Tag Archives: Anjal

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The sun rose over a city stirring with barely-contained furor. A constant hum livened the streets, anger and incipient panic growing steadily. It would not be long before it exploded, one way or another. Already people were gathering around the walls of the Rock.

The sight of Puna Dara’s movers and shakers entering the fortress helped to deflect some of the rising unease, at least for a while. Punaji as a rule did not revere the powerful and wealthy, but by the same token, everyone in the Punaji nation who had accrued power and wealth had done it themselves. With the sole exception of the royal family, there was no hereditary nobility, and a hefty estate tax limited the wealth a person could inherit; anyone positioned as a leader in Puna Dara had earned that, and was treated with respect. Not the fawning that Imperial or Narisian nobles expected, but respect.

Even the royals could be deposed if enough public sentiment turned against them, which added another dimension to the arrival of over a dozen wealthy visitors to the Rock. That the Crown would seek council with the various guildmasters, merchants, and civic leaders of the city was a sign that action was being taken, and served to assuage some of the public’s fear. By the same token, though, if there was to be a change of leadership, it would almost certainly fall to one of those now summoned by the King.

And there was still the serpent making its slow patrol in the harbor. The thing was tireless, and bore no marks from the mag cannon fire it had suffered last night. One way or another, the tension rising would soon boil over.

They met with the Queen and her advisors in a formal dining room first thing that morning. The Rock’s throne room was mostly used for entertaining foreign visitors who expected such grandiosity from a crowned head of state; Punaji, particularly of the successful variety, did not respond well to being lorded over. Anjal had positioned herself at the head of the long table, and that was as far as the privilege of rank went on this occasion.

None of those assembled would have stood out among the rich in Tiraas; ostentation in Punaji culture was seen as an invitation to a comeuppance. Leathers and fabrics were of the highest quality, hats had more feathers than most and some coats had understated gilt trim; swords and daggers were of exquisite workmanship and in many cases not even bejeweled. That was how the Punaji displayed wealth, in quality rather than frippery.

Guards stood at each of the doors, servants along the back wall, and the Queen’s special guests behind her chair, which immediately brought comment.

“I see some interesting faces present,” said a woman a few years younger than Anjal and apparently high in the rankings, as she positioned herself close to the head of the table. “I do not see his Majesty. Has he something better to do this morning, Anjal?”

“And it’s a pleasure to see you too, Ashla, as always,” Anjal said dryly. “The King and Princess Zaruda are preparing to address the public, and in fact I intend to involve you all in that, but first we need to have a discussion. With me are some allies who have been sent by the major cults to assist with this Rust issue. Brother Ermon and Corporal Shahai have been most helpful already.” She turned and nodded to the incongruous pair standing against the wall behind and to her left. Both were impressive, Ermon in full regalia but for the fur cloak, which the climate did not permit, Shahai in Legion dress uniform borrowed from the local Avenist temple. “And this is Tobias Caine, Hand of Omnu.”

“Toby is fine,” he said, bowing slightly. “A pleasure.” He was closer, standing at the Queen’s right.

“Interesting,” mused a tall man whose beard was more gray than black. “Shall we take this as the Crown’s formal declaration that it requires help with this crisis?”

“Neither my husband nor I have called for help, until this morning when we asked you to join us,” Anjal said calmly. “All these have been here for days now; their various masters dispatched them and we have made them welcome, as is not only polite but strategic. The last thing we need right now is various cults running around muddling the issue further.”

“You’d think they would have learned, after what happened to the Fourth Legion,” Ashla commented.

Nandi cleared her throat. “It is not often that Avenists and Shaathists find common ground, but we do have in common that we do not scare easily.” Ermon grinned.

“And this wasn’t a crisis until this morning,” Anjal continued, “merely a problem. Now it is damn well a crisis, as you can all plainly see, and we’d be fools not to accept any aid which is available, so be so good as to lose the attitude, Jandhar.”

“Of course, you’re quite right,” the man who had spoken replied, nodding deeply and giving her a smile. “My apologies.”

“I should clarify,” said Toby, “that I was not sent by my cult. I’m here as a personal friend of the Princess, at her request.”

“Yes, Zaruda’s entourage,” replied a stately woman halfway down the table. Most of the women present wore Punaji attire of greatcoats and hats, distinguished from the common folk only by finer fabrics and brighter colors, but this one was in formal silk dress, her white hair held up by an arrangement of fine gold chains connected to the blue jewel set between her eyebrows. “I daresay we have all heard of you by reputation. She keeps fascinating company, our Princess.”

“That damned school,” another man muttered.

“As to that,” Jandhar piped up, “stop me if I’m just shooting my mouth off again, but how is it the lot of you haven’t already put this thing to bed? You represent quite the bundle of firepower, from what I understand.”

“Complex problems are rarely solved by hitting them hard enough,” Toby replied.

“Spoken like an Omnist, to no one’s surprise,” said Ashla, curling her lip. She had set her hat on the table and picked up one of the pastries laid out, but was now tossing it idly from hand to hand rather than taking a bite. “This one seems to occupy pride of place, Anjal.”

“We don’t get many paladins,” Anjal said brusquely. “With regard to the matter at hand—”

“This clearly is the matter at hand,” Ashla interrupted. “The Rust have been building themselves up for the better part of a year, and you’ve done nothing. They proved their will and capability to be a threat by striking down an entire Silver Legion, and you did nothing. Now you’ve got…what, a multi-cult strike force? Paladins? And somehow you’ve abruptly made this worse.”

“Oh, keep it in your pants, Ashla,” snorted the youngest man present, who didn’t look any older than Toby. “This is not the time for a political upheaval, and you aren’t going to be the next Queen. I want to hear what her Majesty and these fascinating people have to say.”

“I am absolutely flabbergasted to find you sober enough to be here at this hour of the morning, Khadesh,” Ashla replied with a cold little smile. “That’s how we know things are bad.”

“Ashla, if you want to take potshots at me, knock yourself out,” Anjal said sharply. “But anybody who’s just going to snipe at each other can go stand in the hall and do it. We do not have time for this childishness. We are here to discuss the situation, and options. We have not been doing nothing. The Huntsmen have helpfully located the Rust’s base of operations—their real one, not the harbor warehouse we all know they’ve been using. We are also in contact with the local Eserite chapter, who are gathering intelligence for us. Corporal Shahai’s squad is the first of several Silver Legion special forces units the High Commander has sent.”

“Don’t you have any actual Punaji to solve your problems?” Ashla exclaimed.

“We Punaji solve our problems by keeping our wits about us,” Anjal retorted. “For most of their existence the Rust were apparently harmless. Their involvement with what befell the Fourth Legion was unproven—until last night. Thanks to Toby and his friends we have confirmation of that from the Rust’s leader himself. Prior to this, the Crown had no excuse to clamp down on them.” She leaned forward, gripping the arms of her chair. “Had we attempted it, Ashla, you would have raised bloody hell—and unlike your posturing here and now, you would have been right to do so. The one thing the Punaji must absolutely never tolerate in their government is its clamping down on anything resembling dissent, which was all we could prove the Rust to be guilty of.”

“Hear, hear!” Khadesh exclaimed. “And furthermore, we all know this, so let’s not waste time and insult each other’s intelligence by making the Queen explain obvious decisions we all fully understood to begin with.”

“The Rust admitted fault for striking down the Legion, then?” the richly-dressed old woman asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Yes,” said Toby, “right before unleashing that sea serpent and instructing my friends and I to carry an ultimatum back to the Crown. They don’t actually want anything but to be left in peace; I gather they were quite alarmed by the display of force we represented to them. We were trying to negotiate when a third party intervened and spooked them.”

“Third party?” Jandhar demanded. “Who?”

“Someone anonymous,” Toby replied. “The rest of my group is working on that right now. Someone wielding powerful magic, which is why we cannot have them running around unsupervised any longer; I believe the current crisis would not have developed had they not antagonized the Rust while we were there. But they seem to have done it by interfering with those magic machines the cultists use, which makes me suspect they have valuable aid to offer once we catch them.”

“Probably Imperial,” Ashla snorted. “Tiraas just can’t leave well enough alone.”

“Perhaps,” Anjal said mildly. “If that is the case, there will be no official acknowledgment. Both because the Crown does not need to have the Silver Throne meddling in our business so intimately, and because if this rogue agent is not going to cooperate, I intend to throw them to the Rust as a chew toy to placate them.”

That brought grins and a few chuckles from around the table, quickly cut off when Ashla slapped her palm down.

“So that’s it?” she demanded. “Placate them?”

“As a first step,” Toby said. “That is not the only—”

“And this is who you’re getting advice from, I see,” Ashla barreled on. “Omnists would have us all sit and meditate while our city is overthrown by machine cultists! Do you not understand, boy, that that sea serpent represents the end of Puna Dara?! As long as it’s out there in the harbor, we have no trade. Our ships can’t sail. It will be days before the lack of fish causes widespread hunger, at most. Without our ships, we are nothing!” She finished on a shout, actually hurling the pastry at Toby’s head.

He caught it, looking bemused.

“Toby,” the Queen said in a deceptively mild tone, touching the jewel on her forehead with a fingertip, “did Zari ever tell you the significance of these?”

“Uh…” Toby blinked. “No, your Majesty, it hasn’t come up.”

“It was actually started by a foreigner,” she said. “Queen Sera. She was Calderaan, married to a Punaji King for political reasons.”

“Oh, come on,” Jandhar exclaimed. “Is this really the time for a history lesson?”

“Shush,” Khadesh said airily. “I like this story.”

“The Calderaan, of course,” Anjal continued lightly, “are a military society, and largely Avenist, but King Dakresh mostly thought of his new wife as foreign, and noble, and therefore delicate. So when Puna Dara was attacked by the Sheng, he forbade her to leave the fortress and fight. Not only did she take up a sword and join the fray, she took the time to place a target on her forehead.” Anjal grinned, tilting her head so that the gem flickered in the light. “It has ever since been the custom for Punaji women of a certain rank. Only one of sufficient power and importance that she is already a target wears the jewel; to put it on is to proclaim that you believe yourself such, which is not wise in our society unless you are prepared to back that up. It is a standing invitation, in essence.” Her grin widened. “A woman wearing the jewel is saying, ‘slap this off my head, if you think you can.’”

“Hm,” Toby mused. “I see.”

“If you’re quite done educating your foreign guests,” Ashla said, her voice dripping with acid, “I think we have a rather more urgent matter to—”

Toby’s hand was much faster than hers; he threw the roll hard enough that the impact on her forehead made her jerk backward.

“Wow, that’s on there good,” he observed. “You know, I always wondered how Ruda kept that thing on. Didn’t seem polite to ask.”

“It’s enchanted,” the grandmotherly woman explained with a wry smile.

“Who’s Ruda?” somebody inquired, but was drowned out by the scraping of chair legs on the stone floor as Ashla shoved her seat backward, standing and drawing her saber.

“Little boy,” she said in deadly calm, “I do not care whose Hand you think you are. If you issue a challenge to a Punaji woman, you are going to bleed.”

“You started it,” Khadesh pointed out gleefully.

Ignoring him, Ashla lunged at Toby with the sword.

He moved like water, flowing aside and toward her, spinning around the back of her blade and coming to rest behind her. Somehow, in that split-second, he had ended up with one hand on her sword arm and the other on her waist, as if he were guiding her through the swing.

Ashla emitted a high-pitched grunt of pure outrage, trying roughly to shrug him off. Toby continued to flow with her impetus, spinning the pair of them in a full circle like they were dancing and tugging the sword from her hand in the process, as a smooth continuation of her own attempted stab. He twirled them around, extending a leg almost as an afterthought to kick Ashla’s chair.

It slammed against the back of her knees, causing her to drop back into the seat with another grunt. In the next instant she froze, Toby having planted the tip of her saber against her belt buckle. He shifted it a few inches, however, guiding it unerringly back to its sheath. A single flick of his wrist sent the blade sliding home with a whisper and a click.

“The monks of Omnu exist to encourage peace,” he said, “as gently as possible.”

Pushing her chair back into the table required more brute force, but he did not seem to lack for it; Ashla’s midsection met the edge of the table hard enough to wring a squeak from her.

“The Hand of Omnu,” Toby said from right behind Ashla, both his hands resting on her shoulders, “exists to insist upon peace. No more gently than necessary.”

He held that position for a few seconds before releasing her and taking a step back.

Khadesh applauded until his neighbor reached over and swatted his hands down.

“I do prefer peaceful solutions,” Toby continued, stepping back over to the Queen’s side; Anjal was grinning openly at him. “I certainly tried to reach one with the Rust’s leader. But if any of you are worried that I am going to try to broker a solution which will not reflect the best interests of your nation, let me put that fear to rest. There was a moment, talking to him, listening to him, when I wanted to believe. As little respect as I have for the Rust’s philosophy, as long as they weren’t harming anyone, as long as they just wanted to practice in peace, I really wished I could support them in that. Reassure them, and persuade the Church, the Empire, and whoever else to leave them alone. But that was before. That man, Ayuvesh, acknowledged attacking and all but destroying a Silver Legion—just because they might have been a threat to him. When startled and faced with the possibility of my friends and I intervening, he set loose that beast in the harbor. He operates through fear, securing his needs by the threat of force. He is a bully and a terrorist, and he has to go.” He nodded firmly to the Queen. “I speak for my friends as well when I say that we are fully behind the Crown in this. The Rust must fall.”

“So when we talk about placating them,” Anjal continued, nodding back, “it is a tactic only to buy time. We must acknowledge that at this moment, the upper hand is theirs; so long as their pet is swimming around the harbor, they have a hand on Puna Dara’s throat. Our first priority must be to break that grip, and persuading them to release it, as galling as it may be, is our clear best bet in that regard. But in doing so, however we must, we will not lose sight of the fact that the Rust have declared war upon the Punaji.” She bared her teeth, and the expression was no longer a smile. “And the Punaji do not suffer tyrants.”

There were fervent mutters of approval at this, and one outright cheer from Khadesh.

“Well said,” Jandhar stated, nodding. “What, then, is your plan?”

“The situation is this,” Anjal said, folding her hands lightly. “We have two paladins, a pixie mage, a dryad, and the archdemon Vadrieny—together enough sheer force to crush almost any opponent. Unfortunately they can’t be used directly on the serpent because none of them can fight while swimming. The Rust did not do what they did to the Fourth Legion, which suggests that they aren’t able to. Conjuring that sea serpent guaranteed them the enmity of all Puna Dara, not something they would have done lightly if they had a cleaner option.”

“Back up,” said Ashla, not much the worse for wear for her recent manhandling, aside from an even more annoyed expression. “Vadrieny? That one’s the worst of Elilial’s get. Mindless destruction personified. Are you certain you have her under control?”

“Vadrieny is not under control,” Toby said quietly. “She was nearly destroyed five years ago and has no memory of her existence before that point. She is a friend, and has earned my trust. These…are interesting times,” he added wryly.

“I note that your assessment of the situation made no mention of conventional military assets,” said Jandhar. “Are we just not going to bother solving this ourselves, with soldiers?”

“This is not a conventional military situation,” the Queen replied. “We do not know what additional tricks the Rust have yet to play, and more to the point, they have made it plain that if they are further antagonized that serpent will begin destroying the docks and the ships there. What we need is to get to a point where we can use our forces. That means we need, first, to neutralize that serpent and cripple the Rust’s magical abilities. And that is being worked on as we speak.”

“Don’t keep us in suspense,” said Khadesh, grinning.

“I am in here talking to you while my husband is out there addressing the public for one reason,” Anjal said with a smile. “He is a much better public speaker than I. For the time being, the Crown is forced to comply with the Rust’s demands, to prevent the destruction of the docks—but the Rust have made a critical mistake in that regard. They depend upon Puna Dara for…everything. They have to eat. They have to move freely through the city to get any supplies they need. They wish to spread their gospel, which requires a public that will listen to them and not, for example, hurl bricks. The King is reminding the people right now that the government serves them, not the other way round, and while the government is forced to wait—for now—the Punaji people, themselves, are far from helpless.”

“So that is why you need us,” the old woman said slowly. “We can command action from our various employees. More to the point, we command respect from the general public. A united plan enacted by everyone in this group will spread throughout the city.”

“I like it,” Ashla said suddenly, nodding to the Queen. “Make it impossible for the Rust to do any business—even to exist in Puna Dara. As long as it’s not soldiers refusing to sell them food or let them walk down the street unmolested, they cannot claim the Crown has challenged their ultimatum. They may have cut off trade in Puna Dara, but Puna Dara can cut them off just the same.”

“And making that point,” Jandhar mused, “might just encourage them to call off their snake. Which brings us back to the other point: how, then, do you plan to neutralize their magic and put a stop to them?”

“That,” said Toby, “is what the rest of my friends are doing right now. We know someone who has insight into the Rust’s workings; it’s just a matter of bringing her into the fold.”


Milanda had given up on sleeping and gone in search of breakfast. All she’d managed after coming back to her rented hovel was a quick nap before another eyeball-gouging nightmare had catapulted her back out of bed, and she hadn’t dared try again. Worry and remorse made for poor company, but they sure kept her occupied.

They had occupied her mind, too; she was stymied as to her next move, and keenly aware that stress and lack of sleep were wearing down her faculties. If she still had that Infinite Order screen she could maybe have kept working at it, but as Walker had rightly pointed out, that thing would undoubtedly lead the Rust straight to her. So she’d ditched it back in the mines, and now here she was, alone, probably responsible for the current disastrous state of affairs in Puna Dara…

This mission was altogether not going well.

Dawn found her out on the street, heading for the nearby market where she could obtain some bread and fish. Milanda honestly felt too anxious to be hungry, but it was an excuse to move. Maybe a little air and exercise in the tropical sunlight would help clear her head. Maybe it would tire her enough that she could actually get some rest.

