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By Myranda B. Kalis



"If I show up on your doorstep, chances are you did something to bring me there." - Martin Q. Blank, professional assassin

As it turned, the Chamberlain was actually in the room, looking moderately disturbed and highly discomfitted in his official robes, fingers working nervously at his high collar. Of course, the Captain of the Guard, a Trollish giant dressed in the same green-and-gold uniforms as the rest of the regular palace soldiery, was also present, and at his side, Commander Tysia of the Red Branch, but Scathan had actively expected their presence. The Troll, Lord Captain Aran Hendricksson, gazed at him through mild blue eyes and with a deceptive blandness of expression that suggested little of what he was thinking; his shoulders gave him away, tensing fractionally, his entire posture changing minutely into one of frank readiness. Tysia seemed intent on ignoring his existence until it was absolutely necessary to acknowledge him; she stared at a point somewhere beyond his right shoulder and didn't even dignify his entrance with so much as a change in expression or stance. Her tallish, lean form remained taut and ready to move beneath the crimson vestments of a Red Branch Knight, her long, callused fingers hanging loose and ready to draw any one of the weapons she wore quite openly. The room itself was smaller than the official throne room elsewhere in the castle, more of a secondary meeting chamber than the actual inner corridors of state, the "throne" itself a confection of carved and gilded wood upholstered with green velvet cushions. Long, tall windows allowed the entry of late afternoon sunlight and warmth; the walls were lined in thick, heavy tapestries that kept the heat in and the damp out in cool weather. Scathan's dark eyes traveled about the room; there was no visible security here, but there hadn't been any watching his antechamber, either, and he was certain there that he had been observed by unseen eyes. He didn't doubt that there was substantially more here than was readily apparent, and all focused on the one individual seated in the exact center of the room.

The man they were, of course, all gathered around was still studying the letter Scathan had presented upon his arrival, a single sheet of cream-colored vellum bearing the baronial seal of Shadowmount. A thin golden circlet kept the fine, blonde hair from falling into his face, a face that held a trace of sidhe agelessness, a youthfulness despite the fact that he was temporally older than most of the others in the room. His eyes were a sharp, intense blue close to aquamarine, his mouth curled in an expression that wasn't quite a frown, his pale, straight brows drawn up slightly as he read. Without comment, Scathan went to one knee before him, head bowed low, and waited for the High King to finish the missive in his hands.

It was several more moments before any response came. Scathan studied the pattern of the parquet floor stones with deep concentration until he heard the sound of parchment folding and a soft, deep voice murmur, "Rise."

He pushed to his feet and raised his head slightly, bowing from the neck. "Your Majesty."

"Ambassador." Audry's voice was the sort of thing that invoked the traditional images of Gwydion magnificence, deep and smooth and carrying with it a trace of both Arcadian accent and modern English. The emerald signet of his House flashed as he tapped the folded parchment across the knuckles of one hand and leaned contemplatively back in his seat, his more or less formal clothing pulling slightly and revealing the well-developed muscles of his chest and shoulders. "I must say, this is a very interesting piece of information that your liege has seen fit to send me."

"He thought that it might be of some amusement to you, Your Majesty."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the already pinked Chamberlain growing slightly closer to red at the use of the word 'amusement.'

"Indeed." His tone was positively arid, and he tossed a fractionally amused glance at Commander Tysia, who had the grace to look slightly chagrined. "I'm completely amused, given that a very short time ago, there was some serious question about the Baron of Shadowmount's loyalty--relative as that term might be with him--to the security of the high throne."

Scathan's lips curved in a wry smile. "Loyalty is a purchasable commodity like any other, Your Majesty--the matter of price is simply less cleanly cut. You placed a down payment on the Huntsman's by assuring that his rights were protected..." He trailed off. "Now he returns the favor. I'm certain that your security forces will make excellent use of the information the Company of the Shadowed Blade developed."

David Audry's face was a study for a moment, and Scathan barely managed to keep his lips set in that same little smile. The Chamberlain was slowly turning purple and Captain Hendricksson's eyes were trying to lay anywhere but on Commander Tysia, who was edging into a low boil at his side.

"I...see." Audry's lips twitched as though he were strongly attempting to repress some sort of highly inappropriate expression. "I have decided to grant the Baron's request that you be granted ambassadorial status as a representative of both his freehold and the Company of the Shadowed Blade. There is a page waiting to assist you outside the chambers."

"I thank you, Your Majesty, on behalf of my liege and myself." Scathan bowed deeply again, backed out an appropriate three steps, then turned and exited through the same door.

For an instant, silence reigned in the wake of his exit. Then a low peal of laughter rang out. Captain Hendricksson crossed the room and pulled one of the hangings aside, revealing the pair of heretofore silent watchers occupying the small alcove behind it. Morwen Audry regarded her brother with eyes that sparkled with no small bit of humor. "I swear to you, David--the look on your face when he suggested you were *purchasable* was utterly beyond price."

"He's most emphatically Ailil," the High King's tone was wry as his sister swept from her favorite "hiding place" and dropped him a faintly sardonic curtsey. "I can only imagine what the others are going to make of him--it's been a long time since someone had the nerve to send an Ailil ambassador...not that I've ever noticed that the Baron of Shadowmount has lacked in that area."

Commander Tysia made a sound somewhere between a growl and a hiss of exasperation. "We should have had him detained at the guardhouse--"

"His credentials were entirely in order, Commander." Captain Hendricksson interrupted somewhat stiffly, drawing himself to his full, rather impressive height. "He has the accreditation of a diplomat from the Kingdom of the Burning Sun, a Knight granted his sword by the reigning King of that Realm, and the official seals and documents identifying him as the representative of the Baron of Shadowmount--who, notwithstanding his reputation, has been repeatedly confirmed in his office by all of his immediate peers."

Tysia's fine black brows drew down into an expression that suggested an explosion about to occur, and the High King moved to cut off a row between two of his more trusted advisors. "Aran, Tysia, your feelings about the good Baron have been noted on numerous occasions--now's not the time to rehash it again. I'm rather more interested in discovering more about the ambassador he's sent. Lord Seera?"

Queen Morwen's companion in secrecy glanced up from his examination of the tapestry directly opposite his own and glided forward, making a suitably polite courtesy to the King. "You Majesty, I but live to serve."

"Save it for someone who thinks you mean it, Seera." The King's ice-colored eyes glinted with some humor. "Who is he?"

Allanyn Seera ran a long-fingered hand through his mane of copper-blonde hair, hazel eyes unfocussing slightly as he called to mind all the information best suited to answer that question. "Scathan ap Ailil--of the same House--a notable of certain courts in the Kingdom of the Burning Sun, and a noted henchman of the Baron of Shadowmount. Our earliest mentions of him occur about 1984, involving a small controversy concerning his Chrysalis and Saining--if I recall correctly, he emerged from his Chrysalis within the bounds of the Duchy of Orleans in southern Louisiana, but was, in essence, snatched from under the nose of the Duchess' men by a small party of visitors from the Barony of Shadowmount and carried off to New Mexico in flagrant violation of the laws of demesne. There ensued several months of mostly verbal and written quarreling in which the Duchess attempted to assert her rights to the possession of said Chrysalid, the Baron steadfastly refused to turn him over, and eventually the entire matter was put before King Greyhawk. When His Majesty deigned to ask Scathan ap Ailil where he *wanted* to stay, he chose to remain at Shadowmount--I'm told the Duchess of Orleans has been rather huffy about the entire incident ever since. After that, he dropped out of clear sight for a number of years and was not seen again until he came on staff with the Company of the Shadowed Blade."

Seera paused for a moment, considering again. "He is an acknowledged member of the Company's diplomatic and political arms--which is to say, he usually swings into action once the action is almost over. His particular skills are usually called into play when a particularly volatile situation needs to be defused with some degree of finesse--or the Company needs to put the screws to someone without them really feeling it. He apparently possesses the talent for making even the sting of an utterly crushing defeat seem somehow more bearable. Of the records of his negotiations that I've studied, he has a way of making arrangements that look good on paper actually function well in realpolitic--you could almost accuse him of being generous to a certain degree, though he responds poorly to unseemly stubbornness in the vanquished. It is generally suspected that he has extensive connections to the Shadow Court, though, naturally, no one can prove a thing."

"Even you, Seera?" Morwen's tone was teasing.

"Even me, milady. Circumspection is apparently this man's favorite word. The same applies to his personal life." Seera cleared his throat slightly. "If he has any skeletons in his closet, they are very well to the rear. Besides the incident surrounding his Chrysalis, he has no obvious peccadilloes in his recent past--he is noted for courtly, if somewhat sardonic, behavior in general. Sarcasm is his natural form of self-expression. You saw his general mode of dress. He tends to deflect, politely of course, attempts at seduction by both genders, though no Ascetic organization claims him as a member. He has no known lover or mistress or spouse. His mortal identity is likewise unmarried and rather aggressively single. He is, naturally enough, grotesquely personally wealthy--his mortal father was one of the single wealthiest men in the south at the time of his death, a few days after Scathan's Chrysalis, and Scathan himself was wise enough to gouge his father's business partners for every red cent he could get out of his patrimony. As a consequence, he could be comfortably idle for the rest of his natural life, but apparently chooses to work anyway. He owns a small entertainment concern that services various specialty music and publishing markets; he also provides funds to various charitable organizations and funds an arts scholarship at his alma mater.

"That is, of course, all the information about him that we have for *certain.* On the uncertain side, and completely in the realm of conjecture, is a persistent but unconfirmed rumor that he is also a ranking member of the Company's Intelligence arm, specializing in infiltration and information acquisition. Another is that he may or may not be the field commander of the Company's Black Operations division, which would make him an assassin as well as a spy. As I said, this is all...mostly...unconfirmed."

The room was silent for a moment after Seera finished speaking, a rather thick silence.

"Do you think it was wise to allow him to stay here?" The High King looked at his Intelligence advisor, tapping the paper more rhythmically across his knuckles.

Seera's shrug was eloquent. "That remains to be seen, Majesty--he hasn't done anything yet. I think, perhaps, that, Commander Tysia's concerns notwithstanding, the Company of the Shadowed Blade may be good for their word in this instance. He did, after all, bring you information warning of a threat that we were not particularly aware of, on good faith and without the anticipation of immediate remuneration."

"A point. Tysia?"

"If Seera can keep him under discrete surveillance, I can make certain in other ways that any potentially malicious activities he attempts are kept more or less permanently curtailed." Tysia's lips curved in a reasonable enough smile. "Without resorting to tossing him in the dungeon without the benefit of due process."

"I will, of course, assist the Commander in any way she deems necessary." If anything, Hendricksson's tone became stiffer.

"Of course. By all means...let's let him make his own bed." The High King rose and, with his sister on one arm and Tysia at his shoulder, swept from the room.

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