Tag Archives: Bishop Darling

12 – 29

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

“I think I’ve found a flaw in your plan,” Aspen declared.

“Oh, really.” Ruda looked at her sidelong, not shifting from her position leaning against the spell lab’s wall except to take a long drink from her bottle of beer. “If I asked reeeeeaal nicely, wouldja share it with me?”

“Sure,” Aspen said immediately, folding her arms and looking smug. “You don’t actually know when this Sleeper guy will attack, or even if he will. And you’ve got everybody locked in here to wait for it, which… You guys don’t hunt much, do you?”

At that last pointed question, she half-turned to look around the room. Toby and Shaeine were both sitting against a wall in lotus postures with their eyes closed; Teal lounged next to the drow, apparently asleep. Scorn was pacing furiously back and forth, muttering to herself, while Juniper paced in a much less energetic fashion, wandering aimlessly all over the room at a slow amble. Inspector Fedora sat on the floor against the huge window, almost swallowed by his trench coat, which was rumpled up around him by his position. He was reading, of all things, an Avenist libram, and seemed quite absorbed in it. Only Fross and Gabriel were engaged in apparently goal-directed behavior, having claimed a space a few feet distant from Fross’s model of the mountaintop to work on some enchanting project, surrounded by loose sheets of his spell parchment. Their quiet discussion was the predominant sound in the room.

Ingvar, as usual, stood near Aspen, currently watching her conversation with Ruda. The whole evening, as hours had stretched on, he had simply stood, in apparently perfect calm.

“See, like Ingvar,” Aspen said approvingly, pointing at him. “Hunting requires patience. You gotta be able to just wait for a long time without going stir-crazy. I don’t think most of this group has the knack. Specially that one.” She shifted her finger to point at Scorn.

The Rhaazke ground to a stop with a muted screech of her claws upon the stone floor, turning on her and clenching her fists, tail beginning to lash. “Listen here—”

“Scorn,” Teal said without opening her eyes. “Please don’t. Starting a fight with dryads is pointless.”

“I am not the one starting!” Scorn snapped.

“You wouldn’t be the one to finish it, either,” Fedora commented, turning a page in his libram and not lifting his eyes from it. “That’s not a reflection on your personal power, gorgeous, trust me. Our sort would be well-advised not to fuck around with high-level fairies.”

“We do not share a sort,” she said disdainfully.

“Sure,” he agreed. “You have more magic and muscle in your abs than I’ve got in my entire body, while I, contrariwise, have some basic goddamn social skills. And that dryad would puree either of us if we pissed her off, so let’s refrain, yeah?”

“And this is what I mean,” Aspen said with unmistakable satisfaction. “Everybody’s gonna go nuts cooped up in here like this. Especially if the Sleeper never shows.”

“He will,” Fedora stated, still reading. “The cat’s away. The mouse will play.”

“I don’t know what that guy’s talking about half the time,” Aspen complained to Ingvar.

“You are not missing out,” he replied.

“Have you considered,” Ruda said with deceptive mildness, “that you picking at this is, if anything, going to make it worse?”

The dryad scowled. “It’s not my fault!”

“More academically, then, have you ever considered anything in your life before you just hauled off and did it?”

Scorn laughed, far too loudly for the enclosed space.

“Now you listen,” Aspen began, but Ingvar swiftly interrupted.

“Aspen, stop. She has a point.”

The look the dryad turned on him was almost hurt. “I—but—she’s being rude about it!”

“Yes,” he said calmly, “which is her business, not yours. You’re not responsible for what anyone else does, only what you do.”

“Oh, again with the philosophy,” she huffed.

“I don’t have a lot of interest in philosophy,” he said, “unless it has an immediate practical use. Turning the other cheek for moral reasons is Omnist practice, and no concern of mine. What concerns me is that when you react to other people, you let them control you. A man—a person, in order to exercise any power, must be self-contained and controlled.”

“Huh,” she grunted with poor grace.

“Rudeness aside, she is right,” Ingvar went on. “You are also right. This is a tense environment, and pointing it out will only make it more so. Better to set an example. You’re a hunter of no small skill, Aspen; you could teach these students a great deal about patience.”

“That’s true,” Juniper agreed, coming over to loop an arm through one of Aspen’s. “I always thought so, back home in the Deep Wild. You’re a lot more collected than most of our sisters.”

“That is the more collected one?” Scorn said skeptically.

“Scorn,” Teal pleaded with a sigh.

“You.” Ruda lifted the hand holding her bottle by its neck, extending one finger to point at Ingvar. “I like you.”

“That’s good to know,” he said noncommittally. She laughed almost as loudly as Scorn, earning a frown from Aspen.

“Yeah!” Gabriel shouted suddenly, jumping upright. He grinned at everyone as they all turned to look at him. “We got it working!”

“Hey, that’s pretty great,” Ruda said. “You got what the fuck working?”

“We’ve solved our communication problem!” Fross reported, whizzing about in an excited circle above them. “Fortunately I had a book in my aura storage with the proper charms described, but we’ve had to adapt it to use the materials on hand, since the proper ones are sorta expensive and there’ll be all manner of trouble if we get into the classroom stocks, so it was real tricky to make it work with just folded spell paper and enchanting ink, and the final product won’t last for very long, but since we only need them to work for tonight it should be fine!”

“I think Ruda’s question stands,” Shaeine said, finally opening her eyes.

“Communication charms!” Gabriel enthused, holding up a square formed of paper folded over multiple times, inked with elaborate patterns which glowed in shifting blue and green. “You just hold it and you can hear the voice of whoever talks to you through it!”

“That solves a lot of problems,” Fedora said, finally looking genuinely interested. “If we can coordinate in the field it’ll overcome our main handicap here.”

“Oh, well, don’t get too excited,” Fross cautioned, suiting the advice herself by slowing to a stationary hover. “Actual two-way communication is orders of magnitude more complex and really can’t be done with these simple materials. I can project through it, cos I’m extremely magical, but you won’t be able to talk back. So I figure, since I’ve gotta run the map model and the fae-arcane field, I can stay here and give directions and you guys can surround the Sleeper!”

“Please understand that I don’t mean to disparage,” Ingvar said carefully, “but organizing a hunt is not as simple a matter as it may appear to one who has never done so. Are you sure you can do this, Fross?”

“Fross is extremely intelligent,” Toby observed quietly. “More to the point… Our group’s actual military strategist is taking a semester off—”

“Which is a goddamn shame,” Ruda interjected, grinning fiendishly, “because I’m really curious what she’d make of Ingvar, here.”

Toby ignored her. “…but Fross has never, in the time I’ve known her, misjudged her capabilities. The safe assumption is that if she says she can do a thing, she can do it.”

“Agreed,” Shaeine added.

“Yeah, that’s pretty well unanimous around here,” Juniper said, grinning. “You can count on Fross.”

“Aww!” Fross chimed bashfully. “I would blush if I had the necessary physiology! But you guys couldn’t see it anyway so I guess that’s maybe kinda pointless.”

“All right, then!” Gabriel said more briskly, sitting back down and tearing another sheet of enchanting paper out of his book, “let’s get to work, Fross ol’ pal. Hopefully we can make enough of these to equip everybody before the Sleeper arrives.”

“Yes! On it!”

“Well, that’s good then,” Aspen muttered. “I guess we’ll just…continue to stand around.”


“Antonio!” Justinian came to meet him at the door when he entered the Archpope’s office, moving as smoothly as always but more quickly than usual. “Splendid. I greatly appreciate you coming on such short notice, and especially at this late hour. Please, stand.”

“Not at all, your Holiness,” Darling said, rising from the kneel he had assumed upon the Archpope’s approach. “I’m always available for necessity—and I figured this must be urgent for you to call at midnight. How can I help?”

“I need to call upon you in your capacity as liaison between the Church and the Imperial government,” Justinian said seriously. He wore a faint frown—very faint, but still more concern by far than he usually displayed in public. “The late hour is specifically relevant—I am counting on your ability to enter the Palace in the middle of the night and find someone of high office willing to speak with you.”

“How high, if I may ask?”

“Ideally, the Emperor himself…though that might be hoping for too much.” The Archpope turned to face the window of his office, concealing his expression for the moment. “What matters most is that we reach out to the Throne as quickly as possible. Something…rather untoward has happened, I’m afraid. There is a risk of hostilities emerging if the matter is left to fester.”

“Your Holiness, what’s going on?” Darling asked tersely, beginning to absorb some of the uncharacteristic tension in Justinian’s shoulders. He had to admire the man’s ability to do that; usually he was far too in charge of himself to be manipulated even so subtly.

“This is difficult.” Justinian shifted again, placing himself in profile from Darling’s view; his frown had deepened. “I trust you will not be offended if I state that there are secrets of the Church which I cannot reveal to you—even now, when I must call upon you for help related to them.”

“Not in the least,” the Bishop said immediately, “I’ve always assumed that was a given. What can you tell me, your Holiness? My ability to access the Palace won’t extend to barging in there in the middle of the night with a vague story.”

“Among my efforts,” the Archpope said slowly, clearly choosing his words with caution, “has been a subtle campaign against an elusive foe, undertaken by specifically skilled and trusted individuals on behalf of the Church, using, among other things, artifacts left behind by the Elder Gods.”

“Dangerous business,” Darling said quietly.

“Indeed so.” Justinian turned to him and nodded. “And to be taken only with the utmost caution and restraint, with every possible safeguard in place, and besides all that, only at what seemed the most urgent need. There has been…an enemy on the move. A most elusive one. My specialists have been conducting a remote campaign to attempt to identify and monitor this being, using the aforementioned artifacts.”

“An enemy?” Darling frowned. “If you don’t know who, your Holiness, what makes you think them an enemy?”

“Understand that I do not, under ordinary circumstances, meddle with the works of the Elders,” Justinian said seriously. “The Church has many such relics in its possession, which my predecessors have collected and contained largely because they universally prove all but impossible to destroy. It is, as you yourself know very well, sound general policy to leave the toys of the Elders strictly alone. So long as they are buried in vaults beneath the Cathedral, under the eyes of the Pantheon themselves, those tools are relatively safe, and contained such that they pose no threat. At least, that had been my assumption until quite recently, when one became unexpectedly active.”

“And…your response to this was to have a specialist…poke at it?” Darling cleared his throat. “Forgive me, but…”

“No, no, you are right,” Justinian said wearily. “I do my best, Antonio, but a man who must handle as many delicate threads as I inevitably outsmarts himself once in a while. I suspect you know a thing or two about that, yourself.”

“Well.” Darling couldn’t help but smile. “Maybe one or two.”

“Yes, the safe thing to do would undoubtedly have been to bury it deeper and invoke the Pantheon’s auspices to ensure it took, this time. I have never been one to brush dangers under the rug, however. That which is out of sight and out of mind is more menacing, not less, because one grants it the element of surprise by not engaging. I sought to learn what was happening, what it meant, and who was responsible. It did become clear, at least, that the device’s sudden activity was due to some manner of…sympathetic principle. Someone, somewhere, had a counterpart to it, and was doing this deliberately. Having learned that, I could hardly afford to ignore it. That is the kind of threat which could come to endanger countless uninvolved innocents, if not the world itself.”

“Clearly, yes,” Darling agreed, nodding emphatically.

“Tonight,” Justinian continued gravely, “and quite recently, in fact, after a pattern of several days of exchanges between my agent and this mysterious figure, the device abruptly destroyed itself. The violence of it was…extreme. My people barely escaped with their lives.”

“And…you wish to warn the Throne?”

“Oh, it is more urgent than that, or it could wait till morning. In the moments before it erupted, the artifact projected an image of the silver gryphon.”

There was a moment of silence.

“In other words,” Darling said slowly, “this whole time, you were playing a very dangerous game of chess with what turned out to be agents of the Empire.”

“Even that would be blessedly simple compared to the reality,” Justinian said seriously. “Such a misunderstanding could be explained. In hindsight, this revelation makes sense of much about the exchanges which had baffled my agents. The enemy’s moves frequently made no sense, and we had ascribed them to the idea that he was as awkward and uncertain in his use of the Elders’ crafts as we. Looking back now, though, it becomes apparent that we were dealing with more than one party, themselves at cross purposes. The original aggressor, and more recently, also the Empire. I suppose it should not surprise me that the Throne has similar treasures hoarded away. It only makes sense that if someone had begun to activate them remotely, it would affect more than the one in my own possession.”

Darling’s eyes widened. “Your Holiness… Do you have any idea how many of these things still exist?”

“None,” Justinian said grimly, “and you have hit upon one of my concerns.”

As always, Darling kept his racing thoughts firmly away from his face. The Emperor, the Hands…the timing. This was a moment to tread with extreme care.

“Coordinating with the Throne would obviously be important in that case, yes,” he mused aloud. “But…with all respect, are you certain this entire thing wasn’t the Empire’s doing?”

“Quite.” Justinian nodded. “I have been wrong about people, of course; individuals are endlessly surprising. Those who possess and managed to maintain great power are often much less so. I understand Sharidan quite well. I know his ambitions, both their shape and their extent, and the reckless menace posed by this agent’s initial activities was not in his character.”

“What activities?” Darling asked, frowning again.

“Before the thing began to obstruct scrying efforts,” Justinian replied, “we found a trail leading to Puna Dara.”

“Surely the Punaji wouldn’t…”

“Agreed. It is also not in their nature to poke the bear, as it were; some past leaders of the Punaji might have been so ambitious, but Rajakhan is not the sort to meddle with dangerous powers to begin with, and definitely would not begin to rouse the kind of trouble in his own territory that our early divinations perceived.”

“What sort of trouble?”

“This is what we must discuss with the Throne,” Justinian said seriously. “To begin with, aside from the need to merge our information, there is also the matter that the Throne might consider the Church responsible for these problems if they are not informed otherwise, and I don’t have to tell you all the risks that could pose.”

