Several hours later, a confused and increasingly frustrated Squad One found themselves at Bishop Shahai’s modest apartment not far from Imperial Square, laden down with bags and packages. It was actually quite the achievement to have found a modest apartment this close to the seat of Imperial power, as the real estate here was some of the most expensive in the world. Most people who had the need or desire to be that close to the Palace (or the Grand Cathedral, or the central Omnist or Avenist temples) and the money to move in wanted something larger and more luxurious anyway. There were a number of clerics who preferred proximity to their temples, however, and as such there were buildings owned by the Church and several of the major cults, divided into humble dwellings that suited the desires of their occupants.
Hers was a simple one-story affair that couldn’t have been more than a handful of rooms, to judge by the fact that its kitchen and main living area were all one open space. A space which was cozy verging on cramped with all six of them present; they were packed in close enough to be reminded how much bulk armor added to a person.
“Just put those down wherever it’s least inconvenient, please,” the Bishop directed them. “Then have a seat. I don’t entertain much; I apologize for the lack of comfortable chairs. Feel free to pull one over from the table if you need. I’m going to make us some tea.”
They obeyed slowly, setting down bags and paper-wrapped packages as neatly as possible against the walls, out of the way of the furniture, looking warily around all the while. The furniture was bland and could have come with the place, though personal touches had been added. Soft elven blankets woven of geometric patterns had been draped over the small sofa and single armchair, and on the mantle stood a golden eagle idol—stone, not gold, of course—with several strings of carved beads draped around its heavy base and hanging over the lip of the mantlepiece itself. The only article of really unique furniture was a display case containing a peculiar variety of things behind glass: a broken Avenic short sword, two ornately carved tomahawks, a battered shield bearing the golden eagle, several small leather pouches, and four glittering unicorn horns.
Bishop Shahai moved efficiently about the stove, preparing a pot to heat and setting up a tray with cups, sugar, and other paraphernalia, her back to them. Straightening up from setting down a folded package of expensive silk cloth, Merry scowled at Principia, leaned closer and opened her mouth to whisper.
Prin thrust a finger into her face, glaring, and pointedly tugged at her ear. Merry snapped her mouth shut and contented herself with looking disgruntled.
“Private Elwick, you’re closest,” Shahai said over the soft clink of crockery. “There’s a plate of sandwiches in the cold box, top shelf. Would you kindly set them on the table? And the rest of you, dig in. Tea will be ready in a few moments, I’m sure you’re hungry.”
“Do you…commonly have plates of sandwiches ready for guests, your Grace?” Ephanie asked in a carefully demure tone.
“No,” Shahai replied with an amused little smile, finally turning back to face them. Casey passed between her and the group, obediently carrying a platter stacked with ham sandwiches to the table. “I specifically have one ready. At this point in the evening I expect you all to be rather tired, and increasingly fed up with me. Food and strong tea make a good pick-me-up; we’ll need this little respite before finishing our tasks for the evening.”
“You planned this?” Farah inquired.
“I plan ahead as much as possible, in as much detail as possible, for all situations,” the Bishop said serenely, pulling out a chair and seating herself. “Thank you, Elwick. Please, all of you, sit down. Yes, Szaravid, according to my schedule, by this point in the evening Squad One has spent several hours accompanying me hither and yon to a variety of luxury shopping establishments, standing guard while I browsed and carrying my purchases. I’m aware of the relationship this squad had with Bishop Syrinx, at least the broad strokes; I can only imagine how irate you must be by this point. My compliments on your poise, by the way.”
“I assumed all this was mission relevant, somehow,” Principia said mildly, helping herself to a ham sandwich.
“Oh?” Shahai raised an eyebrow.
“The accumulation of luxury and misuse of temporary authority over a squad would be dramatically out of character, your Grace. I know something of your record as well; you were quite right about Bishop Syrinx. It seemed wise to cultivate an awareness of her successor.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” Shahai said, smiling. “Well, in any case, this building is owned by the Universal Church, its apartments rented to various clerics. The walls are exceedingly thick, and additionally bolstered with noise dampening enchantments. It’s a very discreet sort of building. This marks the first point in the evening where we can converse in guaranteed privacy. My apologies for making you wait, but the whole point of our performance this far tonight has been just that: a performance, put on for whoever might have been watching. I was unwilling to make assumptions about the security of our environs except in—ah, excuse me.”
The teapot had begun whistling; she stood and glided briskly back to the stove. The assembled Legionnaires glanced uncertainly about at one another, then at Principia, who was chewing away as placidly as if she hadn’t a care in the world.
Shahai returned, setting the tea tray beside the sandwiches and beginning to pour out cups. “Eat or not as you wish, ladies, but I do insist upon the tea. This is a very strong blend, and just the boost we will all need, as we are about to go deal with dragons at the end of an already long day. Please, use as much sugar and milk as you need to make it palatable. If anyone is especially fatigued, I have something even stronger for emergencies. Have you heard of coffee?”
She looked up in surprise at the chorus of groans; Principia chuckled into her sandwich.
“That’s the stuff that tastes like the inside of my boots, keeps you awake for about four hours and then you’re suddenly comatose standing up unless you take another dose,” Merry said, accepting a cup of tea. “Sarge gave us that once.”
“Once,” Principia emphasized, “when I’d kept them out past midnight. Generally I think you get better results from people by letting them get enough rest.”
“I quite agree,” Shahai said, smiling. “Drugs are a poor substitute for any of the things for which people substitute them, but they can bridge the gap in a rough situation. Well, then, on to a much-overdue explanation. What do you know about dragonsworn?”
There was a beat of silence; Farah paused in the act of sipping her tea, staring at the Bishop in surprise.
“People who are sworn to a dragon,” Ephanie replied at last, “just as the word says. I understood that wasn’t common.”
“It’s uncommon for the simple reason that dragons are uncommon,” Shahai said, “and many of them are rather standoffish. But yes, as long as dragons have interacted with the mortal races, some members thereof have dedicated themselves to a certain dragon’s service. In fact, with the Conclave’s current ambitions, I suspect this will be the greatest sticking point in their negotiations with the Empire. Now that they seek to be acknowledged as an independent government, anyone taken into their service will effectively become an agent, if not a citizen, of a foreign power, rather than an eccentric who keeps unusual company. I’m actually quite curious to find out how they will resolve the matter, because at the moment, I’ve no idea. But yes, dragonsworn are a known phenomenon, and their whereabouts are carefully watched by anyone who takes an interest in world events. Including the Sisters of Avei.”
“I figured,” Principia said, pausing to take a sip of tea. “Accumulating expensive hoard-worthy trinkets was an obvious link to the dragon issue. You think there are dragonsworn in the city? It was my understanding the dragons arrived alone.”
“Ah, yes, the…trinkets.” Shahai sighed, giving the piles of packages a disapproving stare. “I am sorry about putting you ladies to that kind of work. But yes, Sergeant, people are already lining up outside the de facto Conclave embassy, wanting a variety of things. Some—perhaps more than a few—are interested in working for the dragons. They have that aura of majesty that tends to inspire such responses. Beyond that, however, there have always been some few dragonsworn in the city, and somewhat less few who are known to do business with them. This afternoon we have visited most of those. These comprise more of a grapevine than an actual intelligence network, but I don’t imagine it will be long before our draconic visitors are aware that I have just gathered a pile of…hoard-worthy trinkets, as you put it.” She paused to smile at Principia.
“People from all walks of life, but notably the wealthy and powerful, will be trying to curry favor with the dragons for a variety of reasons, most of which are no concern to us. My mission here is simply to establish open lines of communication and friendly terms with them, to ward off any potential hostilities and create opportunities for possible future benefit. A vague and simple directive, which nonetheless is made quite challenging by the fact that the dragons have no incentive to take us seriously at all. Virtually the only interaction between dragons and the Sisterhood in eight thousand years have been occasional clashes between individuals and Hands of Avei. Most of those ended in the fatality of one or the other. In this, it’s fortunate for us that they have no particular interest in our cult. What I have to do is make them interested, and favorably so.”
“A tall order,” Principia mused.
“Indeed,” Shahai said wryly. “This afternoon’s errands were the first half of the plan, though it may take some time for word to get back to our targets. This evening’s will finish the job. We discussed earlier the impact of having two elves in the delegation sent to speak with them. When we meet the dragons themselves, I intend to be vague; the point is to set them wondering what we are up to. To set us apart from the countless petitioners who will be competing for a slice of their attention. They, if all goes well, will come to us. As such, once we return tonight, I mean to withdraw somewhat and give them time to stew. If no overtures have been made within a week, we’ll try something else, but apart from that, your squad will return to regular duty rotation to be called for when I have need of you again. With the exception of tomorrow,” she added with a smile. “I’ve reserved you for the morning. Do get some sleep.”
“We appreciate that,” Principia said approvingly.
“Ah, your Grace?” Casey said. “It’s…dark out. Almost everything is closed by now. People will be going to sleep. Is this an appropriate time to visit dragons?”
“All part of the plan, Elwick,” Shahai said, sipping her tea. “Dragons… It’s an open question whether they need to sleep, or just indulge in it occasionally for the pleasure of dreaming. Regardless, they can do it for days at a time, even weeks, but generally only do so two or three times a year. They won’t be in bed. Most people don’t know this, so we won’t have to fight through a crowd. And they assuredly know what a peculiar time of day this is for us to be making social calls.”
