Tag Archives: Bishop Darling

14 – 18

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“You okay, Gabe?” Toby asked in a soft voice.

“Fine,” Gabriel said shortly. At that, Trissiny looked over at him as well. He was staring out across the Rail platform with a fixed little frown creasing his forehead. Following an uncomfortable pause, he explained further, still without looking at them. “Just concentrating. There’s a Vidian magic technique to deflect attention, which I haven’t practiced as much as I should’ve, so it takes focus.”

“Ah,” Toby said, nodding. “Good idea.”

Vrin Shai’s Rail station was outside the city proper. Even in an age when mag artillery made stone walls somewhat redundant, the city’s fortifications were practically a sacrament, given which goddess claimed it as a sacred seat. Though Imperial codes required Rail stations to be located in areas with easy access to city streets, there had never been a prospect of the Rail line itself penetrating the outer defenses. Popular rumor was that the Surveyor Corps, when planning the Rail route and station, hadn’t even bothered to ask. Thus, the walls stood proud, and Rail traffic to and from Vrin Shai involved a rather inconvenient trek.

Trissiny had once again left her armor behind; the central temple was of course proud to hold onto it for a while, though Sister Astarian had seemed somewhat bemused at the Hand of Avei’s preference not to wear it. She had, however, smilingly promised to see about removing what remained of the blinding alchemic polish the steward in Calderaas had applied. In civilian clothes, the five of them might have been any mixed bag of travelers, their only distinctive feature being that Darling, Trissiny and Schwartz made an unusual concentration of Stalweiss descent for this part of the country. Still, Gabriel’s precaution was wise. In their short time in the city, the paladins had managed to make public spectacles of themselves several times; it was hardly beyond possibility that someone might recognize them.

And none of them were in the mood for curiosity seekers.

Darling and Schwartz had stepped off to the side to converse in a low tone; the three paladins simply clustered together on the platform, ignoring and being ignored by the other travelers awaiting caravans. Now, the other two turned and approached them again, causing Trissiny and Toby to look up, though Gabriel continued frowning fixedly into the distance.

The Bishop cleared his throat. “So! Mr. Schwartz has just been telling me that I was much too hard on you three.”

Trissiny sighed. “Herschel…”

“Now, hold up,” Darling said, raising a hand. “The fact is, he’s right.”

At that, even Gabriel looked up, his expression becoming quizzical.

“It’s tricky to find the right…perspective, here,” Darling continued, turning his head to gaze abstractly at nothing, much the way Gabriel had just been doing. “In reality, you’re young. Not only are you bound to make mistakes; you’re supposed to. That’s all part of the process. On the other hand, you three have such a huge weight of importance resting on you that everything you do creates waves that’ll end up affecting more people than you can imagine. In short… You can’t afford to be and do the things that you naturally, inevitably have to. And yes, that is wildly unfair, to which I must say, tough luck. That’s life. But, it’s something I should’ve been more mindful of.”

His eyes snapped back into focus, and he met the gaze of each of them in turn before continuing. “You fucked up, kids. You didn’t think carefully enough and created a big damn mess. But I also fucked up by reaming you out when what you needed was advice on how to not repeat that mistake. For that, I apologize.” He nodded deeply, the gesture verging on a bow. For a moment, the three of them could just stare in silent surprise. Schwartz folded his arms, looking satisfied; on his shoulder, Meesie did exactly the same.

“Well…apology accepted,” Trissiny said at last. “It’s not as if you were wrong, anyway. And your advice and help has been appreciated.”

“Glad to hear it,” Darling replied. “We’ve dwelled enough on what you did wrong, so let me offer the opposing perspective: you saw a problem, and you took action. Thanks to you, Calderaas is getting a bunch of new schools. Which…isn’t the kind of outcome the bards sing of; it’s not flashy, it’ll be years before the results start to show and a generation before it really changes things. But that is still important. Not to mention, you reminded some of society’s worst people that their bullshit does have consequences, which is something they need on the regular. Next time do it more carefully, but…” A faint frown of concern appeared on his own face. “Like Herschel just reminded me, what’s important is taking action. You might mess up and cause problems, but that’s nothing compared to the losses that’ll accrue if you never intervene. I really hope I didn’t scare you away from stepping in when you see a need.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Gabriel said.

A bell chimed twice from nearby, where a large clock was displayed above the ticket master’s stand. The woman behind the counter glanced up at it, then leaned over to speak directly into an arcane apparatus enchanted to amplify sound, making her voice resonate through the station. “Caravan from Madouris is inbound, ETA one minute! Travelers departing for Ninkabi, please assemble on Platform Three! Please remember to make space for disembarking passengers before boarding.”

“That’s us,” Toby said unnecessarily, turning to gaze up the line toward the east.

Trissiny stepped over to Schwartz, and he met her with a hug. Meesie hopped down from his shoulder to hers, spreading her tiny arms and pressing her warm little body to Trissiny’s cheek in an embrace of her own.

“Be careful,” he murmured. “I know you can take care of yourself, but…”

“But it’s good advice, anyway,” she replied, pulling back to smile up at him. “You be careful too, Herschel. Listen to Darling and let him do what he does.”

“I know the plan, don’t worry,” he replied, grinning. “I hate to leave you guys right in the middle of your quest…”

“You need to have things ready in Tiraas when we get there, though,” she said, “and remember that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Listen to Darling—and Principia, for that matter—but listen…circumspectly. Senior Guild people are good at this kind of plotting, and neither of those’ll screw you over, but that doesn’t mean you should absorb every thought they try to put in your brain.”

“I’m not a complete idiot, you know,” he said wryly.

“Yeah, neither am I. Doesn’t mean neither of us has ever done anything idiotic.”

Flickers of blue lightning began to arc along the Rail line. The caravan appeared over the horizon before anyone could see it coming, throwing up sparks from the line and blue repulsor charms flaring alight in front of its lead car as it slowed. A whine so high-pitched it barely registered to the human ear sounded, as if physics itself were shrieking in protest at the sight of an object decelerating so fast without destroying itself.

Trissiny and Schwartz separated, Meesie hopping back onto her partner’s shoulder with a forlorn little cheep at his sister, and the other two paladins stepped over to them while the caravan’s doors open and dazed-looking passengers began to emerge.

“Take care of yourself, Schwartz,” Gabriel said, slugging him lightly on the shoulder.

“You, too,” the witch replied with a grin. “Don’t make my sister work too hard to keep you alive.”

“Don’t worry,” said Toby, raising an eyebrow. “Somehow it’s always me who ends up doing that.”

“You’ll be fine,” Darling added from behind them. “If this is a Vesk thing, he’ll strain you to the very edge of your capabilities and no further. You’ll come back smarter and harder, right in time for us to take care of business back home.”

“Any last minute advice?” Gabriel asked him. In the near distance, the ticket master started calling for passengers to board. “You probably know as much about Vesk as any of us, at least.”

“Yeah,” Darling said dryly. “Try to have fun, when you can. I hear tell it’s a riot, living through an actual adventure story—right up until you get to the part that’s meant to make the audience cry.”


Ninkabi was a city of terraces and bridges, and the striking contrast of heights and depths. Built along the last stretch of the N’Kimbi River, it was defined by its geography. In truth, within the Empire flatland cities like Mathenon and Onkawa were the exception, rather than the rule; most followed the model of Vrin Shai, Veilgrad, Calderaas, and Tiraas itself, occupying immense stone features which gave them each a distinctive skyline—and a considerable defensive advantage.

The N’Kimbi had carved out a double canyon over the eons, which itself had been somewhat broken by some long-ago seismic event, resulting in a series of waterfalls which descended from the rocky N’Jendo coast into the sea. Ninkabi occupied both banks of the canyon and the long island in the middle, descending the three tiers which had been re-shaped by mortal hands into regular terraces from the jumble of stone which it had been originally. The canyon walls, too, had been carved into and built outward, until the faces of buildings descended almost to the surface of the river, though the lowest two stories were usually unoccupied due to the annual flooding caused by snowmelt in the Wyrnrange. Numerous stone bridges crisscrossed the canyons, both at the surface levels and between openings along their walls, creating a veritable maze that boats couldn’t pass under during the flood season—not that most would have risked the waterfalls, anyway. Up top, Jendi architecture manifested itself in Omnist-style ziggurats and soaring minarets, the city as bristling with towers as it was rent by deep shadows. Within the shade of the many towers, though, the long central island contained numerous gardens, many with ancient, towering trees which added a lushly organic touch to the city’s angular lines.

The outskirts of the city along the canyon were delineated by high walls, of course; Ninkabi itself had rarely been sacked, but most of N’Jendo’s history had been marked by raids back and forth between the country and the orcs of Athan’Khar to the south, and the human nation of Thakar to the north. Those defenses had been tested innumerable times, over the centuries. Even during the long peace since the Enchanter Wars, Ninkabi had followed the example of Vrin Shai rather than Veilgrad; no suburbs had been allowed to spring up outside the walls. The Thakari were allies now and what dwelled in Athan’Khar never came out anymore, but the horrors lurking there discouraged any risk-taking with defenses.

The Rail station was at the highest point on the central island, at its easternmost edge with the looming Wyrnrange walling off the horizon in that direction, and the setting sun casting the rest of the city in orange and gold as it descended toward the sea on the other side. From this angle, they had an excellent view of Ninkabi’s maze of towers, bridges, and canyons. This, even at a glance, was a city of deep shadows. Now their task was to find the right scoundrel lurking in them.

“But before that,” Trissiny said, when they’d stepped to the edge of the Rail platform, “there’s something I need to do while we’re in the city.”

“Oh?” Toby asked. Gabriel, though, was already nodding.

They had to ask for directions, and it was a bit of a hike; what they sought was situated at the base of the second-to-last cliff on the central island, most of the way along the city. The trip involved descending three layers, where they found that there were both switchbacking stairs at the edges of the cliffs and long ramps which passed through tunnels, to allow horses and vehicles to pass between levels. Between this and the bridges, getting around in Ninkabi involved quite a bit of planning and backtracking; those tunnels had to be long enough that to come out at the base of a cliff, you had to enter almost the whole way back along that terrace, nowhere near the stairs.

Upon descending the first staircase, Gabriel successfully bullied the other two into renting a rickshaw to take them the rest of the way, pointing to the setting sun as evidence that they really ought to hurry this up.

They finally arrived, though, at a kind of amphitheater built right into the base of the cliff. The broad, semicircular space within was calm, deeply shadowed beneath both the cliff itself, the tall round walls which separated it, and overhanging boughs of trees which stretched outward from the gardens planted atop those thick walls.

Against the great wall stood the monument which was the focus of this place, a fountain which rose in tiers almost two stories, pouring water down in levels like a ziggurat. Stairs rose almost to its peak, creating access by which people could set down candles along the multiple rims of each level, where little indentations held them upright even against the water. Right now the candles were sparse, leaving the space dim as they were its only illumination.

This was, technically, a Vidian temple, and was watched over by priests of Vidius, but it was neither Vidians nor the general public who came to this place, as a rule. There were no icons displayed, no decorations anywhere in the space except for the inscription carved along the base of the Fount of the Fallen:

WE ARE STILL HERE

It was one of very few places in the world that the generally irreverent Eserites regarded as sacred.

The three paladins entered through an arch along the northern arc of the outer wall, pausing just inside to look around. Few were present, just the Vidian priests in their three alcoves spaced along the inner curve of the wall, and only two people currently visiting the shrine. A woman with Stalweiss coloring, in an expensive-looking silk gown, sat on the lowest edge of the fountain, trailing her fingers in the water and seeming to speak quietly to no one. Halfway up one of the staircases, a dark-skinned man who might have been local had just finished setting a candle in place and lighting it, and now bowed his head, whispering in prayer.

“Welcome,” a voice greeted them quietly from the alcove just a few feet away. It had a stone counter built in front of it, leaving the priest behind partially walled off like a shopkeeper. Shelves lining the back held row upon row of unlit white candles. Currently occupying the space was a Tiraan woman who stuck out somewhat, due to her expensive-looking and obviously tailored suit.

Gabriel frowned at her. “Are…you a priest of Vidius?”

“Oh, not me,” she said diffidently, waving a hand. “I’m just watching this post for a little bit, as a favor to a friend. I work with the Universal Church.” Gold glittered at her sleeves; her cufflinks alone looked pricey enough to be an affront to Eserite sensibilities. Actually, with her short hair and sharp suit, the woman looked a lot like Teal Falconer, with a darker complexion and more expensive tastes.

Trissiny stepped over to the counter. “May I have a candle, please?”

“Of course,” the woman said politely. “It’s two pennies.”

“You charge for these?” she demanded, frowning.

“This is genuine locally-sourced Jendi beeswax,” the woman in the suit replied with a placid smile. “Those bees worked hard to make these for you, and no telling how many keepers got stung in the process. The candles are hand-made by traditional artisans—no factory products here. Two pennies is exceedingly reasonable, especially considering that even a holy site requires some upkeep.”

Trissiny shook her head ruefully, already reaching into her pocket. “Well, when you put it that way, fair enough.” The woman smiled, accepted the coins and handed over a candle with no further comment, and Trissiny turned back to her friends. “I won’t be long.”

“You take as much time as you need,” Toby said firmly. “There is no rush.”

“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” Gabriel added. “Say whatever you need to.”

“Here,” the woman said suddenly, holding out an arcane cigarette lighter to Trissiny. It was as expensive as her suit, crafted of silver with gold embossing and engraved with a stylized V. “There are also matches and lighters for sale here, but you can borrow mine. I don’t recommend using matches anyway; the splashing water doesn’t agree with them.”

“Oh. Thank you very much,” Trissiny said, accepting it. “I’ll bring it right back.”

“Like the boys said, hon, take your time. I’m in no rush, either.”

She headed off to the fountain, and Toby and Gabriel discreetly edged away to stand with their backs to the wall on the other side of the arch. They tried not to stare, but there really wasn’t much else to look at; the woman at the candle stall was also watching Trissiny, wearing a small smile.

Trissiny picked a staircase some distance from the other two Eserites currently at the fountain and climbed, selecting a spot about halfway up. There, she wedged the white candle into one of the slots, lit it with a lighter, and then produced a gold doubloon from inside her sleeve. The paladin kissed the coin before tossing it into the water. Then she paused, bending over her candle, and speaking softly to nothing, like the others.

“His name was Ross,” Gabriel said suddenly, barely above a whisper. Toby looked up at him in surprise. “Evaine collected him. He died protecting Schwartz from wandfire. Trissiny and her other friends were just seconds too late to save him. I think you would’ve liked him, Toby. He didn’t much care for fighting; he was trying to talk his enemy down when she shot him, and he’d been really close to succeeding.” He hesitated, and sighed softly. “Ross was a bard, before apprenticing with the Guild. This whole thing… It’s a constant reminder that can’t be easy for her. I wonder how much of that was deliberate on Vesk’s part.”

“Did…she tell you all this?” Toby asked quietly.

Gabriel shook his head. “Evaine did. She was very impressed. Ross went right to the realm of heroes.”

“Have you told Trissiny?”

“I…no. That’s not exactly an easy thing to bring up, y’know? And I’m really not supposed to be ferrying information between the living and the dead, anyway. There’s a good reason Vidius insists on a solid barrier, there. I was going to tell her and her other Eserite friends anyway, back in Puna Dara, but…” He trailed off, and shook his head again.

“Yeah,” Toby murmured. “Not easy at all. I think she would like to know, though.”

“I’m still wrestling with it. Trissiny is my friend and I want to. But…that would be pretty blatantly playing favorites. If I reassure my own friend about dead loved ones, how do I justify not going around and doing the same for everyone else on the planet? Favorites are something death cannot have.”

“I see the dilemma.” Toby laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing and giving him a very gentle shake. “I’m not sure what the right thing is, there, Gabe. But I’m confident it’ll be what you end up doing.”

“Thanks,” Gabriel said, a little wryly.

The woman in silk had just stood up, turning to go, but she paused with a visible gasp, staring upward. Gabriel and Toby twisted their heads to follow her gaze.

Three stories up, at the edge of the outer wall beneath a tree, stood the blurred but unmistakable shape of a valkyrie, scythe in hand and black wings spread. After a moment, seeing that she’d been noticed, Vestrel stepped backward out of sight of the space below.

“Vidian holy ground,” Toby said thoughtfully. “Hm. Does that just…happen? The way you described events at the temple in Last Rock, I though valkyries had to specifically want to be visible, even there.”

“You know,” Gabriel said, lowering his eyes to frown at nothing, “it occurs to me I’m not actually sure what the rules are about that. It hadn’t seemed important, before, but…maybe I oughta ask Vestrel for a rundown.”

“That might be a good idea. More information is always better than less.”

“Yeah.”

Trissiny, true to her word, didn’t take long. Whatever she had to say to Ross or on his behalf, she was done while the other man on the other stairs was still kneeling. She looked suddenly tired, though more pensive than morose, giving both of them a wan smile while crossing back to the alcove with the lighter in her palm. Toby and Gabriel drifted over to meet her there, all three paladins arriving at about the same time.

“Thanks again,” Trissiny said, handing the lighter back to its owner.

“You are welcome,” the woman replied, inclining her head courteously. “Glad I could help. Now, are you kids about ready to go?”

There was a beat of uncertain silence.

“Excuse me?” Toby asked, frowning. “Go where?”

“Ah, my apologies, I did that in the wrong order. I’m Nell; pleased to meet you.” The woman bowed to each of them in turn, wearing a knowing smile. “We have some friends in common, and I hear tell you’re in town to see Mortimer Agasti and get your hands on one of his treasures. I can help you with that.”

“You said…you work for the Universal Church?” Gabriel asked suspiciously.

“With,” Nell corrected, raising one finger rather like a schoolteacher. “Not for. An easily-missed but very important distinction!”

“And…what’s your stake in this, exactly?” Trissiny demanded.

“Personally?” She shrugged, still with that bland smile. “I gain nothing from it, save the satisfaction of being involved. It’s been a long time since paladins were active in the world and longer still since they were on an honest-to-gods quest. Even if it is just Vesk trying to weave himself a shiny new fairy tale. There’s no way I’d pass up the chance to gawk at this from up close!”

“If you don’t mind my asking,” said Toby, “are you Vidian or Eserite?”

“Neither,” Nell replied pleasantly. “What I am is well-informed and connected. I know everybody interesting and everything important in Ninkabi. More to the point, I know Mortimer, and that means I can help you get what you want. You should be aware that he sees nobody. No visitors, no petitioners, no nothing. I’m one of very few acquaintances for whom he’ll break that rule. If you want to get a chance to present your case to the man himself without kicking up a ruckus that’ll upset Ninkabi even more than you did Calderaas, you’ll be needing to have me along.”

“You are awfully well-informed,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes. “How could you possibly know who we needed to talk to? That name was only mentioned—” She broke off, eyes widening again, and glanced down at the lighter, which the woman was still holding in one hand, positioned so its engraved V was facing them.

“Ah, ah, now. A little discretion, please! I’m sure you three understand not wanting to make spectacles of yourselves. It’s just Nell, to my friends.”

Verniselle winked at them, and tucked the lighter away in the breast pocket of her tailored coat.

“We very much appreciate your help…Nell,” Toby said carefully. “Your guidance would be more than welcome.”

“Oh, please don’t start being all formal,” she said, lightly punching him on the shoulder. “Trust me, where we’re going, that’ll only draw exactly the attention you don’t want. All right, kids, if we’re all done here, let’s head out. You’ve got good timing; we should reach Mortimer’s place a bit after dark, if we selectively dawdle. It’ll be open but not too busy yet. Thisaway!”

The goddess of money, merchants and bankers turned and strolled off through the nearest arch, casually flipping a platinum coin that would have bought a lower-end enchanted carriage. There was nothing for the three paladins to do but follow.

