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Volfred Sandalwood was due in by carriage at ten. He had a meeting the next day, and the city’s Seneschal was expecting him.

The valet arrived in the station, a bit nonplused to be there, all told. Politics in the Commonwealth had been simple. In the past, Commonwealth officials had always come strictly by private means.  Sleek pleasure yachts, or private carriage. A few from the Westerly Wood might even come by airship -- all of which, of course, landed in the private docks his lady, the formidable Seneschal Hortensia Mangrove, provided. Since the Scribe’s Return, nothing had been quite so simple. The newly named Sahrian Union had only a transitional government, with transitional officials. Sandalwood-- one of these officials-- had insisted on coming by means of public transport. Public! Imagine that.

“He hails from a stubborn geneology, that Volfred Sandalwood,” sighed Lady Mangrove. Her branches bristled when she read the latest message, written in Sandalwood’s own hand. This, in fact, had not changed since the Return. All Saps within the Commonwealth received special licenses for literacy-- which remained in place so long as they honored the tenuous agreement between their people, and if they remained discreet. The Return meant only that she took the letter in her parlor, rather than her private glade. Reading would become a fashion statement, soon enough. “Ah, but don’t we all!  Well, let it not be said I am a poor host. Off with you, Florian. Do meet him at the station. Tell him that I offer him the light of my most open sunroom, and that he should not lack for brightness, here in the Chain. Let the Union know that the Mangroves are well rooted here, and we would make the most marvelous of friends.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“And place an order with the Guilds for a barrel of Shiverfruit. Kala likes them fresh and I’ll not poison her.”

“Of course.”

“And do remember to hire the contractor for those pests in the docking district,” said Lady Mangrove. “I’ll not have my city be the home to parasites.”

So it was Florian, a good and loyal servant, took his standing orders and ventured from the comfort of the estate. His goal was the city proper to receive this expected guest.  He ventured across the bridge, past the bustle of the docking district, the rabble of the climbing gardens, and the alarming crowds in the promenade. He reached the station, mindful not to touch any of the workmen and commuters who bustled by. He arrived at the platform, at the appointed time of arrival. He waited, invitation at hand. He waited, and waited. Until, at last, one of the conductors came up to him. He’d been told to watch for his colors. Volfred Sandalwood had already left the station, with his bags, twenty minutes prior to the valet’s arrival. He left his warmest regards.

“He said to tell the Lady that her hospitality is welcome, but as a private citizen, he would never dare to impose on her,” said the conductor, with a rehearsed poshness.  “He nevertheless would like her to know he looks forward to seeing her at the time they have agreed upon .... that sound about right?”

The valet tipped him with an outdated coin, and left.

“Oh, that tricky wretch,” sighed Lady Mangrove, when Florian relayed what had transpired, “What business does he have here? Another insurrection?”

“Perhaps my lady’s guest wishes to avail himself on the sights our city has to offer?” ventured Florian. Lady Mangrove shook her leaves in disbelief.

“As if Volfred Sandalwood has been a mere tourist anywhere in his life,” she huffed, “He’s up to something, I will grant you that.  But we will receive him tomorrow, as agreed, with all aplomb.  I’ll not give him the satisfaction of putting me out. “

 

“Let’s be tourists for a change,” said Volfred. “We should make a day of it.”

The city’s name was Emperor’s Chain. It was a port city that sat on an archipelago connecting the former Empire of Sahr’s two main seas. They’d been there for a night and less than a day, and Oralech was already sick of it. Travel had proven something of a challenge since his return from the Downside. His feet were still hooves, but just barely, and he needed to wear braces while his joints reconfigured themselves. The coast’s sticky summer did the process no favors. He’d been bandaging his ankles on the bed when Volfred emerged from the balcony, all full of ideas of what to do with their day. Oralech could think of many reasons to say no, but Volfred was seldom a man of whim, and so he thought before he answered, pulling the clean bandages tight and taping them to his shin.

“A day of it?” asked Oralech. “I thought the Seneschal’s lunch was at noon.”

It was to be an informal summit. All the regional leaders who hadn’t fled the revolution would just so happen to be there.

“Which gives us a wealth of time,” said Volfred, unbothered by this pressing engagement.

“For what?”

Hortensia Mangrove lived in a grand estate and the archipelago's main spur, known to locals as the Overlook, home to the wealthy and the established. Oralech and Volfred could see it from the window of the room they’d rented the night before: A white spired house built like an Imperial villa, with the gardens to match. Oh, there’d been room aplenty to board there in person, and Lady Mangrove had of course offered, but Volfred had politely declined. He booked a townhouse instead. He would not impose, he’d insisted. He was after all, coming as a private citizen, not a government official.

