Margrave nods to the Dukaine bodyguard stationed outside Lord Nekh’s study. The bodyguard gives him a sly, minimal smile, possibly the only movement she has made in days. She is some kind of earth elemental, summoned and bound by Nekh himself, currently appearing to be part of a bas-relief panel of marble, a lovely nude woman holding a staff in a way that can only be termed “erotic.” But Margrave has seen what happens if Nekh becomes displeased enough to call for her. The elemental can move with shocking swiftness, just as graceful and beautiful as she appears now, and Margrave saw that phallic staff, made of solid marble, punch right through the back of the skull of his predecessor a few years ago. Margrave had to replace his suit. The blood just wouldn’t come out.
The elemental, able to bend all the stone in this part of Nekh’s palace to her will, causes the marble door to open, then goes back to doing whatever earth elementals do when they’re not killing people or opening doors. He wonders if she just contemplates the nature of Reality, or thinks about soil qualities, or if she just turns her brain off. Assuming she has something that can be described as a brain.
Elementals, he thinks. Give me a demon any day. At least with demons, you know where you stand.
He enters the study and the door swings silently shut behind him. Nekh is sitting in front of the opened bay windows, holding a snifter of brandy and contemplating the Sun as that god’s golden chariot passes behind the edge of the great caldera on which Nekh’s palace is perched. The shadow of night has already taken hold of the City below, on this side of the Insula. An insect, perhaps a bee, buzzes lazily in through the window.
Margrave waits, but Nekh says without turning, “What news? Don’t hesitate – this may be beautiful, but I can see it every day.”
“Tuma-Sukai has sent word to the Commander. He claims Sergeant Alma’s progeny are ill and unable to be moved at this time, citing a public health–”
Nekh hurls his glass through the window to shatter on the veranda. He grips the arms of his chair so hard that Margrave hears the stitching pop, then thrusts himself to his feet and turns to glare at Margrave. The diabolist wizard swallows but tries not to show any fear. None of this is his fault, after all.
“Has the Commander sent the message to demand that his trained dog follow his demon-pissing orders yet?” the vulture-headed god screams.
“He has not, Lord. His response was, ahem, ‘Well, we don’t want to start an epidemic, do we? And it’s not like they’re going anywhere’.”
“The Commander!” Nekh hisses. “I knew he was disloyal. He’s always had his own agenda. And keeping a thing like Tuma-Sukai as a pet. Margrave, I want them dead.”
“The Bunnies, Lord?”
“The Bunnies, Tuma-Sukai, Math’s precious nephew!”
“My Lord, if you kill Lord Math’s designated heir–”
Nekh barks a laugh. “Ha! It’ll be open war between us? Fine, fine, the time is not yet ripe. They can kill that Gwydion if he gets caught in the crossfire, but no purposeful assassination, yet.”
A buzz fills Margrave’s ear and he waves distractedly at the bee to shoo it away. “What of Sergeant Alma, Lord?”
“Oh, leave her alive. Her spirit will be crushed with the loss of her precious creations.” The Archon fetches another snifter and fills it from an ancient crystal decanter. The bee makes a pass by him, attracted by the sweetness of the brandy. “She’ll probably come running to me for help. Then I can tell her the truth of it all, and destroy her utterly. Perhaps I’ll keep her as a hostage in the dungeons, to control Death. Though I’m not sure he’ll still want her.”
“Shall we send the Sikari, Lord?” The bee flies toward him again, and Margrave reflexively snaps his hand out and grabs it from mid-air, then squeezes, crushing it.
Nekh chuckles at his lieutenant’s swift reflexes. “No, it would call too much attention. Besides, we already have our Dukaines on the ground. Have them assemble a hit team.”
Margrave hesitates. “Would this be a surgical strike, or a full assault on the station?” He opens his palm and looks expressionlessly at the twitching insect, then puts it in his handkerchief and tucks it into his jacket pocket.
Nekh considers. “The assault is tempting. Dead Guardia piled high would send a perfect message to Math. But now is not the time. Not when we’re so close to having Dukaine control of every ward around the base of the City. Have them wait, and take the Bunnies when they try to move them. Tuma-Sukai has been acting suspiciously, blocking our attempts to eavesdrop. Surely they have some escape route prepared.”
Margrave bows. “I will make the arrangements personally, Lord. Oh, by the way, I recently learned that a wizard-assassin threw in with the Dukaine organization in Three Rats. Apparently he’s been hunting Lord Math’s nephew after a failed attempt to kill him.”
“Ha! Good. Make sure he’s part of the strike team. If he kills Gwydion, we can shift the blame all the more easily.” He smooths the feathers around his long, wrinkled neck. “Don’t fail me in this, Margrave. I want those Bunny-things dead.”
“Of course, Lord Nekh.” Margrave bows and withdraws.
Walking out past the elemental, he pulls out his handkerchief and once again examines the dead bee, using his mage sight. He sees it, yes, a fading glimmer of magic, of a very specific kind. The bee was controlled. And it had carried an enchantment along with it: an eavesdropping spell. Someone had been listening in on their conversation, at least for awhile.
He thinks back on the mistakes Nekh has made in recent weeks, and calmly decides to keep this information to himself. It might come in useful, after all.