5 – 13

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“Are you pleased with yourselves?”

They weren’t, and his tone indicated that he knew it. Moriarty folded his arms, staring down at his two fellow soldiers with an expression that was just a shade too grim to qualify as a smirk; Rook and Finchley hunched in their seats, refusing to meet his eyes, or each other’s.

The inn’s common room was quiet this early in the morning, this not being the sort of establishment whose patrons relied on the in-house kitchen for breakfast. The party from the University had commandeered a table in one corner, and ordered a pot of tea, which the inn’s notorious cook hadn’t found a way to botch. Aside from the two privates, who were sitting somewhat limply, Toby leaned against the wall nearby, watching the stairs and ostensibly ignoring the byplay. Moriarty stood as stiffly as ever, starting to really get into his tirade.

“This is why we have regulations. This is why societies have rules, and standards of what constitutes decent behavior. The fact that you two are having an awkward morning after spending much of the night in uncomfortable proximity to one another’s junk is pretty much a best-case scenario. You do realize that, right? Not only fraternizing with with the object of your escort mission, not only indulging in I don’t even want to know what hedonistic revelry, but fooling around with a threat level eight sapient monster? In the heart of a city where the bulk of our assignment involves keeping her calm? Do you realize all the ways this could have blown up in your faces? The mind boggles.”

“The tongue doesn’t boggle, I notice,” Rook muttered.

“Oh, you want to criticize me?” Moriarty demanded acidly. “Maybe you should occupy yourselves thanking Avei there are no superior officers here to rip you a whole new set of orifices. I have half a mind to report this whole boondoggle to General Avelea!”

“I really can’t imagine anything good resulting from that,” Toby said without looking over at them.

“I suppose it’s not a worthwhile reason to bother her,” Moriarty allowed. “I’d be embarrassed on behalf of our unit, anyway.”

“Our ‘unit?’” Rook said incredulously. “You mean, the three losers who only aren’t court-martialed because it wouldn’t be worth what ImCom spent on paperwork to do it?”

“And yet, you keep testing Command’s patience,” Moriarty snapped. “By, for instance, engaging in some kind of depraved orgy with—”

“All right, enough!” Finchley exclaimed, finally lifting his stare from his cooling tea. “I would really like it if we never, ever discuss this again. Agreed?”

“I’ll drink to that,” Rook muttered, lifting his teacup.

“And if we promise not to do it again,” Finchley barreled on as Moriarty opened his mouth to speak, “will you finally freaking drop it already?”

“I suppose that’ll have to do,” Moriarty said, his expression reverting to vague smugness. “So long as you learned something from all this.”

He was spared Rook’s reply—which, to judge by the look on his face, would have been scathing—by the arrival of Fross. The pixie appeared at the base of the stairs and shot over to their table in a frantic streak of white light.

“Juniper doesn’t wanna come out today!” she announced.

Toby straightened, frowning at her. “What?”

“Yeah!” Fross bobbed up and down in midair twice. “She says she doesn’t like the city and would rather just stay in the inn.”

“I’ll go talk to her,” Toby said with a sigh.

“Uh, are you sure that’s smart?” asked Rook. “Or, um, necessary? If she wants to sleep in, I say we respect her wishes.”

“I said I’d talk to her, not try to persuade her of anything,” Toby said patiently. “If she just wants to rest, there’s no harm at all in that. But if she’s starting to get fed up with the city or the people in it… One way or another, that needs to be addressed before she decides to do something about it.”

“Fuck a duck,” Rook muttered.

“Well, so long as you two don’t take it into your heads to try to improve her mood through sexual healing again,” Moriarty began while Toby headed off to the stairs, the pixie darting around his head.

“We had an agreement!” Finchley said, pointing accusingly at him.

Moriarty snorted. “Fine, fine. You two sit here and sulk. I’m going to go procure some rations for us.”

“Have you not noticed the food here sucks?” Rook demanded.

“We’re in the army,” Moriarty shot back. “Food is supposed to suck. Living on that campus is turning you two soft.” He hesitated, then sniffed disdainfully. “Softer. I’ll be back momentarily; try not to have an orgy while I’m gone.”

They watched him go with matching expressions of disgruntlement.

“Not a word,” Finchley said after a moment.

“Right.”

“Not one word!”

“Right.”

“Ever.”

“Agreed.”

They sat in silence, staring at their now-lukewarm beverages. The sleepy common room was still and dull, the only sounds being muted conversation from the direction of the kitchen, where the inn’s cook was being introduced to Moriarty’s people skills. It was several minutes before either spoke again.

