“You can’t do this to us!”
“He’ll drop us all down a well or something!”
“There have to be laws about this kind of thing!”
“Don’t you have a bleeding heart, woman?”
“Children!” Professor Tellwyrn shouted in exasperation. “You’ve been here nearly a month. You were told on the first day that you’d be graded primarily on field work. This expedition has been scheduled for two weeks. The announcement of the professor leading it went out five days ago. Honestly, if you want to put up a fuss about things that aren’t going to change, that’s your lookout, but just now?” She shot them an irritated look over her shoulder. “I have no tolerance for procrastination.”
Tellwyrn stepped off the staircase, cutting diagonally across the grass about three fourths of the way down the mountain, with the girls of Clarke Tower trailing along behind her. Ruda, Teal and Fross kept right on her heels, exchanging glances and gearing up for another round of complaints; the others followed a bit more sedately. Everyone was carrying a well-stuffed backpack, and not everyone was fully awake yet. Most of them weren’t used to being up before the sun.
“It’s one thing to know something’s coming,” Ruda ventured at last. “This is last-minute panic. As in, ‘holy shit, they’re actually going to send us out into the goddamn wilderness with an idiot from another dimension as a tour guide.’”
Tellwyrn actually laughed at her, not turning around, and lengthened her stride. The line stretched out as the girls made varying degrees of effort to keep up. They remained mostly quiet, though, for the rest of the trip down. Their professor had cut a path that avoided the town, depositing them at the base of the mountain beyond its edges. The boys and their guide were already there waiting for them.
Toby smiled and waved; Gabriel appeared to be asleep standing up. Upon their approach, Professor Rafe turned and threw out his arms as though offering the world a hug, beaming delightedly.
“We’re gonna fuckin’ die,” Ruda said.
“Ten points, Punaji!” he crowed, pumping a fist in the air. “But pace yourself. And remember, people do have feelings.”
“We,” she repeated, “are going to fucking die.”
“Yup,” said Gabe. “Can we just do that now and save ourselves a hike?”
“All right, enough,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “Admestus, go wait up ahead.”
“Aw, but I was gonna make a speech!”
“You can speech while walking. Go.”
He turned and trudged away, shoulders slumped, in an exaggerated pantomime of dejection. Naturally, this did not set a very fast pace.
“Now!” Tellwyrn shouted. He shuffled faster, taking off at a near run, still with his arms hanging limply and head down.
“Are you seeing the problem, here?” said Ruda.
“He has no respect for rules!” Fross added shrilly. “Not even basic standards of civilized behavior! I don’t think he even gets how to—”
“Enough,” Tellwyrn said flatly, with enough force that they all fell silent. She tilted her head down, staring at them over the rims of her spectacles. “Admestus Rafe has created a limited anti-death potion.”
There was a moment’s silence.
“That’s impossible,” Ruda finally scoffed.
“Wait, anti-death?” Gabriel paused to yawn, scratching his head. “Isn’t that just, y’know…medicine?”
“Miss Punaji, you seem to have done some out-of-class reading,” said Tellwyrn. “Care to take this one?”
Ruda scowled at her, but answered grudgingly. “Medicines are made to treat specific problems. An anti-death potion is just that: it prevents death. If you take one, anything that would cause death just doesn’t affect you.”
“Huh,” Gabe said, then blinked owlishly. “Wait…how’s that even work?”
“It fucking doesn’t!” Ruda exclaimed. “It’s like eight different kinds of tautologically impossible. It’s a myth, like the Philosopher’s Stone.”
“Actually, Philosopher’s Stones are real,” said Professor Tellwyrn, “but the Empire tends to disappear people who have them, since manufacturing gold on any significant scale would implode the economy overnight. But back to the topic at hand, yes, anti-death potions are quite impossible; they violate several physical and magical laws. And yes, Admestus Rafe created one.”
She let that sink in for a moment, panning her gaze around them. Several of the assembled freshmen still barely looked awake, but they were all quiet, now, and paying attention. “Your professors at this University were offered employment here because they are the best living practitioners of whatever art they teach,” she went on at last. “They were not selected for their academic qualifications.” She glanced over at Rafe, who was now standing on his head, facing out at the Golden Sea. “…or social skills. The exception being Professor Yornhaldt, who is one of the greatest teaching mages alive, but honestly I hired him to be a calming influence on this place. Regardless, before you start getting uppity, be aware of who you’re dealing with, and why they deserve some respect.”
