Three broad doors were positioned between four fluted columns leading from the front of the Temple of Avei, facing Imperial Square, into its great hall; four Silver Legionnaires stood at attention at the base of each column. They studied Darling’s party curiously as he entered, but made no move to challenge him. The temple was open to all, at least in theory, and though more of its visitors than otherwise were women, all sorts of people revered the goddess of war and justice.
Of course, not many were elves, he reflected as the guards’ eyes passed him to fix on Flora and Fauna, and didn’t move away as quickly. Then again, it might have been how they were dressed.
The great hall was of a standard layout for large temples; rectangular with its entrance on a short side, lined with columns and stained glass windows depicting scenes or iconography relevant to its deity. The central section rose at least four stories to an arched roof, its upper floor lined by balconies. Behind the columns on the ground floor lay shaded areas lined with benches, suitable for prayer, meditation or simply resting in the presence of the goddess. At the far end from the door a raised dais held a towering bronze statue of Avei, dressed in full battle armor and wearing a thoughtful expression.
Darling wondered what the Avenists would say if he told them their goddess had taken to wearing modern uniform, last time he’d seen her.
They were certainly everywhere, as befit the temple of their goddess. In most temples one could see priests here and there, moving about to maintain the sanctuary and speak with visitors, and there were several white-robed Sisters doing just that. However, the Legionnaires in their bronze armor were a more imposing presence, one standing at the base of each column, two flanking every door from the main room, and several patrolling the balconies above. There were more armed women present and standing at attention than visitors, as far as he could tell at a glance.
He and the elves accrued more than their share of attention in passing, which partly had to do with his direct, purposeful gait down the center of the temple, heading for the dais at the end and the priestess currently on duty overseeing the main sanctuary. There was also their attire. Darling felt a little off-kilter in his suit, which was well-tailored and in perfect condition, but a bit flashier than was fashionable. It blurred the lines between his roles as Sweet and the Bishop, which always made him uncomfortable, but it couldn’t be helped; a blur between those roles was exactly what this mission called for. The girls, however, were obviously armed and ready for trouble, in simple shirts and slacks with heavy boots, thick leather vests that verged on a kind of armor, and several obviously placed knives, including long hunting knives at their belts that verged on short swords in terms of their dimensions. The Temple of Avei saw no shortage of armed women, but thanks to popular fiction about life on the prairie, the sight of armed elves was enough to make most Imperial citizens nervous. Indeed, as they passed, the Legionnaires fixed their attention on his group and several other people quickly and quietly retreated into the shade behind the columns.
Nobody moved to follow them, however. At the far end of the chamber, a tall blonde woman stood below and just to the right of the great statue, watching him with a closed expression. She wore the simple white robes of Avei’s clergy, but unless he missed his guess, those broad shoulders and lean limbs were the result of plenty of time spent in armor.
“Good morning,” Darling said courteously, coming to a stop a respectful distance from her and bowing. “My name is—”
“I know who you are, Bishop Darling,” the priestess said coolly. “To what do we owe this…” She hesitated, her eyes flicking from him, to Flora, then to Fauna and finally back. “…this?” Avenists and Eserites seldom interacted in civil circumstances. He doubted she had ever seen a member of the Thieves’ Guild walk brazenly into a temple of Avei before.
“I realize this is quite abrupt and I do apologize,” he said, keeping his expression calm and open. He had one that fairly dripped sincerity, but that would only make her suspicious. Well, more suspicious. “I wouldn’t trouble you if the matter were less than urgent. I need to speak with the High Commander. With apologies, as quickly as she can accommodate me.”
The woman’s eyebrows rose. “Do you now,” she said, visibly unimpressed. “And what urgent business could you possibly have with her?”
“I’m afraid that is rather sensitive. It’s best not to repeat it in front of more ears than absolutely necessary.”
“I’m afraid you’re not getting any further unless I decide you have something to say worth the High Commander’s time. As intriguing as this development is, your cult has a well-earned reputation for trickery and general foolishness.”
“I assure you, this is no trick.”
“Less meaningful words were never spoken.”
He had to grin at that, an unfeigned expression of amusement. “Heh, fair enough. I’m not trying to put anything over on you, however. The truth is, I came here to ask for help, and ward off a potential problem down the line. Certain…members of my cult have removed themselves from under our authority, and we have reason to suspect they may impact your interests.”
“Again, this is sensitive…”
“Do,” she repeated firmly, “tell.”
