The sleet subsided not long after mid-morning. Even the clouds retreated out to sea, for the most part, leaving Tiraas bathed in sullen winter sunlight filtered through a damp haze. As soon as this happened, the students and their soldier escorts all but bolted from their inn, being by that point well-rested, slightly stir crazy and increasingly hungry. Professor Tellwyrn’s favorite inn did, indeed, serve food, but only Gabriel had been willing to try the stale bread and “sausage,” which he subsequently described as “tiny little gristle tubes held together with grease.”
“Grease is a lubricant,” Ruda pointed out. “It doesn’t hold stuff together. Literally the opposite of that.”
“I’m not gonna argue with you,” he replied, still grimacing faintly. “Those things were an abomination against nature.”
They picked their way carefully along the sidewalks, which were dangerously slick. Ice coated every available surface, actually quite pretty where it glittered on the street lamps and overhanging store signs, but a nightmare on the road itself. Shop owners had begun strewing thick salt outside their doors, but not every building they passed was a shop, and none of the salt used was of the enchanted variety, to judge by how slowly it was melting off the accumulation. Stretches of unbroken ice were interspersed with mere slush. The students passed small groups of drow and human residents pulling carts of salt, trying to render the street passable for vehicles.
“Fross,” Trissiny asked, “do you have a way of removing ice? Or do you just make it?”
“Um, as an apprenticing sorceress there are any number of spells I could use to remove ice. Mostly just by making heat, y’know? I mean, that is, in theory. I, uh, don’t really have the power reserves to fix the whole street, or the, y’know…expertise.”
“If you can’t do it, just say so,” said Ruda with a grin.
“I could theoretically do it!” Frosss bobbed up and down in front of her. “I’m just kind of reluctant to try, for several reasons pertaining to my personal safety and the fact I’ve never seen a city before and I’d really like to not black out on my first day.”
“So your pixie magic doesn’t let you destroy ice?” Gabe asked.
“I’m an ice elemental,” she huffed. “No destroying. I could move the ice around, but…to where? Pretty much any place would cause problems for somebody.”
“How about on top of the buildings?”
Fross let out an incredulous chime. “Gabriel, do you have any idea how much ice weighs? It’s water!”
“Why in the world would I know how much ice weighs? Sorry I asked.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t go with the others, Gabriel,” Trissiny said, more to curtail the burgeoning argument than because she was interested.
He shrugged moodily, hands jammed in the pockets of his big green coat. Despite the way his breath misted in the air, he didn’t seem particularly cold. “Six is a crowd, y’know? And…okay, this sounds terrible to say, but… Much as I like Juniper, I’m kinda nervous about being around her if she’s gonna be as stressed as I suspect the city will make her. It’s good that Toby’s along to calm her down, he’s great at that.”
“You finally did your reading about dryads,” Trissiny said, stopping to smile at him.
“Maybe,” he admitted.
“Reading what?” Ruda demanded.
“Juniper is single-handedly rewriting the statistics around dryad encounters,” Trissiny explained. “Before now, just about everybody who ever slept with a dryad ended up eaten.”
“Every human,” Fross clarified. “They don’t harm elves.”
“Is…is this more of your holier-than-thouadin exaggeration?” Ruda asked, squinting at her. “Like how you almost attacked Shaeine and Teal on first sight?”
“No. No to all of that, and please don’t spread rumors about me.”
“You kinda did, though,” Fross said helpfully. “Shaeine anyway.”
“You weren’t there!”
“I was right downstairs!”
“Anyway,” Trissiny said firmly, “no. Imperial and Church personnel, and any adventurers who get any kind of training, are all warned against having sexual congress with dryads. They usually kill their partners afterward.”
“That is seriously fucked up,” Ruda muttered.
Trissiny shrugged. “They don’t see people and relationships the way we do, Ruda. I like Juniper too, she’s a lovely person, but… She is what she is. After sex, they’re hungry, and if there’s fresh meat right there… Well.”
“Can we talk about something else?” Gabriel pleaded.
“It’s a little late for you to be squeamish, isn’t it?” Trissiny asked with some amusement.
“I was more thinking this is an entire district full of people with elven hearing, so it’s gonna be all over town within the hour that there’s a dryad in the city. If Shaeine’s any example, Narisians are more level-headed than basically anyone, but even so, we are one more hasty sentence from starting a panic.”
