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“Go ask Avei,” Gabriel muttered, turning to stare out across the city and the plains beyond. “Why did we think this was a good idea?”

“I have better questions,” Trissiny replied. “What’s your problem with it, and why are you only bringing it up now?”

“Oh, I’m just…I dunno.” He sighed, and hopped down from the stone guardrail—just in time, as the nearby Legionnaire who had been eyeing him finally turned away. This was not the kind of place where standing on the rails was looked on kindly. “Don’t mind me. It is a good idea, but the closer we get to doing it, the more I’m…nervous.”

“Why?” she asked more quietly, stepping up to the rail beside him.

Gabriel shrugged, staring at the horizon. The forest was just visible as a darker line at the edge of the world, and beyond it, a rise of distant mountains deep within Athan’Khar. “It’s Avei. And I’m me.”

“Yeah,” she said thoughtfully. “Maybe you shouldn’t talk to her.”

He gave her an irritated look. “I’m being serious, Triss. You never exactly made it a secret that she has a problem with demonbloods.”

“It…was more that I had the problem,” she replied, now staring into the distance as well. “And the problem was my ignorance, not your blood. It’ll be fine, Gabe. You’re a paladin, now.”

“Mm.” His lips twitched in a faint grimace. “Seems not quite right that that makes it acceptable for me to exist.”

Trissiny opened her mouth, then closed it again, failing to find a worthy response to that. Instead she turned to check on the other two.

Schwartz was far from the only person winded by the climb. Vrin Shai was a remarkably vertical city, clambering up the slope of the mountains surrounding it toward its uppermost terrace on which sat the central Temple of Avei, flanked by the main administration buildings of the Silver Legions and the Imperial government. The city had been laid out with defense in mind; there was only one path from the gates to the highest terrace, with the ramps to the next terrace up at alternating ends of each, requiring pilgrims to traverse the entire length and breadth of Vrin Shai to arrive at the temple. It had never been tested against an invading army—none had got past the walls—but had done in plenty of visitors. A plaza was laid out atop the steps leading to the highest level, discreetly lined with stone benches on which over a dozen people were currently resting, watched over by Silver Legionnaires and a few priestesses trained in the healing arts.

There was, consequently, a thriving taxi industry, but Schwartz had refused to hire one when they offered, insisting that he had made this climb before. It wasn’t that he was flabby or even quite as scrawny as he sometimes appeared in his voluminous robes, but as far as physical shape went, he wasn’t on the same level as the three paladins. In truth, Trissiny had been mildly impressed that Gabriel wasn’t also winded when they reached the top.

“Whew!” Schwartz puffed, coming to join them with Toby still hovering solicitously nearby. “Sorry ’bout that. Thanks for waiting, guys, I don’t mean to hold us up.”

“You’re fine, man,” Gabriel said, grinning. “Gave me a chance to procrastinate for a little bit; you know how much I like that. Well, shall we go face the music?”

“Nothing bad is going to happen,” Trissiny said firmly. “This is probably the safest place in the world. Come on, boys. Follow my lead.”

Meesie was not in evidence, having been temporarily dismissed while they were on holy ground. This temple was one of the world’s most sacred places, the historic center of Avei’s entire faith; the sheer concentration of millennia of built-up divine energy was the main reason Schwartz hadn’t been able to rejuvenate himself with a quick fae spell (and Toby’s divine healing did little for simple fatigue, unfortunately). His elemental familiar would have found it extremely uncomfortable.

Gabriel craned his neck back to look warily up at the enormous statue of Avei surmounting the temple, her outstretched sword pointing south toward Athan’Khar—and incidentally extending forth as the only part visible above them as they passed beneath the temple roof.

Being one of the world’s most important temples, there was enough of a crowd to keep them anonymous. Trissiny had neither armor nor sword with her, and Gabriel’s scythe was safely tucked away. Ariel, hanging from his belt, drew a few eyes—in this of all temples there were a good number of people who recognized a rare elven saber when they saw one—but of the four of them Schwartz stood out the most in his Salyrite robes. Pantheon temples did not bar one another’s worshipers, but they were hardly common visitors; he drew several raised eyebrows from the priestesses and Legionnaires in attendance.

Once inside the great sanctuary, Trissiny immediately led them to the side, out of the main path. The layout was identical to the central sanctuary of the Temple of Avei in Tiraas, which had been patterned after this one: a long room running from its broad doors to a great bronze statue of the goddess at its opposite end, with shaded colonnades running along the sides. At the rear of these, doors led deeper into the complex. Silver Legion soldiers stood guard at every entrance, but these were still open areas and they were not challenged upon passing through.

The door she sought was in a rotunda where several halls met—in fact, very similar to the door which led to the art gallery in the Tiraas temple, which she had forcibly opened last year with Teal. Here, the bronze doors towered eight feet high, wrought in a depiction of a long-ago Hand of Avei in battle against orcs. They were guarded by four Legionnaires at attention. A priestess in white was speaking with a well-dressed woman in front of them; both paused their conversation to look up in surprise at the four as they approached.

“Excuse me,” Trissiny said politely. “We need to enter the inner sanctuary.”

The priestess narrowed her eyes, looked Trissiny up and down, then glanced quickly across the three boys accompanying her. “I’m sorry, but the inner sanctuary—being one of the holiest places in existence—is not open to the public.”

“It’s open to me,” she replied with a small smile. “I’m Trissiny Avelea.”

All four Legionnaires, though already at attention, stiffened slightly; the rich-looking woman with the priestess gasped, her eyes widening. The cleric, however, just made a disapproving face.

“You’re Trissiny Avelea,” she said with barely-concealed disdain. “Young woman, no one in this temple will find that amusing. Now, if you have need of guidance, I can find a sister to help you.”

“Be so good as to find Sister Astarian,” Trissiny said. “She knows me.”

“The High Priestess is no more available to wandering supplicants than is the inner sanctuary,” the woman said in mounting expasperation.

One of the Legionnaires behind her cleared her throat. “Excuse me, Sister—”

“As you were,” the priestess snapped without glancing back.

At the sudden change in Trissiny’s expression, the woman in the expensive dress began edging circumspectly away.

“I believe,” Trissiny said in a much cooler tone, “a supplicant does have the right to request an audience with the High Priestess of the temple. She is not obligated to grant it, but the request is to be conveyed. Any of these soldiers can do so; tradition dictates that the doors may be guarded by as few as two soldiers.”

“You are well read,” the priestess said in annoyance, “but nonetheless, you don’t get to walk into the central temple of the Sisterhood of Avei off the street and make demands.”

“Sister, she is correct,” the soldier interjected. “I will personally notify—”

“As you were, Sergeant,” the priestess repeated, now turning to give her a flat look.

And that was the limit of Trissiny’s tolerance.

“Gentlemen,” she said, “you may want to shield your eyes.”

All three of them stepped back while the priestess turned to scowl at her again. “Now, look here—”

The light that erupted from her was blinding in that enclosed space. It receded quickly—far from completely, leaving her aglow, but diminishing enough to ease the burden on everyone’s eyes and enable them to see her golden wings, stretching nearly to the walls on either side of the rotunda.

Gaping, the priestess stumbled backward, nearly running into the woman wearing sergeant’s stripes, who was now trying very hard not to look smug. Trissiny stepped forward, forcing the woman to retreat right up against the doors and remaining just close enough to be uncomfortable without becoming too aggressive.

“Visitors to this temple are to be greeted and treated with respect,” she stated, wings of light still fully extended behind her. “If insane, they should be handled as gently as possible. If aggressive, they should be neutralized with the minimum possible force. In all other circumstances, they should be accommodated as much as is reasonable, and addressed courteously when they can be accommodated no further. While you stand in this temple, wearing that robe, you represent the goddess. There is no circumstance in which you should speak to a supplicant in that manner. Do I make myself clear, Sister?”

“Yes, ma’am. General. My apologies,” the priestess said, nearly stammering.

Trissiny remained silent, and held eye contact. The silence drew out excruciatingly, filled with the faint sound of divine magic, a harmonic tone like both a bell and a flute which hovered at the edge of hearing.

“My sincere apologies,” the priestess repeated, swallowing.

Finally, Trissiny nodded to her, and allowed the wings and the light to fade; with them went the subtle music of the divine, leaving the sound of strained breathing suddenly very audible.

“The door, then?” she said calmly, still standing just a touch too close.

Before the woman could reply, the doors were pulled open from within, revealing a stately woman with iron-gray hair tied up in a severe bun. Azora Astarian wore no mark of office aside from the uniform of a Sister of Avei and former Legionnaire: the white robe, with a golden eagle pin at the shoulder, and a belt from which hung her sword, a plain Legion-issue weapon with no decorative touches to call attention to it. In theory, the High Priestess of such an important temple occupied a place of tremendous honor in the hierarchy of the Sisterhood; in practice, she was as practical a woman as many who ranked highly in Avei’s service, and had never sought any particular recognition for herself.

“Trissiny,” she said with a warm smile. “I hope all is well; unexpected visits from paladins are often dire portents.”

“I’m sorry to descend on you without warning, Sister,” Trissiny replied, smiling back. “Don’t worry, there’s no emergency. Our business is merely unexpected, not dire.”

“That’s a relief.” Astarian shifted her eyes to the other cleric, her expression cooling noticeably. “Thank you, Sister. You may go.”

“High Priestess,” the younger woman replied in a somewhat shaken tone, inclining her head, “I was—”

“You may go,” Astarian repeated. The woman hesitated, bowed, then turned and hustled away. The visitor with whom she’d been talking had already fled, leaving Trissiny and her companions alone in the rotunda with the Legionnaires, who were still holding admirable composure.

“Who was that?” Trissiny asked disapprovingly, glancing after the departing priestess.

“An advancement-minded bootlicker,” Sister Astarian replied with a distasteful grimace. “Her work gets done and she causes a minimum of trouble, though the girl prioritizes doing favors for well-connected supplicants above accomplishing anything useful. She’ll be Bishop one day, mark my words. And who are your friends?”

“Oh, of course, I’m sorry,” Trissiny said hastily. “Everyone, this is Sister Azora Astarian, the High Priestess in command of this temple. Sister, may I present Tobias Caine, Gabriel Arquin, and Herschel Schwartz.”

“Ah! An honor, gentlemen. Welcome,” Astarian said with grave courtesy, bowing to each of them. She showed no less respect to Schwartz, whose name obviously carried far less weight than those of either paladin.

“Thank you very much, Sister,” Toby said with equal politeness. “We’re sorry to intrude so suddenly.”

“You are always welcome here,” Astarian replied with firm kindness. She stepped back and aside, gesturing them in. “Please.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny said, and nodded to the sergeant before following, the boys trailing after her.

Toby had moved to the head of the group, and now placed a hand gently on Trissiny’s back as Sister Astarian led them within. “That,” he murmured, “was a much better look on you than holding people’s faces in punchbowls.”

Schwartz was walking close enough to overhear and did a double-take, eyes widening. Trissiny just sighed through her nose and continued walking. Behind them, the Legionnaires pulled the doors shut, enclosing them in the inner sanctuary.

It was similar in layout to the main one, though more compact. The long corridor was lined with weapons, each displayed in an obviously custom-designed wooden mount affixed to the wall, small pillars forming arched alcoves to created a unique space for every one. They were an idiosyncratic lot, from spears, staves and warhammers, to crossbows, Shaathist-looking longbows, spiked iron knuckles, a bullwhip, even an orcish ak-tra. These were personal weapons owned by past Hands of Avei, tools of war each woman had used in addition to the sacred ones provided by the goddess.

At its end, the corridor opened into a round, domed space, encircled by flowing water which was fed by small fountains around its walls. In the center stood another statue of Avei. It was a marked contrast from the proud bronze statue in the main sanctuary, which depicted the goddess in an almost arrogant pose, chin up and sword aimed forward. This one, made of dark marble which contrasted with the white stone of the temple, showed her with her head bowed in contemplation, hands clasped behind her.

Toby and Trissiny both slowed, turning their heads to peer at an incongruous object among the weapon displays: a battered old leather-bound libram, its cover marked with the sunburst sigil of Omnu. The placard identified it as having belonged to Laressa of Anteraas.

“Don’t,” Ariel’s voice advised behind them, and both turned in time to catch Gabriel swiftly withdrawing his fingers from the namesake warhammer of Sharai the Hammer. Its haft was nearly as long as he was tall.

“What brings you to seek the inner sanctuary, Trissiny?” Astarian inquired when they joined her before the statue of Avei.

“It’s a bit of a story,” Trissiny explained, “and we are trying to keep it from becoming more of one, if possible. The short version is that we are on a divinely mandated quest. From Vesk.”

“Uh oh,” Astarian said dourly.

“Yeah,” Trissiny replied in the same tone. “Our movements have been directed by him personally, and brought us here. We are at a bit of an impasse, and wish to consult the goddess about our next move. I don’t lightly call upon her in person, but I think that is the pattern of this venture in particular. Vesk sent us on it personally, Vidius has already put in a direct appearance, and now we have reason to think Salyrene will become involved.”

“I see,” Sister Astarian said, frowning in thought and nodding her head slowly. “Well. You are right, business of Vesk’s is unlikely to mean anything terribly important is brewing. Still, it does sound like you’re being directed to seek out the gods. I can well imagine Vesk wanting to arrange that, in particular. Let me ask you, Trissiny, is the matter on which you want to consult Avei in any way secret?”

“I don’t…think so,” Trissiny replied with some confusing, turning to glance at the others.

“I bring it up,” Astarian explained, “because this is a truly rare event. Most followers of the goddess—of any of the gods, for that matter—will go their entire lives without being in the presence of their deity. If it is an imposition upon your quest I of course won’t ask, but if it’s not, might I have several of the senior priestesses and Legionnaires present? It would be a great honor for all, and a tremendous benefit to morale.”

“I can’t see any harm in it,” Toby said in response to Trissiny’s questioning look. “We’ve been given no reason to suspect our mission is secret or sensitive. She is your goddess, though, Triss; I’ll trust your judgment.”

“Uh, scuze me?” Gabriel said, raising one finger. “Sorry, Sister, could we have a moment alone?”

“Gabe, I trust Sister Astarian without reservation,” Trissiny interjected quickly.

“And if you have an objection, Mr. Arquin, you’ll find I’m hard to offend,” Astarian added with a smile. “I also know that paladin business is none of mine unless I’m invited to participate. Please, speak your mind.”

“Well…okay, then,” he said a little hesitantly. “Sorry, I just didn’t want to be rude. Triss, you remember Tellwyrn’s lectures about the gods, and how their nature can work against them, particularly if invoked by their own paladins?”

“Tellwyrn is hardly what I’d call a theologian,” Trissiny said skeptically.

“Yeah,” he replied, “and that’s exactly why I’m inclined to listen to her about the gods. She knows all of them, personally, and isn’t terribly impressed with most. Plus, there was that whole business with Avei and Juniper in the Crawl, remember? We know that the way we call on them can affect how they manifest.”

“What are you driving at, Gabe?” Toby asked.

“Just that the manner in which you call on Avei is likely to determine the manner in which she replies. A formal invocation in front of a solemn audience might very well make the difference between a reasonable person we can have a conversation with, and a fifteen-foot-tall being of light who speaks solely in grandiloquent pronouncements. I think, in this case, we want the first one.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said, frowning.

“He has rather a point, there,” Schwartz admitted. “Theology isn’t my strong suit, either, but that much is sort of basic.”

“It is…uncomfortable to acknowledge,” Sister Astarian added with some reluctance, “but yes, Mr. Arquin is correct about the principles involved. When the gods grant someone the privilege of calling on them, exercising that privilege becomes somewhat inherently coercive. It is an expression of great trust between deity and paladin. And the absolute last thing I wish is to intrude upon that trust.”

“I really hope that isn’t too much of a disappointment, Sister,” Trissiny said.

“On the contrary, Trissiny,” Astarian said, smiling again, “it’s a needful reminder. We are all called to serve; the gods are not put there for our amusement. Well! It sounds, then, as if you have need of the sanctuary and some privacy. I will see that you’re not disturbed until you are done.”

“Thank you very much,” Trissiny said warmly.

They waited until the priestess had retreated and closed the sanctuary door behind her.

“Sooo,” Gabriel said, tucking his hands in his pockets. “Full disclosure, I barely know how my own religion works, and apparently my god signed me on specifically not to care. So, uh, I’ll do my best but…”

“You don’t need to do anything, Gabe,” Trissiny said with an amused smile, patting him on the arm as she passed him on the way to the statue. Then she hesitated. “Actually… Just try to be respectful, okay?”

“I can do skittish and tongue-tied. Will that work?”

“That’ll be very authentic,” Toby said solemnly.

“It certainly beats the alternative,” Ariel added.

“Right then,” Schwartz said, clearing his throat. “Is there, uh…someplace I should stand?”

“Actually, guys, it would help if you’re just quiet,” Trissiny said, kneeling before the statue. “This isn’t very formal or ceremonial, but it is very personal. It’s not something I’m used to performing in front of an audience.”

“Mum’s the word,” Gabriel promised. “Oh, uh, wait. Is ‘mum’ a gendered—”

“Gabe.” Toby placed a hand on his shoulder. “Hush.”

Quiet fell, the peace of the sanctuary augmented by the soft sound of water. Trissiny remained on one knee before the statue, making a harmonious contrast to its contemplative pose. Nearby, Toby and Schwartz both fell easily into a kind of standing meditation; they came from different traditions, but both emphasized the ability to still the mind, and each instinctively recognized a situation in which that was important. Gabriel, at least, managed to be quiet. He stood rigidly to the side, both hands jammed into his pockets, his shoulders tight with tension.

He was the first to react when Trissiny moved, twitching once as she started to rise.

“Did it work?” he asked in a hushed voice.

“I don’t…know,” she murmured, a frown falling on her face even as she opened her eyes. “Avenism isn’t a very mystical tradition, Gabe. I just…felt something was…finished?”

“That’s a very good sign!” Schwartz added brightly. “In fact, you have a good instinct, if you’re not accustomed to recognizing that. Learning to identify that subtle sense is an important and often difficult step in mastering the—eep!”

“At ease, Mr. Schwartz,” said a warmly amused contralto voice.

All turned, Trissiny with the most grace, to find themselves in the presence of a goddess. Avei, at the moment, was making even less of a production than Vidius had; both, in their recent appearances, had simply presented themselves as people without the overwhelming aura of power their presence could carry, but she didn’t even have his dramatic props. She was a tall and broad-shouldered, in a simple Imperial Army uniform, with her black hair pulled back in a regulation ponytail. The most physically striking thing about Avei in person, at least in this form, was that she was a vividly beautiful woman. As was inevitable, to eyes raised in a culture which had based its ideal of beauty upon her.

“You came,” Trissiny said, somewhat surprised in spite of herself.

“You do have the prerogative to call on me,” Avei replied, stepping forward to stand in front of her. “Which is not to say I indulge every such request, but your assessment was correct, Trissiny. I don’t consider this a frivolous invocation. And yes, I already know of your quest—and the dilemma you face.”

“It’s a presumptuous thing to ask, I know,” Trissiny said quickly, bowing. “Obviously, Salyrene doesn’t want intruders into her sacred tower. If this is something you cannot or would rather not help with, I understand that completely.”

The goddess gave her a wry smile, tinged with fondness. “You really don’t care for Vesk’s little project, do you, Trissiny?”

“I don’t care for being manipulated,” Trissiny replied, her expression darkening. “Nor do I see the point in anything Vesk does.”

“Yet, you went to study the very art of manipulation, among other things, with the Eserites,” Avei observed. “And while Vesk’s personality is every bit as annoying as you have noted, he is a god. He sees and knows things beyond your imagination. You would be well advised to learn from him while you have the opportunity.” She paused to look at each of the four in turn, her expression betraying nothing. “Everything Vesk is sending you to find, he could acquire far more easily without involving mortal agents. His key is not the point—or at best, only part of it. This is one of those journeys which is more important than its destination.”

“One hears about those,” Gabriel murmured. “Honestly, I never thought that old saw made much sense.”

Avei glanced at him again, briefly, before continuing. “In truth, I am strongly inclined to encourage this, and will be glad to help. As a rule, intruding upon the private domains of the gods is a thing I advise you not to do, but this…is a unique case. Salyrene is personally to blame for the entire state of the world today, and I grow weary of her sulking.”

“That’s…I…” Schwartz trailed off as the goddess’s attention turned to him, and swallowed heavily. “…thank you.”

“Everything you need, you already have,” Avei said. “I will not do more than prompt you in the right direction—solving the riddle for you would invalidate the exercise, not to mention that me prying open a door to my errant sister’s tower personally would ignite a conflict the world truly does not need. But guidance is all you require. Mr. Schwartz, you need only guide your party to the door; you will know where to find it, as you always have. Mr. Arquin, you have the means to open it.” She paused, wearing a knowing little smile, to glance over them again. “Any questions?”

“What’s wrong with the world?” Gabriel asked, staring at her with a frown.

“Is that a serious question?” Avei asked dryly.

“You said Salyrene is to blame it,” he said, narrowing his eyes infinitesimally. “That’s an interesting word, blame. The world is better right now by just about every measurable standard. There’s more food, more wealth, more peace. And most of that comes from uses of magic. Salyrene’s domain. So what’s your problem with that, exactly?”

“Gabe,” Toby warned.

“You have taken an interest in the history of the Infinite Order, have you not?” Avei said calmly to Gabriel.

He hesitated before replying in a warier tone. “Yes. Is that wrong?”

“Not in and of itself,” she replied. “Anything you should not know is beyond your ability to learn, anyway. No, Gabriel, perhaps you should pursue that interest. Look into what drove the Infinite Order to leave their world, and come to this one. These things of which you speak so highly have a price. One this world has not had to pay in eight thousand years. One we gave up everything to prevent it having to pay. Nothing is free, young man. Every moment that life becomes easier, a bill is being tallied up. Were I you, I might look into returning some of those gifts before payment is demanded.”

“Like what?” he retorted.

“Gabriel,” Trissiny said sharply, frowning at him.

“This hostility is about more than ancient knowledge, isn’t it?” Avei suggested.

He met her gaze for a long moment, then looked away. “I spoke out of turn.”

“The time to regret that was before opening your mouth,” the goddess said. “Rest assured, I don’t find you threatening. Please speak your mind, Gabriel.”

“I guess I’m a little uncertain on the concept of justice,” he said, squaring his shoulders. “I met another half-demon in Tiraas, named Elspeth. She told me about trying to come to you for protection, and being burned. Physically, right where she stood, just for trying to pray. To you. Which part of that is just?”

“None of it,” Avei said, nodding her head deeply. “That was a grave injustice, as have been many incidents like it. It’s injustice I am tremendously pleased that Trissiny has begun taking steps to correct. The Silver Missions are a start; shifting the attitudes of a whole society is the work of lifetimes. But that is why we need you, Gabriel. We are…what we are. In some ways, we are fixed in place; in some ways, we are terribly vulnerable to the very belief people place in us. Paladins provide us a way to correct course when we have gone wrong.”

