9 – 37

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“It’s a standard strategy,” Vex explained, folding his hands on the table in front of him. Only he and Zanzayed had seated themselves; the rest stood around the rim of the conference room, with Squad One clustered against the wall opposite Vex. He, of course, sat at the table’s head. “In fact, this particular ploy deserves a great deal of credit for the Tirasian Dynasty’s reconstruction of the Empire in an era when anti-Imperial sentiment was rampant. Resistance movements and terrorist organizations exist even today, and Imperial Intelligence has a hand in all of them. We started a good many, wherever there lay a dangerous degree of citizen unease with no outlet. For the rest, we are the primary provider of funding. Obviously, they are all unaware of this.”

“Why the dragons?” Principia asked. “Surely they had little to fear from general dislike to begin with.”

Vex glanced at Ampophrenon, a clear invitation to speak. The dragon nodded to him before turning to Principia. “It is not that we feared for our own welfare. Our kind have always been rather unpopular among many peoples—I fear, not without reason. One of the Conclave’s aims is to remedy this, but that will likely be the work of generations. What we wished to ward off was an organized movement that would damage that work. Normalizing relations would be much more difficult with substantial public opposition in place.”

“And it is not the Empire’s policy to squash protest movements,” Vex added. “The temptation to do so has brought down many a kingdom; one can only repress the people’s will for so long. The Empire prefers more elegant methods of managing its citizens.”

“You’re being remarkably forthright,” Casey observed, eyes narrowed.

Vex smiled languidly; he seemed almost half-asleep. “The facts of Imperial strategy and tactics aren’t classified. Some of the details of these specific events are, of course, but it’s known, generally, how we do things. What have we to fear from exposure? Whatever its aims, the Empire’s policies result in a public that can generally do what they like. Oddly, they rarely seem to object.”

“The handling of this concern,” Ampophrenon went on, “was an early sticking point in our negotiations with the Empire. Rather than dwell upon it, we mutually decided that making a joint operation would help bind us together, and hopefully smooth over further points of difficulty.” He cast an unreadable look at Zanzayed, who grinned. “Thus, this has all turned out to be a rather more elaborate operation than, frankly, it strictly needed to be. More than half the point was to have the Conclave and the Empire working closely together. After seeing the number of people interested in joining this movement, however, I begin to worry we have created a problem where one did not exist.”

“The method is one we borrowed from the Black Wreath, Lord Ampophrenon,” the marshal said. Her outfit was still rather theatrical, with its black leather and red corset, but without the grisly wing-cloak and skull mask she was otherwise a much less impressive-looking woman, younger than middle age and with the dark hair and tilted eyes common to Sifan. “A wide net of recruitment brings in any remotely interested parties, most of whom want little more than to feel subversive. That attitude is particularly common among the wealthier classes. From there, we carefully weed out the truly motivated for more specific tasks, and a higher degree of trust. It’s a very effective strategy; there’s a reason the Wreath has relied on it for centuries.”

“Allow me to interrupt this self-congratulatory back-patting,” said Zanzayed. “The fact is I blatantly misused my rather tenuous connection to you, Principia, to make you a peripheral cog in this machine. You have my sincere apologies.”

“Only because you’re afraid of the Crow,” Principia said smugly.

His faint smile vanished. “I am not afraid of the Crow,” Zanzayed said testily. “I would rather not have another drawn-out exchange with her, though. Those are time-consuming and costly. In any case, you were never supposed to be in any danger. All of this was quite carefully planned; shining a bright light on you was merely a recruitment method to help us identify anybody who took the bait as a potential target. It was our assumption that a Legion-trained veteran Guild thief could deftly handle any such annoyances; we went to great lengths to keep you out of any real danger.”

“Which brings us to an extremely pertinent point on which I require information,” said Vex, steepling his fingers in front of his face. “We went to considerable trouble to have you and the Guild investigating a harmless gathering far from this fortress. And yet, here you are, and I confess I am without a clue as to how you learned of this. We have reliable reports placing your squad and a group of Guild enforcers en route to your intended target. What are you doing here, Sergeant Locke?”

Principia raised an eyebrow. “I already explained that to your agent, here.”

Vex turned his head, fixing the Marshal with an inquisitive look.

She cleared her throat. “Locke claimed to have been sent here by Vesk, sir.”

Vex simply looked back at Principia, showing no reaction to that news. “Interesting. That is the story you intend to stick with?”

“Believe what suits you,” she said with a shrug. “It’s possible it wasn’t Vesk, but a man matching his description materialized out of nowhere with none of the usual hallmarks of arcane or infernal rapid transit, possessing information there is—you yourself claim—no realistic way he could have, not to mention an aura which was absolutely blinding at that proximity. You probably already know this, but they don’t reveal their auras to elves unless they specifically wish to be recognized. If it wasn’t Vesk, it was another god masquerading as him, which… For our purposes and probably yours, comes out to the same thing.”

“Hmm,” Vex mused. “Lord Ampophrenon, I believe you are the resident expert on the gods. Have you any idea why he would take an interest in this matter?”

“With Lord Vesk, it is even more than usually difficult to say,” the dragon replied with a thoughtful frown. “He is capable of acting toward specific ends through quite elaborate means, just as they all are. There are records of him having done so. On the other hand, he also tends to intervene just because he thinks the outcome thus modified will make for a better story.” He glanced apologetically at Squad One. “If we consider Sergeant Locke and her troops as the likely protagonists here, that would seem to be the case. As I’m sure you can guess, those two motives provide excellent cover for each other. Vesk is a trickster god and less predictable in his motivations than even gods in general. It is an open question. I doubt that another deity would impersonate him, though. Only Elilial would show such disrespect, and I rather think she would find the prospect extremely insulting.”

