“I appreciate your patience,” said Bishop Shahai, entering the room. “At ease.”
The squad relaxed on command, at least a little bit. They had been holed up in this spartan office for half an hour, waiting for someone to come collect them. It was a space containing nothing but a desk, chairs, wall-mounted fairy lamps and a currently empty bookcase; for decoration there was only a golden eagle sigil painted on the wall, somewhat in need of touching up. The downside of the Bishop’s accessible and friendly choice of office space was that they were relegated to unused back rooms like this one when anything requiring privacy was to be discussed.
“All part of the service, ma’am,” Principia said cheerfully.
Shahai gave her a wry glance as she glided around the desk to seat herself behind it. “Yes, yes, just because your patience was required does not mean I don’t appreciate it. Despite how it probably seemed cooped up in this dusty attic space, I have managed to expedite matters considerably.” She set the folder she had been carrying down on the desk and flipped it open. “I’ve read your reports of this morning’s events, as well as the preliminary results of the interrogations.”
“They’re already interrogating the suspects? Ma’am,” Farah added belatedly, flushing.
“That is the technical term being used, but no, I wouldn’t really call it that,” replied Shahai with a small smile. “All three are being left to think about their possible futures for a few more hours before the real questioning starts, as is standard procedure. The man, though, seems eager to tell anybody in his company everything he knows. Which, unfortunately, is little; his girlfriend is the one who dragged them all into this affair, and she is not yet feeling talkative. His comments do, however, indicate an organized third party behind the attack.
“Also,” she added, glancing at the door, which she had left open, “I’ve requested the presence of another expert for this meeting, so let us refrain from any further discussion along those lines for now. The long and the short of it is this: we seem to have organized anti-dragon activists in the city.”
She let that digest for a moment.
Frowning, Ephanie spoke up. “Excuse me, ma’am, but…how? Even the dragonsworn are barely organized at this point; they’re still lining up at the embassy trying to get in with the Conclave. Who could possibly…”
“That is one of the matters to be discussed with the other party I invited, whose confirmation suggested he would be here…well, soon. Busy men are difficult to pin down more precisely than that. I was fortunate to be able to get a message to him on such short notice.”
“What expert is this?” Principia asked.
Shahai smiled coyly at them. “I have it on good authority that all of you are acquainted with Bishop Darling.”
Merry’s left eyelid began twitching uncontrollably.
“I’m…not sure I understand, ma’am,” said Casey.
“This goes beyond the issue of Saduko a.k.a. Gimmick’s involvement,” said Shahai, steepling her fingers. “The Sisterhood is woefully unprepared to engage in espionage and counter-intelligence, particularly in the city, which is exactly what this business has become. This is one of the duties for which your squad is being groomed, but I think you will have to acknowledge that said grooming is still in a preliminary state. We had one expert in such maneuvering, who is currently banished to the Abbey for…well, you of all people know what she did. It just goes to show the foolishness of having only one expert on hand. Until the five of you are more experienced, positioned and connected, we need help with things like this. Additionally, the High Commander is interested in increasing interfaith cooperation outside the aegis of the Church—both in general and with the Thieves’ Guild in particular. Thus, including Darling addresses two needs, with the added bonus that he is also involved in the Imperial government and can help steer us away from missteps in that direction. The last thing we need on top of everything else is to offend Imperial Intelligence.”
“Do you trust Darling, your Grace?” Casey asked quietly.
“I trust him to behave in a manner consistent with his nature, his interests and his established patterns,” said Shahai, still with a slight smile. “I have taken pains to know what these are. You raise a good point, Elwick; allies are not necessarily friends, and mutual reliance is not necessarily trust. Darling has no motive to play us false in this and many reasons to be cooperative, but don’t let him worm into your affections.”
“He is very good at that,” Principia noted.
