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Captain Leingardt wasn’t destined for a career in politics; her expression clearly showed the normal reaction of a military officer to having her post invaded by a ranking politician. She managed to speak politely, however.

“Your Grace, what an unexpected…surprise. To what do we owe this…honor?”

The look Syrinx gave her was openly amused, but the Bishop chose not to make anything of it. “Just doing my job, Captain. No need to worry, I mean to do it as quickly as possible and be out of your hair, taking all this baggage with me. So! It seems we have a ‘she said, they said’ dilemma here.” She turned her gaze briefly on Sister Falaridjad, showing the tips of her teeth in a strange little grin, before shifting her focus to the apprentices. “As it happens, I am personally acquainted with all the players in this little drama, and I can attest from experience that these kids are sneaky, unscrupulous troublemakers who evince no care for the repercussions of their antics, nor regard for anyone outside their immediate circle.”

“Now, see here,” Layla began, but Syrinx simply raised her voice and continued.

“And, that being the case, if this were nothing but their word against Ildrin Falaridjad’s, I would still be more inclined to believe them.”

“This is none of your business, Syrinx,” Falaridjad said, practically vibrating with tension.

“As usual, Ildrin, you are cataclysmically wrong,” the Bishop replied, granting her a syrupy smile. “I have spent my morning dealing with this mess in particular—because that is literally my job. We have a tangle of Eserites and Salyrites having created a mess in an Avenist temple, precisely the kind of interfaith issue the Bishops exist to address. As such, Ildrin, I happen to know exactly what transpired on every level of this.” She turned to Captain Leingardt, who was now watching all this unfold without expression. “I have the full reports on the incident at the temple, and no, there was no assault. Of any kind. The only remotely physical altercation was between these two.” She pointed at Jasmine and Layla. “And since they are clearly in league, I rather doubt either intends to press any sort of charge. Further, I made it here so rapidly on their heels because Ildrin, showing her customary lack of basic sense, saw fit to forcibly remove three apprentices of the Thieves’ Guild from the region they most heavily monitor, and was followed all the way here by enforcers.”

Ildrin actually bared her teeth. “That doesn’t explain why you—”

“You will be quiet or you will be punched quiet,” Basra said curtly.

“That is crossing a line, your Grace,” the Captain interjected.

Basra ignored this, continuing. “To answer the question, I was nearby, in the process of being updated by the Eserite Bishop on these very events, and learning the most fascinating things. For example: this was an unsanctioned operation, and Boss Tricks is furious at these little know-nothings for sticking their fingers where they had no business being. However they did, no doubt by accident, manage to accomplish something worthwhile. You see, Captain, the goods they stole were voluntarily returned to the Collegium, along with stolen documentation from both the Salyrite and Avenist sides of some kind of interfaith embezzlement scheme.” She shifted her gaze back to Ildrin, and grinned broadly. “Copies also found their way to Commander Rouvad. And guess whose name featured prominently in this report!”

Slowly, Captain Leingardt turned to regard Sister Falaridjad, and raised one eyebrow. Ildrin herself held silent, glaring at Basra with her fists clenched. The four Legionnaires and three apprentices kept perfectly still, watching all this unfold with wide eyes.

“Well, that was unquestionably a robbery,” Syrinx said, turning back to the Captain. “But it seems their intentions were good, no harm was ultimately done, and in fact both the Sisterhood and the Collegium have benefited. At this point, my own concern is to soothe the ruffled feathers these brats have caused by acting out of line. It’s your call, of course, Captain, but in my official capacity as Bishop I highly recommend, and ask, that you leave the disciplining here to be handled internally by the Thieves’ Guild.”

“You don’t even have to ask, your Grace,” Leingardt replied, nodding. “I reached the same conclusion before you were done explaining. You three can go.” Narrowing her eyes, she looked at Falaridjad again. “I suppose I ought to have this one taken into custody, considering…”

The priestess folded her arms defiantly, but addressed herself to Syrinx, not Leingradt. “You have no cause or authority to do such a thing. I promise you would regret the attempt.”

“The testimony from someone of Bishop Syrinx’s rank, especially backed by documents, is adequate probable cause,” Jasmine said.

The Bishop, priestess, and Captain all turned to glare at her.

“Well,” Tallie drawled, stuffing her hands in her pockets, “as people keep pointing out, if there’s one thing we Eserites understand, it’s the process of getting arrested.”

“You lot were told to shove off,” Syrinx said curtly. “Be about it. And as for you.” She fixed another stare on Ildrin, again wearing a small, predatory grin. “Your last trick involved burglarizing a temple of Izara, nearly killing two Bishops, and almost starting a war. I can’t fathom how your buddies at the Universal Church managed to get you out of that one, but I’m willing to bet there aren’t a lot of strings left for them to pull. So I’ll tell you what, Ildrin, for old time’s sake.” She took one step closer; Ildrin stood her ground, fists actually quivering with repressed fury now. “How much trouble you decide to cause me from here out will determine whether I lean on the High Commander with every ounce of influence I have to throw the book at you…” She took another step, her smile widening. “…or lean on her to cut you loose entirely, and notify the Guild you were trying to frame and abduct some of their apprentices. Since you have so little regard for Avei’s justice, perhaps you would find a taste of Eserion’s version…enlightening.”

“You,” Ildrin said tensely, “are a monster.”

Syrinx winked. “And you are just pathetic, Falaridjad. If there’s any justice in the world, I will be there when you learn how very sad you truly are.”

“All right, that’s enough,” Captain Leingardt interjected. “I don’t know what’s going on between you two, but it’s clearly more personal than this business warrants. Your Grace, I would appreciate it if you didn’t bring political vendettas into my post.”

“For the record, I’m clearly not the one who brought anything here,” Basra said with a placid smile, “but your point is taken. Your cooperation is much appreciated, Captain Leingardt. I’ll leave you to your business.”

She nodded politely to the Captain, turned her back on Falaridjad, and strolled over to the apprentices, where she paused.

“Well? Planning to stand around in here all day?” The Bishop arched an eyebrow at them, then continued on to the doors.

They watched her go, then looked at each other, then back at the rest. Leingardt was already in the process of upbraiding Falaridjad’s four escorting Legionnaires while the priestess glared venom at them. In unspoken unison, they turned and hurried to the doors.

Bishop Syrinx was waiting for them right outside, her breath misting softly in the winter air.

“So! After being hounded very nearly to death by the Svennish secret service, the next thing you decided to do was body-slam your way into dicey interfaith politics you clearly don’t understand. Interesting choice.”

“Hardly the next thing,” Tallie protested. “That was over a month ago.”

“Oh, yes, a whole month.” Syrinx raised an eyebrow. “You kids aren’t the most luminous beacons in the firmament, are you? Well, if for some reason you insist on making enemies, Ildrin Falaridjad is a good place to start. She’s devious, pathologically self-involved, and also a fumbling imbecile.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Tallie said dryly, “and the save.”

“If I’d done you a favor you’d better believe I would hold it over you, but it’s as I said: all this is no more or less than my job. Presumptuous neophytes meddling where they shouldn’t make it more interesting, but smoothing over incidents like this is why the cults bother to have Bishops and the Universal Church itself. Now if you will excuse me, I have to go home and supervise the decorators.” She gave Jasmine in particular a vulpine smile. “There was a small fire at my house recently, with the upshot that I’m getting it completely redone for free. Well, free to me, I suppose technically it’s being paid for by everyone who does business with Tallithi Mutual. A Vernisite could explain insurance in detail; I just sign the forms. You know, the police said there were signs of arson. Clearly not by anyone who had thought through the ramifications of that action.”

“Oh, why ever would anyone want to set you on fire, your Grace?” Layla asked sweetly.

Basra grinned at her. “Perhaps the sort of person I could easily make wait to speak with me simply by telling them to leave? I’m so accustomed to dealing with the sharks of Tiraas’s politics; once in a while it’s downright refreshing to toy with presumptuous guppies.”

She let the silence hang for a moment while all three stared at her, Tallie with her mouth slightly open.

“I suggest you kids cast your lines more carefully in the future,” Syrinx finally said, in a flat tone. “You are not ready to sail these waters. Listen to your teachers, and leave the politics to those who understand them.”

With that, and a final superciliously arched eyebrow, she turned and strolled away up the street, tucking her hands in the pockets of her fur-lined coat.

“What a singularly unpleasant woman,” Layla observed, unconsciously gripping her shopping bag in front of herself.

“Yeah,” Tallie agreed, nodding. “She’s kind of awesome, though.”

Jasmine stared after the Bishop in silence, her mouth pressed into a thin line.


“Hey, Mr. Carson! What’d you bring us?”

“Nothin’ more interesting than usual, Hildred,” Fred said, pausing to give her a smile. “Now, don’t go pressin’ me for special treatment. You know how Mrs. Oak likes to keep it a surprise.”

She was clearly going somewhere, carrying an armful of books, and so Fred wasn’t bothered when she just laughed and continued on her way. He went back to his, pushing the empty cart through the gate.

Well, the old gate.

He didn’t stop himself from peering around curiously as he continued on down the path, this stretch of which was longer than it used to be. The land shaping for the campus extension had been finished two weeks ago, rendering this section of the mountain’s slope into terraces like the old campus, and now the main thoroughfare zigzagged a bit, navigating ramps, rather than being the straight staircase that ran down the rest of the mountain. Fred always took the long, back-and-forth path when pushing his full produce cart uphill, but on the way down it was light enough to just drag down the stairs. Thanks to the levitation charms which made it easy for a single person to haul, it didn’t even bounce much on the steps. For the Saturday weekly delivery, of course, he brought the much larger mule cart up, but the daily shipment of fresh produce to the kitchens required only his magically lightened push cart.

Construction had begun on the buildings just a week ago, and there were a few in partially finished states, interspersed around twice their number of still-vacant lots. Fred had actually seen Tellwyrn herself working on one in passing, summoning enormous slabs of marble apparently from thin air and levitating them into place. There were now a few people around in the near distance, hunching over diagram-laden tables rather than doing any construction work. Apparently the archmage chose to tend to that part herself, but just because she could conjure and move parts of buildings with just her big brain did not mean she was qualified to design them, or so Fred had gleaned from the gossip on campus. Architects and surveyors were at work planning the new additions, still, as well as extra magical types who would be working on the additional protections the new research facilities needed. Fred hadn’t approached them personally, but had heard they included both Salyrites from the Sapphire College and secular mages from the Wizard’s Guild, and even that snooty fellow from Syralon who figured himself too good to do business in Last Rock.

Only the new exterior wall was finished, and notably was a lot more serious than the old one—taller, thicker, with a hefty manned gatehouse and actual battlements. As usual, Fred silently chewed on the implications of this as he passed through the open gates, noting the man asleep at the guard post, slumped in his chair with a hat tugged down over his eyes.

“AH HAH!” Rook bellowed suddenly, bounding upright, and Fred yelped and shied away, losing his grip on the cart.

“Omnu’s balls, Tom! What the hell?!”

“Thought I was sleeping, didn’t’cha?” Rook replied, grinning insanely. He still wore his old Army jacket, even after having been discharged, though he had torn off the sleeves. “That’s right, nothing gets past campus security!”

“Does Tellwyrn know you’re pulling that shit on honest tradesmen?”

“Nah, but my immediate boss does. In fact, Fedora’s running a pool on who I can make squeal like a girl. You just cost me five doubloons, by the way.”

Fred snorted, taking up the handles of his cart again. “Any other man I’d pick up the next round as compensation, but I’ve seen how you bet. If he didn’t take your money, somebody was gonna.”

Rook grinned and flopped back down onto the chair. “Yeah, yeah. Take it easy, Fred. See you tomorrow.”

“Don’t work too hard,” Fred said dryly as he continued on his way. Behind him, Rook practically bawled with laughter.

He let his expression grow solemn with contemplation as he began the long trek down the mountain. Aside from keeping his legs in top shape, his daily trips up and down gave him plenty of time to think. He had a lot to think about, these days.

Fred liked the people on the campus. Most of the students were good kids. There were one or two troublemakers, but those existed everywhere; even the noble ones, though clearly stuck up, weren’t usually rude. He liked those of the faculty with whom he’d had conversations. He actually liked the groundskeeper, Stew, who despite being an altogether weird kind of a thing struck him as a regular guy, hard-working and amiable. Horns, hooves, and all. The person with whom he had the most direct commerce, Mrs. Oak, was one of the least personable individuals he’d ever met, but he didn’t hold that against her. She wasn’t nasty, just wanted to be about her work with a minimum of chitchat. Fred knew a couple like that in town, too, introverted types who meant no harm but preferred to be left alone.

He even liked Professor Tellwyrn, for all that the likes of him seldom encountered her directly, and despite also being quite reasonably terrified of her. What Fred knew about magic would fit in a thimble; he’d heard somewhere that eating too much conjured food was unhealthy somehow, but even so, it was no stretch to realize that a woman who could summon whole buildings out of her own mind did not need to buy produce from the merchants in town to keep her campus fed. And yet, she did, which was the lion’s share of the reason he made a living. Some folks muttered about it being condescending, mostly perennial malcontents like Wilson who were just never going to be happy about anything. For Fred’s part, he saw it as a sign of respect on the Professor’s part for the little people who dwelled around her feet. Some folks in this world were just bigger and mightier, and it didn’t pay to take that personally, especially when they made an effort not to rub it in.

All this had been the backdrop of existence in Last Rock for his whole life. Lately, he’d had cause to dwell on it pretty heavily, and not very happily.

Fred made it back down and into town on the force of sheer habit, absently returning greetings from his neighbors as he returned to the store and packed away the cart. No shipments today; tomorrow would be busy, due to several scheduled deliveries in town and a fresh load due via Rail from Calderaas. For the moment, though, Rick was manning the front of the store, leaving him more or less at liberty.

He brought his mind back to the business at hand as he folded back the rug in the smaller storeroom, carefully undid the three locks on the trapdoor, lifted it and passed through, then pulled it back down after himself. It was a pricey rug for one tucked away in the storeroom, not because it was pretty but because of its straightening charm. The enchantment was designed to make life a little easier for housewives, but it also served to neatly cover up the trapdoor once somebody had vanished under it.

Fred descended the wooden steps cautiously, hearing voices below. Calm voices, including the one he recognized, so hopefully there was no trouble… Maybe he should’ve checked in with Rick before coming down. Nobody would’ve got through the trapdoor without Rick knowing it.

At the bottom of the stairwell, he rounded the corner into the basement room and paused. The basement’s current resident was there, of course, along with someone Fred recognized and had never expected to see again.

“Ah, Carlson,” the Hand of the Emperor said calmly. “Please, rise. I understand you may be acquainted with Ms. Reich?”

Fred had started to kneel, and straightened as ordered. “Uh…not personally, sir, but I saw her ’round town. Before. Welcome back, ma’am,” he added carefully.

Lorelin Reich gave him one of those Vidian smiles he found so unsettling, all placid good manners on the surface and layers of meaning at which he couldn’t even guess below that. He didn’t know how she did it…but then, maybe it was all in his own head. Last he’d heard of her, after all, she had been hauled away by Imperial Intelligence after being exposed by Gabriel Arquin. Exposed, specifically, for having cast some kind of agitation charm over the whole town. She was not someone he was particularly happy to see back in Last Rock.

“I understand your unease,” the Hand said in his brusque manner, which Fred was only lately starting to realize was just his way and didn’t mean anything personal.

“Oh, uh, I…”

“It’s all right,” Reich said, still smiling. “I’ve certainly earned some mistrust around here; I won’t begrudge you that. All I can do is try to atone for my mistakes, and be careful not to become so caught up again that I lose sight of my judgment, and ethics, in the same way.”

“Her presence here would cause some agitation in the town, obviously,” said the Hand, folding his hands behind his back, “and as such will remain secret for the time being. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Fred replied, nodding.

The Hand nodded curtly back. “Very good. You are back from your daily campus visit, then? If you are here, I assume you learned something?”

“Nothing solid, sir, but there are rumors now that I think you’ll want to know.” Fred paused, glancing uncertainly at the Vidian priestess.

“Ms. Reich is assisting me, just as you are,” the Hand said impatiently. “You may speak in front of her.”

“Uh, yes, sir. Well, like I said, no official confirmation, but the whole campus is buzzing about Tellwyrn having approved the first major research project. Apparently it just happened this morning.”

The Hand narrowed his eyes. “And have you any idea what the project is?”

“Just conjecture, sir, but here’s the thing: three of the people who presented the proposal to Tellwyrn were warlocks. One from the Wreath and that dwarf from Rodvenheim. Plus! The Salyrite representative, and in fact they actually called back their mage and sent a warlock from the Topaz college, apparently specially for this. Also, that Syralon guy. So…it’s almost certainly some kind of infernal thing, something to do with demons. I mean, I don’t have it confirmed, but why else so many warlocks?”

“I see,” the Hand said, scowling. “Excellent work, Carson, I commend you.”

“Just doin’ my part, sir,” Fred replied modestly, ducking his head. “For the Emperor.”

Turning to Reich, the Hand raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”

“Forewarned is forearmed,” she said. “I am at your disposal, of course, but there are significant risks if I were to try to investigate personally. I doubt my methods of stealth would beat Tellwyrn’s perceptions. Besides, I have ample proof they are not a match for Arquin, or his valkyrie friends.”

“Arquin has left the campus as of this morning, along with his classmates,” the Hand stated. Fred perked up; that much he hadn’t known. How many people were bringing the Hand information? “I am curious whether that means those valkyries went with him. Can you find out?”

“Hmm.” Reich frowned in thought. “Yes, I believe I can, though it will have to be done with the utmost care. They hang around him, specifically; none would be left stationed at the campus unless he asked it of them. And I am very curious how they are getting along with that incubus Tellwyrn is keeping up there now.”

“This is why I brought you here,” the Hand replied. “Find out what you can.”

She bowed. “Immediately, sir.”

“Carson, you look troubled.”

Fred jumped slightly; he hadn’t been aware that his thought were showing on his face, or that the Hand was watching him. “Oh, uh…it’s nothin’, sir. Just, um, the usual.”

The Hand raised one eyebrow in silence.

Fred swallowed. “I’m just…Tellwyrn’s always done right by the town. I’m with you, sir, don’t worry none about that. It’s just a hell of a thing, is all. I hate to think of her havin’ turned on the Emperor like this.”

“Don’t fall into the trap of considering Tellwyrn either a monster or a saint,” the Hand said firmly. “She is a self-interested individual doing what she deems best to secure her interests. That has long involved protecting Last Rock to a degree, and now, apparently, working against the interests of the Empire. Our task is to protect his Majesty, without hesitation, and without any unnecessary brutality. Don’t waste your time loathing her or feeling betrayed, Carson. Just go about the work.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, bowing his head again.

It still didn’t feel right. But what else was he to do? Fred Carson was the Emperor’s man, right down to his bones. If that meant he had to work against the University that provided his own livelihood… Well, the gods weren’t always kind. A man had to do what was right, whether he felt like it or not.


Raathi caught up with her less than an hour later at the prearranged spot. Ildrin did not enjoy loitering in alleys like some Eserite thug, but they had to be extra cautious at a time like this.

“Sergeant,” she said with relief at the Legionnaire’s approach. “Are you all right? The others?”

