"A stable and happy marriage should be one between equals. Power disparities doom love. I would never have married a man who could not wipe out a company of Germanian brigands or a small army of goblins, and I most certainly expect my daughters to end up with men similarly suited to them. Well, I do not expect Cattleya to end up with a man – because of her illness of course, nothing more, no other reason – but if she had not fallen ill, I would have imposed the same criteria upon her as Eleanore and Louise."
– Karina de la Vallière
"Soooo," Igni said, drawing out the word. The five minions, who were by right of shiniest loot and brute force broadly accepted as the senior non-Gnarl minions around, stood around, overseeing the serving efforts. All five of them had acquired top hats, which they were wearing on top of their normal headgear. Fettid, as befitted her alleged status as a lady of grace and style, was wearing a bonnet on top of the top hat on top of her bonnet. "I no is getting what is going on with the planning thingie."
"It are simples," Maxy said happily. "The overlady and the forgemistress and the henchess are showing off the clothing and talking to the hornies what do the writing down of the wordies and the overlady is going 'mwhahaha I am so dangerous' and then the writey hornies are writing down all of that."
The other minions shuddered at the mention of so many words, even at one step removed.
"Gnarl does the angry word from the Los Diablos Times every day," Scyl contributed. "He say he miss it a lot when vampy lock him in cage."
"I be angry if I read so many wordies," Maggat said firmly. "But Maxy are right. Overlady are doing her talky thing, and then when she do it, we go and give booze what they no is needing to pay for to the writey hornies. Then once that all that is happened, we is making sure that henchess and foremistress are safe while she go watch thingie with the boss-man of far away place."
"It are so romantic," Maxy said with a great sigh. "She have power, he have power, they do thing that leads to kissy kissy and then in long run evil babies."
Igni shook his head. "I no is believing you," he said. "You is trying to explain where human babies come from before, but it no is making much sense. Humans can no make minions without a hive. I no think that they can make a new human without human hive."
"It are like sheepies, only with humies instead of sheepies," Scyl said dreamily.
"That no make sense," Igni said. "Humies no have horns. Unless they are part horny, like forgemistress, and she have them only when she get angry."
"I think we is getting distracted," Maggat said. "Gnarl tell us that we is meant to make sure that the writey horney are very drunk and happy, so they is writing wicked things 'bout overlady because they think if they do that, they get more free drinkies."
There was a moment of realisation, as they managed to grasp the sheer genius of the plan of the overlady – aided of course by Gnarl – and the role they had to play in it.
"Overlady so smart," Igni said.
"I be using my fem-in-ine wile to make sure they is happy and drinky much," Fettid said.
"While what?"Maxy asked.
"I not sure," Fettid admitted. "While stabbity happens, prob'bly."
Maggat cuffed her across the back of the head. "No! Overlady very firm about that. We no is meant to kill the writey hornies, even by accident or if we fall and then oops knifey go in back of writey horny who just happen to have a lot of money on them and so we have to loot all their shineys to help save their life. Overlady very firm that we no is allowed to do that."
"Overlady are evils," Fettid said sadly.
She was the subject of three minionly stares – Scyl being distracted by a fly. "Well, duh," Igni said. "That are the point of overlady."
The Voice of the Steel Maiden rapped her knuckles on the desk. "And I believe that we have time for one last question for the overlady," she said, leaning forwards. "Only the truly unworthy shall be chosen for this."
Louise sitting on a raised chair slightly behind Henrietta was feeling vaguely mortified by the whole set-up. It just didn't feel right to be… well, she would call it 'holding court', only the demons weren't courtiers, with Henrietta asking as her seneschal. She was very glad that her helmet covered almost all her face, because she was blushing. What if she was punished by God for putting herself above a member of the royal family? Oh, and the whole evil overlady thing, too, but that didn't count because she was doing it for a good cause.
Of course, she was also feeling more than a little embarrassed by how much effort Henrietta was putting into this whole pretence. Just yesterday she had caught her friend spending nearly ten minutes practicing a variety of evil laughs into the mirror. And then she had asked Louise how she managed to get such a good evil laugh, and Louise had been forced to deny that she had an evil laugh and then Jessica had walked in and started snickering in a very annoying way.
Louise mentally sighed. She did wish she could stay as calm in front of a crowd as Henrietta was managing, though. Somehow she was managing to sound impeccably regal and commanding when she was wearing far less than was decent. And that was with that additional clothing that Louise had forced on her, though the witty and delicate method of shouting at Jessica until she added an armoured breastplate to the ensemble. Louise felt that there was still rather too much 'breast' and not enough 'plate' in the navel-baring alleged piece of protection, but she would take what victories she could.
At least this was the last question. She focussed on the fortunate demon, a cyclopean creature from the journal known as the Obscured Orb.
"So, has anything amusing ever happened to you in connection with a spoon?" the journaleer asked, his single oversized eye unblinking.
Louise stared blankly back. Her mind was whirring as she tried to see if there was any trap in that question. Any secretly hidden squirming trick which would make everything fall apart if she answered. She couldn't think of anything, but that might just have meant that it was very well hidden. In the end, she decided to play it safe. "No," she said.
Wait. Did that mean they would conclude that she was boring? Had she just answered wrong?
The demon's face fell. "Oh," he said, turning pale. "Oh no." Eye darting around, he tried to make a run for it, but before he got more than a few paces a vast burning eyeball appeared and burned him to a crisp.