“…she gives really good—”

“Oh, yeah.”

They clinked their teacups together, grinning.


 

Gabriel had long since decided the chill of the winter morning was far less oppressive than the atmosphere in the common room, to say nothing of Private Moriarty’s nagging. It had been a good ten minutes, though, and no sign of movement from within. He tucked his hands into his pockets and hunched down to bring his ears into the protective aegis of his upturned collar; the weatherproofing enchantment on his coat was truly marvelous, but did no good for the skin left exposed to the frigid air. Cold probably wouldn’t harm him, the way it could a full human, but it certainly wasn’t his favorite thing. He was considering going back inside to wait for the rest of the group to decide they were ready to leave.

“Why, hello! Gabriel, wasn’t it?”

He looked up, blinking in confusion for a moment before he placed the figure now approaching him. The man wore a much heavier coat, which made perfect sense given the weather, but his broad black hat was distinctive, as was the long, narrow face beneath it, angular jaw lined by a thin strip of beard.

“Well, hey there!” he said with a smile. “You made it out of Sarasio!”

“Most of us did, thanks to the intervention of your group,” the man remarked, coming to a stop alongside him.

“I think maybe ‘interference’ is the word you want,” Gabriel said, grinning. “Possibly ‘meddling.’ There are adventuring traditions to be maintained, after all.”

“Pah.” The man in black waved a hand. “It’s meddling if you screw it up. Save the day and you get to be heroes. Savor that, my boy; the world increasingly seems to have little use for heroes. Had a chance to consider my advice?”

“Lots of chances,” Gabriel nodded, “and even some to practice. I have managed not to start arguments with Ruda and Trissiny on at least half a dozen occasions. It, uh… Doesn’t always come back to me in time,” he admitted, wincing.

“Well, they wouldn’t call them habits if they were easy to cast off. The effort is the important thing. It’s been a good long time since I was in school, but isn’t this during the academic semester? You haven’t dropped out, have you?”

“No such luck. We’re here on another of Tellwyrn’s jolly little field trips.”

“We?” The man raised an eyebrow. “All of you? In the city? That sounds like an utterly terrible idea.”

“Well, yes. If you want to explain that to Tellwyrn, be my guest. Just give me time to get at least three streets away, first. How about you? This seems like an odd place to run into you.”

“The place isn’t odd,” the man mused. “All roads lead to Tiraas. It’s fairly interesting that the two of us would cross paths, though; it’s not a modest-sized city by any means. In fact, you could say I’m following up on the events in Sarasio, myself. There’s an enchanting shop in this district, rather famous in some circles, run by a half-demon. Seemed like a worthwhile place to visit.”

Gabriel frowned pensively. “How so?”

The man in black regarded him in silence for a moment, his expression serious but difficult to read. “I come from a rather conservative background,” he said at last. “My…family…are quite heavily invested in certain well-trod notions about the way the world is. Lately, though, I’ve begun wondering if we might have been very wrong, all this time, about certain things. Demonbloods, just for instance.”

“That’s…maybe not an unhealthy attitude,” Gabriel said slowly. “Demonbloods are dangerous. By definition.”

“Lad, nobody isn’t dangerous. A schoolchild can ram a pencil through your eye socket into your brain and kill you in seconds.”

“That’s cheerful.”

“It’s an example. The measure of the threat a person poses is in what they do with their capacity to inflict harm. Some make a point of doing none; some devote that destructive potential to protecting the first group from the third, which are those who spread damage around wherever they think it benefits them most. The real question, then, is whether being part demon makes a person more inclined to be dangerous.” He tilted his head, dark eyes studying Gabriel piercingly. “Any thoughts on that?”

“…it’s not a simple question,” Gabe replied after a pause for thought. “For one thing, there’s more than one kind of demon.”

“Mm.” The man nodded. “Lots of complicating factors. That fact alone makes it seem somewhat foolish to dismiss all demonbloods as one category, wouldn’t you say? Particularly after speaking with you and Mistress Elspeth, I wonder if I’ve not made a right fool of myself all these years by brushing aside the half-demons I’ve encountered. Lots of possible friends and allies, never given a chance. All that wasted potential.”

“You meet a lot of half-demons?” Gabriel asked, raising his eyebrows. “Th—we aren’t exactly commonplace.”

“Oh, I travel around a fair bit,” the man said easily. “You meet all sorts, if you spend enough time circulating.”