The fact that there was a known spy among their retinue may have played a part in that decision, but Oralech decided not to bring that up when they’d planned for the trip.

“Just a walk,” said Volfred. “It’s been time since I’ve stayed here. I’d like to see how the city has changed.”

“Just that?”

“And check in with some old associates, and perhaps send a message or two,” said Volfred. “There may also be an attempt on my life. Would you care to join me?”

“Hmph,” said Oralech. He set his bandages aside and reached for his cane. “I should keep my tendons active. Let us see what this city has by way of a view.”

 

Their first stop were the Chain’s climbing gardens, which began in a city square just a short walk from their rented room. It was early enough the shops were just opening for the morning press. A few citizens glanced their way as they admired the latticework and hung little bells off the necks of singing tulips. It couldn’t be helped. Saps were more expected at the Overlook, and demons were never expected at all.

“Our presence will be well noted here,” said Oralech, smirking wryly at the wide-eyes of the vendor as he purchased a bag of bells at the base of the garden. He counted out the coin with some delicacy. His claws were still very sharp.

“As it should be, these gardens are magnificent,” said Volfred, arms folded behind his back as they strolled along the elaborate overpasses, circumventing the shipping canals below. “Impressive, given the salt air. Everything here is so content. I admit, I had asked Haloum Marr how they did it. He promised to send me a copy of the plans, but I fear it may have slipped his mind…”

“Haloum Marr?” Oralech paused. A small child had gathered the nerve to come over to peer at his hooves. Oralech rewarded the girl’s boldness by handing her the last of his bells.  “The regional magistrate? I thought he would have fled with the rest of that lot.”

To the Downside, he meant. Where many of the members of the justice system had fled, when it was clear the people would no longer accept their judgment.

“He says he seeks enlightenment,” said Volfred, “and he counts himself among our number now.  He hopes to discuss the subject with me at length. Over drinks. This afternoon.”

“What a remarkable change of heart,” said Oralech.

“Isn’t it?”

“And has nothing to do with him wanting to keep his position.”

“He should well know I am only a member of the transitional government.”

“Or his fear of the Downside.”

“Where we have sworn no one else is to be cast.”

“Or that all magistrates have illegally learned to read.”

“Or the illicit library I know he keeps in the basement of his manor,” added Volfred.

“Ah,” said Oralech, “and he knows you wanted to see the gardens.”

“If he cared to join me,” said Volfred, “he would know precisely where I am.”

Nevertheless, they reached the top of the garden’s spiralled peak without incident. Here, a number of spiral roses had been carefully cultivated in a number of colors that could not be found in nature. They’d once been symbols of the Empire. Now they sat among climbing ivy and nude sculptures.

“My,” said Volfred, taking these with a bit of a raised eyebrow. By Sap standards, it was a risque display. The flowers, not the sculptures. “Well. It’s good to see they are taken care of.”

“I suppose they are,” said Oralech, staring straight at him. “I’ve seen finer.”

“Ah,” said Volfred. That ended all talk for a time.

 

The overpass surrounding the climbing gardens led to what the residents of the Chain often called the ‘water parlor’ -- the series of repurposed tidal pools where salt water was converted into fresh water, for drinking and to operate the carriages which made up most of the city’s public transit.

“So the carriages run on steam?” Oralech poked at one of the pipes running down from the city’s second tier above them. “How unreliable.”

“No drive imps up here, I’m afraid,” said Volfred. “Save our friend.”

The drive imp in question had left last evening to run a message for Volfred. They’d promised to pay him in a trip to the local fish market upon his return.

“No combustion engines either, apparently,” said Oralech, staring down into the nearest pool. The water was still enough his reflection showed plain, horns and all. ”Though I suppose they saved those for the front. They did better at killing our own than they did the Harps.”

The war was well and truly over. They’d seen to that in the first few months since the Return, but it hadn’t quite sunk in yet for Oralech. The last time he’d walked free, the only hope of an end had led to his exile.

“We might negotiate with the cultivars of the Westerly Wood,” said Volfred, “about repurposing the technology for better use.”

“I shall leave that to you, Volfred,” said Oralech, “or whoever you think to appoint to it. I want nothing to do with the damnable things, no matter what good they could do us. Why are we here?”

