Iosefin Thrazgad was unamused.
Outside her home on the column-lined Boulevard of Unyielding Steel, a bacchanal of irksome proportions was unfolding. Peasants, dock laborers, fishmongers, the disavowed and the dispossessed — they were all of them in the streets, cavorting to the tunes of Salzbaron's monkey accordionists. The little charlatan had presumed to hold — what did his pet drow call it? A "true festival for true duergar," the day after the shield dwarf's absurd gala. Salzbaron had produced free food by the cartload and ale by the barrel and he filled the streets with entertainments and diversions and amusements, and the "true duergar" who had studiously avoided the Steelshadow bastard's party had turned out in droves.
Iosefin knew this for what it was: A projection of power. Retribution and rebuke, for ignoring him. Do not presume to know this city. Do not presume to decline my courtesy.
So unsubtle. So gauche.
The worst of it was, the shield dwarf let it happen. She had explicitly ordered both the city watch and the Stone Speakers to ensure a safe, orderly common space for the fair. Nine hells, Erde herself was down there, doing the ensuring. And, if Iosefin knew Erde well (and not so much time had passed since those academy days, those wine-tinted nights stolen away on the Darklake), Erde would be on her third or fourth flagon of the Salt Baron's finest stout by now. Erde had no love for the Salt Baron, but she would never turn down a stout. So there she was, doing the shield dwarf's will, never you mind the message sent about who truly was beloved of the common breed.
Say what one might about Horgar, but the old man would never have suffered this insolent noise.
Grimacing, Iosefin turned away from the window and to her guests. She had summoned her — no, not peers, the heir to house Thrazgad had no peers. But she had summoned the other noble houses of the city, Ironhead and Thuldark and Muzgardt and Xardelver and the whole fractious, bloody-minded lot of them — to her home, to discuss the city's recent state of…dishabile.
Blackskull, too. Erde's older brother, heir to some of the city's richest adamantine seams, brooded in a corner, none too surreptitiously trying to pick out his sister amidst the crowd below. If he'd had half a lick of sense, he'd realize the window he perched at overlooked not any portion of Salzbaron's little carnivale, but rather Iosefin's own tastefully appointed meditation garden; and anyway, the likelihood of sussing out Erde when she didn't want to be found was minimal on a generous day. Anotoli was never the bright one in that family. Iosefin stifled a sigh. Oh, the clay she had to work with. But for the stone that the little shield dwarf had somehow brought to bear in her conquest…
"You saw how ruthlessly her thugs cleared out the derro," Odette was saying as Iosefin returned to the stonewood table around which the nobles had gathered. "Squirrelly little things. Foolish. Our ancestors should never have let them into the city to begin with. Bad enough we have those mad giants to contend with. Though I hear she's no great friend of theirs either."
"Madame Xardelver, it almost sounds as though you approve of our queen's conduct," Davor Thuldark offered drily.
"Queen-designate," Vlaclav Muzgardt corrected. The master of the city's breweries (those that didn't pay coin to Salzbaron for his "protection," and oh, but Iosefin knew just when and where to levy that line of credit) stabbed a hand angrily into the air for emphasis. "No matter what that mongrel drow said — did you see her yesterday, looking for all the world like a wet rag yet to be wrung out and presuming to talk to us? — we must remember that the Steelshadow whelp has yet to accede the throne."
"Yet," Iosefin cut in. She dropped into her chair, sized slightly larger than the others. "She will do so now. She has no other choice. She cannot reform the Council unless she does so, and she cannot hold the city unless she installs a new magisterium to bolster her position here."
"Whatever happened to all her posturing about democracy?" Odette Xardelver said the word as though it were a curse or blight on her house. "Surely accession is at odds with her stated desire to emancipate our holdings."
Iosefin scowled, not least because of all the nobles arrayed around her, Xardelver was the most unethical when it came to such…holdings. Stories spread. Even Iosefin found them distasteful. Lords should have a measure of pride in their possessions. Through thinned lips, Iosefin said, "The child will do no such thing. She'll take the power thinking to relinquish it, and then, I suspect—"
"The Steelshadow blood will run true," Davor muttered.
