“Athan’Khar?” Tallie exclaimed. “Are you serious?”
“It’s not something I’d joke about,” Schwartz said distractedly, frowning into the distance ahead as he had been since they’d found the others. “And…it’s not as if we went into the country. That’s pretty much suicide. Camping on the border and getting chased away by monsters was close enough, thank you.”
“There’s a great deal more to you than there appears, isn’t there, Herschel?” Layla said, giving him a warm smile. Darius shot her a look through narrowed eyes, then switched it to Schwartz, who didn’t notice. Meesie bounded onto Schwartz’s head and cheeped smugly.
“I think that’s true of everyone,” the witch muttered, still frowning in thought.
Fortune had been with them for once; Layla and Darius were together, in the main floor of the casino, which was quiet at that hour, and both dressed far more fashionably than was their custom these days. When asked about this, he had just glowered and she had looked smug. Ross, too, had been easily accessible, perched on the casino’s front steps playing a flute. It was hard to say what seemed more incongruous: the delicate little instrument in his beefy hands, or the sweet tone and precise notes he produced. Altogether it was easier to gather the group than Jasmine and Tallie had feared—especially so, since they didn’t even need to descend to the depths of the Guild proper, which would have necessitated leaving Schwartz behind.
Things were slowing down, however.
“Hey, man, step lively,” Darius reproved, falling back to nudge Schwartz with an elbow and earning a shrill scolding from Meesie, which he ignored. “We’re on a deadline, remember?”
“Oh, and what deadline is that, Darius?” Layla asked archly.
“The deadline that we don’t know who’s after us or what they can do,” he snapped. “For-fuckin’-give me if I’m a little nervous about this. Even the dwarves were just spies. This time it’s magic people. Real wizards, apparently, not hired enchanters. Plus whatever priests…and we still don’t know how deep this thing goes or into how many cults. Future reference,” he added, turning to address the rest of the group, “I have learned my lesson and am henceforth with Style. From now on, we stay the hell out of interfaith business.”
“Sorry,” Schwartz muttered a little belatedly, lengthening his stride. Meesie hopped from atop his head down to his shoulder, patting his cheek and squeaking in concern. Uncharacteristically, he appeared not to notice her, staring head with his forehead creased.
“Hey.” Suddenly, Ross came to a stop, reaching out to grasp Schwartz by the shoulder and holding him up as well. The others trailed to a halt, staring at Ross in puzzlement; Schwartz blinked, confused, and seemed to take a moment to focus his eyes on the burly apprentice. “You wanna tell us what bothers you so much about this Bishop we’re goin’ to see?”
“Ah.” Schwartz blinked, adjusted his glasses, and swallowed heavily. “Yes, well, um. Let’s, uh, have that discussion someplace a little less, you know…”
They were on a busy sidewalk in the district which housed the Imperial Casino; at this hour not long before noon, the traffic was plentiful. And as per the usual disinterest of city dwellers for other people’s business, what Eserite technique classified as the “don’t see” kind of invisibility, nobody was paying the gathering of somewhat scruffy young people any attention. Meesie garnered a few curious looks, but no one stopped, or even slowed.
“Sorry, didn’t express that right,” Ross grunted. “Wasn’t askin’ you to explain. I’m asking, Schwartz, if you want to tell us about it. Cos if you don’t, that’s also okay.”
Schwartz blinked twice. Meesie stood upright, placed on paw on his cheekbone, and nodded, squeaking insistently.
“I would sort of…rather not, actually,” Schwartz said at last. “It’s not that…”
“Don’t need to explain,” Ross said, nodding, then shifted his head to look at the others. “Kay, so, we’re not doin’ that. What other options we got?”
“Now, wait a second,” Darius exclaimed.
“We don’t have a lot in the way of options,” Tallie agreed, frowning. “Look, Schwartz, I dunno what’s up with you and Syrinx, but we’ve got your back—”
“HEY.” Everyone shut up immediately at Ross’s bark; he had a bard’s lungs and could project at startling volume. All around the street, people paused, turning to look at the group. Ross glanced sidelong at this, frowning in annoyance, then turned and curtly tugged Schwartz toward the nearest alley. The witch followed him, unprotesting, and the others trailed along behind after a moment.
