Tag Archives: Avrith

5 – 28

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“Sir,” Wilberforce murmured, leaning close to Vandro’s ear. He already had his employer’s undivided attention, having arrived far more quickly than his usual efficient but decorous pace. Unusual behavior from Wilberforce was a cardinal sign that something had gone wrong. “We have visitors from the Thieves’ Guild in significant numbers. I have taken the liberty of activating the golems; if you move now, you may be in time to greet them at the gates.”

Vandro nodded, turning back to his erstwhile conversation partner with a rueful smile. “Terribly sorry, m’lord, but it seems I have to go put out a fire. The perils of hosting, you know how it is.”

“Indeed,” the aristocrat replied with a lofted eyebrow, looking somewhat bemused. It always came as a surprise to his type that lowly commoners found something more important than themselves on which to focus.

Thanks to Wilberforce’s warning, Vandro made it to the broad, well-lit pathway between the gates and the house that formed the party’s center of mass just before the Guild made their entrance. He wasn’t quite in time to pose front and center and be waiting languidly for their arrival, but it would have to do. Pacing and presentation mattered in these affairs.

Six entered first, fanning out to either side of the path in a reverse arrowhead formation. Though swift and coordinated, no one would have mistaken the ragged bunch for soldiers; they wore clothing in dark colors and advanced states of scruffiness, ostentatiously displayed clubs and knives, and menacing expressions. The guests drew back from them, conversation disintegrating into nervous whispered all over the gardens, followed by chilly silence as the thieves took up positions, apparently if not actually controlling the estate’s entrance.

Of course, all that was for show, as well. Most of these people dressed comfortably and casually when at their real work, and quite a few slept on silk. A good thief was someone who did not stand out in a crowd; they usually had to go out of their way to properly menace the normals, including dramatic changes in costume and demeanor.

Vandro narrowed his eyes slightly at the next wave to enter, but carefully held his neutral posture. Four more Guildmembers came forward, pushing a pair of bound prisoners before them. They stopped a few yards into the estate, ignoring the gasps of the onlookers, and forced the captives to their knees. Jeremiah Shook merely looked furious, if somewhat rumpled; Amanika had clearly been worked over. Her clothes were torn and stained with both dirt and blood, one of her eyes was swollen shut and a dried trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth still decorated her chin. She slumped to the ground, head lolling.

Finally, another pair entered with the last three armed thieves behind them. The well-dressed man, a dark-featured Onkawa local, was slim, tall and stately, wearing an intolerably self-satisfied smirk. On his arm, looking stupefied and as tense as a plucked guitar string, was Saduko.

“Forgive the overly dramatic entrance, Webs,” he said airily. “It seems someone forgot to deliver my invitation.”

“Why, that’d have been me, Toss,” Vandro replied easily. “I confess I plumb forgot to want you at my party. Things start to slip the mind, when you get to my age.”

Toss, the leader of the local Guild’s chapter, grinned at the frisson of nervous conversation that swept through Vandro’s crowd of well-heeled guests at the sound of his tag. He was known in the city.

“Ah, but how could I let this occasion pass unremarked? I confess I’ve had cause to be worried about your loyalties of late, but our dear Gimmick, here, has put my mind to rest.” He patted Saduko’s hand where it lay on his arm; she flinched. “And to think we thought she was spying on you. Instead, you have oh-so-deftly rooted out the subversive elements within our local chapter and delivered them into our hands. Along with the fugitive Thumper! Truly, this is a great night for the followers of Eserion, and we owe all this success to you, Webs. Bravo,” he said, drawing out the last word in a silky drawl.

Vandro studied Saduko idly, his mind whirling. Her, Guild? Possibly. He’d checked out her credentials, but those were so very fakeable, especially coming from overseas as they did. He had also studied how she thought and acted while his guest, and found her generally self-contained and a skilled walking poker face as long as she had time to prepare, but easy to rattle and throw off her game. Right now she looked good and rattled, and clinging to her equilibrium by a ragged fingernail.

That was one plot uncovered, then; Saduko had been sent to observe and possibly interfere with his and Amanika’s undercutting of the Guild, but she was either a far more advanced player than he believed, or her own scheme had come unraveled. There was no reason to assume the former when he knew the latter could be explained by yet another actor whose full play had yet to be revealed.

Kheshiri. What could she hope to gain by all this?

“Son of a bitch,” Shook spat, his voice soft. Vandro gave him a warning look, and was met with a venomous glare. He suppressed a sigh. Jerry was a good kid, when he used his head, but that damn temper of his reliably made him stop using it, exactly when he needed it most.

“Seems you’ve been a little rough with our friends, there,” Vandro said mildly. “I mean, if you’re gonna work someone over, sure. Dragging valuable prisoners all over the city, though, letting one apparently bleed herself half to death? Truly, the complexity of your plots is over my head.”

Amanika lifted her face a fraction, and the look she gave Vandro was fleeting, but icily calculating. Not so dazed and beleaguered as she appeared, then, and apparently not taking this turn of events at face value. Good girl; if only she’d been a trifle less homely he’d have looked for reasons to have her around more often.

“I think the time has come for a clearing of the air,” Toss proclaimed, smiling with immense self-satisfaction. “There has been too much suspicion and discord, do you not think so? Let all of Onkawa see that the Thieves’ Guild stands united. Let them see what befalls those who seek to undermine Eserion’s people.”

Vandro shrugged and took a sip of his cocktail. “Your funeral.”

Toss’s smile did not diminish in the slightest. “Why, Webs, I could very nearly take that as a threat. And on the heels of your very valuable assistance to your Guild, too! Surely you cannot have meant that the way it sounded.”

He made a swift motion with his free hand and the six thieves forming his advance guard began moving slowly forward, their gazes coldly intent upon Vandro.

Then Wilberforce glided forth out of the crowd to stand at Vandro’s shoulder. The enforcers instantly halted in their tracks, staring at the Butler. Two glanced uncertainly back at Toss; the rest were studying Wilberforce, clearly mentally calculating whether they could take him on.

They couldn’t, which was beside the point as far as Vandro was concerned. He couldn’t afford to let this come to blows. To say nothing of the risk to his guests, it was blindingly obvious that Toss wanted a confrontation. Whether or not he believed that Vandro was behind the ensnaring of Shook and Amanika (he hadn’t got that from Saduko; why would Kheshiri promote that particular notion?), he knew a rival when he saw one. If Vandro fought the Guild openly, whether he won or lost the battle would be irrelevant in the long run.

“This is why I don’t invite you to parties, Toss,” he said genially. “Nor do I intend to stand here all night bantering with you. Honestly, I don’t give you a thought when you’re not right in front of my face. No point, really; you’re not gonna be in charge long.”

Toss’s smile became a hungry grin. “Oh, I think you’ve grown a little too flushed with your recent success, Alan Vandro. You challenge me openly? In front of all these—”

He tried gamely to keep on talking, but the sheer volume of Vandro’s booming laugh made it pointless. Vandro had practiced that laugh, honed it for that very effect.

“Challenge you?” he chortled, wiping at his eyes. “You silly, sad little man. If I were to challenge you, in the best case scenario I’d end up having to do your tedious job. Nah, what could I possibly gain by going to the trouble? I mean, look around you. Look at this!” He indicated them all, the enforcers, the prisoners, with a contemptuous flick of his wrist. “This very public display of force, this airing of Guild laundry in the faces of all the finest folk in the city? This just isn’t how we do business, Toss, and it’s inconceivable to me that a chapter house head hasn’t figured that out at by this stage in his career.”

“Don’t you point at my—”

“And that’s another thing,” Vandro went on merrily. “This here thing you’re doing, this attempt to use social pressure to force me to either confront you or bend knee? Well, Toss, this is just plain clumsy. I almost hate to tell you, my boy, but you suck at this game. Challenge you? Please. Tell you what I’m gonna do. Since I’m retired and all, I’m gonna sit here in my villa, enjoying the ill-gotten fruit of my lifetime of labor, throwing ridiculous parties and hobnobbing with all my fancy friends, and generally ignore you. I don’t have to challenge you, y’moron. Hell, I don’t think I could save you if my own life depended on it. It’s a damn miracle you’ve lasted this long.”

Toss’s grin had become a decidedly less controlled baring of his teeth; his grip on Saduko’s arm was clearly hard enough to bruise, now, though, she bore it without complaint. “You are one more careless word from—”

“All systems are corrupt,” Vandro said, projecting from the diaphragm and completely overwhelming Toss’s growling delivery. Tragic, how few thieves studied public speaking; it was a priceless skill in their line of work. “We all know the catechism, Toss. You didn’t have to go so far out of your way to prove it.”

The enforcers were all watching Toss, now, their expressions a lot more thoughtful. Vandro knew most of them personally, knew there was nothing personal against him in their presence here, merely the execution of what they saw as their duty. A duty he’d just called into question by turning Toss’s attempted trap around on him.

He glanced at the prisoners; Amanika was smiling, keeping her face angled downward to mostly hide it. Shook still glared at Vandro, his expression a mask of betrayal. Hopefully he could calm the boy down long enough to explain…

In that moment, he understood Kheshiri’s plan. All this had been arranged, his plans subverted, Saduko’s deception turned against her, Toss’s ambition and cruelty manipulated, to create this scene, where Vandro was accused of betraying Shook, and couldn’t afford to deny it. Amanika could read between the lines well enough, but Shook and Toss were thugs who’d made good through hard work and judicious brutality. Shook had heard Vandro tacitly admit having set him up for a fall and the reward, and wouldn’t look beyond that. Unless he could separate Shook from Toss’s custody now, the boy’s trust in him would be completely severed. Leaving him alone in the world with the Guild and the law after him, no one he could trust…except his demon.

He also realized that his understanding had come a moment too late. Because that was the moment, and he was totally unprepared to take advantage of it.

Vandro opened his mouth to press his case, to begin working around to a demand that Shook and Amanika be released to his custody, knowing he wasn’t going to have enough time.

Sure enough, the winged form melted out of nothing right behind Toss, reached around with a large knife and slashed Saduko across the throat.

The screams and panic that followed broke what remaining order there was among the Guild enforcers. Toss stared at the woman now dangling limply from his arm, convulsing as she helplessly pressed a hand to her neck, completely failing to stifle the gushing of her blood. The three enforcers at the rear rushed forward, their swings missing the demon as she went aloft with one powerful beat of her wings. One of them actually struck Toss, sending him and Saduko crashing to the ground.

Kheshiri descended on the two men holding Shook, stomping directly on the head of one and launching herself off again, swooping about them as all four guards abandoned their charges to swipe at her. Released, Amanika turned and struggled frantically over to Saduko as best she could with her arms bound behind her, already glowing with healing light.

In the confusion, the succubus slashed through Shook’s bindings; he rolled forward, coming nimbly to his feet, and bared his teeth in a snarl at Vandro, reaching into his coat. Did he still somehow have his wands? Toss, that damned idiot…

“Jerry, my boy,” Vandro began.

“Save it!” Shook spat, bringing out his weapons. He glanced at Wilberforce and very deliberately did not point them at Vandro.

“Protocol: activate!” Vandro’s voice boomed across the garden, considerably louder than a human throat could actually have spoken. Unsurprising, as it came from Kheshiri, who was now perched atop a palm tree. “Execute program: great escape!”

They unfolded on all sides: benches, wastebins, pieces of decorative statuary, picnic tables. The various heavy stone accents decorating Vandro’s garden slid apart in pieces, revealing their interior metal frames and the blue glow of the arcane magic that made the golems run. Re-sorting themselves swiftly into more or less humanoid shapes, they took form and stepped forward, raising the wands that had been concealed within them.

Vandro sighed. His own security commands prevented them from revealing those weapons except in a case of utmost emergency. Outfitting golems with wands was extremely illegal; this was gonna cost him a fortune in bribes.

“Now, when did you find time to do that?” he asked, a note of admiration in his tone.

Kheshiri smirked down at him. “I suggest you all listen carefully,” she said, still boomingly loud, but in her own voice. Silence fell at her command, the guests and Guild enforcers staring up at her in horror. In that tense moment, the only sounds were the canned music still playing throughout the garden and Amanika’s furiously whispered prayers as she attempted to heal Saduko without the use of her hands. “The program these golems are acting on means they’ll destroy anyone who attempts to interfere with my master or myself as we make our departure. It also locks you out from issuing further commands, Alan, so don’t bother.”