“We’re fine, no trouble,” Sergeant Raathi replied. “They’re back on patrol; I have to join them quickly. Leingardt grilled us, but our excuse is solid. This was your operation, ma’am, and Legionnaires don’t get punished for following a priestess’s directives in good faith. I’m sorry, Sister. I didn’t enjoy having to throw you under the wheels like that…”

“No,” Ildrin said firmly, “that was exactly the right thing. Leingardt was already after me, thanks to Syrinx. No sense in damaging anyone else’s cover.” She heaved a sigh, producing a brief white cloud, and ran a hand over her hair. “What a mess. I could kill that woman.”

“The Bishop didn’t seem to like those kids much, ma’am…”

“The Bishop doesn’t like anyone,” Ildrin said curtly. “And I need you to be extra careful. Now that we’ve lost the opportunity to interrogate them directly, we’re going to have to ask around to figure out what they know and who they learned it from, which I don’t have to tell you is risky. Probing for information tends to draw the Guild’s attention, and in this case maybe Syrinx’s, which is worse. She’s just as cruel as the Guild at their worst, and often for less reason.”

Raathi nodded. “What’s the plan, then?”

“We have to assume we have a leak,” Ildrin said, frowning. “Those apprentices didn’t do this at random, it was much too targeted. We have no friends in the Guild, so someone either in the Sisterhood or the Collegium had to have tipped them off. Probably not someone highly placed, or they’d have contacted the right authorities and not some random Eserite know-nothings. I’m going to have to keep my head down for a while once this gets out, which means finding their link in the Sisterhood will fall to you. If there is one.”

The Sergeant nodded again. “And the Collegium?”

“I’ll have to reach out to some of our allies for that. Beyond plugging leaks, Sergeant… Find out anything you can without risking your cover about who these kids are. Why are they so connected outside their own cult? Why does Syrinx of all people know them?”

“This is getting riskier by the minute, Sister…”

“I know,” Ildrin said grimly. “You must be prepared for the worst. Not only for danger to us, but for the possibility that we are going to have to silence someone.”

Raathi sighed, but nodded resolutely. “Whatever it takes, Sister.”

“Whatever it takes.”


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13 – 3

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“Stop worrying,” Tallie said cheerfully. “Style said not to leave the district, and we’re not. If she hadn’t wanted us to leave the Casino, she’d have said that. Honestly, does that woman strike you as someone who has trouble articulating her intentions?”

“I know, I know,” Jasmine muttered, glancing around. “It just feels…”

“Well, you didn’t have to come.” Tallie gave her a sly sidelong look. “Unless, of course, you were feeling as cooped up as I was.”

“All right, fine, you caught me. Yes, I don’t like being cooped up. Which is why I agreed to join you on this excursion, which I will repeat is silly.”

“It is not silly,” Tallie said primly. “It is annoying and borderline mean.”

“Which is silly. It’s been weeks; we both know Layla doesn’t need a nursemaid.”

“Jasmine, honey, I understand that.” Grinning, Tallie jostled her with an elbow; her silent laugh manifested as puffs of mist in the frosty air. “That is exactly why it’s funny to nursemaid her. She hates it.”

Jasmine shook her head. “I don’t know what your issue is with nobles, but honestly, I think you need to get over it. We’re talking about one who specifically turned on her family to be here.”

“Wasn’t even her idea,” Tallie muttered. “She was just following big bro.”

“Regardless, she did, and I note you don’t give him such a hard time.”

“The balls I don’t!”

“Not nearly as—”

“And speak of the Dark Lady!” Tallie said loudly, stopping right in front of one of the ritzy shops which lined the streets around the Imperial Casino.

Layla Sakhavenid had just emerged, carrying an embossed shopping bag, and arched an eyebrow superciliously at her. “And hello to you, too, Tallie. If you’re going to give me a nickname, might I at least request something original? I don’t care to argue the right of way with the Queen of Demons.”

“Omnu’s balls, Layla,” Tallie exclaimed with borderline glee, “were you shopping? At a time like this?”

“Everyone has their hobbies,” Layla replied. “They are having a sale. I may be new to the need to hunt for bargains, but having tried it I find there’s an almost predatory satisfaction in snatching something at a great price. If I thought you were someone who would appreciate it, I’d gladly show you the scarf I…”

She trailed off, her expression going deliberately blank as her eyes shifted to look between them. Tallie and Jasmine stared at her in silent consternation for a second before catching on, and turned around.

Behind them stood a priestess of Avei, identified by her golden eagle pin despite the heavy coat she wore over her white robe. She was flanked by no less than four Silver Legionnaires, their faces unreadable behind winter helmets.

“I thought so,” the priestess said with grim satisfaction. “Sergeant…Collier, was it?” She fixed a stare on Jasmine, then shifted it past her to Layla. “Suddenly on remarkably friendly terms with this…deserter. How nice for you.”

“Hey, look,” said Tallie, subtly widening her stance, “we don’t want any trouble…”

“Yes, you obviously do,” the priestess said curtly. “You three will come with us to the nearest temple. We have things to discuss with you.”

“I think we would rather not,” Jasmine said quietly. “We’re under orders to remain near the—”

“Yet another thing you should have considered before stealing from the Sisterhood,” the priestess said implacably. “You are now in custody. Let’s move along, now, with a minimum of fuss.”

“You are making a mistake,” Layla declared, holding her ground even as two of the Legionnaires stepped around them, moving to box them in. The street was fairly busy, but people simply shifted out of their way on the wide sidewalk; few even bothered to stare. “We are apprentices of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“So I had assumed. Anything else you have to say will be listened to when we reach the temple. Now, move.”

“You can’t actually think you’ll get away with this,” Tallie blustered. “You don’t abduct—”

“The word is arrest,” one of the soldiers suddenly snapped. “And knowing the Guild’s policy on resisting arrest, we all know that won’t be an issue, so don’t bother. Sister Falaridjad, with all due respect, don’t engage Eserites in banter. You three, march. Now.”


“Feels kind of exposed,” Gabriel muttered.

“Arquin, the only remotely suspicious thing we’re doing is you glancing around like you’re about to go for somebody’s wallet,” Ruda snapped.

“Hey.” Toby reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. “Easy. We’ll be there as quick as we can.”

She heaved a sigh, and then nodded. “Right. Sorry, Gabe. I’m just tense about…”

“No harm,” Gabriel said, shooting her a quick smile. “And I know, you’re right, it’s just… I mean, everybody has to know un-escorted students aren’t supposed to be leaving the area.”

“Well, it was this or try hiking across the prairie,” Fross said reasonably. “It’s doubtful we’d all fit in one of the regular stagecoaches, and I’ve been practicing my teleportation but it’s at a level that I’m positive if I tried to ‘port all of us from here to Puna Dara we would all end up either dead or wishing we were, and upon consideration it turns out I have no appetite for either of those outcomes.”

“I think if anybody was gonna give us trouble, it would’ve been when we bought tickets,” Juniper added, grinning at the pixie. “I mean, Silas let us charter a caravan, so…that’s that.”

Nobody had an immediate comment after that, and a moment later, the group subconsciously edged closer together. They were positioned along the side of the telescroll office facing the prairie, rather than the Rail platform where they were waiting for their chartered caravan to arrive, the idea being to minimize their exposure to onlookers. The people of Last Rock certainly didn’t consider it their business to enforce Professor Tellwyrn’s rules, but a lot of them, as Gabriel had pointed out, knew the basics of campus policy. It would be relatively common knowledge that six students clearly waiting for a Rail caravan without an accompanying professor were up to no good.

It was less private than it had once been, though. Last Rock had begun growing last year, with Gabriel’s calling and the establishment of the Avenist and Vidian temples. The pace had exploded in just the month since Tellwyrn had opened the University’s research division and publicly named the school after the town. Now, they were looking out over a smattering of construction sites being actively worked on across the Rail line and the highway; off to their left, a large stone bridge was in the early stages of development, which would eventually span both, and likely render the current wooden footbridge obsolete.

Juniper casually draped an arm around Teal’s shoulders, and after a moment, the bard leaned against her. Teal’s hair was beginning to look almost shaggy, just long enough now to dangle into her eyes and onto her collar. She had grown comfortable in the Narisian-style robes she now wore, but her efforts at a reserved demeanor mostly made her look tired and sad.

Which may not have been a mask, after all.

They all edged closer again, including Fross, who fluttered over to hover directly above the group rather than drifting about as she usually did. They didn’t speak of it; they didn’t need to. Whenever the whole class assembled, anymore, the absence of its missing members was keenly felt.

“So,” Gabriel said at last, and before he could get another word out the whole world shifted around them.

Teal and Juniper staggered slightly, Fross shooting six feet straight upward with a loud chime of alarm, and Ruda and Gabriel grabbed at sword hilts, stopping just short of drawing.

“Ruda,” Toby said warily, looking around, “am I wrong, or is this…?”

“This,” she said, nodding, “is a wharf in Puna Dara.”

“Well…damn,” Gabriel muttered. “That Rail service is a lot more efficient than I remember.”

It was considerably warmer than in Last Rock and vastly more humid. The sounds of waves and the calling of seabirds formed a backdrop to the noise of conversation around them, which largely came to an abrupt end as their sudden appearance. They were standing on a large pier, with a merchant ship tied just in front of them and dockworkers all around in the process of offloading cargo—all brown-complexioned Punaji, mostly barefoot and the men bare-chested. To the east, the Azure Sea stretched away to a horizon on which light clouds had begun to gather.

“Oh, crap,” Teal muttered.

Slowly, they all turned to face the city behind them.

Professor Tellwyrn stood a few feet away with her arms folded, slowly drumming her fingers against her own bicep, and staring at them over the rims of her spectacles.

“Okay, before you start,” Fross chimed, “we’d already arranged transportation, and frivolously summoning a Rail caravan is misdemeanor abuse of Imperial facilities. It was in Ruda’s name and I’m not sure her diplomatic immunity covers—”

“Your conscientiousness is inspiring as always, Fross,” Tellwyrn interrupted, “even when misplaced. I’ll take care of it. So. I’m not going to claim omniscience, but after you insufferable twerps pulled that stunt at the hellgate last year, you’d better believe I watch for you to be shuffling off en masse to places where I don’t want you.”

“Hey, you pronounced that right,” Teal said nervously. “Most people don’t get Glassian quite—”

“Falconer.”

“…yeah. Sorry.”

“I can’t help noticing that we’re here now,” Ruda said sharply. “You could’ve just as easily put us back in our dorms.”

“A lot more easily, yes,” Tellwyrn said sourly. “Just a moment, kids. Hi, Sharad. Sorry to drop in on you like this.”

“Sorry? Sorry?!” The students turned to look at the man approaching them, and with the exception of Ruda now edged backward. He stood almost a foot taller even than Toby, with a full beard in which threads of silver had just begun to appear. Unlike the surrounding dockworkers, he wore boots, a traditional sailcloth greatcoat, and a wide-brimmed hat with feathers rather like Ruda’s. Also, he was coming at them very rapidly, with arms upraised. He stopped short, though, and a broad grin split the darkness of his beard. “Nonsense, this is the best news I’ve had in weeks! Pushta told me a bunch of people hast just appeared and I thought—well, never mind, it’s always a pleasure to see you, Professor! And, I presume, students?”

“Students indeed,” she said. “Class of 1182, this is Sharad Kapadia, an alum and proprietor of this wharf. I try only to disrupt the business of people I actually know.”

“Nonsense, nothing is disrupted,” Kapadia boomed. “Especially since my employees all know not to stand around gawking!”

Instantly, their audience dispersed back to their tasks, with the exception of several sailors who leaned over the side of the ship, watching with naked interest.

“So,” Tellwyrn said briskly, “Raffi Chadrakeran just happened to pass along to Miss Punaji, here, what was occurring in Puna Dara, and she decided to take off and deal with it herself. And you lot came along in a show of solidarity. Right?”

Toby lifted his chin. “We’re not about to abandon—”

“Caine, did I ask you for justifications? I’ll take the lack of denial as an affirmative. Well, here you are, and as Punaji herself pointed out, yes, I brought you here myself.”

“Why?” Juniper asked quietly.

Tellwyrn let out a sigh through her nose. “…how much do you know about what’s happening in Puna Dara these days?”

“Cultists,” Ruda said tersely. “Creating civil unrest, trying to disrupt my father’s rule, and now attacking a Silver Legion.”

“Neutralizing a Silver Legion,” Tellwyrn said grimly, “which is what make this urgent. Nobody knows how they did it, but the fact that they did it means this Rust is suddenly a real player—one that nobody saw coming. A lot of eyes are on Puna Dara now, and they’ll be shortly followed by a lot of fingers.”

“Which is why I need to be here, helping,” Ruda snarled. “This nation is not stable enough to deal with an internal uprising and meddling from the Empire at the same time, and you know damn well the Empire will meddle! We need to solve this fast.”

“And that, all modesty aside, is what we do,” added Gabriel.

“The Empire, in fact,” Tellwyrn said much more calmly, “or at least Lord Vex, has asked me to send a student group here. Let me emphasize how unusual that is. I’ve worked with Vex for over a year, to make sure my little class projects don’t disrupt Imperial business too much. He has pointed out potential trouble spots before, but his only requests to date involve asking me to stay away from certain places. This is the first occasion on which he has specifically asked for help.”

“Is that…bad?” Toby asked, frowning.

“It emphasizes the severity of the situation,” said Tellwyrn. “And the Empire’s dilemma. They cannot afford to overtly interfere in Puna Dara’s internal business. Care to explain why, Miss Punaji?”

“I already have,” Ruda said shortly, glancing at Mr. Kapadia. He was watching her speculatively, and inclined his head at meeting her eyes.

“The Punaji nation is an ally, not an Imperial protectorate,” Teal said softly. “And due to current political and cultural factors, the King can’t be seen to be accepting any outside help; it would make him look weak.”

“Which would just be a problem most of the time,” Gabriel added, “but with these Rust assholes suddenly challenging his authority, Blackbeard acknowledging that he’s not in full control could trigger a complete change of government.”

“Which, most of the time, is a strictly internal matter and usually only a temporary disruption of Puna Dara’s business,” Fross chimed, “but with the Rust as a serious contender for power, the Empire can’t afford to let Blackbeard’s government be destabilized, because they can’t tolerate the continent’s entire eastern seaboard being in the hands of an unstable sect that’s willing and able to attack the Silver Legions! Did we miss anything, Ruda?”

“That’s the long and the fucking short of it,” Ruda said bitterly. “The Punaji have to fix this problem, now, and without foreign help. If we don’t, we’re gonna end up very likely at war with the Empire. And I don’t care who these Rust are or what they’ve got up their sleeves, there’s no power in the world that could win that fight. They’ve gotta be stopped, fast, without undercutting my father’s reign. Otherwise, we’re looking at the end of the Punaji as a sovereign people, very likely with a shit-ton of bloodshed involved.”

“Well, thank goodness for small favors,” Tellwyrn muttered. “I do like it when I don’t have to explain everything for a change. The truth is, I had not planned to send anyone out here for the simple reason that I test my students against challenges I know they can beat. Whatever the Rust did to the Fourth Silver Legion is…without precedent. I don’t understand it at all—nobody does. That means I would be sending a student group to face an undefined peril with no guarantee of their safety, much less success.”

She stopped, and heaved a heavy sigh. “I’m giving you the go-ahead for three reasons. First, thanks to Miss Punaji’s investment in this, and yours in her, it’s clear I would have to ride herd on the lot of you until this was all settled if I decided to keep you from it, and quite frankly, I have too many other things to do. Second… You, of all people, might just be safe, even with the danger as unknowable as it is. Two of you are paladins, and that kind of direct connection to a god changes matters. People who cast any kind of incredibly potent curse on a Hand of the gods draw the direct attention of the deity in question. Hopefully these Rust will have the sense not to try, but if they do, that just might end up putting a stop to the whole business. Juniper may be blocked from Naiya, but she and Fross are inherently quite resistant to such effects anyway. The lot of you will need to keep watch over Zaruda, but you’ve already shown you are inordinately willing to do that.”

“And me,” Teal added.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “Falconer, you just might be better off even than the boys. Elilial isn’t an interventionist deity as a rule, but after losing the other six archdemons, anybody who manages to put any kind of whammy on Vadrieny is asking to have an apocalypse shoved right up their butts. Even Naphthene would hesitate to pick that fight. Which doesn’t mean you should go around pissing on wave shrines like Zaruda’s ancestor.”

“Why in the blazes would I do such a thing?” Teal exclaimed.

“I have been working with teenagers for fifty years and I still don’t understand why you lot do anything. If I did, maybe I could control you. Anyway, I have a third motivation for allowing this.” The sardonic levity leaked from her expression. “Honestly…I think you kids have the best chance out of anybody of pulling it off. And beyond the needs of your education, this is a big problem. This isn’t Sarasio or Lor’naris. The fall of Puna Dara would send shockwaves across the continent. Around the world. Much as it pains me to use the term, this city needs heroes. You’re the best I can think of for the job.”

She let that sit for a silent moment before turning back to the wharf master with a sudden smile. “So! Sorry to keep you away from your business, Sharad, but can you direct us to the nearest hub of Rust activity?”

“In fact, I can take you there!” he said. “It’s far closer than I would like—just barely beyond my own wharf, in fact. I’ve had some of my own people come around spouting their philosophy, which is…a difficult situation. Puts me in the same position as the King, on a smaller scale. If I try to shut that down, it raises the question of why I feel threatened by it, not to mention that any fool knows nothing validates a religion like oppressing it. It really is abominable stuff, though. Anyway, don’t you worry about my business, Professor, it’s booming! Since you’re in town, you really must come by for dinner. I think my wife doesn’t actually believe I know you.”

“I appreciate it, but I have pots simmering back in Last Rock that I can’t leave unattended for too long.”

“Nonsense!” he boomed jovially. “You can zip-zap halfway across the world in an eyeblink, it’ll be no trouble. We’ll see you tonight. I insist!”

She lowered her head to stare at him over her glasses. “I’m sorry, you insist? I’m almost curious what would happen if you tried.”

“In that event,” he said, suddenly with deep gravitas, “I would have to make a very sad face. I would do this all night. And you would be thinking about me doing it.”

“…you’re a monster, Kapadia.”

His laugh was practically a bellow. “Fantastic! I will ask Erika to make her curried rice with eel! We stopped arguing over native cuisines by learning to blend them, you see.”

Tellwyrn shook her head and turned to face the city. “All right, lead on, then. Come along, kids. Let’s go see what you’re up against.”


“Sister Falaridjad, this is a surprise,” said the armored woman who greeted them inside the temple. If “temple” was the right word. This was an Avenist facility, all right, but religious iconography aside, it was clearly more military than clerical in function. Its main entrance hall, in which they now stood, resembled a police station more than a place of worship, with desks along one side at which white-robed priestesses sat, speaking quietly with visitors. Armored Legionnaires stood at attention in every corner and bracketing every entrance, a rather excessive display of force for a temple.

“For me as well, Captain Leingardt,” the priestess who had apprehended them replied. “I wasn’t planning on this, but it seems the goddess smiled on us. Two of these I recognize from the robbery at my temple this morning. The third has already implicated herself in the same business.”

“Excuse me, I’ve what?” Tallie demanded.

Leingardt cast a cool glance across them, lingering momentarily on Tallie, before addressing Falaridjad. “I see. Fortuitous indeed that you came across them while accompanied by enough soldiers to bring them in.”

