Tag Archives: Basra Syrinx

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The cloud cover had broken not long after midnight, and the following day dawned unusually clear and cloudless for Tiraas. It was still cold, winter having apparently decided to stay now that it had come. The city itself was in fairly good shape, its army of civil servants having been hard at work through the night with salt and shovels. Only along the northern districts, where water mains had broken and frozen, was the clean-up still impeding business. Elsewhere in the city, particularly in its bustling central districts, life went on at its usual pace.

Of course, the High Commander of the Sisters of Avei would probably not have delayed her activities even for an active hailstorm, and so Principia was summoned to her office shortly after breakfast.

“He said that?” Rouvad demanded skeptically.

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia replied. “Obviously, I cannot attest to how serious he was or what he will do next, but Lord Vex’s exact words were ‘none of this happened.’ Considering the factions and individuals represented, I can understand how the Imperial government would prefer to avoid untangling the diplomatic mess that would result.”

“You implied there was more,” Rouvad prompted.

“Yes, Commander. The demolition of the fortress, he said, is to be recorded as a deliberate action by the Empire to remove an unsafe structure, preparatory to replacing it with a modern facility. And…he made it quite plain that, Imperial cover-up or not, the actions of everyone present would be taken into account the next time any of us have to interact with the Imperial government.”

“Splendid,” the Commander said sourly, then heaved a sigh. “Suddenly I feel a little nervous that I haven’t heard from Intelligence yet. It’s early, but I don’t believe that man actually sleeps. And he definitely saw the disruptors?”

“Saw, and demanded that they be handed over,” Principia said. “I refused. I apologize for any trouble that results, ma’am, but that seemed to me both the best thing to do given the tactical needs of the situation, and the course of action most compliant with Legion regulations.”

“That rather depends on the manner of your refusal, Sergeant.”

“I was forthright and completely honest, ma’am. I told Lord Vex those particular devices were made by me personally, on a mandate from you and using Avenist resources, and thus the property of the Sisterhood. I…mentioned that if he wanted them, he would have to take it up with you.”

“That will be an enjoyable conversation, I’m sure,” the Commaner said wryly.

“Yes, ma’am. I did not mention anything regarding how we obtained the specs for those disruptors. He will surely demand that information.”

“Then I’ll take great pleasure in passing the buck. Vex can try to drag his answers out of the Thieves’ Guild, and much good may it do him. You said there was another matter on which you wished to report.” Her eyes dropped to Principia’s hands; Rouvad had not asked about the objects she was carrying.

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, approaching the desk. She reached out and carefully laid a tiny ball of lead on its surface. “I wish to put Private Lang forward for a commendation. I realize that she cannot be awarded the Red Star due to it being on a mission not disclosed even to our captain, but she was wounded in the line of duty.”

“Reasonable,” Rouvad said with a touch of impatience. “I’ll instruct Dijanerad to approve it. Is that immediately pertinent, Locke?”

“Yes, ma’am. This object was removed from her arm. It punched through her shield, through the defensive enchantments on that shield—both of which were completely destroyed by the impact—and then through her armor and bicep. By that point it had lost enough momentum that it merely broke the bone on impact rather than taking her arm off entirely. That piece of metal had to have been moving at a significant fraction of the speed of sound to have that much energy behind it.”

“I see,” Rouvad said noncommittally, glancing at the object in the sergeant’s other hand. “You have some insight, I take it, into the kind of spell which could do this?”

“That’s just it, ma’am. I don’t believe there was any spell. Shahai managed to retrieve this from the snow while Zanzayed was teleporting dwarves back to the Svennish embassy.” She laid the device on the desk. It was a simple thing, seemingly little more than a short length of pipe with a wooden handle and a clicker mechanism. “We have both examined it and found no evidence of enchantment present at all, though there are burn marks and traces of chemical explosive inside the tube.”

“I see,” Rouvad repeated, picking up the object and turning it over in her hands. “What do you make of it?”

“The lead ball fits neatly in that tube,” Principia said. “From there, we can deduce how it works. An explosive powder is packed into the base of it, the ball is placed in on top of that, and the powder is ignited by a sparking mechanism triggered by squeezing that switch. The explosion, contained as it is, propels the ball with tremendous force, and the length of the tube guides its trajectory.”

“Ingenious,” Rouvad marveled.

“This is extremely concerning,” Principia said, frowning. “You are of course aware that all magical shields are weakened by contact with physical objects. That thing hits with enough sheer kinetic force to collapse any shielding charm I’ve ever heard of, and probably a lot of personal caster shields. A paladin or archmage’s shield could stand up to it, most likely, but… Ma’am, I know just enough physics and math to do my various jobs, but I am pretty sure this technology could be scaled up without any real limits. A cannon-sized version of that could destroy any magical shield in existence, and any fortification behind it.”

“Dwarven engineering at its finest,” Rouvad noted. “What intrigues me most is that I’ve never heard of such a device before. I don’t suppose you’ve analyzed the explosive used?”

“Not in detail, ma’am, but I did a very basic charm test on the traces inside the tube, and I think the results were the most interesting part of this yet. No alchemical agents were present; this was a completely non-magical explosive compound, which has to be a deliberate design choice, as the effect could be achieved far more easily with enchantments. This is a non-magical and anti-magical weapon. We can’t know the range without testing it, but it’s surely comparable to conventional wands. If a force armed with these faced off against a unit of the Imperial Army, they’d have similar firepower, and the Army’s defensive measures would be useless. It would be a rout.”

“Hm.”

“Of course, as soon as they use these where the Empire can see, countermeasures will be in the works. I think they must have been desperate and planning to wipe out everyone there, to have used it in sight of us last night. But if they pick the right battle, it only has to work once. If a dwarven force were able to secure or destroy the right high-value target, they could truly change the fates of the Five Kingdoms by forcing the Empire to terms.”

“Locke,” Rouvad said patiently, “I find your various skills and aptitudes useful in their place, but there is something backward about you lecturing me on matters of military strategy.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”

“Needless to say,” the Commander went on, “you may consider this as classified as everything else which occurred last night.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Have you anything else to report, sergeant?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Principia stepped back from the desk, leaving the lead ball and its launcher with the Commander, and stood at attention. “The fortress was destroyed by the adventurers summoned by General Avelea, at the command of Bishop Syrinx, who was sent to fetch them. According to Avelea’s plan, which Syrinx knew, my squad should have been in it when that happened.”

“And so you both improvised,” Rouvad said flatly. “Basra with her pyrotechnics and you by involving the dragon who involved the Empire whom I’ll be dealing with for the forseeable future about this.”

“Ma’am, destroying that fortress was an action with no strategic application in that situation. I believe its only purpose was to destroy us.”

“You are, in fact, my third meeting today, early as it is,” Rouvad replied. “I have already been over this with General Avelea and Bishop Syrinx, who has explanations for every one of her actions last night. Something tells me you don’t particularly care to hear them.”

“That’s correct, ma’am. With regard to—”

“Locke, my patience for repeating myself to you is thin. I’ve already made it plain I’m not having this infighting. I will deal with Syrinx, and you will drop it.”

“No,” Principia said flatly.

Very slowly, Rouvad leaned forward in her chair, her face suddenly devoid of all expression. “What did you say, soldier?”

“I said no, Commander,” Principia repeated. “Attempts on my life don’t much bother me; it doesn’t pay to take these things personally. But if that woman tries to murder my soldiers one more time, I am going to murder her right back. And the difference between me and Basra Syrinx is that I accomplish what I set out to. If you want to keep your Bishop, get her under control before someone else has to.” She saluted. “I will now report for court martial if that is your command, so long as you understand that it won’t change anything.”

Rouvad stared at her in silence; Principia stared right back. It was almost a minute before the Commander spoke.

“Do you want to be removed from the Legions, Locke?”

“No, ma’am.”

“You have what you signed up for, now. Trissiny is on speaking terms with you; let’s not pretend that wasn’t your whole purpose for doing this. So why are you still here?”

“I—”

“Tell me the truth,” she ordered. “And don’t assume I won’t know if you don’t.”

The sergeant hesitated before replying. “I find serving here…much more satisfying than I expected. And I want very much to continue looking after my girls. Their potential is enormous, but with so much arrayed against them I don’t want to leave them.”

The High Commander suddenly sighed and eased back in her chair. “Trissiny reported on your performance, by the way. She said you are insubordinate and failed to follow her orders. She also said that your strategies on the ground were better than her own, and your refusal to respect the chain of command saved your soldiers’ lives and contributed significantly to her victory. I would suspect she was sugar-coating it were that not exactly what I have observed from you from the beginning.”

Principia kept silent while Rouvad studied her thoughtfully for another long moment.

“It’s useful, having someone on one’s side who isn’t a slave to regulations and the chain of command,” Rouvad finally continued. “It’s one of the things that has made Nandi so valuable to me, and to my predecessor, and why I was so reluctant to cede her to you. As I recall, you’ve seen firsthand that I tolerate backtalk from her that would send any other soldier immediately to the stockade. But she has devoted more time and energy to the Legion’s service than all of us combined; the leeway she has is more than earned. And then there’s you.” She paused again, peering up at Principia with an expression that was almost quizzical. “That’s the damnable thing about you, Locke. You’re just so…useful. For all the headaches you cause me, I can’t help getting the impression you actually are loyal to the Legions, and you do get results. But you’re just not ever going to be a good soldier, and I think I’d get no use out of you at all if I forced you to be.”

Rouvad folded her arms on the desk and raised an eyebrow.

“Dealing with you is a lot like dealing with Basra Syrinx.”

Principia let the silence stretch another moment before replying.

“That wasn’t called for, Commander.”

“No, I’m not going to have you court-martialed,” Rouvad said, suddenly more brisk. “Instead, I shall take it as a sign of the urgency of the matter that you’re willing to risk speaking to me that way—and only because we are alone here, Locke. Open your mouth like that where anyone else can hear it and by the time I’m done with you, I promise you will be grateful for the mercy of standing before a military tribunal. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Is it believed?” Rouvad said more pointedly. “You think you’re smarter than I—don’t deny it. But I did not become the mortal leader of the cult of war without being as crafty and as ruthless as the situation demands. I certainly wouldn’t be keeping a creature like Syrinx on a leash otherwise. And let’s not forget the weight my words have with the only person alive whose opinion matters to you enough that you’d subject yourself to all this.” She smiled, as cold as the snow outside. “I can hurt you, Locke, if you make it necessary. So don’t.”

“…yes, ma’am,” Principia said quietly.

“And just keep away from Syrinx, for now,” Rouvad said with a heavy sigh. “Yes, I’m aware of the situation and what she did, and she as usual has conjured sufficient justification to evade official censure for her actions. The thing she and you have in common is that you both seem to think I can’t punish or contain her under such circumstances.” She straightened up in her seat, that frosty little smile returning to her face. “You’re both wrong. Basra is being dealt with as we speak, by one of my more…unconventional assets.”


Basra whirled, scowling, when the door of her office was opened without the courtesy of a knock, but quickly marshaled her expression when she saw who had walked in.

Trissiny was still wearing her street clothes and slightly battered coat rather than the silver armor, and hadn’t removed the dye from her hair—yet there was a distinctive change in her demeanor. She had put enough effort into cultivating a casual, non-military bearing that her stiff spine and purposeful stride were now all the more distinctive for their return.

As was the black bird perched on her left shoulder.

“Good morning, General Avelea,” Basra said smoothly, shutting the cabinet in which she had been digging and stepping away to meet her guests. “And…Mary, always a pleasure. I wasn’t expecting to see either of you again so soon.”

The crow ruffled her feathers, but remained mute.

“Good morning, your Grace,” Trissiny said, staring pensively at her. “Sorry to interrupt so early in the day, but I have a full list of errands myself and I hoped to catch you before you headed to the Church.”

“Not at all, my time is yours,” Basra replied. “Please, have a seat. What can I do for you?”

Trissiny tilted her head, making no move toward the proffered chair; on her shoulder, the crow mimicked the expression, which would have been comical if not for the suddenly fraught atmosphere.

“I wonder if you could clarify your tactics for me,” said the paladin, “as an experienced commander to one still learning. What purpose did the destruction of the fortress serve?”

“Considering our list of allies and enemies,” Basra replied immediately, “and the likelihood of those extremely professional dwarves discerning your procession’s goal and moving to intercept you, I realized, upon reaching and surveying the field, that that fortress was just waiting to be used as an ambush against you. Had they reached it first, your attempt to secure it would have led to your group’s downfall. I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t think of any of this in the first place, but I was unfamiliar with that old ruin before seeing it for the first time last night.”

“I should mention,” Trissiny said quietly, “I have already spoken with Joe, Mr. Weaver, and their other friends this morning. None of them reported any sign of dwarves reaching the fortress. They simply said that you directed it to be destroyed.”

“And that bloodthirsty little gnome was more thrilled than I have ever seen anyone to oblige,” Basra said dryly. “Honestly, I was expecting her to start a fire or something. How or why she had munitions of that quality on hand I’m afraid even to ask. But the result was satisfactory. The purpose was to deny the enemy a fortification, not catch them in it; acting before they arrived was thus the entire point. You know this very well, Trissiny, it’s basic military strategy. The general who prepares the ground ahead of the battle controls the field.”

“And,” Trissiny said more quietly still, “according to my orders, Squad One would have been in that fortress at the time.”

“According to your orders,” Basra said with an indulgent smile, “there would have been no dragons and no Imperial presence. Your ambush would have succeeded, thanks to the adventurers you sent me to rally and my initiative in removing that fortification. Zanzayed was…overkill. And involving Vex will carry a hefty political price for all of us. I did not anticipate that, exactly, but I expected things to go south if we assumed Locke’s part in the plan would be carried out correctly. Believe me, Trissiny, I know how Locke thinks.”

“Did you scout,” Trissiny asked, “to make sure the squad was not inside?”

“We observed no tracks,” Basra replied. “In that snow—”

“In that snow, tracks would have faded quickly; it was still coming down.”

