10 – 9

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The manor gates were standing open when they arrived. The group paused for a moment, glancing around at one another before Darling shrugged, grinned insouciantly, and strolled on in. There was nothing for them to do but follow, Ingvar with a soft sigh.

Though the thief made a (somewhat casually-paced) beeline for the door, Joe and Ingvar carefully studied the grounds as they trailed along in his wake. The gravel walk was even and clean, the house apparently well-repaired, its partial blanket of climbing ivy even cleared away from windows. It didn’t look like a particularly well-maintained property apart from that, however. There was no landscaping of any kind, and the lawn was essentially a walled-in patch of wild prairie in the forest, thick with chest-high grasses, bramble bushes and even occasional small trees that had clearly grown up within the last ten years or so, due to no one bothering to clear them out. There was no statuary, no garden or porch furniture, and the only flowers appeared haphazardly on the edge of the walk where the taller grasses didn’t quite blot out their access to sunlight.

They all stopped again at the top of the short flight of steps to the manor’s doors, because those doors opened before they got close enough to knock. Well, one of the double set did, revealing a beautiful young woman in an expensive red gown. She regarded them with a faint, knowing smile.

“Good afternoon!” Darling said with a grin and a bow. “Would I have the pleasure of addressing Lady Malivette?”

“Hardly,” she said, her smile widening. “But please come in, your Grace. She is expecting you.” With that, she stepped aside, gesturing them demurely through.

“You’re too kind!” Darling, again, strolled right on ahead as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Joe and Ingvar exchanged a significant look before following, hands straying close to holstered wands and tomahawks.

The woman in red stood aside to watch them with that calm smile as they clustered together inside, pushing the door shut as soon as they were clear of it. Inside, the entrance hall of Dufresne Manor was more of the same: clean, well-repaired, but starkly bare of furnishings and apparently not much cared for. The three gave it only a glance, however, being focused upon the person waiting for them at the base of the stairs, directly ahead.

It could only be Malivette Dufresne; the crimson eyes were a dead giveaway. She also wore an exquisite but severe black gown that suited the vampire mystique, but apart from that, she seemed to be just a petite young woman who could be quite pretty if she’d get a good night’s sleep, eat several regular meals and get some sun. Ingvar, naturally, was not about to voice that assessment.

“Bishop Darling,” the lady of the house intoned in a silky contralto voice. “What an interesting visit. I can’t recall the last time a cleric deemed me desirable company—though, now that I’ve said it aloud, it occurs to me that the disciples of Eserion aren’t exactly the standard run of clergy, are you?”

“Why, we take pride in not being the standard run of anything, m’lady,” Darling said with another grandiose bow. “I apologize for dropping in on you like this…though apparently we’re not quite as unexpected as I was expecting.”

“No indeed,” the vampire said with a broad, friendly smile which was both uncharacteristic of the nobles Ingvar had observed, and unnerving in that it showed off her elongated canines. He suspected that was no accident. Malivette oozed forward with a slinky gate that might have been alluring under other circumstances. “This has been the day for unexpected visitations—you’re not half so surprising as what told me to be on the lookout for you. Tell me, your Grace, do you know what a shadow elemental is?”

Darling blinked. “I…confess I haven’t the faintest idea. Sorry, elementals are a bit over my head.”

“I didn’t either,” said the vampire, her smile fading. “Let me tell you, it’s a hell of a thing to have breezing into your living room all of a sudden.”

“And we are exceedin’ly sorry to’ve been such an imposition, however indirectly, ma’am,” Joe said politely, hat in hand. “It’s clear you don’t care for visitors. We’ll aim not to take up a hair more of your time than absolutely necessary.”

Malivette turned her red eyes on him, tilting her head inquisitively. “That’s clear, is it? Now, what makes you think that?”

Joe glanced at Darling, who merely raised his eyebrows, expression a blank mask of curiosity. The Kid cleared his throat. “Well, ah… Just puttin’ together the numbers, so t’speak. Your home is in very good repair, an’ so’s the outer wall. None o’ that’s cheap for a property this size, which means the apparent state of disrepair’s deliberate. Few times I’ve seen rich places fallen on hard times, the furnishings were all kept, an’ all gettin’ shabby together. I reckon you affect a tumbledown aesthetic on purpose, to discourage people comin’ over.”

“Why, what a sharp eye you have,” Malivette cooed, “Mr…?”

“Jenkins, ma’am. Joseph P. Jenkins. Just payin’ attention and applyin’ logic. Your pardon if I step outta turn, I mean no disrespect.”

“Oh, pish tosh,” she said, waving a hand airily. “I do say it’s a delight to meet a young man your age with a sense of did you say Joseph P. Jenkins?”

He swallowed. “I, ah…yes, I did.”

“Well, as I don’t live and breathe!” the vampire enthused, grinning broadly. “The Sarasio Kid, in my front room! What a day this is turning out to be! The Kid, the Bishop, and…” Her gaze fell on Ingvar. “I’m certain this is quite a story, too.”

“This is Brother Ingvar,” Darling said mildly. “Huntsman of Shaath.”

“Brother?” Malivette looked him up and down, and Ingvar refrained from bristling, having had far too much practice at it. “Okay. Quite a story, then.”

“And one with which we won’t bore you,” Ingvar said flatly. “Your pardon, lady, but these gentlemen seek an audience with you; I am merely traveling with them. I’m afraid I’ve nothing to offer or ask of you, and will not trouble you more than I must simply by being here.”