“Indeed not.”

“But additionally, Puna Dara is beyond the direct control of Tiraas—and largely outside the influence of the Church. Between their association with Naphthene and a native spiritual practice which focuses on their windshaman, the Punaji generally have little use for gods. If someone intended to probe at both the Church and Empire, or even set them against one another, they could hardly pick a more perfect place from which to strike…and it becomes more ominous still in light of rumors I have begun to hear from Punaji territory. In this matter, Antonio, I hope you may have information to add that I do not.”

“I might have to disappoint you there, your Holiness,” Darling admitted. “The Guild’s presence among the Punaji is pretty slender, as well. Their culture makes Eserites sort of…redundant. Rajakhan is possibly the only world leader who discourages the Guild’s activities in a way that doesn’t provoke the Boss to double down on them. Only the Five Kingdoms do a more thorough job of keeping us out.”

“I am aware of this,” Justiniain said, nodding. “Nonetheless, you may still have information I do not—and of course, I cannot begin to guess what Imperial Intelligence may know. Tell me, Antonio, in any of the whispers you may have heard from Puna Dara, has there been anything about the Rust?”


Even under the circumstances, Ravana enjoyed the atmosphere of the campus after dark. Its peace was rather like that of her private gardens at home in Madouris, one of the few outdoor spaces where she could be free of the pestering attentions of the countless people who demanded a slice of her time. Professor Tellwyrn’s emphatic discouragement of interlopers had finally quelled the upsurge of interest which had begun with Gabriel Arquin’s calling last year, and relatively few of her classmates were knocking about at this hour. For the most part, she had the path to herself.

Especially these days, for obvious reasons. She tightened her grip on her lightcapper for a moment before forcing herself to relax it again. And, then, to relax herself overall. The wind in the trees, the sound of crickets and night birds, even the pleasant warm glow of the fairy lamps; all the details of her surroundings conspired deliberately to be comfortable, even if she generally found the faux-gothic stylings of Tellwyrn’s taste in architecture rather gauche.

The oppressive drowsiness hit suddenly, as she had expected. Immediately following came the stab of blinding agony in her temples—also expected, but she had not been able to test the potion before taking it (obviously), and Ravana was not accustomed to physical pain. She was unable to repress a shriek, barely catching herself before taking a tumble which would have damaged her personal dignity—or worse, her lightcapper.

A moment later, though, it faded, and she straightened, a predatory smile stretching across her features.

Mages were so obsessed with magic, they always tried to counter it with more magic. A noblewoman knew to play to her own strengths, to find mundane solutions to the threats posed by even the most capable wizards and warlocks. Even if, in this case, the solution had been provided through the auspices of expensive (and extremely illegal) alchemy, it was still a basically mundane one: a person simply could not fall asleep while in severe pain.

“Predictable,” Ravana said aloud, raising her lightcapper and turning to face the Sleeper.


“Contact!” Fross shouted, shooting toward the ceiling and chiming loudly. “We’ve got him! South lawn, the path outside the music building roughly equidistant between the gazebo and the Wells!”

Ingvar had already thrown open the door of the spell lab and strode out, Aspen right on his heels. There came a disorganized rush as the sophomores, Scorn, and Fedora followed, but the Huntsman moved with swift purpose and total calm. In seconds he had strode the length of the hall and out the side door, raising his longbow as soon as he had a view of the sky.

The arrow he nocked wasn’t exactly identical to the one which he had made with his own shaman in Tiraas; he had had to improvise, lacking the shaman’s expertise and rank in Shaath’s faith. Thanks to the help of the fairies, though, its blessings and charms should be correct. Ingvar angled his bow to aim straight skyward, drew, and released.

The arrow burst into light as it soared aloft. For a moment he experienced uncertainty; would it work? But it continued, shooting straight skyward, as it was meant to. The shaft climbed far higher than the power of his draw could have propelled it, till even with its glow it had vanished from visibility with sheer distance.

Only for seconds, though. When it erupted, it was with a surge of clouds that spread out over the mountaintop as rapidly as a cup of ink poured into a bucket of water. With it came the low howl of wind, swirls of snow, and the sharp cold of the upper Stalrange, unheard of on the prairie.

The very light shifted, taking on a pale bluish tinge. The blessing of Shaath lay over Last Rock, and across the very dimensions, blocking all shadow-jumping.

“That is a bit more ostentatious than I was expecting,” Gabriel remarked from behind him. “People might notice this, guys.”

“It works, though,” said Juniper, turning to him. “Right?”

He hesitated, listening, then nodded. “Yes! Vestrel confirms. We’ve got the Sleeper pinned down!”

“Magically, at least,” said Ingvar. “The easy part. Now…we hunt.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

12 – 15

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

“What are you doing here?”

Milanda had nearly reached the spot Sharidan had told her about. At the sudden voice, she turned—carefully. Despite its abruptness, she did not jump. She was not a jumpy person to begin with, and years at the Imperial court had honed her self-control to a fine point.

There had been no one in the hall with her, and she had heard no one approach, but now a Hand of the Emperor stood scarcely three yards away, glaring suspiciously. They really could teleport now, then, and apparently without the characteristic crackle-and-flash of arcane teleportation or dark visual effect of shadow-jumping. That would have been very useful if they’d been able to do it while obedient and predictable.

“I live here,” she said, looking as nonplussed as she could. It had been the Empress’s suggestion to act as if they had noticed nothing at all amiss with the Hands, which the Emperor had agreed with. She could see the point—their behavior was suddenly almost childlike, their loyalty to their master constant but their execution of it wild and without judgment. Eleanora had already run afoul of the simmering paranoia behind their eyes, and deemed it best that no doubt be cast on them, as they would likely take it as provocation.

This only applied to the three of them, though. Hands did not hobnob with just anyone, but people in the highest levels of the government did interact with them, and were starting to notice. Even she had heard the rumors.

“Here,” he snapped. “In this hall. What is your business here?”

Milanda frowned slightly—perplexed, uncertain, the aspect of someone confused why she was being challenged. That took no political training, but only the experience of a strict Viridill upbringing which had never agreed with her. “This hall? It leads between the Emperor’s apartment and the west solarium without passing through the central corridor. The servants are busy cleaning in there right now. Why?” Sharpening her gaze, she took an impulsive step toward him, affecting not to notice the abrupt movement of his hand despite the jab of panic that it caused. He did not attack, though, nor even pull away when she “impulsively” laid a hand on his arm. “Is something wrong? Is the Emperor all right?”

“The Emperor is engaged in a task which requires privacy and isolation,” the Hand said, still watching her suspiciously, but with less overt hostility now. “You were informed of this.”

“Yes. Yes, I know.” Affecting frustration, Milanda released him and stepped back, folding her arms beneath her breasts. That achieved nothing useful, and not just because of the modest gown that Sharidan preferred her in; never once had any of the Hands looked at her with lust, nor hinted that they were capable of such. Before today, she had much appreciated that. It had been worth a try, anyway. “No doubt you think I’m just a silly girl, but I do care about him. I know he has the very best people watching over him, I know he is smart and capable as any man. But… He’s not here, and I can’t help…” She trailed off, and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to waste your time. You’ll tell me, though, if anything happens?”

Milanda took another step closer to him, gazing up with wide eyes, head carefully angled so she didn’t accidentally look coquettishly through her lashes. A more direct stare helped sell the emotion. Clasping her hands before her would have been too theatrical, but she bunched them in her skirts, a nervous habit she had deliberately cultivated while at court so she could hide real nervousness by not displaying it.

The Hand had relaxed visibly, now. He still frowned, faintly, which was far more emotion than she was used to seeing from any of them, but appeared no longer on the verge of attacking her.

“I can’t promise that, as you know,” he said, only a little stiffly. “You will be informed of anything relevant to you. And you needn’t worry, his Majesty is in full control of his current situation. If you want to help him, go about your daily routine as normal. It is central to his plan that any parties observing the Palace detect nothing amiss.”

“Yes, so he told me,” she said with a sigh. “Perhaps I am a silly girl, on some level. My apologies.”

She curtsied carefully, not a whit more deeply than was proper, then turned and continued on up the hall without even a suggestion of hurry. There was silence behind her; she did not turn to see whether he was still there, or had vanished as suddenly as he’d come. And she definitely did not so much as glance at the marble bust of Emperor Sarsamon against the wall, which concealed the access to the secret entrance.


Lakshmi wasn’t best pleased to have her door knocked upon first thing in the morning, scarcely after Sanjay had headed off to school. The neighborhood wasn’t moneyed enough to be afflicted with salesmen, but several of the cults did proselytize. It had been a few weeks, though; she’d begun to hope she had finally trained all the nearby temples not to pester the resident Eserite household…

Upon angrily opening the door, she couldn’t decide whether she was more or less pleased than she’d have been by wandering preachers.

“Peepers!” Sweet said, beaming and holding out his arms as if for a hug.

“Oh, what the fuck now,” she demanded, folding her own arms.

“That’s a little thing we do,” Sweet said, turning to address the man accompanying him, a stranger to her. “We Eserites like our byplay—almost as bad as bards, sometimes. This one here is a classic setup/payoff; you’ve probably seen it in a play at least once.”

“It was a tad vaudevillian,” the other man agreed politely.

“Sweet, it’s early,” Lakshmi said curtly. “And you’re grinning at me, which is downright unnerving. Early and unnerving are a combination that doesn’t work for me. What do you want?”

“I need a favor, Peepers,” he said, his expression suddenly earnest.

She snorted derisively. “Are you outta your gourd? The last time I did you a favor, I ended up getting chased around by goddamn demons.”

“Ah, ah, ah!” He held up a remonstrative finger. “That was a job. This is a favor. Totally different! And no demons involved this time, I promise. Or warlocks. Much of anything, really.”

“And I’m going to do you favors because…?”

“She’s still huffy at me,” Sweet explained to his friend. “Because of the demon thing.”

“Well, it sounds like she’s entitled,” he replied seriously. “Have you tried the usual? Chocolates, flowers, empty flattery?”

“I was going for the old ‘pretend it didn’t happen and hope she forgets’ routine.”

“Ah.” The newcomer shook his head regretfully. “A classic blunder. You never try that on the smart ones.”

Lakshmi cleared her throat.

“Right, yes!” Sweet turned his charming grin back on her, and she had the sneaking suspicion he was deliberately doing it to be annoying, now. “Aside from the fact that it’s just generally helpful to be in the good graces of people with my kind of connections, this is the sort of favor that comes with payment, in the amount of far more than it deserves.”

“So it is a job.”

“No, it’s a paying favor—the best kind! A job is where you have to go out and do stuff. This won’t affect your plans in the least, unless you were going to burn down your apartment for the insurance money.” Sweet grinned and edged aside in the narrow doorway, gesturing grandly to his companion. “This is my friend Danny. He needs a place to crash for a few days.”

Danny, assuredly not his real name, was a moderately well-dressed and actually rather good looking man of local Tiraan stock, in that indeterminate area between later youth and early middle age. He bowed politely, and formally.

“It is an honor and a privilege, Miss Peepers.”

“Psst, it’s just Peepers,” Sweet stage-whispered. “You don’t combine a tag with a title, unless you’re talking to the Boss.”

“Ah. My humble apologies.”

“And the reason he can’t stay in your giant house is?”

“C’mon, you’re sharp enough to know better than that,” Sweet replied. “A discreet sort of place. Where people won’t come looking for him. It’s just a few days, no more than a week. He doesn’t eat much, even.”

“People who need discreet places to crash are hiding from something,” she said, unimpressed. “I have a little brother to worry about, Sweet.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got everything covered,” Sweet assured her. “I will have people keeping an eye out—discreetly. Any trouble heads your way, he’ll be shuffled outta here, and you’ll get backup. But that’s just to satisfy my own sense of preparedness. I’m not gonna drop more trouble on you than you can handle.”

“Once again,” she said acidly, “demons.”

“Oh, let’s be honest,” he retorted airily. “Nobody expected that to turn out like it did, and I still had it under control, anyway. You’re mostly irked because that means you can’t blame me for it.”

“I can blame you for anything I please,” she informed him. “Woman’s prerogative. And now you’re dropping some shifty noble with me, one who’s running from trouble? Noble trouble is almost worse than demons, Sweet.”

“Who says I’m a noble?” Danny asked, seeming more amused than affronted.

“Is that a joke?” Lakshmi demanded. “That cheap suit is not a disguise. No calluses, nails expertly manicured. Your hair is styled, in a way you didn’t do yourself, unless you happen to be a professional barber. Omnu’s hairy balls, Sweet, the man’s wearing perfume. What the hell am I supposed to do with him?”

“It’s just my natural musk!” Danny protested. “I eat a lot of…” He lifted an arm to sniff delicately at his wrist. “…hibiscus, tangerine, and sanguine vanilla. My doctor swears it’ll add ten years to your life.”

“Well, he can banter up to my standards,” Lakshmi acknowledged grudgingly. “That’s better than nothing. But seriously, this is a three-room apartment in a contentedly cheap neighborhood. You will not like it here.”

“At least the company’s charming!” Danny said gallantly.

“It’ll be fine!” Sweet wheedled. “If he gets bored, you can teach him to do coin tricks. Hell, make him wash dishes, it’ll be character-building.”

“Hm,” she grunted, now studying Danny, who seemed amused. She would be astonished if the man had ever done housework in his life, but he wasn’t bridling at the suggestion, which meant he wasn’t the worst kind of noble. “I dunno…”

“Well, let me see if I can make it easier for you,” Sweet said. “Five decabloons up front, just for taking on the inconvenience, and an extra twenty in gold per day that he’s here. Plus, I’ll owe you one.”

Lakshmi was too experienced a bargainer to betray any reaction to the named sum, which was more than she’d paid in rent for this place the entire time she and Sanjay had lived here. Thanks to Principia’s accounts, she didn’t need money, but it was a measure of how serious the matter was. “Even though you’re paying me?”