She stepped toward him, and he stiffened further, making an abortive backward movement as if to retreat. In the end, though, he stood his ground. Avei simply reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder. Standing that close, she was taller than he, but only but a few inches.

“I applaud courage,” she said in a much gentler tone. “It’s an admirable thing, that you are willing to speak painful truths to great power. But be wise, Gabriel. Lashing out at a deity is not…strategic. A just cause is worthless if it is guided only to defeat.”

“I…see,” he said, then bowed his head. “Thank you. For the advice.”

“You are welcome.” Avei stepped back, lowering her hand, then turned to smile at her own paladin. “You are all doing rather well in this. And Trissiny… I am extremely proud of you.”

With a final nod to them, she turned and strode away up the corridor toward the bronze doors. Rather than opening them, she was simply no longer there when she reached them.

It took a few moments of silence for the tension to ebb enough.

“Gabriel, really,” Trissiny said in exasperation. “What was the one thing I asked you to do?”

“This is why people stab you,” Ariel said. “You understand that, right?”

“Ah, ah, ah.” Gabriel held up a chiding finger again. “People fucking stab me. I think I was safe, there. A goddess would never do something so undignified.”

“If anyone could provoke her to, it’s you,” Trissiny snapped.

“Hey, when you guys are done bickering, I think Herschel has an idea,” Toby said mildly.

They turned to find that Schwartz, indeed, was pacing up and down, muttering to himself. “Already know, and always have… Oh, gods, of course, it’s so obvious. How could I not have seen that? And having to pester an actual deity just to jog my fool memory! Augh, how humiliating.” He pressed both hands to his temples, grimacing as if in pain.

“Herschel?” Trissiny said uncertainly.

“Yes!” He turned to her, lowering his hands and suddenly looking so animated she instinctively stepped backward. “Trissiny! We need a warlock!”

“A warlock?” she replied incredulously. “Herschel, this is Vrin Shai. Even the Topaz College doesn’t have a presence here!”

“No, no, what am I saying? Of course not a warlock,” he grumbled, turning and beginning to pace again. “That’s just borrowing trouble, not to mention making the whole affair more complicated than it needs to be. Yes, I see…don’t have enough skilled casters to take that approach anyway, all we need is to build an array of…” He trailed off, then turned and pointed quickly at each of them in turn, lips moving as if he were counting something.

“Are you…okay?” Gabriel inquired.

“Yes!” Schwartz suddenly whirled and dashed away toward the door.

“Hey,” Gabriel called after him, “I’m pretty sure there’s no running in Avei’s inner sanctuary!”

Ignoring him, Schwartz reached the doors, grabbed both handles, and hauled them open with no further ceremony. “Sister! Ah, there you are!”

Sister Astarian was, indeed, waiting right outside, and had turned to face the doors at their sudden opening, her eyebrows rising in surprise. “Here I am. Your efforts were successful?”

“Oh, yes, quite,” Schwartz said distractedly. “But anyway, sister, this is an ancient and very important temple, yes? So you must have vaults?”

Her brows lowered again in puzzlement. “Of course. Some very old, containing all manner of… Well, what is it you are looking for, exactly?”

“Perfect! Perfect!” Grinning in evident delight, Schwartz eagerly rubbed his hands together. “Where do you keep all your most dangerous and evil artifacts?”


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She hit the water back-first and was instantly submerged, barely having time to remember not to inhale and no chance to twist or reorient her fall into a proper dive. Which might have been for the better; slapping onto the surface of the water that way stung her entire body, but had she sliced in cleanly she would have impacted the bottom in a second. The canal was not all that deep.

While the water closed over her head and she tried to get her legs under her, Trissiny had the stray thought that she’d been using her armor entirely the wrong way all these years. Being able to summon it at will, there had really been no reason to wear it around constantly. Quite apart from the spectacle it made of her, being clad in metal was a bad idea in a variety of situations. Abruptly being tossed in the drink, for example.

Immediately, before she had a chance to begin swimming, Trissiny surged bodily upward, back through the surface and then higher, propelled aloft on a powerful jet of water. It spurted up over the side of the canal to deposit her in the street amid a broad splatter which made several bystanders retreat with yells of protest.

It wasn’t the most graceful way to return to dry land, but Trissiny’s instincts took over and she hit the ground in a roll, smoothly coming upright. Drenched, slightly bruised by the impact, but not significantly the worse for wear. Her next order of business, of course, was to address the source of all this with the dignity befitting her position.

“You donkey!” she roared, charging past Toby (who had evidently seen this coming but wasn’t close enough to intercept her in time) at Schwartz. Still glaring at her, he immediately started conjuring something, to judge by the movements of his hands, but Trissiny manifested a hardlight construct in the shape of a standard Silver Legion shield, attached to her arm in the usual position, and rushed him. Whatever fae work he was casting fizzled on contact with the divine magic, and then she had shoved him back against the wall, and tipped him over.

“Oh, boy,” Gabriel said philosophically from somewhere behind her as Schwartz hit the canal with a loud splash.

In the next moment, he shot back upward, in the same way she had—although with more control, probably because he was casting it on himself this time. At any rate, he remained upright, and actually hopped off the pillar of water which had uplifted him to stand dripping on the sidewalk.

“Yeah, I’m a real piece of work,” Schwartz barked at her, now also sopping wet and not deterred by it. On his shoulder, Meesie was steaming—both in terms of being mad, to judge by her hopping up and down and chittering aggressively while pointing at Trissiny, and literally. “I’m the kind of absolute goon who abandons my long-lost siblings in an elven grove with a bunch of strangers while I rush off on some mission from some god. Oh, wait!” He melodramatically clapped a hand to his forehead. “No, I’m thinking of someone else.”

“Trissiny!” Toby said, frowning reproachfully at her.

“You stay out of this,” she snapped.

“Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey.” A new figure approached the group, and in looking up at her Trissiny noticed that they’d generated quite the audience; apparently everyone in the vicinity had paused their own business to watch the altercation unfold. The woman now stepping forward and speaking in a soothing voice had a short sword belted at her waist and kept her graying hair cropped short in one of the Silver Legions’ approved styles, but she wore white robes with a golden eagle pin at the shoulder rather than armor. “Why don’t you kids stop and take a breath before this goes any further? Fighting in the streets with magic is an automatic night in a cell if the Legionaries catch you at it.”

“You are making a spectacle of us, Herschel,” Trissiny stated, turning to glare at him.

“Me!” he shot back, Meesie squealing along in agreement. “Who’s the one clubbing people with divine shields?!”

“You threw me in the canal!” she bellowed.

“You really cannot go throwing people in canals, son,” the intervening priestess said, giving him a look.

“She’s my little sister,” Schwartz informed her, “she’s a practically indestructible Light-wielder, and she’s being a self-centered brat. She’ll be lucky if that’s all she gets thrown in today.”

“While I could watch this all day,” Gabriel interjected loudly, “apparently so can everyone else in town. Come on, guys, listen to the nice lady. It’s gonna be really embarrassing if you two get tossed in jail.”

“Self-centered?” Trissiny retorted in disbelief, ignoring all of them. “I know you aren’t that dense! How is it self-centered not to drag you into ridiculous danger—”

“Do you really think I need you to protect me?” he snapped. “I told you about Athan’Khar. I helped you with the dwarves in Tiraas, and then the conspirators. At what point are you going to start taking me seriously?”

“That isn’t the point!” Trissiny heard her own voice rising in pitch, and seemed strangely unable to control it. “It was my calling, not yours. For me, and…them.” She waved furiously at Gabriel and Toby, who were standing a few wary feet distant. “Have you ever read any of the bardic epics, Herschel? People who follow paladins around die. I am not—”

He suddenly lunged forward and seized her by the shoulder. “I was right there asleep!”

The combination of his uncharacteristic physical aggression and the non sequitur brought her up short. He was gripping her shoulders hard—not enough to hurt, as her muscles were about an order of magnitude harder than his, but enough that his own arms quivered slightly with the strain. Before she could decide how to react, he slumped, lowering his head between his arms to stare down at the cobbles. Meesie, having fallen silent, clung to his collar with three limbs, using the other to soothingly pat Schwartz’s cheek. She stared up at Trissiny, who thought the little elemental’s rodent-like face looked inexplicably accusing.

Schwartz drew in a deep breath and let it out in a shuddering torrent before raising his head to look at her again. His glasses were askew, which he didn’t seem to notice. What with the water pouring out of his hair and down his face, it was impossible to tell if there were tears in his eyes, but his expression implied them.

“The whole time, Triss. Just…knocked out like a bag of rice. I woke up later and it was all done. Me, who could have tossed Ildrin and all the rest of them around the room with wind and fire if I… He was only there to look after me, anyway.” He stopped, swallowed loudly, and straightened up somewhat. Not releasing her, but restoring some of the iron in his spine. “I know you blame yourself for Ross. Maybe you could have done something different and he’d still be alive; maybe not. There’s no telling, now, and no point in wondering about it. But the whole situation only existed because of me.”

Before she consciously decided to do anything, she was hugging him. It was only another surprised moment before he wrapped his thin arms around her in kind. They were both on the tall side, but Schwartz more so; her cheek rested neatly against his shoulder. After a pause, Meesie carefully clambered over and patted Trissiny’s face, squeaking very softly.

“I’m still mad at you,” he muttered into her hair.

She sighed. “Fine, you can be mad. I just…want you to be safe.”

Apparently this was a less entertaining show; at any rate, the spectators were drifting away now. She could just see past Schwartz’s neck where Toby and the priestess were talking to a pair of Silver Legionnaires, likely summoned to deal with the disturbance. Gabriel had wandered over to the canal wall and was leaning against it, scribbling in a little black journal with a pencil and studiously not looking at them.

Schwartz’s lean chest swelled in a sigh, and he pulled back enough to meet her eyes, finally nudging his glasses back into place. “I don’t want to be safe, Trissiny. Safety’s all well and good up to a point, but if you’re too safe, you’ll never do or be anything. And even so, perfect safety is nonsense; anything might happen, the world is that huge and chaotic. I refuse to be one of those people who gives up every ounce of freedom and purpose for a security that isn’t even real.”

“You have to draw the line somewhere, though,” she protested. “Herschel, following me around… I mean, it would be one thing if this was any of your business. But it’s just some stupid nonsense Vesk cooked up because he’s bored.”

He peered at her face for a long moment. “You’ve never lost anyone before, have you?”

She managed, mostly, not to flinch. That was just a little too close to what Vidius had said only minutes before, on top of being true.

“Because,” Schwartz continued, “you’re reminding me a lot of how I was for a while after Dad died. Lucky for me, I had Mom to chew me out when I started trying to coddle her and Melody.”

“I…”

“Trissiny,” he said gently, squeezing her upper arms again, “everyone is going to die. No exceptions. Even immortals only last until something happens to them. You can’t stop that. And…you can’t hate it. It’s just part of life. You have to appreciate being alive, and having the people you love, while it’s all there. Take it from me, if you try to keep everybody tucked away safely in a box, you’ll either stifle them or lose them.”

She finally let her arms fall, and backed away from him. Not to retreat, though; with a heavy sigh, Trissiny paced slowly over to the canal wall and slumped her back against it the way Gabe was a few yards away. It came up to mid-chest on her, tall enough that flipping Schwartz over it had taken some doing.

“I’m sorry I never got to know him,” she said quietly, staring across the street. People were passing by, now; nothing still going on here was too out of the ordinary, aside from the two of them being drenched.

Schwartz came to lean against the wall next to her. After a pause, he actually chuckled softly, earning a confused look.

“Sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s just… I don’t think you would’ve liked him much. Oh, he would have liked you, though. Dad was always drawn to the sort of people he tended to irritate. And he made it work for him, often as not. He wore Mom down, anyway. You know what’s odd?” he added, giving her a thoughtful look. “I can see both him and Principia in your face, now I know to look for ’em. But…not a shred of either in your personality. The really weird thing is you remind me a lot of my mother.”

“I have a feeling that makes a certain twisted, backwards kind of sense, and I can’t really articulate why.”

He nodded.

“…I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I shouldn’t have just disappeared like that. I knew if I told you, you’d want to come, and I am still not quite ready to sign on for that…”

“Well, I suggest you start getting used to it,” he replied bluntly. “Haven’t you ever read a bardic epic? Even paladins never worked alone. You can always use some magical support. And Trissiny, I am just as disinclined to sit back and watch you get killed as the other way ’round. You can watch my back, and I’ll watch yours. But you will not ditch me while you try to run off and get killed by yourself.”

“I am hardly trying to get killed,” she retorted.

He just leveled a finger at her; Meesie scampered down his arm to perch on his wrist and mimicked the gesture, squeaking severely. “Pull that crap again and I will turn you into a toad. I don’t care what Avei does to me.”

“Can you actually do that?” Toby asked, strolling up to them.

“Ah, well, technically—”

“Technically,” Gabriel said from Schwartz’s other side, “transfiguration via fae magic is a lot easier than an arcane baleful polymorph, if the caster is willing to deal with the kind of especially nasty fairies who traffic in curses. Don’t make threats you’ve got better sense than to back up, Schwartz. Also, hi! How’ve you been?”

“Uh…hi, guys,” Schwartz said belatedly, wincing. “Toby, Gabe, Ariel, Vestrel.” Meesie squeaked cheerfully, waving.

“And Meesie, of course,” Gabriel said gravely. “So, our girl here ditched you in a grove? Dirty pool, Trissiny.”

“You don’t match us, Gabriel,” she said, leaning forward to glare at him around Schwartz. “Speaking of dirty pools. How’d you like to go for a swim?”

He just grinned. “Seriously, though. How did you find us this fast? We got help from a god to get here; you showing up first would be impressively quick travel even if you knew where we were going to be. Even we didn’t know that an hour ago.”

“Ah, well, as to that,” Schwartz said, grinning and brushing water out of his hair with his hands, “you can thank the Imperial Rail Service for the speed. But as for how I knew where to be, I also got help from a god. Specifically, Vesk in the grove. He told me the exact location and time you’d be turning up.”

“Of course he bloody did,” Trissiny growled.

“He made a point of adding that he doesn’t usually give out such specific instructions, but since I was a plot device here and not one of the protagonists, he could make an exception.” Schwartz frowned. “I felt that was an unnecessarily condescending addendum, personally.”

“So I guess you’ll be joining our little adventure, then?” Toby said, smiling.

“Now, hold on just a minute,” Trissiny began.

Gabriel cleared his throat loudly. “You will need his help. Remember?”

She slapped a hand over her eyes, groaning.

“I guess that’s settled, then,” Schwartz said with distinct smugness. “So! Ah…what are we doing, exactly?”


It was a little early for lunch, but they decided to seek out an inn mostly to have a calmer setting in which to catch up. The choice of inn was all on Gabriel; there was no way he was going to pass up the opportunity to hang out in what had been a famous adventurer hangout when there had been enough adventurers about to keep it in business. So widely known had been the Fallen Arms back in the day that even now it survived on tourist doubloons, thanks to its long history.

Like most of the buildings in Vrin Shai, it was of white granite with marble accents, the stones ancient and pitted as some forgotten temple—as were the heavy oaken tables and chairs. Its walls were almost invisible, buried beneath centuries of accumulated battle trophies which had given the place its name. Weapons and banners, mostly, taken from Vrin Shai’s enemies—and thus, the majority were orcish or Narisian, with a smattering of Jendi and Tiraan. None of them were younger than a hundred years in age; the Enchanter Wars had been the last time Viridill had had to defend its borders.

Schwartz had been able to remove the water from their clothes and hair and return it to the canal, fortunately. Trissiny had made him double-check that there was no lingering damage to the items she was carrying. Just the folding utility knife Shaeine had given her and Kuriwa’s ocarina; everything else was easily replaceable. His own reagents and paraphernalia, of course, were secured against elemental effects such as water to begin with.

Trissiny had washed her face and hands before eating, but resolved to make a proper bath a high priority before pursuing their adventure any further. In the meantime, she did her best to ignore the slight stiffness of her clothes and the faint smell clinging to her hair. Vrin Shai had excellent civil engineers, but there was simply no chance the contents of a city canal were just water, and apparently even Schwartz’s cleansing magic was imperfect.

They ensconced themselves in a distant corner table for privacy’s sake; luckily, the place was not yet crowded at this hour. The waiter had been clearly fascinated by Meesie, but professional enough not to make a scene about her. Over tea and sandwiches, the three paladins caught Schwartz up on their adventure thus far, such as it was.

“And then we got out, and you know what happened next,” Gabriel finished, pausing to sip at the strong spiced tea.

“Fascinating,” Schwartz said, studying the piece of mithril Toby had handed him.

“Can you make anything of that?” Trissiny asked.

“Not heads nor tails, I’m afraid,” he admitted, offering it back to Toby. “I’ve rarely seen mithril up close. Princess Yasmeen was right, of course; a worked piece like that is obviously Elder God work. It’s not one of the forms the dwarves make.”

“Yes, she said they couldn’t reproduce the fine detail on it,” Toby agreed, carefully tucking Gretchen’s Dowry away.

“I don’t think it’s so much a question of detail as form,” Schwartz mused. “You understand I have only accumulated speculation to go on; the process of forging mithril is a closely guarded secret. But the things the dwarves make are not only simple, they are specific. It’s widely believed that whatever method they use, it creates only a few predetermined shapes with a minimum of variation. Mostly weapons, armor, and simple tools.”

“I love this guy,” Gabriel said cheerfully. “He knows the most interesting things about the most random subjects.”

“Well, the fact remains, we’re effectively stopped,” Trissiny said dismissively. “We were just dumped out here. Unless Schwartz happens to know where the next key fragment is, we’ll just have to wait for another clue. Probably delivered by a mysterious hooded stranger who comes staggering in out of a driving storm, bleeding.”

“I knew you liked adventure stories,” Gabriel said, grinning and pointing a fork at her—which was the first thing he’d used it for. “Who woulda thunk! Trissiny Avelea knows her cliches.”

“Only the ones everyone knows,” she snorted. “The thing about adventure stories is they are silly. Those details tend to jump out.”

“Um, actually,” Schwartz said hesitantly, “I think I may know where your next piece is.”

They all turned to stare incredulously at him.

“Oh, let me guess,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “Vesk told you.”

“Ah, well, no. Actually he didn’t tell me a thing beyond where and when to intercept you—this is the first I’ve heard of the details of your quest, but… Ahem, well, it does remind me of something. Have any of you heard of Salyrene’s Tower?”

Trissiny and Toby frowned at each other; Gabriel blinked, glancing at each of them in turn. “She has a tower?”

“I will take that as a no,” Schwartz replied with a small grin. “And yes, she has… Or did.”

“The maiden in the tower,” Toby said slowly. “You think the maiden is Salyrene?”

“Well, it did sort of jump out at me,” Schwartz replied. “I mean, you’ve encountered two gods so far, and come to the sacred city of a third. Vesk went to the trouble of sending me to meet you, and sent a message that you’d need my help. And only a Salyrite or Vesker or possibly Nemitite would be likely to know of Salyrene’s Tower in this day and age. Actually,” he amended, “a Nemitite would be a bit of a long shot, but it never pays to dismiss them from consideration when the subject is knowledge; they have something of a mandate—”

“Herschel,” Trissiny interrupted.

“Ah—yes, right, sorry. Well, you may know that the Collegium is really more of an academic institution than a proper cult. Actually, four loosely connected ones. Followers of Salyrene have our rituals and traditions, of course, but we’re more about the practice of magic than dogma or spirituality. Places which are actually sacred to the goddess are rare, and the Tower is easily the main one. According to some accounts, it is actually where she lives. Not Salyrite accounts, of course; we know very well the gods have no need of physical habitation. But the point is, it’s that strongly associated with her. Salyrene’s Tower is the only place you can go and be assured of the opportunity to meet her.”

“Well, great!” said Gabriel. “Where is it, and how do we get in?”

“That’s the thing,” Schwartz replied, frowning. “You sort of…don’t.”

“Well, that’s disappointing,” Trissiny said insincerely, lounging back in her chair.

“You see,” Schwartz explained, “during the Age of Adventures, the Tower was a testing ground. People who the goddess deemed worthy, according to criteria only known to herself, were sent there to face trials. Those who overcame them were given gifts to aid them in their future battles; the specifics depended on the individual.”

“So it’s a dungeon,” said Gabriel. “Guess I understand why the Empire and the gnomes didn’t gobble that one up, if it’s sacred to a goddess.”

“It’s not a dungeon,” Schwartz protested. “It’s a magical structure where elite adventurers and heroes were challenged by trials tailored to them and rewarded with great… Okay, I see what you mean. But still. This isn’t the Crawl with better management we’re talking about here.”

“You said we can’t get in?” Toby prompted. “We are three paladins and a Salyrite, after all. If anyone can…”

“Yes, well, there’s a reason three paladins haven’t heard of it,” Schwartz said with a sigh. “Back in the day, they definitely would have; quite a few paladins went through it. Nobody’s been in the Tower, or even seen it, since the Enchanter Wars. Salyrene herself has not directly spoken to anyone since then. Nor has she called a Hand. That whole affair with Magnan… The goddess obviously took it very hard.”

“If by ‘that affair’ you mean the continent-spanning war he started,” Trissiny said flatly, “and the complete annihilation of Athan’Khar… Yeah, I can see how that might weigh on her conscience just a little.”

“Magnan the Enchanter was a somewhat more complex figure than popular memory claims,” Schwartz said, frowning pensively. “I don’t mean to downplay what he did wrong, but his offenses tend to overshadow his contributions. He created almost the entire field of enchanting as it exists today.”

“That’s true,” Gabriel agreed. “The inks and dusts we use that make enchanting something people can do without actually being wizards, that was all Magnan. Didn’t he also create the first assembly line?”

“He made something we now recognize as the precursor thereof,” Schwartz replied, “though the concept certainly didn’t exist back then.”

“Back when the Tower was open,” Toby said, gently steering the conversation back on course again, “how did people get in?”

“Well…not deliberately,” Schwartz admitted. “In many cases, not voluntarily. Salyrene picked people to be tested and brought them there. It’s thought that she mostly did so at the request of other gods; she herself never had much interest in adventurers, except the magic users. So…you see our dilemma.”

“It wouldn’t even need to be a physical place, then,” Gabriel mused. “Or if it is, it could be literally anywhere. Could be on the moon, or under the ocean… That explains something I was wondering about. It seemed odd to me that Salyrene’s sacred citadel would be in Vrin Shai. The gods may not need living quarters but they can be a little territorial.”

“And again,” Trissiny said pointedly, “we are stuck. If you can only get into Salyrene’s Tower by invitation and she no longer gives them out, that is that.”

