By Myranda B. Kalis

"It is human nature that rules the world, not governments and regimes." --Svetlana Alliluyeva, The New York Times Nov. 3, 1984

Commander Perseis Tysia ni Scathach was *not* a happy woman. Everyone on her staff knew it. Everyone in Tara-Nar knew it. Tysia's unhappiness was the sort of monumental Kithain emotion that inspired tragic ballads and the attempts of swooning courtiers to storm the battlements of the icy castle her heart resided in, in a mostly futile effort to find the woman beneath the warrior. It never ended, because when one set of courtiers, heartsore from constant, forceful rejection, crawled away signalling defeat, another set took up the banner. This, of course, only reinforced Tysia's resistance and drove the members of the Red Branch who served under her to quietly discard tradition, dignity, and common sense and open a betting pool on how long it would be before she finally killed one of them.

She hadn't yet, and the pot was now so huge that her executive officer was seriously considering investing it in a treasure.

Tysia, notably unaware of her staff's indiscreet use of their time and money, had, upon taking command of the Red Branch in Tara-Nar, forged it into both a monument to her unhappiness and her efficiency. David Ardry was, arguably, the best-protected monarch ever to warm a throne. Of the (several) attempts to assassinate him, the closest hadn't even managed to get *inside* the Winter Court in Caer York and the farthest had been caught while the assassin herself had been *preparing* to make her move, in her own home. Everyone, Tysia notwithstanding, had been justifiably proud of that bit of detective work, which had combined the talents of the Red Branch, the Gwydion House Guards, and the King and Queen's Own in a staggeringly effective display of coordinated action. It was, now, the major reason why Tysia, sitting at her desk and glaring at the stack of artist's renderings of unknown seals and reproductions of coded communications provided by the Company of the Shadowed Blade, was in a massively foul mood.

Because, she had not, in fact, had any clue about this particular conspiracy.

Because, none of her staff had had a clue either.

Because, without a doubt, if there was one man on the face of the earth that she didn't want to owe a thing to, it was certainly Kieran ni Scathach, the Huntsman, and now she owed him...big.

"Damn it all, I should have retired at Beltaine like I said I would."

Tysia's second snorted with laughter at that, and she looked up from the stack of parchments occupying the table, his laughter only intensifying at the sight of her scowl. "I *fail* to see the humor, Rod."

"Of course you do, Perseis, that's part of your charm." Roderick ap Gwydion was a relatively distant cousin of the royal siblings, distant enough to not be seriously threatened by the notion of succession, and so, as soon as he was able, pelted off and joined the Red Branch, thereby removing himself from it still further. He was, Tysia said often, almost offensively good-looking with a tumble of white-gold ringlets covering most of his exquisitely shaped head and framing a face of classic elegance, golden eyes and all. It was his stunning beauty that made him most effective since, Tysia had long ago noted, he suffered from, or was blessed by, a seeming aura of beatific innocence, which was only strengthened, rather than diminished, by his crimson vestments. He was easily the most consistently underestimated man in the Red Branch, an unfortunate tendency he subtly encouraged and used to his best advantage.

"I'm serious," Tysia muttered, dropping the page she was handling and pushing the whole stack across the table to him, "This I do *not* need. Not only do we have a previously unknown threat, we have a unknown quantity setting up at court and cutting a swath through the ranks with the help of our own spymaster!"

"Seera *is* investigating him," Roderick pointed out helpfully, tapping the stacked pages even, "'Hands on' and all that--"

"I'm sure his hands aren't the only appendages that Seera's using."

Sarcasm clinging to every syllable. "You read his initial report--and the file that he sent over?"

"On the Ailil? Yes. Not very wordy, was it? I get the impression that Seera may have met his match in the misdirection department--or else, there really *isn't* much to tell about the good Ambassador. The one possibility that everyone's overlooking," Roderick smiled sweetly, "is that he's really only a career diplomat and politician."

"It's possible. Unlikely, but possible." A grimace. "Sir Bryce came by the other day, as well."

Roderick rolled his extravagantly beautiful eyes heavenward. "And he's been here, what, two days? What did *Sir* Bryce have to say this time?"

"He, as usual, registered a formal request on behalf of the Gwydion House Guards that the Ambassador be kept under close surveillance on the grounds that he may pose a significant threat to the well-being of the High King." Tysia fished among the papers occupying her side of the paper, came up with a standardized form, and passed it across. "He did not, as usual, actually submit his rationale, since he's aware by this time that obsessive dislike of the Ailil does not constitute a legitimate reason to call on the Red Branch. You almost have to admire his tenacity...."

"If he weren't such a git, I would." A dry smile, as he scanned the page. "Bryce would probably give birth to kittens if he knew we were already keeping him under surveillance for reasons having nothing to do with anyone else's requests."

A snort. "Undoubtedly. According to Seera's office, the good Ambassador has been receiving attempts to fete him like a prince returning victorious from the wars, which he has been mostly ignoring in favor of strategic alliance building. Seera's been occupying a good bit of his time, and he paid a visit to Lady Fellgrace, as well as replying to missives sent by Lady Steelbright and a few other notables around court, including a few of the old soldiers that served during the Accordance War and along the southern Border. I also received a note from him saying that he'll be by some time today in response to my request to speak with him about," she nodded at the stack of correspondence, "that."