“It’s a convenient shortcut, but the general populace seldom comes down this way,” said Volfred, “The odor wards them off.”

The smell of marsh and sponges. Oralech paused to acknowledge it as they passed under the graffiti’d arches, not another man, woman, or non-gendered being in sight. He breathed in and laughed. The misery of the Bloodborder faded from his eyes. Good. “They have not waded through Flagging Hands in the summer. This is nothing.”

“Few here have had the honor of that experience, my dear,” said Volfred, “but it is quite a feat of modern engineering, isn’t it? Kala did wonder how it might compare, to the engineers of the Wood, or the creations Downside.”

“Kala, this time,” said Oralech. “Kala Vyrstone? The Astrologist’s apprentice?”

“Lady Mangrove’s dear companion,” said Volfred. “We should be seeing her this afternoon, if I’ve read the social mood correctly. She is often a frequent guest at the Overlook. Her and Mangrove are quite close.”

“You mean Mangrove still favors her,” said Oralech, “even as the Astrologists fall from grace. Did her mentor not flee to the mountains, upon the Scribe’s Return?”

He had. In fact, the townhouse they were staying had once been the Regional Astrologist’s regular residence. The landlord had begun to rent it out after he’d shown no sign of returning any time soon.

“His student has a more progressive view of what we represent,” said Volfred. “In fact, she seems eager to hear of what we’ve witnessed. The stars are different in the Downside.”

“I know that well enough,” said Oralech. “Still, we stand a threat to all she represents.”

“Or a debate to be won.”

“A ‘debate,’” Oralech eyed him. “Here? Alone in the bowels of a city we do not know?”

“If this is the field of battle she so chooses,” said Volfred, “I will be happy to meet her.”

“You might have picked a place with more light,” said Oralech, but, despite the concern, they passed over the pools alone.

 

They surfaced close to the city’s industrial center, a number of warehouses and Guild outposts. Machinery groaned off in the docking district, where the huge yellow trading ships came to port..Their schedules weren’t much affected by the recent revolution, though the faces on the money they received would be changing soon.  

The particular alleyway the steps deposited them into was quite abandoned, however. The surrounding warehouses had either been half burned out or shuttered.

“For nostalgia’s sake,” Volfred admitted, watching the one or two workmen spot them at a distance and flee into another side street. The demon’s shadow was a warning enough to interlopers. “I operated a Stamping Press out of one of the basements here. It was nothing so impressive as my original. It could only do short runs. Pamphlets, really, but it served me well.”

“Did they burn that one, too?”

“In the square,” said Volfred, “while giving a speech about propriety and public safety, but not before I managed to circulate over two thousand pamphlets to the masses, and taught at least fifty individuals their basic letters. It would be three years yet before they caught me.”

He paused at the door of a building which had once been the neighborhood Astral shrine. Like the warehouses, this building had also fell into a genuine state of disrepair, with a chain across the door and ‘CAST YOURSELF DOWN’ painted in red across one of the starmaps on the steps. Volfred put his hand on the door, over the little hole left by a nail

Oralech put his own hand over Volfred’s on the door and leaned in. His hair rustled Volfred’s branches as he brought his head close to his.

“And who else knows we are here, Volfred?”

“No one. I’ve come entirely by my own whim,” said Volfred, “but former councilman Raes Banolly might remember my antics in this district. I nailed something to his door, too.”

“And I suppose he has been invited to Mangrove’s little get together as well.”

“It is only polite for her to invite him. He made much of this city what it is, but you needn’t worry, my dear. He sent a messenger to assure me he holds no grudge against me for my crimes. He hopes we might turn over a new leaf, so to speak.”

“And what did you tell him?”

“I told him it would be nice to see the Chain again,” said Volfred, “and I would like to visit some of my favorite places. It has been much too long.”

Oralech released him. Volfred made a small sign of respect.

“We should ask about rebuilding it,” said Volfred, when Oralech eyed him oddly for this, “into a school, perhaps, or a clinic.”

Oralech’s lips twitched faintly. He didn’t quite let himself smile at the thought.

“You never rest,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Tell me, Volfred, while you make sport of your enemies, did you at least have the mind invite any friends to this lunch?”

“Of course,” said Volfred. “You.”

And, since their heads were already close together, he leaned in -- but Oralech raised a hand between them.

“You will bring us both to distraction,” said Oralech, “and, I seem to recall, there may be an attempt on your life.”

