, and Elise felt the stiffness around her jaw and tongue fade.
"Now, tell me. Did Princess Jin go to you after she fled New Sandharbor?"
Elise shook her head. "No. I cut ties with her days ago."
Reyn looked thoughtful. "I see. Unfortunate."
A contingent of armed and armored aviators filed into the empress' chambers. Some held spears leveled at Elise while others took hold of her arms and fixed manacles to her wrists and ankles. Elise couldn't even attempt to resist with the spike on her.
She was able to move her head, and Elise looked to the open doorway.
Standing there, eyes wide and confused with her golden hair sodden from the bath, Enfri looked back at her. Her simple dressing gown was damp. She hadn't taken the time to dry herself before rushing here.
I now see the difference, Shoen said quietly. The only real difference between you and her.
Elise was too shaken by the minister's presence to respond. Even more terrified by the hatred she was certain to receive from her niece.
Fate favors her. You were never so fortunate.
He withdrew, and Elise believed it would be a long, long time before she heard his voice again. He abandoned her, because she'd lost. Elise lost this contest between empresses because she was even more foolish than the naive girl.
"Wait," Enfri said suddenly. She came in through the door and pushed through her armsmen to stand next to the minister.
The armsmen reluctantly let go of Elise, leaving the manacles in place.
Enfri the Yora First Summit, a head shorter and so much younger, was the victor. Elise felt diminished in her presence. She felt lesser. And also, at the same time, strangely complete.
"Will you help us contact your knights?" Enfri asked. "If they come here willingly, no one else will need to get hurt because of us."
"Consider her offer carefully," Reyn added. As she spoke, the dread Elise felt changed. It was no longer for her own safety she feared.
Elise thought of Cardin. Of Temri and Ardule. She'd lost so many of her people throughout her years of fighting. What had it ever gotten her? How much had it taken from her?
Unable to look Enfri in the eye, Elise looked down at the ground and nodded her head.
"Take her to be held," Enfri said to the armsmen. Her eyes remained on Elise. "Summon Lord Rav to give a sending for my aunt, and prepare to receive her forces. See they are disarmed and kept under tight watch."
The armsmen saluted. "Again and forever."
Locks were affixed the Elise's restraints, and Reyn placed a new spike to the nape of her neck before removing the first. A steel clamp and collar were placed around Elise's neck to secure the spike in place. With the removal of the spike beneath her throat, Elise could move again, but sorcery was beyond her reach.
While Reyn worked the spikes she leaned in to speak in Elise's ear "Before you are taken away, there is one thing I wish to tell you." Her hand rested on Elise's shoulder, pulling her closer. Reyn's voice dropped to a low register that would not be overheard. "I will forgive you," she said. "Ham's death was of his own making, and I cannot blame the knife being wielded. For my empress' sake, my vengeance is sated."
The unnatural fear Elise had been feeling retreated as Reyn stepped away. Elise didn't know how she knew, but she understood that she had never been so close to death as just then.
While Elise was secured, she realized it had come time to face the price of all she'd done to Enfri. It was among the most difficult things she'd ever done, but she forced herself to look at her niece.
There was no hatred. There was nothing. Enfri was weary of feeling. She had no emotion left to spare for Elise.
Somehow, that hurt worse.
Enfri bent to retrieve the paper that materialized out of Elise's holding spell. She frowned at it, then looked to her desk. There was a slight dilation of her pupils when she saw the Dekaam spike and diagram. As Elise was led away, she heard Enfri ask something of her first minister.
Elise couldn't quite hear the softly whispered question, but she heard Reyn's response. Despite her current situation, Elise couldn't help but feel a small sense of victory. Not her own, but she now knew whose corner she would stand in from this day forward, even if she wasn't welcome there.
"Yes, Majesty," Reyn said. "I would be honored to train you as a mage slayer."
TO BE CONCLUDED IN
ROYAL ASSASSIN: BOOK FIVE OF THE EMPRESS SAGA