"I… I would like thank you all for you attendance and… and hope that you were all satisfied," Henrietta said faintly, doing an admirable job of controlling the tremor in her voice "And… uh…"
"Drinks are provided in the entry hall," Jessica interjected.
There was a clattering of chairs as the journaleers stampeded for the free alcohol. Louise just hoped that the minions clad in stolen butlerial fashion had not got bored during the questions and drunk all the booze already.
Her eyes drifted back to the greasy stain on the floor where the journaleer had died. "I didn't expect that," she said, feeling a little dizzy.
"What… what happened to him?" Henrietta asked in a hushed tone.
"Oh, the editor of that thing is pretty harsh," Jessica said casually. "Fires his staff for the slightest failure."
"So it was my fault?" Louise whispered.
"Nah. All his fault for working for that thing. He knew what he was getting into." Jessica clapped her hands together. "And the two of you did great! Like, wow!"
Henrietta slumped forwards, her head resting on her forearms. "I was so nervous! I mean, I'd read all those etiquette manuals you got me and of course any proper princess knows how to address the infernal masses…"
"Wait, what?" Louise asked.
Henrietta twisted in her seat. "Well, of course," she said. "I mean, the infernal might be a pernicious force of wickedness working to undo all good in the world, but there is such thing as manners. Not least because being rude to an infernal emissary is liable to get you invaded by a horde of wingéd demons or something."
"It's like a reprimand for rudeness," Jessica said brightly.
"I see," Louise said.
"Yes, well, I'd read the theory, but it was totally different in practice! I didn't expect the way they made all those sketches of us, either." Henrietta giggled. "I bet my mother would have kittens if she saw that! Ah ha ha ha ha."
Jessica shook her head. "Still don't have the laugh down, Voxi."
For her part, Louise had not exactly been comfortable with the sketches. Not least because the ones doing them were apparently paying more attention to Henrietta than her. They were meant to be interested in her, not her mysterious new henchwoman! Just because Henrietta was taller than her and more beautiful and bustier and… Louise sighed. It wasn't fair. Dratted bloodlines which had apparently dictated that she would be delicate and petite and… short. And, well. Not exactly curvy.
"We still have some time before I have to meet with Emperor Lee," Louise said, to try to shift the topic. "So I was thinking that we could go and maybe I could get some more occult tomes and…"
Jessica wagged her finger at her. "No," she told Louise firmly. "We don't have time for that! I need to do your hair again and you've smudged your lip paint and I need to check your armour again and… oh, there's no time for things like casual shopping! Especially for boring tomes and scrolls! You need to look perfect!" She grabbed Louise by the arm. "Come on!"
"… but books," Louise said weakly, as she was pulled away. "And my hair is covered by my helmet."
"Not the point!"
In Louise's quite firm and solid opinion, Jessica was the worst maid ever. She was touching up the armour in the ladies toilets of where Louise would be meeting the emperor. And Louise wasn't enjoying it. Some of that may have been due to the fact that Jessica wasn't a maid – and was in fact a demon princess – but she was still very bad at helping Louise get dressed in the way she liked to do it. Which was to say, a way which left her feeling like she had some control over her life.
Jessica disagreed that Louise had any control over her own life, at least with regards to things like the clothes she wore and how her surcoat sat, which was not a nice feeling. And jolly presumptuous! Who was the evil overlady around here, anyway?
Not that she was evil, of course.
Henrietta smiled. "Oh, you look impressively evil!" she said. "He'll be very impressed, I think!"
"I should hope so," Jessica said. "Make sure if any journaleers see you, they get sketches of you. I want to see you in the gossip pages."
Louise blushed bright red. "I'm not sure that's really proper," she managed. "This… well, for one, he's… it's… I hardly know him! And…"
"It's probably a good idea that the helmet hides the blush," Jessica observed.
"Really? It's adorable," Henrietta said.
Louise worked her mouth soundlessly. Henrietta thought she was adorable? The blush intensified.
"Yes, but not the kind of thing which gets you respect from a hot young ex-evil-vizier who's now the emperor of Cathay," Jessica said. "Get in there."
"No 'in' will be 'got'," Louise said in her most haughty manner, trying to regain control of the conversation. "We are merely going to see a performance together. Nothing more."
"Aww, come on. You should at least try to get a free meal out of him. From some fancy restaurant, too. He's an emperor, right? He should be good for… like, well, basically anywhere."
"This topic of conversation is over," Louise said, crossing her arms with a grating of demonic steel. "Full stop."
"Urgh, fine. Okay, so this is it," Jessica hissed to Louise, as they left the toilets and returned to the lavish and blood-red carpeted foyer, where the emperor would be meeting Louise. "Remember what I told you. Together, you're going to the swevenkino. You have to look like you're used to it, and whatever you do, don't try and interfere with what's happening on stage. Remember, it's not real." She paused. "Well, it's real, but it's not real-real."
"Yes, yes," Louise retorted. "You said that already. It might look like a play, but it's demonic magic breaking into a mortal's dreams and showing them to the audience."
"Yes! Exactly! And there's a protective barrier up in front of the stage, so don't try to run away if it looks like something is heading straight towards the screen! Even if it's a really scary monster. The magic keeps the things trapped inside the dream, so there is one-hundred-percent totally safe no risk ever of the thing getting out and maybe eating everyone in the swevenkino. Trust me."
Louise didn't trust her. No one giving that much reassurance could ever be trustworthy. Especially when the reassurance was that specific and detailed.