“Thus contributing to the infamy you’re cultivating,” Principia said with a smile. “Apologies for any perceived brown-nosing, Bishop, but you’re good at this.”
“At this?” Shahai stared ruminatively into her tea. “This has never been done. Let’s hope we all prove to be good at it. In any case, ladies, finish up here. We are not in any hurry.”
The hastily repurposed palace currently housing the Conclave delegation stood not far from Imperial Square, in a residential neighborhood that was wealthy in the manner that the sea was damp. These were the homes of the highest ranking officials of the Imperial government, the various cults and the Universal Church, not to mention the residences of foreign ambassadors and several properties kept by heads of state from overseas. Some of these actually visited with some regularity—the Tiraan Empire did not seek anyone’s favor, but waited for seekers to come to it—while others maintained these properties simply as a point of status. No official embassies stood here, though flags of many countries were displayed and no small amount of diplomatic business had been done behind these walls. None of the buildings on this street could truly be called a house. They ranged from mere mansions at the lower end to palaces which had prompted the current Emperor’s mother to pass laws limiting just how defensible non-Imperial structures in the city could be made.
This one was of an older style, all done in white marble with fluted columns—in fact, it ironically resembled an Avenist temple, if one ignored the highly decorative stonework. Imperial soldiers stood guard on the grounds in significant numbers, almost as if the government expected some kind of attack. Or perhaps they were simply keeping the peace. Whatever the reason, every entrance and ground floor window was covered, as well as the gates of the property itself. More soldiers patrolled the grounds, the outer wall, even the roof.
There were two long banners hanging in gaps between columns flanking the front door. They formed a white field with a divided hexagon in the center, split into six colors: blue, green, red, gold, silver, and black. A peculiar sigil lay over that, in white with a black border that distinguished itself from the background. The symbol didn’t appear to depict anything in particular; it looked more like a glyph in some foreign language.
“Looks almost like a wing,” Farah murmured. “See, the—”
“Scenery,” Bishop Shahai said, quietly but pointedly. Farah instantly fell silent, staring straight ahead. Principia gave her a very sharp look.
Rank had its privileges; the soldiers on duty at the gate saluted the Bishop rather than attempting to stop her. She nodded back in perfect calm, striding up the slightly curving path toward the doors with Principia just behind and to her right and the rest of Squad One forming the four corners of an invisible box around them.
The soldiers at the door saluted, as well, but made no move to usher them in. Principia stepped forward to pull the door open herself.
Within, the palace looked suitably wealthy, but also rather bare. Everything was marble trimmed in gilt, with an extravagantly frescoed dome forming the entry hall’s ceiling and a geometric mosaic for a floor. There was no furniture, though, of any kind, not even rugs or curtains. Apparently the new residents had brought nothing with them, and the old had left nothing behind.
There were more banners, however. These were also white, lacking the multicolored hexagon, but there were six of them and each bore the sigil in one of the draconic colors.
At this hour, the property was relatively quiet. A few people were present in the room; two more Imperial Army officers stood silently at attention, a mixed handful of folk in nondescript attire loitered near the walls, and a portly man in his later middle years in an obviously expensive suit was in the process of crossing the space toward two figures who had just entered from a side door.
Both were dragons.
To judge by their obviously displayed colors, these were Zanzayed and Varsinostro, and two less similarly attired people had rarely stood together. The blue dragon was an almost comical portrait of less-than-tasteful opulence, while the green wore simple wood elf attire. Nonetheless, their presence was arrestingly powerful, even ignoring the people present as they were. A tremor rippled through the onlookers at their entrance, several people letting out soft sighs or murmured observations.
The Avenist party had crossed the room at a sharp pace, and were just barely beaten to intercepting the dragons by the rich man, thanks to his head start.
“Your Eminences,” he said, bowing low and doffing his stovepipe hat, “if I might—”
“Good evening,” Bishop Shahai spoke over him, striding forward.
“Good lady,” the man said in indignation, puffing his chest out at her, “kindly wait your—”
He broke off as Ephanie stepped in front of him, planting the butt of her lance on the floor with a thunk that echoed through the bare chamber, staring flatly from behind her faceguard. The fellow gaped at her, then flushed and stepped backward, muttering something that might have passed for polite.
“Well, this is different,” Zanzayed the Blue commented, smiling in a way that might have been sincere or sarcastic. Something about his featureless eyes made his expression hard to read. The green dragon, who had come to a stop beside him, folded his arms and watched, his face a mask of patience.
“I am Nandi Shahai, Bishop of the Universal Church from the Sisters of Avei,” she said, nodding to them. It was a deep, respectful nod, but clearly the sort of gesture bestowed on an equal, not a being of fathomless, catastrophic power. “Welcome to Tiraas.”
“Thank you, your Grace,” Varsinostro said evenly. “We have found the city most welcoming, with some few specific exceptions.”
“Why, Principia!” Zanzayed exclaimed, grinning in apparent delight. “I must say, this is the greatest and best surprise I’ve had in a whole day of surprises! When did you join the Silver Legions? That’s got to be one of the crazier things I’ve ever heard. Well, regardless, it’s a delight to see you!”
“It is?” Principia asked, nonplussed.
“I wasn’t aware you knew Zanzayed, Sergeant Locke,” Shahai said in a perfectly pleasant tone. The warning was hidden in the awareness of their orders, invisible to onlookers.
“We’ve never met,” Principia said firmly. “I’m positive I would’ve remembered that hairdo.”
“Oh, it’s all secondhand,” Zanzayed said with an airy wave of his hand, rings glittering in the light. “I’ve heard all about you, of course. You might say I’m an old friend of the family,” he added to Shahai, winking. “We really ought to find the time to sit down for a chat, since we’re both in the city!”
“I don’t talk to my family,” Principia said in a tone that was just a hair too polite to be overtly unfriendly.
“I note that your Conclave’s chosen iconography reflects all six draconic colors,” Shahai remarked. “There have been no silver or black dragons for some time, if I am not mistaken.”
“The Conclave is for all of our kind,” Varsinostro stated. “Present and future. We would not have any potential members excluded even by implication. In particular, those…extremes…would better be brought into the fold to deal with the rest of us socially than left to pursue their own ends, unfettered.”
“I see,” the Bishop mused. “That does make sense.”
“To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure, your Grace?” the green dragon asked pointedly.
“I’m certain you know the areas of Avei’s interest,” Shahai said crisply. “We promote justice and protect the interests of women. As you have decided to assertively join civilized society, this creates a potential interest, my lords. Any actions you take will fall under the purview of the judicial system. And dragons have a…fraught history with regard to women.”
“Ah, yes,” Zanzayed said solemnly, folding his hands. “That. You mean that thing where we sometimes take mates and lovers exactly like anyone else, and mortal societies regard the matter with revulsion because… Well, actually, I never have cared enough to figure out what the specific objection was, once I determined there was no actual logic in it.”
Shahai smiled at him very pleasantly. “On another subject, Zanzayed, have you visited Mathenon Province recently? I believe dwarven archaeologists recently unearthed some very unusual ruins directly off the Old Road between Viridill and Stavulheim. Some sort of amphitheater.”
He sighed dramatically, turning to Varsinostro. “There, you see? This is why religious people are a pain to deal with. Every nice thing you do gets swept under the rug, but you make one little error in judgment and somehow their descendants manage to shove it in your face after two thousand years.”
“Let’s be polite, Zanzayed,” Varsinostro said calmly. “We are guests in this city as much as the Bishop is in this house.” Despite the muted warning directed at both of them, his expression was one of amusement.
“Did you really come here just to be confrontational?” Zanzayed asked, impatience creeping into his tone as he turned back to Shahai.
Her smile wavered not by a hair. “On the contrary, Lord Zanzayed, if anything, I would like to offer my services. You may find it…challenging…to cultivate personal relationships among human society, given the reputation you have with regard to women, justly or not. The Sisterhood is in a unique position to help you navigate these waters. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like any assistance in settling in.”
“How very considerate,” Varsinostro said, gazing intently at her.
“It is the duty of a priestess and a soldier to serve,” Shahai intoned, bowing. “I will take no more of your time this evening, my lords. Welcome, again, to Tiraas. Squad, fall in.”
“Wait, that’s it?” Zanzayed asked behind them. The Bishop simply kept moving toward the door.
Not that the dragons were left with nothing to do. They had gotten scarcely a few feet when the gentleman in the hat surged forward again. Once again, he was beaten to the punch.
This time it was a young Sifanese woman who slid smoothly forward, holding a glowing rune on the flat of her open palm. It sparked faintly, then abruptly transformed into a steaming platter.
At the burst of magic—and rare magic at that, for transfiguration was usually done only by a master mage, the pre-formatted kind being very expensive—both dragons turned to stare sharply at her.
“Good evening, most exalted ones,” she said deferentially. In addition to her lilting accent, she had a raspy quality to her voice, not quite the husky tone of a lifelong smoker, but as if something had injured her throat at one point. “My employer, like each of these good people, most humbly craves but a moment of your attention, and does not presume to so impose without offering some small recompense for the distraction. I understand, Lord Zanzayed, these are a favorite of yours.”
Shahai led the squad outside, the front doors of the palace shutting firmly and cutting off sound from within. They heard only one more line of the girl’s spiel.