Vex heaved a sigh. “Well…such is the world. All blasphemy aside, it seems sometimes that the gods only step in when they see a chance to cause more trouble.”

“Sounds like a fair observation to me,” Zanzayed said cheerfully. “Don’t make that face, Puff, it’ll freeze that way.”

“And so you set Saduko up to misdirect the Guild and the Sisterhood,” said Principia. “Exactly how many cults are you trying to antagonize?”

“I can only offer you my inadequate apologies, ladies,” Ampophrenon said, bowing. “We really did attempt to prevent you from being in a dangerous position. Lord Vesk’s intervention was unforeseeable.”

“Do you have some connection to Saduko, Marshal?” Farah inquired.

The marshal raised one eyebrow. “Right. By your apparent reasoning, Privates Avelea and Elwick must be long-lost sisters, being both of apparently Stalweiss descent.”

Farah flushed slightly. “I didn’t mean it like that. Was just a thought…”

“I am an Imperial citizen, born and raised,” the marshal said flatly. “And for your edification, my ancestors were Sheng, not Sifanese.”

“Anyway,” Farah said hastily, “if you weren’t expecting us to be there, how were you planning to bluff your followers? It looked a lot like you were actually trying to kill us.”

A grim silence fell over the room. The marshal stared expressionlessly at Farah.

“Because,” Farah said more hesitantly, “I mean, surely an Imperial agent wouldn’t—”

“Presented with an unforeseen situation with no good outcome,” Vex interrupted, “an Imperial agent keeps her eye on the broader situation and acts to complete her mission. Sometimes, our work necessitates extremely regrettable actions.”

“I believe I was clear on the subject of Locke and her crew being harmed,” Zanzayed remarked in a deceptively mild tone. “It’s fortunate they had a few surprises of their own handy, or you might have found your definition of ‘regrettable’ expanded.”

“While I am certain that you know your business, Lord Vex,” Ampophrenon added, “our honor was at stake in this matter as well. The Conclave would prefer that your agents remember to keep that in consideration when acting on any joint operation, henceforth.”

“I will definitely make a point of that to all operatives involved in Conclave-relevant assignments,” Vex said politely. “I am, of course, very grateful for your timely intervention; you seem to have saved us all a great deal of unpleasantness.”

“Some more than others,” Merry said coldly.

“Quite,” Vex replied, watching the squad through half-lidded eyes. “And you have my apologies as well, ladies. To reiterate, we did make a substantial effort to avoid placing you in harm’s way, but nonetheless, it is regrettable that your involvement put you at risk. Obviously, the Tiraan Empire wishes no harm to the Silver Legions.”

“Oh, obviously,” Principia said wryly.

“I must emphasize, Sergeant, ladies,” Vex replied in a subtly firmer tone, “that you are all Imperial citizens, and thus have a duty to the Silver Throne. You have my word that I shall personally see to arranging remuneration for your hardships. All these affairs, however, are strictly classified.”

“Noted,” said Principia in perfect calm. “I will be sure to include that in my report to the High Commander.”

Vex cleared his throat. “Perhaps you don’t take my meaning, Sergeant Locke…”

“Oh, I understand you just fine. I’m pretty good with subtext.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Casey said, barely above a whisper.

“I thought we’d already established that the unpleasantness was at an end?” said Zanzayed mildly.

“I’m sure you understand the necessity of security in this matter, Lord Zanzayed,” Vex replied, his eyes still on Principia. “With all respect, I would suggest that you speak with Lord Razzavinax before deciding on any courses of action.”

“I think you’d better think carefully about courses of action, Lord Vex,” Casey said sharply. “You’re not just dealing with the Sisters of Avei, here. Locke is still a member in good standing of the Thieves’ Guild. You know what they do to—”

“Elwick, enough,” Principia said quietly.

The marshal smiled sardonically. “I can’t possibly emphasize enough that Imperial Intelligence is not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Marshal,” Vex said sharply, and she fell silent. “Sergeant, there is no need for this hostile tone. Rather than exchanging threats, let’s see if we can reach a middle ground.”

“No, I think I’m pretty content exchanging threats, my lord,” Principia said calmly. “Bargaining is an action for people in a weaker position.”

“Ah, yes,” Vex said with a very faint smile. “Your sense of humor is all part of your legend. You are in Tiraas, Locke. Even on the other side of the planet you would not be beyond the reach of Imperial Intelligence. We are merely asking for a little consideration and respect—”

“Such as your agent showed by attempting to murder us,” Principia replied. “I am giving you considerably kinder treatment in return. Keeping secrets from my chain of command is not on the table. Zanzayed!” she said more loudly when Vex opened his mouth again. “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

The blue dragon raised an eyebrow. “Really, Prin? You want to chat now? Anyway, I thought we’d established that the matter was a ruse.”

“Sure,” she said equably, “but considering your goal was drawing attention to me and publicly making a connection, the ideal result was if I had agreed to a sit-down, and thus you’d have been prepared with a story if I went for it. You said it was family business, yes? I’ve been turning over and over in my mind just what business you could possibly have with my family, and all I can come up with is your several well-documented brawls with Mary the Crow.”