“Indeed, I don’t presume Avei’s favor lightly. Though they are Eserites. Apprentices, but still, they know better than to fight when fairly caught.”

“Guild, hm,” the captain said, her eyebrows lowering fractionally. “Then I hope you weren’t expecting to keep them long, sister. The Guild always extracts its own as quickly as possible.”

“All the more reason to interrogate them immediately,” Sister Falaridjad said firmly, “if you will grant us the use of a suitable room. We actually picked them up a stone’s throw from the Casino itself, so we’re likely to have one of those obnoxious lawyers of their knocking any minute. We are justified in holding them for interrogation, at least, given the charges. Conspiracy, theft, assault—”

“That is a lie!” Layla, when she chose to, could project at a startling volume without raising the pitch of her voice; it lent her an unexpectedly commanding aspect for a sixteen-year-old girl. All around the chamber, activity stopped as Sisters, soldiers and civilians turned to stare.

Falaridjad scowled in annoyance. “You’ll have your chance to defend—”

“Fabricating charges is a very severe offense for a woman in your position, sister,” Jasmine said sharply. She turned to the captain with a stiff nod. “We have no intention of prevaricating or denying anything we’ve done, Captain, but no one was assaulted. Sister Falaridjad was at the temple; I remember seeing her. She knows this.”

“Oh, please,” the priestess said with heavy disdain. “You really intend to press your word against mine? Here? Good luck, girl.”

“I don’t need luck,” Jasmine replied, turning to face her directly. “Just justice.”

A sharp clap echoed through the room, followed by another. Everyone shifted to look at the woman who had just entered the building behind the prisoners and their escort, and now approached them, continuing to applaud slowly while she came.

“Oh, good show,” said Bishop Syrinx. “Very dramatic, the Veskers would be proud. But if you’re quite done fooling around, we should get down to the business of how very much trouble you are all in.”

 

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13 – 2

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“YOU DO NOT FUCKING ROB THE FUCKING SISTERS OF FUCKING AVEI!”

“We didn’t,” Darius protested. “I mean, quite specifically, we did not rob them!”

“If anything, we un-robbed them!” Tallie added. “They were getting snookered and we—”

“Do not get cute with me,” Style snarled. “You entered their facilities under false pretenses and appropriated shit which was not yours. This is the fucking Thieves’ Guild, if you little wankstains haven’t noticed. I know what a fucking robbery is, and you just pulled one.” She stopped her pacing right in front of Tallie, and leaned in close. “ON THE GODDAMN SISTERHOOD OF FUCKING AVEI.”

“We’re not evading,” Jasmine said in perfect calm. “The matter just wasn’t as simple as you’re making it sound. We took things out of the temple, yes, but—”

“Let me see if I got the details,” the enforcer interrupted, straightening and turning to pace again. “You interrupted a Salyrite delivery of potions, reagents, magical shit in general, to a local temple of Avei. Jasmine, dressed in Legion armor, drags in Layla, pretending to be bringing her in as a prisoner. Scuffling ensues, everyone is distracted. Meanwhile, Tubby and Smarmy, here, drive a delivery truck up to the temple and accidentally block the Salyrite vehicle in.” She scowled at Ross and Darius in turn as she paced by them.

“How come the girls don’t get nicknames?” Ross muttered.

“While the scrawny one engages the Salyrite driver in an argument and generally adds to the confusion, the beefy one starts loading crates in and out of the place, and lifts the Salyrite shipment while they’re all distracted. And while this is going on, our little burgeoning cat burglar oozed first into the temple through an upper window and then the Salyrite truck to swipe documents.” Again, she stopped, folded her arms, and glared at them. “I miss anything?”

“After that,” Layla said primly, “we made copies of the documents from both cults, which prove that agents within the Sisterhood and the Collegium were massaging the figures of what had been delivered and how much paid to skim revenue and poach supplies from these transactions.”

“Which,” Tallie added with a grin, “we then had delivered to the central temples of Avei and Salyrene, along with giving the Salyrites their stuff back. So nobody lost any property, and both cults now know who in their ranks was screwing ’em over.”

“They’re welcome, incidentally,” Darius added.

Off to the side of the room, Lore chuckled, still lounging against the wall. “Not gonna lie, kids, that’s a pretty damn neat job. I’d expect full Guild members to do that kinda work, never mind apprentices on their first unsupervised heist. Only thing you forgot was how to get yourselves paid.”

“We are but lowly apprentices,” Jasmine said with a beatific smile. “Happy to work for the experience and prestige.”

“You, stop helping,” Style barked, pointing at Lore, then turned to glare at Jasmine. “And you. If you’re so insistent you didn’t actually rob the Sisterhood, wanna explain what the fuck you were doing with a set of Silver Legion armor in the first place?”

“I borrowed it,” Jasmine said blandly.

Style took two strides and leaned down directly into her face. “You wanna try again, squirt?”

Lore cleared his throat. “I’m not sure if any of your trainers have covered this explicitly, Jasmine, but the ‘borrowed’ defense isn’t regarded kindly around here. We’re thieves; we steal stuff. Taking without permission is theft, whether or not you bring the item back. Have some pride and don’t make excuses or beat around the bush.”

“Actually nobody had mentioned that, but thank you,” Jasmine said, glancing at him sidelong but keeping most of her attention on Style’s uncomfortably close glower. “Really, though, I wasn’t doing that. I did borrow it. Glory hooked me up with a dealer who had two almost-complete sets of armor. I helped him assemble them properly and showed him where to get the missing pieces, and he let me take one for the day as thanks.”

“I still say we should have borrowed both,” Layla huffed. “I would really have liked—”

“Layla,” Darius said in exasperation, “you couldn’t both be Legionnaires. If neither one was the prisoner, what the fuck would you have been doing there?”

“And if she was a prisoner,” Style growled at Jasmine, “how the fuck did you get out without her being in a cell?”

“The story we used was she was a runaway Legion cadet,” Jasmine replied, leaning subtly backward in her seat. “Which is breach of contract at the worst; it’s a legal gray area whether the Sisterhood has the authority to detain people for that. It made the perfect cover for her to kick up a fuss for half an hour and then still get to leave. Can I get some personal space, Style? I can taste what you had for lunch, here. Not everybody likes Punaji curry.”

Lore burst out laughing.

“Kid,” Style said, slowly straightening back up but not releasing Jasmine from her glare, “there are days when I think you were put on this world specifically to be a thorn in my ass.”

“I thought the expression was ‘thorn in my side?’” Tallie piped up.

“Thorn in the foot’s also used,” Ross grunted. “The ass thing is new.”

“Classic Style!” Darius chirped.

“Shut the fuck up,” Style ordered, and they immediately did; she had spoken calmly and flatly. Style cursed and yelled and threw things as part of her ordinary conversation. Everyone who survived a month of Guild apprenticeship knew to step very lightly, however, when she lowered her voice. “Lore, I can’t deal with this magnitude of horseshit. Explain their stupidity whilst I take a mental health break.”

She turned and stomped over to a cabinet against the far wall of the underground meeting room, from which she extracted a bottle of wine and took a long swig.

Lore coughed, suppressing his earlier laughter, and finally straightened up from the wall, stepping toward them. He was one of the Guild’s few actual priests, and its foremost specialist in Eserite philosophy and what little actual dogma the cult had. For the most part, that meant he stayed around the Guild’s headquarters, assisting the Boss and training apprentices.

“You kids have really stuck your collective foot in it,” he said more somberly. “You know our relations with the other cults can be dicey. There are long-standing tensions, such as the way we like Avenists more than they like us, and Vernisites like us more than we like them. In general, though, there’s a lot of widespread dislike of thieves. Lots of groups, religious and secular, have the attitude that Eserites are only tolerated because Eserion is a god of the Pantheon, and they resent having to tolerate us. And that, kids, is why any jobs pertaining to other cults are undertaken very carefully. Very carefully. Usually with the direct say-so of and organization by the Bishop and the Boss himself. Not a gaggle of out-of-control apprentices…you know, as a general rule.”

“Ohh,” Tallie said quietly, then swallowed. “Um…”

“In the time it took you to drive back to wherever you staged all this, transcribe those documents, arrange to have them delivered, and get back here, the beehive you kicked hasn’t stopped buzzing. Sweet has already had an earful from Bishops Throale and Syrinx. The Universal Church has gotten involved, trying to smooth things over, and the Boss has been fully occupied keeping some of our hotter heads in check, because all they can see is spellflingers and soldiers getting up in the Guild’s face apparently on their own initiative.”

“Oh, fuck,” Darius mumbled.

“WELL SAID,” Style thundered, slamming the bottle back onto a shelf and turning to glare at them. “Let’s have a little pop trivia! Who can tell me under what circumstances it is acceptable for the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild to have to clean up after a pack of goddamn apprentices?”

“Um…none?” Tallie ventured.

“Wrong! Who else wants to try?”

“Well,” Jasmine said carefully, “I suppose, theoretically, in a situation where the Boss himself was considered corrupt—”

“Jasmine, it’s a constant mystery to me how you can think so goddamn much and never about the right things. Anybody else got the answer I’m looking for?”

Ross hesitantly raised a hand. “…fucking none?”

“WINNER!” Style shouted, pointing at him.

Lore shook his head. “Look… How the hell did you kids find out about this in the first place? Shenanigans between elements in the Sisterhood and the Collegium aren’t the kind of thing into which random junior Eserites normally have insight.”

“Well, actually, that was just a right place, right time sort of deal,” Tallie said almost timidly. “See, our friend Schwartz is in the Emerald College, and he’s been involved in both interfaith relations and disseminating supplies. Apparently it was all part of his own plan to get to know Eserites, which, I guess, worked. But he mentioned he’d been seeing some funny activity…”

“And then there’s our other friend Rasha,” Darius added. “Who happens to have insight into some of the alchemical reagents the Avenists use, you know, cos he goes to them for—I mean, she—they… Dammit! I knew her all of a week the other way, why am I still not used to that?”

“Because you’re a clod,” Layla said fondly, ruffling his hair.

“Rasha,” Jasmine said quickly before Style could swell up any further, “has treatment sessions with the Sisterhood as part of transitioning. She’s not using alchemy yet because they do very thorough counseling before starting on that, but she talks with the sisters about the program, and they’ve mentioned there are unexplained shortfalls in some of their alchemical supplies.”

“Which was the other thing with which Glory helped,” Layla continued primly. “She really is the most fabulous source of gossip, and I enjoy very much being a guest at her salons. There, I heard rumors about some unexpected personnel changes in various cults; individuals who are known to favor the Universal Church have been maneuvering into positions where they serve as the intermediaries between cults. It’s all very subtle, and might never have been noticed at all except one has some kind of feud with the Avenist Bishop, who made noise about this particular priestess horning in on her territory, so to speak. Even so, only the sort of people with whom Glory associates follow these dealings. If not for our very fortuitous acquaintance, the likes of us would never have learned of this.”

“But we put that together, saw a pattern, and looked further,” Jasmine finished. “Black market dealings, places where those mislaid alchemical supplies might have been turned into untraceable cash. Pick’s connected to those, and he helped us out.”

“Surprisingly decent little prick, in his way,” Tallie added thoughtfully. “Prob’ly just cos he owes us for getting him away from those dwarves, but still.”

“Mm,” Lore grunted. “Well, you kids do impress. That was good work, spotting an opportunity and finding a way to exploit it. But what you should have done when you figured out something was fishy was go straight to Style with it. Apprentices have no business messing in other cults’ affairs.”

“But we were helping them!” Layla protested. “At least—”

“The man didn’t fucking stutter!” Style snarled. “Apprentices have no fucking business fucking around with other fucking cults’ business! You don’t help them, you don’t thwart them, you stay the hell out of their shit entirely! If you spot something fucked up going on in another Pantheon cult, or between two of them, you bring it to the Guild. The Boss will decide whether it’s something we need to intervene in, and if so, how. Not. You.”

“I realize we emphasize independence and distrust of structures,” Lore said much more gently. “It’s an understandable mistake; most of the time you’re expected not to bother the Boss, or rely excessively on the Guild. But for exactly that reason, in the few areas where the Guild does need to be involved, we take it very seriously when people go off on their own and create exactly these kinds of problems.”

“Sorry,” Ross mumbled.

Style snorted and threw up her hands, but Lore nodded gravely. “I believe you. Look… This was overall damn fine work, all right? You planned and executed an extremely neat job, and that after making excellent use of your connections and available resources. But you acted without considering the ramifications, or the role the Guild would have to play in this. That is what we can’t have.”

“And before you start getting big heads,” Style said, “he was warning you, not praising you. That’s a dangerous spot to be in, kids. If you’ve got the skills of Guild members and don’t grasp what it means to be Guild members, you’re a potential problem, if not a threat. People who land themselves in this position and don’t straighten the fuck out usually end up getting dealt with in other ways.”

Tallie swallowed heavily again. “Um…”

“No, I’m not threatening you,” Style said with a sigh. “If I thought you were gonna be that kind of problem, I’d be kicking your asses, not telling you about it. You’re students; I’m teaching. Now you understand where you went wrong. Fix your shit.”

“Understood,” Jasmine said quickly.

“I believe you,” Style replied. “Which just leaves the matter of putting this right. For now… Just leave it alone. Stay close to the Guild and wait for orders. Since you little shits are the ones with firsthand knowledge of what went down, you’re likely to be part of the process of smoothing it over, but first the Boss and the Bishop need to figure out what’s what and how to straighten it out. In the meantime, wait. And for fuck’s sake, behave yourselves.”

Jasmine cleared her throat. “Okay. And…since we’re not being punched, what’s it to be? Are we going to be scrubbing the kitchens again?”

“Jas, shut up,” Darius hissed.

Style rolled her eyes. “Punishment is for assholes; dumbasses get correction. You never have figured out the difference, Jasmine. No, when I said you were gonna make this right, that is what I meant. Now you understand how you fucked up; once you do your part to fix it, that’s that. Abusing you further isn’t gonna accomplish anything. All right, enough. Get outta here and stay in this district until I tell you otherwise. And I suggest you keep in mind that malice accounts for the lesser part of all fuckups. Trouble is much more often caused by stupidity. You wanna avoid getting in trouble, fucking think.”

“Surprisingly good advice,” Darius murmured as they filed hastily out of the room before Style could change her mind.

“Yeah,” Jasmine agreed as quietly. “Actually, it reminds me of another teacher of mine. She’s fond of saying much the same thing.”

“But with less cussing?” Tallie asked with a grin.

Jasmine sighed. “It…depends.”


“I know you’re well aware of the phenomena, Professor,” said Wrynst, the designated spokesman of the group. “Demons which bleed or otherwise dispense bodily fluids inflict infernal corruption on whatever the substance touches—yet when they are killed on this plane, the bodies dissolve into ash which leaves minimal corruption behind, and in some cases none. In order to be magically reactive, spell components harvested from demons must be taken while the demon was alive. Yet, sapient demons which can use infernal magic mostly leave behind intact bodies, which may or may not be infernally active, depending on the situation. Vanislaads in particular appear to leave behind a fully intact body, and the very same demon may return later to this plane in a new body, while their previous one might still exist here. Altogether the nature of demons’ connection to magic, to life, and to this plane is not understood. We have only lists of observed effects and no understanding of the underlying principles involved.”

“Yes, of course,” Tellwyrn said neutrally, interlacing her fingers and regarding him over them. “And of course, you know why that understanding is lacking, even after thousands of years.”

“Actually, Professor, for most of that period, infernal magic was considered far more dangerous to use than it is today, and understanding of its use was correspondingly lacking. Until as recently as the Hellwars, ‘warlock’ was considered synonymous with ‘servant of Elilial,’ because no one without that goddess’s specific protection could even touch the infernal and not combust or mutate on the spot. The word itself is said to mean ‘oathbreaker,’ as the only people to whom it applied had specifically betrayed the gods. Now, though, there are not only the Wreath, but also organized warlocks in the service of Salyrene and many national governments and other organizations, not to mention independent practitioners—all because of the advancement of knowledge.”

“And you propose,” she said slowly, “to advance it again.”

Wrynst nodded, stepped forward, and laid a thick folder down upon her desk. “Yes, Professor. The full details of our proposal are there for you to peruse at your leisure. In brief, however, we have outlined an experimental protocol which will involve the repeated summoning of and experimentation upon lesser non-sapient demons to study the nature of their dimensional connection to Hell, and thus the nature of infernal magic itself. Katzils, mostly, as they are the most manageable. At present, infernomancy is more an art than science; its safe use is largely intuitive, and therefore difficult to teach and fraught with peril. We propose to study and quantify it. If our program meets with any success, it would be a great leap forward in magical understanding, as well as taking much of the inherent danger out of infernal magic. This will make it not only safer to use, but help in devising methods of resisting demons and their masters.”

Tellwyrn glanced at the folder without moving to touch it, then across the small knot of people assembled before her desk. Behind Wrynst stood the representatives from the factions which were backing Rodvenheim’s proposal: a warlock from the Topaz College of Salyrene, a magelord of Syralon, a robed Black Wreath cultist, and a battlemage of the Empire’s Azure Corps.

Strange bedfellows, indeed.

“This is, of course, possibly the most dangerous research project ever undertaken.”

“Yes, Professor,” Wrynst said solemnly, not even quibbling with her obvious hyperbole. “We are well aware of the risks, and seek to take all possible steps to mitigate them. That fact is why this research has never been conducted before.”

“Oh, it’s been tried,” said Fedora, who was lounging against a bookcase off to the side. “By many a warlock throughout the years. In slow bits and bites over the millennia, they added gradually to the knowledge of the craft, while meeting a succession of swift and grisly fates.”

Tellwyrn shot him a brief, irritated glance, which was mirrored by each of the research delegates before her. “I’m sure this lays out your proposed containment methods. Leaving that aside, in brief, what do you intend to do about the dimensional effects of such repeated summonings?”

Wrynst coughed discreetly and glanced behind himself. At his look, Colonel Azhai nodded and stepped forward.

“In short, Professor, we intend to monitor them. This campus’s inherent protections, and the fae geas laid upon it, will do a great deal to mitigate the inherent dimensional thinning effect. Our containment protocols will do more. But as part of our research protocol, we will be closely observing the state of dimensional stability in the region. Our program calls for a cessation of summoning activity should signs of dimensional instability appear, and that only as an initial measure. You are of course aware of the methods of repairing such unintended rifts.”

“They aren’t easy,” Tellwyrn murmured.

“No, ma’am,” Azhai agreed. “Which is why our strategy emphasizes prevention. But we will be prepared to take whatever restorative action is necessary, should the need arise.”

Tellwyrn looked at Fedora and raised an eyebrow.

“I’ll want to read over their protective measures, just to be in the loop,” he said with a shrug. “Ultimately, though, you know a lot more about this hoodoo than I. Suggest having Yornhaldt and Harklund sign off on it, as well. Long as everyone’s confident, that’s that.” He cleared his throat and straightened up. “I do have an additional thought on this, which I’d prefer to share with you in private, Professor.”

“Of course,” Wrynst said hastily, bowing and taking a step back from the desk. “We can come back…”

“Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Tellwyrn. “Let’s not take up any more of your time than we must. If you will excuse us for just a moment?”

“Certainly!”

She nodded politely and gestured.

A distortion flickered across the office, as if a wall of frosted glass had appeared to separate Tellwyrn and Fedora from the guests. Behind it were revealed only vague shapes, and no sound penetrated.