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14 – 17

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Like many Eserites, Antonio Darling had a broad dramatic streak; he had also, apparently, had some Vesker training, to judge by his ability to project his voice at a furniture-rattling volume without seeming to strain it.

“What did you guys do?” Schwartz demanded, in perfect unison with Meesie, who squeaked unintelligibly but with precisely the same cadence.

Sister Astarian, who had slipped into the office behind them, now discreetly shut the door and then took Schwartz gently by the elbow. The priestess led him over to a corner of the room, where she leaned close and spoke in a low voice. His eyes progressively widened as she explained.

Meanwhile, Darling was just getting started. “What you kids did matters less than what you didn’t. Look, I’m the last guy you’re going to hear complain about someone standing up to power on behalf of the little guy, but these things have to be done strategically. You boys I can’t speak for and are not my business, but I know for a fact that Thorn has been specifically trained to plan ahead before launching an operation like that! Have you given the slightest thought to what would unfold after you waltzed out of that party?”

“A lot, in fact,” Toby said after a brief pause in which Trissiny seemingly failed to dig up a response. “At the time I accepted the reasoning we were given…but I’m not going to argue with any criticism. That was an awful thing to do to anyone, for any reason.”

“Mr. Caine,” Darling said with a sigh, folding his arms, “I think this conversation will go better if we’re all up front. I do not give a gently used fuck about Lady What’s-Her-Butt. The way the whole affair was described to me, it sounds like the real tragedy is that nobody finished drowning the wretched cow. I am here for entirely practical reasons, pertaining to the unholy mess you kids have unleashed.”

“Now, hold on,” Trissiny protested finally. “That was a sanctioned Guild operation! Underboss Velvet not only cleared the whole thing but participated and led it. If you’re going to take this up with anyone—”

“Oh, you’d better believe I have had words with Velvet,” Sweet barked, and began to pace up and down in front of the room’s desk. “The Calderaan chapter is hers to run as she likes—within reason! And anything involving fucking paladins is pushing the bounds of reason to the point that requires some additional thought, which in this case no one gave. But sure, Thorn, that’s as good a place to start as any. Let me just catch you up on events as they’ve been unfolding while you were off partying with the gods, beginning with Velvet and her crew.”

He stopped pacing and hopped onto the desk itself, where he began swinging his legs in an almost childlike motion while he continued, thumping his heels against the wood in an annoyingly arhythmic manner. “You see, kids, at issue here is the widespread furor that ensues when the Hand of Avei publicly does the most classically Eserite thing imaginable, with a full Thieves’ Guild backup. That sets people talking, raises issues both theological and political, and is generally a big ol’ boot to the bee’s nest. The operation, as far as it goes, was fine and a splendid success from a Guild perspective; Velvet unleashed the greatest terror she could get her hands on to nix a particularly glaring case of corruption and scare those responsible back into their holes for a little while. Rah rah, hip hip hooray, victory for the good guys, and so on. But the Guild also has to deal with the fallout of Trissiny’s involvement, and here’s the thing about that: Cardassa Araadia is a noblewoman herself and an Underboss in the most politically intricate city in the Empire. She knew damn well what she was doing, and she up and did it anyway. That is the kind of recklessness Boss Tricks can’t let pass without delivering, at bare minimum, a fierce chewing out.”

“Not to pour water on all this, but I still don’t see how that part is our fault,” Gabriel said. Unlike the others, he had seated himself in one of the room’s comfortable chairs and was lounging back at apparent ease. “Are we Velvet’s keepers?”

Darling glanced at him, the Bishop’s expression betraying nothing. “Patience, kiddo, we’re just getting started. Now, Velvet and Tricks butting heads would ordinarily not be more than a passing tension, but then your old buddy Webs decided to get involved! You do remember Webs, don’t you, Thorn?”

“Oh, no,” Schwartz muttered from the other side of the room. Sister Astarian stood nearby, listening with her hands folded, their brief conversation evidently finished.

“I’m almost afraid to ask, but…” Toby turned to Trissiny, raising his eyebrows. “Who is Webs?”

“A veteran member of the Thieves’ Guild,” she said, her own eyes widening in dawning horror. “He’s… The kindest way to put it is that he’s a theological purist. He doesn’t much approve of how Tricks runs things.”

Darling thunked both his feet hard against the desk. “And oh, he was just waiting for an excuse like this! He’s just barely begun agitating, so there’s no tell how far he’s going to push this, or even how far he can. Velvet is loudly on the record thinking Webs is a perpetually inebriated turd golem, so he’s not going to find an ally there. But the sequence of events involved, from one limited perspective, Velvet achieving a smashing victory against the nobles of Calderaas and Tricks calling her down for it, and Webs has a lovingly-nurtured network of people who listen to him, including a number who really ought to know better.”

“Hence the tag, I suppose,” Gabriel observed.

“Quite,” Darling said acidly. “And while we’re talking about rifts being rent in cults, Sister Astarian, I wonder if you would be good enough to take over for the next bit? I’m sure you are far more up to date on Avenist business, even despite my recent shouting match on this subject with Bishop Syrinx.”

Schwartz cringed; Meesie hissed, puffing up like an angry cat.

“Thank you, your Grace,” Astarian said, her calm demeanor a stark contrast to Darling’s barely-restrained ire. “One way or another, Trissiny, I had meant to speak of this with you before you left again. The repercussions within the Sisterhood are far more serious than it sounds like they were with the Guild. As the Bishop said, you acted in a very clearly Eserite fashion, with Eserite support, in public. This story has only begun to circulate, but already I have heard from some within both the Sisterhood and the Legion who feel…betrayed.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said in an unusually small voice.

“Make no mistake,” Astarian continued, wearing a gentle expression now, “this will cost you some support within the cult, but it is not all bad. Some of that was support you didn’t need. There are elements within the Sisterhood who have been offended by your Silver Mission initiative, for example.”

“What?” Trissiny straightened up, frowning. “Why?”

“Simple bigotry,” Sister Astarian replied, shaking her head and permitting a faint scowl to flicker across her face. “Oh, they’ll all pretty it up with just the right touch of disingenuous eloquence, but that’s all it comes down to: people with small minds upset by the inclusion of others. I have even heard complaints about your public revelation last year that you are a half-elf. As I said, the worst of the grumbling is of the sort which deserves to be silenced with a heavy boot. But, and this is important, not all of it. You have ardent support within the Sisterhood, as well, and it is from those quarters that I have heard the most shock and disappointment.”

“I see,” Trissiny said quietly, and began chewing her lower lip.

“A cult,” said Darling, “is like a vase, or a nation, or anything else in the world: if you strike a sharp blow to something which had cracks to begin with, it just might shatter. This is something any paladin should think about before they abruptly upend everyone’s expectations, no matter how good the cause.”

“Sound advice,” Toby murmured.

“Thank you, Sister,” Darling said, standing to bow courteously to Astarian, who inclined her head in return. He straightened and turned a baleful look back on the three paladins. “But we’re still just getting started, here. The next big backlash to this has come from Tar’naris.”

“What?” Gabriel exclaimed. “What the— Why would the drow care about anything we do?”

“You were probably not aware of this,” Darling explained, “it isn’t common knowledge. But the Thieves’ Guild has been working closely with House Awarrion and Queen Arkasia’s government to crush the trade in human slaves that still exists there. It’s slow and delicate work, due to the complex politics of the city, and our own minimal ability to act. The Queen and Matriarch Ashaele don’t want the Guild establishing a permanent presence there, and they definitely don’t want their young people—or anyone else—being tempted away from Themynra to join Pantheon cults. Especially ours. So our presence is small and carefully supervised. In essence, human Eserites are scary monsters the Queen can use to terrorize her non-compliant nobles with, when they do things she doesn’t like—such as buying and selling Imperial citizens. It works because she doesn’t overdo it. So guess what immediately happened when the hot news out of Calderaas was of Pantheon paladins and a bunch of Guild thieves busting into a noble’s own sanctuary and torturing her in front of all her friends!”

“Oh, shit,” Gabriel whispered.

“Well said!” Darling snapped. “The short version is that Tricks has pulled all our people out of Tar’naris until we get the all clear to return. Matriarch Ashaele is scrambling to get this under control, Arkasia is seriously reconsidering dealing with us at all, and the other Narisian Houses are exerting pressure on them both to back off. So, congratulations! The slave trade lives another day.”

Toby covered his eyes with both hands.

“But hey!” With a broad grin that failed to touch his eyes, Darling threw up his hands in a melodramatic shrug. “The news isn’t all bad! You kids have yourself a brand new ally, to judge by the fuss Ravana Madouri has started kicking up.”

“Ravana?” Trissiny croaked. “What is she doing?”

“To start with the backstory, she is doing, in a word, populism. In fact, Duchess Madouri has been working pretty closely with the Guild over the last year, to clean out the nest of corruption her father’s regime left behind. An awful lot of the law enforcement in Tiraan Province was in his pocket; she had to resort to desperate measures to drain that swamp. Namely, us.”

“I’d be careful,” Trissiny warned. “Ravana and I aren’t close or anything, but we’ve had enough conversations that… Well, don’t relax around her.”

“Thank you, Thorn,” Darling said with withering sarcasm, “but the Guild somehow managed to function for a few thousand years before you came along. Tricks is not fool enough to jump into bed with a creature like Madouri, no matter how hard she’s working to win over her population. This is a real good time to be a citizen of Madouris or the surrounding country, though. The little Duchess has cut taxes overall, invested in infrastructure and public amenities like school and hospitals, and launched a series of banking initiatives to finance loans for businesses at very favorable interest rates.”

“Uh, hold up,” Gabriel said, raising a hand. “Now, I’m no economicist or nothin’, but I think I see a problem there. How’s she doing all that and cutting taxes at the same time?”

“No, you’re quite right,” Darling agreed, “she’s ramped up expenditures and reduced her income; that can’t go on forever. In her particular case, though, it can go on for a good while. House Madouri has always been rich, what with its lands being around the Imperial capital. Right now it’s richer than it has ever been; her father squeezed the bloody life out of that province for decades, and Ravana has swelled her treasury even further by charging most of his old cronies with corruption and seizing their assets. What she is doing is betting on the long-term prosperity of her province by investing heavily. It’s a gamble that the revenue will raise her back into the black before she spends all her savings. A pretty good gamble, in fact! Fortunes in Tiraan Province are already increasing all around, and Falconer Industries is a tremendous asset for Madouris. And, of course, all of these programs have made her incredibly popular, which brings me back around to my original point. Ravana has spent this summer buying up every newspaper in Madouris, as well as hiring bards, Vidian actors, and some less aboveboard rumor-mongers, and been working to improve her image through those and other outlets. She’d be merely popular if all she did was make life easier for her people; she’s actively keeping them entertained while also running a primitive but pretty effective propaganda machine. That girl is a goddamn hero in that province right now.”

Toby had narrowed his eyes while he listened, and now interjected. “I’ve only heard of national governments doing things like that. Is it common practice for nobles as well?”

“No,” Darling said emphatically. “Nobles only regard other nobles as worth considering, and deal with each other directly. They have a built-in contempt for the people whose work actually supports them. But House Madouri’s name is mud, thanks to the old Duke, and Ravana has no allies of her own rank. She’s making her people her political ally, and her so-called peers have been sneering and laughing at her desperation all year. I’m starting to have a feeling she’ll have the last laugh. All this is relevant to you, though, because in the last few days, that little propaganda outlet has started working overtime to prop up the three paladins of the Pantheon as heroes of the common people.”

“What?” Trissiny practically shrieked.

“Oh, yes,” Darling said with a peculiar kind of grim relish. “The brave and selfless heroes who struck down the corrupt nobles—in fact, the vilest and most corrupt aristocrats in all the Empire! Oh, her papers and bards are milking it. To the point that she’s already drawn the outrage of every House in Calderaas; as I was leaving the city the hot new gossip was House Araadia complaining publicly about House Madouri’s insults. If Ravana doesn’t back off she’s gonna wind up in a feud with the Sultana.”

“But…why would she do that?” Gabriel, despite his almost plaintive tone, was frowning in the pensive manner he did when wrestling with a challenging mental problem. He turned to his classmates. “I’ve never had any indication that Ravana liked us all that much. Certainly not enough to…”

“Don’t look for personal feeling in the schemes of nobles,” Darling advised. “Look for advantage. I can see two obvious reasons: One, this ‘champions of the common man’ narrative dovetails beautifully with her established strategy of courting her populace rather than her fellow nobles, and if she’s willing to push it far enough to actually annoy other Houses it’s a hint that her ambitions may extend beyond restoring House Madouri’s name and prestige. And two, she has plans for you three, and wants you to no only be in an advantageous political position with a wide base of support, but be kindly disposed toward her. This should go without saying, but I will say it anyway because I’ve recently learned not to assume you three jackasses possess an iota of political sense between you: this reflects upon you. You’ve already put yourself on the bad side of a lot of Houses, and Ravana is putting you even deeper in.”

“We didn’t tell her to do that!” Toby exclaimed.

“It’s adorable how you think that matters,” Darling said dryly. “And that, by the way, is the biggest and broadest change you’ve just wrought. Listen, kids: the nobility know exactly what trash they are. Oh, they’ll go on about their privileges and rights and how the demands of their position require certain…you know what, I’m not even gonna bother summarizing the excuses. The point is, they’ll deny it, but they know. It is not an accident that they try to hide their shenanigans from the public eye and put on pretty faces when the likes of paladins are passing by. I don’t think you realize the magnitude of what you just changed. For all of history, a paladin was a wandering force of nature that most people would never encounter. If you were an aristocrat with something to hide, you almost always had warning they were coming, and a modicum of assurance that as long as you kept your worst impulses in check in front of them, they wouldn’t bother with you while there were demons and zombies and whatnot demanding their attention. And then you three came along.”

He hopped back down from the desk and began pacing again, his characteristic poise buried by obvious agitation. All five of them watched him in silence, not even Meesie making a peep.

“Now?” Darling continued. “Now you’ve changed the rules. Now it turns out that paladins might pop up absolutely anywhere, and stick their swords into absolutely anything. Do you have any idea how much the average aristocrat gets up that to would demand a stabbing from the Hand of Avei if they ever had to worry about encountering her? Fucking most of it. And now, suddenly, they actually have to worry about that.”

He stopped, turned, and glared at them. “Do you have even the faintest idea what you’ve done?”

“Um,” Gabriel offered weakly after a short pause, but Darling pushed on before he could say anything more.

“The Guild chapter in Calderaas has the physical means, the personal motivation and a divine mandate to paint the walls of their city with every drop of noble blood therein. Did you read any significance into the fact that they haven’t? It is because, children, the defining trait of being noble is that when someone stabs you, you can delegate the bleeding to a lot of bystanders! Put pressure on the nobility, and they’ll complain over their expensive wine while a whole bunch of peasants get crushed.”

Trissiny had to clear her throat before she could speak. “Princess Yasmeen thought a lot of those nobles would be interested in courting my—that is, the Sisterhood’s favor, after that.”

“Smart woman, that one,” Darling said flatly. “She sure played you three like a goddamn banjo. Yes, she’s absolutely right, some of them will do that. Others will double down, either to dare you to do something about it, or test your willingness and ability to intervene. Others will… Who the hell even knows? There are hundreds of aristocrats in the Empire, and you just introduced a whole world of uncertainty into all their lives. How they react to it will vary enormously by individual. The one constant is that whatever they do, it’s going to affect tens of thousands of people. People will be raised up by suddenly benevolent nobles, or ground down by vengeful ones. You don’t fucking know. You just rolled the dice will countless lives.”

The sudden silence hung over the room with a tangible weight. Only Toby was able to meet Darling’s accusing stare. After a few moments, Schwartz opened his mouth to speak, but the Bishop chose that instant to start again.

“So! To sum up: nascent schisms brewing in at least two and possibly as many as four major cults, the Narisian slave trade reinvigorated, the three of you trapped in an unwilling political alliance with a devious teenage megalomaniac, and vastly unknowable repercussions for uncountable throngs of citizens…and that’s after only three days. The stone you dropped has just barely fallen beneath the surface; there’s absolutely no telling how far the ripples will spread, or what’ll be kicked up when it finally hits the bottom. And that, my dear kids, is why you think carefully before you SHOVE PEOPLE INTO PUNCHBOWLS!”

“Yessir,” Trissiny croaked.

“Trissiny,” Schwartz said abruptly, “I need to talk with you, in private.”

“We’re sort of in the middle of something, Mr. Schwartz,” Darling said pointedly.

“Yes, your Grace, I know.” Schwartz met his eyes for a moment before turning back to Trissiny. “It’s important. Something I realized in the Tower, but I thought it could wait for… But from what you’ve just said, it had better not wait any longer. Uh, Sister, is there some place we could…?”

“This whole corridor is lined with offices like this one,” she said. “There’s another empty one just next door. I’ll show you.”

“Thank you,” he said politely, following her to the door. Trissiny looked at him, then back at Darling, who was staring flatly at her. “This won’t take long, I hope,” Schwartz added, pausing while Astarian stepped out into the hall.

“I…okay. I’ll be right back,” she said to the Bishop. “Don’t yell at them too much, this is mostly my fault.”

“I salute your self-awareness,” he said sourly, “however belated. Like I said, these two aren’t my problem.”

She made no response, just shutting the door behind her.

“Um,” Gabriel said hesitantly into the ensuing silence, “I realize we’re…well, you just said it. But since you’re here and all, your Grace, d’you mind if we pick your brain a little bit about…you know, all this?”

“The last thing I’m going to do is discourage you from asking questions or wanting to understand,” Darling said with a sigh, folding his arms and leaning back against the desk. “Go right ahead, I’ll answer whatever I can.”

“What have you heard from our cults?” Gabriel asked. “Is it…as bad as with the Guild and the Sisterhood?”

“I didn’t know how serious it was with the Sisterhood until just now,” Darling pointed out. “I don’t exactly have a direct line into Avenist business. What I know came from Bishop Syrinx, who is a tangled skein of schemes and rage on her best day. So I can’t tell you anything authoritative, except the very broad strokes.”

“The very broad strokes would be appreciated,” Toby said quietly. “You’re right, we should have given more thought to this.”

“Well, I’m aware that you are on a divine mission right now,” Darling said with a sigh. “It’s possible I’ve been harder on you than is entirely fair. But to be honest, I’d rather be unfair than risk you doing more shit like this in the future. If the point is made, though, perhaps I should refrain from chewing on Trissiny any further. This is an old complaint, though,” he added bitterly. “First it was Lor’naris, and then she and a bunch of other apprentices took it into their heads to intervene between the Sisterhood and the Collegium… But I digress. I rather suspect you two have less to worry about than Trissiny does. Particularly from your cults’ respective leadership. Toby, you’re probably fine. The stories out of Calderaas emphasize that you were there using the gentlest methods possible, and even if you had gotten violent, the Dawn Council is far too holy to stir themselves over mere politics.”

“Oh, how I wish that were true,” Toby said with a sigh, “but your point is taken. And appreciated.”

“Lady Gwenfaer,” Darling added to Gabriel, “has such a twisty brain I doubt anybody knows how she truly feels about anything—possibly not even herself. She’ll find a way to make all this work to her advantage, but I can’t predict what she might say to you about it. Vidians, fittingly enough, come in two basic types: you’ve got the actors, death priests, the folks running small country temples… You know, the salt-of-the-earth sort. Those are generally some of the most laid-back and approachable people out there. And then there are the career clerics, the ones who get themselves knee-deep into politics, and are as disparate and irascible a lot as the nobility. They’ll do whatever their individual situations mandate, which will be…unpredictable.”

“Hm,” Gabriel murmured. “What would you suggest if I, say, needed to quell the plotting and infighting in the cult, and generally bring them all to heel?”