“There’s no need to be defensive, Brother Ingvar,” the vampire said with a faint smile. “We all have our need for privacy—believe me, you will rarely meet someone who understands that better than I.” She transferred her gaze back to Darling. “So! What wind blows you to my door, Bishop?”

“Well,” he said with an easy smile, “we’re following up on a trail of old events, your Grace. I understand you had some houseguests recently!”

“Mm hmm,” she murmured, watching him closely now. “The sort of houseguests about whom lots of people are curious. It’s not my policy to divulge anyone else’s secrets any more than my own—and that’s even for people who aren’t watched over by a certain archmage with an apocalyptic temper.”

“By all means,” he said smoothly, “I’ve no intention of digging into the students’ business; we won’t be at all offended if you can’t tell us anything. It’s not they who chiefly concern us, anyhow. The events in question, though…” He sighed, glancing back at the others. “Well, the truth is, Joe and I are part of a group of folks who were trying to prevent disaster from breaking out here.”

“Good job,” she said, deadpan.

Darling chuckled ruefully. “Yeah, you’ve hit it on the head, my lady. I was the one in charge of planning, Joe more a boots-on-the-ground type. I completely missed my mark—had everybody nosing around up north of Desolation. I misread the intelligence and didn’t pay enough attention to Veilgrad until matters here disintegrated so far there was nothing to be done, except by those already present.” He sighed. “I’ll have to accept your condemnation, Lady Dufresne, for failing you, even if you had no idea I was trying to help. What we are doing here, now, is investigating what happened, why, and at whose behest. The goal is to get a better handle on events so as not to make such mistakes in the future. But it already being well too late to be of use to you, here, so… As I said, I’ll take no offense if you show us the door at this point.”

“Hmm,” she mused, studying him thoughtfully. She turned her unsettling gaze on Joe, and then on Ingvar. “Hmm. Mm hmm hm hmm. Ruby!” The vampire looked past them at the woman in red. “Would you be good enough to show our guests into the dining room?”

“Of course, my lady,” said Ruby, curtsying gracefully to the men when they turned to her. “If you will follow me, please, gentlemen?”

“Most comfortable room in the house that I don’t sleep in,” said Malivette cheerfully. “I’ll be with you in just a tick, lads.”

Abruptly she exploded in a cloud of swirling, squeaking mist. Ingvar leapt back, drawing a tomahawk by reflex, as a swarm of bats whirled out of the place where the vampire had stood. Squealing and chattering, they fluttered up to the second-floor landing and down a hall.

“I apologize for the mistress of the house,” Ruby said calmly. “Social isolation and a rather quirky sense of humor make her, at times, startling to company. This way, please?”

“Put that up,” Darling said in a low tone as he followed after her. “What’d you think you were gonna do, chop down the bats?”

“Ease up, your Grace,” Joe said to him, equally softly but with an edge. “It’s instinct. Makes perfect sense to me, an’ I doubt the lady took offense. She seems too intelligent not to know exactly what she’s doin’ with antics like that.”

“Fair enough,” Darling said with a shrug, and offered Ingvar a smile.

The Huntsman slipped his ax back into its belt loop, not acknowledging him.

Ruby led them through a side door into a dining room that was very like the entrance hall in aesthetics—which was to say, clean and bare. A fireplace stood at one end of the room and a long table lined with chairs down its center.

Malivette, somehow, was already waiting for them.

“There you are,” she said cheerfully. “I was afraid you’d gotten lost. I have something for you, Bishop Darling.”

She was, indeed, holding an object, which she lightly tossed to the Bishop. Darling caught it deftly, turning the staff over in his hands; Ingvar and Joe both craned their necks over his shoulder to peer at it. Though about the size of an Army-issue battlestaff, it looked more like a scepter, capped at both ends with large crystals and with hefty spirals of gold embossing half its length. There was an obvious clicker mechanism in the usual place, however.

“I’ve been wanting to get rid of that for weeks,” their hostess said. “My plan was always to get it into the hands of the Thieves’ Guild, but our local representative is a little too closely tied to the Army for my comfort, and well… That makes things complicated with regard to that weapon.”

“Weapon?” Joe said, raising his eyebrows.

“Complicated?” Darling added. “How so?”

Malivette grinned again, which was no less disconcerting. “You boys had best grab some seats—this might take a while. Upon consideration, I believe I’ll be happy to tell you all about what went down in Veilgrad recently. Ruby, bring the gentlemen some refreshments, would you? This might take…a while.”


 

Though the revival had ended, a festive atmosphere lingered over Last Rock, chiefly due to the efforts of the remaining religious institutions to capitalize on the spirit. The Universal Church chapel had remained open and fully staffed with a few priests from the capital lingering in town for that purpose; Father Laws had wisely avoided the temptation to give extra sermons, instead having organized a bake sale. The lure of fresh baked goods, donated by the ladies of the town, and freely available root beer and apple cider had kept people streaming steadily through the chapel and its yard all afternoon, once usual working hours had passed. Students trickled down from the mountain, too, their own classes being done for the day.

With the tents and representatives from the other cults having packed up and left, Last Rock’s newest additions were doing a brisk business, too. The high spirits of the revival lingered but the competition had not, and the new Vidian temple and the Silver Mission were both centers of activity. People clustered and swirled around the Mission’s grounds, on the outskirts of town near the Rail platform, but by far the biggest concentrations of activity were on a different side of the outskirts, between the Vidian amphitheater and the chapel, which were not far separate. In that region, shops along the short stretch of street linking the two had set out festive stands (several complete with free samples), and a sort of impromptu town picnic had formed on the prairie around the temple.

