Most people were automatically on their best behavior in the presence of the Silver Legions, whose by reputation didn’t embrace any kind of tomfoolery. Reporters, it seemed, were made of stiffer stuff—or less mentally balanced stuff, perhaps. The dozen notebook-wielding men milling around in the street tried to interrogate everyone they came across, with varying degrees of politeness. The residents of Lor’naris who had gathered to watch the show were happy to be interviewed, but were mostly left alone as the newspapermen quickly discovered they knew nothing. It was at the Legionnaires standing guard that they directed most of their energies, seeming to take the troops’ stoic refusal to respond—and increasing hints of irritation—that they were hiding something.
The vacant shop which had been appropriated by the Third as a makeshift command post now had a small platform erected in front of it, hastily constructed of planks laid over shipping crates. A Legionnaire stood at either end of this, as well as in a loose formation sectioning off the bit of street in front of the shop. They made no moves to impede anyone coming and going, simply making it clear by their presence that this patch of land was currently under their protection. The only other apparently noteworthy individuals present were a couple of soldiers in Imperial Army uniform, standing with the Lorisians waiting for the show to start, and a dwarf woman on the platform in the white robes of a priestess of Avei. The Imps were as willing to talk as the citizens, and as quick to reveal their ignorance. The Sister didn’t bother to refuse to answer questions; she had Legionnaires to shoo nosy reporters away. For all intents and purposes, she was in a kind of meditation, standing still and in silence, staring across the crowd with a calm smile.
Finally, late enough in the morning that several of those present had begun to think about slipping away for lunch, the door of the shop opened and a blonde man in the robes of a Bishop stepped forth, smoothly mounting the improvised platform. Immediately the gathered reporters brought up notebooks and pencils, fixing their eager attention on him.
“Gentlemen, thank you for joining us,” Darling said with a beatific smile. “I apologize for keeping you waiting, but I do promise that you will be glad to hear what you are about to hear, as will your editors. I mentioned this to each of you when inviting you to be present, but let me repeat: this will be a simple address. Questions will not be taken. And with that and no more ado, allow me to introduce to you the Hand of Avei.”
He stepped smoothly to the side, standing next to the priestess, over whom he towered. A stir went through the onlookers as the door opened again and out stepped a slender blonde figure in striking silver armor over a winter coat, battered sword hanging at her hip and her eagle-marked shield on her back. There was a smattering of applause from the residents of Lor’naris, but the reporters only stared hungrily.
She strode to the center of the platform and fell automatically into parade rest, feet braced and hands clasped behind her. For a moment, she panned her gaze around at the modest crowd, expression unreadable, then cleared her throat and began.
“Gentlemen, thank you for coming. My name is Trissiny Avelea.” A soft swell of murmurs and the frantic scratching of pencils followed the lack of a title given, but Trissiny pressed on. “I will come to the point: there has been a lot of uncertainty and many questions about events in this district in the last few days. I’ve been told there is a lot of general curiosity about me, as well. For the record… I don’t really consider myself that important. I’m here to serve, not to court attention. But some answers need to be given about events in Lor’naris.
“Briefly, there have been several abuses of power by members of the Imperial Army tasked with patrolling this district. I understand you’ve all been given many of these details already, so I won’t bore you; any further questions should be directed to the Army, which I am assured has the matter well in hand. The guilty parties have been apprehended and are awaiting justice, and no aspersions should be cast upon the character of the Army, nor of the regiment responsible for this part of the city. In fact, the officer in command of Barracks Four, Captain Nassir Ravoud, has done a great deal to help calm the tensions all this has caused. I myself have been a signatory to a letter of commendation to General Panissar on his performance, along with a member of the Narisian House Awarrion and the Hand of Omnu.”
This time, she did pause to let the muttering die down a bit, frowning vaguely as if gathering her thoughts. “These things…happen. Troubles come and go. I’ve played an…incidental part in all this, which I don’t think is important. What I asked you here to speak about is a matter that has been increasingly troubling me as I’ve come to know the people of Lor’naris.
“This is a district of outcasts. In this street live half-bloods of various mixtures, including, I am told, a handful of half-demons. Dwarves, elves, lizardfolk and gnomes reside in Lor’naris… As do drow. The drow are here in the greatest numbers, of course, and have become sort of iconic. What the residents of this street have done here is nothing short of amazing: in a mere decade, they have converted a slum to a clean, safe, productive district. At this point, they stay here because they have invested so much in it. This is their home, and everyone here has more than earned her or his place.”