A few yards in, sheltered from the sight of the street, Ross turned, and gently shook Schwartz by the grip he still had on his shoulder—for a given value of gently. The witch nearly lost his balance and Meesie chattered a stern reproof.
“This is our boy Schwartz,” Ross said firmly, glaring at the others. “Smartest guy we know, badass spellcaster, and doesn’t scare easy. We knew that before this Athan’Khar business came up, even. He saved all our butts on that ride outta the city. So when he’s spooked enough by something to be this nervous, that’s all we need to know. Guild or not, you gotta trust your crew.”
Darius frowned. “I don’t think—”
“Oh, you don’t think at all,” Layla scoffed. “Ross is entirely correct, and I for one am embarrassed to have to be reminded of it. Quite frankly, that woman gave me the creeps. Even while she was clearly helping us, on both occasions, something about her makes my hackles rise.”
“Schwartz,” Jasmine said quietly, “I’m not arguing or judging, here, just asking. Are you sure about this?”
“I can’t say how sure I am about anything that might happen,” Schwartz replied with more poise. He met her gaze evenly, though, and nodded. “I can tell you that it’s an informed opinion backed by experience when I say nothing good will result from involving Basra Syrinx. Even if she can help, she’ll use that to tie strings to us. And that is something I promise we’ll all regret.”
Jasmine nodded slowly. “Then…I’m on board with this decision. I haven’t seen what Schwartz apparently has, but even within Avenist circles, I’ve heard warnings about Syrinx.”
“I have no idea what you lot are going on about,” Darius said irritably, then held up a hand when both Tallie and Layla rounded on him. “But! I trust you guys. Ross is right, after all; if you can’t trust your crew, you’re fucked anyway. So, if Syrinx is out as a prospect, what’s that leave us?” He shrugged helplessly, looking around at them. “Cos it’s not like we don’t have friends. The whole reason none of us have got proper sponsors is we have so many ties to upper Guild members it makes people nervous. But that does us no fucking good when we have to wonder if they’re involved in whatever horseshit is going on!”
“The original issue is we can find that out,” said Jasmine, “but it’ll take some time and room to maneuver. We need a secure space from which to operate, at least briefly, and protection by someone who can offer it would be nice.”
“Glory’d be perfect if we could trust her,” Ross added. “Gotta say I can’t see her bein’ in on this.”
“I think likely she is not,” Layla agreed, frowning and chewing her bottom lip in thought. “Rasha certainly wouldn’t be. But Glory hears bits of everything worthwhile happening in the city; don’t forget we got some of our initial tips on this from Rasha, who heard rumors via Glory’s connections. There are so many reasons someone might scheme from within the cults, not all of them bad. If she thought they had the right idea and didn’t yet know they were trying to falsely imprison us…”
“By the same token,” Tallie added dryly, “let me be the first to say I don’t think we should involve Webs in this. And I’m not just saying that because he stares at my chest and Layla’s butt.”
“He what?!” Layla and Darius chorused in matching outrage.
“I’ve noticed that too,” Jasmine said, scowling. “But strategically, I think you’re right. My feeling is with a little information we can clear Glory of involvement in this and be able to ask her for help. I have a very strong feeling, though, that if we go looking into Webs’s doings, we’re likely to find him knee-deep in this business. We know he’s suspicious of Tricks and the Guild’s current leadership. Who better to be involved in a conspiracy to suborn the cults from within?”
“What about that woman with the absurd suit?” Schwartz suggested. “I realize we didn’t part on the best of terms, but the way you describe it, she’s sort of ancillary to the Guild. If you’re worried the Guild is compromised…”
“Ironeye?” Tallie’s eyes widened, and she began waving her hands in front of herself. “Nonononono.”
“Uh, yeah, let’s call that Plan D,” Darius said with a wince. “She didn’t explicitly say our asses were hers if we ever showed ’em in Glass Alley again, but…”
“That was the subtext,” Ross said, nodding. “Wasn’t subtle about it, either.”
“It occurs to me our method of making friends seems to involve making enemies in equal measure.” Jasmine sighed, running a hand over her hair. “Well, that pretty much just leaves…Pick.”