The Vidians themselves were putting on a performance. It was an old morality play, one of those stories with a ham-fisted message which everyone had already heard anyway, but not for nothing was Vidius the patron of false faces; the performers put effort and style into the production, and Val Tarvadegh, the chief priest attached to this temple, was a man with a robust sense of humor, which colored the proceedings to their benefit. Many townsfolk were clustered in and around the small amphitheater, actually watching the show, even as others milled about on the grass, sharing food and gossip.

Big, Church-sponsored festivals were fine and dandy, but now was a day for the good folk of Last Rock to have their own shindig. If a few muttered and cast dark looks at the University students in their midst, they kept it discreet, and nobody seemed to pay them any notice.

A dozen yards or so distant from the amphitheater, another cluster of people had formed around a large blanket laid out on the grass, replete with dishes brought by various citizens. Some stood or sat near it, grazing and chit-chatting, and a handful of children chased each other around nearby, pausing periodically when some adult or other scolded them, though they didn’t seem to be bothering the performers. Quite a few people were gathered on the far side of the blanket, however, watching another impromptu show at the edge of the tallgrass.

It was a little unclear what exactly Juniper was trying to do with her jackalope, expect give him some exercise. She had Jack on a harness and leash—itself a highly impressive feat to those who knew anything of the creatures and their temperament—and was running up and down, back and forth, and in circles with him. Periodically she would give him commands to stop, or to leap, which he occasionally chose to obey. Generally, Jack didn’t seem to mind bounding alongside his companion, and he made short work of the peanuts she gave him after every successful “trick,” but based on his performance he had clearly not learned to associate obedience with reward. It probably didn’t help that she gave him encouraging scratches behind the ear even when he refused to jump on command.

They made for an amusing spectacle anyway, particularly the dryad. With her green hair flying in the breeze, garbed in just her usual sundress, Juniper was an impressive physical specimen, which the exercise just served to highlight. It probably helped to encourage her audience that her antics were bouncy in multiple senses. A few of the women of the town were dividing annoyed looks between the dryad and their male companions. In a slightly separate group off to one side, several University kids loitered around, chitchatting and eyeballing Juniper with even less discretion.

“Am I alone in sensing a certain…coldness?” Sekandar Aldarasi asked quietly, eying the nearby citizens.

“What, you mean the townies?” Chase replied, glancing at them before returning his gaze to Juniper. “Nah, that’s about typical. They always keep a little aloof.”

“You are not alone, Sekandar,” Ravana said calmly. “We’ve been here a relatively short time, but I have noted a subtle yet consistent change in the way the locals look at us since yesterday.”

“Since Bishop Snowe’s very interesting speech,” Sekandar said, nodding.

“Well, maybe you’re right,” Chase said with a grin. “I mean, who’d know better? They’re your people, after all.”

Sekandar barked a short laugh. “Hah! These? The mostly Stalweiss descendants of Heshenaad’s armies, with a culture and dialect heavily influence by the gnomes and plains elves? When the Great Plains were officially claimed, most of them were divided into new provinces; this area was appended to Calderaas only because House Tirasian needed to placate my family after the skulduggery following the Enchanter Wars. The frontiersmen are no one’s people but their own. I think they rather insist on that point.”

“Y’know, this is a lot like one of Tellwyrn’s lectures,” Chase commented. “Except—and I never thought I would say this—she’s prettier than you.”

“Well, you can see the evidence before you,” Sekandar said dryly. “Everyone seems to find Juniper far more interesting than their prince.

Ruda snorted. “Be fair, now. If you had knockers like that, they’d be all over you.”

“Yeah?” Chase turned to her, grinning. “You’ve got knockers like that, and nobody’s bothering you, I see.”

“Maybe because I don’t wave ’em around for everybody to gawk at.”

“Yes, and I’ve been meaning to speak to you about that, now that you mention it. A rack of such proportions is a gift from the gods, Punaji. You have a certain obligation to share—”

“On the subject of confusing me with Juniper, Masterson,” Ruda interrupted. “she’s the one who needs a good reason to beat your ass into the ground.”

“Oh!” Chase bonked himself on the forehead with the heel of his hand. “Right, sorry. I always get those mixed up.”

Ravana gave him a very long, very cool look from the corner of her eye, which he appeared not to notice. Beside her, Szith edged subtly closer, casually flexing her fingers in the vicinity of her sword.

Juniper had either finished her allotted exercise or given up on Jack’s training, and was now wandering toward the other students, the jackalope gathered into her arms. Before getting more than a few yards, however, she was intercepted by a girl of no more than eight who burst out of the crowd of townsfolk.

“Hi!” she squealed, beaming. “Can I pet the bunny?”

“Oh,” Juniper said, blinking at her and carefully adjusting her grip on Jack. “Um, that’s not a really good idea, honey.”

The child’s face immediately crumpled.

“It’s just that he’s still being trained,” Juniper said hastily. “And he doesn’t like strangers. Jackalopes aren’t tame bunnies; those antlers can really hurt you. I wouldn’t want that to happen! Aw, please don’t cry…”

“Hm,” Ravana murmured, her eyes roving over the picnic area; almost everyone else was studying the new drama unfolding. “Why is that child not playing with the others?”