Of course, that was before she felt the blazing beacon standing out from the sea of candles that were the people around her, perceived through her life sense. She recognized that bottomless font of fae power from having followed her around last night, and from working with her sisters. Well, actually, she couldn’t distinguish between dryads at a distance this way, but how many could there be in Puna Dara right now?

And more to the point, what the hell was Juniper doing here?

Walking along with her attention on the dryad some two streets off to her left, she was sufficiently blinded to her own surroundings that only the reflexes granted by her fae attunement enabled her to catch the object tossed to her.

“Here ya go!” a voice said cheerfully. “On the house. You could use it, hon, you look half dead.”

It was a steamed honey bun, and it had been lightly pitched to her by a black-haired elf. There were few enough of those, but Milanda had taken pains to be able to recognize this one in particular, and her stomach dropped further. She resisted the urge to glance down at herself; the disguise charm on her gear should make her look like an unremarkable Punaji woman. Maybe this was a coincidence?

And maybe Justinian would spontaneously drop dead of a heart attack and she could go home.

“No, thank you,” she said politely, holding out the bun to the elf.

“Take it,” Principia bloody Locke said in a gentle tone that made Milanda want to punch her. “I know the look of somebody who hasn’t slept or eaten all night. A full stomach’ll help you get some rest, too.”

What the hell was going on? Was this a Legion special forces thing, hunting her down in connection to the ongoing Rust debacle? Or was it Locke on personal business as Trissiny Avelea’s biological mother, trying an even more indirect route? Milanda wasn’t on speaking terms with her grandmother, but she was aware that Narnasia had bodily ejected the elf from the Abbey last time she came sniffing around.

And in either case, how the hell had she found her?

Plus, that dryad was still wandering about not far away. Not getting closer, but…

“Guilty conscience?” Locke inquired innocently, and Milanda very nearly hurled the sticky bun at her face.

“What do you think I have to be guilty about?” she snarled.

The elf shrugged. “No idea. Worries, then? Or recently in love? Those are the big three, when it comes to insomnia.”

She could run. Of course, even with all her new gifts, she likely couldn’t outrun an elf. And even if this elf didn’t chase her down… Now that she was here, Milanda had to learn how much she knew and how she’d found it out. That this was a coincidental meeting was simply beyond the scope of possibility.

She started walking again, slowly, and Locke fell into step beside her. Obviously, she did not take a bite of the bun; gods only knew what the wretched woman had done to it.

“Conscience,” Milanda said suddenly. “And worry.”

Locke nodded, strolling along and apparently not watching her. There was silence for a long moment.

“Have you ever done something,” Milanda finally said, painfully aware she was in no mental state for these games, “something unspeakably awful…that wasn’t at all your fault, but you were there. No matter how rationally you know you couldn’t have stopped it, you can’t help feeling…”

“Nope,” Locke said after she’d trailed off. “I’ve lived a long time—at least, by human standards—and done some pretty awful shit, but I am glad to say everything I did was my idea. Good or bad, for better or worse, I own my mistakes. I’d hate to be in your shoes, if that’s what’s eating you. It sounds…disempowering.”

“That’s a good word,” Milanda mused. “What’s the worst thing you’ve done?”

The elf emitted a soft huff of breath that might have been the shadow of a laugh, or a grunt, or almost anything. “Oh, that’s easy. Abandoned my daughter.”

So…maybe this was a personal thing after all? That was not better. The absolute last thing she needed was this random event blowing her cover.

“I’ve lied and cheated like you wouldn’t believe,” Locke continued thoughtfully, “killed and maimed… And stolen, oh, gods. I bet I’ve lifted about the annual gross domestic product of Stavulheim, one way or another. But all that was for a purpose. Even the people who’ve suffered for it…well, I knew what I was doing and why, and I always considered it worthwhile at the time. My little girl, though. I was just scared, and confused, and stupid, and mostly pissed off about being those things when I’d spent two hundred years thinking I had all the answers. I did something for all the wrong reasons, something I didn’t understand, and it…huh. I guess maybe I can relate to you a little better than I thought.”

“Mm,” she said noncommittally.

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” she asked, turning to give Milanda an inquisitive look.

Murdered a room full of soldiers? Accidentally provoked the Rust into unleashing a sea serpent on Puna Dara? The burning presence of the dryad was drifting closer; she was hemmed between Locke and Juniper. Was that an accident?

Gods, she was so tired.

“I don’t really care to discuss it,” she said shortly. “Thanks for the bun. I’d better be going.”

“Well, it really isn’t that easy,” Lock said, stopping and turning directly to her. Oh, great, here it was. “Y’see, I was hoping we could have a conversation. You know, connect, maybe find some common ground.”

“I think you have me confused with someone else,” Milanda said politely. What could she do to this elf, if it came to that? Her augmented reflexes worked to protect her; they were useless on the attack, and she didn’t think she was faster than an elf. Plus, there were people around. Ignoring the two of them, as people in cities did to each other, but that would change if she took a swing at somebody.

“The thing is,” Locke said mildly, “the pixie and the dryad have this trick where they can…okay, honestly, it’s a bit over my head. Something about attunements and tracking and I dunno from fae magic, I left all that crap behind when I fled my parents’ grove. But no, I don’t have you confused with someone else. I’m just the first envoy, lady. The polite one. Isn’t it best for everybody if we do things the polite way?”

Milanda dropped the sticky bun in the street, planted her feet, and loosely balled her fists.

“Try to do it the impolite way,” she said quietly. “Go on, Locke. Try.”

The elf raised an eyebrow. “She knows my name. That’s interesting. Anyhow…no, sorry, that’s not my job. I guess you’ve just removed me from the equation.”

And suddenly the dryad was right there.

The overwhelming presence simply shifted spontaneously from its distant position to mere yards away; Milanda spun, right in time to see a young Stalweiss woman remove an enchanted ring, staring at her, and resume her natural green-and-golden coloration.

“You’re new at this,” Juniper said condescendingly. “If you are very helpful, and I mean so helpful that I end up getting over how annoyed I am at you, maybe I’ll teach you a bit more about the attunement. Maybe.”

Before Milanda could decide on a course of action, the earth shook, and people began screaming and scattering.

She whirled back the other way, where Vadrieny had landed in the street hard enough to make a small crater in the dirt. Locke was backing away slowly, but Milanda paid her no attention. She had just spied something else out of the corner of her eye.

She hadn’t felt him at all, and still didn’t; it was like he was completely absent from her life sense, he and that absurd, smoke-and-fire horse he rode. Gabriel Arquin brought his mount to a halt a few yards distant and leveled his scythe at her.

“Morning, sunshine,” he said flatly. “I see you decided not to play nicely with our elf. Very well, by the power vested in me by this here life-destroying divine weapon, I hereby deputize your ass. Welcome to the team.”

 

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“I’m unaccustomed to scolding, but I have to say I am rather disappointed with the lot of you.”

Glory, indeed, did not look upset with them, but only pensive. Regardless, the assembled apprentices mostly lowered their eyes abashedly in response. Schwartz and Ami exchanged a glance, he uncertainly, she with an arched eyebrow.

Darius cleared his throat. “Yes, well…in our defense…”

“In your defense,” Glory said with a languid little smile, “you are neophyte Guild members, without personal sponsors or the likelihood of obtaining such, and your experiences have given you cause to be somewhat paranoid. Still, I should have thought the overarching lesson of your last round of troubles was that the Guild can be trusted to have your back when enemies are pursuing you. I seem to recall that was settled in part by several senior members who do not get along rallying together to defend you.”

“It’s a fair criticism,” Jasmine agreed with a sigh.

Schwartz cleared his throat. “Yes, well… I don’t know much about Guild philosophy, but as an outsider I have a hard time seeing where you’re coming from. I mean, every cult should have the assumption that members would support one another, right? And…the entire problem here is that some individuals are turning against their cults via some kind of…” He trailed off, looking flustered, as Glory turned an inquisitive gaze on him.

“If anything,” Ami observed, “the Guild’s practice of deliberately fostering competition, I should think, would make them more susceptible.”

“It’s about a statement of core philosophy,” Rasha said, in the quiet but controlled tone she had been cultivating. “Each religion is about something specific, something beyond a simple group identity. Whether members do or don’t back one another in a crisis is in service to that idea. In the case of the Thieves’ Guild, it’s about resisting corruption and overweening ambition. Glory’s right, but…so are you.”

“Listen to you,” Tallie said fondly, lightly touching Rasha’s hair. “Lecturing us on theology now! Apprenticeship’s done you a world of good.” She and Layla had perched on either side of Glory’s apprentice, who had taken a position in the center of the couch and sat with deliberately demure, almost regal posture. Rasha had changed a great deal in the month since moving out of the apprentice dormitory; every time they visited she seemed to be experimenting with a different style of clothing, which had ranged from androgynous to almost excessively feminine. Today’s was closer to the latter end of the spectrum, an embroidered robe cut and padded to suggest curved lines. Despite the obvious growth of her self-confidence, though, Rasha plainly felt more comfortable with the physical proximity of girls than the boys, a fact which Tallie and Layla in particular seemed to have immediately picked up on.

“Well, let’s not turn this into a theological discussion,” Glory advised, smiling wryly at them. “Those are tedious even when they don’t turn into arguments. What’s done is done and I’m not interested in recrimination; that’s Style’s job.”

“Omnu’s balls,” Darius groaned. “She’s gonna string us up by our feet…”

“She did tell us not to leave the Casino’s immediate environs, didn’t she?” Layla mused. “Oh, dear.”

“I suppose,” Glory continued thoughtfully, “I am partially to blame for your general predicament. Being too closely associated with well-established Guild members is, according to the scuttlebutt, largely why none of you have been approached by potential sponsorship despite several of you being very promising.”

“If by blame,” said Jasmine, “you refer to you helping save our lives, I assure you no one here objects.”

“Hear, hear,” Ross grunted.

“Still, that aspect of the situation is worth considering,” Glory said. She glanced at Rasha, and a knowing smile passed between them.

“Uh oh,” Darius accused. “You two are scheming something.”

“Not even subtly,” Rasha replied, smirking.

“For the time being,” Glory said, “let’s return to the matter at hand. I was not aware of a conspiracy such as you describe, but between Mr. Schwartz’s adventures within the Collegium and this Sister Ildrin trying to waylay you, it’s clear that some such thing must be afoot.”

“Well, that’s discouraging,” Tallie muttered. “You’re the most connected person we know…”

“People often misunderstand the nature of a conspiracy,” said Glory. “They are, by definition, things of short duration and limited membership; depending as they do upon secrecy, exposure becomes more inevitable the longer they go on and the more people become involved. Shadowy groups blamed for a wide range of problems are mostly a myth, but conspiracies happen all the time. By the same token, even someone such as myself, who takes great pains to be in on all the gossip, is unlikely to learn of such a group. More significantly, this means that while I can easily point you to a number of figures in various cults who are known to be Church sympathizers, it is very unlikely that most of them are involved.”

“Do you have…any ideas?” Jasmine asked hesitantly.

“Well, first of all,” Glory replied with that knowing little smile of hers, “you are off to a decent start by coming to me, because what we need to do is involve the Guild. Here we have a secretive group clearly trying to amass and abuse power; putting a stop to nonsense of this kind is exactly why the Guild exists.”

“Noted,” Ross said, nodding emphatically.

“Second,” their hostess continued, “we must pare down the prospects. I believe you had the idea to use your divinations, Mr. Schwartz?”

“Ah, yes,” he said, absently patting Meesie, who was being unusually quiet and docile while in Glory’s house. “My craft can help us narrow down prospects more than identify specific individuals, so if you have other thoughts…”

“In fact, I have,” she replied, settling back in her armchair in a manner subtly evocative of a queen upon her throne. “There are more mundane methods, of course. I gather that Mr. Schwartz and Miss Talaari have your trust in this matter, apprentices?”

“Ami has been very helpful to us,” Tallie said sweetly. “I don’t know what we’d do without her.”

Meesie began squeaking violently, and actually tumbled off Schwartz’s shoulder to the arm of his chair, where she rolled around on her back, squealing with mirth. He sighed; Ami just gave Tallie a cool sidelong look.

“Then in the meantime,” Glory said, “we will pursue established leads. Mr. Schwartz, how was it you first learned rumors of this embezzlement activity within your cult?”

He straightened up, frowning slightly. “Well… Sort of related to how I met these guys, actually. Bishop Throale was interested in making, um, less than official contacts within the Guild, like my friends here. He was securing some reagents that might be profitable in black market dealings to try to… Actually maybe I wasn’t supposed to mention that.” He swallowed, glancing over at the windows. Ami rolled her eyes.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Glory said pleasantly. “Go on?”

“Well, so, because of that, he and I were more involved in the Collegium’s reagent stocks than either of us would normally be and he mentioned some things seemed to be going missing. Records not adding up with inventory, boring stuff like that. The Bishop didn’t seem concerned but I went and double-checked and yes, there were some enchanting supplies gone…the specific ones used for bladed weapon and armor maintenance charms. Stuff you don’t see much anymore, only the Silver Legions use them in any quantity. I mentioned it to them,” he gestured at the apprentices, “and Jasmine had apparently…well, there we’re past my part in it, so, y’know.”

“Any specifics?” Glory asked, daintily crossing her legs. “Remember, we are looking for names.”

Schwartz frowned and chewed his lip while Meesie climbed back up his sleeve to her perch. “Um. Well, Suvi Mosvedhi is in charge of the magical storehouses overall. She has lots of people working under her and I hardly know any of them. Let’s see… Carruthers Treadwell was the specific fellow who coordinated with the Avenists on exchanges…”

“Carruthers Treadwell.” Glory leaned forward suddenly, grinning. “Who, just yesterday, was abruptly pulled from his duties by the Chancellor of the Collegium for reasons which are not known outside its walls. It seems we have our in.”

“Who’s this guy?” Ross asked. “And how’re we gonna…in him?”

“Simple,” Glory said with a satisfied smirk. “I am having a little soiree tonight, as I do most evenings. I shall simply ensure that he is present. As will be the lot of you.”

“Um.” Schwartz hesitantly raised a hand. “Carruthers is a bit of a houseplant. I’ve never heard of him attending a social event voluntarily.”

“He has never had Tamisin Sharvineh desire his presence,” she said glibly. “It’s as good as done.”

“Meanwhile,” Rasha added, “that gives us only a few hours to get you lot into some suitable clothes.”

“Ooh!” Layla and Ami both straightened up with sudden smiles.

Jasmine, on the other hand, went a shade paler. “Oh, hell.”


It was a much truncated group which went to meet the Guild’s emissary. Only the queen and Principia had been requested, but Ruda inserted herself into the party; her mother expressed approval at this, while Principia wisely kept her thoughts to herself.

The seneschal conducted them to the Rock’s throne room, where their guest had been asked to wait. It was smaller and generally less grandiose than its counterpart in Tiraas, its stone walls decorated only with banners and old weapons. Even the throne was little more than a large wooden chair, made from the timbers of the ship once captained by a long-ago Punaji king. Narrow windows along one side of the room admitted afternoon sunlight, augmented by strategically placed modern fairy lamps.

There were few seats in the room, just benches along the walls, but their guest had been led to one of these. A small folding table had been brought and laid out with tea and a plate of small sandwiches and pastries, with a servant attending closely. This likely wasn’t usual policy for guests in the throne room, but one glance at Quinn Lagrande banished any question as to its necessity.

Her lined face and pale gray hair revealed her advanced age even without the heavy stoop she suffered despite being seated. Incongruously, she was dressed like a frontier adventurer, with an open-collared shirt and trousers tucked into heavy boots. A wide leather belt around her waist carried a holstered wand and a dagger. At their arrival, Lagrande braced herself with one hand on a hickory cane and stood with a small grunt of effort.

“There you are,” she said before any of them could speak, her voice scratchy with age but still strong. “I gather I interrupted something important?”

“Yes,” Anjal replied without explanation. “I am Anjal Punaji, and this is my daughter, Zaruda. I believe you know Principia Locke.”

“Mm hm,” Lagrande said, giving the elf a wry look. “Oh, we go way back. I hope you’ll pardon me if I don’t kneel, your Majesty. The spirit is willing, but the spine and knees lack respect for authority.”

“I’d feel obligated to stop you if you tried,” Anjal said, smiling with genuine amusement. “And if you must be formal, I prefer Captain to Majesty. I damn well earned that one. What can we do for you?”

“At issue here is what we can do for you,” the old woman replied, shifting her focus to Principia. “Keys, where the hell have you been? You’ve been in town almost two days and for some damned reason we had to seek you out. Taking in the sights?”

“I’ve seen all the sights long ago, and climb down outta my nose, Heckle,” Principia retorted, folding her arms. “You were on the agenda, trust me. My squad was just heading your way when this most admirable young lady press-ganged us.” She cocked a thumb at Ruda, who tipped her hat.

“Yep, I’ll take the blame for that one. When Principia Locke shows up in town, I figured it was best to put a boot on her neck before the situation got even worse. Sounds like you know what I mean.”

“Heh.” Lagrande grinned at her. To judge by their yellowed state, they were all her original teeth. “That’s not a ‘general principles’ action toward a veteran member of the Thieves’ Guild. What’d she do to you?”

“I think you had something to tell us?” Principia said irritably.

“Nothing major, she just tried to drug me that one time.”

“You tried to drug a member of the Punaji royal family?” Lagrande turned an incredulous stare on Principia. “How in the hell has nobody killed you yet, Keys?”

“Oh, that’s rich. Look who’s asking who how she’s still alive—”

“HEY.” Anjal was accustomed to belting orders on deck in a storm; at that range she could be positively deafening. “If you Eserites wanted to put on a minstrel show, there are plenty of street corners not being preached on right now. Did you come here for a reason other than that, Lagrande?”