“Simple, but effective,” he said, nodding. “As a professional courtesy, I hope you’ll leave me the counter-code to discover after you’re safely away.”

“Oh, there’s no counter-code,” she said sweetly. “You’ll have to shut them down the hard way. Whatever that may be.”

“Those were expensive, Shiri.”

“You can get more golems, Alan. I only have one master.”

Vandro sighed, turning his gaze to Shook. “Jerry, my boy, think this over carefully. You are being played, here.”

“How stupid do you think I am, Alan?” he snarled, convulsively raising his wands.

Wilberforce tried to step in front of Vandro; Vandro gently pushed him aside. “Watch it, boy,” he said firmly. “Right now, that question has an answer.”

“Master, run,” Kheshiri urged. “I’ll stay here and make sure nobody tries anything.”

“Just think on it, first chance you get,” Vandro said firmly, his eyes boring into Shooks, willing him to understand. Damn it, boy, think!

Shook stared back at him, and beneath the raw fury in his expression, Vandro saw the hurt. Hurt, he knew, was at the bottom of all rage. This was going to damage the boy, maybe beyond what could be fixed.

“Go, master. Please.”

Shook steeled himself, directing his eyes upward at his thrall. “Right. I’ll meet you at—”

“Don’t say it! Don’t give them any clues. Just go, be safe, hide. I can find you anywhere.”

Shook turned without another word, and set off for the gates at a run. In seconds he was out of view around the corner.

“Now then,” Kheshiri purred, turning back to grin down at Vandro. “Since we’ll be together for a while, I see no reason for the party to end here. How about you give us a little jig, Vandro.”

“You can’t be serious,” he said dryly.

“Can’t I?” She grinned with near maniacal glee. “I own your golems, Alan. I can demolish these Guild lackeys and your own security with a word. That means I own you. So…dance for me. Now.”

“You played a good game, Shiri,” Vandro said. “I respect skill. If you’d been willing to be professional, I’d have let you leave here safely. You need to learn when to quit, girl. Wilberforce, power up.”

None of the onlookers could see Wilberforce apply his thumb to the master control rune in his pocket. They only saw the entire estate explode.

Only the magical appliances therein, of course, but in a fully tricked-out modern rich man’s home like Alan Vandro’s estate, that might as well have been the whole thing. Every reserve power crystal in storage spontaneously poured its full load of energy into all the active devices; suddenly channeling several orders of magnitude more power than they were designed to contain, every apparatus on the grounds that used arcane energy burst apart in a series of booms and flashes. The whole house was lit up, windows blazing as if lightning had struck within; the gardens hosted a ferocious shower of sparks and explosions as light fixtures, music boxes, food fresheners and security golems disintegrated, flinging sparks and fragments in all directions.

The screams trailed off a few seconds after the explosions, leaving behind shocked quiet. It was darker, but not totally dark; the levitating party lights operated under their own power, and cast shifting, eerie patches of colored illumination in the absence of the estate’s main lighting. The smell of smoke and ozone hung heavily over everything. Small fires flickered in dozens of places.

The golems slumped, inert and smoking, emitting small sparks and most missing pieces.

“What say we play a different game?” Vandro suggested cheerfully. He lifted high his cocktail glass in Kheshiri’s direction as if toasting her. “Friends and neighbors, servants and gatecrashers, fellow acolytes of Eserion! For one night only, I’ll be paying the sum of one hundred decabloons to whoever brings me that demon’s corpse!”

Kheshiri took one look at the sheer number of those present who turned out to be carrying wands, and vanished.


 

Snow had begun falling, a soft counterpoint to the ominous quiet that filled the street.

The soldiers were hard-eyed, but disciplined, holding their ranks as they marched into the district. The full regiment seemed to have come; they filled the entire avenue, offering no path of escape past them.

Opposite them, residents of Tar’aris, bundled against the cold, had begun melting out of doors and alleys, staring equally hard-eyed at the approaching troops. Quite a few of them were openly carrying wands. They began to form a loose crowd blocking off the street as well.

Silver Legionnaires in their concealing winter gear stood at attention at intervals, several patrols having stopped and positioned themselves along the sidelines between the two groups. They stood firm and rigid, offering no move in either direction.

The students of the University wormed their way out of the crowd, where they had been trying to talk with various members of the community. Teal and Shaeine parted from Avrith, Bob and the small knot of citizens they had accompanied, stepping forward to meet the others in the middle. Ruda appeared out of an alley, Fross darting about above her head. Trissiny, Toby and Gabriel arrived in more of a hurry, having had a longer walk from the inn; they were accompanied by two Legionnaires and Bishop Darling. The latter was leaning close to Trissiny as they walked, whispering urgently into her ear. The paladin appeared to be listening closely, deep in thought.

A startled motion rippled through the watching crowd as Juniper arrived from a nearby rooftop, hitting the ground with a solid thud that left cracks in the pavement. She straightened up, brushing at her ill-fitting dress, and stepped up to join her classmates.

Darling peeled off and Trissiny directed the Legionnaires away with a simple hand motion. The rest of the students gathered with them, placing themselves between the soldiers and the citizens. The eight students—nine, including Vadrieny—represented enough offensive power to seriously damage that regiment, if not to smash through it entirely. Fortunately, they didn’t look like it; the soldiers didn’t see the threat, and thus didn’t react as if threatened. At least, not so far.

The man marching in the lead held up a hand. “Halt!” Behind him, the troops came to a stop in unison, their boots thundering once upon the pavement.

For a few moments, all was still. The groups stared at one another across the uncomfortably small open space in the street between them.

It was Captain Ravoud who finally spoke up.

“I see a lot of Silver Legionnaires in this district, General Avelea. May I ask what your intentions here are?”

Trissiny glanced at Darling; he nodded encouragingly at her.

“There has been serious misconduct on the part of a few of your troops, Captain,” she said firmly, her voice echoing in the silent street. Several soldiers shifted at her words. “That has given rise to a lot of rumor and ill feeling. Silver Legionnaires are known to be women of good character, also trained to understand military actions, and to see and report accurately on tactical details. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know they are here to observe.” She paused, then added more pointedly. “Whatever transpires here, there will be no unjust accusations of misconduct against your soldiers. We’ll see to that.”

Ravoud stared at her for a long moment, then nodded slowly. “I appreciate that, General.”

She nodded back, then began stepping backward toward the sidewalk. Toby was the next to move, widening his arms and silently ushering the rest of the students along with them. Ruda snorted disdainfully, but let herself be herded. As a group, they shifted out of the way, taking position at the edge of the street and clearing a direct path between the soldiers of Barracks Four and the citizens of Lor’naris.

Ravoud squared his shoulders and took one step forward. Two figures emerged from the crowd; Bob and Avrith paced forward to come nearly within arms’ distance of him.

“Corporal Robert Hollander,” Ravoud said, his voice pitched loud enough to be clearly audible to all present. “And… Avrith, isn’t it?”

“You may call me Mrs. Hollander, Captain, if it makes you more comfortable.”

Ravoud’s lips thinned. “I thought it was the women of your kind who determined the family name.”

“As a rule, yes,” she said, her voice mild. “My family, however, do not care for me to use their name so long as I choose to bind myself to a human. Bob’s family are my family, his home my home. His country my own.”

“Be that as it may,” Ravoud said firmly, “I have received intelligence that there is an armed insurrection forming in this district. You will immediately surrender any weapons being gathered for the purpose of rebellion against His Majesty the Emperor and submit any persons responsible for this action to Imperial custody.”

“Yep,” Bob said laconically, pulling a wand out of his pocket and holding it out to Ravoud, butt first. “Here you go.”

The Captain stared at him, open-mouthed.

“This has only been going on the last day or so,” Bob went on. “Folk none of us knew, making very pointed suggestions in taverns and the like. Several of us got together and decided on a course of action: we took to meetin’ with these chumps, tried to encourage them along a bit. I wish I had better to tell you, but we got nothing out of ’em but these gifts. If I have some of my friends come forward carrying arms to turn in, Captain, will you kindly refrain from having them shot?”

Ravoud blinked twice, then visibly steeled himself. “If… As long as they approach slowly, with hands in plain view and those weapons held pointed down.”

“All right, you heard the man,” Bob said more loudly, half-turning to address those behind him. “Slow and polite. Let’s not make the lads any more nervous than they already are.

A dozen people melted out of the crowd. Drow and human, male and female, they all held wands by the hafts, hands nowhere near the clickers, tips aimed at the pavement below their feet. Ravoud watched them approach warily, then turned his head to issue an order of his own. Two soldiers stepped forward and began collecting the wands, looking somewhat bemused.

“We have examined those weapons and unfortunately found nothing that seems useful,” said Avrith. “They are mass-produced and of middling quality. Perhaps the resources of the Empire can find out more about them than we, but I fear they were meant to be untraceable.”

“Everyone you see here was personally present at a meeting with at least one of these agitators,” Bob added. “Well, I mean, those of use stepped forward, here. The rest of those folk back there are just curious about the commotion, I think. We’re all happy to recount everything we saw and heard.”

“The men in question took pains to be anonymous,” said Avrith. “I cannot prove the use of disguise charms, but it would not surprise me. They offered no names and refused to reveal any patron, or the source of those weapons. However, several of us are soldiers, of both Tiraan and Narisian extraction, and two of the witnesses are trained diplomats. We met with them with the specific intention of gathering information. It is my hope that some of our recollections will prove useful to you in tracking them down and putting a stop to this.”

Ravoud just continued to stare at her, seeming at a total loss for words.

“Tiraas is our home, Captain,” Avrith said more softly. “This city has offered us a place when our own would not. We will protect and serve it in any way we can, as fervently as any other citizen. All of us.” Bob took her gloved hand in his.

“I…” Ravoud trailed off, then swallowed, squaring his shoulders. “I…thank you for your cooperation, citizen.”

“Great,” said Bob wryly. “D’you mind if we have the rest of this discussion someplace a bit warmer? We can go to your barracks, if you’d like, or there are spots closer where we can set up and do interviews.”

“None of us have any appointments,” Avrith added. “Consider us all at your disposal.” There were agreeing nods from the rest of the individuals standing alongside her.

“I…think a local place would do fine,” Ravoud said slowly. “No need to drag this out any more than it must be.”

Trissiny cleared her throat, stepping forward. “Captain, the Third has set up a command post in an unoccupied shop nearby. You may consider that at your disposal.”

“Thank you, General,” he said, nodding respectfully to her. “In fact, that would be perfect. Your Legionnaires can continue to…observe.”

“Of course. Soldier, show him where it is.”

The nearest Legionnaire saluted her before stepping over to Ravoud. She patiently stood by while he turned and issued orders to his men; shortly, the bulk of the regiment had turned and were marching back out of the district. Quite a few looked mystified, but they kept their ranks and their discipline. A small detachment of Imperial soldiers remained with the Captain and the citizens who had stepped forward to be interviewed, and in short order they, too, were departing, led by the woman in armor toward the Legion’s command center.

Darling drew in a deep breath and blew it out dramatically as the street finally began to clear of onlookers. “All praise be to whoever the hell is watching over us and willing to take credit for that. And I mean that in my official, ecclesiastical capacity.”

“Wait, so…that’s it?” Ruda demanded. “All that work, all that skullduggery and gathering tension, and it all ends like that? Just a few words and everybody’s friends again?”

“It is a little anticlimactic,” Fross agreed.

“Yes, Ruda, that’s it,” Toby said firmly. “And I, for one, will be spending a great deal of the rest of the night giving prayers of thanks. This is the best ending to all this we could possibly have hoped for.”

“I don’t know how much credit any of us can take,” Trissiny added grimly.

“Cheer up, kid,” said Darling, patting her on the back. “You’ve just successfully refrained from igniting a civil war. It was a good day.”

“Great,” she muttered.

“And no, Princess, everyone’s not friends,” he added more seriously. “There’s a long way yet to go… But the going has begun, and will continue. The hard part was always getting us through this confrontation.”

“But…we didn’t do anything,” said Gabriel.

