1 – 19

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“This is almost criminal, how much crap there is to deal with. They actually make poor Mrs. Oak do all this without help? How does she manage when nobody’s being punished?”

Trissiny ignored him, stoically washing dishes. He wasn’t entirely wrong; the pile of detritus that resulted from the feeding of a hundred-odd people was taller than either of them, but she had never been one to be intimidated by work. If anything, she would have found the monotony rather soothing, if not for his constant patter.

Mrs. Oak just grunted at him in passing as he mentioned her, stomping back over to the ovens, which she was scrubbing out by hand. If she felt any particular way about Gabriel’s commentary, she gave no sign. The woman uncannily resembled a tree stump in a stained apron. Almost cylindrical in shape, she had a flattish head crowned with a thatch of wiry brown hair, a face composed entirely of horizontal lines and folds which all but hid her eyes, and beefy arms dusted with dark hair and old scars. If she had more expressions than the disgruntled one now wore, there had been no hint of it thus far.

Getting no response from his last foray, Gabriel tried again as he swabbed at a plate with a threadbare towel. “What do you reckon the odds are we’ll be outta here before midnight?”

She shot him a sidelong look, not pausing in her scrubbing. She was washing, he drying, and so far they were still on the flatware. For all the complaining the boy was doing, he looked to be in annoyingly good spirits. His posture was relaxed and carefree, and he couldn’t seem to keep the grin off his face. It was, she decided, ominous.

“What are you in such a good mood for?”

“Me? Oh, nothin’. I just had a really good day. Well, good afternoon, actually. Okay, to be precise, a good hour and a half.” He glanced over at her, as if expecting to be prompted for more. When she refused to look up from the dishes, he finally burst out. “With Juniper!”

“Oh,” Trissiny replied, filling the word with the full weight of her disdain.

“What, you’ve got a problem with Juniper, too?” That, at least, seemed to finally puncture his bubble of happiness.

“None whatsoever, I like Juniper just fine. She’s one of the more consistently kind people on this campus. Of course, even if I were interested in women, I wouldn’t go to bed with her.”

“Wait, you’re not? I thought all you Silver Legion types were supposed to be les—” He cut himself off, a syllable too late.

For the first time since they had begun, Trissiny paused in her work, bracing her hands on the edges of the sink. She drew in a deep breath, then very slowly let it out, relaxing the sudden tension in her shoulders with visible effort. Then, making no further comment, picked up her rag again.

“In hindsight,” he mused, “it occurs to me that since we’re supposed to be learning to get along, repeating rumors about Avenists is probably not gonna be my best approach.”

“I bet you discover a lot of baldly obvious things in hindsight.”

“Yeah, that right there is a big improvement.”

Trissiny went back to ignoring him, and for about two minutes was able to work in blessed silence, scrubbing plates clean and passing them to him to be dried. The slosh of water, the chink of porcelain were their only accompaniment. She almost dared to believe he would let up…

“What’s your big problem with me sl—uh, dat—um, being with Juniper, then?”

“No problem. By all means, do that.” She glanced at him again, carefully keeping her face neutral; he was watching her suspiciously. “Of course, a smart man would do some research on dryads before sticking anything of his into one, but that is clearly none of my business.”

“I do believe, Trissiny my dear, that the overall lesson of the last few days is that I am not a smart man.”

“We agree.”

They got through the rest of the plates in relative peace, by dint of making no conversation. Gabriel, though, would not be repressed for long, and made another stab as they were getting into the cups.

“Does it really bother you that much?”

“Many things bother me. Pick one.”

He sighed. “I meant me being half…blooded.”

“You have full agency regardless of your heritage,” she said immediately. “Demonbloods have been known to go their whole lives without harming so much as a mouse. No, I take no interest in your bloodline.”

“Well…that’s good, I guess.”

“The fact that you are an arrogant, belligerent, self-entitled, disrespectful fool, however…”

“I think I see where this is going.”

“…makes the fact that you have hellfire in your very veins a matter of immediate concern.”

“Yup, there it is.”

He let the silence hang for a few more minutes before speaking again, in a more subdued tone.

