By Myranda B. Kalis

The letters from Commander Tysia and Captain Hendricksson had stipulated that he should come at "his earliest convenience." Tysia's had been curt, Hendricksson's had been form, and Scathan suspected that *his* was the one chiefly concerned with business. The package from the Huntsman had contained a number of smaller missives from various other members of the Company, most of which were concerned with bringing presents back from the Capitol and one of which contained a subtly embedded code that he and Shrike used when privileged information was being exchanged more or less openly. It was a list of three names: Nathanael MacFayden, Criedhne Steelbright, and Oscar Ehrenburg, and Scathan suddenly guessed why Lady Steelbright wanted to have words with him. Lady Fellgrace invited him to tea. Lady Redtree invited him to her salon. Lord Seera invited him to a very late dinner. The rest of the invitations were of a similar vein, requests for his company at various and sundry entertainments, the usual pre-Court festivities (though, thankfully, nothing from the Master of Lists or anything that vaguely resembled a tournament).

Scathan had absolutely no desire to butt heads with Commander Tysia this early in his stay at Tara-Nar and, since avoiding major conflict with the authorities was a priority on his list of things to do, he resolved to visit her office...tomorrow. The same when for Captain Hendricksson, though he felt relatively confident of the good Captain's dedication to professional neutrality. The Captain of the Guard was, by definition, the highest ranking *peace* officer in the castle, and was responsible for the safety of the entire Court, not just the High King. The Commander of the Red Branch didn't have quite so many inhibitions attached to her overall behavior and could, theoretically, do anything she liked to his person if she felt it warranted in defense of the High King. Having had the unmitigated joy of observing her investigative technique a few months earlier, he was less than thrilled with the notion of giving her anything that might get her juices flowing.

Which left Lady Fellgrace--a woman that even his page thought it would be unwise to disappoint.

Evayne had taken complete advantage of that, and gleefully dunked him long enough to wash his hair out, towel it, and play with it to her satisfaction, which resulted in a long, heavy braid fastened in worked silver and threaded with slender silver chains set with deep, almost black, sapphires. The look in her eyes when she'd opened up his clothes press and jewel chest had been worth the price of sitting for an hour till she got his hair *just right.* A black full-sleeved dress shirt, the cuffs and sleeves marked in subtle patterns of slightly lighter thread, when on, followed by breeches of soft doeskin, and a suitably courtly pair of boots. Evayne had voted for heavy-on-the-silver ("All *she* wears is black, the two of you in a room together would look like a funeral!"), which Scathan had vetoed in favor of midnight-blue and black, and she had muttered the whole time while he laced and buttoned and adjusted his shirt and surcoat closed, and succeeded in getting him to wear mostly silver jewelry by way of pacification. That mollified her enough to escort him with only a few dire warnings about Proper Behavior to Lady Fellgrace's west wing apartments, there to abandon him in the sitting room until the Lady herself was ready to see him. Her majordomo, a boggan so weathered with age that he looked carved from a single nobby piece of planed pine, had given Scathan his Lady's greetings, an aperitif glass of a pleasantly thirst-quenching liqueur, and her regrets, as a meeting she had been in had run late and required a bit more of her time than she had intended. Would he await her arrival?

Given the other available options, Scathan had elected to wait and meet the formidable Teldra Fellgrace, taking the glass and the comfortable chair offered, as well as a book from the provided case to disguise his observation of the room. The sitting room overlooked a portion of the western wall, and, beyond its bulk, offered glimpses of the small town that had grown up outside the walls proper, that provided services and distractions not available within the castle itself, and accommodations for those that chose not to live within its confines. Every now and then he could see a trace of motion and he silently counted off minutes in time with the water clock on the mantle, timing the length between flickers of light on the tips of sharpened halberds. Ten minutes even. The watchmen on the north wall were less exacting, but, then, they had less to watch.

The door clicked open and the majordomo reentered, bowing deeply enough to satisfy the demands of rank and an elderly back. "Her Grace will see you, Lord Ambassador."

"*Why do I always feel the urge to look over my shoulder when someone says that?* Scathan laid his book back on its shelf, straightened his coat, and nodded in acknowledgment as the domestic held the door open for him.

