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[personal profile] invoking_urania
Title: Shadows on the Ground (Chapter 3)
Fandom: Slayers
Rating: PG
Genre: Mystery/Action
Words: 49,000 total (8,000 this chapter)
Notes/Warnings: A sequel to The Sun, Half Covered. Story may have a Zel/Amelia bias, but I think it can be read as friendship.
Summary: Amelia and Zel visit a foreign country to seek out a conspiracy against Saillune. Meanwhile, Lina and Gourry are hired to track down a stolen manuscript, one that may be one of Rezo the Red Priest's. These two plots cross unexpectedly, causing trouble that could lead to war.
Disclaimer: Slayers copyright Hajime Kanzaka/Rui Araizumi/Kadokawa/TV Tokyo/Medianet and this derivative work was created without permission.

Previous Chapter

Despite Amelia's best efforts, they had been out late that last night. And Amelia was one of those utter rarities, a morning person. Zelgadis had observed when camping, she slept like a log when not distracted by Lina, or watch duty, or having every mazoku in the known world gunning for their blood by association with Lina Inverse. As a result, she slept well and was bright-eyed and busy-tailed in the morning, a feat Zelgadis could only come within sight of after at least a cup of coffee or tea. 

Breakfast was a quiet affair. Apparently most of the priests and knights and shrine maidens had risen at dawn. By the time Zelgadis and Amelia had woken up, at the early time of seven in the morning, the kitchen was mostly clear. Breakfast was also pretty simple, with tea and fresh bread. While Lina would have been impressed with the spread of last night's 'simple, informal dinner', she would be wondering where all the eggs and sausages and pancakes and who knows what else were at breakfast. 

It suited Zelgadis just fine. The bread was pretty damn good, and the tea was strong enough that he didn't mind not having coffee. "What are you doing today, Mister Zelgadis?" Amelia asked, taking some of the butter from the dish on the table and spreading it onto her bread.

"Probably going to check out the town," Zelgadis answered, drinking his tea. "We didn't get much of a look at it yesterday."

"I'm surprised," Amelia said. "I thought you hated cities."

"I do. But, if I'm going to be here for a while, I don't want to be caught off-guard by the city. Whether I hate it or not, I need to know it." 

Amelia nodded. "That makes sense."

"What about you?" he asked, brushing the crumbs from his cloak. That was the one bad thing about bread, he noted -- when it was crunchy, it tended to get everywhere. 

"Mostly meetings. First with the king, then his advisors. All of them will probably tell me they didn't order Miss Sholei to sabotage the mill and the water stones." 

"At least the king's probably innocent," Zelgadis said. 

"How so?" Amelia asked.

"If he wasn't interested in appeasing Saillune, he would have stopped you at the border. Maybe given you some underling of his as a sacrificial lamb if he wanted to not cause an incident."

"That's horrible," Amelia said. But, she was nodding -- she understood the idea. "He must be losing a lot of face with people letting us in here to investigate." 

"Hmm?" Zelgadis said, having just taken a bite of breakfast. 

"Well, I know if I let Missus Martina into the country if someone from Saillune caused a problem in Xoana, half of the nobles would be calling for my head." 

Zelgadis shrugged. "More than half -- it is Martina, after all. When they were handing out sanity and common sense, she was out picking out her god."

Amelia put her hand over her mouth, trying not to giggle. "That's mean, Mister Zelgadis," she managed to get out.

"But not untrue." 

Breakfast finished, the two parted ways at the temple courtyard, with Miwan showing Amelia back to the palace, and Zelgadis finding his own way. His first stop was a shop near the Temple, where he picked up a pair of smoked glass eyeglasses, like those he had seen Master Dareiba in last night. From what the shopkeeper told him, they were common out in the desert, where, between the sun and the glare off the rocks and sand, one could go blind. They also helped hide his eyes, or at least the stony ridges around his eyes. With the hood of his cloak up, and cloth covering the lower half of his face, and the new glasses, he looked like he had just come in from the desert or just someone who didn't want to be recognized. But, more importantly, he did not look like a chimera, let alone the foreign one that came in with the princess of Saillune. He couldn't do much about his accent, but it wasn't like a generic 'traveler's accent' was going to be that out of place anywhere on the Subcontinent. He also had to leave his sword hanging up in his room. It was too recognizable, and would be just a heavy, leather-covered stick while peace-bonded. If he was trying to blend in, a dagger would be better, anyway. And it wasn't like anything short of magic, or heavy gunpowder weapons, most of which were still curiosities in this part of the world, could hurt him. 

He wasn't sure exactly where he was going at first, besides that he was staying away from the main thoroughfares, and sticking to the alleys and back ways. To the poorer parts of town, certainly, where the travelers, adventure seekers, and the criminal element lurked. The question was, where was that? The older parts of the city, that weren't taken up with the nice homes of the rich and the public buildings. Maybe downstream, after the various detritus from the city had all ended up in the river. Zelgadis wasn't sure how good the drainage was in Jarei. A few places had aqueducts for the nicer parts of town, and muck wagons that carted away human waste. The poor probably didn't have access to those, and just depended on disposing of things where it wasn't too smelly, and trying not to foul their own water supplies. 

