“Unexpected guests are the most entertaining kind, I always find. When one is able to anticipate the arrival of a party of guests it’s all too easy to arrange to be elsewhere when they arrive, or, far, far worse, be prepared to entertain them.
The unexpected however allows us to greet people with the artifice stripped away. Well, most of the artifice. Okay, a small and relatively insignificant portion of the artifice we routinely cloak ourselves in out of a deep and externally inflicted sense of self-loathing which we refusing to interrogate or even fully acknowledge as doing so would require a commitment to further self-discovery and work of the base traumas from which our myriad of character flaws arise.
But, still, unexpected guests are just so much easier to deal with.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame explaining to the Empress Eternal why he was disinclined to host a gala for his 200th birthday party.
Grammy always had a certain magic about her. The fact that the High Council’s response to her arrival was terrified silence was one form of it. The other was the still glowing rapier that she wore on her hip.
It was interesting that with magic locked down in the room, she was apparently still quite capable of powering the spells on the ancient blade.
On the other hand though, the Lightstone speaker had used a voice projection spell after the magic suppression kicked in. I’d almost missed that, but the implications of it were wonderful.
A blanket ‘no magic’ field would be more costly to maintain but also far harder to disrupt. If they’d left wholes in it for things like voice spells and Artifact-class weapons though? I suppressed the evil cackle that rose within me content in the knowledge that I could work with that.
Also, Grammy was here.
That was terrifying for a wide variety of reasons.
But I wasn’t thinking about those.
And I definitely did not want to slink behind Narla before I was caught in all the lies I’d told for what amounted to my entire life.
The noble regalia proved helpful there. Hiding, or even moving, with that much fabric on was not a trivial endeavor.
“I will challenge your right to speak before this Council,” the less-than-wise Speaker for House Farsail said. “Who is this woman?”
I watched the Speaker for House Greendell try to shut Farsail up before he could utter what were likely to be his last words, but some reactions come just a little bit too late.
“Oh wonderful! A challenge! I haven’t enjoyed one of those in years,” Grammy said. “I call for resolution here and now. Name your Champion.”
“My what?” Farsail said, looking to the other Speakers who were either as perplexed as he was or grimacing at what was to come.
“You do not wish to name a Champion for the challenge?” Grammy asked, delight glazing each word.
“What are you talking about?” Farsail asked.
“You offered her a challenge, Dame Eveningstar has accepted,” the Lightstone speaker said, his voice weary with disappointment. “Name a Champion or elect to stand for the challenge yourself.”
“I’m not going to name anything. What idiocy is this that someone can walk in here and demand a challenge.”
“Someone has not studied their Dueling Codes,” Grammy said.
“Dueling?” Farsail sputtered, and then…oh so incredibly foolishly…drew a (currently) perfectly mundane sword from his hip in a panic.
“We shall begin when this handkerchief reaches the floor,” Grammy said, brandishing one of the good table napkins from home.
“What? No. This is insane.”
Grammy’s chuckle was one I’d never heard before.
And never wanted to hear directed at me.
Farsail turned Lightstone for confirmation that this was really happening only to find the leader of the High Council glaring its reality at him.
Grammy was watching the Lightstone speaker too and at his nod, dropped the handkerchief.
With a yell, Farsail jumped over the quarter high wall between them and raced down the aisle leading to Grammy with a sword over his head that could have split her frail old bones from shoulder to hip as easily as cutting straw.
He was younger than her, stronger than her, and, to all appearances, faster than her.
I should have felt compelled to act.
The mere thought of anyone hurting my Grammy gave me a pool of rage to draw on that could reignite a dying star.
Null-magic field or no, I could have been at her side and blocked that blow with ease.
I stayed right where I was like a good girl though.
Grammy did not need my help.
Grammy did not want my help.
The other guy could have used it though.
One moment he was running at a hunched old lady, the next she stepped forward, no inhumanely fast or anything, merely in absolutely perfect time step a hairs breath outside Farsail’s swing and then make two simple stroke of her own, one a rising slice on his right side and the other a descending strike on his left.
The advantage to not stepping in to help Grammy was the none of the blood got on my nice new regalia.
“You’ll want to get him out to the healers,” Grammy said. “Those can be reattached if they work on it a bit.”
From my vantage point it wasn’t easy to see but I was pretty certain Farsail was currently missing all four of his limbs.
“You are unexpectedly merciful today,” Lightstone said, gesturing to a pair of pages to remove the (also mercifully) unconscious Farsail and his missing pieces to where someone could assist him in recovering his bout of idiocy.
“We had surprisingly good weather on the trip,” Grammy said. “Now, as to my original statement, my granddaughter is no Pretender and has standing to speak before this Council – or would anyone else like to contest that?”
“Is this truly Duella Eveningstar?” the Speaker for House Astrologia asked.
“Dame Duella Eveningstar, or would you challenge my identity as well?” Grammy asked, her eyes alight with hope.
“Not for a moment Dame Eveningstar,” Astrologia said. “I never thought to hope that I might see you duel in person. I’d thought you’d retired as Imperial Terminus decades ago?”
