One: The Girl Among Princes
She stared down at Captain Leevoth's body with something like torture twisting her facial features, watching the shadow essence slowly leaving his lifeless form in the shape of wisps of black vapor. When all that shadowstuff was gone there would be nothing left of Leevoth, nothing left to give credit to one of the most loyal captains ever to serve Shade Enclave. What a waste.
A few minutes later she felt more than heard the arrival of someone behind her, but she did not immediately turn to regard the newcomer; instead she knelt down and busied herself about Leevoth's corpse, securing items she was certain the Most High would want recovered. Being archwizards who had spent seventeen centuries mastering the Shadow Weave, it was common practice to bring shadow-crafted artifacts back to the city when the original bearer was struck down.
But not Ironfang; she deliberately left the Shadovar captain's greatsword clenched in his black fingers. He would have preferred it that way, and as Leevoth hadn't been just some lowly commoner in life she felt compelled to honor him in some way.
Slinging the satchel of enchanted items over one shoulder she stood, and the shadowy figure of a man advanced to her side.
"This is the second time in the last tenday you have left the enclave without permission," sighed Vattick, the Ninth Prince of Shade, "and this time you left unaccompanied. Have you lost your sense? When the Most High hears of this – "
Soleil Chemaut, a half elf mountebank and the Left Hand of the Most High, couldn't suppress a frustrated sigh. "No one knows how long Leevoth has been dead – very soon his shadow essence will be expired also, and he will be no more. How can we determine how he was killed if we do not inspect his body?"
Vattick sidled closer to the slender half elf, easily slinging an arm around her shoulders and tugging her bracingly against his side – Vattick, one of the shortest of the twelve princes, still stood a full head over Soleil. "The Most High isn't interested in discovering how Captain Leevoth died, only in who perpetrated the crime. Bringing the murderer to justice is his only interest."
"Well, it is still an interest of mine," Soleil told him stubbornly, and Vattick snickered at her insistence but did not argue. "It was a single stab to the chest that killed him; the blade was large. A bastard sword, or a greatsword, perhaps."
"Very helpful," chuckled the Ninth Prince, and when Soleil punched him in the ribs his laughter only intensified. They stood together for a few more moments, Vattick respectfully silent while Soleil gazed sadly down at the shade commander's motionless form, until the mountebank exhaled bitterly and freed herself from the prince's arm.
"Time to return to the enclave, and face the Most High One. I am certain he knows by now that I am not in the city."
Vattick reached out to her, offering one black hand, and the moment Soleil's fingers touched his they began the shadow walk back to the City of Shade.
Second Prince Rivalen and Fifth Prince Clariburnus waited quietly, half anxious and half irritated, several steps down from the Most High One's ornate throne as their sovereign and father mulled over the news they had just delivered. Their views on Soleil's departure from the city differed greatly, part of the reason they weren't discussing the matter at the moment; Clariburnus sympathized with the mountebank unfalteringly, including her desire to solve the mysteries surrounding Leevoth's death, while Rivalen often complained of being used as a babysitter. They had engaged in a rather heated argument on their way to the Palace Most High, and their bitter disagreements were far from forgotten; the Twelve Princes of Shade, all brothers, experienced periods of infighting and rivalry almost daily and weren't the type to dismiss grudges lightly.
High Prince Telamont, supreme ruler of the City of Shade and patron to the Twelve Princes, shifted his platinum glare from one son to the other without a word. Unfortunately it was generally considered a bad sign when the Most High was given less than thrilling news and didn't speak right away; both princes braced themselves for the outburst of Telamont's displeasure.
They were momentarily and unexpectedly spared, though, when Telamont rose from his throne and called out, "Hadrhune."
The name had barely passed the Most High's lips before another shadow-swathed figured appeared, only one stair step down from the dias upon which Telamont's throne sat – Hadrhune, the Right Hand of the Most High. The seneschal's amber eyes gleamed brightly from beneath the dark cowl of his cloak, and in his right hand he held his favorite black staff.
Prince Rivalen, long considered one of Hadrhune's greatest rivals, assumed the seneschal was about to be reprimanded and cackled wickedly beneath his breath; Prince Clariburnus, a good friend and trusted ally of Hadrhune's, set his iron-colored eyes on Rivalen in a glare that promised swift retribution. Hadrhune dug his thumbnail into the shaft of the black staff, a habitual action that belied his agitation.
