They came to a stop in the middle of the street, hearing the crash. Trissiny and Gabriel exchanged a brief look, then turned and dashed back the way they had come, toward the barn. She smoothly drew her sword while in motion, eyes darting about in search of threats. Despite the ongoing noise from up ahead, in which they could now hear shouts and curses in addition to the continued ruckus of battle, the town itself remained eerily still. It was as if, improbable as that seemed, all the roughnecks and thugs hanging around had spontaneously gone elsewhere. For the moment, though, Trissiny was grateful enough to have only one apparent threat on which to concentrate.
Gabriel skidded as they rounded the corner, nearly overbalancing; she, being far more athletic, came to a smooth stop, taking in the scene.
Two men lay in the street, the same two who had been previously guarding the door. Another was in the process of stumbling down from the board sidewalk, limping heavily and clutching one arm. There was no sign of the Riders, and though the details weren’t exactly explicit, from their garb these were townsfolk rather than ruffians. Given the lack of apparent external threats, whatever was happening had begun inside the tavern.
That hypothesis gained weight as the front window exploded outward and a man flew through, striking the edge of the sidewalk painfully on his way to sprawling in the street.
Trissiny bounded to his side, kneeling to place a hand on his shoulder. He was bleeding from multiple cuts, thanks to the window, and though she couldn’t tell past his sturdy denim and flannel garb, it was very possible he’d broken something and inconceivable that he wasn’t heavily bruised. She drew on Avei’s light, sending a gentle wave of energy through him. Just enough to stop any bleeding, internal or otherwise, and prevent him from expiring from trauma. Too much divine magic was risky with an undiagnosed patient; healing a broken bone without setting it in the right position first could cripple a person for life.
“What happened?” she demanded as the man’s eyes swam back into focus. “Is it the Riders?”
His gaze locked on her face, and then his eyes widened as though he’d just remembered what was happening. He clutched her arm frantically.
“Gods, you’ve gotta do something! She’s insane!”
“Oh,” Trissiny growled, her expression collapsing in a scowl. “Ruda.”
One of the men in the street was already standing, the other being helped upright by Gabriel. She paused to touch the limping fellow on his apparently injured arm, giving him a soft boost of light to ease the trauma, then turned resolutely toward the saloon and marched in. This involved pushing past the broken doors, one of which was angled crazily across the doorway and somehow stuck. Luckily, kicking it down suited her mood.
The scene inside was utter chaos at a glance. The more than two dozen men present were either fighting or on the ground and injured; half of the light fixtures were knocked out, and ninety percent of the furniture had been smashed, some of that serving as makeshift cover for cowering townsfolk who’d apparently had enough. Sweeping her gaze around the room, however, Trissiny’s trained mind put the various pieces into place, and she realized that she was looking at one of the most flawlessly controlled battlefields she’d ever seen.
Heywood Paxton had retreated to a front corner, where he was clutching Ruda’s sheathed rapier in front of himself as if it would bar the brawl from reaching him. Oddly enough, it seemed to have worked; his suit wasn’t so much as rumpled and nobody had come within ten feet of the Surveyor. Toby was moving efficiently around the perimeter of the tavern, aglow with divine energy, helping men upright and healing injuries as he found them. It was the circular pattern that was impressive; the center of the room was mostly cleared, but knots of men had clumped together around the outside. Most were now lying or sitting amid the ruins of their tables, but two groups were still actively brawling.
Trissiny could see how it had been done. The original layout of the room had had Paxton, the students and the heads of the four families ensconced at the center table (now on its side with half its legs broken off), while their various sons and relatives had organized themselves by clan around the wall. Quickly identifying each of the men she’d seen sit down to parley and where they currently were—all but Wilcox now down—Trissiny could retrace the steps that had led to this. All Ruda had to do was get a fight going and then push each patriarch into the arms of a rival clan. Men would have crossed the center to get to their objectives, but the action would ultimately concentrate itself around those four men, swiftly turning the brawlers’ attention from Ruda to each other. Eventually the fighting would spill everywhere, as fighting invariably did, but that wouldn’t matter of someone were to systematically move around the edge of the room, taking advantage of the brawlers’ preoccupation with one another to beat down each group one at a time.