His walking was seeming to pay off. The lampposts, unlit in the daytime, grew farther and farther apart, eventually vanishing. The houses got more and more close together, and a bit more shabby, needing paint, and made more of canvas than of stone and brick. The streets switched from cobble stone to packed dirt. The crowds kept up the pace, and Zelgadis struggled a bit to keep towards the edge of the street. He was glad he had tucked his belt pouch and dagger into an inner pocket of his cloak, rather than leaving them on his belt, where any pick pocket or cut purse could help himself. 

He wasn't sure what clued him in that he was being tailed. Perhaps someone in the crowd looked a bit too clean to be part of the unwashed masses of humanity he was observing, or wasn't urgently heading on some errand or another. Maybe it was just his sixth sense. But, once he knew who to look for, it was unmistakable. Two men, both dressed a lot like a working class laborer, but in clothing that looked nearly new, and keeping an eye on him while trying to blend in. 

I better try to lose them, Zelgadis thought. That would be difficult, since he couldn't ditch his disguise without becoming even easier to track. He could try to make his way to a gate, where travelers would be coming in, and lose them there. He started moving at a quick, purposeful walk, dodging through the crowds, and heading in the direction of what he hoped was the city walls. He could follow those to the nearest gate. To his faint satisfaction, he saw his tails change course to follow him. Good, his instincts had been correct. But he couldn't assume those two were the only ones. As he moved, he kept looking around, trying to spot another following face. He also made sure to check the airspace. In this mess of people, he wouldn't put it past someone to take to the rooftops, especially if he had the advantage of magic. And, he couldn't assume that whoever had hired these two couldn't afford a magic user. 

The crowd was starting to thicken, with more animals being led. He could see the wall over the rooftops when he looked up. Good, he was close. It was harder moving through the crowd, and Zelgadis had to fight his supreme dislike of crowds. He looked around and, not seeing his tails, ducked into the next alleyway for a breather. Goddammit, he really hated crowds. He put a hand to his scarf, intending to lower it and take a drink from his canteen. It couldn't be more than an hour after breakfast, and the day was already too hot, especially with his cloak on. 

"Hey, you!" 

Zelgadis stopped trying to adjust his cloak, and brought his hand down to where he had concealed his dagger. "Yes?" 

"You bumped me." 

Zelgadis turned to look at the speaker. He looked like he was fresh off the desert, with the loose, light-colored clothing he had seen a lot of the other travelers wearing. He also had two friends, and a set of knives. "I didn't mean to. I'm sorry." Better to just smooth things over, than to get held up by some punk with compensation issues. 

"You don't sound sorry," the man said. "But you will be." He and his friends started advancing on Zelgadis. 

"I don't have time for this," Zelgadis said. He looked down the alley, which was unfortunate enough to be a dead end, with some type of crates stacked against either side. It left fight or flight as the only option. Zelgadis decided he was going to be the bigger man about this. "Ray wing." He took off, letting himself rise to the rooftops.

"No fair using magic!" The punk threw his knife at Zelgadis, who didn't bother dodging it. 

Not to his surprise, he felt the knife strike his leg, about where his pant leg met his boot. To his surprise, he felt not a dull thud and a slight pain of a projectile, but the sharp bite of a cut. What... I better get out of here

"Hey, you!"

Oh, not again, This time the person waving at him was standing on the town wall and looked pretty official -- he had a breastplate, a sword, and a badge. "Yes?" he asked. 

"City law prohibits flying above the level of the rooftops. Come over here." 

If he was alone, he'd be tempted to not listen, and just take off and not expect the officer to be able to follow him. But, he was with Amelia, and he'd not only have to deal with suddenly being unwelcome in the city, but also a lecture or two: one about not annoying legitimate officers of the law without cause, and another about making her job just a bit more difficult. Sighing, he flew over to the wall, landing near the officer. 

"Hands away from your body and up," he said. "Don't touch your cloak." He motioned to another guard, this one with a crossbow trained on him. 

"Wait just a moment. What the hell is going on here?" After the scare with the knife, Zelgadis decided not to take any chances that the crossbow wouldn't hurt him. He raised his hands. 

"You're under arrest. There is a fine involved, but we're going to need to escort you to the nearest guard outpost as well." The guard dropped his eyes to Zelgadis's feet, where the hem of his pants was starting to develop a red stain. "We also can treat that cut on your leg, there. Some of the desert rangers aren't too good at cleaning their knives." As if he needed any more problems. 

"Hold on. I'm a diplomat," Zelgadis said. He never thought he'd get to use that excuse. "I'm with the princess of Saillune." 

