“It’s official. We’re being tortured.”
“Oh, stop it,” Prin said, amused. “This might be the cushiest job I’ve ever had.”
“It’s not about the cushiness,” Farah protested. “It’s the principle of the thing! They give this out to people being punished. It’s a mark of shame.”
Principia glanced around. “Okay, let’s keep that to a maximum of none, shall we? At least until we’re back at barracks. I’m pretty sure directly insulting our hosts is against some regulation or other.”
Farah subsided momentarily, looking slightly guilty, which was fortunately mitigated by her helmet. “I…there’s nobody nearby.”
“You don’t see anybody.”
“You think there’s an Izarite priest hiding behind a bush?”
“I imagine they do some of their best work behind bushes.” She paused to wait for Farah’s laughter to subside, then added, “Anyhow, I hear a rumor that some cults have elves in their ranks.”
Farah sighed. “You’re right, sorry.”
“Hey, I’m not one to be a stickler for the rules, generally speaking. But…you may have a point about us being excessively put upon, what with one thing and another. I just don’t want to call down more wrath on our heads.”
“All right, all right, point taken!”
The grounds of the Temple of Izara were exquisitely beautiful, by very careful design. On most days, one could expect to find couples strolling the wandering paths, or priests accompanying worshipers—which, as was often joked, were just couples of a different kind. It was a cloudy day, however, not yet raining but with the taste of precipitation on the air. This was common enough for Tiraas and indeed many of the city’s inhabitants had grown comfortable being outdoors in the rain, presuming the rain was fairly light. Today, however, thunder was rumbling in the distance, and creeping ever closer. It made for a peaceably relaxed route for the two patrolling Legionnaires, though they also had the anticipation of being soaked while in armor to live with.
Principia paused, scowling upward at the branches of a tree with fern-like fronds and little pink blossoms.
“What is it?” Farah asked, following her gaze. “Something wrong with the tree?”
“In the tree,” Prin replied, transferring her lance to her shield hand, then stooping to pick up a pebble. She took aim and hurled it into the foliage.
With a displeased croak, a crow fluttered out of the mimosa, taking another seat atop a statue of Izara, well out of reach. The bird tilted its head and squawked a soft rebuke.
“Shoo,” Principia snapped, picking up another pebble.
“Oh, come on, it’s just a bird,” Farah protested.
“No, it isn’t,” she muttered, hurling the stone. The crow deftly sidestepped, not even bothering to spread its wings, and the pebble arced past to clatter against the wall of the temple. “Filthy carrion-eating…busybody.”
“Seriously, leave the crow alone,” Farah said. “There’ll be hell to pay if you break a window or something.”
Prin lingered for a moment, scowling up at the crow, then pointed a finger at it. “Mathal asua’e timaan che. Auwa dal efeen!”
The bird cocked its head and croaked at her.
“Did you just cuss that bird out in elvish?” Farah demanded, looking askance at her.
“It’s a good language for cursing,” Prin replied, finally turning her back on the crow and continuing on their route, Farah falling into step beside her. “Graceful, elegant. Snobbish. The condescension is built in.”
“Maybe I should learn.”
“Please don’t. I do love being able to talk behind people’s backs right to their faces.”
“Okay, I definitely need to learn. Were you criticizing my butt to that crow?”
“Really, Szaravid? Really? All the things I could criticize and your mind goes right to your butt?”
“What does that mean?!”
Principia grinned at her, and they fell quiet as they emerged from the side of the main temple into one of its front garden spaces, where there actually were people sitting and strolling around, despite the weather. Including a few clerics in white robes with pink lotus pins at the shoulder.
The two Legionnaires returned polite nods from several individuals as they passed, completing their circuit in no hurry. Minutes later they had reached the front of the temple and were climbing the steps to its front doors, pausing only to exchange salutes with the two soldiers posted on either side, then re-entered the sanctuary.
