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Friends Like These

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It was after the Scanran War. The border was finally calming down, life was finally looking up, and knights were starting to wander back into Corus for lack of anything better to do.

…Knights were starting to wander back into Corus.

…Oh, Mithros, Roald thought, looking surreptitiously up and down the hallway.

Nobody was around, so Roald bolted back to his rooms.

The knights were coming back, which meant Roald's friends would be at the palace, and that meant they'd inevitably cross paths with Shinko.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Roald knew his panic was probably unwarranted, since they'd all (well, most of them) met Shinko and her ladies at various Midwinter parties and all that, but, well.

Midwinter parties were relatively contained affairs.

And the war with Scanra had preoccupied them all, so they'd noticeably toned down their usual selves, what with the worry and all.

But now there were no distractions. And they were coming back…

Roald ran faster.

***

If there was one thing about Tortall that Shinko very much appreciated, it was Keladry of Mindelan. Not only were they already friends from Kel's stay in the Islands, but Kel had her own group of friends here, and Kel went out of her way to include Shinko and her ladies in that group.

If there was one thing about Tortall that Shinko had a great deal of trouble getting used to, it was Roald's group of friends.

It was only too bad, Shinko mused, that Kel's group and Roald's group were basically the same thing.

Kel had, with only a small amount of delicate wheedling on Shinko's part, agreed to take lunch with Shinko and Roald, and of course her friends were invited as well.

Shinko shared a mystified glance with Yuki that she knew the men would only see as amusement as the skinny redhead - Merric, she remembered - started to build up steam.

"-and that's how you know it's really the bankers that are controlling everything!"

"In Tortall?" Neal asked blankly.

"In the Eastern Lands!" Merric shouted. "I've been telling you, they're controlling our money, and probably brainwashing people with weird stuff in the wells!"

"I have a cousin who's a banker, and he's never put anything strange into wells. Or gone on weird trips to secret destinations," Kel mused.

"Really? Never?"

"Except for that one trip to Tyra…"

"SEE!" Merric roared, coming to his feet. Roald hastily grabbed the table to keep it from flipping, but he was almost Yamani-subtle, so none of the other men noticed. His eyes met Shinko's and they shared one moment of perfect accord.

Roald smoothly interrupted Merric's rant. "The bankers are not secretly in control of the Eastern Lands, Merric."

Merric looked over at Roald sadly and patted his arm. "You're just not in the know yet. I understand."

Shinko swallowed a giggle. Next to her, Haname twitched, as if her fingers wanted to go for her fan.

Roald's mouth jerked. "Merric. The bankers cannot possibly be in secret control of Tortall, because-" He cut himself off, mouth snapping shut with an audible click.

Shinko's eyebrows raised involuntarily. Kel looked from Shinko to Roald, eyes far more clever than the lady knight realized.

Fortunately, Merric's cousin was there to cover Roald's slip. "Because everyone knows the lizard people are!"

Neal choked on his drink. Merric glared.

Faleron peered across the table at Roald. "You don't look that scaly, though."

This time, Shinko couldn't quite suppress the giggle.

***

It was a measure of how quiet they both ordinarily were that all it took for Roald to come running into Shinko's bedchamber was a quiet, shocked gasp.

He skidded to a stop a few feet past the doorway, doing his best to look calm and unruffled and not like he'd just leaped out of bed and charged without so much as a by-your-leave into his very private wife's private rooms. Absently, Roald doused the overturned lamp with a wave of his Gift and tried to process the scene in front of him.

Shinko was standing in the center of the room, lit by the eldritch greenish glow of the shifting, bubbly blob at her feet, wearing only her inner kimono and looking entirely alien in the strange light. The blob on the floor grew tentacles, waved them about like lazy pennants at a slow sporting event, and hooted at Shinko.

Shinko, much to Roald's surprise, let loose a squeal worthy of any of Lianne's and began patting the tentacles, cooing softly to the glowing creature. The blob bounced and hooted, patting Shinko's arms in return.

