“Lord?” Tallie screeched.
Darius sighed, looked at her, and then at Layla, who was still glaring at him. “Uh…all right. Why don’t we take this someplace other than the steps of the police station? Clearly we need to talk…”
“I don’t see what there is to talk about,” Layla snapped. “You’re coming home with me and these people can totter off back wherever it is you found them. This is enough of this, Darius!”
“He’s right, though,” Jasmine said, stepping closer to her. “There’s clearly a difference of opinion here, and this really isn’t the place.”
She glanced at the doors of the station. Quite apart from drawing looks from everyone who passed by, they were now the object of fixed attention by the two soldiers standing watch at the doors.
“Your opinion was not asked, young woman,” Layla said haughtily. “Remove yourself.”
“Layla!” Darius snapped. “First of all, don’t talk about my friends that way, because it makes me unhappy. Second and more importantly, these are Thieves’ Guild apprentices. Don’t talk to Eserites that way, because it results in them making you unhappy.”
“I did not come all the way out here to be threatened!” Layla exclaimed.
“He said it.” Ross pointed at Darius.
“If you’re so insistent on having a conversation about this, you can do so in the carriage. Don’t force me to have Ralph put you bodily in it.”
“Whoah, now,” Jasmine said soothingly. “Nobody is putting anybody bodily anywhere. You’re making a scene, Lady Layla, and this is a very public place.”
“That does it!” Layla actually stomped her foot. “Ralph!”
The driver of the carriage stepped down and took two strides which brought him all the way up the stairs to join them. He was taller than Tallie and broader than Ross, all of it muscle.
“Kindly assist Lord Darius into the carriage,” Layla said smugly.
“Here, now,” one of the soldiers on duty said sharply, taking a step toward them.
“Ralph, don’t even think about it,” Darius snapped, edging behind Tallie, who immediately stepped away, scowling furiously at him.
“Sorry, m’lord,” Ralph rumbled, shrugging and reaching out toward Darius. “The Lady’s currently in your mother’s good graces; I’m afraid her word goes.”
“Exactly!” Layla said, folding her arms.
“No, it doesn’t.” Jasmine planted herself in front of Ralph, making him pause. “That’s enough of this. We’re all intelligent, civilized people; let’s behave like it, please.”
“You may feel free to remove any troublesome pests who interfere in House business,” Layla said coldly.
Ralph sighed, but reached out and grasped Jasmine’s shoulder. “Here, now, miss, if you’ll just—”
Two seconds later, he had received a punch in the elbow and a kick to the inside of the knee, sending him tumbling back down the steps with an incongruously high-pitched cry of pain. The footman leaped forward to intervene, just in time to catch Jasmine’s heel in his stomach; he doubled over with a cry.
“HOW DARE YOU!” Layla shrieked, turning to the two soldiers on duty, both of whom were now striding forward with their weapons raised. “Officers! You will arrest this wench immediately!”
“Stand down in the Emperor’s name!” one of the soldiers barked, leveling his staff at Ralph and the footman, neither of whom seemed about to get up.
“Young lady,” the second said sharply to the astonished Lady Layla, “while individuals are culpable for their actions before the law, the Writ of Privilege clearly states that aristocrats share complicity for any illegal action undertaken at their orders, by their vassals. You have just instructed your servant to assault a private citizen.”
She gaped at him, “But—but—but—”
“Now who’s embarrassing the House?” Darius complained loudly. “Layla, have you lost your mind? Even Father doesn’t treat people that way.”
Jasmine cleared her throat loudly. “Excuse me, officers, but I was just reminded that the victim of a crime has prosecutorial discretion. I have no intention of pressing any charges here. Can we all please drop this?”
“Fine,” the more loquacious soldier said curtly, turning to her. “And in the future, you will kindly remember not to use excessive force in self-defense.”
“Of course,” she said politely.
“Now see here!” Layla shrieked. “Have you any idea who I am?! My father will hear of this!”