Iosefin nodded. "Indeed. And we should be grateful her claim to that wretched bloodline allowed her to dislodge Horgar, because Horgar was, at the end of the day, gone tipsy and grey with madness and let's none of us forget that we turned no profit, flourished little coin towards the end of that very long, very grim day. That infernal music no longer keeps me up late of nights, no caterwauling from the streets just outside my bedroom window, and for that I will forever be disposed favorably towards the bastard and her friends. But power always believes itself to be in possession of a noble soul. We, however, are noble. We know better, sirs and madams."
She leaned forward, pitching her voice low so that all around her, even that idiot Anotoli over by the wrong bay windows in the corner, would have to strain to hear her next words.
Werz, you fool. Shows of power didn't need to be showy.
"What matters now is what we do with that knowledge."
Galina coughed as the smoke from her phial dissipated. The little workspace she'd been given within the Hold was poorly ventilated, but a few swift gusts cleared the room enough for her to breathe without hacking up a lung. The acrid smoke curled in the corner, but otherwise stopped assaulting Galina's respiratory system.
Lighting could still use some work, though. She'd been forced to requisition a pair of goggles from one of Erde Blackskull's quartermasters – with the dissolution of the Council of Savants, there was no one central authority for arcana and magecraft in the city, and Galina would rather take her chances with the city guard than try to curry favor with the wyrmsmiths – but even these goggles, ensorcelled as they were to amplify and magnify, couldn't get her deep enough into the underlying runic architecture she was working on.
It bothered her. Of course it bothered her. She was fuelled by anger and disgust and all manner of emotions, most of them of the sort to cause her slate grey skin to flush obsidian with shame. At the thought of what she did to the others, of how she let those demons winnow their way into her mind… No, Galina couldn't let poor work conditions hamper her. Not when she was needed. Not when she could help rebuild the wards that were supposed to keep the city safe, supposed to keep the demons at bay.
Not when Vogo needed her.
She thought back, to this morning. Her meeting with the – was she supposed to still call him Hierarch? Without the Savants lending him authority? But no, Vogo commanded authority even without a title before his name. The derro had come to her, shortly after his liberation and attended by two of his remaining apprentices.
"So few of them," he'd muttered, as his apprentices turned to leave him alone with Galina. "So few of the Council, unsullied."
Galina opened her mouth to say something, some reassuring pablum, but Vogo had cut her off with a preemptive wave of the hand.
"No, please. You do not need to assuage my guilt. My brothers and sisters sought to combat roiling madness, but were blindsided in the process. I have made my peace with my culpability in that corruption."
Quietly, around the stone that had somehow lodged itself in her throat, Galina said, "I can't pretend that I'm any better."
Vogo smiled, slight but there. The old derro's skin looked paper-thin, wrinkled and creased at the corners of his eyes and mouth. "It would be easier to self-flagellate, wouldn't it? Wear a hair shirt and kneel before H'Graam, suffer as you know you rightly should. But we, you and I, are creatures of science. We know that benediction only goes so far. You did wrong, and yet have emerged unscathed. That you feel remorse over this is good. That you act upon that remorse will be better still."
Scrubbing furiously at her eyes, Galina said, "How? I've done — I did terrible things, maester. The demons, yes, but that doesn't absolve me of anything."
"I do not come to you offering absolution. That is the province of H'Graam, and anyway he and Dorhun never did much care for us derro, so what business would I have in trafficking their pablum? Instead, I come offering… purpose. I am looking to make something new. I cannot pretend that I failed to stop my brethren, much as you cannot bring back those who bled out under your knife. I must do other things, to make amends. And I would very much like your assistance in doing so, young thaumaturge."
Galina gaped. "But – pardon, maester, but the Council of Savants has ever been a conclave of derro."