“Now, remember who sent us here,” Gabriel cautioned. “Think in story terms, Triss. In real life, yes, sometimes things are pointless or impossible, because life is often pointless and impossible. But in a story, everything is purposeful. And so long as we’re running an errand for Vesk, we are effectively in a story. We’ve already seen him arranging things for us to make it so. In a story, obstacles are there to be overcome. C’mon, in Calderaas we practically showed up and got handed what we wanted in exchange for showing off how badass we are. It only stands to reason the trials are going to start getting a little more trial-y. But they are trials that can be overcome. That’ll be the whole point of ’em.”

“Trial-y?” Trissiny asked, raising an eyebrow.

“That’s a word now,” he said solemnly. “I have spoken.”

“Well, what’s your idea, then?” she snorted. “How do we shake the goddess of magic out of her century-long funk and get into her secret sanctuary so we can abscond with one of her treasures for Vesk?”

“You are deliberately making that sound more impossible than it is,” Gabriel accused.

“No, I’m making it sound exactly as impossible as it is!”

Schwartz cleared his throat. “Actually… I have an idea about that. Gabe pretty much hit the nail on the head there, I think.”

“Of course, of course,” Gabriel continued in the same sage tone as before. “I am very smart. And obviously, I know exactly what you’re talking about, but why don’t you explain it to these two yokels?” Toby reached over and stuffed a hunk of bread in his mouth.

“Herschel,” Trissiny said severely, “I am trying to think up an excuse to drop this whole business. I need you to be a little less on top of things.” Meesie hopped onto her shoulder and reached forward to place a tiny paw over her lips, squeaking reprovingly.

“Why don’t you tell us your idea, Schwartz?” Toby suggested, unable to repress an amused smile.

“Well,” Schwartz said almost awkwardly, “we are here in Vrin Shai, and we do have Trissiny along. And you said that Vidius strongly implied the Trinity are in favor of this quest, right?” Shrugging, he looked around the table at each of them. “So…why don’t we go ask Avei?”

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14 – 7

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This, naturally, begat a confused pause.

“Um,” Gabriel finally ventured, “where are we going?”

“On the next leg of your journey,” the god of death replied, smiling vaguely at them with his eyes half-lidded. It was a mild, almost sleepy expression, and something about the contrast of that with who and what he was, plus the sunshine and cheerful people in the near distance, was subtly unsettling. “I was asked to give you a ride, by a mutual acquaintance of ours.”

“Vesk,” Toby guessed unnecessarily.

Vidius inclined his head slightly in Toby’s direction. “Chauffeuring isn’t among my usual duties, but what the hell. Three paladins are worth making an extra trip for, if anyone is. And hey, it’s a chance for us to chat! We get so few. Assuming, of course,” he added, turning to Trissiny, “you’re all coming along.”

She hesitated scarcely a moment longer, then nodded politely and stepped up to climb into the open carriage. “Thank you kindly, Lord Vidius.”

“Please, none of that ‘lord’ nonsense,” he said lightly, waving a hand. “We’re the next best thing to family, as I see it.”

“Family,” Gabriel repeated in a nonplussed tone, still standing there and making no move toward the carriage.

“Well,” Trissiny said, settling down into the surprisingly deep padding of the seat, “I hardly know how to talk to him, which pretty much sums up my experiences with family.” That earned a laugh from the death god up front.

“So you are coming, after all?” Toby asked, himself climbing into the carriage now. Gabriel shrugged fatalistically and clambered up behind him.

“Apparently so,” she replied. “Some good advice I got is sort of stuck in my mind.”

“Ah.” Toby nodded, smiling. “I had a feeling that’s what Rainwood wanted to talk to you about.”

“As a matter of fact it was, but that isn’t what I meant. I’ve heard from several people over the years that the things you don’t try end up being much greater regrets than the things you try that go badly. And besides, the involvement of a god who has some credibility improves the overall outlook of this…quest.”

“Happy to be of service,” Vidius said brightly, and flicked the reins. The carriage lurched into motion as its creepy steeds started forward, and they trundled off up the path toward the park gates. People got out of the way without once seeming to notice it was even there.

“Okay,” said Gabriel, shifting uncomfortably and pulling Ariel into his lap. The bench seats were not designed for people with things attached to the belt. “But…where are we going?”

“All in good time,” Vidius replied. His position on the driver’s seat put his back to them, but his voice carried just fine. “I understand that Vesk and his antics can be rather frustrating, especially from the perspective of any mortal caught up in an affair in which he takes an interest. But I’ll tell you this much: the rest of us in the Pantheon, however we may feel about him personally, choose to accommodate him. The reasons for that are challenging to explain…and often unnecessary. You will likely gain some insight into the matter in the course of following him around. For the moment, though, if you don’t trust Vesk, I’ll ask you to trust me. And Omnu, and Avei, who would already have intervened if they didn’t want you going along with this.” He turned his head, so as to give them a sidelong glance. “This will work out for the best. Even if none of us yet know how.”

Another uncertain silence fell at that, the three paladins studying one another’s faces for cues which were not forthcoming. Toby had seated himself on the front bench, facing backward, and on the opposite side from Vidius so he could still see the god by turning his head. Gabriel and Trissiny were opposite him. Now, both frowned when Toby suddenly straightened up in surprise, his eyes shifting past them.

“Gah!” Trissiny had turned to follow his stare and let out a yelp, then immediately subsided, placing a hand on her chest. “Oh. Sorry, Vestrel, you startled me.”

The valkyrie was perched on the back of the carriage like a gargoyle, her wings arched protectively over them. Apparently proximity to Vidius—or maybe it was the carriage—rendered her visible, but she was still clearly disconnected from the world, a wavery and faded image whose details were completely obscured. The black wings and dark armor, contrasting with a pale complexion and blonde hair, were all that could be discerned.

She also, apparently, could still not speak across the gap. In silence, Vestrel reached forward and very gently patted Trissiny on the head. Or at least, sort of; her hand didn’t quite make contact, and Trissiny couldn’t help stiffening slightly at the sheer eeriness of it.

“Oh, there was also a message,” Vidius said from up front, defusing the awkwardness. “For when you arrive.” He turned again, this time laying his arm across the back of the driver’s seat to look at them directly. “You will need his help.”

“Well…we’re already in the carriage, so I guess that’s taken care of,” Gabriel said, frowning.

“I doubt it means Vidius,” said Toby. “I mean, we are in the carriage. What would be the point of that?”

“I question how much of a point there is in any of this,” Trissiny muttered. “All we know for sure about Vesk’s directives so far is they are deliberately misleading more often than not.”

She glanced to the side, and blinked in surprise. They were trundling down a sparsely-trafficked highway, on a gentle slope that was clearly several miles from Calderaas. Evidently this thing moved much faster when its passengers weren’t paying attention. Which, all things considered, wasn’t surprising. It also meant there was no way of even guessing where Vidius might be taking them. She knew better than to ask again.

“So,” their driver said lightly, “you kids have been doing fairly well for yourselves. This is all uncharted territory, for all of us. A lot changed with your calling; the old routines simply don’t work as they once did. And we gods are nothing if not creatures of routine. We’re all feeling our way in the new world together, but you three, slowly but surely, are acquitting yourselves well. Trissiny in particular.”

The boys both looked at her in surprise, and she blinked.

“…thank you,” Trissiny replied uncertainly.

“I have my biases, of course,” Vidius acknowledged, turning his head again to glance at her. He wore a knowing little smile which was made to look even more sly by his hawkish profile. “You’ve recently gained a great appreciation for duality. More than most Hands ever have; paladins, particularly those of Avei, tend to be rather fixed on one idea. And, of course, you have become more acquainted with death.”

He turned to face forward again, and the silence which fell had a distinct chill. Trissiny stared ahead, at a point past the god’s shoulder.

“You can’t appreciate,” Vidius said after a pause, “how unusual it is that three paladins, two of them five years into their calling, are still so insulated from the effect of death. A Hand of Avei with your seniority, Trissiny, would ordinarily be standing on a veritable mountain of corpses by now.”

“I’ve killed,” she said tersely.

“And even those of Omnu,” the god continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “would be expected to have known the loss of friends. Yours is dangerous work. Of course, the situation is new, as I said. Sending you to Arachne has been a good practice, I think, but not without its downsides. You are a little coddled by the tutelage of such a fire-breathing mother hen.”

“Coddled isn’t a word I would have chosen,” Gabriel said, grinning.

“How many friends have you had to grieve, Gabriel?” Vidius asked mildly, instantly wiping the smile off his face. “I don’t think this is good for you, to be frank. Death and life are intertwined deeply; to live on is to know the loss of those you have loved. You, Trissiny, have only recently become acquainted with death. So far, you could be handling it more gracefully—but you are doing no worse than I might expect. With time and experience you will become better acquainted, and better able to cope.”

She turned to stare out over the side in silence. They were now plowing through a rolling field of stubby tallgrass, the slope of the mountain on which Calderaas stood far behind them.

“I think I’ve killed more than Trissiny,” Toby said, also staring into the distance.

“Hey, that isn’t fair,” Gabriel protested. “You’re still talking about the hellgate? You were the conduit Omnu used to vaporize a lot of demons. Blaming yourself—”

“I don’t think of it in terms of blame,” Toby interrupted. “But I was there, and voluntarily or not, I was the means by which it was done. Demons or not, those were sapient beings—thinking, feeling people. To cause such destruction…” He shook his head slowly. “I’ve grown used to living with it, and I think that bothers me the most. It’s been a year, and I still don’t understand. And…Omnu won’t enlighten me. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.”

“Nothing,” said Vidius. “Omnu isn’t displeased with you, Tobias, trust me. He’s just…not very communicative. As a general personality trait, but particularly with regard to his Hands. Your lineage has always had the least personal guidance from your patron. Omnu’s approach has always been to trust his Hands to make the right choices, and encourage them to trust themselves.”

“By not answering simple questions?” Gabriel demanded, frowning.

“Yup,” Vidius said noncommittally. “You’ll note I don’t go out of my way to hold your hand, either, Gabe. But in my humble opinion, Omnu overdoes it.”

“I feel…like I’m not doing so well as a paladin,” Toby said quietly, still staring off at nothing.

“You could be doing better,” Vidius said bluntly. “If I’m any judge. It’s not time to worry just yet, Tobias, but you have room for improvement. Let me tell you this much, as an observer who knows Omnu and has watched you with interest: a big part of the reason the gods call Hands is because we are bound by concept and structure in a way that ‘mere’ mortals are not. A Hand is an agent of action, and of change. You confuse pacifism with passivity, Toby, and that is what predominately holds you back. The world doesn’t respect peace; if you intend to bring piece to the world, understand that you will have to inflict peace where it is not wanted. Learn to assert yourself, boy.”

Toby was frowning by the end of that, but nodded. “Thank you for the advice.”

“Wow,” Gabriel murmured. “After all that, I’m almost afraid to ask how I’m doing.”

Vidius glanced back at him. “Toby and Trissiny represent a departure from established patterns, Gabe. You represent something new entirely. I encourage you to learn from them, and from past paladins, but please don’t try to walk in their footsteps.”

“I…really haven’t been,” Gabriel said, shifting nervously in his seat. “I mean, what I’ve been trying to do is pretty much what you just said.”

“I know. But you could be trying harder.”

Gabe’s expression flinched before he marshaled it. “I…see. How so?”

“For example, your scythe. You haven’t done a lot of experimentation with its capabilities, have you?”

“I note that they weren’t explained to me,” Gabriel retorted with some exasperation.

“That is correct,” Vidius replied calmly. “What do you make of that?”

Gabriel opened his mouth, scowling, then snapped it shut.

“Y’know, it wasn’t so long ago that nothing would have stopped you from spouting the first thought that flittered across your mind,” Trissiny said, and lightly punched him on the shoulder. “I’m proud of you, Gabe.”

“It wasn’t so long ago that your support came with a dose of condescension,” he shot back. “Oh, look! I guess we haven’t all changed too much.”

She just grinned at him and leaned back in her seat.

“The scythe destroys things,” Gabriel continued in a more measured tone. “Just about anything the blade touches. Even magic. That’s… I mean, quite apart from the fact that a divine artifact deserves to be treated with some respect, this thing is incredibly dangerous. It’s not something to just screw around with.”

“Gabriel,” said Vidius, turning again to fix him with a look. “What I’m about to tell you is in response to that, but it also applies well beyond it. Screwing around is your greatest strength.”

“Oh…kay,” Gabriel said slowly, after a momentary pause. “I’m…not sure what that means.”

Vidius chuckled and turned to face forward again. “It’s something to chew on, isn’t it?”

“Or screw around with?” Toby suggested with a smile.

The god laughed. “See? He gets it.”

“This may be none of my business,” Trissiny said hesitantly, “and I’m sorry if that’s so, but… Why now? Why, after eight thousand years, have you suddenly decided to make such an enormous change as calling a paladin?”

Vidius gazed ahead without responding, and they glanced at each other again. The only sounds were the gentle rumbling of the wheels and the creaking of the carriage itself, oddly mundane for a divine vehicle, and the much more exotic ringing of the unearthly horses’ hooves against the ground. They were now wending their way through a forest, a moss-carpeted and well-tended vault of redwoods that had to be an elven grove.

“Have you ever given much thought to religion?” Vidius asked suddenly, just when the quiet had begun to stretch into discomfort. “Not to yours in particular, I know you’ve pondered your specific dogmas. But the thing itself, religion as a phenomenon. What it is, how it works?”

“I’m…not sure I understand the question,” Trissiny said, frowning.

“Sure you do,” he replied easily. “But the answer is ‘no’ and you feel awkward admitting that even to yourself. Don’t back down from such challenges, Trissiny. We are all our own greatest rivals; growth is a process of overcoming your own weaknesses. But yes, religion. Seems peculiar how something can both uplift and destroy people to such a great degree.”

“Well, that’s any tool, though,” Gabriel pointed out. “It’s only as good or bad as what you do with it.”

“Yep, and faith is a powerful tool indeed,” Vidius agreed easily. “But for context. You boys recall the faith of the Infinite Order you encountered in Puna Dara?”

“Ugh,” Gabriel said, grimacing. Toby just nodded.

“Fross mentioned something about that,” Trissiny said. “She disapproved of it pretty firmly.”

“It’s sheer positive thinking,” Gabriel explained. “The idea is that what you think becomes your reality.”

She frowned quizzically. “How is that a religion?”

“Well, it comes with its own cosmology,” said Toby, “which itself is rooted in fact. The Rust cultists talked about arcane physics a lot, how observation determines reality.”

“Ah, yes,” Trissiny said, nodding. “We’ve been over the broad strokes of that in Yornhaldt’s class. So, if they’re correct, what’s the problem?”

“The problem,” Ariel interjected, “is that the entire barrier to widespread understanding of arcane physics is that sub-atomic particles and their interactions are subject to fundamentally different rules than the physics which govern your experience. Such principles describe nothing with which a sapient mind will ever interact under ordinary circumstances. Attempting to apply arcane mechanics to one’s personal life is like trying to shoe a horse with a toothbrush and a wheel of cheese. Those tools are wildly unsuited to that task.”

“That about sums it up, yeah,” Gabriel agreed, grinning. “You’ll have to excuse Ariel. She’s designed to assist with magic, and misconceptions about it irritate her.”

“I am not irritated, I am simply right.”

“And that’s the crux of it,” said Vidius, his hat shifting as he nodded without looking back at them. “That cult was authentic, at least to that extent. That was the official religion of the Infinite Order—the original Infinite Order, the Elder Gods. In fact, they were utterly contemptuous of religion. They didn’t call themselves gods, and got mightily offended when someone did. Which, of course, is why I still do,” he added with a chuckle. “They instituted and spread that faith for the specific purpose of hampering the mortal population of this world. It served the dual goals of impeding actual scientific understanding, and shifting the onus for the plight of every suffering person onto themselves, instead of the megalomaniacal omnipotent beings oppressing them. And yet… It was something that, at its core, they believed in. The Infinite Order came to this world to pursue their great experiment with godhood because of faith. They were scientists, but what impelled them was sincere belief.”

“The…Elder Gods…believed in positive thinking?” Trissiny said slowly, frowning in pure confusion.

“Their driving faith was that the process of evolution was an orderly and purposeful progression,” Vidius explained. “From the great explosion that created reality, to the formation and death of stars, to the formation of planets, to the birth of life from a coincidental chemical reaction, to the process of evolution, to the emergence of sapience, with its capacity to deliberately advance evolution according to plans rather than random chance. They believed the universe was trying to understand itself, and the emergence of intelligent life was the most recent step in the process. They wanted to advance to the next step, and approached the task with great reverence. Who knows, they may even have been right; it explains the universe as well as any other idea I’ve ever heard. Based on what happened next, ascension was obviously not that next sacred step, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the idea. It does demonstrate my point, though. That same faith was used for great advancement and great oppression, by exactly the same people.”

“It’s not exactly a surprise to me that people can misuse religion,” said Trissiny. “I’ve met wonderful and terrible people among the Eserites. Some of the best people I know are Avenists, but I think the very Bishop of the Sisterhood is a dangerous, deviant lunatic.”

At that, Toby and Gabriel both gave her sharp looks, but Vidius nodded.

“And so, my question: What is a religion?”

“What do you think it is?” Toby asked carefully.

“There are many ways to answer that question,” said the god. “To embrace my own idiom, I think that a faith, a true faith, is a duality of two things: a problem, and a solution. A religion which actually provides for the spiritual needs of people must posit what the core problem of mortal experience is, and then offer a way to solve it. And this has been true since long before the emergence of actual gods, going back to the faiths of the old world from which the Elders came. Humanity had faiths before it had actual deities. Faith speaks to something in the core of what it means to be a person.”

“Wait, how does that work?” Gabriel protested. “How did they have religions if they didn’t have gods?”

“Well, perhaps I misspoke,” Vidius said, amusement lightening his voice. “They had gods, all right. They didn’t strictly exist in the physical sense, but they had ’em.”

“What’s the point of a god that’s not even real?” Trissiny huffed.

He glanced back at her. “Anything that makes a difference in people’s lives is real. The gods of the old world were invisible and silent, unverifiable and imaginary, but they were very real. The weight of their presence was deeply felt. It was inevitable, because there were problems, and there needed to be solutions. To the Christians, the problem was sin and the solution was grace. To the Muslims, the problem was hubris, and the solution was submission to the divine.” His shoulders shifted minutely in a little chuckle. “To the Satanists, the problem was corruption in all the other cults, and the solution was mischief and defiance. And so on, and so on. There were more faiths there than there are here. A lack of gods did not mean a lack of problems.”

“Hey.” Grinning, Gabriel nudged Trissiny with an elbow. “Those last guys sound a lot like Eserites.”

“And that is another point,” Vidius agreed, turning his head and nodding at Gabe. “Creating religions was the last thing my brothers and sisters in the Pantheon were after. We sought to bring down the gods, not join or replace them; we simply adapted to the way things turned out, from sheer necessity. We had become beings whose very identities were broadcast throughout the world via the magic which fills it. Dogmas and rituals rose around us over time, rooted in what we each thought was best in life. And our own ideas, like everyone’s, were shaped by the knowledge of those who came before us. There is an iron barrier across your history, children, but you are the heirs of traditions much older than you know. Ancient faiths still resonate through the cults that exist now.

“And that brings us to the world as it is today. We have the Pantheon, guided by gods who acknowledge and—to an extent—respect each other. In a way, this has eased a dilemma which plagued the old world: that everyone does not have the same problem. That the faith which soothes one person’s anguish might be the very cause of someone else’s.”

The carriage was now climbing, the road taking them up a steep incline. All around rose the rolling hills Trissiny remembered from her childhood; they were passing through Viridill.

“Works in theory,” Gabriel said skeptically. “Actual religions, though, don’t tend to be quite so…open minded.”

“Yes,” Vidius agreed, nodding. “The fallacy of the god-shaped hole survives; people of faith tend to assume that what fills the void in their heart must do the same for everyone else’s. Which, unfortunately, isn’t the case. But consider the different gods and cults, and how they approach this. Take the gods which embody simple, straightforward archetypes: Izara, Ryneas, Nemitoth. Love, art, knowledge. Their core duality is quite clear: these are the solutions they offer, to the problem of the lack of whatever it is. Now, have any of you ever heard of an Izarite, Rynean or Nemitite loudly insisting that someone should convert to their faith?”

“Izarites do tend to be awfully preachy,” Trissiny muttered, glaring at the passing hills.

“To an Avenist, I’ll bet,” Toby said in a much milder tone. “There’s a deep and well-known doctrinal divide, there. With all respect, Trissiny, Izarites are just about the most inoffensive people in existence. I think your perception of them simply comes from disagreement.”

She snorted, but didn’t try to rebut.

“Good,” Vidius said from up front, nodding again. “In such simple pillars of faith is a built-in acknowledgment that there are answers they cannot provide. Now, consider some others: Eserites, Veskers…” He hesitated fractionally. “Elilinists. Defiance, narrative, cunning. Less concrete ideals, less simple ones, and designed to address a different sort of problem. Overarching problems, the problems which infect whole societies. These cults also do not presume to be universal; they want only a specific kind of person to join them, and don’t aspire to run anyone else’s life. They are, at their core, oppositional.”

“Solving other people’s problems,” said Gabriel, “whether they want it or not.”

“Exactly,” Vidius agreed. “That’s an aggressive way to live, but not a domineering one. And now broaden it further, to the gods of multilayered concepts. Myself, for one. Avei, Omnu, Themynra, Shaath. Duality and death. Justice, war, femininity. Life, the sun, peace. Those are big things, ideas which span huge swaths of mortal experience; things which are not easy to sort into neat little boxes. Even judgment and the wild… Singular concepts, but what are they? How is a person supposed to separate such sweeping ideas out from other aspects of their lives? They subsume everything. And what else do you notice about those cults in particular?”

“Those,” Gabriel said almost defiantly, “are the ones most likely to tell somebody else how they ought to be living their lives.”

“I’ve never heard a Themynrite say such a thing to anyone,” Trissiny protested.

“Themynra’s worship has a racial component which pretty well precludes that,” said Vidius. “The noteworthy thing there, Trissiny, is that it wasn’t Avei you immediately defended.”

“Okay,” she said with growing irritation. “You’ve made your point, but I still don’t think I really understand why you made it. What’s the lesson, here?”

“Speaking as an Avenist, Trissiny,” he said, “what problem are you trying to solve?”

“Injustice,” she replied immediately. “And that is also speaking as an Eserite; it’s only the methods that differ.”

He let out a whistle. “A tall order. What about you, Toby? What’s the problem, and what’s the solution?”

Toby stared rigidly at the distance, looking quite perturbed. “I don’t…know. That’s not… I was never taught to think of it in those terms. Life is important because we are life. Peace is the optimal condition for living. That’s just…how things are.”

“Mm hm,” Vidius said noncommittally. “And you, Gabriel? What problem and solution do you find in Vidianism?”

“Man, the fuck if I even know,” Gabriel said bluntly. “Almost every Vidian I’ve ever met was fully invested in creating their own damn problem, as best I can see.”