“I did mention, yes,” sighed Volfred, tugging at his tunic with some regret. “Ah well. Let us to the promenade. There’s an old hidden bookstore on the corner. I’d like to pay the owner a visit.”

 

Smoke clogged the street. The shop sign -- the part of it that hadn't been blown clear off anyway -- swung wildly. As cobblestone fell back to earth, the stranger lowered the cannon on his shoulder. He needed to leave. He needed to throw himself and the weapon into the sea and swim as far as he could, but he could only stare. He'd never used it before. He hadn't expected it to work. He hadn't expected it to work so well.

He also, as it turned out, hadn't expected the snarling demon to come surging from the smoke, eyes blazing like fire and horns swept forward like knives.

The man fumbled for the switch. It was too late. He was off-balanced, and the demon seized him by the face.

It closed the distance of a block in an instant. He hadn't expected something large to move that fast.

"Hmm," said the demon, its scarred face twisted into a wicked grin. It lifted him off his feet by his head. "No Aura."

Then it dashed him against the sidewalk. The weapon smashed useless into at least a dozen pieces. The man lay stunned. The demon dragged him to the nearest mangled lamppost, and bound him to it with the sash from its once red robes, now streaked with ash.

It left him alive.

 

"Any casualties?" asked Volfred. He dragged himself up against the outer wall of the old secret book shop. Oralech came limping back across the shattered street. Oralech's heels had begun to sink -- the name the doctor had given to the process of a demon losing their hooves -- but as it was a slow process, his hooves clacked on the cobblestone as he came to kneel in front of him.

"One," said Oralech, pressing a hand to Volfred's torn tunic. “You.”

"The intended target," breathed Volfred, and only now did he let Oralech rip off the remaining fabric to check his limb. Despite the stench of burning and the ache in his shoulder, he laughed. He could afford to. The shopkeeper and her family were safe. Volfred had asked them to stay in the basement during the visit. "But not so much a casualty as our would-be spy might have wished. They have tipped their hand, my dear. They acted rashly, and now I have them."

" You have them ?" Oralech raised an eyebrow as he applied a fresh bandage to his shoulder. He used a piece of his own tattered robes to arrange a makeshift sling, knotting it with the speed and expertise of a field medic which, of course, he had been. “You mentioned we were to be bait. Now, the rest. Explain.”

"Of course," said Volfred. "Only Lady Mangrove received the message that mentioned I would be here at this time. A little walk on the promenade, to remember the sea air and revisit old haunts."

"And the rest heard about the water parlors and the gardens,” sighed Oralech.

The injuries weren't deep. The blast had singed off a layer of bark, but little else. Once the exposed fresh wood had been dressed, Oralech let him stand.

“Open areas with few bystanders,” said Volfred. “Few witnesses. Little collateral.”

"Yourself excepted," noted Oralech, supporting him as his roots found purchase in the uneven street.

"And I told them I would be alone,” added Volfred.

“All this to catch our spy,” sighed Oralech. "You place great trust in my ability to keep you from strangling yourself."

"Am I mistaken?"

"No," Oralech snorted, "but you have a mind like a hunter's snare. Your plans oft bear fruit, Volfred, but I find some fault with this one.”

“Forgive me. It seemed the most expedient.”

“I’ll grant you that.”

The would-be assassin dangled from the bent lamppost, struggling weakly. Oralech had brained him hard enough to stun, but not to heavily injured. He'd regained his senses, but just barely. One look at the demon and he began to scream. Oralech shoved his hand against his mouth.

"You live," he said, simply. Then, to Volfred: "Should we question him?"

Volfred tilted his head in consideration. He took quick measure of the man in question. Nondescript. Human. Dressed like a merchant. Smelling strongly of fresh Shiverfruit.

"No need. Leave him," he said, at last. "I doubt his patron would have let him know their identity. The weapon is interesting, though. I didn't think the Westerly Woods had started that up again. I'll have our agents sweep that up along with the rest."

"And pay the shopkeeper for her ruined storefront."

"And pay the shopkeeper for her ruined storefront," repeated Volfred.

The agents came hopping over the rooftops, drawn by the noise and, no doubt the instructions they had received that morning to be on watch. Volfred left them to it.  The ruckus was cover enough for him and his demon companion to withdraw into the back alleys of the city's less fashionable docking district. They would look just as out of place, but at this hour, most of the citizens would be at work rather than in the street.  In the distance, the bells belonging to the city watch began to ring frantically. Late. As he'd requested of the watchman in this district.

"Just like old times," murmured Volfred, shaking his head. He winced, resettled his arm in its makeshift sling, and glanced at his companion. "Does my doctor clear me for travel?"

"Depends. To where?"

"Why, to the Overlook," said Volfred.

"Still?" Oralech breathed out through his teeth, but he didn't protest. He knew Volfred too well for that. "So. You wish to close the trap in full."

"I wish to complete my mission on behalf of the Union," said Volfred, with ease, "and word of my 'accident' will take some time to get there. I would like to come ahead of the news. I remain an expected guest, after all. Except, perhaps, by whoever has arranged this delay."

"Of course," said Oralech, he rolled his eyes, but he let Volfred lead the way.

 

“Lady Mangrove,” murmured Florian, “Volfred Sandalwood has not yet arrived.”

Like a good servant, he kept his voice low. The party was well underway at the Overlook, and the guests maintained the most interesting of conversations. Haloum Marr argued enjoyably with Kala Vyrstone, former councilman Bannolly attempted to flirt (poorly) with Marr’s wife, and few industrialists and men of leisure she’d added to the list gossiped and drank their fill of the spiced rum and masterfully sliced hors d’oeuvres. Lady Mangrove took a whiff of her cigar and savored all the hot air in the room.

“So he forgets himself,” sighed Mangrove, tearing herself from her current sport: watching Kala Vyrstone utterly destroy Marr’s philosophical backbone. “Oh, well. Lunch shall be delayed by just a bit more. I will not have him make a scene by arriving in the middle of the meal.”

“With all due respect,” began Florian, “should there not be some cause for concern?’

“What concern, Florian?” laughed Lady Mangrove. Marr was trying his hardest to salvage his point, and Kala was closing in for the kill.

“There are rumors,” murmured Florian, “about unrest near the docking district. If you’d like, I could send someone to escort him--”

“And let him know he’s shaken my boughs? Never, Florian. Never. Volfred Sandalwood will make his appearance under his own power, and it had best come with a well-crafted apology. Not, of course, that I care enough to require it. But there ought to be one.”

A bell rang. A moment later the butler hurried up to inform them that two more guests had arrived. Volfred Sandalwood, plus a companion.

“Oh,” said Lady Mangrove, in a strangely muted voice. She put down her cigar and cut between Marr and Kala, as she headed towards the parlor door, with a speed that surprised both combatants.  

“My lady?” called Florian. “My lady what is it?”

The doors opened.

“Volfred,” sang the Seneschal, in a fluting voice, she spread her arms wide, showing off the great falls of her voluminous leaves. “How marvelous of you to make it! And you brought someone, you brought... you brought…”

And Volfred stood at the center of the doors as they opened, his arms folded behind his back. Behind him, the demon rose. Its horns almost scraped the doorframe. A hush fell over the room. A stiff sea breeze stirred the curtains. Volfred looked from one guest to the next. His eyes settled on Mangrove. His head tipped to one side.

“Hello, Hortensia,” he said. “My apologies for the delay.”

“N-none needed,” said Mangrove. “None needed at all. Florian, do take their coats--”

The demon growled, its white mane bristling about its shoulders. It advanced into the room in one scraping step. Florian froze.

“Why, Hortensia,” said Volfred, “why is your valet so surprised to see us?”

After that, everything cracked open like a summer storm. Florian moved first-- forward, with a pistol in his hand -- but the demon became a white blur, lashing out with a cane. It struck Florian in the wrist, knocking the weapon out of the man’s hand as it fired. The shot buried itself in one of the cabinets, shattering all the dishes on display. The demon surged forward, head lowered like a bull -- but Florian, recognizing that the day was lost and the jig was up, side stepped, knocked over one of the side tables, and made a dash for the window, which looked out on the ocean.

He didn’t count on the imp which chose that moment to come sweeping in through the curtains.

“Nya-hahah!” it cried, right in Florian’s face, all gnashing teeth and fur the color of fresh blood.

The valet fell back in surprise. The demon seized him by the back of his fine livery, bringing him to the floor with little more than a twitch of one great arm. He pinned him there under a hoof. The imp, satisfied with the proceedings, launched from the window sill and landed on the demon’s shoulder.

“S...Soliam Murr….?” gasped Haloum Marr, in the following silence.

The imp spread its wing and gave a horrible screech, but one had the impression it might have been showing off, just a touch.

“Try again,” said the demon.

“Chief Physician Oralech, actually,” said Volfred, who hadn’t moved from the door. He tried to look solemn, but one had the impression he might have been trying not to laugh. “Now, Seneschal, care to explain why your man tried to shoot me?”