Vogo nodded. "Indeed. And it has long been my people's bulwark of cultural pride, to shepherd the arcane in this city. But as I said, perhaps it is time for something new. Perhaps the void embraced my brethren so easily because they were so insular." He reached out to pat the back of Galina's hand. "Perhaps, child, with our voices together, we can scream back at the void."
"I say again, what? I can't hear you over this din."
From across the table, Sarith took a long pull off his drink. Some drow concoction that the assassin had somehow cajoled the barkeep, a surly old warship of a duergar with a frown like a scar, into making. How he'd managed to procure aniseed down here was beyond Orin, but lo and behold, there Sarith sat, self-satisfied as a cat, sipping his drow poison and merry all the while.
"I said, congratulations, Peaches!" Sarith said, leaning over. "You must be very proud."
"Now I know I'm hearing things. Are you saying not-awful things to me? In public?"
Sarith grinned a toothy grin. "You wound me. Am I not ever the picture of consideration and decency to you, Peaches?"
"Stop calling me that."
Ignoring him, Sarith said, "Peaches, we've been through so much together: you, me, the dwarf, the slightly taller dwarf. The siege engine with the dwarf fetish. The simple elf. So good of you all to take pity on him and bring him along on class field trips."
"You make me regret every minute spent off the bow of that abominable slave ship."
"You did make a pretty piece of ornamentation, won't lie."
"All right, I think I've humored you enough," Orin said, moving to get up from his chair. He fell back into it with an undignified thud as Sarith hooked one chair leg with a foot and tugged. Damn the drow's preternatural reflexes.
"Oww," said Orin, as he rubbed the back of his head with one hand where he'd banged against the chair.
"Did they teach you nothing up in Neverwinter? I swear, for a courtier, you demonstrate a shocking lack of decorum." Sarith made a show of looking across the room over the brim of his mug as he added, "I rather hope you do better by dear old dwarf number one when it comes to inculcating her in courtly graces."
Orin spluttered. He glared out from beneath the fringe of his hair. "I— What, how did you—"
"How did I know that you're planning on leaving our valiant coterie of vagabonds for a plum position in a nascent royal cabinet, one that has the potential to henceforth be the nexus for all Underdark politicking? Peaches. Didn't we cover this already? I know you."
Scowling, Orin pushed his hair back over and behind one ear. "So who's your spy on the inside?"
Sarith beamed. "Wouldn't you like to know."
The two of them passed a moment in what probably counted as amiable silence, insofar as neither one of them was actively trying to murder/insult/sexually harass the other for a moment or two. All around them, duergar were out en masse – drinking, singing, and pressing many, many coins into any number of the Salt Baron's many, many palms. Something had shifted in the traditionally dour duergar capital, and even today, days after the Salt Baron's unofficial "liberation festival," the mood was…no, cheerful wasn't right, Orin prized himself on his bon mots and "cheerful" overstated the case by a league. Already Dorhun's avatars patrolled the city. Though their incarceration-happy tendencies were held in check by Eldeth's desire (forcefully and precisely worded, as per Orin's suggestion) for a tenday-long jubilee, Orin could tell that something would have to change there, and soon.
But…hopeful, yes. Hopeful would suffice. And here, in one of the Salt Baron's taverns, surrounded by – gods, smiling duergar? — Orin thought he might have pocketed a scrap of that hopefulness for himself, too.
Across the room, a singer on the tavern's small stage wound down. Orin applauded lightly, a professional courtesy (though he kept his remarks about the singer's tone, timber, song choice, pitch, and overall worth as an entertainer to himself), then turned back to Sarith. "So really, why did you call me here? It can't just be to show off how many people love drinking what your new boss has on tap."
Sarith scoffed. "Boss? Please. Werz and I are partners."
Orin laughed. "Right. Would you like to pull the other one? It's got bells on." Sarith frowned, a break in the drow's otherwise droll, disaffected persona. Point, Orin thought happily. He pressed the advantage, leaning forward to trace a hand artfully in the air. "Respectfully, old boy, you and I are both smart enough to know that whatever leash he has you on is exactly long enough for you to choke on, if you stray too far afield."