“Well, that’s all well and good,” said Fross, “I mean, he’s good at alchemy, that’s very impressive, but we’re not doing alchemy on this trip unless someone gave me the wrong assignment parameters, which I’m gonna be really mad if that’s true because that’s a mean thing to do to someone. We’re basically doing wilderness survival with miscellaneous other tasks and maybe someone who’s good with alchemy and doesn’t have the most basic social skills isn’t the best choice for keeping eight students alive in the depths of a huge, endless magical prairie?”
“Ah, but that’s not his job,” Tellwyrn replied, holding up one finger. “It’s yours. This is something of a dry year; ordinarily I have a much bigger freshman class to deal with. However, even just the eight of you are a force to contend with. You’ve heard a lot about the dangers of the Golden Sea, and what you’ve heard was not exaggerated, but keep it firmly in mind that as long as you don’t fall to backstabbing each other you rank high among those dangers. Follow Juniper’s lead on outdoor survival issues and Trissiny’s in a combat situation. Let Shaeine and Toby handle any negotiations that you need to do. You’ll be fine.”
“And the rest of us are what, chopped liver?” Ruda asked sourly.
Tellwyrn grinned at her. “You each have a valuable role to play, as anyone can attest who’s tried to play a game of chess without pawns.”
“Oh, fuck you.”
“While Professor Rafe does have some friends and contacts out in the Golden Sea which may prove useful to you, all that is secondary.” Tellwyrn laced her fingers together in front of her stomach, looking smug. “He is there to watch you, not watch over you, and report back on your performance pertaining to the core classes in which you’ll be given credit for this outing: history, combat, magic and herbalism. In short, you’re going out there to deal with people, fight things, contend with local magical forces and make use of native plants. Your assignment, kids, is to have an adventure.”
“That’s just idiotic,” Gabriel groused. “This is the twelfth century. Nobody does that anymore.”
“I kind of want to,” Juniper piped up. “It sounds like fun!”
“In a sense, yes, a journey into the Golden Sea is a journey into the past,” said Tellwyrn. “You’re accustomed to living in a settled, civilized world, full of mortal laws and the institutions that enforce them.”
“Um, excuse me, but—”
“Except Juniper and Fross,” Tellwyrn amended. “The point is, the Golden Sea is a patch of land where such things have never taken hold, and likely never will, nor can. Testing yourself in such a state of existence will give you a firsthand idea what life was like for your ancestors. More to the point, it will give you the opportunity to strengthen and harden yourself as they had to merely to survive. There is a tradeoff, students, for living in a comfortable world of systems. You gain numerous assets and advantages from being part of an advanced society, but you are denied the opportunity to develop the toughness and inventiveness that people in less fortunate societies must. I intend to see that you go out into the world with the advantages of both. I’m setting you up to win at life, kids. Kindly stop bitching at me about it.”
“I would rather you didn’t use that word.”
“Oh, give it a rest, Trissiny,” Tellwyrn sighed. “Anyhow, we are done here. There’s your guide…the skinny man now doing cartwheels in the grass…and there’s the Golden Sea. Off with you, try not to get killed, don’t stab each other in the back. I’ll be up here enjoying some peace and goddamn quiet.”
“Does she know there are other students on this campus?” Gabriel asked as Tellwyrn turned to go.
“Shh,” said Ruda, grinning. “She’s making a dramatic exit. Respect the exit, man.”
Rafe must have heard them approaching, assuming those ears of his weren’t merely decorative, but he didn’t turn around until the eight freshmen came to a stop right behind him, several dropping their backpacks to the grass. He stood, silently, staring out into the Golden Sea.
“We live in fishbowls,” the alchemy professor intoned quietly. A soft wind blew across the prairie, making his golden hair shimmer along with the waves of tallgrass, both gleaming in the orange light of a new sunrise. “Our lives are ordered, structured, safe. We are fed, provided for, housed, and in return our labors go to sustain the grand machine of civilization. It makes us healthier…in some ways stronger. More secure. But we forget, sometimes, just who and what we are. And so, my children, we embark on this voyage into the great beyond, into the last of the wilds, where there will be no one to catch us where we fall. We will live as animals, as savages. We will live. I say unto you…” He slowly raised both arms from his sides, extending them fully as if to embrace the prairie itself, and drew in a deep breath.