Trissiny looked nervously around the street. Not many people were out, thanks to the ice. A few were picking their way along the sidewalks on the opposite side; there was a salt cart passing by, and three shopkeepers outside their establishments with salt and shovels. All of them were drow, and half of them were standing stock-still, staring at the four students.
She cleared her throat. “Yes, well. She is being escorted by Imperial solders and watched by Imperial Intelligence, and personally accompanied by the Hand of Omnu. I’m sure there will be no problems.”
“Smooth,” Ruda muttered, stomping her feet. Her coat was apparently not as well insulated as Gabriel’s; even with her hat jammed down over her ears, she was shivering. “Okay, I give up. Let’s get inside someplace. Preferably someplace I can buy a fucking scarf and some gloves.”
“That’s right,” Gabriel said, grinning. “It’s pretty warm up in Puna Dara, isn’t it? Balmy seas and the eternal summer of the tropics?”
“Fuck you, Arquin. I dunno what asshat even decided to settle this area. Humans aren’t meant to live where the ground gets covered in fucking ice.”
Trissiny glanced around again. She wasn’t excessively cold, despite feeling somewhat naked. In an effort not to attract unnecessary amounts of attention, she had gone out without the distinctive silver armor which she was known to be the only person on the planet currently entitled to wear. Her shield, likewise, sat back in her room at the inn. She had her sword buckled on over a Punaji-style greatcoat, but Avenist short swords were not uncommon side arms, especially for women, and while the weapon was a virtual beacon for those with the right kind of magical senses, it looked like a battered old piece barely worth stealing.
So far—at least aside from the attention their conversation had garnered—none of the three of them appeared to be standing out, though a lot of the human passersby slowed down to rubberneck at Fross. The Narisians seemed too polite.
“Ooh!” Fross chimed, fluttering upward a few feet. “A magic shop! Let’s go in there!”
“I said scarves, Fross,” Ruda snapped.
“Oh, wake up and join the century,” the pixie retorted. “You can get a warming charm in there. C’mon c’mon c’mon, I wanna see what they’ve got!”
She fluttered ahead, toward the sign a few doors down the street from them which identified the store as The Minor Arcana.
“Damn,” Ruda muttered, falling into step with the others. “Is it just me, or she gettin’ pushy?”
“Both,” said Trissiny, smiling. “She’s learning it from you.” Gabriel snorted a laugh, trying to stifle it when Ruda turned to glare at him.
The sidewalk outside the Minor Arcana was fully cleared, the nearby ice showing no shovel marks. Apparently this shop did use enchanted salts—which made sense.
Inside it was pleasingly warm, and the three students fanned out just beyond the door, peering around and letting the heat soak into them. Fross had already darted ahead, chiming and chattering to herself excitedly; the shop was relatively dim, and her pale glow flashed across the displays like errant moonbeams as she fluttered this way and that. A whole wall was devoted to books, another to vials and bottles of enchanting dusts. On a third, wands and staves hung on racks, ranging from obviously antique pieces to modern mass-produced models. Other paraphernalia occupied lower shelves and tables in the middle. It wasn’t a large space, no more than ten feet wide and twice that in length.
“Wow,” said the gawkish young man sitting behind the counter by the door, staring at Fross. “Nice pixie. Is it yours?”
Fross came to a halt midair. “Excuse me?!”
“She’s not anyone’s except hers,” Trissiny said firmly.
“That’s a sentient being, asshole,” Ruda growled. “And our friend. Watch your fucking manners.”
“Sorry!” he gasped, jerking backward so abruptly he nearly fell off his stool. “Sorry, I didn’t—I don’t mean—that is, we get witches in here, some have pixie familiars, I just never figured… I mean, they’re not that intelligent, you know?”
“Excuse me?!” Fross shouted. “I have changed my mind! We will not be shopping here!”
“That’s fine,” said a new voice. “We don’t serve your kind.”
A tall, stately figure approached from a curtained doorway in the back corner. The students, turning to stare, froze in unison. She was a slender woman, rather attractive, dressed in a flowing robe with a fringed shawl over her narrow shoulders. None of that caught their attention, however. Her eyes glowed faintly in Fross’s reflected light, exactly like a cat’s. She had skin of a dusky reddish hue, and her forehead rose to a bony crest that seemed on the verge of becoming horns.
