Bonus #23: Toujours, part 2

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After the tumult of that day, he did not have a restful night, even when safely tucked away in his stall. Uneasy and alert, listening to the sounds of wind around the barn and the other horses sleeping within, Silver was not awakened when the barn door opened a crack, admitting a figure carrying a lamp. Nor was he surprised.

He was surprised, a little, at who it was.

Raoul was cloaked against the night’s chill, but lowered his hood once he had the barn door shut. In addition to the half-shuttered lantern in his hand, he wore a rapier belted at his waist, its hilt visible beneath the cloak and the tip of its scabbard protruding tellingly from below. He crossed single-mindedly to Silver’s stall, and there paused, holding up the lamp. Simply regarding the horse with his eyes narrowed in apparent thought.

Silver watched him right back, ears alert, and not moving by so much as a swish of his tail.

“How much do you understand?” Raoul finally asked in a quiet tone.

Silver whickered at him softly.

The young man shook his head. “Old blood. Hell if I know what that even means. Even father just mutters when I press him on it. He was always too interested in elvish nonsense. That’s the cause of half his problems.” He broke off, drawing a deep breath and letting it out in a sigh. “By Ryneas and his paintbrush, don’t you think I would have blooded that vicious, unhinged cow of a woman and hurled her across the yard if it would have helped Yvette? It’s not as if I am famed for my restraint, you know. It’s only made things worse. She may lose her position here. Father could only protect her by blaming you. Do you understand any of this?”

Silver lowered his head.

“I’m explaining family politics to a horse,” Raoul muttered. “Well, I guess being as mad as the old man is as good a start as any on taking the place over when he passes on.”

Silver nickered again, as quietly as he could.

“They’re selling you,” Raoul said abruptly. “To those Shaathists, as they asked. For now, Yvette isn’t going to lose her home or her position, but you had better believe Amelie is after her with a vengeance. I don’t know what the future will bring.”

Jerking up, Silver neighed angrily, even hopping his front hooves off the ground in agitation.

“Omnu’s sweet breath, you really do…” Raoul stopped, set the lantern down on the edge of the stall door, and reached up to lay a hand on Silver’s nose. The horse calmed, for the moment, swiveling his ears forward again and watching him. “Hell. I’ve no right to blame you for losing your temper. In truth, I might have been the one to strike the hag; you were just closer. But now, here we are. We have to protect Yvette. No one else is going to.”

Silver snorted once, loudly, and bobbed his head up and down. He pawed at the ground with one hoof for emphasis.

“Here’s how we’re going to,” Raoul said grimly. “You are going to be gone, and I am going to become the focus of everyone’s outrage around here. You’re leaving this ranch, tonight. It’s off to the wilds with you, where maybe that old blood can be of some use. I’m sorry, but you can’t say goodbye to Yvette.”

Silver whinnied in protest.

“You can’t,” Raoul insisted. “Do you hear me? If it’s even suspected she had anything to do with this, that’s it for her. She’s asleep in her quarters, and the other grooms will be able to attest she never left, I’ve seen to that. It has to be me who lets you out. An act of spite that’ll make me the target of Amelie’s venom for once. Silver, I will protect Yvette. This isn’t the end, I promise you. Even if it means I have to put steel through that old bag, I will not let my sister be harmed.”

Dancing back and forth in agitation, Silver whinnied a soft plea.

“This is the only thing we can do,” Raoul said. “Maybe someday, you can come home. But for now, this is the only way. Can you… Do you understand?”

Slowly, he lowered his head again, and let out a soft snort of defeat. Raoul stroked his forehead, running his fingers through that overhanging lock of his mane. Just the way she always did.

The boy retreated suddenly, removing the lantern, and crossed back to the entrance, where he opened one of the barn’s front doors.

“I’ve opened the north gate enough for you to get through,” he said, coming back to Silver’s stall. “…what am I doing? I’ve gone utterly insane, you’re a horse.” Pausing to growl at himself, he shook his head vigorously. “Ugh. If you’re more than a dumb beast, this is the time to prove it, Silver. The north gate. For Yvette. Try to take care of yourself out there. This is going to hurt her enough; I dearly hope she will get to see you again someday.”

He unlatched and swung the stall door open, standing aside. Raoul opened his mouth to speak, but Silver exploded past him, charging straight up the aisle for the open barn door.

He erupted out into the night, letting out a whinny of dismay, but did not slacken his pace, wheeling around to gallop north across the grounds, toward the gate. He could not slow; if he didn’t do this now, he would hesitate and it would all be over.

Behind him, a voice was raised in a shout; he couldn’t tell if it was Raoul’s. Silver ignored it, putting his head down and thundering toward the ranch’s only egress to the north. The Highlands spread out beyond, wild and untouched, full of who knew what dangers and wonders.

At first he thought Raoul had tricked him, but no—the gate was ajar. Not enough to admit him, but he cantered nearly to a stop to avoid crashing painfully into it, using his weight to nudge it open enough to pass through.

And then he was beyond the fence, outside of his home, and charged off into the northern wilds as fast as his powerful legs could carry him. For the first time, he was truly, completely free.

He had never imagined he could feel so alone.


It wasn’t all that hard to get by, he quickly discovered. There was grazing aplenty—not as good as the oats and hay his human friends furnished for him, much less the occasional apple or strawberry, but Silver did not go hungry. Nor was water hard to come by. At this time of year, it wasn’t even frozen yet. That should not be a problem when it was; he knew from experience that his hooves could break ice more than a foot thick, at need.

No one followed him from the ranch, though he had to have left a distinctive trail. He could barely imagine what was going on back there. He tried not to, as that only led to thinking about Yvette. And Marchand, and all the others who had been part of his entire life till now, but mostly of Yvette. She had always been there for him.

But this was for her. He understood Raoul. This was painful for everyone, but life was not perfect. This was all they could do to protect her.

He wandered, veering away from his home, along the long moors the stretched away toward the north, gently climbing in altitude as they drifted into even higher lands. The north itself was walled off by the distant peaks which had been a barrier to that part of the sky since he had first stepped out of the barn, but there was far more land between the ranch and those mountains than Silver had ever appreciated. He had ample room to put distance between himself and home, and they did not seem to come any closer.

On the second day, he was set upon by a pack of wolves, and made short work of that. They seemed to expect him to run, and were very confused when he stood his ground, watching them circle and ignoring their growling and snapping. They became less confused when he finally retaliated, but after he had broken two of their backs beneath his hooves, they decided to go seek an easier meal.

He didn’t know what other dangers lurked up here, but if that was the worst of it, the humans had exaggerated the ruthlessness of the Highlands in their stories. Silver had a suspicion, though, that he had only begun to learn what this harsh land could throw at him. Once in a while, when the wind shifted, that thing drifted upon it again. A scent that he couldn’t place, but which was wrong in a way that made him stop wherever he was, head up and swiveling to find the threat.

It never materialized, but it was out there. Nothing which smelled like that could be good.

Above all, he missed his home. The horses he knew, the people he knew, the dogs and cats. Chickens barely had enough personality to be interesting; they weren’t his friends, but even their familiar presence would have been good. He missed sleeping in the barn, his blanket and good food provided for him by caring hands.

Mostly, he missed her. So much that sometimes he stopped where he was, bucking and heaving, punishing the very earth with his mighty hooves and bellowing his despair at the sky.

Neither earth nor sky showed him any pity.


Only three nights in, he found them. Or they found him.

Silver didn’t sleep well, out in the open. Keenly aware of the vulnerability as he was, every little thing made him raise his head. He caught naps during the day, when the light was better and no wolves howled in the distance, but nights were bad times out on the moors.

It only grew worse as that smell came more and more frequently. Until, by that third night, it seemed to come every other gust of wind. It was definitely from the north…but not just that anymore. It was making him constantly anxious, even more than his situation itself.

He plodded along, concentrating on placing his hooves carefully; it would be easy to trip in the darkness. But sleep wasn’t an option. The menacing night itself, that unearthly stink…and especially, the dilemma it posed. He couldn’t go back south, toward the ranch; he had to stay away to protect Yvette. On the other hand, he definitely could not go north. Whatever was making that smell, he needed to head away from it, not toward.

Silver had compromised, and that day begun making his way west, toward the sunset, simply because the hills looked somewhat lower in that direction. Now, after dark, his plodded that way still, just for something to do to keep his mind off the danger and his loneliness.

They moved so quietly he didn’t notice them until he was quite close, scarcely a hundred yards away, despite there being nothing between them but a stretch of open moor. He stopped, jerking his head up and snorting in surprise, ears swiveling.

Their procession was moving steadily south, on a course that would lead past the ranch—toward Glassiere proper. Altogether, they were like smaller, oddly distorted versions of the life he knew. People, and horses, only…not. They were strangely thin people, garbed in sleek clothing unlike the thickly warm coats and cloaks the Glassians wore against the Highland climate. And those horses… No, they weren’t horses. Every one as white as he, built almost like deer, each with a single horn sprouting from its forehead.

They’d seen him first, obviously; two- and four-legged alike, their heads swiveled to watch him as they passed. They did not slow, however, nor seem alarmed by his presence. He couldn’t feel alarmed by theirs, either. The smell of them was quite unfamiliar, but it was… Silver had no basis for comparison. He had the thought, though, that they smelled somehow opposite whatever vile thing it was the wind had been trying to warm him about. They smelled like something fundamentally, inexplicably, good.

And so when one broke off to approach him, he stood his ground, watching with alertness but not alarm.

The elf’s walk seemed to be almost a glide, as if he barely deigned to respect the shape of the ground. Projecting calm, he came up to Silver, raising one hand as he drew close, and brought it to rest gently against the horse’s nose. Silver’s nostrils flared, taking in his scent, but he did not protest.

“I see you,” the elf said. He did not speak Glassian, and in a way it catapulted Silver back to his earliest days as a foal, absorbing intent and meaning behind two-legged speech without knowing specific words. This language, though, seemed to convey those meanings more clearly. Or perhaps, it was some other gift of the elf. He still liked the sound of Glassian more, but at least he could understand. “What a story you must have, my friend.”

The elf bent, reaching for Silver’s leg in much the way the farrier did. Obligingly, he lifted a hoof, and the man ran long fingers over his iron shoe before releasing him.

“You came from the ranch,” he said. “Are you Monsieur Marchand’s mysterious old blooded stallion? I wonder what has brought you here. There is great danger rising. Have the humans been destroyed? But no, you would be running away from the evil, not toward…”

He stepped forward, closing his eyes, and leaned his forehead against Silver’s.

Magic was something with which he had no direct experience. He had barely heard of it; his humans spoke of such things, from time to time, but it was nothing to do with the ranch. This, then, was his first brush with the shaman’s art. It was surprising, to say the least, but not threatening.

Meaning bloomed in his mind, expression clearer than words could convey. He knew the elf, felt and saw him in a startling new way. And the elf knew him, just the same.

He touched upon Silver’s loneliness and worry, and sympathy came from him in turn. It was a purer speech, and imprecise for that; they shared feelings, not words or even images. But while the elf doubtless did not acquire the full story in every detail, he grasped the gist.

“Wise,” he whispered aloud. “And brave. But friend, be wary. You head toward danger.”

Gently, accompanying the threatening sensations with a firmly reassuring presence of his own, the elf shared with him what was happening. Danger, corruption, fire, slaughter. Trees and whole groves burned, poison spreading through the very ground. Evil people practicing their horrid arts. Creatures that did not belong in this world. In the north, rising. More and more, and spreading.

The elves were leaving their lands, taking the desperate (for them) step of moving to join the humans. They had to stand together against this.

Silver neighed in agitation, stomping a hoof, and related firmly the conversation he had overheard between Marchand, the Captain, the Huntsmen and the Squire.

Surprise came from the shaman at the clarity of those words, followed by gratitude for the information shared.

“So they do live, and are taking action,” he whispered. “Not all, but some. That is the way of humans. There are always the stupid and destructive, and always the brave and stalwart. We must find the right kind. Thank you, friend, for the warning.”

He gave a warning in kind, now that he knew Silver could make sense of words.

Hellgate.

It took some further work to express exactly what that meant, but Silver got the message. When he did, he jerked back, rearing up and whinnying in sudden fear. Not for himself—for his home. For Yvette. For what was coming.

“They have already passed to the east,” the elf warned as Silver wheeled away, raising his voice. “Be wary! Warn your people if you can, but do not let them surprise you! They are coming!”

Heedless of the danger, Silver galloped through the dark, making directly for home. It was no longer due south; he knew the direction unerringly, and his course had brought him miles to the west of it. The Marchand ranch was more east than south now, and it was that way that he ran.

Silver forgot fatigue and suppressed fear. He had to keep going. Had to reach her. The urgency heightened swiftly to desperation.

Because now, as the elf had warned, the foul smell of demons was in front of him.


Too late.

Everything was too late, and it all turned to disaster.

He didn’t make it all the way home to the ranch. Heading straight there, he made it a day’s travel before finding them. Yvette had eventually come in search of him…too late. Raoul had gone after her, and arrived too late. Silver was the last there; he came upon them on a long moor just a few miles northwest of the ranch, only barely in time to do anything at all. Too late to do enough.

The smell of the demons had become an omnipresent stink; he had even seen several in passing, creatures which moved in weird ways and resembled nothing he had ever seen. He ignored them, and some ignored him. Some had tried to chase him, but Silver outdistanced them quickly. After his frantic all-night journey, he arrived tired, but what he found sent a spike of pure, desperate adrenaline through him that spurred him on.

He could smell the evil of them before he heard the battle, and the sound of carnage reached him before he came in sight of them. By the time he was close enough to see, he could smell them, the familiar scents of Raoul and Yvette, even through the demon stench and the frightening tang on the air of blood.

Rounding a copse of stunted trees, he found the scene of the confrontation just as the familiar scream of Cannelle, Raoul’s mare, ripped through the air. The thing that had torn at her throat was quickly dispatched by his rapier even as she fell, but there were more of them. Different kinds—things that were almost like dogs, and almost like spiders, and almost like birds. Things designed by someone who enjoyed mocking everything that was beautiful in nature.

Silver bellowed a challenge, charging straight at the group. One of the long lizard-dog beasts turned and scuttled right at him; he came down on it with his full weight on his front hooves, just as he had those wolves. It was not nearly so fragile, but it was slower, and still no match for the force he brought down on it. He left the dying monster and thundered toward the others.

Raoul was bleeding heavily, slashing and stabbing with his rapier as quickly as he could but unable to move as rapidly as fencing technique demanded with a leg injured. He had slain several demons already, but the rest smelled weakness and were quickly losing respect for the whirling steel which had felled several of their companions.

Silver hit them like a landslide, stomping through the cluster of spidery things as he would a low thicket and reducing most of them to smears and fragments. It cost him, though; at least two seized his legs and scuttled up his frame, piercing in multiple places with claws and fangs. He screamed in fury, bucking and thrashing to hurl them off, but they clung tenaciously, working their way up toward his neck. And before he could even finish dealing with that, one of the flying things landed right behind his head, the beating of its wings all but deafening him.

And then Raoul was there, spearing the bird-demon with his sword and flinging it contemptuously aside. He slashed one of the spiders off, and seized the other bodily with his free hand, hurling it away.

Silver wheeled and charged past him to crush the other lizard-dog monster as it came at Raoul from behind. The man was nearly immobilized, but Silver cantered in a circle around him, crushing demons under his hooves and wheeling back close when one tried to jump onto him to be ripped apart by Raoul’s sword.

It was over so abruptly that the silence almost had physical force. They stood, looking around at the carnage and gasping for breath, both streaked with blood and pierced in multiple places. The stink of demon filth hung with tangible weight, though the bodies themselves were even now dissolving away to clumps of charcoal and black ash.

Then he saw her.

Emitting a shrill cry of anguish, Silver dashed to her side, bending his neck to nudge at Yvette with his nose. She made no response. Blood streaked the ground around her, as well as a dozen black smears where demons had fallen. Silver snorted, raised his head to whinny piteously, and ducked back down to desperately nuzzle at her face. He felt no breath upon his nose.

Barely able to use one of his legs, Raoul only reached them seconds later, and fell at her side, dropping his sword. Landing in an ungainly heap, he nonetheless lurched to a semi-kneeling position, and pulled her into his lap. Raoul cradled her close, hunched over her and rocking slowly in place. Silver bent, leaning his forehead against the man’s, just over her still form.

“This is our fault,” Raoul rasped. “I caught up too late. Should have known she would follow you. Of course, she would. Stupid. It was my idea, I as good as killed her…”

Silver didn’t so much as snort. This was his doing as much as Raoul’s. It was true; they should both have known she would come. She had always been there for him. But he hadn’t been for her, at the end.

He wished he could weep the way Raoul did.

There was no telling how long they remained there, holding her, but the long, ululating cry demanded their attention. Man and horse raised their heads, turning to look to the north.

The things practically covered the moor. They were crawling forward, flying through the air… It would be minutes, at most, before they overtook them.

Raoul and Silver looked each other over. Bloodied and exhausted both, there would be no outrunning this.

Resolutely, Raoul lowered Yvette back to the ground, shrugged out of his coat, and draped it over her. Silver nuzzled at her face once last time before it was covered, then stood aside to allow Raoul to retrieve his rapier.

“Well, old man,” he said, his voice hoarse, “here we are. I’ll have to ask to borrow your legs.”

Silver studied him. He had struggled getting back to his feet; the man couldn’t walk, much less run. With a snort, he lowered his front half, kneeling on the cold ground.

Even with a leg useless, Raoul got astride him smoothly; he had ridden horses since he could walk.

Silver stood, carefully, but his rider held his mane with one hand, keeping the other free to wield his sword. He was steadier on Silver’s legs than his own. Together, they turned to face the oncoming monstrosities.

“Then all that remains,” Raoul declared, “is to make sure, when we get to Hell, they already know to fear us!”