Tallie snorted. “Credit where it’s due, he’s had our back ever since we helped rescue him from the dwarves, but he’s got nothing to offer but small-time stuff. Pick’s not only the biggest asshole I know, he’s also not the sharpest tool in the shed. I don’t see anything worthwhile coming of involving him.”
“There’s Grip,” Darius said.
Everyone turned to stare at him.
“Yeah, I know,” he muttered, and heaved a heavy sigh.
“Oh!” Tallie turned to Jasmine. “I realize you’ve got a complicated relationship with her, Jas, but let’s not forget Sergeant Locke and her squad. They came through for us once.”
“Uh, no good, I’m afraid,” Schwartz chimed, grimacing. “I got a note from Principia last night to…well, stay out of trouble. She and her squad are out of the city on some classified maneuver or other.”
“They’re trusting Locke with classified operations?” Jasmine exclaimed, her eyebrows shooting upward. The next moment, they fell into a frown. “Wait, why is she worried about you getting into trouble?”
“Syrinx,” he said sullenly.
“What about you, man?” Darius asked, turning to Schwartz. “I know the Collegium seems to be compromised, but do you have any particular friends in there who you trust?”
“Some,” Schwartz said with a pensive frown, while Meesie chittered softly as if debating possibilities with herself. “Sister Leraine is all the way in Viridill, though… I have worked with Bishop Throale enough that I think he would listen to me, but we aren’t close.”
“Bishops, hm,” Ross grunted. “If we’re sure Syrinx isn’t in on this, maybe that’s a sign our cults’ Bishops could be trusted?”
“I would not assume that based just on rank,” Jasmine said, shaking her head. “Darling and Throale would both be excellent prospects for any kind of conspiracy to recruit, whereas Syrinx is unstable and cruel enough that handling her might seem like more trouble than it’s worth. I’ve said before I don’t think High Commander Rouvad has her nearly as much in hand as she believes.”
“In short,” Layla said with open exasperation, “everyone we know either hates us or can’t be trusted in a pinch. I feel this is the sort of revelation which ought to prompt some soul-searching.”
“And would,” Tallie agreed gravely, “if any of us had souls. No offense, Schwartz. Ooh!” She suddenly straightened up, grinning, and pointed at him. “Now, stop me if I’m wrong, everything I know about fairy magic I learned from you an hour ago, but the way you were talking about divination… Can you get some answers for us about who can and can’t be trusted?”
“Hm.” He frowned deeply. “Hmmmmm.” Meesie sat upright on her haunches, twisting her head to peer up at him, in silence for once. “Wellll…”
“Is this how divination works?” Darius asked sardonically. “Are you doing it right now?” Layla struck him in the stomach with the back of her fist, which he pretended not to feel.
“The tricky thing is…well, it’s tricky,” he said slowly, folding an arm across his midsection to prop his other elbow on it and stroke his chin in deep thought. Meesie mimicked the pose on his shoulder, squeaking once in agreement. “Fae divination is as much about politics and interpersonal relations as magical technique. It comes through the agency of intelligent spirits, which all have their own personalities and agendas. Some points generally in common, though. They don’t like yes or no questions, as a rule.”
“Sounds like they just enjoy being difficult,” Layla observed, arching an eyebrow.
“That is…not incorrect,” Schwartz said with a sigh. “The more specific you try to be, the more vague the answers will be, as a rule of thumb. Humm…there are possibilities, though, workarounds. Connection is a powerful thing in witchcraft, as are emotional states. If we’re dealing with questions about people to whom we are already linked, and whether they mean us well or ill…” His eyes came back into focus, actually beginning to look a little eager. “You know, I think I might be able to work something up! I won’t promise anything terribly detailed, of course. There is always the risk when trying to maneuver around spirits’ recalcitrance that you will trigger a backlash. Do that the wrong way and a practitioner can seriously damage the relationships they have built with totem spirits and thus permanently impair their craft.”
“Well, let’s not do that,” Darius said. “You’re no good to us de-magicked.”
Layla hit him again.
“And,” he added, scowling at her, “obviously we care whether you get your magic screwed up. I was assuming that went without saying.”