“Of course, your…Captain. Humble apologies.” Far from looking contrite, the old woman grinned unabashedly. “Yes, you’re right. We do have important information, which was being held for Keys, here, but then the Princess and her friends picked her up and we decided this had better not wait. To begin with, for the benefit of the young and the foreign in this audience, are you aware of just why so many of the Rust’s upper echelons have artificial limbs?”

“Because they’ve got crazy advanced magic and that’s a convenient way of showing it off?” Ruda suggested.

“True.” Lagrande nodded. “That’s definitely part of their motivation. I guess I should have asked why they have such a need for them.”

“Most of them are the Broken,” Anjal said in a much quieter tone. Principia gave her a neutral look, but Ruda frowned in open confusion. “This was well before your time, Zari, and be thankful for that. It used to be common practice for beggars on the docks to use children to mooch from the merchants. Children are inherently more sympathetic, and they sometimes made them more so by deliberately maiming them. Cutting out eyes, hacking off limbs.”

“Holy fuck,” Ruda whispered.

Anjal clenched her jaw. “Your grandfather addressed this problem by creatively punishing anyone he caught doing it, which of course did not help. It was thanks to your father’s early actions that no one in your generation has had to suffer this.”

“What actions?” she asked. “I mean, if…”

“That’s the thing about governing,” the queen said with a sigh. “What works is rarely spectacular or romantic. If you want to put a stop to begging, you have to make sure that people have better things to do, and that doing them is worth their time. He did increase patrols on the docks, but more importantly he instituted economic reforms, created jobs, aggressively courted the dwarves and Narisians to engage in maritime trade through Puna Dara… All the boring shit that actually improves people’s lives. Such reforms are often hard to push through because whenever there has been an impoverished underclass for a long time, there are wise old men who think the problem with the poor is that they’re lazy and just won’t be helped.” She curled her lip contemptuously. “Arrogant bullshit, unworthy of a Punaji. People inherently want to work. We all have a need to create, to act, to contribute; the single most important thing for human happiness is taking responsibility for one’s own life. If society lets people do this, they’ll do their part. There will always be a few layabouts and general assholes, but they are a bare minority.”

“Our underboss is one of the Broken,” Lagrande added. “Fang gets around on one leg and one arm. He was never approached, though. The Rust are strategic; like all fringe movements they started by targeting the vulnerable, which didn’t include Eserites. But I didn’t bring it up just to make conversation. How’d you like to know where their secret headquarters is?”

Anjal scowled. “Is that all you came here for? They operate out of a warehouse on the docks. It’s not a secret.”

“Wrong!” Lagrande said gleefully, thumping her cane on the floor for emphasis. “That’s where they openly operate from, and there’s nothing in there but religious wacko paraphernalia. Places to keep and feed people, some administrative apparatus. But their true home, that’s all tied in with the sad, stupid story of the Broken. They’ve got a place in the old mines, and that has to be where they keep the crazy shit that makes their crazy magic work. Does the kid need a refresher on this as well?”

“The kid has a name,” Ruda retorted.

“Yes, a shiny new one,” said Anjal, giving her a disgruntled look. “But she’s right, Zari. When Broken kids got too old to be cute anymore, a lot of them were sent to work the mines in the mountains outside the city.”

“Whoah, what mines?” Ruda demanded, frowning. “I was always told we didn’t do much mining.”

“We don’t, but not because we can’t. There are minerals in those mountains; copper, mostly, some iron and gems. But Puna Dara has always done more business in trade than production, and we’ve prospered especially in the last ten years by cornering the market on the Five Kingdoms’ maritime trade. Your father managed that, in part, by closing down our domestic mining operations and buying minerals from the dwarves. After what the treaty between Tiraas and Tar’naris did to them, that bought enormous goodwill. So.” She turned a thoughtful gaze on Lagrande. “There are mines and quarries around Puna Dara, and nearly all are abandoned. And, not being idiots, we regularly have them patrolled and searched.”

“In a pretty cursory fashion,” Lagrande agreed, thumping her cane again. “A mine’s a great place to hide stuff.”

“How is it you know this, when the Punaji don’t?” Principia asked.

“Same way we knew you’d spent your time in Puna Dara visiting the Avenists, creeping on the street preachers, and hounding after rumors in dockside bars instead of coming to us,” Lagrand replied acidly. “The Thieves’ Guild in this city is six old grayhairs and two very bored apprentices led by a cripple. The last damn thing we’re about to do is climb up into the mountains our damn selves and then climb down into some godforsaken mineshaft after insane cultists who wield impossible magics. But what we can do is know things.” She grinned fiendishly. “Even after you sent Peepers off to the Empire—and by the way, asshole, thank you so much—we are connected in this city and the bulk of what we do is listening and watching. Anybody hears a rumor that even might be valuable to anybody else, they bring it to the Guild.”

“That’s true,” Anjal agreed, somewhat sourly. “They usually know interesting things well before the Crown does.”

“So we weren’t about to go after them,” Lagrande continued. “And we specifically have not shared this information with the Avenists or the Punaji government after what happened to the Fourth Silver Legion. Because they’d have no choice but to take action, and that would’ve ended…pretty damn badly. But!” The old woman grinned savagely and thumped her cane for emphasis. “Speaking of things we know, now it seems you’ve got two paladins, a dryad, and the biggest, meanest demon to walk the earth in a thousand years. And that’s another matter, isn’t it?”


Justinian always made time in his schedule to think; quite apart from the necessity of his meditations in keeping his mind calm and alert under the pressure of his duties, he could not function without the ability to carefully lay plans. Reacting swiftly to events as they developed was fine and essential, but a man without his own strategies, attentively crafted, was at the mercy of fortune.

Even so, he cherished the few extra opportunities that came up to lose himself in thought. Time spent navigating the labyrinth deep under the Cathedral, for example… Or situations like this one, in which he could do nothing but wait.

He sat before the magic mirror, watching mist swirl meaninglessly within it, and considering the current situation.

Events in Puna Dara were developing faster than he had intended. Once again, Tellwyrn butting in had created this difficulty, though this time it was not an unforeseen development. Princess Zaruda’s intervention had always been a possibility, and while bringing her friends along was the worst case scenario, he had already mulled what to do in this event. Now, it seemed they might be on a course to demolish the Rust far too soon. He needed that to be a struggle; the allied forces of the Church, the Empire, the Punaji and the cults had to be bonded through shared adversity. That also meant the Rust had to be presented as a very credible threat. Their attack on the Silver Legions had done that, but he knew what it had cost them, and that those young titans would cleave through their ranks far too easily if allowed. They must endure long enough for all their enemies to unite against them. He had his current operation in Tiraas working to secure his good name with the Silver Throne, but after the incident with Rector’s machine there was far too much damage there for him to trust a single ploy to fix it.

Could he distract them? Unlikely, and risky. Anything else he did in Puna Dara could create complications that would threaten his own interests. If he could somehow peel the students, or at least a few of them—maybe even just one—away from the city for a while, that might suffice.

Even alone in his office, he maintained strict control, and so did not smile. But the Archpope permitted himself a slight softening of his expression as his agile mind seized upon a solution. An elegant one, which worked neatly alongside the matter to which he was now attending. It would cost him nothing but a little extra effort…

As if summoned by the shift in his thoughts, the mirror cleared, revealing the worried face of Lorelin Reich.

“Your Holiness,” she said in clear relief, bowing her head. “Thank you so much for this. I know it must be an imposition.”

“Lorelin,” he said with a gracious smile. “You have earned my trust many times over; if you send word that we must speak, I can only assume that it is so. What troubles you, child? I hope you are not endangering your good name with the Empire.”

“I fear…I may be,” she said, frowning, and Justinian took note of the open worry in her expression. A model Vidian, she was adept at concealing her true thoughts, usually. “Your Holiness… I am not working directly with Imperial Intelligence. The told me they’d call on me when I was needed, and when a Hand of the Emperor summoned me, I assumed that was it. But…” The priestess swallowed heavily. “I… This must sound crazy, I realize, but…I think this man is insane.”

Justinian put on an expression of deep concern and leaned forward, revealing none of his satisfaction. This business, at least, was proceeding according to plan and on schedule. “In what way?”

“At first I thought his machinations seemed inept because I didn’t know all the details,” she said, “but more and more… He seems to be trying to provoke a confrontation with Tellwyrn which there is no possible way he can win. I can’t imagine the Empire would do something so reckless, when they’ve handled her so carefully since the last Empress’s reign. And…it’s his personal conduct, your Holiness. I am accustomed to schemers, but I have been around mentally unstable people. This man is the latter. But I know that’s impossible. He is a Hand of the Emperor.”

Justinian drew in a deep breath, and let it out very slowly. “I…am extremely glad you have come to me with this, Lorelin. All right…what I am about to tell you must be strictly confidential. Do you understand?”

“Absolutely, your Holiness,” she replied, nodding eagerly.

“There was recently a problem with the Hands of the Emperor,” he stated. “The details don’t concern you and may be dangerous to know. What is important is that one of them may have gone rogue at the end of it.”

The color drained from her face.

“This is what you must do, Lorelin,” Justinian said earnestly. “Contact your handlers at Imperial Intelligence, and tell them what you just told me.”

“But…” The poor woman was clearly at her wit’s end; she forgot herself so far as to bite her lip. “Your Holiness, the Hand specifically instructed me to avoid contact with any other government entity.”

“Then,” Justinian said gently, “he is forcing you to violate the terms of parole. You were to remain in touch with Intelligence; by keeping you in communications silence in the last place they would look for you, he is hiding you from them. Tell them, Lorelin, exactly what you just did. You thought you were obeying the Silver Throne, but this man is dangerously unstable and may be creating instability in the Empire itself, which is what will result if a Hand of the Emperor overtly antagonizes Tellwyrn. She has, in fact, been working with Intelligence. I see little chance that they would want to move against her this way. Contact them in good faith and explain, and you will not only be upholding the terms of your plea bargain, you just might help save the Empire from one of its most immediate threats.”

Now it was she who inhaled and exhaled deeply, but nodded.

“What is he doing, exactly?”

“He’s stirring up the townspeople against Tellwyrn,” she said, frowning. “Which wouldn’t alarm me much as far as it goes, but with all the new construction and activity in Last Rock, plus the big cluster of foreign operatives up on the mountain itself… He doesn’t tell me everything, your Holiness, not by far. I know he has other assets. I don’t know what they might do, or can.”

Justinian nodded. “Then you will need to slow him down. Perhaps assist Tellwyrn in dealing with him.”

“I’m positive that he’ll know if I try to approach her.”

“I believe you,” he said with a reassuring smile. “Do not be so overt. I believe I can help you with this, Lorelin; you know as well as I that clever people can be shockingly easy to manipulate into error. It is often as simple as placing the right piece of information for the right person to find, and letting the rest of the dominoes fall. Once you tell this Hand who the Sleeper is, I suspect this whole matter may work itself out.”

 

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13 – 12

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“By that,” Toby said slowly, “do you mean its enchantments are still active?”

Fross chimed in annoyance. “They are, but no, if I had meant that I would have said that. I always try to be precise! What I mean is, I think this object is both artificially constructed and a living organism.”

“Okay,” he said. “Sorry, no offense meant.”

The pixie zoomed over to buzz affectionately around his head once. “I know, Toby, I’m sorry for getting irked. I’m in analytical mode, it makes me impatient.”

“Now, hang on!” Juniper exclaimed. “Something cannot be artificially made and still a living thing!”

“That is a fallacy,” Ariel’s voice interjected. “Such beings do not occur in nature, but there are ample specimens from the annals of magical history.”

“What the hell was that?” Merry exclaimed in alarm.

“Ariel.” Gabriel drew the black sword and held her up; her runes flickered a dull blue in the light. “She’s very particular about magical matters. Helpful, too, most of the time.”

“Young man,” Nandi said very evenly, “do you know where talking swords come from?”

He sighed and sheathed Ariel again. “Yes, I do, and nobody here had a hand in making her. We found her in the Crawl. Fross, you were telling us about that arm?”

“Yes, thank you!” the pixie exclaimed. “If everyone’s listening now? Okay, so I’ve analyzed this thing as carefully as possible in this timeframe and with this equipment and what I’ve discovered is that it is clearly a machine, it was not built by anybody who thinks the way any modern enchanter or engineer does, and as I said, its nature is more organic than mechanical despite being mechanical and made of minerals.”

“Yeah, can we focus on that part first?” Juniper suggested. “Because that doesn’t make a lick of sense to—”

Fross rose two feet toward the ceiling, her glow brightening significantly on the way, and emitted a wordless arpeggio of sheer irritation.

“Uh…” Juniper actually took a step back from the examining table. “Actually…why don’t you just go over it in…y’know, whatever order makes sense to you.”

“Thank you, Juniper,” Fross replied, drifting back down toward the subject of her research. “Anyway. First of all, the device itself is not enchanted, exactly. Its interior structure is a series of pretty simple cables and pulleys which stand in for muscles, ligaments, all that stuff. There are no inner bones, since of course the outer structure is rigid metal, so it’s organized differently. The enchantments are contained in tiny crystals affixed to each joint.”

“Forgive me for interrupting,” Gabriel said hesitantly. “But does that mean there’s no central enchantment at all?”

“Exactly!” Fross said, clearly growing excited again. “That’s the beauty of it! See, Juniper tore this one off at the elbow, which is probably why I can’t find an enchantment that makes it interface with the human body. The little crystals only govern each mechanism individually; that interface charm was probably on the piece attached right to the human. But! These enchantments are incredibly efficient compared to ours because they have no power component! They only carry instructions for the machine parts; the energy is conducted through a series of metal filaments encased in a rubber-like non-conductive medium. It runs on electricity, not magic!”

“I thought electricity was pretty much only good for weapons,” Casey said, leaning forward on her chair.

“It is good for weapons,” Farah replied, “but actually, the nervous systems of all living things run on tiny electrical charges. That’s why lightning wands tend to cause nerve damage and sometimes even brain disorders.”

“Exactly!” Fross said eagerly, swooping around the table in erratic circles. “These appear to draw their power directly from the body! Except it takes more energy to move metal than flesh simply because of its weight, so that wouldn’t exactly work, which makes me think there must be a power source of some kind with some much more sophisticated enchantments connected to the host body. But! In addition to being very alien in design, this thing is made of components that aren’t like anything I’ve ever seen. The different alloys used for the casing, the moving parts, the metal wires… I can’t even identify any of them. Likewise the insulating material; it’s like rubber, but obviously synthetic. And these enchantment crystals most of all! It’s like… This kind of enchantment does exist now, but modern data crystals are new and pretty rare, and also not nearly as efficient. These ones aren’t much bigger than grains of sand and anything I could make to do their job would be about the size of an average lightning wand’s power crystal.”

“So, it’s magic more sophisticated than anything known,” Anjal said, frowning. “With every new revelation I get more nervous about this Elder God business. Naphthene’s tits, these bastards are all over the city!”

“Well, it’s hard to compare that kind of sophistication directly,” Fross cautioned. “Compared to the state of modern industrial enchantment, yes. But that itself is very new; individual archmages throughout history were known to make stuff like this. Well, I mean, not like this necessarily, but things so amazing modern enchanters still don’t understand how they work. Magic mirrors, for instance. We even understand those, but they’re fiendishly hard and we haven’t yet cracked mass-production of them.”

“Or talking swords, for example,” Nandi said.

Gabriel turned to give her a flat look. “Is this going to become a problem?”

“I dearly hope not,” she replied, expressionless.

“Anyway!” Fross continued more loudly. “The really, really interesting part is the organic part! Yes, Juniper, I’m coming to it. Okay, so, one thing that jumped out at me is there’s nothing in there except the devices that make it move. The thing about anything with moving parts is that moving them wears them down; they require repair and maintenance. With engineered machines, you have to get into ’em and do it manually; biological organisms have built-in systems for maintenance, which is obviously more efficient and exactly why those organisms are so much more complex than any machine. So! What’s interesting here is that this device is clearly not designed to be dismantled! The pieces are solid, and even the ones that move connect firmly in a way that clearly isn’t meant to be disconnected. Therefore, since it has no way to access it internally to perform repairs, there has to be a built-in mechanism for that!”

“What if they don’t repair them?” Casey suggested. “Just…take ’em off and throw ’em away when they wear out.”

Fross shot upward in indignation. “Excuse me, but I refuse to believe any intelligence capable of creating a machine like this would make a design choice so inefficient, wasteful, and catastrophically stupid.”

“Sorry,” Casey said, holding up her hands in surrender. “You’re the boss.”

“It’s pronounced Fross, actually,” Ruda said with a grin.

“So,” the pixie continued, “I went looking for traces of this mechanism and guess what I found!”

“Or,” Toby said quickly when several people opened their mouths, “just tell us? For efficiency’s sake, if nothing else.”

Fross appeared not to hear him, carrying on at a rapid clip while bouncing up and down in midair. “While I was doing exploratory divinations, I actually caught the damaged edges of the metal casing rebuilding itself, filling in scratches and trying to extend toward the part that’s broken off! And, and! That prompted me to take a closer structural look at the metal itself, and it was clearly not molded, cast, or worked using any known means. It was built up one atom at a time, like the way mollusks grow shells, but on an even smaller scale somehow adding up to a finished product on a much greater scale than any clam! Isn’t that amazing?”

Everyone stared at the apparently inert metal arm for a moment of silence, Merry and Casey standing up to see better.

“Amazing is a word,” Ruda said at last. “The one that springs to my mind is ‘creepy.’ With some adjectives. You all know my favorite ones, I think.”

“But…you couldn’t find any standing enchantment that’s doing that?” Gabriel asked.

“No, I couldn’t!”