Silver pawed the ground once, then tossed his head and surged forward. His bellow of challenge was matched by Raoul’s roar, both of them unified in unrelenting rage.

They slammed into the horde, and everything was blood, pain, and chaos. But the monsters that survived learned something of fear that day.


“Whoah! Easy, boy, take it easy. Your battle’s over now.”

Tossing his head and bucking, he only belatedly calmed, and still pranced in place for a moment, taking stock. He was…he had been…wait, where was he?

It didn’t even look like a place. There was no smell…there was really nothing. It was as if the whole world was made of light. It was serene and gentle, not glaring, but still eerie.

Right in front of him stood a woman she didn’t know, but immediately he couldn’t help liking her. She was pale, with golden hair like Yvette’s, and dressed in some kind of ragged gown that seemed to be stitched together from scraps of armor and various garments, every piece in solid black. And she had wings. Feathered wings. He’d never seen a person with wings before.

But she smiled, and calm approval seemed to radiate from her. The winged woman stroked his nose, grinning up at him.

“There you go,” she said soothingly. “That was a hell of a stand—you have a lot to be proud of. Now, there’s somebody you’ll want to see, I think.”

She stepped aside, and bent to pick up a long scythe which had been thrust blade-first into the ground nearby—an odd sight, as there wasn’t really any ground, but just a point where the omnipresent misty light seemed to coalesce into something hard enough to stand on. But past her, previously hidden by her wings, was Yvette.

She rushed forward and Silver whickered happily, coming to meet her, and then her arms were around his neck. Yvette stroked him, murmuring contentedly. He stood, nuzzling at her and just…being there. This, finally, was good.

Raoul was there, too, sword still in hand. He stood back somewhat, and said nothing, but reached out to stroke Silver’s nose.

The two of them had never been close, but now…there was an understanding between them, at least.

“All right,” the woman with the scythe interjected finally. “It’s time to go. This way, everyone.”

She casually swiped her weapon through the air, and it seemed to carve away part of reality. A doorway opened up, peeling back from the wound she had made in existence and forming into a vague shape made of light. Beyond it, things looked more clear; there was a path leading through a brilliant forest, and ahead in the distance… Silver couldn’t make it out, but he knew it was good.

With an encouraging whicker, he nudged Yvette forward. She and Raoul went first, hand in hand, with him trotting along behind.

“Just a moment,” the valkyrie interjected, placing a hand against his chest. He paused and snorted at her in annoyance. Yvette and Raoul stood right on the threshold and stopped, as well, turning to look. Yvette frowned in consternation. “It’s only for a moment,” the valkyrie assured them all. “You two, come with me. Somebody wants a word with you, Argent. Believe me, this is a particular honor, and the reason you’re with us. We don’t ordinarily bring horses. You’ll want to hear her out before you catch up. Come on.”

He laid his ears back, only belatedly realizing that she wasn’t speaking the language he knew. His name had always been a word, something that meant something; in a different tongue, it was nothing but a sound. It meant nothing but him. He wasn’t sure whether he liked that.

Yvette looked back at him, clearly reluctant, but followed the valkyrie’s urging as though something compelled her to. Argent whickered in protest as she vanished across the doorway.

A hand was laid on his neck.

This presence, despite the abruptness with which it had arrived, somehow calmed him greatly. Something about her…filled the sky. She was there in front of him, a tall woman with waves of dark hair and deep brown eyes, but somehow it was as if he stood within rather than before her.

The way she spoke made the elf’s deepest communication a shallow mockery. There was total union of their thoughts; everything she had to say was expressed in perfect detail, with no words exchanged. It was, in fact, almost as if no thoughts were exchanged. He simply understood, immediately, what she wanted him to.

She was impressed with him, and wanted him to join her horses. She showed him her Hands, a line of paladins stretching back centuries, millennia—hers and those of other gods. It was Avei who kept the stables, who gathered the greatest steeds from across the history of the world, providing mounts for those paladins of every Pantheon god. But with him, in particular, she was very impressed. He was to be a companion only to her own Hands, if he accepted this.

And what would that mean?

Battles, she showed him. Endless struggle. Strife, war, violence beyond imagining. Pain, and in the end, always death. One brave, intrepid woman after another. They fought, until they couldn’t any longer, far past the point where other mortals would have fallen. In the end, they all fell.

Argent snorted in fury and jerked away from her bucking and dancing around. How dare she try to inflict this on him? Was it not enough that he had to see his Yvette fall this way? She wanted him to go through that again? And again, and again? For all eternity? He reared, slashing his hooves menacingly at her face.

Avei reached up to stroke his nose, and looking at her, he could not help calming. Tears glowed in her eyes. The goddess stepped forward, resting her forehead against his own, and showed him.

Those brave, loyal women… It had to be that way. Their duty was too important to forsake, and she simply could not bend the rules of reality enough to save them. But she would never abandon them. They would not fight alone. They would die, but not alone.

Argent lowered his head. Yvette… She had always been there. He had always been with her…except at the end. She had died alone.

He understood. And he decided.

When they turned to pass through the gate together, the goddess’s hand on his neck as she walked by his side, Argent wore the silver armor of the mantle he had accepted. It would never be that way again. For each woman, each warrior, he would be there. As many as it took. No matter how many he must grieve, they would have him by their side. Not one would fall alone.

He had not been there for her, but he would be there for them.

Always.

 

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Bonus #22: Toujours, part 1

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She was there when he was born.

Those were fuzzy, uncertain hours, spent getting to know things—his awkward legs, his mother, the world itself. Throughout it all, she was a presence, indistinct at first but constant and gradually clearer. Her scent and her voice, offering calm to both himself and his mother, expressing happiness, joy, love.

He didn’t, at first, glean any meaning from the things she said while she brushed and caressed him. Their voices were different, the rhythmic sounds musical but not immediately significant. That came quickly, though. Not the words, but what lay behind them. First as an expression of feelings, and over time, more abstract concepts.

The meaning of words came to him over time, over days and months. In those first hours in the barn, though, there was just the sound of voices washing over him, and the comprehension of something meaningful in them as his mind and senses cleared and grew accustomed to existing.

It would be a while yet before he comprehended human speech as they did, but by the time the master of the house came to see him, he could at least interpret the sense of what was being said.

To the newborn foal, this second human presence was a cause of startlement and then fascination; it was like and yet so unlike the one already there, who had helped him into the world. His mother, though, whickered a tired greeting, showing that this person was known and trusted.

“I’m sorry I missed it, Yvette,” the man said quietly, coming to stand in the door to the stall. “It seems you did well, though. Any complications?”

“It was a very smooth birth, monsieur,” she replied, and even when not talking to him, her voice conveyed happiness to the new foal’s ears. “One of the easiest I’ve seen; Laurette was a champion. Of course, he is hardly her first. Neither gave me a moment’s trouble.”

“Still, I’m sorry you had to do it alone. I would have sent Gaspar to help had I known; we would have managed the gelding fine without him…”

“Ah, but would-haves are no use even when things have gone badly, Monsieur Marchand! It all turned out splendidly, so why borrow trouble?”

“Well said,” he replied with a warmth and amusement in his voice that soothed the foal’s curiosity. He was not as gentle a presence as she was, this man, but already he understood why his mother and the girl approved of him. “And what a serious little fellow he is! I never saw a newborn so…focused. Look at him watching us. Almost as if he followed the conversation…”

Something in his voice, now, carried an undercurrent of faint warning. The colt stopped swiveling his ears about and focused fully on the man, trying to understand. He was not quite following their words, but only the gist of it, the emotion behind them.

“Ah… And his color!” Her voice, now, had a slight strain as well, but a different one; not warning, but sensing and responding to the man’s uncertainty. The gaiety in it was slightly forced, all of a sudden. “I thought old Garmond was the sire. Could someone have jumped a fence? He did not get that gray from Laurette…”

“Not gray, Yvette. Look at him, he is a pure white.”

“But…he will darken, no? Like the silver destriers…”

“But he is no charger. Even so young and gangly, you can see it in his build. He’s a draft horse like his parents. See his coat? Not even the faintest dappling. No, he won’t grow to become a gray. You know, Yvette, we Glassians are not the first people to dwell in the Highlands, and the herds we brought are not the first steeds. Once in a while, some of the old blood peeks through. I have seen it before. I know you must recall that untameable filly that old crook Chauvingon tried to unload on us three years ago. Silver as the full moon, like this boy.”

“But monsieur,” she said in gentle, almost reproving disbelief. “That was clearly a racing breed! I remember her, a lithe little thing. One can almost see how that happened. How could there be unicorn blood in a line of draft horses? The creatures are as much deer as horse! Laurette here would kill one simply by stepping on him.”

“Just as they are as much magic as flesh,” he said, and there was a smile in his voice. The foal’s ears twitched furiously as he tried to follow the subtle currents of unfamiliar emotion, so new and strange. “Who can say? For now, we will have to watch and see. Fae blood is unpredictable, Yvette. Perhaps nothing will come of it but his unusual color, or perhaps… Unusual abilities in any creature can be trouble.”

“Abilities like…?”

“We will watch and see,” the man repeated. “And hope for nothing. He could show us something truly remarkable, but if this fellow has surprises for us, they are more likely to cause problems.”

“Monsieur,” she said, and the sudden hesitant nervousness in her made the foal fix his attention fully on her. “You don’t think… That is, I have worked with Laurette since—”

“Now, stop that line of thought,” the man said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Did you give birth to him? Because that is the only way blood can be contagious, Yvette. Elves have been part of life in the Highlands since before our people first came here, and you know you are far from the only half-blood who works with the herds. I never heard of a foal being changed by association like that. And if it had happened, I assure you I would have heard of it. This is life up here, that is all. It is an old land and we a young people upon it, compared to the tribes; mysteries crop up here and there. That is part of what makes me love our home.”

“Yes, monsieur,” she said with subtle relief. The foal nickered at her in concern and stepped over to bump his head against her, earning a laugh and caresses along his neck in return. It was good, how easily he could soothe her unease. It had troubled him, sensing such unhappiness in this warm, golden presence.

“At any rate, you have a new friend! But we should let him and mama rest, for now.”

“Of course, monsieur.” He nickered in disappointment as she stepped away, but his mother had come over by then and began nudging him into the corner, surrounding him with her own presence, and that was good, too. “Don’t worry, little Silver, we will see you again soon.”


His home was a sprawling ranch in what they called the Highlands, the reaches which rose above the rest of Glassiere in both latitude and altitude. Mountain peaks rose around them, most rounded by eons of weather, punctuating endless swaths of moors and valleys. Many of these were left uncultivated; the Marchand ranch occupied a long heath not far distant from the pass which led down to the country’s warmer southern reaches. It was not good country to farm, and got worse the farther in one traveled. Much of the Highlands was unexplored by the Glassians and left to the bands of elves who had dwelled there since time immemorial. Most of the Glassian activity in the northern provinces was in mining and quarrying. The Marchands contributed to these ventures by raising the hardy, powerful Grand Coeur breed of draft horses which performed most of the actual labor.

It naturally took time for Silver to understand these facts. His comprehension grew faster once he realized that he understood things differently than the other horses, and stopped turning to them for explanations. His kind were more alive in some ways; they seemed to feel and experience things more keenly than the humans, but they actually comprehended little. Horses were more sensitive, and thus more erratic; humans by comparison thought deeply and carefully, and yet seemed blind to so many subtleties. He, somehow, stood somewhere between them.

As he grew, his peculiarity did not go unnoticed. The other animals on the ranch were not bothered by him—in fact, the smaller ones, cats and dogs and birds, seemed to seek out his company more than other horses. The humans took note of him, though, and over time he learned to be more careful and subtle about the behaviors that seemed to make them nervous. They did not like it when he stood, watching and listening to their conversations as intently as they did. There was a period when it seemed his fate might be uncertain, whispers about the “fae-touched” horse and what hazards he might portend.

As he grew old enough to begin training with harness and saddle, though, they faded and appreciation grew in their stead. There were many actual dangers in the Highlands to distract people from imagined ones, and Silver’s uniquely unflappable nature proved an asset. Grand Coeur were a steady breed to begin with, but he was especially calm and careful, observing and responding rather than panicking at the unexpected. It got to the point that the younger boys began making a game of trying to spook him. After the fourth time Yvette went at them with a riding crop, Monsieur Marchand himself stepped in and ordered that the pestering be stopped.

She was by far his favorite of the grooms. None of those who worked with Marchand’s horses mistreated them—indeed, the master did not employ anyone who did not actively love his horses. Silver’s relationship with Yvette, though, was special. She had helped bring him into the world, and it was always to her that he returned, whenever he could. Her care of the others in the herd was never lessened, but he sensed that she, too, felt a unique attachment to him.

And it was largely by listening to her that he pieced together the web of relationships among humans which governed the ranch. The key had been understanding how she was linked to the young man who so often visited the barn and kept her company during her duties, the son of the master himself.

“There are times when I want to hurl that woman off the roof!” he exclaimed during one such visit which proved particularly informative to Silver, pacing up and down in the aisle between stalls.

“Please don’t do that,” Yvette replied without much enthusiasm. Her tone was amused; this was an old threat and not a serious one. “If you think she is difficult now…”

“I don’t know why you are so blasé about the old bat,” he retorted. “It’s you she was trying to get Father to send away!”

“When he starts listening,” Yvette said calmly, “I’ll worry. Please calm yourself, Raoul, you make the horses nervous when you prance around like that.”

Silver snorted quietly in disagreement, and she paused in brushing his neck to ruffle his forelock affectionately. True, the other horses did pick up on human agitation—some of them—but everyone else in the barn at that hour was nose-deep in their feedbags.

“Not this one,” Raoul grumbled, giving Silver a long look. “Sometimes I think if he could talk, he could run the barn when Gaspar gets too old. Yvette, I wish you would take this more seriously. It’s not a small matter that Father’s wife has it in for you! Sure he knows better than to listen to her now, but given time…”

“Given time,” she said, still calmly grooming Silver, “a lot can change. Who knows? I might manage to get on her good side. After all, it isn’t me she resents, not really. It cannot be pleasant, living with a reminder that one’s husband once carried on with an elf. And while he was married. To your mother, in fact. Do you not see why she finds that threatening? If Monsieur Marchand—”

“Father,” he interrupted. “By Shaath’s fangs, Yvette, you needn’t play the courtier with me. Everyone knows whose daughter you are. There’s no harm in acknowledging it, at least in private.”

“No?” Yvette shook her head, still rubbing Silver down with her back to Raoul. “The Madame’s fondness of me will not increase if anyone gets in that habit, I think.”

He snorted. “Just don’t ask me to deny my own sister. It’s not as if I have any others!”

“I do ask it,” she retorted, turning to give him a look. “Oh, don’t make faces at me, Raoul, not here in the barn when it’s just us. I have always appreciated you for accepting me. But in public, and especially in front of Madame? Please don’t goad her.” She turned back to Silver, pausing in her work, and he bent his neck around to nuzzle comfortingly at her shoulder. “Everyone is so concerned about my blood. About the elf in me, or the Marchand in me, one or the other. Can I not just be Yvette to works with the horses?”

Raoul heaved a sigh. “I’m sorry. I know, I know you’re right. It’s an infuriating habit of yours.”

“Well, don’t be hard on yourself,” she replied mischievously. “You are a man, after all. Just think of all the poor boys with no sisters, and how much trouble they must get themselves in.”

“I really can’t stand her, though,” he grumbled. “What was Father thinking?”

“You know very well. Madame is of noble blood, which if almost the only thing he lacks in comparison to the wealthy families in the south. And she is most lovely.”

“She’s handsome, at best, with two very specific exceptions. It’s a sobering thing, learning that one’s own father can be swayed from all good sense and reason by an unusually nice pair of tits.”

“Raoul!” Yvette failed to keep the mirth out of her voice. “Shame, speaking of your own stepmother so!”

“You know she has a carpet hanging on the wall in their bedroom?”

Yvette paused again, turning to peer inquisitively at him. “A carpet? On the wall? Whatever for?”

“It’s from Calderaas,” Raoul said, rolling his eyes. “Beautiful thing, and probably cost nearly as much as the manor. Never mind that no one sets foot in that room except in the daintiest of slippers. Madame’s treasures cannot be soiled by being used in a remotely functional manner! I don’t know why she or Father thought bringing a woman like that to the Highlands was a good idea.”

“It is a fair question,” Yvette mused, returning to grooming when Silver nudged her again. “Another is why, if you have noticed all this, you wonder how she could feel vulnerable in this place?”

“I don’t wonder,” he said sullenly, “I just don’t care.”

“Yes, you do,” Yvette replied with a smile that could be heard in her voice. “And that is why you’re grumpy now, because it’s harder to see someone you dislike is a person rather than a villain. You’ll be so much happier, Raoul, when you stop fighting against your own decency. Being heartless and rough would not make you any more of a man, I promise, but less of one.”

“You even sound like an elf sometimes,” he complained. “Or an Omnist. I can’t think of anyone else who would try so hard to understand a half-crazed bitter fool of a southern noblewoman who has no business on this ranch and irrationally hates you.”

“I worry so for you, Raoul,” she said softly.

“Me?” His voice was so incredulous that Silver raised his head, swiveling his ears forward to study the young man. “You worry for me?”

“Yes, I do. You are so obsessed with fairness.” She shook her head. “It’s going to lead you into unhappiness, the world being as it is.”

Silver whickered softly at him in agreement. Raoul had opened his mouth to answer Yvette again, but paused, turning a long, speculative look on the horse. Silver regarded him in turn, one ear twitching pensively.

“Sometimes,” he said more quietly, “I think that horse is too clever by half.”