"If you're with the Saillune group, what are you doing in this part of town?" the guard said. 

"Looking around." 

"Regardless, Mister Diplomat, we're going to have to ask you to take off your cloak and give us that knife, and come with us. If you are who you say you are, we'll send a message to the palace, and someone can come claim you." The guard spoke to him very slowly, like he was stupid. 

Zelgadis sighed. Amelia owed him for this. And he was going to make sure she knew about it. "All right. I'm going to bend down and set the knife on the ground, all right?" He did so, then slid it across the stones to the guard. "Now I'm going to take off my cloak." He pushed back his hood first, and he he heard a sharp intake of breath from the guard with the crossbow. The guard speaking to him held up his hand, and, with the other, motioned more guards over to cover him. Of course. Now I've upped the threat level from possibly crazy foreign sorcerer to monstrous possibly crazy foreign sorcerer.

"What..." the guard stared at his face.

"No, I'm not human," Zelgadis said, doing little to hide the irritation in his voice. He watched the guards with crossbows. At least things weren't looking like they were going to get any worse. And he was off the street . He could deal with four people staring at him. A whole crowd would just be too much. 

"And why would the Princess of Saillune employ some demonic creature, Mister Diplomat?" He turned to one of the crossbow holding guards, and said, "get a magic user. Just in case." 

"First off, I'm not a demon. I'm part human. Second off, why don't you ask her? Third, if I wasn't working for her, would I be really stupid enough to try to use that as an excuse instead of, I don't know, picking something that you might actually believe?" 

"She could secretly be an evil sorceress," one of the crossbow guards suggested. "I've heard stuff about Saillune. One of their princes was killed by mazoku when he tried to use them to kill the rest of the royal family. And they're flooding their south with monsters. On purpose." 

And Amelia didn't think her gesture of goodwill would come back to haunt her, Zelgadis thought. He also had to note the delightful irony that for once he hadn't done anything worth arresting for, and it was now that he ran into trouble with the law. That pretty much sums up how my life goes.

The guard sorcerer had finally got there. At least, Zelgadis thought she was with the guards, since she had the same badge sewn to her robes. And she, at least, was allowed to fly. "Someone take his arms. I'll put a magic suppressing spell on him and we'll escort him to the guard post."

"Sounds good," the head guard said. "You heard her," he motioned to two of the crossbow wielding guards, "drop those and grab the prisoner's hands." 

The guards looked about as eager to take his arms as he was to let them. He debated jumping off the wall and running, but he'd just be pursued by the sorceress. Plus, it wasn't like he could hide now. There was no question about it. Amelia would owe him big for cooperating. They took his arms like they were more concerned with trying to be ready to bolt if he did get violent than in restraining him from attacking the sorceress. The Pride and Joy of the Jarei Civil Service, Zelgadis thought. Only good at one thing, and not good enough at it for the army.

The sorceress, at least, didn't seem afraid of him. She placed her hand on his forehead. "Flow Break." Zelgadis felt the spell go off, then... nothing. "I'll lift the spell when we release you." 

"Great." Just great. This is exactly how my day is going. This is the last time I bother to listen to the law. What a hassle. 

The guard post was built into the wall, so the group walked along the wall for most of the way. Which suited Zelgadis just fine. He spent the time counting how many times he could have broken away even without magic, and with the sorceress levitating beside him. He was up to five when they got to the stairs near the gate and descended... three more chances. He was escorted into the guard post. "Sit down," the head guard motioned to a single chair in one of the back rooms. "Suma, you go send a runner to the palace and find someone who knows who Saillune brought into the city." 

After the subordinate left, Zelgadis found himself answering the same questions over and over. His name was Zelgadis Graywords. Yes, he was with Princess Amelia. No, he didn't see the need to answer any other questions, and was quiet content to get into a staring contest with the guard. Someone did bring bandages in, and the guard allowed the medic to roll up his pants leg, apply some stinging, nasty-smelling herbal ointment, and a bandage. Zelgadis decided that as soon as he got his magic back, he was using a small healing spell to heal the cut. These non-magic folk remedies just didn't compare. 

He wasn't sure how long this mess lasted, but he could hear the sounds of a shift change. He was also starting to get hungry, but decided that asking his jailer for a sandwich would probably not get a response. 

He was about willing to rush the jailer and go find some lunch when the door opened. The sorceress re-entered with someone Zelgadis recognized: the old Archmage, Nasim Awel. At least it was a familiar face, but Zelgadis remembered the man didn't like him, or chimera, much. Archmage Awel looked at him. "Yes, that's Mister Graywords," he said. 

"So he really is a diplomat?" the head guard asked. 

"He's with the Princess Amelia, at least," Archmage Awel frowned. "I don't know if I'd call him a diplomat." 

"You can call me the Flare Dragon's left pinky if it means I'll get out of here," Zelgadis said. "If we're all quite sure it was all just a misunderstanding, then I'd like my magic, cloak and dagger back, and I'd like to leave." 