“Not that heavily, and only two of the squad are elves. Six women in full armor would leave easily discernible tracks—”

“And so you checked every approach to the fortress?”

“Why on earth would they have circled around to the back?” Basra tilted her head in a mimicry of their earlier gesture. “I must say I’m sensing a little hostility, here. Everything went exactly as I expected, and according to my plan—with the exception, of course, of Locke’s needless complications. Had it been any other squad, I would have considered it a risk. That woman is congenitally unable to do as she is told.”

“I came here,” Trissiny said, “hoping you would help me understand why such a risk was warranted. I confess that I’m still not there.”

“Perhaps,” Basra said more firmly, “you should be mindful of your own preconceptions. I understand you may have an emotional attachment to Sergeant Locke, that’s only natural. Just…don’t forget what kind of creature she is, Trissiny. Her interest in your existence began when you became someone it was politically useful to know. She is only here because of that, because she sees in you the chance to advance herself. Don’t let her deceive you.”

“I won’t,” Trissiny replied, smiling thinly. “Her, or anyone else.”

Basra sighed. “I see you’re not convinced. I have been over this in more detail with the High Commander already this morning; she accepted my reasoning. If you doubt me, I encourage you to take it up with her. And it might profit you to ask her opinion of Principia Locke’s performance as a soldier while you’re there.”

“Right,” Trissiny said, nodding agreeably. “You have all the angles covered just enough that nobody can authoritatively call you down. Well done.”

“I don’t think that tone is necessary,” Basra said mildly.

The crow suddenly emitted a soft croak, and very gently pecked at Trissiny’s ear, then turned her head to jab her beak toward the door.

“Well, then,” Trissiny said, smiling again. “I suppose that covers what I came to ask. I also wanted to offer a word of advice, Bishop Syrinx: you should not assume you’re the only one who can make things mysteriously explode.”

Basra raised one eyebrow. Before she could speak, however, the rapidly approaching sound of pounding boots echoed from the hall, through the door which Trissiny had left open a crack. The Bishop turned, frowning, and stepped toward it to investigate.

The boots skidded to a stop outside and the door was yanked open to admit Private Covrin, breathless and disheveled. “Your Grace!” she panted. “The—they sent—I mean, I only just learned, I’m sorry for the delay but I think my message was intercepted—”

“Spit it out, Covrin!” Basra said in exasperation. “Sometime today!”

“Ma’am,” her aide said desperately, “there’s a fire. At—at your house.”

She gazed nervously at the Bishop, still regaining her breath, but Basra had gone completely still and expressionless. Slowly, she turned to stare at Trissiny.

The paladin had stepped to one side, and was now trying to roll a doubloon across the backs of her knuckles. She went at it with excruciating slowness, clearly unpracticed in the maneuver, tentatively shifting the coin one finger’s increment at a time.

At Basra’s stare, she looked up and smiled. “Well, that sounds rather urgent; don’t let me keep you any longer. Excuse me, private.”

Covrin stepped aside to let her leave, and both of them stared after the departing paladin in silence.

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11 – 37

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Everyone drifted off into groups when Glory excused herself from the room, but no one felt a desire to wander far. With the exception of Vandro, who swaggered off to prowl around the townhouse, they remained in the grand salon on the top floor. Thus, when the house’s doorbell rang, it was the work of only moments for all present guests to assemble themselves. By unspoken consensus, they did so there in the salon, not moving to meet the new arrival in the front hall.

Glory herself had just rejoined them when, with customarily preternatural timing, Smythe appeared to announce their newest visitor.

“Rumor, bearing word from Boss Tricks,” he said impassively.

She very nearly pushed him aside, striding into the room and irritably brushing snowflakes out of her mussed hair. “Yeah, yeah, I feel so pretty. How about something hot to—oh, thank fuck, here you assholes are. Now I can stop rolling around in the goddamn snow.”

“Uh…what?” Ross asked intelligently.

“Boss is looking for you,” Casethin replied, panning a disgruntled stare across them. “One, two… You’re missing one.”

“Jasmine is fine; she’s here as well,” Glory said smoothly. “Smythe, something warm for our guest to drink, please. You have news, Rumor?”

“And you’re looking for us?” Tallie asked, nonplussed.

“Okay, first things first, chronologically speaking,” Casethin said irritably. “I got back to the Guild just fine with word. The dwarf was telling the truth; they had Pick in their fucking basement.”

“Is he all right?” Grip asked quietly, without expression.

“Hadn’t been roughed up,” Rumor snorted. “Fucking dwarves. Too civilized for such brutish measures, puffed-up assholes. He’s been drugged to hell, though; was practically incoherent. No way of telling what they got out of him, but Vanda and the Boss both think it can’t have been much, or they wouldn’t have been chasing these little bastards as stubbornly as they were. Anyhow, Pick’s secured in one of Vanda’s safe houses, being tended by the best healer she could scrape up. He seems fairly okay; they’re not sure what he got dosed with exactly, but practically anything’ll wear off given time. Too risky out there to try getting him back to the Casino, though, so he’s stuck with our back-alley shaman, but Zephyr knows what he’s doing.”

“Why?” Glory asked. “What’s happening?”

“Will you let me talk?” Casethin retorted with poor grace, even as she accepted a mug of something steaming from a tray proffered by Smythe. “Seriously, I’ll go over everything. This is what I do, lemme work.” She paused to take a sip, then grimaced and turned accusingly to Smythe. “There is no booze in this. What’s wrong with you?”

“Rumor,” Glory said sharply.

“Yeah, all right, fine. I got past a hilariously ineffective attempt to trip me up by what’s left of that dwarven intelligence cell, made it to the Guild and reported in to the Boss. So he’s up to speed. I’m here because he sent me out to locate these junior fuckups,” she pointed accusingly at the knot of apprentices, “and bring them and everybody else on the list into the know. This was the fourth place. Your house was empty,” she added to Vandro, “and I’ve gotta say I’m surprised to find you here of all places, but now that I think of it, I don’t actually care what you’re up to, so kindly don’t explain.”

“How does the Boss have a list of places we might possibly be?” Darius asked, frowning.

“Because,” said Grip, “before I set out after you, we established that list; considering the situation, it seemed wise to have prearranged safe spots to bring you in case we couldn’t get back to the Guild.”

“What, you’re surprised?” Rumor grinned nastily. “You thought little ol’ Grip came to rescue you outta the goodness of her heart? Breaking news: she’s got neither goodness nor heart, and she’s so far up the Boss’s ass—”

“Is there anything else?” Glory asked pointedly.

“Yeah, there is.” Rumor’s expression sobered. “We’ve got dwarven activity out there. Lots of it, widespread.”

“Activity, hm?” Vandro swirled his whiskey glass idly. He was either on another or had just never finished the first. “What sort?”

“We don’t know, and that’s put everything on hold.” Rumor took another long sip of her drink, then stalked over to the nearest chair and plunked herself down with a wince. “Oof, my poor fucking feet… Okay, so obviously, once it got back to the Boss that these fuckers had imprisoned and drugged a member of the Guild, open season was declared upon them. That’s one of the things I’m to spread around; we’re mustering. Every Guild agent in the city who’s able and inclined is to assemble at the Casino for orders, preparatory to ending these assholes for good and all.”

“For heaven’s sake,” Layla sniffed, “why did it take this long? If foreign agents were pursuing his apprentices, I should think the first hint of that was the appropriate time for a preventive show of force.”

“Who the shit is this?” Casethin demanded.

“No one,” Darius said firmly, placing a hand over Layla’s mouth when she opened it to protest.

“Allow me to answer the question, little lady,” Vandro chimed in. “We’re not the Sisterhood, or the Huntsmen; the Boss is basically a glorified housekeeper, or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Eserites don’t fall in and march at anyone’s order. But when our own are attacked? That’s another matter.”

“The last time something like this happened was a year ago,” Glory added, “almost exactly. Three Army officers dragged one of our information brokers into an alley and beat her. Every Guild agent in the city mobilized to essentially shut down that entire barracks. Much as we prize our independence, we do not suffer entrenched powers to abuse our people.”

“Uh huh, that’s very nice with the history and doctrine and all,” Casethin said impatiently (despite having taken the opportunity of their conversation to finish her drink), “but I have actually important news. These dwarves have been mobilizing at the same time as we are, which is why Boss’s current orders are to assemble at the Casino and not engage ’em.”

“Wait, mobilizing who?” Rasha asked. “I thought you guys said they couldn’t have many people left.”

“That was Jasmine’s assessment, and it was solid logic,” said Tallie. “It’s not like we know, though. Yeah, mobilizing, who, exactly?”

“Dunno,” Rumor said, frowning, “but lots. We got dwarves crawling out of the fuckin’ woodwork all of a sudden. When I left the Casino—and this was a couple hours back, so no telling what’s going on now—there were three entire carriage-loads of armed dwarves appearing via the city gates, the Svenheim embassy just went on some kind of alert with armed guards at all entrances, and suddenly dwarves have been appearing, just, everywhere. In groups, lots with weapons. Least fifty, that we knew of last I was in the loop.”

“The timing doesn’t work,” Grip said sharply. “If you went right from Glass Alley to the Casino, and then set off to search for us, how the hell do you already have this much detail?”

“Yeah, that’s the scary part,” Rumor said with a grim scowl. “They are very deliberately making it known what they’re doing. These armed groups? They’re popping up in front of known Guild facilities, or at least the homes and workplaces of members. They’re showing us they’ve got numbers and mean business.”

“How can they possibly have that many people ready to mobilize in Tiraas?” Darius exclaimed. “I thought intelligence cells had to be small!”

“Dwarves do not have the same relationship to their government that we do,” Glory mused. “Some may just be travelers and tradespeople who happened to be in the city and answered a call put out in the name of their king. Then, again, at least some were undoubtedly sleeper agents. Every government has at least a handful of those in every foreign capital, at least any large enough to afford it. Or perhaps Svenheim had people in Tiraas for another purpose, and the operatives with whom you’ve been dealing were able to activate them..”

“Doesn’t really matter, in the short term,” Rumor grunted. “They’re out there, armed, and in enough numbers that us crackin’ down on ’em wouldn’t be a crackdown so much as a goddamn battle. Boss is sending people to watch ’em, but orders are it’s to be strictly hands off for now.”

“Hmm.” Vandro sipped his drink. “I have to hand it to the bastards, that is a good play. Have you seen any reaction from the Empire yet?”

“Not when I left,” Casethin said with a shrug and a grimace. “There damn well has to have been one by now, though. There’s no way Imperial Intelligence would fail to notice this going on.”

“And that enforces a detente,” said Glory, nodding. “With the dwarves and the Guild both arming up and the nature of the situation obscured, whoever shoots first will be the recipient of the Empire’s full wrath. Most long-lasting governments treat the Guild with a modicum of respect, but no legal authority will tolerate anything that resembles an insurgency flaring up in its own capital. However, it also starts the clock ticking. It won’t take Intelligence long to get enough details to step in, one way or the other. Whatever they mean to do, they’ll do soon.”

“Damn good play,” Vandro said admiringly.

“This is insanity!” Layla protested. “The Kingdom of Svenheim is not in such a secure situation that they can afford to do this. It’s potentially an act of war, and the Empire would decisively crush any of the Five Kingdoms!”

“The Empire could decisively crush all five together in open war,” Glory corrected, “though actually invading and occupying dwarven territory is tremendously unwise. That may be beside the point, however. I cannot believe the matter of these staves is important enough to Svenheim to risk war. Without doubt, every dwarf responding to this call will have some kind of deniability. The Empire may well know that they were involved in organizing it, but so long as none of these individuals are provably in the pay of their crown and their actions do not cross certain lines, Sharidan and Eleanora won’t react with excessive hostility. They do risk severely undermining the very important trade negotiations going on, however.” She narrowed her eyes in thought. “It doesn’t add up. Why is this so important to them? And if it is, why are they only acting in such force now?”

“Yeah, well, this part’s over my head,” Rumor grunted, getting up and casually tossing the empty mug to Smythe. “I gotta report back to the Boss now I know where you are. And then I’ll probably end up trudging through the goddamn snow all night carrying messages…”

“What about Pick?” Ross asked. “I mean, and Ironeye and the others? If the dwarves are arming up, aren’t they in danger?”

Rumor snorted derisively, already stomping toward the door. “Safer’n any of us. Glass Alley is a killing ground for anybody who takes Vanda on in force. I think these fuckers are too smart to try, but if they do…good.”

Smythe gave Glory a pointed look as he followed her out, prompting her to sigh.

“Well…what now?” Darius asked once they had left the room. “We can’t just sit here!”

“Oh, we’re gonna sit here, all right,” said Vandro. “This is no time to go charging out into the snow. But you’re right, son, we can’t just sit here. The trick is making the right preparations when we don’t know what the enemy intends.”

“No armed dwarves have appeared in this neighborhood, in force or otherwise,” Glory mused. “The constabulary would respond immediately to that, and I am not the only local resident with security wards which would detect such activity. We are, for the moment, as tentatively safe as before we knew of this.”

“Nambini at Traisis Ford.”

Rasha started at the sudden voice, and everyone turned to stare at Jasmine, who was just inside the salon’s rear door, leaning her back against its frame, arms folded. She had been inside long enough that the snow had melted from her hair, though there were still visibly wet patches on the shoulders of her coat.

“Wh—how long have you been there?” Darius demanded. “And what the hell was that jibberish?”

“Long enough to catch the high notes,” she said. “And it was an example.”

“Hmm,” Glory said, a slow smile creeping across her face. “Interesting idea, Jasmine.”

“What idea?” Tallie exclaimed.

“Honestly,” Layla huffed, “didn’t any of you go to school?”

“Darius, I’m gonna punch her,” Tallie announced.

“No, you’re not,” he said firmly, then turned to point at Ralph, who had abruptly jumped up from his seat near the window and taken a step toward them. “No, she’s not! Sit down!”