“Ah, your Grace, ma’am?” Farah asked timidly, raising her hand. At Shahai’s nod, she continued. “Um, why does the High Commander want to increase cooperation with the Thieves’ Guild? Aren’t we…well, not enemies, but almost the next best thing?”
“The Guild and the Sisterhood have always had a complicated and often adversarial relationship,” the Bishop mused. “As for Commander Rouvad’s specific motives, I’m sure she would tell you if she wished you to know. In general, I feel comfortable in saying that the world is growing increasingly complicated, matters in this city are getting tricky even faster, and it’s generally more useful to have the Guild as a friend than an enemy.”
“If nothing else,” Ephanie said slowly, “if we build up some goodwill they’re one less thing to worry about.”
“You should never not worry about the Guild,” Principia advised. “They aren’t generally aggressive toward other cults, but if they decide someone is corrupt or abusive in a position of power…”
“They didn’t do anything about Basra Syrinx,” Casey muttered. “In fact, I think Darling tried to protect her.”
“Complicated,” Shahai said quietly.
A rather morose silence descended upon the room, during which each of them in turn glanced at the half-open door.
“Well,” said Shahai after a long moment, straightening in her chair, “there is little point in discussing anti-draconic activity or the Guild’s involvement until Darling arrives, as we’ll just have to go over anything covered twice. I don’t expect that to be a long conversation, anyway. In the meantime, is there anything else you would like to know about our assignment? I encourage questions; the more you know, the better prepared you are.”
“Actually…” Casey cleared her throat. “I don’t know how relevant it is to anything, but I’ve been wondering about the colors on the Conclave’s, um, symbol. I thought there were only four dragon colors, but they have black and gray, and you mentioned it to Zanzayed in a way that implied there was some significance there… I guess it’s not very relevant, though,” she added.
“Nonsense,” Shahai said briskly. “It is, indeed, a rather obscure piece of lore, but you’ve touched upon an important subject, Elwick. The five of you are being asked to deal, in one way or another, with dragons. Anything you can add to your knowledge of dragons will be helpful; please don’t hesitate if you have questions. In fact, I may have to look up some additional reading for you…”
“Oh!” Farah perked up, her expression brightening. “I can help with that.”
“Oh. Good.” Merry’s face and tone were completely impassive.
Shahai grinned at her. “Well, for those who find reading a little dry, I can try my hand at storytelling. To begin with, Elwick, you can’t really tell from looking at the Conclave’s device, but that represents silver, not gray. There are, in fact, six known draconic colors, though black and silver dragons are extremely rare, and have not been seen in centuries. Let me see, where to start…”
She let her gaze drift toward the ceiling, slowly drumming the fingers of one hand on the desk in thought.
“Back at the very beginning, I suppose,” the Bishop murmured at last. “I’d thought to keep the matter as immediately relevant as possible, but there are some things that simply can’t be fully understood outside their context. Before the Elder Wars, everything was different. There were no Circles of Interaction, as each god provided their own system of magic to the world, to be used by their own followers. It was a much more chaotic arrangement, and this will become significant to our discussion momentarily. The other thing you need to know about the Elders is that they shepherded the mortal—and immortal—races very much like we do with domestic animals today, and for many of the same reasons.
“We know from surviving information, of which there is sadly little, that the Elders had a hand in the development of humans, dwarves and elves as they exist now. They created the gnomes, goblins and lizardfolk from whole cloth, so to speak. Other various offshoots, such as the demon and faerie species, have their origins in the same period, from the manipulations of various Elder Gods, which explains the state of sentient life today: many diverse races, but clearly arising from common stock, and most still capable of interbreeding. Of all the intelligent races the Elders made to serve them, the rarest and most powerful by far were the dragons.”
“Oh!” Farah’s eyes widened in realization. “Is that why dragons are always male? It would be a way to control their breeding and population!”
“That’s a fairly common theory, yes,” Shahai said with a hint of amusement.
“Let’s let the Bishop tell her story, Szaravid,” Principia said pointedly.