"Of course, Mister Graywords." The sorceress again put her hand to his forehead, and said a spell Zelgadis didn't recognize. While she was doing this, the head guard had gone into the other room, and returned, handing Zel his cloak and dagger. Zelgadis put the cloak back on, tucking the dagger back into its sheathe in the front pocket, and putting the smoked glass eyeglasses away. 

"Mind telling me what you were up to this morning, Mister Graywords?" Archmage Awel asked as they walked back to the more civilized parts of town, by distressingly main roads. 

"I was walking around town," Zelgadis answered. "I ran into some punk, and was cornered in an alley. I decided it would be better to avoid an incident."

"And you did that by a flight spell?"

"The alley was blocked." Zelgadis shrugged.

"Perhaps it would be best if you avoided magic without checking with a local first," Archmade Awel said. He sounded annoyingly smug. 

"Why is it illegal anyway?" Zelgadis asked. "I've never heard of a rule like that."

"You weren't here for the Flying Carpet Incident of Nine Twenty-Three. After that, it seemed prudent to limit air traffic." 

They walked for a while in silence, before Archmage Awel spoke again. "Mister Graywords, would you mind answering a personal question?"

"Yes," Zelgadis said. "Yes, I would mind. But you'll probably ask me anyway." 

"Indeed. I just wanted to know what your relationship with the Princess Amelia was." 

"We're friends," Zelgadis said. "I thought this was clear." 

"Well, it does seem unusual for the Princess to bring a friend on a diplomatic mission."

"Well, the last diplomatic mission she was on, she very nearly ended up a hostage, and was rescued by Lina Inverse. And that's not counting the mess in Ruvinagard. I can understand why she'd be cautious about things after that." Zelgadis wasn't going to mention the part he played at Xoana. 

"I see, yes. But one can imagine how royalty traveling with a friend of the opposite sex looks." 

"I can imagine, yes. Try telling that to Amelia, though. She does her own thing, and it's probably better if I don't stand in her way. Besides, would anyone in their right mind really think she'd be dating a chimera?" Zelgadis's ankle twinged and he remembered the cut. "Can we stop a moment?" 

They found a bench, in a middle class part of town. It was quiet, with most people having gone home for the noon meal and siesta. Zelgadis rolled up his pant leg, and finally cast the healing spell, then undid the bandage, using it to mop up most of the salve. He'd really have to bathe to get the smell off, though. At least he had been wearing his normal clothing, and not the stuff Amelia had picked out for him. "What kind of place has every punk in town carrying magic weapons?" he asked.

"Magic?" Archmage Awel said. "What do you mean?"

"Normal steel can't get through my skin. But the knife that was thrown at me cut me. So, it must have been magic, or something." 

"Oh. I believe I understand. We've got a lot of demons in the desert. Normally the well-travelled routes are safe, because the army spends a lot of time hunting any bandits or demons near there. But lesser routes have to rely on private sources. A lot of people also try to find ruins in the desert as well, from before Hellmaster Phibrizzo made his home south of here. So most people who go into the desert have a demonsbane spell put on their weapons. It doesn't do much about mazoku or anything else, but it hurts most of the types of demons. I take it you're part demon, Mister Graywords?" 

Zelgadis nodded. "A third brau demon. The other thirds are rock golem and human." 

Archmage Awel's raised his eyebrows so much that they nearly vanished into his hairline. "Whoever created you knew what he was doing. Most sorcerers have enough trouble with a simple chimera."

Zelgadis looked at the old man. "What do you know about chimera, Archmage?"

"Not much. Mostly what I need to make sure I spot the attempts into creating human chimera before someone in the guild tries it. Creating human chimera is illegal in Jarei." 

"It's illegal most places," Zelgadis said. "Doesn't stop people from trying it." 

"If I may be so bold, how did your creator manage to dodge the law?"

Zelgadis snorted. ''By having too good of a reputation. No one believed he'd do it, even if I had named him. If I said his name right now, you'd think I was lying." 

"Oh really?" Archmage Awel said. "Now, I'm curious as to his identity." 

"Rezo, the Red Priest." 

Archmage Awel did a double take. "You're- I see why no one believed you when you told them that. You're sure it was Rezo?"

"Yes, I'm sure." Zelgadis said, folding his arms. "If you're going to not believe me, can we just drop the subject?" 

"Very well, Mister Graywords." Archmage Awel looked thoughtful. "I did hear a rumor that you were related to Rezo. It seems an interesting stretch to call a created chimera a relative, but-"

"I was," Zelgadis said. "I was his grandson. Or great grandson -- I never was that clear on the blood relation, and he never really told me what had happened to my parents. I could be adopted, but I don't think I am. Whatever the hell he did to me to make me a chimera, it probably was easier with his blood running through my veins. "

"I see..." Archmage Awel said. "We're nearly at the Temple, Mister Graywords. Shall I leave you here to get cleaned up?" 

Zelgadis shrugged. "That's fine." 

The Archmage practically ran towards the palace. Zelgadis wondered if he unnerved the man, and smiled a bit. Good. 

It was early in the day and Duke Shanin had already refused to see her. 

"I'm terribly sorry about this, Princess," the king said. "He said something came up." Amelia noticed that among other things, King Kavei was a terrible liar. At least, what he said sounded flat, and, going with the fact that was the kind of excuse everyone used when they didn't want to know the real reason something happened, or go into details, make her think he was lying. 

"It's fine, Your Majesty. I'm sure Duke Shanin is a busy man," Amelia said. "Was everyone else willing to meet with me?" 

"It seems so," King Kavei said. 

"Good. Thank you, by the way." Amelia smiled at him. "This has been a bit of a mess for both our kingdoms, so I hope these meetings will clear up some of the apprehension everyone has."

The meeting room the king had loaned her was a small sitting room. Large windows, open to catch the breezes, looked out onto the river, where a number of small boats cavorted below. Most of the furniture was low, and carved with geometric designs. There were two chairs and a table, where some servant had already set a pot of tea and several cups. Amelia arranged herself on one of the chairs, and poured herself a cup of tea. 

Archmage Awel entered, wearing a slightly less ornate set of the robes he had worn for dinner last night. "Good morning, Princess. Did you sleep well?" 

"I did, Archmage. Thank you for asking." Amelia smiled at him. "Would you like some tea?"

"No thank you." 

Amelia had prepared a stored speech on the Southern Reclamation Project. It had been something to do on the long ride from the border. She had practiced it in front of Mister Zelgadis, who, before getting bored of her minor changes, had gotten quite good at asking obnoxious questions. She talked about how much land was marginally habitable in the south of her country, and about how it should go to the people willing to work it to make it livable. And how many of the settlers were potential landowners for the first time, and about all the families, like Mister Bartalan's, she had met in the south. And about how it was positively, absolutely not an armed camp, and Jarei shouldn't worry at all... but phrased more delicately than that. Memorizing it left part of her mind free to watch reactions, and change things around emphasize different bits, or summarize boring bits. Or maybe catch on who was against the project in Jarei. 

Archmage Awel seemed attentive during it. "Are you going to tell His Majesty the King that?" he asked.

"Do you think he has time? I did prepare a report for him," Amelia held out the parchment she had written out at night, free of most of the smudges and ink stains her notes had, thanks to trying to write in a moving coach. 

"I think he'd prefer to hear it from you personally. That way, if he has any questions, he can ask you directly. Plus, I'd say that was a very convincing presentation, so it may be better for His Majesty to hear it from you." 

Amelia beamed. "Thank you, Archmage Awel. I'd hate to take up any more of his time. I know how busy running a country can be." 

"If all else fails, as much as I loathe Gazi's habit of it, there isn't a rule in Jarei about bringing business up over meals. Perhaps we could see if he is busy for dinner." 

"Perhaps we could. I'd have to see what Mister Zelgadis is doing, though." 

Archmage Awel raised his eyebrows. "I didn't think Mister Graywords was involved in this."

"Well, he has seen the south as well. Plus, he has a lot of personal experience with chimera, what with him being one and all. It was being with him which inspired me to do this. Well, him and Mister Jillas, who you don't know; he was a foxman we met in the Outer World. And a few other beastmen I've met." Amelia took a breath, trying not to talk too fast. "It's not something most humans think about, you know."

"I know, Princess." Archmage Awel smiled at her. Amelia tried to decide if it was patronizing, or just a normal old man smile at youth. "But Mister Graywords isn't exactly sociable."

"Oh, that's true. Mister Zelgadis takes a while to warm up to people. He's really not a bad person, though." 

"I'm sure. You certainly seem fond of him." 

"Oh, of course I am. He's been a good friend." Amelia took a sip of her tea. "My, that's hot." 

"We could send along for some iced tea," Archmage Awel said. 

"I'd like that. But I don't mean to keep you, Archmage. You seem like you understand what I'm going for," Amelia said. 

"I think I do." He stood up. "Thank you, Princess. You've given me much to think about."

Her next interview, Master Dareiba, came in about the same time a servant entered with a picture of water. Amelia was once again struck by how pale the woman looked, especially compared to most of the locals. She was carrying a closed parasol with her, the first and only time Amelia had seen someone with that here, and still had her smoked glass eyeglasses on, making her difficult to read. She listened to Amelia's speech carefully, and Amelia started to feel more confident. 

"It sounds fine, Princess, I wouldn't worry about needing my approval," Master Dareiba said. "Having the south of Saillune more settled would just mean we could export more to you. Might make travel through things more easier."

"That's good to hear," Amelia said. "Master Dareiba, do you mind if I ask a personal question? You seem to take a lot of precautions against the Sun, especially living in Jarei."