“From Ross, it would,” Jasmine said pleasantly. “You need to clarify.”
“I hate you all.”
“No, ya don’t,” Tallie said, grinning and leaning an elbow on his shoulder.
“I think I can do this, though, yes,” Schwartz said in mounting excitement, ignoring their byplay. “I mean, as I said, I won’t swear to the results, but… Well, for a start, I believe we’re taking it as given that we trust Glory and just need some independent verification? Because if that’s the only level of certainty I have to shoot for… Yes, I’m almost positive I can do that!”
“If you can, that would give us a perfect starting point,” Jasmine said with a broad smile, catching some of his enthusiasm. “Glory is amazingly well-connected in the city, as we were discussing. With her help we may be able to find out everything else we need without having to trouble your spirits.”
“Oh, but…” Schwartz deflated abruptly. “What we’re talking about is not a simple, standard consultation. I could do one of those right here, in this alley, if you guys didn’t mind standing guard for half an hour or so. But this will need some rather more serious preparation… I will need both space and time, which means a spot we can consider safe. And without safe access to my rooms at the Collegium…”
“We’re right back to where we started,” Tallie said. “Well, fuck.”
Darius cleared his throat and raised a hand. “Okay, don’t everybody pile on me for this, but… To revisit an earlier topic, how off the table is Bishop Syrinx? Because she’s a dangerous hardass, she’s the only major player we know isn’t in with this conspiracy, and sure, maybe she’s a vicious asshole, but we’ve just spent the last ten minutes figuring out that describes pretty much everybody we could possibly turn to.”
Meesie began tugging at Schwartz’s earlobe, squeaking insistently. When he turned his head to look at her, she hopped to the very edge of his shoulder, stood up on her tiptoes, and struck a pose folding one tiny arm across her chest while brandishing the other in the air. She raised her head and let out a single long, shrill note.
“You trained your mouse to do opera?” Darius exclaimed, wincing and raising fingertips to his own ears. “Well, that’s the single most impressive thing I’ve ever seen that has no conceivable use. Also, please make it stop.”
“Oh!” Schwartz’s expression suddenly brightened, and he reached up to scratch between Meesie’s ears. “That’s right, I do know someone! Someone who can find information for us the slow way and provide a safe place for me to cast!”
“Well, why didn’t you suggest that first?” Tallie asked irritably.
Schwartz winced. “I, uh, didn’t think of it. And also there’s the fact that she is not going to like this. Any part of it.”
The Mermaid’s Tail was as close to “upscale” as establishments on the wharves of Puna Dara came. There was often music, broken furniture was repaired or replaced quickly, the food and drinks were both good, the serving girls were pretty, and the consequences for pawing at them included broken bones and an unplanned swim. The place was never truly quiet; even just before the lunch hour, it was busy enough to be difficult to find a table for six people.
For that reason, Squad 391 had chosen not to stay there after meeting up.
In appearance they had mostly reverted to type rather than attempting an actual disguise, with the possible exceptions of Principia and Nandi. Neither personally favored the traditional elvish attire they now wore, but it served as the best deflectors of attention. Elves were rare in Puna Dara, and had a less savage reputation than in the Imperial provinces, so they were met with less suspicion and hostility, but just as much curiosity; wearing obviously human clothes would have made them more curious to behold, which they preferred to avoid.
Of the others, Casey was in a simple skirt and blouse suitable for her prairie childhood. Ephanie and Merry both wore sturdy boots, trousers and shirts that didn’t look too out of place on the wharves, reflecting in one case a pragmatic Avenist upbringing and in the other both a working-class background and frontier adventurer sensibilities. Farah, meanwhile, was regretting her choice of a stiff, high-collared conservative dress. Such garments much better suited the climate of Tiraas than Puna Dara, as the sweat dampening her temples affirmed.
“Okay, first thing we’ve gotta do is get you into more suitable clothes, Farah,” Principia said, grinning but not without sympathy.
“I don’t want to be a bother,” Farah panted, vigorously fanning herself with a Sheng style hand fan for which she had paid far too much from a vendor. “Sorry, Sar—Lieu—Prin. I didn’t think well enough ahead.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Merry said easily. “If any of us had thought far enough ahead, we’d have warned you.”