"You summoned me, Most High One." The amber-eyed shade bowed low, his voice much more at ease than his posture suggested.
Telamont's eyes flashed toward his two sons; their expressions became smooth and expressionless again in the blink of an eye. "Yes – Rivalen and Clariburnus have just informed me that Soleil has left the enclave again. Is this true?"
Hadrhune's face remained impassive, though inwardly he was cursing the half elf in every tongue he knew – Soleil Chemaut, the Left Hand of the Most High, outside the considerable protection of Shade Enclave yet again? The implications of this knowledge did not bode well for Hadrhune; if he wasn't aware of the mountebank's disappearance, it was likely she had departed the city completely without escort – a luxury that Telamont Most High rarely permitted, even to his own sons.
"It is true, Most High," inserted Rivalen. "I scryed her myself; she has gone to the place where Leevoth fell."
"And why was she not stopped from leaving, Hadrhune?" High Prince Telamont stressed the seneschal's name at the end of his question, indicating that anyone who answered on Hadrhune's behalf again would regret it; Hadrhune did not miss the glitter of triumph that appeared in Prince Clariburnus's eyes and might have smiled himself, except that the Right Hand of the Most High seldom smiled at all. "I have looked into this matter myself – Leevoth's killer is not unknown to me. I am familiar with this curious doppelganger who calls himself Phendrana, as well as his companions. There was no reason for Soleil to depart without permission – much less unaccompanied."
"I had some things to attend to in the lower district," admitted Hadrhune, his thumbnail gouging the staff again. "Soleil must have slipped out while I was otherwise occupied. If it pleases the Most High, I will go now and collect her at once."
Only Hadrhune stood near enough to Telamont to see the High Prince's tiny nod of acquiescence. "Send her to me the moment you have returned."
Hadrhune bowed himself out of the audience chamber without another word.
"It is no secret that you both – and all of your brothers, as well – consider Soleil to be beneath your notice," said Telamont, turning to face Clariburnus and Rivalen once more. "Since she is both a non-shade and not of Shadovar birth I can see why you would think so, but it simply will not do for any of you to merely turn a blind eye when she chooses to depart the city on a whim. Remember that she has my favor, and remember also the talents she brings to the Shadow Council – gifts that she has used on more than one occasion to benefit us all. I will not tolerate this behavior again – see that your brothers receive the same message."
Telamont's eyes flashed so violently that they shone almost white, and suddenly Rivalen and Clariburnus found themselves crashing into one another, sailing backward, and colliding so hard with the double doors that they groaned off their hinges to deposit them none too gently in the grand hallway of the Palace Most High. Looking back they had a brief glimpse of High Prince Telamont standing to one side of his throne, his ceremonial robes billowing around him, before his umbral aura settled around him once more and the doors slammed in their faces. Leaning on his glaive for support Clariburnus clambered to his feet, Rivalen following suit; by the time they were fully upright the bruises they had sustained from the incident had already healed.
"I am afraid Soleil has overstepped her bounds this time," observed Rivalen, though he sounded completely remorseless – Clariburnus even thought he heard his older brother chuckle beneath his breath. "Woe betide her when Hadrhune drags her back to the Most High!"
They were hurrying down the corridor, Vattick half dragging Soleil with one hand clamped down upon her forearm, when they turned sharply into the grand hallway and nearly plowed into Hadrhune. The seneschal had the presence of mind to melt into the obsidian floor as a shadow so that the two stumbled harmlessly past, and when he sprang up again he was behind them. Soleil turned back to face him and felt a thrill of nervousness when she locked gazes with his burning amber eyes.
"The High Prince knows that I left?" guessed Soleil hesitantly, and Hadrhune barked out a single cold laugh.
"The Most High knows all," said Hadrhune, and he sounded exasperated as he turned his eye upon Vattick. "Do not tell me that you left the city as well?"
"Of course not," answered the Ninth Prince matter-of-factly, his dark face a mask of innocence, and Hadrhune glared daggers at him as Soleil doubled up with laughter. Twin Princes Mattick and Vattick were master illusionists both by trade and by practice, and were the only two among Telamont's sons who were naturally prone to tricks and jokes of any sort. Hadrhune, by nature a very serious man, was often the brunt of Vattick's jests – namely because he always got a laugh from watching the puzzled expressions that crossed the seneschal's face.