“Hm.” Gabe shuffled his feet, which were growing chilled. His shoes, though sturdy, lacked the coat’s magical protections. “Well…I guess it’s good and all if you’re being a bit more progressive. Won’t make much difference in the long run, though. The world at large is never going to be accepting of devilkin.”

The man in black stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I was in the city for the hanging of that lady from Sarasio. The proprietress of that establishment that provided us all with room and board, and apparently instigator of the whole uprising. Actually, there were a few visitors from Sarasio on hand, aside from those on the scaffold. Young Mr. Jenkins, for one. It was all…surprisingly tasteful.”

“…tasteful?” Gabriel said warily.

“You read about public executions in fiction,” the man said, now gazing across the street, apparently lost in his train of thought. “Jeering and cheering from the crowd, dramatic speeches about the glory of the state and the evils of whoever was on the chopping block. All manner of rotten food being thrown. Fairly accurate, in a lot of cases; people did stuff like that. When life is hard, life is cheap, and people learn to mock death as the only way they can stand to live so close to it. None of that happened at the hanging, though. Not much of a crowd, and they were all… I want to say bemused, and saddened. No pontificating from the Imperial officials, either, just a list of charges and the pronouncement of sentence. The fellow was even quite polite to his…guest of honor.” He shook his head slowly. “As knowledge increases, so does understanding. Philosophy…decency. People are truly getting better. Oh, not consistently, and not as quickly as one might hope. But looking at the grand scale of progress, I’m inclined to be optimistic. So who’s to say who may or may not find acceptance in the world tomorrow, or next year?”

“I don’t think I’d know how to live in a world that accepted me,” Gabriel mused, now staring into the distance himself. The man in black turned his penetrating gaze back on him.

“You’re accustomed to keeping your head down, I’m sure. There are two sides to everything, though. Ever thought about trying to make yourself part of that progress?”

Gabriel was quiet for a while. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft. “I’m not sure if I ought to. It’s not like the world’s ever given me a break. What’s my motivation to help it?”

“That, son, is a question to which you should give some real thought.”

Gabe shook himself as if rousing from a reverie, turning back to the man with a smile. “Heh, you know, this is twice we’ve met, and I never have gotten your name.”

“Hm… I suppose that’s so, isn’t it? Tell you what.” The man in black grinned and reached up to tug the brim of his hat. “If our paths should happen to cross a third time, I’ll consider that a sign that you need to know it. Till then, perhaps.” He strolled off down the icy street, whistling.

Gabriel watched him go, momentarily forgetting even the cold. “Weird.”


 

“I did not sleep enough,” Teal said, yawning.

Trissiny rolled her eyes. “Nobody told you to stay up half the night dancing.”

“You are not being fair, Trissiny,” said Shaeine. “Someone did tell her to stay up dancing. And I stand by that directive.”

“I didn’t need to sleep enough,” said Teal with a smile, brushing the back of Shaeine’s hand with her own. “Dancing was much better. We should do that more often.”

“Goddammit, what is it going to take for you two to quit acting like a fairy tale?” Ruda exclaimed. “Breakfast wasn’t so fantastic that I want to taste it again.”

“Oh, let them be happy,” said Trissiny, smiling faintly. Ruda just snorted.

They paused, breaking their formation to press themselves against the front of a store and let a woman with two children pass. The mother, a drow, gave them a deep nod of the head and a polite little Narisian smile. The two kids stared openly, the girl with the happy grin of pure innocence. Both had ash-gray skin and dusty blonde hair; the girl’s ears were human in shape, while her little brother’s came to points, but were not as long as an elf’s.

“This place is kind of amazing,” Ruda said to herself as they continued on their way.

“Proof that differences need not result in conflict,” said Trissiny, nodding. “And that, I suspect, is precisely why someone seems determined to undermine the district. A closed mind is directly threatened by the presence of open ones.”

“Oh, you see evil conspiracies in every shadow,” Ruda said disdainfully. “Sometimes, Triss, people are just assholes. You don’t need to reach for hidden agendas to perfectly explain everything going on here.”

The paladin sighed. “Maybe. Well, after last night, I can at least hope something will be done.”

“I thought you weren’t happy about your conversation with the General?” said Teal.

“Not particularly, but sometimes the goddess provides in unexpected ways. Very unexpected. Panissar brushed me off, but Bishop Darling seemed far more motivated to step in.”

“For whatever good that’ll do,” Ruda grunted. “The man seemed smart, but…shifty. Nobody who’s that full of himself helps just to be helpful.”

