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Toby opened his eyes slowly, beholding the relative calm of the afternoon on the campus lawn. As usual, he’d been left alone to meditate. He liked doing so outdoors, under the sun, and over the last year the other students had learned to leave him be.

It usually brought him more calm.

With a sigh he stood up from his seat beneath the oak tree, the same one Professor Ezzaniel had ordered Gabriel to punch almost exactly a year ago. They had all been new to the campus and its peculiar rules and customs, all out of place, nervous, tense… Which was preferable to how he felt now.

“Funny, that looked like it should have been more relaxing. Something on your mind?”

Toby actually jumped very slightly at being addressed, but immediately mastered himself, turning to study the speaker.

He was an elf, and seemed familiar, though Toby could not recall having met him. The elves on campus were a mixed lot; this one had upright ears, marking him a wood elf, and wore Tiraan-style shirt and trousers with sturdy boots.

“Oh, just…this and that,” he said evasively, trying to clear the frown from his expression. “I’m sorry, I could swear I’ve seen you before but I can’t recall your name now.”

“You saw me briefly,” the elf said with a grin, stepping forward and extending his hand. “I was with a few of the other freshmen, coming from class.”

“Oh! That’s right!” Toby grasped his hand in return, smiling. “And now I remember, you were pulled away before we could speak. Another wood elf…a friend of yours?”

He winced. “Ah. Well. Addiwyn seemed to latch onto the idea that since we are both of the same race, and both somewhat ostracized from our kin, we should be the best of friends and perhaps more. Unfortunately, I do believe that girl is the single most unpleasant person I have ever met.”

“Ouch,” Toby said, grimacing sympathetically.

His new acquaintance grinned, a slightly lopsided expression that promised mischief. “I’m Raolo. Glad to know you.”

“Toby, and likewise.”

“But of course, you are the great and inimitable Tobias Caine!”

Now it was his turn to wince. “Ah, well… I think ‘great’ is really pushing it.”

“Well, how many paladins are there in the world, after all? Wait, don’t answer that, I know this one.” Raolo grinned. “Three. There are exactly three.”

“Yes, but I’m the most senior by at least two weeks,” he said solemnly. “That makes me the most boring.”

Raolo laughed brightly. “Well, I can’t argue with that logic. Guess I’ll just have to make do with you until I can work my way up to a more interesting paladin. If you’re so dull, though, why so gloomy? It takes some imagination to really suffer, I think.”

“That’s…oddly profound,” Toby mused.

“Something one of the Elders used to say. Which means, I suppose, I really ought to leave it back in the grove…” For a moment, Raolo frowned himself, glancing aside. “New place, new rules, and all that.”

“It’s certainly been an adjustment, getting my bearings in this place,” Toby said, glancing around the lawn. “It doesn’t help that Professor Tellwyrn’s idea of education is to keep everyone as off-kilter and nervous as possible at all times.”

“Should I be frightened?” the elf asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Yes,” Toby nodded solemnly. “Yes, you should. For what it’s worth, she makes a pretty solid effort not to get anybody killed.”

“Well…damn.”

“I have to admit I find myself nostalgic for the peace and quiet of the monastery on a regular basis.”

A shadow passed over Raolo’s face. “Ah, well… I don’t really have that problem. Getting almost killed should at least let me practice my skills a bit. Uh, forget a said that.” He grimaced, glancing away. “I seem to keep dragging up my problems in every conversation since I got here. You don’t need to hear about it.”

Toby shrugged, keeping his expression open and calm. “I don’t need to, no, and you certainly have no obligation to tell anybody your business. But if you keep finding yourself doing so, maybe it’s a sign you want to talk about it?”

Raolo looked uncomfortable. “Well…no shit. I mean… Dang, I’m sorry, that came out a lot harsher than I intended. Never mind, it’s just that I’m trying to find my footing here without making a pest of myself.”

“Admirable,” Toby said, nodding. “I’ll tell you what, though; as the Hand of a peacemaking god, there’s not much that’s more central to my calling than listening to other people’s problems. You ever feel the need to unburden yourself, look me up.”

At that, a slightly amused expression flitted across the elf’s face. “Do you offer therapy to everyone you meet?”

“…huh,” Toby said after a moment spent staring into space. “You know, now that you mention it, I more or less do. Wow, that must be kind of annoying for people, right?”

Raolo laughed again. “Well, it’s one way to make friends. How’s it work for you?”

“Eh… Well, you remember Ruda?”

“Ah, yes, the Punaji princess! Don’t tell me, let me guess. She punched you.”

Toby valiantly tried to repress a grin. “In my defense, not for that.”


 

There came a short, sharp rap on the door, and then it swung inward and Afritia leaned into the room, wearing a slight frown.

“Maureen,” she said, “could you come here for a moment, please?”

“Sure!” Maureen set aside her textbook and hopped down from her bed. “What’s up?”

“Follow me,” Afritia replied, ducking back out. The gnome trundled after her without further comment. Szith, Iris, and Ravana exchanged a look, then rose in unison and followed them.

The cause of the house mother’s concern was apparent as soon as they stepped into the stairwell, from the broken fragments of metal lying on the stone floor, though the frame of steel pipes comprising Maureen’s package-delivering apparatus remained intact and secured to the bannister down here. The gnome heaved a small sigh, but said nothing, following Afritia up the stairs. The house mother glanced back at them, her lips twisting wryly at the sight of the rest of the dorm trailing along behind, but did not rebuke them.

At the top, the damage was much more severe. A whole segment of the framework was in shambles, all but severed and ripped free of its moorings, pipes twisted and broken in a few places. Oddly enough, the bell rope connecting the door to their room had been left untouched.

The entire area was splattered with purple ink. It made a couple of sprays on the stone wall and practically soaked the stairs themselves. A few purple footprints were visible heading down, but they trailed off after several steps.

“When I said you could build this,” Afritia said archly, “it honestly didn’t occur to me to stipulate that it should not be filled with paint and explosives.”

“There were no explosives!” Maureen exclaimed. “C’mon, what would be th‘point o’ that? I’m not an idiot!”

Afritia shook her head. “Look at this, Maureen. Whatever this stuff is, it didn’t just leak out. It’s sprayed everywhere. What part of a simple metal framework should have had any components that would do this? And for that matter, what is this stuff, and why was it necessary?”

Maureen cleared her throat and shuffled her feet slightly. “It, ah, wasn’t strictly necessary for the function of the device, ma’am.”

Afritia raised an eyebrow.

“It’s a simple alchemical dye,” Ravana said smoothly. “Professor Rafe provided it. He also gave us a solvent which will remove it from any surface without causing further damage.”

The house mother grimaced. “Rafe. I should have known. How, exactly, did you convince him to give you this stuff? I’m fairly certain that whatever this is, it belongs on the list of substances students aren’t to be issued outside of class.”

Ravana smiled. “We told him it was for a prank. He handed over several bottles, and gave us extra credit in both of his classes.”

“That imbecile,” Afritia growled, rolling her eyes.

“An’ there were no explosives, see?” Maureen said, holding up a broken piece of pipe. The interior was entirely stained purple. “The innards, ‘ere, were just pressurized. Break ’em open an’ the ink sprays out. Simple. Just takes a li’l equipment an’ some extra elbow grease! Nothin’ dangerous.”

Szith took the pipe from her and held it up to the light. “This was severed with a bladed implement. An axe, I believe—see how this side is heavily dented, right at the cut? It was struck with significant force.” She turned slowly, pointing. “Considering how quickly this dries, whoever left those footprints was obviously here right when the spray occurred. And look at this spray pattern on the wall. It’s a single, wide splatter, with an interruption in the middle. Considering the positioning involved, I would say that break is perfectly sized to have been a person standing right in the spray.”

“Just as a point of edification,” Ravana said sweetly, “Professor Rafe assured us this dye would adhere to skin and hair as perfectly as anything else. We’ll just go get the solvent and get to work cleaning this up, shall we?”

Afritia stared at them in silence for a long moment, then looked away to the side, not quite succeeding in suppressing a smile. “Yes…you do that, girls. And later, if you’re asked, you be sure to tell Professor Tellwyrn I lectured you in a very stern voice about pranks and vigilantism in general. For now, excuse me.”

She didn’t turn to look as they all followed her back down the stairs. Afritia walked more quickly this time, heading straight into their room and toward the extra door at the back. The others clustered around Ravana’s bed as she opened her trunk and began extracting and handing out vials of an effervescent transparent liquid, but none made any pretense they were not watching the house mother.

Afritia rapped sharply on the door. “Addiwyn, come out here, please.”

“I’m not feeling well,” came a muffled voice from within. “Can this wait till later?”

Iris grinned with savage glee.

“Now.”

“I said I don’t feel well.” Addiwyn’s petulance was audible even through the wood.

“Young lady, I am offering you a chance to grasp at some dignity which I suspect will be sorely needed. If you are not out here in a count of five I will come in and get you.”

There came a muted thump, then a moment of silence, then finally the door opened a crack.

Afritia grabbed the knob and pushed it all the way inward. Addiwyn skittered back, but not in time to conceal the purple streak splashed across her face and soaked into her golden hair. She had at least changed her clothes; only her person was marked.

“Addy, honey, you don’t look so good,” Iris said, still grinning. The elf gave her a murderous stare.

“Oh, yes, laugh it up,” she sneered. “I’m sure it’s great fun to booby-trap the stairwell. It would serve you right if it was a visiting professor caught in your little trap—”

“That’s bollocks and you know it!” Maureen shouted, brandishing the broken length of pipe, which she had retrieved from Szith. “Look at this! Look at it! The purple stuff was fully contained inside—nobody would ever have known it was there unless somebody deliberately took an axe to the thing!”

“Well, that’s interesting,” Addiwyn said, folding her arms. Her smirk looked purely ridiculous with half her face painted purple. “You know your accent completely vanishes when you’re angry?”

“Enough,” Afritia said quietly. “Girls, you have cleaning up to do. Save some of that solvent for her to use later. You, miss, will come with me.”

“Oh, great,” Addiwyn sneered. “Another very fascinating conversation. Can I bring a book this time?”

“You’ll find I have limited patience for wasting my time on hopeless causes,” Afritia said flatly. “You declined to listen to me, so now you get to have a talk with Professor Tellwyrn.”


 

“So, no, attending the University isn’t exactly a point of pride in the grove,” Raolo said, leaning against the stone balustrade separating them from the one-story drop to the lower terrace. “Not in any grove, I would imagine. In mine, at least, it’s not exactly a mark of shame, but heck… That would be pretty redundant in my case, anyway.”

“Wow,” Toby said, leaning beside him. “That sounds… Well, honestly, rather hard to believe. It sounds like you’re quite good at magic.”

“I may have exaggerated my gift a little bit,” the elf confessed, grinning at him. “I’m very egotistical, I’m told. But, well, it’s the wrong kind of magic. Tradition is a huge concern to elves, considering most of our communities have people still alive who remember why the traditions were founded.” He idly held out one hand, palm up, and produced a small cloud of blue sparks, which began to dance in intricate patterns in the air.

“I don’t want to tread on any sensitive cultural taboos or anything,” Toby said with a frown, “but I have to ask… Why are elves so opposed to the arcane? I think Professor Tellwyrn is the only other elven mage I’ve even heard of, and I’ve seen hints that other elves don’t think terribly highly of her, either.”

“It’s because it’s too easy,” Raolo said, closing his fist and cutting off the display of sparks. He straightened up and turned to Toby. “This is another thing we don’t like to discuss with humans, but the hell with it. Do you know anything of how elvish metabolism works?”

“I didn’t realize it works any differently than ours,” Toby admitted.

Raolo grinned. “We don’t process energy with our squishy internal bits like you do—it’s all in the aura. Everything we take in, food, sunlight, air, every source of energy, goes right to the aura. Elves don’t generally eat with any regularity; we tend to have large quantities at wide intervals. In fact, an elf with a highly charged aura can hold their breath basically forever. Don’t need air when we can recharge the blood straight from our personal energy stock.”

Toby blinked. “Wow.”

“So, related to that, we have a much higher capacity for storing energy than other intelligent races. Shamanism, now, is all about connection. You grow in power as a shaman by forming relationships with fairies, gathering totems and objects of power…all paths that root you in the world. It’s all very much in line with the elven perspective on our role in nature. The arcane, though… You gain power in the arcane by increasing your capacity to store power. Elves start out with a large advantage, there. Almost any elf has the arcane storage capacity of a professional wizard, even if they don’t know how to use such power should they try to gather it.” He shrugged.

“Why don’t the drow have mages, then?” Toby asked curiously. “I can’t see them turning down a source of power, but I’ve never actually heard of a drow wizard.”

“That’s just their genetic peculiarity,” Raolo said, “like how dwarves can use divine magic on their own, but no other races can, or how gnomes are the only sentient race that can’t interbreed with the others. Who knows why? Drow just don’t generally have the ability to grasp the arcane. Actually a few do, a handful every generation. I understand they’re basically treated like royalty down there.”

