10 – 3

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Between wanting to have this over with and being unable to get back to sleep, Ingvar ended up at the temple very early. Dawn was well-risen, the sky a pale gray and fiery in the east, but on city time that meant the night dwellers had long since staggered home and most people were still asleep. The convenient thing about paying a visit to soldiers was that they could be relied upon to be up with the dawn and probably already working. On the other hand, it was a strangely early hour for visiting. Not to mention that soldiers probably didn’t appreciate having their work interrupted first thing—or maybe they did; Ingvar had little notion what soldiers even did in peaceful times.

Plus, there were the obvious pitfalls of coming here.

Though not wishing to be indecisive, especially after Hrathvin’s upbraiding the night before, he found himself pausing at the foot of the steps of the Temple of Avei, staring uncertainly up at it. He remembered the back entrance to the Silver Legion grounds, but walking into an Avenist military base dressed in his full Huntsman gear was a very different prospect alone than when he had been in the company of a Bishop, several brother Huntsmen, and a squad of actual Legionnaires. Oh, and the Eserites, whatever use they were. Generally, clerics were easier to approach than warriors. Hopefully.

He was galvanized into action, not by having reached a conclusion, but by the subtle shifts in posture of the Legionnaires guarding the temple’s entrance, making it plain they were watching him almost to the exclusion of all else.

Carefully keeping his hand away from his tomahawk, Ingvar mounted the steps, nodding respectfully to one of the armored women in passing. She continued turning her head to stare at him, making no gesture in reply. He could barely see the glint of eyes behind her helmet, but could not make out an expression. Didn’t they usually forgo helmets on city guard duty? It wasn’t as if he’d ever paid close attention to the Legions, but he recalled having heard that somewhere.

The temple’s main sanctuary was quiet, currently inhabited only by a handful of Legionnaires posted at regular intervals along the walls and a couple of priestesses at the back, near the great statue of Avei. A few other women in white, some robed, some wearing simple tunics, passed through, most giving him suspicious looks, which he ignored. He also tried to avoid looking at the statue, unable to shake the irrational impression that the goddess was glaring at him. It was bright and peaceful, though, illuminated by fairy lamps. Obviously, no major temple ever closed, but there had evidently been no great business of war or justice overnight, nor any female emergencies. Whatever those might entail.

Well, he was here, now. His half-formed idea of speaking with a priestess and seeking permission to approach the Legion grounds was apparently the one he was going with. That was probably for the best, anyway.

“Are you lost?”

One of the priestesses approached him, a rather diminutive woman of swarthy, sharp-featured Tiraan stock. Her expression was very, very neutral. Ingvar carefully repositioned himself to face her directly, showing full attention even though an Avenist was unlikely to understand or appreciate the gesture, and bowed.

“I don’t believe so. I wish to speak with a Silver Legionnaire. Have I come too early in the morning?”

The priestess raised her eyebrows in mild surprise, turning her head to look pointedly at one of the soldiers standing at attention at the base of a nearby column.

“A…specific Legionnaire,” Ingvar clarified, feeling rather foolish. “I’m sorry, I’m not aware of the Legion’s…visitation policies. I don’t wish to…violate any rules.”

He hated himself a little for the hesitant tone, but it was the simple truth; he didn’t know the rules here, and the fact that Avenists were champions of weird and socially destructive ideas didn’t mean he was obligated to spit in their faces. He certainly wouldn’t get anywhere with them that way.

“What is this about?” the cleric asked.

“It is a religious matter,” he said, then hastily continued when her eyebrows climbed still further. “She knows me. I simply have a question to ask; it won’t take long.”

“A religious matter,” the woman mused. “I assume you are aware that religious matters between Shaathists and Avenists are rarely amicable.”

“Yes,” he said as calmly as he could. “And some men—and women—of lesser character take that as an excuse for rudeness. I see no benefit in treating people disrespectfully.”

Her expression did not soften, precisely, but she looked slightly more interested at that. “I see.”

“Sister, if I may?” The priestess glanced aside at the armored Legionnaire who had approached while they were talking, and nodded. The soldier nodded back and turned to Ingvar. “Who are you looking for, Huntsman?”

For a moment, he was tongue-tied. He recognized this one, obviously: Ephanie, Feldren’s runaway wife. She was a distinctive beauty, and he vividly recalled escorting her squad with Brother Andros. That was the problem: it was inappropriate to speak so directly with another man’s wife in his absence and without his permission, and anyway, he ought not to acknowledge her at all until Feldren brought her to heel. This conversation had the potential to encompass multiple insults to his fellow Huntsman.

On the other hand, she knew Shaath’s ways, might even recognize him, and most importantly, was in the same squadron as Locke. He couldn’t possibly ask for a more useful person to run into. Well, his whole presence here was placing practicality above tradition—might as well continue in that vein while the opportunity was before him. These things didn’t just happen, and the fates tended not to hold out another hand if one disdained their first offer.

Barely a second had passed while he furiously deliberated. He could tell by Ephanie’s wry expression that she had marked the hesitation, but he turned to her and bowed politely before it could stretch out any further. “Ah, good morning. In fact I would like to speak with your squad mate, Principia Locke, if possible.”

Now it was Ephanie’s turn to raise her eyebrows in surprise. “Locke? Sorry, but what do you want with her?”

“It’s…” He glanced at the priestess again. “It is a spiritual matter, pertaining to a vision. I actually need to ask about a family connection of hers.”

Ephanie pursed her lips. “She won’t like that. Locke doesn’t get on with her family.”

“All right,” Ingvar said, struggling to keep his expression neutral and tone polite. “And she is under no obligation to talk to me, of course. But I would like to ask her, please. It’s important.”

“He’s a fairly respectful young…man,” the priestess said, glancing at Ingvar, and he fought back a sigh. “It’s not as if they are banned from the temple grounds. I’ll leave this to your judgment, private; she’s your sergeant.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Ephanie said respectfully, bowing to her. Ingvar took note of that. So they only saluted other Legionnaires, then? Weren’t the clergy above them? Such observations were just habit, of course; Shaath grant that the structure of the Sisterhood never became something he needed to pay attention to. Brother Andros had encouraged his political perceptiveness, and he tried to be in the habit of practicing it.