“Oh, indeed, this one has no business criticizing anybody’s choices in wardrobe,” Principia said merrily.
They were walking along the waterfront between piers; Merry actually stumbled half a step, and shot the elf a warning look. “Locke.”
“You should have seen the costume I first met her in!” Principia continued, grinning from ear to ear. “It was like she’d gone to the most overpriced leatherworker she could find and asked for the most stereotypical adventurer gear they had—”
“Locke, so help me—”
“—but instead of ‘adventurer’ the guy thought she said ‘prostitute,’ so she had to improvise places to keep two dozen unnecessary throwing knives—”
“Bitch, I will not hesitate to shove your ass into the harbor!”
“I’m guessing you’ve never tried to shove an elf anywhere, Tazlith,” Prin retorted, her grin truly insane in proportion now.
“And let’s refrain from the gendered insults, please,” Ephanie said wearily.
Merry rounded on her. “Oy, don’t you start spouting off about regs while we’re out here—”
“Correct, they’re not as applicable while we’re being discreet, and speaking of which keep your voice down,” Ephanie retorted bitingly. “Consider that a personal request. Keep it up and first I’ll lecture you about basic feminist philosophy, which I know you’ve already heard, and then throw you in the harbor.”
“Wait, Tazlith?” Farah said, still fanning herself but now cocking her head quizzically. “As in…arrow? I can see how you’d get that from the elvish glyphs but I was sure it was pronounced ‘tasleef.’”
Merry ground the heels of both her hands into her eye sockets. “AAAUUGH!”
“Yeah, that’s a great way to avoid notice,” Casey muttered.
“Take it easy,” Principia said lightly. “I’m watching and listening, as is Nandi. Nobody’s paying us any mind.”
The area was, indeed, busy to the point of boisterousness. Puna Dara being a major port city, the amount of activity that went on around the docks near midday bordered on deafening. Even Merry’s outburst hadn’t garnered them so much as a glance; there was no shortage of shouting resounding from all sides, most of it a lot more meaningful. The group passed in front of a long warehouse which seemed to be built partially over the harbor, briefly cutting off their view of the sea.
“Speaking of which, to business,” Nandi said softly enough that the non-elves had to cluster closer to her to hear. The group’s pace slowed somewhat. “We haven’t been idle while waiting for you, but we have learned little, I’m afraid.”
“First and most important, I think, is that there are limits to what they can watch, or at least watch for,” Principia agreed, nodding. “You four made it here unimpeded. They aren’t omniscient. None of the other Legion groups have made it here yet; we’ve checked at the temple of Avei. They’re expecting the group of healers tomorrow, and that will be the next test of the Rust’s capabilities and inclinations. We know they can hit an entire Silver Legion; the question is whether they’ll find a contingent of Avenist medical staff a threat.”
“A grim thing to contemplate,” Ephanie said gravely.
Principia nodded. “As for the other cults… Local gossip places two Huntsmen in the Rock. That’s the fortress there in the harbor which houses the Punaji government; apparently they’re guests of Blackbeard himself.”
“Two?” Merry said disdainfully. “That’s helpful.”
“It is helpful,” Ephanie replied. “Two is not nothing, and Huntsmen are not Legionnaires. Without the backing of a lodge master or official like Bishop Varanus, it can be difficult to mobilize them, especially into a city.”
“Haven’t had time to check up on the other cults yet,” Principia went on quietly. “There’s a Vidian temple, of course, and an Omnist one, but…well, those are Vidians and Omnists. There’s a limit to how useful they’re likely to be. No word from any delegations from other faiths; it’s going to be interesting trying to track them down if they’re all trickling in from various directions the way we did.”
“What about the local Thieves’ Guild?” Casey asked. “If anything, I’d think Eserites would be the most helpful.”
“That was going to be my next stop after we linked up with you lot,” Principia agreed. “They’ll be instrumental in keeping us in touch with the word on the street. But…let me just moderate your expectations before they soar too high. The Guild in Puna Dara is… Well, to be quite frank, it’s basically the Eserite rest home.”