The Bishop grinned at him. “No, you didn’t, did you? If you remember nothing else about this mess, Mr. Arquin, remember that. Good people taking care of their own affairs are always a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes, people need saving, that’s true. Most of the time, though, a hero is just somebody who reminds everyone at large to be their own best.”

“Aw,” said Fross. “Now, that’s uplifting! How come Professor Tellwyrn never gives us lessons like that?”

“Combination of complex factors,” said Ruda. “Mostly stemming from the fact that Tellwyrn’s a rotten bitch on her best day.”

They began drifting back in the direction of their inn, letting off tension in the form of good-natured bickering as they went.

Behind them, leaning against the wall of an alley, Professor Tellwyrn stood in silence, wearing a calm smile. She simply watched until the students were nearly out of sight around the curve of the street, then straightened, brushed off her tunic, and vanished with a soft pop that barely disturbed the falling snow.

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5 – 20

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“Finally,” the soldier groused, straightening and nodding a greeting to the two uniformed men walking toward him.

“Don’t start, they’re early,” his partner chided, rolling her eyes.

“Fine, fair enough,” he said, grinning. “I’m glad to see you. This isn’t the worst duty I’ve had by a long shot, but it’s not exactly exciting.”

“It’s a little exciting,” said one of the two approaching soldiers with a grin. “It’s a hospital, after all. You could catch a horrible disease!”

“Oh, good, a comedian,” grumbled the woman. “All right, we’re off. You have a great evening, lads.”

“Uh, hang on,” said the other new soldier, frowning. “You’re both leaving?”

“Um, yeah?” She glanced at her partner and then back at them.

His frown deepened. “It’s just… We’re both from the same barracks as Imadaan and Torkins, in there. Barracks is supposed to be under investigation because of what they did. It’s against regulations for us to guard them unattended.”

“Are you kidding?” his partner exclaimed. “You can’t possibly know that many regulations.”

“I read up on it, things being how they are,” he said defensively, before returning his gaze to the other two. “I know you guys are off, but can you please report this on your way out?”

“You want us to report you?” the man about to leave asked, his eyebrows shooting up.

“You want them to report us?” the new guy’s partner agreed in the same tone.

“Yes, and you should too. We’ve got the barracks under investigation, the darklings in Lor’naris stirring up trouble and Command looking for some poor bastard to scapegoat. I want everything going on to be squeaky clean, all by the book and aboveboard because I’d really like to not be the goat who gets scaped, yeah?”

“Well, you are early,” the female soldier said, “and we have to go back to our barracks anyway. Sure, we’ll find an officer and pass the word along.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Please remember to say that we asked you to make a report.”

“I will remember,” she replied solemnly, “the short one requested a report be made, and the cute one stood there rolling his eyes. Now, for the second time, have a great evening, lads.” With a final wink, she turned and strolled away with her partner.

“Well, at least I’m the cute one,” said the cute one as they went.

“I’ll settle for being the one who doesn’t get court martialed, Wesker,” his partner muttered.

“You are such an old lady, you know that?”

“I may be a short old lady, but I’ve got a career to look forward to. The last thing I need is to get caught up in someone else’s shitstorm because some idiot assigned me a duty I wasn’t supposed to have.”

“Oh, you worry too much,” Wesker said dismissively. “They gave you the assignment apparently against regulations; what are the chances any officer is even going to notice? If you hadn’t gone out of your way to get us reported, I mean. And even so, I’m not sure anything’ll come of it. Command doesn’t know where its own boots are most of the time.”

“Yeah, well, in my experience, Command may not notice the slip-ups they make, but they’ll spot and come down on any slip-ups we make like the fucking fist of Avei.”

“You’re a real ray of sunshine, Ravandi.”

“I try.”

The two soldiers broke off their discussion at the approach of a young woman carrying a folding stool. She nodded pleasantly to them, set it down directly across the hall from the door they were guarding, seated herself, and withdrew a packet of salted peanuts from a pocket. Then she began munching, staring at them.

Wesker and Ravandi exchanged a glance. “Can we help you, miss?” Ravandi asked after a moment.

“Nope, I think I have everything under control,” she said. She was strikingly dressed, her shirt and trousers in a very dark shade of blue; the pants were tucked into knee-high black leather boots, the shirt partially covered by a tight black vest. Her ears were small and round, but her blonde hair, angular features and slight build all hinted at elven blood.

“Well, you can’t sit there,” Wesker said more bluntly. “This is a room under guard.”

“Actually, I think you’ll find that I can,” she said with a grin. “According to the relevant city and Imperial laws, the hospital is a public space and the Writ of Duties grants me the right to be here if I wish. Now, interfering with soldiers in the course of their duty would be different. But I’m just sitting here.” She had another peanut, smiling mysteriously.

“Is there some reason you’re sitting here, then?” Ravandi asked, his hand straying near his sidearm. Soldiers on city guard duty did not customarily carry staves; all he had was a wand in a holster at his hip.

The woman shrugged. “I’m just inspired by how well the Army takes care of its soldiers, is all. Even the ones who’ve been injured in the course of committing crimes. With modern healing being what it is, you’d think they’d be out of there and into a proper cell by now.”

“It’s SOP for head injuries,” said Ravandi. “They were both knocked unconscious, so they stay under medical observation for at least twenty-four hours, and aren’t moved to another facility unless—”

“Don’t tell her that,” Wesker exclaimed.

“It’s not classified, Wesker,” said Ravandi, exasperated. “It’s common knowledge. I suspect she already knows it anyway. Isn’t that right, Miss…?”

“You can call me Grip,” she said, popping another peanut into her mouth.

“Grip?” Wesker frowned. “That’s an odd name.”

“Wesker!”

“What? I’m not trying to chat her up at a Sunday social. It’s a fucking weird name!”

“Well, it’s not properly a name,” Grip said lightly. “We get tags upon fully graduating from apprenticeship into Eserion’s service.”

Both soldiers immediately reached for their wands. “All right,” Ravandi said grimly, “I think you need to move along, now.”

“Mmm…nope, pretty comfortable right here,” Grip replied, crossing her legs. “Writ of Duties, remember? Of course, I’m not interfering with a soldier’s duty if they go out of line to interfere with me first. Then it’s self-defense.” She grinned wolfishly, and something in the set of her eyes was suddenly a trifle less than sane.

“I don’t give a shit what the law says,” Wesker started.

“Careful, boy, you so much as pull that wand out and it’s considered sufficient cause on my part. And you know what they say: Don’t worry about the Eserite you see, worry about the three you don’t.”

Both soldiers glanced nervously around on cue; the hall was apparently empty save for the three of them. Ravandi grudgingly pulled his hand away from his wand.

“That’s better,” Grip said approvingly. “I’ve a perfect right to be here, as do my associates watching that room’s windows from across the street. No reason we can’t all get along. Let’s get to know each other! How’s your mother doing, Private Wesker? Still trying to grow herbs in her kitchen window in the winter?”

“What the fuck—”

Ravandi grabbed his wrist before Wesker could draw his wand. “Don’t,” he said urgently. “She is trying to provoke you.”

“How does she know anything about my mom’s herbs?!”

Ravandi glanced sidelong at Grip. “Because she’s checked us out, obviously, or more of them have. She’s toeing the line, trying to make you lose your temper and give her an excuse for ‘self-defense.’ We can tolerate it for now.” He gave the woman another filthy look. “Command will deal with the Thieves’ Guild as soon as we report this.”

“Oh, I think you’ll find Command is aware of the situation,” Grip said merrily. “No one from the Guild is going to put so much as a toe over the line, I assure you. But one of you boys will, sooner or later.”

“Why are you doing this?” Ravandi demanded.

“You haven’t heard?” Her grin took on a distinctly sharklike quality. “The woman your two buddies in there tried to teach a lesson to, the one who warned the Hand of Avei about your barracks trying to firebomb Lor’naris, was a member of the Guild.”

There was a moment of silence while that sunk in.

“Oh, shit,” Wesker whispered.

“You’re not getting past us,” Ravandi said grimly.

“Past you?” Grip raised her eyebrows. “Now why in the world would I want to do a thing like that? That would be illegal. Shame on you for suggesting such a thing. Anyway, I have no need to cross an Imperial guard line to get at your pals.” She popped another peanut into her mouth and chewed contentedly, her posture utterly relaxed, face affable, but with something savage lurking in her eyes. “After all, it’s not like they can stay in there forever.”


 

The morning was gray and glum, an oppressive bank of clouds creeping over the city and suggesting rain—or, more likely, sleet. Tiraas was awake and active, but only just; people hurried about their business without stopping to chat, eager to get indoors before the weather made good on its threats.

Two people, a man and a woman, paused as they entered the square which abutted the outer ward known to its inhabitants as Lor’naris.

“What the hell,” the man muttered, but started forward again, his companion a step behind.

Seven Silver Legionnaires stood at the entrance to the district, in addition to the miscellaneous drow and ex-soldiers who formed the Lorisian neighborhood watch. Four of them, two on either side of the street, were stiffly at attention, unmistakably standing guard; the rest stood back from the square, their posture more relaxed, talking quietly with a drow woman.

The weather made them a rather intimidating sight. The Legionnaires rarely wore their helmets when on duty in the city; without them, they were individual women, recognizable and approachable. With their faces mostly covered, they became anonymous and inhuman, precisely the reason they preferred to forgo them outside of combat. Their much heavier cold-weather armor, however, removed the choice. People standing outdoors with their heads uncovered for any length of time in a Tiraan winter were at risk of losing ears or noses.

He nodded to the Legionnaires as he passed; one nodded back. So, on duty or no, they weren’t hostile. The two made it half a block before the woman nudged the man with an elbow and jerked her head significantly backward. He glanced behind, to see two of the Legionnaires not obviously standing watch following them.

Disregarding a hissed warning from his companion, then man came to a stop, turned and pulled down his scarf to speak without getting a mouthful of lint.

“Can we help you, ladies?”

“Orders,” said one of the Legionnaires, in the apologetic tone of one soldier explaining a commander’s silly notions to another. “Soldiers from your barracks aren’t to move in Lor’naris without escort.”

The man and woman exchanged a glance.

“And what makes you think we’re soldiers?” he asked.

“Now? Because if you weren’t, you’d have just said so.” She stood close enough that he could see her eyes and part of her mouth through the gaps in her helmet. The woman was clearly smiling. “Previously, we were told you’d be coming.”

“Told by whom, if I may ask?”

The Legionnaire’s smile turned into a grimace. “The kind of people we don’t ordinarily have any contact with.”

“Ah,” he said sourly.

“Fuckers,” his companion muttered.

“Not you,” he said hastily as both Legionnaires shifted posture. “We’ve been having trouble all morning with— Well, you probably know.”

“We hear rumors,” the second Legionnaire said noncommittally.

“Well, since you’re here,” said the woman, “there’s no sense in us wandering around like idiots. Could you take us to see General Avelea, please?”

The two armored women glanced at each other, then one shrugged. “Well, I don’t see why not,” she said.


 

“You’re not in any trouble, are you?” Toby asked worriedly.

“No, nothing like that,” Ruda grunted. “It’s just… Fuckin’ politics. Apparently the Princess of Puna Dara killing a Tiraan soldier on the streets of Tiraas is kind of a big deal under any circumstances. It was clear self-defense and him and his asshole buddies were obviously breaking the law, but… Politics. If anything, it makes the Empire look bad that I was placed in danger because of misbehaving Imperial troops. So I have to have brunch at the Palace.”

“Brunch doesn’t sound so bad,” said Gabriel, glancing over his shoulder at the kitchen. They were seated around one of the tables in the inn’s common room, sipping cups of tea. Tea was apparently the extent of what the kitchen here could successfully produce.

“Arquin, real people do not have brunch. Brunch is strictly the province of rich, poofy assholes who spend so much of their energy sitting around wasting time they have to invent whole new words and divisions of labor to describe it. But, I’ve gotta say it beats the alternative. I go and hobnob with His Imperialness and the little lady for a while and we don’t have to make a big diplomatic thing of it. Everybody wins.”

Toby winced. “I cannot advise strongly enough that you don’t refer to Empress Eleanora as ‘the little lady’ in any context where she might hear of it.”

“Yeah, I hear she’s kind of a hardass,” Ruda mused. “Actually looking forward to meeting her, a little.”