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her frown deepening. “But they came here for very different reasons, for the simple reason that they were not wanted anywhere else. That the Lorisians are mostly content to remain in this district does not change the fact that they would be heavily pressured to do so if they attempted to spread out through the city. Or the Empire. I consider this a significant problem.
“The Pantheon have long been known as the protectors of humanity. Humans do not enjoy the innate benefits many of our neighbors do. We haven’t the sturdiness of dwarves, the agility of the elves, or the long lifespans of either. We are not so hardy as lizardfolk, as strong for our size as gnomes… We don’t compare to dragons by any measure. What we have is the protection of our gods, and our…resourcefulness, our adaptability. If there’s a consistent strength of humanity throughout our history, it is our skill at making our way wherever we land, storing up skills and knowledge to pass on to the next generation, leaving our descendents stronger and better-equipped than those who’ve come before. Our strength, in short, is cumulative, and has been building for these eight thousand years. Finally, a tipping point has been reached, and passed. Humans are now the dominant force among mortal races by a wide margin. In becoming so, we’ve changed the very world around us.”
Trissiny glanced over at Bishop Darling. “It was recently pointed out to me that Rail lines and scrolltowers represent connection. The world is drawn closer together by our advances, and this, more than our new weapons and modern conveniences, has changed the way we live. The other races aren’t distantly-glimpsed figures of legend anymore. They are everywhere. They come forth to partake of what we’ve created, bringing their own ways and cultures, and there has been some pushback against them because of it. That reaction is quite understandable.
“However, I think it is a serious mistake.”
She let that sit for a moment, staring out over the crowd. “Right now, too many Imperial citizens think of the other races as the same distant oddities their ancestors did, which doesn’t work when these people now live next door, open shops to sell their traditional foods in human cities and play their music on street corners. They are here, and we need to figure out what to do about this. Accept and embrace the foreigners, or…out of some belief in human ‘purity’…attempt to expel them? In this, as in all things, my advice is to look to the gods for guidance.”
Trissiny swallowed, stiffened her shoulders and raised her chin. “I cannot speak for the other cults, of course, nor for the Universal Church. But I believe Avei has made her view clear by selecting a half-elf as her Hand.”
Instant pandemonium exploded. Reporters shouted questions, waving their hands frantically to get her attention, scribbling in their notebooks so vigorously that some were tearing pages. Trissiny stood firm and silent through the onslaught, drawing a long breath in slowly through her nose.
Bishop Darling stepped to the front of the platform, raising his hands and gently making soothing gestures at the crowd. “Please! Peace, everyone. Calm yourselves. Gentlemen, this is most unbecoming. You’re adults.” It took him several repetitions even to become audible over the hubbub, but eventually the gathered newsmen complied with generally ill grace. “I said we would not be taking questions. Now, kindly hear General Avelea out.”
Trissiny nodded to him in thanks as he moved back to his position. “I have been speaking about these matters with High Commander Rouvad; any further questions may be directed to the Temple of Avei after we’re done here. What I called you here for was to see what steps the Sisters of Avei are taking to adapt to the changing world we live in. My first day here in Lor’naris, I was taken to task—quite justifiably—by a woman who, despite our pledge to protect all women in need, was not served by the Sisterhood when she most needed help. We have, and have always had, dwarves, elves and gnomes among our ranks, and even a few in the Silver Legions. All, however, sought us out, with great effort and often, significant personal risk. Each non-human among every cult of the Pantheon represents an exceptional story. Not all, I am not proud to admit, have been accepted. And we have never made an effort to reach out to them.