“He’s not by any means the help I would have preferred,” Trissiny admitted. “Certainly not someone on whom to rely. ‘Smart but shifty’ sounds about right, but… I’ll take whatever works. Whether it’s the General properly keeping order among his troops or Antonio Darling protecting whatever illicit business interests he has in the district, so long as it results in these people getting the support they need, I can live with it.”

“That’s the spirit! A little pragmatism goes a long way, I say.”

The four came to a sudden stop, turning to stare at the speaker, who had just appeared alongside them. She was a young woman of Punaji origin, to judge by her accent, complexion and traditional boots, greatcoat and feathered hat, though her ensemble was of a much thicker shirt and trousers than Punaji style dictated and had been accessorized with a huge scarf and wooly mittens. She grinned cheerfully at them.

“Can we help you?” Trissiny asked at last.

“Why, yes! Yes you can!” the girl said, her grin widening. “I was just about to ask if you’d be willing to do me a little favor. Word is you’ve gotten fairly friendly with Bishop Darling.”

“How could you know about that?” Trissiny demanded. “That was just last night!”

“Ah, but you see, Trissiny, it’s my business to know things,” the girl replied mysteriously.

“That,” said Ruda, rolling her eyes, “and you were just talking about it. Literally seconds ago.”

“Spoilsport,” said the visitor, her grin returning. “By the way, it’s a real honor to meet you, Princess Zaruda.”

“You haven’t met me, spanky. You just walked up and started talking.”

“Right, sorry, I get carried away. You can call me Peepers!”

Trissiny suddenly grimaced. “Oh.”

“Yes, oh,” Peepers said cheerfully. “Anyway, since you offered to help me out, it’d be a real boost to my career if you could mention how much I helped you with your Lor’naris project to Darling next time you see him.”

“Wh—how much you what?” Trissiny exclaimed. “You haven’t…you just walked up! What help are you talking about?”

“Well, as to that.” Peepers turned to point one of her thick mittens up the street. “Left side, bout forty yards ahead, there’s an alley between a boarded-up building and an accountant’s office on the other side. You’re gonna want to have a look at what’s going on in there, General Hand, ma’am. In fact, you probably wanna get to it soon. And don’t go alone.”

They all stared at her.

“Like, today,” Peepers prompted. “Nowish. Time’s wasting.”

“Why?” Teal asked suspiciously.

“What, I’m supposed to give you all the answers? Hold your hand the whole way? You’ve got your tip, ladies; if you’re gonna act on it, now’s the time. Remember, my regards to the Bishop!”

The girl turned and actually skipped away, back up the sidewalk in the direction from which they’d come. Ten feet distant, she slipped on a patch of ice, barely avoided tumbling to the pavement, and from there proceeded at a much more sedate pace.

“The fuck kind of name is Peepers?” Ruda demanded.

“It’s not a name,” Trissiny said grimly. “That sounds like a Thieves’ Guild tag.”

Ruda’s face crunched into a grimace. “What? That girl was Punaji. We don’t have Eserites in Puna Dara.”

“There’s nowhere that doesn’t have Eserites,” said Trissiny. “If you do a better job than most at pushing them underground, that just means you don’t know who they are. Come on, we’d better have a look at that alley.”

“Oh, good, sure, let’s fuckin’ do that,” Ruda groused, though she fell into step alongside Trissiny as the paladin set off, Teal and Shaeine trailing along behind them. “Since it’s not an obvious trap or anything.”

“Maybe,” Trissiny allowed. “It wouldn’t be the first case of a Guild agent playing a prank on a Legionnaire, but they never take it to the point of causing actual harm. The Guild is quite deft at toeing the line, when they choose to.”

There had been no precipitation overnight, so there was no more buildup of ice on the sidewalks; unfortunately, that meant there had been less effort than yesterday to clear them, and treacherous patches remained where the morning frost lurked almost invisibly. The girls proceeded much more purposefully than their previously meandering pace, but not so quickly that they didn’t watch each step with care. Trissiny kept her attention on their destination, the others falling silent in her wake.

The boarded-up building was broader and squatter than most structures in the district; it looked like it might have been a warehouse or factory when in use. The accountant’s on the other side of the alley was in much better shape, its brickwork a little pitted and chipped like almost everything in Lor’naris, but it had a large window set into its front, apparently new and freshly painted with the firm’s name. No one appeared yet to be active within. The four gave it barely a glance before following Trissiny into the alley.

Here, the dimness quickly faded to real dark only a few steps in. Trissiny slowed to a halt, peering into the gloom; she could make out shapes, but not much more, and her vision was better in the dark than Teal or Ruda’s.