“Oh, so you won’t take fairies that aren’t on somebody’s leash?” Ruda said finally. “Fuck you, lady.”
“The pixie is welcome,” the woman said coldly, raising one slender arm to point accusingly at Trissiny. “I was addressing her.”
“You picked a strange district to set up shop in if you’ve got a problem with half-elves,” Gabriel said, frowning.
“I think there may have been some mistake,” Trissiny said carefully. “I’ve never been here before. My name—”
“I know exactly who you are, Trissiny Avelea,” said the shopkeeper, her expression stony, “and I would like you to leave. If I have to repeat myself any further, I will summon the city guard to remove you. My next act will be to go to the nearest newspaper office and make a tidy handful of silver letting the world know the new Hand of Avei likes to bully honest tradeswomen.”
“Now, hold on,” Gabriel protested.
“Do you really think it’s smart,” Trissiny said flatly, “for a half-demon to be nakedly hostile to a paladin? That’s not a good way to avoid…suspicion.”
“I was born with the wrong face to avoid suspicion. I have long since learned that no amount of good behavior on my part will make me welcome in human society. After being spit on, harassed and excluded by every light-sucker who placed themselves on a pedestal above me, being ejected on sight from your cult’s premises, specifically those set up to allegedly shelter women, I do not choose to do business of any kind with clerics. Get out of my shop, and take your hypocrite goddess with you.”
“I’m sorry if you were…disappointed in your interactions with the Sisterhood,” Trissiny said more quietly. “Please don’t blame Avei—”
“It wasn’t the Sisters who burned me when I tried to pray,” the woman shot back, raising her voice. “Leave. Now.”
Trissiny clamped her lips together, but turned without another word and pushed the door open.
“Hell with this bullshit,” Ruda snorted. “C’mon, Fross.” The pixie actually darted out ahead of her, after pausing to make a rude noise at the flummoxed-looking boy behind the counter.
Gabriel was the last out, pausing to glance back at the stately woman before turning to follow his classmates.
“I wonder if you appreciate how lucky you are,” she said quietly, “being able to pass.”
He paused, his hand on the door, then turned to stare at her. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Yes, you do. You look fully human. So long as you stay out of temples and avoid holy symbols, no one should be able to tell. Or…” She took a step closer, craning her neck forward to peer at him. “And, I gather, as long as you remain relatively calm. Hethelaxi, yes?”
Gabriel stared at her for a moment, then cut his eyes sideways, squinting at the shop boy.
“Ferdinand,” said the woman, “go inventory the last dust shipment. I believe the count is off.”
“What? No, I checked when it came in, everything’s—”
The boy clamped his lips shut, looked accusingly at Gabriel, then turned and flounced off, pushing aside the curtain in the back and disappearing from sight.
“You needn’t worry,” she said, actually smiling faintly. “Nothing in particular gives you away. I have a gift for spotting the infernal and the divine, a useful legacy from some poor choices made in my youth. The same way I identified your…companion. She all but glows, and there are not two swords like that in the world at present.”
“Trissiny isn’t so bad,” he said somewhat defensively. “I mean, sure, she’s a little priggish, but she tries. She…I guess she did try to kill me that one time, but that was mostly my fault.”
The shopkeeper drew in a long, slow breath, her shoulders rising, then let it all out in a rush, seeming to slump where she stood. “I bet you’re convinced a lot of such incidents were your fault. How very inconsiderate of you to exist where people are trying to peaceably be bigots.”
“It wasn’t like that, exactly. She apologized. Eventually.”
“Oh. Well, then. I guess that makes it all better.” Despite the sarcasm, the woman sounded only sad. “My name’s Elspeth. You may consider yourself welcome here.”
He glanced back at the door. The girls weren’t in view; they evidently hadn’t waited for him. He let his hand fall from the handle. “Gabriel.”
“So,” he said, studying her warily, “you’re a warlock.”
Elspeth stared at him for a moment. “Do you always assume that about other half-demons? Are you a warlock?”