"H… I mean, your Voice and me'll be going shopping and just hanging out. We'll have a bunch of minions with us, and we'll just be keeping an eye out for you-know-what. And, oh yeah, I've got the spectacles prepared," Jessica said, passing her a case. Louise took them, examining the eyeglasses. "Put them on, and the tiny demon living in them will write the translation down, which you can then read."
Louise took them dubiously and put them on, removing her helmet to do so. "So what do they do?" she asked. "Do they tell me what he's saying? Won't it be hard to hear what they say and what he's saying at the same time?"
"Nah," Jessica said, flicking her hair. "Magical text appears on the glasses, right at the bottom. And it's even colour-coded by speaking. Subtitling is far better than dubbing."
"Well, if you say so," Louise said.
"I mean, dubs are totally inauthentic and most demons can't get the voices right at all. You totally get far more of the real experience by using subtitling."
"I don't really care," Louise said. "I'm just going to have to get used to wearing glasses to read what someone says at the same time as they talk."
"Well, you should care! You… yeah, okay, not the time. But look! Just check they're working, at least for the Dark Tongue." Jessica coughed. "Je'near-eek Ævuul charn'teengh," she said, her voice taking on a monstrous timbre.
The words Generic evil chanting appeared on the interior of the glasses.
"… did you just say 'Generic evil chanting'?" Louise asked. "And… wait, I sort of understood that anyway."
Jessica broke out into a grin. "Wicked. They're working. And yeah, well, you are, you know, horrifically Evil, so that's why you can probably understand the Dark Tongue even without learning it. But the same doesn't apply for Cathayan. Now, the demons in the glasses have no imagination so they won't lie to you, even if they might be a bit clunky in how they translate things. Oh, and don't worry, I chose a breed which doesn't eat eyeballs! Isn't it great!"
"… wait, what?"
Jessica rushed off, holding Henrietta's hand. "Okay, see you!"
"What was that about eyeball eating demons?"
"Don't worry about it!" Jessica said cheerfully, giving her a thumbs up and winking. "Me and Voxi," she pointed at Henrietta, "will just go and do our super special top secret uber mission thing, right? Laters!"
"I…" Louise sighed in exasperation. How did she get talked into these things? Why was she going to see a performance with a murderous evil – and admittedly sort of handsome and exceptionally rich – emperor from a far-off land who had said that she was 'not objectively suboptimal'? How on earth had her life turned out in a way that she was currently standing around in the Abyss, waiting to meet with a wicked tyrant who seemed to be courting her? She was a good girl! Good girls didn't become involved with evil foreigners who had hordes of dragon-riders serving them!
Louise took a deep breath and tried to reassure herself. At least Emperor Lee, unlike Viscount Wardes, was obviously evil… not that Wardes wasn't the most horrible despicable terrible wretched stupid foul unclean dog ever to disgrace the world with his footsteps and where had she been going with this? Yes! She was expecting that Emperor Lee would try to murder her at some point, and so it wouldn't come as a surprise.
Maggat poked his head out of a ventilation duct. "We is all waiting for your orders so we can go 'gaargh' and do the jumping out and the looting and pillaging if you is wanting us to kill the emperor," he added. "Fettid and the rest is following the forgemistress and the henchess like you is telling us to. It are most cunning."
"Shut up and get back in the pipe," Louise hissed.
Oh, and of course, she had half a horde of evil foul smelling goblins hiding in the ventilation system just waiting for her orders. That did wonders for boosting a girl's confidence. If Lee attempted to do anything improper, like sacrificing her to some evil foreign god, she'd set the minions on him with the promise that they could keep any headgear or shiny objects he had on him.
It was a low, wretched, despicable blow, and Louise was rather proud of it.
And then she saw him. There was a commotion going on outside the foyer, but the protesters holding up signs complaining about dragon slavery and Cathay's human rights' record – apparently they allowed far too many of them, whatever 'human rights' were – were being beaten up by the demonic police. She had a clear line of sight to the emperor. He was dressed in his usual black armour, although he had added a black cape to it, stuck on some black spikes, and was wearing a surcoat made of black dragon scales. It made him look even paler. He was also wearing glasses, which caught the light and made his eyes hard to see.
Louise didn't consider throwing a lightning bolt at him and ridding the world of a great evil. Not seriously, anyway. It wouldn't do anything considering he was probably even more layered in protective magic than her. And it would be rude.
She realised he was right in front of her, and that she was staring.
Emperor Lee said something in Cathayan. "Greetings. You look attractively armoured," her glasses told her.
Louise blushed. "Thank you," she said. "You are also wearing… um, nice armour. And you look nice." She saw him tilt his head, and from the flickering of his eyes he was reading his own translation off his glasses.
At least she wouldn't have to deal with having a translator around getting in the way. But on the other hand, now she would have to talk to him at length.
What if he was only attracted to her armour? That would very strange, but then again, pretty much all the overlords who weren't her were as crazy as a bat, Louise thought in a spasm of worry. After all, he'd never seen any of her body, apart from a tiny bit around her mouth. And yes, she did apparently have a 'cute' chin, if Jessica was to be trusted (she wasn't), but he didn't even know what she looked like. What would he say if he ever saw her in the flesh?
Oh, wait, he'd probably say something like 'No! The daughter of the Karin is after me! I will slay her and become famous for it!'. Louise balled her hands into fists behind her back. It was hard work being an overlady when your mother was possibly the most famous hero in all of Halkeginia, and who had apparently ruined their economies by killing so many foes of righteousness. Which really was flattering and rather amazing, but also somewhat annoying.
