Tag Archives: Ami Talaari

11 – 26

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

“Lord?” Tallie screeched.

Darius sighed, looked at her, and then at Layla, who was still glaring at him. “Uh…all right. Why don’t we take this someplace other than the steps of the police station? Clearly we need to talk…”

“I don’t see what there is to talk about,” Layla snapped. “You’re coming home with me and these people can totter off back wherever it is you found them. This is enough of this, Darius!”

“He’s right, though,” Jasmine said, stepping closer to her. “There’s clearly a difference of opinion here, and this really isn’t the place.”

She glanced at the doors of the station. Quite apart from drawing looks from everyone who passed by, they were now the object of fixed attention by the two soldiers standing watch at the doors.

“Your opinion was not asked, young woman,” Layla said haughtily. “Remove yourself.”

“Layla!” Darius snapped. “First of all, don’t talk about my friends that way, because it makes me unhappy. Second and more importantly, these are Thieves’ Guild apprentices. Don’t talk to Eserites that way, because it results in them making you unhappy.”

“I did not come all the way out here to be threatened!” Layla exclaimed.

“He said it.” Ross pointed at Darius.

“If you’re so insistent on having a conversation about this, you can do so in the carriage. Don’t force me to have Ralph put you bodily in it.”

“Whoah, now,” Jasmine said soothingly. “Nobody is putting anybody bodily anywhere. You’re making a scene, Lady Layla, and this is a very public place.”

“That does it!” Layla actually stomped her foot. “Ralph!”

The driver of the carriage stepped down and took two strides which brought him all the way up the stairs to join them. He was taller than Tallie and broader than Ross, all of it muscle.

“Kindly assist Lord Darius into the carriage,” Layla said smugly.

“Here, now,” one of the soldiers on duty said sharply, taking a step toward them.

“Ralph, don’t even think about it,” Darius snapped, edging behind Tallie, who immediately stepped away, scowling furiously at him.

“Sorry, m’lord,” Ralph rumbled, shrugging and reaching out toward Darius. “The Lady’s currently in your mother’s good graces; I’m afraid her word goes.”

“Exactly!” Layla said, folding her arms.

“No, it doesn’t.” Jasmine planted herself in front of Ralph, making him pause. “That’s enough of this. We’re all intelligent, civilized people; let’s behave like it, please.”

“You may feel free to remove any troublesome pests who interfere in House business,” Layla said coldly.

Ralph sighed, but reached out and grasped Jasmine’s shoulder. “Here, now, miss, if you’ll just—”

Two seconds later, he had received a punch in the elbow and a kick to the inside of the knee, sending him tumbling back down the steps with an incongruously high-pitched cry of pain. The footman leaped forward to intervene, just in time to catch Jasmine’s heel in his stomach; he doubled over with a cry.

“HOW DARE YOU!” Layla shrieked, turning to the two soldiers on duty, both of whom were now striding forward with their weapons raised. “Officers! You will arrest this wench immediately!”

“Stand down in the Emperor’s name!” one of the soldiers barked, leveling his staff at Ralph and the footman, neither of whom seemed about to get up.

“Young lady,” the second said sharply to the astonished Lady Layla, “while individuals are culpable for their actions before the law, the Writ of Privilege clearly states that aristocrats share complicity for any illegal action undertaken at their orders, by their vassals. You have just instructed your servant to assault a private citizen.”

She gaped at him, “But—but—but—”

“Now who’s embarrassing the House?” Darius complained loudly. “Layla, have you lost your mind? Even Father doesn’t treat people that way.”

“B-but—but—”

Jasmine cleared her throat loudly. “Excuse me, officers, but I was just reminded that the victim of a crime has prosecutorial discretion. I have no intention of pressing any charges here. Can we all please drop this?”

“Fine,” the more loquacious soldier said curtly, turning to her. “And in the future, you will kindly remember not to use excessive force in self-defense.”

“Of course,” she said politely.

“Now see here!” Layla shrieked. “Have you any idea who I am?! My father will hear of this!”

“I daresay he will,” the soldier replied with visible exasperation. “You are creating a public disturbance, disrupting access to an Imperial public facility, and committing assault. He’ll hear it from the gossip columns, and if you don’t all take this somewhere else immediately, he will hear of it in an official letter of censure from the Imperial Army!”

She gaped at him. “Do you—how dare—You can’t speak to me that way!”

“Layla!” Darius shouted. “House Sakhavenid’s holdings are hell and gone from here, and you are a minor. Not only can you not give orders to Imperial troops, they can throw you in a cell if you do stuff like start fights in front of a police station!” He stepped forward and grabbed her firmly by the arm. “Sorry, officers, we’re leaving.”

“Do,” the senior officer said flatly, staring him down.

“Fine,” Layla humphed, futilely trying to tug her arm away from Darius. “We can repair to my hotel to—”

“Yeah, that won’t be necessary,” he said flatly. “Come on, guys, there’s a discreet establishment not far from here where we can talk. I guess I owe some explanations…”

“I damn well guess so!” Tallie snarled.

“I beg your pardon?” Layla snapped. “These urchins are most definitely not accompanying us, and that is final!”


Schwartz had been granted rooms at the College’s main campus in Tiraas. Ami didn’t know whether this was at Bishop Throale’s request due to his project of befriending the Thieves’ Guild, or because he was conducting some actual research on behalf of his cult. He was usually conducting some kind of research anyway, but that was just what he did. The inner politics of Salyrene’s faith were not interesting to her except in an academic sense, and while she was busy contending with Syrinx, Locke, and the various strings those tied to everyone around them, she preferred to keep her mind clear of distractions. The Salyrites, at least, were among the least prone to politicking of all the cults. It had to be something in their doctrines, considering that they were a whole cult of intellectuals, and Ami had known enough of those, both Nemitite and secular, to know how fond they were of backbiting.

Unfortunately, Schwartz wasn’t in his rooms, which compelled her to go looking for him. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been; there were only a few places he was likely to have gone, and the likeliest prospects by far were in the public areas of the temple. She made a point of carrying her flute case (she didn’t prefer the flute, but it was more easily portable than her guitar) and wearing her golden harp pin. Everybody loved a bard, except those who specifically hated them. And everybody knew not to stop a bard trying to go where she pleased unless they had a really good reason.

The library complex occupied two upper floors of the Collegium; fortunately Ami didn’t have to go hunting further than that. The librarians knew exactly where her quarry was.

She strolled into the alcove that Schwartz appeared to have completely taken over. Books were absolutely everywhere, and not in the way that they usually were in libraries; most of these were open, lying strewn across tables, benches, windowsills and each other, though she noted that not one had been so much as rumpled or had its spine cracked. Schwartz was still Schwartz.

He was muttering to himself, scrawling furiously in what appeared to be a journal, hunched over a reading table behind a parapet of stacked books. Meesie bounded onto the top of the tallest, greeting Ami with a shrill squeak.

“And hello to you too,” the bard replied archly.

Schwartz’s head snapped up, and he grinned broadly, bringing her up short. He wasn’t usually so demonstrative… Then again, upon closer inspection, she noticed that his eyes were also a little too wide. Other signs of agitation were hard to discern, as his clothes and hair were pretty much always rumpled.

“Ami!” he said brightly, attempting to stand up so fast he caught his thighs on the underside of the table and bounced right back down into his seat. “What brings you here?”

She planted her fists on her hips and looked down her nose at him. “Herschel, have you been into that vile black potion of yours?”

“What, coffee? First of all, coffee is wonderful, and no, I found something better. Deferred sleep! It’s an old witch’s standby—I could never get it quite right until recently, always had some iffy side effects!”

Grinning up at her, he listed slightly to the right.

“I think you could do with some practice,” she said.

“Nonsense, everything’s perfect! Ami, I’ve had a singularly significant discovery! This is so much better than sleeping, I should do this all the time!”

Meesie bounced across the table to stand at the very edge near Ami, where she pointed back at Schwartz and squeaked urgently.

“Yes,” Ami told the little elemental, “that was the conclusion to which I had just come. Now come along, Herschel, I think we need to have a talk with someone a tad more experienced…”

“I was kicking around possibilities for an anti-tracking charm, you see,” he said, rustling frantically in the scrawled papers and notes strewn about behind his wall of books. “You don’t ordinarily use fae magic to block arcane like that, but my new friends—you know, the Eserites—had a need and I thought it would be just perfect if I could be the one to help them out with it, you know? And so I laid my deferred sleeping charm and was researching and I came across the most fascinating thing!”

“Yes, I’m sure,” she said soothingly, stepping around the table. “You can tell me all about it on the way to the medical wing.”

“Nonsense, I don’t need any medicine,” he said crossly, ignoring Meesie’s indignant squeak of disagreement. “Listen—ah, here it is! So I was doing background research on concealment and deflection in general, right? And you’re aware, of course, how fae magic is closely tied to emotional states. Well, I think I’ve stumbled across the reason Bishop Syrinx gets away with abusing Avei’s power!”

That brought Ami up short. “W—you have? And you found this by accident?”

“There’s a certain school of thought which insists there are no accidents,” he muttered, rapidly leafing through the book he’d yanked out from under the pile. “Especially when dealing with the gods. But no, well, I mean, maybe. That’s not the point. All right, I told you about the elvish term, yes? Anth’auwa?”

“Yes,” she said patiently, “and I was aware of it already, if you’ll recall.”

“Of course, yes, right, my apologies. Well! For the basis of any kind of attention-deflection spell using fae magic you would naturally start with an emotional state which is averse to having attention paid to it, and I found an intersection between that and the heartless! They’re very good at hiding and blending in, you see—actually there’s a whole book on them in here, it’s in elvish which I can’t read, but of course I never step foot in a library without a few scrolls of translation handy. Blast it, now what did I do with that book…”

“Hershel,” she said patiently, “focus, please.”

“Yes! Right, the spell. I’d been checking that for background information—I mean, both for the spell and because it caught my eye because, well, Syrinx, you know? It seems that the large part of the reason anth’auwa don’t get noticed is because most people just don’t comprehend what they are. Actually there was some really interesting notation on studies done by the dwarves up in Svenheim, I couldn’t find the original but it was referenced in the elvish book, where apparently less educated people tend to be more instinctively wary of people who exhibit signs of social pathology, while the more intellectual are prone to rationalize away their tells. Isn’t that fascinating?”

“Fascinating might be overstating it. It’s interesting, certainly, but I thought we were focusing?”

“Right! And that got me thinking about a bit of Eserite doctrine I read while boning up on them before seeking them out. I mean, they don’t even have many actual doctrines, and those they tend not to write down where others can read them, but there’s a bit out there. They have this thing about the three kinds of invisibility: Can’t see, don’t see, and won’t see. You follow?”

She sighed deeply. “I’m getting the impression this isn’t that kind of narrative. Follow? No. I’m assuming you’ll come to a point, whereupon all this will begin to make some sense. And then we can go to the medical wing.”

Meesie squeaked insistently at her.

“Yes, well, you couldn’t get him out of here, either,” Ami retorted.

“So at this point I had a hunch!” he said, having given up on finding whatever he was looking for in the book, and now stared eagerly up at her. “I’ve been reading up on theology and what’s known about the nature of gods, specifically how to get their attention. You know the usual ways: mortal self-sacrifice is reliable, even more than being a cleric dedicated to a certain god; they don’t consistently interact with anyone except paladins, high priests, you know, the likes of that. So I pried into the gap there, with how clerics can wield divine power from a god without that god necessarily paying attention to them. Even then, there are exceptions. Bring their power into conflict with demons, undead, things like that—they’ll notice anything they inherently oppose. Use their power to do something they don’t approve of, they’ll pay attention to that, as well. But! It is, in theory, possible for a priest to go their whole life without ever once drawing their deity’s direction attention, even while using divine magic! Extremely unlikely, of course, but theoretically!”

“None of this is new,” she said skeptically, “to you, to me, or to anyone who’s an ordained member of any cult. It’s theoretical, but it’s all pretty basic.”

“Right!” he said, nodding so enthusiastically his spectacles began sliding off. Meesie leaped nimbly to his shoulder and pushed them back into place; Schwartz appeared not to notice any of this. “So I focused on what does work rather than what doesn’t. The emotional state that makes divine magic function for someone, even when its deity isn’t paying attention. What’s most necessary, is faith.” He looked expectantly up at her. “Get it?”

“…continue explaining, perhaps?”

Schwartz let out a little sigh of frustration, which he would ordinarily have been far too considerate to do, so she decided not to reprimand him.

“Well, I mean, what is faith?”

“Herschel, so help me, if you’ve spent this whole night finding what you think is an answer to one of the great theological questions…”

“No, no, no, this is a practical matter entirely. Psychologically speaking, faith is confidence. Absolute certainty, even when lacking evidence. Faith in practice—such as drawing on divine magic—is basically confidence that one is just, that one is doing the right thing. Now!” He actually bounced once in his seat in eagerness. “What if there were a kind of person who’s completely, congenitally incapable of self-doubt? Who automatically assumes everything they do is right because they’re doing it, who regards a deity as a mechanistic series of forces, without the kind of emotional engagement that could attract emotional engagement in return? Eh?”

“Are you suggesting,” Ami said slowly, intrigued in spite of herself, “that anth’auwa are invisible to the gods?”

“Oh, no, heavens no,” he said, frowning. “Invisible, that’s ridiculous. That’s Black Wreath craft, and if anybody knew how they were doing it the Salyrites would have found a way to neutralize it centuries ago. No, but remember? Can’t see, don’t see, won’t see? She doesn’t need to be invisible to Avei. She just needs to be very, very unlikely to draw Avei’s attention. Avei won’t smite what she doesn’t notice! And from a certain point of view, someone with no conscience is more faithful than a mentally normal person could be! She’d never experience guilt or uncertainty. All she has to do is refrain from doing something counter to Avei’s doctrines while channeling divine magic, and apparently, avoiding notice is the entire point of how they get along in the world—I can’t believe it would be all that much of a stretch for her.”

“Well, Omnu’s breath,” she mused in wonder. “Herschel, I think you actually have stumbled upon something, here.”

Meesie squeaked in exasperation, tugging at Schwartz’s ear, which he continued to ignore.

“So,” he said eagerly, “all we have to do is call Avei’s attention to her directly and in detail!”

“Quite,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “How?”

He physically deflated. “Well, uh…that part I… I mean, there’s bound to be something in the books somewhere…”

“Mm hm. Well, unless you want to go share these insights with High Commander Rouvad or what’s-her-name out in Last Rock, assuming you could get near either of them and are willing to take the risk of word getting back to Basra, this appears to be a stopping point. Now come along, Herschel; your long-awaited meeting with Jenell is soon, and you’ll want to have yourself straightened up a bit before then.”

“What!” For the second time, he tried to stand too fast and came to grief on the table. “Ow! Is it that late already?”

“No,” she said dryly. “I had a feeling I’d need to dig you out of somewhere, fortunately for you. Now come on, there’s bound to be someone in this temple who can fix whatever you’ve done to yourself?”

“Done?” he said indignantly. “I assure you, I do not require fixing, it was a perfectly foolproof…”

He was interrupted mid sentence by a massive yawn.

“Ah, yes,” he said blearily, “right, off to see Jenell…just as soon as I…catch a nap…”

Schwartz slumped forward alarmingly fast, his forehead thunking against the table top. Ami experienced a split-second of real worry before he began snoring.

“You know,” she said to Meesie, “my life was actually rather peaceful. I was playing the guitar in the evenings, and plotting against an evil Bishop by day. All very rote for a bard. And then I had to go and get mixed up with a man.”

The elemental squeaked in commiseration.

“Well, that’s very easy for you to say.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

11 – 14

<  Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

“Ah, Basra. Close the door, please.”

Basra paused just inside the office to pull the door shut as ordered, then glanced with a carefully neutral expression at Principia, who was standing at attention near the High Commander’s desk, before proceeding the rest of the way forward.

“Good morning, Commander. I hope I haven’t kept you waiting?”

“Not at all, Locke only just got arrived herself,” Rouvad said briskly. “Apologies for depriving you of breakfast, Sergeant, but the Bishop has business at the Church which won’t wait on us. This won’t be a long meeting.”

“My schedule is currently elastic, ma’am,” Principia replied crisply. “Obviously her Grace’s time is more valuable.”

“Indeed. Then let’s be about this before anyone is made late for anything.” Rouvad folded her hands atop the desk, shifting her body slightly to face Basra directly. “I called you both here for a progress report on your shared project. Basra, what do you have?”

“Very little, at this juncture,” Basra replied with the faintest frown. “My task is political in nature and rather sensitive; unraveling these webs takes time.”

“Naturally,” Rouvad acknowledged with a nod. “Neither of you are here to be pressured, I simply wish to remain in the loop with all details. What have you managed so far?”

“I have, of course, approached Bishop Darling to ask about those devices.” Basra twisted her mouth in a slight grimace. “He was…well, in a word, himself.”

Both the other women present nodded in immediate understanding.

“Based on our conversation,” Basra continued, “I am reasonably sure he is the one who arranged for the presence of both those staves and the tip that brought the Legion’s intervention. At least, he hinted in that direction. I should stipulate, here, that I am making assumptions. Darling is capable of being extremely underhanded indeed. My conclusions are based on our relationship; we work well together and have built up a degree of trust, which I don’t believe he would squander without cause. Based upon broad hints he has dropped, I think that Darling, personally, considers it a matter of the greater good to have those devices known to the Sisterhood, and that there are factional issues within the Thieves’ Guild at work which restrain him from working more openly with us.”

“Hm.” Rouvad narrowed her eyes slightly in thought. “How do you plan to proceed?”

“As I have, in part. He seems inclined to dole out further tidbits, but I’m unwilling to be strung along with no other recourse. As yet I’ve no other ideas or avenues to pursue, and am considering carefully what else to try. It is, as I said, a very early stage in this investigation.”

“Of course,” Rouvad agreed. “That’s satisfactory progress for two days’ work, considering. Locke, can you shed any insight on a factional conflict within the Thieves’ Guild?”

“I’m afraid not, ma’am. Factions within the Guild are transient things stirred up by the issues of the day, and I’ve been out of the loop far too long to know who’s who and what they’re after.”

