Chapter Seventy-Five: Plotting
“Il’thar? Thought you were on duty—” The man’s voice cut off sharply when I stepped through the door behind Eyrian. In an instant, a dozen soldiers had dropped to one knee around me. “Your Highness, we were not expecting—”
“Arianna will suffice,” I began, grimacing with displeasure. “Stand up. We have work to do.”
I yanked off my overrobe and hung it on the nearest coat rack before striding deeper into the dark subterranean room. Most of the stunned soldiers present were male, though I spotted a handful of female Adinvyr and Draekin as well.
Old standards for the Royal Guard hung along the wall on one side of the room, covered in decades of dust. The room itself seemed to go on forever, ending in what looked like a small armory and storage area at the very back. With a little rearranging, there would be enough room to hold sparring sessions. Until then, rickety desks and bookshelves lined everything.
“It’s old, but secure,” Eyrian offered as he followed me. “Lucifer figured you’d want to get to work right away, and building a new headquarters on the palace grounds will take time. You’ll want a hand in that too, right?”
“Of course.” I nodded before turning to look at the uneasy soldiers. It didn’t take me long to find Reulidru, Kabos, and Akedos among them. I immediately motioned them over. “Just the men I was looking for.” I plucked the order for equipment out of Eyrian’s hands and thrust it at the other three men. “What are your thoughts on these?”
“Your High— Arianna-jiss?” Reulidru winced at the look I gave him. He pulled his glasses out of his pocket and balanced hem on his nose before taking the stack of papers from me. Kabos and Akedos read over his shoulders, small frowns forming on their faces. “Well, it’s true we will need supplies in order to do our jobs, but…”
“Standard equipment? Tch.” Akedos shook his head and then placed a hand on his hip, looking wholly unimpressed. “This what you’re here about? We weren’t expecting you for another few days, princess.”
“Not just this, I have work for everyone too.” I flicked the Rylthra man’s nose and smirked when his purple fur bristled. “If you cooperate I’ll treat you to as much fish as you like.
“Now then, first task is simple—Kabos, I want you to do a brief interview with everyone and list their favored weapon types. I want everyone to have a minimum of three melee weapons and one ranged.”
“You intend to have custom equipment made for everyone?” Eyrian stared at me in disbelief.
“Yes. I want to make sure we’re set up for both success and longevity,” I answered as I strode over to a nearby desk that was empty. Once there, I pulled two boxes of documents out of my shrizar and then glanced between Reulidru and Akedos. “You two are good with information and espionage, right?”
“Yes, Arianna-jiss,” Reulidru answered, bowing slightly.
“Good, you two are going to work together on something for me,” I said, turning to look at Reulidru. He glanced down at the box I pointed at before lifting his gaze to meet mine. “We’re going to purge Dauthrmir of its criminals, and to do so there’s a lot of information we need to acquire.
“Reulidru, you and yours will help me pour over the documents and compile a list of people and places that require investigation.”
“And investigating is where I come in?” Akedos grinned broadly.
“That’s right.” I nodded, offering the second box to Akedos. “I’ve already got some things I want you to look into in the meantime.”
“You need weapons and armor, girlie?” a familiar voice laughed, delighted. “I think we can help with that.”
“We—” I pivoted to stare at the duo that had appeared by the doorway. “Aurelian? Elise? Aren’t both of you busy with—”
“Preparing for war? Aye.” Aurelian gave me a wolfish grin and motioned at the room. “Say the word and that can include arming your men. Their uniforms are pretty but that won’t do shit against blades or magic.”
“You underestimate your status, Arianna-jiss.” Elise smiled at me when I opened my mouth to protest. “We’re meant to be your ally while you’re a candidate for Balance—and much of what you plan to do with your men involves that role, does it not?
“Aurelian and I can finish far faster, with far stronger materials, than the city smiths.”
“And we know your tastes,” Aurelian added. “You can leave the design to us and focus on your other work. After all, with what you’re planning, they’re going to need protection similar to the armor we made for the demigods.
“I’ve got some ideas on how we can protect your men and women from all that gunk.”
“Gunk?” one of the nearby soldiers murmured.