The room beyond was washed in indirect light, the curtains tied back enough that lamps were unnecessary given the hour of the afternoon, and that light glinted on a table set with gleaming plates of silver and crystal, and the meal spread out between them. Her Grace, Lady Teldra, stood with one long hand resting on the back of her chair, a simple worked silver wedding band decorating one finger, severe in a gown of unrelieved black, a faint smile softening the sharp planes of her marble-pale face. Scathan paused fractionally, struck, for an instant, by the deep and serene beauty he saw there, then glided to her, bowing deeply over the hand she granted him. "Your Grace. I am honored."

"No less than you have honored me," Teldra Fellgrace's voice was low and musically accented, without a trace of humanity to mar its sidhe perfection, "by taking the time to await my pleasure."

He held her chair for her; her straight back never touched the cushions and he took his own seat with a slight smile. "I must admit, it was primarily my curiosity that kept me, Your Grace. It is not, after all, every day that I'm invited to dine with so lovely a sidhe lady as yourself."

"My invitation provoked your curiosity, Lord Ambassador?" Teldra's eyes--deep sapphire flecked with silver--glinted in the light, thrown into sharp prominence by the midnight of her hair and the extreme pallor of her skin.

"Indeed. I could not, for the life of me, imagine what a lady such as Your Grace might desire of a humble courtier such as myself." Scathan nodded his thanks to the elderly domestic as he poured tea and began serving the simple meal itself.

"A hint of home." Her smile would, definitely, have brought kings to their knees. "There are few of your House here at court, and I have fond memories of my father's household and my cousins who dwelt there in my youth. Ailil is not a name that falls unpleasantly on these ears."

Scathan's eyebrow arched a fraction. "Indeed? Then I am pleased to serve you, Your Grace--"

"Teldra. Ceremony is for public consumption, and even my servants do not address me by title in the privacy of my chambers." She inclined her head slightly to the manservant, dismissing him, and he bowed to both of them and made his exit with the same quiet efficiency as he had entered. "Lady Teldra, you do me more honor than I deserve."

"Lord Ambassador--"

"Scathan." He raised his cup in salute and she did likewise, sipping cautiously in respect for the tea's temperature.

A moment passed in silent contemplation of the bouquet of the drink. Then, "It seems, Lord Scathan, that your name is passing familiar to me."

"I am told that it's a relatively common usage among the Caledonia branches of my House." Scathan's mother, who had, indeed, been Caledonian, had bestowed it on him in memory of his late grandfather. "Though in my case it is a family name."

"And I am certain your own accomplishments have added nothing to its luster." Those sapphire eyes glinted with a trace of humor now, and Scathan found his lips twitching in response; formidable, yes, untouchable, no. "Tales of your diplomatic accomplishments in the southlands carry more weight with me than the dark murmurings of bored courtiers seeking a new distraction to play with, Lord Scathan."

"I'm afraid most those tales have been greatly exaggerated." Scathan paused fractionally, "Well--some, at any rate. I have not, for example, ever succeeded in actually *stopping* a war."

"Or starting one?" A chuckle.

"For the time being." Scathan set his cup aside. "I understand your diplomatic talents are much in use here at Tara-Nar as well."

"Quite." Her tone grew slightly drier. "If it were not for the fact that I cannot bear the thought of retirement, I would have long ago and left the politics to younger Kithain than myself."

Scathan smiled wryly. "My dear lady, somehow I cannot envision you surrounded by childlings in some chimney nook, telling stories and acting the part of the Grandame with no interests but her roses and cats." "You would be correct, considering that roses do not interest me at all." Teldra's eyes glinted even brighter. "It is my understanding that you have had extensive contact with the Nunnehi of the Kingdom of the Burning Sun?"

"I have....the Company has negotiated extensive cooperative actions with the native Fae--their general distrust of most European Kithain nothwithstanding, we've always enjoyed excellent relations with them." Scathan's eyebrow inclined itself questioningly. "I take it you have some interest....?"