The god turned again in his seat to look at them with a satisfied smile. “And that is why I have called a paladin after all these millennia: to correct what I see as a growing problem. In the world, but specifically within my cult. Because when a faith encompasses potentially everything, its practitioners will try to make it encompass everyone. Because people who think they have all the answers are incredibly dangerous, to themselves and everyone around them. And so, I have given the clever Vidians a paladin who has no idea what the hell he’s even doing, one whom I trust to screw around. Because they know a lot less than they think they do, and they need to be made to appreciate that fact. And so, Gabriel, does everyone else.” He fixed his gaze on his own Hand, expression becoming more severe. “You are called to question, to challenge, and to generally make everyone uncomfortable. I don’t expect you to have all the answers. I expect you to force people to consider the questions.”

Gabriel could only gape at him.

“That,” Trissiny said slowly, “just might make this the single most appropriate choice of Hand in all of history.”

“You just had to sneak in a shot,” he muttered, giving her an accusing look.

This time, it was she who prodded him with an elbow. “It’s a good thing, too, Gabe.”

“It’s something to think about,” Vidius said brightly, turning forward again and giving the reins a pull. “Well, this has been great! I’m glad we had the opportunity to chat. But for now, we have arrived.”

The carriage had pulled to a stop on the street of a city, next to a canal. All around them rose structures of white marble, and the city itself ascended along one side in terraces, falling in the other direction to a double set of high walls and a broad plain beyond. In every other direction, towering mountains arose.

“This is Vrin Shai,” Trissiny said in surprise. “Why are we here?”

“I suspect you’ll find that out quite soon,” Vidius said solemnly. “For now, though, I have to be moving along. The business of death is eternal. Everybody out!”

“Thank you very much for the ride,” Toby said politely, standing. “And…the lesson.”

“Yes,” Trissiny agreed. “I have a feeling I’ll be mulling this conversation for quite a while.”

“That’s the mark of a really good conversation, you know,” Vidius replied, while they all clambered out onto the cobblestones. Vestrel flared her wings and ascended, her vague shape vanishing from sight when she departed the carriage. “I hope you do continue to think, and learn. But such things are interludes in life; eventually, the action picks up again. I hope you’ll be ready.” He touched the brim of his hat, nodding to them. “Take care, kids. I’ll see you again.”

And with that, the god of death flicked the reins, the unearthly steeds began moving, and his carriage rolled off into the crowd.

Its departure left them standing with their backs to the stone wall separating them from a drop to the canal below, looking at the street. And directly in front, revealed by the departure of the carriage, was a man staring right at them.

A man with tousled blonde hair, spectacles, and a scowl, with a glowing rat perched on his shoulder. Both of them had their arms crossed.

Trissiny’s eyes widened. “Oh. Um. Hi, Hershel.”

“Hello, Trissiny,” Schwartz said flatly, then raised his hand. A blast of concentrated wind rose out of nowhere and shoved her right into the canal.

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14 – 6

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“As promised.”

Yasmeen handed her the object, a shaft of metal no longer than Trissiny’s index finger. She accepted it almost gingerly, immediately holding it up to the intermittent light passing through the windows of the carriage. If the vehicle had interior fairy lamps, they were dormant, leaving only the shifting glow of the city to illuminate them. In a way, that helped prove the composition of the key fragment. Under full sunlight, the blade of Ruda’s sword might pass for steel, but in dimmer and especially moving light, it caught and refracted illumination in a way that both emphasized its paler color and made it almost resemble a jewel. This piece had the same quality. She lightly probed at its indentations with a fingertip; they matched the illustration in the book. Had she stumbled upon this thing without context, Trissiny doubted she would have interpreted its shape as part of a key, but knowing the fact made the arrangement obvious.

“I had the royal jeweler extract it from its setting,” Yasmeen continued while she studied Gretchen’s Dowry—or what was left of it. “I honestly thought the poor man was going to burst into tears.”

“I hope this won’t get you into trouble with your mother,” Trissiny murmured.

“Oh, nonsense, you don’t think I’m keeping this from her, do you?” Yasmeen snorted in a distinctly un-royal manner, and Trissiny had the sudden thought that between her and Ruda she had no evidence that the snooty stereotype of princesses actually existed outside of books. “Believe me, the Sultana of Calderaas is always pleased to assist the Hand of Avei in a quest, and while tonight’s main event was my idea, I wouldn’t dare set something like that into motion without Mother’s approval. She regrets not being able to present her compliments in person, but House Aldarasi’s involvement in all of this must remain a secret, or there’ll be real trouble from the Houses represented in that party you just crashed. Speaking of which…”

“I’m sorry, what?” Trissiny glanced up at her. “Who are you? How’d you get in this carriage?”

“The Sultanate appreciates your discretion,” Yasmeen said primly.

“In seriousness, though, does your mother know that you came to supervise this personally?”

“Ah, well.” The princess turned to face forward, folding her hands demurely in her lap, but ruined the effect by giving Trissiny a sidelong look accompanied by a sly little smile. “Mother can’t be expected to know everything. Ruling a country is complicated business, after all.”

“Yeah, I had a feeling.”

The princess had arranged two carriages with drivers; Trissiny did not quite follow her assertion that this would be more discreet than piling everyone into a larger, more luxurious model, but had been too distracted by her thoughts to make an issue of it.

“You seem unhappy.”

She glanced up to find Yasmeen looking at her now, her expression open and even. Trissiny closed her fist around the fragment of mithril; she hadn’t handled it long, but it didn’t seem to have picked up any heat from her hand.

“I understand the necessity of what happened back there, or I wouldn’t have agreed to participate. But I think something would have to be very wrong with me if I came away feeling good about it. I just beat and tormented a woman who was no physical threat to me, at all. Do you really think Lady Araadia deserved that treatment?”

“Wrong question,” Yasmeen murmured in a pensive tone which took any rebuke out of the statement. “Whether she did or not, summarily assaulting someone isn’t justice. If I know my Avenists, that’s the thing that sits most poorly with you.”

“Good insight.”

The princess nodded. “No, frankly, I don’t think she did. Irina Araadia is a splendidly useless creature as only a noble can be, but she wasn’t by a wide margin the most corrupt person even in that room. While her little museum scheme is surely one of the more asinine manifestations of the problems in Calderaas, it certainly was not among the most abusive. The point was to remind an entire stratum of society that there are limits, and beyond them, consequences. Yours was merely the ugly part; Toby’s role was equally important, and there will come more maneuvering by my mother and the cults in the days ahead to encourage the Houses to act rightly, using more…positive methods. A jolt of fear to shake their arrogance is but one tactic in a larger strategy.” She shifted her head to gaze aimlessly out the window at the passing city scenery. “In that, Irina was a sacrificial lamb. The greater good always leaves victims, by definition. Otherwise it would just be the good.”

“You sound almost Eserite,” Trissiny said with a sigh of her own. “I went to the Guild to learn how to plot my way around confrontation, the way the Wreath has done to me a few times. What they mostly taught me was how to be creatively cruel and terrorize people into compliance.”

“Good,” Yasmeen said firmly. “The more you can frighten someone into obeying, the less you’ll have to hurt them.”

“You don’t find that attitude just a little horrifying?”

“Yes, but it’s the basis of all criminal justice. Almost every aspect of rulership is a little horrifying, that’s just how societies work. Someone has to do some brutal jobs so that the majority of people can go about their lives in peace. You are, unfortunately, one of those specialists. As long as you do your job only when it’s needed and don’t try to run a whole society that way, all will be well. Let me ask you this, Trissiny.” Yasmeen shifted toward her almost fully on the seat, folding one of her legs across it between them. “How familiar are you with the history of paladins?”

Trissiny opened her mouth to answer, then hesitated. “Well. That was a major emphasis of my early education, but not so long ago an Eserite courtesan of all people pointed out a few massive blind spots in it. What did you have in mind, specifically?”

“I had a feeling,” Yasmeen said, nodding. “We have a bit of the same issue here. With all the Avenist influence, the history most people learn is just a tad romanticized—and the Church pushing a narrative of a united Pantheon exacerbates it. At this point you have to go to the Veskers or Nemitites to learn how paladins historically related to each other. Which is to say, like strange cats, most of the time.”

“Really?” Trissiny’s eyebrows involuntarily shot upward. “All right, you got me. That I wasn’t taught. I mean, there have been scuffles between paladins in all the great adventure stories, but…”

“But they were presented as passing misunderstandings?” Yasmeen shook her head, smiling ruefully. “There’s a reason an episode like that happens in almost all the great epics. Hands of Avei and Sorash considered each other worse than demons. Hands of Omnu firmly disapproved of just about everything every other paladin did, and most of Toby’s predecessors did not share his reluctance to assert himself. Hands of Salyrene were only intermittently useful to the cause of protecting humanity; their goddess was just as interested in advancing knowledge through experimentation, and quite a few of her Hands got up to things that resulted in other paladins putting them down. Magnan the Enchanter took it to a new extreme, but he was treading a well-worn path. There is an entire theological school of thought, which has fallen out of the public eye only in the last century, that the whole purpose of gods calling paladins was to fight with each other without using their full power and thus devastating the world the way the Elder Gods did.”

“Why does everyone know more about the history of my lineage than I do?” Trissiny complained.

Yasmeen laughed, reaching over to squeeze her upper arm below the silver pauldron. “Oh, I assure you, everyone does not. Like I said, the Church has gone to great lengths to encourage the view you were taught; not everybody has access to royal archives and a fondness for old adventure sagas. But I wasn’t changing the subject, Trissiny. Remember that I didn’t just ask you to barge into that party and slap Irina around; I asked all three of you to intervene, and in specifically different ways. Toby to appeal to their better nature, you to impose order, Gabriel to project chilling eldritch menace. You see the hierarchy, there?”

“Velvet mentioned the same thing,” Trissiny acknowledged. “Toby’s part, anyway. Maybe some of those people will be more receptive next time an Omnist politely asks them to consider others.”

“Oh, I guarantee they will,” Yasmeen assured her. “And not just because they don’t want to meet your fist, or even because they don’t want to find out what else that scythe can do. House Araadia is going to take a long time to recover from this setback, but every other House represented at tonight’s gala is, I promise you, already planning how to take advantage of this. Most will reach out to the Sisterhood directly; I expect your Silver Missions will find themselves most generously funded in the days to come. If you stay in one place and make yourself accessible, aristocrats will begin trying to court you—in some cases, quite literally.”

“What kind of person flirts with their own natural predators?” Trissiny demanded in exasperation.

“Nobles,” Yasmeen answered immediately. “That’s what we do, Trissiny. It’s what we are. Nobles are predatory toward each other to a truly insane degree; we expect nothing less, from anyone. Nobody takes it personally. Well, Irina will after the way you lit into her, but the rest? You didn’t damage them directly, so the question is not how they will stop you, but how they can use you. That is why it was so important to present yourself as a force of nature beyond their control, not a rival for power. Otherwise, anything you did to any of them would have been business as usual.”

Trissiny could find no immediate answer for that, and Yasmeen heaved a deep sigh, her gaze growing unfocused.

“That’s the thing, you see. The best thing that ever happened to me was getting out of my palace, going to Last Rock and spending time with peasants, oddballs, and people from all walks of life. The most important thing I learned from interacting with them is that they all want the same things I do. Growing up rich and in control, it’s so easy to assume that poor people are…lesser. Lazy, selfish, somehow to blame for their situation. But people are just people. And even at their most venal, the basic drives that motivate them ensure that most people, most of the time, do the right thing. People want to contribute, to belong, to feel and to be valuable, to be part of something greater than themselves. No end of trouble results from people misunderstanding or disagreeing on what is the right thing to do, but in the end? We all want what’s best, as best we understand it.”

Slowly, she shifted back to face forward, still perched in that awkward way half-on the seat. Her gaze had become distant; Trissiny wasn’t sure whether Yasmeen was still talking to her, or arguing with herself.

“The two exceptions are despair, and power. People who are so ground down that they have no hope stop bothering with anything that could give meaning to their lives. And people who have power…” Her whole expression tightened unhappily. “Power distorts the mind like nothing else. It becomes the end and the means, the only thing you think about or care about. Most people will do right because with a modicum of intelligence, self-interest is at least somewhat altruistic. The powerful only do right when they are afraid to do otherwise. And powerful people are the leading cause of populations falling into despair. So, yes.” She turned back to face Trissiny, her eyes coming back into focus and glinting in the dimness. “You’d better believe I am comfortable unleashing whatever monster I can catch against the powerful. That’s what constitutes working with them.”

“And then,” Trissiny said quietly, “there’s us, who can do a thing like we just did and then flitter off into the night without consequence. What does that say about us?”

Yasmeen expelled a soft breath that might have been a sigh, though she smiled thinly at the same time. “It says we are walking a very narrow path, and had best watch where we step.”

“You are a puzzle,” Trissiny said frankly. “You seem downright happy-go-lucky most of the time. But the way you talk about the responsibilities of your position, you make it sound so grim. Which one is the act?”

“Oh, Trissiny.” Yasmeen eased closer and placed an elbow on the back of the seat, to lean her cheek into her hand and give Trissiny a fondly chiding look. “Any Vidian can tell you that the secret to acting is not to act, but to believe.”

“That’s a deflection if I ever heard one.”

“Not at all, it’s an explanation.” Casually, she reached out to brush back a blonde lock which had come loose from Trissiny’s braid, and only her practice with the Guild on not giving away every little thought prevented her from stiffening up. Surely the princess didn’t… “Life is grim, if it’s nothing but responsibility. Taking time for oneself can feel like selfishness, to the conscientious person, but in truth a little maintenance for the mind and spirit is necessary.”

“Now it sounds like you’re describing prayer. Or exercise.”

“Both good approaches,” Yasmeen agreed readily. “It depends on the individual. It’s an absolute necessity to find moments of joy, whatever form they may take for you.” Idly, she shifted her hand again, lightly brushing the back of her fingers along Trissiny’s cheekbone, while very slowly but inexorably leaning closer. “We serve no one by falling into grim despair, my dear. We must take whatever pleasure we can from life. With whoever will share it, for however long the opportunity lasts. After all…who can say what might happen tomorrow?”

Well, this explained the separate carraiges, anyway.

Carefully, Trissiny eased backward, away from those caressing fingers. “I don’t get a lot of opportunities to…share pleasure. It’s probably the armor. Only women ever seem to approach me, and I have never been even slightly attracted to my own sex.”

Yasmeen stopped, her eyes widening in open surprise. “…really? But you’re the actual Hand of Avei! Didn’t you grow up in Viridill?”

“Ooh, darling, yes,” Trissiny said, utterly deadpan. “Stereotype me. Harder, please.”

The princess stared for a shocked moment, and then burst into laughter so hard she almost doubled over. Somehow, though, she turned the movement into gracefully retreating back to her side of the seat.

“All right, point vividly made,” Yasmeen gasped once she could, brushing a tear out of her lashes. “Well! My loss, then. Can’t blame a girl for trying.”

“Nothing will happen if you don’t try,” Trissiny agreed, smiling back. With the awkwardness defused, Yasmeen’s mirth was quite infectious.

“Stay reckless, Trissiny.” Just like that, though, the laughter faded from the princess’s countenance. “As long as you can be hurt, as long as you’re not too comfortable, not insulated from the consequences of your actions, you’re not turning into one of them.” She shifted to stare out at her city as they passed through it in the night. “I hope.”


“Man, what is it with you and that entire family?” Gabriel asked, shaking his head. “You’re like Aldarasi catnip.”

“I shouldn’t have told you,” Trissiny grumbled.

“You probably shouldn’t have,” he agreed. “I’m constitutionally incapable of letting it go, now.”

“Such a funny little thing, to be the focus of so much trouble,” Toby mused, studying the key fragment on his open palm. Strolling through the park under the morning sunlight as they were now, it looked like any miscellaneous piece of metal, albeit highly polished. “I’m really curious what it is this thing is supposed to unlock, when it’s restored.”

“It’ll turn out at the last minute that the real treasure was friendship or something,” Trissiny said, rolling her eyes. “Mark my words.”

“So…you’re still coming along, right?” Gabriel asked, nudging her with an elbow. “You’ve come this far with us!”

“I’m still considering that,” she hedged.

She was saved from having to go into any more detail by their arrival. The park seemed more crowded today than on her previous visit, but then, they weren’t creeping off into its most secluded corner this time. The three paladins had followed the footpath as directed to a small fountain in a little paved roundabout surrounded by benches and lamp posts, where their contacts were waiting. All were making a go at discretion, now that they’d thoroughly offended a swath of the city’s nobility. Trissiny was back in civilian clothes, her armor left in the Sultana’s palace for safekeeping—under the care of a particularly devout steward who Yasmeen said would doubtless consider the task the highlight of her life. Toby could’ve been any young Western man to someone who didn’t know his face, now that he was back in street clothes rather than formal robes, and Gabriel had taken the precaution of hiding his distinctive coat in a dimensional pocket. Ironically, he was sweating more without it; the weatherproof enchantments on traditional Punaji greatcoats were the reason sailors wore them from the equator to the arctic.

“Hey, guys!” Jeb called, waving exuberantly. “Ya made it!”

“Course they made it, ya galoot, what’d ya think was gonna happen,” Zeke said, but tipped his hat in greeting, grinning at them.

“Boys,” Trissiny said, nodding distractedly. Most of her attention was caught by the other person present.

“You wanna make a quick sketch?” Rainwood suggested dryly. “It’ll last longer.”

“Sorry,” she said automatically. “I’m just surprised by how well you clean up.”

In fact, he looked a lot like he had in her shamanic vision, though his hair was still much shorter. It was clean, now, brushed and even styled, giving him a rakish look. He also wore a green robe of supple dyed leather, ornately decorated with silver accents and beads, and carried a hardwood staff which was oiled and polished till it fairly glowed, topped with a chunk of rose quartz the size of her fist. Rather than a homeless layabout, he fully looked the part of an elvish shaman.

“A word in your ear, cousin, if I may?” Rainwood said more quietly, tilting his head pointedly to the side. Trissiny glanced at the others; Toby gave her a smile and a nod, Gabriel already in conversation with the Jenkinses.

She and Rainwood stepped a few feet away, not truly out of earshot but gaining a little privacy.

“So, have you decided on your next move?” the elf asked her.

“Not…entirely,” Trissiny admitted. “I’m leaning toward going back to the grove. This whole episode has left me feeling the need for more quiet contemplation.”

“Well…with apologies…I’m going to offer you some unsolicited advice,” he said seriously. “I know little enough of your life, Trissiny, but I’ve been around. A lot. So take it for whatever it may be worth. Go on the quest.”

She sighed. “Why?”

“If I’m not mistaken, you have an Avenist’s impatience with pursuits in which you see no practical benefit. Right?” He smiled lopsidedly.

“That’s not just an Avenist thing,” she pointed out, folding her arms. “I don’t know of anybody who enjoys wasting time with other people’s pointless nonsense.”

“Actually, lots of folks do. Anyone who would rather enjoy life than stress about meeting arbitrary goals, in fact. But that isn’t an argument I would pitch to you, of all people. Let me put it this way…” He shifted, half-turning to look out over the park, where people were walking, playing, and reading in the sunlight. “Vesk’s missions are never pointless, any more than a story is. To him, they’re one and the same. They are very literally character-building exercises. To put it in Avenist terms, training. He will break you down and build you back up, just like you would a new recruit into an army.”

“I’m not sure I trust what Vesk would want to build me into,” she retorted.

“Well, what are you?” Rainwood looked at her again, smiling faintly. “Because that’s what he’ll aim for. Think in storytelling terms, in archetypes. Are you the knight in shining armor? The thief? The orphan? The point of a hero’s journey is to bring you through the darkness and into the wisdom and greater power you earn on the other side. He’ll try to make you more of whatever it is you are.”

“That sounds…unpleasant,” she admitted.

He nodded slowly, turning his eyes back to the park. “Mm. Education is usually no fun, even when you seek it out and pay your tuition. Having it thrust upon you unsolicited is almost as enjoyable as surprise dental surgery. But the fact remains, it’s one of the best and most important things you can experience. I will say this, though, Trissiny: if you do decide to continue on, have a care. You’ve begun this journey by besting weaker foes with scornful ease. If this were a story, that would mean you have a real test coming down the line. And if you’re working for Vesk, it’s always a story.”

“No.” She shook her head slowly, also gazing out across the park now, even as Rainwood turned to look at her in mild surprise. “That wasn’t the test, or the lesson. Those simpering nobles were never the enemy. I was. I…don’t think I won that battle.”

He reached up to squeeze her shoulder. “Yeah. You’ll do just fine, kiddo. All right, now I’ve gotta be moving along myself.” The shaman hiked up his staff, leaning it over his shoulder, and turned to amble back toward the group, Trissiny following along. “As I mentioned before, I have my own quest. The spirits are guiding me westward, where my help is needed.”

“By whom?” Toby asked, turning to him.

Rainwood grinned and shrugged. “No idea! That’s the fun of both shamanism and adventure: you figure it out as you go.”

“Well…uh, nice meeting you, then,” said Gabriel.

“I’ve got a funny feeling our paths haven’t crossed for the last time,” Rainwood replied, winking. He patted Trissiny on the upper back. “But who knows? We’ll all find out what’s in the future when we get there. Till then.”

It was the strangest thing to observe; he didn’t seem to transform, exactly, but one moment he was an elf and then he wasn’t, and it was as if he never had been and they’d only just noticed. Trissiny recalled Kuriwa doing very much the same thing. Jeb let out a muffled exclamation of surprise, which the little black cat ignored, trotting away across the park. They all stared after him until he ducked under a bush and was gone from sight.

“That was one weird dude,” Zeke observed. “Paid well, though.”

“You’ve got interesting relatives, Triss,” said Gabe.

She sighed. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“So!” Jeb grinned broadly at them. “Where y’all off to next, then?”

“I think you boys mentioned you were between steady jobs at the moment,” Trissiny said. “And that you came from a ranch originally. Right?”

“Hey, you remembered!” Jeb said cheerfully. “See, Zeke, I told you she was nice! Pays attention to us little folk an’ everything.”

“I never said she wasn’t nice, Jeb,” Zeke said quickly, glancing at Trissiny. “I said she has more important stuff to do than worry about the likes a’ you an’ me. Which was true.”

Trissiny opted not to weigh in on that. Instead, ignoring Gabriel’s snickering, she reached into her coat and carefully extracted the sealed letter she had stashed there, holding it out to Zeke. “Right. Well, you did help me, in the end, and I didn’t want to just cut you loose and vanish—”

“All right!” Jeb whooped, actually jumping into the air and pumping a fist skyward. “You just say the word, boss lady! We’re off ta kick ass and praise Avei!”

She stared at him for a moment, then turned back to his brother. “…so I wrote you a letter of recommendation. If you decide you’ve had enough of Calderaas, charter a Rail caravan to Last Rock and give this to Mr. Ryan Cartwright. He owns most of the horses along that stretch of frontier; anybody in town can direct you to him. Gabe and I worked for him last year, and he liked us both well enough I’m confident my recommendation will get you a job.”

