The Matter of the North

A Day in the Undeath of Leyton, Steward of Leyland

All the damn letters that cross my desk in a day

Dawn, 7:05 am
Dear Ms. Halima Almasi,

I am pleased to inform you that you and your young sister Safa have been awarded full scholarships to the Queen’s University at Rhudeil. You may continue your current studies into divine and necromantic arcane theory, and Miss Safa has been enrolled into the highly selective School for Diplomatic Theatre Arts.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Cordially yours,
Leyton, Steward of Leyland

7:32 am
To Mr. Leyton, Steward,

Please help! The owls at the Palace Owlry is doing some kind of worker’s strike. They won’t send our messages! They’ve turned against us! Mr. Vetch (he’s me boss, Head Owl Keeper), he’s out today because his grandmother died again, and I just don’t know what to do!

Ow ow ow the owls is pecking at me!

Help me please,
Kyrett Dringer
Assistant Owl Keeper

7:36 am
Miss Kyrett,

Did you try feeding them? They may be divine creatures, but they’re still creatures, not automatons. The Palace provides the Owlry with a food budget, and I kindly suggest you use it.

-Leyton

P.S. Isn’t this the third time Mr. Vetch has been absent to attend his grandmother’s funeral?

7:43 AM
Mr. Leyton,

Old Mr. Vetch never said nothing about a owl food budget! But come to think of it, he did buy hisself some swank new clothes and I weren’t sure where he got the money from and he smacked me round the head when I asked him. And I been feeding the owls outta me own pocket change this whole time! The crooked old codger!

And no, this ain’t the third grandmother Mr. Vetch done buried. It’s the fifth.

Lots of respect,
Kyrett

7:47 am
Dear Miss Kyrett,

Congratulations, you’ve just been promoted to Head Owl Keeper. If you wish, you may reserve the pleasure of informing Mr. Vetch in person that his services are no longer needed and that Palace Affairs will be investigating him for embezzlement of royal funds.

A stock of fresh food for the owls is on its way up now from the kitchens. I have the greatest faith in your ability to perform the duties of your office with greater efficiency and integrity than your predecessor.

Best wishes,
Leyton

8:30 am
To the Queen’s Steward,

I am most grateful for your generous scholarship offer, but I must admit confusion on several points. First, how was I entered into this scholarship? Being a foreign student, I do not believe that I am eligible for financial aid, and I certainly filled out no such application for Safa.

Second, if you’ll pardon my asking, what the hell is the School for Diplomatic Theatre Arts?

Pleased but puzzled,
Halima Almasi

P.S. Your name sounds familiar. Have we met somewhere?

8:41 am
Steward Leyton,

Please help us! It’s a disaster! There’s a riot in progress at the Rhudeil Community Theatre! We tried to stage a kiddie morning matinee production of Fifty Shades of Pewter: The Musical, but we’ve been overrun with hordes of furious fans. We only tried to make a few age-appropriate alterations to the plot – how could we have predicted this ravenous dedication to Canon? Haven’t these hooligans ever heard of Artistic Liberties??

Anyway, the production company, along with five full kindergarten classes, are holed up in the Green Room at the Theatre. The teachers have managed to fend off the mob so far with some clever impromptu weapons constructed from stage props, sandbags, and high-pressure carbonated fizzy, but we can’t hold out much longer.

I’m sending you this message via Taradon owl. I hope, I pray it reaches you in time! Help us, Leyton – you’re our only hope!!

Sincerely desperate,
Gwennithicus Morganstern
Director of the Rhudeil Community Theatre Troupe

8:50 am
Mr. Morganstern,

Sigh. Palace guards are en route to contain the situation.

In the future, please refer to the Leylish government’s official safety regulations regarding productions of FSOP, or at least hire some decent private security for your theater company. This situation could have been easily avoided if you possessed the tiniest morsel of common sense.

-Leyton

P.S. Out of personal curiosity, how did you manage to construct a child-friendly version of FSOP? Take away the smut, and there’s nothing left over.

9:06 am
Personal memorandum (desk of Leyton, Steward of Leyland):

Investigate possibility of recruiting kindergarten teachers to Leylish armed forces. According to witnesses, they displayed admirable ingenuity and martial prowess while protecting their students at today’s FSOP riot, and I suspect they would be valuable military assets.