“I’m sorry.”

She shot him a glance. “Excuse me?”

Gabriel paused in wiping, leaning his head back to look up at the ceiling, and heaved a sigh. “For…well, all of it. Especially for calling you names, that was a really shitty thing to do. I’m sorry for getting in your face in the first place. I was reacting to stuff in my head, not anything you’d done. I just… I was an asshole, and I actually do really regret it. So…sorry.”

She stayed still for a few seconds, peering at him from the corner of her eye, before realizing that she had paused in her work, and resumed scrubbing. “Apology accepted.”

“…just like that?”

“Yes.”

He grinned. “So…we’re all right, then?”

“Of course not,” she said scornfully. “You’re still the person who did all that. I see nothing to suggest you won’t turn right round and do it all again. Words are easy, Gabriel. I choose not to hold grudges for my own sake; it’s exhausting and morally deficient. That doesn’t mean you’ve earned any trust, or respect.”

“Well,” he replied after a moment, picking up his towel again, “how…refreshingly honest.”

Mrs. Oak came over to collect an armload of plates and trundled off with them to the cabinet they called home. She did not speak to or acknowledge her two enforced helpers for the three trips it took to pack them all away. Gabriel held his peace until she finished and went back to her own cleaning.

“So, apparently they hold a big harvest dance down in the town every year. Not that there’s much of a harvest, Last Rock does business mostly in trade and cattle. But hey, it’s a dance! People need to relax once in a while, let their hair down.”

He grinned at her; she carried on ignoring him.

“So?” he prompted.

“So?”

“So, you wanna go?”

Trissiny set down the cup she was working on, hard enough to earn a warning growl from Mrs. Oak.

“Gabriel,” she said stiffly to the wall behind the sink, “I think I may be suffering from hallucinations. I could swear I just heard you ask me to go to a dance with you.”

“That’s not a no.”

Finally, she turned fully to face him, pulling her sopping hands out of the dishwater. She hadn’t worn her armor or shield for this task, for obvious reasons, but carried her sword belted at her waist, and had to repress an urge to place a wet hand on its hilt.

Gabriel stepped back from her fierce expression, holding up his hands placatingly. “Now look, just hear me out. Tellwyrn wants us to get along, right? We can either spend who the hell knows how long doing this crap every night without killing each other until she decides the point is made, or we can do something a little more proactive to demonstrate how chummy we are. What, I ask you, is more chummy than dancing?”

“You’re insane,” she snorted, turning back to the dishes. “Anyway, that wouldn’t work. Tellwyrn isn’t going to fall for an obvious ruse.”

“That’s the beauty of it,” he said, resuming his own labors alongside her. “We can’t fake this. Even if we’re only pretending to like each other for one night, that’s us, collaborating on something. If we can get through it without breaking down into yelling or fighting, the point is pretty much proven. Or do you really wanna spend the whole semester on kitchen duty?”

“Aside from the company, I rather enjoy this. At the Abbey we were all expected to work to sustain the place; it makes you feel like part of the community. Here, all I do is study, train and attend classes. I’ve been feeling more and more like a…burden. This is comfortable. Homey.”

“You are so weird.”

“I’m not the one who wants to go dancing with me.”

He had the gall to laugh at that, as if she were joking with him. “Okay, fine, so you like doing dishes. Think, though. Remember that horseshit essay assignment where apparently the only right answer was to not follow the instructions? You’ve gotta think like your enemy. Tellwyrn rewards initiative and…let’s say, lateral thinking.”

“Is Tellwyrn our enemy?”

“She has her good points,” he said a little grudgingly, shooting a glance at the door of the kitchen where his green coat hung from a peg. “But for purposes of this problem? She’s the thing we need to work against.”

“I don’t see why. As I’ve said, this situation is fine with me.”

“And what makes you think this situation is going to be the end of it? You really believe she’s gonna let us get away with coasting, with mediocrity?” He let that hang in the air between them for a moment. This time, Trissiny’s lack of response was because she didn’t have one. “No, I’m talking about dances and thinking about strategies, because I’m pretty damn sure if we don’t come up with something extra to deal with this, she will. And I really, really would rather not end up chained to your wrist.”