“So,” Teal said, “we still don’t understand what force animates this thing, but now we know it’s still active and doing so right now.”

“If I may make a recommendation,” said Ariel, “it may be too late in this case but for future reference, it would be wise to handle any such objects as if they presented a threat of contagion.”

“Holy shit,” Gabriel muttered, “we’ve got the queen and the princess in this room… All right, everybody! We’re gonna do a thorough cleansing and general healing.”

“Do you really think that’s necessary, boy?” Anjal asked dryly, folding her arms.

“I have no idea,” he replied, “but none of us have any idea about anything, here, and I don’t think we can afford to take risks.”

“He’s right,” Toby said, placing a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “About the risks and sensible countermeasures, not so much the part where he started barking orders at the aforementioned queen and princess.”

“Oh.” Gabriel’s cheeks colored. “I, uh…sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“It’s all right, Arquin, we’re used to you,” Ruda said, slugging his other shoulder and grinning. “Future reference, don’t get pushy with Punaji women unless you’re lookin’ to get your ass married and/or stabbed.”

“And/or?” Ephanie muttered.

“Seriously, though, let’s please just do this,” Gabriel said a little nervously. “Uh… Juniper’s the tricky one. Either divine healing or the cleansing charms I can do will hurt her.”

“I’m not sure I need it,” the dryad said, folding her arms. “I’m pretty impervious in the first place, and anyway, I have my own means.”

“Okay, but…wouldja humor me, Juno? Whatever you’ve got to check for and cleanse any kind of corruption… I know you’re a dryad, but remember you don’t have Naiya to rely on now and there’s no telling what these guys are capable of…”

“Yeah, I see your point,” she said with a sigh. “Okay, I’m just gonna go to that corner over there and concentrate. Can you try to keep your divine magic in the other side of the room?”

“Can do!” Gabriel said, saluting. “Now, uh… Toby, you’re much better at healing than I am. I think you’d better take point, here.”

“Sure,” Toby said, peering at him. “Did I hear you say you can do cleansing charms? That’s impressive stuff, Gabe, I had no idea you were that advanced.”

“Gabriel is very good at enchanting!” Fross chimed. “I’m a much more general-purpose arcanist, and I frequently ask his help with passive enchantment work! And we worked hard on getting those cleansing charms right for our semester project. See, the trick is including the right modifiers so they only identify and purge hostile elements from the body and not the symbiotic bacteria that aid digestion! We made a lot of poor rats very sick…”

“You keep your fuckin’ finger wiggling away from me,” Ruda ordered Gabriel, taking a step back.

Nandi cleared her throat, stepping forward. “I am a priestess. Less innately powerful than Mr. Caine, obviously, but with five centuries of experience in several fields of healing. I would be glad to help.”

“You would be very welcome,” Toby said emphatically. “My thanks, Corporal Shahai. Now, let’s please organize everybody into a line over here, we’ll want to give everybody our full attention, not just fling magic around. Corporal, would you walk us through the recommended procedure, please?”

While Nandi began instructing the students, Merry glanced sidelong at Juniper, who had just passed them and was now sitting in the corner with her eyes closed, then leaned forward and lowered her voice to a bare whisper, nodding in Teal’s direction. “So, uh… What’s the deal with that one?”

“She’s possessed,” Principia replied in the same quiet tone. “Bonded with the archdemon Vadrieny.” Farah swallowed loudly, staring at Teal with wide eyes.

“You’ve…heard of that particular demon?” Merry asked her.

“Archdemon,” Farah whispered. “Daughter of Elilial. Demonic demigoddess, technically. Vadrieny has killed…well, a lot.”

“We always make the neatest friends,” Casey murmured. Everyone shifted to stare at her; neither her expression nor tone revealed whether she was being sarcastic.

“And you,” Merry finally said, prodding Principia in the shoulder, “drugged her to get her out of your way. Some balls on you, woman. Not an iota of sense, but still.”

“It seemed worthwhile at the time,” Principia said with a sigh. “Okay, Lang, that’s as good as an opening as you’re likely to get. Planning to make with the barrage of screeching and questions, now? Quite frankly, the anticipation has been worse than what your voice does to my ears when you get in one of your episodes.”

“I do not have ‘episodes,’” Merry said sullenly. “Anyhow…no. Oh, I was gonna, but I spent the awkward silence while we were getting frog-marched here thinking—shut your mouth, Elwick!—and it actually makes perfect sense, like the princess said. Obviously, if Rouvad was gonna let you in the Legions, it would be with a huge list of stipulations about what you can’t say to whom. So, no, LT, I don’t take being kept in the dark personally, this one time.”

“I can’t tell you what a load off my mind that is,” Principia said sweetly.

Merry grinned right back. “Yeah, well. After the way she lit into you, I figured you two have enough issues without me picking at it.”

Ephanie sighed. “And still, you had to bring that up. You were almost considerate for a moment there, Lang.”

Merry just smiled. “I assume Shahai knew about this, too? She’s got Rouvad’s ear on everything.”

“I knew,” Casey said quietly, then shrugged when the others turned to stare at her again. “Locke pretty deliberately left the breadcrumbs. You just had to follow ’em.”

“Of course she did,” Ephanie said, turning to Principia in exasperation. “Locke, have you ever been given an order you didn’t feel an immediate need to weasel around?”

“No,” Prin said immediately, grinning. “Not once. But I have many times received orders I didn’t actually weasel around. If I just went and did everything I felt a need to, I’d have had a much more interesting sex life. And also would be dead by now.”

“I would prefer not to hear any more about either of those prospects, please,” said Merry.

Their conversation, and Nandi’s instruction of Toby, was interrupted by a rap at the door. A second later, it opened, revealing the royal seneschal.

“Bad news, Akhatrya!” Ruda said merrily. “You’re infected, now! Join the line!”

“Zari, my rules about you hassling the staff don’t change just because you’re halfway to college-educated,” Anjal snapped, whisking her hat off and swatting Ruda over the head with it. “What is it, Akhatrya?”

“Your pardon, Majesty, Princess, honored guests,” the tall, bearded man said, bowing deeply. “There is an unexpected visitor in the palace seeking an audience with both the Crown and with Lieutenant Locke.” He turned another, shallower bow specifically upon Principia. “A representative from the local Thieves’ Guild.”

Anjal narrowed her eyes. “I see. And this visitor is not meeting with the King because…?”

Akhatrya’s face betrayed no expression. “His Majesty the King feels that since you are both together, it is the most efficient course of action for you to meet Miss Lagrande.”

“Lagrande?” Principia’s eyebrows shot upward. “Quinn Lagrande? She’s still alive?”

“One hopes so, Lieutenant,” Akhatrya said placidly. “She was moments ago. If she is otherwise now, we shall have most interesting conversations with the Guild in the days to come.”

“Great,” Anjal muttered. “You win this time, husband, but there will be a reckoning. Oh, yes, there will. Well, Akhatrya, I’m afraid our little Zari wasn’t wrong. Join the line, please. This Quinn Lagrande will just have to wait a few minutes longer.”


Ox Whippoorwill stepped into the Ale & Wenches and paused just inside, exchanging nods with a couple of citizens. Most didn’t notice him, being too absorbed in their conversations. Everything about the scene was…off. It was far too crowded for the early afternoon, and almost all those present were Rockies, while the A&W primarily catered to out-of-towners. Its usual clientele were present in small numbers; they were identifiable as the few people sitting at tables by themselves, looking somewhat bemused by what was going on around them.

What was going on was just conversation, so far. They were intense conversations, though, and not all of them quiet. Ox stood for a handful of heartbeats, soaking it in—just long enough to hear a few key words. Then he moved out of the door and began making his way around the perimeter of the room toward the only man present aside from the bartender who wasn’t sitting.

“Deputy,” Fedora said, nodding at Ox’s approach. He was blatantly lurking, just beside the stairs, and just as blatantly watching the room. More than a few of those gathered kept casting pointed glances his direction. So far, at least, nobody was staring.

“Inspector,” Ox rumbled in reply. “An’ it’s just Ox. Titles are for when I gotta get official with somebody.”

“Very well, same goes,” Fedora said, momentary amusement cracking his pensive expression. He took a sip of the pint of beer in his hand. It was almost full, clearly being used as a prop to justify his presence to the proprietor.

“Oh? I figured Inspectors kept the right to the title even after they retired. Like military ranks, or professors.”

“I actually would have to look up the rules on that,” Fedora murmured, again staring across the bar. “Regardless, I’m not in with the Empire any longer. That was a good job and I’m glad to have held it, but it’s best not to dwell on the past, I find.”

“Mm.” Ox took a position next to him and folded his arms, feeling no need to bother getting a drink. He wanted his head clear, and since being officially deputized he had no need of an excuse to stand around in a public place.

For a few minutes, they stood in silence. Watching, and listening.

“Is it like this all over town?” Fedora asked finally, then took another tiny sip.

“A mite calmer,” Ox replied. “Folk meetin’ on the street, havin’ little chats. In shops an’ behind shops… Nothin’ else is as boisterous as this right here. ‘Swhy I came to keep an eye on this crowd. Even the Saloon’s not as packed, or as…intense. Jonas won’t stand for no funny business in his place, either.”

Fedora nodded very slowly. “Tell me…are you seeing the same thing wrong with this picture I am?”

“It’s too damn fast,” Ox said immediately, keeping his voice low. With the hubbub in the room, it wasn’t hard to be discreet. “Not that it’s a small thing, exactly, the University sponsorin’ some kinda demon-summonin’ project, but… I know this town. I know the rhythms an’ the balance of opinions. There ain’t enough folks suspicious of the school to create this kinda hubbub this quick. Even if there was… The announcement was just posted, after lunch. Normally, folks’d only just be hearin’ the first rumors. This is all over. An’ you can plainly see how tense it’s gettin’.”

Again, that very slow nod. Fedora let his eyes wander across the crowded tavern, having another sip that barely wet his lips. “The Sheriff know about this?”

“I came right here when this started up, ain’t talked with him yet. Sam’s got ears, though. He knows his job, an’ he knows this town.”

“Hm.”

“Reminds me of a while back,” Ox continued after a pause. “We damn near had an honest-to-gods riot in this town, an’ it turns it there was a rogue Vidian priestess doin’ some kinda hoodoo, makin’ people more susceptible. You don’t suppose…”

This time, Fedora shook his head negatively, and with more energy. “I don’t know Last Rock as well as you, Ox, but I know people, and I know trouble. You’re right: this is too quick. Much too quick a result. And your instinct is equally right. I’m never willing to trust that out-of-the-ordinary behavior happens on this scale without being made to. But look at the pattern.” He gestured slowly around the room with his nearly-full glass. “Look at the different expressions. There are people nervous, people pissed off… But most uncertain, and just as many peacemakers as agitators. Folks speaking up on Tellwyrn’s behalf. If there was a magical effect in place to agitate people, like in your example, we wouldn’t see all these people standing back and listening, waiting to form their own opinions. If there was some kind of more aggressive control trying to turn people against Tellwyrn, same goes and she wouldn’t have this many defenders.” Again, he shook his head, and took a sip. “No need to assume some grandiose, cosmic effect in place. Just somebody stirring up shit. Someone skillful, well-connected in this town. Someone who knows the social landscape well enough to launch a very effective rumor campaign.”

“You’re sayin’ it’s one o’ my neighbors,” Ox growled.

“Maybe,” Fedora said noncommittally. “It would take more than one to do this so efficiently, but don’t jump to any conclusions. There are a lot of new faces in Last Rock lately, some who’ve been here long enough to have learned what they’d need to do this, assuming they had the right skills to begin with. This used to be a town where everybody knew everybody else; now, suddenly, it’s not anymore. You couldn’t ask for an easier target for infiltration.”

Ox heaved a deep sigh, his breath ruffling his mustache. “Omnu’s balls. You know who’s doin’ this, Fedora?”

“Not yet,” the erstwhile Inspector replied, a predatory glint rising in his eyes. “That…will take a little work. I’m going to have a long stroll around town, Ox. Chat with some people, listen in. You and the Sheriff have no objection, I trust?”

“Respect the law,” Ox rumbled, “respect the people, an’ don’t stir up no more trouble. Aside from that, ain’t my business or the Sheriff’s what you do.”

“Oh, I don’t intend to stir the pot, you can count on that,” Fedora said, straightening up and casting a weird little smile around the room. “But I am going to find out who’s got their hands on the spoon.”

 

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13 – 11

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“And so, you have come to me.” Ami Talaari smirked, folded her arms strategically under her bosom, and leaned against the frame of her apartment door. After having swept a disdainful look around at his entourage of junior Eserites, she had seemingly dismissed them from consideration and focused her gaze upon Schwartz. “Really, Herschel, you ought to have done so in the first place. Who else do you know who has her finger upon the city’s pulse?”

“Yo.” Darius, at the back of the little crowd outside her apartment door, raised his hand. Everyone ignored him.

“Aha, well, yes,” Schwartz said self-consciously, managing a weak grin. “It really hasn’t been all that long, Ami. I went to get these guys first because I thought they might be in immediate danger… But you’re the first person we’ve come to!” Meesie nodded vigorously, bounding from his shoulder to the top of his head and adding a squeak of affirmation.

“Because you’re being hunted?” She finally looked past him again, studying the apprentices with a bit more interest. “These are the Eserites you know, yes? Why not go to the Guild for help? I’m certainly not shy about my talents, but that seems, if anything, a better source of intelligence on movements in the city. Not that I can’t help, of course,” she added with a smug little smile. “Just…curious.”

“Well, the thing is…” Schwartz cleared his throat. “We’re not sure who to trust or where we can go at the moment, and even my rooms at the Collegium have been spied on, so that’s possibly not safe…”

“Yeeeessss?” Ami’s smile widened. “I’ll warn you I have little direct access to the Collegium except through you, Herschel. But give me a few hours and I’m sure I can turn up something.”

“Um.” He cleared his throat again. “Actually, we just need to borrow your apartment for a little bit. I need a secure space to cast some divination, so we can figure out where to go next.”

Her smile instantly vanished. Ami stared at Schwartz in silence for two heartbeats, then took a step backward, grabbed the door, and swung it shut.

“Waitwaitwaitwait!” Schwartz squawked, sticking a foot in the doorway to block it. “It’s not just that, Syrinx is involved!”

She stopped trying to kick his foot out of the doorway, and pulled it a few inches back open, her eyes now narrowed in suspicion. “How?”

“That’s just it, I don’t know yet, and believe me all this is terrifying enough without her snooping around the periphery after the gods know what!” He surreptitiously wrapped his fingers around the edge of the door frame, seemingly unconcerned with the danger to them should she manage to shove his foot out of the gap. It at least gave Meesie the opportunity to scamper down his arm and add her earnest squeaks to his plea. “She’s not the only old familiar face that’s suddenly showing up in connection with this. Ildrin Falaridjad is involved; she tried to have Jasmine, Tallie and Layla thrown in jail so she could interrogate them!”

“Ildrin?” Ami’s eyebrows shot upward. “Why in the name of Boslin’s flute is she not in jail?”

“Being neck deep in a powerful conspiracy’s probably handy for that,” Tallie remarked.

“And,” Schwartz continued doggedly, “it was Syrinx who intercepted her and bailed them out. I know those two have a mutual grudge but I can’t help being very suspicious when Basra shows up being helpful.”

Ami heaved a deep sigh—very deep, and accompanied by a subtle shift of her shoulders and back that made her chest swell, prompting Darius and Ross to shift their gaze momentarily. Schwartz, at least, was apparently used to her enough to maintain eye contact. “Oh, very well,” she said with poor grace. “I suppose you’d better come in, then.”

“You are a lifesaver,” Schwartz said emphatically, following her inside as she stepped back and let the door swing wide.

“Yes, well, I suppose someone has to rescue you, since your good friend Principia is out of pocket.”

He paused, prompting an annoyed throat-clearing from Darius, and then shifted aside to let the rest of them in. “How’d you know about that?”

“Forget to keep me in the loop, did you?” Ami positioned herself in front of the window and folded her arms dramatically, tilting her chin up. “Just because that elf is nominally friendly toward us doesn’t absolve her of being one of the most suspicious people we know. Believe me, I take great pains to be notified of any change in her routine. For example, her whole squad not showing up at any of their usual posts for a day and a half.”

“That is a wise policy,” Jasmine murmured.

“Holy crap, this place is nice,” Tallie said, adding a whistle as she peered around the apartment. “And you’re…a bard?”

“You were going to say just a bard, weren’t you.” Ami smiled smugly. “In much the way that you’re just a thief. We all have backstories, my dear. Touch that instrument and whatever problems you are having, they will increase by an order of magnitude.”

She hadn’t even been looking in the direction of Layla, whose fingertips were inches from the guitar propped upright on a reading chair, but Layla froze anyway.

“Uh, yeah,” Ross rumbled, gently taking Layla by the shoulders and pulling her back a few steps. “You don’t mess with a bard’s instrument. Ever.”

“My apologies,” Layla said, uncharacteristically demure.

“In case it doesn’t go without saying, now that my home is full of Eserites, I would prefer that there be no casual appropriation of any of my possessions.”

“Ami, there’s no need to get hostile,” Scwhartz reproved. “We appreciate your help very much, but you know quite well that Eserites don’t just grab whatever’s not nailed down.”

She just shook her head. “So! You are being stalked, apparently, by the Church loyalists, who by implication have become much more organized recently. I’m still lost on the point where the lot of you didn’t approach your own Guild first for help.”

There was a silence, in which even Meesie did not squeak.

“Wait, who?” Jasmine said at last. “Church loyalists?”

“Oh, really,” Ami said disdainfully. “Surely you didn’t think all this began in response to you.”

“I like her,” Tallie said in her driest tone. “She’s a sweetie.”