Jeb had fallen still, frowning at her in consternation. Zeke slowly reached up to accept the envelope, also looking puzzled. “Uh, maybe it’s none o’ my business, ma’am, but why was a couple’a paladins workin’ as ranch hands?”

“Punishment duty,” Gabriel explained, grinning. “One of the options Tellwyrn gave us was jobs in town with wages transferred to the University. We both went for that one, since it involved the greatest distance from her squawking.”

“Last Rock is a tiny town,” Trissiny continued, “but it’s not a boring one. You’ll meet all kinds of people. Especially girls,” she added, giving Jeb a pointed look. “The sort you like, with backbones and no patience for your crap, Jeb. Townies, passing adventurers, University students. If you get tired of trying your luck in the city, it’s an option, anyway.”

“Girls?” Toby’s eyebrows had risen so high it almost looked painful. “Trissiny, you’re helping them get dates?”

“Uh…how certain are we that this is really Trissiny?” Gabriel muttered out the corner of his mouth, sidling closer to him.

“Her aura is unmistakable,” Ariel replied, making Jeb jump and look around for the source of her voice.

“That’s…real thoughtful of you, ma’am,” said Ezekiel slowly. “I appreciate the gesture. You don’t owe us nothin’, though. It was a plumb honor to help out a little.”

“I thought we might could come with you!” Jeb burst out, suddenly giving up searching for the voice and turning to her, hat in hand and being roughly squeezed the way he did when nervous. Zeke sighed, but his brother continued on, undaunted. “Cos, y’know, you’re sorta right, Calderaas ain’t been that great for us. But, come on, what’re the odds a’ two guys like us meetin’ a paladin? Twice? Maw always said, the gods move in mysterious ways. We can both ride an’ shoot and we ain’t afraid o’ hard work!”

“Good,” she said firmly. “Those are traits you’ll need on Cartwright’s ranch.”

“Yeah, but—”

“People like you get killed for following people like me!” she snapped. “Ignore anything Rainwood told you about adventure, Jenkins. That stuff’s for storybooks. My life is violence, destruction, and being manipulated into one disaster after another. Do you understand? You will die, and I don’t need to see that happen.”

“Well…shit, Ms. Trissiny, everybody dies a’ somethin’,” Jeb said earnestly. “Our great uncle Leroy, Vidius rest his soul, got swarmed by kobolds. But he made it mean somethin’! He protected his family an’ the house till help could come. I figured, ever since, if everybody’s gotta go out, I wanna make it…y’know, important.”

“Well, you can do that on your own time, if that’s what you want,” she said curtly. “I have real work to do, and no more time to babysit you.”

“C’mon, Jeb,” Zeke said quietly, taking him by the elbow. “It was a good day’s work, now let’s not waste the paladin’s time.”

Jebediah resisted his brother’s tugging, still staring at Trissiny with a frown of increasing consternation. “Hell, ma’am, we ain’t made a’ glass. If you just don’t like us, you can say so.”

“Why would I like you?” Trissiny roared, causing him to shy back in shock. “The whole time I’ve been saddled with you two nincompoops has been one mess after another, all cause because you two are more incompetent at everything you attempt than any human being can possibly be and still be alive! I swear, you’re either fairies in disguise or you’re doing it on purpose, and either way I have had just about enough of your nonsense. You act like that in my business and within one week, tops, you’ll be dead with your entrails spread around a two-acre area. And just because I don’t want to watch that doesn’t mean it would be any less of a relief!”

Jeb gaped at her with his mouth open. Zeke, Toby, and Gabriel were a little more contained, but not by a lot; the shock appeared to be universal.

After a few excruciating seconds of silence, Jebediah closed his mouth, swallowed heavily once, and took a step backward. He carefully tipped his hat to her, turned, and walked away.

Zeke, seeming unsure what to do, himself, finally cleared his throat and tipped his own hat in her direction. “…ma’am.” Then he followed after Jeb, leaving stillness behind.

Trissiny watched them go, slowly drawing in a deep breath. She let it out with the same deliberate slowness, as if maintaining that control could expel everything seething in her at that moment.

Toby stepped up next to her. His expression, now, was purely concerned.

“Please don’t,” she said. He opened his mouth, closed it, nodded, and patted her on the shoulder.

“So, uh,” Gabriel said from behind them, “far be it from me to interrupt all the awkwardness, but you guys might wanna look at this.”

They turned, and what was coming up the path drove the whole conversation out of their minds.

Easily the most incredible thing was that none of the other people in the park reacted to the approach of the carriage; it appeared no one could even see it. Apart from being an unusual open-topped model and painted solid black, the carriage itself was not very noteworthy. Its driver, though, was a lean man in a broad black hat, holding a vicious-looking scythe which towered over his seat. It was the horses pulling the vehicle which were most alarming, though. Skeletally emaciated, they had eyes which flickered with dim blue flames, and streaming wisps of black smoke for manes and tails; their hooves made a peculiar ringing sound on the path, shod with brightly glowing metal which tended to send up sparks when it touched the ground.

The carriage pulled up to a stop right alongside them, and the driver tugged the brim of his wide hat, which was too broad to comfortably lift, and gave them a thin smile.

“Morning, kids,” Vidius said pleasantly. “Interest you in a lift?”

 

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14 – 5

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Trissiny privately thought that House Araadia’s ancestors would be disgusted. The current head of House clearly didn’t know what a perimeter was, much less how to maintain it; getting in had been quite literally a walk in the park. Specifically, the small private park which had a secret entrances leading both into the manor and the alley behind the estate. Once through the outer defenses—to apply the word very loosely—navigating the manor itself wasn’t any more difficult. It was unfair, she knew, to cast such aspersions when this was actually helping her, not to mention that she was getting inside using intel provided by an actual member of the Araadia family, and the path had been opened by agents planted within the family’s servants and secured by Thieves’ Guild enforcers by the time she even got there.

But still, it was the principle of the thing. There had been a time when a noble House was meant to be a defensible political unit; on paper, at least, they still had the obligation to protect those within their employ. Hostiles should not be able to just walk in. Hell, she, Gabriel, and Yasmeen weren’t even the worst of it; Toby had literally gone in the front door and bluffed his way through using sheer rank.

“And this is a feature common to ballrooms owned by Houses, or facilities which cater to them,” Yasmeen narrated quietly, leading the way to the balcony rail which overlooked the dance floor a story below. “An architect’s duty is to provide a grand public space where people can mingle and be seen, balanced with liberal access to private corners where they can disappear to canoodle and/or plot skulduggery. Wraparound balconies such as this aren’t the only way to achieve this result, but they’re a particularly efficient one, and thus popular. Note the position of the fairy lamps on the outer sides of the support pillars, and lack of any lighting on the balcony itself! This, coupled with these strategic climbing vines—not easy to cultivate indoors—and the high, outward-leaning rail, make it all but impossible for those below to observe those above, while we can see them with perfect clarity.”

Trissiny touched Gabriel on the shoulder, tugging lightly; he had gone right to the rail and been about to lean out over it. At her silent urging, he pulled back, giving her a wry look.

“The Guild has secured this spot for now,” Trissiny said in a low voice, “but the longer they keep people out, the more likely someone will notice and make an outcry.”

“That’s inevitable, anyway,” Yasmeen replied at the same volume, “given that this is far from the only spot they are pinning down. Timing will be the key; the pieces are already in motion, and you must move at the right moment. It will be best if your moment comes before the guests realize they are encircled by thieves, but it should work regardless.”

“There’s a Butler down there,” Trissiny noted. “Guild enforcers are not going to stand up to that.”

“He’s accompanying Lord Taveshin,” Yasmeen reassured her. “Lady Araadia doesn’t have one. Wilkes will only act to protect his client, not secure House Araadia.”

“How many of those women with swords know how to use them?”

“I would say roughly half. But really, it won’t come to that, I assure you.”

“Hm,” Trissiny grunted skeptically, studying the guests. It wasn’t quite as easy as the design of the ballroom was meant to make it from up here; the place was dimmer than it would ordinarily be, with much of the light provided by glowing illusory trees and vines which had been conjured around the walls, climbing the support pillars, and overshadowing the buffet tables. The effect was dizzyingly beautiful, but did no favors for visibility.

She looked up to find Gabriel watching her sidelong, wearing an amused little smile.

“What are you smirking at?” she demanded.

He shook his head, smile widening, and turned his gaze back to the scene below. “I’ve missed you.”

That was so far from what she had expected that she could only stare at him, mouth slightly open. At least he was no longer looking in her direction, or she’d never live that down.

“Ah, looks like Toby’s already struck out before we arrived,” Yasmeen murmured, pointing.

“Struck out?”

“Baseball term,” Gabriel explained. “Didn’t you play baseball growing up?”

“Ball games aren’t huge in Viridill. Martial arts and war games, mostly.”

“Let me guess,” Gabriel said, narrowing his eyes to peer closely at Toby down below, “that’s this Lark character I’ve been hearing about.”

“The same,” Yasmeen confirmed.

Oliver Lark was the Vidian cleric who was apparently a key player in city politics, and a large part of the reason for their intervention here. To judge by his name and fair coloring, he was of frontier stock; most of the nobles assembled below were local, the Calderaan being the same dark-haired and olive-skinned ethnicity as the Tiraan, by and large. Lark and Toby stood off to the side, conversing quietly, which meant that Toby’s first intervention with Lady Araadia had failed. Both of them stood out somewhat, being in formal clerical robes, Lark’s a dashing ensemble of black and white (Vidians did not have an official costume, exactly, but borrowed elements from other cults to create whatever impression circumstances required), while Toby wore plain and simple brown which contrasted powerfully with the glittering outfits all around him. Trissiny had never seen him wear robes before. In fact, he looked rather stately in them.

Unlike the last time she had crashed a high society party, she was just in her silver armor, not having bothered with a dress uniform. She wasn’t here to impress these people—at least, not favorably. The armor’s disappearance from the grove might worry Lanaera, which she regretted, but a shaman of her grandmother’s skill could doubtless verify that she was well; fae magic was good for information gathering, provided it was gathered by spirits with whom the shaman had a good relationship. Gabriel hadn’t dressed up, either, though he had at least brushed clean his dark green overcoat and combed his hair, for once.

Glancing at him, she did a surreptitious double take. When had he started carrying his spine so straight? She remembered him with a permanent awkward hunch. It made him look taller.

“Now, that’s the one we’ll want to watch,” Yasmeen said, stepping up to the rail, and pointing. “Lady Irina Araadia is the one in blue, with half her tits on display like a burlesque dancer. As soon as Velvet makes her move, you’ll need to make yours.”

“I see her,” Trissiny nodded. “And it’s really not necessary to shame another woman for either her body or sexuality, Yasmeen.”

“Trissiny, please! A little credit!” Yasmeen turned to her, putting on a faux-wounded look. “I am fashion shaming. Do you note, glancing about, that decolletage is not a widely used component of current styles? Clothing is communication. It is a powerful way to send a message, to express the very identity one chooses to cultivate. I know you are aware that the greatest effect of that silver armor is not its ability to protect you from arrows. It reveals a great deal about a woman if the only thing she can think to express is ‘hey, look at these!’”

“Heh,” Gabriel muttered, grinning. “Reveals.”

Trissiny gave him a long-suffering look. “And you almost got through a conversational mention of breasts without making an ass of yourself.”

“I know, right? Close save!”

“How dare you!” The shrill exclamation was loud enough to cut through the general pattern of lively conversation among the party-goers and drift up to the balcony above. In the sudden silence below, a path opened as socially-attuned aristocrats melted out of the way of Lady Araadia and the dark-suited figure of Velvet, the local Guild Underboss, who had appeared next to the tables and was in the process of selecting a canape.

“And that’s our cue,” Gabriel said, pushing back from the rail. “Wish us luck!”

“You don’t need it, my dears,” Yasmeen assured them with a smirk of pure mischief. “Just be yourselves.”

He gallantly offered Trissiny his arm. “My lady?”

“I’m only not smacking you because I want your hair still relatively presentable when we get down there,” she informed him, turning and making for the main stairs, in the opposite direction from the discreet servant’s staircase by which they had reached the balcony. He laughed, falling into step beside her.

The sound of the ongoing row faded as they descended the stairwell, then grew again when they were closer to the bottom floor. While on the stairs, Gabriel withdrew the twisted black wand from inside his coat and extended it to its full length, using the scythe like a walking stick. Somehow, the rhythmic thump of its shaft against the floor was ominous even to her.

The stairs came out at a landing where a grand hall led from the front of the manor, right before a pair of wide doors which opened onto the ballroom itself—or rather, onto a short flight of steps descending to it, giving those assembled within a perfect view of anyone entering. A stately-looking man in Araadia livery stood beside the doors, there to facilitate exactly that purpose. He was very studiously ignoring the loud spectacle of his head of House shouting at an intruder, but the sudden appearance of the two of them managed to surprise him visibly.

“General Trissiny Avelea,” she declared before he could challenge their presence, “Hand of Avei.”

“Gabriel Arquin,” he added right on her heels, “Hand of Vidius.”

The herald quickly marshaled his expression, bowed to them, and turned to face the ballroom. While Trissiny and Gabriel descended the stairs, his voice rang out, announcing their identities.

This, naturally, caused a stir—but a muted one, the party attendees’ attention being divided between them and the ongoing spectacle of the Lady of the House and her long-lost sister. That, of course, had been the entire point: arranging for the two paladins to corner Irina under circumstances in which she had no chance to seize control of the ensuing conversation. There was a time not long ago when Trissiny would have rolled her eyes and called Princess Yasmeen’s entire plan here a grandiose waste of time, but in the last few months she had learned a great deal about the importance of social maneuvering—and how the lessons of military strategy applied to it. Perhaps the most compelling argument for this gambit was how readily Velvet had agreed to it. A noble by blood she might be, but one did not become a Thieves’ Guild underboss without being hard-nosed and pragmatic.

“My tolerance was frayed to begin with, Cardassa,” Lady Irina was snarling at Velvet as they approached. “If you are going to disrupt my social life merely to taunt me, I will yet see you disowned and banished from the city!”

“I would honestly like to see you try to get me banished, Irina,” Velvet said with a light sigh. She had picked up some kind of delicate-looking puff pastry which glowed, tiny blue motes of light seeming to coalesce out of the air and form a scintillating glaze over its surface. “Are you actually feeding this to your guests? You’ve never seen someone suffering from mana poisoning, I take it.”

“Those were handcrafted by the— No, I will not be baited into another of these exchanges. Remove yourself from my house immediately, and I will spare you, one last time, the indignity of being bodily hurled into the street.”

“The guards are too afraid of me even to try that, and you know it. You’ll have to forgive my sister,” she added past Irina’s shoulder to Trissiny. “She’s still tetchy because I trashed her art collection.”

“The complete Fire Lilies collection by Avistaan of Anteraas!” Irina raged. “Those paintings were priceless!”

“Priceless is the same as worthless,” Velvet retorted. “Those paintings were neither. They were beautiful, and art is wasted on someone who values it only for how expensive it is. You keep doing things like this, Irina, despite my repeated warnings. A point is coming where I won’t be able to protect you anymore.”

For a moment, Lady Irina physically quivered, as if gathering herself to lunge at her sister. Instead, she drew in a deep breath, forcing herself back under control, and pointedly turned her back on Velvet, facing the paladins. Evidently she had heard their introduction, despite herself shouting over it; at any rate, her eyes flickered between them with no evidence of surprise. The fact remained, though, they had come upon her in the middle of a yelling fit, hardly befitting the dignity of a head of House.

Still, Lady Irina straightened her spine and inclined her head to each of them courteously. Dressed in a shade of blue which perfectly matched the arcane light that filled her ballroom, she was a beautiful woman in her forties, her face unlined and elaborate black coif untouched by silver. Younger than her sister, if Trissiny was any judge, which would mean Cardassa had abdicated the high seat of House Araadia. Or perhaps the socialite just devoted more effort to preserving her looks than the Eserite.

“What an unexpected honor this is,” Irina said with a tight little smile which did not entirely conceal the anger still simmering beneath it. “I hardly expected even one paladin to appear at my little soiree, much less all three!”

Trissiny raised an eyebrow. “Soiree?”

“It’s Glassian,” Gabriel explained. “Very trendy, so I understand. The lightworks are truly impressive, Lady Araadia. Keyed to a single spell lattice, I believe? Not very efficient, but it would give the caster a more total control over the whole effect. I see how that would be a benefit. Whoever did this is as much an artist as enchanter.”

“Ah—an enthusiast,” she said, smiling coquettishly at him, a little of the tension easing from her shoulders. “So little is known of you, Lord Gabriel. I am surprised to learn the world’s most famous Vidian is also something of a Salyrite!”

“It’s just Gabriel,” he said nonchalantly, picking up one of the glowing pastries and inspecting it critically.

“I understand all this is thematic,” Trissiny stated, deliberately keeping her tone and expression flat. “Something about a museum?”

“The Araadia Institute of Arcane Enchantment,” Lady Irina replied, nodding her head again, her face suddenly wary. “The founding of which is the event which this humble gathering has been called to celebrate.” Velvet snorted loudly, which Irina pretended to ignore, despite the reddening of her cheeks. “It will serve as a permanent exhibition of the productive science which has come to fuel so much of the industry of our great city. The cutting edge of enchantment, constantly updated and displayed for the edification of all citizens, and as a badge of pride for Calderaas!”

This brought a smattering of applause from the onlookers, which Trissiny talked right over.

“Yes, and I understand it’s going to take a substantial endowment from the Sultanate’s education budget. What was it those funds were earmarked for, before you came along?”

“Schools,” Velvet interjected before Irina could reply, casually tossing the luminous pastry from hand to hand and watching the light trails it made. “Eight new primary and secondary schools, to be constructed in the city’s poorer districts. Calderaas has been lagging behind the Tirasian Dynasty’s mandates on public education for two Emperors, now. Fucking Shaathvar has a more up to date school system.”

Trissiny turned an openly scornful glare on Lady Irina. “Really? Really.”

“Yes, I thought I saw where this was going,” Irina retorted, the pretense of friendliness gone from her own features now. “Your colleague made a far more persuasive appeal to my better nature, I must say.”

She glanced at Toby, who had stepped up to the group with Oliver Lark still in tow.

“I take it he overestimated your better nature, then,” Gabriel mumbled around a mouthful. “Toby tends to do that.”

“Tell me you aren’t actually eating that,” Trissiny said in exasperation.

“I’ll save you one,” Gabriel promised, swallowing and holding up the remaining half of his arcane pastry. “Seriously, lightshow aside, this is the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth that wasn’t yelling my name.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Gross, Gabe.”

“As I attempted to explain to Tobias,” Lady Irina interjected in a tight voice, “the administration of a society demands a more complex, more nuanced manner of thinking than does traveling the land and smiting demons. One must consider the intricacies of the situation, and especially the future, and determine what best serves the interest of all Calderaan.”

“Mm,” Gabriel grunted, licking his fingers. “Big, fancy museum’s a much more prestigious thing to have your name on than a handful of elementary schools.”

“Not to mention,” Trissiny said grimly, “that it benefits a certain element of society more than the masses who work in that element’s factories.”

“I do say I am surprised at this level of attention,” Irina snapped. “Are there no open hellgates, no ongoing plots by the Black Wreath? Is our entire Empire, the very world, so blessedly free of evil that you three are at liberty to crash my social events? I have never heard of such a thing as three paladins intervening in a simple budget allocation. I must beg your forgiveness if I seem less than sympathetic, madam and gentlemen, but following on the heels of my sister declaring that harassing our House is her warped Eserite idea of protecting me, I am even less receptive to the appeals of religious people than your frankly inexplicable priorities would leave me ordinarily.”

“It makes sense, though,” Toby said in a quiet voice which seemed to balm the mounting tension, “if you understand how Eserites think, my Lady. If you persist in acting in a way which demands punishment, she protects you by taking it out on your possessions rather than your person. I don’t endorse that view,” he added, nodding politely to Velvet, “but understanding is the beginning of all compromise.”

“Regardless,” Irina said stiffly, “the discussion is academic. The matter is done and settled, hence this event to celebrate, which you all have now thoroughly ruined. I hope that fact brings you some satisfaction, because that is all you shall get from it.”

Lark diffidently cleared his throat. “With the greatest respect, most honored Lady, that is not necessarily so. The allocation of funds is the result of, as you know, many influences. It has been my honor to lend the weight of the Church and the cult of Vidius to your cause, but circumstances being as they are…”

“You would not dare,” she whispered.

He gave her a gentle smile and an ostentatiously helpless shrug. “In all aspects of my work, my Lady, I endeavor to navigate the complex currents of Calderaan society to achieve the end which seems, to my imperfect perception, the best for the city overall. Just as you yourself so eloquently explained. Clearly, the open opposition of every living paladin is a factor which changes a great many other variables. I am forced to reconsider my position. As, I fear, will be others present.”

“Well, look what a reasonable fellow you are,” Gabriel said lightly. “And here I was planning to threaten you with my scythe and everything.”

“Yes, so I assumed,” the priest replied, the smile fading from his face. “Your performance at the temple in Last Rock is already legendary, Gabriel.”

“Lark,” Irina hissed, “you intransigent little eel.”

“I am impressed that you are courageous enough to brazenly oppose the three primary gods, my Lady,” he said, bowing deeply to her. “I am a man of far lesser inner strength, myself.”

She bared her teeth at him, then abruptly whirled to glare at Velvet. “You planned this.”

The Eserite shrugged and finished chewing, having finally taken an experimental nibble of the mana pastry. “Credit where it’s due, little sister: this actually is delicious. But really, the glowing? Blue sugar icing would have been thematically adequate. You wouldn’t keep finding yourself in these embarrassing situations if you knew the meaning of restraint.”

Irina had to draw in another deep breath, this one wavering audibly, to gather enough calm to apparently work past an aggressive urge which would surely not have ended well for her. Instead, the turned slowly back around, and sketched an impressively sarcastic bow in Trissiny’s direction—a maneuver made risky by the unusually low cut of her bodice.

“Well, then, I congratulate you,” Lady Irina said icily, straightening up again and tilting her chin back to stare down her nose at Trissiny. “I only hope no one was sacrificed to summon a demon while you were slaying the vile threat of my political aspirations. Since you care so deeply for the plight of the working class, I will take the liberty of directing the laborers who would have been contracted to build a proud edifice to the Sisterhood of Avei for work. Are you satisfied, now?”

“No,” Trissiny replied, and punched her in the jaw.

It was a simple right jab, but Lady Irina dropped like a bag of turnips. It was a good thing she had decided not to haul off and throw her whole weight into it; that might have killed the woman.

