The tea room was quiet and peaceful, a tiny island of calm amidst the increasingly frenetic pace of life in the Imperial City. Normally, a few servants walked back and forth amongst the patrons, making sure that their tea was ready and that any comfort that they required was readily available. Today, however, was different. Today, the brewers were almost feverish, having tested every blend a dozen times in order to ensure that everything was perfect. Today, a single servant hovered just within earshot, ready to respond in an instant to the faint chime of a bell, and all of the rest had been sent home.
Today, the Empress was visiting with her sister.
Vâ€™Neef took a simple sip of her tea, smiling faintly. â€œWe should do this more often, I think.â€ Her dress was arrayed around her on the simple cushions of the teahouse, a brilliant green that matched perfectly with the brown hues and perfumed plants of the house itself. This did not come as a surprise to Mnemon â€“ it had been Vâ€™Neef who had suggested the house, and she admitted to herself that the choice had been an excellent one. As always, she admitted to herself. When it came to putting people at ease, Vâ€™Neef was far superior to Mnemon herself.
She forced the thought away, but some of its sourness crept into her next words. â€œIf only we could. Perhaps if this crisis abates.â€ Thinking back, she wasnâ€™t quite sure why the meetings had started, but she drew strength from them. It was a constant source of vexation to her that most of the House leaders that she felt she could trust â€“ Arada, Nagazzer, and Tyr â€“ wholeheartedly refused to trust her in return. Most of those who offered her support were the ones she could have done just as well without. She sighed internally. Too many people mistook ambition for corruption, and ruthlessness for cruelty. It might have been better to forge a path more like her sisterâ€™s.
But then, it was centuries too late to change her ways, whatever else happened. At least here, there was some manner of peace â€“ even if she never stopped dissecting Vâ€™Neefâ€™s actions for signs of potential betrayal. â€œSend my regards to Colonel Ujin, Vâ€™Neef. On a personal level, I was impressed by what I heard of him.â€ With demonic summons increasingly unreliable, the colonel had hit on the idea of using demons traditionally attached to rival groups in order to sow confusion between some of the Conduits, buying days of conflict that had helped Cherak to redouble its fortifications.
Vâ€™Neef smiled, and inclined her head. â€œI know that the colonel looks up to you as a great sorcerer. Iâ€™m sure that your words will be good for him to hear. But I suppose we should get back to our affairs of state.â€ She glanced over Mnemonâ€™s shoulder, and quirked a lip. â€œThat odd little girl who you refuse to discuss is sitting outside again.â€
Mnemon followed Vâ€™Neefâ€™s glance with a sigh. The Harbinger of Severed Shades, currently sitting on a rock outside the teahouse and playing her damned flute, was proving to be one of the most useful of her Abyssals, but she refused to undertake the complete secrecy that Sorrow carried with him at all times. Instead, she had simply and quietly worked herself into a position where those in the know believed her to be a god-blooded spy in Mnemonâ€™s employ. The situation was mildly vexing, but Mnemon didnâ€™t want to push it too far and ruin her pawnâ€™s usefulness. â€œSo she is. I suppose I will have to speak with her.â€ Rising smoothly, she tugged on the bell, and the servant materialized as if by magic. â€œInform the teamaster that we will be leaving, and thank him for a very acceptable tea.â€ She smiled, and the girl, clearly torn between awe and terror, bowed to the floor as the Empress and her sister left the table.
Outside, Vâ€™Neefâ€™s bodyguards fell in around her, and she nodded to Mnemon. â€œI will see you at tomorrowâ€™s policy meeting, your Majesty. Be well until then.â€
â€œThank you, sister.â€ The policies were back in place, and Vâ€™Neef swept her way down the street, the cadre of guards around her. Mnemon, of course, had no such thing, although a troop of the Legion of Silence was stationed not far away. She still trusted more in her elemental servants than in corruptible mortals, whatever their stripe.
â€œThis had better be good.â€ She all but growled the words at the Harbinger, who quailed slightly in the face of her wrath. â€œThis is a public area.â€
â€œThereâ€™s no one listening, if youâ€™re worried. My Charms made sure of that. Even your guards canâ€™t hear us.â€ Harbinger tucked her flute into the hem of her dress, and bowed low to her mistress. â€œBut yes, it is important. I tailed Sorrow, like you asked.â€ There was a world of questions in that simple statement, which Mnemon ignored with an arched brow. After a moment, the young deathknight continued. â€œI almost lost him twice, and he came within a hairâ€™s breadth of spotting me. Butâ€¦ heâ€™s definitely in communication with someone. Looked like they were managing the link, talking through some sort of icon he was carrying.â€
Mnemonâ€™s answering nod was grim. â€œI thought as much. Did you take the talisman to the site after he left?â€
â€œOf course.â€ Harbinger carefully reached into a pouch at her belt and unwrapped a small, smoky crystal. A tiny spark of light danced inside, tilting northwest. Mnemon studied it for several moments, and her frown deepened.
When she spoke, however, it was with purpose. Her eyes bored into Harbingerâ€™s. â€œI need to know who is speaking to him. Follow that spark. Find out who it leads to. When you reach its end, you will know who cast that spell.â€
There was a long pause. â€œWhat if it leads me into the Labyrinth or something?â€ Harbingerâ€™s voice was faint with worry. Mnemon raised an eyebrow.
â€œAre you questioning my order?â€
â€œNo, no! Itâ€™s justâ€¦ you donâ€™t gain much if I get killedâ€¦â€ The girl temporized, rubbing the package she held nervously. Mnemon sighed inwardly. Even her good help wasnâ€™t that good, it seemed.
â€œIf you honestly believe that you are in a situation that far beyond your capabilities, you can pull back and report to me, and weâ€™ll figure it out from there.â€ She waved her hand. â€œBut make haste. I know that this journey could take you some time, and I want it resolved before my next project is completed.â€
â€œYes, mistress.â€ The voice wasnâ€™t quite sullen, and the bow was proper, but the Harbinger scampered off before her mistress could think up something even more dangerous for her to do. Mnemon watched her go with regret. She had too few agents, and too many of those she had were reluctant.
But she had no choice. If she was going to embark on her grand gamble, everything had to be in place. And if Sorrow was in the thrall of the Deathlords stillâ€¦
Well, it made everything just that much more complicated.