There was an awkward silence.
"It will be starting soon," he said, breaking the silence.
"Um. Yes, it will," Louise said, trying to think of something to say. "Um," she added, glancing down at her armoured boots. "Have you been to the swevenkino before?"
"I have not, no," came the response. "Apparently it is all the madness in the Abyss, according to my spies."
"Well." Louise swallowed, and tried not to bite her lip. "Let's go, then."
Jessica spread her arms wide, and gave a whoop of joy, spinning around on the spot. Her expansive gesture took in the great towering black basalt towers of Los Diablos, the iron horses milling around on the streets exhaling smoke, and the smog-browned sky.
"Isn't this great?" Jessica said enthusiastically. "We get to go chill in Los Diablos and we can go around the bargain shops and… oooh! I wonder if Ia'amems has any more of the obsidian in stock! I have the most awesome plans if I can get my hands on some more!"
"Chilling would sound very nice indeed," Henrietta said, fanning herself while she looked nervously at the demonic beasts galloping by on the roads. They were going dreadfully fast. "It is almost intolerably hot. And smoky."
"Yeah, Los Diablos gets like this," Jessica said with a shrug. "It's hot anyway, and then there's all the fumes from the iron horses and the factories and, you know, the magma." She grinned. "Ice cream time!"
"You scream time? Um, what does that mean? How is time something you can scream?"
"I said 'ice cream', not 'I scream'."
"Eyes cream? I'm not sure I want to eat eyes…" Henrietta said dubiously. "In fact, I really don't."
Jessica shook her head sadly. "Sister, you have so much to learn."
"I'm not your sister. I'm a distant cousin several times removed," Henrietta objected.
Jessica ignored her.
"For that matter," Henrietta said, "this breastplate is rather hot and heavy. Do I really have to wear it?"
"'Fraid so," Jessica said. "If you don't, you can just bet that the overlady has told the minions to watch for if you take it off. Right?" she asked the nearest minion.
Fettid cleared her throat. "I no is answering that question," she said. "Overlady tell me not to answer askies about orders to be tattletale."
"See?" Jessica said, spreading her hands. "She's so mean sometimes. Far too stuck-up. I'm being repressed." She tilted her head, as a thought struck her. "Actually, you know, that'd explain a lot. She's so evil, she even represses herself because she is… like, so repressed." She grinned. "The emperor will be pretty lucky if he gets through that wall of repression. Something tells me he won't be getting lucky tonight. Anyway! Ice cream!"
Jessica sauntered up to a colossal three-headed demon, who wept frozen tears from his six eyes. He was buried up to his chest in ice, and he strained constantly to escape, the beating of his six wings creating a pleasant cooling breeze. He momentarily ceased his nearly ceaseless attempts to escape to take Jessica's money and provide her with two cones, before returning to his doomed efforts.
"This is a Ninthy-Ninth," Jessica said, passing Henrietta an ice cream. "It's made from milk from demonic cows and… oh yeah, do you know, normal cows aren't actually demonic despite the fact that they have horns and hooves? I was, like, so totally shocked when I found that out. It was almost as bad as it would be to find that goats aren't demons working to overthrow the world of man."
"Um," Heniretta said, "… they're not. They're… goats." She warily licked her ice cream, lips pursing as she prepared to spit it out if necessary.
Jessica shook her head sadly. "No, silly," she said, "that's just what they want you to think."
"Nah." Jessica devoured her ice cream in a single bite, with a second one to consume the cone, and looked around. "Okay, I booked a nice restaurant for dinner, but what else do you want to do?"
Henrietta took a deep breath, and started coughing from the fumes. "What kind of food?" she asked, once she had got her hacking under control.
"Uh, pizza. It's a proper hellish food."
"Pizza is a Romalian dish," Henrietta pointed out. "I've had it before."
"This is Romalian-Infernal pizza," Jessica corrected her. "An immigrant dish. From damned Romalians enslaved to work in the kitchens of the lords of the Abyss. I've had 'proper' Romalian pizza. They make the crust way too thin, and there's not enough cheese. You've gotta try a real Infernal pizza. But yeah, what do you want to do before that?"
"Loot!" contributed a minion.
"Shut up," Jessica said casually. "Voxi?" she asked the Voice of the Overlady.
"I honestly don't know," Henrietta said. "I mean, there was some mention of occult tomes, so I suppose we could get them for her and…"
"You're no fun," Jessica said, pouting.
"You must understand," Henrietta said, her voice dropping, "I have spent almost a year locked in a small room, and before that… well, my life was rather controlled by others. And I have never been to the Abyss before, and," she gestured around her, "it is exceptionally strange. I don't know what I want to do here. But L… the overlady did mention evil tomes, and I do owe her." She scuffed her boots against the paving slabs. "And I have spent my entire life being warned about the dangers of forbidden lore, so… so I jolly well think I should get to see what all the fuss is about!"
"Fine! We'll do some book things! And then?" Jessica said. "We're young, we're single, we're princesses. Let's hit the town!"
"Maybe I could get an evil tattoo," Henrietta said wistfully.
Louise tried not to sigh audibly. She was sitting in a dark room, watching things within the dreams of a man moving behind a great glass window - which in itself was a sign of the decadence of demons. Not just the fact that they would spend so much on such a colossal piece of glass, though there was that. And not just because they were controlling the dreams of a mortal man as entertainment, which was of course wicked and dreadful and detestable.