“Children are unpredictable,” Ruda grunted. “Bunnies are fluffy. Can’t expect a kid to understand that bunny is also a thing of goddamn evil.”

“Who is that?” Ravana inquired, nodding her head toward a lean-faced blonde woman in a black coat, who had come to stand at the front of the group of townsfolk.

“I don’t know her name,” Szith replied. “She is a priestess of Vidius, however, from what I have overheard. Apparently she and an Avenist have stayed on after the revival to be attached permanently to their respective temples.”

“And she’s now here,” Ravana mused, “watching this, instead of the Vidian service going on. Interesting.”

“I’m not sure I’d call a play a Vidian service,” Sekandar began.

“Uh oh,” Ruda said suddenly, frowning, and pointed.

A woman had emerged from the crowd, stalking over to Juniper, who backpedaled, clutching her jackalope. His ears had begun to twitch dangerously, though he had not yet started struggling.

“What are you doing to my child?” she demanded.

“I was just—”

“She ain’t hurtin’ anything,” the woman said sharply, taking the little girl by the hand and glaring at Juniper. “I don’t see any call to be snapping at her.”

“I wasn’t trying to snap,” the dryad said earnestly. “It’s just, she wanted to pet Jack, and I was trying to explain—”

“And what’s wrong with that? Are you really so hard up you can’t let a little girl touch your rabbit?”

“Now, hold on,” Juniper protested.

“Marcy, there ain’t no call to be like that,” a man added, stepping forward and frowning reproachfully. “She weren’t hurtin’ the girl. What would you say if she wanted to pat an ornery mule? You can’t let a kid get too close to disagreeable animals, that’s just sense.”

There were several nods and murmurs of agreement from the onlookers, which seemed to infuriate Marcy. She clutched her daughter close, the child having begun to cry in earnest during all the raised voices.

“It’s a rabbit, Herman. What’s it gonna hurt? All I see’s one o’ them kids from up on the hill who thinks she can walk around our town doin’ what she likes, an’ not show the slightest regard for th’ people livin’ here!”

That brought a few murmurs of its own.

“Omnu’s breath, Marcy, it’s her rabbit!” Herman exclaimed.

“Hey!” Natchua pushed forward through the crowd; Marcy shied back from the glaring drow, huddling protectively around her weeping daughter. “Your child was trying to interfere with an aggressive wild animal with very large horns. Its trainer just explained that it’s only half-trained and not sociable. It’s not going to be the dryad’s fault of someone gets gored. As I see it, the difference between you two is she is being responsible for her little beast!”

“Oh, my,” Chase breathed, grinning from ear to ear. Several of the onlookers had burst out laughing, while others were nodding in agreement—though with whose points it was impossible to say.

“If I may?” The soft voice cut through the noise, clearly delivered by someone accustomed to projecting through the stage. The blonde woman in Vidian black stepped forward, smiling. “Madam, I certainly understand your concern, but having been here a few moments before you arrived, I can assure you I saw no one threatening your child. She was disappointed, not harmed. And the young lady is quite correct: jackalopes are not friendly creatures, as a rule. Might I suggest it would be wise if everyone lowered their voices? The poor creature looks rather stressed. We wouldn’t want to provoke him, now would we?”

At that, most of the onlookers obligingly dropped their tones, or stopped talking entirely, and Juniper eased back further, clutching Jack close and stroking his fur. His nose was twitching furiously, but he still didn’t lunge free; despite appearances, her training seemed to be having some effect on him.

“Well, you can’t blame me,” Marcy muttered, stroking the child’s hair. “I came over to find my girl crying and that…woman right there… We all know dryads ain’t the safest creatures.”

“Juniper seems to have been trying to protect the child from another dangerous creature, if I’m not mistaken,” said the blonde. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ve met everyone yet.” She dropped to a crouch, smiling disarmingly at the girl, who peeked out from over her mother’s arm. “Hi, there. My name’s Lorelin. What’s yours?”

“D-daisy,” the child sniffled. “Daisy Summers.”

“Daisy!” the priestess said warmly. “That’s very pretty, your parents have good taste. I’m sorry you didn’t get to pet the bunny, hon. You have to remember, though, he belongs to Miss Juniper. We must respect other people’s things, mustn’t we? You’d want them to respect yours, right?”

Daisy muttered something indistinct; Lorelin smiled up at Marcy and winked, before straightening up. “There, now, just a little misunderstanding. It’s good you came along when you did, ma’am.”

“Well, I’m glad someone ’round here has some sense,” Marcy said, shooting a look at Herman. He threw up his hands and turned away.

“I’m sure we all are,” Natchua said, fairly dripping sarcasm.

“Hmmmm,” Ravana mused from the sidelines. “How very interesting.”

“How so?” Sekandar inquired. She just shook her head.

Juniper had retreated further, back toward the tallgrass, and set Jack down to let him stretch and relax. Chase and a few of the others started toward her, but she looked up, shook her head apologetically and gestured them back, still soothingly stroking the jackalope’s fur.

That was the moment when Jack lunged forward, his powerful legs propelling him like a stone from a catapult. His leash brought him up short, the force of the jump not shifting the startled Juniper by an inch, and so his horns merely grazed Herman’s leg, rather than outright impaling him.

Herman staggered with a yell, other shouts immediately breaking out from the onlookers. Juniper began frantically reeling the struggling jackalope back toward her, even as he continued to bound this way and that, lunging at whoever his eyes caught. People wisely backpedaled away from the dryad and her pet, Marcy picking up Daisy and fleeing at a run. Natchua, standing just outside the range of the jackalope’s diminishing leash, watched them go without moving.

