The clack of wooden swords echoed across the lawn as the paladin and the drow clashed, circled, danced together and retreated. Other students stood around, each holding practice weapons of their own, but now just standing and watching the duel in the pale light of dawn.
Szith was the more mobile, making full use of her elvish speed and reflexes to get around her opponent. Nimble as she was, however, Trissiny very nearly kept pace with her, and the paladin’s more aggressive style, coupled with her greater physical strength, meant that their actual engagements usually ended with the drow in retreat. As the bout wore on, Szith became increasingly aggressive, being wise enough to realize that letting it become a contest of attrition would benefit her opponent. Trissiny, meanwhile, had clearly developed the skill of thinking multiple steps ahead, and made constant use of feints, false charges and sudden retreats to force Szith to adapt, helping to nullify the advantage of her speed.
The end, when it came, was abrupt and clearly a surprise, even to the contestants. Trissiny suddenly staggered, struck on the arm, and in the next moment reeled again, having been jabbed in the chest by one of her foe’s wooden swords. She took a step back, lowering her own weapon and wincing as she shook her left hand.
“I have bad habits,” she said ruefully, her aura faintly glowing for a moment to wipe away bruises and restore feeling in the arm numbed by Szith’s lightning-fast strike. “Muscle memory still wants me to block with that hand.”
“Indeed,” Szith replied, very slightly out of breath. “Had you been using a shield, I think that would have ended differently.”
She bowed formally in the Narisian style, both swords extended behind her. Trissiny replied with a traditional Avenist salute, fist over heart, blade upright alongside her face.
“Ugh, get a room, you two,” Ruda jeered.
Trissiny shot her an irritated look. “You could be practicing instead of spectating, you know.”
“Nah,” said Gabriel, grinning. “That was well worth seeing! Beats getting my ass kicked any day. And it’s really interesting to see Narisian sword work. The style is…different.”
“Are you not accustomed to watching Lady Shaeine fight?” Szith inquired.
“She doesn’t usually join us,” said November, absently twirling her practice sword. She instantly stilled it when Trissiny glanced at her.
“She also prefers to use magic in the field,” added Toby. “And in Ezzaniel’s classes I feel like she’s made a lot more progress with sword work since enrolling here than she ever did before. I guess combat isn’t a big part of a diplomat’s education.”
“Well, that’s all very interesting,” November said dismissively, turning to Ruda. “C’mon, how about another round? You said you’d help me work on my technique.”
“Mm…nah.” Ruda glanced at the sky. “I think we better pack up and move out. We’ve got classes before too much longer, and I want time to clean up a bit. Last time I went straight from practice to Tellwyrn’s class, she spent the whole goddamn hour making passive-aggressive comments about the way everyone smelled. Are elvish noses really that sensitive?”
“I help!” Scorn shouted, bounding up from where she had been sitting at the edge of the group, then turned expectantly to Teal. “Yes?”
“Sure,” said the bard, smiling at her. “You know where everything goes.”
“Everything!” the demon said enthusiastically, rushing forward to collect practice swords.
The sun was fully up, now, and morning classes would indeed be starting soon. The campus was starting to come alive, the odd student passing by the lawn en route to the cafeteria. Most hardly glanced at them; by this point, their little group had become something of an institution. They could be found on the lawn most mornings, either drilling under Trissiny or Toby’s direction, or practicing various forms of armed and unarmed combat. Since Trissiny and Teal had begun the tradition over a year ago, the roster had grown slowly, but those who made regular appearances had benefited greatly. Professor Ezzaniel himself had praised the progress Ruda and Gabriel had made in class, and November’s single-minded dedication and slavish attention to anything Trissiny directed her to do had advanced her own skill considerably.
“So, Shaeine’s title is actually Lady?” Gabriel asked as he and Ruda rolled up the woven reed mat they used for tumbling, to avoid grass stains on clothing. “I don’t think she’s ever actually mentioned that.”
“Not…exactly,” said Teal, glancing at Szith. “Narisians don’t really use titles; their full names reveal everything about their social standing. Those honorifics are practically a language unto themselves.”
“In this context, though,” said Szith, “and in Tanglish, I prefer to err on the side of courtesy. She is noble born, after all.”
“I’m certain Shaeine wouldn’t insist on the formality here,” Teal said with a smile.
“Perhaps,” Szith replied evenly. “But I am of her culture, and owe respect to her station. Different expectations apply to me than to the rest of you.”
Teal frowned slightly and opened her mouth to speak, but at that moment Scorn returned from dumping practice swords in the duffel bag used for the task and grabbed the one Gabriel had been using from his hand. “Here, give!”