“Hell with that, he’s paying you.” Sweet jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Danny. “Guy’s loaded. I’m just hooking him up with a reliable and trustworthy person who can provide him with a couch for a few days—for which, as I said, I’ll owe you. Come on, Peepers,” he added more softly. “Everything else aside, that thing with the warlocks just went south, and I never even suggested in the first place it would be safe. You know I wouldn’t put any Guild member in more danger than they could handle, or mislead them about the situation I was setting them up for. This is me, telling you I believe this is safe. If at any point I change my mind about that, I will haul ass down here immediately and pull him out. My word on it.”

She pursed her lips, making a show of mulling it over. “If he causes or attracts any trouble that affects my little brother, deal’s off then and there. And I keep the five decs and any gold paid up till that point.”

“More than fair,” Sweet agreed.

“And,” she added, “for thirty per day.”

“You’re proud of this place, aren’t you?” Danny observed with a smile.

“Oh, not at all,” Lakshmi replied, grinning at him. “I just enjoy squeezing you. Get used to it, roomie.”


On her way back through the hall, Milanda carried an apple. It wasn’t much as props went, but she had a story worked out to explain her presence here now that the servants had finished in the harem wing’s central halls. She had given it an hour, to be safe; with one Hand already suspicious of her, it was too risky to loiter in this region, or be seen here too often.

No one accosted her this time, though. Despite her looming awareness of the potential threat, Milanda moved without hurry, stopping in front of the side table on which the bust sat. She had seen this thing a thousand times and never paid it much attention, it fit so well with the décor of the Palace.

Now, moving as deftly as she could given the unfamiliarity of the motions, she reached under the table, her fingers finding the lever exactly where Sharidan had said it would be. She set the apple down on the table top, pulled the lever and held it, then carefully touched the rune hidden among the abstract patterns embossed in the table’s surface—also found right where she had been instructed to look.

There was no glow, or crackle, or any of the effects that tended to come with modern enchanted devices, nor even a mechanical click from inside the wall. A section next to the display simply shifted backward in silence, its borders marked by seams which had not existed a moment ago. After moving back six inches from the surface of the wall, it slid to the side, revealing the door.

Milanda retrieved her apple and stepped quickly through, not pausing a moment to study this spectacle. The moment she was through, the wall silently slid back into position, the apparatus clearly having been designed for maximum discretion. She didn’t find it particularly galling that Sharidan had been keeping this secret from her. Frankly, there was a lot he didn’t tell her, and she accepted that just as she did the fact that theirs was not a conventional relationship. She was not the only woman he kept in these apartments, and hadn’t even been his most preferred companion until the sudden departure of Lillian Riaje last year.

The less said about that, the better.

A small fairly lamp ignited as soon as the wall shut, saving her from the darkness. She was in a space no bigger than an average closet—an average closet from back home, not one of the cavernous spaces where the Emperor or Empress kept their clothes. Its walls matched the corniced marble from the corridor outside, a touch which amused her. Opposite the secret door was a ladder set into the wall, which vanished into an opening in the floor.

Milanda paused only for a moment to get her bearings in the cramped space before proceeding. She had no suitable pockets and it didn’t seem wise to leave litter in here, so she descended the ladder carefully with the apple clutched in her left hand. More tiny fairy lamps were set along the descending shaft; they came on when she approached, while the upper reaches of the ladder fell back into darkness.

This was a disorienting effect. Down she went in her own little island of light, which moved along with her, hiding what meager landmarks there were and erasing any sense of how far she had come. Already this had been a longer climb down than from any of the trees she had scaled as a child, and still, there was only darkness below. The Emperor clambered up and down this shaft? Alone? What if he fell? The sheer recklessness of it…

Halfway through that thought, her grip on the apple slipped. Milanda winced but did not jeopardize her balance by grabbing for it, resigning herself to having to find some way to clean up applesauce at the bottom.

It only fell two feet, though, before coming to a stop in midair. Well, of course; this had apparently been set up by Empress Theasia, who had been famous for never missing a trick. Obviously a place like this would have the best safety enchantments in existence.

She retrieved her apple and continued down.

It was at least ten minutes, maybe longer, before she finally put her slippers on solid ground again. The chamber at the base of the ladder was stone, well-cut but clearly old—it looked like it belonged in some ancient fortress rather than the opulent Imperial Palace above. Still, nothing about it was evocative of ruins. It was clean and in good repair. Milanda gave it scarcely a glance.

On the wall of this chamber opposite the ladder was the door. Sharidan had been unable to warn her in detail of what she would find beyond the hidden entrance above, which was modern work and no part of the geas governing and empowering the Hands, a geas which apparently protected itself by preventing any in the know from speaking of it. Only the fact that she expected some kind of door made her assume that was what this was.

It was metal, that much was plain, but not steel. It was too pale, and shone too brightly even in the dim light of the tiny fairy lamp set next to the ladder. The door itself was a mostly vertical panel engraved with a sigil which meant nothing to her, flanked by two columns of glass in which a faintly luminous purple substance slowly oscillated. This seemed to glow, but the strange metal did not take on any purple tint from it.

In fact…

Milanda’s breath caught as she realized what she was looking at. Mithril. The whole wall was made of it. In addition to being totally impervious, the value of this thing would practically buy the Palace itself. Slowly, she crept forward, reaching out to inquisitively touch the sigil in the center of the door.

It instantly shifted upward into its frame with a soft hiss. She did not jerk back, but paused momentarily to study this.

The room beyond was tiny. Scarcely wider than the ladder shaft and circular except for the flat wall which made up the door, it was also formed entirely of pale, glossy mithril.

Milanda stepped carefully inside, peering around for some hint what she was meant to do next. The thing was almost featureless, though there was a palm-sized panel beside the open doorway which was made of a different material. Some kind of glass, perhaps, like the tubes outside; it glowed faintly, this one a pale blue like the characteristic luminosity of arcane magic.

The door suddenly hissed shut behind her, and this time she did jump. A low hum rose from the metal floor, and in the little glowing panel appeared a black circle, which began to dissolve starting from a point at its top and cycling around clockwise until it vanished completely. The instant it did, only a few seconds later, the door opened again, unprompted.

It wasn’t the same room outside. Belatedly, Milanda realized that the little round chamber wasn’t actually a room, but a conveyance, which had just taken her… Well, hopefully where she needed to be.

This was clearly the product of the same minds which had made the moving chamber. Everything—everything—was made of mithril. She was in a short hallway, brightly lit, the air incongruously fresh considering how far underground this had to be. The lights were set into the ceiling, while more glowing purple columns marched along the walls. Up ahead was another door, this one larger.

Milanda strode forward with more confidence, reaching out to touch the sigil engraved on the door’s surface. This time, she wasn’t surprised when it vanished into the ceiling.

Beyond that was another corridor, which extended up ahead for a few yards before terminating against a mithril wall, where the hall itself turned to the right. The lights and border columns here were the same, but this corridor was lined by glass panels opening onto other rooms.

Tiny, empty rooms.

She paced forward, carefully peering into each as she passed. What was the purpose of this? There were eight of them along the hallway, but the third one on the right had another mithril wall instead of a glass pane with a room beyond. When she came abreast of that one, though, she had to stop and stare.

The cell opposite it was occupied.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to be here,” the resident observed.

Milanda was not at all sure what she was looking it. It was a woman…sort of. In fact, she looked more like a doll than a person. Her skin was deathly white, as she had heard Vanislaad demons described, and subtly glossy. It didn’t look like skin at all. She had black eyes, so dark their pupils were invisible, which did not contain any reflection, a most eerie effect. Her features seemed oddly stylized, with a very pointed chin and enlarged eyes, as if she had been crafted by someone working from a rough description of elves and not really striving for believability. She had normal human ears, though.

That wasn’t the limit of her strangeness. The woman’s hair…was not hair. It took a moment’s study for Milanda to realize what was wrong with it: what looked at first glance like short black hair was simply the shape of her skull, pigmented to contrast with her face and formed to look roughly like a backswept hairdo, but it was all of one glossy surface. And her black clothes were not clothes. They were part of her, hanging in ragged edges from her cuffs but fading into being from her throat, with no collar; her skin just shifted color and changed shape to very roughly mimic garments. The slightly baggy “pants” they formed tightened below the knee to cover gleaming black feet which seemed bare. At any rate, they had visible toes.

“…who are you?” Milanda asked, only belatedly realizing she had been staring.

The creature shrugged. “A prisoner.”

“Why are you imprisoned?”

“Because I am dangerous.” At that, she smiled. Her lips were bloodless as the rest of her face, and painfully thin.

“I see,” Milanda said carefully. “…what do you know about the Hands of the Emperor?”

“Ah.” The woman’s smile widened. “I suspected as much. You’ll be having some trouble with them, no doubt.”

Milanda turned to face her directly. “What do you know of this?”

“Little,” the prisoner replied. “I could find out more, given access to the resources in this facility. I might be able to help you fix the problem, though I am reluctant to promise that. The system access is designed to be user-friendly, but there have been tweaks made to the underlying code itself, and I’m not a computer tech.”

Several terms in that speech were unfamiliar to Milanda, who decided to pass over them for now and focus on what she did understand. “I was cautioned not to let you out.”

“Very wise,” the prisoner said, nodding. “If you do, I’ll kill you.”

She stepped back. “Why would you do that?”

The woman shrugged. “It’s what I do.”

Milanda could find no answer for that.

“Anyway, you have more immediate problems,” the prisoner continued. “You are not authorized to be here. Hands will be coming to check soon—they’ll know when someone enters here, and I suspect they’ll know it’s not the Emperor or one of their own.”

Milanda backed away against the far wall. “You’re trying to trick me into letting you out.”

“You should not let me out,” the woman said matter-of-factly.

“Don’t you want to get out?”

“Of course I do, but that’s another subject. We’re talking about you. There is only one place for you to hide until the Hands investigate and leave—down there, at the end of the hall. Fortunately, what you’ll find in there is exactly what you need to proceed with your goal anyway. Unfortunately, they’ll probably kill you, too.”

“Is there anything in this place that won’t kill me?” Milanda demanded in aggravation.

The prisoner shrugged again. “That’s not the right question. They might kill you. I will. I might be able to help you. They probably can. They are your only hope, however slim, of surviving the next few minutes. And if they do decide to help rather than kill you, their help could even make it safe for you to let me out. This doesn’t seem like a dilemma to me.”

Milanda started to grasp at her head in frustration and belatedly realized she was still holding an apple. “I have no reason at all to trust you.”

“You can either go back, or go forward. You can’t do anything standing here except talk to me. It’s nice to have company, but I can’t do much for you while I’m in here.”

“Except kill me,” she said sarcastically.

“I can’t kill you while I’m in the cell,” the woman replied in complete calm. “That’s why you should not let me out.”

“Are you insane?”

“Yes,” she replied, still calm. “Isolation does that to a person, and I’ve been down here for a long time. My mind was damaged by trauma long before I was captured, though. That’s why I kill everything. Regardless, you’re concerned with your own business, right? I could trick you into getting killed, which would be entertaining very briefly and gain me nothing. Or I could help you, which could be entertaining for much longer while you struggle to survive and overcome this situation, and that course might potentially end with me getting out of here.”

“At which point you’ll kill me,” Milanda said. “No, thank you.”

“As you are now, yes, I would,” the woman said frankly. “If you go see the others, they might change that.”

“Who are they?”

“Less dangerous than I.” The prisoner smiled again. “Marginally. I am very predictable. I’m really not sure what they might do. Honestly, I don’t think they are, either.”

Suddenly, lines of text appeared in the upper corner of the glass panel which walled her off from Milanda, in a language she couldn’t read.

“Someone’s coming,” the prisoner said, studying the script. “Either the Emperor or one of his Hands. I extrapolate from your presence that it’s not the Emperor. It’s time for you to move.”

“Bloody hell,” Milanda cursed uncharacteristically, bolting down the short remainder of the hallway. Behind her, the imprisoned creature offered no further comment.

After its ninety degree right turn, the hall terminated in another door, this one obviously a door. It was more heavily built up, with an elaborate frame of metal which was a matte black, clearly not mithril; the door itself was of the same material, inset with glowing blue runes. No, not runes—letters. Some of them were the same as the alphabet used in Tanglish, though the words made no sense to her.

Grimacing and clutching her apple for moral support, Milanda stepped forward and pressed her hand to the door.

Nothing happened.

In growing panic, she prodded at various words, none of which had any effect.

“You’ll need to find the access panel in the frame,” said the prisoner’s voice from around the corner behind her. “It should be on the left.”

Milanda hesitated, then stepped back, studying the heavily carved door frame. In fact—yes. On its left side, at chest height, was a little square space about the size of the one in the tubular conveyance. At her touch, this came alight, displaying more lines of illegible text.

A second later, the door opened, parting along a central seam and sliding into the frame on either side. It was thicker than the other doors, and more complex, revealing a second set of panels which slid apart in different directions. What it revealed was nothing but a wall of blue light.

Milanda carefully reached out to touch this, then thought better of it. Who knew what that creature in the cell was trying to trick her into doing? After a moment’s thought, she stepped back and gently tossed the apple in.

It vanished into the blue surface without a ripple.

Milanda drew in a deep breath and let it out through her teeth. The Hands were coming; even if the prisoner had lied, they would be anyway, and probably soon. The creature in the cell had been right about one thing: it wasn’t as if there was anywhere else for her to go down here. Muttering a quick prayer, she stepped carefully forward, holding up her hands, and began to pass through the light.

She just had time to watch her fingertips vanish into its surface before her apple came whizzing back out, clocking her right on the forehead. Milanda yelped and fell backward, landing painfully on her rump halfway through the door, whereupon she discovered that whatever was beyond didn’t have a floor on the same level. Flailing gracelessly and disoriented by the blow to the head, she slid and tumbled through into the unknown.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

12 – 14

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

Despite the late hour, Darling was alert and energetic even without the aid of strong tea, much less coffee. The sense of a new and interesting game suddenly afoot did wonders for his personal motivation. Price claimed his addiction to intrigues was worse than anything he could eat, drink, or smoke. If it kept him upright, moving, and sharp close to midnight after a long day, though, he wasn’t going to complain. Particularly as his current adventure was a response to an urgent summons by Imperial Intelligence. Whatever this was, he didn’t want to go into it at less than his best.

The neighborhood through which he strode was quiet at this hour, and in fact quite safe, being an upscale place occupied chiefly by pricier businesses and thus heavily patrolled. He was probably the scruffiest person it had seen all day, attired presently as Sweet the thief rather than the Bishop, but luckily there were no soldiers immediately in sight to question him. Not that he couldn’t talk his way out of that, but it didn’t do to keep the Imps waiting.

His steps slowed briefly as he passed through an intersection, glancing down the side avenue, only a few blocks into which he had twice found the Elysium.

Nah.

The address he had been given was an Imperial safe house, which of course he knew despite no such explanation being included in the message summoning him. In fact, this was one of the safe houses he wasn’t supposed to know about, not that he planned to enlighten whoever he met. Darling liked Vex well enough and meant no ill toward his department or the regime it served, but just coexisting with a man like Vex necessarily meant hoarding whatever advantage he could secure.

He stepped into a back alley, which was actually clean; the space had been designed as a service entrance for the three buildings clustered around it, and rich folks had their standards. The good ones applied the same standards to spaces occupied by their servants. He strode smoothly past the first two doors, well aware that his approach had to be observed, and grasped the handle on the third without bothering to knock.

The door opened instantly and silently, and he slipped through, pulling it shut behind him. There was no one present to greet him, leaving him to choose between going down a darkened hallway and descending a narrow flight of stairs. Light and faint voices came from the bottom of the steps, so that way he went.

It occurred to him in passing that this would be a fantastic place for an ambush. His message had come from an Imperial functionary he knew, though, and Vex had no reason to pull a stunt like that. Still and all, he tucked his fingertips into his sleeves, where he had throwing knives concealed.

A moment later, he removed them, upon stepping into the room at the bottom of the stairs and seeing who awaited him. Quentin Vex himself was present, lounging against the wall; General Panissar stood near the door in full uniform. The third man was dressed casually, in a suit that had seen no wear and was of good quality but clearly not tailored for him; it had probably been procured from some department store particularly for this exercise. Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian, Emperor of Tiraas, assuredly did not have any such garments in his own wardrobe.

“Please don’t,” the Emperor said quickly when Darling started to kneel. “The formalities have their place, Darling, but there’s nobody here to impress. Let’s not bog this down with ceremony, shall we?”

“As you wish, your Majesty,” he said diplomatically, straightening up and adjusting his lapels. He glanced at Vex, then Panissar, then back at the Emperor. “Well, here we are, then! I didn’t even know what to expect and I’m still alarmed. Shall I assume the Emperor isn’t nearly as unprotected here as he looks?”

“Obviously,” Panissar said with disdain. “I’d feel better if I could have brought a few Imperial Guards, but the situation being what it is…”

“My people are keeping watch,” Vex said with a yawn. “My best people. Blanketing the district with them would risk drawing eyes, which is exactly what we don’t want. A handful of my top operatives represent more effective power than a platoon, anyway.”

“Are you gonna let him talk to you like that?” Darling asked Panissar, who snorted derisively. “Sorry, I don’t know a better way to lighten the atmosphere of impending doom. What’s going on, how bad is it, and how can I help?”

“To begin with,” Sharidan said seriously, “anything and everything discussed here is Sealed to the Throne.”

He paused for acknowledgment, and Darling nodded deeply in a gesture that verged on a bow.

“The situation is this,” the Emperor continued. “Something has interfered with the Hands of the Emperor. All of them are exhibiting mental instability, coupled with the sudden possession of powers they never had before.”

“Holy shit,” Darling whispered. “Ah…excuse me.”

Sharidan actually smiled. “Not at all; I’d say that is the correct reaction.”

“We are working to contain this situation,” said Vex. “Intelligence and the Army are both shifting assets to strengthen protection of the Imperial family, and monitor any ongoing projects in which Hands are participating. As discreetly as possible, of course; as effectively as can be done without informing the assets in question of the nature of the problem. It may not prove feasible, but ideally we can resolve this before it turns into a crisis.”

“Hang on,” said Darling. “The Hand who usually sits on the council with us. Is he still at Last Rock?”

Vex gave him a sleepy, mirthless little smile. “Indeed. Verification of the problem has come from that quarter; we’re aware of the potential for escalation, there, and watching it carefully.”

“Professor Tellwyrn has been helpful and surprisingly restrained,” Sharidan agreed.

“Excuse me,” Panissar growled, “but in the version of events I was told, the woman broke into the Imperial Palace, assaulted one of the Empress’s companions and vandalized her bedroom.”

“In the course of delivering a friendly warning, yes,” Sharidan replied, smiling. “Which, for her, was helpful and surprisingly restrained. She bypassed an annoying bureaucracy in order to deliver a message, and I can’t say I don’t sympathize with the impulse, irksome as her methods are. Last Rock isn’t the worry, here; I am. The Hands surround and follow their Emperor above all else. Their current instability is a grave threat; one has already tried to arrest Eleanora. It has been decided,” he continued with clear displeasure, “that the best response in this situation is to remove me from a position where I can do anything to help.”

“Your Majesty knows why,” Vex replied calmly, “and clearly are in agreement. It’s not as if we could force you to comply, nor would.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Sharidan said with a sigh. “I do know. I don’t have to like it, though. For the time being, in any case, the Empress will maintain the government.”

“You need a place to hide,” Darling guessed.

“Exactly.” The Emperor nodded. “Which is why we asked you here, your Grace.”

He frowned. “Don’t you have safe houses?”

“Many. All of them, however, are known to the Hands,” Sharidan replied. “They will be able to find me anyway, given the need, but not as easily as if I am in a place unknown to them. Each Hand can sense my direction and approximate distance from their position, but that’s it. Getting to me will take time, and involve figuring out a route, gauging the situation…”

“And if one or more start moving in his direction, we’ll know,” Vex added. “This operation will involve me posting agents to watch both his Majesty and the Palace, and any other Hands in circulation. As soon as one makes a move at the Emperor, we’ll intervene to extract him. Unfortunately, Hands have unrestricted access to all of Imperial Intelligence’s assets, including the power to give orders to my personnel with the Emperor’s own authority. They can find any of our bolt-holes nearly as easily as they can the Throne’s own.”

“We are addressing this as best we can,” said the Emperor, “by keeping the agents in question in the field with orders not to report back until they are told otherwise. The Hands, meanwhile, have been informed that all of this is a gambit on my part to flush out a conspiracy. Which is roughly true; they simply weren’t told they were its target. The downside of needing to keep them pacified is that I cannot curtail their authority while we work. This should suffice for a while to keep them away, but if the emotional instability they’ve begun to demonstrate worsens, one or more is likely to make an irrational move.”

“This whole situation is disastrously unstable,” said Darling. “I trust something is being done to rectify the root problem?”

The Emperor sighed. “Clearly, something has interfered with the magic powering the Hands. Unfortunately, there are no specialists on that particular…arrangement. I have sent someone I trust to attempt to address it, but… It may not be possible.”

“I hope you have a longer-term plan in that case, your Majesty,” Darling said.

Sharidan nodded. “She is to attempt a repair if it can be done; if not, her instructions are to destroy the entire system.”

“Can that be done?”

“Anything can be destroyed,” the Emperor said softly. “Whether that proves feasible in this instance is another matter. She will do what she can, and we have other plans ready to be activated if she fails, which are not germane to our discussion here.”

“What you need,” Darling said slowly, “is someone who can hide you in the city, using resources and personnel not known to the Imperial government, close enough to the Palace but also far enough that you can either return to it or flee it on very short notice.”

“Exactly,” Panissar grunted. “Hence you. Despite your known tendency to play all ends against the middle.”

“I won’t waste anyone’s time denying that, but in a case like this…” He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.I’d say this is no time for games. Far, far too much would come unraveled if something happened to the Emperor. Speaking of which, first things first: you gentlemen have probably already decided this and were maybe about to make a point of it to me, but under no circumstances can any Thieves’ Guild or other personnel be told who he is, much less why he’s hiding.”

“We are firmly in agreement,” Panissar snorted.

Darling nodded. “With that established… Yes, this shouldn’t actually be too hard. Any number of people either owe me favors or would love to do me one, and for Eserites, someone needing a no-questions place to crash where they’re encouraged to stay away from the windows isn’t an odd circumstance at all. I’ll have to winnow it down to people who can be both trusted and relied on. To do that, I’ll need to put my ear to the ground for a bit, find out who is or is not currently in a bad situation we don’t want to be near. Also not unusual for Eserites. What’s our timetable, here?”

“That will ultimately be determined by his Majesty’s agent,” said Vex. “The base situation will be resolved when she does so, one way or another. I will say, however, that having a bunch of physically overpowering, highly-ranked government officials slowly growing more and more unhinged will escalate this into either a massive crisis or a cluster of smaller ones, sooner than later. I give this no more than a week before it devolves into a disaster we will be hard-pressed to contain. Current problems aside, if the Emperor is out of sight for longer than that, political tensions will begin to form which could impair the government’s function on their own. Coupled with the Hands…”

“A week.” Darling rubbed his chin in thought. “This is gonna be a no-sleep night for me, then. Let me head back to the Guild and rule out some options; I want to be sure what we’re stepping into before we take the Emperor near it.”

“Is your Guild involved in a lot of things that physically dangerous in the city?” Panissar demanded.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Darling said with a shrug. “But a lot of what the Guild is involved in could be instantly escalated into a dangerous mess by putting the Emperor and Vex’s watchers anywhere near it. The underworld functions on a delicate balance, gentlemen; that’s what keeps it from affecting the lives of most citizens who don’t seek it out. If we’re going to do anything to affect that balance, we’ll do it carefully, especially given the stakes. This, I assume, is one of those spots the Hands know about?”

“Indeed,” Sharidan said, nodding. “And in theory should be safe; all of this is an added precaution, because we expect more than fear that some of them will act rashly, in spite of my orders. It should suffice for a while, though.”

“All right,” Darling replied. “A while is all I need. I’ll have something more permanent for you by morning.”


The entrance to the Wells was an unassuming sight, disguised as a small shed. Still, when the door opened, all three leaped to attention and saluted, Rook after twitching as if stung by a wasp.

Ravana stepped out, looking calm and composed as usual, if inquisitive, and swept a curious look across them. Behind her, two of her classmates followed, Scorn having to duck to get through the doorway and make room for Szith.

“Gentlemen,” Ravana said mildly. “Good evening. When Afritia said I had visitors, I confess I rather expected some of my classmates.”

“Your Grace!” Moriarty practically shouted. “We humbly thank you for taking the time to speak with us an apologize profusely for this imposition and the late hour!”

“At ease,” Ravana said with clear amusement. “All the way at ease, Private Moriarty. We’ve known each other only briefly, but it has been enough for me to be certain you would not trouble me were the matter not important.”

Behind her and to either side, the drow and demon mutely folded their arms in an eerily identical posture, framing the diminutive Duchess with the subtlest hint of menace.

Rook cleared his throat, dropping his salute. “Thanks, Duchess Madouri. And, uh, all due respect, but you can probably expect a little more bowing and scraping, ‘cos the plain truth is we came to ask a favor of you and you probably can’t even imagine how uncomfortable that is, oh gods I’m really sorry to bother you.”

She actually laughed softly. “Perhaps you’d better blurt it out before Moriarty suffers a cardiac event, then. Mr. Finchley, I have several times had the thought that your porridge is neither too hot nor too cold. Would you care to take over?”

Finchley froze, blinking. “P-porridge, your Grace?”

“An old Stalweiss fable,” she said ruefully. “My apologies, I do have something of a predilection for esoteric allusions.”

He cleared his throat. “Ah, yes, well, I’m sure it’s just one of your many charming—”

“What do you want?!” Scorn barked, making all three jump backward.

“Scorn, please,” Ravana said in the same tone of mild amusement. The demon just grunted. Szith raised one eyebrow.

Finchley took a deep breath, clearly steeling himself. “Your Grace, we would like to ask your help in acquiring legal counsel.”

“Interesting,” Ravana mused. “For what purpose?”

“Getting early discharge from the Army!” Rook blurted.

“Under circumstances which are, in the best possible interpretation, highly suspicious,” Moriarty added.

Ravana stood silently for a few seconds, taking the time to examine each of their faces in detail, before speaking. “I do say that is unexpected. Forgive me if I presume, gentlemen, but it has been my observation, in the course of our admittedly brief interactions, that all three of you find great pride and satisfaction in serving in his Majesty’s army, even if politics beyond your control have relegated you to an irrelevant backcountry nonsense post which negates any possibility of career advancement.”

“Oh, there were never any hard feelings about that,” Rook chuckled. “It’s not like any of us was gonna have career advancement anyhow. Moriarty’s the only one who even knows any regulations, and he literally cannot shoot the broad side of a barn. Funny story, we tested that.”

“After you got me drunk,” Moriarty snarled, “and let us not waste the Duchess’s time!”

“Here’s the thing, your Grace,” Finchley said. “There’s a Hand of the Emperor on campus, and the short version is, he’s gone crazy. Even Professor Tellwyrn is alarmed by how he’s been acting. But he’s a man with absolute authority. At the end of the week, if she hasn’t fixed this Sleeper problem to his satisfaction, he’s going to try to punish her by…disappearing us.”

“He used the actual words ‘never seen again,’” Rook added, gulping.

“Forgive me,” said Szith, “but…how would that punish Professor Tellwyrn?”

“It wouldn’t,” Moriarty replied, “in any way, shape, or form.”

“Finchley wasn’t kidding,” Rook added. “The man is completely off his nut.”

“So that’s our predicament,” said Finchley. “The ultimatum is probably impossible for Professor Tellwyrn to meet—she’s doing her best about it anyway, so what was even the point? And when it doesn’t happen, well… I mean, theoretically, he could just be reassigning us…”

“Our posting here is a political matter, though,” Moriarty said glumly. “We’re supposed to be out of the way. Us being stationed in the capital might have…um, repercussions.”

“Plus,” said Rook, “not to harp on this, but this guy is seriously unhinged. There is absolutely no telling what he’ll do with us. And legally? He can do any damn thing he wants.”

“How does a lawyer help you, then?” asked Szith.

“That is simple enough,” said Ravana. “The Empire is not an oligarchy, despite constant attempts by families such as mine to make it so. In a society of laws, the law can be used to challenge power on its own terms. In this case, by pressing suit over their treatment and securing early discharge on the grounds of abusive treatment by superiors, they create records, and attention. A threat like this would have to be carried out quietly; by making that impossible, they pull at least a few of its teeth. His only counter would be to declare this a matter of national security, which would bring the eyes of Imperial Intelligence onto his own misconduct. Seeking legal counsel of the kind I could connect you with is actually a very good idea, gentlemen, as it would take more than the common run of lawyer to pull this off. I am more concerned by your allegation that a Hand of the Emperor has become unstable. The implications are positively staggering.”

“Even I find it hard to believe,” Szith agreed. “The Hands are legendary. Their position and stability seems immutable.”

“A society is basically a collection of things we agree to believe,” Finchley said quietly. “It’s…a shape we give to what would otherwise be chaos. These things seem immutable until the moment they come crashing down, and we have to face the fact they only ever existed because everybody said so.”

Ravana cocked her head to the right, regarding him with a suddenly thoughtful expression. “Very insightful, Mr. Finchley.”

Finchley coughed awkwardly, flushing. “I, ah, well… My dad’s in the Wizard’s Guild. I grew up listening to wise old educated people chatting about life over tea.”

“I do believe my House attorneys could do what you wish,” she mused. “The first step would be to file injunctions protecting you from reprisal while you physically remove yourselves from the clutches of your superiors.”

“You can get permission to go AWOL?” Rook said in apparent delight.

Ravana gave him a vulpine smile. “With the right lawyer, Mr. Rook, one can do whatever one likes, and acquire permission retroactively. That isn’t even much of a trial, as it is within both the letter and the spirit of several laws aimed at protecting soldiers from exactly this sort of abuse. The real challenge would be contesting the orders of a Hand, which are the same as those of the Emperor, for all intents and purposes. That command cannot be gainsaid. It would have to be…interfered with, misdirected, undermined, sabotaged. Which, of course, is also within the purview of a truly good lawyer.” Her smile widened. “By which, of course, I mean a truly evil one.”

Finchley drew in a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Your Grace, I know this is a vast imposition, but we’re desperate. Could you…?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid it’s totally out of the question,” she replied, and continued when they all visibly deflated. “Not for lack of willingness to help on my part, gentlemen, but my House is still in hot water with the Silver Throne as it is. I have made progress during the last half year, but I am far from the point where I can afford to have my House attorney’s spit in a Hand of the Emperor’s eye.”

“I see,” Finchley said morosely. “Well. Again, your Grace, we’re sorry to have bothered you.”

“Now, just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand, again smiling very faintly. “I cannot afford to have my House attorneys step into this, which is exactly why I cultivate contact with highly effective, highly disreputable legal firms in both Tiraas and Madouris. One never knows when an inconvenience such as this will arise. I can put you in touch with the perfect person by telescroll. However,” she said quickly as all three perked up and Rook opened his mouth, “no one fitting that description can be simply approached from the street, as it were. Such a firm will require an introduction from an established client, and proof that their rather significant remuneration is assured.”

Rook blew out a sigh. “Welp, there’s that. Like the man said, m’lady, we’re sorry for bothering you.”

“You three have quite the penchant for getting ahead of yourselves,” Ravana said with amusement. “I’ll take care of everything. The telescroll office is closed, but I can have orders dispatched and funds procured by noon tomorrow. By dinner, we can have you on a caravan to the capital, out of this Hand’s immediate reach, and with the support of a powerful ally.”

“Your Grace, we cannot ask you to do that,” Moriarty said firmly.

“Man, we literally just asked her to do that,” Rook retorted, jabbing him with an elbow.

Moriarty stepped away from him, setting his jaw. “Asking for help from her personal lawyers is asking for a big favor—that’s bad enough. Asking her to pay for some lawyer in Tiraas… That’s asking for money. A lot of money. It’s out of the question!”

“We are, of course, deeply grateful for the offer, your Grace,” Finchley said, making a shushing motion at them. “I have to tell you, though, the three of us combined have basically no prospect of ever being able to pay you back.”

“I’m not in the habit of loaning money,” Ravana replied, “except after negotiating a suitable interest rate and securing collateral. You may consider this a gift, gentlemen. A favor for friends, if you will.”

“I…see,” Finchley said slowly. “I’m… Forgive me, I don’t wish to be rude, but I wouldn’t have thought you’d care about us all that—”

“Finchley!” Moriarty shouted, aghast. “Do not insult the Duchess!”

Ravana actually laughed. “Oh, not at all, Private Moriarty. I’d suggest a little more circumspection when speaking to nobles in the future, Mr. Finchley, but your point is well taken indeed. It is rare that powerful aristocrats pause their own business to grant expensive favors to passing acquaintances. When you see that, you should always look for the hidden agenda.”

“I, uh…oh.” Rook looked over at the others. “Um, can you guys think of anything safe to say to that? Because I got nothin’.”

“In this case, you may be assured it is nothing that will bode ill for you,” Ravana said, smiling. “Scorn, you are developing a decent mind for politics. Can you see the advantage for me in this?”

“I really, really can’t,” Scorn admitted, scowling. “These boys, I like them well enough, but they aren’t good for much.”

“And that’s our epitaph right there,” Rook said, grinning.

“This situation with the Hand,” Szith said softly, “cuts to the very heart of the Imperial government. Something of great import must be happening in Tiraas, something which will cause ripples of change. If you ignore it, it will wash over you, and perhaps push you under. If you pick a side, you run the risk of being wrong. But if you intervene subtly, you can deny involvement if ends badly, but take credit if it ends well.”

“Bravo, Szith,” Ravana said approvingly. “You have good political instincts, yourself.”

“In Tar’naris, one needs those to survive,” the drow replied, face as impassive as always. “The mighty are often not careful where they place their feet. One must be adroit to avoid being stepped on.”

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, turning her sly little smile on the three baffled-looking soldiers, “indeed one must.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

12 – 2

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

“Why am I just now hearing about this?” General Panissar demanded.

“I would surmise,” Lord Vex replied, “for the same reason I didn’t learn about the existence of these disruptors until the Army lost them. We cannot all keep one another informed of every little thing our respective departments do. Experimental weapons are the Army’s affair; knockoffs of the Army’s experimental weapons popping up on the black market is the province of Intelligence. And as I said, General, this was two days ago. We had this meeting scheduled anyway. I have hardly been keeping it from you.”

Panissar subsided with a grunt, looking not particularly mollified.

“Both the letter and spirit of interdepartmental protocol has been observed,” said the Hand of the Emperor, planting his elbows on the table and steepling his fingers before his mouth. “Let us not waste time in recrimination. What is our course of action now?”

“I’ve been attempting to trace the path these weapons took,” said Vex, turning to face him. “Sergeant Locke refused to hand them over, and referred me to the High Commander. I did not think it best to press the issue at that time; my primary muscle on the scene was her cousin, and I’m sure you gentlemen recall how it went the last time I had both of them in a room.”

“Can she do that?” Panissar asked, frowning. “Legally?”

“Her defense,” said Vex, “was that the weapons on site were made by herself and property of the Sisterhood, which appears to have been the truth. So…yes. The Empire’s prerogative to seize property does not extend to the Sisters of Avei except in extraordinary circumstances.”

“Sounds like those were,” Bishop Darling noted.

“Indeed,” Vex agreed sourly, “but not in the right way. In any case, when I questioned Rouvad about this, she likewise declined to cooperate except to the extent of saying the weapons were seized by her troops in a raid on an illegal arms meet, where they were in the process of being sold to the dwarves in question by the Thieves’ Guild, or at least, by representatives thereof. I have asked the Bishop to follow up on that. Has there been any word?”

“It was quick and easy enough to get,” said Darling. “Boss Tricks declined to reveal exactly where the things came from, but he did acknowledge the affair in question was a setup, his ploy to put the weapons into the hands of the Sisterhood and bring those dwarves to their attention at the same time. By your description, Quentin, it sounds like half of it worked.”

“The originals were Imperial property, and clearly of a sensitive nature,” said the Hand, his eyes hard. Harder than usual, even. “Withholding information of that kind is potentially treasonous.”

“I know the law, thank you,” Darling said equably. “I mentioned this to the Boss, just to cover all the salient points, which yielded nothing. Well, there was a bit about Quentin’s father and some goats, but I didn’t consider it germane to the situation. Given time, I may be able to get more information using my personal connections, but I am frankly reluctant to do so. Considering the subject matter and my known affiliations, it’ll be a dead giveaway that I’m rooting around for dirt on Guild members to give the government. That’s the kind of thing that can damage my laboriously-built reputation and web of contacts. Unless this is crashingly urgent…”

“I really can’t see that it is,” Vex said when Darling trailed off and gave him a questioning look. “It’s far too late for containment to be a possibility, and that’s the only thing that could still have made it worth clamping down on.”

“We have all but two of the originals back,” added Panissar, scowling. “Weapons we can seize; what’s going around now is the knowledge of how to build them, and that’s another thing entirely.”

Vex nodded. “Narrowing it down to just the parties we know, those things passed through the hands of that now-extinct chaos cult, the Black Wreath, Tellwyrn’s sophomore class, Duchess Dufresne, the Thieves’ Guild and the Sisterhood of Avei, with Svenheim’s Exploratory Office being made aware of and very interested in them in the process. Far too many of those are completely inscrutable to us, for various reasons. I have directed polite and careful inquiries to both the Duchess and the Professor, but I doubt either will yield results. No, the cat is well and truly out of the bag.”

“Then,” said the Hand, “I believe that attempting to pressure the Guild or the Sisterhood is counterproductive. At this point, it may better serve our interests to mollify them. The Avenists, at least, might have taken it amiss that the Army is developing weapons that might as well have been specifically targeted at them.”

He shot a long look at Panissar, who sighed.

“In point of fact, those were only the first stage in a much longer research project,” said the General. “Neutralizing divine energy is just about the least useful Circle of Interaction trick we could play, but it’s the one my enchanters cracked first. The plan was to crate those and use the insights gained from their creation to move on to more strategic types of disruptors. We would love nothing more than a way to shut down infernal magic with the squeeze of a trigger.”

“How is that proceeding?” the Hand inquired.

Panissar shrugged irritably. “Obviously, the whole project was brought to a near halt by the nonsense in Veilgrad. Virtually all the records were destroyed in the attack on the research facility. The Army enchanters have been working on reconstructing the project since then; we’re not yet back on track. The whole business was far too complex for them to have it all in their heads. At least we didn’t lose anybody, and they still have the prototypes to reverse-enchant. Among other people,” he added bitterly.

“Your thoughts on that, your Grace?” asked the Hand.

“Anti-infernal weapons would be a godsend, if you’ll excuse the pun,” said Darling. “With regard to the Sisterhood, I am of course not an insider but in my interactions with Commander Rouvad, I have had the impression she is too pragmatic to bear a grudge.”

“She took clear satisfaction in obstructing me,” Vex noted, “but considering the circumstances…”

“I can raise the issue with his Holiness, if you’d like?” Darling offered.

“Best not,” said the Hand with a sigh. “If the High Commander has issue with the Throne, she won’t go through the Church anyway. We’ll address that directly. On matters about which you doubtless are in the know, can we expect further action from the Guild?”

“I think the Guild has made its point,” Darling said with a thoughtful frown. “Developing sketchy weapons in secret isn’t so awful; considering the state of the world, nothing about it looks especially tyrannical. They’ll definitely react if leaned on further, but for now, I don’t believe the Guild is a further consideration in the matter.”

“Good,” said the Hand briskly. “That leaves us with the rather thornier issue of these dwarves.”

“Several things about that concern me,” said Vex. “For starters, the lead operative was able to mobilize dwarven civilians who clearly had no training and just as clearly did not want to be there. I’m still investigating those we identified, but I rather suspect they had no direct tie to their government beyond the taxes they pay. This is without precedent, which suggests it is more than just cultural. We should look into conscription laws passed in Svenheim in recent history.”

“Good,” said the Hand, nodding. “We shall direct the Foreign Service to do so, but it won’t hurt for you to add your own efforts, Lord Vex.”

“I already am,” Vex said with his characteristic sleepy smile. “There is also the matter of their extremely determined interest in acquiring Imperial experimental weapons. By itself, that would be merely troubling, but there has been a pattern of interest in weapons in general from the Five Kingdoms, and especially Svenheim, over the last five years. They have allocated more research funds than their economic state would suggest is wise to these pursuits. Particularly in the realm of explosives.”

“A suspicious person could draw the conclusion they were planning something,” said Panissar.

“Preparing seems more likely,” said Darling. “The dwarves have to know there’s no possible victory for them if they were to attack the Empire, and by this point we all know their declared war on Tar’naris is an empty gesture of pique. But when you live next to a huge, monolithic political entity that can accidentally collapse your economy and not show much concern over it, a certain amount of defensive thinking is just basic preparedness.”

“That makes sense to me, in fact,” Panissar agreed. “A key strategic factor here is the dwarven ability to call on divine light without a deity’s support. For thousands of years, that gave their armies and unquestionable defensive advantage. Our modern shielding charms pretty suddenly negated that advantage, and these devices have the potential to completely reverse it. They can hardly be blamed for feeling threatened.”

“That complicates matters,” Vex mused. “I have any number of ways to educate King Gjarten on the inadvisability of letting his spies run amok in Tiraas, but any such measure takes on an entirely different tone if he already suspects hostile intention from us. And yet, we cannot allow aggression of this kind to go unanswered.”

“The ongoing trade negotiations do not exist in a vacuum,” said the Hand. “While the virtually free mineral wealth we receive from Tar’naris is a boon, it has also made the Tiraan economy terribly dependent upon the Narisians, and we still don’t know if their increasing activity among the groves is pointed toward something or just general peacemaking. His Majesty has directed resources toward our native mining industries, which have been in severe decline since the treaty, and trying to reinvigorate trade with the Five Kingdoms is another measure. It is wiser, in general, to be on good terms with one’s neighbors, anyway. The more so if the Kingdoms suspect us of having designs upon them.”

“We are on good enough terms with Rodvenheim that I can be fairly certain they harbor no such fears,” said Vex. “We have all possible assurances short of an actual promise from Queen Jadhra that Rodvenheim’s support of the war on Tar’naris was nothing but a means to mollify her neighbors.”

“Which is the same as no assurance,” Panissar grunted. “Politicians will say anything, and Jadhra is cleverer than most. That brings up a thorny matter that has to have been a factor, here: our treaty with Tar’naris heavily emphasizes mutual defense, hence our military presence on their Scyllithene frontier and them sending a detachment to that recent mess on the Athan’Khar border. Technically, the standing state of war by the Kingdoms should require us to declare war in kind. Bless Queen Arkasia for seeing the whole picture and joining everyone else in politely ignoring this, but this is the situation, here. All it would take is one instance of the dwarves actually assaulting the drow, or the Narisians deciding to insist upon that clause in the treaty… The situation is already too volatile for Svenheim to take risks like these unless they already regard conflict as inevitable.”

“Hmm,” the Hand murmured, transferring his piercing gaze to Panissar. “How, roughly, do you think such a conflict would proceed, General?”

“Immediate stalemate,” Panissar replied without hesitation. “Our forces would crush anything they can field, but our military superiority does not negate the fact that pressing dwarves in their own caverns is a fantastically bad idea.”

“Didn’t the orcs invade them once?” asked Darling.

“Three times,” the General replied. “Only one was ever a threat to them, because of a plague in Stavulheim that left most of the population too weak to mobilize, and in that case two Hands of Avei held the gates until Svennish reinforcements could arrive. The other two, Svenheim actually let them get inside. Deliberately. Not one orc made it back out either time, and the second was the last time they ever tried to raid farther north than Viridill.”

“It seems clear that war doesn’t serve anyone, then,” Darling said, shrugging.

“War often doesn’t,” Panissar agreed. “Wars are declared for countless reasons, very few because they were in any way necessary. What concerns me is all this weapons development you’re talking about, Vex. Weapons, once built, very rarely go unused. You’re all familiar with the run-up to the Enchanter Wars.”

“The dwarves are working with explosives, yes,” said Vex, “but they seem to be specifically favoring non-magical weapons. They are hardly cooking up another Enchanter’s Bane.”

“The principle remains,” Panissar shot back. “You don’t build a weapon unless you’re planning to use it on somebody.”

The Hand of the Emperor cleared his throat, regaining their attention. “The commentary is useful, but please keep it focused. We, here, have no power to set policy, but these discussions make a significant impact on what ideas we bring to the Emperor. And pertaining to that…what ideas have we?”

“We appear to be between the rock and the hard place, diplomatically,” said Vex. “Some reprisal for Svenheim’s extremely aggressive behavior seems necessary, but given their already-raised hackles, any such could be a further provocation.”

“A couple of points on that, and correct me if I’m mistaken about anything here,” said Darling, holding up a finger. “The dwarves, I was told, were very careful to maintain deniability for their government, yes?”

“To the greatest extent that such can be done,” Vex replied, nodding. “No immediate traces to the King are apparent, but I can doubtless turn them up with some digging. I’m working on that, as I said, but just for the sake of thoroughness. It seems rather academic at this point.”

“Just so,” said Darling, nodding back. “And additionally, I’m not sure how necessary it is to retaliate against Svenheim, when we know and they know who the power on this continent is. Were there some disagreement, there, letting them do this could be taken as weakness. If anything, don’t we reaffirm our position by gently chiding the dwarves and refraining from coming down on them about this?”

“Is that how you Eserites enforcers keep order among the riffraff?” Panissar asked skeptically.

“Well, I was never an enforcer,” Darling said modestly, spreading his hands in a half-shrug, “but the principles scale up, don’t they?”

“In fact, there’s some validity to that,” Vex mused. “I don’t think this should be ignored, but there are many ways of quietly making a point that don’t involve threats of force.”

“It is one of the inevitable downsides of empire,” the Hand said, still regarding them over his folded hands. “The temptation to wield force increases concurrently with the repercussions of doing so. In our many problems, gentlemen—the Wreath, the dwarves, the elves, the last adventurers, the Punaji, even some of the cults—we are left wondering what to do, and specifically, how to avoid making it worse. Exercising the powers at our command does have a tendency to create disruptive ripple effects.”

“You speak as though you have an idea,” Darling observed.

The Hand smiled thinly. “You said something last year, your Grace, which has stuck with me. Sometimes, two problems are the solutions to each other. I think it suits us in this interconnected modern age to act without throwing our weight around, as much as possible, and what better way than by leveraging some of our…fringe allies? Lord Vex.” He shifted his gaze directly to the spymaster. “I understand you have enjoyed some success in working with Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Yes,” Vex said slowly, “largely because I am extremely careful to limit my interactions with her, and especially the situations into which I thrust her student groups. That is a very particular box of tools, which it will not do to upend upon the wrong project.”

“We agree,” said the Hand, nodding. “But it’s not as if Tellwyrn takes orders, anyway; I was hardly proposing to try and enlist her. However, the University’s graduates do represent a pool of significant talent which we have long allowed to go largely untapped.”

“What are you suggesting, exactly?” Panissar demanded, scowling. “That woman is a bad enough influence as is; the last thing we need on top of our troubles is for her to get snippy about the Throne trying to push her around.”

“Indeed, I am familiar with her profile. Consequently, I don’t propose to push.” The Hand smiled thinly. “After all, weren’t we discussing how interconnected entities can influence each other? And she does have problems of her own.”


Toby ordinarily cultivated awareness of his surroundings as a point of personal discipline, but that afternoon, Gabriel had to call his name twice before he jerked his head up and noticed his friend approaching.

“Gabe! Hi!” Toby waved back, a grin breaking across his features. “You’re back!”

“Yeah, I see that makes two of us,” Gabriel said wryly.

“Three of us.”

“Has it occurred to you,” he said to his sword, “that maybe people would talk to you more if you weren’t such an ass to them?”

“It has. I consider it an irrelevant point of data,” Ariel replied primly.

He patted her hilt. “Hush. Seriously, though, what’s on your mind, Toby? It’s been years since I saw you that distracted in public, and that’s back when you were first called by Omnu.”

“Oh, well, nothing that serious,” Toby said. At Gabriel’s encouraging expression, he glanced around. They had met on one of the lower terraces, just below the gazebo; Gabe was coming back from the main stairs down the mountain, and Toby hadn’t been going anywhere in particular. “I’ll…tell you later. Actually, I kind of do want to talk to you about it, Gabe, but it’s a conversation for, uh, someplace less public.”

Gabriel raised his eyebrows, but nodded. “Okay, then. Is everything all right?”

“That’s a thorny question,” Toby replied with a wry grin. “It’s no more or less all right than when you left the campus, let’s leave it at that for now. Enough about my maundering, though! How was it? Your first real Vidian holiday! I bet you were a hit in the capital!”

“Uh, actually, they kept me back from the public,” Gabriel said, frowning. By unspoken agreement they fell into step, setting off on a meandering path through the terraces. “Lady Gwenfaer held a private service, pretty much entirely for my benefit though some of the cult’s other muckety-mucks were there, and arranged for me to watch the main public ceremonies from concealment.”

“Oh.” Now Toby frowned. “Well, that’s… I’m sorry. I guess they’ll come around…”

“No, no, no!” Gabe said hastily. “That was my idea. Nobody fought me on it, or anything, it’s just… I was in no way ready to be held up as a pillar of the cult. Man, the more I learn about the faith, the less I can really think of myself as a Vidian. And the more I interact with Vidius himself, the more I get the impression that is exactly the point of this. He’s concerned about…um, corruption in the ranks. I think he has an idea of me as some kind of enforcer. An outside perspective, there to whip people back into shape.”

“…huh,” Toby said after a long pause. “I… I really wish I had something more helpful to say, there, Gabe. That’s just…so very outside the realm of my experience…”

“Yeah, I don’t think Trissiny could help me much with this, either,” Gabriel said with a sigh. “Both your cults think the sun shines out of your respective butts. I appreciate you listening, nonetheless. I’m unprecedented in a lot of ways. Anyhow, it was a good experience, all in all. I’ve never really paid much attention to Doom’s Day before; it’s not like I had anybody to mourn. Dad’s folks were gone by the time I was born, and…” He made a wry expression that tried to be a grin but never quite made it past a grimace. “Yeah, I don’t even know if my mother is alive, but if not, somehow I suspect praying to Vidius for the peace of her soul would end badly for all three of us.”

“Have you ever…wondered?”

“Course I have,” Gabriel said, his eyes straight ahead. He had never talked about his mother; in all the time they’d known each other, it had never come up. “But, um, not enough that I really wanted to know. She isn’t part of my…anything. Someday, I guess I’d like to know what my dad saw in her. You know, what happened. But his perspective is really the only part that I’m curious about. I do not need more demon shit in my life.”

“There has always been a surprising core of wisdom beneath your habitual inanity, Gabriel. It is gratifying to see you making more use of it.”

“Thank you, faithful sidekick,” he said sardonically.

“Did you have a chance to see your dad while you were in the capital?”

“He’s not there, remember? The Church found him a place in Mathenon out of the public eye.”

“Oh!” Toby slapped a hand to his forehead. “For heaven’s sake, I knew that. I’m so sorry—”

“I’m just gonna cut you off there,” Gabriel said, peremptorily holding up a finger. “You are allowed to be distracted and think about your own stuff, man. I know you like to be everybody’s big brother, but sometimes you gotta focus on yourself.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Toby said with a sigh. “I’m sort of tired of focusing on myself right at this moment, though. Got any recent foolishness you want to get off your chest? Y’know, for old time’s sake.”

“Excuse me,” Gabriel said haughtily, “but I am deep amidst a program of personal self-development, and no longer go in for such diversions. I’m a new man, Toby. No more foot-in-mouth half-demon designated comic relief, thank you.”

“You’re not going to mention that you very nearly bedded the High Priestess of your cult?”

Toby came to a halt, turning to stare at him. Gabriel did likewise, rolling his eyes so hard he tilted his head back to bring more sky into their range of view.

“Thank you, Ariel.”

“My pleasure.”

“Gaaaabe,” Toby said warningly.

“Okay, first of all, no part of that was my fault!” Gabriel said defensively, holding up his hands and taking a step backward. “She came on to me. Um…quite aggressively. Honestly, until we were alone in that room I had actually not even made especial note of the fact that the woman is searingly hot.”

“And approximately twice your age.”

“Yeah, true,” Gabriel agreed, a slightly dreamy smile drifting across his face. “But damn, does she wear it well…”

Toby cleared his throat. “And yet…?”

“Yeah, and yet.” Gabe’s expression cleared and he focused again on Toby’s face. “It’s just that… Okay, this may sound odd, but I don’t think Gwenfaer was really seeing me there. I might be reading too much into things, but I am pretty sure she was not remotely interested in Gabriel Arquin, fascinating enchanter-in-training and the hero of many adventures—”

“To give yourself a tremendous amount of credit.”

“But,” Gabriel continued doggedly, “she seemed rather aroused by the thought of the unprecedented paladin of her god, and maybe a bit by the twin taboos of a demonblood who is, as someone made a point of mentioning, about half her age.”

“Really, you picked up on all that?” Toby whistled. “I’m impressed. Not long ago you weren’t at all perceptive about…people.”

“You were going to say ‘women,’ weren’t you,” Gabriel accused.

Toby grinned. “Well, as Trissiny would emphatically remind us, women are people.”

“I think,” Gabriel said more thoughtfully, turning and beginning to walk again, “it’s more that even if I had noticed it, not long ago I wouldn’t have thought of any greater consideration than the possibility to going to bed with a gorgeous woman who was into me. It’s hard to say exactly what’s changed…”

“It is called ‘maturity,’ and it’s bound to be uncomfortable for you at first, all things considered.”

“Could you stop helping, please?” he said in exasperation.

“No,” Ariel replied. “I can’t stop helping and I can’t stop expressing myself without regard for people’s feelings. You are a naturally occurring sapient and can evolve and modify your behavior. I am a constructed intelligence. My personality is rigidly defined.”

He grimaced. “I…yeah, sorry. I guess that’s kind of unfair of me.”

“Yes, it is. My feelings are not particularly hurt; given your general pattern of thoughtlessness you treat me with a surprising degree of consideration overall. However, I am still bound to point it out when you’re being foolish. For your own good, you see.”

“With friends like these,” Gabriel said to Toby, “who needs the ravening hordes of Hell?”

Toby’s answering laugh was interrupted by the rapid arrival of Chase Masterson.

“Whoah, guys!” he said, skidding to a halt after having pelted down the path toward them. “You may wanna clear the vicinity, it is about to get dangerous out here. Oh, hey, Gabe, you’re back!”

“What did you do?” Gabriel demanded.

Chase planted a hand on his chest and looked shocked and wounded. “I? What did I do? Gabriel. After all these years, after all we’ve meant to each other! Why do you say these things just to hurt me?”

“Because,” Gabriel said bitingly, “you came up grinning. I’ve only ever seen you grin when someone else’s day was about to be ruined.”

“Are you gonna let him talk to me like that?” Chase demanded of Toby, who shrugged.

“Well, he could stand to be a little politer, but he isn’t really wrong.”

“Now, that is just unfair,” Chase complained. “This is scurrilous character assassination and you both know it. I also grin when people’s days are in the process of being ruined, or when I happen to reflect upon a particularly impressive ruination which has already transpired. Honestly, I thought you guys knew me a little better than that. This is just hurtful, is what it is.”

“My gods,” Gabriel marveled, “he’s still talking.”

“Just for that,” Chase continued, again grinning, “I’m not gonna warn you about—oop, too late anyway.”

Both turned to look the way he had come, and their eyes widened in alarm.

Even without knowing the full situation, what they could glean from the spectacle of a visibly incensed Professor Ekoi chasing a gleefully cackling Professor Rafe up the path told a frightening story.

“Ohh, this is not gonna be good,” Toby whispered.

“Good is such a relative concept,” Chase replied, his grin now stretching so far it looked downright painful.

“Guys! Kids! Students!” Rafe skidded to a halt much as Chase had done moments before. “I don’t suppose any of you speak Sifanese?”

Ekoi came to a stop right after him, ears flat back, fangs bared and tail bristling; Rafe immediately spun around Toby and cowered behind him.

“What the hell did you do?” Gabriel exclaimed. “Professor Ekoi? Are you all right?”

Ekoi transferred her livid green stare to him, prompting him to take a step back, then hissed a few syllables in her lilting native tongue.

“Um, Professor,” Toby said hesitantly. “There’s not a doubt in my mind he fully deserves whatever you’re planning to do, but…can you please wait until I’m not in the way?”

“Don’t move,” Chase cautioned. “Don’t even twitch. Moving might prompt her to strike.”

“Urusai!” Ekoi snarled at him.

Chase immediately buckled to the ground, prostrating himself before her. She actually appeared to calm slightly, at least enough to look quizzical at this display.

Then, with a characteristic soft pop, help arrived.

“One afternoon,” Tellwyrn said incredulously. “That’s all. I leave you alone for one afternoon. Should I be disappointed, or gratified no one’s blown up the damn mountain? In hindsight it’s all so murky.”

Ekoi rounded on her and began chattering rapidly in Sifanese. Tellwyrn focused on her, narrowing her eyes, and occasionally replying shortly in the same language.

“Uh, what happened?” Gabriel asked hesitantly when a lull finally fell in the tirade. “I’ve never seen her this mad. It’s like she’s forgotten Tanglish.”

Tellwyrn sighed heavily, turning to give Rafe one of her foulest glares. “Kaisa does not sully her graceful tongue with our barbarous gutterspeech. Universal translation is one of the effects of her inherent magic. Consequently, when some stampeding fuckwit slips her an anti-magic potion, she finds herself disadvantaged in several rather important respects.”

“Whoah, whoah, wait, stop,” Chase said, straightening and gazing up at Rafe in awe. “You…you started a prank war with a kitsune?”

“Seriously, Professor,” Toby said over his shoulder, “even by your standards, that is needlessly suicidal.”

“Why are you kids still here?” Tellwyrn barked.

“Because he’s got a grip on me,” Toby replied.

“And I’m not abandoning my oldest friend to this madness,” Gabriel added.

Grinning insanely, Chase spread his arms wide. “Need you ask?”

“You know, there really is a very good explanation for all this,” Rafe said, poking his head out from behind Toby’s. “I’m awesome, she’s hot, and we are both deeply annoying people. Something like this was practically predestined. It’s just math.”

He and Toby both shied back as Ekoi thrust her face forward at them, baring all her fangs. She spat a few syllables, then whirled on her heel and stalked back the way she had come.

“I suppose I should be grateful,” Tellwyrn said with a heavy sigh. “Admestus, you are going to make this right. You do not provoke a kitsune that way, especially not on my campus; this goes above and beyond your general run of imbecilic behavior into a realm I can’t afford to tolerate.”

“Fear not!” Rafe proclaimed, bounding out from behind Toby (now that the danger had passed) and striking a pose. “If there is one man in all the realm who can calm the affronted feelings of yon lady, tis I, the glorious Professor Rafe! Gaze upon my manly ingenuity and bask, mere puny mortals!”

“She took your pants,” Gabriel noted.

“Nonsense, her magic’s—son of a bitch.” Rafe stared down at his legs. “Even with her magic dampened. Hot damn, that is impressive! I do believe I’m going to marry that woman.”

“She, um…appears to hate your guts, Professor,” Toby pointed out.

Rafe barked a laugh. “All the great romances start that way! Ask Teal.”

“Admestus,” Tellwyrn said very evenly, “if you can swear to me that those don’t belong to a student, I promise to now and in the future withhold all comment on your choice of ladies’ bloomers as an undergarment.”

Rafe again bent forward to thoughtfully study his bare legs and the lacy scrap of clothing stretched far too tightly across his groin.

“…what kinds of comments would these be?”

Tellwyrn clapped a hand over her eyes, glasses and all, repeated the short phrase which had been Ekoi’s parting comment, and teleported out.

“’Bakka inoo,’” Chase enunciated carefully. “I gotta remember that one, it sounds nasty. I don’t suppose any of you have a clue what it means?”

“Library’s that way!” Rafe proclaimed, pointing. “And now, if you boys will excuse me, I must away to plot the mollification and subsequent seduction of my exquisite bride-to-be!”

“Excuse me,” Toby said sharply, “but do those belong to a student?”

“Hell if I know,” Rafe replied with a broad grin, “Ekoi put them there. I tell you, she’s the perfect woman! Ohh, this is gonna be a courtship for the ages! ONWARD TO GLORY!”

He took off down the path at a run, trailing maniacal laughter behind him.

“How old is he?” Gabriel asked. “I mean, I know he’s a half-elf and they have a longer lifespan. Do they age more slowly?”

“Really?” Toby exclaimed. “That’s what you’re most curious about?”

“I think I follow his line of thought,” Chase said solemnly. “The question is: why the hell has nobody killed him yet?”

“Yes.” Gabriel pointed at him. “That.”

“Excuse me.”

While they were speaking, Ravana had arrived, carrying a few books and now glancing back up the path in the direction Rafe had gone.

“Could one of you gentlemen kindly explain to me why Professor Rafe is dashing pell-mell through the campus, wearing my underthings?”

Gabriel heaved a sigh. “Man, it’s good to be home.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

Epilogue – Volume 3

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

Warm weather had lingered throughout the continent, to the point that rumors had begun circulating about Ouvis’s displeasure and the Empire’s plans to employ various magical schemes to bring on winter. Any of these could be debunked by theological scholars acquainted with Ouvis’s habits (he had none to speak of) or magicians aware of the possibilities regarding weather control (there were no possibilities; you could manipulate the weather, not control it, and the manipulation was exceedingly inadvisable). Fortunately, the winds turned cold and the first snows began to fall before any of these nascent fears could get out of hand.

In a certain cabin barracks at the Silver Legion’s main fortress in Tiraas, more than a few jokes were made about how perfectly the onset of chilly skies and falling snow coincided with the return of one Bishop Basra Syrinx.

Three weeks later, they weren’t laughing. The housing provided to the Legionnaires of the Ninth Cohort was perfectly adequate—Avenist ethics wouldn’t allow soldiers to be deprived of necessities—but there was a wide distance between adequate and comfortable. The cabin was kept warm enough by the decades-old arcane stove provided, barely. Changing in and out of armor had become something of an ordeal, and all of them had changed bunks to sleep as far from the door and as close to the heat source as possible. Ironically, the much older technology of wood-fired iron stoves would have put off more heat, but in Tiraas, power crystals and enchanting dust were easier to obtain (not to mention store) than firewood, and the Legion quartermasters obstinately refused to spring for a refurbishment. Meanwhile, at the other end of the cabin, it remained cool enough that frost didn’t melt from the outside of the windows.

Thus, Principia got the usual round of unfriendly looks when she threw the door open. Her sunny mood, unsurprisingly, did not improve the reception.

“Gooooood evening, ladies!” she said brightly. “Everybody enjoyed dinner, I trust?”

“Shut that damn door, you maniac!” Merry barked, huddling by the stove.

“First, Lang, I have spoken to you about melodrama. It isn’t that cold. You wait till midwinter; you’ll feel a right fool for complaining about this. And second, we have company, so could you turkeys at least pretend there’s a semblance of a functioning chain of command in this barracks?”

She continued into the room, revealing the other soldier behind her, as the rest of Squad One got to their feet. In the next moment, they all snapped to attention, saluting.

“Bishop Shahai,” Farah blurted. “This is a surprise.”

“At ease, ladies,” Nandi said with a little smile, turning to pull the door closed behind her. “And surely you know it’s no longer Bishop. I was merely keeping the seat warm, as it were, and now its owner has returned to reclaim it.”

“Yes…we know,” Casey said quietly, relaxing her posture. “Sorry, ma’am. It’s, uh, good to see you again.”

“And in armor,” Ephanie added with a smile. “That’ll take some getting used to, Captain.”

“I fancy I’ve grown rather adept at getting used to things over the years, Avelea,” Nandi replied, smiling back and hoisting the rucksack she was carrying over one armored shoulder. “But before we all catch up, I believe Sergeant Locke has some announcements to make.”

“Yes, indeed I do,” Principia went on with the same mischievous cheer, opening the folder of papers she had held tucked under her arm. “Front and center, Avelea!”

Ephanie blinked, but didn’t join in the round of puzzled glances that passed between the others; relaxed as Principia preferred to keep things within their own barracks, she was the most devoted to military decorum among them. As ordered, she stepped forward to the middle of the aisle between bunks, falling naturally into parade rest.

“Ephanie Avelea,” Principia said more solemnly, “you are hereby advanced to the rank of Corporal, with all attendant duties and privileges. Furthermore,” she added, quelling Farah’s excited gasp with a stern look, “I am designating you executive officer of this squadron. Both are effective immediately.”

Ephanie’s lower lip trembled, but only for a second, before she snapped to attention and saluted, fist over heart. Only the lack of a sword, which she wasn’t wearing, diminished the gesture, and that not by much. “Thank you, Sergeant,” she said crisply.

“That’s all you have to say?” Principia asked somewhat wryly.

Ephanie swallowed once. “I… It really is. Thank you.”

“Now, I’m aware that it’s tradition in the military for officers not to bother explaining themselves as a general rule,” Principia went on, sweeping a glance across the rest of the squad, all of whom looked more excited even than Ephanie. “However, we’re a small unit, and within this little family, I want to make sure you all understand where I’m coming from with this.”

“It’s hardly a question, is it?” Farah burst out eagerly. “She has tons more experience than any of us! Weren’t you a Lieutenant, Ephanie?”

“Sides,” Merry added, grinning, “any of the rest of these jokers claiming to be officer material would be good for a laugh and not much else.”

“Stow that kind of talk,” Principia said flatly. “You’ve all got potential I don’t think you’re aware of, and the only reason I don’t ride your asses harder about it is the rest of you have all indicated you’re not planning to stick with the Legions as a career once your contracted enlistment is up. And even so, there are going to be some changes around here in that direction. But yes, back on point. Avelea does have the experience and the know-how, but that’s only half of it. You’re a by-the-books soldier, Ephanie,” she added directly to the new corporal. “And I, to put it mildly, am not. More importantly, you’ve consistently managed to support me with your knowledge of and devotion to the Legion’s principles and regulations, without ever undercutting my authority or butting heads with me.”

“You get the credit for that, ma’am,” Ephanie replied, still saluting. “You’ve always been quick to ask for input.”

“It’s a two-way street, and at ease, woman, for heaven’s sake. The point is, quite apart from your innate qualifications, you’re what I need both backing me up and counterbalancing me.”

“I won’t let you down, Sergeant,” Ephanie promised fervently.

“I know that quite well, Corporal,” Principia said with a grin. “Quite frankly I’ve had this in mind almost since I was promoted, but there have been…details to consider. Which brings me to our next item of business!” Turning, she smiled at Shahai, who was watching the proceedings with a warm little smile of her own. “This had to wait, Avelea, so you could be promoted first to preserve your seniority in the squad—an outdated and perhaps unnecessary little rule, but I’m being very careful to leave no wiggle room for someone to start picking us apart, and you know who I mean.”

She paused for emphasis, and they all gazed back at her in mute understanding. So far, none of them had heard directly from Bishop Syrinx, though Jenell Covrin had been spotted around the temple and adjoining fortress.

“The other thing I’ve arranged required paperwork which needed the approval of High Commander Rouvad, who did not want to give it.”

“Sergeant Locke approached me about this some time ago,” Nandi said, her smile tugging upward further on one side and taking on a sly undertone. “I began a campaign of persuasion upon Farzida as soon as I was able to relinquish the Bishop’s office. It has only borne fruit, finally, today.”

“The voluntary grade reduction for someone of Shahai’s status goes all the way to the top, I’m afraid,” Principia said smugly. “But Shahai has proved her worth—as if we haven’t all seen plenty of evidence of it already—and got her way. Ladies, may I introduce Corporal Nandi Shahai, the newest member of Squad Three Nine One.”

“Bwuh?” Farah said.

“Pick any bunk you like the look of,” Principia said directly to Nandi. “Except Lang’s, of course. Not that I don’t encourage you to push Lang around, but I think she has mites.”

“Oh, look,” Merry said dryly, folding her arms. “She ruined a nice moment. What were the odds.”

“W-welcome aboard…Corporal,” Casey said hesitantly.

“Yes, welcome,” Ephanie repeated. “I think…this is a very good idea, Sarge. She’s perfect for our squad’s assigned objectives.”

“Not to mention the un-assigned ones,” Principia said easily.

The others exchanged another wary look.

“You’ve, um, talked with her about…?” Casey trailed off, looking uncertainly at Nandi.

“Not explicitly, no,” their new squadmate replied, “but it’s exceedingly obvious that you will be contending directly with Basra Syrinx, and sooner rather than later. That she will be coming after you is an unavoidable conclusion—quite apart from the humiliation she suffered right under your eyes, which she won’t forgive, the fact is that your squad is a professional threat to her. Your assigned duties eat into the additional powers and responsibilities she has taken on beyond the standard job of the Bishop. I strongly suspect none of you are complacent enough or foolish enough to let her come without meeting her in kind, and I know Sergeant Locke isn’t.”

Principia beamed like the cat who’d eaten the whole aviary.

“And you’re…okay with this?” Casey asked warily.

Nandi’s smile faded, and she shook her head. “I am not okay in any sense with any part of this, ladies. What I am is in. I’ve been watching Basra Syrinx for a long time, and I know exactly what she represents and means for the Legions and the Sisterhood. Farzida believes she can be controlled and used to good advantage. So, I rather suspect, does the Archpope. I think you and I know better.”

“Nobody at the very top has a good view of what goes on in the shadows,” Principia agreed, nodding. “For now, let’s help the newbie get settled in, here, and then we have a promotion to celebrate! I know a perfect pub—discreet enough to keep us out of trouble, but not too much to be fun. And then…” She grinned wolfishly. “…we start working on our dear friend Basra.”


The office was illuminated only by the dim light of her desk lamp. She didn’t need even that to see; to elvish eyes, the moonlight streaming through the windows behind her was more than adequate for the letters she was writing. It cast a faint, rusty light over her desk, however, and created interesting shadows around the room. The lamp was more for ambiance than anything; she used it to great effect when intimidating unruly students (and sometimes parents), but had come to enjoy it for its own sake, too.

Only the soft scratch of her old-fashioned quill sounded in the room, at least aside from the soft flutter of wings as a small bird landed on the sill outside. Tellwyrn, who of course could hear that perfectly, too, ignored it. She also ignored the increasingly insistent croaking which followed. Only when the sharp, persistent tapping of a beak on the panes started up and refused to stop did she sigh in irritation, blow upon the ink to dry it, and put her quill away.

Spinning her chair around without bothering to get up, she un-latched the window and swung it outward, the bird nimbly hopping aside.

“I’m half-surprised you didn’t just blast it in,” she said acerbically.

“I really cannot imagine why,” Mary replied, swinging her legs in over the sill. She simply perched there, though, not coming the rest of the way inside. “When have you ever known me to do such things? Not everyone suffers from your delusions concerning what constitute social skills, Arachne.”

“From arriving to insulting me in seven seconds,” Tellwyrn said sourly. “Sadly, that is not a record. What the hell do you want, Kuriwa? I have a shit-ton of paperwork to get done before I’ll have the chance to enjoy a week’s vacation from the little bastards, and so help me, if you ruin my holiday you’ll leave this mountaintop minus a few feathers.”

The Crow stared piercingly into her eyes, all levity gone from her face. “Where is Araneid?”

Tellwyrn gazed right back. “Who?”

Mary just stared at her.

“You’re not as inscrutable as you like to think, Kuriwa,” Tellwyrn said, idly turning back toward her desk, but not too far to keep her visitor in view. “I know you recognized my name. I knew it the first time we met. And yet, in three thousand years, you have never once asked me about this. So now I have to wonder…” She edged the chair back to face the Crow directly, and leaned forward, staring over the rims of her spectacles. “What just happened?”

“I returned to Viridill weeks ago, on your advice,” Mary replied. “It was good advice, by the way, and you ended up being more right than you knew. I thank you; it proved very good that I was there. Among the interesting things I learned was the repeated occurrence of spider webs as a theme, seen binding and drawing various players in that drama to one another. They were glimpsed only in the medium of dreams, thanks to Khadizroth’s intervention—that is a specialty of his, as you probably remember.”

“Of course.”

“And the matter put me in mind of a conversation I had with Sheyann not long ago,” Mary continued. “I have been noting for a while that wherever an event of significance occurs, particularly on this continent, it seems to be centered around the same few people. The dreamscape, of course, has a way of interpreting complex things in a way that is meaningful to intelligent minds. All this makes me wonder what strings have been tightening around us all that I was simply not in a position to see, before.”

“Spider webs, hm,” Tellwyrn mused.

“And so, I repeat my question,” Mary said, her stare sharp and unyielding. “What is the current location and status of Araneid?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Uh…dead? Undead? Mostly dead? Maybe sort of comatose, with a bit of unborn… It’s not simple, and quite frankly I never understood it well.”

“Go on,” Mary said flatly.

The sorceress twitched her shoulders in an irritated shrug. “You know, you really could have asked me about this in the beginning. It’s not a great secret. Or rather, I suppose I should say I’ve no care for the opinions of those who might want to keep it secret. I just don’t know, Kuriwa. What I know, you now do, and it took all of a moment to tell. I can add a little insight, though,” she said, folding her arms. “The corpse or sleeping body or whatever it is of a god makes a tremendous power source—but only another god would be able to make use of such a thing. To ask about a dead or almost dead deity, look for the living ones who have custody of her. If you want to know what happened to Araneid, ask Scyllith. If you want to get at her now, you’ll have to go through Avei. And in all seriousness, I wish you luck with it. I had just finished washing my hands of the whole sordid affair when we met the first time, and I will not be dragged back in.”

“Hmm,” the Crow mused, finally breaking eye contact and staring thoughtfully at the far wall. “The spider webs are not, after all, definitive proof of anything… But I have taken so long to come back here because I did my own research first. They are strongly associated with Araneid, and not just in myth. You say this goddess is…sort of dead, but not?”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “That’s as good a description as I could come up with, I suppose. Ask at the Abbey if you want to examine the…uh, body. I rather doubt they’d let you, though, and not even you are going to get through those defenses. Get too close to that thing, and Avei will land on you personally.”

“Is it possible,” Mary persisted, “that she could influence events across time? Your description suggests a revival of this Elder is possible. If this happens soon, what are the chances she could—”

“Kuriwa, I don’t know,” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “I’ve told you that. The magic involved is heinously complex and maybe comprehensible to me, but it was never explained, and I haven’t gone looking. I want out of the whole business. In theory, though? Sure, Araneid probably had that power, back in the days of the Elder Gods. I suspect most of them did. They didn’t have any equivalent of Vemnesthis watching against intrusions like that, and by the way, with him around and on duty she would have to be powerfully subtle to get away with it. Also… This would have to be very closely linked in time. If this is Araneid at work, she hasn’t been at it long. Someone would definitely have noticed before now. Probably someone in this room. Although…” Her expression grew faraway and thoughtful. “If it is within just a few years, though… There’s that great doom I haven’t been able to pin down. Alaric’s research points at an alignment of some kind… But of what we can’t figure out. It’s likely to be in just a few years, however. That could theoretically be a short enough time.”

Mary straightened up, suddenly frowning. “…Arachne, have you seen what is under Linsheh’s grove? I have long assumed that was an early stop on your own research.”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “Linsheh and I don’t get along.”

“Yes, your feud made waves I have not managed to ignore, but I’ve heard nothing about it in four hundred years. I had assumed you two made up.”

“Well. For a given value of ‘made up.’ I’m pretty sure I won.” The sorceress grinned. “After her last stunt, I teleported her eldest son’s birth tree out of the grove, had it carved into a collection of exotic marital aids, sold them off in Puna Dara and sent her the receipts. I haven’t heard a peep out of her since, so I declared victory.”

For a long moment, Mary stared at her in utter silence. Then, finally, she shook her head.

“You really are the worst person,” she said in a tone of weary disgust. “In all my ages alive on this world, I have known the sick and depraved, the cruel, the truly evil. But you. There is no soul, living or dead, who is your rival in sheer, pigheaded obnoxiousness.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Tellwyrn said, smirking. “Especially not when you come pecking on my window in the middle of the night smelling like a haystack and with your hair badly in need of a brush. A lady likes to be finessed.”

“If you are investigating what’s coming, particularly if you’re curious about alignments,” Mary said curtly, “you need to look at what is underneath that grove. The answers there could reflect on other things that are of interest to you, as well. And for the love of whatever it is you may love, Arachne, try to mend fences with Linsheh while you’re at it. I don’t know what happened between you or who started it, but she doesn’t deserve that kind of abuse. And we all will need to be able to reach out to one another in the near future, I suspect.”

She paused only to snort disdainfully, then turned and swung her legs out over the other side of the sill.

Tellwyrn watched the crow flap off into the night, frowning pensively.

“Hm… Well, it beats the hell out of paperwork.” She glanced disparagingly at her desk. “Then again, what doesn’t?”


“Have you all lost your goddamn minds!?”

It was well past dark and more than halfway toward midnight; sleet was pounding on the windows of Darling’s house, and the downstairs parlor had its fairy lamps turned as far down as possible, lit chiefly by the fire in the hearth. It was a cozy environment, the kind that would encourage sleepiness, if not for Style stomping up and down the carpet, raging at everyone.

“C’mon, now,” Darling protested. “You can’t possibly fail to see the benefits.”

“I don’t fail to see the benefits of ripping off the fucking Imperial treasury!” she snarled, pausing to glare down at him. “That doesn’t mean I don’t also see how that would bite me right the fuck on the ass!”

“How, though?” Tricks asked mildly. Aside from the circles under his eyes, he looked livelier than he had in weeks; all evening, he’d been growing more jolly as Style grew more irate. “You think the Sisterhood are going to spy on us? Quite apart from the fact they’ve shown no interest in doing that in eight thousand damn years, Style, this is not how you plant a spy. You don’t send a ranking officer of your army up to the enemy’s fortress and say ‘hello there, I would like to come spy, please.’ They’re not thieves, but a divinely-appointed military is definitely clever enough not to do something so thickheaded.”

“This is pretty much exactly what it looks like,” Darling added in the same calm tone. “A damn good idea, far too long coming, with huge potential benefits for both cults. I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t think of it first…although, it pretty much couldn’t have come from anyone else.” He grinned at the room’s other, quieter guest.

Style, meanwhile, clapped a hand dramatically over her eyes and groaned loudly. “You do it on purpose, Boss. And you, ex-Boss. You just like to see me suffer. I oughta throttle you both with your own fucking nutsacks.”

“Tea, Style?” Price asked diffidently.

“Don’t fucking start with me, Savvy,” the enforcer warned.

“It is my solemn hope that I do not have to start with you,” the Butler replied with characteristic serenity.

“What she means,” Sweet said with a grin, “is that it’d be politically awkward if she had to finish with you.”

“Style, you’ve been raging up and down for half an hour and generally making the point that this bugs you on an instinctive level,” said Tricks. “Fine, I get that. It’s your job, after all, to watch for threats. But if you’d seen a specific, credible threat here, you’d have said so by now. So with all respect, hun, button it. I’m making my decision: we’ll go ahead.”

Style snarled and kicked the rack of fireplace tools, sending them clattering across the carpet. Price swept silently in to tidy up.

“We’ll have to arrange a disguise, of course,” Darling said more seriously, studying his houseguest. “There’ll be all kinds of a flap if this gets out.”

“How the fuck are you going to disguise that?!” Style shouted.

“This is why I hate you sometimes,” Tricks informed her. “You never listen when I talk about what’s important to me. You don’t change a person’s whole appearance to disguise them, you just change the identifying details. Yessss… We’ll dye her hair, lose the uniform and give her a crash course in not walking like a soldier. It’s not like her face is widely known.”

Style snorted thunderously and halted her pacing directly in front of the chair next to Tricks’s. “Don’t you think for a second,” she warned, leveling a pointing finger, “that I’m gonna go easy on you, trixie.”

Trissiny, who had been silent for the last ten minutes as the conversation continued around her, slowly stood, her eyes never leaving the chief enforcer’s.

“If you insulted me by trying,” she said quietly, “I would lay you out. Again.”

Tricks burst out laughing. “Oh, but this is fantastic! It’s exactly the opportunity both our cults need—I love every part of this! Especially Style’s bloomers being in a bunch, that’s always good comedy.”

“I know where you sleep, twinkletoes!”

Ignoring her, he stood as well, turning to face their guest, and extended a hand. Trissiny clasped it in her own, gauntlet and all.

“It’s decided, then. You may all consider this official.” The Boss grinned broadly, pumping the paladin’s hand once. “Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild, apprentice.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

10 – 52

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

Home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darling blinked. “Uh.”

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

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

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

“What did happen?” Darling asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heel, girl.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Shadows passed over him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zanzayed snorted; Ampophrenon and Varsinostro exchanged an unreadable glance.

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

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

“Anymore?” the blue repeated curiously.

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

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

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

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

“Not remotely,” the red replied.

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

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

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

“As are we all,” Ampophrenon said firmly.

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

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

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

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

10 – 50

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m afraid not,” Ami said sweetly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or Avenists and Eserites,” added Joe.

“Or Avenists and Izarites,” Jenell said thoughtfully.

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

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

He sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“I’m a bard. I love long stories.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly,” Ingvar said quietly.

Aspen looked over at him again, and smiled.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I know the feeling.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um. I…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Going somewhere, Mr. Schwartz?”

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

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

“Just a moment, if you please.”

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

“Young man, get back here this instant.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will?” he replied, nonplussed.

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

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

“Repeat it back to me.”

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

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

“Um…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I say, that is a neat trick!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >