“Thanks, Horace,” Robin said, nodding to him as she squeezed past.
“My pleasure, ma’am,” the slim bartender replied. His tremendous mustache all but hid his smile, but he had the kind of eyes the conveyed it very well on their own. He stood aside, gallantly holding the door to the pantry open for the students.
“I don’t think we’re all gonna fit in there,” Gabriel noted.
“Won’t all be in here…” Robin’s voice from deep within the pantry trailed off, followed by a thunk and then the scrape of something heavy being moved. Then, slowly, the line of students began to shuffle forward.
It was a narrow space and not very deep, lined by shelves which were sadly rather bare at the moment. A few jars of preserved vegetables, two hanging hams, bags of dried beans and rice and several other odds and ends remained—clearly not enough to support the Shady Lady’s population for long. Nobody commented as they filed past, and stepped one by one into the hole at the far end of the pantry, where one of the floor stones had been lifted to reveal a makeshift ladder of rusted steel bars driven into bedrock.
This descended about ten feet into a tunnel, which ironically was more spacious than the pantry had been. There were no torches, but in the relatively small space, Fross’s white glow provided them ample light to see, not that there was much to look at. Once they were all down, Robin darted back up the ladder and pulled shut the hidden door, sealing them into the gloom.
“Right,” she said, descending again and sliding through them to the head of the group. They were in a dead end; she began leading them down the only remaining path. “This way.”
“Oh, really? That way?” Ruda snipped. “You sure you don’t want us to tunnel through the wall?”
“You can try that if you really want. At least you’d be kept busy.” Robin was already vanishing into the darkness ahead, and didn’t turn to look at them when she spoke. They hastened to catch up, especially after Fross fluttered on to keep right behind the elf.
“Joe is more aware of the situation in the elven grove than most of Sarasio’s residents,” she said as they walked. “He didn’t go into it because there is really not much to tell. Elves and humans alike are broadly divided into two camps: those who feel favorably toward the other race, and those who feel otherwise. There is a constant push and pull between them, with the bulk of the population falling somewhere in the middle…some apathetic, some prone simply to changing their minds. The only great difference is that while human political movements tend to be volatile by nature, elves… Well, we take the longer view. Most of the grove’s current population has seen entire human generations rise and fall. Dozens of such, in some cases. What seems like an apocalypse to the residents of Sarasio appears more like just another round of tomfoolery to us.”
“Do you agree with that?” Toby asked.
Robin shook her head without turning around. “I do not. That’s why I and a few others have been making use of this tunnel, and several like it. We bring food and supplies to the few secured spots in Sarasio.”
“How many secure spots are there?” Trissiny asked.
“In terms of permanent locations? Just the two, the Shady Lady and the other tavern. Joe is inclined to be modest: I assure you, the men guarding the Lady’s doors are not a deterrent to the White Riders. Even they don’t want to cross wands with the Sarasio Kid, however; most of them have seen him in action. The other meeting spot is likely to be full of armed, drunken townsmen at any time, and while the Riders could perhaps vanquish them if they struck in force, it would be a massacre. They are either reluctant to risk their numbers in a pitched battle or still holding to some code that disallows them to slaughter civilians in bulk.”
“Maybe both?” Toby suggested.
“Maybe.” She shrugged. “I can’t really say how they think. Any other safe spots are mobile and highly temporary. Some of us make an effort to keep an eye on things, look after the humans who deserve protection and won’t, for whatever reason, huddle up with the others. That’s very hard to do, however; as you saw above, my kind are not exactly welcome in Sarasio these days.”
“I bet,” Gabriel said slowly, “that has an effect on how the elves feel about the town.”
“That’s our problem in a nutshell,” she said, nodding. The tunnel began bending slowly to the right and climbing very slightly. “As yet, there are not enough elders in the grove who disapprove of having congress with humans that they can prohibit us. Their camp, however, has gained a great deal of favor in the last year. Even immortals who can remember many generations of human friends will tend to get their backs up when faced with a barrage of threats and insults. We sometimes have more pride than sense.”
“That’s pretty much true of all intelligent races everywhere,” said Ruda.
“So I have noticed. Here we are.” She came to a stop where the tunnel broadened into a roughly circular chamber, lined with dusty old wooden benches. A ladder was propped against one wall, leading up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. Robin darted up this like a squirrel, not causing the rickety thing to so much as shift, and paused with her head just below the portal. “Quiet, please, I need to be sure the other side is clear.”