No, it was the fact that the events happening in the dreams of the nightmare-wracked mortal were so dull. And the dialogue was so bad. Louise had seen far, far better plays in her time. And she had been shushed by a demon when she had tried to talk to Emperor Lee. She'd tried to see if he was as bored as she was, but she couldn't read his expression.
She shifted uncomfortably, and tried to settle her head in a position that she could close her eyes. But no, she shouldn't do that. She might offend the emperor. And that wouldn't be proper. He hadn't tried to kill or even harm her once so far. She didn't want him to start.
But this swevenkino was so bad. In the good language sense of the word. And long.
Henrietta and Jessica had a most enjoyable afternoon. Only one murderous assassin tried to kill them, and they were clearly a complete amateur and thus got swarmed by minions.
"I am liking the knifey," Fettid said cheerfully, secreting the weapon somewhere on her person while some of the younger minions started a kickabout with the head. "Is you sure we is not allowed in the eating place?"
Jessica pointed mutely at the sign which said "No Minions and Shadow People", and also had various pictorial depictions to account for the near species-wide illiteracy. And large demons at the entrance to stop them when they tried to get in anyway.
Maxy coughed. "We is under-standing," he said, winking in a completely unsubtle way. "We promises on our bestest honour that we no is going to climb up the bins and get into the kitchens that way." He pulled out his lute. "And if we is not let in, we is just going to have to busk outside."
For some reason, this statement produced a considerable amount of alarm in the proprietors, and the minions were quickly let into the underlings section which any high-class restaurant in the Abyss had as a matter of course.
"I've never been to a hellish restaurant before," Henrietta whispered, looking around. There were many small tables around the interior, and a faint smell of freshly baked bread. Or possibly bread-smelling damned soul. "Or many restaurants at all, to be quite honest. What's the protocol?"
Jessica raised a finger. "Leave it to me," she said smugly. "Okaaaaaaaay," she told the waiter, "we'll both be having the dinner menu, and… wait," she twisted to stare at the specials board. "No, we will be having the dinner menu. Uh… oh, you only have two starters at the moment? One of each then, since we'll be sharing. The pizza for the main, no coelacanth on mine... you like fish, Voxi? 'Kay, she'll have the fish on it. And a bottle of the house red to share. Just red grape, though. No extras."
"Certainly," the waiter said. "Will there be anything else?"
"Not at the moment, but… oh, do you still have the rosemary breadsticks?"
"Then we'll have some of them before the food arrives."
"The dinner menu here is great," Jessica said confidently. "This place caters a lot to cultists and the like, so – like I said – there's a bunch of Infernal versions of normal foods and…"
"Oh my." A tall, strawberry blonde demoness stood behind Henrietta. "Fancy seeing you here."
"Izah'belya," Jessica said, glowering.
"J'eszika," her cousin said, her eyebrows raised. She was wearing a dress which would not have looked out of place at a Tristainian ball, if it had not been for the fact that it was apparently made of tiny obsidian scales. Ribbons of scarlet fire burned in her hair, and were tied around her rams' horns. "Well, well. Fancy seeing you here. I wouldn't have expected that." She flicked her strawberry-blonde hair. "I do so hope you can afford this place. I'd just hate for you to be inconvenienced by such a modest expenditure."
"I'm fine," Jessica said back acidly. "Oh, I think it's my things which have been on the front page of the journals, not yours. I'm the one who played a major role in kidnapping Princess Henrietta of Tristain out of the hands of good!"
"Which she did very well," Heniretta contributed loyally.
"Who is this?" Izah'belya asked. "You seem to have put her in one of your graceless iron contraptions, and she doesn't even have the admittedly-revolutionary femme fere of your overlady."
"She's a colleague," Jessica retorted. "And for your information, some of us appreciate refinements of classical schools, thank you very much! Just because you have your thing for East-West fusions doesn't mean everyone has to go tromping around in stupid glass-crystal things!"
"But it looks so good on me," Izah'belya said, smirking. "Hmm," she said, taking Henrietta in. "I have to say, the whole femme fere thing does look pretty good when you have someone who looks like her. Personally, I'd have made the breastplate out of… maybe some red crystal? The translucency would be quite alluring without compromising the protection. At least you didn't fall for the old regressive fallacy of the unarmoured torso. Well-cut armour plays off the lines of the body rather more."
"Yes, that's what I thought," Jessica lied. "The armour was always an integral part of the outfit. Izah'belya, this is the Voice of the Steel Maiden." She snorted. "'Course, you seem to be here all alone. What, did you get stood up?"
"Oh, no," Izah'belya, said smirking. "I did have something arranged, but I'm afraid Tzeragh had to cancel. A mysterious fire mysteriously set fire to one of her warehouses, mysteriously. And I didn't feel like cancelling my reservation, so I thought I'd see if I could meet someone cute here." She paused. "Sadly, that doesn't seem to have worked. I met you instead."
"Oh my," Izah'belya said. "Such coarseness. And I'm not interested in that, dear cousin."
"You're acting like a surface worlder," Jessica snapped at her. "Have you been spending a lot of time up there, or has Klaus been rubbing off on you?"
"Klaus?" Izah'belya asked, her eyebrows fluting up. "Oh, I grew bored of him long ago. He was only in it for the investiture of abyssal power, anyway. And he had avery unhealthy attitude towards women. Do you know, he tried to bind me? So many cultists are sad, pathetic little people who appear to have gone into demonology to meet women. Really, J'ez, you should be thanking me for freeing you from someone so… so contemptible."