“During the conquest of the Stalrange,” said Jasmine, “most of the Empire’s military was obviously there. At one point a pocket of Stalweiss guerrillas took to summoning demons behind Imperial lines to disrupt the Army, which caused two Silver Legions to be routed there as support. A single half-strength Legion was left behind to patrol Viridill. At that time, three orcish clans formed a horde pact and crossed the river from Athan’Khar. With Viridill mostly undefended, the Legionnaires under the command of a then Hand of Avei, Nambini Onpomba, retreated to Vrin Shai, gathering up civilians as they went.”

“That’s fascinating,” Tallie said with heavy sarcasm, “but what the hell—”

“Shh,” said Rasha, poking her shoulder. “Jasmine doesn’t talk without a point.”

“I think I see where this is headin’,” Vandro added, grinning. “Go on, girl.”

Jasmine glanced at him expressionlessly, but continued. “The defenders were safe in Vrin Shai, which is virtually impervious to siege, but hiding behind its walls allowed the orcs free reign across the province. So Nambini tricked them. She led a force disguised as feeling refugees out of the city by cover of night, pretended to be accidentally spotted, and fled to the ford at Traisis, where she had sent actually discreet forces to prepare an ambush. The orcs had the superior numbers, but they were baited into a trap and routed. Nambini sacrificed a safe position in order to destroy what should have been a superior enemy on ground of her own choosing.”

“Okaaay,” said Darius, nodding. “I get the point of your enigmatic pronouncement now, and quite frankly, neither the mystery routine nor the history lesson were necessary. I take it you’ve got a slightly more detailed plan than that?”

Jasmine frowned, shifting her focus to the senior Guild members in the room. “How possible is it to move discreetly around the city with all this going on?”

“Extremely,” Grip said immediately. “One or two people can evade notice easily, assuming a modicum of competence. Best way would be to take the sewers. I assume Glory has a sewer access on the premises; every Guild agent with an actual house does.”

“I most certainly do,” Glory added with a smile, “and I appreciate your discretion, Quintessa, but I am also aware that you know where it is.”

“We’re kinda known for using sewers, aren’t we?” Ross asked. “I mean, ‘we’ being Eserites. Won’t they be expecting that?”

Grip smiled unpleasantly. “I’ll come along to guide you, Jasmine. If the dwarves manage an ambush, it’ll be us, in the sewers, with no witnesses. I am pretty sure we can make that work to our benefit. What’s your plan?”

Jasmine nodded and straightened. “Everyone please make preparations to move out as a group. I have a strategy in mind, but I need to go set the trap before we can bait and spring it.”

“Uh, that doesn’t really answer the question,” Darius pointed out. “What is the plan? I mean, didn’t we just hear about how letting this come to a fight isn’t a winning move right now? And here you are talking military strategy…”

Jasmine smiled faintly. “War is deception. We need to think like Eserites; think of it not as a battle, but…”

“A con,” said Vandro, nodding. “And you’re right, kiddo. A good general is the best con artist of all.”

“Where to?” Grip asked, unfolding herself from her chair. “Gonna gather up your buddy Schwartz?”

“I don’t think we’ll have time, much as I’m worried about him,” Jasmine said, frowning. “I really hope he’s safely in the Collegium… But no. We make for the Temple of Avei. Lead the way, Grip.”


“I’ve been in there for hours!” Schwartz hissed as Principia practically shoved him out of the waiting chamber and into the hall, Meesie squeaking a counterpoint to his indignation from atop his head. “Where in the Dark Lady’s name have you been? Didn’t my message express how urgent this is?!”

“Shh,” she said sharply, pushing the door shut. “I’m sorry, Herschel, I only just found out. And you are very lucky I did; believe me, it is not standard practice to hold people against their will when they come warning the Legion of…well, anything. Bishop Syrinx appears to have set preparations to keep you on ice if you came looking for me. I barely got here ahead of her; I really don’t want to think about what would have happened had she managed to corner you in that waiting room with nobody in the know.”

“Those soldiers were just doing their duty,” Ephanie said as she and the three other members of Squad One present fell in behind Principia, who was hurrying Schwartz down the hall. “Covrin aside, she doesn’t bother to personally recruit privates; they’d have known, and been able to tell the chain of command you were here. I doubt she’d have done any significant harm.”

“I make no assumptions and take no risks with regard to that woman,” Principia said darkly.

“You didn’t get any message, did you,” Schwartz said sourly.

“Not yours,” she replied, steering him down a side hall. “I just got word from a friend that you were here.”

“Who?”

She glanced at him sidelong with a faint smile. “Someone who knew you’d come here, knew there was a trap set, and was in a position to both warn me and distract Basra long enough for me to reach you first.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding, “I’m glad Jenoof!”

Principia had jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow. “Shut up, boy! No names, respect her cover. Basra is undoubtedly on her way right now.”

“That’s correct,” said a new voice. Nandi Shahai appeared from a side door, beckoning them forward. “And it’s a good thing I was keeping an ear out. We have minutes, Sergeant, maybe seconds.”

Principia glanced rapidly up and down the hall, then said curtly, “In here. What’d you hear?” she asked Shahai as she ushered Schwartz through the door. It led to a conference room of sorts, mostly open in plan but with chairs lining the walls and a blackboard at one of the narrow ends.

“Covrin kept Basra away as long as she could,” Shahai said very softly as the rest of Squad One filed in and fell into a defensive formation around Schwartz and Principia. “Then, in order to avoid blowing her cover and affirm her support, she had to reveal to Basra not only that Schwartz was here, but that you had found him and were taking him away. Both are en route.”

“Ugh, this fucks everything up,” Principia growled, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I had a strategy in place, which is now out the window; confronting her this early will put us right back at square one.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Schwartz said testily, “but none of this was my idea.”

“Not your fault,” Principia assured him, patting his arm. “You did the right thing, Herschel, coming here. And you’re right, if the dwarves are getting this pushy, we need to get word to the apprentices. I just hope you haven’t been delayed too long; if they’re safe in the Casino, good, but the Guild doesn’t like to keep its younglings cooped up. This is important; Basra Syrinx is a nuisance and a distraction, that’s all. I’ll figure out something else to deal with her when I have time to worry about it.”

“Isn’t that good to know,” Basra herself said brightly, striding into the room with Jenell hovering behind her. “Since I’m well aware that you could hear me coming, shall I interpret this as a threat?”

“Much as I enjoy our little dances, your Grace, I’m afraid I don’t have time,” Principia said with a polite smile. “I’ve just received word that our allies in the Guild may be in immediate danger. If you will excuse us…”

“Ah, yes. Hello, Mr. Schwartz.” The Bishop turned her pleasant expression on him, smirking faintly when Meesie chattered a warning and put off a tiny puff of sparks. “How lovely to see you again. Well! Since we are all here and I have, after all, been assigned to this same project, shall we go?”

“Who says you’re coming?” Schwartz snapped, glaring daggers at her.

“I actually can answer that,” Basra mused, “acting as I am on orders from the High Commander, but your question is avoiding the real issue, which is your apparent belief that you get a say in anything I do.” She smiled more widely, showing the tips of her teeth. “Or, for that matter, in anything that goes on in my presence. I had thought I made myself abundantly clear on this issue when we last spoke, but as it seems you are determined to tweak my nose, let me just remind you…” Her smile hardened, and suddenly there was something subtly wild in the set of her eyes. “You are not always going to have Locke’s skirts to hide behind, boy. Your ineptitude and irrelevance is your saving grace. Should you actually succeed, somehow, in irritating me—”

“Touch him and I’ll kill you.”

Total silence fell.

“I’m sorry, Sergeant,” Basra said silkily after a moment, “I don’t think I heard you correctly.”

“You heard me just fine,” Principia stated. The rest of her squad were staring at her with wide eyes, as was Jenell. The exception being Shahai, who merely tilted her head inquisitively. “You’ve been looking for a way to actually hurt me, which you didn’t have before. Well, you found one. Herschel is the child of an old friend and I care about him. Therefore, let me make this explicitly plain: harm him, and I will immediately end your life.”

“Oh, my dear Sergeant Locke,” Basra said, grinning outright. “You needn’t go and make this so easy for me. I was just beginning to enjoy the game.”

“I’ve explained this to you once, Basra. You may not recall; you were rather distracted by being humiliated and exiled that evening.” Principia grinned right back, just as nastily. “This is only a game because I am choosing, for reasons of my own, to play by the Sisterhood’s rules. You are in no way prepared to contend with me if I decide to throw everything to the wind and simply remove you. Push me hard enough that I’m willing to abandon my squad and the Legions, and you’ll be dead within a fortnight. Not immediately, because I’ll need to make certain preparations. You don’t deserve to go quickly or quietly.”

“Locke,” Basra said sibilantly, sliding her sword six inches out of its sheath, “I could spend the evening reciting all the things far deadlier than you which have tried to kill me, and which are now dead. Just in the last year; those have been the best ones, and every one of them frightened me more than you do—which is to say, not in the least little bit. If you want to stop playing politely, by all means, give me the excuse—”

“Unbelievable.”

Everyone in the room shifted to stare at the door, in which had appeared Jasmine, scowling in fury. A blonde woman in dark clothes was standing at her shoulder, one eyebrow raised sardonically.

“Here I thought I was fortunate,” Jasmine growled, stalking into the room, “to find two privates who just happened to know where the very people I wanted were. But I get here, and what do I find? Two grown, apparently intelligent, allegedly competent women, loudly indulging in a feud, in front of a Salyrite and their own troops…” She kicked the door shut, barely giving Grip a chance to make it inside. “With the door open, you unbelievable ninnies!”

“Excuse me,” Merry said sharply, “but just what do you think—”

“Lang, shush,” Casey hissed, nudging her with an elbow.

“Excuse you,” Merry snapped, but subsided at a glare from Ephanie.

Basra cleared her throat. “Allow me to—”

“Silence!” Jasmine didn’t even look at her, taking two long strides toward Principia. “Lives are at stake. We have a duty to attend to. I will not have this, do you both understand? If you two are so determined to be up each other’s butts, I promise you in a completely non-metaphorical sense, I CAN MAKE THAT HAPPEN.” She stopped barely a foot from the sergeant, staring her down. “I realize that Commander Rouvad and your captain both indulge your antics to a point because of your usefulness, Sergeant Locke. I am not them. So long as you wear that uniform, you will conduct yourself in a manner which brings nothing but honor and dignity to it. That is the end of the subject. I will not have to speak of this to you again. Understood?”

Principia cleared her throat. “There are—”

She fell instantly silent when Jasmine took another step forward, glaring at her from inches away, now.

“There is exactly one acceptable response from you,” she said in deadly quiet.

“…yes, ma’am.”

“And that will be the entirety of your vocabulary in my presence for the forseeable future, unless you have an unassailable reason otherwise. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Who the hell is this kid?” Merry demanded. Despite her furious expression, she didn’t dare raise her voice above a stage whisper.

“Shut your yap!” Casey hissed back.

“All yaps shut!” Ephanie snapped.

“And as for you, Syrinx.” Jasmine turned to the Bishop, her expression not lightening in the slightest. “I’ve spoken with the High Commander about you at some length.”

“Oh, have you now,” Basra said impassively.

“Your issues,” Jasmine stated, “are not my responsibility. You are not under my command. I can’t give you orders, as you well know. So let me be plain: in no way does that mean you don’t need to concern yourself with me.”

The room lit up with a golden glow of such intensity that most of them had to avert their eyes. The eagle wings which spread from behind Jasmine barely had space to extend themselves.

“Ohhh,” Merry whispered. “Kay, I’m up to speed.”

Schwartz’s jaw dropped.

“You know where the lines are drawn, Syrinx,” Trissiny said, holding the Bishop’s gaze. “Cross them again, and it’s not going to matter how good you are with that sword. Put it back in the sheath.”

After a moment of silence so complete that the faintest chiming of the paladin’s aura could be detected at the very edge of hearing, Basra obeyed.

“And unless you want to learn whether you can outsmart a spear of divine light through your heart, you will henceforth behave yourself no less assiduously than Locke. Have I made myself plain?”

After another beat, Basra incongruously smiled. “Admirably so, General.”

“Fine.” The golden light suddenly winked out, leaving them blinking, and she turned her back on the Bishop and the Sergeant. “Schwartz, I’m really glad to see you’re safe. We were all worried.”

“Aiee,” he squeaked.

Trissiny grimaced. “And…I would appreciate it if you’d keep all of this to yourself.”

“I, um, of course!” He swallowed heavily. “I mean, though, wow, I never… That is, uh, mum’s the word.”

Meesie chirped smugly.

“For the rest of you,” Ephanie added, looking pointedly at Merry and Casey, “that is an order.”

“Yes, ma’am!” the entire rest of the squad chorused, with the exception of Principia, whose face was uncharacteristically devoid of expression.

Trissiny shook her head. “With that out of the way, I came here for a reason. Sergeant Locke, I am activating your squad. I will need you formed up and on the march as quickly as possible. Most of you, that is; designate your most best runner to send a message across the city. There are more reinforcements I need gathered.”

“That’s not necessary,” Basra said smoothly. “Squad One function splendidly at a unit, and are already under strength without being split up. I can fetch whoever else you need, General Avelea.”

Trissiny turned to give her a long, careful look.

“If you’re concerned about my response to being badgered and threatened, good,” Basra continued without apparent rancor. “That’s something you should consider before risking throwing away an ally in the future.”

“Do you really think,” Trissiny said flatly, “after what I just walked in on, you are in a position to lecture me?”

“I am correcting you,” Basra replied, “because I consider you the most promising paladin we have had in the last thousand years. Not one of your predecessors would even have thought to seek out the expanded skill set and mindset you are. But sooner rather than later, you’re going to find yourself dealing with someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart, and then slip-ups like that will cost you. For now,” she nodded deeply, nearly a bow, “how can I help?”

“Oh, please,” Grip said, dripping scorn. “Tell me you’re not buying that load of crap.”

“Grip,” Trissiny said, turning slowly to face her, “we are standing in the Temple of Avei. I can throw you in a cell just for what I’ve seen you do tonight. And that’s only talking legally; physically, I can throw you anywhere I want. Shut. Up.”

Grip, for some reason, grinned in evident delight, but said nothing in response.