Naturally, pandemonium immediately erupted. Screams and shouts rang out, accompanied by more than one metallic hiss of a sword being unsheathed. Trissiny had noted on the way in that only about half the women present wore Imperial-style gowns; others were in more traditional Calderaan costume, which included bejeweled shamshirs belted over their baggy trousers. Cavalry swords, to be sure, but she had seen enough Narisian fighting to know that a person with a long saber didn’t need to be on horseback to be exceedingly deadly.

Trusting the Guild enforcers to do their jobs, she ignored all the hubbub and bent to seize Lady Irina by the hair with her right hand. The noblewoman had been felled but not rendered unconscious, and was in the process of woozily getting to her hands and knees; she had enough presence of mind to shriek in shock and agony at being unceremoniously hauled upright by her scalp.

On the buffet table was a large crystal bowl of punch. Blue punch, which put off a faint, scintillating light—whether from the liquid itself or the glowing patterns being traced across its surface by some enchantment on the punchbowl, she couldn’t tell and didn’t care. Trissiny dragged the hostess bodily over to the table, shoved her face into the punchbowl, and held her there.

“Her Ladyship is correct,” she said, projecting from the diaphragm to cut across the hubbub, and ignoring the bubbles rising from the punch and Irina’s hands frantically scrabbling at her gauntlet. “This is beneath me. I resent having to come here and deal with this nonsense. It’s not as if there is nothing in the world more urgent and better suited for my skills. But at the end of the day, a paladin is called to serve an ideal—in my case, justice. And injustice is injustice, whether it is dealt by a bunch of smirking vultures conniving in a back room to cheat thousands of people out of the benefit of their tax money, or some warlock trying to summon a demon he can’t hope to control. The difference is that warlocks rarely suffer the delusion that they won’t face consequences.”

She hauled Irina’s face up out of the punch, in the process upending the whole bowl. It tilted, teetered, and finally rolled off the table, shattering upon the marble mosaic floor and splashing arcane-tinged punch across Trissiny’s boots, though she was already liberally speckled with it after Irina’s struggles. The Lady choked, gasped, and sprayed blue droplets everywhere as she fought to breathe, but impressively given her condition, she managed to shout (albeit in a somewhat gargled voice).

“G-guards!”

“Ah, yes,” Trissiny agreed far more clearly. “Guards?”

More gasps and shouts ensued, and now the gathered aristocrats began clustering together in the center of the ballroom, away from the perimeter, where two dozen Thieves’ Guild enforcers had begun melting out of the shadowed alcoves and servant entrances, grim-faced, shabbily-dressed, and visibly armed. The kept their weapons at their sides and made no move save to block anyone from fleeing. Still, this situation could explode into violence very easily; there were, at Trissiny’s quick count, nine women now holding up swords, and all had placed themselves around the perimeter of the gaggle of aristocrats, facing down the enforcers. She noted that every armed person was female, and she could tell at a glance which were potentially a problem; some held up weapons that were clearly nothing but expensive costume props, literally quivering. Even they hadn’t hesitated to the fore, though, and they were the minority. More than half were stone-faced, with correctly braced stances and practically radiating menace. Clearly, the nobility of Calderaas lacked neither spine nor skill.

“I understand,” Trissiny said loudly, tightening her grip on Lady Irina’s hair but allowing the coughing noblewoman to slump across the now-stained table. “It’s not so simple as that, or so you tell yourselves. There are a thousand compromises to be made every day, deals to be struck to get anything done. A more privileged position means greater responsibility, and why should you not enjoy the prestige and luxury that makes it all tolerable? Really, I do understand. It’s not even that the basic premise is wrong. It only becomes a problem when you take it too far.”

She drew her sword, causing an overall increase in tension. Two shamshir-wielding women turned to face her directly, blades upraised, and Trissiny couldn’t help feeling a trickle of approval. Backed into a corner, they were still willing to cross swords with a being they had to know could demolish them all with little effort. This group was far from useless; Calderaas might even be in good hands, so long as they took to heart the point she had come here to make.

“Three paladins didn’t come here because of Calderaas’s education budget, or Araadia’s museum. We are here because this has become a pattern. Because you, the lot of you, seem to have forgotten some important facts. Not one of your lives is more fundamentally important than the meanest laborer stacking crates in one of your warehouses. You are certainly not invincible, or impervious to repercussions.” She emphasized her point but wrenching her fist in Irina’s hair, twisting the woman’s neck and eliciting a scream which made several of those before her flinch. “Noble blood spills just as easily as any other, and runs just as red. Remember that, and recite it to yourself next time you find yourself contemplating cheating masses of people out of a basic necessity so you can enjoy another luxury.

“Because I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, I care about your privileges even less than you care about the fates of the poor. The difference between us is that I actually can shrug off any vengeance you try to impose. Remember that, and don’t make me come back here. Because the next time I have to come and carefully unravel the intricate webs you weave…”

Abruptly, she hauled Irina upright again, spinning her to face the crowd, and drove the pommel of her sword into the woman’s sternum. Irina’s shriek was cut off in a whoosh of expelled breath, and she tried to double over on herself—impossible, due to Trissiny’s grip on her hair, but she did cross her arms over her midsection, which was the point.

The ancient sword had a visibly scarred blade; it wasn’t nearly as dull as it looked, but Trissiny still channeled light into it, making the blade glow like the sun and honing its edge to a razor’s keen, before slashing it deftly through the inch between her fingers and Lady Irina’s skull.

Irina collapsed to the floor, weakly sobbing, the sodden mass of her once carefully-styled hair remaining in Trissiny’s fist.

She kept it aloft for a moment before tossing it into the puddle of punch and crystal shards.

“I won’t.”

The oppressive silence was marred only by the broken whimpering of the party’s hostess. Trissiny roved her eyes slowly across the crowd, taking the time to directly meet the gaze of everyone present who didn’t flinch from her stare, a trick taught to her by a Guild enforcer back in Tiraas. A lot of them glared right back. Fine; she didn’t need them cowed into submission, just aware of their limits.

Finally, she turned her back on the group. Toby stood nearby, Lark having beat a judicious retreat; he looked tired and mournful. For some reason, that irritated her. Gabriel was leaning his rear against the table over which she had so recently thrown Lady Irina Araadia, his arms folded and the haft of his scythe tucked into his elbow with its wicked blade gleaming above.

“Anything to add?” she asked dryly.

Gabriel shook his head, straightening up. “Threats are the province of war.”

Taking his scythe in hand, he casually swept it through the air overhead. A blue spark ignited along the blade, as if it had slashed through something invisible, and suddenly the room was plunged into dimness as every illusory vine and tree in the place winked out. This, finally, prompted more gasps and small shrieks, though not enough to drown out Gabriel’s finishing statement.

“Death…just happens.”

Toby turned and bowed toward the assembled aristocrats, hands folded before his midsection. “Thank you kindly for the hospitality. It was a lovely party.”

All three of them turned and strode toward the doors, Trissiny flanked by the boys. They walked without speaking, their footsteps unconsciously falling into a matching rhythm. Not a word was said until they had passed beyond the great entry and the wide-eyed herald, into the more well-lit hallway beyond which led to the manor’s front door.

“So that thing cuts enchantment, even?” Trissiny asked finally.

“Nothing doesn’t die,” Gabriel murmured, eyes ahead.

Toby heaved a sigh. “I can’t make myself be happy about this night’s work.”

“Yeah, well, you should.” They all slowed, turning in surprise, while Velvet caught up with them. “That was the whole point of you going in first to ask nicely, Caine. Next time an Omnist makes a polite request of any of those people, they will damn well listen. Now that they know they don’t want any of what comes along after. Believe me, that’s for the best. The whole world can’t be run by people like me and Thorn; if a society is kept in line by nothing but fear, it’ll tear itself apart. You may not like how I do things, but I really prefer if people like them listen to people like you before I ever have to become involved.”

“You sure you just wanna leave?” Gabriel asked her. “Seems like your sister could really use a friendly hand right now…”

Velvet shook her head. “She’s already never going to forgive me for the part I played in that; every second I stick around and witness her humiliation will only make it worse. This business has effectively neutered House Araadia’s political ambitions for a generation, I hope you realize.”

“Sorry,” Trissiny said, not trying overly hard for a sincere tone.

Velvet didn’t exactly smile, but the look she gave her was sardonic and not at all reproachful. “They’ll get no sympathy from me. Aristocrats are like church bells: expensive, pretty, and only useful when regularly struck. You did a good thing here tonight, kids; ugly, but necessary. If Yasmeen is able to come up with a play like this, she’ll make a hell of a Sultana when her time comes.”

Gabriel cracked a grin at that, but Toby just sighed.

“Well. I suggest we all move along before our welcome wears out any further. No offense meant to Calderaas, Velvet, but I find I am suddenly eager to find the Princess, collect our trinket, and get out of this city.”

No one had any objection to that.

 

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14 – 4

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“Vesk,” said Lord Quentin Vex, the head of Imperial Intelligence himself, a round of explanations later when they were all seated at the table. He seemed a fairly unflappable man—at any rate, he had not reacted strongly when a paladin burst in upon his secret meeting—but now a grimace of naked irritation crossed his face. “After decades of silence, that makes the second time within a year he has personally intervened in one of my operations—and turned a discreet, efficient procedure into a misunderstanding that could have gotten people killed. Last time, it did. I haven’t the luxury of direct access to the gods, lady and gentlemen; I wonder if you would be so good as to ask Vesk, next time you see him, just what the hell his problem is?”

“I will be glad to convey the message, Lord Vex,” Trissiny said grimly, “in exactly those words.”

“It seems fairly obvious to me,” Toby said much more quietly. “Knowing Vesk’s general personality and tendencies, that is. Quiet operations going perfectly according to plan are boring. Potentially lethal mix-ups? Now that’s a story.”

“I really am sorry, Marshal,” Trissiny repeated, turning to the man she had recently bowled over. He hadn’t been more than bruised, and even that was quickly washed away by Toby’s healing.

“No harm done, General Avelea,” Marshal Shaspirian said with a smile. “Getting knocked down by a paladin makes a great anecdote! One I can only share with people of my security clearance, but they’re the ones who’ll be jealous, anyway.”

“So, just to be clear,” Trissiny said, casting a careful look around the table, “Vesk was lying? You two aren’t in trouble with the government?”

“It sounds, based on what you said, like he played his usual semantic game with you,” Toby replied, shooting a look at Gabriel. “We’re in the company of Imperial representatives, but not in…custody. And as for trouble… Well, I’m just along to look out for Gabriel.”

She turned an incredulous stare on Gabe. “What did you do this time?!”

“Hey, let’s not blow things out of proportion,” he protested, raising his hands. “It was just a very small amount of obviously accidental…treason.”

“Gabriel!”

“He jests,” Vex said dryly. “Imperial law is clear: the charge of treason requires proof of intent. Accidentally stumbling upon secrets which are Sealed to the Throne and then casually blurting them to foreign nationals is not, technically, a crime. But it’s a swift way to find yourself having a conversation with Intelligence.”

“A polite one,” Gabriel said hastily. “If you’re a paladin, I think the difference is.”

“I won’t sugar-coat it,” Vex agreed, looking at him sidelong. “Your status is the reason this discreet little chat is occurring in a tasteful residence loaned to us by the Sultanate and not a dim room somewhere deep in a fortress. But no, Mr. Arquin is not guilty of any crime against the Empire, nor even suspected of disloyalty. His Majesty simply wishes to express his hopes that the Hand of Vidius will comport himself with a little more discretion in the future.”

Trissiny planted an elbow on the table, so as to lean her face into her hand. “Gabriel.”

“Okay, you can dial it down a bit,” he said irritably. “It was a simple misunderstanding.”

“If I may?” Vex interjected in a mild tone. “Clearly, General Avelea should be brought up to speed, but in the interests of my department’s discretion, perhaps we should avoid you being the one to explain, Mr. Arquin.”

“That is an excellent idea,” Toby said with a benign smile which only intensified in response to Gabriel’s dirty look.

“A certain facility,” Vex continued, “contains, among other very sensitive matters, a fallen valkyrie who is working for the Empire. We provide her with safe housing and ensure she does not accidentally harm anyone—which requires total isolation, as she is involuntarily very dangerous. Yrsa is, strictly speaking, a prisoner, but on fairly amicable terms. We provide as best we can for her comfort and she assists with other matters in the facility. As it turns out, her sisters know she is there and check in on her regularly. I did not realize this until very recently.” He glanced at Gabriel, who tried to look nonchalant. “Mr. Arquin has taken an interest in Elder God facilities, after the recent events in Puna Dara in which most of your classmates encountered one.”

“Let me guess,” Trissiny sighed. “You’ve got those in with the valkyrie.”

“She is very helpful in that regard, having been alive when they were built,” Vex replied in his placid tone. “Similar structures were recently discovered under Puna Dara and, it turns out, beneath an elven grove on the Viridill/Calderaas border. Mr. Arquin’s valkyrie friends directed him to the sites held by the Empire and the elves, and he chose to visit the latter.”

“I was kinda hoping to avoid an incident like this,” Gabriel said with a grimace. “The elves were very helpful, though.”

“Yes, I’m sure they were fascinated to learn their Elder artifacts are not unique,” Vex said, tightening his mouth.

“I did not tell them anything else about what’s under Tiraas except that it’s there!” Gabe said hastily. “That was none of their business, or even mine. And hey, now you know the elves have one, too! That seems fair.”

“Wait a second,” Trissiny exclaimed. “This thing is under Tiraas?”

Gabriel’s eyes went wide. In the ensuing silence, Lord Vex began very slowly drumming his fingers on the table.

“Aw, dang,” Gabriel finally muttered. Toby burst out laughing.

The door slipped open and the woman in the maid’s dress, who had not been introduced, peeked in. She looked immediately at Vex, and waited for his nod to speak.

“Excuse me, but are these two…gentlemen…attached to the Sisterhood of Avei?”

“They certainly are not,” Trissiny said with open exasperation. Then, feeling a little remorse, added, “They are bystanders accidentally caught up in something out of their league, and they’ve been quite helpful to me. I do insist that they not be mistreated.”

“I have no intention of treating them in any way at all,” Vex said, allowing the tiniest frown to pass through his vague facade. “I thought I expressed that clearly.”

“Yes, sir,” the maid replied, tension creeping into her voice. “I passed that along. They don’t appear to have believed me.”

“We was followin’ orders!” a male voice said loudly from behind her, followed by a muted thump and a slightly muffled rejoinder.

“Hush up, Jeb, let the lady talk.”

In the ensuing jostling, the maid jerked forward against the door as if something had run into her from behind, and tightened her lips into a compressed line of clear irritation.

“Oh, for the—” Trissiny furiously shoved her chair back from the table.

“Marshal,” Vex said quickly. Shaspirian was already moving toward the door. At his approach, the maid gratefully began retreating, which appeared to be made difficult by the ongoing scuffle behind her. “I brought Marshal Shaspirian as security on this trip for a reason, General Avelea,” Vex reassured Trissiny while the Marshal gently shooed everyone back out into the living room and shut the door behind him. “He is adept at handling agitated non-hostiles. Believe me, Intelligence is not in the habit of persecuting bystanders.”

“Where did you find those guys?” Toby asked incredulously. “They don’t seem like the kind of people you ordinarily hang out with, Triss.”

“They found me,” she huffed, scooting back up to the table. “It’s a long story. I’m reasonably convinced they mean well and just aren’t accustomed to goings-on of this kind.”

“Most people are not, and so much the better,” Vex replied. “Back on topic, then. This has been an amicable discussion, Avelea, despite what Vesk apparently told you. We have helped each other out: Mr. Arquin consented to be debriefed on the Imperial secrets he actually learned and what he did with them, and I have arranged a private meeting with Princess Yasmeen, which evidently they needed in order to fulfill this…quest.”

“Given who we are, we could probably have just walked into the Royal Palace and asked for a moment of her time,” Toby added, “but…I think, as a rule, the more discreet, the better.”

“And I heartily encourage the observance of that rule,” Vex agreed. “To date I had not even inquired about the details of your endeavor, but if Vesk is going to make a habit of mangling my operations for his own amusement, I find myself suddenly a great deal more curious. What exactly does he want from you?”

“Nothing,” Trissiny said acidly. “Vesk doesn’t want things, he just likes to kick the anthill and watch us all scurry around.”

“It is pretty iconic,” Gabriel added. “We’re supposed to collect four pieces of some special key for him. A key to what, I don’t know. But that’s pretty much right out of the old bardic epics, isn’t it? Paladins sent to assemble the fragments of the long-lost magical doodad. His first hint was that Princess Yasmeen of Calderaas had one piece, so…here we are.”

“Hm,” Lord Vex mused, even more noncommittally than usual. “I could see that going either way. Such an artifact may be important, or he might just have tasked you with collecting plot coupons so as to weave a good story. I imagine he’s suffered a dearth of those since the Age of Adventures petered out. You said he failed to mention what this key was for?”

“No such luck,” Toby said apologetically. “He’s been overall pretty vague.”

“I didn’t even know Yasmeen had the first piece,” said Trissiny. “Which makes sense, as I have no intention of wasting my time on one of Vesk’s lethally dangerous mockingjay hunts. I just came to extract these two from trouble, which it turns out they’re not even in. I’m going right back to what I was doing.”

“Aw, come on,” Gabriel wheedled, grinning at her. “How can you resist the call of adventure?”

“Is he serious?” she demanded, turning to Toby, who just shook his head.

“Wherever this business takes you,” said Vex, now pushing himself back from the table and standing up, “know that the Empire supports the goals of the gods and their Hands. If this is an adventure of the classic sort it’s unlikely to be possible for my agents to follow your movements, so I will not have them try. If, however, you need help, feel free to approach any Imperial Marshal. For now, I will bid you good day and good fortune on your task. Your other appointment should be arriving soon, and I don’t wish to intrude on that conversation.”

“Thank you very much, Lord Vex,” Toby said, rising as well. “For everything.”

“Of course.” Vex hesitated in turning toward the door, then shifted back and fixed Gabriel with a neutral look. “And, Mr. Arquin… If you find you have difficulty keeping secrets, perhaps you might adopt a policy of not learning them until you’ve had more practice?”

“That’s a good idea,” Gabe said, downright meekly. “I’ll just…request that the girls not go sniffing around in any more Imperial bases. Though I don’t see why they would, unless you have any more fallen valkyries squirreled away.”

“Just the one, thankfully,” Vex said dryly. “A pleasure to meet you all.”

With a final nod, he turned and slipped out through the door, leaving silence in his wake.

“I didn’t realize all the Imperial Marshals worked for Intelligence,” Gabriel said after a pause.

“They don’t,” Trissiny replied. “Imperial Marshal is the title given any law officer answerable directly to the Empire, authorized to carry and use lethal weaponry, and not a member of the military. It includes Intelligence agents, tax collectors, census takers, some members of the Surveyor Corps… A variety of duties. The whole idea is that if you’re dealing with a Marshal you don’t know who they are or what they can do. Might be an accountant, or a fully trained spy. Empress Theasia organized the system to stop the Houses from robbing her tax assessors.”

“Huh,” he mumbled. “So…what’s the difference between them and Sheriffs?”

“Marshals are Imperial and travel wherever their duties take them, Sheriffs are part of a structure organized by the Empire, but they work for the provincial governors and have a specific region they’re responsible for.”

“So…Sam Sanders back in Last Rock actually works for the Sultana?”

“For the Sultanate, anyway,” she said with growing impatience, “but all that aside, what were you two thinking? I mean, I can understand him!” She pointed at Gabriel, turning to Toby. “But you’ve had as much training as I have, surely. Didn’t anybody warn you about Vesk?”

“Oh, they sure did,” Toby said, making a wry face. “And I tried to warn Gabriel, but he’s been gung-ho about this from the very beginning.”

“Honestly, you’re such a pair of sticks in the mud,” Gabriel said, leaning back in his chair and grinning at them. “It’s a good, old-fashioned adventure, right out of the Aveniad! Learn to relax and enjoy things.”

“You see the problem,” Toby said to Trissiny, his grimace deepening. “I came along because the alternative would be leaving him to Vesk’s mercy, alone and unsupervised.”

“It’s been a good few years since I’ve needed a babysitter,” Gabriel complained.

“Well,” Trissiny retorted, “I’m only here because I was led to believe both of you were in some kind of peril.”

“So, let me get this straight.” Gabriel straightened up and leaned his elbows on the table, again grinning at them. “Vesk wanted all three paladins for his quest, but two thirds of them didn’t want to come. And yet, here we all are. Wow. He played you two like a couple of fiddles, huh?”

“That’s it.” Trissiny shoved her chair away from the table and stood.

“Okay, take it easy,” he said soothingly. “It’s not like I blew you off, Toby. You said a quest from Vesk was probably dangerous nonsense, so I arranged precautions.”

Trissiny was already heading for the door, but now hesitated, squinting suspiciously at him.

“Precautions?” Toby asked warily. “I almost fear to ask…”

“While you were packing,” Gabriel said with insufferable smugness, lacing his fingers behind his head, “I sent a telescroll to Tellwyrn explaining what we were doing and why. So if we’re late when classes start up in the fall, she’ll know what’s up.”

“You don’t think Vesk is actually afraid of Tellwyrn, do you?” Trissiny asked slowly.

“As in, for his life? Doubtful.” Gabriel shook his head, still looking placid and self-satisfied. “Now that I have privileged access to Church archives I’ve looked into the god she killed, and it sounds like Sorash created some really extenuating circumstances, and also had it coming. But there’s a lot of mess Tellwyrn can make short of deicide which Vesk probably doesn’t want to see happen. And he definitely won’t want the rest of the Pantheon on his case for setting her off. You know how she gets when people mess with her students.”

Trissiny and Toby exchanged a long look.

“It’s like this.” Gabriel lowered his hands, straightened up, and generally looked more serious. “Yes, I do wanna go on the quest, because it sounds exciting to me. But also, keep in mind we’re doing this at the instigation of a trickster god who’s already pretty deftly maneuvered both of you into complying. Before we decide to butt heads with someone like that, we’d better make sure it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t think it is. Seems to me the best course of action here is to play along, up to a point, but take precautions.”

“Now that you bring that up,” Toby mused, “if Vesk got any of us into real trouble for anything less than very excellent reason, all three of our cults and patron gods would land on him. Tellwyrn is pretty much icing on the cake.”

Trissiny sighed. “I still don’t like this.”

“And I don’t like cabbage sprouts,” Gabriel said with a shrug. “But I eat ’em. Growing boy needs his nutrition.”

“You can’t actually believe doing this fool thing will be good for us?” she said incredulously.

He opened his mouth to reply, but there came a knock on the door. Before they could answer, it swung open and Jeb peeked nervously into the room, hat in hands.

“Uh…” He cleared his throat and tried again. “Presenting her Royal Majesty—”

Zeke appeared in the doorway behind him. “It’s Highness, you goober, Majesty means a crowned head of state.”

“Gawd dammit, Zeke, I won the coin toss, I’m doin’ it!” Jeb hissed furiously at him. “A-hem. Her…Majestic Highness, Princess Yasmeen! Uh, of Calderaas.”