"You stole him! We were dating!"
"J'ez, I don't know what you thought you were doing, but he wasn't into that. Especially with your… issue."
Jessica turned red, horns forcing their way from her forehead. "Don't you dare!" she snapped.
"And there you go," Izah'belya said casually. "And…" she frowned, squinting at Henrietta. "I'm sorry, but is your companion tearing up? That's not the usual reaction when you start to… ah. True love?"
"Dead true love," Jessica agreed, taking a deep breath. She tried to calm herself down. "Voxi, this is Izah'belya. My cousin, on my dad's side. Total bitch. Also rather smarter than most of my other cousins, which she mostly uses for being a bitch. And has a thing for avarice rather than lust."
"You charmer, you," Izah'belya said, smiling as she ran a hand over one of her ram's horns. "And here I thought you didn't like me."
"I don't like you." Jessica paused. "You're not going to go away until I ask if you want to have dinner, are you?" she asked.
"You do owe me. Remember? I picked up the tab after the Montregal show."
Jessica threw her hands up. "Fine!"
Louise and the emperor stepped out of the building, into the heat of the abyssal summer. He still hadn't tried to kill her. That meant she was doing a good job.
Louise tried to think of a way to diplomatically tell her opinion of the swevenkino. "It… was certainly unusual," she tried.
"I think it was terrible," Lee said.
Louise paled. Drat. Was he using evil language? She didn't know!
"The plot was bad, the characters were dire, and the script was just atrocious."
That didn't help at all.
"Those are strong words," she said.
"Strong, but entirely deserved," Emperor Lee said, crossing his arms. "Few things I have seen have been that bad."
"Is there anything else you would rather have seen?" she tried desperately.
"Oh, all manners of things," he said.
Louise breathed a sigh of relief. "Yes, I very nearly fell asleep," she said honestly. "I have seen far better plays than that."
"Quite so." His steel gloves clinked against his armoured thigh. "I think I shall have the director killed," he said. "It is his justly deserved fate."
"Perhaps you could feed him a copy of the script and make him choke to death on it," Louise suggested. She frowned. "Of course, people don't always choke on paper, so you'd probably have to poison it. Still, that way he'd have to eat his words."
Emperor Lee turned to face her. "I was just going to have an assassin with a poisoned knife stab them repeatedly when they are sleep," he said. "Optimal way of killing."
Louise felt like a naughty schoolgirl being scolded. She squared her jaw. She wasn't going to take that. "But," she said, thinking quickly, "that would be too characteristic of you, and that kind of inefficient killing can be pinned on someone else."
There was a pause.
"You make a fair point," Emperor Lee said, a little stiffly. "But it should still be done efficiently."
"No," Louise said, clasping her hands together, "clearly the death has to take as long as that abomination of a dream-play."
"You are too self-indulgent!" he countered. "You are clearly wrong! And," he tilted his head, "do you want to get a meal? I need to tell you how wrong you are and it would be efficient to eat at the same time."
Was it really right to be plotting someone's murder with an evil emperor? Was she losing her way with this whole overlady pretence? Was it possible that the lie might be creeping up on her, becoming real and…
Oh wait, Louise remembered. The person who they were planning to kill was an evil demon who invaded the dreams of the innocent for no better reason than to amuse the demonic masses. She had almost forgotten that. Which meant that it was, in fact, not only good that she have him killed, but downright heroic.
She'd almost forgotten that. Silly her.
Also, it had been a very bad play.
"I'd love to," she said.
"So you read Obteneratus III's 'Thoughts on Stellar Consumption'?" Izah'belya said, tapping her wine glass. "What did you think of it?"
Henrietta tilted her head. "Well, you should understand," she said, "I was introduced to it from the good perspective. It was a sign of the hubris of evil. But it simply wasn't very well-written. And his arguments from the Brimiric faith as to why it was the correct choice to devour the sun were pointed out as being very theologically unsound."
"Well, it was pretty crazy," the succubus said casually, her batlike wings twitching. "And yeah, not as well written as everyone says it is. I think it gets more credit than it deserves because of the scale of the project, but it never was that workable." She frowned. "And I sort of feel that eating the sun is… like, too evil. Plunging the world into the cold and dark just takes the fun out of everything. Literally everything. I like fire. After all, it is the best element."
Jessica was sulking and nursing her wine. Henrietta and Izah'belya were discussing theological texts she'd never read, and her attempts to contribute to the discussion hadn't gone well.
"I have to say," Henrietta said, "I haven't met very many succubae before. You're not what I expected. At all."
Izah'belya laughed. "No doubt! For that, you'd probably want to look for," she swivelled in her seat, "Maan'ikeh, say," she said, nodding at a four-eyed, four-horned purple-skinned demoness with platinum blonde hair sitting at a table with a vacant-eyed man. "I have to fight constantly against those kinds of living stereotypes."
"Accurate stereotypes," Jessica muttered.
"Is she a relative?" Henrietta asked. She looked at Izah'belya, who looked like a human with horns and bat wings protruding from her back. "I beg your pardon if this is offensive, but you don't look similar."
"A sister. Well, half-sister." Izah'belya sighed. "I have far, far too many half-sisters," she said glumly. "It's more obvious when we take on human form that we're related, but…" she shrugged. "When I do that, all that means is the horns and wings go."
"She really does have too many half-sisters," Jessica interjected.