“It’s this way,” Ephanie said to him, half-turning toward the far end of the sanctuary. “This actually is a very good time for you to visit. Breakfast is about to be served, no one’s on duty yet, and we don’t have the day’s orders.”

“Good,” he said, then belatedly added, “My thanks.” She glanced back with a faint smile, and he simply followed her the rest of the way across the sanctuary and through the doors in the back corner. Eyes tracked them the whole way.

There weren’t many people about in the temple yet, but those they did pass gave him very sharp looks, several stopping to stare rudely. At least nobody accosted them, since he was clearly in the company of a Silver Legionnaire. Ingvar did his best to ignore them.

Of course, that left him with the problem of where to direct his eyes.

The Legion armor was modest, he had to give them that; he could see basically nothing of the shape of her body through it. As a downside, however, that left him staring at her most attractive visible feature: her rare, flame-red hair. That was hardly proper, nor respectful. It was a quandry, though, since his inability to actually see her rump or the curve of her waist didn’t make him comfortable casting his eyes in their general direction. Ingvar finally decided to study the interior of the temple as they passed, and lifted his gaze just in time to get a very hostile look from a priestess who had halted in a cross-hall, planting her hands on her hips.

Maybe he should have affected a less traditional style of dress for this visit, and foregone the weapons. On the other hand, so far, this was going about the way he had expected, and better than he had feared. If he was going to encounter opposition, better to do it honorably, without sneaking around.

“So…Locke made sergeant?” he offered, casting back to a brief mention from the sanctuary.

“Yes.” She glanced back at him again. “You can ask her all about it if you’re interested.”

He turned what wanted to be a sigh into a noncommittal little noise of politeness. Well, he’d tried.

Ephanie’s silence didn’t much bother him. It wasn’t really appropriate for them to be interacting at all, which of course she knew. Clearly she wasn’t holding to proper Shaathist behavior, now, but he’d been half-afraid she would swing in the other direction and go out of her way to spit on his standards, as some wildwomen did. Instead, she appeared to be conducting herself as a model soldier—which, errant as it was for a woman, was a better outcome for their interaction than he really could have hoped for.

It was not a short walk through the temple—they were traversing nearly its entire length, from the main hall in the front to the Silver Legion fortress at its rear, and the temple complex itself was massive. It was like a city, compared to the Shaathist lodge in Tiraas. Ingvar was keenly aware that the journey seemed longer because of his discomfort in this place, both inherent and caused by the glares and whispers that followed him.

Eventually, though, they did reach the fortress; built right into the temple complex itself, the transition was marked only by a checkpoint manned—womanned?—by bored-looking Legionnaires. They livened up considerably at the sight of a Huntsman in their midst, but did not challenge them, even verbally. He wondered at the significance of that; it seemed like lax security for a military installation, if all you needed to get in was the company of someone in uniform.

Crossing the parade ground he remembered from his previous visit to the fortress, they gathered more stares from other Legionnaires, who were trickling toward the temple in the opposite direction Ephanie was leading him. These, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved a less reserved group than the priestesses in the temple proper.

“Oy, Avelea!” one woman shouted in passing. “You got something stuck to your back!” A few of her fellow harridans cackled at this.

Ingvar stopped, turned very deliberately to face them, and bowed courteously before resuming his way, having to lengthen his stride to catch up with Ephanie, who hadn’t waited. The soldiers seemed surprised; the one who had catcalled jeered at him, but none of the others backed her up this time.

Simple courtesy. Much as he’d have liked to pin the lack of it on Avei’s degenerate ideas, he’d met far too many Huntsmen and people from all walks of life who seemed to think they could advance themselves by putting someone else down. Not once had he ever seen anyone improved by another person’s suffering.

They met the rest of Ephanie’s squad midway across the parade ground; apparently the others were among the last to head in for breakfast. They slowed and stopped as Ephanie led Ingvar up to them. Like his guide, they were in armor, with short swords buckled at the waist, but not wearing helmets nor carrying lances or shields. Principia, of course, he recognized immediately. The others didn’t leave much of an impression, except for the sandy-haired girl who hardly looked old enough to be away from her mother, much less enlisted in an army.

“Morning, Sarge,” said Ephanie, stepping over to join her squadmates and turning to gesture at Ingvar. “You’ve got a visitor.”

“I do?” Principia said incredulously, staring at Ingvar.

One of the other women, a dark-haired girl a little shorter than the elf, sighed dramatically. “Why is it always Locke?”

“He was in the sanctuary in front, talking with a Sister,” Ephanie explained. “I thought I’d better intervene.”

“What were you doing up there at this hour?” Principia asked her.

“Praying,” Ephanie said dryly. “In case it’s escaped your notice, Sarge, we live in a temple.”

“Oh,” the elf mused. “I didn’t realize you were…observant.”

“Yes, that’s correct. You know exactly as much about my spiritual life as I’ve cared to tell you.”

“All right, fair enough,” Principia said peaceably.

“Good morning, Sergeant,” Ingvar said courteously, bowing to Principia, who finally turned her attention to him. “My apologies for intruding. I hope I’m not keeping your squad from their duties.”

“My squad wouldn’t stop in their actual duties to chat with you,” she replied. “All we’re missing right now is breakfast. Which they could still be heading off to, if they wanted, though of course that won’t stop them from griping all day about missing it.”

She didn’t so much as glance at the others as she said this, but the youngest girl tugged at the arm of the last member of the squad, a tall, lean woman with skin a shade darker than the Tiraan average, and the two of them resumed walking toward the mess hall. Ephanie, Principia and the sharp-tongued one remained.

“Well, then,” said the elf. “It’s… Ingvar, yes? What can I do for you?”