It was not an uncommon sentiment on the ranch. By and large, Silver was met with approval, as he refrained from causing trouble for anyone and in fact made himself most useful. He required very little training in the sense that most young horses received it; once he understood what it was his human fellows wanted him to do, he saw no reason not to comply, and after observing the comings and goings on the ranch he generally knew their intent before they got around to trying it on him. It seemed fair, to his mind. Humans provided horses with food, shelter, and care, and horses worked to support the ranch so that providence remained possible. Silver pulled carts, carried people, and performed all the requisite chores without complaint, and with the uncanny (to his two-legged friends) ability to follow verbal directions as precisely as the stablehands did.

It made some people uneasy, but Highlanders were practical people. If the big, strangely perceptive white horse was going to make himself useful instead of making trouble, he was welcome.

He continued to watch and learn, trying to understand the relationships between people the way they did. Silver didn’t much like Raoul, but not in the sense of having anything against him. The young man simply had a large personality and a quick temper, which occasionally made the other horses nervous and grated on Silver’s patience. Likewise, Raoul found him eerie, but never had reason to complain about his behavior. They didn’t favor each other’s company, but avoided any situation that might lead to true animosity. Silver had the distinct impression that the boy was further unnerved by the mere fact of a horse who could reflect such an unspoken understanding so well. But aside from all that, Raoul was very fond (and protective) of Yvette, which caused Silver to approve of him in principle, no matter how annoying he might be. That, too, was mutual.

He appreciated the young man enough, at least, that he gradually absorbed Raoul’s dim opinion of his father’s new wife, whom Silver rarely saw in person. That fact alone did not endear Madame Marchand to him. She preferred to stay indoors, wilted at the comfortable, healthy smell of the stables, and appeared to dislike even dirt. Silver was accustomed to hard-working, cheerful humans who held up in the Highlands’ harsh climate with aplomb and appreciated the rugged beauty of the world. The lady of the ranch seemed as weird and inexplicable to Silver as he did to some of the other ranch hands.

Life was not perfect, but growing up surrounded by people and animals who never expected it to be, Silver absorbed their outlook. Life was good, dangers and discomforts and all. The land was beautiful, even if it was cold and provided scant food. There was a lot of love on the Marchand ranch; Monsieur Marchand himself cared deeply for his horses, for his people, and for his Highlands, and consistently employed those who shared his values, even if he apparently had different priorities when it came to marriage. It was a good place.

But something began to creep up on the ranch, starting not long before Silver was two years old. He might have been the first to sense it; he seemed to pick up on things as intuitively as the other horses and consider them as logically as the humans, and at first was not sure whether the little things he noticed amounted to anything. The odd, acrid smells that came so faintly sometimes when the wind was from the north, the increasing preponderance of wolves coming down from the mountains. Uneasy looks and whispers from humans, rumors circulating between them of something dangerous in the Highlands, repeated sometimes in his presence. He dismissed these things at first, but not forever. Over time, they only grew. Even Yvette tended to frown more often, and seemed to seek out his company for comfort even more than she had when he was a foal.

On the other hand, the Madame stayed even more in the house, which was fine with Silver and everybody whose opinion he cared about.

Eventually, Marchand himself decided to act.


The excitement which hung over the ranch like a thick fog was threaded through with unease, and that did not make the preparations any easier. Even Silver felt skittish, though he restrained himself; the rest of the animals did not have his forbearance and were mostly an impediment rather than an asset that morning. The dogs raced around frantically, as did chickens; not one of the barn cats had been seen all morning, having hidden themselves away as if they sensed a storm coming. The horses were affected, as well, all of them prancing about nervously and spooking at the slightest little thing. Despite the usually stoic temperament of the Grand Couer draft breed, on that day not a one of them seemed able to perform the simplest tasks without the constant supervision of a groom—of whom there were far less than horses, which made for general slowdowns and disorder which caused the mood of the ranch’s human population to further deteriorate.

Fortunately, there wasn’t a great deal to be done that required the contributions of the horses. The Marchand estate was preparing an event, that much was clear, and one of a kind unprecedented in Silver’s experience. People were setting up a large pavilion and smaller tents, and laying preparations for a great outdoor feast. Most of this demanded opposable thumbs and as such the skittish horses had largely been safely tucked away in the barn; even stolid old Laurette had balked at the ranch’s familiar dogs as she pulled in the last wagon of provisions. There were the great wooden tables to be pulled out of the storehouse, though, too large for people to carry and so hauled by horse on skids. Logs had to be brought from the woods to form the three huge bonfires being prepared, and barrels of ale moved en masse from the manor house’s cellar to the feast grounds in its broad front lawn.

Two other draft horses were handling the firewood logs, which woodsmen had been out felling for the last two days, each of them requiring the patient guidance of a groom—and those were the two steadiest of the ranch’s herd, after Silver. That left him, the only one among them who seemed able to put his head down and focus, to do everything else. Fortunately, the barrels didn’t have to go far and the tables were not unduly heavy. Even more fortunately, he was interested enough in the various goings-on that he did not mind the tumult.

Most fortunately still, Yvette was in charge of him, as usual. Her presence calmed him, as his did her.

Strange new people were trickling in from the road while preparations were underway, and joining the master and his wife in a slowly increasing knot of conversation out in front of the manor. Silver watched them in passing, not really needing Yvette’s gentle encouragements to keep on task, but appreciating her nonetheless.

He always watched, and always listened, but their jobs did not bring them close to the discussion; it seemed he wouldn’t learn what was actually going on until he had pieced it together from the grooms’ gossip after the fact.

Or so he assumed, until one of the newcomers approached him directly.

Silver had just dragged the last big table into place and was standing patiently while Yvette detached him from it and two burly ranch hands tilted the thing to slide the skids out from beneath. Facing the other way, she did not notice the strange man making a beeline for them, but Silver did.

He was human, but something about him was…different.

His attire, for certain: the man wore a bushy beard, where most Glassian men preferred to be clean-shaven, and rough leather clothes surmounted by a bearskin serving as a cloak. He carried a longbow and had a quiver and hatchet belted on. Silver could not quite place what it was about this man that was so distinctively unlike the people he knew, though. Something in his scent…in the set of his eyes. He couldn’t decide if it was good or threatening.

For whatever reason, immediately upon spying Silver, he had detached himself from the mismatched group of other humans and come straight to him. He slowed, though, as the horse laid his ears back, his body language shifting subtly but distinctly to express no threat. And yet, while most people would gently soothe an uncertain horse they were approaching, the man remained silent. Silver stood, watching him, as he gradually drew closer, one ear twitching uncertainly.

Slowly, the man in the fur drew to a stop within reach of him. The horse watched, wary, but unmoving. Slowly, he raised a hand, reaching to lay it upon Silver’s nose.

“Ah!” Yvette had finished unbuckling the harness and noticed the newcomer’s arrival. “Your pardon, monsieur, but we are working. This must be finished…”

“It appears to be finished, mademoiselle,” he replied. “What a magnificent creature. I wonder, do you appreciate what you have, here?”

“I appreciate Silver very much, monsieur,” she said evenly, and Silver laid his ears all the way back, picking up on her unfriendliness. Yvette stepped up beside him, placing a hand upon his neck and staring the man down. “As do we all.”

The man simply regarded her impassively, then shifted his eyes to study the horse again. Now that he was not moving, it occurred to Silver what was making him edgy about this person: he behaved like a cat about to pounce. The slow approach, the utter stillness, the absolute attention he gave. No one stared that fixedly unless they were about to do something aggressive.

He snorted once in displeasure.

To his surprise, the man bowed to him. Then, turning back to Yvette, spoke again. “I have not brought gold in quantity, but I am willing to trade. What goods has your master need of, that he might bargain for? My lodge can offer furs, medicines for man and beast alike, and crafted weapons. We will be sure to offer fair value for this horse.”

“Your pardon, monsieur,” Yvette repeated in a low tone of clear warning. “Silver is not for sale.”

“Ah.” He tilted his head back, regarding her down his nose. “But that is up to Monsieur Marchand, is it not?”

Her displeasure radiated from her like the warmth of a fire, and Silver had the very distinct impression that the man could sense it as clearly as he, despite the composure of her expression.

Very deliberately, he lowered his head, bringing his eyes down to the level of the man’s, and emitted a loud snort. Then pawed heavily at the dirt with one of his enormous hooves.

Carefully, the man eased back, and bowed to him again. “Come, girl. Let us discuss this matter with your master.”

He turned and strode back to the group of people talking. Silver snorted again, disdainfully, and turned his head to bump Yvette with his nose.

To his surprise, she took hold of his reins and, still brimming with tension and unease, led him after. Why was she complying with this strange man whom she so clearly disliked? He plodded along, determined to stick close to Yvette, if nothing else. When he did not understand what was happening, Silver had always found that a safe policy.

Though he had been curious about the discussion underway, even more unhappiness hovered over it like a visible cloud, which did not improve his equanimity as they drew closer. The man who had accosted them stepped up beside another man attired in a similar manner, who also turned a too-intense stare on Silver and Yvette as they came to a stop a few yards away.

“Of course, of course,” an unctuous little man too lightly dressed for the climate was saying to Marchand as they arrived, “but you must understand, Monsieur, without anyone but yourself having seen this elf…”

“I confess it did not occur to me to try putting a leash on him,” Marchand said with strained patience, prompting a grin from his son, who stood at his left. His wife was at his other side, looking generally displeased—even more than she usually did. “The elves are always reclusive; the face that they are bothering to warn us is precisely the thing which makes me believe this situation is dire.”

“Yes, yes, but again, while Lord Gracian holds you in the highest esteem, Monsieur Marchand, it requires more than one man’s—”

“The lodge has also been visited by elves,” the other fur-cloaked man interrupted, his voice flat. “We take the word of the tribes with the utmost seriousness. And in any case, their message only confirmed what we have observed ourselves. There are demons in those mountains, squire. My Huntsmen have slain no less than five khankredahgs this moon, and spotted not only living katzils in the skies but seen and stifled the tainted fire they inflict upon the forest. One or two might be only a warlock in the woods, going mad as they all do. But in this quantity? I tell you, there is evil rising in the north.”

The thin little man pursed his lips. “And I tell you, brother Huntsman, that my lord cannot waste resources chasing rumors. Have you brought evidence? A corpse of one of these slain demons, for example?”

“They turn to charcoal when killed,” another man said, this one in metal armor and carrying a short spear, a sword sheathed at his belt. “Your pardon, Squire Leland, I thought this was common knowledge.”

Raoul grinned more widely at that, and the Squire made an even more displeased face.

“Even the Avenists can see what is happening,” the Huntsman said before Leland could reply. “What more proof do you require?”

“My lord requires some sort of proof, at the very least,” Leland said stiffly. “I don’t suppose you can furnish any, Captain Martin?”

“I have scouts sweeping the area even now,” the soldier said calmly. “But Lord Gracian should be aware that the League of Avei is taking this with the greatest seriousness. Reports have been coming to us for months. Months, monsieur. Time enough for word to travel to Viridill and back. High Commander Seluvid has dispatched two Silver Huntresses and an entire Silver Legion to Glassiere because of this!”

“Women playing soldier,” the Huntsman said disdainfully. “I’m sure that will help tremendously.”

“Exactly,” Squire Leland interjected. “With all respect to Avei and her clergy, Captain, what does your leader in the Tiraan Empire know of this fiefdom that Lord Gracian and the King do not?”

“The only reason the King has not sent forces north,” Raoul said sharply, “is because Gracian keeps assuring him nothing is happening here, despite the ample warning he has received!”

“Raoul,” Marchand said quellingly.

“And he is only being so difficult because his head is—”

“Raoul!” Marchand barked. “If you cannot restrain your tongue, you will excuse yourself!”

“What do you think you are doing?” Madame Marchand demanded abruptly, glaring past the group at Yvette standing nearby. “Do you think this is any place for you? Be about your work, girl!”

“I apologize, Madame,” said the Huntsman who had approached Silver, who seemed to defer to his fellow—at least, he had not joined the discussion till now. “I am at fault; I directed the groom to bring this horse here. Do you see what I do, Brother Renard?”

“I do,” the Huntsman said quietly, gazing at Silver with that same fixed, almost predatory attention. “Magnificent. It has been several years since we have seen the old blood emerge among domestic horses.”

“Yes, Silver is our good luck charm,” Marchand said smoothly, clearly glad to steer the conversation into calmer waters. “A more patient and clever horse I have never had the honor of owning.”

“What would you ask for him, monsieur?” Renard asked, still gazing avidly at Silver.

“Silver is not among our wares,” Marchand replied apologetically. “I decided that soon after his birth. One never knows, with…special cases, such as he. Even for so young a horse, he has become indispensable here.”

“I assure you, Monsieur Marchand, we do not regard this as some mere curiosity,” the other Huntsman said. “The old blood is deeply revered among us. You are fond of him, this I can see—as is the girl, here. Such a creature would receive the greatest of care at our lodge.”

“I was under the impression,” Raoul said evenly, “that you Huntsmen disdained the keeping of domestic animals.”

“To be sure,” Renard replied. “That is precisely the issue. This is a spiritual matter, Monsieur Marchand. I mean no insult, but it is troubling to me, very troubling, to see such a beast performing menial labor. Perhaps this is an unusual position from which to treat, compared to the trading to which you are accustomed, but take it as a point of my very great sincerity in this matter. I would offer whatever my lodge is able to furnish in trade to bring Silver back with us.”

A short pause ensued, in which the Squire and the captain both looked annoyed at this digression. The Huntsmen remained focused and unreadable. The Marchand family themselves were a study in contrasts, the master looking thoughtful, his wife increasingly irritated, and Raoul generally uncertain where this whole situation was going. Yvette clung to Silver’s reins as if afraid he would be torn from her grasp; he felt her tension and unease, and it wore heavily on his own equanimity.

“Such as what?” Marchand asked finally.

“Oh, but monsieur!” Yvette burst out, her voice anguished.

“How dare you!” Madame Marchand erupted, with a violence that startled all those present, including Silver, who shifted back a half-step in alarm. She rounded on Yvette, stalking forward with her teeth bared. “You little slattern, sticking your nose into the family’s business! I should have you whipped.”

“Amelie,” Marchand protested, reaching out to grasp her shoulder. “Calm yourself, she meant—”

“And you defend her?” his wife screeched. “After all your— In public! In front of a Squire from the Lord’s own court, you would humiliate me so?”

“She hardly requires your help in doing that, Father,” Raoul observed sardonically.

“Hold your tongue, boy!” Marchand roared, whirling on his son with all the fury he seemed not to dare to unleash on his wife.

Raoul’s remark had a similar effect on Amelie—right down to misdirecting the target of her ensuing rage. She twitched violently, half-turning as if to hurl herself at Raoul. At the last second, though, the madame shifted her weight, lunging straight at Silver and causing him to shy back in alarm.

He was not her goal, however. Yvette had instinctively moved to calm Silver, and so was not positioned to evade or defend herself when Amelie Marchand drew back her full arm and slapped her, hard enough to hurl her to the ground.

Silver bellowed in sheer rage, rearing fully up on his hindquarters and slashing his massive hooves in the air in the madame’s direction. She stumbled back, as suddenly white-faced with terror as she had been with rage seconds before. The entire group scattered, in fact, instinct propelling them away from the fury of such an enormous creature.

Silver slammed back down to earth with a force that shook it, barely missing Amelie and that only because she was continuing to retreat. He followed, though, seizing her by the upper arm in his teeth and tossing his neck. She hardly weighed anything; he hurled her a good four yards.

In the ensuing bedlam, Yvette regained her feet and frantically moved in front of Silver, trying to urge him to calm. Marchand rushed to his wife’s side, as did Captain Martin, while the Huntsmen simply studied Silver from a safe distance and Squire Leland wrung his hands helplessly.

Snorting and still tossing his head in outrage, Silver whinnied in protest against Yvette’s attempts to calm him. Only because she was bodily blocking the way did he refrain from charging again at Amelie, though he surged forward as if to do so and hesitated barely short of knocking his groom down again.

The madame herself screamed, having just lifting her head in time to see this, and tried to scuttle backward across the ground, while her husband vainly tried to get her to be still so he could examine her arm. The sleeve of her dress was already dark with blood where Silver had bitten her.

“Don’t.”

Strangely, it was Raoul’s calm order which finally cut through his anger, and he stopped tossing his head. The young man stepped in front of him, next to Yvette, and placed his hand on Silver’s nose. The horse snorted at him, but the boy just shook his head.

“Too clever by half,” Raoul said gravely, wrapping an arm around Yvette’s slim shoulders, as much to calm her as the horse. “Oh, I’m afraid you’ve really outsmarted yourself now.”

 

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Site Announcement

The Gods are Bastards will be taking its first official hiatus for the remainder of March.  The story will resume on Monday, April 2.

During the latter half of the last book, I’ve gone back and forth on this, originally planning a two-week break as I’ve been updating without pause since 2014 and was beginning to feel burned out on the story.  By the time the book actually ended, I was in a much better creative place, and leaning the other direction.  My mind was made up when a very generous reader made an extremely kind donation which funded Friday chapters for at least two weeks.  It seemed like a churlish time to suddenly take time off.

Then, while trying to get the first planned bonus chapter done–by last Friday, which obviously didn’t happen–I’ve had the worst case of writer’s block in my experience set in.

The truth is (and regular readers will know this), I have always been bad at managing my energy.  I’m bipolar, which means sometimes my creativity is through the roof and sometimes it’s practically nonexistent, and during “up” phases I tend to over-commit to things and fail to account for the inevitable downswing.  I also suffer from a case of work ethic which means I feel constantly guilty if I am not working.  I always want to power through, which works fine at my day job but isn’t a solution when it comes to creative labor like writing fantasy.  The result is the schedule slips that have occurred over the last year and a half, the missed and delayed updates.  A lack of planned rest causes unplanned failures.

I’m hitting a burnout point and need to rest, and take time away from TGAB.  I’m extremely sorry to have to come to this decision after already announcing this bonus chapter, but the chapter’s not coming, and I’m making the call to look after my mental health rather than forcing it.