“That was hyperbole,” said Trissiny without conviction. “She wouldn’t actually do that. It’s completely crazy.”

“If half the things I’ve heard about that woman are true, there’s nothing she wouldn’t do, and not much that she can’t,” he said grimly. “We’re talking about one of the only people known to have killed a god.”

“What?!” Something heavy and cold clutched at her guts; it was an absurd thought, but looking at his face, she had a terrible feeling he wasn’t speaking in ignorance for once. “That’s not even possible.”

“Look it up,” he retorted. “The Church doesn’t like it getting around—obviously—but I’ll bet you anything the story’s not hard to find in this school’s library. The point is… Yeah, I know you don’t like me. I’m not gonna claim you’re my favorite person in the world, either. But we dug ourselves into this hole, and nobody’s gonna dig us back out. Personally I’d rather do that with an evening at whatever kind of hick-ass hoedown they throw around here than…wait to see what Tellwyrn cooks up.”

Trissiny realized that she had stopped working again. The water was growing cold and scummy anyway; she reached into it to pull the plug, watching the suds swirl down the drain around the remainder of the cup. She didn’t speak until more hot water was running to refill the sink.

“I’ll consider it.”

“That’s all I can ask, I guess. Well, except maybe…” He grinned at her expectantly, getting only a raised eyebrow in return.

“What?”

“Come on, there was some mutual responsibility for all this. We’re having a moment, just like in the stories. I apologized, so now you…”

“Apologies are for people who’ve done something they regret,” she said, turning a cold shoulder to him and resuming her scrubbing.

He sighed heavily. “Yeah. Great. Good talk, Triss.”


 

Professor Tellwyrn read over the Imperial proclamation a third time, even more slowly than before. At this point, she wasn’t absorbing any new information; it was simply dramatic effect. It was also rather petty, she knew, since the three soldiers standing in front of her were no more to blame for any of this than a rabbit was for the snare it stepped in. Still, someone had to suffer for this, and Sharidan Tirasian wasn’t here.

Finally, she lifted her eyes and stared at the men over the rims of her spectacles, slowly drumming her fingers on the paper bearing the Imperial seal, now resting on her desk.

“Do you know what this says?” she asked finally.

“Yes, ma’am,” replied the one on the right. Private Moriarty. Dark complexion, proudly stiff posture of a man for whom standing at attention was a nigh-spiritual rite. Polite, too…this would be Mr. By-the-Book. Of course, devotion and a love of regulations didn’t make one a good soldier. He wouldn’t be here if he were.

On the opposite side of the lineup, Rook, the guy who managed to look like he was slouching even while standing at attention, cleared his throat. “Professor, I respectfully ask that you not explode our heads. ‘Specially Moriarty’s. The stick up his ass’d shoot right out and punch a hole in your ceiling.”

“I will take that under advisement,” Tellwyrn said gravely, as Private Moriarty clenched his jaw and Finchley, the third one, swallowed. They were afraid of her, even Rook. Maybe especially Rook; she knew his type well, joking in the face of what he thought was doom.

Good.

“It seems you’re to be staying with us,” she went on in a mild tone. “Now why do you suppose that is?”

The trio exchanged glances.

“Ma’am, if we were the types to ask ImCom what the hell they were thinking, honestly I think we’d’ve started with the empty box canyon in the middle of the wilderness,” Rook offered.

Tellwyrn ignored him. Also Moriarty, who was clearly too preoccupied with presenting the image of a respectable soldier to do any independent thinking. The third one, though… Private Finchley had orange hair, a smattering of freckles and the pale complexion of someone who must spend half his pay on sun lotion if he managed to serve in the Army and not be burned to a crisp by exposure. Moreover, there was something about the set of his eyes that reminded her of the students who aggravated her the least. Especially in the way they narrowed slightly, tracking involuntarily to the side as he accessed memory and cognition, when prompted by a question. This one was a thinker.

He noticed her studying him, and swallowed again, somehow managing to go even paler.

“Something on your mind?” Tellwyrn asked him directly, still in that calm tone.