“She really is the most disagreeable person,” Zanzayed complained to Ampophrenon. “You have no idea.”

“I have met her,” the gold replied mildly. “I found her rather personable, in fact.”

“But beat-downs like that are rather out of character for her,” Principia continued, glancing at Vex, who remained silent. “Against someone like a dragon? If the Crow really considered you an enemy, she’d have carefully arranged for you to be dead, not torn up half the countryside boxing your scaly ears. Three times, that I know of. That is more like what she does with members of the bloodline who…disappoint her.”

“So we can assume she’s boxed your ears a time or two?” Merry suggested.

“The Crow doesn’t play too roughly with family who are too fragile for one of her legendary beatings,” Principia replied, glancing at her. “You asked me once, Lang, why I never pursued true mastery of arcane magic? That’s why. The more I think about this, though, the more I realize the only thing that would surprise me is if one of my aunts or grandmothers hadn’t carried on with a dragon at some point. A lot of them have done weirder things by far. So, Lord Vex, I do believe if you intended to threaten harm to me or anyone under my protection, you have placed yourself in a small room with the wrong dragon. Isn’t that right, cousin?” she asked Zanzayed.

He sighed. “Damn it, that was going to be my big reveal. Has anyone ever told you you suck the fun out of everything, Prin?”

“Nonsense, I am a non-stop barrel of laughs. At least, with people who aren’t involved in plots to murder me.”

“Regardless,” Zanzayed stated in a bored tone, “yes, she’s quite right. I feel the need to take this matter somewhat personally.”

“Zanzayed speaks not only for himself,” Ampophrenon added. “A dragon’s kin are considered sacred to all of us. The Conclave would take exception to any harm brought on Principia by the Empire.”

“You really shouldn’t stir up the Crowbloods anyway,” said Zanzayed with a grimace. “The only reason anybody gets any peace is they mostly don’t like each other, and they all have grudges with the Crow herself. You get two or more pointed in the same direction and you’re about to have a very bad day. Take it from someone who knows firsthand.”

“This is very fascinating information,” Vex said with a calm smile. “I would very much prefer to have known some of it before agreeing to involve Locke in this operation in the first place.”

“Family business is none of yours,” Zanzayed replied with a toothy grin.

“I hope we can consider the issue resolved now?” Ampophrenon asked. “To make our position unequivocally clear, it is not reasonable to suggest that Principia Locke or her troops should try to conceal these events from the Sisterhood of Avei. Any reprisal against them for making a full report will damage the Empire’s relationship with the Conclave of the Winds.”

“What he means,” said Zanzayed, his smile widening alarmingly, “is that Eleanora will be tetchy after I have personally dropped you in the center of the ocean.”

“Zanzayed,” Ampophrenon said reprovingly.

“I have told you over and over, Puff, that it’s necessary to be polite and considerate of mortals if you mean to get on their good side. Which is true. The other half of that equation, though, is that it tends to make some of them forget they are addressing a being who can unmake their entire world with a sneeze. Once in a while, a gentle reminder is constructive.”

“Well, it sounds like you lads have things to discuss,” Principia said. “We’ll be going, then.” Shouldering her lance, she turned and strode past her squad to the conference room’s nearest door.

“I’ll be in touch, cuz!” Zanzayed said brightly, waving from his chair. “Since we’re both living in town now, we’ve gotta get together!”

“Ugh,” she muttered, pulling the door open and stepping through. The squad filed out after her, Farah shutting it behind and sealing in the remainder of Lord Vex’s conversation with the dragons.

Soldiers were about in the fortress as if nothing had ever happened; they were walking, chatting, cleaning, standing guard and doing all the things troops on duty in a boring position in peacetime tended to do. Nothing about the scene was unfamiliar or eerie to Squad One. The Imperial troops gave them curious looks, several respectful greetings and even a salute or two, but they were not stopped. There was nowhere the merest hint that this vital fortification had been completely deserted an hour ago.

They kept quiet until they had descended from the upper conference room to the ground floor and finally emerged into the street. The fog was lifting, though the sky remained overcast, and Tiraas was altogether livelier and brighter than when they had come this way in the first place.

“I can’t believe you tried to arrest them,” Merry said once they were a block distant from the gates. “Did you really think that would work?”

“Of course not,” Principia said without breaking stride.

“Why do it, then?” Ephanie asked. “All due respect, Sarge, trying to assert authority you don’t have just makes you look weak.”

Principia’s eyes darted swiftly about, taking in the nearby scenery without betraying her glance with a move of the head. It was still early in the day, and they weren’t drawing much attention. Still, she turned sharply, taking them off the city’s central avenue and down a quieter side street before answering in a low tone.

“Because a god was involved. Where one is working, it’s a virtual guarantee that others are at least paying attention. I’ve been a faithful servant of Eserion for longer than you four have collectively been alive. I’ve also had no shortage of brushes with Avei—not personally, but I’ve had my hands on a number of sacred objects and rubbed shoulders with her priestesses. I’ve more recent reason to believe she is aware of me. More to the point, girls, those specific two gods, the ones with the greatest likelihood of noticing what was happening here, were the ones most likely to take an interest. Here we have powerful men behind locked doors abusing people for their own benefit. I gave them the chance to submit to justice, and they blew me off. If Eserion or Avei were paying attention, they are now pissed.” She finally glanced back at the others, all of whom were watching her raptly. “If I’m going to have the Conclave of the Winds and Imperial goddamn Intelligence batting at my tail, I would rather have deities take an interest in teaching them humility than have to deal with it myself.”

