By Myranda B. Kalis

"You needed to see me?"

The Huntsman looked up from his desk, and the pile of correspondence currently sitting before him on it. With difficulty, Scathan smothered a smartass grin and schooled his face into a dubious approximation of expressionless. There were few things in the world the fearless leader of the Company of the Shadowed Blade hated more than paperwork; consequently, he usually let it go until Reinhold, his inimitable Chief of Operations, harassed him about for so many consecutive days it was impossible to ignore any longer. Either that, or a fire started from the paperwork compost heap that usually occupied the back corner of his office. The Scathach sorcerer whose name struck fear into the hearts of most beings with the self-preservatory instincts of a caterpillar was currently surrounded by a small mountain of parchments, unanswered correspondence, wax sticks, and his official baron's seals and carefully made forgeries of nearly everything short of the royal brand itself. His usually black clothing was so covered in dust it was actually closer to gray, he had a black ink smudge on the tip of his nose, and he looked as though he was about to settle the issue of paperwork by shoving it all in the incinerator downstairs and laughing maniacally while he did it.

Scathan pushed the droopy black sleeves of his shirt back. "You want me to help forge your signiture on some of that stuff?"

For the briefest of instants, the Huntsman looked clearly, sorely tempted. "No. I'll deal with all of this...eventually...." With a sudden, swift movement, the piles on either edge of his desk went tumbling back into the slightly larger piles on the floor, leaving only the rather smaller and better ordered pile directly in front of him. "Have a seat."

Scathan's eyebrow arched fractionally in a my-isn't-this-interesting gesture as he pulled pulled a chair up opposite the Huntsman's own. "This is, I take it, something substantially more important than back-ordering?"

The Huntsman's lips curled in his habitual wry smile. "I wouldn't want to taint the purity of your tactical analysis. Take a look at these and tell me what you think." He pushed the small pile across the desk; each had been carefully opened so that the wax seal remained more or less intact, and some of the sheets themselves bore the "bespeckled" pattern common to goblin parchment, and the subsequent dousing in Reinhold's special mixture that kept both the paper from combusting and the ink from running as well.

Scathan lifted the first sheet and took a moment to examine the seal itself; the wax was dark blood-crimson and glittered with faint traces of the glamour that had been used in its production. The mark pressed into it, however, was unfamiliar, and a slight frown curved his lips. Its pattern was circular, the edge scalloped in a sharp line of triangles, each triangular point bearing a different sigil inside the arms. At the center of the marking itself was a lone sigil that had no correspondent among the letters on the outer edge. Sorting through the papers, he discovered that each one was sealed in a similar manner, the outer circle of sigils remaining unchanged and the inner different for each piece of correspondence. He flicked a glance at the Huntsman, who was watching his face with a notable lack of expression. "Have the seals been translated?"

"There is no translation that we can identify--I had Zabbikah do a comparison of every human and faery language that we have samples of, and the characters used in the seal have no correspondence to anything we've seen before." The Huntsman leaned back in his chair, a dry little smile tugging at his lips. "Not even Nunnehi or Thallain."

"Joy." Scathan turned to the correspondence itself, which was only moderately more satisfying.

"Whoever wrote this has a bloody huge family," he murmured, mostly to himself, sorting among the various bits of correspondence. "Letters to cousins, sisters, brothers....Hm. And rather mundane correspespondence at that. So why are they writing 'Dear Sister Jane' letters on goblin parchment?" He read through them again, slower. "There's a cipher in the pattern of the letters--" He glanced up, storm-blue eyes narrowed to gleaming slits. "Let me guess. You've already broken the encryption, you just feel like being a smartass unseelie sidhe and seeing if I could figure it out?"

"Shrike broke the code last night." The Huntsman's lips twitched, his dark violet eyes gleaming with amusement. "It's a multi-leveled encryption--once you break the first layer of the code, it does, in fact, give you quite an interesting little message, enough to send anyone less dogged than our sweet Beastie off on a wild goose chase. As it is, she found three full layers of encryption and can't vouch for the fact that there isn't a fourth, though what she did find is...substantial."

"I reiterate, joy." Scathan laid the papers back on the Huntsman's desk, lining them up and tapping them even. "What does it say?"

"Suitably nasty things--dark plots, dirty dealings, assassination, the usual. It's the potential object of the assassination that makes these little missives unique."

Scathan's eyebrows inclined themselves of their own accord. "Oh? There's such a thing as a potential assassination that shocks you?"

"From what Shrike can discover, the target of this particular attempt is none other than our beloved and puissant monarch High King David Audry of House Gwydion."

For an instant, no sound emerged from Scathan's lips, then they formed a perfect, "Oh, my."

