The warning bells continued to toll, a pervasive backdrop to the tension that hung over the entire city like a taut net, tugging people rapidly toward their destinations and pinning them in place once they got there. Since early afternoon, the bells hadn’t let up. Banner-sized copies of the Emperor’s full proclamation were displayed at every major intersection and in front of all Imperial offices; people still clustered around them, though not as many as when they had first gone up. By this point, most people were just trying to get home ahead of sunset. The rhythm of marching feet sounded through multiple streets as the city’s garrisons were systematically emptied, soldiers streaming into the Rail stations.
Once again, as it did every fifteen minutes, the magically augmented voice of an Imperial herald boomed out from every scrolltower in the city. There wasn’t one located in this neighborhood, but with the windows open, they could hear perfectly well.
“The Emperor has declared a state of emergency. A hellgate has been opened at the frontier town of Last Rock in northern Calderaan Province. In response to this crisis, the entire Rail network has been commandeered to evacuate the town and move soldiers to the frontier. This hellgate is in no way a danger to the capital. Forces from across the Empire are being re-routed to face this threat; due to the city’s garrisons being dispatched, a curfew has been ordered for this city. Once again, Tiraas is under curfew as of sunset. All citizens must be in their homes or otherwise off the streets in two hours, seventeen minutes. Persons without homes may seek shelter in any office of the Universal Church, its member cults, or designated Imperial facilities. Once again, a curfew will be enforced at sunset. All citizens must be off the streets in two hours…sixteen minutes.”
Lakshmi sighed, stepping back from the window.
“Oh, just close it already,” Sanjay huffed. “We’ve heard it, we’re already inside, and I’m tired of that guy’s whining.”
“You button it,” she ordered. “Once dark falls, believe me, we’re gonna want this shut and everything locked and barred. Let’s have some fresh air while there’s still air to be had.”
“C’mon, what’s the big deal?” he asked, lounging on their threadbare sofa in the narrow living room of the garret apartment. Sanjay had appropriated an apple from the fruit bowl, but so far was just toying with it, not taking a bite. “The soldiers are leaving and they don’t want anybody on the streets, fine, whatever. Doesn’t mean everybody’s gonna sneak out after dark and start burning the place down. The whole city isn’t full of psychos.”
“Don’t underestimate what people will get up to when nobody’s watching,” she cautioned. “The average person’s stupidity and incompetence is the only thing holding their malicious intentions in check.”
He groaned dramatically, throwing his head backward over the arm of the sofa. “Uggghhhhh, don’t quote Guild crap at me, sis. I’ve heard it all. Honestly, who is gonna take the opportunity of the soldiers being gone? The Guild won’t, and there’s nobody else who does crime.”
“There’s nobody else,” she said patiently, “because the Guild breaks their elbows if they try. And if the Guild is also indoors…” She trailed off, raising her eyebrows.
Sanjay scowled sullenly. “I still think you’re overreacting.”
Lakshmi turned back to look out the open window. “Maybe. I’ve heard rumors, though, in the Guild. Something big is going to happen tonight.”
“Big is vague.”
“Yeah, and I’m a professional listener, so if that’s all I’ve got, that’s all there is.” She shivered. “There’s some weird shit in this city, little brother. After that business with Sweet, I don’t think I wanna be near anything the Guild considers ‘big.’”
“Well, that’s a career-advancing attitude,” he snorted.
“Career, bah. I’ll make my own opportunities. If the Guild wants to futz around with Imperials and the Church and the Wreath and whatever else, they can do it without my help.”
Sanjay sat bolt upright, the apple rolling from his fingers, and leaned forward, staring at her avidly. “Wreath? The Black Wreath?”
Lakshmi grimaced. “No. I didn’t say that, and you didn’t hear it.”
“Aw, come on—”
A sharp knock at the door made them both freeze. They exchanged a wary glance, then turned in unison to face the front of the room.
“Who is it?” Lakshmi demanded.
“Just me, ma’am,” the muffled voice replied.
