“It’s all so simple.”
“Hm?” Toby turned his head to look inquisitively at Juniper, who had been mostly quiet since they’d re-entered Lor’naris.
“I finally put my finger on what’s been bugging me about the city,” she said quietly, her gaze straight ahead but unfocused. “Humans love straight lines and right angles so much, and I’ve been puzzling over it… I don’t see the benefit. I think I’ve figured it out, though. Lines and angles mean simple patterns. Patterns you can easily design and…and control.”
She nodded. “Everything is patterns; everything is mathematics, ultimately. Nature has no restraints on its complexity, though. So much in nature looks completely chaotic from any one, limited perspective… But it’s not. There’s always a pattern. A lot of it is fractal. And that’s what it all comes down to: simplicity, and control. Everything humans make is square because you can clearly see the whole pattern of square things. You master it by making it. There’s nothing in it to remind you of how tiny and insignificant you are in the grand scope of things.”
He walked along in silence for a moment, digesting this.
“Deep, man,” said Rook behind them. Moriarty let out one of his exasperated sighs.
“That’s…actually a kind of compelling theory,” Finchley mused. “My dad told me something similar, once.”
“We could go back to the park later,” Toby suggested, “or a different one? There are quite a few in the city. You didn’t get a chance to really explore…”
“Ugh. Parks.” Juniper actually shuddered. “Please, no. At least the city is honest about itself; it’s supposed to be all bricks and planks and flat surfaces. Seeing all those plants corralled into that… That pre-planned space… Trees in a park are no better off than eagles in a cage. They can’t be happy there, but they don’t know any other life. It’s depressing.”
He could find no answer to that, instead glancing reflexively around the street. Few people paid their group any attention, which was refreshing. All day as they’d strolled around the city, visiting spots he thought Juniper might find interesting, intent stares had followed them. Some of those were doubtless from the agents of Imperial Intelligence which were supposed to be keeping tabs on the dryad, but the attention was more than could be explained by this alone. He well understood the cause, and it made him uneasy.
They didn’t fit with any understood pattern. Some in the city might recognize his face, but he as casually dressed, and the monks of Omnu and the Universal Church had tried to limit access to him until he was grown and educated. Juniper, for her part, was just another pretty girl, albeit one who behaved a little oddly, and whose dress and shawl were constantly disheveled because she couldn’t stop tugging at them. But for such an otherwise unremarkable couple to be followed by Imperial soldiers was attention-getting, and the exact composition of their escort was worse for those who knew about such things. Three troopers was odd; escorts were almost always even in number. Plus, these were all privates, equal in rank and unsupervised by any officer, which was all but unheard of. Toby had considered asking them to wear civilian clothes in the future, but a day spent in Moriarty’s company had warned him off suggesting such a huge breach in regulations.
Among the rambunctious students of the University and the straightforward folk who inhabited Last Rock, he’d begun to let himself forget some of the things he liked least about life in the city. The nature of Tiraas was the same everywhere, from the meanest slum to the halls of the Palace itself, but growing up dividing his time between working and meditating with fellow monks and prowling the back streets with Gabriel, Toby had remained blissfully ignorant of politics—until Omnu decreed he should take a central role in the world’s events. Then, he’d been forced to learn quickly. Nobles, priests, the wealthy and the ambitious… They watched like hawks, latching onto anything they could use. Anything out of the ordinary was either a threat or an opportunity to them, sometimes both. Toby could hardly imagine what would happen when somebody tried to make use of Juniper in his or her schemes, but it wasn’t going to be pretty. Omnu grant that Tellwyrn would take them back to Last Rock before anything went that far…
“Home again, home again,” Rook said cheerfully, and Toby realized with a pang of guilt that the man had been talking the whole time he’d lapsed into rumination. He tried never to ignore anyone, but the more time he spent in Private Rook’s company, the easier it became to tune his prattle out. More than half of his jokes and commentary had been underhanded flirtation with the fairy they were escorting, and nearly all of it had gone right over her head. Toby was seriously considering suspending his policy of staying out of other people’s personal business, taking Rook aside and explaining that if he wanted to bed Juniper his best bet was just to ask nicely.
