Ophelia narrowed her eyes, “And who might you be?”
“Me!?” the vampiress scoffed with indignation. “I am the right hand of the Ebon Aspirant, his closest confidante, and advisor! You may address me as Lady Mora!”
Ophelia tilted her head to the side in thought, “...The last survivor of House Mora? I didn’t realize you two were so… close.”
Maeve smirked, “I doubt there are many things you know about the Ebon Aspirant. But not to worry, that is why I’m here. I will facilitate any further arrangements our two parties may have in the future. Therefore, I think it best to reconvene this particular meeting for a more suitable time; give the Ebon Aspirant time to consider his choices. Surely you understand.”
Ophelia chuckled softly, though her eyes held a glint of annoyance, “Of course. We’ll see each other very soon.” She stood up from the table and smiled at Stryg, “I suggest you do not take too long thinking over my proposal. I have kept other Houses from invading your tavern, but I can only stop them for so long… Good luck in your matches.” Ophelia turned her back to them and sauntered away.
“Right…” Stryg said cautiously.
“Farewell, Lady Thorn,” Maeve waved nonchalantly.
As soon as she and her guards left, Maeve's shoulder sagged and she sighed with relief.
“Thank the gods that’s over,” Maeve wheezed.
“Maeve? How are you here?” Stryg asked with wonder.
“You’d be surprised what a Gale is willing to do to a couple of guards when they threaten a Veres, even a half one like me,” Maeve winked. “Lady Thorn’s guards thought it best to save their trip to the afterlife and just let me through. I’m just glad I managed to arrive in time to save you from making some stupid decisions.”
“I take it this is your friend, Stryg?” Ismene raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Maeve, when did you arrive in Undergrowth? I thought you were busy with work?”
“I was, but thanks to Feli and a few accountants, we were able to finish up early,” Maeve said.
“Wait, are Feli and Rhian with you?” Stryg asked excitedly.
Maeve nodded, “We arrived in Undergrowth this morning. I found out where you were from your friends at the tavern.” She shook her head, “I also found out about this whole Ebon Lord stuff, which by the way, we need to talk about at some point.”
“Does Feli know?” Stryg asked hesitantly.
“Yup,” Maeve tried to hold back her laughter.
“How did she react?”
“Not good, not very good.”
Stryg grimaced, “Where is she now?”
“Feli took Rhian into the city. She said they were heading out for some reconnaissance. About what you may ask? I have no idea,” Maeve shrugged.
Stryg sighed, “She’s not gonna be happy…”
“You have bigger problems to deal with right now. We have bigger problems to deal with,” Maeve said.
“Lady Thorn will not be happy about how you stopped her proposal. I expect her to retaliate, I’m just not sure how,” Ismene said grimly.
“I agree,” Maeve nodded. “By the way, who are you?”
“This is my professor from the academy and personal Chromatic Blue teacher, Ismene,” Stryg introduced her in a polite voice.
Maeve’s eyebrows rose in shock and her jaw went slack, “Y-y-you’re the T-Tempest Archmage!?”
“I have been called as such, yes,” Ismene said, amused.
“It’s an honor to meet you!” Maeve bowed repeatedly. “I’m such a huge fan! I used to grow up hearing stories about you! 20 years ago you saved one of my family’s ships from pirates!”
“20 years ago? A Mora ship?” Ismene muttered.
“You and your crew used to fight a lot of pirate ships back then, you probably don’t remember ours…” Maeve mumbled abashedly.
“I remember,” Ismene said reminiscently. “Alice Veres was on that ship, right? The pirates were trying to use her as a hostage. Alice was traveling with her children, including a baby… Ah, I see the resemblance. You have your mother’s beauty.”
“...Really?” Maeve whispered hesitantly.
“Alice was a brave woman, she didn’t surrender to the pirates. She and her Gale bodyguard defended every single sailor on that ship until I arrived. I admired her bravery and it seems you’ve inherited that as well.” Ismene smiled, “She’d be proud.”
Maeve’s eyes welled with tears. “Thank you…” she mumbled in a stuffy voice.
Ismene smiled sympathetically.
Stryg stayed quiet and simply watched carefully. Maeve had told him about her mother before, but seeing the tears in her eyes, the happiness in her voice… He suddenly wondered if his mother would have been proud of him. Would she approve of the goblin he had become? An exile of Blood Fang? An Ebon Aspirant?
Maeve rubbed away her tears, took a deep breath, and looked at Stryg, “I managed to draw away Ophelia’s anger for now. But this city isn’t safe for you, Stryg. We have too few allies and too many enemies. Ophelia is dangerous but she had the right idea. You need allies, the Great Houses kind.”