Both shuffled awkwardly aside and bowed almost parallel with the ground, Zeke at least having to flex his knees, being clearly not quite that agile. She appeared in the gap behind them, wearing a modest gown that showed wealth but not royal status, and a bemused expression. The Princess stepped forth, then paused, finding her way partially blocked by two bowing heads. After a moment, she turned sideways and carefully shuffled forward between them.

Gabriel visibly cringed; Trissiny covered her eyes with a hand.

Princess Yasmeen turned and said politely, “Thank you, gentlemen.”

The Jenkins brothers straightened up and grinned nervously at her.

“Yer welcome, ma’am,” said Jeb, turning his hat over and over in his hands. “And, uh, may I just say—”

Toby cleared his throat. “I think her Highness meant—”

“OUT!” Trissiny barked in her drill sergeant voice. They fell over themselves, almost literally, in obeying, but within seconds had vacated the room and shut the door behind them a good bit harder than it needed.

“I’m sorry to have missed Lord Vex,” said the princess, turning to smile at them, “but at least I haven’t missed all the fun. Apparently.”

“Thank you very much for coming to meet with us, your Highness,” said Gabriel, rising and bowing to her. “We greatly appreciate it. And there’s an explanation for all of this, which I will gladly share with you as soon as I figure out what it is.”

She laughed in evidently genuine amusement, easing much of the tension from the room. Yasmeen Aldarasi was a woman in her late twenties, pretty in a way that owed much to tasteful coiffure and cosmetics, and clad in a dress of dark gray silk with subtle patterns embroidered in black which were almost invisible at a glance. Altogether she was clearly a person of some wealth, though nothing about her presentation here suggested royalty.

“So! Toby and Gabriel,” Yasmeen said with a broad smile. “I believe I can tell who is who by description. And…?” She turned to Trissiny, adding an inquisitive tilt of her head.

“My presence here wasn’t planned,” she said apologetically. “Well, not by me, anyway. Trissiny Avelea, pleased to make your Highness’s acquaintance.”

“Trissiny!” Yasmeen’s expression positively lit up. “Wonderful! This makes it perfect. Sekandar has told me a lot about you!”

“Oh, I will just bet he has,” Gabriel said in an excessively solemn tone, then ignored Toby’s warning look.

“All three paladins, and fellow Last Rock veterans,” Yasmeen continued, pulling out the chair in which Vex had recently sat and dropping into it with a bit less grace than she had shown moments before. “You can’t imagine what a relief all this is. My whole day is nothing but parties, meetings, smiling politely at people and then plotting to stab them in the back before they do it to me. Oh, not literally, at least not in this century, though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted. Gods, I miss school. And the best part is you’re all so important Mother can’t complain at me for wasting time. Please, sit!”

“You enjoyed the University that much?” Trissiny inquired, slowly resuming her seat.

“Best four years of my life,” Yasmeen replied, answering with a borderline rakish grin. “Ah, I still miss my first Golden Sea excursion. After an unreasonably sheltered childhood, the whole experience was more joyous than I even know how to express. On the way back I got to punch a rock elemental!”

Gabriel let out a whistle. “How did that go?”

“Broke my wrist!” Yasmeen said proudly, holding up her right hand and flexing her fingers. “Believe me, that was very educational.”

“Oh, I believe it,” Toby assured her. “Honestly, your Highness—”

“Please! In private, it’s Yasmeen.”

“I’m just surprised,” he said, answering her infectious grin with one of his own. “We have a handful of nobility among the student body, and I’ve notice that…ah, how to put it…”

“More of them than otherwise tend to wilt outdoors,” Trissiny said dryly.

“Even Sekandar is more a quiet, keep-to-himself type,” Gabriel added.

“Ah, poor Sekandar,” Yasmeen said with a sigh. “He’s such a dutiful boy. It made it so easy to pick on him growing up, and makes me feel so guilty about it now. The sad irony of the hereditary matriarchy is that he would make a much better Sultana than I will. I once suggested that to Mother and she threatened to have me drawn and quartered. I am about…sixty percent sure it was hyperbole. But one learns, in Calderaas, not to assume that about Her Royal Majesty’s pronouncements. So, then!” She interlaced her fingers on the table, pushing aside Vex’s empty plate, and leaned forward to regard them with an eager grin. “Lord Vex was deliberately vague as only a spymaster can be, but I’m given to understand there is something about a divine quest! And you need my help, in particular?”

“I hope this isn’t too disappointing,” Trissiny said, “but I don’t think it’s anything all that important. We’re talking about an out-of-the-blue fetch quest from Vesk.”

“The god of bards?” Yasmeen raised her eyebrows. “Oh, dear. You are in trouble.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny exclaimed, looking pointedly at Gabriel.

“Why don’t I take it from the top?” Toby suggested gently. “As Trissiny…broadly implied, Vesk has a certain history of deliberately sending people on adventures that have no apparent purpose beyond the adventure itself. Which…honestly only appeals to about a third of us.”

“Yo.” Gabriel raised a hand. The princess winked at him.

“In this case,” Toby continued, “he wants us to gather the pieces of a key. We don’t know what it’s a key to, or anything else about it; all we have are broad clues, and in the case of the first piece, a specific one. Vesk claims the first piece is in your possession, Your—Yasmeen.”

“Mine?” She tilted her head, blinking twice and letting her gaze wander to a point beyond the room. “Humm. A piece of a key… How many pieces are there?”

“Four,” Gabriel answered.

“So a quarter of a key, then…assuming it’s divided evenly.”

“I’m sorry,” said Trissiny. “This must be as much a waste of your time as it is of ours.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t necessarily say that,” Yasmeen replied, her grin returning. “It is rather exciting, isn’t it?”

“If you say so.”

“Ah, but you must be accustomed to direct communications from gods. For me, it’s not exactly part of the daily commute to work. And, in point of fact… I have a thought. Yes!” Abruptly, she pushed the chair back and stood. “Serendipitously—or perhaps not, under the circumstances—I believe there is something in this very house which may shed some light on this. Come, I’ll show you!”

They glanced at one another in surprise as she led the way back to the door out of the dining room, but rose and followed without further comment.

Out in the living room, Trissiny’s self-appointed escorts were clearly becoming restless. Zeke was standing at the front window, lifting the curtain to peek outside, while Jeb had picked up a fairy lamp in a ceramic housing made to resemble a rearing horse, and was examining it up close. At Yasmeen’s sudden entry, both jumped and straightened. Unfortunately, they also both lost some grip strength in the process, which did the curtains no harm, but Jeb went through a dramatic five-second fumble in which he almost managed to catch the lamp twice before it finally impacted the parquet floor with an expensive crunch. He immediately hid both his hands behind his back, staring at them wide-eyed, and swallowed heavily. Zeke sighed and tugged the brim of his hat down over his eyes.

Trissiny made a noise deep in her throat which echoed clearly across the room. Both brothers took two judicious steps back.

“Tell you what, gents,” Yasmeen said kindly, smiling at them. “Head through the dining room to the kitchen, and help yourself to anything in there. You must be getting hungry by this point, if you weren’t invited to lunch.”

“Uh…yes, ma’am!” Jeb said in surprise. “Thank you kindly, ma’am. I mean, your Maj…ness.”

“Much obliged, Princess,” Zeke said with more aplomb, removing his hat and bowing deeply.

Yasmeen glanced back at the three paladins, then tilted her head pointedly toward the other door out of the living room before heading that way. They followed, Trissiny after giving a long, warning look at the brothers Jenkins.

“Your cleaning staff may not thank you for that, Yasmeen,” she said upon stepping into the stairwell through the doorway. Behind her, the scuffling of booted feet hurrying through the house was cut off by another excessive slam of the dining room door.

“Oh, anyone responsible for cleaning this place is accustomed to inexplicable stains,” Yasmeen said lightly, already halfway up the stairs.

“Now that I think of it,” Gabriel said, following her, “Vesk specifically said the first fragment was in the possession of ‘the princess in her palace.’ That stuck in my mind; it has that over-the-top mysteriously poetic sound you get from prophecies in stories and whatnot. He didn’t specify you or Calderaas by name until after.”

“He said the same to me,” Trissiny added.

“I figured, based on that,” Gabriel continued, “the thing must be in the Royal Palace. But you think it’s here?”

“If my hunch is correct,” Yasmeen replied, “no, it is not. But there is something here I want to show you, which may shed some light on the matter. It’s just through here.”

She led them down a carpeted upper hall, opened a heavy oaken door, and ushered them into a spacious study. It was lined entirely by shelves laden with leather-bound books, most clearly old. Yasmeen went unerringly to one of these, tugging out a thick volume nearly as tall as her entire torso. The weight made her grunt, and Trissiny immediately stepped forward to lend a hand.

“Thanks,” Yasmeen said a tad breathlessly. “Just on the desk, there, if you please.”

Once it was set down as directed, she opened the heavy cover and began leafing through its pages with a deft, delicate touch, moving each with great care not to rumple it. The paladins clustered about, only Toby having the restraint not to crowd her, though Yasmeen didn’t seem to mind, being fully absorbed in the book. It appeared to be an art book of some kind, its pages filled with illustrations ranging from simple ink sketches to full-color paintings. The subject matter varied widely, the only theme being that the statues, jewels, weapons, armor and paintings depicted all looked expensive, and most old. Yasmeen was turning the pages too rapidly for them to read any of the accompanying descriptions, unfortunately.

“This is a book of some of the hereditary treasures held by the Sultanate of Calderaas,” the princess said absently. “Most of them, I daresay. It was printed in my grandmother’s time, and Mother isn’t one for accumulating knickknacks.”

“There is some neat stuff in there,” Gabriel said with a whistle. “Where can I get a book like this?”

“You can commission a bunch of the best artists and historians of your day to hand-craft a unique work of art,” Yasmeen replied with an abortive little huff that might have been a fragment of a chuckle. “Honestly, the things royalty finds on which to spend money. Sometimes I’m half-tempted to donate my entire monthly allowance to the Thieves’ Guild, just to see what happens.”

“I bet the Sultana would find that a splendid joke,” Trissiny said innocently.

“Brr,” Yasmeen shuddered. “Ah! Here we are!”

She spread the page open carefully, then stepped aside, going around behind the desk so the three of them could cluster in front and see what she had found. Depicted in a full-color painting on one page was a peculiar pendant on a twisted gold chain. Its setting was hammered gold, clustered with small gems, but the object they surrounded was a strange stone, long and narrow and cut in an uneven pattern.”

“Huh,” Trissiny said, reading the text on the opposite page. “It’s called Gretchen’s Dowry… Wait, not the Gretchen? From the story of Gretchen and Sayina?”

“Who’s the Gretchen?” Gabriel asked.

“The very same,” Yasmeen replied, then turned to Gabe. “It’s one of the great Avenist romances.”

He straightened up to stare at her, blinking in astonishment. “…there are Avenist romances?”

Trissiny rolled her eyes, then went back to reading.

“There are,” Yasmeen said gravely. “Even some which involve men. Not this one, though. It’s about the courtship of Princess Sayina of Calderaas and Princess Gretchen of Stalwar. The story goes, Gretchen’s father had no sons, and so as was traditional for the Stalweiss, held a great tournament. Whichever man won would claim the Princess’s hand in marriage, and be the next King. Actually, the wording of the tradition was changed to ‘whichever man’ because of these events. Before that…well, this was the third time a runaway Calderaan princess entered the games.”

“Oh, let me guess,” he said, grinning.

“The first two didn’t win,” Trissiny said, also smiling, though still with her eyes fixed on the page. “Apparently that was the point at which the Stalweiss stopped finding it funny. This thing really belonged to Gretchen? I always thought that story was a myth.”

“Oh, pooh!” Yasmeen scowled at her in mock outrage. “And you, the Hand of Avei. That story was always one of my favorites!”

“Mine, too,” Trissiny replied, “but the whole second act is a bunch of battles around Calderaas which obviously didn’t happen. Wars between Calderaas and Stalwar were pretty universally decided by which side of Veilgrad they were fought on. Calderaan heavy cavalry was all but useless in the mountains, but it obliterated anything the Stalweiss could field on the open plains. That’s part of what made Horsebutt such a menace. Nobody had ever seen Stalweiss archers riding Calderaan destriers before.”

“Since that fateful day in the Golden Sea,” Gabriel intoned, “I have made a point to read up the history of Horsebutt the Enemy, to verify that there was indeed a man by that name. It is well documented, and I want it entered into the record that I still refuse to believe it. It’s just too stupid.”

Toby cleared his throat. “The history is interesting, but maybe a little off-topic?”

“Yes, quite,” Yasmeen said, grinning now. “Anyway. Whatever its provenance, that necklace is part of the royal treasury. I got to wear it at my fifteenth birthday celebration. The setting is modern—obviously created only a few centuries ago, to judge by the technique, so it may not have been Gretchen’s—but the piece in the center is a fragment of mithril.”

Gabriel frowned. “A…piece of mithril? In a necklace, like a jewel?”

“A lot of the world’s most expensive pieces of jewelry are miscellaneous bits and bobs of mithril in masterwork settings,” Yasmeen said seriously, “most likely fragments of machines from the time of the Elder Gods. Look at the painting—see the detail on it? Dwarven-made mithril isn’t nearly so finely sculpted. The stuff cannot be conventionally forged; it simply doesn’t melt. Whatever method the dwarves use to shape it can’t produce anything more refined than a long cutting edge. Mithril blades are about as precise as they can make, and none shorter than an Avenic gladius; there are no mithril daggers. Anything more intricate is leftover from the Elder Gods. And in fact, pieces of pure mithril are the only Elder artifacts considered safe enough to collect. Being a natural magic neutralizer, it can’t carry curses.”

“Huh.” Gabriel blinked, then turned to Trissiny. “Did you know any of that?”

“I can’t decide which interests me less,” she said, “the Elder Gods, or jewelry. Look at this thing, though. See these details, at the top, there, and down on the sides of the other end?”

“Yes,” Toby said, peering closely at the painting. “It could be the shaft of a key. Those indentations are right where teeth would be attached, and a flat part at the other end to hold it while turning.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Yasmeen said in a tone of great satisfaction. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me until you showed up with your talk of keys and missions from the gods, but if what Vesk wants is a piece of a special key that I supposedly have, I rather think Gretchen’s Dowry is our best candidate.”

“Well, that raises some new issues, doesn’t it?” Gabriel said slowly, backing away from the book. “I mean, paladins or no paladins… Something tells me we can’t just walk off with a treasure of the Calderaan royal family.”

“In fact, I rather expect you could,” Yasmeen mused, wearing a mischievous little smirk. “In terms of sheer capability, getting into the royal treasury and looting it bare is probably within the scope of your power. Of course, I’m not saying there wouldn’t be consequences for that…”

“We are obviously not going to rob the Sultana,” Toby said firmly, “or you. In fact, I’m hesitant even to ask for an artifact like this to be handed over us, considering. We don’t know what this alleged key will open, or why Vesk wants to open it… And for that matter, we have only hunches and circumstantial evidence that this is the piece we were sent to find.”

“It almost certainly is,” Trissiny said, “though I heartily agree with the other half of your assessment. If the options are offending House Aldarasi or Vesk, I’ll go with the second one. I have some respect for the Aldarasis.”

“Oh, you’re all so serious,” Yasmeen chided them playfully. “Believe me, it will not be a problem to arrange for the Dowry to be delivered to you. I’d like to think the Sultanate would accommodate any paladin, at least to the extent of forking over some old trinket that has no actual use to us, but Calderaas is practically a second Viridill in terms of Avenist belief. My mother would probably give Trissiny the crown right off her own royal head. If!” She held up a finger. “If there were a good reason. Yes, I can get you your key fragment. But not, I fear, for free.”

A slight frown descended upon Toby’s features. “…I’m not sure it’s wise for us to get involved in Calderaan politics…”

“Please! Politics was mother’s milk to me,” Yasmeen assured them. “As such, I promise you I am not reckless enough to antagonize all three Trinity cults by blackmailing their paladins who are on a divinely mandated quest. No, I’ll have to ask for your help with something before I can hand over Gretchen’s Dowry…but I rather think you will like this, anyway.”

 

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14 – 3

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Both men immediately began babbling over each other, talking so rapidly and loudly their words were all but indistinguishable. They also started struggling against the bindings, prompting Rooter to roughly yank them both back into place.

Velvet had to raise her voice to be heard above the noise. “Flash?”

The other man grinned at her and raised a hand. In the air beside him, a second hand formed from arcane blue light. He made a slashing motion, and the construct followed, sweeping across the two prisoners and swatting them both upside the head, finally dislodging Ezekiel’s hat.

“Since it’s coming back to you now,” Velvet said to Trissiny in the ensuing quiet, “just who are these clowns?”

“Just a couple of randos, as far as I knew,” she replied. “I bumped into them on my first stop in the Rail station here, two years ago. The dumb one tried to pick me up. Pretty aggressively.”

“Which one’s the dumb one?” Rooter grunted.

“That would be him!” Ezekiel growled, giving his brother a hard look.

“Damn, girl,” Ringer commented, folding her arms. “I’m amazed you remember that at all.”

“I actually don’t get pestered by men all that much,” Trissiny said vaguely, deliberately not mentioning the Legion armor which was the likely cause of that. “And it was my first time away from home. The incident sort of stuck in my mind.”

“Uh huh,” Velvet said dryly. “Well, I’m sure they do things a certain way in Viridill, but while you’re in my city I’d better not hear of you taking cudgels to people over piddly crap like that. You said someone sent you,” she added, directing herself to Ezekiel. “Who?”

“Ain’t tellin’ you jack—”

“Goddamn it, Jeb, shut up!” Ezekiel barked. “That said, lady, he ain’t all wrong. What makes you think we’re gonna—”

“Flash,” Velvet said in a bored tone.

The glowing hand reappeared and slapped them again, then cut backward and hit them another time the other way. After its third pass, Jebediah tried to throw himself to the ground, which didn’t work as Rooter was still holding one end of the rope that tied his wrists.

“Would you cut that out!” Ezekiel shouted. “Land’s sakes, slapping? C’mon, what is this, finishing school?”

“As the only person here who has attended one of those,” Velvet said pleasantly, “I can assure you they aren’t this gentle. Lucky for you two, I find you rather amusing. Still, I obviously cannot have people thinking they can just burst in here with impunity—nor send lackeys to do so. Anyone I considered a real threat would have better sense, so you can be assured your boss won’t get worse than a talking-to and perhaps a good, solid slap of his own. Regardless, I do require a name. None of us are going anywhere till I get one.”

Ezekiel looked mutinous. “Yeah, well, I bet I can take this as long as—”

“Rainwood!” Jebediah squalled.

Velvet heaved a sigh. “Flash, I think it’s time to get more inventive.”

“Wait wait come on I’m serious!” Jebediah yelled frantically. “His name’s Rainwood, he asked us to come find the girl! He’s a—”

“I know who he is, honey,” Velvet said condescendingly. “That’s why I don’t believe you.”

“Fuck it, he didn’t say nothin’ about the Guild,” Ezekiel growled. “He’s right, ma’am, we was sent by Rainwood. He gave us ten doubloons each, I dunno where he got ’em from, man looks like he ain’t slept indoors in a year. But we’re between proper jobs an’ Jeb wanted to see the paladin again, so… Shit, though, we wasn’t paid to fight gawd dang Thieves’ Guild street soldiers!”

“This is your idea of a fight?” Ringer asked with a broad grin.

“Who’s this guy?” Trissiny inquired, turning to Velvet.

“Some elf,” the underboss said dismissively. “He used to a some kind of big-time adventurer, back when that was a real thing people did. Now he sleeps on a bench in a park. I have a hard time crediting that he would want to talk to a paladin, or be willing to cross the Guild for it. Or has twenty doubloons,” she added, giving the Jenkins brothers a sardonic look.

“Hm.” Trissiny frowned down at them; for the moment, both were keeping judiciously quiet. “He did say they weren’t told about the Guild. Apparently this elf just wants me for some reason, and I happened to be here.”

“That’s horseshit,” Rooter grunted. “Everybody knows the Guild’s here.”

“Are you kiddin’?” Ezekiel demanded. “I didn’t. Why the fuck would I? Maybe everybody important knows where the Guild is, but ain’t no honest workin’ folks got any business with you assholes.”

“I sorta have to give him that one,” Ringer said lightly.

“What can you tell me about this Rainwood?” Trissiny asked, turning to Velvet. She got a long stare in reply. “Boss,” she added belatedly, in a deliberately respectful tone.

“I just did,” Velvet replied after letting the silence hang another moment to make her point. “I do not keep tabs on every park-dwelling hobo and washed-up has-been in Calderaas, Thorn, I have plenty of my own business to worry about. I only know of this one at all because he’s sort of distinctive. You don’t see a lot of elves in that situation, and hardly ever an elf with black hair. Okay, what is it now?” she demanded when Trissiny clapped a hand over her eyes.

“…I think I had better go talk to Mr. Rainwood,” she said resignedly, slowly dragging the hand down her face. “Boss, if it’s all right with you, I’d like to be the one to address the matter of him sending people to harass the Guild. I’m pretty sure I can make your point about that. And if not, I’ll come right back here and notify you he needs further correction.”

“Well, I certainly don’t doubt your ability to make points,” Velvet said, raising an eyebrow. “What’s your stake in this, suddenly?”

“It’s family business, as it turns out.”

Velvet subtly narrowed her eyes. “…are you by any chance close to a conwoman called Keys?”

“I have refrained so far from shoving my boot up her butt,” Trissiny said flatly. “So, yes, I figure that makes me as close to her as anyone alive.”

“Uh, ‘scuze me?” Jebediah said almost diffidently. “Sorry to interrupt, but… Seriously, could we stand up? Or, hell, lie down. It’s just, I ain’t never kneeled this long at a stretch, not even in church. It’s a bitch an’ a half on the knees, ma’am.”

“Well,” Velvet drawled, “as it turns out, Thorn, we have here a pair of boobs who can take you right to Rainwood. Since you’re amenable, you have my blessing to go give him what he wants, and see how much he likes it.”


“So uh!” Jebediah burst out at the top of his lungs, making Ezekiel jump and mutter a curse. His efforts to try for a nonchalant expression were downright funny; the man had clearly been working up to this all the way across the city, chewing the inside of his cheek and shooting Trissiny increasingly nervous glances. It had taken him this long, and now they had almost reached the park; the crowns of huge trees were visible above the next row of townhouses. Jebediah cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m, uh, glad we had the opportunity to…um.”

“Meet you again,” Ezekiel finished from up ahead. He was facing forward, away from them, but his voice held barely-suppressed laughter.

“Uh, yeah, that.” Jebediah removed his hat and began turning it restlessly in his hands, watching Trissiny as though half-expecting her to take a swing at him. “When that elf guy said he wanted… Well, that’s sorta why I took on the job, ma’am. I, um, I’m glad of the chance to…apologize.”