“Perhaps it’s best, after all, that you came to an accredited bard,” Ami said with a sigh, and turned to gaze out the window. She had a lovely view of a nearby park, surrounded by historic townhouses. “All of this descends directly from the Enchanter Wars; you lot and your troubles are only the latest manifestation of this conflict.”

While her back was turned, Darius carefully nudged Ross with his elbow, and then held both hands up in a cupping motion a good distance from his chest, waggling his eyebrows. Ross just shook his head, but Jasmine, Tallie, and Layla all swatted him simultaneously from behind. Despite her seemingly inhuman sense for fingers in the vicinity of her guitar, Ami did not respond to or appear to notice the chorus of slaps, continuing with her spiel.

“The Silver Throne and the Universal Church have been jockeying for influence for the last century, all because of the way the Enchanter Wars were ultimately settled. Before that, the Church was little but a formality, a kind of interfaith negotiating service. But then, Archpope Sipasian contributed to the outbreak of war by taking sides in the Salyrite schism, persecuting witches, and ultimately making enemies of the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and the Veskers.” She clicked her tongue as if chiding the long-ago pontiff. “So immediately, when Archpope Vyara took over, she tried to scale back the Church’s power to avoid more infighting. But then she also participated in a scheme to place a new dynasty on the Silver Throne, under the control of the Church and a couple of the dominant Houses. Then it turned out they’d backed the wrong horse entirely; Sarsamon slipped his leash and positioned himself as Emperor in truth. So the Church was left with a mandate to avoid assuming direct control over society, but also organized in such a way as to surreptitiously do so, and without the mechanism for which that organization was designed. Which has led to a push and pull within the Church, and between it and the cults, ever since.”

“This is real interesting and all,” Darius began.

“This is important.” Ami half-turned, placing herself in profile against the window, and several pairs of eyes shifted again. Including Tallie’s, which were rolled heavenward. “This is what you’ve blundered into; not some circumstantial thing that’s just popped up like your nonsense with those dwarves a few weeks ago, but a struggle that has been ongoing for a hundred years! I’m flabbergasted that you’re only just hearing about this. What do they teach you in that Guild?”

“Hey,” Ross protested. “We’re apprentices. None of us’ve been learning more’n a couple months.”

She snorted, managing to make even that musical. “As someone who is already acquainted with Ildrin Falaridjad, let me assure you she is a known partisan in this business, and has been for years. Basra Syrinx also has a reputation for being friendly toward the Church, even more than most Bishops, which makes it interesting that she’s siding against them now.”

“Basra never does anything without wanting something,” Schwartz murmured, stroking Meesie with his fingers. “Also, she really hates Ildrin…”

“The point is,” Ami said patiently, “those two are hardly the only people involved in this matter. Given a little time, I could get you a list of names of people who would almost certainly be involved, based on their known reputations.”

“That would help tremendously,” Jasmine said fervently.

Ami held up a hand. “Two important points. First of all, I assume you have more to go on than just Ildrin acting up? Because I have seen her using a stolen Izarite shatterstone to interrupt diplomatic proceedings by assaulting one of the participants. Just because she of all people is disregarding basic rules of decent conduct is not inherently newsworthy.”

“What’s a shatterstone?” Darius asked.

“An artifact kept in most Izarite temples for defense from attack,” Schwartz explains. “If you do any non-divine magic in its vicinity, it lets out a sort of pulse that neutralizes magic in the area and incapacitates all magic users except Izarite clerics. Well, briefly, anyway.”

“A typically Izarite notion of defense,” Jasmine said contemptuously. “Passive, indiscriminate, and easy to circumvent with a basic application of strategy.”

Ami cleared her throat loudly.

“Yes, right,” Schwartz said hastily. “Well, the thieves, here, did an operation to bust up some kind of extortion ring within the Sisterhood and the Collegium. I helped them get info from the inside…”

“You’re mixing up your crimes, Herschel,” Layla chided. “That was embezzlement, not extortion.”

“Yes, anyway,” he said irritably. “It’s in at least two cults and probably more, which was why we were uncertain about involving the Guild. Also, someone was scrying on my rooms, which means I specifically am being watched, and to get through the Emerald College’s wards they are either a very powerful mage or also a Salyrite. Probably both.”

“Ah,” Ami said, turning to face them again and nodding once. “Well, that brings me to my second point: You should have gone to the Guild immediately.”

“Once again,” Layla began.

“As I told you,” Ami said, “this is a new, more aggressive outgrowth from an existing matter. It’s about Church loyalists—people within the cults who believe strongly in the Universal Church, sometimes even more so than their own cults, at least according to rumor. Activity of that kind has increased markedly in the last ten years, though Archpope Justinian is always above anything tying him directly to such…antics. But we are still talking about people choosing to side with centralized power, at the expense of other loyalties.” She loftily arched one eyebrow. “And you really think the Guild is in on this? I assure you, in the entire century such activity has been waxing and waning, no Eserite has ever been involved. Other cults have wiggle room for attachments, but such goes against the most fundamental teachings of Eserion. Honestly,” she added acerbically, “it is incredible that I should have to explain this to you, of all people.”

“It’s really impressive how I wanna slap her even while she’s helping us out a lot,” Tallie said thoughtfully.

“Yes, Ami is very gifted,” Schwartz said with a sigh.

The bard, fortunately, seemed amused by this observation. “I seem to recall from Herschel’s description that you lot had help from one Alan Vandro?”

“Ugh,” said Jasmine, Tallie, and Layla in unison.

“Yeah,” Ross grunted. “What do you know about Vandro?”

“Only his reputation,” Ami said, grinning, “which includes the ugh factor. But also that he is an Eserite purist of the kind that annoys even other Eserites. If anyone could be relied upon not only to have no involvement in a Church loyalist campaign, but to do everything in his power to thwart one, it would be he.”

Jasmine drew in a long breath through her teeth. “Well…there’s that, I suppose. Personally, I think we’re better off dealing with the Guild directly, if it’s safe…”

“What about Glory?” Layla said. “Tamisin Sharvineh?”

Ami shrugged. “She, of course, is much more connected with circles of power, but again, still Eserite. Honestly, she is likely to more know about the ins and outs of this group if they are indeed beginning to organize something, as you imply.”

“They are definitely organizing something,” Jasmine said, frowning heavily. “I’d been thinking this was just a few opportunistic individuals, but if it’s instead a suddenly more orderly pattern of behavior by a long-standing group… Them skimming resources and money from two cults suddenly takes on a whole different aspect. That’s not just crime, it’s an insurgency strategy.”

“And further reason to turn to the Guild,” Ami added, again folding her arms. “The Thieves’ Guild’s intolerance for other people committing crime, especially organized crime, has always played a part in preventing rebel movements from funding themselves. It’s one of the reasons governments are so tolerant of Eserite activities.”

“So,” Darius said slowly, “if these people are suddenly ramping up their activities… They’re not just stealing money or liking the Church anymore. They’re planning to do something.”

“And,” Layla added, “the reaction to us suggests we came closer than we realized to finding out something they don’t want known.”

“Thank you very much, Ami,” Jasmine said. “You’ve helped us tremendously already.”

“You mean, by making you think about what you already knew?” Amy swept a grandiose bow. “A bard’s work is never done.”


Upon her return to the Rock, the royal family’s seneschal directed Teal to a chamber deep in the fortress, which he called an armory. There were, indeed, weapons along the walls, but it currently seemed to be serving as a combination laboratory and gathering place. Several more people were present than she’d expected to find when asking where her classmates were, one of them in the middle of a story when she entered.

“—two harpoon launchers, but mine were attached to treated cables that wouldn’t burn or cut under anything less than dragonfire or a mag cannon, and the heads discharged a spray of modified yggdryl sap which basically encased them and whatever they struck in a layer of rock. The release mechanism was in the launcher. So of course using ’em was expensive every time, but when I hooked another ship, they damn well stayed hooked, until I decided they could go again. The wonders of modern alchemy!”

Anjal Punaji was animatedly narrating, standing near an examining table on which were laid out a variety of arcane scrying tools along one side, while Fross flittered about over a bent metal arm that had clearly been taken from a Rust cultist. Ruda, Toby, Gabriel and Juniper were all standing nearby, listening to the pirate queen with varying degrees of interest.

“Told you,” Ruda grunted when her mother paused for breath. “Woman is fuckin’ obsessed with gadgets. You leave this thing in her sight and she’ll be trying to build her own cultist by nightfall.”

“So I’d let them herd me closer to the vortex, see?” Anjal continued, mostly directing herself to Gabriel, who was clearly the most wrapped up in her story. “So we snared her with both harpoons, and then dropped all sail, which basically made the Quarrel an anchor dragging the Sheng warship down with us. They immediately did everything they could to pull away, but with the weight of both ships and the vortex pulling at us, they had no chance. We stayed that way till we were both past the point of no return, then I released the cables and raised sail again.” She grinned savagely. “But my ship was outfitted with Imperial zeppelin thrusters below the water line. It was touchy for a bit there, but we pulled out of the vortex and left the Sheng to drown, and good bloody riddance to ’em.”

“Whoah, hold up,” Gabriel protested. “Zeppelin thrusters? Do those even work underwater?”

“I assure you, they do,” Anjal said with a wink.

“Cos I’m no sailor, but I’m pretty sure those things would shake a wooden ship to pieces.”

“Oh, that they would, which was precisely why mine was the only ship on the sea that had ’em. The Quarrel was a high elven caravel; toughest little girl I ever saw, and the wood healed itself after being damaged. You’re not wrong, she sprouted a dozen leaks after that abuse, but we bailed our asses off for the next day and a half and she gradually put herself right.” Anjal heaved a reminiscent sigh. “Gods, I miss that ship.”

Gabriel was frowning now. “I thought high elves were a myth.”

“Yeah, well, you’re better off. It’s for the best for everybody that they keep to themselves. They were real bloody curious what I was doing with one of their ships in the first place. By far the biggest pain in the ass I ever dealt with, and that’s including having half the Punaji privateers chasing me from Acarnia to Glassiere.”

“What is she doing here?” Teal demanded suddenly, glaring.

“Uh.” Juniper blinked. “She…lives here. This is kinda her house.”

“I don’t think she’s talkin’ about Mama,” Ruda said wryly.

“Oh. Right.”

Six other women were gathered on benches against the far wall, watching with wide eyes—including two elves, one of whom Teal recognized.

“Hi there,” Principia said diffidently. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

Teal braced her feet, and emitted a low growl—a sound that clearly was not the produce of any human voicebox. Flickers of orange fire sparked across her eyes. All six women pressed themselves backward against the walls.

“Whoah, whoah, easy there, hon,” Ruda said soothingly, rushing to her side and laying a hand on Teal’s shoulder. “Short version is, she’s helping. This is Lieutenant Locke of the Third Silver Legion. They’re expected; after the Fourth got wiped out, High Commander Rouvad sent us some special forces units, much more discreetly. These are the first to arrive.”

“This woman, in the Silver Legions?” Teal said contemptuously. “And you believed that?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Ruda countered. When Teal turned a glare on her, she shrugged. “Think about it. The one thing we know she wants is access to Trissiny. This crazy bitch was willing to piss off all of us, not to mention the various world powers we’re connected to, plus fucking Tellwyrn, just to get a two-minute conversation with Shiny Boots. Her signing up with the Silver Legions after that is such an obvious next step I’m a little embarrassed it didn’t occur to me at the time. Besides,” she added, turning a wry look on Principia, “I’m no High Commander, but if I was crazy enough to let this walking sack of pickled assholes into my Legions, I’d definitely route her into the special forces. She’d make a shitty-ass soldier under any other circumstances.”

“She really does know you,” Merry said, nudging Prin with an elbow.

Principia sighed and stood up. “Well! Now that everybody’s here that’s coming I can say it: I’m sorry.”

“I’m sure you are,” Teal snapped.

“Well, I am,” the elf said quietly. “The fact is, I was thinking of nothing but myself. All of you were just things in my way, as far as I cared. I have no excuse. It was unpardonable asshole behavior on my part, and I truly am sorry. That doesn’t change anything, I know, but there it is.”

“That was less than two years ago,” Teal exclaimed. “And now she’s calling herself a Lieutenant? That’s not even believable!”

Suddenly, warm arms were wrapped around Teal from behind, and Juniper pulled her close, resting her chin on Teal’s shoulder.

“She’ll wake up,” the dryad murmured. “She will be fine, Teal. And she wouldn’t want you to be so angry, or so sad.”

“She’s got a story to explain that, too,” Anjal interjected. “And we checked with the local Avenist temple, which has been kept in the loop. This actually is Squad 391, and Locke is who she claims. They’re an interesting bunch, aren’t they?”

“Thank you, your Majesty,” Farah said politely.

“Girl, I’m Punaji,” Anjal replied. “There are no Majesties here.”

Principia cleared her throat again. “Well. Now that we’re all assembled, I’ve got something more relevant to the mission to bring up. Unless I’m wrong, which I kind of hope I am, did I hear you refer to the Rust as the Infinite Order a few minutes ago?”

Ruda narrowed her eyes. “Our intelligence says that’s their own name for themselves. What of it?”

Principia ran a hand over her hair, letting out a long sigh. “Oy vey… All right. Have you guys had the chance to eavesdrop on any of their sermons?”

“A couple of times now,” Toby said, nodding. “It’s all mind over matter, self-empowerment humanist stuff.”

“Jibbering nonsense, is what it is,” Casey added disdainfully.

“I wish it was that simple,” Principia replied. “Okay, without going into excessive detail, let me just remind everyone that I was an adventuring thief for two hundred years, back when ‘adventure’ was a respectable career path and not a punchline. I have been places people should not go and seen shit that’s better left forgotten. Such as, specifically, a number of relics of the Elder Gods. Rather…instructive ones.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about where this is heading,” Gabriel muttered.

“Infinite Order,” Principia said grimly, “was what they called themselves. The name of their organization, like how our gods are the Pantheon. And this stuff the Rust are spouting, this self-empowerment piffle… That was their religion.”

“Okay, hang on a fuckin’ second,” Ruda said, holding up a hand. “Let’s say for the sake of argument I believe you know this. Why would the Elder Gods need a religion? Wouldn’t they each have their own?”

“They weren’t gods like our Pantheon,” Principia explained. “They had a totally different relationship to their own power, and the people of this world. Our gods are each a god of something; the Elder Gods were just beings of incredible, nearly infinite power. Everything they did was calculated to protect that power, including the religion they preached and enforced. Like, the system of measurements we still use? That was a very old one which was long discredited by the time they arose. They used a system based on tens, each unit derived from some physical constant.”

“Like the dwarves use!” Gabriel said.

“Maybe the same one; it wouldn’t surprise me if the dwarves had dug up Elder God relics themselves. My point is, everything the Infinite Order did was designed to suppress people. They gave our ancestors food that barely nourished them, prohibited things like libraries and museums, insisted on a system of measurements that made any kind of science harder to do and mandated a religion based on nonsense and circular reasoning, all to inhibit people from rising to power the way they had.”

“So,” Toby said slowly, “this unprecedented cult with inexplicable powers…is actually some kind of direct continuation of the Elder Gods themselves.”

Gabriel let out a low whistle. “Oh, fuck, that’s bad.”

“It may not be as bad as that,” Principia cautioned. “The Elder Gods left all kinds of junk. Most of it’s been destroyed or locked away by now, but I suspect there’ll always be bits and bobs left for somebody to stumble across once in a while. Whoever leads the Rust may have just got his hands on some records and/or artifacts.”

“Sounds to me like we’d better be prepared for the worst, though,” Anjal said flatly. “Records and artifacts don’t wipe out Silver Legions.”

“Uh, yeah, about that,” Fross chimed, finally drifting away from the arm she’d been examining. “I would be more worried about whatever source of knowledge or power the Rust has being able to propagate itself somehow. Cos I’ve triple checked to be sure about this and right now I’m about ninety-five percent certain this hunk of metal is alive.”

 

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13 – 7

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“It wasn’t much of a town, but it was what I had. After living in the capital, I actually let myself think things would be different out here. Quieter. More…decent, somehow. More fool, me. The truth follows you everywhere you go, the fact that people, all people, are exactly the same: no damn good. Human nature covers everything like a thin, greasy film of mold. Serves me right for thinkin’ I was safely out of the business.

“I knew the lady was gonna be trouble the second she walked in, and not just ‘cos I’ve developed a healthy skepticism toward pretty girls wearin’ gold ornaments. No, you survive in the dirty business as long as I have, you just know. Even before they open their mouths, even before they give you the chance to appreciate the sway in their walk, that little voice pipes up in the back of your head, warns you: ‘this one’s trouble.’

“You better believe I listen to that voice. I learned the hard way, it’s never wrong.”

“What the hell is he doing?” Tellwyrn demanded incredulously, turning to the desks at which the other two men present were seated.

“Oh, if you only knew how many times a day I ask myself that question,” Moriarty muttered, not looking up from whatever he was writing.

“He appears to be narrating,” Finchley said helpfully. He was lounging comfortably in his seat, currently in the process of folding a paper glider.

Fedora grinned insouciantly and swung his legs off his desk, bounding upright. “Hey, I gotta practice! I’m planning to write a novel. I was gonna write my memoirs, but I got to thinking and everything interesting I’ve ever done is actually classified, or would tip off some very annoyed people who to come hunting for. There’s totally a market for detective fiction, but everybody’s publishing frontier stories right now—”

“Don’t quit your day job,” Tellwyrn said brusquely, “and I’m not just saying that as the person who pays you to do it. Moriarty, no offense, but what are you writing?”

“Incident report. Nothing serious, Professor, just Chase putting glue on our office chairs. I wasn’t even going to suggest a punishment; in his case there doesn’t seem much point.” Moriarty finally looked up, blinking owlishly. “Wait. Why would I be offended?”