Grinning hugely, Sanjay was off the couch and skittering toward the door before she could reply. He made quick work of the knob lock, both deadbolts and the chain, yanking it open.
“Hey, kid,” said Joe, grinning.
“Hey, Kid!” Sanjay replied.
“Mind if I come in for a spell?”
“C’mon in! Want anything? Let me getcha an apple!”
“No, thanks, I can’t stay long,” Joe replied, stepping across the threshold and removing his hat. “Hi, Lakshmi. How’re you holding up?”
“I was just fine until a minute ago,” she said, planting her fists on her hips and putting on a stern expression. “What have I told you about calling me ‘ma’am?’”
“Sorry. Force of habit,” he replied, grinning unabashedly.
“What’re you doin’ out, Joe?” Sanjay demanded, failing to contain his excitement. Lakshmi indulged in a smile. Out of all the nonsense that had occurred that night, her ongoing friendship with Joseph Jenkins was one bright spot, not least because her little brother’s hero-worship for the Sarasio Kid meant he had at least one positive role model. “The whole city’s about to be shut down!”
“Yeah, well, as to that, I’m afraid I don’t get to rest indoors with everybody else,” Joe said, wincing. “I’ve been officially deputized for the duration.”
“Deputized?” Lakshmi raised her eyebrows. “To do what?”
“Can’t really discuss it,” he said ruefully. “I doubt you’d be happy to hear the details, anyhow. I don’t even know all the details.”
“You’re still working with Darling, aren’t you?” she said. “Not knowing the details seems to be par for the course.”
“I’m getting’ that impression, yeah,” he said. “Anyhow. Jay’s right, it’s not really the time for sociable jibber-jabber. You’ve been keeping up with your practice, right?”
“You mean, aside from your own weekly sessions at the range?” She folded her arms. “Bet your ass I have. I am not getting caught helpless again. Ever.”
“Attagirl,” he said approvingly. “All right, remember that little test I had you do with my wand last time?”
“Yeah, the enchanter test? I don’t see what difference it makes, Joe. Spark or no spark, I’m not about to become a wizard. I have a job. I actually like it, when it doesn’t involve me being snared into chasing—” She broke off, looking at Sanjay, who gazed back with an expression of wide-eyed innocence that would absolutely terrify anyone who had ever raised a twelve-year-old.
“Yes?” he prompted. “Go on. You were chasing…?”
“Well, no one’s sayin’ you need to become a sorceress,” Joe said quickly. “It’s just like any other talent. Not everybody who has the capacity to do arcane magic ever does anything with it. But in your case, it means you can handle a better class of armament than that cheap spark-spitter you picked up at a sleazy pawn shop.”
“I take offense at that,” Lakshmi said haughtily. “What makes you think it was a sleazy pawn shop?”
“Is there such a thing as a non-sleazy pawn shop?” he asked curiously. Sanjay snorted a laugh.
“Okay, I may have to give you that one,” she said grudgingly after a moment.
“Well, point being, I brought you a gift.” Joe reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a long, glossy wand with a thick handle.
“I don’t need charity,” Lakshmi said sharply.
“I am well aware of that, Shmi,” he replied, unperturbed. “That’s what makes it a nice gesture. Here.”
She held his stare for a moment, then with a reluctant sigh, reached out to accept the weapon. “Yeah, well, I guess… Thanks, Joe.”
“It’s my pleasure. Be sure to bring it to our next session at the range, and I’ll help you get a feel for it. It’s a lot different than firing a wand with a clicker.”
“That’s great!” Sanjay beamed. “Shmi gets an upgrade, so I can have the cheap old one to practice with!”
“No,” they said simultaneously.
“Aw, come onnnnnn,” he whined. “You were shootin’ outlaws at a younger age than me!”
“That is not a good thing,” Joe said firmly. “Anyhow, it ain’t my business, Jay. It’s for the lady raisin’ you to decide when you’re old enough for a weapon.”
“Okay, well, hypothetically,” Sanjay wheedled, “as a matter of general principle, you agree I’m old enough to own a wand?”