They all glanced up as the front door opened, and tensed slightly at the entrance of two Silver Legionnaires. Trissiny stood, stepping out from behind the table as they party approached. The Legionnaires were leading two humans, with Avrith trailing silently along behind them.

“General,” said one of the soldiers, saluting. “These two are from Barracks Four. They asked to speak with you.”

Trissiny nodded to the woman before turning her attention to the Imperial soldiers. They were out of uniform, and presently busy removing scarves, hats and gloves. “What can I do for you?”

“Ah, General Avelea, it’s good to… I mean, it’s an honor. I just wanted… I mean, that is, we were going…”

“Maybe you could start with your names?” she suggested gently.

“Right,” he said, his face coloring. “Sorry, ma’am. I’m Corporal Carter Reichart. This is Private Lina Salvaar.”

“Just Lina,” she said tersely. “We’re not on duty.”

“Good to meet you,” Trissiny said, nodding again. “So, how can I help?”

He glanced over at his companion; she nodded encouragingly, and he took a deep breath. “Permission to speak freely, General?”

“You’re not under my command, Reichart,” she replied. “I’d rather you say whatever’s on your mind. Honesty won’t do me any harm.”

Reichart chewed his lip for a moment, Salvaar watching him closely. The two Legionnaires had retreated to flank the door; Avrith drifted over to a corner, from which she observed in silence. Finally, the Corporal burst out. “Why haven’t you ever come to talk to us?”

“Excuse me?” Trissiny said, surprised.

“It’s just… We’ve had these tensions building up for days,” he went on in a rush. “I mean, there are pretty obviously two sides to the issue, but right from the beginning you’ve been here in Lor’naris. You picked a side, but you never came to ask any of us at the barracks for our take. I just… We don’t… Why?”

Silence hung in the room for a long moment.

“From the perspective I could see,” Trissiny said slowly, “soldiers were abusing citizens. It was fairly clear-cut; I’ll admit it’s not in my nature or training to dig for deeper meaning in a situation like that.”

“What, so you just assumed we were all corrupt and drunk with power?” Salvaar demanded. “Everyone in our entire regiment?”

“Now, hold on,” said Gabriel. “You’re talking to the Hand of Avei. I dunno what stories you’ve read, but they’re not exactly the people you call for when you need diplomacy done.”

Trissiny sighed. “Thanks, Gabe. And… You’re not wrong, Private. As someone reminded me not too long ago, I have a tendency to think in combative terms. I saw innocents and attackers and acted accordingly; you have my apologies if I misjudged any of you. You’re here now, and I have time; I would like to hear your side, if you’re willing to explain it.”

“Well, that’s great and all,” said Salvaar, folding her arms, “but now just might be too late.”

“Private,” Reichart warned.

“Carter, we are not on duty, and we’re sleeping together. One of those things is subject to immediate change if you try to give me any of your crap.”

Reichart flushed and Trissiny carefully clamped down on a smile. “Late as it may be, I’d still like to hear it. Would you like to sit down?”

“Oh, that’s…no, thanks,” the Corporal said. Private Salvaar, however, immediately pulled over a chair and plunked herself down in it. He squared his shoulders. “Well, General, if… If you’d told me a week ago that something like this could develop, I’d have laughed. I mean, yeah, there’s always been an element in the regiment that doesn’t really like having all these drow in the city. The captain in charge of our barracks, in fact, has a real problem with drow. I’m not sure why, exactly, but, there it is… But we’re all professionals, and we all respect the uniform. Some of the lads, the ones part of Captain Ravoud’s sort of inner circle, would maybe question the neighborhood watch around here more closely than was necessary, but it never went further than that.”

“It did at least once,” Trissiny noted when he paused for breath.

Reichart nodded. “Yeah. I never have heard the full story of what happened there, but… That kicked it all off. A patrol came back furious because there’d been some kind of altercation with the watch, and you’d ordered them off. The next thing we knew, we had a surprise inspection from Imperial Command, and lots of heavily dropped hints that Lor’naris had better be hands-off. It… Apparently it rankled with some people.”

“Hence trying to bomb the fucking place, I guess,” Ruda snorted.

“For the record, I don’t believe Captain Ravoud authorized that,” said Reichart. “It’s just not in his nature.”

“And you don’t suspect he authorized the attack on the woman who warned me, either?” Trissiny asked quietly.

Reichart nodded vigorously. “Yes, ma’am. I mean, no, ma’am. He’s all about law and order. I’ve heard some of his rants about drow, and it’s full of them being untrustworthy and deceitful; he thinks Imperial discipline and justice is what makes us a better society. He would never have ordered that, or condoned it if he’d known about it.”

“Then you think the Captain might help bring the hostilities to an end?” she asked.

Reichart winced. “That…was before, General. Last night… Well, I mentioned the Captain has kind of a boy’s club among some of his officers? You just took out about half of them. The man you killed, Khalivour, was the closest to him. They’ve served together since basic training.”

“Excuse me,” Ruda interrupted, raising one finger. “Let’s be accurate, here. I killed him.”

“I’m not gonna argue with you about that,” Reichart said diplomatically. “From what I understand he pretty much brought that on himself. As did Torkins and Imadaan. But… Um, how to put this…”

“It’s like this,” said Private Salvaar. “Captain Ravoud is all about order and discipline most of the time. But over the last week, he’s been pressed heavily from Lor’naris and ImCom, and been digging his heels in. After last night, the hammer is coming down all over the barracks; it’s looking like he’s gonna lose his command, on top of losing his best friend. The man’s gone from defending what he thinks is right to having basically his whole life dismantled.”

“What do you think he’ll do?” Trissiny asked, staring at her intently.

Salvaar shrugged, her expression grim. “Dunno. I wouldn’t have expected any of this would have gone down in the first place. The Captain… I mean, I’ve never seen him like this. I don’t know what he might do, but he’s on the very edge, now. I don’t think I’d be surprised by anything he does at this point.”

Trissiny sighed and rubbed at her forehead, squeezing her eyes shut.

“What about the rest of your regiment?” Toby asked. “You’ve said they’re not all or even mostly in agreement with Ravoud’s ideas about drow.”

“Well, again, a lot changed after yesterday,” Reichart said glumly. “A lot of us are rallying around the Captain; there’s a general feeling that we’ve been a little put-upon in all this. What I’m afraid has cinched it is that we’ve all been followed by the Thieves’ Guild since yesterday evening.”

“Followed?” Trissiny asked sharply.

“Followed,” growled Salvaar. “On duty and off. They stalk our patrols, they show up outside our homes and just sit there staring. There’s a dozen of them loitering around the barracks; when we try to chase them off, they just quote Imperial law about how they’re entitled to be there, and some of them ask prying questions about our families. Hinting they already know a lot more than they should.”

“Holy fuck, that’s creepy,” Ruda breathed.

“Yeah,” said Reichart, his shoulders slumping. “I know none of that is your fault, General. Khalivour and his cronies roughed up a member of the Guild; that’s pretty much what you get. But the timing… Coming on top of everything else, the whole barracks is about ready to go to war.”

“Maybe,” Gabriel said hesitantly, “the Guild being around isn’t such a bad thing? I mean, they might be able to prevent the soldiers from doing anything…y’know, rash.” He shifted in his seat, wincing as he accidentally jostled his left arm, which was in a sling.

“That’s not how the Thieves’ Guild operates,” Trissiny said darkly. “They’re more likely to try to provoke a confrontation so they can take the excuse to dish out vengeance. In fact, that’s exactly what they’re doing. This is an old tactic of theirs, a favorite trick for getting rid of perceived enemies without stepping outside the law.”

“Peepers must be pretty popular,” Ruda noted.

“It’s not even about that.” Trissiny shook her head. “Eserites consider it their duty to humble the haughty under any circumstances. Guards abusing their authority tend to get their attention; guards abusing a Guild member, well… All bets are off.”

“Can… Can you do anything, General?” Reichart asked, his voice tinged with desperation. “We’re soldiers; we’re not trained for this kind of pressure. It hasn’t even been a day and a lot of people are about to crack. Somebody’s gonna do something hasty, and then… And then, I don’t know what’ll happen.”

“I’m not… I can try to speak with Bishop Darling,” she said. “I have no pull with the Guild, at all. Eserites and Avenists don’t exactly compare notes most of the time.”

“Anything you can do would be appreciated,” he said fervently.

“What about those two you sent to the barracks?” Gabriel asked. “They helped you yesterday, too, right?”

“Yes, but Flora and Fauna just…show up, when they decide to. I can at least get to Darling through the Church, though I’m not sure how fast. We have no way of contacting the girls at all.”

“Excuse me, what?” Salvaar straightened up. “You sent Eserites to the barracks?”

“Ah….” Trissiny winced. “I guess you didn’t hear about the missing paperwork.”

“Paperwork?” Reichart frowned.

“Just documentation of where the incendiary materials used in the firebomb came from. I took the liberty of having them acquired.”

“There was paperwork?” he said, frowning.

“I suppose only the quartermaster would have heard about that…”

“I’m the quartermaster!” Reichart dragged a hand over his face. “But… General, I don’t know how things are in the Silver Legions, but Army paperwork… I mean, it gets done, I see to that. A form has to be filled out for pretty much everything. Because if there’s an inspection of any kind, the quartermaster’s pretty much a sitting duck, but they can’t exactly chase down everyone who might have ever needed anything. So I make sure the papers are filled out and filed, and to be honest with you, it’s less than half of them are ever seen by anybody whose job it is to know what the hell is going on. Um, pardon my elvish. They just sort of build up in the files till we run low on space, and then I have to fill out and submit another form requesting a records transfer, and then someone comes to cart it off to a place in ImCom called Central Filing, which I suspect is an incinerator.”

“So…” Ruda grinned. “You’re saying Captain Rouvad doesn’t even know we took his incriminating records?”

“Ma’am, I didn’t even know it. And the Captain isn’t one to spend time reading paperwork that isn’t brought specifically to his attention.”

“And it’s Ravoud,” Trissiny said firmly. “Commander Rouvad leads the Sisters of Avei.”

Gabriel snorted a laugh. “Well, that’s not gonna be confusing or anything…”

“What a mess,” Toby muttered. “If only people had talked to each other before it came to this… I should have been paying more attention to this situation instead of Juniper.”

“Yeah, you really should have,” Gabriel agreed.

“Gabe!” Toby looked at him in something like shock. Gabriel shrugged, his expression dour.

“Bro, I love you, but you fucked up this time. As the designated fuckup in our relationship, I’m the expert on this. In fact, this doesn’t make any of us look good. We’ve got two skilled diplomats in our group, but Toby’s been on a counterproductive self-imposed dryad watch, and Shaeine has been off making time with her girlfriend all week. We’ve pretty much left Trissiny in charge of diplomacy, which, come on. Someone should have seen this coming.”

“Thank you, Gabriel,” Trissiny said sourly.

“Come on, Boots, nobody doubts your skills,” said Ruda. “But there are areas in which you don’t have ’em. That’s true of anybody.”

“Wait, stop, hold it,” said Salvaar. “There’s a dryad?!”

“That’s classified,” said Trissiny. “Seriously. All right, I will start trying to get Bishop Darling’s attention, but I doubt he actually spends much time at the Church…and I’m not at all sure what he’ll think of the way events are playing out. It’s the best thing I can think of.”

“I’ll come down to your barracks, if I may,” said Toby, rising. “It might be too late for talking to succeed, but it’s never too late to try.”

“Excuse me, and you are?” Reichart asked.

“That’s the Hand of Omnu,” said Ruda.

The Corporal blinked. “Oh. Um. Yeah, actually, that’d help.”

“Where the hell have you been this whole time?” Salvaar demanded.

“We’ve been over that,” said Gabriel. “Spilt milk and all; let’s worry about the present. If I understand the situation, we’ve got an agitated populace in Lor’naris that thinks it’s under attack, a city guard regiment under fire from all sides and on the verge of going rogue, a very pissed-off Thieves’ Guild, and a Silver Legion standing in the middle, and we’ve got hours at best to calm this down before somebody gets an itchy trigger finger and all hell breaks loose.” He sighed heavily. “This is gonna be a long day, isn’t it.”

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5 – 19

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“It’s amazing how you find time to walk me all over the place while you’re supposedly out earning us a living,” Sanjay griped.

“It’s amazing how you tend not to turn up at school if I don’t physically take you there,” Lakshmi shot back. “It’s not as if I have nothing better to do, you know.”

“How about we compromise and I stop going to the stupid school?” he suggested helpfully.

She heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Little brother, we have had this conversation so many times we could both recite it, so can we just not, please? Look, I know you find it boring…”

“And yet,” he prompted.

She gave him a critical sidelong look. “Your plan is still to apprentice with the Guild?”

“Yes!” Sanjay skipped a step and actually hopped up and down in place, looking up at her with shining eyes.

“Well, you know I can’t sponsor you myself, but I’m making good connections in the city. It shouldn’t be hard to get someone to—”

“Oh, gods, yes!” he crowed. “Finally! Where do I sign?!”

“Easy, squirt,” Lakshmi said, amused. “You’re not old enough.”

Sanjay deflated abruptly, his expression quickly morphing from disappointment to ire. “…you are a tease. Did you know that? This is why you don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Maybe I’m into girls, ever think about that?”

“Oh, ew!” He planted both hands over his ears. “I don’t need to hear these things! I’m a child, damn it!”

“Exactly.” She swatted one hand away from his head and nudged him forward, resuming their walk. “Too young to apprentice. But, perhaps we can reach a compromise, yeah?”

“I’m listening,” he said cautiously.

“You go to the school—without making me drag you there like a sack of flour every day. You pass your classes every year, and don’t create more trouble than you can weasel your own way out of without me having to go smooth it over. Then, when you’re fifteen, I promise I will make sure someone sponsors you for Guild membership.”

“When I’m fifteen?” he whined, a portrait of despair. “That’s three years. That’s an age and a half! I’ll be as old and wrinkly as you by that time. Can’t you just tell them I’m fifteen? I’m huge for my age, look.”

He raised one arm, flexing a scrawny bicep, which would have been a meaningless display even had the arm not been swaddled in a heavy winter coat. Instead of responding, however, she mutely placed one hand on his shoulder. Sanjay looked up at his sister, confused, then fell silent at her expression. Only then did he peer around them and see what was wrong.

They had settled in one of the poor border districts, not far from Lor’naris. Sanjay didn’t know the extent of the money they had access to thanks to Principia, and Lakshmi strictly kept it that way. Anyhow, the slums were a more appropriate residence for Eserites than a posh middle-class neighborhood, for reasons ethical, spiritual and practical. Once she formed enough connections that it became known who she was, they had nothing to fear from their neighbors. Everyone knew better than to get rough with any member of the Thieves’ Guild.

The public school Sanjay attended was, of course, in a more well-heeled area, several blocks up the hill toward the city’s center. They were passing through one of the intermediary districts, a mercantile street whose occupants were exceptionally shady and extremely practiced at minding their own business. The business in question was by nature quieter than in streets occupied by more legitimate tradesmen, with no hawking of wares and little attempt to attract attention in general, but it was still business; it still made noise.

The street had gone all but silent.

Shopkeepers were deliberately turning their backs to the street, pretending to rummage in the shelves of their stands or vanishing into the depths of their own shops. Pedestrians expeditiously removed themselves from the area; loiterers slunk away into the deeper shadows of alleys.

It was alarming, because a city was like the woods in that vermin fell silent in the presence of their natural predators. It was doubly alarming because they tended to offer solidarity, even if just in glances and little hand signals, to their fellow vermin, but everyone was studiously ignoring Lakshmi and Sanjay, just as they were the two men following them.

Lakshmi half-turned her head to casually glance behind. Those men did not belong. They walked along with their gazes fixed on herself and her brother; their clothes were unremarkable, but they strode with the stiff purpose of soldiers who had never learned to disguise themselves in public. Worse, a third man was up ahead. He leaned against a store front, arms folded and head down, seeming to ignore everything around him, but he was still there, when all the toughs who frequented the neighborhood had judiciously made themselves scarce. In moments, they would reach him, and find themselves pinned between him and those following.

“Shmi?” Sanjay said, a quaver in his voice.

She calculated quickly, keeping her pace even and taking her little brother’s hand. They could cross the street easily enough, but at the first sign they were aware of the trap, their pursuers would drop pretenses and be after them at full speed. Lakshmi did a rapid visual survey of the surroundings. There… A food cart just ahead stood just below a drainpipe that led to an overhanging sloped roof, itself an access to an exterior staircase in the next building over.

“Listen carefully,” she said quietly, keeping her expression neutral. “When I give the signal, you run—”

“I’m not leaving you,” he said fiercely.

“You will do as you are told.” She did not raise her voice, but spoke with a full authority that she never used with him. It had the desired effect; he nodded miserably. “Don’t go home. Head for Lor’naris, go right to the inn where the paladin’s staying. If you find anyone from the Guild you know, or they spot you first, get their help; if not, get Trissiny or any of the people traveling with her, bring them back here. I’ll stall these guys long as I can. Love you, little brother.”

They drew abreast of the cart, and time was up.

Lakshmi seized Sanjay under the arms and grunted, heaving him up; she didn’t have to bear his weight long, luckily. Once he got a grip on the wooden frame of the cart, he was up it and onto the roof in a flash, climbing as deftly as a squirrel.

At their sudden motion, the man ahead straightened, turning to face them, and the two behind broke into a run.

Sanjay was already darting away, quickly gaining the rooftops and putting himself out of their reach. Lakshmi, the sounds of pursuit slapping behind her, bolted across the street, moving her legs as fast as they could pump.

She didn’t waste time with prayers. The Big Guy helped those who helped themselves.


 

The Corner Garden wasn’t much of a garden, but then, the only things in Lor’naris that remotely qualified as gardens were the window boxes in which a few residents grew flowers and herbs—and at this time of year, even those were barren. It was a fairly pleasant little spot, though, originally a very tiny warehouse space sandwiched between two sturdy limestone buildings which, after having burned down, had been cleaned up by the residents and nothing rebuild there except a couple of benches lining its walls. With a worn gravel floor and provided seating, it made for a popular gathering spot in a district that didn’t have much open space.

Now, it was filled with grunts, the crunch of boots on gravel and a constant clacking of wood against wood as Trissiny and Ruda danced back and forth, sparring with practice “swords” made of bundled reeds capped with rubber balls. Several of the residents had stopped to watch, some (none drow) offering cheers and good-natured advice. Both girls ignored the onlookers, tightly focused on their duel.

They were closely matched, comparable in skill and the differences in their styles compensating each other to an extent. Trissiny was taller and had longer limbs, and thus the advantage of reach, but didn’t make as much use of it as Ruda, who darted forward aggressively and retreated just as quickly. Her rapid footwork and swift-striking style made her more mobile, but also consumed more energy; the previous two bouts had both ended in Trissiny’s favor after dragging out for long minutes, the paladin letting the pirate tire herself out until she made a mistake. This one was looking likely to trend in the same direction.

Trissiny did have a tendency to guard weakly on her left, perhaps due to habitual reliance on her shield, and had several times barely managed to parry rapid strikes at that side. Now, Ruda darted forward again, lunging at a brief faltering of her guard, just a hair slower than she had been moving.

However, when Trissiny swung her weapon to intercept, Ruda’s sword was not there. Suddenly moving at her usual snake-like speed again, she whipped the blade around Trissiny’s parry, under her sword arm and clapped her smartly across the ribs on the right side.

The paladin staggered back, hunching over to clutch at her midsection, and a chorus of “Ooos” sounded from the onlookers, followed by a smattering of applause. Ruda halted as well, grounding the tip of her practice sword and breathing heavily.

Trissiny raised her head, wearing a grin beneath the coating of sweat on her face. “Nice!”

“You walked right into that one,” Ruda replied smugly, somewhat out of breath.

“Yes, good strategy. In an actual fight you’ll only be dead twice before finishing off your opponent.”

“You wanna go for real, Boots?”

“Hah! Best three out of five?”

Ruda laughed, casually tossing aside her practice sword. “I’ll pencil you in. Seriously, though, I’m calling it for now. One of us is gonna fall over at this rate, and you know how it is. We wouldn’t both bounce as well.” Leering, she patted herself on the chest.

Trissiny rolled her eyes, not rising to the bait, but set aside her own weapon more gently, taking a seat on one of the benches. The crowd, slightly disappointed, began to drift away as Ruda flopped down beside her roommate and drew a bottle of whiskey from within her coat.”

“Want a swig?” she offered. “Just the thing to ward off the cold.”

“I don’t drink, as you know. I’m also not exempt from Tellwyrn’s rule against drinking; that’s just you. And how does it warm you if alcohol doesn’t affect you?”

“Trissiny, my poor, sweet child, a person who drinks as much as I do inevitably has all kinds of reasons why they’re perfectly justified and entitled to. Everyone of of them, without exception, are bullshit.” Grinning, she tilted her head back, taking a long gulp.

“An impressive show of skill,” said a tall man in an Army uniform, stepping forward. Both girls looked up at his approach, their expressions sobering immediately. Most of the residents had departed, but Avrith and a male drow whom Trissiny didn’t recognize were loitering casually by the entrance to the Garden.

She flicked her eyes to his insignia and back to his face. “Thank you, Colonel. Something we can help you with?”

He bowed—respectfully, but notably not the salute owed a superior officer, a subtle reminder that whatever honorary rank Trissiny held, she was not part of his chain of command. She was unsure what the actual protocol in this situation was, and made a mental note to find out. “Andrel Covrin, at your service. Actually, I’d hoped to speak for a moment with Princess Zaruda. I owe you an apology.”

“Do you, now?” Ruda asked, wiping sweat from her forehead with her sleeve. “I don’t recall us having met. What’d you do that needs to be apologized for?”

“It is a family matter, I’m afraid,” Colonel Covrin said, his expression grim. “At General Panissar’s party, I understand you had a regrettable encounter with my daughter, Jenell.”

“Jenell?” She blinked, tilting her head. “Doesn’t sound familiar.”

He sighed, squaring his shoulders as if facing down an enemy. “You may perhaps recall a young woman in a spectacularly immodest dress who approached you with a barrage of unprovoked ad completely inexcusable insults.”

“Well, that describes most of the bitches there, as I recall,” Ruda said lazily, “but yeah, now that you mention it, it’s all coming back to me.”

Covrin nodded stiffly. “Her treatment of you was unconscionable. I assure you, she is being disciplined. You have my heartfelt apologies for any embarrassment suffered.”

Ruda waved a hand dismissively, bending to pick up her sheathed rapier. “Well, you didn’t do any of that. Doesn’t seem you’re the one who ought to be apologizing.”

“Call it a matter of family honor,” he replied, a sour twist to his mouth.

“Ah.” Ruda nodded. “In that case, apology accepted. Seriously, no harm was done to me. I haven’t given her another thought, starting the second she walked away.”

“I appreciate that,” he said, nodding again. A somewhat tense silence fell, the Colonel standing stiffly at attention, seeming at a loss for words.

“Anything else?” Ruda prompted.

“There is, in fact,” he said. “I realize I am in no position at all to ask you favors, but there was another matter I’d hoped to broach with you.”

“Go on,” she said when he fell silent. Trissiny discreetly moved off to one side, picking up her own sword and shield and carefully settling them back into place on her person.

“There is an ancient tradition, practiced among the noble houses, of fostering,” said Covrin. “Young people are given education in the homes of allied and even rival families, to expand their understanding and give them perspective into the broader world. I… My wife and I come from humble roots. I’ve never thought of myself as anything more than a soldier, but Amelie has grown…very comfortable with the lifestyle afforded by my rank. As she has had the bulk of Jenell’s raising while I attended to my duties to the Empire, I fear my daughter has grown up somewhat…spoiled.”

“I’d never have guessed,” Ruda said solemnly. To the side, just out of Covrin’s range of view, Trissiny bit her lip to repress a grin.

The Colonel sighed, not missing the sarcasm. “Yes, well… Placing the blame on Amelie is disingenuous. I should have put a stop to this long since, but… No, no buts, I take responsibility. In any case, following the party, my wife has quite sharply relented in her protective attitude toward our daughter. I’m embarrassed to say she is more concerned about this ‘pregnancy scare’ than the fact that our only child chose to harass and insult visiting royalty for no discernible reason.”