He drew in a breath; this was it. “I need a little guidance. It has been said in the lore we keep of the elder races that all dark-haired wood elves are of a single family. Is that correct?”

Principia’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you ask?”

“I need to know how to contact Mary the Crow.”

Ephanie blinked; the other girl snorted derisively. Principia just stared at him.

“The smartest thing you could possibly do,” she said, “is stay as far away from Mary the Crow as you can manage. I’d say that to anyone, but in particular, she doesn’t have a high opinion of Shaathists.”

“What?” said the third girl. “I thought they didn’t hold elves to their bullshit double standard?”

“I really don’t feel like having a theological discussion before breakfast,” said Principia, turning to give her a sharp look, “and keep a civil tongue in your head while we have a guest, Private Lang. The Crow has her own issues with the Huntsmen.”

“Well, maybe this one would have better luck anyway,” Lang said, eying Ingvar up and down. “I’ve never seen a female Huntsman before.”

“Lang,” Ephanie said sharply, “shut up.”

Ingvar drew in a breath and let it out slowly. It was just to be expected; this one seemed particularly ignorant even by Avenist standards. It happened all the time; sooner or later he would just have to stop being bothered by it. Surely, someday.

“What is it you want with Mary the Crow?” Principia asked him.

He hesitated. Discussing spiritual matters with outsiders wasn’t smiled upon, and for good reason. On the other hand, he clearly wasn’t going to get any further here without explaining himself, at least somewhat. Give and take.

“It pertains to a vision,” he said finally, “and a quest. In a vision I was directed to seek guidance from a crow. It…could mean something else, but I believe Brother Andros and I encountered her previously, just before our last meeting. Visions are challenging,” he admitted. “I don’t know whether I am even tracking the right spoor, but this is the best idea I have.”

Lang rolled her eyes, but Principia nodded slowly, her expression more serious. “Well. Actually, that casts another color on this. You wouldn’t be the first; spend enough time being a big heap shaman and things like this start to happen. Mary has been the target of vision quests before, and she does take them seriously.”

Hope rose in him, mingled with unease. Progress was good, but a weak little part of him had wished for an excuse to give up on this whole venture. “Then you’ll help me?”

“Well…up to a point,” she said, shrugging. “I honestly have no idea where Mary is, nor do I wish to. I follow my own advice with regard to her. The less anybody interacts with the Crow, the happier they are.”

“I see,” he said, sighing. “Well. I thank you for your time, anyway. You have at least helped me see the path.”

“Now, wait a moment,” she said with a faint smile. “I can give you a little more help than that. If you want to get in touch with Mary the Crow, she has some kind of established relationship with the Eserite Bishop, Antonio Darling. Check with him; he probably can’t call her up either, but he may know more about how to reach her.”

Ingvar’s recently lifted hopes plummeted.

Oh, he remembered Darling. Much as he had to acknowledge some personal antipathy, due to the man’s generally foolish countenance and his failure to address Ingvar as a man, there were much better reasons to keep away from the Eserite. He remembered very well what had happened to Angner. It wasn’t even that he regretted any harm suffered by that Wreath traitor, but it was the way Darling had been. He’d heard very detailed accounts of it, how the man’s silly exterior hadn’t wavered through cold-blooded torture and shocking cruelty.

A man like that was… Scarcely human. A viper in a songbird’s plumage.

“You have a problem with Darling?” Principia said dryly, and Ingvar realized he’d done a poor job of marshaling his expression. “I must say that’s a first. His favorite thing in the world is making friends with everybody.”

“I’ll bet,” Ingvar muttered. “That man is… He’s just… Creepy.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then Principia and Lang burst out laughing in unison. Even Ephanie hid a smile behind her hand.

Brother Andros liked to say that women were to be experienced, not understood. Ingvar had questions about that logic, but this wasn’t the first time he’d had the thought that he was better off not bothering.


 

“Wilson,” Ox said wearily, “did your mama ever tell you the story of the boy who cried wolf?”

Wilson broke off his gesticulations to squint suspiciously at the bigger man. “What? Course I know that story, what of it?”

“I want you to consider that in light of this here situation,” Ox rumbled. “You carryin’ on about this, an’ the general lack of interest in what’s got you so worked up. Every time anything happens, here you are complainin’. When nothin’ happens, you complain about that.”

“What’s your point?” Wilson snapped.

“His point,” said Jonas idly, watching the progress of the various personnel breaking down the tents, “is that you’re the boy cryin’ wolf. You complainin’ an’ stirrin’ up trouble ain’t worth a prairie dog’s fart, you do it so damn much. Someday you’re gonna have an actual point, by accident, and ain’t nobody gonna pay you any mind then, either.”

Wilson swelled up like a bullfrog, leaning forward and planting his fists on the table between the other two men. “Y’all can be assholes all you like, that don’t mean I’m wrong! You heard the Bishop speak—I’m just embarrassed I never thought about what she said before, even after livin’ in this town my whole life!”

“Too busy havin’ thoughts about a bunch of other shit that ain’t none of your business either,” Ox said dryly.

“Yeah, you laugh it up, big man. I ain’t the only one who feels this way,” Wilson said stridently. “It ain’t fair, the way them kids lord it over us. What gives ’em the right?”

“I oughta just ignore him, I know it,” Jonas said to Ox, “but I got this allergy to people talkin’ out their asses about stuff I actually understand.”

“That there’s a serious condition,” Ox said gravely. “You should see the doc.”

“Omnu’s breath, Wilson,” Jonas said before Wilson could start up again, “sometimes I think if I put as much effort into anything as you do into bein’ wrong I’d be Emperor. Them kids are exactly like any bunch o’ kids anywhere. Yeah, some of ’em do look down their noses at us. Course some do; there’s assholes like that anywhere. An’ y’know what? Most don’t. Ain’t always the rich ones, neither. That Falconer girl’s just about the sweetest thing I ever did meet, an’ I remember young Lord Ravinaad who got his own hands dirty helpin’ me clean out the stables after a couple of ‘is friends got drunk an’ raised hell behind the Saloon. No complainin’, didn’t even offer, just rolled up his sleeves an’ got to work like a good neighbor.”

