“Oh, it’s only been the last two days,” Branwen said modestly. “Believe me, I’m more surprised than anyone at how quickly all this has taken off! Fortunately his Holiness has assigned me a staff to help with the project, or I’d never have been able to stay on top of it.”
“The runaway success of Branwen’s new role as motivational columnist is evidence of that plot’s original purpose,” said the Archpope, regarding them over his interlaced fingers.
“Plot?” Basra said sharply, looking up from her perusal of one of the newspapers Darling had brought to the meeting.
“Indeed,” Justinian said gravely. “For all that it has unfolded so quickly, it is a rather circuitous route that has brought us to this development. To being with, I took the unconventional step of consulting the resources in the Chamber of Truth with regard to our current dilemma.”
“You specifically cautioned us that those weren’t of much tactical value, your Holiness,” Andros noted.
“Indeed,” said the Archpope, nodding. “Generally the attempt has resulted in confusion and annoyance more than anything. However, I felt our lack of useful data in this situation warranted a gamble. In fact, oracular divinations, while rarely conducive to acquiring facts, are an excellent source of wisdom. In this case, the gamble paid off. Some of the prophecies I obtained were indecipherable, but several directed me toward, and I quote, ‘the singers of songs and the tellers of tales.’”
“That specific phrase is usually a reference to bards,” said Darling, frowning.
“Historically, yes,” agreed the Archpope. “But in the context of other hints the Chamber provided, suggesting that I consider things in a modern rather than traditional context, I decided to make inquiries among the modern world’s answer to the archetypal traveling storyteller.”
Basra ruffled the paper she was holding. “The newspapers?”
“Precisely.” Justinian smiled grimly. “And that is where matters began to become…interesting. Throughout the city, in the offices of all five widely-distributed newspapers, there have been, in the last few days, culminations of very unlikely sequences of events leading to…openings.”
“Openings?” Andros prompted.
The Archpope nodded. “It appears there has been some competition among the papers, as is only natural, and specifically rivalries among their advice columnists.”
“People can find the pettiest nonsense upon which to waste their energies,” Andros grunted.
“Over time,” Justinian continued, ignoring him, “these columnists have become de facto stand-ins for their respective papers with regard to this increasing competition for readership and distribution. All of the major Tiraan papers are now published across the Empire; most ship their stock out via Rail on a weekly basis, but two have managed to publish their daily editions from coast to coast by beaming out the contents thereof via telescroll and printing them on site.”
“Fascinating,” Basra said in a disinterested tone, again reading the paper before her.
“Various editors have used these columnists as major selling points. They have become public personalities, almost celebrities.” Justinian paused, then went on in a more grave tone, “and in the last week, two were killed in accidents, one perished of an aneurysm in his sleep, one retired unexpectedly, and the last was promoted to the position of editor-in-chief of his paper when the individual who previously held that post abruptly stepped down to tend to a family emergency.”
“Well,” Darling said, “that’s good and suspicious…”
The Archpope nodded. “And it tracks with the Wreath’s evident aim. Their actions have been toward improving the public’s perception of them while cutting down that of the Church and the gods. By subtly increasing the profile of certain newspaper columnists and then replacing those individuals with their own people, they position themselves to dramatically increase their ability to disseminate their message.”
“And that’s more characteristic of them than what we’ve seen in the last week,” Darling added. “The long, slow, careful plan.”
“This makes no sense,” Andros growled. “If they could do this, why not plant their agents over the long term? Creating these vacancies all at once, now of all times, is too overtly suspicious.”
“No, it makes perfect sense,” Basra argued, looking up again. “Any newspaper columnists spouting Wreath propaganda would have been silenced long since. Even if they tried to lay low and not actually…propagandize…until this event, the longer they had someone in place, the more chance any number of things could happen to that person. Look how easy it apparently was to make accidents happen to five such columnists at once. By waiting till now, after the recent debacle where the cults embarrassed themselves pursuing the Wreath too roughly, they have the perfect opening. Now of all times, all of us and even the Empire will be hesitant to do anything too ham-fisted in the name of suppressing the Black Wreath. The populace is already agitated about that.”
“A worthy observation,” Andros grunted, “from one of the hammy fists in question.”
