Tag Archives: Anjal

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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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