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By Myranda B. Kalis



The urge to twitch was growing in direct proportion to how long it had been since the liveried guards had escorted him to the antechamber, and Scathan found himself working his fingers idly on the arms of his chair, glared at them in annoyance, and folded them neatly on his lap. Almost instantly, they began twining with one another, the thin bands of worked silver and dark gems winking in the candlelight. Scathan ground his teeth in annoyance.

"*I should have told them that *I* was here to kill the bloody High King, I probably would have had an audience in ten minutes!* An uncontrollable urge to pace was slowly working its way down from his knees when a rather peremptory knock sounded on the antechamber door and it swung open, admitting the green-and-gold clad guardsman that had first escorted him in. Scathan had first noticed the guardsman staring at him in the main reception chamber--he wasn't the only dignitary on hand, or even the only one wearing primarily black and silver, not with the Parliament of Dreams coming into session for the summer in a little over two weeks and the various and sundry emissaries of the monarchs of Concordia and their Heirs milling about performing the elaborate courtly dance of Kithain politics. Pages were wending their way through the group, bearing trays of refreshments, to which the dignitaries were helping themselves, never allowing it to disrupt the flow of their conversing, plotting, scheming, and negotiating. There were perhaps a dozen others in the room by the time Scathan managed to establish his credentials to the satisfaction of the first three layers of Tara-Nar's very cordial security--three Sidhe ladies in various House colors and a corresponding number of Sidhe gentlemen rubbed shoulders with three Trolls, two Eshu, and what he presumed was a Pooka. A Saint Bernard Pooka.

The reception room was all that he expected it to be, which was to say opulent without being utterly tasteless, large without being intimidating, and capable of being cut off from the rest of the fortress-castle with a minimum of fuss and bother, probably without even really alerting the people inside. His first view of Tara-Nar, approaching on the King's Road from the smaller freehold of Adzriel's Tower, had decided that whoever designed and built Tara-Nar had had some grasp of the basic necessities of defense; what he'd seen since had convinced him of it, and the tactical acumen of the architect had both amused and impressed him. A Troll could have designed the High King's palace, but only a sidhe would have thought to add a few layers of worked white marble and gold leaf.

He slipped his official documents identifying him as an ambassador of the Baron of Shadowmount, a commissioned officer of the Company of the Shadowed Blade, and an unlanded knight in the service of the Baron and the Count Randal back into his surcoat and glided down the low flight of steps to the floor of the reception area. His arrival elicited a slight lull in the conversation but otherwise had no effect on the dignitaries already prowling the room, and he quietly pulled on his courtly manners and circulated among them, collecting a few interesting tidbits that he filed away for later consideration.

Security in Tara-Nar had, indeed, increased in the wake of the rather spectacular attempt on Queen Laurel's life a few months previously. Known members of the Shadow Court were notoriously difficult to track down, much less actually arrest, but there had been a rash of "Unseelie bashing" in the capital that had resulted in a number of outraged complaints to the High King himself. Audry had promised to require the Red Branch and the royal guard to moderate their enthusiasm for flushing out the presumed assassins.

Most of the ambassadors and representatives to the Parliament of Dreams were trickling in a bit slowly this year, possibly due the aforementioned "incidents." There was a reasonable amount of concern that both the Red Branch and the royal greenbacks were missing the real culprits in their desire to pin the crime on the Shadow Court--the Trollish ambassador he spent the afternoon chatting with was firmly convinced that it was the act of sidhe in-fighting rather than Unseelie agitation. Queen Laurel was, after all, about to grant a member of the Shadow Court the supreme honor of dragging her to the altar--it would be counterproductive to try and kill her off at that stage in the proceedings. It would be more likely that the attempt was the work of someone wanting to prevent the alliance on the other side of the isle--a viewpoint Scathan could easily concur with, having watched with minimal enjoyment as the royal guard and Commander Tysia of the Red Branch thoroughly investigated the possibility that the Shadowed Bladed had had something to do with the attempt. The assassination arm of the Company was small but talented--if Tysia had dug deep enough, she very well might have discovered a few of his less altruistic activities over the years, a fact which didn't exactly fill him with joy.