“Well, you can’t fault the girl’s pluck,” Ruda said cheerfully.

Covrin sighed again. “I suppose. Anyhow, the result is still the same. I have an opportunity to inject a little much-needed discipline into Jenell’s life, and it seems both practical and poetic to…if you are at all willing…send her to Puna Dara to learn something of the ways of our closest allies.”

Ruda was already shaking her head before he finished speaking. “Colonel, I like where your head’s at, I encourage your line of thinking, but that particular idea is a terrible one. Your kid would get killed among Punaji.”

“I realize her attitude could do with some shaping. If anything, your people’s reputation for forthright—”

“I don’t think you understand,” she said wryly. “That wasn’t hyperbole. If I talked to my servants the way that girl does to her betters, one of them would draw steel on me, and my father would say I had it coming. In all literal seriousness, Colonel, if you send your daughter to Puna Dara, somebody will straight up slit her throat.”

“Ah,” he said after a moment. “Well. I suppose that’s to be avoided, then. Might upset her mother.”

“Mothers are funny like that,” Ruda said gravely. “However, if you’re serious about this, perhaps we can help you after all. I have it on excellent authority that there’s no better way for a girl to learn some discipline than a good long period spent training with the Sisters of Avei.” She turned a broad grin on Trissiny, who grinned back. “And what do you know, I just happen to have an acquaintance who can probably get her a spot.”

“Oh?” Clearing his throat, Covrin turned to the paladin as well. “If you are so inclined, General Avelea…”

“How old is your daughter, Colonel?” Trissiny asked.

“Seventeen.”

“Mm… That’s just barely too old for a slot at the Abbey barracks. However… The Third Silver Legion is presently stationed in the city, and has a regiment of cadets currently in training. The Legions don’t sign on women under duress or for any kind of punitive duty… But if you would like Jenell to go through the full course of cadet training without the expectation of Legion service thereafter, I could probably pull strings and make that happen. Who knows, she might find she actually wants to serve after all that. Basic training changes a person, as I’m sure you know.”

“I don’t think it likely, with all respect,” he said, “or I’d simply make her join the Army. But if you’re willing to do this, General, I would consider myself in your debt.”

Before she could answer, there came a rapidly approaching patter of small feet moving fast; Avrith and her companion had both turned to look up the street. A boy of about twelve with a dark Punaji complexion came pelting down the sidewalk past them. Catching sight of Trissiny, he tried to stop, skidded on a patch of ice and would have taken a tumble if the drow man hadn’t caught him.

“Trissiny,” he gasped, fighting loose. “Paladin…please…help…”

“What is it?” she demanded, striding forward. “Are you all right?”

“My sister,” he said desperately. “Lak—Peepers! You know her! They’re after her!”

“Who is?” she asked sharply.

“Fuck that, we’ll sort it out later,” Ruda snapped. “Where?”

“This way!” Breathless or no, the boy turned and set off back the way he had come at the same frantic pace, pausing only to beckon them urgently forward.

Trissiny and Ruda dashed out of the Corner Garden right on his heels, racing for the mouth of Lor’naris.

Above them, two dark shapes detached themselves from the eaves of a flanking building and kept pace, bounding across the rooftops.


 

“It was here!” he said frantically, coming to a stop in the middle of the street and trying to look around even while doubled over in near exhaustion. “Right…here…”

“Oy, you!” Ruda bellowed, stalking toward a woman who was trying to duck behind the counter of her stall. “Yeah, you know what we’re lookin’ for. Where is she?”

Fauna landed in the middle of the sidewalk with a barely perceptible thump. “This way!” she barked, pointing up the street. “Second alley ahead, we can hear them.”

Sanjay took two steps in her direction and staggered, winded; Trissiny and Ruda set off on the elf’s heels, not bothering to react to her sudden appearance. Fauna bounded as swiftly as a deer, and reached the alley first, whipping around the corner with near-impossible agility. Instantly, she dived back out, hitting the ground in a roll, and a lighting bolt blasted through the air above her.

Trissiny hopped over the huddling elf, a golden shield flaring up around her as she charged into the alley. Another wandshot sparked against her aura; she barely noticed it.

Ahead of her, three men stood around a woman huddled on the dirty floor of the alley. One was pointing a wand at her; of the other two, one held a ragged plank as a makeshift club, and the other was in the process of kicking the woman in the midsection. She was curled into a fetal ball, arms over her head, but in the glow of Trissiny’s divine light, she could unmistakeably see blood. On the floor, on their boots, on the club.

White-hot rage burst to life in her, and she was moving forward again before deciding to. Even in her fury, years of training clicked into place; she charged silently, sword and shield coming up in perfect form. At her side, Ruda clearly experienced the same reaction and handled it very differently, letting loose a wordless roar. Side by side, they pelted straight at the knot of attackers. Two more lightning bolts impacted uselessly on the shield before they arrived.

Trissiny slammed the man to one side with her shield and Ruda drove her rapier straight through his stomach, viciously ripping it out sideways and splattering the alley wall with blood and viscera.

The man with the board let out a furious howl and charged her senselessly; his makeshift weapon shattered against her upraised shield and she smashed her fist, braced around the hilt of her sword, into his teeth, sending him rebounding off the wall and slumping to the ground, stunned.

Only then did she realize her mistake. The third man, standing farthest back, now had a clear shot at the un-shielded Ruda. The pirate was lunging at him, sword first, but he had a wand out; there was no way she could reach him before he squeezed the clicker. Trissiny had over-committed to her lunge, and couldn’t change her momentum in order to get back between them in time. She didn’t have Shaeine’s skill with shields, couldn’t place a barrier of light in front of her friend.

Time slowed in that instant, and she tasted true helplessness, the despair of it cutting through her fury.

A whooshing sound like a huge gliding bird came from above; a shadow fell across them, blocking the illumination from the gap high overhead between buildings.

Flora struck the man feet-first, her cloak trailing through the air behind her. Wrapping her legs around his neck, she spun entirely around him once, throwing him off balance and leveraging her momentum such that even with her meager weight, she was able to hurl him to the ground. She sprang loose as he fell, landing lightly on her feet.

Ruda managed to slow her charge, and now stomped hard on the man’s hand, pinning the wand to the ground and almost certainly breaking a few fingers. The tip of her rapier came to rest against his windpipe.

“Give me an excuse,” she snarled. “Doesn’t have to be a good one.”

Trissiny knelt beside Peepers, laying her hands on the woman’s shoulder and channeling light as best she could, keenly aware that her gifts were not in the realm of healing. The light did as it did, however, despite her inadequacies. From this angle, she could see half the woman’s face, and watched the bruising recede from around her eye, blood stop flowing from her nose and a bad scrape across her cheek close up.

Peepers shuddered, then did so again, then twitched and uncurled somewhat. “Oh…gods. Whew. That stuff tingles.”

“Shmi!” the boy wailed, pelting into the alley; he’d have bowled Fauna over had she not deftly side-stepped him, which he didn’t notice, hurling his arms around Peepers’s neck.

“Hey, little brother,” she said somewhat hoarsely, hugging him back. “You found ’em! Good work, kid.”

“Are you all right?” Trissiny asked, as gently as she could with adrenaline and moral fury still blazing through her.

“Yeah, sure, I’m…” Peepers trailed off, then closed her eyes, shuddering. “I dunno. Not really. Nothing seems broken, though.”

Trissiny nodded, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder. “We’ll get you to a proper healer straightaway.”

In the corner of her vision, she noted movement; the man she had disabled was drawing himself up to hands and knees.

Trissiny was on him in a flash, seizing the collar of his coat in one gauntleted fist and hauling him upright, where she slammed him back against the wall. “Who are you,” she demanded icily, “and what are you doing here?”

“Fuck you,” he snarled.

“Wrong answer.” She cracked his head against the brick again.

“Just…mugging,” her prisoner choked, squeezing his eyes shut against the pain.

“Oh?” Trissiny barked. “You were mugging a member of the Thieves’ Guild? Do not insult my intelligence. One more chance.”

He opened his eyes; they were still somewhat unfocused, but he turned his gaze to the fallen woman. “She… What? No!”

“Oh, yes,” Trissiny said grimly. “Now I want to know why you were attacking her.”

“Don’t tell her—” The man on the ground broke off with a squeal as Ruda kicked him between the legs.

“Wait your turn, shit for brains,” she advised him.

“There was a lot of talk about me learning to mind my own business,” Peepers said, in the process of being helped to her feet by her brother.

“Last chance,” Trissiny warned her captive.

He sneered at her. “You’re not gonna do anything to me, paladin. You’re too noble.”

“You see these two elves?” She wrenched his head around to bring Flora and Fauna into his view. Fauna grinned nastily, toying with a large hunting knife; Flora folded her arms, draping her cloak around herself, and stared at him flatly. “They are also members of the Thieves’ Guild. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. You don’t start talking right now, I will drop you, walk to the mouth of this alley, turn my back and not react to anything I hear that isn’t you telling me what I want to know.”

Wide-eyed, he looked from the elves to her face, then back, then shook his head once.

Trissiny growled wordlessly and released him, stepping back.

“No!” he shouted, actually reaching out for her. “She stuck her nose in, dragging you into this! You can’t give these scum an inch—sometimes the law just isn’t enough. You have to lean on them. We had to!”

Trissiny drew in a long breath through her nose and let it out slowly, seeking calm in the familiar breathing exercise. It didn’t work.

“How can you be this way?!” she burst out. “You are soldiers! You’re supposed to protect—you took oaths! Why is it you are so willing to throw everything away, just to protect your own prerogative to be an asshole?!”

“Us!?” he shrieked back at her. “You’re supposed to protect us! You’re supposed to be on our side! We are law and order, and you’re backing drow scum and criminals against the soldiers in this city? Just whose fucking paladin are you?!”

They stared at each other, both breathing heavily.

Then Trissiny punched him again. His head banged against the wall, and he slumped to the ground.

“Ruda, would you kindly incapacitate—thank you,” she said as the pirate deftly applied the toe of her boot to the side of her own prisoner’s head, rendering him unconscious. “We’ll need to get these two to healers very quickly. Head trauma can be devastating if left untreated. Peepers, you too.”

“No argument here,” Peepers said shakily, leaning on her brother.

“This guy’s dead,” Fauna said helpfully, nudging the third man with her boot. The puddle of blood in which he lay was steaming in the cold air; in that moment, Trissiny suddenly became aware of the smell. It wasn’t just blood Ruda’s sword had spilled.

“I think I should feel worse about that than I do,” she said.

“I don’t,” Ruda snorted. “Fucker brought every bit of it on himself.”

Trissiny shook her head. “Healers first. I’ll need some guidance to the closest one.”

“It’s not far,” said Flora.

“Good, we just need to get these two stable and then transfer them to the Temple of Avei. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to trust them to the custody of the city guard.”

“No shit,” said Ruda.

“And then,” Trissiny went on, her expression growing grimmer, “…ugh. I had so hoped it would not come to this, but I don’t think they’ve left us any choice. This cannot be allowed to stand; the people need protection, and those who are supposed to provide it are their most immediate danger.” She sighed heavily. “I need to summon the Legion.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

5 – 15

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On her way back, Trissiny chose to sacrifice speed for the luxury of not being gawped at by every single person she passed; to judge from the questions and pleas that were constantly shouted at her, it was her rank and station that everyone found irresistibly interesting, not the unconscious man draped over the back of her horse. Thankfully, on the way to the Temple, she’d had her prisoner as a vivid excuse for not engaging in chitchat and having to face a lot of questions to which she really had no good answers. Once there, after having deposited the soldier in the care of the Third Silver Legion and left orders concerning his treatment, she had requisitioned a heavy cloak from the quartermaster and proceeded back to Lor’naris on foot, with her armor hidden and no distinctive silver steed to draw attention.

She drew back the heavy hood as she approached the intersection where the street began to descend into the border district. Walking around in a heavy hooded cloak had been odd enough to earn her no shortage of glances, but apparently a certain amount of oddness was permissible in a city the size of Tiraas, and she’d been left alone. Now, as she brought her face back into view one of the individuals casually leaning against the wall near the mouth of the street straightened and approached her.

“Welcome back, General,” said the drow. Avrith, that was her name; she’d been briefly introduced during the episode earlier, but it had been a little hectic.