Roald recognized that eldritch abomination. He glanced at the window. It was wide open, letting in the cool evening breeze, and … ah, yes. There was a hand, clenched tightly around the window frame.

Roald felt a headache coming on. "Please tell me you got lost, and that you don't really make a habit out of breaking into other people's bedrooms."

A head popped up, greenish eyes warily regarding Roald from over the sill. "I did get lost. Too many blasted nooks and crannies and false turns here, you know? And the palace looks weirder at night, anyway."

"I don't see why it's so hard for you to remember. You've been sneaking into my rooms for how long, now?"

Thom shot a wary look over towards Shinko, and Roald abruptly remembered that she was there. He went pink.

Shinko had looked up from Thom's dread pet and was regarding Roald with vast amusement, both lovely eyebrows raised. "I don't believe I've met your friend yet," she said, nodding to the window.

Roald looked back at Thom, who was staring absently at Shinko. Roald pinched the bridge of his nose. "Shinko, this is Thom of Pirate's Swoop. Thom, I believe you already know who Shinko is."

"Mmhm," Thom agreed absently, shifting so his spidery perch on the palace wall was not so awkward. "She's not as ugly as I hoped she'd be. Nicer, too."

Roald resisted the urge to shove his best friend out the window. Shinko, fortunately, was smiling faintly. "Why don't you come in?" she offered, as if she let strange men into her rooms every night.

Roald shook his head, but Thom didn't notice and clambered in anyway, awkwardly folding himself so he could sit on the windowsill. "Woof likes you," he declared abruptly, brow faintly creased. "That's a trifle odd."

"A trifle odd" was putting it mildly. The shoggoth usually exuded a sense of supernal terror and chased people down the hallway.

Shinko nearly grinned and tickled the protoplasmic monster. "It's adorable," she cooed, and Roald and Thom rolled their eyes in unison. Girls.

The shoggoth cooed back, mimicking Shinko perfectly, and she turned back to the two men. "So… What is this about you sneaking into Roald's rooms?" she asked sweetly, and Roald paled as Thom blithely answered her.

***

Shinko, for lack of better things to do, often came down to the practice courts to watch Kel's friends. It was a bonding experience, Haname explained to Thayet the one time the queen had asked, and besides, it gave Shinko a better grasp of Tortallan fighting styles and tactics and gave Haname a chance to ogle the men.

It was also rarely boring.

Today, the short dark one - Seaver, Shinko thought - trundled into the practice court the lot had taken over, lugging something behind him.

Slowly, the noise of practice, or rather of Neal's yelping as Kel tried to get him to stand still, died down. Heads turned.

"Mithros, Seaver," Owen said. "Is that a person?"

Shinko looked. Yes, yes it was: one tall person trussed up neatly in enough rope to rig a warship.

"Is that Zahir?" Neal gasped. He leaned over the bound man's head, and the man snarled at him.

"Yep, that's Zahir," Merric said dryly.

Kel had her hands on her hips. "Seaver. What are you doing with Zahir?"

Seaver was busily securing the free end of the rope to the fencepost.

"Seaver?" Roald asked. Shinko half-turned to look at him; she hadn't noticed him earlier. Her husband graced her with a quick smile, then turned back to the bizarre scene before them.

Seaver looked up from the knot he'd tied. "Yes?"

"Why have you tied Zahir to the fencepost?"

Seaver blinked. "Because he's possessed by the yellow," he said, as if it were obvious.

Neal stared. "The yellow?"

"Yeah. You know, the yellow. The lights and stuff in the dead city."

Zahir rolled his eyes, looking strangely dignified for a person wrapped up like a spidren's dinner. "The Ysandir are dead and gone, Tasride, and we're too far away for them to hook me anyway."

Seaver shot him an irritated look. "Then why are you acting funny? Mama always said that when people started acting funny, it meant the yellow had got them."