“Do you think that’ll work?” Farah asked.

Principia shrugged. “You never can tell with gods. It was worth the attempt, anyway.”

“You didn’t invoke Avei’s name,” Casey pointed out. “Wouldn’t that have helped?”

“A sergeant in the Silver Legions doesn’t have that right,” said Ephanie. “It takes more than a little rank in the actual clergy to speak on Avei’s behalf. If the goddess was watching, she would have been offended at the presumption. That’s taking her name in vain.”

“What’s done is done,” Principia said. “Keep the pace up, ladies; I have a feeling our next appointment is going to be even less fun than the last one.”


 

Commander Rouvad paced slowly along the length of the table that had been set up in the underground gymnasium Squad One had used to practice, examining the armor and weapons laid out upon it. Off to one side stood Captain Dijanerad, her expression grim, and a much more serene Bishop Shahai. Also present was General Tagheved, the commander of the Third Legion. A silver-haired woman whose frame was corded with muscle and not diminished in the slightest by age, she watched the proceedings with an unreadable expression.

Squad One stood at a respectful distance, at attention. They were still in full armor, with the exception of Principia, who was dressed only in her white regulation tunic and trousers. It was her armor currently laid out for examination.

“Shielding charms,” Commander Rouvad said at last, reaching out to slide a fingertip along Principia’s breastplate. “Do you know why the Army doesn’t rely on them, Sergeant Locke?”

“For three reasons, Commander,” Principia said crisply. “Because it is always better policy to avoid spellfire than to try to repel it, because Imperial infantry prioritizes mobility above defense, and because the portable charms they are able to carry are serviceable against wandfire but unable to stand up to heavier weapons, like staves. Large metallic objects hold enchantments much better than light uniforms, and armor takes defensive charms very well due to sympathetic principles.”

“Mm,” Rouvad mused, slowly rounding the head of the table and pacing down its other side, her eyes still on its contents. “What other augmentations did you make?”

“Silencing and tracking concealment charms on the boots,” Principia reported. “Much heavier defensive charms on the shields, including a feature whereby the phalanx’s shields magnetically lock together to share a single defensive barrier. They are also equipped to disperse incoming magical energy into the ground, which requires a sizable metallic apparatus to function. This wasn’t tested today, but if it works it should enable a squad to stand up to much heavier fire at the cost of mobility. Charms on the helmet enhance night vision while protecting the wearer from excessive light and sound.”

“Risky,” Tagheved grunted. “You impede your senses in battle, you die.”

Principia stood silently at attention. Rouvad finally raised her head to glance at her.

“Answer her, Sergeant.”

“Yes, ma’am. Modern enchanting is much more precise than that, ma’am. The light-filtering charms are specifically designed to keep a soldier’s visibility at optimum level; it is resistant to flares and improves vision in darkness. I wasn’t able to work it to penetrate smoke, but I’m confident that is achievable. The sonic dampener only activates at a level of sound which is injurious to hearing; in the presence of such noise, soldiers would communicate by hand signals anyway.”

“Mm,” Taghaved said noncommittally.

The High Commander picked up Principia’s lance and held it to the light, peering at the subtly positioned switch on the haft.

“Will this thing fire if I press the button, Locke?”

“Negative, ma’am. That switch releases the firing mechanism. It can’t fire until you’ve pressed the button.”

Rouvad did so, and a narrow vertical slice of the shaft slid inward, a staff-sized clicker mechanism sliding out in its place. At the same time, the spearhead parted down the center, revealing the firing crystal.

“This would have to be partially hollow, then,” Rouvad mused. “That would seriously impair the structural strength of your weapon. Right?”

“Negative, ma’am. It is designed like a standard battlestaff, which means a hollow core of alchemically augmented metal to hold the engravements channeling the firing charge. It’s actually stronger than our steel-cored wooden lances.”

The Commander tilted the lance, studying the parted spearhead. “You can’t tell me this doesn’t utterly gut the physical integrity of the blade.”

“Correct, ma’am. The blade is enchanted to compensate, but that is sub-optimal. It’s a basic rule of enchantment not to do through magic what is more easily done physically. The use of a crystal firing surface is also not ideal; they burn and crack after prolonged use. That weapon is a prototype; it has substantial room for improvement. I was working on a tight schedule.”

“Incredible,” Rouvad murmured, poking at the base of the parted spearhead with a fingertip. “I can’t even see the hinges. I didn’t know you were a metalsmith on top of your numerous other talents, Locke.”

“The physical design was done by a Svennish engineer working in the city, ma’am. He has thoughts on how to improve it, but again… I had to rush them into service.”

“And I press the button again to return it to spear form?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Rouvad thumbed the release, and the clicker slid back into the haft, the spearhead snapping back together. “Awfully close to the clicker when it’s out. In a combat situation you could accidentally disarm your weapon.”

“Yes, ma’am, I noticed that. I plan to rotate the release switch forty-five degrees along the haft and position it several inches forward to reduce that risk. In the next iteration.”

“Why,” Rouvad asked, carefully setting the lance down, “did you feel the need to do this, Locke?”

Principia hesitated, glancing over at the other officers present. Shahai and Tagheved remained impassive, but Dijanerad scowled at her. “Permission to speak freely, Commander?”

“Oh, this should be absolutely priceless,” Rouvad said with a heavy sigh. “Permission granted.”

