As she and her husband led the Demon delegation up a stone stairway that wound its way to the summit of Raven's Peak, Martha couldn't help but wonder if Alfred was right. Perhaps we should kill the Demons, she thought. It's obvious why they are here, and I can't imagine any negotiations ending well.
"Your land is quite lovely," Martha heard Joseph's silky voice say beside her.
"Thank you...is it just Joseph? No title other than Demon's Voice?"
The Demon's Voice chuckled. "My people are a simple folk. We find that titles are nothing but presumptuous statements about a person's imagined importance."
"And yet, you call yourself The Demon's Voice," Martha countered as the group crossed the wooden bridge leading from the mountaintop to the reception hall atop Wain Peak.
"My people call me that," Joseph explained. "I was chosen by the Head herself to speak for her in all foreign matters. I am her Voice; the title is descriptive, nothing more."
"And our titles are no more than relics from a monarchal past," Martha said. "Thomas and I are tasked with guarding Goth Isle against all threats, as are our people."
"But you have a king," Joseph observed.
Martha laughed. "Chesterfield is king in name only. A compromise to give the so-called elites of Cobblestone the illusion they are above the rest of us."
"And what about Ser Alfred back there?" Joseph gestured lazily to the fuming knight following them. Martha suppressed a chuckle. She felt bad for what Al was going through, and wished he'd allow her to make this inconvenience up to him properly.
"He and his wife are the heads of our military," Martha answered. "Alfred heads the ground armies, Marie our air calvary."
"Ah, so you have dire birds here as well?" Joseph asked nonchalantly.
"Oh yes. We have a few such creatures. Direcats, direravens, megadeer, emperor fish."
Joseph looked around, taking in the vista; Martha took a moment to appreciate the view as well. The moon was casting a pale light across the landscape; Martha could clearly see the other peaks of the Wain Mountains and the distant Fries Range, the shadow-filled Kyle Valley, and even a hint of Mystery Lake. Martha couldn't wait to see Brian and Maria; it had been far too long since she had been to the Kyle Valley, and knowing they were coming to Raven's Keep almost made putting up with the Demons bearable.
"How many dire creatures do you have in all?" Joseph asked.
Martha cocked an eyebrow. The transparency of the Demon's question was almost insulting. "Enough."
Joseph oozed a smile. "I very much doubt that."
"Why are you even here?" Martha sighed. "I've never known the Demon Host to send delegations to its enemies."
"We don't have to be enemies," Joseph whispered, sliding a hand across Martha's back.
Martha's own hand shot out, grabbed Joseph's, and snapped his wrist as though it was kindling. Joseph let out a yell, and the other Demons drew their swords and bows. The Ravensguard sprang their own weapons.
"No!" Joseph yelled, holding up his staff. "Just a — umph — little misunderstanding." He waved his staff over his broken wrist, muttered a few words. Martha heard his bones snap back together, and with a wiggle of his fingers, the Demon's Voice was smiling. "See? All better!" he sang, showing his people the repaired limb.
The Demons put their weapons away, as did the Ravensguard. "We should have warned you," Thomas said, taking Martha's hand. "Martha has a bit of a temper."
Martha glared at Thomas, who shrugged helplessly. "My temper is just fine," she told Joseph diplomatically. "So long as you remember your manners."
Joseph put his hands out. "I promise, Duchess, my hands will not invade your body again," he purred with a slimy grin.
"See that they don't," Alfred growled, his hand still on the hilt of his sword.
Joseph took on a look of mock despair as they resumed their walk. "Ser Alfred, what have we done to deserve such contempt? We are guests here, with nothing but the most peaceful of intentions. My limbs may be a bit bold, but I assure you, my heart is pure."
"Is that what you told Star's Bay?" Martha asked.
Joseph's grin faded. "Ah. You heard about that."
"Queen Moira was a very good friend of ours," Thomas said quietly, his bearded jaw tight.
Joseph ran a hand through his shiny hair. "Well, I do apologize for your loss. The queen rejected our overtures most rudely. We had to respond."
"Burning a city to the ground and exterminating its people isn't a response," Alfred snarled. "It's mass murder."
Joseph shrugged. "They didn't give us much choice."
Martha wanted to snap the Demon's neck. "Is that why you're here? To unleash the same hell on us?"
Joseph chuckled. "I sincerely hope not! I like to think Goths have more sense than the Stars do. Oops, I mean did."
Thomas halted just outside the large wooden doors leading into the hall. A breeze blew through his long black hair. "We will not be threatened by you. If that's all you're here to do, you might as well leave now."
Joseph sneered. "My duke, you completely misunderstand me! I'm just here to have a good meal and make new friends." He winked at Martha. She felt an overwhelming urge to vomit.
Thomas visibly relaxed, but Martha could see wariness in his eyes. Two of the Ravensguard opened the doors to the hall; Martha saw the caterers had finished preparing the feast. The circular chamber was lined with curved tables mounted with food, while round tables arranged in six concentric rings filled the room. Martha's eyes scanned the room for her son, but he was nowhere to be found. "Thomas, where's Bruce?"
"I think he's in the Roost with Marie and Julia."
"I'll go get him," Martha said, grateful for the excuse to get away from Joseph.
"But Martha — " Thomas began, a look of annoyance on his face.
"Sorry, Thomas," Martha said as she left, "You're on your own." As Martha walked back out into the cold, she felt Joseph's icy eyes following her.