"How dare—" Sarith began, before remembering himself and visibly calming his rage. The drow took a breath, then said, "Werz and I are…mutually geased. He serves my purposes just as much as I do his."
At that, Orin pulled back. He squinted at Sarith. He'd had his suspicions, of course he had, but to hear everything confirmed like this… Trying to keep the horror out of his voice, Orin said, "…you what? You entered into this voluntarily? Sarith, what in the world could compel you to—"
"Because not a single one of you trusted me," Sarith said, with more heat in his voice than Orin had ever heard him express in the three months that they'd known one another, and Orin sat dumbfounded as everything snapped into place, cascading as quickly as the words flew from Sarith's lips, "not once, not after the, oh, dozen times I saved us on our madcap flight from Ilvara's wretched slave pens. Because despite the fact that I told you all time and time again, honest as the Spider Mother's greed, that my best interests coincided with the party's success, the only one who trusted me to behave in accordance with those best interests was the maester, Spider Mother pity his soul, and because frankly, Peaches, I was tired of being taken for granted. I'll say this for Werz. When you do good work for him, he lets you know."
Sarith fought to regain control. Orin did him the kindness of looking away as he did so.
Finally, Orin said, "He promised you a cure, didn't he." It wasn't a question. He reached out as if to touch the scarring along the side of Sarith's face – the drow had done his best to disguise it with herbs and colored char and the hood of his cloak, but the pockmarks still showed – then thought better of it and pulled his hand back.
Sarith looked him straight in the eyes. "Some of us are not meant for genuflecting before gods and monsters. I will not be discounted. I know my worth, bard."
"We would have gotten around to it eventually," Orin lied.
Sarith smirked. Light caught in his eyes. "Tell me another one, Peaches. Something with bells on."
"I never really told you about why I left my tribe," said Ront.
Eldeth glanced up in surprise. She and Ront were alone together in a small antechamber, preparing for Eldeth to step out and accept Gracklstugh's crown of swords from H'Graam. This quiet moment meant so much to her; Eldeth hadn't slept in days, running ragged with action reports, reconstruction contracts, the particulars of a coronation when the city hadn't hosted one in centuries. At least she had Orin to rely on for the latter. Not for the first time, Eldeth found herself grateful for the bard's expertise with the glamour of state, glad for his decision to stay behind.
Outside the antechamber, chandeliers the size of upended mountains flooded the throne room with light. Gracklstugh's anthem came to a crescendo, then died away. H'Graam – a manifestation of him, at least, a projection of the giant's will given malleable form within the Hold – began the long litany of invocations that would conclude with her accession to the Granite Throne. She worried about meeting the solemn giant's expectations. She worried about everyone's expectations, full stop.
"You never seemed to want to talk about it," said Eldeth.
Ront nodded. "I didn't. And I don't. It's not… I don't like to think about that time in my life. Icewind Dale wasn't an easy land to call home. And my people couldn't make it any easier on each other, because if you did, people died. It's just how life was. Hard, cold, and over before you even really got a chance to do much with it. The strongest ruled, because there was no room for weakness."
Eldeth tried not to grin as she said, "Are you callin' me the strongest, then?"
Ront shook his head. "No. Far from it." As Eldeth arched an eyebrow, Ront hastened to add, "And that's why you're going to be a better ruler than the khans of the north could ever hope to be.
"You'll make mistakes. You'll disappoint people. You'll be disappointed by them. But Eldeth Feldrun, I know you. I know your stubborn heart. You're going to make stupid sacrifices for them, but you'll make them want to sacrifice for you, too. You're going to make them feel like someone's paying attention to them. Like someone's on their side, maybe for the first time in their lives.
"Your blood don't make you a queen. When you set down that crown of swords – and we both know you will when the time is right, when the city is ready – you'll leave it in better shape than when you took it up. That's what does it. You're a dwarf. It's what your people do." A pause as Ront glanced back at her, then, "It's what you do."