They stood there somewhat awkwardly, tense and uncomfortable. Even in the relatively broader chamber, there was scarcely room for everybody once they all made it in from the tunnel. Fross began to drift in slow circles around the perimeter of the room, casting shifting shadows across the walls.
“Can you turn down that light?” Robin hissed. “I’m trying to listen.”
The pixie came to a dead stop. “Uh. Why does that—”
Fross chimed once in alarm and whizzed over behind Juniper to hide under her hair, plunging the chamber into blackness.
This was alleviated seconds later when Robin pushed open the trapdoor and peeked out. “All clear,” she said, hoisting herself up. Ruda was the first to follow.
One by one they emerged in the ruins of a barn whose roof had half-collapsed along the back. Once everybody was up, Robin carefully gathered up some of the moldy old straw that lay drifted against the walls and spread it over the trapdoor. Through the numerous gaps in the walls, they could get a general idea of their position: on the farthest outskirts of Sarasio, and not much more distant from the edge of the forest.
“All right,” said Robin finally. “We’d best make this fairly quick; people don’t do much moving around these days, but we can’t be found here. You were seen going to the Lady, and the tunnel will be compromised if anyone puts this together. Arachne said you’re to have free reign, so…what’s your plan?”
They glanced at each other uncertainly.
“We must speak with all factions resistant to the White Riders,” said Shaeine. “Ultimately they will need to be knitted into a single unit.”
“You’ll find that a tall order,” Robin noted.
“Very likely, yeah,” said Toby, nodding. “But she’s right: that’s exactly what we’ll need to do. More beating up bad guys isn’t going to save this town: we need the people here to start being neighbors again.”
“Nothing unites people like a common foe,” Trissiny added. “The Riders may have caused all this trouble, but they are also part of a solution.”
“So you’ll want to talk to the elves and the townspeople?” Robin shook her head. “That’s going to take more time than I think you realize.”
“We can split up, then,” Juniper suggested. She glanced around at the uncertain expressions this brought. “What? It’s a good idea!”
“It’s… Actually, I think you’re probably right,” Trissiny agreed after a moment. “We don’t know what kind of timetable there is for the final dissolution of Sarasio, but people are actively suffering for every hour we waste. I don’t feel good about it, though. As a unit, we’re a match for the Riders and whoever else. I hate to leave people vulnerable.”
“No more than two groups, then,” said Gabe, stroking his chin and frowning into the distance. “Any four of us should be plenty to handle themselves against whatever. In fact…yeah, that’s perfect. Me, Toby, Ruda and Trissiny can talk to the locals, the rest deal with the elves. Remember, these are simple frontier folk, and about half this group will either scare them or piss them off on sight, whereas Triss and Toby, at least, are Hands and have real authority. Ruda’s a pirate and a princess, so she’s awesome twice. I’ll just keep my mouth shut and that’ll be a good group to deal with them.”
“You want to send a drow into an elven grove?” Robin raised her eyebrows. “Either she poisoned your dog or you Imperials do not play gently with your practical jokes.”
“Shaeine’s actually a trained diplomat,” Teal pointed out.
“Trained and accredited,” Shaeine added calmly. “I have credentials and official standing. And my family have managed to have civil, if not terribly productive, conversations with the elders of this particular grove in the last few years. I do not anticipate a problematic reaction to my presence.”
“You’re a kudzu?” Robin asked in surprise. “Well…then yeah, I suppose that’d work.”
“What’s a kudzu?” Ruda demanded.
“A story for another time,” Shaeine said smoothly.
“Not to be a complainer,” said Teal, “but how come you didn’t stick me in the human group?”
“You speak elvish, right?” Gabe said, then winced. “And, uh…remember what I said about scaring or pissing people off?”
“I’m not gonna flare up at them,” she said, exasperated. “I usually don’t. How many times have you even seen Vadrieny?”
“It’s not that,” said Ruda with a broad grin. “Teal, you’re just about the nicest person there is, but a girl with short hair in boy’s clothes says ‘queer as an obsidian doubloon.’ Let’s not give the yokels a reason to get their backs up on sight, yeah?”
Teal narrowed her mouth into a thin, unhappy line, but declined to comment further.
