8 – 14

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The old spice market of Tiraas was as rich in history as in smells. Originally a fortress of an old style like an inverted pyramid, the huge, almost cubic structure was ringed by thick walls, which at their base were wide enough to take up three quarters of the grounds, leaving only a relatively smaller open space in the center, which had once served as a parade ground and now was the main trading floor of the market. Each level of the walls narrowed and climbed outward as they rose, so that the structure which seemed perfectly square from without opened progressively toward the top on its inside, till the uppermost level was only a narrow path along the peak of the crenelated wall. Rooms that had once served as barracks, mess halls and armories were now shops, moneylending stalls, storerooms and private meeting areas.

And until ten years ago, the whole thing had been clenched in the iron fist of the Thieves’ Guild.

The Guild’s control had come about piecemeal and not really by design, through a sequence of events that saw them increasingly use the old spice market as a meeting ground, while also having to establish longer-term relationships than they normally liked with some merchant houses in order to recoup certain unwisely incurred debts. Bit by bit these things added up over nearly a century, until a cut of every major shipment of spices that passed through Tiraas went to line the coffers of the Guild. And spices were just like everything else: all roads led to, or through, Tiraas. It was an absurdly lucrative business, and once they had their hands on it, the Guild took full advantage.

Eventually, the cult of Verniselle lost patience with this encroachment into what they saw as their domain. An unprecedented joint campaign between the Vernisites and the Sisters of Avei saw the Guild pushed forcibly out of the spice market, through a combination of backroom financial manipulations and the insistent presence of Silver Legionnaires. At the height of the ensuing cold war, women in bronze armor made one of every three people in the old spice market at any time, and the bankers were so heavily leaning on the Thieves’ Guild’s assets that even the Imperial Casino suffered a severe drop in profits.

The unlikely alliance prevailed, in the end, liberating the spice trade of the entire continent from Eserite control, but the Guild extracted its pound of flesh.

There was an entrance into the old fort on each side, smaller ones to the north and south, but it had huge gates on its eastern and western sides. The building actually stood astride the main thoroughfare between the eastern gate of the city and Imperial Square; the path through the old spice market could not be missed. One morning, an ancient sword appeared thrust point-down into the capstone of its western arch, with a series of golden hoops and chains entangled around its blade. More to the point, they were entwined with powerful enchantments binding them to the arch itself—if removed, the entire gate, and possibly half the fortress, would collapse.

The odd-looking tangle of gold was the Links of Verniselle, similar in design and purpose to a metal blacksmith’s puzzle—but made by the goddess of money herself, and given to her mortal followers to be used in their rituals. The sword, a unique bastard sword unlike the leaf-bladed short swords favored by the Silver Legions, had been the weapon of Tathryn Alindivar, a Hand of Avei who had had a particularly illustrious career a thousand years ago. Quite apart from the fact that these artifacts had been secured deep in the vaults of their respective temples, it should have been impossible for any outsiders even to handle them without incurring the wrath of their goddesses. And yet, there they were, not only worked into the fortress but so inundated by arcane magic that their ancient blessings had been completely burned away.

It took furious behind-the-scenes effort by the Universal Church, as well as the Imperial government and the cults of Izara and Omnu, to prevent a full-scale crusade from erupting in the streets of Tiraas. In the end, though, the three cults involved retreated, unwilling to pursue the matter to its disastrous ultimate conclusion. The bankers of Verniselle freed a lucrative market for themselves, the Sisters of Avei asserted that criminal control of any part of the city would not be tolerated, and the Thieves’ Guild demonstrated that they were not to be crossed with impunity—by anyone. All benefited, but nobody won, and nobody was happy.

But nobody dared try to remove the sword, and the Imperial Surveyors quickly determined the enchantment holding the two artifacts to the archway was stable and not a danger unless tampered with, even classifying it as a bolstering of the old structure. Not long after, the Emperor proclaimed it a national monument, and that was pretty much that.

“Thanks for the history lesson,” Merry said dryly.

“I thought it was fascinating,” said Casey.

“It is!” Farah enthused. “History is always fascinating. When you meet someone who says they hate history, you know they had a terrible teacher at some point who made them memorize a bunch of names and dates without any context. It’s the stories, the people that make it so interesting! And especially in the way you can see how those events worked together to create the world we live in now. It’s absolutely amazing!”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so passionate about anything,” Ephanie noted with a smile.

“I wasn’t telling you the story just to pass the time, though,” Farah said, her expression growing more severe as she turned back to Principia. “There was a point to all that. Reminding any mixed group of Avenists and Eserites about the whole debacle is a great way to start a fight. And yet, here we are, five Silver Legionnaires in armor, meeting a member of the Thieves’ Guild in the old spice market. Are you sure this is wise?”

“Point of order,” said Merry, holding up a finger. “Not all of us are actually Avenists.”

“Actually, that is part of why I asked to meet him here,” said Principia with a smug little smirk, pausing to take a sip of her tea. “Darling is too smooth and too even-tempered to take this as a provocation—or to be provoked if he thought it was meant as one. Trust me, we’re safe in that regard. However, few people are his blend of sly and understanding, and so anyone looking for me to make connections with the Guild won’t be looking here. Also, there are those.”

She pointed to one of the glowing orbs illuminating the tea shop on the spice market’s uppermost level, where the fives Legionnaires had taken seats in one dark corner. It was nearly all dark corners, despite the fact that each booth had its own sconce. The place had clearly been designed for quiet conversations, filled with low walls and obscuring draperies and plants.

“The fairy lamps?” Merry drawled. “Well, I can imagine you’d be excited, ancient one. You see, we have these enchantments now that let us create light without having to burn—”

“Ordinary I’d let you ramble long enough to properly embarrass yourself,” Prin interrupted, “but he might be here any moment. Those have fairy lamps attached to them, Lang, but do you see how much bigger they are than normal ones? Especially considering how little light they put out. Those are scry blockers.”

“Is that… I didn’t know that was possible,” Ephanie said, frowning.

“Using one is tantamount to an admission that you’re up to no good,” Principia said with a grin, “but so is coming here. This place caters to people discussing sensitive business deals. Several times now, ladies, Syrinx has known where we would be with timing that exceeds the possibility of just using Covrin to spy on us and carry messages. No, she’s watching, somehow. I don’t want her watching this.”