“Home again,” he agreed with some relief as they stepped into the common room of the relatively warm inn, nodding to the innkeeper, who grinned broadly in response. Tellwyrn—or, more likely, Tellwyrn’s gold—was apparently well-liked in this establishment. Hopefully that would help in smoothing over any trouble the students caused. Toby wasn’t quite optimistic enough to believe there’d be none.
Juniper, who for most of the day had been content to let herself be led around, now took the lead, climbing the stairs in silence. Her moods were hard to interpret, but she seemed troubled by something. That was bothersome, and not just because she was a friend. A troubled dryad in the heart of Tiraas could cause untold havoc. What could Tellwyrn have been thinking?
The others, with the exception of their professor, had already assembled in the top floor common area when they reached the top of the stairs.
“Hey, guys!” Ruda called, waving languidly. She sat sideways in an armchair with her knees over one arm and her head hanging off the other, her hat hung on a corner of the chair’s back. “Good timing, the boss lady just popped off to fetch us some dinner.”
“It’s a little early, isn’t it?” Toby said, ambling over to join Gabriel by the window.
“Bite your tongue,” Gabe said, grinning. “It is never too early, or too late, or too anything for a free meal.”
“What he said,” Rook agreed.
“How was your day?” Teal asked. “We haven’t seen any of you since this morning.”
“Well, it’s a big city,” Finchley noted. Juniper had seated herself in a chair and was frowning pensively at the far wall, again tugging at the collar of her dress.
“Pretty good, all things considered,” Toby said, smiling at Teal. “We mostly just walked around a bit, visited some of the sights. It seemed like a good way to show Juniper the city.”
“I tried to blend in,” the dryad said, finally lifting her gaze. “Lots of people were staring, though.”
“That probably wasn’t to do with you,” said Trissiny, frowning. “Men, starting tomorrow, this is to be considered discreet ops. Civilian attire only.”
“Yes, General,” Moriarty said with such obvious relief that Toby felt abashed. It had been arrogant to assume he was the only member of the group who’d spotted the problem.
“Thank you,” he said quietly to her. She glanced over and actually smiled momentarily, before her expression stilled and she sharply turned her stare back to the window.
Toby withheld a sigh. She would get over it, in time… But when? He missed their camaraderie. It wasn’t just that he authentically liked Trissiny, or that she was the only fellow paladin in the world. She hadn’t been wrong; they did make excellent counterpoints to each other in many ways. It was nobody’s fault they’d never be able to do so in the way she wanted.
“Ah, good!” Professor Tellwyrn said, appearing at the head of the stairs. “Everyone’s finally here; we can proceed. Clear a space, please.”
As everybody shuffled back from the low table in the middle of the room, she gesticulated casually at it, and suddenly the lounge was filled with spicy aromas as steaming platters of food appeared, with a neat stack of plates and utensils on one end.
“Oh, hell yes!” Ruda crowed, surging to her feet. “You beautiful freak, I could kiss you!”
“Strictly prohibited by campus policy,” Tellwyrn said, smiling faintly. “And I wasn’t pandering to your sensibilities, Zaruda. Puna Dara curry is just the thing to cut the chill of a Tiraan winter. You’ll note the pitcher of milk: that’s a consideration for the more than half of you whom I expect to be unequal to the spice. Dig in, everybody. Oh, for the… Neatly! Form a line, people. Omnu’s breath, it’s like you’ve never seen food before.”
Tellwyrn evidently wasn’t hungry; she hung back near the windows, smiling faintly and making acerbic observations about people’s table manners while they gathered up plates of food in cheerful disorder. The cuisine ran heavily to fish, but was unfamiliar to most of them, and the act of dishing up noodles, meat and steamed vegetables cut in exotic configurations wrought some confusion. Tellwyrn had provided both forks and the traditional chopsticks; Ruda was the only one who selected a pair of the latter. As they got down to eating, the milk did, indeed, become quite popular.