The main sanctuary of Izara’s temple was built along the same general pattern as Avei’s: a long chamber soaring to an arched ceiling, with shadowed galleries lining its sides and a towering statue of the goddess positioned opposite the doors. It was a smaller and narrower space, however, and vastly more ornate. The stonework was elaborately carved and embellished, the stained-glass windows ran heavily to pink, and there were cushioned benches and small stands housing flowers in beautiful urns at the base of each column. Even with the gloomy skies outside, it was brightly lit with fairy lamps, and designed to be warm and welcoming.
Naturally, the Legionnaires within looked distinctly uncomfortable.
Izara’s priesthood acknowledged the need for some protection, but did not care for even the hinted threat of violence on their premises, and so the Legionnaires on site were kept to a minimum. Aside from the two soldiers outside the door, there were only two more visible within, Ephanie and the lieutenant in charge of the temple’s semi-permanent detachment, to which Squad Thirteen had been temporarily attached. Merry and Casey would be in nearby chambers, with the rest of the local squad spread throughout the facility.
Both of them came to attention and saluted.
“All’s quiet, Lieutenant,” Farah said crisply.
“At ease,” Lieutenant Straud replied mildly. “All’s usually quiet, soldier. It’s rare you have to do more than escort drunk petitioners to a room. Next patrol’s in fifteen minutes.”
They both saluted again and stepped across the room to stand opposite Straud and Ephanie.
“At ease, I said,” the Lieutenant said with some amusement. “It’s not a kindness, privates; the Izarites don’t like people bringing tension into their temple. Here, of all places, you’re required to relax a bit.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Farah said, saluting, and very deliberately rolled her shoulders. Prin shook her head and relaxed her stance, leaning the butt of her lance on the floor. Across the aisle from her, Ephanie smiled faintly; she, too, looked more comfortable. Then again, she always looked comfortable in armor, as if she’d been born in it.
Apparently stormy weather was no time for love—or at least, not any public manifestation of it. There were few people about, two couples sitting on benches together, a lone man strolling back and forth admiring the stained glass, and one priest attending Izara’s statue at the far end of the sanctuary.
“I’m going to do my rounds, check in with the troops,” the Lieutenant announced. “Carry on, ladies.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Farah all but shouted, saluting. Stroud sighed, shook her head, and strode off to one of the side doors.
No sooner had she gone than two figures entered through the great front door, and Principia stiffened.
They were a striking pair, dressed in black—one in leather gear that almost qualified as armor, the other in a dark cloak. Both were plains elves. They walked right past the Legionnaires without so much as glancing at them and separated as they reached the middle of the chamber. Gliding into the shaded galleries on each side, the two elves took up positions near the side doors, the one in leather shaking her head at the Izarite priest when he began to approach her. He nodded respectfully and retreated to his dais, seemingly unperturbed at being rebuffed.
“What’s that about?” Farah murmured.
Across from them, Ephanie was frowning slightly behind her helmet. She turned to examine another arrival through the front doors. Principia followed her gaze, and immediately tightened her grip on her lance.
He was a blonde man in his early middle years, wearing a pricey-looking suit and casually flipping a doubloon from hand to hand as he strolled in. Catching the coin in his left hand, he rolled it deftly along the backs of his fingers, and smiled as he drew abreast of them.
“Well hello, there, Prin. Long time no see.”
“Your Grace,” she replied in a neutral tone.
“I suppose,” he said pleasantly, “you didn’t get our invitation to come chat, eh? That was…gosh, it’s been months. I’d ask what you’ve been up to, but…look at yourself. Gotta say, this I did not expect. You are perennially full of surprises.”
“I’m on duty, Sweet,” she said tersely.
“Oh? Splendid!” He grinned as though delighted by the news. “This has to be the coziest post a Legionnaire can pull, eh? So you’ll have time to chitchat a bit with a old friend while you hold down the carpet.”
“Soldiers on duty do not socialize with passersby,” Farah said sharply, catching Principia’s mood.
“Really?” He turned that charming grin on her. “That’s odd. I’ve whiled away many a pleasant hour with Imperial troops guarding some boring patch of street or other.”
“Competent soldiers on duty do not socialize,” Ephanie said. “Move along, sir.”
“I am fairly certain you don’t have grounds to evict me from the temple, private,” he said, turning his head to wink at her. He turned back to fix his gaze on Principia, and despite his smile, his eyes were sharply intent. “I’ve a little long-overdue business to speak of with your squadmate, here.”