“Well?” she asked, swiveling her chair to face him directly. “What do you think?”

“In short,” he said, “I think you have to go for it.”

She raised one eyebrow. “Oh, I have to, do I?”

“C’mon, don’t get all Tellwyrn on me,” he said with a grin. “You’ll do what you want, and we both know it. But in this case, with regard to your stated goals for this whole program? This is just too perfect to pass up. It’s dangerous and potentially incredibly valuable if it’s a success. It’s exactly the kind of research you launched this whole initiative to do. This is the first real test of the whole plan. If you’re not willing to take this on, it all becomes kind of…moot. This research hasn’t been done elsewhere because nobody was willing to touch it. If you’re not…what’s the point of the new research division?”

“Mm,” she grunted, glancing at the obscured shapes behind the barrier, which were now shifting slightly as they interacted with one another.

“There’s more,” Fedora said in a less jocular tone. “This is also the perfect opportunity to deal with the other thing I warned you about when you hired me. It’s not only incredibly dangerous, it deals with warlocks and demons—exactly the subject that gets people riled up and frightened. It is the ideal avenue of attack for your enemies to use against you.”

“And so,” she murmured, “by controlling the path my enemies take, I control their fates.”

He tilted his head. “Huh. I dunno why it should surprise me that you’ve read the Aveniad, but it does.”

“If anything it’s more surprising that you’ve read it,” she sighed.

“Some good, solid advice in there,” he replied, winking. “Take a little time to review the proposal in detail; that’ll give me a little time to make preparations for whoever’s gonna take advantage to try it. This is it, Professor. Make or break.”

“All right,” she said, suddenly brisk, and turned back to the desk. The barrier vanished, and the assembled magical specialists turned expectantly to her. “Very well, upon consultation with my head of campus security, I am strongly inclined to endorse this program. Obviously, I will need to review your proposal in detail; there may well be adjustments upon which I will have to insist.”

“Oh, of course,” Wrynst said quickly, nodding.

“But, barring some absolute dealbreaker in the fine print, I believe you have just become the proud progenitors of this University’s first major research project. Give me a few days to review in detail, consult with my faculty and make some arrangements. I shall try not to drag my feet about it.”

“Professor, we are glad to grant you whatever you need,” Wrynst assured her, glancing back at his compatriots and getting a chorus of affirmative nods. “After all, you are being more than generous with us.”

A soft chime sounded, and everyone shifted to look at Fedora, who pulled a large silver pocket watch from inside his coat and flipped it open.

“Ah,” he said in a tone of deep satisfaction. “Professor! You remember that thing you asked me to watch for yesterday? It’s happening.”

“What?” she exclaimed, shooting upright. “Already?”

“Yes, well,” Fedora said glibly, shutting the watch and putting it away again. “I may have encouraged it along a little bit.”

“I asked you,” she grated, “to watch for the sophomore class trying to sneak off campus, not to goad them into doing it!”

“I swear to you I’ve not said a word to them!” he replied, holding up his hands in surrender, but grinning unrepentantly. “I did, however, have a few selective words with Raffi at our poker game last night, on the assumption they’d find their way to Zaruda and onward from there. Sometimes, Professor, watching for bad behavior means strewing a few seeds. That’s how you find out which soil is the most fertile.” He winked at the delegates.

Tellwyrn growled wordlessly. “Mr. Wrynst, everyone, I’m sorry to cut this meeting short, but it appears I have something rather more urgent to attend to. If you will excuse me.”

“Not to worry, Professor, we…” Wrynst trailed off; Tellwyrn had vanished in the middle of his sentence.

“She does that a lot,” Fedora confided. “It’s all part of the charm.”

 

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13 – 1

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“Mission accomplished,” Merry announced, planting the butt of her lance on the floor. “We have successfully reported to this empty conference room. What’s next, Sarge?”

“What I know, you know,” Principia said, uncharacteristically terse. “And keep a lid on the attitude, private. We were ordered here for a reason, and you sassing out of turn in front of the bronze will result in them landing on my neck. Guess how many times that headache will be magnified before I pass it on down to you?”

Merry cleared her throat and shifted to attention. “Apologies, Sergeant.”

“You’re both turning into actual soldiers,” Ephanie said with a small smile. “It’s quite touching. And a little bizarre.”

“Thank you, my loyal and dedicated XO,” Principia replied, sighing.

Nandi cleared her throat. “Someone approaching. Those are Rouvad’s footsteps.”

Principia’s eyes cut to her momentarily, but she didn’t bother to ask if she was certain. “Attention!”

The entire squad, already lined up along one side of the small conference room, snapped to attention as ordered. And there they stood. It was another half a minute before the door opened—suddenly, to those who lacked elven hearing—and High Commander Rouvad stepped in, alone. She paused, glancing across them with an unreadable expression, then shut the door.

“Sergeant Locke,” the Commander said curtly, “remove your insignia.”

Principia hesitated barely an instant before reaching up to detach the striped pin from her pauldron. It gave her a moment to think, as they were designed not to come off accidentally during battle. She’d done nothing court-martial worthy, and anyway, it wouldn’t be standard policy to have her whole squad report to an out-of-the-way spot like this and watch if she were about to be demoted or something…

“I apologize for the lack of ceremony, but everything will be made clear soon,” Commander Rouvad said, reaching up to begin attaching a new pin to the now-bare spot on Principia’s shoulder. “Principia Locke, you are advanced to the rank of Lieutenant, effective immediately. My congratulations.” She took a step back.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting and concealing her bemusement. This she had not been expecting; that promotion should have followed either an act of conspicuous valor or another year of service…

“Conceal your old pin, Lieutenant,” Rouvad ordered. “And the rest of you are not to reveal the circumstances of this promotion, in general but particularly to any of the women you are about to meet. As far as anyone needs to know, Locke has held this rank for a suitably long period. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am!” the squad chorused, saluting.

Rouvad nodded once. “Good. You will now report to the west sub-basement assembly room B to be briefed on your next mission. Afterward, Locke, I want you to return here and meet me while Corporal Avelea prepares your squad for departure.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said crisply.

The High Commander nodded again. “Dismissed, ladies. I’ll see you below in not more than five minutes.”

She turned and strode out through the door opposite the one they had come in.

“Well…you heard the woman,” Principia said, stepping toward the other exit. “West sub-basement assembly room B. Which is…?”

“Follow me,” Nandi said with a smile as they exited into the hall. “And congratulations, Locke.”

“Yeah, congrats, Sar—I mean, LT,” Farah added brightly, followed by a chorus of agreement from the others.

“This may present an operational obstacle for the squad, though,” Ephanie added gravely. “We’ve been relying rather heavily on your personal expertise, Locke, but you are now required by all protocol and military tradition to know nothing.”

“I don’t know when you decided to become a comedian, Avelea, but you’re lucky you already have a job.”

They were on the ground floor in the western wing already; it was a journey involving two flights of stairs and one right turn, taking no more than three minutes, before they approached a door currently guarded by two Legionnaires. Nandi fell back, letting Principia take the lead. As they neared, the soldiers shifted to cross their lances across the door.

“Name and squad,” barked one, staring expressionlessly at Principia.

“Locke, Principia, Squad 391.”

Both immediately returned their lances to the upright position and the soldier on the right, who had spoken, saluted; the other, having her lance in her right hand, simply remained at attention. Principia saluted back, then pulled open the door and stepped through.

Casey was the last in and shut it behind them, and then the squad clustered together, falling automatically into parade rest. The assembly room was large, and no less than six other squads were already present—fully-sized units of at least twelve women each. Squad 391 were not only the last to arrive, but the smallest group by far, and gathered several curious stares.

Before anyone could speak or approach them, however, the door on the auditorium’s low dais opened and Commander Rouvad herself emerged. Everyone immediately stood at attention and saluted.

“At ease,” Rouvad said in a clipped tone, striding to the center of the platform after sweeping one quick look around the room. “This mission and everything about to be discussed in this briefing are classified. You are being mobilized in response to a crisis, ladies. The Fourth Silver Legion has been completely neutralized.” The stir which went around the room was subdued considering that news, discipline relaxed only to the extent of a few indrawn breaths and shifted boots. “Along with a supporting group of Salyrites from all four Colleges who were assisting with their last mission. They have suffered only a dozen fatalities, but all surviving personnel are afflicted with a malady clearly magical in nature and are unable to act.”

She paused, shoulders shifting slightly with a deep breath.

“The situation is this. A small cult has been active in Puna Dara over the last year, known locally as the Rust. Our intelligence from Punaji territory is sporadic at best, but what we do know is that these Rust are set apart from the average run of fringe religions by the practice of grafting machine parts onto their bodies—and in some cases, replacing their limbs entirely. Reports vary and some are difficult to believe, but there is strong indication that these mechanical additions grant them physical and magical power beyond the human norm. And they are, by necessity, magical in nature, because there is no purely mechanical technology which can achieve the effects described.

“Four weeks ago, I was alerted by the Archpope and the Imperial government that both had suffered incursions of some kind.” Her expression became distinctly annoyed. “These reports were frustratingly vague, as they concerned matters which are highly classified by both organizations, but in both cases, they involved artifacts of the Elder Gods in storage by the Church and the government being abruptly activated to potentially deadly effect. The Archpope believes, on the strength of intelligence he declined to share with me, that the Rust were responsible. The Empire did not repeat this assertion, but offered tacit support to an investigation of the matter.

“At issue is the nature of Punaji politics and culture. Their windshamans see to most of the spiritual needs of their people; only a few cults have a presence in Puna Dara, all very small, and the Church has none. Naphthene is the only Pantheon goddess revered there, and she has no actual worshipers. More specifically, the Empire is not able to act unilaterally in Punaji territory per the terms of their treaty, and the Punaji government is unwilling to accept overt help from Tiraas on any internal matter, which would apparently make King Rajakhan look weak and invite dissent—or so he clearly thinks. It is therefore a testament to how seriously he takes this matter that the King agreed to host the Fourth and an attached party of Salyrites to assist in investigating this cult and taking whatever action he deemed necessary.”

Again, she paused to breathe before continuing.

“Immediately upon entering the mountain tunnel leading to Puna Dara, the entire Legion and their companions were struck by a plague. Immediately, and simultaneously, in a fashion totally unlike the normal progression of any disease. The symptoms are severe physical weakness, exhaustion, and lethargy; several perished due to the aggravation of preexisting conditions, but overall the effect seems designed to neutralize victims without killing them. Those afflicted were evacuated to Rodvenheim for treatment, where they have remained stable. The condition appears not to be contagious, and shows no sign of either worsening or abating. I simply have an entire Legion apparently cursed, by an effect which has resisted all efforts at diagnosis, much less treatment. We have not even identified the vector for the affliction. The Fourth reports they were not attacked or even approached prior to being struck down.

“It is obvious,” Rouvad said grimly, “that this was in response to the threat of a major Avenist presence in Puna Dara, and at this point we are considering the Archpope’s theory the correct one: the Rust have hitherto unseen capabilities, are extremely dangerous, and have grave ambitions, or at the very least a willingness to exercise significant power when threatened. Rajakhan’s stipulations remain in place, and with this force active in the streets of his city I firmly agree that the stability of the Punaji nation needs to be preserved. The Empire is still barred from intervening—for now. Tiraas will not suffer a hostile force to overthrow an ally with whom it shares a border, which means that eliminating this threat will be necessary to prevent an outright war of conquest.

“The Church is not acting directly, either, but organizing the cults who have volunteered personnel to go to Puna Dara and assist. After the disaster which struck the Fourth, all insertions into the city are being undertaken with careful discretion. We do not know how the Rust identifies threats, nor how they achieved this retaliation, so we cannot expect every attempt to succeed. However, the Thieves’ Guild and the Huntsmen of Shaath are sending agents to assist; the Guild already has a small presence in Puna Dara. The Collegium of Salyrene is dispatching more agents, far more carefully this time. I have been notified less formally that Omnist monks and several miscellaneous Vidian personnel are making their way to Puna Dara. It was not made clear to me exactly how they intend to help. And then, of course, I am sending you.”

She nodded to each squad in turn as she addressed them. “Each of you is a Squad One of your respective cohorts. Squads 221, 241, and 611 are dedicated rangers. You will attempt to enter Puna Dara unseen via the difficult mountain passes leading to it from the surrounding Stalrange and Dwarnskolds. Squad 351 are clerics and healers, and will proceed to the city via ship; I will be making it clear, with the cooperation of the Punaji government, that your mission is pure humanitarian relief, which will hopefully not invite retaliation by the Rust. Squad 371 are more diverse spellcasters and will attempt insertion via teleportation. Squad 211 are dark ops. You know what to do. And finally, Squad 391 are part of a diplomatic and interfaith cooperation initiative. Your method of insertion I will leave to the discretion of your commanding officer.

“Once you enter the city, those of you who succeed in doing so will find one another and coordinate without assembling at the sole Avenist temple in Puna Dara. The temple has not been attacked or otherwise disrupted by the Rust, and you will not draw their attention to it. The exception will be Squad 351; you would create suspicion by not assigning yourselves there, and so that is where you will go. All of you will link up, establish communication and cooperation with one another, the participating cults—specifically the Eserites, Shaathists, and Salyrites—and the Punaji government. Your chain of command is as follows: Lieutenant Locke of Squad 391 will command this operation in the field and be responsible for determining, organizing and executing a course of action. In Locke’s absence, Lieutenant Ansari of Squad 611 will take command, followed by Lieutenant Intu of 211, Lieutenant Raazh of 241, Lieutenant Carstairs of 371, and Sergeant Steinbrenner of 221. Captain Ombanwa, your squad will remain based primarily at the temple, and provide support to the mission as Locke or her successors require, but your goal is humanitarian and in the event of mission failure I want you to be able to distance yourselves and continue working without having to evacuate. That means, Locke, that the healers will be under your orders, but you are to leave them be until and unless you have a specific need for their services. There are Omnist, Salyrite, Izarite, and Vidian temples in Puna Dara—small ones, and only one of each faith, but they will provide starting points from which to locate one another. There is no permanent Shaathist presence and the Guild’s safehouse is of course not publicly known; you will have to find them as well, Locke.”

She paused once more to frown and inhale deeply.

“Your mission, ladies, is first and foremost reconnaissance. I want you to find out the goals, capabilities, and character of the Rust in as much detail as possible. What you learn will determine your next course of action. You are under no circumstances to politically destabilize the Punaji nation, nor endanger the established or visiting personnel of the other cults which are offering assistance. You will also, within the tolerances of those goals, protect your own welfare. We are frighteningly in the dark, ladies; this mission is perforce an open-ended one. If, having done the above, you deem it necessary to withdraw and report back, do so; if you choose to take more aggressive action, take steps to ensure that whatever you have learned is transmitted back here so that the Sisterhood’s next actions will not be taken in this same state of blindness. However, if you find the chance to end the Rust, do whatever you have to. They have struck down our own in large numbers; I have no desire to normalize relations or continue to tolerate their existence. Lieutenant Locke, I expect you to listen to the recommendations of the other squad leaders, but ultimately, the determination is yours.

“Dossiers have been compiled with all known details on this situation, which will be issued for you to read en route to Puna Dara. You will fully absorb this information and destroy them before arriving.” Rouvad gave them a beat of silence before asking, “Questions?”

There was a momentary pause, before the officer she had indicated as Lieutenant Intu spoke in a quiet tone. “Based on the reports from the Archpope and the Empire, are we assuming these Rust to have some connection to the Elder Gods?”

“We are assuming nothing,” Rouvad replied. “I consider that prospect remote, despite the suggestive connection. You will reconnoiter and answer these questions yourself before taking direct action.”

Lieutenant Ansari cleared her throat. “I mean no disrespect, Commander, to you or Lieutenant Locke, but who is she, and why is she to command this mission?”

“Your lack of disrespect is noted, Lieutenant,” Rouvad said flatly. “It is a fair concern. Squad 391 is, as I said, a unit with a diplomatic mandate; its members have connections to multiple cults and have been training specifically to cooperate and coordinate with them. As you will be relying on compatriots from other cults, including some with which the Sisterhood has historically poor relations, that experience will be immediately relevant to your success. Principia Locke, specifically, is relatively new to the Legions, but she has earned my trust. She is also two and a half centuries old, a highly seasoned adventurer, and a member in good standing of the Thieves’ Guild. I would place a more experienced officer in command of a straightforward military exercise. This mission, however, requires lateral thinking and adaptability more than military strategy, and I judge her the woman for the job. Am I clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ansari said, nodding.

The Commander gave them another moment, sweeping her eyes again across the group, and then nodded her head once. “You have your orders, then. Each squad will move out on its own, as soon as you are able, and regroup in Puna Dara with as many of your sisters as are able to make it. Goddess watch over you, soldiers. Dismissed.”

All seven squads saluted her in unison, then turned and began filing toward the doors. Squad 391, having been the last to arrive, were closest to one of the entrances and thus the first into the hall.

“I’ll meet you back at the cabin,” Principia said to them. “I trust you’ll have everybody ready, Corporal.”

“Count on it, ma’am,” Ephanie said crisply. “How are we to proceed?”

“I’ll have an insertion strategy by the time I rejoin you. Just get yourselves squared away and be ready to improvise.”

Ephanie saluted, then turned on her heel. “Forward march, ladies.”

Principia watched them go for a moment, then glanced at the other soldiers now emerging from the assembly room. Several of them studied her with open speculation, before she turned and followed her squad. At the top of the stairs, she diverged from their course, heading back toward the small conference room where Rouvad had ordered them to meet her.

She waited only a few minutes before Rouvad rejoined her.

“At ease,” the High Commander said upon being saluted. “Well, Locke, since it’s likely to be some time before we speak again and it’s been two weeks since I had a progress report, how are your permanent projects coming along?”

“Training and practice is proceeding to my satisfaction,” Principia said. “Being an experimental squad, we don’t really have a yardstick against which to measure our progress, but the members of my squad have done well at sharing the benefits of their respective histories, and I’ve moved beyond that to actively seeking out opportunities to help other cults, and build connections.”

“Yes, Captain Dijanerad complained about having to put her foot down. It seems a handful of temples have made a point of requesting you specifically for guard duty.”

“Being out of the city for a while should hopefully wean them off the habit,” Principia said with the faintest smile. “With regard to my ongoing projects, I am similarly plugging away at the firing surface problem. I’ve no way of telling how close I am to a solution; all I can do is try things, and then try other things when they fail. It may not ultimately be practical to create a lance head which functions equally well as a bladed weapon and an energy weapon, at least not with the current state of modern enchanting. I have some more theories to test before I give up on that, but it may prove necessary to either make that two separate weapons or accept a loss of efficacy in one or the other function.”

Rouvad nodded. “And your other weapons project?”

“There, Eivery and I have had a recent breakthrough. We still haven’t figured out exactly how, but it’s become clear that dwarven device is augmented somehow through magic or alchemy. The projectile we recovered appears, to all our scrying, to be a simple lead ball, but we discovered by testing our own prototype that when you subject a metal as soft as lead to the kinds of forces involved, it turns into a sort of smudge. There are mundane tests we can run, but they tend to be more destructive, and I’m hesitant to dismantle our only sample, especially now that we know there’s an unidentified magical element at work.”

“Mm,” Rouvad said noncommittally. “Any headway in improving the device?”