“That, now, will change.” Trissiny nodded firmly, as if someone had questioned her. “I am hereby announcing the formation of a new arm of the cult of Avei: the Silver Mission. The building behind me will form its first outpost, and given the Mission’s purpose, it is perfect that it be here, in Lor’naris. This will not be a cloistered order like the Sisterhood, nor a heavily disciplined one like the Legions. Each outpost shall be administered by a small core of priestesses—in many cases, no more than one or two—and an equally small detachment of Legionnaires, if any. The Mission will be staffed by un-ordained volunteers. Its purpose shall be to serve the priorities of Avei in whatever community it inhabits; it shall be open to all, and welcoming to any who offer their aid. In short, the lay worshipers of Avei will be given support and the means to advocate their faith and do whatever good they might in the world, so long as they are willing to bring outsiders into the fold. Outposts of the Silver Mission will be placed, at least at first, in areas with high concentrations of foreigners, aliens and any considered ‘undesirable’ by human society at large. And,” she added, her brows lowering challengingly, “in the interests of accommodating all who are willing to serve, these outposts will be unconsecrated, so as to provide for the needs of demonbloods.”
All Darling’s hard work went up in smoke as the reporters again devolved into a question-shouting melee. However, they were silenced this time by Trissiny herself. Golden wings sprang forth from behind her, stretching to their full, awesome span above the crowd. Stunned silence fell as the visible presence of Avei loomed over them all.
“Justice is for everyone,” Trissiny declared, her voice booming across the street as if amplified. “Avei calls all who will support it to her side. All. No one who comes in good faith will be turned away.”
The wings faded; she blinked twice, as if rousing from a dream, then squared her shoulders again. “With me is Aeldren Yrrensdottir, the priestess who will oversee this first outpost of the Silver Mission. I will now turn the floor over to her; she can better explain the Sisterhood’s intentions here, and answer any questions you have.
“Thank you for coming, gentlemen. Walk in the light.”
Aeldren smoothly stepped forward as Trissiny backed away, then turned to duck back into the building, Darling right on her heels. A couple of reporters attempted to follow her and were politely but inexorably dissuaded by the Legionnaires.
Inside, she let out a breath and slumped backward against the wall. “Oh, goddess, I think I’m going to faint.”
“You did great, kid,” Darling said, amused. He glanced at the closed door, though which the voices of the crowd were still audible. “Seriously, that was a stellar performance. If you want to keep your mystique, though, we should keep moving. Won’t be long before those vultures find the rear entrance.”
She drew in a deep breath, then another, shuddering. “Why on earth is that so hard? I’ve been trained to face demons and warlocks and battle of any kind… Public speaking, though…”
He laughed. “Well, you may complain, but you’re a natural.”
“I’m a what?” she asked, aghast. “How can you say that? I’m just grateful I didn’t shake hard enough they could see.”
“Maybe,” he said, still smiling. “But you gave that speech from memory, without notes. You kept on point, didn’t ramble, and showed a nice turn of phrase.”
“You wrote it,” she grumbled.
“The bulk of it, yes, but you improvised quite a few lines, and improvised well.”
She groaned, dragging a shaking hand over her face.
“That’s a good thing,” Daring said gently. “It’s like you just said out there: the world is small and connected, now. You can’t solve every problem with your sword the way your forebears did. Get used to fighting with words, Trissiny. Those are the weapons of the future.”
“Never thought I’d miss the centaurs,” she muttered. “I know what to do with centaurs.”
“Hey, I’m just a telescroll away,” he said, patting her on the pauldron. “If you ever need advice, consider me at your disposal. Probably not for the rest of today, though; I’ve got an unexpected load of houseguests to attend to, along with continuing to untangle the snarl of Barracks Four and Lor’naris, on top of my usual run of being too busy to breathe.”
Trissiny nodded, took another deep breath, and straightened up, adjusting her sword belt and shield almost absently. “I…appreciate that. If it’s all right… Someday when I have more time to think about it, I may ask you about…Principia.”
He nodded, starting to move toward the back of the shop; she unconsciously fell into step alongside. “Of course. When you’re ready, I’ll tell you what I can.”
“You…do know her, then?”
“Not intimately, but yes.”
“What…in broad terms, I mean… What do you think about her?”
“I don’t like her,” he said frankly.
Trissiny turned to stare at him. Then, surprising herself, she burst out laughing.
“How’re the numbers looking?” Vandro asked, gazing down at the workmen replacing shattered fairy lamps in the garden. This particular balcony didn’t give him the best view of the grounds, but for that very reason it was more secure.
“Financially, this episode has been a dismal one,” said Wilberforce, studying a clipboard. He didn’t need it, nor the papers on it, having every relevant detail committed to memory, but he enjoyed his props. “Between damage to the estate and the resources funneled into the Om’ponole job, which has ended up yielding no revenue, it has been an unmitigated loss. Not more than we can bear, of course. Indications are that we shall not need to dip into the investment capital to recoup this over time. The widespread damage to the villa does, in fact, afford us the opportunity to make some upgrades, including to the security system.”
“That was already supposed to be beyond state of the art.”
“Yes, sir, when we installed it, six years ago. Advances have been made. In particular, it may now be possible to apply a life-force lock to the control runes that will prevent another event like that caused by Kheshiri.”
“Life-force lock? That’s witchcraft. You can’t work that into an arcane enchantment network.”
“According to a source in Calderaas, it is now possible. I will investigate this carefully before recommending we spend any money, of course.”
“Hm. Of course, that means anyone wanting to do what she did will have to secure my ass instead of the runic controls.” He grinned. “Heh…I like that. If they have to involve me, they can’t keep me from playin’ ’em. Look into it.”
“Consider it done, sir.”
“Good.” He sighed. “And in the future, no matter how clever I think I’m being at the time, I have a new rule: no more goddamn demons.”
Vandro half-turned to raise an eyebrow at him. “Go on, you can say it. An ‘I told you so’ here and there isn’t a violation of your contract.”
“That will not be necessary, sir, as you clearly recall that I did. In any case, barring further mishap, the financial loss from this venture should not increase. We appear to have reached the limit of the bills, and can begin laying plans to recoup.”
“Mm. Is that estimate including the bribes and whatnot needed to keep Trigger off Om’ponole’s shit list?”
“Indeed, sir, though that is proving more problematic than anticipated. I have sent overtures, making it clear that we commissioned the fireworks and taking full responsibility for the regrettable accident, but it appears there was pre-existing bad blood between the two. Hence Trigger’s willingness to participate in the first place. Also, Chief Om’ponole is not so abysmally stupid that he has failed to deduce your hand in the incursion on his estate. He seems inclined to be obstreperous.”
Vandro snorted. “Pompous dickhead. If he won’t take the carrot, apply the stick. I got into his estate once; I can get into his bedroom while he sleeps.”
“I shall so remind him if need be, sir.” He flipped a page on the clipboard. “Amanika has sent her compliments. Toss is, in her opinion, not long for the chapter’s leadership, following the events of last night and your masterful verbal destruction of his character.”
“See, Wilberforce? Nothing’s ever a total loss, if you look carefully enough!”
“As you say, sir. Amanika would previously have been a front-runner for the post once Toss is removed from it, though following the revelation of her involvement with you, her credibility is badly damaged. It will likely take years to recover, denying her this chance at the leadership.”
“Ah, well. It was a hell of an omelet; wish I could’ve picked the eggs more carefully.”
“Saduko-san is stable and expected to recover in good health, though the clerics say she will almost certainly lose the use of her voice.”
“Mm…” Vandro swirled his omnipresent cocktail, frowning into the distance. “…no, she won’t. Somewhere, there’s a healer who can fix that. Find them. Send out feelers to Tiraas, Svenheim, the Green Belt… Hell, Tar’naris. Who knows what mojo the darklings are brewing down there.”
“Yes, sir. That will be a considerable expense, of course. And Saduko-san was spying on you, possibly with the intent to sabotage your plans.”
“Yes, yes, for the Guild.” Vandro sipped the drink, not looking up from his intense perusal of the near distance. “In any war, Wilberforce, the greatest of all tactics is to turn the enemy’s soldiers into your own. Saduko’s heard my views on the Guild and its failings, and spy or no, I know my reasoning is sound and its presentation compelling. She was just paraded about like a puppet by the Guild and got a slit throat for her trouble; I will be the one to selflessly undo all that damage and make sure she gets her life back.” He chuckled sardonically. “She’s a smart girl; she’ll figure out where her best interests lie. They say you can’t buy loyalty like that; in my experience, that’s exactly how you get it.”
He froze, staring down at the knife which had appeared under his chin, attached to a hand reaching over his shoulder. “…why, hello, Shiri. You’re late. Punctuality not one of your—”
Vandro was cut off by a blue flash as the knife plunged toward his throat and rebounded off his shielding charm. In the next instant, she was yanked bodily away from him.
He turned leisurely in his chair, careful not to spill his drink. Kheshiri was now on the opposite side of the balcony, glaring; she darted forward again, to be repelled by a lightning-quick spear-hand strike from Wilberforce to her throat. The succubus staggered backward, gagging and clutching her neck.
“Jerry mentioned you didn’t recognize the Butler uniform,” Vandro said conversationally. “You’ve been in that bottle a long time, haven’t you, girl? Yeah, I guess the Service Society sprang up during the interim. No matter how clever you are, this just isn’t your world anymore. You don’t know how things work.”
Kheshiri gulped, grimacing in annoyance, and pulled a wand from behind her belt. In the next instant she dropped it with a gasp; no fewer than four small throwing knives were embedded in the pale skin of her arm, black ichor beginning to well up around them. Wilberforce calmly readjusted his sleeves, clearly preparing to produce more weapons if needed.
“You played a good game, and protected your own interests,” Vandro went on. “I respect that. No hard feelings on my part.”
The succubus beat her wings once, darting sideways and diving for Vandro from out of Wilberforce’s reach. The Butler, moving with impossible speed, flashed across the gap between them, seizing her by the uninjured arm. What followed was a blur of motion, culminating in Kheshiri being bodily tossed back across the balcony with an audible crack of breaking bone.
She didn’t cry out, just leaned backward against the railing in shock, both arms now dangling uselessly.
“Business is business, but business isn’t everything,” said Vandro, pausing to take a sip of his drink. “You do anything to harm my boy Jerry… Well, that I will take very personally. It’s a new world, Kheshiri; a smaller one, a wonderfully interconnected world. It ain’t nearly big enough for you to hide from me.”
He held her gaze, his own eyes boring relentlessly into hers. Kheshiri drew in a ragged breath, then slowly straightened up, rolling her shoulders. As they watched, the four knives slid out of her flesh, clattering to the floor; her other arm rippled, its sickeningly wrong angle straightening out. Moments later, she shook both arms, flexing her fingers.
“Thanks for the party, Alan,” she cooed, blowing him a kiss. “I had a great time.”
The demon turned, bounding nimbly onto the railing, and launched herself into space. There came an outcry from below as she was spotted by the workmen, followed by another when she vanished in midair.
“Did she just use shapeshifting to heal herself?”
“So it appears, sir.”
“I thought that was supposed to be impossible.”
“When last I read up on magical theory, it was deemed theoretically achievable, but too complex in practice to be done under normal circumstances.”
“Hnh. She’s a piece of work, that one.”
“Quite so, sir.”
Vandro stared thoughtfully after the departed succubus, idly swirling his drink. Behind him, Wilberforce discreetly cleared his throat.
“Given what we know of Kheshiri and her intentions, sir, it seems probable that she will act to make this matter, as you say, personal.”
“Personal?” Vandro leaned forward, shifting to hold his cocktail in both hands and glaring out over the railing. “Oh, we are well beyond that point, Wilberforce. I promised Kamari a job, a home and a life here. Thanks to her, all he got for his good faith in my service was an unkind death.” He heaved a deep, mournful sigh, shaking his head. “That man could mix a cocktail that’d make Izara herself cream her skirts. It’s just… It’s a senseless fucking loss to the world. Besides which, he was mine, or would have been.” Vandro stood, setting his glass down on the railing, and leaned on it with both hands. “And as you well know, Wilberforce, if there is one thing I absolutely cannot stomach, it’s a presumptuous whore messing with my things.”
“Quite so, sir,” the Butler said calmly. “Her efforts do seem calculated at securing Master Shook’s ear. It may prove challenging to separate them.”
“Nothing worth having is less than a challenge to get, Wilberforce. Right now, getting the estate back in shape and securing what’s left of our allies in need—Trigger, Saduko and Amanika—is your priority. But, time permitting, I have another task for you. Something more long-term.”
“I am, as always, at your disposal, Mr. Vandro.”
“This one is going to be difficult. And more than a little risky.”
“Indeed, sir, and I appreciate your willingness to accommodate my aversion to boredom.”
Vandro turned to look at the Butler over his shoulder, a wicked gleam in his eye. “I want you to start the process of arranging for me to have a sit-down with the Black Wreath. One of their bitches has slipped her leash and made a mess on my lawn; I intend to chain her up again. All I need’s the right kind of collar.”
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