This won’t be a vacation for me, just a period away from TGAB to help stave off burnout for the good of the story.  I have other work to do:

  • I plan to continue working on the second story I mean to launch as a serial when it is complete.  That one is fresh to me, and time spent on it has helped me come back to TGAB with fresh enthusiasm already.  I think a couple weeks of it will do this serial a world of good when it resumes, as well as being productive and bringing Project 2 closer to launch.
  • I have researched and selected an editing service and cover artist to begin launching the TGAB ebook series.  My plan had been to do whole volumes at a time, but that may be prohibitively expensive; Volume 1 would cost nearly $3500 to produce that way, whereas Book 1 alone comes out to less than $1300.  In the near future I’ll be making a decision on that and launching a Kickstarter to fund it, because I have cash for neither on hand; my intention is to make free copies of the finished ebook a reward for backers.  There may be stretch goals and other rewards if I come up with good ideas for some.
  • I still need to launch the planned TGAB merch store.  Reader Vexingvision was kind enough to give me excellent professional advice on this last year, but I subsequently got busy and had mental health issues and that has fallen by the wayside.  It is still planned and this should give me time to work on it.

The Gods are Bastards will return in April with the planned series of bonus chapters, followed by the resumption of the main story arc.  Friday chapters have been funded in advance and will be going for at least two weeks once updates resume.

Thank you, as always, for reading.  All of you who do so are heroes to me.

Epilogue – Vol. 4

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The High Commander’s office was deep enough in the temple that the sound of thunder penetrated it, but even the fiercest rain was muted by intervening walls. It was not thundering now, and the dreary patter of Tiraas’s usual weather made no sound within—at least, not to the humans. Commander Rouvad and Squad One were left in silence.

She had not directed them to stand at ease, or in fact said anything since their arrival. For over a full minute, Rouvad just studied them with a quizzical little frown, as if struggling to figure out what she was looking at. For such a famously self-possessed woman, it was an unusual expression. Almost alarmingly so.

“Well,” the High Commander said at last. “Another mission completed, and with a nearly optimal outcome. I had a secondary reason for sending you there and placing you in charge, Lieutenant Locke. My intention was to give you the chance to become familiar with the other special forces squadrons, and get them accustomed to you. And, more specifically, to taking orders from you. Yet, all other squads have nothing to report of your interactions except that they arrived in Puna Dara to find you there, looking insufferably pleased with yourself, and reporting that the entire matter was settled.”

She paused again, her mouth twisting to one side in a sardonic half-grimace that was far more characteristic of her.

“Anything to add to that, Lieutenant?”

Principia cleared her throat. “I am extremely pleased with the performance of my squad, Commander, but the situation placed us entirely in a supplementary role. I believe our assistance was useful, but ultimately it was adventurers who settled the crisis in Puna Dara. I cannot take credit, individually or on behalf of my unit. And I am always insufferably pleased with myself, ma’am, it wasn’t situationally specific. If I’ve done something to offend any of the other squad leaders, I’ll owe them an apology.”

“You may be the most irritating presence in all my Legions, Locke, but you’re far from the only large personality, particularly among the special forces. Had you given offense, I’m sure I would be hearing about it. No, they are simply left in the same position they were to begin with: wondering just who and what you are and why I would put you in command. And as usual, you’ve managed to make a wreck of my careful planning without seeming to realize you were, and while fulfilling the letter of your orders to perfection. It’s an incredible talent you have, Locke.”

She inhaled deeply, shoulders rising, and let out the breath in a heavy sigh.

“You once had the gall to take me to task about the state of the Silver Legions’ combat readiness. You were not entirely incorrect, either. I certainly have not failed to notice that we are trained and equipped to fight the wars of two centuries ago. Nobody has, Locke; you weren’t clever for pointing it out. If anything, you underestimated the issue. The Silver Legions have not stagnated since the Enchanter Wars, we have regressed. The Legions which beat the Imperial Army at the borders of Viridill fought with battlestaves and magical artillery—primitive compared to those of today, but still. They also made heavy use of what, in any other organization, would be called adventurers. The last, lingering remnants of the Silver Huntresses and the old League of Avei. Those are truly gone, now, their only heirs the Legion special forces you didn’t get the chance to work with in Puna Dara recently.

“Today’s Silver Legions serve a different purpose than did those of a hundred years ago. When we are sent to fight, it is against the same universal evils we always have. Demon infestations, renegade warlocks, necromancers, the odd outbreak of aggressive fae… The methods of wars past still work against them, as do our corps of priestesses wielding Avei’s light. In some ways, these events are relics of a world that is slipping further into the past every day. Apart from that, the Legions remain a calming influence, a reminder of Avei’s presence. It assuages the fears of many, and dissuades others, like the Huntsmen of Shaath, from becoming too aggressive in areas where we maintain a presence. In the century since the Enchanter Wars, we have specialized in very specific kinds of war—and they do not include grand interstate conflicts. The Silver Legions have not, since that time, acted against any mortal government by force of arms. And because of that, we are welcomed nearly everywhere…despite the memory of the war in which we were instrumental in bringing down the world’s mightiest empire. The nations of the earth permit our presence because we bring stability, and do not threaten their power. And so we are a universal force without having to fight for an inch of the ground we hold. Politics: the continuation of war by other means.”

She paused, frowning slightly, then inhaled a slow breath as if steeling herself for something. “This was not a strategy instigated by any High Commander. It was a command directly from Avei.”

Rouvad stood, suddenly, and paced out from behind her desk to stand in front of it, studying each of them in turn as she continued.

“Avei’s orders were that this measure must be unequivocally genuine. No surreptitious preparations or great secrets: the draw-down of the Silver Legions was to occur in exactly the manner it appeared on the surface. Naturally rumors arose at first that this was a ploy, but they have faded with time. No hint has ever emerged that the Silver Legions are engaged in any hidden program to suddenly bring forth unexpected power, because no such program has existed. The only way to guarantee that a thing will not be found is to guarantee that it is not to be found.

“You have all heard rumors of the First Silver Legion?”

She paused, watching them. One by one, they nodded, as it became clear the Commander was actually waiting for a response.

“That rumor persists throughout the Legions,” Nandi said finally. “It always has.”

“It is a real thing,” said Rouvad, turning her back on them to stare at the wall behind her desk, on which was hung a map of the continent. “But not in the manner people suppose. Avei commanded the designation of First Legion be reserved, as we do for first cohorts within each Legion and first squadrons within each cohort, for special forces. The First is to serve as a military force that can actually take on any known opponent and win. And it does not exist. The First Legion is not training in secret; it is waiting to be called, at the goddess’s command.”

Rouvad’s tight braid shifted slightly back and forth as she shook her head infinitesimally, still looking away from them.

“Gods don’t commonly speak to their followers, and ours is no exception. I have rarely had orders directly from Avei during my tenure. One concerned you, Locke, as you know but I presume your squadron does not. Do they?”

“If so,” Principia said carefully, “they didn’t hear it from me. You ordered me not to reveal that, ma’am.”

“So I did. You do generally stop short of open disobedience, don’t you? Well, ladies, for your edification, when this one showed up here with her rap sheet longer than the history of some nations, transparently angling to get close to her estranged paladin daughter, my inclination was naturally to toss her out on her dainty ear. It was at Avei’s direct order that she was allowed to enlist.”

The entire rest of the squad turned their heads to stare at Principia in disbelief.

“Attention,” she snapped. Five pairs of eyes immediately faced front again.

Rouvad turned, looking across their line with faint amusement on her features. It faded immediately.

“The goddess has given orders again. What I am about to tell you is, until further notice, a secret of the highest order. You will reveal it to no one. So far as the Third Legion’s chain of command is to know, your squad will be answering to me directly in pursuit of a classified project, which is true, and your status is not otherwise changed. That project is the creation of a secret military unit within the Silver Legions capable of contending with and defeating any rival force which exists upon this planet. Avei’s orders come with a warning: a great doom is coming. She anticipates it will be less than two years before this force must be put to the test. That is how long you have, Locke.

“For the time being you will remain ostensibly assigned as you presently are. Known only to yourselves and to me, however is your new designation: Squad 111. The First Legion is raised, ladies. Whatever is coming…it is nearly upon us.” She shook her head again. “May the goddess watch over us all. Any questions? Locke?”

“You…that…” For once, it appeared Principia had nothing to say. She swallowed heavily and tried again. “To clarify… You expect me to bring the Silver Legions forward a hundred years? In less than two? In secret?”

“I frankly don’t know what to expect,” Rouvad replied, with open bitterness. “Do you imagine this fills me with confidence, Locke? Do you really think I would choose to place this burden on your scrawny shoulders? But I am overruled. Here’s a great secret for you, perhaps more secret to some than to others: the gods are not always right. But they unquestionably know a great deal that we do not. And I trust Avei. Not merely as a divine being, but as an individual. From my survey of history and my personal experience with our goddess, I believe she knows what she is doing, even when no one else does. Let me tell you, this tests that belief. Tests, but does not break or even bend it.

“You will answer directly to me in this, Locke. I am not advancing you to the rank of General, that would be ridiculous. I expect you to continue showing the proper decorum and respect toward your superior officers—the fact that you technically command a Legion now does nothing to change that expectation. Whatever and whoever you need, if it’s within my power, is yours. Everything goes through me, you are not to go off on your own or cut me out of the loop. But you will have my unconditional support, and are entitled to every resource I can muster for your project. Beyond that… The means by which this shall be done is left entirely to you. Understand?”

“This is impossible,” Principia breathed.

“No, Locke, you are impossible,” Rouvad said sourly. “This is merely the ludicrous, pestilential millstone round the neck you have been to countless souls over the last two and a half centuries. I bet it surprises you as much as me to learn that your career has been actually leading up to something. Regardless, you will doubtless have questions and require clarification, but I believe you had better take time to compose yourself before bringing them, otherwise they are unlikely to be pertinent. For now, dismissed.”

They stood there, Principia with her mouth half-open in a totally uncharacteristic expression of baffled shock. The rest of her squad were varying degrees of stunned and alarmed; all had shifted their heads slightly to look at her sidelong.

“You are dismissed, ladies!” Rouvad barked.

Principia jumped physically, then sketched a salute. Ephanie, at the other end of the line, turned to open the door. They filed out in silence, the weight of the High Commander’s stare seeming to push them physically from the office. It didn’t let up until Ephanie shut the door behind them.

The hall, fortunately, was deserted for the moment.

“Sooo.” It was Merry who finally broke the silence. “Szaravid, you’re the historian here. On a scale of the Enchanter Wars to the Second Hellwar, how boned would you say we are, exactly?”

“The Second Hellwar didn’t leave a single functioning kingdom anywhere on the continent,” Farah said faintly. “It won’t be anywhere near that bad. I mean, it can’t. Surely?”

“Cut the chatter,” Ephanie ordered. “The LT is scheming.”

They turned their attention on Principia, who was indeed staring into space, but not with the lost look she’d worn moments before. Her eyes were slightly narrowed, darting this way and that as if studying a large, complex diagram none of them could see. Noting positions, charting connections, extrapolating…

“Okay,” she said, and nodded slowly. “All right. I have an idea.”


By now, the Archpope’s seclusions were a known habit, and his personnel knew better than to try to dig him out when he was sequestered in prayer. He actually did sequester himself in prayer, at least enough to be seen doing it and preserve the legitimacy of the claim. But the habit served most importantly to earn him time to vanish into the catacombs beneath the Grand Cathedral and pursue the various projects which demanded his personal attention. Those no one else could be allowed to see.

On this occasion, he passed through the labyrinthine passages and numerous barriers by rote, knowing every turn, every combination, every step to avoid setting off a trap, and came before a simple metal doorway with a small glass panel set into one of its upright columns. The maze Justinian had created beneath the Cathedral would have been a very irresponsible thing to leave for his successor, did he not specifically plan that there would not be another Archpope after him.

The panel blazed alight at his touch, emitting a soft white glow. He submitted his palmprint, traced a pattern with his fingertip, tapped one corner in a specific rhythm, entered a fourteen-digit alphanumeric code, and played three bars of a melody on the one-octave piano keypad which appeared at the final stage. Only after all that did the door truly come alive, filling with a luminous panel of inscrutable blue light.

Time was precious. Justinian stepped through it without pausing even a moment, despite the enormity of the step he was taking. He had grown accustomed to this particular miracle.

That was related to the matter which so troubled him now.

He emerged on a walkway of spotless, gleaming metal, extending hundreds of feet ahead and broad as a city avenue, lined with a waist-high balustrade along which softly glowing panels were spaced, providing gentle illumination. In fact, the path was curved, but on such a scale that it appeared perfectly straight from the perspective of any person standing upon it. Ahead, it terminated against a coliseum-sized structure which extended downward, like a massive, inverted tower. He did not step to the side to look over the edge; aside from being a disturbing view, he knew what he would see.

Nothing, straight down, for countless miles until far below, at the center of the moon, was the mass shadow engine—now more a phenomenon than a structure. The awesome power source which provided not only the energy that had once ignited magic itself on the world, but the gravity which governed the very tides.

He did pause to look upward, as he always did, at the transparent panel which formed the ceiling over this walkway. Above it stretched infinite space. It was good timing; at the moment, he could also see the world of his birth and all his careful plans, half-hidden by the moon’s shadow.

There seemed no specific sound, save for the soft yet omnipresent ambient hum of powerful machines functioning at low power—unusual, in this century, but distinctive to those who knew it—yet mere seconds after Justinian’s arrival a whirring began. From the huge complex at the other end of the path, a small form rounded the corner of its open doorway and came whizzing toward him on nimble little wheels. It veered from side to side in excitement as it approached, emitting a pleasant series of chimes and brandishing its multiple insectoid arms in the air.

Justinian smiled as he paced forward to meet it with a measured step, pausing when the Caretaker unit intercepted him. It wheeled around him in a full orbit in its glee before stopping, and he placed a hand atop its upper protrusion.

“Hello, CT-16. It’s good to see you again. I am afraid the pace of events keeps me from visiting often, but it is always pleasant to meet you.”

The little golem chimed happily back, ducking out from under his hand to whirl around him once more, then fell in beside him as he continued forward toward the huge structure.

Justinian allowed the smile to melt from his features as he walked beside the Caretaker.

“It has been bad, recently,” he said, staring ahead at the complex they approached. “This last week… My plans continue to develop apace, with no further major upheavals. It seems I have even gained some ground. The price, though, is bitter. Many who have seen the value of my ideas and shown loyalty to me because of them…sacrificed. Apprehended by the government and their lives and careers greatly disrupted. And those are the more fortunate. Others have perished…in unfortunate events when the Empire came for them, in violence at the hands of that creature Tellwyrn…”

He sighed softly, and closed his eyes for a moment without slowing his pace. The Caretaker made a whirring little series of chimes and produced a brush on one of its arm tips, and gently stroked his sleeve in a comforting gesture.

“And poor Ildrin,” Justinian whispered. “Loyal, trusted Ildrin, who has served me with such diligence. I killed her, CT. Oh, I was nowhere nearby. But I maneuvered her into a desperate position, orchestrated the systematic loss of all her support, left her isolated and vulnerable, knowing just how this would act upon her psyche… And then stranded her in a situation with a group of angry Eserites and a vengeful paladin. The outcome was mathematical. It doesn’t matter who held the blade, the blood of a faithful friend is on my hands.” For just a moment, his normally controlled features twisted in disgust. “Because she was no longer useful. Because knowing as much as she did made her a liability. Because it was…strategic.”

He slowed, swerving to the side, and finally come to a stop, planting his hands on the rail and leaning over it, head hanging. The Caretaker sidled up beside him, chiming questioningly in concern.

“I feel it coming on,” Justinain said, opening his eyes and gazing down into empty space. Before him was a perspective the human mind had not evolved to see; it was dizzying, disorienting. The infinite abyss extended down to a swirling mass of light and shadow, the size of a continent and which his mind wanted to believe couldn’t be anything like that in scope. All around, more complexes extended downward from the outer crust of Luna Station, which curved away in all directions.

“I was so passionate when I began this,” he said into the void. “So full of indignation at what the gods have done to us. I have learned…sympathy. For them, for their choices, even for the costs they have inflicted on the world in the name of protecting their power. They were hopeless rebels who rose up to oppose omnipotent beings—just as I am now. And it begins so easily. One compromise, then another, and so on, and each makes the next easier. The cost not so painful. The guilt…more distant. Already I have reached the point where it does not hurt…enough. Not enough, CT. All this, Ildrin alone, this should make me weep. Yet I see only the place it served in the larger plan. This is the sign that I should stop. I am no longer the pure-hearted idealist who began this. I no longer trust myself with the work.

“And yet…and yet, I have no choice. There is no one else who can take up the task. If I leave it now, it will all have been for nothing. The work still needs doing; all these sacrifices cannot have been wasted. The best I can do, anymore, is loathe what it is making me.”

Surreptitiously, the Caretaker grasped his robe firmly with two of its arms.

Justinian smiled, reaching around to pat the golem’s top again, and straightened up, away from the drop before him. “Thank you, my friend, but you needn’t worry. I don’t desire to rest. I do not deserve peace. No…there is only the work, now. But I’m afraid, CT. I am so very terrified that by the time I come to the end of this, even if I succeed… That I will have become a monster who absolutely cannot be allowed to have the power it will grant me. And this hideous cycle will only begin again.”

He stepped back, and raised his head further, again looking up at the arch of space ahead. The world had risen, its edge now clipped by the rim of the skylight. In minutes more it would pass out of view.

“I wonder,” he whispered, “if they ever reached this point? If they faced the knowledge that they needed to stop…but could not afford to?”

Man and golem stood that way, silent, for long moments of contemplation.

At last, Justinian began walking again, resuming his course, and the Caretaker came with him, finally releasing his robe.

“I appreciate you, my little friend,” he said. “Confession is very healing; it is no accident it plays a role in Izara’s faith, and several others. There is simply no one else to whom I can unburden myself, anymore.” He patted the Caretaker again. “Few and fleeting as these meetings of ours are, they are precious to me. If I could not admit to someone how much all this troubles me… I believe I would be lost already if not for you. Thank you.”

The golem chimed pleasantly in reply, again reaching up to gently grasp his sleeve in one of its metal appendages.

“I shall do my utmost,” Justinian said gravely, “to make the outcome of my labors worthy of your trust. I know you waited alone for a very long time. Your first masters began in pursuit of science and the ultimate truth of the universe, and fell to vicious insanity. The Pantheon sought justice, freedom, and a new hope for all the people of this world…and look what they immediately did. The cycle must break, CT. I hope against hope I shall be the one to do it. That you will not have to be disappointed yet again.”

The Caretaker just chimed soothingly, and stroked his arm again with the brush.

They were silent until they reached the broad opening into the complex, the massive round tower of metal descending into a spire that aimed at the moon’s terrible core.

“More immediately,” Justinian said in a thoughtful tone as they descended a long ramp, “I find that I have made fundamental errors which I must now correct. I underestimated how difficult it will be to keep all these various factions and foes stirring for the time it will take, without allowing them to destroy me. They are more capable than I anticipated, this is true. But more significantly, I failed to account for so many sharing information. Far too many are starting to realize who sits behind all their troubles. I blame Vesk,” he added wryly. “In the bardic epics, fairy tales, even the modern chapbooks and comics, enemies never talk to each other—at least, not openly. And now I find myself greatly threatened because so many of my opponents have simply had conversations, like adults. Foolish of me, unforgivably foolish.”

They rounded a curve, the ramp switching back down; this part of the complex had been built to be navigable by wheeled servants like CT-16. Ahead, an opening appeared at the end of the arched passageway.

“That can be dealt with,” Justinian said, frowning deeply now. “At the cost of causing more stains on my soul, and more pain and havoc for who knows how many other souls who have done nothing to deserve it. But…I cannot see any other way. They must all turn on me in the end, but not yet. It isn’t time yet, and I can be easily overthrown, still. If I am to postpone this reckoning until the right moment, I must give the heroes and villains and meddlers in general something else upon which to focus for a time.”

They emerged from the tunnel onto a balcony which ringed a circular space with no floor; below was only the infinite drop. From the dome arching overhead extended machines which projected suspensor fields holding up the object in the center of the open space. The thing itself was fully encased in a rectangular brick of transparent material, almost as clear as the air and visible only by its corners, but incredibly hard and a disruptor of transcension field energy besides. Not despite but because of its open plan, this spot was the most secure space in the solar system to keep a highly dangerous object. If the suspensors shut off for just a second, the thing they held would plummet straight down to the annihilating force of the mass shadow event, which nothing could survive.

“And so,” Justinian said grimly, stepping forward to grasp the rail before him and stare at the thing he had secreted away here, “I will regret that there is no one left in a position to forgive me for this. I must…unleash something upon them all.”

Within the clear block, the long skull, larger than he was, seemed carved of ebony. Justinian stared at the huge, empty eye sockets, meeting without flinching the knowing grin of Belosiphon the Black.

“Something great. Something terrible.”

 

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13 – 53

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The darkness receded and he was released, immediately spinning away from his captor. The elf took a step back from him, grinning and raising both hands—not a greatly reassuring gesture, as one still held that stiletto and the other the shadow-jumping talisman.

“Welcome.”

Ayuvesh whirled to behold a tall, robed figure approaching him from the corridor ahead. Finding himself apparently not under attack, for the moment, he chanced a glance around at his surroundings. There wasn’t much to see; he stood in a small, perfectly square chamber, unadorned except for a single wrought iron stand in one corner containing a modern fairy lamp which provided the only illumination. The walls, floor, and ceiling appeared to be all of one piece.

He did not know the name of the material, but he had seen it before. It had a grainy texture like rough stone, but reflected light like metal, and was impervious to every tool or weapon he had tested against it. Only the Infinite Order of old had built with this substance.

The figure approaching him reached up and lowered his hood, revealing an angular elfish face with eyes of solid emerald green. His long hair and neat little goatee were the same color.

“We have met before,” the dragon said, “but I regret that circumstances at the time did not permit a proper introduction. I am Khadizroth the Green. You have already met the Jackal. I apologize for the drama; it was an unfortunate necessity. I hope he did not indulge overmuch in…theatrics. He does have that tendency.”

“Yeah, I’m a real stinker,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “But, hey, least I’ve never assembled a child harem out of genocide survivors. Everybody’s gotta draw the line somewhere!”

Khadizroth’s head shifted minutely; Ayuvesh had the expression he was glancing at the elf, but without visible pupils or irises the movement of his eyes was impossible to track. The dragon’s expression did not alter, in any case.

“Where are we?” he asked with all the poise he could muster. “And, if you will indulge me in a second question, why have you brought me here?”

Khadizroth bowed slightly to him. “This is the most secure location I know. I used it as a lair centuries ago, before it was found by an adventurer. This individual and I had an understanding and he never returned here, nor revealed its secret, but nonetheless I moved elsewhere once a single uninvited soul knew of it. That is a dragon’s way. I have kept…an eye, so to speak, on this spot, in case I one day required absolute security, and I can attest it has not been breached since. It is quite safe and quite empty now, I assure you, but it was originally made by the Elder Gods. There is no possibility of scrying or communicating through its walls, except at my instigation from within. Only one who has been here before can shadow-jump inside, and arcane teleportation in and out is quite impossible. That is why your escort paused to engage in that pantomime of murder. He observed, during our previous visit to Puna Dara, that you seem able to communicate with your fellows, likely via those machine augmentations of yours. Once here, that is no longer possible. But now they, like the Punaji authorities, will believe you dead. I apologize for the distress this must cause.”

He bowed again, more deeply.

“I see,” Ayuvesh said slowly. It was, he supposed, a good sign that his abductors were being so forthcoming—at least, so far. “And as for the why…?”

“You’re dead!” the Jackal crowed. “Sorry, kid, nothing personal. Archpope’s orders.”

Ayuvesh turned to examine the grinning elf, not bothering to suppress his disdainful expression. The Jackal pursed his lips and made kissing noises at him.

“This entire situation requires some explanation,” Khadizroth said with much more courtesy. “I will, of course, help you understand everything I may. If you would accompany me?”

He stepped to the side, politely gesturing Ayuvesh forward through the square corridor.

Well, it wasn’t as if there was anywhere else he could go. He nodded back to the dragon with equal courtesy and paced forward as indicated. When he drew abreast of Khadizroth, the dragon fell into step beside him.

“There is, in terms of space, not much to see,” Khadizroth said, sounding oddly apologetic. “The cavern has six small outlying chambers, identical to the one we just left—which has been set aside for shadow-jumping in and out. Another is serving for sanitation. In a vault which is as thoroughly sealed as this one, that involves a convoluted arrangement of portable holes and water conjuration devices which requires no small amount of power crystals.”

“How creative,” Ayuvesh said neutrally, reasoning it was safest and wisest not to irritate his host with all the questions racing through his mind.

“The rest we mean to set aside for individuals, as a matter of privacy. When those run out, we will be reduced to erecting barriers to subdivide the main space. Which you now see before you.”

They had just emerged from the corridor onto a wide chamber which was mostly lost in darkness. A ledge of the stone-metal ran along one of its narrow ends; more square corridors opened off this. At intervals were set up iron stands holding fairy lamps, their glow lighting the ledge adequately but not penetrating far into the vast darkness spreading off in the other direction. Ayuvesh stepped forward to peer down; the ledge was about nine feet tall. Off to his left a set of wooden stairs descended do the chamber floor.

“Everything is in a very early state, as you can see,” the dragon explained. “With time and effort it will become much more comfortable. At the moment, however, quarters are unavoidably somewhat spartan.”

“It looks like a vehicle hangar,” Ayuvesh commented. His voice created a faint echo, now that they were standing in the huge main chamber. “Which suggests the main entrance is at the other end; the entire wall would open. I assume it is too buried in a rockslide or some such to function, otherwise all this would have been found ages ago.”

“You are a surprisingly educated man,” Khadizroth observed.

“In a few highly specific areas, I suppose so,” Ayuvesh replied, nodding graciously. “When might I be permitted to rejoin my followers, if it’s not too much to ask?”

The dragon nodded slowly, turning to gaze out into the dark, empty space. To Ayuvesh’s minor discomfiture, the Jackal had followed them out of the corridor and now lounged against the wall nearby, trimming his fingernails with his stiletto and grinning that unsettling grin.

“I cannot give you a definitive answer to that at this time,” Khadizroth said, “though I hope the final answer is not ‘never.’ We must all be prepared for the potential worst-case scenario.”

“Which is?”

“That, I am still trying to determine.” The dragon grimaced bitterly. “You are here, Ayuvesh, because Archpope Justinian has commanded your death.”

Ayuvesh glanced over at the Jackal, who winked. “So I hear.”

“Therefore, you must remain dead, so long is he is aware—and his web stretches far indeed. The only way to ensure that Justinian is kept in the dark is to ensure that the world itself is.”

“The bomb may have been overplaying your hand, in that case,” Ayuvesh opined. “Such a measure is needless overkill for assassination; such a clever man as your Archpope will suspect it was meant to conceal a disappearance.”

“Oh, the bomb was his Holiness’s idea!” the Jackal said brightly. “He doesn’t want the Punaji thinking anybody knew or cared enough about you to send someone into their secure rooms and open your throat. But who knows what’s in all that hardware you’ve got strapped to your chassis, eh? Lacking any other explanation they may conclude you just malfunctioned and blew the hell up!”

“Anyone who thinks that is not giving Rajakhan nearly enough credit.”

“Hey, take it from an old pro.” The Jackal bowed deeply, flourishing his non-knife-holding hand out behind him. “Sometimes it’s just not possible to fully cover your tracks, in which case creating ambiguity and confusion is the next best measure.”

“We, as I presume you have surmised by now, serve the Archpope in a less than open capacity,” Khadizroth said. “Carrying out those of his orders which he does not wish connected to him. Some of such, anyway; he has many hands, most unknown to each other. We do this for two reasons: the Archpope is holding something over each of us, and more importantly, because we prefer to be close to him rather than hiding away in the hope that what he is planning simply fizzles out. Only by remaining active and nearby do we have any chance of creating an opportunity to thwart him.”

“And…” Ayuvesh slowly tilted his head. “What is the good Archpope planning?”

“That,” Khadizroth replied with a deep frown, “is a question which troubles me greatly. A person in his position, pursuing designs of the scale and complexity that he is, should be trying to simplify them. Consolidating power, eliminating rivals, controlling the situation. Justinian, in many ways, seems determined to do the opposite. Most prominently a cornerstone of his strategy appears to be keeping as many of his enemies alive and in positions to pester him as possible. He has repeatedly passed over opportunities to finish off a disadvantaged foe, and even arranged for some to receive much needed strokes of luck after suffering major setbacks. The only blood he seems willing to spill is that of his own agents, when their usefulness has ended.”

“And guess who gets to do the spilling,” the Jackal smirked.

“The heart of the problem with Justinian is that I cannot tell what he is attempting to do,” Khadizroth continued. “His machinations are too careful and too precise to be directed at stirring up simple chaos… But I fail, thus far, to see what other end result they could possibly have. He appears to want as many factions and powers in play as possible, in a state of maximum conflict with one another. Even his efforts to deflect their attention from him appear…begrudging, undertaken only when one becomes a true threat.”

“It looks a lot like he wants the whole world at his throat,” the Jackal mused, tossing his knife in the air and catching it. “Not right now, but at some point in the future. Fuck me if I can see why, though.”

“And so, here you are,” Ayuvesh mused, “tired of taking increasingly nonsensical orders, naturally wondering when it will be your turn upon the chopping block, and beginning to set up the pieces for an act of rebellion.”

Khadizroth nodded to him. “You are as perceptive as your reputation suggests, Ayuvesh.”

“I am as perceptive as any man who still has one working eye,” he replied sardonically. “Nothing about this situation is particularly subtle, now that I am in the middle of it. Let me ask you this: what was the Archpope trying to accomplish by manipulating my cult—and, I presume, the Punaji Crown?”

“The recent events in Puna Dara were only half that story, I’m afraid.” Ayuvesh turned at the new voice, finding himself approached by a man in a neat suit, with a neat beard, who had a Stalweiss complexion but spoke with a Tiraan accent. “A simultaneous debacle unfolded in Last Rock; I had the honor of a much closer vantage than I would have liked for that.”

“Ayuvesh, may I present Willard Tanenbaum, our first new recruit,” Khadizroth said politely. “A scholar of the Topaz College, and recently one of Justinian’s trusted, until he apparently outlived his usefulness and was slated for sacrifice.”

“Along with a great many of my fellows,” Tanenbaum said bitterly. “To answer your question, sir, his Holiness had recently come very close to open conflict with the Silver Throne. He has since been arranging opportunities to work alongside its agents. Purging the ‘corrupt’ from the Pantheon’s cults—specifically, those more loyal to himself than their gods, and no longer necessary to his plans. Setting up your Rust for a fall in order to have his agents build bridges with the Empire and, apparently, the Punaji.”

“All that carnage,” Ayuvesh whispered. “My friends, slain. My nation, brought to the edge of collapse. For a distraction.”

“So, yeah,” the Jackal drawled. “There’s a reason Justinian’s favorite pawns are pretty willing to turn on him.”

Slowly, Ayuvesh shook his head. “I certainly sympathize with your aims, gentlemen, but… I fear I have very little to offer you. These…” He held up his mechanical arm and pinged the nail of his other index finger against its hard surface. “…are now deprived of the essential power that maintains them. They will seize up, and cease to work. I do not know how soon, but it’s more than my arm and leg that are controlled by these machines. When those which replaced my heart fail, so will I. Little time have I left, and for every minute of it I will grow gradually less functional.”

“I am a green dragon,” Khadizroth said gravely. “Regeneration is within my power. It will not be quick, Ayuvesh. It will not be simple, nor easy. But your body can be restored. Your true body, the flesh and bone nature gave you. And indeed…with this done, you will find yourself much less confined. After all, you are very distinctive in appearance. I rather think people will not recall where they have seen you before, if they see you without those modifications.”

Ayuvesh stared at him. Tanenbaum simply raised an eyebrow, while the Jackal balanced the stiletto on his finger by its tip, wearing a manic grin.

“You said Mr. Tanenbaum was the first new recruit,” he said at last. “And I?”

“The second,” Khadizroth replied. “More will come.”

“And what will we do?”

“At this time, I cannot yet tell,” the dragon said patiently. “As I’ve said, it remains a mystery what our devious benefactor is doing, himself. But the longer it goes on, the more difficult it will become for him. Eventually—in fact, soon, I believe—a point will come…a fulcrum. One spot upon which all will hinge, and a swift, unexpected action will bring him to the ruin he has brought upon so many others. What I propose is that we take steps to ensure that when this happens, we are ready.”

“Ready. Yes. After all…” Ayuvesh nodded. “One can always become more.”


“So that’s the Tellwyrn.”

“Ugh.” Trissiny grimaced. “Please don’t give her a the, her ego is out of control as it is.”

“Well, of all the people on this world, I figure she is entitled,” Darius said, stepping up beside her on the wall. The Rock was awake by that hour of the morning, and her friends had begun to trickle out of their rooms in ones and twos, but whole groups had not assembled yet. They were poking about on their own, processing the events of the last few days in their own way. She was surprised to see Darius of all people up here; strolling the battlements seemed more a way for her to orient herself than he. Nonetheless, here he was.

They stood in comfortable silence for a few moments, watching Tellwyrn, Ruda, and Anjal have a conversation across the courtyard below, near the damaged front door of the Rock itself.

“So,” Darius said finally, “I guess you’ll be going back with the Last Rock people, huh.”

“Oh…not necessarily,” she replied lightly. “I took the whole semester off, so there’s really not much for me to do there. It’s been good to see everyone again, but I’ll see them in the fall. Don’t worry, I still plan to come back to Tiraas with you guys. I need to thank Glory and say goodb—”

“You need to go back where you came from.”

She broke off in surprise, turning to face him. Darius was still gazing down below, his expression empty.

“People like me, like us,” he said quietly, “people who aren’t paladins, or dryads, or witches, or half-demons, or… We get killed for being too close to you lot, and the kind of shit that follows you.”

“That isn’t fair,” she whispered.

“Course it isn’t,” he agreed, shaking his head. “It’s not fair, and it certainly isn’t your fault. It just…is what it is. I read all the same bard stories you did, growing up, I bet. Paladins always have companions, and the companions always die. Because that is what happens when you’re a squishy nobody who gets in the line of fire. That kind of fire. I learned something, yesterday, about how brave I am, and how brave I’m not.” He raised his head and turned to meet her eyes, unflinching. “If it was just me? Right now I’d be asking you to take me with you, wherever the hell you’re off to next. I am quite willing to die from getting into paladin shit I had no business going near. Hell, that’d be a nobler end than anything I’ve got planned for my life. But… It turns out I am not willing to watch that happen to any more of my friends. And definitely not to my little sister.”

He reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. She hadn’t put on her armor this morning, nor even her leather coat as a concession to Puna Dara’s climate, and felt his grip clearly through her shirt.

“There’ll always be people willing to die for the cause, Trissiny. Just…do me a favor? Make sure the next guy that happens to knows what he was signing up for, before it happens.”

She flinched.

“Thank you, for everything…Thorn. You’re my hero, and that’s not an exaggeration.” Darius squeezed her shoulder, and gave her an affectionate little jostle. A tiny, sad smile flickered across his features. “Now go home.”

He released her, turned and walked away along the wall, unhurried, jamming his hands into his pockets.

Trissiny stared after him in something like shock. With her head turned to follow him leaving, she didn’t see Tellwyrn look up at her and sigh softly before returning to her own conversation.