Grudgingly, she had to recognize the quick thinking, tactical savvy and martial skill it had taken to pull this off. Unless, of course, it was all the random outcome of a completely aimless act of aggression. Not long ago, Trissiny would have instantly made that assumption, but Gabriel’s recent question about Ruda’s intelligence made her wonder.
As she entered, the second-to last knot of struggling men was in the process of being dismantled. Ruda, armed with a table leg, circled the edge of the group, delivering methodical blows to legs that took fighters neatly out of the action, until she had whittled down their numbers and the remaining three men turned on her, finally realizing who the true threat here was. It was a bit dicier from there, but Ruda’s unique blend of deftness and savagery quickly put down the overmatched farmers. Trissiny noted, also, some of the skills she herself had drilled into the pirate during their morning practice sessions with Teal.
The last fellow actually backed away, raising his hands in surrender, and Ruda, grinning, tossed the table leg to him, then rolled her shoulders and cracked her knuckles before stalking over to the last group of fighting men, which included Mr. Wilcox. She was limping and bleeding from both the lip and forehead, but seemed no less energetic. Her target group was down to six men, Wilcox and two of his apparent relatives being backed against the wall and beset by a pair from one side and a particularly hulking fellow from another.
Ruda diverted her course toward the middle as she went, picking up the only two intact chairs within reach. One she hurled directly into the two on the left, then smashed the other across the big man’s back.
Gabriel shoved past Trissiny, coming to a stop just inside and taking in the scene as quickly as she had, though probably with less understanding of what he was seeing.
“Holy shit! Are…should we help her?”
He gave her a sidelong look. “Is this a warrior-culture thing where you don’t interfere in somebody else’s battle, or are you just pissed at her for starting a fight?”
“How do we even know she started it?”
Trissiny looked at him.
“Yeah, I know,” he muttered, sticking his hands in his pockets.
The two attackers were already down, as was one of the Wilcox boys. Ruda’s chair was reduced to two legs, with which she was hammering at the big man, using no stickfighting technique Trissiny knew, but holding her own. She feinted at his groin; like a lot of intimidatingly burly men in rural towns, he’d never bothered to learn an actual fighting style, and went for it in panic, hunching forward to protect his jewels with both thick forearms. Ruda neatly clocked him on both sides of the head with the chair legs, and he went down like a sack of flour. Trissiny winced; head trauma was always a serious matter. Fortunately, Toby was working on the last group to face the pirate’s wrath, and already looking ahead at the current fight between patients.
The Wilcox patriarch and his younger kinsman both raised their hands, backing against the wall.
“Miss,” Wilcox began, “I—”
Ruda jabbed them both viciously in the solar plexi, then dropped her improvised weapons, turned and was walking away before they had finished slumping to the floor.
“Damn,” Gabriel muttered.
“You with the hand!” Ruda barked, stomping up to a man lying on his own closer to the middle of the room than most. He was, in fact, cradling a hand to his chest; the position obscured it somewhat, but Trissiny could see a couple of fingers clearly bent the wrong way. Ruda prodded him in the shoulder with her boot, the force used just short of qualifying as a kick. He took this with a whimper.
“Bad. Fucking. Form.” Ruda growled, nudging him again. “You do not pull a wand in a bar fight, you little shit. There are rules. I see you doing anything like that again and next time I’m not gonna be so playful with you. Savvy?”
“My apologies, ma’am,” he gasped.
She grunted, then bent to pick up the wand lying a couple of feet from him, twirling it in her fingers. “Behave yourself and I’ll think about letting you have this back later.”
“Much obliged, ma’am.”
Ruda turned from him, limping over to the center of the room, where she swiveled slowly, dragging her gaze across all those present. A surprising number quailed back from her. Even as short as she was, even badly disheveled and obviously injured, her sheer presence commanded everyone’s attention.
“Listen up, fuckers!” she said, not yelling, but projecting as well as any actor on stage. Her voice boomed through the room, echoing off the stone walls. “You, the hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-fighting pride and manhood of the whole goddamn town of Sarasio, just got your collective asses kicked by a girl. There are two kinds of men among you right now: the bitterly ashamed, and utter fucking morons. There’s some overlap there. The question you need to be asking is this: Just how the hell did this happen?!”