“Ma’am, the Silver Legions are totally unprepared for combat in this century. We are coasting on the goodwill of the Tiraan Empire and the historically naïve presumption that large-scale military resistance to Avei’s aims will never be faced again. Right now, one for one, any Tiraan and most other military organizations would obliterate a Silver Legion unit of corresponding size in any open confrontation. We are not trained, equipped or prepared for combat with energy weapons. We aren’t prepared to contend with teleporting battlemages, zeppelin air support, mag artillery or tactical scrying. We have nothing that could even begin to stand up to an Imperial strike team, with the possible exception of a Hand of Avei—and frankly the nature of strike teams makes them powerful counters to any magic user, no matter how potent. Commander, if the Silver Legions go to war—any war—as we are, we will be utterly destroyed.”

Deafening silence weighed on the room.

“And of course,” Rouvad said finally, “you believe you are the only person in all of Avei’s legions to have thought of any of this, Sergeant Locke.”

Again, Principia hesitated. “With the greatest respect, High Commander, I have been aware of the Silver Legions longer than you have been alive. They have not changed in that time. What anyone has thought is unknown to me; I only see that nothing has been done.”

“Right,” Rouvad said in a dangerously soft tone. “Because from the exalted rank of sergeant, you are positioned to see everything being done in every Legion on every continent.”

Principia remained silent.

“You enabled her to do this, Shahai?” Rouvad said, turning to stare at the Bishop.

“I arranged this space in which Sergeant Locke could drill her squad,” Shahai said in perfect equanimity. “I was unaware of the specifics of her plans, though I guessed the general sense of it. In hindsight, I stand by that decision. This is good work. A good start, at least.”

“A good start undertaken without authorization, without her commanding officer even knowing of it,” Rouvad grated.

“Remind me, Nandi,” Dijanerad said flatly. “When did I interfere in the running of your command?”

“Enough, Captain,” General Tagheved said.

“I’m sorry if you felt stepped upon, Shahdi,” Shahai replied calmly. “I was given provisional authority over this squad for the duration of my mission. I judged this to be mission-relevant. Indeed, it appears to have saved their lives during the course of this duty. Not only have we not lost five valuable soldiers today, but they have come home with extremely pertinent intelligence.” She gave Rouvad a pointed look.

“I don’t know how many times it is worth bothering to lecture you about the chain of command, Locke,” Rouvad grated. “You do not just run off and do things. You are a sergeant; your decision-making prerogatives are specific and limited, and have been thoroughly explained to you. Major undertakings such as this are to go through the chain of command. You have no idea what is happening at the level above you—any of those numerous levels! Running off to completely alter your squad’s method of operation without your commanding officer’s consent or even knowledge could get good women killed in a crisis.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

“No, Locke,” Rouvad said, and suddenly her tone was purely weary. “You don’t understand. I can go on and on about it, but you’ll only ever think of authority as something you have to circumvent. You are such an utter Eserite at heart… Well, despite what you persist in believing, in the military it is not easier to seek forgiveness than permission. The difference is you might get permission.”

She picked up the lance again, tapping its point against the table. “This is good work, Locke. If you had come up with a proposal for this, I would have cleared it. Your squad’s whole purpose is to explore new methods of operation for the Legions. I would have funded it! And now, since you can’t seem to demonstrate your competence without undercutting your credibility, I have to drag the source of one of the most promising developments I’ve seen in years over the coals before you go down in flames and take your entire squad down with you!”

“What you need to do,” Shahai said calmly, “is give Locke a slap on the wrist and a pat on the head. And then a research budget.”

“I didn’t ask your opinion, Captain Shahai,” Rouvad snapped.

“You’re getting it for free,” Shahai replied. “You badly need to stop trying to browbeat these women into place, Farzida.”

The High Commander rounded on her. “You will not speak to me in that manner in front of soldiers I am in the process of disciplining!”

“Or what?” the Bishop shot back, a sharp edge to her own voice now. “You’ll fire me? Do it, Farzida. I have plenty of hobbies I can pursue until the next High Commander realizes I’m too valuable to leave collecting dust in Viridill. You brought me into this to serve as a liason, to be a calmer voice where you can’t afford to; well, that is exactly what I am doing.

“Soldiers fight and die for each other. You know this. They’ll do the same for a commander who is one of them. Respect is earned, not commanded; you know that as well as any soldier and better than many. Have you thought at all about this squad’s experience in the Legions and how it would affect them? They have been singled out, persecuted, forced to circumvent the chain of command to ensure their very survival, and finally had to watch as the quite frankly unhinged agent who did all this to them was given a pittance of punishment and a promise that she will be back! And now you upbraid them for assuming their officers can’t be trusted? Honestly, Farzida, would you trust you?

“The problem,” she went on fervently, “is that you have to be the Commander with them. They don’t have the privilege of seeing how you agonize over this, how you grieve for soldiers under your command mistreated by others, how it grinds on you having to keep a creature like Basra Syrinx on the rolls because her particular brand of viciousness is something we can’t function without in this tangled modern world. What makes you such a good leader, Farzida—one of the things—is that you hurt the same as your troops hurt, whenever they do. But these women here have never seen that. You’ve never let them; I understand why you cannot afford to. You’ve shown them a cold bureaucrat who seems bent on getting them killed.