“All right,” the professor said finally once everyone was dutifully tucking in, “there’s been a change of plans that concerns you. Our stay in Tiraas will be extended by a few days, I’m not sure how much exactly. That being the case, I’ve popped back to Last Rock to collect assignments from you from your other professors. This was an unscheduled trip in the first place, and occurring as it does so early in the semester, you run the risk of being put behind if you don’t get some coursework in. Some have left lecture notes for you,” she said, producing a disconcertingly thick bundle of papers from thin air, “but most are reading assignments. You’ll have to acquire the books yourselves, but there are no shortage of Nemitite libraries in this city, so that shouldn’t be a problem.”
Toby had felt a sinking sensation at her first pronouncement, and now glanced furtively at Juniper, who was chewing a mouthful of fish and looking uncharacteristically morose. He hadn’t realized until this moment just how concerned he was. She’d done nothing aggressive so far, not even hinted at hostility, but he couldn’t escape the feeling that the longer the dryad remained in the city, the closer they came to a real problem.
“Why the extension?” Gabriel asked, fanning his face. He was flushed from the curry.
“My appointment in Tiraas has turned into a somewhat more complicated quest,” she said. “The details don’t concern you, but I will need to visit Onkawa for a few days. You lot will remain here, tend to your work and proceed with what you were doing. I’m satisfied with your progress so far.”
“What progress?” Trissiny exclaimed, but was quickly shouted down by her roommate.
“Bullshit!” Ruda declared, pointing her chopsticks accusingly at Tellwyrn. “Why the fuck do we have to stay here in Slizzle City while you run off to bask in the capital of fucking sunshine?”
“Slizzle?” Gabriel said, raising his eyebrows.
“Combination of sleet and drizzle,” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “I got it. Nice wordplay, Punaji.”
“Fuck you! Why can’t we come to Onkawa too?”
“Because your assignment is here,” the Professor said with implacable calm. “You are making good strides and the last thing I want is to disrupt your progress.”
“What progress?!” Trissiny demanded.
“All in good time,” said Tellwyrn with an enigmatic smile. “Explaining it would defeat the purpose. Suffice it to say, you’re doing just as I anticipated so far, and I have no doubt that you will absorb the relevant lesson by the time we’re done here. Now, then! The situation being what it is, we’re going to have a little lesson of our own while we’re here and before I have to leave in the morning. Everybody comfortable? Splendid. Boys, you can stick around; congratulations on getting to audit a lecture at my very exclusive University. People would kill for this opportunity.”
“I will bet ten doubloons that no one has ever killed for the chance to audit one of your lectures,” said Rook.
“Perhaps not, but people have paid a lot more than ten doubloons.”
“People such as all of us, for example,” Ruda grumbled.
“Not all,” said Gabriel with a grin. “Some of us earned scholarships.”
“Arquin, do you want me to come over there?”
“Flirt on your own time, kids,” Tellwyrn said brusquely, then pressed on while both of them stammered in incoherent outrage. “Class is now in session. Previously we were discussing the gods, their nature and origin. The focus of this class being what it is, the reason for covering this topic is obviously to keep in mind the impact the gods have had on the progress of history. What we went over in the last class was merely background; what remains is to cover the way in which gods impact the course of societies and nations. Their subtler workings, in short.
“Previously we discussed weaknesses of gods, ways in which their natures can be used against them, used to manipulate them and circumvent their behavior. In this class we will discuss the context in which that is applicable: the broader, subtler influence the gods have on the world. Dealing with them in person is another matter. A god incarnated into physical form is a thing in a class unto itself. It has been eight millennia since the last apotheosis; while there once were deities of all types and degrees of power, by this point the weaker ones have long since been picked off. Any extant deity, once before you in the flesh, as it were, has full agency and sufficient power to decisively overwhelm any other type of force which is currently known to exist. If you set yourself against a god and don’t manage to head him or her off before they arrive in front of you…you lose.”
“What’s the difference between subtle and more direct workings, then?” Teal asked.
“I was just coming to that very subject. Since you asked, Miss Falconer, let me reply with a question: How was your day?”
Teal blinked at her, then looked over at Shaeine, who shrugged. “Uh…fine?”
“Falconer, I should think that by now you know me well enough to realize I have no interest in pleasantries, especially not during class. I was asking for information. You have spent the day walking around Tiraas, with your hair hacked short, dressed in men’s clothing and in the company of another young woman. Tell me, what sort of reactions did you get to that?”
Teal’s face closed down. “I don’t know. I don’t bother to notice them anymore.”
“Really?” Tellwyrn said sardonically. “Impressive self-restraint.”
“It wasn’t really optional,” Teal said sharply. “Vadrieny doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about it. I barely stopped her from killing the girl who used to bully me as a kid.”
“I see. Fair enough, then. Miss Awarrion, you are keenly attuned to the responses of others. Tell me, did you notice any hostility toward the two of you on your outing today?”
“Nothing overt,” Shaeine said, calm as always. “A number of individuals seemed displeased to see us, but I assumed the response was to the presence of a drow. We were not harassed or accosted.”
“Well, let me put it another way.” Tellwyrn leaned back slightly, glancing around the room. “Does anyone doubt that there was an adverse social reaction to Teal walking around the city quite visibly being gay as a solstice tree?”
“Is there a point to this?” Teal demanded, with more of a bite in her tone.
“I don’t pick on people because their suffering amuses me, Falconer. Not students, anyway. You’ve all encountered the attitudes of which I speak.” She began to pace up and down, as she usually did when she got well into a lecture, though the little lounge didn’t provide her nearly as much space as her classroom. “A woman’s place is in the kitchen. Boys kiss girls and vice versa, and anyone who says differently is an aberration. Why should this be so? A mere few blocks from us is the greatest concentration of Avenist power outside of Viridill itself. Not far from that is the central temple of Izara, who resolutely teaches that all love is good. Indeed, Teal and Shaeine weren’t overtly pestered; the city of Tiraas is probably one of the more accepting places in the Empire for two women strolling hand-in-hand. But throughout the Empire itself, these attitudes prevail. How can this be?”
“Well…based on context, I’d say you’re talking about the influence of the gods,” said Fross.
“Obviously, yes. In this case…?” She trailed off, peering around expectantly.
“Shaath,” said Gabriel after a moment.
“Interesting,” Tellwyrn mused. “Now what would make you think of him?”
“Well…he’s the most obvious culprit for the kind of social attitudes you’re talking about. Sort of infamous for it, actually.”
“Indeed. And yet, Shaathism is far from a majority faith. The lodge in Tiraas itself is little more than an afterthought, a glorified drinking hall. The actual cult of Shaath has never been large, and its areas of direct political influence are by definition on the outer fringes of the civilized world. How could such a deity possibly promote his worldview to the point that it seriously challenges that of Avei, one of the primary gods of the Pantheon?”
“Which one is Shaath?” Juniper asked.
“He’s the god of the wild,” said Toby. “The patron of hunters, explorers…” His eyes widened. “…and pioneers.”
Tellwyrn pointed at him, nodding in approbation. “Yes. Go on, Mr. Caine.”
“And…pioneers are kind of huge right now. The Empire’s putting enormous effort and resources into settling the frontier regions in the Great Plains. Popular fiction is full of cowboys and elves.”
“Precisely.” She clapped her hands and then rubbed them together, grinning. “In fact, Shaath and Avei have been doing this dance since time immemorial. You can tell at a glance whether a given society is in an expansionist phase, and how it is conducting that expansion, by observing how it treats women and anyone who lies outside the heterosexual norm.”
“To call that a ‘norm’ is counter—”
“Yes, Avelea, we all know you’re a feminist. At this point, you can just assume we all know, and refrain from harping on it every chance you get. Anyway. We have already discussed how an idea, a concept, a set of principles, is central to the very identity of a god. It naturally follows that they do their best to promote these ideas, but it is also important how the ideas promote them. The ascendance of Shaathist philosophy in cultures with minimal Shaathist belief is a prime example. Where one part of the god’s aspect—reverence for the wilderness and those who make their lives in it—is ascendant, other parts—such as a patriarchal approach to societal organization—ascend as well. In some cases, the distinction blurs, because most gods have fairly coherent identities and the concepts they embody are naturally associated. Shaathism is a good example precisely because patriarchy has nothing to do with the frontier spirit except in his cult. Seeing the connection play itself out in society is unmistakably seeing his influence at work. That, students, is the subtle influence of the gods. It’s not in bolts of lightning or divine visitations; those are things I could do, and have done. The gods slowly, imperceptibly, gently twist the very world around us on an incomprehensibly vast scale.”
“Well, that’s not terrifying or anything,” Gabriel muttered.
“Mr. Arquin, if you’re not afraid of the gods, you’re a fool. I am not referring to your ancestry, either. These are beings of truly awesome scope and power. That they can be outmaneuvered, that they can even be killed, does not change this fact. They are not lightly to be challenged, for the same reason that hurricanes are not.”
“So… You talked about manipulating the gods,” said Fross. “Can you do that with their, y’know, ideas? Try to change societies by promoting one god? Or vice versa?”
“The attempt to change society by promoting a given god is a large part of what religion is,” Tellwyrn pointed out. “But yes, I do know what you’re referring to; it’s known as ‘the impossible arithmetic’ by scholars. Measuring and taking advantage of the social influence of deities on a smaller scale is something on a par with astrology in terms of the sheer silliness of the effort. Which is not to say that people don’t try to do it.”
“What, you don’t believe in astrology?” Ruda asked. “Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of wizard?”
“There are two common fallacies when it comes to astrology,” said Tellwyrn. “One is that the position of heavenly bodies has no influence on life on this world, and the other is that they have a strong enough influence to be discernible. In practice, astrology is relevant in certain kinds of ritual spellcasting and almost nothing else. The influences are there, and they are real, but they are effortlessly overwhelmed by mundane, terrestrial concerns. So it is with the subtler workings of the gods, in general. Indeed, only on the scale of civilizations the size of the Tiraan Empire are such movements even observable, and that without any great deal of precision. Attempts are made to calculate these considerations for short-term political gain, but frankly, if you’re going to try to use a god’s influence for your own benefit, you’re better off just going to temple services.”
“That’s hard to believe,” Trissiny said. “First you say the gods are powerful beings in person, who can overwhelm just about any force. Then you say their broader influence is so subtle it might as well not be there except in the very long term.”
“A good point, Avelea, and precisely the concern which will concern our explorations in this semester’s classes. We have discussed how Shaathist philosophy is currently predominant throughout the Empire; that era is coming to an end, however. Even now, the Rails are being upgraded, the Empire has all but secured the frontiers around the Golden Sea and the Deep Wild, allied with Tar’naris and effectively sealed the other two drow city-states in their own tunnels. The Age of Adventures is long acknowledged to be over, and its brief resurgence in the form of cowboy culture is soon to peter out. Soon enough, the lands occupied by people will be largely settled, and everyone will then turn themselves toward more civilized concerns—such as, for example, justice and war. Another age of Avei will rise. And the scale on which these things happen is so vast and so ponderously slow that in any remotely detailed survey of history, it is hardly worth considering.”
She smiled, looking pleased with herself. “What matters to us, as we study history, is the point where these two aspects of divine being intersect. The gods are forces, and they are individuals, and those two things interact. Not one of them is unintelligent, or unmotivated. As long as they’ve been at it, they have perfected the art of exerting just the right amount of force in just the right place to start events moving in the direction they want. Frequently, too, they find themselves at cross purposes; Avei and Shaath are far from the only two who have strong differences of opinion about how the world should be run. This is why the various cults are constantly scheming against each other, and why the formation of the Universal Church is such an astonishing achievement. I grouse about the Church, and for good reason, but the fact that it does as well as it does at keeping the cults in line and at peace is really incredible.”