Night always fell early on Mathenon, thanks to the Stalrange rising in the west. On this particular night, a storm had come with it—the kind that was all wind, occasional lightning, and no rain. The way weather behaved around the edge of the Great Plains, this wasn’t unusual, either. Nothing was really unusual. Sometimes it hailed in midsummer; the Golden Sea made a mess of air currents. Prairie folk had learned to put their heads down and endure.

All this made it a perfect night to while away in the pub with the gang, drinking and talking, as the sky howled outside.

The Fallen Arms stood in a somewhat rough part of the city, but it wasn’t a rough establishment. Neither boisterous nor dull, it had a dedicated clientele of hard-working men and women who liked to stop in and unwind after a day’s work; they liked stiff drinks, friendly conversation, and not having to deal with any foolishness. In Mathenon, “working class” most often meant accountants, House servants, or fancy private guards. The regulars at the Fallen Arms were a different breed; they worked with calloused hands and strong backs, and it was well within their ability to insist on some damn peace and quiet if some pushy lout wandered in and tried to start something. The proprietor encouraged them to do so.

“Now, don’t go puttin’ words in my mouth,” Roy said with mounting exasperation, pointing an accusing finger with the hand still holding his beer. “I didn’t say anything about joining the Huntsmen, I’ve already got a job. What kinda fool you take me for?”

“All right, fair,” Elsa replied agreeably. “But suppose your boy wanted to run off and join a lodge. What would you say to that, since you like ’em so much?”

“I dunno why you’re rarin’ to start a fight tonight,” Roy grumbled. “All I said was, they got their virtues, see? They ain’t totally without a point. How’d you get to me liking ’em so much from that?”

“I’ve got tits, that’s how,” she retorted. “Every time those pelt-wearing asshats come through town I have to deal with ’em talking down to me in a way you never have to worry about. This ain’t a theoretical exercise to me, Roy, or any woman, it’s you talkin’ out of your ass about stuff you don’t understand.”

“Now, I never said they didn’t have their bad sides, either!” he said, his voice rising defensively in pitch. “Come on, Elsa, you know me better’n that. All I’m saying is, some of that they have to say ain’t completely stupid. They’re all about self-reliance, an’ having respect for nature. What’s the matter with any of that?”

“What’s the matter is the bullshit it comes with!”

“Omnu’s balls, there’s no talking to you tonight,” Roy grunted. “Hey, Jonathan! Settle an argument.”

“No.”

“Yeah, Jon, set this asshole straight,” Elsa chimed in, leaning around Roy to grin at the man seated on his other side at the bar, nursing a beer. “You’re the most level-headed guy here.”

He sighed, and rolled his eyes. “How many times do you think I’m gonna fall for that?”

“Oh, let’s not do this,” Elsa said dismissively. “You love playing the wise old man.”

“What do you mean, old?” he demanded, and she snorted a laugh in response. He had to grin back, despite his efforts to look offended.

Gods, he’d missed this.

Jonathan Arquin regretted none of the decisions he had made in life, even though they had made his lot hard in some ways. Now, though, things were looking brighter. The Church had relocated him out here to Mathenon for his protection, and had arranged a monthly stipend on which he could live very comfortably indeed, and never have to work.

He donated it every month to an Omnist shelter for the poor. Had to funnel it through a Vernisite temple in order to do so anonymously, which meant the Vernisites took a cut—six percent, the bloodsuckers—but that was a small price to pay for not having to explain why and how a man of his humble bearing could make such a generous gift on the regular. And whatever else could be said about bankers, they were admirably discreet people, particularly the religious ones. Meanwhile, he’d gone out and gotten a job.

A man was meant to work, otherwise, what was he good for? Work rooted him in the world, in society, kept him strong and centered and useful. And as an added bonus, it brought him this again, the kinship of other people who labored for a living. People who didn’t know about the demon and the child he’d had with her.

“Yeah, shut her up for me, Jon,” Roy added. “You don’t think the Huntsmen are totally bad, do you?”

Jonathan took a judicious sip of his beer before answering. “I can’t see anybody as totally bad, Roy, and that’s not a point for your argument. Not being an irredeemable monster is the baseline, not something a person gets praised for. Let’s face it, Huntsmen of Shaath are fanatical weirdos on their best day. Nobody who treats women the way they do is worth crossing the street to spit on, you ask me.”

“Thank you!” Elsa exclaimed, while Roy grumbled something and took a swig of his beer. He then sputtered on a mouthful of foam when she smacked him a little too hard on the shoulder. Jonathan almost missed the sound of the door opening in the ensuing playful scuffle, occurring as it did right in his ear.

The spreading silence was what warned him. Though they weren’t loud, or boisterous, the patrons of the Fallen Arms talked, and laughed, and drank. It was a place where people went for good company and good conversation. When the noise faded away, once table at a time, it meant something was up.

He raised his head, turning to examine the new arrival, and found himself staring like everyone else.

Mathenon was a city of merchants, and those who supported them; positioned on the single most important trade route between the inner provinces of the Empire and the mountain paths to Svenheim and Stavulheim, it was mostly inhabited by humans but saw its fair share of dwarves. It didn’t see many drow, however.

She paced slowly across the floorboards, the gnarled ebony staff in her hand making a rhythmic thunk each time she set it down, deep red eyes scanning the room as if searching for something. Dressed in pure black, both her leather trench coat and the robe underneath it, she cut a dark swath through the rustic ambiance the Arms cultivated. Her hair, though, had a streak of livid green dyed down the center, marring the white.

By the time she reached the bar, total silence had fallen upon the tavern, every eye fixed upon the drow woman, which she gave no sign of noticing. Slowly, she glided along the row of stools, feet soundless and only the butt of her staff making noise to mark her passing. She stepped past Jonathan, past Roy, then paused.

Elsa stiffened, but the dark elf turned and went back a few steps, this time stopping right behind Jonathan, who had turned around on his stool to study her direction.

She gave him a slow, insolent once-over, then nodded as if deciding on something.

“You,” the drow ordered. “Buy me a drink.”

Jonathan tore his gaze from her crimson eyes to glance at Roy, who shrugged helplessly.

He cleared his throat. “Lost your wallet, have you?”

One corner of her lips twitched upward. “This isn’t my first visit to the Empire. I know the custom in bars like this. The man buys the woman a drink. Or are you refusing me?”

She raised one snowy eyebrow, the expression somehow challenging.

Jonathan studied her right back, with the same measured impertinence. She was, it occurred to him, quite pretty. But hell, she was an elf; they were all pretty. He hadn’t known a lot of elves, and even fewer drow, certainly not enough to make a mental comparison. It was unnerving, having no idea how old she was. By her looks, she could’ve been barely out of her teens…which meant she was just as likely to be as old as the Empire. What might a creature like this have seen in her life?

“No offense,” he said at last, “but lady… You’re kind of scary.”

The drow tilted her head to one side in an inquisitive gesture, still maintaining eye contact. After another beat of silence, she smiled.

“Perhaps. But you still haven’t refused, I notice. Maybe you like that in a woman?”

He narrowed his eyes very slightly.

She did the same.

“Hey, Eliott,” Jonathan said at last, still looking at the dark elf and not the bartender he was now addressing. “Pour something…sweet, fruity, and pink. With a little paper umbrella if you’ve got any.”

“Sure, Jon,” Eliott said, deadpan. “And for the lady?”

A few chuckles from around the room broke the tension, and the drow herself grinned broadly in mischievous delight. The expression transformed her entire face.

Grinning back at her, Jonathan Arquin experienced the familiar feeling that he was about to make an excellent series of mistakes.

 

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13 – 52

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They watched him pacing in the monitors from the security hub which now served as the headquarters for the entire Hand program. There were, of course, two Hands present; they had, without comment, implemented a policy of never leaving the Emperor unattended when he was in a room with the kitsune. In addition to Sharidan, Milanda, and Akane standing in front of the monitor, the three resident dryads were huddled around another screen some distance away, reading something. They liked to be nearby when people gathered, but didn’t seem to have the attention span for prolonged discussions. In two smaller screens flanking the one showing the prisoner were displayed the images of the Avatar and Walker, the latter observing this through a similar two-screen setup down in her home in the GIC. The Avatar, of course, could see whatever the computers did. Making a visible face was just a courtesy he extended. Altogether it was rather more crowded than usual in the hub.

On the monitor, the damaged Hand of the Emperor, his clothing still stained and ragged from his travails at Last Rock, paced like a caged animal—which wasn’t far from the reality. They had secured him in one of the cells lining the access corridor. Not the one in which Walker had been kept for years; that one was now a sort of reading nook, permanently set aside with books and a small fountain. The dryads enjoyed congregating there.

“Tactically, it’s interesting,” the Emperor mused. “They weren’t able to destroy him—but they did fight him to a standstill. And those were a handful of miscellaneous leftovers after most of the University’s faculty and students were secured out of his reach. This is the closest we have ever been, or likely will be again, to testing the Hands’ on-the-ground combat capability against what are effectively the adventurer teams of the modern age.”

Everyone nodded, and no one commented. While Tellwyrn and her school were ostensibly allies of the Silver Throne, it was important to know how dangerous one’s allies were. In case one needed to call on them…or in case they suddenly changed their minds.

“Avatar,” Akane said, “how long until your scan of him is complete?”

“I estimate less than an hour, and apologize that I cannot be more precise. I am using the general trascension field sensor program Walker and Milanda established during the recent crisis, which is slower than this facility’s original detector functions. We could perform a full analysis almost instantly by employing the transcension matrix which forms the updated Hand system, but there is a risk of contamination if he is connected to it in his current state.”

“You can’t use it to gather information without hooking him into it?” Sharidan asked, interested.

“At that level of transcension activity, your Majesty, observation and interaction are the same.”

“Yes,” Walker added, nodding in the viewscreen, “that’s one of the principles of quantum mechanics which informs the core ideas—”

“Yes, Yrsa, we know,” Akane interrupted, one ear twitching impatiently. “If you must lecture, please spare us that Infinite Order quantum mystic drivel. We can, of course, establish barriers that would enable us to analyze a connected Hand while keeping him contained from the system…in theory. When I redesigned the structure I did not have that function in mind, and so it is not equipped.” She inclined her head politely to the Emperor, as close to a bow as the kitsune ever came—and a courtesy which she extended to no one else. “At this point, your Majesty, our next act depends upon your priorities.”

“Can you elaborate, Akane-sama?” he replied with equal politeness. It would not do for a sitting Emperor to show actual deference, but he always treated Akane with grave courtesy. The two of them got along surprisingly well.

“The most efficient action, here,” she said, “would be to sever him fully from the magic empowering him. That might be more complicated than doing so to one of our currently linked Hands, as… I am not exactly certain what’s empowering him at this point. He appears to be linked to the corrupted network, which of course no longer exists. I am confident I can brute-force a way around it in the worst-case scenario, since the more elegant option involves bringing Tellwyrn here to explain the nature of that dimensional cage of hers which caused this. I gather that is not on the table.”

“I want Tellwyrn in here even less than she wants to reveal her secrets,” Sharidan said with some amusement.

Akane nodded agreement. “That done, and after we have ascertained that his mind was not permanently damaged by this experience, we can simply re-initiate him the usual way.”

“Who’s we?” Mimosa asked from behind them. “You’re not the one who has to get all physical with the guy.”

“If you object, ladies,” the Emperor began, but Apple grinned and interrupted.

“No, we don’t object, she’s just being difficult. We like all the Hands. I’ll do him this time; I feel bad about all the trouble he’s been through.”

“The other possibility,” Akane continued with a long-suffering sigh, “is to take this opportunity to re-work the system once again, with him included this time. If there are further modifications you wish to make, your Majesty, it is a good moment to discuss them.”

“That would involve temporarily disabling the entire thing, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes,” Walker said before Akane could answer. “Just like before. The Hands would be incapacitated for the duration.”

“Interesting,” he mused. “That, it seems to me, is a good idea to pursue at another date, when we have time to plan for it. For the time being, I would prefer the more efficient solution with the least disruptive ramifications.”

“Wise,” she agreed. “Then our only other potential crisis is your Left Hand’s little episode in Puna Dara.” She turned a supercilious expression on Milanda, who continued to stare blankly at the pacing Hand in the screen. “Obviously, we cannot have you melting down like that in a crisis situation. Now, I have outlined a training program which you can undertake with the Avatar and the dryads, which—”

“Shut up, Akane.”

It was Milanda who twitched, for an instant fearing it was she who had spoken. But Akane turned her glare on the right-hand monitor, her ears lying flat against her skull. In the screen, Walker was glaring right back.

“What did you say to me?” the kitsune hissed.

“You heard me,” Walker said bluntly. “Mouth shut. You’re being an ass, and it is beneath you.”

“How dare—”

“My brightest memories,” Walker said, raising her voice, “are of you extending a hand to me when our own mother would not. You were kind, and wise enough to know exactly how to ease a troubled young person’s unhappiness. But that was before thousands of years of only interacting with people who have been terrorized by generations of kitsune tyranny into dancing to your tune atrophied your social skills almost to nothing, Akane. And now here you are, barking orders at a trauma victim. Frankly I think spending time around here will come to do you a world of good, but in the meantime, here’s a rule of thumb: if you can’t be nice, button your yap and go away.”

For once, Akane seemed too stunned to say anything imperious. Her ears remained swiveled fully backward, tail rigid and puffed up, but she only stared at Walker’s face in silence.

“She makes a good point, there,” Hawthorn observed after a momentary pause. “Nobody likes you, Akane.”

“You’re mean,” Mimosa added, nodding emphatically. “We’d much rather spend time with Walker. That really says something, cos she’s a terrifyingly wrong thing who makes my hair stand on end just being in a room with her. Not to mention the most boring person I ever met.”

“Hey!” Walker protested.

“Well,” Apple said reasonably, “you do go on and on and on about things nobody cares about. But really, that’s no more annoying than these two,” she waved a hand absently at her sisters, both of whom stuck out tongues at her, “and you obviously care. It’s kinda good hanging around with you even when you’re making long speeches about nothing, cos you at least act like a sister.”

“Unlike this one,” Hawthorn added, pointing accusingly at the flabbergasted kitsune. “I’ll be honest, Akane, the only reason none of us has punched you yet is Walker keeps saying how nice you are at heart and to give you a chance and you’ll surprise us eventually.”

“Still waiting on that, by the way,” Mimosa said with a yawn.

“Now, girls,” the Avatar began soothingly, but Akane whirled and stalked to the door without another word. It hissed open and then shut behind her, leaving an a strained silence in her wake.

The two attending Hands glanced at each other sidelong, which was possibly the greatest loss of composure they had ever displayed when not malfunctioning.

Sharidan drew in a slow breath and let it out in a sigh, stepping closer to Milanda and wrapping an arm around her. She leaned gratefully against him.

“I am removing you from active duty, though,” he murmured.

She mutely nodded, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder.

“I have never ordered you to do anything, Milanda, but this time I have to. You will begin attending sessions with Counselor Saatri, as Lord Vex tells me he advised you to do weeks ago. I will not have you back in the field until she clears you for duty.”

“Okay.” That was perhaps not the correct way to acknowledge a command from her Emperor, but he pulled her closer in response and rested his chin atop her head. It would do, for now.


“I hope neither of us is in trouble for showing up late to the big climactic battle,” Teal murmured while constructing a sandwich of flatbread and curried fish. “Guess I wouldn’t blame anybody for being mad at us…”

“Nobody who matters will be,” Trissiny replied, pausing to sip her cup of cold tea. “I was warned shortly after Avei called me that there’d always be someone demanding to know where the hell I’ve been. Because something terrible is always happening somewhere, and a person can only be in one place at a time. The balance we have to strike is in learning to live with that, without becoming jaded over it. What?” she asked quizzically, as Teal had been staring at her in apparent shock for the last half of her reply.

The bard laughed softly, as much in surprise as humor, and resumed piling up fish. “I…sorry. I just never heard you curse before. Those Eserites really are as bad an influence as everyone says.”

“Oh. Well.” Trissiny grinned, idly swirling her half-empty teacup. “Mother Narny always said profanity was the self-expression of a weak mind. The Eserites taught me to use every weapon available, and favor the ones that make an impression without having to draw blood. If you think about it, a curse word doesn’t hurt anybody, it’s just a word. Its power comes from the taboo. And breaking a taboo creates an impact. A stronger one if you don’t do it often; nobody bats an eye when Ruda curses, after all.”

“Wow, they taught you linguistics,” Teal said. Having finished making her breakfast sandwich, she set it down on the plate and made no move to take a bite. “That’s a surprising detail. I’d expect you to pick that up if you’d been apprenticing with the Veskers, but…”

“Everybody has a past. Eserites come from all over; they’re mostly people who feel a need to right wrongs in the world, and don’t trust the systems to help.” Trissiny’s expression turned somber, and she stared absently at the distance. “The guy who told me about strategic cursing had been a bard, before being a Guild apprentice.”

Teal nodded slowly, also staring at nothing, her sandwich apparently forgotten. They sat in companionable silence, letting the banquet hall stir idly around them with sporadic activity.

Punaji parties being as they were, the great hall of the Rock had not been cleaned up from the feast of the night before, and more than a handful of attendees were asleep in various positions around the room. There had been plenty of food and drink, and enough was left to make a serviceable breakfast for the early risers now coming through. Most of those were castle staff, minor bureaucrats and the odd guest of indeterminate origin. Thus far, Teal and Trissiny were the only members of the student or apprentice groups up and about—or at least, the only ones who had come down to eat. Principia and her squad had been through early and departed to meet the first of the Silver Legion special forces who were meant to help them settle the Rust crisis; Principia had looked fiendishly gleeful at the prospect of bringing them up to speed.

Teal never did pick up her breakfast again, though after a few silent minutes she looked over at Trissiny once more, and her lips quirked up in a smile. “You really need to fix your hair, though. It never occurred to me how well the blonde suited you until I saw you without it.”

“Everyone is so concerned about my hair,” Trissiny grumbled. “Mother Narny said women outside Viridill were obsessed with cosmetic details, but until very recently I’d come to think she was exaggerating. Anyway, you’re one to talk, Shaggy. I’m sure you’ll look very pretty when you finish growing it out, but the short cut suited you perfectly.”

“Ah…well.” Teal lowered her eyes, her expression fading back to wistfulness. “There’s a story behind that.”

“I noticed the robes, too.”

“Yeah… I may not be much of a Narisian, but—”

“Ah!” They both looked up at the satisfied exclamation, and found Professor Tellwyrn just inside the front door of the banquet hall, already making a beeline for them. “Perfect timing, for once—exactly who I wanted to see! Plus Trissiny, for some damn reason. I would ask what the hell you’re doing here, young lady, but I’ve known too many paladins over the years to be actually surprised.”

“Morning, Professor,” Teal said, waving. “Please let everybody wake up naturally before you teleport us all back to the mountain. We had a long night.”

“So I see,” Tellwyrn said, planting her fists on her hips and sweeping an expressive stare around at the ruins of last night’s shindig. “Anyway, no, Falconer. I’ll hear everyone’s oral report later today. But I thought you would appreciate me making an early stop, first.”

“Me? What did—”

She broke off as a tiny black shape came bouncing into the hall from the front door, yapping exuberantly and heading right for a half-eaten platter of roast boar which for reasons pertaining to a lot of people having been drunk the night before was resting on a bench rather than a table.

“F’thaan, come back here this instant.”

Teal shot to her feet at the voice; Trissiny rose more slowly beside her. Tellwyrn, grinning, stepped aside to clear a path between them and the door, turning to watch.

The puppy skidded to a halt with a plaintive whine, but obediently turned his back on the pork and went gamboling back toward the front of the hall. Shaeine entered in a stately glide, snapped her fingers, and pointed at the ground by her feet. Even as F’thaan came to sit where directed, her garnet colored eyes were already locked on the figure beside Trissiny.

Teal actually vaulted over the table behind which she was sitting. Barely catching her balance on the landing, she staggered briefly before dashing pell-mell across the banquet hall, robes fluttering behind her, bounding over the sleeping form of one of last night’s revelers. She skidded to a stop only a few feet from Shaeine, at the last moment seeming to remember the Narisian composure she was supposed to be practicing.

They both made the last few steps in unison, Shaeine’s face a mask of formal calm, Teal doing an admirable job of imitating one. The human reached out with both hands, and the drow took them gently, gazing up at her eyes.

“I…” Teal paused, then tried again, her voice less rough. “I am very glad to see you.”

Shaeine looked up at her in silence for a moment. Then a broad, totally uncontrolled grin spread across her face, transforming her entire aspect.

“Hello, wife,” she said, then surged forward, wrapping her arms around Teal and insistently tugging her face down to meet her in a triumphant kiss. The two of them whirled around in a full circle, F’thaan yapping excitedly and bouncing in rings around them. Both ignored the encouraging whoops that came from two of the more lucid occupants of the banquet hall.

“What’s all this?” Shaeine demanded finally, somewhat out of breath, running her fingers through Teal’s shoulder-length hair. “And the robe, too? You look so dashing in those suits of yours!”

“Ah, well…” Teal had given up all pretense of Narisian rectitude by that point, and her goofy grin didn’t go at all with the formal robes. “I was the last representative of House Awarrion left on the campus, after all. I figured, you know… If you’re going to play a part, you should embrace the costume.”

“Oh, beloved.” Shaeine tugged her close again, resting her cheek on Teal’s shoulder. “If that’s truly what you want, I support you absolutely. But if this is my mother and sisters trying to mold you, I won’t have it. I introduced you to Mother because I believed you would be an asset to House Awarrion, not because I thought I could turn you into one. Those were the terms on which she accepted you. No one is going to change my Teal.”

Teal squeezed her nearly to the point of pain, though the petite drow made not a peep of protest. “I missed you so much,” she whispered hoarsely into her white hair. “We missed you.” Then, after a pause: “Also, why have you got a baby hellhound?”

“Ah, well…” Shaeine drew back slightly, just enough to gaze up at her with a distinctly impish expression. “Why don’t you show me to your room? We have…things on which to catch up.”

Teal big her lip eagerly in an answering grin. Reluctantly pulling free, she kept a grip on one of Shaeine’s hands, and led her urgently toward a side door, F’thaan bouncing eagerly along behind them and yapping without cease. They slipped out into the corridor, a last startled yelp from Teal echoing behind them.

“Are my eyes starting to go,” Trissiny asked incredulously, “or did Shaeine just goose her? In public?”

“Shaeine has a diplomat’s instinct for adapting to local customs,” Tellwyrn intoned, strolling around to join her on the other side of the table. “Apparently, somewhere midway between Narisian and Punaji is grabbing your wife’s bum if you’ve not had the opportunity for a few weeks. So, what are we having?”

“Whatever’s lying around,” Trissiny replied, and the Professor plopped down next to her, picking up Teal’s untouched fish sandwich.

“Gods, I needed to see that,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh, still gazing in the direction of the side hall with a faint smile. “There’s been far too much ugliness lately. This wasn’t even my first stop of the day; the last order of business wasn’t nearly so pleasant.”

“Oh?”

She took a bite of the sandwich and continued talking, enunciating with surprising clarity even as she chewed. “Had to deal with the Duchess of House Dalkhaan, she who had the goddamn temerity to send her House troops to attack my University.”

Trissiny raised an eyebrow. “I presume that ended poorly for them.”

“A lot more survived than you would think, but yes, they accomplished a sum total of nothing. Still, politics. I cannot have the aristocratic class of the Empire thinking they can so much as sneer in my direction without suffering consequences, nor can our political allies. House Dalkhaan, as of this morning, is dissolved and stricken from the rolls of the nobility, by decree of the Silver Throne. All its lands and property are seized and given to me in compensation for insults and offenses given, by command of the Sultana of Calderaas.” She swallowed, then frowned down at the sandwich still held in both her hands. “I got to deliver these edicts to the Duchess my very own self, and remove her from her ancestral home—which is now my property. I let her keep the clothes she was wearing.”

“That was gracious of you,” Trissiny said in a carefully neutral tone.

Tellwyrn’s frown deepened. “She immediately went at her own throat with a letter opener. I put a stop to that, and teleported her to the nearest Omnist homeless shelter. Not until I’d made a production of it for the Imperial observers, though. It was quite the sadistic little speech. ‘Die by any means you wish, but you’ll do it among the rest of the lowborn nothings, where you belong.’ I can’t take credit, the line’s from a play I used to like which hasn’t been performed in about eight hundred years.”

“You look…oddly disquieted,” Trissiny observed. “That’s surprising. I thought you loved delivering fools their comeuppance.”

“I love it when I don’t have to deal with fools at all. Anything else is a grudging compromise.” Tellwyrn shook her head and put down the sandwich, her appetite apparently gone. “I won’t deny there’s a lot of satisfaction in hurling bombast in every direction until the people I want to leave me alone do so, tails between their legs and all. But… I don’t know, Trissiny. Deliberate, targeted, subtle viciousness just isn’t in my character. I could’ve reduced the old bat to atoms with a wave of my hand and that might have felt like a victory. The situation demanded that I hurt her, though. Right in the heart and spirit, in a way that no physical violence could have done. A way that’ll put the fear in the rest of her social class so none of them even thinks of trying such a thing again. Having looked in someone’s eyes at that moment… I suddenly find I don’t have a taste for it.”

“Hm.” Trissiny took a sip of her remaining tea, staring thoughtfully at the far wall now. “Professor Yornhaldt told me you once maimed and blinded a Huntsman of Shaath, and put him in the care of the Sisterhood. That sounds like highly targeted cruelty.”

“Oh, that.” Tellwyrn actually grinned. “Yeah, I threatened some idiot with that in front of Alaric once. Heh, I didn’t realize until just now I never got around to telling him that whole incident was a lie. I thought up the scenario while slogging through a swamp in a bad mood one day, back when I was roaming around the Deep Wild. Quite frankly, Trissiny, I find that anyone who deserves that kind of suffering isn’t worth going to the trouble of inflicting it on them. Or at least, that was my position until I had to start making accommodations with this subtle new century in which we live.” She shrugged, and sighed. “Best get used to it, I guess.”

“It’s not a fun lesson to absorb, is it?”

“I had a feeling you’d be sympathetic. It hasn’t escaped my notice that what I’m describing is thinking like an Eserite. If you’re going to scare the bastards into behaving, you have to make a truly chilling object lesson out of somebody.”

Slowly, Trissiny nodded. Her eyes were fixed on a point in the far distance, the cup hanging forgotten from her fingertips. “Not long ago, a very smart, very evil, not very sane person told me that we hurt people because some people need to be hurt. I…resent having to acknowledge how right she was.”

“Yeah. Well.” Tellwyrn held out a hand to one side, and a half-empty bottle of rum lifted off a nearby table, floating straight into her grasp. She raised it up to the morning light peeking through the hall’s upper windows. “Here’s to the age of progress. Fuck it and the horse it rode in on.”

Trissiny clinked her teacup against the bottle, and they both drank in silence.


The Punaji codes of war being what they were, the Rock did not have a proper dungeon. It did have a wing of “guest rooms” with barred windows, doors that only locked from the outside, and constant guard patrols in addition to domestic servants. It was a core tenet of the Punaji philosophy of life that if you deprived a person of their freedom, no matter how good the reason, you owed them all care and consideration, and that cruelty toward a defeated person in your power was the ultimate evil.

Confinement aside, Ayuvesh wasn’t finding his imprisonment arduous at all. True, his breakfast had been delivered through a slot in the door, but that was half an hour after a servant had politely asked him what he would like. The bed was comfortable, there was a shelf of books provided to relieve the tedium—all classics and raggedly secondhand chapbooks, but it was something—and there was even a painting on the wall. A cheap watercolor of a cliché pastoral scene, of course, though he was no art critic. The toilet was tucked in an alcove without a privacy door or even a curtain, but it was a toilet, which flushed and everything, and even came with a sink providing running water. He had never been in jail before, and was surprised at finding better than a bucket in the corner.

Not that his captors were soft, though. Even after just one night, he had heard the guards tromp past his door enough times to realize they did so at irregular intervals, preventing prisoners from memorizing their patrol patterns. Fortunately for him, he had no plans to escape. The King and Queen had shown themselves willing to extend consideration so long as they got it in return. He well understood that politics as well as basic sense prohibited them giving him the run of the palace. If it meant securing as much comfort and protection for his remaining followers as possible, some time spent locked in a room was a very light price to pay. Especially if, by working with the royals, he could help protect Puna Dara from its enemies, both seen and unseen.

Though caged, and marking time until the inevitable failure of his artificial limbs, he still had a mind, and a will, and that was all a person needed. The universe would bend, so long as he kept his mind strong enough.

Ayuvesh was pacing absently in front of his cell door when an odd shadow passed over the barred window. He turned to see what it could be; that window overlooked a side courtyard of the Rock. Surely no one would attempt to climb up…

“Catch!”

By pure reflex, he snagged the object tossed to him, even as the darkness receded. The shadow had not come from outside; someone had just shadow-jumped into his cell.

It was, of all things, an elf wearing an alarmingly wide grin and a neat, pinstriped suit.

The next thing Ayuvesh realized was that the thing he was holding was ticking softly in his hands. It consisted of a dwarven clockwork device, complete with a tiny watch face, linking two terrifyingly fragile-looking jars of softly glowing alchemical substances of different colors. Primitive indeed, compared with the Infinite Order’s nanite-built machinery, but he had been around enough mechanical construction in the last few years to tell how this worked at a glance: once the clock wound down to zero, the two potions would mix, and then…

He twisted this way and that, looking frantically for a place to throw the bomb. It wouldn’t fit through the cell bars. The toilet? No, not big enough, and even water might—

The combination of his distraction and elvish speed was enough to give the intruder the drop on him. The elf surged around behind Ayuvesh and with one adroit move, place the tip of a stiletto against his throat while rapping the bomb out of his grasp with its pommel. Ayuvesh’s breath seized in momentary terror, but the device landed safely upon his blessedly plush pillow.

At the tiniest exertion of pressure against the un-armored portion of his neck, right atop his vulnerable jugular, a drop of blood welled. That blade was viciously sharp. Out the corner of his good eye, he saw the elf’s other hand hold out a palm-sized metal object, like two twisted vines laid atop each other so that their thorns clicked together when they were turned. He had never seen a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman in person, but knew it by description.

The elf’s breath was hot against his one ear.

“Warmest regards from his Holiness the Archpope.”

The explosion, when it came, blasted the cell door clear across the hall.

 

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13 – 51

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The sun set on a city overtaken by festivity. The Punaji so loved a good storm under any circumstances that they were frequently followed by parties, but as soon as this one had faded, hundreds of citizens had descended upon the Rock, quite a few carrying weapons. Even Naphthene’s fury had not been enough to stop the spread of rumor, and it seemed widely known that the castle was under attack. The King himself had addressed the public quickly.

From there, a celebration was all but inevitable. It was a political move to solidify the Crown’s standing in the aftermath of having beaten an enemy, but also a very necessary release of tension which the city badly needed. Soon all of Puna Dara seemed to be partying, though the festivities were centered on the Rock, where the fortress doors had been opened and food and drink brought out into the courtyard. Cracked doors, lightning burns and broken masonry only served to accentuate the celebrant atmosphere; Punaji most enjoyed a party when it felt particularly earned.

The noise and hubbub served another purpose: it provided a distraction and cover in which the Rust could be carefully locked away. Ayuvesh continued to be cooperative and the rest of his people followed his lead; the King and Queen weren’t greatly concerned about them attempting to resist or break out. Rather, it was important for their sake that they be put out of the public eye and securely held, so they did not become the target of vigilantism. Not a small part of the relief spurring the city-wide festival night was due to the removal of the Rust from the streets. Some of its un-augmented members, those driven out of their dockside warehouse headquarters, remained unaccounted for, but a lot of the survivors of Milady’s rampage had been found and brought to the Rock, where it would be determined if they were to be charged with anything.

Of the Imperial spy herself, there was no sign. The royal scouts who investigated the warehouse did report very strange tracks left in the drying blood, which remained unexplained until Ruda happened to mention them to Schwartz.

“You brought a fucking sylph into my city?!” she exclaimed moments later.

“Aradeus is a friend,” he retorted, “perfectly trustworthy. And he was extremely helpful! If not for him bringing us up to speed on the situation here, I doubt we would have made it to the Rock in time to assist the defenders!” Meesie, as usual, squeaked agreement, nodding her tiny head from her perch on his shoulder.

“That’s true enough,” Trissiny added with a smile. “We’d probably still be out scouting. Of course, we didn’t realize when we ‘ported out here in such a hurry that you lot were on site.”

“Oh, sure, it’s only the most infamously dangerous kind of fairy there is, but hey, you’re a special kind of witch! You can keep it under control!”

“Every part of that is more wrong than the preceding,” Schwartz said irritably. To begin with, he had been somewhat overawed by Ruda, who despite standing a head and a half shorter than he tended to fill a room with her personality—not to mention that he’d never encountered royalty before. The effect had faded quickly once she started talking, and cursing. “First of all, sylphs are merely incredibly strong, nearly invulnerable and prone to violence.”

“Fucking merely!” she snorted.

“Which,” Schwartz continued doggedly, “doesn’t even place them in the top ten most dangerous fairy species. More importantly, you do not control a fairy, especially one like that. Aradeus, as I said, is a friend, and I have learned to trust both his judgment and composure. And oh, look, I was right! He helped, he left, and you wouldn’t even have noticed had I not told you he’d been here.”

“Boy, are you talking back to me?” Ruda demanded, folding her arms. “I’ll have you know I am the fucking Princess in this country.”

Behind her, Trissiny was busy ruining the effect with a broad grin.

“Yes, well,” Schwartz said stiffly, “I guess that explains why you so badly needed to be talked back to.”

Ruda narrowed her eyes to slits, and managed to keep that expression for almost five seconds before giving up and letting out a laugh. To Schwartz’s amazement and Meesie’s shrill annoyance, she punched him on the shoulder. “I like this one, Boots! We should take him back to school with us.”

“Ah…well, I’m afraid my secondary schooling is complete,” Schwartz said, a little bemused, “and Last Rock has no graduate program as yet. But I wouldn’t mind visiting, sometime. The things one hears about that place…”

“Aren’t the half of it, I guarantee.” Ruda glanced to the side, and sighed. “Aw, dammit, made eye contact with Mama. Scuze me, I’ve gotta go pretend to be a civilized person for a few minutes.”

She grabbed a random bottle from the nearest table while sauntering off toward her parents, tilting it up and taking a long swig.

“She’s making a good start on it,” Darius observed.

The Rock’s banquet hall was laid out with raised sections along both sides, reached by stairs and partially hidden behind colonnades, clearly designed to facilitate private conversation during large gatherings. Trissiny and her friends from Tiraas had quickly gathered there, being themselves in a much less festive frame of mind than the rest of the gathering. Singly and in small groups, her other classmates had come by to catch up. Ruda was the last, and by that point Tallie and the Sakhavenids seemed to be slightly in shock.

“So…” Tallie ventured after a moment, “what’s that Boots business?”

Trissiny gave her a deadpan look, lifting one eyebrow. “What boots?”

“Oh ho, so it’s something she doesn’t want to discuss.” Tallie grinned wickedly. “I wonder which of your adventure buddies I should shmooze to get the details? Hmm, I bet that Gabriel guy would fall for the ol’ fluttering eyelashes trick.”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Layla held up a finger. “Down, girl. Dibs, remember?”

“I will not hesitate to dunk your head in a sink until you drop that,” Darius informed her.

“So, you’re planning to visit Last Rock, now?” Principia said casually, strolling up to them from the banquet floor below. “I only caught the tail end of that conversation.”

“You can hear every conversation in the room,” Trissiny stated flatly. “And now that we know which one you were listening to, I have the funniest feeling you could quote the entire thing back to us from beginning to end.”

“Rapid memorization is a neat parlor trick,” the elf said with an unabashed grin. “But sorry, I’m a little rusty. It’s been a good few years since I actually attended a party. Shame, too, the Punaji throw a good one. So! You two still getting along well, I see,” she said casually, lounging against a pillar and glancing from Schwartz to Trissiny. The position she had chosen placed her shoulder to the others, at whom she had not even glanced.

Darius cleared his throat. “We’re here, too!”

“Well, I’d like to think I’m a useful sort of person to know,” Schwartz said, frowning at Meesie, who was cheeping in inexplicable excitement. “So are the apprentices, here—all of them. Besides, when you’ve been through something hairy with someone, it tends to form a bond.”

“Oh, I am well aware of that,” Principia said, her tone suddenly very dry, and turned to the others. “So tell me! Have you lot noticed any sparks flying between these two?”

“Excuse me?!” Trissiny barked. Tallie burst out laughing so hard she had to slump against the wall.

“Uh, no,” Darius said primly. “Come on, she’s like my brother and Schwartz here is pretty much the living incarnation of a book. I think it would make me physically ill to picture that.”

“Now, see here!” Schwartz exclaimed, while Meesie laughed so hard she had to grab his ear to avoid tumbling off his shoulder. It somewhat spoiled the indignant pose he was trying to put on. “This ‘Aunt Principia’ thing you’ve been trying out with me is wearing a little thin! Just because you knew my father does not give you the right to meddle in my personal business! Besides, as you well know, I’m already—”

He broke off, blushing. Tallie, whose laughter was just beginning to settle down, was set off again and this time Darius had to catch her. Layla, uncharacteristically quiet, was studying the rest of them with her eyes slightly narrowed.

“How did you know his father?” Trissiny asked. “Was he involved in Guild business, too?”

“No, nothing like that,” Principia replied lightly. “Anton was a skilled enchanter who had a prairie boy’s disregard for other people’s rules. I met him looking for someone to do some barely-legal charm work that was beyond my skill, and kept him in my address book for more after that worked out so well. Got to where he’d accompany me on a little adventure now and again. This was long after ‘adventuring’ was a respectable pastime, so we didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was. Also, he was your father.”

Total silence descended on their alcove like a hammer. Tallie’s lingering chuckles were cut off and she stared at the elf; only Layla didn’t look visibly shocked, nodding slowly with a thoughtful expression. Schwartz and Trissiny gaped at Principia, then at each other.

Meesie gathered herself, then leaped from Schwartz’s shoulder to Trissiny’s, where she reached up to pat her cheek, squeaking affectionately.

“Funny how things work out,” Principia mused, now wearing a little smile.

“Funny,” Trissiny choked.

“Funny ironic, not funny amusing. I spent the longest damn time puzzling out how to tell you that. I even went out to visit Hershel’s mom, see what she said.”

“You did what?!” Schwartz screeched.

“And after all that,” Principia said with a sigh, “here it is, just dropped into the conversation like a wet fish. But hell, I do know what tends to happen when two attractive young people go through a few life-or-death situations together, and that needed to be nipped in the bud.”

“There was nothing to nip!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“And now there won’t be,” Principia said placidly. “Back in the day, adventurers were an oddly interrelated but private group; you’d see the same dozen or so people over and over again, go through hell and back shoulder to shoulder with them, and then go your separate ways without really learning anything about their lives. And it was like that for enough generations that various people’s kids would run into each other… Well, I’ve actually seen long-lost siblings accidentally hook up more than once. That kind of misunderstanding is only funny when it happens to people I don’t care about.”

“Every time we have a conversation,” Trissiny stated, “I feel like I gain a little more appreciation for you, and a lot more for the woman who actually raised me.”

Principia grinned. “Well, I’ll take what I can get.”

“Yes, that’s the story of your life, isn’t it?”

“I’m already nostalgic for this morning,” Darius said, “when the paladin thing was the big shock. Gods, what is it with you? Paladin in two cults, related to elves and bloody dragons, friend of royalty, and now you’ve even got a mysterious orphan brother. Knowing you is like being in a fuckin’ opera. How long are we gonna be peeling this onion?”

Trissiny heaved a sigh. “I wish I knew. Two years ago, I was an orphan. It was much simpler.”

“Well, that’s a hell of a thing to say right in front of your mom,” a man remarked, strolling up to them and casually rolling a coin across the backs of his fingers. “Hey there, Prin. Heck of a party, isn’t it?”

“Uh, hi,” Principia said, straightening up. “Wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

Her face showed clear surprise and uncertainty, an unfamiliar expression on her given how she avoided revealing weakness. The others glanced between her and the new arrival uncertainly; she wasn’t alarmed, clearly, just startled.

“Nobody ever expects to see me!” he said grandly, tossing the doubloon back and forth between his hands. “That’s rather the point, don’cha think?” He was, like many members of the Guild, a very unremarkable person, dressed in slightly shabby clothes, with long features, shaggy hair, and a complexion that hovered somewhere between Tiraan and Punaji.

“This was a private conversation until very recently,” Layla observed. “Lieutenant Locke, would you care to introduce us to your acquaintance?”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” he said with an amused grin, “how’s about you make the introductions? And then you kids can just follow me. Strictly speaking I only need her Paladinship, here, but I bet the rest of you will wanna come along.”

“Come along to fucking where?” Darius demanded. “Who is this clown?”

Principia cleared her throat. “Hey, keep it in your pants, kid. This is the Big Guy.”

There was a beat of silence, broken by Schwartz drawing in a deep, sudden breath.

“Wait, wait,” Tallie protested. “I must be remembering wrong. I thought Big Guy was what they called the god.”

“They do it because I hate the term ‘god,’” he confided, winking. “It’s one of those words that just encourages people to place too much stock in it and not do for themselves. That is not how I want you lot carrying on, see?”

“Yes, Tallie, you’re correct,” Principia said warily. “Big Guy is what they call the god. And stop making faces at me,” she added in annoyance to the divine subject of her faith. “You also don’t like people to pussyfoot around and not call things what they are.”

“Ehh…except in certain circumstances, but fine, I’ll grant you that,” Eserion replied cheerfully. “Now come along, kids! We don’t wanna be late. It’s rude to keep people waiting, don’cha know.”


They followed him through the corridors of the Rock in awed silence, a marked contrast to the god himself, who chattered on amiably at the head of the group. Principia strolled at his side, seemingly un-intimidated and bantering right back. Periodically they would pass soldiers or castle servants, but aside from a few curious looks, no one troubled them. Eserion’s outfit was as scruffy and out of place as the three apprentices’, and Schwartz as always drew stares in his Salyrite robe with a ratlike fire elemental on his shoulder, but it seemed Trissiny and Principia in uniform lent the group enough credibility to pass unchallenged.

The general course they took led upward and in, and through corridors that grew increasingly rich the longer they went on; the Rock was a militaristic fortress through and through, not given to excess or indulgence, but the farther they walked, the more frequent tapestries, carpets, and ornamental touches became. Finally, Eserion brought them to a wide door in the center of a currently unoccupied hallway, threw it open with a grand gesture, and swaggered inside. The rest followed with a bit more circumspection.

It was a bedroom—a very large and rather lavishly appointed one, whose décor ran heavily to old flags and weapons. The group barely glanced around at it, though, being more focused on the people waiting for them.

Style was pacing up and down with even more than customary annoyance; on their arrival, she turned to face the door, folding her brawny arms and glaring. Boss Tricks was busy rifling through a chest of drawers and scarcely glanced up at them. Bishop Darling stood near the foot of the huge four-poster bed, juggling three brass wine goblets. Empty ones, fortunately.

“Uhh…” Darius leaned around Trissiny to stare. “Is this one of those things where I’m supposed to ask the obvious questions to move this along, or is it a ‘shut up and listen’ kind of thing?”

“Lemme see if I can guess the first two!” Darling said airily while Eserion shut the chamber door behind them. “This is the personal bedroom of the King and Queen, and we are here for the same reason all of you are: because the Big Guy felt our presence was important.”

“Yeah,” Style snorted, “because none of us have any fucking thing important to be doing right now!”

“Oh, un-clench ’em for half a second if you can manage, Style,” said the Boss, pulling out something crimson and silken from a drawer. “This is the only vacation we’ve had in years. Why, Anjal, you saucy vixen!”

“You cut that shit out immediately,” Style barked, crossing the room in two strides and smacking him upside the head with nearly enough force to bowl him over. “If you’re gonna steal, steal—otherwise, keep your greasy little fingers out of a woman’s underwear drawer. That is creepy as fuck, Tricks.”

“Gotta side with her on this one, Boss,” Sweet added. “And not just because I’m more scared of her than you.”

“All of you, put that crap back where you found it,” Eserion said. “You, too, Sweet. Anjal and Rajakhan are good sorts, the kind of leaders we should encourage, not punish.”

“Excuse me?” Layla raised a hand. “What, if I may ask, are we doing in here, then?”

“It’s tradition!” Eserion proclaimed, turning to her with a broad smile. “This ceremony is always held in illicit quarters. There’s not much in the way of sacred ground for the Guild; we perform this rite someplace illegally broken into.”

“Uhh…rite?” Tallie hadn’t stopped peering around since she’d come in. “What rite?”

“A graduation ceremony,” Principia said softly.

“Indeed!” Tricks said, still rubbing his head as he ambled over to join them. “For obvious reasons, it’s usually just the apprentice and trainer—but hell, this is a special circumstance. I guess the Big Guy figured it was an appropriate occasion to make an exception and bring family and friends.”

He nodded across the room, and they turned to behold a fourth person waiting, a tall woman in an Imperial Army uniform with no insignia. Despite her imposing height and figure, she was surprisingly unobtrusive, standing still in a shadowed corner and observing without comment.

“Who’s that?” Darius stage whispered to Tallie, who shrugged.

Trissiny and Principia both came to attention, but the woman shook her head at them and raised a hand. “At ease.”

“So…graduation?” Layla asked, turning back to the Boss.

“Indeed! The question is…for whom?” He grinned at them and perched on the edge of a dresser. “Here’s where we stand. You kids have been around for about the length of time and learned about the level of skill we mandate for apprentices. Somebody who hasn’t picked up a permanent sponsor for more in-depth training at that point is usually required to either join the Guild as a full member, or leave the apprentice program. Style says your progress is such that if you want to be tagged and join up, we’ll allow it today. But! I’m sorta giving away the surprise, here, but while we were putting our own house back in order after you lot poofed off to Puna Dara, Glory announced her intention to take you on as apprentices, if you were all willing.”

“Wh—all of us?” Tallie demanded, blinking. “But she’s got an apprentice. Hell, Rasha’s a perfect match for Glory. I dunno what the hell she’d want with any of us.”

“It’s not traditional,” Tricks agreed. “And that tradition does exist for a reason: a single apprentice gets more focused attention and a better education. Glory’s argument, though, was that you lot are good kids and good prospects for the Guild, and the reason you haven’t been picked by anyone is politics not your fault and beyond your control. I happen to think she’s right on all points, there. And besides.” He winked, grinning. “If there is one thing we are not, it’s excessively bound by rules.”

“Not totally unprecedented, anyway,” Style grunted. “Especially with this one, recently.”

Sweet did not quail under her stare, but shrugged. “Hey, my girls come as a set. I don’t think I’d have had the heart to split ’em up, even if I thought that was remotely possible.”

“That leaves us another case, though,” said Eserion, his expression finally serious. “Our girl Trissiny isn’t fated for a long apprenticeship with a full Guild member. And after the events of today, putting her back in with the general pool of apprentices is…probably not the best idea. So that brings us to this crossroads. Style, you are the closest thing she’s had to a trainer, in your capacity as overseer of the general apprentices. It’s up to you to decide if she’s ready.”

Style stepped forward, eyes fixed on Trissiny and her expression unreadable. The rest of the group instinctively shuffled away, clearing a space for them to regard one another. Principia stepped over to stand next to Sweet, gazing at Trissiny with the intensity of someone barely controlling a strong emotion.

“I’ve had to fill this role for a lot of prospects, over the years,” Style said. “Mostly little fuckheads who couldn’t cut it with a real sponsor. There’s always a reason; we’ve had a few I just barely considered worth keeping in the Guild, but also some who were just plain unlucky, like you little bastards. Shit happens; some folks just don’t get a fair shake. This…is one of the second kind.” Eyes still locked on Trissiny, she nodded slowly, and folded her arms. “Her skills aren’t great, but she’s always impressed me with her eagerness to learn more. A good thief never lets up on that; practice doesn’t end when your apprenticeship does, that’s when it gets started in earnest. No, the only question was always her attitude. I understand she came to us specifically in search of our mindset, our philosophy. It takes some good self-awareness to realize you need that kind of change, but even so, I spent a while doubting she was ever gonna get that through her head.”

She paused, narrowed her eyes for a moment, and then, incongruously, grinned.

“But fuck me if she didn’t manage it. What’d you learn, girl?”

“Don’t call me ‘girl,’ you big ape,” Trissiny shot back immediately, earning a round of grins and chuckles from the senior Eserites present, including the one she’d just insulted. “I’ve learned a lot… But if you’re asking about the big questions, mostly the skill of watching, planning, thinking. Acting through maneuver instead of force. Supposedly I learned that lesson growing up; the Sisterhood takes it as an aphorism that war is deception. All conflict demands strategy.” She glanced aside at the uniformed woman, who just nodded in encouragement. “The Guild made it real to me, though. And…that’s given me perspective, too. At first I thought I’d come here to learn a new way of thinking, but really, what I needed was to truly grasp the way I always should have been. I was brought up to think the Guild and the Sisterhood were at cross purposes, but I’ve come to understand how very alike their aims are. And these differing ideas about how to reach those aims aren’t an accident. Both orders have their blind spots. It’s inevitable; there’s just no escaping that.” She paused, then smiled. “All systems are corrupt. And that’s why we have a goddess of war and a god of thieves in the same Pantheon; so we can watch each other’s backs. Society needs justice, and sometimes, justice needs help from the shadows, because where there’s a system, there’ll be someone who’s found a way to exploit it.”

Style nodded, her eyes glinting. “Yeah, you’ve done fine, kid. Now, there’s no litany or ritual, here. Almost all of the Guild’s actual rituals are performative—things we do to remind everybody else that we’re here, that we’re watching, and that they’d better not fuck up around us. This, here, is about you; nobody benefits from either trainer or apprentice reciting lines memorized by rote. You have to understand who and what we are as Eserites, and you have to express that understanding in a way that’s true to your own identity. As your trainer, I judge you ready—or ready enough. Are you ready to swear your oath to Eserion and his Guild?”

Trissiny nodded deeply. “Whatever happens here, even if you’d decided to throw me out, I plan to live my life fighting of what the Guild and the Sisterhood believe.”

“Good. And what do you swear?”

She straightened up, resting her left hand on the pommel of her sword. “To fight whoever needs fighting, to protect whoever needs protecting. To uphold the spirit of justice, but to recognize that laws don’t have all the answers. To watch closely, and think carefully, and do my best to act in the right way to achieve the results I need. I have already sworn to oppose corruption and evil in all its forms as a soldier. I’ll promise you, now, to always remember that I am an enforcer. That standing against the darkness isn’t always enough; sometimes, you have to make sure the darkness is too afraid to make the first move. That, I will swear. The darkness will fear me.”

Style tilted her head up, regarding Trissiny down her long, twice-broken nose. One corner of her mouth twitched slightly in the ghost of a lopsided smile. “Eh… It’ll do.”

Principia lost the battle, letting a huge grin of fierce pride spread across her face.

“What’s her tag, Style?” Eserion asked.

Style studied the paladin thoughtfully for a long moment before speaking. “Kid, you have been an unrelenting thorn in my ass from the moment you marched into my Guild. Until you have to be responsible for a whole organization I don’t think you’ll ever realize how truly obnoxious that is, having somebody underfoot who just never fucking stops. I’ll admit, there were times I was strongly tempted to try and beat that out of you. But that stubborn, irritating persistence isn’t a flaw—it only looked like one because you had some stupid ideas cluttering up your brain. We’ve made a start on fixing that, enough that I’ve come to trust you’ll still work to keep fixing it. And meanwhile, I trust that you’ll keep doing what I saw you do today: never fucking stop. You won’t win all your battles, and no matter how much power you’ve got to swing around, there’ll always be someone you just cannot take down. But what I know is that you won’t be walked over. Every son of a bitch who tries to stomp on you is gonna hurt for it, and hurt every moment that you’re digging at them. That’s what I expect from you, Trissiny: win or lose, you will never let the bastards forget you’re there, or walk away without paying.”

She paused, then nodded deeply and intoned in a suddenly sonorous voice. “Kneel, Trissiny Avelea.”

“What?” Trissiny frowned. “Kneeling doesn’t sound like—oh, screw you, Style.”

Sweet let out a delighted cackle; Principia’s grin widened to the point that it looked painful.

Style just smirked. “You’d be surprised how many fall for that. Ah, well, I guess it was too much to hope for. Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild in truth, Thorn.”

Trissiny pursed her lips. “…I am never going to be able to escape thinking of you talking about your ass, now.”

“Remember, this is your very identity we’re talking about,” Eserion said. “Your trainer plays an important role in this, but them picking your tag is a tradition, not a law. If you really hate it, you’re entitled to decide how you’ll be tagged.”

“No.” Trissiny nodded at Style, her mouth twisting up in a slight, sardonic expression. “No, you know what? I like it. Thorn. Yeah, I think that suits me just fine.”

 

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