“Let’s hope,” she sighed. “It’s a dark and disturbing day, but at least you’re home and William is on his way. He’s been gone nearly as long as you have.” Standing on tiptoe, she craned her neck hopefully at the door. “I take it your presence means your mission was a success?”

Max coughed into his fist. “You know that DarkMatter operations are classified, Miss Boon.”

“Yes, indeed,” she replied. “But if you’re going to cite regulations and clam up, I’ll advise you to lose that unfortunate smirk. Small wonder William likes to play cards with you. May I at least ask if you plan to resume your studies? Does such an apparent stickler for the rules need me to remind him that the Manse dormitories are for actively enrolled students?”

“You expelled David and he still lives there.”

“A fair point,” she conceded. “But as we both know, David Menlo has no further need of formal education, while you persevere in a state of appalling ignorance. It’s a wonder you can still read. If your duties prevent you from joining scheduled classes, we’ll just have to find you some tutors.…”

Only Miss Boon could delve right into academic schedules and curricula while everyone else was fretting about demonic ships and resurrected sorcerers. Max knew she did it to distract herself; he even found her unwavering commitment to his studies oddly comforting. But there were larger matters at hand, and when Old Tom chimed seven o’clock, it was time for all to take their places.

Miss Boon joined the Promethean Scholars as they occupied stone benches set within alcoves along the walls. Max settled into the Steward’s Chair and discovered that he did not care for its rigidity or the rough iron rivets that pressed into his back. It was a heavy, thronelike chair and came with heavy expectations—expectations concerning statecraft, diplomacy, and governance. Max far preferred the Fool’s Perch.

Four other members of the Red Branch were present at the table. Like Max, each wore a hauberk of black mail beneath a dark gray tunic along with black boots and breeches. While the Mystics and scholars fairly bent beneath their glittering magechains, the Red Branch never displayed any insignia other than the small tattoo at their wrists. Their scars told their stories.

Max knew them by name and reputation, but he did not know them well. Members of the Red Branch often worked alone and lived abroad. They might disappear for months or even years as they traveled the globe, looking after Rowan’s darkest, most dangerous business. Max’s predecessor, Antonio de Lorca, had been gregarious and charming, but he seemed to be an exception. As a rule, the order’s members were quiet and reinforced Max’s belief that those who’d seen the most often said the least.

He nodded hello to Ben Polk, a balding, slope-shouldered Agent with the disquieting habit of looking one not in the eye but just beyond their shoulder. There was nothing overtly impressive about the man; he was of average height with a plain and utterly forgettable face. But Max knew that this seemingly unremarkable person was over two hundred years old, was shockingly quick with a knife, and had single-handedly exterminated a secret society of necromancers. Max could not say he liked Ben Polk, but he certainly respected his abilities. The same held true for the others around the table: Natasha Kiraly; Matheus; and wrinkled Xiumei, whose ancient sword looked shaving-sharp. They were knights and assassins and everything in between, but they were not friends. Max had only one friend in the Red Branch, but the Fool’s Perch remained empty.

When the bronze doors opened, all heads turned to see Gabrielle Richter stride into the hall accompanied by her chief advisers. The Director wore a teacher’s simple navy robes, a choice that struck Max as a message: We are first and foremost a school. Her silver hair was pulled back, emphasizing the hard lines of her face. Her expression was calm but strong and purposeful as she made directly for the central table, while Miss Awolowo, Ms. Kraken, and others found places in the alcoves.

“The Blyssian ambassador will be here shortly,” she announced. “I’ve been assured that the ambassador comes in good faith, but we will be vigilant. We may call on some of you to speak, but otherwise I ask that you remain quiet. If the ambassador or any of his entourage should threaten violence in this hall, you are to destroy them outright. Rowan desires peace, but only peace with honor.”

There was apprehension on some faces but approval on most. The Director slid into the seat next to Max and patted his arm as she looked toward the doors. The sounds of heavy booted feet were coming down the corridor. A moment later, the captain of the Harbor Guard stepped beyond the hall’s threshold and rapped the flagstones with his halberd. His voice filled the chamber.