He sighed. “If you’re not familiar with the name Principia Locke, I suspect the High Commander will—ah, but I see you are.”
Her eyes had narrowed to slits. She regarded him in silent thought for a moment, then turned her head to one side. “Lieutenant Faseraan,” she said to the Legionnaire standing silently at attention nearby, “kindly keep our…guests…company while I carry the Bishop’s message to High Commander Rouvad.”
“I appreciate your help,” Darling said sincerely, bowing again.
“Don’t thank me,” the priestess said cryptically, then turned and strode away toward a door hidden in the shadow of a pillar. He noted her gait, reaffirming his previous assessment; that was an ex-soldier. Well, most of the higher-ranking Avenists were. He turned his attention back to the Legionnaire with a bland smile—watching a woman walk away in an Avenist temple was asking for all kinds of trouble. The soldier simply stared at him without expression, maintaining a grip on her spear.
Keeping him company consisted, then, entirely of keeping him out of trouble. Well, he hadn’t really expected more than that.
“Will they try to disarm us?” Fauna asked quietly.
“Nope,” he replied. “And there is no ‘try.’ If they decide we need to be disarmed, that’s what will happen. They won’t, though.”
She shifted, scowling. “We’ll see.”
Darling laughed softly. “I promise you, they don’t need us disarmed. These women practice war the way you practice…” He looked over at her. “Hell, they practice war in a way unlike you’ve probably ever done anything in your life. Trust me, ladies, if you want us all to die, draw a weapon in here. Am I right?” he added to the Lieutenant, not expecting a response.
“Yes,” she said simply, meeting his gaze. He gave her a carefully constructed grin—unthreatening, amused, amiable—and got nothing in response. Still, he’d gotten her to speak. He’d call this encounter a success.
They were kept waiting for a full half an hour. Patience was an essential virtue in thieves, as was the ability to keep track of time. His two apprentices hadn’t yet learned the latter skill, though, and grew visibly more restless as time passed, which contributed to their being left alone. At least, he strongly suspected the presence of the pacing, scowling elves was the reason nobody came to add an offering to those accumulating on the steps below Avei’s dais.
For his part, Darling amused himself engaging in brief one-sided conversations with the Lieutenant, which was an exercise in people skills by itself. The goal was to get her to warm up to him a bit without irritating her, a fine line to tread. When taking breaks from that so as not to wear out her patience, he idly performed coin tricks, rolling doubloons across the backs of his fingers, making them appear and disappear and in one case pulling one out of Flora’s ear. She didn’t seem to think that was as amusing as he did.
Finally, however, the priestess returned.
“It seems the High Commander has time for you after all, Bishop,” she said evenly, her face betraying no hint of what she thought about this. “Best not to keep her waiting.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he said smoothly, bowing again for good measure. “Lead on.”
The last was a subtle dig at her hospitality, as she had already turned and was striding away through the door again. Gathering up his apprentices with a gesture, Darling followed. As they stepped into a cool, shadowed hallway, two Legionnaires fell into step behind them.
It was not a short walk, which made sense; the mortal leader of the faith was unlikely to keep her personal offices near the main sanctuary where anyone might wander in. He noted with approval that their route was relatively direct, however, with no nonsensical detours, switchbacks or attempts to disrupt his sense of direction. Some would do that when hosting known members of the Guild, which was insulting on several levels. They did, however, keep to halls, not passing any barracks, training rooms or anything that provided a view into the temple’s inner workings.
Finally, though, a few floors up and many halls down, the priestess stopped before a tall door flanked by two more Legionnaires and rapped.
“Enter,” said a crisp voice from within. The priestess turned the latch and pulled the door open, stepping aside to gesture him through.
“Thanks,” he said politely to her, stepping into the office as directed, his two apprentices right on his heels. He’d been unsure whether they would be allowed into the High Commander’s company with him; their presence was a bonus to the operation he had planned, but not essential. No effort was made to hold them back, however.
Farzida Rouvad sat behind a massive oaken desk with her hands folded on its surface, staring contemplatively at him. Though her position and ceremonial armor mostly concealed it, he knew her to be a woman of middling height and the wiry, compact build of a lifelong soldier. Her skin was bronze, hair black except where streaks of gray began to speckle it. Darling couldn’t have put an age to her at a glance; her face was only faintly lined, at the corners of her eyes and mouth, indicating a propensity to smile that wasn’t currently displayed, but those piercing eyes belonged on someone who had seen and survived many decades of troubles.
