It was the first moment he’d had in the last week to himself.
Everything was in an uproar, which was only to be expected considering what had happened. The rebuilding efforts, and the care being offered to injured citizens, weren’t his department, though he had made sure to learn the names of every individual who had perished in the attack on the city. All eleven of them, which was far better than it very easily could have been. One had simply fallen off a ladder while fetching a fairy lamp in a crowded basement, but as far as Darling was concerned, that counted. Their families were all being well cared for, by the government and the Church, so any gifts he could have offered would have been extraneous. He mostly wanted their names so he could feel guilty specifically rather than in general, and so he could check in on them from time to time. Bureaucracies had short attention spans; a time would come when those surviving the victims of his grand scheme would need help again, and then perhaps he could make some slight amends.
His official role, however, was working with Vex on intelligence. The approved story had spread quite effectively: as far as most people knew, the Black Wreath had taken advantage of the chaos to attack, the gods had intervened in Last Rock, and the soldiers sent out from the city had been re-routed from Calderaas in time to reinstate order. Enough of it was verifiably true to carry the rest. Darling’s job involved using his network of informants throughout the city to identify any areas where the real story was cropping up and leaking out. Lord Vex wasn’t so clumsy or aggressive as to silence dissent (which would only have led to more awkward whispers), but by knowing where the tales were coming from, he could target his disinformation efforts, swamping those nexi in the great web of gossip with such outlandish nonsense that the truth was swept away on a tide of rumor.
It helped that the attack on Tiraas had competition for the thing most to be talked about. Vidius had chosen a paladin, for the first time in his eight thousand years as a god of the Pantheon. Even bigger, he’d chosen a half-demon. The entire Church was in an uproar; the other cults, keeping carefully quiet and alert for new developments. Oddly enough, the only people who seemed calm about all this were the Vidians—but then, they never seemed to get worked up about much. Darling hadn’t had a spare moment to work out how he felt about this, if indeed it proved to affect him at all.
There was a lack of solid information on the subject. Tellwyrn’s new favorite game, “Teleport the Journalist to a Random Location,” sufficed for the moment to keep most of the curiosity seekers away from Last Rock. Darling wasn’t personally involved, but he was positioned close enough to discover that the Empire’s official policy as dictated to outraged newspaper editors was, approximately, “Well, what did you think was going to happen?”
Now, for the first time in a week, he had managed to get out and do some of Sweet’s rounds through the city. He had paused on a railed walkway abutting the edge of one of the city’s terraces which overlooked a park on the level below. Beyond the park, toward the west, the buildings started in a richer district where they were built to only one or two stories and an elaborate style, growing taller and cheaper as they marched into the distance, right up to the city walls. It was one of his favorite views in Tiraas.
“I hear they’re planning to re-zone,” Embras said, leaning against the rail next to Darling. “About two districts out, there. Seems like it’d really ruin the whole flow of this view.”
“The plans are being bandied about,” Darling said, nodding. “In a very early stage and could still go under, but it’s likely to happen eventually. Enough rich people would get richer off the deal that it has some momentum.”
“Mm. Progress marches ever onward.”
“That was a good approach, by the way. I can usually tell when people are sneaking up on me.”
“Yes, well, admirable as it is that you Eserites focus so on mundane training, it does leave you with some blind spots.” He straightened up, grinning. “Everyone has their own. It’s all about choosing the right angle of attack.”
“True, true. Either way, glad to finally see you. I was starting to wonder if you’d forgotten.”
“Some of us, by which I mean both of us, have had no shortage of urgent matters to attend to this week,” Mogul said pointedly. “Regardless, how could I fail to make an appearance? If nothing else, I still need to arrange the return of my nose.” He stepped back, straightening the lapels of his suit, and smiled thinly. “Here we are, now; best to get a move on. She doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
“Of course. Lead the way.”
The building was roped off, damaged as it was, which of course didn’t slow them. Mogul led the way past the warning signs posted in the lobby, up the broad, curving stairs and into the restaurant proper. Marcio’s Bistro had had a stunning view, with great glass windows stretching between pillars all along its northern wall providing diners with a panorama of Imperial Square itself. Above, a domed glass ceiling looked up upon the sky. He’d eaten here a few times; it was actually even prettier in the rain. Which was fortunate, given the city’s usual weather.
The windows and dome were gone, now, and apparently had provided ingress for some demon or other which had then done a number on the bistro itself. Nothing was repaired yet, but clearly there had been efforts to clean up. Broken glass had been swept into neat piles, though not yet removed, and the smashed furniture was also heaped against one wall. The clawed curtains, paintings and wallpaper were still exactly where they had been found, except a few that had fallen and were now leaning in their frames against the base of the wall.
“This was my favorite restaurant,” she said absently, not looking at them, but pacing in a slow circle around the floor, running her fingertips along the dusty bar in passing. “The head chef was quite the experimenter; by blending different approaches to spicing and cooking, he stumbled quite by coincidence upon a very close approximation of the native cuisine I remember from my own youth. Of course, that entire culture is long extinct. It was so similar I was certain for the longest time it had to be some kind of trap.”
“And was it?” Darling asked politely.
She finally looked up at him, and smiled. “Yes, as it turns out. But not the trap I was expecting.”
He had never met Lilian Riaje, but he knew her description well. Everyone who was anyone in Tiraas knew her description; following her rapid elevation to the favorite in the Emperor’s harem, it had been the subject of limitless gossip, she was so unlike Sharidan’s normally preferred cuddly hourglass types. Tall, lean, and elegant, she had bronze skin a shade darker than the Tiraan average, and a face that was handsome rather than beautiful, surmounted by a rather long nose. Her presence in the Palace had caused great disruption in the plans of people who schemed to get close to the Throne by way of alluring young women, causing many to hurriedly recruit and begin grooming entirely new girls.
She wore a striking red dress—simple in design, but extremely eye-catching, accented by a wide-brimmed red hat. It occurred to Darling that it looked like a red version of the hat Vidius was often depicted wearing.
“You surprise me, Antonio Darling,” Elilial said, studying him up and down. “Not many men have managed to do that. It has been a very long time since anyone presented an Offering of Cunning to my high priest. The Universal Church has been quite effective in suppressing it. In fact, it turns out poor Embras’s predecessor didn’t even bother to inform him of the rite. I had to explain the matter after the fact; you left him extremely confused.”
“Sadly,” Embras added with a faint smile, “not even the most embarrassing thing that happened to me that evening.”
“I must confess to having added to the problem somewhat,” Darling said with a bashful smile. “I’ve been hoarding any reference to the practice I came across. Considering how much I had to involve the Church and the Empire in order to arrange it, the last thing I needed was for anyone to guess what I was actually up to.”
“Mm,” she said noncommittally. “And so, here you are.”
“Yes, here I am,” he said pleasantly. “And wearing my real face, I might add.”
Her lips quirked up in a faint smile. “This is my real face. But of course, you’re an Eserite. You love your little dramas almost as much as the Vidians. Well, you’ve gone to a lot of trouble, so I can oblige you a little bit.”
The change was peculiar, as if it wasn’t a change at all, but a rewriting of the last few minutes so that she had always been thus. The effect was disorienting, to say the least. But there she stood, with her horns and crimson skin, eyes opening onto a blaze of hellfire, hooves crunching in a drift of glass (which he didn’t miss her stepping in deliberately for dramatic effect). Not to mention towering over him, taller than even the open-roofed bistro should have been able to contain, yet she fit into it perfectly. That kind of spatial distortion wasn’t uncommon in the presence of the gods.
“Perhaps this better suits anyway,” Elilial mused. “The Rite of Offering grants you an audience and a guarantee of shelter from my wrath while it is in session; I will honor that ancient compact. Let us not, however, ignore the fact that you just set back my plans considerably, getting a great number of my followers captured or killed in the process. I am impressed with you, Antonio Darling. Not pleased. Whatever you wished to say to me, get on with it.”
“As the lady commands,” he said, bowing gallantly. “All I want to know is what really happened when you broke from the Pantheon and were cast into Hell.”
The goddess slowly raised on eyebrow. “And you a priest of the Universal Church. Clearly you have heard the story many times.”
Darling swallowed his impatience. He respected the urge to play word games, he could play along, if it meant getting him what he was after. “If there is one thing I know when I see it, it’s a con. The story is couched in the literary traditions of the ancient epics, which is clearly meant to obscure its holes. All ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and ‘then this happened’ with none of the elaboration we expect form modern Tanglish. Plus, it has the weight of dogma to back it up. For people who do have questions, a good theologian will have been coached in all the relevant platitudes—trust in the gods, evil is as evil does, it was a different time, and so on. But those screening devices are exactly that.”
He took a step forward, staring intently up at her blazing eyes; she regarded him with a calmly curious expression. “So you, one of the cornerstones of the resistance against the Elder Gods, just spontaneously up and decided to turn on them? For no particular reason, even? No, it’s ridiculous. Being gods, they didn’t even bother to create a plausible lie, which is…well, I can sort of see the point, but it’s also insulting. The gods are lying to us, about themselves, about you, about the entire reason why the world is the way it is. I want to know the truth.”
Elilial regarded him thoughtfully for a long moment, in which he barely remembered to breathe. Then she smiled.
Rarely had Darling had to clamp down so hard on the reaction he wanted to give. He took a deep breath, carefully holding onto his calm, polite facade. “Forgive me, m’lady, I was under the impression that the Rite—”
“That gives you the prerogative to approach and speak to me in safety, despite the excellent reasons I have to reduce you to a greasy smear on the drapes. It most certainly does not require me to answer your questions, nor to do anything I’m not inclined to anyway.” She paused, tilting her head and looking him up and down, and then her smile widened noticeably, revealing long, pointed canines. “But the fact is, Antonio… I find I do somewhat like you. And for that reason, I will not give you the answer you’re after. I’ll even tell you why. Do you know what happens to people who learn what the gods would rather remain secret?”
He hesitated. “I…suppose I can imagine.”
“You are probably aware that most of the Black Wreath are just people playing what they think is a game,” she went on, turning to look out over the city through the open window frames. “Advancing in the cult is a long process, leading somebody toward true involvement in my aims, and at least half of them never get there, nor even meaningfully begin. It’s that way for a reason. Before my followers are taught what you are asking to know, they must learn the way I have of hiding my moves from the Pantheon. And before that, obviously, they must prove themselves trustworthy.” She returned her burning gaze to him, her expression furious, now. “Because all it takes is knowing the truth, and you would be dead before your corpse hit the ground. Everywhere there are disasters unfolding, people suffering unimaginably, and the gods do nothing. They can recite reasons why, when they bother to; those reasons even make a certain amount of sense. But their hypocrisy is shown in the simple fact that they can always find the time to stifle even a hint of the truth when the truth threatens them. I learned this the hard way when I first made my way back to the mortal plane.” She bared her fangs in a snarl, and he involuntarily took two steps back, even knowing he ire wasn’t (mostly) at him. “Brave, clever people whose deaths I caused just by putting the truth in their hands. So, no, Antonio, I will not be digging your grave for you, and you may regard that as a token of my esteem.”
“I…see,” he said faintly. “Well, then…”
“Unless, of course,” she added more calmly, “you were interested in being inducted directly into the Wreath. For someone in your position, I think we can skip the initial phase, though you would have a great deal of work to do with regard to proving your trustworthiness. Not to mention taking steps to correct the damage you just caused.”
“Ah,” he said, “well, I hadn’t actually considered that prospect. Let me think on—”
“Never mind,” Elilial said curtly. “Nothing personal, but I’ve no need for people who are less than committed. We might revisit the subject later, however; if you continue on as you have been, a day may come when you regard the option in a very different light. Obviously, I am sympathetic to your desire. You’re not the first person outside the Wreath to see the obvious truth despite the Pantheon’s earnest efforts to redirect inquiries, nor even the first to take such ambitious steps to get answers.” She eyed him over again, then smiled. “Not unique, in short, but still exceptional. I think it serves my own purposes to have you out there, digging. You must be careful, however. Keep looking in this direction and you will learn the most fascinating things, but if you find the answer you’re truly after before you are prepared to protect yourself, it will be the end of you.”
“You do realize, of course,” he said, “my position will require me to keep acting against the Wreath…”
“Your position will enable you to extend a courtesy now and again, when you judge it appropriate,” she replied, raising an eyebrow. “And after this conversation, if you refrain from any further viciousness like you showed a week ago, you may find such courtesies shown in kind.”
“Splendid,” he said, putting on his most ingratiating smile. “Perhaps we can all profit from this, in the end!”
Embras, off to the side, chuckled, shaking his head.
“If you’re looking to rebuild your ranks,” Darling continued cheerfully, “I may be able to offer a helpful tip. In the course of that night’s events, it seems the Archpope rather alienated a big chunk of his nascent summoner corps, leaving a lot of clerics with some demonic expertise and a proven commitment to serve the greater good rather than politics…unemployed. And, in many cases, probably questioning their loyalties. Of course,” he went on with a grin, “I can’t help noticing that Justinian had swelled the corps well beyond what he could reasonably need. Now, with their numbers depleted, he’s left with a much smaller group, but one that is still close to plenty. More to the point, those remaining in his service have proven their willingness to commit treason on his behalf. All in all, a good night’s work for him.”
“Why, thank you for the hint,” Elilial said wryly. “I would never have thought of that. Something for you to wonder about is just how many of those ‘rejected’ summoners remain as fiercely loyal to their Archpope as those who stayed in his service, and are just waiting to be snapped up by other organizations and give him a foot in the door. You seriously underestimate that man’s ambitions if you think culling the unworthy was the extent of the advantage he took that night. Do you actually believe you’re the only one who realized the Dawnchapel was a tempting target perfectly placed to neutralize a Wreath attack? Thanks to that, several of my most valued agents are now directly in the Church’s hands, and I think you’ll find that no word of this has reached Imperial Intelligence.”
“Hm,” Darling said, frowning in thought.
“I’m not in the habit of handing out information that people haven’t earned,” the goddess said, studying him closely, “but in this case, I’ll offer you a warning. You Eserites love your schemes so much that you get lost in the game, assuming anyone who plays it with you is a schemer after your own heart. When it comes to Justinian, however, you have no idea what you’re messing with, Antonio. You need to start being a great deal more careful, and step up your game, if you intend to carry on working at him.”
“I…appreciate the tip,” he said slowly.
“Good,” she smiled, “then here’s another. A great doom is coming, and anyone who has a stake in the world is preparing to meet it. I try, as much as I can, to avoid causing harm to anyone I don’t explicitly need to hurt. This time, however, I will not be stopped. I won’t back off and try again later. I will be prepared to do what needs to be done when the cosmic deadline comes.” Her burning eyes bored into him. “The more you unravel my plans, the more you force me to improvise, and the less care I will be able to take to minimize collateral damage. Keep tripping me up, Antonio, and you’re going to cause a lot of pain to a lot of people. Understand?”
“Explicitly,” he said, nodding and smiling.
“Good,” Elilial said, satisfied. “Now I have another appointment to keep today, so pardon me for rushing out on you.”
She stepped past him, and that peculiar blink in the world happened again, as if something was being re-written, and then she was just the lady in the red dress again. Mogul fell into step just behind and to her right as they headed for the top of the stairs.
“Oh,” Darling said suddenly, “when is the little tyke due?”
Mogul turned to give him a very hard look.
Elilial paused at the head of the steps, then shifted to smile at him over her shoulder. “When I decide it’s time.”
Then they were gone, strolling down the stairs arm-in-arm and out onto the street, just another well-dressed couple out enjoying the day.
Darling stood amid the ruins of Marcio’s Bistro, absently pulling a coin from his pocket and rolling it across the backs of his fingers as he gazed out over the city.