“Each of these women are in this Legion because they have nowhere else to go. Well, the Legion has formed them into a unit. Now we badly need to make them understand that they need the Legion as much as the Legion needs them before they start to realize that as a unit, they could go anywhere, do anything they like, and handle anything thrown at them. Because we do need them. Badly. You know and I know how right Locke is; we’re in no way prepared for what we all know will have to come eventually. Right here are represented the talents and the mindset that can help bring the Legions and the Sisterhood forward and ensure our very survival.

“You and Locke have got to start respecting each other on a personal level, and if that’s not good for the chain of command, so be it. For the goddess’s sake, you two would get along swimmingly if you didn’t have so bloody much in common!”

Captain Dijanerad looked shocked by the time Shahai’s speech came to an end, but General Tagheved only watched the elf with an expression of mild amusement. Rouvad stared at her, utterly blank-faced.

The silence stretched out, and none of Squad One dared disturb it with so much as an injudicious breath.

“Sergeant Locke,” the High Commander said suddenly, turning to stare at her. “You will personally scrub every inch of your cabin with your own two hands until it is in new condition. The rest of your squad, since not a one of them had the thought to go over your head when you decided to spit on the chain of command, can do the same with your cohort’s parade ground. Quit doing crap like this, Principia. I have all my future gray hairs carefully planned and have none to waste on you. And…” She set down the lance. “This is damn fine work, Locke. Starting tomorrow, I want you to submit material and budgetary estimates to Captain Dijanerad for the continuation of this research. Squad Three Nine One will continue to have access to this facility for drilling; your mission statement is now expanded to include research and development of modern weaponry and defenses suitable for incorporation into Silver Legion equipment and the necessary techniques to use them.”

She paused, glanced around at all the women present, then sighed and shook her head. “And now I have to go contend with the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence. Fortunately, I’ll probably have the Guild on my side for this, disconcerting as that is. General, if you’ve anything further to say to this lot, they’re all yours.”

The High Commander turned and strode off toward the far door, leaving them behind.

General Tagheved watched her go, then turned a contemplative expression on Squad One.

“You’re a poor excuse for a soldier, Locke,” she said thoughtfully. “But you’re the kind of poor soldier who sometimes makes a priceless officer in tumultuous times. You watch your step. Dismissed, ladies.”

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57 thoughts on “9 – 37

  1. Well, this is up three hours late. My sincere and humble apologies. The fault rests squarely on my terrible, terrible ISP; I had it done an hour early, and that was about when my internet cut out.

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  2. Typo: ““I’m sorry if you felt stepped upon, Shahdi,” Shahai replied calmly.” – I kind of doubt that Shahdi is the one apologizing to Shahdi.

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  3. i can see why the crowbloods don’t go in much for family reunions; that’s a family tree that fits the colloquial definition of “interesting”.

    this book’s taken me one one fantastic ride after another. i’m only sorry i haven’t commented more to say so.

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  4. What a very interesting chapter. Loved the resolutions to all open questions. Principia continues to be awesome, if not entirely lucky.😀

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  5. Great chapter, although I feel the Zanzayed reveal could have been improved with some foreshadowing of his tussles with the Crow and her propensity to slap around disappointing Crowbloods. Unless it was there and I missed it.

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  6. Oh, this is great. Can you imagine Triss’ chagrin when Zanza and Squad one show up as partners in crime on some battlefield and Prin’s just like, “By the way, the spoony dragon is also related to you”? I love everything about it.

    Beyond that, the talk with both Vex and Rouvad was very enlightening and as a whole the chapter was very well done. Delays happen sometimes, and I’ve yet to read a chapter of this that wasn’t worth the wait.

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  7. It’s easy to forget sometimes how many moves ahead Prin is thinking, despite how many times it’s been shown before. That play to effect divine reaction to events in the middle of everything else deserves major props.

    And what we learned about the Mary today reads as foreshadowing as what could be a monumental fight eventually, if and when she comes to decide a certain Hand needs to be taught a lesson.

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    1. The difficulty with Mary teaching Trissiny a lesson is that Divine magic interferes with fae magic, and Mary can’t just overcome that with brute force and clever thinking since, as a paladin, Trissiny would a comparable amount of brute force, and as a student of Tellwyrn, will eventually get to the point where she’s plenty clever.

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      1. Mary’s a couple millennia old. I would be very surprised if she hasn’t figured out a way to beat Divine magic users yet.

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      2. Triss? Clever? Nah I don’t see it happening. Perhaps she’ll come up with the odd bit of cleverness here and there (a nicely timed surprise could really throw off Embras, for example), but thinking and planning ot even improvising really aren’t ever going to be her strong point. Even were she inclined that way, Avei saw to that.

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  8. Historical note: By the end o João Goulard government and beginning of the military dictatorship that followed it there was a communist, than resistance movement founded or aided by a very good orator.
    Almost everybody in this movement was arrested, most were tortured and than killed. It seems that the good orator in question was a lieutenant of the military, with possible and likely affiliations to the CIA.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Typos:

    engravements
    engravings (?)

    liason
    liaison

    Each of these women are
    Each… is

    Reactions:

    Wow, so many larger implications and connections…

    So Zanzayed is the favorite punching bag for elvish archmages – one brawl with Arachne and three with Mary (that are known – more are possible). That is highly amusing. (And to say that to his face you better be in their weight class.)

    The only serious fight we have seen Mary in was the prior one with Khadizroth, and she had slightly-more-than-meat shields there. Now that we know she has more fights, with a dragon even, that gives extra weight to her badass status. Previously, it was possible that she mostly won by intimidation, manipulation, and patience, but with this and Arachne’s unwillingness to get into a fight with her, she is clearly in a seriously high weight class.