“Pick a faction and commit,” Darling said immediately. “Do not try to take on the whole cult, they’ll eat you alive. Before launching yourself into a political battle, you need a base of support and sources of advice. I recommend you familiarize yourself with the various sects within the cult and decide which is least objectionable to you.”

“I’ve just had an idea,” Gabriel said, frowning pensively. “That thing Ravana is doing—”

Muffled by the intervening wall but still loud and clear, they abruptly heard Trissiny’s voice raised in a wordless scream of pure fury. A second later, a heavy thump resounded from the left wall of the room, making the books on that side shift slightly.

The three of them lost a moment in shocked stares, then both paladins bolted for the door. Darling followed them at a more circumspect pace. Sister Astarian was not in evidence outside, apparently having returned to her own duties after showing Trissiny and Schwartz to the other room.

Toby moved ahead in the hall and was the one to wrench open the door. He and Gabriel piled into the entrance, Darling (who was taller than either) peeking over their heads from behind.

Trissiny and Schwartz were face-to-face barely a foot apart; her sword was buried half its length into the desk along the wall behind her.

“Are you okay?” Toby demanded.

“Fine!” Trissiny barked, not looking at him. “Shut the door!”

“Uh,” Gabriel offered, “if there’s anything we can—”

“SHUT IT!”

They did.


“How could you not tell me?” Trissiny demanded in an agonized voice as soon as Toby had closed them in again.

“I should have,” Schwartz agreed immediately, nodding. “I really should, and I’m embarrassed it took the Tower of Salyrene to make me see that. But please understand—all this started with Abbess Narnasia warning me to plan carefully before acting, and then Principia doing the same, and finally Jenell herself demanding I butt out and let her handle Basra… And, well, I didn’t realize I’d let it all turn into procrastination. Hanging back, researching and trying to come up with something clever instead of…of doing what was necessary.”

“Oh, Goddess. Jenell.” Trissiny turned from him, pressing her gauntleted hands over her face. “I did this to her. Her father asked me to get her into the cadet program, and I pulled strings…”

“Don’t do that,” he said quickly, Meesie squeaking emphatic agreement. “You got her into the Legion, that is all. Nobody’s responsible for Basra but Basra.”

“And I knew she was messed up in the head,” she whispered. “Anth’auwa, the word is. Even Rouvad knew.”

“She did, did she.” Schwartz’s voice was suddenly a lot less warm.

“Goddess. She thinks she has Basra under control. I had my doubts about that, but I trusted… No, I didn’t even trust, I let her take responsibility for it. What was I thinking? That woman is such a vicious thing not a Sister under Avei’s banner would be surprised about this. I’m not surprised!” Her laugh held no mirth at all, only bitterness and the raw edge of hysteria. “Hell, this all makes more sense now that I know! Why have we tolerated this?”

“Life’s never as simple as just taking out the bad people,” Schwartz said quietly. “We all just…do the best we can. There are compromises that have to be made, and everybody makes mistakes. Look…whoever has some responsibility for this, and that’s a lot of us, that’s something to be dealt with…I dunno, in prayer, I guess. What matters right now is action, Trissiny. I said the Tower was what made me start thinking clearly about this, but what Darling just said in there has changed the whole issue. Apparently what you did in Calderaas rocked the whole Sisterhood back on its heels. If you suddenly show up in Tiraas and just stick your sword in the Bishop…”

“Oh, Goddess,” she groaned. “You’re right. This is terrible timing. But Herschel, we can’t let this go on any longer, you understand? I met Jenell Covrin, she’s a mean rich girl right out of a trashy novel. She is not a match for Basra Syrinx; that woman’s had plenty of time to work her tentacles into Covrin’s brain. She’s not going to take Syrinx down, whatever she thinks. And knowing all this, I will not tolerate that woman representing Avei’s faith any longer!”

“So…what do you want to do, then?” he asked helplessly. “I will support whatever it is. But I’m way out of my depth, Triss. If you think the right thing is to take her down and hope the Sisterhood survives it, I’ll back you up.”

Trissiny stood, staring at the wall, for a long moment. At least, she looked up at him again. “We’re both being blind. This isn’t our strong suit, Herschel, but we’ve got a resource we can use, here. Come on.”

She grabbed her sword and wrenched it out of the wood with a single yank. He followed her back out into the hall, and through the door into the other study. Toby and Gabriel had sunk into chairs; Darling was perched on the desk again, but stood upon their entry.

“Sweet, I need your help,” Trissiny said as soon as she’d shut the door.

“Saints and ministers of grace preserve us,” he groaned. “What the hell now, Thorn?”

“You’ve just finished emphatically making the point that I am terrible at politics, and I believe you. It’s important to know your own faults, after all. Well, I need to do something that’s going to have major political implications. I need guidance.”

He was watching her with pure wariness. “What, exactly, are you trying to do?”

“I am going to destroy Basra Syrinx.”

Gabriel and Toby both straightened up. Darling didn’t flicker so much as an eyelid.

“Why?” he asked quietly.

“Because I’ve just learned exactly how much of a monster she is,” Trissiny replied, meeting his gaze. “I had no idea it was this bad. She needs to go. The Sisterhood cannot have her in that position any longer. But…after the mess I’ve made already, if I just go in wings blazing and cut her down, there really will be a schism.”

“Have you considered not doing that?” he suggested evenly. “At least until you clean up after your last political mistake? Basra being a seriously warped piece of work isn’t news to anybody, but she’s been Bishop for years and the world hasn’t ended.”

“That option is not on the table,” Trissiny replied. “She goes. If you’re not going to help, then…I guess I’ll have to do my best and let the chips fall wherever they do. But I could really use your advice, Sweet.”

“You sure can,” he said, his shoulders shifting in a quiet sigh, and turned his head to gaze into the distance beyond the room’s wall. “For example, you just blurted all that to somebody who has gone out of his way to protect Basra’s political position, and needs her to stay in it.”

Her breath caught. “…why?” Meesie shrieked in fury and Schwartz had to grab her to prevent a tiny elemental attack on the Bishop.

Sweet looked at Trissiny again, his expression inscrutable. “Because she is the only other person in the Universal Church who knows what a piece of work the Archpope is, and has a willingness to keep him in check. Ah, what a tangled life I lead, having to be loyal to so many factions who only aren’t at each other’s throats because I’m standing between them… Stop making that face, Trissiny, of course I’ll help you. Ethics aside, this changes the whole equation. If Basra has fucked up badly enough to enrage her own paladin to this degree, she’s now a political liability to everyone who currently considers her an asset. And I’m just one of many people who’ll sleep better knowing she’s off the streets. I’ll be glad to have her off what’s left of my conscience, no matter what it ends up costing. All right, then.”

The Bishop rubbed his chin, now staring past them at the door, his eyes already distant. “Objective: take down the Bishop of Avei, in a way that doesn’t finish toppling the already-precarious Sisterhood of Avei or the Thieves’ Guild. Hmm…okay. Let’s see what we’ve got to work with…”

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14 – 16

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“Vesk sent us!” Toby blurted before anything really horrible could unfold.

Salyrene hesitated. Her entire being seemed to still for a moment, freezing in place like a person too startled to move, but accentuated by the iridescent patterns flowing across her skin suddenly stopping, at that moment in a pleasing fractal arrangement of gold and deep green.

Then she smoothly came back to life, her lightwaves flickering into motion and shifting toward orange, while she sighed and made an irritated expression.

“Of course he did. The majority of this intrusion is explained by that alone, but how did you get in here?”

“Um,” Gabriel said hesitantly, “we have a divine scythe that, apparently, can cut time and space. Plus we got a hint from Avei. It was Schwartz’s idea!”

The goddess narrowed her eyes slightly at Avei’s name but made no comment on that. “A valkyrie’s scythe doesn’t cut, per se, it kills. Through a very selective application, of course, that can still be used to pierce barriers in a way that doesn’t entirely destroy them, by embodying a mental construct of that which stands in your way and then condemning it to perish. It is the same principle on which the highest applications of infernomancy operate, those only able to be performed by demons.”

“Um…” Gabe drew the long black wand he currently had tucked away in his coat, and extended it to its full scythe form. “It’s not a valkyrie’s scythe, it’s…a divine weapon Vidius made for a paladin. Which is a new development, I’m not surprised you haven’t heard, if you’ve been…uh, away.”

Trissiny swatted the back of his head. Gabe just sighed, and nodded.

“You are exactly as you were described to me, Gabriel Arquin,” Salyrne said. Her tone, fortunately, was amused, and the arcs of light tracing across her skin had changed to a pleasant gold and pale blue, in smoothly flowing patterns without sharp edges. “Who do you think made those weapons? I assure you, it wasn’t Vidius. I remember that one; it belonged to Yrsa.” The pale glow of her eyes flickered subtly, as if she had glanced in a different direction. “Don’t blame Vestrel for not telling you, it is unlikely she would have recognized it. They look quite different in the hands of a different owner. I expect it will be much more versatile in a human’s grasp.”

“Wow,” Trissiny said softly. “You got a hand-me-down divine weapon?”

Gabriel gave her an annoyed look. “How many Hands of Avei have owned that sword?”

“Not one. We borrow it for a while.”

“That scythe,” Salyrene said dryly, “is many times more powerful than your sword, Trissiny Avelea. In fact, it was only because they were assured that neither such devices nor their owners would ever be on the mortal plane that the rest of the Pantheon declined to raise objection when I crafted them for the valkyries. But it seems that in these latter days, ancient proscriptions are being disregarded left and right. And on that subject, what precisely did Vesk send you here to do?”

They glanced at each other uncertainly, taking a silent vote to decide who would speak.

“He tasked us with collecting the pieces of a key,” Toby said after the momentary pause. “There are four, and the clues we got are that they’re in the hands of the princess in her palace, the scoundrel in the shadows, the maiden in her tower, and the monster in its sepulcher.”

“Maiden.” Salyrene made a wry grimace, but the light dancing on her skin accelerated and took on festive patterns of green and silver. “And how many of these pieces have you gathered thus far?”

“Only the one,” Toby said, producing Gretchen’s Dowry from his pocket and holding it up. “Princess Yasmeen of Calderaas had it.”

The little shard of mithril rose from his hands and drifted toward the goddess. She brought her own hands up to either side of it, but did not touch; it simply hung suspended there, within the scope of her grasp. The lights flowing over her faded to a pale white and took on an angular, almost mathematical arrangement.

Gabriel cleared his throat awkwardly after the silence had stretched out for almost a minute. “Do you…recognize it? Uh, my Lady?”

“Infinite Order technology was modular and interchangeable,” she said abruptly. “As any system of technology must be, to serve the needs of a large and advanced society.”

Toby looked uncertainly at the others, getting a series of shrugs in reply. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.”

“It means that rather than every device being individually crafted by artisans, they were built of smaller, identical pieces with standardized attachment points,” Salyrene explained. “So that any person with some basic sense who could get access to replacement parts could repair their gadgets, up to a point. Or even configure new ones. This is an Infinite Order device, a Series 6 T2 circuit. Being mithril, every single one ever made still exists. The vast majority are buried and lost in various places, but even so, this is hardly unique. There are three of these on display in the Royal Museum in Svenheim, over a dozen still in various private collections—either as simple curiosities, or set in jeweled housings as this one recently was. There are even a few in service for something like their original purpose, after particularly resourceful wizards worked out what they did.”

She shifted her gaze from the piece of mithril to look at them again, and even as the patterns limning her accelerated and warmed to bright gold, the key fragment floated back down to where Toby could grasp it again.

“I thought you deserved to know, children, that Vesk is not having you reassemble the pieces of some long-lost artifact. He has set you to build something out of components that, while not common these days, are mostly still lying around. It should go without saying that Vesk could pick up all of these much more easily without having to rely on mortal help.”

“Avei said that last part, too,” Trissiny murmured, wearing a frown.

“What does that thing do, when it’s at home?” Schwartz asked in fascination. Meesie tugged warningly at his hair, but he absently brushed her off while gazing avidly at the mithril object now back in Toby’s hand.

“It is a transcension transistor,” she explained. “Hence T2. Basically it controls the flow of magical energy from a source to another device.”

“But it’s made of mithril!” Trissiny protested. “Wouldn’t it completely block magic?”

“Precisely,” Salyrene said, nodding. “This particular circuit is designed to be hooked into a direct source of truly immense magical power, and link it to a very delicate device which would be immediately destroyed by direct contact with such a source. Specifically, an information-processing machine, which would gather data from the power source or possibly deliver instructions to alter it. Or both. Or something else entirely. Those, or at least of a model that could be linked to your Series 6 T2 circuit, there, are not made of mithril, or at least, not entirely. While the Infinite Order built to last, more delicate materials inevitably come to harm with the passage of time. There are very few compatible units still in existence. And yes, I do have one, myself.”

“So the transistor establishes a link,” Schwartz murmured, rubbing his chin pensively, while atop his head Meesie clapped a hand over her eyes in frustration. “But also impedes the flow of magic so that the device on the other end isn’t damaged by the intensity of exposure. Fascinating! What sort of magical source could he possibly want to hook this into?”

“That’s an excellent question,” Salyrene replied, her lights fading to red and slowing to a sluggish crawl across her skin. “There are such incredible fonts of magic left in the world—but this one, specifically, would have to be an Infinite Order machine. And while those still exist, they are all sealed off, first by Naiya locking their access portals and then by her attempts to bury the remaining entrances in various disasters. Those she missed before her consciousness became too diffuse to focus on the task, the Pantheon finished burying.”

“There’s one of those facilities in Puna Dara,” Toby objected. “We were actually in there, briefly.”

The goddess gave him an indulgent little smile. “I assure you, Fabrication Plant One was not built at the bottom of a harbor. But what can be buried can be dug up again, given time and enough effort. Right now, the only thing currently accessible to mortals which would be able to make use of that T2 circuit is the main power source of the old spaceport beneath Tiraas. I hope Vesk doesn’t intend to send you in there. I seem to recall the Empire gets tetchy about grubby little fingers leaving prints all over its favorite toys.”

“I may have had a reminder of that recently,” Gabriel said solemnly. “I don’t suppose you might have a theory on what Vesk wants with this key when it’s finished? It sounds like it would enable him to control something with a lot of power, which the gods went to a lot of trouble to lock away.”

“Let me rephrase that,” said Trissiny. “Can he be trusted with this thing? Because if not, I for one will be very comfortable not bothering you any further about this whole business.”

“Vesk,” Salyrene replied, “is every bit as annoying as you have already discovered, and then some. And I trust him more than most of the Pantheon. Yes, he could cause a lot of trouble if he’s collecting what I think he is—but keep in mind, if he just wanted to cause trouble in this manner, nothing is stopping him. He doesn’t need your help to gather these pieces. Whatever he is doing is at least as much about you as about him.”

“He does have…something of a reputation for pointlessly tormenting people,” Toby said slowly. “Especially paladins.”

“When a bard says hero, they mean victim,” Trissiny quoted.

“From the perspective of the paladins, I’m sure it can seem like pointless torment.” Her tone was grave, the lights flowing over her body slow and pale blue now. “The same can be said of this tower. I do have some sympathy for Vesk, for that very reason. Despite the nuisance he can be while you’re dealing with him, if you embrace the trials he throws in your path you will emerge stronger for the journey. Here, this is what you came for.”

Again, she held her hands apart before her, the blue lights cascading over her skin accelerating to a frenzied pace of oscillation as the goddess channeled magic. Streamers of mist coalesced out of the air, spinning together into a tiny cloud between her palms, which spun like a miniature tornado before abruptly dissipating with a puff and a shower of golden sparks, to leave an object slowly rotating in the air.

Gabriel applauded. Trissiny stepped on his foot. Salyrene, smiling, inclined her head toward him.

Toby reached up to grasp the thing that drifted down to his hand. It was a rounded disc of what seemed to be black glass, encircled by a band of mithril which at one point around its circumference extended blunt little prongs. He paused to bow to Salyrene, glanced at the others, and then carefully brought the two pieces together. The disc fit with perfect ease into the shaft, forming an obvious key shape that now was missing only its teeth.

Eight thousand years after its creators and their whole civilization had been wiped out, it still worked perfectly. A soft chirp of acknowledgment sounded from the key, and the black disc within the mithril housing lit up with a red gleam. After two seconds, it went dark again.

“Hmm,” Gabriel murmured, staring at the half-built key in Toby’s hand with his eyes narrowed. “You said…that piece is a kind of information processing device, right? What information is in it right now?”

“None,” Salyrene said simply, spreading her hands in a slight shrug. “It is a blank template, which is what makes it especially valuable. Few enough of those are still extant and functional; most that survive have instructions hard-coded into them. An unused transtate drive is very rare. In fact, I believe that reveals what your remaining two pieces are. Your key now is missing only the interface dock which should be attached to the other end of the transistor to enable it to be plugged into an Infinite Order machine. I suspect the final ‘piece’ will, in fact, be software. Instructions that will program it to do whatever it is Vesk plans to do with that thing.”

Trissiny drew in a breath and let it out in a soft sigh. “So…the scoundrel and the monster are left. I wonder which will have which part.”

“Your monster will guard the information component,” said the goddess, and her constant lightshow trended to jagged patterns of red and white while she spoke. “Which means you will be facing some nastiness left behind by the Elder Gods at the end of this journey. I conclude this by process of elimination: of the entities which might possess physical scraps of Infinite Order technology and be described as ‘monsters,’ I can only think of dragons, who as a rule do not hang about in sepulchers. Besides, I can tell you your next stop based on the remaining possibility. In the port city of Ninkabi in N’Jendo lives a man named Mortimer Agasti who owns a Series 6 interface dock…and can quite reasonably be called a scoundrel in the shadows. More than that I won’t give away. He will not be hard to find, once you reach the city.”

“Thank you very much, my Lady,” Toby said gravely, bowing to her again. “Both for the gift, and for the information. It has been immensely helpful.”

“You are welcome,” she replied, inclining her head. “Now, Tobias Caine. My sword, if you please?”

“Oh!” He had thrust Athenos unsheathed through his belt; now Toby tucked the key back into his pocket and pulled the sword loose. Holding it by the blade, he offered it up to her, hilt-first. Athenos, for his part, remained uncharacteristically silent.

“This…isn’t exactly on topic,” Gabriel said a little hesitantly, “and may not even be pleasant for me to know, but I have to ask. Lady Salyrene, do you know where Ariel came from?”

Holding Athenos in one hand, the sword looking almost comically small given the size of her current incarnation, Salyrene turned an indulgent smile on Gabriel, her shifting skin taking on shimmering patterns of green and blue. Then, with a soft puff of light, Athenos vanished from view, leaving her hands empty once more.

“I am not in the habit of indulging idle curiosity, Gabriel Arquin, but I do like an enchanter who seeks knowledge even when he knows it won’t make him happy. Far too many people, even magic users who ought to know better, only want to hear what will please them. And indeed, your sword should come with a warning: so long as you carry her, you should try to avoid high elves.”

“That…shouldn’t be a problem,” he said, blinking. “Nobody ever sees high elves. I didn’t believe they really existed until very recently. Uh, might I ask why?”

“Ariel is a Qestraceel original,” Salyrene explained. “Before human wizards learned the vile secret of making talking swords, or at least a clumsy and bastardized version of it, the art was created by the high elves as the most severe punishment they will inflict for any crime. The Magisters of Qestraceel are able to perform the process correctly on a single try. When they judge someone deserving of the ultimate punishment, that individual is executed and their spirit made a template for a talking sword, which then serves the Magisters in whatever capacity they require. It must be a truly legendary tale that explains how Ariel came to be lost in the Crawl, but unfortunately, the long period of dormancy without a user’s aura to power her would have purged her long-term memory. By the law of the high elves, Gabriel Arquin, all such swords are the permanent property of the Magistry, and may never be sold, traded, given, or even loaned. If a high elf sees you with that sword, they will try to confiscate her.”

He lowered a hand to grasp Ariel’s hilt. She, like Athenos, remained conspicuously silent in Salyrene’s presence. “Thank you for the warning. Then…she was made from someone truly…awful.”

“You can’t assume that,” Trissiny said quietly. “Sometimes people do truly awful things in extenuating circumstances. Sometimes innocent people are condemned to terrible punishments by a flawed justice system. If Ariel doesn’t remember and you can’t exactly ask a high elf…better to leave the past buried.”

“Wise words,” Salyrene agreed, nodding to Trissiny. “And you, Herschel Schwartz? I am rather pleased at the opportunity to speak with you. Have you nothing you wish to ask me?”

“Oh,” he squeaked, sounding eerily reminiscent of Meesie. “Me? Oh, I’m just…along. I’m not a paladin, uh, obviously. I’m helping Triss and the boys, that’s all.”

“You do have a knack for stumbling into matters above your head,” Salyrene agreed. “If Vesk is involved in this affair, that alone tells me your presence here is no coincidence. Yes, young man, I am aware of you. I have been since you swore vengeance in my name while striking down a foe with an impressive display of magical skill for such a young witch.”

All three paladins’ heads swiveled to stare at him in shock.

“Hershel!” Trissiny croaked.

“Oh,” he groaned, clapping a hand over his eyes and nearly dislodging his glasses. Meesie, still sitting in his hair, threw her tiny arms wide and squeaked a despairing complaint at the ceiling. “That was… It was the dwarf, Trissiny, the one who was hunting you and the other apprentices. He threatened my family.”

“The little piece of crap had it coming,” the goddess of magic opined, folding her arms and the abstract lights running across her flaring bright orange. “Had you been forced to make good on that threat, Herschel Schwartz, I would have backed you. And then, by necessity, delivered a lesson. I have made it clear that I don’t appreciate being casually invoked, and there must be consequences for that kind of defiance.”

“Thank you, may Lady,” Schwartz said weakly, “for your forbearance.”

She smiled. “Thank you for not forcing me to exercise it, young witch. One hates to have to come down upon such a promising talent. Now, we are both here. How do you like my Tower?”

He hesitated, fussing with his glasses, and Meesie hopped down to his shoulder where she stood up and patted his cheek, chittering an urgent message.

“I…understand the lesson of that trial,” Schwartz said finally, raising his eyes to the goddess again.

“Makes one of us,” Gabriel muttered.

“The point,” Schwartz continued, “is that sometimes you have to do what you don’t want to do. To…act against your nature. And…sometimes it’s all going to go to hell anyway, but you still have to do it. Because failing to act at all, just because you don’t like the options…that’s the ultimate sin. It’s the same as choosing defeat.”

“Well done,” she said, nodding.

“And,” he continued, visibly stiffening his spine. Meesie actually punched his face, ineffectually, emitting a long squeal; Schwartz plucked her off his shoulder and held her out in one fist. “And, I think Vesk sent us in here, knowing that specific lesson would be taught to this specific group, because he wanted to deliver that message to you.”

The room perceptibly darkened. Slowly, the patterns of light shifting across Salyrene’s skin began to creep toward a halt, shifting into blue, and then a deeper indigo.

Meesie turned to face Trissiny, still clutched in Schwartz’s grip, and squealed indignantly while pointing at his face.

“I know, Meesie,” she said with a sigh, reaching out to take the little elemental from him. Meesie darted up her arm to rest on her shoulder, where she chattered furiously at Schwartz.

“My Lady,” the witch continued, staring pleadingly up at his goddess, “we’ve missed you. What’s happening out there… It’s amazing. The enchantments that have been developed in the last century, and the way they’ve changed society, the very face of the world… It’s the great fulfillment of the promise magic has always held! Life is so much better in every way… And yes, of course, there are hazards and drawbacks, there’s just no avoiding that, but the progress. It has to be seen to be believed. This is an age of wonders, an age of magic, and you are missing it!”

She had darkened completely, now. The last deep blue had faded, leaving no light upon her form. Salyrene closed her luminous eyes, plunging them back into the dimness of the Tower.

“It is not a small thing,” she whispered at long last, “to lose someone you love. A friend, a family member…someone bonded to you through hardship and endlessly long, shared experience. Not for anyone is it a small thing… But especially not for a being like me, so defined and constrained by the concepts I embody. Take someone precious from a god, and you have taken away a piece of their very being.”

“I think,” Toby said, equally softly, “it’s that way for everyone.”

“Trust me, there is a difference. I know because of how acute the losses were, after our ascension, compared to before. We had been at war with gods; we had all lost loved ones. Many, many times. But once we became gods, to have those we cared for stripped from us… Even when they were not destroyed, only separated. That pain came to define many of us, deeply.

“First it was Naphthene and Ouvis. They are only considered part of the Pantheon today because neither cared enough for what we thought to insist on being left off the roster. That was a painful rejection, from faithful companions so repulsed by what we had had to do that they couldn’t stand the very sight of us any longer. Then, Themynra, for all that she left on gentler terms. Wise, careful Themynra; had we not all been reeling so from the loss, the very fact that her conscience compelled her from the group would have warned us to change our path. And then…Khar, right after her. It was the same way. He understood so much about the hearts of people. There was a moment, then, when the warning was clear. When the Pantheon might have turned out to be something very different.

“And then came Elilial’s betrayal.” She opened her eyes, again bathing them in white light. None of them, even Meesie, dared make a sound. “Thousands of years of religion have twisted the narrative, inevitably. I will tell you the truth: Elilial was beloved to us as any of our number, and she only followed her conscience. What she did… She believed, earnestly, that it was right. But there was too much anger in her to simply walk away, as the others had. No, she had to turn and strike back. I can’t say whether it was purely lashing out in rage or she actually thought we had to be stopped from becoming what we were… But being under attack was something we knew very well. By turning on us that way, she sealed her fate, and our own.”

Salyrene shook her head slowly. Her skin, still unlit, somehow darkened further, all the highlights fading from it as if she were transitioning into a blackness that annihilated any light which dared to touch her, leaving only those glowing eyes in a moving silhouette.

“You likely don’t appreciate the truth of what Khar gave to us over the long centuries that followed. How a god, and a faith, can come to be defined by its opposition. Your Sisterhood, Trissiny Avelea, is the best example imaginable. Avei taught them justice and strategy, but by their opposition, Sorash and Shaath taught them ferocity and hard-heartedness. But Khar, and his orcs, taught them honor. In all the years that Athan’Khar and Viridill fought back and forth across that border, there was respect between them. When the Empire unleashed Magnan’s weapon… Every unit of the Silver Legions in the field, independently and without orders, turned on the Imperial legions, joined ranks with the remaining orcs, and pushed the Tiraan forces all the way out of Viridill. Given enough time, a respected enemy can become the closest friend you have.

“And I…” Her whole shape flickered, wavered, as though she were about to blow away. Even her eyes dimmed. “I lost a friend more precious to me than any. Khar was such a good soul. A teacher, a source of wisdom and comfort to all of us. Always testing and pushing at us, asking hard questions and forcing us to acknowledge our flaws and failures… But always with care, and with a smile, and the offer of a helping hand when it was needed. And then he was gone. Truly, this time, utterly gone.”

She lowered her head to gaze down at her own palms.

“Slain, by my own Hand.”

The silence crushed the very idea of speaking up. From most of them, anyway.

“And what do you think Khar would say about you hiding in this tower for a hundred years?” Gabriel asked.

Toby threw his head back to stare at the ceiling. Schwartz turned to glare incredulously at Gabriel. Trissiny just shoved the leather palms of her gauntlets against her eyes.

“I am sorry,” Gabriel said sincerely when Salyrene’s luminous gaze fixed upon him. “Truly. If you feel the need to smite me or something for saying it… Well, you have to do what you have to, I guess. But Schwartz is right, my Lady. You’re killing yourself, hiding away like this. There’s a new age of enchantment unfolding out there, and the world needs your guidance more than it ever has. Your followers miss you. The other gods miss you. Avei mentioned it, and I’m pretty sure Schwartz is also right about Vesk setting this up at least partly to get your attention. It’s…it’s a whole question, whether Magnan’s crimes were your fault, I wouldn’t know how to even begin answering that. But whether it is or not, you can’t just hide like this. It’s bad for the world and it’s bad for you.”

She stared down at him; he gazed earnestly back, as long as he could, before finally lowering his eyes.

“You are, indeed, exactly as you were described to me, Gabriel Arquin,” Salyrene finally said. “A good heart, a keen mind, and a tongue that is always one step ahead of both.”

“Wow, is that on the nose,” he muttered.

“I suspect you are doing exactly as you were meant,” she said, now with a small smile. The light crept back into her while she spoke, that eerie blackness fading away fully until flickers of luminous design began to appear on her skin again. “Knowing Vidius and the trend of his thoughts over the last few centuries, you are just what I would expect him to call as a paladin: someone who offends and agitates people in a manner they cannot condemn. But this is all ancient history, now, and you all have your quest to return to. Unless the four of you would like to climb my Tower?”

“Thank you very much for the offer but I think we will pass,” Trissiny said firmly.

Salyrene smiled in open amusement, golden sparks dancing across her skin. “Very well. Since I perceive you neglected to arrange your own exit, I will convey you back to the point from which you started.”

“That’s extremely kind, my Lady,” said Schwartz. “And, um… I’m very sorry if we—”

“There is nothing for which you should apologize to me,” she said, glancing between him and Gabriel. “Any of you. And now, your path.”

She gestured languidly with one hand, and another swirling vortex like the portals out of those trial rooms sprang into being at her side. This time, it widened like the rent Schwartz and Gabriel had made in reality to get to the Tower in the first place, its boundaries peeling back from the center to leave a gap surrounded by the whirl of energy. Also like the one Schwartz had made, there was only inscrutable darkness in the center.

“Well, hey!” Gabe said cheerfully, turning to Trissiny. “This is familiar. You wanna go first?”

This time, though, nobody went first; the portal came to them. Salyrene smiled, flicked her fingers, and a most confusing scene ensued; it wasn’t clear from looking whether the portal moved toward them or suddenly swelled to encompass the entire available space. Whatever it was, the effect only lasted a split second before the blackness swallowed them all and then receded, and then they were back in Vrin Shai.

Not quite back where they had started, however. Rather than the basement spell chamber beneath the temple, Salyrene had deposited them on the wide plaza at the very top of the city’s stairs, in front of the great temple and in full view of a stream of pilgrims making their way in and back out.

Also, she had come with them.

The abrupt arrival of four people, one in silver armor and still with a fiery (but cute) elemental on her shoulder, captured everyone’s attention. The ensuing appearance of a twelve-foot-tall luminous goddess was heralded by screams and a significant percent of the onlookers trying to flee, or simply falling to their knees.

“Oh, boy,” Gabriel said, gazing around them while the Silver Legionnaires and attendant priestesses tried to restore some order, apparently less discomifted by the manifestation in their midst. “This is one of those things that’s going to have implications, isn’t it.”

“In truth,” Salyrene replied, making no effort to moderate her voice, “this is the first time in all these thousands of years I have done such a thing. To appear, in person, uninvited, at another god of the Pantheon’s most sacred citadel is, at best, presumptuous and rude. Perhaps Avei should keep this in mind the next time she has an urge to deposit a handful of paladins in my own innermost sanctuary. Speaking of stepping on the prerogatives of other deities, however, I have one last thing for you, children.”

As before, she held apart her hands and conjured something from luminous mist. Also as before, it drifted downward toward Toby, whom the goddess seemed to have identified as the keeper of artifacts within their group. This one was a bottle of twisted, polished green glass which glittered like a jewel in the sunlight, an incongruously ordinary cork sealing its mouth.

“If I know Vesk, which I assure you I do,” Salyrene said while Toby carefully plucked the bottle out of the air, “there will come a moment in your adventure when all seems lost, when all the powers and skills at your disposal are not equal to the danger before you, and your salvation can only come at the sudden intervention of an unexpected ally. He can’t resist that one, it’s a classic. This time, I am not going to let him have the satisfaction. Here is your plot device, heroes. When you are completely out of options—and not before—take the stopper from that bottle, and your help will emerge.”

Holding it carefully in both hands, Toby bowed deeply to her. “Thank you, my Lady. You have been very gracious and aided us tremendously. We will not forget your kindness.”

She just gave him an enigmatic little smile. Then, her expression sobering, the towering goddess tilted her head back to gaze up at the giant statue of Avei which loomed over them all.

And smirked.

“Hmp,” she grunted, and exploded into a million motes of multicolored light, which drifted out like pollen on the breeze before fading away.

Slowly, Gabriel turned from the others to face the murmuring throng now staring at them. “Sooo… Who else is in favor of getting indoors? Like, quickly?”


Sister Astarian, blessedly, was as efficient as ever. Barely did they step inside the temple before she intercepted and whisked the group away out of the public eye.

“You’ve been gone almost exactly two days,” she explained while leading them through its passages. “I’m told that time tends to be highly subjective in places like…well, that. In any case, your timing is impeccable; you have a visitor whom I think you will want to meet.”

“Oh?” Trissiny asked, raising her eyebrows. “A vistor, as in someone who’s not normally attached to the Temple? I’m surprised anyone would come looking for us here.”

“Actually,” Astarian replied, giving her a sidelong glance, “quite a few people have come asking after you; this is the first who in my opinion has any claim on your time. I’ve begun getting reports of your visit to Calderaas. You kids really do like to make waves, don’t you?”

“For the record,” said Gabriel from behind them, “Salyrene showing up here was not our idea. Frankly, even if she’d forewarned us, I can’t imagine how we might have stopped her.”

“Wait,” said Schwartz, who now had Meesie back on his own shoulder. “What did you do in Calderaas?”

“Oh, nothing that will ever have any consequences,” Gabriel said lightly. Toby heaved a sigh.

“Here we are,” Sister Astarian said, coming to a stop before a wooden door, which she pushed open without knocking and gestured them through. “If I acted incorrectly by bringing you to him, don’t hesitate to say so.”

They clustered inside, which was somewhat difficult as Trissiny had stopped in surprise just past the threshold. The room was an office or small study, lined with laden bookshelves and featuring comfortable couches and a heavy desk. At their entrance, its occupant turned from a shelf on the far wall, closing the book he’d been reading and giving them a broad grin.

“Why, there they are! And here I had begun to think I’d been tucked away to be forgotten.”

“Bishop Darling?” Gabriel said, blinking.

“Sweet,” Trissing added in disbelief, “what are you doing in Vrin Shai?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Looking for you lost little ducklings, of course.” He carefully tucked the book back into place and strolled around the desk toward them. “You made quite the impression in Calderaas, kids. And then vanished so suddenly! I confess I was at a loss for a bit there, but then you were thoughtful enough to flash your wings at a minor noblewoman and a politically minded junior priestess, thus ensuring that everybody in the world who even might be curious as to your whereabouts would be able to find you in the time it takes to send one telescroll and ride one Rail line.”

“Ah,” she said with some chagrin. “About that…”

“Yes, about that,” Sweet said, putting on a placid smile that instantly made her hackles rise. “Thorn, we all want to crash a high society party and waterboard the hostess in her own punchbowl. But we don’t actually do this, Thorn. Do you know why?”

“Well, I—”

“Because YOU ARE ABOUT TO!

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13 – 51

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The sun set on a city overtaken by festivity. The Punaji so loved a good storm under any circumstances that they were frequently followed by parties, but as soon as this one had faded, hundreds of citizens had descended upon the Rock, quite a few carrying weapons. Even Naphthene’s fury had not been enough to stop the spread of rumor, and it seemed widely known that the castle was under attack. The King himself had addressed the public quickly.

From there, a celebration was all but inevitable. It was a political move to solidify the Crown’s standing in the aftermath of having beaten an enemy, but also a very necessary release of tension which the city badly needed. Soon all of Puna Dara seemed to be partying, though the festivities were centered on the Rock, where the fortress doors had been opened and food and drink brought out into the courtyard. Cracked doors, lightning burns and broken masonry only served to accentuate the celebrant atmosphere; Punaji most enjoyed a party when it felt particularly earned.

The noise and hubbub served another purpose: it provided a distraction and cover in which the Rust could be carefully locked away. Ayuvesh continued to be cooperative and the rest of his people followed his lead; the King and Queen weren’t greatly concerned about them attempting to resist or break out. Rather, it was important for their sake that they be put out of the public eye and securely held, so they did not become the target of vigilantism. Not a small part of the relief spurring the city-wide festival night was due to the removal of the Rust from the streets. Some of its un-augmented members, those driven out of their dockside warehouse headquarters, remained unaccounted for, but a lot of the survivors of Milady’s rampage had been found and brought to the Rock, where it would be determined if they were to be charged with anything.

Of the Imperial spy herself, there was no sign. The royal scouts who investigated the warehouse did report very strange tracks left in the drying blood, which remained unexplained until Ruda happened to mention them to Schwartz.

“You brought a fucking sylph into my city?!” she exclaimed moments later.

“Aradeus is a friend,” he retorted, “perfectly trustworthy. And he was extremely helpful! If not for him bringing us up to speed on the situation here, I doubt we would have made it to the Rock in time to assist the defenders!” Meesie, as usual, squeaked agreement, nodding her tiny head from her perch on his shoulder.

“That’s true enough,” Trissiny added with a smile. “We’d probably still be out scouting. Of course, we didn’t realize when we ‘ported out here in such a hurry that you lot were on site.”

“Oh, sure, it’s only the most infamously dangerous kind of fairy there is, but hey, you’re a special kind of witch! You can keep it under control!”

“Every part of that is more wrong than the preceding,” Schwartz said irritably. To begin with, he had been somewhat overawed by Ruda, who despite standing a head and a half shorter than he tended to fill a room with her personality—not to mention that he’d never encountered royalty before. The effect had faded quickly once she started talking, and cursing. “First of all, sylphs are merely incredibly strong, nearly invulnerable and prone to violence.”

“Fucking merely!” she snorted.

“Which,” Schwartz continued doggedly, “doesn’t even place them in the top ten most dangerous fairy species. More importantly, you do not control a fairy, especially one like that. Aradeus, as I said, is a friend, and I have learned to trust both his judgment and composure. And oh, look, I was right! He helped, he left, and you wouldn’t even have noticed had I not told you he’d been here.”

“Boy, are you talking back to me?” Ruda demanded, folding her arms. “I’ll have you know I am the fucking Princess in this country.”

Behind her, Trissiny was busy ruining the effect with a broad grin.

“Yes, well,” Schwartz said stiffly, “I guess that explains why you so badly needed to be talked back to.”

Ruda narrowed her eyes to slits, and managed to keep that expression for almost five seconds before giving up and letting out a laugh. To Schwartz’s amazement and Meesie’s shrill annoyance, she punched him on the shoulder. “I like this one, Boots! We should take him back to school with us.”

“Ah…well, I’m afraid my secondary schooling is complete,” Schwartz said, a little bemused, “and Last Rock has no graduate program as yet. But I wouldn’t mind visiting, sometime. The things one hears about that place…”

“Aren’t the half of it, I guarantee.” Ruda glanced to the side, and sighed. “Aw, dammit, made eye contact with Mama. Scuze me, I’ve gotta go pretend to be a civilized person for a few minutes.”

She grabbed a random bottle from the nearest table while sauntering off toward her parents, tilting it up and taking a long swig.

“She’s making a good start on it,” Darius observed.

The Rock’s banquet hall was laid out with raised sections along both sides, reached by stairs and partially hidden behind colonnades, clearly designed to facilitate private conversation during large gatherings. Trissiny and her friends from Tiraas had quickly gathered there, being themselves in a much less festive frame of mind than the rest of the gathering. Singly and in small groups, her other classmates had come by to catch up. Ruda was the last, and by that point Tallie and the Sakhavenids seemed to be slightly in shock.

“So…” Tallie ventured after a moment, “what’s that Boots business?”

Trissiny gave her a deadpan look, lifting one eyebrow. “What boots?”

“Oh ho, so it’s something she doesn’t want to discuss.” Tallie grinned wickedly. “I wonder which of your adventure buddies I should shmooze to get the details? Hmm, I bet that Gabriel guy would fall for the ol’ fluttering eyelashes trick.”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Layla held up a finger. “Down, girl. Dibs, remember?”

“I will not hesitate to dunk your head in a sink until you drop that,” Darius informed her.

“So, you’re planning to visit Last Rock, now?” Principia said casually, strolling up to them from the banquet floor below. “I only caught the tail end of that conversation.”

“You can hear every conversation in the room,” Trissiny stated flatly. “And now that we know which one you were listening to, I have the funniest feeling you could quote the entire thing back to us from beginning to end.”

“Rapid memorization is a neat parlor trick,” the elf said with an unabashed grin. “But sorry, I’m a little rusty. It’s been a good few years since I actually attended a party. Shame, too, the Punaji throw a good one. So! You two still getting along well, I see,” she said casually, lounging against a pillar and glancing from Schwartz to Trissiny. The position she had chosen placed her shoulder to the others, at whom she had not even glanced.

Darius cleared his throat. “We’re here, too!”

“Well, I’d like to think I’m a useful sort of person to know,” Schwartz said, frowning at Meesie, who was cheeping in inexplicable excitement. “So are the apprentices, here—all of them. Besides, when you’ve been through something hairy with someone, it tends to form a bond.”

“Oh, I am well aware of that,” Principia said, her tone suddenly very dry, and turned to the others. “So tell me! Have you lot noticed any sparks flying between these two?”

“Excuse me?!” Trissiny barked. Tallie burst out laughing so hard she had to slump against the wall.

“Uh, no,” Darius said primly. “Come on, she’s like my brother and Schwartz here is pretty much the living incarnation of a book. I think it would make me physically ill to picture that.”

“Now, see here!” Schwartz exclaimed, while Meesie laughed so hard she had to grab his ear to avoid tumbling off his shoulder. It somewhat spoiled the indignant pose he was trying to put on. “This ‘Aunt Principia’ thing you’ve been trying out with me is wearing a little thin! Just because you knew my father does not give you the right to meddle in my personal business! Besides, as you well know, I’m already—”

He broke off, blushing. Tallie, whose laughter was just beginning to settle down, was set off again and this time Darius had to catch her. Layla, uncharacteristically quiet, was studying the rest of them with her eyes slightly narrowed.

“How did you know his father?” Trissiny asked. “Was he involved in Guild business, too?”

“No, nothing like that,” Principia replied lightly. “Anton was a skilled enchanter who had a prairie boy’s disregard for other people’s rules. I met him looking for someone to do some barely-legal charm work that was beyond my skill, and kept him in my address book for more after that worked out so well. Got to where he’d accompany me on a little adventure now and again. This was long after ‘adventuring’ was a respectable pastime, so we didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was. Also, he was your father.”

Total silence descended on their alcove like a hammer. Tallie’s lingering chuckles were cut off and she stared at the elf; only Layla didn’t look visibly shocked, nodding slowly with a thoughtful expression. Schwartz and Trissiny gaped at Principia, then at each other.

Meesie gathered herself, then leaped from Schwartz’s shoulder to Trissiny’s, where she reached up to pat her cheek, squeaking affectionately.

“Funny how things work out,” Principia mused, now wearing a little smile.

“Funny,” Trissiny choked.

“Funny ironic, not funny amusing. I spent the longest damn time puzzling out how to tell you that. I even went out to visit Hershel’s mom, see what she said.”

“You did what?!” Schwartz screeched.

“And after all that,” Principia said with a sigh, “here it is, just dropped into the conversation like a wet fish. But hell, I do know what tends to happen when two attractive young people go through a few life-or-death situations together, and that needed to be nipped in the bud.”

“There was nothing to nip!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“And now there won’t be,” Principia said placidly. “Back in the day, adventurers were an oddly interrelated but private group; you’d see the same dozen or so people over and over again, go through hell and back shoulder to shoulder with them, and then go your separate ways without really learning anything about their lives. And it was like that for enough generations that various people’s kids would run into each other… Well, I’ve actually seen long-lost siblings accidentally hook up more than once. That kind of misunderstanding is only funny when it happens to people I don’t care about.”

“Every time we have a conversation,” Trissiny stated, “I feel like I gain a little more appreciation for you, and a lot more for the woman who actually raised me.”

Principia grinned. “Well, I’ll take what I can get.”

“Yes, that’s the story of your life, isn’t it?”

“I’m already nostalgic for this morning,” Darius said, “when the paladin thing was the big shock. Gods, what is it with you? Paladin in two cults, related to elves and bloody dragons, friend of royalty, and now you’ve even got a mysterious orphan brother. Knowing you is like being in a fuckin’ opera. How long are we gonna be peeling this onion?”

Trissiny heaved a sigh. “I wish I knew. Two years ago, I was an orphan. It was much simpler.”

“Well, that’s a hell of a thing to say right in front of your mom,” a man remarked, strolling up to them and casually rolling a coin across the backs of his fingers. “Hey there, Prin. Heck of a party, isn’t it?”

“Uh, hi,” Principia said, straightening up. “Wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

Her face showed clear surprise and uncertainty, an unfamiliar expression on her given how she avoided revealing weakness. The others glanced between her and the new arrival uncertainly; she wasn’t alarmed, clearly, just startled.

“Nobody ever expects to see me!” he said grandly, tossing the doubloon back and forth between his hands. “That’s rather the point, don’cha think?” He was, like many members of the Guild, a very unremarkable person, dressed in slightly shabby clothes, with long features, shaggy hair, and a complexion that hovered somewhere between Tiraan and Punaji.

“This was a private conversation until very recently,” Layla observed. “Lieutenant Locke, would you care to introduce us to your acquaintance?”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” he said with an amused grin, “how’s about you make the introductions? And then you kids can just follow me. Strictly speaking I only need her Paladinship, here, but I bet the rest of you will wanna come along.”

“Come along to fucking where?” Darius demanded. “Who is this clown?”

Principia cleared her throat. “Hey, keep it in your pants, kid. This is the Big Guy.”

There was a beat of silence, broken by Schwartz drawing in a deep, sudden breath.

“Wait, wait,” Tallie protested. “I must be remembering wrong. I thought Big Guy was what they called the god.”

“They do it because I hate the term ‘god,’” he confided, winking. “It’s one of those words that just encourages people to place too much stock in it and not do for themselves. That is not how I want you lot carrying on, see?”

“Yes, Tallie, you’re correct,” Principia said warily. “Big Guy is what they call the god. And stop making faces at me,” she added in annoyance to the divine subject of her faith. “You also don’t like people to pussyfoot around and not call things what they are.”

“Ehh…except in certain circumstances, but fine, I’ll grant you that,” Eserion replied cheerfully. “Now come along, kids! We don’t wanna be late. It’s rude to keep people waiting, don’cha know.”


They followed him through the corridors of the Rock in awed silence, a marked contrast to the god himself, who chattered on amiably at the head of the group. Principia strolled at his side, seemingly un-intimidated and bantering right back. Periodically they would pass soldiers or castle servants, but aside from a few curious looks, no one troubled them. Eserion’s outfit was as scruffy and out of place as the three apprentices’, and Schwartz as always drew stares in his Salyrite robe with a ratlike fire elemental on his shoulder, but it seemed Trissiny and Principia in uniform lent the group enough credibility to pass unchallenged.

The general course they took led upward and in, and through corridors that grew increasingly rich the longer they went on; the Rock was a militaristic fortress through and through, not given to excess or indulgence, but the farther they walked, the more frequent tapestries, carpets, and ornamental touches became. Finally, Eserion brought them to a wide door in the center of a currently unoccupied hallway, threw it open with a grand gesture, and swaggered inside. The rest followed with a bit more circumspection.

It was a bedroom—a very large and rather lavishly appointed one, whose décor ran heavily to old flags and weapons. The group barely glanced around at it, though, being more focused on the people waiting for them.

Style was pacing up and down with even more than customary annoyance; on their arrival, she turned to face the door, folding her brawny arms and glaring. Boss Tricks was busy rifling through a chest of drawers and scarcely glanced up at them. Bishop Darling stood near the foot of the huge four-poster bed, juggling three brass wine goblets. Empty ones, fortunately.

“Uhh…” Darius leaned around Trissiny to stare. “Is this one of those things where I’m supposed to ask the obvious questions to move this along, or is it a ‘shut up and listen’ kind of thing?”

“Lemme see if I can guess the first two!” Darling said airily while Eserion shut the chamber door behind them. “This is the personal bedroom of the King and Queen, and we are here for the same reason all of you are: because the Big Guy felt our presence was important.”

“Yeah,” Style snorted, “because none of us have any fucking thing important to be doing right now!”

“Oh, un-clench ’em for half a second if you can manage, Style,” said the Boss, pulling out something crimson and silken from a drawer. “This is the only vacation we’ve had in years. Why, Anjal, you saucy vixen!”

“You cut that shit out immediately,” Style barked, crossing the room in two strides and smacking him upside the head with nearly enough force to bowl him over. “If you’re gonna steal, steal—otherwise, keep your greasy little fingers out of a woman’s underwear drawer. That is creepy as fuck, Tricks.”

“Gotta side with her on this one, Boss,” Sweet added. “And not just because I’m more scared of her than you.”

“All of you, put that crap back where you found it,” Eserion said. “You, too, Sweet. Anjal and Rajakhan are good sorts, the kind of leaders we should encourage, not punish.”

“Excuse me?” Layla raised a hand. “What, if I may ask, are we doing in here, then?”

“It’s tradition!” Eserion proclaimed, turning to her with a broad smile. “This ceremony is always held in illicit quarters. There’s not much in the way of sacred ground for the Guild; we perform this rite someplace illegally broken into.”

“Uhh…rite?” Tallie hadn’t stopped peering around since she’d come in. “What rite?”

“A graduation ceremony,” Principia said softly.

“Indeed!” Tricks said, still rubbing his head as he ambled over to join them. “For obvious reasons, it’s usually just the apprentice and trainer—but hell, this is a special circumstance. I guess the Big Guy figured it was an appropriate occasion to make an exception and bring family and friends.”

He nodded across the room, and they turned to behold a fourth person waiting, a tall woman in an Imperial Army uniform with no insignia. Despite her imposing height and figure, she was surprisingly unobtrusive, standing still in a shadowed corner and observing without comment.

“Who’s that?” Darius stage whispered to Tallie, who shrugged.

Trissiny and Principia both came to attention, but the woman shook her head at them and raised a hand. “At ease.”

“So…graduation?” Layla asked, turning back to the Boss.

“Indeed! The question is…for whom?” He grinned at them and perched on the edge of a dresser. “Here’s where we stand. You kids have been around for about the length of time and learned about the level of skill we mandate for apprentices. Somebody who hasn’t picked up a permanent sponsor for more in-depth training at that point is usually required to either join the Guild as a full member, or leave the apprentice program. Style says your progress is such that if you want to be tagged and join up, we’ll allow it today. But! I’m sorta giving away the surprise, here, but while we were putting our own house back in order after you lot poofed off to Puna Dara, Glory announced her intention to take you on as apprentices, if you were all willing.”

“Wh—all of us?” Tallie demanded, blinking. “But she’s got an apprentice. Hell, Rasha’s a perfect match for Glory. I dunno what the hell she’d want with any of us.”

“It’s not traditional,” Tricks agreed. “And that tradition does exist for a reason: a single apprentice gets more focused attention and a better education. Glory’s argument, though, was that you lot are good kids and good prospects for the Guild, and the reason you haven’t been picked by anyone is politics not your fault and beyond your control. I happen to think she’s right on all points, there. And besides.” He winked, grinning. “If there is one thing we are not, it’s excessively bound by rules.”

“Not totally unprecedented, anyway,” Style grunted. “Especially with this one, recently.”

Sweet did not quail under her stare, but shrugged. “Hey, my girls come as a set. I don’t think I’d have had the heart to split ’em up, even if I thought that was remotely possible.”

“That leaves us another case, though,” said Eserion, his expression finally serious. “Our girl Trissiny isn’t fated for a long apprenticeship with a full Guild member. And after the events of today, putting her back in with the general pool of apprentices is…probably not the best idea. So that brings us to this crossroads. Style, you are the closest thing she’s had to a trainer, in your capacity as overseer of the general apprentices. It’s up to you to decide if she’s ready.”

Style stepped forward, eyes fixed on Trissiny and her expression unreadable. The rest of the group instinctively shuffled away, clearing a space for them to regard one another. Principia stepped over to stand next to Sweet, gazing at Trissiny with the intensity of someone barely controlling a strong emotion.

“I’ve had to fill this role for a lot of prospects, over the years,” Style said. “Mostly little fuckheads who couldn’t cut it with a real sponsor. There’s always a reason; we’ve had a few I just barely considered worth keeping in the Guild, but also some who were just plain unlucky, like you little bastards. Shit happens; some folks just don’t get a fair shake. This…is one of the second kind.” Eyes still locked on Trissiny, she nodded slowly, and folded her arms. “Her skills aren’t great, but she’s always impressed me with her eagerness to learn more. A good thief never lets up on that; practice doesn’t end when your apprenticeship does, that’s when it gets started in earnest. No, the only question was always her attitude. I understand she came to us specifically in search of our mindset, our philosophy. It takes some good self-awareness to realize you need that kind of change, but even so, I spent a while doubting she was ever gonna get that through her head.”

She paused, narrowed her eyes for a moment, and then, incongruously, grinned.

“But fuck me if she didn’t manage it. What’d you learn, girl?”

“Don’t call me ‘girl,’ you big ape,” Trissiny shot back immediately, earning a round of grins and chuckles from the senior Eserites present, including the one she’d just insulted. “I’ve learned a lot… But if you’re asking about the big questions, mostly the skill of watching, planning, thinking. Acting through maneuver instead of force. Supposedly I learned that lesson growing up; the Sisterhood takes it as an aphorism that war is deception. All conflict demands strategy.” She glanced aside at the uniformed woman, who just nodded in encouragement. “The Guild made it real to me, though. And…that’s given me perspective, too. At first I thought I’d come here to learn a new way of thinking, but really, what I needed was to truly grasp the way I always should have been. I was brought up to think the Guild and the Sisterhood were at cross purposes, but I’ve come to understand how very alike their aims are. And these differing ideas about how to reach those aims aren’t an accident. Both orders have their blind spots. It’s inevitable; there’s just no escaping that.” She paused, then smiled. “All systems are corrupt. And that’s why we have a goddess of war and a god of thieves in the same Pantheon; so we can watch each other’s backs. Society needs justice, and sometimes, justice needs help from the shadows, because where there’s a system, there’ll be someone who’s found a way to exploit it.”

Style nodded, her eyes glinting. “Yeah, you’ve done fine, kid. Now, there’s no litany or ritual, here. Almost all of the Guild’s actual rituals are performative—things we do to remind everybody else that we’re here, that we’re watching, and that they’d better not fuck up around us. This, here, is about you; nobody benefits from either trainer or apprentice reciting lines memorized by rote. You have to understand who and what we are as Eserites, and you have to express that understanding in a way that’s true to your own identity. As your trainer, I judge you ready—or ready enough. Are you ready to swear your oath to Eserion and his Guild?”

Trissiny nodded deeply. “Whatever happens here, even if you’d decided to throw me out, I plan to live my life fighting of what the Guild and the Sisterhood believe.”

“Good. And what do you swear?”

She straightened up, resting her left hand on the pommel of her sword. “To fight whoever needs fighting, to protect whoever needs protecting. To uphold the spirit of justice, but to recognize that laws don’t have all the answers. To watch closely, and think carefully, and do my best to act in the right way to achieve the results I need. I have already sworn to oppose corruption and evil in all its forms as a soldier. I’ll promise you, now, to always remember that I am an enforcer. That standing against the darkness isn’t always enough; sometimes, you have to make sure the darkness is too afraid to make the first move. That, I will swear. The darkness will fear me.”

Style tilted her head up, regarding Trissiny down her long, twice-broken nose. One corner of her mouth twitched slightly in the ghost of a lopsided smile. “Eh… It’ll do.”

Principia lost the battle, letting a huge grin of fierce pride spread across her face.

“What’s her tag, Style?” Eserion asked.

Style studied the paladin thoughtfully for a long moment before speaking. “Kid, you have been an unrelenting thorn in my ass from the moment you marched into my Guild. Until you have to be responsible for a whole organization I don’t think you’ll ever realize how truly obnoxious that is, having somebody underfoot who just never fucking stops. I’ll admit, there were times I was strongly tempted to try and beat that out of you. But that stubborn, irritating persistence isn’t a flaw—it only looked like one because you had some stupid ideas cluttering up your brain. We’ve made a start on fixing that, enough that I’ve come to trust you’ll still work to keep fixing it. And meanwhile, I trust that you’ll keep doing what I saw you do today: never fucking stop. You won’t win all your battles, and no matter how much power you’ve got to swing around, there’ll always be someone you just cannot take down. But what I know is that you won’t be walked over. Every son of a bitch who tries to stomp on you is gonna hurt for it, and hurt every moment that you’re digging at them. That’s what I expect from you, Trissiny: win or lose, you will never let the bastards forget you’re there, or walk away without paying.”

She paused, then nodded deeply and intoned in a suddenly sonorous voice. “Kneel, Trissiny Avelea.”

“What?” Trissiny frowned. “Kneeling doesn’t sound like—oh, screw you, Style.”

Sweet let out a delighted cackle; Principia’s grin widened to the point that it looked painful.

Style just smirked. “You’d be surprised how many fall for that. Ah, well, I guess it was too much to hope for. Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild in truth, Thorn.”

Trissiny pursed her lips. “…I am never going to be able to escape thinking of you talking about your ass, now.”

“Remember, this is your very identity we’re talking about,” Eserion said. “Your trainer plays an important role in this, but them picking your tag is a tradition, not a law. If you really hate it, you’re entitled to decide how you’ll be tagged.”

“No.” Trissiny nodded at Style, her mouth twisting up in a slight, sardonic expression. “No, you know what? I like it. Thorn. Yeah, I think that suits me just fine.”

 

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13 – 25

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“Too quiet,” Vex murmured, ignoring or not seeing the annoyed glances both Bishops gave him.

Cliche aside, he was correct. This was just a cargo warehouse attached to the zeppelin docks; it wouldn’t have been bustling when not actively in use. Still, it was nominally a military facility, and the complete lack of guards wasn’t right.

Vex gestured, and the five men and women in plain clothes accompanying him immediately scattered into the surrounding outbuildings. Basra started to follow one, but Darling grabbed her by the shoulder. From the look she shot him, he thought for a moment she was going to go for her sword, but in the next instant she had gone still again, turning to stare intently at the warehouse where their trap was supposed to have been laid.

Supposed was the word of the day. All this would have been over before midnight, had anything gone according to plan, and yet here it was pushing mid-morning and the three of them were still chasing their tails all over the city—and now, beyond it. They were in the fortified town across the bridge from Tiraas on the eastern edge of the canyon, still legally part of the capital, but to Darling at least this didn’t feel like his city.

They were all running on static at this point. Even Vex’s unflappable demeanor was starting to fray. Despite Darling’s concern, Basra hadn’t caused any problems since being separated from High Commander Rouvad hours ago; as she grew more exhausted, she grew more focused, until by this point she seemed to see only whatever obstacle was right in front of her with no context. That had several times raised difficulties, but at least was easier to manage than Darling had feared. He had seen her cooped up for days with people she didn’t like; seeing her run ragged wasn’t nearly as bad.