“I daresay he will,” the soldier replied with visible exasperation. “You are creating a public disturbance, disrupting access to an Imperial public facility, and committing assault. He’ll hear it from the gossip columns, and if you don’t all take this somewhere else immediately, he will hear of it in an official letter of censure from the Imperial Army!”
She gaped at him. “Do you—how dare—You can’t speak to me that way!”
“Layla!” Darius shouted. “House Sakhavenid’s holdings are hell and gone from here, and you are a minor. Not only can you not give orders to Imperial troops, they can throw you in a cell if you do stuff like start fights in front of a police station!” He stepped forward and grabbed her firmly by the arm. “Sorry, officers, we’re leaving.”
“Do,” the senior officer said flatly, staring him down.
“Fine,” Layla humphed, futilely trying to tug her arm away from Darius. “We can repair to my hotel to—”
“Yeah, that won’t be necessary,” he said flatly. “Come on, guys, there’s a discreet establishment not far from here where we can talk. I guess I owe some explanations…”
“I damn well guess so!” Tallie snarled.
“I beg your pardon?” Layla snapped. “These urchins are most definitely not accompanying us, and that is final!”
Schwartz had been granted rooms at the College’s main campus in Tiraas. Ami didn’t know whether this was at Bishop Throale’s request due to his project of befriending the Thieves’ Guild, or because he was conducting some actual research on behalf of his cult. He was usually conducting some kind of research anyway, but that was just what he did. The inner politics of Salyrene’s faith were not interesting to her except in an academic sense, and while she was busy contending with Syrinx, Locke, and the various strings those tied to everyone around them, she preferred to keep her mind clear of distractions. The Salyrites, at least, were among the least prone to politicking of all the cults. It had to be something in their doctrines, considering that they were a whole cult of intellectuals, and Ami had known enough of those, both Nemitite and secular, to know how fond they were of backbiting.
Unfortunately, Schwartz wasn’t in his rooms, which compelled her to go looking for him. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been; there were only a few places he was likely to have gone, and the likeliest prospects by far were in the public areas of the temple. She made a point of carrying her flute case (she didn’t prefer the flute, but it was more easily portable than her guitar) and wearing her golden harp pin. Everybody loved a bard, except those who specifically hated them. And everybody knew not to stop a bard trying to go where she pleased unless they had a really good reason.
The library complex occupied two upper floors of the Collegium; fortunately Ami didn’t have to go hunting further than that. The librarians knew exactly where her quarry was.
She strolled into the alcove that Schwartz appeared to have completely taken over. Books were absolutely everywhere, and not in the way that they usually were in libraries; most of these were open, lying strewn across tables, benches, windowsills and each other, though she noted that not one had been so much as rumpled or had its spine cracked. Schwartz was still Schwartz.
He was muttering to himself, scrawling furiously in what appeared to be a journal, hunched over a reading table behind a parapet of stacked books. Meesie bounded onto the top of the tallest, greeting Ami with a shrill squeak.
“And hello to you too,” the bard replied archly.
Schwartz’s head snapped up, and he grinned broadly, bringing her up short. He wasn’t usually so demonstrative… Then again, upon closer inspection, she noticed that his eyes were also a little too wide. Other signs of agitation were hard to discern, as his clothes and hair were pretty much always rumpled.
“Ami!” he said brightly, attempting to stand up so fast he caught his thighs on the underside of the table and bounced right back down into his seat. “What brings you here?”
She planted her fists on her hips and looked down her nose at him. “Herschel, have you been into that vile black potion of yours?”
“What, coffee? First of all, coffee is wonderful, and no, I found something better. Deferred sleep! It’s an old witch’s standby—I could never get it quite right until recently, always had some iffy side effects!”
Grinning up at her, he listed slightly to the right.
“I think you could do with some practice,” she said.
“Nonsense, everything’s perfect! Ami, I’ve had a singularly significant discovery! This is so much better than sleeping, I should do this all the time!”
Meesie bounced across the table to stand at the very edge near Ami, where she pointed back at Schwartz and squeaked urgently.