“BEHOLD!” shouted nine voices in unison.
Rafe turned around to face them, grinning broadly. “See, this is why I love you guys. You get me.”
“You’re not that complicated, man,” said Gabriel.
“All right, kids,” the professor said, suddenly brisk and all business. “Grab your satchels and your asses, we are out of here! Let’s go grub around in some dirt. ONWARD TO GLORY!”
He took off at a run into the prairie, not even turning to see if they followed.
“Yup,” Ruda said fatalistically. “Everybody remember that I called it. We are going to fucking die.”
As if to prove that nature itself bore him a grudge, vast improbabilities aligned such that neither the region’s interminable rains nor the discharges of the city’s magical factories blotted out the sky on the morning that, a little after seven, Bishop Darling’s bedroom drapes were flung open. Brilliant, hateful sunlight burst in upon his peace like a stampede of buffalo.
“GRAAAUGH!” he roared, coming awake in the most unpleasant manner he could remember. Sleep-addled, Darling tried to throw off his blankets with one hand while pulling them over his head with the other, succeeding brilliantly in entangling himself. “PRICE! What in the fell hell are you doing?!”
“Good morning, your Grace,” his Butler said crisply, stepping away from the windows and beginning to swiftly lay out a suit from his wardrobe.
“What bloody time is it?”
“Nearly two hours before your Grace’s customary breakfast. You have a visitor. I took the liberty of installing her in the downstairs parlor.”
“Visitaaaaaaaarh.” The word was mangled by an enormous yawn, but at least he finally managed to extricate himself from his blankets. “She? Who in Omnu’s flaming name would be daft enough to barge in here at this hour?”
“One of the young talents at the Pink Lady, a Miss Rose.”
He blinked, then frowned. “Wh… Rose knows how to get in touch with me. There are channels, procedures. She also knows damn well better than to show up here.”
“Indeed, your Grace has spoken positively of her wits and discretion. The young lady appears quite distraught. I gathered that the circumstances must be exceptional and took the liberty of awakening your Grace, lest the matter should require immediate attention.”
“Right,” he said, shook his head to clear away the fog of sleep, and then repeated more firmly, “right. Good thinking, Price. I’ll dress, you brush.”
“Very good, your Grace.”
He tossed aside his silk pajamas and stuffed himself into one of Sweet’s better suits, an only slightly shabby outfit in royal blue and maroon. Price darted about him like an efficient hummingbird, sorting his sleep-tousled hair into a semblance of a proper order.
“Shoes,” he asked, looking around for them, as they finished this joint task. Price handed him a pair of slippers. “…really?”
“Laces are a relatively time-consuming prospect, your Grace. Perhaps we ought not leave the young lady to wait too long.”
Darling rolled his eyes, but dropped the slippers to the ground and stepped into them. “She’s not gonna steal anything, Price. The girl’s not an idiot.”
“As you say, your Grace.”
“You are such a snob. You know that?” Rubbing the last traces of sleep from his eyes, he strode toward the door.
“As you say, your Grace.”
Price managed to barge in front of him diffidently—really, Butler training was astounding—and by the time he had reached the bottom of the stairs, was in position to open the door of the downstairs parlor for him with a bow.
It was the less impressive of the rooms in which he entertained guests, but only Bishop Darling’s guests were entertained here; Sweet went to where the people were, rather than bringing them to him. As such, the room’s thick carpet, ornate wallpaper, expensive furniture and assortment of art and knickknacks made it probably the most sumptuous room this guest had ever visited
She was standing with her back to the door, studying a silver idol of Eserion that stood over the mantle, which was about two feet above her head, treating him to a view of a pleasingly plump backside and an upper back left almost entirely bare by the uniform of her trade. Gods above, had she come in the front door? There’d be hell to pay with the neighbors… Rose jumped like a startled rabbit on his arrival, though, spinning to face him, and he felt a twinge of alarm. She was ordinarily one of the most unflappable people he knew. She had to be, in her line of work.
It grew worse as he took in the sight of her face. Tears had melted her makeup into a hideous mudslide, and apparently hadn’t stopped flowing. She looked… It was hard to pin a name to the emotion ground into her features, but it was clearly something on the ragged edge of trauma.