“To keep this on point,” Justinian said swiftly, “upon learning of these events, I acted quickly, first to cut the Wreath off from the newspapers. Agents of the Church were sent to the offices of each, both here in Tiraas and to all their facilities on the continent, to bless them. Thoroughly. The Wreath may be adept at evading the detection of the gods, but a warlock or hidden demon will still burn when doused in an indiscriminate deluge of holy power.”
“I’m impressed you got all those organizations to go along with it,” Darling remarked. “I’ve worked with the newspapers a bit myself. Journalists don’t like outsiders mucking about with their offices.”
“Few turn down a free and thorough blessing from the gods,” the Archpope said wryly. “Some were, I think, suspicious of the Church’s motives, but they acquiesced when it was broadly hinted that their organizations were suspected of harboring demons.”
“You’ve noticed that, too?” Darling said with a grin. “Amazing the results you can sometimes get by just being honest with people.”
“Quite so,” Justinian replied, smiling benignly at him. The two men locked eyes for a long moment, both wearing placidly friendly expressions, before the Archpope continued. “In any case, this seems to have effectively barred the Wreath from moving into the positions they had just opened. Our next step was simply to place our own agent there. Bishop Snowe is now a syndicated columnist, her column distributed by every major paper published out of Tiraas. In the weeks to come, we shall see about getting her into various lesser publications throughout the Empire, as well. And even beyond it.”
“It remains to be seen how the abrupt loss of their competition among columnists will affect distribution,” Branwen said modestly, “but with all the prestige they’ve poured into the position, now that I’m being published in all of them, well… Instant celebrity. I’m afraid I don’t deserve any credit for it.”
“This is fantastic stuff,” Basra said rather dryly, reading again. “A guy walks away from the Vernisite faith of his parents and feels lost and directionless; you tell him to spend time in reflection, gain self-knowledge, and decide which of the gods best matches his own aptitudes. A housewife is bored and restless with her children gone from the nest, and you tell her to find purpose by cultivating her own talents and making a difference in her own world. A bullied kid doesn’t know how to stand up to his tormentors; you advise him to spend time in rigorous self-improvement and find a way to confront them on ground where he’s strongest. I’m sensing a theme here.”
“Again, I cannot take credit,” Branwen said, a picture of humility. “This is, needless to say, a secret, but I haven’t actually written these. I’m to serve as a public face, a personality; his Holiness has people providing the actual words.”
“We must not sacrifice our long-term goals for the sake of the short term,” Justinian said calmly. “Remember where this all ultimately leads, my friends. We strive for the elevation of humanity. It is never too early to urge that they elevate themselves. That, indeed, is the best possible use of our resources. In this case, it was convenient; the theme of self-improvement and empowerment has been increasingly trendy among the papers’ editors. The Wreath has been building this nest with great care.”
“Is it slightly disturbing to anyone else,” Darling asked grimly, “that we fit so neatly into a Wreath-shaped hole?”
“The Black Wreath’s theology, like all truly terrible ideas, has its roots in a good one,” Justinian replied. “Their rhetoric is filled with talk about human potential and human empowerment. That only becomes the disaster it is when married to their nihilistic hatred of the gods and predilection for diabolism.”
The others exchanged a round of silent looks. Basra finally laid down the papers and pushed the stack away from herself across the table.
“Moving forward,” the Archpope continued more briskly, “let us consider our current situation. This is the first decisive victory we have gained in this round of confrontations with the Wreath; this stage of their plan is undone, and in fact repurposed to serve our aims, but it would be naïve to consider this over. Placing newspaper columnists sympathetic to their goals is far too humble an aim to have been the entire point of this campaign, considering the resources they have already expended upon it, and I am reluctant to assume that having interrupted this step in the chain will throw their entire plan into chaos. The Wreath is characteristically too careful to let themselves be unmade by a single defeat.”
“Then that leaves our next moves to be made from much the same position as before,” Andros rumbled. “We do not know what they ultimately intend, much less what they will do next to achieve it.”
“Not quite,” Darling said thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. “This bit with the papers… Something that involved and long-term will have left trails that can be followed.”