-Leyton

9:45 am
Dear Ms. Almasi,

What a pleasure to hear from you! Indeed, I had the very great enjoyment of meeting you briefly at the Fifty Shades of Bachelorhood event, where you accompanied young Safa for her “contestantship.” At that time, I was struck by your evident talents and potential, and I – upon conferral with Queen Melantha, naturally – determined to lend you aid in accomplishing your scholastic goals. Indeed, encountering the two of you was a bright spot in an otherwise painful evening (though I would not say so were I not confident, from your expressions throughout the whole, that you agree with my opinion). In fact, may I say that although the Fifty Shades of Bachelorhood had many deplorable moments, my greatest regret must be that I did not get the chance to see your face?

In any case, I must confess that you and your sister have captured my attention, and the Leylish Crown is always eager to cultivate the development of unique and exceptional individuals. To address your second question, the School for Diplomatic Theatre Arts is a relatively young division of the Queen’s University. Pupils are schooled in a variety of performance arts, acrobatic, arcane, and martial skills, with an overarching theme of using these skills to advance Leylish diplomatic interests. You may think of it as an interdisciplinary combination of the dramatic arts and international studies, if you wish. The training is, of course, tailored to the individual student, and you may rest assured that Safa would be educated to the highest standards.

You are under no obligation to accept the offered scholarships, I assure you. However, my sources indicate that, due to certain quirks of your respective natures, you and your sister might not be safe returning to your homeland, and therefore I sincerely hope that Leyland may become a new and even dearer home for the two of you.

Most sincerely,
Leyton

10:12 am
Steward – Urgent Message

Please visit Queen’s Library immediately. I am most cruelly tempted to maul and devour a patron, and I require your diplomatic skills to restrain me.

-Phedian, Assistant Librarian

11:50 am
My most honored Queen,

I must regretfully inform you of damage to a copy of three items from the Queen’s Library. As it transpires, a guest, Ms. Tiffanee Tippendorf, managed to smuggle her four pet pigs (named Pompom, Peridot, Pifflesnoot, and Pinksy-Winksy, which should give you sufficient insight into the individual’s character and intellect) into the Special Collections. She then set the pigs on several novels that had apparently attracted her wrath, and all five of them proceeded to bite and chew on library copies of His Captive Cultist and Gertrud Schnitzlschtein: Buxom Buccaneer. Our intrepid Assistant Librarian managed to prevent further damage by fending off the beasts with a copy of Abs of Fury: A Pewter Fanfiction (previously gifted to the library by the very same Ms. Tippendorf). I must commend Phedian for her presence of mind and eye for detail, as I doubt anyone will regret the loss of that particular piece of drivel.

Ms. Tippendorf is currently in custody and has been referred to you for appropriate punishment, as per your standing orders re: damage to library materials. Phedian advocates the incorporation of Ms. Tippendorf’s ah – accomplices – into an impromptu bacon dinner, although I suspect that this would ignite the ire of the Leylish Vegan Military Front. Personally, I recommend induction into the VSF, as Ms. Tippendorf’s literary skills are of potential use as a mechanism of psychological warfare.

May I suggest, however, that we move all romance novels from Special Collections into the general stacks? We could create a separate subdivision for romance novels, erotica, fanfiction, and the like … the Very Special Collections, perhaps?

Your loyal servant,
Leyton

12:15 pm
Leyton,

Do whatever you wish with the despicable vandal and her pigs, but for Ochublau’s sake, keep them away from my precious books!

-Mel

P.S. I saw that fanfiction of hers. I don’t know which is the more heinous crime against the written word – her destruction of my beloved books, or her creation of that hideous bucket of drivel. Ban it immediately, before that dreadful bard decides to make a musical out of it.

12:18 pm
My Queen,

Thy will shall be done.

Ever steadfast,
Leyton

12:55 pm
To Mr. Leyton,

“Dramatic arts and international studies”? Don’t mistake me for a fool, Mr. Leyton. You speak of spies! Your “School for Diplomatic Theatre Arts” is a training program for spies!

Do you think that anything could tempt me to release Safa into your serpent’s grasp? She is my sister, not some plaything for the Leylish state! Besides, she is just an ordinary little girl – bright and precocious, yes, but surely of no interest to one such as yourself. While I am proud of my arcane studies (pedestrian, to be sure, but a subject I find worthy of academic investigation), I must refuse any scholarship that would indenture my sister and me to you or to the government of Leyland (and from what I understand, the two are effectively the same).