"Either your mother was telling stories, or you don't remember what she told you very well," Zahir said tartly. "And how, exactly, have I been acting strange?"

"Well." Seaver scratched his head. "You were nice to Kel the other day."

"That was weird," Esmond said. "I was there for that, and Zahir was actually polite," he told a skeptical Merric.

Everyone looked about in terror, and Neal screamed.

"Have you checked him for the yellow sign yet?" Thom said, absently patting his shoggoth. The dread subsided a bit.

Shinko blinked. She was almost positive the young mage hadn't been there a moment ago. Roald caught her eye and shrugged.

Seaver let loose a triumphant cry. "NO! I need to check him!" He began yanking on Zahir's tunic.

"You've got more rope on me than you'd need to restrain a kraken," Zahir spat. "How, exactly, were you planning to get my clothes off of me?"

Seaver stopped, stared, and pulled out a knife. Zahir gulped. His eyes flashed a sulfurous yellow, the ropes slipped off him like they were greased, and the Bazhir took off running for the palace as if the Black God's hounds were after him.

Everyone stared.

After a moment, Seaver jumped to his feet and raced after him, brandishing the knife and hollering, "I knew it! Get back here and let me strip you!"

Shinko smothered a sigh. The scary thing was, she was getting used to this.

***

It was the day of the fall equinox, and for some reason they were all gathered in Neal's room. Yuki was bustling about, pulling Neal's clothes out of his wardrobe, and the rest of them were sitting about, ostensibly catching up on paperwork.

Well, that was supposedly what Roald was doing, until Esmond looked up and asked, "Does anyone know where I can find a virgin?"

Thom, who Roald had finally started to get out of the university and socializing, turned beet red and hid behind some thick tome of forbidden lore. Neal gaped at Esmond. Merric flushed and glared at the wall, Faleron inhaled his tea, and Yuki, in the background, held up another of Neal's shirts before snorting and tossing it onto a large pile.

Shinko hid her face behind her fan and stared pointedly at Roald. He sighed; why did he always have to be the one to deal with this stuff?

"I would think you would want someone with more experience, anyway," he said solemnly.

Shinko whacked him, subtly.

Esmond blinked at Roald, then blushed brightly. "I don't- Gah- I need to sacrifice one on the altar of Yahzed by midnight or the crops won't grow!"

Dead silence. The door clicked open and Duke Baird slunk in, slipping behind his dumbstruck son before he was noticed. Yuki looked up at her father-in-law and grinned wickedly, tossing Neal's last formal tunic on the floor.

This was shaping up to be another headache-of-the-century day, Roald thought.

"You … need to sacrifice a virgin to a Scanran god by midnight. Okaaaaay," Merric drawled.

"You sound like Neal when you do that," Seaver said. Merric kicked him.

Esmond was actually wringing his hands. "It's important, guys. Like, cosmologically."

"I thought blood sacrifice was outlawed in Tortall," Shinko remarked.

Esmond paled and eeped.

Roald tried to put his father's diplomatic lessons (the spoken ones, not the actual examples) to work and asked, "Does it have to be a literal sacrifice, or can you sacrifice the virgin metaphorically?"

"How does one metaphorically sacrifice a virgin, anyway?" Neal asked.

Once more, all noise ceased as everyone turned to stare at Neal. Even Yuki and Baird, thoroughly distracted from whatever they were whispering about, stared.

Roald pinched the bridge of his nose.

"If you can't figure it out, I'm not going to tell you," Thom said to his book.

Neal glared at him. "You used to be such a nice kid."

"And then he met you," Faleron said. "That experience ruins everyone."

Baird grinned at Faleron's head, then handed something small to Yuki.

"I suppose I could try a metaphorical sacrifice," Esmond said, dubious. "I still have to find a virgin, though."

Shinko, Roald, and Neal just looked at Esmond. Merric stared fiercely at the wall. Seaver just grinned when Esmond looked his way, and Faleron looked pale.