“Precisely!” Justinian said with a broad smile. “Even assuming that some infernal craft was used in arranging this state of affairs, by far the most of it must have been the result of mundane manipulations. The Wreath are careful, but this is too broad a project for every trail leading from it to have been covered. That brings us to the now, and our next moves.”
“Well, Branwen’s role in this game is obviously settled,” Basra said wryly.
“Yes,” Justinian nodded while Branwen looked demure. “Which leaves the rest of you. Antonio, your particular skills are immediately relevant in following the trails from the newspaper offices. You are the master of information-gathering, particularly in Tiraas. May I leave this in your hands?”
Darling leaned slowly back in his chair, frowning pensively into the distance. “…I will do what I can, your Holiness. There’s a complicating matter I hadn’t had a chance yet to report on.”
“Oh?” Justinian raised an eyebrow.
“I’ve been following up with our various cults, as directed,” Darling continued. “I have…disappointing news from the Thieves’ Guild.”
“I shall try to contain my shock,” Basra said solemnly.
“Really, Bas,” Branwen protested. “Must you?”
“Tricks acknowledged having played into the Wreath’s hands with his actions following the warlock attacks,” Darling said, ignoring them. “Where it gets dicey is that he says this was on the specific orders of Eserion himself.”
There was momentary silence while they considered this.
“Is it possible he himself is compromised?” Andros asked finally.
“Andros!” Branwen exclaimed, scandalized. “That is a high priest you are talking about!”
“It’s okay, Bran,” said Darling, giving her a fleeting grin. “It’s a fair question. And to answer it, the possibility exists. We should assume that anyone might be compromised. However, it’s my policy not to reach for outlandish explanations when a simpler one makes more sense. The Boss of the Guild being in with the Wreath is a major stretch; Eserion playing a game of wits with Elilial would be entirely in character.”
“Hm,” Justinian said pensively. “I can attempt to inquire, of course. The gods are not obligated to speak to me, however, and Eserion in particular has never held much regard for mortal authority.”
“Just so,” said Darling, nodding. “So, to bring this back around to the issue at hand… I’ll certainly do my best, but with regard to this situation, I think we had better regard the resources of the Thieves’ Guild as unavailable to us. Trying to make use of them right now will put us at cross purposes with Eserion’s gambit, whatever that is, and presents the risk that our efforts will get back to the Wreath themselves.”
“How severely does this hamper you?” Justinian asked.
“I built the Guild’s current information network,” Darling said with a grim smile. “I’m still me; I can get information as needed. However, with much of my customary toolbox off-limits, it will take…longer. I’m not sure how much time we have to work.”
“Then it is vital that we not sit and wait for you to complete this project,” Andros said firmly. “It is an important one—perhaps the most important—but we must proceed with other avenues while you carry it out.”
“What’d you have in mind?” Darling asked mildly.
“In the last several days, we have continuously erred on the side of aggression,” the Huntsman said, folding his hands atop the table and leaning forward to stare at them. “This has been to the Black Wreath’s advantage, and apparently a cornerstone of their strategy. I propose that we continue to accommodate them.”
“Interesting,” Justinian mused. “Go on.”
“The hunt must suit the quarry,” Andros said. “The Wreath are subtle; subtlety is needed in pursuing them. They will expect such subtlety from us and be prepared to counter it. I believe we have, here, an opportunity to outmaneuver them by playing to their expectations.” He turned to stare at Basra. “The actions of the Silver Legions were by far the most ostentatiously aggressive in the aftermath of their attack. If this continues, it will force them to adhere to their strategy of attempting to use it to discredit the Sisterhood. Meanwhile, my Huntsmen will undergo a more careful, more effective search for demons and warlocks active in the city.”
“I can’t help noticing,” Basra said flatly, “that it’s my cult which will bear the bulk of the effort and the backlash for this plan of yours.”
“I would not ask that it be done that simply,” Andros rumbled. “Whatever issues there are between our faiths, against the Wreath we are ancient allies. These matters, I confess, are somewhat over my head, but is there not something the priests of Izara can do to turn the tide of public opinion?”
“In fact, we are very well suited for that,” Branwen said with a smile. “I will speak to the High Priestess about this. It should be possible to counter the Wreath’s propaganda efforts against the Sisters and the Huntsmen while this is going on.”