Master Dareiba smiled faintly. "It's a condition I've had since birth. You've probably seen it more commonly in rabbits. My skin, hair and eyes are unusually light. I burn if I'm out in the sun, and bright light hurts my eyes. My vision is also not terribly good, and the eyeglasses help that as well. It's not that much of a hardship in a merchant, except I can't go out in caravans that often, and my vision is fine for close work." 

"Would a healer help?" Amelia asked. "I'm sure High Priest Calande would-"

"Because I was born with it, it would take more magic than it's worth," Master Dareiba said. "It's not that much of a hardship, and a priest can treat any burns from the sun I get. Thank you for your concern, though, Princess." 

"Oh, it's no problem," Amelia said. "I'm glad you sound so interested in the project, though."

"Well, it would make trade easier -- some of your people will be closer to Jarei City than your capital, so they might want to get some of their goods from us." 

Amelia nodded. Well, at least the day wasn't a total loss, even if she didn't gain anything else. "I hope we can talk more about this in the future."

"Of course, Princess.  But I won't keep you from your duties today." 

General Siraba was the next person Amelia had to interview. Amelia found herself emphasizing that really, the former settlers were peaceful, despite many of them being former mercenaries. All the while, she watched the woman sit straight as a sword and watch her like a hawk. It was enough to unsteady anyone, maybe even Miss Lina. Well, maybe not Miss Lina. 

"Well, do you have any questions, General Siraba?" 

"Some, Princess. This might seem odd, but since Saillune is also settling near the desert, I was wondering if you could help me with something?" 

Amelia paused. This was not the response she was expecting. "I can try," she said. "Go ahead and ask, and I'll see what I can do."

"Well, I don't know if you've noticed, but a lot of bandits and demons make their homes out in the Desert of Destruction."

Amelia nodded. "I made sure the southernmost communities had plenty of priests and sorcerers who know astral magic. And people who knew how to deal with demons." 

General Siraba nodded. "Prudent. Well, my scouts have noticed an increase in demonic activity for the last couple of years. We were hoping that after Hellmaster Phibrizzo was vanquished, things would die down. But... well, I've had to lead several sorties into the southern wastes to clear out demons. I'm told Archmage Awel and High Priest Calande have done their own efforts. So, I was wondering if you had noticed something as well."

"Not that has been reported to me," Amelia said, "but we haven't been in the south as long as you. We wouldn't know what was normal activity. Why not ask Elemekia for help?"

"The more Elemekia stays out of our politics, the happier we are. And, as long as they get their tribute, they leave us to eat or starve. Besides," she lowered her voice, "I fear this may be an attack on Jarei, which is why I ask. If it was bothering Saillune as well, I would assume it was something coming from the Desert itself. If it wasn't... I fear for His Majesty. There was already foul play involving the death of Zureika and her consort-"

"I hadn't heard that," Amelia said. "I thought Queen Zureika died of natural causes. An illness of some kind."

General Siraba smiled, a bit nervously. "There I go, repeating court gossip. I'm much better keeping my mouth shut on the battlefield. I'm sure someone would mention it to you sooner or later. There were rumors the Queen's illness was brought on by poison. Gazi blames the foreigners, Esther blames Gazi, Nasim's content to delude himself into thinking it was natural, Simin keeps her own counsel, and the King keeps all of us on a short leash." 

Amelia raised her eyebrow. "And you, General?"

"I'm just a military officer, Princess. Poison's not my weapon of choice. If I had to say something, it would be if the demons are summoned by someone, they were the ones who put Kavei on the throne." 

Amelia shuddered. "That's horrible." 

"It's politics," General Siraba shrugged. "You see why I don't care for it. Give me an honest duel, or a battle. I never was one for magic and poison in the dark. Things might be different for the White Magic Capital. Or not." 

Amelia thought of Cousin Alfred and Uncle Randy. Definitely 'or not'. At least none of them had tried poison, though Uncle Randy had taken up demon summoning, and Alfred had made that deal with Kanzel and Mazenda. "Thank you, General" 

"Of course," General Siraba bowed as she left. 

Amelia sunk back into the chair after the general left. "Demons. Why did it have to be demons?" she wondered. 

Zelgadis was finally feeling a bit more civilized, after a nice lunch and a bath. No one had been using the bath at this hour of day, and it felt good to scrub off layers of sweat that had pooled beneath his clothing. The cool water also helped; it took a lot to heat up his body, but once he started to heat up, it took nothing short of cool water, or several hours in the shade, to cool down. 

He was drying off in his room, and trying to find a clean pair of trousers that wasn't out in the laundry or fancy, when there was a knock on the door. "I'm in a towel," he grumbled. "Come back later." He finally grabbed the rumpled set of pajama bottoms from the foot of his bed, and put them on. The knocking persisted. "Fine. I've got pants on. Come in." 