Chase was laughing so hard he had to sit down.

Lorelin had leaped to Herman’s side; she and another man from the crowd helped him away from the struggling jackalope and to a seated position on the ground, where the priestess knelt beside him, hands glowing with healing light.

Amid the hubbub, Ravana caught Sekandar’s elbow and tugged gently. He glanced down at her curiously, but allowed himself to be led; she pulled him back from the gaggle of students toward Ruda, who now stood a few feet distant, idly swirling a bottle of rum and watching the proceedings thoughtfully.

“Your Highnesses,” Ravana said, coming to a stop.

Ruda made a face at her, but Sekandar, merely raising an eyebrow, played along. “Your Grace?”

“I wonder,” said the Duchess, “if you would be good enough to say whether you’ve just seen the same sequence of events I have.”

The Prince, turned his head, frowning thoughtfully at Juniper, who had got Jack back into her arms and was holding him firmly. “Hum. I would have to say this began yesterday, with Bishop Snowe’s speech. In a widespread religious event organized by the Universal Church, a Bishop thereof launched a very sharp verbal attack on the University. Most uncharacteristic behavior for an Izarite, I might add, which suggests on whose behalf she was speaking. Now, we have this little drama, facilitated by a new Vidian cleric who arrived as part of the same function.”

“There’s a new Avenist, too,” Ruda added quietly. “A priestess, apparently gonna be working down at the Silver Mission. That’s interesting to me; Trissiny’s whole point in starting those was having a single cleric on hand to organize, and lettin’ the rest of any staff be volunteer laypeople.”

“I don’t suppose either of you happened to observe what this Lorelin was doing before the child approached Juniper and kicked all this off?” Ravana inquired, still watching the hubbub as it gradually got under control, townspeople drifting away and Herman gingerly testing his leg.

“I’m afraid not,” said Sekandar.

“Because I distinctly recall seeing the town’s children playing together, some yards distant,” Ravana continued. “There could, of course, be perfectly innocent explanations for that one having separated from the group to approach Juniper and the rabbit, but the timing seems odd, to me.”

“Hm,” Ruda said noncommittally.

“And now,” Ravana continued, “we have an incident. A local resident injured, however slightly, by a student. Or at least, I’ve no doubt that is how the story will be told. And all right as this new cleric, placed here by the same organization which funded Bishop Snowe, arrived on the scene.”

“Speculation,” Ruda pointed out.

“Oh without doubt,” Ravana agreed. “I merely point out a suggestive sequence of events. Any of them could be coincidental and harmless. It’s when chained together that a troubling pattern emerges. I’m sure that I needn’t lecture the two of you about suggestive sequences of individually harmless events.”

“No, you needn’t,” Ruda said, now watching the Vidian priestess, who was in earnest conversation with Herman and two other town citizens.

“I wonder,” Sekandar mused, “how difficult would it be for a cleric to manifest an object of divine light. Something small enough to, say, prod a jackalope, or flick its ear.”

“Hmm,” Ravana said thoughtfully, tapping her lips with one finger. “It was my understanding that light-created objects had to remain in contact with the caster.”

“What about divine shields? They are clearly solid, and not physically connected to their creators.”

“You have a point,” she acknowledged. “Of course, the tricky part would have to be doing it without garnering attention. If I’m not mistaken, isn’t such misdirection a known skill of higher-ranking Vidian clerics?”

“Almost half my class is taking divine casting with Harklund this semester,” said Ruda. “I’ll ask about the possibilities. Discreetly.”

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, nodding. “I’m sure you both understand the importance of discretion, here. It might be unfortunate if one of the paladins were to hear an accusation without proof at this juncture.”

“That would muddy the waters,” Sekandar said, frowning. “I dislike the thought of sneaking around them…”

“Don’t sneak,” Ruda advised, “and don’t lie. This is nothing but unconfirmed theory as of right now; there’s no reason at all for them to hear about it until there’s something significant for them to hear. Trust me, I know those three. One would shrug and blow you off, and the other two would fly right the hell off the handle.”

“Quite so,” said Ravana. “If it all turns out to be nothing, it will be better not to have sown any further seeds of discord. But if, for whatever reason, the Universal Church is angling to undermine the University, it seems best, to me, that someone be on site to angle right back. Don’t you agree?”

Standing a few yards distant, separate from all the various groups of people present, Szith stared into space, one hand resting lightly on the hilt of her sword. The drow heaved a soft sigh and spoke in a low tone inaudible to anyone but herself.

“I hate politics.”

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31 thoughts on “10 – 9

  1. Very sorry for the delay. The good news is it turned out to be average chapter size, a little over 5K words. I was worried it was gonna come in short.

    And now, off to work on four hours’ sleep. Yee haw!

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  2. Typos:
    “You boys had best grab some seats—this might take a while. Upon consideration, I believe I’ll be happy to tell you all about what went down in Veilgrad recently. Ruby, bring the gentlemen some refreshments, would you? This might take…a while.”
    Repeated “this might take a while” (character speech, and addressed to different people, but still probably unintentional).

    Thoughts:
    I’d actually almost forgotten about Justinian trying to undermine Arachne with all the crazy road trips we’ve been having. Serial fiction is weird like that.