“I’ll bet,” Toby mused.

“There are old legends—old even as we reckon time—about the first origins of the arcane and why it shouldn’t be messed with, but that aside, it’s seen as cheating. As laziness, selfishness, and hunger for power. You start dabbling in the arcane, and you’ve basically declared your intention to go tauhanwe, at the very least.”

“But you did,” Toby said quietly.

Raolo sighed. “It’s just that… I’m good at it. It feels as natural, to me, as breathing. It’s a part of who I am. After growing up with lectures on the nature of being, I just can’t see how it’s fair to expect me not to be who and what I am. Y’know?”

“I think I do,” he said, nodding slowly.

The elf grinned again, his dour expression of a moment ago evaporating in an instant. “Well! I bet you’re good at empathizing with other people’s problems, after all. You are clearly a people-pleaser.”

“Now, what makes you think that?” Toby asked, amused. “Almost the whole time we’ve been talking, we talked about you.”

“And that is why,” Raolo said, prodding him in the chest with a finger. “I came upon you looking all tense and broody, despite being right out of a meditation. But a few minutes listening to someone else blather on about his problems, and you’re the very portrait of serenity! Simple deduction.”

“Well, I guess you’re pretty perceptive, then,” Toby said, now fighting a smile.

“Don’t feel bad, I also ensnared you in my trap,” the elf replied with a bow. “I am very clever. So let me ask you, Toby the Paladin, what would you do if you came upon somebody looking as glum as you were earlier? How do you fix that?”

“People are not for fixing,” Toby said, frowning. “Most aren’t truly broken. Everyone just needs a little bit of a boost, now and again, to sort themselves out.”

“Okay, well, the question stands. Put yourself outside yourself. You don’t know this Toby guy, but he’s clearly got a good, solid glum worked up. What’s your approach?”

Toby sighed, turning his head to stare out over the campus. “You can’t make somebody talk to you, any more than you can make somebody better. I guess… I’d just offer to listen.”

“Check,” said Raolo, leaning sideways against the stone rail and keeping his eyes on Toby. “Doesn’t seem to me like he wants to talk, though.”

“Sometimes people don’t,” Toby said with an irritable shrug. “Then you leave them alone.”

“Even when they clearly need to?”

“Yes. Even then. Besides, a lot of people have trouble opening up to people they don’t know.”

“And what about people they do?”

He sighed. “Well, there’s… I mean, yeah, if they…”

Toby trailed off, staring into space.

“I’ve got a feeling some of those people have noticed already,” Raolo said in a more gentle tone. “Bet they’d be glad to be supportive of you for once. I don’t need to know your history to conclude you’re the only who usually plays that role.”

“You know what?” Toby said, staring into space. “I’m an idiot.”

“I’m sure you are,” the elf said gravely, then winked when Toby turned to scowl at him. “But don’t take it to heart. We all are, at one point or another.”


 

“So that much is cleared up,” Ravana said lightly. “I think we all assumed it was Addiwyn behind these attacks, but it’s pleasing to have confirmation. Now we can decide what to do about it.”

“Need we do anything?” Szith asked pointedly. “She is being reprimanded by the University’s highest authority as we speak. The matter is being dealt with.”

“To assume that matters are simply dealt with is to confer imaginary and impossible powers upon authority figures,” Ravana replied. “One must consider the nature of the crimes and the person responsible. Were Addiwyn responsive to reprimand, she would likely have at least slowed her pattern after being lectured by Afritia. In reality, though, she proceeded immediately to her next attack. More to the point, we may be dealing with an individual suffering from a severe personality disturbance. It may be that even Tellwyrn can’t bring her to heel.”

Despite her dainty frame and uncalloused fingers, the young Duchess was working vigorously alongside the rest of them without complaint. Truthfully, it wasn’t onerous labor. The solvent had a pleasantly mild but antiseptic scent, and the purple dye dissolved apparently into nothing under its touch. They had simply to damp their rags with it and apply them to stained areas. By far the most difficult part of the job was making sure they didn’t miss any spots.

“The cause of Addiwyn’s behavior is an immediate concern,” Ravana continued, frowning pensively at the bannister she was currently scrubbing. “Her actions were at once absurdly juvenile and frighteningly cruel, and the context in which they occurred defies my understanding. Not knowing what motivates her, I cannot guess what she will do next. This leaves me quite unsettled.”

“She’s a bully,” Iris snorted from a few feet above, where she was on her knees, scrubbing dye off the steps. “Simple as that.”

Ravana shook her head without lifting her own eyes from her task. “Bullying occurs for specific reasons, according to specific patterns. It is, ultimately, about power. A bully will consistently place her victims in weaker positions, using her actions to emphasize how much lesser they are in power than she. That is the entire point. Addiwyn, though, might as well have been deliberately knitting us into a united front against her. She never tried to exercise any leverage or build a power base. It was just…lashing out, without pattern. Not consistent with any bullying I’ve ever seen. She would have tried to control the situation somehow.”

“So she’s a stupid bully,” Iris said disparagingly.

“Somehow, I doubt there are any stupid people of any kind admitted to this University,” Maureen noted.

“Having discarded that idea,” Ravana went on, “I considered the possibility that she might be anth’auwa.”

Szith stopped scrubbing the wall and half-turned to give her a sharp look.

“Uh, sorry?” Iris said, also looking up. “What’s that in Tanglish?”

“Unfortunately,” Ravana said ruefully, “it’s nothing in Tanglish. Human scholarship is lamentably behind the elder races in categorizing mental illness. The elvish word I just used literally means heartless. The dwarven scholars call it ‘social pathology.’ It refers to an aberrant personality which lacks any empathy or ability to connect emotionally with others.”

Iris snorted again, turning back to her work. “That sounds about right to me.” Szith slowly followed suit, a faint frown creasing her brow.

Ravana sighed softly, still wearing her own thoughtful little frown, though she straightened up and flexed her back as she continued speaking. “I am not ready to definitively rule it out, but… No, that, too, falls apart upon closer inspection. I have known several such individuals. The nobility, ever eager to conform to stereotype, tends to produce them at a higher rate than the general population.” She bent back to her scrubbing, continuing to speak. “At issue is that this is a severe personality disturbance. The primary concern of anth’auwa is always to hide what they are. They make a consistent effort to imitate normal social behavior; you have to catch them when they aren’t being careful to see the truth. Addiwyn has done precisely the opposite: she is surly and disagreeable whenever interacting with anyone, but at other times appears quite calm, even happy.”

“When have you seen her calm or happy?” Iris demanded, looking up from her task to stare incredulously at Ravana.

“She is hostile, erratic and probably emotionally unstable,” Ravana said dryly. “I watch her carefully. Don’t you? In fact, in just a few days I have observed that she quite enjoys Tellwyrn’s class, seems oddly fond of Professor Rafe and is even more suspicious of Professor Ekoi than the rest of us.”

“That is sayin’ something,” Maureen muttered.

“Not a bully,” Ravana mused, “not a heartless… Completely irrational and aggressive. It is very curious indeed.”

“So, maybe she’s just crazy,” Iris said disdainfully.

“No one is just crazy,” Ravana replied. “That is not how the mind works. Insanity follows patterns—a thinking person cannot be truly random in their behavior, though the pattern may be opaque to the outside observer. No… I don’t even see Addiwyn as insane, to be frank. Her conduct is generally that of a mentally normal person who is…doing something.”

“Doing what?” Szith inquired.

“That is the question, isn’t it?” Ravana said, staring thoughtfully at the rail she was scrubbing. “If I knew that, I suspect all of this would make perfect sense. That, ladies, is what I think we must determine, if we are to ensure our own safety.”

“’ere, now,” Maureen said worriedly. “Y’don’t think she’d actually harm us, do ye? I mean…sabotaging our belongings is one thing…”

“I cannot say what she might do,” Ravana admitted, “because I do not know what she wants. Right now, that she might harm us remains a possibility, as yet untested.”

“And how do you propose to find out?” Iris demanded. “You wanna just ask her nicely?”

“Asking her seems a good approach,” Ravana said, beginning to smile slightly. “After all, who else but she knows the answer? But I think we are well past the point of doing anything nicely. Don’t you?”


 

Sheyann slowly opened her eyes and smiled down at the translucent blue hare which had materialized on the rooftop before her. It had taken a good fifteen minutes of concentration to weave the magics just right. Hopefully this one would last longer than its predecessors.

The inn she had chosen was low, dwarfed by the surrounding buildings, though it was an amusing irony that she had come to think of a four-story structure as small. Its attached iron fire escape made a serviceable path for her spirit hare to reach the street below. The last three had generated some small outcry as they passed, but less than she had feared; apparently citizens of the great metropolis were accustomed to unusual sights.

Now, though, a few were gathering on the sidewalk opposite to see if another hare would come down from the roof. This would have to be her last attempt of the day; aside from her disinclination to put on a show for the locals, drawing too much attention here could lead to citizens or even authorities interrupting her work.

“You know whom I seek, little friend,” she whispered to the hare. “Find her for me.”

It stared up at her for a moment, spectral nose twitching, then turned and bounded onto the fire escape.

Sheyann settled back into a meditative pose, closing her eyes and attuning her senses to the hare’s. It made it to the street, seeking the faint traces of Kuriwa’s distinctive aura that she had instilled from her own memory.

There were muted cries of excitement from the onlookers as the hare reached the street, which both it and Sheyann ignored. Already she could tell this was going better, thanks to her fine-tuning; the last two had decayed rapidly under assault from all the loose arcane magic in the city. This one was more stable, existing in much less inherent conflict with its surroundings. It quested about for traces of the magic it sought, turned and bounded across the street…

And burst apart in a flash of light as it was crushed by a passing carriage.

Several cries of dismay and one loud cheer rose from the audience. Sheyann winced, opened her eyes, and sighed heavily in irritation.

“You might try asking down at the Shaathist lodge. Their spirit wolves and hawks seem to operate just fine in the city. Clearly they’ve mastered the method.”

Sheyann lifted her eyes, showing no hint of surprise on her features, to behold Kuriwa herself seated on the inn’s currently inert chimney, smiling down at her. She was dressed in soft buckskins, like a plains warrior. When had she started doing that?

“Or,” Sheyann said evenly, “you could explain the method yourself, as I strongly suspect you have it down.”

“On the other hand, I’m sure you would work it out yourself quite quickly, were you inclined to continue experimenting,” the other shaman said lightly. “What brings you out to seek me, Sheyann? This is a most peculiar place to find you. Virtually the last I would have expected.”

“I could say the same.”

Kuriwa shook her head. “I have always gone where the trouble is. You, though, seldom stir from your grove unless there is an apocalypse brewing.”

“Fair enough,” Sheyann said wryly. “Arachne and I need your help.”

Kuriwa straightened up slowly. “Arachne…and you? Now I begin to be worried. Is the world actually ending?”

“We consider that a lesser probability,” Sheyann said, folding her hands into her sleeves, “but I am not yet prepared to conclusively rule it out.”

“Do tell.”

“The short version is that we have two injured dryads on our hands. Juniper is mostly well and in fact making greater progress toward being an emotionally stable, responsible person than most of her sisters have ever achieved. She is, however, grieving, and has a blockage placed in her aura by Avei herself, which seems to have lead Naiya to believe she is dead. That brought in Aspen, who currently is severely traumatized and began to transform before being fixed in a time-altering spell by Arachne. She remains thus, in a secure room at the University. And she is the only one who knows what Naiya thinks and plans to do about this.”

Kuriwa narrowed her eyes, but made no other sign of distress. “Naiya is not the patient sort. I suspect her plans would have become clear already if she had any.”

“Ordinarily, I would concur. Juniper, however, is living proof that she can act with more agency and subtlety. Arachne had to spend some time campaigning for it, I understand, but Naiya sent her out specifically to learn the ways of mortals, as a first step toward making peace between them and the fey kingdom. With regard to this, at least, Naiya is not only able to act with more discretion than usual, but highly motivated.”

The Crow sighed, shaking her head. “And Aspen is with Arachne. Frozen in time? That sounds typical of her.”

“In that it is overbearing, inefficient and undeniably effective?” Sheyann said dryly. “Yes, that’s Arachne all over.”

“What do you think of her at present, Sheyann?” Kuriwa asked, watching her carefully.

“Arachne is one of the things that worries me least about the world,” Sheyann replied. “She remains mostly in her chosen place, training young ones. Training them as tauhanwe, to be sure, but I have noted that she teaches them how to think, not what to think. She stands as a living impediment to other mortal powers, and her presence serves to strongly discourage destructive influences. All in all, and aside from being an arcanist, she would be the very picture of a respected Elder if she were not such a tauhanwe to her core. Rather like someone else I could name,” she added with a smile.