“Oh.” Farah wilted slightly. “Um, sorry, your Grace. Please go on.”
“Dragons,” Shahai continued, “were designed to be vessels of enormous quantities of magic. Their entire beings are expressions of that power, which is why they change colors to express the system of magic they choose to embody. The four colors we have today are dragons at their basic level: in their youth most of them dabble in all systems, focusing on one by the time they reach maturity and coming to express it almost exclusively. Most dragons are able to cast some spells from outside their own specialization, but for the most part that specialization seems integral to their very being and identity. They do sometimes change their colors and focus, but I know no accounts of a dragon attempting to express more than one school of magic equally at the same time. This is the usual state of a dragon, but there is another, rarer one beyond that. As the Elders originally designed them, particularly favored dragons could be imbued by their patron god with a far greater degree of power, becoming…something more.”
She paused, frowning in thought, before continuing. “It’s…hard to say what makes the difference, exactly. Records from that time are few and partial at best. Dragons, of course, do not discuss their business with others, and there are limits to what one can learn merely by observing. What we know is that for a dragon to ascend to this second level of their being requires the specific blessing and empowerment of whatever deity controls the source of of their own magic, and that when this is done, they become creatures of immense power, something very close to the level of gods themselves.
“The silver and black dragons,” she continued, “are those final, higher expressions of the divine and infernal systems of magic, respectively. A gold or red dragon who secures the favor of their deific patron can become a silver or black, and all the power that implies. It should go without saying that the world is very fortunate this is a rarity.”
“But…why?” Casey asked, tilting her head. “Wouldn’t it serve the gods’ interest to have powerful servants like that?”
Shahai shrugged. “Gods, Elwick, are even more inscrutable in their motives than dragons. I can tell you from a simple study of history that the Pantheon has empowered silver dragons only to serve as a counter to a black dragon when Elilial has empowered one—which she has done only three times. The last such case was Ilvassirnil the Silver, who perished in the act of destroying Semathlidon the Black, which he accepted as the consequence and indeed the purpose of his elevation. So the initiative is clearly Elilial’s, and she seems generally disinclined to trust a dragon with that degree of power. She has ample reason, too: even Scyllith apparently swore off the practice. She elevated no black dragons for over two thousand years before her own fall, after Belosiphon the Black dabbled in forbidden powers and turned against her. She was forced to call on an alliance of other dragons to destroy him.”
“You are very well-read about this, ma’am,” Ephanie noted.
“It’s a hobby,” Shahai said modestly, “and one which has been useful in the past. Generally it’s wise not to involve oneself in the affairs of dragons if it can be avoided—but when it can’t, more knowledge is always better than less. Pertaining to that, I will tell you something of more immediate relevance.” She folded her arms atop the desk, staring intently at them. “I strongly advise you not to bring this up in conversation with or near him, but it is an open secret that Ampophrenon the Gold’s fondest ambition is to be elevated as a silver dragon.”
“He…craves power?” Merry asked.
“No more than any dragon, and in fact, probably less,” said Shahai. “Ampophrenon’s convictions are quite sincere; I believe he simply desires to be the greatest servant of the light he can possibly be. Whatever the reason, it is likely a forlorn hope.”
“I guess there’s not much we could do with that knowledge anyway,” Farah mused. “I mean, we, meaning the Sisterhood in general. Even if Avei wanted to elevate him, it takes the whole Pantheon, right? I mean, you didn’t say that, your Grace, but I got that implication.”
“Your inference is correct,” said Shahai, nodding. “Infernal and fae magic still answer to their original creators, but the divine is the gift of the entire Pantheon, forged from the energy left over after the rest of the Elders were destroyed. Without the blessing of the Pantheon, or at least a quorum thereof, there will be no more silver dragons. We should hope that there never are, for that would mean another black dragon. There is nothing the world needs less than one of those.”
“But…that’s only elevated forms of two kinds of dragons,” Casey protested. “What about blue or green ones?”
