“No,” replied Ms. Richter. “As you say, I was there.”

“Very good,” said Naberius. “But despite these generous terms, Rowan has violated almost every provision of the accord. We know that you have been consorting with humans beyond your borders, teaching them to read, recruiting the mehrun among them, and permitting them to settle your lands. Each of these activities is strictly forbidden by the treaty you signed, Madam Director.…” The demon cocked his head at the Director, allowing the charges to resonate. “But King Prusias appreciates that humans are more sentimental than daemona. My lord admires this trait, as he admires so much about your kind. Had the transgressions stopped there, he might have been moved to overlook them in his desire to keep the peace. But as we know, the transgressions did not stop.…”

“Please continue,” said Ms. Richter, folding her hands beneath her chin. Her expression was open and thoughtful, as though she were listening to charges levied against someone else.

“You have attacked my king, murdered his vassals, and destroyed our embassy,” the ambassador seethed, heaving his body forward so that its bulk flattened against the runeglass in a white, corpulent smear. His hideous head loomed and swayed above them. “Rowan’s provocations have been so brazen that news of my impending visit nearly triggered an uprising in Blys. The braymas are howling for war, not diplomacy. They want your head, Madam Director, along with those of every man, woman, and child within this realm.”

“What is stopping them?” inquired Ms. Richter calmly, meeting the ambassador’s gaze.

“Prusias,” replied Naberius, his voice softening. He eased away from the glass, settling back down onto his cushions. “It is my king—wronged and wounded Prusias—who stands between you and annihilation. Despite Rowan’s recent madness, he would still extend an olive branch. Provided she makes amends …”

“That is very generous of him,” said Ms. Richter. “What terms would he require?”

“There are but three,” replied the demon. “Rowan shall swear everlasting fealty to Prusias. Rowan shall rebuild Gravenmuir. And Rowan shall deliver both Elias Bram and the Hound’s sword to my king’s keeping.”

“Just the sword?” wondered Ms. Richter. “Not its owner?”

“The Hound himself is of no consequence,” said the ambassador, coldly eyeing Max. “The Atropos have already cut his thread and entered his name in the Grey Book. He is already dead. King Prusias requires only his blasphemous sword as the final proof of your allegiance.”

Throughout this chilling interlude, Max betrayed no emotion. He had never heard of any Atropos or an ominous Grey Book, but it was clear that Ms. Richter had. Her self-control was excellent, but Max was sitting right beside her. At mention of the Atropos, her face lost some of its color.

“What have you to say?” inquired Lord Naberius. “Will Rowan join with Prusias and help him bring peace to the realms?”

“You have spoken plainly,” replied the Director, “so I will do the same. If Rowan had committed the treasons of which you speak, I might be more amenable to your terms. But these attacks you mention and Gravenmuir’s destruction were committed without Rowan’s blessing or knowledge.”

A long silence ensued while the ambassador circled slowly about the palanquin. His glittering amethyst eyes never left Ms. Richter’s. When at last he spoke, his throat flushed an angry crimson.

“The Hound sits at your right hand and you have the impudence to deny Rowan’s treason!”

“It is truth,” the Director replied, spreading her hands. “Almost two years ago, Max McDaniels left these shores, sailed to your lands, and lived quietly in the countryside. He might still be doing so had your king not found him and pressed him into service. Did Prusias not proclaim Max the Champion of Blys in his very own arena? If Blys’s own champion has attacked its ruler, it would seem an internal matter for your kingdom. It is hardly Rowan’s treason.”

“What of David Menlo, then?” demanded the ambassador. “Do you deny that he orchestrated the events on Walpurgisnacht? Do you deny that he poisoned Astaroth?”

“Another curious charge,” Ms. Richter observed. “David Menlo was expelled from this school for insubordination long before Walpurgisnacht. We reported this to Gravenmuir and subsequently declared the Little Sorcerer an outlaw. Furthermore, David Menlo did not poison anyone. Astaroth willingly consumed the boy’s potions before his entire court after demonstrating their considerable danger. Tell me, ambassador, if I seize your blade, praise its edge, and cut my throat, should Rowan hold you responsible?”