“Sweet,” she cried desperately, taking a stumbling step toward him. “I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t’ve come, I’m sorry, but I-I-I didn’t know what to do! She’s dead, it’s such a mess… Oh, Light, she’s dead, it was just awful, I never saw nothing anything like… I never imagined… And there’s police and Imps all over, and the girls are all a wreck and Light, I hated to leave ’em but I didn’t know what to do, you’re the only one I could think of…”
“Rose!” He crossed the room in three long strides and knelt to take her gently by the shoulders, holding her gaze with his own. In ordinary circumstances it was one of the worst possible things you could do with a dwarf, short of pissing in their beer; they tended to take poorly to being reminded of any difference in stature. Rose, though, was clearly on the edge of an utter breakdown. She collapsed against him, dissolving in sobs, and he rocked her gently, heedless of what the mix of mascara and snot was inevitably doing to his suit.
“It’s okay, doll, you’re safe right now. I need you to stiffen up for just a bit, though, all right? We’ve gotta figure out what to do and I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s up. Price, fetch us some brandy?”
Gently, he eased her back. “Can you hold on for just a bit longer for me, love? I know you can, you’re the strongest person I’ve ever met.” She nodded, gulped, and gasped for air, choking back another sob. “That’s my girl. Now start at the beginning, tell it slow. What happened? Who’s dead?”
Rose gulped again, and drew in a shuddering breath, staring up into his eyes. “It’s Missy, Sweet. She…it was murder. They butchered her!”
He was the first one off the coach when it rolled to a stop, but held the door open for the other passengers politely. Eager as he was to get the hell out of that hot, dusty, rattletrap prison, good manners were important. Without them, a body was likely to piss off the wrong people and alienate all the others. No way to do business.
The man in the cheap suit smiled politely at expressions of thanks from the old Army officer and the aging lady in the severe gray dress, and then much more warmly at her young charge. He didn’t quite dare go any further, though she was a lovely little piece, and had been shooting him increasingly daring grins all through yesterday. Poor girl was too sleep-struck to carry on their silent flirtation now; he was the only one who hadn’t managed to nod off during the overnight ride. Ah, well, nothing could have come of it anyway, though he did treat himself to a long appraisal of her rear as she collected her luggage and made her way into the town.
His own suitcase was the last to be handed down. The discourtesy of it rankled, even as it suited his purposes; he wanted to pause here and get a good look at Last Rock before getting down to work.
A wooden footbridge arched over the Rail line from the coach stop, which was the only thing on this side of the line from the town itself. This was where the road was, and for some damn fool reason the Imperial Survey had decided the Rail was of more import to the town than the means of transportation favored by honest folk since time immemorial. Not that he was honest folk by any means, but it was the principle of the thing. He could have made this journey in minutes rather than days had he taken the Rail, but he had ridden that damnable contraption once before, and it had been plenty. How anybody got out of it without broken bones was mystery to him.
He accepted his suitcase from the driver with a curt nod and turned away, noting the man’s clenched jaw at the lack of a tip and not caring. The guy would be on the road again soon and he’d never see him again, so why waste the effort, or the copper? Plenty of both would be needed in the town in the days to come. Settling his hat over his slicked-back hair, he set off for the footbridge.
The mountain was an awe-inspiring sight, especially with the University clinging to its peak, though he couldn’t see that as well from this close up, what with the angle of the mount itself. Still, the University wasn’t his business, at least not directly. His firm orders were to stay the hell away from it.
Crossing the bridge, he made his way right for the first tavern he saw, a place with a sign proclaiming it the Ale & Wenches. Sounded like his kind of spot.
Inside, the A&W was asleep, as all reasonable taverns were at not nearly long enough after sunrise. A groggy-looking boy was busy sweeping up the floor, and raised his head to blink stupidly at him as he entered.
“Mornin’,” the man said politely, tipping his hat. No telling who this kid was or who he knew; no use getting off on the wrong foot, though the Big Guy knew the little shit looked like he didn’t have two brain cells to rub together. “I’m lookin’ for a place to stay for a spell. Got any rooms to let?”
“Uh…” The kid blinked and stared at him, and the man repressed a spike of aggravation. Really, this was no worse than he’d expected from this little cowpat town on the very edge of nowhere. “Uh, rooms’re a silver piece a night, or five fer the week. An’, uh, I’ll need a name.”
“Jeremiah Shook,” he said, still polite despite the rising urge to slap some of the stupidity out of the boy. “And if it’s not too much trouble, maybe you can help me find a friend of mine I’m lookin’ for. Heard she was settled around these parts. Name’s Principia?”