Outside their private repose, the city watched.
The nobility, arrayed in ranks, sneering and grimacing and plotting, plotting, always plotting beneath their civil facades. Themberchaud, who had insisted on being in physical attendance, occupying the whole of one side, his attendants pressed uncomfortably against the smirking dragon's flank. Erde shooting daggers with her eyes at the Salt Baron, who in turn preened and smiled and paid extravagant care to Mother Juryev seated at his side. And beyond, outside the confines of the Hold itself, watching on illusionary feeds projected by Erde's and the Salt Baron's mages, the people. Her people.
Eldeth peered through a crack in the door and saw glimpses of faces she knew, faces she loved. A slim, quiet elf, listening with devotion to H'Graam – perhaps given purpose at long last? Another hooded figure, Erde's man (human, so unexpected in this place, so full of surprises), head on a swivel as he scanned the room for threats. The bright red splash of a sister's hair, the sort of love her mother had so dearly missed in the years after her flight from this very city so many decades ago. She thought about the missing, too; the cat's mischievous smile in the darkness, the old master with his stories and his addle-pated warmth. She hoped they were watching somewhere.
Eldeth turned back and started at her reflection, shining out from Ront's meticulously polished shield. She tried to calm the silent thundering of her blood.
After a beat, she blinked her vision clear. "You great bloody idiot," she said, only a little hoarsely.
Ront beamed. "As you say, Your Grace."
He extended his arm to her. The Deep Queen took it, then lead them out into the light.
Ihar came to in the dark.
He strained his eyes, but could make out neither form nor depth of the room around him. The air was cool and damp to his exposed skin – his robes, someone had taken his robes, someone had taken the mantle from his shoulders and the hem from his train and someone had taken his robes. The hierarch moved to lift his limbs, but found himself restrained by bands – cold, smooth, stone – at his wrists and ankles.
"—!" he tried to yell, but stopped, and found he could not, for a solid bit in his mouth choked the words from him, surging forth from the stone brace at his neck to bind him silent.
In the – in the distance, nearby, the madding fields? — somewhere within range of his hearing, someone spoke. "You are advised to avoid strenuous exertion, internee. No harm is intended towards you, but the Seam is not responsible for unauthorized self-injury."
From what Ihar could only presume was the wall, a face emerged. Alabaster white, illuminated from within. Placidly arrogant features, indeterminate special extraction. The face of the oppressor, his oppressor, all that he could see in this sightless dark, and had Ihar a mouth to curse with and his hands free to crook around a skein of mana, he would have struck Dorhun's smug, bland face from this world.
But he had neither, so Ihar sat, wide-eyed, straight-spined, as a manifestation of the stone giant unfolded from the black stone wall and crossed the distance to him.
"Internee 13-36," the stone giant began, "you are hereby found in violation of the Gracklstugh Compact of Powers, as enumerated by punitive codes 192.168.0.1 through 192.168.1.1. Sufficient evidence has been presented to the regnancy by state-sanctioned agents acting under their own reconnaissance. Access to due process has been summarily reconciled and revoked. Operator segment hereby discharges its appointed function as administrator of the peace of the sovereign state of Gracklstugh, long may the Deep Queen reign. Reformatting protocol commencing."
Ihar's heart jackhammered in his chest. I am a hierarch of the 36! You cannot do this to me! Everything we did, we did for the city! Ihar wanted to say, or perhaps most desperately, most fervently, You will need us when the devourers come! But the stone bit dug deeper, and deeper yet. He strained to pull back as the stone giant leaned down and in, his monstrous smooth face shedding light at his approach. Points of light, pulling out and away, orbiting the giant's head, moving in rigorously sharp patterns around the contours of the room, one, two, four spooling away, winnowing their way into the fortress of Ihar's mind, oh, starwalkers and void mothers, lights, oh—
"Internee 13-36, please indicate the number of lights you perceive."