“Beast blood, poisons, and who knows what other manner of contaminants,” I answered, pivoting to look at the slender Jrachra man. He looked startled, but quickly recovered and bowed to me. “We should proceed assuming that the majority of our prey have access to such things, even if they aren’t under the effect of them.
“Aurelian, Elise, you believe you can pull this off without any…interference?”
“Easy.” Aurelian crossed his arms and looked over to Kabos. “Two days long enough for you to get all the info together?”
“That should be plenty, my lord.” Kabos bowed to the deities.
“Good. Swing by our temple when you’re finished. We’ll be there.” Aurelian nodded to Kabos and then turned to face me again, his eyes narrowed. “Don’t worry about payment—we owe you one.”
“Wha—” I started to ask, but both of them disappeared before I could finish.
‘Well, your meddling is part of why they can work now,’ Eyrian remarked as he strode over to me. “Formal introductions will have to wait, Your Highness. You’re wanted at the academy.”
“Shall a few of us accompany you?” one of the women asked.
“No, stay here and cooperate with Kabos, Reulidru, and Akedos for now,” I answered, shaking my head. “More than just Eyrian with me is still too suspicious, and I would prefer we get the matters of armor, weapons, and information sorted as soon as possible. I’ll also need someone to bring me information regarding establishing a formal headquarters.”
“Consider it done.” A Vorpmasian Elf stepped forward and bowed to me.
“Oi, princess, I’ll have to go to Draemir for some of this,” Akedos called, waving a stack of papers in the air. “Permission?”
“Consider it granted,” I replied before turning to look at Eyrian. “Let’s make a quick stop on the way to the academy so I can warn Sorr that he’s got a guest coming.
“Akedos, pick a few of your men to go with you in case there’s more prey.”
“And if we find ‘em?” Akedos grinned.
“Bag them up and bring them back to the academy for study.” I shrugged, summoned my overrobe, and turned toward the door. “In pieces, if necessary. Live specimens will be more useful, but the safety of you and yours comes first.
“That applies to everyone here—understood?”
“Yes, Your Highness.” The chorus of answers made me roll my eyes before pushing the doors open.
“Speaking of specimens,” Eyrian began, grimacing, “I’m told we still don’t have anything useful on any of the ones brought back from Falrrsald or the forests.”
“I’m not expecting much about them for a while.” I shoved my hands into my pockets as we made our way through the palace. “How about the refugees?”
“Between the N’lafmarans and Sebastian, we have a detailed map of N’lafmar and the surrounding villages,” Eyrian answered, pulling an odd crystalline device out of his shrizar. He tapped it, and glowing lines appeared on its surface to form a map. “Much like Dauthrmir, the majority of their citizens live within the capital itself. Humans and Elves are forced to live on the outskirts of the city, in the slums, if they don’t belong to higher class families.”
“Humph. How about the Zehylor?” I asked. “There were the handful I rescued from that prison… We were also going to attempt to contact the ones Nalithor and I had run into in the wilds, weren’t we?”
“The soldiers you met have returned home,” Eyrian murmured. “We are sending ambassadors to speak with them, and to bring back the men you found. They don’t appear to have qualms with Devillians, but they loathe the N’lafmarans. It’s likely they would go to war soon even if we didn’t interfere.”
“It’s not hard to dislike the N’lafmarans.” I snorted.
“The same can be said of X’shmir,” Eyrian pointed out.
“True enough.” I laughed. “With that in mind, it’s likely that N’lafmar has some decent people within it as well. Like the X’shmirans, they may simply be following the ways of the royals in order to survive.”
“It will still be a massacre,” Eyrian stated, his expression grim. “From what we’ve been told, the N’lafmarans will use the people in the slums as fodder to slow us down. We may have little choice in who we hunt.”
“Mmm, I was thinking of a more dominating approach.” I shook my head and placed one hand on my hip before pointing up at the sky. “We have airships—something they very clearly don’t have. Meaning, they shouldn’t have the weaponry to damage them.
“I was thinking we could fly in and assault the castle directly.”
“That may be too bold.” Eyrian frowned before shaking his head. “Well, we can discuss that later. You need to pick up anything before we head to the academy?”
“No. Shouldn’t take me long to write a letter to the Draemiran generals, either,” I answered.
Half an hour later, we walked into a classroom to find a very agitated Nalithor and two bored Lari’xan overseeing a class. My nylziis shot us a perplexed look, while Sihix and Yiltanys smirked upon spotting me. Within seconds the mischievous pair were on their feet and had flanked me.
“Ahhh, there’s our favorite!” Sihix exclaimed, sliding an arm around my shoulders.
“I was so sad when I discovered you weren’t joining us, Ari-mrii,” Yiltanys spoke, giving his voice a much more sultry flair than necessary.
“I had work to do—and still do.” I pulled away from the two Lari’xan and then strode over to Nalithor. He gave me a questioning look when I tugged at the front of his robes but made no other effort to move. “We’re needed elsewhere. Apparently we’re meant to leave your class in the care of these two.”
“That sounds like a terrible idea.” Nalithor glanced past me, narrowing his eyes. “I don’t believe I gave any of you permission to stare at my ayraziis’ ass.”
“Wait, so like, Ari and Nali won’t be teaching us today?” My brother’s whiny tone made the corner of my eye twitch. “I have so many questions I want to ask you, Ari!”
“It will have to wait,” I answered, spinning in place to face the classroom. Sure enough, two rows back, my brother looked like he was on the verge of a fit. “Orders from His Excellence come before all else. I’m sure you’ll be in good hands…assuming these two can behave themselves.”
“Fear not, we have no interest in this lot.” Yiltanys made a dismissive motion.
“But… I should also be your favorite if Ari’s your favorite Umbral Mage!” Darius whined.
“You are our least favorite Astral Mage,” the Lari’xan stated in unison, their tones flat.
‘I will gladly follow whatever orders Lucifer has for us if it means getting away from that damned brat.’ Nalithor rose to his feet, strode past me to fetch his nearby overrobe, pulled it on, and then offered me his arm. “We shouldn’t keep His Excellency waiting.”
“But she’s an Umbral Mage!” Darius exclaimed in exasperation. “Why would a light whatever-you-were-called like—”
“The term you are looking for is ‘Lari’xan,’ and I favor her because her darkness is pure,” Yiltanys paused, his expression thoughtful as he examined the class. “You should all be thankful that your experiences in life have not given you pure devotion to any element. The type of life Ari-mrii has experienced has only two results…”
“…utter faith to darkness or light, or corruption,” Sihix finished. “Perhaps we should cover the twisting of elements in today’s class, Yilty?” He glanced over his shoulder to look at Nalithor next. “You fine with that, Professor?”
“Do as you like, as long as it isn’t illegal.” Nalithor shook his head as he steered me out the door.
“I don’t know who to feel sorry for—Darius or the Lari’xan.” Eyrian fell into step with us, his expression betraying his amusement.
“Darius is no match for them,” I muttered dryly.
“So, what is this about work?” Nalithor questioned.
“Lucifer contacted the academy and pulled you off duty for the next several months,” Eyrian began, shrugging. “He wants you to be more involved with Arianna’s plotting.”
“I wasn’t plotting!” I protested.
“That is exactly what you were doing,” Eyrian stated dryly.
“Already?” Nalithor arched an eyebrow at me. “When I left you were signing contracts.”
“She just finished giving out tasks.” Eyrian jabbed a thumb in my direction. “While Arianna worked on sending a letter to Draemir, I had lunch ordered to your study at the palace, Nalithor. It would be best if we start reviewing her plans immediately.”
“Yes, we will need to get ourselves up to speed if we intend to continue as we have been.” Nalithor sighed and then shot me an amused look. ‘How much trouble have you managed to cause in a matter of hours?’
‘We can discuss it when we’re in your study and I’m out of this stupid form,’ I retorted, pursing my lips. ‘Looking like a Human makes me itch.’
“Has the boy improved any?” Eyrian asked.
“Darius? Not by much.” Nalithor grimaced.
“So he’s improved some?” I couldn’t help but feel skeptical.