“Well, it’s not very accurate,” Principia said thoughtfully. “Even less so than a comparably-sized lightning wand, and has nothing on the accuracy of an enchanter wand. I do have a theory about that. Arrows are fletched in a spiraling pattern to make them spin while in flight, which stabilizes then and increases the accuracy of the projectile.”

“Odd that the dwarves didn’t think of that.”

“Dwarves have never used projectile weapons, ma’am; between their innate hardiness and the heavy armor their forces have always favored, arrows have never made much impact on them, and they never bothered to use them on others. Projectile weapons are of limited use in tunnels and the dwarves have very seldom come out to fight anybody except to defend their own realms. They may simply not realize that lateral rotation stabilizes objects in flight. The scientific method doesn’t help you with things on which you haven’t experimented. Then again, they may just not have gotten around to it yet; this is clearly a very new technology. Regardless, I think shaping the projectile in a spiral of some kind will help with that, but it presents its own challenges. Metal balls are simple to cast; a more complex shape is trickier. It will also unavoidably make the ammunition more fragile.”

“Mm.” The Commander pursed her lips. “What if you shaped the firing mechanism rather than the projectile? Say, with spiraling grooves on the inside of the firing tube. That would be sturdier and needs to be done fewer times, and would make even a spherical projectile spin, which should help.”

Principia stared at her, momentarily dumbfounded. “That…actually would probably work. Well…blast. Now I regret I’m off to fight cultists instead of trying that out.”

“With regard to that,” Rouvad said, heaving a soft sigh. “I assume you understand the reason for your abrupt promotion, now. I trust you to have the wits to put that together, even without the help of Ansari’s rather pointed question.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia replied, nodding. “You can’t have a sergeant giving orders to lieutenants.”

“In point of fact I can, as Corporal Avelea could explain to you in detail, but I would rather not. Every one of those squads is seasoned and highly distinguished; every one of the women leading it has the chops to command more than seven squads on one mission. If a viable alternative exists I prefer not to insult them. Anyway, it’s sooner than I would ordinarily have had you promoted, but I would not have done this if I doubted you could handle the responsibility. I’ve placed you in charge of three captains, Locke, though with the exception of Ombanwa they are accustomed to taking temporary grade reductions for situations precisely like this one. The only reason each of those officers is not commanding a much larger unit by now is because they are all highly specialized and serve extremely well in their current positions. And then, there is your squad. All six of you, with individual records far too short to be so spotty.”

“Shahai notwithstanding,” Principia agreed. “Commander… I’m not going to question your judgment, but honestly I’m more surprised by this than Ansari was.”

“Well, we’ve made some progress if you’re not questioning my judgment.” Rouvad’s wry expression quickly faded into sobriety, however. “I’m not going to claim a great deal of affection for you, but in your relatively short time here, you’ve proved you can get things done, under great pressure and in uncertain conditions. In fact, that is where you thrive, you and your squad. You’re the right one to organize this mission. And…more to the point, I am fully confident that you will make it into Puna Dara.” The Commander hesitated, then turned her head to stare at the wall. “We have no idea how the Rust identifies or strikes its enemies. No way to know what methods will get through this defense. This strategy, trying multiple tactics to see what works, carries the presupposition that some of them won’t. I am sending good women straight to their likely deaths. Even if they use the same non-lethal methods, the situations in which they risk being incapacitated…”

“That’s the job, Commander,” Principia said quietly. “Ours to die in Avei’s name, yours to order it. We all signed up. We all serve.”

Rouvad’s gaze flicked back to her, and sharpened. “A year ago, I think I would have punched you in the mouth for saying that.”

“A year ago, you wouldn’t have believed I was serious.” Principia did not go so far as to smile, but her expression softened. “And no, Commander, you’re far too disciplined to do such a thing. You would have ordered someone to punch me in the mouth.”

She shook her head. “Goddess preserve me, Locke… Well, it is what it is. The other reason I called you here was to issue you a piece of equipment.”

Rouvad reached inside the neck of her tunic and pulled out a golden eagle talisman on a simple chain, which she lifted over her head and held it out to Principia.

“That,” the Commander explained while the elf studied the piece, “is a divine power augmentor, operating on fae energy. For a priestess, it would boost the amount of energy she could handle before risking burnout considerably. For someone with no divine ability at all…well, it may theoretically grant that power, without needing a connection to the goddess.”

“Theoretically?” Principia murmured.

“Experiment with it on your way to Puna Dara. You’re an enchanter; if anyone can make it work, you can. Trissiny recovered that thing from the Crawl last year; who knows how long it was lost down there. Mary the Crow showed up not long after to claim that she was the one who created it, and said that it will work with the most strength for someone of her bloodline. I’d been thinking of giving it back to Trissiny with that information, but frankly, no magical doodad is going to augment a paladin’s connection to the goddess all that much. You are the person who can gain the most from that device, so I am issuing it to you. Because,” she added almost reluctantly, “to my great surprise, you have earned enough of my trust and respect to warrant it. And because I am sending you and your troops into unknowable peril; I want you to carry every advantage I’m able to give you, which isn’t much. But there it is.”

Principia very carefully tucked the icon into one of her belt pouches, then saluted. “Thank you, Commander. I’ll do my best not to disappoint.”

“I believe you.” Rouvad stepped forward, then reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder for a moment. “Goddess watch over you, Locke…and good luck out there. Dismissed.”

 

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Bonus #21: Heavy is the Head, part 4

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“Are you sure this is an Izarite temple?”

It didn’t look like any kind of temple; the structure only stood out from its neighbors by the lack of a sign advertising what went on inside. This area was all business, mostly of the sort that catered directly to the public. The three-story stone edifice in front of them was slightly narrower than those flanking it; if anything, it looked like a medium-sized townhouse, though it was unlikely anyone who could afford such a residence would prefer to have it around here.

“As sure as I am that you’re asking out of sheer tension, and not as a dig at my intelligence,” Sharidan said without turning around. He lifted his fist and rapped sharply on the door again.

Eleanora snuck a glance over her shoulder. The crowd was approaching—slowly, reminding her more of a predator on the prowl than one which was closing on prey it had sighted. Still a predator, though. She knew very well how dangerous a mob was; whether or not they were looking for the Crown Prince or had any idea he was around, the fact that the two of them were clearly trying to get away could be enough to set them off, to judge by the blur of angry voices.

“Hurry up,” she muttered.

“Oh, yes, of course,” Sharidan said scathingly, turning to give her a look. “Forgive me, I’ll knock faster.”

He raised his hand to do so, but before it struck wood, the heavy door suddenly opened inward.

The man who stood in the doorway practically filled it. He made Eleanora think of a Stalweiss chieftain with modern attire and grooming; he was tall, broad-shouldered and powerfully built, square-jawed and handsome, his goatee neatly trimmed and dark brown hair only beginning to show flecks of silver at the temples and chin.

“Your Grace,” Sharidan said in a tone of clear relief.

The Bishop’s gray eyes flicked past him at the crowd approaching up the street, then widened slightly, and immediately he stepped backward out of the door. “Come in, please.”

They hardly needed to be asked.

“There’s a bit of a story behind this,” Sharidan began as Bishop Darnay carefully shut the door behind them.

“I will listen to anything you wish to share,” the Bishop said, pausing to shift a curtain aside from one of the narrow windows flanking the door and peer out, then turned to give them a smile. “But I see an apparent mob forming, and two people seeking shelter. That tells me all the story I need. We in Izara’s service are well accustomed to protecting the privacy of all who come to us.”

The prince cleared his throat softly, then grasped the silver ring on his finger and pulled it off, reverting to his normal appearance.

Apolitical as the Izarites tended to be, a Bishop was accustomed to exercising self-control, and Justinian Darnay betrayed startlement only in the sharp rise of his eyebrows, then almost immediately marshaled his expression. “I…see. That story must be more interesting than I’d first thought, though the same terms apply; you are safe here and I’ll ask nothing more personal than you feel the need to reveal.” He glanced at Eleanora, only the look itself betraying any curiosity, but true to his word did not pry. “If I am not mistaken, there was a demonstration by the Voters a few blocks over…”

“This appears to be them, yes,” Sharidan said, nodding and slipping the ring back on. “I have no reason to think they know who I am or even that I am out…but then, I don’t understand how this even happened. The military police would be watching a Voter rally like hawks. This should not be so out of hand.”

“It is my experience that unlikely things rarely happen unless made to,” Darnay replied, eyes narrowing in thought. “This is troubling. I hope you have some sort of protection coming? This structure is not designed to be defensible.”

“Intelligence will be closing in,” Sharidan replied. “As soon as they locate me, the Azure Corps will extract us.”

“Ah. Good.” The Bishop nodded, allowing himself a soft sigh of relief. “Then we need only wait, and hopefully not for long.”

“We are very sorry to involve you in this, your Grace,” Eleanora said.

He held up a hand, smiling at her. “You have nothing to apologize for, young lady. This is not a temple proper, but it is sacred to my goddess, and I am her priest. Any who need sanctuary here may claim it, and I will protect them to the utmost of my ability. I involved myself when I took my oaths, and no one else is responsible.”

They all paused as the roar outside swelled. Through the curtains, the light wavered as sources of illumination were brandished.

“Where did they even get torches?” Eleanora muttered.

Darnay had stepped back to the window and glanced out again. “Hm. They have stopped directly outside.”

She clasped Sharidan’s hand again. “Of course they have.”

“Anger, fear…unfocused.” Darnay’s voice had dropped to a murmur. “They were clearly provoked, but are not…controlled. I am fairly confident that this crowd is not hunting for you or anyone in particular, your Highness.” He released the curtain and turned back to them with a grave expression. “That grants us insight into the nature of the danger, I warn you, but does not necessarily lessen its degree. Rare is the mob that does not result in someone being hurt.”

“Bless Izara and her gifts,” Sharidan said.

The Bishop smiled, but even as he opened his mouth to reply, sharp crackles sounded in the room, accompanied by blue flashes. No less than four battlemages appeared, and immediately flowed into a formation around the prince.

“Stand down,” Sharidan barked at the one who had leveled a wand at Darnay. “That is a Bishop of the Universal Church, who just sheltered us!”

“I’m very relieved to hear that,” stated Quentin Vex, who had materialized while he was speaking. The agent bowed politely to the Bishop, who nodded in reply. “The thanks of the Throne, your Grace. At a less urgent moment, a more substantive show of gratitude—”

“Please.” Justinian held up a hand again. “One does not enter the priesthood with the expectation of reward. I share your relief, sir. Now that the prince and his companion are presumably safe, I will try to address that crowd.”

“I strongly advise against that, sir,” Quentin warned. “The situation is inherently unstable.”

“Precisely,” Darnay replied, “and when the troops get here, it will become more so before they can restore order. A mob is not a colony of lichen; it is people. Their fear and anger is individual, and often reminding them of that is enough to defuse incipient violence.” He had moved back to the door, but paused with his hand on the latch. “Please forgive me for making this terse, but the sooner his Highness is removed from the area, the better.”

“I have to concur,” Quentin replied. “Once again, our deepest thanks. And now, you two have an audience with her Majesty.”

“Excuse me, what?” Eleanora said in alarm. “Surely you don’t mean me as well.”

“I’m afraid I do, my lady.” It was an oddly touching moment; the look of commiseration he gave her showed the first open sentiment Quentin had directed at her personally. “Her Majesty’s explicit, personal orders.”

“Oh, bollocks,” Sharidan muttered. Not even the squeeze he gave her hand made that comforting.

“Gentlemen, take us out,” Quentin ordered. Before Eleanora could say anything else, the world dissolved in an arcane flash.


Empress Theasia’s personal chamber was large, but not excessively opulent. It was dim at four in the morning; the Empress had not seen fit to ignite any of the fairy lamps, but a servant had stoked the fire to provide them enough illumination to converse. Altogether, had Eleanora not known they were in the harem wing of the Imperial Palace, she could have taken this for the bedroom of someone about her own rank, if not less.

Theasia herself was a handsome woman with graying hair drawn back in a severe bun, and rectangular spectacles perched on her nose which were not often in evidence in her public appearances. In fact, this woman looked almost startlingly unlike Eleanora’s recent recollections of her. She had never been this close before, but she remembered a woman as regal in her attire as in bearing and surroundings. Now, Theasia wore a plush robe, and was seated in a simple wooden chair with a quilt covering her lap, and over that, a tray upon which rested a small tea service. Altogether the whole arrangement made her seem almost…frail. Certainly older than her forty-seven years.

Of course, Eleanora herself was in an open-collared shirt and trousers, with her hair awkwardly tousled and feet not only bare, but filthy from running on the city streets. The comparison, she was painfully aware, did not favor her.

She made them wait in silence while fixing her tea the way she liked it. Even being aware of that transparent tactic, Eleanora could not help being affected by it, and tried to blunt the induced nerves by focusing on details, imagining she was gathering data for some potential political purpose. One never knew what might prove useful. The Empress, she noted, used cane sugar rather than honey in her tea. Unsurprising given her position, but after Mary the Crow’s infamous decimation of the plantations in Onkawa, sugar was a rather grandiose affectation—

“So,” Theasia said suddenly, and Eleanora loathed herself and the Empress both for being made to jump, “how did you enjoy meeting the next Archpope?”

They stared at her blankly.

“Ah, yes,” the Empress said, fractionally lifting one eyebrow. “You two have been everywhere except church, I suppose. Archpope Allaine has announced her upcoming retirement. Just tonight—well, last night, technically. Late in the evening, as the day came to a close, so much of the city is not even aware, yet, and won’t be till the morning papers are printed.”

“If the Bishops are to elect a new Archpope,” Sharidan said slowly, “the last I heard, Sebastian Throale was considered the favorite…”

“There is an interesting pattern of events unfolding in my city,” Empress Theasia said, and paused to take a sip of her tea. “Most interesting. A populist movement rising in the streets—well-funded and organized, and in contrast to the usual pattern of such things, emerging in the absence of a general public unrest. House Turombi has moved to the capital and been busy making a public spectacle of itself. Declarations by the orcish clans that their vendetta against Tiraas shall never be forgiven are being granted a purely odd amount of attention in the papers, and the rumor mill in general. It’s not new, and it’s not as if they can even leave Sifan, but suddenly everyone finds this fascinating. There is tension between the Colleges of the Collegium of Salyrene, tensions between the cults, tensions between the traditional bards and the new forms of media. Seemingly unprompted public debate about the impotence of Imperial power in Viridill, how the province is a province in name only. Recent actions by Houses Aldarasi and Madouri, individually petty flexings of muscle serving to remind the Throne that they are still a power to be respected. Unrest in the Stalwar provinces, this time coupled with public support for reforms in the treatment of the Stalweiss. You see?”

Eleanora frowned. Pattern? That was a random sampling of current events, none of it connected…

Sharidan, though, was quicker on the uptake than she, this time. “The Enchanter Wars,” he breathed. Theasia smiled very faintly, inclining her head in the tiniest nod. He caught Eleanora’s eye and explained. “Houses Turombi and Tirasian butting heads, Houses Aldarasi and Madouri asserting power, public revolts, bards stirring the pot, orcish aggression, a Salyrite schism…”

“The Sisterhood asserting independence,” she said, catching on. “The Stalweiss rising up… Yes, those were the factional ingredients of the Enchanter Wars! But…I still don’t see what the connection is…”

“The rhetoric is already starting,” Theasia said, taking another sip. Eleanora would have killed for some tea… “The need for restoration of order, this being no time for rash action. Don’t forget that the major cause of the Enchanter Wars, the catalyst of all those lines of conflict, was the last Hand of Salyrene. Magnan built the Enchanter’s Bane, his pressure upon the Silver Throne caused both the crackdown on witches and the deployment of the Bane on Athan’Khar. His private war on fae magic tore his cult apart and the Universal Church with it. No, with all this going on, the prospect of an Archpope Sebastian is all but gone. The Bishops will not elect a Salyrite in this climate.”

“It seems rather…tenuous,” Eleanora said doubtfully.

“Did you learn nothing from your brush with the Voters?” Theasia asked scathingly. “This is what elections are. People are irrational creatures, and nothing squelches their reason like encouraging them to make decisions in large groups. Democracy is nothing but rule by whoever has the best propaganda, even in a venue as small as the Bishopric.”

“But Mother,” Sharidan asked, frowning, “what does all of this have to do with the Izarite Bishop?”

The Empress sipped her tea. “We cannot yet link him to anything criminal, but Justinian Darnay was the direct impetus for far too many of those factors. He is your father’s special correspondent, Eleanora. The one who planted the idea of coming to Tiraas to angle for prestige. He has a similarly cozy relationship with the Sultana of Calderaas and the Duke of Madouris; Darnay is altogether uncommonly interested in having noble friends for an Izarite. He also is fond of reaching across the aisle to support the initiatives of other cults—such as the Avenists and Veskers suddenly asserting themselves. He’s even spoken in public of the need for mourning and ongoing repentance for the cataclysm of Athan’Khar. He also tried to involve other players who would be reminders of the Enchanter Wars, though King Rajakhan proved too intelligent to let himself be drawn into Imperial politics, and Arachne Tellwyrn ignored his overtures, if she noticed them at all. Bless that woman’s staggering arrogance, if it serves to keep her out of my city.”

“I…see,” Sharidan said slowly. “That is certainly suggestive, Mother. But how does it result in him being elected Archpope?”

“I don’t know, Sharidan,” Theasia replied. “What I know is that he arranged all this without me even noticing that he was doing it until Allaine dropped her little surprise, and the pattern suddenly became clear. Justinian Darnay used to be an adventurer, did you know that? A healing cleric of the classic style, traveling with groups of heavily-armed nomadic malcontents. There was a period of fourteen years in which there is no record of where he was, or doing what. Talking to whom. And ever since, he has perfectly played the innocuous, apolitical, universally compliant Izarite—which quite incidentally has gained him more favors and friends than practically any of the other Bishops.”

“Who are the other likely prospects?” Eleanora heard herself ask.

The Empress gave her an unreadable look over the lenses of her spectacles. “At present? Only the Bishops of Avei, Eserion and Vidius are positioned with the will and the political clout to oppose such an upset.”

“There has never been an Eserite Archpope,” Sharidan protested.

“And there never will be,” Theasia agreed. “Grasping for power is against their religion. By the same token, however, Eserites can often be counted upon to thwart those who do reach for power—sometimes just on general principles. But in this case, internal politics of the Guild make it unlikely. The new Boss seems motivated chiefly to prove how much more amiable he is than Boss Catseye was; Sweet won’t stir the waters unless he sees a specific and pressing need. Ironically, Bishop Vaade is one of his predecessor’s appointees, the kind of uncharacteristically well-behaved lapdog Catseye favored. Vaade won’t so much as scratch her nose without the Boss’s order, which will not be forthcoming.”

“Bishop Tannehall would make a fine Archpope,” Eleanora said thoughtfully.

“The Archpope is elected,” Theasia said in a biting tone. “How good they would be at the job is not a consideration; it comes down to an impossible calculus of the whims of everyone involved. And there, again…internal politics. High Commander Rouvad is new to her position, and was elevated from the Silver Legions rather than the clergy. She lacks both experience and connections in politics, and relies heavily on Tannehall—who, herself, is not an ambitious woman. Neither of them would want Tannehall to be elected.”