Kuriwa returned one of her own. “That much is a relief, then. I’ve not had any interaction with her since she vanished into the Wild, and none with that school of hers. This assuages some of my worry.”

“You trust my judgment on the matter?” Sheyann asked with mild surprise.

“I have frequently disagreed with your judgment, Sheyann. When have I ever disparaged it?”

She acknowledged this with a nod. “Fair enough. For now, can we count on your help with the dryads?”

Kuriwa frowned pensively. “Hm. In your opinion, how likely is it that Naiya will take violent action?”

“In my opinion, not likely at all. Plans or no, she isn’t patient, and as you know, she has little ability to act on the world directly, except in just the kind of dramatic assaults we fear. Those are brief in duration and highly localized, though. I think if she were going to react, she would have by now. This is, of course, nothing but opinion. Naiya’s mind is unknowable.”

Kuriwa nodded. “Good. Yes, of course I will lend any help I can; this issue is clearly serious, even apart from then need to be of aid to the dryad in question. But if it is not an immediate urgency, Sheyann, I am monitoring a situation here in Tiraas that I hate to leave unattended until it reaches a conclusion.”

“Yes, your human friend Darling,” Sheyann said disapprovingly. “You are surely aware he has two eldei alai’shi in his custody? I see no way that can end in anything but catastrophe.”

“Actually,” Kuriwa replied, “he has kept those girls stable longer than any previous headhunter has ever been, and even taught them to be happy and somewhat well-adjusted.”

“You’re not serious.”

“Entirely. I consider him worth preserving for that alone. But no, that is a long-running affair, and anyway, it is business. My immediate concern is a family matter.”

“I see. I won’t pry…”

“Oh, I don’t mind if you pry,” Kuriwa said with a slight grin. “In fact, you would be welcome to watch, if you wish. It appears that Lanaera’s daughter is actually doing something constructive with her life.”

Sheyann raised her eyebrows. “Principia? Headhunters, dryads and apocalypses are one thing. That I will believe when I see it.”

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“I dunno, maybe it’s all the chapel sessions they made us sit through in basic, but I can kinda see it,” Farah said somewhat dreamily. The rest of Squad Thirteen eyed her askance.

“Really, now,” Merry said. “First week of active duty and you’re already planning your retirement and how many kids you want. I think you skipped seven or eight hundred steps, there, private.”

“Oh, hush,” Farah retorted without rancor. “I’m just saying, it’s a point, you know? The spiritual power of motherhood, the bond between mothers and daughters. I’d never really considered it, but I can see myself wanting that. Can’t you?”

“Babies terrify me,” Casey muttered in between bites of porridge.

“You know, there’s no reason you’d necessarily have daughters,” Merry pointed out. “It’s kinda random.”

“Nonsense, you can pick!”

Merry snorted. “It’s possible to pick. You can’t, though. Not on a Legionnaire’s salary.”

“The expensive alchemical methods aren’t a hundred percent certain, anyway,” Prin commented. “You want certainty, you need a good shaman. And even then they mostly won’t do it. Blah blah, messing with nature, wakka wakka spontaneity, yakety yak respect the balance. Pfft.”

“See?” Merry said, grinning, and tucked back into her own breakfast.

“Oh, you’re a bunch of wet blankets,” Farah said crossly. “I’m just saying, I think having a daughter would be a beautiful thing. Come on, I bet even you’d settle down for that, Locke.”

“I have a daughter,” Principia said mildly. “About your age, in fact.”

Farah blinked. “Oh. Um…well, then you’ll know what I mean, about that connection!”

Prin shrugged, eyes on her porridge. “Well, not really. She won’t talk to me.” A half-grin flitted across her face. “Can’t really argue with the kid. I’m arguably the worst mother who’s ever lived.”

They fell silent, the sounds of the busy mess hall washing over them.

“You really know how to kill a conversation,” Merry said at last.

Principia grinned at her. “You’re in the army now, woman. Killin’ is our business.”

“Attention!”

There was a mass scraping of benches and clattering of dropped utensils as every woman in the cohort sprang upright, saluting. Two figures were approaching the center of the mess hall’s open front area, which was commonly used by officers to address the assembled troops. Squad Thirteen were disciplined enough not to react to either the speaker or the Legionnaire who paced along behind her carrying a stack of papers under one arm.

“There has been a disruption of our normal schedule, ladies,” Bishop Syrinx announced, coming to a stop in the center of the space and folding her hands behind her back. Private Covrin fell to attention behind and to her right. “You will be informed of further details at a later time if command deems it necessary, but for now, Captain Dijanerad is among several officers called away on an urgent matter. As I have an interest in this cohort’s progress, I am delivering your assignments for today.”

She paused, angling her head slightly to one side and giving them assembled cohort a look that was both contemplative and slightly supercilious. “One day’s duty is hardly indicative of your skills, ladies, but as I told you yesterday, you are being watched and evaluated closely. The High Commander and your captain appreciate your patience with the unconventional manner in which this unit is being run, for the moment, as do I. A few of you are already beginning to stand out…and I mean that in both positive and negative respects.” Her eyes flicked back and forth to a few specific spots, none of which included anyone in Squad Thirteen. “The plan at present is for squad leaders to be assigned by the end of the week, after which you will not need to be nursemaided by more seasoned units and will draw more conventional duties. Those of you who have distinguished yourselves already, do not get complacent. Those who have not managed to stand out in any way still have time to do so. Several of you are on very short notice to get your act together. The Silver Legions have no place or the incompetent or the weak.

“Thus far, by and large, I’m pleased with you. Keep up the good work, troops. In fact, improve upon it. Private Covrin will now distribute assignments. At ease.”

She turned and stepped over to the side to speak quietly with Lieutenant Vriss, who was the only officer attached to the cohort currently present in the hall.

“I have a very bad feeling about this,” Farah muttered as the assembled Legionnaires relaxed, some hurriedly finishing off their meals.

“Mm,” Principia mused, eyes on the Bishop.

By chance or design, they were approached in reverse order, meaning Squad Thirteen was the first to be handed its orders, a sheet of cheap parchment bearing the Third Legion’s seal and an illegible signature at the bottom. Ephanie accepted this wordlessly.

“Covrin,” Farah said in an icy tone.

Private Covrin paused just barely long enough to ensure that her faint sneer was visible before moving on to Squad Twelve’s table.

“It’s bad, isn’t it,” Casey said, eyes on Ephanie, whose expression bore out her prediction.

“We’re to meet up with Squad Nine from Cohort Six,” she said slowly, eyes darting across the page. “They’re…heavily patrolling the Steppes. Specifics are to be given once we’re in the field, but that squad is positioned to intercept a major operation by the Thieves’ Guild, targeting a shipment of gold arriving at a Vernisite bank.”

The silence hung for a beat.

“But…we can’t have an assignment that involves the Guild!” Farah protested. “Locke has a conflict of interest. It’s against regulation!”

“Welcome to the conversation,” Merry said acidly.

“Heel, Tazlith,” Prin said.

Merry snarled at her. “Don’t you dare—”

“Treat your squadmates with respect and you’ll get the same in kind,” Prin said relentlessly. “It’s not as if Szaravid is wrong. Hell, we should’ve all been expecting something like this, but it’s faster than I’d imagined she would move.”

“This is what yesterday was about,” Casey said softly, frowning into the distance. “She was priming you to expect something like this. She wants you to challenge the order. Why? That’s not punishable, is it? Avelea?” She turned to Ephanie, who suddenly straightened up, eyes widening.

“Wait,” she said. “Come with me!”

Ephanie set off at a sharp trot for the back of the mess hall, making a beeline for the bulletin board with the rest of her squad trailing along behind. Once there, she began rifling through a whole sheaf of papers pinned together to the much-battered cork board, finally pausing on a page half the stack in.

“This was posted a week before we arrived,” she said. “Due to a ‘pattern of incidents’ involving new enlistees, until further notice, privates failing to report for duty will be considered absent without leave and subject to court martial, with a potential penalty of dishonorable discharge.”

“Wait, what?” Casey exclaimed. “Okay, I’m still new to the military. Isn’t that a bit excessive?”

“Failing to report is a serious matter,” Ephanie said, letting the pages drop and turning to face them. “But yes, court martial and dishonorable discharge for one offense verges on the absurd. There are a lot of prescribed disciplinary steps before it should come to that point. It says this is at Command’s discretion…”

“Is Syrinx’s signature on that thing, by any chance?” Prin asked wryly.

“She wouldn’t be so overt,” said Casey, scowling. “There is no way this is a coincidence, though. Are you all seeing what I mean, now? She’s capable of anything.”

They glanced across the hall, past the knots of armored women dispersing to their assigned tasks, at Bishop Syrinx, who was still speaking quietly with the lieutenant.

“How did you even know that was there?” Merry asked Ephanie. “It was buried. It predates us being here!”

“I make a point to read all posted notices carefully,” Ephanie replied, “for exactly this reason. I really cannot afford any slip-ups.” She paused, glancing around at them. “Without meaning to tread on anybody’s privacy, I’ve been getting the impression that nobody in this squad can afford any slip-ups.”

“What the hell do we do now, then?” Casey demanded. “Dijanerad would shut this down, but she’s conveniently elsewhere on what I bet is some urgently made-up bullshit.”

“You need to challenge this as quickly as possible,” Ephanie said to Principia. “An oversight isn’t your fault. You actually reporting for this duty would put you in the wrong. Get on the record pointing it out to a superior…”

Prin was already moving. She wasn’t quite fast enough; as she approached the front of the hall, Lieutenant Vriss nodded to Syrinx and dashed out the side door. The Bishop herself turned to depart through the opposite exit.

“May I help you?” Private Covrin said coldly, interposing herself between Principia and Syrinx. “Hey!”

Prin slipped around her without slowing. “Bishop Syrinx!”

The Bishop paused, glancing over at her. “You have duties, Private Locke, as do I. Be about them.”

“There’s a problem with my squad’s orders, ma’am,” Principia said crisply. “Regulations prohibit—”

“As someone recently reminded me, private, I am not in your chain of command, and I am certainly not your mother. Find someone whose problem this is and pester her about it.”

“Your Grace—”

“You are dismissed, private.” Syrinx stalked off, Covrin following her after giving Principia a hard look.

The rest of Squad Thirteen gathered around Prin as Syrinx and Covrin departed the mess hall. Most of the other squads had already filed out.

“Shit,” Casey said feelingly. “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. How soon are we supposed to report?”

“We’ve only just got time to get there,” said Ephanie. “We could try to go over the captain’s head, find someone higher up… But by the time we did and actually got their attention we’d be way past late to report.”

Farah straightened up, her face brightening. “Cohort Six will have officers—that’s the whole point of us being assigned to them! They can excuse Locke once we report in.”

“We’re to join Squad Nine in the field,” Ephanie said, re-reading their orders. “We’re given a rendezvous point. That means we’re supporting… If it’s a standard patrol pattern for a district that size, we’ll be meeting up with two soldiers, three at the most. There will be officers, but odds are we won’t see them until after the action.”

“The group we’re sent to meet won’t have any officers,” Principia said softly. “I told you that thuggish display yesterday was beneath her. This is the real play—she won’t have left such an easy out.”

“A court martial is a trial, right?” said Merry. “You’ll have a chance to explain your case there. You’re obviously not at fault here, Locke.”

Principia shook her head. “I’m telling you, this is too thoroughly planned. The notice was posted a week ago; she’s been laying traps long before we even knew we’d be here. There will be some extra surprise waiting at that court martial. Hell, if I were running this con, that’s where I’d have hidden the real trap. It looks like the safest route to take.”

“Well…you can’t go,” Farah said miserably. “You’ll get in trouble with the Legion either way, but if you report for this assignment you’ll be betraying the Thieves’ Guild, too. I sorta got the impression you already aren’t their favorite person in the world.”

“No,” Principia said, narrowing her eyes. “No… We’re not beaten yet, girls. Let’s move out, or we’re AWOL and court martialed. When they put me on trial, I swear it’ll be for something a lot less stupid.”

“The insanity just keeps piling up,” Ephanie muttered, scowling. “Squads sent out without officers, the cohort’s officers all diverted, sweeping changes in regulations hidden… This is not just about Locke. It’s not just about this squad. This kind of nonsense can seriously damage a military unit. In wartime, people would die. I can’t even fathom how she’s getting away with this…”

“A lot can change between here and the Steppes,” said Prin, heading for the exit. “I just need a little time to think of something.”

“Something good?” Merry asked skeptically.

“Trust me, Lang, this isn’t my first time playing this game.”

“The last time you played this game, you got me arrested!”

“Someday I really need to hear that story,” Farah commented.

Principia, at the head of the group, grinned. “That wasn’t the last time.”


The dorm’s relatively quiet morning routine was brought to a halt by an earsplitting shriek.

“What?!” Maureen yelped, leaping reflexively onto her bed and falling into a ready stance. Across the room, Szith had also shifted smoothly to the balls of her feet, one hand grasping the hilt of her sword.

“Look! Look at this!” Iris, still in a patched nightgown, held up a white dress apparently identical to the one she’d worn yesterday, tears brimming in her wide eyes. It was of smooth and heavy fabric, decorated with subtle embroidery around the hem and cuffs. This one, however, had the word SLUT scrawled in blocky capital letters across the bodice in some thick red substance.

“Hm,” Ravana said, narrowing her eyes.

The door burst open and their house mother dashed in, staring around at them in alarm.

“What is it?” Afritia demanded. “What happened?”

Tears spilling down her cheeks now, Iris turned to face her, holding up the ruined dress.

Afritia stared at it in apparent bemusement for a moment, then her expression turned to one of silent fury. Over the course of a few seconds, she mastered it, and when she next spoke, it was in apparent calm.

“Addiwyn,” she said loudly in the direction of the long room’s other door. “Come in here, please.”

There was a moment’s silence. Ravana stepped over to Iris’s bed, picking up a small object from her nightstand.

Finally, Addiwyn’s door swung open and the elf leaned out, scowling. “What are you people doing? Some of us have classes to prepare for.”

“Do you know anything about this, Addiwyn?” Afritia asked quietly.

Addiwyn turned to stare at Iris, raising her eyebrows at the sight of the dress, then smirked unpleasantly. “Well. If you have to advertise, Iris, I guess you can’t be very good.”

Iris let out an animal scream of fury, throwing the marred dress aside, and launched herself across the room, clawed fingers outstretched.

She made it almost two feet before Szith smoothly intercepted her. One whirl of motion later, the drow had Iris in a firm hold, both arms secured behind her back. The taller human girl didn’t stop trying to squirm free, snarling at Addiwyn.

“She is baiting you,” Szith said sharply. “Contain yourself. You become unequivocally at fault if you commit assault in front of the house mother.”

“Worth it!” Iris screeched.

“No one is committing assault!” Afritia snapped.

“This is mine,” Ravana commented, studying the object she had picked up. It was a small clam shell filled with a thick red substance. “Or…was, I supposed. What’s left is ruined. Given how dry it is, I would guess it’s been left out all night.”

“Are you sure you had nothing to do with this, Addiwyn?” Afritia said, staring at the elf.

Addiwn shrugged, scowling irritably. “Domingue’s clothes turn up with Madouri’s cosmetics scrawled on them? Why am I even part of this conversation?”

“’ere now, just ‘cos somebody owns a thing doesn’t mean they’re the one who used it,” Maureen objected. “Y’don’t think Iris mauled her own gown, surely.”

“If you think me capable of something so unbelievably puerile,” Ravana said archly, “at least believe I take better care of my possessions. Frankly, this rouge cost as least as much as that dress. I wish to discuss that matter with whoever is responsible.”

“We all know who’s responsible!” Iris howled, glaring hatred at Addiwyn. She stopped struggling, however, quivering with rage in Szith’s grasp.

“Addiwyn, go wait for me in my room, please,” Afritia said.

The elf heaved a melodramatic sigh. “We have class in twenty minutes. I am still—”

“Go,” the house mother said flatly.

Addiwyn rolled her eyes, but flounced out, slamming the door behind her for good measure.

“Iris,” Afritia said more gently, “what kind of fabric is that? And Ravana, may I see that rouge, please?”

“It’s…just cotton,” Iris said miserably, finally slumping in Szith’s hold now that Addiwyn was gone. The drow gently released her. “Thickened cotton… I had to have it made. White cotton tends to be transparent otherwise.”

“Any enchantments? Alchemical augmentation?” Afritia asked, accepting the clamshell of makeup from Ravana with a nod of thanks.

“Alchemical, yeah. That’s where the thickness comes from. It’s not actually any heavier for it.”

“All right. I will be right back; I believe I can fix it pretty quickly.”

She slipped out, shutting the door much more carefully than Addiwyn had.

“Fix it?” Iris said morosely, picking up the wadded dress from her bed and staring at the now-smudged epithet scrawled across it. “How? This is ruined. Just look at this gunk! Maybe a professional cleaner…”

“Surely she wouldn’t make a promise like that unless she could back it up?” Maureen said encouragingly.

“Indeed,” added Ravana. “She is herself an alchemist of some considerable renown.”

“Is she?” Szith asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Ah, that’s right,” Ravana said smoothly. “Considering your point of origin, Szith, you are unlikely to have heard of Morvana the Poisoner.”

Everyone stared at her.

“Who?” Iris demanded.

“The what?” Maureen added.

Ravana shrugged, picking up the brush she had dropped and casually resuming work on her pale hair. “Perhaps it’s a matter chiefly of interest to the nobility. She never operated in the Tiraan Empire, at least not that I’ve heard. Morvana the Poisoner was an assassin who spent ten years cutting a swath across the Malderaan continent, striking down dozens of high-profile targets. Over a hundred, possibly; matters become a little confused when people are killed by untraceable alchemical substances. Others may also have taken advantage of the carnage to commit their own murders and blame them on her. The Poisoner published claims in various newspapers that each of her victims were members of the Black Wreath and had been killed for that reason.”

“Wh—that—surely…” Maureen gulped heavily, wide-eyed. “You can’t think that’s the lady who’s in charge of our dorm.”

Ravana only shrugged again, smiling. “Well, it could be a different Afritia Morvana. I’ve certainly never heard either name elsewhere, but it’s a wide world. And really, if you were an alumnus of the Unseen University with a dozen governments and the Black Wreath actively seeking your head, the prospect of hiding behind Arachne Tellwyrn’s skirts would start to seem rather inviting, don’t you think?” She set the brush down on her nightstand, her smile widening to an outright grin. “In any case, I would not like to be the person responsible for disturbing the tranquility of her home.” She angled her head pointedly at the door, tracing her ear with finger and thumb and then extending the gesture outward, as if outlining a longer, pointed ear.

“Ah,” Maureen said, nodding. She and Iris still looked slightly spooked. Szith simply gazed thoughtfully at the door.

Both Iris and Maureen jumped when it opened suddenly and Afritia stepped in. She held Ravana’s small make-up pad in one hand and a black silk pouch in the other.

“I think you’re right, Ravana; the rest of this is not salvageable,” she said apologetically, handing back the clamshell. “I’m sorry.”

“Not at all,” Ravana said smoothly. “It clearly is no fault of yours.”

“Iris,” Afritia went on, stepping over to hand her the pouch. “Sprinkle this on the stain and wait five minutes. Just brush it off after that; the rouge should come right off with the powder. Just… On the floor is fine, if you avoid the rug. I’ll come in and sweep it up while you’re in class. Will that leave you enough time to get ready? I can send word to your professor if you’ll be late.”

“I…no, that’ll be enough,” Iris said, blinking back fresh tears. “I just… Thanks so much. I’m sorry to be a bother.”

“You are not a bother,” Afritia said firmly, smiling at her. “Call if you girls need anything else. I need to have a few words with your other roommate before she’s late for class, too.”

Nodding again to them all, she ducked back out.

They stared at the door in silence for a moment, then Iris shook herself as if waking from a daydream and began laying out the marred dress across the bedspread, preparatory to applying the alchemical powder.

“Um,” Maureen said hesitantly. “Were you serious about…”

Ravana smiled slyly and placed a finger against her lips.


Deep beneath the peaks of the Dwarnskolds—the Spine, as some races called the vast wall of mountains that blocked off the continent from the tropics—the great library of the Svenheim Academy of Arcane Arts and Sciences occupied a chamber vast enough to accommodate a dragon. In fact, it once had, for all that none of its entrances were large enough to admit a creature of such size. A surprising number of would-be dragonslayers over the years had passed over their targets’ lairs by failing to account for their dual forms. In this era, though, rather than the piles of hoarded wealth it had once held, the cavern contained one of the world’s great treasure troves of knowledge.

Bookshelves climbed the walls all the way to the distant ceiling, accessed by balconies, narrow staircases and in some spots ladders, several on sliding tracks. Nearly the entire floor was lined by row upon row of bookcases, each heavily laden, several climbing upward in open-sided arrangements of rails and wooden floors to create towers and pyramids scattered about the middle of the open space. Everything was carefully filed, of course, though the necessities of the library’s odd architecture could make it difficult to find a given title if one were not intimately familiar with the layout of the room.

Most visitors ended up turning for help to the librarians.

Gwen caught herself humming very softly as she pushed the cart between the stacks and cut herself off with a grimace. It had hardly been loud enough to be heard a few feet beyond her, but still. It was a library. Someday, she really had to find a way to kick that habit. Her work kept her satisfied and happy, though, and happiness unfortunately resulted in music, no matter how inappropriate the environment.

She passed into a tunnel branching off from the main, well-lit chamber. The library was illuminated brightly by massive fairy lamps suspended from the ceiling in upside-down towers of metal scaffolding, which also contained the arcane charms that regulated the temperature and moisture in the air. The dwarves, by and large, preferred to use machinery above magic, but the technology to control environments so minutely was still in its relative infancy—and also, it was heavy. The vital task of protecting and preserving the Academy’s precious stores of knowledge was, for the time being, entrusted to the finest of Tiraan enchantments, no matter the current political tensions between the Kingdom and the Empire.

It was dimmer, of course, in the smaller side gallery into which she emerged, but that was mostly for atmosphere. Gwen hummed a few more bars before catching and stifling herself as she trundled along the well-worn carpet path with her cart of books, past a long row of doors, until she finally reached her destination.

Pausing outside, she rapped gently with her knuckles. “Professor Yornhaldt?”

No answer.

She waited, trying once more, before chuckling softly to herself and pushing the door open. A quick glance around the small study showed the Professor hunched over an entire desk full of open tomes, currently with a long scroll sprawled out across the top of the lot. Gwen backed in, pulling the cart after him.

“These are the last of the volumes you requested, Professor,” she said, a touch more loudly than before.

Professor Yornhaldt jumped in his chair, then half-turned to blink up at her. Lost as he was in some ancient lore, it took a few seconds of blinking before his gaze came back into focus.

“Oh! Miss Pjernssen, forgive me. Bless you, my dear, many thanks. I’m sorry, I was off in another world.”

“Not at all, Professor,” she said with an amused little smile. “It’s not as if you’re the first absent-minded academic I’ve tended to—and not the dustiest, by far. Anywho! These are the alignment records you requested from the Venalde Astrological Collection. You can only have them through the close of normal business hours, I’m afraid, and then they have to be tucked back into their own little beds.”

“Ah. Of course, of course…” He cast a regretful glance at his desk full of books before turning fully around on his swiveling chair and wheeling it over to the table as she laid out more volumes on it from the cart. “I suppose I’d best be about it, then. Hopefully I can gather everything I need from these today, and spare you having to cart them back and forth yet again.”

“Officially, I’m obliged to tell you it’s no bother at all,” she said solemnly, then winked. “But still, I appreciate it. Now, don’t let me catch you trying to put up your own books! The last fellow who requested anything from the Venalde Collection made the most abominable mess, attempting to helpfully clean up after himself. Let the professionals do their jobs, I beg you.”

“My dear,” Professor Yornhaldt said with a grin, “you have nothing to fear from me on that account. Believe me, if you had met the previous librarian at my own University, you would understand how careful I have learned to be with such rules.”

Gwen smiled and stepped back, pushing her cart toward the door. “I’m glad to hear it, Professor. Will there be anything else I can get you?”

“I believe that’s all, Miss Pjernssen, thank you kindly. Oh! Wait a moment!”

She paused in the act of departing, looking inquisitively back at him.

“I meant to bring this up sooner, forgive me. Never to early to start making arrangements, though. I’ll need to access the Vankstadt Archives at some point this week, Miss Pjernssen, if you could kindly start the process. I understand there’s rather a significant amount of paperwork involved.”

Gwen blinked, her polite smile frozen in place. “The… Vankstadt Archives, Professor? I’m afraid we don’t have any such wing in this library. To my knowledge, Professor Vankstadt never endowed a collection before he passed.”

Yornhaldt frowned up at her in puzzlement. “What? But I was assured… Oh! Blast me for an old fool, I really am forgetting things left and right. Of course, of course, here.” He withdrew a slightly rumpled letter from an inner pocket of his coat and handed it to her. “One must have the requisite permissions, naturally. I believe you’ll find that entirely in order.”

Gwen accepted the paper and unfolding it, noting its unusual weight. Indeed, within were the wax seals of the Chancellor of the Academy and the King’s Counselor Dornvelt, as well as their signatures. The brief note, on royal stationary, gave him the stated right to access the secret archives in question.

“Ah,” she said, handing the document back after studying it closely. “That is, of course, an entirely different matter. Sorry for the subterfuge, Professor, but they take great care to keep those documents out of reach of the general public.”

“Of course, I well understand that,” he said firmly. “And heartily approve.”

“Having seen that myself, I can begin the paperwork,” she said, “but you’ll need to show it to Master Reichter, and possibly to other officials. Just to let you know.”

“No trouble at all,” he assured her with a smile, tucking the letter away inside his coat again. “As I said, the procedures are all there for excellent reason. The last thing I want is to upset your system.”

“That, too, I appreciate,” she said wryly. “Then, will that be all?”

“Yes, thank you very much, Miss Pjernssen.”

“Very good. I’ll leave you to it, Professor Yornhaldt.”

He made no response, already half-lost in his new collection of books. Gwen heard a belated acknowledgment an instant before pulling the door gently shut behind herself.

She deposited the empty cart in its allotted place beside her desk, then paused, glancing around the open cavern. Her station was tucked into a small recess, giving her a decent view of the surrounding stacks, which were not too tall in the immediate vicinity. Several dwarven scholars moved about nearby, and two humans were hunched together over a book at the very end of the nearest row, but no one approached the reference desk itself. Gwen double-checked that the small summoning gong was clearly displayed, then stepped through the door into her office in the back.

Quickly and quietly, she removed the silken covering over the magic mirror hung on the wall opposite her filing cabinets. A melange of gray and greenish clouds swirled silently in its surface, marking it a very old specimen. Newer ones functioned simply as reflective surfaces until activated, a much more energy-efficient enchantment. Magic mirrors were still made, but they were priceless even so; the spells involved had to be laid by hand, as not even the wizards of Tiraas had yet figured out a way to automate those enchantments. They were not simple to make, and not many even now possessed the skill.

Double-checking that the door was shut, Gwen stepped up to the mirror and cleared her throat.

“Mr. Greyhand, please.”

The mirror only continued to swirl, apparently ignoring her. Gwen waited, patiently staring at it, until…

There. It was only the faintest flicker, gone so soon one would likely not have noticed it unless one had been watching specifically.

“Potential problem,” she said tersely. “Tellwyrn by proxy investigating cosmic alignments. Getting close; has support from the Academy and government. First intervention circumvented. Please advise.”

She fell silent, waiting for the acknowledgment that her message was received. It came, after a few more seconds, in the form of another almost-unnoticeable flicker, the ephemeral shape gone almost before it had come. Only from long experience with this system did she recognize it as the form of a spiky black wreath.

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8 – 6

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“Will you need anything else? There are further volumes which I can pull for a more in-depth study.”

“No, thank you,” said Ravana, surveying the dozen books already stacked on their table. “The assignment calls for a two-page paper; more material than this will simply swamp us, I think.”

“Very well,” said Crystal, nodding her head. The expressionless mask that formed her face was an eerie contrast to her pleasant voice. “Don’t hesitate to ask at the front desk if you require any help.”

“We won’t, thank you.”

The golem turned and walked back through the stacks toward the front of the library and her customary seat behind its broad desk, leaving the four girls seated around a small table in a reading alcove. As she went, the light emitted from between her joints and the plates of her “skin” cast shifting patterns of illumination on the nearby bookshelves.

It wasn’t dim in the library by any means; there were tall windows and abundant fairy lamps, creating plenty of light to read by. Its architecture, though, trended toward narrow spaces and dark tones, making it feel cozy and even a little gloomy despite the light level. Crystal’s blue-white glow made for a stark contrast.

“She’s amazing,” Maureen breathed, staring after the golem even once she was gone from sight.

“Oh?” Iris said warily. “Uh, that’s… Well, she’s not really my type, but I guess…”

“What?” The gnome blinked at her, then blushed. “Oh, for the— No! Are ye daft? She’s a machine. That’s what I meant; the way she talks an interacts, it’s incredible. There’ve been talking enchantments basically forever, but those were rare, an’ always stuck on static objects; havin’ something that moves around attached to ’em mucked up the old methods, as I understood it. No, she’s a modern golem, but almost like a real person!”

“Is she not a person?” Szith asked, raising an eyebrow. “If she can communicate as one, what other measure is there by which to judge her? She certainly appeared as sentient as you or I.”

“You can tell if y’pay attention an’ know what to listen for,” said Maureen. “She uses exactly the same inflection on everything she says, an’ there’s a faint pause, like, after ye speak to ‘er. Somethin’ bein’ processed in there, the machinery finding the right response an’ spittin’ it out. ‘Course, it’s all arcane magic, not really a true machine, but still, it’s far and away beyond any other golem I ever heard of.”

“It seems my question remains valid, then,” said Szith. “Even if she is an artificial creation, is she not a sentient thing?”

Maureen had begun shaking her head before the drow was finished speaking. “Actual sentience, that’s still beyond modern enchantment. Some o’ the old archmages came close, with talkin’ mirrors an’ swords an’ the like, but in the end they were a lot simpler than an actual person. No real psychology, I mean, just…patterns o’ behavior. Also, most o’ those were made by killin’ somebody and fixin’ a bit o’ their soul to the object, so… That’s highly illegal in the Empire.”

Iris went wide-eyed, turning to stare in the direction Crystal had gone. “You…you don’t suppose…”

“If Tellwyrn had done something like that,” said Ravana with an amused little smile, “I hardly think she would encourage the results to circulate among her students. In any case, I doubt she would have done so to begin with.”

“Aye,” said Maureen, “an’ no matter how reclusive she is, if she’d cracked actual golem sentience, there’d be word of it all over. That’s one of the great unsolveds, y’know? Like mass-producible magic mirrors or automated teleportation.”

“You know, your accent kind of comes and goes,” Iris remarked, frowning. Maureen shrugged, averting her eyes, and pulled one of the books over to herself. She had to stand on her chair to see comfortably over the table, but she was used to long hours on her feet.

“I still don’t feel my question was addressed,” said Szith. “So Crystal is perhaps a bit simple-minded; there are no shortage of biological people in the same state. What truly differentiates her? Your explanation implied a definitive line between speaking enchantments and sentient beings, but you didn’t define it.”

“Well…it’s vague,” Maureen said. “I’ve never spoken with a sentient enchantment till today, but I could tell. Like I said, she processes speech like a machine, sortin’ out what she hears and findin’ the right combination o’ words to reply. Supposedly the older talking enchantments really only started to look sketchy when studied in detail.”

“Is that not what we all do, though?” Szith asked. “Perhaps Crystal does not find her words quite as adroitly, but the end result seems to be the same…”

“In my opinion,” said Ravana, “the difference is one of degree, not of nature. We are all of us nothing but machines, differentiated from an abacus only by a level of complexity. The mind is just a function of the body, after all.”

Szith frowned slightly. “When you put it that way, it sounds rather nihilistic.”

“Oh?” Ravana smiled at her. “Do you know much about the sea goddess Naphthene?”

“I do not.”

“Naphthene has no cult or worshipers,” Ravana said, folding her hands serenely in her lap. “Nor does she want any; she either ignores people who try, or sometimes takes exception to their temerity if they are particularly stubborn. Nonetheless, seafaring cultures revere her, for obvious reasons. No ship sets out to sea without making a small offering to Naphthene, for to omit that step is to reliably court disaster. And yet, storms still happen. Those who have made the requisite sacrifices are still vulnerable. The sea is not a thing to be tamed.”

“She sounds…unjust,” said Szith, her frown deepening.

“Precisely!” Ravana replied. “Unfair, arbitrary, random. And that is the lesson absorbed by a lot of coastal societies: life is simply a matter of luck and fickle fate. What is fascinating, and relevant to our discussion, is how they deal with this worldview. In the west and south, the Tidestrider clans are known to be brutal and, as you say, nihilistic. The Empire has brought them somewhat to heel, but in the old days they rendered that ocean all but impassable, mostly raiding each other, but they would descend in force on anyone else who dared to sail their waters. They took no prisoners and gave no quarter, and the few who visited among them described them as a dour and unsmiling folk. On the other hand, in the east and north are the Punaji, who are famously high-spirited and cheerful. And both societies arrived at their value systems from the same starting point: observing the unfairness of life.” She leaned back in her chair, her smile broadening. “There’s an old Punaji proverb I very much like: ‘When nothing means anything, everything means everything.’”

The group fell silent, three of them frowning thoughtfully at the empty space in the center of the table.

“I’m a wee bit flummoxed how we came ’round to this from me admiring the golem,” Maureen said at last.

“Quite so!” Ravana replied, suddenly brisk, and leaned forward to pick up a book. “Now, we have here several volumes on history, adventuring and magic which make reference to Arachne Tellwyrn. I propose that we divide them up; that will give us this evening to skim through and isolate references to her failures and defeats, and then we can pool our notes and compose the actual essay tomorrow in time for Wednesday’s class. Does anyone object if I do the writing myself?”

“Forgive me,” said Szith, “but I object to your presumption. We’ve followed you this far, as requesting books from the golem scarcely constitutes effort, but the group has not agreed to pursue this course of action. In frankness, you have not justified it.”

“Uh, yeah,” Iris piped up, her expression worried. “I don’t like the sound of that assignment to pick at each other’s weaknesses, but I really don’t see how starting a fight with Tellwyrn is gonna help us.”

“Very well, it’s a fair concern.” Ravana leaned forward again, folding her hands on the table and interlacing her fingers. “To begin with, do you believe me when I say that the assignment itself is not meant to be taken at face value?”

The other three girls exchanged glances.

“I dunno,” Iris said doubtfully.

“This project is by no means the first time I have engaged in research about our professor,” said Ravana. “Upon being accepted here I commissioned a detailed analysis of her, the better to know what to expect. While Tellwyrn herself has historically bludgeoned her way through obstacles with sheer magical might, she has an entirely other set of priorities for other people. Particularly students. In fact, she is rather fond of subtle tests of character, of placing obstacles in people’s paths and engineering situations to gauge their moral and mental capabilities. I came prepared to be on the lookout for these; I did not expect to find one so quickly, or for it to be so blatant.”

“Blatant?” Maureen asked.

Ravana grinned faintly. “May I at least assume you have all noticed, as I have, the insanity of the assignment in question? The sheer, emotionally destructive absurdity of it?”

They all nodded, slowly, and she spread her hands. “Arachne Tellwyrn is not someone who does insane, absurd things—at least, not to students or others under her protection. She is someone who likes to carefully feel people out using oblique methods before subjecting them to her bombastic approach to life. I suspect that’s why she is still alive; it has prevented her from picking a fight with someone too close to her level.”

“That makes sense, then,” said Szith, again nodding. “Very well, I can accept your assertion, and thank you for the analysis. I for one would likely have stepped right into the trap otherwise.”

“Ought we to clue the others in?” Maureen asked.

Ravana shrugged. “If you wish. We were assigned our room groups to do this with, however; I don’t think we will be expected to extend our efforts beyond that.”

“Still,” said Szith, “you have yet to explain why you think antagonizing Professor Tellwyrn is a wise academic move.”

Iris nodded emphatically. “I think your exact words were ‘rub her face in it.’ Failing us is the least of what she can do to us, you know.”

“Ah, yes,” Ravana replied with a rueful smile. “Forgive me, I do like to indulge in tiny little melodramas. No, being aggressive with Tellwyrn is probably not a good idea. If nothing else, it would be a metatextual failure; seeing the subtle trap and using it to act brutishly seems self-defeating. No, what I had in mind is a simple message, and if anything a gentle one. Or at least a subtle one.”

“Go on,” said Szith when no one else commented.

Ravana leaned forward to tap one of the books. “Rather than the assigned analysis of each other, I propose that we collaborate on a general essay detailing strategies a group of people can use against a more powerful opponent, with examples—each of which will be an instance of someone overcoming Tellwyrn herself. At no point do I plan to make threats or personal statements. It will be far more oblique, and yet pointed, indicating that we have discerned both the trap and the true nature of the assignment, and that we have identified the real aggressor here.”

Another quiet fell; Ravana smiled beatifically at the others, who looked pensive.

“When you explain it that way,” Szith said finally, “I still think the idea is excessively confrontational. We can surely present a statement without encroaching upon her personal history.”

“Her personal history is public,” Ravana replied, “and I assure you, we will get nowhere with Tellwyrn if we do things by half-measures. Let’s be realistic, ladies; we are under no circumstances going to intimidate her, and I frankly doubt we can even offend her. She simply doesn’t take us that seriously, or personally. This is about not being walked over. The risk is slight, but for that, at least, I am willing to take it.”

Szith nodded at that; Iris and Maureen frowned at each other.

“Or,” Ravana went on mildly, “if you are more comfortable establishing up front that you will always be a victim, we can run with that, too.”


 

Last Rock’s expansion over the summer had been minor, but it was a relatively static town most of the time, and even a minor growth had upended everything. Coming as it did right on the heels of the evacuation and subsequent return, there was more muttering than usual in the town about the students and the disruption they caused, but for the most part, this was overruled. The students were still the biggest source of revenue for local business—or at least, they always had been. Last Rock’s newest additions were beginning to call that into question.

The new Silver Mission stood on the outskirts, close enough to the Rail platform to be immediately visible to arriving travelers. It was a modest building in size, but very much Avenist in its sensibilities, all white marble, domed roofs and with a fence of iron bars topped in spear-like points. Aside from the one assigned priestess, who lived on site, the Mission had few regulars, most of its visitors being the would-be adventurers who passed through the town en route to the Golden Sea. There didn’t seem to be any residents of Last Rock itself who felt the need to call on Avei’s protection.

At least, not so far, though that might change, given the additions to the population brought by the other new addition. The Vidian temple, too, was small, little more than a shrine—but it had come with personnel, and continued to attract more. Three new houses and another inn were under construction on the outskirts of town, the Mayor was busy drawing up plans to extend a couple of the streets, and Sheriff Sanders had been sufficiently pressed to keep order among the new arrivals that he had officially deputized Ox Whippoorwill and another man. Imperial surveyors had visited, and there was even talk of an Imperial Marshal being assigned too the town.

Aside from the clerics and others who had moved in, people continued to pass through, seldom staying long, but all hoping for at least a glimpse of the new paladin—or either of the old ones, for that matter. Tellwyrn had made it sufficiently plain that sightseers were not welcome on campus that few tried that anymore, especially after the newspapers had begun circulating horror stories of tourists teleported to Tidestrider islands, Tar’naris, the Stalrange and other unwholesome vacation spots. Still, even after that and the natural waning of interest over the summer months, the Imperial Rail Service had finally been force to designate Last Rock a justification-only destination—meaning tickets there could only be purchased by people who could provide a reason for their trip to the Rail conductor. It wasn’t much of a barrier, only keeping out the particularly stupid and deranged, but it did the trick. Anybody intelligent enough to come up with an excuse to be in Last Rock was intelligent enough not to cause trouble once they got there.

Even so, Gabriel’s visits to the Vidian temple were necessarily crowd-pleasing affairs. In just a few short weeks he had perfected the art of nodding, smiling and waving to people without stopping to engage with them. He also usually didn’t go without escort. Toby and Trissiny would have only drawn more attention, Juniper might have created a panic and none of his other classmates were particularly intimidating, but the three privates with whom he roomed often accompanied him into town. Sanders or one of his deputies sometimes shadowed him once there. It was awkward at times, but it worked.

This evening, though, he was alone, which was the point. The sky had long since fallen red, and the sun was only partially visible on the horizon. Now, at the point between day and night, was a sacred time to Vidians; dusk and dawn were favored for their gatherings and rituals. More to the point, certain powers of Vidius granted to certain of his followers were at their peak in these between times.

He walked with a frown of concentration on his face, focusing internally and barely paying enough attention to where he was going to get there intact. By far the biggest threat to his focus was his success; he’d made it all the way to the temple without anyone noticing his presence, and jubilation threatened to wreck it for him. The final stretch of the race was ahead: the temple itself, and the Vidian worshipers gathered there.

The temple was, of course, of two parts. The public area was a roofless stone amphitheater, the materials for which (like the white marble of the Silver Mission) had been brought in by Rail and assembled rapidly with the aid of Wizards’ Guild artisans. The half dozen Vidians who had emigrated to Last Rock for the chance to be near their new paladin were all present, rehearsing a play that was to be performed in a few weeks. Even for those who weren’t professional actors, drama was considered a sacred art to the god of masks, one most of his followers involved themselves in.

Gabriel did not slow or look up at them as he arrived, stepping up onto the stone outer rim of the amphitheater. This was not far from the spot from which he and his classmates had embarked into the Golden Sea almost a year ago, right on the north edge of town. He passed quickly around the edge of the ring, ignoring the performers, none of whom even looked up at him, to reach the half-pyramid positioned at one edge and the door set into it.

Opening the door, for whatever reason, brought attention. Immediately voices were raised behind him, but he swiftly ducked inside, pulling it shut, and then slumped against it, letting out a long breath of relief.

The staircase in which he found himself was well-lit by small fairy lights, descending straight forward without any curves or turns. Gabriel, having regathered his composure, set off down toward the bottom, confident in the door’s ability to protect him from his adoring public. He could still hear them clearly, clamoring outside; the enchantments on it were designed to conduct rather than to muffle sound, so that those below could be aware of anything important happening above. Still, he knew they would respect the barrier, as Vidians respected all barriers. This half of the temple was not entered except on specific business.

Right now, its position was obvious, as the prairie grasses hadn’t yet had time to settle in above the underground complex, leaving a long rectangle of bare earth adjacent to the amphitheater. In time, though, the lower half of the temple would be invisible from above, only the door revealing that such a thing existed. Some temples favored trapdoors, even hidden entrances, as if to deny that they even had a lower half. The facility at Last Rock was not only small, it was simple, and didn’t seem to feel any need for such touches.

At the bottom was a long, narrow room terminating in a shrine to Vidius himself and lined with benches—not an uncommon arrangement for places of worship. Doors to either side led to the apartments of the priest in residence, and…what else Gabriel did not know, never having been invited in. All his conversations and lessons had taken place here, in the chapel.

The priest, Val Tarvadegh, was a lean man in his middle years, whose beakish nose and widow’s peak conspired to make his face rather birdlike in aspect. He was dressed, as always, in the black robes of his office—as was the other person present.

Gabriel paused at the base of the stairs, sizing up the woman. Bronze of skin and black of hair, she was a perfectly average-looking Tiraan like himself and Tarvadegh, but he couldn’t shake a feeling of familiarity at seeing her.

“Gabriel!” the priest said, turning to him with a smile. “And here you are, unmolested! How did it go?”

“Brilliant,” he said, a grin breaking across his own features. “I made it the whole way this time! Well…almost. It broke when I got to the door. As you can probably hear,” he added ruefully, glancing behind. Indeed, in the sudden quiet, the excited babble of voices was still dimly audible. “I’m sorry, am I early? I don’t mean to interrupt…”

“Oh, pay no attention to me,” the woman said, rising from her seat on one of the chapel’s benches. “I merely stopped by to see Val; far be it from me to impede our new paladin’s education.”

“Are…you a priestess?” he asked hesitantly. “I’m sorry, it’s just I’ve got this feeling I know you from somewhere.”

“You have possibly noticed me on campus,” she said with a smile. “Afritia Morvana. I’m the new house mother for the Well.”

“Oh! The freshman girls, right. So, what’re they like?”

“If they decide that’s any of your business,” she said placidly, “I’m sure they will inform you.”

“Whoah, point taken.” Gabriel raised his hands in surrender; Tarvadegh grinned, hiding a chuckle behind a cough. “I assure you, madam, your charges are in no danger from me. You can ask anybody how awkward I am with women.”

“Yes, I begin to see that,” she said, her smile widening. “Anyway. I must be off; I’ll see what I ca do about dispersing your fan club, shall I?”

“You are my new favorite person,” he said fervently. Morvana laughed and glided past him up the stairs.

“It’s not uncommon for the deflection to be disrupted by such things as opening doors,” Tarvadegh said as Gabriel approached him. “You are diverting people’s attention from yourself. If you change anything in your environment, they will tend to notice that—and then, in looking around to find what caused it, will quite quickly pierce your deflection. Anything which calls attention to you will unmake it.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Gabe said with a grimace. “Is it possible to get around that?”

“To extend it to other objects? Most certainly, yes, even to other people. That is very advanced, though.” Tarvadegh winked. “Crawl before you fly, my friend. You made good progress today.”

“It still takes a lot out of me,” he admitted. “Well…not out of me. It’s not very tiring, and I don’t feel like I’m using much energy. But it’s the concentration. If I let up for a second, poof. There it goes.”

“Yes,” the priest said, nodding. “You mentioned how it doesn’t drain energy; that’s because this is a very passive effect. Unfortunately, that means you can’t just power through it with more magical oomph. It’s a trick of concentration. Once you learn how, and can make it habitual, you’ll find yourself able to do almost anything you normally could while holding the deflection.” He smiled and shrugged. “Till you do, though… It’s a process.”

“Sounds like my lightworking class,” Gabriel muttered.

“Depending on what you’re working, yes, it can be similar. Come, have a seat.” Tarvadegh suited the words with action, sitting down on a bench and pointing to the one across from him. “How have you been doing with your masks?”

Gabriel sighed heavily, slumping down onto the padded surface. “I just… I don’t know, Val. This is the thing that most makes me think Vidius made a mistake.”

“Perhaps he did,” Tarvadegh said mildly, earning a startled look. “I think it’s unlikely, however. Gods have insight beyond our imagining, and access to undreamable amounts of information. I’ve mentioned this before, Gabriel, but the masks are not something made up by Vidian theology; rather something codified by it. We have different facets of ourselves to display to different people, at different times. This practice is nothing more than becoming conscious of the effect and making use of it.”

“It feels like lying.”

“It can be,” the priest said, nodding, “if you are unethical or careless. But if so, that is not a true mask, in the sense that we use the term. It is a true aspect of yourself, one that you possess naturally, and are simply taking control of, putting to better use.”

“It’s just… I’ve always been a bit of a…a buffoon. I’m the guy who says the thing we’re all thinking but everyone else was too polite. The least Vidian person in the room, in other words. All of this, now…” He shrugged. “Maybe I’m just afraid of losing myself.”

Tarvadegh tilted his head to one side. “That’s interesting, you hadn’t mentioned that before.”

“Sorry…”

“No, no! These things are not meant to be done all at once, Gabriel; we’ll figure it out. For now, what you just said makes me think I have been trying to start you off too far ahead. It was always my assumption that a demonblood would have learned to play it very safe to get along in society. How does one do that without being…extremely circumspect?”

Gabriel sighed again and leaned back against the wall behind him. “One does it by hiding behind one’s soldier dad and monk friend when one accidentally sparks off a problem. You’ve kinda hit the nail on the head for me, though. If I couldn’t manage to suss all this out when it was arguably a matter of life and death, how’m I supposed to figure it out now?”

“Well, now you have the benefit of teaching,” Tarvadegh said with a smile. “Let’s go back to a much more basic thing, then, the different masks that I know you have. You are not the same person exactly with your father as with, say, your classmate Trissiny, correct?”

Gabriel blinked. “Hm. Actually… Maybe I’d have gotten along better with Trissiny from the start if I’d been a little less relaxed and kept my mouth shut. See, this is what I mean. The more you talk about these masks as a normal thing that everyone has, the more I just realize how I’ve been screwing up my whole life by not doing this.”

“So perhaps you’re a much more forthright person than most,” Tarvadegh said, grinning now. “But I guarantee, Gabriel, you have some different shades. Let me try a more pointed example. You don’t behave the same when talking with Toby as you do when in Juniper’s arms, right?”

Gabe averted his eyes, flushing.

“Sorry to be so blunt,” said Tarvadegh. “But are you beginning to see my point?”

“Kinda hard not to, with that image dropped into my head,” Gabriel muttered.

“Then it’s something for you to think about. And perhaps this will help you out socially. Everyone does not need to hear the first thought that crosses your mind, nor to see your feelings written on your face. In fact, sometimes it is kinder to spare them that. The Narisians have a philosophy that I have enjoyed reading—”

He broke off mid-sentence and both of them turned toward the stairwell. Above, there suddenly came the sound of screaming.

Both men were on their feet in a heartbeat, Gabriel pushing ahead to dash up the stairs. He withdrew the black wand Vidius had given him as he went, grabbing Ariel’s hilt with his left hand, and pushed the door latch down with his fist when he reached it.

He emerged onto the amphitheater in the gathering darkness in time to see the last of the assembled Vidians fleeing back into the town, a couple still shrieking in panic. Gabriel gave them little more than a glance, his attention fixed on the thing that had set them to running. They were fortunate that there was someone in their number who knew what they were looking at, otherwise somebody might have made a very severe mistake.

“Hello!” she said brightly.

“Hi,” Gabriel replied in a much more wary tone. The dryad was of a slimmer build than Juniper, less voluptuous, her skin a pale gold that was nearly white and her hair a much lighter shade of green, but she was still excruciatingly lovely. Also, she was completely nude. “Are you lost, miss?”

“Nope!” she said, pointing over his head at the slope of the mountain. “This is where I was going to! Last Rock, just like the name says. I made really good time! Well, the Golden Sea helped me a bit. My name’s Aspen!”

“Hi, Aspen,” he said warily. He didn’t point the wand at her, but kept it out, and his hand on the sword. “I’m Gabriel. You realize it’s kind of a problem for you to be here, right? Dryads aren’t supposed to be in human settlements.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she said lightly, striding toward him, “I don’t care about that. So, do you live here? Did you know my sister?”

“Juniper? Sure, I know her. She’s a good friend of mine.”

“Good.” Aspen stopped barely beyond arm’s reach, still smiling, but with something intent and distinctly predatory in her gaze now. “Do you know what killed her?”