“Having one obvious human in the group to approach the elders is a good idea,” said Robin. “Particularly if you seek to bring them into contact with more humans. Fross and especially Juniper will lend you credibility, as well. I will accompany those of you going into the town, then.”
“Wait, what?” Trissiny frowned. “You’re not going to introduce the rest of them to the elves?”
“Ironic as it may seem,” Robin said dryly, “my help will be more needed in town. The locals know me. Not only will you not find the right people without some guidance, you will never get them to talk to you unless introductions are made by a friendly face. Or, at least, a familiar one. The grove is another matter; they will not throw out visitors, particularly an exotic bunch such as you.”
“Especially if we mention your name?” Juniper said.
Robin shrugged. “That might or might not help. I’m not an important person in the tribe, but to my knowledge I have no enemies. If you appear to be in danger of being expelled, though, unlikely as that is, mention that you are Arachne’s students. Not unless it’s necessary, mind. That will ensure you are treated with a modicum of politeness, but it will not make you any friends.”
“Holy shit,” Ruda said, shaking her head. “Even the other elves are scared of her.”
“It’s more complicated than that, and not something we should get into now. Those of you coming into the town, come along.”
“Wait!” said Fross. “How will we even find the elves?”
Heading out the door of the old barn, Robin paused and grinned back at them over her shoulder. “You won’t. Just head into the trees. You will be found.”
“Your guests have departed, your Grace,” Price intoned, re-entering the dining room.
“Oh, thank all the fucking gods in alphabetical order,” Darling groaned without looking up. He was resting his head in his hands, elbows on the table. It had only taken Price a few minutes to get everybody set up with their coats and politely escorted out. She had not approved of the host’s absence from this little ritual, but Darling’s patience had taken all the punishment it could stand, and he’d sat here, ripping through the file compiled by the Avenists on Principia. He would go over it in more detail later, of course. For now, all he knew for certain was that his active headaches had just multiplied exponentially. “Girls,” he said more calmly. “Kindly rejoin us.”
It took a minute; they’d been upstairs. The elves, of course, didn’t make a sound as they re-entered the room, but Price cleared her throat at their arrival.
Finally, Darling lifted his head and leaned back in his chair. “See what I mean?”
“Yup,” said Flora.
He nodded. “Right. Did you do as I asked?”
“Once again,” Fauna said a little testily, “if any of them had been candidates, we’d have spotted them on our first pass.”
“I remember,” he replied, scowling. “And I asked you to check them out specifically anyway. Did you or did you not?”
“Of course we did,” she said. “And no, they don’t need killing. I wouldn’t describe any of those three as nice people. And frankly, I think we should kill Basra anyway on general principles.”
“For the record!” Flora held up a finger. “I disagree.”
Fauna rolled her eyes. “Right, well, anyhow…no, none of them meet the criteria you set. No shady business that can be linked to either Church or Wreath in any respect. Honestly, no shady business at all. The two women are career politicians, very careful to keep their own fingers clean, and Varanus…” She shook her head. “He’s actually a decent enough fellow, in his ass-backward way.”
“Hmm.” Darling rubbed his chin. “Mind going into a little detail on that?”
“Well, there are some interesting facts,” said Flora. “You said you wanted anything remotely pertinent, right?”
“Yes. Do go on.”
“Okay, so… You know how the Guild sent you to the Bishopric because they wanted a loyal agent close to the Archpope? Well, the Avenists and the Izarites sent Basra and Branwen to get rid of them. Those two are not well liked in their own cults. They just aren’t very devout or much interested in the principles of their goddesses, but they’re good at what they do. Too good to be discarded, and too careful to do anything that deserves punishment. Neither faith takes the Church very seriously, so this is basically latrine-digging duty.”
“Hm. And Andros?”
“Andros…” Fauna twisted her lips in distaste. “Andros is a devout family man. His wives wear collars, call him ‘Sir’ and have to kneel to greet him, but…they’re there voluntarily. The younger one wasn’t even a member of the faith before she fell in love with him. He’s not into anything corrupt because he’s just not a corrupt person. He’s a true believer, like you. His religion is just fucking creepy, is all.”
“And,” Flora added more grimly, “he is a Bishop because the Huntsmen are firmly behind the Archpope and he’s the best they could spare for Justinian’s work.”