“Them kids ain’t anything but different,” Ox agreed. “All types, from all over the world, but in the end they’re basically just folk. If you’d pay attention, there’s a lesson in that.”

“So how come none of our kids are invited to the fancy education up on the mountaintop?” Wilson demanded.

“Why, Wilson,” said Ox, “an’ here I had no idea you were a father. Who’s the unlucky lady?” Jonas snorted a laugh.

“Oh, shut the hell up,” Wilson said irritably. “Not my kids, our kids. We got young folk of our own, just like any town anywhere. What do they grow up to? Learnin’ a trade, takin’ over the farm or the shop. Some go off an’ join the Army or some clergy.”

“Name to me one thing that’s wrong with any o’ that,” said Jonas.

“Not a damn thing an’ you know it,” Wilson pressed on. “It’s the comparison. You know what those kids up there on the hill become? Rich. They leave here knowin’ all about the world, havin’ skills none of us could even dream of. A graduate of that University can write their own damn ticket any place they feel like goin’. Most of ’em leave with connections that’ll get ’em into the highest levels of whatever part of society they want, an’ I know you two hicks ain’t backward enough not to realize it’s who you know that matters in life. Well, we know ’em. How come the children of Last Rock have nothin’ better to look forward to than takin’ over a saloon or a farm?”

A thoughtful silence settled over the table, Ox and Jonas holding their mugs of beer without raising them for a sip. Both stared out from the shade of the Saloon’s awning, wearing identically pensive frowns as they observed porters, pack animals and the odd enchanted carriage hauling folded tents and religious paraphernalia toward the Rail platform.

“Huh,” Jonas muttered at last. “Ox, I suddenly wonder if this ain’t that moment. With an actual goddamn wolf he’s hollerin’ about.”

Ox heaved a sigh, causing his thick mustache to flutter. “Some folks have the good stuff, some folks don’t. That’s the way of the world, every damn part of it. You set yourself up to fix that, and you’re gonna have a hard time. Professor Tellwyrn’s always done right by this town as I see it, an’ I got no problem with a lot more o’ those students than I have got one with. Dunno what more a man can reasonably ask for.”

“Oh, yeah, she’s always done right,” Wilson said sarcastically. “’cept when those little assholes are opening up hellgates right over our heads.”

“One time that happened,” Ox grunted.

“So fuckin’ what?” Wilson exclaimed. “It was a goddamn hellgate! Omnu’s balls, man, one is all it takes! An’ they never did figure out which of ’em even did it! What the hell is gonna be next, is what I wanna know!”

Again, they fell silent, and after a moment, Wilson straightened up, folding his arms across his chest and adopting a smug expression.

At the other end of the shady front porch of the Saloon, Embras Mogul pointed to the three men, turning to his companion. “Now, there, y’see? Isn’t that absolutely fascinating?”

“Not particularly,” Bradshaw grunted. “That was a pretty direct jab Bishop Snowe launched. It’s bound to set people talking. Talk is easy.”

“Talk is the first step to things which are less easy,” Embras replied, “either to do or to live through. And you just got here, old boy; take note of how quickly I managed to find a suitable target for us to eavesdrop upon. I’ve been hearing little chats like this all weekend, starting before our dear Bishop Snowe fired a shot across Tellwyrn’s nose.”

The three men started up their conversation again, taking no notice of the two at the other end of the porch. Neither did any of those passing by on the street, despite Mogul’s glaring white suit and Bradshaw’s ominous gray ritual robe.

“I hope you’re not leading in the direction I think you are, Embras,” said Bradshaw.

“Well, it’s not as if this is a particularly difficult trail to follow,” Embras mused, lounging against the pillar at the corner of the porch. “The pattern I’ve been observing throughout this…revival…is consistent enough, and surprising enough given the general state of things in this town, that I can see the hand behind it. We already know Snowe is little more than Justinian’s charming and attractive mouthpiece, and there’s nothing like a religious festival to give him an excuse to flood the town with agents spreading dissent.”

“There’s not enough town here to flood.”

“You are being needlessly argumentative,” Embras accused. “Face it, Bradshaw, the Archpope is trying to stir up Last Rock against Tellwyrn.”

Bradshaw shook his head. “I just can’t see it. Even if there’s evidence hinting in that direction, which I’ll admit, it’s just that. Hints. Come on, Embras, Justinian’s smarter than that. What could he possibly hope to achieve? Tellwyrn is…outside the social order. Stirring up resentment against her, even if successful, would barely inconvenience her. The gods aren’t about to step in to bring her down, the cults wouldn’t bother to, the Empire has an actual policy about Zero Twenties that hinges on not stirring them up. Any other agents who wanted Tellwyrn taken out would’ve done it long since, had any of them the capacity.” He snorted, shaking his head again. “It’s ridiculous. He can’t do anything but piss her off, which is not a winning move. Justinian’s not nearly dense enough to try something like this.”

“And there, my friend, you’ve hit the nail on the head,” Mogul said gleefully. “He wouldn’t try something so insane—and yet, clearly, he is. Therefore, this is not Justinian’s game, but only the smoke screen obscuring his true motives. As you rightly point out, he’s more than savvy enough to operate on multiple levels, and not about to throw effort after foolishness.”

“Hm,” Bradshaw grunted, stroking his chin and frowning at the arguing men at the other end of the porch. “All right…let’s run with that theory, then. Offhand, I can think of two possible goals for stirring up trouble with the University. First, he’s trying to provoke a reaction from Tellwyrn that’ll get someone else to step in and finish him off for her. I’m inclined to dismiss that, since pissing off the cranky archmage is how stupid people throughout history get themselves dramatically dead.”

“On the other hand,” Embras said, raising a cautionary finger, “if there’s one man in all the world who could take that risk, it’s a sitting Archpope. As long as he stays in that Cathedral and keeps on top of his prayers, she can’t bring him down by force. Dear Arachne might be on a level to challenge the gods individually, but the whole Pantheon would crush her if she provoked them to.”