“I am on duty,” she repeated firmly. “Unless you have business in the temple, your Grace, you need to move on.”
“Let me just clarify that I am not trying to create a problem,” he said, his smile fading slightly. “You’re not wanted on suspicion of any offense, Prin. Don’t try to claim you don’t understand why we need to speak with you.”
Ephanie strode across the aisle, thumping the butt of her lance on the floor. “All right, that’s enough. Time for you to go.”
“This is Bishop Darling of the Universal Church,” Principia said, looking over at her. “He’s allowed to be in a temple, I’m fairly sure. You do not have the prerogative to harass Legionnaires guarding them, however, your Grace,” she added directly to Darling.
“Sure, I’ll let you get back to your work,” he said amiably. “It looks very diverting. What time is good for you, then?”
“I really do wish you the best in whatever it is you’re doing with your life,” Darling said, his expression growing serious. “And I really do wish that was an acceptable answer. However…”
Ephanie let out a sharp, three-tone whistle. Immediately, the priest at the other end of the sanctuary began striding toward them…as did the two elves in black. The tromping of boots announced the arrival of more Legionnaires through side entrances at a swift walk.
“This isn’t like you, Darling,” Principia said firmly. “Nor is it in keeping with your faith to be confrontational and make a scene.”
“See, this is not helping,” he replied, tilting his head at Merry, who had just appeared from the side door. Casey approached them from the other, with Lieutenant Straud right behind her. “It looks bad, Prin, you running off to the Avenists to hide from us. I am being confrontational because I’m desperately trying to spare you having to have this conversation with Style and six of her goons. Work with me.”
“You just crossed a line,” Ephanie said, leveling her lance. “You do not threaten a Silver Legionnaire. Get out.”
“Your Grace,” said the Izarite priest with a note of pleading. “Whatever concern you have, I’m sure it can be discussed in a civil manner.”
“I’m afraid Private Avelea is correct,” Straud snapped. “I don’t care what rank or history you have, Bishop, you will not treat one of my troops this way. Are you leaving, or are you being dragged?”
“Fauna, don’t even think about it,” Darling said sharply without looking over at her. The Legionnaires did, however, in time to see the elf in leather sliding a throwing knife back into her sleeve.
“Too late,” she said. Merry stepped back, leveling a lance at her. The priest wrung his hands, looking anguished.
“I’m off duty at sixteen hundred hours,” Principia said, staring at Darling. “If you want to talk, you can meet me in the main sanctuary of Avei’s temple.”
“There!” he said brightly, spreading his hands. “That’s all I needed to hear. Thanks for being so accommodating, Prin. Always a pleasure. Come along, ladies!”
He turned, strolling back toward the door, apparently unconcerned with the lances aimed at his back. The two elves followed, stepping right through the knot of tense Legionnaires without so much as glancing at them.
“Does he mean us?” the one in the cloak asked.
“Has to,” Fauna replied. “Do you see any other ladies here?”
Darling only paused when a crow swooped in through the open doors and settled on his shoulder, croaking smugly.
“Really, now?” he said to it. “What, are your wings broken?”
Behind, the Legionnaires watched in silence while the odd group finally left.
“Oh, that’s good and horrifying,” Principia whispered to herself.
“Is this going to be a recurring problem, Private Locke?” Lieutenant Straud demanded.
Prin straightened to attention. “I don’t believe so, ma’am. If I change my mind after speaking with him, I’ll report the matter.”
“I will, of course, have to log an incident report about this,” Straud said.
“Of course, ma’am.”
The Lieutenant sighed. “All right. As you were, ladies.”
They shifted back to their stations, Ephanie and Farah now sneaking speculative looks at Principia, who was staring distractedly into space.
She remained withdrawn through the remainder of their shift, and the other four members of their tiny squad restrained their curiosity to questioning stares, which Principia affected not to notice. The relative quiet lasted until they were crossing the parade ground to their bunk that afternoon.
