Tuldralin glanced at the girls who huddled around her in the common room, then rose from her seat and stepped towards the heavy wooden door.
It wouldn't have looked like huddling to anyone else; every woman in the harem, no matter her age, sat poised and still, with no signs of worry or nervous energy. It was the fact that all of them were in the common room and all sitting still that gave it away; none of them worked at their various hobbies, and none of them were ensconced in their rooms. They were all together, all carefully posed, and their collective presence left the air heavy with waiting.
Tuldralin had just reached the door when she caught the muffled sound of footsteps outside, followed by voices. She doubted any of the others heard them at all, but her father had been elven and her ears were sharper than most. It was a trait that had helped to keep her alive for the last twenty-three years.
"I'm sorry," Durk was saying, from where he stood just outside the door. It was hard to tell through the heavy wood, but he sounded nervous. "The lord's orders..."
Another voice said, "Lord Crowe's orders no longer apply to anything in this place. He has fled. He lives only at the sufferance of Cardinal Richlieu, and only until we find him again. Kuldas Keep is ours by right of blood and conquest, and in the name of the Great God Amun I order you to stand aside."
"I--" There was a momentary pause. "A moment, I beg you."
Tuldralin swallowed as she heard the familiar sound of the bar being lifted. Whatever she needed to do to protect the others, she would do it. Whatever their new conqueror demanded, she would provide it. And whatever advantage there might be to be had, she would find it. I have to protect them...
The door swung open, and Durk blinked when he saw that she was standing just behind it. "Ah... Madam Tuldra? There's... there are... people here to see you."
Durk was about three-quarters orc by bloodline, tall and strong and intensely loyal: first to Lord Crowe, but also to Tuldralin and the women in her care. Tuldralin had always liked him; he was forthright and fair with them, even sympathetic -- though never to the extent of neglecting his duties. And there might be an opening here already: Durk had become a eunuch at his lord's order when he took up this post. That terrible loyalty extended in part to the harem as well; if Lord Crowe was truly gone, he might be persuaded to focus on protecting them.
"Then open the door, and let them speak." The words came easily, and something in Tuldralin's chest loosened as Durk swung the door open and then stepped back to stand beside her, still clutching his guisarme. He looked slightly overwhelmed, and as the door swung wide Tuldralin saw why: the group outside looked formidable.
The one who had spoken before offered a bow. "I am Tavros, a paladin from the lands that once surrounded Fanaxia." He might have been one of the lizard-folk, but... no, his scales were silver, and there was something alarming in the way he stood and moved. A half-dragon? "My friends and I have come in the company of the centaurs and the Bakunawa, to restore their rights and their lands. We would do the same for you, if we can."
Tuldralin swallowed and looked past him. There was an elven woman standing behind him, and a gnomish man; there were others gathered around, but those were the central figures. Meeting the woman's eyes, she voiced the thought foremost in her mind: "Some would consider us possessions of the vanquished lord, rewards to be claimed by right of conquest."
The woman shook her head with a cold certainty that suggested that she might murder anyone who tried that, and would expect her companions to do the same. Tavros barely shifted his stance, but ducked his head in acknowledgement. "There are some," he said. "We are not among them, and none of ours will be permitted such sins."
There was a soft rustle of movement through the room behind her: positions shifted, hands clasped, fans raised, postures suddenly relaxed. "I am pleased to hear that," she said. "I am Tuldralin, First Concubine of Lord Crowe."
"No longer," said the gnome, stepping forward. "You will be Lady Tuldralin, Viscountess of Northgrove, and those here in your care will be your ladies-in-waiting."
Tuldralin took a long, slow breath, making absolutely certain that she had heard correctly; and then, very sensibly, she asked: "What?"