“What we…that is, the events at Outpost C9-121 are strictly classified,” he said slowly, “but General Panissar himself told us…” He glanced sidelong at Moriarty. “He, uh, hinted that it would be all right if we talked to you about it.”

“According to Lord Vex, you are granted provisional security clearance on this one issue,” Moriarty said stiffly.

“Provisional security clearance,” Tellwyrn mused. “I do believe that’s one of the more idiotic things I’ve ever heard of. Rather defeats the purpose of having things secured in general, doesn’t it? It sounds like the sort of made-up-on-the-spot nonsense they’d tell a person who can’t function in the blind spot between regulations and necessity.”

Moriarty gave no sign of understanding her implication, but Rook snorted a laugh.

“So it’s politics,” Finchley went on, frowning in thought. He grew more confident as his attention drew into his own mind. “Legally you can’t be involved. Off the books…the Empire is willing to accept you as a player, extending an olive branch. Shit, this is way over my pay grade,” he added under his breath, then started and flushed, abruptly remembering who he was talking to.

“Not bad,” Tellwyrn murmured approvingly. “Not bad at all. Better than I was expecting, anyhow. So, you three are de facto Imperial ambassadors, without any of the training, competence or diplomatic privilege. That’s quite a promotion from monitoring one of Vex’s little shoebox deathtrap forts. Or, rather, a sidestep. Out of the absurd frying pan into the equally ridiculous fire. This must be a rather trying week for you.”

“I want it known up front that I will not be swayed by money,” Rook intoned. “Beer and girls, sure, I’ll sell you my mum’s bones for those, but financially? My honor has no price. I’m sure my colleagues will say the same.” Moriarty closed his eyes and squeezed his lips shut, visibly repressing a response.

Tellwyrn didn’t validate his posturing with a response. “So. You three met Elilial, then.”

“Met her?” Rook grinned broadly, reaching around Finchley to punch Moriarty in the shoulder. “This crazy bastard tried to arrest her!”

“Don’t touch me,” Moriarty growled.

“And how did that go?” Tellwyrn asked, intrigued in spite of herself.

“How do you think it went? She knocked us the fuck out!” Rook said, incongruously gleeful.

“Stop.” Tellwyrn held up a hand, then pointed at Finchley. “You. Recount the series of events.”

He gawped at her for a moment, then shut his mouth, glancing from side to side at each of his fellow privates.

“While we’re young, please,” Tellwyrn snapped.

“Aren’t you, like, three thousand?”

“Private Rook, do you know how many pounds of pressure are necessary to break a human femur?”

He gaped at her.

“It’s a trick question,” she went on, grinning. “It depends on how long you’re willing to spend at it. And I assure you, I have all day.” She gave that a moment to sink in before returning her gaze to the man in the middle. “Finchley. Report, now.”

As she suspected, receiving an order in a superior officer’s tone galvanized Finchley’s training to overcome his natural wishy-washiness. He spilled out the details of their encounter with the Queen of Demons in a thorough if rather disjointed fashion, helped along by commentary from Rook. Moriarty remained silent throughout, thankfully. It was something of a chore to sit through, but Tellwyrn had absorbed crucial information from even less reliable witnesses, and anyway, the story was a short one. It was impossible not to get the gist of it.

“But why would she do that?” the Professor murmured to herself after Finchley trailed to a halt. Elbows on her desk, hands folded in front of her lower face, she stared through her spectacles at a point in empty space past Moriarty’s shoulder. “Stealth is what she is. Nobody catches Elilial in the act unless she intends them to. But you three? Why do you matter enough to warrant a visitation?”

“Hey, no offense taken,” Rook said lightly.

“The scrying orbs,” Finchley said, frowning again. “Remember, Rook? You thought they were monitoring us through them. It actually was a hellgate, though, so it probably wasn’t us that ImCom was watching. One was broken when we woke up… She wanted the Empire to see. We didn’t matter, she was just…setting it up. Letting the message get sent through the right channels.”