He relinquished the weapon, frowning reproachfully at her. “I see we’re still working on those manners.”
“I am not manners. I am lady.” Scorn tossed her head haughtily, looking down her nose at him. “You are manners!” She turned on her heel and stalked back to the bag, where she tossed the last blade in with far more force than the task required, rattling all the way. Since her arrival on campus, she had begun accumulating cheap costume jewelry, mostly given to her by Teal; the lack of available metal in her home dimension had made her inordinately fond of it. Now the demon glittered and clattered wherever she went.
“Easy,” Trissiny said firmly. “Handle weapons with respect.”
“Well,” Gabriel muttered, lifting the rolled mat with a grunt and slinging it over his shoulder. “I guess that tells us a bit about the nature of nobility in her society.”
“In every society,” Szith murmured.
Trissiny suddenly stilled, turning in a slow half-circle with a frown on her face.
“Problem?” Ruda asked, watching her.
“I… There’s something on the edge of my…” Trissiny trailed off, then looked at Gabriel and then Toby. “Do either of you sense something all of a sudden?”
“Like what?” Toby asked.
“Feels demonic,” Trissiny muttered, looking around again. “Very subtle, though. I can’t quite pinpoint it.”
“I, uh…not really,” said Gabriel with a shrug.
“Maybe it’s just Scorn?” Toby suggested. “It started about when she started moving around just now, right? At least, that’s when you reacted.”
“Sort of. Maybe.” Trissiny’s expression did not ease, and she didn’t stop scanning the area. November looked tense and alarmed, creeping over to stand next to her.
“No,” Scorn said, folding her powerful arms and scowling at Toby. “There is a thing. I feel.”
“Really?” said Teal. “What kind of thing?”
The demon chewed her lower lip for a moment. “Hum…feels…like I know. Trissiny is right, very faint. A slave type.”
Ruda rolled her eyes; Gabriel snorted, earning a glare from Scorn.
“Can you be more specific?” Teal asked gently. It had been established previously that from Scorn’s point of view, all demons except Rhaazke were slaves, or ought to be.
“A hvathrzixk, I think. Yes, think so.”
“Bless you,” Gabriel muttered.
“I don’t know that word,” Teal said, frowning, then glanced at the others. “Demonic pronunciation is largely contextual. I’m not sure what that would be in this situation.”
“That language is way more complicated than it needs to be,” Ruda snorted.
“Yes, it is,” Trissiny agreed. “That’s the point of it.”
“Know word, know word,” Scorn was muttering, rubbing her forehead between her horns. “Know this, I read it up… Ah! Yes, slave of Vanislaas, yes?” She turned to Trissiny. “You feel, yes?”
The entire group stilled, then reflexively moved closer together. Trissiny drew her actual sword, which she had only just buckled back on.
“There is not a Vanislaad here,” Gabriel said firmly. “Their invisibility doesn’t work against valkyries, remember? Vestrel is offended at the suggestion.”
“Are you sure?” Trissiny demanded of Scorn. The demon shrugged.
“Not sure to plant my honor on. Feels like.”
“I’m telling you,” Gabriel began.
“Yeah, yeah,” Ruda interrupted him. “I think somebody better go straight to Tellwyrn with this.”
“Are you sure she ought to be bothered with an uncertainty?” Szith inquired. “She is rather prone to…”
“Mock,” November said tersely. “Oh, the mockery.”
“We got four people here who should be able to sense demons,” said Ruda. “Two say there’s nothing here, two sense something, and one says it’s an incubus or succubus. The discrepancy alone is pretty fuckin’ fishy. I’m telling Tellwyrn.”
“I agree,” Toby said seriously. “Keep in mind that of all the paladins here, Trissiny is most attuned to demonic threats.”
“But Vestrel can see through Vanislaad trickery,” Gabriel protested. “And, let’s face it, Scorn puts off a lot of energy. It messes with my senses a bit. That could be the whole thing by itself.”
“That doesn’t explain her sensing another demon,” Teal objected.
“Like feeling the heat of a candle when one is standing near a bonfire?” Szith added. “Does that not imply a greater likelihood a stealthy demon could hide in her presence?”
A brief silence fell; all of them peered around uncertainly.
“Yeah,” said Trissiny after a moment. “Let’s go get Tellwyrn.”
Darling pushed open the door of his study and stepped in, his attention on the letter in his hand. This was his third reading, and it still made him chuckle, even as it made him a tad nervous. Quentin Vex’s complaints were always very subtly couched, and rather ironically phrased. This matter had been slowly simmering ever since the fallout of that mess at the south gate; the spymaster was playing it cool and hadn’t even mentioned it at council meetings. The fact that he was now feeling Darling out for assurances that the Thieves’ Guild was not pursuing some kind of vendetta against Imperial Intelligence meant something else had happened.