“Shaeine, cover your eyes,” she said quietly, then drew her sword. The blade ignited with golden radiance, lighting up the dismal space as if the alley suddenly had its own private sun.

For the most part, it would have been better left unseen. It was a dead-end alley, terminating in the bedrock below the city walls, with no doors to its bordering structures on either side. Consequently, despite the general ethos of cleanliness and order that prevailed in Lor’naris, upkeep here had been neglected, and truly ancient trash of all descriptions littered the ground, gathering into drifts in the corners, all of it coated with a layer of uncleared ice. The walls themselves were somewhat grimy, water-stained in many places. The girls spared none of this so much as a glance, however.

The man standing two thirds of the way down the alley wore a scarf wrapped around his lower face; his eyes were concealed by a thick pair of tinted goggles. He stood utterly still, apparently having frozen upon their entry in a bid to remain unnoticed. Before him, against the wall of the warehouse, sat a disorderly stack of barrels and old planks; the light glittered on small bottles of fluids and iridescent powder strategically placed throughout. In his hands he held a modern arcane firestarter of the kind sold to pioneers for extended trips into the wilderness.

For a moment, there was utter stillness.

Then Trissiny spoke, her voice several degrees colder than the winter air. “You have six seconds to convince me this is not what it looks like.”

He dropped the firestarter and reached into his coat.

“No,” she barked, striding forward with her glowing sword upraised.

The man withdrew his hand and swung it at the ground; something small tumbled from his fingers to strike the icy pavement.

A tremendous clap of thunder echoed through the alley, and for a split second an utterly blinding white radiance overwhelmed even Trissiny’s light. She yelped and staggered, clapping her free hand over her eyes; behind her, the others cried out as well. The divine glow vanished along with Trissiny’s concentration, but none of them could see the alley plunged back into darkness. They couldn’t see anything. She felt a figure brush past her, then heard a curse from Ruda followed by the thud of someone losing their footing on the slick ground. Stars and comets still swarmed her vision, leaving her blind and helpless.

The man slipped as he burst out from the mouth of the alley, but didn’t moderate his pace, dashing back toward the entrance to Lor’naris. People got out of his way as quickly as they saw him approach, his progress half running and half sliding.

“Hey!” shouted a drow man, turning and setting off after him, but he didn’t respond or slow.

Then, to a chorus of screams and curses, a streak of fire burst out from the alley behind him.

Vadrieny arced overhead, swooping past above and executing a graceful pirouette midair, transferring her forward momentum downward with a flap of her burning wings. Her talons sank into the very pavement with a crunch as she landed, securing her footing on the slick street. People bolted in all directions, several standing their ground and reaching for weapons.

“I think you’re about to be under arrest,” the demon commented calmly. She only stood, blazing wings extended to block his progress; she flexed her claws, but made no movement to attack.

Fumbling slightly with cold and nerves, the man drew a wand from within his coat and pointed it at her.

Vadrieny grinned, displaying a mouthful of terrifying fangs. “Whatever mistakes you have made in life, that would surpass them.”

He hesitated, the wand quavering but still aimed in his general direction. Too late, he registered and responded to the sound of bootsteps behind him, turning to face back the way he’d come.

Trissiny deliberately launched herself onto a patch of ice, hurtling forward in a slide. As the man pivoted to face her, she slammed her shield into his face, transferring her full momentum into the blow. He hurtled backward to the street, the wand tumbling from suddenly nerveless fingers.

The fallen would-be arsonist groaned softly, one hand twitching, then fell still.

Ruda stomped up, slipping and cursing vehemently even by her standards, while Trissiny knelt next to the fallen man. Several drow and humans had stepped cautiously forward, still eying the burning demon askance, but having taken their cue from the fact that the paladin was clearly not alarmed by her. Some might even have recognized the Talisman of Absolution pinned to her lapel.

“Is he dead?” Ruda demanded, coming to a stop.

“Stunned,” said Trissiny. “I’m not much of a healer; I hope I didn’t crack his skull. That can cause serious problems…” She raised her head, then glanced around. “Isn’t Shaeine with you?”

“Here,” called a voice far behind them. Shaeine had just emerged from the alley and was picking her way with great care along the sidewalk, keeping one hand on the wall for balance. The other was still held over her eyes.

Vadrieny pumped her wings once and shot back overhead, coming to a much more gentle landing beside the drow. With astonishing tenderness, she wrapped her arm around Shaeine, huge claws curling over her shoulder protectively; the priestess actually leaned against the demon. “Forgive me,” she said, raising her voice to address the others up ahead. “I’m afraid my eyes were more sensitive than yours to that device. Give me a moment to apply healing, please.”