Tellwyrn began pacing again. “A prime example of what I mean was in the peaceful annexation of Madouris by Tiraas seven centuries ago, and the Eighty Year War which immediately preceded it…”
“Four?” Darling said in surprise. “Already? Damn. It’s just been one day. I was expecting to be at this for weeks before we got so much as a nibble.”
“If your Grace is feeling overstimulated, there is plenty of time yet to be bored,” said Price calmly, still holding out the four telescroll envelopes on a silver tray. “As I’m sure I need not remind your Grace, these represent less than a third of the overtures sent out.”
He snatched the envelopes. “How many of them are interested? I assume you read these.”
“Indeed, your Grace, I took the liberty. All four acquiesce to your request. In fact, they appear rather eager to meet at your earliest convenience.”
“Four,” he mused, tugging papers out of envelopes and grinning as he beheld the names on each one. “No…five, counting Mary. Hm. Yes, I do believe this is enough to start with. Yes, this is actually a pretty solid group, decent balance of skills. Send out a batch of replies, Price; they’ll get their meeting. Oh, and put the scarecrow up on the roof again.”
Price looked pained, which he knew was deliberate. “If your Grace insists. When shall I schedule the meeting?”
“Let’s not waste any time; the gods only know what Khadizroth is doing while we dilly around. Set it up for tomorrow.”
She cleared her throat pointedly. “Regardless of these individuals’ apparent eagerness to meet, and the convenience of Rail travel, tomorrow morning is too soon to be feasible. Tomorrow night your Grace has consented to attend the gala at General Panissar’s house.”
“Oh, right. That.” Darling made a face. “That man throws the dullest parties… But the Emperor might come. Bugger, I really can’t afford to miss it… All right, the next day, then. First thing!”
“May I remind your Grace that none of these people is Arachne Tellwyrn. At least one is known to be even more prickly, and at least one other is prone to drinking heavily on a nightly basis. Proposing a breakfast meeting may be seen as…antagonistic.”
“Fine, fine,” he said impatiently. “In your finely-tuned social opinion, would lunch be appropriate?”
“Perhaps an hour before,” she said calmly. “To convey urgency, acknowledge the importance of their time and leave them the opportunity to make their own plans? We should offer them a meal and be prepared to provide it… But following your Grace’s proposal, it is likely they will want time to consider and discuss their options. These are people unaccustomed to answering to any supervisor. Granting their space will be paramount in keeping their interest.”
“Do what you think is best,” he said, striding around behind his desk and plopping down in the chair. “I do mean that, Price, I’m relying on your judgment. Keep me in the loop with your plans, but… We are not going to regard this as a trial run. We need to hook these people.” Darling set the papers down on the desktop and stabbed them with a fingertip for emphasis. “We’re not gonna get a better lineup. These are the ones I want.”
“Even aiming for late morning,” she replied, “this may prove…uncomfortable…for your Grace, given the party which is to take place the night before.”
“The boring party,” he said dismissively. “I don’t plan to be there late, and even if something interesting happens… Well, just have the coffee ready.” He spread out the four telescrolls, grinning fiendishly. “This is just too perfect. Mary the Crow, Gravestone Weaver, Tinker Billie, Longshot McGraw and the Sarasio Kid. If I can point these guys at Khadizroth, this is as good as over.”
Price made a subtle expression with her mouth that was far too proper to be either a grimace or a wince, but nonetheless conveyed her disapproval. “I trust your Grace is indulging in hyperbole, and need not be reminded that nothing is ever so quickly or neatly dealt with.”
“Well, of course,” he said, grinning. “Are you kidding me? I’m about to set fire to the barn, here. What matters is it’s his barn, and not mine.”
“I fervently hope your Grace is correct on that point.”
“Yeah.” He lowered his gaze to the slips of stiff, yellow paper, each bearing a terse message and the watermark of the Imperial scroll service. “Yeah, me too.”