“No,” said Andros, shaking his head. “Only against the Sisters. We should do as much as possible to focus the Wreath’s attention on them, including the direction of our damage control efforts. I assure you, my faith does not suffer in the least from being disliked.”
“Historically speaking, that appears to be the plain truth,” Darling said cheerfully.
“And so,” Andros went on, “while the Thieves’ Guild engages in whatever campaign it is playing, the Sisters belligerently pursue the Wreath with the full backing of the Church, and the Huntsmen more quietly and carefully cut down demonic forces, there will be so many balls in the air that Antonio’s pursuit can, with the blessing of the gods, proceed unnoticed.”
“Excellent, Andros,” Justinian said with a smile of simple approbation. “It is the basis of a solid plan indeed.”
“I think I can enhance it form my end, too,” Darling added thoughtfully. “It shouldn’t take much effort to create the impression that I’m involved in the Guild’s operations. The simplest way to do that, of course, is for me to be involved, which the Boss will expect anyway. Only downside is that means I’m going to have to chase the Wreath from a distance, via proxies.”
“Can you?” Basra asked archly.
“I think so,” he said, nodding slowly. “Yes. I believe I know just the people to tap for this job. This should work out well; Embras Mogul engaged me personally in Hamlet. There’s a link there; I’ll make a pretty good scarecrow to hold his attention.”
“I may have a problem on my end,” Basra said darkly. “The High Commander was not appreciative of my efforts. My authority with regard to the Legions has not been impeded as such, but if I try to send them out to do more of the specific thing she ranted at me for doing last time…there will be trouble.”
“There should be a path around that obstacle,” Andros said somewhat dismissively. “You flying off the handle and flailing with your sword is a very different matter from you exercising your authority on behalf of a Church-sponsored campaign in pursuit of a definite goal.”
Basra stared flatly at him, sliding her hands off the table so they couldn’t be seen. Branwen sighed heavily and planted her face in her hand.
“Andros,” the Archpope said quietly, with gentle but definite reproof.
“Forgive me,” Andros said, completely calm, and bowed slightly to Basra from his seat. “I am prone to speaking in haste. I should not let old animosities so guide my words.”
“Mm hm,” she said, not dropping her cold stare.
“Needless rudeness aside,” Justinian said, still regarding Andros reproachfully, “it is a point of some merit. This plan proposes to make direct use of the Silver Legions; we should not even consider attempting to do so unilaterally. Obviously High Commander Rouvad must be included in this plan, as well as Grandmaster Veisroi and High Priestess Delaine. Circumstances being what they are, it seems regrettably necessary that Boss Tricks can’t be brought on board. Or do you think he should, Antonio?”
“All things considered,” Darling said ruefully, “I don’t think any good would come of that. So long as the Guild is pursuing its own ends, we should assume anything Tricks knows will be used for his purposes before ours.” He sighed heavily. “For the record, I’m not comfortable with this. It’s been my long experience that Eserion invariably knows what he’s doing. If he’s using the Guild in a play against the Wreath, it’s certain to be a good one.”
“I have little personal experience with your god,” said Justinian, “but I am amply versed in the history of the Church and its member cults, and I concur with your assessment. I also believe that, whatever the Boss does or does not know, Eserion will be aware of the players moving and accommodate their actions in his own plans. As is my general policy in dealing with the gods, I think it is incumbent upon us to do our best and trust them to do theirs. Have faith in your deity, Antonio,” he added with a smile. “He knows your own worth, and will not condemn you for taking action outside his own cult.”
“Oh, that’s not what worries me,” Darling said with a smile. “The Big Guy knows what he’s about, no question. It’s just a new and uncomfortable perspective for me, regarding the Guild’s activities from outside.”
“I fear we shall all gain new and uncomfortable perspectives before this is over,” Justinian said solemnly. “But I believe we are equal to the task at hand. Remember who you are and what we are to achieve.” His smile was calm, serene, and utterly confident. “We are only human, yes, but when we are done, the word ‘only’ shall never again be applied to us.”
Darling, obviously, kept his many doubts to himself.