“Sorry for leaving you,” Trissiny said with a wince.

“Not at all, you had an obvious tactical concern,” Shaeine replied absently, her whole head alight with silver. Vadrieny stood silently by, one blazing wing arched protectively over the priestess.

Ruda, meanwhile, had tugged free the fallen man’s scarf and goggles. “Anybody recognize this asshole?” He was a young human, clean-shaven and with his hair cropped short, with a perfectly unremarkable Tiraan complexion.

“He’s a city guard,” said a drow woman standing nearby. A human girl next to her nodded in agreement, grim-faced.

“Are you sure?” Trissiny asked, her expression dissolving into a scowl.

“Quite,” said the drow. “I have found it is wise to know them all on sight.”

“Unbelievable,” Ruda muttered. “Does the Imperial Army deliberately train its troops to wade hip-deep in the most idiotic bullshit they can find? I mean, fuck, those three privates we have at the school are kinda funny, but the shit going down in this city is starting to get seriously fucked up.”

“An accusation isn’t proof, Ruda,” said Shaeine, approaching, her eyes open and apparently working. Teal hovered protectively behind her, the demon once again submerged. Shaeine carefully knelt on the man’s other side, reaching out to place a fingertip against the center of his forehead. “Give me a moment… Yes, he is very mildly concussed. Easily fixed.” Her hand glowed momentarily, then she looked up at Trissiny. “I have placed him in a natural sleep, and taken the liberty of helping him relax more deeply than he is accustomed to, while leaving his ability to speak. You may find him…suggestible.”

“Excellent,” Trissiny said grimly. “All right, you. Why were you trying to set a fire?”

The alleged guard turned his head, smacking his lips for all the world like a man deeply asleep in his own bed. She was about to repeat her question when he finally answered, his voice dreamy. “Jus’ a small one, nobody hurt. Empty building. Setting an example… Make it clear the district’s not under control. Still need soldiers.”

Ruda snorted loudly; Trissiny made a shushing motion at her. The surrounding citizens were now dead silent, the drow impassive, the humans looking increasingly furious.

“Why now?” Trissiny demanded. “Why this escalation?”

“General Panissar…throwing his weight around,” the man mumbled. “Inspections… Paladin sticking her nose in. Captain says we—”

Abruptly, Shaeine reached out to touch his forehead again, and he fell silent with a deep sigh, a goofy smile passing across his face.

“What—why did you stop him?” Trissiny demanded. “He was confessing!”

“His use of ‘we’ indicated he is, indeed, a soldier,” Shaeine replied calmly. “This man is a Tiraan agent; for me to interrogate him under magical coercion would be a violation of treaty.”

“You knew that already!”

“Suspected,” she said impassively. “He was accused. Hearing it confessed from his own mouth changed the situation entirely.”

“Bah,” said Ruda. “I say we wake him up again, smack him around till he goes back to talking.” There were several mutters of agreement from the onlookers.

“No!” Trissiny shouted, then continued more quietly, dragging a hand over her face. “…no, Shaeine is completely right. Without law, justice is impotent. Though you were playing it pretty close with the technicalities,” she added, turning a wry look on the drow.

“Yes,” said Shaeine with a satisfied little smile. “We call that ‘diplomacy.’”

Trissiny stood with a sigh. “All right… Clearly, he must be placed under arrest. Just as clearly, there is a conflict of interest with the local guard barracks, which means we can’t hand him over to them. I’ll take him to the Legions. May I have some help getting him on the horse, please?”

There were gasps and curses, and even visible startlement on several drow faces, when the crowd turned to find Arjen waiting patiently just behind them. The Lorisians quickly marshalled themselves, however, and as requested helped lift the slumbering guard up, draping him across the saddle behind Trissiny. No one, luckily, indulged in the temptation to be unnecessarily rough with their captive, though there were several good-natured offers of rope and chains to lash him down.

“I can manage,” she demurred, reaching behind her to keep a one-handed grip on the fellow’s belt.

“You might have some trouble getting through the city, though,” Ruda commented, planting her fists on her hips. “Paladin or no, carrying a man draped over your horse’s ass like a sack of flour is gonna draw you some attention. And what if you pass more assholes from this guy’s barracks on the way? They might arrest you.”

Trissiny gave her a small, cold smile. “I almost hope they try.”