Hadrhune fixed Vattick with a withering look that suggested he did not believe a single word the prince had said before turning back to address Soleil. "I have specific instructions to bring you before the Most High – he is not at all pleased that you have disobeyed him yet again."
There was no avoiding it; Soleil squared her slender shoulders and sighed dejectedly before muttering, "Then it would be best not to keep him waiting."
Vattick flashed her a brief smile of his needle-point ceremonial fangs, seeming at once both piteous and amused. "Here is where I leave you, friend."
"Indeed," sighed the mountebank, and Hadrhune led her swiftly away.
Outside the intricately-hewn ebony doors that separated the grand hallway from the Most High's audience chamber Hadrhune turned to fix Soleil with a look that was very nearly beseeching. Sweeping the semi-darkened corridor once with his shrewd amber gaze to ensure that no prying eyes lingered upon them the seneschal pulled Soleil into a one armed embrace, his other hand still clutching his customary darkstaff. The mountebank wound her arms around his lithe shoulders, reluctant to release him – it was an incredibly rare moment when any physical contact was shared between them.
"It is in your best interest to obey Lord Telamont's will," growled Hadrhune in her ear. "Leaving the city at this time is not wise, if Leevoth may serve as an example – "
Soleil abruptly released Hadrhune; her eyes, an ever startling shade of acid yellow, were disapproving. "Leevoth's death is not an example: it is a lesson for us all to be vigilant. I am taking his death to heart by finding out all that I can, and I am certain the Most High will value my information if it comes to be of some use to the enclave. It is not always beneficial to follow the safest course." With that the mountebank turned sharply on her heel and admitted herself into the audience hall.
As she approached Soleil glimpsed six murk-swaddled figures gathered around the lowest stair leading to Telamont's throne, but the moment the half elf entered he sent them away with a simple wave of his hand; all six melted into the shadows intermingling along the walls. Soleil thought she saw Vattick among them, but she could not be sure.
Upon reaching the bottommost stair Soleil bowed as low as she could without crashing to the floor, not at all surprised when Telamont did not bid her to rise right away. The amount of time one spent in a position of proper obeisance waiting to be addressed was directly related to the level of the High Prince's displeasure, so the half elf was naturally puzzled when she counted a mere two hundred and twenty seven heartbeats before Telamont spoke.
"Approach." Telamont's voice was as sharp as a cold iron blade and quite unforgiving; straightening Soleil ascended the stairs at once, each step deliberate, waiting to be given pause. Reaching the same level as the Most High the mountebank dipped her head, half out of respect and half from fear – Telamont's most trusted and useful advisors themselves only ever reached the second highest stair. No one was ever permitted to stand on the same level as the High Prince.
She sensed movement but did not react, not even when one of the Most High's hands, wreathed in perpetual shadow, grasped her chin and guided her head up until she was looking him in the eye. Shocked to her very core, Soleil scarcely dared to breathe. Telamont's platinum glare held her in its intangible clutches for several excruciating seconds, until at last he rumbled, "Explain."
Soleil launched into a detailed reasoning of her departure, careful not to omit any information – except, of course, the fact that Prince Vattick had come down from the city to collect her before she got into more trouble. Stammering over her words she pushed the small satchel of items imbued with Shadow Weave magic toward Telamont, careful to describe the precise location and shape of the wound that had been Leevoth's undoing, and when it was all finished she fell silent, her face still clutched in the Most High's hand and fighting the urge to tremble.
Telamont studied her shrewdly when her confession was made, and when he spoke his words were completely unexpected. "The information you have given me is valuable, as are Leevoth's enchanted trinkets. However, do not think that is enough to justify your actions. You deliberately disobeyed my orders to remain in the enclave until other wishes were expressed, and you journeyed outside the city unaccompanied. What's more, you endangered one of my own sons, who felt obligated to follow you to ensure your own personal safety."
Soleil was not fool enough to ask the Most High how he knew this.