Sighing, Kel stood. "Let's get on with the metaphorical sacrifice, then," she said.

Neal fell out of his chair.

Behind them, with a very un-Yamani expression of glee on her face, Yuki dropped the magelight on the clothes pile, and Neal's entire wardrobe went up with a fwoomph.

***

Hunts were fine when they were really hunting, but the trappings of a formal noble hunt rendered the whole thing oddly boring. Which is precisely why Shinko preferred the small hunts with her friends, even if they were … interesting in other ways.

It was always amusing to watch Owen and Neal try to out-hunt each other, though. And usually Merric, Faleron, Seaver, and Esmond would start taking sides, and the whole thing would turn into some bizarre miniature war.

With real arrows.

Haname and Yuki joined in, egging on their respective sides with the quiet ruthlessness so prized in Yamani women. Shinko sat back with Roald, who was, like always, quietly panicking.

Really, Shinko thought. She actually did quite like Roald, but he was a bit high-strung.

Kel, bless her, tried to reign in the chaos, wading into the small war like some terrifying General Nursemaid, ready to send all the boys to their corners. Shinko smothered a laugh as Peachblossom, so much more sensible than his rider, simply planted his feet at the edge of the warzone and refused to budge.

"Honestly, you lot!" Kel nearly snarled, her expressions so much less contained after so long back in Tortall.

"Seriously, Kel, we're being careful. What's the worst that can happen?" Owen asked cheerfully, shooting Faleron's hat off.

Haname quietly pulled another arrow out of her heart and returned to the fray.

***

King Jonathan IV had not gotten where he was in life by being ignorant. He prided himself on knowing everything that went on in his palace, certainly, even if he could not quite get perfect information on his realm. He had put together the finest spy network in the lands in his very first year on the throne, and he checked in with them quite regularly.

In short, Jon was, as his uncle put it when he thought no one was listening, a regular busybody.

Better a busybody than a fool, Jon thought.

But increasingly, Jon was realizing there were quite a few things going on in his palace that he actually didn't want to look into. Whatever Hollyrose and King's Reach were blathering on about, Jon was fairly certain he could dismiss, but he was equally certain that he really ought not to ask his former squire about the time Jon saw him being pursued by an intent Tasride, and that whatever had Nicoline and the Mindelan girl down in the crypts at all hours chanting eerily and smoking out the catacombs was likewise not his business, no matter how much the staff bothered him about the incense. Little Thom had been breaking into the palace since George had taught him how to pick locks, bless him, but the boy was born with the common sense of a concussed chicken and long years of friendship with Alanna had taught Jon the hard way that no good could come from prying into that family's affairs.

Even if Jon did desperately want to know where that "dog" of Thom's had come from. Whatever the twins said, no dog was gelatinous, grew random tentacles and eyes, and hooted. They didn't generally strike intense terror in the hearts and minds of those around them, either, though Jon admitted that wasn't, by itself, definitive. Learning why Thom kept ending up in his daughter-in-law's rooms could wait.

If Jon didn't pry, he didn't have to admit to himself that the charming fires in his palace were the handiwork of one Lady Yukimi, aided and abetted by his chief healer, or that that nice Lady Haname was as quiet as the grave. He had some bad memories of revenants, after all, and Lady Haname had been nothing but the soul of gentility.

It was odd, Jon mused, to be thinking of Baird's son and that Jesslaw hellion as the normal ones, but they really were. He would have to share that thought with Wyldon sometime.

Movement on the palace roof caught his eye, and Jon looked up in time to see a bright figure scurry back over the peak, a dead bird clenched tightly between long needlelike teeth.

Jon shook his head. If he didn't let himself recognize that as Shinkokami, loosing some of the more inhuman instincts that had landed her family in trouble with the Yamani emperor, he wouldn't have to realize the truly scary thing:

None of their strangenesses held a candle to Roald's.