“All right, as for the rest of you.” Trissiny turned back to face the soldiers, the Bishop, and Schwartz. “Here are your orders.”

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11 – 24

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At the brisk rap on her office door, Style shouted “What?!”

Jasmine slipped inside and pulled the door shut behind her. “Sorry to interrupt your evening paperwork, but from what I hear this is basically the only time you use this room.”

Style snorted and shoved a sheet of parchment to the side of her small desk. “Well, you got that right. Goddamn pen-jockeying. Interrupting this bullshit is a quick way back into my good graces. What do you need?”

“Well, this may seem a little awkward,” Jasmine said, touching the side of her face, “but I need you to punch me. I, uh, suppose you don’t hear that one very often.”

“You might be surprised,” the enforcer grunted. “Mostly from former bedmates asking for kinky shit that does not do it for me. I’m assuming that’s not what this is about.”

Jasmine grimaced, a faint blush darkening her cheeks. “Uh, no. It’s just, I had to use divine magic a little bit ago, and in that quantity it tends to naturally heal things. Mesmer said the bruises were supposed to stay as some kind of object lesson…”

“Fucking Mesmer.” Style rolled her eyes. “There’s a reason he’s neither an enforcer nor in charge. Sure, fine, in certain very rare circumstances, I can see making someone keep a minor injury as a disciplinary measure, but usually anybody who’s causing that much trouble would be booted out of here anyway. No, Jasmine, I don’t find it serves any practical purpose to have people walking around all gimped up. I thought you still had a bashed face because you were too stubborn to have him fix it. Nah, you’re fine.”

“Really.” Jasmine frowned, then shrugged, reaching for the door handle. “All right, then. Frankly, after that scene tonight I thought it made perfect sense. Well, not sense, but it was consistent with the picture I was starting to see of this place.”

“Cos you didn’t think about what you were seeing,” Style retorted.

“Well, it’s pretty clear you keep control through brute force.”

“And that is exactly what I’m talking about,” Style stated flatly, pointing at her with a pen. She then stared at the utensil as if surprised to find herself holding it, and dropped it onto the desk before continuing. “Nobody keeps control through brute force; that’s not how brute force works. Fear is always better than force; respect is better than fear. You have to use a careful combination of all three; they have an interesting interrelationship. You’re new, you’ll learn more about it. But no, Jasmine, I don’t go around punching everybody who needs to be put in line. Or even most of them.”

“Oh?” Jasmine kept one hand on the door handle, but so far made no move to turn it.

“A good enforcer can’t afford to be a one-trick pony. It’s all about the situation, and the people involved. There’s no magic formula that works all the time. All right, let’s consider you and your little group of friends, they’ll make a passable case in point. Now Tallie and Darius I will smack when they need correcting—and occasionally more than smack, if they start doing horseshit like assaulting full Guild members. Those two are talkers; engaging them verbally is just asking for more hijinks and throwing away the opportunity to teach a lesson. What they need when they’re screwing up is a reminder that their bullshit can have the kind of consequences that no silver tongue can escape from. Hopefully, after no more than a couple more repetitions, the lesson will start sinking in and they’ll toe the line without needing more reminders. If they don’t have that much basic innate intelligence, they’ve got no place here. Rasha…” She paused and shook her head. “I’m a little worried about that kid. Fragile people don’t do well in this place. But some of our best have started out that way. He’s one who needs encouragement more than correction. Plus, he’s a listener and a thinker, so explaining what he does wrong will do a lot more than belaboring the point. Likewise Ross, without the fragility.”

“But you’re comfortable smacking me around to make a point,” Jasmine said, finally taking her hand off the door and folding her arms.

“In point of fact, no.” Style mimicked the posture, leaning back in her chair. “That dust-up tonight wasn’t about discipline, it was about you directly and publicly attacking my authority. No, Jasmine, you’re not afraid of pain, and even if you were, you’re not motivated by fear. Roughing up brave people is counterproductive; it makes ’em feel all righteous, when an enforcer’s job is to make someone understand that challenging us is a mistake. Believe me, the Guild hasn’t prospered for thousands of years without knowing how to deal with Avenists. So no, Jasmine, if you will just refrain from creating scenarios where I have to fucking land on you, I’ll look forward to never again laying so much as a fingertip on your dainty little derriere.”

“Hm.” Jasmine frowned, but offered no challenge to her reasoning.

“Moving on,” said Style, “wanna tell me why you were throwing around so much magic you accidentally healed yourself?”

“Oh.” Jasmine sighed. “Well, the truth is, I was pummeling and then threatening Grip. I guess that probably changes your stance on the subject of punching me, huh.”

“There you go, making assumptions again,” Style snorted. “Rumor is an intel woman whose default state is barely sober enough to stand; there’s no good reason for any Guild member to be taking swings at her, least of all an apprentice. Grip is another matter. I know yours is an unusual situation, and I fucking damn well know what she’s like. Without specifics, I could believe either of you being at fault there. I’m still in suspense, by the way.”

“Well, Grip wanted me to be her apprentice.”

“And this led somehow to you going full paladin on her ass. You got a real way with people, kid.”

Jasmine scowled at her and snorted, but continued. “She was blackmailing me. Grip figured out who I am and said she would spill the story if I didn’t agree to be her apprentice. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about her for a few days; I settled for…brute force. It seemed like that was something she would understand, at least.”

“Hn,” Style grunted. “That’s some roundabout reasoning, even for her. Grip likes her plans complex, but… Well, watch yourself. People who assume they’re done with Grip have a tendency to learn otherwise, usually about when they get comfortable thinking it’s over.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Jasmine said with a sigh, reaching for the door again.

“Hang on,” Style ordered. “I agree that you entering a formal relationship with Grip may not be the best idea, but she is someone you, in particular, could stand to learn from. I’ve been meaning to discuss this with you, anyway. So far, Jasmine, you’ve been showing all the markings of a really talented enforcer in training. I mean, aside from your general social obtuseness, but that we can fix over the course of an apprenticeship. The major exception I see is this tendency you have to play the hero.”

“Well—”

“The thing about enforcers,” Style barreled on, “is that how much damage one is able to inflict ends up being less important than how threatening one seems. In your case, the very thing that made you interesting to Glory is a handicap. You’re so…well-behaved. Now, if you were a beefy dude like Ross, that would be absolutely ideal. Big scary guys who speak softly and mind their manners are exactly the right kind of intimidating; they can go places that shady thugs aren’t welcome, and don’t lose any of their looming menace factor in the process. You, though, are a pretty little blond slip of a girl—like Grip. And while Grip is a terrifying piece of work, you are not. Difference is, she has worked hard to become one.” She leveled a finger at Jasmine. “That is the distinction. Refrain from going off on a feminist rant about this, but the fact is, in the enforcer business, an attractive woman has to be three times as scary as a male counterpart to be taken as seriously. That’s just the way people perceive others. That means you have to build an aspect and a reputation to back up your threats, unless you want to have to break every goddamn kneecap you encounter. If you intend to keep going on the path you’ve apparently chosen, you’re going to have to either develop a cruel streak, or very convincingly pretend you have one.”

“That isn’t the path I chose!” Jasmine burst out. “That’s the entire point of me being here! I do not need the Guild’s help to learn how to fight or threaten people. I’m trying to be subtler.”

“Well, you’re doing a shitty job,” Style said bluntly. “You wanna be a con artist? Fine, do that. But do it; find someone who’ll coach you and start showing progress—fast. You haven’t done anything in that direction that I’m aware of beyond some cursory practice in picking locks and pockets. Right now you’re between the approach you claim to want and haven’t even looked at, and the one you’re actually good at and are afraid to pursue. Your trainers and I can help you build skills in either direction—or hell, both. But we’re not gonna choose for you, wouldn’t even if we could. Dithering is not acceptable.”

“Well, but.” Jasmine heaved an irritated sigh. “It’s not as if I’m a typical apprentice, right? My purpose here isn’t exactly to aim for full membership—”

“Then you can fuck off out of my Guild,” Style snapped. “I was extremely clear with you up front. No special treatment. You’re an apprentice exactly like all the rest. Your purpose is to work toward becoming a productive and valuable member of this Guild, or you can get yourself the hell out of it; we’re not providing room and board for every directionless teenager in Tiraas, here. I do not accept excuses or half-measures. You’re not on notice, kid; like I said, you show real promise as an enforcer. But I will be watching you, and unless you start really pursuing that potential, or other potential, you will be warned. From there it’s a short slide to the door hitting your ass on the way out. This isn’t a fucking summer camp.”

“I see,” Jasmine said quietly. “Then that’s…something to think about.”

“Yeah,” Style agreed, staring flatly at her. “Go to bed, Jasmine. Plenty of exciting new ways for you to fuck up tomorrow, but right now I think we’ve all had about enough.”


“Good evening, your Grace!” Principia said with exuberant good cheer. “What a surprise to find you working here so late. The candle burns at both ends, eh?”

“Locke,” Syrinx replied evenly after pausing a moment outside her office to study the Legionnaire. “And of course, you have no business in this part of the temple at this or any hour. Spit it out, I’ve even less patience for your idiocy than I have time for it.”

“So hostile,” Principia said brightly, falling into step beside the Bishop as she strode away down the hall. It was an upper level of the Temple, containing little but administrative offices, and at this hour was practically deserted; even the fairly lamps were dimmed. No one else appeared to be in the vicinity. “Very well, to the point. Those disruptors originated in Veilgrad, and turned up here in the hands of the Thieves’ Guild. It’s very likely they passed through the possession of the Guild underboss there, an Imperial Army corporal named Timms. Her tag is Smiler, if that helps. I can’t leave the city except on specific business so I can’t exactly go ask her; I think this dovetails more with your end of the investigation, anyway.

“Now, if Bishop Darling is playing coy about these things, it’s possible he doesn’t know anything and is trying to save face, but otherwise… The downside of his genius for cultivating contacts everywhere in Tiraas is that it leaves a lot of openings to track who he’s been talking to, and about what. What you need are access points, and luckily, there are some who are both links in his network and somewhat inherently friendly to Avenists.” She held up a small envelope, smiling slyly. “Those, I can direct you to. It would be personally awkward for me to be chasing the Bishop around that way, but if you’re caught doing it, I assume that will just be business as usual within the Church.”

Basra came to a stop, turning to face her and resting one hand casually on the hilt of her sword. She glanced fleetingly at the envelope, but made no move to reach for it. “What are you doing, Locke?”

“Helping you,” Principia said sweetly. “As is no more and no less than my duty.”

“Right. So I’m to go threaten this Smiler person with exposure to gain her compliance, is that what you want?”

“Oh, I should be so lucky,” Principia said with a grin. “I know very well you’re too intelligent to threaten a Guild underboss, though. No, your specific approach is up to you, and the less I know of it, the better, but you’re a resourceful woman. I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

“I don’t suppose you plan to be so accommodating as to tell me the catch.”

“The catch is that you’ll actually be holding up your end of this job, and thus keeping yourself around and in the High Commander’s good graces. If I thought failing to turn up anything useful would get your butt booted back to Viridill, matters would be very different.” Principia shrugged. “But, it is what it is. All things being equal, I think this better serves me in the long run, even if it does result in continuing to have to put up with you.”

“You’ve developed an interesting way of addressing your superiors, Sergeant,” Basra said, though her tone remained calm and mildly inquisitive.

“Oh, certainly, go tell Rouvad I was mean to you.” Principia grinned. “I think you’re forgetting that the last time we shared this temple was before I proved myself valuable and you proved yourself crazy. Look, we can play nicely in front of the bronze, but we both know that you’re a sadistic monster and I’m a rebellious pain in the ass, and after that little business of you trying to murder my whole squad, prospects of us actually getting along are pretty much nil. But I’ve worked with people I hated a lot more than you. I see no reason we can’t work something out, here.”

“This is very slightly entertaining, but unless a reason emerges when I should bother myself with this and with you, Locke, I have much better things to do.”

“You know the reason very well.” The insouciant smile faded from Principia’s face. “In fact, you just hit it exactly. You and I have much better things to do than feud. When it comes down to it, we aren’t really in competition. Our objectives are similar, yes, but at the end of the day, I’m rank-and-file with an acknowledged knack for moving among unscrupulous types, while you are a political presence in this city’s halls of power. Neither of us could function in one another’s wheelhouse. The removal of one or the other would just be a lost asset for the Sisterhood, and us butting heads is likewise.”

“Ah, yes,” Syrinx drawled, lifting an eyebrow. “Here comes your vaunted commitment to the greater good.”

“I’m committed to my own best interests, exactly the same as you,” Principia retorted bluntly. “The difference is I’m at least capable of valuing other things, as well. I have goals and a career here, and dealing with your scheming on top of the rest of it is a headache I can do without. Do you need to find out how good I am at scheming before you realize how mutual our relationship is?”

“Our relationship, huh,” Basra said sardonically, brushing off the implied threat. “I see no reason to believe you are either a threat or a use to me.”

“Don’t you?” The smile which crept across Locke’s face was distinctly catlike. “Well, after all, we’ve gone head-to-head once already. You had the element of surprise and vastly superior positioning, and I still whipped you. Do you really wanna try it again without those advantages, Basra?”

They stared at each other, Principia with that sly smile, Basra without expression.

“Well,” the Bishop said at last, “Timms, was it? Also known as Smiler? I suppose I should be so lucky as to hope you’d do anything so rashly aggressive as try to trip me into a trap.”

“I shall take that as an acknowledgment of my base point,” Principia said, her face instantly shifting back to an innocently cheerful look. “Then I shall bid you good evening, your Grace, and I’m sure we’ll have a more fruitful discussion when you’ve seen the utility of my help. Don’t forget your notes!” Again, she proffered the envelope.

“No.”

Principia raised her eyebrows. “No? No, what?”

“You’re a long way from earning my trust, Locke,” Basra said coldly. “And however you may choose to dress it up, in the end, that’s what you’re trying to do. Making yourself minimally useful according to your assigned duties isn’t going to cut it. I’ll tell you what. I will follow up on this lead, and if you have the basic self-control not to try to screw me over… We’ll talk further. About this job, and perhaps about what I can do for you beyond the bounds of your duties. And what I’ll expect you to do for me in exchange.”