Darling frowned deeply. “Now that is fascinating. How certain are you of this intel? Where’d you get it?”
“As certain as we are of anything,” said Fauna.
“A combination of divinations and good old-fashioned listening at keyholes and rifling through people’s mail,” Flora added.
“Excellent work. Fauna, I’m interested in this antipathy you have toward Basra.”
The elf’s face drew into a taut expression of loathing. “She’s heartless.”
“Well, yeah, she’s known to have a mean streak, but…”
“No. No.” She shook her head emphatically. “I wasn’t just being descriptive… Anth’auwa. The word translates as ‘heartless.’ A person without compassion, remorse, without any connection to others. People are just…just objects to her. She plays the game well, but she cares about nothing.”
Darling leaned forward, staring at her intently. “That’s a serious accusation, Fauna. Very serious.”
“You know what I’m talking about, then?”
“With regard to Basra in particular? Not as such. I’m familiar with the personality type, though; the Guild tends to attract them. Our whole credo is to live free.”
“What does the Guild do with them?” Flora asked warily.
“It’s one of the few matters for which we trouble the Big Guy,” he admitted. “Generally he wants us to solve our own damn problems, but… For something like this, the absolute certainty of a divine being’s perspective is necessary. Because if we know we’re dealing with one of those, they get a quiet knife across the throat. There’s just not much else you can do with them.”
“Yes. Agreed.” Fauna nodded emphatically. “And that is why we need to kill Basra Syrinx. She cares about no one and has too much self-control to reveal herself. That is a bad combination.”
“Again,” said Flora, frowning at her sister (Darling still thought of them thus for the sake of convenience, though he was fairly sure they weren’t), “I don’t agree. We do not have enough information to diagnose the woman. She’s deceitful and has a mean streak, yes, but…”
“Divinations,” Fauna said stubbornly. “They don’t always show exactly what we ask for. They showed us Basra as a child. Torturing a cat with a knife.” She clamped her lips shut and swallowed heavily. “Children who do such things… It’s a warning sign.”
“Flora’s right,” he said. “That’s not conclusive. But!” He held up a hand as she opened her mouth to argue. “I do respect your insight, Fauna. In addition to the solid information you’ve given me, this about Basra is very much worth knowing, whether or not she proves to be completely broken in the head. Even if she’s just a rotten bitch, it’s worthwhile to know how deep that rot goes. All right… How’re you doing on your list?”
“We are running out of names,” Flora said. “The good news is the spirits are… Well, glutted. It does accumulate, we’ve tested; after all this slaughter they’re likely to be quiet for a year or more.”
“That,” he said feelingly, “is very good to hear.”
“Do you want us to start scouting for new names?” Fauna asked.
“Hmm…” He stared accusingly at the sideboard for a long moment, eyes narrowed in thought. “How thorough were you the first time around?”
“As much as we could be,” said Flora. “If you want to expand the list… We’re either going to have to broaden our criteria or start looking outside Tiraas.”
“It’s doubly hard because we made it so obvious what the point was,” Fauna added. “The city is all but emptied of crooked clerics who’ve antagonized the Black Wreath. The ones we didn’t do for have seen which way the wind blows and gone to ground.”
“Then no,” he said decisively, “don’t go fishing for new names, and especially don’t relax your standards. What matters is we’ve sent the message we meant to. If the killings stop as suddenly as they start, that’ll make it plain that the killers are still in control, operating on their own terms. It suggests they might come back at any time. Fading out, scraping for applicable targets…that just looks desperate. Weak.”
The elves nodded in unison.
“I’m gonna have other problems in the immediate future.” He picked up his still-clipped sheaf of papers with Basra’s list of the Empire’s most dangerous and heavily-armed loners. “Starting with these jokers. Once again, Justinian has us out beating the bushes to scare out the boars, and I still haven’t decided whether the point of this is to get us killed off, or because we’re actually the people he trusts to get the job done. The answer to that question will tell me a lot about what to do next, which is part of why I was so interested in some intelligence on my fellow Bishops. Basra and Andros, sure, I can see that. The Huntsman and the Legionnaire, they’re both good people to have in a fight. Me, even; thieves are known to be sly, and I’m known to be a good thief. It’s Branwen’s inclusion in the group that keep throwing me off. I am obviously missing something there.”