"What I do not understand," Telamont continued, his voice thoughtful now, "is why you disobeyed me at all. It is not like you to work against my will – you are loyal and faithful to me, as you have been since the moment you sold your soul to me and entered into my service. Had you acted otherwise, I would never have gifted you with the powers you possess now."
The weight of Telamont's unspoken inquiry pressed down upon her; Soleil did not dream of arguing the point, or lying. Hanging her head in shame Soleil murmured, "It is for precisely that reason that I disobeyed you, High Prince. In pledging myself to you I made a vow to serve you to the best of my ability; when Leevoth died I knew I had failed. In seeking answers to the questions that surround Leevoth's death I hope to absolve myself, but I knew I would excite your wrath by doing so."
Was Telamont smiling now? "Never have I met one so quick to throw oneself upon a double-edged sword."
Soleil shrugged. "As with all things, the greatest triumphs can often only be reached by enduring the greatest pains. Suffering your displeasure is a price I am willing to pay if it enables me to better serve you in the future."
Telamont mulled this over carefully; he seemed to be fighting the urge to laugh. At length he cuffed her almost companionably upon the shoulder and said, "Some days you still astound me; no Shadovar is capable of seeing the world as you do. I sometimes wonder if it is your unusual way of viewing all ends that makes you so useful to me… There will be no punishment this time, but mark me: another incident like this one, and you will be very sorry indeed. Do not leave the enclave again until I instruct you. Is that clear?"
The mountebank sank into a bow of deepest gratitude. "Thank you, Most High One. I have no desire to work counter to your will – it is my only wish to serve you." Then Soleil straightened up and descended the stairs, and Telamont's shrewd gaze followed her out the door.
Soleil returned to her home, Villa Cloveri, immediately upon departing the Palace of the Most High and brooded for the remainder of the day. In the evening she wandered out onto the villa balcony and watched the sun go down beyond the Anauroch desert, glimpsed through the ever present veil of shadows cloaking the City of Shade, of course. When the enclave had plunged into a state of total darkness she withdrew into the blackened comfort of her private quarters and slept.
Sleep did not come easily; Soleil tossed and turned restlessly, too fitful to get any real rest, and when she did sleep she was plagued by distracting and vivid dreams. The mountebank at last woke in the hours after midnight to find that she was not alone; hovering above her in the darkness, his brilliant amber eyes the only immediately discernible feature, was Hadrhune.
Without thinking Soleil reached up, her lithe arms winding around the seneschal's narrow shoulders, and for once he did not object as she tugged him gently but insistently down to lay beside her.
"You were not present at the twilight gathering," said Hadrhune softly, rising up on one elbow and unlacing his cloak with his free hand to cast the shadowy garment over a chair nearby.
"I needed some time to consider today's events," admitted Soleil. "I was hoping the Most High would understand and excuse me – "
"Be at peace – the Most High is not angry. I was just saying that it is unfortunate you were not there; Prince Escanor has returned from Shadowdale with the news that he has found a group of phaerimm dwelling on the outskirts of the city."
The mountebank groaned and threw an arm over her eyes, outwardly exasperated that she had missed such a crucial council session but secretly disappointed that she had not been present for Escanor's return. First Prince Escanor was Telamont's oldest son and had been placed in charge of seeking out groups of scattered phaerimm, a job that often kept him out of the enclave for weeks at a time. Of all the shades in the city, Escanor was one of the easiest to get along with – and one of the most tolerant of Soleil.
Hadrhune read volumes into her silence. "I am certain the prince will still be present in the city tomorrow," he told her, making an attempt at reassurance but sounding irritated instead, and Soleil did not miss the seneschal's change of tone. By nature an undeniably jealous man, Hadrhune had long suspected Escanor of being enamored with Soleil.
Soleil's voice was dismissive as she played nonchalant – after all, she wasn't entirely innocent of being enamored herself. "Of course. The council never passes a decree with senior members missing."
The seneschal's voice was no less stiff when he answered, "Indeed."
In an attempt to assuage Hadrhune's doubts Soleil shifted and craned her neck to place a kiss to his throat; her lips moved lightly along his jawline, and after a few moments she felt the tension ease out of his body. Presently he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her nearer, her head resting upon his chest, and Soleil sighed contentedly.