Tricks’s orders had been to make it plain that their argument with Marshal Avelea had been only, specifically with her. Grip and Toybox had insisted that they’d done so. Why was Vex getting tetchy now? Some Guild agent must have ruffled another Imp, somehow.
The prospects weren’t good. Either the Boss was up to something else and hadn’t bothered to mention it to Sweet—which was unlikely, but all the more unsettling for that—or some random Eserite had crossed paths with an Imp, not realizing what they were messing with.
These things happened, of course. It would mean no end of headaches, going to the Boss and to Style to figure out what had happened and who had done it; Guild members were not generally expected to keep the management informed of all their activities. Tricks was not going to enjoy the extra work. Style would also complain, though in truth she loved having the excuse to storm and rage and crack people’s heads together. Darling would probably end up having to very, very carefully feel Vex out for details without revealing he had no idea what was up. Then again, maybe it’d be better to just up and ask him; Vex was canny enough that he’d likely read the truth between the lines no matter how Darling tried to obfuscate it, and in that circumstance it might be better to foster a sense of openness.
Of course, headaches or no, this still beat the hell out of the alternative. He knew very well that something was going on in the uppermost levels of the Guild that Tricks wasn’t keeping him in the loop about. And that was fine, generally speaking; he knew better than anyone that there were things the Boss and the Big Guy just didn’t discuss with anyone else. But if those things had begun to impact the Imperial government, Sweet’s life was about to become more interesting than he liked it.
Not to mention how that could weigh on his own plans. Occasionally, lately, he’d begun to experience and unfamiliar longing to take a vacation from all this.
“What, exactly,” he asked aloud, “do you think this is going to prove? I know very well how silent you can be. That’s not in question.”
“Oh, come on!” Fauna complained. She and Flora dropped from the ceiling, landing with simultaneous soft thumps on the carpet. Really, cats would have hit the ground harder.
“How the hell did you know we were there?” Flora demanded.
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, flawless performance,” he said, folding the letter and stepping around behind his desk to tuck it in the top drawer. “I know you, though. Most actual marks won’t have that kind of insight into your strategies, though you still need to be prepared for those who do. An actual enemy is never someone you want to take lightly, and they’re the ones most likely to be aware of you. I’ll tell you what, girls; figure out what the tell was and surprise me next time, and I’ll have Price let you off household chores for a week.”
“All right,” Fauna said, grinning broadly.
“We love being bribed!” Flora added with matching enthusiasm.
“They grow up so fast,” he said with a mock sniffle.
Below, the front doorbell chimed. All three of them glanced at the study door.
“Style says you two are doing well, working with the newer apprentices,” he said. “How do you like the work? Some find it boring.”
“It’s actually rather satisfying,” Fauna said. “Learning is good, but teaching’s also fun.”
“And no, we’re not bullying the newbies, which is what you really wanted to ask,” Flora added, smirking.
“Yes, yes,” he said with a smile. “Have you been at the work long enough to’ve noticed how much faster the general pool of apprentices graduates?”
“Not firsthand,” Fauna replied, “but Style’s explained it to us.”
“Personal apprentices serve for much longer periods because they get much more in-depth training from a sponsor.”
“The advantages of that don’t really need to be explained.”
“So no, we’re not resentful of the fact that people from the general apprentice pool have become full Guild members in the time we’ve been studying under you.”
“We’re still getting a better deal.”
“Plus,” Flora added with a wicked grin, “it was rather satisfying when Grip kicked Randy back into the general pool.” She held out a fist, and Fauna bumped it with her own.
“Good,” he said, not troubling to hide his amusement. “I’ll be honest, girls: your skills are already well beyond what the Guild demands of its members, in terms of minimum competence. At this point it’s all specialized stuff. I wouldn’t be offended if you wanted to move forward faster.”
They shared one of those loaded looks.
“We trust your judgment, Sweet,” Fauna said.
“You’ve more than earned that.”
“Besides…we like it here.”
“It’s nice to have, y’know, a home.”
“Omnu’s breath, I’m not gonna boot your butts into the street the moment you graduate,” he said with gentle exasperation. “Soon enough, once you start racking up your own fortunes—and you will—you’ll want space of your own. Till that time, you have a home here. You’re still family.”
Both smiled broadly. Much as he enjoyed word games and dancing around the truth, those little moments of pure, honest feeling were what made all the rest of it seem worthwhile.