“So, you think I should accept Lady Thorn’s proposal?” Stryg asked, uncertain.
“Gods, no!” Maeve said exasperatedly. “I only caught the last bit of your conversation with her, but do you really think Lady Thorn’s plan is so simple? Anyone trying to put an Ebon Lord on the throne of Hollow Shade is just asking for a full-blown war. Thousands would die and you’d be at the center of it all, probably dead yourself by the end.”
Ismene nodded, “The young Lady Mora is right, but if Stryg rejects Lady Thorn’s proposal, she may just cause a full-blown war against Hollow Shade anyway. And Stryg would still be at the center of it all, probably still dead.”
“But if we do nothing, other Houses will probably try to assassinate me while I’m in Undergrowth,” Stryg sighed. “I’m at my most vulnerable. As you said, Maeve, we have too few allies here. I don’t even know the layout of the land.”
“We could leave and go back to Hollow Shade, it’d be much easier to keep you safe,” Maeve suggested. “I may not have the greatest guards or mages under my command, but I do have a well-fortified mansion back home.”
“No, I can’t abandon my teammates in the middle of the tourney,” Stryg shook his head. “They need me… I made a promise to Clypeus, we’d win this tournament no matter what. I’m not giving up now, not for anything.”
Maeve smiled half-heartedly, “Since when did you get so sentimental?”
“Shut up,” he frowned, but his voice held no edge. “Do we have any other options besides leaving the city?”
Maeve smirked, “Luckily, we are at the center of one of the realm’s biggest tournaments. There are representatives, if not outright leaders, of practically every Named House in the city right now.”
“Didn’t you get hundreds of invitations from them?” Ismene said.
“Yeah,” Stryg said. I haven’t read any of them though.
“Perfect! There’s no need for an introduction then.” Maeve began pacing around the pavilion, “We’ll need to pick a Great House, of course, none of the lesser families would be powerful enough to keep you safe.”
“We can eliminate any of the Undergrowth families. Lady Thorn’s influence over them is too great,” Ismene said.
“Right,” Maeve nodded. “Preferably we’d ally with a Hollow Shade family, that way Stryg won’t have to move to another Great City for protection. Plus, Hollow Shade’s walls are impenetrable; no army would be able to break into the city.”
“If we’re speaking of Hollow Shade’s Great Houses, the most obvious choices are the Seven Ruling Families,” Ismene said.
“True,” Maeve said. “The Seven may be happy to no longer be under the thumb of the Ebon Lords, but I don’t doubt any of them would love to have an Ebon Lord of their own on their side.”
“Stryg would be a political pawn,” Ismene said.
“But he’d be alive and once he’s an archmage, he’ll be no one’s pawn… hopefully.”
Stryg glanced at both of them with uncertainty. He was really beginning to regret not taking the time to learn more about the Houses of the realm. “So… which House would you two suggest?”
“Well, the perfect choice would have been House Noir,” Maeve said. “Lord Elzri Noir is the most powerful mage in the realm and he is known to honor his word, so betrayal is very unlikely. House Noir also has substantial military and financial power. Not to mention you’re the godson of Lord Noir.”
Stryg clenched his fists tight, but he tried to contain his anger. “I rather marry Lady Thorn than go back to House Noir.”
“Yeah, my cousin told me you and the Noirs had a falling out,” Maeve sighed. “Callum’s usually so calm and easygoing, but the way he spoke… it must have been really bad.”
Stryg cleared his throat uncomfortably, “What about the other Houses?”
“...Well, there’s always House Glaz. They are the most powerful family in Hollow Shade overall,” Maeve said. “Lady Glaz herself is the leader of the city’s council.”
“Glaz? As in Vayu Glaz?” Stryg asked.
“Yeah? You know him,” Maeve asked.
“Yes and no thanks,” Stryg grumbled.
“What? Why?” Maeve frowned.
“I would rather not have anything to do with the Glazs either,” Stryg said.
“Is this because of Widow’s Crag? If so, then I am also at fault,” Ismene said. “I was made aware of the incident after the fact, but I still said nothing to you, child.”
Stryg shook his head, “It’s not like that. Loh was the one in charge that night. She made her choice to abandon us knowingly. She knew the possible consequences and she still went ahead with it… And she lied to me. She was my master, my friend, I trusted her completely… I deserved more from her than a lie.”
“If you do not blame Vayu then why reject his House?” Ismene asked.