“That’s absolutely horrifying,” Farah mumbled.

They all looked up as two familiar elves materialized out of the dimness of the tea shop, their expressions blank. One, wearing a black cloak, put her back to them and leaned against the side of their booth; the other, dressed in black leather, lounged against the wall opposite, taking out a huge knife and beginning to clean her fingernails.

Before the soldiers could comment, Bishop Darling himself arrived, bowing elegantly to them.

“Prin! Always a pleasure, my dear. And privates, good to see all of you again. Several I believe I’ve met before.” He smiled at Ephanie, who pursed her lips and said nothing.

“Always a pleasure?” Principia said dryly. “If you’re going to tell bald-faced lies, I’m gonna have a hard time trusting you.”

Darling laughed. “Nonsense, if I didn’t tell lies, that’s what you would distrust, and rightly so. Mind if I have a seat?”

“Please,” said Casey, smiling up at him.

“All joshing aside,” Principia said more seriously as Darling folded his long frame into the booth next to her, “I do appreciate you seeing us. We’re in a bit of a bind.”

“Not at all, I always have time for friends and business relations in need,” he said, helping himself to a cup of tea. “What can I do you for?”

“The issue is we’re having trouble with Bishop Syrinx,” said Farah.

Darling grimaced. “Doesn’t everyone?”

“We think she’s trying to kill us!”

“Not kill us,” Merry said, frowning at Farah. “Don’t exaggerate the issue, Szaravid.”

“She is definitely trying to get us booted out of the Legions, or worse,” said Casey.

Ephanie cleared her throat. “If I may? Rather than making him sort through this chatter, here’s what happened from the beginning.”

Her delivery was succinct and clipped, but thorough, every bit the soldier delivering a report. The others fell silent as she spoke, having nothing to add to her account, and Darling listened intently. As complex as the matter had become, it had only been going on less than a week, and Ephanie was finished in a relatively few minutes.

There came a short pause after she spoke.

“I see,” Darling said at last, frowning pensively. “And what is it you’re asking of me, ladies?”

“Not to intervene,” Merry said quickly. “I somehow think that kind of help would only cause us more trouble in the long run. Locke thinks you might have some…advice.”

“Well, when it comes to skulduggery, I doubt I have anything to teach you that Principia can’t,” he said with a wry grin. “She’s been at it longer than I’ve been alive.”

“In general terms, yes, but we’re caught in a position where we can’t really engage her that way,” Prin said. “That is the problem. There’s a lot more going on here than just Syrinx and us; based on what we know, there’s no reason for her to be doing this at all, much less to be putting so much effort into it. She’s taking some serious risks just to get a handful of fresh privates drummed out of the Legion. You know the city, Sweet, and you know Syrinx herself. You have access to a lot of sensitve matters way above our pay grade. What do you think?”

“I think,” he said thoughtfully, “you lot are in very big trouble.”

“That’s just fabulous,” Merry groused while the others glanced apprehensively at each other. “Thanks ever so much for that.”

“I’m not trying to spook you,” Darling said with a faint smile. “But Prin is right: to understand what’s happening here, you need to gain a bit of perspective. Tell me, have any of you considered the question of why an individual like Basra Syrinx is the Avenist Bishop to the Universal Church? She doesn’t seem the type, does she?”

“I certainly have,” Casey muttered.

“It’s not generally worthwhile to wonder about things like that,” Merry snorted. “Nothing good comes of it. The answers aren’t for the likes of us, and if you wonder aloud you sometimes get punished for it.”

“It’s like this,” Darling said seriously, folding his hands on the table and gazing around at them. “Bishops are appointed by their respective cults, but have to be approved to their rank by the Archpope. It’s always a delicate balance, finding a person who fulfills the requirements of both, and gets dicier the more tense things are between a cult and the Church. What, then, do you think it says that the Avenist Bishop is a person who’s chiefly interested in her own agenda, rather than that of the Sisters or the Universal Church?”

Casey straightened up in her seat. “It means the Sisters aren’t on good terms with the Church right now.”

Darling grinned at her. “Very good! You have a sharp mind.”

“Apparently I don’t,” Merry complained. “I don’t see the connection there. Also, what’s this about Syrinx’s agenda? None of us have any idea what she really wants.”

“Well, for that…just take my word for now,” Darling said. “That woman is on her own side, period; any other loyalties she has are conditional. That makes her a suitable link between the Church and the Sisterhood in a time when their motives are at cross purposes, because she is a compromise.”

“Basically,” added Principia, looking at Merry, “she’s not loyal to the Archpope or the High Commander, which means they can each use her against the other. In theory.”

“And what that means for you,” Darling said more grimly, “is that you absolutely cannot afford to make Commander Rouvad choose between you. She didn’t put Basra in that position without knowing what she was dealing with. The politics of the situation mean she cannot remove Basra except at urgent need, because that would leave the cult of Avei temporarily without a voice in the Church until a new Bishop is approved. That would take time—maybe not much time, as Justinian can’t drag the proceedings out forever, but plenty of time for him to do any number of things Rouvad may want to prevent.”

“What kind of things?” Farah asked warily.

“Hell if I know,” Darling said with a shrug. “The inner politics of the Sisterhood are rather opaque to me. But I can see the shape of her relationship with the Church. If it comes down to Basra or you, Rouvad won’t choose you. In her position, she has basically no choice.”

“Fuck,” Merry said feelingly.

“So, what, we just have to sit here and take it?” Casey demanded. “We can’t keep fending her off! For whatever reason she’s determined to get rid of us. She’s gonna do it if this goes on much longer!”

“Well, it sounds like a big part of your problem is you don’t understand her motives or desires,” Darling mused. “So…have a good think on that. Consider the situation carefully. The Church and the Sisters are at cross purposes, your cohort is training to produce political operatives, and there’s Basra Syrinx right in the middle of it all. Put yourself in her position, as much in her mind as you can. Be Bishop Syrinx, and think about what you want and what you have to do to get it.”

“Okay,” said Merry, closing her eyes and rubbing at her temples. “I’m Basra Syrinx. Hmm… I feel a sudden hunger for human flesh. Is that normal?”