A soft rap sounded at the door, and Price pushed it open. Taking in the elves with a glance, she turned to Darling and opened her mouth.
“Your Grace, you have a visitor,” both apprentices intoned in unison, the imitation uncanny.
“I see you have already been informed,” Price said in perfect calm. “As your study is currently infested with rodents who clearly have time to thoroughly clean the kitchen, I have taken the liberty of having him wait in the downstairs parlor.”
“It’s your own fault,” he said severely. “I dunno why you still think it’s a good idea to taunt her. Price, who’ve we got on deck?”
“A Huntsman of Shaath,” she said. “Brother Ingvar, whom I believe you may recall. He insists his business with you is personal.”
Both elves turned to face him in surprise.
“That,” he said slowly, “is fascinating. All right, take ’em away. And make sure they have to keep the eavesdropping subtle.”
“Of course, sir.”
The girls adopted hangdog expressions, which of course had not the slightest effect on Price as she herded them down the stairs and toward the kitchen. He followed more slowly, mentally taking stock. At the moment, having been about to head out on Guild affairs, he was in one of Sweet’s loud, shabby suits. Well, Ingvar had been introduced to him that way, anyhow. Probably best not to surprise him any more than necessary.
He entered the study, finding the Huntsman standing stiffly with his hands folded behind him, examining the nicknacks on the mantle. Ingvar turned swiftly at his arrival, his face calm but, to a veteran observer of people like Sweet, his posture betraying tension. He did not want to be here. Well, considering how some of their previous conversations had gone, that was pretty understandable.
“Brother Ingvar,” Sweet said warmly, striding across the room to offer his hand. The Huntsman took it almost gingerly, though his grip was firm, and he immediately altered his tactics. This one wouldn’t be softened up by charm. “So sorry to keep you waiting,” he said more briskly, though it had only been a few minutes. “I was dealing with my apprentices; you know how young ones can be. How can I help you?”
“I am sorry to intrude, your Grace,” the Huntsman said with stiff formality. Voice and face remained calm, but his posture was still rigid, and one hand kept creeping toward his hatchet. Not a threat; it looked to Darling more like a gesture seeking comfort. Ingvar had either been slightly trained in diplomatic conduct, or had a knack for it that compensated for a lack of training. The two looked very similar. “I shall try not to take too much of your time; I merely have a favor to ask of you.”
“Well, of course,” Darling said smoothly, fading more into a Bishoply demeanor; Sweet was bound to grate on this guy’s nerves, by nature. “Please, have a seat, be comfortable. I’ll be glad to help if I can.”
Ingvar folded himself gingerly onto the loveseat while Darling slipped into his customary chair. He’d considered not offering; the Huntsman would naturally be more comfortable on his feet, but offering a guest a seat was such a universal mark of courtesy that failing to do so would be an insult under virtually any circumstances.
He studied his guest’s face in the moment of silence while Ingvar gathered words; this was clearly a request he was loathe to make, which made it all the more intriguing. Darling had taken the time to do a little research on his particular condition. It wasn’t an issue in Eserion’s service, where people had a very simple, rather limited code of behavior to adhere to and were expected to carry on however the hell they pleased in their personal lives. The cults of Avei, Izara and Vidius all had specific provisions for individuals whose gender didn’t match their sex, however, and conveniently had those doctrines written down, so he didn’t have to have awkward conversations with any of their priests to learn them. Needless to say, their doctrines contradicted one another quite flatly. Still, the reading had given him a little insight, he felt.
Ingvar, at least, clearly had not made use of any kind of body-altering alchemy, which could very well be a Shaathist thing. The Huntsmen did not record their beliefs, at least not where outsiders could read them, but their love of all things natural made it likely they would eschew cosmetic alchemy. There was only so much it could do, anyway. Ingvar’s beardless face could certainly belong on a man, especially given his attire and hairstyle, though it did make him seem younger than he was; Darling guessed him to be around thirty, maybe a tad less. With a simple trick of concentration, however, he could also see the face of a woman with a rather strong jaw and heavy eyebrows. It really did come down to how one chose to perceive what one saw.
“I have been given to understand,” Ingvar said finally, “that you have some contact with Mary the Crow.”
Oh, bloody hell. Honestly. What now?
“My goodness,” he said mildly. “You do know that Mary the Crow is a declared enemy of the state, I assume? That’s not an accusation to throw around lightly.”