Four Legionnaires stood in the office, one at each corner. So some preparation had been made for his visit, after all. He would never believe they were kept there at attention all the time. Many nobles and some cults were prone to such displays, but Avenists were far too pragmatic.
“High Commander,” he said, bowing deeply. “I greatly appreciate you making time to speak with me. I’d have written ahead, but…well, what would be the point?”
“Simple courtesy, if nothing else,” she replied calmly. “I’m not sure why you assume you wouldn’t be shown the same consideration as any representative of a god of the Pantheon. I know a surprise attack when I see one, Darling; I take it you expected to be delayed if we had advance warning of your coming.”
“The thought crossed my mind,” he said with a faint grin.
Rouvad shook her head. “That’s not how we do things. Please, sit, and let’s discuss this help you say you need.”
Nodding his thanks, he pulled out the single chair before her desk and sat down, the elves coming to flank him from behind. “I hope you’ll pardon the presence of my apprentices. I am rarely in a position to do one-on-one diplomacy with a high priestess; it’s a learning opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
“Happy to be of service,” she said dryly.
“I’ll come right to the point, then,” Darling said, leaning forward to look at her intently. “We need information. Really just the answer to a question. Is Principia Locke really Trissiny Avelea’s mother?”
She stared at him in silence for a long moment. He was impressed; this woman was even more tightly controlled than the Empress. Well, then again, there was no reason that should be surprising.
“Biologically, yes, she is,” Rouvad said finally. “The concept of motherhood covers a great deal more than the biological, however. What an oddly specific query, Bishop Darling. Would you care to elaborate on the circumstances that make this urgent?”
“Oh, hell,” he muttered. “And yes, of course. I intended to anyway, but I’d been hoping to find out Prin was just pulling one of her tricks again. We may have a problem.”
“I’m afraid so.” He set his face in grim lines. “I’ll just tell you the whole story; there’s nothing to be gained by dissembling at this point. Principia has been stationed in Last Rock for the past three years. She asked for the posting, and we sent her there without asking why. Frankly, most of us were happy enough to see her go. She’s always been faithful, but…difficult. Fond of practical jokes and not one to take orders well.”
“I am better acquainted with her records than you may suspect,” Rouvad said.
“Right. Well, anyway, she was just mouldering out there until very recently, when the Guild had need to keep aware of events surrounding Professor Tellwyrn. In response to developments with the Black Wreath; it seemed likely their next move would be in Tellwyrn’s vicinity.”
He paused for commentary, but Rouvad only nodded. Of course, as the head of her cult, she was privy to a great deal. Many expressed surprise at hearing of the Thieves’ Guild taking any action toward the greater good, but interfaith cooperation against the Wreath predated the Universal Church by centuries, if not millennia. Eserites had formed the de facto intelligence branch of several joint efforts over the years.
“To do this,” he went on, “we sent another agent, Jeremiah Shook, primarily to keep Locke on task while she attempted to gain information.”
“How interesting,” said Rouvad. “I’ve of course had reports of these events, but your Guild is a vague presence in the background of them. It’s not often I get to hear your own perspective.”
“If you’ve been getting reports, then, I won’t bother you with a description of what went down in Last Rock. Both our agents chased out, independent agitators involved, Tellwyrn antagonized. The bear well and truly poked, in other words. What becomes interesting is the report we received days later, claiming that Principia had hired an outside contractor to disrupt our operations and chase off her fellow agent.”
Rouvad raised her eyebrows. “I see.”
“I’m not going to claim we’re as disciplined an outfit as you lot,” Darling said grimly, “but that kind of behavior is obviously unacceptable.”
“So we went our man Shook to find and retrieve Locke under his own initiative.” He sighed heavily. “And then we got a letter from Principia herself. She explained the whole thing from her perspective, beginning with her interest in being in Last Rock: she claimed to be the mother of the new Hand of Avei, looking to reconnect with her estranged daughter. Then she claimed that Shook forced her actions with brutality and…and threats of sexual violence.”
He paused to swallow. There came a faint shifting of the soldiers in the corners of the room, which was as good as a chorus of jeers considering their famous discipline. Rouvad’s expression darkened just perceptibly.
“Let me assure you,” Darling went on, “that we do not—”
“Stop.” She held up a hand. “You’re about to launch into a tedious explanation of how well you treat women and how you don’t stand for this kind of behavior. I’m well aware that your cult has never discriminated by sex in its practices, and I’m also aware of what you do to rapists caught in your ranks. I’m not impressed and don’t care to hear about it. Summary execution is not justice. Let’s keep this conversation focused on the matter at hand. I take it you have some additional support for Principia’s claims?”
“Nothing conclusive,” he admitted. “But with you confirming her story about Trissiny, the circumstantial evidence is starting to be pretty damning. In addition to that, questioning Shook’s acquaintances suggests this is a pattern of behavior for him.”
“And you didn’t know this before sending him out?” she said disdainfully.
Darling shrugged fatalistically. “Thieves aren’t soldiers, Commander. It’s not easy getting our people to squeal on each other. For any reason.”
She shook her head. “Then you have both Principia and this Shook at large.”
“And we’re working to bring them both in,” he said, nodding, “but Prin was actively running from us to begin with, and while we haven’t gotten confirmation that Shook’s received his orders to come home…the feeling among our leadership is he’s not going to. He’s a wee bit obsessive, and well… Prin made quite the fool of him in Last Rock.”
“Naturally,” Rouvad said dourly. “And what is it you want from me?”
“Well, to begin with, I was under the impression you were after Principia yourselves. Apparently approaching Trissiny the way she did was directly contrary to your cult’s orders.”
“There are offenses that demand punishment, and then there are offenses that are best dealt with by letting the offender…get lost. Obviously we acted to protect Trissiny while she was still, effectively, a child. But she can take care of herself, now. And the Sisterhood has no legal prerogative to bar Principia’s access to her, nor to punish her for her actions.”
“Well,” he said slowly. “There’s that, then. All that leaves, I suppose, is keeping you in the loop. If your cult should happen to get hold of either of them, or even a rumor of their passing, we would greatly appreciate being informed.”
“We would,” he said firmly. “This is a thorny tangle that needs to be unsorted carefully, but anyone potentially getting into the middle of it should be aware of the realities. Principia, at least, deserves some consideration and protection, and Shook… Well, it’s probably best to put him someplace dark and quiet until we verify just what he is or isn’t guilty of and deal with that.”
“Mm. I do, in fact, appreciate you bothering to inform me,” Rouvad said. “I’ll let it be known that this Jeremiah Shook is a person of interest in a case of sexual assault; that will make it more difficult for him to move freely wherever Avei has followers.” Which, she didn’t need to add, was everywhere; Avei was a deity of the Trinity and patron, specifically, of all those in the military and legal professions. “Principia, of course, is a woman and entitled to any Avenist temple’s protection at need. I rather doubt she will take advantage, however.”
“Probably not,” he said with a sigh.
“What brought this on, Darling?” Rouvad asked. Those eyes were no less penetrating, but her voice was softer, more inquisitive. “It’s…out of character.”
“Yes, well, I told the Boss I had something unconventional in mind,” he said with an easy grin. “What’s more surprising from thieves than simple, straightforward honesty?”
“Little,” she replied, “hence my curiosity.”
He met her gaze, allowing his own expression to grow sober again. “You could say I’m preparing for the future. The world’s changing on us, Commander. You doubtless know that Elilial is doing something, and I honestly wish I could offer you more insight as to what. Then there are…Church politics.”
“Yes,” she said evenly, “there are always those.”
“We disagree on a lot of subjects, and the nature of our deities does tend to bring us into conflict. I think, however, that it’s a good time for us all to remember that when it comes to the stark matters of good and evil, we are on the same side.”
“Well said,” she replied after a moment’s pause. “And it’s a reminder I will think on.”
“Please do. I won’t keep you any further,” he said, rising. “Unless there’s anything you wish to ask me?”
“If I think of something, I will let you know.” Rouvad smiled, slightly, for the first time.
They were four blocks away before Flora spoke. “Well? How’d we do?”
“Perfect,” he said, turning to them with a grin. “I’m sorry you didn’t get a chance to use your lines in front of the High Commander, but you handled the soldier in the sanctuary perfectly.”
“Did that really make such a difference?” Fauna asked, frowning.
“Ah, ah,” he chided gently, glancing around. This was a quieter street, but there were still people nearby. “I think this conversation calls for more privacy. This way!”
Down an alley, up an exterior staircase and a short expanse of decorative stonework that provided easy handholds out of sight of the main streets, they quickly repositioned themselves on a narrow lip of stone rimming a sharply slanted roof. The view of the city from up here wasn’t one of the more breathtaking, interrupted as it was by taller buildings nearby, but it was still impressive; at this hour the factories were in full swing, discharging arcs of lightning into the sky from their antennae all around.
“Now then, to answer your question,” Darling said, rolling his shoulders. “No, it didn’t make such a difference. The key to cultivating a disguise, or leaving any impression in the minds of people, isn’t usually to make a grand gesture, but rather a lot of smaller, consistent ones. In this case it ended up not mattering much; that soldier’s opinion wasn’t that important, and we didn’t have the chance to build on it. But it was good practice, and an essential habit to be in. You were setting yourselves up as the naïve, somewhat hotheaded apprentices to the Guild in case Rouvad was going to be hostile. You did it perfectly. Remember your role; you’ll need to reprise it if we have occasion to talk with the Avenists again.”
“She didn’t seem aggressive at all,” Flora murmured. “You made it sound like you expected her to have this Principia dragged back in chains.”
“That wasn’t likely, but you can never quite tell with Avenists,” he admitted. “They don’t appreciate having their authority flouted. But it seems the rule of law wins out over ego in this case. Prin shouldn’t be in any danger from them, and now that we’ve laid our own cards on the table, she can’t make them a danger to us. So that’s that much of this mess taken care of, at least.”
“You’re going well out of your way to ensure her safety,” Fauna noted, frowning. “Extenuating circumstances aside, didn’t she betray the Guild?”
“Yes,” he said, frowning into the distance. “Yes, she did, and that will have to be dealt with. But we have to consider the situation. If her story proves true, the Guild betrayed her first.” He turned to face them fully, keeping his face serious to impress on them the importance of what he was saying. “The trust among members of this Guild is sacrosanct. As things stand, the Guild not only let Principia down, it actively placed her in danger without her consent or just reason. We can’t have that, girls; it cannot be allowed to stand. If not for the bond between us, the Guild’s nothing more than a criminal cartel. We look after our own; we don’t abuse our people. This must be put right. As long as it’s left as it is, there’s a breach in all of us.”
“One tribe before the world,” Flora said softly, nodding. “We’re familiar with the concept.”
“It’s something we never expected to be a part of again,” Fauna added, her expression intent. “Anything we can do to help, just say so.”
“Attagirl,” he said, smiling. “Both of you. All right…back to the townhouse for now. We’ve got more to do today, and our next errand requires a costume change.”
For what was essentially an extravagant crypt, the Temple of Vidius was a pleasant place to visit. Vidius was the god of death and duality, patron not only of those who handled the dead, but of all who wore false faces—which included actors. Theatrics were an intrinsic part of his worship, and characterized his cult and their abode.
Positioned directly beneath Imperial Square, the central temple complex was elaborate and easy to get lost in without a guide, but Darling and the elves weren’t going into its deepest recesses. The main sanctuary of the Vidian temple was commonly used as a place of mourning for those passed. It consisted of several galleries, lined with nooks of varying sizes in which small shrines could be set up to commemorate those who had passed. For the right donation, one could have a larger, fancier place of mourning closer to the central hall, but death was impartial to at least some degree. Those who hadn’t the copper to spare for tithes were relegated to little nooks too shallow for a person to fully enter in some back hallway, but the Vidians did not permit any dead to go unmourned or unrecognized, if there was anyone left who wanted to remember them.
Candles lit the galleries of the dead, and flowers were hung everywhere, picked fresh each day and donated by the temple of Omnu, where such things were grown rapidly under the auspices of the sun god. Petals were strewn across the floor like a patchy, shifting carpet, and the scent of flowers, beeswax candles and incense hung pleasantly in the air, along with gentle notes of music which was played at all hours. Primarily harp and flute, the tones were soothing and soft, and echoed throughout the tunnels from cunningly designed alcoves with just the right acoustics to carry their voices as far as possible. Mourners came here to grieve; the priesthood of Vidius believed they should not suffer more than they already were.
There were women in bronze armor here, as well, though not so many. The Silver Legions undertook the protection of followers and temples of gods who did not maintain armed forces of their own. Legionnaires stood at entrances and where hallways met. Darling noted with muted amusement that their posture was much less precise than in their own temple.
Darling followed the black-robed priest somberly, dressed now in his Church robes and with his hair styled in the blond waves of his role as Bishop. Behind him, looking around nervously, came the two elves, simply garbed in dark shirts and slacks. The cult of Eserion had no uniform as such, so they had been free to choose—or, more accurately, have chosen for them by Price—their own attire. There were some quarters of the Empire where women dressing in pants was still considered scandalous, but the Avenist influence in Tiraas was strong enough that no one had looked twice at them. Or, more accurately, no one had looked beyond the pointed ears.