“Well,” said Shahai with a smile, “presumably, in theory, there could be elevated forms of those, but it has never been seen. Naiya has no apparent interest, which suits her personality perfectly. She likes her strongest servants unquestionably subordinate to her, and anyway has little interest in taking an active role in the world. Thus, there are no elevated green dragons. As for the blues… Many scholars theorize that there must be a deity associated with arcane magic, but if such a being exists, it has never made itself known, and certainly never empowered a draconic champion.”
She broke off, her eyes moving to the doorway, and Squad One shifted to follow her gaze.
“Well, don’t stop now,” said Bishop Darling, leaning against the door frame and smiling disarmingly. “I didn’t know any of that. Fascinating stuff, and quite possibly useful now we’ve got a city full of dragons!”
“Not to worry,” said Shahai, rising and smiling at him. “I had conveniently come to a stopping point, anyway. Please, Antonio, come in. I understand you’re acquainted with Squad One.”
“Of course,” he said, nodding to them. “And congratulations on your promotion, ladies. Sergeant,” he added, bowing gallantly to Principia.
“This is difficult,” she mused. “There’s Legion protocol concerning the address of Bishops, but as a good Eserite I’m practically obligated to sass you in the harshest terms.”
“Perhaps we can skip such formalities,” Shahai said, giving Principia a look that was just a hair shy of warning. “Have a seat, and thank you very much for coming so quickly. I realize this must be an imposition to you.”
“That’s no fault of yours,” he said, his expression sobering as he positioned himself in one of the chairs across from her desk and angled it to include the Legionnaires in the conversation. “It’s an imposition, yes, but we are all together in being imposed upon. Such is life these days. Can you bring me up to speed, Nandi?”
“Gladly.” She folded her hands atop the open folder. “I told you what little I knew of Saduko’s involvement in the attack this morning—she left here upset but unharmed, but I think can be considered the primary victim. At the least, she suffered by far the greatest paint coverage. Beyond that, preliminary disclosures from our three suspects suggest some kind of organized movement reacting to the Conclave of the Winds, specifically against it. We have nothing further, yet. Certainly nothing provable or definitive.”
“Indeed.” Darling slouched slightly in his chair, frowning into the distance in thought. “This is… The word I keep coming back to is ‘weird.’”
“Agreed,” Shahai said with a smile.
“Well!” He straightened up again and panned a look across the soldiers. “To begin with, Principia and company, I’ve raised the issue of Saduko’s involvement with the Boss.”
“I’m sure I can guess how that went,” Prin said dryly.
Darling grinned. “I’m sure you can. She’s not working for the Guild on this matter, which means she’s not violating your neutrality. Saduko is a free agent; she can work for whomever she wants and talk to whomever she wants as long as she doesn’t violate any of the Guild’s codes, which she’s not. If she cons or attacks you, that’s another matter, but talking isn’t something Tricks is interested in doing anything about.”
“She did sneak onto the Third Legion’s grounds,” Ephanie pointed out, scowling.
“So I hear,” Darling said gravely. “It’s a fairly minor offense, but one the Boss could act upon if he felt a need. Tricks’s opinion of this matter is that if there’s one person who does not need her hand held, it’s Principia Locke. So long as Saduko maintains her current level of respect, you’re on your own in that department.”
“Aw, how flattering!” Principia said, beaming. “I didn’t know he thought so well of me.”
“Yes, well, that was the heavily edited version. The original was about sixty percent cussing.”
“For the time being, I think it best suits us to leave Saduko alone,” said Shahai. “Her presence is non-threatening, and is a potentially useful link to the Conclave. That being said, I would like to know as much about her as possible. I dislike all the blind spots in this affair. She is foreign, that much I can tell. What do we know of her?”