“I have no desire to cause you any trouble, your Grace,” the Huntsman said quickly. “I am sorry to bother you even this much. Nothing you say to me will find its way to Imperial ears.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Darling said with a smile. “You’re correct, I do know her. And I also keep Lord Vex appraised of my acquaintance with her and other dangerous individuals. That’s just sensible. He likes to amuse himself by surveilling my house, anyway. What’s your interest in the Crow?”
“I have been troubled, lately, by visions,” Ingvar replied, finally untensing the slightest bit as his gaze focused on a point not within the room. “Repeated and disturbing dreams which… Well, I will not bore you with details. In short, the most recent finally offered me a hint of the way forward, rather than vague warnings. It suggested I seek the guidance of the Crow.”
“I see,” Darling murmured. He did not see, but he could most certainly conjecture. Visions, Mary, and shamanic quests all fit together quite neatly. As a priest and a human, however, shamanic stuff in general was rather over his head. “If I may ask, who directed you to my door?”
Ingvar’s left eyebrow twitched in what looked like it had wanted to be a wry expression before he marshaled it. “Principia Locke.”
Darling had to chuckle at that; for some reason, Ingvar looked mildly offended.
“Sorry, old business. Principia’s name does tend to turn up whenever anything untoward happens; I guess it shouldn’t surprise me by now. That was good thinking, though; you probably knew about the family link there before I did.”
“Is it possible you can put me in contact with Mary?” Ingvar asked, betraying no overt impatience. It was there, though; in his situation, it would have to be.
“Oh, most certainly,” said Darling. “However, you should be aware that the Crow comes and goes like a cat, only far less reliably. I’ll be only too glad to let her know you are looking for her; at that point, she’ll seek you out if she’s interested. What I cannot do is pin her down for you, nor make any kind of appointment. Or guarantee that she’ll be interested in speaking. Or, frankly, give you a timetable. She popped in on my every few days for months, but then in the last half a year I’ve seen her all of three times.”
“I see,” Ingvar said, his shoulders moving subtly in a nearly repressed sigh. “Well. That is not nothing; it’s the first concrete progress I have made in this. I thank you greatly for your assistance, Bishop Darling.”
“Not at all, think nothing of it,” Darling said, waving him away. “Giving aid between faiths is the central duty of my position; we are all allies under the Pantheon’s aegis.”
Ingvar pointedly did not comment on that hollow platitude. “Nonetheless, I feel I owe you a debt for helping me in this.”
“Let’s not forget that you were among those who came to my rescue against the Black Wreath,” Darling said more softly, and more sincerely. “If you must think in terms of debts, consider any favors I do you here a repayment.”
“Very well,” the Huntsman replied with very slight but still evident relief.
Darling rose, suspecting his guest would be glad to terminate this audience without further small talk; the swiftness with which Ingvar followed suit bore out his hypothesis. “I’ve only one method which has worked in the past to get Mary’s attention; I retired it after she tacitly expressed displeasure, but for you, I believe we can trot it out again. Price!”
The parlor door instantly opened, revealing the Butler.
“Ah, there you are! Price, I need you to assemble another scarecrow.”
“Really, sir?” she said with that magical expressionlessness of hers that somehow conveyed withering disapproval in a way that couldn’t be called out.
“A…scarecrow?” Ingvar repeated, looking somewhere between amused and aghast.
“Yes indeed!” Darling said cheerfully. “And you know what, put a silly hat on this one. We can’t have our good friend Mary getting the idea that she should take herself too seriously. That’s terrible for a person’s blood pressure.”
“Your Grace,” Price intoned, “may I respectfully suggest that escalating a prank war with Mary the Crow is among the most ill-advised notions in the history of civilization?”
“Not in front of a guest, you may not,” he said glibly. “Honestly, Price, you’re making the poor man uncomfortable. Who taught you to behave?”
“Oh, uh,” Ingvar stammered.
“Brother Ingvar,” Darling said more warmly, turning to the Huntsman. “Once again, I cannot predict how swiftly I’ll have word for you, or what that word will be, but I’ll be in touch just as soon as anything develops.”
“I…appreciate your help very much, your Grace,” Ingvar said, and Darling couldn’t help feeling amused at his clear discomfort. He felt a little bad about that, though.
Well, it was good that he could feel guilty about such small things. When you didn’t, anymore, you were wandering into territory that he sometimes feared he would find himself in before he knew what had happened.
The light autumn wind tasted of rain; it tugged playfully at her hair and the fringes of her sleeves and leggings. She ignored it, perched on the edge of Darling’s roof right where the whole neighborhood could have seen her, if anyone bothered to look up. Humans rarely did.
Mary watched impassively as Ingvar the Huntsman made his way back up the street, moving with an alacrity that suggested eagerness to get well out of this ritzy neighborhood.