“Which is the fatal flaw in this idea,” said Bradshaw, nodding. “Despite her reputation and reliance on blunt force, the woman isn’t in any way stupid. She wouldn’t take such a risk even if provoked, and honestly I would expect her to see through such a transparent trap. Which brings me to my other theory: this is an effort by Justinian to coax us out.”

“Seems rather roundabout, doesn’t it?” Embras mused. “Tellwyrn and the Lady have a sort of detente in place; it doesn’t mean we have any connection to her.”

“As you said, there are currents here we don’t yet see,” Bradshaw agreed, “but after Tiraas this spring, we know Justinian’s interested in drawing us out and thinning our numbers. And yes, I know that was Darling’s game, but he couldn’t have done that without the Archpope’s support. Seems to me the best course of action here is to butt out.”

“The safe way isn’t always the best way, my friend,” Embras said with a wide grin. “I see great potential, here, to advance the work I started in Veilgrad.”

Bradshaw groaned, lifting his trembling hand to cover his eyes. “You and those paladins…”

“Yes, those paladins,” Embras agreed. “Think of it, Bradshaw. What would happen if the Trinity’s paladins learned their great secret? Would they strike them down like they do everyone else? How would they cover that up, in this age of printing presses and telescrolls? And the other option is even more intriguing!”

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard this speech at least thrice this week.”

“Then you should see my point by now without all this naysaying,” Embras said with mock severity.

“And you should pay more mind to the Lady’s agreement with Tellwyrn. We are not to harm or interfere with her students. Chaining them to trees is hard to justify as anything other than interference, Embras!”

“I saved those wretched kids’ lives, and you know it.” Embras chuckled, shaking his head. “This is more of the same. Think of it! The Church against the University—those paladins are going to be caught right in the middle. They’ll be in just all kinds of trouble. What better opportunity to do them a few favors? And if we have to interfere with them a bit first, well… Eggs, omelets, you know how it goes.”

“The Lady may appreciate your hair-splitting,” Bradshaw warned. “Tellwyrn will not.”

“Indeed. That’s why we’ll have to be very careful to stay out of sight until we can produce evidence of just how useful we are. Do the kids a solid favor and vanish into the night before there’s any talk of reward—that’s the kind of thing that gets us in Tellwyrn’s good graces.”

“I don’t think she possesses any such thing as good graces.”

“Well, it’s how we get her to owe us a favor, then,” Embras said irrepressibly. “And the active immortals always respect a favor owed. That’s the currency that keeps them from killing each other off, after all.”

Bradshaw sighed, staring down the street. The square beside the Rail platform was visible in the distance, bustling with activity; more caravans had arrived and departed today, carrying Church and cult personnel and material, than the town saw in the average month.

Across the porch, Jonas rose and turned to enter his saloon, leaving Ox and Wilson to carry on their argument. The bartender’s expression was thoughtful, and troubled.

“I still think the odds are good this is a trap, and quite possibly one aimed at us,” Bradshaw grunted.

“But of course,” Embras said with a grim smile. “Spotting the trap is only the first step—next comes leading the hunter who laid it to step in it. And really, old friend, isn’t that the fun part?”

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33 thoughts on “10 – 3

  1. Every time I think I’m getting a handle on this web serial thing, it’s made clear to me anew that I have no idea what I’m doing.

    So, Monday’s chapter being up five hours early isn’t unequivocally a good thing. This weekend’s bonus chapter is still owed. The irregularity in the timing here is due to the stressful weekend I’ve had and the fact that I was working on both side-by-side for most of today. Ultimately, as I got close to frazzling myself out of functionality, I had to pick one, and opted not to make the progression of the story any later.

    Tazun’s misadventures WILL continue this week. Hopefully Tuesday.

    My creative limitations are a source of constant unhappiness. Even knowing that I have to respect how my brain works, my Midwestern upbringing keeps nattering in the back of my head about work ethics, and the drive to just sit down and do the work. It’s just typing on a screen, how tiring can it possibly be? I mean, I even had Friday off. From the serial, at least–it’s been a challenging weekend, as I said.

    Feh. I feel terrible about disappointing donors; they’ve been more than patient already. This will be caught up as soon as I can manage it. I definitely need to avoid taking on any additional chapter commitments in the future. Lesson learned.

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    1. Thank you for the early chapter, I love it.🙂

      You can’t force creativity, so while I totally understand how you feel… it’s not actually your fault. If you forced the issue, you would be able to post something… but probably not anything good.

      I had some time this weekend and finally sat down and started to write one of the stories that has been bouncing around in my mind for years. Didn’t even finish the prologue… because it didn’t feel right to me. Everything fit together and worked… but it wasn’t funny. Not sure how I can make it funny either… it’s pretty frustrating to have a story to tell but being unable to convey it properly.
      I’d rather not publish anything instead of publishing something I’m not happy with myself.

      Oh… and about the web serial thing… I don’t think many authors have figured it all out yet.

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    2. Speaking of busy, I usually post regularly, but work is insane. I will do my normal reviews later, but it may be a few days.

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  2. First, he’s trying to provoke a reaction from Tellwyrn that’ll get someone else to step in and finish him off for her.

    Should be “her off for him”

    I think Justinian’s plans for stirring up dissent in the townsfolk are very straightforward: get them angry at Tellwyrn so she has less freedom to operate. It’s not a big impact on her, but I’m pretty sure he’ll follow this up with more blows against her reputation, until, if all goes well, she has to reduce her impact on the world to avoid protests demanding the empire send strike teams after her.

    I wonder if Embras is going to be able to come out on top in his next manouver. So far, every play he’s made has ended in failure or disaster. There’s been a lot of talk about how he’s a worthy foe, but so far very little to back that up.

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    1. The Empire is very skilled in using protests for their own goals. Remember Vex and the marshal?