    Zanzayed is a Crowblood. Which gives him the “privilege” of brawling with Mary when he does something objectionable. I am guessing this is a family thing – Mary feels she can interact with family in ways that would be counterproductive for others.

    Deity manipulation 101: Act as if they are watching and point out where your opponents oppose the deity’s interests. Still sounds like juggling atomic weapons, but with the added benefit that they might go off in someone else’s face.

    Despite her apparent unmoving nature, Rouvad is amazingly able to accept her own mistakes, even if someone has to cram it down her throat to get to that point. In my experience, this is quite rare in a leader.

    “you two would get along swimmingly if you didn’t have so bloody much in common!”
    Snicker. Applies just as well to the Crowbloods.

    The Silver Legions really haven’t been modernizing? I guess that’s possible with the backing of a deity and her cult that they have the ability to be complacent, but really, that’s dangerous.

    I sympathize with Prin. A couple of times at work I had to hide projects until I had a working prototype, because otherwise they would have been shut down. But when you can show just how well it actually works, things are different.

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    1. 1) Are you sure Zanza is a crowblood? I got the sense that he was cousin to the crowbloods, I didn’t see any direct relation implied.

      2) I was thinking that Bishop Shahai made some extremely apt points to Rovaud, but in a way that all but guarantees she can’t act on them in the best way possible. I get the sense that the narrative is going to move on ignoring this point (which isn’t unrealistic, it’s just an opinion that things wouldn’t actually happen this way).

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      1. “Are you sure Zanza is a crowblood?”

        Insufficient evidence – this is the first we have known about it. He could be family directly (offspring of a Crowblood) or indirectly (had a child by one). The likelihood that Mary would go around spanking him is (I think) higher if he is actually direct family rather than indirect family. That means the likelihood he is direct family is higher than that he is indirect family.

        “but in a way that all but guarantees she can’t act on them in the best way possible”

        I agree – it would have been less costly in “face” for Rovoud to change her mind if the Bishop had made those points in private. The fact that it worked anyway led to my remark about how few leaders could actually do that. However, if Rovoud appreciates irony, this scene had some symmetry with the scene where Rovoud dressed down Basra in front of Squad 1, and some personality types appreciate the “can you take what you dish out” argument.

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  10. Because it is always better policy to avoid spellfire than to try to repel it, because Imperial infantry prioritizes mobility above defense, and because the portable charms they are able to carry are serviceable against wandfire but unable to stand up to heavier weapons, like staves.

    Given that this story is reflecting the early 20th century, it seems likely that the Great Doom that’s been prophecized might be something like World War 1. And if the Silver Legions tried to fight in WW1 with that philosophy, well, they’d be slaughtered so incredibly badly, like France was.

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  11. Just wow. All the reveals sent my head spinning.

    Btw, I remembered the orc in “Along came the spider”. Will we be seeing more of them? If yes, I can’t wait to know how the author plans to twist the stereotype.

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    1. Orcs are in a permanent state of war with the empire, after the empire nuked their country, killed their god and turned the remains into a haunted hellscape.

      Chances are, any orc we meet will be hostile.

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  12. And, the important question of “why is Zanzi an irreverent pain who, incidentally, grabbed at the colour blue?” is suddenly answered by “of course he is and was: to annoy the materfamilias”.😀

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    1. I get why Principia was discouraged from becoming a mage, arcanists are somewhat discriminated against among elves. Not to mention that she’d become too much like Arachne.😉
      But a dragon? Was Mary disappointed he didn’t become green?

      I still think it’s a waste. Look what a dabbler like Principia managed on a small budget and with little time. Imagine what she could do if she was a proper mage with funding. Imagine what all the elves could do if they embraced that side of theirs.

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      1. With regard to a “small budget,” Principia’s modest lifestyle tends to make people forget that she’s hoarded the results of two centuries of major cons. She’s ridiculously wealthy, largely because she doesn’t spend her money except at need.

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      2. That was Peepers, not Gimmick. And she gave her access to the accounts, because Prin doesn’t much care what happens to her money.

        Peepers is now living in a cheap apartment in a shabby area of the city. The money is an insurance policy, basically, and one she doesn’t dip into often for the same reason Prin doesn’t: a good Eserite (which both of them are) cares about how things are acquired, not about having lots of shiny stuff.

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      3. Oh, I see. I thought Principia gave away all her money. So Peepers only has access.

        Ok, that makes more sense. So Prin was able to throw around money like a wealthy noble to get things done quickly. Neat.🙂

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    1. That’d go against the Eserion’s way of not getting involved. I mean, if he disapproves of his high priest calling upon divine light, I can’t imagine him creating a paladin.

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      1. Agreed. But, letting a follower train herself up in ways that might prove advantageous for bother her and him down the line… while testing and impacting somebody else’s systems? Totally his MO.🙂

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    2. That seems unlikely, IMO, but it is worth thinking about because there are few things that Eserion could do that would piss Avei off more.

      Avei: “You chose a paladin who abandoned my paladin at birth, harassed my paladin later on, and who is now in my service, meaning you are either trying to subvert me or take her away from me. DIE!”

      We haven’t seen a deity on deity fight yet, but I bet it makes fights with dragons look like a two-year old’s tantrum in comparison. The next continent seems good this time of year.