“Yes,” Ami told the little elemental, “that was the conclusion to which I had just come. Now come along, Herschel, I think we need to have a talk with someone a tad more experienced…”
“I was kicking around possibilities for an anti-tracking charm, you see,” he said, rustling frantically in the scrawled papers and notes strewn about behind his wall of books. “You don’t ordinarily use fae magic to block arcane like that, but my new friends—you know, the Eserites—had a need and I thought it would be just perfect if I could be the one to help them out with it, you know? And so I laid my deferred sleeping charm and was researching and I came across the most fascinating thing!”
“Yes, I’m sure,” she said soothingly, stepping around the table. “You can tell me all about it on the way to the medical wing.”
“Nonsense, I don’t need any medicine,” he said crossly, ignoring Meesie’s indignant squeak of disagreement. “Listen—ah, here it is! So I was doing background research on concealment and deflection in general, right? And you’re aware, of course, how fae magic is closely tied to emotional states. Well, I think I’ve stumbled across the reason Bishop Syrinx gets away with abusing Avei’s power!”
That brought Ami up short. “W—you have? And you found this by accident?”
“There’s a certain school of thought which insists there are no accidents,” he muttered, rapidly leafing through the book he’d yanked out from under the pile. “Especially when dealing with the gods. But no, well, I mean, maybe. That’s not the point. All right, I told you about the elvish term, yes? Anth’auwa?”
“Yes,” she said patiently, “and I was aware of it already, if you’ll recall.”
“Of course, yes, right, my apologies. Well! For the basis of any kind of attention-deflection spell using fae magic you would naturally start with an emotional state which is averse to having attention paid to it, and I found an intersection between that and the heartless! They’re very good at hiding and blending in, you see—actually there’s a whole book on them in here, it’s in elvish which I can’t read, but of course I never step foot in a library without a few scrolls of translation handy. Blast it, now what did I do with that book…”
“Hershel,” she said patiently, “focus, please.”
“Yes! Right, the spell. I’d been checking that for background information—I mean, both for the spell and because it caught my eye because, well, Syrinx, you know? It seems that the large part of the reason anth’auwa don’t get noticed is because most people just don’t comprehend what they are. Actually there was some really interesting notation on studies done by the dwarves up in Svenheim, I couldn’t find the original but it was referenced in the elvish book, where apparently less educated people tend to be more instinctively wary of people who exhibit signs of social pathology, while the more intellectual are prone to rationalize away their tells. Isn’t that fascinating?”
“Fascinating might be overstating it. It’s interesting, certainly, but I thought we were focusing?”
“Right! And that got me thinking about a bit of Eserite doctrine I read while boning up on them before seeking them out. I mean, they don’t even have many actual doctrines, and those they tend not to write down where others can read them, but there’s a bit out there. They have this thing about the three kinds of invisibility: Can’t see, don’t see, and won’t see. You follow?”
She sighed deeply. “I’m getting the impression this isn’t that kind of narrative. Follow? No. I’m assuming you’ll come to a point, whereupon all this will begin to make some sense. And then we can go to the medical wing.”
Meesie squeaked insistently at her.
“Yes, well, you couldn’t get him out of here, either,” Ami retorted.
“So at this point I had a hunch!” he said, having given up on finding whatever he was looking for in the book, and now stared eagerly up at her. “I’ve been reading up on theology and what’s known about the nature of gods, specifically how to get their attention. You know the usual ways: mortal self-sacrifice is reliable, even more than being a cleric dedicated to a certain god; they don’t consistently interact with anyone except paladins, high priests, you know, the likes of that. So I pried into the gap there, with how clerics can wield divine power from a god without that god necessarily paying attention to them. Even then, there are exceptions. Bring their power into conflict with demons, undead, things like that—they’ll notice anything they inherently oppose. Use their power to do something they don’t approve of, they’ll pay attention to that, as well. But! It is, in theory, possible for a priest to go their whole life without ever once drawing their deity’s direction attention, even while using divine magic! Extremely unlikely, of course, but theoretically!”