“An ambassador from Blys desires admittance to the Founder’s Hall. He has sailed under banner of truce and sworn a pledge of peace. Shall he enter?”

“He shall,” replied Ms. Richter.

“Then I give you Lord Naberius, Keeper of the Opal Road and High Ambassador of Blys.”

“They do like their titles,” the Director sighed.

As the Harbor Guard stepped aside, thirty malakhim marched silently into the room bearing a colossal gold palanquin on their shoulders. The malakhim were dressed in hooded black robes, their faces hidden behind obsidian masks whose cracks and gouges marred their serene, angelic features. Their movements were so smooth, so graceful that it seemed their burden was no burden at all. But when they lowered the palanquin upon the floor, Founder’s Hall trembled and several flagstones cracked.

Even when resting upon the floor, the palanquin loomed over the table and the malakhim that flanked it. It stood twenty feet tall, an enormous cube whose golden frame was fashioned in the shape of twining dragons and scepters. Its sides were made of thick glass plates whose warding runes glowed faintly against the deep purple curtains that hid the litter’s interior. The curtains remained closed, but a voice issued out—a seductive tenor that flicked and probed at one’s ears like a serpent’s tongue.

“Greetings from Blys, Madam Director,” said the voice. “I am honored so many should attend this audience, but I had hoped for a more private discussion.”

“They would hear Prusias’s words and I would hear their counsel,” said Ms. Richter.

The litter’s drapes stirred as though something huge had turned or shifted within.

“There is one here who has waged open war against my king and violated every term of the peace,” the ambassador observed coldly. “It grieves me to see the Hound present, much less in a place of honor. Is this an insult? Or an oversight?”

“Neither,” replied Ms. Richter. “Max McDaniels knows the King of Blys well. He has been a guest in Prusias’s palace and his dungeons. Who better to hear your lord’s words and judge them? And if we speak of insults, what are we to make of an ambassador who addresses this court from behind glass and curtains?”

“The runeglass is a necessary precaution,” sniffed the demon. “These shores have grown inhospitable to my kind.” This was most certainly true. Since the events of Walpurgisnacht, many more rowan trees had been planted along the cliffs, as had whole gardens of the otherworldly flowers called blood petals. The former were merely an irritation to evil spirits, but the latter were dangerous. “These drapes are merely meant as a courtesy,” Naberius continued. “My form is not fair to mortals.”

“We will not be swayed by a pretty face,” remarked Ms. Richter.

“That is just what Prusias said when I urged him to send a fairer emissary,” laughed the demon. “My king has every faith in your sound judgment, Madam Director. He knows that Rowan and Blys shall enjoy a long and prosperous friendship once we address the unpleasant matter of your rebellion.”

“Against whom has Rowan rebelled?” inquired Ms. Richter frankly.

“Are you speaking in earnest?”


The demon began to chuckle. Those from Rowan watched uneasily as strange forms pressed and flopped repulsively against the runeglass, obscured by the purple silks. It looked as though some giant octopus sought to escape an undersized aquarium. The curtains were thrust aside and several of the scholars gasped.

There was no visible connection between the thing behind the glass and its honeyed voice. How such an alien form produced the necessary sounds was a mystery. The ambassador’s head resembled an ancient and sickly vulture that had been skinned and endowed with the large and multifaceted eyes of an insect. Perched atop a long, glutinous neck, the head swayed like a serpent’s behind the runeglass. While Naberius surveyed the hall, his pale, larval body slowly slid about the glassed interior, oozing pus upon his nest of scarlet cushions and blankets of golden samite.

“Let us review history,” he said, his throat pulsing with each syllable. “Two years ago, you signed a treaty, Gabrielle Richter. In exchange for Rowan’s peaceful independence, you agreed to abide by Astaroth’s edicts and look to your own affairs and people. Do I misspeak?”

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