“Just Trissiny is fine,” she said with a smile. “How are things here? It looks fairly quiet.”

“Indeed,” Avrith said calmly. Many of the Lorisian drow, Trissiny had noticed, were a tad less self-contained than the example Shaeine set, but they still tended to be hard to read. She thought there was something unhappy in Avrith’s expression, but couldn’t have placed a finger on it. “We have had a very helpful visit from the city guard. They helped clean up the scene of the attempted firebombing.”

“They what?” Trissiny scowled. “…soldiers from Imperial Command, or guards you recognize from previous encounters?”

“The latter, I am afraid.”

“So, any evidence suggesting any such bombing was attempted is now safely back at the barracks, where I’m sure it’s being analyzed with all due diligence and justice will be served,” said Bob, Avrith’s husband and patrol partner. He was a tall, lean human man with sharp features who Trissiny thought might have some elven blood—or maybe her own issues were just making her oversensitive to narrow faces and physiques.

She drew in a deep breath and let it out in s heavy sigh. “I should have anticipated that. Did anyone attempt to stop them?”

“Not as such,” Avrith said with a faint smile. “Clearly, none of us have the legal authority to interfere with the guard, and it is not wise to antagonize them any more than we must.”

“Wasn’t a complete loss, though,” Bob added, grinning. “Lady Shaeine clarified that Princess Zaruda’s diplomatic immunity extends to little things, like cussing at the police. I am in awe of that girl’s vocabulary.”

Trissiny clapped a hand over her eyes. “…and she tells me not to make things worse.”

“Actually, Trissiny, there is some potential good news,” said Avrith, pausing to nod to the two drow standing guard on the other side of the street. “It’s easier demonstrated than explained, however, if you’ll follow me?”

“Lead on.”


 

The shop to which they led her was labeled “A Trick of the Light,” which didn’t tell Trissiny anything about what it sold. It didn’t immediately become clearer once they were inside, though she did appreciate the relative warmth. The only items she recognized were on a small rack of shelves near the door, things she’d have expected to find in Elspeth’s shop, which she could identify mostly thanks to Yornhaldt’s class. Arcane power crystals, vials of glittering enchanting powder, spell parchment and charged ink, even pre-forge metal filaments suitable for use as arcane conductors in complex magical instruments.

Everything else was a mystery, though. The rows and stands of equipment made no sense to her; they looked more like pieces of disassembled telescopes than anything. At least half the shop appeared to be some kind of art gallery, with banks of drawings or paintings on display. Quite a lot were slightly fuzzy, and all were in a peculiar range of sepia tones.

Gabriel, Ruda and Fross were present, all studying the pictures, though they looked up when Trissiny entered with Avrith and Bob. The shop was quite well-lit, with very good modern fairy lamps, so Fross’s glow didn’t have much effect on the lighting even when she zipped excitedly over to Trissiny.

“Welcome!” exclaimed the shopkeeper, approaching Trissiny before she had the chance to greet her classmates. The woman was a half-elf—of the obvious variety, with the ears and everything—dressed in jarringly loud fabrics that made her stand out in this sea of sepia. “Welcome to the future! It’s an honor to host you in my humble shop, General Avelea. Take a look around! I’m sure you’ll appreciate the tactical value in what I have to offer!”

“Ah,” Trissiny said intelligently.

“I am Arpeggia Light, enchantress and innovator, dweller on the cutting edge of progress! My authentic Light-brand lightcappers are the best to be had, hand-crafted by myself and guaranteed to capture the clearest, crispest pictures available, or your money back!”

“…oh?”

“Just think!” Arpeggia exclaimed, making a sweeping gesture with both hands that encompassed her entire peculiar stock. “Images of enemies and positions, frozen in time with the flick of a switch! In this room you see the birth of a whole new form of art, soon to revolutionize every aspect of mortal society. Behold the future!” She finished with both arms outspread, beaming ecstatically.

“Do you by any chance know an Admestus Rafe?” Trissiny asked hesitantly.

Ms. Light dropped her arms and her smile. “Okay, seriously. Why do you kids keep asking me that?”

“Hey, roomie,” said Ruda, grinning. “Bout time you made it back.”

“Where are the others?”

“Shaeine went to speak to the folks at the Narisian embassy, and Teal went along because they are attached at the hip.” Gabriel’s tone was light, but his expression solemn and a little tired. “Juniper…is boycotting the human race at the moment.”

“Um… What?”

“I think she’s just overstimulated,” Fross chimed. “Tiraas has more people and less greenery than she’s ever seen in one place. It’s gotta be a lot to take in! I’m having a great time!”

“She’s on the roof of the inn, enjoying the cold,” Gabriel said with a shrug. “The privates are staying nearby because…well, they have to. And Toby’s guarding the ladder to the roof like a gargoyle. He’s got it into his head Juno is one more little disappointment from some kind of apocalyptic tantrum.”

Trissiny frowned. “What do you think?”

“Me?” He looked surprised.

“I realize there may not have been much talking,” she said dryly, “but what with one thing and another, you’ve probably spent the most time with her.”

“I think,” he said slowly, “Fross is right. She’s just adjusting. But…that’s not a bad thing, it’s what she needs to do. June’s got a very good handle on her own needs; if she wants a day of quiet, I say she should take one, and no cause for worry. If anything, I’m more concerned about Toby. He gets like this sometimes, when he’s afraid something bad is going to happen.”

“He feels responsible for everybody,” Fross said knowingly. “Poor boy’s gonna give himself a heart attack or something. I read about those. They sound painful.”

Avrith cleared her throat.

“Right, yes, sorry,” said Trissiny. “What was it you wanted to show me?”

“Thanks to Peggy’s lightcappers and willingness to donate her time,” said the drow, “we have a visual record of the guards removing the firebombing materials from that alley.”

“Avrith’s idea, she’s the strategic mind around here,” said Peggy, grinning maniacally. “I’ve got the prints developing in the back! We have those bastards dead to rights!”

“Wait,” said Trissiny, turning to look at the wall of brownish pictures. “You can actually take visual records with these devices?”

“It’s actually pretty awesome,” said Ruda. “Yeah, it captures an image of whatever it’s pointed at. Seems our new neighbors here were expecting some underhanded fuckery from the guards and set themselves up to catch it on paper. Peggy set up camp on a roof across from that alley and capped everything the guards did.”

“These are a new enough form of enchantment that nobody thinks to account for them,” Peggy admitted, “yet. But! They have already been held up in courts as admissible evidence! I’ve actually got the records somewhere around here…”

“That’s brilliant!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“I know!” Peggy cried.

“But it’s not going to be enough.”

Everyone in the room deflated slightly, even Avrith.

“Why the hell not?” Ruda demanded.

“What you’ve got is evidence of the guards removing dangerous materials from a crime scene,” Trissiny said, frowning and beginning to pace back and forth. “Which is part of their job. It builds toward the case we’re making about their corruption and abuse of power, but it isn’t conclusive. It doesn’t prove that one of theirs set the bomb in the first place.”

“Isn’t that the Sisters’ job from this point?” asked Gabriel. “I mean, that’s why you took him down there, right?”

“They won’t be able to hold him for long,” Trissiny admitted. “Legally, the Sisters can assist in criminal and judicial proceedings, and with as many Avenists as there are in the courts we’re often given a lot of leeway, but the letter of the law is they can only hold a suspect until the actual police take custody of him or her. There’s usually not much hurry, but in this case…”

“In this case, the fuckers will want their boy back ASAP,” said Ruda. “Fuck.”

“I took him to the Temple in the hope that a confession can be extracted,” said Trissiny grimly, “but he was already showing signs of being stubborn when he woke up. A man in his position knows the law and knows the guards’ policies; he only has to sit there for a few hours refusing to talk. There’s no real pressure on him.”

“What, don’t you Legionnaires have interrogators or something?” Gabriel asked. “With the thumbscrews and the dripping water and all that?”

“We don’t use torture,” Trissiny snapped. “It’s unjust, and also ineffective. A person who breaks under torture just says whatever they think will make the pain stop, which is not necessarily true or useful. Yes, we do have methods of breaking resistant prisoners, but they involve building rapport and using a lot of careful manipulations, which takes time. I made sure there would be no hurry for the Sisters to report they have the man in their custody, but something tells me the local barracks will know about it pretty soon anyway.”

“So…this was all for nothing?” Peggy looked positively crushed.

“It’s a start, as I said,” Trissiny reassured her. “It’s part of the puzzle. We still have a long way to go. If only I could get at the barracks’s records!”

“Pfft,” Ruda snorted. “You think they made a log of their illegal arson attempt?”

“Not that specifically, obviously! But the Army, like everything else in the Imperial government, runs on paperwork. There’ll be something. Avrith, these guards… Have they shown signs of being generally corrupt aside from trying to push you around?”

“In fact, they seem to have been relatively upstanding,” Avrith said calmly. “Racist, impolite and overbearing, but we have heard no complaints of illegal activity on their part, and I assure you we have looked for it. This event is the first thing I have ever heard from the local barracks that pushed past the boundaries of the law.”

“That’s…good,” Trissiny mused. “It means they won’t be practiced at covering their tracks. That oil and enchanting dust came from somewhere and likely wasn’t stolen. It wasn’t purchased on a guard’s salary, either; I’ll bet it was supplied by the barracks out of its operational budget. There may be other things, adjustments to shifts and schedules that explain why that man was here at this time.”

“You really think they were dumb enough to send a guard who was on duty?” Ruda said scornfully.

“Probably not,” Trissiny acknowledged. “But the Army feeds on records the way fire needs fuel. There’ll be something.”

“So, you want some unnamed records, you’re not even sure what, which you can’t get at in the first place because not only are they locked up in a barracks full of guards who specifically are pissed at you, but you won’t be able to use anyway if you managed to get them, because you’re trying to build a legal case and stealing paperwork pretty much undercuts the whole point.” Ruda shook her head. “Gotta tell you, Shiny Boots, this doesn’t seem like a real useful line of inquiry.”

Gabriel cleared his throat hesitantly. “Um, I’m not an expert on the law, but… If we could find and get those records, and if they proved the guards were up to something illegal… Wouldn’t they still be admissible in court?”

“Yes,” said Trissiny firmly. “There’s a precedent for that, and for the forgiveness of any charges relevant to acquiring the evidence in question. Anyway, we don’t strictly need to build an airtight case. If it looks like we’ve nearly got one, that will motivate Imperial Command to step in and remove the corrupt regiment before a group of citizens ends up putting a black mark against them in the courts. The newspapers alone would have a party with that if it got out.”

He nodded. “All right, then… I may have an idea.”

“An idea?”

“Of how to get those records.”

Trissiny frowned. “…go on.”

“I sort of…know somebody who knows somebody. Ruda said you made some kind of understanding with an Eserite Bishop, right?” At her nod, he continued. “Well, Elspeth down at the enchanting shop is in good with the Thieves’ Guild. I mean, she hasn’t come out and said it, but she’s hinted.”

“She is,” said Bob. He shrugged when everyone turned to look at him. “Everyone in the district knows it. You need to get a message to the Guild, Elspeth’s your girl.”

“Really,” Trissiny mused. “She’s self-righteous enough I wouldn’t expect her to be into anything illegal.”

“She is not involved in anything remotely illegal,” said Avrith. “In fact, due to her condition, her premises are inspected regularly by the Church and the Empire. Everything that happens in that shop is scrupulously aboveboard. Such an establishment is extremely useful to an organization like the Guild for a variety of reasons. She is not prone to involving herself in city events, however, or making use of her contacts on behalf of others.”

“I think she’d do me a favor,” said Gabriel. “Especially if I can honestly say Bishop What’s-His-Name—”

“Darling,” Bob supplied with a grin.

“Right, him. He’s tacitly signed off on this.”

“I am hesitant to involve thieves for all kinds of reasons,” Trissiny said, grimacing.

Gabriel shrugged. “You want to get something out of a locked barracks, who better?”

“Okay, wait a sec,” said Ruda. “Trissiny, a word in your ear, please?”

Trissiny let the pirate lead them over to a corner while Gabriel engaged the others in conversation. “You realize this is kind of pointless, right? Avrith and possibly Peggy can hear everything we’re saying.”