"Queen Morwen has requested of me that I continue Lady Sierra's work in establishing cordial relations with our native cousins. My own contacts in that area are rather slim, but for certain relations with Nunnehi individuals active here in the Kingdom of Apples." A wry smile twisted her lips at the admission. "I had hoped that you could lend me your expertise...."

"Such a thoughtful look."

David Ardry looked up from the slim volume he held, smiling faintly. "Gave your ladies-in-waiting the slip, I see. Have a seat?"

Morwen pulled the study door closed behind her; he felt the tiny rush of glamour as she convinced the door to stay closed. "Yes--I managed to lose them in the garden on my morning walk and have been in hiding ever since." She arranged herself and her voluminous golden skirts in the chair opposite his own and flopped back against the cushions in a manner her confidante, Lady Teldra, would have disapproved of greatly. "And I see you've managed to steal some time away from affairs of state. What'cha reading?"

"Everything we know about the Company of the Shadowed Blade," her brother's tone was wry as he held up the slender file. "which, as you can see, isn't very much at all."

"Teldra's gently raking their Ambassador across the coals even as we speak." Morwen flashed a smile. "What's interesting?"

"Well, I now have a better grasp on why Tysia can't stand them...." He flipped back a few pages, extracting them and handing them to his sister. "Their leader is a Scathach renegade...."

"Oooh, and our very proper Scathach Knight is no doubt offended by the notion." Morwen scanned through the handwritten notes and examined the artist's glamour-infused rendering critically. "The Huntsman....*the* Huntsman?"

"If rumor is to be believed, yes." He sorted a few more pages. "I'll never know where Seera finds all this--"

"There are advantages to being willing to do *anything,* brother mine." Morwen's leaf green eyes rested on his own in a moment of silent affection. "Give me the synopsis."

"The Company of the Shadowed Blade....first manifested as an actual *organization* of that name just after the American Civil War. The freehold of Shadowmount predates the Company by a good number of years, though the Huntsman has evidently *always* been a resident there since leaving the Old Country at some point before the Shattering. The very *earliest* references indicate that the Huntsman and his brother dwelt there, but most *contemporary* references make no mention of any siblings--only the Company itself." He paused and searched among the closely written paragraphs. "The Company has been, from its inception, primarily of commoner and Nunnehi extraction--even with the return of the sidhe, they're a distinct minority among the Company's membership, though that's slowly changing...." A thoughtful pause. "The timeline they have here indicates their involvement in a number of different human and Kithain conflicts--they were active during World War II, when most other Kithain were taking cover from it, and fought on the side of the commoners during the Accordance War at a number of places. They defended the County of Cyotes--the Count is one of their most dedicated patrons--and supplied arms, equipment, and advice to a number of different operations around Concordia, and actively engaged in battles all over the Kingdom of Apples and the Kingdom of Willows, particularly in a little Duchy in Pennsylvania that was hotly contested toward the beginning of the War. Not much information on their activities in Europe or the Isles--if they've hired out to anyone there, it's been quiet and well-concealed. Since the end of the Accordance War, they've been involved in various military actions that've required the use of experienced troops, particularly the usual border conflicts between the biggest landholders in the Kingdom of the Burning Sun and the Kingdom of Willows."

"...And you're wondering if they'd accept a high commission?" David's look spoke volumes. "I suppose there are worse things than having a small standing army on retainer."

"I does have its attractions--it hasn't, after all, hurt Count Randal's position at all." A dry smile as the book closed.

"Of course it doesn't--but, then, we're not living on the Border, and if we tried too hard to defend ourselves, someone would no doubt become deeply offended." Morwen's leaf-green eyes glinted as she took the book and flipped through it. "Somehow I can't picture the good Ambassador as a member of the barbarian horde."

"Well, he isn't, technically--he's a member of the post-barbarian horde." David's blonde eyebrow inclined suggestively. "Keep this up and someone is bound to notice that you're interested--"

"In the mystery, dear brother. You know how I am with a mystery."

"In the mystery," he conceded, a teasing smile coming to his lips, "Which will, of course, result in a lecture from either Teldra or Edgewick about the improprieties involved in the highest-born lady in Concordia making eyes at a courtier of a House inimical to her own--or, even worse, a suggestion that we lay the hostilities to rest with a well-timed marriage."

