â€œTenrek!â€ Tepet Fokuf, resplendant in his house colors, a golden circlet glittering on his brow, embraced his friend before he could react, grinning with amusement at the uncertain way that his friend returned his embrace. Stepping back, he gave Tenrek a look over. â€œHow have you been doing? Job agreeing with you.â€
â€œAbsolutely.â€ Tenrek smiled broadly, his skin a richer green in the lamplight than usual. The beastman was wearing a formal Autochthonian jumpsuit, over which he had laid his hearthstone bracers and orichalcum armor. â€œWe're easing the Autochthonians into a life in contact with Creation â€“ never mind one where they don't have to worry about running out of materials for their cities.â€
â€œIndeed.â€ With a faint smile, Watchful Cerulean Aegis stepped forwards, bowing to Fokuf. â€œI believe that even Tenrek will admit that life in the Eight Nations surpasses that of much of Creation in quality now that the Maker has awoken again. We are having some... troubles... with immigration requests.â€
â€œReally.â€ Fokuf laughed. â€œI'm still amazed that it worked, after all the hassle Tenrek gave you.â€
â€œThe Maker feels that he is well-suited to understanding how to help us integrate our way of life to yours.â€ Aegis said smoothly. â€œAnd you? How goes a life of politics?â€
â€œTiring.â€ Fokuf sighed, his humour fading. â€œWe've got another civil war brewing, of course. Not everyone likes how V'Neef has made peace with the Celestials, and there aren't any elder Sidereals left around to force them to behave.â€ Shrugging, he turned to wave at an elder Cathak delegate, who was watching Aegis with frank curiousity. â€œBut we'll sort through it.â€
Tenrek nodded. â€œDo you know if Amaya is coming tonight?â€ He asked. â€œI was hoping to see her for a while.â€
Fokuf shook his head. â€œI'm afraid not. She's been busy fixing things out East, and she's in a delicate place in Thorns right now.â€ He patted Tenrek on the shoulder. â€œYou'll have to get out there. We can sneak you through Yu-Shan â€“ it'll only take a few hours.â€
â€œDone.â€ Tenrek nodded, then looked over and smiled. â€œI see some more people I need to talk to. Excuse me.â€ He moved off through the crowd.
â€œAegis, glad to see you!â€ The cheerful voice came from the right, as Tandavi Kieran strolled over. His hat was tilted back, revealing the magitech implant still in his forehead, and he bowed in the Autochthonian style to the Alchemical. â€œHow is the Maker recovering?â€
â€œQuite well, now that we have driven out the Sage. The Gremlin-cities are pacified, and we've nearly completed purging the incurable Alchemicals.â€ Aegis replied politely. â€œAnd how are your tasks?â€
Kieran shrugged. â€œAdvancing slowly, but advancing. Giving the Elemental Courts a single vote on the new god-Primordial council was a brilliant idea â€“ it's forcing them to work politics with each other, instead of starting wars, if they want to have the consensus for their vote to count.â€ He nodded to Fokuf. â€œHow's Damian been doing?â€
â€œWorking too hard, of course.â€ Fokuf smiled again, gesturing over to the corner where Damian stood, talking to Cathak Lodaris. â€œSerafin dragged him in here about five minutes ago, and he's been catching up with his extended family.â€ His smile faded. â€œHe hasn't got long, of course. A week or two more, he thinks. He's already outlived the rest of the elders. But we got him to agree to stop working as of today, and take his last weeks off.â€
â€œGlad to hear it.â€ Kieran nodded, looking around. â€œOkay, Lodaris is with Damian, and Citrios is over there at the punchbowl with three Fair Folk, but I don't see Alina anywhere.â€
â€œYou aren't looking.â€ There was a light tap on Kieran's shoulder, and he spun around in confusion. When he looked back, Alina was standing in front of him, smiling impishly. â€œHow have you been, Kieran?â€
â€œShow-off.â€ Kieran grumbled. Then he smiled. â€œVery well. And you? How's life with Citrios?â€
â€œCalm seas.â€ Alina looked over to her lover, then back to the two. â€œWe're getting married next season. You're both invited, of course.â€ She mock-glared at them. â€œAnd don't you dare miss it.â€
â€œWouldn't for the world.â€ Kieran said. The pang of pain was easily banished. It was a relic of someone else, he reminded himself momentarily. Alina was a good friend, but anything more was a lifetime ago. Putting the thought out of his mind, he glanced over again. â€œUm... you'd better go save him, though.â€
Looking over, Alina's eyes narrowed as she saw Citrios hastily backpedalling away from one of the Fair Folk, who was pursuing with a flirtatious look in her eyes. The other two were watching with wry amusement. Raising her voice, Alina started over there. â€œFiona, you leave him alone!â€
Fokuf covered his mouth to keep from laughing, and caught Kieran's eye in time to see the younger Solar doing the same thing. Much of the party followed Alina's progress, before turning back to their own affairs as Fiona quickly backed off. â€œSome party.â€ Fokuf said blandly.