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34 thoughts on “5 – 13

  1. If you support the rule of law, vote for The Gods are Bastards!

    One of my favorite things to do is watch my stats page to see who’s reading this story and from where. It’s still an amazing thing for me to think of my words being seen by people all over the world. Generally, views sorted by country fall in predictable patterns: countries with high populations, and large percentages of people who read English and have Internet access, tend to top the list. Most of the time the USA leads by a wide margin, followed by Canada, and then Australia and several western European nations shuffle around in a shifting cluster.

    In the last couple of weeks, though, Israel of all places has been featuring highly on the list. To the point that for a while, it was consistently nudging out Canada for the number two slot. I’ve gotta say this intrigues me; I know a lot of folks there speak English, but it’s a pretty small country! I’m curious at my sudden popularity there.

    Can anyone shed some light on this for me? Was my URL posted on a campus bulletin board somewhere in Tel Aviv? It’s not a huge deal, but I can’t help being curious.

    In any case, I’ll see you all Friday, and hopefully will be back on my own computer by then. This thing is driving me bonkers.

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    1. And speaking of driving me bonkers, boy was THAT a pain in the ass. WordPress had another round of insisting on mangling my vote link no matter how many times I put in the correct URL; I had to edit the comment nine times before it gave up on adding random junk and just posted what I wrote.

      This was especially fun because this dinky little computer would freeze up every single time I hit Update. Blarg, I need sleep…

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      1. Hey, so a lot of that was me, binging through. I don’t know if Cyrid is my friend who recommended it to me, but someone did, saying it was a really good and genuinely funny web serial that updated regularly.

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    2. You’re welcome.😉

      Seriously, though, how many hits are we talking here? Because I can take credit for a few per day, but no more. I’ve been recommending you to my friends, not posting your URL on bulletin boards (election season just ended; bulletin boards have been expensive).

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      1. Why thank you! And I feel, now, I really should’ve put that together, based on things you’ve said before.

        There was a day last week where I had more than fifty hits from Israel, nudging out Canada; that’s fallen off and I seem to have about half a dozen steady readers there now.

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  2. This is getting more and more interesting with each chapter, I love this story so much.🙂

    I talked about The Gods are Bastards in the offtopic sections of a few gaming forums (BioWare etc) and tried to introduce a few friends to it but that’s all. I’m in Germany though, so it probably wasn’t me who told Israel about it.😉

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  3. I nominate Gabriel as the Hand of Vidius! All of the gods are going to be taking new paladins after all. (And yes, I know that wouldn’t work with the standard deific aura but it was still an amusing thought.)

    On a broader scale, it appears that the gods are seriously considering including other races in the Tiraan empire. And not just races – social groups. After it was apparent that Toby wasn’t into Trissiny there was some byplay that perhaps indicated that Toby is gay. So we have one half-elf paladin and one possibly gay paladin. A half-demon paladin would fit in with that theme (minority social groups) and would seriously undermine some of Elilial’s power base. That would make the god’s policy of inclusiveness blatantly clear. What would Shaath do then? (Right now this is largely speculation on my part.)

    I don’t get Rook’s reaction – he was already a libertine. Their job is to make sure that Juniper doesn’t cause problems. If part of that job includes keeping her entertained, then hasn’t anyone actually briefed them on the sort of actions that include “entertainment” for a dryad? Moriarty’s reaction makes sense, given his personality. Maybe Juniper managed to get them to do something they normally wouldn’t consider – “uncomfortable proximity to one another’s junk” sounds amusing… from a distance that is.

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    1. Rook, a libertine? He’s been accused of that, and jokingly agreed. He’s a smartass, lazy, disheveled and kind of a flirt…but this is the first time we’ve been him doing something hedonistic. His reaction is telling.

      I really enjoy your analyses, by the way. Seeing people gives such attention to my little story does a lot to keep me motivated.

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      1. Rook has been consistently portrayed that way, starting with “Rook’s Hookerarium and Moonshine Palace” in 1-9. And yes, it has been all talk, but no-one called out that talk as BS, not even the people who knew him best. And if memory serves (I can’t find the actual scene at the moment), the man actually flirted with Arachne, indicating a serious commitment to either the smartass or the libertine side of him. So, yes, when a character is consistently portrayed that way, I tend to believe it. But, as you said, we now have some contrary evidence.

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      2. Rook is a guy who talks a lot when he gets nervous and his mouth runs away from him. He probably didn’t mean anything he said when he flirted with Arachne.😉

        Although, to be fair… I’d flirt with her, too.

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      3. @Daemion: You have more courage than sense. I’d be interested in watching that play out.