“Just because I don’t blame Vayu directly, doesn’t mean I’m not angry with him, or you…” Stryg said quietly. “I may not know much about the 7 Ruling Families, but I do know about House Noir. I refuse to ally myself with House Glaz, not because of Vayu, but because they have a very close relationship with the Noirs. Elzri is the uncle of Lady Glaz.”
“You’re rejecting House Glaz because of their relationship with the Noirs? Do you really hate the Noirs so much now?” Maeve whispered.
Ismene nodded reluctantly, “Stryg makes a good point... Lord Noir’s late wife was a Glaz. Lady Glaz and Lord Noir often seem annoyed at each other, but they’re family. They won’t betray each other.”
“Okay, fine. No Glaz then. What about House Ashe?” Maeve asked.
“No, those vampires are too religious, which makes them too unpredictable,” Ismene said. “Lady Calantha Ashe is fully dedicated to the gods as the arch priestess of the city, but the gods have always been fickle beings; just look at Stjerne, he abandoned the drows for us humans. For all we know the gods may ask Calantha to renounce any connection she has to the ebon lords.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” Maeve muttered.
“What about the Goldelms? They are the wealthiest family in Hollow Shade, they could afford any protection Stryg might need,” Ismene said.
“True, but the Goldelms are a merchant House first and foremost. They care about their wealth more than anything. If a better deal appears I could see them betraying Stryg in a heartbeat.” Maeve grimaced, “And they would just call it business.”
“What about the human family? House Helene?” Stryg spoke up.
“No!” Maeve and Ismene yelled in unison.
“The Helenes rose to power because they betrayed the previous Royal House, the Thorns,” Ismene said. “It’s how the Thorns lost the war in the first place and were kicked out of Hollow Shade.”
“You do not want to make a deal with them,” Maeve warned.
“Got it…” Stryg mumbled. “Forget I said anything.”
“...What about House Veres?” Ismene said. “They possess great military, magical, and financial power. Plus they have the legendary Great House of Gale as their loyal retainers. Stryg would be safe with them.”
“Ally myself with Callum’s family?” Stryg asked.
“Lady Mora, you yourself are a Veres on your mother’s side. You can vouch for their honor, yes?” Ismene asked.
Maeve sighed bitterly, “It’s because I am half Veres that I do not vouch for them. Everything you said about them is true, yes. But there is much infighting in the Veres family. My uncle, Lord Veres IX would honor any deal he strikes with Stryg, but my uncle’s successor? I have no idea if they’d honor any such deal.”
“Still, it does sound better than any of the other families,” Stryg said.
“Well… that’s not actually quite true,” Maeve said thoughtfully.
“What do you mean?” Stryg asked.
“There’s another family, one whose honor has never been in question. They always keep their vows, so there’s no need to worry about them going back on any deal you make. They also have the greatest military strength among the Seven, so protection would be accounted for. And they recently had a falling out with House Noir, so there’s no need to worry about any relations to Elzri or Loh Noir. Not to mention they have very close relations with the most powerful family in the east, House Morrigan. Overall it’s a pretty solid choice for an alliance. There’s just one minor problem.”
“What problem…?” Stryg asked cautiously.
Maeve shrugged, “It’s not a problem with them per se, more like a problem within you.”
“What does that mean?” Stryg furrowed his brow.
“Lady Mora speaks of House Katag,” Ismene said.
“Orcs?” Stryg shot to his feet angrily, “No! I’m not making a deal with orcs!”
“I thought he’d act like this,” Maeve sighed.
“I don’t follow,” Ismene said.
“The Sylvan folk hold a grudge against the orcs ever since the fall of Lunis,” Maeve said.
“That’s it?” Ismene asked incredulously. She grabbed her cane and smacked it into Stryg’s leg.
“Ow! What was that for?” he glared.
“You stupid boy!” Ismene yelled. “Lady Mora came here and put her own life at risk to save you from Lady Thorn’s wrath. She gave you a chance to find another way out of this! But when a great opportunity reveals itself you reject it like a spoiled toddler! What do you think will happen if you cannot manage to create a powerful alliance, hm? You will not be the only one in danger! Lady Mora and your wife will be as well! Anyone close to you will be in danger! Is that what you want?”
“N-no,” Stryg stammered.
Ismene slammed her cane on the ground, “I don’t care if you don’t make a deal with House Katag, but I will not let you just throw away a good opportunity because of some stupid age-old prejudice! You will at the very least go and sit down with the Katags and see what they have to say! And if you don’t, oof, the gods help you, because I will be all the danger you will need to worry about! Do you understand me!?”
Stryg swallowed nervously, “...I understand.”
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