“None of this is new,” she said skeptically, “to you, to me, or to anyone who’s an ordained member of any cult. It’s theoretical, but it’s all pretty basic.”
“Right!” he said, nodding so enthusiastically his spectacles began sliding off. Meesie leaped nimbly to his shoulder and pushed them back into place; Schwartz appeared not to notice any of this. “So I focused on what does work rather than what doesn’t. The emotional state that makes divine magic function for someone, even when its deity isn’t paying attention. What’s most necessary, is faith.” He looked expectantly up at her. “Get it?”
“…continue explaining, perhaps?”
Schwartz let out a little sigh of frustration, which he would ordinarily have been far too considerate to do, so she decided not to reprimand him.
“Well, I mean, what is faith?”
“Herschel, so help me, if you’ve spent this whole night finding what you think is an answer to one of the great theological questions…”
“No, no, no, this is a practical matter entirely. Psychologically speaking, faith is confidence. Absolute certainty, even when lacking evidence. Faith in practice—such as drawing on divine magic—is basically confidence that one is just, that one is doing the right thing. Now!” He actually bounced once in his seat in eagerness. “What if there were a kind of person who’s completely, congenitally incapable of self-doubt? Who automatically assumes everything they do is right because they’re doing it, who regards a deity as a mechanistic series of forces, without the kind of emotional engagement that could attract emotional engagement in return? Eh?”
“Are you suggesting,” Ami said slowly, intrigued in spite of herself, “that anth’auwa are invisible to the gods?”
“Oh, no, heavens no,” he said, frowning. “Invisible, that’s ridiculous. That’s Black Wreath craft, and if anybody knew how they were doing it the Salyrites would have found a way to neutralize it centuries ago. No, but remember? Can’t see, don’t see, won’t see? She doesn’t need to be invisible to Avei. She just needs to be very, very unlikely to draw Avei’s attention. Avei won’t smite what she doesn’t notice! And from a certain point of view, someone with no conscience is more faithful than a mentally normal person could be! She’d never experience guilt or uncertainty. All she has to do is refrain from doing something counter to Avei’s doctrines while channeling divine magic, and apparently, avoiding notice is the entire point of how they get along in the world—I can’t believe it would be all that much of a stretch for her.”
“Well, Omnu’s breath,” she mused in wonder. “Herschel, I think you actually have stumbled upon something, here.”
Meesie squeaked in exasperation, tugging at Schwartz’s ear, which he continued to ignore.
“So,” he said eagerly, “all we have to do is call Avei’s attention to her directly and in detail!”
“Quite,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “How?”
He physically deflated. “Well, uh…that part I… I mean, there’s bound to be something in the books somewhere…”
“Mm hm. Well, unless you want to go share these insights with High Commander Rouvad or what’s-her-name out in Last Rock, assuming you could get near either of them and are willing to take the risk of word getting back to Basra, this appears to be a stopping point. Now come along, Herschel; your long-awaited meeting with Jenell is soon, and you’ll want to have yourself straightened up a bit before then.”
“What!” For the second time, he tried to stand too fast and came to grief on the table. “Ow! Is it that late already?”
“No,” she said dryly. “I had a feeling I’d need to dig you out of somewhere, fortunately for you. Now come on, there’s bound to be someone in this temple who can fix whatever you’ve done to yourself?”
“Done?” he said indignantly. “I assure you, I do not require fixing, it was a perfectly foolproof…”
He was interrupted mid sentence by a massive yawn.
“Ah, yes,” he said blearily, “right, off to see Jenell…just as soon as I…catch a nap…”
Schwartz slumped forward alarmingly fast, his forehead thunking against the table top. Ami experienced a split-second of real worry before he began snoring.
“You know,” she said to Meesie, “my life was actually rather peaceful. I was playing the guitar in the evenings, and plotting against an evil Bishop by day. All very rote for a bard. And then I had to go and get mixed up with a man.”
The elemental squeaked in commiseration.
“Well, that’s very easy for you to say.”