“You are cutting it now.”

Ms. Richter looked up at the swaying head and laughed, brushing away the threat like a cobweb. “Come, sir,” she chided. “You’re taking this too personally! Emissaries must have thicker skins. You have made accusations and I am answering them. Let us turn to the issue of Gravenmuir and its unexpected destruction by Elias Bram. Does Prusias intend to hold us answerable for the actions of a man we believed had died centuries ago, before Rowan was even founded?”

The ambassador regained his composure, easing back onto his cushions and regarding Ms. Richter and the Red Branch with brooding malevolence.

“You maintain Rowan’s innocence and disavow these criminals, and yet here they reside. We know they shelter and sup beneath this very roof. If Rowan were truly innocent in these affairs, Madam Director, you would have delivered these outlaws and outsiders as a token of good faith and allegiance. Why have you not done so?”

“For the simple reason that the task is well beyond my power.” Ms. Richter shrugged. “Why doesn’t Prusias bring Yuga to heel? I hear she has devoured all of Holbrymn and is now drifting into Raikos.…”

Max had heard tales of Patient Yuga. She had been a humble imp until her cleverness enabled her to escape her long servitude and become a being so dreadful that even the greatest demons now feared her. Yuga took the form of a massive storm that moved slowly over the lands, mindlessly devouring all in her path. While Prusias had sought to placate her with the vast duchy of Holbrymn, it sounded as though Yuga had already consumed all of her subjects and now desired more.

“Yuga is not your concern,” hissed Naberius. “And you misunderstand your position. Prusias does not answer to Rowan; it is Rowan that answers to him.”

“Would King Aamon agree?” inquired Ms. Richter. “Would Rashaverak or Queen Lilith? The other rulers might find it rather presumptuous for Prusias to claim Rowan as his vassal state. Our treaty was with Astaroth, not his servants or their kingdoms.”

Naberius uncoiled once again. His heavy head reared up to gaze at them. “Prusias is Astaroth’s servant no longer. Astaroth was a fool. He allowed a mortal to deceive and weaken him before his nobles. None will follow him again. It is Prusias whom you should seek to please, Madam Director. Only Prusias is strong enough to impose harmony across the four kingdoms and ensure the peace we all desire.”

“I hear the other kingdoms intend to resist this ‘imposition of harmony,’ ” remarked Ms. Richter. “Is it true that Dun and Jakarun have formed an alliance, or am I misinformed?”

“It makes no difference,” the demon sneered. “Prusias is strongest. The others will surrender or be crushed and their lands awarded to those who aided my king. Rowan could benefit if she is wise enough to reconcile with Blys and swear fealty. Despite your deflections, Madam Director, Prusias will hold Rowan accountable for whatever Prusias chooses. My king is giving you an opportunity to make amends before war is declared. I urge you to seize this chance, for he will suffer no cravens or neutrals once battle is joined. Rowan is either with him or against him.…”

Ms. Richter nodded. “The choice is plain, but difficult. I must have time to consider Prusias’s offer and see if we can even procure the coin that he requires. Gravenmuir we can rebuild, a sword we can surrender, but to deliver Elias Bram … I simply do not know.”

Sinking back to the litter’s cushions, the ambassador slid beneath his samite covers like a glutted snake returning to its burrow.

“You have my sympathies,” he observed. “You are unlucky in your subjects. If Bram or your Hound had any honor, they would relieve you of this burden and make the necessary sacrifices. Rowan has until the winter solstice to swear fealty and fulfill my lord’s demands. I will await your answer upon my ship. Until then, I leave you to your council and your Hound to the Atropos.…”

The curtains closed as the malakhim raised the massive palanquin upon their shoulders. In their long black robes, they seemed to glide from Founder’s Hall. Max watched them go, his mind racing with Rowan’s dilemma and this unexpected threat from the mysterious Atropos. It was only when the great doors boomed shut that he remembered William Cooper and the Fool’s Perch. The chair was still empty.

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