"That's what I said." The Huntsman picked up the papers, flicking his thumb slowly over the edge. "It was going to happen sometime, I suppose...." He rolled his violet eyes heavenward.

Scathan managed to regain control of his lips. "Well--I agree, but, why *now*? Coming so close after the attempt on Queen Laurel during the Winter Court, any assassin that goes after Audry will *hardly* find the security at Tara-Nar anything close to lax. They'd be lucky to get *in* alive much less get back *out* again."

In his entire professional career, Scathan had only been surprised by one regicide, and that had been the hit that killed Queen Andalura, the Dougal monarch of the Kingdom of Grass, shortly after he himself had stepped out of his Chrysalis and into Concordia. Even half-addled from his recent return and several months of painful recovery from the state he'd been in, her death had made no sense to him--no one had gained or lost anything from removing one Dougal woman from the throne and putting another on it, unless it was Queen Mary Elizabeth herself. And, like most of the other Concordian fae, Scathan lacked the imagination necessary to cast Mary Elizabeth in the role of the red-handed murderess of her own cousin. Sean of Pacifica had been done to death by genuine revolutionaries, who hadn't counted on the thoroughness of his young niece, and Barabas' death had been inevitable from the moment he claimed the throne of the Kingdom of Willows. Queen Laurel of the Kingdom of Nothern Ice would have been his first choice for potential assassin-bait, as the woman's hand on the reins of the north was all that kept her many and varied and highly independent dukes, counts, and barons from proclaiming themselves petty monarchs in their own right and carving up the glaciers to suit themselves, thereby destabilizing the single largest political unit in Concordia. The High King....

He didn't want to think about what it would mean if the High King died by violence. "Where did we get these letters?"

"Verona intercepted them in Pacifica--she couldn't be certain where they came from, or even if they were on their way out or their way in."

"Is Verona....?"

"Dead." The Huntsman's voice was flat.

Scathan rose slowly and prowled the room, blinking rapidly, his hands slowly, unconsciously balling into fists at his sides. "I don't want to know how, do I?"

"No, you don't. That's why I need to put you on this as soon as possible."

Scathan took a slow, deep breath. "Where?"

"Where else? Tara-Nar." And at Scathan's startled look, "We're operating under the basic assumption that the threat outlined in these letters is, indeed, a genuine conspiracy, and, therefore, a genuine attempt on the High King *will* be made. We're also operating under the assumption that, while the Red Branch and whoever else Audry has working for him as security have the knowledge that, somewhere in Concordia there are probably a fairly sizable number of people who'd like to see the High King become dead in the immediate future, they lack *specific* knowledge of the current threat. A threat significant enough to entail the secrecy represented by the measures taken with these documents, and capable of killing one of my most talented remote agents installed at the Court of the Queen of Pacifica--as Aeron's *seneschal,* yet.

"Since we don't have a viable timeframe for when this assassination is to take place, and our presence in Tara-Nar is rather thin at the moment, I need someone I can place confidence in. Which means you're on your way to the capitol."

"This is going to be cute--an Ailil noble in a predominantly Gwydion court. The Red Branch will probably shadow every move I make for months."

"I'm rather hoping they will. Give Commander Tysia my regards." The Huntsman grinned at Scathan's basilisk glare and his verbal response to that comment. "Now--do you really think I'm going to chuck you the Gwydion wolves without sending the proper documents and commentary on your presence. You are in *my* service, after all."

"I seem to recall Commander Tysia rather enthusiastically pursuing the notion that *we*--and *you* specifically--were behind the assassination attempt on Queen Laurel not more than four months ago."

"Ah, but she gave it up when it became obvious that we weren't." The Huntsman smiled fractionally. "Officially, I'm sending you as my Representative to the Summer Court at Tara-Nar. It's been a long time since the Barony of Shadowmount has given anyone the honor of sucking up to the cream of Kithain society and, given the additional advantages of charm, poise, and refinement, I'm sure you'll find that there are a *few* members of court willing to let the cultural differences subside."

Scathan's disgusted look spoke volumes.

"You don't have to actually seduce anyone's nubile young son if you don't want to. Unofficially, you're there to deliver a warning to His Majesty, and then keep an eye out for any suspicious-looking characters...."

"Besides myself?"

"...And, just to be sure there are no misunderstandings, we'll send a detailed explanation of the situation along with you so Audry doesn't order your head rolled or Tysia something rather less pleasant."

"Sounds like the best I'm going to get." Scathan ran a hand through his long, dark hair. "When do I leave?"

"Tonight. Just keep him alive until Samhain, Scathan--I'll take care of the rest."