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By Myranda B. Kalis



"Politics is not an exact science." - Prince Otto von Bismarck, speech to the Prussian legislature, 1863

In a nondescript room, behind a nondescript door, down a nondescript hallway, somewhere in the south wing of the castle, His Grace, Allanyn Seera, Duke of Westlyn in the Kingdom of Northern Ice, Knight of the Realm, tapped his manicured nails against the plain brown surface of the file folder occupying the table in front of him. Across the table, his colleague looked up from the duplicate of the folder and scowled, then turned back to her reading. It was a rather thin folder compared to some of the others occupying the specially constructed filing system that occupied the bulk of the room's space and so it didn't take her long to finish it, glancing up again with considerably more than just a scowl in place. "This is *it?* This is *all* we have on this guy?"

Seera lifted the folder and flicked his thumb across its edge, ruffling the very few sheets of paper inside. "That's it."

"We should be nominating him for sainthood not investigating him." Tyrnan threw the folder down and rose to her full height, stretching her long legs in their sheath of loose, billowy silken pantaloons. "I mean, for an Ailil he doesn't exactly have the track record to go with what you're suggesting about him."

"I know." Seera leaned back in his chair, twining a copper-blonde braid around one finger and tugging on it gently. "I...know...it isn't a very rational impulse. I also know that there's something more going on here--with him, with this whole situation. For what it's worth, I think that he's right, that something large is in the works. I also think there's more to him than is clearly visible, and I'd like to find out what it is before I go getting all trusting with him."

"A reasonable enough desire." Tyrnan leaned against the edge of the table and smoothed down her pants, her many thin bracelets chiming at the motion. "The fact that he's more than he seems is a standard enough assumption, given that he's Unseelie and Ailil by his own admission. You want I should send out feelers to the Kingdom of Sweat and Sunburn and see what I can turn up?"

"Yes." He paused, his hazel eyes flickering. "And find out more about the mortal life he leads--he's maintained relatively close ties to a number of institutions from his pre-Chrysalis days, and I'd like to know why."

The Eshu nodded. "Anything else while I'm off moving mountains?"

"No. Nothing specific. Keep your eyes open. And, for the love of the gods, don't actively run afoul of the Huntsman, you might not survive the experience." A wry smile tugged at his lips.

She gasped melodramatically. "The gods! He cares! I may die of the shock!"

"Wench. Just keep it in mind--the Shadowed Blade has caught, fried, and eaten bigger fish than you, and me, and probably just about everyone else in this office." He released his braid with some annoyance and watched it frizz as a result.

"I'll be careful. No shallow graves in the desert for this woman, no sir, no way." Her dark eyes glittered. "Who're you going to have watch him?"

"I am."

There was, for a moment, complete and thunderstruck silence in the room. "You?" Tyrnan managed to layer more surprise and disbelief into that one word than a lesser being would have mustered in twenty.

"Yes. I...know him. Knew him. Back home. In Arcadia." Seera fought to keep the blush Tyrnan's look was evoking from showing on his face, the pointed tips of his ears growing slowly pink. "Our parents were vassals to the same liege--next door neighbors, you could say. Westlyn, my father's holding, and Valgalant, his father's, shared a common border--I was acquainted with one of his older brothers."

"How...interesting." Sarcasm apparent. "When was the last time you saw him?"

"Before this morning? He was fostered out to the West Country when he was twelve years old, he didn't come back to Valgalant until his eldest sister died--he returned for her funeral." He dropped the folder back on the table and began the rhythmic drumming of his fingertips again. "He was still very young at the time, but had evidently found a place at the court of a Caledonian princeling. We all got the news of things he was up to--eventually--since he was a good correspondent and bad about making family visits for anything short of major crises."

"I hear a 'but' in there."

"Buuuut...there were, of course, rumors. His family hadn't been established in their holding for more than two or three generations--it had been awarded his great-great grandfather for service to the crown, though what the service consisted of was rather obscure." He paused. "There was a good bit of speculation, mostly due to the activities of a certain great-uncle who was a rather extreme reprobate--a troubadour by all accounts, who did extremely well for himself, well enough to found a fairly sizable fortune for his family by the time Scathan rolled around."

"Considering that most troubadours were lucky not to starve, even in Arcadia, that *was* good. Why do I suspect there's more to that than meets the eye?"

"Probably because there was." Seera rubbed idly at the ink stains marring the table's finish. "His great-uncle was, in likelihood, a member of a rather shadowy brotherhood."

Tyrnan rubbed her eyes wearily. "Oh, boy. And our boy Scathan....?"

"The odds are good he was optioned into the same shadowy brotherhood."

"Ter*rif*ic. I trust you haven't shared this with Tysia and Hendricksson?"

"Of course not. Tysia is certain to overreact."

"Well, Summer Court should be interesting this year. I'll go find out why our ambassador-go-assassin is so attached to his alma mater and leave the rest up to you."

Court clothing went into the clothespress--two dozen distinct and unique variations on the basic Ailil black and silver in slightly different proportions, with the occasional bit of tasteful color to enliven the otherwise perfect gloom. He ran his hands over certain seams, feeling for the concealed goodies worked into the construction, and was largely satisfied; laundry service at Shadowmount was good at putting his weapons back where they found them if he accidentally left one in. A wry smile quirked his lips at the thought of what Tara-Nar's launderers might have to say about the same things. A moderately large and heavy casket containing most of the jewelry he bothered to lug around (for decoration, dross value, and ready cash if it came to that) followed the clothing, slid into one of the drawers provided for just such items, which he then locked with the ring of keys he found in the bedside table. His knockabout, informal clothing went neatly folded into one of the bound chests; his robe and bath bag went into the bathing chamber, and he had to resist the urge to peel out of his annoying presentational clothing and take advantage of the *huge* and *hot* bathing pool right then and there. Appreciation of the plumber crawled onto his list with appreciation of the architect, and he privately resolved to shrivel himself into a prune later.

Scathan had been back and forth about whether or not to bring his formal knightly armor--given Evayne's earlier comments about jousting and coercion, he was rather glad that he had. The full suit was as light as Molly and Reinhold could make it, which, given Molly's fondness for modern chimerical alloys, was rather light indeed, yet still maintained a good amount of impact protection. He didn't want to have to put it to the test in a stand-up hack-and-slash *fight* but for most forms of demonstration, it wasn't bad. He chucked it in the second chest, along with the sword he used while wandering around and trying to look knightly, piled the now-empty traveling packs on top, and then locked it, hopefully never to require opening it.

The equipment laid out on the bed was an entirely different story. His armor lay folded in a neat, black square--unfolded, it covered him from chin to ankles, fitting like a second skin and flexible in ways that human armorers could only dream of, fully articulated at the joints without the necessity of bulky pieces, hard enough to turn anything short of the Huntsman's own crystalline blade, and so dark that the light seemed to fall into its nonreflective surface. Molly, in a fit of anime-inspiration, had designed and constructed it, and all the little gadgets that came with it, to his specifications; with an impish grin, he tucked it into the bedside table and defied a casual observer to guess what it was. A pair of daggers, one long and thin for stabbing, the other long and weighted for throwing, went beneath one pillow; his gun, another of Molly's, went beneath the other. He tied his weapons belts (and the accompanying weapons) securely around the canopy post and drew the curtain itself over it, nicely obscuring it for the time being. His medicines case, once he had assured himself that none of the glass containers had been broken and none of the various packets had been spilt, went under the bed.

There was a soft tone, and Scathan looked up from the remains of the mess, the small clock on the mantle chiming the dinner hour.

"*Look for any suspicious characters.* Scathan's lips curled slightly further. *All the weird ones come out at supper.* He rose and went into the bathchamber to clean up.

By the time Scathan descended from his chambers, the main banquet hall was already full--of light, sound, people. Stowed away in one corner a quartet of musicians provided light dinner music, which was mostly drowned by the sounds of the dinner conversation itself, as a fairly substantial number of the court's residents milled about, dining and chatting. Trestle tables lined the walls, virtually groaning under the provender they bore, and smaller tables filled most of the center of the room, along with various chairs and nooks about the periphery for diners to inhabit. A long table at the far end was set and occupied by a collection of nobles of various stripes; he recognized Morwen Ardry ap Gwydion from description and reproductions he had seen before, favoring the gold of her House's arms in her dress, surrounded even as she was by courtiers attempting to do her honor. The vast majority of the court's residents, he realized after cursory inspection, looked substantially less than suspicious, despite the considerable mix of Kith and House and age. Sidhe rubbed elbows with Sluagh; Trolls shared conversation with Redcaps; grumps bounced childlings not even out of their baby fat on gnarled knees, but the most predominant group were the wilders of every flavor, from just out of youth to verging on grumphood. It was, all in all, the very picture of a cosmopolitan Kithain court.

Scathan paused at the bottom of the shallow stairs, torn between his instincts, which said to circulate, and his stomach, which said to eat first and circulate later. The decision was made for him.

"Scathan?"

Scathan's ears almost literally pricked, his head automatically swivelling in the direction of the semi-familiar voice, wondering who on earth could possibly recognize him at the High King's court.

"Scathan ap Ailil! It *is* you." Scathan felt his eyes trying to widen and firmly squelched the impulse, even as an intense surge of recognition rushed through him and relocated his heart somewhere in the vicinity of the back of his mouth. He was as fully tall as when Scathan had last laid eyes on him, tall even for a Sidhe, with a good half-head on Scathan himself, and wider across the shoulders. His body was taut and well-muscled, the cut of his clothing--in flattering shades of deep red and silver--subtly accentuating, rather than concealing, the power inherent in his form. But then, he had always been that way, his entire bearing one of 'Here I am, take me.' He moved with the sort of slinky, tigerish grace that make Scathan feel like a slug, the way he was walking now, and it took a good bit to ignore the natural effect the force of his presence generally had. His hair, still that fine shade of copper-blonde that looked almost red in this sort of light, was held back by the coronet he wore--a ducal coronet, set with the glowing deep crimson stones of Westlyn, and a second look showed that he wore the signet as well, and the sword that his father had carried as a sign of his office. His hazel eyes, tonight showing a strong predominance of green, caught Scathan's own, mirroring the slight, and slightly amused, smile that curled his lips.

"Allanyn Seera." Scathan managed to keep his tone normal, low and conversational, "It's been...a very long time."

Seera had taken his time preparing for the evening; the last time he had seen Scathan ap Ailil, his somewhat faulty memory informed him, had been in Arcadia, with Scathan young and grieving for his eldest sister--it wouldn't necessarily be a good thing to remind him of the circumstance, and inextricably link those two events in his current memory. If, indeed, Scathan remembered him at all. A slight twinge had passed through him at that thought, and he quickly pushed it aside; ego had (virtually) no place in this, and passing through the Mists had scrambled the brains of nearly every Sidhe on earth--Scathan was probably no exception to that. He chose his wardrobe with some care, selecting such accouterments as might jog a Swiss-cheese memory, and repaired himself to the main banquet hall, where his coterie of hangers-on was already waiting, the perfect spoiled young lordling's prop. And, Seera was forced to admit with some chagrin, the last time he had crossed paths with Scathan, he had indeed been a rather archetypal spoiled young lordling, the sole heir to his father's demesne, lacking for nothing except a rather generous comeuppance.

The news of Scathan's manifestation at court had made the rounds at a good clip, and it was most of what his retinue, who had loyally (and advantageously) followed him from Westlyn could talk about. Some of the rumors that had come of it were tasty even for bored Kithain courtiers before the start of Summer Court, and Seera couldn't resist adding a few of his own just to up the ante and see what it could shake loose, watching with satisfaction as they almost visibly rippled through the crowd, from one mouth to another pointed ear. There were, after all, multiple methods of achieving the ultimate result, which, he reminded himself righteously, was determining exactly what the Ailil was about, and, for the nonce, he was at a bit of an advantage with his knowledge of the social and political life of this particular court. He didn't doubt that Scathan would find his feet soon enough, and that advantage would be substantially diminished.

"Look...he just came in."

Seera flicked a glance at the main entrance from the corner of his eyes, and casually tilted his head, keeping the look that flickered through his eyes concealed from casual observation. Even so, it was difficult to maintain strict control over his expression, and he felt a smile pulling at his lips as he watched Scathan ap Ailil descend the stairs. A low murmur passed through his companions and he was forced to admit that there was definitely something there to murmur about. The last time he had seen Scathan, he had been very young, indeed--self-possessed, but with a barely-controlled wildness in him, a fey passion that showed even through his grief. It was still there now, but banked, deeply banked, and more of the self-possession, the complete, frosty Ailil dignity in strong evidence. It was difficult to adequately define--the man gave almost nothing away, his body language suggesting a sort of imperviousness that came with utter self-confidence, which was, in itself, wildly attractive. The expressions on the several courtiers he passed on his graceful, pantherish way down the stairs said that much, his dark, dark eyes flickering over the room as he did so, and not focusing on any one person.

He had taken the time to change out of his proper Ambassadorial clothing and into something slightly more in line with a mere evening of idling about the court, pale, pearl-grey bell-sleeves beneath a relatively simple, close-fitting vest, long legs accentuated by likewise close-fitting leggings and a pair of tall, slouchy boots. A black silk sash shot through with strands of silver wound around his waist; a dagger that was mostly for the dress appeal hung at his hip. His long, jet black hair was confined in a silver clip and hung almost to his waist, exposing his canted ears and the several sorts of earrings in them; his long fingers were accentuated by the slender silver bands ringing them. Seera rose slowly, almost unwillingly, chatting briefly with the people he passed on the way towards him.

"Scathan." He hesitated slightly, and half-turned.

His eyes had always been dark--a deep, storm blue that verged on black, dark pools that had a way of staring through the heart of things. The eyes widened fractionally as they came to rest on him, color deepening from the darkest blue into true black.

"Scathan ap Ailil! It is you."

For an instant, Seera thought that Scathan *might* not recognize him--the look in his eyes suggested otherwise, however, and, after a moment, he spoke, his voice as low and husky as he remembered, black velvet purring beneath a skillful caress. "Allanyn Seera. It's been a very long time."

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