Principia whirled and snapped to attention, facing Bishop Syrinx, who was stomping across the yard toward her. The Bishop came to a stop, planting her fists on her hips and ignoring Prin’s salute. Captain Dijanerad followed her at a more sedate pace, wearing a more calm expression.
“I understand you took it upon yourself to embarrass the Third Legion in front of the Izarites today,” Syrinx said coldly.
“No, ma’am,” Principia replied, remaining stiffly at attention.
“Oh?” the Bishop snapped. “You think having a confrontation with a Bishop of the Universal Church in the main sanctuary of a protectorate cult is less than an embarrassment?”
“With respect, your Grace,” said Ephanie, also saluting, “only Bishop Darling was confrontational. Private Locke acted in accordance with the Legion’s code of conduct.”
“I distinctly heard no one give you permission to speak, Private Avelea,” Syrinx said sharply, her glare still fixed on Principia. If anything, her scowl deepened. “This is not an auspicious start to your career, Locke. I will be reading Lieutenant Straud’s report closely. If I find any indication that your behavior was a hint less than satisfactory, you’ll be out of this Legion on your oversized ear before you know what’s happened. Understood?”
“You’re not to leave temple premises until further notice except in the execution of your duties. I want you readily at hand in case I have questions.”
“Anything to add, Locke?”
Bishop Syrinx narrowed her eyes, studying Principia’s face in detail. The silence stretched out; behind the Bishop, Captain Dijanerad kept her peace, her own attention fixed on Syrinx.
“I can see the strain on your face, Locke,” the Bishop finally said more quietly. “Two hundred years of Eserite habit don’t just vanish. It kills you to spout ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am’ instead of a snarky comeback to every question, doesn’t it?”
“No, ma’am,” Principia said in total calm.
“I don’t know what made you think you belonged here,” Syrinx said coldly, “but time will disabuse you of the notion.”
The Bishop stared daggers at her for another moment, then turned without a further word and stalked off toward the temple complex. Once she was away, the remaining members of Squad Thirteen let out a breath in unison.
“Had an interesting day, I hear,” Dijanerad said mildly.
“It won’t happen again, ma’am,” Principia promised.
“I’m pretty sure it will,” the Captain said cryptically. She stepped forward and patted Principia’s armored shoulder. “You acted correctly, private. Dismissed.”
All five of them saluted, turned, and resumed course toward their barracks.
“Hypothetically,” Merry mused aloud, “what d’you think would be the punishment for slugging a fellow Legionnaire in the mouth?”
“Depends on a lot of factors,” Ephanie replied. “Anything from a stern talking-to, all the way up to lashing or the stockade.”
“Mm hm, mm hm. What about stabbing her while she slept?”
“Hanging,” Ephanie said sharply.
“Got somethin’ on your mind, Lang?” Principia asked.
“I just can’t help noticing,” Merry said with a scowl, “that every time I’m anywhere near you I get tangled up in Thieves’ Guild drama.”
“Wait, you were actually a member of the Thieves’ Guild?” Casey demanded, wide-eyed.
Principia shrugged. “Technically, I guess I still am, unless they decide to kick me out for some reason. I don’t owe them any dues as long as I’m not stealing anything, so… A member of good standing, even.”
“Then what’s that guy Darling want with you?” Merry demanded.
“Extended fallout from the debacle at Last Rock, I bet.”
“Glad that ruined someone else’s life,” she muttered. “I was starting to feel singled out.”
They filed into the cabin, Prin speaking as she went to her bunk.
“Anyway, this isn’t Thieves’ Guild drama. Whatever Darling wants I’m sure I can settle in a few minutes. The Guild is just the excuse for the real drama, here. You can blame me if it makes you feel better, but you might want to be careful. You’re just as much a target as I am.”
“Oh, hell no,” Merry said firmly. “I’ve made all my deals; that is behind me.”
“Not that,” Prin said patiently. “Come on, think about the timing. I’ve been in this temple complex for the past few months solid; the Guild didn’t know where I was. Nobody but the Sisterhood did. And yet, the very first time I poke my nose out, the Bishop himself lands in my lap?”
“I guess the Eserites are pretty quick on the uptake,” Farah said timidly. “At least…they have a reputation for being savvy.”