“Which leaves Bishop Maalvedh,” Sharidan said, folding his hands behind his back. “I should think she would be a contender, if anyone. Am I about to have my ignorance explained to me yet again, Mother?”

Theasia actually smiled at him, and sipped her tea again before answering. “Gwenfaer Maalvedh is ambitious, devious, and as two-faced as only a Vidian can be in good conscience. She would love nothing more than to become Archpope, and more than anyone I would think has the will and the means to make that happen. Now that Throale’s justly-earned reputation for wisdom and neutrality has been rendered moot.” She paused to sip again. “And I have begun investigating Justinian Darnay because Maalvedh nominated him immediately upon Allaine’s announcement.”

“You might have begun with that,” Eleanora said, forgetting herself. “Leaving it for the end makes for fine dramatic effect, but not much in the way of accuracy.”

The Empress’s steely gaze fixed on her. “Have you given much thought to how very easily I could have you charged with treason after tonight’s events, girl?”

“That is not going to happen, Mother,” Sharidan said evenly before Eleanora could even open her mouth.

“Oh?” If anything, Theasia seemed amused. “Testing your will against mine has never gone well for you in the past, Sharidan.”

“I have only fought you over things I wanted, Mother,” he said quietly. “Not something that mattered. Eleanora is the closest friend I have, and saved my life tonight. She is one of very, very few people in this city whom I trust without reservation. Try to make a scapegoat of her, and we will both learn how much I’ve grown since I was fifteen and wanted to spend a holiday in Puna Dara.”

They locked eyes, both in apparent calm. Eleanora hardly dared take a breath.

Finally, the Empress set her teacup down on the lap tray. “You certainly think well of yourself, young man. I give you due credit for the various noblewomen you’ve seduced. Particular felicitations on bagging Duchess Arauvny; I honestly thought she was as gay as your little playmate, there.”

“I am no one’s little anything,” Eleanora snapped, lifting her chin, “and I have had enough of this. If you intend to punish me for something, be about it. I will not stand here and be insulted by a crotchety old woman who has all the power in the world and still feels the need to bully her lessers!”

Sharidan had met the Empress’s will without flinching, but now stared at Eleanora in open horror. Theasia, though, simply gave her a calm glance before continuing as though there had been no interruption.

“Every other woman you’ve had since you were fourteen, however, was in the employ of the Imperial government, and serving to help keep an eye on you. The twins, tonight? Agents of Imperial Intelligence. I vetted them myself.” Smiling faintly, she picked up her teacup again, but did not drink. “Only the best for my little prince.”

Sharidan, after a long pause, finally shut his mouth. Then he turned to Eleanora and said with nonchalance that was only slightly forced, “And no, this is not the most awkward conversation I have ever had with my mother. Not even the top ten, frankly.”

“You have never been out from under my eye,” Theasia continued, her tone growing firmer. “Quentin Vex has dogged your steps for years, Sharidan, and you’ve never given him the slip for more than ten minutes at a time—such as tonight, when you nearly flung yourself into a mob. He has let you have your fun, because those were his orders. And for the gods’ sake, when you are Emperor, give him more responsibility. The man is a treasure, and being shamefully wasted as a nursemaid.”

The prince swallowed heavily. “I…see. Are you going to make me ask the obvious question?”

“Play is the duty of children,” Theasia said, and quite suddenly she looked tired, the cup drooping in her fingers. “We learn more about living from youthful games than from books or teachers. My father made sure I had time to grow…to live. A person who grows up confined to a palace cannot know what the lives of his subjects are like, and that is a recipe for a dangerously terrible leader. A person who grows up knowing nothing but duty may possess self-discipline, but little self-awareness. You must be you before you can be an Emperor. And yes, letting you challenge the boundaries of my authority under discreet supervision was the best possible training at some of the skills you will need to rule. It was…a calculated risk.”

“You left him terrifyingly vulnerable,” Eleanora breathed.

“Oh, look who has suddenly discovered responsibility.” To her astonishment, the Empress smiled at her. “The same goes, Eleanora. And you, young lady, continue to impress. You can bend your pride and accept chastisement when necessary, but know enough of your worth not to tolerate senseless abuse—even from power far above your own. That was where I would have drawn the line, as well—though you should not have snapped. Maintain composure while asserting yourself, girl, or you look like a petulant child, which you cannot afford. I am exceptionally glad you two found each other, for a great many reasons.” Her gaze shifted back to Sharidan, and softened further. “Tonight marks a change. In you, and in the political climate due to the upcoming transition of Archpopes. I have given you all the time I can, my son. Now, you have to grow up, and learn that even with the wealth of an Empire at your fingertips, the two things of which you will never have enough are time, and yourself.”

There was a heavy silence, in which the Empress finished off her tea, and set down the cup again.

“To begin with,” she said, suddenly more brisk, “you two will be married as soon as it can be arranged without scandal.”

They both twitched.

“Ah, Mother…”

“It’s not that I am not honored…”

“Oh, shut up,” Theasia ordered disdainfully. “No law says you have to share a bed; you can exchange one kiss at the ceremony without vomiting on each other, surely. Uniting Houses Tirasian and Turombi will heal one of the last lingering breaches of the Enchanter Wars; placing his scion upon the Swan Throne will shut Alduron’s mutterings up good and proper. Much, much more importantly, Sharidan, the girl is your best friend. She’s clever and determined enough to be a very valuable ally, and the value of having someone at your back whom you can both trust and rely on cannot be overstated. You will need to produce heirs, but they don’t particularly have to come from your wife. She’s the only one entitled to raise an objection if you place a bastard upon the Silver Throne, and I trust that won’t be an issue.” The Empress shot Eleanora a distinctly sardonic look. “Honestly, the fact that one of you turned out gay is what makes this perfect, as opposed to merely fortuitous. Asking you two tomcats to be sexually faithful to each other would be an open invitation to future scandals the Throne does not need.”

They both refused to meet each other’s eyes, or hers.

The Empress heaved a sigh. “I’ll give you a space to grow accustomed to that arrangement, if I can. But as soon as possible, I plan to abdicate the Throne.”

Sharidan snapped his gaze back to her, and took an impulsive half-step forward. “Mother—are you all right?”

Theasia smiled sadly at him. “As much as I have always been. I’ve kept this from you, Sharidan, but…I am ill. Quite, quite severely, in fact.”

“I don’t understand,” he said in consternation. Eleanora stepped forward, too, and took his hand.

“Sarsamon Tirasian, like Justinian Darnay, was an adventurer in his youth,” the Empress said. “He had quite the fine old time, truth be told. Among other things, he was in southern Viridill when the Enchanter Wars broke out. Specifically, when the Enchanter’s Bane went off, he was standing close enough to see it.”

“Gods,” Eleanora whispered.

“It is known as the Banefall,” Theasia said, irritation creeping into her tone, “I can only assume because of a general lack of imagination among the dwarven scholars who first categorized it. Persons exposed to the Bane at such a range—close enough to be affected, but far enough away to survive—have had great difficulty having children, often not doing so until late in life. And those children…” She paused, her jaw tightening, before continuing. “Essentially, their organs simply stop functioning, one by one, at a very young age.”

“How young?” Sharidan swallowed heavily. “…how long?”

Theasia smiled wistfully. “I don’t know, son. I am the only known Banefall victim to live out of my teens; you can do a lot of things with the full resources of an Empire. With enough alchemists and clerics and witches working on it, organs that wish to give up and die can be prevented from doing so for a long time. But how long…? I live in the realm of experiment. I might last as long as a half-elf, so long as I keep up my treatments. Then again, I could drop dead mid-sentence right before your eyes. I meant what I said, Sharidan. I have given you as long as I could. It is simply not safe to delay any longer. It’s amazing I have managed to keep this secret for so long; never mind my abrupt death, just the fact of this getting out could induce a crisis.”

He licked his lips. “So…it’s…hereditary?”

“It stops with me,” she said firmly. “Trust me, if you had it, you would know by now. I had you carefully examined and tested, regardless. But the progression is known and understood. The children of other Banefall victims have all grown up unaffected. It ends after a single generation. Once I die, this peculiar little disease will pass from the world, and good riddance to it.”

“But…I can’t believe there’s that much data! If victims never live past their teens, how many children could they possibly have had?”

Eleanora cleared her throat softly, squeezing his hand. “That…is actually very common, in the southern regions of N’Jendo which border Athan’Khar. ‘Breed early, breed often,’ as the orcs used to say. The Jendi had to follow suit to maintain a match for their ever-growing numbers.”

“I’m not ready for this.” He was staring at the far wall, now, giving no hint which of them he was talking to, if either.

“Sharidan.” Theasia waited until he dragged his gaze back to hers. “You will never be ready. No one possibly can be. But now, at this juncture? You are more ready than you have ever been. I judge that you are ready enough. There are things I still need to teach you, but you now have what you need to find your own way.”

Slowly, she settled back into her chair, and once again, Eleanora couldn’t help noticing how exhausted the Empress suddenly looked. “The future is yours, children. I have done the best I can—had my successes, but failed often. I am sorry I could not give you better. You give me confidence, though. Sharidan, I find you frequently as frustrating as your father was…” She smiled, slowly. “And just like him, I have never loved you the less for it. I have never been less than proud of you.”

He swallowed heavily, again. “I…will try not to let you down, mother.”

“My time will soon be over; you will have to stop worrying about me. It is Tiraas you must not disappoint, and I am laying this upon you now because at this moment, I am confident that you will succeed. Eleanora.”

“Your Majesty?” she asked nervously.

Theasia smiled at her. “Please…watch over my son.”

She squeezed his hand. “We will watch each other, your Majesty. As we will our Empire.”

He squeezed back. “For Tiraas.”

Empress Theasia allowed herself a soft sigh, and closed her eyes. “Good. First, though, have some tea. You will need it; it’s going to be quite a day.”

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Bonus #20: Heavy is the Head, part 3

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Evading her parents was hardly necessary anymore, after the effort she’d made in the last few months to be politically useful to her father’s ambitions. At this point, Alduron and Kheethi trusted that if Eleanora was not under their eyes, she was not necessarily in trouble, and in fact might well be networking on House Turombi’s behalf.

Similarly, evading the various servants, hangers-on and bodyguards who formed her family’s ever-changing entourage was not excessively difficult, largely because she was careful not to abuse the privilege. Eleanora never vanished in areas that were not considered safe, and made a point to do so only rarely; so long as she wasn’t habitually absent, they might not even notice amid all the hubbub and social circulation, and likely would not find it necessary to intervene. In a place like the Imperial Museum, particularly at a time when it was closed to the public for the purpose of an aristocratic social event, wriggling out from under their watchful eyes required only some careful maneuvering.

Evading reporters was another matter.

It wasn’t that they didn’t have newspapers in Onkawa, or people who worked for them, but the culture was very different. In Onkawa, her father was not only the Imperial governor, but by tradition the High Chieftain, a position which commanded immense respect even after all these years of Imperial rule—even after almost a century of House Turombi trying to be as Tiraan as it could, often in open defiance of Onkawi customs. Reporters asked him questions—but politely, by appointment, and with an unspoken assurance that whatever article they produced would be tasteful and not reflect badly upon Lord Alduron or his House.

In Tiraas, only the Empress and her son were accorded such deference, and that more out of sensible fear of Theasia’s displeasure than any culture of respect. There were a lot more papers here, making the competition for juicy stories stiffer, and the resident nobles were favorite targets. These journalists were like sharks, and in this city, the Turombis were just another bucket of chum. Her mother and father still hadn’t resigned themselves to this fact, but Eleanora had been busy adapting.

That wretched man with the notebook was still following her as she slipped into the central complex. The museum was jointly administered by the cults of Ryneas and Nemitoth, whose collusion apparently required some moderating presence by the Universal Church, not to mention the offices of the Imperial government which actually owned the place. It had all been planned in advance, resulting in the art and historical wings of the Imperial Museum being physically separate structures, connected by an architectural bridge of sorts containing the entrance halls, various office spaces, and lots of staircases. Due to the general shortage of real estate in Tiraas, the central section was practically a tower, packing as much as it could into a vertical space. Lots, and lots of staircases—winding ones, wrapping around other rooms, connecting oddly-shaped halls that linked with the museum wings on both sides, and generally leading to a profusion of useful little nooks and crannies.

Eleanora was hardly the only one at the party to seek a little privacy; it took some trekking and quite a bit of climbing before she left behind scattered couples and small groups. At this particular event, there was a lot more wheeling and dealing than canoodling going on, but she passed a little of everything before reaching a truly quiet part of the complex. And still the reporter followed.

She rounded a corner, finding the hall empty, and flattened herself against a wall, tugging the locket from inside the neck of her dress. Opening it, she withdrew one of the small leaves neatly stacked within, then snapped it shut before tenderly blowing that one leaf—apparently as fresh as the day it was plucked from the bush, like all the rest—from the tip of her finger.

The sensation was faint, and now familiar—a slight tug at something deep in her being, and then the ghostly image of herself stepped away, and hurried down the hallway at a graceful glide.

A moment later, the reporter rounded the corner after her, and paused. He stood close enough she could have touched him had she wanted, and could smell his cheap cologne though she decidedly didn’t want to, but he ignored her, immediately setting off after the wavering image of herself that vanished down the hall ahead.

She knew, from practicing on her hapless servants, that the image would lead him on a merry chase before disappearing, and would do so out of his sight in a way that left him believing he had simply lost her. Only in the few moments after diverging did it conceal her; anyone observing it would fixate on the image and ignore the real woman left behind. Once they were separated by enough distance, however, she would be as visible as always to whomever she encountered.

Eleanora tucked the locket away, smiling smugly, and hurried on, making for a flight of steps and choosing a path to a particular spot she knew. She couldn’t be absent long; if he wasn’t there, this would be a bust, but she was reasonably sure he would be. And that her deception would remain unnoticed, once it had played out. With arcane enchantment so heavily favored among human societies, particularly in urban centers like Tiraas, fae magic was all but unknown and had been since Archpope Sipasian had helped ignite the Enchanter Wars by trying to stamp it out. Thus, it was not commonly planned for. Privately, she wondered how many times she could use this trick before word got around. It had already been worth every doubloon she’d paid that witch, though.

She heard them, and quickened her pace. On the second highest floor of the complex, she abruptly rounded the corner into the little nook where they were, then skidded to a halt, gasping dramatically and affecting an expression of shock.

“Oh! Excuse me!”

The pair leaped apart—or rather, the young woman in the uniform of the museum’s staff hopped away from the prince as if stung. She was Tiraan, with maybe a bit of Stalweiss; at any rate, she was pale enough that her blush looked almost painful. The girl mumbled something to Eleanora, refusing to meet her eyes, then gathered up her skirts and all but ran out.

Eleanora stepped aside, watching her till she rounded the corner onto a staircase that took her down toward the party.

Sharidan, meanwhile, came forward to poke his head out and look up and down the halls, verifying they were alone. Only then did he turn his scowl on her.

“For the last time, Nora, I said I was sorry. I did not mean to interrupt you with that blonde in the theater, and if you had left the signal we agreed on the door to the box obviously I wouldn’t—”

“All right, for the last time, then,” she agreed with a grin. “I’ll consider us even. In fact, how about I make it up to you tonight? I’ve managed to arrange a little something for us at the Cat and Mouse.”

“How little?” he asked skeptically.

“Well, a bit more little than we prefer,” she acknowledged, pointedly patting her own breast. It was a peculiarly comfortable feeling, how he noted the gesture without any lascivious expression. “But still worth sneaking out. Twins, Sharidan.”

The prince rolled his eyes. “Nora, what the hell are we going to do with twins? The whole point of—well, I assume you haven’t suddenly developed a hankering to be in the same room during? What do you plan to do, trade off? Because we both know I don’t mind your seconds, but last I checked—”

“Redheads.”

That brought him up short. Her grin widened.

“You’re right, it’s a bit more awkward for the two of us. But come on. Twin redheads, Sharidan. Look me in the eye and tell me that’s not worth the trouble.”

He did look her in the eye, and after a momentary pause, a smile stretched across his features to mirror her own.

“Lady Eleanora, I do believe I have been a bad influence on you these last few months.”

“And I will be forever grateful,” she said as solemnly as she could while smirking. “Don’t send the carriage, my mother noticed it prowling the neighborhood last time.”

“Right. Meet you at the Cat, then? Eleven?”

“Eleven o’clock, but let’s link up at the pub on the corner a few blocks north of it—the one with the old fighting pit turned into a sitting area, you remember? We’ll head out from there and throw off any pursuit. I have a new toy; I want to see how long it can make Quentin chase his tail.”


“I think…we may be doing this wrong,” she said idly, blowing smoke. Just tobacco; for the same reason they were careful to indulge sparingly in wine on these outings, she had tried only the tiniest bit of sevenleaf, and absolutely eschewed poppy milk and any alchemicals. They both needed their wits about them to sneak back into their respective homes.

“Nonsense,” he said equally lazily, propping his feet on the balcony rail; he’d tugged the outdoor couch over toward it specifically so he could do that. “This is as old as humanity. It’s called afterglow. You’re supposed to relax and chitchat or cuddle for a bit after sex.”

“Right, that’s what I mean,” she replied, pausing to puff a little cloud at him. He languidly waved it away, but was apparently too mellow to protest; Sharidan did not care for anything that had to be burned and inhaled, even incense. “Traditionally, one chitchats with the person with whom one just had sex.”

“Ah, well. What would be the fun of just doing what all the other sheep do, Nora?”

She chuckled, though it hadn’t really been that funny, and flicked the hand-rolled cigarette over the rail.

They were dressed again, mostly. Trousers and a shirt each, though the shirts were unbuttoned and and neither had put on shoes or coats. They were just lounging on low couches on the balcony outside the suite she had discreetly secured, while the two sisters they’d just been with dozed together in the master bed. Eleanora assumed her hair was a dead giveaway what she’d just been doing, to judge by the state of his, though at least her complexion was too dark to betray the same lingering glow.

It was so odd, and so oddly comfortable, the thing to which she had referred obliquely with her little joke. This, somehow, was more intimate than the actual lovemaking had been; neither of them had much inclination to fall in love or settle down. Sex was about the pleasure and sometimes the thrill of the hunt. Whatever there was between them had none of that element; she knew his tells well enough by now to know that he actually didn’t sneak glances into her cleavage, whereas he was just discreet about it with other women.

A strange thing, but a pleasant one. Back home, all her “friends” had been young noblewomen with whom she socialized out of mutual political interest. She and Sharidan talked about things, though. About politics, yes, but also history, their lives, the art and music and books they enjoyed. About girls and what they did with them and wanted to. And sometimes, about nothing, just sitting in friendly silence. Over the eight months since their first acquaintance, he seemed to have grown to value as much as she did having someone with whom to share these things.

“Are they still going on over there?” he asked idly, breaking her reverie. They didn’t have a great view of the city from this third-floor balcony, due to the size of the neighboring structures, but they were facing a canal and the back of a factory on its other side, which at least gave them some space. It also was open enough to transmit sound—in this case, of a still-agitated crowd barely a block distant. “Gods, don’t these people have jobs in the morning or something?”

“You’re one to talk,” she said without asperity. “I’m surprised the police haven’t intervened, though.”

“Oh, this is a scheduled protest; they’re on private property which they were given permission to use. One of those factories has an open loading lot in front. The owner made a big fuss about how he’d been pressured into it, likely just to keep himself out of trouble with my mother.”

“Well, that would’ve been helpful to know before I planned a little get-together a stone’s throw away,” she commented.

“I wasn’t exactly involved in your planning, remember? Anyhow, I never heard of a Voter meeting going on this long before. It’s gotta be after three. What are they doing over there?”

“Shouting, as far as I can tell. I don’t hear anything being broken.” She glanced over at him. “These people have kept popping up all year, Sharidan. Why hasn’t your mother come down on them?”

“Well, you know how she feels about republican ideas in general,” he said, shrugging. “But cracking down on protest movements just lends them legitimacy. Mother favors a subtler approach this time; she’s the reason all the papers are covering the Sheng civil war in so much detail. People are less likely to want democratic reforms when they get regular updates on a whole country currently being destroyed by them. Still…this kind of rally is an escalation. She might have to get more aggressive.”

“Hm.”

They lounged in silence, listening to the sounds of the city, what wasn’t obscured by the hubbub two streets over. Tiraas glistened under its omnipresent fairy lamps with the evidence of a recent shower; the clouds scudded rapidly by overhead, permitting intermittent views of a sky whose stars were obscured by the city’s arcane glow.

“Did your grandfather kill my great-grandfather?”

“Yes, I expect so.”

Eleanora froze. She hadn’t meant to bring that up, and had no idea why she’d asked; the only thing more surprising than that slip on her part was how readily he had answered.

“If you were expecting some great revelation, I’m afraid I can’t help you,” Sharidan added wryly, glancing over at her. “If there was any real evidence, I’m sure it was long since buried or destroyed. By my mother, if not by her father before she even came along. But honestly, I can read the same from history as everyone else. Two men emerged from the Enchanter Wars calling themselves Emperor. Sarsamon Tirasian might have been a puppet of the Church at first, but he did control the actual Silver Throne, and the capital itself, and had the backing of the cults and Houses Aldarasi and Madouri. Tambisi Turombi, though, was an actual warlord who had taken control of all the western provinces, and unlike Sarsamon, actually ruled them. They would have turned the civil war from a dozen feuding states to two large ones and made it drag on another decade. And then, suddenly, one dies of a stroke in his sleep? Coincidences that politically convenient don’t just happen.”

She nodded slowly. He was right; that was nothing more than everyone knew. And he was undoubtedly also right that if Sarsamon had left any evidence of the assassination, it was long gone.

“I wish my father could just let it go,” she whispered. “It was a century ago. Everyone involved is dead, the whole world is different…and frankly, the right man won. Sarsamon Tirasian outwitted the Church and his other backers and made himself a true Emperor. Tambisi ruled by force and the threat of it; the Church and the cults would either have made him a puppet, or killed him themselves.”

“Maybe they did,” Sharidan murmured. “Or maybe a third party who saw things the way you do now. I tend to agree with you, Nora; it’s long past mattering.”

“Not to Alduron Turombi,” she said with a heavy sigh. “He’s obsessed with House Tirasian and what might have been. What might have been,” she added bitterly, “is that none of us would have existed because our ancestor would not have succeeded in taking Tiraas, or survived the attempt. Gods, there’s no way for an army to cross the Wyrnrange except at the southernmost point, and no force in the world could have plowed through Viridill. The Sisterhood had already broken the Imperial legions for trying exactly that, and south of them the Enchanter’s Bane was still burning! But no, all he knows is that Tambisi was trying to hold some semblance of the Empire together while Sarsamon was goofing around with adventurers. A stroke of luck is the only reason he’s not Emperor today. It wouldn’t have worked like that, but there is just no telling him so.”

Sharidan looked over at her directly, concern showing on his face for the first time. “Nora… I don’t want to put you on the spot…”

“But will my father move against your mother?” Eleanora shook her head slowly. “I don’t… I don’t want to think so. My father is a cautious and practical man, in his governing. He has to know what a hopeless, suicidal move that would be. But then…he moved us here and left Onkawa in the hands of stewards, all on the urging of some cleric he knew, and I’m not sure what to think. He’s also a prideful man, and he has these impossible dreams… I worry, Sharidan. My father would never attack Theasia under just his own impetus. But if the wrong person whispers the wrong thing in his ear…”

The prince sighed. “It would look bad. Really bad. Enough people assume Sarsamon had Tambisi murdered that for Theasia to use force against Alduron…that could get ugly. We’re a lot more secure on the Throne than Sarsamon was, especially at first, but the Throne itself just isn’t as powerful as it was before the Enchanter Wars. Especially against the Houses, and the Church. If your father gets stupid, my mother will exercise some restraint; she’ll have to. But still…”

“Yes.” Eleanora sighed again. “Still….”

Slowly, he began straightening up. “What if we—”

At the suddenly surging roar of the crowd, they both jerked upright, heads swiveling to look.

“That came from behind us,” Sharidan said unnecessarily.

“Okay,” she said, frowning deeply. “They’ve crossed the bridge into this district. I think it might be time to call it a night.”

“But how?” His eyes were narrowed in concentration. “They do not have permission to rampage through the streets, and the military police are more than capable of containing a mob…”

“Sharidan!”

“Ah, right. You’re right; let’s pack it in.”

They both paused again as the sound surged again.

“Is it my imagination,” she said, slipping her disguise ring back on, “or have they moved into the street outside the Cat and Mouse?”

“If not right outside, close,” he muttered, re-applying his own disguise. They had both been entertained by this evening’s choice, having basically swapped; he was now a dark Onkawi, she an olive-skinned Tiraan. Neither was smiling now. “Hell, this is pretty worrisome. Let’s—”

The balcony door swung open and one of the girls leaned out. “There you are! Come on, there’s trouble.”

“We hear it,” Eleanora said tersely, following her back in. Both the red-haired young women had donned robes, and Eleanora had to resist the temptation not to pat the one who’d beckoned them on the rump; she was (embarrassingly) not certain which was the girl in whose arms she’d spent the last couple of hours. “Is it out front?”

“Yes,” said the other redhead, shutting the door to their suite after having peeked out. “The street’s pretty…you don’t want to go out there. Come on, there’s a tunnel in the basement that leads to the brewery next door. From there we can get to the roof and onto the public house on the other side; it has a fire escape down to street level. Hopefully we’ll be out of range of the mob by then.”

Eleanora frowned at her. “How do you know all that?”

“I know many things, my lady,” she replied, giving her a sly smile. “As you should remember.”

“Cut it out, Lara,” the other sister ordered. “She loves that game. I’m the one you were with.”

“I was hoping we’d have time to swap, but…here we are,” Lara said resignedly. “Bring up the rear, Sara; I don’t think they’ll break in here, but I have the oddest impression that crowd is looking for something.”

Sharidan and Eleanora exchanged a loaded look. Theoretically, nobody here but the two of them knew their proper identities. But the two pretty young women they were now with were suddenly acting a lot more canny than their giggly personalities of a few hours before, and after all… A crowd of angry pro-democracy activists had a built-in reason for wanting to get their hands on the heir to the Silver Throne.

They followed Lara out into the hall, Sara coming behind them. Eleanora leaned close to Sharidan and murmured, “As you were saying…coincidences that convenient?”

He glanced at her sidelong and nodded once, then shifted his eyes momentarily without moving his head. She followed his glance; at the end of the hall was an open window. A third-floor window…but right through it, barely visible, the edge of an iron railing attached to a fire escape.

An alarming roar sounded from outside; Lara and Sara both froze in their tracks, turning to stare in that direction. The opposite direction, as fate determined, from the open window.

Sharidan grabbed Eleanora’s hand, and without pausing to think, they were both running. Behind them the girls shouted; she deliberately fell back so he could get out first. That they were friends and their families enemies both fell from consideration against the fact that his life was simply more valuable than hers. Without him, the best case scenario for the Empire was a drawn-out succession crisis.

The prince was nimble, more so than she; he literally dived through the window, while she had to clamber. She paused to slam the window shut after herself, though, and then they were racing down the metal stairs.

The fire escape only took them down another floor; from there, they had to jump to the ground in the alley. Eleanora panted, slumping against the damp brick wall. She had never actually run before in her life. It was probably worse for being barefoot; she had no frame of reference. Gods, the pavement must be filthy…

“Come on,” Sharidan said insistently, grabbing her hand and tugging. “Back this way.”

“That’s the canal!”

“Yes, and the buildings don’t come right to the edge of it; we can get around behind.”

“And go where?”

“The other way from the brewery. Did you also get the vibe that…”

“Yes,” she said, already following him onto a narrow ledge behind the next building over, only a waist-high wall separating them from a drop to the water far below. “They were like two completely different women all of a sudden.”

“Where’d you find those girls?”

“Later,” she said tersely. “Where are we going?”

They both froze at another roar from the crowd, then began moving again. The noise was concentrated back in front of the Cat and Mouse.

“There’s a place we can go, not far from here,” Sharidan said grimly. “Quentin and his people will be tracking us already, despite your little gimmick. They’ll find us before long. We’re going to claim sanctuary till then; I know an Izarite temple in this district. A very small one, which is not obviously a temple from outside, so people tend not to notice.”

“Izarites?” she said skeptically. “I’d prefer to find some Silver Legionnaires…”

“Beggars and choosers, Nora,” he said. Though he still kept a grip on her hand, he looked only ahead, tugging her along without meeting her gaze. “More to the point, someone works there who can be…well, I don’t know about trusted, but he’ll protect us, at least. Bishop Darnay keeps his office and personal residence there.”

“What? Doesn’t the Bishop work at the Grand Cathedral?”

“Yes, and the central Temple of Izara, but his personal office is here. This is one of the quasi-secrets my mother made sure I knew in case of emergencies like this; a Bishop will protect the Crown Prince, regardless of politics, and I’ve never heard of the Izarites having a quarrel with anyone. Even anyone as difficult as my mother. Their religion requires them to minister to whoever’s in need; they tend to tuck their higher-ranking people away in private little crannies, because they only get any work done if they stay relatively isolated. Quentin knows I know this; he’ll check there.”

“Izarite Bishop,” she said, frowning. “My father knows him.”

“Well, good,” Sharidan said curtly, pausing to peer around the next corner before leading her across the open space to the back of the building beyond. “Izarites keep their heads down, politically speaking, so I don’t know much about Justinian Darnay, but I guess we’re both about to.”

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Bonus #19: Heavy is the Head, part 2

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“Now, first of all, you’ll need to un-pin that brooch…”

“Why, your Highness,” Eleanora said in mock reproach, placing a hand protectively over the spot where the invisible peacock’s weight tugged at her lapel, “for shame! To think you would so quickly seek to rescind a gift to a lady. What would your mother say?”

“I rather think I’d be in a cell before she got down to that part,” the prince replied merrily. “Regardless, my lady, it wounds me that you would even suspect such a thing! No, I merely meant that the next leg of the journey calls for a different disguise. But of course, this being our first outing together, it should after all be the lady’s choice. If you wish to be seen in public with either your true face or the livery of one of your House’s servants, I’ll not gainsay you! I have, however, prepared something a bit more discreet, in case you think either of those might lead to awkward questions at home.”

“You have a prepared answer for everything, don’t you?” she asked dryly.

“Oh, hardly everything. But for most things, I daresay I do. You know what the secret is?”

“Do tell.”

He winked. “Not making the same mistake twice. You have years of youthful embarrassments and blunders to thank for the much wiser man before you today. I rather think you would not have enjoyed talking with me before that long, painful education.”

“I rather suspect you’re right,” she replied in a solemn tone. “Something tells me you’d have been one of those boys who never learned what I looked like above the collarbone.”

“Well, I’m afraid you’ve got me nailed, there. It’s much better that we didn’t meet until just recently.”

“And I’m to just take this on faith?” Eleanora covered the upper half of her face with a hand. “What color are my eyes?”

“Brown,” he said immediately. “A very deep brown, that in this light could be taken for black, but under bright fairy lamps shows the most intriguing depths of warmer color. Like garnets glinting from the bottom of a pool.”

She peeked at him from between her fingers, finding him wearing a knowing little smile. “…you’re dangerous, aren’t you?”

“Perhaps a tad,” he said with a roguish grin. “Anyway, we’ve veered off topic. Here, my lady. You’ll want to remove the brooch before trying it on; I’m not sure the effects of using both at once, but it’s generally a better idea not to mix enchantments.”

The ring he extended to her was a pretty but not extravagant piece, the perfect host for an enchantment which was meant to avoid notice. Hammered silver, set with a small, opaque red stone and with a simple engraving of curved lines around its band. He offered it on a flat palm, no doubt deliberately eschewing any of the romantic implications that might come from offering a lady a ring.

Eleanora plucked it carefully from his hand with her fingertips, prompting a faint widening of his smile which she ignored. She tucked the ring into her palm before carefully un-pinning the brooch, in the process reverting to her own face and the party dress she’d worn to the gala.

“You can leave it in the carriage for now,” Sharidan offered. “Unless you’re the only lady in Tiraas whose seamstress had the sense to give you pockets.”

“I’m afraid not, but I suspect if I tell her it was a recommendation from the crown prince, I can perhaps make some headway finally,” she said, placing the peacock on the seat next to her. “With all the Avenist activity in this city, one would think…”

She trailed off, having slipped the ring onto her finger and immediately lost all the pigmentation in her hands.

“Do you have a…” He was already offering her a hand mirror. “Of course you do. Thank you.”

“My pleasure.”

Eleanora regarded her new face critically. She was now a pale Stalweiss—in fact, a blonde, with blue eyes, of all things. Still quite lovely, but…

“It doesn’t meet with your approval?” the prince asked almost diffidently. “My humblest apologies; many people find the use of magical disguise the perfect time to explore a little variety. I’m afraid I can’t get a new one on short notice, but for next time…”

“I suppose it would be craven not to try it once. Briefly. Hm… Are the Stalweiss really as savage as they say?”

“No more or less than anyone else, I expect. Any living in Tiraas are likely as cosmopolitan as any of their neighbors. The Stalwar Provinces are somewhat backward, but more because they weren’t treated well after the Enchanter Wars than because of any defect in the breed.”

“And whose fault was that?” she murmured.

“I understand they made a convenient scapegoat after Horsebutt’s rampage,” he said, his forehead tightening in the faintest shadow of a frown. “Hopefully, enough time has passed that we can begin correcting that. We’ll see. My mother has had more immediate priorities.”

“Hmm,” she said noncommittally. Either he actually cared for his people—even the infamous “barbarians” of the mountains—or could put up a good front. And why should he play that game with her? No one who had researched her would find any hint of interest in the plight of the mountain folk. Eleanora found herself warming toward him a bit, despite her better judgment.

She looked up to find him also wearing a new face—also a pale Stalweiss face, though he at least still had hair a proper shade of brown. Really, Eleanora fancied herself as open-minded as the next person, but it didn’t seem right for humans to have elven coloration.

“Oh, now this is fortuitous,” Sharidan commented, sliding over to the window and peering out. Eleanora joined him, noting somewhat belatedly the hubbub of a crowd outside; she’d developed a habit of tuning out exterior noise when riding in a carriage.

Their driver had to slow slightly to accommodate the traffic, which was itself somewhat impeded by the disruption. She couldn’t see much at this angle, but people with signs and placards seemed to be standing in front of a darkened building.

“Does the Writ of Duties allow people to impede traffic this way?” she asked, frowning and trying to get a closer look through the intervening vehicles.

“Actually it’s the rubbernecking drivers who are slowing down traffic,” Sharidan said merrily. “Those guys are very carefully within the law. See, they’re only on the sidewalk, and while that is a government office, it’s not open at this hour, so they’re not disrupting Imperial business. Look, there are soldiers watching; they’ll jump in the moment they have a reason. The Voters are very careful not to give them one.”

“Voters,” she murmured, finally making out one of the signs. Really, it would help them not to wave the things about, if they wished them to be read… “And you call this fortuitous? Those people want you dead.”

“Nonsense,” he said brightly, sliding back into his seat and smiling again. “They want my mother dethroned and the aristocracy abolished. Beyond that, it’s not personal. Only some of them want me dead. And they’ve as much chance of accomplishing any of that as the orcish revanchists have of launching so much as a dinghy from Sifan to invade us. It’s fortuitous because now we have an anecdote! Something to talk about at the party, aside from how our accents and mannerisms clearly don’t match our faces.”

“Yes, about that,” she said, resuming her own seat. “I note you’ve neglected to mention where you are taking me.”

“To a pleasant little late-evening gathering being held at the home of one Ms. Lorelei Talushaad, also known to her compatriots in the Thieves’ Guild as Gossamer.”

“Talushaad?” she repeated, suddenly intrigued. “The courtesan?” Her mother would have seen her dead before allowing her to visit such a person—which was only part of the reason she wanted to.

“The very same!”

“How…interesting,” she mused, allowing herself a slow smile. “All right, you have my attention. I doubt I’ve ever been to such a raucous party before.”

His grin widened. “Ah. Well, my lady, I’m afraid you may be disappointed.”


“It’s all about a happy medium, you see,” the disguised prince murmured to her as he escorted her through the entrance hall of the manor at which the carriage had discharged them. “If the party is too dull, well, there’s hardly any point in sneaking out to see it. Too rowdy, though, and the same is true. Excessive noise and debauchery makes it impossible to properly enjoy oneself. You want an event that falls somewhere in the middle, and Lorelei’s are always perfect. There’s good music, which you can actually hear. Good food, which will be eaten and not stomped into the carpets. Interesting people to talk to, and most will be sober enough to converse for at least a few more hours.”

“You make it sound downright pedestrian,” she murmured back, though she was looking around in fascination. Though the style of décor naturally differed, the house’s furnishings were of no lesser quality than those of the palatial residence House Turombi had occupied in Tiraas. Denser, and running more toward jewel and earthen tones than the light, spacious style her mother favored, but well-chosen and clearly expensive. The party itself was, indeed, more crowded and somewhat more noisy than the social events to which she was accustomed, but not to the extent that she felt uncomfortable. In fact, the prince had a point; it was all rather exciting. At the very least, they’d had no trouble getting in. It surprised her when the uniformed footman watching the door had allowed them inside with nothing more than a glance at the high quality of their clothing and the carriage which had brought them. Speaking of which… “And what, pray tell, are we to tell the lady of the house about ourselves?”

“Well, as to that,” he said with a wink, “I like to wing it, but unless you’re feeling adventurous, why don’t we save that until the next time? I rather doubt Lorelei will evict us, but there may be all manner of nuisance if we’re found out.”

“I think you may be a bad person, Sharidan.”

“On that point, Eleanora, I shall defer to your no doubt considerable expertise.” Despite his cool facade, he glanced around; they were hardly alone, but all the people nearby were engaged in their own conversations, none paying them any attention. The sound of a string quartet from the large room up ahead provided auditory camouflage, as well. There was no reaction to their names. “Give me just a moment to secure some provisions, if you would. Getting to the bar is always a struggle at these things; much faster with just one.”

“I shall defer to your considerable expertise on the subject of bars,” she said archly. The prince grinned at her and released her arm.

“Back in a flash.” Then he had slipped through the doors ahead—and the dense crowd within, about which he’d not exaggerated—leaving her alone.

She was standing in a sort of foyer, just inside the vestibule and clearly serving as a sort of indoor crossroads. A sweeping staircase curved up to the second floor, the wide door opened onto the main party area to her right, with a smaller door to a dining room (also heavily occupied) to the left and one into a shadowed hallways just ahead. Eleanora took note of the architecture. While a noble House would arrange its residence to impress upon the first entry, this one was clearly designed to provide space in which people could lose themselves from sight almost immediately. Which, she supposed, served the needs of a courtesan quite well.

Eleanora directed one long look at the door through which her escort had vanished, and then a small smile quirked the side of her mouth. The exact details of the Prince’s plan for her this evening she didn’t know, of course, but the general shape was obvious. Considering that, she saw no harm in making him do a little extra work. Not that it was going to pay off, which was sort of the point. It would be good for him; he likely had rarely had to cope with disappointment.

She turned and began ascending the staircase.

At the first landing, Eleanora paused, glancing down the second-floor hall, which was dimly lit and lined with doors on only one side, some of which were closed. A couple were walking away from her, arm-in-arm and heads together. After a moment’s hesitation, she decided to keep climbing and see if anything more immediately interesting presented itself.

And indeed, the next landing paid off. The stairs stopped here, but rather than a single corridor, it opened into a sort of balcony ringing the open main chamber below. Heavy pillars, low walls, and hanging curtains broke up the space into little alcoves offering privacy while also providing a clear view of the party going on—not unlike the ballroom at the Imperial Palace. Was this a common arrangement? It certainly was a suitable one for intrigues, which could explain its popularity in the capital.

She paced slowly down one side of the upper ring, carefully glancing into the alcoves she passed from the corner of her eye without staring rudely. Three people were sitting in conversation in the first, the second was empty, and a couple were locked in a passionate embrace in the third, prompting her to pick up her step slightly. The next alcove was also unoccupied, and Eleanora decided to take the opportunity to get a closer view of the ballroom below. Or was it properly a ballroom? If the bar was in there, it didn’t seem likely they were dancing in the space…

She stepped over to the rail and carefully leaned over the three-story drop. Indeed, this seemed more a staging area than a place where people congregated. There was a bar, and also long tables of food; as she watched, a set of doors opened and liveried servants bustled out with fresh trays. The musicians were there as well, ensconced in a raised area which seemed to occupy a turret jutting from the far corner of the room. There was no sign of the Prince—but then, from this vantage he’d have been nothing but a blob of brown hair, hardly distinctive.

Eleanora turned around, and gasped in surprise.

Lounging in the corner of the alcove, drink in hand, a woman was regarding her with a curious expression. She had seated herself so that her head was below the level of the decorative wall which separated off this little space, making her invisible from the outer ring.

“Oh, I am sorry!” Eleanora exclaimed. “I didn’t—”

“Now, no apologies,” the woman said, smiling. “You’re not who I was expecting, but it seems he’ll not be joining me. I gather I’m not who you expected, either?”

“I thought this space was empty,” Eleanora said. “I wasn’t expecting anyone, so…yes, that’s correct. I’ll just make myself scarce before your companion arrives.”

“Oh, don’t let me keep you if you’ve business elsewhere! But also, don’t hurry off on my account.” The woman’s eyes shifted, glancing over her quickly, and Eleanora suddenly took particular note of the fact that her new acquaintance was quite pretty. Not what she’d have considered her “type,” being rather lean of figure and face, with that sharp-featured aspect so common to the Tiraan, but still… “My husband thought he might make it, but…he would have by now, were he going to. Never the most reliable man. Are you here by yourself?”

“Why, no,” Eleanora said, allowing herself a smile. “At the moment, it would appear I’m here with you.”

She smiled back, warmly. “Then why don’t you join me? I’m Tashi.”

“…Nora,” she said after the barest hesitation, then stepped over to seat herself carefully on the couch next to Tashi.

“Nora, how exotic!” The woman straightened up, eyeing her with renewed interest. “Now, is that a traditional Stalweiss name?”

Oh, right, her face. Again, the urge for mischief rose in her, this time accompanied by something else. “I can honestly say it has been in my family for at least one generation,” she replied solemnly, then deliberately spoiled the image with a smile.

Tashi laughed obligingly. “I’ve not seen you at one of Lorelei’s events before. I am positive I would remember.” And something in her expression…

Oh, right, her face. A thrill of realization shivered though Eleanora. Flirtation had always been such a delicate, careful thing, bound by the need to dance around the utmost discretion. The sheer scandal that could erupt if she made the wrong move on the wrong person was, in her case, far worse than that which faced the average young aristocrat—at least, back home. Tiraas did have a much stronger Avenist and Izarite influence, but she’d not had time to experiment. That, too, would have to be done slowly, and with exceeding caution.

Unless, of course, she were in a place where the Lady Eleanora Turombi would never go, wearing the face of someone who did not exist. A place where, perhaps, she could follow up on such little hints as she was getting now without making a five-month courtship of it.

“You could say I’m stretching my wings,” she said, carefully scooting closer to Tashi and leaning subtly toward her. “This is, indeed, my first visit. In fact, I’ve not properly explored the house yet. I found something very much more interesting right away, you see…”

“Why, it sounds as if I’m depriving you, then,” Tashi murmured deep in her throat. “I should offer you a drink for the inconvenience, at the very least. Alas…” Moving carefully so that she did not draw further from Eleanora in the process, she reached to pick up the wine bottle perched on a low table before the couch, and topped off her glass. “I’ve only the one glass.”

“Well.” She moved carefully, slow enough to give her companion opportunity to object or move away if she wished. But while Eleanora carefully took Tashi’s hand in her own and shifted the glass toward herself, the other woman simply regarded her with a knowing little smirk. “I don’t mind, if you don’t.”

Holding eye contact, she very deliberately took a sip, placing her lips right on the dampened spot from which the glass had already been drunk. Tashi’s smile widened slightly. The thrill racing through her was only somewhat to do with lust; this was just so easy. Oh, the fun she had missed out on for all these years, having to be so damn careful. She had barely even believed people actually did this, but…here they were.

“If I may ask,” Eleanora murmured, now that her head was close enough to make a lower tone appropriate, “if you were expecting your husband, why only one glass?”

It had been a tacit offer of withdrawal, but Tashi declined to take advantage of the reminder.

“He said he might come,” she replied, her head tilting and gradually drifting closer. “That is not the same as me expecting him.”

“Well, that is a shame,” Eleanora said softly, leaning further. “He’s missing a fine vintage.”

“Why, Nora,” Tashi all but whispered, smiling with pure mischief, “it’s only a common bottle, after all. Did you even taste it?”

“I wasn’t talking about the wine.”

It tasted better from Tashi’s lips, anyway.

Somehow, in the intervening moments, Tashi shifted to set the glass down on the table, and then to angle her body toward Eleanora’s, reaching up to cradle her cheeks in both hands. Eleanora, for her part, moved somewhat more aggressively, heady with the power and freedom of being able to do this. She slipped on arm around Tashi’s waist, prompting a soft squeak when she tugged her firmly closer—but not a squeak of protest, to judge by the ensuing giggle and the hand that moved to tangle in her hair.

Then she stopped thinking for a few minutes, lost in softness and quiet laughter and gently insistent exploration, until she finally came up for air and found herself staring into another pair of eyes.

It took her a moment for the fog to recede, but then it was replaced by dawning horror as she recognized the disguise currently worn by Prince Sharidan.

“Oh, my humble apologies,” he said mildly, blinking in bemusement. He had a glass of effervescent wine in each hand. “This spot looked empty from…”

No no no no—

Eleanora lunged up, ignoring the startled protest of her new companion and pushing rudely past the prince, incidentally spilling one of the glasses. In pure panic, she tore down the hall.

No no no, how could she have been so reckless? He could ruin her worse than if he’d bedded her. If her mother found out about this…

“Eleanora, wait!”

She redoubled her speed, dodging around people who exclaimed in irritation at her passage, ignoring them. The balcony ring ended in a little seating area from which hallways branched off; she picked one at random and raced down it.

Almost immediately, it dead-ended, and Eleanora hissed in frustration. There were three doors; she yanked open the narrowest one and darted through.

“Will you wait a moment?!”

Gods, was he still after her? This was some kind of servants’ passage, obviously, to judge by its narrowness and the unpainted plank walls. Behind her, the door opened again, and footsteps pounded into the corridor. The boy just wouldn’t take a hint.

The passage turned sharply left, and partway down this length, she found an open door through which cool air flowed.

“Eleanora! No—stop!”

Ignoring him, she dashed through, and immediately tried to skid to a halt. It had rained, though, and the narrow strip of flat roof was slick. Wheeling her arms frantically, she fought for balance, teetering on the edge of a three-story fall overlooking an alley behind the house.

Then a hand grabbed her hair, yanking her backward. She squawked in pain, but in the next moment he was holding her by the shoulders. They both stood there, panting.

“My hair?” she asked weakly, managing a tiny spark of outrage.

“Well, I’m sorry,” the prince snapped, in the first open annoyance she’d heard from him. “We are still learning one another’s preferences, after all. Next time would you prefer I let you fall to your death?”

She allowed herself a few more calming breaths.

“…thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Here.” Sharidan carefully released her and slipped past. “This is not the first time I’ve brought company out to this little spot, though previously the circumstances were more…cordial.”

“Omnu’s breath, how often do you come to this place?” she asked, even as she followed him along the side of the house. Just a few feet to the left of the doorway was a small bench. “And…what is the point of this? Architecturally, it doesn’t make a shred of sense.”

“Of course it does,” he said lightly, seating himself and then patting the bench. “This house belongs to a member of the Thieves’ Guild. This is a convenient roof access. I was once rather embarrassingly interrupted here with a young lady by another young lady who carried a lot of knives, and let me tell you, that did not turn out the way I fantasized as a boy. Sit down, catch your breath.”

“Your…fantasies…generally involve knives?” She found herself sinking down onto the bench. Her legs seemed to want to give out, anyway, so…might as well.

“On the contrary,” he said wryly. “That’s when I knew the night wasn’t going to go my way.”

Eleanora made no reply to that. In fact, now that she had a moment to breathe, she found it unbearable to meet his gaze. Propping her elbows on her knees, she lowered her face into her hands.

“So,” Sharidan said after a short pause, “I gather this evening was never going to turn out the way I had in mind, either.”

“And what makes you say that,” she mumbled. It wasn’t really a question.

To her annoyance, he actually laughed softly. “It’s not so uncommon, a lady with a soft spot for other ladies. Your friend back there? Antashi Shivaan picks up a new girl at every party. To share with her husband when he can come, but to bring him an exciting story when he can’t. You’ll be pleased to know you weren’t breaking up a marriage. You, though…that was panic I saw, the kind that gets people killed. As you discovered. I can’t help concluding,” he added in a gentler tone, “this is rather a secret I inadvertently uncovered. So would I be wrong in guessing this is more an…inflexible preference?”

Eleanora heaved a deep sigh, but lowered her hands. “I’m sorry.”

Sharidan was watching her with a calmly open expression, but now he actually smiled. “And you were going to let me chase you fruitlessly all night? You absolute minx.”

For some damned reason, she couldn’t help grinning back. “Oh, poor baby. Something tells me you’d have survived.”

“Well, I always have before!” His grin abated slightly. “Forgive me if I’m prying, but… Is this about House Turombi’s succession? I know you’re the only child…”

“That, partially,” she said with a deep sigh. “But apart from that… Onkawa is not Tiraas. We have all the Pantheon cults, of course, but it’s Omnist territory, with a Vidian and Shaathist influence. Women loving women isn’t disallowed, but it’s…it’s not…favorable. Never mind,” she added, shaking her head. “It’s more complex than that, and it would take me far too long to explain.”

“It’s a hell of a thing, though,” he said quietly. “So many people grow up dreaming of one day finding true love. Not us. Nobles who have such ideas end up being cautionary tales. We marry for a purpose, and that’s all there is to it.”

“You don’t sound bitter,” she said softly.

He shrugged. “I’ve had time to get used to it, as have you. And clearly, I have less reason to be bitter in the first place.”

“You’re also much better at finding your own fun than I ever was,” she replied sardonically. “I’ll freely admit I’d never have dared to do something like this.”

“Well, that’s a shame! I bet you’d have pulled it off quite well. So long as you learned to suppress that panic reflex.”

“Yes, yes, laugh it up. I should thank you for the lesson, anyway. Maybe I’ll be able to sneak away now and again to experience a little of life. Gods know you will be.”

“No.” At his tone, she looked up again, finding him staring at the sky with a strangely sad expression. “I’m twenty-two, Eleanora; how much longer do you think I’ll be able to get away with acting like a teenager?”

“Was that a rhetorical question? I can try to estimate, if you’d like.”

He didn’t smile, this time. “I’m not that guy. The dissolute wastrel who throws away his country’s wealth and credibility on pleasure and nonsense. I… Tiraas means something. It’s a legacy of a thousand years; it’s the lives of millions of people. I needed something for myself, but… I’ve never felt entitled to keep doing this forever. Someday I’m going to have to stop, settle down, grow up, and serve. Someday quite soon.” He looked over at her again, and managed another little smile. “Maybe sooner than I imagined… I’ve had close calls of my own.”

“We have to grow up eventually,” she practically whispered. He nodded.

The silence was strangely comfortable.

“So, what are you missing out on?” he asked finally, with a lightness that she appreciated all the more for how forced it clearly was. “Not one of those who harbored dreams of true love, I hope? I mean, there’s a precedent, at least in this part of the world. More than one noblewoman in Calderaas has married another noblewoman. A few princesses, even.”

“Oh, honestly,” she muttered. “My parents stay together because of politics and habit. They were never in love; I don’t think they were truly fond of each other till I was a teenager. True romance…it’s just not something I longed for. It was something for storybooks, not life.”

“Well, I guess that’s not so bad, then.”

She hesitated, then let out an exasperated sigh. “I—I just…” Eleanora pressed her hands against her temples. “By the gods, I do feel deprived. Every time I pass a really excellent pair of tits and don’t get to bury my face in them, I feel I’ve lost a piece of myself I will never get back!”

The prince stared at her in open shock.

And then he burst out laughing.

“I’m glad you’re amused,” she said wryly after a minute of this. Sharidan, gasping for breath, actually slumped over against the wall next to him. “All right, settle down,” Eleanora said in mounting alarm. “If you fall off the roof your mother will have me beheaded.”

“Right…there…with you,” he wheezed, still holding his ribs. “I’m sorry, I just…” Chuckling, he grinned widely at her. “You’ll think this is crazy, but of all the women I’ve found myself in secluded corners or balconies with… I think you’re the first one I truly get.”

“I’m still not sleeping with you,” she informed him, unable to keep the grin off her own face now.

“Well, I mean, sure. At this point, I honestly think that would ruin it.”

His laughter had subsided enough, and the noise of the city was distant enough, that they could clearly hear a series of sharp clicks.

Eleanora straightened up. “What was that?”

Sharidan, by contrast, slumped in his seat, laughter suddenly gone. “Oh, for…ugh. Hello, Quentin.”

“Good evening, your Majesty.” A man stepped around the corner onto their little stretch of roof—an almost painfully nondescript man in a suit who wouldn’t have looked out of place behind the counter of a bank, and yet also appeared quite comfortable on a damp rooftop in the middle of the night. As he came into view, he turned the knob of his silver pocketwatch a few more times, making it click again, and tucked it into his pocket. “Ready to go home?”

“Eleanora, this is Quentin,” Sharidan said sourly, waving a hand at the man with poor grace. “Who I am surprised to find here, slumming around the city in person. Last I heard, he was up for promotion to the city bureau chief at Imperial Intelligence.”

“Yes, and I thank you for the ringing recommendation, your Highness,” Quentin said mildly. “Of course, since I am the only local agent who’s been able to keep up with your little excursions, and your Highness’s ulterior motive was quite obvious, it wasn’t seriously considered. And if I may say, it was altogether a lesser caliber of chicanery than we at Intelligence are accustomed to expecting from your Highness. Is your Highness feeling well?”

“Yeah, well, they can’t all be gems,” Sharidan said irritably. “And quit calling me that. Honestly, Quentin, how long have we known each other? After all, you’ve been to almost every party I’ve crashed. At some point you ought to just start calling me by my first time.”

“Yes, your Highness, I’ll get right on that. You may wish to brace yourself, young lady.”

The air shimmered with a blue haze and a faint whine sounded in the edges of her vision, and then the whole world vanished.

The bench went with it; she and Sharidan were both sent sprawling to the floor, though the prince at least caught himself—due to experience, she suspected. He immediately bounded to his feet and gallantly offered her a hand up.

They were in a small outdoor courtyard, with a gate on one side and a door into a stone building on the other.

“First time being teleported?” Sharidan asked.

“Yes,” she admitted, brushing off her dress. “I was expecting something less…annoying.”

He grinned and opened his mouth to reply, but Quentin cleared his throat. Looking over at him, Eleanora realized there were two Azure Corps battlemages standing at attention in the background, doubtless the reason for their sudden change of scenery.

“If you will please follow these gentlemen, your Highness, we shall have you home as quickly and quietly as possible.”

“Yes, yes,” Sharidan said with a sigh, then turned to Eleanora and smiled. “Well! This evening did not go like I had planned, but oddly enough, I can’t recall having enjoyed myself more. What say we try for something a little less boisterous on our next outing?”

She raised an eyebrow, and folded her arms. “We will not be doing this again, Sharidan.”

The prince gazed at her with that knowing little smile for a long moment, and then winked. “Yes, we will.”

With no more ado, he turned and strolled toward the wall. One of the battlemages moved to open the door for him, and then both followed him through and shut it behind.

Eleanora stared at this momentarily before turning to Quentin. “Is it treasonous to slap the Crown Prince?”

“If so,” he said dryly, “it’s treason Intelligence has no interest in prosecuting. We have much bigger and less numerous fish to fry. Now, let’s get you home, my lady.”

“Right,” she said with a heavy sigh. “Time to face the music.”

“I can’t say whether you’ve been missed,” he said. “If so, this will become difficult; we’ll find out upon reaching your home. If not, I can insert you carefully and your family will be none the wiser.”

Eleanora had taken one trudging step toward the gate, but now paused, turning to him in surprise. “I thought… I mean, why would you want to protect…me?”

“Intelligence is in the business of gathering information,” Quentin replied, “and I won’t pretend the Empress has no interest in politically inconveniencing your father, in particular. With regard to the Prince’s little…adventures…however, there is a policy in place. Making them public would embarrass the Throne, not to mention exposing his Highness to danger, as he lacks the sense to refrain from them. It is altogether easier to silence the whole matter as much as possible. This is why we prefer it when he chooses compatriots who have their own secrets to protect. Things can become unpleasant if I have to be…persuasive.”

“Say no more,” she muttered. “Although… I am sorry to put you out so. This must be a serious inconvenience, and you surely have more important things to do.”

This time it was Quentin who paused in the act of turning to go; he regarded her almost quizzically. “Hm. You know, of all the young women the prince has gallivanted about with, you are the first to offer me an apology.”

“Then his Highness has rather poor taste in women,” she said archly, “which does my ego no favors. Surely you could do something to lean on him? This must be a drain on your resources.”

“Well.” The spy actually smiled at her. “It’s all for a good cause. A prince who can outmaneuver his security detail will become an Emperor who can outwit all the enemies who will be constantly braying at his heels. And if he makes us work a little harder in the meantime…what are we here for, after all?”

“For the Empire,” she murmured, already deep in thought.

 

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