      Bradshaw got it right. There is nothing Justinian can do that will even bother Arachne. He may be protected against a direct attack but Arachne can play politics, too. Which could cost him everything if she went at him seriously. Don’t forget all the people she knows, all the favors she could call in… and once his power base is gone, once he is no longer the archpope, then Arachne will pay him a visit.
      Arachne wins automatically by doing nothing. She is immortal, the archpope will be dead in a few decades. Why would she take any risk?

      Arachne is a 3000 year old immortal archmage with a long history of dealing with enemies in a dramatic fashion. I doubt this is the first time people talk about her negatively or protest against her presence. I don’t even think it bothers her much, being unhappy is her default state, she probably expects people to be stupid and contrary.

      Embras is playing a very dangerous game here. He banks on his plans working so well that Arachne and Elilial won’t mind that he interfered with the students. He’s willingly stepping between a rock and a hard place, because of the thrill.

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    2. It does seem that Bradshaw is right and Justinian can’t do much more than mildly annoy Arachne, but Justinian’s a smart cookie, I don’t think he’d be launching an anti-Arachne campaign if he couldn’t back it up. And Arachne may have been around for three thousand years, and people may have been angry at her a lot of the time, but it’s just been the last fifty years she’s had an university. Any tricks she picked up at deflecting attention could very well work against her now that she has a physical location she has to stay at.

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  3. i almost feel like a broken record, but as it’s apparently a major theme of this book, i guess i’d be a real silly goose if i didn’t keep engaging with the topics it brings to light with my own perspective on them, wouldn’t i?

    the frustrating gender politics on display in this chapter – and i don’t mean that as a dig, i’m legitimately fascinated by how well-captured these perspectives have been here – make me all the more interested in seeing trans women “on screen” in the land of tiraas, sometime. i’m not the sort of reader who needs to find “myself” in a story to enjoy it fully, but all the same i’ve been selfishly curious about that from day one of starting this story, but this current book and the way in which it seems to carefully omit a confrontation with whether we exist in its context and how we do while gesturing at all these pieces of the gender picture within the real world that don’t exist without us being there to provide a context for it and confirming that these issues exist in tiraas as well makes me even moreso.

    i mean, i can’t say what webb has or hasn’t decided about the story’s direction. it’s just my interpretation of the world he’s presented so far. but i’ve seen how we’re treated, by women who, like merry, treat trans men as “men lite”, and the corollary that implies about our gender in turn (that we’re the inverse, just men playacting the part). and since that does seem to be treated as, well, the ambient behavior ingvar’s expecting out of the people he meets, that unspoken corollary behaviorset would seem to be true here too.

    personally i don’t feel like that says anything kindly about the tiraan empire, or the respective cults, to say nothing of the gods (ahem) and particularly avei, with her stated purpose and all, and i, personally, am all for complicating things and not particularly fussed if that means it makes the “protagonists” look bad, or wrong, or holding to poor ideals, or shortsighted, or something.

    if nothing else, i don’t think webb is capable of letting a worldbuilding stone go uninterrogated, particularly as it relates to the question of social changes and actually acknowledging the struggles involved … and having ingvar present in the story already gives me some hope in that direction!

    but as it is, that perspective does feel a bit, hm, like it exists only as a (deliberately?) conspicuous void in the narrative.

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    1. There are only so many characters with ‘unique’ perspectives that can be fit into a story. More than trans women, I feel asexuals are left out. There’s really nothing covering them at all. I don’t think asexuality has even been mentioned.

      Unrelated, could you use capitals in your comments tara? It makes them significantly easier to read.

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      1. there’s things you can get me to agree to and things you can’t, and using capitals unless there’s the promise to pay me for it being involved is one of them. i’m sure that sounds odd, but it’s a pretty effective mnemonic device for me that keeps “work” from following me “home” even when that dividing line gets blurrier than i’d like, so i’m not about to turn it off.

        another one of those things i can’t do is feel thrilled to have my effort to explain why it feels like there’s a very glaring absence in the story and wondering whether that’s on purpose dismissed with a comparatively flippant “well i don’t see any asexuals in the story, either”.

        i’m not asking to be directly catered to here. for one thing, if that’s what i wanted, i’d send a payment to webb directly with a note to that effect, and i wouldn’t do that to him because i don’t feel it’s in my best interests for what i get out of this story to even gesture in the direction of my having that much sway over what gets written in it. seeing how much stress he’s under from someone requesting just that much attention away from the “main” storyline like he is only makes me more certain that’s not something i’m interested in doing.

        but it’s one thing to have a lack of – for lack of a better word – “representation” in the story, and a very different thing to draw attention to it like this chapter in particular has done without having any plans about what to do about it.

        i don’t lose sleep over the former, and the story to date has given me every confidence that my uncertainty in this regard is going to be rewarded with a very satisfying answer – i can point to the fallout of the class of 1182 interfering with naiya’s ability to “see” juniper, for example. so i do feel a little worried i’m jumping the gun.

        but the grinding nausea i feel at being just that little bit uncertain, and not having that reassurance that i can trust where this is going, over something that is really truly inarguably this personally close to the bone as an issue i have to deal with every waking day of my life, is intense enough that i had to open up my big mouth and comment on it.

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      2. Fross might come close to an ace perspective. She’s aware of sex, see her comment in book one about socks on the doorknob, but I don’t think she groks it, and from what I gather doesn’t have much of a chance of performing it.

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      3. The difference is she doesn’t have any societal expectations or pressure to do it. I retract my statement that they’re not represented at all, but they’re still somewhat underrepresented. It’d be nice to know what the Sisters and Huntsman think about it, even if there’s no actual character.

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    2. Not using capitals screws those with lexical difficulties. Dyslexia, dyspraxia and physical issues caused by faulty muscles, retinas and lenses come in flavours, and there are a lot of people who you can give actual headaches to by not using the things.