Trissiny came to a stop, turning to face him. Behind her, the sound of Ezekiel’s boots on the sidewalk also halted. Jebediah actually shied back a half-step, but she made no move toward him.

“For?” she asked evenly.

He swallowed. “Um. For speakin’ to you in such a disrespectful manner, ma’am. I swear by Omnu’s name I didn’t mean no harm. Truth be told, I wouldn’t’a talked to a lady like that but… I, uh, sorta figured you could take a…um, direct approach.”

“Direct.” Slowly, she raised an eyebrow. “If by direct you mean pushy, rude and borderline predatory…”

“Now, I didn’t mean nothin’ like that,” he protested, his voice rising in pitch. “It’s just… Dang it, Zeke, help me out, here!”

Ezekiel huffed a derisive laugh, but stepped back over to join them. “All right, in truth, ma’am, the spirit meant well but the social skills were lackin’. Jeb’s learnt a bit since then about how to approach women. An’ more important, how not to,” he added directly to his brother, making a face.

“It’s just, it was the armor,” Jeb said almost desperately. “I thought… I mean, Legionnaires got a certain reputation, y’know?”

Trissiny stared at him, at a loss. The only sexual stereotype she had ever heard about Silver Legionnaires claimed that they didn’t like men at all.

“What I mean is,” Jeb babbled, clearly sensing he was getting nowhere, “they’re…tough. That’s the word. Brave, an’ kinda…no nonsense. See, part a’ the reason me an’ Zeke came here to the city is there ain’t a lotta girls out on the ranch. We was both lookin’ to settle down, not, y’know, chase skirts or nothin’. An’ Maw always told us, find a woman with a heart, a spine, an’ guts, cos a man can’t make do with only one a’ each.”

“So,” she said slowly, “you like strong women, and your solution to expressing this was to irritate the first one you met who had a sword?”

Zeke burst out laughing, earning a dirty look from his brother.

“All this is almost too ludicrous to discuss further,” Trissiny said, “but out of sheer morbid curiosity, I have to ask. Why the change of heart?”

“Oh, that’s simple enough!” Ezekiel chortled. “He tried that on another Legionnaire, when I wasn’t there to drag his ass away.”

Jeb grumbled and kicked the pavement.

“And got some manners drubbed into you with the flat of her blade?” Trissiny finished in her driest tone.

“Trust me, ma’am, an ass-kickin’ don’t get through Jeb’s skull,” Zeke said merrily. “I been tryin’ that since he could walk. Ain’t made any progress yet!”

“It wasn’t like that,” Jeb muttered. “She took me down to the Temple of Avei an’ got me a sit-down with a priestess. I got stuff…explained to me.”

“I’ll bet,” Trissiny replied.

“Not that way,” he said hastily. “I mean, I been yelled at an’ got my ears boxed more times’n I can count, an’ it don’t make much of an impression, y’know? All a body gets outta that is pissed off. Naw, Sister Shiri actually talked t’me. ‘Splained a lot about what bein’ a woman is like in this world, an’ how it comes across when some galoot comes up all in her space, makin’ faces an’ suggestions, an’… An’, ma’am, I just felt so ashamed. I truly only meant the best an’ I had no idea I was bein’ such an asshole about it. That’s why I jumped when a weirdo elf asked me an’ Zeke to find the Hand of Avei. I needed ta get that off my chest, an’ if you put a sword in me over it, well, so be it. But you’re here now, so, I’m sorry.”

He finished with a limpid stare, clutching his hat before him in both hands. Zeke had crossed his arms and was watching with a faintly amused smile.

“Well,” Trissiny said after a moment, “apology accepted. I’m glad you learned something. And I was hardly going to stab you over that. But I didn’t come to Calderaas to rehash that of all things, so if there’s nothing else…?”

“Right!” Jeb stuffed his hat back onto his head and hastened past her, beckoning with a broad gesture. “Right you are, ma’am, this way! We’re almost to the man hisself!”

While falling into step behind him, she gave Zeke a mystified look. He grinned and tipped his hat to her.

Around the next corner, the park opened up behind a gateway consisting of stone pillars supporting a wrought iron arch; it actually reminded her of the University’s entrance. It could apparently be closed, likely at night, but for now the broad iron gates stood open. As they passed the columns, she perused a sign warning that the park was heavily patrolled, and that horses and enchanted vehicles were not permitted. Beyond that, the cobblestone street became a much less carriage-friendly path of old rounded stones with thick moss growing in the gaps between them.

The park was clearly old, if not historic; the trees, to judge by their size, were centennial at least. Directly ahead of them was a fountain surmounted by a statue of an armored woman, likely a long-ago Sultana to judge by her headdress. Aside from a pair of trees flanking the path just before this, it was a clear area, with open lawns spreading out from the fountain. It seemed a popular place, with people strolling, chatting on benches, and a group of young men playing football.

Jeb led down a winding path which grew narrower as it entered a more tree-heavy region. Even as the canopy grew close enough together to interfere with the sunlight, it never came to resemble a grove. The ground was too flat and the underbrush nonexistent, the grass neatly trimmed—to say nothing of the benches, fairy lamps, and rubbish bins. After a few minutes of walking, as they were nearing what looked like the edge of the park itself, Jeb turned off the path and led them through a stand of towering bushes. In fact, they looked from a distance like a solid thicket, but up close there were paths easily broad enough for a person to get through. In a Guild-trained corner of her mind, Trissiny noted that such a spot was so perfectly designed for discreet assignations that some city planner had to have had that specifically in mind.

She put that aside, however, focusing on the person they were there to meet.

Rainwood really did give the impression that he lived in the park. Even for an elf, he looked wild; his clothing was shabby and appeared worn almost to the point of falling apart, and his black hair had evidently been hacked short with a dull knife and then repeatedly slept on. Nearby, to judge by the leaves in it. Though he was in his shirtsleeves at the moment, a ratty old coat was laid out across the park bench nearby, with a bulging knapsack tucked at one end to make an obvious if improvised bed.

Despite his ragged appearance, the man’s eyes were keen and alert; he was sitting up and watching as they approached, doubtless having picked out the sound of their footsteps long before they drew close.

“There she is!” Rainwood cried with an exuberant grin. “Well done, boys! So this is Principia’s kid. C’mon, cousin, come closer! Let’s have a look at you.”

“You can listen while you look, cousin,” Trissiny said, folding her arms. She had to school startlement from her features, having suddenly remembered where she had seen this man before. “I’m going to leave aside the matter of you peremptorily summoning the Hand of Avei whenever you like. Personally, I don’t much mind, but I won’t speak for what the Sisterhood might do if you interrupt its business. But a man with your history should certainly have better sense than to send hirelings to intrude on the Thieves’ Guild. Right now, Underboss Velvet seems more amused by this than angry, but that might change, depending on what I tell her next.”

Rainwood’s grin had faded, and now he transferred his incredulous stare from her to Jeb and Zeke, who stood nervously off to the side.

“I sent you,” the elf said slowly, “on a simple errand. Find the Hand of Avei and ask her to come see me. Simple. I even gave you the aid of a spirit guide to bring you right to her. And somehow, you turned that into me now owing the Thieves’ Guild an apology. Boys, there is screwing up, and then there’s you two.”

“Now, just a goddamn minute!” Jeb exploded. “We followed your dang floaty light thingy right to where it led us! An’ she was there, all right. So was a whole buildin’ full of Eserites. They jumped us as soon as we got in the door! Coulda taken ’em, too,” he added sullenly, “but they came from behind, an’ there was three of ’em, an’ one was a mage—”

“Don’t do that,” Trissiny said wryly. “You two aren’t a match for one good Guild enforcer. There’s no reason to be embarrassed about losing a fight to more dangerous opponents.”

“You didn’t happen to notice you were in the Black Market?” Rainwood said incredulously.

“Now, why in Omnu’s name does everybody keep expectin’ us to know what the fuck that even is?” Zeke demanded. “Who the hell is it y’all talk to who’s just expected to know where the Thieves’ Guild hangs out? We’re a couple a’ country boys who’ve been doin’ warehouse an’ factory work the last couple years, why the fuck would we know jack all about thieves?”

“He has a point there,” Trissiny observed. “Where’d you find these two, anyway?”

“Same way I find most things,” Rainwood said with a shrug and a sigh. “I consulted my spirit guides, and they directed me to these as the proper messengers for this task. I’m wondering why, now.”

“Oy, we did your fuckin’ job, ya smug knife-ear,” Jeb snapped, pointing accusingly at him. “You wanted the paladin, there she is. Anybody oughta be pissed off, here, it ain’t you! We was the ones who got sent inta the damn Guild with no warnin’!”

“Forgive me,” Rainwood replied, smiling sardonically, “but when I sent you off to follow a spirit guide through the city, I expected that if it led you to something dangerous, you would come back here and tell me so rather than charge headfirst into it.”

“Enough,” Trissiny interjected. “I don’t have time for this bickering. You were all negligent. Now what am I going to tell Velvet about this?”

“Oh, Velvet’s too much a professional to fuss over spilled milk,” Rainwood sighed. “I’ll go down there and say my sorries, and give her something sparkly from my collection. That’ll put that mess neatly to bed. But that brings us back to the question which most intrigues me: what were you doing in the Thieves’ Guild headquarters? And how does it come about that you’ll be the one reporting on my behavior to the Underboss? Hands of Avei and Eserites usually only talk with sword and clubs.”

“She, uh, wasn’t bein’ held prisoner,” Ezekiel offered. “Fact, the boss lady seemed to speak to ‘er pretty respectful-like.”

“Damn dirty thieves don’t want that kinda trouble,” Jeb scoffed. “They’re cowards, is what they are. They’ll rough up the likes o’ us, but a paladin? Pfft.”

Trissiny gave him a brief glance, while deftly producing a doubloon from inside her sleeve, where she kept it for that purpose in a little pocket. She turned her eyes back to Rainwood and rolled the coin back and forth across her fingers, saying nothing.

“Well,” the elf breathed, his gaze fixed on the doubloon, “what do you know. The times really are changing, aren’t they.”

“Lots of things change,” Trissiny said, making the coin disappear back into its hiding place. “Now, if your curiosity is satisfied, let’s move on to mine. What do you want?”

“Why, to help you in your quest!” he proclaimed with a smile which made him look uncannily like Principia, and threw his arms wide.

Trissiny rolled her eyes.

“I know, I know, I don’t look like much,” Rainwood said cheerfully. “It suits me, for the time being! But, believe it or not, I have more than one connection to you. Aside from family business, I’ve been—”

“You were an adventuring companion of a Hand of Avei,” she said. “Yes, I know. Dailah, wasn’t it?”

He blinked, lowering his arms. “Huh. The Sisterhood really does educate you well, don’t they?” She kept silent, deciding it was probably best not to mention Kuriwa’s vision quest to him; Trissiny had had relatively little contact with the elvish side of her family, but so far every Crowblood she’d met had reacted negatively to every other one. Including the dragon. “Anyway, actually, I’ve palled around with three of your predecessors, including Dailah. I was going to say Arjen would vouch for me, but I guess you’re already in the know. How’s my boy, by the way? Please tell me you give him apples? Apples are his favorite snack.”

“He likes apples,” Trissiny corrected. “His favorite snack is peppermints.”

Rainwood looked affronted. “What? Who told you to do that? What kind of degenerate would give a horse candy?”

“All right, that does it,” she snorted, turning to go. “Deal with Velvet in your own time, then, but don’t dally; I’m not leaving Calderaas without reporting to her. And tell Vesk to take his nonsense and shove it—”

“Ooh, you’re on a Vesk quest!” The elf sat bolt upright, his whole face positively lighting up. “Fantastic! Those are the best ones!”

Trissiny paused. “If you’re not working with Vesk, then what’s this noise about helping me with my quest? I’m not even doing his fool errand, I’m just going to extract Toby and Gabriel from whatever mess he’s gotten them into.”

“If Vesk is involved, it’s not going to be that simple,” Rainwood warned, smirking, “and your efforts to make it so will only lead you into grief. But to answer your question,” he continued hastily when she drew a deep breath, “you’re not the only person bopping around with a destiny, Trissiny. I make a point of regularly consulting the spirits. You know, seeing which way the wind blows. I, myself, am soon leaving Calderaas; it seems I’ve an important quest to fulfill out west. But as I was reaching out through the vast web of magic, I discovered that you had just arrived! My long-lost half-blood cousin and the heir to the legacy of some of my closest departed friends. How could I not interrupt my business to help you out?”

She hesitated, peering suspiciously at him. “That’s it? You just want to help?”

“I can see you’ve had a hard time of it, if you’re already so mistrustful of free help,” he replied, shaking his head. “Even Dailah took a few more years to get that hard-nosed. Who is it who’s let you down, Trissiny? Elves? Shaman? Adventurers? Family? People in general?”

“Yes, for starters.”

He laughed. “Ah, the all-knowing despair of youth.”

“Have I mentioned I attend Arachne Tellwyrn’s school?” she said pointedly. “If I want to be condescended to by smug elves, I have a long-term source of that. Not in the market, thanks.”

“All right, all right, fair enough,” he said, raising his hands peaceably. “Back to your quest, then. How can I help you?”

Trissiny let the silence hang for a moment, staring at him. Rainwood just gazed back with a placid smile. Well, Lanaera had made the point that while their lineage found one another generally exasperating, they wouldn’t harm a family member unless that person made it absolutely necessary, which they all tried very hard not to do. And he had been a friend of Dailah; even if she chose to be suspicious of his claim to have worked with two other Hands, she had seen that much herself.

“I’m looking for the Hands of Omnu and Vidius,” she said at last. “According to Vesk, they set out on this idiot quest of his, and somehow ended up being held by the Empire, somewhere here in Calderaas. I’m trying to find them to straighten this out, but I have no leads. The local Guild doesn’t know where they might be; Velvet could only say that it was unlikely the Empire would actually detain them, which I already knew.”

“That is some funny business,” Rainwood mused. “Coming from any source but a god, I would dismiss it out of hand. Even Vesk doesn’t tend to straight-up lie to people’s faces, though. I warn you, however, he does tend to tell people things in a way that makes them hear something other than what’s the truth, and leaves him wiggle room to claim he didn’t deceive them when they complain later.”

“Yes,” she said sourly, “I’m not good at that trick but I’m familiar with it. I’ve been assuming this was one of those.”

“And you probably ought to find those two Hands anyway, just to make sure,” he said, nodding. “I see where you’re coming from, now. Well!” The shaman clapped his hands together and then rubbed them briskly, grinning. “This is good news! I was half-afraid involving myself in your business would get me in real trouble, but this couldn’t be simpler. Paladins tend to create ripples just by existing. Should be the easiest thing in the world to dip my fingers in the pond and get a sense of where they might be. Stand back!”

Zeke and Jeb obediently shuffled backward several steps; Trissiny, who was already a few yards away, just folded her arms and watched. Rainwood didn’t seem to object to her presence, focusing on what he was doing.

The hand motions he made reminded her more of a street magician performing than any actual casting she’d ever seen. He was clearly a potent shaman, though, calling up raw magic itself without the use of any of the rituals or components that usually marked fae craft. Rainwood appeared to summon swirling dust out of thin air, shaping and stirring the cloud as it coalesced with broad, sweeping gestures. It whirled, faster and faster, condensing in one spot until he suddenly jerked his hands apart and, with a tiny spray of excess powder, the dust formed into a solid shape on the ground in front of them.

It was a house. By its tall and narrow construction, one of the rows of townhouses which were built right up against each other, though this image showed only the one and not its neighbors. It was apparently a rich one; its facade and the garden wall in front of it included an arrangement of pillars topped by gargoyles. The effect was almost a faux temple, though Trissiny had never seen any Pantheon sanctuary incorporate gargoyles into its décor. Rich people had strange tastes.

“Huh,” Rainwood grunted, slowly lowering his hands. “That’s disappointing.”

“Was it supposed to do more than that?” she asked dryly.

“No, no, it worked perfectly,” he assured her. “That is where your friends are, right in that house. I was just hoping they were someplace more…distinctive. That could be any one of a hundred noble’s city homes in Calderaas. I suppose it narrows things a bit. There’s only a few ritzy neighborhoods where a place like that could be tucked away. Well! Don’t worry, I’m not thwarted yet. It’ll be a little trickier than sending one after you, since I’ve no personal connection to those guys, but I’m confident I can persuade a spirit guide to lead—”

“Hey, I know that place,” Jeb said suddenly.

Everyone turned to stare at him. He was nodding as if to reassure himself, and pointed at the illusion of the townhouse on the ground between them. “Yeah, yeah, I recognize that! Ain’t never seen another place looked quite the same. That’s where Dolly used ta work. You remember Dolly, don’cha, Zeke?”

“Course I do. That girl was too good fer you, Jeb.”

“She surely was,” Jeb said with a dreamy sigh, lifting his eyes to gaze reminiscently at nothing.

Trissiny and Rainwood cleared their throats in unison.

“Right, yeah!” Jebediah snapped his attention back to the present. “Anyway. Dolly used t’be a maid, worked for the Sultanate, an’ that’s one o’ their properties. Ain’t no guards or nothin’, it’s a discreet sorta place where they, y’know…keep folks.”

Trissiny frowned. “Political prisoners?”

“Uh, no. Not that kinda keep.” Jeb cleared his throat awkwardly. “You know, people the royal family, uh…likes to come…visit. Personally.”

“Oh.”

“So, anyway, yeah,” he barreled on hastily. “Princess Yasmeen had a boyfriend she let stay there. But the Sultana found out an’ threw a fit. He got sent outta Calderaas, an’ the whole staff was dismissed. Dolly ended up goin’ home to Veilgrad, an’…well, we stayed here.” He trailed off, looking forlorn. Zeke placed a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s amazing,” Trissiny observed, “the degree to which my business in this city is being defined by your bad luck with women.”

“Good on you fer noticin’ early,” Zeke said dryly. “It sneaks up on ya, otherwise, like a big silent tornado o’ Jeb drama. Next thing ya know, everything an’ everybody around is sucked up in it. Omnu’s balls, if this cowpoke ever manages to get hisself hitched there’s gonna be a gawd damn recession.”

“One o’ these days I am really gonna kick your ass, boy,” Jeb growled.

“Well, there you go,” Rainwood said grandly. “And to think I was actually wondering why the spirits would send me these two when I sought the right help. Once again, they knew even more than I anticipated! And now you have the perfect guides.”

Trissiny heaved a sigh.


It took over an hour to find the place. Jebediah’s memory turned out to be accurate…eventually. Luckily, neither of the two occasions on which he got them lost occurred in this neighborhood. The three of them looked badly enough out of place that Trissiny feared they would be stopped by police if they wandered around. Scruffy vagabonds were high on the roster of things the very wealthy did not want to see out their front windows. At least Rainwood hadn’t come. The addition of a half-savage-looking elf would probably have gotten them picked up the moment they set foot on this street.

“See, I told you I knew the place!” Jeb said loudly, coming to a stop in front of the house. “There it is, jus’ like in—”

Trissiny already had her back to them, studying the gate, but to judge by the thump and ensuing scuffling which cut off Jeb’s loud pronouncement, Zeke had swatted him upside the head. She’d barely spent a couple of hours with these two and it was already a familiar sequence of sounds.

“Fighting on the street isn’t a whole lot more discreet than shouting our business for the neighbors to hear,” she commented in a low voice, opening the gate and striding up the path. “Thanks, boys, I can take it from here.”

She sighed and gritted her teeth at the sound of boots shuffling along after her, all the way up to the front door, but did not turn around. Arguing with the brothers Jenkins might or might not have been a pointless activity, but at the moment it was certain to draw unwelcome attention.

“Don’t you worry none, Ms. Trissiny,” Jeb said fervently in a stage whisper, coming to huddle behind her. “We got your back! Zeke, keep watch fer assassins!”

Ezekiel half-turned, crouching on the other side of the entranceway from his brother and peering surreptitiously around. The two of them could not have more ostentatiously looked like they were up to no good. At this point, it wasn’t a matter of whether police were going to come, but when.

“You need help bustin’ in the door?” Jeb asked out of the side of his mouth.

“Don’t be any stupider’n you can help, Jeb, we’re doin’ this discreet-like,” Zeke retorted. “Mebbe we can pick the lock? Or, I dunno, if them paladins ain’t actually in trouble, we might just knock—”

Trissiny turned the latch. The unlocked door swung open on well-oiled hinges.

“Huh,” Jeb remarked behind her as she slipped inside. “Well, that don’t seem right. Maw always said, you gotta lock your doors if you live in the city.”

She seriously considered shutting it in his face, and refrained only because it would have created an even greater outcry than their continued presence.

Beyond a short entry hall was an expensively furnished sitting room, with an open doorway leading off into a hallway on one side and a polished wooden door directly ahead. Trissiny stepped warily forward, peering around, the Jenkinses huddling right behind her. The house was quiet, but not silent; from the closed door came the muffled sounds of conversation. She moved carefully, as taught by the Guild, her supple boots (quite distinct from the armored ones she had been in the habit of wearing) making barely a sound on the marble floor tiles.

Given the shuffling and stomping which occurred right behind her, she probably needn’t have bothered.

Before she could hush them, the door opened, and a man slipped out. He wore a dark suit with a long coat which, though it resembled the uniform of the Imperial Guard and Hands of the Emperor, didn’t quite constitute a uniform. Regardless, his eyes widened at the sight of the three of them, and he raised a wand.

Trissiny surged forward, a golden shield flaring alight around her. With a brilliant flash, her sword materialized in her hand, though she did not summon her armor just yet. Two clean beams of white light impacted on her energy shield before she closed with her opponent—that was a proper enchanter’s wand, not a cheaper lightning-thrower. That weapon could burn down even her divine shield if she let him get in too many shots.

She kept the sword behind her, turning sideways at the last moment to impact the guard with her shoulder. That was pure muscle memory; wreathed as she was in a sphere of hard light, it didn’t much matter how she hit him. Fortunately for them both, the door opened inward. He was slammed back through, hurling it wide, and she actually bounced off, the edges of her shield impacting the door frame on both sides.

“Trissiny?”

Catching her balance, she blinked at the scene beyond the guard she had just knocked down. It was a dining room, well-lit and every bit as pricey as the living room behind her. A long table had been laid for a meal; three men were seated around it, while a shocked-looking woman in a maid’s uniform stood against the far wall, all of them staring at her in the doorway. The middle-aged man in the center, who wore a nondescript dark suit, had half-risen, one hand dropping to his side where he doubtless had a weapon concealed.

The other two she knew.

Toby had been sitting with his back to the door and now turned around in his chair, blinking at her. It had been he who’d said her name.

“Uh, hi, Triss,” Gabriel added from the other side of the table, carefully wiping his mouth with a fine linen napkin. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but… What the hell are you doing?”

Trissiny let her shield wink out, straightened up, and lowered her sword.

“That damn bard.”

 

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