“Because what you’re doing is aimless busy work, and everybody but you can see it at a glance,” Fedora informed him. “I encourage this, Professor; if he doesn’t have something to do, he starts cleaning the place, and that actually does get in the way, unlike the paperwork. Besides, having records actually can come in very useful. You never know.”

She shook her head. “I’m almost afraid to ask, but…where’s Rook?”

“On gate duty,” Moriarty grumbled. “Which is to say, having a nice nap.”

Tellwyrn regarded him in silence for a long moment, which he did not notice, being absorbed in his writing again. Finchley paused in his folding, looking uncertainly up at her, while Fedora leaned against his desk, watching with an expectant little grin.

“It’s good to have you home, boys,” Tellwyrn said finally, cracking a small smile.

“Good to be back, Professor!” Finchley replied brightly.

“You.” She pointed at Fedora. “With me. I want a word.”

“I am yours to command!” he declared, bouncing upright. She snorted and brushed past him on the way to the stairs.

The guardhouse, in keeping with Tellwyrn’s somewhat gothic taste in architecture, came complete with a battlemented watchtower rising a full story above the rest of the structure. It was even with the top of the old campus wall, and afforded an excellent view of both the construction underway in the new extension, and down the mountain and across the prairie below Last Rock. Fedora followed her all the way up the winding stairs without comment, and leaned carelessly against the crenelated wall when they arrived, folding his arms and watching her expectantly.

“This is new,” Tellwyrn said, running her hand along the telescope mounted on the wall. “What exactly did you plan to do with it?”

“Give business to the lens grinder who the town blacksmith hired,” he said cheerfully. “And, more importantly, form a connection and be seen supporting local industry. Mission accomplished. I mean, it’s good for playing pirate and not much else; I figured you’d object if I had it mounted facing the campus.”

Tellwyrn turned to him and planted her fists on her hips. “I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t realize what you were up to until I had the kids safely in Puna Dara.”

“They all settled in, then?”

“They’re fine,” she said curtly. “More to the point, they’re collectively a force which held back a demon invasion. Even without Shaeine and Trissiny, those students are nothing to be taken lightly. Which means anyone looking to attack this campus in any way would have to deal with them first. Just because I acknowledge the reality, Fedora, does not mean I want you taking steps to encourage an assault on my University, especially without consulting me first!”

“That actually wasn’t the point,” he said, his tone and expression serious now. “My thinking was that anyone planning to attack the campus would need to remove them first, and with all respect to your teaching methods, that particular group doesn’t do subtle very well. The Sleeper outmaneuvered them; the kinds of forces we’re dealing with definitely could. Taking them off the campus removes the likelihood of something permanent being done to them before they can react. And more importantly, Professor, they aren’t the keystone of this campus: you are. So long as you’re around and in charge, nobody’s going to launch anything too aggressive.”

“But,” she said, narrowing her eyes, “getting them to launch something aggressive is what you say we want.”

He nodded. “When the time comes, however. When we’re ready. Getting the sophomores out of the way protects them and gives us the power to determine the timing of this future confrontation. Now, all we have to do to create an opening is send you off the campus.”

“Like we just did,” she snapped. “If you expect me to leave the defense of my students entirely to you—”

“Give me credit for a little basic sense!” he protested. “Hell, no. Depending on what might be coming at us, the last thing I want is to be dealing with it and not have you around for backup. The point is that we can fake them out. You can teleport across the world in an instant and I’m sure you have some measures for illusion and stealth in your arsenal. Bombastic bully or not, I can’t imagine you get to be called ‘archmage’ without having at least that much versatility. When the time comes, we let it be known that you’re away, the point being that you’ll be back to spring the trap.”

“Hm,” she grunted, folding her arms. “When the time comes…?”

“We’re nowhere near that point,” he said seriously. “I’m following the rumor mill in town; nothing but murmurs there, at the moment. No sign of unrest among the students, just concern for the Sleeper victims and ongoing efforts to wake them. I can’t get jack shit out of your new research fellows, which is to be expected considering most of them are career politicians, but we have to keep in mind that at least some of those are likely to be enemy agents. But nah, it’s far from time. I need to see a general shape for what’s coming before I can plan countermeasures. I’m still watching, Professor, don’t worry. I expect things to start moving fast once you officially announce that demon-summoning project.”

“Fair enough, I suppose,” she said grudgingly. “But with that said, Fedora, you are not to go over my head like this. If you make plans, I am to be included before they are enacted. Is that clear?”

“Now, hold on!” he objected, holding up a hand. “I wasn’t expecting the sophomores to move out that fast—if anything, I’m concerned about the timing. If they straighten out Puna Dara and get back here before we get our situation dealt with, we’re back at square one with additional complications. We were in front of some of the very people we don’t want knowing about this when I warned you they were moving, and you vanished before I could get you alone. I didn’t even know you were back on campus until you walked into my office just now. Believe me, Professor, I’m pretty comfortable working under somebody who comes and goes as she pleases, but if you expect me to keep you appraised of all of my movements, you’re gonna have to work with me here. It’s just not in my power to follow you zip-zap all over the continent at a whim.”

“I am still not getting you a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman,” she said flatly.

“I don’t know how much that would help in this instance,” he replied, “since you can’t shadow-jump to a person without being familiar with the landing spot, but for the record a number of my other projects would be a lot easier if—”

“No,” she snapped, then sighed and moderated her tone somewhat. “Still… Point taken. I can work to be a bit more accommodating, but so can you.” She pointed accusingly at him. “I know you didn’t go right from getting Raffi Chandrakeran drunk to that meeting; there was time for you to fill me in. If you’re planning anything that’s going to involve manipulating my students, I want to know about it as soon as the plans are somewhat formed. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am!” He came to attention and saluted. After a moment, under her stare, he sighed and resumed his habitual slouch. “I’m working against habit, there… In Imperial Intelligence, paperwork is such a fact of life it’s almost a given you do whatever you can get away with in order to get anything done. And needless to say, none of my previous employers…”

“You work for me now,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “This was your idea. You can either do it my way, or I can send you right back where you came from.”

“Oh, your way it is, no question,” he said, raising his hands in surrender. “I just have to overcome some old habits, is all. But don’t you worry, Prof. I am nothing if not adaptable!”


The Punaji royal family apparently had breakfast in the open air when the weather permitted; at least, that was where the palace servants directed the princess’s classmates as they wandered out of their rooms in the morning.

Juniper was the last to arrive, and she brought a surprise.

“Look!” the dryad squealed, entering the wide balcony bunny-first. She had a firm grip on Jack and held him out in front of herself, while the jackalope squirmed and kicked impotently, clearly displeased with this state of affairs.

“June,” Ruda said in a strained tone, “what the fuck is that fucking rabbit doing here?”

“That’s a rabbit?” Anjal asked, tilting her head and frowning. “It’s huge. Are those antlers?”

“He’s not a rabbit, and you know it,” Juniper said reproachfully, re-settling Jack into a more comfortable position in her arms and stroking him soothingly. He stopped attempting to flail, though his antlers continued to jab her in the cheek, which seemed not to bother her. “It wasn’t my idea, I just found him in my room last night along with a note from Tellwyrn that Stew has better things to do than take care of him.”

At the head of the table, the pirate king cleared his throat. Rajakhan “Blackbeard” Punaji was an enormous man: tall, powerfully muscular, and with a spreading middle-aged gut atop that. His bushy eyebrows and even bushier namesake beard added to his imposing aspect, the effect not in the least diminished by streaks of gray. His voice, even in a discreet cough, was like the growling of a bear.

“I seem to recall reading that jackalopes are notoriously ornery creatures,” he rumbled. “Would this happen to be related to my seneschal declaring first thing this morning that she refuses to have the staff clean that room? I thought she was just afraid of getting eaten by a dryad.”

“I don’t eat people,” Juniper said defensively, tightening her grip on Jack, which caused him to kick again. His powerful hind legs gouged at her chest hard enough to bruise and draw blood, had she been human; she didn’t appear even to notice. “And I’m sorry about that. Jack is my druidic familiar, my first one, and he’s pretty wild; I’m still training him. Don’t worry, I will be responsible and keep him out of trouble, and I can clean up my own room. We do back at Clarke Tower.”

“Glad to hear that,” Anjal grunted, casually seating herself on her husband’s knee. Not a large woman to begin with, the juxtaposition made her look positively tiny. “I worry about little Zari getting spoiled at that place.”

“I can honestly say that that isn’t one of the things you should worry about,” Gabriel assured her. Beside him, Teal heaved a sigh.

“Hm,” Rajakhan grunted, absently wrapping an arm around his wife while giving Gabriel a flat look. “This is the one Zari stabbed?”

Ruda sighed heavily and gazed up at the sky.

“That’s me, sir!” Gabriel said cheerfully.

“I thought it was fucking stabbed,” Fross added, hovering in front of him. “You usually make a big deal about that part.”

“Well, I’m in the middle of breakfast, here. One should never whine on an empty stomach.”

The king turned his baleful stare on his daughter. “I thought these people were your friends. You can’t play as roughly with shorelanders as you would with Punaji, Zari. And I wouldn’t want you stabbing one of our people, either.”

Ruda pursed her lips for a moment before replying. “Arquin is a half-demon, Papa. He’s practically invulnerable. Pain and surprise make him transform—or they did, before he went and got all paladinized. So yes, I put a blade in his foot to make him flare up and spook the White Riders’ horses to get rid of them.”

“I see.” Rajakhan’s dark brows lowered further. “And you couldn’t just fight these men because…?”

“Yes, we coulda taken them,” she snapped, banging a fist on the table. “Easily! It was me, Arquin, and two paladins. But we were standing right in front of occupied houses and they had wands. Bystanders woulda been shot, or at least had their homes burned. I got rid of the fuckers without causing collateral damage. And I apologized, and I bought him new shoes.”

“Fair’s fair,” Gabriel agreed with his mouth full. “I really like these boots, Ruda. Very comfy, now they’re all broken in.”

“Mm.” Rajakhan nodded, seeming mollified, while Anjal gazed up at him in clear amusement. “Very well, that sounds like a good maneuver. So why do you apparently always complain about it, boy?” He frowned at Gabriel, who blinked in surprise. “Sometimes a man has to take one for the crew. It’s nothing to whinge about.” He broke off as his wife stuck a forkful of fish into his mouth, and gave her a sour look, but chewed obediently.

“Oh, don’t get on Arquin’s case,” Ruda said, scowling. “He’s a good guy to have at your back. It’s a running joke, is all.”

The king swallowed, still frowning, and demanded, “And who is Ruda?”

She sighed heavily, shoved her plate away and thunked her forehead onto the table.

“Relax, Raja,” Anjal said lightly. “A girl goes off to college and wants to reinvent herself, it’s completely normal. It’s not as if she’s raising a flag of rebellion against the crown.” She affectionately tugged at his beard. “Or marrying the captain who did so.”

“I hear you two had quite the courtship,” Teal said with a smile, looking somewhat less wan than she usually did these days. “I’d love to hear that story right from the source.”

Rajakhan coughed heavily. “Well, regardless. According to Tellwyrn, you lot are here to help us solve our problems, which we apparently can’t be trusted to do on our own.”

Ruda raised her head. “Papa, I brought them with me. These are my friends, and every one of them is a badass. I know what I’m doing.”

“I also know what you’re doing,” he growled. “And just because Tellwyrn chose to save face by endorsing this project doesn’t mean you weren’t running away from your responsibilities and butting in.”

“Now, see here,” she snarled, beginning to rise from her chair.

“Actually, your Majesty,” Toby said quickly, “we were hoping to get your take on this Rust issue before we start doing anything. Prince Raffi was very concerned about what’s happening here, but he’d been away from Puna Dara for a few weeks by the time we talked to him.”

“You called my brother a prince?” Anjal asked with a distinctly malicious grin. “To his face? I’m sorry I missed that.”

“No, he didn’t,” Ruda said, sinking back into her chair.

“I did,” Gabriel added. “Only the once, though.”

Anjal winked at him. “I’ll bet.”

“The Rust are not the first to try this gambit,” Rajakhan growled, “and I doubt they will be the last. The Punaji respect strength and straightforwardness, and mistrust those with ambition toward power. Others, other cults and rich people and captains, have done this very thing: carefully gathered a base of support to make the crown seem weak while toeing the line and doing nothing that provides a reason to move against them. It’s a fool’s plan. Even those who have succeeded in seizing power this way did not hold it long. We are a people who do not tolerate leadership that would rather play politics than actually govern. We have strong and healthy traditions to ensure this.”

“What happened to the Fourth Silver Legion changes the matter,” Anjal added seriously, even as she folded fish and curried rice into a piece of warm flatbread. “There is no proof that the Rust did this, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. It is known that the Legion was coming here to keep an eye on them. No one else had a motive to attack Avei’s soldiers this way, and with those machine parts some of them wear, the Rust are an obvious suspect in any magical attack that has no precedent. No one understand how they work.”

“Is the suspicion not enough to move against them?” Toby asked.

The king blew out a snort, ruffling his beard. “Exactly—that’s their scheme. I have all the reason I need to root them out, and yet they’ve shown themselves capable of striking down the finest soldiers in the world, invisibly, from a distance. How can I fight this? And yet, every day that goes by, I make the crown look weaker due to my inaction.” Anjal leaned against him, and he accepted the flatbread sandwich from her and took a bite, chewing with a grim expression.

“And that is exactly where we come in,” Ruda said firmly. “I don’t know what the Rust are capable of and I do not give a fuck: we can take ’em. We’ve stood against hellgates and zombie uprisings, centaurs, bandits, what-the-fuck-have-you. I’m the princess of this country, and you guys are with me. So long as we deal with this, it doesn’t undercut Papa’s rule. It shows Puna Dara has the means to deal with its enemies as hard as they deserve, whatever they throw at us.”

Despite her defiant countenance, both her parents looked pensive.

“I’ve been thinking about this myself,” Gabriel said, frowning and pushing his plate aside to lean on the table. “And I think we need to be real careful not to fall into old habits, here. Considering the other civilized places where we’ve been sent to help…well, this situation is very different on a basic level. Sarasio, Lor’naris, even Veilgrad, all had in common that their societies were beleaguered and the leadership was fragmented, incompetent, or non-existent. We had to step in, basically take over, and organize folks to be able to look after themselves once we were gone. That’s not the case here.” He nodded to the king and queen. “The Punaji have their shit together and I haven’t heard anything to suggest the government here is less than competent. This is dicey because we’re dealing with an enemy of unknown capability, and the big problem is we can’t afford to antagonize them in the wrong way because that risks destabilizing Puna Dara. But that’s the issue: Puna Dara is stable, and once the Rust is out of the way, it’ll stay stable. This is a lot more straightforward than out other adventures.”

“In fact,” Toby said slowly, “this seems more like classic adventurer stuff than what we’ve dealt with before. It’s just an enemy to defeat.”

“Um.” Fross bobbed in place above the table, chiming almost diffidently. “I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but the way you describe it, what we’ve gotta do is remove the Rust subtly and carefully with a minimum of noise and mess, and let’s be really honest with ourselves, guys… That is not exactly our strong suit.”

Juniper sighed heavily. “I really miss Shaeine right now.”

Teal had been staring at the table; at that, she suddenly lifted her head. “I need to visit the Narisian embassy.”

There was a pause while everyone stared at them.

“There’s a Narisian embassy here?” Gabriel asked finally.

“Of course,” Anjal said, raising an eyebrow. “Tar’naris is very interested in maritime trade, now that it’s suddenly a possibility for them. They have an embassy here and consulates in all our cities along the east coast, as well as a presence in Onkawa, Ninkabi, and Tidecall.”

“It’s just like Shaeine did when we went to Tiraas,” Teal continued softly. “I’m the Matriarch’s daughter; within House Awarrion, I outrank the ambassador here. In order to avoid causing a political problem for her, I just need to put in an appearance and make it plain I am at her service, so there will be no question who is in charge among the drow in the city.”

“Um,” Juniper said uncertainly, scratching behind Jack’s antlers, “well, that’s…”

“I wasn’t changing the subject,” Teal said firmly. “It’s the same thing. We came here with Ruda; we need to be seen, in public, making it clear we’re acting at her request. That way, anything that happens is clearly credited to her, and doesn’t look like there’s a random bunch of adventurers taking over in the city. Plus, as the princess, she has deniability; her actions will reflect on the king, but if it becomes necessary to distance the crown from anything we do, we’re not technically acting on his orders. It gives the royal family a little wiggle room, politically.”

“I appreciate the direction of your thoughts,” Rajakhan rumbled, “but it doesn’t quite work that way, here. If Zari causes trouble, that will reflect on me—the more so if I am seen as unable to control my own daughter.”

“I see,” Teal said, looking down at her lap.

“You’re not wrong, though,” Ruda said firmly, reaching over to squeeze her shoulder. “I do need you guys to publicly take my side. And, with apologies to everybody’s pride, let it be known that I’m calling the shots.”

“I don’t think anybody here is going to let their pride trip us up,” Toby said with a smile.

“So, then,” Anjal said, “what exactly are you planning to do?”

A pause ensued, in which they looked uncertainly at each other.

“I was afraid of that,” Rajakhan grumbled.

“Actually,” Fross chimed, “it seems sort of obvious to me. The core problem is we don’t know what these Rust are capable of and it’s too risky to antagonize the lot of them with an overt attack. So! What we need to do is secure a sample for study.”

“Whoah,” Toby exclaimed. “A sample? These are people, Fross. We can’t just abduct one and…and dissect them!”

“Excuse me,” said Ruda, raising a finger, “but just for the fuckin’ record we can entirely do that.”

“I wasn’t proposing to dissect anybody!” Fross exclaimed.

He sighed. “Well, thank goodness for that, I guess.”