“The right…channels…” Tellwyrn sat bolt upright, startling the three of them. “The right channels. Sending the message… Scyllith’s tits, I’ve been going about this all wrong. Son of a…” Snarling, she launched into a tirade of curses in elvish, pounding the heel of one hand against her forehead. The three soldiers stared wide-eyed for a moment, then slowly began edging backward from her desk as she carried on.

“Private Finchley,” Tellwyrn said abruptly, resuming her former calm demeanor as if none of the preceding had occurred, “you’ve given me the hint that may be just what I need to finish a project I’ve been butting my head against for the last year. Thank you.”

“Oh. Uh, you’re…welcome?”

“In the process, you also made me feel like an idiot.”

“I…” he squeaked.

“I’ve decided the two balance each other out. As such, I’m going to let you live. This time.”

He gulped, hard. Rook and Moriarty eased away from him to either side.

“Relax,” Tellwyrn said wryly. “It’s a joke. You can laugh.”

“I…I don’t think I can, ma’am,” he said weakly.

“So,” she went on briskly, “here you are and here, it seems, you will be staying for a while. I’ll expect you to learn and adhere to the same code of conduct that applies to my students. This is a dry campus; you will not drink or be drunk here. If you must pickle brain cells, go to the town and do it; they’ll be delighted to take your money. Unlike the students, however, you may stay in town until you’re sufficiently dried out to walk a straight line. I don’t want to see you drunk on my campus. Clear?”

“Yes, ma’am!” they chorused.

“The other item of particular note to you three is that you will not interfere with the education of those who are here to get one. I don’t mind you fraternizing with the students; they aren’t prisoners. I’ll even tolerate romantic relationships between you and them, until and unless it begins to interfere with their academic careers. Despite what the storybooks tell you about true love—beginning with the delusion that that’s a real thing—I can and will separate you in the most permanent manner possible.

“Any harassment of female students will, if I’m feeling lenient, result in your immediate expulsion from the mountain. I do mean immediate, and it won’t be down the sloping side. Or, if I’m in a more vindictive move, I’ll simply hand you over to our resident Hand of Avei. Understood?”

Finchley and Moriarty repeated their affirmation, looking progressively more intimidated, but Rook perked up visibly.

“The Hand? She’s here?” He grinned. “Awesome! I’ll have to pay my respects. What’s she like?”

There was a moment’s baffled silence.

“You’re an Avenist?” Finchley finally demanded.

“What, you aren’t?” Rook frowned at him. “Either of you? Come on, how can you not follow the goddess of war? What kind of soldiers are you?” At that, Moriarty clenched is jaw and began to physically swell with repressed fury.

Tellwyrn slapped a hand down on her desk, regaining their wandering attention before this could develop into something truly annoying.

“As luck would have it, there are only two boys in this year’s freshman class, so I have a heavily underoccupied male dormitory in which to stick you. I’ll have someone show you there. In fact, I’m expecting him any time now.”

“Only two boys? Fantastic!” Rook grinned maniacally. “So the ratio of girls is about…uh…that is… Of course, I’m speaking strictly of my admiration of the lads’ good fortune. Not out of any personal interest. I wouldn’t dream of… Well, you know.”

She stared at him evenly.

“…that is a predatory look,” he mumbled after a long pause. “I’m not sure if she wants to eat us or—gn.” Rook broke off with a grunt as Finchley jammed an elbow into his ribs.

“So, um, Professor,” Finchley said somewhat desperately. “What is it you would like us to…ah, do?”

“Do?” Tellwyrn turned her gaze on him. “How should I know?”

“It’s just…we’re to be stationed here, but… There are no officers present and we weren’t given any orders except to be…ah…stationed. I’m just wondering what our duties will be.”

“The hell if I care,” she said. “Don’t cause a ruckus on my campus and you can spend your days playing poker or learning piano for all it matters to me. If the Army didn’t give you anything to do, I certainly don’t have a stake.”

They exchanged another series of dubious glances.

“But,” Moriarty began, “what if—” He was interrupted by a knock at the office door.

“Ah, what timing,” Tellwyrn said dryly, then raised her voice. “Come in, Mr. Arquin.”

The door opened and Gabriel poked his head in, peering around its edge. He frowned on seeing the three soldiers.

“Gentlemen,” said Tellwyrn, “you will kindly wait in the hall till I’m done here, which I don’t expect to take too long. Then Mr. Arquin will escort you to your new residence.”

“Wait, I’ll what?” Gabriel said. “What’s their new residence?”

“Your residence. In case you failed to notice, which I’m not going to rule out at this point, you and Mr. Caine are living in a suite meant to house ten.”

He scowled at the three privates. “Who are these guys?”

“The comedy relief,” the Professor said, “so you can give it a rest. Outside, boys, you’ll have plenty of time to get to know Gabriel later.”

They filed past him and out the door; he watched with a frown as they went, then turned back to Tellwyrn. “What’s going on?”

“Imperial politics. You’re going to be ass-deep in it soon enough, I expect, but that’s a headache for another day. Right now, I believe you have an assignment?”

“Yeah, well…sort of.” He pulled a slightly rumpled sheaf of paper from an inner pocket of his coat and unfolded it. “I took citations of every legal textbook I could find that mentioned demonbloods, and according to all of them, what you asked about is… Um, it’s not. Legally you don’t have the right to execute me, under any circumstances. If I were attacking you with deadly force you might be excused for using deadly force in return, but…that’s it.”

She stared at him for a long moment. “And that’s all you’ve got?”

“That’s all there is.” His voice rose with annoyance.

“Do you recall your question a few days ago about…let’s see, how did you put this, it was rather poignant…ah, yes, ‘sadistic mind games?’”

“Yeah, I had a feeling this was gonna be one of those.” He re-folded the paper and stuffed it back into his coat. “Let me guess, I failed to find the trap.”

“Fortunately for you, I don’t apply the results of punishment assignments to your grade in my class; I just break your fingers if you don’t do them. So you’re still passing. You did the work…well, half of it.”

“What the fuck was the other half?!”

“The assignment was to prepare a report on the legal statues that allow me to kill you. There were two things for you to research there: you, and me. You only did one.”

He stared at her for a moment, then glanced furtively back at the door, behind which waited the three Imperial soldiers. “Do… Are you an Imperial agent?”

Tellwyrn threw back her head and barked a laugh. “Ohh, that’s rich. Really, I’m gonna have to remember that one. Seriously, though. Ever heard of Designation: Zero Twenty?”

“Um…I think maybe at one point…” He trailed off under her stare. “No.”

“It’s a code used by Imperial Intelligence,” she explained. “Part of Quentin Vex’s new system of categorizing threats to the Empire; before he came along the relevant classification was Class Zero Personified Event. Standards for identifying a Zero Twenty are a little vague, as the spooks like to leave themselves some room for interpretation…but basically, it refers to an individual who is immortal, sufficiently powerful that even the full resources of the Empire could not easily put them down, and while not directly hostile to the Empire, prone to being…difficult.” Professor Tellwyrn leaned back in her chair, smiling smugly at him. “My personal designation is Z20-136. Do keep that under your hat; I’m looking forward to seeing the look on Vex’s face when he finds out I know it.”

“…wow,” he said dryly after a moment in which she paused, evidently for a reaction.

“You think you’re being ironic, but after some thought I believe you’ll realize how ‘wow’ that is. What this means, legally, is that a person designated a Zero Twenty becomes a walking act of the gods. They are not regarded as a sentient being by the Empire, but a force of nature. You don’t jail a typhoon or execute an earthquake for treason, after all. So if I heal someone, they had a miraculous recovery. If I kill someone, they died of natural causes.” She spread her arms as if to embrace the office. “Legally, this University just sprang up out of the ground like a patch of mushrooms.”

“Hell, that wasn’t even two subjects to research,” he said. “Only thing that matters here is you.”

“No.” Tellwyrn sat up straight glaring. “No, dammit, Gabriel! You need to think about context. So the Empire won’t intervene in every little thing I do or hold me responsible as they would just about anyone else. That doesn’t mean they’ll let me wander around doing whatever the hell I please. So, I’m a walking natural disaster. How does the Empire respond when a natural disaster hits? What does it do?”

“I guess,” he said slowly, “it depends on the situation.”

She pointed a finger at him. “Bingo! It depends on the situation. So…what’s the situation? What response is merited? Big bad Tellwyrn has just offed some whiny half-demon. What reaction does this get?”

“’Whiny’ is a little strong,” he muttered.

“If I were to kill someone important, or a large enough group of people, that would pretty much require an Imperial response. So the question becomes: how important are you? If you die, who cares?”

“My father,” he said immediately.

“Ah, yes, your father. I’m sure that would make an impact on Imperial policy. A washed-up ex-soldier, discharged for ‘gross indecency.’ Which is a bit of a catch-all, as they don’t have specific regulations to cover doing something with a hethelax demon that results in an offspring. Sounds like ‘gross’ was the operative word, there. I can practically hear his old Army buddies telling him to be glad the evidence of that lapse in judgment is gone. Worst case scenario, he decides to come up here and avenge you and I have to waste two minutes dealing with it.”

“I know what you’re doing,” he snarled.

“Oh, is that what you think.”

“You’re just trying to make me angry!”

“Gabriel, look at yourself,” she said dryly. “I’m not trying anything; you’re pretty angry. Seriously, though, who else?”

“Toby,” he shot back. “Toby cares what happens to me.”

“Yes, Toby. The chosen Hand of a god whose core teaching is unconditional compassion, a boy who happens to think of you as a brother. That, and your only blood relative, is all you can muster? Doesn’t look encouraging.”

“Juniper likes me!”

“Oh, yes. That.” Tellwyrn wrinkled her nose in disgust. “I did hope you’d go at least a week without plunging into more trouble… No, I’m not even going to get into that right now, you can learn all about dryads on your own time. Suffice it to say that yes, Juniper would probably miss you, and no, she wouldn’t do anything about it. So…where are we, then? Gabriel Arquin is dead, and it just doesn’t matter enough for anybody to bother dealing with the one who did it. Seems kind of sad, don’t you think?”

“Is this really the point of this whole thing?” he demanded. “So you can make me feel like shit? Or did you just want to brag about how you can do whatever you like around here?”

Professor Tellwyrn planted an elbow on her desk and leaned her face into her palm, displacing her glasses. “Arquin…seriously. This has got to stop. Your first response whenever anybody challenges you is to complain about it, instead of thinking about what it means.” Lifting her head, she pulled the spectacles off and tossed them down carelessly on the desk, staring up at him almost sadly. “I’ll spell it out for you: you cannot carry on as you have. Too many people are going to want to take a piece out of you just for being what you are, and you just can’t fight them all off, no matter how skilled or dangerous you become. You need friends. You need for there to always be someone willing to back you up. You’ve got the raw material for that, I told you as much last night. Funny, sort of charming, generally well-intentioned, intermittently clever. But it’s a long road to developing personality traits into a useful skill set, and in this case it begins with you learning to stop pissing everybody off.”

Silence stretched out in the office while he shuffled his feet, staring down at them. Tellwyrn let him, remaining still in her pose. Finally, he lifted his eyes again, and spoke much more softly.

“That was the point of this…whole assignment? You want me to be nice?”

“Nice is a starting point,” she said wearily. “Frankly, it won’t get you far. Being useful would be even better. There are a thousand ways to go about it, but in the end, you just need to matter to people. Build connections, create an identity as someone the world is better off having, with people willing to vouch for that. You’re safer at this University than probably anywhere else on the planet, but right now, the path you’re on, you’ll be lucky to live long enough past graduation to collect your diploma.”

“…any advice?”

“For the very basics? Talk less, listen more. You have an irritating habit of making everything about you. Try focusing on the other people around you, learn about them, make them the focus of your interactions. You will be flabbergasted how popular you become, and how quickly.”

“Really?” He perked up a bit.

“All right, that’s enough of that for tonight. While you’re here, though, how are you enjoying Trissiny’s company?”

“She, uh…seems to like the work. Honestly, I don’t think that girl has a personality.”

