The Iron Khan
with Mhara himself: it would simply have been too tactless.
     
    But now, here was the Empress, sitting like a black-eyed spider in the midst of her web, peering at Inari and Miss Qi.
     
    “Who are you?” she asked. She had a beautiful voice to match her appearance: low and husky. “A Celestial and a demon. Have you come to visit me?”
     
    Miss Qi dropped a perfunctory curtsey. “Madam. I’m afraid we are here by accident. Our vessel was caught in the winds of Earth and whirled here.”
     
    “Ah,” the Empress said, smiling. “How unfortunate. Well, perhaps I may be able to help you. But first, will you have some tea?”
     
    Inari was letting Miss Qi, a fellow Celestial, handle this one. She could sense Miss Qi’s reluctance, but knew that the Celestial would accept, rather than risk offending the Empress.
     
    “That would be most kind,” Miss Qi said.
     
    They settled themselves gingerly on the cushioned seats on either side of the Empress. The former ruler of Heaven wore a magnificent gown, with spreading skirts in pink and gold, like clouds, that took up most of the seating. The Empress smelled of jasmine, but there was something too sweet, too sickly about it, and Inari, used to far fouler odors, had to struggle not to recoil. The Empress raised a hand, in which was a small bell, and rang it.
     
    It took Inari a moment to recognize the person who entered. She was slight, dressed in a formal gown, moving with small shuffling steps that suggested her feet were bound. She had a pale, oval face, the color of peach blossom, and huge, dark eyes, but both her mouth and her ears were missing and there was little expression in her limpid gaze. Across the room, Miss Qi stiffened in shock, but Inari thought only, Clever Mhara. Instead of supplying his devious mother with servants who might, even here, be suborned, or worse, sending her servants who needed to be punished and who would, therefore, resent their position, Mhara had looked to Earth for a solution. The mouthless drones who served the super rich had provided him with a way out. This thing had no proper sentience of its own, could not hear, and could not speak. From the distaste with which the Empress was regarding it, she did not appreciate its services.
     
    “Tea,” the Empress pronounced, bleakly.
     
    Miss Qi and Inari murmured thanks and sipped hot oolong. Inari was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. It was clear that the Empress was both angry and mad, and despite her current status, she had once possessed a great deal of magical power. If she chose to exercise that on some nasty whim —
     
    But then the Empress turned to Inari and gave a glacial smile.
     
    “So. What is a demon doing in the company of a Celestial warrior?”
     
    “Circumstances,” Miss Qi said, firmly. “Much has changed in the last few months.”
     
    “It certainly has.” The Empress looked at Miss Qi. “I rarely hear from my son, you know. How is he faring?”
     
    “I have never met his August Serenity,” Miss Qi said, lying with a smoothness that Inari could only admire. Deception didn’t come easily to Celestials, whatever example the Empress herself might have set. “But I believe him to be well.”
     
    There was a glitter deep in the Empress’ eyes. “He betrayed me, you know,” she murmured.
     
    “I’m sure he — ”
     
    “My own dear son sent me here to live. Forever.” She turned to Inari. “Do you know how long forever is, little demon?”
     
    “I — ”
     
    The Empress dropped her teacup and it shattered into a hundred shards on the wooden boards beneath her feet. Hot tea mottled the surface of her skirts like blood. The mouthless drone was instantly there, to sweep up the remains. The Empress, rising, struck the drone and sent it spinning to the floor. The drone shook its head with mechanical speed, and rose.
     
    “I think we’d better go,” Inari said.
     
    “I agree.” Together, they hastened out of the cabin, with the badger

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