She smirked faintly, then turned on her heel and strode off down the hall.

Principia stood behind her, watching her go with the slightly puzzled expression she had adopted during Basra’s last few sentences. Only when the Bishop was around the corner did she permit herself a faint half-smile, and tucked the envelope back into her belt pouch.


“Dunno, I was asleep before he came back,” Darius said absently, focusing on his breakfast.

“I don’t think the did come back,” Tallie said with a worried frown, pushing scrambled eggs around her plate. “I poked my head on on his bunk and it didn’t look slept in.”

“Rasha’s very neat about his space,” Jasmine offered. “My best friend back home is like that; she’s Punaji, too. Something about being on ships…”

“Yeah, but he’s not an early riser.” Tallie heaved a sigh, frowning deeply. “I don’t know, guys. Where could he have gone?”

“He’s in the Guild,” said Ross. “Nobody’d hurt him here.”

“But what if he left?”

“Why would he leave?” Darius demanded in exasperation. “It was the middle of the night and psycho dwarves are after us. Rasha wouldn’t have gone outside.”

“Don’t you care at all?” Tallie demanded, turning on him.

“Course I care,” he said with a shrug that belied his claim, scooping up another forkful of fried potatoes. “But I’m not ready to agree he’s in some kind of trouble. C’mon, you know Rasha, he’s got big thoughts for such a little guy. Always retreating into himself and staring moodily around. Yesterday was stressful for us all. Trust me, I’ve known people like him before. He’s not dumb enough to go out there and risk his safety. Probably just off somewhere thinking. He’ll come out when he feels like it. Like a cat.”

“He’s gonna miss breakfast,” Tallie muttered.

“We won’t let him starve,” Jasmine assured her, then turned to Darius with a frown. “Anyway, a little more concern would be appropriate. Just because he didn’t leave the Guild doesn’t mean this place is safe.”

“Nobody’s going to hurt apprentices here,” he scoffed.

“I am basically positive that’s not true,” she retorted. “Accredited thieves would probably not risk censure by being caught harming an apprentice. But let’s face it, these aren’t nice people. So far I’d say about half the ones I’ve met are good people, and most are only kind when they want something. If Rasha went off into some private corner around here…” She shook her head. “I don’t know. Something could have happened.”

Tallie slapped a palm on the table hard enough to make her silverware jump. “Damn it. I should’ve…”

“What?” Darius asked pointedly. “Tallie… I love that you care so much, but you’re not his mom. We can’t follow each other everywhere, and with all respect, Jas, I don’t think it’s wise to start assuming we’re in danger within the Guild itself. We need a safe haven, or we’ll all end up paranoid and crazy, and they really do protect apprentices here. C’mon, Ironeye could’ve probably disappeared us all good and proper, but she didn’t. Seriously, guys, I’m sure Rasha’s fine. If he hasn’t turned up by, say, dinner, then we should start to worry.”

“You afraid of the dark?” Ross asked.

Darius stared at him, blinking, then heaved a sigh and slowly set down his fork. “All right, what the fuck are you on about now?”

“Just that fear of the dark isn’t rational,” Ross said. “So rational arguments against it don’t work. It’s primal. Fear of the unknown, of what might be in the dark. Knowing there’s nothing out there does nothing for you. ‘swhy everyone has trouble sleeping after hearing a scary story.”

“Ross,” Tallie exclaimed. “We’re talking about Rasha!”

“Yeah, and something tells me we still are,” Darius said dryly. “This is one of those Vesker metaphors. They always draw ’em out more than is necessary.”

“Not wrong about that,” Ross agreed with a shrug. “Point is, our friend is missing an’ apparently didn’t come to bed last night. It’s fine to be worried. It’d be weird not to be worried. Don’t argue her out of worrying. Won’t work.”

“What, so I can’t offer comfort to someone who’s upset?” Darius retorted, scowling. “I don’t see how that’s any better.”

“This is incredible,” Tallie said to Jasmine. “We’re discussing the actual problem and these two are arguing about their feelings. When did we stop being the girls in this group?”

“Oi!” Darius protested. Jasmine just rolled her eyes and had another bite of eggs.

“Good morning.”

The soft greeting was punctuated by the arrival of a stack of wooden discs on the table beside them. All four stared incredulously up at Gimmick, who gave them a serene little smile.

“These are portable divination bafflers, keyed specifically to disrupt spells of location. It may be possible for a skilled scryer to discern details about your status even with them, and they will do nothing to counter fairy magic, but so long as you each keep one on your person, you should become un-trackable via arcane scrying by a mage or enchanter of nominal skill.”

“Nominal skill,” Tallie said blankly.

“There is, as they say, always a bigger fish, but I doubt you have antagonized the sort of archmage who can remotely neutralize these enchantments.” Saduko’s smile widened. “Your problems would be far greater were it so. These are passive charms and their power consumption is minimal, but they do consume energy. The enchantment is designed to absorb excess energy from the environment to replenish itself, which is abundant in Tiraas, but if your situation has not been resolved within six weeks, they will probably need to be recharged. Any professional enchanter will do this for a small fee.”

“I know how to recharge basic enchantments,” said Jasmine, staring up at her. “Just have to buy the dust…”

“Of course you do,” Tallie said with a sigh. “Excuse me, but I don’t believe we’d accepted Mr. Vandro’s offer.”

“Quite,” Saduko said placidly. “Webs has reconsidered his position and feels he was being unnecessarily mercenary with you. You may consider these a gift, delivered with his compliments and hopes for a fruitful future relationship.”

“Okay,” Darius said with a sigh, “what’s his angle?”

“I fear I cannot help you there,” she replied, shrugging. “I am frequently baffled by Mr. Vandro’s machinations. My skill set is specific and limited, and he employed me strictly in that capacity.”

“That was never his game,” Tallie said, slumping forward and leaning her forehead into her hand. The elbow she planted on the table narrowly missed her plate. “Damn it… It’s like the Boss said, just having us seen getting help from him places us in his camp, at least in everybody’s minds. And with everybody treating us like we’re Webs’s accomplices, our options for other supporters narrow until it’s basically true. Isn’t that right?” she demanded, lifting her head to look accusingly at Saduko.

The enchantress shrugged again. “Your reasoning seems solid, though such matters are above my head. Being voluntarily and deliberately in Webs’s camp, as you call it, I have never had to think in these terms. That is for the best. I prefer to leave such convoluted planning to him.”

“Why, that sneaky son of a bitch,” Darius said, sounding more impressed than annoyed.

“Well, this is shaping up to be a great day,” Tallie muttered, reaching for the stack. “And I was just thinking we have a prospect here that didn’t involve taking Webs’s help. I mean, our new buddy Schwartz is in the same boat as the rest of us, and he’s an acolyte of the actual goddess of magic. Surely he could hook us up with some kind of deal on anti-tracking charms…”

“And that’s why Gimmick had to come along so early to hand these off,” Darius said cheerily. “So Webs can get his hooks into us before we have the chance to realize that and act on it. Clever bastard!”

“Stop sounding so happy about it!” Tallie barked.

“Tallie, hon, we’ve been outmaneuvered. And that really shouldn’t surprise anybody, since this guy’s apparently been playing the game longer than we’ve collectively been alive.”

“Not quite that long,” Saduko said with amusement.

“Yeah, well, my point is, you can’t take these things personally.”

“Oh, just watch me,” Tallie said acidly.

“What I mean,” Darius added, “is you shouldn’t take it personally. It’s a game, at least in the minds of the people who tend to win it. You gotta stay loose, keep yourself detached. It’s the only way to keep your head cool enough to compete.”

She sighed heavily. “Someday, I’m gonna insist on detailed backstories from some of you.”

Darius grinned and waggled his eyebrows at her. “Your place or mine?”

Saduko cleared her throat as Tallie reached for her fork, her glare at Darius suggesting she didn’t have eating in mind. “Those bafflers will function so long as they are on your person, but it is best as a rule to conceal them inside your clothes. If you are being tracked by a mage, and said mage gains a line of sight to them, he or she may be able to disrupt them permanently that way.”

“So noted,” Jasmine said quickly, reaching for the stack. “And…ah, good, there are five. We’ll make sure Rasha gets his. Thank you, Gimmick.”

“Ah, yes, that is the other matter,” Saduko continued. “Mr. Vandro pays well to be appraised of any interesting events transpiring in the city, and has just learned of one he felt would be relevant to you. Your friend Rasha is currently in an Imperial jail for assault.”

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11 – 14

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“Ah, Basra. Close the door, please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both the other women present nodded in immediate understanding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mm hm,” Basra murmured.

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

“Thank you, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

“I appreciate that, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, Commander.”

“Anything else to report?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Permission to speak freely, ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, Commander.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, um, I’m sure that’s not—”

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

“Uh…thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you need, your Grace?”

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

“Ah, your Grace,” Jenell said nervously.

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

“I’m… How should I approach them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was the first part, done.


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

Fortunately, she wasn’t kept waiting long.

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

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

“She bought it.”

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

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11 – 4

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High Commander Rouvad was not in her office; her aide directed Principia to one of the temple’s basements. Hopefully the Commander was not expecting her on any particular schedule, because the trip to get there, after climbing to the top of the temple and then down below it, took a quarter of an hour at least.

It was perhaps fortunate that Principia had spent most of the walk practicing her control over her expression. When she entered the basement in question to find Commander Rouvad and Bishop Syrinx standing over a table of battlestaves, she revealed none of her considerable ire on her face.

“Ah, Sergeant,” Rouvad said as she marched up to them and saluted. “Finally. How did it go with the Eserites?”

“I left them in Sister Tianne’s custody, ma’am,” Principia reported. “On my recommendation she is having them thoroughly clean out the outpost’s stables prior to releasing them.”

“An interesting choice,” Basra commented. Principia did not even glance at her.

“I see,” Rouvad mused. “What was your reasoning, Locke?”

“Guild apprentices aren’t particularly dangerous and don’t know anything useful about the fully accredited thieves who are, ma’am. Having them prosecuted would serve no purpose and irritate Boss Tricks. The Sisterhood doesn’t have the prerogative to administer punishments for civil offenses like arms trafficking. The Guild itself, however, would discipline apprentices for a failure of that kind, unless the chief enforcer felt they’d already suffered for it. Putting them to work and then letting them go satisfied the needs of both cults to enforce discipline, averted a confrontation the Guild might take as provocative, and even nurtured some goodwill.”

“Good initiative,” Basra said mildly. “I believe handling relations with the Guild is my job, however.”

“I have heard no suggestion that your Grace’s work is anything less than exemplary at the political level,” Principia replied, still at attention. “My squad is tasked with cultivating interfaith connections, however. I think much of the Sisterhood’s hostility to the Guild is due to a misunderstanding of mindset, even more than doctrinal conflict. Avenists are all about rules; Eserites are all about connections. Showing them that we can be reasonable and forgiving opens the door to future cooperation.”

“Even when that forgiveness is clearly self-serving?” Basra asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Especially then, your Grace. Otherwise they would merely be suspicious.”

“At ease, Locke,” the High Commander interjected. “It sounds to me like you handled the situation well. How is your weapons development project proceeding?”

Principia didn’t blink at the abrupt change of topic. “I am still working on the sticking point I referenced in my last progress report, Commander. The metal of a lance head makes a poor firing surface. Metal is a magical retardant; it holds passive enchantments well but doesn’t want to transmit magic through it, and as an added complication conducts electricity very well. The avenue I am pursuing at the moment is to tinker with the alloy used, which is difficult as I’m not a metallurgist by any means. I’ve sent for research materials from Stavulheim and Yldiron.”

Rouvad raised an eyebrow. “I’ve been following your requisitions, and I don’t recall seeing anything like that.”

“No, ma’am, I made those purchases with my own funds. I’m reluctant to spend the Sisterhood’s money on what I’m not certain will bear fruit.”

Rouvad sighed and shook her head. “You’re picking up some of Nandi’s habits. Your concern for the Sisterhood’s coffers is noted, Locke, but henceforth I would prefer you requisitioned anything you needed through the official channels. Projects like this need thorough records, and reading requisitions enables me to keep abreast of your progress without wasting both our time asking questions.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

The Commander turned to frown at the table of weapons, which Prinicipa took the opportunity to study. They had been heavily modified with large crystals at both ends and gold frameworks spiraling around the upper half of each. With the exception of one laid aside, whose framework was a tarnished gray and showed serious rust damage.

“It has probably occurred to you to wonder what the Silver Legion was doing interrupting a Guild arms meet,” Rouvad said. “This actually came from Bishop Syrinx, who was tipped off by Bishop Darling that what was taking place in that warehouse would be very important and of interest to us, specifically.”

“Eserites in general love to play pranks, especially on us,” Basra added. “Darling is too political to waste goodwill that way, though. He’s never led me astray before, so I presume that this was important.”

“Anything to add to that, Locke?” Rouvad asked.

“I concur with the Bishop’s assessment, Commander. I have not worked directly with Darling, but I know him and his reputation. He’s a bridge-builder.”

“Mm.” Rouvad nodded. “And that leaves us with our catch. There were three vendors present, according to our scouts; they all escaped, leaving a few hapless apprentices holding the bag. One was dealing in some orcish antiquities, and got out with his stock. That is potentially of cultural value to the Sisterhood, but a less likely prospect. The second had a selection of conventional weapons with illegal and nasty modification—again, not really the Sisterhood’s concern. Those we seized, and I am debating whether to simply destroy them or turn them over to the military police.”

“Why the uncertainty, ma’am?” Principia asked.

“Because,” Rouvad replied, “if we hand them off to the Empire, they will have questions if it later become necessary to give them these as well. Lord Vex wouldn’t be the least bit surprised at a major cult withholding evidence from him, but if I have to admit to it the loss of face could have practical consequences. And these, Locke, are why I called you here. The last Guild vendor had several crates of them, and was discussing a sale with two dwarves. At the moment it’s my assumption this is what Darling sent us to find.” She picked up the lone weapon with the tarnished metal and handed it to Principia. “What do you make of this?”

She accepted the staff and turned it over in her hand, examining every part of it carefully. “…well, at a glance, little more than you can see for yourself, ma’am. It’s a modified battlestaff. Why is this one different?”

“That one has been used,” Rouvad explained. “They all arrived in the same condition. We tested one, though, and after being fired four times it abruptly changed to that and stopped working.”

“How does it perform when fired?”

“It doesn’t. Or at least, it doesn’t appear to do anything. Here, watch.”

The Commander lifted the staff in a standard firing position, grasping the clicker and tucking the butt under her arm to aim; despite leading a military which used an older generation of weapons, she was clearly not new to handling modern firearms. She took aim at one of the target dummies standing against the wall of the basement chamber and squeezed the clicker.

The crystal at the end of the staff emitted a burst of golden light, which flashed across the room to splash against the dummy. It dissipated instantly, rocking the dummy slightly but having no significant effect.

Rouvad lowered the staff and set it aside, carefully putting it separate from the other, unfired models. “We’ve also tested it against shield charms, in case it’s some kind of shield-breaker. It did nothing to those, either. It seems likely that it is intended to do something specifically to a person, which is deeply disturbing and, of course, explains why Darling might find it necessary to tip us off about this. But there is no ethical way to test that, of course. Before we resort to such measures, I want to see what can be learned through analysis. Thoughts, Locke?”

“Well, first of all, I understand what happened to the broken one, now,” she said, still examining it. “This is liargold.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s an alchemical formulation of iron pyrite, also known as fool’s gold. Liargold, in addition to looking like real gold, also mimics its magical properties. Not for long, though, as actually putting magic on or through it damages its structure, until it reverts to plain, simple iron pyrite. In fact, if you see any object made from pyrite, it’s probably exhausted liargold; it’s not workable like more useful metals. These weapons are cheaply-made knockoffs, probably nothing more than proofs of concept. Also, ironically, more illegal than the modified wands. You need a license and Imperial oversight to work with liargold, since its primary use is, of course, counterfeiting coins. I surmise these devices require gold to work. Which… Yes, I can see why nobody wanted to shell out for a whole crate of them.”

“I had a feeling you were the person to ask about this,” Rouvad said in a mildly satisfied tone. “I am temporarily suspending your enchantment program, Locke. For the time being, you will instead direct your effort to these things. Figure out what they are, how they work, and what they are meant to do.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said calmly. “Commander… Reverse-enchanting weapons is a completely different matter from designing new ones. My divinatory skills are minor and wholly inadequate to this task. I’ll need a dedicated scryer to work with.”

“We’ll get you one,” Rouvad said, then glanced at Basra. “For the time being, I want this kept quiet, at least until we know what we’re dealing with, here. In addition to figuring out what the devices themselves are, I want to know where they came from. You will both pursue that, from above and below, so to speak. I suspect Darling would have told you more if he intended to, Basra, but see if you can get anything more out of him.”

“Gladly, Commander.”

“And Sergeant, do likewise. Discretion is key, but I want you to dedicate your squad’s efforts to finding and following leads. This is now your primary mission; Captain Dijanerad will be informed.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting. Her gaze cut sideways for a second to Basra, who was now studying her through narrowed eyes.

“And furthermore,” Rouvad said sternly, “there will be an absolute maximum of zero infighting between you two. I am aware of your history; I was present for it. Given your respective mandates, this will not be the last time you will find yourselves working in proximity to one another, if not actively together. Your tasks call for you to be calculating, discreet, and above all, diplomatic. If either prove unable in that regard, I will find something for you to do which better suits your demonstrated level of maturity. Am I understood?”

“Of course.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” She looked back and forth between them with an expression which would brook no nonsense. “Then you both know what you need to be working on. Locke, I know you’ve been out all night on assignment; go rest up with your squad.”

“Yes, ma’am. Commander, there’s something else. May I speak with you in private?”

Rouvad heaved a soft sigh, regarding her speculatively. “Well, I know you and I have no personal business, and as this is the first time I’m hearing of it, may I assume this pertains to your mission last night?”

“It—yes, ma’am, it’s an issue I became aware of at that time.”

“Well, Locke, that doesn’t quite qualify as infighting, but you are straining my tolerance. The Bishop has a right to be kept in the loop with regard to anything concerning our dealings with the Guild or the law. Spit it out.”

Basra folded her arms, keeping her expression neutral.

Principia did not indulge in even the slightest flicker of emotion on her own face. “Yes, ma’am. Trissiny Avelea was among the Eserite apprentices we apprehended and put to work last night.”

Rouvad raised her eyebrows, and turned to regard Basra, who shrugged.

“She either works fast, or isn’t the most quick-legged of thieves,” the Bishop said. “Both are in character, from what I understand, and I’d consider neither a failing.”

“And what did you do with Trissiny Avelea, Sergeant?” Rouvad asked quietly.

“Exactly as I did with the rest of them, Commander,” Principia replied. “No personal acknowledgment aside from a condescending put-down when she sassed me. I realize you have a low opinion of my background, but it’s prepared me well to recognize when someone is under cover and not blow it.”

“You have spoken with her in person, if I’m not mistaken?” Rouvad continued, her stare boring into Principia. “She knows who and what you are?”

“She knows.”

“All right.” The Commander shook her head. “I won’t trouble to remind you of the condition of your enlistment, since you clearly remember. Thank you for reporting this, but unless she appears to be in some danger, it’s not your concern or ours. And likely not even then. Hands of Avei are meant to be more resilient and adaptive than soldiers in general.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Principia glanced rapidly back and forth between them. “Commander, do I take this to mean you were already aware she was among the Guild?”

“Of course we were, Locke,” Rouvad said sardonically. “I am the mortal leader of this faith, and the Bishop is our official point of connection to the Church and the other cults. General Avelea does not go charging off to do whatever she likes without notifying her chain of command. I can only assume that results from Abbess Narnasia’s upbringing. It clearly isn’t genetic. Is that all, Locke?”

“What is she doing?”

“As soon as that is any concern of yours, Locke,” Rouvad said in a tone of quiet warning, “she’ll inform you. If there is nothing else, you have your orders. Dismissed.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Principia saluted her, then turned and did the same to Basra. “Welcome home, your Grace.”

“Why, thank you, Sergeant Locke,” Basra said with a pleasant little smile.

Commander Rouvad heaved a sigh.


There were multiple ways in and out of the Thieves’ Guild headquarters, unsurprisingly. The first thing all who applied for an apprenticeship learned was that grubby apprentices were not to be found trooping through the Imperial Casino. On this night, the five bedraggled youths coming home as dawn was breaking chose a servant’s access in a side alley, and thus earned themselves another loud lecture to the effect that grubby apprentices were not to troop through the casino’s kitchens, either.

They did their best to ignore the stares of fellow apprentices and knowing grins of full Guild members as they passed through the underground corridors to the Guild proper. Fortunately, it was the best time of day for that, with most of those keeping normal business hours not about yet and most of the night crowd having turned in. The Thieves’ Guild never truly slept, though, and even apprentices weren’t kept to any schedule but their own. No matter what time of day one chose to straggle in, reeking, sweaty, and exhausted, there was certain to be an audience of some kind.

In this case, perhaps the worst one possible.

“What the hell happened to you losers?” Style demanded as soon as they’d descended the stairs into the central pit, planting fists on her hips to stare incredulously at them. “You look like you’ve been mucking out a stable.”

“We fought a dragon,” Tallie said challengingly.

“And then we rescued a princess!” Darius added.

“And then we mucked out a stable,” Jasmine said wearily.

“Hn. Coulda been a lot worse, I guess,” she said, folding her brawny arms. Today’s outfit was some kind of elaborate faux-clerical robe, embroidered with stylized animals along the hem and cuffs in a manner that resembled plains elf decoration. It was one of the more effeminate things she’d worn in recent memory, but somehow the burly enforcer managed to make the outfit seem martial. “If you didn’t turn up by tonight I was gonna go rattle Sweet’s cage to get you back from the Avenists.”

“Oh,” Tallie said, her shoulders slumping. “So…you know about last night.”

“Heard the news straight from Pick himself,” she said grimly. “Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble. You kids are just about the rankest fucking amateurs we have in this joint; nobody would expect you to know how to pull off an escape from a smoke-bombed room. Did any of you even think to check your exits before setting up in there?”

They glanced uncertainly at each other.

“Uh huh,” Style said sourly. “And naturally, Pick didn’t bother to show you that trick, or ask if you knew it. That on top of dragging a bunch of apprentices into that and then ditching them for the Legion. Just when I thought that little fuckhead couldn’t possibly climb higher up my shit list, he found a way. Oy, what the hell is this?” Her piercing gaze fixed on Rasha, who took a nervous step backward in response, and she scowled heavily. “No, you may not have a pet.”

“This is Rasha,” Tallie explained. “He’s new.”

“New, my exquisitely sculpted ass. I know every apprentice studying here.”

“New,” Jasmine explained, “as in, literally just arrived and had a meal when we found out about the job. He doesn’t have a bunk yet.”

“Are you kidding me?” she demanded, brows lowering still further. “You mean to say this scrawny little shrimp set foot in my Guild and literally the first thing he did, even before finding a place to kip, was get his ass to work?”

She took two long strides forward, into the middle of their group, causing Tallie and Darius to peel away in alarm; Rasha tried to backpedal away from the oncoming enforcer, but was stopped by Jasmine and Ross, who held their ground right behind him. Style bent forward to clap him on the shoulder so hard his knees buckled, and grinned broadly.

“You, shorty, have got a future. I’m gonna be watching you with great interest.”

“Stop,” Rasha growled, “calling. Me. Small.”

It only occurred to him belatedly that snarling like a stray dog at someone who was not only highly-ranked in the Guild but clearly physically capable of breaking him in half wasn’t the wisest thing he had ever done, even after the events of the last day.

Style’s grin faded, replaced by a more pensive expression which seemed oddly out of place on her bluff features.

“Kid,” she said seriously, “you’re small. That’s not an insult, it’s a simple fact, and a pretty fucking obvious one. You’re here to learn to be a thief; being small is all kinds of useful if you learn how to use it—which you had better get your ass to work doing. Anybody who rags on you for your stature has shit between their ears, and when it starts to spill out their mouths, the correct thing to do is walk the fuck away and talk to someone less disgusting.”

Style stepped back, dragging a speculative stare across them, then wrinkled her nose. “All right…Rasha, was it? I know you’re half-dead on your feet, but you’re new, so you get the speech. Everyone gets the speech; if I have to repeat the speech to you, it’ll be while going about my daily tasks wearing your ass as a boot. So long as you’re staying in my apprentice barracks, you will be a model fucking citizen. You will respect the persons, the privacy, and the possessions of your fellow apprentices. You don’t steal anybody’s shit or mess with it at all, you don’t force any kind of attention on anybody who doesn’t want it, and you do not test the limits to see how far you can push the rules. The line is drawn wherever I fucking feel like drawing it on a given day, and if I think you’re probing at me, I’ll smack the stupid out of you on the spot. Also, the barracks is to remain spotlessly clean—by which I mean, if I happen to pass through and am in any way dissatisfied with its condition, I will kick the shit out of each and every person residing therein, either sequentially or concurrently, depending on how much time I happen to have for apprentice bullshit that day. Simple solution is you keep your own area clean with regular attention, and if you spot something needs cleaning, you do it instead of waiting for others to. Eserion’s service attracts selfish people by nature; by the time you graduate to full Guild membership, you will demonstrate, among other things, that you can respect your fellow thieves, your Guild, and its facilities. Any questions?”

“I grew up on ships,” Rasha said, folding his arms. “Clean and tidy I can do.”

“Good.” Style nodded once. “Now, all of you. I can clearly see you’re exhausted, but on the roster of things about which I give a shit, that is substantially below the condition and the smell of you. You will all go wash yourselves and your clothes before soiling my lovely barracks with your reeking carcasses. Rasha, your fellow miscreants will conduct you to the facilities, show you where everything is and how to work it. Then, just pick whatever bunk isn’t occupied and help your goddamn self. Clear?”

“It’s a little excessive, isn’t it?” Jasmine noted. “I mean, my last roommate liked to curse like a sailor, too, but she worked it into conversation. Organically. You seem to be trying too hard.”

“Uh…” Darius stared at her, wide-eyed. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to get a rise outta me,” Style said dryly. “Because she was placed here by the gods specifically to be a thorn in my ass. Tell you what, Jasmine, I’m gonna refrain from clocking you because I find it a very positive development that you’re already picking up the habit of fighting with words instead of fists. Frankly, when you first showed up here, I didn’t think you had the necessary mental capacity. Now, either you learn quickly what fights are and are not worth picking, or you’ll end up picking your teeth out of the floorboards.”

“Uh, the floor’s stone,” Tallie said helpfully.

Style grinned broadly. “Yeah. That is what makes it an impressive party trick. Go get cleaned up, junior fuckups. You have a whole new day in which to make asses of yourselves ahead.”


The rest of the squad, including Casey, were in their bunks and apparently fully inert by the time Principia returned to the barracks. Nobody was even snoring, Merry having rolled onto her side already, which based on experience meant she’d been out for a while now. The arcane stove was active, but at its lowest setting, having very little work to do against the unseasonable warmth. She paused in the central aisle between beds to glance around at the others with a small smile, then set about unbuckling her armor.

Nandi’s blonde head appeared over the edge of the bunk above her own. “Anything interesting?” she asked in a bare whisper, soft enough the humans present would probably not have heard even had they been awake.

Principia shook her head, replying in the same tone. “In addition to a handful of Eserite guppies, the Legion seized some kind of experimental magical weapons, which are now our mission. I’m to figure out what makes ’em hum, while the squad tracks where they came from. And,” she added sourly, “we will be working parallel to our esteemed Bishop on this. She’s going to start from the top while we work from the bottom.”

“Hmm.” Nandi blinked languidly. She did not appear tired, which was no surprise. The Legions fed its soldiers well; both elves had enough energy stored in their auras to go for days without needing to rest, not that they tried to push it as a rule. “A matched set of risks and opportunities, that.”

“It occurred to me, yes.”

“Any notion where to start looking?”

“That is the problem,” Principia said with a sigh as she stowed away her armor and peeled off her underthings, reaching for her sleeping shift. The others had doubtless needed to wash up before getting into bunks; elves did not sweat much, and she found her own condition satisfactorily sanitary. “I’ve positioned myself rather poorly for this, Nandi. Keeping my distance from the Guild has left me with few useful contacts in the arms trade, especially here in Tiraas. I can’t go to Darling, because that’s what Syrinx is doing, and apart from not wanting to cross paths with her, I don’t want to tip him off that…well, any of it. Darling loves to be useful, but he files away every tidbit for future leverage, and I don’t need him planting any levers under my bum.”

“Well,” Nandi suggested, smiling as Principia climbed into her bunk, “we did just make some very junior acquaintances in the Guild, did we not? They probably don’t think the best of you right now, but surely a few of that handful were perceptive enough to see the trouble your decision kept them out of.”

“Guild apprentices won’t know anything useful that we could pursue,” she said dismissively, “aside from the very basics of who they were working for, and I’ll tie my ears in a bow if the Guild hadn’t covered those tracks before they even learned of this. Besides… There could be complications if the High Commander gets word of me trying to approach that particular group of apprentices.”

“One of them, anyway.”

Principia sighed. “Y’know, I never wondered, before, whether you were in the loop about that. Somehow, it surprises me not in the least.”

“I shall take that as a compliment.” Nandi was now staring up at the ceiling, still speaking in he tiniest of whispers, which Principia had no trouble hearing in the quiet cabin. “Well. As any hunter could tell you, the solution is obvious. If we cannot stalk our quarry, we must entice it to come to us.”

“Go to sleep, Shahai. I’ll brief the squad in full later today.”

Nandi smiled serenely up at the ceiling. “Yes, ma’am.”

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Home.

Not that it hadn’t been an enlightening and immensely beneficial trip, but he was a creature of the city; walking the streets of Tiraas again was like regaining a part of himself that he had stopped noticing was absent. Even now, strolling placidly through the fairly upper-class Steppe neighborhood in his robes of office, Darling felt more at ease than he could remember in a long time. He’d found the time for a quick jaunt around some of his old haunts as Sweet, but apart from that he’d been largely buried under a backlog of work. Now, on his way to the Cathedral yet again, he’d chosen to go by foot, and to take a long detour that let him see more of the city than was strictly necessary.

It was worth it. Worth it on its own merits, and proved even more so as he discovered when he found himself outside a discreet old brownstone building with a familiar sub-level entrance and a tasteful sign out front. Familiar, though he’d only seen it once.

Darling paused, contemplating this. Well, he’d allotted himself plenty of time to amble, anyway, and it wasn’t as if this place would have been visible to him without very specific reason. A quick glance up and down the street revealed that he was completely alone, itself an odd and suggestive thing considering this hour of the morning.

With a shrug and a smile, he paused only to run a hand over his carefully combed hair, then descended the steps and opened the door to the Elysium.

The bar was just as he remembered: expensive, quiet, and mostly empty. In fact, it was considerably more empty this time, being that he was apparently the only patron. The only other individual present was a swarthy, shaggy-haired man standing behind the bar, idly wiping out a glass with a white rag.

“Top of the mornin’, Antonio!” Eserion called cheerfully, waving to him. “C’mon in, have a seat. Punaji Sunrise, right?”

“Now, now, that’s just to intimidate the party-going set,” Darling said easily, permitting none of the torrent of curiosity he felt near his face or voice. He strolled forward and slid onto a stool near the bartender, but positioned so that he could still see the door. “Generally I prefer a brandy, but c’mon. It’s not even noon. And I’ve got to go wrangle priests today.”

Eserion chuckled obligingly. “Fine, fine, I guess you’ll be wanting to keep your wits intact for that. Hot tea it is, then.”

Despite the lack of any stove or heating element, he produced a steaming pot and deftly poured a cup, which smelled bewitchingly of jasmine and vanilla.

“Oh, my,” Darling mused, lifting the porcelain cup and inhaling deeply. “That’s the good stuff. Smells like the boudoir of the most expensive lady I ever carried on with.”

“They serve this blend down at Marcio’s Bistro,” the god replied lightly, again polishing an already-clean glass. “Have you tried the food there?”

“I have, in fact, at their grand reopening. It tends toward the spicy, doesn’t it? Not necessarily to my taste. But then, that was at the dinner hour, and they were serving wine. I might just pop in every now and again for tea if this is what they have on offer.”

“Give the food a chance,” Eserion said with a mild smile. “It’s more zesty than spicy; not a combination of flavors one gets to sample much in Tiraas these days.”

“Indeed,” Darling said lightly. “I have it on good authority the cuisine there is a pretty good approximation of something no one has seen in eight thousand years or so.”

“Better authority than you may know. How was your trip?”

“Fantastic, thanks. Also…puzzling. I guess it just wouldn’t be fair if I got answers without picking up a dozen more questions along the way.”

“Well.” Eserion winked. “There’s really only one good thing you can do with a question, isn’t there?”

Darling lifted the teacup and took a careful sip, watching him. The god simply gazed back, wearing a disarming smile.

“Why thieves?” he asked at last. “Of all the things you could be patron of. What made you pick…this?”

Eserion’s smile widened momentarily, then he coughed and winked, setting down the glass and rag to fold his arms and lean back against the shelves behind him.

“The truth? The real truth? I’d advise you not to repeat this, Antonio, but… None of this was supposed to happen. The plan was to wreck ascension, not use it. We weren’t trying to turn into gods, all we wanted to do was bring them down. As usual with complex plans, it all went right straight to shit and we had to improvise. And those of us who ended up with godhood? Well, not one of us was prepared for it. A good few weren’t even part of the resistance. Naphthene owned a boat some of us had used; Sorash was a mercenary thug who happened to be nearby. Shaath… Ah, that poor bastard. All he wanted to do was field work, studying the wildlife. We just kept running across him when trying to keep away from civilization and catalog the fauna. He was gettin’ really sick of us by the end, and had the worst possible luck to be on hand when it all went down.” He paused, narrowing his eyes. “Actually…no, I spoke incorrectly. A few of us were prepared. Those who ended up with the greater power, the multiple aspects… We mostly just accidentally latched onto whatever concept spoke most to our hearts. Those four, though. They were ready. They had planned.”

“You think…” Darling frowned, toying with his teacup. “Did they deliberately take ascension, despite your plans?”

“I can’t see it,” Eserion said immediately, shaking his head. “Vidius…maybe. He’s enough of an old fox to think of that, but… Even so, it’s a stretch. But I never met anybody who wanted power less than Omnu or Themynra. And Avei…” He chuckled. “Poor Avei. She was always going on about what she’d do when we could all quit. When the gods were brought down, she was gonna go build a modest little house far from any cities and raise horses. No, they were just planners. Some people, Antonio, are simply heroic by nature. Adventurers born. They were ready for everything, including a rushed, accidental ascension. And thus, they ended up in charge.” He shook his head again. “Better them than me.

“But speaking of me, that’s what you asked about.” He tilted his chin up, smirking faintly. “Might not guess it to look at me now, but standards of beauty being what they were, I was just the prettiest princess of them all, back in the day.”

Darling blinked. “Uh.”

The god cracked a grin at him. “That was the point. I belonged to Szyrein, one of the Elders. In fact, I was one of her favorites. Bred for fifty generations to be beautiful, trained from birth to be…pleasing.”

Despite all his years of practice, Darling could feel the sudden, utter sickness he felt creeping onto his expression. Eserion’s face didn’t change, though, apart from the slightly faraway look that stole into his eyes.

“Your own wits and skills are all you have; they’re all that can’t be taken from you. People with too much power have—have—to be brought down. And at the intersection of those two truths is the fact that no matter how powerful, now supremely above you someone is, you can always find a way to stick to to ’em if you’re clever, and careful. That was who I was, so that’s what I became. Thieves, though?” He grinned. “That was sort of an accident. I guess if you grow up owned by somebody, you end up not giving a shit about property rights.”

“What did happen?” Darling asked.

Eserion’s expression sobered. “Watch yourself around Lil, Sweet. She’s every bit the schemer your research has shown, and more besides. But, like all really good deceivers, she doesn’t lie any more than she can help. You got a warning that you’d be wise to heed: there are things you just aren’t allowed to know. Not without consequences.”

“Am I wrong,” Darling asked casually, holding up his teacup to inhale the fragrance, “or do I get the idea you don’t agree with that policy?”

“Hey, now, I’m not the one making decisions in this outfit. You know how I feel about the people in charge, anyway. Not that I’ve any personal grudge with the Trinity, but… Nobody can be trusted with power. Not any of us; not even me. Power changes people. No matter how careful you are, or how noble your intentions, it twists and destroys you slowly from the inside.”

“Almost makes you wish there was a way to prevent anybody from having it,” Darling mused.

“Yeah, well.” Eserion smirked again. “That would involve somebody with absolute power administering it, which…brings you right back to the beginning. Nah, the best solution I’ve found is to have people whose whole purpose is fighting the power when it rises. It’s a constant struggle, but in the end, isn’t that better?”

“Is it?”

“People always have to struggle,” the god said more seriously, “that’s our greatest virtue. Even our crimes and failures give us things to fight against—and every fight can be a source of strength, and wisdom.”

“It certainly keeps you feeling alive,” Darling mused. “And sometimes, the opposite.”

“Sounds like you’re already getting nostalgic for your vacation,” Eserion said sympathetically. “Herding the cats wearing you down?”

“Oh, you know how it is.” He shrugged and took another sip of tea. “Justinian puts up such a front of being in control I honestly can’t guess how much control he really has. He doesn’t seem fazed by Tellwyrn’s utter destruction of his ploy against her; apparently it was just a test, he claims, to see whether that approach would work, and he’s very satisfied with the results.”

“That kind of inner control can be a weakness or a serious asset,” the god commented.

“Mm. It makes me worry about Tricks; too. I’m starting to see cracks, there, and that’s not like him.” He gave the god a piercing look. “I don’t suppose there’s anything you want to tell me…?”

“Sure, just as soon as you take up his offer to trade jobs again,” Eserion said cheerfully. “Honestly, though, Sweet, I think you’re doing more good where you are.”

“I was just wondering, though,” Darling said mildly, gazing up at the ceiling and pushing his teacup back and forth between his hands. “This thing about transcension fields…”

“Bleh, just say magic, for fuck’s sake. I never understood that gobbledygook and I don’t intend to start. Better for the universe if nobody ever figures out how to do that again.”

“Magic, then. This knowledge the gods have of what people know… The Avatar specifically said that’s processed by the…magic field. And suppose, hypothetically, there were a thing between dimensions, a thing that specifically blocks and disrupts magic. If someone learned something there…”

Eserion’s smile widened fractionally, but he shook his head. “You’re doing so well, Sweet. Don’t spoil it by asking me to cheat for you.”

“You? Cheat?” Darling put on his broadest, most innocent smile. “Perish the thought.”

Mentally, though, he re-categorized that theory from a tentative possibility to an avenue worthy of earnest pursuit.

To judge by the god’s smile, he wasn’t fooling anyone.

Yet.


Branwen’s office in the Grand Cathedral was spacious and elegantly appointed, with a large seating area between the door and her desk. Potted plants stood atop shelves, and in one corner a little decorative fountain splashed musically, its water kept moving and perpetually clean thanks to rare and pricey charms. The fireplace also roared with a comfy blaze—comfy and illusionary, which could add heat to the room or not, at a command. The enchantments in the room had cost more than even the gilded furniture, which was saying something. It was a pleasing space, though, where she could feel relaxed and at home, even away from home.

She was just finishing applying her seal to the last in a stack of correspondence when the door was opened from the outside without the courtesy of a knock.

“Ah, answering fan mail?” Basra asked pleasantly, stepping in and pushing the door gently shut behind her. “How wonderful! It’s a relief to see you’re still getting any. Imagine, a sitting Bishop publicly repudiated by her own goddess! You are a theological marvel, Branwen.”

“Actually,” Branwen said, “I’m told sales of my book have skyrocketed. Apparently nothing sells like notoriety. Not that it isn’t always a pleasure, Bas, but I’ve never known you to make idle social calls before. What can I do for you?”

“I’ve been doing some research,” Basra said, pacing slowly into the room, “into the career of one Ildrin Falaridjad. The downside of my stellar success in the crisis at the border has been a sad lack of damages for which she can be blamed; the list of charges resulting from her stupidity is depressingly short and minor. Of course, I already knew she was a staunch supporter of the Archpope and the Universal Church, to the point it was becoming an annoyance to her fellow Sisters. Interestingly, though, she’s never done anything like that stunt she pulled at Varansis. No insubordination, no outbursts of violence, no rampant glory-hogging or inexplicably having access to other cults’ rare magical devices. Nobody, even, who seemed to find her as congenitally thick-headed as I did. And I had a thought.” She continued forward at a leisurely pace, fixing a predatory stare on Branwen, who simply watched her approach in perfect calm. “Does is perhaps seem suspicious to you that someone would suddenly act contrary to their usual behavior in the presence of a known projective empath?”

“I think it’s telling,” Branwen said mildly, “that you’re talking about a woman acting out of character, and your own constant bullying and abuse of her doesn’t even enter into your calculations.”

“So I did some further digging,” Basra continued, ignoring her. “She has refused to reveal where she got that shatterstone, but Antonio was good enough to get me the rough black market price for one. They are obtainable outside your cult, but it costs more than Falaridjad would make in five years. Someone got it for her, someone with connections in Izara’s faith. And then, there is the matter of how she came to be part of the expedition. You dug her up, specifically, along with a bard who had an established dislike of me due to thinking I’d set her up for the Shaathists.”

“Of course,” Branwen said with a faint smile, “she thought so because you did that. Which also isn’t a consideration to you, I suppose.”

“And,” Basra continued, stepping right up to Branwen and looming over her, “it seems to me that someone as politically adept as yourself would not be oblivious to the fact that having a known Church loyalist involved in that mission could create questions. Concerns about my presence, and intentions. Abbess Darnassy had, in fact, mentioned at the beginning how very convenient it was that a problem arose which so precisely suited my talents to solve. All it would take was the persistent suggestion that Justinian had arranged the whole thing to get me back to Tiraas, and Commander Rouvad would land on me like the fist of Avei herself. And that was before said Justinian loyalist was inexplicably provoked into actively sabotaging the mission.”

Branwen smiled, sighed softly, and shook her head ruefully. “Oh…all right. I suppose I ought to have known better. I’ve made my way chiefly by being a source of happiness to those around me, which is a whole different kind of politics; I’m just not cut out for your flavor of cloak and dagger.”

“Indeed.” Her face cold now, Basra leaned forward, right into her space, planting one hand on the back of Branwen’s chair and the other on the desk to physically bar her into her seat. “I’m only going to tell you this once, Snowe. Do not attempt, nor even dream about attempting any such shit with me again. Ever. You are nothing even approaching a match for me in that arena, and I am not a person you want for an enemy.”

“Oh, Basra, don’t be silly,” Branwen said in a fondly chiding tone, still smiling. “You’re not a person at all.”

For a long moment they locked eyes, the Izarite smiling, the Avenist expressionless. Only the fountain and the fire could be heard in the room.

Finally, Basra tilted her head slowly to one side. “I beg your pardon?” she asked in a tone of mild curiosity.

“You’re a…thing,” Branwen continued, still with that pleasant little smile. “A walking defect. A would-be miscarriage conceived without a soul and quite accidentally brought to term. Oh, I realize you think you’re a wolf among sheep, but that’s only because you lack the mental architecture to understand the strength people gain by forming connections with each other. Something you simply cannot do.”

Moving deliberately, she stood up, pushing herself right back into Basra’s space; the other Bishop backed away at the last second, straightening up and still staring quizzically at the shorter woman.

“Understand, Basra, that you aren’t as invisible as you like to think. Oh, most people don’t realize what a horror you are; most people have no concept that things like you exist. But there are some—Commander Rouvad, his Holiness, Antonio—who do know, and tolerate you because they find you useful. Then, too, there are cultures which understand things that humanity has yet to puzzle out. If you ever find yourself in a dwarven university, you might find it illuminating to read up on what they call ‘social pathology.’”

Branwen took a step forward. Basra, her face an expressionless mask, backed away again.

“Here’s the thing, Bas. You simply do not comprehend how emotion works, because yours are such paltry things. Every feeling you have is shallow and wild, and all of them are variations on either rage…” She smiled, slowly, catlike and sly. “…or desire.”

There was no visible effect in the room, but the change that overcame Basra was instant and striking. Her eyes widened, pupils dilating hugely; she shivered bodily, gave a soft, trembling gasp, and abruptly surged forward. In an instant she had wrapped her arms around Branwen, roughly grasping her head and tilting it up to press a fierce, hungry kiss to her lips.

A moment later she was flung bodily backward by the shield of golden light which flashed into place around the Izarite.

“And once roused,” Branwen continued as if never interrupted, “you have no more control over your passions than does a child. Which is why I didn’t show you rage, and won’t allow you to experience it. At least until I’m done talking to you.”

Turning back to her desk, she pulled open the top drawer and retrieved a small compact; flipping the lid up to reveal a mirror, she took up the small brush contained within and set about repairing the damage done to the rouge on her lips.

Standing six feet away now, Basra absently scrubbed the back of her hand across her mouth, again staring at Branwen without expression.

“Matters are very different for most people,” the Izarite said, tucking the brush back into its slot and beginning to carefully fix her hair with her fingers, still gazing at the tiny mirror. “Emotion is so intertwined with thought as to be inextricable. There are so many kinds of emotions, and so many subtle shades… It’s a whole world you couldn’t begin to comprehend. And for someone like me, who can reach out and touch those vastly complex feelings…” Satisfied, she clicked the compact shut and turned to smile warmly at Basra. “Well, I won’t ask you to believe any claims I make. I shouldn’t need to, after all; you’ve gone and figured out for yourself how wildly out of character Ildrin acted when I needed her to. Instead, Basra, I want you to ponder a hypothetical.”

Branwen set the compact down on her desk and folded her arms beneath her breasts, her smile growing faintly, and becoming lopsided. “What do you suppose would happen if everyone who doesn’t understand you suddenly did… And everyone who tolerates you suddenly didn’t?”

She let that hang for a moment. Basra stared at her in continued silence, her face apparently frozen.

“So,” Branwen said more briskly, “I think you’re right; I’ll be staying away from trying to manipulate events henceforth. It really isn’t my strong suit, is it? Far more sensible to stick to what I can do, and do well.”

Abruptly, her smile faded and her voice hardened. “You are a rabid dog, Basra Syrinx. His Holiness believes he has you on a leash. Despite my misgivings, I have decided to trust his judgment, for now. But if you slip that leash again, like you did with Principia Locke and her squad—oh, yes, I know all about that—it will be the last time. Your entire world will unmake itself. Overnight. And nowhere will you find a hint that I was even involved. So…”

She strode forward, right at the other woman; this time, Basra gave no ground, simply watching her come. Branwen stalked almost close enough that they were touching again, staring up into Basra’s flat gaze, her own blue eyes suddenly ice-hard.

“Heel, girl.”

They stood that way in total silence for long seconds, and then Branwen suddenly smiled, turned away, and stepped toward the door.

Behind her, Basra twitched violently, another rapid change washing over her. Suddenly, her face twisted into an animalistic snarl and she took a half step forward, falling into a fighting crouch, hands outstretched.

“And before you attempt any of the things you’re contemplating,” Branwen added without turning around, “I suggest you consider how much this conversation surprised you, and ask yourself what else you have no idea I’m capable of.”

She opened the door, glanced over her shoulder with a flirtatious little smile, and glided out into the hall, leaving it open behind her.

Basra stood in place, breathing heavily for a few seconds, then whirled and stalked over to Branwen’s desk. There, she snatched up the little mirrored compact and hurled it savagely into the fire.


He was barely aware of where he was walking, having only a sense of veering indiscriminately back and forth; it was a shameful state of affairs for an elf, but nothing in this land would harm him. His inner battle consumed his attention. After all this time, he knew when he’d been beaten. He knew that, despite his intermittent attempts to alter his course, to vanish deeper into the twisted wilds of Athan’Khar, he was steadily making his way west. The spirits were driving west. Despite all his efforts to delay, soon enough he would reach N’Jendo.

And then it would begin, the thing he had tried so, so hard to avoid.

He took some small comfort in knowing that he wouldn’t last long. Eldei alai’shi never lasted long. The Empire had powers that well overmatched him. And there was some small hope, this time; after he had confronted the Avenists at the other border and been turned back, the humans would be ready. Headhunters usually caught them unawares, doing most of their damage before strike teams and battlemages could respond. This time, they’d be prepared.

How many people would he have to watch himself slaughter before they brought him down?

He didn’t even have to avoid thinking about it. These days, it was all he could do to think at all. The voices never let up anymore. He had denied them too long. They were too hungry.

Shadows passed over him.

He only belatedly became aware that he was passing over a rounded hilltop; around its foot were the remnants of an orcish town. The roofless remains of houses and shops now sprouted enormous growths like cancerous cacti thirty feet tall, bristling with person-sized, multi-pronged thorns, and with slowly undulating fronds extending upward toward the sky. The hill itself crunched beneath his ragged moccasins, its surface long ago melted to black glass by some imaginable heat source. Probably something the Tiraan did during the Bane…or maybe caused by one of Athan’Khar’s new residents. There were beings here capable of it.

The shapes cruising over him had excellent timing. He was just cresting the broke-glass hill when they plummeted down from the sky, banking and spreading their wings at the last minute to avoid slamming into the ground as they settled down. They still landed hard enough to shake the earth, which was unavoidable, given their sheer bulk.

Slowly, he turned in a full circle, studying the dragons and not sure what to think. His memories of his old life told him what a very, very odd situation this was. The spirits were mildly inquisitive, but mostly unconcerned. Dragons were no threat to them and of no interest. They really only cared about what they wanted to kill.

Four dragons, though. One of each primary color. Who had ever heard of such a thing?

“Good day,” said the gold in a resonant voice that boomed across the sky. “We must speak.”

“We must…go,” he said nervously, scratching at himself. There were no bugs, bugs did not like him anymore, but he often felt as if things crawled under his skin. “We have… The distance. Yes, have to go. I don’t want to, I’m really so very tired. But…we… Need. At the border, beyond the river, there was, there was, blocked, no use! Found the wisdom but… Other side, yes. There. More of. Um.”

A booming chuckle came from the blue dragon to his left. “This is our guy, then.”

“Peace, Zanzayed,” the gold said in a tone of weary patience.

The green cleared his throat softly—relatively speaking. “Well, it sounds as if you are having some difficulty expressing yourself.” He took one step forward, lowering his head to look at the elf more closely. “I believe I can help with that, temporarily. My name is Varsinostro. Will you indulge me for a moment?”

“Not to harm,” he said noncommittally, scratching his arm. “It’s, it isn’t you. No caring, why bother?”

“I’ll take that, and the lack of an attack, as agreement,” the dragon said with a truly horrifying smile. He reached forward with one enormous clawed hand, which the elf simply watched curiously as it descended on him. He was long past caring about his well-being, and anyway, what he cared about had long ago ceased to be a factor. The spirits were supremely uninterested in the dragons.

That huge hand settled on top of his head in an unbelievably gentle pat, just barely touching his matted hair. The claws curled down on all sides to touch the ground about him.

Suddenly, it was as if a door had been slammed.

The voices…he could still hear them, but distantly and fuzzily, as if underwater. Their constant, howling presence was ended. Suddenly, he was alone in his own head, for the first time in memory.

He staggered, stumbled, sat down hard with a crunch in the broken glass, staring.

“There we go,” the green said with clear satisfaction, withdrawing his hand. “This is purely experimental, understand. To my knowledge, no one has attempted this before. But I am encouraged by this initial success; I believe we can likely refine the method further.”

“You…you made them silent,” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “Thank you. Thank you.”

“I repeat, it will not hold long,” the green warned.

“And,” added the red one from behind him, “they are likely to be irate when they return.”

He doubted that. It really wasn’t the kind of thing the spirits even noticed; they were rarely interested in his perspective. He said nothing about it, though, having just remembered something important.

“Raash,” he whispered. “My name is Raash.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Raash,” said the gold one, bowing, which was a very odd sight. “I am Ampophrenon.”

“Please,” Raash said earnestly. “Please, quickly, before they come back. You have to kill me.”

Zanzayed snorted; Ampophrenon and Varsinostro exchanged an unreadable glance.

“Let’s call that Plan B,” said the red, stepping forward and snaking his head around to look down on Raash where he could see him. “First, we are extremely curious about recent events which unfolded at the Viridill border. That was you, correct? I’m assuming there are not two eldei alai’shi active in Athan’Khar at the moment.”

“No,” Raash said slowly, shaking his head. “Not anymore.”

“Anymore?” the blue repeated curiously.

“There was…” He closed his eyes, sighing; in the absence of the spirits’ constant, howling noise, the memory was suddenly more painful than he was expecting. “My brother. He came first, to take the pact. I came to stop him. We have been…struggling, here, for months. I’d thought to destroy myself once he was finally killed, but the spirits would not have it. They…” He paused, swallowed. “I was so close to finding a way, I’d just got them distracted and calm enough I thought I could eat poison. And then something happened at the old border to draw attention. Beings of Athan’Khar went across the river into Viridill, and found a huge Tiraan army massing. It drove the spirits wild. I couldn’t restrain them.”

“It’s very curious,” the red dragon rumbled, “that they were turned back after being reasoned with by one woman.”

Raash barked an incredulous laugh in spite of himself. “Reasoned? Oh, no, nothing like that happened. The Bishop…I remember her. Yes, she was very smart. She avoided most of the early mistakes I made in trying to deal with the spirits. She didn’t reason, she manipulated. She didn’t try to talk to me at all; her discussion was with the spirits, I was just there as an interpreter. I think she must have some experience dealing with the dangerously insane.”

“Hm,” Ampophrenon said thoughtfully. “That answers a few questions. Satisfied, Razzavinax?”

“Not remotely,” the red replied.

Varsinostro cleared his throat. “Anyway. As I said, Raash, I believe we can work to refine this technique, perhaps keep the spirits stifled more permanently. Possibly, though understand that I am in no way promising such a thing yet, purge them entirely. Is this line of study something you would be interested in pursuing?”

Raash could only gaze up at him, tears now coursing down his dirt-stained face. “I…I’d given up thinking… All I’d hoped for was death.”

“I will not deceive you,” the dragon said sternly. “It may yet come to that. But if you are willing to make the effort, as am I.”

“As are we all,” Ampophrenon said firmly.

Suddenly too overcome to form words, he could only nod.

“Smashing,” Zanzayed said cheerfully, leaning closer. “That being the case, our new pals back in Tiraas are rather curious about these events. And they may have instigated this little sit-down, but we have our own reasons for wanting to know more. In exchange for our help, Raash, we have questions.”

“Many,” added Razzavinax. “Many questions.”

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10 – 50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m afraid not,” Ami said sweetly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or Avenists and Eserites,” added Joe.

“Or Avenists and Izarites,” Jenell said thoughtfully.

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

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

He sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“I’m a bard. I love long stories.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly,” Ingvar said quietly.

Aspen looked over at him again, and smiled.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I know the feeling.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um. I…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Going somewhere, Mr. Schwartz?”

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

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

“Just a moment, if you please.”

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

“Young man, get back here this instant.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will?” he replied, nonplussed.

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

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

“Repeat it back to me.”

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

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

“Um…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I say, that is a neat trick!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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