Casey and Farah both snickered loudly; Ephanie rolled her eyes.

“Syrinx has an ideal position to influence politics one way or the other,” Principia said, frowning. “I didn’t know that, about how Bishops are promoted… But if she’s working her own angle, she couldn’t be in a better place. She’s basically the only person the Sisterhood has who’s affecting city and Imperial politics on any significant scale. And now… Rouvad launches an initiative to train more people to be able to do her job.”

“Holy shit,” Casey whispered, her eyes widening. “We’re her potential replacements.”

“Maybe not replacements,” Darling said, nodding approvingly at her, “but at the very least, if this project succeeds, she will have competition and a whole host of other problems to contend with. Other operatives, more loyal to the Sisterhood, could find out details about whatever she’s doing n her own time and make her life very difficult. And in the end, there is the chance Rouvad would find one of you a better candidate for her position.”

“She can’t let us succeed,” Ephanie whispered, staring into space with something very akin to horror on her face. “She can’t. We have to go, or she does.”

“And we can’t fight her, and we can’t rely on the High Commander to reign her in…” Farah planted her elbows on the table, clutching her head and staring frantically at the wall. “Oh, we are so screwed.”

“There’s also this about your cohort,” Darling continued grimly. “Ladies, you’ve been fed a line of bullshit about what you’re doing.”

“Hell, we know that,” Merry snorted. “Syrinx got up in front of us on day one and made this rambling speech full of contradictions and empty nonsense.”

“It’s high time Rouvad did something to bring her forces into the modern era,” Darling continued, “but the shape this initiative is taking is ridiculous. Training an entire cohort of Legionnaires to be political operatives? Idiocy. No, what I would do in her position is take a neophyte cohort and give them assignments that would both test and possibly encourage their aptitudes in that direction if they had any.”

“So far, that’s what they’ve done,” Farah said with a frown.

Darling nodded. “And then, rather than selecting likely candidates for officer positions as Syrinx claims is the goal with your cohort, I would pull them out of it, route them into a separate program and train them up specifically. More to the point, I would absolutely not lump my best prospects into one little squad.”

There was a beat of silence. Across the aisle from them, Fauna looked up from trimming her nails and grinned.

“Excuse me, best prospects?” Merry demanded. “Us? You’re joking.”

“I don’t know all your histories,” Darling said, spreading his hands and smiling, “but what I do know establishes a pattern. Principia Locke, brilliant con artist and Thieves’ Guild veteran. Meredith Lang, former frontier adventurer. Farah Szaravid, not necessarily of a cunning mindset, but definitely more intellectual and highly educated, having been an acolyte of Nemitoth.”

Casey caught his eye and shook her head, minutely but frantically.

“With that percentage,” Darling continued smoothly, “I don’t need to know what’s up with the rest of you to deduce two things: you are the women considered most likely to produce the kind of skills this program needs, and sticking you together was a terrible idea. The mix of backgrounds and aptitudes on display here is a recipe for lethal personality clashes at least.”

“That was her gambit,” Ephanie said slowly. “Or rather, the opening move. Lump us together and hope we hate each other enough to wreck ourselves.”

“Well, shit, I only hate this one,” Merry drawled, jerking her head in Principia’s direction. “I feel like I’m falling down on the job.”

“Oh, you don’t hate me,” Prin said, grinning. “You’re just tetchy. Hate is something I could actually manipulate.”

“I think…” Farah trailed off and swallowed when they all turned to look at her, but squared her shoulders and continued. “I think I understand what’s happening, then. Why she’s trying so hard to put us down, considering what she risks if she’s caught. Not turning on each other in the first place wasn’t just a failure of her plan, it was the worst thing that could have happened. Now we’re actually doing well, working as a unit and supporting each other. That makes it much more likely we’ll succeed.”

“Bingo,” Darling said quietly, nodding at her.

“So basically, we’re fucked,” Merry said. “Hell with it. I say we jump her in an alley.”

“Now, hold on,” Darling said soothingly. “There’s something else for you to consider. How is Basra manipulating affairs in the Sisterhood to set these traps for you, much less keeping track of your movements?”

“Arranging that order for court martials if we failed to report for duty had to have taken some doing,” Ephanie mused. “Something as outlandish as that wouldn’t ordinarily get through the chain of command.”

“Plus there’s the way she knows where we’re going to be, what we’ve done and always has Covrin positioned to give the orders to the right people,” Principia added. “That’s scrying.”

“You’re sure she hasn’t just set up traps for us?” Casey asked. “It’s not like we don’t know she’s good at that.”

“I know a thing or two about setting up traps myself,” said Principia, shaking her head, “and while it’s very doable, getting the timing that precise is not. No, she has more information than she could get through mundane means. Even the idea that one of us is working for her wouldn’t do; nobody has had the chance in any of those situations to report to her.”

“Fuck, I hadn’t even thought of that,” Merry growled. “Thank you so much for putting that idea in my head, Locke.” Prin grinned broadly at her.

“So, she’s pulling just all kinds of strings,” said Darling, “not to mention using illegal magical surveillance. Even what she’s done within the Sisterhood itself has to have involved outside influences of some kind, unless you’re willing to believe your chain of command has built-in loopholes for people like Basra to manipulate.”

“If anything, the Silver Legions’ command structure is designed to limit that kind of nonsense as much as possible,” said Ephanie emphatically. “The thing that has consistently stuck out in my mind is how bizarre it is that she’s getting away with causing the kind of damage she is to our cohort.”

“What good does that do us?” Merry demanded. “We’ve established that we can neither fight her politically nor lie down at take it. Who cares how she’s doing this if we can’t do anything about it?!”

“You aren’t the ones who’ll be doing anything,” Darling said quietly. “There are two more matters you haven’t considered. First of all, me.”

“You?” Farah asked warily after a short pause.

He stared at them solemnly. “I work quite closely with Basra, as it happens, and I know very well what a piece of work she is. Probably better than you do, in fact.”

“Not better than all of us,” Casey muttered.

He glanced at her, but continued in the same quiet tone. “The fact is, I have my own agendas and needs, and they involve not putting Basra Syrinx out of commission. As much of a headache as she can be, I need her.”

They all stared at him in silence for a moment.