With all gentle sincerity,
Halima

P.S. Go kiss a manticore!

1:10 pm
To Queen’s Steward re: surveillance subjects Halima Almasi and Safa Almasi:

Known agents of the Talbasarean province of Ismaida, currently residing in Rhudeil, have continued to monitor subjects HA and SA, and have recently purchased equipment and provisions for a long journey southward. Suspect that they intend to apprehend HA and SA, likely against their will.

Officials of Ismaida Province have also delivered a warrant for the extradition of HA and SA for crimes of manslaughter and unauthorized arcana.

-Leylish Intelligence Services Agent 008

1:21 pm
Leyton to Agent 008 -

Continue monitoring the Almasi sisters and potentially interested parties. Inform me immediately of any move by interested parties to harm, coerce, or otherwise interfere with the Almasi sisters.

Destroy the extradition warrant. For all intents and purposes, we never received it.

-Leyton, Steward to Queen Melantha

1:35 pm
My dear Halima,

You must simply call me Leyton. Mr. Leyton strikes me as quite ridiculous, as Leyton is not my surname but my given name, and I find “Queen’s Steward” to be such a limiting title. You see, I am far more than a mere steward.

On a similar note, pray do not sell yourself short as an academician. Investigations into the nature of life after bodily death, and the post-mortal attachment of the living soul to a lifeless body is a worthy subject indeed, as you and I are both well aware. As for Safa, let us be frank with one another; she is a most exceptional child, and it would be an insult to her talent, and both our intelligence, to attempt to deny it. As you observed, I have an active espionage program here at the palace, and I would not have offered you the scholarship without doing my due diligence first. Your background made for some fascinating reading. Parents dead from a mysterious fire? Two daughters, thought to have perished in the blaze, who somehow survived? Those same two daughters run out of town for dabbling into the unholy arcana? And your own very interesting studies here at the university? Halima, your story is anything but ordinary.

Yes, you have correctly divined the nature of the School for Diplomatic Theatre Arts. And yes, the program does include certain field excursions travel abroad experiences, and on-the-job training opportunities for advanced students. However, Safa would not be called upon to participate in these activities for many years yet, and any participation would be purely voluntary on her part. From my brief conversation with her at the Fifty Shades, I surmise that she is an energetic girl, more adventurous in spirit than you or I. Keeping her locked up in secret will not keep her safe, and with her particular talents, might even prove a greater danger. I’m offering an outlet for her abilities, as well as training to help her hone and control her powers. Think about it.

To assist you, should you choose to accept my offer, I’m sending you a small gift. Consider it a token of my goodwill.

Charmed,
Leyton

P.S. I tried kissing a manticore once. The experience of her tender embraces taught me to be more circumspect around fearsome ladies such as yourself.

2:00 pm
Dear Leyton (if you insist),

Your gift of flowers was much appreciated; they are lovely indeed, and my sister is quite delighted with the strange blooms that pinch open and closed like a dragon’s maw. They are novelties to us, as they do not grow in our homeland. Your accompanying “gift” of four brawny guards to “assist us in our domestic relocation” was less appreciated, however, as I have no intention of moving Safa or myself from our present abode.

I know that in this land it is considered discourteous to refuse a gift, but I hope you will absolve me of any rudeness in returning the guards to you directly. The blond one is somewhat damaged, I fear, but considering that he attempted to lay hands on my bookshelf after I expressly told him not to, I think you really cannot blame me for his condition. The redhead, too, sustained a dent or two. He has a most dreadful temper, but as I suspect he carried that defect before I met him, I shall not blame myself for his broken foot, and leave it entirely to you to fix. It was most unwise of him to attempt to kick down my door, for I warned him that it is a most solid, well-built structure.

Cordially and most certainly not yours,
Halima

P.S. Perhaps this may sound arrogant, but I would compare myself rather favorably to a manticore. So if a manticore could beat the living daylights out of you, I could flip you flat on your back and beat the unholy deathlights out of you any day of the week. With my hands tied behind my back.

2:07 pm
General Sigrun dar Senka to the Queen’s Steward:

Leyton,

Tell me, why does my sister’s boy Hans have a concussion this morning? He says you sent him out on a routine job to escort some miss and her kid sister to the palace, but when he tried to pack up their things like he was told, the two lasses set on him like “screaming devil-wenches from the fiery deeps of the sea” (his words, not mine.)