Joe glanced at Lakshmi, who was giving him a very even look.
“Hypothetically,” he mused, “as a matter of general principle…”
“Yessss?” Sanjay practically vibrated with eagerness.
“…it’s for the lady raisin’ you to decide when—”
“Omnu’s balls!” Sanjay exclaimed, throwing up his arms and collapsing back on the couch in a huff.
“You watch your language,” Joe said sternly. Outside the window, another repetition of the herald’s warning began to undercut the constant tolling of the alarm bells. “And you should be grateful you’ve got somebody who cares to look after you, kid. I was shootin’ outlaws at your age because I lived in an unspeakable hellhole, which I wouldn’t wish on anybody. No one should have to grow up in a place like that. Your sister deserves some respect, at least—”
“Hsst!” Lakshmi said suddenly, making a slashing motion with her hand, and crossed to the window. “Listen! It’s changed.”
“…hours until the sunset curfew,” the herald was announcing. “Due to the departure of troops from the city, personnel from the cults of Avei, Shaath and Eserion will be patrolling the streets, enforcing curfew.” For the first time, he hesitated in his recitation before continuing. “It is vitally important that no citizen be out on the streets after dark.”
“Something big,” Lakshmi whispered.
“Yeah,” said Joe with a heavy sigh, replacing his hat. “It’s gonna be a long night.”
“Ten minutes,” Trissiny muttered, pacing back and forth down the dividing line in their tower bedroom. Or rather, just to her side of it, so that her boots clicked satisfyingly on the stone floor. Attempting to walk on the line itself would have been awkward; Ruda’s rugs were piled deeply enough to make the surface notably lopsided.
“It’ll be fine,” Ruda said with a sigh, sitting at the window. “Gabe and Fross know their jobs, and so does Juniper.”
“If I could just help,” Trissiny said, reaching the door and turning around for another lap.
Ruda looked up from her perusal of the town below. They had an incredible view, which was actually rather useful for this evening’s planned events. “You know what your problem is, Boots?”
Trissiny came to an abrupt halt and gave her a long, sardonic look. “If I asked very nicely, would you tell me?”
“You don’t have enough faith in your crew,” Ruda obliged, grinning. “C’mon, our friends know what they’re doing, and they’re not the same collection of numbnuts and airheads we started the year with. It will be fine. And if it’s not, Tellwyrn will be here to collect us, so it’s not as if anybody’ll die. I’m sure even Avei will understand if you get collared by the great Arachne Pigheaded Walking Magicpocalypse Fucking Tellwyrn.”
“She needs to get that printed up on business cards,” Trissny snorted, resuming her pacing. Ruda laughed.
The paladin made three more laps before stopping again. “I still don’t feel right about involving you all in this…”
“Tough shit,” Ruda said, looking out the window again.
“But…and it sounds horrible even to say this…the others just aren’t as important as you. Teal probably isn’t in much danger from anything that comes out of a hellgate, and even so…her family are just industrialists. Toby and I are supposed to be putting our lives at risk against demons. Even Shaeine is the third daughter, so her House won’t be in jeopardy if she dies. But you’re the only heir the Punaji have.”
“Not how it works,” Ruda said quietly, not turning from the window. “I’m no relation at all to most of those who’ve worn the name Punaji. The surname is attached to whatever family holds the crown, which changes. My people won’t tolerate weak, incompetent, corrupt or selfish leaders. You hold onto the people’s respect or your ass gets kicked out and someone more worthy takes your place. We have succession crises more often than other countries, sure, but on the other hand our royalty isn’t so goddamn inbred they need six servants to use the shitter.”
“Well…I guess that’s something,” Trissiny said, turning to resume her path.
“I’m not going to seek out death,” Ruda said even more quietly. “That’s a coward’s way out. And I’d hate to make my parents grieve. But… If I’m not there to watch what’s going to happen to my people, I think I’ll be happier.”
Trissiny stopped again, turning to stare at her. “What’s… Why? What’s going to happen?”
