“It’s amazing how you find time to walk me all over the place while you’re supposedly out earning us a living,” Sanjay griped.
“It’s amazing how you tend not to turn up at school if I don’t physically take you there,” Lakshmi shot back. “It’s not as if I have nothing better to do, you know.”
“How about we compromise and I stop going to the stupid school?” he suggested helpfully.
She heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Little brother, we have had this conversation so many times we could both recite it, so can we just not, please? Look, I know you find it boring…”
“And yet,” he prompted.
She gave him a critical sidelong look. “Your plan is still to apprentice with the Guild?”
“Yes!” Sanjay skipped a step and actually hopped up and down in place, looking up at her with shining eyes.
“Well, you know I can’t sponsor you myself, but I’m making good connections in the city. It shouldn’t be hard to get someone to—”
“Oh, gods, yes!” he crowed. “Finally! Where do I sign?!”
“Easy, squirt,” Lakshmi said, amused. “You’re not old enough.”
Sanjay deflated abruptly, his expression quickly morphing from disappointment to ire. “…you are a tease. Did you know that? This is why you don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Maybe I’m into girls, ever think about that?”
“Oh, ew!” He planted both hands over his ears. “I don’t need to hear these things! I’m a child, damn it!”
“Exactly.” She swatted one hand away from his head and nudged him forward, resuming their walk. “Too young to apprentice. But, perhaps we can reach a compromise, yeah?”
“I’m listening,” he said cautiously.
“You go to the school—without making me drag you there like a sack of flour every day. You pass your classes every year, and don’t create more trouble than you can weasel your own way out of without me having to go smooth it over. Then, when you’re fifteen, I promise I will make sure someone sponsors you for Guild membership.”
“When I’m fifteen?” he whined, a portrait of despair. “That’s three years. That’s an age and a half! I’ll be as old and wrinkly as you by that time. Can’t you just tell them I’m fifteen? I’m huge for my age, look.”
He raised one arm, flexing a scrawny bicep, which would have been a meaningless display even had the arm not been swaddled in a heavy winter coat. Instead of responding, however, she mutely placed one hand on his shoulder. Sanjay looked up at his sister, confused, then fell silent at her expression. Only then did he peer around them and see what was wrong.
They had settled in one of the poor border districts, not far from Lor’naris. Sanjay didn’t know the extent of the money they had access to thanks to Principia, and Lakshmi strictly kept it that way. Anyhow, the slums were a more appropriate residence for Eserites than a posh middle-class neighborhood, for reasons ethical, spiritual and practical. Once she formed enough connections that it became known who she was, they had nothing to fear from their neighbors. Everyone knew better than to get rough with any member of the Thieves’ Guild.
The public school Sanjay attended was, of course, in a more well-heeled area, several blocks up the hill toward the city’s center. They were passing through one of the intermediary districts, a mercantile street whose occupants were exceptionally shady and extremely practiced at minding their own business. The business in question was by nature quieter than in streets occupied by more legitimate tradesmen, with no hawking of wares and little attempt to attract attention in general, but it was still business; it still made noise.
The street had gone all but silent.
Shopkeepers were deliberately turning their backs to the street, pretending to rummage in the shelves of their stands or vanishing into the depths of their own shops. Pedestrians expeditiously removed themselves from the area; loiterers slunk away into the deeper shadows of alleys.
It was alarming, because a city was like the woods in that vermin fell silent in the presence of their natural predators. It was doubly alarming because they tended to offer solidarity, even if just in glances and little hand signals, to their fellow vermin, but everyone was studiously ignoring Lakshmi and Sanjay, just as they were the two men following them.
Lakshmi half-turned her head to casually glance behind. Those men did not belong. They walked along with their gazes fixed on herself and her brother; their clothes were unremarkable, but they strode with the stiff purpose of soldiers who had never learned to disguise themselves in public. Worse, a third man was up ahead. He leaned against a store front, arms folded and head down, seeming to ignore everything around him, but he was still there, when all the toughs who frequented the neighborhood had judiciously made themselves scarce. In moments, they would reach him, and find themselves pinned between him and those following.