“Headache?” Farah burst out at last. “She’s a monster!”

“She’s a predictable monster, which means I can deal with her. And as I said, I need her help with several things. She and I are involved in projects that really cannot be allowed to be disrupted.”

“Isn’t this just typical,” Merry said bitterly.

“I’m not finished,” Darling continued implacably. “The other factor you haven’t taken into account—well, four of you haven’t—is the Thieves’ Guild, which means my concerns may become irrelevant.”

“What about the Guild?” Ephanie asked warily.

“We were just discussing how Basra is clearly using outside resources in her campaign against you,” he said, leaning back in his chair and grimacing. “Where do you think those came from?”

Farah frowned. “Surely…she wouldn’t work with the Guild.”

“Directly? Hell, no.” Darling shook his head. “We wouldn’t work with her if she asked, especially not for some inner Sisterhood cloak-and-dagger like this. But the Guild doesn’t tightly control most of what its members do. The kinds of resources we’re talking about, the ability to move paperwork around, maintain surveillance…possibly cause enough privates to fail to appear for duty in another cohort that an over-the-top new regulation gets imposed about that? Anybody in this city who can accomplish stuff like that pays tithes to Eserion.

“And then there’s the scrying. The Guild doesn’t employ mages, not directly, but that kind of surveillance is illegal. That means neither the Wizards’ Guild nor the cult of Salyrene would be involved with it. There are, of course, black market mages who’ll do such work, but the middlemen who would put a fine, upstanding citizen like Basra Syrinx in touch with them also owe allegiance to the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Well…what of it?” Merry asked, frowning.

Darling heaved a sigh. “As Principia here very well knows, bringing all this to my attention is the first step to getting Basra off your case. Really, I could have spared taking the time to give you all advice, except that I firmly believe in helping people to solve their own problems any way they can. Knowledge is always better than the lack of knowledge. But what we have here is someone using Thieves’ Guild resources to attack a member of the Guild. Having been told of it, I can’t let this go. I now have to take it to the Boss, and my own business with Basra be damned.” He gave Principia an extremely flat look.

She smiled prettily, batted her eyelashes, and shrugged.

“Hang on,” Casey objected, “if it’s Guild people doing this for her, how does the Guild not already know?”

“Because, as I said, she’s employing specific people to do specific work,” he said, “and most of them won’t have a full picture of what’s happening. People who work on a contract basis under the table do not ask prying questions. Still, though, you’re right; there have to be a few who know that Prin is the focus of this. Business is business, but once the Guild leadership starts making noises about putting a stop to it, they’ll be tripping over themselves to be helpful.”

“No honor amongst thieves, huh,” Merry said with a grin.

“Honor,” Darling said with a smile, “is morality for thinking people. It’s a code that means you remain true to yourself, and do not test your powers against those too weak to offer you a challenge. Honor is, indeed, how thieves manage to get along with each other. In fact, Eserites are strongly encouraged to keep honing our skills against worthy targets, which frequently means each other.” He shrugged. “Pranks of this nature are downright commonplace within the Guild. Considering that the worst case scenario, as far as any of these contractors know, is sabotaging Prin’s career in the Legions, not harming her personally, I highly doubt anyone would have qualms. Like I said, matters become different when it turns out an outsider has been pitting members of the Guild against each other on an organized basis. That can’t be tolerated.”

“Holy shit,” Merry said, straightening up. “Are you gonna….what, bump her off?”

“I have no objection to that,” Casey muttered.

“We are not going to assassinate a Bishop of the Universal Church,” Darling said in exasperation. “You read too many novels, kid. Even the Guild respects powers of that caliber. No, it won’t need to go that far. It will take a little time…maybe more than a little, actually. Inquiries have to be made; the Boss will need to find out who has been doing what. Should go fairly quickly once the enforcers are sent out with pointed questions, but still, it’s a matter of finding the right people and bringing them on board, which won’t happen overnight.”

He heaved a deep sigh. “Somehow I need to ensure whatever happens to Basra doesn’t remove her entirely from the playing field, but I doubt it’ll even come to that. The Boss may do nothing but send Commander Rouvad a full set of evidence on what she’s been doing. Rouvad, as I said, can’t be too harsh with Basra, but she can certainly put a stop to something like this if she gets proof it’s going on. No, ladies, you just need to hold the line a while longer. Basra Syrinx is about to have much bigger problems than you.”

“Somehow,” Casey said darkly, “I doubt it’ll be that simple for us.”

“Oh, you’re right about that,” Darling replied with grim amusement. “It will be neither simple nor easy. When the pressure starts mounting, what do you think she’s more likely to do: back off, or double down?”

“Fucking hell,” Merry spat. “You’re gonna get us killed!”

“You should maybe have a talk with Prin, here, about trying to manipulate the Guild with your own fates on the line,” he said with a sweet smile.

“Oh, come on!” Principia protested. “Give me a little credit, Sweet, if I were trying to manipulate you, you wouldn’t know it!”

“That isn’t helping!” Merry snapped.

“Enough,” Ephanie said. She didn’t raise her voice, but her tone brought the burgeoning argument to a halt. “Locke, you should have been more up front with us about this. However… I can’t think of a single other thing we could have done. This is our best chance. Can any of you?”

She panned her gaze around the table; no one offered a comment, though Darling helped himself to a scone.

“Then here we are,” Ephanie said firmly. “Now we need to worry about lasting through whatever Syrinx does before the Guild leverages whatever they find on her.”

“We could…blackmail her,” Casey said, barely above a whisper.

“With what?” Merry demanded acidly.

Casey swallowed heavily. “The night… Um, on the night the Black Wreath tried to assassinate the Bishops…”

Principia blinked. “Excuse me? The Black Wreath did what?”

“I think that was supposed to be classified,” Darling commented.

Casey sighed. “Yes, well, it happened. Basra was one of the targets; four warlocks attacked her home. I know, because I was there. Covrin and I both were.”

“She took out four warlocks?” Ephanie demanded, raising her eyebrows.

“They weren’t particularly good warlocks,” Casey said. “But still…yeah. Sorry, Lang, but jumping her in an alley would have been a terrifically bad idea.”

“Duly noted,” Merry muttered.

“What were you doing in her house?” Principia asked quietly.