“She…froze,” said Principia with a frown. “It struck me as odd. When the carriage came around the corner I immediately adopted a defensive posture in a doorway, which startled her. And she just stood there. Didn’t react until it was close enough to be obviously dangerous, and even then she couldn’t think of anything better than backing against the wall. Which, if that thing had been trying to ram us, would have gotten her killed.”
“So she’s not too bright, then?” Merry suggested.
Principia shook her head. “It’s just…peculiar, for a Guild member. Oh, there are blockheads among Eserites, just as there are in any group of people, but even thieves without much native intelligence are generally trained to have better instincts than that. And she actually struck me as quite perspicacious in conversation.”
“That tracks with what relatively little I know of her,” said Darling. “She is a new arrival on the continent; the news I have comes from her involvement in a mess in Onkawa last year, but this is consistent with everyone’s observations. Saduko’s central weakness is an inability to improvise. She’s a good planner—a specialist in magical security systems, both creating and cracking. She follows orders well and seems to be a good actress when she has a script to read from. But surprises throw her off pretty easily. You’re right, Locke, that’s not an ideal trait in a Guild member; she’d never have passed her apprenticeship like that in Tiraas, but the Guild chapter in Kiyosan is in a different situation, and has different priorities.”
“Can you get records from them?” Farah asked.
He winced. “In…theory. The Boss would have to decide it’s important, which I don’t see happening. That would take weeks at best and…well, without getting into a long digression on Sifanese culture and politics, the Guild over there has concerns that are foreign to Tiraan sensibilities. These are tricky waters to navigate.”
“Still, this is useful information,” Shahai mused. “A security specialist who is known to be poor at improvising—an odd choice for the task of approaching Principia.”
“An odd choice for the task of approaching Zanzayed,” Darling said, looking significantly at her.
“Bishop Shahai brought me up to speed on Webs and his involvement,” Principia said, scowling. “Do we know if this has anything to do with Shook?”
“There’s no way it doesn’t, but we’ve no provable link at this time,” said Darling. “Whatever the connection, it’s remote. I suggest we focus on more immediate concerns for the moment. The impression I get is that Saduko is being used in these schemes because she was the most convenient piece to be moved, not because she was the best for the job.”
“And a pawn being sacrificed may be persuaded to shift her loyalties,” Shahai said with a faint smile. “It is worth bearing in mind as things progress. For now, the progression of things must be our immediate concern, I think.”
“I agree,” said Darling, nodding. “I have one overriding impression about all of this: it’s happening so fast.”
“Yeah,” said Principia with a bitter twist of her mouth. “The dragons come to town, and within two days there’s an organized counter-dragon group which is far enough along in its development to be attacking its perceived enemies? The whole thing reeks.”
“What are you suggesting?” Farah asked somewhat tremulously.
“At this time, merely that this is all adding up far quicker than it naturally should,” said Shahai. “In addition to the improbable speed with which this anti-dragon group has apparently developed, there is the matter of its choice of target. Splashing paint is a time-honored expression of disapproval and usually fairly harmless, but under the law it is considered assault. And assault, even if only of a technical variety, is a very peculiar manner in which to approach the Silver Legions.”
“I agree,” Darling said emphatically, nodding. “Even if somebody felt aggrieved enough to be molesting soldiers, the Silver Legions are respected in a way that even the Imperial Army isn’t. This kind of aggression is almost as jarring as the pace of these developments. We’ve got a political movement taking shape far too quickly to be natural, and its agents acting in an irrationally hostile way. People do dumb things in the name of causes all the time, but this combination of factors says to me that someone with deep pockets is deliberately arranging this.”
Casey cleared her throat. “Or, it was three kooks with a carriage and too much free time who only got caught because Principia can throw a lance better than any Legionnaire I’ve ever seen. And it’s not hard to imagine that guy is just spinning stories to try to keep himself and his girlfriend out of trouble.”