“Exactly,” she chimed. “I mean, that would be creepy and unethical, and also probably not informative. Really, we just need to dissect the mechanical parts! If I can figure out what makes those work I bet I can learn a lot about their magic and how to counteract it!”

Toby heaved a long-suffering sigh and slumped down in his chair.

“So it’s a matter of strategy, then,” Gabriel said cheerfully. “How does one seize and dismantle a half-machine cultist? Maybe they’ll freeze up if we dunk one in the harbor? I figure they call themselves the Rust for a reason…”

“Actually, that’s a nickname that they’ve acquired in the city and not bothered to argue with,” said Anjal. “It’s not the actual name of their cult.”

“Oh?”

“They’re far too pretentious for that,” she said, curling her lip disdainfully, “though they at least have the basic discretion not to swagger too much where the public can see; Punaji would not be impressed by it. Their proper name is kept discreet, but we’ve made very certain to be kept informed of their doings. Among themselves, they are the Infinite Order.”

 

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13 – 6

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The Rock looked almost squat from a distance, due to its subtly sloping walls. In shape, it resembled the bottom third of a pyramid, built from the dark volcanic stone of the craggy mountains surrounding Puna Dara. The closer they drew, however, the more its size revealed itself. The palatial fortress was easily the largest structure in the city. Square in shape and perched right on the shore with half its bulk extending into the harbor, it was set at a forty-five degree angle from the shoreline, one corner extending out past all but the longest of the piers.

“Right into the teeth of the storm,” Ruda said as they came into the shadow of the huge fortress. “Nobles in Tiraas, Sifan, Shengdu, everywhere, they like to build their palaces up on the hills, out of the way of…whatever might come. Not the Punaji. There are no weak leaders in Puna Dara; never have been, never will be. When a storm hits the city, it hits the center of government first.”

“Is that why the fortress is positioned that way?” Fross chimed curiously. “It looks aerodynamic! Like the storm winds channeled into the harbor by the shape of the mountains would part around that leading edge out there instead of hitting a big wall head-on.”

“Well, sure,” Ruda said, grinning. “Just ‘cos you lead from the front doesn’t mean you’ve gotta be stupid about it. Quite the opposite, takes strategy to live that way.”

“I am not much for cities as a rule,” Brother Ermon said mildly, “but in just a few days I’ve come to rather like the Punaji.”

Everyone glanced at him silently. That comment stifled the conversation for now, a fact which didn’t seem to bother the Huntsman in the least.

The Rock’s battlements bristled with mag cannons on its sides facing seaward, though no such weapons were aimed west at the city, clearly indicating from where Puna Dara’s leadership expected to find threats. Its city gates stood open, as well, but for all that the fortress was hardly undefended. Broad streets ran alongside it and nothing was permitted to be built against its walls, offering no structure which could provide a path to the ramparts. At its westernmost corner, a huge plaza spread out from the tower where the walls intersected, lined with stores and stalls and filled with a throng of people. The open gates of the Rock were symbolic of the relationship of the Punaji to their King; watchful soldiers, however, not only stood in the gates themselves, but were positioned all around the plaza, a column marching through even as the party from Last Rock drew close.

Ruda moved to the head of the group, but she didn’t even have to open her mouth; upon her arrival, the entire squad manning the gate saluted and stepped aside.

“Psst.” Teal nudged Juniper. “Take off the ring.”

The dryad frowned at her in confusion. “What? But I’m not allowed to be in cities without…”

“That’s Imperial cities. I don’t actually know what laws they have about dryads here, but in Punaji culture it’s an insult and a threat to enter someone’s home with your identity concealed.”

“Oh.” Juniper chewed her lower lip, and began toying with the silver ring she wore. “I guess…”

“It’s fine, Juniper, take it off,” Professor Tellwyrn said. “You’re Ruda’s guest, and Teal is right. Respect the tradition.”

“Okay, if you say so,” Juniper said with clear relief, and pulled the ring off.

Several of the soldiers twitched and turned toward her when her hair suddenly turned green.

“She’s with me,” Ruda barked. “At ease, boys.”

“Is it just me,” Gabriel said in a low voice, leaning closer to Toby, “or has she started swaggering more in the last five minutes?”

“She’s nervous,” Toby replied, just as softly. “Overcompensating.”

“About what?” Toby just shook his head.

They were at the back of the group, though still within Tellwyrn’s easy hearing. She didn’t so much as glance back at them. Teal, however, half-turned her head to give Gabriel a pointed look from the corner of her eye.

The thickness of the walls was incredible; passing through the gate was like entering a tunnel. Soldiers in baggy trousers, scarlet vests and turbans saluted Ruda, all seeming to recognize her on sight, once they emerged into the Rock’s enormous front courtyard. It seemed the fortress itself was built right into its seaward walls, leaving a triangular space inside the wedge which protruded into the city.

“Were we…expected?” Teal asked uncertainly as they stepped back into sunlight. There was a double line of troops extending toward the main fortress, forming a corridor. “I thought this was a sort of impromptu trip?”

“Fortunately for you, not everyone shares your apparent inability to plan ahead,” Tellwyrn replied. “I made arrangements. Yes, you’ll be expected, though they haven’t had much time to prepare. I’m rather impressed at this much fanfare.”

“Well, we all know how the Punaji think on their feet, eh?” Gabriel said cheerfully. “Right, Ruda?”

She didn’t answer. They all turned to look where she was silently staring: at a lone figure emerging from the Rock, heading toward them between the rows of soldiers. After a pause, Ruda suddenly broke into a run.

The woman approaching did likewise, grinning broadly, and they collided near the first rank of troops, spinning around in a bundle of exuberant laughter.

“Mama!”

That close, the comparison was striking. The Queen of Puna Dara was exactly as tall as her daughter—which was to say, not very. Where Ruda was both muscular and curvy almost to the point of plumpness, though, Anjal Punaji was slim as a blade, making her look diminutive in comparison. She wore a blue longcoat trimmed in gold, with neither a weapon nor a hat, revealing the azure gem glittering between her eyebrows and the threads of silver in her black hair.

Anjal pulled back, holding Ruda by the shoulders and grinning. Abruptly, though, her demeanor changed, expression switching to a scowl, and she shook her daughter roughly.

“What do you mean by this, turning up out of nowhere? We don’t pay tuition at that crazy school for you to go haring off whenever the mood takes you!”

“I heard the—”

“So we have some troubles in the city and you think you have to come rescue your poor, helpless old parents? How do you think we ever managed before you came along, Princess? Everyone has their duty and yours is to be studying in Last Rock!”

“I don’t run or hide from trouble when my people need help!” Ruda shouted back, matching her mother’s glare, now. They still stood close enough to hug, clasping each other by the arms.

“Oh, we know that, don’t we? After you decided only you could handle a damned hellgate when everyone was ordered to evacuate!”

“You want I should abandon my friends to danger? Is that how you raised me?”

“I raised you to know your duty and to do it, you—”

“Well, not that this isn’t entertaining as hell,” Tellwyrn said loudly, “but it sounds like you might want to pick it up in more comfortable surroundings?” She looked pointedly at the students and Ermon, all of whom were staring in clear fascination.

The Queen gave the Professor an appraising look, then released Ruda and nodded to her. “Ah, yes. Welcome to Puna Dara! I believe I recognize everyone from Zari’s letters. We received your belongings just a little while ago, everything is in your rooms.”

“Our…belongings?” Toby said warily.

“Ah, so this is as much a surprise to you as to us?” Anjal raised an eyebrow. “You work quickly, Professor. I had a suspicion this trip wasn’t of your planning—or at least, not at first.”

“Sometimes it’s necessary to adapt to the circumstances,” Tellwyrn replied. “While it is possible to effectively imprison my students in order to make them behave, rare is the situation in which that is the best choice. This time… They actually can help, and it makes for a very worthwhile exercise.” She turned a grim stare on the sophomores. “And afterward, we will discuss their respect for my rules at considerable length.”

“Well enough, I suppose,” said the Queen, finally giving the rest of them a smile. “Brother Ermon, thank you for finding our guests.”

“Fortuitous happenstance, your Majesty,” he demurred, bowing slightly. “I take no credit. I suspect none of them needed any guidance.”

“Come on, all of you, I’ll show you to the rooms we’ve prepared,” Anjal continued, stepping toward the castle. “It’s no floating tower, but we take good care of our guests here.”

“I’m looking forward to it!” Juniper said brightly. “I know we’re not here to sight-see, but after everything Ruda’s told us it’s great to finally visit Puna Dara.”

Anjal had begun to lead them toward the fortress, but suddenly slammed to a halt. Slowly, she turned to face her daughter. “And who,” she demanded, both eyebrows rising sharply, “is Ruda?”

The princess heaved a sigh. “Mama…”

“When did this start? Never mind, don’t tell me. As soon as you were out of my sight, wasn’t it? You’re so embarrassed by where you come from you had to rename yourself?”

“Mama,” Ruda said in clear frustration.

Tellwyrn cleared her throat, stepping forward and patting the Queen on the shoulder. “I advise against taking it personally, Anjal. Kids leave home, they want to establish their own identity…take it from someone who knows, this is perfectly normal. I have a drow on the rolls right now who went so far with it her mother tried to call her home in disgrace. I assure you, Zaruda has been nothing but a credit to her upbringing.”

“Hmph.” Anjal fixed her daughter with another long look. “I can see we have a great many things to catch up on. Come along.”

She turned and headed off again. To either side, the lined soldiers stared straight ahead, earnestly pretending to have seen and heard nothing. Ruda sighed again, heavily, and pointed at Gabriel. “Not a fucking word, Arquin.”

“I?” he exclaimed, pressing a hand to his chest and adopting a look of shocked reproach. “Why, dearest classmate, what possible words could I speak that would besmirch your unimpeachable character? Except, I suppose, for possibly bringing up that time you fucking stabbed me.”

Ahead, Anjal stopped again, this time so quickly she actually skidded, and whirled to face them. “You what?!”


The stagecoach rumbled toward the gates of Puna Dara in darkness, though dawn had come long since. As they drew ever closer, the mountains rose higher all around, obscuring the sunrise in the east; now, they were actually in the ancient dwarven tunnel leading to the city itself. It was late enough in the morning for there to be traffic on the broad highway now passing under the mountains, despite the darkness. Their coach proceeded in the company of wagons, travelers both on foot and on horse, and several enchanted carriages, though they weren’t the preferred vehicle for long trips away from cities. Carriages reliable enough not to need repair on such journeys weren’t exactly new, but the public’s tastes hadn’t yet caught up with the state of modern enchantment.

“It would have been near here,” Nandi murmured in elvish. “Where the Fourth was struck down. Or back at the entrance to the tunnel.” Principia glanced at her, but made no comment.

They were on schedule to beat the rest of their squad by at least a day. She and Nandi had made it this far ahead by hopping the stagecoach; two elves materializing out of the wilderness and begging for a ride did not make a particularly outlandish sight, though without the benefit of Avenist armor, they’d been greeted with suspicion. Finally, after paying twice the normal carriage fare, they had been relegated to riding on top with the baggage, despite the fact that there was room in the coach itself. Neither were fazed by these insults; what mattered was that they were on the way, and did not resemble an official presence of the Sisterhood, both being garbed as plains elves. Principia had dyed her hair a more conventional blonde, and if any of the humans they met were familiar enough to recognize the shape of her ears, well, there were any number of reasons a wood elf might have become part of a plains tribe.

In the interest of avoiding notice, the human members of their squad were proceeding much more conventionally. Thanks to Principia’s connections in the Wizard’s Guild, they had been teleported as close as was feasible to Puna Dara, which in the case of herself and Nandi meant the highway not far outside it, but the humans had been sent to Desolation, the last stop on the Rail network. Bypassing even the Rails, the whole squad would probably be the first of the Silver Legionnaires sent by Rouvad to actually reach the city. Elves wandering out of the wilderness might be a typical sight, but four human women doing so would have drawn attention, so they had embarked from the usual carriage line. The squad was to rendezvous at the Mermaid’s Tail as soon as possible. For now, though, the elves were alone.

“This is oddly nostalgic,” Nandi said suddenly, pulling one of the arrows from her quiver and turning it over in her hands. It was authentic; the Sisterhood had surprising things in its armories. She carried a shortbow and arrows, Principia a tomahawk, and both hunting knives. “I honestly hadn’t expected to be dressed and armed like this again till…ever, really. It has been a very long time since I looked back at where I came from.”

Principia watched her face sidelong. The tunnels weren’t illuminated; some of the vehicles passing through them carried fairy lamps, but not their stagecoach. The dimness was no challenge to her eyes, though.

“I guess falling in love is one reason to leave home,” she said at last, also in elvish. “I wouldn’t know. Me, I just couldn’t stand anybody I was related to.”

Nandi smiled slightly, gazing ahead. The tunnel passed under most of a mountain, but they could both see the light in the distance, morning sun rising above the ocean. It would be a while yet before they drew close enough for the humans in their vehicle to make it out. “I didn’t find her until some time after I went wandering, actually. Odd as the idea may seem to you, we may not be so different. I really didn’t fit in among my tribe, either.”

Principia kept her face neutral. Since their early conversations when Nandi had been serving as interim Bishop, the other elf hadn’t seen fit to share anything about her past, and Prin had not inquired. If there was one thing she respected, it was the need to leave ancient history in the dust where it belonged. Still, the fact that Nandi had brought this up, seemingly out of nowhere, said she wanted to discuss it. And Nandi Shahai had never done anything without a reason.

“Not much of a traditionalist?” she asked after a short silence.

“Traditions exist for a reason,” Nandi said quietly, still gazing ahead. “Not necessarily a good reason, but not necessarily a bad one. It’s not that I’m rebellious…at least, not more than I could help. The Elders of my tribe simply found it frustrating that I only approached women as lovers.”

Principia blinked and straightened up. “Wait—they threw you out for that? I mean…I know plains tribes are more strict about some things, but where I’m from that would be an eccentricity, at worst. And where I’m from, Elders compete with each other to see who can be the most stuffy and hidebound.”

Nandi grinned, just faintly enough to show teeth. “Oh, no, I wasn’t chased out; leaving was entirely my own decision. Life is different in the Golden Sea than in the groves, Principia. I don’t begrudge the Elders their concern…exactly. A tribe’s quest for enough food is eternal, and life is dangerous. We would lose people more often than a forest tribe usually does, no matter what care we took. For those responsible for shepherding the tribe’s future… It is a matter of concern to the tribe if a healthy female, for any reason, will not produce children.” She shook her head. “Concern it all it was, not condemnation. But it never stopped. It quickly becomes exhausting and demoralizing, having well-intentioned people constantly try to fix you when you aren’t broken.”

“Hm.” Principia heaved a deep sigh and squirmed slightly, shuffling down to sit more comfortably among the bags and suitcases lashed to the roof. “Now there, I can relate.”

“I bet you can,” Nandi replied, her smile widening.

“No offense,” Principia said carefully, “but you’ve never struck me as eager to trade backstories before…”

“Oh, I’m not prying, don’t worry. It honestly didn’t cross my mind that you would care to talk about your own history.”

“Good, because I don’t,” she said wryly, “but that’s not that I meant. Is this an ‘eve before battle’ thing? Not to understate the danger, here, but I think if we were going to be preemptively struck dead, it would have happened before now. It seems to me we’ve made it in, knock wood.”

“Nothing so dramatic,” Nandi murmured. “I don’t know. Nostalgia, as I said… And having no one for company but another elf, which is a very unaccustomed situation for me. I haven’t made an effort to interact with my own kind in the last five centuries, nor to spend much time apart from the Sisterhood. We have elves, of course, gnomes, dwarves…everything but drow. It is mostly a human organization, though. This is just…I don’t know.”

“Now, that’s not terribly reassuring. I’ve grown to thinking of you as the most self-possessed, even-tempered person in my squad.”

Nandi cracked another grin. “Don’t worry, I am not about to become hysterical. Perhaps I’m just feeling more comfortable with you, is all. One downside to one’s entire social circle being so short-lived: after five hundred years, one grows hesitant to make close friends. Maybe I’d just like to have someone with whom to talk about these things.” She shifted to give Principia an amused look. “You don’t exactly project an aura of reliability or trustworthiness, Locke, but after all these months I feel I do have a sense of your virtues and flaws. And you are a good friend.”

“Well,” Principia said airily, “thank you for not having this discussion in front of the squad.” Nandi laughed obligingly. The silence which followed was comfortable, and lasted until they emerged into the tropical warmth of the city.


She stood at the end of the pier, shading her eyes with a hand. Even so, staring more or less at the sunrise was more than she could handle, and after only a moment she had to turn away, grimacing.

“You’re closer,” buzzed the voice in her ear. “Still not enough that I can get anything directly from the facility from your position, though I can tell it’s a good two hundred meters below your level, as well as almost five hundred meters east by southeast. Can you get closer?”

“Walker, if I get any closer I’ll be swimming,” Milanda said quietly, touching her earpiece. No ships were currently docked nearby, and she had the area mostly to herself, but still, it was generally better not to be seen chattering with oneself in public.

“Hm… So it’s underwater, then, not just underground.”

“Is it possible the whole thing’s just flooded?” she asked.

“Very unlikely. The Fabrication Plant’s facilities could pump out water and secure itself with force fields in a crisis, but frankly, the physical material from which it is made…”

“Mithril, like the spaceport,” Milanda sighed, turning again to peer out at the harbor. She knew, approximately, what a meter was, but didn’t have an intuitive sense of how far that would be in feet or miles. Broadly speaking, though, it would be somewhere in the middle of the harbor.

“Besides,” Walker continued, “if your description of the Rust cultists is accurate, they did not acquire that technology from any contemporary source. Somehow, there is an access to the facility, and they either control it or know where it is.”