Casey heaved another sigh, her gaze fixed on the tablecloth. “I was…sleeping next door. Well, I wasn’t sleeping. She put me there so I could hear what was going on. She was in bed…with Covrin.”

There was a moment’s silence.

“Well, that’s certainly an inappropriate relationships,” Ephanie said at last, “but I doubt it’s strong enough to blackmail her with. We’d probably just make her angry, which does not seem smart.”

“I…didn’t realize Covrin was into women,” Farah said, frowning. “I mean, in the training barracks… You could usually tell who swung that way, even if they didn’t make advances. Stuff came up.”

“I am pretty sure Covrin is not into women,” Casey said grimly. “That was why… It was targeted at both of us, Covrin to…y’know…and me forced to hear it. She knew she wasn’t going to get me into bed, but Covrin… Syrinx isolated her all through training. The DS wouldn’t tolerate behavior like Covrin’s from anyone else, but because Basra sheltered her, she got through it without shaping up. Didn’t realize until too late that she was alone, that her entire unit hated her guts, and there was nobody she could turn to except Basra. So…she hosted us overnight on some pretext—I don’t even remember—just to remind us both that…” She swallowed heavily. “That, basically, she owned our asses.”

“Holy…” Farah gulped, looking sick. “That’s… I never thought I would say this, but… Poor Covrin.”

“If this is true, it’s an incredibly serious matter,” Ephanie said, glaring furiously. “We’re talking about some of the central tenets of Avei’s faith. Syrinx could be executed if it came to light.”

“Covrin won’t testify against her,” Casey said wearily.

“Why the hell not?” Merry exclaimed.

“The thing about abusive relationships,” Principia said with a grimace, “is that if you do it right—and I have no trouble believing Syrinx knows how—the abuser gets into their victim’s head, twines themselves all around their whole identity. Elwick’s right; I bet Covrin will defend her, no matter how badly she’s being mistreated.”

“That is fucked up,” Merry whispered.

“After that…” Casey shrugged. “I happened to meet several Bishops the night I first met Basra. I saw Bishop Snowe on a poster, remembered her and wrote to her. She put me in touch with Bishop Darling.” She nodded gratefully to him; he gave her a warm smile in return. “He took care of…what Syrinx was holding over me. She never actually spoke to me after that, but I seriously doubt she was happy. After all, here I am, with you guys.”

“Bishop Darling,” Ephanie said firmly. “With all due respect to your own objectives, I think it’s clear we need to take this woman down.”

He shrugged. “Be my guest, Private; nothing you can bring to bear is going to damage her unduly. You’re only going to call wrath down on your heads by trying. For the time being, let the Guild and Commander Rouvad handle this.”

Ephanie looked disgruntled. “I suppose,” she said. “For the time being.”

“You’re both right,” said Principia. “We need to survive the current crisis. But after that… Syrinx is not going to forget about us. If we succeed, there’s going to be a grudge there.” She smiled coldly. “I say we make sure it goes two ways. And if the Guild and Rouvad can put a stop to her game, we are still the best prospects for our cohort’s mission, remember? Given time, the tables will turn. Basra Syrinx will live to regret creating the enemies she has here.”

Bishop Darling leaned back in his chair, nibbling on a scone, his expression unreadable.

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26 thoughts on “8 – 14

  1. My thanks to everyone helping to promote this serial! I appreciate whoever Plurked me again; the site’s had a bunch of hits from Plurk.com. Also to the Redditors over at the Novel Translations group–since they’ve been regularly discussing TGaB over there, some days the hits have exceeded those from topwebfiction.com, which has usually been my biggest referrer.

    So! In other news, behold the new and improved Table of Contents! Bonus chapters have been moved to their own category at the end, to make it look cleaner. Also, the books of TGaB now have titles, and the contents page features a summary of each.

    As the story’s gotten dauntingly long, I’ve been trying to think of ways to make it more approachable to new readers. I think the new ToC is a good step in that direction. I also added a short author’s note to the prologue, at Unmaker’s suggestion, concerning the fact that the first few chapters are definitely the slowest in the story. Next on the agenda, though it’s a longer-term project, is getting some new art for the site. The Internet is such a visual place, I think having a bare-bones site like this one isn’t doing me any favors.

    Anyhow, hope you enjoy the chapter! See you Wednesday!

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    1. I’m not quite sure that the site being bare-bones is a negative thing – yeah, the internet is a visual place, but this is a story in written form, so the focus is definitely on translating symbols into meaning, and background colours and visual art do distract from that. I’m not saying the site banner at the top couldn’t do with some eye-candy, but personally I vastly prefer layouts that err on the side of caution to hallucination-inducing nineties style.

      One thing I was looking for at some point was a map, the world you have created is too vast for me to memorize enough connection details to create a coherent idea in my head.
      Ok, I have that vague image of basically australia with the golden sea where the outback would be, but that might just come from that one passage that led me to assume this was a southern-hemisphere continent.
      I can understand that putting a complete map out there limits the ability to make up extra features further along, but something like a bare conceptual map showing the positions of Tiraas, Last Rock, Calderas and Onkawa would be really nice for the geographically-minded folks like myself.

      And while I’m shamelessly demanding artwork, five bucks will be donated by me for a wallpaper with the rendition of “Rafe, shirtless, playing a lute and kicking a rearing dragon between the legs. Framed by lightning bolts. “

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    2. I like the new Table of Contents… although the short summaries contain spoilers. Maybe a spoiler warning at the very top of the page would help?

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    3. i was wondering when the shoe would drop on what basra was really capable of, because if the headhunters were right then the only thing standing in the way of her performing some real horrors would be her own preferences and situational awareness.

      i almost regret wondering now.

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    4. I like clean designs. I only have one minor quibble with the design – the bonus chapters were actually created in places that made sense, i.e. late enough that they enriched the story without providing spoilers. Read too early, they might be a bit spoiler-y and less appreciated. Read too late and the details might have come out in the story anyway. So my preference would be to have them in the order published.

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      1. I agree with this. Lots of times I read stories by opening pages in new tabs from the table of contents, and am forced to read bonus chapters last because I don’t know where they’re supposed to be. They’re best left at the points where they were written.

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    5. ““And we can’t fight her, and we can’t rely on the High Commander to reign her in…””

      should be rein, not reign. They would like the High Commander to exert control over the Bishop, not promote her to royal authority.

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  2. I would have to agree with theo promes about the design aspects of the site. The internet may indeed be a very visual place, but for any written story the focus should be on that story. Excessive visual embellishment just distracts from that and quickly gets irritating rather than pleasing to the eye.

    So yes, by all means throw in some nice banner art, since that won’t distract from the story at all, but other than that, I think the site is fine as is. Well, that’s to say, I suppose you could tweak the background colour a bit. Although black type on a white background is very commonly used, a background that doesn’t contrast quite as starkly with the type is actually a lot easier on the eyes.

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  3. I have to disagree with Archidel on the black-and-white thing. I find reading black text on a white background to be a refreshing change from some of the other web serials I read. White on dark grey or dark brown kills my eyes.

    That said, I agree with theo and Archidel about the banner art. Pretty/interesting banner art might attract more readers from topwebfiction, as long as it reflects the story. The Golden Sea banner you have at the moment only really reflects the first couple of books, and then only some groups of characters (like the students). It’s a very gun-slinging-Western style banner, but the story is a lot more complicated than that kind of genre implies.

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  4. This chapter is just… sickening. A lot of people say Basra is a terrible person, but we don’t really get a lot of evidence about her DOING terrible things until now.

    I think a site like wildbow’s Twig would look nice, with the main text in the middle and textures at the side, with cool banner art. I can try my hand at a new banner next week during my hols (don’t feel obliged to use it if it doesn’t turn out well), to reflect more current chapters, like CK suggests. Any ideas for a new banner?

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    1. I’d love to have some fan-made art to post on the site! Actually, though, I am working on another banner myself. It needs an updated logo, for one thing; the one up there I threw together in half an hour, and it doesn’t quite satisfy me. Also I’m putting together a banner with an actual depiction of scenery from the story; the current one is a public domain photo I scrounged from the internet.

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  5. Typos:

    skulduggery
    skullduggery
    (I think – two spell checkers disagree)

    sensitve
    sensitive

    n her own time
    on her own time

    reign her in
    rein…

    an inappropriate relationships
    an inappropriate relationship

    Reactions:

    I nominate Prin as the next representative for Avei to the Universal Church! That would shake some things up – if nothing else, Sweet would get a monumental headache just from thinking about it.

    “trust the chain of command” doesn’t work if the person on top of it will not do anything effective about Basra. Things got uglier indeed.

    There’s “train people to be political creatures” and there’s “successor to the current Bishop”. Normally, the position of Bishop seems to sensitive to have lower-rank troops in it. Why isn’t the Sisterhood taking a mid-ranker with a better position and knowledge than most and training them? Unless you want failure, you don’t throw minimally-trained people into the political shark tank. Prin might survive, but the others wouldn’t. That seems to be a hole in Sweet’s explanation. Maybe Prin can be the Bishop and the others can be support staff?

    Oh hey, if Basra gets rejected from her position, maybe she can be another of Justinian’s ‘recruits’. He sure hasn’t hesitated to employ other sociopaths.

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    1. you don’t know the military that well if you think you can take an army personal after boot camp and training for lets say navel warfare and place them in a training program for political success. It can be done but the road is far harder than taking a fresh recruit and training them from the start. the military is designed to break people and then mold them to fit like a cog in a particular position, it gets harder and harder to reshape a person each time they are “broken in” the military doesn’t just train you to kill people it warps the way you think, the habits you live with, your everyday actions and thoughts. someone in a midrank position is already broken and aimed towards soldiering duty you have to undo a lot of the training they had which is often considerably harder than grabbing a new recruit.

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  6. a common theme i’ve been noticing from webb.
    every time you want to make someone a villain or a bad guy you just throw in the “oh they are a rapist”. i wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of it justinian is a rapist.
    the green dragon, planed to brainwash and rape a village of elves, thumper willing to use sexual violence to keep someone in line, basra uses psychological ploys and political ploys to corner someone into submitting to sexual advances.
    If you remove the implication of rapist from all these characters, what did they do wrong?
    the green dragon wanted to overthrow the human government, so does mary the crow and she is portrayed pretty positively.
    I’d almost say this a like a godwins law, but instead of hitler its rapists.
    not saying rapists are good, they are vile shitty people. This is meant as constructive critism. the moment you reveal a character in a book as a rapist, everything they do gets told from that perspective, they volunteer at a homeless shelter so what they are a rapist. your villains are getting defined by their acts or actions and not their motivations or plans. nothing wrong with that in itself but its happening frequently. please expand on why we should hate basra a little more.

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    1. I both agree and disagree with the assessment.

      On the one hand, yes, sexual violence as a stand-in for villainy or drama is highly overdone in fiction, it is very easy to overdo it, and TGAB does flirt with that line. To be honest, if I hadn’t come here on the recommendation of a friend whose taste and sensibilities I trust, I would have tabbed out without a second thought when Thumper first threatened Prin–like I said, a lot of writers use sexual violence simply as a sort of cheap dramatic flavor, and I need some reason to trust a writer before I feel I can safely assume that isn’t the reason it’s been included in a story.

      On the other hand, in this case, I’m pretty sure I know what Webb is doing with the sexual violence. In each case, it’s a symptom of the same problem: the lack of respect for another’s personhood. On the one end, Basra, whom we’ve been told for quite a while now is a total sociopath (coming from a background in psychology, I’m rather critical of that term myself, but it wasn’t used within the narrative so I’ll leave it aside for now) but have until now only seen hints of it in her actions. On the other end, Khadizroth, who is respected among his kind for his sense of honor and whose major crime of the subjugation of the remnants of the Cobalt Dawn tribe is seen by those who know him as deeply anomalous to his character. And then Thumper, a run-of-the-mill misogynist, who simply views women as objects.

      We’ve been given reason to sympathize with each of these characters, in my opinion. Khadizroth has a sort of wounded nobility to him that’s rather compelling, while Basra has the charisma of an unrepentant badass jerk. And we spent the subplot of an entire book following Thumper around and seeing the world from his eyes as he was masterfully manipulated by a female sex demon, in a turn of poetic justice.

      Is the use of sexual violence here justified? Well, that’s probably subjective. For me, the distaste towards it is still there, but so far my enjoyment of the story has outweighed that, and Webb’s otherwise demonstrated sensitivity towards gender issues has made me more likely to give the benefit of the doubt.

      Like

      1. Personally, I don’t mind it, but that’s doubtlessly in no small part because I don’t think I’ve read many things, if any, where making a character a rapist was used a trick to make them instantly evil. And just from my perspective of reading the story, the Green Dragon is a better person than Mary, he was just forced against his will to work with the evil people while Mary decided the good guys would be the winning team and wanted to be on the winning team regardless of moral opinions.

        Like

    2. Was Basra a nice or good person until this chapter? Definitely not. Was she bloodthirstly and prone to violence and cruelty? Yes. She didn’t feel any mercy or remorse for her victims, even when they were kids. Each time she’s in combat, each time she kills someone, she reveals her dark side.

      Did adding her treatment of Covrin change anything about her personality? Wasn’t she a villain already? If Casey hadn’t said anything, if we didn’t know what Basra did to a recruit… would she be a different person right now? NOPE.

      Saying that the rape makes Basra a villain is a very weak and flimsy argument. It expands what we know and think of her, it adds to her crimes… but it is far from the only thing she did.

      The green dragon isn’t a rapist. Oh sure, he has his cult of personality and used it to brainwash children into devoted followers who would bear his offspring once they were of age. Flora and Fauna intervened, he never had intercourse with any of the elves so the argument of him raping anyone is moot. Even if he did, it would be a very murky and grey area.

      Thumper threatened to rape Principia but never did. No one knows if he ever went that far with another woman but I doubt it. So, not a rapist either.

      So… assuming what Casey said is the truth this story features a grand total of one rapist. It’s not a trend or common theme. Unless you want to count all the centaurs but they haven’t done anything like that in the story either.

      We have a long list of villains and shady persons in this story and almost none of them are even connected to rape. Elilial, Embras Mogul, Madeleine, Mary the Crow, Rowe, the Jackal, Justinian, Kheshiri… not to mention all of the Thieves Guild, all the dragons and all the demons in hell. No matter how evil they are, none of them are even accused of rape or shown to be involved with sexual abuse on others. Kheshiri is kind of a victim of it, if she wasn’t initiating and enjoying it.

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      1. I’m late to the conversation, having been at work all day, but I find Daemion has said everything I would have on this subject.

        There actually are a couple of examples that I think come closer to rape than any of these. Shook’s relationship with Kheshiri is one in which she cannot withhold consent; likewise, there’s what Chase and Jerome tried to do to Juniper. These, however, are complicated by the nature of the fantasy. It’s not in the nature of Vanislaad demons to withhold consent anyway, and they use sex to manipulate and control victims, as Kheshiri is actively doing to Shook. Coercing a succubus that way is giving her the advantage. In the real world, his hold on her would be a straightforward case of sex slavery; in this one, their relationship is a lot more mutual, and if anything more disturbing. Chase and Jerome, also, were under the impression that dryads existed in a state of perpetual consent, and didn’t try again after being corrected.

        As Hoarous pointed out, none of these were done for shock value–the common thread is personhood, and lack of respect thereof. Chase and Jerome made it clear in their dialogue that they didn’t regard Juniper as a real person. Shook specifically thinks of Kheshiri as an object, even more than he does of women in general.

        Though several characters have walked right up to the line, in my opinion Basra’s treatment of Jenell Covrin is the first example of rape in this story. Some feminists would argue that I’m splitting hairs, a position I can understand, but that’s what I think.

        I sort of see how someone could get this impression. Sexism is one of the underlying themes of the story, and it’s not really possible to explore that with any honesty unless you touch upon sexual violence. I am very leery of using rape as a plot device, and the few times I’ve come close, it was because the actions suited the characters, not because I was trying to shock or horrify anyone just for the sake of it.

        It certainly is not the calling card of villains in TGaB. As Daemion said, most of the antagonists and villainous protagonists in the story have no inclinations in that direction. In fact, one of the most interesting villains to me is Alan Vandro, who is nakedly, virulently sexist, and yet never does anything worse to women than speak disparagingly of them behind their backs. He works with and employs women, treats them fairly (Amanika) and rewards their good work (Saduko), despite his stated belief that women are all inherently up to no good. That contrast is what’s interesting to me. Were he simply a lusty, grabby-handed molester, he would be a dull and trite character.

        For Basra in particular, this is another nail in the coffin, not by any means the first sign of how vile a person she is. To me, her establishing character moment was when she stabbed a teenager through the gut without any emotional reaction, then was bemused and dismissive when her companions were outraged about it. I thin, if anything, the belief of some readers that this is a new depth of heartlessness for her is proof that she’s a successful character. Psychopaths are horrifying not because they are sniggering supervillains, but because they aren’t. Basra seems so normal so much of the time we seem to forget she smilingly murdered that demon, minutes after attempting to do so to a young boy.

        I seriously debated including this in the story. In the end… While I do have themes I like to discuss (I should think that’s obvious by now), and I do believe fiction can be a vehicle for teaching, the point of TGaB has never been to make a message. It’s a story, a fantasy, and the truth of the story comes first. Basra did this to Jenell because…that is what she would do. It’s disgusting, yes; that’s the point.

        And for the record, this is about as close to the “action” in question as we’re ever going to get. I don’t much care for including explicit depictions of sex in my work (not on any moral grounds, I just don’t think it ever yields enough plot or character development for the time spent), but I am definitely not going to depict a rape, ever. Things may happen in the story if the story needs them, but there are things that will have to happen off screen because I personally can’t stomach writing them out.

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      2. your getting into an argument of is premeditated rape just as bad as real rape. also i never considered basra villainous before this arc. definitely an uncaring, the means justify the ends personality. if its me or them i will chose me kind of person definitely. never saw her as blatantly abusive or cruel before this arc, and i probably wouldn’t have until she was a rapist.
        a very large amount of who you listed off as villains are not even villains. most of them are up in the air cause we haven’t even seen where the coin is going to fall yet. elilial, embras, rowe, and kheshiri are the only ones that have been outright labeled bad guys by other characters in that list, and even then we don’t even know if they are the bad guys, heck we don’t even know for sure if justinian is a bad guy, most of it is all assumptions that they are the bad guys. the other shoe hasn’t dropped yet and we still have no concrete idea what the end game for any of these characters is, or where the lines will be drawn in the sand when the time comes. the only characters that in general have been outright hated or treated as outright villains that needed to be taken down immediately so far have been those three mentioned, the centaurs, and rowe. and rowe didnt need to be taken down for being a villain either he was just in the way of them completing the crawl..
        I really enjoy how the characters are fluid in morality, how it makes it difficult to really pin point who is the evil ones on the scale really are, but when it comes time to decide that they are evil, rape is a pretty solid nail in the coffin.
        basra is probably going to get kicked out and taken into justinians building army of rejects.

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      3. With regards to Chase and Gerome’s misconception about Dryads–yes, this is a fantasy, but that kind of misconception can and does happen in the real world. I know I’ve personally encountered some very strange and disturbing assumptions about my sexuality on account of my ethnicity, and I’m definitely just an ordinary, non-fantasy-creature human. Be careful of the nature of fantasy; it isn’t always as far from the real world as we’d think, or sometimes hope, it should be.

        That said, Webb, I do think you handle this sort of subject matter with commendable respect and thoughtfulness.

        Like

      4. @coolieo dangerfield

        Basra hasn’t been a villain before this? Did you miss the time when she would have tortured the Jackal all night just for fun if the other bishops hadn’t held her back? What about impaling a boy on her sword when she had plenty of opportunity to take him alive? Or gleefully bounding off to kill a demon like a girl about to open her christmas presents? What about all the subtle hints that to her other people are worth only as much as they feature into her plans? Darling and his apprentices discussed her and essentially declared her a sociopath. Do you know any nice or good sociopaths?

        It isn’t yet clear what Justinian is up to but his status as villain is in no doubt. What else would you call someone who hires an assassin to kill a priest, just to conveniently tie up some loose ends? Or hiring a wanted man and his pet succubus? What about the dragon in his basement who planned to destroy the Empire? He’s building up his own army but he wouldn’t actually need one if he hadn’t some plan to upset the balance. Plus, he’s really manipulative.

        Yes, no one is pure evil in this story (except the Vanislaav demons, if Trissiny is to be believed). Things aren’t black and white. Some people screw up and then redeem themselves later (Flora & Fauna for example), some people skirt along the line and some are criminal but not villainous (Longshot McGraw, Joseph, Weaver). Some are villains in the grand scheme of things but so far it hasn’t had an impact on the story (Mary the Crow).

        I picked Madeleine as one of the villains because she manipulated and seduced a boy, lied to him, drugged him and then summoned a demon. Not exactly an upstanding citizen, is she? Of course, compared to the real villains of the story she’s barely a blip on the radar.

        Yeah, it would be a challenge to write a rapist who is not a villain, our morality doesn’t allow that unless they repent and change and have to deal with the consequences. (Draco Malfoy in HPMOR is one such example and it only works because he never actually commited the act, he only talked about it.)
        So the moment someone is revealed as an rapist, they are a confirmed villain.

        I still don’t think that this label should be used to describe villains. If I was in a room with Basra I would be much more concerned about being killed or framed for something I didn’t do than about being abused sexually. She’s more than just that one act.

        It baffles me that some readers reduce the characters to one or two attributes. To some Toby is gay, Ruda is rude, Fross is nitpicky and talkative… and now Basra is just the rapist? Webb created beautiful three-dimensional characters here, they all have more than one layer, they all could be real people (at least in personality)… I feel the story deserves a bit more attention from the readers.

        We could discuss what and what isn’t rape but situations where absolutely nothing sexual was going on (Khadizroth the Green) are pretty clear to me. You can only hold them responsible for the things they actually did.

        Like

  7. About our darling Thumper: he’s a wonderful look at a rarely poked aspect of the dynamics of perverted power-play in relationships. There’s no doubt he considers himself in the driving seat. And, if Kheshiri weren’t a succubus, he most certainly would be, no questions asked. However, she is what she is and it throws into stark relief the contradiction at the heart of victor-victim dynamics: to feel All Powerful, the perpetrators of violence so very often give up on controlling what lies at the heart of their underlying needs so they can indulge them. Which makes them very vulnerable to other predators. Particularly if they grow complacent in hiding their tracks.:/

    Basra is in the same boat: the wrong evidence in the wrong hands at just the wrong time from people she thought cowed or in no position to counter-attack would render her functionally unable to get her regular fix, if not risk her losing her life entirely.😛

    Like

    1. Recipe for Bishop flambe:
      1 Hand of Avei
      1 Basra Syrinx
      1 Vocal victim or witness (Covrin or Casey)

      Let victim or witness speak. Let victim or witness be judged truthful. Let Basra be judged.

      I mean really, Casey could write to Trissiny, including all the reasons why she can’t go through normal channels, and Trissiny, who can apparently semi-teleport with that mount of hers, can visit Tiraas and turn Basra into a charcoal briquette.

      Like

      1. I don’t think Trissiny would act on it personally, at least she shouldn’t. If some recruit wrote her a letter, then that would set a precedent. The Hand of Avei can’t run off to deal with little issues like that all the time.

        But the main reason why this is a bad idea: Casey would go outside the chain of command and -that- would bring lots of problems. Trissiny is probably not going to come to Tiraas for the exact same reason. I can see her write her own letter to Commander Rouvad to handle it, because that is who needs to take care of the issue. Doubt Casey would enjoy that though.

        Remember why asking Avei to judge someone is a bad idea? She is aware of who Basra is and doesn’t do anything about it. Darling pretty much said it to her face and she never followed up on it.
        If Trissiny asked Avei to judge Basra… then she would have to kill the bishop. While no one likes Basra, she’s too useful to get rid of at the moment. (see also Arachne’s conversation with Gabriel about being useful)

        Trissiny can’t teleport. Her mount appears when she needs it but otherwise it moves like a normal horse. Even if she could teleport… do you actually think Arachne would put up with that? Triss already left without permission once, if she breaks that rule again, not even Avei can protect her from Professor Tellwyrn.😛

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