Principia shook her head. “That’s way beyond savvy. For them to get intelligence there has to be some first. I’d need to be spotted around the city for them to zero in on me; it would take time. Unless…”
“Oh, stop with the dramatic pauses and spit it out!” Merry exclaimed.
“Unless,” Prin said with a smile, “someone told them where to find me. Now, who do we know who has access to our duty schedule and can get ahold of a Bishop of the Universal Church on short notice, hmm? And here’s another thing. We got back here at the same time as the other squad. No runners were sent. Nobody had time to report this to Syrinx. She knew what had happened before she reasonably could have.”
“Why on earth would Bishop Syrinx try to set you up like that?” Ephanie demanded, frowning.
“That is what concerns me,” Principia said. “I don’t know that woman from a wart on my ass. She has no business with me that I can imagine. The only thing that makes me a target applies equally to all of you. It’s a continuation of what we’ve already seen: our understaffed squad, our apparent punishment duty at the Temple of Izara. She’s after us, for some reason. I suggest you all step very carefully.”
“Do you have any idea how paranoid you sound?” Merry snorted. “Bishop Syrinx is out to get us? That’s crazy.”
“Okay,” Prin said with a shrug. “If you can think of a more logical explanation for what happened today, I’d love to hear it. Bet I’d sleep better.”
A tense silence fell.
“Bishop Syrinx sponsored me to join the Legion,” Casey said in a small voice.
Principia sighed. “Elwick, with all respect to your sponsor—”
“With all respect to my sponsor,” Casey interrupted, “the difference between that woman and a rattlesnake is the serpent gives you fair warning. I’ll believe she’s capable of anything. No matter how shifty, or…cruel.”
“Something you want to share with us?” Merry asked warily.
Casey’s tone was curt. “No.”
“If she’s telling Thieves’ Guild people where our soldiers are, can we get her in trouble for that?” Farah suggested. “That has to be against some regulation, at least.”
“Not technically,” said Ephanie. “Only if we were on operations that involved the Guild, which guard duty at the Temple of Izara does not. It’s pretty common for guard postings at protectorate temples to go through the Church, actually. The priests often request squads or individuals they know and trust.”
“I’d advise you to drop that line of thinking,” Principia added. “We’ve already got enough trouble breathing down our necks. Trying to strike back at Syrinx would lead to nothing but disaster. Our best bet is to be the best soldiers we can and hope someone more reasonable in the chain of command reins her in.”
“But why?” Merry exclaimed. “Why would she do such a thing? None of us have done anything to her?” She paused, looking warily around the group. “…have we?”
A chorus of negations later, Casey cleared her throat. “I have a thought…”
“Yes?” Farah prompted.
“Well… Eserites are known to be crafty, right? And… I don’t know any of your stories, but… That is, this cohort is supposed to be training in politics, if they told us the truth. Suppose… What if we’re not being punished, but we were handpicked for this, and Syrinx doesn’t want us to succeed?”
Ephanie frowned deeply, saying nothing; the others looked thoughtful.
“What makes you think you’d be a pick for that, then?” Merry asked after a moment.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Casey said, averting her eyes.
Principia sighed. “If you think there’s a—”
“I don’t have to talk about it!” she said, her voice climbing. Casey paused, squeezing her eyes shut, and continued in a more normal tone. “It was just a thought, probably not even right. It’s just… I have no idea what’s going on. None of this makes any sense. Any theory has to be better than nothing.”
“A lot more harm is done by wrong belief than incompetent action,” said Ephanie thoughtfully. “Still…”
“Still,” said Prin, nodding, “it’s good to theorize. We need to keep our eyes and ears and minds open, girls. Something is going on here, obviously, and somebody means us harm. Hopefully it’s just Syrinx.”
“Bloody fucking hell,” Merry growled, leaning against her bunk. “Of all the shit I don’t need…”
“None of us need it,” Ephanie said sharply.
“Hey,” Farah said, straightening and turning to Prin. “Aren’t you supposed to be meeting Bishop Darling in the main sanctuary?”
Principia grinned and sat down on the empty bed beneath her own bunk. “Oh, there’s no rush. A little patience will do him good.”