Gabriel blinked. “I… What? Killed her? Juniper’s not dead. I talked with her just a few—”

“Now, see, that’s gonna be a problem,” Aspen interrupted, taking one more step closer. He fought the urge to back away; he was still framed in the door, with Tarvadegh behind him. “Our mother felt it when she was snuffed out. You’re just lucky it’s me you’re talking to and not her, but I’m still gonna start getting annoyed if you lie to me. It sure does seem like you know something about this, Gabriel, so let’s try the truth this time.” The smile vanished from her face. “What happened to my sister?”

“I think there has been a misunderstanding,” he said carefully. “If you want to talk to Juniper…in fact, that’s probably the best thing, now that I think of it. If you could just stay right here for a bit, I’ll go and get—”

He saw her lunge and tried to jerk backward away from her, but not fast enough. Aspen grabbed his neck with one hand, squeezing just hard enough to hold him. He reflexively brought up the wand, but just as quickly pointed it elsewhere; the situation wasn’t nearly so bad that he couldn’t make it a thousand times worse by shooting a dryad.

“I told you, I don’t like lying,” Aspen said coldly. “And I don’t like being tricked. So no, I will not wait here while you run away, or go fetch someone to get me like they got Juniper. Now you get one more chance to tell me the truth, Gabriel, and then I’m just gonna kill you and go find someone else.”

“Please, calm down,” he said hoarsely around the constriction of his throat. She only squeezed harder.

“Last chance. Spit it out, before—”

A sound like howling wind rose up around them, though there wasn’t a breeze. A peculiar tinge grew in the air above the amphitheater, as if everything were seen through a haze of fog, but the distance was not obscured. Aspen stopped, staring around in surprise.

Then the figures appeared.

Seven of them, lining the edges of the amphitheater in a semicircle. They were watery and indistinct, but there were several obvious features they had in common. Each was garbed in black, had enormous black wings, and each carried a scythe in her right hand.

Aspen gasped, releasing Gabriel and stumbling backward. One of the shadowy figures followed, stepping forward until she was only two yards from the dryad.

The valkyrie transferred her scythe to her left hand, reached forward with her right, and then very slowly wagged one finger back and forth in front of Aspen’s face.

The dryad swallowed once, convulsively, then whirled and fled back into the prairie. In moments she was lost among the tallgrass.

As abruptly as it had come, the haze faded, the seven reapers vanishing along with it, leaving Gabriel and Tarvadegh standing alone in the doorway, suddenly conscious of raised voices and movement in the town.

“Well,” Gabe said, shaking himself off. “Um…can you talk to the Sheriff, please? I think I’d better go find Juniper. And Professor Tellwyrn,” he added.

“Good plan,” said Tarvadegh, nodding. “Oh, and Gabriel, for future reference…”

“Yes?”

“Never,” said the priest, “ever tell a woman to calm down.”

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8 – 1

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Maureen felt a little bad about leaving the other newly-arrived students to contend with the throngs of townspeople, but then, one had to play to one’s strengths. Slipping through tight places and escaping notice weren’t strategies in which the gnomish people took particular pride, but they were unquestionably good at them. Really, in other situations, she might have wanted to stay and explore Last Rock a bit; the festival atmosphere which greeted the students stepping off the Rail was actually pretty enticing.

On the other hand, she was already feeling out of her element, and remembered her Aphorisms. When adventuring in a new and possibly dangerous area where you will remain for some time, first secure a base. Presumably the University provided students with housing. That should be her first goal. So telling herself, she gave the feisty crowds the slip, heading for the edge of town.

Forgoing the tempting main avenue, lined as it was with more stands and eager-looking townie merchants, she slipped through the back alleys. Last Rock had few such, just barely enough to keep out of sight of the town’s one important-looking street. There simply wasn’t enough space to get lost, not that that would be possible anyway, with the inescapable mountain itself rearing up from the edge of town.

It was fairly quiet when she slipped out of the gap between two outbuildings, finding herself at the base of the mountain. For a moment, Maureen simply stood, leaning her head back to gaze upward at its heights. The thing was just colossal. A peak like this would be impressive anywhere, but occurring as it did right in the middle of the world’s flattest country, the mountain of Last Rock could be positively dizzying if one allowed oneself to dwell on it.

There were paths provided—two of them, both carved of white marble and standing out against the green of the low grass which covered the roughly forty-five degree slope. A flight of stairs ran straight upward, toward the gates of the University high above, while a flatter path zigzagged widely back and forth across them, providing a gentler slope but a walk that would be many times longer.

The stairs, of course, were sized for tall people.

Maureen glanced back at the town, where she could see the crowd through gaps between buildings, then set her jaw, double-checked the straps on her Pack, and set off up the mountain, walking through the grass just to the left of the stairs. Some of her new classmates had legs nearly as long as she was tall, but if she got a good enough head start, maybe she could beat them to the campus anyway.

Beat them at what, or why, she couldn’t have said. But gnomish pride was at stake, regardless.

No matter how the others back home might have thought her reclusive, lazy or just odd, she had done more than enough training that even this excessively vertical hike didn’t strain her legs unduly. However, as she climbed onward and the prairie sun beat down, she reached back, fishing in her Pack without stopping, and pulled out a conveniently placed towel, which she wound around her head into a turban-like cover. All the while she composed a mental apology to Mum for all her complaints about drilling desert-condition survival skills in the middle of the Stalrange.

Her ears twitched alertly as notes of music drifted down to her. Someone up ahead was singing. Maureen paused to peer up at the University gates, but she was too far distant to make anything out clearly. She tucked her head down and resumed plowing up the slope.

The words grew steadily louder as she climbed. It was a cheerful little ditty, that much she could tell from the melody, sung by a woman with a somewhat husky voice, though she couldn’t make out the lyrics quite yet. Despite their longer ears, gnomes didn’t hear much better than humans, certainly not as well as elves. Just when she thought she was starting to catch a few words here and there, the music stopped.

She paused to look up again—the slope being what it was, she couldn’t really gaze forward while moving unless she wanted to risk taking a very long fall. The gates of the University were visible now. And…someone was sitting atop them.

Maureen continued on, and after a minute, the singer resumed, or began again. This time, she could hear clearly enough to discern the words.

“Ol’ Sally’s on the docks again, an’ she ain’t gettin’ far

She’s dressed in moldy sailcloth an’ smells of rust and tar,

What can sag has, or fallen off, no winsome lass is she

But I swear I still would hit that, for I’ve been a year at sea!”

In spite of herself, Maureen’s cheeks colored and the tufted tips of her ears began twitching furiously. Well, it was no worse than she’d heard in the pubs back home, right before Pop or one of her uncles spotted her lurking about and sent her packing. If anything, she was self-conscious about feeling self-conscious. What kind of impression would this make?

Meanwhile, the “music” carried gamely on.

“Ol’ Sally’s got no teeth left, which helps for suckin’ wood

Her nugs start at her navel, an’ hang down where she’s stood

Her right eye looks the wrong way and the left one’s merely odd

But I’d hit that like the hammer of a dark avenging god!”

Well, that would teach her to think it couldn’t get worse.

Once again, the serenade came to a stop, this time because of her arrival on the small plaza before the University’s open gates. The singer, a young human woman who was perched improbably atop one of the columns supporting the gates, grinned and waved a bottle of rum at Maureen.

“Ahoy, traveler! Welcome to the jungle! I’ve not seen you before. Frosh?”

“Excuse me?” Maureen demanded, affronted.

The girl’s grin widened. “Freshman. First year student. New to the campus, yeah?”

“Oh! Aye—I mean, yes, that’s me. I mean, I am.” Belatedly, she pulled off her head covering, then immediately wished she hadn’t; her embarrassed blush had to be painfully visible now.

“Glad to have you!” the girl said cheerfully, and Maureen had the odd feeling she meant it. The woman was Punaji, obviously, and just as obviously rich. Her greatcoat was of a much finer material than the traditional sailcloth, her hat bristled with brightly colored feathers, and the blue dot between her eyebrows appeared to be an inset sapphire, rather than a tattoo. “Head on through the gates, and follow the ostentatiously floating blue flags. This year’s freshman girls are housed in the Well—the marked path’ll lead you right there. Tell ya what, though,” she added, straightening up and leaning forward, grinning conspiratorially. “Wanna know a secret?”

“I suppose, sure,” Maureen said warily.

“The path’s a load of bullshit, in terms of actually getting anywhere. I fell for that my first day here. It leads you all over the damn place so you can get a look at the campus from all angles. The campus is worth lookin’ at, make no mistake, but you don’t strictly have to indulge Tellwyrn’s showin’ off. You wanna get to your bunk efficient-like, head straight up through the grass just past the gates, cross the little lawn there, and there’ll be a big gothic-looking monster of a building. You go left to the edge of that, head into the little alley there and follow the stairs all the way up, then turn right and follow the cobblestone path till you re-connect with the flagged path. Follow that north an’ you’ll come right to a round building. That’s your new digs.”

“I… Thank you very much,” Maureen said, politely but uncertainly.

“No sweat,” the Punaji girl replied, winking. “And hey, go whichever way suits you best. Like I said, the scenic route’s worth scenicizing, but you’ve got plenty of time for that later if you want. See ya ’round campus!”

“Yes. Um, see you. Thanks again!”

The woman lifted her bottle of rum in toast, then tipped it back and took a long drink. Maureen had been certain this was supposed to be a dry campus… As she had apparently been dismissed, though, she put that aside to wonder about later, and stepped forward through the gates.

Another small plaza beyond mimicked the one outside. As described, rows of floating flags marked paths leading off in both directions, blue to the right, red to the left. Maureen stood there, glancing back and forth, and then at the grassy incline leading straight forward and up through a small stand of bushes.

Here was a dilemma. The Aphorisms chanted in her head to find and secure a living space before sightseeing. On the other hand, the path had clearly been set the way it was for a reason. On the third hand, not all reasons were good ones, especially when it came to administrative bodies—run by a the legendary Arachne Tellwyrn or no, the University was a bureaucracy, and the Folk knew very well how those were about rules for rules’ sake. But…could the pirate’s directions be trusted? Pranking new students—new arrivals anywhere, really—was a time-honored tradition that spanned all cultures and peoples. It would be really nice to get herself settled in without having to meet and deal with her fellow students, though… Maureen had been raised to be polite, and friendly when the occasion called for it, but she could not call herself a people person. Even among people she knew, liked and trusted, to say nothing of strangers. To say nothing of these strangers.

Suddenly, above and behind her, the ballad resumed. Ol’ Sally, despite her various flaws, proved to have a multi-talented tongue, and Maureen shot into forward motion before she had to hear any more about it. Then, once up the incline, there was nothing else for it but to follow the pirate girl’s directions, since she’d already lost the marked path.

It was hardly her first time following directions; she had carefully memorized them as the girl spoke, and the landmarks were all exactly where they were indicated. She saw other people, but only distantly and on the periphery, and always ducked back into the shadows whenever this happened. Maureen felt a little bad about it, but there was no shame in seeking some comfort in invisibility and anonymity, she told herself. The campus really was impressive, what she could see of it, but that should hardly be surprising.

The path she’d been directed to take didn’t bring her past the entrance of the famous Crawl. She wondered if the officially sanctioned route did.

Quite soon, though, it turned up exactly where the pirate had said it would: at a compact, circular building constructed of golden marble which so resembled a miniature Omnist temple in design that it had to have been done deliberately. There was a single door, facing the path. It was sized for tall people, obviously, but Maureen had no trouble reaching and turning the latch. There was a keyhole, but it wasn’t locked.

Inside, the building was one wide-open space. Very wide open. The roof was a skylight, a single featureless sheet of circular glass, and there was no floor, just a railed spiral staircase descending down into a round shaft. Maureen stared glumly at this from the relative safety of the small landing inside the door. Stairs… Countless stairs, descending into dark oblivion. Stairs designed for tall people.

It was going to be a very, very long semester.

She sighed heavily and cinched up her Pack. The family hadn’t sent her this far to be turned back by stairs. The Folk were well used to making do with facilities sized for tall people; this was hardly her first time using their stairs. She knew the best way to move up and down them to minimize the difficulty. It was just… There were so many of them.

Then she stepped down onto the first one, and had to stop, grinning in delight. The moment her foot came to rest on the top step, the descending spiral before her was suddenly sized perfectly for the length of her legs. It was well worth remembering, she decided, that this University had been built by possibly the greatest wizard in existence.

Even better, while the staircase appeared to spiral endlessly down into darkness, the actual descent seemed to be only about two stories worth of steps, as best she could reckon it, and the whole was well-lit by the skylight above. There were also wall sconces with currently inert fairy lamps. Then, suddenly, without having seen it approach, she was at the bottom. It occurred to Maureen that considering the obviously magical nature of that stairwell, there was absolutely no telling how deep she actually was into the mountain now.

Such concerns fled her mind, though, as she stepped forward into the Well and got her first look at her new home for the next four years.

It was a round chamber of clearly natural origin; fairy lamps were cleverly worked into the stalactites hanging from the ceiling in a way that emphasized their shapes while providing adequate illumination for the area. The floor had been smoothed flat, in places clearly filled in with stonework. To the left was an irregular section of missing wall paneled over with light-stained wood, in which was set a single door. Another, larger such segment lined the right side of the chamber, this one with a door at either end. In the back, opposite the stairs, was an obvious living area, with a sofa and chairs, a low table, and a small kitchen consisting of little more than a modern enchanted stove, sink, upright cold box and one cabinet.

All this was around the rim of the chamber, however. It formed a walkway secured behind a metal rail that would have been roughly chest-high for the tall people and which was just above Maureen’s head. Beyond that, in the middle, was a deep pit from which the Well evidently took its name. A particularly long cluster of stalactites hung down into it, the tip of the largest extending below the level of the floor, and the entire formation bristling with tiny, multicolored fairy lights like a very peculiar chandelier.

Immediately before her, though, was another person, sitting in a ladder back chair and reading a heavy book whose cover was printed in elvish, from which she looked up on Maureen’s arrival. The woman’s age was hard to guess; she was a human of Tiraan stock, with black hair, bronze skin and rather angular features. Her attire was either very old-fashioned or very avant garde, consisting of plain but dramatic black robes. She waited for Maureen to take in the whole scene before speaking.

“And you must be Miss Willowick.”

“I… Aye. I mean, yes, that’s me.” Maureen smiled feebly. “I, eh, gather y’don’t have too many gnomish students…”

“Well, you’re the only one this year,” the woman said with a smile, setting aside her book, “but there’s also a process of elimination involved. You’re the last to arrive.”

“Oh,” she said weakly. “Sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about!” the woman assured her. “The Rail schedule is what it is. I’m Afritia Morvana, the house mother. I live just over there.” She pointed to the smaller walled-off area to the left of the door. “You girls are housed in the one opposite. Since you’re here, we’ll be having a little house get-together in a few minutes, in the lounge area in the back. But there’s no rush, Maureen. You take whatever time you need to get settled in and greet your roommates. They’re all unpacking.”

“I, ah… Thanks. Thank you! I’ll do that.” She smiled awkwardly. “Um, bye!”

“See you soon,” Afritia replied with a more serene smile, picking up her book again.

Maureen ducked past her, making for the nearest of the two doors indicated. She sighed softly at the need to reach up for the knob; best she start getting used to that. With Afritia right there, she did not indulge in a moment to compose herself, but set her jaw, turned the knob and pulled open the door to her new living quarters.

She was instantly blinded by a burst of white light.

“Ack!” Maureen yelped, clapping a hand over her eyes and staggering backward.

“Oh, for—do you have to do that?” a voice exclaimed. “Now look what you’ve done!”

“I am sorry,” another girl’s voice said, closer. “Are you quite all right, miss?”

Maureen peeked between her fingers, blinking to clear her vision. Right before her, just inside the doorway, stood a blonde human girl who was scarcely a foot taller than she, and so dainty of build as to be almost boyish. She was holding a device like a heavily augmented telescope, bristling with dials and socketed crystals.

Immediately her confusion cleared and she leaned forward, fascinated. “Ooh! That’s one of the new lightcappers, isn’t it? A handheld model! And is that… Why, there’s no sheetroll! Are those data storage crystals? Wherever did you find them?!”

“Oh, gods, another one,” said the voice which had spoken first.

The blonde girl, meanwhile, beamed at Maureen. “A fellow enthusiast! How lovely! Again, I do apologize for startling you. It’s my hobby, you see—I find there is no substitute for a candid shot. When people know they are being capped, they pose and preen as if sitting for a portrait. One must take one’s subjects unaware to capture the truth of them, do you not think so?”

“Oh, I, ah, never really had much interesting in the actual art,” Maureen admitted. “But the device is fascinating, don’t you think? There’s basically nothing else that marries dwarven technology and Tiraan enchanting work so seamlessly!”

“It would probably help if you turned down the light-flashy thing,” said the other voice. “I’m still seeing spots. That thing’s liable to get broken if you keep doing that to people.”

“Oh, but you can’t!” Maureen protested, turning to the speaker. “It’s precious! There are hardly any devices like that yet built, it must have cost a fortune!”

The other girl was also human, and also of a slender build, but there the resemblance to the first ended. She was of dark Western heritage, with curly black hair gathered up into a high ponytail. She wore a striking white dress that contrasted starkly with her skin and made her seem almost to glow in the warm light of the room.

“And you must be Miss Maureen,” the blonde girl said, smiling benignly at her over the lightcapper, which she still held at the ready as if to take another shot at any moment.

“Aye, that I am,” Maureen replied with a smile, feeling already more at ease than she’d imagined would be possible. “Maureen Willowick of the Shadow Falls, and glad t’know ye.” She slipped a little light Patter reflexively into her speech, which the humans of course completely missed.

“The Shadow Falls?” said the dark-skinned girl, her eyes widening. “The dungeon? You lived there?”

“That is not so uncommon, for gnomes,” said the blonde, smiling. “I am Ravana Madouri, and very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Willowick.”

“It’s just Maureen t’me friends,” she said with a slightly bashful smile.

“Maureen, then,” her new acquaintance replied with a smile in return. She had a very graceful way about her, a knack of conveying layers of goodwill with only a few words. “And you have met Miss Domingue.”

“This one likes her formalities,” the girl in white said with a cheerful wave. “I’m Iris, good to meet you!”

“Wotcher, Iris!”

The human blinked, her expression perplexed. “Uh…wha?”

“And of course,” Ravana interjected smoothly, half-turning, “this is our remaining roommate. May I present Szith nar Szarain dal An’sadarr.”

Maureen turned and barely managed not to leap backward out of the room in shock; she didn’t quite succeed in repressing a gasp.

The drow bowed politely, seeming not to notice her gaffe. “It is my honor. Welcome to our shared home, Maureen Willowick. You may address me by given name, if you wish. It is my hope that we shall all call one another friend.” She smiled, a formal little expression that held no real meaning.

“I, um, a’course,” Maureen said hesitantly. “Good t’meet you, too. Uh… I’m sorry, but… Sssszzzith?”

“The consonant does not occur in Tanglish,” Szith said, still with that aloof little smile. “I will answer to Sith or Zith without offense. Whichever is easiest for you.”

“Oh, now, that doesn’t seem right,” Maureen said hurriedly. “It’s your home too, aye? I’d want ye t’feel as welcome as any of us. I’ll work on me pronunciation, if y’don’t mind bein’ pestered a bit about it here an’ there.”

At that, the drow’s smile actually widened and developed the merest hint of real warmth. “I do not mind in the slightest. Please, come in, be comfortable.”

“Oh…aye, I ought to do that, I s’pose,” Maureen said ruefully. She had been too busy staring at the dark elf to even get a look at her surroundings. It was just that, of all the creatures gnomes encountered, fought and bested, the drow were the most relentless and formidable. Of course, a mere moment’s thought told her that Szith had to be a Themynrite from Tar’naris, not one of the savage Scyllithenes who occasionally bored into gnomish dungeons; Maureen was left embarrassed by her instinctive aversion. In her defense, Szith was obviously a fighter. Her hair was cut short, the better to keep it out of her eyes and provide no handhold for an enemy, and her sleek garment of dark lizard scales, while shaped like a simple wraparound tunic, was obviously stiff and thick enough to serve as light armor.

Now, finally, she examined the room itself. It was a long gallery containing four beds, three obviously claimed. Szith had taken the one on the far right, or at least was standing next to it. A compact backpack sat next to the head of the bed; apart from that, the only identifying feature was a flag hung on the wall behind it, a black thing with a diagonal bar of blood red so dark it did not stand out well against the black, and a spiky elvish glyph in white in its center.

Ravana’s chosen bed was obvious for the sepia-tinted lightcaps hung all over the wall behind it, surrounding a huge silver coat of arms. She also had a hefty cedar chest at the foot of her bed, and Maureen had to wonder how she’d gotten the thing down the stairs. It was substantially larger than its wispy human owner.

Iris was seated on her own bed; aside from a quilt thrown over it, she’d done nothing to customize the space.

Maureen examined the chamber itself as she clambered up onto the only remaining bed, setting her Pack possessively on the pillow. She would unpack properly later; it would be an undertaking climbing around the tall people-sized furnishings to get everything set up just so. Luckily the mattress was firm, so she wouldn’t have to worry about drowning in it, though the huge bed might pose some difficulties getting in and out of. The room itself, though, was oddly cozy. It was obviously a natural formation, irregular in shape, but had been improved with thick carpets in cheerful colors, abundant fairy lamps and comfortable furniture. In addition to the beds, each of them got a padded chair and a nightstand.

“What’s behind there?” Maureen asked, nodding at a closed door on the far wall, which did not open onto the central area of the Well.

Iris sniffed disdainfully. “The early bird who got the worm.”

“…eh?”

“A small private room,” Ravana explained, tenderly setting her lightcapper into the cedar chest at the foot of her bed. “The sleeping arrangements were clearly first come, first served. Our final roommate was the first to come, and claimed it.”

“And there she remains,” Iris said, folding her arms huffily. “Too good to talk with the likes of us.”

“She is certainly able to hear you,” Szith said.

“Well,” Maureen noted, “if that door’s as thick as this wall…”

“The fifth member of our party is an elf,” Ravana explained. “And yes, this conversation is well within the range of her hearing. I will point out that we are all of us out of our element, and people respond to change in different ways. Some are simply shy. Let us not be too quick to judge; I feel certain we shall all get along swimmingly with a little time and exposure.”

“She looked at Szith like at—sorry,” Iris interrupted herself. “I just… She was rude.”

“There is an ethnic tension present which you perhaps underestimate,” the drow said calmly. “I, for my part, wish firmly to have peace with all my classmates. Hopefully matters will improve in time.”

“That’s the spirit!” Ravana said brightly, turning from her chest and holding up several crystal wineglasses and a bottle with an extremely fancy label. “This occasion calls for a celebratory toast!”

“Um,” Iris said warily, “I’m positive alcohol is prohibited on this campus.”

“The woman stationed at the gate was clearly drinking,” Szith pointed out.

“Princess Zaruda has an exemption,” Ravana said smoothly, setting the glasses on her nightstand and pouring wine into one. “You’re correct, Iris, this is a dry campus. That is precisely why it is necessary to have a drink now.”

“That’s…that’s not logic,” Iris said. “That’s the opposite of logic.”

“Wait a tick,” Maureen said. “Did you say princess?”

Ravana laughed, a light, well-bred sound that seemed almost to have been rehearsed. “There are rules which matter, ladies, and rules which exist simply for the sake of having rules. A prohibition on alcohol is clearly one of the latter; after all, a good wine is a basic necessity of life.”

“My Tanglish may be imperfect,” Szith said, deadpan. “The definitions I was taught of ‘basic’ and ‘necessity’ do not fit this context.”

“I’d much rather not start off by getting’ on the wrong side of the law, as it were,” Maureen said nervously, sitting in the center of her bed as if its width were a moat protecting her from rule-breaking.

“One must probe at the boundaries of the law,” Ravana explained brightly. “There is no other way to learn the true extent of one’s freedoms. After all, one cannot go through life accepting the boundaries laid down by authority as absolute. The true bounds are never set where they are alleged to be by those who proclaim them. Are you sure none of you wish to join me? It truly is a lovely vintage, one of my favorites.”

“No, thanks.”

“Very well, the offer stands.” She lifted the one glass she had filled to them in toast. “To our health, to new friendships and many adventures to come.” Ravana, smiling contentedly, took a long sip.

Her expression abruptly changed to one of shock.

She set the wineglass down so hard it sloshed, almost spilling, and pressed a hand to her mouth.

“What’s wrong?” Iris demanded, jerking upright in alarm.

Ravana finally forced herself to swallow, and immediately began coughing. “I…ah! Gah. Fleh!”

“Are ye hurt?” Maureen asked worriedly, clenching her fingers in her skirts.

“No, thank you for your concern,” Ravana said hoarsely. “I’ve simply had a swallow of…” She gave the wine bottle a long look. “…very expensive vinegar. Well played, Professor Tellwyrn. Well played indeed.”

“It would seem this was not a wasted experience,” Szith noted dryly. “You have discovered what appears to be a solid boundary.”

Iris stepped out into the Well’s central room to fetch Ravana some water, and Maureen felt herself relaxing onto her oversized bed, grinning at her roommate’s misfortune. Despite what had to have been quite a nasty shock, the blonde girl took it in stride, professing rueful amusement at her comeuppance.

The gnome let the chatter wash over her, content for the moment with her own silence. It wasn’t home; they weren’t her familiar people. They weren’t even Folk, of course. But in that moment, she finally began to have the feeling that something of life as she knew it would continue here at the University. No telling how far that little sliver of familiarity would take her, of course, but it was something.

It was a start.

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