 

The rest resolved itself as was to be expected. Hortensia Mangrove fell over herself in apologies. She hadn’t known. She hadn’t guessed. Florian had been a lifetime member of her household, and she’d had no idea his politics had grown so virulent.

“You must believe me, Volfred,” the Seneschel had cried, her branches whipping back and forth as though taken by a hurricane. In her horror, she was easy to read: outrage, confusion, genuine fear. “As though I would be so impatient! As though I would be so messy about it!”

This much, as it happened, was quite true. Volfred had known it the moment he’d read her and found only the typical outrage of someone seeking to outdo someone in an awkward social situation.  The odds were quite good that the servant had truly acted alone, out of a misguided attempt to protect his mistresses standing or pure fanaticism-- he was sure they would know in time. Volfred decided not to tell her just then.  The city watch burst through the door behind him. Her house was now a crime scene. The authorities locked the estate down for the oncoming investigation. Banolly had panicked and locked himself in one of the washrooms. Marr had fallen to his knees and found religion, begging for the Scribes’ forgiveness. Vyrstone, to her credit, had simply put down her fruit dish and walked over to Lady Mangrove, offering her an arm.

They never did get around to lunch.

“I’d still like to know how a household servant might have gotten access to the weapon he passed on to that vendor,” admitted Volfred, back at the townhouse, once he’d settled in for the evening to write the necessary letters to his agents, and the transitional government back at the capitol. “And I think she’ll be inclined cooperate with us, if she hopes to have a chance in the upcoming election.”

“Does she know her position will be up for election?” asked Oralech. He’d returned to where he’d started. The room’s one bed, where he changed the bandages on his ankles, and fed Ti’zo pieces of licorice.

“Not yet,” said Volfred, “but she does have the love of her people. Despite her frivolties, she keeps the place running reasonably well. Provided she isn’t arrested for the attempted assassination of a countryman, she may yet hold the Overlook -- though she will be ever reminded of how close she came to losing it.”

“So you wished to break her spirit.”

“Only her confidence,” admitted Volfred. “She should know the Union is no puppet’s institution. It will never be so easily bought as the Commonwealth.”

“A hunter’s snare,” mutters Oralech, but he grinned as Volfred finished his letter and sealed it with a stamp. “Your aim was threefold this time. I had wondered.”

“Ti’zo?” asked Volfred. “Up for one more run?”

“Krrii-hii-hii,” groaned the imp, laid out face down on Oralech’s knee. He had, during the course of the afternoon, helped himself to some of those abandoned hors d'oeuvres. He might have done so too enthusiastically. He was about double the size he’d been that morning.  But he would be happy to do one more courier mission that evening. Volfred handed him the letter, and Ti’zo departed with a fond squeak.

“You have enabled him, Volfred,” warned Oralech, “You know he will stop by the fish market on his way back.”

“Some lessons we only learn with time,” said Volfred, softly, pausing as he glanced over his remaining papers. Which were multitude, and never ending.  “I do hope I have not put you out, Oralech.  I did hope to make something of a day of it.”

“A day of dodging would be assassins and conspirators?”

“I meant more of the walk in the garden,” admitted Volfred, “But I suppose I did put a pall over the whole of it.  Did you ever see the Chain? Before your exile?”

Oralech stopped cutting his bandages and sat up on the bed. It groaned under his weight.

“No,” he admitted, “I came from the provinces. I was barely out of boyhood, when I took to the Bloodborder to spare my family the expense of me. A trip to some fashionable trade city was a luxury I could ill afford.”

“I had thought it might be something like that.”

“And you thought that a demon might leave an impression on your enemies.”

“That, too,” said Volfred, his shoulders falling in defeat. He couldn’t deny it. “You see the whole of me, as ever.”

“Spare me the theatrics. I do not much mind. I just know you.” Oralech shoved himself to his feet. Unbandaged, it wasn’t as easy on his twisted ankles and cloven toes, but he made it to the desk and to Volfred, “The place has its charms when there are no explosions involved. Show it to me again, tomorrow, when there is no assassination to thwart.”

“Anything you would like,” said Volfred. Oralech reached over and took the sheets of papers from his hand.

“And if you might provide some distraction,” said Oralech, “I would allow it.”

Volfred smiled.

“Of course, my dear Oralech,” he said, taking Oralech’s head in his hands. He leaned in to close the distance, at last, “In that, I would be happy to oblige.”