“That brings us back to the strikingly odd fact that they attacked a Silver Legionnaire on active duty,” Shahai mused, “but you are correct, Elwick; we don’t yet know enough to draw firm conclusions, and one of the possibilities still extant is that this is all just…nothing. Coincidence, random events. I would consider that possibility remote, however, and growing more so all the time. Another piece of the puzzle is Zanzayed’s oddly persistent interest in Principia, which we tested yesterday. Saduko isn’t the only person he keeps sending after her.”
“So,” Darling mused, “Zanzayed is moving very quickly and very fixedly on his goal of Principia. Someone opposed to dragons is doing the same. If you take those things in the context of one another…”
“That bastard is making me a target!” Principia burst out. “Veth’na alaue, all this drilling and saluting is turning my brain to porridge! How did I not see that earlier?!”
“It’s a pretty standard trick, if one has hidden enemies,” said Casey. “Put up a strawman for them to beat on.”
“With that,” Shahai said, smiling grimly, “these events begin to make a certain kind of sense. I caution everyone against premature conclusions, but this, at least, presents a general shape of things which merits further pursuit, I think.”
Principia drew in a deep breath and let it out in a growl. “And, of course, the only logical method of pursuing this line of inquiry is to go talk to bloody Zanzayed!”
“I agree,” Shahai said mildly. “Needless to say, Locke, I will need to be present for that conversation.”
“I would prefer to bring the whole squad, ma’am,” Principia said stiffly.
“Good,” the Bishop nodded. “I believe we can construct a very suitable little drama out of these roles. The Legionnaires forming chorus and backdrop, your very justifiable ire at the position he has placed you in, and myself as the voice of calm.”
“Good guard, bad guard, but with extras,” said Darling. “Zanzayed may be a noted fool and reprobate among dragons, but he is still a dragon. In fact, he’s one of the more social ones. I think you’ll have to consider the prospect of him seeing through this.”
“Yes, of course,” said Bishop Shahai with a coy little smile. “But Antonio, this is not the sort of game in which we are attempting to deceive one another. Right now, everyone is playing everyone else, and everyone knows it. At question is how well we play. I think that impressing Zanzayed the Blue with the level of our game will be an excellent starting point.”
Some minutes later, Principia waited until Squad One were safely ensconced in their cabin with the door shut before speaking.
“Well, I hate to say it, ladies, but our own schedule just got bumped forward a good bit. That extra project is no longer a long-term plan. Be ready to get working on it immediately.”
“You think that’s necessary, Sarge?” Ephanie asked, staring intently at her. “I thought we had time, yet.”
“I don’t know whether it’s necessary,” Principia admitted. “But it’s looking increasingly like it might be. You heard the Bishops: the overall theme of this assorted bullshit is that it’s all coming together too fast. Whatever’s coming at us, I want to be ready to meet it head-on.”
“Aren’t you always telling us that the roundabout way is usually better than the straightforward one?” Merry asked dryly, folding her arms.
“I am, and it is,” Principia said, nodding. “But that’s just it, Lang. When things are rushing at your face, would you rather trust your ability to dodge, or…” She reached over and tapped Merry sharply between the eyebrows. “Wear a helmet?”
“Get out of my face,” Merry said sullenly, leaning away from her.
“Is it… I mean, you said you were gonna have a lot of work to do to get this together,” Farah said worriedly. “Can you?”
“My contacts have put together the raw materials for me,” Principia replied. “I’ve been working as I had time. I’ll have to pull an all-nighter to finish it up, but I can have the stuff ready by tomorrow. Then it’s just a matter of practice.”
“Drilling,” Casey said fatalistically. “More drilling. Ugh…this is gonna mean more coffee, isn’t it.”
“For me, for one day, yes,” Principia said firmly. “I can take it; your health I wanna be more careful with. Drugs are not a substitute for sleep, girls. I’m really sorry to have to do this, but… This is gonna have to come out of your personal time.”
A glum silence fell, broken after a moment by a derisive snort from Merry.
“Well, what the hell,” she said. “It’s not as if any of us has a life, anyway.”