Ruda paused, letting her words sink in. The silence was nearly total, broken only by soft scuffling and the occasional whimper, and the muted sound of Toby murmuring encouragement to the burly fellow he was in the process of healing from a head injury. Ruda slowly dragged her gaze across the assembled men again, curling her lip up in a sneer.
“What you’ve just experienced was the whole last goddamn year in miniature. Here comes an outside force, systematically moving across the room and beating each of your asses down one by one, and you fuckwits let it happen because you were too damn busy kicking the shit out of each other to do a thing about it!” Her voice began to slowly climb in volume. “Napthene’s tits, people! One girl—one!—against two dozen, and there you all lie, looking stupid. Do you not comprehend the sheer, epic scale of your own dipshittery? Can you even wrap your heads around the scope of your failure? If anybody had told me last year I’d ever meet a whole town full of men who suck as hard as you assholes I’d have busted him in the lip for lying to me.”
“Now, hold on,” Jonas Hesse started.
Ruda, who was currently facing the other direction, flung out an arm to point at him without looking. “You get one pass because I feel sorry for you numbnuts. Next man who interrupts me, I’m gonna go over there and he can say his piece to my face.”
Silence fell again. Even the whimpering stopped.
“Well? Any takers?” She waited for a few seconds, but nobody offered comment. “Fine. This catastrophic ass-kicking is a lesson, boys. The White Riders have been doing this exact shit to you for months now, and you’ve let ’em get away with it because you let ’em turn you against each other. If just half of you witless fucksticks had quit trying to bash each other and turned on the person actually attacking you just now, I’d be the one lyin’ bleeding on the floor. If you’d put your tiny dicks back in your pants instead of waving ’em at each other and turned all this energy against the Riders back when they started being a problem, they wouldn’t fucking be one now!”
“That don’t change the facts!” Jacob Strickland piped up, leaning on a young man’s shoulder. “We got Riders and Rider sympathizers in our own ranks, ready to turn on us. How’re we supposed to fight ’em like that?”
He actually tried to back away as Ruda whirled and stomped toward him. She came to a stop two feet from him, grabbed a fistful of his long beard and yanked his head down till he was closer to her eye level.
“You wanna bitch and moan, that’s on you,” she said, her voice low but still echoing throughout the chamber. “But if you insult my intelligence again, I will stuff you head-first up your own ass and roll you from here to the Rail platform. Got it?” She released him and gave him a none-too-gentle shove in the chest, turning her back and stalking toward the center as the younger man barely managed to keep Strickland from falling. “Yeah, so you’ve got Riders in your midst. So what? So fucking goddamn what? What’re they gonna do, blow their cover the second you turn your back? Worst thing they can do is get in one good hit, and then you’d know who they are and could deal with ’em. You should be so fucking lucky as to hope they’re that fucking stupid—which, obviously, they aren’t, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation! I am sick of you dipshits and your excuses. The truth is, you just want to fight each other and you’ll grasp at any little pretext to do that instead of solving your own, actual fucking problems! Well?” She turned in a full circle, glaring furiously around the room. “Well?! Deny it!”
“You’re prisoners in your own homes,” she bellowed. “You families are one more bad week from starving. You can’t walk your own streets, can’t live your own lives. Your town is on the edge of annihilation. Everything you have worked for has been torn down and shat on by the White Riders. Haven’t you had enough?!”
To Trissiny’s amazement, there actually came a rumble of assent this time. Expressions were growing grim and angry again, but for a wonder, they weren’t turned on each other.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Ruda said in a sneering mockery of contrition. “Here I thought I was addressing the men of Sarasio, when it turns out I’ve wandered into a rehearsal of the Tiraas Ladies’ Auxiliary Bake Sale Choir. I said: HAVE YOU HAD ENOUGH?!”
She finished on a roar that rattled the remaining windows in their frames, and this time, the men roared back, a wordless bellow of outrage and assent. Trissiny tightened her grip on her sword, keenly aware that she was in a room with a bunch of men being deliberately whipped into a frenzy.
“Are you going to let these bastards do this to you?”
“NO!” they bellowed in near unison.
“Are you going to take this any more?!”
“Are you going to let your families, your whole town, just die because a bunch of assholes in bedsheets like feeling powerful?!”
This time, the roar of negation barely qualified as a word. Still, Ruda managed to raise her own voice above the noise.
“Or are you going to march out there, find those goddamn Riders, and PUT THEM IN THE GROUND?!”
Fists were shaken, faces twisted into animalistic snarls, weapons—both actual wands and hatchets and various pieces of furniture—brandished. Paxton had eased over and now placed himself behind Trissiny, ready to bolt through the door at an instant’s notice. Gabriel had also slipped backward and lurked now in the doorway, keeping an eye on the street.
“Are you victims?” Ruda thundered, wild-eyed, pumping a fist in the air, “OR ARE YOU MEN?”
The noise quite literally shook the floorboards, and this time it didn’t stop. The men kept up a continuous bellow of fury as Ruda made a circuit around the room, shouting incoherently and exchanging thumps and shoves with everyone she came close enough to touch.
Toby finally rejoined them, looking as tense and displeased at these events as Trissiny felt. She carefully eased backward, pushing Paxton and Gabriel a step closer to the door.
The men carried on shouting and gesticulating even after Ruda stopped riling them, now turning to each other, shaking hands, slapping backs, exchanging bellowed exhortations. Amazingly, they mingled without any regard for family affiliation. Even the four patriarchs had grouped themselves together, clasping arms with grim-faced determination. They seemed a bit more restrained than their kin, though, shooting glances at Ruda’s back as she strolled, grinning, over to rejoin her companions.
“Toby, my man,” she said, slugging him in the shoulder. She kept her voice at a normal conversational level, which, given the noise in the room, was as good as a whisper for ensuring their privacy. “No offense, but you don’t understand how the common man thinks.”
“There is a difference,” he said grimly, “between relating to common folk and inciting a riot.”
“Yep, there surely is,” she said easily, nodding. “But funny enough, you need the one to do the other. And cut that shit out,” she added with a scowl as he reached a glowing hand toward her. “I need those bruises for credibility. You can do your paladin thing after the big fight.”
“Ruda,” he said wearily, “I’ve been healing you the whole time. I don’t care how badass you are, one woman doesn’t take on a whole bar and walk away without help. You were stabbed twice. Remember when I grabbed your arm? That’s because it was broken.”
“What? Don’t be stupid, it was just a bruise.”
“Forearms aren’t supposed to bend in the middle!”
“Maybe yours aren’t.” She grinned insanely at him. “I’m Punaji. We don’t fuck around.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” he exclaimed.
“That’s okay, I still like you. Heywood, my sword?”
The Surveyor handed the weapon over, his eyes darting around the aggressive crowd. “Not to disparage your work, Princess, but, ah… Should you perhaps contain this? Or at least direct it? This kind of thing can go very bad, very quickly.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna.” Ruda finished buckling the rapier’s scabbard back to her belt and planted her fists on her hips, looking around the room at her handiwork. “Timing’s a factor. Don’t wanna let ’em tire themselves out or start brawling again, but I need to give the Riders in the audience a minute to slip out the back.”
“Wait, what?” Toby exclaimed. “Don’t we want to keep them pinned down where they can’t act?”
“No, she’s right,” Trissiny said grudgingly. “The whole point of this is to force the Riders to move, so we can hit them back. Now the ones in this group will know we’re coming for them with the whole town behind us. They’re pretty well forced; to take advantage of that, though, we need to give them a chance to warn their fellows.”
“See?” Ruda grinned. “She gets it.”
“That said,” Trissiny went on grimly, “we do need to control this quickly. A mob is like a rabid animal: if we can’t target them at the actual enemy, there’s no telling what they’ll destroy.”
“Yeah, about that.” Gabriel was leaning half-out the doorway, staring down the street outside. “That won’t be a problem.”
“You didn’t notice I was gone?” Darling asked, peeved in spite of himself.
“Oh, don’t get your bloomers in a twist,” Basra said. “That’s classic witchcraft. Redirecting attention, inducing emotional states… We really should’ve been on guard for that, though. Divine magic is a very good counter for it.”
“And so we must be, going forward,” said Andros firmly, scowling more than usual. “I do not like that this Crow woman is taking aggressive action against us. We had best be prepared to deal with her decisively.”
“Ah, granted I only know about her what was in Basra’s report,” Branwen said somewhat timidly, “but… I don’t think Mary the Crow is the kind of person who gets decisively dealt with.”
“She clearly has considerable sources of information to have learned what we are doing,” said Andros, turning his glower on Darling. “You are certain you told her no more than what you related to us?”
“Positive, but that may be beside the point,” he replied. “She clearly knew a lot going in. There’s no telling how much, or from what source.”
“Mm.” Basra was gazing into space, rubbing her lips absently with a thumb. “She was always one of my top suspects… Both in terms of the level of her power and her established patterns. Moving against us strongly supports that theory. From what Antonio’s told us, though, she seemed uncertain. As if she were trying to figure out who knew what, who had done what.”
“That could mean either that she’s not involved, or that she is,” Andros growled. “Either way, she’s used what amounts to mind control on a Bishop of the Church. That is an automatic death sentence.”
“Oh, come on,” Darling exclaimed, “she’s Mary the freakin’ Crow. An absurdly overpowered, self-declared enemy of the state. Her existence is an automatic death sentence; if the Empire were able to put her down it would’ve done so years ago.”
A tense, glum silence fell over the table.
They were meeting in one of the Cathedral’s smaller conference rooms, much less lavish than the one in the Archpope’s personal suite. It was late, well past midnight; most of the rest of the Church’s headquarters was asleep, like the city itself. It had taken considerable time for Darling’s messages to reach their recipients and bring them back here, Branwen having been the last to arrive by a wide margin. He wondered sourly how long it had taken her to do her hair; it had been uncomfortable sitting with Basra and Andros, both of them surly from the interrupted night’s sleep, without explaining the details of his adventure while they waited for her. They well understood his desire not to have to go over it twice, but the pair of them hardly needed a reason to be grouchy around each other to begin with.
The Archpope was secluded in prayer, according to the Holy Legion officer guarding his chambers, and could not be disturbed. They would have to settle for reporting in tomorrow. It was looking increasingly like it’d be a long night.
“Then,” Andros said finally, “the question is this: What are we going to do about the Crow?”
“The more immediate question is whether she’s responsible for the killings,” Basra shot back, rubbing irritably at her eyes with her fists. “That makes a difference in how we proceed.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Andros retorted. “She’s attacked Antonio. That makes her an enemy.”
“Whoah, whoah!” Darling held up his hands peaceably. “Not attacked! Here I am, fit as a fiddle; believe me, if I tangled with the Crow I wouldn’t have walked away. She wanted to talk. Frankly, I think we should encourage this. Fighting her is just plain not gonna be feasible.”
“You propose to let that woman walk all over us?” Andros snarled.
“I propose to investigate,” Basra chimed in, then stifled a yawn. “We need data before we act! Gods, it’s too late to have this conversation…”
“Maybe we should adjourn till tomorrow?” Branwen suggested. “Then we’ll be fresher, and we can include his Holiness in the discussion.”
“We should sleep while the Crow runs loose?” Andros’s sneer was visible even through his beard.
“Timing is, indeed, a factor,” Mary said solemnly, resting her chin on her interlaced fingers. “While you sit here talking, an opportunity is about to slip away.”
Dead silence fell, the four Bishops turning in their seats to stare at her. Mary the Crow sat at the head of the table, watching them with an aloof little smile.
“Okay,” Basra said at last. “Not gonna lie, I’m impressed.”
“Ah, ah,” Mary said firmly as Andros started to rise, reaching a hand toward his belt. “Sit, boy. There is no need for hostility.”
“You’ve been there the entire time, haven’t you,” Darling said resignedly. “Otherwise, Andros would’ve sat at the head.”
“Very good, Antonio,” she replied with a smile. “You continue to display a keen eye for details and personalities. That’s why you’re my favorite.”
“Whoopee,” he said sourly.
Branwen cleared her throat. “You mentioned an opportunity?”
“Quite so.” Mary straightened, separating her hands and resting one on the table. “There have been, to date, twenty-eight executions of high-profile priests in the city, all within the last few weeks.”
Darling managed not to react. Twenty-eight? That was off from Flora and Fauna’s count. The number should be lower. If they’d been going off on their own again…
“One of those has just been committed,” the Crow continued, “and will not be discovered, in all likelihood, until dawn. The person responsible is still in the city, and can still be confronted if you move quickly.”
“Who?” Basra demanded.
“You would know him as the Jackal.”
She grimaced, as did Darling. The Jackal was a fully non-magical foe, but several orders of magnitude more dangerous than Oz the Beater had been, by virtue of being an elf. Fast, agile, stealthy…and sadistic. So much for working gradually up the list.
“You claim he is responsible for all these murders?” Andros growled, so physically tense in his seat he seemed almost ready to erupt.
“For this most recent one, at least,” Mary replied with unflappable calm. “He is not expecting any kind of intervention; in fact, he has no reason to think he has been discovered.”
“And yet, you have?” Basra said wryly.
Mary nodded, smiling. “I rarely choose to announce my presence. Among other benefits, this often means I know a great deal more about my surroundings than anyone expects. In this case, I can tell you where the Jackal is. Apprehend him, and you may just learn how many of these assassinations are his doing.” Her smile widened. “And at whose behest.”
“Unless, of course, this is an obvious trap,” Andros snarled.
Mary held up her right hand, palm out. “By my totem spirit, may my bond with the earth be forsworn if I deceive thee, I swear that I have told you nothing but the truth, and intend to lead you toward enlightenment, and not harm.” She lowered her hand, leaning back slightly in her chair. “Of course, he is the jackal. Pursuing dangerous prey means that harm is more than possible.”
“What was that, exactly?” Basra asked, her eyes narrowed.
“An oath not lightly broken,” Andros rumbled. “…I am satisfied, at least, as to her intentions.”
“You are?” she said, visibly surprised.
“The Huntsmen are acquainted with the ways of the wild. We must deal regularly with elven witches.”
“She’s not hostile toward us,” Branwen added, watching the Crow carefully. Mary turned the smile on her, blinking her eyes languidly.
Darling sighed. “Are we in any shape to go chasing after someone like the Jackal right now?”
“As to that, I can offer you a little aid. A token of good faith.” Mary lifted her left hand from below the level of the table, opened it palm-up, then blew across it. Nothing visible flew outward from her hand, but a gentle scent like herbs and clean water flowed briefly through the room.
Darling unconsciously straightened in his chair, fatigue draining away, leaving him feeling alert and fresh as a daisy. Around the table, the others perked up visibly as well, then exchanged a round of uncertain glances.
“A little warning before you do witchcraft at us would be appreciated,” Basra said testily.
“Of course,” Mary said noncommittally. “Now, we had best move. I will guide you to your quarry, but it will be up to you to bring him down. Alive, remember, or he’s no use to us. I’ll find you outside.”
The black bird let out a hoarse caw, flapping across the room, then slipped out through the upper window which Darling was sure had not been left open when they came in.
“Well, what the hell.” Basra pushed back from the table, standing. “I’m going to swing by the Avenist shrine and arm myself. Meet you lot out front; don’t start without me.”
“Not how I expected to spend the evening,” Branwen murmured, also rising and following the others. Andros had stood and strode toward the door without further comment.
Darling trailed along in the rear, considering the situation and not liking the way it looked. More murders than his girls had committed? And now he was being sent off to confront the person responsible without having them there to watch his back—at the behest of the Crow, no less. He had thought her not guilty of any of the assassinations, knowing their source as he did, but if there were other parties getting in on the action, everything was thrown into doubt.
One thing was certain, though: Mary knew who had carried out the bulk of the killings, and knew that he had ordered them. Her say-so might not be enough to convict him, but it would certainly start the ball rolling, and she had every reason to think of him as a threat. Now, she was guiding him and the other three Bishops toward some revelation of her own design.
Whatever he was heading toward, it wasn’t likely to be good for him.