As it was, most of the commoner delegates he spoke to (including the Pooka) were willing to lay their money that the Beltane Blade was ultimately behind the attempt on Laurel--if they were married to the notion of maintaining a purely Seelie hegemony in the upper layers of power in Concordia, logic dictated they'd rather see Laurel dead than wed to an Unseelie Count. The part of Scathan that thought in straight lines was forced to agree. The part that thought pedestrian thinking was an abomination that needed to be outlawed reserved judgment.

It was halfway through a fascinating conversation concerning the social habits of certain members of the court that Scathan first felt eyes on him, beyond the dozen-or-so sets occupying the floor with him. While his mouth was making the appropriate witty replies to his companion's remarks, a part of him stepped back and considered, his dark eyes flickering around the room, searching for the source of his unease. He found it standing in the upper gallery, gazing down into the reception hall: a young man, at the mid-to-late end of wilderhood, still impetuous enough to flat-out stare and arrogant enough not to bother, once caught, to try and hide it. There was nothing familiar that Scathan could see in his face, not quite as angular as on most sidhe, square-jawed, chiseled features, perhaps trying a bit too much to appear hard and expressionless to really carry it off. His hair was a fine shade of ash blonde, cut close at the base of his neck, and his eyes a shade of green so pale they appeared almost blue at Scathan's distance; their expression likewise was concealed, if not its intensity. He could nearly feel it, the pressure was so intense and he found himself maneuvering his very cordial companion into a position where he could both utter the requisite courtly chit-chat and keep his back to the wall. After a space, the pressure vanished and, when Scathan glanced up next, his young watcher was gone, replaced by another guard in green-and-gold who stared out over the room with the sort of vigilance too diffuse to be really offensive.

Scathan mentally ran through his catalogue of familiar faces and was forced to reluctantly conclude that the guard's wasn't one of them. He'd long ago borrowed a page from the evil overlords and made note of any (acknowledged) brothers, sisters, children, wards, nephews, nieces, and impossibly distant relations of his past contracts, if not to eliminate then to at least keep a weather eye on them. Vengeful relatives combined with clever enemies were an assassin's worst friends, and there were enough of both in his checkered career to make things interesting if they ever got together. The smaller door inset into the larger, ceremonial doors opened as that cheerful thought crossed his mind, admitting the guardsman in question, accompanied by a brace of Red Branch Knights, their oppositional uniforms creating a rather interesting splash of color as they came down the stairs and made a beeline directly for him. He automatically checked the urge to drop one of his daggers into his hand as the rest of the dignitaries, now swelled to nearly twenty, parted before the newcomers and he made a polite farewell to his conversational companion.

The guardsman paused at a decidedly indiscreet distance, regarding him not-quite down the end of his slightly aquiline nose but close enough for the gesture to lack a certain degree of polite regard for Scathan's position. "The Chancellor has agreed to see you, Ambassador. If you will come with us....?" His tone was smoothly politic and carried to the furthest corners of the room.

Scathan was suddenly very glad he had left his sword among his baggage. He inclined his head to the guardsman, kissed the lady's hand, and indicated his desire to be about his business, all the while thinking, *I should have given them another name.*

The green-clad guardsman led the way, his back and shoulders so straight Scathan could nearly see the steel pole jammed up his spine, the two redcoats falling in behind. A wry smile curled his lips at the small murmur of conversation that elicited; both of the Knights were Trollish--large, muscular, fully armed--and together massed more than enough to squish him into a sidhe puddle if he played fair. As it was, it looked like overkill to anyone with eyes, and he found himself detecting a faint buzz of sympathy from the other dignitaries witnessing.

The trip through the halls surrounding the reception chamber was accomplished at the pace of a brisk Sunday walk and sufficiently roundabout that, had Scathan less experiencing memorizing twisted potential escape routes, he would have been totally lost by the time they were done. As it was, he found himself sorting benchmarks in his mind and hoping that he never had to spend more than five minutes with this particular guard again. Shortly thereafter, he was shown to his present place of confinement, curtly informed that the Chamberlain would see him momentarily, and left to his own devices, most of which centered around a strong desire not to fidget for the security he knew had to be watching the room.

Scathan rose and took the time necessary to smooth down his close-fitting garments, inclining his head in what he sincerely hoped was a regally irritating manner to the guardsman. He responded with a gratifying flash of annoyance in his ice-green eyes, and Scathan smiled his sweetest smile in reply.

"Follow me." The Gwydion turned sharply on his heel and strode out, Scathan following closely behind. This was going to be even more interesting than he originally thought.

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