Ruda turned her face from the window to stare at the floor in front of her. She was silent for so long that Trissiny had just decided she had nothing to say when she finally spoke.
“When I was thirteen, my papa took me out on my first actual raid. We overtook a merchant ship. Big, fat thing flying Lantonese colors. Big fat captain, too. When we boarded and had men looking over the inventory… I swear, that fucker acted like he was being inconvenienced by a valet taking too long to park his fucking carriage. Sneering and making condescending remarks to the goddamn Pirate King himself about how long this was taking and his fucking schedule.”
“That doesn’t sound like a very smart thing to do,” Trissiny said, wide-eyed.
Ruda snorted. “Hell, no, we tied a line to his ankles and hung him head-first over the side until we were done. Told his crew not to haul him back aboard till we were over the horizon. Dunno if they did or not…” She sighed heavily. “I’m not supposed to know this, but my father had to make a formal apology to the king of Lanton. With financial remuneration for the insult.”
Trissiny held her peace, unsure what to say. Ruda’s face was gradually falling into a bitter scowl.
“We patrol the sea, you understand,” she went on at last. “The days of slitting throats and burning ships are long since over. Actually, the Punaji never did that, which is why we’re still around when more brutal pirates have been stamped out. The Punaji stand for something. We were slaves, once, centuries ago, and when we overthrew our rulers and claimed Puna Dara for our own, we established a culture of freedom. Punaji raiders have toppled tyrants, wiped out slavers, rescued hostages… And we never take all of a ship’s wealth. Just some supplies to tide us over and a tithe of their cargo. And so, they tolerate us.
“You remember our very first class with Tellwyrn, when she made us do that idiot fucking get-to-know-you exercise? A ‘maritime vassal state,’ that’s what she called us. And it’s true. The Tiraan Empire swallowed up what’s now Upper Stalvar Province, right next to Puna Dara, and Queen Ramanshi saw which way the wind was blowing. Signed the treaty with Tiraas, ensured our independence…at the cost of just a little of our freedom. And the rest has just been chipped away, bit by bit. In a world of modern navies, of treaties and laws and tariffs and…” She paused, sighing heavily. “There’s just no room for pirates in the modern world. We’ve become one big band of ruthless, marauding tax collectors. Pay the Punaji so they’ll keep aiding ships in distress and not preying excessively on your commerce. Just a cost of doing business. If they overstep, you can always complain to the Silver Throne and have Tiraas lean on Puna Dara. Works every fucking time.”
“Is that…so terrible?” Trissiny asked gently. “All nations are having to make an accommodation with reality. All faiths are. Everyone. The world’s changing for us all.”
Ruda finally looked up at her, and rather than angry as Trissiny had expected, she looked haunted. “You know what happens in this century if you rescue hostages being held for political gain? That’s an act of war, interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Kill off slavers? Same fucking thing. Rescuing slaves is grand fucking theft. Theft! Of living people!” She slammed a fist ineffectually against the windowsill; to Trissiny’s astonishment, tears were glistening at the corners of her eyes. “If some asshole is living like an emperor while his people starve, well, that’s pretty much just fucking that, because if you attempt to raid his palace and do something about it, you get chewed to shreds by mag artillery emplacements, and even if it works, assholes always have allies now. Then you’re dealing with naval blockades and trade embargoes and your own people starve because you tried to stop some other people from doing the same. A world of rules only helps the people who make the fucking rules, Trissiny!”