      The uppercase-lowercase and spaces conventions aren’t as arbitrary as many people think: they actually are useful aids when it comes to ease of cognitive processing. Deliberately not using them is unintentionally giving the message “screw you, dyslexic: quit trying to read if it’s so hard — this is all about my writing difficulties and hang-ups”.😛

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  4. I’ve only read a few Piers Anthony books. Somewhere in the realm of 6-8, despite the local library I was devouring as a kid having the better part of a shelf. My impression was that most of a given book was well done, but occasionally there would be a completely out of character action, a really rough or contrived scene transition, or a violation of premise that knocked me out of suspension of disbelief.

    The last of his books I read (And I’m not sure which it was; this was decades ago) had an essay on his work habits/ethics, and his rules of writing. You can try to look it up, I couldn’t google it just now, but the short version is that he forced himself to write X thousand of words every day.

    I’m not sure if the two things were related, but I’d rather see a ‘work well done’ than a ‘work just done’, if you catch the distinction. Those can be two distinct and competing work ethics at times.

    If you have to miss an update, or even have a single update week, in order to tell the story well enough, I’d be good with that. Admittedly I’m not paying you at the moment, being between income myself, yet even if I start, I still believe that would be true.

    —–

    By the way, do you realize that at your pace, four or more novels per year, you are among the most prolific writers out there? And given that your posts can’t be much more than second draft, they are really high quality and consistency.

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  5. The subject of representation is an important one to me, but dicey.

    I think stories are always improved by being grounded in the real world in some way, even out-there fantasies like this one. Having their roots in actual human experience is what makes them readable and relateable. I’m also of the opinion that some kind of underlying philosophy is an essential component of a good story. Humans are storytelling creatures because we evolved narrative as a way to teach each other. On a very deep level, even a neurological one, storytelling is about lessons.

    However, fantasy is about entertainment. It’s a balance I try very hard to be mindful of; a good fantasy should be willing to stand for something, but above all other considerations, fantasy should be fun. Nobody reads fantasy because they want to be preached at. The moral is always in service to the narrative, not the other way around; if you forget that, you end up with ham-fisted message fiction like Atlas Shrugged, which appeals greatly to those who agree with it and not at all to everyone else. I want to write something that’s accessible to everyone, and may even make people think about things they haven’t considered.

    Representation is important in fantasy, I think, largely because of fantasy’s history. This story, like most in its genre, can trace the origins of its structure and setting in a straight line backward through Dungeons & Dragons to The Lord of the Rings, the progenitor of all modern fantasy. We are all, in a very real sense, still playing in Tolkien’s sandbox, and that is troubling in several ways if you actually read his work. People can talk about writers being the product of their time, but honestly I don’t feel that excuses anything; the times dictate only what a writer can get away with, not their degree of compassion or rationality. Tolkien envisioned a world void of people of color (except as faceless evil mooks) and the entire GLBTQ spectrum because, based on his known opinions, he would have preferred a world without them. Brandon Sanderson, the fantasy author whose skill I admire the most, also avoids the issue of queer people for, honestly, the same reason. Things like that bother me; fantasy has some growing up to do, still.

    The Gods are Bastards seeks to be about a more real world that reflects what the human race actually looks like, even as it imagines humanity in an alien context with other races. That’s a pretty broad objective, if you think about it. I do try to keep it in mind, to depict diversity in my world, because I think my story would be cripplingly flawed without it, but still… I didn’t set out to write The Representation Show. I’m not running down a list saying “I need one of these and one of these and one of these…” I think it would make for a boring, stilted, forced kind of story if I did.

    So far, I’m pretty satisfied with my progress. I wouldn’t know how to compare the numbers or proportions of every category of people in my story to the real world. That isn’t the goal. I just want to write something that feels like there’s reality in the way humanity is depicted. No one is whitewashed out, but I’m not going to promise that every possible kind of someone will get a moment in the spotlight. Honestly I don’t think I could do that, and that’s the kind of thing that can be terribly offensive if you try it and do it wrong.

    And, as I said above… Issues aside, I’m not here to preach. I want people to enjoy my story first, and gain from it second. Fantasy could overall stand to be a lot more inclusive and I for one am trying, but ultimately, fantasy is still and always should be about fun.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Um: slight issue with Tolkien’s perceived motives… He might have been a child of Empire and born in Bloemfontein, but Cecil John Rhodes the Second he wasn’t. And, Rhodes made Henry Bartle Frere look like a guy who cared about “natives” (look that bastard up; while you’re at it, enjoy Jan Smuts, too).😛

      If you want real racists, there you go. I can list others… including German (look up the history of the Caprivi Strip: have tissues and a bucket handy) and Beligian ones (looking at you, Leopold II, you total prick — but, he wasn’t alone).

      Case in point: I grew up under Apartheid. Do you have any idea how much detention I got for reading The Lord of the Rings by myself (four weeks — almost a whole term)? Because it was horrible, horrible fantasy that challenged some basic assumptions the teachers didn’t want me to challenge. Real racists don’t like it, for some reason. (Managed to read Earthsea under that idiot’s nose, though… Because it had Ged erroneously painted as some generic white dude on the cover.)

      JRRT was writing a lost history of Northwest Europe… there’s reason not much East Asia or Africa crops up in it beyond “racist racist was racist”.:/ And, before you start on his treatment of the Orcs, even he wasn’t chuffed with the Always Chaotic Evil box he painted himself into, there. He wrote about that more than once. <_<

      You may's well complain about his writing about bookworms becoming badass because of his being an Oxford Don… who survived the War. He wrote what he knew. Hence not very many well-fleshed-out women, either.:/ For a child of his time, he was actually rather progressive. More so in some respects than C S Lewis.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. This is fascinating. Can you elaborate on why The Lord of the Rings was banned by the apartheid regime?