    Not really very much new information here – just Justinian trying to stir up the townsfolk against the University, which is what we thought he was trying to do. What we didn’t know beforehand is that he’s left agents aroud long-turn, but that’s not very surprising.

    His endgame remains a complete mystery. I’m really looking forward to finding out what it is, as this story has impressed me in the past with making apparently nonsensical character behavior look totally rational by revealing a hidden motive or goal.

    Probably controversial opinion which I am in no way claiming is anyone but my own’s: the way the narration (and some of the characters’ inner monologues) talk about women – physically, I mean – make me kind of uncomfortable. Like in this chapter where we have “her antics were bouncy in multiple senses” – I’m not sure if avoiding actually using the word “breasts” is supposed to make it sound less sleazy or what, but if so it’s not working (if anything, it just makes it sound childish).

    Now, obviously no-one who’s actually read this story could reasonably accuse the author of deliberate sexism, and I’m not doing so. I’m just saying those particular sentences get a negative reaction out of me that I don’t think is always what’s intended (obviously it is sometimes, like when it constantly happened from Shook’s POV).

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    1. Don’t forget the Shadow Elemental that warned Malivette about Darling and company coming. You now have Shadow Elementals appearing in two different areas, both showing up in basically the same time frame. Wonder if we have one summoner or more?

      Like

      1. I didn’t mention that because I have no intelligent commentary on the matter😀. Without knowing more about the limitations of elemental summoning, I don’t think we can even speculate on how many summoners there are.

        Like

      2. Actually we do have some limitations given back in chapter 10-8 where they talked about the Shadow Elemental Basra and company destroyed: ““The creation of a shadow elemental is not a simple task,” said Adimel. “It requires reagents and resources in considerable quantities and of great rarity to perform the crafting. The power needed is also well beyond what the average witch would willingly devote to the creation of a servant. The relatively few human witches who possess such things treasure them greatly, and would not risk one in an open confrontation such as we saw today.”

        The Shadow Elemental is a one that is not easy to make and requires a lot of power which in turn means there is not a whole lot of “people” capable of creating one.

        Like

      3. Based on who they were sent here by, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the Elemental that warned Malivette is one that Mary popped into being. She is certainly strong enough, and no doubt keeps a fair number of rare reagents for certain things. She could’ve pinned the critter to one of the three fellas and let it know to give Malivette a heads up when they were on their way up to see her.

        Like

    2. Justinian is not going to score against the university. Sorry, but even assuming his little ploys result in the citizens of Last Rock openely protesting the university… it’s not going to faze Arachne at all. The university doesn’t need Last Rock, but Last Rock needs the university. Most of their economy depends on students spending their money in town.

      This has to be evident to Justinian, too… so I believe this is just a distraction, which doesn’t really cost him much either way. Arachne isn’t going take action against him just because his agents are poking around, so the risk is neglible, too.

      Honestly though, this is about at the same level as his plan to employ or kill all adventurers. It makes no sense, only leads to trouble and might be a sign of insanity.

      About your issue with the descriptions of women: Juniper is a pretty girl in just a sundress, jumping around happily with her pet… bouncy fits that perfectly. It implies jiggly physics but doesn’t draw the full attention to them, it’s up to the reader how far they want to take it. Personally, I didn’t think of breasts until you mentioned them.

      While Shook’s POV is sleazy by intent I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the narration. People look at other people that way more often than not. I don’t see a problem with acknowledging that someone is attractive or that you are attracted to them. The human body is what it is, there’s no point in trying to repress things. Also, not everything has to be sexual. See enough breasts and soon you’ll go, “Yep, those are nice” and move on.😉

      You know that this your own personal problem, so there’s not much that can be done here.🙂

      Like

      1. Yeah, none of Justinian’s plans (that have been revealed to us) have been particularly impressive so far. I think they have the same problem as lots of large-scale plans in fiction, i.e. too ambitious and too dependent on everyone reacting exactly the way you expect them to.

        This is interesting to me, because on a tactical level Webb is fantastic at setting up complicated situations with multiple factions all working at cross-purposes and then having them play out in ways that make sense and without anyone looking omniscient or insane (except chaos cultists :P). But on the larger scale, a lot of character behavior seems pretty poorly reasoned, e.g. Justinian’s plan with his pet adventurers, or even Khadizroth’s original plan to raise a whole brood-army of dragons.

        OTOH, it’s the middle of the story and I look forward to eating my words on this. Justinian in particular is a giant enigma right now, so with any luck all his decisions will make sense in retrospect. I’m confident that the thing he’s doing now will be explained by the end of the book, at any rate – people in-universe have already pointed out that there must be something more going on than just riling up villagers.

        Like

    3. Rather than sexist or sleazy i found that line to be humorous, and I’m fairly sure it was a lead-in to the interaction between Chase and Ruda.

      On a personal opinion note: I think fiction authors should be able to pretty much write whatever they want without social restraints and political correctness interfering. If people don’t like it then that’s their problem not the author’s. (This isn’t directed at you, more the negligent parents who don’t investigate before buying their child a book, then go off the rails when they later think it’s inappropriate)

      Like

  3. Immediate thought – perhaps what Justinian is setting up is a confrontation between the Hands of Vidius and Avei and their respective Universal Church clerics. Because if the Universal Church clerics keep doing this Gabriel and Trissiny are going to be pissed, but with little real recourse, assuming the political saboteurs are subtle. That will generate tensions that can be exploited to push the paladins around.

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    1. I would hope the paladins keep a cool head and send a letter describing the issue to the heads of their cults instead of getting involved themselves.

      Technically, don’t paladins outrank simple priests?

      Like

      1. Trissiny holds the rank of General, but that’s obviously a military rather than a clerical rank, and it’s been made pretty clear that the Silver Legion chain of command doesn’t actually mix with the clergy’s (all the Dijanerad vs Syrinx maneuvering a couple of books ago). It’s entirely possible the different cults handle it differently, though.

        Like

      2. Also, as Ruda rightly points out, expecting Trissiny to keep a cool head about anything is a master-level exercise in positive thinking.😀

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      3. While I wouldn’t say they’d keep cool heads necessarily (see Cyrid’s point about Triss not being the best at levelheadedness) I would emphatically stand behind a sentiment that there’s too much respect between Gabe and Triss for Justinian’s machinations to actually put a lot of undue stress on their relationship, especially with Shaeine, Toby, and Teal around to help deescalate.

        Like

    2. Hmm. That actually makes a lot of sense.

      It’s been discussed and debated before, but there’s really very little Justinian can do to harm Tellwyrn. Combat is a non-starter, she’s far too powerful. I mean, maybe Justinian has something up his sleeve that we haven’t seen yet, but Tellwyrn’s power outranks that of demigods and dragons.

      Justinian power is mainly political, and Tellwryn has little reason to give a shit about politics or popular opinion. A hostile Last Rock would be annoying, but Last Rock needs Tellwyrn and the University more than Tellwyrn needs Last Rock.

      Tellwyrn is personally unassailable, and bringing harm to her students is a very bad idea.

      However, one of the main themes of TGAB is the increasing interconnectedness of the world.

      Tellwyrn is grooming the next generation of demigods, paladins, and royalty. While she might be insulated from politics, her students are not. Tellwyrn is no longer just an adventurer, she is the head of an institution. She has responsibilities now. Her actions reflect on her students and vice versa.

      He can’t go after her, and he can’t go after her students.

      So I’m pretty sure Justinian is trying to snare Tellwyrn in a web of her own responsibilities. To create conflicting interests between Tellwyrn and her students, and among the students themselves.

      Like

      1. At least that’s the first part of his plan. Create tensions within the University, between the University and the outside world. Play Tellwyrn off the political interests of her students, play the political interests of her students off each other. Hamstring Tellwyrn’s ability to act without harming the best interests of her students.

        If you remember Justinian only decided to deal Tellwyrn after she started interfering with his plans. All he needs to do is hem her in and distract her until he’s built up enough momentum to make a more meaningful move against her, or until his main plot can’t be stopped.

        Like

  4. Now I really wonder what Justinian has in mind.
    Arachne is too old to fail to see his ploy to undermine her with the people of the town.
    And, really, he may end with a driad and three paladins after his hide. Not an interesting prospect. Particularly if Arachne solves her driad problems and gets well with Nayla.
    Hey, here is an interesting point. Only way to defeat Arachne is to get Nayla angry with her.

    Like

  5. So I have been thinking about what Justinian is trying to accomplish and I might have stumbled upon something. What if he is trying to get the empire to turn on the paladins. So far we’be heard talk of apotheosis, visions of at least one god bound , and now a situation where eventually the paladins will have to act against the empire.

    Like

    1. I love this chapter, but poor Ingvar don’t have a tag. On the complexity of Justinian’s plans, another webserial, A Practical Guide to Evil, had recently his quote : “Any plan with more than four steps is not a plan, it is wishful thinking.” I am interested with the development of Ingvar’s character.

      Prince Sekandar comments on how the Last Rock area was uncolored in the Calderas Province will be added in the Wikia soon. I ‘d like to clean my article on the World.

      For those ignoring this, I created the TGAB Wikia a week ago, you can participate in the editing, DD Webb has added a link in the upper right side of the page.

      http://tgab.wikia.com/wiki/TGAB_Wikia

      All help is welcome, but I am particularly interested in the creation of infoboxs, my attempts were unsuccessful .

      Even if you don’t wish edit, I invite the readers to visit the Wikia.

      Like

  6. A good chapter with of te delay. You have forgot poor Ingvar in the tags, I am always interested in the politics of your work, who are really complex.
    But in another web, A Practical Guide to Evil serial an epitaph remembered : “Any plan with more than four steps is not a plan, it is wishful thinking.”.

    Prince Sikandar give us precisions on the inclusion of the area in the Calderas Province, I will try to include this on the Wikia. Please even if you don’t want contribute, you could visit it. I am feeling a little lonely, in this endeavor

    http://tgab.wikia.com/wiki/TGAB_Wikia

    I will try to add more this week-end and complete the stubs.

    Like

  7. I love this chapter, but poor Ingvar don’t have a tag. On the complexity of Justinian’s plans, another webserial, A Practical Guide to Evil, had recently his quote : “Any plan with more than four steps is not a plan, it is wishful thinking.” I am interested with the development of Ingvar’s character.

    Prince Sekandar comments on how the Last Rock area was uncolored in the Calderas Province will be added in the Wikia soon. I ‘d like to clean my article on the World.

    For those ignoring this, I created the TGAB Wikia a week ago, you can participate in the editing, DD Webb has added a link in the upper right side of the page.

    http://tgab.wikia.com/wiki/TGAB_Wikia

    All help is welcome, but I am particularly interested in the creation of infoboxs, my attempts were unsuccessful .