Miwan entered. "Pardon me, Mister Graywords, but there's a visitor asking to see you or the Princess, and I was wondering-"

"Who the heck wants to see me? Can't they wait until Amelia gets back?" Zelgadis wasn't sure if he should feel embarrassed about Miwan seeing him half naked. He wouldn't around most men, but... well, he had gotten used to thinking of Miwan as a woman when they had first met, and still wasn't sure what that meant. Plus, there was the fact he didn't like being stared at by strangers, and there was a bit more to stare at right now. On the other hand, it wasn't anything Miwan hadn't seen before, thanks to his unmasking at Femile. 

"It's Mister Basim, the Elemekian ambassador." Miwan said. "He said he had a message for you." 

"Fine," Zelgadis said. And he had just gotten over spending the morning being arrested and attacked. "Stall him for ten minutes while I get dressed." 

Amelia had given him a long list about what to wear for every occasion. Surprisingly, Zelgadis remembered it, even though he didn't quite see the point, besides that it made her happy. Most of what she had got for him wasn't very ornate, and he couldn't really tell the differences in fabric, besides that it was all of a much finer weave than he normally bothered with. He grabbed the first thing she had told him was 'informal daywear' -- which still was nicer than what he normally wore -- and seemed to match, then dressed quickly. He assumed whoever this was would be in the courtyard, so he went down the stairs of the wing he and Amelia were staying in. 

Miwan was standing next to the man Zelgadis could only assume was the Elemekian ambassador. He dressed like a native, but his fair hair, starting to bald near the top, made him stand out against most of the darker-skinned people of Jarei. "Sir Graywords, I presume?" he said.

"If you must use a title, 'mister' works fine. I'm no noble, and I'm definitely not a knight," Zelgadis said. "What was so important that you couldn't wait to speak to Amelia?" 

"Let me show you two to a meeting room," Miwan said. "I need to get back to my studies." 

The meeting room was small and airy, and looked out on a fountain. Moreover, it had one door and one window, so Zelgadis could keep his back to a wall and watch his new guest. Politics. Oh, boy. This ought to be interesting. "So, again-"

"What was so important I couldn't tell someone here, and couldn't wait for the Princess to return?" Ambassador Vasin asked. 

"Yes." Zelgadis frowned. He didn't like being interrupted. "Exactly."

"I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were getting into," the ambassador said. "While Saillune has always been an ally of the Empire, its foreign policy has always been a bit..."

"You don't need to mince words with me," Zelgadis said. "I've met Prince Phil, and I've traveled with Amelia. You want to know what the hell we're doing here."

"I wouldn't put it so bluntly, Mister Graywords, but yes. And I wanted to warn you. As you can imagine, it would match Saillune's past track record to have come in with minimal intelligence, so I thought it would assist you to know some things."

'll bet. Zelgadis was already willing to join Amelia in the 'I hate political manipulations' camp. She at least had enough respect for her title and her ideals to put up with it in the name of Saillune and Justice. He was here out of -- what? Friendship? Probably. I'm getting soft on the inside -- four years ago, I would have walked out when I started getting chased down by cops and rained on. "All right, fine, Mister Ambassador. What do you have to tell me."

"You realize this is confidential, don't you, Mister Graywords?"

"I'm not an idiot," Zelgadis said. "Anything you have to say is between you and me, plus Amelia." 

"I thought I'd warn you there's a pretty strong faction advocating Jarei isolationism. I believe they are backing guerrillas on our borders, attacking the settlements out there, as well as trade between Jarei and Elemekia. What they mean to accomplish I don't know, but they may well object to Saillune getting involved."

As near as Zelgadis could tell, that was diplomat-speak for 'the Jarei people want us to butt out, and probably want you to do the same'. Given how large Elemekia was, he couldn't blame Jarei there. The Empire could well eat them alive, and probably only the desert and the demons kept Jarei as only a tributary, rather than becoming an unwilling part of the Elemekian Empire. "Got it. Isolationism isn't news, though."

"True enough. However, I'll bet you didn't know one of the King's Council was associated with them. Watch out for Duke Shanin." 

"Is that it?" Zelgadis said. 

Ambassador Vasin nodded. "I would like to get your assurances that your actions are peaceful. On behalf of Saillune." 

Zelgadis stared at him. "I don't speak for Saillune. Besides, it's Saillune. They don't fight unless someone starts either picking fights, or conquering their neighbors. Their policy's pretty consistent there." 

"Indeed. One always keeps an eye out on things since a new ruler comes to the throne. What with King Eldoran's continuing illness, and Princess Amelia's ascension to her majority, Saillune's policy might change. Not to mention the changes in the world. The God-sealing barrier coming down and the reemergence of Taforashia has affected the geopolitical landscape, and that will affect Saillune, which affects the Empire."

"If things change, you'll be the twenty-third to know," Zelgadis said. "Are you done?" 

"Yes, I am. Thank you for listening to me." The ambassador rose. 

Zelgadis remained seated. "Good bye." 