The priest of Vidius led them to a large alcove, almost a whole room unto itself, in the central gallery of the Halls of the Dead. He stopped before it, bowing, and then looked up at Darling with an expression of sympathy that was absolutely unfeigned. “This is the shrine you paid for, Bishop. We have already begun placing offerings sent by many in her temple; she was well-loved, and will be well missed. Others will arrive when the shrine is opened to the public next hour, but you shall have your privacy until then. I share your grief.”
“Thank you,” Darling said softly, nodding to him in acknowledgment. The priest bowed again and retreated. He glanced back at the elves, who were now wide-eyed with trepidation, and firmly gestured them forward, ushering them into the deep alcove.
Darling carefully unbound the heavy draperies hung to either side of the entrance and drew them across the wide opening. Once they were in place, the sounds from without—soft music, soft snatches of conversation and the distant sounds of several people weeping—were cut off by the silencing enchantment laid on them. The privilege of mourning in privacy was one reserved for those who had the coin to devote to their dead.
Flora and Fauna had gone completely stiff, staring at the shrine set up here. Books were the primary offerings left, though there were also the usual flowers and coins. The Vidians had arranged everything quite gracefully; there was an artistic symmetry to the display of volumes stacked about. It was evident at a glance that this was a shrine to honor someone who had loved literature. The hint wasn’t necessary to any of those present, for all that Darling hadn’t told the girls exactly what they were coming for.
In a central position against the far wall, a sizable drawing depicted the smiling, careworn face of Aleesa Asherad, priestess of Nemitoth and head of the Steppe Library. Below and to the right of that, there was even a lightcap, a sepia-tinted scene captured by one of the new enchanted devices that recorded still images. It showed the librarian standing with two uniformed acolytes of Nemitoth, the three of them bent over a huge open book, while Aleesa pointed to something on the page.
Darling crossed the space in a few strides, keeping his pace even and respectfully slow. He passed between the two elves to kneel before the altar, and pulled a book from within his robes. The Exploits, written by the half-elf Ashner Foxpaw, was a favorite among the Thieves’ Guild. They had no scripture as such, keeping the only written copies of their order’s laws within the Guild’s heart itself, but this memoir of one of its most famed members encapsulated the spirit of the Guild, the outlook of thieves and those who strove to live free. Foxpaw’s Exploits had been the inspiration for many to seek out membership in the Thieves’ Guild in the first place, including Antonio Darling. This was his personal, dog-eared copy, which he now laid upon the altar. As per his instructions, the offerings left in the shrine (except the coins, which would go to Vidius’s cult) were to be collected by the cult of Nemitoth when it was time for the shrine to be dismantled. There seemed, to him, something appropriate in the knowledge that his book would find its way to the shelves of Aleesa’s library.
“Say what you need to,” he ordered quietly. “We can’t be overheard here. You needn’t speak out loud if you would rather not, but we all owe her, at bare minimum, the courtesy of a farewell. And I expect you to go beyond the minimum, not for her sake, but for yours.”
“We…” Flora paused to swallow a lump in her throat. “We don’t mourn them. There are…there are just too many. There will always be more, no matter how we try.”
“It would break us,” Fauna whispered. “We decided long ago, we don’t—”
Darling rose and whirled on them; they took a step back from his expression, fiercer than they had ever seen him.
“Then this is where your ways change. You have a Guild to rely upon now, friends who will have your back. You have me, Price, and Style, plus whoever else you grow close to. I swear to you I will help you to get by, and more than get by—to live. Your life is not going to be privation and suffering alone. And that means you will not defer responsibility for your actions.”
Stepping to the side, he gestured at the smiling portrait of Aleesa. “We did this. You, and I. Our mistakes cost this woman her life—this woman who dedicated herself to knowledge, to her students and her god. The world was better because she was in it. We have made it worse by taking her out of it. We will face what we did, and hold ourselves accountable.”
He held their eyes for a few heartbeats, allowing emotion to well up in his normally controlled voice. “You can’t let it harden you, girls. That’s a road to relying on violence, on death, to solve all your problems, and that’s not what we do. It’s no way to live. You have to face what you’ve done. It has to hurt, before it can start healing.
“It starts by saying you’re sorry.”
Darling took each of them gently by the arms and pulled the forward, then down, to kneel beside him. They offered no resistance.
All three said what they needed to Aleesa’s spirit silently. Darling did not weep, but both of the elves did, at length. He stayed there with them, alongside them on his knees, as long as they needed to.