"Quiet, Miss Only Child. Yes," she continued, "our family looks very… different. But trust me, she's a half-sister. We all get thrown into the fight for titles and respect and status. Mother is, after all, the de facto Queen of Hell, even if she's been very reclusive since a while after I was born. She's planning something large, I think. Oh well. All my half-sisters have a talent for knowing that we're related. Blood calls to blood and all that."
Henrietta frowned. "So, let me get it straight," she said, slowly. "Over there, that Monique…"
"Maan'ikeh," Izah'belya corrected her. "I'm sorry, but topworlders seem to be terrible with names."
"Sorry," Henrietta said. "But let me guess, her father is a demon, yes? And your father must be a human… probably a Germanian, from your colouring and hair? Well, clearly the stereotypes come from the demon-parented ones. Do you take after your father? Is that how it works?"
Izah'belya froze. "Excuse me?" she asked carefully.
"Your father. I wonder if he's where you get those mental traits which quite clearly make you stand out from all your half-sisters." Her fingers tapped against the table. "I wonder; do you have any full sisters? Anyone who looks much like you?" Henrietta frowned. "I wonder who he was?" she said. "Or is, even."
Isah'belya squared her jaw. "Did you put her up to this, J'eszika?" she snapped at Jessica.
"I didn't even know you were going to barge in and demand dinner. It's a perfectly innocent question," Jessica said, almost managing to not smirk. "But you know, you could just answer. Or do you not know? Does your mum know and not tell you, or does she just roll on her back for so many people that even she can't remember? You know, for all I really do hate you, you clearly get your brains from your dad. As opposed to, say, Lues'zeeneah, who's much less of a bitch than you, but as dumb as fuck. Like yo mama. Who's both as dumb as fuck and a dumb f-"
"You're going too far!"
"Actually, FYI, nope. I'm not a succubus," Jessica said, a grin breaking out. "As you like to so kindly point out every chance you get. And I know who both my mother and father are." She leaned forwards. "Whatever my dear auntie chooses to do to you lot, I don't have to care."
Izah'belya put down her napkin carefully. "For your information," she told Henrietta, her hand twitching slightly, studiously ignoring Jessica, "it is considered very rude to ask a succubus about her father. Mother treats us all equally. It is the height of ill manners to make a thing about it, which is why my uncouth cousin does it at every chance she can."
"What, because I like pointing out that when we go full demon, I'm actually clearly much more powerful than you?" Jessica said, grinning in an attractively mannish way. "That you're actually pushing yourself to look as you do, and that your horns shrink when you're distracted? That you don't even have hooves?"
"As I have excellent manners," Izah'belya said, through clenched teeth, "I do not retaliate to this kind of provocation."
"Also, I'd beat you in a fight. Like last time you did react."
"Oh, shut the fuck up, you stupid spoilt mannish brat!" Izah'belya snapped, jumping to her feet. Her hands clenched into fists, balling in impotent rage. "Just… just shut up!"
"Wanna brawl?" Jessica said throatily, long goatish horns extruding from her hair. She too rose, though she was looming slightly as her chest and arms bulked out. Her shadowy bat wings extended too, larger than Izah'belya's.
"I…" Izah'belya bit down on what she had been about to say. "I am very sorry for how my cousin has decided to act," she told Henrietta. "If you would like to continue our conversation without her, I would be happy to." And with that said, she stormed out.
There was silence at the table.
"Did you have to do that?" Henrietta said, sounding faintly shocked. "That was a bit… mean. I thought we were getting on quite well."
"She's a bitch, and had it coming," Jessica said, reaching for the wine. "After this, let's go to the night clubs! Oh, this is going to be great."
"I think the evening is quite ruined," Henrietta said coldly. "I would prefer to head back to the tower."
There was a knock at Louise's door. Louise looked up from the papers she was working on. "Enter," she said.
"Gnarl said you were back already," Henrietta said, her hair very mussed from a day of wearing a helmet. She had discarded the breastplate, and was only wearing the soft dress part of her outfit, and was carrying a satchel in her hand. "So! How did it go?"
Louise smiled softly, mostly to herself. "Well, Emperor Lee didn't try to kill me once! And the swevenkino was dire. Just terrible," she said.
"Are you using evil language?" Henrietta asked.
"No, I most certainly am not! It was really boring! It was just like a play happening behind this very decadent glass screen, but it wasn't a very good play. Also, because the glass was in the way we couldn't throw food at the actors."
Henrietta shook her head sadly. "But that's one of the best bits of a terrible play," she protested.
"And…" Henrietta asked, nudging her, "so what did you think of the emperor?"
Louise turned pink. "He was nice enough. He found the swevenkino boring as well, thank goodness, so we got to talk about that."
"Did you kiss him?"
"Wh-what kind of question is that?"
"A relevant one. You are courting, after all." Henrietta smiled. "I kissed the Prince Wales," she said, with a giggle.
"No, I did not kiss him!" Louise sighed. "But after that, we went and had a meal together, and then we got to talking about how we'd make the writer of that dreadful dreadful play suffer. And then we got talking about military strategy and sabotage. I liked that bit. And then we went and looked at the magma lakes."
"My goodness," Henrietta said. "Well, whatever makes you happy, I suppose. And were the magma lakes romantic?"
"No, they were mostly just hot and smelt of sulphur," Louise said. "We had to leave pretty quickly because they… I mean, they were pretty interesting to look at, but I wouldn't call them romantic. At all." She sighed. "And those Romalian assassins didn't show up at all! That's not fair!"
"There, there," Henrietta said, patting her hand.
"I went and put myself – and you! – apparently vulnerable. Any half-way decent assassin should have leapt at the chance! They should have interrupted that terrible, terrible play at the swevenkino and then that would have been an attack on the person of Emperor Lee and then he would have been obliged to hunt them down!"
"Perhaps that's why they didn't do it," Henrietta suggested.
"I hate smart enemies," Louise muttered, her head sinking down onto her arms. "Stupid people not falling for my cunning plan. They didn't even try to kill you and get swarmed over by all those minions I had protecting you. I'd sent all the greens I could find, so you wouldn't see them. And I've talked to Catt, and she said they didn't try to break in here. And she was very disappointed about that, because she was hungry." Louise headbutted her arms. "I was so sure it would work!"
Henrietta nudged her. "So, do you think you'd want to do that with Emperor Lee again, Louise Françoise?" she asked.
"Why are you pushing this?" Louise said, not raising her head.
"Ahem. Because he's the emperor of the most powerful nation in the Mystic East – possibly the world - and he seems to be courting you?" Henrietta suggested. "And on top of that, he's passingly handsome – though nowhere near as gorgeous as Cearl was – and while he's an evil tyrant, so are you."
"I'm just pretending," Louise muttered reflexively. "And… and I don't want to be romantically involved! With anyone! It just… it j-just makes everything more complicated! It's bad enough when Jessica getting worked up makes me get all hot and bothered, and that's just evil demonic stuff, not me! Can't people just let me kill the Council and put you back on the throne without… without bodies and men and women making everything more complicated!" She sighed. "But yes, I mean… it wasn't like the stories. It wasn't some eternal undying love thing. I'm pretty sure of that. But, I mean…" she trailed off, looking for the right words. "I mean, I had fun, I think. He was handsome, and I liked arguing tactics and strategy with him. And I think I'd like to do that again. Only not going to the bad, bad play."
Henrietta moved around to hug her friend from behind, resting her head on her back. Louise let out a small 'eep', before she realised what was happening. "Poor, poor Louise," she said. "This must be very hard on you." She giggled. "You're practically having to endure the life of a queen, only without the title or anything and with only evil smelly goblins as your subjects. I don't tell you enough how grateful I am that you're doing this, do I? I owe you so, so much. Your eighteenth birthday is coming up, isn't it? You're a summer birth, anyway. I'm going to have to do something very nice for you." She paused. "In fact, I have a special present for you right now. A very, very special one."
Louise blushed a flaming red. Her stomach was squirming, and Henrietta felt far too close. She could feel Henrietta's warmth up against her back. Everything felt like Jessica was nearby and highly agitated. That had to be it. Yes.
Henrietta mercifully let go, and put the leather satchel down on her desk. "I got you some of those occult tomes when Jessica and I went shopping! There was a book about fire magic and you seem to use it a lot, so I thought you might like it!"
The evil overlady's stomach churned, and she wasn't sure if she was happy or sad. "Thank you," she said, but her mind wasn't on it. Was she feverish? She rose with a clatter of her chair. She was feeling warm and flushed, her cheeks were burning. It wasn't right. And the air felt stuffy and thick. She caught herself staring at the mussed-looking Henrietta, and had no idea why. "I… I need to go do s-something," Louise stammered, backing around the edge of the room. "Something important! Something… uh! Like… like, yes, I need to go work on the m-minion hive. I have a really important… thing! Which I will get to!"
That was impossible, Louise thought, as, hand shaking, she tried to focus on the pages. She'd loaded up the hive with a life essence brew, and was waiting while it worked, trying to resolve the confusion in her head. She was just… tired. She had been blushing and idly considering what it would be like to kiss Emperor Lee during the later bits of the meal, after all. And thinking he was handsome. And clearly talking about him with Henrietta had her feeling all mixed up. And she was probably ill anyway.
Or maybe it was all her body's fault! After all, she had been focussing for almost a year on how to free Princess Henrietta from jail and she did have a lot of very evil people in her ancestry. Clearly it was just confused because of the influence from her heritage, and thought she was kidnapping Henrietta to marry her.
And it was also all Jessica's fault! Because she had few friends – in fact if she was to be quite honest, Princess Henrietta and Jessica were really the only ones she had since she was about ten or so – and part of the problem of being Jessica's friend was the way she got hit with misattributed amorousness whenever the half-incubus got worked up. So her body was getting confused with "friend" and "person you're attracted to".
Louise took a deep breath. Yes. The shaking had stopped. Or at least wasn't so bad. She'd made sense of it. She'd just have to deal with it, and never ever let Henrietta know that she was feeling all mixed up. She thought of Emperor Lee. Yes, he was handsome, and yes, she would maybe like to see what it was like to kiss him. And even when she was getting messed around with by Jessica, it was the male demon aura which was getting her feeling strange.
It would be good if she could talk to Cattleya about this, but… no. Louise squared her jaw. She couldn't let anyone know. What would Cattleya say if she knew?
It was her problem and she'd deal with it.
And – her chain of thought was interrupted, as an ichor-covered black-skinned minion slithered out of the hive. It rose to its feet, and opened eyes which burned with malignant light.
Louise's eyes widened in shock. Oh no.
The overlady kicked the door from the research area open in a towering rage.
"That's it!" Louise yelled, covered in foul-smelling black goo. "Gnarl! Go find out if there's anyone who might know how to get this blasted wretched stupid minion hive working! I have had enough! And since they're probably in Amstreldamme and that wretched Madame de Montespan lives there, Operation Kill Wardes' Mistress starts today!"