“These Narisians practice respect like it’s their religion,” said Ruda. “Unless we start plotting her murder, Avrith won’t hear anything she doesn’t think is her business. Look, Shiny Boots, I get that you’re wanting to help these people, and I’m with you on that, but come on. You’re actually considering launching operations against the Imperial Army. Who died and made you Horsebutt?”

“Not the Army,” Trissiny said patiently. “One corrupt fragment of it, which is only a problem because General Panissar isn’t motivated to get off his rump and do something about it. The law is on our side.”

“Yeah, that’s one interpretation,” Ruda said skeptically. “But remember that guy in the street said the General was coming down on them? Which he might not have done if you hadn’t lit a fire under him—that’s a pretty quick turnaround, considering he didn’t know this was going on before last night. This all started getting really interesting when you started putting the pressure on.”

“Are you saying this is my fault?” Trissiny exclaimed, forgetting to lower her voice.

“Don’t be stupid,” Ruda said sharply. “This would all have come to some kind of a head sooner or later, we all know that. There’s no guessing what might have happened if you hadn’t gotten involved. But the reality is, shit started going down pretty much exactly when you stepped in. I don’t believe in coincidence.”

“Well, what’s your suggestion, then?” Trissiny demanded. “Do nothing?”

“Not nothing,” Ruda said, shaking her head. “C’mon, Boots, you know me better than that. Just… Look, maybe I’m the one being irrational, but I’ve got a feeling you’re not being as careful about this as you could be. You don’t have to save the day yourself, you know. Why not see what resources the Lorisians have to solve their own problems?”

“That is precisely what we’re doing,” Trissiny said firmly. “Including their connections to the Thieves’ Guild. Believe me, Ruda, I am not looking to start a war with the guard. All we have to do is collect the necessary evidence, and this can still be put to rest quietly.”

“If you say so,” said Ruda, doubt plain on her face.

“Gabriel,” Trissiny said more loudly, turning and striding back to the rest of the group, “let’s have a word with your friend.”

“Ah…” He winced. “Actually, Triss, it might be better if you don’t come.”


 

“So, for our discussion that is to be kept private from the ears of a ranking member of the cult of Eserion, you bring us here.” Weaver dragged an expressive gaze around the Imperial Casino’s attached restaurant. “This just might be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard of. Just to put that into perspective for you, I’ve spent the last few years dealing with college students and their rich parents.”

“I know!” Billie said, grinning cheerfully. She was barely head and shoulders above the table, but didn’t seem put off by the size of everything. “It’s so stupid, it’s brilliant!”

Joe was studying Billie sidelong, fascinated and trying not to obviously stare. She was the first gnome he’d been around in person, and she was so different. Elves were delicately built, but aside from their ears, they could potentially be very fine-boned humans in appearance, albeit with rather big, childlike eyes. Dwarves, too, were broad and stocky, not to mention short, but could have fallen at the extreme ends of the human body type.

Gnomes, if Billie was a typical example, came from entirely different stock. The proportions were all wrong: her arms were a hint too long, her legs too short, her skull a smidge too large, none enough to be striking but enough to register on Joe’s mathematical awareness. It was hard to make out, fully clothed as she was, but it also seemed her muscles and ligaments attached and moved in ways that weren’t quite right. Gnomish women had a reputation for curvaceousness, and while Billie wasn’t particularly buxom he could see where the idea came from. Her short frame was wider from side to side but proportional from front to back; that, and her spine had a deeply sinuous curve that made her seem far more rounded than she was. There was also the faintest elongation of her nose and lower jaw—not that she had a muzzle, but that she might be descended from something which had. The ears which poked up through her dense mop of hair were pointed but also tufted, more like a cat’s than an elf’s, and it was hard to tell with her frizzy mane in the way, but they seemed to move of their own volition from time to time.

He averted his gaze, determined not to stare, and caught McGraw watching him. The old man smiled faintly, turning his attention back to the conversation.

“Anybody who uses that argument is only one of those things,” Weaver was saying.

“Thanks!” Billie said brightly.

“That wasn’t—no, nevermind, fuck it. Where’s that girl with our drinks?” he grumbled, slouching in his chair and folding his arms.

“Actually, it’s not a bad idea,” said Mary. Being technically a public enemy, she had applied a little glamor, turning her hair a typical elven blonde, though her attire was still drawing stares. “The measures we would need to undertake to really keep Darling out of our business would be borderline hostile in their intensity. We must simply trust that he will choose to grant us space to speak in private. Meeting here is an expression of that trust.”

“You seem more acquainted with the man than the rest of us,” said McGraw. “In your opinion, is that trust warranted?”

“He is what he is,” she replied calmly. “A thief is a thief, no matter the scale on which he operates. But Darling is an intelligent thief, who knows when pushing will not serve his interests.”

“Which is a roundabout way of saying…what, exactly?” Weaver raised an eyebrow.

“In this case,” said Mary, “I think he will grant us our space. In general, I think he will treat us respectfully. I am not, however, comfortable broadly describing the man as trustworthy.”

“That sorta brings us to the topic at hand, doesn’t it?” said Joe. “I’ll be honest: whatever reputation I have, I’ve been on exactly one adventure in my life and it ended last week. The rest of the time I was just protecting my town. Being admittedly over my head, here, I’m very interested in hearing what y’all think of Darling’s proposal.”

“He’s full of it,” Weaver grunted.

“Hell yes he is,” Billie said easily, “but like Mary says, that doesn’t mean he’s gonna screw us over. An honest person might up and do any damn thing at all if they’re pressured; a really good trickster doesn’t lie if he can help it.”

“Seems…counterintuitive,” Joe said carefully.

“Yup!” The gnome grinned up at him. “All the really good stuff is.”

At that moment, a young woman in the tight uniform of the Imperial Casino approached their table, bearing a tray laden with drinks. “Here we are,” she said cheerfully, setting each in front of its patron, and glanced at the menus, most of which were still lying unopened on the table. “Had a chance to decide what you’d like to order?”

“Hello, yes,” Billie said, suddenly all business. “We’re still contemplating meals, but on the recommendation of my very good friend Mr. McGraw, here, we’d like an appetizer plate of fried calamari with Punaji curry sauce. And I would like to bury my face in your cleavage, please.”

Joe choked on his orange juice.

“That’s not on the menu,” the waitress said with amusement, reaching down to ruffle Billie’s hair. “One calamari platter coming up.”

“Just as a point of reference,” said McGraw in a somewhat strained tone as the girl sashayed away, “everyone working here is technically in the employ of the Thieves’ Guild. Some of the servers and guards and such are actually apprentices, who answer to individuals I really don’t want irritated with me. So can we keep the harassment of the staff to a minimum, please?”

“Yes, I am,” Billie said seriously. “That was the minimum. So, Joe! What was this one and only adventure of yours?”

“Had to go to the center of the Golden Sea,” he said noncommittally. After a moment’s silence, he looked up from his orange juice to find them all staring at him. “…what?”

“The center of the Golden Sea?” Weaver demanded. “It has a center? I call bullshit.”

“No one has ever been there,” said Mary. “It was thought to be unreachable, if indeed it even existed.”

“Oh,” he said thoughtfully. “Might have had something to do with the company I was keeping. The Shifter needed to get there and needed an escort to do any necessary shootin’. There’s a kind of dimensional portal in the center; she used it to leave this world.”

“Wait, you know the Shifter?” Billie exclaimed. “Just what the hell kind of town is Sarasio?!”

“The Shifter left the world?” Mary frowned. “That makes little sense. The Shifter is in all worlds; that’s the whole point of her.”

“What the hell is a Shifter?” Weaver demanded.

Joe sighed and shrugged. “I wasn’t claiming to understand the details. You’d have to ask Jenny, which as I just indicated isn’t really an option anymore. Some folk from the Imperial Army were after her; apparently the situation was a little rich for her blood. Anyway, we’re getting off topic, here. Not that I’m averse to swapping stories sometime, but we were discussing whether we’re going to take Darling’s deal.”

“I am,” said Billie with a shrug, taking a sip of her cocktail. “Pay’s good and it’s not morally abhorrent; that’s all I really ask out of life. Plus, dragon! Always wanted to fight a dragon.”

“There are cleaner ways to die,” Weaver said, curling his lip.

“Pfft, who wants to die cleanly? Cowards and lazy people, that’s who.”

“Well, you can sign me up for both,” he said, toying with his own drink but not lifting it to his mouth. “This isn’t even the kind of job I’d normally consider; if it wasn’t for what he’s offering, I wouldn’t even be having this conversation. For all that, it’s not the job that leaves me uncertain, but what it implies.”

“That, I think, is the real issue before us,” said McGraw. “I might be mistaken—it wouldn’t be the first time—but what Darling implied about the Church looking to recruit or destroy everyone left in our loose little fraternity of wandering souls… Well, that smacks to me of the end of an era.”

“The Age of Adventures has been over for centuries,” Weaver said dismissively.

“Has it?” McGraw leaned his head back to stare down his nose at the younger man. “The word ‘adventurer’ may be synonymous with ‘grandstanding fool’ these days, but the very fact that people find the need to seek other terms for the likes of those of us at this table proves there’s still a place for us in the world. If the Archpope has his way, that’s about to change.”

“It sounds to me like this matter is the sticking point,” said Joe. “Those of us who’re uncertain whether to go for the deal are worried about those longer-term implications, not about this job in particular. Right?”

“Pretty much,” Weaver said reluctantly. “I mean, it’s a crap job, but… Darling’s got us by the short ones there, if he can actually back up his promise.”

“He strikes me as a man too intelligent to make promises he couldn’t back up to the likes of us,” said McGraw.

“I agree,” Mary nodded.

“Then that’s our point of contention,” said Joe. “Mary, you know Darling better than most of us, and you’re the oldest person here by a pretty huge margin. What do you think?”

She cocked her head to one side, a strikingly birdlike gesture. “Great powers rise and fall; the Church itself will not endure forever. I agree with Elias; the Archpope’s plans, if brought to fruition, would severely hamper our ability to move. I, as I have no intention of serving his ambitions, would be forced to lie low for however many centuries it would take for the political structure of Tiraas to collapse. In the long term, however, they always do. This is not without precedent; in the days of the Heroes’ Guild, a similar situation prevailed. All things pass.”

“It’s a pretty well permanent state of affairs for those of us who aren’t immortal,” Weaver commented.

“Oh?” Mary turned to him and raised an eyebrow. “Can you actually die, Gravestone? Will you?”

He only grunted and took a drink.

“What are you going to do?” Joe asked, staring at Mary.

“I will take the deal,” she said, calm as ever. “In this matter, Antonio Darling can be relied upon, because his nature and his interests align with my goals. And those of each of you, if I may assume that none of you wish to either retire or work for the Church.”

“Until this week, I was retired,” Weaver complained.

“And the other option?” McGraw asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Hell with that. If the only option is doing Justinian’s dirty work, I’m goin’ right back to Last Rock and my nice, quiet library.”

“Yeah, I think we’re pretty much all in agreement on that,” said Billie cheerfully. “So the question becomes, why do you think throwing our lot in with Darling’s the best way to achieve that?”

“Darling is a priest of Eserion,” said Mary. “The former High Priest, in fact. He is also a Bishop in the Universal Church, and a high-ranking official in the Imperial government. Those loyalties contradict each other directly. The Church and the Empire feud constantly for power; the Guild’s driving force is the goal of preventing anyone from acquiring too much power. At issue is which of these alignments truly has his loyalty. In my estimation, it is that of his god.”

“How certain are you of that?” McGraw asked quietly.

“Very. I have watched him with care; he embodies the principles of Eserion’s faith in his daily life. I do not know the full extent of what Darling is planning, but his plans are not Justinian’s. I believe that when it comes down to it, he will act to undercut the Archpope. On that day, I would prefer to be at hand and involved than in some distant corner of the world, waiting to learn how my fate has been decided.”

A grim silence fell over the table. In unison, all five of them sipped at their drinks, staring into the distance.

“Hi there,” said their waitress, bustling back up to their table with a platter of steaming calimari and bowls of dipping sauce. She bent over to place it on the table, ignoring the way Billie craned her neck to get a better view. “Come to any decisions?”

Weaver sighed. “Yeah… Looks like we pretty much have.”

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