“It is not the Imperial Terminus who speaks to us today,” Lightstone said.
“It is not,” Grammy said with a nod, the hope for another duel fading from her eyes. “I am, as the Speaker for Astrologia said, retired from my former position. I speak today only under a name known to the Council and sworn to the Empire.”
“But do you know for whom you speak?” Ironbriar asked, waving a folder with some sort of evidence as though it would damn me to the deepest of hells.
Which it probably would.
His question could only come from knowing a very specific thing about me.
Something Grammy absolutely should never hear.
And something I was powerless to prevent becoming common knowledge.
They couldn’t prove what I was though.
I could change myself into such a perfect replica of a human being that they could pull me apart cell by cell and not being able to spot a single difference.
Or they could chop me to pieces and when I reformed, there would be all the proof they needed.
I swore, which brought a triumphant little laugh from Ironbriar and…and an eyeroll from Grammy?
“An interesting claim to make that I could raise my granddaughter and yet not recognize her when she stands no more than a dozen feet away from me,” Grammy said.
“Could you specify who it is you believe to be your granddaughter then?” Ironbriar asked.
“You will have to pardon these old ears of mine,” Grammy said. “I thought I just heard the stupidest question I’ve ever been asked uttered by a member of the High Council.”
“Come now Duella, we both know that’s not the stupidest thing they’ve ever said. Honestly it’s in the Top 20 at best,” Doxle said, favoring me with a grin that told me everything I needed to know about who’d arranged for Grammy to be here.
“Oh don’t you even get me started,” Grammy said. “You know it took me all of five whole seconds to realize you were behind all this nonsense. I hadn’t even opened the letter. Just from the stamp! That’s all it took!”
“You wound me,” Doxle said.
“I believe Enika has dibs on that,” Grammy said.
“Ah…” Doxle reconsidered objecting to that which left me wondering exactly how many people knew about whatever the heck it was those two had going on. “I merely protest my innocence and lay the credit for these proceedings to you esteemable grand daughter.”
“It seems like most people you know would protest the idea of you being innocent,” Grammy said. “As for the Lady Riverbond, she and I will be having words once this is all sorted out.”
I could just die now.
That would be fine.
The Council wouldn’t even need to kill me.
I could just spontaneously die.
I liked that idea.
Idrina took my hand again and I remembered that I did indeed have a reason or five or ten or whatever to keep living.
I offered Grammy a smile of acceptance. I was doomed but I would at least meet it head on. She offered me a kindly smile in return which could have meant anything from “good going kid” to “I’ll make it painless”.
“So you claim that the woman who stands before us, dressed in the misappropriated robes of House Riverbond’s highest office is Katrina Riverbond? What if I tell you that I have proof here that she is not who she claims to be. That she is not even what she claims to be. That thing is no member of House Riverbond. It’s not even human!” Ironbriar was alight with conviction and triumph.
“My granddaughter is exactly and what she claims to be,” Grammy said.
“That is not Katrina Riverbond! I can prove it! I can prove it!” Ironbriar said.
“Of course she’s not,” Grammy said. “My Katrina died many years back. This is my granddaughter Kati Riverbond who stands before you told, and to her has passed the name of House Riverbond. She should not be the Head of House of course, but as people who have unfortunately remained nameless until now ensured that no other members of her House survived until this day, that makes her the one and only Heir to the House, and perforce both Head of House and House Speaker until such time as she chooses to name an heir and/or a representative.”
All eyes were on me.
Which was fine. I do great with the attention of the crowds solely focused on me. Not uncomfortable in the slightest. Idrina gave my hand a squeeze of reassurance. In front of everyone.
I was going to marry that woman.
“I’m…what?” It was Lightstone who managed to break the prolonged moment of stunned silence.
“Do I need to use smaller words?” Grammy asked. “She’s Head of House Riverbond. That’s all there is to it.”
“But…but she…it can’t be,” Ironbriar said.
“Refer to me as a thing one more time and I will declare a personal vendetta in addition to the war which Riverbond has declared against your House,” I said.
Hey, if Grammy could de-limb someone in the High Council chamber, I felt like I could afford to at least suggest the sort of violence I was willing to personally inflict on these privilege-poisoned fools.
“Yes. The matter of War. Let us settle it then, shall we?” Lightstone said, steering the focus into the area of maximum peril for us.
I tried not to panic.
Grammy’s arrival had slowed things down, but without access to my magic I had no idea if we’d bought enough time or not.
We couldn’t have things end too soon.
We’d had to wait to begin our big movements until the Great Houses were committed but if discussions were finished before we were ready, they would spoil everything by…well by simply killing us.
Oh our plans would continue on without us and destroy them too, but I was rather attached to seeing what would come next.
“It is the opinion of this Council…” Lightstone began rushing to seal our fates before anything else could go awry.
“Yes. Let us hear the opinion of the Council. We would consider it and all other arguments before giving our Final Judgment,” the Empress Eternal said as the magic suppression field shattered around us.