“Mm. How quickly do you think you could find out?”

Principia blinked once, her own expression of surprise in an otherwise blank face. “…Commander, you’re talking about building a new reputation and a whole set of connections; thieves don’t just chitchat about sensitive business with people they’ve just met. To answer the question, years. But I wish it noted for the record that I consider the idea an abrogation of the understanding that I am not to be leveraged against the Guild, and would not comply if ordered.”

“Mm hm,” Basra murmured.

“Syrinx,” Rouvad said flatly, “she is not the only one whom I expect to remain civil, here. And she’s correct: that is, indeed, Legion policy and Sisterhood doctrine with regard to individuals who have affiliation with multiple cults. My apologies, Sergeant, it was a spur of the moment thought, not an order.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“In any case,” Rouvad continued, “if the Bishop has nothing else to add…? Very well. It is, as we’ve noted, quite early in this affair, Locke, but have you made any progress, either with the staves or tracing their origins?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia replied. “The weapons are called divine disruptors. They were created by a secret division of the Imperial Army at a secure spell lab in Veilgrad, which was damaged in the chaos event of a few months ago. Weapon prototypes were stolen by members of the chaos cult which caused the disaster, and then stolen from them by the Black Wreath, who were then ambushed and beaten by Duchess Malivette Dufresne, a vampire of one of the more dangerous lineages and the sitting Imperial Governor of Lower Stalwar Province. Dufresne returned most of the staves to the Empire, after suggesting her intention to deliver one or more to the Theives’ Guild for the express purpose of disseminating the spellwork in question and depriving the Imperial government of exclusive control of it. What occurred after that I have not ascertained, though it suggests in general terms how Bishop Darling came to be involved.

“In function, the weapons produce a burst of energy which neutralizes all forms of divine magic. Sister Eivery and I have not yet had time to test them under a variety of conditions, but we have ascertained that they immediately collapse a divine shield of normal strength, and when used on a Light-wielder, inhibit the subject’s ability to call upon divine magic. That effect fades after an hour, roughly. I have disassembled one of the staves, and believe I could build another from scratch, but liargold aside, these specimens are made almost entirely from cheap knock-off materials, largely because the genuine materials they suggest are prohibitively expensive. To proceed, ma’am, I will need either a substantial quantity of gold and rare crystals, or the assistance of an alchemist able to work with liargold.”

She stopped talking, and there was dead silence in the room. Rouvad and Syrinx both stared at her, wide-eyed.

“Locke,” the Commander said after a long moment, “how did you dig all that up so quickly?”

“I ascribe it to either immense good luck or Avei’s intervention, ma’am,” Principia replied. “One of the Guild apprentices we have been following happened to have been present at Veilgrad when these weapons first appeared.”

“Oh, Locke,” Basra murmured. “I do hope that doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means. Since we are well aware that Trissiny Avelea was present and involved in that mess…”

“Yes, your Grace,” Principia said calmly. “General Avelea has been most helpful. Her involvement is the only reason I am inclined to credit divine intervention; a paladin’s presence where coincidences start to appear is suggestive.”

“And just what were you doing talking to Trissiny Avelea?” Basra snapped.

“She summoned me,” Principia replied, shifting her eyes to Rouvad. “Given our respective ranks, I judged I had better respond immediately. For future reference, however, would you prefer I report any contact with the General, Commander? I wish to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

Rouvad shook her head. “The condition of your enlistment was that you stay away from Avelea unless she reached out to you first. If she did, whatever you discuss is between you. However, I should clarify that you are not to pursue her attentions if she’s not inclined to talk further. Understood?”

“I wouldn’t, anyway, Commander. That’s no way to build a relationship with someone.”

“Locke, I don’t need to hear your opinions on interpersonal relations when I give you an order. You know what I need to hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Exactly,” Rouvad said, staring pointedly at her. “Now, with regard to the matter at hand, did she summon you to talk specifically about these weapons?”

“No, ma’am, I asked about that. She wanted my advice on integrating Avenist and Eserite philosophies and succeeding in the Guild.”

“Hm,” the Commander mused. “Very well. I would castigate you for apparently firing one of those weapons at Eivery, but frankly, knowing her as I do, I’ll assume your presence was the only reason she didn’t test it on herself without supervision.”

“I appreciate that, ma’am.”

“Overall, impressive progress, Locke. How do you plan to proceed?”

“Thank you, ma’am. I’ve indicated my intentions with regard to the continuing reverse-enchantment of the weapons. While I personally am keeping a circumspect distance from both Trissiny and the Guild, Shahai has made contact with the group of apprentices we arrested and established the beginnings of a relationship, which we intend to leverage for further information as possible and appropriate. With regard to that, she reported the group were also approached by a group of dwarves with the same intent. Not to be racist, but dwarves were also apparently the intended buyers of the staves at the swap meet the Legion interrupted.”

“How can it possibly be racist to notice that both groups were dwarves?” Basra said disdainfully.

Principia’s armor rasped softly as she shrugged. “I didn’t want to imply that they all look alike. Both wore obscuring robes, which isn’t dwarven or anybody’s custom who isn’t trying to hide their identity.”

“Interesting,” said Rouvad. “Keep me appraised of any developments.”

“Of course, Commander.”

“Anything else to report?”

“Yes, ma’am. Among those arrested, but not involved with the Guild, was another individual whose presence was extremely fortuitous. He is a Salyrite, a fae magic specialist who provides helpfully indirect access to that cult’s resources; I am cultivating a relationship in part with an eye to developing that connection, since the Sisterhood has few personnel like Eivery trained for the kind of work I am doing. He also happens to be the son of an old friend of mine, who I was not aware had offspring. Name is Herschel Schwartz.”

Basra shifted her head very faintly, raising on eyebrow by a hair.

“Very well, you don’t really need my blessing to proceed with that,” said Rouvad. “Needless to say, you will be very careful with any plan which involves the College of Salyrene in this, but I understand the potential need.”

“Yes, ma’am. I do not intend to involve the College at all, but only available elements within it, to the extent that it can be done discreetly. But I raised the matter for another reason. Mr. Schwartz was present for Bishop Syrinx’s recent successes in Viridill and apparently part of her staff. He is now pursuing some kind of vendetta against her.”

Rouvad sighed and leaned back in her chair, staring at the ceiling. “Basra!”

“That’s a surprise to me,” Basra said in perfect calm. “Schwartz was imminently helpful to me for his magical expertise in dealing with elementals and other fae nonsense. I sent a glowing testimonial of his performance to his cult. I thought we parted on good terms.”

“Locke,” Rouvad said irritably, straightening back up. “why is this man now obsessed with the Bishop?”

“I would say ‘offended’ more than ‘obsessed,’ ma’am. And I didn’t ask.”

The Commander’s gaze sharpened. “You didn’t ask why this son of your acquaintance was chasing a vendetta against our Bishop?”

“Permission to speak freely, ma’am?”

“Denied. I have expressed myself clearly on the subject of infighting, Locke. You will keep a civil tongue in your head when employing it to, about, or near Bishop Syrinx. Answer the question.”

“Yes, ma’am. I consider his motivations secondary at best and probably not very interesting; what matters is that he cannot be allowed to do this. Quite apart from the need to shield our Bishop from outside interference, as someone with a personal interest in the boy’s continued health I would rather not see him pick a fight he is going to decisively lose.”

Rouvad’s stare shifted back to Basra. “And you have no idea why he would be irate with you?”

“I didn’t say I had no idea,” the Bishop replied with a shrug. “Schwartz was extremely useful, but he’s an academic and frankly a bit of a houseplant. Hand-holding him through various outdoor excursions was…trying. He also had developed an infatuation with my aide, Private Covrin. Since she was being exceedingly discreet with members of other cults at my request, due to the sensitivity of our work, she refrained from rebuking him as firmly as she otherwise might. Considering I was the reason for Covrin’s restraint, I took it upon myself to instruct him to leave her alone. And that not until I found him lurking outside her quarters at the Abbey; better he hear it from me than a Silver Legion patrol. They don’t do restraint when it comes to creepy guys harassing their own.” She shook her head. “I thought I was fair with the boy, and he didn’t seem excessively upset at the time. Though that may have just been embarrassment.”

“Is this Schwartz character a threat, do you think, Locke?”

“I hardly think so, ma’am,” Principia replied. “He has no stomach for violence, no inclination toward law-breaking, and no plan. He was hanging around an illegal swap meet in the hopes of striking up an acquaintance with Eserites who could teach him how to go about seeking revenge. That’s the kind of competence we’re talking about, here.”

“I concur with every part of the Sergeant’s assessment,” Basra said dryly. “Not a thing in this world frightens me less than the outrage of Herschel Schwartz.”

“I am cultivating Schwartz as a useful contact, as I said,” Principia continued. “I also mean to talk him down from this at the same time. This business with Covrin is news to me, though he mentioned her. This altogether strikes me as common enough behavior in a young man who lacked good female role models growing up. Some time spent around my squad will do him a world of good, I think.”

“All right, on the strength of both your recommendations,” Rouvad said darkly, “I’ll let that alone for now. But if for any reason your assessment changes in any way, Locke, you will immediately report it, both to me and to Bishop Syrinx.”

“Yes, ma’am. I have already told Herschel that if he goes near Bishop Syrinx with aggressive intent I’ll be taking the matter directly to his own cult.”

“Good; do that, too. What you do in your personal time, and with whom, is your own affair, but none of this is to come between you and your duties.”

“Of course, Commander.”

“Anything else, then?” She paused, glancing back and forth between them. “Very well. All things considered, ladies, good work; keep it up. Dismissed.”


Basra kept herself restrained all through the ride to the Cathedral and the walk through its halls to her office. The whole time, Jenell tried to be as invisible as possible; she could clearly see the storm coming. Being out of its path was probably not an option. She’d have to settle for not making herself its focus.

Her reprieve extended once they arrived; Basra immediately sent her to cancel her first appointment of the day. While Jenell ordinarily hated having to give bad news to the likes of Bishop Rastlin, especially when she couldn’t provide a satisfactory reason for it, today she relished the opportunity to be out from under Basra’s glowering eye for a little while. Even Rastlin’s displeasure was a relief. There wasn’t much he could actually do to her.

She desperately wanted to drag her feet and prolong the errand, but didn’t dare. Making Basra wait at the best of times was a quick way to the bad side of her temper; adding any kind of delay to her existing ire would be a disaster.

Basra’s office, very fortunately, was soundproof; the enchantment was standard on all the offices of Bishops and Church officials of any high rank. Covrin had standing permission to enter without knocking, which she did—then quickly slipped inside and shut the door before anybody happened to hear what sounded like a fight in progress.

The Bishop’s idea of décor was almost a caricature of Avenist standards. At her home, she liked her comforts lavish, but her space in the Cathedral was stark, spartan, and decorated exclusively with military hardware. The walls were hung with bladed and blunt weapons, shields bearing various devices, and locked display cases holding old-fashioned battlestaves. Jenell had worked with Basra long enough and accumulated enough trust to know which cases weren’t actually locked, and which staves still held a charge. In each of the room’s corners stood a suit of armor—a medieval cavalry knight’s, and three different Silver Legion sets from different eras—and by the fireplace was a training dummy on a slightly flexible pole.

This was the office’s second dummy since Basra had returned from Viridill. They did not enjoy long lives.

Despite her usual preference for sword combat, Basra was going at the thing bare-fisted, striking hard enough to draw small grunts, a bad sign. She was usually too tightly controlled for that. The little sounds she made were high-pitched and incongruously cute, a fact upon which Jenell had far too much sense to ever remark.

She placed herself by the door and stood at attention. Basra had not looked up to acknowledge her, but she knew the woman’s situational awareness was far too acute to have missed the opening and closing of the door.

Jenell didn’t have to wait long. Moments after her arrival, Basra brought the session to an end with a roundhouse kick that sent the dummy careening into the rack of practice weapons standing near it. The lot clattered to the floor, reinforcing the importance of the office’s soundproofing. Kicks like that weren’t part of the Eagle Style, and were in general not a smart thing to try against a competent opponent, or so Jenell had been told by her drill instructor in basic. She could believe it; Basra only did such things when she wanted to make a mess.

“That smug tree rat whore,” she snarled, beginning to pace up and down. Jenell managed not to wince; she’d really hoped the woman would have worked out most of her anger on the dummy. “Showboating little piece of grove trash! It’s not enough she has to show me up for results, when Rouvad is clearly testing us against each other. And she’s doing it by playing her own connections—to the Guild, and that damned paladin. No, then she has to taunt me with this business about Schwartz!”

Calm. Control. Jenell refused to react. She desperately wanted to know what Schwartz had to do with any of this, but instinct and experience warned that if she pulled that string she’d gain a black eye or two. Basra rarely struck her physically, and more rarely still in a way that left marks. When she felt such a lesson was necessary, though, her ability to heal minor wounds on the spot was extremely useful.

“Even Rouvad isn’t this blind,” Basra growled, stopping in her pacing and turning to stare across her office at the window behind her desk. “No… So that’s how it is, Farzida? Fine. Fine. I’m still twice the—three times the anything your pet elf is. Stack the deck all you want, I’ll still mop the floor with her scalp.” She drew in a deep breath, her shoulders swelling, and let it out slowly. Finally, some of the anger melted from her expression. It did not vanish completely, though, even as she smiled. “And yours, some day. Soon enough.”

Jenell kept silent, staring straight ahead, lest Basra happened to glance over and catch her watching. It had occurred to her before that some of the things Basra allowed her to overhear would get the Bishop severely rebuked at minimum… If she were fool enough to think that pitting her word against Basra’s would go in her favor. She didn’t know if this was a test of her loyalty, or merely of her restraint. For all that so much of her life focused around predicting and responding to Basra’s moods, so much of the woman’s thought process was opaque to her.

“Locke is only getting anywhere because she has connections,” Basra murmured, scowling intently into the distance, now. “I don’t know how she got in with those Eserite kids so quickly… That’s what I’ll need to undercut.”

At one time, Jenell had thought herself quite clever—cunning, even. Months under Basra’s authority had taught her what cunning was, and that hers didn’t compare; it was all she could do to proceed slowly with her research toward what she hoped would be her mentor’s unmaking without being caught. She’d never been sly enough to spot an opportunity like this, develop a plan, and take action, all on the spur of the moment.

Which was why it was fortunate she’d developed that plan already, and been watching intently for just such an opening.

“What if you just took over her connections?” she asked.

Basra shot her an irritated look. “Be quiet, you silly cow, I’m—” She broke off, staring blankly at Jenell.

Suddenly, Basra turned on her heel and strode across the room, straight for her. Jenell allowed her face to express alarm and backed up against the door. Most of the time she kept her self-control iron-clad, but she’d learned long since that Basra rather enjoyed seeing her afraid.

The Bishop didn’t stop until she was standing close enough that Jenell could feel her breath on her cheek.

“Jenell,” she murmured, “I do believe I owe you an apology.”

“Oh, um, I’m sure that’s not—”

“Hush.” Basra laid a finger over her lips. “That was an excellent suggestion you just had; exactly what I need. And a reminder of why I keep you around, which is certainly not for your filing skills or because you’re particularly good in bed.” Fingers lightly grazed that spot just above her hip where there was a small gap in the armor, and she shuddered. Basra’s lips quirked sideways in amusement. “That socialite’s animal cunning, though. You’re going to make a more than adequate politician someday, my dear.”

“Uh…thank you.”

“You’ll have to get rid of that stammer, of course,” Basra said dismissively, abruptly stepping away and beginning to pace again. “There is absolutely no reason for an intelligent person to make noises like ‘uh.’ You have got to be able to pass yourself off as an intelligent person, Jenell, or they’ll eat you alive out there. Honestly, how you managed without me to hold your hand is an ongoing mystery. It’s a damned shame about Elwick—but then, if you had the wit or the spine to stand up to me that way, you wouldn’t be benefiting from my patronage now.”

Jenell kept silent. Oddly, she wasn’t even particularly offended anymore. Of all the things she put up with, insults like this were commonplace and minor. It was a good sign, if anything; Basra didn’t talk this way when she was in a bad enough mood to do something that could actually hurt her.

“Locke’s connections,” the Bishop mused to herself as she paced. “She’s on the outs with the Guild, even Darling doesn’t like her. And I’d get nowhere with them. That’s neutral. Trissiny is untouchable, but the girl is both unformed and already deeply suspicious of Locke. If she’s reaching out to her… Have to put a stop to that. And those kids, now. What they need is friends and allies. The sort who haven’t thrown them in cells.”

She halted, turned to face her aide, and folded her hands behind her back, smiling pleasantly. Jenell experienced a small frisson of true fear.

“Jenell,” Basra said calmly, “I have a task for you.”

“What do you need, your Grace?”

“You’re going to find those kids Locke is cultivating, the Eserites, and befriend them. You have permission to act out of armor—in fact, it’s probably better if you do at least part of the time. They are to work for me, not for Principia Locke.”

“Ah, your Grace,” Jenell said nervously.

“What did I literally just finish saying to you about umms and uhhs? Shut up when I’m talking, it’s not as if you have anything useful to contribute, anyway. Make what use of those kids you can while getting them kindly disposed toward me. But your primary target is Trissiny Avelea. That’s the one I need most of all. She knows me as a helpful figure, she’s uncertain about Locke, and I need both those attitudes reinforced. Make it happen.”

“I’m… How should I approach them?”

“Must I do everything for you?” Basra said irritably. “Follow Locke’s squad, if you can’t think of anything better. They’re already working with the brats; they’ll lead you to wherever you can go to intercept them. And Avelea is your in, if you can’t manage to arrange one of your own. She’s a smart one—no Hand of Avei has ever shown the kind of initiative she’s taken, learning the Guild’s ways. It’s the next best thing to studying with the Black Wreath themselves. That girl may actually live to see her thirtieth birthday, and accomplish more than beating back the tide, which would be a departure from her predecessors’ track record. Help her, but above all, bring her to me. If she doesn’t need your help—which is almost certainly the case, considering her and considering you—she’ll be willing to help you if you create a need. She’s a protective one, is Avelea.”