"You were not completely honest with the Most High when you told him that you disobeyed him to gather information regarding Leevoth's death, were you?" murmured Hadrhune, one hand stroking the mountebank's back absentmindedly. "That isn't the reason – well, perhaps it is, but there is more to it than that."
"No, I wasn't perfectly truthful," Soleil admitted guiltily, "but the Most High would not have been pleased by the real answer."
"Tell me what it is about Leevoth's death that truly bothers you, then," pressed the seneschal, and Soleil had to fight to suppress a sigh. Would Hadrhune have the sympathy to understand what she was feeling, when shades rarely felt sympathy at all? Would anyone? She privately decided that if a half truth had fooled the Most High, perhaps the same principle would be good enough for Hadrhune.
"It concerns me how little we really know about Leevoth's murder. The killer is still at large; what if this isn't an isolated incident? What if you, the Most High, and all the Most High's sons are in danger?"
Amazingly Hadrhune barked out a harsh rasp of a laugh at this explanation; when Soleil lifted her head to gaze up at him curiously he said, "You cannot believe that! You have more faith in the strength of the Tanthul family than anyone, and refuse to assume there is a singular power in all the world that could best the High Prince. Even the phaerimm cannot muster the might necessary to pose a threat to Shade. No more lies – tell me the truth now."
Soleil hesitated, ashamed, but couldn't look away from Hadrhune's ever-intense amber eyes when she admitted glumly, "My link did not encompass him… This tragedy is my fault."
Years ago when Soleil had pledged her soul to Telamont's service, the Most High had gifted the mountebank with a multitude of impressive and mysterious abilities. Yet there was one trait Soleil had received that she prized above all others – a talent the Most High had intended to grant her or not, Hadrhune wasn't certain; it was an empathetic link to Telamont, the Twelve Princes of Shade, and the High Prince's chosen emissary Hadrhune. An undeniably useful technique, Soleil had used this link on numerous occasions to determine the whereabouts of a prince in dire need – even Rivalen and Sixth Prince Yder, long opposed to the mountebank's presence on the Shadow Council, had been saved from certain perils by this uncanny connection. Hadrhune could recall one instance in particular when he himself had been ambushed by phaerimm just south of a Bedine encampment; not only had Soleil appeared in the nick of time, she had slain all the creatures singlehandedly.
Though Soleil used this strange ability to protect Telamont and his sons, it did have its drawbacks. Over time the mountebank had become somewhat consumed by her unrelenting desire to keep the Tanthul family safe, making Soleil somewhat paranoid, and worst of all the link was exclusive only to the Tanthuls. Shades like Leevoth, while certainly not simple merchants or commoners, were of no relation to Telamont and thus quite outside of Soleil's knowledge and influence.
In a rare act of compassion Hadrhune leaned closer, brushing his dark lips over Soleil's pale pink ones in a tender and reassuring way. "We live in a city of five hundred shades and twenty five thousand Shadovar – while I do not deny your power, I must tell you that even one person as capable as you cannot hope to save every being in the enclave from danger. Such is merely the way life progresses. There is nothing you could have done to deliver Leevoth to a kinder fate."
Soleil's face, generally radiant with self confidence, was twisted with turmoil. "But if this is only the beginning, and the killer targets one of the princes – "
"Enough, Soleil." The seneschal's tone of voice had grown stern. "The Princes of Shade are not only the most powerful individuals in the enclave, they are also the most well protected. It isn't feasible for even a master assassin to attempt to infiltrate the City of Shade, much less threaten the lives of the Most High and his sons. You needn't worry." Seeing that the mountebank still didn't look altogether convinced Hadrhune added, "Do you know of a force in all the world capable of matching the might of the Most High?"
"No," answered Soleil without even a hint of hesitation, her sunshine yellow eyes hardening with something like stubbornness.
"Then that is your answer," concluded Hadrhune, and the words sounded final. "If you truly believe in the Most High, your concerns are unfounded. You are being unreasonable." As he finished the seneschal disentangled himself from the pensive faced mountebank, retrieving his shadow shroud and flinging it over his shoulders again. Soleil didn't bother protesting; Hadrhune rarely shared her bed, namely out of paranoia that the Most High would catch wind of the deed and disapprove. He offered her a brief flash of his ceremonial fangs, and then the seneschal melted into shadow and was gone.