“I’ve never met another half-demon, to my knowledge. But being able to identify a paladin or a species of demonblood on sight? That kind of sensitivity to the infernal and the divine is a classic warlock trait. One of the basic ones, in fact.”
“You’ve had the benefit of some education,” she said approvingly. “The answer to your question is no…and yes. Tell me, how many times were you approached?”
“Approached?” he said hesitantly.
“We all are, sooner or later. By independent warlocks sometimes, but usually by some agent of the Black Wreath. Not that they identify themselves as such. Often, for the unlucky or unwise, by actual demons. Half-bloods are extremely interesting to those who traffic in such powers.”
“I…I never…” He swallowed. “There was once. A woman. She…my dad ran her off.”
“Once?” she said quietly. “Only once?”
“My best friend growing up was an Omnist monk. And my dad’s a career soldier. I guess I wasn’t as easy to get to.”
Elspeth shook her head slowly. “You have been fortunate almost beyond belief, Gabriel. I would say ‘blessed,’ but I would have to incinerate both of us by mistake.”
“How…many times were you approached?” he asked warily.
She smiled, a small, bitter expression. “Also only once… But in my case, because I was foolish enough to fall for the first opportunity that came my way. A sshitherosz demon, name of… No. It doesn’t matter now, he’s dead.” She glided around behind the counter, seating herself gracefully on the recently vacated stool. “That is also sadly common. The favorite tactic of the sshitherosz is to recruit warlocks from among the young, naïve and ambitious; a battle of wits between a teenager in a desperate situation and a trickster demon is generally a foregone conclusion. For half-demons… Our entire lives are desperate situations. Rejected, threatened, constantly running away, trying to hide what we are… We are easy prey for someone offering power, and a sense of belonging.”
“So…” Intrigued in spite of himself, he drifted closer. “How does taking a demon up on the deal end up with you being a warlock, but not a warlock?”
“I suppose I have been as fortunate as you,” she said. “I fell in with the only priests who can be trusted by our kind.”
He blinked, then raised his eyebrows. “Do tell?”
“I met a man who arranged for my demon to be trapped and destroyed. He even helped me establish my shop. So, no, I do not practice infernal magic of any kind—ever. I must endure regular visits from a very professional Imperial agent who clearly doesn’t care at all about my well-being, and an official of the Universal Church who tries hard to be friendly to me, though she is repulsed by being in my presence and is not good at hiding it. I can never decide which of them is better. They report to their respective superiors, however, that I am a law-abiding citizen who has no traffic with demons, and I am allowed to live my life in relative peace.”
Gabriel frowned. “Who are the only priests who can be trusted?”
Elspeth looked away, toward the door, smiling mysteriously. “If you must have help from clerics, Gabriel, find the acolytes of Eserion. They’re as likely to see you as prey as they are to try to help you; that’s what they do, after all. But if you’re humble and have nothing worth stealing—or don’t flaunt it if you do—you’ll find that the thief-priests don’t throw light around, and they don’t judge.’
“Huh.” His frown deepened. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever even met an Eserite.”
She grinned outright. “Oh, I guarantee you have.”
“Is he actually staying in there?” Fross demanded as they finally moved away from the Minor Arcana, growing tired of waiting in the cold for Gabriel.
“Guess he is,” said Ruda, again wrapping her arms around herself, “and frankly I don’t think I blame him. Sure, that lady was a raging bitch, but how many chances is Gabe gonna have to meet another half-demon? Besides… It sounded like she maybe had a little bit of a point.”
“What is it going to take to get you to stop using gendered insults?” Trissiny groused.
“Well, I could clean up my vocabulary,” Ruda replied, grinning, “but it makes you all grumpy, which is just adorable.”
Trissiny wasn’t listening. She stood on tiptoe to crane her neck, frowning, then set off ahead as quickly as she safely could without slipping on the still-icy sidewalks.
“And we’re off,” Ruda said resignedly. “What’s the big deal up there?”
“Looks like trouble!” Fross announced, hovering several feet above to get a better view.
“Well, it made Trissiny run off to get involved. I didn’t figure it looked like fun.”
Near the mouth of the street, where a small square marked the beginning of the curving, descending avenue into Lor’naris, a small squad of five guards in heavy winter uniforms were squaring off with four people in civilian attire. Three of them, two women and a man, were drow, the fourth a graying human man with the starched collar of an Imperial Army jacket rising above his heavier fleece coat.
“I am not going to warn you again,” the soldier wearing sergeant’s stripes was announcing loudly as they arrived. “Disperse!”
“Sonny,” snapped the older man, “I did not serve my time in his Majesty’s army to stand here and take crap from—” He broke off as one of the drow women lifted a hand.
“With respect, Sergeant,” she said more calmly, “no one here is doing anything illegal, or even questionable.”
“Loitering is illegal,” he shot back.
“On private property where the prohibition is clearly posted, yes,” she replied smoothly. “This is a public street.”
“Would you like to try another approach?” inquired the male drow politely. “I should warn you that after your compatriots’ recent visits, we have read all the applicable laws.”
“Vanthis,” said the woman with calm reproof, “peace. There is no need to be provocative.”
“You heard her, men,” said the sergeant grimly. “This one’s being provocative. Now every last one of you bugger off back to whatever it is you do all day, or you’re coming to the guardhouse in irons. What’s it gonna be?”
“What is going on here?” Trissiny demanded, stalking up to join them.
“Oh, for f— Nothing that concerns you, citizen!” snapped the sergeant. “Just chasing off some vagabonds. Go about your business.”
“These aren’t vagabonds, they’re the neighborhood watch,” she said incredulously. “You can’t possibly be unaware of this. How does it serve the city guard’s interest to dissuade concerned citizens from protecting their own districts?”
“Enough!” he shouted. “Go home, girl. All of you!”
“I don’t think so,” she said firmly. “I will have your name and that of your commanding officer. Now.”
“That does it,” he snapped. “Sadour, arrest her. Fuck it, all of them. You are hereby placed under arr—”
Golden light blazed forth, piercing the gloom of the winter morning; all three drow threw up their arms to protect their eyes, one of the women slipping momentarily on the icy sidewalk.
Trissiny stood wreathed in radiance, golden wings extending from behind her. “I think you will find,” she said, deadly quiet, “that I outrank you, sergeant. Name, badge number, superior’s name. Do not make me repeat myself.”
Less than two minutes later, she finally let the light subside, wings withdrawing into her, as she stood watching the five soldiers retreat hastily down a side street toward the city center.
“Fuck me, you can pop those things on command?” Ruda exclaimed. “I thought that shit just happened spontaneously when Avei was all happy with you. Can you do stuff with those? Do they fly? Or is it just decorative?”
“Later, Ruda,” Trissiny said impatiently, turning to face the four residents. “I’m sorry about that; I should have given you some warning.”
“All things considered, General Avelea, I think that went very well,” said the woman who had taken the lead earlier, bowing. The other drow followed suit, the human saluting her while grinning. “Our thanks for your assistance.”
“What was that all about? Why would the city guards object to you standing watch here?”
They exchanged a round of glances.
“It is a complex question,” the other woman said finally. “We are foreign and, in many ways, downright alien.”
“Or,” added the human, still grinning, “we’re the filthy pervert race traitors who call the foreign aliens friends and family.”
“Regardless,” she went on, giving him a very un-Narisian smile, “there are elements in the city who are not pleased that outsiders such as ourselves have found so much success in handling our own affairs in a piece of Tiraas, however small. Some of those, we have recently found, wear uniforms.”
“For the most part,” said the first woman, “the pressures exerted are carefully subtle. This is new. The law is on our side—we have assiduously checked—but if the guards choose to take exception to our use of volunteer citizen peacekeepers… Well, their official standing gives them options and courses of action that we do not enjoy.”
“I see,” Trissiny said grimly. “Perhaps there’s something I can do about that.”
“Okay, wait, hold up,” said Ruda. “All due respect to our new friends here, but are you sure this is something you wanna get in the middle of? Sounds like a thing these very resourceful folks can handle themselves without you making an incident of it.”
“Are you nuts?” Fross demanded. “They just about got arrested! For protecting their homes! Somebody down in the guard office has got some serious issues!”
“Tellwyrn said we’re to figure out what it is we’re supposed to be doing here, remember?” Trissiny unconsciously gripped the hilt of her sword, glaring down the street in the direction the soldiers had fled. “I think I just found something.”