“Ma’am,” Jenell said desperately, “I’m not sure I’m the right person for this. I don’t know anything about associating with that kind of…riffraff.”

Basra smiled. “Then I suggest you get to work developing new skills, Jenell. One can never have too many, after all.” Abruptly her voice sharpened. “Well? Why are you still here?”

Jenell snapped off a salute, and fumbled with the door in the process of skittering out.

She kept herself to a fast pace all the way down the hall and around the corner; the door didn’t open behind her, but its frosted glass pane could have given Basra a wavery view of her retreating back, had the Bishop bothered to watch her. It was never worth making assumptions or taking risks with Basra Syrinx.

Once around the turn, though, she slowed to a more normal pace, and, finding herself alone in the hall, permitted herself a grin of fierce triumph.

That was the first part, done.


Busking was beneath her dignity, of course. Imagine, playing the guitar on a street corner, like…any of the people who plied a trade on street corners. Not a one of those potential trades were anything Ami Talaari wanted anything to do with. And worse, what if someone important saw her? This was a block toward the walls from the Temple of Avei—still a central district of the city, close enough to Imperial Square that, even at this tedious hour of midmorning, the right sort of people might be about. She consoled herself with the thought that most of those whose attention she courted would still be asleep, the better to be out conniving and carousing long into the night.

Fortunately, she wasn’t kept waiting long.

Principia drew looks, as always when walking the city with her helmet off. The respect commanded by a Silver Legionnaire contrasted with the suspicion accorded an elf. Ami rather doubted Locke ever had to deal with racist imprecations; she didn’t get as many tipped hats and murmured blessings as most of her sisters-in-arms, probably, but still. Rare was the fool who wanted to start a fight with the Legions.

All this was quite useful at this moment, as it meant the few other passersby kept a respectful distance from Locke as she strode past Ami’s corner, pausing to drop a coin into her guitar case. No one was close enough to hear the elf murmur.

“She bought it.”

Ami nodded to her, not pausing in her song, just as she would any other patron. Her face remained in a smile that held despite her singing. Of course, it was now a genuine smile, but the punters would never know the difference.

<  Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

11 – 7

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

“Well, I can’t say you don’t know how to show a lady a good time,” Principia remarked. “Herschel, with the greatest of respect and all apologies to your delicacy and masculine pride… Are you sure you can afford this?”

He actually laughed lightly. “Oh, well…as a general rule, no, this sort of thing is well out of my budget. However, a good friend of mine works here, and wrangled me a membership so we can meet and talk in privacy. It is an excellent place for privacy, which is why I invited you! But, no, let’s just say I don’t commonly eat here. I mean, the drinks alone… Not that you should feel inhibited!” he added hastily. “Please, you’re my guest, get whatever you like.”

“Not to put too fine a point on it,” she replied dryly, “I’ve been a Legionnaire for a few months and a thief for two hundred years. I could buy this place. Since you’re providing the venue, how about I cover the drinks?”

“Ah, well, if you insist,” he said, not smooth enough to fully disguise his relief. She only smiled in amusement.

She had been intrigued when Schwartz’s message specified formal attire, and even somewhat surprised when he brought her to one of the city’s more expensive nightclubs. Most of these places actively sought to cultivate a men’s club atmosphere, all done up in dark hardwoods, red-stained leather, and either brass trappings with old books or pelts and hunting trophies, depending on the set of moneyed men to which they pandered. The Limelight Lounge, however, was known as a place for assignations between well-heeled couples; it was indeed designed for privacy, and also for softer tastes, its décor running heavily toward silks and velvets in deep blue, with etched glass partitions as décor. It also kept more generous hours than its counterparts, which was why it was not only open this early in the afternoon, but rather well-attended. The layout was also somewhat obfuscatory, with tables and chairs arranged in artfully uneven tiers and terraces around its stage, and two balconies running around the perimeter of the tall central room. No doubt the difficulty this created in navigating was offset by the privacy it afforded its patrons. The many nooks scattered here and there were cleverly positioned to have a good view of the stage and not much else.

They stood out somewhat, unavoidably. Though most of those present were in tailored suits and elegant gowns, Schwartz was not the only person to be seen in the formal robes of his cult, nor she the only guest in military dress uniform. Principia was, however, the only person to be seen in the white uniform of the Silver Legions; she rather doubted this place saw many Avenists. And she was, unsurprisingly, the only elf, unless more were hiding in the secluded booths. Not impossible, but this really wasn’t an elvish kind of place.

“So, this friend,” Principia mused after a moment’s pause, in which they strolled slowly along the rail of the lowest balcony. “Not a waiter or something, I assume, if he was able to get you a membership here…”

“She, actually,” he said, turning to nod toward the stage, on which a very pretty dark-haired young woman sat, singing in an exceedingly well-trained voice to the accompaniment of her guitar. Unlike many players who simply strummed the instrument’s strings, her fingers danced with a virtuoso’s mastery, filling the air with sweet little harmonies which wove around and through her song. “The management thinks quite highly of her around here. Enough to put up with my occasional presence, at any rate! Though, ah, they were quite adamant that pets are not permitted in the club.”

“You mean your little…Meesie, wasn’t it?” Principia tilted her head and smirked. “I should think elemental familiars belong in a wholly different category than pets.”

“Now, see, that’s the argument I made! I was firmly assured, however, that I was incorrect.”

She grinned, stopping and stepping in front of him to lean against the rail, gazing down at the singer. “Soooo. By friend, do you by any chance mean…?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that,” he said hastily. “She’s just a friend, just that, that’s all! Not that there’s anything wrong with Ami at all, of course. She’s certainly lovely—I mean, I’ve got eyes. But there’s, ah, someone…sort of. Maybe.” He trailed off, his expression growing dour, and absently rubbed at his shoulder where Meesie usually sat.

“Sounds complicated,” Principia murmured.

“It…rather is,” he admitted. “I don’t rightly know how she feels, or her situation… And we’re sort of prevented by circumstance from…well, even talking. For now. Maybe for… I don’t know. I mostly think I’m a fool to still be bothering with it at all. It’s a mess, and… I don’t know.”

“Go for it,” she said quietly, still watching Ami sing.

Schwartz blinked, turning to look at her. “Really? But you don’t even know the situation.”

“That’s my advice for most situations,” she said with a wry little smile.

“Hm.” He grunted and turned moodily to gaze down at the performing bard. “My mother advised me to forget the whole thing.”

“And the last thing I’d want is to undermine your mother, Herschel. I never met her, nor was aware of her existence, for that matter, but I will say that I’m likely at least four times her age. And what I’ve learned about love is that heartbreaks fade, but the regrets of opportunities you missed will haunt you forever.”

He simply gazed in silence for a few long moments, clearly no longer focusing on Ami, before replying. “Did you and my dad talk about things like this?”

“We did, actually,” she said, then her forehead creased in a frown. “But… You’re, what, twenty-three? Is that right?”

“Oh, ah, yes. I think I mentioned that.”

“Mm. Let’s find a place to sit, shall we?”

“Oh! Sure, good idea.”

He led her to a booth, screened by lush potted plants whose exuberant state of growth was inexplicable in the dim, windowless club. The table was elevated two steps, shielded from view to either side and affording them a good view of the stage and its performer.

“The thing is,” Principia said as she settled into a seat across from him, “you’d have been a little tyke of about five when I last saw Anton, and I had no idea you existed. I never even knew he was married. Quite frankly, I see why he kept it from me. Matters between us would have been different had I known.”

“Oh?” he said warily.

She grinned. “Let’s just say I’ve been prone to adventure most of my life, since long before that came to be considered a dirty word. It’s not often I find myself in the company of trustworthy friends, and I’m afraid I have a tendency to drag them into all manner of exploits when I have them. I’d have been a lot more cautious with Anton had I known he had a family back home. And he knew that, hence not telling me.” She shrugged. “Well, in the end, he profited from knowing me and I never got him into more trouble than I could get him back out of, but I still feel I owe your whole family an apology. Something tells me your mother wouldn’t be at all pleased to learn of some of what we got up to.”

“Mother certainly isn’t shy about experiencing the rougher side of life herself,” he said. “That’s how they met, in fact. She’d have gone with him on his trips—and did, at first, but once she became the Sheriff, she had an obligation to stay near home. My sister and I were partly raised by a variety of aunts and neighbors.”

“So, Anton’s wife is a Sheriff,” Principia murmured.

“And a former Legionnaire!” he added.

She winced. “All things considered, and with all respect to the lady, I think I’ll refrain from introducing myself.”

“If…you think that’s best,” he said doubtfully.

“So!” she continued in a more brisk tone. “As I believe I mentioned, the way Anton and I left things off, he did me a big favor which I always felt deserved repayment, and I’m sorry I never had the chance to make good on that. But you’re here and I’m here now, so let’s talk about what I can do for you. Why is it, exactly, that you feel the need to make friends and connections with Eserites?”

Schwartz frowned down at his hands, which were clasped together on the table. “I… Well. I’m afraid this is going to sound rather ungrateful, but I have to be frank on the matter of privacy. There are…circumstances. Secrets and dicey situations, and tales that aren’t even mine to tell, risks I can’t take. I’ll understand if this means you can’t work with me, but there’s going to be a lot that I just can’t—”

“All right, stop,” she said with a grin, holding up a hand. “Remember, Herschel, I am an Eserite. And as we were just discussing, your dad and I got along swimmingly without me ever knowing half the important details of his life. I definitely understand secrets and privacy, so you can leave off the flowery explanations. Let’s dispense with what you can’t tell me and focus on what you can. What is it you need?”

“I am not…exactly…sure,” he said, frowning. “Okay, well, the truth of it is… I have an enemy, which is something I am not used to, and not good at handling. I was strongly advised to befriend someone in the Thieves’ Guild to help teach me…well, how to handle an enemy.”

She narrowed her eyes in thought. “How urgent is this situation?”

“Well…it’s not good,” he said darkly. “Urgent, though… She—I mean they don’t know I’m…well, after h—them.”

“So, enemy’s a woman,” Principia said wryly. “Don’t make that face; this will go faster if you don’t try to cover up these flubs. I’m not going to interrogate you about it beyond what I need to know to help. Why is it urgent-ish?”

Again, he stared down at his hands in thought for a long moment. “…have you ever known someone who just… Just needs to be brought down?”

“Yes,” she said simply. “Frequently.”

He nodded. “And…apart from general principles, it relates to the other matter I brought up. Someone I, ah, care about is in danger from this person. Rather…constant danger.”

“Life-threatening?”

“I don’t…know? I suspect not, at least immediately. It’s more a matter of constant, calculated abuse.”

“This…is an ugly situation you’re sketching the outlines of,” she said, frowning. “Well, you may or may not have come to the right person. I definitely know a thing or two about dealing with hostiles, but trying to make a thief of you is probably not the wisest approach. Not knowing the person or the situation, there’s a stark limit to how much good my advice, or anyone’s, will do you. Herschel, I realize you’re a somewhat hesitant speaker in general, but you do seem to be stumbling a great deal over this. I think your first step should be to figure out what the maximum possible information you can give me about this is, and do so. I realize you’ve no personal reason to trust me, and I’ll respect your privacy. I’m not digging; I’m trying to lay out what it is I’ll need in order to help you.”

“I see,” he said, heaving a sigh. “Well, that…all makes perfect sense, I suppose. It’s just that… I was sort of warned specifically that once this person knows I’m coming after her, that’s when the real fight will begin…”

“That is probably the explicit truth,” she agreed, nodding. “And you’d better be ready for that fight when it starts. Which is the point of this, isn’t it?”

“Exactly. And… I don’t mean any disrespect, please believe that, but you’re right in that I don’t know much about you, and every person I let know about this is a chance for word to get back to…her.”

“Good,” she said. “You may not be a practiced enemy, but you’re clearly a careful thinker, Herschel. What I can tell you now is that your best plan for this will be…to plan. I’ve not seen you try to fight, but I understand you didn’t pose much of an impediment to Squad 342 last night. You’re a thinker, not a scrapper. Best to have your plans laid in full before you engage.”

He opened his mouth to reply, then suddenly turned toward the stage, where the music had stopped, followed by muted applause. The bard stood and bowed to her audience before slipping offstage, while a harpist smoothly entered from the opposite side to take her place.

“Ah, good,” Schwartz said in a more cheerful tone. “She always notices when I come in. I’ve no idea how, I swear she doesn’t even look up from her guitar, and anyway how could she see with the lights on her like that? But every time I visit she’ll come talk with me. I should introduce you here in just a moment!”

“Capital idea,” Principia said brightly, rising and slipping out of the booth. “Before that, allow me a moment, will you? I’ll be right back to meet your friend.”

“Ah, of course, sure,” he said, bobbing his head in affirmation.

After she had slid away out of view, he let out a sigh and leaned back against his seat, resting his head on the partition behind him. All this…scheming. With every new development, even the encouraging ones, it was made ever clearer to him that he was wildly out of his element. For a few long minutes he just rested there, breathing evenly and letting the soft strains of harp music from below wash over him.

“My, my, is it that bad?”

He straightened up and managed a thin smile as Ami slid into the booth across from him. “Hello. Lovely performance as always. And no…nothing new is bad. I’m just…coping, as always.”

“Well, you’re taking action, which is all anyone can ask, I suppose,” she said airily. “To judge by the white longcoat, I gather your date is this mysterious new friend in the Legions? Splendid work, Herschel. It can’t be said that you don’t move quickly.”

“Yes, and she’ll be back in just a moment.” He glanced around. “Actually, I’m not sure what the, ah… I mean, probably just the necessary. I thought it indelicate to ask.”

“Setting the trap,” Principia said brightly, appearing at the table again as if by magic. Ami jumped in surprise, then went rigid, staring at her; the elf gave her a pleasant smile. “It wouldn’t do for your friend here to get nervous and bolt, before I could position myself between her and any way off that seat. Young woman, I can see you thinking about it. Now tell me, which do you think is a worse idea: trying to shove your way past an elf, or past a Silver Legionnaire?”

Schwartz gaped at her. “Uh… What is going on?”

“Just a little…reunion between old friends,” Ami said in a strangled voice. “And this, Herschel, is why I wish you’d told me just who you were meeting.”

“I’ll bet you do,” Principia said, her false smile fading into a hard, piercing stare. “Spilt milk, Ms. Talaari. It’s not that I don’t believe in coincidences; I simply don’t like them. So why don’t we all have a calm, quiet discussion about you, me, the Schwartzes, and Basra Syrinx?”


“With all due respect, corporal,” Casey said plaintively, “is this really the best plan we have?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Nandi replied calmly, not glancing back at her. It was a well-heeled neighborhood they were walking through, and they passed mostly expensively-dressed people on the sidewalks, most of whom gave the three Legionnaires inquisitive looks. Several looked again at Nandi, doubtless unaccustomed to seeing elves in that armor. Despite the time of year, it was warm enough that they were not in their cold-weather gear, and as per regulations were not wearing helmets while on city duties that did not specifically require them.

“Um, I just can’t help thinking,” Farah said nervously, “apart from the unlikelihood of just stumbling over these apprentices, if the three of us just patrol in a constant circle around the Imperial Casino, the Thieves’ Guild will eventually notice.”

“Eventually?” At that, Nandi did glance back over her shoulder with a small smile. “I assure you, Szaravid, they’ve already noticed. Silver Legionnaires don’t patrol this district. Apart from the fact that it could be considered a provocative act against the Guild, there’s really no point. Even the Army doesn’t exert itself to keep peace here. No one attempts crime in territory under the control of the Thieves’ Guild. Or at least, no one does so twice.”

“I’m still hung up on the ‘provocative’ part of that,” Casey muttered, glancing about.

“Yes, they’ve noticed us,” Nandi said, again watching ahead. “The longer we keep up, the more curious they will be. Three soldiers are not a threat, and they’ll be wondering what we’re up to. By the third day of this, if not the second, someone will confront us to demand an explanation.”

“Three days of this?” Farah groaned.

“Likely more,” Casey said. “You were right; what are the odds of us just bumping into these apprentices?”

“Slim,” Nandi admitted. “Thus, when we are accosted by the Guild, we will tell them the full and unvarnished truth. Our squad is commanded by a Guild member, we are looking for information about the raid and the weapons confiscated there, and those apprentices are our best lead. If you should find yourselves, for any reason, confronted by Guild enforcers in my absence, these are the facts you will tell them.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Casey said warily.

“Not a good one, but the best one available to us. If we simply walked up to them and asked, they would assume we were lying and up to something, and treat us accordingly. Matters will seem different if we speak frankly when menaced their full strength—and they will make threats, so be prepared for that, but also remember they are very unlikely to harm Legionnaires unless provokes far more severely than we shall. If they refuse to accept our presence, that will be that, and we will have to report back to the sergeant and find a new avenue of approach. But I judge there is at least a strong possibility someone within the Guild will actually help us, if we put it to them the right way. I have dealt with Eserites in the past.”

“It feels risky,” Farah said, “showing them our hand like that.”

“Riskier by far to play games.” Nandi glanced back again, a clear warning in her eyes. “We will not fence with the Thieves’ Guild, ladies. We would swiftly and dramatically lose. And worse, the situation would reflect upon Sergeant Locke, embarrass Captain Dijanerad, draw the attention of Bishop Syrinx, and aggravate Commander Rouvad. Any of those outcomes could be disastrous for us.”

“I dunno,” Casey mused. “Locke’s pretty easygoing, as sergeants go…”

“That,” Nandi stated, “is because we are a small unit, because she knows you, and because the composition of this squad makes it a viable leadership strategy. The Sisterhood has extensive files on Principia Locke, and I have read them. If you had to choose between having her and Basra Syrinx for an enemy… Well, ladies, you can thank Avei for the side on which she has placed you. Trust me.”

“Really?” Casey said skeptically.

“I believe it,” Farah said in a quieter tone. “I like the Sarge, too. That doesn’t mean I underestimate her.”

“Good,” said Nandi with a small smile which they couldn’t see.

They turned a corner in silence, glancing at the white, gilt-edged shape of the Imperial Casino as it was briefly visible across an intersection on their left. For the most part, Shahai was leading them on a patrol route around the Casino at a distance of one street, rather than actually circling its walls.