“His control of his elements is better, but Yiltanys said his light is in poor shape.” Nalithor frowned, his expression becoming far more serious. “Darius’ light has become so warped that it’s no longer similar to light, nor is it anything close to darkness. It’s much closer to pure corruption.”
“Tch, if he somehow becomes the new God of Blight there will be an ‘Elder’ or ten for us to strangle,” I muttered and squeezed Nalithor’s arm. ‘So, how was breakfast with your parents? You don’t smell singed.’
‘They’ve accepted our alternative to tradition,’ Nalithor began in a tired tone, ‘but now they want to make certain they have a hand in every little damned detail. I spent the morning helping Mother decide what manner of designs the commoners could use.’
‘And Lysander?’ I arched an eyebrow.
‘She made him model the options.’ Nalithor made a disgusted face. ‘The royal and noble families will be keeping their original designs, hairstyles, and motifs. We were able to find more standardized motifs for commoners to use.’
“Now then,” Eyrian began as we strode into Nalithor’s study, but soon paused when he spotted Azhar and the slender Jrachra from earlier. “Azhar?”
“Not poisoned.” Azhar jabbed a thumb over his shoulder at the cart of food and drink behind him, then crossed his arms at us. “Came to guard the door while you three work. Nehisil and I won’t let anyone through.”
“Lucifer roped you into this too, Nehi?” Nalithor arched an eyebrow at the Jrachra, who smiled and shrugged in reply.
“I apologize for not introducing myself earlier, Your Highness.” Nehisil turned to me with a flamboyant bow. “I am the First Prince of the Niyutibi Family. Lucifer-y’ric assigned me to lead your healers and battle mages.”
“Lucifer really isn’t holding back,” Nalithor remarked with a small frown. “Just how many demigods did he reassign, and how did he get the Families to cooperate?”
“They complained until they met Her Highness yesterday. Once they saw her, they realized what Lucifer-y’ric was up to,” Nehisil answered, glancing at me before turning his gaze back to Nalithor. “Including Eyrian and I, there are five First Princes and three Second Princes. The Third Princes were deemed too unskilled or otherwise too immature to participate, for now.”
“And the princesses?” Nalithor asked, but the amused smile on his face gave me the impression that he already knew the answer to that.
“I believe he said something about ‘sparing his precious daughter the agony of dealing with them herself.’” Nehisil grinned crookedly. “Most of the women Lucifer-y’ric considered were deemed too fragile to keep up with Her Highness. The ones who remain will not be a problem.
“Now then, you three have matters to discuss, do you not? We will keep anyone from barging in. If they insist upon meeting you—”
“Give us a warning so that the little vixen can shift back to her Human appearance,” Nalithor stated, placing a hand on top of my head. He grinned in response to my disgruntled glare.
☽ ✷ ☾
“You involved the Beshulthiens already and they’ve already given us the information he promised?” Nalithor frowned as he rifled through a stack of folders. After a moment, he looked up to fasten his gaze on Xander. “How serious is my brother about helping Vorpmasia—and ‘Her Highness?’”
“He meant it when he said he wants to make amends.” Xander shrugged, his arms remaining crossed. “He’s also right that the two of you found more problems for the empires to unite against, which should increase the longevity of the Alliance.”
“But?” I probed, shooting Xander a knowing look when he hesitated.
“How the territories in Falrrsald are split between the empires could be a point of contention.” Xander sighed, running a hand back through his hair. “There’s also still the matter of whoever—or whatever—made him into a Vampire. He’s warned me that, whoever it is, they told him that someday they’ll ‘borrow’ him as payment for their ‘blessing.’
“Rabere is convinced they mean something akin to possession and has been attempting to put safeguards in place to maintain the Beshulthien Empire—and its relationship with Vorpmasia.”
“If they do plan to use him in such a manner, then everything he knows will be available to them,” Nalithor murmured, sinking back in his seat with a frown.
“Then we’ll have to be careful with what we tell him,” Eyrian stated with a flourish of his pipe. “Same goes for you, Xander. We should take care in choosing what information to share.”
“About that,” Xander began, shifting to look at me, “I recommend that you work exclusively with the men your father assigned you, Arianna. I’m not convinced that the creature responsible for turning Rabere isn’t making moves within Vorpmasia itself.