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      2. Because Tolkien himself was on record as supporting multiculturalism. And the work itself could be read as decidedly multicultural, even if all people these days bother to see is white elves, white dwarfs, white hobbits and white men — trust me, schools in South Africa did not see it that way: they were still different races, all considered people… And, Man was not top dog. Can you not see how that was decidedly not on-message? The teachers weren’t fooled by the buckets of white male paint thrown over the underlying multiness.:/

        Never mind the Christian fundamentalist streak which loathed the fact that it wasn’t Protestant enough. Or, that “it promoted a false God”.😛

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      3. I think I can answer this one.

        It probably wasn’t the LOTR itself, but the fact that on a couple occasions Tolkien spoke against apartheid.

        ” I was born in one; though I do not claim to be the most learned of those who have come hither from the far end of the Dark Continent. But I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all, I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.”

        Apparently he was a bit distressed about the racist interpretations of his books. Also, his answer to a German publisher asking if he was aryan was

        “Thank you for your letter… I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware noone (sic) of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”

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      4. Bingo.🙂

        These days, people tend to forget when Tolkien started writing about Middle Earth, let alone why and with what tools. He was a a repatriated child of Empire, a Catholic in a still very anti-Catholic country in which those of even white, Irish extraction were Othered — so not a typical Home Counties boy of a WASP, even if he loved a pipe and cricket. He was a philologist and cultural historian, stuck in the trenches needing an escape with a bit of magic, but very little of the Victorian and Edwardian era propaganda sparkles. In a world where very few stories with black protagonists had a hope in hell in ever seeing the light of day if they were anything other than pity pieces or anti-slavery fluff depicting other races as needing “saving”.😛

        He didn’t have the luxury of writing post Civil Rights — even though that’s when his work took off in popularity: he was almost two generations older.

        It’s downright lazy to look back and condemn the innovation of fantasy race creation he did… just because they had a pale skin-job. When, at the time, getting a multicultural tale out at all was am uphill struggle for anybody at the time because of the race issues and the pseudo-science clogging up the works.

        LOTR was a game changer in getting people able to write tales about cultural conflict and resolution without having to spend time waffling about phrenology, supremacy, white man’s burdens and other bunk. <_<

        Liked by 3 people

    2. I don’t think that a trans female character, or further explanation of the status of trans women, would necessarily be anything like going down a diversity checklist – I for one have been driven to distraction wondering where trans women fit into Tirasian life ever since we first met Ingvar and discovered Shaath’s surprisingly accepting attitude towards trans men. “Okay,” I thought, “so Shaath is cool with men whatever form they come in. Do Shaathists apply that ‘randomness of nature’ philosophy equally, or do they – as I suspect – have a special contempt for trans women? What about the Avenists, whose theology is also strongly tied to gender, and who are so adamant about the protection of women?”

      Essentially, by introducing Ingvar you opened up a huge swath of your world to us, but I feel like it’s still only half the picture. Though, as I write this, I do seem to remember a brief bit about the role of trans women in Avei’s cult – something about them being accepted in the clergy but not the Legions? Or was it the other way around? I can’t remember where it was mentioned. Anyway. That was great, I’d like to learn more about all kinds of trans folk in Tiraas. I love all of the stuff about Ingvar (even if the gender politics in his POV make my skin crawl – that’s just good writing for the weird and creepy worldview of the Shaathists), and if we could see even half as much about trans womanhood in Tiraas, I would be ecstatic.

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      1. Given the parallel time period in our history, it could be that most trans people in general Tiraan society are not out, but are passing as their present gender, like Dr. James Miranda Barry (died 1865).

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    3. Thank you for having this attitude towards storytelling, a thousand times and twice a thousand.

      Although to nitpick one of your examples slightly, Sanderson is actually writing LGBT characters now; the latest Mistborn book has a minor character, Ranette, come out as lesbian, and the fact that she’s courting another young lady doesn’t appear to bother anyone else. Some of that growing-up is happening as we watch, it seems.

      Liked by 1 person

    4. I love that the different nations in your world are associated with distinct physical characteristics, including different skin tones. This is a worldbuilding detail still overlooked by a lot of modern fantasy fiction.

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  6. “A viper in a songbird’s plumage.”

    Almost lost it, at work, at this line. I find this to be a fantastically apt and amusing description of Darling. I can’t help but think he’d enjoy it too.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I wonder if Avei was prescient or intelligent enough to design a blind spot into Trissany’s “detect evil” function so that she conveniently ignores any evil committed by the Ascendant Warrior herself.

    Also, my theory why Antonio never dropped his “silly” exterior even when engaging in a spot of torture is that his persona is simply who he is. Who would he become if he stopped acting? Nobody at all.

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  8. Typos:

    quandry
    quandary

    Reactions:

    There were some interesting hints as to Shaathist philosphy in Ingvar’s thoughts. Not speaking to another man’s wife without permission. Expecting the other man to bring her to heel. Not staring at another man’s woman (good advice in general, but this seems to be a religious prohibition). The interesting point here is that the Universal Church allows divorce for religious differences, and the Shaathists have accepted and even heavily backed the Universal Church. Despite this, Ingvar reacts as if Ephanie’s divorce never happened.

    “He couldn’t possibly ask for a more useful person to run into.”
    Interference from a deity or other powerful being? Or just lampshading?

    “He wouldn’t try something so insane—and yet, clearly, he is.”
    One of the standard mastermind tactics that I haven’t seen well-used in this story is muddying the waters – specifically, doing a bunch of things that look portentous but are actually red herrings. This may be one such maneuver, but it more probably has a purpose.

    The town’s kids don’t go to the university. So what, they don’t match the entrance criteria. But of course the point here is that the townies are not all smart and have been emotionally manipulated.

    Embras and Bradshaw seem to be using the same type of trick that is being taught to Gabriel – an ability to go unnoticed that has nothing to do with deific or infernal power. The actual power sources may be different, but one of the points this series has stuck to is that different powers have different strengths and weaknesses. Turning that around, if you see a strong effect like this wielded by multiple people, it likely has the same power source.

    Embras doesn’t mention Branwen’s emotional manipulation abilities (“Snowe is little more than Justinian’s charming and attractive mouthpiece”), so perhaps he is unaware of them.

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