“I know Locke said to drop this,” Casey said after a pause, “but… Corporal Shahai, that one apprentice, with the brown hair…”

“I know, Elwick,” Nandi said quietly.

“You do? I mean… Sure you do,” she added with a sigh.

“Yeah, it’s really not surprising, is it?” Farah smiled and jostled her affectionately with an elbow.

“Orders aside, Locke’s approach to that situation was the correct one,” Nandi said quietly. “We are being sent into a circumstance in which we may end up interacting with her, closely and repeatedly. Above all else, you will respect her cover and give no hint that you know her to be anything but some girl apprenticing to the Guild. With that understood… Locke has also placed us in position to possibly be of help to her, should an appropriate situation arise. I am quite confident the sergeant does not do such things by accident.”

“What is she doing in the Guild?” Casey wondered aloud.

“Nothing that’s any of your business until she tells you otherwise,” Nandi said flatly.

“Yes, ma’am,” Casey swiftly acknowledged.

Suddenly, the corporal stopped, turning her head. “…well. Then again, sometimes one gets lucky. This way, ladies, quickly.”

“What’s happening, ma’am?” Farah asked, falling into step as Nandi picked up their pace and turned, heading down a street away from the Casino.

“One and possibly more of our targets is now leaving the Guild and moving parallel to us, a block distant,” Nandi said crisply. “Tallie has a very carrying voice. I cannot be sure who, if anyone, is with her.”

“Omnu’s breath,” Casey marveled. “Just how acute is elvish hearing?”

“The acuity is less important in this case than the practice at filtering out specific sounds from background noise. Not many elves have spent as much time in modern cities as I.”

“I bet it’d be easier for her if we both shut up,” Farah muttered. Casey shot her an annoyed look, but she earned an over-the-shoulder smile from Nandi.

In silence, the three Legionnaires strode off into the city.


“Now, isn’t that interesting,” Grip said, watching the soldiers pass by directly beneath the building on whose roof she stood. “And you thought I was in an unreasonable hurry. If this doesn’t teach you to have some faith in my instincts, Silence, I don’t know if anything will.”

The man accompanying her folded his arms, watching the Legionnaires go. “You realize the elf can assuredly hear us.”

“That’s Nandi Shahai,” Grip said dismissively. “If she wants to question why I’m stalking her, I’ll be glad to hear what she’s doing poking around the Guild. Focus, Silence. My hearing’s not on her level, but I caught enough to know I was right. They’re following that group. Specifically the girl, I’d wager a month’s take.”

Silence shook his head. “I still refuse to develop a personal stake in this.”

“I swear,” she complained, “the older you get, the less fun you become.”

“That’s the usual way of things, Quintessa,” he replied with a faint smile. “Still, you are right. In an objective sense, it is interesting. I will examine the girl more closely myself, but unless the results of that are disappointing, I believe it will be worth informing Glory. And if she decides not to lay a claim…”

“Then it’s my turn,” Grip said with a hungry smile. “You do that. For now, I’m going to follow our friends down there. This evening is just bound to get more interesting before it’s over.”

Without another word, she took off at a run and leaped across the street to catch herself on a window ledge on the building opposite, which was one floor taller than this one. In seconds, Grip had clambered up the side, agile as a squirrel, and then went bounding away over the rooftops, swiftly catching up to the four apprentices on one side of the building row and Legionnaires on the other.

Silence stood, watching, until she was out of sight, and then turned to look back at the glittering domes of the Casino, frowning in thought.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

11 – 3

<  Previous Chapter                                                                                                                         Next Chapter >

“Yeah!” Tallie jeered, rattling the cell door again. “Not so tough when somebody actually stands up to you, huh? Somebody oughta—”

While she spoke, Locke rapped her lance sharply with one boot to make it bounce on the stone floor, then deftly slipped a toe under it and kicked it upward into her hand, whereupon she set the tip against the cell door and raked it across the bars, making them ring obnoxiously. And vibrate, to judge by the way Tallie yelped and jerked backward, shaking her fingers.

“Here’s the situation in which you kids find yourselves,” the Sergeant said in a grimmer tone, raking her stare across them. “You flubbed a job and got nabbed. The Sisterhood has no interest in prosecuting illegal arms dealers—in fact, it’s a mystery to me why the Third Legion bothered to raid that meet in the first place. That means your next stop, according to standard operating procedures, is the military police, who are interested in illegal arms dealers.” She let that loom over them for a moment before continuing. “Now, you know and I know that you bumpkins don’t have anything worthwhile to tell them and you’re guilty of, at most, being accessories to whatever crimes were actually committed. It’s honestly a toss-up whether they’d bother to press charges, but they will work you over in the process of verifying that you’re just hapless know-nothing apprentice goobers.”

“That’s a little strong,” Rasha complained.

“But,” Locke said loudly. “I also know a lot about the type of people who seek to join the Thieves’ Guild, and what’s involved in the process. Unless your family’s Guild, you almost certainly are struggling with demons of your own—and I know none of you chuckleheads are legacies, or you’d be sponsored and not getting ditched in a warehouse by the only clown who’d take you on a job. Some of you, if not most of you, if not all of you, are going by assumed names.” She glanced rapidly from Jasmine to Ross to Tallie. “It’s a safe bet you all have good reason not to want the Empire digging into your business—and you’d better believe they would dig, for something like this. Dangerous or no, weapons traffic is a matter of connections. If you’re the only links they’ve got in that chain, they will find out whatever else you’re linked to. And then, once you got out of that, you would have to explain all this to Style. You know what a kind, understanding cream puff she is. I can’t say how much rep any of you kids have, but if you happen to be already in the doghouse, or just without enough established cred, being the reason Imperial Intelligence pays the Guild a visit would be enough by itself to get your butts bounced out into the street.”

The Sergeant fell silent, raised one eyebrow, and studied each of them in turn.

“What’s the alternative?” Darius asked in an uncharacteristically quiet voice.

“Be with you in a moment,” she said, suddenly sounding cheerful again. “You just ruminate on that whilst I deal with some other business. So!” Locke paced slowly down the bars, coming to a stop near the end and turning to face Schwartz, who stood near the wall of the cell with his arms folded, scowling. “What’s your story?”

“I am Herschel Schwartz,” he announced, “fellow in good standing of the Emerald Collegium of the College of Salyrene. I have not broken any laws, my only interactions with the Silver Legions prior to tonight were rendering them aid, and I am exceedingly irate!”

“You tell ‘er!” Tallie crowed.

“SHUT UP!” everyone else shouted at her. She gaped around at them, blinking in awe.

“Herschel Schwartz.” Locke studied him closely, wearing a faint frown. “By that description, you sound like a rather upstanding fellow.”

“Thank you, I try.” Meesie, squeaking pompously, bounced from his shoulder to his head where she stood upright and folded her tiny arms.

“Would you care to explain,” Sergeant Locke asked mildly, “just what you were doing attending an illegal arms swap meet, Mr. Schwartz?”

He jutted his chin out mulishly, now refusing to meet her gaze. “…you’d laugh at me.”

“Schwartz,” Locke said pointedly, “you are in a cell. You are implicated in crimes of the sort that makes Imperial Intelligence open dossiers on people, and keep abreast of their movements for years thereafter. If you get out of this with nothing worse than being laughed at, you’ll be making out very well indeed.”

“Yes, I see your point,” he said sourly. “All right, fine. I was looking to meet and make connections with Eserites.”

“Well, it’s a right pleasure to meetcha!” Tallie said cheerfully. Meesie chittered amicably back at her.

Darius cleared his throat. “Is it too late to deny knowing her? In fact, I’m increasingly willing to testify that this whole thing was Tallie’s idea.”

“I don’t think that’d work,” Jasmine said, deadpan. “She’s met Tallie.”

“Oh, whose side are you on?” Tallie snapped.

“Children,” Locke said firmly. “Hush. And as for you, Schwartz. Any reason in particular you were wanting to connect with the Thieves’ Guild?”

He shrugged, again not meeting her stare. “Well, it’s not as if I’m the sort of person who ordinarily has such connections, is it? Honestly, I have no interest in weapons, illegal or otherwise—except, well, some of those modified wands were rather intriguing, even if arcane work isn’t my field of specialization… Ah, yes, but anyway. That meetup was the only thing I was able to find out about that I could attend, and I was sort of warned against just walking into the Imperial Casino and trying to chat people up. I was willing to buy a staff or something if that’s what it took to make friends, but fortunately for my pocketbook, the Legion interceded.”

“That’s all very interesting,” Locke said, “but it’s not really what I asked you, is it?”

“No, I suppose it’s not.” Finally he raised his eyes to hers, now staring challengingly. “But I do know that socializing with Eserites is not a crime, and in fact cannot be considered evidence of a crime according to established legal precedent. So unless you intend to see me charged with weapons trafficking, which you know won’t stick, I would like to leave now, please.”

“Hm,” Locke mused, and then shrugged. “Welp! You’re not wrong. And as I have been given discretion with regard to what’s done with you kittens, it seems I have the authority to release you.”

“Can you stop with the diminutive nicknames?” Rasha snapped.

“You’re free to go,” Locke continued to Schwartz, ignoring the Punaji boy. “I’ll ask your patience a few moments longer, with apologies; you’re all leaving that cell in just a few moments, toward one destination or another, and I’d just as soon not deal with the rigamarole of extracting one person while corralling the rest. After you’re out of there, though, I’d appreciate it if you’d stick around for a few minutes, Mr. Schwartz. I’d like to have a word with you in private.”

He sighed dramatically. “I’ve told you everything I know about all this, which is practically nothing. I don’t see what else you can possibly want from me!”

“Oh, no,” she said with amusement, “I don’t suspect you of anything but being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I meant a personal conversation.”

“Then I understand even less,” he replied, frowning. “I’m pretty sure we’ve not met before—I’d remember a dark-haired elf.”

“We haven’t, no,” Locke said, now grinning openly. “But I’d like to chat a bit about another Mr. Schwartz I know, of whom you are the spitting image, minus about twenty years.”

He blinked. “You knew my father?”

Locke’s grin melted away. “…knew?”

“Oh.” Schwartz sighed. “Yes. He passed on six years ago. A carriage accident. Of all the ridiculous ways to go, after all he did in his life…”

“Hey, can you two maybe talk this out after—”

Darius broke off with a muffled curse as Ross swatted him upside the back of his head, sending him stumbling forward into the bars.

“Have some respect,” Ross grumbled disapprovingly.

“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you,” Schwartz said awkwardly.

“No. No, I’m sorry.” Locke shook her head. “If I took better care of my relationships I wouldn’t be finding out about lost friends years after the fact… And this isn’t the first time, either. But yes, anyway, I do need to deal with the rest of these first, but…”

“Sure,” Schwartz agreed, looking generally more amenable now. “And yes, I’ll hang around a bit after you’re done.”

“Smashing. So!” Locke turned to the others, raising her eyebrows. “Thoughts?”

“You’re not accustomed to holding prisoners,” Jasmine said critically. “Keeping us in suspense is cheap drama, and the threat isn’t ominous enough to even make it effective. Do you just enjoy wasting everyone’s time?”

“Okay, not with her, either,” Darius announced. “In fact, I disavow any knowledge of all of these fuckers.”

“My, kitten’s got some claws on her,” Locke said dryly to Jasmine. “I bet all the other girls back in finishing school lived in absolute dread of you.”

Jasmine narrowed her eyes to slits.

Rasha cleared his throat. “So, anyway, you were menacing us with threats of Intelligence and whoever Style is. Was there a better alternative?”

Locke boggled at him. “Whoever Style is?!”

Tallie cleared her throat. “He’s new. As in, first night. Hasn’t even got a bunk yet.”

“I’m having an interesting day,” Rasha grumbled.

“You poor bastard,” Locke said, shaking her head. “All right, here’s the deal. There are times when being caught between my various responsibilities is a hardship—but then there are times, like this one, where they all line up perfectly.” She began to pace slowly up and down in front of the bars. “I have a responsibility to the law, which is the least of my concerns here, because we all know you lot aren’t a threat to anyone except possibly yourselves. You might, it is true, become a threat one day if you stick with the Guild, but nobody rational prosecutes potential. I have a responsibility to the Silver Legions to do something with a gaggle of fairly-caught criminals. I could maybe just let you all go as an interfaith gesture of goodwill and justify that to my captain as part of my squad’s mandate—”

“Yes!” Tallie said, gripping the bars again and nodding eagerly. “Embrace the mandate!”

“But,” Locke continued, ignoring her, “there is also my responsibility as a member of the Thieves’ Guild to do something with a gaggle of fairly-caught screwups. So! I believe I know of a happy medium. One which meets all those objectives and gives you a valuable life lesson besides!”

“I hate valuable life lessons,” Tallie grumbled.

Locke stepped to one side and turned to regard those behind her with a sunny smile. The rest of her squad had been standing silently this whole time at parade rest; the Avenist cleric who’d accompanied them in watched the proceedings with interest from the sidelines, as did the sole Legionnaire who’d been left to guard the room.

“I asked your gracious host, Sister Tianne, if there was any significant work that needed doing around this facility—”

“Oh, come on!” Darius groaned.

“—and wouldn’t you know it! This temple has an attached stable, which is slated for renovation to house enchanted carriages rather than horses, the times being what they are. The budget being what it is, no actual workers have yet been contracted to do this, and as this particular temple is mostly a dedicated training facility and waypoint for the Legions on city duty, there aren’t enough permanent staff here to undertake a renovation themselves. So guess what!”

“I hate you,” Darius informed her.

Jasmine shrugged. “It sounds like honest work to me. And a fair enough consequence for tonight’s mess. Considering how this could have gone, I don’t see what your complaint is.”

“Jasmine,” he said in exasperation, “I did not join up with the bloody Thieves’ Guild because I wanted to do honest work!”

“You think thieves don’t work?” Ross asked.

“Everybody works,” Rasha added. “Don’t work, don’t eat.”

“Some of you,” Locke said with visible approval, “have a future in your chosen organization.”

“But it’s the middle of the night!” Tallie protested, again rattling the cell door.

“Oh, you’ve got some pressing appointment? A hot date?” Sergeant Locke arched an eyebrow. “Very well, it’s up to you. Since, if you’d rather not help the good Sister thoroughly clean out the stables, your next meeting will be with the military police. After all, nobody wants to keep them waiting.”

Tallie groaned and slumped forward, clonking her forehead against the bars.

“So,” Locke continued, “once you’re out of there, you’re out. You’ll answer to Sister Tianne until she is satisfied with your results—and Sister, be so kind as to be satisfied only when that place is spotless.”

“It goes without saying,” Tianne agreed.

“And in case any of you are thinking of bolting prematurely, let me just inform you that she will be sending me a full report of your performance, and if I find any complaints in it, they’ll go right to Style.”

“You don’t even know our names,” Darius huffed.

The Sergeant pointed to each of them in turn. “Gangly but hot wiseass, tiny Punaji, handsome yet poorly-dressed meathead, walking wall, deceptively dainty bruiser. Anybody wanna lay odds Style can’t figure out who you are?” She let them consider that for a moment before going on. “Come to a decision quickly, please, kids. I know you’re all eager to put this whole episode behind you, and poor Mr. Schwartz has been cooped up in there quite long enough.”

“Well, I can’t say this hasn’t been rather interesting,” Schwartz commented.

Tallie sighed and turned to face the others. “Well, whaddaya think, guys? Should we make a show of pretending to consider it to save face, or just go ahead and ask where the brooms are?”

“Oh, we’ll get to the brooms before the end of the night,” Sister Tianne said with a benign smile. “You’ll need to start with shovels.”

“I think,” said Rasha, “I’ve made some poor decisions recently.”


Casey was practically vibrating with eagerness as the downcast Eserite apprentices filed through the small temple’s courtyard en route to its attached stables.

“Are we going to stay and supervise this, Sarge?” Ephanie asked.

“No.” Principia shook her head. “They’re on the honor system now.”

“They’re Eserites,” Merry pointed out disdainfully.

“One,” said Principia, “they barely are. Two, they know the consequences of screwing this up; the point of the honor system in this case is to teach them some honor. And three, Lang, shut your hate hole, you dismal termagant, you. Avelea, keep everybody in line, please; the rest of you, stand in the courtyard here looking official until I’m back. You have my apologies for leaving you on the hook while I see to personal business, ladies. I’ll buy you all cocoa tomorrow.”

“That makes it all worth it!” Farah said with a broad smile.

“Sarge!” Casey finally burst out, the last of the apprentices having vanished into the stable. “That girl, the one with the dark hair—”

Principa’s finger was suddenly in her face. “No, Elwick.”

“But Farah and I met her, I’m sure it’s—”

“No, Elwick!” Principia repeated more loudly. “Drop it.”

“But I could see you recognized—”

“Elwick,” the sergeant snapped, “as soon as we’re back at base you will give me five laps of the parade ground at full run before removing your gear.” She took a step closer to the suddenly silent private, glaring. “And nothing that uninteresting, completely random Guild apprentice chooses to do is any of your business until and unless she tells you otherwise. I will not have to repeat any of this to you. Ever. Am I understood?”

Casey swallowed heavily. “Yes, ma’am.”

Principia held her gaze for a moment before withdrawing. “Good. Now I’m going to go have a quick word with Mr. Schwartz, and then we can be on our way back home.”

She nodded once to them, then turned and strode off into the temple proper, through the door Schwartz had earlier been shown by a resident priestess.

“Asking what the deal is with that apprentice is just gonna get me added to the shit list, isn’t it,” Merry said wryly.

Nandi Shahai glanced at her from behind her helmet, then at the door to the stables, and then after Principia, remaining silent.


Jasmine took the opportunity to glance at the sky as she pushed a wheelbarrow filled with the sludge and unspeakable smells of countless horses out to the courtyard, where she had been instructed to pile the refuse to be collected later and transported out of the city, there being ordinances about what could and could not be just tossed away in Tiraas. The island city had to regulate some things with exceeding care, lest people find themselves wading ankle-deep in pollution. It was hard to tell through the city’s omnipresent glow, but the sky didn’t appear to be lightening. What with one thing and another, she had completely lost track of time, but it was surely past midnight by now.

Straightening up after tipping the barrow over, she paused to scrub a sleeve over her sweaty forehead and glanced around the courtyard. Squad 391 were still present, lounging around at ease; clearly they didn’t find the apprentices to be much of a hazard or a responsibility. Not that she could blame them. In fact, one was leaning against the wall quite close by, which drew a second glance from her. The woman had her helmet off, revealing she was an elf. A blonde elf with horizontal ears, not another dark-haired wood elf, but still. There weren’t so many elves in the Legions altogether. It was quite odd to find two in such a small unit.

“Don’t take it as a rejection,” the elven Legionnaire said suddenly as Jasmine turned to push her wheelbarrow back inside for another load. “Locke’s enlistment was under the specific condition that she not go near you except at your invitation. She’s not overly fond of rules in general, but she can toe the line when necessary.”

Jasmine had paused, hands on her burden, to peer at the woman sidelong without turning to face her. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Of course. My mistake.”

She pushed the barrow another foot and a half before letting it come to a stop. “Your sergeant claims to be a member of the Guild.”

“It’s not a claim,” the soldier—a corporal, by her insignia—said with a smile. “The Legion knows her history and credentials quite well.”

“Are you sure she’s trustworthy?”

She cocked her head to the side in thought. “Complicated question, isn’t it? The chain of command seems to mostly find her a nuisance…but her own soldiers are quite loyal to her. I would say fiercely so, in some cases. That’s a particular type of officer who bears watching. In war and other dangerous times they have a way of saving us all; in more peaceful times, they cause the most horrendous trouble.”

Jasmine frowned slightly, then opened her mouth to speak again.

“Oi!” Tallie bellowed from within the stable. “Having a nice break out there?”

With a sigh, she picked up the wheelbarrow’s handles and pushed back into the stable.


Schwartz’s rented room wasn’t quite dark anymore by the time he got back to it. Not fully light, either—it was still before dawn—but even without flipping on the fairy lamp, he could see clearly by the pale glow of the windows. Well, good; one less thing to do. He was so tired…

He stepped in, shut and locked the door behind himself, and turned to make his way for the bed. He could afford an actual apartment but considered it wasteful; this small loft had all the space he needed for his books and magical supplies, and keeping a bed tucked into a far corner suited him just fine. Only halfway there did he realize someone was present, lounging in his armchair.

“Oh!” he said, stopping and blinking in surprise. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you…”

“Good morning, Herschel,” Ami said sweetly. “How was your evening?”

“Ah, well, you know. Long. I don’t mean to be inhospitable, but it’s so late it’s early and I’m really—”

“WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?!”

Despite her usually dulcet tones, Ami Talaari’s voice had been trained for power as well as precision; she could project at a porcelain-cracking volume in an enclosed space. He actually staggered backward, Meesie squealing and puffing up in alarm.

“Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?” the bard raged, surging to her feet and stalking toward him. “The last thing I heard, you’d gone haring off to some godawful hole full of all manner of thugs, to make friends, of all the ludicrous things! And then you don’t come home all night? I thought you were dead! I pictured you being tortured! I feared you were in jail!”

“I was!” he protested.

Ami halted her advance, and blinked once, slowly. “Run that by me again?”

“Well, I’m not sure if it was jail in a legal sense,” he said. “The Silver Legion raided the warehouse and rounded up everybody who couldn’t escape—which was just me and some poor Eserite apprentices who hardly seemed to know what was happening. And they let me out, obviously, once things were sorted out, but… Yes, that did take up the bulk of the night, I’m afraid. Sorry, I didn’t know you’d be waiting up. Um…you don’t usually visit at…this hour. How long have you been sitting here?”

She waved that away. “Well, I suppose I can’t entirely blame that on you, then. Did you at least gain any contacts within the Guild?”

Schwartz stepped slowly forward and pulled over one of the chairs at the table, sinking down into it. “Well… Actually, it’s kind of a funny story.”

Ami arched an eyebrow superciliously, crossing her arms under her bosom, and Schwartz was pleased that he neither blushed nor lost eye contact; he must be getting used to her. It wasn’t even that he thought of her that way, really, but she did have a most impressive bust. And she accented it regularly and, he was sure, quite deliberately.

“I’m all ears.”

“You wouldn’t rather wait till later in the day?”

Somehow, that eyebrow rose even higher.

“Yes, right,” he sighed. “Well. It turns out the Legion sergeant in charge of all this is also a member of the Thieves’ Guild. And she knew my father. She said he helped her once with something important and she owed him, and since he’s gone now, she considered it her duty to help me out.”

“Wait. Stop.” Ami held up one hand peremptorily. “Did you really just tell me this Silver Legion sergeant is in the Thieves’ Guild? Is that allowed? Is it even possible?”

“I was rather curious about that, too,” he said frankly. “So were the apprentices. But she had a handful of troops following her, as well as the priestess in residence at the Avenist facility where they took us, and nobody contradicted her. And honestly, if anybody could’ve found the one Eserite Legionnaire in all the world to strike up a friendship with, it would’ve been my dad.”

Meesie squeaked rather mournfully, patting his ear. He reached up to scratch her head with a fingertip. She had only known Anton Schwartz briefly, but the elder Schwartz had been quite fond of the little elemental.

“So,” he went on, shrugging, “in a way, this ended up being a more perfect result than we could’ve hoped for. And now I am really indescribably tired…”

“Hmm.” Ami turned to frown out the window, placing herself in profile relative to him, and he sighed and shifted his own eyes to stare stubbornly at a bookcase. There was no way she didn’t do this on purpose. “Yes, that does sound good, doesn’t it? But also risky. If she’s in the Legion… That’s awfully close to Basra.”

“Yes,” he said wearily, “which is why it’s perfect as opposed to merely great.”

“You know,” she mused, a smile growing over her features, “I do believe you’re right. Very well, then! I shall forgive you for making me worry. We had better get planning on…”

She trailed off, having turned to face him. Schwartz was slumped forward in his chair, emitting a soft buzzing noise from his nose. Meesie climbed up onto his head and squeaked once, pointing one paw warningly at Ami.

The bard sighed and shook her head, but permitted herself a small, fond smile. “All right, then. Tomorrow. There’s time.”


“Good morning, Locke!”

Principia sighed, pausing to salute, the rest of her squad straggling to a halt to emulate her. They were ragged—not that it had been a particularly grueling night, just a very long one. She and Nandi were faring well, but drawing from stores of energy in the event of sleeplessness was an elven skill they weren’t able to share with the squad.

“Morning, Captain,” she said as Dijanerad approached. “You’re up early.”

“No, I’m not,” the captain replied with a smile. “On army time, this is business as usual. You’re out late.”

“Wasn’t my idea, ma’am,” Principia replied. “But it ended up being a good night’s work.”

“And I’m afraid it’s not done yet,” Dijanerad said, her expression growing grimmer. “The High Commander wants you, Locke. Soon as you were back, which is now.”

Principia drew in a deep breath and let it out through her nose. “What could she possibly need at this hour?”

“Well, gee, Locke, I don’t know. I bet if you ask her that, in exactly that tone, it’ll make a perfect ice-breaker.”

“I don’t know if I mention it often enough, Cap, but you’re my favorite.”

“That’s because I’m far too tolerant of your horseshit, and no, you don’t. Best get cracking, Locke. Patience is among Commander Rouvad’s many virtues, but…not so much with you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting again, and turned back to her squad. “Go get some rest, ladies. Except you, Elwick. Five laps. Move it.”

<  Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

10 – 50

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

“Well, this ain’t the least bit awkward,” Joe muttered, folding his arms and lounging against the wall of the courtyard. Despite the relaxed pose, he betrayed tension in the set of his shoulders and the way his eyes darted about.

Fort Naveen, like all the fortifications along the southern border, was an Imperial installation, but was administered and staffed partly by the Silver Legions. With the high state of alert due to the recent crisis and the large numbers of troops moved into the region, there were a lot of Legionnaires present, many obviously on duty guarding the walls and various doorways.

A good number of those were staring flatly at Ingvar, whose expression had grown increasingly sardonic the longer it had gone on.

“What is everybody’s problem?” Aspen asked. She sounded genuinely curious, not upset, though with her moods it could be difficult to tell. “Why don’t they like Ingvar? I like Ingvar. He’s nice, even when he’s being a jerk.”

“Thank you,” Ingvar said dryly, though a smile did steal onto his features.

“Politics,” Ami said with a long-suffering sigh. “Religious politics, which is even worse. Everyone is so convinced they alone are holy, and anyone who dares disagree with them must be an absolute monster.”

“Good to see you rallying to the defense of our Huntsman friend,” Jenell said with a catlike little smirk. “I seem to recall you being upset at Bishop Syrinx for nearly getting you scalped by Shaathists.”

“No Shaathist would do such a thing,” Ingvar exclaimed.

“Jenell,” Ami said, arching an eyebrow, “it is hardly polite to point out my hypocrisy in front of everyone.”

“Terribly sorry. I’ll assume I have the same coming later.”

“I’m mentally amending my calendar as we speak.”

Ingvar fixed his gaze on the bard, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. “Do I know you?”

“I’m afraid not,” Ami said sweetly.

“I never understand what’s going on when people get off on these tangents,” Aspen muttered. “It’s so much easier when it was just the four of us.”

“Mm hm,” Joe mused. “That was a pretty serene few hours.”

“Why do these soldiers all dislike you?” the dryad asked Ingvar. “They don’t even know you!”

“Well, the bard is correct,” he explained. “Religion, and politics. The Huntsmen of Shaath and the Sisters of Avei have very fundamental disagreements, which has led to a lot of arguing, ill-feeling and even occasional violence. We naturally react to one another with suspicion. For me to be in one of their fortresses is…pushing their tolerance.”

“This isn’t actually one of their fortresses, as I understand it,” Schwartz said, frowning. Meesie was sitting in his palm, leaning against his thumb, which was absently scratching behind her ear.

Ingvar shrugged. “I don’t begrudge them the suspicion; this is more or less how a Sister would be treated in a lodge.”

“A Sister would be very unlikely to be in a lodge,” Jenell said pointedly.

“And I would be very unlikely to be here,” Ingvar agreed with the ghost of a smile. “Life is strange.”

“I say, I didn’t realize things were that amicable,” Schwartz said, glancing between Ingvar and Aspen. His fascination with the dryad appeared to be innocent and intellectual; at any rate, he was mostly interested in talking to her and hardly seemed to register that she was an attractive woman wearing nothing but an ill-fitting duster. He’d backed off, however, once she informed him the attention was annoying. “I mean, not that I’d be in a position to know, exactly, but you know how it is. The Avenists and the Shaathists, that’s one of the great rivalries among the cults! It’s sort of infamous.”

“Almost like Avenists and Elilinists,” Ami said, grinning.

“Or Avenists and Eserites,” added Joe.

“Or Avenists and Izarites,” Jenell said thoughtfully.

“The person of a guest is sacrosanct,” Ingvar said firmly. “That point is enshrined in Shaathist tradition, but it predates the religion. The principle exists in some form in virtually every culture. A Sister or Legionnaire or anyone who sought shelter in a lodge would be given food, warmth, quarters, whatever they needed that it was able to provide. It would likely be tense; Huntsmen are not trained for diplomacy as a rule, and I doubt she would be made to feel particularly welcome. But none would disgrace the lodge by mistreating a guest. This is fair, and about typical,” he added, glancing around at several of the nearby Legionnaires, a few of whom were within earshot. “I was treated much the same when I visited the Temple of Avei in Tiraas. I cannot fault the courtesy, nor condemn the suspicion.”

“You visited the Temple of Avei?” Ami exclaimed. “Whatever brought that on?”

He sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“I’m a bard. I love long stories.”

“I don’t,” Aspen muttered. “This is real interesting, but I’m gonna go talk to one of these.” She turned and stepped toward the nearest Legionnaire, who stiffened visibly.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said firmly, “be nice to them. We are guests here.”

“I’m not gonna eat anybody,” the dryad said irritably, at which several Legionnaires turned to stare at her and a passing squad of Imperial soldiers faltered, a few reaching toward their weapons.

“Everything’s under control, boys,” Joe said, tipping his hat to them. “Best keep movin’.”

“Well, I’m glad to see everybody getting along!” Bishop Darling called cheerfully, striding toward them across the courtyard from the fortress’s central keep.

“How’d it go?” Joe asked quickly, straightening up.

“Classified, mostly,” Darling replied, coming to a stop amid the group, and glanced over at Aspen, who was now speaking quietly to the nervous-looking Legionnaire she’d picked, while several others hovered tensely nearby. “Do we…have a problem?”

“I don’t believe so,” Ingvar replied. “She understands respect for other sentients, at least intellectually, and talking to people is going to be essential in deepening that understanding. Regardless, I’m watching her.”

“Absolutely incredible,” Schwartz breathed. Meesie scampered up his arm onto his shoulder, cheeping in agreement.

“The meeting?” Ingvar prompted Darling, who tore his gaze from the dryad.

“Yes, right. Like I said, most of it isn’t for discussion outside that room, but generally speaking I think the crisis has passed. There are far too many lingering unknowns and points of interest for it to be dropped; the Sisterhood and the Empire are going to continue picking at this for a good while, at minimum. Very likely the Church and a few other cults will get involved; I understand the College has already been contributing,” he added, smiling at Schwartz.

“We do what we can!” the witch said cheerfully. “Um, what happened to the other two Bishops, if I may ask?”

“Ah, yes, that was the first thing I meant to tell you,” said Darling. “The Azure Corps is lending portal mages to get people where they need to go, while they’re all here. Branwen’s already back in Tiraas by now; Basra will be departing for the Abbey to brief Abbess Darnassy as soon as her group is assembled. I understand that means you guys.”

“Crap,” Jenell muttered. “She does not like waiting. Which way?”

“Central mess hall, though the doors and down the corridor,” he replied. “The Corps has an impromptu departure station set up.”

“Well, I guess we’re off, then!” Schwartz said, already moving after Jenell, who had saluted once before striding off. “Thanks, your Grace! Lovely to meet all of you! Tell Miss Aspen I said good-bye!”

“I will,” Ingvar assured him, though Schwartz had already turned and was nearly out of earshot, then muttered with a glance at the dryad, “not that I expect her to care.”

“Isn’t that you, too, ma’am?” Joe asked Ami.

“Yes, yes, I suppose it is,” she said languidly, finally setting off after the other two at a leisurely pace. “I can’t have people thinking they can order me about, though, that would never do. You know how it is.”

“Uh…sure,” he said uncertainly to her retreating back. “Nice meetin’ you.”

The three remaining glanced over at Aspen again. The Legionnaire she had captured was listening, still wary but seeming somewhat less tense now. It appeared to be a rather one-sided conversation, though, just distant enough that the dryad’s low voice was indistinct.

“Which brings up the next question,” said Darling. “What do we do about her?”

“She goes with me, obviously,” Ingvar said, watching Aspen with a faint smile. After a moment, he blinked and straightened, turning back to them. “Excuse me, I didn’t mean that to be as brusque as it came out. But after thinking it over, it does seem obvious. She’s already stated she wants to stay with me, and… Well, she needs to grow accustomed to other people, learn how to treat them. Somebody she trusts had better stick around for that.”

“While I’m sure bringin’ her back to the lodge would make you a celebrity,” Joe said carefully, “I really can’t see takin’ her into Tiraas as a good idea.”

“Never mind good idea,” Darling agreed, “that’s extremely illegal. Don’t mistake the tolerance she’s getting here on a frontier during a crisis for a change in policy. Dryads aren’t allowed into Imperial-held cities.”

“Now I think on it,” Joe mused, “I’m not sure how the Empire could stop ‘er without rilin’ up big mama.”

“The Empire hasn’t lasted a thousand years by shooting every problem it faces,” Darling said dryly. “The Azure Corps is responsible for dryad incursions, or in their absence, any Imperial personnel with teleportation ability. If a dryad wanders too close to a city and won’t be dissuaded, they’re simply picked up and moved somewhere else. Usually as close to the Deep Wild as it’s safe to teleport.”

“Bet they don’t like that,” Joe murmured.

“No, they do not,” Darling agreed. “But they mostly don’t seem to have the attention span to make an issue of it. I’ve never heard of a dryad having to be removed repeatedly. Generally, I guess they just prefer to go off and do something less annoying.”

“I’m certain all of that’s true,” Ingvar said quietly, still gazing in the direction of Aspen, though his mind was clearly far away. “It still works, however, since I am not going back to Tiraas.” He blinked again, then turned to Darling. “In fact, thank you for reminding me. I was going to ask if you would carry a letter to Brother Andros for me.”

“Gladly,” Darling said immediately. “So, you’ve had time to think on your next move, then?”

“It’s not as if we’ve had a lot to do but think while you and Bishop Syrinx were conversing with various sinister powers,” he said wryly. “That, and talk with the others.”

“I’ve gotta say,” Joe added with a grin, “you’re fallin’ behind, your Grace. The other Bishop managed to put together a bigger an’ stranger posse even than you.”

“Now, I contest that,” Darling said solemnly, holding up a hand. “Aspen is plenty strange enough to beat any competition.”

“I can hear you, by the way,” the dryad called over her shoulder.

“Considering the source, my dear,” Darling called back, bowing to her, “it was purely a compliment.”

She gave him an amused little smile before turning back to her new friend, who was beginning to look actually interested in the conversation.

“But I have my own path to seek,” Ingvar said, still gazing at Aspen. “I am not yet sure what to do with what I have learned from this journey…not all of it, anyway. I do know that I cannot step back into my life as it was. My faith… Everything I thought I understood is wrong. Or if not wrong, incomplete…” He shook his head. “I don’t know what to do about it.”

“You seem pretty calm, for a fella who just had the rug yanked out from under him like that,” Joe observed.

“Because I have a plan,” Ingvar agreed, nodding. “If I were as lost as I had been after that night on the mountain… But no, not anymore. I don’t know how to help Shaath, or how to fix the Huntsmen, or if I even can do either of those things. The steps right in front of me, though, are clear. I need to learn more. My quest now is for understanding of the areas my education has failed to cover. And in that, I already have places to start.”

“Where’ll you go next?” Darling asked quietly.

“I haven’t completely decided,” Ingvar said, finally turning back to face him. “Since Aspen will be accompanying me, it makes sense I should speak with her about the options before picking a destination. But I do know where to seek the wisdom I need: the elves, and the Rangers.”

“I think it might be wise to let Veilgrad settle down a mite before bringin’ Aspen into the vicinity,” Joe suggested. “Not that she won’t be a hit with the Rangers, I reckon, but the Imperials around the city’re already on high alert, an’ after this rhubarb out here, droppin’ a dryad on their doorstep might get a response you won’t like.”

“Hm.” Ingvar frowned in thought. “You make a solid point, Joe. Perhaps that’s for the best, anyway. There are few better places to avoid the Empire’s notice than an elven grove… And in all likelihood, the Elders there are the best possible choices to help Aspen, as well as me.”

“There’s also the fact that Aspen will automatically get a warm welcome at the grove,” Darling added, “which might help you get one. Elves as a general rule aren’t hugely fond of visitors in their forests.”

“Yes,” Ingvar agreed, “there is that.” He paused, glancing back and forth between them, then smiled. “Strange how quickly I’ve come to appreciate your perspectives. It has only been a few days, but I shall miss you both.”

“Likewise,” Joe replied, smiling. “I hope this ain’t a permanent goodbye.”

“Considering where I’ll be and doing that,” Darling added, “I’m not sure how I’ll be in a position to help you with your quest going forward, Ingvar. But if that should ever become a possibility, all you’ve gotta do is ask.”

“I appreciate it, Antonio,” the Huntsman replied, smiling and inclining his head. “And the same goes. To both of you.”

“And hey, if nothing else, you’re heading off with more pleasing company than either of us,” Darling said, grinning broadly. “Dangerous as hell company, but still.”

“Mm.” Ingvar glanced at Aspen again. “I don’t really think of her that way.”

“You’re joking,” said Joe. “I think of her that way a little, an’ I’m mostly terrified of ‘er.”

The Huntsman smiled. “Well, not that I don’t see your point… But I’ve talked with her more than either of you, and something about her is…childlike.”

“In seriousness, though,” said Darling, “if you’re not looking to pursue that kind of relationship, watch your step. Right now you’re her only anchor to the wide world of humanity. You’re the guy who rescued her from imprisonment, and you’ve positioned yourself as the father figure setting the boundaries she needs to understand how to cope with society. The attachment taking shape there could end up working in a lot of ways, but you’d better not take any of them lightly.”

“What will be, will be,” Ingvar said, barely above a whisper. “And if nothing else… I want to help her simply for the sake of helping her, of course. But there is also the fact that, based on what we learned in the Data Vault, the best way to help Shaath and the other gods may be to help Naiya regain her own agency.”

“And,” Joe said slowly, “based on what else we learned down there, the best way to do that might start with the dryads.”

“Exactly,” Ingvar said quietly.

Aspen looked over at him again, and smiled.


The afternoon was already declining, shadows of the surrounding Viridill mountains casting the Abbey into dimness, when Basra and Jenell finally emerged from the central structure into the secluded side courtyard in which their borrowed carriage was parked. It had already been packed by a pair of novices who had since retreated, and stood idle, piled with the luggage and effects of both women.

“Ah, hello!” Schwartz said, bounding upright from where he’d been sitting beneath the mimosa tree nearby. The walled space was only paved in the area in front of the Abbey’s side door, the rest of the area left as a small garden with a fountain, a few flowering shrubs, and the lone pink-blossomed tree. “Good evening! All settled, then, ready to go?”

“Why, Mr. Schwartz,” Basra said in a mild tone, stopping at the foot of the steps down from the Abbey to regard him with her head tilted to one side. “Were you waiting for us?”

“Oh, well,” he said awkwardly, dry-washing his hands. “It’s just, you know. I realize this sort of thing must be all in a day’s work for you, your Grace, but it’s been a pretty big deal for me! All the excitement, being part of history… Not as if I can just brush it all off without at least saying goodbye, can I?”

“Mm hm,” Basra said quietly, one corner of her mouth twisting upward in a faint, partial smile. A few steps behind her, Jenell watched her with a suddenly wary expression. “And, of course, it’s not just me you wanted to see off.”

“Ah.” Schwartz swallowed heavily, a faint blush rising on his cheeks. “Well. You know… I mean, not that… Certainly, your Grace, it’s been great working with you, don’t think—”

“Well, it’s a fair point,” Basra said briskly, striding toward him with a suddenly warm smile. “You’ve been absolutely invaluable to me on this trip, Schwartz. Not that you’re the sort of man I would generally pick to participate in a field exercise, but even so, I haven’t a single criticism about your performance. I have already sent a letter of commendation to Sister Leraine, along with my thanks to her for suggesting you for this. The whole thing would have fallen apart without your help, and that is the simple fact. I don’t intend to let it pass unnoticed.”

He seemed momentarily lost for words; Meesie cheeped once in excitement and ran in a full circle on the top of his head, further disheveling his sandy hair. “Why… Why, Bishop Syrinx, I’m positively… I mean, I only did the best I could. What else can you do, after all, right?”

The Bishop smiled at him, holding out a hand; when he reached to accept it, she shifted swiftly, grasping his wrist in a warrior’s handshake and leaving him fumbling for a moment to understand and then reciprocate the gesture. With her other hand, Basra pointed behind her at Jenell, then snapped her fingers and pointed at the ground nearby. The Legionnaire dutifully stepped forward, her expression still nervous.

“What’s next for you, if you don’t mind me asking?” Basra inquired.

“Back to my research, I suppose,” Schwartz said with a faint grin. He glanced nervously over at Jenell, then down at his arm, which Basra still held clasped. “I mean…it’s the oddest thing, you know? It was all I ever wanted or enjoyed, studying and developing new spells, but after all this… Going to be a little hard to get back into the swing of it, eh?”

“Oh, I know the feeling.”

“And, ah, yourself?” he added tactfully, with a faint tug of his arm. She didn’t let go. “Off back to Tiraas, I hear?”

“Yes, it would appear I’ve been recalled by the High Commander,” Basra said, a catlike smile stretching across her features. “General Panissar wants to have some kind of ceremony thanking me for dealing with the headhunter; it’s going to take some real skulduggery on my part to nip that in the bud. Such accolades usually just end up being a hindrance in my work. Still, the Empire doesn’t officially acknowledge headhunters exist, so I should be able to shut it down.”

“Ah, well,” he said sincerely, “if that’s how you feel, I suppose. But you surely do deserve the attention! That was incredible, the way you handled that situation.”

“Why, thank you,” she replied, her smile stretching half an inch wider. It was beginning to look almost unnatural; Schwartz’s own expression was becoming more uncertain under her unblinking stare. “You know, I usually take great care not to burn bridges, but what the hell. It’s been quite a run, as you said, and I’m in a good mood. And it’s not as if we’re likely to see one another again.”

“I, uh…” He glanced down at his hand again and tugged it more firmly, to no avail. Jenell was beginning to look downright panicked; Meesie had fallen silent and was standing on her toes atop his head, back arched and fur puffed like a scared cat. “I don’t think I quite understand…”

“I am pretty incredible, Schwartz. I’m cunning, well-connected, and more than a match for most opponents in a fight.” Her smile was unwavering, eyes wide, but pupils narrowed almost to pinpricks.

“Um. I…”

Basra lashed out with her other hand, seizing Jenell by her regulation bun and hauling her forward. The Bishop twisted her head around, still keeping a grip on Schwartz’s arm, and kissed Jenell full on the mouth, hard.

Jenell’s eyes were wide and panicked; after only a second, she squeezed them shut, unresisting. A second later and she forced herself to relax against the taller woman’s grip.

Schwartz gaped at them, ashen-faced, from barely two feet away, Meesie absolutely rigid in his hair.

Basra abruptly released Jenell and, with a contemptuous jerk of her hair, shoved her away.

“Which you should keep firmly in mind,” she said pleasantly to Schwartz as though nothing had interrupted their discussion, “the next time you get the urge to put your grubby little fingers on someone else’s things.” Basra held his aghast gaze for two seconds of silence, smiling, before continuing. “If you forget, just keep in mind that you won’t be the one paying for it.”

“You—” He broke off, choking, and swallowed; Meesie actually burst into flames, which didn’t so much as singe his hair. “You can’t—”

“Covrin,” Basra said calmly, keeping her eyes locked on Schwartz’s, her fingers digging into his wrist. “How’d you like a change of assignment? If you are at all tired of working with me…under me…just say the word. You may pick any unit in the Silver Legions and I’ll pull every string I can reach to make it happen. Well? What do you say?”

Jenell’s face was white and her posture rigid, eyes fixed on the ground. “No, ma’am.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that? Do speak up.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Say it, Jenell,” Basra snarled with such abrupt ferocity that both of them flinched back from her.

Jenell drew in a deep breath, squared her shoulders. “I am happy with my current assignment, your Grace. I’d prefer to remain in your service.” She stared straight ahead, refusing to look at either of them.

“Well, there you go,” Basra said lightly, again smiling. “Get in the carriage.”

Jenell stepped past them without another word, swiftly climbing into the driver’s seat.

“Thank you for all your excellent work, Mr. Schwartz,” Basra said with a kind smile. “Best of luck in your future endeavors.”

She strolled off at a leisurely pace, lifting herself into the passenger seat and sprawling idly with one arm draped over the side of the carriage, a picture of relaxation.

Squealing with rage, Meesie bounded down to Schwartz’s shoulder and then launched herself after Basra in a flaming, flying tackle. Schwartz deftly caught her in midair, where the little fire-mouse struggled against his fist, squeaking furiously and putting off sparks which clearly did him no harm. Aside from that one motion of his arm, Schwartz stood as if petrified, staring emptily at the two women in the carriage.

It hummed to life, and a moment later pulled forward through the gate, heading off down the road to the town and the Rail station below. Neither of them looked back.

Long moments stretched past, the last crimson sunlight fading and the garden courtyard falling into true dusk. Fairy lamps set in sconces around the walls came to life, changing the color of the light. All the while, Schwartz stood poleaxed in place, gazing out the open gate. Meesie finally stopped thrashing and sparking, her fire dissipating until she glowed with only her usual soft, red glimmer. Eventually, she did manage to wriggle free of his frozen grip, whereupon she climbed back up his arm to his shoulder and pressed her front paws to his cheek, cheeping worriedly.

At last, Schwartz shook himself off. Quite suddenly, his blank expression fell into a resolute frown. He reached up, patted Meesie reassuringly, straightened his robe, and took a step toward the gate.

“Going somewhere, Mr. Schwartz?”

He paused, turning back to the Abbey’s door. Abbess Darnassy had just emerged, limping along on her cane, and began the process of navigating the short stairs one careful step at a time, her piercing gaze never leaving him.

“I…” He swallowed and squared his shoulders. “I’m sorry, I have to be going. Thank you for your hospitality, Abbess.”

“Just a moment, if you please.”

“I really need to go. Goodbye.” He turned and made two more steps.

“Young man, get back here this instant.”

Schwartz was halfway back to her before he seemed to realize what he was doing; his face fell into a scowl partway, but after a brief hesitation in his step, he kept going, arriving before the Abbess just as she reached the ground.

“Well, good,” she said with a smile. “You respect your elders, anyway.”

“Reflex,” he admitted. “You sounded alarmingly like my mother just then.”

“As a matter of fact, I met Sergeant Schwartz once. A solid woman, and a good officer. Though it’s Sheriff Schwartz now, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Yes,” he said absently, turning his head to stare again at the gate. “And if you can say it five times fast, she’ll buy you a drink…”

“It’s Herschel, isn’t it?” At the Abbess’s suddenly more gentle tone, he turned back to her, eyebrows rising. “Herschel… That young woman is a Legionnaire in Avei’s service. I’ve watched her carefully while the Bishop has been here, and while there is definitely some manner of duress at play, it is equally clear that she tolerates her situation for specific reasons of her own. Not good reasons, I strongly suspect, but she is no one’s damsel in distress. If you go trying to treat her as such, you will be disappointed, to say the least.”

He scowled at the old woman, Meesie squeaking an indignant counterpoint. “There’s a big difference between rescuing someone and helping them…ma’am.”

“Good.” Narnasia nodded in clear approval. “Good boy. In that case, before you begin whatever it is you are planning to attempt, you will do three things.”

“I will?” he replied, nonplussed.

“First,” she continued relentlessly, “you will visit elven groves until you find one where an Elder is willing to speak with you, and have them explain in detail what the word anth’auwa means. You have the word in mind?”

“Sure, I suppose,” he said, frowning. “What’s this—”

“Repeat it back to me.”

Schwartz’s mouth tightened momentarily in gathering aggravation, but he obeyed. “Anth’auwa, correct? That was it?”

“Good. Make sure you remember it. Second, you will be certain you have a good number of combat spells in your personal repertory and are well-practiced at using them. Specifically, you’ll study spells useful in combating divine magic users, which I understand is the inherent weak point in your chosen magical focus.”

“Um…”

“Third,” she said, staring severely up at him, “you will make a friend or other contact in the Thieves’ Guild, and have them coach you as much as they are willing to in politics. Which is, after all, the execution of war by subtler means. Be acquainted with the mindset and the methods of slimy people who live by manipulation. No one can better teach you that than an Eserite.”

“How in the bloody world would you suggest I make friends with a thief?” he exclaimed.

“Well, since you asked so sweetly,” the Abbess said, raising an eyebrow of disapproval, “the quickest way is to offer them something they want. I’ve no doubt your cult has access to various spells or reagents that are useful for nefarious purposes and which the Guild would love to traffic in. All you have to do is find a relatively personable member who’s interested in making some unscrupulous coin—which is most of them—and you’re in.”

“I don’t believe I’m hearing this,” he said, staring at her. “You’re suggesting I steal from my own cult, now?” Meesie squeaked in incredulous agreement.

“I hardly think that would be necessary,” Narnasia said wryly. “Far simpler to approach Bishop Throale and tell him you’re looking to cultivate contacts in the Thieves’ Guild. Throale will probably give you trinkets to trade out of the College’s own budget. Eserites are useful to know for a variety of reasons, and they’re standoffish with the other cults. You’ll get much further in life by providing people something they want than by fighting everybody. Consider that your first lesson in politics.”

“Huh,” he said, still frowning, but now in thought.

“Remember,” Narnasia said sharply. “What are the three things you are to do?”

Schwartz focused his gaze on her again, his scowl deepening, but he replied dutifully. “Learn what anth’auwa means from the elves, study anti-divine combat magic, approach the Thieves’ Guild to learn about…cloak and dagger stuff. Satisfied?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “When you have done all that… Then, and only then, will you attempt to take on Basra Syrinx.”

Schwart’s eyes widened. He took a half step backward from her. “I… I don’t…”

“Please, don’t waste my time with disingenuous demurrals,” she said irritably. “You’re even easier to read than most young people, which is a big part of the problem before you. Syrinx is a creature of politics. The moment you start making moves at her, she will know it. At that point you had better be prepared to contend with her, because you will have no more time to learn how. Understand?”

She held his gaze in silence for a long few moments. Finally, he swallowed heavily.

“Why… I mean, Bishop Syrinx clearly has some…favor, in Tiraas. With the Church, and the High Commander. Why would you…tell me this?”

Narnasia sighed heavily, beginning the process of turning around to clamber back up the stairs and into her Abbey. “Avei is a goddess of multiple aspects, Herschel. In war, it may sometimes seem advisable or even necessary to keep a particularly dangerous weapon on hand. The Sisterhood has its High Commander to oversee its pursuit of war, and I will not gainsay her decisions. But there are other values in Avei’s service. Greater ones, I think. Remember what I told you, young man. Be careful.”

“Do you…” He hesitated. “Um, can I help you back in?”

“Go on, be off with you,” she said without turning around, waving a hand irritably. “Leave an old woman to her own battles. Goddess knows I’ve few enough left.”

He stood, though, watching until she was back inside the Abbey, before turning to go. Meesie climbed back up onto his head, nestling herself quietly in his hair, her thoughtful silence echoing his own.

It was quite dark outside, the path downhill difficult to see. The winding road was well-lit, but there was a more direct staircase toward the town, currently vanishing down into darkness. Red still stained the sky, but the sunset was on the opposite side of the mountains, leaving the stretch between the Abbey and the lights of the village far below lost in shadow. Schwartz sighed at the sight, then held out a hand.

Wind swirled gently about his palm, spiraling faster until it burst into a melon-sized flame. The loose fireball continued to whirl, shrinking and compacting itself down until it coalesced fully into a single spark of brilliant golden light. The marble-sized sun was better than a torch, providing a wide area of illumination.

“I say, that is a neat trick!”

Schwartz jumped and yelped, whirling to find Ami Talaari perched on a low retaining wall just outside the gate. She had been in complete shadow, and now blinked at the brilliance of his palm-light. Meesie sat upright on his head, shrilly scolding the bard.

“I couldn’t help overhearing that,” Ami said lightly, hopping down and slinging her guitar case over one shoulder.

“Couldn’t you,” Schwartz said, scowling.

“Well, naturally not,” she replied with a smile, “being that I was shamelessly eavesdropping. That’s rather the point, don’t you think?”

He sighed. “Ami, I’m really not in a great mood, so forgive me if I’m blunt. What do you want?”

“Do you remember,” she said, ambling up beside him, “when I first arrived at the house in Vrin Shai? When I was so irate to find Basra Syrinx there, due to past dealings between us, and she explained in such perfect detail why that had all been a misunderstanding, and absolutely no fault of hers?”

“I suppose so,” he said, frowning suspiciously.

Ami smiled. “It was a pack of utter, shameless lies. In point of fact, I’m not one to just blithely accept what I’m told—no bard worthy of the name is. I’d done my own research on those events long before coming to Viridill, and I know exactly what happened. That woman left me hung out to dry, at the very real risk of my life—and I wasn’t the only person she’d done that to, that night. In fact, I was just incidental. Collateral damage in her ploy to destroy a squad of her own soldiers whom she found…inconvenient. Oh, I know what she did. I know what she is. And I knew, when Bishop Snowe invited me here, that she was present.”