“What were you expecting to find?” Darling asked quietly.

“Having the storage facility’s usual personnel cleared out was part of the plan,” Vex replied, staring fixedly at the warehouse. Oddly, when he actually was tired, he didn’t put on his usual sleepy expression. “We coaxed no less than twenty disaffected Imperial personnel here, most of them military, five magic-users; last thing we want is dockworkers and admins caught in some kind of crossfire. But, if my agents had secured the targets as planned, one would have met us. There are signals they should have placed if that was not possible, and none are displayed. I sent four of my best here, and something’s happened to them.”

“Four,” Basra said curtly, “against twenty.”

“Four of mine,” he retorted. “Ordinarily that should have been plenty.”

One of Vex’s spies suddenly re-emerged from a gap between the warehouse and the fortress wall, crossing to them with long strides.

“No sign of the targets,” he reported without preamble. “Four people are inside the warehouse, tied to chairs, bags over their heads. I observed one moving. Two in Army uniform, no way to confirm identities.”

“That screams trap,” Basra said.

Vex glanced at her but spoke to his agent. “Any sign that our trap went off, Marshal?”

“No telling, sir. The gas leaves no visible traces, and our people would have concealed the tanks.”

The spymaster drew in a breath and let it out through his nose. “If the traitors were deft enough to thwart our agents, Syrinx is right; their best move would have been to use them as bait and lure us into our own trap. All right, you know the protocol. Go in and get them out, but sweeping for triggers the whole way. I don’t want anybody else caught in this cock-up.”

The man nodded once, turned, and strode back in the direction whence he had come.

“So…we just wait?” Basra demanded irritably.

“Intelligence work is a lot like soldiering,” Vex replied, “at least insofar as it involves a lot of tedious standing around.”

Another of his agents reappeared, this time from behind them.

“Sir, there’s an additional situation,” she reported. “None of the zeppelin dock’s personnel are present; our plan didn’t involve removing them. The command tower is locked and seems to have been barricaded from the inside.”

Vex’s eyes narrowed, then darted back and forth rapidly as if he were studying equations no one else could see.

“Avelea,” he said suddenly. “How many zeps should be at this dock?”

“Just the stanbys, sir,” Nora Avelea replied. The only agent Vex had kept by his side, she had been the soul of professionalism apart from being notably frosty to Darling. Well aware of her issues with the Guild, he had opted not to make a thing of it. “Almost the whole fleet is deployed right now, between the mission to Shengdu and flood relief in Thakar. This dock should only have two staffships and two troop transports at the ready.”

Vex nodded to her, glanced once at the Bishops, then turned and strode away. Basra immediately followed, Darling coming along after only a momentary hesitation. Avelea fell into step behind him, slipping a hand into her pocket in a gesture he was certain she’d meant him to observe.

“What are we doing?” Basra demanded.

“Taking a quick headcount,” Vex said cryptically. He was leading them toward the nearest stairs that led to the fortress wall, which in this case meant a corner turret that housed a mag cannon emplacement. Darling noted the lack of soldiers on patrol, which was not right, before they passed into the tower stairwell. The four of them climbed quickly but in silence, apart from Basra’s barely-audible muttering.

Even she fell silent when they emerged onto the artillery platform overlooking the actual zeppelin docks.

Both staffships were tied up to the tower dock, high enough that they could see the weapons bristling from their undercarriages below the gas capsules. Proper mag cannons were far too powerful to mount on an airship; firing one would send the vessel into an uncontrollable spin. An Imperial staff ship had a bomb bay, four grenade launchers, and eighteen staff emplacements, the latter weapons augmented for range and power beyond that of the average battlestaff, which was about the most that could be used from a lighter-than-air vehicle. There was no sign of any personnel in the tower or aboard the ships, either.

And there was a single, much larger troop transport moored at the lower docks.

“They stole,” Basra said incredulously, “a zeppelin? Vex, you can track those, right?”

“They carry locator charms, obviously,” he replied, staring down at the docks. “To pull this off they’d have needed the aid of zeppelin personnel, who would know where to find those and how to disable them. What we cannot yet do, though, is render them invisible, so wherever they went, they’ll have been seen. Damn it, I’ll have to return to headquarters to get the reports I need to follow up on this… Antonio, suppose this were a job you were running. You’re fleeing in an airship. What’s your next move?”

“Well,” Darling said, leaning against the parapet and frowning at the lone remaining transport, “step one would be to throw the assclown whose idea that was off the damn airship. A zeppelin is the worst possible choice of getaway vehicle. They aren’t fast, agile, or stealthy. You can’t even have a fall guy head in one direction with it while the rest go in another, since you can’t board or disembark from it without landing the whole thing.”

“Parachutes,” Basra pointed out.

“Yes,” Vex said, stroking his chin. “They could jump, leave it adrift, and scatter into the countryside…if all they want is to get away. But if they’re going somewhere in particular…”

Abruptly, he turned and strode back to the stairs.

“Where would they go?” Basra demanded, again following.

“They have no safe havens,” Vex said as they descended. “Twenty troopers, even with a few casters among them, aren’t a match for any significant military emplacements. Even most House guards could repel them. It’s enough to intervene effectively in an already-upset situation, though, if they do it right. If these are going for one of Justinian’s projects… It’ll be Puna Dara or Last Rock.”

“Last Rock?” Darling exclaimed.

“Justinian is throwing these people under the carriage, remember,” Basra added.

As they emerged into the courtyard again, Vex cast a cool glance over them. This was a tense moment; ostensibly, the two of them worked for the Archpope in this regard. But both of them knew the broad strokes of what was really going on, and Vex had to know they knew. The question was what Vex knew about their actual loyalties.

Hell, even Darling didn’t know Basra’s actual loyalties, if she truly had any, and he knew that his own vagueness on the subject was a sore point with the Imperial government.

“Sending them into a battle would be a very convenient way of getting rid of them,” Vex said suddenly, breaking the tense silence, “and potentially a way to tip the balance of one in the process. Justinian rarely does anything with only one purpose. I can’t prove he’s behind the unfolding situations in either place, of course, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know damn well he is. And he knows I know, and so on, endlessly. We need to get back to the capital. Avelea, I’m leaving you in charge of this operation.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I have to find out where that damn zeppelin went,” Vex said to the Bishops, already striding back toward the fortress entrance with them moving to flank him while Marshal Avelea peeled off to intercept two more Intelligence agents coming to report. “Antonio, can you wrangle the Church end of this?”

“What’s to wrangle? At last check-in, that was going well, Sisterhood aside.”

Basra made a sound like a cranky rattlesnake.

“That is my concern,” Vex replied, “and why I need Bishop Syrinx elsewhere. Will the Huntsmen listen to you, if you need to give orders?”

“Maybe,” Darling said. “If not, they’ll listen to Andros Varanus, and he’ll listen to me.”

“Good enough, I suppose,” the spymaster grunted.

“And what is it you want from me, now?” Basra demanded.

This touched painfully on the reason the night’s operation had gone so poorly. On the Church’s end, only the cults of Eserion and Shaath had been confirmed clean of conspirators, and as both cultivated physical prowess as a matter of course, they were being used to corral targets from the other cults. Most of the cult leaders had signed on for this, but upon learning of this development, High Commander Rouvad had abruptly reversed course and dug her heels in. She remained adamant that no Sister of Avei, traitorous or not, would be placed in the custody of Huntsmen or Guild enforcers. In the end, Darling had had to steer Basra out of the Commander’s office before she could complicate the situation further by getting herself excommunicated.

“The Sisterhood is close to the military,” Vex said. “We already suspect that’s how these have kept a step ahead of us all night; until Rouvad manages to clean house, the Silver Legions are compromised. We know of one existing conspiracy target which you sent trusted soldiers to protect last night, but that was when we thought all of this would be wrapped up by now. Your Grace, did you make arrangements to have those soldiers relieved by other, also specifically trusted troops, or to remain at their post past time for a shift change? Because otherwise, Legion protocol…”

“Shit!” Basra hissed. “If they’ve still got enough women in the Legions they’d have gone right for…”

“Exactly,” Vex said grimly.

“How could that still be a priority of theirs?” Darling asked skeptically.

“Tamisin Sharvineh’s personal security has foiled no less than nine assassination attempts since she moved into that house,” Vex replied. “These conspirators penetrated it—and then took out Carruthers Treadwell, who knew nothing damaging that my people hadn’t already uncovered, thus gaining nothing and adding murder to the charges against them. They’ve now stolen an Imperial zeppelin, which is an incredible feat of skullduggery and a damned stupid thing to do given how little they can do with that vehicle. These people have no overarching strategy, Antonio, or at best a laughably bad one, but they are devastatingly effective in their individual tactics. Attacking your apprentices again is foolish, pointless…”

“And entirely in character,” Basra finished, curling her lip. “Trissiny Avelea’s in that group. The greatest risk is an outcome that will let valuable witnesses or dangerous agents slip away. The girl’s improving under the Guild’s tutelage but she is not capable of containing this. Not yet.”

“Bloody hell,” Darling muttered. “Right then, I’ll head to the Church to coordinate. Quentin, you’ll have to check with your people… And Bas, I suppose all you can do is make for Sharvineh’s place and hope they’re still there.”

“If they’re not,” she said flatly, “it’ll mean those idiots have harmed one of my paladin’s little friends. In which case I’ll just have to follow the smoke and bloodstains.”


The sound cut through the noise of the increasingly agitated city, the rush of air over her wings, and even the gathering fury of the oncoming storm. It was both sweet and vile, a sound that was not quite a sound—something that Vadrieny knew, though she couldn’t recall how, was meant for her alone.

She was soaring above Puna Dara, and had been on her way back to the palace, when it appeared in the air all around. Now, she changed course, unconsciously zeroing in on the source of the high, thin noise. That, by itself, was bizarre; she had never been able to do that before. For a moment, she hesitated. In part to reassure herself that she could, and indeed, the sound had no hold over her; she swooped back toward the harbor, and immediately was blasted off course by a burst of wind that was very likely not a coincidence. The wind was the irate sea goddess’s doing, though; the sound was something else entirely. It was not coming from the sea.

It tugged at her, though, and she decided to investigate. If nothing else, this sudden intervention at this of all times demanded some kind of response.

Following it was as easy as falling; it was as if the noise left a trail through the air, like a scent to a bloodhound. Vadrieny swooped toward a flat roof in Puna Dara’s market district. Even through the rain starting to fill the air, she clearly saw a figure standing there alone, wearing a white suit.

And holding up a bell wrought from black metal.

She arced high overhead, then abruptly plummeted down, spreading her wings at the last moment to slow herself and land with a solid thump, but not enough force to crash through.

“You have some nerve,” the archdemon snarled.

“Me?” Embras Mogul lowered his peculiar bell, putting on a wounded expression. “I have some nerve? One of us just spat in a goddess’s eye, young lady, and it wasn’t me. That was an impressive move, incidentally, trapping Naphthene in her own nature. She doesn’t dare invite the Dark Lady’s personal fury by striking you directly, not standing apart from the Pantheon as she does, but she also cannot ignore a challenge that direct. Very clever. Which, of course, is how I know it was Teal’s idea.”

“What do you want?” she snapped. “I am busy and have nothing to say to you unless you want to discuss your betrayal in Veilgrad.”

“I’ve never betrayed you in Veilgrad or anywhere else, you little thug,” the warlock replied, his smile abruptly vanishing. “I saved your friends’ lives by keeping them away from those chaos freaks. Furthermore, you know this quite well, and these histrionics are unworthy of you. Let me explain some things to you, Vadrieny. Your mother’s orders are that you be kept out of the events unfolding in the world, now that you don’t have your sisters’ protection. It’s not in my power to keep you out, but I am certainly barred from drawing you in. More to the point, you are the absolute last creature I want mucking around in my carefully laid plans. You’ve never been anything but a flying ball of brute force. How much esteem do you think the cult of the goddess of cunning ever had for you?” He actually took an aggressive step toward her, tilting his head up to glare at he from beneath the brim of his omnipresent hat, which somehow remained firmly attached to his bald head despite the gathering gale. “Would you like to learn how many of your sisters tried to arrange for your demise, hmm? Lucky for you, Azradeh had a soft spot for you from the beginning, and she was by far the smartest of the lot, which is saying something. I bet you can guess who the least clever was.”

“Are you serious?” she said incredulously, too astonished to be hurt. “You called me down here, in the middle of all this, just to insult me?”

“I am making a point,” he retorted. “You think everything I do is calculated to manipulate you toward my own ends, because you’ve absorbed the Church’s paranoia about your mother’s own cult. Look at it from my point of view, Vadrieny. If you were me, would you want you to…” He curled his lip. “…help?”

“I wonder,” she said, stepping toward him, “if I took your head off, would that finally prompt my mother to speak to me? It’s beginning to sound increasingly worth trying. She has some things I want explained.”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind and you know it,” he snorted. “Teal could never bear that. I called you here, Vadrieny, because somebody wants a word with you. Somebody who means you no good. I have decided to make it easier for him to find you explicitly so that I can supervise this conversation—not because I have nothing better to be doing right now, but because your mother wants you looked after to the best of our ability.”

“Who are you talking about?” she demanded.

His eyes cut past her shoulder, beneath the fiery arch of her wing, and he nodded once.

She whirled to find herself facing a wood elf wearing a pinstriped suit and an insolent grin, who had definitely not been there when she approached from above. His blonde hair was slicked back in a style that popular fiction associated with sleazy salesmen and Thieves’ Guild enforcers; whatever held it in place was apparently more than a match for the wind howling in off the sea.

“Top of the morning to ya!” the elf said with ebullient cheer. “I just caught the tail end of that, but damn am I impressed! And not a little bit envious, I don’t mind admitting. Flipping off an actual deity is still on my to-do list. If I may be forgiven for presuming, I bet your mom is damn proud of you, missy.”

Vadrieny narrowed her eyes, then half-turned her head to speak over her shoulder.

“What, exactly, is this?”

“Calls himself the Jackal,” Mogul said disdainfully. “Murder for hire. Good at what he does and good for absolutely nothing else.”

“Somebody’s in a spiteful mood today,” the assassin said with a wink. “But anyway, Miss Vadrieny, I won’t take up too much of your time—I am here on behalf of my current long-term employer to deliver a message.”

“I don’t think I want to hear—”

“Chase Masterson has been outed as the Sleeper,” he said, raising his voice slightly over both her protest and the howl of the wind, and Vadrieny immediately fell silent, flexing her claws. “But wait, it gets better! He has also been recruited by the Imperial government and directed to Tiraas. Furthermore, your dear Professor Tellwyrn is on her way to kill his ass. If she gets to him first…no justice, and no cure for the sleeping curse.”

“Nonsense,” Vadrieny snapped. “Professor Tellwyrn would never do something so—”

His howl of derisive laughter tore through the wind. “Are you serious? Tellwyrn would never do something so…what? Reckless? Destructive? Selfish? Thoughtless? That is her entire three-thousand-year resume! Sure, she’s made a good show of acting like a civilized person the last few decades—more’s the pity, she used to be fun—but this is bigger than you, Masterson, or even her. People are pulling strings who know exactly what strings to pull and exactly how hard, and trust me, it’s not all that hard to make a creature like Tellwyrn revert to form. But hey, maybe you’re right! Maybe it’s all under control. Maybe you aren’t the only one who can get to Masterson first, deliver him to Narisian justice and secure the remedy for your lover. Excuse me, wife. Felicitations, by the way, sorry I missed the reception.”

“I don’t mind people trying to manipulate me,” Vadrieny snarled, “but being this blunt about it is just insulting my intelligence.”

“Lemme just draw a distinction there,” the Jackal said, holding up one finger. “I am acting on the orders of my employer, whom I do not like and about whose agenda I do not give one single fuck. In fact, I think it’d be smashing if he doesn’t get what he wants, for a change, so I’m gonna go ahead and offer you a little insight. Yes, he is trying to manipulate you, and not just you. Like I said, Tellwyrn’s strings are being yanked as well. Shit’s going down in both Puna Dara and Last Rock right now, and the guy holding my leash would prefer that it stay good and messy in both spots for a while longer. That means sending a wild goose to Tiraas that you and Tellwyrn can’t help chasing after: the Sleeper. You two are the most physically dangerous players in each location and getting you both out of the way is a means of making life harder for your various allies and prolonging the conflict.”

“Generous of you to be so…helpful,” Mogul said in a tone almost dry as the sky had been an hour ago.

“Let’s just say,” the Jackal drawled, “there are changes in the wind. I may be bound to…what’s his name…for now, but eventually he will go down. They all do, in the end. I wouldn’t mind if it’s remembered, at that time, that I am not his obedient lapdog.”

Vadrieny shifted sideways and stepped back, to keep both of them in view, but cocked her head slightly in Mogul’s direction.

“He’s been on permanent retainer for Archpope Justinian for the last few years,” the warlock said flatly. “Quite secretly, of course. This is the kind of man the Archpope cannot admit to consorting with.”

“A less credible accusation I’ve never heard,” she sneered. “You would blame the Archpope for the rain if you could get away with it.”

The Jackal chuckled. “If Embras Mogul starts blaming Vernisites for everything going wrong, that’s how you know he’s letting personal vendettas cloud his judgment. Anything else he has to say, you’d be wise to heed. I speak purely in the abstract, of course,” he added with a wink. “About this specific matter I have no comment.”

“The more I learn about Justinian,” Mogul added in a more thoughtful tone, “the more I suspect he is not actually on the Pantheon’s side.”

“Welp, sounds like you crazy kids have your own stuff to work out,” the Jackal said brightly. “Family stuff, religious stuff, and that’s a doozy of a combo if I ever heard one. I’ll leave you to it. Cheers!”

Vadrieny jerked toward him, but the elf had already produced a shadow-jumping talisman from his pocket and begun twisting it. He was grinning madly at her even as darkness swelled and swept him from view.

She halted, glaring at the space he had occupied. At this angle, she was facing the sea; the horizon was growing darker with a line of stormclouds that was coming ashore fast.

“No, I can’t help your friends,” Mogul said behind her. “I cannot imagine a scenario in which they would let me. Several of them chose to be even more unreasonable about Veilgrad than you are, which is really saying something.”

“I didn’t ask,” she said, turning to scowl at him.

“We are going to assist in keep the mess in Last Rock under control,” he continued.

“I don’t want you going near—”

“That is not up to you,” Mogul interrupted. “Just because I have to protect you doesn’t mean you get to order me around, missy. The Wreath has a vested interest in Tellwyrn’s research program; with that threatened, we will move to back her up. What you do now, with this warning, is entirely your call. Personally, I would ignore it.”

She stared at him for a moment, then turned to look again at the harbor. The Rock rose up from the shoreline, dominating the city; just past it, she could see the serpent, already struggling visibly to maintain its course in the increasingly choppy waters. In that fortress, her friends would be awaiting her return, already prepared to head into the tunnels.

Mogul sighed so heavily it was audible over the weather. “If you are going hunting, Vadrieny, either the Sleeper or the Rust… There’s something you should know. That sonic magic you have, the reason we chose to pair you with a bard…” He held up the bell again and shook it, causing that chime to resonate through her. “If nothing else, let me show you a trick.”

 

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13 – 21

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The King of the Punaji strode onto the tower platform to find it already abuzz with activity, as were the other towers of the Rock itself, and to judge by the distant lights, every defensive emplacement across the harbor. It might be their alliance with Tiraas that secured Puna Dara from retribution by other naval powers, but the Punaji were not foolish enough to blithely rely upon it. The deep hum of a fully-charged mag cannon occupying the center of the tower platform attested to that.

“Papa!” Ruda said with clear relief. “The signals are in from the other towers; all cannons are ready to fire on command. That thing is a much more mobile target than a ship, but it’s cruising around in predictable circles out there. I’ve given orders for every artillery team to focus on one spot in its established course, but we’re inevitably going to have some missed shots once it starts reacting. That’s as much as I wanted to order without you here.”

“Well done, Zari,” Blackbeard rumbled, joining her at the battlements and placing a heavy hand on her shoulder. Together, they stared out into the night, and the augmented sea serpent dominating the harbor. As she had said, it was in some kind of odd little patrol route, swimming around and around in a tight circle right in the center of the bay, as if going out of its way to avoid impacting the docks or ships. It was wasting a lot of energy, too; sea serpents were not designed to move with their upper bodies extending out of the water. This thing was deliberately making a show of itself, which implied direction by a much greater intelligence than an animal should have. “To judge by the gadgetry plating that aberration, I surmise your friends have failed to negotiate.”

“I trust my friends,” Ruda said, glaring at the circling monster. “It was worth trying. Sometimes, some people just can’t be reasoned with.”

“It’s good that you understand that, little minnow. Prepare to fire!” he added in a booming voice of command. “Signal the other towers to fire at will upon this weapon’s discharge!”

“Aye, sir!” barked the nearby artillery specialist, hunkering over her mag cannon’s runic controls and staring down its huge barrel, while another soldier swiftly ran signal flags up and a third flashed the beam of a fairy lamp to illuminate them.

“As soon as we fire, it’s war, Papa,” Ruda said grimly. “It’ll be war in our streets.”

“That is not a threat, Zari,” Blackbeard rumbled. “Even if only meant as one, the harbor is unsafe while it’s out there. We are the sea. Without our navy, without merchant ships, Puna Dara is crippled. This is war. I have not rushed to confrontation, but once we are attacked, I will not hesitate.”

“Yes, sir.”

The King’s chest swelled, and he roared, “FIRE AT WILL!”

The cannoneer had been tracking the beast, her weapon’s levitation charms straining to adjust it upon its hinged and spring-loaded mounts; mag cannons were easier and quicker to aim than older conventional artillery, but that was not saying much. At Rajakhan’s command, she immediately yanked the ignition lever.

Everyone’s hair stood up and the tower was illuminated by a white glow as the mag cannon discharged a tremendous beam of pure energy, momentarily cutting off all conversation with its deafening, metallic roar, oddly reminiscent of the semi-mechanical serpent’s. It was a glancing hit; the beam raked one side of the monster’s upthrust body, sending it careening away, then gouged a path of steam and spray through the ocean as the cannoneer tried to adjust, following the beast’s movement. The beam persisted for less than ten seconds, though, and the heavy weapon was awkward to move; she did not get it back onto its target before the energy expired.

Per the King’s orders, however, more fire immediately followed, from each of the mag cannon emplacements on the Rock and the harbor walls. Massive streams of pure arcane energy lit the night, blazing from the arc of Puna Dara’s docks and filling the center of the harbor with an inescapable field of destruction. Not every shot connected; not every shot that hit was a direct blow. Two beams struck the serpent dead on, however, and three others managed glancing strikes off various portions of its long body as it flailed under the assault.

A mag cannon could bore a hole through a fortress wall or obliterate a warship with a single shot. A famously lucky hit by an Imperial mag artillery team had once cleaved a dragon right out of the sky. They failed, however, to sink the beast.

Even as its hide was ignited with a furious torrent of energy and lightning arced from its beleaguered body across the surface of the water, the serpent did not go down. Its metal plating flared alight, the spiny ridges along its back blazing with the intensity of the sun, and apparently diffusing even the colossal energy of the mag cannon fire and dispersing it back into the ocean itself. Waves surged outward toward the docks, whipped up both by the artillery and the sea serpent’s thrashing.

The cannons fell silent, having all fired within seconds of each other; it would take roughly a minute of recharging before they were ready to discharge again at full power.

Still glowing and sparking with residual energy, the sea serpent reared up again, opened its tremendous jaws and let out another deafening roar which boomed out across the harbor.

Princess Zaruda gripped the battlements, sticking her head out toward the sea, and roared right back. Soldiers on the tower followed suit, brandishing staves and swords, and the wordless call was taken up and spread rapidly across the walls of the whole fortress. Faced with an apparently indestructible, unstoppable foe, the Punaji screamed defiance into the dark.

King Rajakhan, however, stood still and silent, one hand resting upon the battlements, watching for whatever fate brought next.


“I won’t hold that against him,” Ayuvesh said magnanimously to the group staring in horror at his massive screen. “Perfectly reasonable reaction to my little pet’s sudden appearance in the harbor. In fact, it makes a very useful object lesson!” He turned a beaming smile upon them, his overt jolliness not quite hiding the venom lurking at the edges of the expression. “Much better in the long run that Rajakhan understands there is nothing he can do against the serpent. This way, hopefully, I will not have to make any demonstrations upon anything which bleeds.”

“You piece of shit,” Gabriel growled, striding to the edge of the platform and leveling his scythe.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Seemingly unperturbed at having a divine weapon pointed at him, Ayuvesh shook a chiding finger. “Careful where you swing that thing, Hand of Death. Yes, yes, we all know you can reap the life from everyone here. Just be advised that if you do, Puna Dara will soon follow. My will alone keeps the beast in check, now that it is awake.” Abruptly, his jovial expression collapsed into a flat stare. “It will not attack…for now. I will give you a few hours to return to the Rock and explain the situation to the King; my pet can withstand the venting of his outrage until then. Beyond that point, however, I expect the Infinite Order to be shown some consideration in Puna Dara.” Slowly, he leaned back in his chair, turning the walking machine again to face them directly. “Once these extremely reasonable and basic conditions are satisfied, perhaps we can resume our discussion. But I see no reason to negotiate until my people’s safety is assured. Especially not with interlopers who talk with one face and scheme with another. And now…” He raised one hand to make a languid gesture at them—or rather, at the doorway behind them. “Until then, children, it would seem you have a rather urgent errand to run. I trust you remember the way out?”


“Your Grace…es.” Inspector Jaahri paused, cleared his throat, and then adjusted his lapels, the living portrait of a man knocked off balance. “I assure you, this situation is under control. If you will allow me to do—”

“Well, drat,” Bishop Darling said, turning to Syrinx, “now he’s gone all diplomatic. That looked rather promising for a moment, there.”

“I never get to have any fun,” she replied petulantly. “Well, if the boy is through making threats, I suppose this’ll go more quickly.”

“Now, see here,” the Inspector said loudly.

“Hush. You’re done.” Basra flicked her fingers at him in a contemptuous gesture, turning a cold shoulder to Jaahri and addressing the rest of the group. “Fortunately, I did not just traipse off into the sunset after interrupting my old friend Falaridjad trying to illegally arrest you kids. I can only surmise from this debacle that you’ve been trying to unravel this affair yourselves in spite of repeated advice to keep safely out of it. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know someone competent has been addressing the matter while you scurried around wasting time.”

“All that’s a little strong,” Darius complained.

“Meet Bishop Syrinx,” Jasmine muttered. Schwartz clenched his fists, breathing slowly and evenly and making a concerted effort not to look at either Basra or Jenell. Meesie, meanwhile, had puffed herself up like a pincushion and was emitting a high, constant hiss.

“All right, this is enough,” Jaahri barked, trying to reassert control. He took a menacing step toward Syrinx. “I will have to insist—”

Jenell’s sword hissed as she yanked it from its sheath and strode forward, pointing the blade at his heart and interposing herself between him and Syrinx.

Jaahri halted, staring at her in clear disbelief. “Young woman,” he said finally, “I am an Imperial Inspector.” For good measure, he pointed at the silver gryphon badge pinned to his coat. “Assaulting me constitutes treason.”

“Congratulations,” she replied, deadpan. “Step away from the Bishop while you’ve still got legs, fool. You just started to charge one of the Sisterhood’s top blademasters. If I meant you harm, I’d have let you do it.”

“Thank you, Covrin,” Basra said lightly. “In any case, I have been investigating this conspiracy with every resource available to me.”

“And that includes me!” Darling said in a cheerful tone, raising a hand. “Hello, everyone, my name is Antonio Darling and I serve as the Church’s liaison to the Imperial security council. My own contacts, working on information helpfully gathered by Bishop Syrinx, singled out branches of this mess among the military police. Including one Inspector Jaahri—who, as we just learned even while gathering intel, was himself on the way to the home of a prominent Eserite to investigate the mysterious demise of one of the best leads in this case.”

“That is slander,” Jaahri hissed.

“Actually he’s got the documents to prove it,” Flora piped up.

“So, being written down, it’s technically libel,” Fauna added.

“Except, proof is absolute defense against a charge of slander,” Flora corrected her.

“Oh, that’s right. So it’s just… What was the word he used?”

Jenell had not lowered her weapon, and now smiled at Jaahri across it. “Treason.”

“Antonio, so help me,” Basra complained, “if your little vaudevillians start including my aide in that insufferable act of theirs I shall be very cross with you.”

“Heel, girls,” he said dutifully. Both elves stuck out their tongues at his back. “Anyhow, we came down here in something of a hurry; we only just learned of this development.”

“But not too much of a hurry to take precautions,” Syrinx added with a predatory smile. “I have a squad from the Third Legion on the way here.”

“And,” Darling said complacently, “I took the time to start several balls rolling before leaving Imperial Command. For your edification, Inspector, General Panissar and Lord Vex are on that council with me, so if you were entertaining thoughts of going over my head, I hope your arms are a lot longer than they look. If you act very quickly and are very adroit, perhaps by this time tomorrow you won’t be in a cell. Who knows? If you’re a lot more capable than I think you are, you might even still be employed by his Majesty’s government.”

Jaahri stared at him, breathing loudly through his nose. The other soldiers in the room watched both him and their sergeant uncertainly.

“Or,” Basra said into the ensuing quiet, “you can attempt what you are contemplating right now. With no surviving witnesses, things might still go in your favor. Then again, you are in a room with two powerful divine casters, one a blademaster, two elves, a Butler, a Silver Legionnaire and…” She glanced at Schwartz with a faint smirk. “…a witch who, despite his numerous failings, is probably capable of demolishing your squad single-handedly. Think carefully, Inspector. Take your time. Some of us can spare it.”

“There seems to be no probable cause to seek arrest here,” the sergeant said suddenly. “Men, you are to ignore any such orders. If the Inspector sees fit to file a complaint, let it be on my head.”

“Yes, sir!” several of them chorused in clear relief.

Jaahri’s left eye twitched violently. He drew in an exceptionally deep breath and let it out through his teeth.

“This is not over,” he promised the two Bishops, and swept toward the door. His dramatic exit was ruined by the fact that Flora and Fauna were still standing in it, and made no move to clear the way.

“You may want to curtail that melodramatic streak before being interviewed by Intelligence,” Darling suggested. “In my experience, the innocent don’t issue threats. Girls, let the man out.”

Jaahri made a point of brushing aggressively against Flora as he departed. She exaggeratedly pantomimed fainting against the door frame, causing Fauna to snicker.

“Weren’t you just making threats, Sweet?” Tallie asked.

Bishop Darling turned to her and winked.

The sergeant cleared his throat. “Well! I guess our business here is done. Unless your Graces will be needing us for anything else?”

“Report to Imperial Command, if you would, Sergeant,” Darling said politely. “That is a request; I’m not empowered to give you orders. But Intelligence will be wanting your testimony on this anyway, and the faster you tell your side, the less opportunity that one has to throw you lads under the carriage.”

“Thank you, your Grace, I’ll do that.” He tipped his cap politely, then again to Glory. “A good evening to you, your Graces. Apologies for the inconvenience, Ms. Sharvineh. Fall in, men.”

There was a slightly awkward silence while the soldiers filed out, Smythe following them into the hall. The moment they heard the front door click shut, Tallie let out a whoop. “Now that is what—”

“Shut up.” Darling’s voice was not loud, but flat and forceful; it commanded instant silence. “You little idiots have come within a hair’s breadth of getting yourselves killed. You actually did get Carruthers Treadwell killed, so, thanks for that.”

“I was the one who invited him here, Sweet,” Glory said calmly. “The security of this house has never failed before. I still don’t know how someone was able to commit an act of such violence without alerting my wards.”

“I’ll wager you’ve never made yourself an enemy of renegade Salyrites, Sharvineh,” said Basra. “You were probably better off trusting Schwartz than your own passive defenses in that regard.” She gave him a suspiciously bright smile. “So long as you can deal with his tendency to develop inappropriate and obsessive crushes, he’s a very useful boy to have around.”

Schwartz grabbed Meesie, who tried to lunge at Basra from across the room, squealing ferociously. “Always a pleasure, your Grace,” he said tersely. “Glory, unless you need me for something else, I’ll just be in the kitchen. I imagine it will mess up your nice parlor if I set that woman on fire, which is where this is heading.”

“Maybe absenting yourself is a good idea, Herschel,” Glory replied softly. Ami, meanwhile, let out a theatrical groan and rolled her eyes dramatically.

“And Talaari,” Basra added. “This is downright nostalgic! Almost the whole gang, together again.”

“I am here to further my career,”Ami said haughtily, “this being a most prestigious house in which to perform. It was going rather well until the unfortunate homicide. No offense meant to anyone, but I would be delighted if the ‘gang’ remained separate. Every time I see any of you people, I end up with some maniac trying to kill me.”

“Wow, you weren’t kidding,” Darling mused while Schwartz slipped out the back, still clutching a struggling Meesie in both hands. “She really talks that way.”

“Ami’s another one who’s very good at what she does,” Basra said dourly, “and so annoying it’s almost not worth it. I seem to attract them, somehow. Anyway! We both have to go resume cleaning up this mess, so we can’t loiter here much longer. Ms. Sharvineh, assorted junior reprobates, I’ve given orders for the Legionnaires coming to escort you to the Temple of Avei.”

“Now, just a ding-danged second here,” Tallie began stridently.

“If,” Basra all but shouted, “you choose to go! I strongly encourage you to do so—renegade Salyrites may be willing to take on a famous socialite’s personal defenses, but the Sisterhood of Avei is another matter. If you prefer to take your chances alone, though, they will stay here to secure the house until further notice.”

“My neighbors will love that,” Glory murmured.

“The problem,” said Jasmine, “is that we know for a fact this conspiracy has a presence in the Sisterhood of Avei. The Guild is the only cult we believe isn’t infiltrated.”

“And that’s why you don’t let anybody corner you alone,” Basra said in a tone of exaggerated patience. “Stay in the Temple’s main areas—or better yet, in the Silver Legion’s public grounds. I’m sure you know your way around, Jasmine.”

“And for the record,” Darling added, “just in case it comes up, the Huntsmen of Shaath are also clean.”

“Hard to imagine that becoming helpful,” said Darius.

“Yeah,” Darling said sharply. “All of which makes it very curious that you left the Guild in the first place.”

“The thing about that,” Tallie began.

“We fucked up,” Ross interrupted. He shrugged when everyone turned to stare at him. “That’s the truth. We saw cults infiltrated an’ panicked. Didn’t think about the Guild bein’ harder to corrupt.”

“Well, at least they can learn,” Basra said, shaking her head. “The good news is that all of this may be coming to a head very soon. We’ll take steps to get you lot safely back to the Guild if it’s not cleaned up by tomorrow. What I assume you don’t know is that today, Archpope Justinian gave an address in which he warned in the strongest possible terms against clerics of any faith prioritizing Church loyalty over obligations to their own gods.”

“Wait…what?” Tallie said incredulously. “I thought this whole thing was about Justinian’s inner circle making some kind of power play!”

Darling and Syrinx exchanged a look.

“Kid,” he said, “we’re his inner circle. And one thing we know Justinian likes to do is use his loyal agents to winnow each other down.”

Layla suddenly straightened up, her eyes widening. “He’s cleaning house.”

“Well, good,” Basra said, “at least one of them has a mind.”

“Well, it ain’t me,” said Darius. “What do you mean, cleaning house?”

“The general tensions between the Church and the Imperial government were brought to the very brink of open violence just a few weeks ago,” Darling said somberly. “The details are classified, but suffice it to say, each runs secret projects, and two of theirs blundered into each other in the dark and it got messy. Sharidan knows the Archpope has designs on increasing his power at the Throne’s expense; all that restrains him from acting is public opinion and the support of the Houses and cults. If the government moves on the Church without damn solid evidence of wrongdoing…”

“It would be the Enchanter Wars all over again,” Jasmine whispered.

“Probably not that bad,” said Basra, “but it’s enough of an issue that the Throne having any legitimate, actionable grievance is an existential threat to Justinian’s ambitions. He has been frantically rebuilding bridges; the two main fronts appear to be this business and what’s unfolding in Puna Dara. The Archpope is setting up those loyal to him but whom he doesn’t need to take a fall, and prove his goodwill toward the Silver Throne.”

“And that’s why their moves have been so…reckless and unwise,” Layla said eagerly. “He’s directing them to make mistakes on purpose!”

“Oh, he’s not directing this,” Basra said grimly. “That would leave a trail Imperial Intelligence can follow, and Justinian is far too clever for that. No, it’s as simple as placing incompetent people in positions of leadership, and letting events unfold naturally—hence Ildrin Falaridjad. No one who has worked with that whingeing, glory-hounding nitwit would place her in charge of a fruit stand, much less a conspiracy.”

“Wait,” Jasmine said, “what’s happening in Puna Dara?”

“None of your business!” Syrinx barked. “You little nincompoops have caused enough damage! If you truly have no regard for your own welfare, as seems to be the case, then at least quit messing up the efforts of people who can actually do this work!”

“This is a conflict between the Universal Church and the Silver Throne, ultimately,” Darling said in a calmer tone. “Everyone you’ve encountered so far is considered expendable by the real players, including yourselves, and us. This is over your pay grade, kids. We have contacts within the Imperial Government and every cult we could reach moving to clean up the conspirators as we speak. This is going to unfold quickly, and it’s going to get a lot messier before it gets cleaned up. The best thing you can do now is hunker down and butt out. Let the Legions keep you safe until this blows over.”

“And if you can’t manage that,” Basra added disdainfully, “at least try not to get any more useful witnesses murdered.”

“Well,” Darius said after a short pause, “no promises, but we’ll see what we can do.”

 

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13 – 20

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“All right,” Inspector Jaahri said in a weary tone, “one more time, then. Miss Sakhavenid found—”

“With all respect, Inspector,” Glory said, finally with open sharpness, “we have been over this six times now. It is neither a long nor a complex story.”

“I find that repetition helps weed out accidental little falsehoods that tend to creep into any narrative,” the Inspector replied, matching Glory’s stare flatly. “Or do you imagine yourself to be an expert on Imperial investigative procedure?”

“It is not procedure for you to have dismissed the entire house full of guests,” Jasmine interjected.

“Quiet, girl,” Jaahri snapped, shooting her a sidelong look.

“Each of those,” she pressed on, “was a potential witness and suspect, and I know you did not have time to interview them all in detail—”

“Sergeant,” the Inspector said loudly, “if that young woman interrupts me again, take her into custody.”

The tension in the room increased significantly, and it had not been slight to begin with. Glory and her staff for the evening had been gathered in the downstairs parlor at the insistence of the Inspector, along with Schwartz and Ami. The rest of the house had been cleared out, at Jaahri’s insistence, leaving them alone with eight Imperial soldiers, who had positioned themselves in a ring around the civilians. Their demeanor was cold almost to the point of aggression; they stared balefully at the gathered Eserites (and Vesker and Salyrite) as if expecting to have to break out wands at any moment. A rather peculiar attitude for soldiers to have toward a group of young servants whom they had not been informed were Guild apprentices.

Smythe was gliding smoothly around the chamber, offering tea to each soldier in turn, and being irritably rebuffed every time. Which, of course, did not ruffle his equanimity in the slightest.

“Why are your men not investigating the house, or the crime scene?” Glory asked, her tone again deceptively mild.

“Madam,” Jaahri said impatiently, folding his arms, “I will ask the questions, if you don’t mind—”

“I mind,” she interrupted. “In fact, I have had just about enough of this. It beggars belief that you would dismiss an entire house full of suspects only to sit here grilling those least likely to have been implicated in this crime.”

“Don’t presume that I know nothing of this matter except what I’ve learned here tonight,” the Inspector retorted. “I already have my suspects, Ms. Sharvineh, thank you for your concern. For instance, the late Mr. Treadwell was not a social creature, and in particular was last seen in seclusion due to an embarrassing misstep within his own cult. Someone exerted significant pressure to bring him out to this event…at which he was subsequently murdered. And as luck would have it, I happen to know already who did so.”

“You accuse me of this?” She raised one eyebrow, her expression artfully skeptical.

“I am not yet ready to make accusations,” Jaahri replied, tucking his notebook away in an inner pocket of his coat. “But I am well aware, Ms. Sharvineh, that there is an ongoing matter here, and that you have attempted to conceal the connection from me. This group of young people very closely matches the description of a group of Thieves’ Guild apprentices who were involved in the burglary of a temple of Avei, an event connected to Mr. Treadwell being reprimanded by his superiors in the Collegium. Now, it would seem he has been silenced.”

“Now, that’s real interesting,” Tallie snapped. “Since Schwartz and Ami weren’t part of—”

“Hzzt!” Ross grunted, driving an elbow into her side nearly hard enough to knock her over. Glory glanced over at Tallie, letting out a soft sigh.

“And that is an admission,” Jaahri said with grim satisfaction. “I believe you had all better accompany me to the barracks to discuss this further, in more detail.”

“She is right, though,” Glory said thoughtfully, holding up a hand to forestall Darius, who had straightened up and unfolded his arms at the Inspector’s last comment. “Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Talaari are not involved in that. Why would you see fit to detain them? Herschel is a guest this evening—the only one you did not dismiss. And I cannot fathom what connection you think my paid musician might have to the murder.”

“The fact that you know less than I is the reason this will be quickly solved,” Inspector Jaahri stated. “Sergeant, start gathering these people up, all of—damn it, will you go away?” he snapped at Smythe, who had offered him a canape. The Butler bowed in silence and retreated to stand by the door. Jasmine glanced at him once, pressing her lips together; Smythe’s act had effectively removed him from the soldiers’ consideration except as a buzzing nuisance, and now he had placed himself in control of the room’s primary exit, holding a tray which would serve as either weapon or shield. Clearly, these troops were not accustomed to dealing with Butlers.

“Hershel,” Glory said calmly, “what do you have for neutralizing enemies in a crowd?”

“You are on thin ice, Sharvineh,” Jaahri warned.

“In fact I’ve got just the thing!” Schwartz replied, while Meesie bristled on his shoulder, chattering at the Inspector. “Cooked it up after our last go-round. You know, the one where we trounced a contingent of Svennish intelligence agents?” He cast a pointed look at Jaahri, who hesitated in the act of opening his mouth again. “Controlled chain lightning. I can cast it to arc only to targets I designate; a quick and clean way to clear out a room of mixed hostiles and friendlies. I’d sort of rather not, though. Lightning has a tendency to be lethal.”

“Are you aware that threatening a duly appointed agent of the Silver Throne is a crime, Mr. Schwartz?” the Inspector grated.

“Are you aware of the penalty for corruption for officers of the Emperor’s law?” Jasmine asked quietly.

“That does it,” Jaahri snapped, pointing at her. “Sergeant, arrest that one. Now.”

A man wearing sergeant’s stripes glanced at Jasmine, then at Schwartz, and swallowed. “Sir…”

“Did I stutter?” the Inspector asked incredulously, rounding on him.

“A thought occurs to me,” Glory said idly, inspecting her flawlessly manicured nails. “We know that poor Mr. Treadwell was involved in a conspiracy which has been pursuing these apprentices. All of us had been operating on the assumption, however, that this was strictly a matter among the cults. I confess it simply did not occur to me that there would be enemy agents among the Imperial Army. And yet, I am stymied as to why else you would choose to dismiss most of the possible suspects from investigation, Inspector, or how you would know to include Mr. Schwartz and the bard in this…net, of yours. Tell me, what do you think will happen when I bring my own influence to bear upon you?” A feline smile uncoiled itself across her lips. “I am not, as I suspect you know, without powerful friends.”

“You have managed to say the worst possible thing available to you in this circumstance, Sharvineh,” Jaahri said. “You are all under arrest, and I strongly suggest you comply voluntarily. Resisting his Majesty’s—”

Smythe interrupted him by clearing his throat loudly; the Butler, in fact, was in the process of slipping back into the room, having ducked out while everyone was distracted. Jaahri whirled on him, reaching into a pocket of his coat, and one of the soldiers actually drew a wand. Smythe ignored all of them, directing himself to a point in midair near the center of the parlor.

“Bishops Darling and Syrinx to see you, madam,” he intoned, stepping aside.

They paced inside in lockstep, both wearing their formal Church robes and tabards, but both moved with the graceful stride of a pair of leopards, their eyes snapping to Inspector Jaahri as soon as they entered the room. Even the ecclesiastical uniforms did not detract from the effect; these were plainly here as Eserite and Avenist, not Church officials.

“Oh, now, don’t let us interrupt you, Inspector,” Darling said in an uncharacteristically flat tone.

Behind them, three more women strode into the parlor, immediately fanning out to assert full control of the exit; Flora, Fauna, and Jenell Covrin also stared coldly, making a point of watching the assembled soldiers.

“Yes, by all means,” Syrinx growled, fondling the ornate hilt of her sword. “Finish your thought.”


Akhatrya rapped on the wooden door frame even as he stepped into the room without waiting to be invited; the palace seneschal enjoyed certain privileges as well as responsibilities, and being on hand to assist the royal family whether they sought him out or not involved some blending of the two. It was late, and this wasn’t strictly his responsibility—any number of lesser servants could have seen to it—but he made a point of keeping an eye on any of the family who were under unusual stress, or acting out of the ordinary.

Both conditions applied to Princess Zaruda this evening.

She did not commonly choose to spend time in her father’s office, or any place predominated by papers and books. Neither did the King, but Rajakhan never shirked his duties, no matter how tedious he found them. It was a safe bet, however, that when the King did not need to be actively poring over documents, he would be elsewhere, and so Ruda had had the office to herself all night. She’d spent the evening having clerks bring her a variety of textbooks, financial records and copies of several treaties. Now, Akhatrya entered to find her hunched over an open volume of conversion tables, muttering to herself and tracing one fingertip across a page as she read.

“Would you like anything, your Highness?” he asked diffidently.

“Think I got everything I wanted, thanks,” Ruda muttered without looking up.

The seneschal smiled faintly. “Good. I meant more in the way of food or drink, however. Perhaps a pillow?”

“It isn’t that late,” she said, finally lifting her eyes to frown at him. The office had two narrow windows looking out across the battlements at the harbor, which showed nothing but darkness at this hour. It was not dim, thanks to the fairy lamps.

“Very good, your Highness,” Akhatrya said, bowing. “I am, of course, at your disposal, should you have questions about anything you read.”

She was already frowning at the book again, and absently shook her head. The seneschal waited another moment before bowing again, despite the fact she was no longer looking at him, and turning to go.

“Hey, Akhatrya, wait a second.”

“Your Highness?” He turned back to face her, folding his hands in front of himself.

Ruda almost grudgingly tore her gaze away from the columns of figures she was studying. “Let me pose you a hypothetical.”

“I am at your service.”

“Suppose you worked for a King or Queen who wanted to change the standard of measurements we use from the common system to the dwarven system. How would you advise them to go about implementing that?”

He hesitated for a moment, thinking. “Well… In honesty, Princess, my first recommendation would be not to.”

She drummed her fingers once on another book, staring at him. When she said nothing further, he continued.

“Forcing changes in people’s way of life from the position of the Crown is always tricky, Princess, and should be done as sparingly as possible. This is true for all rulers, but most especially for those governing a people as free-spirited and prone to defiance as the Punaji. Any hint of heavy-handed action without a clear and specific purpose will agitate the populace. That, in particular, would impose costs upon everyone, most especially merchants. Converting from one system—any kind of system—to another is always a difficult transition.”

She let out a soft huff, and turned her head to scowl at the dark windows. “If there’s one thing I would expect of Punaji, it’s not to carry on following a mindless tradition when there are better, more effective ways. Especially a tradition that it turns out was created by the Elder Gods for the specific fucking purpose of holding people back and making our lives difficult. Akhatrya, have you ever looked at the tables of dwarven measurements? It’s all so…efficient. Everything’s derived from a base measurement designed to be specifically useful. Everything scales in neat increments of ten—no figuring or fumbling involved, if you can damn well count you can do shit it takes a trained accountant to handle now. No wonder the dwarves switched over. If they can do it, why the hell can’t anyone else? Why not the Punaji? What the economy alone would save in the long run is more than worth the hassle of converting!”

“If only people saw life in terms of neat costs and rewards,” he said wryly. “Your Highness, I have not been party to your political education. Are you aware of the systems of government used by the dwarves?”

“Mm, not in much detail,” she admitted. “I could probably tell you more about Tiraan or Sifanese or Arkanian politics than the Five Kingdoms. They’re pretty insular an’ they bend over backwards to accommodate us whenever we do business; I’ve mostly learned how to show ’em proper manners when they visit and leave their inner workings alone. Hell, even the Sifanese are less standoffish about people getting into their internal business.”

“I see,” Akhatrya said thoughtfully. “Are you acquainted with the concept of socialism?”

“No, but I like it already,” she replied, grinning. “Sounds cuddly.”

“It’s an idea which is implemented, in one form or another, in the governing policies of each of the Five Kingdoms,” he explained. “Basically, the core contention of socialism is that nothing which is necessary for life should be the subject of personal profit, for anyone. Food, lodgings, and medical care, for example, are all provided to all citizens equally by the state. The different dwarven nations have varying standards of what is necessary; by and large, they are all more highly organized at the state level than any human nation, and their governments provide a very wide range of services compared to ours. They have elaborate public education, for example, all the way through the university level, and state-sponsored arts, museums, scientific research, loans of business capital… Obviously, this necessitates a very high level of government involvement in all aspects of life, and is funded by a heavy income tax, levied progressively according to individual wealth.”

Ruda stared at him in blank silence for a long moment.

“Well,” she said at last, “that’s not quite the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard, but I respect it for trying.”

Akhatrya grinned. “Consider this, though. Even with most of their economies in shambles and gross domestic products flatlined at best for the last ten years, the Five Kingdoms have universally low crime, almost no unemployment, and zero homelessness. Most societies in the state of economic vulnerability they currently suffer succumb to further related maladies, notably outbreaks of disease. No such thing has happened in the Dwarnskolds. They suffer some privation, but they do so equally. The strong do not prey upon the weak, and society itself endures without leaning upon its most vulnerable members.”

“Akhatrya, it sounds like you like this cockamamie scheme,” she exclaimed. “You can’t possibly be thinking of trying something like that in fucking Puna Dara! We’d have a revolution within five fucking minutes!”

“And that,” he said, nodding, “is exactly my point. I heartily approve of you studying the ways of our neighbors to learn from their strengths, Princess. But never forget that we are not dwarves. We are not even Imperials. We are Punaji, and not every useful idea that exists in the world would be useful to us. Some, though they might indeed prove to be assets, are simply too far from the core of who we are. The people will not tolerate anything they see as an attack upon the spirit of our nation.”

She turned again to frown at the window, but this time the expression was more thoughtful than disgruntled.

“The spirit of our nation,” Ruda said quietly, “is already under attack. A long, slow one that we can’t seem to do anything to halt. There’s no room for a pirate nation in the world as it’s shaping up. We already depend on the Empire’s goodwill to prevent one of the other naval powers of the Azure Sea from invading us, and isn’t that a constant fucking insult. Sooner or later, we have to either change who we are, or…give up. Forget who we are, be absorbed by Tiraas like the Calderaan and the Stalweiss and the Onkawi and…” She trailed off, and swallowed heavily. “Gods. I hope Mama and Papa are gone before it comes to that. I don’t want them to have to see it.”

After a moment, Akhatrya stepped quietly over to the desk, and reached out to lay a hand upon her shoulder. It was not strictly appropriate, but the Rock was probably the least formal of the government palaces in all the world. They were, after all, Punaji.

Ruda heaved a sigh and cleared her throat, turning back to regard him with a freshly incisive expression, and he let his hand fall, stepping back.

“We’re already the Five Kingdoms’ biggest trading partner, though,” she said. “Everything they make and wanna sell overseas comes through Puna Dara. Since the Narisian Treaty they’ve vastly increased the business they do that way instead of selling to the Empire, too. There is no possible way Punaji merchants aren’t already familiar with dwarven systems of weights and measures.”

“That is true,” he allowed. “Most have found it profitable to endure our neighbors’ little peculiarities. And if the systems are indeed as superior as you say, there may well be some who already favor them.”

“So, getting back to my original question.” Ruda leaned back in her father’s chair, staring at the far wall, and propped her (thankfully clean) boots up on a copy of a tariff agreement with the Kingdom of Stavulheim. “How to implement that, while still respecting the independent spirit of the Punaji. Since the precedent’s already there, I think we could begin by encouraging the use of dwarven standards without mandating them. Go slow, go careful, gradually get the population more acquainted with ’em an’ make sure there’s widespread acceptance before starting to switch actual government practice. Hnh, I much prefer to get shit done, but I guess you’ve gotta take your time when dealing with the egos of tens of thousands of people.”

“The safe way is the slow way, as a rule,” he agreed, smiling again.

Ruda looked back up at him, grinning. “So! You like my general strategy, then? Anything you’d add?”

“Well,” Akhatrya said, “you asked me what I would do, hypothetically, if I served a monarch who insisted on pursuing such a course. In that situation…yes, I think I would proceed much as you describe. And I also would offer thanks to the gods that my people were in the hands of a wise Queen.”

Her smile actually faltered, and the princess cleared her throat, averting her eyes. “Ah… Yeah, well, I guess—”

Both of them stiffened as an alarm bell began tolling outside the fortress, quickly followed by a second, and then more.

Ruda swung her legs back to the floor and bounded up, crossing to the window, where she pressed her face against the glass, peering out at the darkened harbor.

“What the fuck?” she exclaimed after a brief moment, then whirled and dashed for the door.


“THINK!” Ayuvesh thundered, his voice booming from the walls of the cavern.

The group actually hesitated, which was just as well for the sake of diplomacy; Vadrieny had already burst forth, both Huntsmen had bows drawn, Gabriel was brandishing both scythe and saber, and even Toby had shifted to a ready stance.

“You servants of the Pantheon are always so quick to turn to violence,” the leader of the Rust continued, bestowing on them a mocking smile from his perch atop the walking machine. At the touch of his fingers upon the chair controls, it took a lumbering step backward, then shifted, awkwardly turning itself to face them at an angle. “Really, it’s not as if I don’t know who the lot of you are. Would I actually want to start a fight with you, here, in our own sanctum? Knowing it would cost the lives of many of my comrades, and incalculable damage to our home and resources? No, no, children, rest assured, I was not challenging you to battle.”

“Y’know, for a guy who talks so much about how put-upon he is,” Fross chimed irritably, “you spout a lot of what are really easy to take as threats.”

“This is a misunderstanding,” Toby said firmly. “I honestly have no idea what’s happening, and I have no qualms at all about telling you anything you want to know about the woman who stole the screen off your gateway. I can’t even say for sure if she’s the reason for this—”

“I would be willing to put money on that,” Gabriel growled.

Toby shot him a quelling look. “But we certainly have no attachment to her. Her behavior was not exactly friendly.”

Ayuvesh regarded him sardonically while he spoke, then lowered his gaze to study something set amid the controls on the arm of his mount’s seat. “Hummm. And yet, I find no indication of someone apart from you lot creeping around…” He paused, frowning. “And yet. A screen was remotely activated, and its position is currently unknown. So…perhaps.”

“Perhaps is a starting point,” Toby said soothingly, holding up both hands. “Look, we’ve already established that none of us here wants anything to get more violent than it already has.”

“Ah, yes, so we should now lay our cards on the table,” Ayuvesh said bitterly. “As you did when you mentioned this mysterious woman as soon as you entered.”

“Honestly, man, what would you have said?” Gabriel asked in exasperation.

Vadrieny turned on him with the same tone. “Are you under the impression that you’re helping, Gabe?”

“Not usually,” he muttered.

“Let me lay out for you some other things we have established,” Ayuvesh continued, again manipulating his controls. The walker retreated further, even as the other members of the Rust scattered to man various pieces of machinery, or disappear into side tunnels. “None of us are eager to volunteer information—perhaps understandably. You kids have a tendency to perceive threats in every little thing, and respond with the promise of your considerable capacity for brute force. I, on the other hand, respond to threats by…rearranging the playing field. The best way, I find, to avoid getting into a pitched battle is to make the process so uninviting that no one seeks to offer you violence.”

“Like you did to the Silver Legions,” said Juniper.

“You seem to think that was an extreme response,” Ayuvesh said grimly. “What’s more reasonable, when presented with a large, threatening force, than to remove that force from the board, as gently as possible? But you lot aren’t a Silver Legion. You have a lot more firepower, a lot less restraint, and not half the logistical hurdles involved in doing anything. Carefully incapacitating you isn’t really a prospect, I suppose. So I must, if we are to continue these discussions, somehow ensure your good behavior. I wish I could think of a less regrettable way to do so. Truly, I do.”

He pushed a lever and the walker turned to face one of the walls, which was already shifting into motion, its innumerable machine parts whirring and shuffling like a colossal swarm of ants. Metal arms extended from dozens of points, each bearing view screens of various sizes, and began fitting them together into a single, huge display, its image clear despite the lines of connection running across it and its wildly uneven edges.

The cobbled-together screen showed them an image of the city harbor under the moonlight. As they watched, the waters began to stir.

“I expect you kids to be respectful, henceforth,” Ayuvesh chided, “for the sake of Puna Dara.”


Ruda burst out of the fortress doors onto the battlements, racing for the foremost tower which extended into the harbor with Akhatrya right on her heels. It was chaos, but organized chaos; soldiers dashed alongside them, moving themselves into proper order, as more assembled in ranks in the Rock’s main courtyard below.

The princess and the seneschal reached the tower, troops hustling out of their way, and tore up its steps to the platform on top, where Ruda pressed herself against the crenelated wall, staring incredulously out over the harbor.

Ships were moored, but there was fortunately no active traffic at this hour, and thus no vessels were lost in the disturbance. The spot near the center of the bay, which alternately bubbled as if pressed upon from below and descended into a whirlpool, abruptly exploded, spraying water as far as the docks.

The thing that rose up from within was titanic, a thick, sinuous shape plated in irregular metal over its coiled scales. A row of metallic spikes ran along its spine, with lengths of wire connecting them and giving off sparks and arcs of lightning which danced across the surface of the water. Most of the massive sea serpent’s head was original flesh and bone, but its wedge-like lower jaw was entirely metal, and its right eye had been covered over with a huge patch connected to the plates and spikes climbing up its back. Into this was set a tremendous green fairy lamp which cast a sickly glow across the whole harbor.

Giant sea serpents did not come this close to the shore, they very rarely breached the surface and definitely did not vocalize. The augmented monstrosity finished showing that it did not respect any of these rules by throwing back its head and emitting a mighty roar which had a distinct undertone of metal scraping against metal.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” Ruda roared right back, turning to Akhatrya and pointing accusingly out at the beast. “Look at this! This is what happens when I leave those assholes unsupervised!”

 

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