Roderick looked down at "that," and smiled wryly. "Do you really think he'll tell you anything more, even if he *knows* more?"

"I would be lax in my duties if I didn't try it." There was a knock at the chamber door, "Come in."

Tysia's receptionist poked her head in gingerly and nodded to both senior officers. "Lord Seera just arrived to see you, Commander. Shall I...?"

Tysia and Roderick exchanged a speaking glance. "Speak of the devil. Send him in."

Evayne balanced the tray she was carrying on one hip and juggled the keys in her free hand, finally coming up with the right one and inserting it into the lock, jiggled, twisted, and kicked the door open in one or two not entirely graceless motions. Creeping as quietly as she could manage, she carried the tray of covered comestibles to the sitting room table, pausing a moment to fussily arrange its contents, before slithering over to the partially-opened bedroom door and peering in. Scathan had, once again, not gotten in until after she had left for the night; despite the drawn curtains and the distinct lack of ambient light in the bedroom, she could see the vaguely human-sized lump of his body on the bed. A little smile curved her lips, green eyes glinting with some glee; his return to the castle proper, in approximately the same state of dress and demeanor that he'd been wearing when he left, had been noted by the gate guards and circulated at lightning speed among the support staff, to the enjoyment of many. It had been a long time since the redoubtable Allanyn Seera, whose trail of ravished and broken-hearted lovers was a thing of legend in Tara-Nar, had been thwarted in his romancing--it was, in fact, almost unheard of. For Evayne, whose interest in the whole thing was entirely personal, it was worth the price of playing page to a night-owl Ailil ambassador to have a front-row seat on the proceedings.

"Skye?" Evayne called sweetly. "Wake up, it's almost noon."

There was no particular response from the figure on the bed, not even a twitch of motion to indicate that he had heard, much less was still alive. A frown curved the corners of his lips and she raised her voice slightly, stepping further into the bedroom. "Skye?"

A low sound of pain reached her ears and she crossed the room in four quick bounds and grabbed Scathan (still dressed, she noted with some annoyance), giving him a gentle shake. "Skye are you--? Eeeeeeeeeeeek!"

The surprised squeal was the result of Scathan sitting up rather abruptly and nearly knocking her unconscious with the back of his head. The scream that followed it up was a reflexive response to the flash of faesteel in his hand and the hurried scramble that followed only barely managed to get her out of the way in time to avoid catching it through the ribs. Her reflexes, under most other circumstances, probably wouldn't have been a match for his, despite all the excellent training she had enjoyed, had it not been for two rather important things. Scathan's eyes, Evayne noticed, were wide open, but he was also clearly not seeing anything actually occupying the room with him; and the swing, since it didn't connect with her, instead connected with the stone floor, disarming him in a flash of sparks and the ringing chime of steel on finely milled parquet stones, and the completion of the motion spilled him in a something less than dignified position onto the floor. They stayed that way for several tense minutes, Evayne not-quite cowering near the window, Scathan flat on his back on the floor, each breathing raggedly, though for entirely different reasons.

Scathan's breathing finally evened out, a strange expression coming into his eyes. "Why am I looking at the ceiling?"

"Uhm," Evayne's agile brain looked for something clever to say. "Because you fell out of bed?"

"Well, that would also explain why I'm lying on the floor." His tone was wry and he sat up carefully, taking in the not-quite cowering Evayne and the dagger lying almost exactly half way between them. "What...happened?"

"Well, I came in to bring you breakfast," Evayne began calmly, "and I poked my head in the door to see if you were awake yet and I heard you make a noise and I came in to see if you were okay and rolled out of the bed and almost stabbed me with that--" She made a gesture toward the dagger on the floor and Scathan was across the room and checking her for injuries before the motion finished.

"Are you hurt?!" She didn't appear to be, but considering that most of his blades were coated in less than healthful substances, appearances could often be deceiving.

"N-no," Evayne's eyes were huge, "You missed. I don't think you"

"I didn't," Scathan informed her dryly.

"I sort of figured," Evayne assured him. "So...*are* you okay."

"Oh, I'm fine." Evayne strongly suspected that he was being sarcastic. "I am not, however, ever drinking with Lord Seera again. You said something about breakfast...?"

"Uh--yes! I brought your breakfast up," Evayne grabbed the evident return to normalcy like a life preserver and held on to it for all that she was worth. "Let's go eat. You look a little pale."

"I feel a little pale," He admitted and pushed to his feet, skull buzzing just enough to make him wish for an immediate return to the floor. "What have I gotten myself into for today?"

"Ah--Commander Tysia, Captain Hendricksson, and Lady Steelbright. Not necessarily in that order." Evayne busied herself laying out cups and plates, her mind racing nimbly around several different possibilities now that he immediate startlement had abated, none of which were pleasant.

And all of which lead to one inevitable conclusion.

She was going to have to butt heads with her father.

To be continued...

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