“What?” Merry exclaimed after a baffled pause.
Principia sighed. “Eserites are pretty much redundant in Punaji cities; the whole culture here shares their values.”
“I would think that’d make them more likely to set up shop,” Merry muttered.
“For other cults, maybe, but not the way Eserites think,” Casey replied. “They like to slink around in shadows and challenge corrupt centers of power. In a whole society that believes the way they do, the first part of that is unnecessary and the second part would have a hard time taking hold.”
“Exactly.” Principia glanced back at her and nodded. “So basically, the Guild here is half a dozen retirees who find the local climate good for their bones, and a couple of apprentices, mostly their kids and grandkids, who can’t wait for an opportunity to bugger off to someplace like Tiraas or Shengdu.”
“Fuck a duck,” Merry muttered.
“It’s not so bad,” Principia said cheerfully. “Without—”
She came to an abrupt stop, prompting the rest of the group to do likewise; a young Punaji woman in a broad-brimmed hat with a lot more feathers than seemed usual had suddenly whipped around the corner ahead to block their path, one hand resting suggestively on the bejeweled hilt of the rapier which hung at her belt. The girl, who was a head shorter than any of them, tilted her head back to study Principia’s face closely.
“Yuuuuup,” she drawled, “thought so. I like the hair. Blonde looks better on you.”
“Excuse me,” Principia said politely, “I think you may have me mistaken for someone else.”
“Ah, yes, of course, right.” The girl grinned. “Because elves all look alike and humans have such poor eyesight. Fross, identity confirmed.”
“Okay!” A silver streak of light zipped out from behind the warehouse, pausing right in front of them. “Hi! Sorry about this!”
That was as far as Prin got before a blast of gale force wind sent the rest of the squad bowling over and a wall of sheer kinetic energy slammed her against the front of the warehouse. Four lightning-swift bursts of magic from the pixie encased her hands and feet, neatly pinning her against the brickwork.
The wind had been almost surgically precise; the human girl hadn’t lost a single feather from her hat. She now lazily dragged her rapier from its sheath and pressed the tip against Principia’s throat.
“So! If it isn’t the great Principia Locke. What the fuck are you doin’ in my city, you smirking little ferret?”
“STAND DOWN!” Prin roared. “No weapons! Don’t even think about it!”
“I beg your goddamn fucking pardon?” the Punaji girl said dangerously, pressing slightly with the sword. “According to what twisty-ass logic do you think you’re in a position to make demands?”
“Sorry,” Principia said earnestly, putting on a pleasant smile. “Wasn’t talking to you.”
Slowly, she turned to study the rest of the squad, all of whom were now on their feet and brandishing the long knives—and in Merry’s case, a cudgel—which they’d hidden among their clothes, visibly preparing to charge. At Principia’s order, they’d all stopped, but were glaring at the woman and her pixie companion. With the exception of Nandi, who wore a tiny smile.
Another figure strolled around the corner, this one in a green corduroy coat, and with a black-hilted elvish saber hanging from his belt. He stopped and surveyed the scene with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, Ruda, it’s your town and all, but unless you know something I don’t, these ladies don’t look awfully Rusty. There a particular reason we’re picking a fight with them?”
“Hn,” Ruda grunted, lowering her sword slightly. “No, I don’t actually suspect this one or her friends of being in with the Rust. But I don’t like coincidences with all this shit going on, and the sudden appearance of walking trouble this big makes me take notice. Bare minimum, we’re looking at a headache we do not fucking need. This is, as I just said, Principia fucking Locke, the elf with a penchant for breaking into dormitories and drugging our classmates.”
“Oh,” the young man said, turning an interested look on the imprisoned elf. “This is Trissiny’s mom?”
“Wait, you did what?” Farah exclaimed.
“D-did he just say Trissiny’s mom?” Merry screeched, at least an octave above her normal speaking register.
Principia heaved a heavy sigh. “Well, all righty, then, I guess I owe a few explanations. Would you mind awfully letting me down from here? My fingers are numb.”
Ruda grinned unpleasantly and tapped her lightly on the tip of her nose with the rapier’s point. “That, cupcake, depends on how good you explain. And how fast.”