“There’s also that brat of a brother you have. Vivus overheard him muttering about turning the Vorpmasians against you in order to ‘secure his path to Balance.’ He and the other candidates don’t seem to realize that they’ve already lost.”
“Other candidates?” Nalithor asked, his eyes narrowing.
“Two Elves and an Angel arrived recently, claiming to be candidates.” Xander made a sour face. “They demanded that they—and Darius—be allowed to work within the Empire to further their chances at the role of Balance. Lucifer refused. They’ve been coming to court every morning since in an attempt to sway him.”
“Looks like I have some people other than criminals to put in their places, then,” I murmured while skimming through a document from the Beshulthiens. “Granted, it would likely be a bit odd if I were to attend court. The current circumstances don’t exactly allow me to take my proper place.”
“Bringing you with me is a simple matter,” Nalithor remarked, shooting me a devious smirk. “Furthermore, our official cover story states that I’m allowing you to use my men in your pursuit of the role. It won’t be strange if you report to Lucifer at court regarding your plans or findings.”
“In that case, I had better make sure I have something to report.” I rose to my feet, shifted back to my Human form, and turned toward the door, earning a questioning look from the three men. “Come to our temporary headquarters after you three are done talking, I could use the help going through information.
“Azhar, Nehisil, let’s go.”
‘You intend to go tomorrow morning?’ Nalithor laughed in disbelief.
‘You’re half correct—my intent is to make certain they’re not allowed even the illusion of possible success,’ I answered, tucking my documents away in a shrizar while I walked. ‘Where are Djialkan and Alala? Didn’t they leave with you this morning?’
‘They’re reporting to Onyre and Aleri,’ Nalithor answered with a chuckle. ‘The dragons of Falrrsald are still being troublesome. Djialkan and Alala are hoping that they can assist with negotiating.’
‘And Fraelfnir is still with Sebastian?’
‘That he is.’
‘So, we’re down three Guardians,’ I pointed out, sensing Nalithor’s thoughts tense before whirling into overdrive. ‘We should stay close together then. That should also help us continue the illusion that these are your men and not—’
I paused to glance up at Nalithor when he appeared next to me, his expression serious. Azhar and Nehisil tensed and reached for their weapons briefly, before breathing out exasperated sighs. My nylziis murmured an apology to them before placing an arm behind my back.
‘Our report should be vague enough to keep any spies within the court from knowing our plans or movements.’ Nalithor stroked my hip with his thumb as he spoke. ‘Until we’ve managed to clear the Families and the nobles alike we should act as if they may be involved.’
‘We’re in agreement then. Good.’ I nodded briefly and then glanced to my right when I heard an aggravated sigh. Eyrian had fallen into step with us and was giving Nalithor a meaningful look. “Sorry about that. I said something that made him realize he shouldn’t leave me to my own devices.
“Do you know if Reulidru or Akedos have returned yet?”
“Akedos doesn’t plan to leave until tomorrow,” Eyrian replied, shooting Nalithor one last grimace before turning his gaze to me. “Reu is back with a portion of the information you requested. The rest has to be approved by higher ups.”
“We have more to work with at least.” I nodded, mostly to myself.
“What do you want us to do?” Azhar asked, his arms crossed. “I hate reading.”
“Put together a squad that can covertly patrol the city tonight,” I answered after a brief moment of thought. “In particular, I want an eye kept on the Scarlet District and the temples.”
“Crazed Vampires, corrupted people, drug dealers—keep an eye out for everything,” Nalithor spoke in a formal tone as we moved into a less private part of the palace. “Nehisil, I want you and yours to provide them support.”
“As you command,” Nehisil answered, nodding his acknowledgment. “Once we return I will assign the men I believe most appropriate to our mission.”
‘And you should be more careful about taking on a commanding air in public places, for now.’ Nalithor squeezed me, his expression one of concern.
‘It’s not an air!’ I huffed.
‘You know full well what I mean.’ Nalithor gave me a look. ‘Once we have compiled enough for a report we will return to our rooms for the night. I won’t have you overworking yourself.’