â€œThat it is. Almost everyone is here.â€ Kieran looked around again. â€œOther than Empress V'Neef, I don't see anyone missing. Where is she?â€
â€œFashionably late, I imagine.â€ Fokuf replied. â€œShe always is.â€
â€œShe wasn't when she and Mn... when she used the Realm Defense Grid against the Fair Folk last season.â€ Kieran pointed out.
â€œWell, that's different. That was business.â€ Fokuf couldn't help but grin at the memory. Sometimes it was possible to really feel sorry for the Fair Folk, just for their poor grasp of time. Having finally massed the force that would wipe out a defenseless Creation, they had invaded en mass... twelve months too late. The Realm Defense Grid had wiped out 9,999 of every ten thousand invaders, and the survivors had charged into Creation to find thirteen Primordials, their Third Circle souls, and the Celestial Incarnae waiting for them. Only one in ten thousand of those had survived the ensuing battle, staggering further into Creation... to find the lesser gods and young Exalts stationed throughout the Threshold for exactly that purpose. The gods estimated that about one in a thousand of the Fair Folk who bypassed the Primordials and Incarnae survived to slip into Wyld zones â€“ hundreds of nobles had survived in this way, but they were a drop in the bucket compared to Creation's defenses.
â€œLet's not worry about the Empress. She'll be here when she's here.â€ Fokuf draped an arm around Kieran's shoulder. â€œYou know, I was talking with Twice-Forged Steel the other day.â€
â€œOh? How is he doing?â€ Kieran asked cautiously.
â€œWell enough. Still guarding the Dual Monarchs from the Deathlords â€“ even without the powers of the Conduits of the Neverborn, they're pretty dangerous, and they still have Abyssal servants. But that's not actually the point.â€ Fokuf began to steer Kieran through the crowd. â€œHe mentioned an idea, and I agree with him. Let me introduce you to one of our more intriguing guests. Have you met the Harvester of Severed Shades? Lovely girl. You two will get along wonderfully.â€
Kieran frowned. â€œAre you trying to set me up on a date, Fokuf?â€
Fokuf shrugged, not letting go. â€œIt's a party, Kieran. Enjoy yourself!â€
â€œRam to Fourth Tier red.â€
Empress V'Neef moved the piece in question, looking over the Gateway board. â€œA very interesting move. I wonder what it means.â€
â€œIt means that it is time for you to go, and that move gives nothing away of my strategy.â€ Mnemon's voice was softly amused. â€œYou are already ten minutes late, you know.â€
â€œThat much? Heavens.â€ Standing slowly, V'Neef looked around the central control room of the Imperial Manse. Her robes flowed like blood around her, and the Hearthstone of the Imperial Manse glittered on her brow, catching the light from the softly glowing walls. â€œThe time does fly, doesn't it?â€
â€œIt does.â€ Mnemon chuckled softly, her voice filling the chamber. â€œTell me how it goes. The anniversary of the Rebirth doesn't come more than once.â€
â€œI won't have to. You can listen to the whole affair, can't you?â€ V'Neef half-smiled as she stepped towards the stairs.
â€œDear sister, are you accusing me of spying?â€ Mnemon chuckled. â€œYou know me too well.â€
â€œWell enough.â€ V'Neef stopped at the stairway. â€œI do wish that I could tell them you were here, and not dead.â€
â€œI was contentious enough alive. If the Senators learned that I had control over the Realm Defense Grid...â€ Mnemon trailed off ominously, then added, â€œBesides, I find myself imagining the face of your successor, centuries down the road, when she finds out she doesn't actually get to control the Grid.â€
V'Neef chuckled. â€œThere is that. Very well, then, sister, your secret is safe with me.â€
â€œYou always say that.â€ Mnemon admonished her.
â€œNow, that's hardly fair. It's been at least a month since we last discussed this.â€ Bowing to the Manse's control board, V'Neef turned to go. â€œBe well, my sister.â€
â€œDragons guide you, my Empress.â€ Mnemon said, letting her mind settle back into the functions and sensors that made up the Imperial Manse. She had power, but no one to command and no way to use it. She had knowledge, but few people to share it with. She had immortality, but without any of the pleasures of the flesh she had once enjoyed. By any standard, her life was so much less than it had ever been.
She couldn't remember ever having been so content.