        Via telescope.

        From space.

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      4. Let us remember that Rook was selected to guard a hell gate, and that means he was judged to be a poor but very LOYAL soldier.

        Also serious enough an Avenist to be noticeably affected by the prospect of meeting Trissiny.

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    2. Now there’s an intriguing thought. Isn’t Vidius all about duality? Seems appropriate. And the deific aura thing is easily remedied – the Talisman of Absolution (whose existence we are coincidentally reminded of this chapter *wink-wink-nudge-nudge*) protects the bearer from divine magic.

      On the other hand, Gabe is a bloody terrible actor, so maybe not.

      But since you raise the issue – I would really like to see a Hand of Shaath appear in the story and turn out to be just a really nice guy. Because I don’t think Triss’s preconceptions have suffered enough yet.

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  4. If the firebombing is an official action, illegal or not, there might be a cleanup crew waiting in the wings. Any legal case against the arsonist will be a bit harder without evidence, despite the eye witnesses. Hopefully one of the students is smart enough to secure the scene until someone official who isn’t part of the local guard barracks can do so. Unfortunately, the students are probably not familiar enough with police work to automatically think of that.

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      1. A piece at a time:

        The assault on the witnesses will be nearly impossible to get around. However, the soldier could claim correctly that Trissiny did not identify herself and therefore his actions were normal for facing hostile groups – when outnumbered and outmatched, disengage and flee. Note that he did not attack on his way out, so self-defense would be easy to argue here.

        The testimony is questionable at best since it was coerced by an interested and involved party – a good lawyer could probably have it thrown out quickly.

        Without the actual inflammables they would have no proof that the soldier was actually attempting a firebombing. Unless the military actually coerces the soldier’s testimony and has a way to enforce truthfulness, the soldier or his lawyer could claim the inflammables were harmless trash the soldier was getting rid of using a controlled burn.

        Yes, it would look suspicious as hell, and an investigation might get other involved parties to reveal something stupid, but if the physical evidence vanishes then proof of serious wrongdoing gets much harder.

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  5. Typos:

    “He hesitated, the wand quavering but still aimed in his general direction.” – presumably meant to be “her general direction”, unless he’s threatening to shoot himself; all of his opponents are female.

    Just before that, you have “He stood utterly still” followed in the next paragraph with “For a moment, there was utter stillness”, which technically isn’t a typo but doesn’t scan well to me.

    Other thoughts:

    1. For some reason I find the repeated reactions to the “Summon Mount” spell-like ability hilarious.

    2. Have we met Peepers before? I feel like we have, but for a moment when she showed up I thought she might be Eserion. On the subject of which – I feel the practice of tagging characters might be somewhat limiting, since this is a story that likes to keep the reader guessing about everything and it includes several major characters who can shapeshift, and many more who simply wouldn’t be able to recognize one another by sight. Just a thought.

    3. Teal and Shaeine’s interactions are sweet, but other characters’ reactions to them are all the better. It’s interesting just how many ways you find to highlight the differences between your characters.

    And on an unrelated note, is there a map of the setting anywhere? Just a sketch, even? I’m considering a fan project and it’d be useful to have.

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    1. Yup, we’ve met Peepers. Triss doesn’t know it, but she just met a mate of her mother’s who got a rather large get out of Dodge hand out for being handy.

      I just hope it was enough of one to avoid a succubus interested in a fun hunt. -_-

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    2. Maps are among my “someday” features I have planned. There will need to be maps of the continent and the city of Tiraas at least, and possibly other places. Nothing’s down on paper at the moment, though.

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  6. well vidius is back, would really like more back story on him, god of death and masks. how are these two things even associated is he some twisted combination of janus and hades. he really is the vaguest god you’ve introduced, we know more about eserion and elilial and they are both gods of deception and subtly.
    what is this guys shtick what motivates his worshipers i mean he doesn’t stand for any ideology that i can even place based on his description. avenists-feminism, omnu-pacifists, izara-free love hippy convent.

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    1. They don’t have to be associated. In fact, we’re explicitly told that the members of the Trinity (of which he is a part) are the strongest gods because they have separate, unrelated, encompassing concepts.

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  7. I still love the teleporting horse. I mean every time he appears it’s great.
    Guards resorting to arson is well past harassment but at least it is proof the problem needs to be solved

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  8. Ah, so Kid Joe was already in the city for another reason. I was wonder if he’d have sufficient incentive to come out there leaving Sarasio else, despite all the military & other that have been dispatched there since.

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