Morwen shuddered. "You're just hoping they start hounding *me* about marriage so they stop flinging Hibernian princesses at *you*."

"I seem to recall some muttering about the fact that Ross of Dalriada has yet to make a suitable match--"

"I'll solve the mystery of our Ailil Ambassador before they begin thinking of marrying me off to Caledonia, let me assure you." Morwen rose, tucking the book decisively under her arm. "I go forth to do battle with the forces of propriety."

"And I go forth to do battle with the forces of my foster daughter's overactive imagination."

"Be of good courage, David of Tara."

The sun was hovering a handspan over the western horizon by the time Scathan took his leave of Lady Teldra and returned to his own quarters. A faint smile was playing about his lips, the expression causing most of the other Kithain who crossed his path to rapidly uncross it, and be glad that *they* weren't the reason he was smiling that way. Teldra was indeed a formidable woman: formidably intelligent, formidably strong-willed, formidably competent. They had, eventually, forgotten the food and spent most of the afternoon discussing the best methods of dealing with various and sundry prickly Gallain and Kithain obsticles; they both had more than their fair share of situations that could only be resolved by pounding their heads against immovable objects until the object finally gave. He didn't flatter himself by thinking he had won her over (yet), but he expected that she was closer to becoming an ally at court rather than an enemy, which certainly didn't hurt his position.

Evayne was bustling about in the sitting room as he entered, and she beamed at him with a most unchildlinglike glee. "How'd it go?"

"Not too badly--she sent the servants away in the first ten minutes...."

"Ooooh, good sign. Annnnd....?"

"Annnnnd, we ate and talked. She's everything you told me and more." Scathan could help but grin at her tiny flush of pleasure.

"Good." Evayne grinned. "And tonight....?"

"I've already replied to Lord Seera's invitation." Her look spoke a thousand words. "Advise?"

"Wear something that's hard to get into and out of quickly." She replied tartly. "At his quarters, I suppose?"

"Actually, at his private residence outside the walls."

"Oh, good gods. I'll go get the pepper spray."

"He isn't *that* bad--"

"Oh, yes he is." Evayne opened the side closet and began rooting around in with dilligence and concentration, while Scathan crossed to the bedroom and hoped that she didn't hear him snickering.

He knew, instantly, that something was wrong, and paused in the arched doorway between the two rooms, every sense suddenly taut and alert. There was no physical cause--a quick scan showed him the room was empty of any other physical occupant. The window drapes were still pulled *just so* and the windows themselves closed against the afternoon breeze; the door to the bathing chamber was still opened as he had left it, and the wardrobe doors were still closed. The bedcurtains had been pulled and tied to their posts, the covers straightened and the pillows put back in order. Something glinted from the hollows of one, and he glided carefully closer, feeling the subtle tug of an old and familiar glamour--one that he hadn't sensed in a very long time.

It was a dagger, unsheathed, the dark metal of its composition catching the afternoon light in its translucently sharp edges. Scathan drew in a soft, sharp breath, hesitating fractionally before he reached down and touched it, gingerly, though, by custom, such a thing could not be used to deliver more than a warning, and his senses told him no spell clung to it. The blade was pure darkness, the black steel the brotherhood used to craft the weapons of its trade, and its edges gleamed a cold deep blue; it was light and long and perfectly balanced, and it fell naturally into Scathan's hand--decades of training saw to that. Its hilt was wrapped in blackened wire to make the grip even surer, and wound in with the black were four threads of deep crimson, and the pommel marked with the Crown of Shadows. His lips tightened fractionally.

"Evayne," he called quietly. "Did anyone come by after I left?"

Her reply was a moment in coming. "No--just another page dropping off another lot of mail. Why?"

Scathan felt a rush of relief so intense he had to lock his knees to keep them from trembling. *Thank the gods. She didn't see anything.* "No reason."

His dark eyes found the weapons belt hanging from the bedpost, and the black dagger that dangled from it, the three crimson threads wound among black, and the dark crown on the rounded pommel, a cold finger tracing slowly up his spine. *Tomorrow....I'll send back to Shadowmount for the rest of my equipment.*