“Shmi?” Sanjay said, a quaver in his voice.
She calculated quickly, keeping her pace even and taking her little brother’s hand. They could cross the street easily enough, but at the first sign they were aware of the trap, their pursuers would drop pretenses and be after them at full speed. Lakshmi did a rapid visual survey of the surroundings. There… A food cart just ahead stood just below a drainpipe that led to an overhanging sloped roof, itself an access to an exterior staircase in the next building over.
“Listen carefully,” she said quietly, keeping her expression neutral. “When I give the signal, you run—”
“I’m not leaving you,” he said fiercely.
“You will do as you are told.” She did not raise her voice, but spoke with a full authority that she never used with him. It had the desired effect; he nodded miserably. “Don’t go home. Head for Lor’naris, go right to the inn where the paladin’s staying. If you find anyone from the Guild you know, or they spot you first, get their help; if not, get Trissiny or any of the people traveling with her, bring them back here. I’ll stall these guys long as I can. Love you, little brother.”
They drew abreast of the cart, and time was up.
Lakshmi seized Sanjay under the arms and grunted, heaving him up; she didn’t have to bear his weight long, luckily. Once he got a grip on the wooden frame of the cart, he was up it and onto the roof in a flash, climbing as deftly as a squirrel.
At their sudden motion, the man ahead straightened, turning to face them, and the two behind broke into a run.
Sanjay was already darting away, quickly gaining the rooftops and putting himself out of their reach. Lakshmi, the sounds of pursuit slapping behind her, bolted across the street, moving her legs as fast as they could pump.
She didn’t waste time with prayers. The Big Guy helped those who helped themselves.
The Corner Garden wasn’t much of a garden, but then, the only things in Lor’naris that remotely qualified as gardens were the window boxes in which a few residents grew flowers and herbs—and at this time of year, even those were barren. It was a fairly pleasant little spot, though, originally a very tiny warehouse space sandwiched between two sturdy limestone buildings which, after having burned down, had been cleaned up by the residents and nothing rebuild there except a couple of benches lining its walls. With a worn gravel floor and provided seating, it made for a popular gathering spot in a district that didn’t have much open space.
Now, it was filled with grunts, the crunch of boots on gravel and a constant clacking of wood against wood as Trissiny and Ruda danced back and forth, sparring with practice “swords” made of bundled reeds capped with rubber balls. Several of the residents had stopped to watch, some (none drow) offering cheers and good-natured advice. Both girls ignored the onlookers, tightly focused on their duel.
They were closely matched, comparable in skill and the differences in their styles compensating each other to an extent. Trissiny was taller and had longer limbs, and thus the advantage of reach, but didn’t make as much use of it as Ruda, who darted forward aggressively and retreated just as quickly. Her rapid footwork and swift-striking style made her more mobile, but also consumed more energy; the previous two bouts had both ended in Trissiny’s favor after dragging out for long minutes, the paladin letting the pirate tire herself out until she made a mistake. This one was looking likely to trend in the same direction.
Trissiny did have a tendency to guard weakly on her left, perhaps due to habitual reliance on her shield, and had several times barely managed to parry rapid strikes at that side. Now, Ruda darted forward again, lunging at a brief faltering of her guard, just a hair slower than she had been moving.
However, when Trissiny swung her weapon to intercept, Ruda’s sword was not there. Suddenly moving at her usual snake-like speed again, she whipped the blade around Trissiny’s parry, under her sword arm and clapped her smartly across the ribs on the right side.
The paladin staggered back, hunching over to clutch at her midsection, and a chorus of “Ooos” sounded from the onlookers, followed by a smattering of applause. Ruda halted as well, grounding the tip of her practice sword and breathing heavily.
Trissiny raised her head, wearing a grin beneath the coating of sweat on her face. “Nice!”
“You walked right into that one,” Ruda replied smugly, somewhat out of breath.
“Yes, good strategy. In an actual fight you’ll only be dead twice before finishing off your opponent.”
“You wanna go for real, Boots?”
“Hah! Best three out of five?”
Ruda laughed, casually tossing aside her practice sword. “I’ll pencil you in. Seriously, though, I’m calling it for now. One of us is gonna fall over at this rate, and you know how it is. We wouldn’t both bounce as well.” Leering, she patted herself on the chest.
Trissiny rolled her eyes, not rising to the bait, but set aside her own weapon more gently, taking a seat on one of the benches. The crowd, slightly disappointed, began to drift away as Ruda flopped down beside her roommate and drew a bottle of whiskey from within her coat.”
“Want a swig?” she offered. “Just the thing to ward off the cold.”
“I don’t drink, as you know. I’m also not exempt from Tellwyrn’s rule against drinking; that’s just you. And how does it warm you if alcohol doesn’t affect you?”
“Trissiny, my poor, sweet child, a person who drinks as much as I do inevitably has all kinds of reasons why they’re perfectly justified and entitled to. Everyone of of them, without exception, are bullshit.” Grinning, she tilted her head back, taking a long gulp.
“An impressive show of skill,” said a tall man in an Army uniform, stepping forward. Both girls looked up at his approach, their expressions sobering immediately. Most of the residents had departed, but Avrith and a male drow whom Trissiny didn’t recognize were loitering casually by the entrance to the Garden.
She flicked her eyes to his insignia and back to his face. “Thank you, Colonel. Something we can help you with?”
He bowed—respectfully, but notably not the salute owed a superior officer, a subtle reminder that whatever honorary rank Trissiny held, she was not part of his chain of command. She was unsure what the actual protocol in this situation was, and made a mental note to find out. “Andrel Covrin, at your service. Actually, I’d hoped to speak for a moment with Princess Zaruda. I owe you an apology.”
“Do you, now?” Ruda asked, wiping sweat from her forehead with her sleeve. “I don’t recall us having met. What’d you do that needs to be apologized for?”
“It is a family matter, I’m afraid,” Colonel Covrin said, his expression grim. “At General Panissar’s party, I understand you had a regrettable encounter with my daughter, Jenell.”
“Jenell?” She blinked, tilting her head. “Doesn’t sound familiar.”
He sighed, squaring his shoulders as if facing down an enemy. “You may perhaps recall a young woman in a spectacularly immodest dress who approached you with a barrage of unprovoked ad completely inexcusable insults.”
“Well, that describes most of the bitches there, as I recall,” Ruda said lazily, “but yeah, now that you mention it, it’s all coming back to me.”
Covrin nodded stiffly. “Her treatment of you was unconscionable. I assure you, she is being disciplined. You have my heartfelt apologies for any embarrassment suffered.”
Ruda waved a hand dismissively, bending to pick up her sheathed rapier. “Well, you didn’t do any of that. Doesn’t seem you’re the one who ought to be apologizing.”
“Call it a matter of family honor,” he replied, a sour twist to his mouth.
“Ah.” Ruda nodded. “In that case, apology accepted. Seriously, no harm was done to me. I haven’t given her another thought, starting the second she walked away.”
“I appreciate that,” he said, nodding again. A somewhat tense silence fell, the Colonel standing stiffly at attention, seeming at a loss for words.
“Anything else?” Ruda prompted.
“There is, in fact,” he said. “I realize I am in no position at all to ask you favors, but there was another matter I’d hoped to broach with you.”
“Go on,” she said when he fell silent. Trissiny discreetly moved off to one side, picking up her own sword and shield and carefully settling them back into place on her person.
“There is an ancient tradition, practiced among the noble houses, of fostering,” said Covrin. “Young people are given education in the homes of allied and even rival families, to expand their understanding and give them perspective into the broader world. I… My wife and I come from humble roots. I’ve never thought of myself as anything more than a soldier, but Amelie has grown…very comfortable with the lifestyle afforded by my rank. As she has had the bulk of Jenell’s raising while I attended to my duties to the Empire, I fear my daughter has grown up somewhat…spoiled.”
“I’d never have guessed,” Ruda said solemnly. To the side, just out of Covrin’s range of view, Trissiny bit her lip to repress a grin.
The Colonel sighed, not missing the sarcasm. “Yes, well… Placing the blame on Amelie is disingenuous. I should have put a stop to this long since, but… No, no buts, I take responsibility. In any case, following the party, my wife has quite sharply relented in her protective attitude toward our daughter. I’m embarrassed to say she is more concerned about this ‘pregnancy scare’ than the fact that our only child chose to harass and insult visiting royalty for no discernible reason.”
“Well, you can’t fault the girl’s pluck,” Ruda said cheerfully.
Covrin sighed again. “I suppose. Anyhow, the result is still the same. I have an opportunity to inject a little much-needed discipline into Jenell’s life, and it seems both practical and poetic to…if you are at all willing…send her to Puna Dara to learn something of the ways of our closest allies.”
Ruda was already shaking her head before he finished speaking. “Colonel, I like where your head’s at, I encourage your line of thinking, but that particular idea is a terrible one. Your kid would get killed among Punaji.”
“I realize her attitude could do with some shaping. If anything, your people’s reputation for forthright—”
“I don’t think you understand,” she said wryly. “That wasn’t hyperbole. If I talked to my servants the way that girl does to her betters, one of them would draw steel on me, and my father would say I had it coming. In all literal seriousness, Colonel, if you send your daughter to Puna Dara, somebody will straight up slit her throat.”
“Ah,” he said after a moment. “Well. I suppose that’s to be avoided, then. Might upset her mother.”
“Mothers are funny like that,” Ruda said gravely. “However, if you’re serious about this, perhaps we can help you after all. I have it on excellent authority that there’s no better way for a girl to learn some discipline than a good long period spent training with the Sisters of Avei.” She turned a broad grin on Trissiny, who grinned back. “And what do you know, I just happen to have an acquaintance who can probably get her a spot.”
“Oh?” Clearing his throat, Covrin turned to the paladin as well. “If you are so inclined, General Avelea…”
“How old is your daughter, Colonel?” Trissiny asked.
“Mm… That’s just barely too old for a slot at the Abbey barracks. However… The Third Silver Legion is presently stationed in the city, and has a regiment of cadets currently in training. The Legions don’t sign on women under duress or for any kind of punitive duty… But if you would like Jenell to go through the full course of cadet training without the expectation of Legion service thereafter, I could probably pull strings and make that happen. Who knows, she might find she actually wants to serve after all that. Basic training changes a person, as I’m sure you know.”
“I don’t think it likely, with all respect,” he said, “or I’d simply make her join the Army. But if you’re willing to do this, General, I would consider myself in your debt.”
Before she could answer, there came a rapidly approaching patter of small feet moving fast; Avrith and her companion had both turned to look up the street. A boy of about twelve with a dark Punaji complexion came pelting down the sidewalk past them. Catching sight of Trissiny, he tried to stop, skidded on a patch of ice and would have taken a tumble if the drow man hadn’t caught him.
“Trissiny,” he gasped, fighting loose. “Paladin…please…help…”
“What is it?” she demanded, striding forward. “Are you all right?”
“My sister,” he said desperately. “Lak—Peepers! You know her! They’re after her!”
“Who is?” she asked sharply.
“Fuck that, we’ll sort it out later,” Ruda snapped. “Where?”
“This way!” Breathless or no, the boy turned and set off back the way he had come at the same frantic pace, pausing only to beckon them urgently forward.
Trissiny and Ruda dashed out of the Corner Garden right on his heels, racing for the mouth of Lor’naris.
Above them, two dark shapes detached themselves from the eaves of a flanking building and kept pace, bounding across the rooftops.
“It was here!” he said frantically, coming to a stop in the middle of the street and trying to look around even while doubled over in near exhaustion. “Right…here…”
“Oy, you!” Ruda bellowed, stalking toward a woman who was trying to duck behind the counter of her stall. “Yeah, you know what we’re lookin’ for. Where is she?”
Fauna landed in the middle of the sidewalk with a barely perceptible thump. “This way!” she barked, pointing up the street. “Second alley ahead, we can hear them.”
Sanjay took two steps in her direction and staggered, winded; Trissiny and Ruda set off on the elf’s heels, not bothering to react to her sudden appearance. Fauna bounded as swiftly as a deer, and reached the alley first, whipping around the corner with near-impossible agility. Instantly, she dived back out, hitting the ground in a roll, and a lighting bolt blasted through the air above her.
Trissiny hopped over the huddling elf, a golden shield flaring up around her as she charged into the alley. Another wandshot sparked against her aura; she barely noticed it.
Ahead of her, three men stood around a woman huddled on the dirty floor of the alley. One was pointing a wand at her; of the other two, one held a ragged plank as a makeshift club, and the other was in the process of kicking the woman in the midsection. She was curled into a fetal ball, arms over her head, but in the glow of Trissiny’s divine light, she could unmistakeably see blood. On the floor, on their boots, on the club.
White-hot rage burst to life in her, and she was moving forward again before deciding to. Even in her fury, years of training clicked into place; she charged silently, sword and shield coming up in perfect form. At her side, Ruda clearly experienced the same reaction and handled it very differently, letting loose a wordless roar. Side by side, they pelted straight at the knot of attackers. Two more lightning bolts impacted uselessly on the shield before they arrived.
Trissiny slammed the man to one side with her shield and Ruda drove her rapier straight through his stomach, viciously ripping it out sideways and splattering the alley wall with blood and viscera.
The man with the board let out a furious howl and charged her senselessly; his makeshift weapon shattered against her upraised shield and she smashed her fist, braced around the hilt of her sword, into his teeth, sending him rebounding off the wall and slumping to the ground, stunned.
Only then did she realize her mistake. The third man, standing farthest back, now had a clear shot at the un-shielded Ruda. The pirate was lunging at him, sword first, but he had a wand out; there was no way she could reach him before he squeezed the clicker. Trissiny had over-committed to her lunge, and couldn’t change her momentum in order to get back between them in time. She didn’t have Shaeine’s skill with shields, couldn’t place a barrier of light in front of her friend.
Time slowed in that instant, and she tasted true helplessness, the despair of it cutting through her fury.
A whooshing sound like a huge gliding bird came from above; a shadow fell across them, blocking the illumination from the gap high overhead between buildings.
Flora struck the man feet-first, her cloak trailing through the air behind her. Wrapping her legs around his neck, she spun entirely around him once, throwing him off balance and leveraging her momentum such that even with her meager weight, she was able to hurl him to the ground. She sprang loose as he fell, landing lightly on her feet.
Ruda managed to slow her charge, and now stomped hard on the man’s hand, pinning the wand to the ground and almost certainly breaking a few fingers. The tip of her rapier came to rest against his windpipe.
“Give me an excuse,” she snarled. “Doesn’t have to be a good one.”
Trissiny knelt beside Peepers, laying her hands on the woman’s shoulder and channeling light as best she could, keenly aware that her gifts were not in the realm of healing. The light did as it did, however, despite her inadequacies. From this angle, she could see half the woman’s face, and watched the bruising recede from around her eye, blood stop flowing from her nose and a bad scrape across her cheek close up.
Peepers shuddered, then did so again, then twitched and uncurled somewhat. “Oh…gods. Whew. That stuff tingles.”
“Shmi!” the boy wailed, pelting into the alley; he’d have bowled Fauna over had she not deftly side-stepped him, which he didn’t notice, hurling his arms around Peepers’s neck.
“Hey, little brother,” she said somewhat hoarsely, hugging him back. “You found ’em! Good work, kid.”
“Are you all right?” Trissiny asked, as gently as she could with adrenaline and moral fury still blazing through her.
“Yeah, sure, I’m…” Peepers trailed off, then closed her eyes, shuddering. “I dunno. Not really. Nothing seems broken, though.”
Trissiny nodded, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder. “We’ll get you to a proper healer straightaway.”
In the corner of her vision, she noted movement; the man she had disabled was drawing himself up to hands and knees.
Trissiny was on him in a flash, seizing the collar of his coat in one gauntleted fist and hauling him upright, where she slammed him back against the wall. “Who are you,” she demanded icily, “and what are you doing here?”
“Fuck you,” he snarled.
“Wrong answer.” She cracked his head against the brick again.
“Just…mugging,” her prisoner choked, squeezing his eyes shut against the pain.
“Oh?” Trissiny barked. “You were mugging a member of the Thieves’ Guild? Do not insult my intelligence. One more chance.”
He opened his eyes; they were still somewhat unfocused, but he turned his gaze to the fallen woman. “She… What? No!”
“Oh, yes,” Trissiny said grimly. “Now I want to know why you were attacking her.”
“Don’t tell her—” The man on the ground broke off with a squeal as Ruda kicked him between the legs.
“Wait your turn, shit for brains,” she advised him.
“There was a lot of talk about me learning to mind my own business,” Peepers said, in the process of being helped to her feet by her brother.
“Last chance,” Trissiny warned her captive.
He sneered at her. “You’re not gonna do anything to me, paladin. You’re too noble.”
“You see these two elves?” She wrenched his head around to bring Flora and Fauna into his view. Fauna grinned nastily, toying with a large hunting knife; Flora folded her arms, draping her cloak around herself, and stared at him flatly. “They are also members of the Thieves’ Guild. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. You don’t start talking right now, I will drop you, walk to the mouth of this alley, turn my back and not react to anything I hear that isn’t you telling me what I want to know.”
Wide-eyed, he looked from the elves to her face, then back, then shook his head once.
Trissiny growled wordlessly and released him, stepping back.
“No!” he shouted, actually reaching out for her. “She stuck her nose in, dragging you into this! You can’t give these scum an inch—sometimes the law just isn’t enough. You have to lean on them. We had to!”
Trissiny drew in a long breath through her nose and let it out slowly, seeking calm in the familiar breathing exercise. It didn’t work.
“How can you be this way?!” she burst out. “You are soldiers! You’re supposed to protect—you took oaths! Why is it you are so willing to throw everything away, just to protect your own prerogative to be an asshole?!”
“Us!?” he shrieked back at her. “You’re supposed to protect us! You’re supposed to be on our side! We are law and order, and you’re backing drow scum and criminals against the soldiers in this city? Just whose fucking paladin are you?!”
They stared at each other, both breathing heavily.
Then Trissiny punched him again. His head banged against the wall, and he slumped to the ground.
“Ruda, would you kindly incapacitate—thank you,” she said as the pirate deftly applied the toe of her boot to the side of her own prisoner’s head, rendering him unconscious. “We’ll need to get these two to healers very quickly. Head trauma can be devastating if left untreated. Peepers, you too.”
“No argument here,” Peepers said shakily, leaning on her brother.
“This guy’s dead,” Fauna said helpfully, nudging the third man with her boot. The puddle of blood in which he lay was steaming in the cold air; in that moment, Trissiny suddenly became aware of the smell. It wasn’t just blood Ruda’s sword had spilled.
“I think I should feel worse about that than I do,” she said.
“I don’t,” Ruda snorted. “Fucker brought every bit of it on himself.”
Trissiny shook her head. “Healers first. I’ll need some guidance to the closest one.”
“It’s not far,” said Flora.
“Good, we just need to get these two stable and then transfer them to the Temple of Avei. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to trust them to the custody of the city guard.”
“No shit,” said Ruda.
“And then,” Trissiny went on, her expression growing grimmer, “…ugh. I had so hoped it would not come to this, but I don’t think they’ve left us any choice. This cannot be allowed to stand; the people need protection, and those who are supposed to provide it are their most immediate danger.” She sighed heavily. “I need to summon the Legion.”