    Even if you don’t wish edit, I invite the readers to visit the Wikia.

    Like

  8. Note, I am Lermune, but I couldn’t post with this name

    I love this chapter, but poor Ingvar don’t have a tag. On the complexity of Justinian’s plans, another webserial, A Practical Guide to Evil, had recently his quote : “Any plan with more than four steps is not a plan, it is wishful thinking.” I am interested with the development of Ingvar’s character.

    Prince Sekandar comments on how the Last Rock area was uncolored in the Calderas Province will be added in the Wikia soon. I ‘d like to clean my article on the World.

    For those ignoring this, I created the TGAB Wikia a week ago, you can participate in the editing, DD Webb has added a link in the upper right side of the page.

    http://tgab.wikia.com/wiki/TGAB_Wikia

    All help is welcome, but I am particularly interested in the creation of infoboxs, my attempts were unsuccessful .

    Even if you don’t wish edit, I invite the readers to visit the Wikia.

    Like

    1. The quote on planning is interesting. HPMOR had something like that, paraphrasing (because my memory is not that great), it said that a plot with more than three elements was unworkable, and since any decent plotter didn’t try to test the limits for important plots, two elements was the practical limit.

      Like

  9. And I forgot, I use Allerion23 on the Wikia.

    Concerning Joe, I suppose I am a little in commenting the Sasrasio chapters, but DD Webb plays on the contrasts between the ultra polite Sarasio Kid on the brothel housing him for a time.

    Like

  10. Typos:

    skulduggery
    skullduggery

    whoever his eyes caught
    (spell checker likes ‘whomever’)

    lunging at whomever his eyes caught
    (his eyes caught something? “caught his eye” (note word order) is the usual phrase to indicate “whatever got his attention”)

    Reations:

    Characteristics of the unknown shadow-elemental user:
    1) Uses elementals. [definite]
    2) Uses the rare shadow elemental type and is not afraid to sacrifice one. [definite]
    3) Older, practiced fae magic user. [probable – based on analysis by other fae magic users]
    4) Linked to Athan’Khar. [possible – divinatory information]
    5) Knew quickly about Basra and/or the Silver Legion’s looking into the problem. [probable – evidence]
    6) Knew quickly about Darling’s visit to Veilgrad and who he would be talking to. [definite – sent to Malivette]
    6a) Note that it wasn’t Ingvar’s or Joe’s visits that were fore-warned, it was specifically Darling’s. [definite]
    6b) Motive here is unclear, since it probably doesn’t change how Malivette treats Darling. And it should have known Malivette might reveal this to Darling. This smells like another attempt to impress with information and/or power. We now have two Bishops that know a shadow elemental user is poking into their business. [speculation]
    7) Acting in a military-like manner in Viridill. [definite] Implies military knowledge or advice. [probable]
    This really doesn’t sound like Flora and Fauna, Mary, or Khadizroth, who are the people with the actual power (fae power, potential knowledge, and ability to move around) to do something like this. So at the moment I am suspecting a new player in the game. And by Occam’s razor, the new element may have pointed Ingvar at Mary, since fae power seems to be related to visions.

    I swear Malivette likes getting spooked reactions.

    My overall question on Justinian is where he is getting reliable agents. We now have two more agents (the Vidian and Avenist priests) who are doing borderline ethical things for him, or at least definitely stupid things from a personal point of view (if I were in that world it would be hard to pay me enough to rile up Arachne). He has previously demonstrated that he can use personal favors to get people to work for him (Ravoud) but that takes a lot of time and effort and he can’t devote that to everyone. So how the heck does he actually find people who are both competent and willing to take significant risks for him? Is he another emotion manipulator/reader like Branwen? He has to have several somethings on the ball – just one advantage, e.g. power of being the archpope, wouldn’t be enough.

    Like

    1. In response to your last point: Arachne doesn’t usually off minions. The whole scene with Branwen hammered the point home that if she’s going to take issue with anyone, it’s going to be the man in charge. As long as agents don’t outright endanger her students, anyway, and seems indirect enough to pass muster.

      It might also be worth keeping in mind that while Justinian definitely has several plans at work in Last Rock, these particular agents don’t automatically have to be his. The Black Wreath has outright stated they have an interest in setting up the paladins to oppose their patrons, and they’ve proved they can lodge agents in other clergies before. When this whole thing comes to a head – and let’s be honest, it will – all three paladins are going to be taking a close look at their churches. That’s a win for the Wreath.

      Like

    2. I’m not convinced that the two Shadow elementals are connected. The one that dropped in on Malivette could have been created by Mary, with the one that Syrinx killed being made by someone else. It is odd that Mary would use something as complicated as a Shadow elemental for a messenger, but I could still see it being done if it had other jobs that it was doing for her afterwards. I could be entirely off-base and just not wanting to believe things to be that interconnected in this particular book, though.

      Like

  11. So what’s the deal with Chase? We haven’t seen or even been given much of a hint about his qualifications for attending Unseen U. I could just be in a bad mood for unrelated reasons, but he was kinda pissing me off this chapter; all he seems to do is gleefully wet himself when other people (or is it just women?) get hurt. This actually makes him a bigger piece of shit than even Bishop Syrinx!

    Like

    1. Typos:
      Malivette oozed forward with a slinky gate should begait

      And then this one was a little weird, how did it get left in?? ;):
      Szith edged subtly closer, casually flexing her fingers toward her shardblade, which dropped into her hand after ten heartbeats

      Like

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