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      1. On a god on god fight between Avei and Eserion, Avei would curb stomp Eserion. Eserion is all about avoiding direct fights, while Avei is all about entering direct fights. Plus I think it’s safe to assume Avei, being one of the big three pantheon gods, has more raw power. Who knows though, maybe Shaath will make Jeremiah Shook his paladin if Shook ever attempts to rape Trissiny, and a war breaks out that way.

        And being a paladin would make Prin really stick out to everyone. Her masterpiece was being undetected by the Guild and making everyone assume she was some average asshole; being a paladin would mean she’d never get to do anything like that again, and everyone would be on alert for being scammed in her presence. It’d undermine her efforts completely. A picture of her would probably be given to every chief of police and would be considered automatically suspect whenever a major crime happens.

        Eserion might make her some sort of more direct agent, give her occasional telepathic instructions like “Hey Prin, would you mind robbing this fellow? He’s actually the civilian identity of Embras Mogul, and it’d be pretty helpful. Thanks.”

        But anything more is pushing it.

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      2. @ Jeray

        Remember what Prin called herself a while back? “Favored Agent of Eserion”

        To me, it sounds like she might have -been- his hatchetman before Triss happened.
        And who says she would have to tell the general public she’s a paladin? Or what gifts an Eserite paladin would get?

        @unmaker

        I’m not sure Avei would mind. Remember the bar scene? Avei was hanging around the bar, with Eserion right next to her. Plus from the Eserite point of view they’re on the same side.

        It is possible Eserion is the spymaster to Avei’s general.

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      3. Eserion: “Chill, sis: it all builds character, and you know it.”
        Avei: “… I refuse to rise to that obvious verbal bait, you troll. *pause* What else are you hiding that could be pertinent to our current discussion? And, limit the weaseling, thank you.”
        Eseion: “Nothing beyond the usual, if you must know.” *truthful innocence gleams brightly through a casual shrug*
        Avei: *disgustedly drinks her brandy in one go, wincing*

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I suspect that when and if Eserion chooses a paladin, their status will be known only to themselves and maybe to the Boss of the Guild.

        And their divine light won’t be in the visible spectrum.

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  13. I could see him designating a Hand of Eserion who doesn’t rely on divinity, though, for a couple reasons.
    1) A Hand of Eserion could legitimately work outside the system, thus enabling the eserites to better counter corrupt systems
    2) As we’ve seen with Gabriel, a Paladin can be devastatingly effective even without a connection to the divine if they have the right training.
    3) The chief attribute of a Hand of Eserion would not be an ability to out-fight an enemy–remember, Eserion is not just the god of thieves, he is the patron of cunning–which is something that divine magic has almost no usefulness in.

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    1. Except… Gabe is capable of using divine magic, as well as getting increasingly good at it (having constant snark at your side helps; doubled when she knows she always has a Valkyrie audience to play to). Well, with the exceptions Vidius has put in place to the whole “burn all demons” thing.😛

      And, Darling has access to divine magic. Sure, he doesn’t use it much because that’s counter the whole “DIY or bust” approach … But, when you are faced with having to play with demons, it is the better tool in your belt to use, so it’s not like the Big Guy would get at him for it.:/

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      1. Darling has used the divine gifts a lot more recently. He studied with the holy summoners and learned a few new tricks.

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  14. No chapter yet, guys.

    I got started on it much earlier in the day than usual; I wanted to have it done early, maybe posted a bit early. I’ve still got plenty of work to do on the special project I intend to post this weekend.

    And then my computer shut itself down and forced me to update to Windows 8.1.

    Now, I know what people say about Win8, and sure, it’s not a great OS, but I’ve never had trouble getting it to work. So I’d been telling the computer “no” when it wanted to update before, just because I didn’t want to fool with it. Seemed like an unnecessary hassle. As it got progressively more insistent, I changed my update settings to stop it from doing things without authorization. Yesterday it insisted I needed this update, so I turned updates off entirely.

    Didn’t work. Today, sudden update. Because fuck you, we’re Microsoft.

    Eight hours this thing sat there on a loading screen. Eight. Hours. Chapter half done, posting deadline come and gone, and me thinking the whole time this fucking thing has bricked my computer. Eight hours!

    I finally rigged up an old wifi router I had buried in a closet and got on the tablet I only use when I’m in town to look up troubleshooting for this update. Microsoft said to try turning it off and on again.

    Because of course they did.

    So…I did that. Computer came back up, said “couldn’t apply update” and reverted me to my previous version of Windows 8.

    Eight hours! Gone.

    So that is why there’s no chapter. I’m back on it now, but this is a long one and it was a little less than half finished. It’s likely to be a few more hours. I’m sorry.

    And needless to say, I am beyond furious.

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    1. ughh mircosoft and their update policy and rly drive you nuts
      in win 10 you cant even tell microsoft to NOT update something at all
      that said thx for telling us what happened

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    2. About two weeks ago MS changed the optional Win10 upgrade to “recommended”. If you had automatic updates enabled and enabled the “treat recommended updates like important ones”, then your computer automatically upgraded to Win10 and informed you after the fact. Especially fun if you have a slow internet connection and have to wait for the huge download to finish.

      It seems like they expanded it now.

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      1. After this bullroar I have turned off updates completely. I’ll manually check for security updates and choose what to download from now on.

        I absolutely do not want the Orwellian mess that is Windows 10. Microsoft has no need to know what I do on my own damn computer.

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      2. I agree, that’s what I’ve been doing for years. Just last week MS tried to sneak in the “Get Win10” app -again- after I told them to get lost.

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