“Well, that’s almost a relief,” Milanda murmured, turning and heading back toward Puna Dara. “I wasn’t looking forward to chartering a boat.”

“I doubt very much you could make significant progress that way.”

“Exactly. But if it comes to getting my hands on this cult and getting answers from them?” The Left Hand of the Emperor indulged herself in a smug smile. “That, I am pretty confident I can do.”

 

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Bonus #1: Captain’s Orders

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Rajakhan stood with his hands folded behind his broad back, staring at the preserved skeleton of the smilodon which stood in his trophy hall. It almost didn’t look feline, being nothing but bones held together by wire; so much of what made a cat was in the way they moved.

Outsiders rarely understood about Punaji and cats. Everyone assumed the pirate kingdom should put something nautical on their flag, but there was nothing on or under the sea that so perfectly captured the Punaji spirit. Cats offered respect and obedience to none, rejected all rules and pursued their own ends… But in their own, freewheeling way, they were loyal and devoted, fierce in the protection of those they loved. It remained one of the odd quirks visiting merchants and scholars shook their heads over. Punaji, like cats, didn’t feel a need to explain themselves.

This was his thinking pose, and the place where he most often came to do his thinking; the servants left him alone. They, at least, knew him well enough not to be intimidated by his imposing namesake beard, massive frame and tendency to scowl as a resting expression. He’d had to develop other signals to indicate when he didn’t wish to be disturbed. Maneuver, impression, appearance… Politics. It never ceased to gall him, having to care about such trifling things. A king’s lot was just not meant to be easy.

But there were worse things.

He drew in a deep breath and blew it out in a huff, glaring at the skeleton as if he could blame it for his worries. The weight of his nation’s troubles was a familiar one to him. What weighed on him now was far more personal, and harder on his equanimity.

Hearing her footsteps before she appeared, he turned to face the archway to the outer hall. Anjal entered with the force of someone slamming a door—impressive, given that there wasn’t one. She was a diminutive woman, lean and no taller than his collarbone, but her muscular frame and aggressive stride made an imposing sight even when she wasn’t glaring and clenching both fists at her sides.

“Well?” the pirate king asked after a moment in which she simply stood there, staring daggers at him.

“Nothing.” Anjal bit off her words, fairly quivering with fury. “She just sits. This is not normal. Children are supposed to be resilient—it has been three days! The windshaman is worried she will starve herself; it’s all we can do to make her drink water.”

Rajakhan heaved another sigh, stroking his beard with one hand, while Anjal glared at him accusingly. They had come a long way since their earliest meeting, as captains of opposing ships tearing into each other—he the prince of the Punaji nation, she the commander of the Punaji nation’s first organized rebellion against the crown. Anjal the Sea Devil met every situation with fire and steel, in her spirit if not in her hands.

That was what made him worry, now. She drew in a deep, shuddering breath, and the sudden crack in her voice made his heart ache. “I can’t fight this, Raja!”

He was across the room in two long strides, wrapping his arms around her, and for a wonder, she let herself be held, regardless that they were more or less in public. Anjal buried her face in his shoulder, leaning both clenched fists into his chest.

“Some things cannot be fought, my heart,” he said quietly, resting his chin atop her head.

“I don’t know what to do!” Her whole body was clenched tight with the effort of not breaking down. She would never forgive herself for showing such weakness. “Naphthene send me enemies, problems that can be killed. Our own daughter is withering away from within and…and what can we do? I can stand there and watch.”

She broke off, trembling, and he just held her in silence. In the privacy of their chambers, he would murmur soothingly, stroke her hair… In privacy, she would let herself weep. Rajakhan knew her well enough not to show her tenderness when she was trying to harden herself; it would only spoil her efforts.

Gradually, she relaxed, her furious tension easing into the more normal stiffness with which she faced the world. Anjal was no more to be taken for granted than the sea; after years of marriage, he was attuned enough to her to sense, even without seeing her face, when she had composed herself enough to carry on.

“I will go speak to her,” he rumbled.

She pulled back, staring up at him. Tears glistened in her eyes, but didn’t fall. “What can you say that we haven’t tried?”

“Duty,” he said firmly. “It is time to stop this indulgence.”

Anjal’s expression hardened all over again. “The child is in pain, Rajakhan. Yelling at her will do only more harm.”

“A captain need only raise his voice to be heard over the wind and rain,” he replied. “We have raised our daughter well, Anjal. She has a brave heart, and knows her duty. If soft words will not shake her out of this, a reminder of her obligations will. I have that much faith in her.” He softened his voice and expression when the skepticism on her face did not diminish. “What else is there to try, love?”

Anjal closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. She gently pulled herself back and impatiently scrubbed tears from her eyes before opening them again. “Go, then. If this does not work…”

“It will have to,” he said, taking one of her slim, callused hands and lifting it to his lips. “Only her own strength will lead her through this, my pretty devil. She just needs a reminder.”

His wife allowed this intimacy for a moment, a hint of a smile flickering across her eyes, before composing herself and pulling away. “Try it then, husband. Why are you still here?”

In spite of himself, in spite of everything, Rajakhan rumbled a low laugh, stepping back from her with a respectful bow. He turned and strode out.

The pirate king’s bulky frame made him look squat, belying his height and the long reach of his legs; he set a sharp pace, passing through the castle at a clip that made servants and courtiers scramble to keep up. It was to the better, for several reasons, that none accompanied him today. Those he passed were glimpsed only in the distance where halls crossed or doors opened into rooms. Sensing the mood and knowing some of what caused it, the domestic staff were taking pains not to be near him or Anjal. It suited him just fine.

Despite his set expression and rapid stride, he was dreading this. All too soon, he reached his destination, a door in the hallway just down from his own chambers. Rajakhan “Blackbeard” Punaji, King of Pirates, had to pause and steel himself before rapping on the door. That done, though, he pulled it open and stepped in without waiting for a response.

It was as bad as he had feared; at the first glimpse of his daughter, a crack formed in his heart.

Zaruda was a blocky, square-faced child. So had been his sister and cousins at that age, though, and they had grown into their frames; the women in his family were famed for being curvaceous and vivacious. She was likely to become a great beauty, which concerned him and her mother not at all. The sort of leadership strategies which used looks to influence people would not serve a leader among the Punaji. The young Princess had given her parents plenty of cause for pride, however; she was clever, rambunctious, aggressive, and fiercely affectionate.

Now, she sat on her bed, knees pulled up to her chest. Dark circles of sleeplessness ringed her eyes, a horrible sight on so young a face. Zaruda’s expression was hollow, empty, her shoulders slumped. Only seven years old, and she looked completely broken. She had for three days. The sight was almost enough to unman him completely; Rajakhan barely retained his composure in the face of it.

“Hello, Zari,” he said gently. Her eyes flickered to him, but she made no other acknowledgment. He glanced quickly about the room, taking stock. Zaruda wasn’t alone; her two cats both sat on the bed with her. Shashi, an expensive purebred Sifanese, was draped over her feet, while Fancy Hat, an orange tabby with a ragged ear whom Zaruda had insisted on rescuing from an alley, sat upright beside her, leaning firmly against her. In the last three days they had left her side only to eat and use the box. The sound of their purring was plainly audible even from across the room. And outsiders still tried to tell him cats were disloyal…

Aside from her rumpled bedclothes, the rest of the room was depressingly in order, a very bad sign. Zaruda was a walking mess, usually; things were clean in her presence only when she was asleep. His eye did settle on one thing out of place, however. A worn stuffed bear lay against the wall, face-down.

“What’s this?” he rumbled, bending to pick it up. The bear had been hastily but thoroughly laundered, yet its head was still marred by a large discolored patch. They had gotten all the blood out, but the well-loved toy could only submit to so much washing without falling apart completely. “And why is Commodore Bear on the floor? Is this how you treat a war hero?”

Zaruda glanced at him again, then cleared her throat. “’s just a stupid toy,” she said hoarsely. Her voice was raspy with thirst, with lack of sleep… But not from crying. That was the truly worrying thing. She had been watched closely enough that he knew she had not cried. Not once.

Rajakhan stepped into the room, pulling the door shut behind him. He crossed to her and sat down very carefully beside her on the bed, setting Commodore Bear on his other side and stroking Fancy Hat’s head. No matter the care with which he moved, the child-sized bed creaked and shifted under his weight.

He let the silence stretch out. For all his talk to Anjal, now that the moment was here, he found it embarrassingly hard to put his plan into action. His little girl was suffering, and all he wanted was to hold her and fight away her fears. But they had tried that, and she’d only retreated further into herself.

“You think I’m weak,” Zaruda said softly.

“What?” Rajakhan frowned at her. “Who told you this?”

“Nobody.” She shook her head. “I know, though. The windshaman thinks so. Mama thinks so.”

“You are wrong,” he said firmly. “You are not weak, and only a fool would believe you are.”

“I feel weak,” she whispered.

Rajakhan drew in a deep breath and let it out. Finally, he laid his large hand against her back, stroking her gently. “Tell me what’s on your mind, little Zari.”

It was long minutes before she answered. He didn’t repeat his command or push her; she wasn’t ignoring him. It took time for her to gather her thoughts.

“That man,” she said softly. “He had a mama and a papa too. Maybe brothers and sisters. Maybe a wife. Somebody loved him.”

“Likely so,” Rajakhan replied. “Most people are connected to somebody.”

“And they’re hurt now because he’s gone,” she whispered.

He nodded slowly. “Yes.”

“I didn’t mean to kill him.” Her voice was achingly hollow, echoing with pain she was too tired to feel except distantly.

“I know, Zari,” he rumbled. “But you were in the right. He broke into your room; he meant harm to your family, possibly to you. When someone attacks you, it’s right to defend yourself.”

“I know.” She closed her eyes. “Everyone’s said that to me.”

He let the silence hang for a moment before prompting her. “But?”

“I don’t feel right. I feel… Wrong. A man is dead and nothing will ever bring him back.” Finally she opened her eyes again, and the emptiness in them was haunting. “And that’s why I’m weak.”

“Why is that?” he asked softly.

“You’ve killed people. Mama has. Everyone… All those stories, of battles and wars and raids… The Punjai fight to live, we kill our enemies.” She slumped, sinking into herself. “I can’t call myself Punaji.”

“Now you hear this,” Rajakhan said firmly. “I will never hear those words out of your mouth again. Is that clear?”

He stared down at her, leaving no room for ambiguity in his tone. She finally looked up, meeting his eyes, and nodded.

“Yes, sir.”

“My little Zari,” he said with a sigh, stroking her hair. “You are not weak. You have just learned a very hard lesson, and don’t yet have the perspective to see it all in context. Do you know how rare it is for a child your age to think things out as clearly as you have? To feel them as deeply?”

She shook her head, dropping her eyes.

“It is rare,” he said. “Many grown men and women don’t have the brain or the heart to do either. Weak? Pah. This is how I know you will be a great Queen someday. You think things through, farther than most do. You have a heart big enough to hold the whole world, and that’s why you feel the pain of all those you may have hurt.”

“I don’t want to,” she whispered.

“Don’t wish for that.”

“I can’t be a queen,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut. Finally, tears brimmed between her lashes. “I just sit here and… I can’t think of anything but that man’s death.”

Rajakhan heaved a deep sigh. “You can, Zaruda. You just have not yet learned how. Now listen up: I have orders for you.”

He waited for her to open her eyes and look up at him before continuing.

“Tonight, you will cry. I know you’re trying to be strong and fight back the pain, but this is the wrong way to do it. It must hurt, little minnow. Pain is a poison; you must get it out of you. If you hold it in, it will just rot you out from the inside. You know how your mama and I, and all the Punaji heroes in the stories, have lived as long and fought as hard as we have?” He draped his huge arm around her hunched shoulders. “We make time to mourn, when it is time to. Do you understand?”

She nodded slowly. “…yes, sir.”

“Good. I am not done. Tomorrow, you will wake up, wash yourself, eat breakfast, and then we will hold a feast. All the captains will be invited, and they will all be told the story about Princess Zaruda, the fiercest scion of the Punaji bloodline, who killed her first enemy when she was seven. And at this feast, you will boast, and laugh, and show them how ferocious you are. You will be proud, and revel in your first kill.”

She had stared up at him with consternation growing on her face the longer he talked. Finally, she burst out, “Papa! I can’t!”

“Can’t?” He did not raise his voice, but poured every ounce of command into it. “You can’t? You were not asked a question. This is what you will do. I expect my orders to be followed.”

Zaruda swallowed heavily, then again. Her expression was of panic and pure misery.

“Do you understand,” he said more gently, “why I am ordering you to do this?”

She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out; all she could do was shake her head, the tears beginning to run down her cheeks at last.

“Because this is the craft of our family,” Rajakhan explained. “Our trade. You know that professions are passed down from parent to child. We have soldiers, fishermen, craftspeople of all kinds, scholars, windshaman. All of them are necessary for our nation to function. What do we make, Zaruda? What does this family provide that people need?” He held her gaze for a moment; she stared up at him without replying. “We rule. We provide leadership to our nation. The time has come for you to begin training in this trade. That means, among other things you will learn, that sometimes you have to push aside what you feel and show your people what they need to see. The Punaji need to know that our bloodline is strong, that the future is secured. They need to know that their Princess, their future Queen, is powerful, clever, and fierce. They will not see you hiding in your room, wallowing in your pain. They will see you standing before them, reveling in your victory.”

“That’s not—” She broke off. Punaji children learned at a very young age not to protest that anything was unfair. They were a nation of sailors; their lives were dedicated to the tempestuous ocean and its fickle goddess. Nothing was fair. Asking for it to be was asking to be punished.

“It is fair, though,” the king said firmly. “Who do you think has paid for every meal you have ever eaten? Your clothes? Your teaching, your toys? You are royalty, Zaruda; you live on the taxes levied on your people. That is what it means to rule. The Punaji have paid you to do a job from the moment you were born. Will you cheat them of their honest trade? Would you show the world such dishonor?”

“No, sir.” She shook her head. Her expression was still pained, but now thoughtful as well.

“It’s a hard thing, little one,” he said, stroking her back. “You have a lot to learn, and this is only the beginning. I promise you, though, it will get easier as you grow to understand more about the world.”

“Why can’t you just tell them what you said to me?” she asked plaintively. “If feeling the pain of others makes me a good Queen…”

Rajakhan sighed heavily. “Because, little minnow, that is wisdom, and it’s hard-won. Not everyone understands that. Most people will not understand it. They will see your true strength as weakness, and see strength in killing and boasting about it. Never forget that those people are fools.”

“If they’re fools, why do we care what they think?” she demanded sullenly.

He rumbled a low laugh. “Because there are a lot of them, and because the stupider a person is, the louder they are. Fools make enough noise that even people who ought to know better listen to them. This is part of the craft you are going to learn, Zari: managing fools, just as you must manage all sorts of people. It’s a delicate line to walk, at times, but it is what we must do.”

She nodded, dropping her gaze. Finally, though, she uncurled herself, extending her legs to dangle them over the side of the bed. Shashi, disturbed from her place, muttered a soft complaint, but climbed back into Zaruda’s lap. Rajakhan watched the life and spirit visibly returning to her with a degree of relief he had never imagined he could feel. They weren’t there yet, but it was a start.

“Part of the careful balance is knowing when and how to hurt,” he said. “In the eyes of the world, you must be the bravest, the strongest, the loudest. Your allies and enemies alike must see you as dangerous, or they will never respect you. But as I have said, you cannot shove all your pain down inside yourself. It must come out. Just…never in front of the world.” He rubbed her gently. “You understand?”

She nodded. “Be strong for others, and suffer alone. It… It sounds hard, Papa.”

“It is hard,” he agreed solemnly. “But you have missed an important part. You needn’t suffer alone; that is no way to do it. Sharing your weakness with others is a vital part of being human, Zari. You can’t live if you wear the mask every minute. Only family can be trusted. When you cry tonight, you will have me and mama here, plus Shashi and Fancy Hat. And Commodore Bear,” he added, smiling.

“You won’t live forever,” she said quietly, not looking at him, and another pang struck his heart. She was far too young to have thought so much about death.

“That’s true,” he acknowledged. “No one does. But that doesn’t mean you will ever be alone. Blood is an accident, Zaruda; it just happens. Family are the people you would give your life for. You keep that big heart open, and you will always have family. I guarantee it.”

She nodded, then leaned against him. Between them, Fancy Hat purred furiously, seeming not to mind being the meat in a Punaji sandwich. Rajakhan breathed deeply for what seemed the first time in days, feeling the terrible tension in his chest ease. His daughter was going to be all right.

“I’m hungry,” she said after a few minutes.

“Then I’ll have some food brought to you.”

“Thank you, Papa.”

“And now,” he rumbled, picking up the stuffed bear and holding it in front of her, “I think you owe someone an apology.”

“I’m sorry, Commodore Bear,” she said dutifully, taking the toy from him. Then she wrapped her arms around it, pressing a kiss to the Commodore’s head, right atop the scrubbed-out bloodstain.

Rajakhan squeezed her once more before standing up. “Remember your orders, sailor.”

“Yes, sir.” She managed a smile at him, and he let himself believe everything would work out.

“I’ll be back in a little while. Mama too.”

“Okay.”

As he slipped out and made his way back through the castle to find his wife, the pirate king felt weak, drained in a way he rarely had; wrung-out, both physically and emotionally. Of course, he kept his scowling mask firmly in place, kept his stride steady and strong. His advice to Zaruda had been from lessons he himself had learned, no less painfully than she.

What a terrible, wonderful thing it was to be a parent—very much like being a king, but so much more intimately. He could only do his best, knowing all the while that he was fumbling his way in the dark, trying to provide answers he didn’t truly have.

And though he had never been so proud of her, it seemed that nothing would ever hurt so much as the day his daughter started to grow up.

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