Schwartz stared at her in confusion. “But…then why did you stay? Why did you come?”

“Because a bard’s response to dangerous circumstances is very much unlike an average, sensible person’s.” Her expression slowly sobered, until she looked more intent, more serious, than he had ever seen her. “Some people, Schwartz, can be reasoned with. Some can even be redeemed. But there are some who are so completely defective, on such a fundamental level, that they can only be destroyed. I encountered one just as I was being elevated to the station of a fully accredited bard of Vesk. I wouldn’t be much of a bard if I had just walked away and left that alone, now would I?” She shook her head. “But the way to destroy a monster like that is not to go charging at her with an ax. It starts slowly, carefully, with observing her as closely as possible, to see her habits, her strengths, her weaknesses. And then…then begins the hard part.”

Ami tilted her head, one corner of her mouth turning up in a thin smile. “Think you’re up for it?”

Schwartz stared at her in silence for a moment, then nodded slowly. “Well. I guess I’d better be. Because I’m in.”

“Smashing!” Grinning delightedly, Ami smoothly tucked her arm into his and turned them toward the stairs down the mountainside. “Now, I’m afraid we’re a tad late to catch a Rail caravan out of this backwater tonight, but perhaps it’s just as well. We can find an inn in town, get rooms and some dinner. I do believe we have quite a lot to talk about.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

10 – 49

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

“Movement!” the Legionnaire with her eye pressed to the telescope suddenly announced.

Everyone in the command tent was instantly alert and facing her, which wasn’t much of a change as they had all been tense and pretending with varying degrees of effort to be engaged in other things. The exception, of course, was Aspen, who at first had seemed not to understand the problem, but revealed upon having it explained that she actually just didn’t care. She and Ingvar had been engrossed in a quiet conversation in a rear corner of the pavilion. Whatever they were talking about had occasionally drawn startled looks from Yrril, despite her Narisian reserve.

“Well?” General Vaumann said tersely.

“They’re getting up,” the Legionnaire reported. “Standing and… No signs of agitation. Still seem to be talking… Everything’s still quiet.”

Joe let out an audible sigh, and several of those assembled slouched in quieter imitation. Ami, who had given up strumming her guitar after her attempts to “lighten the mood” had drawn annoyed looks and finally a shouted reprimand from Colonel Nintaumbi, wrapped her arms around it and looked sullen.

“Wait,” the watcher said, and the crowd tensed again.

“Make up your mind,” Ami muttered.

“They’re… Separating. Bishop Syrinx is leaving, coming back this way.”

“And the elf?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

“He’s turning… Appears to be departing as well. Yes—confirmed! The headhunter is retreating back into the forest.”

An audible exhalation from multiple throats passed around the tent. Schwartz muttered something unintelligible, sagging against at tent pole hard enough to shake it and earn an irritated look from a nearby Legionnaire.

“Continuing…target is lost to sight in the treeline, now. Bishop Syrinx is proceeding back this way on foot.” Basra’s horse, left unattended, had wandered off earlier, which the scout had also reported.

“Sir?” an Imperial Army soldier wearing a captain’s bars said to Nintaumbi. “Shall I stand down the alert?”

“Absolutely not,” the Colonel said firmly. “We wait at minimum to hear what Syrinx has to say about her conversation. Agreed?”

He glanced up at Vaumann, who nodded. Yrril just stood in apparent calm, watching down the field. The exact acuity of her eyes was something she hadn’t seen fit to elaborate upon; a surface elf would be able to see almost as well as the human with the telescope, and while drow theoretically had similar capabilities, they were significantly disadvantaged by the sunlight.

“Well,” Nintaumbi added more softly, “I guess the only casualty here has been Bishop Darling. He had to have crossed paths with that creature… There’s only one way that could end up.”

“With all respect, Colonel,” Joe said, “I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions about Darling.”

“I’m not certain what combat capabilities he may have,” Ingvar agreed, “but if anyone living could talk his way out of fighting a headhunter…”

“Um…” Everyone turned to stare at the scout, who was still watching through her spyglass. “Now that you mention it…”


“Why, fancy meeting you here!”

At being hailed, Basra halted her march back toward the armies, turning to stare at Darling, who was strolling casually toward her from the coastline to the southeast.

“Antonio,” she said at a more normal volume as he drew close enough to hear it. “It seems this should surprise me, but somehow, it just doesn’t. I think I’ve lost the ability to be taken aback by anything you do.”

“Now, you mustn’t say things like that, Bas,” he said brightly, coming up to stand alongside her. “That’s the next best thing to a challenge!”

She shook her head. “How did your conversation go?”

“I realize you asked first and there’s a certain etiquette attached to that,” he replied, “but really. Your conversation was obviously a lot more important, and I’m betting a lot more interesting. So…?” He gazed at her expectantly.

Basra grunted and turned to resume her stride toward the front lines, her fellow Bishop falling into step beside her. “About like I expected, though it took longer than I thought.”

“You expected a successful negotiation with a headhunter?”

“I expected to be able to pull his strings, but… That man was more obviously insane than even the stereotype suggests. I don’t know if you’ve dug up anything on headhunters in your infamous research into Elilial, but you’ve talked with that creep Mary enough to probably know they aren’t quite like the rumors tell us. That fellow was clearly far gone. He can’t have been fresh from Athan’Khar, unless he was wildly unstable even before going in. I wonder what he’s been doing up till now; I didn’t get much out of him about that.”

“And yet, you got him to turn around and leave.” Darling shook his head in wonder. “That has to be the century’s foremost feat of diplomacy.”

Basra grinned. “Well, I think so, but most diplomats seem to object to my characterization of diplomacy as piles and piles of lies and manipulations. Most people don’t much like having their illusions exposed. Anyway, he’s gone for now. I don’t know how much time this has bought, but he probably won’t attack in the direction of Viridill again. So that’s my conversation, and if you want the fine details, you’ll have to wait. I’ve no doubt you plan to invite yourself along for the full debriefing I’ll need to give the commanders, anyway, and I don’t enjoy repeating myself.” She glanced shrewdly at him. “Which brings us to you. Since you were coming from the shoreline, hell and gone from the road you went in on, I assume one of your shifty friends found and warned you before you stumbled across the creature?”

“Right,” he said more seriously. “On to the next battle. Before we reach the others, there are a few things I think you should know.”


The trip back to campus was a slow one, being long, uphill, and taken on foot (with the obvious exception of Fross). Trissiny and Gabriel had dismissed their mounts, considering it awkward to ride when nobody else could; Whisper wasn’t built for multiple riders, and Arjen couldn’t carry everybody. For the most part, it was also a quiet walk. The sounds of continued jubilation from the town below had mostly faded into the distance by the time they’d exhausted their efforts to theorize as to Embras Mogul’s true motives.

Their general feeling about the encounter was not celebratory.

“Uh…” Gabriel craned his neck back to glance up at the position of the sun as they passed through the archway onto the campus proper. “Crap, can’t see Clarke Tower from here.”

“It’s a relief,” Ruda commented, “to learn that you don’t automatically know the spots from which our dorm is visible, Arquin.”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s the biggest clock on campus. I’m fairly sure we’re gonna miss lunch if we wanna get to class on time.”

“Always on top of priorities,” Toby said with a smile.

“Hey, proper nutrition is important,” Juniper said seriously. “That’s true even when we haven’t just climbed a mountain.”

“Yes, this has been altogether inconvenient,” Shaeine said solemnly. “In the future, we should ask any deranged warlocks we encounter to schedule their assaults no earlier than four o’clock.”

“Huh,” Fross mused. “I wonder if that would work.”

“Well, I’ll certainly do my best to accommodate you,” Embras Mogul said cheerfully, stepping out from behind a tree just ahead. “All you have to to is ask!”

Weariness and malaise vanished in an instant; weapons came out, various auras sprang to life, and Vadrieny burst forth from Teal.

“You have made your last mistake!” Trissiny roared, golden wings blazing.

“Children!”

Everyone hesitated, though no one powered down or disarmed, and only half of them took their eyes off the warlock to glance up at the gatepost beside the arch, atop which Professor Ekoi suddenly sat, her tail twitching in disapproval.

“For once, would you think before attacking? The wards over this campus would repel incursions by far greater foes than this. Mr. Mogul is an invited guest. I expect initiates of this University to evince sufficient decorum to treat him as such.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“What a curious question,” Ekoi mused. “If I had, clearly I would not know it. And if I had not, I would take offense at the implication. What possible motivation could you have for saying such a thing, Mr. Arquin?”

“I’m thoughtless and fed up with your crap, that’s what!” he shouted.

“For heaven’s sake, boy, hush. I realize class is not formally in session, but this is still an institution of learning. I have arranged, at great effort, a demonstration for you. Compose yourselves and learn, please.”

“Well, pardon me for contradicting your point, General,” Mogul said cheerfully, recapturing everyone’s attention, “but I expect to make a great many more mistakes. Perhaps if you pay attention to the good Professor, here, you’ll someday find yourself in a position to take advantage of one!”

“That does it.” Trissiny took a step forward, sword upraised.

“Avelea.” Ekoi’s tone was calm. “Do not make me come down there.”

“Would it matter if I pointed out that Arquin can see up your robe?” Ruda asked.

“What?” Gabriel said shrilly. “I wouldn’t—Ruda, for once can you not be such a creep?”

“They’re rather cute, aren’t they?” Mogul said to Ekoi. “With the banter, and everything. I didn’t realize adventuring groups actually did that! The chapbooks don’t seem historically authoritative, at a casual glance.”

“Because they do it doesn’t make it sound policy,” Ekoi remarked.

“Well, I for one always respect a spot of good drama. Well? Don’t be shy, let me have it.” He spread his arms wide, grinning and seemingly unconcerned with the array of destructive power poised to descend on him. “How was it? The yokels seemed to eat it up, but I dunno… Not one of my best performances, I don’t think. It felt a little overworked. Wouldn’t you say?”

“We’re not doing this,” Toby said flatly. “We are not going to indulge you in conversation. Just do whatever it is Professor Ekoi is tolerating your presence for, please.”

“Unless you want to learn whether she’s actually capable of stopping all of us from tearing you apart,” Vadrieny snarled.

“It’s so odd,” the Professor mused, “being among people who think that is in question. This is why I should make time to leave Sifan more often; too long away from the wild world and one forgets. Vestrel, that language is not acceptable. There are children here, for heaven’s sake.”

Gabriel clutched Ariel and his staff in a white-knuckled grip, suddenly looking rattled.

“Indeed, tempers appear to be fraying even as we speak,” Mogul said, tipping his hat to them. “So, dear students, the question is, as always: What have we learned today?”

“Fuck it, let’s kill him,” Ruda suggested.

“Wait,” said Shaeine softly.

“You arranged that whole thing,” Fross accused. “The demon trace thing, all of it. From the beginning. Why? What do you get from that?”

“Turning us against the Archpope, for starters,” Toby said tersely.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Mogul wagged a chiding finger at them. “Nothing so crude. Turning you against someone is…well, it’s such a limited gambit. That’s the kind of thing you do to bit players who don’t really matter in the long run. It’s usually all too simple. No, consider the fact that the most esteemed Ekoi-sensei finds my presence and activities here tolerable. Aside from clear evidence that I’m not here to harm you, that shows what, specifically, I’m out to help you do. Which is…?”

He smiled expectantly at them.

“Learn,” Shaeine whispered.

“Bingo!” Mogul pointed at her. “The fact that you and I are nominally enemies is a condition of circumstance, not essential nature. You don’t seem to grasp, yet, how ephemeral all your affiliations and bonds truly are. Unlike the various cults that trained you before now, I’m not out to tell you who you should trust, what you should believe.” He folded his arms and adopted a cocky pose, smirking from beneath the brim of his hat. “What I want is the same thing your teacher, here, wants. The same thing Professor Tellwyrn wants. I want you to think. I want you to look beyond the surface, to question what you are told, to take nothing for granted. I told you before: the Black Wreath is on the side of truth. But I also told you that the truth would be devalued if I just dropped it on you. You’ll have to learn to seek it out for yourselves.”

“This guy is so full of it,” Gabriel muttered, unconsciously raising Ariel. Blue sigils along her blade flared to life.

“That I most certainly am,” Mogul agreed. “For the love of all that’s unholy, don’t take anything I tell you at face value—surely you’ve got that much figured out already. This time you made a lot of assumptions and a lot of rash actions. You thought like adventurers.” He shook his head. “As I’m sure a few people have mentioned to you, adventuring is a thing of the past. To succeed in this world, you need to be insightful, careful, and mindful of the subtle connections between things. This time,” he added, looking directly at Trissiny and grinning, “I made you a hero in the eyes of the public. I prevented a certain schemer in the Universal Church from getting hooks into you. You fought me the whole way, and yet you ended up doing exactly as I wished at every step. Now, just imagine what would have happened if I had actually meant you harm!”

“Did you seriously come up here just to gloat?” Juniper exclaimed.

“Of course not.” Mogul tipped his hat to her. “Merely to demonstrate. I don’t mind acknowledging that I’m not smarter than you, kids—at least, not collectively. You lost this one because you were playing the wrong game. Learn to play the right one. And now!” Turning toward Ekoi’s pillar, he bowed deeply, sweeping off his hat to reveal a shiny bald head. “Professor, it has been both a high honor and an unmitigated pleasure to work with you.”

“That’s a lie,” she said, smiling benignly, “but since it should have been, I shall accept the compliment.”

“With that, I really must be off—I can only imagine the stress poor Professor Tellwyrn is under right now, allowing me to stand here without smiting me into a puddle.” He placed his hat back on his head, straightened it carefully with both hands, then winked at them. “See you ’round, kids.”

Shadows gathered, and then he was gone.

Professor Ekoi hopped nimbly down, landing on the grass as lightly as a cat. “What you just heard was wisdom, students. It was not necessarily truth. The difference is important. Think on these things—think deeply, and carefully. But later, yes? For now, off to class with you.”

She turned and strolled casually away, the white tip of her tail bobbing behind her. The entire class stared at her retreating back, too dumbfounded to speak.

With the exception of Trissiny, who was staring at the spot from which Embras Mogul had vanished, her sword dangling limply from her fingers.


Though the remaining members of Basra’s party had clustered around trying to command her attention immediately upon her return, she had brushed them off to join the commanders in a private conference in Fort Naveen. Schwartz and Ami had both been loudly disappointed when it was made clear that they were not invited to attend. Only Branwen had managed to include herself, and that apparently on the pure basis of rank, not because she had anything in particular to contribute. Darling’s companions, though they had been similarly glad to see him alive and well, had been more restrained. Or perhaps, less interested in being cooped up with stuffy military leaders.

In any case, it wasn’t as if dallying was an option; after a relatively short exchange, a messenger from the fort had arrived with word that a very important figure had just been teleported in.

“I am absolutely astonished,” said General Toman Panissar in the fort’s secure conference room, “that you managed to persuade that deranged thing to back down, Bishop Syrinx.”

“I’m somewhat astonished that your response to that deranged thing’s presence was to come here,” Darling said, lounging back in the chair he had commandeered by the fireplace. “Wouldn’t the Empire find itself in a bit of a pickle if the supreme commander of the Army were suddenly killed by a headhunter?”

“His Majesty is the supreme commander of the Army,” Panissar said, giving him an irritated look, “and that is why I didn’t come until the Azure Corps brought word that the headhunter had retreated.”

“The point remains,” Yrril said calmly, “it was an incredible feat of negotiation, Bishop. I must add my commendation.”

“Thank you, but ‘negotiation’ implies more rationality on the part of the participants,” Basra said with a faint smile. “I was manipulating, twisting the facts and lying through my teeth, and he was, not to put too fine a point on it, batshit crazy. As I said before going, that was a situation that called for a politician.”

“It was still incredibly brave to go out there,” Branwen said earnestly. “I mean, I think I can consider myself a politician as well, and I feel no shame that I didn’t volunteer.”

“I am, among other things, a soldier,” Basra said with a shrug. “It had to be done. That’s what soldiers do.”

“I could only dream of filling my ranks with men and women who would willingly face such a thing,” Panissar replied. “But the important question remains: how much time have you bought us?”

“That I can’t say exactly,” Basra said, her expression falling into a frown. “I managed to convince him that messing with the Sisterhood wasn’t in his best interests. That much I was confident I could do before I went out there; whatever that elf thinks of anything, the actual danger comes from the spirits inside him, and Athan’Khar and Viridill respected each other for a long time, even when they fought. It was the attack on Athan’Khar that made Viridill turn on the Empire, after all. As to what he’ll do next, or when, or where…” She shrugged fatalistically. “This is a temporary reprieve, make no mistake.”

“Then we’ve gained nothing,” Colonel Nintaumbi said, scowling.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Panissar disagreed. “Time to prepare makes all the difference—it’s exactly the thing we’ve never had before, with any other headhunter’s appearance. Bishop Syrinx saved a lot of good soliers today; that thing would have torn right through those armies. Now, I’ve had time to alert Lord Schraede and notify Imperial Intelligence.”

“Schraede?” Yrril asked, tilting her head.

“Commander of the Strike Corps,” Darling explained.

“Indeed,” Panissar said, nodding. “The entire Corps has been pulled from their duties and set on high alert. Considering the headhunter’s known ability to shadow-jump, we must assume his next move could occur anywhere. Strike teams are moving into position across the Empire, each accompanied by portal mages of the Azure Corps to stay in communication. As soon as he shows his face again, the entire Strike Corps will land on him. Not even a headhunter can contend with that. And besides,” he added more thoughtfully, “while it’s a long shot, his Majesty had the idea to seek aid from…our allies. If they are willing and prove able, we may be able to head this off before the creature can attack.”

“Allies?” Vaumann asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The Emperor prefers that that matter remain classified for now,” Panissar said briskly. “Continuing with that line of thought, this business of stirring up elementals shows far more planning ability than any past headhunter has displayed, not to mention skills beyond them.”

Basra and Darling exchanged a glance.

“Well,” Darling said, straightening up, “it turns out that wasn’t the headhunter’s doing.”

“Oh?” Nintaumbi said sharply.