At that, the kid straightened up, suddenly a lot more alert. “You know Prin?” Oh, we wasn’t just alert. He was alarmed.
Thumper permitted himself the luxury of an honest grin, not caring how it seemed to unsettle his new acquaintance. This was the place, all right. Maybe, just maybe, he’d be able to have a little fun with this job after all.
Within the town, only the scrolltower was taller than the church steeple; as such, Principia was the first person to experience the sunrise. It illuminated her and her perch from the east, warm orange light causing the crystalline coating of the ankh atop the structure to burst into radiant life, then sliding progressively down the steeple, doing interesting things to the subtle highlights in her black hair. Even looking north as she was, it would have been half-blinding to a human. Her eyes, of course, had no trouble.
She leaned back against the sloping wooden obelisk, arms folded across her chest, heels resting on the tiny lip at the base of the steeple. Wind blew errant locks of her hair loose from the tight ponytail into which she’d pulled it, but she ignored this. It wasn’t strong enough to affect her balance.
The elf watched, face intent, as the small column of people set out from the base of the mountain, heading into the Golden Sea. They weren’t setting much of a pace; it took hours for them to vanish over the horizon. Still she stood there, motionless as a gargoyle, as the wind faded, the day heated, dew turned to steam and the ruddy glow of sunrise turned into the steadily hot glare of day. Not until the town had come fully alive did she finally move. Even her elven eyes could no longer see the students.
Principia leaned her head back, looking momentarily up into the bright blue sky, and sighed softly.
“Keep her safe. Just for a while longer. Please.”
She kicked herself carelessly forward, dropping down to the sloping roof of the church, slid down its shingles on her heels, and plummeted to the alley below, where she landed as silently and gracefully as a cat.
Whistling, she strolled off down the street, returning greetings from her fellow townsfolk with her customary insouciance. Just a pretty young woman without a care in the world.
“What is it?” he asked as the younger man abruptly straightened.
“Thought I saw something…”
“I don’t… Nothing. It’s nothing. Just a flicker, I must’ve been imagining it.”
The sergeant grunted. “Write up a report.”
Private Carstairs cringed. “Aw, for…sir, there’s nothing to write. It was nothing.”
“You saw something. I saw you see it. Write the goddamn report, son.”
“But…I wouldn’t know what to write! It was…just a flicker out the corner of my eye. Probably just my lack of sleep—”
He fell silent as the sergeant rounded on him, clenching his jaw.
“I’m hearing a lot of ‘wah wah boo boo’ and not nearly enough ‘yes sir,’ private. Do you know what that fucking thing is?” He pointed below at the object of their surveillance. “That is a fucking hellgate. If you saw a flicker of movement, you write a fucking report. If you get a mysterious itch on your ass while looking in its general direction, you write a fucking report. ImCom gets a report whenever a titmouse so much as farts on this site, you understand? They will decide what is and is not significant, and they’ll know what to decide between because for every event, there is a GOD BUTTFUCKING DAMNED REPORT. Just as soon as Lord Vex starts to give a bloody shit what you think about anything, he’ll come down here and give you your promotion. Until that time, son, you will write your reports, and you will never, ever, require a superior officer to repeat himself when giving you an order. Am I INESCAPABLY clear?”
“Sir, yes, sir!” Carstairs shouted, saluting, and scrabbled for the pad of incident forms in its waterproof box affixed to one of the walls of their watchtower. He fumbled out his pen and bent over the railing, scribbling furiously, while the sergeant turned with a grunt to glare at the apparently empty stone platform the tower overlooked.
“Watch that penmanship, private.”
“And when your shift is over, report to the latrine. I’ll be along in an hour to inspect it, and if I find it in a lesser state of cleanliness than that which is suitable to serve tea to the Empress upon, I will redo it myself using your goddamn face. Understood?”
“I hear a distressing lack of enthusiasm, private.”
“YES, SIR! Thank you, sir!”
Below them, Elilial had paused in strolling past their watchtower to listen in on this exchange, and laughed delightedly. Tilting her head back, she blew a kiss up at the tower before continuing on her way into the heart of Imperial territory. Her hooves left no mark on the ground, and the soldiers, of course, neither saw nor heard her.
But the crystal scrying orbs on each corner of the tower did.