Zelgadis was roused from a very sound slumber when he felt something pressing on his throat. He quickly opened his eyes a bit and glanced through half-closed lids to see a dark form standing in front of the window, and leaning over him. Steeling himself not to move any more than he had to, he silently mouthed the spell he wanted. The cloth at his throat was cut, and he jumped up, grabbing for the form he had seen at his bedside. He tripped a bit getting out of bed, and quickly turned that into a ready crouch.

It was still dark in the room, but the setting moon gave enough light to make out the rough shapes of things. The man -- or woman, or humanoid thing -- that had been trying to strangle him in his sleep was back. Zelgadis saw him (or her, or it) crouch, then bolt for the window. "Oh, no you don't. Mono Volt." He timed his own leap to meet his target in the air, and hoped that the lightning spell would get through whatever layers of cloth his target wore. 

The figure at least seemed disoriented, which was a good sign. Zelgadis got a better grip on him, immobilizing him and readying another Mono Volt spell. It probably wouldn't be terribly good for his opponent's health to get shocked twice, but Zelgadis wasn't too concerned with the life of someone who had just tried to kill him. It might be useful to have someone to question, though. "Not smart, trying to choke someone with stone skin with a piece of cloth. Next time, find something that could actually hurt me." 

He was trying to figure out what to do with his prisoner, when he heard a scream from the next room. Zelgadis swore. "Amelia!" He cast the Mono Volt, which was enough to knock his target out at least, then went tearing into the hallway. He went for Amelia's door, opening it in a hurry, and nearly got zapped by a stray spell. 

"Amelia, it's me! Zelgadis, remember?" He flattened himself against the wall. "Do you need any help?"

 "Mister Zelgadis! Yes, some help would be nice, but I think I can manage on my own." Zelgadis tried to figure out what the hell she meant by that, but then decided that it was probably better to be safe and come in, especially since the spells had stopped. 

The room was lit by a light spell, and Zelgadis brought up his hand to shield out some of the sudden light. Amelia was standing on her bed, which looked like it had been through a war, with scorch marks and shredded bedding and feathers surrounding her feet. He quickly glanced over to size up her opponents.

In one corner, stood what Zelgadis could only assume was the comrade of the man who had just tried to kill him -- dressed in dark, utilitarian clothing, with most of his skin covered, and sporting several knives, blackened as to not reflect the moonlight. The would-be assassin -- or whatever he was, but he wasn't a window washer, that's for sure -- held the knife out, in a 'ready to attack all comers' position. However, in the other corner were a couple of lesser demons. One hissed a bit. 

"Aw hell," Zelgadis said. "Amelia, which one do you want?" 

"I'll take the demons, Mister Zelgadis. You deal with the man in black." More like dark grey and midnight blue, but black was close enough. Zelgadis nodded, and advanced on the assassin. It was a bit tricky finding a spell that would work without taking out half the rooms in the wing. But another Mono Volt ought to do it, and leave them two prisoners to interrogate. 

Amelia, on the other hand, was relatively unconstrained. She used the last remaining springiness of the mattress to propel herself fist-first at the demons. "Visfarank!" Zelgadis was reminded creepily of Prince Phil's normal combat strategy. 

This distraction was enough to startle the assassin, if only for a moment. A moment was all Zelgadis needed. He closed and grabbed the man's wrist, finding a bit of exposed skin between his glove and sleeve. "Mono Volt." The assassin crumpled. 

Amelia had beaten the demons nearly back into the astral plane . At the very least, they had leapt to the window and she poised on the window sill. "Amelia, don't go flying off into the dark after them," he cautioned. 

"But they're getting away!" Amelia was balanced on the sill of the window, and Zelgadis really hoped she didn't have one of her random streaks of clumsiness. 

"Yeah, but there might be more of them waiting to surprise you. Especially since your eyes aren't adjusted to low light. If I wanted to hurt someone in a bright room, I'd try it as soon as they stepped into the dark, before they saw me." 

"Mister Zelgadis, that's a villainous thing to say." But she jumped down from the sill. 

"I'm not exactly a heroic kind of person, Amelia." 

Just then, Miwan rushed in, sword drawn. The effect would have been much stronger if he wasn't still in a nightshirt. "What's going on in here? It sounded like someone was dying."

Zelgadis nodded. Of course, the calvary was late and underdressed, and probably much less effective than the would-be victims. So what else was new? "Let's see. This guy," he motioned to the unconscious would-be assassin with his foot, "and his buddy tried to kill Amelia and I in our sleep. Thankfully, he didn't quite know what to do about me, and was interrupted by a pair of lesser demons that were also trying to kill Amelia." He looked to Amelia for confirmation. 

"That's right," Amelia nodded. 

"Since the demons are gone, and the assassins are out cold, why don't you figure out what to do about them?" Zelgadis looked to Miwan.  "I"m probably not going to get to go back to bed anytime soon.

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Becca Stareyes, Invoking Urania

December 2013

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