“The redhead is an utterly useless piece of fluff,” Fauna said dismissively. “You should bone her, though, and have done with it. She’s into you, and not good for much else.”
“While she does look like a cuddly armful,” Flora said with a grin, “I’m not sure I agree about her usefulness. She doesn’t have the same general kinds of talents as the rest of you, which does make all this harder to tease out. But she’s far from useless.”
“Oh?” Darling raised an eyebrow.
“Izarites are good at reading people,” Flora went on. “From there, as I understand it, what they’re supposed to do is help people find whatever answers they need to improve their own lives.”
“I’ve never understood what that has to do with screwing everyone,” Fauna snorted.
“They don’t screw everyone,” Darling said, smiling faintly. “You walk into a Temple of Izara and you’ll be given whatever it is your heart needs. Lots of people, maybe even most, end up getting laid, because the goddess of love seems to think everybody needs to.”
“I think that’d be good for a lot of people,” Flora said, glancing at Price, who didn’t react.
“Thin ice,” Fauna warned.
“I was talking about Style.”
“Sure you were.”
“I’ve known a lot of people who have gone to an Izarite temple and not gotten what they wanted,” Darling went on, “but I have never talked to a single person who walked out disappointed with whatever it was they got. Izarites are good therapists, too, and just good people to talk to. I went to one when I was fifteen, looking to lose my virginity. A beautiful girl gave me a fantastic meal, two hours of good conversation and the best hug I’ve ever had, and I left happier than I could ever remember being.”
“Aww,” they said in unison, beaming.
Darling cleared his throat and straightened in his seat, wiping the reminiscent smile from his face. “Somehow, we’ve wandered off the subject of Branwen.”
“Right, Branwen,” said Flora. “Branwen is good at getting people to do things. Her record suggests she does it for people’s own good, nudging and manipulating people in the direction of their own best interests, but…it makes the other Izarites nervous. They’re not into being that proactive with other people’s lives. Also, she’s kinda vain, which I understand is a pretty big sin over there.”
“I’ve noticed the makeup,” said Fauna. “It’s subtle, but she’s the only Izarite I’ve ever seen who wears any.”
“And that hair. Must take her an hour every morning.”
“I bet she’s not even a redhead.”
“Oh, now, she’d never get away with that. Can you imagine how many, heh, worshipers have been in a position to check?”
“Pff, she shaves. You can tell; she’s the type.”
“While this is some of the most entertaining of ignorant gossip I’ve ever been privileged to hear,” Darling said dryly, “it’s not helping us any.”
“Right. Sorry.” For a wonder, Fauna actually looked somewhat contrite. “Anything you do need us to do?”
He slid the list across the table to them. “Ladies, you belong on this list. The only reason you’re not on it is nobody knows you exist, and priority number one is keeping it that way. If anybody finds out I’m keeping headhunters in my house, all our asses are grass.”
“Buuuut?” Flora prompted, grinning.
“But.” He nodded. “My buddies and I are about to go poking these bears with inadequately long sticks, and there’s a distinct possibility that all this is set up for the express purpose of getting us killed. If that’s so, we’ll need to find a way to turn it around on the Archpope. If it’s not, we need to play along until the real game is revealed. Unfortunately, making the right choice here requires us to know what’s what…which we won’t know, in all likelihood, until we’ve made a choice, one way or the other.”
“Tricky,” Fauna murmured.
“Boy, is that putting it lightly. I need you two to be the aces up my sleeve, girls. Someone I can count on to meet these assholes on their own level if need be. The tricky part is going to be finding them, and having you in the vicinity without setting off alarm bells in anybody’s mind about how my maids are always following me around whenever something violent goes down.”
“That’s not a concern,” Flora said dismissively. “If we don’t want our presence to be known, it won’t be.”
“When dealing with the average run of clerics and Imperials, sure,” he agreed. “But against these guys? Can you play these games with, say, a dragon?”
They glanced at each other, then at the floor. Their silence was answer enough.
“Exactly,” he said. “So, first of all, we’ll want to do some gentler test runs, which will mean starting on any of these who are currently in the city. The group will be doing that anyway, so there’s nothing suspicious about it. Thing is…” He chuckled ruefully. “I have no idea how to begin going about that.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” said Fauna. “Mary the Crow is in Tiraas.”
“Yeah,” Flora said brightly. “She hangs around our favorite pastry stand!”