Who did you send him to fetch, the furies out of Hell?

-Sigrun

2:20 pm
Dear General Sigrun,

My sincerest condolences to your nephew. Hans was indeed sent on a straightforward mission to accompany two ladies to the palace grounds and assist with moving their possessions if required. Unfortunately, when the ladies declined the invitation, he took the initiative and attempted to forcibly remove them and their property. One can hardly blame the ladies for defending themselves, although I admit they may have been a trifle … exuberant … in their resistance.

I might add that Hans demonstrated remarkably poor judgment in choosing these particular ladies to accost. Next time, he might meet with better success attempting to bully a nest of hornets.

Your affectionate colleague,
Leyton

2:44 pm
Sigrun to the Queen’s Steward:

Typical of the lad. Poor boy took after his father’s side of the family, in looks and wits alike. Go easy on him from here on out, all right? He don’t have much brains to spare, and I hate to see him losing what little he’s got.

-Sigrun

3:13 pm
My dearest Halima,

Did poor Hans truly deserve such rough treatment? Surely you did not need to be quite so thorough in incapacitating my hapless soldiers. I do apologize, however, for their attempting to remove you and your sister by force. I thought I had clearly expressed to them that your move to Palace grounds was entirely voluntary. If they misunderstood my orders, then I must be to blame for dispatching such dimwitted assistants to you and your sister.

Nonetheless, I reiterate my recommendation that you relocate to Palace grounds, for the safety of yourself and your sister.

Still charmed,
Leyton

P.S. You’re welcome to put me flat on my back at your earliest convenience. If your hands happen to be tied behind your back … all the more interesting.

4:25 pm
Leyton,

Oh, you only wish you knew the things I can do with my hands tied behind my back.

Moving to Palace grounds, however, is not one of them. I suspect you know a fair amount about Safa’s and my history. She has … abilities that are not often considered acceptable by society. Honestly – I may as well say it straight out, as you’ve hinted heavily enough that know this already: Safa is a necromancer. She has strong arcane abilities in general, but the raising of the dead is her greatest natural talent. It comes to her as easily as breathing. And yes, I do have … personal experience with this talent of hers.

I am aware that individuals from our home province are after us. They have been following us ever since we left, no doubt hoping to use Safa to augment their own military might. Much as you wish to do, no?

Perhaps you mean well, and perhaps you do not, but as long as I can still keep Safa safe on my own, I will not sign over our freedom in exchange for your so-called protection.

Still not yours,
Halima

5:37 pm
Update to Queen’s Steward re: subjects HA and SA:

Agents of Ismaida currently en route to residence of HA and SA, suspect that forced abduction is imminent. Currently running interference to slow progress of Ismaidan agents, but cannot prevent abduction without reveal of our surveillance presence to foreign agents and HA/SA. Request instruction.

-Leylish Intelligence Services 008

P.S. Owe 4 denarii to Farmer Harger, fruit merchant in the Bauernfrühstück Market as part of aforementioned interference. Will bill to expense account.

5:48 pm
Intelligence Services 008 -

Protection of HA/SA is your top priority.

I give you permission to reveal yourself to foreign agents and the Almasi sisters, as I trust you will deal with the former, and I am attempting to recruit the latter to intelligence services anyway.

Once Ismaidan agents are dispatched, relocate HA/SA to palace grounds, peacefully if practicable. Note that HA/SA are highly intelligent, powerful, and potentially dangerous.

-Leyton, Steward to the Queen

5:56 pm
Urgent report to Queen’s Steward:

Ismaidan agents attempting to abduct HA/SA currently, HA/SA resisting with violence and powerful sorcery. Request urgent assistance.

-008

5:57 pm
008,

On my way.

—Leyton

6:15 pm
Milord Steward,

The kitchens are in an uproar! We are in need of your urgent assistance! Her Highness Queen Melantha has requested apple pie for dinner, but we do not know whether she prefers red, green, or yellow apples. Please advise!

With greatest trepidation,
Cook Maggs

6:35 pm
To Leyton, Steward of Leyland:

I await your directions on the latest delivery of Fizzy to the castle grounds, as agreed in the taxation settlement. I must admit, however, that I am confused by your direction that I smuggle the shipment in through an underground passageway, rather than simply wheeling it up to the normal delivery door next to the library. Why so much secrecy? And why do I need to deliver them in crates labeled, “Fifty Shades of Pewter Fanfiction”?

Sincerely,
Faltoon’s Fabulous Fizzy Supply and Distribution Co.

7:02 pm
Oh Mister Leyton,

Please come immediately! Only you can save my Flufflysnuffles, I’m absolutely certain! She’s climbed up onto the roof again, the poor dear, and I simply can’t get her down! I’ve heard how clever and ingenious you are, Mister Leyton, and I don’t know who else to turn to.

Forever to be deeply in your debt,
Gargus Fistpuncher, Beater of Büffle Street

7:27 pm
Steward,

Do you know where I left my glasses? (Not a riddle – I just can’t find them.)

-Phedian

P.S. Speaking of riddles, though, here is my latest (that Abs of Fury inspired me). Traditional rules apply to guessing the answer:

Pass through my threshold and stopper your tongue;
I cannot deny that I’m littered with dung -
But search me with diligence, pay all your dues,
And you may find within me a diamond or two.

What am I?

8:05 pm
After-action report re: Halima and Safa Almasi:

NOTE: This document is for the private records of Steward Leyton only.

What an incredible woman. My heart doesn’t even beat, and yet I almost could feel my nonexistent pulse pounding when I saw her fight the Ismaidans. Manticore, indeed – she is unstoppable in defense of her sister.

I arrived just as the Ismaidans – two men and three women, all armed and moving like trained fighters – caught up to Halima, Safa, and my Agent 008 in a small blind alleyway off Büffle Street. Halima, wearing the thin scarf that, as always, obscured all but her eyes, looked frightened, but Safa was screaming fiercely at the attackers, employing an extensive and resourcefully-phrased vocabulary I’m rather surprised her sister allowed her to learn at such a tender age. I’m ever more confident that Safa would indeed thrive in the Diplomatic Theatre Arts program; she has the steel spine for it.

She has the raw power for it, as well. The Isamaidans targeted my 008 first, presumably (and mistakenly) believing him to be the greatest threat of the group. One of the women aimed a loaded crossbow at 008 as he tried to shield Safa and Halima, but before the Ismaidan could fire, she found herself facing the unfavorable end of an oncoming fireball. Little Safa can conjure an inferno the size of a pony from thin air; it would take the average grown battlemage weeks of training to form what she creates on naught but instinct! Oh, what the child could accomplish, given proper training! – but if I carry on in this manner, it may sound as if I did nothing but stand and gape at the battle as it commenced.

One of the Ismaidan agents – I’ll call her Agent A for Already Dead – was thus taken out of commission within the first few seconds. Naturally, this display put the fear of Buckleban into the other four, and they quickly took cover behind the trash littering the entrance to the alley – which was lucky for me and rather less lucky for Agents B and C. They did not notice me lurking in the shadows next to them until I had separated Agent B’s soul (and aorta) from his body, and sheathed my other knife in what I believe was Agent C’s left kidney. It is mystifying to me how my undead state seems to grant me an unnatural degree of stealth. One would think that a walking corpse would draw the eye, but instead, most of the living seem rather to avert their eyes from mine. Perhaps it is some instinct of avoidance or self-preservation; perhaps it is simply that I lack the small, giveaway sounds and movements imbued by a beating heart and living lungs? Whatever the reason, it had been Halima’s unflinching gaze at the FSOP event that had initially captured my attention, and that same stare of wide-eyed intensity was trained on me now, as she moved to shield her young sister from their attackers.

The two uninjured Ismaidans rushed into the alleyway while I grappled with Agent Compromised Left Kidney, who was surprisingly agile despite my knife sticking out of her side. Agent D engaged my 008 and maneuvered him away from Halima and Safa, whereupon Agent E – the largest of the Ismaidans – went for the sisters. I shouted for them to get away from Agent E-For-Enormous, but preoccupied as I was by Agent Kidney and her knives (tainted with poisons, which were mostly wasted on me), I could not assist the sisters. Safa hurled another fireball at Agent Enormous, but the man threw up some form of mage-shield, and the flames spun off toward Agent D and my 008. They both screamed. The worst of the fire hit Agent D, who likely died almost instantly, but 008 also crumpled to the ground, clutching at his right shoulder. Both out of commission for the remainder of the fight.

Halima shoved Safa behind her and backed up until she hit the pile of lumber and rubble at the far end of the blind alley. As I continued to clash knives with Agent Kidney – damn, she had stamina – Agent Enormous advanced on the sisters, the mage-shield held steady with one hand and a wicked-looking cosh held in the other. Safa clenched her small fists and didn’t try to throw another fireball, but continued to hurl profanities at Agent E, while Halima looked frantically around for a weapon.

Agent Kidney took advantage of my distraction to slice a long gouge in my thigh. I lunged for her and returned the blow with equal fervor, and rather more successful drawing of blood. By the time I snatched another look at the sisters, Halima was brandishing a nail-studded lath of wood at her attacker. I could tell from the furious look in her eyes that she was snarling behind her veil. I had to get to her side, and quickly.

I redoubled my efforts against Agent Kidney, who was finally starting to flag. Her movements were as quick as ever, but I could see the haze of blood loss descend over her eyes as her attacks grew less calculated and more haphazard. I allowed her to back me into a cluster of garbage, then feinted as if to escape past her. She lunged forward, and I pushed a teetering pile of stained, ragged canvas over her. She stumbled, tangled in the fabric, and I pinned her to the ground. Cornered, she lashed out at my face, and sent my enchanted mask clattering to the cobblestones. She screamed in true fear then, when she saw what lay behind the mask, and plunged her knife into my calf, but for naught; I quickly dispatched her. It was not neatly done, but I did not have the leisure to ensure that she live for questioning.

I gathered up the mask and placed it back over my face, then ran, limping, for Halima and Safa. The child was huddled under a pile of wood, watching with wide-eyed fear while her sister blocked and parried Agent Enormous’ cudgel with her lath of wood. From her sharp gasps and the blood on her dress, I guessed that more than one of the man’s blows had already landed, but still she fought.

“Hey!” I shouted, panting (my leg did hurt rather considerably), “Why don’t you leave her be? Your friends have all gone home, and the lady clearly isn’t interested in your advances.”

The brute turned toward me, eyes narrowed. I heard Halima mutter something about hypocritical revenant flirts who can’t take a hint, and I flashed her a grin before turning back to Agent Enormous. I wanted his attention on me.

We stared at each other a moment, each evaluating the other. Agent Enormous looked at me with disdain; clearly, with my scarecrow frame, ink-stained gloves, and a knife protruding from my calf, I didn’t measure up to his standards. He had large, bulging muscles that would take effort to maintain, even as a professional fighter, and his clothing seemed rather designed to display that cultivated bulk. A vain man, then, and one for whom masculinity and strength were paramount. This, then, was how I would destroy him.

“Do you normally fight women and children, or is today a special challenge for you?” I said, waving my knife back and forth in a taunt. Enormous’ eyes darkened, but he kept his mage-shield aimed toward the sisters, even as he scowled at me.

“Why don’t you try your luck with me?” I continued, keeping the man’s eyes on mine, but watching the sisters out of the corner of my eye. “Maybe a half-dead man with a knife sticking out of his leg is more your style of victim? I promise to go easy on you.” While I spoke, Halima began to edge to the side, out of the man’s range of vision. Safa was softly chanting while huddled in her pile of rubble, watching the scene with eyes like saucers.

I smiled lazily, and tried to keep my leg from trembling beneath me. “Do you even talk? Or did your boss cut off your tongue along with your-”

At that moment, several things happened at once. Agent Enormous gave an enraged roar and charged toward me. A large ginger cat suddenly dropped into the alleyway with a loud yowl and tripped Agent Enormous before he ran two paces. Halima swung her nail-studded lath and struck the man on the back of his neck. And Safa – tiny, terrifying little Safa – stopped her chanting, raised her arms, and sent a stream of darkness slithering along the cobblestones at the man. The ribbons of darkness slipped under the mage-shield, wrapped around his boots, and pulled him, with a look of stunned confusion on his face, into a black, aberrant void that appeared out of nowhere at his feet.

With a soft pop, the void – and the man it contained – dissipated into nothingness.

I stared at the cobblestones where Agent Enormous had just vanished. Halima looked equally shocked. In the end, it was Safa who spoke first.

“Hi, Mister Leyton. Thanks for saving me and Halima.” She crawled shyly out from under the pile of rubble. “I’ve been practicing summoning Interdimensional Voids. Did it help?”

I snuck a look at Halima’s expression, which was slowly morphing from shock to exasperation. I smiled like a fool, and knelt down to help the dusty child to her feet.

“Yes, Safa, you were a most tremendous help.” Then, all of a sudden, a wave of dizziness and pain washed over me, and I believe I lost consciousness there and then.
-
I awoke somewhat later in the VSF healer’s barracks, clean and feeling much more sound of mind. After reassuring myself that my 008 would be well taken care of (he had suffered severe burns to the shoulder and arms, but fortunately our healers are skilled, and he should regain full use of the arm with minimal scarring), I conferred with Palace Security regarding the events that had occurred while I was unconscious. According to Lt. Grina Argusen, one of Sigrud’s better recruits, she and several other soldiers arrived on the scene several minutes later to find Halima and Safa attempting to stabilize the wounds incurred by 008 and myself. The guards were immediately dispatched to transport 008 and me to the VSF healer. Lt. Argusen, knowing of my standing orders regarding the Almasi sisters, offered to escort them to safety on the Palace grounds, and to everyone’s surprise, Halima accepted. They are currently being attended to by the Queen’s own healer, for Halima sustained several rib fractures and rather severe bruising from that brute of an Ismaidan and his cudgel.

I visited the healer’s wing, of course, but Halima shouted through the locked door that she had no desire to speak to me, and requested in rather forceful terms that I leave her sister and her alone while they recover from the shock of the day’s events. I could hardly argue with such a request, especially considering that I judged the Queen’s healer rather likely to comply with Halima’s words over my own, so I thought it best to give Halima some time to consider the matter. I admit that I myself could use some space for reflection; speaking with Halima is … complicated, even at the best of times. She is not intimidated by who – or what – I am, and if I’m to be honest with myself, that is one of the qualities that draws me to her.

I’ll not keep secrets from my own personal records. When I first met the sisters, I viewed young Safa as a potential Leylish asset – a sweet, bold child who would benefit from a relationship with the Leyish government, to be sure, but an asset nonetheless. Since then, however, I have come to see that her sister is even more valuable, and in a wholly different way. I suspected from the start that Halima is a revenant as I am, but it is not this that draws my interest. Halima could be my true ally. She is intelligent and determined. She has evaded the hands of her foes for two years to protect her sister, and studies the darkest of arcane arts purely to better understand young Safa. Halima is sharp-tonged and kind, fierce and courageous, and – yes, I shall be honest – I would be unhappy to see her go.

Therefore, it only remains to convince her to stay.

-Leyton

9:35 pm
To Cook Maggs, Madame Faltoon, Gargus Fistpuncher, and Phedian (in that order):

1. Apples from Farmer Harger at the Bauernfrühstück Market.
2. Queen Melantha’s sobriety.
3. Your cat is lucky she wasn’t pulled into an interdimensional void this evening. Keep the cat indoors.
4. Your glasses are on the second shelf from the left in the Special collections, and the answer to your riddle is the FSOP Fanfiction Section of the Queen’s Library.

Always your servant,
Leyton

8:39 pm
Halima,

I mentioned before that I regret not seeing your face at the Fifty Shades.

Partly this is because I’m sure that anyone with such expressive eyes must possess an equally captivating face behind that scarf of yours; but partly this is from a hunch – now a certainty – that your face and skin would be a ghoulish mirror of my own. Surely you have heard the rumors about the shadow behind the throne, the creature who never sleeps, the man who is never seen without a hood or a mask enchanted to resemble a living face? Were I to meet you again and reach out to your hand, would I feel skin as cold and waxy as my own?

And do you not think that others would notice this as easily as I have, Halima? And do you think your sister – your only living kin – would be spared from the wildfire of rage and fear you would ignite? Surely the attack this afternoon has disabused you of that notion. I am truly sorry for the difficulties you have encountered heretofore, but my first priority is (and has been for some time) the safety of you and your young sister. On the Palace grounds I can offer the two of you protection and a future. I can give Safa the finest education she could hope for, and an outlet for the remarkable powers she possesses. I say again, I will never force her to use them in any way to which she does not freely agree. For what it’s worth, you have my word.

Let me know of your decision soon. You are not prisoners, and should you wish to leave, you have only to ask the guard outside your door.

With my greatest respect,
Leyton

9:20 pm
Dear Halima,

A guest suite in the palace has been prepared for you and Safa to stay tonight, as I’m sure you are weary from today’s ordeal. A guard shall escort you to the rooms, if you wish.

Say the word, and these rooms are yours to stay.

Respectfully yours,
Leyton

10:05 pm
Dear Ms. Halima Almasi,

I hope the guest suite is to your liking. Should you find yourself in need of any item of comfort or necessity, you have only to ask.

Respectfully,
Leyton

10:45 pm
Dear Miss Safa Almasi,

I apologize that my soldier was unkind towards you and your sister earlier today, and I’m so sorry that the two of you were attacked this evening, but I am very glad to see you again! Do you remember when we met at the Fifty Shades of Pewter event? I was very impressed by both of you when I met you then.

I imagine that all the goings-on between your sister and myself might be confusing, and I thought it would be polite to address you directly. As your sister may have told you, the Leylish government would like to support you both in school here – your sister in her current studies, and you in a special program for future spies and diplomats. However, there are people from other places who also want you to work for them, and these are the people who attacked you today and tried to kidnap you and your sister. These people would force you to work for them, but I promise that I would never make you do any job you didn’t want to do.

It might be best for you to talk this over with Halima. I imagine she’s very upset right now, as she has been avoiding my letters to her, and I’m sure she could use your support. If you have any more questions, feel free to write a note and give it to the guard outside your door, addressed to Steward Leyton. The guard will make sure it gets to me.

Sincerely,
Leyton

11:27 pm
Dear Mister Steward Leyton,

You are rite that Halima is mad at you rite now. She says you are a coniving son of a horses buttuks and a interfereing bloody loonatic whos too clevir for his own good and damm those peercing eyes hes a smooth arogant bastird besides, but dont tell her I sed that to you becus I think those are bad words and I wasint suposed to hear them. I’m suposed to be sleeping rite now but I’m not. I dont think your bloody or mad, your acktualy very clean even thow you stabbed peple a lot today, and your always very nice to me and Halima wen we see you. I like the flowirs you sent they are very pretty.

Thank you also for the muney for scool for me and Halima. She likes studeying even if she wont say it and shes rilly smart. I want to go to scool too, and I want to travil to lots of places when I grow up like Halima. Halima says it is not safe to go places becaus of bad people chasing us but I think it wuld be fun, and if you came too we wuld defeniteley be rilly safe. Also if you show me how to stabb with a nife and throw fires like today I wuld keep us rilly safe too, but I wuld also want you to come with us becus I like you and Halima wuld be sad if you went away even if she wont say it.

This room is rilly pretty with lots of flowirs but the gard who stands gard outside is boreing and wont talk to me and also there are no books heer. I’m tired but I don’t want to sleep eether. I want you to come visit us plese becaus I didnt talk to you erlier becaus you wer busy stabbing peple.

Sinceerly,
Safa

11:31 pm
Leyton,

First, stay away from my sister. Any communications go through me, and me only.

Second – I am willing to meet with you. Tonight, I suppose, while Safa is (now) safely abed. Since neither you nor I require sleep, we might as well talk at a time when we’re least likely to be interrupted.

Third – thank you. I suppose. Much as I dislike your interference, I concede that Safa was in danger tonight, and it’s thanks to you that she’s safe again. If you can continue to protect her, and provide her with proper training for her abilities, then I will consider your scholarship offer. Maybe.

Fourth. Don’t be stupid. Manticores never run away from troubles. We fight.

-Halima

11:40 pm
My dear Lady Manticore,

Shall we meet in an hour, then? We have much to discuss, and our negotiations may well take until morning light.

The Eastern balconies offer a lovely sight to behold when the sun rises over the mountaintops. It is my habit to watch each dawn alone, but this morning, it would be a pleasure to share the view with you, if you so desire.

Yours,
Leyton

11:52 pm
Dear Steward Leyton,

Please forgive me for taking so long to respond to your last! I was putting the finishing touches on my next stage play, and when Creativity calls, I must answer! Ha ha!

Enclosed is a copy of the manuscript of the Rhudeil Community Theatre Company’s kiddie-friendly matinee production of Fifty Shades. I do hope you enjoy!

Forever in your debt,
Gwennithicus Morganstern
Director of the Rhudeil Community Theatre Company

Midnight
To Palace Security:

Please take this stage play manuscript outside and have it incinerated. If I read any more of it, I shall lose my dinner, my mind, or both.

-Leyton

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