“It’s all coming to a head,” Ruda barreled on, turning away again and scrubbing at her eyes with the back of a hand. “Within another generation, the Punaji will just be another bunch of folk, scraping by however they can. Our days as a people who mean something are over. And the one thing I pray for is that it holds off long enough that my papa doesn’t have to see the end.” She sighed deeply, closing her eyes. “I will. I’ve given it plenty of thought. The Empire’s friendly enough now, but the situation won’t last forever. It’s an era of social change and the Throne is focused inward, but eventually Tiraas will stabilize and start looking to expand again. That’s what empires do. I won’t repeat Ramanshi’s mistake and wait for history to force our hand.” She slumped her shoulders, looking more utterly defeated than Trissiny had ever seen her. “Kingdoms that voluntarily joined the Empire have gone on to be its most prosperous provinces. Onkawa, Calderaas… Compare them with Vrandis or the Stalweiss. No, I’ll make the first overture. Kill off everything my people once stood for, so the people themselves have a chance to survive.” She laughed, bitterly, hollowly. “I wonder what they’ll call me. Zaruda the Weak? The Betrayer?”
Trissiny stepped away from her to grab the other desk chair, dragged it over next to the window and sat down beside her.
“It won’t happen that way,” she said calmly.
Ruda looked up, scowling. “Oh, what the fuck would you know about it?”
“Not a thing,” she said frankly. “There’s a lot of history and politics here that’s completely over my head. I’ll tell you what I do know, though, and that’s you. You’re pretty much the smartest person I know, Ruda.”
“Pfft, grades are just—”
“Yes, I happen to agree, but I’m not talking about you being at the head of the class. You’re clever. You think fast, you can make complicated plans, you’re incredibly good at reading people, and most of all, I’ve only started realizing all this recently. That’s how good an act you put on. So, no, I don’t know the full situation in Puna Dara, but you are too intelligent and too cunning to be snared like that. You remember that thing in the Crawl that made us face fears?”
“Oh, that?” Ruda snorted. “No, that completely slipped my mind.”
“Well, I sort of understand your problem with accountants a little better,” Trissiny said with a smile, “but that’s not the point I’m making. The point the Crawl was trying to make, I think. If you hold onto a fear long enough, it starts to look like the biggest thing in the world. Like something you could never possibly contend with… But if you get out of your own head and look at the truth of the situation, there’s always something. Just listening to you, I can tell this has been weighing on you your whole life. No offense, Ruda, but I think you’ve lost perspective on it.
“And I’ll tell you what else,” she added. “You’re not going to have to deal with it alone.”
“What, you’re offering to help?” Ruda said skeptically.
“Yes, I am!” Trissiny nodded firmly. “I mean…think about what you’ve got here, what you’ve gained from this University. I’m still not convinced Tellwyrn’s ideas about education are doing any of us any good, but if nothing else, you’ve got relationships, and some of those are very powerful. Just politically, you have strong ties with two major religions, the diplomatic House of Tar’naris and Falconer Industries. Juniper is a pretty significant thing even without her connection to Naiya, and Fross is all kinds of talented.”
“Don’t forget Arquin,” Ruda said, cracking a smile. “Every court needs a jester.”
Trissiny laughed. “Look, you get the point I’m making, right?”
“Yeah,” Ruda swallowed and scrubbed at her eyes again. “Yeah, I… I mean, I still don’t think you grasp the extent of the situation…”
“There’s time to learn,” Trissiny said firmly. “I do not intend for any of us to die here. The gods ordered us to stay for a reason, and as you were pointing out, we are a formidable group. We’ll live past this, and past whatever else our University years throw at us. We have a purpose in the world, all of us. And we’ll all be connected to each other, one way or another.”
She laid a hand on Ruda’s shoulder and gently squeezed.
“It will be all right.”
Ruda actually laughed softly, reaching up to squeeze Trissiny’s gauntleted fingers. “You’ve been picking up new skills, too, Boots. I’d never have guessed you’d get good at comforting people. The Trissiny I barged in on the first day would’ve been shit at that.”
“Oh, I really wish I could argue with you,” Trissiny said ruefully, prompting another laugh.
“All right, well.” Ruda stood up, pushing back her chair, and straightened her coat. “That’s years in the future. We’ve got the small matter of a hellgate full of demons to deal with tonight. It’s about time, too.”
“Yeah,” Trissiny agreed, also rising. “Fross should be here any minute to report in, if it’s all gone according to plan.”
“Heh, wouldn’t that be nice, for once?”