“Well,” Tellwyrn said wryly, “you’re off to a great start, then. Run along, Arquin. Show those soldiers to their new lodgings, introduce them to Toby. You might take this as a golden opportunity to practice what I just told you: those three lads have no idea what a boneheaded pain the ass you are. Make a good impression.”

“Yes, sir, ma’am, sir,” he said, saluting crisply.

“Cute,” she replied. “Out.”

After he had gone, she sat alone in her office for several minutes, simply staring into space while her thoughts churned. Eventually she stood and stepped over to her closet, opened the door, and pulled out a trunk which had been stashed in the bottom beneath a pile of old tapestries. Tellwyrn raised its lid and stepped back.

Crystal drifted disjointedly from the trunk, reassembling her various parts back into a semi-coherent shape. She was a bit more cohesive than before, floating chunks of quartz operating in a tighter formation and the cloud of pure magical energy which sustained her more solidly resembling a physical shape, rather than a puff of mist. From one side of her form hung an obvious arm, the elbow nothing but a glowing patch of empty space between alabaster bones etched with runes, but an elaborate gauntlet of gold, studded with gems, gave her a functioning hand.

“How can I help you, Professor?” the arcane golem intoned.

“I’m going to need you to take down a letter,” Tellwyrn said, returning to her seat and slumping down into it. “No, actually, I’m going to give you some general instructions and you sort it out into a letter. Contact my solicitor’s office in Tiraas; I need some favors called in. I want investigators, information brokers… Check my files for a list of essential ingredients used by diabolists in…let’s call it target selection. Finding the names of demons, sending them to the correct places with proper instructions. Cull it down to the rarest and most expensive, send that list to the lawyers, my banker and the thief-catcher I keep on retainer. I want to know who’s been buying and selling that stuff in the last year. I want a map formed of where it’s moved to and from, and wherever that map intersects one of the attack sites for the girls like Teal, I want a list of everyone who ever had anything to do with them. Time is of the essence; I want this scrolled out tonight.”

“That will take time and considerable investment, Professor,” Crystal noted. “Tracking illicit channels carries the risk of drawing attention back to you, the surcharges for these activities will be enormous, and even the fee for sending such an involved set of instructions via telescroll will be considerable.”

“And?” Tellwyrn said irritably.

“You asked me to prompt you, Professor, when you seemed to be making large and/or reckless expenditures without considering the consequences.”

“Yes, all right, fine,” she said, “but this time it’s necessary. Like an idiot I’ve been relying on magic and my own sleuthing to follow spell traces and people. This century, this new era, it’s all about systems, about structure. I need to think like a bureaucrat, not an adventurer. The Black Wreath may have gone to ground, but the stuff this took to accomplish has to have left a paper trail. If nothing else, the Thieves’ Guild will have records.”

“You also asked me to prompt you, Professor, if you seemed about to do something rashly aggressive. Please do not attempt to steal from the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Oh, nonsense, there’s not even a point. Eserion and I go way back, he’ll do me a favor. Even if not, they can be bought off.”

“Very well, Professor. Do you need anything else before I begin?”

Arachne sighed heavily, closing her eyes. “…I’ve taken a side, Crystal. Almost fifty years I’ve managed to put it off, but everything’s going to hell and this University can’t fight off the whole world. Letting the Empire plant those boys here is tantamount to mooning Justinian.” She shook her head. “Seems like I ought to be worried, but I can’t make myself regret it. The Empire is politicians; they’re predictable up to a point. It’s not like I could have aligned us with the Church or any of its component cults. Gods and their followers might up and do any damn thing at all.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Crystal asked gently after a moment. Tellwryn shot her a sharp look. That was both more initiative and more personality than she had designed the golem to have. Maybe keeping the thing around and continuing to tinker was a bad idea; she’d intended to scrap Crystal at the experimental stage days ago and start the next model from scratch. It was just so interesting, though, the way she was developing. Plus, Tellwyrn hadn’t had such a competent secretary in decades.

“That’ll be all. Let me know when you’re done, I’ll need to go down there and wake Crete up myself to get a telescroll sent at this hour.”

“Yes, Professor. At once.”

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