“I did manage to have a short conversation with Khadizroth the Green while I was very briefly in the woods,” the Bishop continued. “He and Mary the Crow are still down there—after rescuing me from blundering across that crazy critter, they stayed behind to see what they could do about it. But yes, back on point, it turns out we were both right, Bas. Khadizroth was down there to help, and he was behind the elemental attacks.”

“What?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

Basra nodded, though. “Yes…I can see it. In fact, that explains the one glaring flaw in my theory that was troubling me. The elemental summoner showed a knowledge of the history and social nature of Viridill and the Sisterhood; it was odd in the extreme that he might think they would step aside and let him invade Tiraas.”

“Exactly,” Darling agreed. “Between that and his ploy to get Mary’s attention through Ingvar… He wasn’t attacking Viridill, he was trying to rally the province’s defenders.”

“Why?” Panissar demanded, narrowing his eyes. “If he had forewarning of this creature’s intentions, he could have just come to us.”

“There’s a lot about Khadizroth I don’t know, or understand,” Darling admitted. “Today was my first actual encounter with him; what I’ve heard previously has been secondhand at best. We do know, however, that he’s not involved with the Conclave, despite their claim to represent every dragon in Imperial territory, and I’ve had reason to believe before now that he has worked with the Universal Church in some capacity. That’s odd behavior from any dragon but a gold. I highly doubt he trusts or likes the Empire. The Crow doesn’t, either, but neither of them go for the kind of indiscriminate slaughter a headhunter causes. They moved to save lives, even those of their declared enemy. But yes, Toman, you’re correct.” He nodded grimly. “These are powerful beings with their own agendas, who should never be trusted or taken for granted. I think we’ll be a long time yet unraveling the threads beneath all this.”

“If we even can,” Basra said fatalistically. “Unless we can capture either Mary the Crow or Khadizroth the Green, we’re unlikely to learn anything more. Whatever other truths are out there…they’re buried in Athan’Khar, now.”

“Then I think that sums up the situation,” Panissar said. “The crisis has passed, for now, but this is not over.”

“If you look far enough beneath the surface,” said Darling, “there are always strings connecting events to other events. I can’t find it in me to believe all this just happened.”

“Headhunters,” General Vaumann pointed out, “are essentially chaos and randomness personified. If anything, the lack of connection to a greater pattern has been the most difficult part of this whole mess. I don’t think it’s necessary to conclude there’s some broader purpose at play, here.”

“We may be able to learn something more, either from the dragon or the Crow, or possibly even the headhunter,” Panissar replied, “but on the whole, I am inclined to agree with Bishop Darling. Lord Vex is of the same mind.”

“You can add me to that list,” Basra stated. “There’s just too much going on for us to assume this is over. Even once the headhunter is destroyed… I think we had all better keep these events firmly in mind, and be watchful going forward.”

For a moment, her gaze met and held Darling’s, and then they both turned back to the group, expressions betraying nothing.

Positioned in the room’s most comfortable chair in the far corner, Branwen let the continuing discussion wash over her, studying each of her fellow Bishops in turn, and wearing the faintest little smile.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

10 – 42

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

Though they still mostly lacked the paving of the Empire’s modern, carriage-friendly infrastructure, the ancient roads of Viridill had been designed to withstand time and the elements without needing major upkeep; most of them had been built when the province of Avei’s faithful had been beset on all sides by enemies, rivals, and marauding nomads, and needed to rapidly convey troops at minimal notice. The road, thus, was still a road and still navigable, but after nearly a century of scant use and no maintenance, it was in bad enough shape to throw up impediments to five people fleeing along it in the dark. Grasses had taken root even in its hard-packed surface, decades of wind and rain had gouged ruts and enormous potholes, and debris from the dense forest surrounding had fallen everywhere. All three priestesses ran with golden glows radiating from them, which helped a lot, but members of the party still tripped and stumbled often.

No one gave up. Even had anyone been so inclined, the sounds of what was coming after them would have spurred them onward. The eerie keening of whatever was running in an apparent group continued, but far worse were the long, aching screams, the far-too-human sounds of absolute pain and despair. And they were all growing steadily closer.

Ami proved to be in remarkably good shape; she was not only keeping up, despite awkwardly clutching her guitar case as she ran, but managing to hum almost continuously. It wasn’t quite full bardsong, but she lent what she could to the group. Schwartz, too, had cast a quick enhancement over them to keep them going once they all assembled on the bank beyond the frozen river. Between them, they had done what they could, and their efforts showed, but the group had been running for more than a quarter of an hour, and only Jenell and Basra were really trained for such exertion—and even Jenell was starting to falter, having to make the dash in armor.

They were all lagging. What was chasing them was still gaining.

Finally, Branwen lost her footing on a half-hidden tuft of grass and stumbled to her knees, barely catching herself against both palms and letting out a soft sob of pain and exhaustion. Around her, the rest of the group faltered as well, turning to look.

Basra kept going a few more steps before stopping and turning around. She stared down at the fallen Izarite for half a moment, then glanced up at the darkness swallowing the road in the direction from which they’d just come, then finally trotted back, reaching down to none too gently grasp Branwen under the shoulder and tug her upright.

“Not much further,” she said curtly, and even she was slightly out of breath. “The treeline is only a hundred yards ahead. Once we’re in the open, the armies will see us and help.”

“They don’t stop,” Ildrin wheezed, sagging forward and panting. “Why don’t they—”

“You shut your noise hole,” Basra snapped.

“They never forget, never forgive,” Ami said, clutching her guitar case as if for comfort; she was pale and utterly lacked her usual haughty poise. “They won’t stop till every drop of Tiraan blood falls. Once they get the scent—”

“That is not helping!” Basra exclaimed. “Come on, all of you, pull it together! We’re nearly out of the woods. Schwartz, is there any more you can do?”

“Very dangerous,” he croaked, panting heavily and with one hand pressed to his chest. “Messes up th’body… Natural capacity…”

“None of that will matter if we’re all—”

And then something burst from the trees beside the road, not ten yards behind them.

In the roughest sense, it was humanoid, pink and fleshy, but unformed as a scarecrow. Spindly arms were totally out of proportion to its body, tipped in fingers so long they resembled tentacles; for a head it had only a misshapen lump without apparent eyes. It had a mouth, though, a huge, gaping maw lined with uneven, flat teeth, dripping streams of viscous drool that glinted in the light of Basra’s aura. And it was easily fifteen feet tall.

The thing opened its mouth still wider and screamed, that same wail of anguish that had been following them since the fortress. This close, it was far louder, and somehow even more horrible. Ildrin and Branwen both staggered backward from it with muted cries.

Basra stalked forward, sword upraised; after a second, Jenell joined her, drawing her weapon and raising her shield.

Before they even reached the front of the group, the monstrosity wailed again and came charging toward them. Its speed was terrifying.

Schwartz spat a few unintelligible syllables and hurled Meesie straight at the thing, right over the heads of the two Legionnaires.

The mousy little elemental exploded in a massive fireball in midair.

What landed on the road between them and the monster of Athan’Khar was the size of a pony and more resembled a lion than a rodent, with a halo of seething flame for a mane. The creature didn’t so much as slow; letting out a deafening roar of challenge, Meesie charged forward, lunging to grasp one of its legs in her powerful jaws.

The elemental’s weight yanked the brute off-balance, and they tumbled sideways into the treeline, the monster emitting another anguished scream, this one sounding distinctly angrier. Meesie whirled to her feet and lunged on top of it, snarling and savaging the thing with fiery claws.

“Keep going,” Schwartz shouted, seeming to have recovered some of his breath. “She can’t hold it long!”

Branwen needed a tug from Ildrin to get moving again, and did so with a slight limp, but in the next moment they were all going, markedly slower than before, but still going. The sounds of battle receded behind them, but not fast enough for anyone’s comfort. In the distance but growing ever closer were the shrill, whining notes of the other kind of monster chasing them; not far behind the first beast came another ululating wail.

With a sharp pop and a flurry of sparks, Meesie appeared out of midair, again mouse-sized, and landed on Schwartz’s shoulder, squeaking in dismay.

“Out of time,” he panted, not glancing back.

“Almost there!” Basra shouted, pointing ahead with her sword. “See?”

Indeed, they were close; in the darkness they head nearly reached the treeline before being certain, but once they topped a small rise, a gap widened before them. The forest gave way to a wide plain, kept clear as a barrier against just the kinds of things now pursuing them; in the distance, two fortresses were visible, brightly lit with modern fairy lamps, and the torches of encamped armies even closer. Even in the dark and at this distance they could tell the forces massed there were significantly greater than when they had entered the woods the previous morning.

Topping the small hill seemed as if it would take the last strength from them, but they picked up speed running down the other side; for a wonder, none of them tripped or lost balance. In just a few moments more, they were emerging from the trees onto the plain, the road leading straight toward the fortress looming in the distance to the west.

The howl came from behind them, terrifyingly close.

And this time, the smaller shrilling of the other things was even closer.

They poured out of the trees only a dozen yards behind the fleeing humans, having seemingly avoided the road. There were easily a dozen of them, pasty white things like cave salamanders with far too many limbs, but they bounded along more like monkeys than spiders. That was all there was to them, seemingly: a central blobby mass and uneven numbers of gangly legs, with no signs of eyes or mouth. Nothing to indicate what produced that high-pitched keening.

Basra turned to face them again, her aura brightening and a shield flashing into place around her. “Schwartz, got anything else?”

“One las’ trick,” he wheezed, but was already moving as he did so, tucking his hands momentarily into his wide sleeves. He waved both of them in wide arcs, spreading his fingers; a hail of what seemed to be gravel flew from his left to strew across the ground, while he released a gout of powder from the right, which hung in the air, forming into a small grayish cloud.

Jenell pushed past him, raising her shield, as Basra stepped up on the other side; Ami and Ildrin huddled behind them, Branwen actually slumping to her knees in defeat.

The moment the first of the creatures crossed beneath Schwartz’s cloud, the night exploded into brightness.

A dozen small bolts of lightning slashed across the space between the cloud and what he had thrown to the ground. The spider-blobs kept charging heedlessly forward, and as soon as they lunged into the trap they were blasted to the earth by searing arcs of electricity. At the speed they were moving, it took only seconds for all of them to lie charred across the road, several still twitching feebly.

“Well done,” Basra panted.

Then the towering monster burst out of the treeline.

It bore long claw marks, oozing green ichor, as well as several burns, but it wasn’t slowed. Opening its mouth wide, it howled even louder than before at them, hurling itself forward in a mad charge.

Before anyone could stop her, Basra went pelting right at it.

The brute lunged forward, slashing at her with one of its gangling hands, fingers throwing off sparks as they scraped across her glowing shield.

The exchanged that followed was too rapid for the exhausted onlookers to make sense of, but in the next second, Basra was staggering backward, her shield collapsed under the sheer force of the blow, while the creature’s severed hand flopped to the road.

The howl it emitted was physically painful in volume. It hesitated barely a moment, brandishing the stump of its arm at them, before charging again.

Suddenly, black shapes swarmed around the group from behind, a whole wall of them planting themselves between the humans and the monster and raising a line of triangular shields. More darted forward, slashing at its legs.

The beast faltered, wailing and swiping ineffectually at the dark figures, which seemed like little more than shadows in the faint moonlight. They moved far too adroitly for it to strike.

Several more dashed into position, carrying long polearms; two of these charged at it from the sides, and deftly impaled the creature’s central body, then planted the butts of their weapons in the ground and held them down. It wailed, tugging back and forth and nearly dislodging its attackers, but even as they faltered, two more appeared, adding their own long shafts to hold it in place.

All the while, the milling shadows below went to worth with slashing weapons which were as indistinct as they in the darkness, ripping into its legs and actually beginning to carve chunks out of them. Wailing in fury and pain, the monster was progressively borne to the ground, the polearm warriors shifting position to keep it contained as it was systematically hacked to shreds.

Once they had its legs effectively removed, the shadows swarmed over it like ants, swiftly disabling its arms and then going to work on its central body. In only seconds more, its cries were silenced; mere moments thereafter, it stopped moving entirely.

The five humans stared at this over the shoulders of the shadow-figures between them and what remained of the monster.

Schwartz summed up everyone’s thoughts

“Uh—whuh?”

One shadow detached itself from the group, stepping toward them and lifting its hands to its head. It removed a helmet, an act which oddly made the dimly-glimpsed shape make sense; it, and all the others, were warriors in armor which had been treated with something to make it pitch black and non-reflective. The same effect had been applied to the blades of their long polearms and the sabers with which they had dispatched the monster.

Helmet off, the being revealed aquiline features, elongated ears, crimson eyes in a dark gray face and white hair cut in a bob that hung just below her chin.

“Drow?!” Jenell said in astonishment.

“Ah, good,” the drow said tonelessly, glancing at her. “A scholar. Bishop Syrinx, I presume?” she added, bowing to Basra. “I would ask how your negotiations went, but that would appear to be a formality.”

Another wail rose up very close by, and the drow commander’s gaze snapped in the direction of the forest.

A towering beast, seemingly identical to the first, lunged out of the treeline, pausing for a moment on the open ground to orient itself. Seconds later, a third emerged ten yards or so on its left.

The drow advance fighters scattered, forming themselves into a wide arc with pikemen interspersed along their length, preparing another takedown.

Before they could move, however, a barrage of lightning bolts came flashing out of the darkness to the northwest, carving scorched paths across the prairie grass and blasting the nearest monster off its feet. As it wailed in pain, the fire kept up, keeping it physically pinned down under the sheer fury of the attack even as it was systematically burned to a crisp.

Two squads of soldiers in light Imperial Army uniforms advanced toward them at a trot, their front ranks with staves leveled and firing even as they moved. What looked like a continuous stream of energy blasts was coordinated along the line, lightning flashing forward in a well-practiced pattern that kept up constant fire while allowing each trooper to let his weapon rest and avoid overheating. They came at an oblique angle that kept the drow out of their line of fire; circling around to do it had likely accounted for their late arrival.

The third monstrosity screamed in fury and turned to face them, setting off at a lumbering run; at a barked order from an officer, one squad peeled off, switching their fire to it and changing formation so the soldiers behind came into play, adding their staves to the assault. In seconds it had been brought down, thrashing and wailing while they came on. The first creature was barely stirring now, still under the continuous barrage of the first squad.

Of the humans sheltered behind the drow shield wall, all but Basra and Jenell actually sat down in the road, panting with exhaustion, and now, relief. The drow relaxed at a soft command from their leader, the advance warriors streaming back to join them and the shield defenders lowering weapons.

As the Imperial squads moved up even with the group, there came another barked order and the staff fire ceased. Moments later, orbs of elemental water were conjured in midair by battlemages and splashed downward onto the thoroughly dead and severely charred Athan’Khar monsters, followed by careful sprays that doused the small fires smoldering all over the area.

An officer peeled off from the first squad and trotted up to them, saluting as he came to a stop.

“Bishop Syrinx, glad to see you safe. Colonel Nintambi sends his regards; we’re to escort you back to the joint field command post.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” she said, nodding to him and sheathing her sword, before turning to peruse her bedraggled group. “Is Falaridjad still alive—ah, good. Take that woman into custody.”

He glanced uncertainly at the priestess, who was slumped on the ground with her head resting on her knees, shoulders heaving with the effort to draw breath. “Uh…ma’am? I mean, of course, but with all respect you don’t hold an Army rank; I’ll need a little bit more to go on.”

“Whatever follows from here is her fault,” Basra said curtly. “We succeeded in meeting and beginning negotiations with our antagonist, at which time this insubordinate, grandstanding mortal avatar of stupidity assaulted him with a relic she had apparently stolen from an Izarite temple. Our chance to make peace can be considered effectively squandered.”

Ildrin made no reply at all to this, still seemingly struggling for breath.

“I see,” the lieutenant said grimly, snapping his fingers and pointing to two of his soldiers. “You heard the Bishop; this woman is under arrest.”

“Sir!” the chorused, saluting, and stepped forward, each holding a staff in one hand and using the other to hike Ildrin upright by the shoulders. She offered no resistance, hanging limply in their grip.

“Where I am from,” the drow commander observed, “a person would be slain on the spot by her commanding officer for such conduct.”

“We have different ways here,” Basra replied. “I want her to survive to see the outcome of whatever follows, so she can be publicly held to account for every last ounce of the ensuing carnage.”

“Ah.” The commander nodded, smiling faintly. “I can see the virtue in such an approach.” The Tiraan lieutenant gave her an uneasy sidelong glance.

“The Empire and the Silver Legions I expected to find here,” Basra continued, “but your presence is a surprise. Not that I am anything less than grateful, mind.”

“Forgive me. I am Yrril nur Syvreithe d’zin An’sadarr, and have the honor of commanding the Narisian contingent attached to the coalition here.” She saluted in the Narisian style, twirling her saber then touching its tip to her temple before sheathing it. “Queen Arkasia was extremely curious at the sudden massing of troops this close to Tar’naris; upon being appraised of the situation, she dispatched forces to assist. The queen takes our treaty with the utmost seriousness. Tiraas and Tar’naris are sisters; whoso attacks one shall contend with both.”

“I, for one, am extremely delighted to see you here,” Basra said, bowing. “I’m sure my companions will concur when they have their breath back.”

Schwartz waved weakly, nodding in agreement.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Basra added somewhat wryly, “but I devoutly hope the rest of this event proves to be a complete waste of your time.”

“So does every sane soldier,” Yrril replied, her thin Narisian smile of courtesy expanding by a few bare iotas to show a hint of real amusement. “Based on your account, however, I fear we shall not be so blessed.”

“Indeed,” Basra said more grimly. “Lieutenant, and… I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your rank?”

“I would customarily be addressed by given name by anyone not in my chain of command,” the drow replied, “but if it comforts you, we commonly translate the rank as Archcommander.”

“Archcommander, then. Lieutenant. If you’d kindly lead the way to the rest of those in charge, I have people badly in need of rest and medical attention.”

“Forgive me, ma’am,” said the lieutenant, “but it appears you could do with some yourself.”

Basra shook her head. “In time. First, I have a detailed report to present. The coalition’s leaders have to know what happened and what to expect.” She glanced back at the dark forest, narrowing her eyes. “I can’t say how soon, but we are about to be at war.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >