“How certain are you of this?” Zanzayed asked, his previous jocularity entirely gone.
“Let me be clear, I am not involved in this,” said Tellwyrn, folding her arms. “I offered to pass the message on to you, which I have now done. I’m out. But to answer your question, I have only the accusation from one source. The source in question has no reason to deceive me and in my estimation is too intelligent to antagonize me and you by making such a claim falsely. But yes, I’d suggest you do a little independent confirmation before taking action. Or not. Whatever, your problem, not mine.”
Zanzayed frowned, rubbing his chin with a thumb. “You said this was an Eserite priest?”
“Yeah. Their former Boss, actually. Currently a Bishop in the Universal Church.”
“Bollocks,” he said feelingly. “You’re right, Eserites don’t stir up this kind of trouble just for shiggles. I can see one trying to con a dragon—they’ve done it before—but one with that kind of rank is too invested in the status quo. Well, well, I must say I wouldn’t have expected this of Khadizroth. He’s always had a bug under his tail about the growth of human power, but this kind of thing is… It’s so sleazy, not like him at all. He’s either decided the situation is truly desperate or is actually getting to be fun in his old age. I’m going to assume the former. Am I boring you, Arachne?” he added dryly.
Tellwyrn was staring fixedly across the garden, frowning. “You see that guy?”
“You’re going to have to be vastly more specific, darling. This is a party.”
“That oily-looking fellow. His name is Shook, but what the hell is going on with his aura? It’s like he’s…”
She trailed off, but Zanzayed followed her gaze, frowning. “I see what you mean. I’m pretty sure that’s not a human. Was he always like that?”
“No,” she said curtly, and set off across the garden at a sharp pace.
“Good thing you’re not getting involved,” Zanzayed said cheerfully, gliding along behind her. “I know how much you hate that.”
The crowd parted for them as if they were surrounded by a swarm of foul-smelling wasps. Only Shook himself seemed to show no interest in their approach; he was wandering aimlessly around the periphery of the garden, his expression wooden. As the elf neared, dragon right behind her, he turned a corner around a hedge into one of the darkened areas Vandro had left. Tellwyrn picked up her pace, whipping around the blind corner right behind him. She reached out to grab Shook’s shoulder, not bothering to speak.
Her hand passed right through it.
Tellwyrn paused to give Zanzayed a significant look; Shook was already moving on, seeming not to have noticed her. She reached out again, this time with only a fingertip, and lightly touched the back of his head.
There came an electrical snap, a shower of sparks, and Shook dissolved. A selection of enchanting components clattered to the ground, burned out and several of them still sparking, overloaded by all the raw energy Tellwyrn had just pumped into the system.
“Well, how about that,” Zanzayed mused, bending to pick up one particular object. It was a small glass jar, connected via wires to a golem logic controller, in which sat a preserved piece of unidentifiable flesh.
A gasp sounded from behind them.
Tellwyrn and Zanzayed turned to behold a serving girl, clutching an empty tray to her chest as if to hide behind it. “D—d—did— You killed him!” she spluttered.
“Yes, that’s right,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “I have just transfigured this intangible, unresponsive person into a collection of enchanting components that would create a moving, self-sustained illusion of him.”
The girl let out a shriek, turned and pelted off into the crowd. “Help! They’re murdering the guests!”
“You were asking me why I became an educator?” Tellwyrn said, turning to Zanzayed. “It’s because the world is full of morons.”
“He was considered the last member of the Thieves’ Guild to be thwarted by an actual adventuring party,” said Fauna, “so that’s why we date the end of the Age of Adventures from Vipertail’s death.”
“It wasn’t even his fault, really, just bad luck,” Flora continued. “He tried to run the Gray Prince on some guy, little knowing that the mark was in a questing party with an elf. Fellow was all excited about the opportunity, went back to tell his teammates, and… Well, there you go.”
“For some reason,” said Gabriel, “the more you explain, the less I understand.”
He was the only person in the common room even trying to engage with them. The inn, like most of Lor’naris this evening, was all but silent; in addition to the two Guild apprentices, only Gabriel, Toby and Trissiny were present, with two Silver Legionnaires flanking the door. The soldiers had made it clear they were on duty; they weren’t unfriendly, and even seemed to be listening to the elves’ story, but had rejected all attempts at conversation. Toby was sitting hunched over a table on which sat a cooling, untouched pot of tea, which the students had ordered mostly out of pity for the innkeeper, who’d done no business at all that day. Trissiny paced up and down in front of the hearth, frowning into the distance. Flora and Fauna seemed to be trying to lift the mood, but were making little headway.
“The Gray Prince is one of the standard cons,” Fauna explained. “You slather on some makeup and a pair of prosthetic ears—this pretty much has to be a human or half-elf to work—and spin your mark a story about how you’re a half-elf, half-drow who’s suffered all manner of persecution because of your heritage, yadda yadda…”
“Then,” Flora continued, “a spiel about your hidden wealth in drow plunder that you want to get out of the Underworld to start a new life here in human lands, but are blocked because all the drow hate you so much and need the mark’s help to retrieve it.”
“From there, you can go a couple of different ways. The easiest is just a scheme where they invest in an operation to fetch back your ancestral treasure…”
“…or, if you’re brazen and the mark is particularly dense, you can work it out as an elaborate banking deal and get access to their accounts.”
“Sounds…scarily effective,” Gabe mused. “I could see myself falling for that; lucky for me I don’t have any money. How come the guy being in a party with an elf threw it off?”
“Because there are no such things as gray elves,” said Fauna with a grin.
He frowned. “What? I’ve seen a bunch of gray elves in the last week. They’re all over this district.”
“You mean the little ones?” Flora chuckled. “Those are half-elves. Drow/human hybrids. No, drow and surface elves can interbreed, but the result will always be one or the other. One parent’s genes predominate.”
“Elves, of course, know this,” said Fauna. “Most humans do not. Thus, you don’t try to run the Gray Prince anywhere in the hearing of any kind of elf.”
“I see how brazenness could be an asset,” Trissiny said sharply. “It takes some to discuss crime right in front of two paladins and two Legionnaires.”
“Hey, we didn’t say we had ever done this,” said Flora.
“Nor would,” Fauna added piously.
“Anyway, you’re not wrong. The Gray Prince is an ignoble con.”
“As opposed to what?” Trissiny demanded.
“The distinction might be over your head,” said Fauna, “but it’s important to us. Ignoble cons punish the mark for being greedy; they’re less commonly used and only against people who we have already established are in need of a comeuppance.”
“Noble cons,” Flora went on, “punish the mark for being greedy and dishonest. The setup involves creating the illusion that the mark is able to put one over on the thief. A mark who’s honest avoids the trap.”
“So you only steal from the immoral?” Trissiny snorted expressively.
“Well,” Fauna said with a grin, “these are the spiritual principles of our cult. Some Eserites are less devout than others.”
“Converting the heathens, are we?” Bishop Darling asked, striding in from the kitchen. “That’s a great use of your time.”
Both elves shot to their feet.
“Just trying to keep morale up, Sweet,” said Flora. “Everyone’s in kind of a funk, things being as they are.”
“Not much else we can do, and the gang here needs all the support they can get,” added Fauna.
“Well, that’s very helpful of you,” said Darling sardonically. “Though I can see we’ll need to revisit your situational acting lessons, since you would not be spouting excuses if you thought I’d be pleased to find you here. Stonefoot is on the roof opposite this building coordinating the Guild agents in the area. Report to him and find out where he needs extra pairs of eyes.”
“Yes, sir,” they chorused glumly, filing past him and out through the kitchen.
Darling turned to Trissiny; his expression did not grow more cheerful. “A word with you in private, Avelea?”
“I’m keeping an eye on the situation here,” she said, stopping her pacing. “Reports are—”
“Now!” he barked, turning and stalking back into the kitchen himself.
Trissiny stared after him, thinking seriously about ignoring the command, then shook her head. “Come get me if anything develops,” she ordered the two Legionnaires, both of whom saluted.
The elves were already gone from the kitchen when she entered; Darling shut the door to the common room behind her, then crossed to the one opposite, which opened onto a side alley, and stuck his head out.
“Get moving!” he shouted. There came a faint scuffling from outside, and he pulled back in, shaking his head as he shut that door too. He crossed to the center of the room and set a small bell-shaped object down on the table there, depressing a tiny plunger in its top. Immediately, the faint buzz of arcane magic at work lifted the hairs along Trissiny’s arms, and a tiny, shrill whine sounded at the uppermost edges of her hearing. It wasn’t a pleasant sound, but unobtrusive enough not to be distracting.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Cone of silence,” he replied, crossing back over to her. “Latest thing out of Imperial Intelligence. Now even an elf won’t be able to overhear what’s said in this room.”
“I see,” she said crisply, then straightened her shoulders. “I’m sure you’ve noticed the additional Legionnaires patrolling this district.”
“Oh, I noticed,” he said darkly.
“My hope is that their presence will be a deterrent. We’ve received intelligence that some third party is attempting to rile both the locals and the soldiers of Barracks Four; my classmates are out attempting to soothe the Lorisians, and should the soldiers attempt anything, the sight of the Third present in force—”
“Trissiny!” he shouted, seizing her abruptly by the shoulders. She was so startled by this that she allowed it to happen, even when he began punctuating his words by bodily shaking her. “For the love of all that is holy in this world, will you please! Stop! Helping!”
“Excuse me?” she demanded, stepping backward out of his grip.
“You cannot bluff someone who can see your cards!” he exclaimed. “The Silver Legions have absolutely no legal authority to interfere with the civil guard, and the guards know this. The Legionnaires are out there, standing around looking intimidating, and they will have to keep doing so while they passively watch whatever happens tonight. Even if you did order them to intervene, their officers would refuse point-blank, as Legion policy dictates. What you have done is engineered a situation where, on top of everything else going on here, either the Silver Legions or just you are going to look impotent and foolish.”
“I’ve managed to get a firsthand account of your first involvement in this,” he pressed on relentlessly. “The Lorisian watch was calmly talking down an aggressive patrol of soldiers as usual, until you stepped in, got confrontational with the troops and forced their hand.”
“Every step of the way, you have charged right at the enemy directly in front of you, not considering how your actions would affect the rest of the situation! You set Panissar onto Barracks Four, you involved the Silver Legions twice, you intercepted every incursion by the guard, you had the barracks robbed, and now you’ve entrenched every party in this conflict such that none of them can afford to back down! And you know what? Some of those were exactly the right action. The problem is that you have no real way of knowing which, because all you’ve done this whole time is rush in headlong and act.”
“It is inconceivable that I have to explain this to you, Trissiny, but the Age of Adventures is over. Look around you! Telescrolls, Rail lines, printing presses, scrying orbs. Do you know what all of these things are? They are connections. They tie everyone in the Empire closer together than we have ever been before. Every action anywhere has wide-reaching effects all up and down this web of connectedness. You cannot rush around swinging your sword! Everything you do resonates far beyond you. Not once have you considered this, you just up and do things! Damn it, girl, stop and think!”
He stared down at her. Trissiny gaped back, unable to form a reply to that tirade. Finally, she lowered her gaze, stepping over to the table and sat down on the edge of it, staring at the wall.
“I guess,” she said quietly, “you think I should be more like… Like my mother.”
Darling was silent for a moment, then sighed. “Your mother would have analyzed the situation from all angles, determined exactly what she needed to accomplish, formed a plan and acted carefully to achieve her ends without causing messy splash effects. Yes, you should’ve done that.”
Trissiny gritted her teeth, swallowing down a sudden lump in her throat. She desperately wanted to shout back at him, to rail against his whole Eserite view of the world. But in that moment, after hearing him lay bare her blunders over the past week, she couldn’t think of anything that would refute his point.
The table shifted as Darling sat down next to her. “But your mother,” he said more gently, “would never have tried to help a bunch of people who had nothing to offer her.”
She gulped again. “So… You know about…”
“She sent us a letter, yeah. After that debacle she caused in Last Rock, and immediately before vanishing off the face of the earth. Don’t worry about Prin, I’m sure she’s sipping cocktails on a beach on the opposite side of the planet, waiting for everything to settle down. She’ll turn up again when it suits her. No, Trissiny, I think you should try to be more like you.”
Trissiny looked up at him, confused.
“Avei didn’t pick you on a whim,” he said. “You are something new for a paladin. Elf and human, which gives you less strength but a greater aptitude for magic—quite a departure from historical Hands of Avei. You are the daughter of one of the world’s most duplicitous thieves, but brought up in the starkest traditions of the Sisterhood. You’re both things, Trissiny. It seems like you’ve spent your life trying your hardest only to be one. The other half of your heritage isn’t a disgrace or a weakness. It represents potential for the kind of skills that Avei will need in this new world: craft, magic, cleverness.”
He stopped, heaved a sigh, then hopped up, coming around to stand in front of her again. “All of which is a matter for another day. Right now, here’s what’s going to happen. Multiple powers are at work to fix this mess: the Imperial Army will be carefully cycling out the roster at Barracks Four to mix up the troops there, but not all at once. This will break up the anti-drow clique, what’s left of it after your rampage. Ambassador Shariss will be leaning on the community organizers here in Lor’naris, I and the Boss of the Guild will be leaning on our people to back down and accept the justice of the law as sufficient punishment for the men who attacked Peepers, the Church and several other cults are on the move to quell the disruptive individuals who keep inciting trouble. All of this will be done quietly, in private, so that all parties will be able to save face and back down without looking weak. Over the next few weeks, soldier involvement in Lor’naris will be increased, but the troops will be carefully supervised and put to positive use, to get them and the Lorisians used to each other, and encourage them to start thinking fondly of each other. There’s a lot of work still to be done in this district, and the Army has plenty of manpower to see to it. Someone is still stirring things up behind the scenes, but ferreting them out will have to wait till the immediate crisis is passed. We just have to somehow survive the night without a civil insurrection starting.”
“Okay,” she said meekly. “I guess… You don’t need me for any of that. I can just keep my head down, then.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” he said grimly. “We need to find a way for you to save face, too.”
Trissiny looked up at him, blinking. “Me?”
“Far too many hopes are pinned on you. The first public act of the new Hand of Avei cannot be to botch a simple civic negotiation and start a riot. Likewise, you don’t get to scurry off with your tail between your legs. I have a few ideas in that direction, but as I said, the more urgent problem—”
As if on cue, there came a rap on the door to the common room, and a Legionnare pushed it open, sticking her head in. “General? We’ve got movement in the street. Looks like almost the full company of Barracks Four have just marched into the district. The locals are mustering to meet them. An awful lot of them are armed.”
Darling sighed. “And here we go.”
“Now, Zanzayed, what’s this I hear about you slaughtering my houseguests?” Vandro asked genially, strolling up to the dragon. “Far be it from me to stand in the way of your fun—it is a party, after all—but a fellow could take this as a comment on his catering. Are the shrimp so unsatisfactory you have to start in on the company?”
“Actually, you’d need to speak to Arachne about that,” the dragon said cheerfully. “And it wasn’t a guest, but some kind of golem with an illusion spell attached.”
“Oh, really?” Vandro peered at the jar currently being bounced in Zanzayed’s hand, still trailing scorched wires. “And where is the lady, by the way?”
“Oh, she took off,” Zanzayed said dismissively. “Grumping and griping about all this being somebody else’s problem. You know Arachne, eager to stick her nose in until it looks like something needs to be cleaned up. Here’s a funny thing, though; off all the ways a person could set up an illusion spell, this has got to be one of the nastiest. This is a scrap of flesh from an incubus or succubus.”
“It’s a what now?”
“They’re powerful shapeshifters and illusionists, you see, which means they’re basically made of spell components for glamour, if you know enough demonology to make it work. Looks pretty fresh, too. Somebody summoned a child of Vanislaas, killed the poor bitch or bastard and carved it up for reagents, then set at least one in a golem and turned it loose in your party.”
“You wanna know the funny thing?” Vandro said mildly. “That’s not even the most disturbing thing I’ve heard this evening.”
“And this is why I like coming here. You throw the best parties, Alan.”
“Welp, that’s my epitaph taken care of, in case you get a bit more peckish than the caterers can handle. You mind if I…?”
“Sure, all yours,” the dragon said lightly, tossing him the jar. “Anyway! I have been kept from the bacon-wrapped shrimp for far too long. A reckoning is at hand!”
He swaggered off in the direction of a buffet table, scattering guests as he went.
“All right, folks, nobody’s being murdered,” Vandro said genially. “Just a couple of inquisitive magic-users messing up somebody’s idea of a prank. The real problem is none of us are drunk enough yet to find this as funny as we should. Wilberforce! Break out another couple of barrels, this crowd needs lubrication!”
He circulated carefully for a few minutes more, soothing worries and bolstering the mood, before working his way over to another quiet corner where his Butler waited for him.
“We’ve got a problem,” Vandro murmured. “That demon has gone off script. If these golem things are doing her job in the plan, there’s no telling where she is, or doing what. Are Jerry and Saduko gone?”
“They have been for some time, sir,” said Wilberforce. “Assuming they moved according to the timetable, they are well out of reach by now. Even in the carriage it is doubtful we could intercept them before they reach Chief Om’ponole’s estate.”
“Shit,” Vandro said feelingly. “All right…I guess that’s that, then. Whatever the hell Kheshiri is up to, I’ll have to trust Jerry’s still got his knack for improvising under pressure. I know my boy, he’ll pull through. Still…” He scowled, clutching his omnipresent cocktail hard enough to whiten his knuckles. “Put the security system on high alert. No alarms, don’t disturb the guests, but I want the golems active and on standby, and the full scrying network running. Especially the infernal sensors we just added. Find that damn succubus and get a collar on her before she does any more of whatever the hell she thinks she’s doing.”
“Yes, sir. And if I may make a suggestion?”
“We may be unable to reach Master Shook and Saduko-san directly, but they are not beyond your considerable reach in this city. A distraction at the Om’ponole estate may still be arranged; such will surely aid them if they are in distress, and even prove useful should the plan still be in place.” He coughed discreetly. “Master Trigger still owes you several favors, and I can reach his shop immediately via magic mirror.”
“Excellent,” Vandro said feelingly. “You’re a godsend, Wilberforce. Get it done, quickly and quietly.”
“Immediately, sir,” the Butler said, backing up and bowing. He turned and strode off into the depths of the house.
Vandro drew in a deep, calming breath, had a sip of his drink, then strolled off to hobnob some more, smiling broadly.